Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

I started playing the piano when I was seven years old. I loved my teacher, although she was strict and required me to practice an hour every day. I can remember trudging home after school, thinking how unfair it was that all my friends got to go outside and play while I had to march straight to the piano and put in my sixty minutes of scales, drills, and repertoire. But all that hard work paid off. It took many years, but eventually I became a competent sight reader and pianist, earning a master’s degree in piano performance and pedagogy. Since then, I have enjoyed a long career as a teacher and performer; I love my work and cannot imagine what life would be like without the piano.

Now I have accepted a new challenge, that of becoming a published novelist, and I find myself thinking like a seven-year old child. Isn’t it unfair that all my friends get to go out for afternoons of lunch and shopping and spa pedicures while I sit hunched over my laptop struggling to increase my word count? Poor, pitiful me; the work is so hard and the odds of realizing my dream of being traditionally published seem to grow smaller with every passing day. The difference is that when I was a little girl, my parents monitored my practice, and I had to deal with their consequences if I failed to put in my time. Now, since I answer to no one but myself, and there is no one to stop me from baking chocolate chip cookies, watching reruns of Hoarders, or taking a nap with my dog during the limited time I have set aside for writing.

Recently, though, I got some much-needed encouragement in the form of the critiques from my two entries into the Unpublished Maggie Awards of ExcellenceLast year, my judges were downright harsh. One of them flat-out said “rewrite and try again.” This was hard to hear, but deep down inside I knew she was right. So I did what I could to follow the advice I was given while remaining true to my voice as a writer. And it seems that my efforts are beginning to pay off. Because even though I didn’t final this year, the comments I received from the published authors who read my work were overall much more positive.

In addition to providing line-by-line critiques, each judge wrote a paragraph or two at the end of my submission sharing her overall impressions. These were very encouraging. This was my favorite, for my work-in-progress titled The Wishing Box.

This seems to be a really sweet story with a great premise. The heroine’s life experiences will be easy for many readers to relate to. The writing is very good, with very few grammatical issues and a great mix of dialogue and narration. 

I also appreciated these remarks on my story An Unexpected Friendship.
Prose is sleek and smooth: moves quite well.
Plot narrative packs good plot tension.
Fine characterizations.
Dialogue is convincing.

The biggest criticism I received for both manuscripts was that they moved too slowly.
One difficulty I had with this story is that the pace is quite slow. I got the feeling many of the scenes in this entry were there to build characters and establish back story. You did a good job of it, but too much back story and not enough action tends to make for a slow read. You might reconsider starting the story later and weaving the back story into the action.

I know I struggle with this. As a reader of women’s fiction, I truly enjoy spending time inside the characters’ heads, knowing their thoughts and learning about their pasts. For me, it’s all about their growth and development; I don’t need a lot of action to keep me interested. But since this type of writing doesn’t tend to sell as well as faster-paced stories, it is less likely to capture the imagination of an agent or editor. Still, this comment was a little more hopeful.

Pacing is an issue but it would be more serious if the writing weren’t as good. 

So while I like to think I have made improvement in this area, I realize I need to continue working to punch my stories up, to make sure my characters don’t turn into “talking heads,” and to be sure there is a great “hook” at the end of each chapter to make my books real page-turners.
It was also suggested that I use fewer complex sentences, going with “forceful, simple prose until the reader gets used to my style.” More periods; fewer semicolons. That I can do. 
Finally, I got this great suggestion.
Read your manuscript into a tape recorder. Any time you have to stop the tape, you know that is something that needs correcting. You can catch all your dialogue problems, sentence structure issues, etc. You don’t have to play the tape back. 

I can see how this exercise might be very valuable, and look forward to trying it.
In a strange twist of irony, this morning I got a rejection for The Wishing Box from an agent I submitted a partial manuscript to several weeks ago.
Unfortunately, while you’re a good writer, I didn’t love this enough to feel that I would be the best advocate for your work. Best wishes for finding a good agent and publisher.

Yes, this was a rejection. But instead of focusing on the negative, what I choose to take away from this is that I AM A GOOD WRITER, that my story really does have potential. I just need to keep polishing it and searching for the right advocate for it. 
That seven-year old girl who practiced the piano for an hour every day? She knew she wanted to be a piano teacher when she grew up, and even though the cost was high, she didn’t stop until she accomplished her goal. Like her, I’m going to set the kitchen timer, do my daily practice, and trust that my grown-up dream will come true, too.