Monday, March 11, 2013

Setting the stage

by Joan

When we moved from Maryland to Texas almost eight years ago, we purged fifteen years of accumulated “stuff,” gave mountains of action figures and clothes to younger neighborhood boys, and sold or donated most of our furniture. Texas would be a new start with a new style. In Dallas, we found a few go-to furniture stores, ogled in others for ideas, installed window treatments, hung art and accessorized with vases and pillows. We made space for trinkets we'd picked up in our travels, a salmon-eating wooden bear from Alaska, an ancient Greek urn, a Turkish clay bottle and lots of pictures. Within a year we sat back and admired our eclectic choices.

Now as empty nesters we find it’s time to move again. "Rightsizing" the realtor called it. She sent a complimentary interior designer to stage our house for showing. For years I thought our house was well decorated, stylish even, but soon it became apparent I was a hack wannabe.

I heard, “This fabric doesn’t go with that painting,” and “No, these must go,” about my attempt at a silk flower design. Even my husband chimed in. “Yeah, she has many talents, but decorating isn’t one of them.” When we got to the guest sink, separate from the Jack-n-Jill, the designer picked up a small bowl of fake lemons and limes. “Oh, no no no. No fruit in the bathroom.” I felt crushed. Embarrassed. I had no style. Worse, I didn’t know I had no style.

She went on to point out the things we’d done right. “Let a buyer see the lovely floor plan, the potential for what they could do with it." We made a list of furniture to remove or relocate, accessories to pack away to make the rooms look as inviting as possible. I didn’t see the house as cluttered because I liked every trinket and knick-knack in it. They were my darlings.

After several agents rejected my full manuscript over the past year, I began to think I had no writing style. Maybe I was just a hack wannabe and nobody had the nerve to tell me. Since my partials were turning into full requests, I knew that couldn’t be exactly true. But I also knew there was something wrong. Why weren’t the fulls turning into offers of representation?

I needed professional help. I hired Stephanie Cowell, author of the beautiful Claude & Camille, as an advisory editor. Like my house stager, Stephanie pointed out plot clutter, sidetrack plotlines or details that got in the way of the main story. Just as I hadn’t seen my house clutter, I couldn’t see clutter in my manuscript because I liked everything in it.

Stephanie's detailed notes delivered exactly what I needed to hear. She captured the essence of my manuscript, pointed out not only what was working or not, but also the "why" of it. She gave me specific examples of chapters or scenes that needed clarification or grounding. She validated my characters, not by offering vague praise, but by pointing out what captured her heart. I will be forever grateful!

I would highly recommend her editing skills to writers seeking an objective, insightful look at their work. Thanks to her keen eye and close review, several agents are now reading my manuscript.

Next weekend I will deliver my house to another type of agent. And hope the offers pour in. 

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