Friday, January 18, 2013

Perils for Pantsers

By Kim

As many of you know, I began querying my novel, The Oak Lovers, back in September. As many of you also know, the querying process can be a bit of a rollercoaster with extreme highs (full requests!) and lows (not for me, thanks) with a lot of waiting in between.

I’ve kept publicly silent, and have only shared news among my What Women Write colleagues if they specifically ask for updates. As much as I’d love the pats on the back when the highs come, and they have, the lows can be far lower when you have to relive them for an audience. After a while, the audience will start to doubt your talent even as they tell you to keep submitting. This only compounds the doubt already well-established in the minds of even the most successful among us.

When I sent off those first queries, my terror was tempered with high praise from beta readers and two published authors. I got requests and shrugged off the inevitable rejections that also came. Over time I began to worry, though, because all the requests had come from agents with whom I had some sort of connection.

There must be something wrong with my query letter, I thought. So I rewrote my query, and then I rewrote it again. More requests came, and so did more rejections.

Eventually, I received an e-mail from an agent who gushed about my prose and said she even shared pages with her partner. She tried to pinpoint exactly why the story itself wasn’t grabbing her as she hoped. Her struggle to say no was so palpable I couldn’t even be stung by it. It did leave me thinking, though.

Sharing Secrets
I re-read my other personalized rejections, and all of the feedback I had received from beta readers. An author who loved the novel enough to give me a blurb for my queries had also warned me that while she loved it as it was, agents may ask me to "reshape" it a bit. Our own Julie Kibler had gently pointed out that one section of the book was a bit episodic and that she wasn’t entirely sure where the climax was. I thought I had addressed these issues before submitting, but had I?

It’s difficult to novelize a true story. Real life meanders instead of following a typical story arc, and meandering is already a common fault of “pantser” writers like me. I had to admit there were times I went off on tangents, desperate to work in pieces of Carl and Madonna’s true story that I loved, or that I thought would appeal to certain segments of my audience. The book probably should end shortly after the climax, not 12,000 words later, no matter how interesting or lyrical those words may be. Character arcs were defined in my head, but a tad fuzzy on the page. I had tension galore (good) but that tension did not always tie back to a central problem (bad).

Three's a Crowd
I took a deep breath, opened my scene-by-scene outline, and rewrote it. If the material enhanced character arcs or could be changed to do so, it stayed. If it did not, it went. No matter how much I loved it. No matter how many weeks I spent writing it.

Whose story was it anyway? Carl's? Madonna's? Both? Equal billing it is.

I also reconsidered point-of-view. Third person limited allows for gorgeous prose, but it shows readers the sun rather than letting them feel the warmth on their arms. This is an intimate story. Would it not be better served by shining a light into the darkest corners of a character’s heart—never mind the cobwebs or rats lurking there? First person it is.

I’m well into the revision process now, murdering darlings without remorse and reshaping and recycling what I can, which is thankfully quite a bit. The task is neither painful, nor daunting. It’s liberating. The old, truer version can be shared with relatives or passed down to my children as a family legacy.

Everyone else will just get a story.

Note: All images are details from paintings by Carl Ahrens with fictional titles.


  1. Yes! You're doing the hardest, but best work and writing of all!

  2. Thank you, Judy! It's a tremendous amount of work rewriting the beginning and end, reshaping some chapters and cutting others entirely, switching POV in some scenes, third person to first, past to present tense...

    What gets me is that this is fun, and the writing is, for the most part, effortless. At the end of the day, when I read over my progress, I sit there and wonder if I did, in fact, write it.

  3. The roughest roads often lead to the most rewarding destinations, Kim. I think these are good choices. But be careful not to over-strip it (that's what I did last time). It's a beautiful story. Never doubt it.

    PS - I've never doubted you for a moment. :-) Still a believer!

  4. Never fear, Vaughn. I'm working on what was chapter 6 before. In the old version I was on page 54 by this point in the story. In the new I'm on 37. (Prologue disappeared, so this is part of it.) Page length is shorter, but there is so much more going on, the stakes are higher, and the voices are so much clearer without the narrator in the way. If you want, I can send a couple chapters your way so you can see for yourself. :-)

  5. Great article! Thanks for shraing.

  6. I'm picturing your muses cheering you on. For sure I am. Can't tell you how much I love the changes in Madonna and Carl's story. Can't wait to read more.

  7. Thank you for the update Kim. I have been wondering how things are progressing as you seek a publisher for your book. It really is such a unique idea, and nobody is more equipped than you to tell this story.

    K. Nunez


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