In early November, I sent my novel to three trusted friends for feedback. One is a freelance editor and writer. Another is a memoirist. And the third is a fantasy writer. They were all happy to take on the favor of reading my manuscript and agreed to an early December deadline to return feedback.
How Interpreting Silence Can Be Dangerous
While awaiting their feedback, I set the novel aside and caught up on non-writing tasks. I cleaned the house for the first time in weeks. I did gardening jobs for clients. I hosted my mother for Thanksgiving. I didn’t worry about their opinions of the book. But when early December came around, I was still without comments. Each day would pass without an email. Soon I worried that they thought the book was a mess. That it needed a mountain of work and were reluctant to tell me. “Rewrite the entire last third,” I predicted they’d say. “These characters are flat. The plot’s confusing. Why did you set in Paris? Why not Seattle? Where you live? Where more gardening things actually happen?”
My husband told me they were just busy. He wasn’t worried. So I distracted myself with more chores. I cleaned our office, raked leaves in the backyard, read the books on my “to read” pile. Drank tea. Just about anything I could do to avoid prodding them about the missed deadline. Still, at night, as I fell asleep, I’d imagine them reading it and cringing. Thinking it was so terrible they couldn’t bring themselves to approach me.
A Writer Friend as a Beta Reader, Like Gold
I wrote about how valuable it is to have a significant other be one’s first reader a few months ago. Having a writer friend read your work is as valuable in a different way. Yes, they too are invested in your feelings, but they have an artist’s perspective. They look at story logic, character motivation, plot points, imagery, sentence structure, and on and on. They’re not just sitting back and enjoying the story for what it is. They’re assessing it as a crafted work. So if you get a lot of criticism from writer friends, it holds more weight than criticism from a spouse or your mom. If a writer friend says the book is a mess, they’re probably right. They know firsthand what a mess of a book looks like. And that could be a hard pill to swallow.
It wasn’t long before I received my first feedback in email. “The story totally worked for me,” it said. My heart deflated with relief. And soon, there were more compliments, as well as criticism. Mostly in areas I had doubts about in the first place. But the problems were fixable.
Then I met with my memoirist friend, Ann. She’d marked up the manuscript, wrote comments at the end, and spent an hour and a half talking about it over lunch. She praised the characters and setting, liked the plot, didn’t think it was too horticultural, and offered thoughtful fixes on confusing parts. Wow. At the end she said she was confident it would be published. She hugged me and said, “I can’t believe you actually did this!” Tears filled my eyes. I didn’t want her to see me cry. “Yeah, I guess,” I said.
Writer Friends Can Be the Best Support
Now, weeks later, I smile at how silly I was to make up the worse-case scenario. But I also remember how stressed I was about other things in my life. We were selling a rental home, my developmentally delayed daughter was going through an anxiety phase at school, my husband had been working late for several nights, and I’d been preparing to host Thanksgiving. When I thought about that, I realized that Ann was right. Instead of being self-critical, I should have given myself a break. I did accomplish a writing feat — and they were just busy after all.
Last November, I “won” National Novel Writing Month by writing 50,000 words of a novel draft. But I still wasn’t satisfied with my protagonist’s name, a name which I’d used as a placeholder in my rush to finish. I knew what kind of person he was, I’d already written a character bio of him, but I didn’t have a strong name that matched his personality. So in early January I decided to change it. The hunt for a solid name that had rhythm, meaning, and suitability to the story began.
I combed baby name and ancestry sites for ideas. I came up with several first and last name combinations that I adored one day and dismissed the next. I did this on several occasions, taking notes on the various spellings of names, fiddling with last names as firsts, objects as names, etc. Each time I landed on a strong combination, I’d hope my fondness for the name would last for more than a day. It didn’t. Finally, I got frustrated. I knew what I needed to do. It was what I’d been trying to short cut around. I needed to write character bios for my protagonist’s parents.
I only wrote a few paragraphs on each one. But working out the mother’s background, her personality, her job, her interests, where she’d been born and raised, and how she’d met my protagonist’s father, opened the lock of frustration. I did the same with the father’s profile. I didn’t focus so much on what they looked like, but rather who they were in terms of personality. For instance, my protagonist is a botanist so his father is also a plantsman. Did he marry my protagonist’s mother because she was a naturalist or because she was the opposite, a city person? What was their ethnicity? Where did they live, and where did they meet? Are they conformist-types or trailblazers? Once I answered these kinds of questions (and often the answers were inside what I’d already written), I knew the kinds of names these two people would have named their son. There were still a handful of choices, but I was no longer overwhelmed. I was able to choose a name that I liked and still like. The last name came from their ancestral background, the first name from a personal taste born of ideas, experiences, and worldview. A reflection of them. Like couples in real life.
I believe what Henry James said, that character equals plot. The plot develops from a character’s personality and hence, choices. Now that I not only know my character’s personality, but also his parents’ personalities, I understand his thinking more clearly and can better maneuver him through his world. A world of revising 50,000 words.