Acknowledging my obvious bias and my financial stake in the success of her book, I want to share some writing lessons from her book experience:
Rewrite. I don’t know (and I’m sure she doesn’t know) how many times Mimi rewrote this book, but she rewrote multiple times: restructuring the whole thing, polishing chapters and individual sentences, updating, working out wrinkles in the plot. Rewriting is one of the most important and certainly the most neglected step in writing. As Forrester (Sean Connery character in the video clip below) says, you write the first draft with your heart and you rewrite with your head. Mimi did the heart part of this story years ago. But she had to finish the head part before it was ready for publication. Even if you’re blogging or tweeting, I recommend taking the time to rewrite. For a blog post or tweet, the rewrite might take minutes or seconds, rather than years. But rewriting is nearly always time well spent.
Collaborate. In the course of her writing, Mimi sought feedback from various family members, friends and other writers. Each provided valuable feedback that helped her improve the novel. Writers can get protective and defensive about sharing unfinished work, and Mimi was always nervous about seeking feedback. But their suggestions always propelled her work forward. Even when she decided not to follow someone’s advice, the feedback helped (sometimes prompting her to strengthen her original approach, rather than adopt a suggestion).
Stay flexible. When you are writing a contemporary novel and you work at it a while, your contemporary setting changes. During the years that Mimi was working on the book (the primary characters are two journalists), the economic landscape of journalism changed entirely. The story wasn’t about the news business; it was a story about four characters whose lives became tangled and the choices they made. But context matters and the context for a book about journalists should be current if you want it to be a contemporary novel. Mimi adjusted the story to give it a contemporary context, which involved heavy rewriting. In fact, the upheaval in the media, even though it was mere context that had changed in the writing, became the point that Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon focused on in his post about the novel. Reporters working hours or days on non-fiction assignments face a similar challenge. It’s not that the facts change over years, but that your reporting knocks down the preconceived notions that launched you on the story in the first place. Either way, you need to adjust and write the right story, not the one you started out to write.
Cut what doesn’t work. Mimi cut out some of the last few chapters of her story after getting some valuable feedback from someone who thought it ended too slowly. She worked days, perhaps weeks, on those chapters, and it wasn’t easy to throw them away. But she knew the reader was right. Writing (and cutting) those chapters was part of the process she needed to follow to reach the right final version of her book.
Cut some things that do work. Mimi originally wrote an epilogue that wrapped up some loose strings in the book. It was cleverly written and had some nice lines. But her editor rightly suggested that the previous chapter would make a better ending for the book, so she also cut the epilogue.
Listen to a good editor. I edited Gathering String a time or two, and I think I helped. But Mimi needed the guidance, and the sharp eye, of a tougher critic than her spouse. At a Poynter Institute party in Washington last fall, she met Don Fry, one of the best writing coaches anywhere, and Don graciously volunteered to read and edit her manuscript. His feedback and detailed suggestions (including the suggestion to cut the epilogue) provided the finishing touches. And when Mimi published, Don generously praised the book in an Amazon review and in a comment on Facebook. (Mimi has downloaded Don’s book, Writing Your Way, and we both will be reading and reviewing it shortly.)
Push through the doubts. Mimi always worried (still does) that the book wasn’t good enough. If she let the doubts rule, she would never get published. She embraced Don’s offer to edit not just because of his editing skill, but because she was confident he would be blunt about how good the book was. When Don told her he got engrossed in the story and almost forgot he was editing, that mattered more than his editing advice. It gave her confidence to publish.
Pursue your dreams. Writing is hard work. Mimi has dreamed for years about being an author. She has three other novels in various stages of writing. She had a contract for doing a non-fiction book on which she had done considerable work, but it fell through because of circumstances beyond her control. She didn’t give up. She kept working until she published her book. We don’t know how much this book or subsequent books might pay. But this reaction confirmed for Mimi that the pursuit was worth it:
— Elaine Clisham (@eclisham) March 24, 2012