Thursday, September 12, 2013

Putting the words back together again

To be perfectly honest, I never thought it would take me this long to complete the revisions to Legacy of Honor.  It didn't take as long as the actual writing of the book, though there were times when I thought it might.  But as of approximately 10:00 A.M., Wednesday, 4 September 2013, the revisions were complete.

I began to detail this process here and here.  Now that the revised version is 99.0% ready for digital republication, I have a much better understanding of what happened even than I had four or five months ago.  In light of other things that have happened in the book world recently, I thought it might be worthwhile to share some of that understanding.

When I wrote Legacy of Honor -- that was the working title from the beginning and never changed -- in the early 1980s, I wrote it for myself.  Though I had been reading historical romances for close to 20 years by that time and had even written another before Legacy, I didn't consciously write with any other reader in mind but myself.

This is not to say I didn't have intentions of trying to publish it from the beginning.  That was always the objective.  But I was still writing first and foremost for myself.  If somehow or other the book attracted a publisher and found itself in print, well, that would be all well and good, but I was the first reader and I was going to write the book(s) I wanted to read.  I really never even considered the other people out there who might read it.

As I began to share Legacy with a handful of friends, however, my perspective started to change.  The feedback from those first few readers -- none of them were writers -- put me in a very different situation.  I was still writing for myself, but because they were reading it, I was also writing for them whether I wanted to or not.  That didn't mean I had to take their advice and change the book to suit their preferences, but I did have to take into consideration that they might not read the book the same way I had read it, or even the same way I had written it.

Letting non-writers like Suzanne, Johneen, and Connie read it was a bit scary.  Almost no one had ever read any of my fiction before, and I didn't know what to expect in the way of feedback.  But as it turned out, they really liked it, and even though I didn't entirely trust their assessment -- they were, after all, friends, so they'd be biased; and they knew nothing about writing -- they did give me enough encouragement that I sought out some writers to share it with. 

Through a variety of channels I began networking.  I had always had my personal sources for information about writing and publishing like Writer's Digest, Writer's Market and The Writer, but I needed more if I seriously intended to try to get this book published.  I bought several how-to-write books, some of which I considered invaluable and others not so much.  (Lawrence Block's Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print was one of the solid gold nuggets I still recommend.)  In addition to studying how to write, over the next several months I established a circle of pen-pals with whom I swapped manuscripts.  Those connections in turn led me to Romance Writers of America and Romantic Times magazine. 

At that point I was not just sharing with other people the story I had written for myself; I was beginning to write for them, with them in mind, with their potential reactions and comments anticipated while I was still writing.

Please understand that I was not consciously aware of this at that time.  Subconsciously I undoubtedly was, because I made a major change to the ending of Legacy in order to make it more marketable.  Or at least to make it more dramatic, to carry a particular thread through from beginning to end, to make the ending more intense -- all in order to make it more attractive to editors and other readers.

When did I begin to realize this on a conscious level?  I'm not sure.  Maybe I never did, at least not until beginning these revisions.

This was a really terrifying concept.  It had the potential to change how I wrote; more important, however, it had the potential to change why I wrote.  And even if it hadn't affected my writing 20 or 30 years ago, it certainly was now.

In fact, it did change both the way and the why I wrote.

Most of us have witnessed the painful meltdowns of writers who weren't prepared for any kind of negative criticism of their work and who took even the gentlest of suggestions as tantamount to ritual murder.   Their tantrums today quickly go viral via Twitter and Facebook, and their critics are instantly labeled trolls and bullies and criminals.  But the truth is that most writers, even those who are embarrassingly unskilled and who upload writing that would make a fifth-grade teacher weep, don't fall apart at criticism.  They either ignore it, deny its validity, or don't care. 

Maybe they are still in that blissful state of enjoying writing for its own sake.  Maybe they're still just writing for themselves and understand that ultimately, that's all that matters.

Writing is a supremely selfish act.  It's a supremely self-centered act.  No one should be surprised that there are so many "Mary Sue/Marty Stu" characters -- writers put themselves into their stories all the time and so the Mary Sueishness is really just a matter of degree.

Publishing, and especially self-publishing, is an act of profound contradiction that requires the writer to be both supremely selfish and supremely self-denying.  The writer must maintain her confidence and her pride in the work, making it a part of herself so that she treats it with the love and respect and care it deserves; but she must also prepare it to live on its own in the dangerous world of the literary marketplace where it may be slammed and shamed and stabbed and eviscerated by people who frankly don't give a shit about it -- or about her.

As I completed my revisions and then prepared to make a final proofreading sweep through the book, I realized how much more I worried about what other people thought of it than I had when I originally wrote the book.  In examining my personal history of writing, I realized too that there were all these various stages through which the book passed, virtually without my recognizing it. 

The old adage about writing is still true.  First you do it for fun, then you do it for a few friends, and finally you do it for money.  But it's also incomplete.  In between writing for your friends or those readers you've personally selected and making any money, you have to write for strangers.  It's all those unknown readers out there over whom you have no control who pose the greatest danger as well as the greatest potential.

At some point, the writer has to trust them.  More than that, however, the writer has to respect those readers.  Respect them enough to give them her very best work possible, and respect them enough to give it to them unconditionally.

I've reached the point of a final (I hope!) proofreading pass of Legacy of Honor.  It will be the best I can make it.  And then, dear readers, it's yours.

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