Back in October, at Can-Con, I pitched to the editor of a small press and wangled an invitation to submit thirty pages of Avians of Celadon in January. That’s not unprecedented; I’ve submitted the first two or three chapters before, with varying degrees of failure. I decided that this time, I was going to do everything I could to make those thirty pages the best they could be.
I began with two key points from a pertinent Blue Pencil session. I’m a big believer in immersive world-building as opposed to exposition, but I got renewed feedback that my first description of Celadon’s rings is ambiguous or confusing. Editors and Beta-readers alike have begged me to call a spade a spade and clearly identify them as planetary rings. This rankles, because we earthlings never describe our moon as a planetary satellite, and I feel that the Celadonese would take their rings for granted in a similar way. But those expert readers can’t all be wrong, so I bit the bullet and started looking for excuses to have Raisa take a real look at the sky and describe them. Another priority from the Blue Pencil was about a patch of dialogue. When a mother and daughter have been arguing about something for weeks, it rings false if they preface the latest spat with an explanation of what they’re fighting about. Without meaning to, I had done an “as you know, Bob.”
So I set out to fix both those things and for good measure, I planned to run the new pages past my critique group.
Long story short. Lindsay, a writer I have exchanged novel drafts with, brought a friend to my Chi-Series reading last summer, and in the fall, I was invited to join Fantasy Five, who were losing a member. I drive into Winnipeg once a month to meet with them now.
November’s meeting produced a lot of ideas. I was sitting to the left of Susie, and as the others pointed out issues, I could see that she had drawn boxes around huge swathes of my text on the opening page. I couldn’t wait to hear what she had to say, because I still felt as if the scene didn’t flow. Worse, all the revisions were starting to give it a cobbled together feel. Sure enough, there was a lot of stuff Susie didn’t like, and her analysis led to a powerful brain-storming session with the group that spat out dozens of ideas. Digesting them kept me excited all through the long drive home. One of her key comments was that if Raisa is going to fly gliders, there should be one on the first page. Bam. There was my excuse to have Raisa watching the sky. I moved her to the garden, and I did better than put it on the first page, I put it in the first line:
Raisa watched the glider, careful not to lift her face toward the sky.
With that opening, I was on my way to build intrigue and conflict with Raisa’s mother, and a description of the rings wouldn’t seem too contrived. I reshaped the scene, and I was looking forward to presenting it at the December meeting. My plan was to fine-tune the early chapters over the holidays and submit them in the first week of January.
December’s meeting had to be cancelled. Having seen the value of a critique group, I decided to hold off on my submission until after the January meeting. I could still get my excerpt in by the middle of the month. I made another important decision: I contacted Samantha, my freelance editor. We revised the whole novel a year or so ago, but now the opening chapters were so drastically rewritten I thought she should take a look. She was available on the crucial day, and she gave me a good deal.
Somewhere in here, I shortened the part where Raisa spars with her mother, reducing it to just five lines of dialogue. It’s less expository, and it has far more feel. It still leads nicely to the teaser at the end of the scene.
At January’s meeting, I got some good feedback on the first three pages. I told everyone I was sending the thirty pages in within days, and Lindsay and Daria did something stunning for me. They sat down the next evening and critiqued the full thirty page sample in time for my deadline. Daria made quite a few notes on syntax and clarity, and it was clear that they clustered in the newest parts, the parts never cleaned up by Samantha. Lindsay showed me some areas that undermined clarity and plot. Those ran a little deeper, and took a bit more effort to address through rewriting, but they were worth every minute.
Making those changes took me most of a morning, so Samantha didn’t get her copy until nearly mid-day. She had them back to me within hours, cleaned up and with a couple of new points to address.
I was able to fix those in time to get the whole thing away on the fourteenth of January. For once, I didn’t have cold feet after I hit send. With the help of a team, the first three chapters were the strongest they had ever been.
The editor I sent them to agreed. He responded within two days, characterizing the excerpt as nearly perfect and asking for the full manuscript.
There are two common pieces of advice given to new writers: join a critique group and hire an editor. I hope this entry shows why. I’ll add one of my own. Blue Pencil sessions can be strangely effective. Usually only about fifteen minutes is allotted to both read and comment, so you might think they’d be hopelessly superficial. Perhaps. But that focus on flaws that jump out at the first glance can be a powerful tool.