Monday, July 14, 2008

Novel 101--"Ripeness is all"

So, it's been awhile since I've blogged here and even longer since I've had a Novel 101 post. Lots of reasons for this, but no good excuses.

The quote above is from my favorite Shakespeare play, King Lear. And, the point of it has been made clear to me yet again. (That's one of the totally cool things about my old buddy Bill--the truths he writes about apply on so many levels and keep teaching me even when I'm not looking for it.). Let me try to explain.

I'm not a patient person. I try, but it's a struggle. (Just ask my family.) But, I know that plenty of things are better with age. With ripening. The tomatoes in my garden. Wine. I know that things take time. There are processes which should not and cannot be rushed. I mean, heck, I'm a writer--getting an agent and publishing my first book took seven years. I've never been in the army, but I sometimes think the phrase "hurry up and wait" came from the submission process rather than the military.

But, as Shakespeare wrote, "ripeness is all." Things happen when they're meant to happen, being ready matters, and don't rush things that shouldn't be rushed. I know this; I just don't always embrace it.

Then, at the end of last week, after finishing the workbook for Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass, and after reviewing my notes and ideas and list of "what ifs" for my revision, I pulled out a hard copy of the MS of my novel, the one I thought I'd finished in February, but now know I haven't. The copy I hadn't looked at, not once, since February 28. And I started reading it. Almost immediately I went in search of several colored flair pens and these handy dandy little page flags:

Because, I'd discovered something in my MS--it wasn't as "done" as I'd thought. Having not looked at it in four months had given me some perspective, some "ripening"--I was finally ready to see the scenes that needed sharpening, the lines that needed some edge, the passages of prose that needed to be (eek!) killed off.

Even more important, as I started reading I understood some things about my protagonist I hadn't seen clearly before. She'd ripened as well, into someone even more complex than I'd initially seen.

We'd needed the distance from each other, the aging, the perspective--as much as I hadn't wanted to be patient, it had been a good thing (okay, there, Mom, I said it. I finally learned it. Blah, blah, blah, okay, okay, okay, patience is a virtue!).

So, that's my tidbit of writerly wisdom for the week (or maybe month, we'll see how things go). As hard as it can be, as much as I might want to send the MS off to readers, to my agent, to the world, I have to wait for the ripening--I have to allow for the cool days of spring and the warm rains of summer and the sunshine and moonlight and all that it requires. Then I have to look at it again and I have to trust that when it's truly ready, I'll know because my own words will tell me.


Anonymous said...

Judy, I have been procrastinating like crazy on my revision. I think I'm ready, and then I balk, find a million other things to do.

But like you, I bought the exact same little page flags two days ago and a pack of multi-colored highlighters. Maybe I'm getting closer. Maybe not. I just love knowing we bought the same tools!!

Bev Marshall said...

Ah Judy! This is marvelous advice for writers, new and seasoned. We've all been there. You finish the draft. You love it. It's the best thing you've ever written. Send it out and it's a boomerang. Back at you for the "ripening" time. I'm on my fourth draft of the book I'm working on. Every time I think it's finished, it sits, I go back, and yuk! Did I write that? Yes, I did, and yes, I can make it better. I love your word . . . ripening . . . except as how it applies to age. That's more like two week old bananas.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Ooh, Kristen, great minds (and writers!) think alike! Hope the new tools help you as much as they seem to be helping me.

Bev, Yup, the whole boomerang theory--it can always be better. It just needs some hard work. (Now, I needto go toss out some bananas.)

Joanne said...

Judy, this post is so true. I think we've all sent out something ahead of its time, only then seeing the error of our ways. It's not always easy to wait. Even though you hadn't read the ms in four months, do you think that somewhere in your thoughts it was quietly simmering, subtly finetuning?

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Joanne--Yes, definitely, yes, the characters were there, just below the surface sometimes, and I'd catch myself thinking about them when I was least expecting to.

Melanie Lynne Hauser said...

This is tough to remember, because, once published, novelists tend to believe the "book a year" mantra we hear from other published novelists and publishers. The problem with that, though, is that not everyone can do that or if they do, they're not giving their manuscripts enough time.

As hard as it is to be a writer without a contract, the upside is that this writer can take the time necessary to let their work ripen, as you say.

Lisa said...

This is wonderful advice and I agree that taking time away from a piece of writing does amazing things for perspective. Glad to know things are going well for you. Posts like these always bring Ernest and Julio Gallo's voices into my head :)

Carleen Brice said...

Well said and well done!

Daisy said...

Taking a break is a great idea. How did life go on before Post-Its? I'm not sure how I taught without them!

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Melanie--Yes, I gave up on that "book a year" idea long ago. But, I still worry.

Lisa--Glad I give you food for thought! And yes, I hear the Gallo Boys, too.

Thanks, Carleen!

Daisy, those little tools are indispensible, aren't they?

Patry Francis said...

Oh, Judy, you are so right! Why do I always forget this?

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Patry, you too? Maybe we need a 12-step program or support group--"Hi, I'm Judy and I need to let my story ripen." "Hi, Judy!"

Good to know we're all in this together, though.