Writing on Wednesdays: Bonking

I’m working with a freelance editor to polish my novel before querying literary agents. She’s a terrific editor, and came highly recommended by several successful published authors. Every single page of the manuscript is filled with red marks and words. Many of her edits/suggestions are just “line editing,” and it’s not too difficult to work through that part—just labor-intensive, time-consuming and boring.

It’s the pages and pages of hand-written notes that are so difficult to handle. These notes (and our discussions when we’ve met in person, twice) suggest major changes in parts of the novel. It’s been three months since I began this process with her, and yesterday I think I hit the wall, like marathoners often do at about mile 23. For athletes, this “bonking” is caused by the depletion of glycogen stores in the liver and muscles. My father ran many marathons, including Boston and New York several times, and I remember him talking about fellow runners who hit the wall during races.

So how is bonking different for a writer than for a marathon runner? Writing a book is definitely a marathon. Metaphorically, I’m at about mile 23 (of 26.21875 miles.) Close to 90% finished. The drafting and early revisions took two years. (I know some writers who took ten years for this process. I don’t think I have their patience!) During those two years, several chapters of my novel were critiqued at writing workshops (by other students and also the faculty) and critique groups and partners. I thought I had learned how to hold onto myself during the process—to reject suggestions when they didn’t seem right to me. And to be sure that I didn’t lose myself—and my style, my voice—by making changes suggested by others when I wasn’t sure that’s where I wanted to go with the writing.

But today I felt my self-confidence waning. Exhaustion setting in. I just wanted to quit. And eat grape popsicles. And so I decided to see what some writers I admire have to say about working with editors. The first piece I found was so good, I decided to just share this one story, about an author I admire greatly, Haven Kimmel. I did an interview with Haven, which you can read here. And a post about meeting Haven at her reading at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, here.

Meeting Haven Kimmel at Square Books in Oxford, September, 2008

This story is about Haven’s experience working with an editor, Amy Scheibe, on her first novel, The Solace of Leaving Early (after successfully publishing two memoirs.) Haven is talking about working with the editor at her publishing house, after she has the book deal, which is a somewhat different experience than working with a freelance editor pre-sale. But I think there are also some parallels I can learn from her. In this article by Matthew Gallaway in The AWL (December 13, 2010), Haven talks about how she responded to Amy’s suggestions after reading her manuscript:

“Her editorial letter was thirteen single-spaced pages, and each point was cross-referenced on the manuscript with a colored Post-it note. I was to revise two first-person alternating POVs into close-third, meaning that the interior voices (so necessary to the sweetly damaged, or the unreliable narrator!) would be gone, and all of that would have to be conveyed through prose alone. And the ending had to be the opposite of the way I’d written it. And one character had to be amplified, but she didn’t say how, and she had gone through paragraph by paragraph and marked those that had gone on a beat two long and those that needed one, two, or three beats more, which—HELLO—you tell me what that means. The beats: they were to my cranium. My response was to lie down on the sofa in my study and stare at the ceiling for nearly a month, until my husband called my dear friend Lawrence Naumoff, a southern writer of unmatched depth and overall talent who was about as sucker-punched by New York publishing as anyone I can name. He said, ‘Put her on the phone.’ During the month of my suffering I had become wispy and vague and tubercular. I tried to say hello but was too precious. Lawrence said, in his superfine accent, ‘Well, what you have to decide is if you’re a real writer or not, and if you’re a real writer you’ll stand up and get something to eat, then sit down at your desk and start at the first word and retype the entire thing—no cutting and pasting—and you will do every last thing your editor tells you to do, and you will not argue or protect your darlings, and in fact you will never again protect a darling, or think being edited is a violence. Okay?’ I blinked, said, ‘Gotcha.’ And that’s what I did. And Amy was right on every point.”

Wow. Now I’m wondering if working with a freelance editor is just a warm-up for working with a publisher’s editor later. Either way, the message is clear: I have to decide if I’m a real writer or not.

Marathon runners learn to refuel along the way, because for them, once you bonk, it’s too late. Hopefully the marathon of novel-writing is more forgiving. I might take a day or two off to re-fuel, but then, I’m definitely getting back in the saddle.

22 thoughts on “Writing on Wednesdays: Bonking”

  1. Great piece, Susan! As both a writer and a marathoner runner this really resonated with me. Anyone who has received was of those long editorial letters faces that moment of truth. Or as you put it, “Am I a real writer, or not?” Everyone seeking to get through the keyhole into the New York publishing world should read this blog! Cheers!

    1. Thanks so much, Ken. And for sharing this on Facebook. I’m thrilled if other writers find encouragement here… or if they can at least relate, which it seems they can. I feel re-fueled by everyone’s words!

  2. Great post! I am at the “bonk” point on my manuscript too. Just didn’t have the vocab for it. Time for a snack and reapplication of my butt to the chair!

  3. On some days I think the writing is fine and on others I think this a great story and the writing is terrible. I hope to find an editor who will read it without suggesting I lose my voice, but am in the middle of yet another “final” going over before taking that step.

    1. My editor hasn’t suggested I lose my voice. At all. She keeps reminding me that I’m her client. I’m paying her for her advice, which I can take or leave. It’s MY BOOK. She’s not the problem. It’s my own self confidence (or lack thereof) that fights against me. I’ve talked with another author she worked with (whose book is quickly becoming a best seller and will be made into a movie) and she pretty much said it’s an individual choice. Like Kenny Rogers sang, “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.” Thanks for reading and commenting, and good luck with your book!

  4. Susan, I can’t thank you enough for your honesty here. I’m getting ready to hit where you are now and am girding myself for that part of the journey. What a beautiful thing you’ve done by holding back the curtain for us to see. Onward, Girl!

    1. Thanks for sharing the link on Facebook, Bren. I looked at your profile and noticed that you studied creative writing at Furman. Then I found (and LIKED) your author page for your novel. Sounds like a great concept. Good luck!

  5. Thanks for sharing this, Susan. I went through a similar process this summer and I know how overwhelming it can be when you first see all of those editorial comments. I just kept telling myself that working through them would make my book a better book (which is what we all want, right?) and then I took it one comment at a time. You said it yourself–you’re nearing the end of your marathon. Don’t give up now!

    1. Hi, Jody. I just visited your site. Congrats on your upcoming published YA novel! Since you’ve just “been there,” your words are especially encouraging to me. I’m back in the saddle today… woke up this morning with new resolve! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  6. This is such a valuable post, Susan. I’m so glad you came through the “bonked” stage into a positive, growing stage for your writing.

    Over the time I’ve worked with my freelance editor, I’ve learned that she is speaking from years of experience, with a practiced eye for seeing where I can improve — even when it means a lot more work on something I thought was nearly finished. Working with her has been an invaluable experience for me.

    1. Thanks, Beth. Just visited your site, and I have a question. What is a “pre-published” author? It’s a term I’m not familiar with.

        1. Gotcha. Thought maybe it was industry speak for someone who has a book deal but it isn’t out yet or something. Which is kind of what you’re saying, I guess.

          1. Based on your question, I may change the wording to clarify — I always assume that if one person asks a question, there are several others who have wondered and have not asked. Thanks!

  7. It’s a painful process. I agree. Even after you’ve been through years of rewrite after rewrite, several sets of eyes critiquing every word, and pages of changes from editors, you will STILL SEE changes you wish you had made–even after it’s published. Ugh. Thankfully, most readers won’t care. Other editors/writers/folks in the business may scoff, but if the story is great, the reader will glide right over it. Here’s my point. I think writers run the risk of over-editing. Editing the “good” right out of the story. Your manuscript may end up squeaky clean, but unless the story is riveting, gripping, holds you on the edge of your seat, heart-wrenching … then who the hell cares if you missed a beat or two. Readers don’t care. I understand if you want to be traditionally published it’s what you must do to get past the agents/editors/publishing houses. But with all due respect, I believe writers are killing too many of their darlings. I’m not an advocate for sloppy work. God no. Quite the opposite, really. The market has become flooded with self-pub e-books that never made it to an editor’s desk. It’s a real shame. I just believe writers must hold on to the golden nuggets of their story. It’s your story. Not your editors. If you follow those handwritten pages, and make every last one of those changes … then who is author? Just my humble opinion.

    1. Hi, Pamela. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. And OH MY GOSH. I just went to your site and watched the videos for Televenge. Reminds me of Cassandra King Conroy’s “The Sunday Wife,” which inspired me to start writing seriously, back in 2006. My essay in Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, only hints at what you so bravely reveal in your book, I think. My essay is a very short excerpt from a memoir I probably won’t ever publish, “Jesus Freaks, Belly Dancers and Nuns.” But maybe…. just maybe. Meanwhile, your comments here today give me great encouragement as I continue the revisions on the novel. More than you will ever know. When you say, “I believe writers are killing too many of their darlings,” you speak against a trend that I’ve been trying to unpack. THANK YOU! Can’t wait to read “Televenge.”

  8. What Lawrence told Haven is what Tim Gautreaux told me at one of his book events at Garden District Book Shop in New Orleans. Gautreaux is among my favorite writers. I couldn’t believe it when he said his short stories and novels return from his editor covered in red ink. He went on to say he has never gotten used to the shock of the numerous red scribbles. But he sits down, tears apart his manuscript, and rewrites. Disconcerting, I know, but it was the best advice anyone had given me on my long road to publication.

    1. I hear you, Darrelyn. What a dance this is. But today I’m into it. Thanks in a huge part to all my writer friends who are taking time to send encouragements. Like you. THANKS!!!

  9. Playing catch-up, Susan; so I’m only now reading this. Thank you for opening the process and to others who have commented. I’m learning! I won’t fully experience the editorial process until further along with the Katrina stories; my about-to-be-published book serves guidelines, not a story. Because we’re self-publishing, both Gerald Berenson and I worked on it as both writer and editor — with additional readings and suggestions from several other readers during the book’s development. This year we decided to make it the best we could and put it out there; so that’s what we’re doing. While I’m confident of the quality of content and design, I’m more than a little anxious. Dr. B as senior writer seems pleased; that was my top goal. Now we’ll see. Believing “You Can Fix The Fat From Childhood — & Other Heart Disease Risks, Too” will appeal to and help readers is one thing; seeing people buy the book — ah, there’s the rub. . . . Best to you and all us other wanna-be-published writers. May we achieve!

    1. Hi NancyKay. Yes, your process is different for several reasons: nonfiction rather than a novel. Self-publishing. Working with a scientist/physician as co-writer. You may experience more this with the “Katrina Stories.” But the journey is going to be a bit different for each of us, I think. It really helps to hear what other writers are experiencing, doesn’t it? Thanks, always, for reading and commenting.

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