Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Friday, July 06, 2007

Guest Blog: Marlene Austin

The Rendering of a Secret…a Grave Secret
by Marlene Austin

I looked at my youngest daughter expectantly. She could have cheered, jumped up and down or at least smiled. Instead, she looked back, exuding all the boredom a college student is capable of exuding when she said, “Well, you’ve said that Grave Secrets was completely finished so many times I don’t know if this time is for real and we should celebrate or not.”

That was true. I couldn’t count the times I had said, “This is it! They just want me to fix…” I had spent the previous four years on a ride with as many ups and downs, twists and turns as the plot of the book I was writing, except the process of publishing never seemed to end. Every time I thought I had at last corrected the manuscript to a glowing perfection that would surely astonish the readers and editor, the first line, mid sentence in the return email always contained that formidable “but the readers want. . .” It wasn’t easy having someone half my age tell me that my characters lacked characterization, that the action sounded like directions for acting and the motivations were implausible.

Okay, so my degree isn’t in literature or writing. I didn’t start writing to win the Pulitzer or even the Whitney—although I wouldn’t turn one down. In fact, I really didn’t want to write about life; I wanted to write to get away from life, (although mine is pretty descent.) I just wanted to think about things other than school bus schedules, weekly menus and how to keep the steam iron from clogging.

I first considered writing a book when one of my second graders gave me an ugly, misshapen caterpillar which sat in a jar for several months before the drab, seemingly lifeless creature split its casing and spread a set of dazzling wings. I wanted to remember and even share my thoughts about the miraculous change that had touched me deeply. I’d write a book!

Sure. I wrote it, illustrated it then wondered what to do with it when even the queries were rejected. But I’d had my taste of writing, and being as brash as I was naïve, I headed to Boston to, yes, write.

The next years were full of tender and tedious events—marriage, the premature
birth of twins, the loss of our son—and I didn’t write for fun but because I was compelled to express my feelings. I published a book of poetry then a couple of articles while I worked through unsettled emotions. Finally I was ready to get on with life. Loving a challenge (and “McGyver”) I wrote a script. My agent responded, “Why would producers buy scripts when they already pay writers?” I tried a movie and was told I’d need to move to Los Angeles.
I hadn’t tried novels, so…

It took me around a year to write the first version, then another ten years of readers and rewrites to perfect it and send it to Covenant. To my surprise it was immediately deemed imperfect—but if I was willing to try reworking it and adding a prologue… I had to switch personalities and rotate scenes, even change the main characters name from Keziah to Bethany. Reader’s comments could be devastating until I realized that they were script readers, not long distance mind readers. One comment, “If you don’t have something to say, don’t write.” hurt. In fact, it hurt a lot. But I realized I had to go beyond action and adventure. I added and deleted and worked, sent the script back and repeated the same process several—well, a lot—more times. They suggested a different prologue. A page into it, I began feeling.

Thomas’s head rose, cocked like a trapped animal judging the nearness of his predator as he heard an echoed response. His expression told her more than his brief explanation. “They are back and it won’t be for food this time. We’ve got to go. Now.” She turned from the fireplace to catch up the baby in his blanket as Thomas stepped to the door. He simply said, “I’ll draw their attention. You hide in the woods while they follow me.”
She glanced at the musket leaning against the corner of the doorframe. The slight shake of his head confirmed the thought she was already considering. For him to load and carry the musket would only slow him down for the six Indians creeping about, ready to bawl out their war hoops.

Or even three Indians. Or less, if she could distract more of them.

There was no time for indecision. She knew what must be done. “No, Thomas. You take the baby. You have a better chance of outrunning them than I.” She thrust the baby into his arms, not allowing herself to think of the face covered by the blanket or the burbling sounds of his limited vocabulary.

The look on her husband’s face showed the torturous conclusion they shared. His lips barely grazed her forehead as she swung past him, their eyes clinging for an instant before she pushed on the door. She felt the cold air slip past her, heard the fire roar as the air from the opened door fanned it. Then all the comforting elements of her existence were replaced by the chill and a shrill, irregular birdcall.

There were still more rewrites before and after I got a contract in the mail, but finally there was an email saying, “This is your last chance to make corrections.” I couldn’t believe it. Grave Secrets was going to press!

Writing Grave Secrets has been a challenge, a refuge and a pleasure for me. I’ve learned a lot: I love to write descriptions more than I like to read them but dialogue is fun to write too--as long as I can keep the characters from straying off the subject. I can even get a character down a steep mountain nearly as fast as I can do the laundry now! And being an LDS writer is a pretty good thing even if I still sometimes call my heroine Keziah instead of Bethany!

Kerry, a special thanks for letting me on again. You are a great friend. Thanks to the rest of you for sharing your blogs. You all keep my mind going.


At 7/06/2007 12:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for detailing the struggles of becoming published! The book sounds intriguing and I'd like to know more. How about setting up a website with the first chapter or two, and maybe even a contest where prospective readers can win a free copy?

Melanie Goldmund

At 7/06/2007 1:46 PM, Blogger ali said...

Marlene, I really appreciated what you shared with us today! I'm glad I had the chance to read about your experiences.

I am just starting out and SO anxious to send my first queries about my book. But I've decided to wait and hazard the rocky perils of readers and critiques. Reading your experience of working with your editor and their readers, I'm glad I'm taking it slow and doing it right. At the very least, my skin will grow more thick and I'll be able to handle those hurtful comments more gracefully.

Good luck with your book! Thank you for sharing the prologue with us - I look forward to reading more!

At 7/06/2007 3:20 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

Marlene, Congratulations on your book--and way to go getting through those endless rewrites and edits. I just finished mine. I think. Like you, I've celebrated that I'm "done" about a dozen times now. I *think* this time is really it! Welcome to the Covenant family!

At 7/06/2007 7:09 PM, Anonymous Marlene said...

Melanie, like your idea! Kerry has graciously volunteered to put a couple of chapters on her website.

It's nice knowing I'm in good company with other starters and very helpful to have the example of the experts. I think by far the hardest part of publishing for me was having "my baby" criticized. Does anyone else have that problem--and more importantly, do you have any ideas on how new, naive writers can learn to deal productively with negative comments? Then again, I may be the only one with the problem! And the only one who has had the negative comments! Ouch!

At 7/06/2007 8:33 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Marlene, I really enjoyed reading about your path to publication and want to say a big congratulations on getting through all those edits and rewrites to the release of your new book!

Criticism is tough. It's painful to pour your heart and soul and sweat into a book and then have someone say something that makes you want to shrivel up inside. For me, there's a big difference between pre-publication criticism, aimed at helping me improve the book, and post-publication criticism, where it's too late for me to change anything. Pre-pub, once the initial sting of the criticism passes, I get excited to fix the flaws, happy to know that the book will be much better for the feedback that helped me spot problems I never would have noticed on my own. I want the book to be the best it can be, and outside criticism is vital to reaching that point.

I have a much harder time with criticism that comes after a book is released. I've found that even after a bunch of glowing comments, one negative comment still HURTS! But I think one key is to remember that it is absolutely impossible to write a book that everyone will love. JK Rowling sells a zillion copies of Harry Potter, but there are still people who criticize her writing. So don't let criticism get you down. We all get criticized. That's one of the perks of being a writer :)

At 7/06/2007 10:13 PM, Anonymous Marlene said...

Stephanie, I'm glad you mentioned the criticism that comes after publication because I hadn't even considered that! Do you explain your perspective or just let it go?

At 7/07/2007 1:52 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

It depends on the situation and the comment. I think the best response in many cases is to simply thank the critic for his/her feedback and for taking the time to read and comment on the book--and then just let it go. If a reader had a misperception about something, an explanation might be helpful, but if the critic just wants to say, "This or that element of the book was poorly done", what is there to say? If he didn't like it, he didn't like it. Just take anything useful from the criticism, shrug off the rest and remember all the readers that DO love your work--including a publisher that loved it so much they were willing to invest money in publishing it!

I think a lot of us writers--probably most of us--are very sensitive to criticism, but we love writing and sharing our work so much that we're willing to risk the occasional "ouch".

I do think it's very important to always be gracious when responding to critics, no matter how much a comment stings or how much we think the reader was off base.

At 7/07/2007 2:08 PM, Anonymous Marlene said...

Stephanie, I thank you, my husband thanks you, and Covenant will definitely thank you for helping me remain (hopefully) a calm and gracious person. I'm not necessarily that way when it comes to criticism, and your comment does remind me that I need to act at least as well as I hope they act towards me. I may adopt a take-care-of-myself plan--when someone "ouches" me I'll put on a "bandaid" by rewarding myself with some chocolates or flowers and reread your reply! I'll be prepared! Thanks!


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