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That Time Jane Friedman’s Advice Saved My Novel

[1]Today marks the paperback and audiobook release for The Moon Sisters–a book that earned some critical acclaim, but not before nearly dying on the vine, pre-publication. Below is one story behind the story, complete with rising stakes, a ticking clock, a dark moment, and a turning point.

THE SETUP

I had been working on The Moon Sisters for ~4 years, as the publishing ground shifted radically beneath me. The imprint at Random House that had signed me to a 2-book deal had been shuttered, and I had been shuttled to an imprint about to change its mission statement. My original editor was with a different house. My 2nd editor, too, left for a different house. My 3rd editor also left, after providing me with comprehensive editorial notes about a year prior to the start of this tale. My 4th editor, therefore, inherited the story, its old editorial letter, its revision, and its somewhat rattled author.

This is where the story starts.

A WRITER’S GOAL, MOTIVATION & CONFLICT

I received notes from Editor #4 in early March, wherein she kindly acknowledged how far the story had come with regard to Editor #3’s notes, and roundly encouraged the story in many heartening ways. But some important issues remained for her, and as I worked through the letter, I homed in on one gigantic problem:

Editor #4 was not onboard with the PREMISE of the novel, which was, briefly, “Two sisters travel to a cranberry bog in West Virginia to find the end of their recently deceased mother’s unfinished novel.”

Her clarified point, Why should readers care if the sisters get to the bog and meet their goal?, was hard to hear, because I cared about my protagonists and understood their dreams. They were worth caring about.

My goal became to find the proof of it.

RISING TENSION, A TICKING CLOCK & A DARK MOMENT

We all have strengths and weaknesses, as writers and as people. Something I consider a personal strength is being an ‘ideas person.’ I can mentally slide everything onto the bubble, then experiment to see how one aspect or another of my story might be reimagined. I don’t shy away from revisions if they are needed; I completely rewrote my first novel in another genre, for instance, before it sold. But every time I considered a new spin for the premise of this story and visualized how that spin would play out through the end of the book, the narative fell apart at some crucial moment.

Weeks passed, and still I had no workable solution to this problem. Meanwhile, the tick-tick-tick of the clock began to haunt me. I had through July to send in the next draft, and my deadline had already been pushed once. I had to find a solution, and leave myself enough time to execute it. But as night set on one solution-less day after another, a sickening possibility took hold: There may not be a solution, and the book might never be published.

AN IRONIC ASIDE

Maybe you’re thinking, “How ironic! The story is about finding the end of this dead author’s story, and this author thought she was going to die trying to figure out how to save her own story.” Mmhmm. The Moon Sisters is, at root, a story about a journey to preserve hope, which takes the form of light. Sunlight, a pilot light, the flickering light of a will-o’-the-wisp, even the flavor of hope for one of the Moon sisters, who is a synesthete. You could say this was a personal dark moment for me as a writer, when my own hope light all but flickered out.

But it didn’t.

A TURNING POINT

In looking for a solution, I not only excavated my imagination. I looked through books, old articles, and more, as I paced a ditch into my living room floor. One night, I stilled long enough to read something that Jane Friedman shared over her Twitter account: a link to a series of slides from a conference session she’d led that might be helpful to writers. Below is the slide that snagged my attention.

I took a screenshot, and resumed pacing. Biggest BAD advice is to start with action, huh? Chapter one, scene one did start with action–with one sister, newly blinded from staring at the sun, beginning to walk to the bog her mother had always meant to visit, which was the setting of her unfinished novel.

But we don’t care, and we need to, came the haunting memory of my editor’s note.

The action should have context–and be as grounded as possible in a character that we’re already starting to love, nudged that second bullet point on Jane’s slide, which was revealed as the GOOD advice to counter the potentially BAD advice seen in that first bullet point.

It struck me that though we learn throughout the course of the story why this trip is so important to my protagonist, context is not in place to support the start of the action. I was essentially asking readers to trust that all would come clear in due time, to care because I cared, to believe my protagonist was lovable without any show of it and without giving them anything else to hold onto.

A HAPPY ENDING

I slept on it, and woke with a different, viable path for the flight of my story’s arrow. I could pull the bowstring further back and draw power from something that had only existed as backstory but that didn’t have to be backstory. I could show the last time my protagonist saw her mother alive, the moment that broke her hope and seeded the desperate need to find it again. Ground zero, a few months earlier. If that didn’t make readers care about Olivia Moon and clarify her desire to travel to the bog, nothing would. Because it was a possibly foolish quest. That was always (part of) the point.

I wrote that new chapter in a day, then sent it to my editor, and held my breath. We spoke on the phone a few hours later. That was it, she said–the answer, the key, the strong start the book required. The story felt “so much more immediate,” and more important. Olivia felt much more real, not only to my editor but, surprisingly, to me. The change in setup had cast everything into a clarifying light (hello, theme), and that made everything click.

I met my deadline. The book was published, and received two starred reviews, and then this happened: a ‘best five women’s fiction novels of the year’ nod from Library Journal, and then another such nod from Book Riot.

For a book that nearly wasn’t. 

[Insert triumphant photo capture because it IS book release day, and four other novels also had this honor…]

LESSONS LEARNED

This book delivered plenty of lessons for me, but here are six I’d like to pass along:

Have any of you read exactly the right advice, exactly when you needed to read it? What was it that saved your novel/chapter/character? Who are the real-life heroes that have helped you along the way?

If you’re curious about the scene that saved my book, you can listen to it just below–via a preview from the audiobook releasing today–or read a longer preview, which includes an additional two chapters, on my website [3]. (The chapter entitled, “The Foolish Fire of Olivia Moon” was once the story’s start.)

About Therese Walsh [4]

Therese Walsh co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress [5], and orchestrates the WU UnConference. [6] Her second novel, The Moon Sisters [7], was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy [8] was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter [9] to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub [10]). Learn more on her website [11].

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