The value of a fresh look at writing? Priceless

Bryce Canyon, Utah - Arch

Bryce Canyon, Utah

A fresh read of a manuscript points out all kinds of problems: flat characters, scenes that though beautifully written go nowhere, leaps in logic that were clear to me in the writing but not to a reader. A fresh location can also inspire a fresh look.

A few weeks ago, I met my writing partner Mary Gottschalk in Moab, Utah, for what has become an annual tradition – a week devoted to our writing. 

I’ve written about retreats before, but I was particularly excited about this one. Having given the full manuscript for my work in progress, All She Ever Wanted, to Mary for a complete, start-to-finish read, my goal for the week was to fill in the holes and trim the fat she saw on this read through. She didn’t disappoint. Her critique offered both big picture and fine-tuning feedback.

Reading with clear eyes, she found sections that could be eliminated entirely or reduced to a line or two of backstory. With her comments in hand, I set about hacking entire scenes. Once I embraced the idea of eliminating anything that didn’t move the plot forward in a meaningful way, I found other scenes that were surprisingly easy to send to the cutting room floor.

But it wasn’t all about cutting. In the course of the week, a character who started off as a minor player at a holiday party took on a major role. By the end of the week, Harley was challenging my heroine Liddie to grow up, speak up, and face the reality of how quickly gossip can travel. To accommodate this troublemaker, I wrote new scenes and changed the tone of others.

In addition, I fleshed out the historical setting, adding richness of detail to the story skeleton, based on research I’d been doing. The war in Europe (WWI) had a broader impact on the U.S. than I’d realized it did, years before the U.S. sent troops into battle in 1917. Every American was being taught economy. Women were called to eschew foreign labels in their clothes and buy American. Clothing designs took on military influences.

At the beginning of the week, I hoped to be able to respond to Mary’s comments on the first half of my manuscript. What an adrenaline rush to find that I could tackle the entire manuscript. By the time we were driving back home, I could visualize having my manuscript ready to put in the hands of beta readers by the end of April.

A fresh look and a week with focus let me take some very big steps in that direction.

A memoir told in geology

Bryce Canyon, Utah, Hoodoos

Bryce Canyon, Utah, Hoodoos

A drive through the southwest United States invariably inspires my interest in geology. The seismic power of uplifts reveals sheer walls of stone. The layers of red, white, green rock tell of eons of floods, the arrival of shell fish, the retreat of water. The progress of the earth’s development is stripped bare and we see both pain and beauty in this brilliant and honest memoir.

In the past few days, I’ve visited the canyons of southern Utah, where wind and water have created some of the most amazing land formations one is likely to see on earth. Even the pictures I’d seen hadn’t prepared me for the Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon.

Hoodoos are columns of weathered rock shaped by the wind and rain over thousands of years. Layers of softer and harder sedimentary rock cause the erosion to shape the spires into infinitely varied shapes limited only by your imagination. You might see Abraham Lincoln, Medieval castles, Cleopatra on her throne, or Casper the Friendly Ghost. An overlook called Inspiration Point provided a view of thousands of hoodoos in tight formation reminding me of the soldiers in the famous Terracotta Army in China.

The alluvial fan on the left is beginning to birth new hoodoos.

The alluvial fan on the left is beginning to birth new hoodoos.

A park ranger shared pictures of some of the hoodoos taken 60 years ago and pictures of those same hoodoos taken in the past year. Erosion has taken its toll. Eventually the spires will be too weak to support themselves and they’ll crumple to dust. The erosion is steady and significant. The rim of the canyon erodes at the rate of 1 to 4 feet each 100 years.

This made me a little sad, as reading memoirs sometimes does. What would be here for future generations, I wondered.  The ranger offered hope. As the erosion continues, new hoodoos emerge out of the alluvial fans.  If you look closely at the left side of the picture, you can see it happening. Today’s hoodoo soldiers will fade away to be replaced by the new recruits of the future.