August 29, 2016: The Day Reality Took Off the Gloves (Part 1)

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Dear Diary,

I think I've figured it out. The reason why I keep pressing the self-destruct button when happiness is within my grasp, over and over again. Why I set fire to a publishing deal most other writers would kill to have. Why I took a machete to my cushy life with my affluent parents. Why I angrily chased away the man who might or might not have been my soulmate.

The reason is: I'm a masochist.

I must secretly thrive on humiliation. It explains everything: how I behaved in the past, what I did today, and what I intend to do this weekend.

You already know everything about my past, Diary, and thinking about what I intend to do this weekend turns my limbs to jelly, so let's start with the humiliation I subjected myself to today.

Polishing up my last manuscript didn't work out so well. I skimmed through the draft, re-reading Will's comments. I brainstormed about the changes required to bring the story up to snuff. Then I curled up in a tight ball on the bed and screamed into my pillow.

In the terms of the HGTV shows that play in my dentist's waiting room, this book is a total gut job. I can't simply fix it up with a fresh coat of paint and some crown molding. I need to take a sledgehammer to the walls, redo the eighty-year-old electrical wiring and rusty pipes, rip up the rotted floors and lay down new ones. All by myself.

Do I really want to sink another year into gutting and rewriting this story? Increasingly, I'm thinking "no." I didn't love the premise or the characters to begin with. I wrote the first draft fueled by fear of commercial failure, not by passion for the story. Painful as it is, I might just have to think of that manuscript as a seventy-thousand-word writing exercise and walk away.

After my muffled screaming session, I sat back down with my laptop and dug through my email archive. I have one other manuscript on my hands that I've never considered rewriting: the book that got me blackballed from the publishing industry. Maybe I could salvage that one instead.

I found the feedback from that Big Name Editor and, because I'm a masochist, I read it.

I mean, I really read it. I shut down all of my defensive reflexes and forced my mind wide open. I read past the claptrap about "the market" this and "the industry" that to understand what the editor was really saying about the novel.

And you know what, Diary? That editor was right...just for all the wrong reasons.

For example, she demanded that I rewrite the novel using first-person point of view. She said, "The first thing I always ask is whether a book can be rewritten in first person, because that's what readers today prefer."

At the time, I reacted by thinking, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard." First, it's an awful idea to choose a POV based on what's popular, instead of considering the needs of the story. Second, half of the hot bestsellers today are written in third person: the Harry Potter books, the Jack Reacher thrillers, Nora Roberts romances and Liane Moriarty novels, etc. I decided the editor is an idiot who's clueless about the real world, and I flatly dismissed her feedback.

But if I had been able to ignore the bad reasoning, I would have seen that changing to first person could greatly improve the novel. My choice of third-person POV stifled my voice and my ability to connect readers to the characters. I have a bad habit of keeping my characters at arm's length, distancing myself from their painful feelings. Writing in first person, I'd be forced to identify closely with them, inhabit their skins and channel their rawest thoughts.

Also, the editor claimed the novel had a "muddy middle" and demanded more cliffhangers that "compel the reader to turn the pages." At the time, I railed at the twenty-first-century expectation that every story must be "unputdownable." Every book and TV show must be so enthralling and important and transformative that it keeps audiences glued to their smartphones, unblinking, for days on end. Heaven forbid they take a break between chapters to get a healthy seven hours of sleep!

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