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Writing My Memoir #4: Working With a Developmental Editor

I found myself stuck in the vortex of Christian publishing for too long, but it wasn’t all bad. For one, the people were genuinely kind. The agents were approachable and took time out of their busy schedules to mentor a wannabe author. At conferences, they smiled and talked to conference goers and treated them like humans (rare in the publishing industry—more on that later.) They seemed to care about the authors behind the books they were selling and were generous with their platforms.

When the inevitable rejections would come (one acquisitions editor took a year of back-and-forth to finally pass!) they were sad and apologetic, and always praised the quality of writing and story in my manuscript as if they wished they could take me on but were forced to obey the man behind the curtain. (Or who knows, maybe they were just being nice.)

Heather Katsoulis, Flickr Creative Commons

But perhaps the best thing that came from all this was the referral to a developmental editor as recommended by a Christian agent I had met at a conference. The story needed structural work. He knew that, and I knew that, and so I was grateful for the personal recommendation. I queried a few freelance editors, but I always knew I was going to hire Andy Meisenheimer, the one that the agent referred me to. Did I hire him because I had hoped it would give me the “in” I needed to get signed by that agent? Probably. But what it lead to was something else entirely.

Andy read my book and helped me restructure it with a completely new story arch. I had written the book thematically with chapters organized by topic. A chapter on all my experiences with worship in the church. A chapter on the harmful effects of modesty teachings. A chapter on speaking in tongues. I toggled back and forth between the voice of the scared adolescent girl that experienced these events, and the “voice of reason” – AKA how I interpret those events now. I structured it this way for the first Christian agent who wanted each chapter to “make an impact” and “tell a story for a reason.”

Andy got me to get rid of all that shit. He helped me get into the voice of the scared teenage girl and stay there. To tell the story, and let the story carry itself without a lot of exposition or forced reflection into the meaning of the events. This. Changed. Everything.

As Andy and I worked together, it became clearer that my book wasn’t going to be shelved in the Christian section of the bookstore. In fact, he helped me shake the goal of it being on any particular shelf at all, and just write the story and see what happens. This stage was my favorite part of the process. I felt the creative energy again as I did in the early stages before that first conference.

This process was almost two years. I say that because I want you to understand how slow it was for me. I stepped back from the fury of the publishing world and marinated in my manuscript. I killed my old book and then slowly bought it back to life.

Some things I learned from this stage of the writing process:

  • The present tense gave the story a sense of urgency and it forced me to stay in the senses of the moment and recreate scenes using all I had: the sights, smells, and sounds of my memories.
  • Story is all I have to offer the world, and that is enough.
  • Plot structure is HARD, even if the book follows a strict chronological timeline. The order of events isn’t as important as way they are told to form a classic story arch with an inciting incident, rising tension, climax, and resolution.
  • To write memoir, I had to bring my full self to the story, not the one-sided persona I had relied on before.
  • At the same time, I learned to separate Carly (me) from Carly-the-Character.

During this year, Mary Karr came out with her incredible book, The Art of Memoir, which I read twice and referenced much more. It was a year of digging deeper into the craft and I loved it.

In the midst of this, I neglected something else…

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