Recently, I was honored to conduct an interview with Brian K. Friesen, one of Ooligan Press’s newest authors, about his experience editing his manuscript with Team Rivers. Editing is one of the most intimidating and misunderstood areas of the publishing industry for aspiring writers, and Brian was happy to help demystify the process for those who are apprehensive or curious. His book, At the Waterline, will be available in stores in May 2017.
Hilary: Did you add any scenes to the novel during the editing phase that you ended up loving?
Brian: There are many scenes that only exist because Ooligan editors pushed me to keep exploring more, keep developing characters more, and keep being alert to underlying motivations in every interaction, in every scene.
One of my favorite added scenes is the final one in the novel. After it was written and then edited a couple dozen times, I thought it was a good possibility for the end of a section late in the book, but I still wasn’t ready to settle on one thing for the ending if something else might present itself. I kept drafting various possible endings just to make sure. I liked a lot of what I came up with, but it was opening up too many new details when the novel was already done. Cobi, one of Ooligan Press’s project managers, helped convince me that the ending was already there. So I polished it up and now that final, inevitable sentence lands just right and brings the reader right back to the beginning again. The journey of two of the main characters culminates in that final line. It comes full circle. Without somebody else’s perspective, I think I would have missed it.
There are too many new scenes to count, really. I love one toward the middle of the manuscript that introduces a young woman, Emma, in a surprising moment with a character I thought already made his grand exit from the book. But there he was showing up to speak like a proverbial Greek chorus, ushering in a shift in the narrative. It came out of left field, and it is brief yet intimate and revealing. It came very late in the editing process, and it is one of the most poignant and purposeful scenes in the whole novel for me.
To offer a little perspective, I recently did a file comparison between the final document of the manuscript and the version I first submitted to Ooligan. After all of the content we cut and all the parts we added, I noticed that roughly two-thirds of this final version is completely new content. That’s pretty amazing to me. The themes and characters are the same, but they are much more thoroughly realized.
Hilary: Did any minor characters become more important, or did any major characters become less important?
Brian: Two minor female characters ended up becoming much richer, more complex, and essential. My original draft definitely would have failed the Mako Mori test. Emma was significant only in relation to the main male character. She was a romantic reward for him after he grew the hell up. I was encouraged with each new draft to find out more about her. She now inhabits the second half of the novel as a fully realized character with a journey of her own.
Hilary: What do you feel like you have grown most on as an author?
Brian: I’ve definitely grown in my ability to accept input from others with my writing. I had no idea how inspiring the influence of other voices could be. I’m better able to trust in the instincts of readers and editors, and I have other minds to thank for pushing me to develop characters and scenes that I wouldn’t have otherwise. This may seem like pandering or preaching to the publishing choir, but I really mean it.
The largest takeaway for me is a broader understanding of editing: there are different pairs of editing glasses to wear at different stages of a writing project. I am prone to editing mostly at the sentence level and get really hung up with inner criticism. Turning off the editing mind to consciously develop or explore is often very difficult. Those editing muscles are working hard to reveal what needs improvement and what is falling flat. Some people might be able to edit as they go and are very lucid and flexible in that way. I have moments like that, but learning to be free is not a straightforward thing. You are never going to remove all the psychological and physical and economic obstacles in your path. And if you did, you might not have anything interesting to write about, anyway.
I found it liberating to place myself in the hands of the editors and readers at Ooligan Press, giving myself permission to compose new content, develop existing content, and adjust the tone of a section, knowing that a team of thoughtful, discerning editors was there to take at least some of the critical burden. They were a support rather than an obstacle or a threat. It ended up being a formative experience for me and essential to the novel. Most things are better in the context of a community. It turns out that this book is definitely one of them.
Hilary: What was the greatest challenge you faced?
Brian: The choice to turn to the writing for ten minutes here and there while also being prepared for interruptions from the people I love sometimes makes a creative existence seem impossible. It is one thing to prioritize responsibilities in your life in an abstract way, but to live them is quite another. It is not easy to be emotionally available as a husband, father, brother, and employee. There is so much to be attentive to, and I am not very good at being intellectually and emotionally present all the time. I couldn’t always spend as much time with the manuscript as I would have liked, since I try to avoid neglecting the people I love over work. My day job suffered at times, and that’s not good. It’s such a privilege to have a full-time job.
I might say that the greatest challenge during the development of this novel was good old-fashioned physical weariness. Maybe that’s not a very interesting answer. It’s like if someone asks what the hardest part of being in a marathon is and you say, “The hardest part was all the running, when I would rather lie down and go to sleep instead.” I did fall asleep a lot while writing late at night. I’d get to the end of the day and it was already late, but there was more writing to do, so I’d just stay conscious and write until I wasn’t conscious anymore. I would jerk back awake and read what I had written in a semi-unconscious state and marvel at the turns of phrase. I should start keeping a list of those sentences, now that I think of it. Or maybe I should get more sleep. That’s an unhealthy way to end the day, and I recommend it to no one. It’s less dangerous if you are writing on the couch or propped up in bed rather than sitting at a desk. That way you don’t have as far to fall. Oh, that’s terrible. Maybe you should edit out this part of the interview. Instead, just have me say, “There weren’t any challenges. I only write when I’m feeling inspired.”
Hilary: Do you have any funny stories from the time you spent working with your editors on the manuscript?
Brian: There was some back and forth about a scene where two characters meet, and I got stuck wanting the introduction to play out in a way that I thought was funny and playful. It was essentially the trope from bad romantic comedies in which the clumsy, lovestruck guy meets the girl and makes a buffoon of himself, only my scene was having the opposite effect on the readers. It’s funny to me now. I dialed back on the young man’s self-conscious, creepy interactions with the girl and turned the manuscript in again and heard back that pretty much everyone on the editing team disliked the main character in that scene. So I dialed back more and resubmitted it. “No, we still hate him,” was essentially the answer. I’m glad that they persisted. It’s a much better section now, and there’s more depth to the humor now that the section is not trying so hard to be funny.
Hilary: Which part of the novel are you most proud of now that it’s finished?
Brian: There is a section I really like that takes place around Thanksgiving. A couple of stories are woven together in that section in satisfying ways. There are two Thanksgiving meals happening at the same time, and I love how they work back and forth to capture how a holiday can play out in spite of everyone’s best intentions. There is that unique kind of intimacy and vulnerability around the holidays. In that section in the book, a handful of characters come to a potentially devastating crisis point. It had to get worse for them before it could get better. I really felt that section captured the crux where longing and disappointment could drive the narrative forward.
Hilary: If you were to start a new novel today, what would you approach differently after this experience, if anything?
Brian: I’m glad for this question, because I’m working on another novel and I’m already finding myself digging some of the same pits that I fell into the last time around, so it’s a good time to regroup and consider the possible answers to that question. I’m playing around with lots of characters who have their own stories, and I can see that I am putting off some structural commitments. I’m also treating first drafts too much like late drafts. Too much messing with the rhythm of sentences and choosing specific, significant words when I don’t even know who the characters are or what makes them tick. I’m going to throw most of this work away before I figure out what this next novel really needs from me. I’d like to limit the amount of time I spend obsessing over every single sentence every single day. It’s so easy to get lost in the weeds and mistake that for doing the important, careful work of an artist. I’d like to be able to relax my critical standards a little more at first and pace myself knowing that first drafts don’t have to be polished at the sentence level. I know large chunks can be dropped altogether, and that’s harder to do if you’ve brought all your creative and critical faculties to bear on first drafts. If you are working with clay, you are going to have to be willing to throw away those first few ashtrays and warped bowls. Anne Lamott said it much better in Bird by Bird: “You have to give yourself permission to write those ‘shitty first drafts.'”
Going forward, I would also like to be more conscious of the bigger picture and purposefully set aside time to consider the work as a whole. That might look like sketching rough outlines and adjusting as I go, throwing out the ones that aren’t working, or moving index cards around on a big piece of carpet. I’ve got a long way to go. No doubt I’ll do things the hard way!
Hilary: Is there any advice you would like to give to aspiring authors now that you’re almost published?
Brian: Run away! Take up photography instead! Watch Breaking Bad again! Find out if you are really just interested in consuming entertainment rather than producing it. There are plenty of great TV shows to consume out there, and they keep coming, don’t they? When will they make the last good TV show and be done with making things that I don’t have time to enjoy? And now there’s a series based on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I’m eager to see it, but I’m even more interested in hearing anything and everything that Atwood has to say about it.
I’m only partly kidding about running away. The biggest thing I would say to aspiring writers is that writing is hard work. You can’t sustain the fantasy that it should somehow be otherwise for you because you are more special or more committed than other aspiring writers. At times it can be a thrill and it feels more like play, but we are easily deceived by whatever pleasures or rewards writing can offer. Exhilarating work is still work. Is it work, or is it play? And the answer is yes. Does it sometimes feel like it comes easily or naturally? Yes. But did it really come easily? No. Writing doesn’t offer the rhythmic endorphin hit you get scrolling down the screen clicking on memes. Are you up for the work it is going to take to become successful as a writer? It is going to be harder than you think. You are submitting to a process that you can’t fully control. There is more control if you self-publish, but even that is going to introduce hard work. Probably harder than you think. If my next novel can’t find a home, I’ll self-publish it in some capacity and then move on to the next project.
Another thing that comes to mind is the particular environment you are trying to learn and grow in. I’m finding my new work being nearly smothered by this post-2016 landscape in America. If defiance toward the powers that be helps get you motivated, great. Write something beautiful as an act of resistance. Make sense of who you are and what you have to say by writing. It’s going to be hard in the coming years to even hear yourself talk as an artist in America. Gravity is pulling people toward—or against—self-preservation. Words like peace, safety, and empathy are becoming politicized. Some things that need to be said take longer than anyone has time for.
As far as becoming a writer goes, Mark Twain’s advice to someone who asked if they were a gifted writer was to go write for five years, and then they would be closer to an answer. I wrote for more like thirteen years before getting a novel-length work published, though I wasn’t writing that whole time. So waiting a set period of time for an answer to whether you are going to be a talented writer or not is a bit dubious. Of course, Mark Twain was winking at us, as he often does. The truth is that there is no answer. There is only the work that is in front of you to do or not do.