Saturday, March 7, 2015

Thank you, Ann

I went to a funeral today. It was the funeral of someone who has had a huge impact on my life. A bigger impact than maybe even she knew.

By 2003 I had finished writing the first draft of Eternal Knight. It was a monstrous 250,000 word manuscript. I had no idea what to do with it. I'd written the novel "in the blind," with no advice or support. I'd just wanted to write a novel.

From time to time I would mention my writing hobby to my students (mostly 9th graders taking Western Civilization). One day I brought up my book and one of my students said, "Mr. Heppe, Claire's mother is an author. She writes romance novels."

I turned to Claire and asked her if it was true. (For some reason, I thought the kids were pulling my leg.) Claire pointed me to her mother's website. There she was... not as Ann Emery, but as Ann Lawrence, her pseudonym.

I asked Claire if I could meet her mother and talk to her about writing. It didn't matter that she was a romance author, I just wanted to learn more about writing and getting published. I really had no clue and needed some help.

It took a little while to arrange, but a few months later I found myself sitting with Ann at her dining room table, talking about writing. I remember that day very clearly. Ann fed me angel food cake and tea and talked to me about writing, agents, and the publishing industry. It was eye-opening and informative. Ann was a wonderful host.

I'd brought a few chapters of  Eternal Knight with me, and Ann graciously offered to critique them. I was both excited and terrified by the offer. Nobody had ever seen a single word of my 250,000 word novel. I gave Ann the chapters, thanked her for her hospitality, and went home.

I then spent three weeks gnawing my fingernails. I'd put thirteen years of time into my manuscript. It wasn't an easy thirteen years, either. I had constantly started and stopped, losing faith in myself, and then being drawn back to the story again. That manuscript was filled with a lot of hours of work, hopes, and dreams.

Ann called me and invited me back again. She'd finished my chapters. When I arrived I saw more cake, more tea, and my chapters sitting on the dining room table. My eyes were immediately drawn to the first page of my novel.

There was more red ink on that page than I'd ever seen on a single piece of paper.

My heart sank.

After pouring some tea into me and stuffing some cake down my throat, Ann told me two things. She told me that my storytelling was very good. She also told me that my writing needed help. We then spent an hour going over every line of those first chapters in detail. It was an amazing experience. I learned more about writing fiction in that hour than I'd learned my entire life.

Before I left, Ann invited me to join her critique group.

"Of course!" I replied.

"What's a critique group?" I asked.

Apparently it was a group of four romance authors who would meet at Ann's house twice a month to exchange chapters and critiques of their work. Ann warned me that I'd be reading a lot of romance and would be expected to give helpful and honest critiques of the writing. In return, the other authors would read my monstrous epic fantasy and do the same for me.

The following months transformed me as a writer. It was Writing Boot Camp. There were four members of the group, and they each played a part reshaping my writng.

Sally (the Knife) Stotter: She'd send my work back with big red X marks over paragraphs (and sometimes entire pages). She took my 250,000 word beast and turned it into a svelte 115,000 word novel. Sometimes less is more.

Lena (the Queen of Grammar) Pinto: Grammar is still, obviously, not my strong suit. However, under Lena's tutelage, I made huge progress.

Lisa (the Sniper) Hollis McCulley: Lisa had a way of finding just right word and putting it just the right place. She commented less than any of the others, but when she did, her aim was dead on.

Ann (the Master) Emery: Ann was always right. I just accepted it. Sometimes she was stern, and sometimes she was funny, but she was always right. Ann had a wonderful eye for story and language. Her comments, suggestions, and criticism not only improved my book, but they taught me valuable lessons about writing and editing.

I have incredibly find memories of sitting around Ann's dining room table, eating cookies (and pizza, and lasagna, and pastries), and having my novel (and myself) transformed. I owe Ann, and the entire critique group, a debt of gratitude I can never repay. 

Even after I had left the critique group to pursue publication, Ann was willing to help me. Despite her illness, she found time to critique and edit my second novel. When I last saw her, she was so happy and enthusiastic it is hard for me to imagine how ill she really was.

Just a month ago, having finished the rough draft of my third novel, I was thinking I should give Ann a call. I would never consider publishing a novel without first seeking her advice.

Unfortunately, before I had the chance to make the call, I learned of Ann's death. The news was crushing. Ann had an enormous impact on me.

I don't know how to finish this. I'll just leave it at this...

Thank you, Ann. I'll miss you. I'll always remember you. 

1 comment:

  1. So sad to see such a decent, helpful person pass on to the next existence.
    Stay strong, Matt.