Monday, February 27, 2012

Revision at a New Level

It’s time to get may book back out of the drawer where it’s been marinating while I research agents.  So after my critique group passes on their feedback about my manuscript, I’m about to dive back in for some rounds of intense revisions.  Going back to my first post of the year, I’m not going to be satisfied with something that’s acceptably good.  I want my writing to rise to a new level of quality –I want Sara-Zarr-Amazing, Gayle-Forman-Can’t-Get-It-Out-of-My-Head-Fantastic!  As a result, I’ve gotten a little obsessed this week about my favorite authors’ ever so casual references to their fourteenth draft, their twenty-first draft.  It makes me feel really naïve, but okay, I’ll say it.  What are they doing in all those drafts?  And how fast are they working?
(I’m guessing they’re not counting rewriting one scene as a whole draft.  I’m guessing a draft is like one whole pass through the thing working on a particular goal.)
I’ve done two drafts of my current novel.  (I know, Sara and Gayle, you’re shaking your heads.)  I’m over that thing where you think you’re close to finished, and then you realize, shoot, you are nowhere near the end.  And I know every writer and every book will require different kinds of attention.  But, in general, I want to know the kinds of things these stellar authors are tending to, and I Want To Do Them!
My fears.  First, I don’t work well checking off a list of eighty-two items that need to be fixed one by one.  I find by the time I get a few items into the list the remaining items have become moot.  I tend to work better in sweeping goals for each pass, goals that start broad with structure and narrow to character, pacing, and then line editing. 
Second, I sense I’ve got to let go of this fear of tearing the whole thing apart.  I remember how worried I was the last time I sat at my dining room table with one-hundred notecards that might or might not gel into a whole piece.  I have a deep-seeded fear that once I start tearing the thing apart it won’t go back together again.  I know this is kind of ridiculous because it’s all organically related and can certainly reconfigure itself naturally in many ways –the underlying thematic strings alone kind of guarantee that.  I think I’m afraid once I rip out a few chunks, I’ll start tearing it up into such tiny pieces that I’ll be left with a pile of shredded phrases keep me forever guessing, Should she toss her hair in Chapter 3 or Chapter 7?
So here’s my plan… please, tell me what you think.

• Draw a picture (probably a web, like a mobile –see earlier post) of the book’s structure now.
• Analyze the cause-effect movement between the web’s pieces, and revise accordingly.
• Revise the pitch and query.
• Write a one, two, and five page synopsis.
• Write a chapter outline.
• Organize feedback from critique group.

April - May:
• Finish revision of chapter one so that it points right at the white hot center of the story, raises questions, and ensures the reader love the characters.
• Make a pass attending to just the white hot center and revise accordingly.
• Critique partners have pointed to things that need to happen earlier –make it so.
• Do a whole pass attending to just the pace of the two main characters’ relationship.
• During this whole month, start the writing day with free-writing on character issues that need to be deepened.  This includes (playfully) writing scenes that don’t yet appear in the manuscript.

June – July:
• Take a pass through the whole thing for each of the six main characters, each time focusing on BEING that person in that moment.
• Figure out how to revise for pacing.
• Attend to chapter-specific notes.
• This whole time start the writing day with free-writing on the more minor characters.

So am I headed in a productive direction?  What are some things you’ve attended to during later drafts?  And if you’ve gotten past ten drafts, I want to know what you’re doing!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Characters that Stay with You

            There are some books, they can’t be put down.  You close them, you leave them on your bedside table, but the characters get up and follow you through your day, that day, and the next.  This has been my experience with the characters in Gayle Forman’s If I Stay and Where She Went.  I am driving to pick up my daughter from school, I am worrying, and I realize it is about Adam.
            These characters that haunt you through your day, who seem real as living people you know, I want that for the characters in my novel.  They are like that sometimes, but maybe because I am a new writer, they fade into the background as I worry about things like chapters and structure, and the white hot center.  When I return to them for the next round of revisions, I want to think about what kind of attention do I need to give to a draft to invite my characters to this level of existence?

            So I looked back over Where She Went, which I finished last night, breathless.  Here’s what I noticed.

Questions, Questions, Questions:  As I read, I was constantly asking –but will you get back together?  will you be friends?  what about the band, will you go back to it?  what about Bryn?  how will you find yourself in the wreckage?  will the music come alive for you again, what will you write next?  As Sara Zarrdiscusses in Hold on Loosely, Forman lets herself live inside these questions.  She lets herself be present in her characters so she can feel each question as it arises in Adam and the impact in has on him.

Human Things the Characters Notice about Each Other:  There are small, very human, physical details the characters notice about each other, that breathed life into them for me…

…the way she wiped her hand on her skirt in between pieces, the way she cocked her head in time to some invisible orchestra, all gestures that are way too familiar to me

I didn’t really notice her until I saw her not playing.  She was just sitting in one of the soundproof practice booths, her cello resting gently against her knees, her bow poised a few inches above the bridge.  Her eyes were closed and her brow was a little furrowed.  She was so still, it seemed like she’d taken a brief vacation from her body.  And even though she wasn’t moving, even though her eyes were closed, I somehow knew that she was listening to music then, was grabbing the notes from the silence, like a squirrel gathering acorns for winter, before she got down to the business of playing. 

…her cheek still flushed from the night’s performance…

Her hair, long and dark, is down now, swimming damply against her bare shoulders, which are still milky white and covered with the constellation of freckles that I used to kiss.  The scar on her left shoulder, the one that used to be an angry red welt, is silvery pink now.

…the tiniest rebel teardrops…

I run my thumb over the calluses on her thumb and up and down the bony ridge of her knuckles and wrist.

• The Rightness of the Comparisons: Forman’s comparisons are fresh, they help me see in a new way, and they are so clearly the result of a writer listening to the vibe of her characters.

When the lights come up after the concert, I feel drained, lugubrious, as though my blood has been secreted out of me and replaced with tar.

The wind is whipping her hair this way and that so that she looks like some kind of mystical sorceress, beautiful, powerful, and scary at the same time.

It’s like I’m seeing Mia through a prism and she’s mostly the girl I knew but something has changed, the angles are off…

• The Characters Are So Completely in Their Own Bodies:  Adam and Mia live inside real bodies, real bodies that are easy to forget about when you’re focusing on dialogue or plot or theme.  I want to go back and take a whole pass over my manuscript just to let myself be in my characters’ bodies.  Some of my favorite Forman physical moments:

I wander into the back garden for my wake-up smoke.  I pat my pockets, but all I find there is my wallet, my sunglasses, the borrowed iPod, and the usual assortment of guitar picks that always seem to live on me.  I must have left my cigarettes on the bridge.

I have to mentally hold my arm in place to keep the trembling from turning into a jackhammer.

I have that floppy calm that follows a cry.

Physiological Reactions the Characters Create in One Another: Attention is also paid to the reactions Adam and Mia set off in each other.  They’re not all positive, and they’re not all sexual, but I couldn’t resist these:

…I give the scar on her shoulder the slightest of kisses and feel arrows of heat shoot through every part of me.

…kiss her right behind her ear, the way that used to drive her crazy, the way that, judging by the sharp intake of breath and the nails that dig into my side, still does

She runs her hands through my hair and it’s like she electrocuted my scalp –if electrocution felt so good,

• The Interplay between the Characters’ Thoughts and Actual Speech:  So in addition to the physical, Forman gives Adam and Mia an inner life as well.  The tension that arises from the contrast between the wildly goings on inside Adam and what he actually said out loud had my heart pounding and the pages turning faster and faster.

Where did you go?  DO you ever think about me?  You’ve ruined me.  Are you okay?...A calm steals over me as I retreat from myself, pushing me into the background and letting that other person take over…. “Good concert”

Really, Adam, I thought.  Is that all you are going to say?  Don’t do it, don’t!  But I knew I would be doing the same thing.  I felt physical pain as I read this!

Yet Forman goes a step further.  She plays with the thought-speech dynamic to create a connection between Adam and Mia we cannot ignore:

Opposite directions, I think and am surprised when Mia actually says it out loud.  “Opposite directions.”

And then at the end, Adam breaks from his typical thought-speech pattern, making the moment is explosive.

“Really?  Was that how you quit me?”  And just like that, without thinking, without saying it in my head first, without arguing with myself for days, it’s out there.

It’s these things that have a physical reaction going in me as I read.  My husband caught me just after I’d closed the book and asked, “Are you okay?”  He could see it in my flushed cheeks, my breathlessness, my other-worldly stare.  Yes, I think, I’ve never been so okay.  I say, “Gayle Forman is my new hero.” 

I can just see Gayle pausing before she starts to write, her brow furrowed just like Mia, listening for Adam, collecting him.

What characters follow you around?  Share them and the titles and authors with us.  Beyond a certain je ne sais quoi, how do you think the author conjures them?  How do you?

Monday, February 13, 2012


Hands down, the absolute worst question a person can ask me is, “So what is your book about?”  And hey, it’s a fair question!  I mean, it’s what I’d want to know.  And yet for years I have cringed even before the question is asked.  I see it coming, and my brain begins to shut down!  As a writer I should actually have a pretty thought-provoking, articulate way to express what I’m writing about.  Yet this question signals a wad of grey, cotton-flavored gum to materialize in my mouth and grow to enormous size.  I have no words, I have no breath, I fear I look like an idiot.
I did, however, come up with a disclaimer that I’ve used for the last year or so.  I say, “Believe it or not, that is the hardest question for all writers to answer.  I actually don’t talk about what I’m working on until it’s finished because I find that drains the energy out of it.”  That’s all true.  I leave out the part about how most of us are actually writing in order to find out what our story is about.  Feel free to use my disclaimer until you figure it out!
Meanwhile, in private I’ve kept a secret Word document that has grown to 8 single-spaced pages where I practice writing my pitch –that elusive one sentence summary of my story.  It includes clusters of key words, dictionary definitions, lists of descriptors I cannot use because time and politicians have ruined these words for me –words like maverick.  Additionally, in my journal I often write about my story.  After reading Sarah Zarr’s essay Hold on Loosely at Hunger Mountain, I wrote for pages about The Question my first chapter raises about the white hot center of my story.  I made a few discoveries, circled them, and they found their way into my Pitch Document.
The other day, I think I got it!  No kidding!  I think I got my pitch.  (Dance of celebration!)  I wrote it down, and I felt a physical ZING through the marrow of my bones.  Here’s how it happened.  While my manuscript is out to some readers, I was working on a query letter –which necessitates working on a pitch, and I learned two things.
First, in his publication How to Write a Great Query Letter, Noah Lukeman boiled it down to the bare bones for me. 

USE:                                          AVOID:
• SPECIFICS                             • NAMES
• LOCATION                              • SUB-PLOTS
another book or character

He also suggested writing a one-sentence version, as well as, several other expanded versions –three sentences, five sentences, a paragraph summary, a page summary, all of which have different uses.  But if you can write the one-sentence version it straightens out your priorities, and the expanded versions get easier.  That just helped me focus!  Thank you, Noah!  I needed that.  Boom.  Boom.  Boom.  I could do those things.  The hardest was sticking to the white hot center and avoiding the subplots.
            The second thing that helped was a trip over to the awesome YA Highway site, where if you click on Agents and Editors you can read published authors’ query letters that worked, as well as, the author and agent’s comment on why!  So I was reading Kirsten Hubbard’s query to Michelle Andelman and Michelle’s analysis.  Right off, the letter broke a lot of Noah Lukeman’s rules, but Kirsten had the bare bones of what Lukeman asked for, and I don’t think the letter would have worked without them.  What sparked my own personal epiphany was reading Kirsten’s letter sentence by sentence, stopping at each period to consider what I would say for my own story.  I read: Grace Carpenter longs to stand out, and it sent me directly into my character’s white hot center.
            Now I don’t think I could have arrived at my pitch without:
1)    practicing pitches even when I was still drafting
2)    writing about my story
3)    focusing on Lukeman’s bare bones
4)    or chasing down the marrow of the story like Kirsten Hubbard.

The biggest benefit?  Honing my pitch has inspired the absolute best revisions of my manuscript –especially chapter one.  I feel like everything I write now has something to aim at!
So what did I finally come up with?  Click on my Works in Progress link to see!  I’d love to know what you think and how your pitches are coming along!  As for me, next time someone asks me what I’m writing about, I’m going to try out my pitch!  (Nervous!)  I’ll let you know how it goes!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Causality & Chapters

             So that was nice, using the mobile metaphor to take one thing at a time in my first chapter.  It really worked, but sometimes all my over-analysis of how a story’s working can rein things in so tightly the story doesn’t get a chance to run.  So I have to swing back and forth from one metaphor to another depending on what my story needs.  Mapping mobiles and covering my dining room table with color-coded indexes cards helped me get a handle on things.

            However, I’m feeling uncomfortable about the way I ended up dividing my story into chapters.  I ended up with ten, long chapters that group elements of my story thematically –Emergency, Boundaries, Mothers, etc.  For a while that was working for me; it helped me see how theme was holding the story together.  But readers confirmed my nagging fear that these hulking chapters are not agile enough.  They are beautiful and they make an aesthetic mobile, and for a while they really helped me, but when it comes down to it I need to loosen the reins and let the forward motion of the story carry it forward. 

What I’m getting at is what makes a story a story is that is moves forward.  Each thing that happens causes the next thing, or it should.  Even if I build a beautiful mobile, at some point, I have to hang it up and let the wind blow through it.

            I remember one of my best writing teachers saying, a poem is not an essay.  And as prettily as I can structure a story, it is not a poem.  A story has to move forward.  As E. M. Forster memorably put it: if we write, “The king died, and the queen died,” we have a narrative, but if we write instead, “The king died and the queen died of grief,” then we have a plot.

            Right now, I’m reading Laini Taylor’s new book, Daughter of Smoke and Bone.  I am literally propelled through the story.  Her chapters are fairly short, they’re lean and nimble, each chapter causes the next one.  And though Laini titles each with a meaningful phrase from that chapter, she merely numbers the chapters and lets the story go as it must.  She has 60 chapters.  Sixty!  How freeing!  (She also groups her chapters into three or four large sections, the way you would group scenes in a play into the major acts.  She does this by slipping in a page with a changing refrain to introduce each act.)  But by and large, she lets each scene emerge from the one before, and I turn the pages like I’m slapping the story-horse I’m riding to go, go, go as fast as it can!

            So I am inspired to loosen my reins on this next draft.  Now that I understand the structure of my story (thanks to mobiles), I’m going to try something different.  Instead of guiding my horse through a tightly designed equestrian jumping course, I’m going to loosen the reins and just let the story run, run, run.  One short chapter causing the next.  Yee-hah!

            Are you still struggling with chapter division and its effect on the story?  I’d love to here what you’re trying!