Monday, March 19, 2012


The one thing I want as a writer is to get better.  But getting better has a price.  Embarrassment.  No really!  Glance one draft back, and I realize just how bad it was.  And the more quickly I get better, the more intense the humiliation.  My writing group just spent the past few months reading my manuscript in progress.  While they read, I played around with it a bit.  A bit?  Well, to be honest, I started tearing the whole thing apart and restructuring it.  I even wrote a whole new Chapter One (version 9).
            While reorganizing, I noticed things like the development of the two main characters’ relationship occurred almost entirely in Chapter Three.  Other things happened like I went back to scan Chapter One (Version 8) to see if I’d missed anything I wanted to include in revised Version 9.  My old Chapter One read slow, flat, and purposeless.  And it was Version 8!  Maybe I should have celebrated my drastic improvement, but I spent a nauseous hour or so realizing just how bad a draft my writing group was reading.
            Which reminded me of another of my devastating writing exploits.  In grad school at NYU, I majored in Educational Theatre, which fulfilled my theatre bug and proved extraordinarily useful in teaching.  But what I really learned about theatre was that I loved making up the stories, and I wanted to write.  So my last summer in New York, I took a creative writing class.  I was feeling a little queasy about story I had to turn in, even as the computer lab printer spit it out and I dashed off to make twenty-five copies.  Oh well, I thought.  You can’t learn if you don’t get feedback.
            As I read my story aloud, that quiet came over the room that is not a good quiet.  Sometimes you don’t even need actual feedback to get feedback.  Your story can be so bad that the vibes reverberating off the room speak loudly enough.  YA even then, my story featured a high school girl who excelled only at the pottery wheel in art class.  And there on that wheel, she shaped a lump of clay so laden with symbolism that I’m sure even people passing by on the street outside knew the clay was supposed to be the girl’s identity.  It was so obvious.  It was so bad.  It was so obviously bad my professor (who, in retrospect, might have acknowledged my understanding of the need for an external story) had no choice but to tear it apart on the spot, and I’m sure my classmates wondered how I had the nerve to read it out loud.
            Well, I wanted to get better.  And I did.  Now I understand a story is not an essay.  You are not necessarily supposed to make a point so much as create as experience for the reader.
            But that long, tearful walk through Washington Square Park back to my dorm room is still pretty vivid.  How had I not known the degree to which that story sucked?  Back at the dorm, I explained what happened to my roommate.  “You did not write that!  You did not read that to the class!  Did you know there’s a song about that?”  She promptly pulled a Marvin Gay CD from her collection and played his song, “Piece of Clay,” for us which features such lyrics as:

Everybody wants somebody
To be their own piece of clay
True everybody wants somebody
To mold them, shape them own way

I kid you not.  You can listen to it yourself here for the full effect.  I really needed to hear that song.  We both erupted into painful fits of laughter, more tears streaming down my cheeks.
I actually looked for my lump of clay story so I could excerpt its terribleness here, but I must have burned it!  So why would I even admit to you that I had written something so truly bad?
Well, remember the abandon with which I dashed to class and launched into reading that story aloud?  Somewhere, deep down, I suspected there was something terribly wrong with my story, but I knew if I was going to get better, I was going to have to hear about it.  Sometimes, you’ve just got to go through with exposing your worst to get better.  And if you can learn to love a Marvin Gay song that makes you laugh at how bad your writing attempt turned out, I think you will be open enough to learn from feedback.
So this past weekend I met with my writing group.  And yes, there were parts of my manuscript that were still capital-B bad.  But what I really heard from my friends was this: I had given myself a lot of gifts in that draft even if they weren’t working yet, even if they were out of order or undeveloped or disconnected.  All I had to do was reinvent them.  My point?  You just don’t get that far unless you’re willing to show your lump of clay and laugh at yourself a little bit.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Approaching Draft Three

            I knew I wanted to come out of the week with a visual representation of the story, like a web, or the mobile discussed in prior posts.  It helps me hold the whole story in my head, and I suspected I’d see where things were out of balance and needed adjustment.  Even though I had out my big paper, I felt leery of making a mark.  What bothered me was I didn’t want to make a drawing of what Draft Two looked like –that felt like making a tedious record; I wanted to make a drawing of what Draft Three should look like.
            So I backed off of the drawing and did something I always do when I start to study a young adult novel.  I made a chapter outline.  I noted the chapter and then just jotted down the major events.  Whereas this is sometime a tedious way to begin the study of a young adult novel, I’d never done it for my own novel, and it was kind of amazing to see what it revealed.  In four typed pages I had the whole thing in front of me, and I could see right off why my readers kept saying the relationship between the two main characters moved too quickly –almost all the scenes where their relationship develops where stuck in Chapter Three!  Did I do that?  Apparently.  So I got out my trusty notecards, jotted down the scenes of the relationship’s progression and started sorting.  I learned the second half of the book was fine; I just needed to focus on the first half.  I got away from the demands of plot and theme and just let myself be with those two kids and how they would see each other.  (In the book I just read called Dark Water, Laura MacNeil does a fantastic job of parsing out the development of the main characters' relationship.)  Then I went back to see if I could insert the new relationship progression into the Chapter Outline, and it fell in place pretty easily!  I had to make a few adjustments for plot logistics, but this revealed that switching the focus of Chapter Three and Four would help and give more space where things were crowded before.  I was grooving on this success!
            Then I drew a picture of how Draft Three should look:
In designing this web or mobile, I was interested not only in mentally holding onto the big picture, but also examining the cause-effect drive from event to event and section to section.  I realized that back during Draft Two revisions I had organized things thematically, and that helped me in the right direction.  But now the connective tissue or the wires that hold the parts of my mobile together needed to be of cause and effect, problem and solution.  I need be able to draw the wire that connects section one to section two and write along that wire the question in the character’s / reader’s mind that is driving him to turn the page.  I also realized that I didn’t want to impose questions like that onto my drawing and write to them.  I want to go back into the scene, where the magic happens, and, aware of where I am in the structure, be present with the characters and hyper-aware of the questions that are driving them forward.  I think I can do this best back in the scenes, in the writing.  I think it will be most organic.  And I’m excited about the balance between having a visual grip on my structure and trusting the discovery of the words coming down on the page where the magic happens!
             While we're talking about revision, I HAVE to pass on to you the following fabulous discoveries.  Check out the following links where YA authors dissect their drafts!
And don't miss my favorite, added later by Gayle Forman:

Monday, March 5, 2012

Draft One to Draft Two

            This week was a writing friend of mine, who is reading my second draft, e-mailed and asked me this question: Now I'm curious….  This is a second draft, right? How much did you revise it from the first to second drafts?  Now, I spent two months of intense revision going from draft one to draft two, but for the life of me I could not remember what I did!  I’m not kidding.  Considering I’m about to launch into Draft Three, I thought I’d better get a little perspective on where I’d been.  I actually ran upstairs to grab my first draft.  It is printed out and kept in a three-ring binder with the following quotations written big in black Sharpie on the cover:

To my great relief, the first draft is fundamentally different than the second!  On the suggestion of another writing friend, I had also kept a process journal during my revisions where I wrote about my goals and questions for the story.  I found the following:

1) Huge attention to structure.  I moved from this map, which I did before writing my first draft:

to this:

This is when I’d written all the major events on index cards and rearranged them on my dining room table trying to cultivate some sort of wholeness and some sense of chapter.  Things got tighter, and I though I had the skeleton or bones of the story.  

2) A lot of questions about character.  Figuring out the heart of my two main characters was my doorway into grappling with whatever the white hot center of my story was.

3) I started many days free-writing to a prompt as a way to explore the characters.

4) The majority of my day was spent rewriting from beginning to end, and when I got stuck I often realized the solution to my problem had appeared in my prompt/free-writing that morning.  So I invented a lot more of the story, like putting meat on those bones.

So Draft One was about creation –making something that wasn’t there before, risk taking, and following intuition.  Draft Two turned out to be about structure and what the characters had to teach me about the white hot center of the story.  In Draft Three I want to tighten things structurally so that everything points at the white hot center (which I now understand better…thank you draft two).  I imagine this is how sculpting feels –uncovering the story gradually, first in broad swaths and then in finer detail with each pass.
            Have you had any revision revelations?  Love to hear them!  Talking shop always teaches me something.