November 30, 2011

Made It!

I'm pleased and relieved to report that I have completed my November challenge of revising for 65 hours this month. Phew!

I didn't manage to distribute the hours as evenly as I was hoping, so these last few days have been a little fuller of revision than my brain was prepared for, and I'm ready for a couple of days off to recharge and reflect. But I'm able to report that I did a lot of work on my novel this month, it was good work, and I made some serious progress.

No, the manuscript isn't done yet. I'll keep you posted, I promise!

Congratulations to my friend who joined me in this revision challenge and reached her goal, and to my many NaNoWriMo buddies who made it to 50k or beyond!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jennifer R. Hubbard is a willing reviser: "...I think of my words as less precious than the story itself. I start out with something I want to say, a point, and that's the precious part. If I can move a scene around, or cut out a symbol that isn't working, or combine two characters who are doing the job that one could do, it's all going to make the story better."

November 28, 2011

The High Cost of Realistic Dialogue

I've always prided myself on my dialogue. Maybe that's why I put so darn much of it in my stories. Since realistic dialogue is important to me, I hold myself to high standards when writing it.

I'm usually satisfied with how my dialogue sounds after I've taken the all-important step of reading an exchange out loud a few times to determine whether the words could naturally emerge from somebody's mouth. If the lines aren't flowing, I employ some of the useful tricks I've learned, including dropping beginnings of sentences ("Do you need anything at the store?" can become "Need anything at the store?") and adding the nonlinearity that's part of normal conversation.

But I often get hung up in doubt when it comes to the content of what my characters say to each other. I'm deathly afraid of writing dialogue that might come anywhere near the realm of "As you know, Biff, I worked with you at the DMV for thirty years before you embezzled all those vanity plate fees and fled to a country with no extradition treaty." It seems simple enough to avoid writing dialogue that has characters telling each other things they both know. Yet in practice, the problem is often much subtler.

Today I was working on a scene in which some characters get together for a visit. I needed them to discuss one character's job, and it seemed reasonable enough for the topic to come up since they hadn't seen each other in a while. But as soon as I started writing, I began to second-guess myself: "They're talking about this over dinner, but it's so important to the character's life, wouldn't it have come up earlier in the day? And we know the characters talked on the phone recently, so is it really possible they'd have new information to cover in this scene?" I honestly don't think any reader would have questioned the validity of the topic, but I couldn't make myself buy it until I changed things around to a scenario that satisfied me.

In general, I probably spend the majority of my staring-into-space time trying to figure out how my characters can believably start discussing whatever topic I need them to talk about in a particular scene. The topic always belongs in the scene because the characters have something to say about it, but I get stuck on how to bring it up. I may have an outline for their conversation, but I need my characters to behave like real people, who rarely sit down to talk with an agenda in mind.

In the same scene with the update on the character's job, I also had to find a justification to discuss a different character's health, plus include a callback to an earlier scene. It was a complicated maneuver, and there was a lot more staring than writing before I got through the scene. The conversation now all fits together to my satisfaction, and I hope it will appear natural and effortless to the reader.

So that's one page of dialogue completed. And as I said, there's a lot of dialogue in my novel. Now you have some idea of why this is all taking so long.

November 22, 2011

Still Here

A short and boring update so I can get back to revision: I'm still revising, still working hard, and still making exciting progress.

My November challenge to myself is to revise for 65 hours this month. Last week was jammed with non-writing tasks that needed to get done, so I didn't complete as many hours as I was hoping, putting me behind. But I've been catching up and working extra extra hard, and I still anticipate making my goal by the end of the month.

Whether your plans for the next few days involve enjoying food with family and friends, catching up on your NaNoWriMo word count, a little of both, or none of the above, I wish you the best of luck!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Michael David Lukas recounts the adventure of meeting his Number One Fan: "I brushed aside my concerns about being kidnapped or scammed somehow, tried my best to push those scenes from Misery out of my head, and I got on the plane to Cincinnati."

November 15, 2011

Giving Life to Secondary Characters

On Friday I was musing over whether a certain scene in my manuscript should stay the way I wrote it in the previous draft or if the story would be better served by making a different choice in revision. Over the weekend, I had a couple of ideas about the brother character that answered my questions about the scene.

You'll all be glad, or sorry, or indifferent to hear that the brother still won't be present at Thanksgiving. He has a good practical reason for missing the holiday, and also a slightly selfish reason that will be revealed in a later scene.

These new developments in the character's life will have almost no bearing on the plot of my novel. The character will appear in the same number of scenes as I'd already planned (a significantly larger number than in the previous draft, where he was problematically ignored). He'll serve the same function in the story and offer just about the same brotherly advice to the protagonist at key moments. These changes I put so much thought into will result in maybe a page worth of different text overall.

In the hypothetical story featuring the brother as the main character, what I decided over the weekend changes everything. This imaginary person has a whole new set of miseries in his past and possibilities in his future. Nobody will ever appreciate the depth of these changes, because this poor guy isn't a real person, and he's only a secondary, even tertiary, character in a novel starring someone else.

I like knowing too much about the lives of my secondary characters. It makes the characters and the story feel more real if there's evidence that the people the protagonist interacts with have their own lives when they're not on the page. It's better when the text doesn't imply that the best friend exists merely to listen to the protagonist's problems, but instead hints at rebellious teenagers at home or concern over aging parents or a devotion to French cooking.

I like imagining that every character is the protagonist of a novel that occasionally intersects with the one I'm writing.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kathy Crowley at Beyond the Margins studies crime fiction to learn about plot: "I've never had a lot of interest in crime fiction or other crime-related activities such as watching CSI or knocking off liquor stores. And even in my current state of renewed appreciation, I don’t like stabbings, shootings or even hard-boiled hard-bodied cops. BUT blood, gore and unsavory characters notwithstanding, good crime writers are authorial yogis who can bend, twist, flex, unravel and reravel themselves around a plot."

November 11, 2011

Does It Have To Be This Way?

One of the most difficult parts of revision is asking yourself, "Does this scene/character/plot point/detail have to be this way? Is this the strongest choice for the story, or does it feel right merely because that's what I wrote in the previous draft?"

I've been mulling over an upcoming scene in my manuscript. It's not one of the most significant or memorable scenes of the novel, but it does serve a purpose, and I intend to keep it. In the scene as it currently exists, the family has gathered for Thanksgiving. The narrator's brother is the only person not present, so after the meal they call him, and during the speakerphone conversation, an important piece of family history is debated.

I have some fondness for this scene because when I added it to the second draft, with no particular plans for the content of the phone call, I had one of those out-of-author experiences where the characters start saying things I didn't know I'd thought of. I decided to run with it, and a whole new section of plot resulted.

Unplanned sparks of potential brilliance always deserve serious scrutiny in revision -- "Does this actually improve the story, or do I only like it because I was excited when it emerged from my brain?" In this case, I've evaluated the conversation and its consequences, and I think it adds to the story. But as I think ahead to what changes the scene might need, I'm wondering why the brother isn't there for Thanksgiving with the rest of the family.

I can't remember if I left him out for a reason in the last draft. It was probably because I wasn't sure what to do with him in general. The character plays an important role as a child in one of the storylines, but in previous drafts he grew up to become curiously absent for no particular reason, which was a problem pointed out by my readers. In planning this revision, I've given the adult brother more to do, but I'd forgotten about this event.

So I'm asking myself if the scene has to be this way. I don't think there's anything about the brother's absence that leads to the scene's important conversation, so maybe he should be there to discuss it in person. Or maybe for other reasons, it is better if he doesn't come for Thanksgiving, in which case I need to justify -- at least in my own mind -- why he's missing the holiday. Or perhaps the scene doesn't need to take place on Thanksgiving at all. Everything's open for change.

Revising requires second-guessing everything in a story. It's easier to keep things as they were, but the easy option means the story might not become as strong as it could. Don't shy away from looking at every element of your manuscript and asking, "Does it have to be this way?"

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project offers 8 Writing Tips from Flannery O'Connor: "Try arranging [your novel] backwards and see what you see. I thought this stunt up from my art classes, where we always turn the picture upside down, on its two sides, to see what lines need to be added. A lot of excess stuff will drop off this way." (Thanks, Louise!)

November 7, 2011

Putting in the Hours

One week in, I'm doing pretty well on my non-NaNoWriMo challenge of revising for 65 hours during the month of November. I had one day when I slipped and didn't work when I intended to, but other than that, I've been putting in more hours than usual because I have this numerical goal to achieve.

I'm making great progress on my second storyline, and now it really is going more quickly than the first, as I hoped. Part of the reason for the different speed is that the overall shape of this storyline is staying the same. I'm still writing a lot of new scenes -- awesome, exciting scenes that I can't stop gloating about -- but often entire sentences are surviving into the new draft nearly intact.

Another important factor is that I'm spending a bit more time each day on revision. And that means not only do I get that same bit more accomplished, but I get extra work done, due to the phenomenon of increasing output that I've noticed before. If I could only write all the time with the effectiveness of the final hour of a long writing session, I'd be done with this darn thing by now.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Editor Alvina Ling describes her process for editing an author's manuscript: "Sometimes, right after the first read I think, 'there's nothing I could do to improve that novel!' But inevitably things will come to the surface during that 'sitting' time: issues with the plot or believability, questions about certain characters, solutions (suggestions, I should say) to problems I've been having with the book, resolution to how I've been feeling about the ending, etc." (Thanks, Nathan Bransford!)

November 3, 2011

November Reading Plan

Two in progress and another short book should do it for this month. After all, I have a lot of revising to do.

ZONE ONE by Colson Whitehead - As I said yesterday, I'm excited by this book so far. It's the first pick for the Bookrageous book club, and I'm looking forward to the discussion.

BLUE MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - I'd like to finish this last book in the trilogy before the end of the year, so I'll be giving it more attention this month.

WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys - This novel is narrated by a small but important character in Charlotte Brontë's JANE EYRE, so I figured it would make a good follow-up read. I actually read WIDE SARGASSO SEA before, when I was in high school. I remember it being assigned in English class, but I'm not sure why we would have studied it without first reading the original, so I could be wrong about that. I'm sure my reading of Rhys's book will be very different now that I've read Brontë's. However, I have no memories of my first reading, so I won't really be able to appreciate the difference.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ More useful revision advice from Theresa Stevens at Edittorrent, this time on unnecessary scenes with characters dressing and dining: "Sometimes it happens that the characters are having a meaningful conversation as they eat or cook or get dressed. The purpose of the scene is to have that conversation. The purpose of the scene is not to eat or cook or get dressed."

November 2, 2011

October Reading Recap

I did a lot of reading last month, getting through most of my planned list and even adding an extra book.

LONG DRIVE HOME by Will Allison - This novel starts with a fatal car accident, and the situation just gets worse from there. At the beginning of the book, the narrator is driving his daughter home from school when a chain of incidents leads to an accident in which a stranger dies. The accident is a fluke, but the narrator isn't entirely without fault, and in his attempt to cover up the truth, his life spins out of control. I inhaled this story in about twenty-four hours and then wondered why I've read so many depressing books lately. The writing is powerful and heart-breaking. Recommended if you're up for a harrowing read.

JANE EYRE by Charlotte Brontë - I keep feeling uncultured because there are so many classics I've never read. Then when I do read a classic, I feel uncultured because I usually don't like it very much. So although it may not reflect well on my tastes, I must confess that I wasn't a big fan of JANE EYRE.

I did enjoy some aspects of the novel: Jane is an interesting character and narrator. I was fascinated to learn about life in mid-1800s England, particularly the strong class distinctions and very different etiquette (it apparently wasn't rude to openly comment on someone's unattractiveness). The middle section of the book has a quite engaging story.

Unfortunately, the overall pacing left me and my modern expectations bored and impatient. For example, if I were editing this book, I'd cut out Jane's entire childhood (one-fifth of the book) and start the story with her arrival at Thornfield. I'd explain to Charlotte Brontë that all that backstory about Jane's abused childhood and education is great for her to know as the author, and that she could sprinkle references to it throughout the novel, but that the reader doesn't need to see it all unfold on the page since the incidents have little specific relevance to the plot and only offer some insights into Jane's character.

Like I said, my expectations are modern ones. JANE EYRE will still be revered as a classic long after my work has been forgotten, even if I don't understand why. I'm interested in understanding, though, so I still hope to discuss the book with some more enthusiastic readers and learn what I'm overlooking.

THE EYRE AFFAIR by Jasper Fforde - After I finished JANE EYRE, I realized that it's featured in this first book about literary detective Thursday Next, so this was a perfect time to check out Fforde's series, which I've heard a lot of good things about. What I knew was that this is a humorous mystery series set in an alternate world where books are both more important to society and less separated from reality than in our world.

I know I've already alienated a bunch of readers with my disrespectful remarks about JANE EYRE, and now, alas, I must provoke the disappointment of some more: I wasn't impressed by THE EYRE AFFAIR. The book wasn't as funny or clever as I'd been led to expect, but more than that, I found it unfocused and uneven. There were intriguing concepts, such as the whole mechanism behind the villain's evil plot, and some great scenes, like the brilliant Rocky Horror Picture Show-style performance of Richard III. But the story took too long to get to the point, and it went off into many unrelated tangents that irritated me.

Here again, I'd like to hear from fans who can tell me what I'm missing. This is the first book in a long series -- maybe they get better, or I'd appreciate this book more in the context of the whole?

BLUE MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - I didn't make much progress this month because I was busy with the other books.

ZONE ONE by Colson Whitehead - I've read about a quarter of the book so far, and I'm enjoying it. This is a zombie novel, but it's the farthest possible book from the other zombie novels I read this year, the Newsflesh trilogy by Mira Grant, which I've praised and ranted about for being an exciting story poorly told. ZONE ONE, on the other hand, is unequivocally a work of literary fiction, with the requisite long, carefully crafted paragraphs and an endlessly musing protagonist. Those are the facts about the style, and maybe it doesn't make this book sound very compelling, but I assure you that I'm fascinated by the main character and his post-apocalyptic world, and I'm looking forward to reading the rest.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Beyond the Margins, Stuart Horwitz tackles the difficult problem of story endings in How Not To End Things: "For those of us who have struggled to end a piece of writing, we know that there are a series of pitfalls that the ending can fall into."