I’m on the The Fairfield Writer’s Blog today!

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Alex McNab, a novelist and journalist who writes for the Fairfield Writer’s Blog, to talk about revision and drink caffeinated beverages. McNab began reading The Garret a year and a half ago when I began revising my novel, and – since he’s revising his own novel – he was interested in knowing more about my process.

His post about our chat went up this morning. I am so excited about it, and I hope you check it out.

We talked about re-typing work, when to look at notes from writing workshop during the revision process, strengthening prose, and returning to written work after a long time.

I should disclaim here: This is just my process of revision, and it’s an ever-evolving mishmash of ideas and tips I’ve picked up from members of writing groups, books I’ve read and professors I’ve had.

June: 2012 goals

I should have posted this days ago, but we were traveling and then I had to go away for a job this weekend. I probably could have blogged this from my phone, but I was lazy.

Speaking of which, lazy was the name of the game in May. I don’t think I got anything accomplished goal-wise. We were gone for two weeks on a road trip to Texas, and – as I always am when I travel – I was optimistic that I’d be writing during the whole trip. That’s because I like to ignore a very basic fact about myself: I can’t write when I’m traveling.

First of all, I get car sick, so typing a novel from the passenger seat of a moving vehicle is out. Secondly, I’m usually too busy taking in the trip to dream up any fiction. Usually the writing really gets into high gear when I come home. I have big hopes for this week.

Let’s look at my lack of progress, goal by goal.

Finish the second draft of my novel by April (September.) Revision went swimmingly in April. Then May happened. I had a lot of final-grading to do and then there was vacation. So not much progress there. None, actually.

Get it sent to agents before summer. Let’s try to get it sent in before fall, shall we?

Send out at least three short stories. I sent out one last month and was rejected. I sent out none this month, so I wasn’t rejected at all and that’s sort of a plus, right?

Read one two novels a month in 2012. I don’t think rereading my favorite bits of Dune counts. I did begin reading Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, but due to the aforementioned carsickness, didn’t make much progress.

Make at least $20 off a piece of fiction. Done in March.

Other goals: I also set to work on two of my big conflicts this year: My feelings about my faith and my issues with anxiety. Although traveling the U.S. tends to make one feel a little more spiritual, I don’t think I worked out any real faith-related issues. I did some work this past weekend that requires both faith and an ability to be spiritual – more on that in another blog post – but I wouldn’t say I reached any personal resolutions. As for anxiety, I did a lot of relaxing in May. Does that count?

It’s a time for evaluation, and letters of recommendation …and other things ending in “ation.”

It’s college finals time, a special time that only comes twice a year and, as the title of this post suggests, has certain traditions associated with it.

As does Hogswatch.*

Maybe that’s the reason I simply cannot concentrate on writing and revisions. The steady pace of the college semester is replaced by two weeks of constant motion for everyone in the college community – be they adjuncts, or students or professors. I’m just an adjunct, but there are still plenty of emails to send, and plans to be made and grades to be given. People who might be employing me over the summer break need to be called and emailed. Letters of all kinds must be sent.

So it could be that’s what’s breaking my stride this week as I try to buckle down and work. Writing has been unreasonably difficult this week. I  find myself staring out the window at weather that’s not so great. Or zoning out in front of my computer with a blank document open in front of me. Or clicking on Yahoo! News items. (“Star’s incredible transformation into Linda Lovelace!” “Kim dates Kanye!” “Mom takes toddler tanning!”) Or typing the same words three times and then deleting it all and cleaning the bathroom instead.

Really? What happened to all that April productivity?

It could be the changed pace of finals that’s throwing me off.

Or it could be my birthday, which falls this month. My mother used to say that as soon as my birthday rolled around every year, summer would begin for me and me alone. In my mind, my birthday heralded the start of a big ol’  Festival of Ann that started in May and stretched into the summer. I thought I’d abandoned that mindset in middle school, but hey, maybe my 34-year-old self is trying to regress.

Whatever it is, I’m going to beat it down with a word count of 500 words a day, even if they are 500 awful words a day. And I plan to do that while writing letters of recommendation. Even if I’m staring out the window between paragraphs.

* See below for the Terry Pratchett clip I’m paraphrasing. Recognize someone from Downton Abbey? You’re welcome.

 

“Dig, Don’t Fix”: Notes on revision from Robert McGuire

Last week, I sat down with one of my  writers’ groups to discuss the novel I’ve been working on.

Stack of edited copies of my novel.

Marked-up first drafts of the novel. I have a lot of work to do.

I’ve posted ad nauseum about my troubles revising this project, which served as my creative thesis when I graduated from the Fairfield MFA program. I tried retyping the novel. I read chapters in craft books. I made timelines. I set goals. I wrote new scenes. Nothing seemed to work. I didn’t feel like I was making the structure of the plot any cleaner or stronger. I felt like I was cluttering it.

So last Wednesday, when I sat down with the members of a writing group who had read the whole first draft of my book, I was a little apprehensive. I’d read it myself and noticed lots of holes where I thought there were none. I noticed lots of mistakes. I was certain that my three colleagues – Daisy Abreu, Robert McGuire, and Ioanna Opidee (who starts her own revisions today) -  would pull the thing apart.

Except  they didn’t.They gave me lots of good advice and three marked-up copies, and this will sound cheesy, but they also gave me hope for a story I’ve been falling out of love with.

And here’s another thing a member of that writing group gave me: notes on revisions for this blog post.

A few weeks back, I asked my readers for revision advice. Robert McGuire, who interviewed me earlier this year for his blog, Working on a Novel, wrote these notes on revision after I chided him for not commenting on that post. I’ve edited out some of the specific references to my novel, but I want to share his advice with all the writers who happen upon this blog.

Robert’s advice is really on point. He teaches writing at the college level and is very disciplined when it comes to his own craft, and his advice is worth reading. Also, his blog, Working on a Novel, is an electronic journal inspired by John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel, the diary/letters/journal that Steinbeck kept while writing East of Eden. I’m reading that now (Robert has kindly loaned me his copy) and I’ve begun journaling in the morning before work, as Steinbeck did. I don’t know if this journaling will last, but right now, it’s helpful. I realized that one of the things I lack now is someone to talk to about my work. When I was in my MFA program, I was constantly talking about my novel. I talked to my mentors and teachers about the work I was doing. I talked to other students. I was immersed in the story and in the lives of the characters. Now there’s not nearly as much chatter about the work I’m doing and if I want to stay immersed, I have to talk to myself. I find that so far, it’s been helpful.

But enough from me. Here’s Robert:

Wheww. Congratulations on writing a complete draft of a complete novel. One foot in front of the other. It’s a big achievement.

First, let me give my response to your blog post about how to revise.

Craft books, of course! No, actually, when I have been at this stage with my books, I discovered that it’s really hard to find good practical advice about the revision process. Drafting, yes. Editing and proofreading, yes. But not RE-vising. The big messy muddle in the middle doesn’t seem to get as much attention.

Nevertheless, a couple sources spring to mind. I really like the Jane Smiley book, Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Novel, and in it she has two chapters especially about writing, the second of them being about how to look at your draft and look at it critically. I also benefited from some focus/prompt questions I found in one chapter of an otherwise unremarkable book by Jesse Lee Kercheval called Building Fiction.

One technique I remember picking up somewhere was to think of the plot in terms of questions that were posed by the book and that the reader was asked to care about. The idea being that you want to provoke questions in the reader’s mind – plot-wise, character-development-wise and thematically – and ultimately satisfy those questions. I had a little diagram, totally unique to my book, that had surface-level plot questions and more implicit thematic questions, some that pulled the narrative along for only a section (i.e. the “acts” in your book) and some that were overarching for the whole book. Then I would go through and ask how each scene interacted with those questions. Was the scene relevant to the focus questions? Keep the reader caring about the questions? Complicating things without digressing? That was a big help in figuring out what each scene needed to make it work as part of the whole.

Another way of thinking about the revision process is to think in terms of SAYS vs. DOES. (I take this from first-year composition texts.) This scene/book/graf/whatever SAYS ____. This scene DOES _____. I suppose it’s another way of thinking about the difference between what’s explicit and what’s implicit. And I suppose it helps connect a given scene to the whole. Because a scene can say something very well within its own boundaries but to do anything effectively, it has to be in communication with the rest of the book. At an early stage of revision, I would worry less about what a scene says than what it does. Ask yourself what the scene is doing to move the story forward, escalate tension, establish character, etc. When the answer isn’t clear, then you know you’ve got work to do. I suppose the follow up question is to ask yourself what the scene should do.

You and I have probably have opposite styles on the issue of “overwriting.” For the sake of getting another POV on the table, I’ll argue for not worrying too much about your father’s warning against overworking the book if for no other reason than it’s easier for writers to erase than for painters. Kidding myself about how good my work is a clear and present danger, and overworking it is only a theoretical possibility.

One of the main principles that make sense to me is the idea that revision is re-envisioning the book. Seeing it again. Seeing what it is and what it needs and what it could be. Seeing it differently. It’s really easy to get lost in line edits and feel like progress is being made when what’s really needed is a bigger picture re-evaluation. Of course, there aren’t bright lines between these stages, and it probably happens sometimes that struggling with a line edit reveals the larger structure of the book.

Last bit of experience: When I was drafting my first book, I noticed that I kept myself motivated by a kind of unconscious mantra. Just add sentences. No matter what, keep moving forward. Don’t worry about how good it is. Then when I was bogged down during the revision stage I figured out I needed another regular, simple reminder of what the work was. I finally settled on one. Dig. Don’t fix. Whenever I was tempted to fix something, it turned out I was avoiding something more essential. I needed to get down in the mud and make some more mud pies first.

There’s some of this POV that I think applies to your draft, and I’ll share that when our writing group gets together to discuss it. Good luck!

How to revise a novel, according to my commenters.

So, I hear (via the  #AWP12 hashtag on Twitter) that last night, Margaret Atwood brought the house down at AWP with her keynote speech.

I cried a little on the inside when I read those tweets, because I love Margaret Atwood and I’m sad that this was her year to be at AWP and my year to not go. But as I said a few days ago, just because some of us writers aren’t in Chicago doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have some knowledge dropped on us.

Earlier this week, I blogged about my fear of revising a novel and issued a plea for help. And, as always, my fellow writers came through in the clutch with all manner of advice.

Here, in no particular order, is the revision advice that I received this week. It’s enough to make a girl want to get revising right away:

“I go over my text a few times, says SickBoyMcCoy, writer of the online serial Bad Blood Bandits. “The first is just to enjoy it. If I can’t do that due to grammatical or spelling or just structure then it warrants change. The second time I go over it and look for ways to push what I have just a little further. The third time I try to detach myself from what I have written and try and think of the most radically different ways I could have told the story and if none of them outshine what I’ve done it stays. It’s enough to drive someone to drink.”

HannahKarena (whose blog is sadly no longer available for me to link to) recommended a technique she read about in No Plot? No Problem! a craft book written by Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWrioMo, (For the uninitiated, that’s National Novel Writing Month):
“I’m about to start revising my own novel this weekend–I’ve been putting it off for weeks because I’ve never done it before–but I’m going to try the index card organization of scenes method that everyone is raving about .”

E.S. Cameron recently wrote that she’s addicted to revision. Here’s her advice:

“I haven’t yet finished a first novel draft, so I haven’t yet revised one – but it seems to me that how you revise depends on where you are in the process. Start from the top and work down, from macro to micro. This is how I would approach it:

MACRO: The first thing I would look at is the story/plot, and fix any gaping holes/problems. Then I would look at form/structure: is this the best way to tell my story? If the answer is no, I would start moving things around until it worked.

IN BETWEEN: From here, I would look at elements like place/detail, character development, dialogue, etc. to make sure that I’m hitting all my targets in these areas. This step would probably involve adding a fair amount of text.

MICRO: Then I would go though chapter by chapter and start cutting mercilessly – any sentence/scene not carrying its weight would have to go. Finally, I would start doing line by line revisions, looking at my specific word choices and sentence structure, making sure that every sentence does what I need it to. (I feel strongly that people underestimate the importance of sentence structure.) This last step I would repeat as necessary.”

Matthew Dicks, author of Something Missing and Unexpectedly, Milo tweeted this advice: “Read aloud. Remind yourself that this is just the first of many revisions. Try not to hate yourself when it sounds like dirt.”

UPDATE: Whoops! Matt Dicks has also penned another book, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend. It was released this week in other countries, but as with all delicacies (seasons of Sherlock, fashions from Europe, etc.) we will have to wait months (it releases in August) before we can get our hands on it in the U.S. European and down-under folks, go find this book! Read it, review it and don’t include spoilers!

Alena Dillon of The Time is Write has revised four full-length manuscripts. Here’s her process:

“When I’m done with my first draft, I print the whole thing out. I too am an underwriter (you mentioned that you are in a blog a few days ago), but most times I have a feeling where I’ve gipped my manuscript. For instance, if I think a theme or a character may be lacking, I’ll flip through the manuscript and highlight whenever it/he/she appears so that I can visually see its/his/her arc. Each theme or character would get its own color: green for mother, pink for loss, etc. I like to see physical presence as vividly as possible, and when I get a sense of that, then I read through and mark where I could write more (or, rarely, less), and what I could write–but I don’t actually do the writing until later. Revision takes a lot of courage and momentum, so I don’t interrupt that if I can avoid it.

If I don’t have a sense of what is needed, I’ll read a craft book, keeping my particular manuscript in mind as I read. For the novel, I read Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyons and took notes of what came to mind that my novel might need done. Then I placed those notes beside me as I read through the manuscript AND MARKED THE HELL OUT OF IT. The more cross outs, stars, arrows to the back page with a list of what is needed, the better.”

After reading all this good advice, I remembered that I myself am not completely without revision resources. One of my mentors once told me to put work away for a month, then to read the whole thing in one day as if I were reading someone else’s work. Also, Rick Moody visited my MFA program to give a lecture on revision. His lecture, I remember, was so exciting that I couldn’t wait to get out of there and revise something.  I didn’t have anything to revise at the time, but I still have the notes from the lecture. I plan to re-read the notes from his lecture, re-read this blog post and get crackin’.

Maybe E.S. Cameron is right; maybe a writer can get addicted to revision.

Return to real life, and my novel.

Wow, last week’s release for Beware the Hawk was crazy in a I-tricked-myself-into-thinking-I’m-a-celebrity kind of way.

novel

This is what my novel looked like when I was working on it last year.

I received emails  and messages and comments from all sorts of people about my book, I mailed out signed Post-Its to people who wanted “signed” copies of the e-book, I hosted a giveaway and did the first four dates of my book tour, including a review. In short, I felt like a proper author. My family even threw me a little celebration with flowers and an ice cream cake. I would love to have been in Carvel when my mom handed the clerk the pink cake and asked her to please write “Beware the Hawk” on it in icing.

Then this week started and I came crashing back to Earth, where Real Life was waiting for me with its arms crossed and an unamused look on its face. I’m teaching my first week of spring classes, there are deadlines for my newspaper, and most importantly, it’s time to get cracking on revisions to my novel.

Oh dear. The novel. I haven’t posted about my novel in a long time, mostly because I’ve been dragging my feet.

It’s nothing like Beware the Hawk. It’s a literary fiction piece that currently clocks in at 272 pages, and that’s only the first draft. I’ll be honest. I’ve been avoiding it, submitting it piece-meal to my writing groups and wincing at the critiques. I have all of those comments and critiques in neatly labeled manila envelopes in my office upstairs.

I did sit down a few times this past fall and attempt to start a second draft. I also did some research, but for some reason,the task of actually revising the novel has seemed intimidating. There is so much feedback and I don’t know where to start.

But one of my 2012 goals is getting the novel revised by April. It’s ambitious, but I need I fire lit under me and I’d like to stop worrying about  my project and start working on it. One of my writers’ groups gave me an opportunity to get moving on the revisions in January when they suggested that I give them the entire first draft to read.

I think I might have broken out into a cold sweat when one of the people in the group said “Maybe it’s time for us to see the whole thing,” but it is a good idea, because I need to read it – from front to back – as well. I’ve only really read it in pieces, partly because I can’t read it without getting bogged down in a scene I think needs fixing, and partly because I’m afraid I will read it and decide that the whole thing is terrible and can’t be fixed and I’ve wasted a year of my life on it.

I know that last fear is adolescent, melodramatic and irrational (I graduated  from my MFA program with this book as my thesis, so it can’t be that bad) but that’s what I think every time I open the file to start revisions.

So I’m not opening a file this time. This morning I ordered five printed copies of the draft from Lulu. Three are for my writing group. One is a spare. Most importantly, one is for me. When it comes in the mail, I will sit down and read the whole thing from cover to cover. And then, I’m willing to bet, I will no longer be afraid to revise.