H Is for Handwriting

My handwriting sucks. Here’s a sample:

This is why I do nearly all my first-drafting in longhand: because I can’t read my own writing unless I slow way down and focus on each word.

It took me a while to figure out why I’d sometimes get so blocked — paralyzed! — when I did nearly all my writing on the computer. Maybe it’s because I’m an editor as well as a writer, or maybe it’s because I’m a recovering perfectionist who has occasional slips, but sometimes I’d stare at those crystal-clear words on the screen and think, No, that’s not right, and then get stuck trying to fix it instead of moving on.

Eventually I figured out that the best way to break through these blocks was to grab a pad of paper and a pen and get away from the computer. At the top of the paper I’d writing something like “I can’t write this scene because . . .”

And out would flow whatever I needed to know, and eventually the scene itself.

This was also a handy way of getting to know characters better. Whatever I wrote in longhand on a yellow pad wasn’t part of The Manuscript. I loosened up. No pressure. I could write anything I wanted.

My messy handwriting was an asset. What the internal editor couldn’t read, she couldn’t edit. Without the internal editor looking over my shoulder, I could write write write, not expecting anything to be perfect, knowing that there would be a second or third or fourth draft to get it just right.

So why wait till I got stuck to bring out the pen and paper? Why not start out that way?

I tried it. It worked. It’s still working. I do most of my first-drafting in longhand.

Pretty soon, however, the scrawl of a ballpoint pen across lined yellow paper was looking rather dull. I started acquiring fountain pens and bottles of different colored ink. I’ve currently got about a dozen of each. It’s a little ridiculous, but I couldn’t live without them.

The bonus is that ink blottings on paper towels are really pretty. I use them as coasters for my tea mugs and my beer steins. They make me happy.

ink blot

 

The Power of Place

As a writer, I love revising and rewriting. As an editor, I do almost none of it. Critiques, yes. When a writer I don’t know asks me to edit a book-length manuscript, I generally suggest critique as a first step. I read the ms., make suggestions about plot, characterization, structure, and all that good big-picture stuff, but then the writer does the heavy lifting, not me.

For me, revising and rewriting is like first-drafting in that the ms. takes up residence in my head. My mind works on it when I’m not paying conscious attention. This is why character insights and solutions to plot snags often come to me when I’m walking with the dog or kneading bread.

I’ve learned that when I take on a revise-or-rewrite job as an editor, it often pushes my own writing out of my head. So I avoid developmental and structural editing and stick to stylistic editing, copyediting, and proofreading. (All these things go by different names. In “Editing? What’s Editing?” I explain what I more or less mean by them.)

But I recently (very recently, like this past week) took on a rewrite job for a client. It was short: a new, five-page prologue to a novel that’s been accepted for publication. I also knew the novel well, having worked on it in its earlier stages, and I believe in it.

I read the author’s five pages through. The plot was solid. It introduced key themes and characters that would be developed later. It segued neatly into chapter 1. Yeah, the point of view jumped around a bit, and there was a chunk of historical context recounted in a narrative voice that didn’t belong to any of the characters, but my rewriterly mind was already in gear, working out possible alternatives.

I called up the file. A 10-year-old boy is stretched out on the roof of his uncle’s house, using his BB gun to keep birds away from the abundant ripening grapes hanging from a trellis. I knew this kid well: the novel is his story. I could hear his older sister playing hopscotch in front of the house. But I couldn’t see what he was seeing because I’ve never been there and never even seen pictures of what this house, this neighborhood, this small town in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, might have looked like in 1975, which is when the story begins.

For me as a writer, place is crucial. As I blogged in “The Importance of Place“; “Every story, remembered or made-up, takes place somewhere. Where it takes place affects what takes place, deeply, profoundly, deeply, indelibly. Characters, both fictional and nonfictional, are deeply affected by where they are and where they’ve come from. Images, characters, and whole plots grow out of the soil they take root in.”

Both place and time are critical to this particular novel: Lebanon in the spring of 1975 was on the brink of a bloody civil war that devastated the country for 15 years. That 10-year-old boy’s life will be radically transformed by this war, and the incident in the prologue is a harbinger of things to come. The prologue needed to show readers what he was seeing and hearing. How could that happen if I couldn’t see and hear it myself?

I emailed the author. We talked on the phone. How close together are the houses? How long is the driveway? Are the grapes used for eating or winemaking? What do the birds look like? Where have all the grownups gone? Is the garden in front of the house or in back? How big is the garden pond?

Finally, finally the scene began to play out in my head. My fingers moved on the keyboard and words appeared or rearranged themselves on my laptop screen. The scene stayed in the 10-year-old’s point of view. The historical context can be worked into a later chapter, but I couldn’t help noticing that it is subtly suggested here in the ripening grapes being threatened by birds while a boy tries to scare them off with his BB gun.

At this point I’m rarely surprised when place turns out to be the key to a scene, but I’m awed by writers who routinely bring to life periods they didn’t live in, places they’ve never been, and times and places that never existed. The research, the extrapolation, the imagination, the finessing of details that can’t be known for sure — it all has to be there, and seem so complete and inevitable that most readers barely notice.

Learn the Biggest Secret of Every Good Writer

This is good. No short-cuts. I’d add that growing as a writer means becoming more observant and more attentive to the world around you — and learning how to translate all that into words.

Business in Rhyme

secret_goodwriter

We all know that nobody is born as a good writer. It is a constant process of becoming. And I do believe that the difference between good and bad writers it’s not about the skill or gift. It’s not even about the number of written or published pieces. The key word we are looking for is persistence.

Good writer is writing – no matter how many times he fails or writes crappy work. He is there showing up every day, practicing and trying to improve himself. Not only writing, but everything that goes with writing.

In that sense, I think that biggest secret every good writer knows and we often forget is how good writer treats his bad writing. First, he takes time to write, erase, rewrite, edit, tailor every word to what’s need to be written. And how does he know what’s need to be written? He is…

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Knock Knock

“Your writing will teach you what you need to know” is one of my mantras. (My other biggie is “The way out is through.”)

It will, too. It does. Sometimes, however, I’m a little slow on the uptake.

Like yesterday.

In my journey through draft #3 of novel #2 I’d reached what I thought of as the novel’s set-piece. Most of Wolfie takes place either outdoors or in the various characters’ kitchens, living rooms, and studios (two of them are artists). Most scenes involve only two or three characters. This set-piece happens in a public place, a restaurant, with a dance band playing and a cast of — well, not thousands, but definitely dozens. A couple hundred maybe.

Approaching this scene, I had some apprehensions. The scene was contrived — by me, truth to tell, but still contrived. Somehow my villain had to see that his two nemeses knew each other. One of them strongly suspects his villainy; the other is becoming suspicious.

My mind contrived A Scene: a retirement party for a woman who’s the mentor of one nemesis and a respected former colleague of the other. The connection I needed happened. The story moved on.

But I couldn’t get the honoree out of my mind. I’d invented her for the occasion. She wasn’t real. But then this:

Now Lorna [the honoree] leaned in close enough for Shannon [POV character] to smell her perfume and notice the tiny beads of sweat on her forehead: Lorna had been getting down with the youngsters. “The real wonder,” she said, “is that I’ve survived this long. Promise you’ll call on me one of these days?”

Finally I got it. Lorna’s got a piece of the puzzle, a role to play. I’m gonna call, Lorna. I promise.

Be Brave

Writing does take courage.

blank paper

The challenge of the blank page

It takes courage to sit down (or stand up, if you use one of those newfangled standing desks) expecting words to appear on the screen or sheet of paper in front of you, hoping that those words will be worth keeping or will lead to something that is.

It takes courage to set out on a journey not knowing whether it’s worth making (probably yes, though maybe not in the ways you expect) and whether you’re equal to the task (probably not, but if you keep going you will very likely become so).

Revision is a key to this process, especially for those of us who don’t plan everything out in advance, and for those of us who do but are willing to go along when the material has other ideas. (More about planners, seat-of-the-pantsers, and improvisation in “Whatever Works,” “Notes and More Notes,” and “Backstory Happens.”)

With nonfiction, I usually know where I’m going at the start but often I don’t end up in quite that place. With fiction, my usual is to put a few actors onstage, give them a task, and see what they do with it. I write it all down and sometimes give direction, which sometimes the actors ignore.

In “When Chitchat Takes the Wheel” I blogged about critiques I did recently of two first-novel manuscripts. Both were full of promise — vivid settings, interesting characters — but both bogged down in dialogue that went on forever and didn’t develop the characters or move the plot forward.

In one case, several characters held differing views about issues crucial to them and to the plot, but they never discussed them with each other. You and I both know how that works, right? When you strenuously disagree with someone you want to get along with, you skirt the contested territory and talk about other things. This makes for amiable relations but it does not make for interesting fiction. Be brave, I told the writer. Let them go at it and see what happens.

In the other case, the endless chitchat had a different cause: the protagonist had no memories from before her mid-teens, but her traumatic early years were key to the plot. Survivors of traumatic events do repress their memories,  but giving this character complete amnesia about her upbringing did not serve the novel well. Other people remembered what she did not, so (1) she was a sitting duck for the villain, and (2) she didn’t know enough to go in search of her own past. Be brave, I told this writer too. Let your protagonist have some of her life back.

I just finished reading a novel with a promising premise: a family’s determination to avoid dealing with a tragic event leads to problems down the road. This premise is common for good reason: it often happens in real life, and there’s so much a writer can do with it. But this writer made choice after choice that kept the tragic event at arm’s length, both for the characters and for the reader. For instance —

  • Everyone affected by the event is warned not to talk about it, ostensibly to protect the one who is supposedly too fragile to handle it.
  • They actually obey the warning.
  • The novel’s sole point-of-view (POV) character is fearful and not given to thinking too hard about the past or anything else.
  • The characters rarely interact on any but the most superficial level.

As a result, the characters don’t develop and neither does the plot. Each character has a shtick, and the dialogue is often clever, but the novel came across more as sitcom than as family drama. Not surprisingly, the writer had to resort to melodrama and last-minute surprises to tie everything together. The result is less than satisfying.

What would I have said if I’d been hired to critique this novel as a second or third draft? Let your characters have their memories and their voices back. Instead of one POV character, try it with three: the three who experience the tragic event as children and then grow up with the memories, the questions, and the silences. And don’t lock them in their closets, impervious to the world and each other. Challenge them! Challenge yourself!

Be brave.

When Chitchat Takes the Wheel

Dialogue is a challenge. It’s got to sound real, but it can’t be too real because in real life people often go on at great length without saying much of anything. If your characters go on at great length without moving the plot forward in some way, your readers will zone out. (For some tips about writing dialogue, see “4 Ways to Write Better Dialogue” and “Monologue About Dialogue.“)

I recently critiqued two first-novel manuscripts. Both were rich with promising material, and both bogged down in endless stretches of what I can only call chitchat: the protagonist talking with friends, relatives, and casual acquaintances about things that had nothing to do with plot or subplot.

What to do when you come upon long rambling dialogue while revising your own work or critiquing someone else’s? Here’s an idea: Ask what the writer is avoiding. (The writer, need I say, can be you.)

In one of the manuscripts I was working on, the chitchat was occasionally interrupted by passionate monologues by different characters (rarely the protagonist). These monologues had plenty to do with the plot, but they read like position papers, not fiction.

Travvy tries to persuade a tractor to move.

Travvy carries on a one-sided dialogue with an offstage tractor.

These monologues did serve an important purpose, however: they made it clear that the characters disagreed with each other strenuously and eloquently on issues that were not only important in themselves but closely related to major themes in the novel. I knew that this material could fuel riveting, even dramatic dialogue — if only the writer would let the characters engage with each other.

It wasn’t hard to see why this writer was reluctant to do this. Both she and her protagonist are dealing with explosive issues that people have a hard time talking about without blowing up.

Writing takes courage. Often when we set out on a journey we don’t know how much will be asked of us. If we did know, we might not take the first step. But as we travel, we become braver, more willing to open closed doors and break new trail. Revision works the same way: in revision, we develop not only the skill but the courage to grapple with the questions we’re asking of ourselves and our characters.

In the other manuscript I was critiquing, the same symptom — endless chitchat on topics peripheral to the novel — had a different cause. The protagonist remembered nothing of her traumatic childhood and early adolescence, and she was so ashamed of her later adolescence and young womanhood that she wouldn’t talk about it even to her husband and closest friends. This gave her little to talk about besides chitchat.

Worse, because her repressive upbringing was key to the plot, it made her a sitting duck for the villain, who wasn’t hampered by amnesia or reticence.

Survivors of violent and traumatic events often repress memories of those events, but though it’s possible that someone might have no memories of her first 15 years, it’s certainly not inevitable. Most important, it wasn’t an interesting choice for this particular character in this particular novel. Interesting choices open up possibilities. This particular choice closed them off.

I suggested that this writer give her protagonist increased access to her own past and the willingness to share some of the grim details with those she trusts. At the very least, it will give the protagonist something to talk about, and greatly cut down on the chitchat.

Letting Go, with a Safety Net

cut-chapter-4This morning I deleted chapter 4. Selected the whole damn thing and zapped it. The old chapter 5 is the new chapter 4. Viva chapter 4!

When reading through the printout of draft #2, I couldn’t help noticing that chapter 3 segued nicely into chapter 5 and chapter 4 felt like an extended detour. At present Wolfie has two point-of-view (POV) characters. Chapters 3 and 5 were from the POV of the 50-something woman. Chapter 4 was from the POV of the sixth-grade girl.

When the timing is right, the POV switch works. The idea is to switch just when the reader wants to know what the other character is up to. This time it was more like a TV thriller cutting to a commercial in the middle of a high-intensity scene.

Another thing: When I wrote draft 2, chapter 4, I wasn’t a big fan of Felicia, the sixth-grader’s mother.  Dead giveaway: The woman won’t use linguiça in her kale soup because she thinks it’s unhealthy. In my world that’s a deal-breaker. But Felicia has become deeper, more sympathetic. She’s caught in the middle of a difficult situation, but she seems to be on her daughter’s side. So I was more than ready to jettison all evidence that I was underestimating Felicia.

So I did. I jettisoned the whole chapter.

However, I’ve got a safety net: If at some point I have regrets, or a vague hunch that there’s something in old chapter 4 that might come in handy, draft 2 remains on my hard drive, and it includes old chapter 4.

If experience is any guide, I won’t go back, but knowing that I can gives me permission to be ruthless. When revising, sometimes you really do have to be ruthless.

A bit of Wolfie, draft 2, chapter 1, with changes tracked

A bit of Wolfie, draft 2, chapter 1, with changes tracked

Recently I introduced a client to the wonders of Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature. Like many Word users, she wasn’t aware of its wonders. (As a longtime user of Word, I sometimes become so obsessed with its PITAs that I forget how wonderful its wonders are.) With Track Changes you can delete a word, a phrase, a sentence, a whole paragraph and see how your text reads without it. You can flip back and forth between with and without, or leave it to deal with some other time.

You can experiment. You can play with your prose. If ruthlessness is sometimes called for when you’re revising, so is playfulness. Revision is creative work. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Be ruthless. Be playful. Be brave. You can always go back to an earlier version, but if you’re anything like me you usually won’t want to.

Dead Air

I seem to have taken up semi-permanent residence in Revisionland. Not only am I working on draft 3 of Wolfie, my own novel in progress, my recent jobs have included two critiques of first novels and a line edit whose structure needs a little tweaking. Editor that I am, with a fair amount of reviewing experience under my belt, I love revising and rewriting and recommending what other writers might do to improve their current drafts.

Most mornings I begin my writing session by lighting a candle or two, then picking The Writer’s Chapbook* from the table on my right, opening it at random, and reading the first quote that catches my eye. This morning the book opened to the “On Films” section, and my eye fell on a lengthy quote by novelist and screenwriter Thomas McGuane. After noting that in the novels of William Faulkner (“who frequently had his shit detector dialed down to zero”) “wonderful streaks” often alternate with “muddy bogs” that need to be slogged through, he continues:

Everyone agrees that Faulkner produced the greatest streaks in American literature from 1929 to 1935 but, depending on how you feel about this, you either admit that there’s a lot of dead air in his works or you don’t. After you’ve written screenplays for a while, you’re not as willing to leave these warm-ups in there, those pencil sharpenings and refillings of the whiskey glasses and those sorts of trivialities. You’re more conscious of dead time. Playwrights are even tougher on themselves in this regard. Twenty mediocre pages hardly hurt even a short novel but ten dead minutes will insure that a play won’t get out of New Haven.

Me (right) in rehearsal, spring 1994, Vineyard Playhouse.

Me (right) in rehearsal, spring 1994, Vineyard Playhouse.

From the mid-1980s till the end of the 1990s, I was very involved in community theater, mostly as a stage manager, actor, or reviewer. (No, I did not review plays I was involved in. However, I often reviewed plays directed or acted in by people I knew. This taught me tact. Whole other subject. I’ve written about reviewing before — see “Reviewing Isn’t Easy” — and surely will again.) No surprise, then, that when I’m writing fiction, I often feel like I’m blocking scenes or directing them and that my characters are doing improv up on stage.

Both of the first-novel manuscripts I critiqued recently hold plenty of promise, but both are currently weighed down with loaded with dead air. In both cases, much of the dead air is dialogue. To both authors I suggested: “Imagine you’re watching these scenes on a stage. Read them out loud. How long before you start to doze off, fidget, or throw tomatoes?”

A novel might survive “twenty mediocre pages,” as McGuane suggests, but five pages of dead air might well be fatal, especially if they come near the beginning, and especially if you’re a first-novelist trying to get past one of the gatekeepers: agent, publisher, reviewer, or even readers willing to give unknown writers a chance.

Put your talking, puttering-about characters up on stage or on a movie screen. How long would you sit still?

* * * * *

*The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers, ed. George Plimpton (New York: Penguin, 1989). I’ve got the revised, expanded version of the first edition. A completely overhauled edition was published in 1999, including some of the original excerpts but also more quotes from more recent and more diverse writers. Both editions are out of print but used copies can be found. That’s how I got mine. Highly recommended.

Revisionist

You bet I’ve got revision on the brain. There are books and websites a-plenty that will tell you how to go about revising your novel, memoir, essay, or whatever, but here’s what I’m doing. I can’t tell you what to do, but maybe this will give you some ideas.

Scribbles on the printout

Scribbles on the printout

In my writing time each morning I’m reading through draft #2 of the novel in progress, making notes on the printout and also preparing a longhand synopsis. In the synopsis, I go chapter by chapter, describing what happens in each scene in black cherry ink (a rather disappointing color, by the way: I was hoping for something that was more cherry and less black), then in red I scribble whatever occurs to me about where something might lead, what it reminds me of, or whether it might be better off somewhere else.

After a couple of hours of this, Travvy — on whom Wolfie, the title character of this novel, is based — and I go for a long walk. While I walk, scenes and fragments are usually churning, swirling, composting in my head. Sometimes an idea or insight will swoop in out of nowhere — or maybe they’ve been there all along waiting for an opportunity to pounce.

Synopsis in progress, with commentary

Synopsis in progress, with commentary

Re-vision: To see again, to see with new eyes, to see new possibilities.

A few months ago I blogged “Simplify: A Key to Revision.” My later drafts are mostly about simplifying — pruning whatever doesn’t enhance the story in some way. I’ll be doing some of that in draft #3, but at this point “the story” is still expanding and deepening so it’s often not clear what’s essential and what’s extraneous. Some of the latter bits turn out to be hidden doorways or the glinting of sunlight off something that needs exploring.

At this point Wolfie is still evolving. It’s a will o’ the wisp, out of reach but still reachable. Revision brings me closer to it.

My response to anyone who asks what Wolfie is about has been “It’s about a girl and a dog who need rescuing and how they rescue each other.” The very first scene I wrote brings together Glory (the girl), Wolfie (the dog), and Shannon (the rescuer). That scene, currently chapter 3, has changed very little since I wrote it, and it’s not likely to change in draft #3.

In the course of draft #2, however, Glory, a smart, artistically gifted sixth-grader who loves dogs and hates her stepfather, has become more guarded, more calculating. Felicia, her mother, has evolved from a two-dimensional figure whom I didn’t much like into a more complex and much more interesting character who may hold the key to the whole book. Shannon, who as an advocate for women and children in crisis is an old hand at rescuing, is contacted by the one person she couldn’t rescue: her younger sister, long-estranged refugee from the same violent, alcoholic family, now sober and wanting to make contact.

Rereading the early chapters of draft #2, I’m surprised to see that much prep work and foreshadowing for these themes is already there. It just took me a while to figure out where it was going.

I still don’t know how the novel ends, by the way. Draft #1 didn’t tell me, and draft #2 hasn’t either. Each draft has come closer, though, so maybe by the time I get close to the end of draft #3 I’ll know.

How will I know? That’s the question. I’m always saying “Your writing will teach you what you need to know,” which can sound terribly glib when your writing is staring you in the face and not saying anything. Mine does that too. Sometimes you just need to walk away and ignore it for a while.

Other times — well, learning to listen to your writing is part of the process too. Since I’m an editor as well as a writer, it probably won’t surprise anybody that I like revising more than first-drafting. First-drafting is like breaking trail. Revising is working with something that’s already there — and that’s what I do for a living. I’ve come to expect each new manuscript, be it academic paper or memoir or novel, to tell me what it needs, and it nearly always does. Same goes for my own stuff.

Reviewing other people’s books can be useful too: It focuses your attention on the big picture and how the pieces fit together. Trouble is, really good books often seem inevitable, and you don’t see any of the drafts that got them to that point. With works in progress or less accomplished works, it’s easier to see the gaps and the missed opportunities. This is why I heartily recommend writers’ groups, if you can find or start one that works for you, and sharing work in progress informally with other writers. Reviewing, evaluating, and critiquing other writers’ work will make you better able to hear what your own writing is trying to tell you.

Paper Wolfie

Draft #2

Draft #2 is printed on mostly on the back of other writers’ drafts. The green pages are leftover flyers from the Spirituals Choir I sing in. Note the long comment on the right. Those are notes for draft #3.

Yesterday I printed out draft #2 of Wolfie, the novel in progress. At long last I’m ready to embark on draft #3.

I’ve been edging toward this point since early June, ever more slowly, it seems. One of Zeno’s paradoxes has been much in mind — you know, the one that says you will never reach the wall you’re walking toward because first you’ll be halfway there, then you’ll be three-quarters of the way there, then you’ll be seven-eighths of the way there, and so on.

Logic or no logic, math or no math, if you keep walking sooner or later your nose is going to collide with the wall. Work or no work, heat or no heat, I kept writing and I did get to the scene at the end of draft #2.

Which is not the scene that ends the novel. I’ve got two or three or maybe four scenes to go before I get there. I’m standing at the brink of a narrow but deep chasm. Between the tendrils of mist wafting by I can glimpse what’s happening over there but I can’t see it clearly. I need to find myself another crossing point or build myself a bridge.

That’s draft #3. Draft #3 is a daunting prospect because several threads have been growing through the cracks of draft #2 and who knows how they’ll weave together or what else will want to change in the process? Draft #2 is going to tell me all this as I reread it and the many notes I’ve jotted to myself on the journey, some on the computer file, some in my notebooks.

But draft #2 didn’t start talking till I’d printed it out.

A week or so I was reminded of how important the visible, tangible weight of a manuscript can be.  I’d written a scene (in longhand) from one perspective, then stalled. What next? I wondered. So I wrote the scene again from another perspective — an omniscient overview that I haven’t used anywhere else in the book — and what next flowed out of my pen as fluidly as — well, as fluidly as the black cherry ink I was writing in.

I typed both versions into Word, intending to weave them together but wound up staring at the screen with my fingers hovering over the keyboard. Brain freeze. The two versions glared at each other like strangers who don’t want to dance. So I printed them out, and while I read them, page by page, pen in hand (loaded with fiery red-orange ink), they began moving together: this sentence here and that paragraph there and you don’t need this little bit at all . . .

Getting eight or ten pages to dance together isn’t such a big deal. Now I’ve got 466. One of my mantras has long been “Your writing will teach you what you need to know.” Draft #2, it’s up to you.

Thanks to writer Glenda Bailey-Mershon, whose recent post about cutting and pasting in her Weaver’s Knot blog helped inspire this one.