Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Editing Hits the Wall

One of my current WIPs

Many, many weeks ago, I took an excellent intensive course at Grub Street, entitled "From Revision to Submission."
Intended for the writer who needs a final push to submit their work, this class provides one last objective look to make certain that the writer is in the best possible position for publication. The first half of the class will be a revision workshop, focusing on the art of sanding down, smoothing out, and touching up the writing. The second half will help students discuss and find markets for their work. The last class will partially be devoted to assembling submissions and celebrating finished pieces.
The instructor was James Scott, who among other things is an editor at One Story, which is possibly the best lit mag out there right now, I think. The man knows his stuff, is what I'm saying here. He especially was a good instructor for me, because he has a natural instinct for plot and structure, where as I am more of a language-and-character writer, finding structure rather challenging.

So I am here today to share with you the single best piece of editing advice I got from the class: cut and paste, and stick it on the wall.

See that photo up there? That's a 20-page short story, which has been cut-and-pasted by scene (yes, actual scissors and tape, not computer-clicking) and spread out on the wall. I pasted certain scenes higher or lower based on the focus of each scene -- Character #1's POV was the baseline, omniscient narrator POV went slightly lower, Character #2's POV was taped slightly higher. Jim writes a lot of flashbacks, so he tends to tape sections higher or lower based on whether a scene is in the present or past. You may think of other ways to use the vertical as well as the horizontal.

Step back. Take a look. What do you see?

When I looked at the short story in that photo, I saw a lot of imbalance. Okay, it makes sense for that fourth scene to be super-short, because it's really just a teaser/introduction to the second character's POV, but the sixth scene is crazy long. Especially if the fifth scene is also that long... I want the narrator POV and 2nd character POV scenes to be places the reader can catch his or her breath in the story, and if scenes 5 and 6 are back-to-back enormous, that just won't happen. Scene 6 needs to be cut into at least 2 parts.

And look how front-loaded the story is! Scenes 3, 5, 6, and maybe 8 are the long ones, and then it's short-short-short all in a row at the end. No wonder the damn thing feels like it ends abruptly. Now, I already knew there were some plot elements that needed to be added to the story towards the back third, so some of those additions were already planned, but now it's even more obvious where this extra information has to go.

Depending on the nature of your story, you may also want to highlight sections. Is your dialogue evenly spaced throughout the story, or weirdly clumped in the center? Is your action where you thought it would be? Jim showed us one of his works-in-progress, and we saw that all the flashback was up front -- not good. The reader will want to know who everyone is and what the stakes are before they start dipping into reminiscences. How else will the reader know WHY those reflective moments are important?

Now, just because I'm talking in terms of balance of course does not mean that the story needs to be totally even throughout. Maybe the action really does belong all at the end. Maybe the story should start with all long sections and get increasingly tighter as the tale progresses. Only you know what your story needs, but this is a very good way to figure out what your story is already doing. They might not be the same thing, and sometimes it's just too hard to see the forest for the trees on the computer screen.

Jim swears that he's sold every story that has gotten this revision treatment. We'll see how my story fares when I'm done with it...


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Better Book Titles

aka The Odyssey

They just keep making more, and they just keep being funnier than the last... Better Book Titles.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I Should Be...

I am the show notes writer for Mur Lafferty's amazing podcast, I Should Be Writing. I am also several shows behind. Which means that yesterday I started listening to a nearly six-hour backlog. I'm here to officially apologize for my failure to prioritize this work sooner, because I think Mur's podcast is a truly wonderful resource for writers, especially writers who are still learning the craft. (And if you think you've got it all figured out, she has interviews with people like Neil Gaiman.)

I was going to write more about Mur's genius, but Serious Girl just woke up from her nap, it's 4pm, and we have no groceries in the house, so we're going to have to go shopping if we want to eat dinner. SO! Please go check out ISBW. Because ISBAISBW (I Should Be Assisting I Should Be Writing. Like the t-shirt says.)

ALSO! Episode #146 starts with a hilarious "I Should Be Writing" anthem, and then at about 24 minutes in, there is the additionally hilarious song "George R.R. Martin is Not Your Bitch" based on Neil Gaiman's now-famous blog post on reader entitlement. Go listen: George R.R. Martin is Not Your Bitch on John Anealio's SciFi Songs website, and also in YouTube format (fan-posted).

Monday, August 16, 2010

High School Teacher Appreciation Day

Hunter College High School
(formerly the Squadron A Armory)

I was having a talk with someone about mentors and influences, and I hadn't really thought I had many "official" mentors... but it has occurred to me that one need not explicitly and personally take a student under one's wing in order to be an influence. So, here's to two English teachers who I now realize were, in fact, inspirations to me, simply by loving their jobs and doing them well.

Daniel Rous

In addition to being an English teacher, Mr. Rous was also an opera-quality singer, although I don't know if or where he ever performed. When I hear Kelsey Grammer singing show tunes as Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons, I think of Mr. Rous singing for us in class (maybe once a year, when all exams were over) and how damn good he was. He also managed to tell my class -- twice! -- that his wife was in labor with their son for four days. (Perhaps obviously, they just had the one.) He was unwaveringly passionate about the books he taught. He clearly adored all his students, and when they didn't adore him back, he just let it roll right off him. I cannot remember ever once seeing him in a bad mood. It was a joy to be in his class, and I hope he thought it was a joy to teach me in return. I remember hating (and having no respect for) at least one book in every English class I ever took... except his. Somehow, he made it so that I appreciated them all.

Parker Baratta

Parker was profane, sarcastic, and fabulous. Rumor had it that he'd had an affair with a senior at one point, and ended up married to her. I have no idea if this is actually true, but it fit nicely with his persona as the teacher who treated his students like adults. He let us in on all the jokes (in particular one obscene joke about a dolphin, but that's not the point). By the time I took his class, I was coasting pretty comfortably in all my English classes. I was getting As without even reading the materials by twisting the assignments into what I really wanted to write about, and I did it with enough flair to carry it off in most cases. But Parker busted me. On my third-semester report card, he gave me a 65. A sixty-five. Now, I'd gotten a couple bad grades from him (one in particular for a truly abysmal Great Gatsby paper about that damned green light), but not D-minus bad. I went to him to ask WHY? He looked me dead in the eye and said, "Because you can do better." The third-semester report card didn't count on the permanent record, and he was using it to make a point. He was right. I could do better, and he f*cking knew it. I got something in the high 90s for my final grade from him that year.

Gentlemen, THANK YOU.

P.S. Elena Kagan, HCHS class of 1977! WOOT!

Friday, August 13, 2010

HuffPo Loves Me

In yesterday's Huffington Post article The Making of a Novel: Can You Write a Real Person Into a Fictional Story?, author Jennie Nash mentions this blog. Specifically, the guest blogger post by Audrey Beth Stein: Writing About Real People.

Okay, so if you read the article you'll see that HuffPo really loves Audrey; my blog was just the incidental host. But I loved Audrey first. So it totally counts.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Conversations with my family

Conversation #1:

Husband: Serious Girl, what do you want to be when you grow up?
Serious Girl: I don't know.
Husband: Well, you could be an astronaut, or a doctor...
Serious Girl: A doctor!
Husband: Yeah! Or a writer, or a fire fighter...
Serious Girl: I want to be a writer.
Husband: What are you going to write?
Serious Girl: I don't know.
Husband: Are you going to write stories?
Serious Girl: Yeah!
Husband: What kind of stories are you going to write?
Serious Girl: Stories about elevators and toys.
Me: Serious Girl, did you know that you really can do that? There are some really famous and wonderful stories about exactly that -- elevators and toys.
Serious Girl: Also, I want to be a turtle.

Conversation #2:

[Husband finishes telling Serious Girl the story of Pandora's Box.]

Husband: Serious Girl, do you know what that story's about?
Serious Girl: Did everything get away and go way up in the air?
Husband: Yes. But really, it's about telling girls what to do. Every culture has some story that tries to tell girls that they shouldn't be smart or curious. You should be both. You should open every box.
Serious Girl: Really?
Husband: Really. You see, it was a trick. The gods would have let out all those bad things anyway, but they wanted to blame it on Pandora. Never do what you're told just because someone else says you have to. It's up to you to figure out the right things to do.
Serious Girl: Really?
Husband: Really. Can I have a smooch?
Serious Girl: Of course.

Monday, August 2, 2010

A Day in the Life, w/o nanny assistance

All will be explained in time.

6:00am: Wake up because Serious Girl has woken and is asking for more music. Restart album of lullabies on dedicated iPod in her room, go back to bed hoping she will let the whole album play without complaint so I can get the whole half hour additional sleep.

7:30am: Wake up again. Miracle! Serious Girl actually went back to sleep too! Start morning with Serious Girl: hugs, potty, milk.

8:00am: Move through house cleaning up and removing tempting fragile items from within reach of those who are toddler-height; Serious Girl is responsible, but we are hosting her playgroup today, and I do not know how responsible the other five 3-year-olds are. Move SG's play stove, food, and table & chairs into living room for "kitchen/restaurant" play. Get SG dressed. Realize I have totally forgotten to feed SG breakfast, provide blueberries and toast at last minute.

9:00am-11:00am: Playgroup. Kids entertain themselves primarily with toy kitchen area, SG's dollhouse, and SG's extensive supply of toy cars. Some disagreements over who is allowed to play with the stuffed Backyardigans, and when, and how. Snack of blueberries, peaches, and string cheese is devoured by all. Other moms/nannies are awesome about helping to clean up when they leave, and certain parts of the house end up cleaner than when the guests arrived.

11:15am: Final farewells to guests. SG plays patiently (read: relieves the sofa of all its cushions, builds mountainous pile of pillows, takes flying leaps from former onto latter) while I check email. Lunch! Mom & daughter chores -- taking down the trash and recycling, putting away clean dishes, etc. -- and settling down for nap.

12:30pm: Paperwork and writing while SG naps: completing forms for preschool, signing up for "toddler tumbling" gymnastics, writing and submitting short non-fiction piece, submitting two short fiction pieces. Email best writer-friend, indulge in complaints about writing, parenting, how much more sleep we need, and how damn old we are. Check to make sure chicken in fridge is still edible, rejoice when expiration date is days away: no trip to the grocery today.

2:30pm: SG is awake! Hang out together listening to music, then get up for milk. Finish some of my work on the computer while SG plays patiently (read: sits quietly with some stuffed toys in her lap, oh crap, she's probably coming down with something). Off to kitchen: prepare dinner while SG eats raisins. Peel & slice potatoes, season potatoes & chicken. SG says she has to do some work, drags stool over to kitchen computer, turns it on, opens Twitter, sends out some status updates. Clean up lunch dishes. Check flight information, realize Husband doesn't get home until midnight, probably could have gotten away with cooking a smaller meal.

3:30pm: Pressed into singing Jim Croce songs by SG. Finish obsessive email checking, ask SG if she wants to go to the pool. SG says yes, but we have to wear our cowboy hats first. Pack for pool while wearing hats.

4:00pm: Arrive at gym, get changed for pool, climb pool stairs, informed halfway up that pool is closed because someone threw up in it. It will take an hour to clean, at which time kiddie swim will be over and we will not be allowed in pool even if we wanted to. SG takes news with grace and aplomb; spend next hour in empty yoga studio, stretching and playing with the giant yoga balls.

5:30pm: Arrive home, told to put cowboy hats back on. Put dinner in oven, tell SG she can watch cartoons while I work. Cartoons refuse to play on any computer except the one I was planning to work on. Promise eventually fulfilled to SG; nothing else accomplished during cartoon time except checking email on iPod. Call Husband during layover in TX. Inexplicably, SG starts sobbing hysterically and saying that I can't call Husband. Husband does not answer phone. SG is inconsolable, does not want to talk to Daddy, does not want me to talk to Daddy. Phone rings: it's Daddy. SG leaps to answer phone, has lovely chat with Daddy. Take SG's temperature after phone call. She normally reads quite low, but now is 99.4 degrees: SG is definitely coming down with something. SG begs for me to read a book, ends up ignoring me and playing with Han Solo and Boba Fett action figures instead (see photo).

7:00pm: Dinner. Books.

8:00pm: Getting ready for bed. Books. Ritual bedtime kisses and farewells.

9:00pm: Album of lullabies ends, SG asks for more music. Return to her bedroom, re-tuck her in, remind her we only play the album once at bedtime. Ritual bedtime kisses and farewells.

9:15pm: Back to computer. Until husband gets home (scheduled arrival at Logan airport, 11:43pm), there will be writing, paperwork, Twitter, further emails to best writer-friend, and general kitchen clean-up. Make mental note to buy more Diet Coke.

9:25pm: SG sobs hysterically for me to fix her covers. Return to bedroom, tell her of course I'll fix them, she doesn't need to cry. SG: "I'm not crying. I'm just screaming a little bit." Tuck SG back in, ritual bedtime kisses and farewells. Back to computer. Lather, rinse, repeat...