When it Comes to Revising, Which Way Should I Go?

Lately, I’ve been channeling Dorothy Gale in the unfortunate area of general confusion about how to proceed with my writing. (If only I’d started channeling Judy Garland in the area of singing. If only.)

I’m at the point where I have first, even second, drafts of more than one novel manuscript. They all need work. Like a lot of work. And revising is never a hardship for me—I’m an editor, after all. I like editing. and trying to find solutions to story problems. So what’s the hang up?

For a long spell this fall, there was a sizable hang up indeed—that of deciding upon what to spend my sadly few writing hours. Do I keep pushing forward with the historical fantasy story that was my thesis in Lesley’s MFA program? Do I dive whole-hog into one of two contemporary YA stories instead? It’s nice, of course, to be in the position where I have multiple drafts of multiple stories.

But which way do I go?

The siren song of first one, then another, would call me. And I’d answer each call. Briefly. Always very briefly. It look a while to figure out that there’s a way I could use this to my advantage. Which is what I hope I’m now doing. So I have two stories that I’m revising—one much more complex than the other. I give time to both and then take breaks from both—it’s turned into a giant switch-up.

There’s clearly going to have to come a time when, like Odysseus, I lash myself to the mast and force myself to listen to the siren song of one of these stories—and do my best to sail right past it and stay on course with the other.

But for now, I’m doing what makes most sense—and keeps me sane and writing. Even if, alas, not singing like Judy Garland.

 

Well, Hello There

A lot feels like it’s happened since I last posted here—perhaps because it has. Yet another inane national conversation about the general merits of reading YA has come and (thankfully mostly) gone. The school year ended for the rest of my small family. The Supreme Court has made some questionable decisions (don’t get me started). Three fingers on my left hand decided to up and stop doing useful things like feeling what I touch and bending. And with the help of medication and physical therapy, they’re very slowly starting to work again.

Then there was my last ever residency, at the end of which I graduated—at long last—from Lesley’s MFA program.

Really, that’s a lot in a few short weeks. Immediately after graduation, I felt an overwhelming sense of loss. I won’t be at the next residency in January, and neither will the many friends who graduated alongside me and who’ve returned to their homes in other, far-flung places. But once that time of grieving for what’s past was over, I mostly feel—with the exception of my fingers, which are still kind of numb—kind of…exhausted.

Not in a bad way, though. More in a taking stock way. I’m reading through the story that made up my thesis (as well as most of my time at Lesley) and slowly rebuilding the opening chapters. Because I know things now that I didn’t before about the story, and the beginning just doesn’t work anymore. And it’s good to be in place where I can realize that—and begin to see the forest for the trees (and maybe vice versa, too).

So, onward. To new revisions, new stories, new books to read, and new experiences. Maybe even a blog post or two every now and again. I’m crazy like that.

It’s All About the Process

Like Kate and Leo’s love, my revision process goes on…and on.

Good friend, brilliant writer, and fellow Lesley MFA type, Sabrina Fedel, tagged me as part of an on-going “My Writing Process” blog tour. Since it’s good to stop sometimes—especially when you’re in the throes of something like writing a creative thesis—and really ponder what on earth it is that you’re doing, I took up the call. So, without further ado, here’s my two cents.

What am I working on?

Um, it’s complicated? My thesis is a historical fantasy novel set in the late eighteen hundreds and told in three voices. If this sounds more ambitious than it strictly speaking should be, that’s because it is. It has entailed an absurd amount of very hard work just to get a first draft completed, and will continue to require the same for near, as well as distant, future. BUT…I love this story with all of my heart and soul, and so the researching and revising will, like Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio’s love in Titanic, go on and on. Hopefully the end result will be less tragic, however.

Now that I have Celine Dion firmly in my head, let’s continue.

Because this is only one of two large writing projects I’m working on at the moment. As I’ve mentioned before, I stress write. And my current stress writing manuscript is well past the first draft but not quite to a finished second draft yet. Let’s just say that the last two thirds of the story is being entirely rewritten. Far from an overcomplicated historical fantasy, this one is contemporary YA that focuses on family—the one you’re born with and the ones you can create for yourself—with a healthy dose of romance thrown in for good measure. If my first story is my Titanic, this is one more akin to say, Bring It On (in my dreams, at least).

Both are necessary for my sanity.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Ha—well, let’s just say that I hope it does? Right now, I’m in the thick of both and so it’s hard to tell really. I find with my own writing that it’s necessary to take a step back from it in order to gauge something like this. Mostly, I hope for the best and I keep revising.

Why do I write what I do?

The aforementioned need for sanity is a big part of it. This does not mean, however, that I’m the type who works out her neuroses on the page. I write fiction and I find that the world of make-believe is much easier to tackle when it’s not tied down to my own special blend of emotional issues.

At this juncture in my writing, I guess the question I’ve been thinking about a lot more is why I’m attempting to write YA fiction rather than why I’m working on a specific story. The answer is a complicated mix (yes, I’ve used that word twice now—it’s not by accident) of factors. Clearly, I edit books for young readers for a living, so literature for kids and adolescents is something near and dear to my heart. And while I love, love, love writing picture book stories, right at this moment, I’m feeling really captivated by YA and how, for this age group, so much is in flux and changing—or about to change—in momentous ways. And so, this is where I am right now.

How does my writing process work?

Okay, at the risk of continuing to make myself sound like a madwoman, it works in giant bursts of writing energy—often in the middle of the night when I’m in the midst of a first draft of a story—during which I am hyper-focused on what I’m writing.

Then there’s a cooling down period. It’s almost like having a crush. At first, it’s hard to think about anything else, but then you get to know your crush better, and either you lose your initial fervor, or your attraction grows into something deeper. I try to take advantage of that first rush of the crush while it’s with me and get as much done as I possibly can during this little honeymoon period.

Then it’s on to the harder work of figuring out of this crush is worth my while, or is just a flash in the pan. My laptop is filled with discarded ideas that have proven themselves unable to keep my attention—whose dashing concepts or brawny shoulders of plot briefly captured my eye, but whose long-term relationship prospects were dim.

The two projects I’m working on right now are at different stages in their post-crush lives, but both are firmly in that phase. For my thesis, I feel like the story and I have hit a few bumps and we maybe need to take some time away from each other before we recommit. For my contemporary YA story, it’s still a newer relationship, so while there are kinks to work out, it’s not hitting the skids or heading into therapy or anything. Yet.

I’m not taking this metaphor too far, am I?

The long and the short of it is: I write in bursts, and when they come, I write a lot and whenever I can possibly fit it in. If that means at 2:30 in the morning, so be it. I keep my laptop by my bedside, just in case (no long hand writing for me, thank you very much). For many years, I tried to keep myself on the straight and narrow when it came to writing time, but I’ve learned to just go with what works. Often this means I am tired. But it’s worth it in the end.

So, there you have it. I hope Sabrina’s not on the verge of disowning me as a friend and fellow writer because of these answers to her questions, and I’m looking forward to reading some of the other responses, which you can check out here:

Michael Anthony, A Veteran’s Perspective…

Kyra Renee Clay, Traveling to Me: The Road towards living (a Dream)

Alexis Marie Chute, Alexis Marie Writes

 

Building a Better Villain (With a Little Help from Magneto, Loki, and Gollum)

I never read comic books as a kid, so when I went to see the very first X-Men movie, I didn’t quite know what to expect. So, imagine my surprise when the movie began at the gates of Auschwitz as a young Eric Lensherr is being ripped away from his parents. Imagine my even greater surprise when, at this horrific moment, his powers emerge.

It takes guts to tell a story in which the reader or viewer so immediately sympathizes with the person who’s supposed to be the villain in the story. Of course Eric becomes Magneto. How could he not? And that he and Charles Xavier are such old friends adds still a layer of depth to this character.

Now, it doesn’t hurt that Magneto is played by Ian McKellan in the movie, who is, without question, a source of amazingness in the world. But the depth of the character lies in the comic books and in the story they chose to tell on the screen as well. This is not your run of the mill villain. This guy’s got a purpose—and one you can thoroughly understand.

What got me thinking about villains, you might ask? Well, I’m currently revising a story that has a (completely non-supernatural, fantasy-based) villain in it. And I want her to be more than just the villain.

But it’s also because I saw this on The MarySue:

Tom Hiddleston, Loki

A movie poster featuring the villain, and only the villain. Sure, there’s one of Thor, too. But having seen both the first Thor movie and The Avengers, I am here to tell you that there’s a reason why folks love Loki—and it’s not just Tom Hiddleston’s boyish good looks (though that helps, of course). It’s just that he’s a much more interesting, nuanced character than Thor is.

And being someone who reads a lot of fan/geekgirl stuff, it’s clear that the makers of the second Thor movie (and the second Avengers movie) are fully aware of this. In fact, in a recent interview, Joss Whedon tried to explain why Loki’s not going in the next Avengers movie, basically by admitting that the movie’s about the Avengers, not the villain. Or in other words, Loki might be just a hair more popular than some of the actual Avengers.

The Lord of the Rings, GollumThen there’s Gollum, both on the page and on the screen as performed by Andy Serkis. But for an accidental finding of a ring, Smeagol (who becomes Gollum) might have lived, if not a happy life, at least an uneventful one. The hints of Smeagol still emerge in Gollum, making for a heart-wrenchingly duality in him. Alas, the ring eats away at him and ultimately destroys him. Sure, the supposed villain in The Lord of the Rings is Sauron (and even Saruman). But Gollum steals the villainy show on every level, just because he’s so much more than just a villain.

So, how do you build a better villain? I guess the only answer I’ve come up with thus far is to make him or her a real person as well as a force of badness—to make a really compelling villain you first have to make a really compelling character. Which is no small task.

And with that, my little exploration of sci-fi and fantasy villainy is finally over. Just be glad I spared you my treatise on Anakin Skywalker….

George Lucas, Kenny Rogers, and the Trials of Revision

know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em

A wise man once sang, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. Know when to walk away, know when to run.”

This advice is as useful in terms of writing and revision as it is, one would assume, in terms of gambling (I trust Kenny).

But how do you know when to hold or when to fold them? How do you know when it’s time to stop revising something—even if just to step away from the story for a while—and when to make yourself put your proverbial butt in your chair and just keep plugging away?

I feel like George Lucas sometimes, not knowing when to stop. Sure, he could have maybe skipped the last Star Wars trilogy and the world would have been a happier place. But even more unforgivable to me is that he went back and tinkered with the original trilogy instead of knowing when to when to walk away.

So the revisions do things like take a great scene with a handful of Rebel pilots (Luke included) headed out to try to defeat that Goliath that is the Death Star—and make it look like a whole air fleet of them are attacking instead.

And it loses something—something important, I’d argue. Drama, suspense, a true sense of just how much the Rebel Alliance was outgunned and outnumbered, and yet prevailed despite that.

Way to wreck a perfectly awesome scene, George Lucas.

So, I worry as I revise. Sometimes, I think I’ve made a scene dramatically better. Other times, I fear I’ve just made the attack on the Death Star fall flat.

In the end, though, I fall back on Kenny Rogers once again: “You never count your money, when you’re sitting at the table. There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.” I’ll keep plugging away, and with each new version of this story perhaps I’ll be able to see more clearly when it’s time to dig back in, and when it’s time to step away!

 

 

 

Ernie and Bert—and the (Sometimes) Benefits of Insomnia

Sure, sure, I know that you’re supposed to get at least eight hours of sleep a night. I’ve heard it can do wonderful things for your health and well-being. It might even leave you less groggy in the morning. Insomnia, however, has been a long-time companion of mine. Though I have no Boogie-Woogie Sheep to help me dance myself to sleep (alas), those precious eight hours can prove as elusive to me as they are to Ernie in this song.

There are times when this is a burden, without question. But there are advantages to say, having your natural clock wake you up at 3:30 in the morning. One of them is having some writing time.

In an ideal world, I’d have hours every day at my disposal to write and edit and think about the various stories I have percolating. But I work and I have a family, and that just isn’t realistic. So, I figure, if I’m already awake in the wee hours, why not put said wee hours to some good use?

The laptop sits by my bedside each night, and is frequently used. Sometimes I write down things I’ve dreamed about—what is now a large and unwieldy YA project began as a less-than-pleasant dream—and other times I go back in and revise whatever I was working on before bedtime. I’ve written down whole rough drafts of picture book stories that I barely remembered afterward.

Yes, this leaves me tired. Yes, I do realize it’s less than ideal. But you’ve got to work with what you have. And what I have is insomnia.

So, even though I know those tap dancing sheep would be lovely to have around, I prefer to let my much-beloved husband rest—and write myself to sleep instead.

Let’s (Re)Start at the Very Beginning

Throughout my entire life, I have loved The Sound of Music. I don’t mean that I enjoy it, or appreciate it in some detached way—I seriously love it. So when I sat down to write this post, I fully expected to put a lovely clip of the original movie in it.

Then I saw this.

It’s extremely difficult not to love this dance in an Antwerp train station. Sure, the flash mob thing has been done to death. But there’s a real exuberance here that’s impossible to resist. From the gentleman who rather enthusiastically begins it all, to the people flowing down the staircase, to the dudes in business suits giving it their all, this is a wonderful re-imagining of the original.

Which brings me to the reason I wanted to include this song in the first place. I’ve been working on the same draft of the same YA story for a long, long while now. It’s been, at times, exhilarating, exhausting, tedious, and downright wonderful. But now, the time has come to lay this draft to rest and start at the very beginning once again.

I admit, this is a little intimidating.

As I said, it took a long time to get here, and there blood, sweat, and tears have been shed along the way. But the story has evolved since I first began it, and I know now—which I didn’t when I started—much more about these characters and where I want their story to go.

This is not easy work. But it’s where the real guts of the story develop—the devil is in the details, but also in the revision, and I mean that in a good way.

So, on this lovely Friday morning (no snow at last!), I’m ready to enthusiastically throw myself back in and give this revision all that I can.

But I might need to watch that video one more time for inspiration….

In Praise of Writing Groups

At the moment, I am in two distinct writing groups. One is of quite long standing, one that has only just started up. One group gets together at pubs and restaurant where we spend hours talking about life and writing. One connects over email and Skype, allowing us to talk despite the miles between us. Both met this week.

I love writing group. Not only do I love the amazing and talented ladies in both groups, but I also admire and respect their opinions, and am endlessly grateful for their feedback on my writing. I’m also kind of in awe of their writing. Did I mention that they are talented ladies?

Sangria, tapas, catching up on life, books, gossip, you name it…and then there are the critiques.

The thing is, even aside from getting to spend time with some of my favorite people, I inevitably come away with hoards of ideas about how to revise a given piece of writing. Over the past week, for me that’s meant lots of ideas on how to rework two different picture book manuscripts.

All of which leaves me excited about revisions (did I just say that?)—and eager for next month’s meetings!

 

 

 

Meeting Your Deadlines: The Death Star Trash Compactor of Writing

Sometimes as a writer, you’re going along perfectly happily rescuing the metaphorical princess Leia of your story—and then a deadline that seemed quite far away starts to close in on you like the walls of the trash compactor on the Death Star.

You try to brace for it, but there’s nothing that can hold the huge steel walls of the compactor at bay. You feel something brush against your leg and know that nothing good is lurking underneath the filthy water. There are no droids fiddling with the computer system to save you.

And quite frankly the smell is getting to you.

My latest deadline in my MFA program is today, and even though there’s not a heck of a lot I can do to my work at this late stage, I’m still feeling the crunch. I know everything will get sent off in proper fashion, but it’s hard not to feel that if I just had more time to revise, I could make this submission just a little bit stronger, a little bit better.

In other words, it’s a self-inflicted trash compactor of doom, and the walls closing in on me are ultimately comprised of my own compulsion to try to make everything perfect. Which means that droids aren’t, in fact, going to be able to save me—only I can.

Choosing to try to write means choosing to accept your (and your writing’s) imperfections, even while trying to work through them. That said, there are definitely times when I wish there was a Force to reach out and guide me to right path, the right turn of phrase, the perfect revision. That I could send a garbled message telling Obi Wan that he’s my only hope—and that somehow Alec Guinness will put together a rag-tag group of kids to come and save me.

Barring that, though, I guess I just need to let go and get my submission in!

“Stay on target, stay on target.” Or, How I Lost My Focus

Last week, I was patting myself on the back for doggedly staying on track and revising. This week, I have strayed from the revision path in a fiery ball of Darth Vader’s fury.

Frailty, thy name is writer.

It’s not that I didn’t want to stay on target and keep revising. It’s just that this idea had been percolating in my head. An idea that I really liked, in fact. An idea for a light, airy bit of a YA novel that’s as much fun as writing picture book texts.

I’ve written nine chapters in four days.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Luke Skywalker, attempting to stay focused with a Yoda on his back.

This is clearly a blessing as well as a curse—and really, who am I to complain that I’m working on something that I’m really enjoying?

And to bring it all back to Star Wars (because in the end, everything always does come back to Star Wars) it’s also left me wondering if I’m like Luke Skywalker relying on the Force to guide him to the weak spot on the Death Star—or like Luke later in the Empire Strikes Back when Yoda accuses him of abandoning his Jedi training.

My husband thinks it’s the former, and that the Force (or the muse, as he calls it) is simply flowing through me, and I should go with it. It’s hard, though, to shake the feeling that I’ve eaten a whole box of Popsicles and have no room left for a real dinner. Or, to bring it back to Star Wars again, that I’ve just abandoned a higher calling to go off and save Han and Leia.

But it’s Han and Leia! How can I not go off to save them?

Am I just being tempted by the dark side?

How does one stay focused?