Rewriting: The Middle Way

Table_269134_lThis is a short-ish post, seeing as how it is two days before Thanksgiving, when I host a dozen family members here for dinner, and the lovely Olivia (19 months) is spending the day with me, and the house needs a lot tad bit of cleaning and, oh right, I do have to figure out a few recipes.

I'm deep into rewriting my next novel, and all I can think about writing-wise is related to rewriting, which is kind of an individual thing.  So I've had a hard time coming up with ideas for writing posts lately, which you know is unusual seeing as how we're coming up on eight years of blogging and over 1,000 posts.  Craziness.

But, upon further reflection, I did realize I had something of minor brilliance to say.  It may even be major brilliance–it all depends on if it resonates with you or not.  Here's the story:

The other morning, 5:30 ish* and I'm working on my rewrite.  I come to a part I'd dreaded, because it involved the way one of my main characters, Jack,  reacted to a situation.  Readers commented they didn't believe his reaction, given his actions earlier. 

What's the obvious fix here?  Why, give him the opposite reaction, of course.  Which is what I had figured I'd do in all my rewrite planning.  But as I started making the fix, it didn't work for me.  Didn't feel right.  Didn't seem like something Jack would do. 

So I got up from the computer (actually I sat there frustrated for a few minutes) and took a shower. And the answer came: Jack doesn't have to have a different reaction, he just has to have his current reaction challenged by the other characters and thus explain his reaction.

In other words, what I needed to do was make it work on the page.  

This, my friends, was following the middle way.  It's the sometimes circuitous path between two black and white option, and it comes to us not just in writing but in life.  You look and look and look at an obstacle and can only see it as something barring your journey.  But then, suddenly you realize you can just go around the damn thing–and get back on your road.

And so that is what I did.  Jack is happy.  And so am I.

I had a counselor once who called this grace.  And that's what it feels like, doesn't it?

Have you had moments of grace in your writing or life recently?

*I've used "ish" twice in this post.  Last week, I was having lunch with a childhood friend (we grew up around the corner from each other) and we agreed that both of us had the same laidback attitude toward life, which she attributed to being the baby of the family.  She said–and I love this–that her favorite word is "ish."  As in,  soon-ish.  Or later-ish.  You get the picture.  Thus, the preponderance of the word "ish" in this post.

Photo by monmart.

The (Sometimes) Joy of Rewriting

Just in time for Mercury Retrograde, I am launching into the first big rewrite of my novel.  (More on Mercury Retrograde in a moment.)

The background        

GreendoorPezenas

A green door in Pezenas, France. It's a doorway to rewriting, get it?

I started this particular novel last year in late September, and finished it almost a year later, on the last day of August.  By many standards, including mine, that is a slow pace for a first draft.  But there were entire months when I set it aside to work on other projects, so the entire time span of active writing was probably was more like eight months than twelve.

I got the idea for this novel in the shower one day in one of those Eureka moments.  When I started writing, in first person, the voice of the narrator came easily and naturally, much as what happened with my Emma Jean novel.  I love when this happens–you don't have to struggle with voice, it is just there. 

My writing group has been enthusiastic about the story, and responses from people who've read the first 50 pages of it in a MFA alumni writing workshop have been also.  And I already have a ton of ideas of scenes I need to add and ways to deepen certain characters. So, I'm excited to get on with the second draft.

The plan

Thus, I was even more excited when my wonderful client and friend Beverly pointed me towards this page on Rachael Herron's blog.  It presents a coherent, cohesive plan for rewriting.  And, I don't know about you, but in my writing life, coherent, cohesive plans for rewriting have been in short supply, witness this story from my MFA days:

I had finished the first draft of the book I lovingly call my MFA novel (It now resides in a cupboard and will likely never see the light of day) and was ready to rewrite it.  So I asked my MFA mentor, an accomplished novelist, writing teacher, and world traveler (who shall remain nameless only because what follows might sound like I'm dissing her and I don't want anybody to think that because she was amazing) how to go about it.  

"I'll tell you how to do that," she said, tossing her long, thick, red hair.

I leaned forward, excited for more of her words of wisdom.

"You sit in your favorite easy chair and read your novel as if you're reading a book from the bookstore."

I waited.  Then I waited some more.  Being too in awe of her to squawk, "that's it?" I waited longer.  

Finally she broke the painful silence.  "Then you will find a way in."  And she bestowed a smile on me.

So, um, you can see why I'm thrilled that plans for rewriting the novel exist.  And, lord have mercy, said plans involve buying office supplies, like post-it notes! A three-ring binder! 3-hole punched paper! Washi tape!  (Okay, the washi tape wasn't strictly necessary, but how could I resist it?)  I'm in the process of printing out my novel and have already begun following the first part of the plan.

Oh, and today, in my internet travels, I ran across this post from the always helpful Janice Hardy about rewriting.  It's worth a read, also.

Iphone6Paris

A giant ad for the Iphone 6 on an historic building in Paris.

The timing 

And now we come to the part about Mercury Retrograde.  Three times a year, the planet Mercury essentially goes backward.  (Don't ask how, just accept, okay?) Most people intone the words Mercury Retrograde with the same dire tones they use to say black plague, or these days, Ebola virus. Communications go haywire, and technology goes bust.  (Don't even think of buying a new computer or phone during one of these periods.  And whatever you do, don't sign a contract.)  Travel plans tend to go awry.  Fun and games, people, fun and games.

But.

There's always a but, and this is a big one.  At the same time all the above-mentioned crazy stuff is occurring, there's something else afoot–and that is that anything that has the prefix "re" attached to it will be a good activity for you.  So, reorganizing, remembering, renewing, or, ahem, rewriting.  Yes, Mercury Retrograde is the perfect time to return to something you've been working on and a good chance to look at it with new eyes.  So there.  I've just given you reason not to dread Mercury Retrograde.  Just don't get tempted by those new Iphone 6s.  

How do you approach rewriting?

Rewriting: Print Out Your Work

Aelse_ilovenature_glow_5663_hSorry, trees.

The topic of today's post impacts your health on this planet, and for that I'm truly sorry.

But I'm rediscovering the helpfulness of printing out my work in order to rewrite and revise it.  (I like to make a distinction between the two words.  To me, rewriting is what you do on the second draft, when you're looking at big stuff like character arc and plot.  Revising is what you do on the final draft, when you're looking at every word, and comma and period.  Big difference.)

This all began when I saw Anne Lamott last Friday night.  She spoke in Portland at the Baghdad Theater as part of her book tour for Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son's First Son.  The theater was packed, I'm happy to report, full of happy fans eating pizza and burgers and drinking wine and beer.  Which was just the wee-est bit ironic, seeing as how Anne is a famous recovering alcoholic.

But it didn't seem to bother her and she had some great things to say about her life and her writing.  (She delivers her lectures in almost a stream-of-consciousness style that appears effortless and is very entertaining.)  She talked about writing as a radical act (hear, hear) and also that she likes to repeat the mantra, "it could happen," after a character in an old movie, Angels in the Outfield. (Such as, bestselling novel?  "It could happen."  And so on.)

What really struck me, however, was when she talked about printing out your work in order to edit it.  Yes, we live in an electronic world, but it is still important to make a hardcopy of your writing and see it on the page.  Use the electronics to communicate with the world and tinker with your work on the page.  The real page.

I used to do this all the time.  It was the only way I could rewrite.  But lately, with the convenience of editing on the computer, I've gotten away from it.  This week, I decided to experiment and printed out 70 pages of my next novel.  Totally different experience.  You simply see things differently when you edit on the page.  Try it.

I'm not sure I recommend printing out pages every single time you edit.  So much of editing goes on as you re-read a draft on the computer, perhaps before you begin your writing session.  But as an exercise at certain key points along the way, it can be very useful.

And as for the trees? Buy recycled paper.

Create a successful, inspired writing life: Next time you're finished with a draft, print it out to make your revisions.  See if it works for you.

Please comment.  How do you approach rewriting and revising?  Do you do it on the computer or on hard copy?  Which do you prefer? 

Photo by Josef F. Stuefer, and I found it on Everystockphoto.

Writing From Vision to Revision

You are a writer. Note_notes_notepad_260973_l

Because, a writer writes.  That's the definition of a writer: someone who writes. 

A writer is also someone who understands a couple of things:

1.  Why she writes

2.  The writing process

And, furthermore, a writer should also understand that topics to be used in the writing process can be inspired by asking yourself why you write and by grasping what you want to write about.  That's the vision part.  And after you've gotten that down, you go into revision.

That was the gist of a lecture by my colleague and friend Terry Price at the Writer's Loft last weekend.

Terry started his lecture by asking us to name some of the reasons we write.  Responses included:

  • to share experiences
  • help others
  • know yourself
  • express emotion
  • sheer joy
  • exploration
  • healing
  • processing

And so on.  I'm going to steal me some of these reasons next time someone asks me why I write.   I always have a tough time answering that question, and the best I can usually come up with is that I write because I have to.  Because not writing is not an option.  I know because I've tried it.  Repeatedly.

But anyway, Terry then led us through a series of questions about what we want to write, as in genre, and what topics we want to write about.  He had a bunch of great questions (my favorite: What is the best day of your life so far?) that we were to write quick answers to.  Like, really quick.  A few seconds quick.

From there we chose 3 to 5 answers that resonated with us and wrote a first draft of the beginning of a story.  The Loft students really resonated with this and it seemed to produce some work with potential.  And then the next step was to rewrite this piece, after a bit of discussion of revision.

(If I may interject here, and I may, I did a lecture years ago about Rewriting vs Revision, my point being that rewriting has to do with the big stuff–character, plot, theme, etc., whereas revision has to do with more detailed things such as word choice, sentence structure, diction and grammar.)

So anyway, it was a cool lecture.  And you could take one of his questions, answer it, and use it for the beginning of either a fiction or non-fiction (memoir) piece.   Take my favorite question, listed above and play with it:  what is the best day of your life so far?

And then report back and let us know what happened.  Also, feel free to share why you write.  If you know.

*I wrote about my friend Linda's lecture on conflict yesterday.  You can read it here.

 

Photo by christg.

Deconstruction of a Rewrite

EJmanuscriptnotebook Years ago, I asked one of my MFA mentors how to go about rewriting the novel I was then working on.  As I recall, she told me to sit down with the manuscript and re-read it.  Um, not the most helpful of advice.  Yes, it is imperative to reread a manuscript when you are going to rewrite it, but what are you reading for?  What should you be looking for?  How do you figure out what to do?  It is incredibly daunting to hold a 350 page manuscript in your hands and try to decide what to do first.

As most of you know, I've set to rewriting my novel this summer.  This after I was convinced that the 8 rewrites I had already completed would be enough.  But then an agent read it, said she was interested, and gave me comments on what she would look for if I cared to rewrite it.

Key word: comments.  Because hers gave me a way with which to begin the rewrite.  They fell into two areas:

1.  The main character, while funny, kick-ass and brash, is also bitchy and difficult to take at times.  (She's a woman who does what she wants, when she wants, and of course, if she were a male character, her behavior would not be an issue.  But that is a topic for another time.)  The agent felt that she would have better luck presenting the novel to editors if Emma Jean were more reliable.

2.  Some of the secondary characters are not fully developed.  Because Emma Jean is such a powerful character,  the others exist as sort of satellites to her.  While I understand Emma Jean intimately, I never pushed to truly get to know some of the res of them.  

So that is my charge, to make Emma Jean relatable and develop the most important of the secondary characters.  Before I began, I also kicked these comments around with my writing group (who have read the book every time I rewrote it) and other writers who've read part or all of it.  And here's how I have proceeded so far.

First of all, I took a trip to Office Depot. (Brief aside: when I was working on my MFA, after each residency I would take part of the money from my student loans and go buy supplies at Office Depot, so it is a bit of a ritual for me.) I bought a ream of three-hole punched paper on which to print the novel, and a pretty pink binder to put it in.  Then I languished in the journal aisle and eventually, after much pondering,
bought two small spiral-bound notebooks, one red, one black and white.  One became the journal I
wrote about the characters in, and the other became a place to take random notes that occurred to me as I worked on the characters and reread the manuscript.

Next, before I did anything else, even read the manuscript, I returned to the characters, specifically the three the agent mentioned as needing development.  I started by putting each of them through the Ordinary Day exercise, which I found incredibly revealing.  In some cases, that was enough.  In others, I did a bit more work, whether through time lines of their life or writing specific bits of backstory.  All of this proved so helpful that I did it for everyone of the characters, though some only got a few pages of effort.  I wrote it out in longhand, in one of the new journals.  For me, writing longhand seems the more direct route to my deepest self.

A note here: for reasons unknown to me at the time, I felt it important to work with the characters before I reread the manuscript.  It just felt like the right choice, and also I was a bit daunted to face reading the 350-page tome.  It proved to be a good move, as I was able to come up with fresh insights that would not have occurred if I already had evidence of what I thought they were like in front of me.

By the time I finished with the character work, my little red journal was starting to get lots of good notes and ideas in it, all written as they occurred to me, without making an effort to categorize them at this point.  Now it was time to read the novel.  But first, I pulled out as many colored flags and post-it notes that I could find (should have bought more at Office Depot) and made a key.  I used pink for Emma Jean's lover, orange for her husband, purple for the throughline about her bitchiness.  The point was to be able to track the characters and themes I really needed to focus on in this rewrite.  
EJmanuscriptopen

Finally, basket of flags and post-its at hand, I began reading the novel.  I made notes on the manuscript pages and in the little red journal, and flagged character arcs and throughlines madly, as you can see in the photos. (Interestingly, most of the flagging happened in the first two-thirds of the novel, which is where most of the rewriting will happen.)  I also made a list of chapters and what exactly happens in them, because I know from past experience how easy it is to forget.  (Does she meet Ava in Chapter One or Chapter Two?  Oh that's right, I made Chapter Two into two chapters, so now it's actually Chapter Three where they meet.)

So now I'm ready to actually rewrite, right?  Not quite.  Because my notes are a mish-mash of thoughts and ideas, scrawled as I read and wrote bios. 

In the final step before the actual rewriting, I spent a pleasant morning at my neighborhood coffeeshop with my friend and web designer (my website will be up soon!),making sense of my notes.  With legal pad, little read journal and list of what happens in each chapter, I began.  Going through the legal pad, I wrote #1 on the first page, #2 on the second, and so on, for 23 pages, which constitute the 22 chapters and one epilogue in my novel.  And then I went through my notes, and when something had to change in chapter one, I noted that on the #1 page, and so on through the book.

So now I'm ready to do the actual writing.  Which, I must say, will be far and away the easiest part.  I've done the heavy lifting already.  The pondering, figuring out, and conceptualizing are what is tough.  Now all I have to do is flip through the pages and add stuff in.  Easy, right?  Well, if you believe that I have a bridge for sale that I'd love to talk to you about.

Ah, nobody said writing a novel was easy.  And that is what makes it so much fun.  What about you?  What are your methods for rewriting?  Do you do as much pre-writing as I do?  Have a great tips to ease the process?