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Posts Tagged ‘Janet Burroway’

Sometimes when you’re revising it helps to have a specific assignment.   Last week in this space I listed some exercises that my fiction-writing students find useful.  Here are some revision ideas that my memoir and journalism students particularly like:

1) Write down three adjectives (beautiful, aggressive, haughty) that describe a character in your narrative/memoir. (Be sure the adjectives describe different qualities, not the same ones.  For instance, handsome, well-groomed, muscular are too similar, as opposed to handsome, talkative, and mechanically inclined, which reveal different aspects of the character.)

Without using any of the adjectives (or synonyms), write a half-page scene or passage that shows the character engaged in action and perhaps speaking some dialogue that will suggest the selected qualities.

2) List 10 objects in your main character’s bedroom, car, living room, or other place. Make these objects as specific as possible, giving titles of books, contents of photographs, kind of junk food, etc.  Three of these objects should be connected to the story.  Using this list, write a half-page description of the character’s space, mentioning the objects or other elements of the décor (such as paint color) that will give readers clues to character.

3) Cut your story into scenes, summary, and flashbacks. Number each piece in the order in which it appears.  Then lay these pieces out on a table or floor and see what you’ve got.  How many scenes are there?  Is every scene necessary?  Can some be combined, deleted, or summarized?  Are important scenes buried in sections of summary?  Are there missing scenes?  Is the material from the past in the right places?  Try rearranging the sequence of events.  Experiment.  Move beyond fiddling with sentences to this kind of re-envisioning and rearranging.

4)  Choose a moment from your story-in-progress that could benefit from intensifying a character’s emotional or physical experience.

Focus on the place: the sights, smells, and weather.  For three minutes, free-write sensory details as rapidly as possible in present tense.  Look back and select the most striking or significant sensory details.  Look for places they might fit into the original passage.  Rewrite the opening paragraph, moving slowly, incorporating some of these details.

5) Write three different endings. Think about what is resolved and what is left unresolved with each ending.

6)  And finally — this is so obvious I hesitate to put it on the list, and yet I’m always amazed at how many of my students consider it a novel idea.  Retype at least one full draft, “making both planned and spontaneous changes as you go,” as Janet Burroway advises.  “The computer’s abilities can tempt us to a “fix-it” approach to revision, but jumping in and out of the text to correct problems can result in a revision that reads like patchwork.”

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Dialogue is hard to get right.  It has to sound like natural speech, when in fact it’s nothing like it.

I like to send my creative-writing students out to cafes and parks with notebooks to transcribe bits of overheard conversations.  Then I ask them to type up these transcripts and turn them into dialogue between characters.hopper 1

Inevitably their written dialogue little resembles the overheard conversations.  When you write dialogue, you have to eliminate niceties and unnecessary patter and cut to the core of the exchange — unless the patter is crucial to the story, conveying a dissembling, depressed, incoherent, or boring personality.  (The writer George Garrett called this “dovetailing.”)  At the same time, it has to sound natural, like something someone would really say.

Richard Price, in his recent novel Lush Life, allows his characters to talk and talk and talk. Price maintains a delicate balancing act; his characters’ words matter.  What they say changes the direction of the story.  But he never burdens his dialogue with exposition or forces it to convey plot points that don’t come up naturally.  In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway says, “In order to engage us emotionally in a disagreement, the characters must have an emotional stake in the outcome.”  Price’s characters are nothing if not emotionally invested.

Price’s dialogue is vital to the story because it moves the action forward.  He constantly puts his characters in conflict with each other.  Their conversations are full of surprises – self-revelation, inadvertent admissions, hearsay, evidence.  But it sounds real: his characters’ speech has kinetic energy; it crackles with life. Real life.

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Wendepunkt is a German word that means turning point.  In Modernism, Ray Bradbury defines wendepunkt as the moment in a novel “in which there is an unexpected yet in retrospect not unmotivated turn of events, a reorientation which one can see now is not only wholly consistent but logical and possibly even inevitable.”  This moment often involves a reversal of the protagonist’s fortunes.  Aristotle called it peripeteia, the crisis action of a tragedy.

wendepunkt In her masterful guide to narrative craft, Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway says, “A reversal of some sort is necessary to all story structure, comic as well as tragic. Although the protagonist need not lose power, land, or life, he or she must in some significant way be changed or moved by the action.”  This internal and external change, when it comes, may surprise the reader, but should be organic to the plot. Whether shocking or confusing or exhilarating, it should feel intrinsic to the story.

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