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Posts Tagged ‘revising’

A page from James Michener's rough draft of his novel The Covenant

This week I’m working on revising fiction with my undergraduate and grad students at Fordham. Below are some of the tips and ideas I’ve collected over the years that my students find most useful. (Next week I’ll talk in this space about the best exercises I’ve found for revising nonfiction.)

1) First, answer these questions:
What is my story about? Another way of saying this is: What is the pattern of change? Once this pattern is clear, you can check your draft to make sure you’ve included all the crucial moments of discovery and decision. Is there a crisis action?

2) Write three new openings. Each one should be at least a paragraph long. In each opening, start from a different moment in the story – maybe even at the very end.

3) For a dialogue scene in your story/novel: go back and ground it in the physical world by adding:
a. two actions or gestures that will help us see another important character
b. two physical descriptions of another character that will help us visualize him or her
c. two setting or atmosphere details that will help put readers in the scene

4) The dramatic elements of a story/novel – crisis, power shifts, emotional connections, and withdrawals – are often mirrored on a smaller scale within a scene.

Try analyzing one of your own scenes, asking yourself:
a. What kind of power does each of the main characters have?
b. Where is there at least one shift in power – or even a failed attempt to take power?
c. Where is there at least one moment of making or breaking the emotional connection between the characters? Does it raise the emotional temperature?
d. Is there a mini-crisis or turning point? Something that is said or done, however minor, after which things cannot go back to quite the way they were before?

5) Are your most important lines in direct dialogue, or summarized? Generally, these should be direct. Is information or idle chatter direct or summarized? Generally, these should be summarized. Revise to make sure that the most important moments are in direct dialogue.

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Beginning a story or a novel, Alice Munro says, is the easy part …

“Endings are another matter.  When I’ve shaped the story in my head, before starting to put it on paper, it has, of course, an ending.  Often this ending will stay in place right through the first draft.  Sometimes it stays in place for good.  Sometimes not.  The story, in the first draft, has put on rough but adequate clothes, it is “finished” and might be thought to need no more than a lot of technical adjustments, some tightening here and expanding there, and the slipping in of some telling dialogue and chopping away of flabby modifiers.  It’s then, in fact, that the story is in the greatest danger of losing its life, of appearing so hopelessly misbegotten that my only relief comes from abandoning it.  It doesn’t do enough.  It does what I intended, but it turns out that my intention was all wrong.  Quite often I decide to give up on it.  (This was the point at which, in my early days as a writer, I did just chuck everything out and get started on something absolutely new.) And now that the story is free from my controlling hand a change in direction may occur.  I can’t ever be sure this will happen, and there are bad times, though I should be used to them.  I’m no good at letting go, I am thrifty and tenacious now, no spendthrift and addict of fresh starts as in my youth.  I go around glum and preoccupied, trying to think of ways to fix the problem.  Usually the right way pops up in the middle of this. A big relief, then.  Renewed energy.  Resurrection.  Except that it isn’t the right way.  Maybe a way to the right way. Now I write pages and pages I’ll have to discard.  New angles are introduced, minor characters brought center stage, lively and satisfying scenes are written, and it’s all a mistake.  Out they go.  But by this time I’m on the track, there’s no backing out.  I know so much more than I did, I know what I want to happen and where I want to end up and I just have to keep trying till I find the best way of getting there.”

From the Introduction to Selected Stories.

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writers_block2Gretchen Rubin is the guru behind the phenomenally successful blog (and soon-to-be book) The Happiness Project.  In this post she shares an inside glimpse at her process.

One of the challenges of writing is … writing. Here are some tips that I’ve found most useful for myself, for actually getting words onto the page.

1. Write something every work-day, and preferably, every day; don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Staying inside a project keeps you engaged, keeps your mind working, and keeps ideas flowing. Also, perhaps surprisingly, it’s often easier to do something almost every day than to do it three times a week. (This may be related to the abstainer/moderator split.)

2. Remember that if you have even just fifteen minutes, you can get something done. Don’t mislead yourself, as I did for several years, with thoughts like, “If I don’t have three or four hours clear, there’s no point in starting.”

3. Don’t binge on writing. Staying up all night, not leaving your house for days, abandoning all other priorities in your life — these habits lead to burn-out.

4. If you have trouble re-entering a project, stop working in mid-thought — even mid-sentence — so it’s easy to dive back in later.

5. Don’t get distracted by how much you are or aren’t getting done. I put myself in jail.

6. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that creativity descends on you at random. Creative thinking comes most easily when you’re writing regularly and frequently, when you’re constantly thinking about your project.

7. Remember that lots of good ideas and great writing come during the revision stage. I’ve found, for myself, that I need to get a beginning, middle, and an end in place, and then the more creative and complex ideas begin to form. So I try not to be discouraged by first drafts.

8. Develop a method of keeping track of thoughts, ideas, articles, or anything that catches your attention. That keeps you from forgetting ideas that might turn out to be important, and also, combing through these materials helps stimulate your creativity. My catch-all document, where I store everything related to happiness that I don’t have another place for, is more than five hundred pages long. Some people use inspiration boards; others keep scrapbooks. Whatever works for you.

9. Pay attention to your physical comfort. Do you have a decent desk and chair? Are you cramped? Is the light too dim or too bright? Make a salute—if you feel relief when your hand is shading your eyes, your desk is too brightly lit. Check your body, too: lower your shoulders, make sure your tongue isn’t pressed against the top of your mouth, don’t sit in a contorted way. Being physically uncomfortable tires you out and makes work seem harder.

10. Try to eliminate interruptions — by other people, email, your phone, or poking around the Internet — but don’t tell yourself that you can only work with complete peace and quiet.

11. Over his writing desk, Franz Kafka had one word: “Wait.” My brilliantly creative friend Tad Low, however, keeps a different word on his desk: “Now.” Both pieces of advice are good.

12. If you’re stuck, try going for a walk and reading a really good book. Virginia Woolf noted to herself: “The way to rock oneself back into writing is this. First gentle exercise in the air. Second the reading of good literature. It is a mistake to think that literature can be produced from the raw.”

13. At least in my experience, the most important tip for getting writing done? Have something to say! This sounds obvious, but it’s a lot easier to write when you’re trying to tell a story, explain an idea, convey an impression, give a review, or whatever. If you’re having trouble writing, forget about the writing and focus on what you want to communicate. For example, I remember flailing desperately as I tried to write my college and law-school application essays. It was horrible – until in both cases I realized I had something I really wanted to say. Then the writing came easily, and those two essays are among my favorites of things I’ve ever written.

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Nash, Jennie coverSome handy rules for when, why and how to ask readers to respond to a work-in-progress:

1.  Don’t Ask Too Early in the Process

Work that is still incubating is too fragile for critique. Wait until you have a clear vision of your project so that you don’t get swayed by what other people think. I usually ask for feedback when I’ve stopped wondering if people will like my story and start wondering about the way a specific part of the story will play itself out in someone else’s mind – i.e. will people empathize with my narrator in this scene, is this section of dialogue believable?

2.  Don’t Ask Too Late in the Process

If you think your story is perfect and that is has the potential to be short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize, don’t bother asking for feedback. You’re too late.

3. Don’t Ask Your Mother, Your Spouse, or Your Best Friend

Your first instinct may be to ask someone who you know will be nice; resist it. Nice is not useful to a writer who wants to be taken seriously. You can always invite your mother/spouse/best friend to rip apart your work – but beware: it’s a bit like letting the genie out of the bottle.

4.  Ask Someone Who Has a Keen Critical Eye

What you want is honest, precise and clear criticism. Look for someone who reads this way or approaches the world this way. Perhaps it’s another writer, or someone in your book club, or someone who sits with you on a community board and always has reasonable things to say.

5.  Ask for Something Specific

“Tell me what you think” will only get you vague responses.  I ask my sister to read my work when I need a reader to ferret out every single error in logic. My brain doesn’t work the way hers does, and I value her skill. I have another friend who can see the possibilities for humor in my work where I see nothing but earnest sentiment, and I ask her to note those places.

6. Include a Deadline

When I ask for feedback, I always include a deadline. If the person is swamped at work or in the middle of reading The Pillars of the Earth for book club, they will decline my request, which is best for everyone. There’s nothing worse than getting feedback on pages I deleted ten days ago.

7. Have a Plan in Place for Evaluating Feedback

I know feedback is good when I immediately think, Darn it! They caught me red-handed. It means my instincts were right about something being half-baked. If, on the other hand, I calmly think, Nope – I don’t agree, then I can safely ignore what my reader has to say. Conflicting comments – one person loves your main character, another loathes her – may simply mean you’re getting people’s attention.

8. Be Prepared for Heartbreak

You want it to hurt. You want to feel like crawling into a dark cave for several days and taking up basketweaving. But remember that it’s much better to know the problems now than to know them later. Later, the news will come from agents, editors, book buyers, book reviewers, and it will hurt much, much more. So take a deep breath, prepare for the pain, and bring it on.

9. Be Prepared to Work

The work I do after getting feedback sometimes feels to me like throwing a deck of cards up in the air and having to re-arrange the stack. I may end up having to jettison 50 pages or re-think a key relationship that doesn’t play out the way I expected it would. It’s hard work. I set aside time, clean out my inbox, roll up my sleeves and dig in.

10. Give Thanks

I couldn’t write nearly as well as I do without the kindness of the people giving me feedback and I try to make sure they always know it.

Jennie Nash is the author of three novels, including The Last Beach Bungalow, The Only True Genius in the Family, and, coming in May 2010, The Threadbare Heart. She is also the author of three memoirs, including The Victoria’s Secret Catalog Never Stops Coming and Other Lessons I Learned from Breast Cancer. She is an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Learn more about her work at www.jennienash.com and visit her blog about creative inspiration at www.meetyourmuse.blogspot.com.

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george-orwellIn his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell made a list of six rules for writers. “These rules sound elementary,” Orwell wrote, “and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.” Though he compiled this list in 1946, it’s as relevant and useful today as it was then:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

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I’m curious about how literary writers whose work is also commercial balance two often conflicting objectives:  telling a good story and exploring setting, theme, and character. One day this wee1118759_32303519k I was privileged to spend time with two terrific novelists, Alison Larkin and Marina Budhos, who had very different and equally useful takes on this question.

Alison told me that she reads the thriller writer Harlan Coben for plot. Coben is a master of building and maintaining suspense, she said; you can’t help turning the pages. Paying attention to how he withholds and reveals information has been instructive for her. Marina said that, for her, “a first draft is all about exploration, but at a certain point that exploration has to stop.” She talked about the challenges of revision: taking a first draft and pulling the threads of plot and character all the way through, while at the same time ruthlessly cutting and repositioning the prose so the story has immediacy and urgency. In a first draft, then, the writer should feel free to experiment and digress – and I would argue that the literary writer must do so, to remain open to the unanticipated byways of the creative process – but in a second draft the writer has to remember that the prose exists solely in service to the story.  As the writer Honor Moore says, “If you don’t put it in, you can’t take it out.”

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