Revision Diary: Shuffling Along

I’ve finally reached a point in this revision where something has flipped mentally. In a good way. What I mean is that the story has finally taken over so much of my attention that it’s crowding out my ability to think about other, less important things. Like getting dressed. Take this morning for example. This is how I knew the flip had occurred. I was so intent on thinking about the story that after I had taken off my pajamas, showered, etc., I put my pajamas back on instead of putting on actual clothing. That’s bad. But it’s also very very good.

Here’s why: because for the past two years, it has been the other way around where it’s been a daily struggle to push real world worries and anxieties out of the way to make room for thinking about the story. I’ve been able to do it, but the effort shows, I think, in the amount of work I’m able to do and in the work itself.

The last few days have felt different and this is why. The work has finally pushed its way through the other stuff. And there has been a lot. Some big personal things but also watching American democracy  being dismantled has not been conducive to creative work. Not for me, anyway. And if you have struggled to write or create during this time, too, know that you’re not alone. I wish I could tell you how I broke through but honestly, I think it was just a matter of dogged determination. I will finish this book or die. Whichever comes first.

Anyway, yesterday I had one of those revision moments where I broke down and did a thing I rarely do. I have never been big on charts and graphs, the sort of thing where people lay out the entire book in colored sticky notes all over the wall in order to visualize…something. My brain doesn’t tend to work that way.

But this week, I had to resort to….colored index cards. Now mind, this is on a very microscopic level, especially in terms of this book, because I only used three! The thing is, I was floundering trying to rewrite a long scene that originally covered two chapters and involved multiple threads where three separate, important points were made.

I knew in earlier drafts that this scene/two chapters did not work. Critical information was presented in forced conversations. Nothing flowed naturally. It did the work I needed it to do but it wasn’t organic. I was jerking the characters around like a bad puppeteer.

This is always always always the problem. When I’m stuck, when something doesn’t feel right, 99% of the time it’s because I have been forcing the characters to say what I think I need them to say. When I go back and figure out where I started pushing instead of listening, I can usually unravel things.

But in this scene, there was too much going on and I couldn’t keep it all in my head. So I wrote down the three moments in the scene that weren’t working and the functions those moments performed, each on a separate index card:

These are essentially three conversations my MC has with three different people. (Well, four, but two of them are together.) In the original draft, the order was yellow-pink-blue. Yellow was part of a conversation with a young man who is interested in her. Pink was a conversation with two sisters who upset her and sparked a bad argument with her own sister that has repercussions later in the story. Blue is a conversation with an older man that was pure info dump stuff, and originally, it closed out a chapter and the entire overly long scene. Yes, with an info dump. The whole thing ended with a dull thump.

Even rewriting that conversation to match the new theme didn’t help make that ending right and drive the story into the next chapter. And I knew that there was something in that conversation with the young man that could be used to better effect–because that conversation impacted the pink conversation because one of those sisters was also interested in that young man. But I couldn’t juggle them all in my mind and get a feel for how they would flow one into the other.

But writing them out clearly and then shuffling them worked. I had the answer in two minutes. The info dump is less of an info dump but hey, you still need info dumps. Only now it works because it serves to mix up my MC even more so that it’s believable that she would snap in that pink conversation (er, no I didn’t purposely make the conversation with the woman pink. I swear they came out of the pack in that order.) And then she takes that anger and spite into the yellow conversation and uses it to do something foolish and then THAT is the end of the scene and chapter. She makes a foolish choice and is still angry and that anger will inform the next scene exactly as it should.

Whew. Trying to keep an open mind about various methods. Sometimes it works.

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Revision Diary: Blurgh

Quickie entry. Here is a note I left to myself on the ms:

The last line says “I don’t know what this scene is about!!!”

I have been staring at that note all day.

I still don’t know.

It’s a problem.

I’m going to go eat ice cream and stop thinking about it.

That is all.

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My Brush with a Prep School Boy

About fourteen years ago, I received an invitation to give my very first school visit as a published YA author. Even though I was a last minute fill-in for an author who had cancelled, I was excited because YA authors don’t get as many school visit opportunities as other children’s authors, especially unknown, untried authors.

The invitation was for a keynote address at an end-of-year assembly at an elite prep school outside of Washington DC. (No, not that one but one similar to it.) I went with absolutely zero preconceived notions or prejudices. I was mostly just horribly, introvertedly nervous at the prospect of standing up and speaking in front of a crowd of total strangers.

The assembly took place in the school’s vast, modern atrium. I was seated on a dais with several faculty members, all of whom spoke before me. The students were seated in front of the dais but also lining a mezzanine above us. They were noisy, inattentive, more interested in the snacks they were eating than what anyone had to say. (Most of them were wearing and eating candy necklaces, and I admit to wishing someone had given me one.) Remember, these are high school age students we’re talking about.

About halfway through the dean’s speech, empty Doritos bags started fluttering down from the mezzanine. Nobody said anything. Nobody said anything, either, when the librarian got up to introduce me and the entire student body began to rhythmically bark at him and did not stop until he stepped away from the mic. They can’t have heard a word he said. I couldn’t hear a word he said. I just remember seeing him turn and wave me forward, like it was all perfectly normal and I should just stand up there and be their next target.

I also remember thinking “What would happen if I just walked off the dais?” Because I’d started out horribly nervous and now I was appalled and terrified. BUT I also needed the money. Desperately. So I stepped up to the mic and started to speak. They didn’t bark at me, but they didn’t listen to me, either. They ate their candy necklaces and threw Doritos bags around. Fortunately, I had practiced so much that I was able to just rattle off my speech. When I finished, there was some applause. There was also some laughter. But I had gotten through it and was focused on the check. Who had the check and when were they going to give it to me?

Then I was asked if I would speak to one of the English classes. I was so desperate to make a good impression on this, my first outing, I agreed. It was a much smaller group, only about twenty kids. We did a Q&A, so they were more attentive and involved, and most of their questions were writing related.

Then a boy in the second row raised his hand. He was leaning back in his chair with his feet propped on his desk, ankles crossed. He put his hands behind his head and drawled “Tell me, Mrs. Wyatt, does writing fulfill ALL of your needs?”

There was no mistaking the suggestive intent of his question. It was in his voice, in his posture, in his raised eyebrow. It was so apparent that the male teacher PUT HIS FACE IN HIS HANDS and groaned “Oh, Brandon.”

I remember staring at the teacher and waiting for him to do something more than just groan, but he didn’t. I stared at Brandon, who smiled angelically back at me and rocked a little in his chair. He knew he could say whatever he wanted to me, an adult guest at his school, and nobody would do anything about it.

So I said “What needs did you have in mind, Brandon?”

He instantly turned red and sat forward with a bang of his chair legs on the floor and stammered “Uh–oh–financial! I meant financial! Financial needs!”

(Which was still a rotten question.)

But all the same, he knew. He knew he could say it. He knew the teacher would do nothing. And he was surprised at being challenged.

As personal attacks go, it was extremely minor. I’m fine. But in the context of the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about it and thinking about how deeply the flawed structure of power runs in this country, how it breeds Kavanaughs, and how it is tied to privilege and social class.

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Revision Diary: That’s a Shame

Over the years, I have tried just about every writing productivity technique you can think of because…well, I’m lazy. Yes, procrastination is largely about avoidance and that is often about fear and that is often about exposure and perfectionism, but it’s also sometimes about how writing is a lot of work. And revision is particularly hard. For me, anyway.

So I’ve tried everything to get my ass in my chair. Threats, rewards, blocking software, alarm clocks, visualization, inspirational quotes above my computer, etc. etc. Some things work sometimes. Some don’t work at all. Things that work for other people have no effect on me. I set deadlines and I watch them fly right past me.

But I think I’ve finally found what works for me and I’m not ashamed to admit it: shame. Or rather the threat of public shame in front of writer friends.

Enter: my friend Rob, his sly wit, and a cache of Hollywood leading lady stills.

What Rob does and how this works: Rob has generously offered to be the keeper of my deadlines. I tell him what I want to achieve and the date I want to achieve it by. Currently, we’re working in chapter-sized chunks with a weekly deadline.

The threat: I send Rob the chapter I’ve finished working on by 9:00 PM on Wednesday or Rob posts a judgy picture of Bette Davis or something on facebook:

And then all my friends know I have blown a week without doing any work. It’s a powerful motivator. Does it make me work every day? Um…..nnnnnno. Sometimes I am up all night on Tuesday, frantically revising to meet the chapter quota and avoid Bette Davis’s ire. But the trick is that every little bit adds up and a frantic late Tuesday is better than nothing at all.

So anyway, here it is Sunday and I am determined to make headway on that chapter quota. Here’s what I’m working on today (and maybe why this is taking so freaking long and makes me so tired just thinking about it!)

My MC and her family are stepping out into their new environment for the first time, which means describing that environment through my MC’s eyes but also in keeping with the theme. There’s A LOT in this environment that needs to come forward to better establish the central mystery of the novel. Because it’s first person, my MC knows nothing of it. So it has to be things she would notice but not understand and yet would not make her stop and go “WTH?”

This has been one of the major problems with this novel all along: the contrast between the MC’s very persona and the mystery/supernatural aspects of the novel. Maybe she’s the right heroine in the wrong story but I still feel like there’s a way to pull this off. It’s just HARD WORK!

One of the other complex issues in this “stepping into the world” chapter is the introduction of new characters, particularly a couple of girls who in earlier drafts were mean girl types. But with the new philosophy of the novel, that caricature no longer works. They can still be mean and the MC can still not like them, but the reader needs to understand that they’re human and have a story of their own.

Now add in that there’s still a lot in this chapter that is good and needs to stay and that once you start monkeying with one thread, you unravel others, and this is delicate, painstaking work, searching for ways to weave and reweave an existing fabric.

I have a lot on my plate today. Time to get to it!

 

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Revision Diary: Working at the Workshop

I am back from helping out at the Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshop in Milanville, PA. In case you haven’t heard of this magical place, please click through the link and have a look at all of the marvelous things they offer to working children’s writers in an incredibly beautiful and supportive setting.

(That was the view out my window one soft, misty morning!)

I cannot say enough wonderful things about the faculty of the Whole Novel Workshop, headed by the incredible Sarah Aronson. If you have a completed MG or YA novel you need to revise, consider applying for a spot at this intense but supportive week-long workshop.

Every year, the atmosphere generated at this workshop is a boon to faculty as well as students. I’ve had major revelations and productive streaks. This year was a little more modest for me in terms of productivity because of where I am in this revision (still in that painstaking stuff!) But the good news is that everything still feels right. So far!

But something has been niggling at me after this week, related to a thought I’ve had all year regarding an aspect of diversity that isn’t often addressed, and that is economic diversity. Not in the work itself–that, I think, is talked about from time to time. But in the question of the people writing the stories. We don’t talk about economic barriers to publishing, and there are many. Simply having the time to write is a luxury for so many writers. Other things, such as workshops like this one, travel for research or experience, extended education, paid editing or critiques, etc., are out of reach for many writers.

So I’ve been mulling over the one little thing that I–an economically challenged writer in my own right–can offer and will make an announcement about it soon.

*Highlights Foundation does offer scholarships. Click here for info.

 

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Revision Diary: the Painstaking Stuff

(I hate long blog post intros, so diving right in.) After going through the entire ms and marking it up in Word as well as creating a chapter-by-chapter outline and marking THAT up, I am finally down to the actual revision.

Even though I’m making major changes in this revision, this isn’t the time to bash through and hit the major points first. For one thing, this is about the five hundredth revision. For another, I’m just not that kind of writer. I compare my revision method to combing out very long, very snarled hair. You just have to work bit by bit, with patience and you have to keep going back and combing forward, over and over. It’s painstaking but it’s my method and I’m kind of stuck with it.

So here’s where I am today. Here’s a glimpse of my outline.

I break each chapter down into scenes. This is helpful to me because if I try to go through scenes in the ms itself, I get sucked into reading and lose track of what I’m doing. The outline helps me to focus on which scenes provide opportunities to make the points the revision needs to make. “Opportunity” is my new revision word. I like it better than “fix” or “change.”

So everywhere there’s a yellow highlight, there’s an opportunity and I know that’s a scene I need to focus on.

Next to the outline are visual references. It helps me a lot to have pictures of my main characters. Every time I get into trouble in the ms, when I’m stuck, it’s ALWAYS because I’ve pushed a character to do or say something that is not organic to the character. The photos remind me that they are individuals.

I also have images of settings because I love settings and think they are as much a character as anyone else. The photos are evocative and can help pull me back into the story if I get distracted. (Yes, I know you can make bulletin boards on Scrivener* and blah blah, but I like physical copies. Pictures in particular look different printed out. And I get great satisfaction from crumpling up each page of the outline as I move forward.)

And here’s a marked up page on Word:

A lot of the notes on the ms itself are sort of clean-up items. They’re about language, tone, small points, correcting things that have been altered by other changes. The big picture items are in the yellow highlights on the outline. At this point, there are 478 comments to attend to! (I delete as I go, so there were more.) I’m not even going to look at how many yellow highlights there are. There aren’t 478 but there are a lot. And a lot of them involve rethinking, and that has always been the hardest part of revision for me: reimagining what I have already imagined.

The other challenge with this revision is that while I am adding a lot of new information, my goal is to cut this thing by 100 pages.

(Six down, ninety-four to go…)

*you can do that on Word, too

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Cold Hands, Sore Hands!

Writing historical fiction? Or read tons of it and always wondered what chilblains are? I can help you out with that! Take a look:

All four of my fingers are afflicted, but the most easily visible ones are the red welts on the middle and pinky fingers, particularly on the first joints. What happens is when the extremities are cold, the blood vessels constrict, restricting blood flow. If you warm up too quickly, the blood tries to rush into the vessels before they have a chance to expand. With nowhere to go, the blood will push through weak spots in the vessel walls and pool in the surrounding tissue, creating painful welts, swelling, itching. It takes about two weeks for the body to reabsorb the blood deposits. Until then, welts are hot, itchy, extremely painful to the touch. Surrounding tissue feels swollen and hard, sometimes tingly. Extremes in temperature in either direction increase the discomfort.

Chilblains: literally swollen from the cold. Chill blain.

On a side note, these are so uncommon in the US because of widespread central heating and modern fabrics in gloves, socks, and shoes, that it took me years to find a doctor who not only recognized what they were but who had even heard of them. But they were common before the advent of central heating. The scourge of Victorian governesses and scullery maids.

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Tragic Backstory

So like I said, I’m launching this blog mainly to keep track of the revision of a WIP, but first, a little background, some of which is hard for me to admit.

I started this WIP eight years ago. Eight years. Eight looooooong years. It took me three years to finish it. That is, to get it to the point where I felt it was ready to go out to editors. In my own defense, it was at that point over 125,000 words long, a historical fantasy that required tons of research. But anyway, it was “done” and out it went.

And back it came. Over and over. It came frustratingly close to publication a couple of times. It went to committee twice and twice was turned down. It got those maddening “positive” rejections like “I love this but historical fiction doesn’t sell,” or “I love this but it’s too long. Can you cut 200 pages?” That sort of thing.

It also drew criticism I have to admit I wasn’t ready to hear–or that didn’t make sense to me at the time. We’ll get to that later. Discouraged, I withdrew the ms from submission and reluctantly, parted ways with my agent, and then…

I quit.

Oh, it wasn’t formal. I didn’t make a public grand farewell to my art. I just stopped writing. I stopped thinking about writing. I felt like the writing part of my brain had simply shut down. And after a few years, it seemed to be a permanent state.

For awhile, I tried to write, but I couldn’t move forward on anything new. That was the frustrating part. It wasn’t that I consciously couldn’t let go of this book. After all, this book started as a bit of fluffy fun. It wasn’t important. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t published, so there should be no problem letting it go and moving on, right? Wrong. Everything I started just petered out in a sad fizzle of lack of confidence. It’s all clear NOW what the problem was, but at the time, I couldn’t figure it out and I was frustrated.

So I stopped. I got a job, the kind that pays you money regularly for the work you do. I got my kids through school. I cringed when people asked me when my next book was coming out. For years, I didn’t write. I tried. I made plans. I brainstormed with writer friends. I worked with a life coach. But I didn’t write.

Then something changed. In all that time, something subconscious was going on. It’s a long story involving discovering the freedom of fanfiction that I won’t go into here, but it basically came down to what I say to other writer friends who are discouraged and want to quit. “The doors are never locked behind you.” That is, the gates to your writing brain are always open but also always taking things in, and eventually, I rediscovered the creative joy I had lost, and after a time, I was ready to take that joy back into my own original work.

But I still STILL could not get past this sad, abandoned ms. It was just there, in my head, refusing to budge. Okay, I thought, well, I’ll take this new energy and give it one last try. You hear that, ms? You get one more shot out of me and then we’re done. DONE, I tell you. I will move on if I can’t figure you out this time.

So I headed off to a week long retreat with a folder full of notes for three different works-in-progress, including this stubborn ms. Maybe I’d work on it. Maybe I’d work on something new, fresh, and fun.

Now there were several friends at this retreat who I had foisted this ms on before had read this ms in various stages over the years and were kind enough to overlook how whiny I’d been and talk to me about it. And this is another long story I won’t get into, but it was one of those weird, serendipitous things where one friend would tell me one thing and then another friend would say something else that just dovetailed right into it and things began to fall into place, like the tumblers in a lock when you finally get the combination just right. I swear I could hear them falling–click, click, click.

There were several revelations that week, but the biggest and most critical one was this:

Talking it through with the help of my friends, I figured out the heart of the book, the point of it, what it wanted to say. All during those eight years, I had lightly dismissed my own book as not having a point, as just being “for fun.” But the thing is, the heart had always been there. I had just been ignoring it. (A lot of this revision going forward will be about clearing away a lot of clutter that had been obscuring that heart.) My book now felt important. Not in an “I will save the world with this book, it is so important!” way, but in a “This deserves all of my care” way.

And underneath that was the reason why I had both not been able to abandon the book but also had not been able to work on it. I couldn’t abandon it because on an unacknowledged level, I knew it was important. I couldn’t work on it because consciously thinking it was unimportant made working on it feel like a bad career move. And so I was stuck between these two opposing forces in my own head. Stalemate.

Understanding what the book had wanted to be all along removed both. Click, click, click. All the tumblers fell into place. It is the most amazing feeling I’ve had in writing. Sure, the fact that it took years to get here is pretty appalling, but on the other hand, the way things came together, I believe that I just wasn’t ready for what the book was trying to tell me. There is a time for things, and the time for this book is now.

SO.

That said, now there’s a pretty substantial revision ahead of me. But the vision is more clear than in any revision I’ve attempted so far. So I thought it would be interesting–even if only to me–to chronicle what I’m doing, to see how it goes, what works and what doesn’t. I will tag all of these entries with “revision diary.” Off we go.

 

 

 

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New blog!

Finally figured out how to add a blog to my webpage, so now I have a convenient place to ramble. This will come in handy because I’m starting an ambitious new revision of an old, ornery ms and plan to chronicle what I’m doing because I think it might be useful to me and maybe to anyone else out there who needs some inspiration. Be sure to check back or sign up for email updates!

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