Revising Leah

May 30, 2008

Introducing David Parks

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 12:14 pm
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I’ve reached chapter nine in my revising. This chapter represents a turning point in the story. During the opening chapters the narrative is focused on Leah Nells and her initial experiences while starting high school. We’ve seen glimpses of Leah’s classmates, but we haven’t really gotten to know any of them. The middle portion of the novel, though, introduces us to a number of other characters, the most important of which is David Parks, for whom Leah quickly develops a crush. Leah’s crush might not have gone anywhere except that chance (a.k.a. The Author) manages to drive the two of them together, at least for a few weeks. As David gains prominence in the story, his subplot becomes, in a sense, the main plot of the novel for the next several chapters.

When I was in high school, I was aware, as I suppose we all were, of the different social strata into which the entire population of a class is divided. To a large extent, which society you belong to depends a lot upon who your friends were in the past. If you are lucky enough to join the right clique at the right time, you might find yourself among the most popular students for most of your life in school. Movement between these strata is possible, of course. I remember one boy in middle school who seemed determined to break into the most popular clique in the school. He’d hang around those kids and generally kiss their butts. Eventually, by the time we got to high school, he had pretty much succeeded in this goal. He wasn’t exactly one of the elites, but he was allowed to hang around them.

This elite class is often vilified in pop culture. In books and in movies, the “cool kids” are usually portrayed as self-centered, snobby, and quick to abuse their power (“mean girls,” for example). In real life, though, the situation is much more complex. Yes, I remember that some members of the elite class in my high school were a-holes, but not all of them were. There were some who appeared to be decent, level-headed people; they were approachable, and if you didn’t antagonize them, then they didn’t give you any grief either. Some of them even denied their elite status. I recall one girl who absolutely recoiled at the suggestion that she was one of the “coolest” girls in the class. She really was, but she flatly denied that accusation and even got a little angry about it.

David Parks finds himself among the elites of his ninth grade class, but he hasn’t been corrupted by that power. Instead, the character is motivated by a sense of justice and common sense. That is what compels him to act in chapter nine, when another one of the elites starts picking on Leah and tries to humiliate her. David sees a girl who is incapable of defending herself, so he decides to stand up for her. He’s acting out of a personal sense of right and wrong, but Leah begins to wonder if there is something else motivating him.

I try not to rely on stereotypes when I create characters, or if I do make use of stereotypes, I try to turn the stereotype on its head somehow. David Parks is one of the most popular boys in ninth grade, but as Leah gradually discovers, he’s got a lot in common with her as well.

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May 29, 2008

Trimming the Fat

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:21 am
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One bad habit of mine is that I sometimes get too bogged down in the pedestrian details of what my characters are doing. I find myself describing everything — whether it is relevant to the characters and the story or not. For example, I might describe a student sitting down to do her homework and I’ll end up producing a lengthy passage in which I describe in tedious detail choosing the right pencil, flipping through the pages of a textbook, writing down one’s name on a sheet of notebook paper, etc., when all that I really need to do is write, “Jane worked on her homework for an hour.” I sometimes get lost in the details of my characters’ lives and that produces a lot of really boring prose. There are some literary precedents for this kind of thing (in Proust or S. Richardson or Kafka or Stein, for instance) but I prefer to keep my writing as lean and quick as possible. When I write about “trimming the fat” from my text, reducing or eliminating these long tedious passages in which nothing important to the story is happening is often what I’m referring to.

This morning, I finished revising the highlighted portions of chapters three and four. It took me three days to get through those chapters, and it really felt like an eternity. Those chapters (together, they are 19 pages long) describe Leah’s first day of high school. I literally accompany her every step of the way: from the moment she wakes up in the morning, to her trip to school, to her first class of the day, to her search for a place to spend her lunch hours, to her walk home, to the interrogation that she receives from her mother in the evening. That’s a lot of detail, and as I worked through it, I kept asking myself, “Do I really need all this? Can I cut some of it out?” In fact, I did delete a few paragraphs, but I decided to keep most of it, even at the risk of it being tedious for the reader. I do think it is important for the reader to follow Leah through her anxiety-filled first day of high school because it illustrates the depth of her isolation from her classmates. So many of the episodes in the opening chapters of the novel are designed to show some of the problems that Leah, who doesn’t have any friends, faces on a daily basis. She isn’t exactly unhappy in her situation, but she is certainly led to think that she is.

So as I revise the novel, I am always on the lookout for passages that I don’t need, that don’t add anything worthwhile to the story. I know that I’ll encounter many such passages later on in the book, and hopefully the changes that I make will result in a better novel.

May 27, 2008

Progress Report #2: The First Third

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:46 am
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An update of where I’m at and what I’m doing . . .

Most of my revising work has been in the first third of the novel (about the first 75 pages or so). This section of the novel finds Leah alone, and the narrative focus is almost entirely on her. By focusing so narrowly on a character who rarely speaks (I think the total number of words that Leah speaks in the opening chapters is probably less than 30 words altogether) I am forced to tell my story using only descriptive prose — there is almost no dialogue at all. It’s a bit like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, or a Jose Saramago novel. For me, it is not the easiest way to write. One thing that I have learned about myself as a writer over the last year or two is that I really enjoy writing dialogue. Some of my favorite passages in The Spring, for example, are passages of dialogue between two or more of the characters. When I was reading through Leah a couple weeks ago and marking passages that need to be revised, I was shocked by just how much the novel seems to come alive in the later chapters of the novel when the characters talk to each other more.  One of my tasks as the author is to try to make the opening chapters of Leah, chapters that don’t really have any dialogue at all, as interesting and compelling as the later chapters. It’s hard to do.

As I’ve mentioned in another post, I’ve given myself permission to skip around a little bit. Even though I’m concentrating on the early chapters of the novel right now, if I feel inspired and want to work on a later chapter, I will do it. Yesterday, I did a lot of work on the very last chapter of the book. The last chapter — in fact, the very last couple of pages — is a section of the book that definitely needs work. Indeed, the last two pages of text have all been highlighted for revision. So the other night, as I lay in bed, trying to fall asleep, I suddenly had an idea for how I might structure the conclusion of the novel. Inspiration often finds me late at night, which isn’t really the best time since I frequently forget my brilliant ideas as soon as I fall asleep. This time, though, I did remember my idea, and when I woke the next morning, I jumped out of bed and got right to work.

Without giving the ending away, let me just say that the novel ends precisely at the moment when Leah experiences what I might describe as an “emotional epiphany.” It’s tricky for me to narrate this event because this epiphanic moment is entirely internal. I fumbled the ending in the 1996 draft by trying to describe logically and step-by-step, in simple and rather boring prose, the realization that Leah reaches. I did this for almost two pages, so that when I reached the final paragraph with the epiphany itself, I had somewhat undermined the impact of the ending for the reader. The ideas that came to me the other night offer a framework or outline for rewriting the end of the book. I still have a lot of work to do in the final chapter, but I feel like I’m on the right track.

May 25, 2008

How I Write

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 12:02 pm
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Lately, I’ve been writing and revising in the morning, shortly after I wake up. That’s not necessarily the best time of day for me to write and work (I’ve also been known to work in the afternoons and evenings), but I find that the best way to stay on track when working on a long-term writing project, like a novel, is to schedule a particular time to work every day — and then faithfully stick to that schedule. Procrastination is the most dangerous temptation that a writer faces, but if you schedule time to work, if you say “During these hours of the day, I will write and do nothing else” then that will help defeat the urge to procrastinate.

I spend at least one or two hours working everyday. You can get a lot accomplished in that period of time, and if you do work everyday, it is possible to make quick progress. Nevertheless, I understand how long this project will take. I expect to work throughout the summer and well into the fall before Leah is at a point where I will feel comfortable [re-]publishing it.

I do my writing on my laptop. The text of Leah that I am working on is a single .doc file. Once a week, I transfer the file onto an external flash drive for storage. I learned long ago that catastrophes do happen with respect to computers and electronics, and if my laptop were to suddenly die, I might lose all of my work. Storing a copy of the file on my flash drive ensures that if the unspeakable does occur, I will not have lost more than a week’s worth of work.

The file that I’m working on is more or less formatted (in terms of margins and page size) in the way that it will be when I [re-]publish the novel. Right now, the story is 263 pages long, which is exactly the same length as the final version of The Spring. However, I don’t think the final draft of Leah will be quite as long as that. I’m cutting a lot of fat out of the book as I revise, so I’d guess that the final draft will be somewhere between 230 and 250 pages long. I’ll have a much better idea of what the final length might be when I’ve completed this current round of revisions (hopefully by the end of June).

This blog has become part of my writing process, too. As you can see from the dates of the posts, I tend to add one new post every couple of days. So far I have a lot to post about (and I have a mental backlog of ideas for posts in my head), but that well might dry up after a couple of months and these posts might become less frequent. We’ll see. Sometimes I worry that posting to this blog takes up too much time (sometimes it threatens to be a distraction causing me to procrastinate), but I usually don’t post until I’ve done my writing for the day.

May 23, 2008

Purple Prose

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 10:55 am
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Another thing that I’m looking for as I revise is passages of flowery language that are out of place with respect to the surrounding text. As a teacher, I frequently see inexperienced writers try to compose in flowery, exaggerated, overly poetic language because they think that is what good writing is. I tell them that they don’t have to try to write that way; what is most important in writing well is clarity of expression. If your audience can understand what you are trying to communicate, even if you are using very simple language, then you have succeeded as a writer. It’s as easy as that.

So anyway, I’m on the lookout for flowery language in the 1996 draft of Leah. There isn’t a whole lot of it, but yesterday I came across this wonderfully embarrassing example:

Leah was an island of tranquility in this sea of pandemonium.

Ugh! This sticks out because there is nothing else like it on the page. It is inconsistent with the tone and language of the rest of the paragraph. A line like this might work in poem (possibly a bad poem) but I don’t want this kind of ornate language in my story. There are some authors, even great authors, who can write this way for an extended piece of writing, but I am not one of them. And even if I could write this way all the time, I wouldn’t want to do that here because that’s not the kind of writing that I want to use to tell Leah’s story. Why try to use such flowery language to tell a story about a girl who has trouble communicating? It would almost seem as if the narrator/author were mocking the main character. So here is how I revised it:

In the midst of this chaos, Leah sat in her desk, her report resting in front of her.

This is much better. I do still have “In the midst of this chaos” which concerns me a little, but at least it isn’t a “sea of pandemonium.” It communicates the same basic idea but without the hackneyed metaphors.

May 22, 2008

Reading List #2

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:38 am
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I’m always on the lookout for real-world book titles that I might include in the story for Leah to read. Here are a couple more recent discoveries that I found through Amazon:

Astronomy: The Evolving Universe

5087 Trivia Questions & Answers

I think, once I’ve settled on the titles that I’m going to use in the story, that I’ll probably go ahead and purchase a used copy of each of the books. I think it would be fun to have Leah’s collection of books on my own bookshelf.

May 20, 2008

Getting Preachy and Pretentious

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 2:09 pm
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As a writer, I have a number of annoying habits. One is that I sometimes get “preachy”; that is, I make these grandiose declarations and pronouncements that might sound clever when I write them, but when I read them back they just sound really, really pretentious. Last year, when I was working on The Spring, I had to excise several of these pretentious passages from my story, and as I revise Leah, I’m finding that a few of them made their way into the 1996 draft.

One example is the very beginning of chapter 3, which describes Leah’s first day of high school. I began that chapter with an overblown paragraph of pronouncements about how high school is an important day in the lives of every young person and blah, blah, blah. It sounded really stupid so I’ve deleted most of it and replaced it with a couple of lines more related to the progression of the story. These I combined with most of the text from the second paragraph to form a new opening paragraph for the chapter. Here it is:

The final days before the first day of school passed quickly, as though time itself had been accelerated. Each day found Leah slightly more nervous and worried about what was to come. She supposed that high school would be an awful experience for her, but only because the other option-that it would be wonderful-seemed so unlikely. On the Sunday night before the start of school when Leah was in her bed waiting to fall asleep, her imagination terrorized her by fabricating all sorts of wild scenarios which increased her anxiety. Suppose she were to get lost, or lose her schedule of classes? What if the room number of one of her classes was switched, but no one notified her and she found herself in the wrong class? Would the teachers be friendly or mean? And what about the other students? What could she expect from them? Her ninth grade class would be almost three times the size of her eighth grade class which meant she would be surrounded by unfamiliar faces everywhere she looked. She soothed her panicked mind by entertaining the idea that, as unlikely as it might seem, she could make a friend on the first day. Anything seemed possible, and everything was frightening.

Hopefully this is a much better opening paragraph for a chapter than what I had.

I had another one of these pretentious passages towards the end of the novel when Leah, her mother, and her grandmother go shopping the day after Thanksgiving. I wrote some dumb paragraph extolling the wonders of American consumerism (or something to that effect). I’m not sure if it remains in the draft that I posted a couple weeks ago, because it was one of the first things I changed when I began this revising project. Indeed, passages like these are one of the reasons why I’m undertaking this project. They are stupid, amateurish mistakes that I’m embarrassed to have made.

May 18, 2008

What’s In A Name?

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:22 am
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I’ve been working on the new chapter 5, which contains one of my favorite scenes in the early part of the novel.  It’s the scene where Leah almost makes a friend during her first week of school, but because of her inexperience communicating with other people and expressing herself, she misses the opportunity.

In the 1996 draft, I named the character who tries to befriend Leah “Carrie.” Later, for — let’s just say — extratextual reasons, I decided that I didn’t like that name.  So one of my tasks in chapter 5, along with my usual revising, was to choose a new name for the character.

Choosing a name for a character is always a significant event.  Unlike choosing a name for a newborn baby, who is a blank slate in terms of experiences, personality, and destiny, a writer introduces a character into a story knowing what the character’s role and personality will be.  Thus, a writer must choose a name that is suggestive, in some way, of that character.  There is, of course, a subjective element to all of this, too.  Different names suggest different things to different people, depending especially on whether we have ever met anyone with that name before.

So after giving it some thought (and after browsing some lists of common names that I found through Google) I decided to rename Carrie “Megan”.  Why?  Well, for one thing, I wanted a name that wasn’t too “flashy” or “girly” like, for example, “Tiffany”.  I also didn’t want to choose a name like “Emily” which, in my mind, has connotations to other isolated, hermetic individuals.  “Megan” is a good, ordinary girl’s name.  Finally, in my own personal experience, every Megan that I have ever met has always been overweight (there may be some skinny Megans in the world, but I’ve never met them).  In chapter 5, the character is described as “chubby” — not necessarily fat, but somewhat overweight.  Megan, in my mind, seems like the perfect name.

May 16, 2008

A Ninth Grade History Report by Leah Nells

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:41 am
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[ATTENTION GOOGLE SEARCHERS: Welcome! but I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place. This is a blog about a young adult novel titled Leah. If you’ve found this page while searching for information about Egypt or the Egyptian pharaohs, Leah’s report (which is what you’ll find below) isn’t the best source of information on those topics. Google isn’t really the most efficient way to find information either. What you might try is visiting the Wikipedia pages for “Ancient Egypt” or “Pharaoh” and then scroll to the bottom of those pages until you find the section titled “Sources and External Links.” There, you’ll find a list of websites which should offer good information for you to use. And don’t forget to acknowledge your sources in your essay!]

For the last few days, I’ve been working on Leah’s history report that she presents to her class near the end of the novel (chapter 18, for now). As I’ve mentioned already, it’s a challenging task, partly because producing writing in the voice of a character is not the same thing as producing dialogue for a character. In my day job, I’m a teacher, and I know that an inexperienced writer (such as Leah) has a “writing voice” that is somewhat different from how that writer speaks. It would be a mistake, for example, to craft Leah’s report as if she were simply speaking (and in Leah’s case, it would be very difficult to do because the character never speaks for an extended period of time in the novel). What I have noticed over the years is that inexperienced writers, especially when they are producing writing for school, all tend to write in a voice that is very similar to the writing voices of other inexperienced writers. (This is one of the things, for instance, which makes plagiarized work so easy to detect — a different writing voice suddenly interrupts the student’s voice.)

It has also been a difficult task because of the precise amount of time that I need to fill. I’m trying to fill about two and a half minutes, but it seems like the more I write, the harder it is to reach that point.

In any case, here is what I have produced:

I am going to talk about the Egyptian Pharaohs. The pharaohs were like kings and they

ruled in families called dynasties. The pharaohs were not only the political rulers of

Egypt, but they were also religious rulers as well. They were treated like gods by their

people and it was believed that when they died they went to live with their gods in the

afterlife. Most pharaohs were men, but there were some women who where pharaohs

too. Three of the most famous pharaohs wereRamesses the Second, Tutenkhamun, and

Cleopatra. Ramesses the Second, also known as Ramesses the Great, was Egypt’s most

famous and powerful pharaoh He was the pharaoh for 66 years and he is the pharaoh

who Moses fled from in the Bible. He constructed a lot of famous buildings and monuments

that still stand today. Tutenkhamun, also known as King Tut, wasn’t really that important,

but we know a lot about him because his tomb was discovered in 1922 with the mummy

and other objects still inside. Some people say that his tomb was cursed because a lot

of people who helped discovered it died mysteriously. He became the pharaoh when

he was only 8 years old and he died when he was only 18. He might have been murdered,

but no one knows for sure. Cleopatra was not the first female pharaoh to rule Egypt but

she is the most famous. She became pharaoh when she was only 17. She fell in love with

both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. She died when she was bit by a snake. She was

trying to commit suicide. When a pharaoh died, he or she was buried with all of their

belongings. Sometimes they were buried in pyramids and sometimes they were buried

underground. The pharaohs believed they became gods after they died, and when they

were buried they were buried as mummies. They were buried with food and gold and even

some of their servants and workers were buried with them. The pharaohs were a very

important part of Egyptian society.

So far, it is 344 words long, and when I read it at a relatively average speed (including a few mistakes and stutters) it is only about 1:50 long. I’ll try to add more text to it, but for now, this is what I’m working with.

Instead of just dropping this chunk of text into the appropriate place in chapter 18 and clicking “save,” I’ve made sure to integrate this text with the story itself. Although you can’t tell from this post, Leah’s report follows the five-paragraph scheme, so after each paragraph, the narrator of the story interrupts and describes what is happening while Leah is reading. We get to see some glimpses of Leah’s nervousness, the class’ boredom, her partners’ amusement, and her teacher’s struggle to hear what she is saying (throughout her presentation, Leah barely speaks above a whisper). It’s turned into a very interesting scene, one which is much better than in the 1996 draft in which I simply describe, in a brief, boring paragraph, Leah’s presentation.

This is the joy of revising: improving a text, making it better, crafting writing that I will want to return to and read again and again.

May 14, 2008

Progress Report #1

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 10:29 am
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Since my last post, I’ve been working on two things:  Leah’s Egypt report and chapter 1.

Writing Leah’s report has been a little trickier than I thought, not because, as I suggested before, that it is hard to capture her writing voice, but because I have very precise requirements about how long her report should be.  In the novel, each group is allotted 15 minutes for the group’s presentation, so Leah and her four partners decide to divide that time up equally, meaning that Leah has to prepare a 3 minute report.  I’ve always worried about this, because in my experience, I know that a 3 minute report really isn’t very long at all.  I was worried that all I was asking Leah to write was a mere paragraph, which doesn’t seem like a very substantial contribution to a big project like this.

Based on what I have drafted so far for Leah’s report, I see that a 3-minute report will be about 200-250 words long.  If written out by hand on notebook paper, that would fill about one page. I think that sounds like enough work, especially for a ninth grader, so I feel a lot better about this aspect of the story.

I’ve also been working on revising chapter 1. I’ve always liked the first chapter of Leah because the reader gets to see Leah in action right away. We meet Leah and her mother as the two of them are hitting the last two stops of a morning of garage sale shopping. Leah is searching for some new books to read, and Mrs. Nells has a plan to try to force her daughter to interact more with other people and break out of her shyness.  In the first chapter, we not only see the depth and degree of Leah’s shyness, and thus learn a lot about her as a character, but we also are introduced to the main conflict of the story: the shame that Leah feels because she is told, again and again, that there is something wrong with her, that her shyness is something terrible which she must overcome.

Just because I’m starting with chapter 1, that doesn’t mean that I’m going to proceed linearly through the novel.  I’ll probably skip around, working on whichever chapter I’m in the mood to work on. I want to make the revising process as enjoyable as possible so that I will be motivated to continue, and one way that I can do that is to allow myself the freedom to work on any portion of the story that I wish.

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