Revising Leah

June 29, 2008

In Defense of Ordinariness

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:24 am
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I suppose both Leah and The Spring would fall into the “young adult” genre of fiction, given the subject matter of the novels and their intended audiences. I’m fine with that, but my problem is that I haven’t read a lot of contemporary young adult fiction. I’ve read a few stories, but when I read for fun I prefer to read literary fiction (it’s the English major in me), so my idea of young adult fiction runs more along the lines of The Catcher in the Rye or The Bell Jar or Lord of the Flies. I’m sure that my reading habits have warped my sense of what I ought to be doing if I’m writing in the young adult genre, and I’m sure that my stories don’t conform to the larger trends in the genre already underway. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that Leah is a “misinterpretation” of what a novel in the young adult genre should be.

Whenever I come across young adult fiction book reviews or websites devoted to YA writing, I always take time to read the summaries of newly released books. I am curious about what other writers are doing, but more often than not I’m disappointed that my work bears little resemblance to those other stories.

From what I can tell there are three general categories for young adult novels. The first category includes the fantasy/horror/sci-fi books directed to teenagers. Here we have stories of wizards and dragons and vampires. Those kinds of books have never interested me as a reader. (I once tried to read the first Harry Potter book, but I couldn’t get past the first chapter–it just wasn’t anything I wanted to read.) In the second category we find soap opera books, stories where the female teen protagonist just got asked to the prom by the cute quarterback, but then she learns that her best friend has stolen her prom dress and plans to wear it to the prom herself!!! You know, that sort of thing. (Actually, I hate to say it, but The Spring, in many respects, might fall into this category. I’d like to think that my book is a little more substantial, though, but maybe it isn’t.)

However, for “serious” young adult fiction you have to turn to the third category: the “problem” novels. These are stories that feature realistic teenage characters in real-world, and frequently unpleasant, situations. Leah might fit into this sub-genre, except that the problems that I address in Leah bear little resemblance to the problems that are described in other authors’ books. As examples, here are some real synopses of problem novels that have recently been published:

Fourteen-year-old Caitlyn is really excited when sexy, gorgeous Tyler, 16, pays attention to her. She skips class to be with him, and she neglects her beloved art project. She tries to ignore how jealous and controlling he is, even when he slaps her and destroys a piece of her art. She loves it when they make out, but she isn’t sure she wants to go all the way. Then one night he forces her, and suddenly she has lost her virginity. Eventually she confronts the painful truth.

Deanna was 13 when her father caught her and 17-year-old Tommy having sex. Three years later, she is still struggling with the repercussions: how Tommy jokingly made her into the school slut; how the story became legend in her small town; how her father looked at her then — and now doesn’t look at her at all. Her brother, Darren, has mistakes to handle, too: he lives with his girlfriend and their baby in his parents’ basement. And while Deanna’s mother seems numb, her father is perpetually angry and depressed.

Hannah Baker is determined to have the last word — but she doesn’t get it. Before committing suicide, she sends a tape of 13 joined stories to those who she believes were instrumental in her death. One of the recipients is Clay Jenkins, who once had a crush on Hannah; he would have helped her if he could and listens brokenhearted.

Kristina Snow was a 17-year-old with high grades and a loving family. One summer in California with a meth-addicted boyfriend destroys her life. Addicted, she’s raped, and goes back home to Reno pregnant.

Notice a trend? The subject matter of these stories appear to be more in line with the old After-School Specials on TV that once greeted kids with morality tales and public service announcements as they came home from school. My problem with these problem novels is that they tend to go straight for the most sensational plots imaginable. While there’s no question that issues like abuse, date-rape, suicide, and heavy drug use are facts of life that thousands of teenagers have to deal with everyday, these books give the impression that all teenagers are grappling with these issues — but not all of them are. Perhaps I’m woefully naive, but I think that most teenage angst doesn’t come from horrific situations like these, but instead the angst is much more subtle and existential. If I wanted to, I suppose I could write a novel in which Leah Nells is abused by her parents, raped by David Parks, or whose extreme shyness and introversion cause her to attempt suicide or experiment with drugs. But those kinds of sensational plot twists don’t interest me as a writer, and they weren’t the kinds of stories that attracted me when I was a teenager.

I’m much more interested in exploring what I might call the ordinary. What interests me is how ordinary, average people cope with ordinary, average experiences, since it is the ordinary, average experiences that we all have to face everyday. Writers don’t need to saturate a story in melodrama in order to make it interesting. I’d rather explore how the pain and shame that Leah feels about her shyness and how her shyness manifests itself on the first day of school. I’m more interested in writing about how she fails, again and again, to make friends or simply talk to people. I think there’s more drama in a scene where she’s afraid to purchase a book from a garage sale than in a scene where she slits her wrists out of despair. The first scene reflects a reality that readers can relate to. The second scene is Hollywood sensationalism

The ordinary manifests itself in my stories in a couple of ways. In The Spring, most of my characters are among the most forgettable students in the class: the average kids who show up everyday, do their work, graduate with a decent GPA, and go on to live their average lives. Years later, you don’t remember their names. You don’t remember their faces. They were just there, like extras in a movie, while we star in our own supposedly important life stories. But as a writer, those are the people who I find fascinating and worth writing about because they’re the ones whose stories are never told. They aren’t exciting enough, they aren’t melodramatic enough to find their way into other authors’ stories. They’re considered insignificant because they aren’t on the football team or they aren’t acting out in class and causing trouble. But for me, the challenge is trying to find importance in those people considered unimportant, in finding significance in those lives considered insignificant.

In the case of Leah, it isn’t so much the characters as it is the events of the plot that are ordinary. The two main characters, Leah and David, exist at the extremes of the social spectrum. David is one of the most popular boys in the class while Leah doesn’t really belong to any social circle at all — she just keeps to herself and reads. They may not be completely ordinary students, but their story together is ordinary. The climax of their plot line doesn’t involve going to a party, getting drunk, driving home under the influence, and causing a car wreck that results in someone’s death. The climax of their story together involves presenting a history report to their class. Mundane? Common? Ordinary? Of course! but that’s how it should be. You don’t take an unusual character like Leah and place her in extraordinary circumstances; you take her and place her in the most ordinary circumstances you can imagine because it is those ordinary circumstances that readers can most relate to. That’s how readers will be able to form a bond with the character.

I mentioned The Glass Menagerie a few posts ago. Besides the character of Laura, one of the things that I liked about the play was how, at the end, nothing extraordinary happens to her. Her subplot ends pretty much as one would imagine it would end in real life. If Laura were swept off her feet by the gentleman caller, or if she died tragically by her own hand, I think the audience would feel cheated. By limiting myself as a writer to characters or events that are ordinary, I allow myself much more freedom. I don’t have to resort to the sensationalist plots that so many other authors have written.

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June 26, 2008

Progress Report #4: Slowing Down

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 12:35 pm
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Often, when I read a novel, I find that the last fifty pages or so seem to take the longest to read. Apparently, the same slow down occurs when one is revising. Since late last week, I’ve been working on the last 5 chapters of the novel, but whereas I used to be able to work through a chapter in just a day or two, it is now taking me a lot longer. In particular, chapter 20 felt like it would never end. Even though it’s not a particularly long chapter, I spent at least three days working on it. The problem was that it was a complete mess in terms of organization. Passages were repeated, sometimes information contradicted or at least was at odds with other details in the chapter or previous chapters, other events weren’t in the best order, and lots of sentences and paragraphs needed to be completely rewritten. It was a nightmare; sometimes I was spending two hours on just two pages worth of text. I finally dug my way out of it, though, and my revising is picking up speed once again. I’m currently on chapter 22.

Sometimes, the corrections that I make while I revise can be very subtle. For example, at the beginning of chapter 22, Mrs. Nells and Grandma are trying to talk Leah into going shopping with them. Mrs. Nells asks Leah if she wants to go, and I originally wrote, “Leah replied to her mother’s question by shaking her head no.” That’s a perfectly fine sentence, but the word “question” isn’t the best word for this context. Yes, when Mrs. Nells says, “Do you want to come along?” she is, technically, asking a question, but it is more accurate to say that Mrs. Nells is inviting her daughter to go with them. Thus, I changed the sentence to read, “Leah replied to her mother’s invitation by shaking her head no.” Using the word “invitation” also strengthens my use of the word “replied” because that is what you do with an invitation: you reply to it.

In the next phase of this revising project, I’ll be spending a lot more time on the details of the text (in this phase I’m trying to look more at the “big picture” elements of the story), but for now, I make little changes and corrections like these when I notice they are needed.

June 24, 2008

Book Blurbs

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 4:26 am
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Although I’m still a long way from publication, I do like to think about things like the blurb that will go on the back cover. Since I’m self-publishing, I have to do the blurb writing myself. I hate writing blurbs because I think they sound cheesy, but lately I’ve been working on the blurb for Leah anyway. The blurb that I wrote for the 1996 edition was one of the many things I didn’t like about the book, so I’m rewriting the blurb from scratch. Here’s my working draft for the blurb — I rather like it:

“Shy and alone, 14-year-old Leah Nells has lived her life in isolation, with only books to keep her company. But when she begins ninth grade, she finds herself thrust into the bewildering social cosmos of high school. And when she falls in love with a boy from her class, she must choose between the girl the world expects her to be and the girl who she is.”

June 23, 2008

Grandma

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 12:10 pm
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The final chapters of the novel are centered around Thanksgiving. Home from school, Leah spends a lot of time with her family as well as her grandmother (her mother’s mother) who has come to celebrate the holiday with them.

Grandma is a crucial character in this final phase of the book. Her interaction with Leah sets up the epiphany that the girl experiences in the last chapter. Unfortunately, I’m not at all happy with how the character was portrayed in the 1996 draft. I think the problem is that often Grandma speaks to Leah in a somewhat condescending way — the way that an adult often speaks to a young child. That is not at all the kind of relationship that I want to portray between these two characters. I want the two characters to experience a sort of connection, a bond that Mrs. Nells has never achieved with her daughter — a bond that causes some conflict a little later when Grandma and Mrs. Nells start arguing about the best way to raise a girl like Leah. I think the character of Grandma improves a bit as this phase of the story goes on, but initially, her relationship with Leah is more like that of an adult and a 4-year-old instead of a 14-year-old.

The dialogue — how Grandma speaks to Leah — is the main source of the trouble, so I’m focusing on that aspect of the story as I revise.

June 20, 2008

Leah’s Genealogy

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 1:48 pm
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Working on this novel and once again spending time with its main character, Leah Nells, has gotten me thinking a lot about the genesis of that character and her story. I wrote the original draft of Leah when I was in college (which probably explains a lot about why the 1996 edition of the novel didn’t turn out so well), but the main character herself was created when I was still in high school. Back then, I was writing stories all the time, often at the cost of my schoolwork. I’m not sure when, exactly, I created Leah Nells, but it was probably when I was in the 12th grade.

Leah Nells emerged as a composite of three individuals, both real and fictional:

  1. Myself. All of my main characters are extensions of me or some aspect of my personality — and I suppose most writers would say the same thing about their own character creations. I’ve always been an introverted person. I’m not really shy — I’ll talk to people when I need to — but like Melville’s Bartleby, I would prefer not to. Perhaps one reason why I really like Leah as a character is because it is one of the few times, in all of the stories that I have written, that I have given full expression to my introverted personality, bringing it forth and personifying it in a story.
  2. There was a girl in my high school who was living Leah’s life about as much as a real person can. I barely knew her at all; in our four years of high school I think I only shared three classes with her, but she clearly made an impression. She was shy, had no friends from what I could tell, and was occasionally picked on by bullies. One of the classes that I shared with her was our 12th grade study hall. I usually sat in class and wrote stories while she sat and read books. For a couple of weeks, she even spent her time reading a big book of trivia questions.
  3. In the 11th grade, my English class studied American literature. One of our reading assignments was The Glass Menagerie, a play that I liked so much that during the summer after 11th grade I went to a bookstore and bought my own copy, which I still have. What I liked most about the play was the character of Laura, whose crippled leg caused her to retreat from the world and live in isolation. I found the character fascinating because I hadn’t encountered anyone like her in any other stories that I had read.

So Leah Nells is an amalgamation of these three sources. Her character first appeared on paper in a pair of short stories, one written during the 12th grade, and the other written . . . well, I’m not sure when, but certainly before I started the novel. In fact, I do know that the second story was as much a character sketch as it was a story. I was probably considering writing a novel about the character, and I used that second story as an opportunity to see if I really could pull it off. As I’ve mentioned before, Leah is a difficult character to write about because she interacts (or doesn’t interact) so differently from other characters that I’ve created. Her story arc is principally an internal one, and so the novel relies on prose narration a lot more than I would prefer.

As a writer, I always end up forming an emotional bond with my main characters, no matter who they are; they’re a part of me. I don’t have children so they’re the closest thing that I have to offspring. I feel obligated to them in a lot of ways, and that is a big reason why I am revising the novel. Since the first edition was published, I’ve felt guilty about not placing Leah in the best possible story I could write. Hopefully, the new edition will live up to my expectations.

June 17, 2008

The Tyranny of Thanksgiving

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 12:32 pm
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The other day, I mentioned that chapter 17 is the longest chapter in the novel. The second longest is (or was) chapter 18, at about 20 pages long. But while I wasn’t able to break chapter 17 down any further than it already is, I found that chapter 18 had a formal break in the narrative about halfway through the chapter. Converting that narrative break into a chapter break was very easy, so I’m now back to a total of 25 chapters for the novel.

The more significant problem that chapter 18 (and now 19, too) poses for me is the problem that I first described a few weeks ago; namely, that I find myself with an extra day during the week of Thanksgiving. As I explained in that earlier post, in the 1996 draft of the novel, Leah’s history group delivers their presentation on Tuesday. The problem is that this seems to leave a lot of unnecessary repetition between Monday and Tuesday. Leah spends most of Monday worrying about the possibility that she and her group might be selected to present their projects on Monday. When that doesn’t happen, she experiences a reprieve Monday evening, but on Tuesday, the anxiety returns. My problem is that I don’t want to just write “Leah was worried” over and over again.

The ideal solution would be to revise the plot so that Leah’s group is selected on Monday. Believe me, I tried to make this work, but no matter how I tried to revise the schedule of events for the last third of the novel, I’m stuck with an extra day (that is to say, if the presentation is delivered on Tuesday, then Monday is the extra day; If the presentation is delivered on Monday, then Tuesday or Wednesday is the extra day). The reason is because Leah’s presentation is due the week of Thanksgiving, and that holiday plays an important role in the final chapters of the book. If it were possible for me to move Thanksgiving Day from Thursday to Wednesday, then that would solve all my problems and eliminate the extra day. Unfortunately, Thanksgiving Day ALWAYS comes on a Thursday (it’s like trying to move Easter to a Wednesday), so that day is set in stone. Thus, all of the events that occur that week must be scheduled around the fact that Thanksgiving occurs on a Thursday, and this is why an extra day keeps popping up for me earlier in the week.

So, I guess what I have to do is leave the presentation on Tuesday, but as I revise chapters 18 and 19, I’m trying to eliminate or minimize as much of the needless repetition as I possibly can. Ultimately, I’m afraid that the schedule of events for the early part of the Thanksgiving week will continue to be a weakness in the overall plot.

Otherwise, I find that I haven’t had many problems with the plot. Oh, my novel has problems, but plot really isn’t one of them.

June 16, 2008

The Influence of Egypt

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 10:19 am
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I’m fascinated by this blog’s stats. I like watching the daily roller coaster of tracked hits. Some days I get a lot of hits, other days nothing at all — and the roller coaster doesn’t necessarily conform to whether I have posted something new.

The most visited post in this blog — a post that even today still generates hits — is the early post titled “‘The Pharaohs of Egypt’ by Leah Nells”. The reason, as I just recently discovered, is that the post shows up highly ranked on Google. If you do a search for “why was food buried with pharaohs,” for example, my blog post is the second item on the list, which I think is bizarre.

It’s summer now, so kids are mostly out of school, but I wonder if, next fall, I might receive a spike in hits from kids doing research on Egypt. Although the material in the post is factually correct (as far as I know) it’s probably not the sort of thing that students would be looking for. Once they realize that this isn’t any sort of academic site, I imagine they return to Google’s search results to find another site.

But since the post does contain a complete — albeit brief — report on the Egyptian pharaohs, I suppose some visitors might be inclined to copy and paste it into their own assignments. If that did happen, I’m not sure what I would think. I suppose I would be more amused than anything. It is certainly an unintended consequence of this blog.

June 14, 2008

Progress Report #3: Oasis

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 3:08 pm
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I’ve spent the last two days working on chapter 17, which is, by far, the longest chapter in the novel at 23 pages. In the 1996 draft, chapters 16 and 17 were combined, making it an even longer chapter than it is now. Obviously, that original chapter is now two. If I could, I’d like to break chapter 17 down even further, but there isn’t really a point in those 23 pages where inserting a chapter break would seem natural. The whole thing is a single, ongoing scene that takes up a few hours of the characters’ time.

What makes the chapter tolerable for the reader, I hope, is that it is mostly dialogue. Indeed, in a novel that is mostly prose, it’s a kind of oasis in which we find characters chatting and joking and arguing. The chapter is set at David Parks’ house. He and his history report partners, Leah among them, are meeting on the Sunday before their project is due to try and put the project on video. In terms of the story, the chapter features the climax of David and Heather’s subplot. Their relationship experiences a crisis, and Leah has a front row seat.

I’ve cut very little out of chapter 17, mostly because I like the dialogue and because all the events in the chapter flow together quite well. It may be the longest chapter, but it also has the most humor — and the most melodrama.

So I’m well past the halfway point in this stage of my revising project. I have only seven more chapters to go. I can’t say for sure when this phase will be completed, but it looks like I am on track to finish by the end of the month.

June 10, 2008

The Big Picture

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:20 am
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As I said in the previous post, a lot of the work that I’ve done in this revising process has been to delete material from the text, but I am adding some material to the text, too. One example is the full text of Leah’s speech about the Egyptian pharaohs that Leah presents to her class later in the novel. Another example comes at the very beginning of chapter fourteen. There, I’ve inserted this short exchange of dialogue between Heather and her friend Melanie:

“Hey, you know that girl named Stacey — you know, from English class?” Heather asked Melanie the following Monday. Once again, the two girls, David, Alex, and Leah were sitting in the back of history class, spending the last ten minutes of the school day meeting to discuss their presentation.

“Yeah, why?”

“You didn’t hear?!” Heather asked. “Emily told me all about it at lunch.”

“Told you what?”

“You’ll never believe this . . .” Heather said with a giggle, but as the two girls gossiped, Leah tried not to pay any attention. She and Alex had just handed their notes over to David, and she was much more interested in hearing what he had to say.

On the surface this may not seem like a very significant exchange, and the reader might be inclined to join Leah in ignoring it and getting back to the real story between Leah and David. The conversation between Heather and Melanie doesn’t seem to offer much more than another not-so-flattering glimpse into Heather’s character.

But there is a lot more going on here than two girls gossiping about another. I’ve included this short passage in order to expand the fictional universe in which the novel is set. The girl named Stacey that Heather and Melanie are talking about is one of the main characters from The Spring, and the event they are talking about is alluded to in that other novel. Obviously, this connection between the two novels will fly over the heads of those readers of Leah who haven’t read The Spring, but it also serves a little reward for those who have read both books.

Both Leah and The Spring are components in a larger series of three novels. The three novels are connected in terms of setting (the high school that Leah Nells attends is the same school the characters from The Spring attend) and thematically. All of the books in the series attempt to answer the same basic question that is at the center of most teenagers’ lives: “Who am I and what is my place in the world?” Each story offers different solutions to those questions. Here is a schema that outlines the basic plan for the novels:

Book

General Theme

Time Frame

Leah

The individual

Fall, 9th grade

Juvenilia

Family

Summer, following 10th grade

The Spring

Friendship

Spring, 12th grade

One doesn’t have to read the novels in the order that I’ve outlined above — one doesn’t even have to read all of them. Each novel is a complete, self-contained story featuring a different set of main characters and its own unique plot (think Thomas Hardy rather than William Faulkner). In fact, The Spring is set some three years after the story of Leah, and while Leah Nells doesn’t appear as a character in The Spring, one might imagine that she is still there, in school, somewhere.

But while each novel stands on its own, I like the idea of inserting little references to the other stories in the series. The second book in the series is still very much a work in progress, but I’m planning to include a brief appearance (sort of) from Leah in that novel. Again, it will be a situation where if you haven’t read Leah, you won’t catch the reference, but if you have read it, you should be able to recognize her when she appears, even if she isn’t mentioned by name.

June 8, 2008

To Cut Or Not To Cut

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:39 am
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I’ve mentioned before how one of my tasks in this revising project is to cut out a lot of the fat that clings to the text — to cut those tedious passages that don’t contribute anything to the story and just take up space. Cutting text from a story can be hard to do because, as a writer, I know I’ve spent a lot of time on everything that I’ve written. To delete something is to judge my work worthless, in a sense. But I know that if I want to improve the novel, I need to get rid of those passages that slow the reader down, get off the subject, or detract from the story more than contribute to it.

Most of my deletions, when they occur, have consisted of a paragraph or less. However, chapter fifteen poses a problem for me because it seems like the entire chapter could be cut. It’s one of the shorter chapters, only six pages long, and it describes Leah moping around the house on the Saturday of her school’s Homecoming dance. As I tend to do in other tedious passages that I have deleted, I describe in boring detail Leah’s entire day, offering hour-by-hour updates of her doing . . . nothing, really.

If this were a much shorter passage, I probably wouldn’t think twice about deleting it, but because this is an entire chapter, I’m a little more hesitant. The decision to cut an entire chapter from a novel is not one that I should take lightly. Reading through the chapter, I keep two questions in mind: 1) Is there anything here that I definitely need to keep, anything that is interesting or crucial to the story? and 2) Is the material that I wish to cut really superfluous?

The second question is a little bit easier to answer in some places. In one passage in the chapter, I describe Leah trying to get a hold of the newspaper’s sports page to check the score of the Homecoming game while she does household chores for her mother. It’s a rather ridiculous passage that might, at best, contribute a little to the reader’s understanding of the Leah’s character, but not really. I think if I cut it, nothing important would be lost. The chapter also seems superfluous because I end chapter fourteen with Leah imagining herself spending Saturday night alone while David and Heather are at the dance. I don’t think I need to have Leah imagine a scene where she is alone and then in the very next chapter play that scene out pretty much as she imagines it. It is far more economical to leave chapter fourteen as it is — and maybe flesh out Leah’s imagination of what she’ll be doing Saturday night a little bit more — and cut chapter fifteen.

So what I have done is read through chapter fifteen, highlighting in green the passages that I want to keep (there were only two such passages). I’ll blend those passages into the previous or following chapters and then delete the rest of it.

UPDATE: Cutting chapter fifteen reduces the novel to 246 pages and 24 chapters.

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