Revising Leah

September 30, 2008

Leah’s Existential Crisis (Things I Like #5)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 12:21 pm
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Late in the novel, Leah suffers her lowest emotional point. Crying in her bedroom, she ponders the deepest of questions:

Leah wished her shyness was something physical, something she could show a doctor and have amputated. It always seemed to get in the way; it always prevented her from doing what everyone in the world told her she ought to be doing: talking to people, making friends, falling in love. She couldn’t amputate it though. Her shyness was buried deep inside, and there was no way to take hold of it and get rid of it. All she could do was hate her shyness, hate what it had done to her life, and hate herself for being shy.

She rolled over onto her stomach, closing her eyes and burying her face in her pillow. So many questions filled her mind. Why did she have to be the only girl at school who was shy? No one else had any trouble talking to people or making friends. It didn’t seem fair. Why me? she asked herself. Was this what her life would always be like? Was this moment, alone in her bedroom, unhappy, not only her present and her past but her future as well? She had so many questions, but here in the isolation of her bedroom, there were no answers. Only silence surrounded her and offered itself-the same silence that had been her lone companion throughout her life. Only silence; always silence.

In the darkness of her pillow and in the silence of her room, she made a wish. She wished that she wouldn’t be shy anymore. She wished she could make friends. She wished that she knew what to say whenever someone spoke to her. She wished she could talk and laugh as easily as her classmates. She wished that her parents wouldn’t have to worry about her anymore. She wished she could belong to this noisy world. She wished she could be normal. She wished hard, as hard as she could, but when she lifted her head from her pillow, took a deep breath and looked around, she found that nothing had changed. The right words did not spring into her head, she still had no friends, and nobody was in love with her.

I was a student in college when I wrote the first draft of Leah. Back then, I was very interested in existential philosophy, reading all the Sartre and Camus I could get my hands on. I’ve outgrown that now, but at the time it influenced me quite a bit. I don’t think I ever realized, though, just how much of that philosophy was seeping into the novel that I was writing. I don’t think I ever made the conscious decision to put an existential slant to my story, but last April, when I read this novel for the first time in nearly a decade, I was struck by how much existentialism there is in the book. As I’ve revised, I’ve tried to preserve — if not enhance — that element of the story, and the passage above is probably the clearest example of its presence. The bleakness and emptiness of Leah’s life seems ripe for an existentialist’s treatment. I don’t think I’d call the book “an existential novel” — that might be taking it too far (and is there even such a thing as an “existential young adult” subgenre anyway?), but just as The Spring flirts and toys with both Christian and pagan imagery and motifs, so does Leah flirt with existentialism.

September 29, 2008

Google Update

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 7:29 pm
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A few weeks ago, I mentioned that my blog has attracted an unexpectedly large amount of traffic from Google. People searching for information about the Egyptian pharaohs would discover that one of my blog entries appeared near the top of Google’s search results — never mind that this isn’t a blog about history or Egypt, and never mind that the blog entry in question offers only the most basic information about three pharaohs.

So a few weeks ago, I took steps to try to bury my blog so that it no longer appears to highly ranked when someone uses Google to search for information that really has nothing to do with the mission of this blog. What I’ve done is tinker with the title of the entry and delete a couple of tags. At first, those changes didn’t seem to have any effect, but I think the strategy is starting to pay off. If I do a search for, say, “what were the pharaohs buried with” — a topic Leah just barely touches upon in her report but a search query that has drawn a lot of Google users to my blog, now my blog doesn’t appear until page four. I know my blog won’t disappear completely from Google’s search results — and I wouldn’t want it to, but if I can bury my Egypt-related blog posts far enough down so that they don’t appear in the set of top results, then that’s a victory.

Some would say that any publicity is good publicity, but to me it is almost an ethical issue. For any of my blog posts to rank so highly in a search engine’s results for Egypt content gives the impression, as false as it may be, that I have somehow fooled Googlers into visiting this blog. I’d rather see a 30-40% drop in the number of visitors to this blog and at least know that those folks who do visit are doing so for the “right” reasons.

September 28, 2008

Dashes! We Don’t Need No Stinking Dashes!

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 2:21 pm
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One of the stylistic decisions that I’ve made in recent years as a writer is to misuse overuse the dash. Technically, a dash or a pair of dashes is used to set off a parenthetical word or phrase from the rest of the sentence. It’s like a parenthesis, except that it suggests a quicker reading pace. You don’t linger on the content surrounded by a dash, it’s just something that has been thrown into the text — almost as an afterthought. I started using dashes more and more just a few years ago. I now enjoy using them so much that I sometimes wish I could use them in place of all commas, semicolons, and periods. I often have to stop myself from using them when a pair of commas or parentheses would be the better choice.

The one place where I give myself permission to use dashes as much as I want is in my dialogue.

If you really listen to people when they speak, you’ll find that people don’t usually speak in complete, grammatically correct sentences. Were you to transcribe a conversation that you have with someone, what you’d see is a “blizzard of words” — to borrow a phrase — that doesn’t necessarily make sense on paper, but in the act of speaking, it can make sense. Language in speech has its own logic — its own grammar — that is different from language in writing. People speak in fragments or run-on sentences or in extremely tortured and convoluted sentences. When I write dialogue, I go out of my way to mess up my characters’ grammar, in an attempt to capture how real people really speak.

But dialogue also screws with the rules and customs surrounding punctuation. Suddenly, in dialogue, question marks and exclamation points seem to pop up a lot more often. There’s still a place for commas and periods, but they’re not quite as discernible and distinguishable when you hear someone speak as when you see a sentence written out.

Speech allows for a number of utterances that are almost never seen in writing. What do we do, for example, when a character abruptly changes the subject, when another idea forces its way into what he or she is trying to say? What do we do when a character is struggling to find the right word or phrase? When you write, you have the luxury of stopping and thinking about what you mean to say. You can check a dictionary or a thesaurus. You can rephrase a sentence again and again until you get it just right. You can’t do that when you are speaking. So how do you capture that element of speaking when you are writing?

I use dashes. Here are a couple of examples from The Spring:

“You’ve been quiet today — what’s the matter?”

“I’m not sucking up — I’m just being nice.”

In the first case, a period would be the correct punctuation mark after “today,” but in this instance of dialogue it might not be the best punctuation mark. The question emerges from the statement. They’re two distinct sentences, yet they’re not. In the second example, a semicolon would make more sense if this were writing and not speech. But you can’t use a semicolon in dialogue because, well, NOBODY speaks in semicolons. I mean, seriously!

Do you find yourself doing anything out of the ordinary stylistically when you write dialogue?

September 26, 2008

Playing with Chapter Subtitles

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:23 am
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Way back in May, when I was still in the first cycle, I created a little chart that showed how I had reorganized the text into a larger set of chapters. In the 1996 draft, I was still locked in a mindset where I believed that the longer the chapter I wrote, the better. I squeezed the entire novel into just 12 chapters. Since then, I’ve learned that shorter, bite-size chapters are the way to go, at least in my genre.

But the problem with that chart was that I was getting ahead of myself. The first cycle was the wrong time to think that I’d be able to say definitively how many chapters the new edition of the novel will have. Since the first cycle, I’ve made a lot of changes to the chapters, including eliminating some completely and merging others together. I think I’m beyond the point where I need to make any more major organizational changes. So what you’ll find below is an updated chart comparing how the chapters were assembled in 1996 and how the chapters are assembled as of September 2008.

You’ll also notice that I’ve added a third column. The other day, I assigned some subtitles to a few chapters as a way of helping myself keep track of what was in each chapter. I got carried away with this and the next thing I knew I had created a subtitle for every chapter in the current draft. I never use chapter titles or subtitles when I draft novels — I’m content to simply use numbers — so these subtitles won’t appear in the new, published edition of the novel, but I kind of like the subtitles because they allow me to look at the entire plot and organization of the novel on just one screen. I’ve never been able to do that with Leah before. Don’t worry, the subtitles are vague enough that I’m not giving the story away, especially with the subtitles of the final two chapters. Think of these as a table of contents for the book — and for this blog. I’ve inserted links to some previous blog posts with extended excerpts or commentary from these chapters.

1996 Chapter Order

2008 Chapter Order

Subtitles” for the Chapters

1

1

Garage Sales

2

2

A Summer Day Spent at Home

3

3

The First Day of School, pt. 1

3

4

The First Day of School, pt. 2

3

5

Megan

4

6

A Rainy Day

4

7

Journey to the Used Book Store

5

8

David vs. Goliath

5

9

Crushed

6

10

A Tap On the Shoulder

6

11

Those Crappy Civilizations

6

12

To The Library!

7

13

Homecoming Weekend

7

14

Something Happened – But What?!

8

15

Leah Dumbfounds Her Parents

8

16

At David’s House

9

17

Hangin’ Out with the In-Crowd

9

18

The World of Ancient Egypt

10

19

Tears and Relief

10

20

A Holiday Visitor

10

21

Thanksgiving Day

11

22

Black Friday

12

23

I Have Something to Tell You

12

24

November 30th

One of these subtitles has actually changed the way I think of the story. It’s the subtitle for the new chapter eight, “David vs. Goliath”. It occurred to me, once I wrote that subtitle down, that an analogy between that chapter and the Biblical story is actually quite justified. It’s a connection that I didn’t notice until now. I pasted the relevant scene into this blog a couple weeks ago, so you can read it here. “Goliath” is obviously Kyle, who, Leah observes, is a really big guy. David Parks — the “David” in the analogy — isn’t a whole lot smaller, but he does stay seated in his desk during the entire scene while Kyle is standing up and looming over the entire class (and perhaps appearing to be even bigger than he is). And although David and Kyle don’t really fight (they seem to be friends), David, with some clever verbal sparring, manages to overcome Kyle’s brutish strength and “defeat” him pretty handily.

I don’t want to push this analogy too far, because it does break down eventually, but it’s interesting how the subtitle has opened up an interpretation of the chapter that hadn’t occurred to me. As a former “English major,” I find that fascinating.

September 24, 2008

Me Use Grammar Checker Too Right Good

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 10:27 am
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I do most of my writing on OpenOffice’s word processor. It’s a reliable program, and it can do just about everything that Microsoft’s word processor can do, along with a few things that it can’t (PDF exporting, for example). And, best of all, OpenOffice is free. However, when I began this fifth revision cycle for Leah, I opened up an old version of MS Word that’s on my computer and used it to run Word’s grammar check program. What I like to use the grammar check for is to identify potential problems that don’t usually occur to me, such as overuse of the passive voice. It’s a quick and easy way for me to run through the entire manuscript and find additional problems in my writing that I might have missed.

When I teach word processing, though, I tell my students to never use MS Word’s grammar checker. The reason is that while it does sometimes offer good suggestions, it just as often offers bad suggestions. I use it because, hopefully, I’m experienced enough at writing that I can make a judgment call as to whether the grammar checker’s advice is good advice or not. Most of my students don’t have that same level of experience, and if I don’t discourage them from using the grammar function, then many of them will just blindly make whatever change the program suggests — and that’s always a bad idea. The problem, obviously, is that the word processor doesn’t know what a writer intends to write. The program is simply following an algorithm, and when the right words appear in a particular order, the program flags it and offers the best available suggestion. It makes a lot of bad suggestions, though.

For example, following a line of dialogue by Leah’s father, I wrote, “Mr. Nells said.” The grammar checker flagged this, however, and suggested that I write, “Mr. Nells, said.” What?! Why? Inserting a comma before “said” makes absolutely no sense in that context. So I know when I run the program that I’m going to see weird suggestions like that, but for me, the overall benefit of the grammar check function outweighs the potential risk of accidentally following one or two bad suggestions.

September 22, 2008

How I Learned to Write a Novel

I’ve always been of the opinion that writing is a skill. Nobody is born a great writer. Some writers might be more creative than others, but the act of turning that creative vision into good writing is a skill that, I think, just about anyone can learn. Since no one starts out knowing how to write, a potential novelist, then, must undergo a sort of “apprenticeship,” a period of training in which he or she learns how to write a novel. Looking back on my own life, I realize now that it took me two separate phases of training before I could write a complete novel that is ready for possible publication.

The first phase of my training occurred during my teenage years. At that age, people have an abundance of creativity and energy. Everything seems possible, and it’s fun to experiment. During this period of my life I learned, by trial and error, how to draft a novel — how to transform the stories in my imagination into words on a page. I was extremely prolific, sometimes churning out two or three 200-page long manuscripts in a single year, not to mention all of the short stories and poems I was writing (today, that level of output astounds me; I cannot work at that pace anymore). Because I had so many ideas for stories, I didn’t worry about revising and editing my work; in fact, I don’t think that the idea of revising my work ever crossed my mind. As far as I was concerned, every manuscript I produced was “finished,” and as soon as I completed one novel, I simply moved on to the next story. A lot of people, when they decide they want to be an author, make that decision having never actually composed a novel-length piece of writing. They don’t really know what they’re getting into or how much work writing can be, and I think that is why so many would-be novelists fail: the size and scope of the project simply overwhelms them. The most important lesson that I learned in those early years is that writing is a very long, slow process, and patience is the ultimate virtue when it comes to writing.

I consider the first draft of Leah to mark the end of this first stage of my writing education. By the time that I composed the first draft of Leah, I had reached a point where I was confident that I could take any complex story that formed in my imagination and transfer that story onto paper. However, when I made the decision to try to publish Leah back in 1995-6, what I didn’t yet understand was that inventing a story and completing a draft is only the first half of the writing process.

And that’s why the 1996 draft of Leah was a failure. And by “failure” I don’t mean “commercial failure” — although, since it was self-published, it certainly was that. Rather, I mean the novel was a failure because the quality of the writing and the execution of the story didn’t live up to my own expectations. Although I did a little revising, what was published was essentially still a rough draft. It was truly awful, and I’m embarrassed that it was ever published. What I didn’t know at the time was that I still needed to learn how to revise and edit my work.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that second phase of my training began when I started teaching. I was an English major in college, and so today I teach writing. In my short career, I have graded literally tens of thousands of pages of students’ writing. I’ve seen it all: from very bad, almost illegible writing to writing that might be even better than what I can produce. Reading and correcting so much writing provided me the chance to learn just what revising is and why it is so important.

What I’ve learned in these last several years is that revising is just as important as drafting, just as important as the initial idea that inspires one to write. I’ve learned that the revising process takes a very long time — even longer than drafting process, and, in a sense, it never really ends. There’s no such thing as a “finished” manuscript; there’s always something that you can do to improve it. And I’ve learned that while the revising process takes a long time and can sometimes feel tedious, it can also be just as creatively fulfilling and exciting as producing that first draft of a story. When you set up an exchange of dialogue just right, when you find the perfect word to describe a character’s mood, or when you phrase that opening sentence in the best possible way — that is writing!

As I browse the Internet, visiting writers’ blogs or reading websites that deal with creative writing and publishing, I often see writers seeking an editor to help them prepare their novels for publication, and I see entrepreneurial editors eager to offer their editing skills — for a fee, of course. Certainly, letting an objective party read and edit one’s work can be very useful, but it’s not a substitute for the revising process. It is still up to the would-be author to do the majority of the revising. When I read a student’s essay, I can offer suggestions for improvement and point out places where corrections ought to be made, but ultimately, it is up to the student herself to make those changes — and to go beyond the suggestions that I make.

Do you agree? Disagree? What’s your take on revising? How did you learn to write a novel?

September 20, 2008

Finding an Agent (Progress Report #8)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:57 am
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So today I’m finishing the fourth cycle of revision. It’s taken a while, but this cycle has been very productive — perhaps the most productive cycle since the very first one. I’ve been reading each chapter twice, usually twice in the same day. That has allowed me to linger on chapters and scenes and make corrections that I might not otherwise make if I were just reading at a normal pace and covering two or three chapters a day.

I like how the manuscript is coming along. Some chapters are very close to completion. Others still need some work. As I start the fifth cycle of revision, one thing that I’m going to try to do is add some sensory imagery and descriptive detail to those passages which seem to need it. Because so much of the text of Leah is narration, vivid description is very important in keeping the reader interested in the story.

The other thing that I’ve decided to do while I continue to revise is to query a few agents. All along, my plan for Leah has been to self-publish the novel as I did with The Spring.  But I thought it might be fun to query some agents and just see what happens. My first three chapters, which is what I would send to an agent, aren’t quite finished, but they’re far enough along that I’d feel confident letting someone else read them. I’m pretty sure all I’ll receive in return will be form rejection letters (or, more likely, no response at all), so I’m not going to waste a lot of time on this. I’ll try maybe three or four agents (I haven’t decided who yet) and see what happens.

To that end, I’ve found a couple of useful sites lately regarding agents. One is AgentQuery which has a lot of good advice (and contact information) for finding an agent. I’ll try to query by email as much as I can because it’s faster, and I know that if I don’t hear back from an agent for an email query within about a week, then that’s a rejection.  Some writers spend years seeking an agent (often without success), but I’m not going to waste my time like that. If I don’t get any bites by November, then I’ll proceed with Plan A: self-publishing.

September 18, 2008

Free Book! Free Book!

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:08 am
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I’ve decided to make my other novel, The Spring, available as a free PDF download. It’s what I should have done originally. When I self-published the book last winter, I considered offering it for free, but I got greedy. When self-publishing, I’ve learned that one almost has to give as much of one’s work away for free simply to overcome the hurdles that accompany self-publishing.

As a writer, people don’t know who I am. They’ve never heard of me. I don’t have a “brand”. And since the phrase “self-published novel” carries with it such negative connotations (some deserved, some not), I have to do as much as I can to remove the psychological resistance that separates a potential reader of my work from the act of acquiring a copy of my story.

I originally had offered the PDF version at a price that was much less than the price of a physical copy of the book. But even if I only charged 50 cents for the download, that is still too high a hurdle for most potential readers. Making it available for free eliminates the financial risk completely. One can download it, start reading, and if one doesn’t like it after reading the first few chapters, then one can send the file to the Recycle Bin and forget about it.

September 17, 2008

And Now For Some Music

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:20 am
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Believe me, I definitely don’t want this writing blog to turn into a music blog, but the other day, I heard the new single by Hello Saferide (a Swedish act — I’ve got this thing for Swedish indie pop, don’t ask). The song immediately connected with me because it reminded me of Leah’s parents and their attitude towards their daughter. When Leah was born, Mr. and Mrs. Nells must have had dreams and expectations for her, but, so far, Leah has been a disappointment to her parents, and she’ll probably continue to be a disappointment in the foreseeable future. The song is about unfulfilled potential with respect to a child and a family which I think fits quite well the story I’m trying to tell. The song does have a melancholy twist at the end that has nothing to do with my novel, but the first 2:40 minutes could have been penned by Mrs. Nells herself, so I feel compelled to share it in this blog.

Anna – Hello Saferide

One interesting dynamic between Leah and her parents is that Leah is an only child. I probably could have given her a sibling if I wanted to, but I like the idea that Leah is under pressure to live up to all of her parents’ expectations because she is their only child. It’s not like they can just give up on her and devote themselves to a brother or sister. Leah doesn’t necessarily imagine her life as a disappointment, since it’s her life and we never see our own lives as failures — even when it’s perfectly clear to the rest of the world — but she does realize that she isn’t living up to her parents’ expectations, and that weighs heavily on her.

September 15, 2008

What Is Your Word Count?

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 4:05 pm
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Lately, I’ve made a point to visit some of the other WordPress blogs about writing, especially those blogs which, like mine, are chronicling writers’ work as they create their own novels. They’re interesting to read; I like writing about my own writing process, and I find I like reading about others’ writing processes too.

One thing that I’ve noticed in most people’s blogs is that they make a big deal about their word count, and some folks even have word count goals for their projects — not only an overall goal but also daily writing goals.

When I started writing during my teenage years, I didn’t use a word processor. I wrote everything out by hand, and when you write that way, counting words just isn’t an option unless you have a whole lot of time to kill. So I counted pages, and, in my mind, 200 pages was the minimum page requirement for a novel. That continues to be my mindset today; I think more in terms of pages than words. Frequent visitors to this blog will find that I refer to my page count more often than my word count.

Right now, for the record, Leah is 231 pages long (or about 83,500 words). Claiming that the text is “X” number of pages, I guess, doesn’t really mean much to readers of this blog. The question becomes, “What constitutes a ‘page’?” For example, altering the font size, the font style, the page margins, or the line spacing can all affect the page count, so what does it mean when I say “231 pages”? The answer is that I have formatted the document file in exactly the same way that I formatted The Spring when I published it — the same font style, same page size, everything. Again, for the record, here are my specs:

  • Garamond font, size 12
  • 34 lines of text on each page
  • Fixed line spacing set at .22″ between lines
  • Approximately 370 words per page
  • Pages set at 9″ tall X 6″ wide
  • Half-inch margins for the top, bottom and outer margins. Three-quarter inch margins for the inner margin.

So Leah’s 231 page count is perfectly comparable to The Spring’s 263 pages, and 231 pages is how long the book would be if I published it today.

But whether I’m going by pages or total words, I believe that an obsession with one’s word or page count can have a detrimental effect on one’s writing. I try not to worry about how physically long my story is. I believe that what’s most important is that the story is as long as it needs to be. A novel that is 1000 pages long is not necessarily a better novel than one that is 150 pages long. Since I began this revising project 5 months ago, I’ve cut at least 30 pages of material from my novel, not because I’m trying to meet a specific page goal, but because I didn’t need those 30 pages. The material that I cut was superfluous, repetitive, or it contradicted other elements in the story. When I’m finished, the story will be however long it needs to be, not a word more or a word less.

I’m sure not everyone shares my point of view. If you are writing a novel and counting your words as you go, does it really help you to know how long your story is, or do you think it puts undo pressure on you as a writer to reach a certain overall word count?

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