Revising Leah

October 29, 2008

Here Is My First Chapter

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 3:07 pm
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Here it is, in PDF format:

Photo by Edward Kotun

Photo by Edward Kotun

chapter-one

(For the best effect, set your PDF viewer to “full screen” view.)

I’ve probably worked on chapter one more than any other chapter, and right now I’d say that it’s about 99.5% finished. I’ll continue to tinker with it, changing a word here or there, but it’s essentially “finished”.

I still wish I could post an mp3 file of myself reading the chapter along with this PDF document, but I have no way of creating a high-quality (or even a decent-quality)  recording of myself reading.

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October 27, 2008

Oh Crap! I’m Almost Done!

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 5:10 pm
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I’m starting to think that my manuscript might be a lot closer to “completion” than I had previously thought. Over the weekend, I reread the “third act” of the novel and while I changed a few words and revised a few sentences, I really didn’t find a lot of work that needed to be done. In fact, that’s really all I’ve been doing: focusing on word choice, revising some sentences for clarity, and fixing some stray punctuation errors

My current revising strategy has been to convert my master document into a PDF document and read it that way. There are two advantages to doing that at this stage. First, because I cannot make changes to a PDF document, when I read the PDF version of my manuscript, I’m less likely to make superficial, unnecessary changes. I do keep my manuscript open in my word processor, just in case there is a correction that I do think is necessary, but the extra step of having to switch back and forth between programs discourages me from making changes just for the sake of making changes.

The other advantage is that a page from my PDF document looks similar to what the page would look like when the book is published — it’s as close as I can come to imagining what the finished, published novel will look like without actually printing it out. It’s a very different experience from looking at the manuscript in my word processor. As I said in the last post, a piece of writing like a novel is never really “finished,” but seeing the manuscript in PDF form does offer the illusion of completion. For me, when I see the manuscript in the word processor, it still feels like a work in progress and it seems to beckon me to make changes. When I see the manuscript in my PDF viewer, it looks like something static, like a published book, and that alters how I perceive the book’s progress.

But as the title for today’s post suggests, this situation causes a dilemma for me — several dilemmas, actually. When I started this blog back in April, I had a time line in mind for this revising project. I wanted it to be complete by the end of 2008 so that if I went the self-publishing route again, I could publish the novel in early 2009. Right now, I still have two months to go; even if I am 99 percent finished, I’m not going to to publish it until next year. So another problem I face is what I’m going to do with this blog for the next several weeks. I’ve been adding a new post every two or three days, but if there isn’t much revising left for me to do, then I’m not going to have much to write about. I might have to suspend this blog for a few weeks, and I’d rather not do that. I still have ideas for future posts (I have a backlog of drafts that I’m working on), but I don’t know if I can keep this going for two more months, until the publication process starts (and I’ll document that, too).

Of course, this isn’t really a terrible situation to be in. I’d definitely rather be ahead of schedule than feel like I still have a lot of major revisions to make.

October 24, 2008

How to Walk Away

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 4:06 pm
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I’ve mentioned on occasion how there are dangers and difficulties associated with revising a story as thoroughly as I am with this project. One difficulty is that each time I read a chapter, it can be a very different experience.

For example, a couple days ago, I was reading chapter seven. I didn’t expect it to give me any trouble, but as I read it, a number of sentences didn’t seem quite right; I wasn’t feeling the sense of flow that I thought I should. I didn’t make any drastic changes, but I did revise several sentences. The next day, I read the same chapter again, and that second time I didn’t see any of the problems that concerned me the day before. I was reading virtually the same text, but having two very different experiences.

Today, I read chapters three and four, and I was quite pleased with both of them. If I read them again tomorrow, however, who knows what my impression of those chapters will be?

I’ve said before that a text can never really be truly “finished,” and my experience with chapter seven just highlights this basic truth of writing. The dilemma for me, then, is when do I stop? I could spend another year — another dozen years — revising this novel, and it will never be “finished”. When it comes to my own writing, I’m a perfectionist: anything less than perfection in my own writing is an indication of failure and an occasion of shame. But I think I’m getting very close to the point where I’ll be able to lay down my pen (or close the .doc file) and walk away from it, satisfied that I’ve done the best that I can do.

How do you know when a story or a piece of writing is finished?

October 21, 2008

Leah’s Voice

My previous post about Podiobooks attracted a lot of hits from a lot of different sources, including folks from the Podiobooks website itself. In my post, I described three reasons why I would have a hard time creating my own audiobook version of my novel, even though I think that creating such a version might be fun. One reason I mentioned is that I am not an actor. In the comments, Evo Terra mentioned that one doesn’t have to be an actor in order to record an audiobook. Of course, that is true, but what I meant to say (and obviously I wasn’t clear) is that I don’t know if the voices that I would create for the narrator and the characters while I read the story out loud would be the “right” voices to present the story.

Let’s take the narrator of the story, for example. The narrator is simply a neutral (though sometimes sympathetic), third person narrator. Could my real voice serve as the narrator of the story? Sure, but since I am male, that would mean that the narrator’s voice would be a male’s voice, and that could have either positive or negative implications for how the listener perceives the story. If a woman read the story and gave the narrator a female’s voice, then that would transform the story into something different than if I read it. Even though both I and the woman would be reading the exact same text, the assignment of a gender to the narrative voice would necessarily affect how the reader receives the story. Until now, this is something that I haven’t really thought about with respect to Leah because I have only imagined the story existing in print form, but if the novel were to be “performed” then this issue of gender becomes something that is very important to think about. Should my narrator’s voice be male or female? I’m not sure.

Leah Nells herself would present another interesting challenge if I were to perform the novel. When I read the story out loud as a revising tactic, I find that I tend to alter the tone of my voice just a little bit when I read the characters’ dialogue. Sometimes I do this automatically, without even thinking about it. That’s only natural, I guess. When I read the story silently, of course, I imagine different voices for each of the characters, and when I read it out loud, I’m trying to recreate the voices I hear in my imagination. But I’m not an impressionist or an actor, so obviously I can never recreate the sound that I hear in my imagination with my speaking voice. But with respect to Leah Nells, I have discovered, when I reach one of the very few lines of dialogue assigned to Leah in the story, that I’m not sure what to do with her voice. It’s funny because when I am reading a passage out loud, I will actually stop and ponder Leah’s dialogue for a moment and try to think of the best way to speak it — and usually whatever decision I make with my voice doesn’t turn out the way I thought it would.

It’s not a matter of not understanding her personality or her character. If you presented me with a scenario in which to place Leah, I could tell you exactly what she would be thinking and doing in that scenario. I know her as well as she knows herself, but I’m not sure what her voice sounds like. In the text, she’s usually described as whispering or mumbling when she speaks. She is soft-spoken and not used to speaking loudly; she never shouts or yells in the book (Nells = No + Yells??).

I don’t think that I’m capable of reproducing her voice with my voice. That’s why I could certainly read the first chapter — Leah doesn’t speak at all until chapter three — but trying to record myself reading the entire novel would be very dangerous indeed.

October 19, 2008

Podcast Your Novel

As more and more book selling moves online, there has also been a growth in audiobooks. A number of sites like Audible, iTunes, and eMusic sell professionally made audiobooks as downloads while sites like LibriVox offer free, volunteer-produced audiobooks of classic works that are in the public domain.

One website that I found recently helps new and unpublished writers produce audiobook versions of their own novels. The site is called Podiobooks, and it is a platform for writers to attract exposure and readers/listeners for their unpublished or self-published work. The audio downloads are free, although if you like a particular work you can donate money to the author, and you can subscribe to the RSS feed or have them sent to your podcatcher software to receive new chapters of a book as the author releases them.

I’m tempted to do something like this myself, just because it sounds fun. But for me, there would be problems. First of all, trying to record myself reading my novel would be an enormous project, and I don’t think I have the time to do it. Second, I’m NOT an actor, and especially not a voice actor, so I’m not sure if I’d be the best person to read my story. While I do try to read my book out loud as I revise it, I’m not sure that my voice should be the narrator’s voice in an audiobook version — and could I really provide the voice for Leah Nells when she speaks or for some of the other characters? I’m not sure. Third, I don’t think I have the right technical equipment to record an audiobook properly. My current computer included a microphone when I bought it, but I might have thrown it away, thinking that I’d never use it. I have an mp3 player that can record sound, but I’ve tried using that function before and it doesn’t produce a very high quality recording.

So as much fun as creating my own audiobook version of Leah might be, I don’t think I’ll do it. I might try recording just the first chapter, though, and posting it in this blog, but we’ll see. If I can find the time and find the right recording equipment, maybe I’ll do the first chapter.

October 17, 2008

New Beginnings and the Same Old Endings

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 3:17 pm
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I’ve decided to kick off the seventh cycle by isolating and evaluating the different ways that I start my chapters. It’s worth paying attention to both the beginning and the ending of chapter because a strong beginning can give a reader a reason to read, and a strong ending can spur that reader to continue reading.

In my opinion, I tend to do a pretty good job of ending my chapters. A lot of times, I use the last paragraph as the “climax” of the chapter. Often I’ll try to insert the most powerful emotional moment here, or I’ll add a plot twist, or something else very important will happen. I like how I end chapters, but the beginnings of my chapters are another story altogether.

They tend to be very weak, and I noticed months ago when I broke the 12 chapters of the 1996 draft down into the 24-25 chapters of the current draft that I tend to rely, again and again, on the same boring strategies for opening a chapter. So, what I’ve done is to copy the opening paragraph(s) of each chapter into a new word processing document. Once I quarantined them, I placed each one into one of six categories:

  • Beginnings that use dialogue: I only had two of these. I wish I could have more because I really like starting a chapter with a conversation, but there is already a shortage of dialogue in Leah, so I guess I’m lucky to have these two.
  • Beginnings that pick up exactly where the last chapter left off: I like this method a lot because it really accelerates the narrative flow and keeps the reader hooked into the story. I don’t feel like I’m hitting the “reset” button every time I start a new chapter. Alas, I only had three of these.
  • Beginnings that describe the weather: I have three of these, mostly towards the end of the novel when the weather starts to have an effect on the plot. I don’t really like this tactic; it’s not a very exciting way to start a chapter. I feel like I’m making small talk with the reader (“Gosh, it’s really cold outside, isn’t it?”). What’s worse, two of the chapters that use this tactic are right next to each other. One of them will have to be changed.
  • Beginnings that describe Leah waking up from sleep: By my count, only three chapters start this way. That number seems small to me because I feel like I use this tactic way too much (I might have combined this tactic with some of the others mentioned in this list). If I could, I’d like to eliminate these entirely from my story, but I might have to settle for eliminating just one or two of them.
  • Beginnings that mention the passage of time: There are seven of these, and I hate them all. These are chapters that begin with phrases like, “The next day,” or “On Friday,” or “Over the coming weeks”. I know what I’m trying to do here: I’m trying to show that time has passed since the previous chapter, but I think this is just a really clumsy way of doing it. These chapters are calling out for revision, and that call will be answered.
  • Beginnings in the “other” category: Six chapters have beginnings that don’t fall into one of the categories above. Generally speaking, that’s a good thing, because it means they are each unique in their own way. I might make some little adjustments to these beginnings, but for the most part, they are fine.

So now that I’ve diagnosed the problem, it’s just a matter of revising these paragraphs so that they are stronger and more likely to grab the reader’s attention rather than slow her down and bore her to death. I always say that writing the first and final paragraphs of any piece of writing is one of the hardest tasks that a writer faces. In fiction especially, where so much importance is placed on how a writer starts and finishes a story or a chapter, this difficulty can sometimes lead to writer’s block. I myself have agonized over how I should begin and end this novel, rewriting and revising the first and final paragraphs of the novel dozens of times.

October 16, 2008

Now Comes the Fun Part (Progress Report #11)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 4:41 pm
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I’ve finished the sixth revision cycle. I’ve decided that the seventh cycle will be my last, but it will also be the longest — extending to the end of the year. In this upcoming cycle, I won’t be trying to read the novel straight through, although I probably will do that at least once. Instead, I’m going to skip around a little bit, opening the file to a random passage or a random chapter and just start reading, looking for any sentences that I can adjust or words that I can change. A year ago, when I did this with The Spring, it was one of the most enjoyable phases of the revision process. I’ve reached a stage where I can enjoy the story and the text even as I continue to work on it.

Page count: 229.

Word count: Who cares?

October 14, 2008

Is My Novel Too Weird?

The other day, I awoke from sleep and the very first thought in my mind was, “Wow, Leah sure is kind of a weird book.” And I didn’t mean “weird” in a good way, either. It was one of those moments of self-doubt that, as a writer, I frequently experience.

One of the problems with writing a story is that, as the writer, I am too close to the story. There’s a degree of myopia that I have to account for — myopia that blinds me to possible problems in the story. For example, the reason why I’m reading my novel over and over again is because there are mistakes in the text that I will miss the first three or four times that I read them. I may not notice the mistake until the fifth or sixth time that I read the story.

But the other day, when it occurred to me that my novel might be a little too weird, I wasn’t thinking about one specific element of the story that I could correct; rather, I was thinking about the story as a whole. What I thought was weird about my story isn’t that it is odd or idiosyncratic in places (the best works of literature are often those that are a little strange); instead, it’s the fact that the story really isn’t weird at all which makes it too weird.

I’ve written before about how my story seems to bear little resemblance to a lot of the stories being written and published in the young adult genre (which is where I’m assuming my story belongs). The reason is because nothing sensational happens to Leah in this novel. There seems to be an expectation that teenage readers only want to read about sensational events. Maybe that expectation is accurate, but my novel doesn’t follow that formula. Unfortunately, Leah Nells doesn’t get raped, she doesn’t run away from home, she doesn’t turn into a vampire — none of the things that you expect to see happen to a character in a young adult novel happens to Leah.

Instead, the “second act” of my novel revolves around a history report on the ancient Egyptians. Of course, that report is a plot device which allows me to bring Leah Nells and David Parks together for a few weeks, but I still take time to describe the process of putting together a history presentation. Leah goes to the library, she takes notes, she writes her essay, she’s nervous about reading it in front of her class. These are some of the most mundane events imaginable, and what worries me is that the story itself is too focused on these mundane events.

But what I like about the mundane is that it is real. Sadly, it’s true that a lot of the horrible things that happen to main characters in other young adult novels do happen to some real teenagers in real life, but most teenagers live relatively mundane lives: they go to school, they hang out with their friends, maybe they have a job, maybe they experiment with drugs, maybe they fight with their parents, they anticipate getting a car or going to college, they download music and play video games. If I write a story about these things, then I may be writing a “real” story, but the price I have to pay for that realism is, I guess, a weird and boring novel.

October 12, 2008

How I Use Metafiction in My Novel

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 6:03 pm
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Photo by Stefano Castiglia

Photo by Stefano Castiglia

Metafiction is a form of writing in which the very act of writing or reading becomes the subject of the story. It’s a technique and a form that has been around almost as long as the novel itself, but it has been used more and more in the last 50 years. Some famous examples of 20th century metafictive novels include Pale Fire, Mulligan Stew, and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.

While Leah, as a whole, is not metafiction, I do employ some metafictive strategies here and there within the story. Leah allows for metafiction because the readers of this novel often find themselves in the odd position of reading a book about a character who is herself reading books. And although Leah Nells is the main character of this novel, we learn in chapter two that she doesn’t like novels:

She preferred to read non-fiction books-books that were dense, impersonal, and mostly uninteresting. She never read novels, except when assigned to read one for school, because when she read about lively characters and their exciting adventures, she couldn’t help but contrast their stories with her own quiet life. Novels only reminded her of how different she was from other people. Characters in novels liked to talk, they had lots of friends, and they did things-simple things-like go shopping at a garage sale without any worries at all. Leah couldn’t relate to any of those characters; their lives were not like hers. So she read books like Attracting Birds to Your Backyard because these books didn’t remind her that she was weird. These books made her feel comfortable, normal. The real birds in the trees outside might sing, but the pictures of birds in her book were as silent as Leah herself.

The irony of a main character of a novel who hates novels calls the reader’s attention to the fact that the reader is reading a story, and it suggests this novel will be a little different from the kinds of books that Leah dislikes. If only for a moment, the reader contrasts this story with other novels that the reader has read and contrasts Leah to other characters.  The part about how other characters in other books tend to speak a lot calls the reader’s attention to the fact that, by this point in the story, Leah still has not uttered a single word (and she won’t speak until the next chapter). Metafiction explicitly asks the reader to think about the story that he or she is reading and to place that story within the context of other stories and novels that one has read previously.

There’s another element of metafiction in the passage above that I should point out. The birds book that Leah is reading is a real book (I’ve linked to it’s Amazon page). In fact, all of the books that Leah reads in the course of this novel are real books. In the 1996 draft of Leah, I just made up titles, but this time I thought, why not use the titles of real books? The effect is to tie Leah to the real world and break down another barrier between the fictional world of the novel and the real world of the reader. It further supports the illusion that what we are reading might be true. This blurring of fiction and reality is another goal of metafiction.

Most of the time, though, metafiction has more to do with the act of writing than of reading. We don’t see Leah Nells doing a lot of writing in this novel, but because she’s a high school student, she does do some. Here’s a passage in which the narrator describes how Leah feels about writing and the difficulties that she faces:

Despite reading so many books on her own, Leah didn’t write very well. Communicating with pen and paper was almost as hard as communicating with spoken words. Writing was sometimes better than speaking because she could take her time constructing sentences and paragraphs, but she often found herself struggling for just the right words and she didn’t always know how to phrase those words in the best possible way. The act of writing was a more personal, solitary activity, but even though she wasn’t speaking directly to another person, she still knew that a writing assignment like this book report would have an audience — Mrs. Meyer — and that placed added pressure on her to write well. Leah tried to do the best she could, but communication is communication, no matter what the means of expression, and Leah knew that she simply could not communicate well.

I would suggest that the difficulties described in this passage are difficulties that all writers face, whether they are students or professional writers. Writing is hard, and as I learned when I tried to publish this novel the first time, a piece of writing doesn’t always turn out the way you expect it to. The 1996 edition of my novel was very poorly written, and I used to mock myself by describing Leah as a book about a girl who has trouble communicating, written by a writer who is obviously having trouble communicating, too.

Since Leah Nells is such a voracious reader, she frequently has to go shopping for more books. Over the course of this novel, we follow Leah and her mother as they visit garage sales, used book stores, and large chain bookstores in search of those long, boring books that Leah prefers to read. This gives me the opportunity to sprinkle in some criticism of the publishing and retail industry. The sharpest criticism comes when Leah makes a rare visit to a large chain bookstore at the local mall:

As she browsed, she sometimes checked the prices of the books that she picked up. Since nearly all of the books in her collection were from garage sales and the used book store where books sometimes cost less than a dollar, she was shocked to see books priced at twenty or thirty dollars — or more. Who would be dumb enough to pay that kind of money? she wondered. How could this place stay in business? Leah was fortunate that she wouldn’t have to pay for a book out of her own pocket, but because she didn’t want to ask her mother to spend too much on her, she decided that she should find a book that wasn’t very expensive.

Writers often employ metafiction just for the sake of employing it — in other words, to have fun with the text. But metafiction can serve a social and political function as well. It can be a method of criticizing or satirizing real-world institutions and customs.

Not everyone likes metafiction. Some readers and writers find it too distracting. But I like it because I think it adds an extra dimension to the story; it helps pull the reader out of the passive role that one usually assumes into a more active participation in reading and making sense of the story. I think that’s a positive thing, and while I don’t go out of my way to use metafiction (off the top of my head, I can’t think of any metafictive elements in The Spring, for example) when the opportunity to use it presents itself, I like to take advantage of it.

October 10, 2008

Light at the End of the Tunnel (Progress Report #10)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 2:37 pm
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Photo by Panta Rhei

I’ve started the sixth revision cycle. The reading is going very quickly; I’m trying to read 3 or 4 chapters a day, if there’s time. I’m able to race through the chapters because I have fewer changes and corrections to make. Sometimes I’ll read 2 or 3 pages without even touching my keyboard. That’s a good sign.

Most of the changes that I’ve had to make so far have just been little things: replacing a word with a better word, fixing a punctuation error, maybe rewriting a sentence — nothing major.

I estimate that I’ll have at least one more cycle to go before I’ll be able to say that I’m satisfied with the novel. Even then it won’t really be “finished” — no piece of writing is ever really “finished” — but it will be close.

I’m also still sending query emails to agents. No bites yet. I’ll keep trying until the end of October, and if no one is interested, I’ll publish the novel myself.

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