Revising Leah

November 28, 2008

Sick For the Holidays

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 1:12 pm
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Yesterday, I came down with a cold (or maybe a small case of the flu). After 24 hours, a sore throat and achy joints are the only symptoms.

That hasn’t slowed down my reading, though. Friday is a big day in that I’ve got a 15-page chapter to read. The weekend will be easy with only about 10 pages combined for the next two days. One of the nice things about reading the chapters set during Thanksgiving week during the real Thanksgiving week is that I can do some fact checking. In today’s chapter, Mr. Nells spends most of the day watching college football on TV, so today I was able to see what time the football games start and whether that corresponds with what I’ve written. (It does.)

I’ve mentioned before that I’m practically finished with this revising project. As I read, I continue to make a few little changes in each chapter, but I’ve noticed that only about half of the changes I make are necessary corrections. The rest of the changes are changes that really aren’t absolutely necessary: just rephrasing a sentence differently or swapping out one word for another word — changes that really aren’t necessary. For example, at the end of chapter 21, I rephrased this sentence

Grandmother and granddaughter worked in silence for a few minutes, and then Grandma whispered, without glancing up from the pot she was scrubbing . . .

so that it read

Grandmother and granddaughter worked in silence for a few minutes, and then Grandma whispered, without looking away from the pot she was scrubbing . . .

I made this change because I use the word “glancing” again at the start of the next paragraph, and I didn’t like that repetition. But would the first time reader of this passage even notice the repetition? Probably not. And since about half of all the changes that I’m making at this point are like that one, I’ve clearly reached a tipping point where the changes I’m making are no longer improving the story.

As I like to say, there’s no such thing as a finished draft. But there is a point where one has to put the draft aside and say, “It’s done.” I’ve reached that point in this revision cycle.

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November 25, 2008

Joining Leah For Thanksgiving Week

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:24 am
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As I suggested in my last post, I’ve been spending these final days of November re-reading chapters 15-24 because those chapters are set during the last week of November. It’s a fun way to read the story (even though it does slow my reading down quite a bit).

On Sunday, I even managed to time my reading so that it corresponded (partly) with the time in the story. Chapter 16 begins at exactly one o’clock in the afternoon, and that was exactly when I started reading the chapter. That was pretty cool.

I can’t do that with every chapter, of course, but I am reading the chapters on the appropriate days. Today is Tuesday, so I’m reading chapters 18 and 19 which are set on Tuesday of Thanksgiving week.

I’m still not seeing any big problems with the story — nothing I need to revise. During my last read-through of these last 8 or 9 chapters, I did notice some possible instances of needless repetition, but I’ve been watching for that during this read-through and I haven’t seen a problem.

November 22, 2008

Waiting . . . waiting . . . (Progress Report #12)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 1:07 pm
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After reading chapters at random for a couple weeks, I’ve been doing one more read-through of the whole novel. It will be the last read-through that I do until I receive the galley proof copy in January because what I’ve discovered as I’ve been reading through the story is that there really isn’t any more work for me to do. Sure, I make a few nit-picky changes and corrections in each chapter, but I’m not making any substantive changes. Essentially, the novel is finished.

There’s very little for me to do right now except wait until January. Why January? That’s when I want to start the publication process. In theory, I could log into Lulu in December and start it then, but I want the new edition of Leah to be published in 2009, so that’s why I’m waiting.

As I mentioned in another post, I’m way ahead of schedule, and that’s a problem, because I don’t know how I’m going to fill the time between the end of this month and the start of the new year. Since next week is Thanksgiving week — and since the final third of my novel is set during Thanksgiving week — I think what I’ll do is read the chapters set during that week on the appropriate days, starting with the second half of chapter 15 on November 23 (tomorrow) and concluding with the final chapter of the novel on November 30 December 1. In fact, it just occurred to me that the dates for November in 2008 correspond perfectly to the dates for November in the novel. That’s a pretty cool coincidence, and it should be a fun experience to read the story on the appropriate days. (Actually, this year’s schedule is one day earlier than the schedule in the novel.)

I also have a lot of time to work on the cover of the novel. I think I’ve made a decision about the design of the back cover, but I’m still having trouble writing the blurb. Blurbs are very tricky things to write. I have to do so much in such a small amount of space: the blurb must offer a summary of the novel that tells the reader what the story is about without giving too much away, and at the same time the summary must be compelling enough that it encourages someone to read the book. It’s really difficult to get it just right.

But the real problem is what should I do with this blog while I wait? The purpose of this blog has always been to serve as a sort of diary of my revision process. If I’m not working on my novel, then what do I have to write about? I could put this blog on hiatus until January (when I intend to document the publication process for folks who are interested in learning what is involved in self-publishing a novel — it can be a bit of a labyrinthine process). I’d rather not put this blog on hold, since I feel like I’d be losing momentum so close to publication, but I may not have any choice.

November 19, 2008

Is Leah Just Introverted, Or Is There Something More?

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 4:42 pm
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Yesterday’s short post reminded me of a concern that I have had ever since I wrote the very first draft of Leah. My concern is that I’ve created a character who is too introverted. While I’m willing to bet there are a few teenagers out there who are as extremely introverted as Leah Nells, most introverts and shy people don’t live in near total isolation as Leah does.

In the first chapter of the novel, I don’t offer any exposition for why Leah isn’t saying anything to anyone. I simply describe how she behaves when she’s in the presence of strangers, and how that behavior angers and disappoints her mother. In the second chapter, I do offer some necessary exposition of Leah’s past, including this passage:

Before she was even old enough to walk, she would enter fits of panic and tearful screams whenever a stranger came near. When she was older and her parents took her out in public, she would cling desperately to them, holding their hands and hiding behind her parents’ legs when she was introduced to another child . . . . Her parents believed that Leah would eventually grow out of her shyness, that she would make friends and lead a normal life just like any other healthy little girl. But she didn’t. By the time Leah started kindergarten, the fits of panic had stopped, but in their place came silence. Leah almost never spoke to anyone, whether children or adults, even when they spoke to her directly. . . . While other children played with one another, Leah seemed perfectly content to be by herself. When she played with dolls, she never spoke to them and never pretended that they were speaking to each other.

What I worry about is that readers will “misdiagnose” Leah’s problem at this point, that they’ll assume that she has a serious developmental condition or disease — like autism, perhaps. But that’s not what I want the reader to think. Hopefully, as the novel goes on, I make it sufficiently clear that Leah’s only “problems” are that she has an extremely introverted personality, and she is very shy (introversion and shyness are not the same thing — see my comment below). Otherwise, Leah is supposed to be a typical teenage girl. Indeed, it’s important, thematically, for the reader to believe that she is a normal girl other than those two personality quirks.

For example, despite what many of her classmates at school believe, Leah isn’t stupid. I’ve never seen her report card, but I would guess that she is a B or B-minus student — an average student academically. She does better in some classes than others (she prefers math over English), but she doesn’t warrant special attention from her teachers, and she isn’t enrolled in the special education program.

Part of Leah’s internal conflict comes from her belief that she is really, really weird, and that she is the only person in the world who is as uncomfortable and as at a loss in social situations as she is. The reader, I hope, knows the truth: that most of Leah’s fears and worries are experienced by other people, even extroverts. It is that secret knowledge that lets the reader empathize with Leah and all of her experiences in the novel.

Originally, Leah was a novel that allowed me to explore ideas about individualism (that remains a theme, but the novel has grown into something much more), and in order to create a character who was truly an individual, I needed to isolate her as much as possible. So I not only gave her an introverted personality, I gave her an extremely introverted personality — and I made her shy on top of that. Some readers may find Leah an unrealistic character, but, like I said, I’m willing to bet that there are a few people out there who are living Leah’s life.

November 18, 2008

Are Introverts Losers?

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:40 am
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Here’s a portion of a Google ad I saw on another website the other day:

Introvert = Loser
Being Yourself is Not the Solution It’s the Problem. Learn to Change.

Many of Leah’s classmates would probably agree. Unfortunately, many people in the real world agree, too.

November 16, 2008

Cover Image By Laura Loe

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 5:01 pm
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The 2009 Edition. Coming soon to an online bookseller near you.

The 2009 Edition. Coming soon to an online bookseller near you.

I’ve chosen my front cover image. It’s from a painting by American artist Laura Loe titled Girl Reading Book. I found the image a year ago, when I was exploring images to use for the cover of The Spring. I knew I’d be re-publishing Leah in 2009, so just for fun I started scouting for possible cover images for that novel, too. Girl Reading Book was among the first I found. When I saw it, I thought to myself, “Whoa, that’s her! That’s Leah Nells.” It was a moment of pure serendipity. The girl in the painting really does resemble the character I imagine when I’m reading the novel. Since then, I’ve collected other images that were possible candidates for the front cover, but Girl Reading Book has always been my first choice. I got in touch with the artist recently and received her kind permission to use the image.

You might notice that the design for the cover of Leah is similar to the design for The Spring. Since both novels are part of the same series, it makes sense that the front cover designs should be similar too. It’s a simple design, but I like it. It’s clean and elegant and (I hope) not too amateurish.

I’m still not sure what I’m going to do for the back cover. One idea I have is to use a detail from Girl Reading Book. Another option is to use a completely different image (probably a photograph, but a photo might clash with the painting on the front). Or maybe I won’t use an image at all; I’ll just use the blurb’s text and leave it at that. I’ll experiment with some different designs and decide what looks best.

November 14, 2008

How My Novel Ends

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:52 am
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One thing that you don’t often hear when authors comment on their own work is a discussion of how their novels end. This is understandable. No one wants to give away their ending and spoil the experience for a reader. But endings are such important parts of stories that it’s a shame authors can’t talk about them more. I don’t plan to give away the endings to Leah or The Spring in this post, but I would like to discuss how and why I end my novels the way I do.

(I’ll try to keep this post sufficiently vague — perhaps so much so that I wonder if it will make sense to anyone who hasn’t read the novel. Perhaps this is a post to come back to in the future.)

I’ve always enjoyed endings that are ambiguous and open to interpretation. I don’t like the “And they lived happily ever after” kinds of endings that tie up all the loose ends and answer all the lingering questions. The best endings are those that raise as many questions as they resolve, that give the reader the impression that something else is going to happen. As a reader, I want to wonder, “What’s going to happen to this character tomorrow?” If I can ask that question, then the author has succeeded in creating a realistic character that I care about.

I also like the idea of the dual ending — that is, when the final pages are not only open to multiple interpretations, but they quite literally offer two distinct endings. I did something like that in The Spring. As that novel ends, the multiple plot threads coalesce into two distinct plot lines, each of which comes to its own conclusion in both the final chapter and an epilogue. In my next novel that I’ll be writing next year, I intend to push this method of plotting to its extreme. I will offer two very different endings to the story, endings which contradict each other and allow the reader to decide for herself which one she wants.

The final chapter of Leah doesn’t have two distinct endings, but the final chapter of the book does flirt with other possible endings. If I’ve done my job as a writer, the reader will go into the final chapter not quite sure what is going to happen. The reader might be led to think that one particular ending is about to happen, but suddenly something very different and unexpected happens. (At least, that’s my intent!)

But it’s not just a last-minute plot twist that I’m after. I want to leave the reader with ambiguous feelings about where my main character, Leah Nells, finds herself on the last page of the novel. I want the reader to wonder, “Was this supposed to be a happy ending or an unhappy ending?” and I want different readers to disagree about how to answer that question. When you read the ending of Leah, you will find that it certainly seems like a happy ending, but at the same time it is a little unsettling. The very last sentence of the novel does a lot to undermine the apparently happy ending. I worked hard on that final sentence, and it’s one of the most ambiguous statements in the whole book. I’m quite pleased with it!

Personally, I consider the ending to be a happy one, despite the way I intentionally undermine it. But I’m only the author, and perhaps, ultimately, my opinion does not count for much. What I hope is that no one will be able to say, “And Leah Nells lived happily ever after.” The novel may end on that last page, but Leah’s life goes on.

November 10, 2008

In Defense of Self-Publishing

What Do I Mean By “Self-Publishing”?

The phrase “self-published author” carries with it a stigma. It wasn’t that long ago when “self-publishing” meant that one had resorted to purchasing the services of a vanity press in order to see their work in print. Vanity presses are companies who will publish anything at all — for a price. What usually happens is that the author is asked to pay a significant amount of money (often a few thousand dollars) up front in exchange for a large press run of 500, 1000, or perhaps more copies of a book. It is then up to the author to sell each and every one of those copies by himself. Essentially, all you are doing is hiring a printer. Sometimes, the vanity press will do some marketing and distribution work for the author, but only if the author is willing to write another big check.

Let me be clear: I don’t recommend that anyone use a vanity press (save your money!), and that is not what I’m referring to when I use the phrase “self-publishing”.

Ten years ago, one’s publishing options were limited. And if you were a writer who had a novel and had taken the time to query everyone: every agent and publisher on the face of the earth, and if all those queries came back rejected, then what? One’s options were limited. You could give up and toss your novel in the trash (and in some cases, maybe that’s the best choice). Or you could employ the services of a vanity press.

But those aren’t the only options anymore. The Internet has revolutionized and redefined “self-publishing”. Now, self-publishing can mean using print-on-demand services, like Lulu, if you want a physical copy of your book. Or it can mean creating a purely electronic copy of your novel and selling it as an ebook. It might mean publishing your story as an audiobook or a podcast. Self-publishing can even mean using WordPress to write a blook.

Self-publishing means taking advantage of any of the many avenues of publication that the Internet allows, but why would a writer want to pursue these non-traditional forms of publication? Why not just do it the old-fashioned way and query agents or publishing houses?

The Bleak Future of Publishing

The publishing industry isn’t healthy, and it is entering a period of great change. Ten years from now, the world of book publishing may look very different than it does today, and I predict that by mid-century it won’t bear any resemblance at all. What is causing this change? In a word: the Internet. (OK, that’s two words.)

When I talk about how the Internet is changing publishing, I like to draw an analogy to what has happened to the music industry. Fifteen years ago, the big music companies (the member companies of the RIAA) ruled supreme. If you had a band and you wanted to make it big, you had no choice but to work with Warner or Sony or EMI who had a lock on the means of distribution and marketing. If you lived on the east coast and wanted folks on the west coast to hear your music, then you had to sign one of their contracts (and since those companies held all the cards, those contracts were notoriously unfair to artists). If you weren’t willing to play by their rules, then you might as well get used to playing out of your garage, or at local clubs, because that was all the exposure and publicity that you were ever going to get.

But all that changed with the Internet and the invention of the mp3 format. Everyone knows what the mp3 has meant for music sales, and everyone knows how the those big, bloated RIAA dinosaurs are facing extinction due to dwindling profits. But the real revolution as been a democratization of distribution. Today, a band doesn’t need to sign with a record company to get their music to potential fans, and there are plenty of examples of bands that make it big before they ever even sign a record contract. We’re also starting to see established acts, like Madonna, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead and Paul McCartney, pursue non-traditional avenues of music distribution that leave the big music companies shut out of the revenue stream.

What has happened to the music industry is about to happen to the publishing industry, but the revolution isn’t going to come from a decline in literature sales. There’s a far more lucrative market than Kafka.

When I was a student in college, I usually spent about $200 per semester for textbooks. Nowadays, students are lucky to spend that much just for one class, and it’s not unusual for college students to spend more than $1000 each semester for books. College students have always complained about the high costs of textbooks, but it seems that their complaints are increasingly justified. Every publisher that wishes to make a profit has an imprint that publishes textbooks for schools and universities.

With students being taken advantage of in this way, it’s only a matter of time before students begin to revolt and, as with music CDs in the 1990s, which were also overpriced, any option that allows people to get the content they want at prices they are willing to pay (even if that price is “free”) is welcome.

Online retailers like Amazon, which sells used books at prices that are even less than a campus bookstore’s used prices, offer one solution. But there’s another option which is growing in popularity: scanning the pages of a book into a computer, converting those scans into a PDF file, and making that file available on BitTorrent and p2p networks. The question becomes, why spend $500 for that chemistry textbook when you can just download it for free? And the emergence of ebook readers, ultraportable laptops, iPhone apps, and other technology that makes it possible to conveniently carry one’s entire library of textbooks in one hand increasingly makes the idea of the “book” quaint, if not obsolete. Right now, many of these technologies are expensive, but as their prices come down, more and more people, especially young people, will take advantage of it, and the number of free, downloadable textbooks will explode.

Oh sure, the publishing world will scream “Piracy!” — just as the music industry did. And yes, they’ll try to fight this trend by suing college students and bullying professors who allow their students to use pirated copies of textbooks in class — just as the RIAA sues college students and bullies universities into policing their information networks. But the genie is already out of the bottle, and publishers either need to adapt to this new development, or, like the music industry, they can stick their collective heads in the sand, fail to adapt, and quickly find themselves on the verge of financial ruin.

So just as the Internet changed the music industry forever, it will also change the publishing industry. The Internet allows ordinary people the chance to compete with the big publishing houses by taking advantage of distribution and marketing tools that the Internet naturally offers. It is still a lot of work, but the determined writer can still see his work in print, still find an audience, and still receive the satisfaction of bringing his or her creative work to completion without ever having to deal with agents and publishing executives.

When I published The Spring last winter, I published it through Lulu’s print-on-demand (POD) service. I chose this self-publishing option not because my novel had suffered countless rejections from agents and publishers. In fact, no agent has ever read the story, and it never languished for months in some publisher’s slush pile. Self-publishing was my first and only option for that novel, but I didn’t make that decision naively. I knew exactly what the disadvantages to self-publishing would be. But I also knew that there would be advantages to my decision. Right now, it’s been almost a year since The Spring was published, and both the disadvantages and advantages of my decision have come to fruition. I’ll describe them below so as to make clear the dangers and rewards that the self-published author faces.

Disadvantages

I think the biggest disadvantage of self-publishing is the lack of marketing support. You have to realize that when you self-publish, you aren’t going to see a lot of sales unless you are willing to get out there and really “pound the pavement.” If you want to see your book on the shelf in your local bookstore, you have to make that happen. If you want to sell it online at one of the growing number of online ebook retailers, you have to make that happen. If you want your book to be reviewed, if you want it to be advertised, you have to make that happen. And even when you have done all that work, you still may not sell any books.

But even those new authors who are picked up by a major publishing house aren’t exactly on easy street either. With ever-shrinking marketing budgets, it makes more financial sense for publishers to put most of their marketing energy behind the proven winners: the Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings of the world — authors who publishers know will sell lots of books. A first novel by a new author might just as easily bomb as be a success, because that new author still has to do a lot of the marketing work himself.

The other disadvantage is that it is easy for your self-published novel to get lost in the sea of other self-published books. This great democratization of publishing not only means that your work gets published, but it also means that a fifth grader can publisher her story, too. So you aren’t just competing with the big publishing houses, you are also trying to stand out from the crowd of self-published authors. In either case, it’s easy to get lost.

Advantages

For me, the most important advantage of self-publishing is that this process allows me to fully own my work — and I use “own” in every since of the word. Self-publishing lets me assume full creative control, it lets me take full responsibility for my work, it lets me make decisions about copyright and how the work will be distributed, and if I wish, it lets me take a bigger slice of the revenue pie.

For me, the most appealing aspect of self-publishing is that I, as the author, have complete creative control

The 1996 edition of Leah. I'll send a free, signed copy to the first person who can tell me what this cover image has to do with the story.

The 1996 edition of Leah. I'll send a free, signed copy to the first person who can tell me what this image has to do with the story.

over my novel. I’m responsible for everything: from the text of the story to the cover on the outside. When working with a publisher, you necessarily give up some of that creative control. When I published the 1996 edition of Leah, a graphic artist was assigned to create a cover image for my novel for me. The artist created two images for me to choose from, but neither image had anything to do with my novel. I doubt the artist had read my book — she probably didn’t even read the blurb on the back. I had to choose between the lesser of two random evils rather than select an image that I thought evoked the subject matter of my novel. This time, if I publish Leah myself, I will be able to design the cover and choose an image that I feel is relevant and meaningful.

But retaining full creative control means taking on a lot of responsibility. It is up to you and you alone to make sure that the story is the best that it can be. Sure you can hire an editor to read your work and offer some advice, but it is still up to you to make the decisions about what to keep and what to cut, what to leave as it is and what to change. In some of the writing blogs that I read, I notice writers spending very little time in the revising stage of the writing process. After spending a few months writing the first draft of their novel, they might only spend a couple weeks revising it. Maybe they’re hoping that when they get an agent or a publisher, that the story will be sent to an editor who will do the revising and editing work for them. I think that’s a terrible mistake and a profound misunderstanding of the writing process. The revising stage is just as important — if not more important — than the drafting stage. I have been revising and editing Leah for nearly seven months now, and I’m still not done. It’s taken me so long, not because there are so many problems with the story (although the 1996 edition was quite a mess) but because I have taken on the full responsibility of revising and editing the book myself. I have a background in editing and correcting others’ writing, but I know even that is not enough. I know that when one edits one’s own work, as I am doing, one is very likely to miss mistakes that another, objective reader will see. That’s why I’m reading my novel again and again, because only upon the sixth or seventh reading will I finally see a mistake that I made in a line of dialogue or a description of a scene. It is an extraordinary amount of work, but I love writing and I love to work on my story, so I can do it.

Ultimately, I am responsible for the quality of Leah. If readers enjoy it, then I can take all of the credit. If the novel sucks, then I have only myself to blame. Self-publishing epitomizes the artist’s relation to his work in its purest form: there is only the artist and his art, the vision and the expression of that vision; no middlemen, no obstacles, no filters get in the way. The story is completely mine, and it is as idiosyncratic as I am. It is an honest expression of myself, and I find that incredibly fulfilling.

The self-published author also has to make decisions about copyright and the cost of the book. I’ve considered using a Creative Commons license for my books, but so far I have stuck with the traditional copyright license. As for determining the cost, Lulu’s print-on-demand option that I chose for The Spring allowed me to set the price for a physical copy of my novel. Unlike vanity presses, the customer isn’t purchasing copies of the book in bulk, so the cost of printing and manufacturing each individual copy is included in the price. This tends to make POD books a little bit more expensive than other books, but not too much more expensive. The Spring sells for $14.95, which is a competitive price for a novel. Just remember: you are still bound by the laws of economics; if you price your novel at $50 a copy, you probably aren’t going to sell any copies at all.

Lulu also lets me offer a PDF download of my book for free. Some people might be shocked that I would do this, but as other authors have discovered, when you give your work away for free you are building an audience, you are putting your story in the hands of readers who might not otherwise give you a chance. This is especially important for the self-publishing author who is likely already an unknown. A potential reader is more likely to give a story a try when there is no financial risk to her, and offering free downloads of one’s novel eliminates that financial risk completely. And once you’ve built an audience, you are more likely to sell copies of your work. Besides, for me, writing has never been about making money. I’ve always said that I’d rather have 1000 readers and only earn $10 than earn $1000 and only have 10 readers.

In Conclusion

Whether self-publishing is a route that you, as a writer, should take is a decision that only you can make for yourself. I’m sure many people will still prefer to take the traditional path of endless queries and rejections, even if it means that their work will never be published. That’s fine. The only point I’m trying to make is that, nowadays, the traditional path is no longer the only path, and writers no longer need to feel as though they are at the mercy of the publishing industry. We’ve entered an age when anyone can fulfill their dreams of publishing their creative work, and I think that’s a great thing.

Comments? Counter-arguments? Why is self-publishing not right for you? What advantages of following the traditional path of publishing have I missed? Let’s hear from you.

November 6, 2008

Leah Laughed (Things I Like #6)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 3:10 pm
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While there are quite a few somber moments and some melodrama in Leah, the story isn’t all gloom and doom. There are some light, humorous moments too. Finding a place for humor in Leah wasn’t easy, though, because for me, humor comes from the interaction between characters: their dialogue, the differences in their personalities, and their miscommunication. And since Leah Nells spends a lot of her time in the story by herself, there aren’t as many opportunities for character interaction that would lead to humor, so I have to take those opportunities whenever I can get them.

A lot of the humor is subtle. In chapter three, for example, when Leah is already very nervous about her first day of school, she overreacts when her father is ready to drive her to school:

At 7:39 she heard the sound of her father coming down the stairs. She immediately stood up and gathered her pile of books, her purse, and her lunch in her trembling hands. Mr. Nells appeared in the kitchen, still looking a little sleepy. Like his wife, he noticed immediately how nervous his daughter was. He smiled and teased, “Are you ready to go?”

Leah replied by bolting out the door to the garage and climbing into her father’s car.

The narrator sometimes gets into the act. When Megan tries to befriend Leah in chapter five, she speculates on why Leah isn’t saying very much. When she hits upon the right reason, the narrator adds a little extra commentary that almost serves as a punchline:

But Megan wasn’t prepared to do all of the talking either, especially not with a girl who was still just a stranger. She hadn’t made any friends yet in phys. ed. class, and when she saw that Leah was by herself too, she thought she might introduce herself and see what happened. That sounded so easy, but it had taken her the entire class period so far to work up the courage just to speak to Leah. Megan wondered why Leah had nothing more to say to her than a simple greeting and her name. Megan guessed that maybe Leah was just shy. Megan had no idea.

Leah’s lack of social experience and her naivete also lead to scenes that are at once funny and embarrassing. In chapter nine, she thinks that one way she might be able to attract David’s attention is to dress up and wear make-up. She has almost no experience applying make-up, however, so all she does is add a little lipstick to her lips. Before Leah leaves for school, Mrs. Nells notices what her daughter has done:

The unexpected change in her appearance caught the attention of Mrs. Nells whom Leah met in the kitchen that morning before she went to school. Mrs. Nells sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee and trying to wake up, but it wasn’t until her droopy eyes caught sight of Leah’s sparkling new look that they really widened.

“You’re wearing your hair differently today,” Mrs. Nells observed, “and why are you wearing that dress? What’s going on? Is the school taking yearbook pictures today? Do I need to write a check or something?”

Leah smiled and shook her head no. She certainly couldn’t tell her mother that a boy was the reason for the change in her look this morning. Leah didn’t want to get her mother’s hopes — not to mention her own hopes — up without good reason. There really wasn’t anything to tell her mother about David. Not yet, anyway.

As Leah moved about the kitchen, preparing her lunch, she could feel Mrs. Nells’ stare. Her mother was examining Leah’s face and dress with a suspicious eye. She could tell her daughter was hiding a secret.

“Are you wearing lipstick?!” Mrs. Nells asked when Leah came close enough for her to see that her daughter’s lips were redder than usual. Now she knew for sure that something was happening.

“I like to wear lipstick sometimes,” Leah replied while avoiding eye contact with her mother. She didn’t understand why her mother was making such a big deal about a few little changes in her appearance.

“You do? Since when?”

There are some scenes that might have been fun to develop into longer passages but I couldn’t because to fully develop them would be to send the plot off on a tangent, so I’ve included them as brief anecdote-like stories. One of these is a funny little description of how Leah plays softball in phys. ed. class:

. . . for the last few days her class had been playing softball outside, and Leah hated softball. When she was at bat, she felt uncomfortable being the center of attention so she usually just let herself strike out, sometimes by swinging wildly at the ball when it was pitched to her, sometimes by simply standing there and watching it fly past. And when she stood by herself in the outfield and a ball was hit towards her, she always let the ball hit the ground before she picked it up and threw it back — much to her teammates’ frustration.

But for me, the funniest scene in the novel (and perhaps one of my favorite scenes overall) is when Leah tries to draw a picture in support of her Egypt report. She and her teammates are at David’s house, trying to record their reports to video. David has the idea of using hand-drawn images to serve as intermissions between each student’s presentation:

David handed everyone a blank sheet of paper and set a box of markers on the coffee table. Leah and the other three were still confused, so David explained.

“On your sheet of paper, write the title of your report topic and draw a picture that has something to do with your topic. Later, when I’m editing the film, I’ll scan your pictures into the computer and use them to introduce everybody’s reports. It will look cool and waste some time — trust me.” David was the only one who seemed convinced that it was a good idea, but only Alex voiced an objection.

“Do I have to draw a picture?” he asked. “Remember, I drew all those posters — and I’ll talk about them in class.”

David thought for a moment and then answered, “Well, why don’t you draw the title image — you know, something to introduce the whole project? Call it something like, ‘The World of Ancient Egypt’ — or something.”

Alex agreed and the five of them got to work. Leah stared at her blank sheet of paper for a moment and wondered what she should draw. Her report covered the important pharaohs of ancient Egypt, but she didn’t know what they looked like, and even if she did, she wasn’t skilled enough to draw a portrait of any of them. Finally, she took a yellow marker and drew a picture of a golden crown, which was supposed to symbolize royalty. Above it, in large, purple letters, she wrote, “THE PHARAOHS.” She was the first to finish her drawing, and when she was done, she turned the picture face down on the table.

When the others were finished too, David asked to see his partners’ pictures. Alex wrote David’s suggested title for the presentation in bold, black letters and added a yellow and orange drawing of a pyramid. Melanie, whose report was about the process of mummification, drew a crude picture of a sarcophagus that featured a happy face where the head should be. David laughed, “Why is he smiling like that?”

“He’s happy to be dead,” Melanie replied. “When the pharaohs died, they believed that they became gods and lived in a wonderful afterlife.” At least Melanie had learned something during her research. David nodded in approval and asked Heather to show them hers.

Heather’s topic was a general history of Egypt, but her picture was of a sailboat crossing what was supposed to be the Nile River.

“What does that have to do with anything?” David asked. Alex looked at it and started laughing.

Heather looked distraught. “I don’t know!” she shouted. “Why couldn’t we have done a talk show? This whole thing is so stupid!” She tried to fling her picture at the boys, but the air caught it and sent it back towards her where it landed gently at her feet.

“Come on — don’t get upset,” David said.

It was too late. Heather felt humiliated and furious and she sought to take her anger out on someone else. Her eyes searched for a victim and found Leah, who was now holding her drawing face up in her lap, in anticipation of showing it to the group.

“Well, if you think my picture is stupid, look at hers!” Heather said, pointing at Leah’s drawing. Everyone looked and Leah stiffened under their gaze. “What is that? A crown?! The Egyptians never wore crowns like that!”

November 5, 2008

Back to Work!

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:25 am
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I haven’t posted lately because I haven’t been working on my project. In the past week, I’ve been obsessed with the elections, and all of my free time has been spent following the various races and watching the news. Now that the election is over, I can “detox” and get back to work.

The next “real” post might come tomorrow.

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