Revising Leah

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.

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.

August 24, 2008

The Lost Chapters

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 3:46 pm
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Today I eliminated one of my chapters (chapter seven) by merging it with the previous chapter. The chapter was only three pages long, which is extremely short since most of the chapters in the novel average around nine or ten pages. There really wasn’t any reason for those three pages to be set apart in their own chapter like that since the chapter was really just a continuation of the subject of the previous chapter (Leah’s book report for English class). Merging the chapter with the previous one was pretty painless and didn’t require too much editing. I now have 25 chapters.

One thing that has been somewhat annoying for me is how I keep creating and cutting chapters. I don’t even want to mention chapter numbers in this blog anymore because I know that somewhere down the line I’ll make another change and I’ll have to renumber the chapters. What is chapter ten this week might have been chapter nine last week, and next week it will probably be chapter nine again.

It’s a little frustrating for me because I like to assign specific scenes to specific chapter numbers in my imagination. It helps me think about where scenes are located in the big picture, and it helps me find them when I need to search for a scene in the story. I wish I could say I knew which chapter contains Leah’s trip to the used book store, for example, but right now I have no idea. For me, that’s a little unsettling.

May 12, 2008

Reshuffling the Deck

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:39 am
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Well, it turns out I wasn’t too far off the mark. I’ve gone through and broken up the novel into smaller chapters, and as of right now, I have 24 chapters. Ultimately, I think the novel might run about 22 or 23 chapters, since I might end up recombining a couple of chapters, but 24 is the number I’m working with now. Here’s how I’ve broken it down:

1996 Draft / Revised

Chapter 1 / 1

Chapter 2 / 2

Chapter 3 / 3, 4

Chapter 4 / 5, 6, 7

Chapter 5 / 8, 9

Chapter 6 / 10, 11, 12

Chapter 7 / 13, 14, 15

Chapter 8 / 16, 17

Chapter 9 / 18

Chapter 10 / 19, 20, 21

Chapter 11 / 22

Chapter 12 / 23, 24

In terms of organization, two chapters are going to cause me some problems: the old chapter 4 and the old chapter 9. Chapter 4 is a problem because I tried to combine two episodes (the book report and Leah’s trip to the used book store) into one chapter. While the two events are related, I think they would be better off placed in separate chapters, but the problem that I have is that I have embedded the book store trip inside of the book report subplot, and it might make more sense to keep those two stories separate. We’ll see. Revising those scenes might require some rewriting and moving some passages of text around, but it shouldn’t be too hard to sort out.

A more difficult problem is what to do with the sequence of events that occur during Thanksgiving week towards the end of the novel. Here’s a rough outline of events that occur in chapters 8-11 of the 1996 draft:

Sunday: Leah, etc. meets at David’s house to work on presentation

Monday: Presentations due; Leah’s group not chosen

Tuesday: Leah’s group chosen

Wednesday: Leah stays home; Grandma comes to visit

Thursday: Thanksgiving Day

Friday: Shopping trip

The problem here is that the events of Monday and Tuesday seem needlessly repetitive. On Monday, Leah worries about the presentation, but it doesn’t happen. On Tuesday, she worries about it some more, and it does happen. What I’d like to do is conflate the two days so that Leah and her group present their Egypt report on Monday. But if I do that, it will screw up the time line for the rest of the week, because there are certain events (like Thanksgiving Day) which must occur on certain days. If Leah gives her presentation on Monday, that will leave me with a full day in which I have nothing planned for her. She must stay home from school the day following her presentation because she is upset about not spending any more time with David — and because I don’t want David to speak to her again until the Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday. The reason why Leah’s mother lets her daughter skip school is because she thinks Leah is excited about her grandmother’s visit. In the 1996 draft, Grandma arrives on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. I could move her arrival up to Tuesday, to fill in the gap that I’ve created there (and I could pretend that Wednesday was going to be part of the holiday anyway), but then that leaves me with nothing to do for Wednesday. I haven’t decided how I’m going to solve this problem. What I could do is keep the presentation on Tuesday, as I originally intended, but try to make Tuesday’s events unique compared to Monday. Right now, though, I don’t have any ideas for how to do that.

Anyway, that’s a problem for later. I think my next task is going to be to write the report that Leah delivers to her class, which I might insert into the text of the novel. That should be an interesting challenge, even if I decide not to include the text after all. It’s a challenge not only because I have to write in the style of a 14-year-old, but I have to write in the voice of Leah Nells. While I’ve developed what I hope is a deep and complex personality for her, her shyness means that she rarely speaks in the novel, so I wonder if I can transfer her voice into a short piece of writing. I think it will be fun to try.

May 11, 2008

Next Step

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 9:18 am
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Well, I just finished reading the novel. The purpose of this first stage was to get a “lay of the land” — to see what I have to work with as I begin revising. It’s been years since I read the whole novel straight through. As I expected, it was pretty bad in some places. Some passages left me shaking my head, wondering what I was thinking when I originally wrote them. But as bad as the novel is in some places, I never got the sense that it was beyond repair. The novel may be a bit of a wreck, but it isn’t totaled. I have a lot of work ahead of me, but I know I can do it. I’m as excited as ever to be working on the book.

My next step will be a relatively easy one: I’m going to break the chapters down into smaller chapters. The 1996 draft of Leah consisted of 12 chapters, the longest one being chapter 8, which is over 30 pages long. Looking back over some of my early writing, I find I organized drafts in that way quite often. When I wrote a long story, it would consist of 10-15 chapters that were very long and crammed full of story. I guess I had some sort of aversion to writing short chapters; maybe I thought that I was slacking if I wrote a chapter that was only 5 or 6 pages long. The Spring used to be like that too. The first draft of that novel was only 9 chapters and an epilogue long (9 chapters in 200 pages). The published version of The Spring, however, consists of 26 chapters and an epilogue because, when revising that novel, I thought it made more sense to break those big chapters into smaller, easier-to-read chunks. I think Leah would benefit from the same treatment. If nothing else, it might make the book easier for me to revise. Psychologically speaking, a chapter that is only 5 or 6 pages long just seems like an easier revision task than trying to take on a massive 20- or 25-page chunk of text.

Another reason why the 1996 draft consisted of only 12 chapters is because it was part of the “time” motif that I was trying to incorporate into the story. Throughout the book, I wanted to create the sense that time was running out for Leah. She was growing up, coming closer and closer to adulthood (and all of its responsibilities) every day. It’s one thing for a child to be extremely shy, but it is much harder for an adult to live that way. She was also running out of time in terms of her school life. She has only a limited amount of time in which to spend with David Parks, for example, and to make an impression on him before their history project is due. And, as I emphasize in the final chapter, winter is fast approaching, which will soon force Leah away from the patio table where she felt comfortable spending her lunchtime hours.

(I also did a lot of other things to call attention to the time motif in the novel, such as identifying the exact times in which events occurred. Reading through the 1996 draft again, I’m not sure if I like those little details; I feel as though I’m keeping minutes in a committee meeting.)

So in terms of this time motif, “12” signified the 12 numbers on the clock face, but of course this is a rather contrived way of breaking up the novel. It just doesn’t work, so I think the best thing to do is to break the chapters down still further. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up with 24 chapters!

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