Revising Leah

December 22, 2008

Technology, Culture, and Writing Fiction

If you are writing stories set in the present day, as I am, then you’ve probably worried, as I have, about how to refer to (or ignore) information technology and all of the little electronic devices that we carry with us nowadays. Their ubiquity in modern culture causes the fiction writer at least two problems.

First, there is the problem of trying to keep up with technology. Things are changing so fast. Every day there is a new gadget or a new must-visit website, and every day some other gadget that was popular a few years ago falls into obsolescence, or yesterday’s cool website or web app is abandoned as users flock to the next big thing. Writing about young people, as I do, makes the problem even more difficult because fads and tastes change daily, and it is young people who are most likely to embrace whatever is new and fun. For example, when I revised The Spring for publication, I had to insert mp3s and mp3 players into the story in order to bring it up to date, but at the same time, I was careful not to call any character’s player an “iPod”. The iPod might be the dominant brand of mp3 player right now, but that could change in five years. When I mention technology in my stories, I’m careful not to mention specific brands. If I did, it would date the story and limit it to a specific period of time — even a specific year. I want to try to keep my stories as current and “present day” as possible. There will come a time when certain items and activities seem anachronisitic, but hopefully that’s still a while off.

Second, all of this new technology is changing the way people interact with each other. Yes, people still make friends or fight or fall in love, but the way that they do those things is changing. It feels like we’re in a transitional time — or maybe, from this point forward, the only cultural constant will be transition.

Technology wasn’t always moving so fast. Through most of the 20th century, if two people wanted to communicate with each other, they could write letters, speak on the telephone, or meet in person (by car or train or subway). Now, young people don’t write letters, they text each other. They don’t talk on the telephone, they use cell phones. And while face-to-face meetings are still popular (I hope), young people are just as likely to keep in touch with Facebook, MySpace, blogs, or through any number of the various social applications and websites. Their online existence bleeds into their offline existence. But once again, mentioning any of these specific devices or sites or activities by name is dangerous. Right now, Facebook rules supreme, but if (and when) a cooler, better site comes along, Facebook could be a ghost town in a few years. And already blogs and email are starting to seem old-fashioned. How much longer will WordPress last?

But telling a good story means placing human relationships front and center. Even in a story like Leah, which is about a girl who spends most of her time by herself, the relationships that she has — or tries to have — with the other characters is the most important thing. With technology changing culture, and culture changing the way that humans interact with each other, writers are under pressure to adapt how their characters interact with each other while still preserving the results of that interaction: the loving and fighting that has always been part of human culture and literature.

How has our technological culture influenced the way you construct your stories?

(This will probably be my last blog post until after Christmas. After Christmas, I will begin documenting the process of publishing a novel through Lulu. It should be fun. I hope everyone curious about self-publishing visits me again.)

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 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.

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.

August 16, 2008

Forever Fourteen (Time, Part 2)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 3:29 pm
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In the second chapter of Leah, I introduce the theme of time. Leah Nells is obsessed with the passage of time, and her obsession is manifested in the form of the books she reads and the bookcase in which she stores them:

. . . Against the fourth wall of the room was a bookcase that Mr. Nells bought for her a year and a half ago to store Leah’s ever-growing collection of books. It was made out of wood and had four shelves. Two of the shelves were filled completely, and a third was only partially filled.

The bookcase was Leah’s favorite part of her room. Sometimes, instead of reading, she would just sit on the floor and stare at the books. It might not have had much significance for anyone else who saw it, but for Leah the bookcase served as a kind of record of her life with each book representing a particular span of time. Leah kept the books arranged in the order in which she had read them so that they served as a sort of calendar, marking the passage of time for the last two or three years. Leah measured her life in pages instead of hours, in chapters instead of days, and in volumes instead of months. The empty space on the third and fourth shelves of her bookcase represented the future, the unknown, the unread books that were to come. The clock on Leah’s desk kept one form of time, and Leah’s books kept a different one.

For Leah, the future is something to be dreaded, something to fear and worry about. In the present, she’s safe: she can still hide from the world in her bedroom and indulge her introverted personality. But the beginning of high school also marks the beginning of the final stage of the long, slow climb towards adulthood, and the older she gets, the closer she will come to the moment when she will have to confront and overcome her shyness. It’s something she doesn’t want to face. For her, the idea of making friends, getting a part-time job, or going away to college seems like an impossible task. She just doesn’t know how to do it.

In the story, Leah’s dread for the future manifests itself in a very significant way when she joins David Parks’ group for the history project. Here, the future that she fears has been assigned a specific date: November 24 (by the novel’s calendar). On that day, two terrible things will happen: she’ll have to stand in front of her class and present her report on the Egyptian pharaohs, and the day will mark the end of her time with David, for whom she has a crush. She tries to embrace the present and savor every fleeting minute that she spends in David’s presence, but there is the constant pressure of the future racing towards her. She’s always aware that time is running out.

For Leah’s parents, the future represents everything that it represents for Leah: adulthood, responsibilities, an end to her shyness. But for them, it is the present which is miserable and the future contains all their hopes for their daughter. Tomorrow she’ll make a friend. Next month she’ll get over her shyness. A year from now she’ll finally be a normal teenager. They can’t wait for the future to arrive, and this difference in what the future means is a point of conflict between the girl and her parents.

In the 1996 draft of Leah, I constantly made note in the narrative of what time it was. I would write that it was 8:15 or noon or 2:57 or whatever. The reason for inserting these details really had almost nothing to do with the plot and everything to do with calling the reader’s attention to this theme of time. As I started revising, I decided to cut most of those little mentions of the time out of the text because most of them just seemed superfluous to me. I felt like I was bludgeoning the reader with the theme instead of trusting that the reader will be able to figure out what I’m doing. I was showing a lack of respect for the reader — never a good idea. Despite these deletions, there are still a few occasions in the text when I do focus on the clock. One example is in chapter 3, before Leah’s first day of high school. She’s nervous about the big day, and in her anxiety she has decided that she needs to leave her house at a specific time, so she’s constantly watching the clock and worrying about the passage of each minute. In a scene like that, I need to call attention to the minutes as they pass, but elsewhere, if it isn’t necessary for me to do that to help the story, then I don’t.

There’s a scene in my other novel, The Spring, in which one of the characters wishes that he could take the moment that he is experiencing and freeze it — in other words, make the moment last forever. In a sense, that is what happens when one tells a story. A story can be retold again and again (and when it is written down, the story can be retold exactly the same way) and so the characters relive their moments of existence every time someone reads them on the page. Sometimes this can seem like something terrible, as when Leah must relive an instant of public speaking again and again, but she also experiences the last page of the novel over and over too. The physical form of the book in which she exists is both her hell and her heaven.

I wonder if it is this ability to manipulate time that attracts me to writing. Like Leah, I’ve always been somewhat obsessed about time, and I’m haunted by the knowledge of my own mortality. Some of my earliest acts of creative writing involved retelling (and fictionalizing) stories from my own personal experience. I’ve always been eager to capture and hold the moments of my life in writing. I guess that urge isn’t uncommon: lots of people take photographs of themselves and loved ones, for instance. I’ve always been uncomfortable with photographs, but I don’t feel uncomfortable with recording my experiences in words. The difference between a photograph and a story, however, is that (despite the advantages of digital photography) a picture is grounded in reality, in what really happened, while a story can be rewritten — it can be revised. Events can be altered and changed at will; happy endings are always possible; heartbreak can be turned into love; dark can be made light; mistakes can be corrected.

And while I am not Leah Nells, and the story of her life is not the story of my own, there is enough of myself (my ideas, my interests, my fears, my misanthropism) in this novel and in The Spring that when my physical self perishes, I’ll leave something behind that was the essence of me. As I live my life and pass through time, the stories are capable of achieving something approaching permanence — something that would be otherwise unattainable to me. I’ll grow old and die, but Leah Nells will be forever fourteen. She’ll escape that future that she fears.

July 28, 2008

Mrs. Nells

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 10:45 am
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A few posts back, I wrote about the possibility that Heather, the girl who competes with Leah for David’s affection, functions as a villain (or at least an antagonist) in the novel. Another character who might lay claim to this title is Leah’s mother, Rebecca Nells. Leah and her mother are often at odds over Leah’s introverted behavior. Leah prefers to have as little contact with people and strangers as possible, while her mother pressures her to be more sociable. We see the conflict at the very beginning of the novel. In chapter one, while the two of them are out shopping at garage sales, the tension and pressure between mother and daughter builds until finally Mrs. Nells explodes:

“It’s the easiest thing in the world, Leah. You hand the woman the money, she thanks you, you take your book and go on your way. You are fourteen years old — you’re about to start high school in less than two weeks — yet you can’t even buy a book at a garage sale like any normal girl your age. I’m completely at a loss! I can’t understand what’s wrong with you!”

It’s not a pretty scene, and it establishes the point of conflict between these two characters.

As the book goes on, though, we get to know Mrs. Nells a little bit better. Like her husband, she works full time. She’s apparently unhappy with her career; she works in some middle-management position for a poorly run corporation that has been losing profits. She’s under pressure to perform, but her efforts are going mostly unappreciated by her bosses and her co-workers. She’s getting older and her age is starting to show on her face. She’s jealous of her husband who seems to be aging more gracefully than she, but otherwise her relationship with Mr. Nells remains strong. Leah reminds herself, at one point, that although her parents fight sometimes, they never yell and scream and lose control. Like her husband, she tends to romanticize her memories of her teenage years, and if her anecdotes are to be believed, she was quite popular when she was in high school — dating boys and going to dances whenever possible.

But it’s her strained relationship with her daughter that the reader mostly sees. Mrs. Nells doesn’t understand Leah. She privately disapproves of Leah’s reading habit and would prefer her daughter make friends and spend more time outside her bedroom. The reader might find the tactics that she uses to make this happen somewhat cruel, but Mrs. Nells would call it “tough love.” Later in the novel, she explains to Grandma why she places so much pressure on Leah:

“Because she has to learn how to do those things by herself . . . We just want her to learn to be independent, to stand on her own as an individual. If she keeps relying on us to do everything for her, then she’ll never learn how to survive in the real world. She’ll never make friends, and she’ll never learn how to relate to other people. She can’t waste her whole life in her bedroom reading books.”

One of the themes of the novel is the nature of individuality: what does it mean to be an individual and how does an individual fit into a larger society of other individuals? I like Mrs. Nells’ explanation above because it offers a solution to the question raised by the theme of individuality. I think most of us would probably agree with Mrs. Nells’ overall solution for her shy daughter even though we may not necessarily agree with her tactics. From her perspective, Leah’s shyness is preventing the girl from standing on her own two feet; she relies too much on her parents for support and isn’t making the kind of progress towards adulthood that a 14-year-old should be making.

So like Heather, Mrs. Nells is one of Leah’s antagonists, but she’s more complicated than a simple villain.

July 23, 2008

Actions and Reactions

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 12:27 pm
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I’m not doing a lot of large-scale revising of the kind that I was doing a month ago, but there are a few spots in the text where revision is still necessary. One example is in chapter 10. Here, Leah is infatuated with David, eager to see him both in and out of history class (the only class that they share). In the earlier drafts, I describe Leah actively searching for David before school, in between classes, at lunch, and after school. The trouble, though, was that it almost seemed like she was stalking him. Her active pursuit of David was definitely out of character for her, and when I was working through chapter 10 a few weeks ago, I knew that I had to fix it. I guess I was working on something else in the text at the time because I chose to put it off until later. In this round of revisions/editing, I took care of it.

What I did was try to transform Leah’s active search for David into something more passive. For example, when she is waiting for school to start in the morning, she sees David exiting the school bus. When the bell rings, Leah hesitates following the crowd into the school building in the hope of getting close to David. In the last draft of the text, she does this in a rather active way, but I tweaked the scene so that now she behaves more passively. When David approaches her, drawn forward by the crowd, I describe Leah standing still, waiting for him to notice her and say something to her. He doesn’t, of course, and she is disappointed.

Later in the day, at lunch, Leah doesn’t search for David in the cafeteria, but when she sits down at her usual table outside on the patio, she fantasizes about David searching for her, finding her alone, and spending his lunch hour with her. Again, I’ve set up Leah to be the passive recipient of David’s action — even if it’s all in Leah’s imagination.

Perhaps this is more “passive-aggressive” than simply “passive,” but it is more in line with her character. Leah, in her interactions with other people, prefers to let them speak to her. She responds rather than initiates; she reacts to others instead of taking action.

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