Revising Leah

September 3, 2008

How to Speak Without Saying a Word (Things I Like #3)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 2:32 pm
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When should a character speak, and when should they just shut up? When I write dialogue, I sometimes tend to get a little chatty, and I put words in my characters’ mouths that are off topic — that don’t really have anything to do with anything. I can correct such off-topic rambling during the revision stage, of course, but when I’m writing the first draft of a story, and I have two or more characters in a scene together, I feel compelled to let them talk to each other, just as two people in the real world might be compelled to speak to each other.

I like to write dialogue, but Leah is a story that, due to the personality of the main character, doesn’t have a lot of dialogue in it. So writing and revising this novel has actually taught me a lot about using dialogue sparingly and trying to get the most out of as few words as possible. It has also shown me how powerful silence can be both in terms of character creation and plot development.

My favorite passage of dialogue in the entire story comes at the end of the longest chapter of the novel (currently chapter 16). In this chapter, Leah and her partners from history class gather at David’s house on the Sunday before their Egypt presentation is due. They are hoping to put their reports on video so that they won’t have to stand in front of the class and deliver their entire presentation. I like the chapter, and it stands out from the rest of the novel in a couple of ways. First, it’s by far the longest chapter in the story — more than twice as long as most of the other chapters. Second, it’s a chapter that is filled with dialogue — so much that it almost reads like a one-act play. Towards the end of the chapter, as Leah and her partners are waiting for their rides to take them home, Leah has a brief “conversation” with David’s mother. It’s a scene that reveals a lot about the true nature of Leah and David’s relationship:

Heather and Melanie were the first to leave. A gray car pulled up to the house. Leah, the only person looking out the window when the car arrived, was the first to see it, but she didn’t say anything to the others. After half a minute, Melanie noticed the car and said, “C’mon Heather, there’s your mom.” Heather looked out the window and then said goodbye to David. She yelled a thank you to Mrs. Parks in the kitchen for allowing them to use the house that afternoon. Mrs. Parks emerged from the kitchen and said goodbye. Melanie and Heather, with their reports in hand, walked out the door. Leah watched them through the window and felt relieved to see Heather go. When their car drove away, Mrs. Parks said to her son, “David, I want you to go into the kitchen and clean up your mess.”

“OK,” he said reluctantly, and he marched off to the kitchen. Leah stood there, disappointed, for she hoped she might have a chance to talk with David alone, but now she wouldn’t.

A minute later, Alex’s ride arrived. He shouted a goodbye to David who responded in kind. As Alex gathered his posters and the box with his camcorder inside, Mrs. Parks helped him by holding the front door open. When he was gone, she closed the door.

Left alone in the foyer with Leah, David’s mother stared at the silent girl for a moment and then asked, “What’s your name again?”

“Leah.”

“Are you one of Heather’s friends?”

Leah shook her head no.

“Just a classmate then?”

She nodded.

“That’s what I thought. I didn’t think I remembered David ever mentioning a girl named Leah.”

Silence.

“What was all that shouting I heard down here a while ago?” Mrs. Parks asked. “My husband and I could hear it all the way upstairs.”

Leah shrugged. “David and Heather had an argument.”

“Oh,” the woman said. “You certainly weren’t yelling, though. You don’t say much, do you?”

Leah shrugged again.

Mrs. Parks glanced at something out the window. “Is that your ride?” she asked.

Leah looked and saw her mother’s car. “Yes.” She opened the door and started to leave.

David must have heard the door open because he shouted, “Bye, Leah,” from the kitchen.

“Goodbye,” Leah replied, but her voice wasn’t very strong, and she didn’t know if David heard her. She exited the house and gently shut the door behind her.

As usual, Leah doesn’t contribute much to her half of a conversation, but while she doesn’t use a lot of words, she does communicate with gestures (nodding her head or shrugging her shoulders).  There’s one moment, though, when Mrs. Parks innocently mentions that David has never spoken about Leah, and Leah responds only with Silence. She doesn’t speak or gesture or communicate at all. That is my favorite line in this passage because that Silence perhaps says more than any other word or gesture could ever say. In that silence so many things might be occurring, and the silence allows me to leave it up to the reader’s imagination to “fill in the blank” — to speculate and guess what Leah is thinking at that moment. There’s nothing that I, as the author, could have the character say or do at that moment that would be more powerful than to have her say and do nothing but silently ponder the unintended significance of what Mrs. Parks has revealed to Leah: that David has never mentioned Leah to his family and perhaps doesn’t think about Leah at all outside of history class.

So, for those of you writing your own stories, keep in mind that moments of silence from your characters (even characters who are a lot chattier than Leah) can be just as powerful as even the most eloquent statement.

September 1, 2008

Speak Softly and Carry a Red Pen

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:38 am
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One of the advantages of reading a text over and over again as I’m doing with this project is that it allows me to see patterns in the text that I would otherwise probably miss. One type of pattern that I look for when revising a piece of writing is whether I am repeating a particular word too many times.

In the third cycle of revision I noticed that I used the word “softly” to describe Leah’s manner of speaking at least four times throughout the course of the novel. For example, it appears in this exchange with Mrs. Nells:

“Did you have any trouble finding your classes? That school is an enormous place. I remember my first day of high school — or maybe it was junior high — I’m not sure. Anyway, I once got lost on my first day of school and found myself in a class full of juniors and seniors when I was only . . . when I was only a sophomore. Yeah — now I remember: it was high school. I didn’t realize I was in the wrong class until the roll was called. I was so embarrassed!” Mrs. Nells giggled. “I hope you didn’t have any trouble like that?”

“No,” she said, softly.

Now, using a word four times within the scope of an 85,000 word novel to describe how a main character speaks probably wouldn’t be a big deal if that character had a lot of dialogue. But Leah rarely speaks at all in the story (out of curiosity, I’ve been trying to count the number of words that she speaks, but I haven’t got a total word count yet), so when she does speak, it’s a big event. Those four uses of the word “softly” represent a high percentage of the word’s use.

Since I’ve begun noticing the word’s frequent use, the correction that I’ve made in each case has simply been to delete everything outside of the quotation marks, thusly:

“Did you have any trouble finding your classes? That school is an enormous place. I remember my first day of high school — or maybe it was junior high — I’m not sure. Anyway, I once got lost on my first day of school and found myself in a class full of juniors and seniors when I was only . . . when I was only a sophomore. Yeah — now I remember: it was high school. I didn’t realize I was in the wrong class until the roll was called. I was so embarrassed!” Mrs. Nells giggled. “I hope you didn’t have any trouble like that?”

“No.”

I realized that I don’t need the adverb “softly” to describe how Leah speaks because elsewhere in the text I tell show the reader that Leah doesn’t have a very strong voice, and that when she does speak it tends to be in whispers and mumbles (her Egypt presentation is one of the best examples of this). So when she simply says “No” to her mother’s [relatively] lengthy question and anecdote, it is possibly the best revision choice that I could make. That one little word, only two letters long, without the narrator explaining that “she said,” takes up almost no space on the page, just like the rest of her dialogue takes up very little space in the context of the entire novel. It’s simple; it’s elegant; it’s efficient.

August 27, 2008

Have You Googled Your Characters Lately?

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 9:23 pm
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If you are writing a story and have characters with both first and last names, it can be very interesting to Google them and see what results you get. Try not just the standard Google search, but the Google Image Search too. I tried my two main characters, Leah Nells and David Parks.

“Leah Nells” turned up absolutely nothing — other than posts from this blog. :-) There is a “Leah Nell” (no -s) but no one, at least no one that Google knows about, shares the same name as my character. Leah Nells truly is alone.

“David Parks,” however, is a different story. Google found a lot of people with that name, including politicians, soldiers, singers, and a fellow with an IMDB credit.

I rather like the idea that Leah doesn’t share her name with anyone else, but David Parks does. It just seems to reinforce Leah’s isolation and David’s popularity.

August 9, 2008

Things I Like #1

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 8:26 pm
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Because most of the narrative of Leah occurs from the main character’s point of view, whenever another character crashes into Leah’s sometimes insular world, the effect — at least for me — can be a bit jarring. Leah’s isolation from her classmates doesn’t just make her interactions with her classmates awkward and uncomfortable, but a lot of her fellow students think she’s weird, and this leaves her exposed as a potential target for bullies. As I’m rewriting Leah, I’m also sketching out some rough drafts for my next novel, and as I’ve hinted in a previous post, I’m going to let Leah make a very, very brief “cameo” appearance in the new story. The next novel is set about a year and a half after the events of Leah, and the glimpse that we get of her in that new context is perhaps a little disturbing. It suggests that the teasing and bullying that Leah experiences from time to time in this novel might actually get worse for her.

In this book, though, the most explicit scene of bullying occurs after Leah has already suffered a significant disappointment in her English class. After English, she goes on to world history where she tries to cheer herself up by reading a page or two out of her latest book before class starts, but she’s interrupted:

She had a few minutes of free time available to her so she opened her backpack and removed her new book, 5087 Trivia Questions & Answers. She opened the book to page 49 and began reading where she left off at the end of lunch. She didn’t expect to read very far, maybe only one or two pages, but that didn’t matter. At times like this, reading offered the kind of escape which she needed. She read her book and ignored her the other students as they filed into class. Shortly before the bell rang, she sensed a shadow looming over her, and she heard a husky voice ask, “What are you reading?”

Startled, Leah looked up and found a boy named Kyle standing over her. He was a tall, slightly overweight, aggressive guy who was destined to become a varsity football player in his later years of high school. Leah didn’t like him. He was loud, rude, and intimidating, but what she didn’t understand was why he was standing here beside her when his desk was on the other side of the room.

Leah, still shocked by Kyle’s intrusion, hadn’t answered the boy’s question, and her silence was starting to annoy him.  Kyle pried the book out of the girl’s hands and read the title himself. “5087 Trivia Questions & Answers,” he declared, loudly, so that anyone in the classroom who might be watching could hear him. “What’s this for? Are you trying out for a game show or something?” He laughed and added, “If you do, you’ll have to talk, you know. You can’t just stand there and not say anything.” Still holding the book, he turned around. “Hey Jake!” he shouted across the room to another boy. “Jake! Look at this!” Kyle wanted to show the book to his friend, but the boy named Jake was engaged in a serious conversation with a couple of giggling girls and so Kyle was the last thing on his mind. Meanwhile, Leah was beginning to feel embarrassed as Kyle was determined to make her the center of attention, even though he wasn’t having much success. She wanted to stop him and get her book back, but she didn’t know what to do. Kyle was a lot bigger than she was, and if he was determined to keep the book away from her, he could. She looked in vain for Mr. Simmons, but he was nowhere to be found. She felt helpless.

Frustrated by his failure to attract Jake’s attention, Kyle turned to Leah again. He saw the alarm and desperation on the girl’s face and teased, “What? Do you really want this book back?”

“Give it back to her, Kyle,” said the voice of a boy sitting in a desk somewhere behind Leah.

Kyle, thinking he had finally found an audience, turned in the direction of the voice and said, “Hey, David, check out this book! This girl thinks she’s gonna be on a game show or something.” He opened the book to a random page and asked, “Hey, can you answer this? ‘What did the philosopher Soccerts drink when he committed suicide?'”

“You’re an idiot,” the voice laughed. “It’s pronounced ‘Socrates,’ not ‘Soccerts’. Simmons talked about him just last week. Weren’t you paying attention?”

Kyle stared at the book in his hands. “Oh,” he said flatly. A few of Leah’s classmates, who were now-at last-paying attention to Kyle, started laughing.

“Now give her back her book,” the voice commanded.

Kyle hesitated for a moment, but then he handed the book to Leah without saying another word. He left her desk and returned to the other side of the room just as the bell rang and Mr. Simmons, who had missed the scene, entered the class, and, unaware of what had just occurred, asked everyone to take a seat so he could call roll. Leah turned around to face the voice who freed her book from Kyle’s grasp. In the row to her right, sitting two seats back, was the boy named David . . .

This, of course, also marks the first appearance of David in the novel. Leah’s moment of humiliation turns into the start of something more exciting. But for me, what I like most in this scene is Kyle’s bullying of Leah and what that suggests about her character’s life at school outside the narrative bounds of the story.

July 11, 2008

Dreams

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 6:10 pm
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One of the great mysteries of my own creative process is the almost complete absence of my characters from my dreams. When I’m in the middle of a writing project, I tend to obsess over the story and the characters, I spend a lot of my free time during the day playing out scenes and dialogue in my head and imagining my characters in all sorts of situations. I can see many of the characters, especially the main characters, quite vividly in my imagination, so one would think that when I close my eyes at night my characters would feature prominently in my dreams as well. They don’t. I have had a few dreams over the years in which my characters (or representations of my characters) appear, but such dreams are very, very rare.

More often (and this is what I find really interesting), when I do dream about my stories, I dream about the books themselves. For example, a few months ago, I had a very vivid dream in which I had in my possession a graphic novel version of The Spring. The whole story was there, but in comic book form. It was really cool, and I remember the dream because when I awoke, I was profoundly disappointed that it was only a dream and that a graphic novel version of my story didn’t really exist. (If I had any drawing talent at all, I’d probably make one myself.)

I really wish that I could dream about my characters more. Even though I can experience them in my imagination or when I read from one of my stories, dreaming about my characters would be so much more exciting because then they would be fully under the influence of my subconscious mind, which means they might do or say things that could be quite unexpected, perhaps even offering me new insights into who they are.

June 20, 2008

Leah’s Genealogy

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 1:48 pm
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Working on this novel and once again spending time with its main character, Leah Nells, has gotten me thinking a lot about the genesis of that character and her story. I wrote the original draft of Leah when I was in college (which probably explains a lot about why the 1996 edition of the novel didn’t turn out so well), but the main character herself was created when I was still in high school. Back then, I was writing stories all the time, often at the cost of my schoolwork. I’m not sure when, exactly, I created Leah Nells, but it was probably when I was in the 12th grade.

Leah Nells emerged as a composite of three individuals, both real and fictional:

  1. Myself. All of my main characters are extensions of me or some aspect of my personality — and I suppose most writers would say the same thing about their own character creations. I’ve always been an introverted person. I’m not really shy — I’ll talk to people when I need to — but like Melville’s Bartleby, I would prefer not to. Perhaps one reason why I really like Leah as a character is because it is one of the few times, in all of the stories that I have written, that I have given full expression to my introverted personality, bringing it forth and personifying it in a story.
  2. There was a girl in my high school who was living Leah’s life about as much as a real person can. I barely knew her at all; in our four years of high school I think I only shared three classes with her, but she clearly made an impression. She was shy, had no friends from what I could tell, and was occasionally picked on by bullies. One of the classes that I shared with her was our 12th grade study hall. I usually sat in class and wrote stories while she sat and read books. For a couple of weeks, she even spent her time reading a big book of trivia questions.
  3. In the 11th grade, my English class studied American literature. One of our reading assignments was The Glass Menagerie, a play that I liked so much that during the summer after 11th grade I went to a bookstore and bought my own copy, which I still have. What I liked most about the play was the character of Laura, whose crippled leg caused her to retreat from the world and live in isolation. I found the character fascinating because I hadn’t encountered anyone like her in any other stories that I had read.

So Leah Nells is an amalgamation of these three sources. Her character first appeared on paper in a pair of short stories, one written during the 12th grade, and the other written . . . well, I’m not sure when, but certainly before I started the novel. In fact, I do know that the second story was as much a character sketch as it was a story. I was probably considering writing a novel about the character, and I used that second story as an opportunity to see if I really could pull it off. As I’ve mentioned before, Leah is a difficult character to write about because she interacts (or doesn’t interact) so differently from other characters that I’ve created. Her story arc is principally an internal one, and so the novel relies on prose narration a lot more than I would prefer.

As a writer, I always end up forming an emotional bond with my main characters, no matter who they are; they’re a part of me. I don’t have children so they’re the closest thing that I have to offspring. I feel obligated to them in a lot of ways, and that is a big reason why I am revising the novel. Since the first edition was published, I’ve felt guilty about not placing Leah in the best possible story I could write. Hopefully, the new edition will live up to my expectations.

June 4, 2008

Reading Assignment

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 10:26 am
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Whenever I describe Leah, I tend to use the adjective “shy”. And while that does describe one aspect of her personality, it is only part of the problem that she faces. We might just as accurately use the term “introverted”. Shyness and introversion are not the same thing, although they both manifest themselves in much the same way: in a withdrawal from people and social situations. To characterize someone as shy, but not introverted, is to suggest that they want to be a part of the social interaction that they see around them, but cannot. This is not Leah’s situation. At times, she might believe that she wants to be more sociable, but only because everyone around her — her parents, teachers, classmates, complete strangers — keep telling her that is how she should behave. In fact, Leah is most comfortable, most at ease with herself, when she is alone. Or, to put it another way (and I think I use this expression somewhere later in the novel), she is alone, but she is not lonely.

A few months ago, I came across an online article that describes the difference that I am discussing in this post. Here is a link to the article. It’s an interesting read, especially if you’ve never really thought about the difference between shyness and introversion.

May 18, 2008

What’s In A Name?

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:22 am
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I’ve been working on the new chapter 5, which contains one of my favorite scenes in the early part of the novel.  It’s the scene where Leah almost makes a friend during her first week of school, but because of her inexperience communicating with other people and expressing herself, she misses the opportunity.

In the 1996 draft, I named the character who tries to befriend Leah “Carrie.” Later, for — let’s just say — extratextual reasons, I decided that I didn’t like that name.  So one of my tasks in chapter 5, along with my usual revising, was to choose a new name for the character.

Choosing a name for a character is always a significant event.  Unlike choosing a name for a newborn baby, who is a blank slate in terms of experiences, personality, and destiny, a writer introduces a character into a story knowing what the character’s role and personality will be.  Thus, a writer must choose a name that is suggestive, in some way, of that character.  There is, of course, a subjective element to all of this, too.  Different names suggest different things to different people, depending especially on whether we have ever met anyone with that name before.

So after giving it some thought (and after browsing some lists of common names that I found through Google) I decided to rename Carrie “Megan”.  Why?  Well, for one thing, I wanted a name that wasn’t too “flashy” or “girly” like, for example, “Tiffany”.  I also didn’t want to choose a name like “Emily” which, in my mind, has connotations to other isolated, hermetic individuals.  “Megan” is a good, ordinary girl’s name.  Finally, in my own personal experience, every Megan that I have ever met has always been overweight (there may be some skinny Megans in the world, but I’ve never met them).  In chapter 5, the character is described as “chubby” — not necessarily fat, but somewhat overweight.  Megan, in my mind, seems like the perfect name.

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