Revising Leah

February 5, 2009

The End

This blog has been an act of redemption.

In the months and years following the publication of the first edition of Leah back in 1996, I found myself increasingly unhappy with the book and the quality of the story I had written. My unhappiness loomed over all of my other writing, eventually paralyzing to me to the point where I stopped writing creatively altogether for a few years. It became a goal of mine to revisit and rewrite the novel someday. I needed to redeem myself as a writer, because I knew I am a better writer than the fool who published that poorly written book in 1996.

And, perhaps more importantly, I wanted to redeem Leah Nells, one of my favorite characters that I’ve ever created. She deserved so much better than to languish in the flawed fictional universe where I abandoned her over a decade ago. This project has been for her as much as it’s been for me.

The project is complete now. The novel has been revised and republished, my sense of myself as a writer has been redeemed, and Leah Nells is at last in the story that I imagined for her so many years ago. With nothing left to do and nothing left to revise, I’m bringing this blog to a close. This will be my last post.

I want to thank everyone who visited this blog, everyone who left comments, and everyone who linked to me from their own blogs. It’s been fun meeting so many different people.

I’ll be starting a new writing project — and a new blog — soon. The new book and the new blog will both be titled Juvenilia (there’s a link in the sidebar). Both the book and the blog will be an ambitious project in which I’ll be collaborating with the two main characters in the creation of the novel. It should be a lot of fun, and I hope everyone who followed this blog will join me for my next one. It will probably launch sometime around the first of March. Until then, I’m going to take a little time off, try to drum up some publicity for the new edition of Leah, and continue to proselytize over at Publishing Renaissance.

Endings are often awkward, but at least this is a happy ending.


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?”


“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.”


“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?”


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 30, 2008

Trying a Different Revising Strategy (Progress Report #7)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 2:28 pm
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I’ve moved on to the fourth cycle of revision. I never did finish reading the entire text out loud like I planned for the third cycle, in part because I kept getting sidetracked by the poorly written narration that I was finding. For instance, a week or two ago, when I read out loud the chapter in which Leah meets Megan, I found that the scene just wasn’t doing it for me. The plan for the scene was fine, but I just wasn’t executing it very well in the text that I had written.

So I’m taking a different tack this time. Up to this point, I’ve been trying to revise at a normal reading pace. That is, I read the text as though I were simply reading for pleasure. When I came across a sentence or a word that needed to be fixed, then I’d either stop and fix it or, if I couldn’t think of a good way to fix it, I’d highlight it and come back to it later.

But because I kept finding so many trouble spots, I’ve decided to slow things down in this new cycle. I’ve been reading just one chapter a day, and what I try to do is read that chapter twice before I move on to the next one. This gives me a chance to read the chapter, take a break and think about it for a while, and then come back to it. This strategy isn’t necessarily a better way to revise, but it is a different tactic that allows me to approach my text in a different way. Reading at a normal pace and covering two or three chapters a day, as I tended to do in the earlier cycles, helped me see the big picture of novel, while reading one chapter and then reading it again let’s me pay more attention to the details of the text.

This new tactic has resulted in a LOT of changes to the narration. I’ve been rephrasing and rewriting much of the transitional narration between plot points and I’ve rethought and revised much of the descriptive detail. The result is that scenes like the one where Leah meets Megan now sound much better when I read them.

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 26, 2008

Leah’s Class Schedule

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 6:16 pm
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Because time is such an important part of the novel, I thought it would be a good idea, for my own purposes, if I spelled out exactly what Leah’s schedule is and identify precisely when she is in each of her classes. A lot of the details about Leah’s high school are generic: the day starts at 8:00 and ends at 3:00, for example.

The novel Leah is set in the same fictional universe as The Spring, so the time schedule below applies to both of my novels. It amazes me that I never needed to create such a schedule when I was preparing The Spring for publication last year. I did have to keep track of what courses my characters in The Spring were taking, but I didn’t need to know when they were in class.

So here it is — it wasn’t easy putting this together:

Leah M. Nells – 9th Grade – Everyman High School*

800-910 1st period (Biology)**
915-1010 2nd period (Algebra)
1015-1110 3rd period (Phys. Ed.)
1115-1200 Lunch
1205-100 4th period (Consumer Econ.)
105-200 5th period (English)
205-300 6th period (World History)

* – Not the real name, although I do like the sound of it. I never do say, in either novel, what the name of the high school really is.

** – The first period is fifteen minutes longer than the other classes because it is also the period assigned for morning announcements.

*** – Five minute passing periods. Hurry!

The 6-class schedule is something I borrowed from my own high school experience. I know that nowadays it isn’t uncommon for high school schedules to have 7 or 8 classes in a day, or sometimes they only have 4 classes in a day if they are on a block schedule.

This post has been edited for precision.

August 25, 2008

The First Day of School

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 3:04 pm
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I’ve been working on chapter three which, along with chapter four, describes Leah’s first day of high school. I kind of dread the chapter because every time I read it, I feel a nervous tingle, as if I am living vicariously another person’s first day of school. It’s a really weird feeling, and it isn’t what I was trying to do when I first wrote it. I did want to show how nervous Leah is on this day, but I wasn’t trying to necessarily evoke a sense of anxiety from the reader.

One of the things that makes writing or revising a work of creative writing difficult for me is the fact that I work in relative isolation. Just because my writing has an emotional impact on me doesn’t mean that it will have that same or a similar impact on anyone else. I’m curious, then, to know whether the effect it has on me is experienced by anyone else.

To that end, I’ve posted the latest draft of chapter three


If you, Dear Reader (who have perhaps come upon this blog by accident), would care to read through it and let me know in the comments if it inspired any sort of sense of nervousness in you (or not), I’d be very interested to hear about it.

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.

August 23, 2008

Magazines and Mountains

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:18 am
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I’m not really a magazine reader, but yesterday, a well-known magazine fell into my lap by chance, and as I flipped through it I found that it included a long excerpt from a recently published novel. As I read a little bit of the excerpt, my editing instincts kicked in and everywhere I looked I found things that, if I were the author, I would want to rewrite. The dialogue was uninteresting and uninspired, some sentences were convoluted, and the author had apparently fallen in love with her thesaurus because she tended to choose the weirdest, most inappropriate adjectives possible.

I don’t want to trash the author’s writing too much (I seem to recall something about rocks and glass houses), so suffice it to say I didn’t think the writing was very good. It’s not the first time I’ve been disappointed with popular fiction. Most of what I read for fun is classic literature (English major stuff) so when I read popular fiction — or even my own work — I’m frequently disappointed because it doesn’t live up to what I read in, say, Kafka or Woolf or Beckett.

But in the case of the excerpt from this magazine, it made me feel a little better about my own writing, because while there are still a lot of problems in Leah that I need to fix, I can at least say that my writing is better than this author’s work that I was reading. If that story could get published and find an audience, why can’t mine?

I’ve needed to feel better about my writing because lately I’ve been disappointed. The problem, as best I can describe it, is that I have a lot of really good scenes (like what I’ve written about in the “Things I Like” posts) surrounded by stretches of not-so-good narration. These scenes that I’m proud of are like mountaintops, but in order to get from one mountain to the next, I have to descend and pass through these valleys of unimpressive writing. I’ve been stuggling with these valleys since I began this revising project. A lot of cutting and deleting that I did in the first cycle of revision was an attempt to clear away some of this material, but much remains that I can’t cut because it contributes to the plot. My task is to try to improve this material as much as I can. In this cycle of revision, I’ve found a lot of these valleys remain in the text, so I have a lot of work still ahead of me.

August 20, 2008

Things I Like #2: Leah’s Report Revisited

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 2:29 pm
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[ATTENTION GOOGLE SEARCHERS: Welcome! This is a blog about a young adult novel titled Leah which I am revising with the intent of republishing sometime in 2009. If you’ve found this page while searching for information about Egypt or the Egyptian pharaohs, you will find a short essay on that topic in the passage below. While the information in Leah’s report is, to the best of my knowledge, factually accurate, this blog entry really isn’t the best source of information if you are writing an essay or researching a report. Google isn’t the best way to find information for school either. What you might try is visiting the Wikipedia pages for “Ancient Egypt” or “Pharaoh” and then scroll to the end of the page until you find the section titled “Sources and External Links.” There, you’ll find a list of websites which should offer good information for you to use. Don’t forget to acknowledge your sources in your essay!]

One of the things that I’m happiest about in the new draft of the novel is what I did in the scene where Leah and her partners present their history reports. In the 1996 draft, I encapsulated Leah’s entire report in a short paragraph. This time around, I wrote a report for her and let her read it to her class. Public speaking is terrifying for most people, but it is especially terrifying for someone like Leah:

It was now Leah’s turn, but first she waited for David to introduce her. “And next,” David said, “Leah Nells will tell us about some of the major pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Leah?”

On weakening knees, Leah took a small step forward and held up her report so she could read from it. Her fingers trembled but she tried to hold them steady so she could read the page. She took a breath and said, “I am going to talk about the Egyptian Pharaohs.” She realized that her voice was barely more than a whisper, so she cleared her throat and tried to speak up. “The pharaohs were the kings of Egypt and they ruled in families called dynasties. The pharaohs were not the only — were not only the political rulers of Egypt, but they were also the religious rulers as well. Were — they were treated like gods by their people and it was believed that when they died they went to live with their gods in the afterlife. Most pharaohs were men, but there were some women who were pharaohs too.” There was a sound of rustling in the classroom. In spite of her attempt to speak up, Leah’s voice could only be heard by those students sitting in desks close to the front of the class. Mr. Simmons, leaning against his own desk several feet away, stood up and took a step closer so he could hear what she was saying.

Leah didn’t notice any of this, though, because all of her attention was focused on the paper she was holding. She continued: “Three of the most famous pharaohs were Ramesses the Second, Tu-Tuten-Tutenkhamun, and Cleopatra. Ramesses the Second, also known as Ramesses the Great, was Egypt’s most famous and powerful pharaoh. He was the pharaoh for sixty-six years and he is the pharaoh who Moses fled from in the Bible. He . . . constructed a lot of famous buildings and monuments that still stand today.”

Behind her, Heather and Melanie were trying hard not to laugh. They could hear the nervousness in their partner’s voice, and they could see that the class was having trouble hearing her. The two girls stole glances at each other  and smiled but otherwise they controlled themselves. “Tuten-Tutenkhamun, also known as King Tut, wasn’t really that important, but we know a lot about him because his tomb was discovered in 1922 with the mummy . . . and other objects still inside. Some people say that his tomb was cursed because a lot of people who helped discovered it died mysteriously. He became the pharaoh when he was only eight years old and he died when he was only eighteen. He might have been murdered, but no one knows for sure.”

Until now, Leah hadn’t dared to take her eyes off of her report, but from her perspective, she felt like she had been reading this report forever, and she was curious to know how her audience was responding to it. She paused and took a quick glance at her classmates. She mostly saw a lot of bored faces. A few people in the back, having given up on trying to hear what she was saying, had put their heads down on their desks and weren’t even pretending to pay attention. She knew she was almost finished, but she made a concerted effort to try to read slowly, so that she could fill her time. “Cleopatra was not the first female pharaoh to rule Egypt but she is the most famous. She became pharaoh when she was only seventeen. She fell in love with both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. When she — she died when she was bit by a snake. She was trying to commit suicide.”

All this time, David had been listening carefully. Since it was his responsibility to transition between and introduce each new speaker in the group, he was trying to listen for the end of Leah’s speech. Leah was speaking so softly that it was difficult for him to follow her. He hadn’t heard her practice when they were at his house last Sunday, so he wasn’t sure when she was going to stop. “When a pharaoh died, he or she was buried with all of their belongings. Sometimes they were buried in pyramids and sometimes they were buried underground. The pharaohs believed they became gods after they died. When they buried — when they were buried — they were buried as mummies. They were buried with food and gold and even some of their servants and workers were buried with them. The pharaohs were a very important part of Egyptian society.”

She was finished. She dropped her arms and looked up at the class. She felt dizzy and out of breath. Her heart was still racing, but at least she knew her report was over-and that realization offered her a sense of relief.

What I like about the passage is that I don’t simply drop a report into the text of the story and leave it at that, but instead I tried to weave the report into the narration. The other students’ reaction to Leah’s report, and her struggle to read it, are obviously a lot more interesting than the report itself.  I’ve also tried to capture the way she struggles to read; she sometimes stutters or misreads some of her own words. I think there’s some irony in the way that she has worried so much about reading her report to the class, but when the time comes to read it, she speaks so softly that many of her classmates can’t hear what she is saying.

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