Revising Leah

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 14, 2008

Is My Novel Too Weird?

The other day, I awoke from sleep and the very first thought in my mind was, “Wow, Leah sure is kind of a weird book.” And I didn’t mean “weird” in a good way, either. It was one of those moments of self-doubt that, as a writer, I frequently experience.

One of the problems with writing a story is that, as the writer, I am too close to the story. There’s a degree of myopia that I have to account for — myopia that blinds me to possible problems in the story. For example, the reason why I’m reading my novel over and over again is because there are mistakes in the text that I will miss the first three or four times that I read them. I may not notice the mistake until the fifth or sixth time that I read the story.

But the other day, when it occurred to me that my novel might be a little too weird, I wasn’t thinking about one specific element of the story that I could correct; rather, I was thinking about the story as a whole. What I thought was weird about my story isn’t that it is odd or idiosyncratic in places (the best works of literature are often those that are a little strange); instead, it’s the fact that the story really isn’t weird at all which makes it too weird.

I’ve written before about how my story seems to bear little resemblance to a lot of the stories being written and published in the young adult genre (which is where I’m assuming my story belongs). The reason is because nothing sensational happens to Leah in this novel. There seems to be an expectation that teenage readers only want to read about sensational events. Maybe that expectation is accurate, but my novel doesn’t follow that formula. Unfortunately, Leah Nells doesn’t get raped, she doesn’t run away from home, she doesn’t turn into a vampire — none of the things that you expect to see happen to a character in a young adult novel happens to Leah.

Instead, the “second act” of my novel revolves around a history report on the ancient Egyptians. Of course, that report is a plot device which allows me to bring Leah Nells and David Parks together for a few weeks, but I still take time to describe the process of putting together a history presentation. Leah goes to the library, she takes notes, she writes her essay, she’s nervous about reading it in front of her class. These are some of the most mundane events imaginable, and what worries me is that the story itself is too focused on these mundane events.

But what I like about the mundane is that it is real. Sadly, it’s true that a lot of the horrible things that happen to main characters in other young adult novels do happen to some real teenagers in real life, but most teenagers live relatively mundane lives: they go to school, they hang out with their friends, maybe they have a job, maybe they experiment with drugs, maybe they fight with their parents, they anticipate getting a car or going to college, they download music and play video games. If I write a story about these things, then I may be writing a “real” story, but the price I have to pay for that realism is, I guess, a weird and boring novel.

October 8, 2008

Fixing Chapter Fourteen

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 3:18 pm
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The last of the three chapters to undergo “surgery” is chapter fourteen.

When I imagine the overall structure of the novel, I imagine the story organized into three distinct stages, or “acts”. The first act encompasses chapters one through eight. The second act includes chapters eight through nineteen, and the third act consists of the rest of the novel. Chapters eight and nineteen serve, in part, as transitional chapters helping to guide the story from one phase to the next.

So what does this have to do with chapter fourteen, which is set squarely in the middle of the second act? Well, the problem that I saw in chapter fourteen, in addition to the stilted narration, was that it felt too much like a transitional chapter. It’s very short, and it does serve as a bridge between the Homecoming weekend and Leah’s trip to David’s house, but transitioning shouldn’t feel like the primary function of the chapter. There are a couple of important plot points that the chapter needs to cover, too.

So what I’ve tried to do with this chapter is make it feel more like part of the story and less like an instrument for progressing the plot. It’s not easy, and after working on the chapter for a couple of days, I’m not sure I’ve been successful in fixing the problem. One lingering trouble spot is a short conversation between Leah and her history project partners. I think it’s this conversation more than anything else in the chapter which feels “too transitional”. And yet it’s important that I leave it in. If I tried to reduce the conversation to a narrative paragraph then that would only make it worse. The conversation frames the transition in an at least a somewhat interesting story. It’s tough; I’m sure I’ll return to this chapter again before I finish the book.

Another element of chapter fourteen that has troubled me comes at the beginning of the chapter when I describe a dream that Leah has. I’ve gone back and forth with this dream. Some days I want to delete it from the novel completely, other days I want to leave it in. It doesn’t take up a lot of space — it’s only a paragraph long — and it does offer some insight into Leah’s state of mind at this point in the story, which is reinforced later in the chapter. On the other hand, the dream, as it appeared in the 1996 draft of the novel, was really cheesy. Over the summer, I cut a lot of the cheese out of my description of the dream, but it still has a reputation, for me, as a rather silly and embarrassing moment in the novel.

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

June 17, 2008

The Tyranny of Thanksgiving

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 12:32 pm
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The other day, I mentioned that chapter 17 is the longest chapter in the novel. The second longest is (or was) chapter 18, at about 20 pages long. But while I wasn’t able to break chapter 17 down any further than it already is, I found that chapter 18 had a formal break in the narrative about halfway through the chapter. Converting that narrative break into a chapter break was very easy, so I’m now back to a total of 25 chapters for the novel.

The more significant problem that chapter 18 (and now 19, too) poses for me is the problem that I first described a few weeks ago; namely, that I find myself with an extra day during the week of Thanksgiving. As I explained in that earlier post, in the 1996 draft of the novel, Leah’s history group delivers their presentation on Tuesday. The problem is that this seems to leave a lot of unnecessary repetition between Monday and Tuesday. Leah spends most of Monday worrying about the possibility that she and her group might be selected to present their projects on Monday. When that doesn’t happen, she experiences a reprieve Monday evening, but on Tuesday, the anxiety returns. My problem is that I don’t want to just write “Leah was worried” over and over again.

The ideal solution would be to revise the plot so that Leah’s group is selected on Monday. Believe me, I tried to make this work, but no matter how I tried to revise the schedule of events for the last third of the novel, I’m stuck with an extra day (that is to say, if the presentation is delivered on Tuesday, then Monday is the extra day; If the presentation is delivered on Monday, then Tuesday or Wednesday is the extra day). The reason is because Leah’s presentation is due the week of Thanksgiving, and that holiday plays an important role in the final chapters of the book. If it were possible for me to move Thanksgiving Day from Thursday to Wednesday, then that would solve all my problems and eliminate the extra day. Unfortunately, Thanksgiving Day ALWAYS comes on a Thursday (it’s like trying to move Easter to a Wednesday), so that day is set in stone. Thus, all of the events that occur that week must be scheduled around the fact that Thanksgiving occurs on a Thursday, and this is why an extra day keeps popping up for me earlier in the week.

So, I guess what I have to do is leave the presentation on Tuesday, but as I revise chapters 18 and 19, I’m trying to eliminate or minimize as much of the needless repetition as I possibly can. Ultimately, I’m afraid that the schedule of events for the early part of the Thanksgiving week will continue to be a weakness in the overall plot.

Otherwise, I find that I haven’t had many problems with the plot. Oh, my novel has problems, but plot really isn’t one of them.

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