Revising Leah

June 10, 2008

The Big Picture

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:20 am
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As I said in the previous post, a lot of the work that I’ve done in this revising process has been to delete material from the text, but I am adding some material to the text, too. One example is the full text of Leah’s speech about the Egyptian pharaohs that Leah presents to her class later in the novel. Another example comes at the very beginning of chapter fourteen. There, I’ve inserted this short exchange of dialogue between Heather and her friend Melanie:

“Hey, you know that girl named Stacey — you know, from English class?” Heather asked Melanie the following Monday. Once again, the two girls, David, Alex, and Leah were sitting in the back of history class, spending the last ten minutes of the school day meeting to discuss their presentation.

“Yeah, why?”

“You didn’t hear?!” Heather asked. “Emily told me all about it at lunch.”

“Told you what?”

“You’ll never believe this . . .” Heather said with a giggle, but as the two girls gossiped, Leah tried not to pay any attention. She and Alex had just handed their notes over to David, and she was much more interested in hearing what he had to say.

On the surface this may not seem like a very significant exchange, and the reader might be inclined to join Leah in ignoring it and getting back to the real story between Leah and David. The conversation between Heather and Melanie doesn’t seem to offer much more than another not-so-flattering glimpse into Heather’s character.

But there is a lot more going on here than two girls gossiping about another. I’ve included this short passage in order to expand the fictional universe in which the novel is set. The girl named Stacey that Heather and Melanie are talking about is one of the main characters from The Spring, and the event they are talking about is alluded to in that other novel. Obviously, this connection between the two novels will fly over the heads of those readers of Leah who haven’t read The Spring, but it also serves a little reward for those who have read both books.

Both Leah and The Spring are components in a larger series of three novels. The three novels are connected in terms of setting (the high school that Leah Nells attends is the same school the characters from The Spring attend) and thematically. All of the books in the series attempt to answer the same basic question that is at the center of most teenagers’ lives: “Who am I and what is my place in the world?” Each story offers different solutions to those questions. Here is a schema that outlines the basic plan for the novels:

Book

General Theme

Time Frame

Leah

The individual

Fall, 9th grade

Juvenilia

Family

Summer, following 10th grade

The Spring

Friendship

Spring, 12th grade

One doesn’t have to read the novels in the order that I’ve outlined above — one doesn’t even have to read all of them. Each novel is a complete, self-contained story featuring a different set of main characters and its own unique plot (think Thomas Hardy rather than William Faulkner). In fact, The Spring is set some three years after the story of Leah, and while Leah Nells doesn’t appear as a character in The Spring, one might imagine that she is still there, in school, somewhere.

But while each novel stands on its own, I like the idea of inserting little references to the other stories in the series. The second book in the series is still very much a work in progress, but I’m planning to include a brief appearance (sort of) from Leah in that novel. Again, it will be a situation where if you haven’t read Leah, you won’t catch the reference, but if you have read it, you should be able to recognize her when she appears, even if she isn’t mentioned by name.

May 20, 2008

Getting Preachy and Pretentious

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 2:09 pm
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As a writer, I have a number of annoying habits. One is that I sometimes get “preachy”; that is, I make these grandiose declarations and pronouncements that might sound clever when I write them, but when I read them back they just sound really, really pretentious. Last year, when I was working on The Spring, I had to excise several of these pretentious passages from my story, and as I revise Leah, I’m finding that a few of them made their way into the 1996 draft.

One example is the very beginning of chapter 3, which describes Leah’s first day of high school. I began that chapter with an overblown paragraph of pronouncements about how high school is an important day in the lives of every young person and blah, blah, blah. It sounded really stupid so I’ve deleted most of it and replaced it with a couple of lines more related to the progression of the story. These I combined with most of the text from the second paragraph to form a new opening paragraph for the chapter. Here it is:

The final days before the first day of school passed quickly, as though time itself had been accelerated. Each day found Leah slightly more nervous and worried about what was to come. She supposed that high school would be an awful experience for her, but only because the other option-that it would be wonderful-seemed so unlikely. On the Sunday night before the start of school when Leah was in her bed waiting to fall asleep, her imagination terrorized her by fabricating all sorts of wild scenarios which increased her anxiety. Suppose she were to get lost, or lose her schedule of classes? What if the room number of one of her classes was switched, but no one notified her and she found herself in the wrong class? Would the teachers be friendly or mean? And what about the other students? What could she expect from them? Her ninth grade class would be almost three times the size of her eighth grade class which meant she would be surrounded by unfamiliar faces everywhere she looked. She soothed her panicked mind by entertaining the idea that, as unlikely as it might seem, she could make a friend on the first day. Anything seemed possible, and everything was frightening.

Hopefully this is a much better opening paragraph for a chapter than what I had.

I had another one of these pretentious passages towards the end of the novel when Leah, her mother, and her grandmother go shopping the day after Thanksgiving. I wrote some dumb paragraph extolling the wonders of American consumerism (or something to that effect). I’m not sure if it remains in the draft that I posted a couple weeks ago, because it was one of the first things I changed when I began this revising project. Indeed, passages like these are one of the reasons why I’m undertaking this project. They are stupid, amateurish mistakes that I’m embarrassed to have made.

May 11, 2008

Next Step

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

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

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

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

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

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