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.

February 2, 2009

Revised!

My finished novel arrived today. It looks good, so I’ve approved the book for sale through Lulu and elsewhere. Paperback copies may be purchased here.

I’m also making the ebook version of the novel available for free. The PDF download at Lulu will be free, of course, but I’ll also be offering downloads through my website.  Right now, I only have PDF and ePub versions of Leah available, but I’ll be adding PRC and PDB formatted versions, too, soon.

I hope everyone who stops by this page will check the book out. I’m very happy with it.

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.

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.

September 22, 2008

How I Learned to Write a Novel

I’ve always been of the opinion that writing is a skill. Nobody is born a great writer. Some writers might be more creative than others, but the act of turning that creative vision into good writing is a skill that, I think, just about anyone can learn. Since no one starts out knowing how to write, a potential novelist, then, must undergo a sort of “apprenticeship,” a period of training in which he or she learns how to write a novel. Looking back on my own life, I realize now that it took me two separate phases of training before I could write a complete novel that is ready for possible publication.

The first phase of my training occurred during my teenage years. At that age, people have an abundance of creativity and energy. Everything seems possible, and it’s fun to experiment. During this period of my life I learned, by trial and error, how to draft a novel — how to transform the stories in my imagination into words on a page. I was extremely prolific, sometimes churning out two or three 200-page long manuscripts in a single year, not to mention all of the short stories and poems I was writing (today, that level of output astounds me; I cannot work at that pace anymore). Because I had so many ideas for stories, I didn’t worry about revising and editing my work; in fact, I don’t think that the idea of revising my work ever crossed my mind. As far as I was concerned, every manuscript I produced was “finished,” and as soon as I completed one novel, I simply moved on to the next story. A lot of people, when they decide they want to be an author, make that decision having never actually composed a novel-length piece of writing. They don’t really know what they’re getting into or how much work writing can be, and I think that is why so many would-be novelists fail: the size and scope of the project simply overwhelms them. The most important lesson that I learned in those early years is that writing is a very long, slow process, and patience is the ultimate virtue when it comes to writing.

I consider the first draft of Leah to mark the end of this first stage of my writing education. By the time that I composed the first draft of Leah, I had reached a point where I was confident that I could take any complex story that formed in my imagination and transfer that story onto paper. However, when I made the decision to try to publish Leah back in 1995-6, what I didn’t yet understand was that inventing a story and completing a draft is only the first half of the writing process.

And that’s why the 1996 draft of Leah was a failure. And by “failure” I don’t mean “commercial failure” — although, since it was self-published, it certainly was that. Rather, I mean the novel was a failure because the quality of the writing and the execution of the story didn’t live up to my own expectations. Although I did a little revising, what was published was essentially still a rough draft. It was truly awful, and I’m embarrassed that it was ever published. What I didn’t know at the time was that I still needed to learn how to revise and edit my work.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that second phase of my training began when I started teaching. I was an English major in college, and so today I teach writing. In my short career, I have graded literally tens of thousands of pages of students’ writing. I’ve seen it all: from very bad, almost illegible writing to writing that might be even better than what I can produce. Reading and correcting so much writing provided me the chance to learn just what revising is and why it is so important.

What I’ve learned in these last several years is that revising is just as important as drafting, just as important as the initial idea that inspires one to write. I’ve learned that the revising process takes a very long time — even longer than drafting process, and, in a sense, it never really ends. There’s no such thing as a “finished” manuscript; there’s always something that you can do to improve it. And I’ve learned that while the revising process takes a long time and can sometimes feel tedious, it can also be just as creatively fulfilling and exciting as producing that first draft of a story. When you set up an exchange of dialogue just right, when you find the perfect word to describe a character’s mood, or when you phrase that opening sentence in the best possible way — that is writing!

As I browse the Internet, visiting writers’ blogs or reading websites that deal with creative writing and publishing, I often see writers seeking an editor to help them prepare their novels for publication, and I see entrepreneurial editors eager to offer their editing skills — for a fee, of course. Certainly, letting an objective party read and edit one’s work can be very useful, but it’s not a substitute for the revising process. It is still up to the would-be author to do the majority of the revising. When I read a student’s essay, I can offer suggestions for improvement and point out places where corrections ought to be made, but ultimately, it is up to the student herself to make those changes — and to go beyond the suggestions that I make.

Do you agree? Disagree? What’s your take on revising? How did you learn to write a novel?

July 2, 2008

Chapter 23

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 10:38 am
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When we’re teenagers, I think we all want someone to tell us that everything will be all right. Our bodies are still growing, we haven’t decided who or what we want to be when we become adults, we’re taking on exciting new responsibilities at the same time that we wish we could abandon those responsibilities and revert to our easier roles as children. It’s a frightening time, and the future looms like a giant question mark. We don’t know if it will be a wonderful future or the realization of our worst fears. The question “Is life worth living?” doesn’t have an answer yet.

So how great would it be to be told that everything will be okay, that the future that seems so scary now won’t be so bad — or at least better than where we are now at age fourteen or fifteen or sixteen? We don’t expect to have all the answers — we’re not looking for a crystal ball to lay out our entire futures for us — all we want is that simple assurance, just a single declaration from some all-knowing authority: “Everything will be all right.”

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