Revising Leah

November 25, 2008

Joining Leah For Thanksgiving Week

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:24 am
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As I suggested in my last post, I’ve been spending these final days of November re-reading chapters 15-24 because those chapters are set during the last week of November. It’s a fun way to read the story (even though it does slow my reading down quite a bit).

On Sunday, I even managed to time my reading so that it corresponded (partly) with the time in the story. Chapter 16 begins at exactly one o’clock in the afternoon, and that was exactly when I started reading the chapter. That was pretty cool.

I can’t do that with every chapter, of course, but I am reading the chapters on the appropriate days. Today is Tuesday, so I’m reading chapters 18 and 19 which are set on Tuesday of Thanksgiving week.

I’m still not seeing any big problems with the story — nothing I need to revise. During my last read-through of these last 8 or 9 chapters, I did notice some possible instances of needless repetition, but I’ve been watching for that during this read-through and I haven’t seen a problem.


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 16, 2008

Forever Fourteen (Time, Part 2)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 3:29 pm
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In the second chapter of Leah, I introduce the theme of time. Leah Nells is obsessed with the passage of time, and her obsession is manifested in the form of the books she reads and the bookcase in which she stores them:

. . . Against the fourth wall of the room was a bookcase that Mr. Nells bought for her a year and a half ago to store Leah’s ever-growing collection of books. It was made out of wood and had four shelves. Two of the shelves were filled completely, and a third was only partially filled.

The bookcase was Leah’s favorite part of her room. Sometimes, instead of reading, she would just sit on the floor and stare at the books. It might not have had much significance for anyone else who saw it, but for Leah the bookcase served as a kind of record of her life with each book representing a particular span of time. Leah kept the books arranged in the order in which she had read them so that they served as a sort of calendar, marking the passage of time for the last two or three years. Leah measured her life in pages instead of hours, in chapters instead of days, and in volumes instead of months. The empty space on the third and fourth shelves of her bookcase represented the future, the unknown, the unread books that were to come. The clock on Leah’s desk kept one form of time, and Leah’s books kept a different one.

For Leah, the future is something to be dreaded, something to fear and worry about. In the present, she’s safe: she can still hide from the world in her bedroom and indulge her introverted personality. But the beginning of high school also marks the beginning of the final stage of the long, slow climb towards adulthood, and the older she gets, the closer she will come to the moment when she will have to confront and overcome her shyness. It’s something she doesn’t want to face. For her, the idea of making friends, getting a part-time job, or going away to college seems like an impossible task. She just doesn’t know how to do it.

In the story, Leah’s dread for the future manifests itself in a very significant way when she joins David Parks’ group for the history project. Here, the future that she fears has been assigned a specific date: November 24 (by the novel’s calendar). On that day, two terrible things will happen: she’ll have to stand in front of her class and present her report on the Egyptian pharaohs, and the day will mark the end of her time with David, for whom she has a crush. She tries to embrace the present and savor every fleeting minute that she spends in David’s presence, but there is the constant pressure of the future racing towards her. She’s always aware that time is running out.

For Leah’s parents, the future represents everything that it represents for Leah: adulthood, responsibilities, an end to her shyness. But for them, it is the present which is miserable and the future contains all their hopes for their daughter. Tomorrow she’ll make a friend. Next month she’ll get over her shyness. A year from now she’ll finally be a normal teenager. They can’t wait for the future to arrive, and this difference in what the future means is a point of conflict between the girl and her parents.

In the 1996 draft of Leah, I constantly made note in the narrative of what time it was. I would write that it was 8:15 or noon or 2:57 or whatever. The reason for inserting these details really had almost nothing to do with the plot and everything to do with calling the reader’s attention to this theme of time. As I started revising, I decided to cut most of those little mentions of the time out of the text because most of them just seemed superfluous to me. I felt like I was bludgeoning the reader with the theme instead of trusting that the reader will be able to figure out what I’m doing. I was showing a lack of respect for the reader — never a good idea. Despite these deletions, there are still a few occasions in the text when I do focus on the clock. One example is in chapter 3, before Leah’s first day of high school. She’s nervous about the big day, and in her anxiety she has decided that she needs to leave her house at a specific time, so she’s constantly watching the clock and worrying about the passage of each minute. In a scene like that, I need to call attention to the minutes as they pass, but elsewhere, if it isn’t necessary for me to do that to help the story, then I don’t.

There’s a scene in my other novel, The Spring, in which one of the characters wishes that he could take the moment that he is experiencing and freeze it — in other words, make the moment last forever. In a sense, that is what happens when one tells a story. A story can be retold again and again (and when it is written down, the story can be retold exactly the same way) and so the characters relive their moments of existence every time someone reads them on the page. Sometimes this can seem like something terrible, as when Leah must relive an instant of public speaking again and again, but she also experiences the last page of the novel over and over too. The physical form of the book in which she exists is both her hell and her heaven.

I wonder if it is this ability to manipulate time that attracts me to writing. Like Leah, I’ve always been somewhat obsessed about time, and I’m haunted by the knowledge of my own mortality. Some of my earliest acts of creative writing involved retelling (and fictionalizing) stories from my own personal experience. I’ve always been eager to capture and hold the moments of my life in writing. I guess that urge isn’t uncommon: lots of people take photographs of themselves and loved ones, for instance. I’ve always been uncomfortable with photographs, but I don’t feel uncomfortable with recording my experiences in words. The difference between a photograph and a story, however, is that (despite the advantages of digital photography) a picture is grounded in reality, in what really happened, while a story can be rewritten — it can be revised. Events can be altered and changed at will; happy endings are always possible; heartbreak can be turned into love; dark can be made light; mistakes can be corrected.

And while I am not Leah Nells, and the story of her life is not the story of my own, there is enough of myself (my ideas, my interests, my fears, my misanthropism) in this novel and in The Spring that when my physical self perishes, I’ll leave something behind that was the essence of me. As I live my life and pass through time, the stories are capable of achieving something approaching permanence — something that would be otherwise unattainable to me. I’ll grow old and die, but Leah Nells will be forever fourteen. She’ll escape that future that she fears.

August 14, 2008

Chicken or Egg? (Time, Part 1)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:45 am
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(It’s been a few days since I posted last. As September approaches, I’ve had a lot of distractions which have kept me away from the novel, and since I’m trying to read the novel out loud, the moments are rare when I have a chance to sit down and read alone. Sometimes I’m working near other people, and I don’t want to sit there, by myself, seemingly talking to myself as I work. People think I’m strange enough as it is. Therefore, this cycle of revision has gone very slowly. I’ve been working for several days and I’m only up to chapter 12 [not even halfway through]. Hopefully, my pace will pick up again soon.)

One of the things that I need to do as a writer in order to keep track of the plot is establish a calendar of events. As I write, I take note of when events occur in relation to each other. It’s especially important when writing about school, because weekdays and weekends are completely different experiences. I can’t simply write, “and the next day . . . and the next day . . . and the next day . . .” because eventually I’ll bump up against a weekend (or a holiday) that I need to account for.

Time is a very important element in Leah, so I thought what I would do for the next couple of posts is write about time and how I use it in the novel. In my next post, I’ll describe how I use time thematically, but in this post I’ll discuss some of the nuts and bolts issues regarding how I deal with time when writing and revising my stories.

The first draft of Leah, which I wrote out by hand in a notebook some thirteen years ago, includes a “calendar page”. Here, I scribbled out a calendar, circling and making note of the dates of important events in the novel. This calendar is something that I referred to frequently as I wrote that first draft, and I’ve referred to it a few times during this revising project. One thing that I haven’t been sure about is whether that calendar is still relevant. I’ve mentioned before how I imagine Leah and my other novel, The Spring, as constituting two stories set in the same fictional universe. Leah takes place during ninth grade and The Spring is set three and a half years later during twelfth grade. Since both novels occupy different points on the same time line, their calendars must also match.

When writing and revising The Spring, I also kept a detailed calendar of the events in that novel. The Spring is bit more compact, in terms of time, than Leah. The Spring takes place over a period of only 26 days while Leah lasts a little more than three months. Since I published The Spring last winter, I’ve decided to let the calendar of The Spring anchor the calendars of the other two novels in the trilogy. (It’s actually sort of a chicken-and-egg dilemma with respect to which novel came first. Technically, The Spring was written first, about three years before I wrote the first draft of Leah, but I published Leah first back in the 1990s. But since I’ve disavowed that edition of Leah, the publication of The Spring a few months ago represents a new start — a reboot — of the series. It’s all very confusing!)

So using The Spring as the anchor, and keeping a perpetual calendar handy, I’ve counted back three and a half years and found — to my amazement (and convenience) — that the calendar I created for Leah thirteen years ago fits perfectly with the calendar of The Spring. I don’t know if that is just a lucky coincidence, or if, at some point in my revising work on The Spring, I brought that story’s calendar in line with the calendar of Leah. Revising The Spring was a long, on again-off again process that lasted several years. I know that I didn’t get the idea of placing the two stories in the same fictional universe until after I wrote and published the first edition of Leah, so sometime in the late 1990s, when I first started revising The Spring for possible publication, I must have revised the calendar of The Spring to bring it in line with Leah. I don’t remember doing that, but it sounds like something I would do. Whatever, as of right now, I have a definite calendar set for the story. Leah begins on Saturday, August 22 and ends on Monday, November 30. (I should do something to celebrate August 22 next week — maybe go to a garage sale. ;))

In what year is the story set? That’s something that I don’t ever answer. While I pay careful attention to the days and months in which the stories are set, I’ve resisted assigning a specific year to either Leah or The Spring just because I think that if I do that, then I’m setting the story in the past, and I want it to seem as contemporary as possible for as long as possible. Of course, there are cultural artifacts mentioned in the stories, like cell phones, mp3 players, the Internet, and — perhaps — gasoline powered internal combustion engines which place the stories sometime in the early 21st century, but I don’t want to get any more specific than that.

Something else that I ought to do soon, which I’ve never done before (not even for The Spring) is figure out exactly what the time schedule is for the fictional high school where both stories are set. I’ve established that Leah’s school day begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 3 p.m. — a generic school schedule. She has six classes during the day — three classes before lunch and three after (and in chapter four of the book I list what her classes are), but what I haven’t done is identify exactly how long the periods last and when the bells ring. I need to do this for Leah’s history class, at least, since time, with respect to that class, becomes very important in a couple of the chapters.

I consider the treatment of time and its relationship to the plot to be one of the most crucial elements when structuring and organizing a story. Paying attention to those little details can only enhance the illusion of realism. I’ve seen stories (movies and TV shows more so than novels) where time lines were handled sloppily and it definitely takes me out of my enjoyment of a story if I have to try to figure out what is happening when. So it’s important that I get the calendar right for my novel. In the next post, I show you just how important time really is for Leah Nells.

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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