Revising Leah

January 13, 2009

The Final Edits

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 5:23 pm
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As I read through the proof copy of the novel, making the final set of changes and edits, I find myself reading through the book rapidly — I’ve been reading at least fifty pages a day. That’s good, because it means I’m finding few mistakes. Each sentence and each idea is flowing smoothly into the next. When I feel tripped up, when I have to stop and re-read a sentence or a paragraph, that’s usually an occasion to fix something, but I haven’t experienced very many of those moments.

The biggest change that I’ve made to the text so far is to delete an entire paragraph from chapter two. The paragraph just seemed superfluous, and when I read the passage without the paragraph, it sounds better.

But most of the edits that I’ve made have been little changes. As I thought I might, I have found some lines of dialogue that aren’t punctuated just right. Many of the edits, though, have been the usual word choice errors that always plague me. For example, in chapter six, I wrote this sentence:

Instead, her eyes darted to each of the boys’ laughing faces, and then they took a quick glance out the window at her table on the patio.

The problem here is the pronoun “they”. It isn’t clear what its antecedent is. It is supposed to refer to “her eyes,” but given this sentence construction, it appears to refer to “the boys”. I fixed this problem simply by changing “they” to “she”.

I’ve also found a couple of continuity errors. In chapter ten, I write,

David handed the piece of paper to Heather and said, as he sat down . . .

but then a few lines later, I write,

“And they lived in Egypt,” David laughed as he sat down.

So here I have a character performing the incredible act of sitting down twice in the same desk. That’s gotta break some law of physics or another! In this case, I decided that the first time David sat down was sufficient, and deleted his second occasion of sitting.

I don’t expect that I’ll ever be able to change every single thing that I might want to fix, but I know that every correction I make brings the novel just a little bit closer to a state of perfection. Overall, though, I’ve been quite happy with the book.

January 1, 2009

Publishing Through Lulu: Uploading

Well, today is the day. At long last I get the publishing process for Leah rolling. Here’s a review of the steps I took (with screenshots!).

1. Sign In

I already have a Lulu account, of course, so I logged in and started a new project. I clicked the “Publish” tab, then clicked “Paperback books”, and then “Get Started”.

2. Start Tab

Here, I simply provided the title and author’s name. I also selected the “Make It Public” option because I want to be able to offer the book to readers later on. Clicked Save & Continue.

(Click For Larger Image)

(Click For Larger Image)

3. Options Tab

Next, I had to determine what kind of format I wanted my book to take. I chose the usual options for a novel: Standard paper (not Publisher Grade); book size: US Trade; perfect binding; and black & white color.

Choose the Physical Properties of Your Book

Choose the Physical Properties of Your Book

4. Files Tab

Now we upload, and this is where the preparations that I described in my earlier posts (here and here) paid off. I upload two of the three PDF documents that I had prepared: the manuscript and the title/copyright page. Once they’re uploaded, I arranged the files in the right order (the title page document goes first), and then Lulu automatically merged the two documents together and allowed me the chance to review that merged file.

Upload Files

Upload Files

5. Cover Tab

The next step takes care of the other PDF file that I had prepared: the one with the cover of the book. If you haven’t designed a cover or don’t care about the cover design (although you should) this is the stage where Lulu can assist in creating a generic cover. I’ve designed my own cover, though, so I clicked on the “Upload One-Piece Cover” button and uploaded my document.

Pay No Attention to That Green Fringe

Pay No Attention To That Green Fringe

A year ago, when I was publishing The Spring, this screen confused me. I knew that I was supposed to create a “bleed” zone around my cover, which I did. But the weird green border that you see in the image above confused me and made me second guess what I had done. I actually went back and tinkered with the size of the cover, which proved to be a mistake when my proof copy arrived and I saw that I had made the border around the cover image too large. This time, I played it cool and just clicked “Save & Continue”. If there is a problem when I get the proof copy, then I’ll make adjustments later, but I think the cover is going to turn out fine.

6. Description Tab

Here, I filled in the basic info for the content of the book. All of the fields were filled in except for the ISBN number because at this stage in the process, I hadn’t been assigned a number yet. As you can see, I placed the novel in the “Teens” category as opposed to the “Fiction & Literature” category (I would have preferred to place it in both). I’m not sure if that was the right thing to do, but I can change it later if I need to.

Everything But the ISBN

Everything But the ISBN

7. Price Tab

I hope you like to wrestle, because this is one of those screens which will resist everything you try to do. You can see in the screenshot that there are two open fields in the “Retail Print” section. Don’t try to enter anything in the “Price” field — only tinker with the “My Revenue” field and let the values that you insert there adjust the “Price” field for you.

Just Adjust the My Revenue Box

Just Adjust the My Revenue Box

I wanted to make sure that I set the price for Leah to be less than the price I set for The Spring, just because Leah is a bit shorter than The Spring. You can see in the screenshot that the author’s cut of the money, especially when selling through retailers like Amazon, is very small. (This is where Lulu authors get greedy and why some 200-page novels published through Lulu cost upwards of $30.) Whether publishing the old-fashioned way or through POD, the sad fact is that authors just don’t earn much from each individual sale. It’s a good thing that creative writing isn’t my day job!

And I will, of course, make the novel available as a free download.

8. Review and Order

After that, I am asked to review everything, make sure it’s OK, and then I order a proof copy. I do have to pay for a proof copy, but since I’m the author of the project, I don’t have to pay the full price that I set for the novel back in the Price Tab. Instead, I only pay for the for the cost of manufacturing a copy and shipping it to me. I added my book to my virtual shopping cart, but I didn’t check out just yet because I still have one more thing to do.

9. “Purchase” a Distribution Package

“Purchase” is in quotation marks because I didn’t actually have to purchase anything here. If you publish your novel through Lulu (as opposed to choosing the “Published by You” option) you don’t have to pay anything. This is apparently a new development for Lulu because I remember a year ago, when I published The Spring, I did have to pay about $100 for the distribution package.

The most important part of the package is the assignment of an ISBN number. You need this if you want to sell your book either online or in a bookstore. If I could change one thing about Lulu’s publishing process it would be that I would like to get my ISBN number before I uploaded the PDF files for the Title/Copyright document and the book cover so that the proof copy that I ordered would be sent to me complete. Instead, I’ll have to add the ISBN number to the copyright page and insert the ISBN bar code to my cover after I’ve reviewed the proof copy. Perhaps Lulu wants to make sure that authors take that step of reviewing the proof copy before approving the book for publication and making it available to everyone.

The whole process took about 90 minutes to complete. That’s perhaps longer than usual since I was taking screenshots of my progress and writing notes in WordPress.

So now I wait for the proof copy of my book to be manufactured and sent to me. That, unfortunately, will probably take at least a week.

Questions? Comments?

October 17, 2008

New Beginnings and the Same Old Endings

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 3:17 pm
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I’ve decided to kick off the seventh cycle by isolating and evaluating the different ways that I start my chapters. It’s worth paying attention to both the beginning and the ending of chapter because a strong beginning can give a reader a reason to read, and a strong ending can spur that reader to continue reading.

In my opinion, I tend to do a pretty good job of ending my chapters. A lot of times, I use the last paragraph as the “climax” of the chapter. Often I’ll try to insert the most powerful emotional moment here, or I’ll add a plot twist, or something else very important will happen. I like how I end chapters, but the beginnings of my chapters are another story altogether.

They tend to be very weak, and I noticed months ago when I broke the 12 chapters of the 1996 draft down into the 24-25 chapters of the current draft that I tend to rely, again and again, on the same boring strategies for opening a chapter. So, what I’ve done is to copy the opening paragraph(s) of each chapter into a new word processing document. Once I quarantined them, I placed each one into one of six categories:

  • Beginnings that use dialogue: I only had two of these. I wish I could have more because I really like starting a chapter with a conversation, but there is already a shortage of dialogue in Leah, so I guess I’m lucky to have these two.
  • Beginnings that pick up exactly where the last chapter left off: I like this method a lot because it really accelerates the narrative flow and keeps the reader hooked into the story. I don’t feel like I’m hitting the “reset” button every time I start a new chapter. Alas, I only had three of these.
  • Beginnings that describe the weather: I have three of these, mostly towards the end of the novel when the weather starts to have an effect on the plot. I don’t really like this tactic; it’s not a very exciting way to start a chapter. I feel like I’m making small talk with the reader (“Gosh, it’s really cold outside, isn’t it?”). What’s worse, two of the chapters that use this tactic are right next to each other. One of them will have to be changed.
  • Beginnings that describe Leah waking up from sleep: By my count, only three chapters start this way. That number seems small to me because I feel like I use this tactic way too much (I might have combined this tactic with some of the others mentioned in this list). If I could, I’d like to eliminate these entirely from my story, but I might have to settle for eliminating just one or two of them.
  • Beginnings that mention the passage of time: There are seven of these, and I hate them all. These are chapters that begin with phrases like, “The next day,” or “On Friday,” or “Over the coming weeks”. I know what I’m trying to do here: I’m trying to show that time has passed since the previous chapter, but I think this is just a really clumsy way of doing it. These chapters are calling out for revision, and that call will be answered.
  • Beginnings in the “other” category: Six chapters have beginnings that don’t fall into one of the categories above. Generally speaking, that’s a good thing, because it means they are each unique in their own way. I might make some little adjustments to these beginnings, but for the most part, they are fine.

So now that I’ve diagnosed the problem, it’s just a matter of revising these paragraphs so that they are stronger and more likely to grab the reader’s attention rather than slow her down and bore her to death. I always say that writing the first and final paragraphs of any piece of writing is one of the hardest tasks that a writer faces. In fiction especially, where so much importance is placed on how a writer starts and finishes a story or a chapter, this difficulty can sometimes lead to writer’s block. I myself have agonized over how I should begin and end this novel, rewriting and revising the first and final paragraphs of the novel dozens of times.

October 16, 2008

Now Comes the Fun Part (Progress Report #11)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 4:41 pm
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I’ve finished the sixth revision cycle. I’ve decided that the seventh cycle will be my last, but it will also be the longest — extending to the end of the year. In this upcoming cycle, I won’t be trying to read the novel straight through, although I probably will do that at least once. Instead, I’m going to skip around a little bit, opening the file to a random passage or a random chapter and just start reading, looking for any sentences that I can adjust or words that I can change. A year ago, when I did this with The Spring, it was one of the most enjoyable phases of the revision process. I’ve reached a stage where I can enjoy the story and the text even as I continue to work on it.

Page count: 229.

Word count: Who cares?

October 12, 2008

How I Use Metafiction in My Novel

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 6:03 pm
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Photo by Stefano Castiglia

Photo by Stefano Castiglia

Metafiction is a form of writing in which the very act of writing or reading becomes the subject of the story. It’s a technique and a form that has been around almost as long as the novel itself, but it has been used more and more in the last 50 years. Some famous examples of 20th century metafictive novels include Pale Fire, Mulligan Stew, and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.

While Leah, as a whole, is not metafiction, I do employ some metafictive strategies here and there within the story. Leah allows for metafiction because the readers of this novel often find themselves in the odd position of reading a book about a character who is herself reading books. And although Leah Nells is the main character of this novel, we learn in chapter two that she doesn’t like novels:

She preferred to read non-fiction books-books that were dense, impersonal, and mostly uninteresting. She never read novels, except when assigned to read one for school, because when she read about lively characters and their exciting adventures, she couldn’t help but contrast their stories with her own quiet life. Novels only reminded her of how different she was from other people. Characters in novels liked to talk, they had lots of friends, and they did things-simple things-like go shopping at a garage sale without any worries at all. Leah couldn’t relate to any of those characters; their lives were not like hers. So she read books like Attracting Birds to Your Backyard because these books didn’t remind her that she was weird. These books made her feel comfortable, normal. The real birds in the trees outside might sing, but the pictures of birds in her book were as silent as Leah herself.

The irony of a main character of a novel who hates novels calls the reader’s attention to the fact that the reader is reading a story, and it suggests this novel will be a little different from the kinds of books that Leah dislikes. If only for a moment, the reader contrasts this story with other novels that the reader has read and contrasts Leah to other characters.  The part about how other characters in other books tend to speak a lot calls the reader’s attention to the fact that, by this point in the story, Leah still has not uttered a single word (and she won’t speak until the next chapter). Metafiction explicitly asks the reader to think about the story that he or she is reading and to place that story within the context of other stories and novels that one has read previously.

There’s another element of metafiction in the passage above that I should point out. The birds book that Leah is reading is a real book (I’ve linked to it’s Amazon page). In fact, all of the books that Leah reads in the course of this novel are real books. In the 1996 draft of Leah, I just made up titles, but this time I thought, why not use the titles of real books? The effect is to tie Leah to the real world and break down another barrier between the fictional world of the novel and the real world of the reader. It further supports the illusion that what we are reading might be true. This blurring of fiction and reality is another goal of metafiction.

Most of the time, though, metafiction has more to do with the act of writing than of reading. We don’t see Leah Nells doing a lot of writing in this novel, but because she’s a high school student, she does do some. Here’s a passage in which the narrator describes how Leah feels about writing and the difficulties that she faces:

Despite reading so many books on her own, Leah didn’t write very well. Communicating with pen and paper was almost as hard as communicating with spoken words. Writing was sometimes better than speaking because she could take her time constructing sentences and paragraphs, but she often found herself struggling for just the right words and she didn’t always know how to phrase those words in the best possible way. The act of writing was a more personal, solitary activity, but even though she wasn’t speaking directly to another person, she still knew that a writing assignment like this book report would have an audience — Mrs. Meyer — and that placed added pressure on her to write well. Leah tried to do the best she could, but communication is communication, no matter what the means of expression, and Leah knew that she simply could not communicate well.

I would suggest that the difficulties described in this passage are difficulties that all writers face, whether they are students or professional writers. Writing is hard, and as I learned when I tried to publish this novel the first time, a piece of writing doesn’t always turn out the way you expect it to. The 1996 edition of my novel was very poorly written, and I used to mock myself by describing Leah as a book about a girl who has trouble communicating, written by a writer who is obviously having trouble communicating, too.

Since Leah Nells is such a voracious reader, she frequently has to go shopping for more books. Over the course of this novel, we follow Leah and her mother as they visit garage sales, used book stores, and large chain bookstores in search of those long, boring books that Leah prefers to read. This gives me the opportunity to sprinkle in some criticism of the publishing and retail industry. The sharpest criticism comes when Leah makes a rare visit to a large chain bookstore at the local mall:

As she browsed, she sometimes checked the prices of the books that she picked up. Since nearly all of the books in her collection were from garage sales and the used book store where books sometimes cost less than a dollar, she was shocked to see books priced at twenty or thirty dollars — or more. Who would be dumb enough to pay that kind of money? she wondered. How could this place stay in business? Leah was fortunate that she wouldn’t have to pay for a book out of her own pocket, but because she didn’t want to ask her mother to spend too much on her, she decided that she should find a book that wasn’t very expensive.

Writers often employ metafiction just for the sake of employing it — in other words, to have fun with the text. But metafiction can serve a social and political function as well. It can be a method of criticizing or satirizing real-world institutions and customs.

Not everyone likes metafiction. Some readers and writers find it too distracting. But I like it because I think it adds an extra dimension to the story; it helps pull the reader out of the passive role that one usually assumes into a more active participation in reading and making sense of the story. I think that’s a positive thing, and while I don’t go out of my way to use metafiction (off the top of my head, I can’t think of any metafictive elements in The Spring, for example) when the opportunity to use it presents itself, I like to take advantage of it.

October 10, 2008

Light at the End of the Tunnel (Progress Report #10)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 2:37 pm
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Photo by Panta Rhei

I’ve started the sixth revision cycle. The reading is going very quickly; I’m trying to read 3 or 4 chapters a day, if there’s time. I’m able to race through the chapters because I have fewer changes and corrections to make. Sometimes I’ll read 2 or 3 pages without even touching my keyboard. That’s a good sign.

Most of the changes that I’ve had to make so far have just been little things: replacing a word with a better word, fixing a punctuation error, maybe rewriting a sentence — nothing major.

I estimate that I’ll have at least one more cycle to go before I’ll be able to say that I’m satisfied with the novel. Even then it won’t really be “finished” — no piece of writing is ever really “finished” — but it will be close.

I’m also still sending query emails to agents. No bites yet. I’ll keep trying until the end of October, and if no one is interested, I’ll publish the novel myself.

October 6, 2008

Fixing Chapter Six

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 3:14 pm
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Ripping into my text

Ripping into my text

I’m taking on chapter six next. I can’t remember for sure, but I think chapter six was probably one of the first scene ideas that I had when I started writing the rough draft of this novel many years ago. It has a lot in common with the two short stories starring Leah Nells that I wrote when I was in high school. The chapter is also important because the memory of the day sticks with Leah throughout the rest of the novel.

On the first day of school, Leah made the decision to eat lunch at one of the tables on the patio outside the school cafeteria. She enjoys sitting outside by herself, eating lunch and reading from one of her books, but her decision to spend everyday outside for lunch eventually poses a dilemma: she’s at the mercy of the weather. And while eating outside is nice when the weather is warm and dry, when it rains, she can’t sit outside. Worse, winter is approaching, and it will soon be too cold for her to sit outside at all.

I’m not giving away the ending when I say that the last chapter of the novel takes place on November 30. On that day, the looming threat of winter is very real, and the narrator suggests that November 30 will be the last day that she will be able to sit outside, at least until spring. The reader is left to wonder, where will she go on December 1? I don’t answer that question explicitly in the story, but earlier in the novel I do hint at the solution to her dilemma. I know where she’s going to go, but I’ll leave it to my readers figure it out for themselves.

Anyway, in chapter six, Leah is forced into the cafeteria when a morning thunderstorm makes it impossible for her to eat on the patio. I like the scene, but I’m having problems. The main problem here is that the language that I use is just too formal. When I read this chapter, I feel like I’m reading an academic dissertation, not a chapter from a young adult novel. I need to dumb it down a bit in order to make the language a bit more consistent with the rest of the story. That sounds easy, but I’ve got a LOT of sentences to rewrite. Let’s take an example:

The boys didn’t say anything to her; instead, they resumed their lunch and their conversation — an indication to Leah that her presence at the end of the table was not considered a serious intrusion.

Well la-dee-da, Mr. Snooty Author Man! Would you like some wine and caviar while you write this chapter?

This is the kind of crap I’m trying to purge from my novel. I’m want to keep the language simple. A reader shouldn’t have to consult a dictionary to read my story. Here’s how I rewrote it:

The boys didn’t say anything to her; instead, they continued talking to each other — a sign that they didn’t have any problem with her if she wanted to sit at their table.

That’s not perfect either, but it’s better than what I had before. Rewriting sentences can be very difficult work, and sometimes it is really hard to think of the best way to rewrite a sentence. Sometimes, days must pass before I figure it out, but I am comforted by the knowledge that EVERY human utterance can be rephrased so as to better express whatever idea one wishes to communicate. Every problem sentence has a solution. It’s just a matter of solving the puzzle.

Two down, one to go.

October 4, 2008

Fixing Chapter Seventeen

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 10:15 am
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After the last revision cycle, I found that I have three chapters which are lagging behind the others in terms of improvement: chapters six, fourteen, and seventeen. Before I move on to the next cycle, I’m going to perform some “textual surgery” on these three chapters to try to bring them up to speed. I decided to start with chapter seventeen because it’s an easier job: I only have to fix the first half of the chapter. The second half has been making good progress.

The problems that I’m having in each of these chapters are the same basic problems that I’ve been trying to fix in all of the chapters: stilted language, too much “telling” and not enough showing, and awkward scene construction. For some reason, these three chapters have been resistant to my revising strategies so far. Drastic measures need to be taken.

The first thing I did was to print this chapter out. It’s the first time I’ve printed out a chapter since I began this revising project. Holding the hard copy as it comes out of my printer is an interesting feeling. It’s almost like I’m seeing the story for the first time.

I sat down with the hard copy, a pen, and a highlighter in another room away from my computer. I spent about 45 minutes reading through the passage and marking it up. I highlighted sentences that didn’t sound right to me, and with my pen, I jotted down notes in the margin about what kinds of changes I thought I needed to make. When I was done, I took the hard copy back to my computer and went to work. I opened up a blank word processing document and copied the chapter that I was working on into the new document. This way, I could feel free to experiment with whatever changes I want without worrying about messing up the master file.

I won’t try to describe all the changes that I made, but I will discuss one paragraph that I fixed. Here is what the paragraph looked like a few days ago:

When David, Heather, and Melanie had at last finished eating and moved their trays aside, the conversation shifted to their presentation. Leah perked up and made a show of listening to what her partners were saying. Actually, it turned out that there really wasn’t that much to do with respect to preparing for their presentation, but David said that he wanted to make sure everyone knew their roles and the order in which they would present. He explained that he would introduce the topic as well as everyone else in the group. Alex complained that everyone in the class already knew who they were, but David argued that introducing them would kill some time, so they might as well do it. Then David said that the order in which they tried to read their presentations to the camera yesterday would remain the same except that Alex would talk about his posters after the other four read their reports instead of going first like they had planned to do if their presentation was on video. Heather again reminded them to read slowly to eat up as much time as possible. David agreed. “We won’t make an A if we hurry through our reports,” he said. None of this was news to their ears, but David said it was important to keep it all in mind. Leah made sure she remembered what was said.

Yuck! The scene is boring, there’s WAY too much “telling” going on here, and the third sentence is contradicting the rest of the paragraph. It says that Leah and her partners don’t have much to say, but really, they do.

So how can I improve this? Well, reading it you’ll notice that this paragraph is describing a conversation — there’s even a quote from David near the end. I wondered, if this is a conversation, then why don’t I just turn some of these sentences into dialogue? In a novel like Leah, where dialogue is in short supply, every little bit that I add can serve to liven up the story. Now, I don’t want to go overboard here and try to turn this scene into a really long conversation. The ninth graders’ discussion here isn’t really that important in the grand scheme of the novel, so while I want to insert some dialogue, I also don’t want to lead the reader down a long road that will only lead to a narrative dead end. So here is how I rewrote it:

At last, when David, Heather, and Melanie had finished eating and set their trays aside, the conversation shifted to their presentation. Leah perked up and made a show of listening to what her partners were saying. David said that he wanted to make sure everyone knew their roles and the order in which they would speak. “We’ll present our reports in the same order as we were going to read them on Sunday. Before you read, though, I’ll introduce each of you to the class.”

Alex laughed, “But everybody already knows who we are!”

David shrugged, “It’ll kill time. We might as well do it.”

David also told Alex that they would present his posters last. “That way, we’ll be able to use your posters to stall for time, if we need to.”

Heather again reminded her partners that the best way to stall for time was to read their reports as slowly as possible. David agreed. “We won’t make an A if we hurry through our reports,” he said.

None of this advice was news to Leah or her partners, but David said it was important to keep it all in mind so Leah made sure she did.

Although the revised passage takes up about the same amount of space on the page, it is actually about 30 words less than the original passage. I cleaned up some sentences and deleted that sentence in the original passage that contradicted everything else. The most obvious difference is that I’ve added a lot more dialogue, but notice that I didn’t transcribe every word that the students say. Heather’s comment, for example, is left out of quotation marks. The effect is that I transformed a single, big paragraph into a shorter paragraph and some dialogue, making this passage easier to get through.

Overall, I made a lot of good changes that move the chapter in the right direction. One chapter down, two to go.

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