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.

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 2, 2008

Coming Into Focus (Progress Report #9)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 9:35 am
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Photo by Bogdan Yakovenkoa

I’ll be finishing my fifth read-through of the novel today. I’m very happy with the overall progress. Most of the chapters are nearing a stage of completion where I feel happy about the story and my writing. As I read through the novel this time, however, I found three chapters which have not seen satisfactory progress: chapters six, fourteen, and the first half of seventeen still sound awkward and stilted in places. After five cycles of revision, those three chapters still feel like they have a long way to go before I’m happy with them. So what I plan to do before I move on to the sixth cycle is isolate these three chapters and spend a few days on them.

What I’ll do is print them out and work on hard copies of the chapters. Printing out one’s writing and working with a pen and paper is always a good revising strategy. It allows me to really tear into my writing, mark it up, make annotations, and highlight the trouble spots. I might have done this before now except that printing out an entire novel four or five times can be a bit of a pain. It’s much easier to print out only three chapters.

Ultimately, what I might have to do, if the language is stilted and wooden beyond repair in these chapters, is rewrite long passages from scratch — just retell the story in different language. I think the idea of the story is good, but I’m just not telling it very well in these three chapters.

I plan to spend at least two days on each chapter, so this task will take me at least a week to accomplish. Hopefully, when I’m finished, I’ll be able to say that the entire novel is very near completion.

September 18, 2008

Free Book! Free Book!

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:08 am
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I’ve decided to make my other novel, The Spring, available as a free PDF download. It’s what I should have done originally. When I self-published the book last winter, I considered offering it for free, but I got greedy. When self-publishing, I’ve learned that one almost has to give as much of one’s work away for free simply to overcome the hurdles that accompany self-publishing.

As a writer, people don’t know who I am. They’ve never heard of me. I don’t have a “brand”. And since the phrase “self-published novel” carries with it such negative connotations (some deserved, some not), I have to do as much as I can to remove the psychological resistance that separates a potential reader of my work from the act of acquiring a copy of my story.

I originally had offered the PDF version at a price that was much less than the price of a physical copy of the book. But even if I only charged 50 cents for the download, that is still too high a hurdle for most potential readers. Making it available for free eliminates the financial risk completely. One can download it, start reading, and if one doesn’t like it after reading the first few chapters, then one can send the file to the Recycle Bin and forget about it.

September 13, 2008

Good Work, Brain!

It’s certainly true that one thinks more clearly after a good night’s rest. When I woke up this morning, the first thought in my head was that I might have made a mistake in how I’ve set up the scene in which Leah and her group present their reports to the class. I was browsing that chapter last night, shortly before I turned in, and I guess my subconscious mind discovered something that my conscious mind had missed.

The problem that my brain discovered is that the order in which the five students present their topics might not be the best or most logical order. Leah’s topic, of course, is the pharaohs. Heather offers a two-and-a-half minute summary of Egyptian history. Melanie has researched the process of mummification, and Alex has drawn some posters illustrating the interiors of the pyramids. I don’t know what topic David’s report covers; it’s never mentioned in the text.

The order in which the five students present is this: David, Heather, Melanie, Leah, Alex. But this morning, when I awoke, I realized that it would make a lot more sense if Melanie’s report followed Leah’s. It makes sense that a team would want to discuss the lives of the pharaohs and then discuss what happened to them after they died.

It’s a minor problem in the text, but it’s a problem which has never occurred to me before. The question that is before me now is whether I’m going to fix it. It would be relatively easy to fix in the sense that I wouldn’t have to rework the plot or anything, but I would have to move several passages and paragraphs around and rewrite a few sentences. The more I think about it, though, the more likely I am to just leave it be. It might be a continuity error It’s not even a continuity error; it’s just a minor oversight on my part. It doesn’t harm the story or the plot. In fact, in the text, the progression of David, then Heather, then Melanie, then Leah provides for a little bit of suspense and tension since Leah has to listen and wait for her partners to read their reports before she can read hers.

So I think I’ll leave this little discrepancy in the text, but kudos to you, My Brain, for calling my attention to it. Keep up the good work!

July 5, 2008

Milestone

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 12:26 pm
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I have finished the first phase of this revising project.

To summarize: I’ve spent the last two months revising Leah, a young adult novel that I first published back in 1996. I was never quite satisfied with that edition of the novel, and I promised myself I would revisit and revise it someday. So far, I’ve been reading through the book, chapter by chapter, working on some of the “big picture” elements: the plot, the characters, the dialogue, the structure of the novel and the chapters, long passages of narration that I wasn’t happy with, etc. I’ve made a lot of changes, including the deletion of almost thirty pages of text. The result so far has been a leaner, tighter story that is already much, much better than the 1996 draft.

So does this mean I’m almost finished? Not at all. I still have a lot of work to do, but from this point forward, the nature of my work changes from a mix of revising and rewriting to something that more closely resembles editing and proofreading. Open the file to any page and you’ll find a spelling error, a missing words, or a punctuation problem that needs to be fixed. I’m also going to be focusing much more on the details of both the story and the text. I don’t always make the right word choices when I write, so I’ll be paying more attention to that. I also plan to add a lot more detail and description to some of the chapters that need it.

I’ll be starting the next phase of this project soon, but for now, I’m going to set the novel aside and take a few days off to recharge so that I can approach the text with fresh eyes. When I start again, I’ll be starting at page one and reading through the whole novel once more. The hard work doesn’t end yet, but I’m happy with my progress so far.

June 29, 2008

In Defense of Ordinariness

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:24 am
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I suppose both Leah and The Spring would fall into the “young adult” genre of fiction, given the subject matter of the novels and their intended audiences. I’m fine with that, but my problem is that I haven’t read a lot of contemporary young adult fiction. I’ve read a few stories, but when I read for fun I prefer to read literary fiction (it’s the English major in me), so my idea of young adult fiction runs more along the lines of The Catcher in the Rye or The Bell Jar or Lord of the Flies. I’m sure that my reading habits have warped my sense of what I ought to be doing if I’m writing in the young adult genre, and I’m sure that my stories don’t conform to the larger trends in the genre already underway. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that Leah is a “misinterpretation” of what a novel in the young adult genre should be.

Whenever I come across young adult fiction book reviews or websites devoted to YA writing, I always take time to read the summaries of newly released books. I am curious about what other writers are doing, but more often than not I’m disappointed that my work bears little resemblance to those other stories.

From what I can tell there are three general categories for young adult novels. The first category includes the fantasy/horror/sci-fi books directed to teenagers. Here we have stories of wizards and dragons and vampires. Those kinds of books have never interested me as a reader. (I once tried to read the first Harry Potter book, but I couldn’t get past the first chapter–it just wasn’t anything I wanted to read.) In the second category we find soap opera books, stories where the female teen protagonist just got asked to the prom by the cute quarterback, but then she learns that her best friend has stolen her prom dress and plans to wear it to the prom herself!!! You know, that sort of thing. (Actually, I hate to say it, but The Spring, in many respects, might fall into this category. I’d like to think that my book is a little more substantial, though, but maybe it isn’t.)

However, for “serious” young adult fiction you have to turn to the third category: the “problem” novels. These are stories that feature realistic teenage characters in real-world, and frequently unpleasant, situations. Leah might fit into this sub-genre, except that the problems that I address in Leah bear little resemblance to the problems that are described in other authors’ books. As examples, here are some real synopses of problem novels that have recently been published:

Fourteen-year-old Caitlyn is really excited when sexy, gorgeous Tyler, 16, pays attention to her. She skips class to be with him, and she neglects her beloved art project. She tries to ignore how jealous and controlling he is, even when he slaps her and destroys a piece of her art. She loves it when they make out, but she isn’t sure she wants to go all the way. Then one night he forces her, and suddenly she has lost her virginity. Eventually she confronts the painful truth.

Deanna was 13 when her father caught her and 17-year-old Tommy having sex. Three years later, she is still struggling with the repercussions: how Tommy jokingly made her into the school slut; how the story became legend in her small town; how her father looked at her then — and now doesn’t look at her at all. Her brother, Darren, has mistakes to handle, too: he lives with his girlfriend and their baby in his parents’ basement. And while Deanna’s mother seems numb, her father is perpetually angry and depressed.

Hannah Baker is determined to have the last word — but she doesn’t get it. Before committing suicide, she sends a tape of 13 joined stories to those who she believes were instrumental in her death. One of the recipients is Clay Jenkins, who once had a crush on Hannah; he would have helped her if he could and listens brokenhearted.

Kristina Snow was a 17-year-old with high grades and a loving family. One summer in California with a meth-addicted boyfriend destroys her life. Addicted, she’s raped, and goes back home to Reno pregnant.

Notice a trend? The subject matter of these stories appear to be more in line with the old After-School Specials on TV that once greeted kids with morality tales and public service announcements as they came home from school. My problem with these problem novels is that they tend to go straight for the most sensational plots imaginable. While there’s no question that issues like abuse, date-rape, suicide, and heavy drug use are facts of life that thousands of teenagers have to deal with everyday, these books give the impression that all teenagers are grappling with these issues — but not all of them are. Perhaps I’m woefully naive, but I think that most teenage angst doesn’t come from horrific situations like these, but instead the angst is much more subtle and existential. If I wanted to, I suppose I could write a novel in which Leah Nells is abused by her parents, raped by David Parks, or whose extreme shyness and introversion cause her to attempt suicide or experiment with drugs. But those kinds of sensational plot twists don’t interest me as a writer, and they weren’t the kinds of stories that attracted me when I was a teenager.

I’m much more interested in exploring what I might call the ordinary. What interests me is how ordinary, average people cope with ordinary, average experiences, since it is the ordinary, average experiences that we all have to face everyday. Writers don’t need to saturate a story in melodrama in order to make it interesting. I’d rather explore how the pain and shame that Leah feels about her shyness and how her shyness manifests itself on the first day of school. I’m more interested in writing about how she fails, again and again, to make friends or simply talk to people. I think there’s more drama in a scene where she’s afraid to purchase a book from a garage sale than in a scene where she slits her wrists out of despair. The first scene reflects a reality that readers can relate to. The second scene is Hollywood sensationalism

The ordinary manifests itself in my stories in a couple of ways. In The Spring, most of my characters are among the most forgettable students in the class: the average kids who show up everyday, do their work, graduate with a decent GPA, and go on to live their average lives. Years later, you don’t remember their names. You don’t remember their faces. They were just there, like extras in a movie, while we star in our own supposedly important life stories. But as a writer, those are the people who I find fascinating and worth writing about because they’re the ones whose stories are never told. They aren’t exciting enough, they aren’t melodramatic enough to find their way into other authors’ stories. They’re considered insignificant because they aren’t on the football team or they aren’t acting out in class and causing trouble. But for me, the challenge is trying to find importance in those people considered unimportant, in finding significance in those lives considered insignificant.

In the case of Leah, it isn’t so much the characters as it is the events of the plot that are ordinary. The two main characters, Leah and David, exist at the extremes of the social spectrum. David is one of the most popular boys in the class while Leah doesn’t really belong to any social circle at all — she just keeps to herself and reads. They may not be completely ordinary students, but their story together is ordinary. The climax of their plot line doesn’t involve going to a party, getting drunk, driving home under the influence, and causing a car wreck that results in someone’s death. The climax of their story together involves presenting a history report to their class. Mundane? Common? Ordinary? Of course! but that’s how it should be. You don’t take an unusual character like Leah and place her in extraordinary circumstances; you take her and place her in the most ordinary circumstances you can imagine because it is those ordinary circumstances that readers can most relate to. That’s how readers will be able to form a bond with the character.

I mentioned The Glass Menagerie a few posts ago. Besides the character of Laura, one of the things that I liked about the play was how, at the end, nothing extraordinary happens to her. Her subplot ends pretty much as one would imagine it would end in real life. If Laura were swept off her feet by the gentleman caller, or if she died tragically by her own hand, I think the audience would feel cheated. By limiting myself as a writer to characters or events that are ordinary, I allow myself much more freedom. I don’t have to resort to the sensationalist plots that so many other authors have written.

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