Revise, Rewrite, Rejuvenate

Last week my mother and her two sisters went to New York for a funeral, leaving me to take care of my aunt’s 6- and 9-year-old boys and our grandmother. In five days of mothering, I was able to squeeze in a grand total of ONE HOUR of writing. If the kids’ bedtime tantrums, remembering my grandmother’s pills, feeding three other people, hustling all over Los Angeles to basketball games, Cub Scout meetings, tennis lessons, play dates etc. etc. etc! wasn’t enough to drive me crazy, that threw me over the edge.

So I am lucky that this week, I am in beautiful Santa Barbara playing catch-up, and I am writing and reading up a storm. Today I revised a short story and part of my novel (2 hours), reviewed short stories and novel chapters for my writers’ group (2 hours), attended my writers’ group meeting online (3 hours), and will be reading a novel before bed (1 hour). That is a full 8-hour day of writerly life! Not to mention blogging and reading an article about e-publishing miracles.

Sandpipers

Sandpipers dart along the shore at East Beach while sailboats tilt in the background.

Also not to mention waking up early, meditating, rollerblading on the beach, hanging out with my dog, and eating my mother’s incredible cuisine. Ah, if only all my days were like this one!

50 Hours COMPLETE

It’s OVER! And yes, I did it. I completed 50 hours! The members of my writers’ group all hit the 50,000-word mark and then some, as well.

NaNoEdMo Minutes

I feel: accomplished, relieved, sad.

On the final day, I had 45 minutes left to go, and I finished in an easy and controlled manner somewhere around 8pm. It was somewhat anticlimactic actually. No insane stressful rush to complete by the deadline. But this was great, because it meant I’d planned well, worked hard, and created a workable schedule for writing. Once I got used to pushing past the hour, I could keep going easily. I still encountered moments of stress, of course, in working things out to get my hours, and in sacrificing other things – but this is part of being a writer, too.

In my minute-count, I allowed myself to include bathroom breaks (only short ones) and the moments where I might look, to an outsider, as if I were staring off into space but my mind was going full-throttle. There is a character who makes paper cranes, slow when she begins to learn and fast by the time she’s done hundreds, and I included the 2.5 minutes it took for me to make a crane, to see how fast I could do it. I did not include snacking, and when I went over my mark by 2-3 minutes I rounded down.

The process was highly effective. My first two drafts took 6 months, my third 7 months, and this one will take no more than 2. Likely less, especially if I keep up the hours/day I’ve been doing. Yes, by the fourth draft, I should be revising faster anyway. But the time commitment definitely had something to do with it.

Will I keep it up?

On December 1st, the thing I most wanted to do was not write. I took the day off, went to see “Lincoln” (fun fact: I was born on his birthday), and relaxed. On the second day I went to a Christmas party and blogged. But today I returned to an hour/day at least, maybe more. I wouldn’t know what to do with my time that’s more worthwhile than being entrenched in my novel.

Is November Over Yet?

At the suggestion of an accomplished writer friend, I picked up Goal, Motivation & Conflict by Debra Dixon. It’s a fast read and provides an incredibly useful way of developing characters. I created charts for my protagonist, antagonist, and an important secondary character. Following Dixon’s advice, I looked for what each character wants, why she wants it, and what is keeping her from getting it, both on an external and on an internal level. I discovered a couple of important things about my characters, and I saw where in my book I could focus on or enhance each character’s GMC. This is a brilliant tool, one that I will continue to use as I write.

Okay, let me be honest about something: I made those charts weeks ago. In the fury of NaNoEdMo, my blog has fallen to the wayside. I knew this might happen – I warned you – and indeed it has been hard to do much else aside from getting in my editing time each day.

When I very first decided to become a writer, I also decided, in all my fervent naïveté, that I was going to do it “like a real job” and write for 8 hours a day. My mentor (fighting the urge to laugh, I’m sure) told me that none of his successful writer friends wrote for more than 4 hours a day. Since then, that has been my goal.

Starting slow, a little at a time, is the way to build a habit. If you want to get up an hour earlier, begin in 15-minute increments. My sister told me that meditating for 5 minutes a day is better than half an hour once a week. This is how I began writing – one sentence at a time, ten minutes at a time – and it worked. I got up to an hour a day, and then an hour and a half.

But as I immersed myself in my NaNoEdMo, I found I was stuck in my pattern – after an hour and a half, it was like my brain shut off. It was a challenge to push myself for longer.

I became, dare I admit, a little burned out. I was afraid I couldn’t keep up the pace for an entire month, let alone my whole life. The charge of the early days in November, when I was writing more than the allotted hours, faded. My minutes dwindled until I was writing for only an hour some days, only half an hour, and once or twice even skipped a day completely. I discovered if I did two hours a day I could have a day off per week, but I couldn’t keep it up.

So I gave myself a break. Let my mind relax. Considered the possibility of not meeting the 50-hour goal. And then I jumped back in. Yes, I’m caught up. I am actually 20 minutes ahead. And I am determined to meet that goal.

I’m glad for the push that this has given me, glad to see that I can do more than I thought. And I will be glad when November is over!

Omit Needless… Chapters!?

We are eight days into the month of November, and I have done 15.5 hours of revision. This is 2.167 more hours than the requisite, if I am following a plan of doing 1.67 hours per day. I am trying to rack up extra now, knowing that I may need to skip a day or two around Thanksgiving, and I don’t want to be in a stressful crunch at the end of the month trying to make up hours.


I am following several famous pieces of advice. From the writer’s bible The Elements of Style, “Omit needless words.” Brilliance! Show don’t tell at its most succinct. I have been omitting needless words. Paragraphs. Pages. Yes, I have been omitting needless whole chapters.

My first step was to get rid of the first 50 or so pages. At my draft 3 critique, I asked my readers what they thought of my mentor’s suggestion to delete the first few chapters. General agreement ensued. Not everything, my readers said, but definitely a trim. One person’s favorite scene took place in the original chapter one. But I looked at the repetition, at what was necessary, at what would serve my story – and I went ahead and chopped, chopped, chopped.

Thus the second piece of highly-touted advice, this from William Faulkner: “Kill your darlings.” Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch spoke the original phrase “murder your darlings” when he said, “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.”

So here I am, killing them one by one. It is hard – nearly painful. All the work and time that went into 50 pages of writing! I rewrote that original first chapter at least 20 times. But, it’s part of the job description.

A Halloween Story

Happy Halloween! This year I went to San Diego with a bunch of friends to celebrate and the costume theme was “Disneyland Rides.” Four of us dressed up as characters from “Toy Story” – Emperor Zurg, Buzz Lightyear, a green alien, and Rex (if you haven’t seen the Partysaurus Rex short yet, check it out!).

Disney knows how to tell a good story. “Toy Story” – original! They say that every story has already been told… and yes, I guess you could say that we already have stories told from the point of view of toys (The Nutcracker, for example; “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”). I remember reading a scary story when I was a kid about a killer teddy bear. But no one has ever done a toy story in quite this way – and Disney has made three movies, not to mention numerous shorts, each arguably better than the last.

Creating original, brilliant stories is no easy feat. Forget about original, creating a brilliant story isn’t easy. All right, forget about brilliant – even creating a story that’s good isn’t easy.

My self-imposed NaNoEdMo begins tomorrow and my reigning thought is, What the hell was I thinking?! I’m not ready for this! What if I can’t do 50 hours in a month? What if I can’t do 20? This is stupid and it was my idea anyway so I can just say I’m not doing it. Okay, done. Not doing it. Phew.

No, I’m not really backing out. I’m doing it. At least I’m going to give it my all and try.

Today I decided to “practice” and I spent 3 hours revising short stories. It was a positive experience because I had fun and it helped me think, Yes, I can do this. I don’t know if I can keep it up for a whole month… but it’s really only 1.67 hours per day, right?

The key to this, I think, is not getting caught up in the deadline. Practice some forgiveness – if I miss a day, don’t hound myself, just move on and see where I can put more hours the next day.

Basically, if you don’t see any posts from me through November, you’ll know why.

Wordlove: Paris Review at the Hammer

Last week I went to a Hammer Reading followed by a Q&A with the editor of The Paris Review, Lorin Stein, and the editor of The Paris Review Daily, Sadie Stein. My overarching feeling as I sat there was, “These people are so articulate and have such wide vocabularies – I need to surround myself with more people like this!”

One of my favorite parts of the discussion was when an audience member asked the panel, “Where did your love of words begin? Or when did you first know/discover your passion for literature?”

Wordlove [wurd·luhv] n. a deep and enduring amorous emotion for collections of letters, or, an infatuation with grammar, spelling, story-telling, and all things word-related. (Kidding, I just made all that up. But you get the idea.)

Sadie had a mother with a certain discerning ban on any books she found too vulgar, and hence as a child Stein used to sneak off in bookstores to read Once Upon A Potty. (I used to love this book, in all its red, square, flowered, graphic glory.) The prohibition of some books only instilled in Stein a deeper love for all of them. The editors, though they have the same last name, are actually not related; Lorin joked, “We’re not siblings, but I believe we had the same mother.” Mona Simpson, by comparison, said she grew up reading all manner of “vulgar” books, and her love of words grew just the same.

As for me, two salient memories stick out in my mind: a certain bedtime story my father used to tell and the moment I learned to read.

My early wordlove was instilled, I think, by being read to every night before bed. My father, an architect, and a writer himself, used to read to my little sister and me, and also used to tell us stories he made up on the spot. Always, always, I wanted more. Another, I would plead, tell us another. Tell us a long one. Ok, he would say. “Once upon a time, there was a long, long, long, long, long snake. The end.”

And then – the moment I learned to read. There was actually an instant where everything clicked. I was in my aunt’s living room, with my grandmother, and she held the “I Can Read” book while I cried in frustration. How I hated that little boy in the book in his stupid red-and-white striped shirt! I tried, I cried, I tried and cried some more. My grandmother, with astounding patience, coaxed me back to the book, and I tried again. And miraculously, the letters came together, made sense, I could recognize and pronounce words, and I could read. I was voracious after that. Read Jurrassic Park in elementary school, things like that. Unlike other parents, who struggled to get their kids to read, my mom mandated that for every “fun” book I read, I had to read a classic. I scoured the shelves for something that looked of minor interest. Rose In Bloom promised young love, but this is Louisa May Alcott, who wrote about times when holding hands couldn’t be done without a chaperone. Luckily my mother’s mandate didn’t hinder my passion for words, and of course I began to write as much as I read (and you know where that went).

Sadie said that she does not want to see books treated as rare artifacts, like things held in museums, or treated with extreme caution. She loves the ubiquitous, almost disposable nature of books, and hopes this doesn’t change – she treats hers horribly, she admitted, throwing them into her purses, eating with them, bending covers and staining pages.

I, too, love eating and reading, and am guilty of staining many a page. I hope for my books to be read, stained, dog-eared – loved. Of course I have to write them first. So yes, I’ve officially decided that while my writers group does NaNoWriMo, I am participating in my own NaNoEdMo. Fifty hours in the month of November. This Thursday it begins! I’m filled with the usual: excitement and trepidation. Will I be able to do this? Is it crazy to try? There were several books I had intended to read before beginning the revision, which I have not read. I had also hoped to go through everybody’s notes in eager detail. Perhaps write an outline. My mentor suggested setting down a list of changes to make. I have three days to prepare… I’m stressed out all ready.

Notes on a Manuscript

Received notes on my manuscript from a friend in the mail. Great comments, as usual. Got stopped, as usual. In the interim I revised a short story and wrote a whole new one – this was refreshing, since I hadn’t written anything new in a long time. It was proof that I had not forgotten how.
            I have to remind myself to be discerning when I accept notes from people. I had a creative writing professor who warned against prescriptive comments – both giving and receiving. These are the types of specific notes like “you should kill off x character,” or “you should have x character’s back-story be that he was beaten by his father,” etc. When giving notes, a person’s focus should be what the writer wants the story to be. When receiving notes, an author should be wary of prescriptive ideas not his/her own.

On the Novel Process

I got some great feedback on the finished first draft of my novel (pictured above). I met with a friend of a friend who is a producer, and he said he liked it, to send him the revision and potentially talk about a partnership – he was already “soft pitching” the idea! I’d like it to be a book before it becomes a movie, but I’m not complaining. And I hear having it optioned as a film might not hurt for having it published as a book.
            I attended a class at UCLA Extension called “How to Find and Work with a Literary Agent,” taught by Aimee Liu. Heard some stuff I already knew (perfect spelling, get names right, agents look for reasons to eliminate you, etc.) and learned a few things, too (how to do your homework when searching for agents, the importance of selecting and building a relationship with your agent, the usual percentage breakdown of royalties, what a contract typically looks like, etc.). There was a panel of three literary agents and when I went to speak with one after the class, she told me to send her a query. This was incredibly encouraging, and while I don’t necessarily want my book to be Young Adult, nor have I heard back from her, the process gave me a lot of experience. I found several useful websites, namely agentquery.com, which led to useful example query letters. I drafted and re-drafted my letter, not to mention continual revision of the first chapter.
            Revision is a grueling process. As I began to work on the novel as a whole, I found myself getting lost. My mentor suggested I create an outline, with chapter summaries. That turned into a small project in itself, as I listed characters, wrote out scene chronology, plot summary, and character development for each chapter. It was, of course, incredibly useful in seeing the big picture and understanding where I might need to add/delete.
            I’ve heard that revision is an endless process. Indeed, whenever I “finish” editing a chapter, I already have a list of things I want to change. Then I get feedback from my writers’ groups and have a whole different perspective, with a new set of challenges.

After reading a draft of my first chapter, my former professor told me I might have “literary chick lit” (I inwardly jumped for joy), and recommended I read Election. He likened my protagonist to a character in that book named Tracy. As I read the book I kept saying to myself, “just one more section, just one more” and then I’d finished it. Tom Perrotta has brilliantly hooked one section into the next, simultaneously interweaving several subplots, making it impossible to stop reading. The other thing I loved about this book and would like to do with my own writing, was how true it seemed, the path the characters took and where they ended up. Each character matures, has an arc. It is by no means a happy ending. But it feels complete.
According to my readers, my first draft had an unhappy and incomplete ending, so I have a lot to learn from Election. At the UCLA Extension class on agents, I learned that in the original “Pretty Woman” story, he doesn’t come back. Of course that would never sell. So it was rewritten, and he came back like the night in shining armor upon his limousine chariot, and it became a classic. So many of my readers want a final act, a redemption sequence for the protagonist. I’m not sure yet what I want to do, but as I revise, I’m thinking about it.