A Novel Critique

Last week I had a successful critique for Draft 3 of my novel, and I am so grateful to my readers. This group of very intelligent and supportive people read through the entire 300+ page draft, wrote notes, and joined the critique with thoughtful and honest comments. Over the past few days I have also had a personal calls with people who weren’t able to make the crit. Thank you to all my readers for your encouragement and the effort you’ve put into this.

We discussed everyone’s favorite scenes, favorite moments, the world-creation, and the construct of being popular in this novel. And the main things I have to work on are, let’s see – the beginning, the end, and my protagonist’s character arc. No big shakes, right? For some reason I thought that by the fourth draft I might be working on things like, I don’t know, expand this scene, cutting this specific scene. Sentence structure, refining dialogue – well, it seems the dialogue is one of the strengths, and wordsmithing on the sentence level doesn’t happen until oh, about draft 8.

With previous drafts I was getting comments randomly, and there was no dialogue between critiquers, so it was hard to be sure what I wanted to take and what I didn’t. This critique was so great because people talked to me and to each other, so I got to see clearly what was disagreed upon and what everyone thought was a necessary change.

Hard copies of my draft with notes from my readers.

When my mentor said he thought I should cut the first 60 pages, I wanted to tear my hair out. Apparently it’s a common thing for young writers, not to begin where the story actually begins. (I hate to think of myself as a “young” writer, even though I am, and I was so sure I was starting where it really begun!) I’ve let that little dagger sit for awhile and have gotten used to the idea. Thinking about okay, how might I do that? I brought the question to critique, to general agreement – yes, much of the beginning should be trimmed (a nice way to say, cut). The question – to prologue, or not to prologue – remains. (How often do people really read prologues? I do, because it’s usually part of the fiction. I’ll admit, however, I hardly ever make it past the first few pages of a forward.)

Usually for me critiques go one of two ways. Excitement, inspiration, I want to work on this immediately. Or deflation – it will never be what I want, I can’t even look at this right now. My general feeling after this critique is okay, here we go again. I’m elated that it went so well, afraid I’ll never get it published (sure, each draft has been significantly better than the previous, but still so riddled with issues), and ready to work on it again. I’ve heard many different forms of advice, one of them being that you should never begin work on a piece directly after a critique. You have to let it sink in, work in your subconscious, so when you go back to the piece, you have a place to go. To me, two months seems like forever. I feel like I’ve been away from my novel for a long time. But two months isn’t really that long. Often, it’s advised you take much more time away to get perspective. I have short stories that I’ve been working on for years, and the most recent drafts could never have happened back when I first wrote them.

A lovely gift from my friend, critiquer, and fellow writers’ group member. I couldn’t do what I do without the incredible support of the amazing people in my life!

What I’m getting to, is whether or not I should do NaNoWriMo. That’s National Novel Writing Month – November. Next month. I’m afraid that beginning a whole new project in the middle of my first novel is a crazy idea. At the same time, perhaps the time away would give me needed perspective. But if I begin a new novel, isn’t it only that much longer to publishing my current one? It’s a great thing for craft, to be writing and writing and getting perspective and writing some more, but a person could spend her whole life doing this and never publishing.

I’ve had the idea for my next book for a long time. It’s been brewing in the backround, and I’m starting to get excited about it. Several members of my writers’ group are going to participate. We even have a word counter up on the blog. I so want to participate in this race, be inspired by some healthy competition!

My mentor is adamant that I don’t step too far away from this novel. “You’ve worked too hard,” he said, “To let this go.” Perhaps I can use the buzz of NaNoWriMo to speed along my revision. A whole new draft in a month? That would be amazing. I just don’t know if this is a process that can be sped up.

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The Writer, Long Emerged

Last month I went to see a reading at the HammerMichael Chabon, Pulitzer winner and best-selling author, was reading from his most recently published novel, Telegraph Avenue.

At the following Q&A, led by Mona Simpson (an accomplished author herself), Chabon and his wife Ayelet Waldman (note: also a best-selling author) discussed the writers’ life and process, their lives together, raising children, editing each other’s work, their differing writing habits and reading tastes. This, I think, is one of the moments young writers fantasize about – being on stage, among other successful writers, with an audience clinging to your spoken words as well as your written ones – this is one of those moments where you know you’ve emerged.

I’ve been to other readings where I’ve shown up right before it’s supposed to start, gone in, and found a seat a few rows from the front. At this event, I arrived half an hour early to stand at the back of the box office line, which was shorter even than the entrance line. I ended up getting in, so to speak – aside from the main room, where you get to share breathing air with these literary adepts, there is a second room for the overflow of eager listeners, where you watch the goings on of the adjacent room projected on a slide screen. (I heard that for the Lakers’ major away games, they sold tickets at astronomical prices for fans to come to the Staples Center and watch the game on huge television screens. And they sold out. Being in the slide room was like that, I imagine – not the same as actually being there, but almost as good, and still surrounded by the energy of fellow fans.)

I was surprised by the couple’s ease, by the way they sounded like real people. They joked, laughed, swore. Ayelet had a head cold. Just like everyone else, they have to figure out who’s doing the cooking and how the kids are getting looked after while the parents need creative space. (They take turns, I understand, getting away to just write.) No minor feat, to make a living as a novelist. Let alone to raise a successful household, when both parents are creative writers.

I think about my own future and how badly I want to be able to make a living purely with my fiction. How my boyfriend is also an artist. How you have to create a dance with each other, to support each other and each person’s respective passions. For the last seven months while I participated in an incredibly consuming leadership program, my boyfriend was the one who cooked for me when I got home starving at midnight, who worked extra on the days when I couldn’t, who told me I could do it when I thought I couldn’t. Now, with my program complete, my boyfriend is completing his degree in an intensive animation program, and it is my turn to do the extra dishes, remind him to go to bed early, and tell him that he can do it.

It is hard enough to be an artist alone. It is harder, sometimes, to be two artists together, and sometimes having an artist partner makes it easier. Becoming two successful artists together, long-emerged artists, now that’s a trick. Watching Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, I wanted to point and say, I know, I know, they are rare. How often does this happen? But see, it’s possible! It is!

A Moment in Montreal

The requisite maple sugar candy.

After five days in New York, my mom, dad, sister, and I took a road trip to Montreal. It was wonderful to be in a new city, and this one reminded me of Europe. I was able to practice my minimal French and was pleasantly surprised by how many of the billboards I could actually read. My visit to a used bookstore in this city, however, did not yield purchases as my comprehension is far from novel level.

Tomatoes at the open market.

Puppy post at the open market.

My mother and sister are both professional chefs, among other creative talents, so we sampled some of the best foods and restaurants. After shopping at the open market, they exercised their culinary mastery in our hotel (Dad made sure to select a place where the rooms had kitchens). We went to La Banquise to experience poutine, the city’s famous dish: French fries, cheese curds, and gravy. Even if you’re not a foodie, Olive et Gourmando is worth visiting, in Old Montreal (only tourists call it “Old Town,” a cashier at the open market told us).

Famous for poutine, the menu listed several variations. We had classic and one with sausage, onions, and mushrooms.

This orange-flavored hot chocolate was so thick I had to spoon it bite by bite.

At Suite 88 Chocolatier, I had one of the best hot chocolates I’ve ever had – and I am somewhat of a connoisseur, having had them all around the world. The best, no surprise, was from Belgium. I have also been to botanic gardens all over the world. My love for them began at the age of 12, in Japan’s Garden of Denbouin. At the Jardin Botanique in Montreal, I saw more variations of leaf than I ever knew existed.

During my NY/Montreal vacation, I received my first set of notes on draft 3 of my novel from a trusted reader. The experience of this draft and the ensuing comments is much like that of draft 2 – elation at completing, pride, and then feeling crushed by comments – you mean there are this many things that need work? You mean I am this far from really being done? Will I ever be done? The notes, however, are streamlining. This is a very good sign, because it means my drafts are streamlining. I may be this far from being done, but I am simultaneously this much closer. I have a vague case of nerves regarding my impending Online Critique next month. I also have burbling excitement. The notes I receive will spur me to the next draft, which is again this much closer to completing this work.

My sister (who was an agro-ecology major in college) leading the way through the Botanic Garden.

A few fancy insects on display at the Botanic Garden’s Insectarium.

Just a Speed Bump

     Recently I’ve been struggling to put in more than a hour a day of fiction writing. Sure, there are things like life getting in the way. All that stuff that just takes time to do. Everything takes time. There are relationships to maintain, other projects I want to work on. I’ve also started a new personal growth and development program that is seven months long, not to mention a 10+ hour commitment each week. It took some adjusting to get back into the swing of things after traveling, too.
     But none of that really has anything to do with writing or not. I know I can work my schedule out. So what is it?
     About a week and a half ago, I met with one of my readers. He is an actor, a screenwriter, studied literature in college. He knows something about story. See Julian Conrad’s blog here.
     He gave me an incredible critique. I’m grateful for his feedback – he is the only one from my last round of readers who took the time to sit down with me and go through his comments. Yet, since the critique I’ve been stopped. I haven’t been revising.
     Why? I’m processing. Solutions are being generated, I can feel it. And sometimes, it takes time. Is there a way to speed this process? When I wrote papers in college, usually I didn’t want to, and I had to force myself to just sit down and slog through. When I was finished at least I had something to work with. Creativity isn’t like that.
     There are ways to generate creativity, but I don’t think this is one of those times. Sometimes you have to let the ideas roil around, so when you sit down to revise, something comes out.
     I wouldn’t call it a block. Merely a bump.

Stop. Start.

It is amazing to me how easy it is to get stopped. And how starting again never gets any easier, no matter how many times I do it. Last week I caught a cold and I stopped writing. It wasn’t until after I started writing again that I realized I’d felt as awful as I had as much because of the lack of writing as because of the cold. And I made it worse by thinking things like, “If I were a real writer, I wouldn’t let this stupid cold stop me. I’d write no matter how sick I was.”
            One of the tasks I’ve assigned myself as part of my seminar is to write 2-3 pages of my novel per day. Some days I write more than three pages. Some days I don’t write at all.
            Yesterday was one of those days. It was a Friday. I babysat for eight hours (a full work day) and then I went out. I saw friends I haven’t seen in months, and I had a great time. I knew as I was leaving my house that it was going to be one of those days. I considered not going out. Missing social events in order to write is something I’m familiar with. I don’t regret going, but I do regret not writing. I spent this morning devolving into thoughts of, “I’ve broken a promise to myself” and “How will I ever become a successful writer if I can’t even write every day?” Which makes it that much harder to begin again, of course.
            I have to take a deep breath, let it go, and jump back in. I have to recognize the awesome parts of setting such goals, even if I don’t always meet them. Because of my 2-3 pages per day idea, I now have 30 pages of my rough draft. Thirty will turn into 40 will turn into 50 will turn into 100, and soon enough I’ll have 250 – 300 pages. Before I know it, I’ll have a finished rough draft.

Building My Bookshelf

When you want to be a writer, there are two things the wise tell you to do. One, first and foremost, is write. According to Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success, it takes 10,000 hours to become a master. The second thing to do, of course, is read. But not just anything – it makes quite a difference what you read.
The New Yorker is a given. Poets & Writers Magazine is a popular one. Certain literary journals, which can be found in the magazine section at Borders for easy research. Of course, the Writer’s Market.

The classics are always a good place to begin – learn from the greats. Thanks to my English major education, I have a head start: Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, not to mention various required Spenserian and Elizabethan lit courses. I also took a Greek mythology course, so I’m up on my Homer and Euripides too. My reading list is peppered with all the things I managed to skip. I, like many fellow English majors, became accomplished in the art of BS – taking exams and acing them, on books I hadn’t actually read. I admit there is some Joyce I have yet to tackle.
When my writers’ group asked me to put together a brief book list, I came up with the following. My mentor suggested most of these books, which have been – and surely will continue to be – instrumental in my journey:

1. The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
Commonly known as “Strunk and White.” Possibly the simplest, most straightforward grammar guide ever. I “borrowed” my sister’s gorgeous, red fabric, hardcover copy, which was given to her by one of our aunts. The illustrations make the grammar much easier to take in.
2. The Art of Fiction, John Gardner
On Becoming A Novelist,
John Gardner
This stuff is dense. And brilliant. When I first tried to read him, I couldn’t connect. I went back to it as I began to pursue writing and encounter the struggles involved. Everything made so much sense. It was amazing to discover something that so perfectly described what I was dealing with.
3. On Writing, Stephen King

A much easier read than the Gardner. Having read only two short stories of his, I won’t weigh in on whether or not King’s work is “literature,” but the guy is undeniably prolific. And he sells. My favorite pieces of advice: no adverbs, and don’t give up (I love the nail of rejection slips that turned into a stake!).
4. Story, Robert McKee
This is technically a film bible, but it holds true for fiction – plot techniques, character voice, etc. The examples are more helpful when you’ve seen the movies discussed, but overall they make the book much easier to understand.
5. Writing Fiction, Gotham Writers’ Workshop
If I’m ever stuck, this is a great place to go for prompts. It also includes fundamentals of writing. It is definitely worth going through the whole thing, and then starting over again.
6. The Weekend Novelist, Robert J. Ray and Bret Norris
I love this guide because it takes you step-by-step. So far the way I write stories has been to just jump in, which makes editing both cathartic and excruciating. I can see that it makes a lot of sense to plan my novels before writing.

Beyond these, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given is, read things that are similar to what you wish to write. Discovering my genre is… under exploration.