First Draft Freedom

img_2323Whoop! My first draft is almost done. It’s messy, choppy, filled with dialogue and sparse on description, but that’s ok, because I’ve made it all the way through.

The plot is in place, and my characters are coming to life, and I know what happens from the beginning to the end.

For me, the hardest part is over.

No more struggling to answer, “What happens next?” “Would Teddy say this?” “Would Helen do that?” I don’t have to pace around closing my eyes trying to visualize scene after scene. They are all there on the pages.

I’m now actually excited to go back to the beginning.

But before I head into the revision, I first need to back away from the novel. I need to take a week or so off to gain some distance from what I wrote in order to later see it with fresh eyes.

Once I feel ready, I’ll print out a fresh copy. I’ll do a read-through in several sittings. I won’t stop to make changes. I’ll just pretend to be reading it for the first time.

I could then do all this but I might be too exhausted by the end!

So instead, I’ll next go through and analyze the manuscript. This time making marks, jotting down ideas, thoughts…I’ll ponder…

Does my story make sense?

Is the plot compelling? Any plot holes?

Does the story flow?

Do my lead characters come to life?

Are the stakes high enough?

Are there any unbelievable leaps of logic?

Is the pacing. Too fast? Too slow?

Then I’ll start making the actual editing changes. And once to the end (maybe two months from now) time for the next revision! I’ll have to do another post about that one when the time comes.

 

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The Sagging Middle

IMG_1218I’ve reached the middle section of my YA novel.  As a writer, I’m a pantser, meaning I write by the seat of my pants. I love writing this way. Never knowing what will happen next and then being delighted when I find out.

That worked fine for the first section, because beginnings are exciting and new and fresh.

But a novel is for the long haul, and the middle section is the biggest part, and it was starting to feel arduous and unending.  So I went to the internet for help. Here’s what I found out.

I need to think more about structure and pacing and plot lines, because without some set guidelines, I’ll run in circles and never get to the end.

Instead of a novel in thirds. Split the middle section into two parts and have a four part novel. I like this idea. It makes the middle seem more manageable. I found this idea at Terrible Minds.  The writer somehow ties faking an orgasm to fiction writing. Worth a read just for that.

Stories are about problems that need to be solved. In the middle part, the hero must face some tests. He might even need to face his greatest fear.

Every scene should keep the story moving forward. Every chapter should start with a compelling inciting incident. A problem arises. Something throws the main character for a loop. Keeps him constantly thrown off kilter. This article has more good info on inciting incidents.

Look for places where the protagonist is forced to abandon his original plan and move in a new direction to meet an added challenge.

I could bring in a new character. That always adds spice and variety.

In certain parts, I could ramp up the action and force the pace to quicken.

It’s always nice to add some comic relief here and there to allow a break in the action and low points.

And lastly, when I get stuck. I can do some character prompting. I’ll put the character’s full name at the top of the page. Then start a dialogue.  I’ll ask Teddy about the situation he’s in. What does he feel about it? Ask him how he thinks he’ll solve his current problem? And hope that he gives me some really good answers!

(The above photo is Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville where a major scene in my novel takes place.)

Also: writing update. I got my first rejection on a short story. I’ll just send it out again for the year of submission!!

Interior Monologue

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Of the four novel writing components, action, dialogue, description and interior monologue, the first two—I love—the second two—not so much.

So when Matthew, the editor helping me outline my YA novel, suggested that my main character Teddy needed more inner thoughts and feelings, I did not jump with joy. I know it seems simple enough. Just get in the character’s head and allow the reader to see what my character is thinking. But for some reason I resist doing it.

I know I should show Teddy’s loves, fears and insecurities so that the reader can find moments of recognition and identify with him, but whenever I attempt it, the thoughts seem simplistic and clichéd.

So I went looking for ideas and advice.

First, I perused a few novels in search of inner monologue. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl had none as far as I could tell. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman had a little bit. I found a good amount in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.

Such as this excerpt: “I wish I had known that I wasn’t going to see Mr. Black again when we shook hands that afternoon. I wouldn’t have let go…but I didn’t know, just like I didn’t know it was the last time Dad would ever tuck me in, because you never know.”

And finally, I hit the jackpot on internal monologue with The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. The author does a great job of interspersing the main character’s thoughts and feelings throughout the novel. Such as: “It felt like everything was rising up in me, like I was drowning in this weirdly painful joy, but I couldn’t say it back. I couldn’t say anything back.”

This article on Interior Monologue is a long one but a good one.

Another neat thing I discovered is that a character can share thoughts with the reader they’re incapable of sharing with other characters. Therefore, the reader feels an attachment to the character by witnessing his or her internal battles.

And this piece was very informative and to the point.

I think the best fit for me will be to sprinkle bits of interior monologue at the right places to add layers of depth and emotion to the story but still keep the action moving along at a clipped pace. The dialogue and action will quicken the pace. The description and interior monologue can slow it down when needed. Ah. I feel better now!

P.S. That photo has nothing to do with the topic. But I do wonder what my wild child hero Peggy Guggenheim was thinking in her bikini outside her Venetian palazzo with her dogs.  Probably, to hell with interior monologue, let’s have some fun!

Pep Talk from Michael Strahan

FullSizeRenderMichael Strahan  gave the commencement address at my son’s high school graduation.

He was addressing the senior class, but much of what he said I needed to hear.

Words matter. Words project confidence or defeatism.

Michael told the senior class, don’t say “If” because “If” breeds self-doubt.

Instead, say “When.”

Michael’s father would say to him, “When you play football.” “When you go to the NFL.” “When” projects conviction. “When” projects the next sure thing.

Don’t say “Hope.” “I hope to do this.” “I hope to do that.” “I hope” is rife with vacillation and hesitancy.

Instead say, “I expect.”

Michael admitted he was scared to be addressing the crowd. But he encouraged everyone to work scared. Play scared. Do whatever scared.

Attitude matters. It’s the only thing we can control.

Take a risk. Try a new thing. Stay open. If someone offers you a job, an opportunity, and it feels right, take it, even if you’re not completely prepared. Then make sure you learn the ropes fast.

So following some of Michael’s advice, here I go.

When my first novel is published, I expect to be overjoyed at its completion. When my first novel is published, I will be content, knowing the book is in another person’s hands and life. When my first novel is published, I expect to connect with new people in a myriad of ways. When my first novel is published, I expect to be well into writing my second one.

I now expect all of these pronouncements to come true. 🙂

If you’d like your own pep talk from Michael, try this:

As an aside, I found this article titled “Your Words Matter” and that there’s such a thing as words matter week!

Character Motivation

Matthew Limpede, the editor helping me structure my novel, talks a lot about character motivation. He pushes me to think about who the character is as a person— what the character is feeling—and why the character is doing what he/she is doing.

I seem to resist this aspect of novel writing. Instead, I want to write only dialogue and action and keep things light and cheery and funny. But if my readers are going to connect with my characters, I need to delve into the reasons my characters say and do certain things.

IMG_1232For instance, I’m currently writing the middle section of my novel, and the main character, Teddy, and a woman named Lucinda have just arrived at a Greyhound Bus station in a gritty section of Nashville, Tennessee.

Teddy needs to go to Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, and I want Lucinda to go with him. But why would Lucinda, a thirty-year old woman, want to go to a bar with a thirteen-year old boy she’d met only the day before?

By having done a character sketch on Lucinda, I know she’s an orphan, and she’s now standing at a bus station with a boy whom she thinks is also an orphan. But what next?

I went searching for some resources to help.

I thought this post was helpful.

I could use the first sheet on the left to find some reasons. In fact, for Lucinda in this scene, I’d pick loyalty, self-preservation, past trauma, and repaying a debt as motivations.

And the new-age part of myself loved this interesting post using Enneagrams as a way to find character motivation.

Here’s what I’ve come up with for now…Lucinda would like to ditch Teddy, but something tugs on her to stay. She can’t bring herself to leave a kid with no money wandering the streets of Nashville, because it brings up abandonment issues she felt every time she left one foster family to go to yet another one.

I shall see if the scene stays like that!

Matthew Bruccoli On Writers and Writing

searchI interviewed Matthew Bruccoli in 2006 in Columbia, South Carolina for a biannual literary journal I edited and published.  He was my writing mentor and my neighbor. Read on to find out his strong opinions on all things literary! (This is a condensed version of the interview.)

Matthew Bruccoli was a bookman.  He wrote or edited over 60 books on Fitzgerald, Hemingway, O’Hara, Cozzens and Wolfe. But before all the scholarship, there was a teen-aged boy with a copy of The Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald. According to Bruccoli, “If ever a book changed a man’s life, that book changed this man’s life, which is how literature works.” From that point on, a literary obsession began, and 12,000 Fitzgerald items later, the Matthew J. and Arlyn Bruccoli Collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald is now housed at the University of South Carolina and is available to students, scholars and the public.

Lord: I read somewhere that the first time you heard Fitzgerald, you were riding with your parents along the Merritt Parkway from Connecticut to New York when a dramatization of one of his works came on the radio.

Bruccoli: The first time I heard Fitzgerald’s name was on a radio broadcast on a Sunday afternoon. It was “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” The next day, Monday, I went to my high-school library to find anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nothing. 1949. Nothing. It took me about a week to find a copy ofThe Great Gatsby, and it ruined my life.

Lord. Ruined it or made it?

Bruccoli: I’ve spent going on 60 years reading, rereading, collecting, researching, publishing, editing, and writing about F. Scott Fitzgerald. Consequently, I’ve squandered my life in English Departments and with the book-dopes who are in charge of university libraries. The son of a bitch ruined my life. But he compensated by giving me his daughter. Scottie was the pay-off. Becoming Scottie’s collaborator and friend in 1969-70 was just what I needed to stimulate my work, my commitment.

Lord: What more can you tell me about her?

Bruccoli: She had the best manners of anyone I’d ever known.

Lord: How old was she when her father died?

Bruccoli: Her father died in 1940, and she was born in 1921. So she was 19.

Lord: What was their relationship like?

Bruccoli: Before her mother became hospitalized in 1930, she had what was apparently as nice a life as a child could have, because her parents always saw to it that she had good nannies. When her mother, the tragic Zelda, became institutionalized in 1930, everything changed. Also, at that point her father’s drinking became worse, and she was old enough to realize her father was an alcoholic. Although she never complained and had no self-pity, her teens must have been appalling until she went off to college and had a good time at Vassar.

Lord: What an honor it must have been to know her.  Speaking of her father, I love this quote by Raymond Chandler about Fitgerald’s writing: “He had one of the rarest qualities in all literature…the word is charm—charm as Keats would have used it. Who has it today? It’s not a matter of pretty writing or clear style. It’s a kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite, the sort of thing you get from good string quartets.”

Bruccoli: I would have used the word warmth instead of charm;but yes, there’s one of the great stylists, Raymond Chandler, recognizing what only another great writer can recognize: the quality of the miraculous in Fitzgerald’s writing.

Lord: I remember you once talked to me about the different voices writers had, and you said Fitzgerald makes love to the reader.

Bruccoli: That’s right. Fitzgerald woos the reader. Hemingway threatens the reader. Fitzgerald says love me, reader. I want you to love me because I love you. Hemingway says if you don’t like my book, you’re a pansy and I’m going to beat the hell out of you.

Lord: What about Faulkner? What would his voice be?

Bruccoli: I don’t understand Faulkner. I’m a Yankee. When I read Faulkner, I think he’s conning the Yankees.

Lord: I, myself, am very intimidated by Faulkner, but I’m curious what you find difficult in his writing?

Bruccoli: Well, the writing is self-indulgent. If you’re Faulkner, you can get away with it. Hemingway, who resented Faulkner, said that he, Hemingway, could always tell the exact point at which Faulkner had had one drink too many when he was writing.

Lord: That’s funny, but Hemingway was a bit of a drinker himself, was he not?

Bruccoli: With negligible exceptions, every great America writer in the 20th century was an alcoholic. What is the connection between alcoholism and literary creativity? There’s got to be one. Too many cases for it to be sheer peradventure.

Lord: Was Thomas Wolfe an alcoholic?

Bruccoli: Thomas Wolfe was a drunk. Fitzgerald was a drunk. Hemingway was a drunk. John O’Hara was a drunk. Raymond Chandler was a drunk. Dashiell Hammet was a drunk. Sinclair Lewis was a drunk…. The others were steady drinkers.

Lord: But, at one point, didn’t O’Hara quit drinking?

Bruccoli: He quit drinking in 1954 and never took another drink.

Lord: Did his writing style change?

Bruccoli: His writing did not suffer. He wrote Ten North Frederick sober. He wrote Imagine Kissing Pete sober.

Lord: How did O’Hara get his job as a writer?

Bruccoli: Before there were creative-writing programs and creative writing degrees, most—if not most, then many—young ambitious writers started off as reporters. John O’Hara, Ernest Hemingway. Fitzgerald tried to get a job as a reporter, but he couldn’t get one.

Lord: I read a statement by the writer Louis Begley, saying that, “In his fiction, O’Hara never showed off and never allowed an effect of style to call attention to the writing and distract the reader from the narrative.” Would you agree with that?

Bruccoli: Yeah. You read Fitzgerald and you can’t escape from Fitzgerald’s style. But O’Hara wrote in an unostentatious, non-idiosyncratic style. O’Hara wrote to Steinbeck that “Fitzgerald was a better writer than all of us put together. Just words writing.” But nobody did what O’Hara did as well as he did it. O’Hara’s material is what defines O’Hara’s fiction.  And his marvelous control of detail. Much better than Fitzgerald’s. Fitzgerald is often unreliable with facts. Fitzgerald was a gloriously gifted storyteller as well as a brilliant stylist. Begley is right in saying that O’Hara’s style doesn’t call attention to itself.

Lord: So, O’Hara was well known for his New Yorker stories and Fitzgerald for his Saturday Evening Post stories.

Bruccoli: During his lifetime, Fitzgerald was best known as a Post writer. Not as the author of The Great Gatsby. Not as the author of Tender is the Night. Most of Fitzgerald’s 160 stories were published in the Post. Fitzgerald gave the Post what they wanted, and they paid him a peak of $4000 a story. When Fitzgerald got $4000 a story that would be damn near $40,000 a story today.

Lord: Times have changed.

Bruccoli: I remember, for example, hearing Kurt Vonnegut say that when he was starting out as a writer after World War II, if he could sell two short stories a year to mass-circulation magazines, that was enough to support him. Not well, but enough to put food on the table while he was working on novels.

Lord: We haven’t talked about any female writers. I’ll throw out the name, Eudora Welty.

Bruccoli: I met Miss Welty. Greatly respected her.

Lord: How do you think women have fared in the literary world?

Bruccoli: Women writers have had it harder than men. Male writers don’t get pregnant. The odds, which are high against any writer, were higher for women writers. I’m pleased that in the past ten, maybe twenty years, more and more women writers are being published, and are being well published, because they deserve a break.

Lord: So do you think one can be taught how to write?

Bruccoli: Once upon a time, even in my life-time, creative writing courses were regarded with suspicion, and creative- writing degrees were unheard of. When I was at Yale, we had two opportunities to study so-called creative writing. There was a course called “Daily Themes” in which students wrote five papers a week. The other was a writing course taught by Robert Penn Warren, which I took. Except that it wasn’t a course in writing. We talked about literature. I remember a discussion we had–that is to say, he talked and we listened–on Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King. You were also expected to hand in short stories; and maybe he read them, and maybe he didn’t. I don’t think Mr. Warren felt that he could teach writing, but we had a wonderful time. And there were no lies. There were no cons. There were no false expectations. There were no promises. “Take my course and you’ll be a successful writer.” “Take my course and you’ll be published.” There was none of that.

Lord: What do you think of the all the creative writing programs that have cropped up since you were at Yale?

Bruccoli: I think they are often unintentionally, inadvertently cruel.

Lord: How so?

Bruccoli: They generate impossible hopes and expectations in wannabe writers. A good writer, a very good writer is a miracle. For all the people who write, try to write, want to write or think of themselves as writers, only a small percentage actually have the ability to write well. Of that percentage, a tiny percentage have the determination, the courage, the ambition, and in some cases, the ruthlessness, to succeed. Being a writer is a great, great crap shoot.

Lord: You once said that, “The writings that turn out to be literature are frequently ignored or savaged at the time of their initial publication.”

Bruccoli: When you and I are sitting here fifty years from today, we will be talking about great authors with worldwide reputations it would not occur to us, now, today, to identify as giants of literature.

Lord: That’s a good positive way to end. I like that.

Bruccoli: Well, that’s good, because the tape’s over.

Distractions

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I told Jenny I needed help focusing.

She sagely suggested I write a blog post about it since other people probably struggle with focusing too.

“You can’t start concentrating until you’ve stopped being distracted.”  From a quote I found on the internet, but I was too distracted to write down the author’s name for attribution!

When I try to focus on writing my novel, my main distractions tend to be:

  • Getting up and doing something else, like searching for food. Hence, the carbs photo.
  • Scrolling through Instagram.
  • Hitting Google Chrome. I start highbrow and eventually go lowbrow. The New York Times leads to the New York Post, and before I know it, thirty minutes are gone.

I needed some helpful ideas. The following are a few I might try.

Turn off my phone. Not just vibrate. Or lower the volume. Turn it completely off. Move it far away from me.

Turn off the internet on my computer. Or even certain websites. This one for Mac users looks like a good one.

Use a typewriter instead of the computer. No internet distractions on that old school device.

This blog post got my attention. The idea that we are addicted to wasting time.  I think there’s some truth to it.

I could try Write or Die.  That program would for sure scare me into focusing.

Or maybe RescueTime.  An app that breaks down how I spend my time online. That would probably be a reality jolt.

Set a timer for 10 minutes. This one I’ve tried, and it works. I tell myself, ok Caroline, for ten minutes, you can focus. Once ten minutes are up, I’m usually into the writing, and I set the timer for another ten minutes and so on.

Pump myself up with some self-talk.  Act like my muse works for me, and not the other way around. Think of my muse as a defiant employee and give it deadlines. Even tell the muse to show up at a fixed time every day and make that sucker get to work and into the flow.

Speaking of flow. That’s what we’re all after. To enter another world and lose track of time so that we can then create for the reader what John Gardner called in The Art of Fiction “a vivid and continuous dream.”

Why the mind struggles with sitting down and doing the work, I wish I knew! That might call for another post titled “Resistance.” This is a great book about that.

Feedback

FullSizeRenderNone of my readers liked the main character in my story.  In fact, I don’t even like Wilson.

Here is the feedback I got from Tom.

“I do have these random thoughts.

Wilson reminds me a little of J. Alfred Prufrock in the first half of the story, wondering about himself, introverted and introspective.

I don’t like Wilson and would not want to be friends with him.

Both women are mean to him and he spends his life helping women.

How did he get to this point of desperation in his life where he can neither act, nor not act, and he is vilified for doing either by himself and others.

All in all, I think you had a good time writing this, I hope it wasn’t too painful, and I would be honored to read your next undertaking.”

I thought Tom’s painful comment was funny and ironic, because now it is going to be painful since I’m at a loss as to how to help the story henceforth!

I think it’s ok to have an unlikable character, but the reader must still care about that character. And that’s where I failed. I made Wilson into a caricature rather than a well-rounded character. He’s too persnickety, too prissy, too judging. I went overboard.

I jumped into writing the story without thinking more about it ahead of time. It’s a weakness of mine. I need to back up and write a character sketch about Wilson. Because the more I know about him, the easier it will be to make him seem real and relatable.

Here are some thoughts to help kick-start the sketch.

Where did Wilson grow up? What were his parents like?

Pick two or three childhood events. How does Wilson feel about them?

Go into his young adulthood. Dredge up a few memories.

Write down Wilson’s physical description—his eyes, hair, skin, teeth…

How about Wilson’s style of dress? His way of speech? Does he have a personal motto?

Describe Wilson’s mannerisms, his quirks, his bad habits, his likes and dislikes.

Does Wilson have any redeeming qualities?

I’ll construct Wilson and his life history, and I’ll try to make him more human and then maybe the readers, even if they still don’t like him, will be able to empathize with him. Back to work!

Revision Decisions

IMG_0262Last February 2015, I wrote a short story at a three-day writing retreat at the Faber Academy an offshoot of Faber & Faber in London. Marcel Theroux led the retreat.

Marcel was an instructive teacher, funny and charming as he pushed us to complete our stories. For three days, we wrote—with occasional breaks for sessions on craft. On the last day, we read our very different stories aloud.

I came home with a story about a repressed married man who, one night after work, gives a stranger a ride home.

One year later, I got back to the story for revisions. For me, writing is the fun part while revising feels tedious and tiresome. No matter, it must be done! That’s what 2016—The Year of Submission means for me and Jenny. Finishing our work and sending it out.

Here is part of my revising checklist.

Spend much time and angst over the opening sentence, so hard to get right, but so important in hooking the reader into continuing. The following are great first lines.

“I’m spending the afternoon auditioning men.” Aimee Bender, “Call My Name”

“They shoot the white girl first…” Toni Morrison, Paradise

Take out extraneous words. If the word doesn’t add anything to the sentence, remove it.

Use strong verbs. He walked should become, he stomped…he puttered…he skipped…depending on the context.

Adverbs? “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” Stephen King feels strongl—oops, I mean Stephen King does not like adverbs. But I’ve decided I’m ok with a few, here and there.

Construct paragraphs with varying degrees of sentence length—short, long, medium—which makes it more enjoyable for the reader. Here’s an example by Lorrie Moore in her short story “Referential.”

“All this had to be accepted. Living did not mean one joy piled upon another. It was merely the hope for less pain, hope played like a playing card upon another hope, a wish for kindnesses and mercies to emerge like kings and queens in an unexpected change of the game.”

Read and reread every sentence hunting for typos, clunky transitions…

Whew! Done. Now it’s time to find readers for advice and suggestions before I submit the story. This time, I’ve found three people, a Lutheran priest who writes plays as well as a couple, who are both professors. Stay tuned for what they say…

Taskmaster Needed

Caroline texting

When Caroline felt lost about what to do next with her novel, she called for help. Look closely at the reflection in her glasses. Is that a text from her editor? And if it is, will she follow his advice? The plot thickens…

Matthew Limpede is helping me with my novel. Matthew is the executive editor at Carve Magazine. I initially picked him by his bio on Carve, mainly because I liked the same authors he did. Matthew is insightful, easy-going, direct but not pushy, and most importantly, he has a sense of humor.

He’d read my first novel draft a year ago, and he gave me great feedback about many aspects of the story. The biggest one being that one of my main characters, Luther, needed to go. In my heart, I knew Matthew was right, because I’d carried Luther over from a different novel.

He also wanted me to back up and make a play-by-play of every single scene in the novel, as well as work on each character’s personality, backstory…

For 10 months, I reworked the novel without Luther. I finished the plot. I polished the first half. But plot fragments made up the latter half. I felt lost. I couldn’t see an end in sight. I needed another set of eyes.

I contacted Matthew. He read the new draft. Our first phone call went something like this.

“Did you do ever get around to that outline we spoke about?”

“Um, not really,” I said.

“What about those character sketches?”

“I kind of avoided those too.”

All of which was obvious by my divergent plot twists and extraneous scenes distracting from the forward motion of the novel.

We both decided, before I wrote another word, I needed an outline. But I didn’t have the self-discipline or interest to write one.

So we’ve made a plan. Matthew will compile what I’ve written into an outline. He’s not telling me what to write. He’s not deciding the plot. He is simply the architect building the structure, and I will then keep decorating the rooms.

He will also be a taskmaster. Saying. Here is a scene. You can’t leave this scene until you’ve finished it. Here is the next scene… I’m actually looking forward to being bossed around. Boundaries are beautiful things!