Category Archives: Revision
Margaret Atwood Teaches Me to Write
After a month of life chaos, I just opened the best Christmas present ever. I was finally able to start an online master class in writing taught by Margaret Atwood. Atwood is one of the very few authors whose books I do not keep on my fiction bookshelves in alphabetical order. She lives on the special shelves where I keep the books I would like to be buried with.
Each lesson is a video of Atwood, introduced by screen shots of what I take to be her working journals. They don’t show text. Primitive doodles express her wonderfully strange mind. The bottom half of a large bird dangles a small child from its talons. A woman, shaped like a Moomin without the nose, hugs an armless man. Three figures are shown from the waist down: left: a skirt with stick legs; right, trousered legs; center, a naked female. A scrap of writing reads, “the day her mother said to her – etc.”
Atwood lectures from her own working space. “Space” may be the wrong word. There is hardly an open inch. Bookshelves line the walls, of course, with bags and boxes of books piled in front of them. The desk is a rolltop with full pigeonholes and clutter all over its surface, including several journals. The walls are solid with pictures. Best of all, every flat space is covered with objects. There are dolls, some of which seem to cry out for a voodoo hat pin. A large silver crab is in mid-scuttle across a table. The lamp is skirted in long crystal beads. Little boxes, toys, sculpture abound.
Atwood grew up deep in the Canadian wilderness in a cabin without electricity or running water, but with plenty of books. She saw town only in the winter when the family retreated there to wait for spring. “Other children might be afraid of being lost in the woods,” she says. “I was afraid of flush toilets. What was going on there? Why did things just – vanish?”
In high school, she set up a business doing puppet shows at birthday parties for five-year-olds. The plots were taken from fairy tales: The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel. Atwood’s take on her business success: the stories were “about those things that are dear to the hearts of five-year-olds, namely, cannibalism.”
Atwood’s method is to write by hand, then transcribe while she continues writing. She calls herself a “downhill skier,” trying to write quickly and then go back and “re-vision.” She complains that literature classes imply “a container, the work of art, and inside it are these ‘ideas,’ like prizes in a Cracker Jack box.” This is not, she says, how writers write. Some of her books have begun not even from an imagined character or scene, but simply from an object.
I’ve viewed only three of the 23 lessons so far, but I knew Atwood and I were on the same page when she advised reading all the myths, folktales and fairy tales you can lay hands on – then subvert them all. She cites the Disney movie Maleficent, where Sleeping Beauty’s prince proves a “dud,” and the villain is redeemed, and Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, where Chekov’s gun meets existential frustration.
The course workbook is chock full of exercises, web sites and sources of writing prompts. I’ve barely started on them, but the exercise that Atwood explains in the first video is worth the price of admission. If you are having trouble getting started, she says, you are afraid of something. Pick up a pen and write down your fears. Her examples of possible fears and their solutions:
You’re afraid your work will be lousy? The wastepaper basket is your friend. Write till it’s better.
You’re afraid your mother will find out? That’s what pen names are for.
You’re afraid people will laugh at you? You don’t have to show anyone anything until you want to.
To fight one’s fears, Atwood suggests coming up with an imaginary mentor, 100% on your side, to stand by you with help and encouragement. A writer you admire, perhaps. Who would you like for your imaginary mentor?
Duh! How about Margaret Atwood?
Plot Blindness 2
Two months ago, I started work on a short story. Being, as I thought, hopeless at making up plots, I decided to call in a specialist. I hauled down my old copy of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale, wound my way through his detailed analysis of 600 Russian fairy tales, and plucked out the elements of a plot. Then I set to work to fill in the outline with a story of my own, about a carnival beset with supernatural difficulties.
The process may be working.
My original two pages of single-spaced blather was what you would get if shooting a writer in the head caused her ideas rather than her brain to splatter over the computer screen. (You can tell I come to this from the mystery genre.) As I said in a blog post at the time, the minute I set pen to paper, marvelous images and ideas proliferated out of all proportion to their usefulness. Booths selling deep-fried Twinkies jostled elderly elephants and juggling dwarfs for the spotlight. My characters wrangled over money, power, the uses of magic and dietary insufficiency.
By the grace of some Muse, I had the idea of searching the jumble for objects and events that would make striking scenes, regardless of logic. The jumble began to separate. In brief summaries, every scene made sense within itself. Some of them actually had an arc to them.
Once I had seven or eight scenes, stretching from start to resolution, I was sorely tempted to start writing. I held off, though. I tinkered. The carnival got realer and realer, but the plot got more tangled. As the scenes grew elaborate, contradictions between them multiplied.
Somehow, having each contradictory element trapped in its own scene made the process manageable. One by one, scrolling up and down, I made the changes needed to untangle them. By the time I had a complete set of scenes, I also had a workable plot.
Better still, as I worked, characters changed their motivations, their functions, their importance. The villain and a minor character swapped places. They all started talking to each other, and I eavesdropped on some quite good dialogue.
At last I started writing, and learned that writing as a plotter feels different from writing as a pantser. Same feeling of flow – complete absorption in the task – but it feels like working with a smaller brush. With a clear picture of what needs to be written right here and now, I find I’m working simultaneously on narrative, images and wording. I can reword a sentence three times in the course of writing one paragraph, without losing focus on the story. It feels tighter, but just as satisfying.
There are still glitches. Seeing each scene in great detail lets details creep in for their own sake. I need to give more thought to the order in which the reader learns things vs. the chronological order of events. Revisions will be needed, but as a plotter, I’m less afraid that they will simply blow the whole thing up.
Try doing any of those things with a novel
I’ve never considered myself a short story writer. I read them—and enjoy them–but I never feel as satisfied when I’m done with them as when I read a novel.
Yet here I am, reviving a short story that I’ve been working on for a few years. I have twenty-six saved versions of this story (with four different working titles) on my laptop. When I originally wrote it—back in 2014—the total word count was eleven thousand words. I’ve condensed it to five thousand words. As you can imagine, it doesn’t read like the original story. (And that’s a good thing–I’ve reread the original story.)
Why revive this project if I couldn’t finish it in 2014—or 2016—or 2017?
The need to complete a piece of writing is driving me, not exactly insane…more like to write. Something that I can submit for publication. Or rejection. Going back and forth working on the novels of my Woodbury trilogy without making any discernible progress has left me frustrated, unsure of my ability to write and revise, over and over, until I can say it is as good as it gets.
Just possibly, I’m finding that writing a short story is good practice for writing a novel. (Or just for learning how to write.)
With my short story, I can revise the entire piece in a day less than a week, submit it to my group for critique, and, within six days, I can produce another revision. Of the entire story. I can keep track of the changes I’m making from the beginning to the end of the story. I can reread the entire story each time I work on it. Try doing any of those things with a novel.
A major problem I am facing with my short story is fitting in all the scenes and dialogue that I need with a limited word count. I believe the story can be told in five thousand words. But I am beginning to suspect that I need more words than that to write it. It’s easier to take words out than to have to add them in. Or so I’ve been told. Maybe I’ll just ignore that nagging word count on the bottom left of my screen and write.
Does this mean I will abandon my trilogy for the pleasure of writing short stories? Doesn’t strike me as likely right at the moment. Though I can envision always having a short story in progress to turn to whenever I need the instant gratification I can’t get from writing a novel.
On Not Winning the Freddie
Not winning the Freddie Award is quite a bargain.
The Freddie Award for Writing Excellence is awarded annually to the best unpublished, uncontracted and unagented mystery submitted to the Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. The winner gets free admission to Sleuthfest, the Florida MWA chapter’s annual conference, a nice plaque and possibly a chance to pitch the agent or editor who did the final judging.
I didn’t win, but for my $30 entry fee, I got to submit the first twenty pages of my novel to be scored and commented on by three anonymous judges. That’s a lot of expertise for thirty bucks. Making use of it may prove a little challenging, though.
When the email popped up in my inbox, my heart turned over. I could tell from the first words, which showed up in the subject line, that I hadn’t won, but I was steeled for that. The terror came from facing the comments of three professionals, none of whom were friends, members of my writing group, or being paid to be helpful. However, I had thirty bucks on the table. I made myself hit “open.”
The Freddie has each judge fill in a rating sheet with separate scores on characterization, plot & conflict, dialogue, opening & setting, style & pacing, and mechanics. Most of the ratings were accompanied by a brief commentary on the reasons for the rating, often with examples and suggestions (not actual suggested wording, but “something like this….”)
Within each score sheet, the numerical ratings matched up well with the degree of criticism in the rater’s comments. But that’s where the tough part comes in. Here are the possible scores:
10 Author has done an excellent job. Very few if any mistakes and none that impacts the story
8 Though some areas might need polish, the author has done well overall
6 Entry requires extensive editing or story development to engage the reader
4 Major rewrites or restructuring is necessary
2 Serious flaws. An in-depth study of craft is needed
By the grace of God, I opened the score sheet from Judge JM22 first. S/he had given me a 10 in every category. The downside: there were no further comments. (The score sheet tells the judges to “enter comments in each section – especially if you take off points.”) I knew it had to be downhill from there, but with one perfect 10, at least I hadn’t been cast into the outer darkness.
Then the pain began. Judge JM21 gave me three 8s and two 6s. JM20 made it two 8s and three 6s.
I parsed those comments up, down and sideways for a week. I re-read the manuscript. I whined, “But don’t you see…?” to invisible interlocutors. Then I sucked it up and started taking notes. I wrestled with the wide range of the ratings, until I saw that whatever rating box they checked, the judges agreed closely on the nature of the problems they spotted.
- Too much backstory. Check. Assignment: Pick what’s needed for immediate comprehension. Find locations farther in for what will become necessary later. But that turned out to be the lesser benefit from these comments. Working with them, I’ve seen a way to alter a subplot that will be much clearer, easier to explain and actually work better with my main plot.
- Too little emotional reaction from Eliza, my protagonist, over the dilemmas I have posed for her. Check. I am a prim, mimsy New England Puritan, and we don’t get upset in public. It’s rubbed off on Eliza. Assignment: make clear how much trouble she thinks she’s in, either in speech or privately in thought. Just be sure to convince the reader.
- Too little sense of place, early on. Check. However, there was enough place-ness for one judge to conclude, correctly, that I want the location to be a major player in the story. To make my word count, I cut a lot of description. Back it comes, and I’ll worry about cutting later.
- No murder or mystery evident. Sorry, judges, no check for this one. I’ll ramp up the expression of conflicts and emotions, but I like to watch my murders develop slowly, out of situations and characters that just cry out for them. All my favorite authors do, too.
Maybe the best part of the whole exercise was the tone of the comments. They were frank, but nobody was snarky. When they liked something, they said so. The judge who gave me the lowest scores even attached a copy of my manuscript with quite a few comments inserted, some not even related to his/her remarks on the score sheet and the majority positive. S/he even gave me two happy faces for nice tidbits!
That judge prefaced her manuscript comments with the following. I’m trying to hold it in mind as I consider (but don’t buckle under) all the suggestions:
I hope you find some of my specific comments helpful, but please remember, I am ONE reader, and others will see things differently. However, when you’re submitting to agents, they’re going to be looking for hiccups and issues with the craft and mechanics, so I am pointing some of them out as they jump out at me. Take what makes sense to you and ignore what doesn’t.
Good advice of all of us.
P.S. One judge downgraded my Mechanics because spell check showed “a few flagged words.” S/he and I must have different spell check programs. Mine was written by someone who learned English as a second language. On Mars.
On Not Faking the Color
I like my cozies cozy. We’re talking mystery novels here, of course. The base-case definition of “cozy” is “no overt sex or messy violence onstage.” For me, there’s one more requirement: the story has to happen in a place and/or a social setting made so vivid by the author that living in it for the length of a book is worth the price of admission. Cozy, after all, is a matter of one’s surroundings. Solving a murder? Not so important. It’s local color that makes me part with my cash in the bookstore.
Currently, I’m reviewing the presence of the great state of New Hampshire in the umpteenth draft of my novel. It’s a wonderful place, no question. I notice, though, that my local color focuses only on the nice stuff. Autumn-leaves-sort-of-thing. This is the “place” equivalent of the sweet and comforting cat owned by so many mystery protagonists. Said cat never ignores her owner, gores the vet or vomits on important people. Autumn color on the Kancamagus Highway is New Hampshire’s version of that cat.
So I’m hunting around for aspects of the New Hampshire life that will take readers into the real place, including the unsweet parts, which they will nonetheless want to explore with me. Here’s where that effort took me.
The Kancamagus, narrowly defined, is 37 unspoiled miles of two-lane road through the White Moutains, no turnoffs (except for trailheads), no gas stations, no food outlets, no nothing. On the other hand, it starts in Lincoln, New Hampshire, home to the Loon Mountain ski resort and a stretch of random and ramshackle shops whose only purpose is to extract dollars from skiers and leafpeepers. You can eat a gyro, spend more on a mountain bike than the annual household income in Rwanda, or get your nails painted blue with little sparkles on. Every tourist trap in the country could boast the same. So how is this New Hampshire?
I find a possible connection: a little strip-mall shop that sells very upscale foodstuffs, organic of course, plus Luna bars, sandwiches, and elaborate chocolate pastries clearly made by machines in a factory somewhere well to the south. But one of the sandwiches is a lobster roll better than anything I’ve tasted on the coast of Maine. Why make that a specialty? Because this is northern New England, mountains or no mountains, and the lobster is one of our totem animals. (So is the moose, but you don’t want moose on a bun.) Serving bad lobster is done in New Hampshire, yes, but it is nevertheless Not Done in New Hampshire.
Winter is another New Hampshire specialty. I do let my heroine enjoy the first pristine snow of the season. This brook isn’t just down the road from my house, but its twin brother is.
Where I have to be stern with myself is on the downside of all this loveliness. Hence :
We aren’t the rural state we once were, either. In the southern tier, New Hampshire is becoming downright post-industrial. The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is no longer the economic engine of the area. It’s more a blight on the sea coast. Good place for a thrilling climactic chase scene, though.
So one way or another, I imagine I’ll give my readers a place more interesting than some non-denominational Heaven. If I get really desperate, I still have one lead to follow:
Patching My Pants
So here I am, on what I hope is the final substantive rewrite of my first mystery. I pantsed it, and I had a great time. I loved my characters, just set them down on the page and let them romp. Have you ever watched very young children – five or six years old, say – make up a game out of their own heads, coming up with a story and acting out the roles? I had that much fun, I really did.
And now it’s all come home to roost. The bill has come due for all those joyous episodes of ‘Ooh! Wouldn’t it be great if …’ For instance, I have a character who started out a genealogy snob involved in a lawsuit and ended up burying his ancestors (literally) and switching sides on the suit.
Well, no disaster. I can see how that could happen. But as I romped through my game, I just sketched in the change, didn’t take time to act out in my head the character’s inner or outer experiences. Result: a vague and confusing switcheroo at best; at worst, a great, clunky meta-clue to the reader: this character is being manipulated to work a plot. Why, he’s not a real person!
My faithful TNW critics (make that critiquers) pointed out a similar problem with another character. I noticed for myself that the police showed up, getting things wrong, when I needed to spur my amateur detective on to greater effort, but not when the police probably would show up in a real investigation. To crown my shame, one colleague gently pointed out that the pair of cute ferrets I had introduced (to make this work a proper cozy) really ought at least to appear in the closing scenes.
This isn’t one of my usual streams of whining complaint. I really can see how to solve the problems, and I’ve set about it. I’m pulling together separate files of all the passages on each faulty character, each badly constructed plot line. And that job has me wondering: if I had done that work before I started writing, I’d be a plotter, wouldn’t I? It sure sounds more efficient. But would I then lose out on all that five-year-old, cowboys-and-Indians fun?
On a practical note, here is a question for readers: do you use a writing program like Scrivener? If so, is there an easy way to pull characters’ appearances and tease out individual plot threads to be looked at separately? It took hours to use keywords and the ‘Find’ function to do this job for a single character.
At present, I have each scene in a separate file, color-coded by the plot line that the scene mostly serves. But my writing is not so clunky as to confine each scene to actions serving only one plot. In Scrivener (I think – I’m no adept) I would have to put each paragraph in a coded file if I want to pull out individual subplots, and it still wouldn’t be precise. Ideas, anyone?