Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Purpose of Revision

A quick coffee break note today about the purpose of revision.

For me, the main purpose of revision lies in the word itself: re-vision. Revision is not just about refining what's on the page, it's the process is about making the choices I've made during the writing phase more conscious and deliberate.

Racism is a major issue in my novel, and I've revealed the race of all my characters equally (meaning, among other things, I describe skin tone for all of them, and do not let the reader default anyone to white; if a character is white, I say it, the same with my characters who are black, Native American, Latino, etc). There's only one character I've left deliberately ambiguous because I think most readers, in the absence of a physical description,  will default him to white despite the way he's been described and the way he acts. And I want the reader to have a moment of awareness, when I reveal his ethnicity, about that assumption. The scene I'm working on should make his ethnicity much clearer, but it's also a reminder to me about the purpose revision has in bringing the unconscious choices I made while writing into a purposeful, conscious decision that serves the story.

I see this a lot in my clients' work -- aspects of the novel the writer hasn't fully realized because they haven't interrogated and questioned their intention in putting it on the page and how it serves the story, as well as evaluating whether they've achieved their goal. Revision is the process of making all of this a conscious choice.

And now, coffee break is over, back to the novel. 

Thursday, April 25, 2019

My Real Writing Process

I am currently at my writing happy place: a friend's cabin in the middle of nowhere. I've been coming up here for about ten years now and gotten a great deal of work done on my current novel while here.

This time it has been especially wonderful because I'm in the home stretch for BookEnds AND my novel finally started moving forward with all the pieces falling into place. It's a magical moment in a magical place.

For the past several months, I've been applying for writing residencies for the fall so I can keep this momentum going after BookEnds concludes in July and achieve my goal of finishing the novel by October. One of the questions that's asked on residency applications is "Describe your process and how this residency will benefit you."

The funny thing is, the day-to-day process, the nitty gritty process of actually getting the writing done is not what they're looking for. They want the bigger picture about aesthetic and what themes and questions inform your work. The truth is, the process is always "put words on paper." No matter what mechanism you use for writing, the writing only happens when you generate words.

But the question did get me looking at my day-to-day process and noticing there's a distinct pattern to how I get to the place where those words happen.

1. Stress and feel to anxious to write
2. Panic because I have a (pick one) -- deadline, client edit, family issue, illness, sick dog, household repair, dishes in the sink -- that needs to be dealt with
3. Doubt the writing will ever happen
4. Feel enough self-loathing and lack of self-respect that I work on the WIP so I can continue to call myself a writer
5. Take forever to write a couple hundred words and are awful and make me wonder why I thought I could write
6. Write a couple hundred words that are amazing
7. Expect the words to start flowing, but they don't, so I spend the day playing Solitaire, checking FB and trying to convince myself to work on something else
8. Write a page that is awful and plodding
9. Edit the previous day's travesty, continue writing words that flow and scenes start to fall into place
10. Magic happens -- an unforeseen revelation, connection, character action appears on the page and it's perfect and better than anything I thought was going to happen or had outlined
11. Fly
12. Finish chapter
13. Edit
14. Repeat

I'm about mid-way through this process for my current chapter. It should be an interesting next couple of days.

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Story Thus Far...

My last post was my Pitch Wars bio, which I posted almost exactly two years ago. Some of you may remember that I'd completed a novel revision at the behest of one of my dream agents. We'd met at a writer's conference, he was very enthusiastic about me and my novel, and he coached me through the revision for three years loving everything until I turned in the completed revision, at which point he said no to taking me on as a client. Which was fine. Agents are allowed to change their minds. Their lists and needs change. Something else new and shiny comes along that is a better fit. Doesn't mean it didn't hurt and I didn't care. It  meant there was more work that needed to be done on the novel.

So I looked at Pitch Wars, which is a fabulous program in which you apply for a mentor and, fingers crossed, get picked by your mentor for a couple months work on polishing your novel and your query before you get to try it out for agents during the Twitter pitch-fest called Pitch Madness. I didn't end up with an official mentor for Pitch Wars, but my number one pick offered to unofficially mentor me. Unfortunately, I wasn't really in a place where I could take advantage of having a mentor. I didn't realize how much I was still reeling from the agent's rejection (TBH, I actually didn't realize it until last month) and how much anger I was suppressing because I was trying to be very professional about the whole thing and just move on. Having Jenny offer to be my unofficial mentor was probably the best thing that could have happened at that moment, though because it meant my novel was good enough to get someone to champion it. That meant everything at that moment, and Jenny has become a good friend and AMAZING cheerleader for everything that has happened in the past two years since we met.

But the novel just sat there. I fiddled with ideas, created mountains of notes on things I thought was wrong with it, broke it down into individual beats (which resulted in an enormous document over 500 pages long), read craft books, and gradually watched the steam go out of any writing practice I might have had. I tried to work on another novel. I tried to work on short stories. Eventually, though, I stopped writing completely.

This isn't to say I wasn't doing writing-related things. I read voraciously (more on that in another blog post). I started editing professionally (also more on that in another blog post). And I started doing some freelance writing again (another future blog post).

My writing retreat partner/bat shit crazy twin and I continued to go away for retreats and even got ourselves a two-week residency in Bend, OR, in November 2017. One of the best things about that writing retreat was visiting a friend who lives in Hood River, OR, and who is my artistic mentor. She's about a decade older than I am and a professional photographer (she's the one who does my headshots) who recently closed her studio business in order to return to her art. In between visits to Columbia River Gorge wineries, we talked about art, writing, photography, and getting back on track. I came home from Bend with copious notes of what I wanted to do with the novel as well as an invitation to read at two SF reading series, Shipwreck and Literary Speakeasy. The reading for Shipwreck meant that I actually had to write something new based on a character from Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. It was the first new writing I'd done in almost a year and a half, and it was, by far, the most fun I had writing anything EVER. I loved the characters I created so much, I started planning out a novel for them.

But the big novel, the one I'd been working on for years, the one I'd worked on during my MFA program, was still languishing. I simply didn't know what to do with it.

Enter my friend, Sheena, who contacted me and asked if I could write her a letter of recommendation for a year-long novel finishing program run out of SUNY-Stony Brook by Meg Wolitzer and Susan Merrell. Of course I said yes, and then I looked at the program. And then I asked Sheena if she would be upset if I applied for the program, too, because it looked like exactly what I needed. I told her, if it wasn't okay, I would be fine waiting until 2019 to apply because her friendship meant more to me than the program, but she generously told me it would be fine. Fortunately, we both got accepted to BookEnds. Go us!

The program started in mid-July at the Southampton Writers' Conference, but I knew I needed to get my head back into my novel and start applying all the things I'd thought about doing to it over the past two years. So I packed up the dogs and myself and headed for a friend's cabin in Oroville where I toasted each sunset, and spent the days reading my novel.

I also had an assignment from BookEnds: choose the ten weakest pages of my manuscript and write a 1-2 pages summary of why I thought that way. I was pleasantly surprised to find there weren't as many candidates for "weakest section" as I'd feared, though I did come back from my week in Oroville feeling like the entire novel was horrible, overwritten, and didn't even come close to doing what I wanted it to do. Still, I got the novel read, got some work done on the other "fun" project, got some work done for editing clients, and got some reading done. Basically, I started behaving like a writer again, which was good because....

A week after I got home from Oroville, I boarded an airplane and flew to New York for the Southampton Writers' Conference and the start of the BookEnds program.

Twelve days of living in a dorm room tiny enough that the door couldn't be opened fully without banging into the dresser. Twelve days surrounded by other writers. Twelve days of panels and readings and talking about books. And twelve days of getting to know Meg Wolizter and Susie Merrell and the other eight BookEnders. It was not all peaches and cream and sweetness and light. It was a lot of hard work, stress, anxiety, and, ultimately, a breakthrough on how to get my novel to where I want it to be, plus the development of an incredible support network who will be there for me over the next year. Deadlines, accountability, phenomenal writers, and a commitment to advocate and assist and support each other in achieving the novels we want. Yes, please!

Talk about feeling like a writer again!

After the conference was over, I got to decompress at a friend's house and spent a phenomenal day in Manhattan at the Guggenheim where I reveled in the Giacometti exhibit.

I found myself fascinated with the space the artwork occupies as well as the space that surrounds it, and how my presence interacted with the artwork, hiding some facets while revealing others as I moved around the piece. It was, in visual form, a representation of everything I had been thinking about my novel and helped settle those revelations and insights deeper in my brain.

Then, I got on an airplane and came back home ready to get back to work on my novel.

So, over the next year, I plan on sharing insights on how revision happens, how it stumbles, where I completely go off the rails, successes and failures, and what the BookEnds program is like. I also hope, along the way, to give insight into what the writing life looks like and how one writer's process moves forward.

Seriously the best piece
of conference swag EVER.
Watch out, world, the Word Slut has returned.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

#PitchWars Bio

Welcome to my #PitchWars bio. 

Interesting Facts About Me:

photo credit: Elizabeth A. Caroli
1. I am a volunteer with the National Park Service’s Mounted Patrol in the Marin Headlands. I’m going to be featured in a national magazine this fall as part of an article on the physical and mental health benefits of volunteering (And, yes, that horse is sticking his tongue out at the camera, he's a bit of a clown).

2.  I started riding when I was in fifth grade and competed on my college’s equestrian team, which sounds a LOT more snooty than it was. We were an intercollegiate team (IHSA) and, though we competed against schools like Skidmore and St. Lawrence where most of the riders brought their own horses to school with them, I went to a SUNY school and we “trained” at a local stable where the horses were one step up from trail horses.

3. I spent a large part of my childhood at dog shows and put obedience titles on three dogs before I turned 18. My mom showed conformation, and my dad was an obedience judge and dog trainer. I still have dogs (two Airedales at present), but haven’t been to a dog show since I went to college (and, no, it isn’t like the movie Best in Show).

4.  I sometimes seem to wake up in possession of Neil Gaiman’s hair. I suspect he might like it back at some point. 

5. I worked as a freelance writer for many years and wrote on a variety of topics including finance, travel, health, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, Holocaust survivors, and the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository.

6. I am always looking for the perfect tiramisu.
photo credit:
Denise Rehse Watson

7. I am a whisky-drinking woman and proud of it. I favor heavily-peated Islay single malts and love when guys try to help me pick "something for my husband" in the whisky aisle. It usually ends with them asking me to recommend what they should drink next. If you follow me on Twitter (@DeeGeeWriter), half my tweets are about whisky (the other half are about writing). 

8. My favorite book is The Odyssey. I reread it every couple of years and never fail to find something new about it. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a close second.

9. My favorite writers are Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, and George R.R. Martin (and, before you ask, I am a die-hard geeky fan-grrl book-first fan for Game of Thrones. I’ve even read the Dunk and Egg novellas).

10. My favorite place in the world is the Shetland Islands. One of my goals is to do a 4-to-6 month writing residency in the Shetlands within the next five years.

About Me:
Complete Writer’s Bio:

photo credit: Denise Rehse Watson
I was a storyteller even before I learned how to form letters, narrating my toys and model horses through adventure after adventure in my Barbie Dreamcamper. I wrote my first short story when I was six, and my first novel when I was thirteen. It was a Star Wars novel, Children of the Force, written before fanfict became a thing, and it featured a disgraced female Jedi knight who fights the climactic lightsaber duel with Darth Vader and wins.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, writing this novel was the only way I could be a part of a universe that I loved. A geek to the core, I’d started devouring my dad’s classic SF collection when I was twelve, but there wasn’t a place for me in those worlds. I wasn’t a princess to be rescued, or an innocent ingĂ©nue waiting for love, or a statuesque object for desire. I was a wizard, a shapeshifter, a warrior. And so I wrote to create a place I could inhabit and have value.

By the time I was sixteen, I’d completed two full drafts of that novel and knew I wanted to be a writer (I still have the original handwritten draft, by the way).

I studied creative writing at SUNY-Binghamton, left with a BA, and tried to be a good, responsible adult by getting a job in marketing. After seven years, I left corporate life to go it alone as a freelance writer. I wrote magazine articles, marketing communications materials, and ghosted articles for business executives. I was also writing fiction, had a few short stories published, received grants from the Nevada Arts Council and the Sierra Arts Foundation, and began work on a novel.

In 2001, my family and I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, and I started teaching creative writing in the elementary and middle schools in our town. It was that work that prompted me to return to school and get my MFA in fiction from San Francisco State University. I graduated in 2010. I’m an alumna of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and LitCamp, and am active in the Bay Area literary community.

At present, I am an associate editor for Zoetic Press, a small press that produces the NonBinary Review as well as independent titles. I also work with a Bay Area literary agent as her submissions reader and manuscript editor as well as working as a freelance developmental editor (small brag: two of the books I’ve worked on were released in 2016 by major publishers).

My project:

What You’ll Know Tomorrow is a literary/upmarket novel that explores issues of memory, history, race, and identity. It is set in Reno, Nevada. 

Quick pitch: After the death of his brother, Matt's quest for the truth reveals secrets about his family and the limits of his photographic memory.

Summary: For seventeen years, Matt Marshall believed in the infallibility of two things: his older brother and his photographic memory. Then one night of joyriding takes both away. Matt wakes with damp clothes and no memory of what happened. As he tries to put the pieces together, what he uncovers destroys what he knows about his family, himself, and the brother who protected him from their abusive alcoholic father. Matt discovers that not only was he complicit in the abuse his brother suffered, he is also responsible for his brother’s death, and these revelations fuel a desire to find the truth so great he will risk going to jail to discover it.

Ways to follow me:

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Slush Pile Reader -- Let Us Begin

Taking off my writer hat for a moment and putting on the one I wear as a slush pile reader for a literary agent, I want to talk about beginnings. At this point, I've been reading submissions for about two years and have looked at about 1,100 query letters and opening pages as well as read a significant number of full manuscripts. It means I've seen a lot of openings that just don't work, and I want to share with you some of the common pitfalls I see in the slush pile.

First, though, I want to talk about what an opening should do.

A novel's opening pages are how you introduce the reader to the world of the novel -- its characters, setting, conflicts, premise, themes, hopefully even the imagery and voice. These elements are the vocabulary you are going to use to tell your story and you need to have them on the page from the first word. In addition, the opening pages should capture some essential moment in the narrative arc, the moment when things are poised on the brink of explosion, a moment beyond which things are never going to be the same again. There should be tension and something should definitely be at stake even if it is not the grand stakes for which the characters are playing, something needs to matter in the opening pages.

While I've heard a lot of writers complain that contemporary publishing favors the quick start, the high stakes, flash and fire over substance, the fact is you can look at almost any classic work and see the same elements. Even Tolstoy, who is not the most succinct of writers, gets a heck of a lot of information into the opening paragraph of Anna Karenina:

ALL happy families resemble one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

All was confusion in the house of the Oblonskys. The wife had discovered that her husband was having an intrigue with a French governess who had been in their employ, and she declared that she could not live in the same house with him. This condition of things had lasted now three days, and was causing deep discomfort, not only to the husband and wife, but also to all the members of the family and the domestics. All the members of the family and the domestics felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that in any hotel people meeting casually had more mutual interests than they, the members of the family and the domestics of the house of Oblonsky. The wife did not come out of her own rooms; the husband had not been at home for two days. The children were running over the whole house as if they were crazy ; the English maid was angry with the housekeeper and wrote to a friend begging her to find her a new place. The head cook had departed the evening before just at dinner-time; the kitchen-maid and the coachman demanded their wages.

The novel opens at a moment of high tension and discord brought about by the discovery of a husband's affair. It affects not only the married couple, the Oblonskys, but the family and their servants, and is so explosive that household staff are seeking employment elsewhere. And look at the movement of the narrative -- Tolstoy begins with a grand, sweeping statement of his entire book's premise. Then he immediately brings it to the family level, "All was confusion in the house of the Oblonskys...The wife did not come out of her own rooms; the husband had not been at home for two days." A quick summation of the current state of affairs that reveals the stakes (the future of the household) and is specific to this family and how the situation is affecting the individuals -- not only the upper class Oblonskys, but their children and their servants - the English maid, the housekeeper, the head cook, the coachman. The scope of this novel is global -- here, in the opening paragraph, Tolstoy is giving the reader notice of his intentions.

In the paragraph that follows this one, Tolstoy focuses on Oblonsky and, bam, we're in the story, and the looming conflict because Oblonsky is looking forward to the arrival of his sister, Anna Karenina, who will set all things to right in his household because Anna is dependable and steady and always knows what to do. Given the opening line of the novel, the reader should have a pretty good clue that Anna's arrival is not going to make things better.

So what are some of the common problems I see in the slush pile?

1. Starting in the wrong place -- it seems like it should be pretty easy to figure out where to start the story. It starts at the beginning, right? Not necessarily. There's a difference between where the novel starts and where the story starts. If you look at the opening paragraph from Anna Karenina, you'll see that the story starts three days before the novel, at the point where Countess Oblonsky discovers her husband's affair and locks herself in her room. Many writers would start with the fight (it's dramatic, right?) and use that fight to give a great deal of backstory about this couple (more on backstory in a moment), but the problem is that fight is not where things are about to change. And that's what's at the crux of a dynamic opening: the situation is dire, the stakes are high, and something is about to change.

2. Flashbacks and core dumps of backstory -- you would not believe the number of submissions I see where the writer gives a sentence, maybe a paragraph, of story and immediately goes into flashback or a core dump of backstory.

What this looks like:
Janet stood by the window of her corner office and stared at the people on the street below, so tiny they looked like ants. It had been a long hard fight to the top for her, starting in the mail room fresh out of college, studying for her MBA on the subway from Queens when she was living in a fifth floor walk up with no heat and five roommates (not counting the cockroaches)....etc etc etc

Why this doesn't work: it stops the forward momentum of the story dead in its tracks. In fact, there is no forward momentum to the story for the simple reason that no story has started. In simplest terms, story can be defined as a person in a place with a problem. While we've got Janet in an office, there's no problem, there's not even a situation. Think of the novel like a car trip. You get everyone in the car, turn on the engine, back out of the garage, and someone says, "I have to go to the bathroom." So you put the car in park, turn off the engine, and wait.

In a lot of cases, I think this happens because the writer hasn't found a way to fully integrate what he or she knows about the character yet.

So let's put Janet back in that corner office. She's standing by the window, staring at the street where the corporate limo is waiting to take her to the airport for the most important client meeting of her life, and she's picking at her carefully manicured nails, frustrated because she's just ruined a $200 manicure, a month's rent on her first apartment out of school, she notes dryly. She tugs at the her suit and tries to square her shoulders in it, but she can't get it to settle quite right, wishes she could imitate the ease with which her colleagues inhabit their Brooks Brothers and Brionis and Armanis. And in walks Arthur, the CEO, who plops a folder onto her desk and says, "I've decided to give the account to Allison. You're going to be working on the Podunk account."

And then you don't stop to add in all the stuff about Janet's night school MBA and the 5th floor walk up, you go on with how she copes with this change in plans and how all that other stuff informs her reactions to what has happened.

3. Withholding information -- it seems like holding something back from the reader would build suspense. The strange thing is it rarely does. I think this is because tension comes from the reactions of the characters to the thing, how they cope with it, what it does to them, not the thing itself. When you name the thing that has happened at the beginning, you create the space for the character to react, and you give the reader the satisfaction of knowing why the character is doing what he or she is doing. Another reason why this does not produce a dynamic opening is....

4. No stakes -- stakes are about risk, about what's on the line for your character if she does or does not do something. Stakes don't have to be life or death, but they do have to be important to your character. For example, while getting a bad grade on a test seems pretty low stakes, what happens if this grade is the difference between the character being able to play in a particular football game, which could be the difference between receiving a scholarship and going to college or ending up working in a fast food restaurant. And what if the character is trying to do the right thing and study hard, his friends convince him to go out and party the night before the test or, even better, give him the answers to the test so he faces a moral dilemma. Study on his own and possibly fail and ruin his life OR cheat and virtually guarantee his success.

While the stakes don't have to be sky high in the opening pages of your novel, something has to be at risk. In Anna Karenina, the household is falling apart. It's been three days, the children are running amok, the household staff is leaving, and the parents still aren't talking.

5. Cattle call of character introductions -- You need to get a story going, and stories need characters. One of the most delicate things a writer has to do is let the reader know which characters are important to the story, which characters they need to pay attention to, and who's expendable. One of the ways a writer does this is by how characters are introduced. Generally, more important characters are given more detailed introductions. We find out more about them, get a move vivid description of them, have lines of dialogue or interactions with other characters so we learn who they are. When you give readers an entire room full of characters, it's a little like being at a party where everyone goes around the room and tells you their name. Hi, I'm Alice. Jim. Samantha. Rupert. Stephen. Bob. Helen. And two seconds after you shake hands, you have no idea who you're talking to.

This doesn't mean you have to take things slowly. If you're opening scene is a party, by all means, make sure there's a roomful of people. Just make sure you introduce me to the ones it's important for me to know in a way that tells me this.

I think the most important thing to remember about your novel's opening pages is that this is the most important real estate in your entire book. The words need to be working hard, doing more than one thing at a time. Character introductions need to establish conflict and stakes, details need to provide imagery and theme, descriptions and exposition need to establish voice, setting sets tone, dialogue needs to provide characterization, and everything, everything, everything has to move the story forward. 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Brain Snapshot -- A View from the Inside

Photo credit:
Hepic Photography
The thing I consistently forget about writing is that first drafts are, by definition, awkward, imperfect, sledge-hammer versions of the final, nuanced, polished scene. I get so scared when I write a new scene because I put down words, then jump away because they aren't quite the right ones and the fear takes over that I'm going to ruin what I've done, that somehow whatever magic happened before has deserted me. Then I panic and agonize and spend days just staring at the computer, getting one sentence out, maybe another, until finally, filled with self-disgust, I force myself to sit down and work through the scene to the end. And I edit as I go, return to previous scenes, smooth over rough transitions and beats, add subtext and nuance to dialogue, shift descriptions from one scene to another because they work better in the new juxtapositions, and then, suddenly, I realize, Oh, it's okay. I've gotten it right after all. And the scene I've just written takes its place in the smooth arc of those that come before it and I turn to the next scene and panic all over again.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

For Something a Bit More Serious...

You might want to check out the blog post I did for The Escapery (a Bay Area writing "unschool" with whom I do developmental editing and coaching) on the truth about query letters.

After reading more than 1,000 subs, queries, and partial/full manuscripts as a slush pile reader, I've come to a surprising answer on the question of how important a query letter actually is.

The Escapery: Confessions of a Slush Pile Reader or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Query