Monday, December 29, 2014

Facing Revisions

It's been two weeks now since I got the fabulous, extensive, probing critical comments on my novel-in-progress from my new writing group. Today I finally faced what I need to do to revise the book before submitting it to my publisher the first week of the new year.

It's so scary, facing a massive revision. In this case, I had comments from six other writers. Most were sent to me on electronic files of the manuscript, using the Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word. So even the logistics of processing the comments proved daunting. How could I keep track of six different sets of changes in six different files? Some comments were huge, others were tiny. Which ones to tackle first? Worst, some contradicted each other. Whose advice should I follow?

Step one for me, which I did right away, so as to feel less overwhelmed, was to go through each manuscript transcribing the comments onto one master copy. My system here is to insert the comments all in caps, directly into my text. Tiny comments I just deal with right away. This goes against some excellent writing advice that says to make big changes first, so you don't spent time wallpapering a wall that will just be torn down. But I find it so cheering to deal with low-hanging fruit so I can feel that at least I've accomplished something.

Step two for me was to let some time go by so that I could have a little more distance from the manuscript. Here Christmas was a fortunate distraction.

Step three was what I did today: simply facing the revisions themselves. I was buoyed by a quotation from Joseph Conrad that my sister posted on Facebook in honor of his December birthday: "Facing it - always facing it - is the way to get through."

So today I faced the revisions. I started in Chapter One and made what changes I could. Whenever I panicked about cutting a scene, I saved it into an "outtakes" file so I'd stress less about hitting the delete key. I focused most on one particular revision issue: the not-so-small matter of clarifying what the story, at its most basic level, is about. With the help of the writing group comments, I realized that certain early scenes were actually red herrings, leading the reader's attention astray. I loved those scenes. They are now gone. (Well, moved to the outtakes file.) I need to write at least one new scene to fill a hole left by their deletion; I'll do that later. Today I just focused on getting the bare bones of the structure of the book's "through story" in place.

Next up will be figuring out the back story of Autumn's brother, Hunter. And what exactly is going on with her crush on Cameron, and can I make her attraction to him more believable? I need to add new scenes toward the end of the book to show onstage developments that I had lazily allowed to happen offstage. There is plenty more to do, believe you me!

But today I faced the revisions.Tomorrow I'll face them again. For "facing it - always facing it - is the way to get through."

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Merry Little Christmas

A number of years ago I was explaining to my son Gregory that one of my favorite Christmas songs, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," has a strong undertone of sadness to it. Even the title is suffused with wistfulness: the merry little Christmas. And then those haunting lines that follow: "Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow." What are the odds that the fates are going to allow that? "From now on our troubles will be out of sight." Really? In what human life is that going to be true?

Gregory, with his ever-present gift for sarcasm, tried to ridicule my song analysis by providing a parallel deconstruction of other Christmas songs. "It's the hap-hap-happiest time of the year" - ah, this shows the clear bravado of the songwriter trying to talk himself, and us, into accepting extravagant and unfounded claims for the stress-filled month of December....

But I was right: beneath the surface (or even on the surface) of many beloved Christmas songs lies a profound melancholy. "I'll be home for Christmas - if only in my dreams." "Rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing." And then there's John Lennon's hymn of resignation: "And so this is Christmas."

I read a beautiful essay yesterday, "In Praise of Melancholy": "Melancholy is a species of sadness that arises when we are open to the fact that life is inherently difficult and that suffering and disappointment are core parts of universal experience. It’s not a disorder that needs to be cured."We experience melancholy because the things we love are transient, regret is endemic to human life, and conflicts are inescapable between goods that cannot be simultaneously achieved, e.g., to feel secure and yet be free. And these regrets and conflicts loom especially large, I might add, as the year draws to its close.

Christians celebrating the birth of Jesus also see in the promise of this holy night the looming shadow of the cross to come. And we know just how far we are from realizing the angelic promise of peace on earth, good will to humankind.  We've been telling this same story for nigh on 2000 years, and where has it gotten us?

For me, personally, the melancholy of the season lies this year in my imminent return to Indiana, where I'll teach one more semester at DePauw. In less than a month I'll be in my sweet little room in Greencastle, living with my dear friend Julia, in the place where as I was as happy as I've ever been in my life. And yet I'll be a thousand miles away from a family who needs me, a grandchild I adore, a dog who is crazed with enthusiasm every time I produce the leash. My heart is breaking already at the thought of it. I bought the plane tickets yesterday for my four trips home: for Kataleya's birthday in February, spring break in March, a church women's breakfast in April, Gregory's graduation in May. Each trip is so short! Three of the four are just a weekend. How will I come back to my dear life here only to rip myself away from it a scant 72 hours later? And then have to rip myself away from my dear life in Indiana forever come June?

But there is no point in wallowing in pre-sadness, grief for sorrows that lie some distance in the future. Tonight I'll have a merry little Christmas with Rich, Gregory, Christopher, Ashley, Kataleya, Tank, and Snickers. I'll go to church and sing the beloved carols of the season, hear the beautiful story of the birth of a savior, and light candles to herald the return of light to the world. I'll mean every word of "Joy to the world." Just for tonight, I'll rest beside the weary road and hear - really hear - the angels sing.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Gift of Critique

One favorite line I use when teaching writing classes is from the poet John Masefield: "Great art does not proceed from great criticism but from great encouragement." I do believe that encouragement is essential. My best feature as a dissertation adviser, in my view, was my ability to make my graduate students believe in themselves and just keep on writing. Get it down on paper, and we can fix it up later. We can't fix up something that exists only in someone's head - or doesn't yet exist at all.

But I might be ready to change my mind about Masefield's edict. On Wednesday night, I received great criticism on my novel-in-progress from a new writing group I've joined, as my old, dear, most beloved writing group is currently transitioning to a format based more on mutual support (that is to say, encouragement) rather than the biweekly critique sessions that structured our encounters for the past 22 years. So I joined a new group to seek out the critique I continue to need on my work. For how can a writer know if she's succeeded in connecting with her readers if she doesn't actually find some readers and ask them what they think?

On Wednesday night I had a powerful reminder of how great criticism can be. I received brilliant comments both large and small and left not only with a sense of what the book lacked but a plan for exactly how to address each problem noted.

I don't want to give away details of the plot at this point, but here are the kinds of comments I received.

There are inconsistencies between how I set up certain relationships at the beginning of the book and what I delivered as the story unfolded, a result, of course, of my learning more about the characters after living with them during the writing of the book. Now I need to go back to those first chapters and make them comport with the later ones.

The big reveal of the book is powerful and a surprise for the reader: "I didn't see that coming." Good! Nonetheless, I need to do more to prepare the reader for it, so that the reader reacts with seeing how totally RIGHT this moment is, rather than being puzzled by it. I'm going for "Yes!" rather than "Huh?"

The time frame needs more clarity: when exactly does Hunter start to change? Can there be more red herrings that Autumn and her family entertain in their wonderment about why he now acts as he does?

The particular way that I chose to heighten the significance of Autumn's key choice at the end of the novel requires the reader to swallow an enormous coincidence: can I achieve the same effect in some less contrived way? (I hope so!)

If the book opens with Autumn on her way to an appointment with her orthodontist dad, should we have additional mention of her braces throughout the book? (Yes! And what if she has food stuck in them during the crucial dance scene?)

I use the word "that" far too often. "She noticed that he had changed" could just be "She noticed he had changed." (I spent a solid hour yesterday eliminating dozens of "that"s - in one case, four in a single sentence. I always like to start with low-hanging fruit, easy cosmetic changes, as I let the big deep ones simmer).

So: thank you, thank you, thank you ,to Jen, Jenn, Vanessa, Laura, Michelle, and Tracy. May we all be grateful to those who give us the gift of truly beautiful critique.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Holiday Hoopla

 In order to avoid sitting around anxiously fretting about what critique group suggestions I'll receive (tonight!) on the novel that I wrote so fast and furiously last month, with so much love and hope and fear, I'm filling my days to the brim with the activities of the season. I'm fortunate to be a member of a faith community that finds so many ways to celebrate Christmas.

So far:

 I helped the youth bake cookies to serve at fellowship time to the congregation and to share when we go caroling to shut-ins. Great was the chaos, of course, and tasty were the results.

I clapped my hands off after the youth Christmas play, written by my fellows St. Paul's UMC members Rebecca Glancy and Amy Abshire. Our church has as its mission statement To openly share creative opportunities to grow in Christ's love through worship, fellowship, service, and learning. We take the "creative" here very seriously, and usually we write our own Christmas plays. I wrote a couple myself, one based on my picture book One Small Lost Sheep, and one a new script about a chronically delinquent and deficient star who gets chosen on Christmas Eve for the most important assignment of all.

I clapped off what was left of my hands at the Christmas Cabaret put on by our little church singing group, the AnthemAires, who always delight us with stunningly beautiful settings of music, audience participation, and hilarious stage business.

I organized our Mitten Tree, which we decorate with warm outerwear to donate to the homeless shelter. I used to run our Shoebox Gifts for the Homeless drive, but now the homeless shelter prefers us to give in a different way. In the Shoebox days, I wrote a song for us to sing in worship: "Deck the halls with old shoeboxes [you can supply the fa-la-la-la-las], Fill the bottoms and the topses. Fill with gifts to give the homeless. Thus we share the joy of Christmas." My new song to usher in the Mitten Tree era goes: "Oh Mitten Tree, oh, Mitten Tree, we come to fill your branches! Oh, Mitten Tree, oh, Mitten Tree, we come to fill your branches! With hats and socks and scarves and gloves, we give to share our Savior's love. Oh, Mitten Tree, oh, Mitten Tree, we come to fill your branches!" The tree is now filling up nicely.

I hunted all over to find a doll stroller to give to the needy child who had requested it on our church love wreath. Finally, my clever daughter-in-law searched for it online and informed me it was in our Boulder Target on aisle E-5. Sure enough, there it was!

I babysit so that Christopher and Ashley can rehearse with the choir for the upcoming choir cantata, and Christopher can perform with the bell choir; he's one of those amazing bell ringers who can sub for anyone who is absent and ring two bells in each hand. (I was one of those non-amazing bell ringers who alerted the congregation to every wrong note by my constant grimaces of traumatized terror).

What else? The women's Christmas luncheon is coming up this Saturday. I'm the one in charge of organizing the caroling for the 21st. We'll all go to church on Christmas Eve at 6:30, and Christopher will return to play for the 11:00 service. I'm going to preach the sermon and preside over the service for Epiphany Sunday the beginning of January. Writing sermons has become quite the hobby for me. If you want any sermons written to order, just call!

Just as Carly Simon sang that she didn't have time for the pain, I'm trying to make sure that I don't have time for revision jitters. Just time for holiday happiness with my beloved church family.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Sprint Results

To those of you who start a new life on the first of the month, as I do, happy new life! And isn't it satisfying when the first of the month falls on a Monday? Double newness!

The results are in for my ten-day sprint to finish a full draft of my novel-in-progress. Bottom line: I did it. I wrote close to 40,000 words in November, which, added to the 4000 words I already had written on the project, totaled very close to my target goal of 44,000 words for the manuscript (the same length as my most recent novel, Zero Tolerance). Final word count on the manuscript in its current form: 43,539.

Now, while close to 40,000 words in a month falls short by 10,000 words of the goal my NaNoWriMo-ing friends were aiming at (a full 50,000-word novel from start to finish in 30 days), it's definitely the most I've ever written in a month before. Now I have to decide what I think about writing so much in such a concentrated time frame.

It was definitely hard work. I needed to write for my early morning hour, and then write AGAIN, and then write AGAIN to get it all done. I gained three pounds in the course of the month by neglecting fitness (though a week of frigid temps and heavy snow didn't help, as did purchasing not one but two tubs of cookie dough from a boy at church who was selling them as a marching band fundraiser ). I was more tired. I was more stressed.

For a while I felt the quality of the writing might be suffering. I worried that the story might be getting progressively off track and that as the words kept mounting up, it might be heading more and more in the wrong direction. I didn't have the other 23 hours of my day, which I usually do, to reflect on where it was going wrong and why. I just had to keep writing word after word, page after page.

But then I decided I was mistaken about my sense of misdirection. When I got to the end of my draft, it was about 8000 words too short, which contributed to my sense of its being less fully realized than my books usually are. But at the same time I had the blinding realization of exactly what the story needed: a few crucial scenes, which after I wrote them added up to just about exactly 8000 words. It helped rather than hurt that I reached the end so quickly, so that I could survey the whole thing from the vantage point of completion, and see what it needed. Speed didn't end up compromising quality. At least that's my verdict right now. I'm expecting writing group comments on December 10, and if it did, they'll let me know.

I feel exhilarated. I did so much more than I ever thought I could do! I do feel ready to turn my attention elsewhere for a while, say, to family, fitness, and Christmas. But that's as it should be.

My conclusion: while I still plan to be an hour-a-day writer for the rest of my days, a sprint once in a while is a positive thing, a chance to stretch and grow, to feel my writer lungs engorged with oxygen, to feel the muscles in my writer legs burn, to feel those endorphins lighting up my writer brain.  I would do it again.