Tagged: revising

Friday Writing Experiment No. 63: A Gift On Every Page

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What are you giving the reader on every page?

Let’s revisit that idea of giving, as we considered in the writing experiment last week, where we reappropriated appropriation as an act of giving.

For this week’s writing experiment: As an exercise in revising and drafting, print off a copy of your manuscript in a format different from the one in which it was originally composed. I suggest, for example, a bookish typeface such as Baskerville or Garamond, single-spaced and justified, and when it comes to printing put two pages on a sheet of A4/letter paper – see the sample below. Check your page settings for how to do this: you might have to fiddle around, and, e.g., play with the margins. And, unlike me in this case, remember to add page numbers, else things could get confusing. I think this was 11pt Baskerville.

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Defamiliarised, your writing will look and feel different when you read through it this time.

Take a block (or blocks) of time to sit down with a pen or pencil, and read through your work.

At the top of every page, make a note of the gift you are giving the reader on that page.

Your offering can vary: sometimes it’s dramatic stakes (tension in a scene), sometimes it’s narrative stakes (plot point and tension within the bigger story), sometimes it’s a fresh insight into character, or a quiet interlude that gives us an emotion, or a lovely bit of sensory detail of setting, or some poetry in the prose, or a powerful symbol working its magic, or some clarifying perception of the world.

If you can’t identify anything in particular, 1. stop being negative about yourself, and 2. simply find the strongest word on the page, and rewrite that at the top as your gift: maybe, later, you can give some thought to the deeper meaning of that word.

Also, don’t be tempted to note more than one gift on each page. Each page might have a number of offerings, but it can help to identify what’s most important. This might give you some thought about whether some items might recede, or even be pruned. Writing can get too clotted, just as it can feel too thin.

Don’t rush. Read in a leisurely manner. It can even help to read aloud. Otherwise, avoid making further marks on the pages; this is an exercise in focus and restraint about your skills in the arts of giving.

Once you are done, collate your gifts into a list:

1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

… and so on for every page of the book.

Put this to one side for a couple of days, then come back and see what work you need to do. You might annotate your list further, e.g., noting where you have too many gifts, or too few. There might be some evening out to do in the pacing.

You can extend this further, e.g., thinking about the gift in every paragraph. But I think every page works fine.

And at the end, ask yourself: what is the gift this book is giving as a whole?

Happy Christmas! (That lovely rose above was a gift that came this morning. Flora makes such lovely gifts. Maybe think about your own writing as a flower too?)

Words Away Salon, 19 September 2016

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Last night I was very happy to take part in the inaugural Words Away literary salon run by Kellie Jackson and Emma Darwin. It was a super evening: a great turnout, with a lovely, engaged crowd of writers, and the Teahouse Theatre is a wonderful venue for this sort of event too. Also, Vauxhall is so easy to get to from so many places, and we were a very short walk from the tube.

The subject under discussion was self-editing, which as Emma pointed out is a useful term (and something of a recent coinage) that brings clarity to this idea that to edit ourselves we need to put ourselves in a special frame of mind.

I emphasised the idea of working free from attachment. I mentioned that super quote that I believe comes from Terry Pratchett (and I paraphrase): writing the first draft is just the writer telling herself the story. It’s good to give yourself room to step back (and especially away from the computer) to ask yourself what this book can be. Has your intention shifted? I suggested practical ideas such as printing off your manuscript in different formats in order to defamiliarise your own words. It’s also helpful to do exercises outside of the book itself, or using some of your content knowing that this writing is not going into your baby (and in fact sometimes it will end up in the book after all). Be free in your writing at this stage.

I often describe these early stages of editing developmental editing, and I discuss this in more detail in this post on structural editing. Sometimes input from other readers or agents or editors can lead to doubts, and it makes sense to be reflective: this post on working with feedback might give you some pointers.

In practical terms, the natural speaking voice is, I believe, the greatest asset to any piece of writing, so learn to trust it. Here is a link describing a workshop on voice I led in the past (it includes links to further exercises on voice too). And I heartily recommend I Remember exercises as very easy and accessible ways to work with voice in your own writing.

I do like some narration in my storytelling, and here is a link to a subtle bit of narrating to be sampled at the start of My Name Is Leon by Kit De Waal. Tweaks for the art and craft of narrating are often essential during revising,

This salon was titled ‘Make Your Novel Shine’, and I do think there is a great value to decluttering our minds of words and letting symbolic thinking (or maybe I should say symbolic feeling?) guide us through revising. For example, think about the idea of a light shining its way through your book like a torch, or maybe be guided by the image of a prism reflecting light in and off its many facets. Something else I suggested was thinking about writing as giving, and the gift you give your readers on every page. Such ways of working can force us to go a little deeper, and perhaps discover unexpected treasures that belong in the writing in some way or other.

In addition, here are the pages from this site for craft and revising and tips on self-editing (used for the booklet we gave our yesterday). And Emma Darwin’s Itch of Writing blog has TONS of resources for writers too (pay special attention to psychic distance). In addition, a special mention for the excellent and very successful online course on self-editing your novel run by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin.

Thanks again to Kellie and Emma for having me along. Forthcoming salons will have speakers talking about character (17 October), plot and story (14 November), and historical fiction (5 December). Hope to see you there.

Friday Writing Experiment No. 60: Word Power

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This is an exercise to help with revising, but it could also be used in other contexts. It builds on Friday Writing Experiment No. 9: A Word.

* Take some key word from a piece you are working on and do some rooting around in the history of that word, e.g., at Etymonline.com.

E.g., let’s say you are writing a story about a witch – let’s take a look at magic. One bit of this Etymonline definition that I take away is the following:

to be able, to have power (see machine)

So: really think about the relevance of your finding to your piece of writing. In this case, how does your writing embody, feel, think, bring to life (in this case) this idea of having power or ability? And how are various aspects of craft working with this idea, and how might they be developed within the work?

* Set a timer for five minutes, and write these thoughts out in your notebook by hand, e.g., for the words magic/ability/power: Magic is important to me/my book as … The idea of ability can be embodied in my book through … My characters show their powers by … I have found magic in my world/family in …

You might event want to copy out the definition first: see which words excite you as you write them down. You can also do this with a passage of your own writing. Which words sizzle as you write them?

* Continue to reflect on this definition further, and see what else you might need to bring out in your drafting and revising.

* Most of all: how are you giving the reader something of this definition in the writing? Writing is always an act of giving. Writing is a gift to someone else.

Further note: Don’t worry too much about the precise origins of a word. Sometimes they will have direct correspondences with the place or time you are writing about, and that sort of synchronicity has a magic of its own. The goddess is looking down on you! But, too, sometimes word histories can come from entirely different places, and unless you are writing about a particular context using particular constraints that doesn’t really matter. What matters is making the writing you are doing in the here and now relevant and powerful.

(If you are writing fiction, especially, your duty is to use your imagination rather than labour some other form of truth that might never be proven anyway.)

New Pages Of Resources On Self-Editing And Revising

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I’m tidying up my site (bear with me! one day maybe I shall understand how drop-down menus work their magic …). I’ve just added a couple of extra pages:

* Suggestions For Self-Editing – practical tips on drafting and revising
* Revising: A Craft Checklist – thinking about techniques that bring your writing to life

The text is adapted from handouts I often give to clients or share in workshops. I am sure the content of those pages might change in due course.

The Resources page includes lots of other recommendations and links to further guidance on writing, publishing, and the writer’s life.

If you have any of your own ideas for other resources that are useful for writers, please add your own suggestions in a post below.

Thanks!

Go Set A Watchman: Questions For Writers (And Readers)

 SPOILERS.

So Harper Lee’s new novel is out!

Who’d have thought that?! I’ve always used To Kill A Mockingbird as an example of why writers shouldn’t pressure themselves with deadlines and rushing, or be overly concerned with outcomes. For the author of one of the most beloved books in the world only ever published that one book. And if that was good enough for her …

(And if only some other writers were more cautious about their output!)

But then this week all that changed. And the verdict is in …

 

1.
But I’m not going that way. Because: whose verdict?

Before it was even published, various hacks have tried to dig up a back story, piecing together fragments of a story about an old lady who never wanted this earlier manuscript published until the older sister who protected her legal affairs died … Rats were smelled, as was fishiness.

But I really doubt that the old lady who worries about the punctuation of the title of her book would really be deceived. (Old people are not necessarily stupid, you know?) And even if the old lady really was deceived: do we really care that an earlier draft has been published?

I avoided reading reviews until I finished reading the book. Some of the earlier ones seem a bit timid. Others are scathing, or bitchy, seeking out every (apparent) cliché or bit of (apparent) ineptitude, which feels to me nitpicky and somewhat pointless; we don’t need to suspend judgement entirely, but trawling over writing looking for problems in that way really takes the joy out of reading. Let’s leave that to the sadists. Clichés don’t always bother me, anyway.

I just want to say to such reviewers, to all readers in fact: This is Harper Lee. Just read the book. Just read it and savour every single word, because this is more than we ever knew we were getting.

As someone close to me said: ‘I don’t think reviews are relevant for some books. A review can be nothing other than “Here’s what *I* think”. It changes nothing in the world.’

Publishers might tell you that negative reviews will harm sales, and good reviews will promote sales, so reviews can change things in the world. But many books with bad reviews are loved by readers long after the death of their reviewers. And many well-reviewed books are soon forgotten. And some books just take off unexpectedly and capture the imagination and even become cultural phenomena: Harry Potter, Fifty Shades. Taste cannot be predicted.

And some reviews are just sanctimonious wank.

For what it’s worth, this review from We Love This Book seems to be the most balanced one I’ve read. I do find that new media and blogs often provide better books coverage than many of the traditional reviews and literary sections: more engaged, less stuffy, less posturing, more authentic.

So, question no. 1 for writers: Why do you read reviews and reviewers, and what value do you necessarily place on their opining?

[Inserted postscript, August 2015: I’ve since come across this excellent take on the book by Ursula Le Guin. Anne Rice was also praising it on Facebook. See, those old ladies know a thing or two.]

 

2.
Atticus is a racist! Nooooooo! Well, actually, I think it’s probably a bit more complicated than that. (And NO, saying that does NOT make me a racist.) So: Atticus is a man of his time and place, it turns out. The saintly Atticus of To Kill A Mockingbird gives that book a simpler moral clarity, whereas this version of Atticus is a member of a racist citizens’ council, something that was a fact of life in many small towns in the American South in the 1950s.

(I also enjoy a certain cruel mirth in reading all those stories of bourgeois parents who named their little boys Atticus. Here I frantically scrabble around to remember if any of my friends have little boys named Atticus. ‘Mummy, can I go to Hannibal’s for a play date?’ As a Wille, I’ve never approved of the way in which the chatterati often seem to give their children pretentious yet painful names.)

There are plenty of other conversations about the treatment of race in both books by now, and it’s becoming one of those subjects where I, as a white person, in the current climate feel uncomfortable about making public pronouncements. (If that feels cowardly, it is, but I’m not ashamed.)

But we are reading Go Set A Watchman at a time when race is a matter of great urgency in public life, especially in the United States. Maybe Harper Lee thinks that blacklivesmatter too.

We read Go Set A Watchman in the week that a woman who failed to signal when changing lanes on the way to an interview ended up dead in a jail cell in Texas (and if you really care about social justice, like our saintly Atticus Finch, you really must watch that video clip). We read Go Set A Watchman and realise that some things have changed little since the time that these books were set. We read Go Set A Watchman and we watch that video clip and we ask ourselves whether that took place in the South in the 1950s, or South Africa under the state of emergency. No, it was Texas last week.

Publication of this book certainly draws attention to certain unchanging facts of life in America. So question no. 2: What do you have to say about age-old political problems in your own writing?

 

3.
So: what is the book like? I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot. It was like revisiting childhood friends (while they are still in their childhood, rather than acting out on Facebook). But I did find myself drifting at the end, I’m afraid. It does get clunky and didactic as Jean Louise, the grown-up Scout, digests the racism of her hometown when she returns on vacation from her new life in New York.

Jean Louise is something of a passive central character, who agonises on what she observes via reflection in close third-person point of view. Unlike some reviewers, I liked the way in which she responds to some of the conversations she hears around her, especially at a ‘Coffee’, an occasion where Southern ladies get together to discuss their husbands and the toilet training of their babies and other people’s marriages and the prospect of a ‘good nigger trial’. It’s rendered in something of a stream of consciousness, and it’s possible some readers have missed the point.

All the same, I finished the book a couple of days ago, and I thought I’d forgotten its ending, and then I looked back and realised the book fizzles out somewhat, lacking a significant dramatic resolution. It has big themes and internal musings, but they fail to crystallise in revealing action.

This points up for me, more than anything, how Go Set A Watchman overall lacks narrative and dramatic focus. It reminds me in that way of questions I frequently ask about a lot of early unpublished drafts I read in my work as a book doctor: What is at stake here? What do characters have to gain or lose in terms of both external action as well as their inner lives?

To Kill A Mockingbird by contrast has not only that trial but also and especially Boo Radley. Boo, who in the movie is hiding behind the door in one of the most terrifying screen moments of my life. No longer would I only be scared of things lurking under the bed; thereafter I’d be scared of things hiding behind the bedroom door, the door that had been left open with the landing light on because I didn’t like it closed and I didn’t like the dark.

All the same, Go Set A Watchman has a few other surprises, and other magical sequences. The most captivating are scenes with Scout, Jem, and Dill that call to mind some of those in To Kill A Mockingbird (though I’ve yet to do a direct comparison).

Go Set A Watchman is, certainly, a literary curiosity, in the vein of the scroll edition of On the Road or the published drafts of Howl and The Waste Land. But I think it’s more than that too – it’s a novel marked by plenty of accomplishment already, and it possesses real flashes of wit and saltiness. It has some of the hallmarks of a certain type of postwar American literature that perhaps feel missing in contemporary writing. And even if it has flaws and is apparently an unedited manuscript, it probably interested me far more than plenty of published and apparently flawless books that have been edited.

(‘Flawlessness is overrated.’ Discuss. Many of my favourite books have flaws.)

I’ve read a few commentaries suggesting that Harper Lee’s editor deserves some sort of honour for the way this manuscript was transformed into a great book, but I’ve not seen a paper trail about specific input from an editor, and I’d assume that any editorial conversation would have been followed by Harper Lee’s ongoing revision until she created the draft that became To Kill A Mockingbird. Let’s not forget: editors can be talented, but in the world of books writers are the talent.

Go Set A Watchman is for me, as a teacher and book doctor, an immensely useful textbook. Many beginning (and even experienced) writers seem to think that once a first draft has been planned and then written, editing requires a certain amount of pegging and tidying up, and then it’s plain sailing until you’re checking your Amazon rankings.

But in fact, especially for beginning writers, a first draft can actually be the planning. Terry Pratchett once said something along the lines that a first draft is just the writer telling herself the story.* Once a first (or early) draft is complete, the story is laid out beginning to end, and then the writer can decide how to tell that story: which emphasis to bring out, what to cut, what to expand, how to shift the tone, or vary the pace for narrative tension. The first draft can be more about the process of exploration and investigation, rather than grasping towards any particular outcome.

Go Set A Watchman amounts to one of those sorts of early drafts, perhaps. To Kill A Mockingbird is a seriously different novel: a different timeframe, a different period, a different spirit, a different point of view. And a key event from To Kill A Mockingbird has a very different outcome in Go Set A Watchman.

But both novels have the same setting, many of the same characters, much of the same wit and verve in its style, and it absolutely has the same concerns. It’s not hard to imagine a young writer taking a look at this early draft and thinking, What if I took this and did that with it … ? A focus would have been sought, and found.

Lesson no. 3: What things might lie within the rambles of your own early drafts, and how could you take them and form something else from them? It might not be radically different. But it could also be a wild departure into something that captures some initial spark and does something more compelling, or more heartfelt, or more entertaining, or more poetic, or more [insert adjective]. Either is possible.

 

Reviews. Race. Revision. Three R’s of Go Set A Watchman.

But lessons are chores. I first read To Kill A Mockingbird in the third year at school, in Miss Batham’s English class. I’d already read some Agatha Christies and having loved The Hobbit had attempted The Lord of the Rings, but this was the first time I really read an adult book with adult themes, and it left a profoundly strong impression on me, as subsequently would Huckleberry Finn, and My Family And Other Animals, and The War Of The Worlds

These lessons were not chores. Books such as these are rare events in our lives that capture our imaginations. Sequels, or allied publications, should be treasured for what they are. They should be left to work their magic, and enjoyed for what they are.

 

* If you have a direct quotation and source for Terry Pratchett on first drafts, please email me!