The Art of Ruthless Revision

By Lu Anne Stewart

I have a new-found appreciation for the importance of revision these days. I spent a good chunk of the first half of this year making edits large and small to my novel, Digging. What I found interesting about the revision process is that it requires us to think about the manuscript on many different levels, from the sublime to the ridiculous.  At the deepest, most challenging level, we’re asking ourselves big-picture questions like: Is my protagonist compelling enough? On the more mundane end of the spectrum, we’re catching typos and using the “Find” function to determine how many times we’ve overused our favorite words.

While going through this exercise, I searched around online for advice and insights from other authors on how they approached revision. Here are a few of the tidbits that I found most helpful:

“Skip the boring parts.” This quote from Elmore Leonard is deceptively brilliant. Of course, we’d all edit out the boring parts if we knew they were boring, right? For me, following this advice meant listening carefully to the input of my readers about the manuscript. If someone says that the story really picks up steam in Chapter 2, that may be a kind way of saying that Chapter 1 had too much backstory or was just plain dull.

Read like a reader. George Saunders explained in an interview that when revising, he tries to put himself into the shoes of a first-time reader. “That is,” he says, “I try not to bring too many ideas about what the story is doing, etc, etc. Just SEE what it’s doing. In other words, read along with a red pen, reacting in real-time as I go along, deleting, adding, etc. When the energy drops, then I know that’s where I have to really start digging in.”

Other authors offered similar strategies. Some say to throw the manuscript in a drawer for a week or longer and then read it with fresh eyes. One suggested critiquing it like the harshest reviewer in a workshop. For me, it helped to read as though I were an extremely busy literary agent just looking for a reason to pass on this manuscript. What weaknesses would she find? Where might she roll her eyes? Or worse, yawn?

Cut, condense, repeat. In his wise book On Writing, Stephen King emphasizes the importance of plain old cutting. Chop out everything unnecessary. He recalls a comment he received from an editor that “changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: ‘Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.’ “

Loosen up. I’ll close with my very favorite bit of advice on the process of revision, which comes from a Joan Didion podcast you can find here. She explains that when she finishes work at the end of the day, she goes over the pages she’s done that day. “And I mark it up and leave it until the morning, and then I make the corrections in the morning, which gives me a way to start the day…I can have a drink at night. And the drink loosens me up enough to actually mark it up, you know. While you’ll just kind of be tense and not sure. Marking up something is just another way of saying editing it. Because you don’t edit very dramatically when you’re—you’re not very hard on yourself, you’re not very loose with yourself most of the day. Really, I have found the drink actually helps.”

Who am I to argue with Joan?  Fellow writers, what are your secrets to good revision? And readers, can you think of a book you stopped reading in midstream because you wished the writer had “skipped the boring parts?”

 

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On Becoming a Trouble Maker

By Janet Moore

Creating compelling characters is a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. As the first draft takes shape, characters appear, some boldly, others more timidly, each with a distinct voice and perspective. It’s only in later drafts that the full picture becomes clear, complete with these new and interesting beings who invite readers to suspend belief and join them on their journeys. Homer knew this; so did Charles Dickens, Mary Shelley, Flannery O’Conner and Mark Twain. It is what made J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series so successful, and it’s why Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes are still perennial favorites. What all these authors have in common is the ability to create trouble and lots of it.

I was reminded of why we writers must create crises, detail disturbances and disrupt the status quo during a recent week-long workshop in the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains outside of Asheville, North Carolina. Our teacher was Marjorie Hudson, a generous instructor and gifted writer (Searching for Virginia Dare and Accidental Birds of the Carolinas). With each manuscript we critiqued, she showed us ways to intensify the plight our characters’ dilemmas, often through the Point-of-View narrator. When done well, readers turn the page, read the next chapter and ask, What’s next?”

To drive home this point, Marjorie had us examine excerpts from works by skilled storytellers, who early on had us asking that question. Take, for example, the opening sentences of Pam Durban’s short story “Rowing to Darien.”

March 1839, just after midnight on the Altamaha River. The air smells of silt and fish and wood smoke. The hoot of a horned own carries across the water, the creak of oarlocks and the splash of oars. The moon is up, one night past full; it throws a bright track on the water, and across the track Frances Butler rows a boat with a lantern set on the thwart. Out under the big moon that lights the whole sky, the lantern flame looks a fragment of the larger brightness. That’s how she thinks of it as she rows – a mission, not a flight – to dignify the journey and keep the fear at bay.

In these few sentences we already know that all is not well with Frances Butler. Durban has baited and set the hook, and with each successive sentence, she reels us in.

Creating trouble is not the exclusive purview of fiction writers, as Joy Castro so efficiently shows us in the opening sentence of her essay, “Grip.” Over the crib in the tiny apartment, there hung a bullet-holed paper target, the size and dark shape of a man, its heart zone and head zone, perforated where my aim had torn through:  thirty-six little rips, not strays, centered on spots that would make a man die. Packed into her opening are unsettling details – a baby’s crib, a target peppered with perfectly placed bullets. Our narrator is quite literally a “pistol packing mama.” Her words scream trouble, and we want to know more.

For those of us who aspire to publication someday, somewhere, anywhere, it is helpful to remember that evocative phrasing and rich dialogue are only made better when the fate of our characters is at considerable risk. Trouble builds character, in literature and in life. Michael Ondaatje knew that when he wrote The English Patient, recently named the Golden Man Book Prize winner in this the fiftieth year of the international prize.

Every major character in this memorable novel faces daunting dilemmas, some the result of war, others the result of love, rejection, fear, jealousy and anger. These men and women carry us beyond the Egyptian desert to war-torn Italy and eventually to tranquil Canada. But when it comes to Ondaatje’s characters and their stories, tranquility is in short supply. Their failings and victories reveal the best and worst of humanity, and it is in that poignant dichotomy that we fall in love with them over and over, again.

If, as Francine Prose recommends, we read like a writer, then our path to creating powerful characters is clear. Read the works of skilled writers whose work we admire and look for the trouble. It won’t take long to find.

Bringing Characters to Life

By Lu Anne Stewart

Thanks to the magic of Netflix, I’ve been watching a number of Turkish television dramas (with English subtitles) over the past year. (Little-known trivia fact: Turkey is now the second largest exporter of TV series around the world.)   These programs run the gamut from romantic comedies and multi-generational family sagas to crime stories and historical tales from Turkey’s Ottoman Empire era.

In addition to first-rate writing, acting and production, these shows have hooked me because of their incredible skill in developing characters. As a writer, it has been fascinating to see how they use plot twists, backstory and other techniques to make me care deeply about the fate of these characters. Each time my emotions take a roller coaster ride because of a character’s ups and downs, I learn something about how to bring fictional characters to life.

In a show I’m watching now, called “What Happens to My Family,” a widowed father lives in the family’s run-down homestead in Istanbul with his three grown children, each of whom has not yet been able to successfully leave the nest.  In the early episodes, the character traits of each of the children are lightly sketched in.  The daughter is a cold, self-centered and highly ambitious business woman. The oldest son is completing his training as a doctor and, seeing a wealthy future just ahead, looks down on his family’s humble circumstances. The youngest son still acts like a wayward teenager: he has trouble getting out of bed in the morning, can’t keep a job, and makes dumb mistakes that often land him in jail.

While those traits give us a quick fix on each character, the scriptwriters add layer upon layer of nuances as each episode unfolds.  Gradually, over time, we learn key details that increase our understanding of why each of the siblings acts the way they do. The daughter was devastated a decade earlier when her fiancé went off to study in France and promptly forgot her, falling in love with a French girl. The elder son, it turns out, is so driven to become a wealthy doctor and so hateful to his family because his first love broke off their relationship, saying he was “too poor.” And we learn that the youngest son lost his way after being unjustly expelled from school for a year, a setback from which he never fully recovered.

Each of these revelations made me sympathize with these characters and even overlook some of their worst traits. As a viewer, it was so much more satisfying and emotionally engaging to learn this backstory well into the midst of the series rather than having these details provided in a neatly wrapped package right at the beginning. It is more akin to the way we learn about people in real life; as we get closer and hear more about their past and their challenges, we become more understanding, and even fond of, their quirks.

I hope to use these insights in developing characters in the new novel I’m just beginning to shape now. We know it’s important to start the novel planning process with a well-developed profile of each major character, with everything from eye color to favorite foods and odd habits. But thanks to Turkish TV, I now have a heightened appreciation for the power of withholding some details for a key moment, allowing the reader to make a discovery that deepens their emotional connection to the character on the page.

In the coming weeks on Author Lab, our writers will be delving into the subject of character development. Watch this space for more, and please share your comments on what brings a fictional character alive for you.

In the Company of Friends

By Janet Moore

The esteemed sportswriter Red Smith once said that, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not far off the mark.

What stirs our imagination is as individual as we are. It can be, as in the case of Proust, “remembrances of things past.” For others, it might be an event, a person (family members are always fair game), an aroma, an observation, or a random encounter with a stranger. From there, we dive deep inside ourselves to find what we need to push a story forward.

Every now and then, however, we all need something more to spark our imagination. I learned this valuable lesson during a short story class at Wildacres Writing Workshop (http://www.wildacreswriters.com/) several years ago. Turn to old friends the teacher advised. By that he meant learn from the writers you like and use them to ignite your own writing. It is easy enough to do. Go to a favorite short story or novel. Find a paragraph you like. Read it once, paying attention to the sentence structure, the words the author uses, the point of view; in short, all the elements that make this writing so appealing. Then use that structure to build your story.

In class we worked with the opening paragraph of a short story by Reynolds Price. I was doubtful. The great Reynolds Price and I had nothing in common, and yet it worked. The beginning I’d been struggling with came into sharper focus. It was literally like putting jumper cables on a dead battery. Within two paragraphs I was up and running and could wave good-bye to Reynolds Price.

I mention this example because as we labor away alone at our keyboards, crafting plot, creating characters, searching for just the right word, there are times when we need to be in the company of others, and I don’t mean characters in a book. This is where workshops come in.

I fall into the category of an emerging writer. My first short story will be published in the 2018 Fish Anthology later this year. And while I love working in my office, with only the cats to keep me company, it is the companionship of other writers that rejuvenates me. Such was the case in 2017 when I had the privilege of studying for a weekend with Jane Smiley at the Looking Glass Rock Writers Conference (http://library.transylvaniacounty.org/lgrwc/) at nearby Brevard College.

The prospect of having my work critiqued by a Pulitzer Prize winning author was frightening enough. Add to that the fact that she holds three degrees from the fabled and sometimes feared University of Iowa Writing Program where, legend has it, writers are reduced to tears during critiques, and I was terrified. But I persisted, and it was well worth the effort. As it turned out, Jane Smiley was another funny smart teacher with so much knowledge to impart that I could scarcely take notes fast enough.

I left that weekend with more questions than answers, and that was a good thing. What are you emphasizing in your work, she asked each of us. Is it plot, character, setting, theme? Analyze what you are doing in the first draft and ask yourself this. What is the pay-off for the reader? By the second draft, you need to know what form you are pursuing, she said. (To learn more about what she means by form, I recommend her 2005 work, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.”)

I don’t write novels. I’m a devotee of short stories. But Jane Smiley’s admonition has stayed with me —  write in such a way that readers happily engage in the “willing suspension of disbelief.” To do that requires imagination, and on occasion, the company of others.

 

Successful Writers Build a Relationship… With an Editor

By Alexa Padgett

(No, not that editor—your editor)

About ten years ago, I was on the phone with an editor for one of the Big Five publishers. We were discussing an author who’s gone on to have a fantastic indie career. The editor said, “You can’t give us any reason to say no.”

Those are words I live by today.

What did the editor mean? Well, I don’t know exactly. I can only share my experience and hope it aids you on your writing journey.

Sadly, in my time as an agent, I discovered what I consider an ugly truth of the traditional publishing world: Editors had become buying agents. I know, I know, their title states they will edit your novel, help build your career into the next Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, or J.K. Rowling.

Here’s the deal: I think editors want to do that. I really do. But, like most businesses hit hard by the digital landscape, editors no longer have the option of holding your hand through the first few books that lose the house money while you struggle to find THE BOOK.

Either a book sells or it doesn’t. As the author, you have thirty days to prove your marketing, public relations and writing prowess. Then…well, your book just kind of fades back into the ether.

You don’t want to fade. You want to take the book world by storm!

Which brings me to one of my most important tenets now that I write full-time: develop a strong relationship with your editor.

What editor?

The one you pay before you ever submit to an agent or a publishing house or upload to Amazon.

Pay for an editor myself, you ask.

Yes. For every book.

But it’s expensive!

Indeed. It can be. It can also be the difference between getting the traditional deal or not. It can be the difference between getting that agent you really want or not. It can be the difference between selling ten copies of your current indie release…or ten thousand.

Ask around—on Facebook author groups and in your local writing chapters. Find a good editor. Key word: Good. Not cheap. Not one that tells you what you want to hear. You want an editor that will red-ink the heck out of your manuscript. Because that editor cares about the story.

Build a rapport. Develop the relationship. Take the editor’s advice and ask questions. Listen with your own internal editor. Learn. Evolve. Become a better writer.

That, my friends, is how you go from a “no” to a “yes.”

Alexa Padgett is currently working with her team of kick-ass editors (yes, she has more than one!) on her upcoming supernatural mystery titled A Pilgrimage to Death.

Inspiration’s Long Fuse

By Lu Anne Stewart

These past few weeks, The Author Lab has been taking a look at the subject of inspiration: where do writers get their ideas?  As my colleagues Allie Burns and Foday Mannah have related in their posts, inspiration can happen gradually as we collect life experiences and quirky bits of knowledge that trigger the idea for a story or novel. I’d like to pick up on that thread and say that in my own experience, inspiration can have a very long fuse, burning quietly over decades until it bursts into a fully formed idea.

My inspiration for Digging, the novel I’ve just finished writing, traces back to the late 1970s when I began my career as a reporter for a small daily newspaper in New England.  It was an exhilarating job, covering everything from the daily police blotter to a toxic waste dump discovered on a rural pig farm. I worked with a team of tenacious young reporters, all of us committed to getting the facts right, uncovering wrongdoing and holding the powers-that-be accountable.

I hadn’t started writing fiction at that point, but I began thinking that a small-town newsroom would make a great setting for a novel someday. The trouble was, I couldn’t come up with a strong idea for what this novel would be about. What kind of story could my reporter-protagonist uncover that would keep a reader interested over 300-plus pages?

Over the next couple of decades I started to write some short stories and a first (still unpublished!) novel about a mother-daughter relationship. The idea of a journalism novel remained stubbornly embedded in some remote corner of my mind. Its overall theme and plot still eluded me, but the fuse continued to burn.

Finally, around the 2013-14 timeframe, a variety of trends and developments related to journalism began to coalesce in my mind.  Polls showed the news media sinking to lower and lower levels of public esteem. Reporters and news outlets were derided by some as the “drive-by media.” The emergence of social media was taking its toll on “old-fashioned” print journalism, which experienced significant reporter layoffs and often, reduced resources for investigative reporting.

I found these trends disheartening. This was not the journalism I knew. I came of age at a time when journalists were heroes. The Pentagon Papers. Watergate. In my journalism training in college and throughout seven years as a working journalist, I never met a colleague who was biased or motivated by anything other than uncovering important facts that the public had a right to know.

And suddenly, there was my inspiration. My slow-burning novel would, at its core, be about idealism. It would be about the essence of journalism as a noble calling. About the importance of a free press in a democracy. And I would tell that story through the very narrow lens of one idealistic reporter in the late 1970s who sets out for a small town to begin her career as a newspaper reporter. She would discover a web of corruption in that town that tests her commitment to stay true to those high ideals.

Over the next three years spent writing this book, the news was a constant source of inspiration to keep me going. We witnessed the rise of Trump and relentless attacks on the freedom of the press. Solid, well-sourced reporting was routinely dismissed as “fake news.” The troubling notion emerged that there can be “alternative facts.”

Now, as I finish up some final edits and focus on getting this book out into the world, I hope it will give readers a glimpse into the inner motivations of a working journalist and, perhaps, if my wildest dreams come true, change some hearts and minds about the importance of a free press.

My New Title is “Writer”

By Lu Anne Stewart

For much of my adult life, I have dreamed of being a full-time writer. I worked for seven years as a newspaper reporter and editor, then spent many more years in public relations, where I had the chance to write everything from a Harvard Business Review case study to a speech for an NFL player helping to launch a new charity. Interesting, challenging work, but the writing was only one piece of it, and I longed for time to write the growing list of stories rattling around in my brain.

Like so many other writers, I worked on fiction in my “spare” time, rising early to carve out an hour to write before I headed off to my job, writing on weekends, taking vacation days to attend writing workshops. I was encouraged by the dedication of other writers with a day job, like John Grisham, who wrote A Time to Kill while working full-time as a lawyer.

Now, I finally have my chance. I’ve left the workaday world to launch my own adventure as a writer—fiction, freelance writing and some journalistic work, too. I’m looking forward to that first time I meet a new person and, when they ask what I do, I can simply say, “I’m a writer.”

This new season of life reminds me very much of those heady days just after graduating from college, when the future lay ahead like an open door into a secret garden, filled with every possibility imaginable and waiting to be explored. At the same time, I’m keenly aware that I have no more excuses for not writing.

I’m reminded of a friend’s story from his college days. He was telling his English professor how much he loved to write and yearned to be a writer, and the professor looked at him squarely and said, “Oh? What have you written today?”

My friend stuttered, “Well, I haven’t written anything yet today…”

“If you love to write so much, why are you denying yourself that pleasure?” the professor responded.

Fair point. Now that I have this freedom, I am determined to put every available moment to good use. My current project, a novel about an idealistic young reporter in the post-Watergate 1970s, is in the final editing stages and I’m eager to send it out into the world. An idea for the next novel is germinating. I have some short story drafts to go back and polish, and there’s even a completed screenplay for a film about a time in the not-too-distant future when we’ll be able to take a pill to halt the aging process. Maybe it’s time to dust that off, too.

All of these drafts and ideas are starting to look less like failed attempts and more like possibilities waiting to sprout in that secret garden. It’s time to go to work.