Monthly Archives: December 2012

Novel Revisions — Danger: Book May Bite

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Writing is a timid thing – right?

Delicately crafted with feathered pens by a dainty woman unused to the outdoors. Cough, sputter. Fantasize.

No fear. No wild things lurking. All purple ink and soft whispers.

She’s being ironic, the guard mutters as the wild thing rattles its cage. Writers do that, he nods, proud of the knowledge – and hoping, soon, such writer will step out of the shadows and tame this unwieldy thing, growing daily, hourly as it waits release.

The beast itself. Braced to resist domestication, eyes glaring in resistance against such things as braiding of manes, tying of ribbons in its tail.

I’m a wild thing, it purrs, snarls, gnashing a bone. I’ll be ridden, perhaps. But not a trot. Not an amble. Climb aboard, if you dare, and gallop raw across the veldt.

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Today’s post is provoked by Wordsmith Studio’s weekly Take A Picture! photo challenge — this week, the theme is “signs.”

While with my sons at Harry Potter World at Universal, I saw this sign above the caged Monster Book behind Olivander’s wand shop and couldn’t help feel it summarized my summer: taming my novel from first complete draft through second and third revisions.

Danger: book may bite.

My mother once questioned why a tiger shark lurks just out of view in the background photo on my website and I had to say it represents the danger I sometimes feel in writing. I love the rush of creation, yet so much is at risk — pride, talent, loss of that perfect image just at the tips of your reach. Novel drafts are not docile as rabbits and kittens, but bull sharks, boa constrictors, pacing tigers — unwieldy things within our reach, yet with a life of their own.

Or at least, for the sake of today’s photo challenge, this is nod to the days they feel that way!

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2012: Year of the Book

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2012 was the year of many things — politics, gun violence, Hurricane Sandy, Olympics (remember way back that far?). But for those of us who crave getting lost in a great read, 2012 was something else: it was a year of new releases for many fabulous novels and works of nonfiction.

2012 was the year of the book.

Compiling reading lists before summer, I was astounded at the riches — only to find fall’s new releases a true embarrassment of riches. Even as pundits mull once again the death of the novel, death of publishing, death of print; even as self-publishing flooded in with more than a million e-releases via Amazon last year, the real news — the heady tweets and retweets throughout summer and fall — were the immensely satisfying novels arriving in print, lining up on the shelves of real bookstores.

It seemed everywhere people were reading. The question wasn’t, “What can I read next?” but, “What fabulous book on the many kudos-lists for 2012 have I not yet gotten to?”

As I gear up to compile my winter reading list for January, I came upon announcement at The Morning News of their annual Tournament of Books. Their 2013 list  reads like a summary of various award nominees from throughout the fall (click here to read my prior post for several of the awards’ longlists).

Considering these top-reading lists, as well as my own and those of friends this year, had me taking stock: which were my favorite new releases of 2012, and which 2012 boooks have I yet to read

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My Favorite New Releases of 2012:

I am not a fast reader, yet both of my top-picks compelled me to drop everything. Literally. All day in bed, reading. Through the night, reading. To the point of reading the second I woke, without stopping to make coffee.  No joke: I took the second with me into a movie, suspecting I might be tempted to read a chapter by light of my cell phone, between scenes.

  • Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds . Hands down, I think this is the most important book published in 2012.  Beautifully written (battle described with haiku-like stillness), without hammering over the head, yet you cannot help be changed by the knowledge imparted. As a teacher, its impact left me expecting it will someday be assigned reading, as my generation once read The Red Badge of Courage.
  • Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl . Where Yellow Birds was “important,” Gone Girl was ubiquitous as the “must read” page-turner of summer. I slogged through the first few chapters, skeptical over the characters’ self-indulgent narration… and then hook-whizzzz! Flynn had me. What began as self-important introspection reveals itself as the intricate mind-battle between two genuinely intriguing characters — and yes, I read compulsively, without stopping from page 60 through to the astonishing end, all the while seamlessly in love with Flynn’s ability to spin characters and story. To convey the extent to which Flynn won me over: through the whole last third of the book, I was actively thinking how glad I was to know she’d written other books I’d have to fill the gap once Gone Girl was done. Rare, hooked.

My other favorite-reads of the year weren’t published in 2012, but you can find them on my reading lists linked at the bottom of this post.

2012 New Releases Still-to-Be-Read:

There are another half dozen 2012-releases on my must-read lists that I’ve not yet gotten to.

  • Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies  — winner of the 2012 Man Booker Prize, and the first woman to ever win the award twice.
  • Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and David Abrams, Fobbit In a way, it’s unfair to list these together, as if they are equivalent, but together with Yellow Birds, these were three of the remarkable books written by veterans this year — each adding a unique voice to the experience of America at war.
  • Matthew Dicks, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend
  • Nathan Englander, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank Everything Englander writes is charged with his intellect, and deeply meaningful. I’ve read one story from this collection, and look forward to the rest.
  • Margot Livesey, The Flight of Gemma Hardy This is one of two books I am dying to read by Livesey — who not only impresses me, but has endeared me with encouragement on a story in the past.
  • Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton

For other books on my reading lists, but not published in 2012, see the links at the bottom of this post — and be sure to share any of your own recommendations, as I’ll consider them in compiling my Winter 2013 list!

Said shyly: “Great” Books of 2012 I Put Down Without Finishing:

Caveats are required, here, because I am a discerning reader… but also an impatient one.  Perhaps even moody. It is likely that these books did not fit my tastes at the time of reading, but these were two books I highly anticipated, then could not read past the first chapters:

  • Ann Patchett, State of Wonder I have heard only rave opinions of all Patchett’s work, but I could not get into the plot, setting or characters of this one. I’m hoping it will hook me in another year, or I’ll read one of her other books.
  • Jan-Phillip Sendker, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats  A lovely book, set in a country I had been studying so was easily intrigued by… yet I could not get past feeling it was not well-edited, with the feel of a self-published book full of first novel errors. Impatience kicked in and another book took it’s place in line.

Are you like me — do you often find yourself quick to put books down?

Of a dozen books, I feel like I might eagerly make it past the third chapter on only 3-4 of them. Other well-reviewed books I put down in 2012 included Elegance of the Hedgehog (I didn’t feel like reading about Paris) and The Imperfectionists (it didn’t seem to go anywhere and I preferred the narrator of the first chapter, who then disappeared).  With limited time and so many good books to read, I almost never force myself to finish a book that hasn’t hooked me. Then again, more than once I’ve stumbled across one of these later — in a different reading mood, perhaps — and loved it. Is there advice in that? I wonder how others experience this?

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My Reading Lists posted throughout 2012:

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Writing Character: Challenge of Revising the Character Most Like Yourself – Part 2

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This is the second of two articles addressing the challenge some writers have identified of writing the character most like themselves.

Read the original post for an explanation of who this character is, and how the idea for the post originally arose  from a small tangent during the fabulous workshop I had with Ann Hood in Miami last May:

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5 Approaches for Revising:

Again, not all authorial characters are broken — but this post addresses the situation where characters drawn closely from the author come across as flat. Each of the following presents a possible source of the problem and how to address it.

  1. See-through narrator: beginner’s error?  In one of my early novel attempts, I had a central female protagonist who essentially represented my entrypoint into the story. She was roughly my age, my cultural background, etc. Her story arc was dynamic, but she was the least fully-written and least empathetic character. I realized I was intentionally keeping this character thinly written, nearly transparent, as if she were a window to see through to the story.  Have you ever read an editor’s list of “beginner errors”? While revising this story at Bread Loaf one summer, I was startled to find this approach on a list of errors committed by first-time novelists who are still trepidatious about claiming that right to just present the story. It’s possible a transparent-window-character really is an effective device for your story (they do exist in some successful published work), but my authorial character did not ring true.  Fix?  The simplest approach is to eliminate the character — no window is needed for you to ‘frame’ the story. If you resist deleting the character, this means you believe the character has a purpose in the story.  Take the time to understand why you chose this perspective and own it.  Don’t avoid the character; understand the tension and emotion they create, and write the character fully.
  2. Lay back on the couch & tell me about your childhood: another beginner’s error?  Editors also report a beginner’s error of feeling a need to explain the psychology behind our character’s choices. This can be common when writing about from real life. Much of our memory may come from psychological processing of an event.  But see if the flatness of your authorial character arises from too much explanation of their thoughts.  Reams of psychological explanation is less intriguing than actions and emotions that reveal the same information, and can seem inauthentic or defensive. Fix?  Psychological explanation is often written as a placeholder for motivation in early drafts. As the action and emotion of scenes become more full in revisions, see if you can simply delete the explanations. If these other scenes have not been written, make notes to yourself of what the psycho-babble is trying to accomplish, then envision the kind of interaction between characters that would reveal it. An entire scene might not be necessary; a single line revealing a memory might suffice. A reader will always find psychology more believable if they came to the conclusion on their own through experiencing the character, than if you explain it.  Also, see 3.
  3. I’m a good girl/boy.  I spent my whole life trying to convince my grandmother that my hair was the current style, my brother that I hadn’t packed too much on the family trip, and anyone else that I wasn’t difficult.  Best thing ever was the year I realized it was okay if my hair was not my grandmother’s style, my suitcase was overpacked and I was as difficult as anyone else around me.  Around the same time, I realized I was raising my characters to be as well-behaved as my family wanted me to be.  If a character did something inappropriate, I caught myself reeling them in or tried to explain it away.  If they had affairs or stole or were judgmental, writer-me immediately tried to take it back (or, see #2, gave psychological justification and excuses).  Around the time I gave myself permission to be sassy, I read a single perfect line of writing advice: the most memorable characters are not well-behaved.  Not that they’re rude, but they have opinions, they speak out and take action.  Not that they’re all adulterers and murderers, but they make high-stakes mistakes, and story arises from the consequences, not excuses.  Best characters would, in all hopes, make my grandmother’s eyes fly wide first in horror, then in secret glee for having done what she would not have allowed me to do.  Fix?  Don’t hold back.  In Hood’s advice below, note how important it is that we create distance and not expect our characters to behave as we do. If you gave your character a gun, don’t apologize when it goes off — and it should.  Characters should get in positions other people avoid, or say things they shouldn’t, or do the wrong thing and then another wrong thing after that.  Sitting primly on the couch and keeping thoughts to themselves would rarely have kept even my elders turning the pages.
  4. Hood’s advice #1: Continuing from part 1, in our workshop writer Ann Hood said the key is to create the resonance and fullness of story in characters based on reality. A common sign that a writer is too married to reality is when they defend a manuscipt by saying, “But that’s what really happened.”  To write effectively from real life, a writer is seeking to create resonance and meaning that were not apparent in the thin reality.  To do this, Hood said, “You have to establish authorial distance [between yourself and the character] to be able to see the character as a character.” Distance allows us to view others more clearly — from all sides, with interesting filters — than we do ourselves. The key is to create that ability to see yourself at that same distance.  Fix?  Hood said the key is to give the character one quality or trait that is absolutely not like yourself.  Give them a tick. A quirk, an idiosyncracy.  Give them an obsession.  A hobby, a talent.   Make them older than yourself, younger, or change their gender.  Give them a profession or talent or hobby that defines their lives.  It’s not a small shift — the goal is to create something in the character that is utterly unlike yourself so that you start seeing them as someone other than yourself.  In the gap, you can begin to have perspective and write more fully.
  5. Hood #2:  Saying the same thing differently, Hood referenced another author in saying that developing story arises by repeatedly asking the question, “What if…?” Each answer to the question spins details to character or setting or obstacles.  For example, Hood wrote one of her novels in response to the grief of losing her daughter to a sudden illness.  But what if she directed that grief into learning to knit?  For a current story I am writing, a main theme is my own, but what if the character were ten years older? What if she worked in a museum tending taxidermied exhibits? What if something were stolen, so the story seems to be about the theft, not her inner struggle?   Fix? Begin with a “What if” that is not true of yourself.  What if… the character was a man or an older woman or an artist or just witnessed a train derailing in the middle of the night behind her father’s barn…

More revision strategies?

For a 6th example, I’ll suggest this and you are welcome to offer a solution. 

  • I’m just not that into me.  In freelance work, I once interviewed a woman who had been an entymologist and lived in the jungle for 6 years before going back to school, studying urban planning and being appointed to public office. It was a fascinating article on how those unconnected roles represented her drive to serve. Yet she was shocked that anyone found her years in the jungle interesting. For me, that is parallel to a truth when I write a character like myself: it’s easy for me to be fascinated by a character I’m just getting to know, while falling flat to describe the character who feels like the same somebody I’m inside every day. One of the problems with writing authorial characters arises when we don’t gain Hood’s authorial distance to perceive ourselves as interesting characters. If the character most like yourself feels boring to you, perhaps this is the dilemma. Fix? The fix may mean not writing about yourself if it bores you, or perhaps Hood’s advice in 4 & 5, to gain the distance and interest to write more fully. Or, how would you suggest solving it?

How would you answer that — or what other dilemmas do you run into with characters drawn from your life? Share your answers, ideas or links in the comments!

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