Monday, May 30, 2011

The Reading, Part I

So, on Friday I pulled my novel out of its cabinet. It blinked its eyes and tried to scurry back into the dark, but I held firm to the binder and dragged it out onto the bright, sunny porch (we had no power). I sat  on the porch with a cup of coffee, a glass of water, a pen, a pencil and a notepad, opened the book and began to read.

I really don’t know how I’m supposed to do this. Part of me wanted to just read it straight through, as if I’d picked it up in a bookstore or at the library or something. Forget the mistakes in grammar, the extra spaces, the misspellings, let’s worry about the meta-things: voice, story, characterization. The rest of it can wait for another read through.

Of course I couldn’t do it that way. I was afraid that if I noticed something and glossed it over in the name of finishing the read, I might not remember what bothered me and I might not see it again. Notes went in margins, bigger thoughts went in the notepad. By the end of the day I was on page 152 out of 317 with seven double-sided pages of notes (Note to self: write neater). Not a bad day’s work.

So, how do I feel about it?

It’s not as bad as I feared, but not as good as I want it to be.

I didn’t cringe while reading it. I didn’t feel embarrassed, didn’t have any WTF? moments. I didn’t want to throw the book into the road or feed the pages to my neighbor’s cows (they probably wouldn’t eat it, but my daughter has a friend who has goats. They would definitely eat it.) or stuff them in the fireplace. I know it could be better, and I hope I can make it so.

A few things I’ve noticed in this process so far:

*The word ‘that’ is one of those invisible words that is easy to cut. I think one of the first things I’m going to do when I work on the document is do a find/replace search for ‘that’. Some will have to stay, but most can probably go. Sorry, old friend, you’re just not needed.

*I can often tell where I started writing for the day. There are a few sentences (usually at the beginning of chapters) where I can see that I was feeling around, like spider on the end of a branch, trying to catch hold of the words, the rhythm, the story, the voice. There’s a tentativeness to the words and sentences; it usually only lasts a line or two before I get it. I wonder if I can do some kind of warm-up exercise in the future.

*I’ve been able to spot cases of repetition, in terms of words and passages. I was sometimes aware, while writing, that I’d already written a similar passage elsewhere (I knew I had, but I couldn’t always find it). On the read-through, I’ve been able to find them. ‘See page 97’ I note in the margin. In my notepad I write ‘p. 97, p. 115, repeat. One must go.’ The good thing is cutting some of this will make room for expanding some other places.

I was afraid to begin this process, but so far it’s been fun. I hope I that I (Look! Another one!) will still think so when I finish the read-through (possibly by the end of today). So I will sign of for today, still doubting, but hopeful.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Fact vs. Fiction

Blogger note: Well, I'm already behind. Since I made my first post a week ago Friday I thought I'd stick to that schedule. A 'main post' each Friday, and an update here or there earlier in the week. I'd prepared most of the text for this post earlier with the intention of getting it up Friday, but Mother Nature had other plans.
A big line of thunderstorms drove through the region last night and knocked out our power around 10 PM on Thursday. We sat without power until four or so on Friday afternoon, which at least gave me time to make headway on reading my novel (more on that another time). Tonight I stayed off the computer and watched my Bruins beat the Lightning to make it back to the Stanley Cup final for the first time in 21 years. I hope their fate is better than the last time around. Now, back to the blog:

There’s a strange sort of Black Hole of creative writing that exists in my life. In sixth grade I ‘discovered’ writing. That was the year I learned that I loved to write stories, that I was (at the time, anyway) fairly good at it, that it was something I wanted to do with my life. A lot of the credit for that goes to my teacher, Mrs. Fucile, who ran a great class and still ranks as my all-time favorite teacher.

By the time the summer after sixth grade was over I didn’t want to be a writer anymore, at least not consciously. It likely had a lot to do with being eleven going on twelve and being distracted by all the things going on in life at that age. I was a better student than I was an athlete but I still spent a lot of time out with my friends playing baseball, street hockey, football, etc., and getting more social. Writing just sort of fell by the wayside.

Thirty-plus years after leaving the sixth grade, I still remember at least four stories I wrote that year. After leaving elementary school I took six years of English in junior and senior high school, and one full year of English at the college level. Surely I did some creative writing; of course I did. But I can’t remember one single piece.

Writing has been an important part of my career as an educator. I’ve written curriculum and curriculum guides, grant proposals, trail guides, not to mention cover letters and resumes (though those might sometimes fall under fiction), articles for newsletters, and letters to the editor, business correspondence of various types, but no fiction, not until last year, when I ‘rediscovered’ the desire to write creatively (NOTE: I understand that all writing is creative; I guess I’m stuck in some age-old definition that equates ‘Creative Writing’ with ‘Fiction’).

Since starting up with the fiction writing, I’ve discovered that, for me, non-fiction is much harder up front. Getting started, knowing what you want to communicate, knowing your audience, trying to stick to the most important facts: these things that make me tear my hair out when getting started on a fact-based piece. I agonize over every word, every paragraph, every sentence. A press release of a few hundred words can take me all day; a simple, three paragraph letter goes through four, five or more drafts.

When I write fiction, I sit down with an idea, or a character, or a situation and just sort of let it start writing itself out. As the story takes shape I guide it more, but the actual act of writing fiction is much more fluid, much freer and far more enjoyable. The notion of audience comes into play on some level, but I don’t really concern myself about it up front. I assume I’m writing for a general, adult audience; if I find later that it’s shading towards YA later on, I can make adjustments in later drafts. I tend to let it all hang out, let it all go out on the page. I’ll make some corrections as I go, but I don’t sweat it nearly as much.; when I’m in the groove on a book or a story I can get a few thousand words down in a couple of hours.

The headache part for me on fiction is on the back end. Reading what I’ve written, making changes, trying not to be too embarrassed, that’s tough. But the toughest part of all for me is sharing with others.

Don’t get me wrong, I want people to read my work. I also want people to love my work. I find there’s a huge difference mentally in turning over brochure text or a program summary for a grant to my boss compared to handing a short story or novel chapter to someone else for reading. The former is easy. “Here you go,” I’ll say. “I’m not totally satisfied with section 2, maybe you can suggest something there.” And that’s it. I take the feedback, make some corrections, and off it goes, on to the next project, thank you.

Not so for fiction. I gave my wife a piece of my novel back in the winter. She hadn’t exactly been bugging me, but I knew she wanted to see it. I screwed up my courage, printed out the sixteen pages or so and gave it to her. Then I put on my coat and slogged up and down the street in the cold and threw snowballs at trees for half an hour. I re-entered the house like a mouse, almost hoping she wouldn’t notice me. When I read pieces for my writer’s group, my heart gets up in the way of my words and I bounce my knee incessantly. What’s the big deal? I want feedback, after all, and a fresh pair of eyes or set of ears is a great way to get it. There’s only so many times you can look at something before you stop seeing the problems.

The big deal, I think, is that fiction writing feels so much more personal than fact writing, even when it's a piece that comes out of nowhere, apropos of nothing. Fact writing is easy if you have the facts. It’s really a matter of organizing the presentation. Fiction comes out of your head and your heart. It comes from a much deeper personal space than non-fiction, even when the stories are completely made up and not some altered version of something you did when you were twenty-five. It’s a lot easier having someone look at your work and say ‘You got some of your facts wrong, buddy,’ than it is to have someone read a short story or novel and say ‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’ Especially if the one thinking that is my wife.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Is it Always Going to be Like This?

Hurrah for me! Yesterday I got an e-mail telling me that one of my short stories was posted on Time Frame, a new, online site promoting the arts. My story, a bit of flash fiction called On the Line, was first conceived last fall. I originally planned to enter it in a ‘100 words or less’ contest, before deciding to hold onto it. The story sat in a folder while I pounded away at NaNo and the novel that followed.

After putting my novel down to rest last month I dusted off On the Line and played around with it for a week or so. When I was finally satisfied I packed it a lunch and sent it off to Time Frame (DISCLAIMER: Two of the principals involved in Time Frame are in my writing group; I don’t believe they realized it was me when they decided to post the story). Then it was back to other things while resisting the siren song of the novel simmering in the cabinet.

When I followed the link and read my story, I wanted to be thrilled. I wanted to sit back in satisfaction and say, “Damn, that’s good,” but I couldn’t. I can’t. All I see now are ways to make it better, ways to improve it.

Is it always going to be like this?

I have a dream that, one day, I’ll be reading excerpts from my novels at bookstores, in front of college classes, on NPR’s Off the Page. If you’re a writer, chances are you have these dreams, too. It’s perfectly fine to admit it; it’s perfectly fine to indulge in a little fantasy. Chances are that it won’t happen, but I’m working on it. I just wonder if I’ll find myself standing or sitting in front of an audience, reading my book and thinking ‘God, this sucks! That sentence is all wrong! I used that word three times in one paragraph!’ Do writers every really get to the point of comfort with their work that they can read it and not see things  that could be better, that should have been fixed, or that never should have been written in the first place?

I suppose the thing to do is to look at the story critically, think about the ways it could be improved, and use that knowledge on the next piece even better. Maybe I’ll never be entirely happy with anything I write, ever, but maybe that’s just how we become better writers. In the meantime, I’ll take my accomplishments where I can get them. Hurrah for me!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Re-read, Revise...Procrastinate

Some time soon, perhaps as early as today, I’m going to embark on one of the most frightening exercises of my life. It’s an activity that I’ve been eager to get to, but terrified to start. In fact, writing this means I’m almost certainly going to delay this activity until tomorrow, if not next week. What, you may ask, is causing all this doubt and procrastination?

I’m going to read my novel.

I started this particular opus in December. According to the date stamp in Microsoft Word, the first piece of this novel was saved on December 6, 2010. The idea had started squirming in my head somewhere in November, but I was busy with my NaNoWriMo book. When that was cleared from the deck (52K words! Woohoo!) I set out trying to write something that was actually, you know, good, because I was pretty certain that my NaNo was – is – not. It’s a good idea, but I know the execution was poor. But that’s another story.

I wrote like a fiend through December and January, struggled with organization and an unsatisfying ending in February and March. Finally, in mid-April, I sat back and said “It’s done.” I did not actually type THE END in gynormous letters across the bottom, because I knew that, while the story was finished, the work was not. Maybe my subconscious is telling me something.

Anyway, I dutifully printed it, spent a good fifteen laborious minutes with a hole punch and binder, snapped the binder shut, and stuffed it in a cabinet.

There’s a lot of debate about what to do with a novel when you’re finished with a first draft. Some (well, a lot) of people advocate placing it under lock and key for anywhere from a month to a year. Others get right back to work on it the very next day. What to do, what to do?

I decided to wait. The next day I went and pulled out a short story I had written in October and sent off to a contest in November. I had finally received noticed that I didn’t win, so I figured I’d take a look at it and see if I could get it published anywhere else. Once I looked at it, the wisdom of simmering my novel became apparent. I lived with this short story for several weeks, writing it, revising it, going over it again and again. But it never got to sit. When I opened the file (the one I’d sent to the contest) I found a double word in the first line (‘he went to to the car’). And a correct spelling of an incorrect word. Reading further, it got worse. There were things in the story that didn’t quite make sense.

I was mortified. These things were so apparent to me immediately, nearly six months after writing it, when I simply failed to see them. I corrected them, tightened up the story, and it’s now out on sub again, hopefully to find a home this time. We’ll see.

Now back to the novel. I promised myself I’d wait at least a month until I looked at it again. I printed it on April 12, so at this point I’m five weeks in. My favorite writer, Stephen King, recommends at least six weeks. If I can hold out until Tuesday I’ll have made it that far. I was pretty good about things for the first two to three weeks: I got busy with those short stories and started fishing around for another novel idea that I haven’t quite grabbed hold of, but it’s coming.

The problem is, I’ve started getting antsy for the novel. I’m anxious, I want to look, I want to read it, I want to make it great.

And I’m afraid of it at the same time.

I think my biggest fear is that, on reading it, I’ll discover it’s absolute crap. I know much of my NaNo is, especially the ending. I didn’t want to just have 50K words on paper on November 30, I wanted to have a full novel, beginning, middle and end. As a result, I pounded out nearly 11,000 words over the final three days, and forced the ending. Badly. When I was writing this novel, I thought it was good. There were problem parts. I knew that as I wrote them, but there were also parts where I thought, ‘Damn, that’s good.’ Right now, I’m afraid that I suck as a writer, plain and simple, despite what the fine folks in my writer’s group tell me.

I’m also afraid that I’ll think it’s pure gold, that I won’t be able to see the plot holes, bad characterization, wooden dialogue and complete lack of story. So I’ll go along, humming to myself as I clean up spelling grammar errors (the ones I see; my grammar is weak), convinced that I’ve written a brilliant novel that will make you laugh and cry and clamor for more. And then I’ll let someone read it, and they’ll hand it back to me, grim-faced, and say “Keep your day job,” and someone will confiscate my keyboard. Hey, it could happen.

Well, that’s enough doubt and angst for me for today. As for what to do? Well, I have a function at my daughter’s school to go to this afternoon, and then I have to drive my other daughter around town this evening, so today is out. Tomorrow, weather permitting, the lawn needs to be cut, and the Bruins are playing, and Sunday’s the day of rest, so that’s out. I guess we’re looking at six weeks after all.