Tag Archives: revision

Depth

Last week I read a very good article titled “When Things Go Missing,” by Kathryn Schulz, which appeared in a recent issue of The New Yorker. As the title indicates, the article is about losing things. The author begins with anecdotes about losing one’s possessions, such as wallets, clothing, keys, and cars.  You know she’s going to write about losing more important things, and she does – about losing people.

At 7,000 words the article was long but very readable.  I began reading it on my phone while I was waiting to pick up my kids and kept reading it even after they got in the car and wanted me to start driving.

Later I fell to wondering how the author had written at such length on a topic you might not think anyone could write a lot about.  So I read the article again and noted all the different directions in which the author took it, each like a ray radiating out from a center to illuminate it. There was a paragraph or more on all of these strands: anecdotes about lost objects, people known to the author who lose things often, advice people like to give on how to find things, advice the internet gives on how to find things, types of things it’s possible to lose, data people have compiled on lost things, explanations for why we lose things, why we feel the need to know how something got lost, why we like to blame other people for our losses, why it’s more worrisome to lose things when we get older, and finally, the worst things we can lose – those close to us.

By the time we get to the end of the article, the strands of it have wrapped around us securely.  We get the sense that the author has considered her theme from all angles, deeply.  The resulting perception of depth provides the piece with both momentum and credibility.

If there’s one thing I miss about my former life in economics it’s the sublime feeling of having explored something in depth. There was a problem and there were the resources to study it.  As well, I suppose, there were deadlines, support, the need to reach closure – or else.

I find it so challenging to get the same sense when I’m writing fiction. The problems are hard to define. The resources, if you count all books, are infinite or, really, none.  Countless influences addle my brain.  Writing fiction imposes many constraints – you can’t just write about a theme in a story – though it provides more artistic leeway.

At the same time it’s easy to perceive when any piece of writing, like this blog post, has or lacks depth. As in people, shallowness isn’t attractive in writing.

I read this once about the philosopher Spinoza, who was deeply interested in science and mathematics, that for him the ultimate benefits of scientific study were spiritual. I like this thought so much. It seems to explain why I’m so preoccupied with depth. I could extend the thought to writing and say that the more considered the writing, the better for the soul.

Anu Kandikuppa, 2016 Gish Jen Fellow

Me in My Book

A new friend recently told me that they’d started reading my book. Initially I was, of course, happy that they’d bought a copy and decided to make time to read it. Happiness was swiftly overcome with a sense of trepidation, here was this person still forming opinions of me about to delve into what was possibly my deepest emotional truths.

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

In memoir, we carefully choose what to reveal, what stories to tell, and what moments to carefully edit out. But in fiction, the unreal acts as an obscuring haze over the real, meaning we’re more likely to tell emotional and psychological truths. Because every character is a magnified faucet of oneself, reading fiction is like reading the most personal there is.

I first came to this awareness when revising. As I shouted out what, exactly, my character needed to realize at the climax of the story, I was struck with the knowledge that this truth was exactly what I struggled with most as a person. I ended up laughing off the tension then, but the realization has remained.

When my first book was published, I was most worried about my friends and family reading the book. Sure, reviewers would like it or hate it, but hey, I went to art school and am so used to criticism and rejection that maybe someone should be worried. My family and friends, though, knew me as I presented myself and told my story; what would analyzing my fiction reveal? They, of course, just told me what they liked and moved on. Was I reading too much into it, a result of a sound education in critical thought?

I recently did a revision of a book that I know is very close to my life. When I began the book, I asked my mom for permission to write it, knowing it might someday alienate us from a family friend. She, of course, gave her blessing (and the book hasn’t been sold yet, so any concerns are way off in the future). The weight of needing permission opened up all sorts of questions. What had my parents thought of the book I’d published? They’d never really said. Was there something they were keeping from me? I’m not worried about it, but I still wonder, what does our fiction reveal about ourselves to those closest to us? Is this something only a writer would think about, or is it something other readers are aware of?

If you have any answers, musings, experiences, or thoughts on these questions, I’d love to hear them.

-Marika McCoola, 2016 Ivan Gold Fellow

Ruthless Cutting

“I had a computer file where I would stick these things, a little novel prison, and I’d tell myself if I missed those scenes they’d be allowed to come out and get back in the book.”                                      -Ann Patchett

Revisions always begin with ruthless cutting. Between end-of-semester grading and a revision, there’s been ruthless use of both my zero and delete keys this week. But, as Ann Patchett writes, the beauty of writing on a computer is that you can save all those little darlings that you’re killing.

plainicon-com-45533-512pxAs I write this I have three different documents open that serve just this purpose: one contains cut passages, another lines to possibly use elsewhere, and a third is the “working doc” of scenes I’ve copied to revise and paste back in. Each revision (and this is the second for an editor) has it’s own file, not to mention the countless drafts saved under different names.

I find that having this net is freeing. I am ruthless with the delete key if I also have the ability to cut and paste. However, unlike Patchett, who writes that these scenes never make it back, I have one scene that I pasted back in yesterday. Who knows if it’ll stay there, but it was wonderful to know that it existed; I didn’t have to rewrite the entire thing, I could find it, cut it, paste it, and then make tweaks… and tweaks needed to be made. I remembered the scene well enough, but what I didn’t remember was that it was written so early on (and cut so early) that the protagonist’s name was different. We’ll see if it stays, but it’s nice to know that the work wasn’t wasted.

Ultimately, that’s what I think is important, knowing that the cutting isn’t wasteful. Even if it never ends up in a book, it served a purpose, it helped me figure out my characters and establish my setting; I learned from it. Sometimes it helps to remind myself of this, especially when I consider all those sad, forgotten files in my computer, pieces that will probably never become printed prose.

Patchett quote form this article: “Ann Patchett on Stealing Stories, Book Tours, and Staying Off Twitter.”By Mary Laura Philpott, Lit Hub, August 29, 2016: http://lithub.com/ann-patchett-on-stealing-stories-book-tours-and-staying-off-twitter/

-Marika McCoola, 2016 Ivan Gold Fellow

Writing Advice I Give Myself


For this post I thought I would collect some of the writing advice that I keep on and on giving myself. I am my harshest critic. I nag myself. I’m a bore and a bully. I’m unhappy with much of what I write and pelt myself constantly with bits of difficult-to-follow advice that take away most of the pleasure I might have obtained from my writing but also almost always improve it.

You there, I tell myself. Yes, you. Don’t always be so concerned about plot and how to make the story proceed. I know you do this because plot is your weakness but you must think more broadly about your story as a way to envelop your reader in the character’s soul. I didn’t say this, Chekhov did (I paraphrased his words). Imagine, visualize, and intuit more about your character and his world than what is necessary for the story. Even if your story covers an hour, write it in such a way that the reader realizes it is just one passage within someone’s full, complex life. If you do this well the specifics of plot will matter less.

Do not, repeat, do not, get carried away by the pleasure you take in language. Yes, language is fun to play with but what you make with it matters more in the end. So play if you must, but in the end make every sentence work to illuminate the idea, the reason for the work’s being. The language must be in service of the story, except for writers who are so very good with words that words become the reason for the story’s being. But you aren’t like that.

Consider temperature. Stories may be cool or hot. A cool story is written from a distance and allows you to be ironic and contemplative, which I know you love being, but whoever’s reading it has to be at least a little like you to appreciate it. A hot story is written from the middle of a character in the throes of whatever feeling is prompting the story. Hot stories may, by definition, lack perspective. The characters may seem narrowly – foolishly? – centered on their own lives but these stories use a universal language of human experience and so have the potential to touch readers immediately and reliably. Cool or hot is a decision you should make upfront but don’t just default to what comes easier to you. Take up a challenge once in a while.

Yes, you must revise. Sad but true: one’s first attempt to communicate is never very good. But there’s such a thing as over-revising. Over-revising results in self-conscious writing, writing with much of the edge taken off it. Writing that’s supposed to be flawless but is flawed because it’s stripped of spontaneity. Though your first draft may be imperfect in expression, the thought behind it is often the truest. If you over-revise you run the risk of improving the delivery but ruining the thought. Always keep in mind what you were thinking when you wrote your first draft.

Anu Kandikuppa, 2016 Gish Jen Fellow

A Writer’s Confession

My biggest problem as a writer is trying to protect my characters.

Tension and conflict don’t come easily to me. As someone who survived public school by disappearing around tense situations, it’s understandable. However, it’s problematic when it comes to writing fiction, as you might imagine.

This problem is not something I would’ve figured out with the help of my critique partner, who, thankfully, gives straight, blunt feedback. We didn’t realize this problem right away but working with the same person for four years can be extremely helpful when it comes to understanding process and recognizing pitfalls: I protect my characters, my crit partner avoids physical description. Unfortunately, being aware of this hasn’t changed how either of us write our first drafts. Rather, it’s changed how we both revise.

Both my critique partner and I know that in a first draft I will write a scene and then trickily protect my character from the worst. Our solution to this is to simply flag the parts in which the conflict and tension can be pushed. This allows me to work through a first draft (rather than continually revising) and then return to these moments and discuss how to push the scene. In return, I flag moments where she needs description, and highlight other moments where there’s good description, so my partner knows when she’s achieved it.

Right now, I’m itching to go back in and fix a scene that needs heightened tension at almost every moment but I’m holding off until I can see more clearly what’s going to be around the scene. Until then, I’m making notes- on the train, over lunch, when I wake up- whenever an idea strikes.

RatIn a dream last night, a rat ran over my bare foot. I’m wincing right now, remembering the feel of its matted, wet fur and sharp toes against my skin. This morning, in my overflowing notebook in which I’m juggling projects, I jotted down a note to “Add (copious?) rats to alley scene.” I may as well use an unsettling dream to upset my protagonist.

-Marika McCoola, 2016 Ivan Gold Fellow

 

School Events

Though my book Baba Yaga’s Assistant has been out for almost ten months now and I’ve been working on many other projects, I find that much of my time is still spent working for this book. For me, this takes the form of school visits. While writing a book is an isolating task except for occasional critique group meetings, school visits are my chance to meet my audience directly and honestly, they can be a lot of fun.

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Last week I loaded my bike panniers with books and headed over to Arlington, MA, to meet with students. In the beautiful library, I set up my powerpoint and prepared. As students waited for the other classes to arrive, we talked about what they were reading. There was a list of what you might expect: Rick Riordan, Raina Telegemeier, and Jeff Kinney, but also some titles you might not expect. I gave some recommendations, and then we got started.

I always begin with a brief background, then move into the idea and research process. I spend a bit of time talking about the importance of revising. The kids’ eyes always get big here, their mouths dropping open as I explain just how many times I revised the piece; this is every teacher’s favorite part.

I’m at the point where I can do this presentation in my sleep, but if anything, that makes it better, because it frees me up to read my audience when I speak. I ask questions as I show slides, asking students to show their knowledge and connect my process with what they’ve been learning in their English and art classes.

Once I’ve established the writing process, we talk about the phases the art went through (again, revising is important here!) and I end with a final spread. This is my favorite part: asking students to break down how the different art elements are working. The students are always able to look at color and shape and indicate how it relates to mood, tone, and setting. Meanwhile, their teachers’ mouths are dropping. Unless one of the teachers is trained in art, they generally are not aware of how much visual literacy is a part of graphic novels and how adept their students are at analyzing it.

Then, of course, there’s Q&A. Always call on the random squirming boy in the back. Generally, his question is surprisingly relevant and insightful, not the run of the mill “will it be a movie?” Which is a question every author fields at school events and most would rather not.

With groups under fifty, I tend to end my presentation with an exercise, getting the students to practice their own writing and drawing. I love to see what the students make and what questions they ask, but it’s also a point at which insecurities arise. I’ve found that fifth graders will do pretty much anything but seventh and eight graders, especially those who are in advanced classes, worry about doing something wrong. We’ve all been in this situation, had this fear, but it’s only recently that I’ve begun to wonder if this is directly tied to revision.

As writers, we’re aware of how much work, how many changes, will ultimately go into our final. Whatever we do for a first draft or pass can be shitty; it’ll get better (it might get worse first, but it’ll get to a better place eventually). Focusing on endless sketches and countless revisions, something I didn’t get to do until college, makes work less precious, more malleable. If we allowed for more of this in schools, would students be more willing to take more risks? Or is the time allotted to testing and prepping an impediment to this very important skill?

I don’t have the answers to these questions yet but what I can say is that I love visiting schools. I love being able to take time out of new projects to connect directly with my audience, to learn what they’re reading, what they’re excited by, and how they engage with the concepts inherent in my work. When a student lingers after an event to tell me about what they’re working on, or that they liked my book, well, then I know it was worth it. Luckily, I have some more visits planned.

-Marika McCoola, 2016 Ivan Gold Fellow

 

On Acceptance

When I enter the Writers’ Room of Boston, the successful works of writers greet me. Displayed in the foyer are the completed masterpieces of WROB members who’ve reached my goal: to publish a book.

The sight is one of accomplishment, passion, pride, hope, persistence, drive, faith, timing, and luck—we have no control over the latter two.

As writers, not one of us escapes rejection. For a long time, I received several rejections a week, sometimes every day. Yet somehow, instead of discouraging me, the rejections fueled me onward. I believed that if I worked hard enough, if I took the “right” steps, if I did the things writers were supposed to, I’d successfully put my words out into the world, connect with others, and reach my goal.

I honed my craft in writing workshops and networked with industry professionals at many writers’ conferences and retreats. I earned not one but two MFAs. Renowned authors became my mentors, encouraging me. I published in magazines and built my “platform.” I signed with a respected literary agent who was excited about my work.

But four years later, with two books unsold, my agent lost his enthusiasm. Eventually, I made the difficult decision to leave him.

I went back to the task of querying.

One by one, I received rejections. I was told that in the current nonfiction market I’d never sell a book, because I wasn’t a celebrity. I was advised to try to break into the publishing business by writing fiction, a genre for which fame wasn’t a prerequisite to becoming a debut author.

So I wrote a novel. One agent who requested the first five pages emailed me her reaction: “Writing fiction is a talent, which you obviously don’t have.”

Worn, I believed her. I put my manuscript away. I felt utter despair. I lost sight of the goals I had already accomplished. I saw only my failure. The encouraging words of my mentors rang hollow in my ears. I lost faith that I’d ever publish a book. I began to think such success simply wasn’t mine to attain.

Photo Credit: Debka Colson Print by Bread & Puppet

Photo Credit: Debka Colson
Print by Bread & Puppet

But I couldn’t stop writing. Call it masochism or tenacity – some days I really didn’t know what it was, but I was driven. I wouldn’t let the publishing business zeitgeist deter me.

When I received the Writers’ Room of Boston Nonfiction Fellowship, I made my way to the State Street office. I turned the key in the elevator panel. I pressed the button for the fifth floor: it lit. I ascended.

When the door opened, an overwhelming sense of acceptance welcomed me.

Now here I am, writing in the Room, feeling renewed purpose and solace in the sound of my fingers typing sentence after sentence, amidst the sounds of other writers doing the same.

In the words of Billy Joel, “I’m keeping the faith, yes I am.” We all are.

-Tracy Strauss, Fellow in Nonfiction

The Murky, Glorious Middle

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

I’m in the middle of an MFA thesis, in the middle of revising a story, one that I’ve been writing, on and off, for years now. Middles tend to be viewed unfavorably, I’ve noticed. Age, car seats, and those poor children. One is always stuck, when in the middle. And I’ve lamented being here, many times, to anyone who will listen–here, where the exciting spark of a story’s beginnings is long behind me, and the prospect of finishing it seems impossibly far away.

But of course in writing, we spend most of our time here, in the middle. So it would be wise for us (for me) to learn to love it. Seven years ago I took my first fiction workshop, during which we learned, week by week, various components of craft. I had always been a reader of fiction, but until then had never really considered what effect point of view had on a narrative. How setting could be as important as plot. What it meant to use exposition, versus scene. It seemed to me that I was finally being shown fiction’s inner workings, and now it should be possible to spit a story out at will! And then during the last class, my brilliant teacher told us: Of course, revision is where we do all the actual work. He went on about how he really loved revision, as the class sat silent, all of us absorbing the idea that there was no way to shortcut to a finished piece. I felt the first stirrings of an anxiety that would become very familiar over the years–I could not conceive of dismantling the two stories I’d toiled over, only to put them back together again. Why, if I was supposed to write a different version of the story, couldn’t I write it the first time?

It took me a long time to accept his statement. To accept that in revision, we have the opportunity to consider what has emerged in the work unbeknownst to us. In that first draft we are busy constructing worlds, forming people, creating tangled events and timelines, and we are so close to this newness that we sometimes can’t recognize everything we’re putting down on paper. It’s not until the murky middle–the glorious middle–of the writing process that we step back and observe what we’ve created.

The hardest part, for me, is the stepping back. The re-seeing. Re-visioning. I reread my drafts obsessively, and this sometimes gives me the illusion of the words solidifying in their arrangements before they should, calling forth that anxiety about pulling them apart again. And since I know this is a challenge for me, I now shamelessly adopt any and all methods I learn from others, to see things anew. I change my fonts. I work backwards from the end. I switch to writing by hand. I read aloud. I tape sections to walls and summarize them on post-its, which my husband and cats find endlessly amusing. I leave my desk to write at the kitchen table, or the sofa, or the amazing, blessed Writer’s Room. If you tell me what you do to see your words as fresh words, I guarantee I will try it.

Because when we re-see our words in revision, we usually find that they don’t capture the feeling that first drove us to the page. Somehow the work has become its own beast, and has taken on all sorts of qualities we hadn’t intended. This character never acts upon anything. The energy in that scene lags. Or we notice parallels and connections we never saw before, and by restructuring this or that we can make them sing. We insert an image and are startled to see that its effects now echo through the narrative arc, opening a new direction altogether. It is only recently that I’ve come to appreciate this middle as the actual work of writing, something not to fear, but to revel in. I still don’t know the answer to that question, of why we can’t write the perfect poem, story, or novel the first time around. It is still mysterious to me how the act of creation requires us first to build something on paper, and then to break that something down. To see it with new eyes. To reshape it into something we could not conceive of before it was there, outside of ourselves. Little by little we coax our words to become what we hope they could be.

Cynthia Gunadi, Ivan Gold Fiction Fellow