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Thursday, January 28, 2010

What to Pack and How to Unpack-Characters

A few years ago I read an article in Writer's Digest. I can't remember who wrote it, but her advice stuck and it's always in my mind when I'm writing and especially when I'm revising. I remember the analogy vividly. She compared creating a good character to packing a suitcase for an enjoyable trip. In other words, don't pack what you don't need, but be sure to include everything you do. When you unpack do it well.

 The Pack What You Need Approach

















The Pack Everything Approach


When introducing characters, it's important to let the reader know what they need to know about them and no more. For example, if the story is going to pivot on the way a character looks, include that. The way to include it is the tricky part. You can be obvious and tell about her or imply who she is through her actions.



Let's say I'm creating a character who's a beauty contestant and, if she doesn't win, her chance at a modeling contract plummets to zero. Without that contract she's doomed to waitressing in her dad's local cafe because she's made a deal with him. If she doesn't win she'll work for dear old Dad. She's anxious. She's irritable. She's not using good judgment. (Not my best plot, okay?) So here's Brenda, my beauty queen--the obvious characterization:


Brenda had long dark hair and green eyes the color of the deepest sea. She dreamed of a better life and the only way to get it was with her leggy body. In two weeks her destiny would be decided, and each tic she made next to those complacent numbers on the calendar heightened her anxiety and made her more irritable. If she didn't win the beauty contest she'd be stuck in her dad's cafe the rest of her life.

Or the oblique version:

Brenda stepped on the bathroom scale, her long dark hair still dripping from her morning shower. The digital numbers shot past the 110 mark and she smacked the wall with the palm of her hand.

"Damn!"

She had two weeks before the bathing suit competition. Two lousy weeks to lose that cheesecake she'd succumbed to on Wednesdays after her shifts at the cafe. Kicking the scale, shot it into the corner and turned her big toe into a throbbing reminder that more than anything she had to win that modeling contract. More than anything she didn't want to work in her dad's cafe. She hopped to bathtub and sat on the edge, holding her toe.

"Do not cry. Do not cry." Her eyes had to be their perfect sea green for the photo shoot in fifteen minutes.


Do you want to take a stab at packing and unpacking a character? You'll do it better than this, I'm sure. Why don't you characterize Brenda, or give us a quick plot and introduce a character in your own story. This took me about half an hour just to give you an idea of the time commitment. As to revision . . . . that would take a few happy hours.



Monday, January 25, 2010

Link, Links and Links



During stressful rewrites, candy helps, but there's so much other real help out there for writers going into or through the revision process. 


FUN AND REVISION? ABSOLUTELY.

I stumbled on Shannon O'Donnell's post about how to make the job of revision fun. Some of you have read her post, but for those who haven't, take a look when you're ready to throw that manuscript across the room. Have a laugh, maybe do something joyous like turn a somersault, and then go back to work.


CHECKLIST HELP


Nathan Bransford has posted a wonderful Revision Checklist. I love checklists, especially if I don't have to create them. Thank you, Nathan.


ABOUT THOSE "DARLINGS

One of the best guidelines for helping you cut your "darlings" is from Cheryl Klein. I enjoy reading this every time I'm in that situation which is a lot!  Here's what she writes.

CHERYL SAYS, "It is perfectly okay to be upset about cutting things. If you receive an edit and think, 'No! Mr. Fluffy has to stay!' sit down and think why you feel this way. Is it because you really Mr. Fluffy as a character? Because you see him as serving an important function in the novel? Or because you spent five hours writing that scene with him? If it's important to you for a writing reason, look at why your editor suggests dropping him. Is there a way to solve the problem and yet keep him in the book? But if it's only important to you for personal reasons--like the five hours you spent on that scene--then you sigh and cut it with no kicking or screaming.

Here's my favorite part and I've found it helps when I do take the knife to Mr. Fluffy.

CHERYL SAYS, "And really, if you hate cutting that one line or plot development because it's so perfect and you spent so much time on it, remember: It's just disappearing from this work. It's not disappearing from the world. YOU CAN USE IT AGAIN SOMEWHERE ELSE."


Yes!!!!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

About those Scene Revisions


I thought that while I was going through this last manuscript I'd try to figure out my process for revising scenes, so I'd be more aware of it in the future.

Here's what I found out. I put down whatever comes into my mind. It's usually in some understandable sequence, but there's a lot of summary and sometimes I pass over it in mini flashbacks. Here's an example of what I mean.

Draft #1 In the assembly this morning, Bins laid down the rules. If anyone stepped out of line the rest of the semester we could all kiss our extra-curricular activities goodbye. I wonder how Keith's taking that news?

When I was going through the chapter I thought that would make a good scene. I'd like to see my principal tell those kids about what will happen if they step out of line again. I'd like to feel what my character is feeling while she listens. I also wanted to know what "extra-curricular" meant.




Draft #2 The assembly only makes me sicker.  I'm closeted in the auditorium with hundreds of students who I'm sure have plots for revenge against the Edmunds. Bins ratchets the tension to high when he announces the crack down on discipline. All athletic competitions, all dances, and clubs will go on official lock down if one more fight or one more act of vandalism happens on campus. Keith's at the back of the auditorium and he doesn't look as happy as he did when we first arrived at school this morning.

Blaaach! (Editorial reaction to "scene.")

Draft #3  The assembly makes me sicker. I’m closed in with hundreds of students, revenge against the Edmunds on their minds. The announcements take about fifteen minutes, then there’s the prom committee report.
I catch Keith’s eye as he stands at the back by the exit. He doesn’t look so carefree as Bins take the microphone to give his weekly principal’s message.
“In this past month we’ve had some incidents at Las Pulgas that do not reflect well on our student body.”
Butts shift in seats and K.T. who’s in front of me jabs Big Teeth who slaps at her without making contact. Someone kicks the back of my chair, but I keep my eyes front and don’t move.
“So I’m giving fair warning to every student in this school.” Bins does this dramatic pause thing, looking into the audience. “One more fight, one more act of vandalism and all athletic competitions, all dances and clubs will be locked down.”
The tension ratchets up and a low buzz of voices travels around the room.
Bins holds up his hands and the buzzing subsides. “Now return to your classes. Have a great week. I don’t want to see any one of you in my office for cutting or disruptive behavior the rest of the year. Got that?”
The student body shambles out, the buzz picking up again all around me. I do a fast walk to English.

Draft #4 The assembly makes me sicker. I’m closed in with hundreds of students, revenge against the Edmunds on their minds. The announcements take about fifteen minutes, then there’s the prom committee report.
Keith’s in the back corner by the exit, chewing on his thumb, his baseball cap pulled down so I can't see his eyes. When Bins steps onto the stage I can taste the anger in the room. He takes the microphone and searches the faces staring up at him. His eyes stop at each of the track team members, then he holds the mic to his mouth.
“In this past month we’ve had some incidents at Las Pulgas that do not reflect well on our school.”
Butts shift in seats and K.T. who’s in front of me jabs Big Teeth who slaps at her without making contact. Someone kicks the back of my chair, but I keep my eyes front and don’t move.
“So I’m giving fair warning to every student in this school.” He pauses, looks at the back where my brother stands. “One more fight, one more act of vandalism and all athletic competitions, all dances and clubs will be locked down.”
The tension ratchets up and a low buzz of voices travels around the room.
Bins holds up his hands and the buzzing subsides. “Now return to your classes. Have a great week. I don’t want to see any one of you in my office for cutting or disruptive behavior the rest of the year. Got that?”
The student body shambles out, the buzz picking up again all around me. I do a fast walk to English.

Is this something like your process? Have you analyzed what you do when you tackle those scenes during revision? 

Monday, January 18, 2010

Happy Revision Monday


I've spent a couple of weeks going on about rewriting my manuscript: trying to "get the words right," deepening and sharpening my characters, dumping or rewriting my least memorable scenes. Along the way some of you left excellent suggestions on specific techniques you use while going through this process, so thank you for that. I hope others who visit will benefit from these contributions. I know I have. I've made note of all that you posted. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Now that I'm on my last round--I've started what I hope is my final read through of a hard copy--I thought I'd go over some of what I discovered on this rewriting experience, sort of a wrap up.

First, while I divided the task into three parts (prose, characters, scenes) that was only a way to make it more manageable. I found it really helped to concentrate on rewriting each part separately, but that sometimes one led to the other. I'd be focused on creating the best relationship of words or phrases and discover that my characters needed to do or say something to define them more clearly. It's helpful to think about this task in manageable segments, but it's important to be able to see the whole as you do it.

Second, "less is more." This is a theme that's been playing around in my head during the whole rewriting experience. Of course, once you're concentrating on something you become aware of it all around you, so I've stumbled on that philosophy several times. I picked up a book on Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe in the library just to look through it and guess what? Clean lines, clarity and visual simplicity popped out of the pages I flipped through. When I needed to confirm a point of grammar I turned to my Strunk and White and here's what I read: "A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short or that  he avoid all detail . . .  but that every word tell." Thank you, William Strunk. Yesterday I was tuned to PBS and an interview with Ringo Starr. Guess what he was talking about besides his new album? Yep! Making each musical add to the whole without cluttering the piece--no extra stuff.

Third, I'm no longer calling this process, rewriting. That word carries the idea of "correction." From now on I'm calling it revision--seeing a manuscript again with new eyes. When I thought about what I started with several months ago and what I have now I appreciate all that sorting, selecting, moving, changing that I did. I realize I accomplished far more than correct; I created a piece of work that fits together into a better whole than it did before.

So let us know when you take on your own revision. Tell us what your experience has been. There are so many ways to approach this task and each writer has to decide what works best for her. Sometimes sharing an idea helps someone else, and what writer among us doesn't need some help--even if it's just the comfort of knowing someone besides you is in the revision trench.

Happy Revision Monday

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Rewriting: III Scenes

A real writer identifies her least memorable scenes and takes them out. Then a real writer scrambles to figure out what in the #!!% to do next.

I meant to blog this morning. It's Thursday and that's my second blog day of the week, Monday being the first. (My attempt at organization in 2010) Then I started this triage on my manuscript and kaboom. Suddenly I had a September event coming before a February one in the same year. I had the motivation for an action in Chapter 10 floating around in a different Chapter 15. It's taken the day to sort it out, but I think the process worked.

Here's what I did:  I took my least memorable scene and cut it, keeping only the pieces that I needed to maintain the threads I had going. Then I moved to my second least memorable scene and cut it. I repeated this process three times. In the end I put back one scene with a major rewrite and fitted the bits I needed from the other two into places where they were more effective.


I've been on and on about what a "real does" when it comes to rewriting,  and today I have one more thing to add. A real writer knows where her butt is.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Rewriting II Characters




A real writer returns to her characters and deepens or alters or axes those that aren't working.

Okay. So I'm trying to follow in Hemingway's footsteps and I've rewritten my prose, like, almost thirty-nine times by dumping every word I don't need and by choosing the absolutely best word for the meaning I want. Anytime I used the same word closely together . . . I axed one. If there's a cliche lurking this manuscript somebody shoot me. I've reordered words, phrases, clauses so that it's clear who's speaking before the reader gets to the quotes. I've edited sentences to be sure the reader "gets" the emphasis I intended. I've transposed sentences so they are (please muse tell me this is true) CLEAR. I pray there is no "purplish prose" left on any page of this story. I love purplish prose, so cutting that is a tad difficult. "Dark and stormy nights" appeal. What can I say?

Now on to those pesky characters. Thank you Mr. Stein for you guidance. I'm passing on his wisdom and what I've done using it.


Here are Stein's guidelines that I followed:


1. Ask yourself what you like most about your characters. (One at a time, please. No rushing. No clumping.) If any of them are a lot like you, change that. Stein says, give those guys something good or bad that you don't have.

I had to do some digging for the good. The bad was easy. For the good, I made a character very patient; patience is something I have very little of and something my grandmother was always on me for. Then I made him confrontational, really confrontational. Is that bad? Can these choices be relative?



2. Ask yourself if you want to spend a lot of time with your characters, say on an island alone. If not, why?

I liked most of my characters. I discovered I really like the teacher I'd created because he would have been the one I would have chosen to have in school. I liked my romantic Juan guy because . . . never mind. I didn't like one of my protagonist's girlfriends. She irritated me because she talked way too much, but then I realized that I wanted her to be irritating.  I decided that if I had to be on an island with her I'd pack extra Valium to spike her  Pina Colada.

3. Ask yourself how well you know your characters. To find out, put them in a situation and let them react. I let mine find out I'd just married a billionaire; then I imagined their reactions to my good fortune. Jealousy popped up in some unexpected people and I noted the reactions so I could use them when I did my fortieth rewrite.

Can you add something here? What do you do when you're rewriting and reworking those characters? Any techniques you love, hate, find useful, suggest for those in the desperate rewrite mode? Let us know.

Next REWRITING will be about scenes. OMG, not the scenes.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Rewriting Your Prose


As Stein says, "The biggest difference between a writer and a would-be writer is their attitude toward rewriting."A real writer hits delete when a word, a phrase, or a sentence doesn't work.

Hemmingway once told an interviewer that he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before he got it the way he wanted it. When the interviewer asked what gave him so much trouble, he said, "Getting the words right."


I've spent the last few months trying to get the words right and to do that I've tried a few strategies. Here's what worked for me this time:

First, I single spaced my entire ms. That change made the book fresh. I could read all too familiar phrases and sentences with new eyes and find the flaws.

Then I did some searches for repeated structures. I found I had fallen in love with "As she walked toward" and used it so many times that my Edit feature went into overload. I also discovered that almost everybody in my book smiled at least once. Out with all that over-smiling!

After I thought I'd got the words right, I printed out the book and found that I had not gotten all the words right after all. A print out is a great way to again give you a "fresh impression" of what you've been working on for months.

While time is always a factor, I've found giving myself a break between edits cuts my rewriting time.

When you rewrite, do you have certain strategies that work or do you try new ones each time? What seems to be the most effective way to get in there and get to the heart of that prose?

I'm going to do another post about this topic and next time I'm tackling how I rewrite "scenes." In the meantime, I'm, uh, rewriting scenes.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Something New in 2010


What's coming up? It looks like a new gathering for a Teen Blogger Network. Here's the description:


About Teens Blog
Here, teen bloggers can come together and discuss day to day things, build new friendships, and learn blogging tips. For teens, by a teen.

If you want to attend the first PARTY take a look at Rena M's site and sign up. If you write for teens it would be a good way to connect with them.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Theme of the Year

I've been lazing around in front of a January fire (I hope fellow writers will find that amusing.) thinking about how to approach 2010, specifically this here blog! And I've come up with a few ideas, but since I have some people who drop in to read what I write I thought I'd ask for a vote before I launch into a theme.



Here are my ideas. Feel free to give me the raspberry  if your vote's a nay or the happy face if it's a yea!






1. 2010 in pictures: post a picture and comment on what's new or reinvented or just plain fun, scary etc. (My family has already given this one its first raspberry.)

2. All about writing: interviews with /information about writers, bloggers, editors, agents, what's hot, what's not.

3. All about the ups and downs of my writing year. What I'm working on. My stuck moments. My successful writing day--let's hope I can make that plural. My rejections. My rejections. My rejections. My journeys to new places in search of my muse who sometimes vacations. In other words just a journal of C. Lee's writing progress or lack thereof in 2010.

4. Any other suggestions are greatly appreciated.

If you take the time to drop in, what would you like to find here?