Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Re-Vision


“I believe more in the scissors than I do
in the pencil.” - Truman Capote



National Novel Writing Month 2008 (NaNoWriMo) ended November 30 leaving me with 66,103 words of a novel which I now must expand and revise. It seems there are as many methods of revision as there are novelists. Some writers make only a single pass through, but a very thorough one. Others revise draft after draft. How do you handle it?

For my first NaNoWriMo in 2004, I simply did writing practice in response to prompts which I had created. My only parameters were that the topic had to relate to golf or my father. I wound up with 50,000 words worth of little essays. No plot. No consistency. I spent the next four years completing it.

I began the revision process by simply printing out all the pieces. I double spaced them, 3-hole punched them, and put them in a three-ring binder in chronological order. Unfortunately this chronology spanned my entire life and reached back into my father’s as well. I took this binder to a coffeehouse and spent three days reading it all the way through. I tried to figure out which pieces were workable the way they were (very few), which bits needed to be chucked (many) and which parts might work with revision (some).

Next, I stepped waaaaay back from the individual written pages to think about the whole story structure. I stepped so far back that I wound up in grad school to study plot and characterization and other aspects of craft. I looked at what and where the climax would be and the different turning points that would lead the characters to the climax. I figured out the story’s timeline and the overall shape of the thing. I chopped the NaNo book into pieces again and, according to where I thought they fit in the timeline and story arc, I rearranged them using tools like yWriter and index cards and lots of weird outline type things to actually move the ideas and the huge wads of text around. I found holes the size of small countries so I spent tons of time writing new scenes to fill them.

Once I felt I had all the pieces in all the right places, I went through and polished, polished, polished correcting grammar and punctuation, tightening the dialogue, and checking for unnecessary repetition of words. When I was through, I had probably read every word in that book four or five times. I wish I could say it was perfect, but every time I pick it up, I can still find a place to tighten and polish, revise and correct.

I would love to hear from folks who have tackled revising a book-length work. How did you approach the revision process? How many passes through do you make? What tools do you use?

For those of you who have a draft to revise, good luck! May the rest of you have one soon.

 
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Saturday, November 01, 2008

November Means NaNo!

“Normal people can produce extraordinary things by simply refusing to leave a blank page blank." - Chris Baty, creator of NaNoWriMo.org

Ah! November is finally upon us and I've thrown myself into National Novel Writing Month, fondly referred to as NaNoWriMo by the participants. Every November thousands of writers from around the world attempt to write fifty-thousand words of brand spanking new fiction in thirty days. The NaNo website offers camaraderie, support, structure and welcome distractions for writers attempting to write an average of 1667 words a day for one month.

Once I'd set aside the memoir I'd been toying with and began to wrap my mind around writing a novel, I spent much of October preparing for this writing marathon. As part of my preparation, I read the first half of No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days by NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty and did the exercises. I came away with with some character descriptions and a few ideas for conflicts in which to throw these unsuspecting victims. Baty intends for the second half of the book to be read week by week during the actual month so I am only now allowed to read that part.

I also zoomed over to NaNo veteran Lazette Gifford's website and read her free NaNo preparatory manual, It's a Jungle Out There: NaNo for the New and Insane. Lazette has written other helpful noveling books as well as a wide assortment of published novels. Her phase outline method provided a simple, helpful way to think of the story in manageable (1667 words a day) chunks.

NaNo preparation would not be complete without surfing the NaNoWriMo forums where the NaNo participants share everything from their methods of character description to their political views. Writers dare other writers to include things in their novels like exploding lipstick while other writers stick to the elements of figuring out the logistics of weekly write-ins where writers gather at a local spot to write together in person. Spending time in the forums was a great way to tick off the October days leading up to the 12:01AM November 1 kick-off time when writers officially began amassing words.

Don't let the fact that we're a day into November discourage you from joining the frenzy. In 2004, I didn't sign up for NaNo until November 6th and I still crossed the fifty-thousand word finish line in time to print off my suitable for framing NaNo certificate. Don't let lack of preparation deter you either. Many participants swear by a complete seat of the pants approach. Either way, at the end of the month, you'll still have written more words than you would have if you hadn't begun at all. I hope you'll join us.

(c)Nita Sweeney, 2008, all rights reserved
 
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Monday, October 13, 2008

Six Random Things

A few weeks ago Nikki, a fellow Goddard student and blogger at More Purple Houses, tagged me to tell you six random things about me and then tag some other bloggers. Here goes:

1. At Starbucks, I order a decaf triple venti soy one sweet-n-low latte.

2. I don't care for onions or cooked spinach although I will eat small amounts of spinach if it is chopped and mixed with something else. Onions I will pick out of everything whether raw or cooked.

3. I currently have braces after having had rapid palatal expansion surgery. I hope the braces will be removed very soon.

4. When I was a teenager, my mother, Ellen Buddelmeyer, was the drive-time radio disc jockey for WCVO, the Christian voice of central Ohio. I did not think this was cool.

5. I began letting my hair grow as the official start of my mid-life crisis. It is now well below my shoulders. I have no plans to cut it anytime soon.

6. When I practiced law, I memorized the punch line of every lawyer joke I could. When someone began to tell the joke, I said the punch line to spoil it. I have forgotten most of them.

There. That wasn't so bad. I'll tag Sea Side Shooter and Mel.

Friday, October 03, 2008

How Do You Begin?

“I always do the first line well, but I have trouble doing the others.” - Moliere, from The Ridiculous Precieuses

My quest to fall in love with a new book project has made me think about how I stumbled upon the idea for my last one. I've been in an on-line writing practice group since July 1997. On October 24, 2004, I wrote the following opening lines on the topic, "This is What I Know:"

Normal people would have rallied around a bottle of Jack Daniels or resigned themselves to a lifetime of platinum drips to prolong the inevitable. But we were not normal people. My father was not a normal man.

When I reread the full 10-minute piece, I knew it had the makings of a book. Dad’s death. My depression. Our golf. Three topics intertwined. Even though it wouldn't be a novel, I signed up for National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) and used the month-long structure to pull the material out of me. During November 2004, I wrote 50,000 words about my father and golf. Each day I pulled up a memory and wrote 2,000 words not stopping to figure out how the pieces went together. Of that original writing practice, not one complete sentence remains in the book, but it gave me the doorway into the project. That’s what I’m looking for again - an opening.

Now I have two projects, a novel and a memoir, vying for my attention. I alternate working on them. For the novel, I look forward to NaNoWriMo again this November. With the memoir, I’m using the free novel-writing software yWriter. I hadn’t discovered yWriter when I began the last book, but it proved exceedingly helpful to plot the NaNoWriMo mess after I'd written it. This time I’m attempting to plot both books before I begin the writing. I find this awkward. There may indeed be two types of writers: those who plot before they write and those who plot after. Ignoring the strong possibility that I might be an after-the-fact plotter, I’m creating chapters and scene descriptions, trying to make something vaguely resembling a three-act play.

I don’t have a complete answer to the question, “How do you begin?” So I’d love to hear your input. Please let me know how you begin a writing project. I imagine there are as many methods as there are writers.

(c)Nita Sweeney, 2008, all rights reserved
 
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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Unhappiness

“Blank pages inspire me with terror.” - Margaret Atwood

After listening to me whine, a friend decided to give me a copy of Seven Steps on the Writer's Path: The Journey from Frustration to Fulfillment by Nancy Pickard and Lynn Lott. The authors - a writer and a psychologist - found a patten to the writer’s angst. My friend quickly diagnosed me. I’m at a stopping point on one project, but not ready to launch into something new. “It’s just unhappiness,” she said cheerfully. “That’s the first step on the writer’s path. You’re just circling back to the beginning.”

Unhappiness, huh? This is not news and yet it is somehow helpful. It has a name. Other writers have survived it. I’ve completed my MFA and am shopping my book to agents. I want to push the pen across the page in some meaningful way, but little comes. This is unhappiness.

Unfortunately, my friend has been unable to put her hands on another copy of the book. While I wait for her to locate one, I've asked everyone else what they would do. One author suggested giving myself some space. Sit in a café for three hours and just write for ten minutes. Don't work on anything in particular. Let your mind wander and let something float up. Another recommended writing from the type of writing prompts which call up two stories at the same time. Things like: From where I sat, I could see what they were chasing. My husband, a more practical sort than most of my writer friends, suggested taking care of the things I put off when I was in school - little things like getting new glasses.

I'll take these excellent suggestions. Next week perhaps. In the meantime I'm taking long walks with the dog and trying not to feel as if the floor has fallen out from under me now that I don't have an advisor giving me feedback or deadlines requiring me to send 40 pages out every three weeks. I secretly hope an agent will appear in my future to say my book needs tons of work so I can launch myself on it again.

But just in case I locate a copy of the Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path, I’ll go ahead and get new glasses.

(c)Nita Sweeney, 2008, all rights reserved
 
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Sunday, August 03, 2008

Pitch Lounge

Speed dating. That's the best way I can describe the Writers’ League of Texas Agents and Editors Conference I attended in late June. Three hundred writers vied for the attention of 30 agents and editors. The extroverts ruled while the rest of us (the majority of us) did our best to get a word in edgewise.

The goal is to hear the magic words, “I’d like to see some pages.” This gives you the privilege of writing "Requested Material"on the envelope when you send your work and makes your submission rise to the top portion of the slush pile. It also means that the agent or editor, after seeing you in person, is reassured that you can at least carry on a conversation - a plus if they send you on book tour.

The conference planners did their best to accommodate different personality types. I purchased three one-on-one sessions with two agents and an editor all of which went very well. Face to face at a small table with just the editor or agent alone, I was able to speak clearly and ask intelligent questions. By contrast, I failed miserably in the pitch lounge where editors and agents hung out between appointments. Writers filled the four round tables crammed into a small room and whoever opened her mouth first got to bend the agent’s ear for most of the session. I fared just as poorly at the two cocktail parties where I couldn’t seem to force myself to get up from my table and mingle. I did somewhat better at the final session in which each agent or editor was seated at an individual table. The seven writers at each table had a total of fifteen minutes to pitch before a bell rang and the agent or editor moved to the next table.

I also found the pre-conference workshop extremely helpful. An agent gave us pitch pointers and allowed us to practice in front of a small group. I tightened my pitch from three sentences to one and felt much more confident after having tried it out on the other writers.

Bottom line, if you go, be prepared and be brave. Research the agents and editors to find those who work with your genre and make a list to carry as you work the crowd. And remember, they want you to pitch to them. They’re looking for the next big thing and hoping it’s you.

(c)Nita Sweeney, 2008, all rights reserved
 
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Friday, July 04, 2008

Fundamental Truth

“I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” - Elmore Leonard

I’ve been in bed for nine days. Hopefully, I’m on the mend, but I don’t have the energy to scare up any brilliant insights. Instead, I’ll leave you with a fundamental truth which my friend Bill says every time he sees me.

“Don’t forget, Nita. Writers write!”

Monday, June 02, 2008

No Conference? No Problem.

"I'm writing a book. I've got the page numbers done." - Steven Wright

By now many central Ohio folks have heard that the Columbus Writer's Conference organizers are taking a hiatus. I had hoped to pitch my book this year, but no go. Luckily writers have tons of resources. I found a conference dedicated solely to agent and editor pitch sessions conveniently located in Austin near the home of a writing friend who housed us for four days. Thanks Saundra!

What will you do with the time and resources the conference freed? If you're self-motivated you could spend the weekend generating new material, revising your work, or reading one of the many wonderful writing books available. Filled with exercises and short essays, Natalie Goldberg's latest writing book, Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir, would make a splendid companion.

Need more structure? Grab a few writer friends, snag someone's family room, and create your own impromptu workshop. If you're all working on projects, just dedicate the space to writing. If you're beginning something, ask each person to bring their favorite writing exercise and agree to play along.

Want more? Search the listings in Poet's & Writer's Magazine, Shaw Guides, and the Associated Writing Programs for conferences near and far. You're sure to find something that suits. There's even the Muse On-Line Writer's Conference.

I look forward to hearing about the conferences you've all created!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Self-Sabotage

"No one can tell you when to start and how to stop, either. And only you can put it off until there are no more tomorrows." - Susan Bono

I'm deep in book revisions. Instead of an essay, this month you get a link. CLICK HERE to read authors from the Erma Bombeck Writers Conference writing about self-sabotage. Special thanks to columnist Pat Snyder for sending the info my way.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Leap!

“Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how . . . . We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.” - Agnes de Mille, dancer and choreographer

On March 15th I sent my entire book manuscript to my M.F.A. advisors - 229 pages - the whole thing, all the pieces, all together in the same place at the same time. In the weeks prior to the deadline, I had to throw the schoolbook out the window. Oh, it was helpful to have learned about plot trajectories, character development, dialogue, and tension building. All that stuff about Aristotle’s incline came in handy too. But for the most part, it went out the window - right out onto the lawn next to the barely budding crocuses and the daffodil greens that aren’t quite ready to pop.

It had to go under the ground with all the acorns the squirrels planted last autumn and the leftover birdseed that the robins didn’t get this winter. In its place came intuition and raw nerve. I had to leap, leap, leap. I put something down and moved on to the next. Does this piece go here? Don’t think too hard. Just put it down and move on. Piece after piece like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

I’d spent a ton of time sorting which pieces to use. Years deepening the pieces so that they were the right shape and color and just the right pitch in sound. And then all I could do was lay them down. It felt something like what I think dying might feel like. I was convinced it was all wrong and anxious that I would just have to do it over again and I still might. But it fell together. The pieces fell together and at the end, like winning a game of solitaire, I had only a few pieces left and they fit together. The queen of hearts went atop the king of diamonds and I had a draft of the full manuscript sitting on my table, and most importantly, extracted from my mind.

It will need more work. My advisors have read it and while they are impressed with the work I have done, they agree that it needs more work. And someday, hopefully, an editor will read it and she too will say it needs more work. And when that day comes, remind me that I already know how to do it. Remind me that I know how not to be sure, how to guess, and move forward, and how to take leap after leap in the dark.

Leap!

“Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how . . . . We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.” - Agnes de Mille, dancer and choreographer

On March 15th I sent my entire book manuscript to my M.F.A. advisors - 229 pages - the whole thing, all the pieces, all together in the same place at the same time. In the weeks prior to the deadline, I had to throw the schoolbook out the window. Oh, it was helpful to have learned about plot trajectories, character development, dialogue, and tension building. All that stuff about Aristotle’s incline came in handy too. But for the most part, it went out the window - right out onto the lawn next to the barely budding crocuses and the daffodil greens that aren’t quite ready to pop.

It had to go under the ground with all the acorns the squirrels planted last autumn and the leftover birdseed that the robins didn’t get this winter. In its place came intuition and raw nerve. I had to leap, leap, leap. I put something down and moved on to the next. Does this piece go here? Don’t think too hard. Just put it down and move on. Piece after piece like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

I’d spent a ton of time sorting which pieces to use. Years deepening the pieces so that they were the right shape and color and just the right pitch in sound. And then all I could do was lay them down. It felt something like what I think dying might feel like. I was convinced it was all wrong and anxious that I would just have to do it over again and I still might. But it fell together. The pieces fell together and at the end, like winning a game of solitaire, I had only a few pieces left and they fit together. The queen of hearts went atop the king of diamonds and I had a draft of the full manuscript sitting on my table, and most importantly, extracted from my mind.

It will need more work. My advisors have read it and while they are impressed with the work I have done, they agree that it needs more work. And someday, hopefully, an editor will read it and she too will say it needs more work. And when that day comes, remind me that I already know how to do it. Remind me that I know how not to be sure, how to guess, and move forward, and how to take leap after leap in the dark.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Family Ties

“The one thing all nations share is the fear that a member of the family will want to be an artist.” - Robert Frost

My family's fears have come true. An excerpt from Memorial, the book I'm writing about my father, has been published in The Pitkin Review, Goddard College's literary magazine. As excited as I was to have the excerpt accepted, my fear of my family's response outweighed the joy ten to one.

The only way I know to overcome the fear that my family will be unhappy with what I’ve written is to let them know what’s coming. This won’t work for everyone, but I don’t like surprises and I doubt they would either. Some memoirists never show work to family members until after it’s published. Some show the drafts to anyone who appears in the work. Others, like me, have a conversation with family members about the work before it appears in print. My goal is to travel with as much ease as possible balanced by my need to tell the story.

A few members of my family have read the piece and, so far, no one has thrown any stones. Of course, the section published is a rather mild part of the book. But I’m testing the waters and getting my family ready for the more difficult sections to come. When I’m confused about whether to reveal something, I choose to honor the story. The story always wins. I hope it will win my family over as well.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Body Double

“If we had to say what writing is, we would define it essentially as an act of courage.” - Cynthia Ozick

Even on good days I need little tricks to keep writing. Bribery. Coercion. Threats. And right now I have to pull out all the stops. One trick is what Linda Anderson, an organizational expert, refers to as the body double principle. No. Not like in the movies. No one’s doing a nude scene here.

In writing, a body double is simply another person physically present, usually another writer working away beside me. I’ve been using several friends for this purpose for some time now. I don’t know if they realize they’re being used, but they don’t seem to mind. We meet at a coffeehouse and work on our individual projects at the same time.

But since my mother died, I haven’t wanted to write. I just want to sleep. Yet the fact that my friend would be at the coffeehouse tugged at me. So I joined her. She is disciplined. I am not. I stir and spin. There she sat working away, so I sat next to her. After a few minutes, I got up to get coffee. Then I had to go to the bathroom. Then refill my coffee. I sat again. I sifted through my bag. I pulled out one project, returned it, then drug out another. All the while my friend continued to work. My mind watched her. Sitting near her calmed me and eventually I began to work. Hours passed and I was amazed when I looked at my watch. I only had fifteen minutes before I needed to leave.

According to Anderson, “. . . the body double serves as a physical and emotional anchor for the distracted individual who feels more centered by the presence of another person in their space.”

I don’t know exactly why it works, but it does and I’m going to keep using it.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Mom

I'm beside myself with grief. My mother, Sarah Ellen Buddelmeyer, died Sunday, December 30, 2007. My family is in mourning. Please keep us in your thoughts.

And please keep writing. Mom would have wanted us all to keep writing.