Growing Up

We are deep in the bowels of winter, with the weather dropping fast to  -30°F/ -34°C.  At times like this, I pretty much become a hermit; I mean, I’m already a hermit, but now I don’t even go in my yard.  And one of my favorite things to do in my hermitage is start planning for spring.  (Kind of pathetic, I know.)  I plot out my garden.  I contemplate plans for the property.  And I think about livestock.

One of the best things about spring is going down to the feed shop and bringing home a madly peeping cardboard box of pine shavings and baby birds.  Gosh, I love chicks.  They’re terribly fragile things, all hunger and hollow bones and soft down, but they’re unbelievably cute little buggers.chick

Last year, since we knew we’d be gone for the summer, we only got two little pullets instead of our usual haul of two pullets (read: egg birds) and a dozen or so Cornish cross (read: meat birds).  I get a visibly different breed of pullets each year so that I know at a glance how old a bird is, and this year we went with the red sex-links.  They came home as freaking adorable little ginger powder puffs.

But hardly more than a week later, I started to notice pin feathers coming in, rimming their wings, their nubby little tails.  By the time we left on our trip, they were well into gawky adolescence, and then three months later, I came home to this:

hen

Bwah?  What happened to my powder puffs???

But my shock quickly turned into delight when just a few weeks later, they started pooping out eggs.  I cannot eat cuteness.  Eggs are much better.

I’m not saying that pets like cats, which provide me no eatenings, aren’t wonderful.  But these birds are not pets.  As much as I enjoy them, they are stupid, smelly, evil-eyed neo-dinos and the whole point of my keeping them is for meat and eggs.  Chicks provide me with neither.  Growth and change, as in so many aspects in life, are good.

The early life of a manuscript is much like the early life of a chicken.  Just as I wouldn’t really want my chicks to stay chicks forever, I don’t really want my early drafts to stay immature forever.  Assuming your literary goals are anything beyond the personal catharsis of writing (which is a totally legit goal), a story must change and evolve for it to reach its full potential and achieve those goals.  A story that stays in first draft mode forever, adorable and joyful as it may be, will never make it off your desk.

I used to make only the most superficial of edits to my beloved manuscript.  (Yes, there was only one at the time.)  I might alter the dialog a little, or clean up the prose a bit.  But I would never have considered anything deeper than that.  If I found there was a plot hole, I’d patch it over with even more bad writing, seaming it up with poor motivations, unrealistic character actions, and nonsensical ‘traditions’ designed expressly to prop up the rest of the stagnant mess.  If I found one of my characters was only there because I thought they were cool, or a scene didn’t need to happen but I really liked the setting in which it took place, or any of a thousand other instances of self-gratifying excuses for hack work- then I’d find some reason, any reason at all, to double down and dig that grave a little deeper.  I spun wheels in that rut for ten years, actively stunting my own story’s growth in a stilted homage to fear and nostalgia.

It shouldn’t be that way.  The first draft is an opportunity to get all thoughts down on the page, no matter how stupid.  The second draft should be the opportunity to start hammering the stupidity, and all the glittery bits in between, into something lovely and coherent.  Growing pains are to be expected.  Sometimes you won’t feel sure if you’re making the poor thing better or worse.  But the change is good.  The change is necessary.  Editing is what makes takes a bad (or mediocre or even good) piece and makes it better.

Growth in a chicken takes time and energy, and the careful instructions coded over four billion years of trying new things.  Plan the changes; cull; experiment; be brave.  And then give your beautiful manuscript the time and the work needed to be its very best.

Do you find yourself stuck in an editing rut?  Picking endlessly at the same sentences without really changing anything?  Next week, I’ll talk about my editing process- how I plan it, what I look for, how I decide I’m done- and I’d love to hear about yours as well.  Join me next Monday, and until then, happy writing (and editing)!

The Other Side.

Hi. Jill’s husband here.  Jill asked that I do a post for her on her birthday!  So I’ve sent her to bed and am writing this in her stead. I think this will be useful but first you have to step into my world for just a second.

I love games. In particular, I voraciously play a certain card game that involves two players, each with a deck of cards. Many people become attached to their deck, and see it as an extension of their persona. It has been carefully crafted.  It is their tool for defeating opponents. It contains rare cards that they own. In short, people want to play with their deck. So it came as a surprise to my opponent at a tournament yesterday when I asked if we could switch decks (during a non tournament game).

The reason I do this is to lean how my deck operates from the opponent’s perspective. Some cards may not seem powerful, but when played against you are quite brutal and visa versa. This made me realize that I was a good person to talk about living with a writer and focus on the other side.

Time

actually i just needed an embaressing picture

Being stranded on a park bench in a flooded lake may hinder writing time…

Living with a writer is an interesting study in the use of time. There is never enough to go around. I take way more time in our relationship, and with more immediate specter of income, we both agree that my career time constraints have priority over Jill’s. I thought that her time writing could be truly flexible, but it has come to my attention that she is more productive at certain times of the day or has a routine that she prefers to work within. I don’t always realize when I’ve disrupted that routine.

Alpha/Beta Reading

Usually I have the role of reading material as it is generated. Or at the very least ideas are reviewed off me. In many instances I am just awed at what Jill can produce. I am not a writer nor do I enjoy the process, but I have read quite a bit. To quote that one guy: “I may not know much about [writing], but I know what I like.” My comments are often like that. I may have a minor complain about a character or how the story is laid out, or I may just express my love of how similar situations were treated in my favorite books. Jill is the one who has to mold that whimsical desire into her storyline in a literarily appropriate manner. In a similar vein, some of my proudest moments come from giving ideas to her stories that actually come to fruition.

Moral Support

yep, they're cute alright!

Moral support is about all they can do to help…

The biggest influence I think I have on Jill as a writer is as moral support. Full disclosure here: sometimes I think that all this writing stuff is useless unless its getting a paycheck. But then I realize that my schooling and unpaid internships are generating just as much money. And I truly believe in the skills my wife possesses and the material she produces. I think it is amazing and people should pay to read her work. Besides, even if her current novel fails to every publish it is still not a “failure”. It’s a piece of good writing, of value for her, and to all who do read it.  Is a painting useless is if no one buys it? No. Writing is clearly an art, and there is something beautiful and inspiring about the creating of art. There is not a way to really put a price on that.

Other Other Side

I just want to end my note here by reiterating my example of the card game. In the game, there is always a single clear opponent. From what I gather of the writing business there are a number of people who have an important opinion of what a writer does. The spouse is at the bottom of that list in many ways. I think this blog has many examples of how to gain the perspective of the agents, readers, publishers, editors, and reviewers.

I hope we can all get a little more understanding of each other by “switching decks” as often as possible.

Thank you Jill for being so wonderful, and happy birthday!
Hubby

Getting Your Ducks in a Row

Quack! Have I mentioned lately that I really love the programs put together by the Alaska Writers Guild’s Interior Chapter? ‘Cause I do. Love, love, love. Despite our being a tad isolated from most of the writing world, the chapter president always does a fantastic job of presenting relevant information and finding qualified guests.

Last month’s guest speaker was Gerri Brightwell, the Director of Creative Writing at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her presentation, titled “Getting Your Ducks in a Row”, was about revision. Dr. Brightwell broke revision down into three clumps: content editing, line editing, and copyediting. Line editing has to do with concision and style, while copyediting digs into grammar. She focused her presentation on content editing and, in particular, the things we need to focus our attention on in revision to make sure our story’s content is interesting, clear, and enjoyable- and makes our reader think. As Dr. Brightwell said (in a charming English accent), “You can edit the heck out of so-so writing and it’ll still be so-so writing.” so-so writing

To take our so-so writing to its full glimmering potential, Dr. Brightwell suggests “the Magic Three”: psychic distance, detail, and character motivation.

Psychic Distance This is how close the reader to the character. Psychic distance can be very far or very close, the difference between “It was the summer of 1982 and the hottest season on record”, and “Her back prickled with sweat as the summer sun burned into her scalp and shoulders, Eye in the Sky drowning out the hum of mosquitoes”. Doing your entire story from a great psychic distance doesn’t give your reader much to attach to. But spending the entire story sifting through the character’s every thought and feeling and motion can make readers claustrophobic. Get inside your character’s head, let us know what they’re thinking and feeling, but also shift out a bit more every now and then. Varying your narrator’s psychic distance from time to time can help to keep the perspective fresh and interesting.

But most of your reader’s attachment to characters is going to happen while riding buddy in their heads. Also, closeness to the narrator (or point of view character) means that we’ll experience the world as a natural, living thing. It also means that the details we see through that character’s eyes will do more than just show the world- they will show character and significance.

Detail Part of getting into your character’s head is noting the details that he or she would notice. Specific details, especially sensory details, can really ground a reader in the character’s world. Including details doesn’t necessarily mean more words on the page, although it can. The best use of detail comes in the efficient use of language. English is rich with very specific words that can tell the reader a lot while saying little. Consider the difference between these two sentences. “The woman’s dog was angry.” “The duchess’ shiatsu snarled.” Both tell us about an angry dog. But the second includes a lot more detail: about the woman, about the dog, about what was physically happening. And it does it with one less word. Use specific words to get more bang for your buck.

Details are important for another reason. Being vague allows your readers a lot of latitude in what they imagine. “The boy went.” Does that put an image in your head? Without using details, we don’t know if the boy is three or twenty-one, whether he went on bike, foot, or airplane, or where he went to. Readers will either imagine nothing at all- which is terrible for their connection to the story- or they will imagine the wrong thing. And then when they find out three pages later that they were wrong, they will feel cheated. Use language that creates Motivation an image in your reader’s head.

Character Motivation Details, especially those from a close psychic distance, also help us to understand a character’s motivations. (See how nicely those fit together?) Purely physical details don’t tell us who a person is- merely what they look like. When we meet a new person, rarely do we catalog him in our minds as the 5’11” man with black hair and blue eyes, although we might note these things at first. Normally, we catalog him as that goofy clown with the wheezy laugh whose eyes kept darting back and forth to make sure his jokes were well received. Only put in the details that matter. Put in details that assess personality traits rather than take measurements. Those details, whether in thoughts or in actions, also help the reader to understand why a character does the things he does. As Dr. Brightwell put it, “Motivation is important. Without it, we don’t believe the character; we don’t believe the story.”

So when you’re reading through that first draft, keep these three things in mind. How close is your psychic distance- and could it be closer? Where have you directed your readers’ attention through details? What do those details say about your character’s personal motivations? With another NaNoWriMo behind us, these Magic Three- psychic distance, details, character motivation- can take your writing from the so-so level to the awesome level.