Monday, November 26, 2012

Revision! Tools and Techniques

Now that NaNoWriMo is almost over, it’s time for the next step in the process...revision!

Some of you might think that revision is a dirty word. It’s not fun to go over and over something – especially if there seems to be no end in sight.

But I actually prefer revision to writing the first draft. I often don’t plumb my character’s depths until about draft 3; and the plot is pretty messy until draft 6 or 7; and it isn’t until the umpteenth draft that I can play with fun things like language and theme and tone and detail.

In a couple of weeks I’ll talk about holding fast to your initial vision, as you “re-envision” your manuscript, but this week and next I thought I’d share some of the things I do when I revise and some of the tools I find most helpful.

There are 5 specific tools that I use when I revise:

1.     taking stock of the “big picture”
2.     visual aids (charts, photos, graphs)
3.     checklists
4.     workbooks
5.     dedicated passes

one of my shrunken manuscripts
Here are the first two of these tools as I use them:

1. Taking stock of the “big picture”

The first thing I do when I’ve finished what I consider the initial draft is put it aside. Not for too long – I need the story’s momentum to keep moving forward – but I give it a few days rest, letting it marinate, and I do something completely different (like eat chocolate...)

After those few days I pick up the manuscript again and read it through, cover to cover. In this process I try to read aloud – there’s something about reading words out loud that allows me to find things that don’t work or sound awkward. (Yes, I get pretty hoarse.) I also try not to stop in the middle and change something huge – I’ll make notes in the margins as I go, but I want to get a feel for the entire scope of the story.

My favorite big picture technique is Darcy Pattison’s “shrunken manuscript”, which allows me to visualize the story at a very large scale. I highly recommend that you find a copy of Darcy’s Novel Metamorphosis, as it contains several similar techniques and one of the others might strike your fancy. But here’s the gist of the shrunken manuscript:
  • Shrink your manuscript to 8 point font, single spacing, with no chapter breaks - you'll be able to read it, just enough to know where you are
  • Highlight areas for different aspects of the manuscript – character development, description, subplots, moments of tension (or lack thereof), etc., etc.
  • Stand back and just look 

You’ll see from that distance where you may be missing details of character that are crucial, where your subplots flag or disappear, where you’ve dropped the tension, and so on. This is a great way to discover if your manuscript is too description-heavy, or too action-oriented, or where you may have lost track of a character (as I did while writing my first novel, Faithful, and a main character at that!)

my plot board with notes and Martha Alderson plotline
2. Visual aids

I’m a visual person, and at some point in crafting a story the only way I can see whether I’ve developed it properly is to see it visually – usually on the wall of my office, where I can spread out the timelines and plotlines together with notes and photographs.

A tool I’ve recently become fond of is Pinterest, and I’ve created boards for each of my novels, allowing me not only to see the pictures that are inspirational to me but also to share those with readers as they develop.

plot planner in miniature
By far my favorite visual aid is Martha Alderson’s PlotWhisperer plotline (do check out her Plot Whisperer books and other tools.) I’ve made a corkboard with the plotline marked in masking tape, and from there I can use sticky notes to jot down scenes, emotional changes, conflict. Small sticky notes are perfect because I can’t write too much – just enough to direct my thoughts. Plus, I can work in color for different aspects of the story and that appeals to my visual sense.

On that board I also post head shots of my characters, and eventually I’ll post a miniature version of Martha’s plotline, one that I’ve integrated with the hero’s journey and other turning points.

Next week I’ll talk about the other revision tools I find helpful – but please share yours here, too!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Reading Like a Writer: Maggie Stiefvater’s THE SCORPIO RACES and Magical Realism

Magical realism is a phrase I never completely understood until I recently read Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. The term seems contradictory: how could a realistic story contain magical elements? What does a writer do to introduce those elements without throwing the novel into the terrain of fantasy? I suppose some readers will argue that The Scorpio Races is fantasy, but I’m going to take the side of magical realism, and this analysis approaches her fabulous story with that in mind.

Her setting is entirely believable – an island off the coast of, well, something like Ireland. There are references to the mainland, the Atlantic, and America, and the names she uses have that Celtic ring: Finn Connolly, Sean Kendrick, Skarmouth, Thisby. Our heroine’s nickname is Puck, conjuring Shakespeare. People live in proper houses, drink in pubs, drive Morris cars, raise sheep; the rock-strewn grass hillocks are contained by hedgerows and stone walls. Altogether this is a place we know, its familiarity bred of our familiarity with Anglo-Saxon literature and lore, even if there is one extremely odd thing about this place.

The sea that surrounds the island is inhabited by flesh-eating water horses.

By the time I was ten pages in, I completely believed that Thisbe exists, and that I’d better watch out for those frightening yet beautiful uisce. That this magical element of The Scorpio Races also derives from our Celtic heritage is part of what makes it feel real.

The deadly November races on the backs of the uisce forms the heart of the concept, but this is also a love story, a coming-of-age story, a love-of-horse story, and a triumph of the spirit over soulless financial power. Sean and Puck tell their tales in first person present tense, enhancing the immediacy of both characters and plot: “this is happening to me, and it’s happening right now.” Once we buy into these characters, we buy the whole tale, hook, line, and sinker.

Puck is a game girl with a face full of freckles and unruly hair in the middle of an unruly orphaned life:

For a moment, I see the room like anyone else might see it. It looks like everything around Finn has crawled out of the mouth of the kitchen sink drain. It’s a mess, and we’re a mess, and no wonder Gabe wants to leave.
‘Let’s go,’ I say.

Sean’s voice is hard, born of his hard luck, and he knows horses. He knows horses better than anyone. He’s also a boy of few and well-chosen words:

I slide off her and hand him the reins. He takes them with a puzzled expression on his already puzzling face.
I say, ‘This mare is going to kill someone.’

The strong and enticing Puck and Sean, who are (as the reader sees long before they do) a perfect match, are also so much fun to live with that the story’s magical element is almost unnecessary. As a writer then, I've come to think that the best magical realism must possess this quality: that the realistic aspects of the story are even more engaging than the magical aspects. 

In a true fantasy, our perception of the story itself may be clouded by dwarf behavior, elf antics, or fairy godmother wishes. In magical realism, the author could dispense with the magic – and still have a heck of a great tale. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Stiefvater writes beautifully, conjures a complete and visible world, and that her secondary characters are every bit as engaging as her protagonists.

But I maintain that in order to write great magical realism it is necessary to write a great, rich and complex story that rises above the magic – that the realistic part of the story makes a magic all its own.

My donation drive for the American Red Cross continues all month, including comments on this blog post. Many thanks!!

Monday, November 5, 2012

SIRENS Launch Week, Plus

It's SIRENS launch week and I'm very excited to share my latest work with you. (As a reminder - during the entire month of November, every comment on every post on the Wardrobe elicits a donation to the American Red Cross. Plus you might win a copy of SIRENS! See this post for details.)

Now to the business at hand: my launch post! (I'm excited. Did I mention that?)

One of the most evocative scenes in American fiction takes place in a living room in a Long Island mansion and features two girls, Daisy and Jordan, long-limbed and lounging, dressed in white. The scene is in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY, set in 1925, the year of its publication. Although not historical fiction in the strictest sense, it is fine fiction in the best sense – and it brings to life the Roaring Twenties in America. Great historical fiction brings the past to life. I can't wait for the movie version due out this summer.

I couldn’t be happier that the 20s are experiencing, forgive the pun, a renaissance. Anna Godberson has released the BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS series, and Jillian Larkin has crafted THE FLAPPERS series; Libba Bray has launched THE DIVINERS.

I'm thrilled to have SIRENS join the mix.

When I did my research I was all prepared for flappers and bootleggers, for gangsters (Al Capone) and gorgeous skimpy clothes (Coco Chanel.) Women got the vote, and writers had the Round Table. The 1920s in America was a wild and crazy time of financial boom and liberated behavior, a period when a fluid and mobile society, combined with the freedom afforded by the automobile and the new working middle class, allowed teens to flee from their parents’ Victorian restrictions. Advertising - the "Mad Men" era - was born, in fact, in the '20s. 

Yes, everybody was on board with dancing and drinking (albeit not legally) and public necking. The 1920s in America were Party Time Central.

But the 1920s was also a time of quiet civil unrest and spiritual exploration. The Ku Klux Klan experienced a rebirth, with open marches and anti-black, anti-immigrant posturing. Immigrants of Italian, Irish, and Jewish extraction were pitted against one another and against society in general. A bomb went off on Wall Street in September 1920, targeting the rich capitalists of the stock exchange but killing clerks, runners and stenographers; it was said to be the work of radical Bolshevists, although no clear culprit was ever found. 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle engaged in a long-running verbal war with his friend Harry Houdini over the question of spiritualism. Houdini was a pragmatist; he knew magic to be a performance. Doyle believed in spirits and the afterlife, and participated in a movement that experienced a resurgence in the 20s.

The parallels between today and the 1920s-1930s are all too evident: the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties echoed in the 1990s boom; the market crash of 1929 and 1930s depression echoed in the 2000s bust. Post-war trauma today found expression first after World War 1; we fear global pandemic today, but the deadly flu pandemic of 1918 killed millions.

Today we recognize the parallels of our own lives with the past, and maybe make sense of the present. I hope that I added to the "making sense" part of it with SIRENS.

Here's the full trailer for SIRENS, thanks to my talented son Kevin: 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Helping After the Storm

I've been feeling helpless since Superstorm Sandy hit one of my favorite places in the world, and I suspect a lot of you share that feeling.

I'm a native New Yorker. I was born in Manhattan and schooled on the upper west side. At various times in life I've lived way downtown near Wall Street, in Greenwich Village, in midtown on the east side, on 79th and Central Park West, and on 111th and Riverside Drive. I have family and friends all over New York and New Jersey, some who are still without power.

A few who've lost everything.

Some generous kidlit folks have already begun to raise funds for the American Red Cross and other organizations. Kate Messner has founded KidLitCares featuring an astonishing array of terrific auction items - you can benefit the Red Cross and win something to help your writing/illustrating career.

My friend Jeri Smith-Ready has taken an inventive approach: you give a little to relief - she suggests the Red Cross, the Humane Society, and AmeriCares - and she'll give you something awesome for your troubles.

Here in the Wardrobe I'd like to offer something, too. For the rest of the month of November, for anyone who comments on any blog post here I'll make a donation to the American Red Cross.

If you tell me you've donated to any Sandy relief organization at all - and I'm going to take it on faith - I'll send you a handful of bookmarks.

At the end of the month, the names of everyone who has commented and donated will be thrown into the hat and the winner will receive a signed copy of SIRENS, which is set in New York City.

All you have to do is comment. And, if you want, make a donation.

Rules, again:

  • For your comment, I'll make a donation to the American Red Cross.
  • For your comment plus your assurance you've made any donation to any relief organization, you get swag plus I make my donation (contact info please so I can get your snail mail addy; US addresses only.)
  • All commenters/donators will be eligible to win a copy of SIRENS.

Thank you.