Shortly after I began checking in on Connecticut writer A.J. O’Connell’s weblog, “The Garret,” she published a post about preparing to revise her novel-in-progress. The accompanying photo of pages laid out on the floor of her office (right)—pages that, no doubt, had gone through the workshop gantlet—now that was something I could identify with!
Right away, I knew the Fairfield Writers’ Blog (FWB) had to talk to O’Connell about revising. We met at the Fairfield University Bookstore downtown, where O’Connell was to be reading a couple of weeks later—at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, October 10—from her novella Beware the Hawk (Vagabondage Press), which was published early this year.
“One of my mentors used to say you’re either a Hemingway, and you go into journalism to write, or you’re a Woodward, and you go in to report,” O’Connell, a former newspaper reporter for The Hour in Norwalk, told the FWB. “I always was a Hemingway.” She earned her MFA in Creative Writing as a member of the second class of Fairfield University’s low-residency program.
First, the novella. The first draft of Beware the Hawk went through that workshop gantlet years before O’Connell began her MFA program. When she pulled out the 37-page manuscript to revise, at the request of a former workshop member who had started a new publishing company, she had not looked at it in nine years. And the first draft wasn’t finished. Yet by then, O’Connell had earned her degree. Reading the first draft from start to finish “was painful,” O’Connell recalls. “It was so bad. The prose. I mean, it was written by a 23-year-old. I’m not saying there aren’t some talented 23-year-olds, but I wasn’t one of them.” She had no idea where her workshop notes were. Still, she began revising. “I had the benefit of all of the craft that I’d learned. I now know how to write better.” She added five pages at the end.
O’Connell provided me with the first five pages of her original manuscript, which I compared to the first few pages of the printed book. The published version demonstrates how all of those fundamentals you read about in craft books make a story better.
One example, the first sentence:
(First draft) “I was exhausted when I got off the bus from New York.”
(Published version) “I hurt my ankle almost as soon as I stepped into Boston.”
Active verbs versus passive. Character entering a setting rather than having left one. Pain in a specific body part versus a general feeling. Stronger sense of foreboding.
Other improvements in the opening pages include: Using all five senses in description. Eliminating unnecessary character movements and backstory. Intensifying an atmosphere of conflict between the protagonist and another character.
Now, the novel-in-progress. O’Connell submitted chapters of her novel for critiquing to both classes in her MFA program and outside workshops. She put the critiqued pages into big manila envelopes, on the outside of which she wrote what the piece was, which workshop it was distributed to and the date.
“I tend not to work from those until the very last minute,” she says. “Either there were so many of them that you’d just go all cross-eyed looking at them or they were so critical they were not helpful. For me, it’s still important that I’m in charge of the revisions, and I don’t want to be steered by that kind of thing.”
But for her most trusted group, she went a step beyond. She had her entire first draft printed in book form by Lulu, one of the top self-publishing companies. She passed out those few copies and asked her colleagues to read the novel in its entirety. Meanwhile, she did the same:
“One of my professors, Rachel Basch, told me to put [the first draft] in a drawer for a couple of months, go back, pick it up and then try to read it in a day. Don’t read it with a pen in your hand to make notes on your manuscript. Don’t pretend you are correcting your own work. Pretend you’re reading someone else’s manuscript. Make notes on a separate pad.” Just as with those enveloped pages, “I rarely read my notes. As a journalist, I know when my pen’s moving I’ll remember something.”
The upshot of the others reading her whole book? “They came back with, I don’t know these characters very well. Now, I know them pretty well. But I hadn’t done my job—fully developing the characters. So I spent a week writing index cards out for each character. While I’m writing, the wall in front of me and the wall to the side of me are covered in my characters’ index cards. If I have a question, I just have to look up or over.”
Index cards sound a bit 20th Century, don’t they? “I prefer them to the character function in Scrivener,” O’Connell says, referring to the popular, downloadable organizing program for writers. In fact, she is a convert to it. “I thought I was going to hate it because I’ve been using Word since I was a kid. I really like Scrivener because I can, without having to mess up my floor any more than it’s already messed up, see chapters and can group them.” That idea of spreading printed scenes out on the floor? It works better for a short story than for a novel.
Also on her office wall, next to the character cards, are O’Connell’s cards for “new scenes that need to be put in.” When working on a first draft, “My first inclination is to write the scenes that are interesting to me and leave a bunch of holes,” she says. “Then I’d try to connect the dots with some lame prose. If I can’t write my character from one place to the next place, and if I can’t make the transitions as interesting as the scenes that appeal to me. . . .”
On many of her projects, including that unfinished first draft of the novella and her current work, O’Connell would run into a familiar problem: “Plot is my biggest snarl. When I think of this story in terms of plot, that’s when I lose my way. It’s part of the reason I stopped. . . .What I was taught at Fairfield, and the thing that’s helped me most, is just to stick to the character. How to Write a Damn Good Novel is one of those craft books. . . .The author talks about keeping your character in the crucible. And keeping your character in the crucible has always been the thing that’s carried me through with plot.”
So here’s how O’Connell is tackling the revisions of her novel. She’s been retyping the entire manuscript from the first page, making the alterations she feels necessary without looking at hers or her colleagues’ critique notes as she goes along, although she will occasionally look at her professors’ comments. Some writers have been known to work on one specific part of a book in each successive draft: plot, character, dialogue, etc. O’Connell is revising everything that needs it as she moves from page to page. “One page takes a long time,” she says.
“That’s what the second draft really is for, to go back and find the things that aren’t fully developed and develop them,” she says. Or the opposite.
“Every scene in a novel has to carry some weight,” she says, again citing Rachel Basch. “It has to raise a question, it has to be there for a reason. I look at each thing, and if it’s just in there because I think it’s cute, then it’s got to go or I have to make it carry some weight. I don’t have a hard time cutting.”
There is one other thing she is striving to do as she revises: “Really working on the level of the sentence. Making sure the sentences are as good as possible.”
The prospect of revising a novel can be daunting. “Like anything else, it’s momentum,” O’Connell says of what you need to do the job. “Now. . .I have momentum going with the revision. . . .But it took me more than a few months to get back into my manuscript and start revising. Because it was so terrifying. And because there is more research to be done.” In addition, the publisher of Beware the Hawk wants a sequel, the writing of which requires momentum of its own.
O’Connell has employed another unusual tactic, like the Lulu books, to keep her on course. “I have a contract with another writer,” she says. “We wrote ourselves a contract saying how long a day we would work and what we would do. We set weekly goals for ourselves and share it with each other. If we don’t [meet the goals], we have to admit it. We check in with each other every Friday or Sunday.”
The reward for all this diligence is the joy of being published. Beware the Hawk first came out as an e-book, and O’Connell says, “I was very thrilled. I was especially thrilled when it came out in hard copy. I remember getting the proofs in the mail. I couldn’t believe that I had something with my name on it. But. . .”
Does there have to be a “but”?
“. . .I have a very hard time reading it because I want to make corrections whenever I go out to read. It never ends.”
Now that’s a real writer.—Alex McNab