A writer’s to-do list for the New Year

As the calendar flips over to January, here’s a quick rundown of goals you might consider in the new year. At least one writer affiliated with the Fairfield Writers’ Blog (FWB) has already adopted them for 2013.

• Put your work-in-progress (WIP) into Scrivener and become competent in that writer’s program. Joanne Hus of our Saturday writers’ group was the first person who passed along a rave about Scrivener; that was several years ago. The program does cost money to download, and there may be other applications you can find for free that are useful. Plus, there’s always the ubiquitous Microsoft Word. As 2013 dawns, though, Scrivener is a key application in many writers’ toolboxes. For example, friends of our Saturday group and the FWB, including Gabi Coatsworth and Linda Howard Urbach, have written about it online (Linda, as usual, with tongue firmly in cheek). If you need any more convincing, in the Acknowledgments at the end of his big 2012 book Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon lets us know that, “This novel was written using Scrivener on Macintosh computers.” That’s a good enough endorsement for us.

• Sit down and read the first draft of your WIP from beginning to end, then revise same all the way through. Often you have no legitimate excuse for not finishing your revisions. But not always. Remember a couple of months ago when we blogged about local author A. J. O’Connell’s revision efforts on her novel? Like us, she’s still at it, she reports at her site “The Garret.” But she has a good excuse for not finishing in 2012. In the final few months of the year, she also wrote—and signed a publishing contract for—The Eagle and the Arrow, a sequel to her novella Beware the Hawk. Bravo!

• Submit your short stories, creative nonfiction and/or journalism for publication on a regular basis. Use such helpful sites as duotrope.com, with its search feature of outlets for your work (available to paid subscribers as of January 1, 2013), and submittable.com, the popular submissions management site for many literary journals. “Regular basis” means monthly at minimum. One of the writers in our Saturday workshop followed this formula, through many discouraging rejections. Then three acceptances arrived within weeks of one other. Superstition precludes the FWB from offering any further details, though, until the stories are in print.

• Watch the documentary “Tom Wolfe Goes Back to Blood.” WolfeMovieDespite the mixed-at-best verdict of the reviews of the author’s latest novel Back to Blood, how often do you get to follow a master writer, over a four-year period, doing the work of creating a book? A great opportunity to see Oscar Corral’s film in a local auditorium came and went this past fall at the refurbished Bijou Theatre in downtown Bridgeport, Connecticut. You should be able to watch it via the bigstar.tv website, which requires that you log in.

• Read Virginia Wolff’s To the Lighthouse for its lessons in shifting points of view and communicating characters’ interior thoughts. Too many mentors and fellow writers have recommended this classic to ignore it any longer, despite the fear that it may be difficult.

• Write some fresh articles of journalism and a fresh pieces of fiction. You may not be there yet as you keep refining your WIP, but the time may come to heed a few words of wisdom from novelist Elinor Lipman, who writes delightful domestic comedies (The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, et al.). She heard this once from her writing mentor: “Sometimes the best form of revision is to start something new.”

Happy New Year and good writing in 2013!—Alex McNab

Talking revision with a novelist-in-progress

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

Published in: on October 10, 2012 at 6:03 am  Comments (1)  
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Be kind to your first draft

You’ve heard the truism over and over, in different forms.

Writing is rewriting. Revision is where the real writing begins. Most famous, perhaps, are the words of Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis: “There is no great writing, only great rewriting.”

Far be it for a layman like me to argue with a legendary jurist. Instead, I’ll turn the topic over to the late, great crime novelist Evan Hunter (right)—author of The Blackboard Jungle and, writing as Ed McBain, the “87th Precinct” series of police procedurals. This is what he told readers of The Writer a decade ago:

“The only true creative aspect of writing is the first draft. That’s when it’s coming straight from your head and your heart, a direct tapping of the unconscious. The rest is donkey work. It is, however, donkey work that must be done. Whether you rewrite as you go along. . .or whether you rewrite everything only after you’ve completed the book, you must rewrite.”

Now here is Hunter’s kicker:

“But be careful. You can hone and polish something until it glows like a diamond, but you may end up with something hard and glittering and totally without the interior spark that was the result of your first commitment to paper.”

So this is also true: you should not dismiss or discard your first draft. Hunter was not alone in believing so.

In a presentation at the Library a few years ago, Karen Sirabian, the director of the Manhattanville College Master of Arts in Writing program and a founder of the Manhattanville literary journal Inkwell, told us that when we finish a first draft, we should put it away. Revise on a different document.

Why?

“The first draft is sacred,” she said. “There is energy there that cannot be duplicated.”

With apologies to the late, great Mr. Justice Brandeis, there might be some great writing there, too.—Alex McNab

Published in: on February 9, 2012 at 11:10 am  Comments (1)  
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