Determined to finish my rereading of Harry Potter and not stop after the fourth book like I always do for some reason, I’ve been reading back through The Order of the Phoenix for the past week or so. What I love about rereading the Harry Potter books (aside from the fact that they’re simply wonderful) is that I can pick up on all the little details she threw in there that I never noticed the first time around, since you don’t realized their importance until a book or two later. Like, when Harry and the others are cleaning Sirius’s house and they throw away a locket, and I shout “Oh! The locket!” and get funny looks from my husband. Things like that.
I’ve also been finding myself writing more short stories lately, and that has inspired me to take out more short story collections from the library. I recently finished Aimee Benders The Color Master. A good portion of these stories fit into the fantasy/magical realism slot, which was helpful for the piece I’m currently working on, and overall was a super enjoyable read. I’ve recently taken out an older collection of hers, Willful Creatures, and also Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
After Phoenix I’d like to move on to the next Harry Potter book, but I’ve also got my copy of Infinite Jest waiting to be cracked open, so I might take a break and start that beast. I’m also on the look out for other short story collections; Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things is one I have in mind, but I’m not necessarily looking for fantastical stories, just ones that are good or unique that can show me what the form is really capable of.
There are a lot of horrible things about writing a first draft, like the often, and terrifying, notion that you have no idea where you’re going with this. But there are a lot of nice things too, and one of those is that it’s easy to quantify. When your significant other asks you, what did you do today, you can say, I wrote five pages. No matter if you will only be keeping one and a half of those pages, you still actually wrote five of them. That’s a number. People can visualize that.
That gets harder when your editing. You can say, at the end of the day, I edited five pages, but what does that mean? You rewrote five pages? You fixed the grammar on five pages? You tweaked the dialogue on five pages? And how much work was that really? Maybe only one paragraph was really messed up, and you spend an hour on that alone. Everything else was fine, just fixing typos. Or maybe the dialogue was dead for the entire chapter and you had to spend all day altering that. So measuring pages doesn’t work. You can maybe measure time, but how much of that is editing? You’re reading, thinking, staring out the window,
watching YouTube intermitently, so you can’t call any of that work….or can you? Sometimes it counts, you’re working out the story, the plot, what the character is really saying in this scene, or your gathering inspiration from the outside world. Or, your procrastinating, marathoning* videos and wondering why, why why your neighbor hasn’t gotten better at the flute yet. When all you have to do is edit, who can say how much work you really did? You certainly can’t. Or can you? (You can’t.)
So when your significant other comes home and asks, what did you do today? you say: I wrote. And that’s all you need to say, because honestly, any other details would only make them crazy.
*Spell check says “marathoning” is not a real word. This has been a part of my vocabulary since high school, and so I reject this entirely.
As you reread your story, you find a sentence. It’s not a terrible sentence. It may even be a good sentence. At the very least, it is a serviceable sentence. But still, this sentence does not work. Nestled in its paragraph, it stands out as not ringing true, as not fitting quite right within the other sentences. You can’t take the sentence out, that would only leave a hole. You must do something with this sentence. Rewrite it, rearrange it, reform it into something that says basically the same thing but in a more…correct way. It’s just one sentence. If you fix it, this paragraph, maybe this page, will work out all right, and you can move on. One sentence — it can’t be that hard — you’ve written millions of them. But then you stare…and stare… Nothing changes. You see no other possibilities, except this one, sitting in its wrongness on the page. You continue stare, hoping, until you shove the laptop away, drop your head on your desk and moan, “What do I do with you?”
As I transcribe the rough draft of a novel from my notebook the first thing I notice is the rat’s nest of problems snarling up the whole thing: characters that aren’t needed or need more time, plot points that go on tangents, important moments that need to happen in an entirely different way, language that doesn’t fit. But under the mess, what I also notice is a story that I kind of like, that I’m getting attached to and, maybe, really invested in. I want to make it succinct, clear — readable. So I need to edit.
I’ve mentioned before that editing’s not easy. But after spending time at seminars and with mentors, I’ve learned that it doesn’t have to be such a haphazard process. Basically, I can save myself trouble if I start big, and work down to small. So, one of the big problems is the plot, making that one of the first things I want to work on, rearranging, rewriting, adding, and taking away bits to get the plot where I want it to be. On the smaller side is language, reworking sentences and picking the perfect words to get meanings and moods across. I’d want to do this last, since it would be a bummer to spend all this time figuring out the right wording for a scene, only to realize as I rework the plot that the entire scene needs to go.
It’s easier said than done. As I reread sentences, I want to fix them, think of a better word than “walked” or “stood.” And I do, for better or for worse. But knowing that I don’t need to worry about that part now, that it can wait, is a little bit freeing. Looking at editing this way breaks the process into pieces, so instead of an endless, amorphous beast I have to tackle, it’s a path — a winding path, with wrong turns and backtracks, but a path nonetheless — that I can follow, ticking off my progress as I go.
Let’s just see if I follow it that way.
Do you have a process to your editing?
When I think back on it, I’ve been writing for a long time. In my earliest memory of piecing a story together, I was maybe five. I put together a little picture book — probably autobiographical, I recall the main character having brown hair — in my grandmother’s house. Someone allowed me to man the stapler, and when assembling the book I managed to punch one right into my fingertip. I don’t remember the particular pain, just that there was a bunch of it, and that either my grandmother or aunt had to hold my hand over the bathroom sink while they pried out the curled up staple. I don’t know what happened to the book.
In third grade I was part of a two person team with my friend who came up with a picture book series about a robot. I’d come up with the words, while she drew and colored in what I remember to be neat and brightly colored illustrations.
There was also the story book program on my family’s old Mac, which let me put in words under illustrations I built from what was basically fancy clip art. I recall writing about girls who went on adventures and made friends with animals — always a fantasy of mine.
Even nighttime was story time. Instead of going straight to sleep in the time immediately following lights out, I would imagine (and sometimes act out) a continuous tale of a raccoon who lived in the woods with all her forest friends, or a girl who who ran way into the jungle to survive in her own with no one but a tiger and a monkey for help (I told you, me and animals). Sometimes these would get elaborate, and span months. I don’t think I ever wrote these ones down.
Eventually I moved on to novels, written in spiral notebooks and sometimes typed on the computer (first the Mac, then a Compaq) to be saved on floppy disks. These I shared with Chelsea, my high school best friend and my first critique partner, who filled her own flippy disks with stories about dragons and adventures.
It’s harder to think of a break in the continuous compulsion to make up a story than it is to remember some piece of writing I did a decade or two ago. Even when I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer, some part of my brain did, and it hasn’t stopped this whole time.
Unlike the last time I did one of these posts with To Kill a Mockingbird, I don’t think I somehow missed this book in high school, since schools are usually busy making you read The Catcher in the Rye to worry about Salinger’s short stories. (By the way, I remember liking Catcher, but I don’t think I totally grasped it in NINTH GRADE.) But anyway, I feel like I should have been made to read this book in college, or at least had it suggested to me at some point while an undergrad.
I remember someone at Lesley, either a student or a teacher in a seminar, using a portion of Franny and Zooey as an example. And then lately, I’ve seen a few things talking about Catcher, and Salinger, and that gave me a desire to pick up this book and finally give it a look. I never found it the few times I got into a used bookstore (they always had copies of Catcher in the Rye, though) but then just last week, as I was shelving books in the library, there it was, the only Salinger book on the shelf. So I grabbed it.
For those as ignorant as I was, Franny and Zooey is a collection of a short story (“Franny”) and a novella (“Zooey”), and while they are technically separate they both take place in the same fictional universe, follow each other chronologically, and feature the character Franny Glass. In the first story, Franny, a college student has been reading a religious book, The Way of the Pilgrim, which focuses on learning to say the Jesus prayer, and become overwhelmed by the phoniness and selfishness of the people around her, including her boyfriend Lane (who is really an arrogant, self-important tool). Franny’s whole disenchantment with the world, and, as she admonishes herself in “Zooey”, she keeps “picking” at everything Lane says. But really, as far as I see it, what has happened is that Franny has had a revelation about her world, is trying to figure out what to do with it, and wants someone to listen to her and understand her. But Lane, being so self-involved, only takes offense to Franny’s behavior, and throughout their lunch Franny continues to fall apart. “Zooey” continues this story, though through the eyes her her youngest older brother, Zooey, who keeps trying to talk to Franny about this, but, because of the way he is, only makes it worse each time.
What I loved about these stories, particularly “Franny”, was how the action, and the story, all take place through conversation. “Franny” is mainly one long conversation between her and Lane. “Zooey” is a little less of a percentage of that, with time being dedicated to describing the Glass family, and also some of the rooms in the family’s apartment. But still the big parts, the parts I couldn’t stop reading, were the conversations, between Zooey and his infuriatingly, hilariously obtuse mother, and when he talks to Franny, analyzing her actions and motives for breaking down at home and fixating on the Jesus prayer. As a reader, I loved it because a story that focuses on characters, focusing on how they change, grow, and reach their epiphanies by the end of the story, is almost always my favorite form of entertainment. And as a writer, who sometimes crams a lot of conversation into her stories, these are a great example of how two people talking can still carry a lot of anxiety, dram and weight.
Maybe I wouldn’t have liked this as much in college as I think I would have (though sophomore year is when I was given, and fell in love with, Pride & Prejudice, an older, more-difficult-to-read novel revolving around conversations and misunderstandings). After all, I’m not sure I would have been able to fully understand Franny’s disenchantment. But in any case, I’m glad I found it now, when I’m able to realize exactly what I can learn from it.
So I finished Fangirl a few weeks ago, but for some reason am only just now getting around to talking about it. After reading and loving Eleanor & Park, I was suddenly inspired to look Rainbow Rowell up on Amazon, to see if she had anything else coming out. And did she.
So, Fangirl is about Cath, a girl entering college. She’s stressed about leaving her dad, and that her twin sister suddenly wants to be separate and have a different roommate and live in a different dorm. Her own roommate is older, and a little grumpy, and she may have bitten off more than she can chew with an advanced fiction-writing course.
Now, here’s the part of the plot description that hooked me in. Cath is a fangirl, a hardcore fangirl over the Simon Snow series, which is obviously and hilariously a version of Harry Potter (I’m not going to say spoof, it’s taken far too seriously to be a spoof). Not only does she read it, and buy merchandise for it, she also write fanfiction. Slash fanfiction. In which she has the two main male characters fall in love with each other, over and over again. I had never heard of an author actually having a character that took part in this segment of fandom, that for a moment I couldn’t believe this was what the book was actually about. I was so stoked to read this book for that bit alone. What really thrilled me once I started reading it, though, is how seriously Rowell takes fanfiction as she’s telling the story. Cath has a few problems with writing fic, one being that she spends so much of her time doing it, another that she fails a Fiction assignment because she decides to hand in a new piece of fanfiction. And there are characters that point out the downside of writing fanfiction, like her professor, pointing out that Cath is using it as a way to avoid living her own life, or writing her own stories. But Rowell also does a very excellent job of having Cath explain why writing fanfiction is so important to her, why she continues to do it, how it makes her feel just better about things. And even when Cath does finally realize that she has to write her own stories, it’s not because she decided that fanfiction is something she has to push to the wayside. It’s still important, it’s just that now it’s not the only important thing.
Also, being a nerd obsessed with a book series and writing gay fanfiction isn’t the only thing about Cath. She’s got a past that’s a bit messed up, and issues with her parents and herself that make it more and more apparent why she is the way she is. These elements are just as important as the fact that she is a nerd, and it makes the story so multi-dimensional and whole that you don’t have to be a fanfic-writing geek to understand Cath and relate to her on a very basic level. Basically, it’s a real story about a real girl, who happens to write fanfiction.
There are so many things about this book I could talk about — the great characters, the truly funny dialogue (“But I like that we’re not friends!” “I do, too. I’m sorry you had to ruin that by being pathetic.”), and a plot that just pans out in a very real and satisfying way. This was great, great, great, and I love Rowell for bringing this into the world.
This past weekend I flew out to visit Rachel, the dearest friend I made at Lesley. She showed me around her hometown, and her current-town, and drove me to see Steak and Shake and giant catsup bottles.
One night, while her husband was out visiting with her sister, we sat in her back yard and burned brush in her fire pit. Poking at the embers with the stick I’d claimed for myself, I started telling her about the story I’d just finished the rough draft for, a story that I can’t decide if it’s good, or bad, or worth the time needed to work on it. I gave her the key points, out of order, rambling a bit, and the ideas I was trying to convey — anger and resentment that burns inside you like an ember; a deep desire to have life go back to the way it’s “supposed” to be even if what you want is impossible; a need to be understood; an attempt to express yourself.
Rachel hasn’t seen any of the writing — I haven’t typed it up yet — but she had thoughts on my concepts, and words of encouragement that made me think this isn’t a boring, overdone idea, that it’s something that could succeed if I decide to just keep going with it.
And this is why I need writing friends, even if I never show them a word of what I put to paper (I will); they know what I’m going through, and what I need, not just want, to hear. If it had been a silly idea, I believe Rachel would have said so. But I also believe she wouldn’t have told me to give it up. She would have brainstormed with me, help me stumble on the direction I needed to go in to get the story right.
We talked about other ideas that weekend, both things that I’m working on, and stories she’s trying to bring to life. Not just around that fire: sometimes in pajamas on her couch, panting up a hill, driving around after eating milkshakes and whispering in a lavishly mosaiced church. Every time I just felt better about writing, more confident that if I just sit down, I can actually pound out something worth reading.
Yesterday I started plotting work on a new novel idea I had. This comes after I’ve finished and have begun edits on a couple of short stories, scribbled out a bad-to-okay middle grade manuscript, and am waiting to hear back on queries on another novel.
Sometimes, after I finish writing something, I feel like, “Whelp, what do I do now?” The story has poured out of me, and for a little while, it seems like there’s nothing left. After sending off my most polished manuscript for querying, I had no idea what to do with myself, and needed the motivation of my writing group to first polish up old stories and then, finally, begin something new.
Most recently, I tried to plot out a different novel idea, but even though I researched elements I wanted to include and wrote notes on some character personalities, I couldn’t get more than a few key characters and the beginning of a plot. Not enough to really dive in, since I’d hit a wall so fast and hard I’d probably lose a tooth, and I decided that this idea still needs time to thicken and stew.
So was I out of ideas? Nope. One of my favorite websites, The Oatmeal, has a great comic about creating content. While he’s specifically talking about stuff on the Internet, much of it pertains to writing or creating in general. Particularly relevant to this post are two panels about midway through, where he points out that after every comic, he feels like he’s got nothing left. But, he says, “Idea generation needs to be like a river…Fresh input flows in and out, and there is always change.” New things are always coming at you, and if writing or creating is what you really want to do, you will find inspiration and stumble upon something new to write.
It’s not always convenient — my new idea burst into my brain while I was listening to a lecture on CD, driving on the highway alone, with no one to dictate to, forcing me to repeat sentences and force some level of memorization before it drifted off — if you’re waiting, if you’re open, if you’re ready to scribble them down.
Do you ever feel like you’ve run out of ideas? Do they eventually come to you or is it a struggle to move onto the next project?
I have a lot of books. I remember I used to keep track of my manga, which was up in the hundreds, and that’s not counting every other kind of book I cling to. I knew the pain of lifting boxes filled with those books when I moved with my parents into their current home, so when I moved out for good I knew I couldn’t take everything; forget that they wouldn’t have fit, I’d have died before I got them all up the stairs. For the first time, instead of ditching a couple books here or there that I wouldn’t read, I was determined to get rid of whole chunks, a significant amount. Some novels, yes, but also manga series I had never finished, would never return to. This went completely against my nerd-tendency to cling onto all the things I’d collected. But I needed a little more space and breathing room to move on with my life, so those things had to go.
Lately I’ve been piling up more books to get rid of. Some of them were review items which I had no real attachment to anyway, or cheap used books that piled up from my stint in a used bookstore. Others were novels or even some books from college days which I knew I would never read again.
Then there was my manga collection again. I’ve mostly confined my collection to one bookshelf, though it’s double stacked, and I’ve got stuff on the top as well. But there’s also stuff that has spilled over to the floor, no place for it to go. Looking through it, I’ve basically whittled it down to things I don’t think I’d get rid of: Emma is too precious, Fullmetal Alchemist still stands as one of my favorite things. If I haven’t finished the series yet, I’m still determined to, like with Hoshin Engi. There are some that I’m reviewing that I’ll likely get rid of once I get to the end, or for whatever reason cease to review, but I’m hanging on to them for now, on the unlikely chance that I need to go back to the beginning to check…something. But there are others that I’ve realized I’m never going to complete, I’m never going to reread…and they had to go.
I brought a couple of series to the library I work at yesterday, to see if the librarian in charge wanted them for the young adult shelf. She did. Which is great: they’ll have a shelf to live on, where people who want to read or reread them can take them out. But as she brought them out back to get put in the system, she passed me and said, “They’re off to get stickered, say goodbye!” And I almost said, no, stop, I changed my mind, give those back. Because even though I haven’t read them in years, they were things that have been around with me for a long time, moving to college, and home, and away again. I was clinging to them, even though I couldn’t remember the last time I’d cracked one open, or the last time I felt like I might want to. My house is too cluttered. I want clean shelves and open floors. And someday soon, we’ll move again, and if I’m going to be lugging something up and down stairs, and taking the time to find it a home on a shelf, I want it to be something I know deep down is worth it to me, not just because I used to love it, but because I love it now.