Revision Tips

I really enjoyed these from author Karen E Bender at the Story Prize blog.  #10 resonated with me the most:

Remember that revision is a process and happens in stages. The first stage, you may be trying to find out what the story is about. Then you may develop scenes, layer characters. Later, you may compress scenes/characters. Then you may work on pacing. A late revision focuses on clarity and language. You may work on any of these issues during the process, but try not to get too focused on honing the language too early, as you may not know what will remain in the story. As one writer I know says, “Writing a story is like building a boat. I don’t want to spend too much time intricately painting a hatch when I don’t know if the boat even has a rudder.”

My writing tip in general: Remember that writing takes up a lot of time.

Thoughts for Days 23 & 24: Your Inner-Artist is a Child & Don’t Flake

Today’s two thoughts are related.

1. Your Inner-Artist is a Child.*

*If you are one of those people who hates children but likes puppies, please free to think of your inner-artist as a puppy instead.

2. Don’t Flake (on your child).

Okay, so number one comes from Julia Cameron’s philosophy on being an artist.  She says that you need to treat your inner-artist (the writer inside) like a child.  Like a child, your writing needs to be nurtured, not just yelled at sometimes.  You must find ways to make corrections without hurting the child too much.  You are aware that you can abuse the child and that the child can grow up all messed up because you let someone else come too close to and abuse it. You have to protect the inner artist child. You also need to have fun with the child. You are aware that your child needs time to play. You need to let the child be funny sometimes and serious at other times. You are also aware that sometimes your child is crabby but that time-outs are a little more civil than beating the child up for punishment.  You must feed the child.  You must give the child a nap to reboot. 

Most of all, you acknowledge that your child is growing–it’s not right now where it is going to be one day.

Once we have that idea down, it’s really important that we learn how not to flake on this child.

This is thought two, by the way. 

Maybe we shouldn’t make promises to our inner-artists.  Maybe we shouldn’t say, “Just you and me, we’re going to work together all day Saturday” if we are going to something else all day–like play with Facebook instead. But the better case scenario is that we teach the child that we can make promises and keep them.  That teaches the child to trust what we say.

Imagine if you had a child who was waiting for the two of you to interact and you were just getting drunk every time you said you were going to hang with them, or just hanging out with your friends all the time instead, saying, “I’ll get to you next week! Next week! I promise!”

I have a special sensitivity about flakes, which comes from the facts that a) I’ve dated a couple and they drove me up the wall and b) my dad taught me to hate flakiness as a profound statement of disrespect.  My dad is always, always on time.  He was also a fireman for thirty years.  In Detroit.

Anyway, in grad school it’s really very easy to be a flake.  We all, from time to time, say we’re coming to something and do not show.   Maybe we just forgot, but we probably didn’t.  We’re just too busy and stressed and too lazy to give the host of the party a heads-up that no, we’re actually not going to make it over.  Again, thanks to my dad, this drives me up the wall.  I hate feeling like anyone is wasting my time.

(I have learned, however, that bringing a book wherever you go is a really good antidote to feeling like your time is wasted while you’re waiting for someone or something to happen.)

I do my best not to flake.  I really do.  I try not to say I’m coming unless I know I can be there.  I try to apologize to those whose readings I’ve missed.  If I change my mind about whether I can go to something, I try to let the host know as soon as possible.  If I have to pull out of an event, I try to set up an appointment right away.  I really try to be where I said I was going to be at the time I said I was going to be there. 

Unfortunately, I do have a gene from my mother’s side of the family that gives me a poor sense of time. Great sense of rhythm, poor sense of time.  Several of us on that side are naturally late to everything–especially the ones who dedicate more time to their artistic side (we are all artists on that side of the family, although not everyone puts that art into practice. Ebbs and flows for most of us.) 

It’s like a war against my genes inside–I feel awful for being late but then, ah! I can’t help it! I’m late! 

It’s stressful.

All of this is to say that I had a pretty humbling experience this week when I came down hard on someone for being a flake and then realized that I am a flake to myself.  To promise myself I’ll do something (like start jogging this summer and quit smoking, or to stop eating sugar because it destroys my mind and makes me crazy) and then not do it is the same as flaking on myself. 

I promise myself I’ll write and then I don’t.

If you’re a writer, I think you understand what if feels like to neglect your writing.  It’s more than guilt.  It feels like this kid is inside:

He’s ready to go. He’s got his cape on and everything.

Our inner artist children are also probably quicker to forgive us than most grown-ups.   If we do neglect the child, we can apologize, move on, and recognize that our pattern of behavior is deeply going to affect the child.

But we can change the pattern. We can always change the pattern.

Thought for Day 15: Find a Rhythm.

I used to be a tap dancer. Not one of those jazz-hands tap dancers.  My tap teacher’s name was Otis Brown and the last thing he let his students be was stiff.  He never told us to smile.  He is on my shortlist for favorite people I’ve ever met, though, because he was seriously as cool as his name suggests.

I’m thinking about him and tap dancing because I’ve lost my writing rhythm this week.  It’s the first time I can remember (and this sort of shocks me, given that I’ve been writing semi-consistently for about a dozen years) that I’ve actually felt the urge to have a regular writing rhythm. I’m pretty good at binge writing (talkin’ 20 pages a day during spring break blues…)  But now, without a deadline, I want to hunker down and make myself write regularly.

Here’s a few tips I’m giving you and myself about how to find a writing rhythm, inspired by my tap dancing years. (Side note: I confess I still tap out those routines I learned. I tap when I’m standing in lines or I’m alone in elevators, or with my index and middle fingers on my right hand when I’m bored).

1. Listen for the rhythm.

This translates to being honest about our schedules and finding a writing time that we can actually manage to keep.  We might have to start slow (single time step, y’all), before we can tackle more extensive routines. Nothing helps me feel more like a writer than when I actually keep the writing time I scheduled.

2. Adapt when the rhythm changes.

This translates to acknowledging that change happens.  In a tap routine, this is a very good thing because it keeps the dance interesting.  In a writing schedule, this is a very frustrating thing that makes me want to pull out all my hair.  But I’m saying, let’s keep our hair on our heads and be gracious to ourselves when we have to switch it up a little.  The most important thing is that we write.

3. If you lose the rhythm, get back on track without showing it on your face.

Nobody will ever know if you don’t show it on your face.

And now, here’s my favorite tap dancer in the whole world (next to Otis Brown, of course), for a little inspiration to be awesome.

Thought for Day 14: Means to an End

A good friend told me this recently and I’ve been trying to pass it on to everyone I know:

As writers, or people who work in any field, we have a choice to make.  Either we see our work as an end or we see it as a means to a bigger end–something more significant, something larger about ourselves and the world we live in.

If our writing is the end, a bad review can destroy us.  A rejection letter can make us skip a meal (or waste an evening of sleep on a devoured tub of ice cream–pick your grieving style). If someone tears our work apart, we might quit the work all together.

If writing is a means to an end, and not the end itself, then we can take criticism, no problem.  Our story draft is a stab at something bigger.  We write, we enjoy the process of writing, and then we close our computers/notebooks and call it a day.  It’s a better day because we’ve written.  Hopefully we’ve made a discovery or two in the process that keeps us joyful, or at the very least, inquisitive.

If our writing is a means, we don’t beat ourselves up or get discouraged because we didn’t hit a certain word count or time stretch that we’ve made for a day’s goal.  We can say, well, there’s always tomorrow. Tomorrow our work will be waiting for us, that means to a bigger end.

Of course we should write the best we can.  Of course we should put as much of us into our work as we can manage.  But we don’t do this because the work itself brings ultimate satisfaction.  We do this because the work brings us toward something bigger.

What is that bigger thing?  Well, isn’t that what we’re all here to try and figure out?

Thought for Day 11: Pay Attention.

This is my dog, Woody. He’s really good at paying attention.

I just finished The Day of The Locust by Nathaniel West, which is an example of telling a story through great details  (in this case, of faux-everything-Hollywood).

Next he came to a small pond with large celluloid swans floating on it. Across one end was a bridge with a sign that read, ‘To Kamp Komfit.’  He crossed the bridge and followed a little path that ended at a Greek temple dedicated to Eros.  The god himself lay face downward  in a pile of old newspapers and bottles.

–Chapter 18, page 126.

The book is full of descriptions like this: semi-cold language with stark images to carry the emotional weight.  The protagonist (Tod Hackett) is so out of touch with his feelings. He’s got strong feelings but no clue what to do with them.  He sort of reminds me of Pete Campbell from Mad Men in that regard.   It’s descriptions like these that really get the job done in terms of portraying the amount of despair this dude actually has in his life.

Strong sense of setting is of particular importance to me in my own writing.  Stories usually come to me first, not in terms of “who” (like we’re trained, usually, to start with), but more in terms of “where.”  I get a place, and then I try and figure out who is in that place and what they want.  I cannot separate people from their places.  I am only sharing this in order to acknowledge the fact that not every writer works this way and I get that.

Even so, I think we writers can benefit from emphasizing place in our stories because in order to do that, we have to train ourselves to pay attention to our surroundings.  Paying attention is an enormous part of being a writer, of course.  Listening, we hear about often.  Watching, not so much.  Or maybe I’ve just not encountered too much from writers about the importance of being watchful. Maybe being watchful just sounds creepy? Whatev.

I have a grandmother who is a painter. She painted until she was near 90, or maybe she painted after she was 90, I can’t remember–she actually might have started up again. It’s been a long time since I’ve been home.   She is pretty awesome for a lot of reasons but one of them is that when I used to drive her places, I’d be telling her about something and then she would interrupt me to point out cloud formations, or the amount of birds hanging out the telephone wire.

Now I’ll admit, I don’t pay attention as well as she does.  I think it was Flannery O’Connor who suggested writers take drawing lessons. That is a great idea.

(Ooh! If you know me and would like to buy me a gift, I would love another copy of Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain… I left mine in Bangkok with a friend because it was too heavy to take back to Detroit.  My birthday is coming up, you know. :D)

And I think it was Natalie Goldberg who offered the following meditation for connecting to our surroundings:

While traveling–walking, driving, riding along as a passenger–pick a color, say red. Next, note all the objects you see in red.  

So simple, right? But it definitely works wonders for helping me connect to a place. I did this a few times while I was working and living in Thailand and I recommend it to anyone traveling.  It’s especially useful when you are tired of wherever you are, or homesick, or just don’t want to be in a place. It cultivates appreciation, however bland a way it seems.

This year, I came up with a point distribution game for my walks to school (I live 19 minutes away walking from the campus where I got my MFA).  It goes like this:

While traveling–walking, driving, riding along as a passenger–allot a certain amount of points to everything you notice.  For instance, the coke can you you step over on the sidewalk might be worth two points but the Porky the Pig graffiti on the side of the gas station might be worth five.  

This second game is particularly nice for getting you out of your head if you’re battling some louder-than-comfortable thoughts.

It’s my belief that cultivating this kind of awareness not only gears us up for better writing, but an overall better quality of life, too.  If nothing else, it cultivates a nice amount of mischief.

(Yes I am aware I used the word “cultivate” three times in this post. Cultivate! See, that’s five…)