Monday, July 18, 2011

Post-its, Paperclips, and Miniature Skateboards

Me: Ah! The beauty of the contemporary novel.

Aurelia: What?! I thought we were in firm agreement that fantasy and historical fiction are your favorite genres.

Me: They are, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some serious advantages to writing modern realistic fiction.

She growls behind her teeth.

Aurelia: Like what?

Me: Like description.

Aurelia: Hold on! That is not fair. Just the other day you were saying what a struggle it was to decide how to describe a realistic riverbank for a modern novel without actually choosing a real riverbank.

Me: That’s true. But generally the description in a modern novel is so much easier because you don’t need nearly as much. And when you do, you can usually just look in your own desk.

She rolls her eyes and sits down on a footstool.

Aurelia: Explain.

Me: Well if my character is a fifth grade boy and I have him sit down at his desk, the average reader already has an image. He or she doesn’t need me to go into vivid detail about the type of screws in the desk.

Aurelia: And you feel like describing screws when you put a desk in a historical novel?

Me: Maybe not. But I’d better research the type of desks that were around then, just in case I slip up. And how am I supposed to figure out what might be inside the desk? Quill pens, ink; those seem likely, but that’s nothing compared to the wealth of possibilities my student might have in a contemporary novel: glue sticks, number 2 pencils, sharpeners with annoying motors, miniature plastic skateboards with wheels, radically altered paper clips—

Aurelia: I’m sure students a hundred years ago had plenty of ways of distracting their teachers too!

Me: I’m sure they did. But I have to research them. And if I’m writing fantasy, I have to invent them. Which, don’t get me wrong, I love to do. Just not necessarily for every little thing or at 4:30 p.m. when I reach that scene or on a day when I’m in a bad mood. And this is when it comes in really handy to be writing a contemporary novel. Because you can just open your own mental desk, pull out all those random details from personal experience, and toss them into your scene.

Aurelia: Only if you’re trying to make a mess.

Me: Which is perfect for the average desk of a fifth grader. All hail the contemporary novel!

She opens my desk and flings about a hundred post-its at me.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Throwing Up and Climbing Down the Fire Escape

Writing is 1/10th first draft and 9/10ths revision. Or 19/20ths revision. Or 39/40ths revision.

You spend hours and hours and hours perfecting your story. You agonize over it. You mull over it. You dream about it.

But sooner or later you have to share it. This is the hard part. Because you have to take this story that you’ve agonized and dreamt and mulled over for what seems like forever. And give it to someone else. Who inevitably is going to suggest something

This isn’t your peer editor’s fault. It’s just that he or she doesn’t know how the story’s supposed to go.

As a writer, when you hear one of those wrong suggestions, you’re gut reaction is to say, “No. That’s not going to work because . . .”

And that’s the important word: Because.

Because obviously that because isn’t obvious to the reader yet. So your job is to make sure it’s clear. And that’s the beauty of an editor. They can point out to you where the becauses aren’t clear.

For example. Character A throws up in church.

This happens in Chapter 3. Character A (aka the hero) throws up in church. He or she leaves the building early to lie down in the car. While Character A is outside the building, Character B (the villain) pulls the fire alarm. Character A then watches in shock from the car as the entire church congregation climbs down the fire escape.

Your peer editor is concerned that Character A is missing out on all the action in Chapter 3. So he or she suggests you have character C (aka the sidekick) throw up instead. Because that will free up Character A to climb down the fire escape along with everyone else.

But obviously this isn’t going to work because Character A is afraid of heights and, therefore, would never climb down the fire escape, which is why you had character A removed from the scene early by having him or her throw up.

And of course, it’s very important that Character A is afraid of heights because the same character has to overcome that fear later on in Chapter 22 during the climax of your whole book.

Ha! Take that, peer editor!

But here’s the thing. Your editor didn’t know that. Why didn’t your editor know that? Because you didn’t make it clear enough that Character A is afraid of heights.

Maybe you mentioned it during the climax. But obviously that didn’t make a large enough impression on your editor. Or he or she would have known that Character A couldn’t climb down the fire escape.

Now . . . how can you make it more clear that Character A can’t climb down the fire escape?

You can have Character A try to climb down the fire escape and fail. Now you’ve accomplished the following:
1. Meeting your editor’s concern about Character A getting in on the action.
2. Making it very clear that your character is afraid of heights. And . . .
3. Strengthening your entire story by clarifying the challenge and conflict within Character A during the real climax of the book.

This is what having a peer editor is all about.