Tag Archives: Rewrites

How a Middle School Track Meet Informed My Writing

In the seventh grade, I signed up for athletics. I lasted for one season (skinny, asthmatic kids are better suited for things like Drama), but I stayed long enough to experience a powerful moment.

After one look, and a few practices into the school year, the coaches figured out that I was C-team material. I was too short to spike a volleyball and couldn’t complete an overhand serve if my popularity depended on it (which it did). I was easily run over in basketball and was given an alternate uniform that screamed “sub.” During games, I took my seat at the bench. But during each practice, I did the drills and ran the laps. When track season rolled around, Coach Lewis looked at me and said “long distance runner.” He signed me up for the 400 meter race.

We didn’t practice with Coach Lewis often during track season, which made him all the more intimidating when he did show up on the field. He barked orders, shouted praise, laughed once in a while. On a particularly chilly Saturday morning at a track meet, he said the one sentence that has stuck with me ever since.

“Quit your coughin’, Craig!”

Cold weather aggravates asthma, and during the middle of the 400 meter event, I started wheezing, sputtering, slowing down. I jogged in the outside lane. Coach Lewis didn’t like that. He walked up to the chain link fence that surrounded the track, stuck his head out like a snapping turtle, and hollered.

“Quit your coughin’, Craig!”

I was shocked. Had he forgotten I had asthma? Where was the sympathy? Too scared to stop and ask him, I picked up the pace. I took the deepest breaths I could manage and the longest strides my chicken legs would take. I merged into the inside lane, rounded the last turn, and passed that tall girl with the mean eyes. I focused on the white lines that marked my lane and tuned into the sound of my shoes hitting the asphalt of the track. I pushed myself, into fourth place, earning a ribbon and a big boost of confidence.

“Quit your coughin’, Craig!”

Coach Lewis’ words flashed through my mind last week as I experienced the same shortness of breath and sluggish feeling. This time, it wasn’t my asthma slowing me down, though, it was fear. I had reached a familiar point in my novel draft, the place in the story where ideas  scatter and plot weakens, the moment where I stare at the blank screen and worry if what I write next will kill the energy in the work.

Barbara O’Neal calls that place “The Slough of Despond.” In her post on Writer Unboxed, O’Neal says:

This is the [place] on the old maps, the murky, muddy spot where quicksand sucks at the feet and demons overtake the heart.

I’ve been here before, with this same story. In the past, I’ve faltered and quit – full stop – and gone back to the beginning to rework chapter one. But, this time is different. I’ve got Coach Lewis breathing down my neck. And, I have a few other incentives to keep me moving forward.

1. The Radio. I recently read my story, “Red Velvet Sunday,” on WUWM’s Lake Effect program (click here to listen). Nothing makes you feel more like a writer than answering questions about the craft and having the honor of reading your work to a new audience. The experience was like a shot of adrenaline, and it was a reminder that good things do happen, usually at just the right time — like during a writing lull when you wonder if you’ve got it in you to succeed.

2. Jody Hedlund. In her post, “How to Beat the Fear of Being a One Book Wonder,” she talks about old self-doubts that resurfaced while writing her second novel. Her thoughts on how to move through those fears apply to writers at any phase.

3. Ira Glass. In his video on storytelling (part 1) (the link found via a post from Jane Friedman on Writer Unboxed), he talks about “the anecdote” as a sequence of actions that move a story forward one moment at a time. That’s how I can get through this next section so that, as Barbara O’Neal says, I’ll “eventually…have a finished draft. To rewrite. So goes the game.”

How about you? What memorable moments keep you from coughing and sputtering your way to “I quit?”

Coach Lewis

Me, bottom right corner, finisher.

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A Writing Group is an Anchor…in a good way.

From Zany Holidays Blog

I’ve been hanging out with a great group of people lately.

Once every two weeks, I pull my car into a small parking lot behind an old convent, run up two long flights of stairs, and sit down at a table with other like-minded individuals.

We are all writers.

I paid for my seat at the table and, in doing so, committed to a block of time that throws a wrench into my weeknight schedule of dinner, books and bedtime for two small kids. But, when I received an email asking if I wanted to return for the next session of Roundtables, I looked past my Mother Writer guilt to four reasons why these sessions are vital to my writing career:

1. I read my work out loud during each meeting. We all do. The group is run in a very egalitarian style. I’m nervous every time I read. Still, I love this aspect of the session for the exact reason that Delia Lloyd mentions in her Huffington Post article, “5 Tips for Productively Editing Your Writing,” (which I found via Lisa Romeo Writes).

Reading out loud, Lloyd says, helps you discover your voice.

You not only hear the repetition and the over-writing. You can also hear whether or not you sound too stifled, too casual, too funny or too sharp.

Besides finding my voice, reading my work to others forces me out of my comfort zone. Margaret Atwood says, “You need a certain amount of nerve to be a writer.” I agree. And, each time I read, I put myself out there as a professional writer and, in the process, gain more courage to be that writer.

2. I get instant feedback. In the January issue of The Writer magazine, Robin Garland interviews a story consultant and agent, Lisa Cron, and asks what makes a good story.

“A [good] story,” Cron says, “must have the ability to engender a sense of urgency from page 1.”

Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at Inkygirl.com

Sharing my latest chapter with a live group of writers gives me a pretty good idea – right away – whether or not my story will keep a reader engaged.

This in-the-moment critique was new to me, but I’m beginning to appreciate the quality of it. Though, I know I don’t need instant feedback to continue with my rewrite, I don’t want to move on to the next chapter until I know I’m in a good place with the current chapter, not this time around anyway.

3. My draft reads more consistent. Writing a novel is daunting, and I procrastinate when projects seem overwhelming. For the last two years, I’ve worked in spurts on this novel and then put it down. When I did get back to it – after too long a break – the tension was lost. The draft felt fractured, unstructured, and too loose.

In just a short time, I knew that the feedback I received from the other writers at the Roundtable was invaluable. Finishing another chapter rewrite by the next session became a concrete deadline I didn’t want to ignore. And, with shorter breaks between revisions, I had less problems remembering where I left off and where I was headed.

4. I benefit from more camaraderie and support. I could tackle this novel alone, huddled over my laptop in the cold basement of my house. But, I focus better and am more driven to finish when I’m surrounded by the warm bodies of other writers.

Yes, I’ve met so many great writers on Twitter, She Writes, and (now) Facebook, and I wouldn’t trade those connections for anything — many of them have become fast friends and staunch supporters. But, we all live miles and states apart. While I treasure the ethereal influence they have on my writing, I need the presence of writers in close proximity just the same.

Sitting at that table has a tangible affect on my writing. I am tethered to my work in a new way that fuels my determination to finish this novel. And, my place in that group completes  another piece of my puzzle in becoming a writer.

~

What has a writing group done for you lately?

*****

Garland, Robin. “The Love of a Good Story.” The Writer. January 2011: 34-35, 55. Print.


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Ego throws a mean left hook.

Ego is a funny thing.

Sometimes Ego is my driving force that gives me just enough courage to put my work out there. Other times, Ego whispers something that sends me spinning and knocks me out for a few days.

Several weeks ago, I had my eye on a couple of writing contests. I considered submitting a story I wrote, one that got some good feedback. As I wavered, Ego leaned into my ear and said –  all syrupy and sweet – “Oh, it’s good. Just do it.” She was so encouraging. I clicked “submit.”

Days later, I read a different story to a group of writers, my confidence still inflated. I received some good responses, but those weren’t the ones I heard. What I tuned into was one or two critiques that made me question my writing and myself, and then I focused on Ego’s quiet little whisper that followed.

“I’m not sure why you brought in that story anyway,” she said as we exited the studio. “You know they hated it. In fact, I’m fairly certain they don’t even like you.”

Knock out.

Man, she’s mean.

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg doesn’t call the problem Ego, but she writes about it just the same. She says “Do not be tossed away by your achievements or your fiascos.”

I have to take my successes for what they are: rewards for hard work done on a story. When I feel good about a story, I can relish the moment, even write a post about it, but I can’t play into a false belief that everything I write from that point forward will be perfect.

Then again, as Goldberg says, I can’t let my failures drain me either.

See beyond [doubt] to the vastness of life and the belief in time and practice. Write something else. Let go of your failures and sit down and write something great. Or write something terrible and feel great about it.

The problem with Ego is that, whether the words I hear are praise or a put-down, it’s always all about me. And, when I’m all into me, I’m not into writing. The best way to avoid that pitfall is to take Natalie Goldberg’s advice: Write something else. Through successes and failures, just write.

How do I do that?

1. I Keep it short. If I’m writing a short story or a first chapter (or if I’m knee-deep in a 50,000 word first draft), I don’t want to get stuck on perfecting one scene. I keep it short, get the first draft done, and then share it with writers who know what they’re doing. I can trust that a good roundtable session will help me filter through the parts that need more expansion and bump the sections that don’t belong.

2. I Pull out something old and rework it. I hate looking back, which doesn’t make for easy rewrites. But, after spending some time learning the craft, I might pull out an old story and apply some of those new techniques. That’s the best time to see how far I’ve come in my writing.

3. I Enjoy the process. This is especially important when I’m working through early drafts of a piece. Sometimes a whole page of writing reveals only one gem, but that gem may turn out to be the crux of my story. In a feedback session, I might hear the one suggestion that clears up the whole picture for me and brings that story into focus.

I love Jody Hedlund’s final comment in one of her recent posts, because it speaks to my struggle as well:

Perfection is unattainable. We need to guard against thinking we’re already close to perfect. And we need to guard against thinking we need to be perfect. Instead, we can begin to develop a quiet confidence in our writing abilities—seeing how far we’ve come, but knowing we still have room to grow.

So, whatever Ego mumbles in my ear today, I know what I have to do. Write.
Or, rewrite.
Whatever it takes.

Because, Ego isn’t going away.

*****

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986. Print.

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Pumping Up Your Image

During one of the early writing classes I took, I received a red envelope from my instructor, Ariel Gore. This wasn’t just any red envelope. It was small and was decorated with Vietnamese characters written in gold. A drawing of a young boy and a young girl, in what seemed to be ceremonial dress, bowed to each other.

The envelope held promise, but I wasn’t allowed to open it until Ariel gave the instructions.

We were to choose an event we wanted to write about, she said, a powerful image from our past or a scene from a story in progress. Inside the red envelope was a series of cards with questions. We were to pull out the cards, one at a time, without peeking). She wanted us to answer each question and then use those responses to write – or rewrite – our story.

There was no order to the questions, and we didn’t have to answer them all. But, even the few that I drew were enough to widen my perspective of the scene, to see what the character saw, and to incorporate details I overlooked when I had written an earlier draft.

I loved this writing exercise.

The little red envelope appeared mystical with it’s Vietnamese writing, the hopeful expressions of the young boy and girl, and the secret cards; it was bound to do magic on my writing.

The assignment wasn’t daunting; all I had to do was read and answer a few questions. I could even make up the answers. There was no wrong way to do it.

And, the answers put me front and center into the image. They helped me color the scene, add texture, and reveal insight into my character.

As I stepped behind my character’s eyes, I drew these cards:

  • About how old are you?
  • What is to your left?
  • What is to your right?
  • Is anyone else in the image?
  • Why are you there?
  • Is there anyone who just left or who may be coming?
  • What are some of the sounds in the image?
  • What does the air smell like?

I thought it would be fun to try this exercise again. Here’s a snippet of a story – a before and after. Hopefully, the power of the exercise will still shine through:

Before:

One by one they got up from the bed. Jan went to the bathroom. Brian needed food. Mollie went downstairs and put on music. But Paul stayed upstairs with me. He wanted to smoke, so I opened the bedroom window and we climbed outside onto the roof.

There, under the stars, we sat on a small ledge. He smoked. I pulled in my knees and wrapped up in a blanket. We talked. For a long time, we just talked. He laughed at my jokes. But still, he looked me in the eyes when he spoke. I sat with him until the mosquitoes got the best of me.

After: *

At twenty-one years old, I was accustomed to staying awake into the wee hours of the morning. But, I wasn’t used to being woken up at 3am by a posse of four. My roommate Mollie, her friend Jan, and two guys I had just met all sat on Mollie’s bed, across the room from mine. They stared at me and giggled. Knowing they weren’t leaving any time soon, I sat up, wrapped my comforter around me, and listened while they recounted their evening.

Their tale ended, and one by one they got up from Mollie’s bed. Jan went to the bathroom. Brian needed food. Mollie went downstairs and put on music. But Paul stayed in the room with me. As the sounds of Jimi Hendrix climbed the stairs, Paul stood up.

“I need a smoke,” he said. “Can we go out on the roof?”

“Sure,” I shrugged. I wasn’t tired any more.

I opened the bedroom window and we climbed outside. The roof was cool and the air crisp. I pulled my comforter out with me, and we sat on a small ledge that jutted out just enough. We sat side by side, my toes barely over the edge and Paul’s legs dangling.

Paul lit a match, and, even though I didn’t smoke, the first whiff of his cigarette filled my nose with a satisfaction. We sat under the stars and talked about the fresh smell of Spring time in the morning – wet grass and dirt, about the quiet, and the light of the full moon.

It was easy, sitting there with Paul. I pulled in my knees but let the comforter fall off of one shoulder. For a long time, we just talked. He looked me in the eyes when he spoke. And, he laughed at my jokes. I sat with him past the last drag of his cigarette, through the songs of the early morning birds, until the mosquitoes and hunger got the best of us.

Whether you write memoir or fiction, your story is full of imagery. Details settle the reader into time and place, and they give flavor and richness to your story.

If you’re considering a rewrite, ask yourself this: From behind whose eyes does your story unfold?

Who’s got the angle on perspective?

And then, answer a few simple questions of your own.

________________________________________________________

* Funny, I said I wasn’t going to write flash fiction every Wednesday for a while. I guess I just couldn’t help myself.

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Writing is Looking Back and Moving Forward

Goodbye summer.

This week, I return to my day job after a summer-long hiatus. I don’t like change, so even a slight shake-up of routine sent me straight to my journal the other day.

As I scribbled down all my anxieties, I realized that the entry I wrote was all too similar to the one I wrote in May – when my day job ended and my summer promised two kids at home – all day – and absolutely no routine. The list from May to August differed in a few details, but the big question remained the same: When will I find time to write?

One thing’s for sure, I’m a consistent worrier.

It’s the endless plight of any writer with a day job or a mother writer with kids. What I’ve found though – in looking back on the last few months – is that as much as I worry about not having time to write, I still end up with a stack of essays and stories in the end. Too bad those essays or stories have little to do with the “big one.” I’ve tucked my novel draft and notes under my arm and carried them from room to room with me all summer. They even traveled with me on vacations. But, I’ve pushed through only a few more pages of that draft.

Still, I’ve been writing, even when time was tight. And, that’s better than not writing at all.

In considering my slow-moving novel, I thought of Jan O’Hara’s recent post on Writer Unboxed where she mentioned wise words from Donald Maass, heard at the RWA Nationals:

If possible, resist the push to rapid production. A good story well told means an audience willing to wait. Reward their loyalty with quality.

Maass’s words do little to ease my worries that I will oversleep tomorrow and show up late (or worse – unshowered) for first day back at work. But, his advice reminds me that writing is simply moving forward — inch by inch, page by page.

Looking back from May to August, I see small steps in progress and moments of synchronicity, when little burning bushes signaled that I can be (and am) a writer. In spite of tight schedules, posts were written, stories were submitted, and connections with other writers were made.

I can view my day job as a  burden that takes me away from writing (though that paycheck and health insurance lightens the load). Or, I can see it as an opportunity: new routines force me to schedule more succinct writing times.

I did it once; I can do it again.

What inspiration have you found in looking back on your writing?
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Breaking the Rules: Using Present Tense in Fiction

In my copy of the 1922 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette, she says “…a first rule for behavior in society is: ‘Try to do and say those things only which will be agreeable to others.'” So, I wonder if I’ll be ruffling any feathers when I publish this post on writing a novel in present tense?

I know. Throw “present tense” in the midst of a discussion on fiction and you beg for trouble, maybe even set the stage for a form rejection.

But hear me out.

My first writing teacher, Ariel Gore, reminded us one day that a good memoir reads like fiction and great fiction can read like a memoir. The art of the narrative is critical in both genres.

Writers of creative nonfiction often use fiction techniques. And, once in a while, a technique for writing memoir crosses over into fiction. I first considered how the practice of writing memoir can influence a work of fiction in a post I wrote on Stanley Kunitz, Memoir and Fiction. When I flipped open my June issue of The Writer and read an article by Mimi Schwartz on using present tense in memoir, I wondered again about transferable techniques.

I punched out the first draft of my current novel-in-progress during NaNoWriMo two years ago.  In thirty days, I wrote a little over 50,000 words of a story that unfolded in present tense. At the time, I was very much a novice writer and didn’t consider the rule that fiction is usually written in past tense. I didn’t consider anything. I was hunched over a keyboard chasing down a character and her tale before she got away. In the end, I was thrilled at having written a full story, even in its most raw stage.

In between the first draft and a serious rewrite, I read a novel that is written in present tense. I barely made it through the novel; each chapter sounded like a running commentary. So, when I sat down to study and rework chapter one of my WIP, I weighed my options: keep the story as is – in present tense – and risk losing the reader after the first few pages, or rework the story into past tense.

As an emerging writer, I wanted to learn my craft (and earn my way) by following the rules first; I could break them later. So, I changed the tense of the story. Each time I re-read my new version of chapter one, though, something pulled at the back of my throat. My gut twisted. My head was telling me to go one way, but the story insisted I go another.

Isn’t that just how it works sometimes? The story has a mind of it’s own, and I am simply a conductor. I couldn’t ignore the pull to return to present tense.

Here’s where Mimi Schwartz’s article (“The special power of present tense”) comes in. Schwartz mentions a few specific ways that present tense can strengthen memoir.

“For creative nonfiction writers, the act of discovery is what makes the genre so appealing.”

When reading a story written in present tense, the audience experiences the immediacy of the character’s own discoveries, adding to the suspense of the story.

Schwartz also says that using present tense can highlight the main character’s “[changes] over time.” Sure, you can do this with past tense as well, but Schwartz emphasizes her point by sharing her own experience when she used it her memoir Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village:

“…[T]he village and the villagers kept drawing me back, literally and figuratively, into their living rooms and kitchens, as I tried to uncover why these people mattered to me in New Jersey, 70 years later. And the present tense let the reader come along; we walk together in my father’s old world, trying to figure it out.”

Writing fiction in present tense can be a stylistic choice that taps into the readers senses and emotion on a deeper level.

There’s still a part of me that worries I’m biting off more than can chew, being so green and all, but I like a challenge. And I also like to listen to the way the story wants to be told. That means, my choice to stick with present tense must be a stylistic move and not a way of avoiding a major restructuring of a draft. Throughout the whole rewriting process, I must make each word, phrase, and passage count.

What are your experiences with present tense? Have you written a short story or a novel that cried out for it? Or, have you read a novel that used it successfully?

*****

Schwartz, Mimi. “The special power of present tense.” The Writer. June 2010: 26-27. Print.

Post, Emily. Etiquette. United States of America: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1922. p.  Print.

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A Writer on Vacation

Part One: Not Writing

The weight
Of a thick, gray cloud
Pressed down
And choked out signs
Of the sun.

Everything was muted.
“And damp,” I thought.
Like my mood.

When the rain fell,
For the fourth time that day,
It hissed.
It struck the surface
Of the lake
And hissed.

Like I did,
At my husband.
Spewing venomous complaints.

I slammed
Cabinet doors
For effect.
And growled,
“I need space.”

Or, maybe
It was time
With a pen
And paper
That I needed.

So, I turned
to my notebook
And finally,
I wrote.
And, it was then
That the clouds
And the weight
Lifted.

~

Part Two: Discoveries

A day in town meant laundry and groceries and a stop at my favorite used book store. Among the stacks, I was drawn to the old books, the ones with yellowing pages and fragile bindings. I pulled one from the shelf because of the title, another because of the cover, and a third because of the author.

1. Out of the Mist, by Florence Riddell; 2. He Fell in Love with His Wife, by Edward P. Roe; 3. Here Lies the Collected Stories of Dorothy Parker

Each old book holds several stories: the ones written within the pages and the stories of its own history. When I held them, I wondered who bought the book new and who read it first; who passed it on to a good friend, saying “this one, you won’t be able to put down”; and, through how many hands did it travel before it ended up here – in mine?

After a few hours in the bookstore, and three treasures in the crook of my elbow, we drove back to the camp. Feeling inspired, I finished rewriting chapter one of my WIP (phew!).

~

Part Three: The Thrill of the Small Town Paper

My husband loves to read the local newspaper from any small town. I might pick through a few articles when he buys one, but most of the time I stick to reading the book I brought. However, The Munising News – a newspaper printed since 1896 – is one you cannot ignore.

It’s physical presence demands attention, with a single sheet measuring almost a foot and a half wide. And, as the front page boasts, it’s “the only newspaper in the world that gives a darn about Alger County.”

The Munising News

The articles give the reader a glimpse into the workings of a small town, and they provide fuel for a writer’s mind. I’m tempted, for one, to write about the challenges of holding that paper in full spread: it’s quite a workout for the neck when you read it from left to right.

~

What occupies your writer’s mind when you’re unplugged and miles away from home?
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