Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Getting a Little Too Familiar With Your Writing

They say familiarity breeds contempt. This may not be true of writing, but it is true that familiarity breeds all sorts of problems.

Yes, it can be a problem when you know your writing backwards and forwards. Being objective is the best way to make your revisions effective—it means you can honestly point out flaws and delete those dear little scenes that you love but really serve no use. But being too familiar with your work creates a bias, and that makes it hard for you to polish your prose.

This happens a lot in revisions. People like me tend to write their novels without looking back. But when it comes to revision, my methods require reading and rereading and rereading yet again. With all that reading, I practically memorize the important parts of my story. With The War Horn alone, I've completely rewritten the opening pages three or four times, in addition to rereading them dozens of times.

It's a problem. Your eyes get all glazed over, and your mind starts skipping ahead because you've read it all before. As a result, you miss out on a missing word here or there, or a structural problem, or a bad spot of passive voice.

Recently I had this problem with my Will Vullerman revisions. One story in particular has given me some trouble, and as a result I've reread it as many as ten times in the last two weeks, in addition to rewriting half a dozen key scenes.

Luckily, I'm coming back to the stories after nearly a year and a half of letting them sit on the shelf. Because of that, the first time I reread them, the stories were fresh. And since these are the final revisions, this familiarity isn't as much of a problem.

But when familiarity gets really bad, I suggest doing one of several things.

One, it's a good idea to leave your story on the shelf for a while. Don't use this as an excuse for procrastination, but also recognize your limits. Giving your story some space allows you to be fresh and critical when you do happen to pick it up again.

Never underestimate the power of a long hiatus. After taking a long break from Tornado C back in 2012 (long before completion) I reread the first six chapters several months later. Guess what? The story had a gravity and power that took me by surprise. It was actually good!

I'm currently taking the hiatus approach for my Tornado C revisions. I finished it last October and I haven't touched it since. I'm taking it slow; hopefully, come March, I'll pick it up again and revise it nonstop till August. (Being my biggest novel at 90,000 words, it seems appropriate to go slow and steady. There are few things worse than rushed revisions.)

Two, try printing it out or putting it on an e-reader. I did this for my Will Vullerman story; seeing it on my Kindle allowed me to see a lot of technical mistakes that I had overlooked on my computer screen.

Three, read it out loud and see what happens. You can read it to yourself or to somebody else, whatever works. You'll be surprised at how many mistakes and awkward phrases you'll find! Badly constructed sentences will jump out at you like the stroke of a red pen. (It's always awkward when this happens to you when you're reading it aloud—to a critique group. Oops!)

Fourth, send the story off to other people to read. Sure, that doesn't solve your own familiarity problem, but a great critique is worth a dozen of your own revisions. It'll allow you to revise your blind spots.

And, of course, there's always the possibility that you should stop revising altogether. Sometimes enough is enough. Your story will never be perfect, although perfection should always be your goal. Eventually you'll have to let it go and declare it finished.

Whatever happens, try your best to view your writing from the reader's point of view. That's the most important thing, in the end!

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Journal (My Letters to a Post-Apocalyptic Generation)

Here's a confession: I've always had trouble with journals.

Some people have trouble journaling because they don't have enough imagination; I have trouble because I have too much. Inevitably, in the course of detailing my everyday life, I get the notion that I'm narrating my quaint and historic story to a future generation. This future generation is nearly always post-apocalyptic, and since they don't know the slightest about their past, it is my solemn and noble duty to inform them, not only of my own life, but of every fact of relevance in today's world.

Then, someday my charred and yellowed journal shall be found, and the inhabitants of that future world will gather round in wonder as their history is unveiled before their eyes.

This gives my journals the weight of bored historian. My life is interesting; otherwise I wouldn't be living it. Things outside of my life, things that would be considered important to a post-apocalyptic generation, are the things that I find boring—and those are the things I find myself writing down.

I've gone through this process many times. The weight of mankind's history always brings my pen to an awful stillness, and the journal is put on a secluded shelf or in a dusty drawer, and I never look at it again. School assignments have gone to this dreary death; even self-imposed journals bow beneath this weight.

My perspective changed a year back when I started a journal—not out of a sense of duty to a post-holocaust race, but because I felt I needed a way to keep track of when and where I did the significant things in my life. When I did that, I wrote down only the things that I found important or notable, and as a result, I was actually interested in what I was writing.

Even this journal fizzled out, however—even the weight of the everyday was too much. It took me a half hour or an hour to write down the events of the day, and soon the days began to pile up. I couldn't find the time for it all.

By that time I had resigned myself to an existence devoid of journals—I didn't have the time, energy, or responsibility to write consistently.

Come October, I went and had a birthday. I received two bound notebooks: one brown and black with yellowed pages, one gray and brown with white pages, and both with all sorts of useful information—in Chinese.

Now, in spite of all the complaints I have lodged against journals, I have nothing against notebooks. They are among the most wonderful things of the world, full of blank pages waiting to be filled with anything you like—with lined paper to guide you and covers that smell like fake leather and office stores. There are few things in the world as magical as an empty page and a pen.

I sat on my gift for several days. What might I do with these great and marvelous gifts? The trouble with the blank page is that it ought to be filled, and I didn't know what to fill it with.

I got rid of one notebook easily enough: I decided to consign my poetry to this yellow-bound wilderness. (It worked out quite well; nearly all the poems I write today are first written in the notebook with my favorite extra-bold gel pen.) The second one gave me more trouble. After a long while, I decided to give journaling another go—but with a twist.

You see, I have a page on my blog devoted to a list of my projects. I give the date on which they were started, the date on which they were finished, their current status, and so on. This page has never ceased to fascinate me, because time to my consciousness is like an alarm set for some early hour—it goes in one ear and out the other. Dates and figures never seem to stick in my head like they ought to.

This means that every time I visit that page, I get to rediscover all of my own writing statistics. June 2009, you say? Marvelous! If I had followed my gut, I would have felt sure that I wrote that particular piece three years back, give or take a year.

I decided to apply this principle to the concept of journals. What if I did a sort of auto-biography, where I kept all of my writing statistics in one place? I would compile all that I knew about the time, place, and circumstances under which I wrote my novels into one notebook, in the form of a mildly sarcastic narrative. (If you want to know, the writing style of my notebook is very similar to the writing style of this post.)

The idea took off. It required some research; to this day I can't recall if my mom bought OYAN in summer of '08 or '09, since all I can remember are snapshots of warm stone, the Wild West, and downtown Wichita all running together like hot molasses. Keeping all that information in one place was an excellent idea, because otherwise I'd forget it all. This way, I get to rediscover it once or twice a week, and enjoy how my extra bold ink looks on the crisp white paper.

I started out narrating my past successes and failures, with a humorous and objective eye. Twenty-five handwritten pages and dozens of heartwarming statistics later, I brought my notebook up to date, and I thought it good.

My notebook and my favorite pen.

To keep my notebook current, I established a custom. Every time I finished writing, I would write of my exploits in the notebook. Sometimes I just wrote the date and what I did, how many words I wrote, and so on; sometimes I talked at length about this or that character and my personal opinion on how the story is coming along.

And really, it's an invaluable resource. In the future, I will be able to find the exact date on which I finished a particular novel or short story, how many words I had written, how long it took me, and so on. It's miles better than forgetting everything or keeping it up on a blog page.

If you're cursed with perpetual absentmindedness, like I am, or you just wish to keep track of your work, I'd suggest you try it. At the very least, write down the dates and numbers in one place.  

And since it's the only method of journaling that's stuck with me, I think I'll keep it.