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Signed, Sealed, Delivered

February 26, 2010 1 comment

After an intense writing blitz, I finished my short story, revised it, and sent it on its way. It took hours. And hours. I far surpassed the 60 minutes a day I’ve been aiming for. On Sunday night, I worked for over three hours. On Monday, a full 90 minutes, on Tuesday, Wednesday and today I put in two hours a day.

All of that time spent was due mainly to the fast-approaching deadline. It was a strain, but I wanted to meet this mini goal. I wanted to do more than just finish a story – I wanted to polish it to the point where I felt it was worth spending the $5 to send it out for others to read and critique. I know that the story could have been better with more time, but it is what it is.

Two interesting notes cropped up over the revision process. My wife, who has been a rock for me throughout this process, read the story twice and smothered it in comments. Many professional writers advise against having loved ones read unpublished work. They fear that it will cause more tension than anything else. I found it to be a tremendous help though, and I don’t think that my wife is ready to kill me yet. She did, though, say that it was very hard to know how others will see the story because she was so involved in its creation from the beginning that she was unable to read it as a reader. She could only see it as an editor, and could not fully gage the sheer entertainment value and storytelling charm of the piece. That’s why I chose the literary journal I did. My story will get a blind reading and will be returned to me (in three months) with commentary. I hold little illusions about the likelihood of publication, but I hope to grow from the commentary.

The other point of interest is a bit less heady. Over the course of writing the story, each day I would save it as a new file, so that I could go back to older versions if needed. I enjoyed watching the size of those files slowly grow over time. The first day, the file was 11 kb. Day two saw the document more than double to 23 kb. By draft 11 – the day that I finished the full telling of the story – the document was 87 kb. The file that I printed and mailed today was 79 kb. The steady rise, then the slight fall, in the file size is exactly the pattern I hoped to see. My daily regimen yields slow but consistent progress, and the editing process reduces the file size because I’m cutting the worst 10%-15% of the content before the piece is submission-worthy.

For now, I’ll take the next two days off to celebrate my daughter’s 5th birthday. On Sunday I’ll return to my novel. I am excited to get back to that story.

A Finished Product, Sort Of

February 22, 2010 Comments off

It was a productive weekend, on the writing front, and I’ve finished a draft of my short story. I am not pleased with it yet – it is over-written, too long, and it lacks a center – so there is much yet to be done. In a perfect world, I would let it rest for a week or two, then return to it with a fresh pair of eyes for a heavy re-write. That can’t be the case, though, since the deadline for the journal submission is March one. I’ll need to keep plugging away and rely on the trusted criticism of my wife and friend to get this thing into a submit-able form.

It does feel good, though, to have a completed work. I sat down two weeks ago with an idea and a character, and a story grew from there. There were days when I knew that the direction was off, or that the writing was less than stellar. On those days I almost just scrapped the whole piece and went back to the novel. But I stuck with it and forced myself to finish for finshing’s sake.

I ended up with a 20-page story, and a fully resolved little plot. It is not great – maybe not even good – but I have something to work with.  Even if the piece I submit to the journal next week is not what I want it to be, I’ll still have a story that I can come back to at some later date to continue revising and polishing.

Today, I hope to take out 10% – 15% of the words. I need to re-work the opening to make sure that it more fully sets the emotional state of the narrator, and I need to weed out the elements that don’t lead to the conclusion the story found. That should fill an hour easily.

It will be the first day of this experiment that I spend editing. As an English teacher I edit constantly, so I I’m hoping that I’m good at this.

We’ll see.

A Long Weekend, and a Good One

February 16, 2010 2 comments

It has been a long time since I have posted here, but the writing is going well. I am well into the short story that I will be submitting next week. I have perhaps seven pages left to write on that story, and then I’ll need to do some heavy revision. I’m both nervous and excited to submit this piece. I won’t know the decision of the journal’s editors for three months – by which point I hope to have completed most of my novel and perhaps an additional short story.

The big news of the President’s Day weekend writing experience has been how successful I was at writing at home. It was the first weekend where I was proactive and worked with my wife to schedule in time that I would isolate myself and focus on writing for at least an hour. The kids find this very interesting. With the support of my family, I’ve been able to get in a good writing groove every day. The story is improving and I am still finding the whole experience to be very enjoyable.

I do wish that I had a completed product at this point. I was hoping to have finished the initial draft of the short story and to have spent the weekend revising. I am finding that the pace at which I write can’t be rushed. I need to allow for that and remember to build that into my scheduling in the future. As it is, I feel a bit under the gun as far as the submission deadline for the short story goes. The deadline looms.

Of course, the journalist in me functions best under the pressure of a deadline.

Student > Teacher

February 9, 2010 2 comments

The tables were turned a bit on me today, and my writing benefitted as a result.

Not many people read this blog (yet), but I do have a small handful of subscribers. Among them are a few students of mine. I’m sure that their reasons for following along with my ramblings have much more to do with their late-night laughs about dorky Mr. Van Hof than with any genuine interest in what I write, but it is nice to know that they are out there.

It was especially nice today when one of those student subscribers stopped me in class to mention last night’s post. To tell the story, I need to explain that I just finished an 18 week semester of AP Language and Composition with this student. I gave the class buckets of work, including summer readings. One of those readings was “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott. It is a fantastic book that gives thoughtful and funny insight into the world of being a writer. In her book, Lamott gives prospective writers some basic instructions on writing. Her central rule is to simply get something written, then to revise heavily.

All of which leads to class today, when my student told me she had read my post.

“What did ya think?” I asked, turning down my U2 Pandora station.

“I was going to leave a comment, actually, but I was reading it on my iPhone and it would have been a pain to type in the comment box,” she said.

“Oh, right,” I said, wishing I was the one with the iPhone.

“So anyway, I thought I could just tell you in class. Remember when we read in ‘Bird by Bird’ about the ‘shitty first draft?’ Well that’s what you need to do…”

“Right !” I was glad she remembered the book at all, let alone the tips Lamott gave.

“Just get out a shitty first draft,” she said.

She was right. That’s the point I was trying to get to in my previous post. Getting something – anything – finished needs to be my first goal. The revisions will come, but the story and characters will be at a point of no return.

It’s a strange feeling, ten years into a career as an English teacher, to take writing advice from a student. But at the same time, it’s validating. Writing is a challenging craft, and I am by no means an expert. I’ll turn to any source for a nudge in the right direction – even to a teenager.

Plan of Attack

February 8, 2010 1 comment

I’m fast realizing that updating this blog daily is not going to be feasible – especially on the weekends when it seems the days disappear before I have time to get even a few words down. I’ll update frequently though, dear reader, and promise to keep plugging away on my 60 minutes a day with or without a post (I know that you are tremendously concerned that I will not).

The last few days have been rough on the writing front. The hurdle: a submission deadline that I thought was not until March 31 is actually on March 1, so I have about two weeks to get a short story all prepped. The outline for that story is set, and the characters are established in my mind, but the actual writing is only just getting underway. I need about 2,000 words to meet the journal’s requirements.

I’ve put the novel on hold until I get this short piece done, then. It’s not an ideal situation. I wanted to finish the first two chapters before I set the novel aside for a rest, thinking that the story and characters needed to blossom a bit before I left them for something else. I don’t want to lose the impetus on the novel, because I have faith that it can be a publishable piece. But if I’m honest with myself I realize that the novel has been in my head for at least three years, and a two week hiatus is not going to do any irreparable harm to my ability to tell the story.

The challenge of the short story is that it is for a far different reader than my YA novel. I am attempting to develop a more mature voice for this submission, and have found that in doing so I’m over thinking the whole process. I am getting bogged down and am feeling the story stall.

I’ve resolved to stop all hemming and hawing on the artistry of the piece for now and get the plot out and the characters developed. After I put this post up, I’m going back to the story and will put in another solid 30-60 minutes to try to get up to 1,000 words or so before bed. Using the outline as a guide, I think that’s an achievable target. The short term plan is to have the story done by Friday in (very) rough draft form. I’ll polish it for a week and send it on its way. I’m sure I won’t feel that the story got its due once the envelope is mailed, but at least I’ll have completed the whole drafting/revising/re-drafting/editing/submitting process.

On a side note, my wife has been plucking white hairs out of my head for the last 6 days. I’m 31. This is a frightful development. I’m not ready to blame the writing, though. The white hair probably got much more to do with the MSU basketball team.

Right?

Word Up

February 5, 2010 Comments off

After yesterday’s excitement over the action scene, I’m back to Earth. I re-read the section, and asked my wife to have a peek too. The scene is good, and it will stay in, but it needs work. The action moves too fast, and the reader can’t picture the scenario as it unfolds. I need to revise heavily, and in so doing, I’ll need to add more literal description.

That’s the real problem. I need to get better at finding the balance between exposition that the reader can understand easily and creative prose that is open to some interpretation. I want my audience to be able to visualize my scenes, but I don’t want to spoon feed them. It’s a tough balance, because while I want the narrative to flow at a quick pace, moving it along too fast limits the vividness of the setting.

What I find is that this manifests itself by taxing my vocabulary. The voice and syntax I’ve employed for this novel require an almost poetic diction that relies on single words or short phrases to set whole scenes and paint the characters in three dimensions. Add to that the fact that this is intended to be a young adult novel – a novel targeted at an audience with a high-school vocabulary – and I find myself often fighting to find the right word.

That fight can become a frustration because I want to move forward. I feel a very real desire to get as much of this novel on paper as fast as I can. I don’t want to lose the momentum; finishing the manuscript in any form will be a big step toward having a publishable novel. Besides, I trust my ability to revise with purpose and intelligence once the first draft is done. Too often, though, my pace stalls because I know that there’s a better word and it won’t come. The thesaurus can be a help, but it often squelches my voice and leads to clichés.

One problem might be that I’ve been reading a rather lousy book lately (you might have heard of it – it features a certain clan of sparkly vampires and their melodramatic misadventures with a teenage buffoon). The language in that lovely little book reads like an eighth-grade spelling test. (Which is not to say I don’t respect Stephanie Meyers – I do. She’s made a killing with those books, and clearly filled a substantial niche in the YA market.) I finished “Twilight” last night, though, and have moved on to a much more intelligent collection of short stories (“Oblivion” by David Foster Wallace). Reading the work of a linguistic genius – a work that forces me to spend as much time with the Oxford English Dictionary as I do with the text itself – will, I hope, be one way to enliven my vocabulary a bit.

After yesterday’s excitement over the action scene, I’m back to Earth. I re-read the section, and asked my wife to have a peek too. The scene is good, and it will stay in, but it needs work. The action moves to fast, and the reader can’t picture the scenario as it unfolds. I need to revise heavily, and in so doing, I’ll need to add more literal description.

That’s the real problem. I need to get better at finding the balance between exposition that the reader can understand easily and creative prose that is open to some interpretation. I want my audience to be able to visualize my scenes, but I don’t want to spoon feed them. It’s a tough balance, because while I want the narrative to flow at a quick pace, moving it along too fast limits the vividness of the setting.

What I find is that this manifests itself by taxing my vocabulary. The voice and syntax I’ve employed for this novel requires an almost poetic diction that relies on single words or short phrases to set whole scenes and paint the characters in three dimensions. Add to that the fact that this is intended to be a young adult novel – a novel targeted at an audience with a high-school vocabulary – and I find myself often fighting to find the right word.

That fight can become a frustration because I want to move forward. I feel a very real desire to get as much of this novel on paper as fast as I can. I don’t want to lose the momentum, and I trust my ability to revise with purpose and intelligence once the first draft is done. Too often, though, my pace stalls because I know that there’s a better word and it won’t come. The thesaurus can be a help, but it often squelches my voice and leads to clichés.

One problem might be that I’ve been reading a rather lousy book lately (you might have heard of it – it features a certain clan of sparkly vampires and their melodramatic misadventures with a teenage buffoon). The language in that lovely little book reads like an eighth-grade spelling test. I finished that novel last night, though, and have moved on to a much more intelligent collection of short stories (“Oblivion” by David Foster Wallace). Reading the work of a linguistic genius – a work that forces me to spend as much time with the Oxford English Dictionary as I do with the text itself – will, I hope, be one way to enliven my vocabulary a bit.

Words Per Minute

February 4, 2010 Comments off

It must mean something that I am far more excited each day to write my novel than I am to write for this blog. It’s a bit of a stretch coming up with pithy commentary each day, especially after I’ve already cramped my phalanges with an hour of storytelling.

I planned to write this blog because I thought it would help me get the most out of the writing process, though, so I do not want to abandon this piece of the effort. The point of this blog is metacognition. I’ve waited too long to start writing. I have had stories in my head for years and have always found a way to put off writing them. Having found the motivation to finally begin, I feel like I need to expedite my growth as a writer by publicly sharing what the writing process does and means to me.

So this is what I’ve got for today:

All in all it was a good one.  I only wrote 500 words or so, but I crafted a fun scene and got through some tough dialogue.

I sat down to write this novel with no outline, but with a very good sense of the overall plot arch in my head. I knew the main characters (though not their names), I knew the general structure the story would follow, and I knew the key points of conflict and climax. I chose not to write a rigid outline, because I wanted the narrative to develop organically and to get a real sense of who I am as a writer. That paid off for the first time a few hours ago.

That was when I found that the story has taken an exciting turn. I reached a point in the plot I had not foreseen – a point that makes perfect sense and helps develop all three of my main characters while at the same time defining the conflicts between them. It’s also a point of increased action – fast-paced and intense – one of those parts of a book that as a reader I fly through and re-read to be sure I got it all.  It was an un-planned scene, and it was fun to write.

It was an interesting day as a storyteller. My greatest frustration was that I couldn’t type fast enough to keep up with the ideas in my head.  I know that that can’t continue every day, but if I had never started this project, today would never have happened.