Friday, 13 August 2010

In The Valley Of The Shadow

It was raining again. Alex wasn’t surprised—there’d been rain all week—but why was it falling on his face? He sneezed. Rain was usually cold and wet, but this was dry and powdery. It was getting into his nose, making it hard to breathe. Choking him, even.

Alex sat up, coughing. Where was he? He squinted in the darkness. Something was falling on him, making a skittery, rattling noise, like gravel. Then it all came back to him...

Hang on: I've started this off with a sleeping character and this is a classic no-no. You're not supposed to start books off with characters who are in bed, sleeping. Can I get away with this? Won't it put my readers off? Make them think the rest of the book is going to be a real yawner?

Tonight, Kathe and I finally managed to get this computer hooked up. It was great to connect with friends and family again! The minute we got it set up, Alex started e-mailing everyone, even my family back in New Jersey. Tell your cousin about the massive garden and all the trees, I said. Tell your Aunt Miriam how big the house is. (Miriam’s such a snob about having a two-story house.) He just frowned and gave me a Tell them yourself look. He’s been giving me looks like that ever since we arrived in Scotland.

Uh oh: that's a POV shift. You're not supposed to have POV shifts in kids' stories. Kids want to read about kids, not about kids' mothers. I thought it might be fun to have the odd diary entry for Alex's mothern -- for readers to see that Alex and his mother have a completely differently take about almost everything. But now I wonder: what self-respecting kid wants to read about mothers and their doubts, petty rivalries and insecurities? And isn't that phrase arrived in Scotland a little too expositional?

I wrote this story, an MG for boys, a couple of years ago. I can easily remember how thrilled I was when I finished the very last sentence of the very last chapter and proudly clicked Save.

To my great disappointment, my husband and kids were not thrilled with it. "There's no tension," my husband pointed out, "and almost no story. Nothing really happens. And pardon me, but I think you're moralizing." My kids were just as cruel. "The funny parts are too far apart. You need a lot more of them."

I waited a few months, then rewrote the chapters they found most problematic. Still, no dice. "Everybody gets along too well," my oldest daughter objected. "They're all so nicey-nice with each other. Make them not get along so well."

So I did this. I added tension, spats, unpleasantness. I made my clueless new-age earth mother type a lot more obnoxious. I gave Alex and his functionally autistic roommate Arnie more rivalries and opportunities to clash. "It's still not really funny enough," my younger daughter told me truthfully. "The funny parts are too long. I think they need to be shorter."

Having family members read and comment on your manuscripts is also a huge no-no for writers. The idea is that they will always be inclined to like what you've written and praise it to the skies. This is one piece of advice I've learned to ignore. My kids and husband read all the time, both kids' books and adults' books. They have very discerning tastes and they wouldn't massage my ego if I put a gun to their heads. I can also tell them where to get off when they try to rewrite my plots for me. The only downside is that I can't tell anyone about this. No one who matters in publishing will be favorably impressed by the editorial approval of someone's husband and children.

My multiply revised manuscript is nowhere near ready for family input and I've now come to a standstill on it. Why was it so easy to write but so difficult to rewrite?

Actually, I know the answer: a few years back when I first wrote this, I really had no idea of what made a story riveting and utterly compelling, so I just blazed on full-steam ahead. Now I know much more about writing and I can clearly see what doesn't work. I've also been in a writing group and had my work raked through hot coals -- and I've profited enormously from this. But I've become a little like the centipede that, suddenly conscious of all the appendages it has managed to use so effortlessly, finds it impossible to move forward. Suddenly everything is a cliche, every subplot a possible distraction, every device smacks of exposition, and every paragraph must be minutely examined for possible moralizing.

So I will leave this manuscript for another week. I will work in my garden, I will do my long-neglected household chores, and I will go for long walks. And I will pray not to run into anyone who looks at me pityingly and wonders when I will get a real job.


Carole said...

Unfortunately I loved the beginning of the story. Sounded so mysterious. I want to know more about Alex.

Writing is a tricky business and there is no accounting for what some people like compared to others. In the end of course, when you have it revised to the way you want it, it will be very good.

Miss Footloose said...

Oh, sigh! I feel your frustration! Yet, frustration of not, it is so satisfying to learn the ins and outs of writing, or I find it so.

Editing is always much more difficult than writing, and the problem is that after you edit a story for the umpteenth time, you end up with something you might not recognize, or you get lost because you dont see the woods for the trees and trees for the woods.

Editing is also an art. Good luck!

Bradmouth said...

I think alot of these rules only matter if you are trying to get an agent. I'm reading a popular novel right now that has characters sleeping, multiple POV shifts and stories in the FIRST 50 pages, and what I think is too much backstory upfront.

And I too value the opinion of a few family and friends because they are major league readers.


Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- I'm really glad to hear that -- I've rewritten that beginning, oh, three dozen times, and for many reasons, I want to keep it the way it is.

There are some good reasons for those rules about POV shifts and not beginning with a sleeping character, and writers who are good (or successful) enough can break them. I don't believe I'm there yet, or if I am, I'm in denial. But I'll keep plugging away at it and aiming to make it very good!

Miss Footloose -- I know you know what this is like; I've read your work and I can tell good editing when I see it. Unless I'm doing the writing myself.

Writing is like a wonderful, heady romance, or a voyage -- you're pulled every which way and you go willingly, full of the spirit of adventure and exploration and joy. Editing is like slogging through a bad patch in a long-term marriage. And yes, it's an art. I want to get good at it! I want to work it all out!

Brad -- Whenever I happen to read one of those rule-breaking books, I've been known to start ranting to myself about multiple POV shifts, extraneous subplots, weak protagonists, and stereotypical villains.

What do you do about your friend or family beta readers? Do you out yourself in your query letters or refer to them as your reading group?

Charles Gramlich said...

Having a character waking up can be an excellent way to start sometimes if you ask me. It all depends on what situation they are waking up in.

Kim Ayres said...

Oddly enough, all I could think as I read your post was, "Why on earth did I ever consider the idea of becoming a writer?"

There have been a few times when I've wondered whether letting go of the writing was the right thing to do, but as I've also just come over from Carole's blog where she's been interviewing another writer, it's just reinforced the sense that pursuing photography instead was the best thing I could have done.

Blogging - everything I want to say in 500 words or less - suits my minimal attention span and need for instant feedback. But I could never write a novel. And that's good to know :)

Vijaya said...

Sigh. Just do it, right? I love new beginnings and all the possibilities. I also love revising, but revising shorts is so much easier than a novel ...

Sometimes it takes me a year to polish a thousand words. Does that mean it'll take me 50 years to polish 50,000 words? Egads ...

Robert the Skeptic said...

I find that family member are better critics because they are not afraid to be honest. With my film, for example, the family gave me good feedback. Now that it's out I have sent several comp copies out for review. When it's reviewed it received good comments; but others do not provide reviews. That indicates to me there are criticisms which they feel uncomfortable sharing. That does me no good.

Mary Witzl said...

Charles -- My kid protagonist is waking up to a ceiling collapsing on him. I hoped that would be a compelling beginning, especially if I didn't draw out the sleep part too much. Now I just don't know...

Kim -- There are times I ask myself the same question, especially when I'm struggling with a particularly hard scene or trying to make some character come off as more believable. But there are other times I feel I've really nailed something, or I reread what I've written and find it good -- and then I can't get over what a great thing writing is or how lucky I am to have had the chance to do it.

500 words or less? Boy, am I long-winded!

Vijaya -- I'm a big polisher too. But I'm telling myself it will NOT take me 50 years because I just don't have them! I'll make this story work in five weeks. I'm cranking out 500 words a day now and I'm not happy with it, but slowly a better plot is forming in my mind. Just getting the plot strong in your mind is half the battle, isn't it?

Robert -- Yes, my family members are never afraid of being honest with me. The only problem is that you have to live with them afterwards, which can be awkward. So when one of my daughters is giving me her opinion about a piece I've written, I have to take off my mother hat while she's doing it. I've also paid them (a pittance) for their services when I'm in a rush. Fortunately, I've never been able to buy their good opinion.

Marcia said...

I think it's okay to begin with waking up if you have a reason for it. What you want to avoid is the typical alarm-clock-rolling-out-of- bed thing, with absolutely no plot, character or setting reason for it. So I think your beginning works, but you already know I think that. :) I can understand your second-guessing. I'm doing some of that myself right now, and the centipede is a really good comparison! I wouldn't advertise that your family are your beta readers. I mean, in any kind of formal, submission sort of way. There's really no reason a person's beta readers can't be related to them, and I've heard of enough husband/wife writers who exchange mss., but this is just a case of not having to reveal everything.

A Paperback Writer said...

But if you were a celebrity already, none of this would matter. You could get it published anywhere.

Funny post, Mary. :)

Anne Spollen said...

Well, Shakespeare broke all the rules when he didn't follow the Greek plays, right?

But seriously, I think they are just guidelines. A good story can begin anywhere, in any way.

And I never, ever allow friends or family to read my unpubbed stuff. Too many other factors, emotional factors, might get in the way of an honest feedback. I've learned to leave the work for a few days then go back and be brutal to myself (a large side of imported chocolate next to the keyboard helps immensely)

Uma Krishnaswami said...

The more I write the more I fear drafts. I know to distrust that early high, I know I have no perspective. And what your readers like in a draft--well, that's not much help either because you don't know that by the second round what they loved (or you loved) will have to go. Because there may be some other direction that the story needs to go in, that I can't yet see because I'm just too clos to it. Just write. Then when you can't see the forest for the trees, go read to fill up your word-bag. My colleague poet and novelist Sharron Darrow says you need to trust that you'll become the writer that each new round of work needs you to become.

And now I had better go wrangle with my draft!

Falak said...

The best part about all the posts you write describing your experience of writing is so insightful......... It just consolidates my hunch about writing not being a bed of roses exactly. Reading this felt like reading out my dilemmas aloud.
Maybe you should put up a post about Alex sometime. He sounds interesting :)

Mary Witzl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mary Witzl said...

Marcia -- I still feel worried that the sleeping character may put off potential readers, but you have no idea how happy I was that you had no qualms about this OR the POV shifts. Back when I read MG myself, I didn't mind POV shifts at all and I think I'd have enjoyed knowing what somebody's mother thought (if it were kept to a bare minimum). But I'm guessing there are others who will feel differently, and when I write, I swear I can feel them sitting on my shoulder, hissing "Hey, that's a no-no -- don't you know that?" in my ear.

APW -- Maybe I should send my MS to Lady Gaga and have her sell it for me! After we'd gotten it published, she could come clean and I'd have my moment of fame! :o)

AnneS -- Initially, I told myself that I'd never let anyone read my stories until I was finished, but I threw that rule out pretty fast. For some reason, this works for me -- so far. What drives me insane is when they make daft suggestions I have no intention of taking, but fortunately that doesn't happen too often. What I find very helpful is when they help me brainstorm.

Chocolate as a writing tool, though -- that works very well!

Uma -- One of the things that really drives me crazy when I write is that I can see literally dozens of directions the story might possibly go. It amazes me that there are so many possible pathways and I feel as though I'm navigating my way through a maze, aiming for that one perfect pathway to the end. In fact, I could probably go down any of the other trails and it would be okay, but I don't feel that way when I write.

I'll be working on trusting myself to develop in the way I should for every story, but it's easier said than done, isn't it?

Falak -- At the point I'm at right now, it's not even a bed of broccoli! But I'm finding the process is getting easier. I've been making a little progress after spending all day in my garden and I actually like what I've rewritten so far. I hope you'll get to that point in your writing too!

Pat said...

There comes a time when you have to say - to hell with every body else and write what you feel is right.
My son was reading my book a few chapters at a time and I was puzzled when all the notes were about the odd spelling or typo.
'But what about the story?' I asked.
He said he asked himself at the end of each chapter did he want to go on reading and found that he did.

adrienne said...

Hopefully some solutions will come to you while you're off digging in the works for me, sometimes. Amd I liked your beginning, too - it got my interest!

Robin said...

The centipede is such a fabulous analogy! That's exactly how it feels when you become too aware of every little thing that can go wrong with writing. Suddenly, your fingers are mute.

I can have anyone criticize my writing but my husband. If he says just one less than completely complimentary word, I jump down his throat and try to grab his larynx.

Angela Ackerman said...

I remember this point so well. It was a scary time for me, because I suddenly realized that I knew enough about strong writing to understand just how much I didn't yet know. It made me question everything, and doubt crept in, making me worry that even what I believed were my strengths were really just semi-weaknesses. The fear caused some serious writer's block for me.

Plow through it Mary. You are a strong, strong writer. The doubt never goes away completely but it will mute itself the more you stay on track. :) I'm still learning and still have so far to go, but I am making progress each and every day.

One thing I found helped me move forward was to let go of old projects. I don't want to say this is necessarily the path for you, but it worked for me. There's a graveyard of manuscript bones hidden away on my old hard drives. Some of the books I still believe in and think they have such great potential, but I doubt my memory at this point and so I don't dare tackle them for fear of discovering they really are awful. If I question my own judgement it's a downward spiral that's hard to climb out of. So, I moved on to new books, taking my knowledge, building on it, and using it to create better books from the ground up.

Do we ever really get to a point where we feel our writing is good enough? There is still so much to learn I feel. I think I'll always feel that way. I want publication, I strive for it, but I think when it finally does happen a part of me will be shocked because I'll feel there's still so much I haven't mastered.


Anonymous said...

The shifting POV can work if for the first time you explain that Alex is writing in his diary, and then readers will recognize all following diary entries for what they are. You can also put the entries in italics. I love reading diary entries, emails, and other communications in a book. I also think it's okay for parents to be present in MG and YA books. Not the focus, but I've read many subplots involving parents.

Mary Witzl said...

Pat -- Yes, at some point you do have to trust your own vision when you write, but you also need to do a lot of work to get to that point -- that's what I'm finding. It's so wonderful when people want to go on reading, isn't it? It makes you think that all the headaches and eye strain have been worth it.

Adrienne -- Thank you. For the time being, I'm keeping that beginning -- unless I dig my way to something better out in my flower beds. Working in my garden helps me when I've written myself into a corner, and if that doesn't work, going for a walk usually does.

Robin -- There are so many ways the story can go, and that can be as confusing as it is exciting.

I'd rather have praise any day! But if I can't have that, I'll take the honest criticism -- with a snarl and a growl, of course.

Angela -- Thank you for those kind, helpful words. Your praise means a lot to me.

I'll definitely work my way through this. I love your image of dead manuscript bones. I've got a vast file of completed and partly completed work, some of which is mind-boggling in its awfulness. I'll probably keep most of my stories -- the stories themselves are sound -- but I'll entirely rework them. Like you, I've already found that cutting out huge chunks of crappy text is cathartic and inspirational. Once I'd gotten all the dead wood out of my last manuscript, I found it a lot easier to see my way forward. I was trying to rewrite it paragraph by paragraph, but every time I read ahead, I got so burdened by how bad the writing was that I could hardly make myself go on. Yesterday I managed a thousand words for the first time in a long time, and they were pretty good ones. I'm going to try to keep this up.

I don't think my qualms about writing will ever go away entirely, and I hope I can make that self doubt work to my advantage. Part of the reason for my uneasiness about my work is the realization that someone might have published some of that dross I wrote a couple of years back (brrr!). It just doesn't bear thinking about.

Medeia -- When I was a kid, I used to hate books that featured the parents as clueless sidekicks who could never figure out what was going on -- they insulted my intelligence, and I always told myself that when I wrote my own books, I'd make the parents more like real people. But my writing group have quite rightly pointed out that I have a tendency to give the parents too much space, ruining the story for kids, and that's a problem I need to work on.

I love reading letters, emails, etc, in books too -- they add depth and flavor to the story.

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