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Choosing Carefully

Now that the second draft of my novel is creeping into sight, I’m starting to think about who I should ask to read the second draft. I have a few people in mind, but it occurred to me last week that none of my second-round readers had read the previous draft, which got me thinking about whether or not that matters.

I’ve definitely heard of the term “fresh eyes” (who hasn’t, right?), and I agree with it when it comes to proofreading. It’s so hard to notice errors when you’ve already looked at something once. That’s one of the reasons I like to print things and mark them up when I’m editing. And as a writer, I also feel like it’s hard to see structural issues in your own work sometimes, especially when you’ve been shifting things around and storyboarding and outlining for who knows how long. I believe in taking a step back and trusting other people to take a look and let you know what needs work.

What I’m wondering is, is it worth it to have first-round readers take a look at the second draft? I can see the benefit of comparison here—these people haven’t been doing all of the shifting, they just read the first draft, and and if they now read the second, they would probably notice the differences (or the places where I failed to make a significant difference). I think that could be genuinely helpful, but I also wonder how many reads a person can do before it’s just not as effective to ask them anymore.

I also see the pros and cons of asking fresh readers to look at the second draft. They don’t know where the book started, which I think is probably more pro than con—in a way they’re getting a first look, so they don’t feel bad about how much work I may have already done on a certain part, because they have no idea. Maybe that’s the most important thing to me. I want to be sure I’m getting honest feedback.

I gave my first draft to the person I thought would be my harshest, but most honest, critic. I want these critiques to be just as honest, but maybe a little less brutal. At this point I’ve spent so much time reworking certain things that I think I need some feedback that’s certainly just as honest, but maybe a little sugarcoated.

How do you all feel? Do you use the same readers for at least two reads, or do you change it up with every draft? Are there certain people you really trust who read every page of every draft? Let me know in the comments below!

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Did You Get My Text?

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I used to own this phone in grey!

Now that I’m over halfway done with the revisions of my draft, I’m starting to think about some of the smaller nuances in the novel that might need some fine-tuning. One of the biggest issues with my story was that the main character needed a way to stay in touch with her old life after she moved away. The only way I could see to accomplish this was by having her reach out to her old friends via technology – texts, e-mails, and so on. The answer seemed simple enough, but when I sat down to start writing those moments I found myself fumbling for a way to write in the use of technology without being clunky or obnoxious.

I’ve seen this done a lot of different ways with a lot of different results. I could just insert something that looks just like an email looks on your computer screen, with e-mail addresses and time stamps and the whole deal. Or I could just have the text of the e-mail in italics. Or I could do a multitude of other things.

Meg Cabot has a few books (Every Boy’s Got One, The Boy Next Door) where she does technology to the extreme. These books are essentially compiled email and/or text exchanges. I enjoy them a lot, but I find myself a little frustrated whenever I read them because I want more. Whenever the characters step away from the their computers and actually interact with each other, Cabot’s readers are left in the dark. Her commitment to telling the entire story via technology-based interaction means that every other form of narrative in her story gets left out. I still love those novels – they’re great beach reads if you’re ever looking for something funny and light – but I’d be lying if I didn’t say they felt like they were missing something.

There are television shows today that are representing technology really well. Sherlock, for example, uses texting in a really brilliant way – it’s both relevant and essential to the story, and only serves to further the narrative. In a totally different genre, The Mindy Project also uses technology in a way that isn’t distracting and adds to the story, and the characters use it in a very realistic way. Replicating that without the visual of a television screen may be impossible, but I think there’s something there.

This week, my question for all of you is a little more complicated. How do you represent the use of technology in your writing? Or, what have you read that integrates technology in a really helpful way? Let me know in the comments below!

 

Dinner and a Movie

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Okay everyone, I have a confession: my geek is going to be showing for this post today. To tell you the truth, I am way too excited about the premier of Catching Fire (I’m going tonight at midnight!!) to blog about anything other than that. If I’m really being honest, I’m too excited to really think about much more than that, so my apologies to everyone who has been attempting to interact with me about something other than the plot of the Hunger Games. On that note, I’m going to attempt to make this post still relevant. So my topic this week is this: How do you feel about film adaptations of your favorite books?

There are so many examples to compare here, with an even larger variation in quality. The earliest film adaptation I can remember seeing (when I really understood that I was viewing an adaptation) was in my tenth grade English class. It was the 1998 Masterpiece Theater version of Wuthering Heights, starring Robert Cavanah and Orla Brady. Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t have anything against Masterpiece Theater. Granted, my feelings about Wuthering Heights oscillate between lukewarm and appreciative. Still, I remember feeling that the film I was watching was ridiculous and, frankly, made me a bit uncomfortable. (Side note: When I saw the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice I KNEW Darcy looked familiar. The same actor played Hareton in Wuthering Heights.)

After that I was particularly wary of screen adaptations. I’m also a member of the generation that quite literally grew up with the characters in the Harry Potter series, so those movies were always taken with a grain of salt, as well.

More recently I saw the film adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which wasn’t bad, but that book is just leagues above so many other books that exist for young adults in the world that it’s hard to create the same feeling in a film.

I didn’t mind the Hunger Games movie, although I know some people did. It must be difficult to capture a story on film when that story is told in first person. I don’t know the first thing about directing movies, so maybe some of you can speak to this more than I can, but there doesn’t seem to actually be a way to transfer stream of consciousness to film without using a voiceover or filming from that person’s perspective the whole time.

While the film version is certainly good and, I think, stands on its own without prior knowledge of the book, there’s just so much more to the book – to any book, for that matter. The simple fact that you have more space in a book, more time to flesh things out and have little conversations that seem meaningless but add up in the end, is just not true of movies. Anything over 120 minutes better be worth the time, so if it doesn’t fit into that time frame, forget about it.

There’s also more to the experience of reading a book: imagining the world and the characters through your own lens, hearing voices you chose, and everything that comes with the act of reading versus seeing.

Listen, I’d be lying if I said I don’t love going to film adaptations – if for no other reason than to have the opportunity to revisit a story I love very deeply and experience things all over again. But my question to all of you this week is this: Have you seen any truly wonderful (or terrible) film adaptations? What about them really worked for you? Or didn’t?

Now I have to go, I’m making a T-shirt for this movie premier. What, girl can’t get excited? Tick-tock!

 

I Had the Strangest Dream

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Whenever I think of dream sequences I think of that moment in horrible movies or TV shows (I’m looking at you, Saved by the Bell) when the screen gets all rippled and the edges blur, and everything is sort of glazed over with white. Something silly happens that makes me roll my eyes and then the program goes back to the real timeline. Dreams were never something I really enjoyed or felt were worthwhile in fiction, and I certainly never used them as a tool in my own writing.

That is, until this book.

I don’t know what it was–I was at a point where I didn’t know what to do but I knew what I had to convey. I had saddled myself with a main character who doesn’t share her thoughts with the people around her. The story was written in third person. There just didn’t seem to be another way. Let’s just throw this in, I thought. It turned out totally funky and it felt, to me, like it wasn’t getting anything done. But I kept it, and then I turned it in to my workshop class to see what would happen.

The group had over twenty-five pages of my book to look at, but during the open comments almost everyone pointed out the dream sequence and how great they thought it worked in the story. I pushed back in disbelief. Seriously? It’s not too weird? Their overwhelming response was no. In this situation, the dream accomplished what a conversation between the main character and someone else could not–insight into both how disjointed she felt about what was going on and also the revelation that she was incredibly nervous about something else.

I didn’t believe in dream sequences before, and honestly, on the screen I still don’t. But in fiction, I’m starting to think that maybe there’s something to it after all. I’ve already added a second dream, and I think it’s doing good work to move the story along.

Since that experience, I’ve been looking for good books that use dreams in an effective way to actually get something done. Now that I’m revising, I’m thinking of going back and inserting another one, further along in the story. I’m still pretty nervous about them, and very conscious of the danger of causing eye-rolling from my readers.

This week, I’d love for any good recommendations you all have. Have you read any books or short stories that used dreams in a really great way? I’m also looking for your opinions on this–how do you feel about using dreams in your own writing?

 

Where Were We?

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This weekend I had time to write in what was (I am horrified to say) the first time in nearly two months. This is my own fault in a lot of ways–because I wasn’t making the time for it, and also because I’m someone who prefers to write when I have a long chunk of time to do it. If learning to write in fifteen-minute spurts is a transferable skill, I want to learn it.

Anyhow, I found myself spending a huge chunk of my time just trying to figure out where I had left off. I have trouble just jumping into a story–I need time to fall into it and get a sense for where I am, and in this case I needed to remind myself what had happened with my characters up until the point where I had last left them.

This is much more difficult than it was when I was just working on finishing the draft. Back then, I would just read the last few pages and then get to work adding what I wanted to happen next. Now that I’m revising, I need to figure out not only where the characters are going but whether I need that to be different than it was before. Does it make sense with changes I’ve made before this point? Does it continue the progression and the nuances I’m trying to add to the story with the revision?

Overall revision feels like a lot more work than writing the draft ever was. It’s still fun and engaging, but in its own totally different way. Instead of building something from scratch and seeing what I come up with, I’m working with something that already exists and trying to find ways to change it and make it better while still maintaining the structure that I built when I was writing. I’m definitely starting to get to that point where I feel like I’ve been looking at these pages so much that I can’t see them for what they are anymore, which means some more close friends are (finally) going to get the okay to read the next draft.

When all was said and done, I only got through about two new pages this weekend, but I also had the opportunity to remind myself what was happening in this other little world I had created. It was sort of comforting to know that they weren’t all moving along without me. That’s what’s sort of fun about writing fiction: when you come back to the characters you love, they’re always right where you left them.

How is it for you? Do you find it easier to write a first draft, or to revise? What strategies do you use to jump back into a story in an efficient way?

 

What’s It About?

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I once had a writing professor tell me that the worst thing you can ever ask a writer is actually the most obvious question: What’s your book about?

When she told me this I hadn’t started my novel yet. Now that I have, I totally understand what she was talking about. Whenever I tell someone, or someone hears, that I wrote a book, the first thing they want to know is “What is it about?” Every time they ask me I give them a prepared answer that I mastered two years ago when I first started working on the project, but this little speech doesn’t describe what I feel the book is really about, and what’s more, I don’t think people really want to know.

I could talk for hours about what my book is about – and I have, over the course of writing workshops and discussing with first readers.  I’m sure that all of you could talk about your books for just as long. Why, then, do I (and maybe you, as well) fear this question so much?

I think the source of the issue is the fact that I don’t feel like anyone other than a writer (or my dad. Hi dad!) would actually want me to launch into the discussion about the themes and the nuances I’m hoping are present in my book (or that should be there when I’m done with the revision process). Most people are asking what the book is about as a courtesy. While they ask “Oh! What is it about?” they’re really rolling their eyes internally and thinking “Yeah, right, she wrote a book.” For some reason people think that writing a book is an easy thing that bored people do to pass the time because they have no job or life or interests or something. I invite these people to spend a day in my life and then reassess.

I used to think that only people who are young like me get this eye rolling type of response, but through the conversations I’ve had with many of you I’ve realized that this is a universal issue. I don’t know why writing a book is associated by so many people with frivolity – I’ve never seen it that way, but I’m biased. I wish these people would look at series like Harry Potter or A Song of Ice and Fire (the Game of Thrones series). Do they think George R.R. Martin was just twiddling his thumbs sipping a hot chocolate, wondering to himself, Hmmm, what can I do with all of this time? I know! I’ll create an entire fictional universe with such a rich and detailed culture that it has its own complicated religious, political, and cultural issues, as well as complicated family rivalries dating back hundreds of years! Oh yeah, also zombies. Just, you know. Because.

Come on you guys. That stuff doesn’t happen on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

I would love to rewind like twenty years to the younger George who is just starting to draft out the first book in the series. Maybe he encounters someone at a party. While he’s sipping his cider (in my head it is Fall and there is hot mulled cider), someone comes up to him and says “Hey! My girlfriend mentioned you’re writing a book. What’s it about?” I think we could all learn something from George’s response in that situation.

So my question to you all this week is this: How do you handle this question when it’s asked of you? Do you find yourself just regurgitating a pre-made response that sort of skims the surface of your plot? Or do you take a chance and try to really get into the meat of your story? Let me know in the comments below!

 

How Do I Look?

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Now that I’ve read through my manuscript a few times I’m starting to notice some little things that I never necessarily thought about during my first (or second or third) pass. I’m going through and carefully adding more layers to all of the characters so that they talk and feel like real people – complicated and varied the way we all know real people to be. During this process I can’t help but notice what may or may not be a big issue: I never described what my main character looked like.

I mean come on. There are illustrations.

I tell it from the first person perspective, which is I think what caused the oversight. Everyone else in the story has an entrance scene or a moment of reflection where they are described. But the main character? No such opportunity.

Now, I took diligent notes during school, so I definitely have the tools to describe my protagonist – she could be looking in a mirror, for (clichéd) example. But now that I’m really thinking about it, I wonder if I need to bother.

I have often toyed with the idea of not really describing what people physically look like unless it reveals something about that person’s personality or the way that he or she is feeling during a particular scene or time period. It comes from my personal desire to imagine whatever I want when I’m reading – maybe I want to envision a character with curly red hair and a limp! What’s that, you say? He’s 6’5” and athletic with frosted tips? Well, now I’m all messed up. I find that when I read I like for the personality to speak for itself, in a way – to paint the physical appearance of the character on its own. The #1 most upsetting thing for me when I see movie versions of films is that the actors often don’t look like my mental image of the characters they’re playing – it really throws me off. Especially when the author of the book paints a specific picture of what that person is supposed to look like. (I mean, short Ron Weasley? I know they casted him when he was like eight years old, but still. I’ll never be over that one.) So I guess while I was writing I just didn’t get around to describing Grace, my main character.

Is this what you were expecting?

And I’m thinking that it doesn’t really bother me. What she looks like just doesn’t matter. Not really. Maybe the little things – nails bitten down way too far, hair in desperate need of a trim, etc. – can be mentioned as manifestations of her anxiety and depression. But the color of her hair? Her height, weight, facial features? I don’t mind leaving that up to the imagination. I don’t mind everyone having their own little version of her.

So the question I’m hoping you will all help me with this week is this: Do you feel strongly one way or  the other? Have you noticed the physical descriptions in your reading? If you were to read something without a description of the narrator, would you be distracted by that? Or confused? Let me know what you’re thinking in the comments below!