Lining up dominoes

I recently finished another round of revisions on one of my middle grade manuscripts. I extended a few scenes, cut a few others, and changed small but significant details about the protagonist’s background. Going through the process was a good reminder: the key to revising is revising consistently, throughout the story.

Changing where my protagonist lived, for instance, meant checking every reference to his childhood home to make sure it was still accurate. And it meant thinking through the repercussions of that change. How would this have affected his childhood? How did this change the dynamic between his parents? Did this change mean other changes were needed, too?

It’s the domino effect of storytelling. (Or the butterfly effect, if you like that better.) Every action impacts other actions, ultimately changing the story overall. The hard part about revising isn’t making changes; it’s keeping those changes consistent with each other, and with what was already on the page.

In the middle of revising something? Not sure how to go about it? Think of a line of dominoes. If everything is properly aligned, all the details will fall into place, and so will the story.

Using the insider’s perspective

We were in synagogue over the weekend, attending a cousin’s bar mitzvah (and mazel tov to him!), and I thought I’d properly prepped my interfaith kids for the experience: Use the transliteration to pronounce the Hebrew words, turn the siddur pages from the left, stand when the Torah scrolls come out, don’t talk when everyone is praying silently. Afterward, my daughter asked why people had been bowing during the service, and I realized I’d left that out of my prep talk. Jews bow while reciting specific lines in certain prayers, I explained.

It’s a little more tricky than the standing and sitting, when you can just do what everyone else is doing to blend in. There’s no advance notice on when to bow, it doesn’t say “bow here” in the siddur, and by the time you notice other people bowing, the moment’s probably passed; you need to know when to do it from experience. Oh, and the details are likely to vary by synagogue.

Confused yet? (If so, here’s a pretty good overview on the subject.)

The conversation reminded me why firsthand knowledge is important, in life and in writing. If you wanted to write about a synagogue service, you’d probably know about the Hebrew chanting and the Torah scrolls, but unless you’d sat through a service yourself, you might not know to include the bowing.

That insider’s perspective can make all the difference in the authenticity of your work. When researching a topic, don’t stop at the surface level; try to figure out what an insider would know, someone who’s an expert or part of the community being written about, and look at the topic through that person’s point of view. Then you’ll know the details that are important to explain for the reader, and the details your characters would so take for granted as part of the landscape that they might not remember to notice for more than half a sentence. 

Or if your characters aren’t meant to be insiders in the world you’ve created, make them as observant as my daughter, who caught the one detail I’d forgotten to tell her about in advance and got me to give her the insider’s perspective.

Sharing creativity

My kids know I carry tiny purse-sized notebooks around to scribble out my rough drafts. (Moleskines are perfect—they’re the right size and they have built-in bookmarks and elastic closures—though WritersBlok notebooks are nice too.) This means they also know my works-in-progress are available if they get bored in a restaurant, waiting for their entree. Then they’re happy to provide feedback: “I like this. You should publish it.” “I read this part. Didn’t you finish it yet?” “WHAT. Why did you change it? I liked it before!”

Most recently—and yep, at a restaurant—my daughter flipped through the notebook to find a picture book idea I’d never finished. Because sometimes you start working through an idea, only to discover it isn’t working on the page as well as it did in your head. At that point you can 1. start over or 2. ditch it and focus your energies elsewhere, and that particular idea had been ditched. My daughter disagreed with my conclusion. In fact, she thought she knew how to end it, and could she write the ending? I said sure.

So she borrowed my pen and wrote the rest of the story. She got exactly the idea I’d been going for, too. And now I have written proof that she thinks highly enough of my work to want to be part of it.

Of course, she’s already appointed herself editor of all my work and has offered to illustrate it. So she’s a little ambitious.

The other day, I needed to bring my son with me to the coffee shop; he had his magazine and a muffin, I had a scone and revising to do. Once he realized what I was working on, he craned his head to see my screen. Then he moved to my other side to read my notes before I’d even gotten them typed in. Then when I was done, he asked to read something else. At which point I ceded control of my laptop and let him read my novel till it was time to go.

Sharing my work with them has been one of the best things about writing kidlit, not just because they like reading it but because they’re pretty creative in their own right. Both of them create their own comics. Both of them make art, everything from paper sculpture to pottery. It’s such a pleasure to see them expressing themselves. And maybe, possibly, they’re encouraged by watching me.

I don’t know where this creative path is going to land us, but I’m enjoying the journey.

Vacation and idea generation

The family went on vacation last week to … let’s say it was warmer there, with lots of mouse ears? It was a fine time. But January is also StoryStorm, the annual story idea marathon hosted by Tara Lazar that features inspirational posts plus a few prizes (see here for details), which I’ve been participating in for several years. No worries, I thought. I’ll bring my notebook with me, along with my manuscript-in-progress. I’ll get work done on the plane. I’ll think creative thoughts while waiting on line for rides. It’ll be a productive, fabulous time.

Except not.

Turns out I’d underestimated the buildup of mental noise after a day full of lines/rides/crowds/shopping/keeping wandering kids from disappearing/shows/way too much food. At the end of the day, the only thing I was capable of was zoning out at the hotel while watching “Star vs. the Forces of Evil.”

I had no story ideas. My brain was blank for a week.

I’d forgotten the most essential element of creativity: the quiet calm space to escape into your own head for a while. If you’re running around, your mind can’t wander.

On the other hand, sometimes a break from creativity is what you need to recharge. Now that we’re back, I’m steadily catching up and about to cross the finish line.

And I did get some work done on my manuscript. So that’s a win!

Notes from an editor

A newsroom colleague asked me once why I would want to run a newspaper. “To make it better,” I said. He nodded respectfully.

I’m not much interested in running newspapers these days (though I do still write for them on occasion), but I think my answer still applies to editing in general. Why be an editor? To make something better.

I’ve been editing professionally for a long time—copy editing, proofreading, and now moving into developmental editing. I’ve edited breaking news on deadline, fiction and nonfiction manuscripts, movie reviews, and obituaries. I get equally annoyed by typos in books, on restaurant menus, on shoebox packaging, and in TV news crawls. (Every single news channel has typos. This is a bipartisan aggravation.) I analyze while reading. It’s a habit.

I’ve worked with a lot of writers, and in my experience, these are the elements crucial to the success of the writer-editor relationship.

Trust. Though that trust can be unnerving. Frequently I’d tell a reporter I’d tweaked parts of their article and offer to show them the changes, and they’d just shrug and say, “I trust you.” Then I’d neurotically wonder whether I should make them read the tweaks anyway.

They trusted me because they knew I wanted to help them produce their best work. They knew I wasn’t going to change things that didn’t need changing or throw in words they would never use (every writer has a “stable” of words they use most often; if you add words that don’t blend with the rest because they’re too flowery or esoteric, you’ve muddied the voice). They knew I was keeping their viewpoint in mind. And they knew I was neurotic enough to make them read the changes.

Understanding. It’s not just doing your job well—it’s understanding how the other person does their job. When editing a newspaper or magazine article, I knew the reporter had spent hours, sometimes days, collecting enough research to put an article together, and even more hours figuring out the puzzle of arranging the article. When I’ve beta read or critiqued fiction, I’ve kept in mind how much work went into planning out the elements of plot, character, voice, and theme. I respect what it took for the writer to complete their work, and I respect that changing that work might not be easy.

At the same time, the best writers I’ve worked with understood that it took time for me to do my job and that I couldn’t just skim something, run spell check, and call it done.

Knowledge. If I’m not familiar with the writer’s subject matter, I’ll take the time to get familiar, because I think research is fun. (Yes, I’m nerdy. And?) I know what it feels like when the person editing or critiquing your work hasn’t done their homework. During a writers conference held at my college, the critiquer admitted that he wasn’t familiar with science fiction, and proceeded to mumble his way through some vague commentary on my short story. Was my story any good? Probably not. But the critiquer didn’t offer any suggestions for making it better, and I felt out of place for even asking.

I don’t think there’s any shame in looking up something you don’t know, whether it’s about a specific subject or about the conventions of a particular genre. If I don’t have that knowledge, I can’t help the writer.

Ultimately, the writer needs to remember that the editor is looking out for their best interests, and the editor needs to remember the writer is the one whose name is on the story. Egos need to stay out of the process. If the writer and editor work together, they will make the work better.

In research mode

I like research. Geeky to say but true. I like having perpetually new reasons to learn more about the world around me. Sometimes that means a trip to the library, and sometimes it means a road trip.

For my day job recently, I wrote a magazine article about historic buildings saved from demolition when they were repurposed as performance venues — good for historic preservation and the local arts scene. (You can read it here.) My research was a combination of interviews and in-person visits, so I could get a sense of what these sites were like. In other words, multiple road trips to parts of the state I don’t often visit. Two things about New Jersey you probably didn’t know: It has a number of centuries-old buildings (one of the original 13 colonies, after all), and most of the state is much prettier than whatever you saw while stuck in traffic on the Turnpike or while hustling through Newark Airport. Lovely scenery plus learning about historic architecture equals a win.

Meanwhile, I am doing research for a novel-in-progress involving abandoned amusement parks and rereadings of “Beowulf.” It will all make sense in the final draft (theoretically), though reading “Beowulf” is a pleasure in its own right for the beautiful language.

Inevitably, I overdo it; I have more knowledge than I could possibly need for whatever I’m working on. But that’s a good thing. Better to thoroughly know your subject than to patchwork-guess your way through. You never know when that newfound knowledge will be useful in a different setting.

I don’t know what I’ll be researching next, but I can’t wait to find out.

Hurry up and wait

So here is where my day job conflicts with my fiction writing.

My day job currently consists of writing news and features articles, and editing pieces for various companies. I’ve done the newbie-reporter gig of covering municipal meetings and county fairs, and logged a number of years as a newspaper copy editor. The copydesk edits all articles in the paper, writes the headlines, fine-tunes (or fully creates) the page layout and clears everything to go to press. What does all this have in common? It needs to be done right now. Or ten minutes ago, if you can swing it. Deadline waits for no one. Missing deadline and making the paper late invites capital punishment. Think I’m kidding? Here is the original definition of the word “deadline.”

When I started seriously writing fiction and researching the kidlit industry, imagine my surprise to discover right now is not how it works. Agents and editors don’t want you to rush. They want you to put the story down, give it time, then pick it back up with new eyes so you can revise it properly; if you send them a revision too quickly, they’re liable to decide you took too little time on it and reject it. I was at first baffled by this, then slightly tearing-my-hair-out about it. “But don’t you want it to be done? Isn’t it done now? How long should I be taking to make it done? Arrrrrrgggghhhhhhh.”

It’s taken some practice. But I’ve been getting better at allowing time for breathing room, and letting the story be done when it’s ready to be done. So, don’t make my newbie mistake. Put it down. Give it time. Breathe.

(But if you’ve got a firm deadline, please, don’t blow it.)