Wednesday, September 30, 2009

biting my nails

It might be better if I did bite my nails. Instead, I bake cupcakes and lick the beaters. I desperately want to delete my last post because, well, because:

1. What kind of name is Laine?
2. You're already judging Lauren for driving drunk. (And perhaps you should. She did kill someone afterall).
3. Death is too dramatic a topic for a short story.
4. Why do I write so much about death?
5. Do I really?
6. Would a girl really write letters to the mother of a girl her sister killed? If you can even get that straight.
7. Insecurities abound.
8. When I reread anything - okay, many things - that I write, I am usually split between thinking it might be good and knowing it might be very bad.
9. I can't see your face when you read what I've written.
10. It isn't even done yet. Why am I posting an excerpt?

Because this blog is about the process. Deep breath. All is well. I am going to go into the kitchen now and cook a bowl of chocolate pudding with whole milk and I'll feel much better. What I should really do is just finish the story.

revision example

The following is from my handwritten Laine story. You need to know that her older sister Lauren has died - she was driving drunk and killed another college student, Samantha. Laine started writing to Samantha's mom Carolyn. This excerpt is from near the beginning of the story:

Laine didn't explain the letters to anyone, not really to Carolyn either except to say that her own parents were very closed to her right now, in their own closets of grief, she said. And her own friends couldn't act normal around her anymore because they didn't know if it was okay to cry about a failed calculus exam when Laine had something much bigger - a dead sister - to cry about. And if anyone mentions their brother or sister, everyone looks straight at me.

Honestly, I just need somewhere to put my own feelings and it can't be a diary because I'll open it up again too soon and get sad again or think I am stupid. I need to know my words are -

Laine didn't know what to write. Heard? Understood? It was study hall and most seniors got passes to leave campus, especially in the spring. It was May and the lilacs were blooming. But Laine liked the dusty smell of the library, specks suspended in streaks of sunlight. She liked the heavy tables and maple chairs, scarred by bored students.

Laine reached her arms high, arching her back for a stretch. She bent back over the page.

I am being selfish. I want someone to listen and maybe I shouldn't ask that of you. If you are tired of my letters, mail this one back and I won't write another.

Laine's stomach flip flopped when she wrote that but she included a self-addressed stamped envelope as if she were sending off for a contest entryform.

Okay. And here follows the revision. Keep in mind that the following will likely go through another revision before I call it done. However, I found the time off between the first writing and this very good - I think that I thought about how to make the story work, even when I wasn't thinking about it. So I've added more than I expected:

She'd been writing to Carolyn for a little over five months. She wrote about school and getting ready for college. She wrote about running the four hundred in track and what it felt like when her lungs burned at the end of a race - purifying. She wrote a list of reasons why she decided to skip her senior prom, even though she had a date and even though she could still find a dress in time. She wrote about ceramics class and holding cold lumps of clay in her hands, kneading them warm and workable. For a little over five months, she wrote to Carolyn but Carolyn didn't write back.

I think if my parents knew I was writing you they'd tell me to quit. They'd say it was "inappropriate" or "upsetting" for me to write you. Even though it isn't inappropriate or upsetting to me. Is it to you?

Maybe I'm using you. I hadn't thought of that before, but it might be true. I need a place to put my thoughts. I've never kept a diary. Probably because it seems like evidence that might one day be used against me: See, this is how stupid you were. And if I kept a diary, my words wouldn't be going out to anyone. I still wouldn't be heard and that's what I want, to be heard. Understood, even.

It was Laine's study hall. Most seniors got passes to leave campus, especially during the spring. Outside, lilac bushes were shades of purple, but Laine liked the hot dusty smell of the library, specks suspended in streaks of sunlight. She liked the heavy maple tables and chairs, scarred by bored students.

Laine reached her arms high, arching her back for a stretch. She bent back over the page.

I am being selfish. I want someone to listen and I shouldn't just expect that of you. I keep thinking our losses are the same, but they aren't. Not really. If you are tired of my letters, mail this one back and I won't write another.

Laine signed her name and felt sick to her stomach. But she mailed the letter on her way home after school, including a self-addressed stamped envelope. She thought of Lauren entering contests and sending off for cereal box prizes.

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about posting a work in progress online. When I think the Laine story is ready for more critical eyes, I'll recruit a few honest people to read it.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

building an addition

Takes a certain amount of vision. Also, it helps if you know a thing or two about architecture and design. Right now I'm adding additions to the Laine story. When I returned to the pages in my notebook, I expected a few revelations. I thought I'd change the order of the story a bit. I didn't think I'd find that the floorboards had warped or that the electric wasn't hooked up yet or that the basement was flooded. I thought I'd just tack on a nice little addition at the end and repaint the walls.

Instead, I reread the story and thought: hm, this needs a lot of work. My problem (big problem) was that I secretly hoped I'd find that Laine and her story were basically intact, even thought I did rush through the ending (as in, there isn't really an ending yet) and hodge-podged the order of the scenes. I secretly hoped I was more brilliant than I actually am. I took a deep breath, reminded myself that this entire project is about immersing myself in learning how to write a book. So learn.

Most days I manage an hour or two on the laptop, typing my fiction. With the Laine story, I had to type the first draft from my handwritten copy and so I revised bits as I typed. I cut a lot that seemed, well, gaggy. But I also realized that the story didn't hold together so I've been adding to dialogue and creating entirely new sections because I need to tell the story. I think my first draft was more like a sketch of what I might be able to create and that this second draft is more like a first draft.

Today I panicked a bit when I saw that I could easily turn my story into one of those houses you see that might have started off neat and tidy but are now a meandering mess of ill-planned additions, all eras and styles smashed together in sloping porch roofs and gigantic plate glass windows you can't help but want to launch a rock through, and gingerbread shutters. With an ancient solar panel the size of a door raised up top, next to the TV antenna. That is what my story could easily become.

I will not let it keep the old solar panel. It isn't even hooked up anyway.

I am close to finished with the Laine first/second draft. I'll repeat the Leave It Alone Week and see what happens when I return to revise a more cohesive story. Because even though I joke about what a dump it is, the contractor tells me moving a wall isn't as difficult as it sounds.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

three starts

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading Stephen King's book On Writing. I don't read too much King, but this book was good. Helpful in unexpected ways. For example, King writes about giving a first draft a chance to rest before you begin revising. Take a few weeks away from the project so that when you return, you're fresh. And during that time, resist the urge to pass a copy around to friends. You don't need back pats or criticism yet.

So I decided to try this. I'm still on the "letting it rest" part. I have one short story finished and another almost finished. First drafts, I mean. And I'm ready to return to the first short story to try revising.

For a moment, I couldn't remember the character's name from the first short story. Laine. As in Elaine. That might change yet. Anyway, when I put that one aside, I wanted to return to it the next day but decided not to. I didn't want to make it worse. Let it alone, quit picking at it. So I started up another story - one that I like very much and can imagine getting long and wandering and out of control - but I needed to leave that story until I could get some research done. So I began the third story and this is close to done.

I am still trying to decide what my book will be. In two of my short story (starts) I have found other stories I might want to tell. So perhaps a collections of related shorts might be a good idea. However, the middle start - the one I need to do some research for - could make an interesting novel.

Well, interesting to me.

Next week I'll focus on revising the Laine story and I'll post a paragraph or two to show my revisions. I am optimistic but that is likely because I am not in the middle of making sense of my first draft, trying to find even a single thread of good story.