Sunday, March 29, 2009

Books are not babies

A lengthy post about manuscript revision follows. Just a warning. GET OUT WHILE YOU STILL CAN!

So, the book is now nearly unrecognisable. I felt depressed about this on the weekend, as I looked at the hundred thousand words I spent last year toiling over and realised that a great deal of them were gone. I shook myself out of that funk pretty quickly, however, by recognising that all that material needed to be written in order for me to find the novel that was inside it. As Mark Twain said, "The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say." This applies to novels too, I think.

The novel was sliced and diced into bits. I had a lot of ideas and a lot of questions, and I needed to get a clear vision in my head of the shape the finished book would take.

I (metaphorically) sat down in the middle of all the shredded paper and bits of bleeding manuscript and asked myself, "What am I ACTUALLY trying to say with this book? What is it really about? Really, really?"

(A pretty good question to ask oneself before beginning, I'm sure, but hey, I'm a maverick - as in, I'm probably doing it wrong).

Once I'd asked myself that question, it was relatively easy to peel all the layers of story away until I was left with a kernel. It reminded me of a segment on the special features of the Lord of the Rings (yes, I am an enormously geeky person and spent an entire summer holiday watching all three films and every single special feature over and over, every day for about three months. I am not exaggerating. Luckily my husband was doing it with me, which makes it a bit less sad. But I digress). In this segment, Peter Jackson was discussing the editing of the three films. They shot for a record number of days, and ended up with a wealth of material. Too much, in fact. They had a very difficult time in the editing studio trying to trim down all this material to match the script in a way that advanced the story without slowing it down or digressing. It was a nightmare. Finally, Jackson went away and thought about it, and came up with a simple and brilliant solution. He asked himself what the story - this lengthy, hugely detailed, complex monster of a story - was really about, and decided it was about Frodo and it was about the ring, and it was about the journey of these two entities.

This made their decisions far easier. Even if they loved a particular piece of footage, they asked themselves, "Does this support the central story?" And if it didn't, out it went. (Of course, they had an extended cut as well as the cinematic cut, but we humble book-writers don't have that luxury).

I had a similar revelation, and I found this article by Holly Lisle remarkably helpful for the process, as is almost everything on her site. I wrote down what the book was about, in fewer than fifteen words. It took a while to get down to fifteen, but I worked at it until I had the briefest summary I could possibly have. Then I went through my plot outline and cut out everything that didn't serve that central story in some way. I also wrote down the main theme in fewer than fifteen words, and the sub-themes in the same way.

This meant that I have had to ask myself some hard questions over the past two weeks. About every scene and every character I have asked, "Does this matter? Do I need this? Is it important?" Quite often, the answer is no. It has been tough. I thought I was handling it quite well until I realised that a particularly beloved character and subplot did nothing but slow down the story and distract it from its real purpose. Cutting that one hurt quite a bit. Essentially I am taking a microscope to the core of the story and discarding everything else, which means both that the central story needs to be fully developed and that I am going to end up with a much stronger book at the end of the (hellish) process.

Then came another hard job. One of the problems I saw with my original manuscript was that my narrator wasn't strong enough. She was an observer rather than an active participant. I also felt that she didn't show enough significant growth throughout the story. So, I took some more of Holly Lisle's suggestions, and wrote a one-line story arc for this character - the journey she takes through the book. I also asked myself:

"What does she want more than anything else in the world?"


"What is she most afraid of?"

These questions are so revealing. I think these are the two most important things to know about any character - the answers show you the motives behind any person's actions. They're trying to achieve the one, and they're trying to avoid the other, and if they're a compelling enough character they feel passionately about both. Once I had a clear story arc in written form, and the answers to these two questions, I felt like I knew my protagonist a lot better. She came more sharply into focus, and the rest of the book came with her.

I also made the decision to switch the book from first to third person. It's a big job, but I think it's necessary.

If there's anything I've learned while working on this book, it's that I have a lot to learn. Novel-writing 101. It is definitely humbling, but also very exciting. And a lot of hard work. I've written 'novels' since I was very young, and even had one published, but I've never had to work so much on the brick-by-brick construction of a work like this one. I think I (arrogantly) assumed that I would get everything right by instinct, but no matter how talented you are, it takes a lot of revision and hard work to make a successful book.

My three main tools at the moment, as I work through the rewrites, are: a synopsis; a chapter-by-chapter breakdown; and a page of character notes. I have found them all unbelievably helpful for keeping me focused.

I say synopsis, but there are actually three synopses - the one-sentence one I mentioned earlier, a very detailed one that's about seven pages long, and a shorter one that's about the length of the blurb on a book cover. After a couple of hours working on these, I went a bit mad and started ending the plot summaries with silly things like "WITH HILARIOUS RESULTS!", "BEFORE A GIANT METEOR HITS THE EARTH," and "TO FIGHT THE INVADING SPACE PIRATE ARMY." At least I find myself amusing. (And no, my book does not contain an invading space pirate army).

So, as you can probably tell from all this, I'm stitching together almost a new book altogether. I think it's going to be worlds better when I'm finished, but there is an enormous amount of work ahead. Occasionally I have a minor panic attack, but then I go for a walk, buy something, eat a piece of chocolate or put a pot of coffee on (hey, I didn't say they were all healthy solutions) and get back to it. Speaking of which, I had better get back to work.

To explain the post title: books are not babies, thank goodness, even though they are often compared to them. "It's like sending your child out into the world!" "I feel like I've given birth to this book." I understand those sentiments, but the analogy falls apart when it's time to revise. You wouldn't give a baby plastic surgery, change its gender twice and its name three times and try six different noses on it to see which one looks best. I hope.

P.S. A bit of housekeeping. I am dreadfully behind on comments again, so thank you for bearing with me - I am crazily busy and will catch up as soon as I can. And if you're waiting for a package from me, you won't have to wait much longer ... I'm sending them out next week! Hooray. Oh, and I'm also having a big closet clean-out very soon and selling some lovely vintage dresses, so I'll keep you posted on that too.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Jacket of Fate (and hello to Annette)

I finally picked up the Kismet Jacket (it's a long story). It is wonderful. I am planning to wear the dress and jacket together to my first book launch, whenever that may be. Seeing it hanging there will be another reminder of what I'm working towards. (And besides, it's pretty).

Also, hello to Annette, who I bumped into today in Sydenham! It's the first time I've ever been recognised by a blog reader in 'real' life, and I came over all shy and couldn't think of anything to say. So sorry for being awkward, Annette, and it was lovely to meet you. Hope you thrifted something wonderful!

P.S. Best Friend Ally has posted pictures of herself with a home-made moustache on her blog, and I really think you should take a look. I was impressed.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

LOML's Birthday!

Happy birthday, LOML (Love of My Life). You are wonderful. And now very, very old. (Just kidding).

We've been spending the day relaxing and doing not-much. I gave LOML a model helicopter for his birthday, so we spent the morning figuring out how to fly it (and then chasing the cat around the house with it, which was very entertaining). LOML is building a dolly for his film camera and fixing up his recording equipment for the 48 Hour Film Festival this year - we went shopping at hardware and audio stores, then stopped at an Indian restaurant for lunch. Now he's hammering and sawing outside while I work (and nap) in the sun. Barbecue and birthday cake tonight!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Interview post (part two)

Finally! Sorry about the wait. Interspersed with silly pictures because, well, why not.
Maura said, "As I'm beginning the college process, I can't help but ask about life after school. So when did you know that you wanted to be a novelist? Did you ever see yourself in any other profession?"

I always knew that I wanted to write - well, as soon as I knew what books were! I wrote my first 'book' when I was about six years old. I think it was ten pages long. I wrote my first novel-length book a few years later, and from then on I always had a novel-length project on the go. I did think about other professions, though, because people told me being a novelist wasn't a 'real' job and I would never make enough money to support myself. I made a brief foray into journalism and hated it (I'm too shy and hated interviewing ... also was slightly traumatised when asked to interview someone over the phone and find out whether or not they were gay. Worst conversation of my life), and then worked as an editor at a publishing company for a while. I am formally qualified as an editor, and I enjoy the work a lot. I still do freelance editing and copywriting under my company name of Play on Words Ltd.

Andrea said, "A possible question about writing I'd ask you is for any thoughts on different types of writing you might do and the connections between them. Novels vs short stories vs poetry vs non fiction."

I actually find short stories the hardest thing to write, because they represent a sort of middle ground between poetry and novel-length prose. A poem can be a snapshot, a fleeting image or impression that doesn't need to be developed further but can stand alone. A novel allows you to fully explore and develop ideas and characters. A short story, to me, is more difficult because it represents an uneasy middle ground. As a result of this, I find that most short stories I write turn out to be the germ of a larger idea - both my Masters novel and the one I started at the end of last year emerged from short stories that I wanted to develop further.

I enjoy writing poetry, but it's something that I go through phases with. There will be months where I'm furiously penning one a day, followed by months of nothing at all. I'm currently in the 'nothing at all' phase. I haven't yet worked out whether this has any correlation with mood or life events - it doesn't seem to.

Lizz said, "I'm curious to how you came to fall in love with your signature vintage look!"

I've always been inspired by looks that seem to have a story behind them. Wearing vintage makes you into a character - whether it's a character from a children's book, an old musical, a movie or something else. I have always dressed 'weirdly' (according to people at school and university) ... in high school this took the form of long skirts with bells on, ponchos, Indian shirts and tons of jewellery. In university, it took the form of long leather coats, lace gloves and Gothic dresses with ribbons on the bodice and lots of lace. This all changed when I started work in a publishing company, and I found the dress code very uninspiring. When I went back to post-grad study, however, I could wear what I wanted again. It has taken me many years to get to the style I have now, but I feel very 'myself' in what I wear these days.

This blog and the wardrobe_remix group have had an enormous influence on my confidence and style. It took me a while to get comfortable with wearing what I wanted to wear and not caring what people might think. The blogging community gave me a lot more confidence and encouragement, and seeing other women expressing themselves through their clothing inspired me to do the same.

One of the things I love about wearing vintage is the friends you make! Sounds weird, but it's true. Quite apart from online friends, people on the street sometimes come up to me and make a comment about what I'm wearing, and we have a little conversation. It's usually older ladies, I find, but I like that.

Shannon asked, "Where and when did you meet your hubby? and what did you do your original degree in?"

I met my husband on an Alpha course at university in 2003. He was in his Honours year, and I was in first year. We've been together for nearly six years now - wow!

My original degree was in English Literature and Theatre and Film Studies (I focused on theatre, which I regret now - I think taking more film classes would have been more my thing. I enjoyed theatre and used to be very active in amateur dramatics and the like, but I haven't auditioned for anything for a couple of years). I also took French, Sociology and Religious Studies.

Casey asked, "Do you have any favorite places in the US? Places that you like to visit when you come here?"

I haven't actually been to many places in the States. Well, that's an understatement. I've been to two cities: LA and Seattle. I didn't really connect with LA, but I LOVED Seattle. Just loved it. Good coffee, good bookstores, good independent media, good restaurants, great people. And it's a beautiful city, too! I loved it so much I thought I might even want to move there.

There's a lot more of the States I want to see - Portland in particular, because I'm always reading about it on people's blogs and it sounds like such a great creative centre. We're probably going to be Stateside for a while this August when we go on our travels - don't know where yet, but I'll keep you posted, as it would be wonderful to meet up with other bloggers if possible.

Lise asked whether I believe in Jesus.

This is a hard one, because I don't usually discuss my beliefs with people any more. I guess the honest answer is that I'm not sure. I used to be very religious, but haven't been for a few years now, for various reasons. My background is Christian, however.

CK asked "Jewellery - do you wear gold or silver?" and "What is your favourite smell ever?"

I actually don't wear jewellery very often - largely because I am one of nature's fiddlers (as in, I fiddle with things. I'm certainly not one of nature's violinists). If I'm wearing a necklace, bracelet or earrings, I play with them all day and drive myself and everyone around me crazy. The only set I really love to wear is this pearl one, which I wore at my wedding (it's a family heirloom):

I do wear some jewellery all the time, however: my watch, which was a gift from my mother for my 21st birthday; my engagement and wedding rings, for obvious reasons; and two rings on my right hand, as well. They are my mother's engagement ring from my father, and his wedding ring, which was re-sized to fit. He died in a car accident, so these two rings are very special to me.

I have lots of favourite smells! My husband's skin, my grandmother's perfume, my cat's fur (he smells like a clean teddy bear), freshly-washed laundry, lavender and roses (big cliches, I know), the smell of a meal cooking when I'm really hungry, coffee brewing, furniture polish and fresh cigarette smoke - that last one's a bit weird, I know. (And no, I don't smoke).

Miss Lady Finger asked, "What does your husband do?"

My husband is a software engineer, but he also does some photography on the side - weddings, commercial shoots and the like.

Josashimi asked if I wear all these outfits when I'm working from home, by myself.

Yes! I do. I find I think and work better when I'm dressed well, and feel more motivated. Even if I'm not going to see anyone, I feel better knowing that I'm dressed in a way that expresses who I am. And it adds a bit of fun, colour and creativity to my morning before I've even started writing.

Thanks for the questions, everyone!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Another Friday the 13th

Work is going swimmingly today, after a rocky start. I was getting mired in details and lost sight of the big picture - the big picture being the new, revised structure of the novel. So I opened up a blank document and started writing a synopsis of the new version. I am actually really surprised by how helpful this was. Writing the plot down in such a truncated form really highlights the direction in which it should go; what works, what doesn't, what slows the pace down or goes off on a tangent. I feel a million times clearer on what I'm doing, and I've made some really good decisions, as well. Have also drunk seven cups of coffee, and the caffeine and work-satisfaction has produced a dizzying high.

On a less happy note, I didn't realise how helpful it was to have a supervisor last year, someone to whom I could email my chapters and who could point out problems ... or just say "You're doing fine, keep going." I miss having a group to talk to, people whose opinions I respect, who will read my work. And whose work I can read, as well. I miss having a tribe. I feel very alone, and I don't know where to find people. I'd join another course, but I don't know of any that haven't already started. I'm so used to staying positive and working through problems rather than dwelling on them that I haven't acknowledged, even to myself, how discouraged I've felt. Now that the comforting framework of the Masters is gone, I'm adrift. Oh well. Hopefully the Universe will provide.

We are off to the theatre tonight - can't wait. Quite apart from the play, people-watching at the theatre is always very interesting. And what they are wearing is equally so. Some people take the opportunity to dress up in evening wear, while some go in jeans and a T-shirt (or a wifebeater vest, shorts and sandals, as one man seemed to think was appropriate last time we went to a play). I think as a culture we've lost a lot of our sense of occasion ... people seem very worried about being over-dressed for things here in Christchurch, so that even if you go to a show or out to a fancy restaurant, the sartorial choices of everyone there hardly ever rise above smart casual. Do you find this where you live? I get a lot of weird looks and comments about being 'very dressed-up.'

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Interview post (part one)

Firstly, thank you so much for all your advice and words of support on my previous post - I found them very emotional to read, and I feel very lucky to have such a wonderful group of people to consult and connect with. So thank you (and I'll reply to all comments individually as soon as I can). Secondly, thank you so much for all your questions! I've been thinking about the answers for a while, and I decided to devote a whole post to trying to give you some idea of what Zimbabwe was like, as a few of you asked about that, and it's a big subject. I would love to show you photos from those days, but we had to leave a lot behind when we left, and those we have aren't in digital form. I mostly just have baby pictures, so in lieu of anything more interesting, I've scattered some photos of me as a Very Small Person throughout the post as what will hopefully be comic relief.

Vali asked about my life in Zimbabwe, and whether I'm ever going to move back.

Both these questions are always really hard to answer (which is the sign of a very good question, Vali!). I guess the book I wrote last year really is a long-winded attempt to describe what it was like growing up in Zimbabwe. I think it is difficult to summarise life in Zimbabwe because, to me, that life was normal and everything else is exotic. I tend to describe it to people in terms of contrast. For example: I miss the colour! I really do. When we came to New Zealand, everything looked grey and washed out, as if a photo had been left out in the sun and rain until it was so faded you could hardly make out the details. Even the sky was washed-out. It was the colour of old denim, while the Zimbabwean sky is hot, bright blue, like the blue you get right in the centre of a candle flame. And the people were grey and washed-out too … everyone seemed to be in denim and black and grey and brown, there were no colours. And everyone was so quiet. It got better, however. After a while I could appreciate the more delicate beauty of a New Zealand sky. And I also appreciate the fact that no animal, insect, bird or snake in New Zealand is likely to kill me except in a deeply ironic turn of circumstance. Even though I like not having to deal with snakes, giant spiders or killer bees anymore, I kind of miss them. There’s an edginess to life in Zimbabwe, a sense that everything could shift and change overnight, so you never feel complacent or settled. The danger gives everything sharper edges, focuses you on what is important. Here in New Zealand, and I would imagine it is similar in other developed nations, it is easier to become complacent and to imagine that things are controllable, that you have some sort of a handle on existence. In Zimbabwe, it was harder to believe that.

Miss Lady Finger asked about my childhood there. It was a barefoot one, with plenty of freedom, lots of cuts and bruises, and very little television. I was very lucky - it was a great place in which to grow up. I was a tomboy when I was younger, as well - in fact, until I was about fourteen - and I spent a lot of time climbing trees and then reading in them for hours. I wrote this little stream-of-consciousness a while ago, thinking about my childhood in Zim:

"Even though I have not started school yet, I am very busy during the day. These are good games to play in the garden: spotting an ant lion’s tiny burrow in the red soil, and mimicking the footsteps of an ant with a slender twig. Watching the ant lion emerge in an avalanche of dust, pounce on the stick, then disappear beneath the surface, disappointed. Finding a chameleon on a branch and letting it walk along your hand, feeling its scaly feet loop and scrape along your fingers like Velcro. Spending half an hour with a sharp rock and a concrete slab trying to break open a macadamia nut. Catching black beetles and keeping them in an old ice-cream tub with some grass and a bottle-cap of water.
“Be careful,” my Mum is always saying.
I know that we are not really welcome here. There are too many things that can kill you: snakes, leopards, hippos, hyenas, charging elephants, spiders. There is potential death or pain in every step. Even the plants are out to get us. There is a plant in our garden that oozes milk when you break it, and is Deadly Poisonous, Mum says. There is also one called Morning Glory that will make you go mad if you eat it, and one covered in tiny yellow fibres of spines that will stick under your skin forever if you touch them. Walking barefoot, I have grown hard and crusty soles on my feet to protect against acacia thorns lurking on the ground, or those tiny plants with white spiky flowers that grow on the lawn. Every expedition outside is accompanied by insect repellent, sunscreen, a hat and calamine lotion. Every activity is dogged by unseen dangers. Mum is eternally dabbing things on me, pulling out splinters or bee stings and slapping on plasters. A day does not pass without a cut or bruise.
Mum irons everything we wash, including underwear, sheets and pillowcases. You have to iron everything because of the putzi flies. I have never seen any, but I have heard the horror stories. Mum has told me that they live in cloth, and then burrow into your skin and lay eggs under it. When the eggs hatch, dozens of putzi flies crawl out of your skin and fly away. It is a disgusting but fascinating idea, and I would quite like to see it in action.
Going to bed at night is also fraught with danger. All the windows have burglar bars, and all the doors have padlocks. We have to check all of them are closed and locked before going to sleep, and then set the alarm. The night presses against the windows and tries to find a chink, but it cannot get in. I have a night-light; a little china castle with two china mice standing outside. It keeps the night back behind the windows, where it belongs."

I don't know if I will ever go back. In some ways I would like to, but I know that the place in which I grew up no longer exists. There are lots of good memories from there, but there are an awful lot of bad memories, too, and they are more recent. Also, I'm not entirely sure that I wouldn't be arrested when I arrived (long story). So I guess the answer is that I don't know if I will ever go back. I do, however, hope that there will be an end to the troubles there in my lifetime, whether I'm there to experience it or not. I can describe this feeling pretty well by quoting from Sam's speech at the end of The Two Towers.

"It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they are. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why."

I have posted a short story I wrote in 2003 based on our final days in Zimbabwe, in case you are interested. It's a bit long to incorporate in the body of this post, so here it is. If there are any specific questions relating to Zimbabwe that you would like to ask, leave them in the comments and I'll do my best!
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