Neil Gaiman goes up to the counter and orders the Salted Caramel Mocha. While waiting for his order, Gaiman begins a conversation with an elderly woman sitting by the window. She weaves for him a long story, filled with old fears and familiar monsters. The protagonist seems more and more familiar as the story progresses. The barista interrupts the story.  “I’ll be right back!” Gaiman exclaims, as he dashes off to get his order. But by the time he returns to the table by the window, the old woman has disappeared, leaving only a faint odor - something between the dark woods of November and the aging pages of a well-worn book.


It’s been a long time since I posted this. I keep running into people who tell me it was, for them, a lifechanger or a lifesaver, so I thought I’d put it up again. Everything I know about a life in the arts, in about 20 minutes.

My bookshelves are ever changing at the moment, and I don’t have anywhere near enough of them. This has some of my absolute favourites as well as this amazing Google doodle of Pride and Prejudice a friend gave me - isn’t it adorable?
#novemberbookchallenge14 #bookish #booklove #bookworm #bookstagram #bookshelf #shelfie #bibliophile #reading #covers #faves #tfios #lizziebennet #brandonsanderson #queenofthetearling #janeausten #neilgaiman

A Lot of Rewrites

From my post at the Hamline MFAC’s blog, The Storyteller’s Inkpot:

“A few weeks ago, one of my students asked me how many times I rewrite a book. My usual answer is something like “umptyjillion” or “HAHAHAHAHA.” I’m only being somewhat facetious. I honestly don’t have any idea. All I know is that it’s a lot.

(©Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half)

Many people believe the primary work of a writer is getting that first draft down. Even professional writers believe this. Drafting can be so painful and take so long—months, years. Who could bear to imagine that the first draft is only the beginning? Who could stand one more holiday with your dad saying, “Are you still working on that thing? When do you get paid for this stuff? Somebody’s going to pay you, right?” So, as we’re drafting, we don’t think about revision much at all. We can’t. (I can’t). Instead, we tell ourselves: “This is working really well!” and “I’ll just have to fix this little thing here or there!” and “I love this story sooooo much!” 

(©Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half)

Which is why critical feedback from readers, advisors, agents & editors can be such a shock, and why this feedback can make us feel so frozen and resistant. If you’ve talked yourself into believing that the hard part is done, that the only thing your book requires is a few minor tweaks, it’s devastating to hear that your whole plot is bananas (and not in a good way).

Here’s what people like to imagine revision is: · Correcting/defending one’s charming little grammar idiosyncrasies · Futzing around with a line here or there · Reworking that one annoying chapter in the middle of the book · Spellcheck! · Cutting adverbs and/or the words “sigh” and “shrug” · Giving your main character an interesting pet (a hedgehog named     Amelia!) · Futzing around with a few more lines  · Swapping out the interesting pet for an even more interesting pet (a quokka named Coughdrop!) But this is polishing, not revising. This is what you do with a manuscript that’s already been revised. Here’s what revision really is: · Starting the book in a different place · Ending the book in a different place · Ripping out entire characters or plotlines · Amping up conflict in every scene · Building a tangible world using all five senses · Deepening characterization across the board · Reordering scenes and events across the narrative for maximum effect · Recasting the book in a different tense or POV · Keeping the characters but inventing a new story  · Keeping the story but inventing new characters · Identifying and focusing in on primary themes · Rewriting the opening chapter till your fingers bleed · Chucking the entire first draft and starting fresh · Doing a whole bunch of other stuff I can’t even think of right now because YIKES 
Tackling any of the above work is difficult, but not as difficult as simply accepting the idea that any of this work must be done.  Plus, complicating the revision process is the fact that you will get conflicting feedback. One reader tells you that he loves the voice of the piece but thinks the plot is wonky. Another reader says that the plot is amazing but the voice is off-putting. You revise the plot to please the first reader, and then he comes back and tells you the voice is off-putting. What are you supposed to do with this except to conclude that everyone, everywhere is insane?  When you first start out as a writer, you try everything people suggest. They say the beginning is slow? You speed it up. They say the ending isn’t earned? You rework it. But Neil Gaiman said: “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” (Well, maybe not your Hamline advisors, ahem). When I was working on my latest novel, my agent told me that she really wasn’t that keen on Roza, one of my point-of-view characters. She didn’t like Roza as much as she liked Petey, another POV character. Maybe I should cut Roza, she suggested, and write the whole book about Petey. My dear friend Anne, on the other hand, told me that Petey was taking over the whole book and that maybe Petey should be cut back.  Needless to say, this was confusing.  What I had to do was take in this seemingly contradictory advice and drill down to the essential issue. Why would these two amazing readers have such strong opinions about these two characters? Why favor one character over the other? And the issue, I decided, was one of balance. Roza’s voice was so quiet that her chapters couldn’t stand up to the passion of Petey’s. To solve the balance problem, I had to amplify Roza’s voice as well as dial up the drama in her chapters. I took Roza’s chapters out of the narrative and completely rearranged and recut them (at least four different times). In a sense, I took the advice of both these readers, but I found a way to solve the issue that didn’t conflict with my vision of the book.  I call this the 13th way. 12 people will identify 12 different problems, but it’s up to you to find the real problem underlying most of them. Then you have to find your own unique solution to that problem.  You do that for each of the problems identified. Over and over and over again, times umptyjillion, HAHAHAHA.  Revision is a ton of work. And it can be exhausting. In an interview with NPR, the late Kent Haruf said, “It doesn’t seem to me there’s a scarcity of talent among students who want to write. But what there is a lack of is a talent for work, that it’s so difficult to write and it takes so long to learn how to write well that most people give it up before they get good enough.” So, tell yourself all the tales you need to as you draft. But when it’s time to revise, do not give up before you get good enough. It often takes many sweeps through a manuscript, many drafts before you find the real story you needed to tell all along.  This is Jacqueline Woodson on her Tumblr, relating an exchange she had with her daughter about her National Book Award Winning novel BROWN GIRL DREAMING: The 12 year old: Mommy, how many times did you rewrite Brown Girl? Me: I stopped counting after 31.

(©Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half)

See the post for some revision links.

“I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.” ― Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 9: The Kindly Ones

artwork by Erin Lou