The Art of Revision: Seeing your writing (and life) through new eyes.

“My pencils outlast their erasers.” ~ Vladimir Nabokov

I’m always reminding my students that “good writing is re-writing”. 

I push them to read their work out loud. To look for redundancies. Delete unnecessary phrases.  Re-order sentences.

This is only a start, of course. Revising is not the same as editing. A perfectly grammatical essay can still be trite, boring, or nonsensical.

First comes the vision, then many revisions. 

What is the essence of your story?

What are you trying to say?

What do you want the reader to think/feel?

Revision is an art that’s both gratifying and frustrating.

Revising a story involves assembling many, many moving pieces into a cohesive whole. 

The mission is daunting and best not attempted as a solo task. There are many revision resources to help you.

Deep revision, however, means seeing your story through fresh eyes. This is not easy to do when you’ve been working on the same novel for three years.

That’s where critique partners, beta readers, mentors, and editors come in. These team players will gently point out flaws in your game. They’ll notice inconsistencies, pose thoughtful questions, and suggest revisions to help you reach your peak performance.

Sometimes these revisions are painful to employ.

Like cutting out large sections, or crafting a new beginning.

Or saying goodbye to a character.

Or changing the ending you thought was pretty darn clever.

In order to revise you must take in the big picture…

and then re-vision the story.  

When your clouded eyes begin to see anew, change is possible.

The art of writing revision can be applied to our lives.

We can look back at certain chapters of our life and realize we had misread them all along. Light shines on the pages. Contrasting colors come into view. Characters take on new dimensions. Truths are revealed. This re-vision shapes tomorrow’s unwritten chapters.

Revision allows for transformation.

We all have stories we tell about ourselves. We cling to these narratives, even when they no longer serve us.

Sometimes we need an editor to help us see where to make deletions, insertions, and add fresh imagery to our story.

And sometimes, the best—and hardest—thing to do is to let go of that story and begin a new one. ~

One Day At A Time? Imagining post Covid life.

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, imagining the future seemed downright scary, if not impossible.

The undeniable uncertainty of the virus, along with the chaotic state of our society, seemed to demand we move toward the One Day At At Time, philosophy.

Planners and long-range thinkers surrendered. Those who had always tended to lived within the NOW, were more prepared to ride the anxious wave of uncertainty. 

Imagining a future safe hug from a distant loved one,

or a trip abroad,

or the sweet kiss of a grandchild,

was about as much forward thinking as many of us could handle.

Enough hope to light our way.

But thanks to a medical miracle, the world began opening up, albeit amidst continued divide and tragedy. 

A new kind of normal in which to navigate.

Some of us began to hope. To plan. To move forward.  To imagine a post COVID future.

Are you making travel plans? Saving for retirement? Revisiting your New Year’s goals? Starting a creative project? Moving?  Switching careers? Filing for divorce?

As we sort through the wreckage, many of us are re-evaluating our pre-pandemic life. Now seems like a ripe time for life renovation, no matter the losses. Even small repairs can reap enormous benefits. 

The uncertainty has always been there, just easier for us to deny. Worrying about the future isn’t helpful but planning, even if it’s just day-by-day, can get you there eventually.

This is how I feel about my novel-in-progress. I’m getting closer each day. But if I think too far ahead, I begin to imagine all the potential obstacles, the chance for failure.

I choke.

To temper the overwhelm that comes from looking too far forward, I recall E. L. Doctorow’s quote:

Pretty good life advice for us all at the present moment.

Do You Get Me? Writing from another person’s perspective.

“The characters were so believable!”

This is a compliment any fiction writer would love to hear.

To craft memorable stories, the writer needs to enter the mind and heart of her characters and then bring them to life on the page.

How do you do this?

You can find excellent guide books on this fascinating topic. For starters, I’l offer key traits a writer should cultivate when trying to get into someone else’s head.

Curiosity

Intuition

Imagination

Open-mindedness

Listening skills

Empathy

Sensitivity

Notice how this list applies to our real life relationships? 

Imagine how such skills and practice could shape our present day divisions.

While one can never truly know another, the quest to do so—and to be seen ourselves—drives us.

Sometimes to love and madness. 

Try putting yourself in my shoes, for a change.

You just don’t understand.

Are you crazy?

She can read my mind.

He really gets me.

It’s easier to write characters with a similar perspective, background, and age as yourself. But to stick with that limits the scope of your creative work. Plus, it’s boring!

Writers who wrote outside their own boundaries brought us great literature from Henry James to Agatha Christie. Men transporting themselves into a woman’s head and vice versa.

Nabokov wrote Lolita in the voice and mind of a murderous pedophile.

The best-selling novel, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, (Mark Haddon) is narrated by an autistic teen.

Let’s consider age.

I am all the ages I have ever been. ~ Anne Lamott

In Room, Emma Donoghue narrates the book through the eyes of a 5 year old boy being held captive in a small room along with his mother.

J.D. Salinger’s inner 17-year-old, Holden Caulfield, catapulted Catcher in the Rye to classic fame. 

My middle-school students were always shocked to learn that cult fav, The Outsiders, narrated by a 16 year old boy, was penned by a teen-aged girl.

Beloved children’s author, Judy Blume, now age 83, attributed the success of her children’s books to her ability to access her inner child. “I’m still like an 11 or 12 year old inside,” she told an interviewer.

How about writing in an age you have yet to be ?

Marilynne Robinson’s, Pulitzer-Prize winning Gilead is a diary from a 76 year old preacher to his young son.

I’ve written stories from the perspective of a confused middle-aged man, a 25 year old exotic dancer, and a 9 year old fire starter. My current project features an almost 12 year old roller coaster enthusiast. To capture her essence, I read childhood diaries, studied old photos, and visualized my 6th grade self.

But it’s the spirit of a 15 year old girl that comes most naturally. Perhaps because 15 was a pivotal year in my life. I also work with teenagers, so I get to know them up close. 

My recently published short story, “My Father’s Messiah”, is about a 15 year old orthodox Jewish girl who worries her widowed father may be losing his mind.

I am honored to be awarded the First Prize in the Katherine Paterson Award for Young Adult Literature. Thank you to Hunger Mountain Journal and Vermont College of the Fine Arts.

It begins like this:


Every school morning, my father wakes me the same way: he yanks open my blinds, slaps his hands together, and says, “Boker tov, beautiful daughter. Time to rise and serve your Creator.” 

Once upon a time, I didn’t need wake-up calls. I bounced out of bed as if each day delivered a surprise package. When I was five, I might have found my father’s routine cute, but now my fifteen-year-old brain barely registers Abba’s words. Instead, I hold onto my last dream before it morphs to reality.  

“And who knows?” my father booms. “Today might be the day the Messiah comes!”

He says this says every morning. No joke. 


You can read the story here

What is your inner age?

Closing Chapter 2020

You made it!

Ten months of pandemic living. Through losses and suffering. Bravo!

Hopefully you’ve managed to dodge the COVID bullet so far, or maybe you were lucky to recover.

If you’ve lost a loved one to this terrible virus, I offer a virtual hug and prayer for healing. 

Thank you to those who’ve reached out to me privately. I’m okay. Anxiety and stress are creativity killers. Throw in a pandemic, a contentious election, remote schooling, job and family matters, dooms day news… who wouldn’t feel wordstuck?

We’re all relieved to close Chapter 2020, but the story is far from finished. There will be dark moments for us all to pass through as we turn the page.

Yet, hope now shapes the final chapter of this sad story.  

As it happens, the end of 2020 coincides with my writing the final chapter of a novel-in-progress: a project that has taken too long for my liking. COVID time only deepened the chasm between my vision and its outcome.

When the warm weather finally arrived during Boston quarantine, my despair lifted. I became determined to see the project through. I tried to show up each day whether my muse accompanied me or not.

Somedays, I wrestled with words until my head ached.

Some days, I spent hours trying to spin chaos into order.

Some days, I was left with a mess I didn’t know how to clean up. 

And some days, the jumble of words magically lined up, like a string of pearls for me to polish. 

Still, I have no idea whether this book will see the light of day.

There is editorial interest and a grant backing me—a welcome vote of confidence. Yet the road ahead, like our New Year, remains uncertain. I have no control over the publishing market, or the particular tastes of an agent.

Luck factors in, too.

What I do have control over is the shape of my story—making it the best story possible. I can rewrite the beginning as many times as I see fit. The story’s ending is mine to tinker with until it feels right—“surprising, yet inevitable”.

We cannot write our own ending to the pandemic story. What we can do is try to write our own new chapter by focusing on taking good care of ourselves. 

We can nourish our souls with art, music, words, and nature.

We can reflect on what matters most to us now.  We can make revisions. We can get rid of the fluff—those details that no longer serve our story.   

Writing and revising is a lonely endeavor.  We need the support of others to offer encouragement and direction. 

So, as you begin Chapter 2021, be sure to look for kindred spirits, whether nearby or over the virtual bridge, who will help you write the best story possible. ~

Finding Time To Write: Reflections On My First Writing Residency

I just spent the last month in a writer’s heaven.

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The Vermont Studio Center is the largest artist residency in the United States. Each month, 50 selected writers and visual artists from across the country and globe are offered unrestricted time for creative work.

I got to be one of them!

VSC provides private studios, room and board, conferencing with Visiting Artists, readings, craft talks, and presentation nights—all on its beautiful historic campus.

The first week, I was pinching myself.

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Maverick Writing Studios

Amazing things happen when you get the chance to step out of your everyday life and write in a calm environment designed to limit distractions and obligations.

I learned a lot about myself as a writer.

I tested my mental stamina. I had time to just sit with the mess of words and ideas and try to shape it into something coherent and interesting. I learned how long it can take to write one decent paragraph, only to delete it the next day.  I had the time and space to immerse myself in a fictional world. 

Sometimes it was magical.

Other times, anxiety-provoking…What if it’s no good? Am I wasting my time?

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My studio overlooking the river.

I met with Visiting Writing, Noy Holland, to discuss my short story in the revision stage. I got to spend time with other kindred spirits talking about the artistic process,  rejection, failure, inspiration, and epiphanies.  We shared stories, laughter, and tears.

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NIcholas

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Resident Photos by Howard H. Romera

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Reading a new essay, “The Geometry of Grief”, at Presentation Night.

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Finding time to pursue your passion amidst the demands of your present life is likely your number one challenge…or complaint.

But sometimes it serves as an excuse.

Saying, “My dream is to write a novel, but I simply don’t have the time right now,” is likely untrue, although it may feel that way.

As E.B. White once said:   “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

While there are definitely periods in our lives when we feel especially stretched, finding time to write is possible if you make it so.

I’ve been writing and publishing since my late teens. That means I’ve written through college, graduate school, teaching career, raising 3 kids, homeschooling, and helping elderly parents.Developing Reading and Writing Through Author Awareness: Grades 4-8

There were times I was insanely busy, stressed out, or depressed. There were dry spells—sometimes long ones.  There were also stretches of times conducive to creativity that resulted in publishable work.

Still…I wish I had accomplished more. (That’s Miss Perfectionist talking, so you can just ignore her.)

We all have the same 24 hours in a day.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.”  ~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Here are my tips for carving out time for writing:

Be a Time Sleuth

The first step to making time for writing is to scrutinize your daily/weekly schedule. 

Can you wake up earlier before work or getting the kids off to school?

If early morning doesn’t don’t work for you, try writing in the evenings or late night hours.

If you commute by public transportation, consider that time. Keep a notebook with you for ideas and brainstorming.

Can you make time on the weekends?

Look for time suckers you can give up (or cut back on): The biggest one is the Internet Blackhole. Scrolling Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Endless newsfeeds. YouTube pet videos. Binge watching TV. Really.

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Resit

Schedule your writing.

This next step is key. Once you find the times when you can write, mark it on your calendar.  That’s right: you’re making an appointment with your muse. Begin with 15-minute blocks. That’s not long enough, you say? Believe me, the minutes add up. Consistency, more than quantity, matters at this stage.

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Think of writing like exercise. You need to show up at the gym or class—whether you feel like it or not— in order to make progress. You can’t show up once a month and build muscle.  Consistency leads to making a habit. The writing habit will help you achieve your goals. Show up, or as Stephen King said, “Butt in the chair.”

Designate a Writing Place

The great thing about writing is that it’s portable. I write in my home office, on the family room couch, in libraries and coffee shops. I’ve written in airports and on long bus rides. The place depends on my mood, what I’m writing, time of day, and schedule. Having a designated place to write, however, can help you build the habit. By associating a specific place for writing, your train your brain to switch into writing mode. Doesn’t matter if your place is a closet, office, or shed. Claim your space. Make it look and feel nice.

                               Sunny corner table of library = novel writing.

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…Virginia Woolf had her room. Proust his shuttered windows. Marguerite Duras her muted house. Dylan Thomas his modest shed. All seeking an emptiness to imbue with words. The words that will penetrate virgin territory, crack unclaimed combinations, articulate the infinite. ~Patti Smith, Devotion

Set Goals & Deadlines

The process of trying to produce a piece of writing can be—no, make that will be—frustrating and discouraging.  To stay on track you need to:

Define goals

Making a plan

Tracking progress

Set deadlines

Reward yourself

Again, the exercise analogy.  If you just say, “I’m going to get in great shape”, you’ll likely to give up before you run the first race. You must make a plan with incremental milestones along the way. 

Same idea for writing a novel. You start with the end goal in mind, then work backward. Name the date you want to finish by (I know, that’s really scary). Then break down the big goal into several small steps. Approximate when you’ll reach each step. Anticipate obstacles. Reward yourself when you arrive. Yes, you’ll likely have to adjust the steps and deadlines. The important thing is having a roadmap. (Thank you Kendra Levin for this advice.)

“Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt — spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.” ~ Danie Shapiro, Still Writing

Plan a Writing Retreat

Once you’ve made time to write, limiting distraction is the key to producing. A writing retreat can be a great way to jumpstart, revive, or finish a project.  Some writers occasionally cloister themselves in a hotel room for a few days to binge write. I know two women who designed their own retreat by renting a cabin in New Hampshire. Poets & Writers Magazine has several classifieds ads for rentals in beautiful settings that cater to writers.

If you think you’re the right point in your life or career to pursue a writing residency, here’s a has a comprehensive listing.

How do you make time for writing or other creative pursuits?

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Nighttime at VSC