Wednesday, August 08, 2007

To Read or Not to Read

by Hannah

Lynne and I went to a revision class taught by Hallie Ephron this spring. When Hallie asked for volunteers to read first paragraphs, Lynne was one of the brave ones, rewarded by Hallie’s deserved interest. My hand stayed down because in skimming my own potential offering, I came to an undeniable conclusion.


How many things were wrong with it? Let me count the ways.

No surprise, then, if I tell you that feedback from the group at about the same time was unanimous. With regard to the first chapter or so, as that is the focus here, the critique was a useful and literary "nope," for all the right reasons. In fact, the question was posed, shouldn’t the story start much later, well after that first chapter?

We don’t always take suggestions, it is true, even if all three others are in agreement. On this particular subject, all four of us agreed. I sat down to cut off the offending text.

I couldn’t do it.

I knew how I wanted to change the story, and a secondary character introduced in the first chapter would show up again once revisions were made. In addition, the protagonist’s experience with this secondary character showed certain motivations, or lack thereof, and to some degree propelled him forward. All well and good at a rational level, but not enough to catch and push the reader forward.

I started to play with them, deepened their quirks. I read it aloud to myself and decided it still needed something before it was read aloud anywhere by anyone.

The trick came in setting. I maintained the storyline, but shifted the action out of a restaurant (Sit! Eat!). The chapter opens now in a beautiful place both characters love, then shifts to a location only the protagonist adores. In doing so, the protagonist and secondary character fell further into place, their personalities became more pronounced.

Bingo! A first chapter I couldn’t wait to read aloud again and to email to the others. The lesson learned has carried me through every step since. Every bit – not just most bits – revised thus far, I would be willing to read aloud in a class, any time. Aha...


kristen spina said...

I am always intrigued by the little tricks that seem to elevate a piece of writing to the next level. And how armed with solid advice from readers, we sometimes have to trust our own instincts above all else. Changing a setting, digging deeper into a character's mind, chipping away at paragraphs, whole sentences and words we love—it really is an art, isn't it?

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

I love the phrase you used here, Kristen, "chipping away". It's kind of like sculpting (I imagine as I've never tried it), but we start out with a blob of an idea and start chipping and carving, digging deep to the heart of it all. It always amazes me to find how much better I know my characters and their quirks and motivations when I'm revising and have gone through a few drafts with them (and them with me).

Lisa said...

I needed to read this today! I'm about 40 pages into my new and improved (hopefully) manuscript and about to launch into making as many edits and revisions as I can to be ready for the 8 week novel writing workshop that starts Monday -- I have a lot of work to do!

Larramie said...

Actually, Hannah, it was your term, "play with them," that caught my attention and give you a cheer. Because even when writing, there's time for imaginative play.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

I am as fascinated by the process as by the results (especially when a piece is more blobby than I would like and I am uncertain of how to chip). Time away from the work, to imagine alternatives, is as important as time pounding on the keys to make it come together. Good luck with the workshop, Lisa; that sounds like perfect timing in your own process!


Ello - Ellen Oh said...

I've been lurking on your site for awhile and wanted to comment because the last several posts have been so excellent. I do have a question. How often do you all meet as a group? I have a wonderful group that used to meet every other week but now is gearing down to once a month due to work constraints. Was wondering what you guys do.

And thanks for such a great blog. It has great information and insights.

Anonymous said...

I have been reviewing my own finished MS. I was in the lovely solitude of my bathroom last night, to hide myself from the kids. And that is when I thought I need to change the first chapter and its setting.
I still don't know how, but your post has helped me one step further.