Tuesday 28 October 2008

WRITING: The Rewrite Reggae (Day 3 to 22)

DAY 3 and 4 (12/10/08)

Friday was a good day: lots of RE-searching and RE-writing going on. I found some interesting history and rituals on the Kingdom of the Edo people of ancient Benin which may solve the problem of my setting...if my idea works. I need to check the underlying structure of the story and decide whether I can creatively apply my ideas.

Saturday: in the nicest possible way, life interfered. Will aim for double time on Day 5.

DAY 5 (13/10/08)

Is there a word (other than stupid) for one who doesn’t learn from past mistakes? If there is, I’ll staple it to my forehead for a week! The first ever tip I was given by a published author (a kind lady called Jayne Bauling) was to write every day. Even if it’s only 100 words, the first rule of writing is: write every day. If one is committed to becoming a professional (and published) author, there are no holidays. There are no rest breaks. Be disciplined. Write every day. I’ve discovered this applies to the Rewrite Reggae phase of crafting a novel as well. Sunday (Day 5) was a struggle because I didn’t follow this simple rule on Day 4. After a busy day entertaining, I justified not sitting down and doing something, anything, on the draft manuscript. I promised myself I’d work double time the next day.

Well, I worked double time, but got half the amount of work done. Why? Because I’d lost the rhythm I’d started to develop on days 2 & 3.

Rule number 1 for the Rewrite Reggae is now on the table:

Write. Every. Day.
DAY 6 (14/10/08)

An excellent day. Focused. Worked on underlying structure of story as well as renaming the characters to be more suited to the new setting. Also started the actual re-write. It’s interesting how words that I thought were indispensable in the examination draft can be cut. Far from diminishing the story, the cuts improve it.

Could have worked longer, but decided to stop while I was still enthusiastic. Roll on Day 7!

DAY 7 (15/10/08)

Happy Birthday Mom!

Day 7 was the kind of writing day that makes you go “ouch!”. Despite a pounding head and high fever (thanks to a dose of summer ‘flu that descended like a starving locust on a meilie field) , I hummed the tune of “Rule Number One: Re-Write. Every. Day.” Managed to scrape through 2 and a bit pages (single spaced). Think I may have taken out my pain on the adjectives. Hardly left one on the page. Can there ever be too few adjectives in a novel?
DAY 8 (16/10/08)

Day 8’s work was good. I'm still full of ‘flu but felt the rhythm kick in. Always a great feeling. Re-worked previous pages and still managed to do 3 new pages. Starting to go quicker now because it’s working. Hope the changes can be sustained throughout the book with the same gut sense of rightness.

DAY 9 (17/10/08)

A major leak sprung in a water pipe. The plumber arrived. And stayed. And stayed.

HAH! Bet you thought I was going to make excuses! In between the plumber and getting ready for a black tie function (I just love getting all dressed up!) I still managed to rewrite just over 2 pages. And tweaked the first 6 pages. Again.

Still happy with the way its going, but have decided to ratchet up the tension. Have set a deadline of 31st December 2008 to complete this re-write. For two main reasons: (1) to stop the constant tweaking which has had me spend the last eight days on the first six pages and (2) to clear my desk for the “BIAM-er” my on-line writing group will be holding at end of January 2009. My target for the BIAMer is getting the rough outline of the new story that’s bubbling away in my head down on paper. To do that, this current book must have be put to bed by then, otherwise there’ll be “interference” between the two stories.

So, 76 days to the 31st December 2008 (how did the last 200 odd days of 2008 go by so fast?). 140 single spaced pages left. That equates to minimum daily re-write target of 2 pages per day. On good days I’ll need to do more, to give myself a buffer for the not-so-good days.

Yeah, baby, I’m going to need all my writing mojo!
DAY 10 (18/10/08)

Three pages today. Worried that I’m slipping into monotony. How many different ways to re-write sentences are there? Is it inevitable that if a writer aims for technical perfection the story loses its emotional heart? Perhaps that’s only a symptom of either my inexperience or my lack of objectivity to this novel.

And I’m wondering why I continue in my quest to get published after reading another depressing article on the impossible odds against an unknown fiction author ever making it into print.

Oh well. Flaw or strength, I don’t know, but once I start something I obsess about it until its finished and as perfect as I can make it. So let me try those rewrite reggae dance steps once more time...
DAY 11 (19/10/08)

Two pages today, and not very good ones. The inner critic was vociferous and I have a suspicion that I’m losing focus. Not within the story, but on why I’ve undertaken the re-write rather than burying this manuscript once and for all.

This re-write is a training exercise: like learning to play scales on the piano before attempting to play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I must keep telling myself that this is my first attempt at a mainstream novel. At the end of the re-write it doesn’t have to be as perfect as the prose of an Atwood or a Hemingway. It just has to be better than it was before. And I need to be able to recognise what made the difference.

Re-write Reggae Rule Number 2: Focus. Focus. Focus.
DAY 12 (20/10/08)

There's some frustration creeping in. I looked out of the window a lot today, thinking I'd rather be lying dreaming on the banks of the Injasuthi river in the Drakensberg, my favourite place on earth.

Is it just me, or is re-writing always so slow? How do I know I’ve captured all the gremlins?

At times, I think I’m fine-tuning the ms to be tighter and sharper than it was before. Then I look again and feel that I’m sucking all the energy out of the text, leaving only a pile of debris on the page instead of living words.

My reading stats so far are acceptable: (1) passive = 0% (2) Flesch Reading Level average = 80% readability and (3) Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level average = 4,7.

I’ve always been an advocate of heart-writing over technical perfection. I’d rather read (and write) a book that is less then statistically perfect as long as it affects me emotionally.

My challenge with this re-write is to keep the ms emotional while, at the same time, stripping it of all the flaws of mediocre writing.

Can I do it?
DAY 13 (21/10/08)

Five pages! Pretty good total for one day. Let’s see if I can do better. Today's target: 6 pages.
DAY 14 (22/10/08

Only five & a quarter pages on day 14. Would have been more if *&^&%$%#!%^&* Eskom hadn’t cut our electricity for SIX HOURS! And my laptop only has a two hour battery. An electrical substation blew. Also, won’t get much done today: my daily chore list is as long as my arm, so my target for Day 15 is two & ¾ pages.

I’m worried about this ms. Can it be saved? Are there too many fundamentals that are out the ballpark for this particular novel, or is it my ‘voice’ which seems to take me in a certain direction which my head tells me is an unpopular one in the publishing world? Well, that doesn’t really matter at this stage. All that’s important now is to tighten up this text as much as possible and see what I have at the end of the job.

DAY 15 (23/10/08)

Reached set target, which was a relief, as I wasn’t sure I’d even get to work on the ms today.

My concerns about the ms haven’t abated. Is my writing voice quirky or just monotonous? Am I using my characters as puppets for my polemics? Is the dialogue stilted and contrived or is it well-constructed and profound? These are the irritations that allow creeping self-doubt to flourish.

I’ll inspire myself with one of my favourite quotes:

"There is vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly... to keep the channel open." Martha Graham, dancer

It’s not my business to decide whether this ms is good or simply awful. My only business is to ensure that I finish the ms to the best of my current craftsmanship so that it's one of a kind!  So let me forge ahead...
DAY 16 (24/10/08)

Day 16 was an immensely productive day. I pulled out the landline ‘phone, switched off the mobile and resisted the lure of email and internet. My husband had a late meeting so I worked from 9 to 9, with only a few breaks in between. Finished L’s section and started on J’s section; also read two chapters of Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories (which doesn’t sound like much but it’s a dense text so requires a lot of concentration; I'll do a review on the blog once I'm finished the book which was recommended by one of the examiners of my master's degree). I also started working on an analysis of the brilliant Louise Erdrich’s “The Painted Drum”.

The supervisor for my Master's degree said that there were times my writing voice reminded him in some way of Louise Erdrich’s voice which, at the time, surprised me because I couldn’t see it. But working my way through a line-by-line analysis of her novel at the same time I’m busy with a line-by-line re-write of this ms makes me think the Prof did see something I’m too close to my own voice to see (oh, be still my beating heart!). Although, at this stage, my writing is clearly a lot less proficient then Louise Erdrich’s superb work, there does appear to be a hint of similarity in the sense of rhythm or style. That thought cheered me up!

I'm slightly burnt out today though, so such a long and concentrated day may not have been an entirely good idea. Will only work on a page or two today to keep the juices flowing without too much effort.

DAY 17 (25/10/08)

Took today as a rest day. Completed three pages easily. To a certain degree my characters must reflect each other. Have I taken it too far, so that they’re simply parroting each other? Must try to be objective about this!
DAY 18 (26/10/08):

Very little time today. Completed three pages. Lucky to even to do that; will do better tomorrow.

DAY 19 (27/10/08):

From a writing point of view, this is what’s known as a bad writing day. Procrastinated all day; then felt guilty so took laptop to bed with me. 22h38 is not a good time to try and catch up on all the work I should have done during the day. Managed to check Facebook (admired and commented on some newly uploaded photos of my niece in Cape Town), check my emails, answer a few emails and still survive ¼ of a page of re-writing before I fell asleep.

Rewrite Reggae Rule Number 3:

Avoid procrastination.

And remember Rewrite Reggae Rule Number 2:

Focus. Focus. Focus.

DAY 20 (28/10/08):

Sometimes I surprise myself. Ten and ¼ pages today, completed before I even realised it.

Read an interesting blog post today. Competent writing isn’t enough – to break the barriers to getting published one must be brilliant.

Hmmmm. I like the sound of that because, really, who wants to be mediocre? But brilliance in writing is going to require risk taking. There must be that leap into the abyss of the unknown which takes one, as a writer, far outside the box of what’s currently being published. Then comes another risk: sending it out to dozens of agents and publishers who may not be willing to take the risks with you. And then there's the need to keep the integrity of your brilliant voice at the risk of never being published. Think of Vincent van Gogh - one painting sold in his life time, but that didn't stop him painting the visions he alone saw.

A gambler at heart, the thought of taking that leap into the unknown appeals to me. If only my feet weren’t safely superglued to the solid ground of authorial competency.

DAY 21 (29/10/08)

I feel like I’m living in Darkest Africa...no! wait!

I AM living in Darkest Africa. No water yesterday all day, which was uncomfortable but not a disaster. What WAS a disaster was – for the THIRD time in ten days – we had NO ELECTRICITY as well! All day, until the early hours of this morning.


Laptop battery is useless – just under two hours power supply, so only managed to get two pages done on the rewrite. Better than nothing, but frustrating to find that when I can eke out a few precious moments to write there’s no power. If it was a first draft there'd no problem as I prefer to write longhand, with a pencil. As this is a rewrite I do the work directly onto the transcribed draft. Maybe the authors pre-computer times were wiser than we realise. No dependency on modern technology!

DAY 22 (30/10/08)

Electricity supply erratic on Day 22, and dear husband in theatre for dental surgery.

Managed 2 pages of rewriting. May have to redo them.

Time limited today and would rather be re-writing than blogging.

Friday 10 October 2008

WRITING: The Rewrite Reggae (Day 1 and 2)

And so it begins! For more months than I can remember I've been unable to proceed with my new novel. Finally, I had an epiphany: before I could begin writing again, I had unfinished business to tend to.

The two (out of four) highly critical examiner's reports on the novel I wrote as part of my Masters of Arts degree had effectively cut me off from any connection with my nascent creativity. That involuntary divorce from my cherished dreams affected me more than I realised.

Emerging from the sense of loss surrounding the creative part of me that I was only just beginning to discover was the question of whether I believed their judgement or not. Objectivity and honesty compelled me to agree that the novel still needs much work before it becomes anything approaching a publishable manuscript. Their subjective opinion of my writing talents is, however, questionable.

While I’m no literary equivalent of Elvis Presley, what would the world have done if Elvis had believed his early critics? As Peter Guralnick writes in his “Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley”, band leader Eddie Bond told Elvis to stick to driving a truck “because you’re never going to make it as a singer.”

A view of the road ahead from a crumbled ruin is vastly different to a view of the road coloured by bright dreams of being instantly published and instantly famous. From the opposing perceptions of my potential as a talented writer, another question arose. Did I still want to write now that the writing journey facing me altered the landscape of my dreams?

Three, seemingly small and unrelated, incidents helped me make the decision:

On his blog, the sunny literary agent Nathan Bransford presented the hypothetical question “if a seer told you, with 100% accuracy, you don't have the talent to be a published writer, would you still write?” My answer was yes.

I read a book by Noah Lukeman called “The First Five Pages”. In his epilogue, Lukeman spoke of being “devoted” to getting a book published in an industry notorious for its obstacles and challenges. His last words re-defined his sense of where a writer’s devotion should lie. Rather than aiming only to get published, he said, an author should become devoted to the craft of writing for the sake of writing. He then posed the same question as Nathan Bransford: if you knew you would never be published, would you still write? My answer was yes.

I stumbled across the self-published phenomenon “The Shack” by William P Young. While I had some problems with the novel, its success also revived my dream. If there are people interested enough to read this book, perhaps my voice would also, one day, find an audience.

These three notes played the introduction to a tune I had been ignoring: The Rewrite Reggae. Before I can start any new novel, I need to complete my unfinished business. I need to re-write the novel, changing it from what was essentially a first draft submitted as a requirement for my Master's of Arts degree into a professional manuscript. Not with the primary goal of being published (although what writer doesn’t want to get published?) but with the desire to take my vision (no matter how “far-fetched” the university examiners found my ideas!) and lovingly re-mould it into a better story. Perhaps not into the best book ever written, but simply the best book I can write now. And so the dance begins...

DAY 2:
I stole 3 hours from life yesterday to focus on starting to learn The Rewrite Reggae. There is more work ahead than I anticipated, and I'm beginning to think my examiners’ comments were lenient!

Do you know it’s possible to have 765 words ending in “-ing” and 339 words ending in “-ly” in a mere 33 pages? (Yes, you read those stats correctly!) Josephine loyally helped me click the different coloured highlights and you can see (to the left) how she felt after two hours work. I felt much the same!

The dance lessons did provide some spring to my steps, though. I’d been wrestling with my setting but with some productive research time, I may have found the solution. But it requires (you guessed it!) a lot of hard effort so I should be working on the dance steps and not blogging my time away.

Did you see there were TEN words ending in “-ing” in this short post? I need to go and practice more...

Monday 6 October 2008

BOOK REVIEW: Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz

Stylish, emotionally intense book. Easy to read and captivating, I found myself drawn to the tragic “villain” Dwight. It's always a sign of excellent characterisation when one finds oneself empathising against one's better judgment with the "bad guy". All characters – even the dog Sallie – were well drawn. I cared about, or at least recognised, every character.

Lyrical language such as “the sky was faltering” added to the atmosphere of a gathering storm. There was not a wasted word in this book; every word was packed with emotion. The inexorable spiral of events spinning out of control for each of the characters had me reading faster than I could turn the pages.

The ending was slightly abrupt; it could have been fleshed out without losing any of its impact and providing a more permanent sense of order restored. Plot was straightforward, but fast paced, with interesting connections that added to the tension.

A compelling and, at times, deeply haunting read.