Friday, August 15, 2014

new clarity

So anyway...

I've been a teacher now for 36 years, which is a very, very long time. Sometimes I can hardly even believe how long it has been. Weirdly, though, I can remember specific incidents from specific classes going all the way back to Year One.  Even the names of some of the students. (David Witte, the freshman boy who couldn't sit still and kept climbing the curtains in my first class in 1978 but who was one heck of a sweeper back on the frosh soccer team, where are you now?) :-)

A whole lot of students, teachers, administrators, etc. have come and gone in those 36 years. And as they have, I have honed bit by bit the way I teach. Like most fourth decade teachers, I suppose, I do things without thinking much about how or why I do them: I've been at this for so long it's second nature. And that's why I love having a student teacher.

I've had several over the years, some of which have been far more work than they have been worth. (One didn't show up one day two months in and let me know afterward, when I finally got hold of him, that he was quitting the program!) Most of them, though, have been quite strong. And one of the things I love most about mentoring someone is the need to consider and articulate exactly what it is that I am doing and why I am doing it. It is a wonderful reminder. And every once in a while I even come up with something that, gosh, I probably should have stopped doing that by now because it really has become redundant or obsolete in today's classroom. Even us old dogs can learn.

So what, you wonder, does any of this have to do with writing?

In my last post, I examined the revision that I had done to Abomination, explaining it and articulating my reasons for doing what I had done. I was doing so here, in writing; I had actually not ever taken the time to sit down and do so before. I discussed how difficult is had been to change the narrative to seventeen 1st person POVs. But when it came to my "villain" character, I said, I had not done so because I "couldn't": it would "give away the mystery."

And I read and re-read that post, and every time I did so it struck me that something was terribly wrong with it. If I never get into the villain character's head, how can that character ever develop in any way? And of course I knew the answer immediately: she doesn't. She is the single flattest character in the whole damn book: no arc, no growth, no back story, no nothing. I was resolving my story with a character who was less developed than Wile E. Coyote. Why on earth had I never realized this before?

It was at this precise time that an agent who had been looking at my manuscript for about a month rejected it, saying she loved the voice and the inventive narrative form, but the book "didn't hold together" the way she hoped it would. And I thought: of course it didn't. It completely falls apart in its final act!

But what to do? I was right in my previous post: getting into her head via a 1st Person chapter would of necessity give away the mystery. I took this quandary to my readers' group, and Rebecca--thank God for Rebecca sometimes, for she tells me flat out what needs to be said even if I don't want to hear it--said that, yes, it would do that, but why did it matter? The book isn't a mystery.

And there it was. I was so caught up after the crime scene 3/4 of the way through the book in figuring out who did it that the entire focus of the book shifted: instead of being about Julie and her year of change and fight for acceptance, it became about who beat her up?

"It doesn't matter if the reader knows the answer," Rebecca said. "The characters still won't."

And right then I knew what to do. I went home and wrote several first person sections for the villain character, eventually making it clear by implication that she is guilty. Any reader will know. But what I am really doing in these scenes is helping the reader to understand why she acts the way she does. And then, when it was all over, I wrote one more scene: a coda between her and Julie. It might be the best scene in the whole book. And it is only possible because Rebecca helped me to see that I was not seeing my book clearly even after over a decade of revision.

No matter how long we do what we do, articulating why we do it helps us to learn more about it and occasionally teaches us new things. And maybe the new agent who now has the new version will like it better.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Publishing My Darlings

So anyway...

Lying in the sun on a rather cool afternoon in July, thinking about writing, thinking about trying to sell Abomination, thinking about my next project, thinking about getting ready for the school year to come and directing As You Like It and introducing a gradeless classroom, thinking about moving on to the final phase (organization and cleanup) of the home refinishing project, thinking about how bloody hard it is to find an agent...thinking that if I keep lying here thinking I might just think myself into a coma...

Seriously: too much is going on at once. I made a vow to myself to get Abomination sold this year, and everyone--all of my beta readers including the target audience--has had nothing but good things to say about it, but whenever I get it into the hands of an agent I don't find the right fit. And I keep trying, but everything has been a distraction.

The thing is, though, that I really believe in this book. I have been working on it for over a decade now, on and off. It has seen five full revisions, the latest of which involved a massive cut of 40,000 words and a complete point of view change. It terrified me, frankly, to do these things. Some of my readers told me not to, but I took the advice of a couple of agents: it was too long for the market and we needed to hear directly from Julie/Jonathan. OK: I took a deep breath, kept saying "kill your darlings" over and over again like a mantra, and wiped out scene after scene that I loved while shifting the entire book from a narrative that was mostly third person alternating with the first person commentary of Kristen to one that now is all first person, told from about seventeen different points of view at various times.

Getting each of them to sound like individual people was a pain in the butt, but I think I did it, and my readers agree. What I discovered as I did: the living souls behind my characters! Even more than I knew before, they leapt from the page for me. I gained empathy with characters I never had much empathy with before as I wrote their narratives in their voices. And since I was also shifting the book from past to present tense (hey, why not go nuts!), I also gained a sense of immediacy for each of them. It felt as if I could see the story unfold through each of their eyes.

That sounds awfully cheesy. And the characters I most desperately wanted to do this for I couldn't: to go into the heads of the "villains" of the piece would give away the mystery. But I think the reader gains so much more insight into so many others, including Jonathan/Julie herself.

All of this came at a cost, of course. There was a kick-ass Republican debate scene I had to cut entirely, for instance. That hurt. There was an entire subplot in the GOP candidate's HQ: gone. So too was a romantic subplot involving the teacher and the principal. Other things too, including a mysterious group plotting against Julie in the school. But I really think what remains makes the book better, and it needs to be read. I keep doing my research, hoping it will lead me to exactly the right agent. I have a few queries out right now.

All I can do is hope.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Remaking a Home

So anyway...

(I hate it when I don't post in forever, but I have not posted in forever. Mea culpa.)

For seven years I have lived in squalor. Not the kind you find looking out the wrong side of the bus while traveling to a resort in Jamaica: the kind where, instead of the lush trees with occasional breaks for elaborately landscaped entryways to five-star playgrounds for those who have enough money to play (which inevitably means no one who is from this island), you stare, appalled, as your air conditioned coach rolls past miles and miles of one-room open-front shacks with corrugated tin roofs, yards littered with the detritus of lifetimes, and families--multi-generational families--living together within those shabby, barely-there walls, no protection whatsoever from the 100+ degree sun and the torrential rain.

Not that kind. I'm not strong enough to live that life. I'm barely strong enough to drive by it in an air conditioned coach: my heart breaks in two and I want to climb out and give away everything I own to someone who lives there to make their lives better, but I know I'd never do that.

No, I'm speaking in exaggerated terms about the absurdly cluttered, disgusting state of my tiny, two bedroom townhouse ever since my marriage.

When I bought this place, I made it cute and pretty: pictures and flowers, both real and dried, were everywhere. Little statues, David Winter cottages, glass knickknacks, scented candles, new furniture that picked up mauves and greens and made the whole house come together. I loved to sit at night, light candles, and just enjoy being in this space. But the thing is: I bought it with the idea that I would live here and that my children would live here, but that if such a time came when I ever got married again, of course my husband and I would move into a larger space.

I was married again a little over seven years ago, but we could not afford to move; thus, he moved in with me. And with all of his stuff. I do not begrudge him his stuff, but this little townhouse simply could not hold it all. We ended up with furniture on top of furniture. There were literally bookcases the entire way up the staircase. The living room was filled with piles of books, papers, dvd's, and way too much furniture. The dining room table was never devoid of stacks of crap, mostly because the front room, my little haven (in the old version of the house) for organizing files and mail and magazines and other things, had become utterly inaccessible: stuffed to the gills with furniture, boxes, a model train set-up, and so much random crap that we often didn't know there were places the cats had used as satellite litter boxes until months had gone by.

Our bedroom was so overfilled with furniture (two dressers, a wardrobe, a make-up table, and a king size bed with two night stands in a room that is roughly 12x12 and includes a six foot balcony window) and more clothing than could reasonably fit into the above that it was simply always a mess. Over time the was-white carpets became some kind of dingy, stained grey because there was no point in even trying to move enough crap to clean them. We replaced the carpets in the living room/dining room with laminate floors in an effort to curtail bad habits from the cats, but it didn't work: they destroyed the laminate too. It was all more and more of a disaster every year.

And every year I grew more and more depressed about it. I also have Seasonal Affective Disorder, so during the long winter months when I was forced to be stuck within those walls I would often become unbearably morose. But always the spring would come just in time and I would find myself rejuvenated, heart opened by the sight of crocuses breaking through the snow and the first robins, and I would allow the depression to slip silently away.

And then came this year, the year of the Polar Vortex, the year that winter would not end, when it shackled Chicago with icy chains that it would not release or even ease up for months. This was the year without any kind of even momentary thaw. It was the year with record cold and record snowfall. It was the year when the crocuses did not come until April. And when winter finally acquiesced to the planetary axis, the bitter cold was replaced by endless rain, and this became the year without sunshine. (It's true: as I write this, my deck has been waiting since April for sets of three consecutive dry days so contractors can refinish it. It has only happened once; we have had nearly constant rain.) There was no escape from the disgusting, depressing, overcrowded interior of my home. And to make things worse, my kitchen, which was in need of replacing on the day I bought the place, finally gave up the ghost at the start of the winter: the oven broke down and cabinets began peeling away from the walls.

It was in this way that 2014 became for me The Year I Remade My Home.

It began with my kitchen, which we gutted and had redone in March and April. As summer crept closer, though, I decided that the kitchen was not enough: I wanted to do it all, to attack the clutter and the junk piles and the excess furniture once and for all. So Dirk began to fill boxes and the garage began to fill up. Gradually, things started vanishing. When I threw away a large, decrepit chair, leaving only one recliner and no other chairs in the living room, it became clear that I meant business. The rest of the room emptied out. The front room also. And the stairway as well.

Eventually, we replaced the laminate floor with vinyl. (Take that, cats!) We replaced (finally) the worn, stained carpet upstairs. We built a new large closet to accommodate all of the clothing we have, and got rid of one of the dressers and a wardrobe in the process. We got rid of several very large wall units and bought new living room furniture. In the process, we have emptied the house of about 50% of the stuff that was in it, and nothing is not coming back unless it has a home. No more random piles.

It's still a mess. The workers are not finished, so we can't put everything away yet. But when it is done, we'll have a home we can be proud of and one that does not exaggerate by SAD, which could prove very important if next winter is anything like this one was. And all of that makes me happy.

What does not make me happy is that all of this has been extremely time consuming, and I have had no time to write. I need to rededicate myself, now that the job is heading toward its final stages. There is so very, very much to do...