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.