Archive for February, 2012

The Tesseract in the Writer’s Mind

February 8, 2012

(from the February 2011 Willamette Writers newsletter  ~ with minimal tweaking)

I believe in the advice “Just get the draft down and fix it later.” I do that all the time. But a few months ago, at one of my Supernatural Tea Parties, my friend Susan Fletcher (author of the Dragon’s Milk series) and I were talking about the joy and pain of revision when I had a weird idea. What we need to do is sneak a look at our later drafts now. (Can you tell our tea parties sometimes touch on the topic of time travel?)

Most writers would agree that their fifth draft is better than their first draft. Much better. My first draft cannot be seen by anyone, but my fifth might even be ready to show my editor.  That fifth draft may be written several months after the first one, but they will both be written by me. I’ll still be the same me by the final draft, right?

I do see the limitations here – at 15, when I began my first attempt at a novel, I don’t think I could have asked my 45-year-old self what to do because I wouldn’t have listened to myself. I needed to mature and grow through the ten thousand or more hours of writing that would form me as a novelist.

But now I’m only talking about maybe six months. How much will I really change in that span?  I have the summer me inside the winter me already, don’t I? And if the author of the rough draft and refined draft are both the me of the same year, isn’t there some way I can ask my future self what to fix now instead of struggling through drafts one through four?

As a matter of fact, why can’t I even ask the even older me what I did to address the notes my editor will give me on draft five in eventually?

I know, this doesn’t make sense. Like an Escher drawing of stairs that go up and down at the same time. It’s impossible to ask your future self for advice. Unless time isn’t linear but rather cyclical. What if you could fold time the way Madeline L’Engle describes a tesseract wrinkling space?

Sometimes impossible things work . Bumble Bees can fly. A Mobius strip does seem to have only one side.  Maybe we can actually do six impossible things before breakfast, like Alice, by passing through the looking glass of our own dreams.

(reminder: the exercise below was performed in winter 2011) Here’s what I might ask myself about my current manuscript, Under the Light (a companion to my novel A Certain Slant of Light) and what I might answer:

Me: What’s better about the final version of this book? What kind of changes did/will we make?

Future me: When you reread with fresh eyes and ears, you find ways of reviving your scenes; different ways of looking at a bit of dialogue or action, so the pages feel more inspiring to you. You know, you feel proud of the lines. And I don’t mean just replacing stale words but you come up with completely different details or unexpected exchanges.

You go into each scene and have what happens in it fueled by the characters’ strongest desires and struggles. What’s the touchiest subject, the most painful wound? Soon every scene feels like a gem and the transitions seem like opportunities instead of annoyances.

Also characters talk less but mean more. 

The two narrating voices become more distinct from each other, but well matched  — emphasize the quirkiness in Jenny’s voice and the poetry in Helen’s.

When you let go of your OC need to have the chapters alternate narrators, the true order and form becomes clear. And then, magically, they rebalance.

The tricky stuff about writing a sequel — how much of the first book’s story to include — becomes easier when you speak it aloud as if you were talking to a friend.

Me: Okay, you’re freaking me out. (Because I actually did the exercise just now – just started typing as I composed this column — and the stuff that came out is in fact useful. As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up!)

Future me: I knew you were going to say that.

Me: What changes will Kate (my editor) suggest?

Future me:  She asks you to clarify how the characters feel during certain scenes — sometimes a gesture or bit of dialogue can be taken more than one way. Also, she reminds you to be specific about the physicality of some moments. It’s not a radio play. How far apart are they standing? What are they doing with their hands, bodies? And she asks about the supernatural rules, not just what they are but why they are. Oh, yes, and she wants the denouement to be a little longer. The reader has to feel like they’ve said goodbye to the characters they love.

 (It will be interesting to see what my editor really did say about that version of Under the Light — I’m about to get her revision notes in a few days.)

For me, dreams are one of the best places to plant this kind of idea in my creative (wiser) mind. In the film Inception different levels of dreaming had different speeds of time, as it were. Mere minutes of sleep might give you an experience of hours of dream time. Maybe in real life (whatever that means) it varies. There are nights when I look at the clock, feel like I only close my eyes for a few moments, but open my eyes to find it is morning. Yet other times, I fall back to sleep in the morning and dream hours and hours of adventures only to wake and see that three minutes have passed.

If time can warp, why can’t you and your future self get together for a weekend in tonight’s dream and go through your whole manuscript? Couldn’t you have an entire week of isolated retreat to power through the end of your draft in six hours of sleep? Or six weeks of workshops with your favorite author all in one night?

Maybe after a long walk and talk with a few of my favorite authors the following boring sentence might be transformed.

Me:  The day was almost over and I hadn’t gotten any writing done.

Charles Dickens inspired:

The dusty light from a west-facing window tilted toward my desk and poured drearily onto the blank page before me – the pale glow bore with it the ponderous truth: not even the minutest scrap of work had been accomplished since daybreak.

Emily Dickinson inspired:

Disapproving twilight crept unwelcome up the hill,

 For not one word was writ since the first dipping of my quill.

Neil Gaiman inspired:

It wasn’t that the computer screen was simply blank; it was a sucking white sun of blankness. If it had been any blanker, the letters from nearby documents would have been pulled into the whitehole of its blankdom. Not even a hidden tab or indent command waited under the surface. The screen repelled writing like a raging, empty-bellied blankosaurus. It sweated 60 SPF writers block, enough to ward off an infinity of Hamlet-typing monkeys.

Okay, I’m being silly, but you have to admit there still might be something to this.

Who would you invite to sleep-walk with you? Shakespeare, Tom Robbins, Agatha Christie , Tolstoy? What do you have to lose? Six impossible things may happen tomorrow morning before you even open your eyes.

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February Give-Away

February 5, 2012

The winner of the January Give-Away was Alex of Hermitage, TN. The February Give-Away will be a signed copy of A Certain Slant of Light. Email me your name and physical address via the “Email Laura Whitcomb” link on my website before the last day of the month to enter.