Thursday, June 26, 2014

Revising Gets the Mistakes Out, Right?

My daughter was reading a novel by a popular mystery writer. Quoting to me from a certain page, she said, "The main character says, 'I left the keys in the ignition.'" She paged ahead a bit. By now, the MC was tangling with the villain, had ended up flat on the ground, and was casting about for any sort of tool. My daughter went on, "But here, she says, 'I felt a lump in my pocket and realized it was the car keys.'" My daughter put the book down. "I hate stuff like that!"

I do, too. At best, blatant inconsistencies take you out of the story. At worst, they kill the story and you shut the book for good. No matter how exciting the action or heightened the emotions in a scene, that all goes poof if you the reader are yelling, "You do not have the car keys in your pocket! You left them in the ignition!"

The thing is -- and I told my daughter this -- I get why these mistakes happen. They happen because of revision.

Revision is supposed to fix what's wrong, what's weak, what's not there yet. And, overwhelmingly, it does. I love revision, much more than I love writing the first draft. But the most difficult aspect of revision isn't making yourself change things. The most difficult aspect is performing the microsurgery that's involved in removing all traces of whatever you're taking out, altering all the spots that need to be changed because of something you've added, and then stitching the book back together so seamlessly that the reader never knows you once had story parts lying all over the place.

And why am I thinking of all this now? Because I'm revising, and I got to p. 8, and there's a big, fat inconsistency sitting there. Yes, only EIGHT pages in, and I've already found a "car keys" moment. But why is that mistake there? That inconsistency did not exist in the first, second, or third drafts of the chapter. It's here in the fourth (thereabouts) because I cut something out a few pages earlier, and along with that cut passage went whoops the piece of information that we need in order to not go "Huh?" on p. 8.

Part of the nature of revising anything is that, besides tackling old errors, we can introduce new ones, and we have to get rid of those, too. Now I'm wondering if I should go show this chapter to my daughter. :)  

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Seeing Red, by Kathryn Erskine

Generations of Porters have been fixing cars in Stony Gap, Virginia, "ever since cars were born," as Red Porter's dad told him. His family's street is even called Porter's Shop Road. Red is twelve, but he's been changing oil on his own since he was nine, and Porter's Shop is everything Red loves: oil, gas, paint, brake pads, hoses, filters, Lava soap, old rags, "and a sink with a faucet you could turn on with just your elbow." Barely three pages into the book, I was completely invested in Red's being able to stay in that shop, on this land. Doing so will turn out to be almost impossible, of course, as Red's dad died of a heart attack just weeks earlier, there's no one to run the shop -- and at least part of the land might not even belong to the Porters.

Set in 1972, this rich, layered novel portrays a world in which civil rights and women's rights have barely awakened, and the Vietnam War fills the nightly news. The characters, major and minor, present and face difficult situations like child abuse, racial discrimination, and developmental disabilities. The pastor is a hypocrite. Red's early-childhood friendship with a black boy crumbles because of the pressures they face. Red is temporarily ensnared in a youth version of the KKK. His teacher, who is far from a hippie yet is teaching his class to "think," gets fired for not doing things the way they've always been done. Red, his younger brother, and his mom seem separated and scattered because they grieve in different ways. Worst of all, Red uncovers evidence that his great-great-great grandfather Porter, whose exact name he bears, shot a black man -- ancestor of an elderly woman he deeply admires -- in the back and stole his land. Red has always been proud of the Porter name. Now, he is not so sure.

There's enough plot here to keep the pages turning, and definitely enough impact and literary quality to make this an award contender, I think. This is a novel about small, gradual changes, and small, right choices, adding up to significant progress. While it may not be for the younger or sensitive reader (besides the other difficult subjects, the real-life lynching of Emmett Till is described in some detail), I otherwise highly recommend this.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Filling the Well

Really, I should phrase that "letting the well fill." Part of the process is the letting, not the controlling, or worse, the forcing.

I've decided that letting the well fill isn't all about getting a new book idea. Because I have one of those. Sometimes it's about just shifting gears. Taking a vacation of the mind or spirit. Sometimes it's about being something besides a writer. Laying it all down -- which is quite distinct from kicking it to the curb.

Sometimes letting the well fill involves reading. Who am I kidding: centers on reading. But I'm going to be selective and persnickety about that rather than going on a binge or a feast. If I were a runner, I'd run, but since this is me, I'll walk. And contemplate, and...and nothing, because this is letting the well fill. And it's trying on for size the idea of needing to be nothing except God's daughter.