Vegetables, yarn, and yarns: all of my passions all in one place.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Re-vision Surprise

There seems to be a consensus among writers that one surefire way to write an interesting story is to make sure that the writer surprises himself/herself. The idea behind this is that if the writer already knows how the story goes from start to finish, that writer won’t add the same type of energy into it. It will simply be a retelling, and everyone knows that the more times a person retells the same word-for-word story, the duller it sounds. The storyteller loses interest. Everything has already been said and it just becomes a chore.

Of course, few writers know how a story should progress from start to finish, so surprise just happens. Say, like me, the writer usually knows the end and the beginning. Well, that means the middle is just a surprise waiting to happen. In the novel “The Good Thief,” Hannah Tinti had a vision of a scene in the middle of the novel. That means everything leading up to that point and everything that comes after it were a surprise to some extent. That’s how surprising yourself when you write works.

Likewise, most writers will talk about the importance of revision, but not many writers talk about the process of revision. More to the point, how they keep that sense of surprise in the writing. There are a lot of post-MFA student writers out there who get criticized for lifeless and/or boring MFA-style stories. The idea is that the MFA teaches a certain kind of writing that tends to be lifeless and boring. That may well be, but I think the larger issue is that an MFA shows you how to write and better ways and techniques of writing, not how to revise to retain that initial spark that made the writer want to write the story in the first place. This spark, inevitably, will always be that the writer has an idea for a character or a scene or a beginning, and that writer is curious to see where it all goes.

Revision lacks that curiosity. The story is more or less laid out, so when an MFA story gets criticized for being an MFA story, chances are that means it has been over-revised with no sense of surprise. Often, the aspects of my writing that surprise me are the things I fall in love with. That means, I find ways to retain them and this, I think, helps keep some of that surprise in the mix. (Others, of course, might disagree. And if so, I apologize for my MFA stories, but I did just get an MFA.)

I am not a proponent of the “Murder Your Darlings” School of Writing, as my darlings are one of the joys that keep me writing. Take, for example, my revision yesterday of one of the stories in my novel called “Sandwich Earl.” It was one of the stories more peripherally connected and I’d been struggling to make it work with the rest of the book. The entire story itself was a darling whose first person narrator just started talking to me one day and wouldn’t stop until I’d finished his story, and it did connect to the rest of the novel in a very definite, if more remote way. I was tasked to increase the level of that connection, perhaps by changing narrative points of view (one advisee suggested adding the element of “It’s a Wonderful Life” style omniscience), or perhaps by extending the duration of its narrative. I didn’t like either of these ideas. The story felt done when it ended and I just love the voice of the narrator, bright but colloquial.

I had no idea how to fix this problem. It was unplanned when I sat done to work on it and then, I got an idea. I could sandwich “Sandwich” in an omniscient third point of view. This would broaden out the perspective to fit better with the rest of the book but also retain that voice I so enjoyed crafting. Of course, the real surprise came when I started writing that third person scene, in which the reader sees the first person narrator from an outside perspective. It’s all of about five sentences, so it wasn’t a lengthy revision. It didn’t change much of anything to the rest of the story, and yet, I felt like I’d really added depth to the story with the suggested revision, like I’d made that revision work for me. Moreover, I’m fairly sure it happened because I didn’t know what would happen. That, and I allowed myself to consider outside advice about a movie made in the 1940s.

What I’m saying here for other new writers like myself, especially if you come with an MFA background, is this: Don’t plan it all out. Allow the happy accidents even when you feel like the story is “done.” Open yourself up to the possibility that there is more to say, another piece to the puzzle that you didn’t even know existed.

I’m as guilty of thinking my work was beyond reproach as much as the next writer, but listening to new ideas, trying out outside suggestions, pushing  your “finished” story just a little bit farther than you thought it could go. These are the risks that, when taken, just might make your story beyond MFA-style and become your style. Revision isn’t just about cutting pages and chopping sentences and rewriting sentences to reduce syntactical confusion. It’s about being willing to see your story from a new angle.

Suggested reads that come from unique POVS (i.e. new angles) that I’ve been reading lately: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks (not the best writing style wise but some interesting true-story psychological accounts nonetheless) and God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens (insightful view on how religion negatively affects our culture and our lives). I’m also a chapter or two into Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, the first in the lengthy saga of the Kashpaws and the Lamartines. So far, I’m loving it. Interestingly enough, it is a book told in a combination of first and third POVs.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Preparing to Knit: the Simple Steps to Take Before You Ever Cast On

The Beloved Baby Bonnet is just about at its end. All that’s left is the blocking and the drawstring. The blocking is supposed to come first, but I’ve been putting it off because I need to have a place set up for it to dry properly, not an easy task in my apartment. The drawstring, I’m actively avoiding because I don’t quite understand what the pattern is saying in regard to its existence as an attached piece on the hat.

(Bonnet modeled by angry Red Wings Octopus Pillow Pet)

This is what I get for not pre-reading the finishing paragraph. I did not read this paragraph for two reasons.
1.      I’m not a fan of finishing.
2.     It usually has no real bearing on how the pattern itself is knit so why preread? (Answer: To make sure it’s understandable, so you don’t spend a month knitting a hat only to get stumped with the finishing.)
This brings up two key but often overlooked aspects of knitting that don’t get talked about enough: prepping and finishing. Finishing, I’ll address in the next knitting blog, so stay tuned.

By this, I mean finding all the required materials (or appropriate substitutes), swatching, and pre-reading the pattern. These are the types of things that really help avoid your knitting biting you in the butt later. I’m not good with the swatching usually. I don’t have a washing machine or dryer at my disposal that a. works 100% of the time and b. doesn’t require inserting a quarter. This means I have never washed a swatch. Not ever. I’m also fairly cheap and don’t want to buy extra yarn unless I have to. Instead, I’ll knit a swatch, unravel it after measurement, and reknit it as the start of the project. This is terrible, terrible practice and I’m lucky I have yet to end up with a sweater than would clothe only a small boat or a mouse, depending on the direction of mathematical error. What you should do: Knit the swatch, wash the swatch, and keep swatching until you get gage. Period. Will I ever do this? All I can say is maybe one day I too will own a washing machine. (I’ll ignore that I could easily have at least hand washed my swatches, because that wouldn’t give me my needed excuse.)

Finding all the materials ahead of time and pre-reading the pattern is something I’m usually very good about, baby bonnet incident aside. I have a feeling this has more to do with my hatred of the act of casting on more than it does my dedication to preparedness. Much as I love knitting, I despise casting on and this might partially explain how I manage to avoid accumulating five hundred half-finished projects due to startitis. Lord knows there’s enough patterns I plan to knit eventually.

Gathering the materials is easy enough as long as you do it. When the pattern says to have two half-inch buttons, you should have those half inch buttons before you cast on and you should have them in one location with all the other required materials for the project at hand. If you don’t have any half-inch buttons, you should go buy some and put them in that same said location (probably a bag dedicated to the project at hand) before you start knitting. That way, you don’t get all done, get ready to finish things up, and realize you’ll have to wait a week before you have the free time to run out to the store to buy buttons. And inevitably, the store will have no half-inch buttons and you’ll have to wait another two weeks for the buttons you purchase online to arrive in the mail. This waiting will not help anyone, least of all the project, especially if you have a babyshower deadline in three days.

As for pre-reading the pattern, the importance of this cannot be overstated. Not all patterns are created equal. Not all patterns are even necessarily legible as a pattern. The only way to know you have a good one is to read it, start to finish. You get the added benefit of learning if the pattern requires learning a technique you don’t know. Even better if you know you never want to learn it, because then you know to pick another pattern before heartache has been inflicted upon you and/or your knitting. What I like to do is take the pattern, which is often written in a longer format that might be necessary to explain techniques and stitches, and rewrite it in a spiral-bound notebook. Once you know the spiel, though, you don’t need to carry six pages of techniques around, so it condenses things to a more manageable size. What’s more, it is contained in a convenient carrying case that will protect it and provide it some excess weight so it doesn’t blow off your lap on a windy day at the park. Usually, with my own form of notation, I can cull a six page pattern down to two pages. If I get tripped up, there’s no rule that says I can’t go back and look at the original pattern, but most of the time, it’s not necessary.

I followed all these steps (except for the swatching) right after I received my mother bear patterns in the mail. I purchased the knit-in-the-round and the seamless crochet versions, though I will accustom myself to the process first with the knit pattern. I gathered my yarn, a sweet ducky yellow acrylic of indeterminate origin that I inherited from my grandmother-in-law. I found the needles. I contemplated what would work best for embroidering the eyes and made sure I still had enough of it left. I double checked that I still have seventy zillion tapestry needles (most of which were also inherited). Then, I rewrote the two-page pattern onto one page of my notebook and spent some time contemplating some of the odd finishing techniques (what exactly is entailed in “pinching” ears into existence? Not much by the look of the many youtube tutorials available). As of today, I have finished ten rows of my first mother bear.  This first one I’m doing all in one color, but it will be a happy yellow so I don’t think the recipient will mind.

To finish up some old business, we finally got all our wedding pics a few weeks ago and here is an at-the-event shot of the veil:

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Magical Fruit in a Bag

This bag of dry beans has been in the cupboard from a good two years. I kept meaning to make something bean-filled using from-scratch beans, where you soak them overnight and no BPA is introduced into the system. Then, we got busy and stopped creating weekly meal plans. When you have to soak the food for eight hours before using it to make dinner, it sort of requires a plan. The beans were forgotten until my husband discovered them while reorganizing the kitchen.

The time was long past to create an uncanned bean dish. Enter this soup:

Bag of Miscellaneous Bean Soup

1 bag misc beans
3 chopped potatoes
3 chopped celery stalks
4 chopped carrots
7 cups water
5 tsp better-than bouillion (vegetable)
3 bay leaves
Onion and garlic powder to taste
Pinch cayenne pepper

1.      Soak the beans overnight in water, rinse and drain.
2.     Throw everything into a pot and let it simmer until the veggies are tender.

Add cheese if desired for a pseudo potato-cheese soup taste.

This was a simple recipe. One we should have made a long time ago, but every time I thought about making bean soup from dried beans, it was too late to soak the beans. This type of meal has to be planned ahead of time, but it’s worth the time and effort. Just good simple tastes for a tasty meal. We immediately purchased more bags of beans. Hopefully, we use them in a short time-frame that the last bag.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Novel-In-Progress Update

When I heard what I needed to do to make my book commercially viable, I admit, I felt overwhelmed. I’ve been grappling with the big job of it, and it just seemed insurmountable. There’s only one thing to do to make something outstanding huge seem manageable: turn it into a series of small jobs. Oddly enough, it’s not that different of a concept than the one used by recovering alcoholics or smokers trying to kick the habit. It’s a “one day at a time” sort of motto. You can say to yourself, “I can’t do this huge thing. It’s too huge and important and I think I’ll just go curl in a ball and weep instead.” Or you can say to yourself, “I can’t do this huge thing all at once, but I can do this series of small things that lead to the big goal.”

For a writer, it amounts to something like: I can write three pages by the end of this day. Or I can write 1000 words by the end of this day. Or I can finish this scene by the end of this day.

 It really does work, because if you do that each day, by the end of the week, you have 21 pages or 7ooo words or seven scenes. The farther you get along the small trail of manageable goals, the more manageable the insurmountable goal becomes. I think that’s where I am now. My last writing-related blog found me with a start to one of two completely new stories, four already existing stories in need of revision with no real plan for how that revision would take place, and a complete chapter reorganization needed to make the chapters seem more unified as a book.

That’s a huge job.

 It seemed too huge as I started out, so I made a list of every day between the current date and the last possible day I would be willing to wait to send the completed novel in to my agent, which in my mind is the end of October but before the mayhem of Halloween (Oct. 29). For each weekday between that first day and the beginning of September, I committed to writing one new page of material. For each weekend of the same time frame, I committed to writing a minimum of two, with a complete date of Ang. 24 and Sept. 3 for each of the two stories, during which any unwritten pages would have to be finished. It worked. I then had a date in mind for when to get the chapters in the hands of readers and when to have plans in place for chapter revisions and novel reorganization.

The results so far are positive. As of today (Sept 12), I have two new story drafts complete that have been read by a peer (and are in the hands of a second who has not had the chance to read them yet) and revision plans are in place. The novel chapters have been reorganized, with a new novel M.S. Word draft saved that reflect the shifts in position of all affected chapters. More than that, I have strict revision tasks in place for each of the existing chapters that required tweaking. If all keeps up at this pace, I may well finish my goal well before the end of October deadline. I’m not ashamed to admit that I am proud of my work ethic.

The rest of the list of novel completion mini-goals feels like a cake-walk compared to what I’ve already finished. Pretty much, it’s down to focused revision. That feels manageable to me, and when that’s done, I’ll have a book in my agent’s hands. Can’t beat that.

While working on the novel, which will be largely third person centric, which a few exceptions, I’ve had to stick with reading material written in a 3rd POV to stay on track. I started with Revolutionary Road, mostly because I’ve been meaning to read it for quite some time. In fact, I’ve avoided watching the movie because I wanted to read the book first. Then, I allowed myself a sci-fi fantasy fix with Ursula Le Guin’s Malafrena, which seems to be an alternate history/period piece genre blender with a lot of pro-democracy political heft to it. I also am a story away from finishing Jill McCorkle’s Going Away Shoes story collection. All three shaped up to be just the ticket inspiration-wise, fabulous reads all. Go and grab yourself a copy of each and read them this minute, if you haven’t already. Support your local bookstore if you’re able.

On a side note, my apologies for letting new installments of the blog lag a little the past few weeks. Obviously, my writing efforts were otherwise occupied. Hopefully, I can get back on track now with my outside-world commitments and post with more frequency in the coming months.