Indie Monday

Today’s guest: Joe Spraga

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On occasional Mondays, I’ll be featuring other authors on my blog—authors who produce quality work outside the boundaries and strictures of the traditional mass-produced, mass-marketed commercial publishing world and traditional bookstore shelves.

I’m delighted that today’s featured guest is Joe Spraga. Joe is the author/illustrator of two books for children, The Snitch, the Witch, and the One Who Was Rich (2015), and Phrebbel The Phrongol’s Vacation Pictures (coming soon).

Recently I posed some questions to Joe. Here’s what he told me.

DL: Welcome, Joe. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

JS: I was raised in the Detroit Metropolitan area. I’ve always been artsy and I’m a graduate of Western Michigan University, with a Bachelor’s of Arts in English (Creative Writing) and a Minor in Philosophy. I’m a former musician who had to reluctantly retire and became legally disabled in 2015 due to health problems. I enjoy spending time with dogs, as should all right-thinking people.

DL: Tell us about your latest book and works in progress. Where did the ideas for those works come from?

JS: I wrote my first book, The Snitch, the Witch, and The One Who Was Rich, because the chorus of the book popped into my head one day while in a painting class in college. It had been an ear worm for me for many years. I knew then that I had to make a story out of it.  My writing style for my children’s literature is verse. However, I make sure to be as didactic as I can be with overtones of social commentary while still keeping it entertaining.

My new book, Phrebbel The Phrongol’s Vacation Pictures, will be out in a couple of weeks. It is a “brain game” style book that promotes critical thinking in a fun and interactive way for children. STAY TUNED FOR THIS ONE!!!

DL: Why do you write? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

JS: I knew I was a writer in college, but I did not start taking it seriously until many years later. I have always observed life, and read books. Seeing the connection between the two is a very natural and important thing for me. I write because I want to make the world a nicer place with quality ideas that can be fun and entertaining for children and adults. I also write because it comes naturally to me and it’s fun!

DL: Please talk a little about your writing process. What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?

JS: Well, let’s see here . . . I honestly don’t know if I can explain this clearly, but I’ll give it my best shot. I feel my books are more “written through me” than writing them myself. I have a very “sing-songy” type mind, and things just pop into my head. I feel the universe is using me as an antennae to receive these ideas. Once I have the ideas, my process is very structured. I lay everything out ahead of time, visually, like a story board. Then, I make the words and pictures as entertaining as possible for the reader while being didactic and stimulating at the same time. That’s easy to understand, right? HA!

DL: Could you reflect a bit on what writing or being a writer has meant for you and your life?

JS: Being a writer has given me a purpose. With all of my health problems, being disabled is a constant struggle. Being a writer gives me a reason to get excited about something and get out of bed in the morning. It is also cathartic for me. I understand my place in the universe better, and it helps me work through my own personal issues. I hope my writing helps my readers do the same.

DL: What are links to your books, website, and blog so readers can learn more about you and your work?

JS: My website is https://joespraga.com/ All of my social media links are on my website. I can also be reached via email at the bottom of my website. My email is joe@joespraga.com.

The First Chapter of THE EXILE

 

Exile finalI’m releasing a new book this week . . . a novella, The Exile (Poison Toe Press).

I’m calling it Book 2 in the Dry Earth Series. It’s a self-contained, stand-alone companion to Book 1, The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth, which appears in an anthology of three dystopian novellas, Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End (Whistlebox Press and Quitt and Quinn Publishers, 2019).

Also included in Postcards are excellent, gripping, and thought-provoking works of dystopian fiction by Andrew Charles Lark and Wendy Sura Thomson.

The Exile describes eight days in the life of one of the characters from Book 1, an elder named Mae. She’s a secondary character in the first book, but I found her story compelling enough to want to continue it.

The Exile follows her banishment from the underground settlement where she lives with her tribe in a bleak post-apocalyptic future. It’s not a pleasant world (post-apocalyptic realities usually aren’t). I like to think of it using the term that Margaret Atwood uses, speculative fiction. Like her Handmaid’s Tale, Books 1 and 2 of my Dry Earth Series take current events and circumstances and speculate on what they might evolve into.

The Exile takes place in the same world as The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth, and contains a few references to events in that first book, but nothing that will spoil your enjoyment of it. If you’re a fan of dystopian fiction, I hope you enjoy The Exile, and if you do then I guarantee you’ll find Postcards from the Future impossible to put down (as many reviewers have noted).

Like Postcards, The Exile is available for purchase in print and Kindle versions from Amazon; you may also order the paperback version where ever books are sold. It’s literally brand new, so if you can’t find it on Amazon then give it another day or so.

 

The Exile, Chapter 1

And she’s awake.

A muffled noise, a whisper of rag-wrapped feet on the dirt floor, some words of murmured instruction: these pull her from sleep. In a sweat, heart pounding. The sounds are not loud, but she has always been a light sleeper; even with only one good ear, she could be awakened by the echoes of distant noises in their underground settlement back when she was a child, imagining monsters.

Now Mae is an old woman and she doesn’t have to imagine the monsters. They are real, and already here. Wandering in the Upground.

And sometimes down below, in her underground settlement, too.

Sitting up, she is surprised that she has even fallen asleep. After the meeting of the Council of Elders, of which she is part, she had lain awake for most of the night, worrying over whether to tell Odile about what had happened.

Odile is the chief elder of the Council, as well as her companion. The other members of the Council did not let Odile know about the meeting, and made Mae swear she would say nothing to Odile until the Council as a body could speak with her.

It was a brutal, unfair request to make of Mae, and what the Council decided was equally unfair. After agonizing about it for most of the night, Mae had decided she needed to let her companion know about it, regardless what she had promised.

Mae looks over at Odile’s mat. Her friend is still asleep, a small bundle with a grey head protruding from her tattered cover. It is cool and airless in their underground settlement, but Odile is old—older than Mae—and gets chilled easily.

Mae watches the rise and fall from her companion’s breathing. The sound that woke her did not come from Odile.

Mae looks around the room where they sleep. In the dim light from the lantern out in the tunnel, all seems quiet.

She lies back, adjusts her aching bones on her sleeping mat, and closes her eyes.

She tries to calm herself. Whatever dream she had been having (now dissipated entirely) and the tense Council meeting of the night before have left her with a deep feeling of unease.

She opens her eyes and stares at the support beams crisscrossing the rock overhead.

Now fully awake, she begins to feel the familiar pressure in her bladder, and decides she must find her way to the sanitation chamber to relieve herself before she can try to get back to sleep.

She makes her way down the tunnel outside her room to the foul-smelling chamber, where she squats over the trench in the dark. She rinses her hands in the water standing in a bowl carved into the rock walls, and goes back out into the tunnel. It is lit, as all the corridors are at night, by the flickering light of a small lantern.

That’s where they take her.

Someone comes up from behind and pins her arms in a bear hug. She struggles, but she is held fast.

Someone else—she can’t say who because they approach her from behind—ties a rag over her mouth and throws a hood over her head. The material of the hood is threadbare, like most of what they own in the settlement, and it lets in some of tunnel dim light but not enough for her to make out who her attackers are.

One of them strikes her over the head with a heavy object, not hard enough to knock her out but with enough force to make her old legs wobble and let go from under her. The arms that pin her release her and she is allowed to fall to the ground, heavily and clumsily.

The fight goes out of her, along with her breath.

Dazed and winded, she feels hands grasping her roughly and half-carrying, half-dragging her down the tunnel away from the sanitation chamber and her own sleep chamber. She is too confused to figure out which direction they take her.

At last, she feels her attackers pushing her up an incline. She panics. It must be the passageway to the Upground.

Why are they taking her there?

She tries to shout, but with the rag across her mouth she can only emit a high screech. She tries to shake herself free but the hands that hold her are too strong.

Can anyone hear her?

Can anyone help her?

Her shins bang and scrape against the rocks on the ground as they pull her up the passageway. She is still barefoot and wearing only the nightshirt she sleeps in.

She can feel the air warming as they drag her up from the underground and rise to what was once the entrance of the nickel mine where they have made their settlement.

Finally, they bring her to the opening. She can feel the full heat of the above-ground world through her thin clothes and the flimsy hood on her head.

She hears her attackers exchanging words with the entrance guards. Their voices are low and urgent, but she can’t make out what they are saying.

She is pulled over the rubble that surrounds the entrance. The jagged old concrete blocks, bricks, bent and burnt wood slats join with the remnants of old weeds and branches from the dead trees to cut and scrape her bare feet and legs as they pull her away from the settlement.

Disoriented, she has no idea how far they drag her. At one point, her attackers pick her up off the ground—she is old and malnourished and does not weigh much—and she feels them begin to trot with her.

They go on like that for what feels like hours.

When they finally stop, they let her fall to the ground and pull the hood from her head. It is still night, but the sun never sets in the far north where they live, so the sky is a dim golden color. The sun of early morning makes her squint so she still can’t tell who has taken her, but she hears them panting from the exertion of carrying her.

She lies on her back. Someone unties the rag from around her face. Her mouth is dry, cottony, bitter with the oily taste of the cloth. She tries to scream, protest, call for help, but her tongue doesn’t work and all that comes out is a hoarse croak.

A face looms close to her own. She sees it is Cyn, one of the security squad. Cyn cradles her head and holds a container of water to her mouth. Thankful, Mae drinks. It loosens her tongue enough for her to rasp, “Cyn, why do you do this?”

“Sorry, elder,” Cyn replies. She lets Mae’s head down and sets the water container on the ground beside her.

“Come,” another woman barks. “Leave her!”

Cyn gets up but Mae grabs at her cloak. “Wait!”

Cyn gently pries Mae’s hands free. The other woman now looms over Mae. Mae recognizes her as Meela, the leader of the security work group. In the light of early morning, Meela’s eyes are black, the color of pitch darkness underground.

Glowering down at Mae, Meela says, “Know this, elder Mae. You suffer banishment from the settlement by order of the Council of Elders.”

“No,” Mae protests, her voice still rough from the rag that was wound around her mouth. “That would never happen. Odile is the chief elder. She would never—”

Meela holds a hand up to cut Mae off. “Nay appeal,” she says, “nay protest. If you return, you will be dragged up.”

Killed.

“How can this be?” Mae asks. She is an elder herself, as well as Odile’s companion—when did the Council take this vote? She was present at the last secret meeting, and this never came up. How would Odile ever agree with it?

Mae tries to sit up, but Meela puts a foot on Mae’s shoulder and kicks her down flat onto the red dust of the ground.

“Come,” Meela orders Cyn.

“Cyn,” Mae cries, “nay go!”

The two women ignore Mae’s pleading. They jog away without looking back.

 

The Mysteries of Time Passing

I’m reading a book now called The Order of Time by an Italian theoretical physicist named Carlo Rovelli. Its subject is time (duh), and more specifically what contemporary physics has to say about our received notions about time.

Rovelli asks questions like, why do we remember the past and not the future, do we exist in time or does time exist in us, and what does it really mean to say “time passes?”

He talks about the ways in which modern physics has basically upended everything we thought we knew about time. Our beliefs that it flows uniformly, runs in a measurable course from a fixed past to an open future, and so on . . . all our assumptions about time are provably false, Rovelli claims.

The book examines how our ideas about time have crumbled, and what we are left with.

Fascinating stuff.

And yet, I think it’s fair to say that most of us still abide by those old verities of time. In this season particularly—when we count down the final days and hours of one year and look toward the beginning of a new year and the promises we hope it holds—we seem to be called to reflect on time. Not as an abstract concept of contemporary theoretical quantum physics, but in its more human aspect . . . we are drawn to think about how we used the time we had, what it meant for us, what we might do differently when we have the chances that (again, we hope) the coming year will allow us.

I’m especially fascinated by what I can only call the mysteries of time passing. I regret I don’t have a more nuanced vocabulary to describe what I mean here. This past year I turned 70, which has been more of an “uh-oh” milestone for me than I thought it would be. This year I’ve also been in touch with some friends whom I haven’t seen in decades, and even though I know intellectually that people age, it’s still a surprise to see how thirty or forty or fifty years turn dark hair white, expand thin waistlines, corrugate smooth skin . . . and seem to turn people I knew in their teens and twenties into their own grandparents.

One of my favorite photographers is a man named Milton Rogovin, who was an optometrist in Buffalo until he lost his profession when he was discredited by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the ‘50s. Then he became a social documentary photographer of people whom he called (as the title of one of his books says) “the forgotten ones” . . . working people whose lives were overlooked, as well as the poor and marginalized and immigrant communities who lived on the lower west side of Buffalo.

His genius was not only to focus his camera on those groups and reflect back to them the meaning of their own lives, but to return several years later to photograph them again, and then return years after that to photograph them once more.

His photos therefore take on an added temporal dimension. They become enormously moving documents that invite us to reflect on, among so many other things, what time does to people.

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One of the photos of his that I find most intriguing is the photo used for the cover of the book, The Forgotten Ones.

I love this photo. It’s  endlessly fascinating for me. I love the people and actions and setting it portrays; it continually invites me, as a writer, to enter into it imaginatively. It’s a partner to another photo of the same two men that Rogovin took years later, and the difference between the two is striking: youth and age, hope and despair, promise and failure.

I don’t have permission to post either the early or the late photo, but the one on the cover of the book is the early photo, so I feel pretty secure in posting that. My continued engagement with the photo resulted in the following poem, “Time Lapse.”

As I said, I don’t feel like I have the vocabulary to do justice to my thoughts and feelings about the mysteries of time passing, but in this poem I try to use language to catch something.

 

Time Lapse

(after a photograph by Milton Rogovin)

How is it possible to capture
a moment in a life—
and not just any moment, but
the instant before everything changes,
youth goes to age, future goes to past,
might do goes to have done?—
because here are Johnny Lee Wines
and his friend Ezekiel Johnson
paused on the cusp of their lived lives
caught in a black-and-white photograph
in a lower west side Buffalo bar
in their hats and cut-rate disco clothes
after working all day at the ice factory
doing the Kung Fu Fighting
in nineteen-seventy-three, at
eleven twenty-six p.m. exactly
(how do we know that, you ask?
so says the Genesee Beer clock
cocked between two crooked Genesee signs
on the painted particleboard wall
preserving this moment forever)
with Johnny the hopping happy one
the one with personality
saucy untroubled face looking off
cigarette in hand pointing out to
the future where they both head
and Zeke, he’s the quiet one
behind his square shades, grooving
in his own cool way but without
Johnny’s sassy pop in the reek
of cigarette smoke and old beer
though in the next jolting second
time will change them both forever
when Johnny shifts his willowy weight
from right foot to left, right-angled ankle unbends
and the dancer turns away, all put-on cheek still,
and Zeke (he’s still the cool one)
shifts his hips on the tawdry
checkered linoleum bar floor
where they dance in nineteen-seventy-three
(Everybody was kung fu fighting
Them cats was fast as lightning
)
and their short-lived convexity
will alter and propel them forward
into what future awaits them,
where two tired and portly men
will stand in the bleak Buffalo snow
years from now in another photo,
after all the fights, reunions,
exiles, returns, mistakes,
regrets, chances lost, found, and lost again,
Johnny’s face sad and bloated with woe,
Zeke’s youthful cool now equally absent
in his worn-out and broken body
two casualties of the mysteries of time passing
that release their power in the instant
after Johnny and Ezekiel
jumped into the upcoming.

© 2019 Donald Levin

still inside

The college in Detroit where I taught for twenty years is closing for good this week. As I’ve been reflecting back over my experiences there—twenty years is a long time—one event in particular stands out.

It concerns a sequence of eight poems I wrote, titled “still inside.”

I originally wrote these back in 2007. Every so often when I give poetry readings, I bring these out to read because they’re among my favorites. After all these years, I still find them tremendously moving, and my audiences usually do, too.

The poems are monologues written in the voice of a little girl who suffered, as the poems describe, every kind of bad luck a child can have.

The sequence is based on the situation of an actual little girl. The basic events in the poems are true—a baby was born as a twin, but suffered life-altering hypoxia because the medical staff didn’t know there were two babies and she stayed inside her mother too long. She was born into a world of poverty and disregard.

That much is true. The rest is “truly imagined.”

(As Marianne Moore said, poets should create “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”)

My stepdaughter is an attorney specializing in rights of the handicapped, and she’s the one who told me about this girl. The third poem in the sequence mentions an attorney who steps in because the little girl’s regular lawyer wouldn’t release enough money for her proper care; my stepdaughter is the one who intrudes to help the child. (The other attorney said to her, “What are you, an avenging angel?”)

The story of this little girl affected me for a long time, until it moved and saddened me to the point where I felt compelled to give her a voice that the circumstances of her short life had denied her.

I felt I had to bear witness to all she endured.

But I didn’t just want to focus on her sadness. My grandson Jamie was also born with a number of severe handicapping conditions, and everyone who came into contact with him during his own shortened life was profoundly transformed by his loving nature. I wanted to imaginatively imbue the little girl with some of Jamie’s indomitable spirit as a way of counteracting all the misfortunes of her life.

I had always thought these pieces could form the basis of a multi-media project consisting of words, music, art, and dance. I showed them to one of my friends and colleagues, Geoff Stanton, when we were both teaching at the college. Geoff is a phenomenal composer and musician, and he jumped at the chance to compose music for them.

StantonFriends2 copy 2The result was a stunning series of eight songs using the poems as lyrics set to music for two voices, piano, and cello. We presented them as part of one of Geoff’s annual concerts, and I was thrilled with the way they turned out. I’m including the poster for the event, left.

(As I write this, I don’t have a recording of the music available, or else I’d include a sample of that, too.)

As these things go, I haven’t moved my multi-media plans forward. Perhaps at some  point in the future they will come to pass.

Until then, I offer this sequence in the hope the pieces will affect you as much as they continue to affect me.

 

still inside 

by Donald Levin

i

another one

 

no doctor saw my momma

before we came

no exam no test

no money no thought

for another waiting

when it was time

it happened so fast

at the poor people’s hospital

my sister came quick

but after she was born

nobody knew

i was still there

awaiting my turn

quiet as i ever was

they turned away

to bathe and weigh the new one

and while i was waiting

i ran out of air

in the dark channel

of my momma’s narrow body

and it wasn’t till later

when she started screaming

that the nurses and doctors

caressing my sister

ran back

and discovered another one

still inside

and they did what they could

but the story of my life

was written by then

 

ii

absence of air

 

hypoxia

the doctors called it

to explain why my sister was good

and i was the bad one

right from the start

which meant no walking

or talking for me

though i could understood

what people would tell me

if only to hum in reply

and i did try to smile

if i thought it would help

which wasn’t often

though i cried at the seizures

that made me go stiff

and roll my eyes

and afterwards whimper

till i fell asleep

the medicine made me so

dizzy and tired

couldn’t see either

no sight in my eyes

except shapes and shadows

and the flashing lights of seizures

the only things i could see

retarded, they said

which probably i was

since i couldn’t learn

the way my sister did

who was always quick

even when she was born

she was the first

and i was last

 

iii

the house we lived in

 

momma bought with the money

they gave her for me

at first a lawyer handled the money

but wouldn’t give us enough

till another one made him

we never could have had

such a big house

there was supposed to be

a ramp and special bath

but momma never had it made

used the money for sofas

i was not allowed to sit on

so i couldn’t ruin them

by drooling which

i couldn’t stop

and she bought the other children

clothes there were two more

after me and my sister

so i stayed inside

for most of the time

and when a nurse came

to care for me

which wasn’t often

i was clean and dry

but when nobody came

i had to wait for gramma

who watched me when momma was out

but she didn’t always remember

so i stayed in my diaper

till it got so heavy with wet

she couldn’t lift me

or turn me over

when she finally remembered

so i had to stay still

inside my room

in pants that were heavy and wet

till someone remembered

and came to take care of me

but i was patient because

i was already such trouble

my momma told me

 

iv

school

 

when the bus came to take me

every morning

they would strap me inside

in my wheelchair

so i wouldn’t bounce

on the trip to school

with the driver and an aide

who cleared my throat

if i needed it

and when i got to school

my teachers were so happy

to see me

when they rolled me off the bus

they’d take my coat

and change my pants

and my teacher who is very tall

held my hands to say hello

and later they all sang

good morning to you

good morning to you

and sang about

my bright shining face

which i had because

i was so happy to see them too

every morning i also saw

my friend zach

who was in my class

and who liked me too

our teacher wheeled us together

so we could sit and hold hands

even though we couldn’t see

we felt each other’s hands

which were both crooked

because our muscles were so tight

but the touch of our fingers

twisted together

kept us warm

till it was time to go to music

which i also loved

 

v

momma always wanted

 

to be where she wasn’t

before we bought our house

we lived in different places

and she always wanted to be

someplace where we weren’t

when we moved to the city

from the town we were born in

she wanted to go back

to our old home town

and when she went back

at night to meet friends

she wanted to be back

inside our new big house

and when she was with us there

she yearned for jamaica

where she came from

she said she never was happy

since she left jamaica

if she had stayed there

she said her life would be

completely different

she must have been right

because i never remember

seeing her smile

or hearing her laugh

except when her friends were around

and i thought she must have

lots of friends

in jamaica

to miss it so much

 

vi

on valentines day

 

one year i got to eat chocolate

which i never had before

i never ate by my mouth

always got formula

through the button in my tummy

when i tasted the chocolate

i couldn’t breathe

gramma called an ambulance

momma wasn’t home

and gramma had to stay

with the other children

so I went by myself

to the hospital

they said i couldn’t breathe

because i was allergic to

peanuts in the chocolate

they gave me medicine

which i was also allergic to

the doctor gave me something else

that worked this time

and i could breathe again

so he sent me home

but i couldn’t breathe again

at home my throat closed

so i had to go back

in the ambulance

the doctor wanted to put

something in my throat

a little hole

an always open o

so i could keep breathing

but he couldn’t do it

without momma’s permission

and nobody knew where she was

so the doctor called the lawyers

in charge of my money

they must have said sure

go ahead then the doctor said

well you know

this will be permanent

it’ll mean round the clock care

from now on

it will mean a nursing facility

it will be pretty expensive

i just wanted you to know

he listened

and hung up

and told the nurses

who were holding my hand

her trust won’t fund the care she’d need

let’s try something else

he sent me home

with a machine

to suction my throat

and now when the mucous

collects in my throat

i get suctioned

if anybody’s there to do it

the lawyers must have said

they would pay for it

but somebody has to remember

to suction me

which doesn’t always happen

and i wind up coughing

until i can spit out the mucous

and sometimes i can

but sometimes i can’t

and i just have to lay there

and cough and cough

 

vii

sailing

 

my momma didn’t want

nursing care for me

didn’t want people around

telling her how to take care

of her daughter

but once when a nurse came

her name was nancy

she took care of me for a while

brought a big boat

and hung it from the ceiling

i couldn’t see it

except as a blur

but she described it

it was different colored ribbons

like a rainbow

with sails so big

when the breeze blew in

when the windows were open

in the warm weather

nancy said the boat would float

back and forth like a real boat

sailing on the waves

of the ocean

and after the company

nancy worked for took her away

to care for another child like me

who they said needed her

more than i did

she left my boat

hanging in my room

and when i laid in bed at night

waiting to be turned over

i would think about the boat

waving in the breeze

and pretend i was the captain

sailing around the world

on my boat of colored ribbons

and everywhere i went

people would wave

and clap as i sailed by

 

viii

still, inside

 

though everyone did

the best they could

i was not to live long

scoliosis twisted my spine

like a cane’s bent handle

in my fifth year

and as it curved around itself

my organs compressed

till one day

my lungs couldn’t move

enough air

and all my spit pooled

in the back of my throat

and i inhaled it

and got pneumonia

a speck of mucous

was all it took

hidden like a grain of sand

in my chest

the bright red ring of sickness

pearled around it

and because i couldn’t rise

or blow it away

the infection overwhelmed me

and the fever

made my seizures so bad

i couldn’t breathe at all

and before anyone knew

to call the ambulance

i died

but at my funeral

everyone came to say goodbye

momma my sister my gramma

the rest of the family

the lawyers and doctors and nurses

who took care of me

and i could feel them all

standing crying

over my coffin

as i lay still

inside

 

©2019 Donald Levin

 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Revising

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Whether you’re just coming down from an adrenaline-fueled National Novel Writing Month high or you’ve been working at a more leisurely pace, at some point (if you stick with it) you’ll write “The End” on that first draft of your novel.

Good on ya! Feels great, doesn’t it?

So . . . now what?

Now comes what some authors (me included) consider to be THE crucial part of the entire process: revising. Here is where your book really comes together and you polish (or maybe discover) your unique vision and its execution.

I once read a good analogy for the first draft: its purpose is to get all the sand into the sandbox, so you can then start building your castle.

Your first draft is your raw material. It’s the revising that turns it into a book.

Sadly, there’s no magic formula for revision. It always depends upon what’s on the page and what you’re striving for, as well as your own background and experience.

In this brief post, I can’t cover the specifics of how to revise. There are literally hundreds of books, articles, checklists, and blog posts out there that will tell you exactly what and how to revise.

Sometimes these are helpful, sometimes not.

From my 20+ years of experience as a writer and another 20+ years as a teacher of writing, I’ve found there are some things that are helpful for writers to keep in mind about revising, as well as some critical mistakes that writers make when they try to revise.

Here’s my take on what those are.

1. Take a break.

It doesn’t do to jump right into revising when the draft is still hot. The general wisdom is to let the draft sit for a while, and in this instance the general wisdom is correct. Though your impulse might be to turn around and start in on the next version, let it cool down from the heat of composition. Take a break. Catch your breath. Clear your head. Reduce your sleep debt. Reintroduce yourself to your family. You need distance before you can move on.

IMG_0742
Some authors like a little help from their friends when they revise.

2. Remember what you’re up to.

Revising literally means “re-seeing.” You’re taking another look at your work with an eye toward making it as good as it can be. Some people distinguish between revising and rewriting; they say revising means working with the draft you have, whereas rewriting means tossing it all and starting over. I tend to conflate the two because I do some of both.

Revising is sparked by a conscious and critical assessment of a draft’s meaning, significance, and potential. It’s different from composing. And here’s where your reading background makes a real difference in how you approach your work; the more you’ve read, the more you’ll understand how your novel can (and should) take its place among the ongoing conversation of literature.

3. Remember what you’re NOT up to.

Revising does not mean either copyediting or proofreading. These are both key elements of bringing your work to completion, but they just get in the way if you do them too early.

Copyediting means bringing your draft into conformity with conventions of format, grammar, spelling, and punctuation; those tasks aren’t important now. “Proofreading” means reading a proof of your book and marking any typos or errors in grammar, style, or punctuation.

Neither of those help you with the substantive intellectual and creative act of revising. Sometimes a writer’s tendency is to start the work of revising at that level, thinking you’ll work up to the big stuff. Correcting those simple errors at the sentence level might feel good and make it seem as if you’re off to a good start.

But if that’s your impulse, you have to block it. Save that for the end. It’s just going to keep you from the real work you have to do, of “re-seeing” what you’ve written.

4. Start at the top and work down.

This doesn’t mean simply starting at the beginning. Rather, I’ve found it’s helpful to think about revising as a series of activities that move from the macro level (that is, the story level) to the micro level (the level of sentence structure and word choice). Even if you like to plunge into revising with a kind of “all-at-onceness” approach, consider these as conceptual guides for how you approach your project:

a. Revise for story structure and major plot points.

The story is the skeleton of your novel—what keeps it standing and moving. At this stage, you’re rethinking or even discovering the purpose of the book, what it is that drives the telling of the story, and sharpening the focus that gets your reader engaged.

Many authors look at their drafts in terms of “story beats”—that is, the key points of action that form the plot. These can be helpful, but even if you don’t think of the story in those terms, there will be high points of action or emotion that you should be aware of and craft for.

b. Revise for structure and development.

These are the muscles and tendons of your book. I like to think of this stage as being broken into different parts: character (thinking about character arcs, character development, dialogue, and character descriptions), scenes (sharpening scenes, pacing within and between scenes, and transitions), setting (describing the locations in time and place where your story unfolds), and point of view (clarifying the narrative voice through which the story is told).

c. Revising for sentence and word-level clarity.

This is the skin—the surface of the book. Here is where you plunge into sentence- and word-level revising, looking for improvements in style (making your writing more graceful and flowing) and clarity (making the writing more accessible to the audience).

Or not . . . if grace and clarity are not what you’re going for, then it’s good to know that, too.

This comes at the end of the process of revising for good reason. Why take time to correct an error or polish a sentence that might not make it to the final version? Also, when you revise a sentence, there’s a tendency to think, Yup, that sentence is done, which will make you less likely to edit it out if it doesn’t work.

IMG_06085. The basics matter.

If the previous suggestions sound like the elements of fiction that you might have learned in a creative writing course or workshop, that’s no accident. These form the core of your revising strategy because they form the basics of fiction.

As a certified Cranky Old Guy, I strongly believe that success as a fiction writer—or a poet or dramatist or essayist (or artist or musician or lawyer or engineer or anything, really)—means having control over the basics of your craft.

For the fiction writer, these elements of fiction—story, plot structure, character, point of view, language—are the foundations of your novel. And when we talk about revising, those are the elements to focus on. Learning about them takes time and effort, but the results repay that time.

Just as you can’t write a symphony without ever hearing one and knowing how it’s put together, you can’t write or revise your novel without knowing what the possibilities are for you. The more tools and understanding you have at your disposal, the more options you’ll have when it comes to the immensely complicated tasks associated with writing.

Despite its importance, I know some people find revising tedious, and approach it as an onerous chore. I would argue that revising is more important than the actual process of composition. Personally, I find it to be enormously satisfying, requiring you to marshal all your skills and talents and creativity. I hope you will find it so, too.

NoNoWriMo

As I write this, we are well into November, the month known in writing circles as NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. It’s an annual, voluntary event in which writers sign up to work like crazy to finish the draft of a 50,000-word novel during the month of November.

All kinds of activities, tips, progress milestones, contests, camps, and supports are available for writers who take part.

UnknownIf you’re interested, there’s more information here: https://www.nanowrimo.org.

As you can tell from the website, what started in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1999 with 20 people who, as the founder has said, “wanted to write novels for the same dumb reasons twentysomethings start bands,” has since grown into a monster 501(C)(3) nonprofit extravaganza, with local chapters, competitions, and other activities to help writers start and finish the draft of a book.

I have seriously mixed feelings about it.

On the one hand, I totally understand why people want to take part. Every writer has her own reasons; jumping into a novel is daunting, and finishing it is even harder. Something that helps you get started and keeps you going till the end can be helpful and necessary.

And the sheer pressure of the mass of other people who are doing it, too, can be comforting, even inspiring.

And it does work. The web site lists some of the well-known books—some best-sellers—that resulted from NaNoWriMo.

I know several people who take part in it. If you’re one of them, I wish you well, along with all the other tens of thousands of participants.

On the other hand, I know that I would never take part, even if it had been available when I started out trying to become a writer, way back in the pre-word processing days when typewriters roamed the Earth.

Challenging myself to write a novel of a predetermined length in a set time-frame is just not how I work, and it’s not how I believe novels (or, indeed, anything) should be written.

cnkdgibddso94ybusv6kI know, it’s a cranky thing to say.

When I’m in the drafting phase of a book, I’m writing every day, just as NaNoWriMo participants do. But for me, a novel unfolds itself in its own time (it “glideth at his own sweet will,” to use the wonderful phrase from Wordsworth). I need to give it (and myself) time for that unfolding and gliding to happen.

This includes time to let the plot go off in directions that may or may not not be useful; time to let ideas and characters develop and realign; time for “Aha!” moments when I figure out what the novel, or a scene, really wants to be about; time to struggle with decisions and revisions; time to think about where the book is going; or time to let it glide along where ever it wants to while I trail behind, trying to get it all down.

While I understand the purpose is to have a draft that can be revised and reworked, if I were writing with one eye on the calendar and the other on my ultimate word count, I know none of what needs to happen would happen.

Maybe some people can pull it off. I can’t.

I’ve often said that the most important thing about a first draft is that it gets done, but I know in my heart that’s not entirely true. Yes, it’s important to get it done, but it’s also important to respect—and enjoy—the process. The novel you’re working on may (and probably will) need to be longer than 50,000 words (possibly several times longer), yet if you’re aiming for 50,000 just to be able to say you did it, then you’re not being fair to the novel that you should be writing.

Additionally, while I understand that writing the draft of a novel is hard, for me it’s also a singular, solitary, even (dare I say) holy activity. Sorry, but I don’t believe if a writer is truly called to the profession, she or he should need to be part of a competition with others to write the same number of words on the same days at the same time of year.

Like I said: cranky.

NaNoWriMo reminds me of those HGTV shows that give themselves an artificial deadline for finding, remodeling, and selling a house. Sure, it adds drama (30 days till the open house! Now 29! Now 28! Now 27 and the roof needs replacing!), but it’s an artificial drama ginned up by the fake pressure of a reality show. Even the producers of those shows admit they’re rigged.

Finally, the last—and maybe most important—thing that bothers me about NaNoWriMo is the heartbreaking number of admissions I’ll start to see around now by people who fell behind in their word counts or otherwise had to end their attempts because life got in their way. I feel badly for them; their disappointment is real, and I empathize with it.

But I want to tell them, Don’t worry, this really isn’t how it has to be done.

If you disagree with any of this, I salute you, and respect your difference of opinion. If you’re in NaNoWriMo this year, and it works for you, I wish you all the best. I get it.

If you have to drop out, or decided not to take part because it’s contrary to your thoughts about how writing should happen—well, I get that, too.