Revision: How A Book Gets Better

So, I’m pretty sure this is a good book that I’m writing.  I mean, I don’t know for sure that it’s publishable, especially in the current condition, but I know it’s at least almost there.

And it’s getting better.

I’m now in Chapter 3 of the revision pass.  Last night, I saw that I ended one scene with the character leaping onto a vehicle and heading off to pick someone up, and then in the next scene, I begin when he gets there.  In reading these scenes, I realized that there’s a problem, and it’s kind of a big one:  The character makes a life-changing decision in the space between scenes.

Well, that’s clearly not going to work.  So I started writing what Jim Butcher calls a “sequel,” that is, a quiet scene in which the character reacts emotionally to the previous scene, works through his possible options, and makes choices.  They also allow (and even encourage) the reader to connect emotionally to the character.

In the process, I added several hundred words.  And I’m not even finished, yet.

It’s this ability to easily insert the scene that is why I love Scrivener so much.  Sure, I could do the same thing in Word or some other word processing software, but the way that Scrivener makes it easy is really something, and it doesn’t require me to reformat anything, move any text, or anything other than insert the scene where I want it and write.

The most important thing about this, though, has nothing to do with the tool I’m using.  It’s that even recognizing the lack means that I’m getting better as a writer.

And that’s precious.  That’s what I got from Viable Paradise, and it’s why I’ll keep telling people to apply until the day VP stops happening (may that day never come!).

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RIP, Leonard Nimoy

Farewell, Spock.  As the New York Times is reporting, he passed away this morning.

Nimoy, and more specifically his alter-ego in Star Trek, was important to me as a kid. I had a TON of anger issues, and the Vulcan was an inspiration on how to control myself.

See, in the lore of Star Trek, Vulcans don’t actually lack emotion–they are, in fact, deeply emotional, but in a profoundly dangerous way, quick to act on negative emotions. In their history, a man arose who espoused a way to control these negative emotions.

To a kid suffering from massive anger issues, this was a good thing. Spock’s fictional example of controlling his emotions even while maintaining and cultivating deep and meaningful friendships with his fellow crew helped me to find a way to suppress my negative impulses, while not going “full robot” and suppressing ALL emotion.

Beyond that, Nimoy was a kind soul, and a good man, and the world is poorer for his passing. I’m glad I met him.

Nimoy dealt with his share of angst regarding his most famous role. He famously published his autobiography in the 1970s, titled I Am Not Spock, in which he lamented the shadow cast on his work by the famous character. Later in life, he published a second version, this time titled I Am Spock, in which he described coming to terms with the fact that he would be forever known for Spock, and accepting that it brought as much joy as irritation into his life.

RIP, Leonard Nimoy. You were far more than Spock.

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Revision Is a Beast With Too Many Teeth

So I began revising The Damn Book.

Damn this book.

I went into the revision process knowing I would have to jettison and rewrite one chapter that just didn’t work.  And I knew I wanted to insert a few “interludes” that would show what daily life in the Empire is like for humans.  What I didn’t expect was finding so many little details that just bother me, and need to be fixed.

I don’t know how other people do revision, but here’s my method:  I read through the story as if I was just reading for fun, find things I want to fix, and fixing them as I go.  It’s not the slowest thing in the world, but it isn’t the fastest, either.  I find myself constantly going back in the narrative, looking to make sure things are coherent, checking to make sure what I think is the standing reality of the story is actually making sense with what I did last week.

The one nagging problem I’ve got is that I’m wondering why I insisted on writing this in first person.  I think Book 2, should it come to be, will move beyond first person and start showing some of the other possible viewpoints.

The work proceeds, but it’s slow–less because of methodology and more because of life and work events that preclude writing time.  My wife is dealing with some debilitating pain from an unspecified cause, which means I’ve been handling more than my usual share of child-related responsibilities.

And of course there’s the day job.  I had been all caught up with grading, but I’ve gotten behind again, largely thanks to idiotic administrative decisions that have necessitated me doing the vast majority of scutwork I used to be able to delegate to student aides, leaving me less and less time for the rather intensive work of grading essays.

My goal at this point is to get this book finished before I leave for my Scotland trip, which gives me four months.  I should be able to do that, right?

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The Real Cost of Teaching

These are all real kids I’ve taught.  They’re not the majority, of course.  The vast majority of students come, do OK in school, and graduate.  No, these are the ones who stick out in my memory.

James was a freshman who didn’t think there was any point to school.  He wouldn’t do his homework no matter how many times his teachers called home, gave him detention, or offered to help.  He wouldn’t do his classwork unless the teacher stood over him the entire time.  And sometimes, he liked to scream “Fuck you!” at the teacher so he could get sent out of class.  James’ parents did nothing to help him, and were barely ever home, often leaving on trips to Las Vegas or Reno, leaving him to himself.

Alyssa was a bright girl, and tried her best–but once she got home, she was expected to take care of three elementary-aged children while her mother went to work.  She hadn’t seen her father in fifteen years.  Her friends said that if she did too well in school, she was “acting White.” They mocked her constantly.  She tried anyway, determined to get out of poverty.  But her homework was less than stellar, because she was too tired when she finally got around to it at 10 or 11pm that she couldn’t do her best work.  Against all odds, she graduated high school. College, however, has eluded her.

Elliot was a bright kid who got As in every class. But he knew that the California State Tests cannot, by state law, affect his grades, so he didn’t even try to do his best work on the test.  He answered the obvious questions, and randomly bubbled in answers on any question he didn’t know the answer to before he looked at the choices.

Roman was from Ukraine.  He barely spoke English, and couldn’t read it well enough to do well in any class.

Rose was from Armenia. Not only was her English sub-standard, but she was borderline mentally handicapped, and she’d never been in school until she came to America at age 14. She simply couldn’t earn above a D in any class in high school,  but her parents didn’t want her in classes where she could have gotten extra help.   They’re afraid the stigma of special education would mean she couldn’t find a husband in their closed-off immigrant community.

Clint dealt drugs, from pot to meth.  He thought that was the way he was going to become rich, and he didn’t care that he was destroying lives, including his own.  He got kicked out of school at 14 because he was caught selling on school property.  His parents tried to fight the expulsion on the grounds that he was just “trying to support his family.”

Veronica’s first words to me, on the first day of school, were “Fuck you.”  She was in 6 fights in three months of high school, resulting in five 5-day suspensions and, at the last, expulsion.  The last one was so bad, three police units responded to the call, and the kid whose head she kicked repeatedly ended up in the hospital for more than a week with head trauma.  Her father watched the video of her kicking the kid in the head and tried to defend her on the grounds that a) the other kid deserved it, and b) we couldn’t really see his daughter’s face on the video, so how did we know it was really her?  Why did the fight start?  Because the other kid was wearing blue.

Brenda hadn’t seen her father since she was six years old, when her brother killed him in self defense right in front of her. She was a sweet young lady, but prone to anger and full of pain.  She did what she could, but her grades were always middle of the road.  When I last heard from her, she’d given up on college.

This is the real cost of teaching. We want to help them, but the reality is that there is only so much we can do, and for some, it simply isn’t enough.  No matter how we try, we cannot make up for all the crap they have to deal with.

So you do what you can.  You take what minor victories you can.  And you try not to let it destroy you.  Some days are awful.  Some are OK.  A very, very few are good.

But at the end of the day, I’m not sure I want to do this anymore.

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Against all better judgment, I like Z Nation

So, I’ve been watching the Sci Fi Channel’s new show Z Nation,* and I’m actually enjoying it.

I mean, yes, this is from Asylum Studios, which has mostly been making direct-to-video low budget movies.  This show has slightly more budget than their usual crap, but still is low-budget compared to something like the walking dead.

The show is set three years into yet another zombie apocalypse, as a small band of survivors meet a man who is seemingly immune to the zombie virus just outside of New York City.  They take on the task of getting him to the last known surviving lab, in California, when his existing protection dies.

The show has its share of depressing stuff, and also a fair share of corny nonsense and low-budget moments, but it also has something that The Walking Dead doesn’t: it has hope.

The characters on Z Nation aren’t just waiting to die, and scrambling to survive in a world with no hope.  They’ve got a chance at a cure, and even if that doesn’t pan out, they have (so far as I’ve gotten into the episodes) a sense that if they stick together, and do what’s right, they’ll be better off.

Don’t get me wrong, I love The Walking Dead.  But it sometimes gets to me, how little hope they have, in a world where survival is the best they can hope for.  In real life, that group would be dour and horrible to travel with.  I’d much rather travel with the people of Z Nation, who can be badass but also find humor in their situation, who can bond with other human beings and recognize the dangers of the zombies and of other survivors, but also feel hope and happiness even as they’re killing zombies.

And this doesn’t make the show a total lightfest, either–just after my first draft of this went live, I watched my favorite character die.  Stupid zombie shows.

It’s just got more light.  So I’ll keep watching.  And I’ll keep watching TWD, too, but for different reasons.  There’s room in my brain for both kinds of stories.

*I refuse to call it Syfy, and the show isn’t, strictly speaking, new, because it just arrived on Netflix.  I think it began in September 2014.

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VP Novel First Draft: DONE

Yep.  I did it.

Not the first novel-length thing I’ve done, but certainly the first that has ANY chance of being seen by other people.  Lots of work remains before that point, however.  I need a revision pass, then beta readers, and then another revision pass.  Then I’ll consider submitting it to agents.

This may not be the novel to get my career started, but I’m going to give it a shot.

I owe thanks to my Viable Paradise instructors, who enkindled in me the confidence to work on this novel with purpose, and not just fart around with it every once in a while, as I did before VP.

I owe thanks to my fellow students of Viable Paradise 17, who have steadfastly encouraged me and commiserated with me over the last year or so.  I realize I have a tendency toward the dramatic, but it is no exaggeration that without their encouragement, I may well have given up the very idea of being a writer over the past year, as I have so many times before.

Let this serve as encouragement to friends and other fellow writers who might be thinking of applying to VP: It’s well worth the money.  All in all, the week at VP cost me about $2000, between airfare, my room cost, and tuition.  And it was worth every single penny, and more beside, because not only did I get a chance to hobnob with people whose writing I’ve adored for years, but I got encouraging advice and critique from editors who are near, if not at, the top of their field, but I met 23 people who will be friends for years to come.

Viable Paradise 19 will be held 18-23 October, 2015.  Applications are accepted until 15 June 2015.  Go to www.viableparadise.net for details.

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In Which My Writer Brain Surprises Me, and I Wax Celebratory Over It.

My 10th graders are doing an in-class essay exam today.  And I’m all caught up with grading and planning.  So I opened my laptop and started writing.

I’ve been stuck in this battle for days–weeks, even.  I’ll get 300 words out if I’m lucky, and that takes HOURS.

Today I opened, looked at the screen, thought for about thirty seconds on what could happen next, and got a wide-eyed look of “Of course!” and started typing.

I drive a 2007 VW Passat that has a turbo engine.  It’s no supercar, but one of the things I love to do–more than I ought to love it–is to floor the gas and feel the power of the turbo accelerating to freeway speed, or to pass someone.  I’m not even a car guy, and I freaking love doing this.  This car has power.

Just now?  My brain felt like that.  Once I knew what I wanted to do, what made sense, the words just flowed.  That happens so rarely that it’s like a drink of cool spring water after hours of working in 100+ heat (Fahrenheit, of course; I’m an American).

And the best part is that I’m not even done.  I had to quit because in five minutes a new class is coming in, and I have to actually teach, but my lunch will be me taking a quick look at the notes I just wrote down and flying.  And then this afternoon I’ll get some more writing in before it’s time to pick my daughter up from her basketball practice.

Actually?  That’s not the best part.  It’s great, but the best part is that what’s happening right now in the scene?  The moment that will engage the Protagonist in the last desperate actions that will save his ass?  I never saw it coming.  It came out of left field, and it ties directly into stuff from an earlier scene I was afraid might not work, and ties it into his larger journey as well–and even dips into some of my favorite techno-spiritual ideas.

I love my brain when it works.

While I’m here, I’m going to thank my Viable Paradise 17 Instructors, who gave me the courage to trust my writer self when it does this.  Before VP I might have said “No, it’s dumb, it won’t work.”  Now I know I can trust myself.

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