Sunday, September 5, 2010

A scary post...edits/openings

This blog post is to explain how I revise and why. Maybe it will add something to your writing repertoire, maybe it won't but either way...enjoy.

Here's what I want to say first: it's my experience that when you write, you have to write the Anne Lamott "Shi**y First Draft." If you don't know what I am talking about and you consider yourself a reader or a writer STOP EVERYTHING and READ THIS LINK. Only then can you come back to this post. Keep in mind, I did not scan this, do not know the people who own this site but it's a pdf of "Shitty First Drafts" from Lamott's Bird by Bird and that's good enough for me.

http://www.orcutt.net/othercontent/sfds.pdf

You need to turn off the internal censor and just write the damn thing. Later, when you're deeper into the revising process, it really is the word choice that matters and psychic distance. Psychic distance, defined by John Gardner, is the distance your reader feels to the story, characters, etc. Those words that you choose either shorten or lengthen your reader's psychic distance to your story.

Here is the original opening of Infinite Days (keep in mind this is rough as I never revised or edited it):

Lovers Bay, Massachusetts - Present Day

When I awoke, I immediately felt a cold surface on my left cheek. An icy shiver rushed down my spine. Even with my eyes closed, I could tell I was naked, stomach down on a hardwood floor. I tried to open my eyes but with each flutter of my lashes there was a flash of blinding light. Then another. And another. Each time, I was blasted with a relentless gleam.
I writhed back and forth on the floor, covering my body with my hands. I was sure that I must be weak. Understand that I am not the type of person to find herself naked and alone. Especially in a situation where sunlight shines down on my body. Yet, there I was, bathed in yellow light, sure that I was moments away from a painful, fiery death - I had to be. I knew that flames would erupt from within my soul and turn me into dust. I had been screaming. Yet, nothing happened. No flames or imminent death. There was only the smell of the oak in the floor. I swallowed and the muscles in my throat contracted. My mouth was wet with... saliva! My chest rested on the floor. I pressed down on my palms and craned my neck to look up at the source of my torment.
Luminous daylight streamed down from a circular, glass ceiling. The sky was a sapphire blue. I moved to my knees, then to my feet and stood up. The floor was so cold that another chill shot up through my body. I backed slowly toward the walls in an attempt to somehow hide from the sunlight now peeking through the clouds. Across the room, resting on a bay window seat was small, folded, black cloth and a clear bottle filled with what appeared to be water. Slow breaths, I told myself out of instinct. Then it hit me - breath was filling my lungs and I could feel it moving throughout my body.
My nostrils flared and my chest heaved. The air rushed through my cheeks, into my throat and down into my lungs. I hugged my arms around my body. With my back pressed against the wall, I took another breath to calm myself and finally surveyed the room. It was shaped like a circle with one wooden door. To my left was a window seat but the shade was drawn. My eyes darted back toward the door and I noticed a simple pull lock, locked from the inside. Directly above it was a small, white piece of paper with my name scrawled in a deliberate script:
Lenah
I almost threw myself at the door. I recognized that handwriting. I ripped the note off and unfolded the paper. The paper was so different, soft to the touch. Like a bed-sheet. Like the ones in my home. The last memory I had before waking up in this circular sun spot was at my castle on the English moors. One hundred years before, I had stood on the base of a hill, in a brilliant, green gown and told Rhode of my desires, my deepest desires, what I believed all vampires truly wanted. I unfolded the paper.

Come to the Wickham Boarding School. Seeker Hall. Room 50. Go left out of this building onto Main Street. You are in a small town in a very small library. Do not be afraid. I will explain everything. Put on the clothes behind you.
- Rhode

Before I folded the note, I noticed one more line at the very bottom of the thin page.

Happy 16th Birthday.


Sure the initial opening is the same but as you continue into the scene the distance between you, the reader, and Lenah lengthens. I mean, I like some of that writing. In fact, I thought it was pretty good! But Lenah is very much in her head as she is in the opening of the present version yet Rhode speaks to Lenah, talks to her directly. I brought the scene into the present action.

Here is the conversation between Lenah and Rhode in the final version in the opening chapter:

A door somewhere near me opened and closed. I heard a wobbling step, an uneven shuffle then Rhode’s black, buckle boots stepped into my eye line. I rolled onto my back and looked up at the ceiling. Gasping. My God – was I breathing?
Rhode loomed over me but he was a blur. He leaned forward so his hazy features were within inches of my face. Then there he was, as though coming out of a mist, looking as I had never seen him before. The skin over Rhode’s cheekbones stretched so tight it looked as though his bones would break through. His usually full and proud chin was now a thin point. But the blue of his eyes – they were the same. Even in the haze of that moment they pierced me, down to my soul.
“Fancy meeting you here,” Rhode said. Despite black bruises that ringed his eyes, a twinkle, from somewhere deep within looked back at me. “Happy sixteenth birthday,” he said and extended a hand.


More immediate, right? But here's a confession for you.

"I heard a wobbling step, an uneven shuffle then Rhode’s black, buckle boots stepped into my eye line."

I wish I could delete "I heard" from that sentence because it lengthens the psychic distance between you and Lenah. She says she hears the wobbling step instead of just "hearing" it. Because Lenah tells us instead of experiencing it directly, the telling distances us from the direct experience.

But then again I would lose the languid rhythm of that sentence with the inclusion of the words, "I heard." Sigh, this is exhausting!! Rhythm matters. Short/long sentences matter. It should matter to you.

Anyway, back to plot. Instead of reading a note from Rhode, Lenah and Rhode talk and interact. They have a conversation about the location and era:

My heartbeat echoed in my ears. I could taste the air. As I walked the muscles in my thighs and calves seemed to burn, twitch and then relax. In order to stop shaking, I rested my body weight on the doorway and crossed my hands over my chest.
“What century is this?” I asked closing my eyes and taking a breath.
“The twenty-first,” Rhode said. His black hair, which reached halfway down his back the last time I saw him, had been cut short and now stood up in a spiky hairstyle. Around his right wrist was a white, medical bandage. Rhode gripped a side table and lowered himself into a crimson-colored lounge seat.


Here's another scene from the original opening. Lenah wakes up in a solarium in a library:

“Damn it, Rhode!” I spat out.
I heaved the solarium door open and descended down a dark stairwell until I reached another door. The stairwell was utterly black especially compared to the solarium but somehow my eyes did not need a moment to adjust. I could see perfectly fine in the dark. Except, if I were human, didn’t my eyes need to adapt from light to dark? After 592 years as a vampire I remembered that fact and a twinge of panic tingled in my stomach but I continued down the stairwell anyway.
I opened the second door that led out of the stairwell and on the other side was a dowdy, old woman staring at me with wide, watery eyes. She wore a cotton dress with no sleeves. It was decorated with yellow flowers. Her palm covered her mouth and her eyes were wide. Behind her was a great hall filled with shelves of books. Arched windows with shined plate glass showed morning sunlight in the room behind her and I could see a tree-lined street. When she took her hand away she asked,
“Were you screaming? I was just coming up for you.”
“You scared me,” I said quite plainly. I knew this didn’t make sense but I said it anyway. I cocked my head to the side. She seemed to be angry and inquisitive at the same time. My usual instinct when meeting a stranger would have been to take my hands, reach up to her neck and break it, but for some odd reason the feeling never came. This both intrigued and horrified me.
Behind the woman was the main foyer of a library. A light blue pulsation caught my eye. Glowing boxes sat atop two wooden desks! Later, I would find out these were called computers. Directly to the right of the computers was a door. Above it was a lighted sign that said in red letters, EXIT.
“Why were you in the solarium? It’s always locked and it’s eight a.m. The library hasn’t even opened yet. How did you get up there?” She threw question after question, a few of which I would have like answered myself. The fact that I woke up in a strange place was no surprise to me. Typical Rhode. He loved dramatics.
“Well?” the woman asked, pressing me for an answer.
I had to think logically. Okay, I thought. This woman is speaking to me in English. This either meant I was in England or the Americas.
“Where am I?”
“What?” the woman asked. “You’re - you’re in Lovers Bay Public library.”
“I gathered that, you fool. Is this England or America?”
“A- America,” she said though I could tell her annoyance had turned a bit. I now could sense the fear. Part of me was overjoyed I was making this woman fearful - giving way to a terror inside. Yet, most of me just wanted to get out of there. A desire to leave a victim? This was also a first and not something I was expecting.
“What century is this?” I commanded of the old woman.
“I beg your pardon?” The woman peeked over my shoulder at the black stairwell. I suppose she was looking to see if I was alone.
“What century is this?” I asked again.
“Well, it’s the 21st,” she replied.
The 21st century; he had done it. I clenched my jaw tight and could feel my back teeth pressing down on one another. It had been 100 years. 100 years since I was last conscious and awake.
“Damn it, Rhode!” I said again and stalked toward the double door exit. And with that, I deliberately pushed out into the sunlight.

So we waste all this time with Lenah and a librarian when easily, Lenah and Rhode could just speak to one another in Lenah's Wickham Boarding School. But I think we should break this down even farther (by the way that editorial choice was a suggestion by my amazing agent, I do not own credit there).


Old version:


When I awoke, I immediately felt a cold surface on my left cheek. An icy shiver rushed down my spine. Even with my eyes closed, I could tell I was naked, stomach down on a hardwood floor. I tried to open my eyes but with each flutter of my lashes there was a flash of blinding light. Then another. And another. Each time, I was blasted with a relentless gleam.

Final Version:

I release you….

I release you, Lenah Beaudonte.

Believe…and be free.

Those were the last words I could remember. But they were formless, said by someone whose voice I did not recognize. It could have been ages ago.
When I awoke, I immediately felt a cold surface on my left cheek. An icy shiver rushed down my spine. Even with my eyes closed, I knew I was naked, stomach down on a hardwood floor.


In the final version, you (the reader) are reading the ritual though you don't know that yet. You are also hearing Rhode's voice (though you don't know that yet either). These sentences are also fragments which draw the eye down and quickly!

I release you, I release you, Lenah Beaudonte. Believe and be free.

These words are without context. So not only are you confused about who and where this narrator is in the space/time continuum but the narrator is as well. She has no clue where she is, so you and the narrator experience the same emotions and confusion at the same time. Hopefully, this shortens the psychic distance and draws you in even closer.

Am I making any sense? Either way, choice, word choice, sentence length and structure are important when revising. Hopefully this post was illuminating. Or killed some time. Maybe you just skimmed to the end? Which in that case, hey again!

3 comments:

Carolin said...

I really loved this. Thanks for sharing, Rebecca. =) It is an eye opener to what you have to look for during revisions. And the scenes are so much better for it!

Amy said...

I thought this was extremely helpful for us aspiring writers. Thanks Rebecca!!

Riv Re said...

Very helpful. Thanks!I didn't really get it in the beginning, but when you talked about Lenah saying "I heard" I got it. The reader doesn't need to be told that Lenah heard something, we gather that already, as we're experiencing what Lenah is going through.
Am *I* making any sense?
Towards the end, you made the reader and Lenah both confused about the time and place. That's brilliant!!!

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