Saturday, February 24, 2007

Black History Month...

Is almost over...and I don't want to miss my chance to talk about one of my all time favorite writers. This month I treated myself to Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon. (other great reads: Beloved and The Bluest Eye. I hope to read all of her work at some point...she's that terrific.)

I finished reading Solomon just a few minutes ago, and the tears are not quite dry. It's simply beautiful. The way she twists a plot together, the tiny links that make you go aha! and flip back 100 pages. Secrets and shimmers...and it all plays so well. Her language kills me. Toni, I love you because you write like this:

The calculated violence of a shark grew in her, and like every witch that ever rode a broom straight through the night to a ceremonial infanticide as thrilled by the black wind as by the rod between her legs; like every fed-up-to-the-teeth bride who worried about the consistency of the grits she threw at her husband as well as the potency of the lye she had stirred into them; and like every queen and every courtesan who was struck by the beauty of her emerald ring as she tipped its poison into the old red wine, Hagar was energized by the details of her mission. She stalked him.
Takes your breath away, doesn't it?

Who are some of your favorite African-American artists? Painters, singers, actors, authors...who inspires you?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

On Writing with the Door Closed

I keep this quote from Elizabeth Berg pinned above my desk:

"It's important when you are creating something that material is sacred. It's between you and the page. Nobody else should be there in the room in your head. It's just you saying what you need to say. After that's done, then you need to make the decision about whether or not you want to let this be so public after all."
I totally agree. But then again, I'll cheat, too. There's something about writing that makes you want to share the sacred...to read a bit to your spouse, to tell a trusted friend your next plot point, to sneak an early chapter to critique.

When you write, be it an email, a diary entry, or a short story, who gets in your head? Who do you need to shoo away to get the creativity going?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Ask the Author: What about Revisions?

I get this question a lot. Probably because I teach a class called "The Art of Rewriting," and maybe because I make the embarrassing confession that I actually like revisions. I'll say it again -- I like rewriting.

Anyhoo, this came to my inbox the other day:
"I just finished up the rough draft on my [INSERT GENRE] book. (Hurrah!!!!!!!) I'll be starting the revision soon--do you have any pointers or major things you keep in mind when you are revising?

To be honest, I'm feeling a little overwhelmed by the task of revision. It's exciting on one hand and on the other there's that stabbing question in the back of my head--what if I miss something, what if I don't get it right?"
I think that's a common problem - the heaviness of seeing revisions as the FINAL process. And if it's final, it's gotta be perfect, right? Well, not for now. Not if you take it a step at a time.

Here's what I wrote back:

1. As I revise, I let myself take it in layers. I read through, take notes, knowing I don't have to make it perfect, THIS time.

2. I look for consistency in characters - did I introduce someone minor and forget them? What plot threads need tightening? Did I find someone "new" at the end, or discover a new strain that must be woven in from the beginning?

3. I search for tension in setting and character. Does every chapter count? Every scene? Every paragraph? What characters need to be brought to the front? Who can be eliminated, or melded together? How can I make my settings more purposeful, more colorful, more alive? Am I bringing enough to the reader, in terms of excitement?

4. Hooks. At the end of each chapter, do I have a reason for the reader to turn the page? Something they don't know yet, must find out in the next chapter?

5. Honesty. Does what I've presented hold up to the "reality" meter? Do I buy it?

6. Emotion. How can I make it come alive to the reader? Am I writing in hopes that it is funny or sad, or is it truly funny or sad?

7. Language. This part takes me the longest. Choosing precise words, making each sentence purposeful. Culling the extraneous that doesn't forward the plot. Making metaphors strong, tightening dialogue, building pictures in scenes.

I take all this in layers, as I said, with cooling off periods in between. It's funny how when you let a manuscript get "cold" you see so much more of what needs work. That's some of the best advice I can give. I'm sure there's so much more...but that's what's off the top of my head..."

And here's a funny from my mom, who asked me the other day, "But how do you know when you're done?" She was almost shy about talking shop with her daughter the writer, which I thought was the cutest thing ever.

I told her you know when all you're changing are the little things: the commas, verb tenses here and there. Personally, I know when it pleases me. When the thing comes together and sings a little bit, all on its own. That's when I know, it's time for my baby to fly.

Okay, writers. How do you approach revisions? Any advice you want to share? Maybe what NOT to do?