Revision Woes? How a Bird’s Eye View Helps You Regain Control of Your Story      

 

Does “revising” your story consist of making tiny line edits only you will notice?

With some of my short stories, I did this for years. I knew they weren’t quite where I wanted them to be but thought maybe if I kept tinkering around with the sentences, changing a few words here and there, my stories would magically transform before my eyes.

Of course, I partially did this to delay putting my work out into the world and potentially getting rejected. But it was also because, let’s face it, making deep structural changes to your story is hard work.

When writing my novel, these difficulties grew tenfold. I didn’t know where to begin. With six points-of-view, my story felt like a maze. And I wrote the thing! Imagine how my readers would feel.

Luckily, I discovered mind mapping, which helped me get a bird’s eye view of the story. This made the revision process infinitely easier and more enjoyable. I use XMind, but there are many mind map and concept mapping apps out there.

Feel like your story is slipping out of your control? Here’s how seeing the big picture can help you rein it in:

  1. Construct a coherent timeline

Stepping back from your story by mapping out all the plot points, settings, and characters on a single screen can help you see it instantly and clearly. It’s easy to repeat information or leave major plot holes without realizing it.

I listed each character’s POV in a horizontal line. Underneath them, I then wrote a brief summary of every chapter pertaining to that character. Seeing the scenes displayed in chronological order allowed me to hone in on inconsistencies. 

  1. Make connections between key plot points

Viewing all the major scenes in your story displayed in one place allows you to link together otherwise unconnected moments. For instance, you may find that a character’s dream on pg. 2 is connected to his epiphany on pg. 122. Then you can rework the scenes in a way that shows the connection between these two events. That way, every scene is driving the story forward in a purposeful way.

  1. Sort out loose threads

 Without a broader perspective, your story can turn into a jumble of unrelated scenes and characters. Sure, some of those scenes may need to go, but mind mapping can help you consolidate.

 For instance, one of my characters didn’t have a name. I kept referring to her by her physical description, which quickly got annoying. Plus, did readers really need another character to keep track of? Looking at my mind map, I realized the lady and the character Mrs. Tompkins could be the same person. Problem solved.

  1. Batch scene revisions

 Editing each scene one at a time can lead to fatigue after a few hours. Even if you’re in the zone, you might overlook flaws you would have caught with fresh eyes.

 Mind mapping makes the process much more efficient. Using the “notes” feature, simply click on a scene and describe any changes you’d like to make. This way you can address every scene you need to change all at once and then gradually implement the changes.

 Time to tackle those rewrites you’ve been putting off…

 Now, with any productivity tool, there’s always that slippery slope where it turns into a distraction, defeating the purpose. Recently XMind hosted a contest to create the most beautiful mind map. There’s nothing wrong with this per say, but you must approach the app with a clear purpose—to improve your writing. Otherwise you’ll get derailed.

I used to dread making deep structural revisions, but now I love it!

Btw, I know this sounds like a sales pitch. But no, XMind is not offering me a free subscription “in exchange for my honest opinion” (I wish haha). I just really like this tool.

 What’s been your experience with mind mapping? What are your favorite apps?

Adopting a Writing Discipline With Minimal Pain and Maximal Pleasure

“Do your writing first thing in the morning.” How many times have you heard this advice?

I first heard it in my MFA program from a guest lecturer, who encouraged us to always work on our writing before checking our email, Facebook, etc. As he explained, once you expose yourself to other voices, it’s much harder to find your inner voice amidst the noise.

At the time, it made sense. But that doesn’t mean I followed his advice. Should be and want to are two entirely different things, as anyone starting a new diet will tell you.

The thing is, I’m not a morning person by any stretch of the imagination. So one motivation for dragging myself out of bed is the lure of unopened emails waiting in my inbox.

But after a series of unproductive mornings, I decided to compromise — I’d read my email for the 20 minutes it took to drink my coffee and protein shake and then begin my writing. Well, you can guess how that went.

“Just one more email…” An hour and a half would pass, often with me hitting the “refresh” button multiple times! Before I knew it, it was time to get ready for work.

Last week, I finally decided to end this cycle. For over a year I’d had an app to block Internet distractions, but I decided to take it up a notch. Instead of turning it on when I felt like it (which had mixed results), I would schedule my sessions the night before so that as soon as I sat at my computer, my coveted email access would be shut off.

After a week of this experiment, I’ve discovered that not only is giving up my morning email routine a painless sacrifice, but it actually makes the writing experience — and my morning as a whole — so much more pleasurable. Here’s what I’ve learned:

1) Instead of my mornings being plagued by a nagging sense of guilt (“okay, I finished my coffee 45 minutes ago, I really should be writing”), I address my obligations right away and give myself something to look forward to. Often by the time I’m finished, the desire for my “email fix” has vanished!

2) While before I viewed writing as a chore awaiting me after the “fun stuff,” I now associate it with pleasure since it’s accompanied by my beloved coffee and protein shake.

3) Even 30 minutes makes a difference in your energy level and willpower depletion. By tackling my writing immediately, I am at my peak performance and have so much more stamina, focus, and creative flow.

4) We all know things seldom go as planned. Even when I was on my best behavior, sometimes an “urgent” email from work would divert my attention and before I knew it, the morning was gone. Throughout the day, the frequency of distractions grows, decreasing the probability you’ll write anything at all.

5) Like my favorite sugary snacks, email provides a temporary jolt of pleasure but no lasting sustenance. As most of us have experienced with social media, we have a compulsive urge to check it, yet the time spent rarely leads to life-changing epiphanies. Writing, by contrast, lacks that dopamine rush. It can be grueling and frustrating. However, it delivers long-lasting satisfaction, knowing you’re carrying out your higher purpose and not merely consuming things.

Make no mistake: deadlines plus money=motivation. But for long-term goals, the finish line is hazier, forcing me to become a tougher taskmaster for myself.

This experiment has taught me that by developing daily disciplines, conjuring up motivation grows easier and easier until the act (like my former habit of morning email checking) becomes second nature.

What disciplines have you adopted to make your writing a top priority? How did you overcome initial resistance?

Learning from Kelly Link: The elements of intrigue

Kelly Link excels at injecting relatable characters and scenarios into surreal landscapes, and “The Summer People” from her short story collection Get in Trouble is no exception. She’s also an expert wordsmith, building evocative worlds out of concise, carefully crafted sentences. In my deconstruction of this story, I will focus on description and character development, starting with the opening lines.

Fran’s daddy woke her up wielding a mister. “Fran,” he said, spritzing her like a wilted houseplant. “Fran, honey. Wakey wakey.”

First, the story immediately hooks you. The comparison of Fran to a wilted houseplant is an unusual one, thus getting our attention, and the question arises: Why is her father spraying her with water to wake her up? The alliteration of the “w” creates a pleasing cadence, forcing us to slow down and savor each word. Even the juxtaposition of “wielding”—a verb typically reserved for weapons—and the benign “mister” is strange enough to compel us to continue reading, if only to satisfy our curiosity.

Fran had the flu, except it was more like the flu had Fran. In consequence of this, she’d laid out of school for three days in a row. The previous night, she taken four NyQuil caplets and gone to sleep on the couch while a man on the TV threw knives. Her head was stuffed with boiled wool and watered-down plant food. “Hold up,” she croaked. “I’m awake!” She began to cough, so hard she had to hold her sides.

Link takes a topic familiar to most readers—the flu—and throws us off balance with a reversal—“it was more like the flu had Fran.” This is more than just clever wordplay; it also works on a logical level. After all, when you’re sick, it does feel as if the sickness has taken over your whole body. While “boiled wool” is not the first image that comes to mind when you think of the flu (making it all the more arresting), it makes sense when you think about it.

This passage represents the power of Link’s writing on a larger scale—she takes a familiar topic and twists the dial regulating her narrative universe ever so slightly until you notice something is off but can’t quite place your finger on it. By the time her stories veer off into all-out weird territory, you’ve become so immersed in the characters that the progression feels natural.

The phrase “gone to sleep on the couch while a man on the TV threw knives” creates a dynamic simultaneity by pairing two actions on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Her daddy was a dark shape in a room full of dark shapes. The bulk of him augured trouble.

Here the alliteration of the “d” indicates a tonal shift. She also integrates a suspenseful element—why would the “dark shape” of her father “augur trouble?”

As the story unfolds, we learn more about her father—he’s an alcoholic infamous for his bootleg liquor, the “sweetest in town.” Occasionally the voice of God intervenes, compelling him to abruptly destroy all the liquor before delivering it to his clients—not surprisingly, this doesn’t make them too happy.

Whether it’s to escape the wrath of his clients or to repair his conscience, he often leaves town for religious conventions, which is where he’s headed now—never mind that his teenage daughter is sick with the flu. We learn all this in a few succinct sentences:

When he wasn’t getting right with God, Fran’s daddy got up to all kinds of trouble. Fran’s best guess was that, in this particular situation, he’d promised to supply something that God was not now going to let him deliver.

Rather than take us out of the narrative with a long backstory about her father’s troubled past, Link gets right to the point.

A master at character building, she uses a few carefully selected details to reveal relationships and motives.

We learn that Fran has a lifetime obligation to the mysterious (and needy) “summer people.” Since their sole form of communication is through voices in her head, it’s hard for her to put off these obligations for long.

With her dad gone, she asks the rich, shy Ophelia to help her out by giving her a ride, knowing the eager-to-please Ophelia will say yes.

…somewhere between the school lockers and the Robertses’ master bedroom, Ophelia seemed to have decided that the ice was broken. She talked about a TV show, about the party neither of them would go to on Saturday night. Fran began to suspect that Ophelia had had friends once, down in Lynchburg. She complained about calculus homework and talked about the sweater she was knitting.

One interesting thing about this passage is Link’s decision to reveal their conversation through paraphrase rather than direct quotes. It makes the exchange move quickly both on the page and in the story’s action. We learn that Ophelia and Fran are not super close, that neither of them are popular, and that Ophelia is so lonely that given the chance to converse with someone, the words pour out of her with the reckless fervor of a starving person at a buffet.

When Ophelia drives up to Fran’s house, Fran reveals her home’s backstory:

“It’s old,” Fran said. “Needs a new roof. My great-granddaddy ordered it out of the Sears catalog. Men brought it up the side of the mountain in pieces, and all the Cherokee who hadn’t gone away yet came and watched.” She was amazed at herself: next thing she would be asking Ophelia to come for a sleepover.

The last sentence reveals crucial information about Fran’s character as well as a key shift in her relationship with Ophelia. Normally guarded and terse, with a disdain for Ophelia’s sugary sweetness, Fran feels herself opening up to Ophelia despite herself. This suggests a burgeoning of their friendship and also hints that Fran craves companionship just as much as Ophelia does.

Finally, after Ophelia undergoes a dangerous mission for Fran, braving the house of the summer people (who hold war re-enactments with real guns and cannons and have a mysterious room that, in the tradition of “Bluebeard,” must never be entered) to retrieve flu medicine for Fran, their friendship is solidified:

“I think I’m going to be much better,” Fran said. “Which is something you done for me. You were brave and a true friend, and I’ll have to think how I can pay you back.”

In just a few pages, then, we have a complete character arc and a classic hero’s journey. By deconstructing Link’s language, dialogue, and decisions on what information to reveal (and not to reveal), we can learn how to make our own writing more intriguing and captivate our readers.

 

 

Duality in Chains

I recently finished reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains with my 7th graders, a book about a teenage slave girl fighting to gain her own freedom at the same time the country was embroiled in the American Revolution. Liked most books that are required reading, especially historical fiction, it feel far outside the norm of the fiction I typically seek out—experimental horror by writers such as Robert Coover and Brian Evenson. Yet it easily qualifies as one of my favorite books, which goes to show that we should never discount something—a book, a movie, a band—just because it doesn’t fall under the umbrella of our usual preferences. Any work of art has the potential to transform.

 

First of all, Anderson is a fantastic stylist who packs evocative sensory details into every single scene: “Tongues of fog oozed across the water and curled around the bits of ice that floated past.” She weaves extended metaphors throughout the novel—bees, ashes, chains—which both act as a connective tissue binding us to the protagonist (Isabel) and also take on a slightly different nuance each time. The book is not without humor, either. At one point, Isabel’s master, a regular Cruella de Vil, pretends not to notice when her mouse hair eyebrow (supposedly a high fashion of the time) falls into her bread pudding.

 

What also resonated with me was the theme of moral duality. For instance, how do we explain why a nation fighting for its freedom can be indifferent to an individual’s freedom? How do we balance self-preservation (not necessarily life or death scenarios but financial, career, mental/physical health, etc.) with obligations to others? When should we put aside our own needs to help someone else, and when should we recognize that others are putting inappropriate or unrealistic demands on us and we should set boundaries so as to protect ourselves? These moral dilemmas—choosing between the “right” thing to do and the thing we need to do in the moment—are grappled with in surprising and unexpected ways throughout the book. We learn that there’s not always one answer—we must trust our instincts and let our inner compass guide us to the correct decision.

Resisting closure in fiction

As a writer, I’ve always admired Joyce Carol Oates for her prolificness and ability to seamlessly shift through different genres. Reading her short story collection Heat for the first time, I’m truly inspired by her taut, concise writing, by the way her stories start on a mundane note of domestic everyday realities–house hunting, a woman tidying up the home as her daughter plays upstairs, a dinner invitation–and slowly creep under your skin, reaching truly surreal and unexpected places. What I love most is her willingness to end her stories with ambiguity or a moment of suspense, giving them a lifelike quality because after all life is in a constant state of flux and is never truly finished until of course it’s over. Most writers (myself included) feel the urge to tidy up, to end on a note of closure, but Oates is brave enough to resist that urge. What makes it work is that the characters are so fully realized and relatable that by the end of the story we can’t help but project into the future, inventing our own storylines to push them forward past the confines of the story itself.