Saturday, November 20, 2010

Revising With Chocolate And Pirates

I'm sure everyone's been to those workshops or conferences that are just okay--the speakers are good, and you pick up one or two things you might use in your writing. Or a few days later you tell someone it was a good workshop, but you can't think of anything specific you learned. 

Nothing like what we went to last weekend.

Three of us Cakers--Christina, Laura and &--attended Darcy Pattison's amazing Novel Revision Retreat, hosted by the Brazos Valley SCBWI

Luckily, even a couple of rotting tires couldn't get in my way. Before leaving town I stopped for an oil change. "Change" may not be the right word, really. The way my jalopy leaks oil, it's more accurate to say "oil replacement." But I digress. The mechanic told me not to go anywhere without getting two dry-rotted tires replaced. I wondered if it would help to rub the tires with a really good moisturizer, perhaps a hydrating mask, but mechanics look at you funny if you suggest things like that. Seems what I was driving around on were about as sturdy as papier-mâché, so a detour to Discount Tire was next.

Finally, I was on my way for real. I got to the workshop only about 15 minutes late, and there was chocolate on the table! In bowls that kept getting refilled all weekend!

I'd used Darcy's book Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise while revising CHAINED, and it helped so much (like with adding those pesky feelings I've mentioned), but it was even better seeing the activities and discussing in our small groups how we could use what we'd learned to revise our own novels.

For several of the activities, we used our "shrunken manuscripts" (the full novel printed single-spaced in an 8 point font). You can read more about the shrunken manuscript here, and it's a great way to visualize the big-picture stuff in your novel. Here's an example:

So that's my whole novel on my living room floor. At the workshop I placed a blue "X" over the chapters I thought were the strongest. They're pretty well spread out throughout the beginning, middle, and end of the story, so that's good. If you do this for your own novel, see if there are huge gaps between chapters you marked. If the strong chapters are all at the beginning and at the end, the middle of the novel may not be interesting enough to keep a reader going till the end. If your first chapter isn't one you marked as strong, see if there's a better place to start telling the story.

In this next activity, we used different colors of highlighters to mark the sensory details in one scene. 

The scene is from chapter 3 of my YA novel REASONS FOR LEAVING. The main character, Minna, is lying in bed after being fired from yet another job. Here's an excerpt from that scene before the revision:

Our bulldog Marge walks in and climbs onto my bed. Well, not so much climbs, I guess. It's more like, she puts her front paws on the bed and waits for me to help her up. She always knows when I'm having a bad day. She licks my face once before lying down next to me. 

After highlighting the sensory details there (not too many, other than what she sees and the dog licking her face), I set the page aside and rewrote the scene, keeping in mind that it would be stronger with more sensory details. Here's the "after" excerpt:

Our bulldog Marge saunters in and climbs onto the bed. Well, not so much climbs. It's more like, she puts her paws on the edge of the bed and waits for me to hoist her up. She's panting from the effort, even though I'm the one doing the heavy lifting. Her breath smells bacony--like real bacon, not like those treats that look just like bacon (but trust me, taste nothing like bacon). 
"Margie, have you been getting into the trash?" She's probably been chewing on paper towels I threw away after making BLTs last night.
She licks my face once and flops down next to me. She always seems to know when I'm having a bad day.

I'm sure I'll end up tweaking that more as I revise, but just that couple minutes of scribbling results in a scene that works harder to bring the reader into the story with more sensory detail.

Later in the story, Marge throws a wrench into Minna's plans when she again gets into the trash and then the laundry, so the scene now does something Darcy mentioned she learned from Linda Sue Park: every chapter should have something that looks forward and something that looks back. When Marge does this again later, the reader will already know that this is a habit of hers.

Saturday night after taking waaaaay too long at dinner (What? The restaurant had a dessert called "ooey gooey chocolate cake"), we returned to the hotel meeting room to watch Pirates of the Caribbean. Can you believe I'd never seen it before? But even those who had seen it were able to watch it in a whole new way, because throughout the movie Darcy pointed out things we'd learned from our revision activities. 

Objects weren't placed in a scene for no reason. That bed warmer? Nice weapon for whacking a bad guy in the face. We saw examples of mirror characters, like the two incompetent English soldiers and their pirate counterparts; repetition, like everyone swooning whenever Johnny Depp appeared Jack always grabbing for his personal effects, and Elizabeth singing the pirate song--once as a young girl at the beginning of the movie, and years later on the beach with Jack; and reversals of dialogue: a couple times throughout the movie, someone calls Jack "The worst pirate I've ever seen." At the end, an officer says, "That's got to be the best pirate I've ever seen."

These are all things we don't usually notice when watching a movie, but they add to the character development and the storyline, so novel writers can learn a lot from the big screen. I'm sure I'll spot those literary devices in movies from now on. But I won't mention them out loud while in a movie theater, unless I want people beating me up with popcorn buckets.

So, if you ever get a chance to go to one of Darcy's workshops, go! 

But you might need to give me a ride.