Friday, February 22, 2008

The Novel in You (Getting Started) and Editing yourself Tip

The novel in you
I've always enjoyed writing. It was like breathing for me, something I needed to do but it was also something that seemed part of who I was. From high school and throughout college, I always scribbled down poems, penned short stories, wrote letters to my godmother or journal entries about something I saw, imagined, or experienced. Writing was an outlet from my every day assignments. I dreamed of being a writer one day and I realized early enough that I could do this for a living as a journalist and still do the creative writing on the side.

I just never thought I could write a book. That always seemed out of reach, something for the big name writers, the elite scribes. Writing a novel seemed intimidating, like tackling a mountain. How do I get started? How do I write it? How do I do this? How long would it take? Am I good enough?

So I stuck to writing what I felt comfortable with - a short story. One wintery New England Friday night, I wrote about something I knew, something that provided much inspiration here in Boston as well as Miami. Looking for an outlet from my city articles at The Globe, I sat down and began writing about a fictional night out with three different guys. I took on the voice of one of the guys. The words just came to me, flowing onto the screen. I wrote it for me, as a creative exercise, not thinking this could be something more.

When I was done, I filed the 3,000 word story away. But as the weekend passed and I began my work week again, the story kept calling me. I felt I could continue, telling the story from the point of view of one of the other guys. Later that week, I plopped myself in front of the computer again and I channeled that other character, how he would see the night. The words sprung onto the screen and the scenes came to life. Inspired, I followed up with another story from the point of a view of the third character. After three stories, it hit me: these stories are chapters. This could be a book. Could I really do this?

I began outlining the characters. I told myself that if I could keep a steady pace, of a chapter a week of about 2,000 words, I could get somewhere. But instead of focusing on a deadline, I wrote from my heart. It was a fun experience, an exercise in channeling different characters and imagining how they would speak and react in various situations.

It wasn't always easy. Sometimes, I couldn't maintain my self-inflicted chapter-a-week deadline because I felt creatively drained from producing my news articles. Other times, I hit a block. I found myself staring at the screen, the ceiling, the carpeting, my nails, anything that I hoped would inspire me. I wanted to throw my laptop out the window into the snow and give up. Whenever that happened, I walked away from the computer and let it be. I went hiking or cycling and waited for the universe to send me something that would inspire me to write again. I couldn't force it. It had to come naturally. Before I knew it in a matter of months, I had a rough draft finished. I surprised myself. Did I really do this?

I think we all have a story to tell and there's a novel in everyone. It just takes dedication, self-discipline, and focus.

You can't learn to run a marathon overnight but you train mile by mile or in this case, story by story. It also takes finding a unique story to tell, something different from what you see out there on the shelves but that people might relate to universally. If you write about what you know and from your heart with a little patience, you'll have something written before you know it. You just have to let the writing guide you.

I'm not crazy, just editing my copy
The Novel in You, part deux

So you've written something, a short story, a novel, a script. Now what? When I finished a rough draft of my book, I did what I usually do when I finish an article for The Globe: I read it out loud. Whenever I write something for the paper, I print it out, walk outside (even when it's snowing,) hop into my Jeep, and read the thing out loud. I end up catching run-on sentences, fragments, or words that don't flow. By reciting it, I find out whether the words have a conversational rhythm and whether I'm conveying what I really want to say. (I also look like I am talking to myself as fellow editors and reporters walk by and probably wonder, who is Johnny talking to? Weirdo!) And I've touched up many sentences after reading my writing out loud before filing a story to my editor. I find the process makes for cleaner copy.

I did this with Boston Boys Club. I read out loud all 300 pages and discovered ways to retool some dialogue, scenes, and passages. The words come to life with this self-editing exercise. You hear the characters. You narrate the scenes. You find out right away when things don't sound "write." (couldn't resist the pun.) After I read my book out loud several times and then polished my copy, I reached out to four people I knew, who weren't familiar with the Boston bar or the Miami scene I wrote about. I very politely asked them (ok, I bribed them with dinner) to read a draft of the book. By doing this, I gathered some feedback on what worked (did the trio of narrators have distinct voices? did they seem real? did I overdose on Spanglish for one of the guys? Was there enough sex?) and what didn't (I needed to develop one of the secondary characters earlier in the novel so his appearance doesn't come out of the blue midway.)

Armed with their critiques, I read the darn thing out loud again (I felt like I was on NPR or something.) I finally reached a point where I felt really good about what I had down on paper.

Again, all it takes is some dedication - and a few good ears. So if you see a guy in a white Jeep talking to himself with a print-out in hand, that'll be me. Please don't think I'm crazy. I'm just revising my writing.

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