Sunday, January 31, 2016

Doing the Work of a Seventh Revision

By Kasie Whitener 

I tell my writing students all the time that they need to draft long before the assignment is due. There is nothing that improves revision like time away from your writing.

I’ve been away from Being Blue for six weeks, having given it over to an editor. He’s now sending it back to me in chunks: So many corrections. So many suggested changes.

When the editor claims the narrator has no personality, I think, “Of course he does!” but after six weeks away, I read the edited draft and I can see what he meant.

So what do I do?

This revision process is new. Usually I’m looking at something that hasn’t yet been revised and the errors are so obvious, they’re easy to address. But this is the seventh version of Being Blue.

In previous revisions I answered the big, obvious questions:

What is the story, really?

Who is this person, the narrator?

To whom is he telling the story and why?

Revision is harder this time. Those questions are insufficient. They are macro questions, they deal with the novel as a whole, its entirety. In version seven, I have to look at the scenes, individually, and ask micro questions.

The last time I experienced this, I was working on the opening scene of After December, a book currently under consideration by a publisher. In the first scene, the main character is naked in bed with his girlfriend and answers the phone when his father calls.

During the seventh revision I asked, “Why would he answer the phone?”

Being Blue is a complex narrative with two concurrent stories, one in Geneva, Switzerland in 1816 and one in Ransom, Kansas, in 2002. I made a choice early on to call the narratives Geneva and Kansas - not the micro level city name and not the macro level country name, but in between - state and province.

Being in between is a precarious place.

My narrator sits there, everything in his life is “in between.” His narrative therefore is not detailed enough to be micro but not distant enough to be macro.

Every scene has to challenge Blue’s precarious balance: Between being a vampire and acting human, between being immortal and killing to sustain himself. Between protecting his sire’s wife and wanting her for himself. Between respecting his sire and wanting to kill him.

Blue spends the entire novel at crossroads, trying like hell to keep from choosing despite everyone around him forcing a choice. Why won’t he choose? Why does he think balance is so important?

Balance is safety. What could possibly be more difficult to balance than a time-traveling vampire?

As Blue focuses on balance, everyone else must challenge it. Establishing balance will require Blue to be aware of the imbalance and his narrative of that awareness should add more depth to his voice.

Align the micro details with the answers to the macro questions. Ensure every scene works within the overall concept. That’s the work of the seventh revision.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Latest Addition

Meet a new Columbia II Blogger


Amanda holds a Juris Doctorate and is a second year Ph.D. student of Public Law and Public Administration. Her research focuses on judicial decision-making both in American courts and abroad. Though the rigor of graduate school rarely affords time for fun, she has made it a priority to focus on her writing and to allow herself to indulge in a creative outlet. 

Amanda's first post on this page follows.

My First Day of Class

By Amanda Jones 

By the time my alarm began its obnoxious beeping I was already wide awake and aware of the all too familiar knot in my stomach. I always get nervous on the first day of classes.

As I lay in bed I mentally ran through my schedule. It was a bit different than usual this semester because it didn’t allow for my two guilty pleasures, spending Monday mornings at my favorite downtown hipster coffee shop and Wednesday evening happy hours. But, I thought that the classes outweighed the few activities that I’d have to forgo this semester.

After a few more minutes of thinking about what the day was going to bring, I got out from underneath the warm covers and headed for the bathroom to get ready. I’d planned my outfit days ago, light gray pants and my favorite yellow and blue argyle sweater. Mainly, so that I wouldn’t be tempted to try on everything in my closet (which always ends up making me late for class).

After getting dressed and pouring myself a large cup of coffee, I gathered my things off the table and began packing my bag for the day: laptop, textbook, notebook, various colors of highlighters, and pens. As I threw my bag over one shoulder, the blinking light on the printer caught my eye. I walked over, reached down, grabbed the syllabus I’d printed the night before, and shoved it into a file folder.

Even with warm coffee in my stomach, the nervous knot had yet to subside. Hoping a little bit of food would calm my nerves, I stopped at Panera for a bagel.

Once I reached campus it was bustling with both new and returning students. Students who looked like they’d walked to class a hundred times, and some who looked like this was their very first trip across the horseshoe.

I stopped at a bench to check the room number of my class before I entered the tall square building, “006” I said out loud as I entered the building and looked for stairs to the basement.

Finally, after searching for a few minutes I found the room. As I walked through the doorway I could see that most of the seats were taken.

With a smile starting to creep across my face I walked to the front of the class, put down my bag, looked up into their faces and said, “Welcome to Constitutional Law, I’m Professor Jones.

One of my favorite things about writing, and teaching, is having the ability to create tension and plot twists. Whether I am setting my reader up to make erroneous assumptions about where my characters and plot are going, or leading my class down a rabbit hole by taking provocative stands on hot button legal controversies, when it comes to my work, and my lectures, nothing is ever as it seems.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Critique Circle: A Writer’s Outfit

By Jodie Cain Smith

I have a favorite outfit – skinny jeans, cream tunic, jacket, and tall, suede boots. It never fails me. Fat day? The slimming panel of the jeans, and flyaway chiffon of the tunic take care of that. Bad hair-day? I just sweep my uncooperative tresses up and let the stand-up collar of the blazer do its magic. Accidentally catch a glimpse of my ever-expanding rear end in a mirror? The wedge heel of the boots provide a nice lift. It may be big, but at least the boots make it appear as the big derriere of a younger woman. Take away any component of my favorite outfit, and it doesn’t work. Without these pieces I stand in my closet, lost in a sea of “This just won’t do.

Petty? Yes. Get over it. It’s a metaphor. Allow me to explain.

My critique circle is my favorite writing outfit. Each member who frequents the table every first and third Monday night provides critical feedback, influencing my writing every time my fingers tap away at my keyboard. The lessons have been plentiful over the past two-and-a-half years, but a few stand out as favorites:

      1.  Even in exposition to a larger work, include compelling action. Weave the narrative into the story so the reader is engaged from page one.
2.   Long, complex sentences drag the tempo down and often reveal the indecisiveness of the writer. Craft carefully with intent. No one cares that you aced Vocabulary for the College Bound Student in your AP English class senior year in high school. Readers care about characters, action, twists, and revelations.
3.   Beware redundancy. Betty did this. Betty did that. Betty started a sentence with the word Betty so many times in a row that Betty landed on the bottom of the slush pile. Poor Betty.
4.   Celebrate personal style. Just as my favorite outfit will not work on every woman, my writing style should not be imposed on every writer. My job, as I sit at the table, is to recognize the individual’s style and intent and offer helpful critique. Before opening my mouth I must ask myself, “Will my comment assist the writer tell his or her story or am I trying to force the writer to tell the story how I would tell it?” The latter is not stylish at all.
5.      Ego isn’t pretty. Fabulous clothes cannot hide an ugly soul. Above all else, my critique circle has taught me to open my mind and heart to criticism. Every person at the table is there because he or she loves to write. So, Jodie, (Yep, I’m talking to myself here) shed that darn ego already. Oftentimes, I alone cannot see the problem with an outfit because I’m staring at my shiny, fancy shoes. The same can be said for clinging to clever passages.

Sadly, I will be leaving my critique circle soon. Rather than wander aimlessly, alone and very afraid, feeling naked in my fictional worlds, I will wrap myself in my favorite lessons learned.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Latest Addition

Meet a New Columbia II Blogger


Olga Agafonova is a front-end developer who loves good books and smooth coffee. Professionally, she is interested in 3D modeling and animation.  Creatively, her background is in the visual arts and she is excited about learning to tell stories through fiction. 

Olga's first blog post for SCWW Columbia II follows.


By Olga Agafanova

Some years ago, I used to see a woman on a street corner who bore an uncanny resemblance to a former professor of mine.  The two had similar physical characteristics and they were close in age: it would have been difficult to tell them apart from a distance. It is unlikely, however, that they will ever cross paths: the professor was a promising scholar, a rising star in her field; the homeless woman had the absent gaze of someone with a profound mental illness. Without intervention from some entity willing to provide long-term care, this person is likely to spend her life shuttling between psychiatric emergency rooms and homeless shelters, never becoming stable for long enough to start rebuilding her life.

Pete Earley’s Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness is a good place to start exploring the plight of the mentally ill in America. The book is not academic in its approach: Earley gives us enough historical and contextual information so that we understand why things functions so poorly but his tone is intimate and his outrage is genuine.

For example, we discover the magnitude of the jail problem as he begins to visit the Miami-Dade detention center. While the jail has an entire floor dedicated to housing psychotic prisoners, we find out that they receive little treatment except for cheap alternatives to the drugs they are prescribed. If they refuse to take the medicine, the prisoners may spend months in isolation cells, often naked (ostensibly for their own good) and raving mad.  Although Early spends relatively little time discussing policy choices, we can understand exactly how the existing mental health system fails when Early shadows several men as they bounce to and from the streets and detention centers.

Early is at his most compelling when he talks about the hopes and dreams he had for his son and how he had to make adjustments to them when the scope of the son’s illness became clear.  Reading the perspectives from “the other side”, that is, the views of the police officers who confront mentally ill offenders and the attorneys who passionately argue for a crazy’s person right to remain crazy was illuminating.

 I find it interesting that as a society, we happily treat people with advanced dementia, even though they may claim they are feeling great, but equally delusional people with diagnoses like schizophrenia are left to struggle on their own. Both categories of illness are outside of an individual’s control and yet we draw a distinction between them in our mental health and justice systems.  If we could care enough to align our laws with the science of mental illness, we might be on our way to becoming a more compassionate society where people like the homeless woman on that street corner may get another shot at life.

Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness
By Pete Earley

384 pp. Berkley. $14. 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

A Writer’s Week in Japan

By Brian Barr

Due to the hospitality of Japan’s International Cooperation Center (JICE) and my school, I was lucky enough to spend time in Japan for ‘Kakehashi,’ a project aimed at strengthening foreign relations of other countries with Japan. Along with two teachers and twenty-two other students, I visited Tokyo, including Chiba and Narita. We also spent time in Iwate Prefecture, mainly in Kuji City, near Northern coast of Japan.

While in Japan, I learned a great deal about the nation’s current events and problems. While I heard about the aging population epidemic (Japan has a large number of senior citizens and a lower than normal birth rate, which endangers the future of its population) and the demanding work life for employees in companies before I went to Japan, I also learned more about their political parties, the possibility of a new military force, class divisions, and notable economic decline in the recent decades.

My personal reasons for wanting to go to Japan were mixed with pedagogical interests as well as personal ones. Along with being a student and a teacher-in-training, I’m also a writer. I’ve been intrigued by Japan since I was a child, and I’ve written stories set in the country as well. With the research I’ve done on Japan, I’ve worked to make these specific stories as believable in dealing with Japanese culture as possible, even as a speculative writer who mainly writes in horror, science-fiction, and fantasy genres.

From Shion Sono films to Haruki Murakami’s novels, even to the great Akira classic written and drawn by Otomo Katsuhiro, I’ve seen how fictional authors from Japan have dealt with grave and important issues facing Japan. Shion Sono touched on the suicide rate and cults in his classic movie Jisatsu Circle, and the recently deceased Shigeru Mizuki, a WWII vet, challenged social and political issues in his comic books, from Ge Ge Ge No Kitaro to more personal biographical works. Like any other country, Japan is filled with its notable literary creators who investigate and question the world around them in fictional narratives.

As a writer, I set to do the same. From American social and political issues, to foreign dilemmas, I craft stories that are fictional yet have connections to the world we inhabit as human beings. I seek to question situations and understand problems, to create dialogue that may inspire people to solve or at least acknowledge problems. So far, with my Japan-based stories, that have explored technology, organized crime, pop culture, subculture, music, social and sexual politics in the country.

After returning from Japan for the first time, and experiencing the beauty and complexity of this amazing island nation first-hand, I’m inspired to craft more tales set in the land of the rising sun. I want to explore the aging population, business, and military debates of Japan further, along with other issues facing the island nation.

Japan has stolen my heart, and I anticipate my return, in fiction and reality.