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Welcome to the online presence of KaBooM, a writing group that has sustained the creative lives of a diverse group of women for over a decade. We hope that getting to know us will inspire you, too!Welcome to the online presence of KaBooM, a writing group that has sustained the creative lives of a diverse group of women for over a decade. We hope that getting to know us will inspire you, too!

Welcome to the online presence of KaBooM, a writing group that has sustained the creative lives of a diverse group of women for over a decade. We hope that getting to know us will inspire you, too!


The KaBooM Writers Notebook: Our Blog

SURPRISE!

Public Art in Holden

On a recent trip to the beach, I hadn’t expected to run across a local artist’s painting decorating a utility box. The combination of playfully-rendered produce and a strong beach palette made this little piece of public art a pleasant surprise.

I’ve been thinking about surprise this summer as I tread the much-loved path of the unsurprising: Sunday morning trips to Farmers’ Market, homemade applesauce cooling in the fridge, a vase of balloon flower, gooseneck and bee balm on the kitchen table, the memory of firework chrysanthemums splayed across the night sky.

The word “surprise” was mentioned often during the Carnegie Center’s 2015 Books-in-Progress conference by presenters as well as a panel of agents and publishers. This was not surprise of the “I never saw that coming” variety. That kind of unexpected turn of events can rupture the contract between writer and reader.

This was about surprise on a micro-level. This is about the writer who takes the time to search for new images, new objects, fresh dialog, original names for characters, new occupations and activities for those characters, new situations.

For example, presenter A.J. Verdelle, a master of revision, frequently mentioned the need to search for vigorous verbs. Think about the work done by a verb like “wobbles” or “muddles.” These choices conjure action without the need for embellishing adverbs. They surprise us with their unanticipated precision. As Verdelle says, “If you can’t get jazzed up by verbs, you probably aren’t going to make it in this business.”

Another opportunity for surprise can occur when the writer creates a simile from the fictional materials on the page instead of resorting to a cliché pulled from a catalog of similes, tried and true.

According to Verdelle, list-making is also an exercise that can lead a writer toward creating surprise. List-making delays the brain from selecting an easy or obvious choice and trains it to the habit of generating options. I’ve previously written about the value of list-making as a revision strategy. Verdelle suggests picking an object, then listing all the things you could do with it until you come up with something surprising.

She reminded conference-goers of the monstrous surprise of the stewing bunny in the movie Fatal Attraction. She speculates that the scene might have been inspired when the script writers said, “Okay, we gave the kid a pet bunny. What else could we do with that detail? Let’s make a list.”

Creativity is often described as divergent thinking, the ability to generate options. Surprise helps the writer produce something fresh for the reader, leading us to praise a written work as being creative.

How do you ensure that you surprise the reader?

Photo Credit: “These Peppers Are Still Hot Stuff” by Mary Paulsen. Photo by Jan Isenhour

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The Art of Finishing

 

Blog photoGreat is the art of beginning, but greater the art is of ending.”  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

When we moved this summer, I found these words tucked into a pile of old clothes.  The yellowed half-page torn from a steno notebook nearly thirty years ago had hung on the back wall of our walk-in closet above the small desk where I wrote.  That walk-in closet was the “room of my own” I claimed in our brand new house in 1984 as I mothered three children aged eight to one.  I knew I was good at starting things; I wanted to remind myself that finishing a piece of writing mattered.

Though I have finished books of poetry, an MFA, and a novel since those days of writing in the closet, I still find finishing a challenge.  Most writers struggle to complete a work and wonder if it is our fault that it takes so long to get it right.  The form we glimpsed as we set out on our poem or novel becomes less clear as we write ourselves into the interior.

Thanks in part to Louise DeSalvo’s book, Writing as a Way of Healing, I have learned the value of reflecting on the writing process for each piece I undertake.  I set down what I have realized and what I plan to do next.  Capturing insights and seeing a way ahead has been so important in my work that I’ve incorporated keeping a process journal into the assignments for the classes I teach.

Here’s an excerpt from one of these:

September 16, 2009

And now for my fifteen minutes on the novel — the assignment I gave the Finishing class.

It’s one thing to write about the novel and have its stacks of pages safely out of sight  . . .  It’s another to read those pages and see what’s there and despair of ever making a coherent book out of them.  . . .  But it was necessary for me to see that my coming to know the story, to see its end and feel a general shape for it, was not the same as . . . having worked it out on the page for myself.  What was needed was for me to accept that I still had a period of wandering in the wilderness ahead of me, and that I had to surrender to that if I were to write the novel I want to write.

 

I wish I had made entries like this more systematically as I drafted my novel.  And that I had not buried them in the pages of my journals where I cannot easily access them.  Louise DeSalvo says in The Art of Slow Writing that she keeps her process journals on the computer where she can search them easily.  She accesses them to remind herself of the stages in finishing a work: “Whenever I’m stuck . . . I turn to an earlier journal and . . . learn that I habitually think about abandoning a project just before I see how the book should be organized; this helps me reengage with my current work more confidently.”

I was wise to post Longfellow’s words in that closet.  Finding a way to the end of a piece is an art in itself.  An art that isn’t only about finding the best ending, but also about having the patience to discern the story I’ve wandered into, to receive its wisdom and work out the techniques I need to tell it well.

Exercise: Brainstorm a List of Objects That Might Appear in a Scene

Here’s the exercise: You’re revising a scene in a novel or short story. You want to make sure you provide enough details so your reader visualizes the setting where your characters act.

A.J. Verdelle, novelist and master revisionist, suggests brainstorming a list of 15 or so objects that might appear in your setting.

During a session of “The Twenty” at Hindman [Kentucky] Settlement School, I invited college-age writers to try A.J.’s exercise. I offered a setting from my own novel-in-progress: a retirement facility “social hall.” Students generated the list shown in the above photo, and we also brainstormed objects for their settings.

Later, as I worked to revise my scene, one object suggested by a student seemed so quirky I knew I wanted to include it.

I had seen (and heard) wall clocks that chirp like a different bird at the top of each hour. In their own relentless way, they remind us of time’s passing. It seemed plausible that an elderly resident or family member would donate such a clock.  I liked this specific detail, and as I revised I made room for that clock on a cinder block wall, not far from the mounted television set.

Then I realized that the opening paragraph of the novel features a couple of cardinals pecking holes in the main character’s sugar snap peas.  Then I thought about Terry Tempest Williams’s memoir, When Women Were Birds. Sometimes, I had learned, birds are just birds—they are mentioned as details that make the created world seem whole and fully realized. Sometimes, however, birds resonate as Jungian archetype, representing the spirit among other things. That possibility is magnified in a scene set in a retirement facility.

Suddenly I had added a layer to the novel not previously present. As A.J. Verdelle says, “Almost every detail you carefully select will in itself tell a story.”

Have you tried brainstorming a list of objects that might populate your scene? Will you send me suggestions for objects that might appear in a used bookstore—an important setting in my new novel?

 

Kindle as Revision Tool

I wasn’t sure I could learn to like a Kindle, much less love one. Sure, after a week or two, I was ready to acknowledge its well-advertised charms: the ability to load a shelf’s worth of choices onto a device that fits neatly in my purse; the capacity to share purchases with my husband’s iPad; the option of virtual ownership when one of my book groups selects a title I don’t want to make physical space for on my overcrowded shelves.

I also voiced criticisms I’d heard before: the reading experience isn’t the same. I miss not being able to flip through a book. Like many booklovers, I have a spatial recall that startles even me, although I know I’m not the only reader who experiences it. When I want to double-check a characterization or a plot point, I’ll think to myself, “I saw that mentioned on the lower left side about fifteen pages back.”

Clicking through a Kindle book, which negates the left/right spatial orientation, is nothing like this, nor is using the keyword search feature, which with its laborious button-pushing seems as antiquated as a card catalog compared to the computer-like quickness of my brain. Reading a book on Kindle is not a recursive experience; I’m not manipulating a three-dimensional text, not constantly flipping pages through space to recheck the epigraph and/or the dedication, to consult the index, or to linger over accompanying photos. I won’t even bring up Kindle’s way of charting your progress through a book. The percentage tally makes me feel as if I’m participating in an opinion poll. The location number method makes me feel as if I’m having an extraterrestrial experience.

However a recent discovery may redeem the Kindle. I’ll share it with you under the assumption that if I took six months to find it, you are also clueless (plus I tested the discovery on ten Kindle-using friends and none of them knew about this feature).

While searching for something else on the “Settings” screen, I noticed an email address I’d never seen before: myname@kindle.com. I read the paragraph that included this never-before-seen address and discovered that I could send documents to my Kindle in a variety of forms, including .doc or .docx. I pasted a chapter of my novel, which I’m revising, into an email and sent it to myself. Quick as a flash, I received a reply. No dice. Your email doesn’t have a document attached. This response included lots of other useful information, as well as a link to a Help screen. I tried again, this time attaching the chapter. In less than five minutes, the document showed up on my Kindle.

So good. I’ll be able to send my novel to readers. They won’t need to spend ink and paper printing it out or sit for hours reading on computer screens. And in fact, friends with agents confirm that their agents are using e-readers for exactly this purpose.

However, the real advantage to me, the writer, lies in Kindle’s usefulness as a revision tool. I read my sample chapter on Kindle—a chapter I’ve examined several times during the revision process. In one quick read, I saw six infelicities: two consecutive sentences ending on the flat note of the same prepositional phrase; several unneeded adverbs, a comma splitting a compound predicate; a monster paragraph that straddled two screens; an inconsistency in the spelling of a character’s name; the pronoun “her” repeated ten times on one page. In several cases I noticed that paragraphs had lost their indentations, making the text blobs frequent and daunting. So much for impressing a prospective agent.

How was it possible that I had missed these items? What made them apparent when I read my manuscript on Kindle?

I concluded that space between lines, or leading, matters. When the sentences containing the prepositional phrases were no longer double spaced, they drew together on the page, and I spotted them. The monster paragraph also became apparent with book-style leading. I missed the relief of a paragraph indent when I looked at the screen.

The proportion of the page also matters. The Kindle page looks like a page from a book. Its proportions, its ratio of text to margin, mimic a physical book. As I read, I noticed words differently.

I ran into a couple of problems sending a file to my Kindle, problems that were solved by asking Google. Not every paragraph was indented for example. I learned that it’s best to delete tabs and to use the paragraph indent feature (under format/paragraph or on the ruler bar at the top of the window). The same website recommends saving the document with an .html extension rather than .doc or .docx. I followed both suggestions and the resulting document showed up on Kindle formatted as I wished.

Maybe, just maybe, reading on Kindle provides more of an actual book-reading experience than I realized. When I read my manuscript on Kindle, it was formatted like a book. I noticed all the features that called attention to themselves as they slouched across the screen, reminding me that I don’t yet have a book, but a manuscript undergoing revision. Kindle’s real value may be as a revision tool that helps me see my work again.

Tips for Revising

Sometimes it takes me an entire week to solve the Sunday New York Times crossword. Not long ago I put the finishing touches on my solution to the puzzle. Smack in the middle I penciled a circle around one particular intersection of across and down. I had expended all mental effort possible over whether the answer to “Yanks and others” could really be “ALers,” which made the cross clue “Strand” solve as “enisle.” I stashed my pencil and checked my grid against the solution. This week, they matched.

It felt a little bit like the protocol I follow when revising a piece of writing: give it a try; come back to it after taking a break; use a pencil with a good eraser—it makes editing easier.

Revision, one of the most important steps of any writer’s process, means following different strategies at different stages. For your writing to achieve its best, you’ll probably have to engage in a revision process that’s more complex than the simple steps I mention above.

One of the best conversations that took place at the Carnegie Center February Writer’s Retreat led by KaBooM resulted in shared wisdom about revision strategies that work. The ideas generated are summarized below.

  • Writing can be being something like weaving threads into cloth. Sometimes the cloth has to be cut up and refashioned into a different cloth; sometimes the cloth has to be tailored so it becomes a well-fitting garment.
  • Distance yourself from the material—then look back at it for a leap, a lurch, or a life pulsing. Circle that leap and write it on a fresh sheet of paper. Start making a mind map by drawing lines out from the circle (like spokes around a wheel). Put words on the lines as associations come to you.
  • Ask yourself about the purpose of a scene. Is it present only to advance the plot or is it also doing something else? Check for sensory detail—have you covered each of the senses? You may need to help the reader see what you see. Add noise and taste and smell. Be sure the sensory world is present in your writing.
  • Remember that perfection is achieved when there is nothing left to remove. It is sometimes necessary to kill your darlings.
  • Underline adverbs and adjectives and replace them with strong verbs when possible.
  • Don’t be afraid to try another starting point.
  • Look at models of writing that you respect. (Cf. Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer.)
  • Join a group—find readers who are critical but supportive, who can give you ideas on how to make something right.
  • Read your work outloud. Use the mirror test. Look in a full-length mirror and read your work to yourself.
  • Go do something physical for a time. Walk, do the dishes, or solve a crossword puzzle.