Friday, October 14, 2011

One Novel's Journey session

"Through revision we get to the heart of the story" - Kathi Appelt

One of my favorite sessions at the JRWC ended up being the discussion titled "One Novel's Journey" featuring Meg Medina as moderator and Kathi Appelt and A.B. Westrick as speakers.  The choice of workshops was a tough call, as I'd also very much wanted to go to the one on pacing, but the overall view of the process of novelling seemed more appropriate to where I am right now. 

Westrick, fairly well known in the JRW circles, has been writing for a long time.  Medina asked when she began to take it seriously, and her reply was that there was a point where she couldn't stop writing.  She saw it in her children's reactions; when she disciplined them they'd ask, "Mom, did you get your writing time today?"  After a period that she described as "ten years of rejection letters" she decided to join in an MFA program, which is where she met Appelt, her mentor for the final project that ended up being her first published novel, Letters (due out early next year). 

There seems a great fascination among writers for how "the other guy," whoever or whatever gender the other guy may actually be, made it.  TheWriter Magazine that I'm reading right now, in fact, has an article describing the paths taken by several different successful authors (including Piers Anthony, one of my favorites).  You see investigations in the same vein posted all over the web.  Nearly all the stories I've read, though, touch on either the extended period of time it took the author to succeed, or the number (and occasionally the ascerbity) of rejections the author went through.  Rarely do they touch on the revision process which is, I think, the more interesting part.

The topic of revision came up early and often in this session.  Appelt revised her latest book, if I heard her correctly, 30 times before publishing.  Westrick stopped counting after 15 revisions, but she recalls rewriting the entire novel five times during the final semester of her MFA program.  Writing a novel is a lot of work.  Writing/rewriting a novel five times is ginormous. 

The overall number of revisions is significant in the general, comparative sense, but the path through the rewrites proved fascinating.  Westrick's first effort produced a story told in first person, present tense about a boy growing up in a dysfunctional family situation in the South that once was.  Appelt felt it was okay, but asked Westrick to give it a shot writing in the past tense.  When that attempt failed to destroy either book or author, she continued exhorting her mentee with what both said was a common phrase, "just try it," and thus prompted another rewrite to switch the POV from first person to third person.

Switching POV, incidentally, is tough.  I did an exercise in my recent creative writing class in which we wrote a scene (or selected one already written) and switched from one POV to another.  It's not merely a matter of changing pronouns.  Instead, the language, the perspective, the background knowledge, everything, must shift along with the pronouns.  Even the pacing changes, as I found when I switched Undercover Truths from third to first.  It's not an easy process at all, and so my hat's off to Westrick for carrying it through an entire novel. 

It didn't stop there, of course.  Appelt felt that the story's chronology was hurting it, causing it to read in too linear a fashion.  The MC seemed to merely be moving from one scene to another.  She picked a critical scene from mid-book and suggested Westrick begin with it, and then rewrite the work as a series of flashbacks.  This revision, Westrick said, was the hardest one, and I can believe her.  A novel by nature is a stringing together of a great many scenes, and clipping out and reorganizing all of the scenes in a manner freed of any chronological requirements/benefits represents a mammoth undertaking. 

It succeeded, though, mammoth or not.  Westrick said that after graduation in January she sent out queries and, in a month, had secured representation by an agent, and in another month had editors interested in her work.

There were quite a few gems, apart the obvious story arc, from the session.  Appelt commented on the risk of a mentor's vision impeding on an author's vision for the story, and though she agreed it was a tough line to dance, they read one of the e-mails from mentor to mentee and it seemed quite respectful of Westrick's status as the author. 

Westrick spoke up and equated the mentor-mentee relationship to an author-editor relationship, describing times when Appelt felt that a character wouldn't have said what Westrick had him saying in a scene.  This comment resonated with me, because I had beta readers doing the same thing with Married to Mars.  Westrick's insight paralleled my own experiences; she said, "the fact that she thinks the character would say this means that I haven't described the character well."

They discussed what, to me, were a couple of new topics.  Westrick brought up "desire line," which she described as the emotional arc in a story.  Appelt, in turn, discussed "controlling belief" which is part of the desire line consideration but serves more fundamental a purpose.  The plot, she said, is the overt, action-oriented pull on a character, dragging him merrily through the story, while the controlling belief is what pushes the character, serving as his motivating force.  Controlling belief, she said, is what allows the reader to invest in a character.  Meanwhile, it's never stated, but always shown.  She cautioned that a controlling belief doesn't have to be logical or true; it just has to be held securely by the character it's driving.

Medina did a great job as moderator, guiding but staying out of the way of the story for the most part.  She offered some verbal treats, the Thin Mints of the session (no TOSK blog post would be complete without a horrible metaphor), of her own.  "Writing is exhausting--exhilarating and exhausting, so when we finish a draft we just want a gold star," she said early on, and then later she agreed with something I didn't write down by saying, "we find a story by going to the place of longing in our heart."

"Writing is a gift--a present to those we love.  We don't want to give a half-assed present," Appelt said, giving me an excellent quote to close this entry out with.  There shall be no half-assed presents in my work going forward.


  1. Well said! Readers deserve the best work we can put forward.

  2. Exactly go full tilt or go home, no half assing it. I'd much rather put one good one out then 100 crappy ones. Blog hopped here too!