Old Stuff, Old Vanya

So I’ve had a bad week, or two. Despite my grandly worded, Lets-Get-To-It! last post, I have fallen into a writing funk. Again, I’m not saying Writers’ Block, I’m saying lazy. Also, the lack of a proper desk. I don’t think working on the couch is doing it for me, now that working requires going back and forth between the printed manuscript and the computer. It’s too many things for one lap! In the next few days, I hope to develop better work habits for this part of the project. There have been other extenuating circumstances that made working difficult, but you don’t care about any of that. My point is I’m sorry for not maintaining this site better in the interim, and thanks for sticking around. I am getting back to doing all those things that I was so fired up about the last time I posted.

One thing I have been doing, in addition to getting back into running and finishing up a free-lance painting job, is cleaning my room and filing everything I’ve ever created from elementary school onward. I won’t be living at home forever, in fact I’d very much like to get out within the year, but I plan to leave my bedroom finished, organized, and well-designed when I go. This way it can be a proper guest room for my parents instead of a disaster area. The problem right now is that everything I’ve owned in my life and everything I acquired in college is trying to co-exist in a room significantly smaller than the one I had in my college apartment. I’m attempting to downsize, but… I’m a writer. Organization skills do not come naturally.

Also, I’m a writer. I’m a paper-person. I’ve been a writer and a paper-person since second grade. I’ve heard that some writers throw out all their old work, but I’ve never been able to do that. To me, all those raw ideas are so valuable. Someday I might want to write a book for third graders, and those stories I wrote in third grade about a girl finding an injured baby pegasus might provide just the starting point I need. And what about the story I started in fifth and sixth grade that was supposed to be my first novel, about the slave-girl-turned-rescuer with twin black unicorns and a glowing sword? I’d like to turn that into a cool little book for a middle-grade audience, someday when I have the time.

So that’s me, saving everything. The problem is I also saved all the binders (and Lisa Frank trapper keepers) going back to third grade, and binders and notebooks take up a lot of space. Now I’m going through and removing all those valuable stories, and tossing the binders and recycling all the rest. I’m saving so much space. It’s a process, though. You’d think I could toss a whole binder full of science notes, except I probably got bored during science class and started writing an epic story. I have to go through everything. Yesterday, I found some fake journal entries of soldiers in trenches during WWII that I wrote in 11th grade, for a combined history and creative writing assignment. They were fairly over-dramatic, but also surpisingly powerful, and showed some growth in my writing voice. I also find tidbits of Vanya everywhere, like this sketch from the back of some Art History flashcards my freshmen year of college: I’d seen some boys in France who pulled off the hair-in-a-high-ponytail look really well, and I was fooling around with whether that would work for Vanya in the second book. (The answer is probably not, since it makes him look even more like a girl, but there’s still something about it I kind of like.) I even found some narrative on the back of the card:

…his hair had grown, of course, and he had taken to wearing it up in a sort of topknot, or messy bun. Strands of the blonde were forever escaping to blow around his face. This did nothing to decrease his femininity, and as a result both boys and girls were always staring…

This is also when Vanya was still the “emo kid,” with his fishnet shirt, although it looks like I was finally on my way to figuring out how to draw his cheekbones and jaw-line. Shows how things change: for the current version of the book, I decided the fishnets weren’t necessary for his character, and I no longer wanted to look at them in every illustration.

Do you keep everything you’ve ever written, or are you more the light-it-all-on-fire every few years type? Feel free to drop a line in the comments below. 🙂

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Let’s Stop Writing Lazy

Yesterday, I posted about how I’d finished Round One of editing (wooh!). The kicker is, I went through the last forty pages in a single day. I was on a roll. And hey, they day wasn’t even over yet! Why not go right to Round Two? I picked up my manuscript, booted up the computer, and got ready to start recording my corrections from the beginning.

And I was immediately confronted with that sentence. That parenthetical, periodical travesty that had made it this far because I couldn’t figure out how to de-convolute it without ruining some, or all, of its effect. Maybe, later on in the book, I could have let it slide…. but it’s in the first paragraph. The first paragraph of an indie novel. I don’t know about you, but I make decisions on self-published books based on that first paragraph. If the author can’t convince me in that space of time that they have a competent control of the english language, I’m out.

So this is where I realized what I’m really up against in Round Two. I’m up against all the things that can’t be solved quickly, and without considerable thought. I hadn’t rewritten the sentence with my red pen; I had only written “still not sure.” Nope, not sure at all. Last night, I closed my computer and slunk off to bed. I thought of that sentence while starting my day this morning, and mulled it over. I asked myself questions like, “What am I trying to achieve with this sentence? Is it more important for it to be periodical, or lyrical? What is another way to convey this information?” Then when I got back to the computer, I finally did the work. I tried out several different things, and crafted a new sentence that has the dramatic effect I want (I hope) without sacrificing prose and readability. I’ve probably spent over an hour on that single sentence—and this is how every little thing is going to be from here on out.

Here’s another example. After she’d read most of the prototype, Lady Higg told me, “Nathaniel sighs a lot.” I said, “Huh, I guess he does.” It’s not really a problem, and it sort of makes sense with his character, and how he’s feeling in the first few pages. To be safe, though, I counted the sighs in red ink. Today, when I realized the “Nathaniel sighed” I’d marked as number one was actually his second sigh in four pages, I had to look a little closer. The line was, “Nathaniel sighed inwardly.” Well, what does that really mean? What is the feeling I’m trying to convey here? Again, I tried a few different things, and finally arrived on, “Nathaniel suppressed a desire to beat his head against the steering wheel.”  I think this provides a much more concrete image, is much more interesting, and conveys more of his frustration and melancholy than the previous, lazy line where he sighs yet again.

One more story. Back in April, as graduation and the Senior Show loomed closer, I had to write a Personal Statement to display next to the Wanderlust prototype and illustrations that made up my portion of the Senior Exhibition. The statement had to be approved by my advisor. When I went to see him, I was all like, “BAM, I work at the Writing Center, yo, how’s that for an artist statement?!” Okay, I wasn’t actually like that at all, but the point is I’d seen how bad Artist Statements can get, and I was feeling a little complacent about mine. My advisor said, “Okay. But when you say this, what do you mean? Can you find a way to actually describe that? Can you be more specific?” I may have gone away grumbling, but I knew he was right. It was the same thing I would have asked from anyone at the Writing Center, even though it’s so hard to be specific when you write about abstract things. I worked on my statement, I found a way to say what I meant, I got more specific, and I sent it back to him. He said, “Not bad,” and asked for more. We went back and forth several times after that, and the end result was an artist statement that was so much better than my complacent, and lazy, first effort.

This story’s connection to my current endeavor is pretty clear. In editing Wanderlust, now is the time to demand more from myself, and stop settling for complacency. It’s time to mull things over, to spend a day on a single sentence if necessary, and to stop writing lazy when, with a little work, I have so much more to give.

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Yesterday and todays’ rapid-fire posts have been all about the nitty-gritty of the writing process. I’ll try to mix it up later this week, but tell me: Are you interested in hearing more about harps and Celtic mythology? Should I post more art? How about book reviews? Would you like to see more nittygritty writing posts in the future?

Editing: Round One Complete

I did it! I read through all 138 pages of my printed manuscript, 52,968 words, and absolutely destroyed them with a red pen. It looks a little like this:

Now, I can begin Round Two, where I’ll integrate all those comments into the computer file. In some places, I’ve actually written out all the changes needed in a scene, and it will be a simple matter of transcribing those notes onto the computer in their proper place. In other places, though, I’ve circled things and squiggled lines and written notes like, “Sloppy!” “Fix this!” and “Clarify!” In these places, Editing Round Two will be a much more involved process, where I’ll have to actually go in and fix all those things. I do plan to fix as much as I can this next time around, and I plan to keep a comprehensive list of anything I skip over. I anticipate that Round Three will entail forcing myself to tackle everything on that list, and then maybe—maybe—I’ll be ready to turn the manuscript over to some outside parties for further advice.

Wanna know what three things I found myself writing in the margins the most during Round One? Here you go:

More DRAMA! This is for moments where something goes down that is fairly important to the story, but, rather than showcasing the event or detail, my prose glosses over it too quickly. One doesn’t want one’s novel to be over-dramatic, of course, but you still want to draw attention to the right things, and use exciting prose to do so.

More Space! Leftenant Weatherby told me the story felt a bit rushed back in May, and I wasn’t certain I believed him; it’s a YA novel, after all. Fast-paced is good! Reading through this time, however, I think I knew what he meant. In my writing, I have a tendency to move on to the next thing without a proper lead-in or introduction, making the action feel stilted and too soon. “More space” means I need to take more physical space on the page to get there, and use description or character interaction to create a more believable illusion of the passage of time.

Tighten! This means the prose is sloppy. It’s mostly good, it mostly says the right things, it’s mostly doing what it needs to, but it needs to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb and tightened up until it sounds professional, and until it shines.

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Thank you, readers, for sticking with me this far. I’m really excited for the next part of the process, and I hope you’ll read along to see how it goes. Oh, and don’t forget to check out the Wanderlust Facebook Page if you haven’t already. I’ve started to post a few extras over there that might not necessarily show up on the blog.

When you’re editing your work, what three things do you have to tell yourself the most?

-G

The Harper Boy, and How He Began

A few nights ago, during a family game of Citadels, I said, “Now I’m going to spend all my gold and build a library.”

My mother said, “That’s just like you!”

My own harper boy, Vanya.

One of the September projects I am undertaking is to sort, weed, and organize my personal library, so I can finally get all my favorite books out of boxes onto my shelves. In the process, I’ve been finding a lot of old treasures. Most interestingly, I found some forgotten evidence of how my conception of the wandering Harper Boy began. These books (and song) clearly had a direct influence on my creation of Vanya, the harper boy of Wanderlust, and on the formation of my own life-dreams as well.

First, Adam of The Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray, and illustrated by Robert Lawson (pictured cover by Neil Truscott).

It’s all there in that lushly illustrated cover: the traveling Boy with his Harp (and dog!). Please note that the harp is strung incorrectly; it’s the only thing wrong with an otherwise lovely cover. Adam of the Road is a medieval adventure story about a boy who loses his minstrel father and his dog and must find his way through the dangers of medieval England alone. I’ve penciled the year 2001 inside the cover, alongside my name, so I read this book over ten years ago, in about sixth grade. Given that, the clarity with which I remember parts of it is surprising. Late in the book Adam reunites with a close friend. They find each other during a church service, however, and must contain their joy, keeping it close and secret and spoken only by their jostled elbows and shared smiles, until the service is over. I just re-read that scene, and it is so brief, barely half a page! It left such a large impression on me regardless; it’s cool how memory works that way. I also remember strongly the deep pain of loss when Adam’s harp is stolen. I remember the loss of the harp, and not the loss of the dog, though Adam himself cared more about the latter. At any rate, the dog is recovered, and the harp is not. At the end of the book Adam is offered a place to stay and become a scholar, but he says, “No, thank you. I am a minstrel. I want to be on the road (Gray, 320).

Next, a picture book: The Minstrel and The Dragon Pup by Rosemary Sutcliff and illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark.

Again, I barely need to say it. It’s all there in the cover: The slight-figured blonde young man walking through a green world with a harp. (And a dragon; how cool!) This is a charming little book, well-illustrated and containing more words than the average picture book. I first encountered it as an excerpt in a Cricket magazine, and happily found the entire book in hardcover at a discount store not long after (I think this was Middle School). The book is all about the Minstrel and his Dragon, of course, but it’s set within the archetype of the wandering minstrel, the harper who never stays in the same place for more than a few days. As a further parallel to Vanya, this minstrel even makes a sort of magic with his harp to gain the king’s trust at the end. Reunited with his dragon, he says, “Now we’re going home. Home to the open road, you and I” (Sutcliffe, 42).

There are a few other books that honed my image of the wandering harper, notably The Riddlemaster Trilogy by Patricia McKillip (which I somehow never quite finished, even though I loved it) and even Tokien’s The Hobbit, where Thorin Oakenshield is brought a harp that first night in Bag End when the dwarves weave a magic Far o’er the misty mountains cold…  Yet I think the third largest formative influence in my conception of the Harper Boy, the conception that led to my own Vanya, is the song The Minstrel Boy, written by Thomas Moore (full lyrics and some history here). The version I knew was by the celtic rock band Enter The Haggis.

The Minstrel boy to the war has gone

In the ranks of Death you will find him

His father’s sword he hath girded on

and his wild harp slung behind him.

The Minstrel boy has a ‘wild harp’ slung on his back, a harp he has taken to war, which further cements the image of a boy and his harp as fearless travelers. This song, which I discovered in early high school, is where the boy and his harp became distinctly Irish, and also where they became noble and tragic. The minstrel falls, and before he dies he “tears asunder” the chords of his harp, so that it will “never sound in slavery.” This, perhaps, is where Vanya acquired the haunting sadness that runs deep in his bones.

Adam of the Road, The Minstrel and the Dragon Pup, and The Minstrel Boy. All of these contributed to my conception of the Harper Boy archetype, and subconsciously led to the creation of Vanya, my own darling Harper Boy. The harp itself is a very feminine object (I can share my essay that touches on the erotic connection between a man and his harp at a later date), and a woman playing a classical harp is an archetype of grace and sophistication. The woman at her harp is an aristocratic image (like this still from Disney’s The Artistocats), and it is a stationary image. The woman and her harp sit in the parlor, to please and be worshiped by the society and menfolk around her. But a boy with a harp? He slings his wild harp on his back, and he travels the world. If (when? When) I learn to play the Celtic harp, I will, of course, be a foxy harper lady—yet I want to embody the archetype of the traveling harper, of the Harper Boy. The dream breaks down somewhat when I consider the logistics of carrying a harp on my back in addition to a pack containing my laptop and other life necessities, but I’m not convinced it’s impossible. Vanya is my darling boy, and I say that like a mother; a title I claim because I crave, so badly, through my work and words, to give him life. He is the culmination of all the influences that created my myth of the Harper Boy, but he is also that lost and wanting part of me that needs to strike out, brave and wild, and fill my beating heart with faraway skies and the music of distant roads. It’s a romantic notion, but long-term traveling, or any traveling, is a thing people do, a real thing I can aspire to and plan towards. And if my inspiration is partially fueled by the idea of the wandering minstrel, by that boy and his harp, who will blame me? We all come from somewhere and, as much as he comes from the influences I’ve listed, Vanya also comes from me, and wherever I go, whether I learn to harp or not, I’ll carry him too.

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Leave a comment, if you like. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post. Have you had any similar experiences, where you didn’t realize what books or songs influenced you until you found them again later on? What characters and archetypes have informed your life? Does my archetype of the Harper Boy agree with your own mythology?

New Jersey, A Beer Review, and that Back-to-School Feeling

I just got back from a summer road-trip to New Jersey. One of my brother’s best friends, Ranger B, has been working at Sandy Hook Gateway National Park all summer. I drove down with Brother and Brackett to camp at Sandy Hook and visit Ranger B for a few days. Brother, Brackett, and Ranger B have all been best friends since elementary school, and Brother and Brackett were college roommates. The three of them still get together often, and even exchange gifts at the holidays (it’s sort of adorable). I’m three years younger than the guys; for a sense of scale, they were the cool high school seniors when I was a freshman.  In the early years, as the tag-along baby sister, my goal in life was to bother them as much as possible. Later, I idolized them, and hung out with them at every opportunity (despite being all pre-teenishly self-conscious about whether they even wanted me around). Now that we’re all grown up, we’re all good friends. I’m fairly sure I’m legitimately part of the gang, and besides, we couldn’t have gone camping if I hadn’t brought the tents. 🙂

View from the Lighthouse on Sandy Hook. You can see one of the beaches, and the New York skyline across the water.

We had a real good time. Sandy Hook is beautiful place. The beaches were wide and sandy, the water was warm, and NYC looked perfect (and perfectly distant) across the water. The moon was so round and bright after dark that we didn’t need flashlights. We toured lighthouses, we swam, we drank beer on the beach, we played card games in the campsite, we chased phosphorescent jellyfish, and we had some local beer at the Chubby Pickle and didn’t even lose at trivia night.

Hang tight: I’m going to review some beer real quick. Check out Ales to Lagers for more beer reviews by my best friend (Lady Higg: call me sometime this week? I miss you!). While at the Chubby Pickle, we had the New Jersey Beer Co. Hudson Pale Ale. I found this beer pretty interesting, because at the first taste I didn’t much care for it. It was hoppy and bitter, and also markedly thin and sharp tasting. I feel comfortable using the word shearing. Some folks prefer bitter beers, but I’d much rather have something smooth. I thought this was going to be one of those beers that sticks in my mouth, getting more intolerable with every sip (and between Ranger B, Brackett, and I, we were faced with an entire pitcher!). Here’s the interesting thing: this is the most drinkable bitter beer I have ever had. Maybe it was that shearing quality that sent it straight to the back of the mouth, or maybe it was that light and airy aftertaste, but this beer went down nice, was very refreshing, and actually grew tastier with every sip. Good job, New Jersey.

It’s Labor Day weekend. Soon, everyone will be back at school. For the first time since kindergarten, I don’t have any school to go back to. What a weird feeling! Still, all that back-to-work energy is in the air, and there for the taking. I’m soaking it up, and using it to tackle my own projects. I actually came back from New Jersey feeling really energized, and the best thing about my back-to-school substitue projects is that no one is going to grade them. I’ll tell you more about what I’m up to later this week.

Readers: how about you? Are you going back to school? Do you still feel weird about not going back to school? Have you had all the adventures you wanted to have this summer? Is there anything you still have to do before the summer months are completely gone?