Reflections from Residency
I just completed my third residency in the Antioch University MFA in Creative Writing program. Here are some of the key themes and threads I’ve teased out from those 10 days.
Revision / First Scenes
After the rough draft is finished, after the raw material is there on the page, it’s time to interrogate the novel and ensure that every element has earned its right to be there.
Every character serves the main character in some way, either as a foil to highlight her qualities, or as a guide, or as an adversary, etc.
Every event/scene is necessary to and furthers the plot.
Every setting/piece of description/detail is relevant and ties in to theme or character development.
Every word choice/stylistic element is appropriate for the narrator and the setting/time period.
If the first draft is all about the free-flow of writing and discovering the story as you go, the next drafts are about intention. Ask yourself: What is the central question of the book? Anything that does not tie in to this can be edited out.
In a nutshell: know the chase, and cut to it.
In thinking about my own novel, I found it really helpful to go through Francesca Lia Block’s 12 Questions to Help Structure Your Novel, which take you through a series of (you guessed it) twelve questions that boil down the story to its essence.
Once you have the essence of the big picture journey of the novel (character/emotional arc + raw sequence of events), see if you can give a nod to that journey in the very first scene. It is so satisfying to come to the end of a novel and realize that the outcome was hinted at right from the start.
That first scene is so crucial to the novel, as it teaches your reader how to read the novel. For instance, in that first scene, can you:
Establish clear point-of-view?
Show your main character’s gift and flaw?
Show your main character’s motivation and want?
Reveal tension and conflict?
Hint at the questions that form the basis for the entire novel?
POV / Voice
Point-of-view is the difference between the narrator and the author. Even in 3rd person narration, the narrator is not the author, but is its own character.
First person narration is easy: the narrator is the main character and as readers we are right there in her head as she goes through the events of the story. We see what she sees, feel what she feels, pay attention to whatever she pays attention to.
Third person narration does the same thing, even though the narrator might not be a character we encounter in the events of the story. This narrator still has a perspective, a personality, and this personality is the narrator’s voice.
Some questions to ask about your narrator:
What does the narrator know? Is this an omniscient being, capable of diving into characters' thoughts and feelings, or can the narrator only see from the outside? Perhaps the narrator is omniscient but chooses to only peer inside one character’s mind.
From where and when is the narrator telling this story? From the future—thus already knowing how the story ends? Or is the narrator telling the story as it is happening?
How does the narrator feel about the characters and about the events in the story?
Is the narrator reliable?
These are a couple of tips that I gained from workshop. They may be obvious, but I found them very helpful.
Verbs like gazed, watched, and overheard are often unnecessary. In first person POV, we know the main character is looking at or hearing something because she is mentioning it. The main character is limited by her experience; this means everything she describes is her experience. In close third person POV, we can also assume that everything the narrator describes (i.e., the clouds drifting across the sky, the honking of a car) is something the main character is aware of. We can leave out these phrases from the beginnings of our sentences because they don't add anything new.
Nouns and verbs are the best words for constructing a sentence; avoid using adverbs and adjectives as much as you can. Now, I use adverbs and adjectives quite a bit in my writing, and I doubt I’ll eliminate them completely. But often times they don’t actually add anything to the sentence or to the story.
Adverbs are often already implied by the verbs they modify: in “I quickly jolted,” the verb “jolted” implies that I made a quick movement. Similarly, adjectives are often implied by the nouns they describe: in “I held the small fragment,” the noun “fragment” implies that I held a small piece of something.
Adverbs and adjectives are best left unused unless they add something surprising or unexpected to the sentence.
Practice Reading Aloud
I heard some beautiful readings at residency, and loved having the opportunity to honor the projects my peers are working on.
I also heard some readings that were hard to understand, mumbled, or delivered in a monotone and uninteresting way. Frankly, I have no idea if the writing itself was good or bad. All I know is I lost interest.
There’s the usual advice given to those speaking in public: project your voice, slow down, look out at the audience every once in a while. But more than anything, practice. As the author, you know best how to read your piece. You know where to pause for dramatic effect, where to change your tone according to the emotion of the scene.
If book tours and public readings are in your future, you owe it to your work to perform your piece in the way that best allows listeners to appreciate it.
Find Your Tribe
The best thing about residency is the people. Writing can be such a solitary, lonely pursuit. There is nothing better than the joy and affirmation of being surrounded by people who understand you, who see you, who respect your values and love your quirks.
But residency ends, and while social media lets us stay connected, it's not the same as when we can physically be with each other. So find your tribe where you live. Join a writers group and meet up once a month to write together or critique pages. Participate in local writing/literary events. Join your regional chapter of the SCBWI or any other national writing group. Stay connected--it will help you stay enthused about your writing.