Monday, August 31, 2009

What My Typewriter Taught Me About Revising

Years ago when I got serious about writing, back before computers were something an ordinary person could own, I bought an electric typewriter. It cost $100 used, which was a lot of money. My monthly rent for the three bedroom apartment in a small depressed mill town where I did my writing was also $100.

I did a lot of writing on that typewriter, including the piece that became my first sale. It was a long biographical sketch of Louisa May Alcott's childhood which I sold to American Heritage. Unfortunately, the editor who purchased it died shortly after the sale, and that piece never saw print--though, rather miraculously, I did get paid in full for it.

Typing my manuscripts on that venerable machine taught me a valuable lesson I frequently forget now that I have computer. When I was done typing up something new, I'd often go over it and revise, writing my revisions in pen or pencil in the spaces between the lines. Invariably, when I went back to the piece the next day, I'd note that the revisions I'd made at the end of my writing session had weakened the writing. Since the original was still there, this was not a serious problem. I just ignored the revisions and stuck with the typescript.

But then the computer came in and made it easy to revise away the first draft simultaneously with writing it. Those revisions left no trace of the original behind.

Now, knowing that revisions can weaken my writing, I do my best to keep earlier drafts and compare them to revisions to make sure I haven't drained the life out of the piece. But it's a constant struggle.

One way I fight this tendency is now is that I write my first drafts using a simple writing device called the AlphaSmart. I learned about this device from other writers who recommended it on one of the RWA discussion loops years ago. I have written several books on it since.

The AlphaSmart's interface is so clunky it is difficult to do anything on it but straight ahead typing. It weighs almost nothing, so I can curl up in bed with it, snuggle into my pillows, close my eyes and start reporting on the scenes that fill my imagination. When I'm done I plug it into a USB cable and upload whatever I've typed into a text file or Word. It runs on 3 AA batteries which will usually last me about four months with daily use.

The AlphaSmart helps avoid the revision demon, but only for the first draft. I learned a vital lesson last year when I pulled up what I thought was a current draft of one of my novels and got to work on it, only to realize a few chapters later that what I'd been working on was not the current draft, but an older one. When I went back to look at what had been my real current draft, I was struck by how much better the earlier draft was. The writing in the older version was spare and to the point. The earlier revision I had done to it had added lots of words, phrases and descriptions that slowed down the reader.

This past winter, when I revised the version of Lord Lighting I just sold, mostly what I did was take out the extra words and scenes I'd put in in previous revisions. I cut a good 7,000 words out of the manuscript and it was a lot better for it.

So now that I'm working on the first draft of my next book, I'm giving a lot of thought to how to restrain myself from what I am starting to think of as "destructive revision." I've gone so far as to contemplate writing my second draft the way I wrote drafts in the bad old days--typing the whole thing in from scratch while reading the printed version of the first draft.

I'm not sure I'll go that far. Human fingers can only take so much and after a lifetime of typing mine have a tendency to protest when I type for 5 hours straight every day. Still, I'm going to do what I can to keep myself from adding anything but the words and phrases that have to be added to make the story make sense, to set the scene more clearly, or to strengthen the dialogue or character motivation.

It's a balancing act--in my revisions last winter I did add a couple paragraphs to the beginning of Lord Lightning that made the difference between the query bouncing back unread, as had happened in the past, and my getting four requests for the full manuscript from top agents. Sometimes something is missing and putting it in makes the book better. But if nothing else, I'm going to keep my early drafts, and check back from time to time to make sure that my revisions have made the work better, not worse.

I'll also wait before revising. The most destructive revisions, in my experience, are those I make when I'm soaked in the work and haven't taken a bit of time to step back and get to where I can read what is on the page, not what I think I've written.

What do you do to prevent destructive revisions from draining the life out of your work?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

What Keeps Us Turning The Pages?

Well, I finally made my way through all 700 pages of Vanity Fair. The more I read the more I remembered why it was one of my least favorite Victorian novels.

The critical edition I was reading included several contemporary reviews and modern appraisals, and I was fascinated to read that my suspicions about what Thackeray's portrait of Amelia revealed about him was true: Amelia's character, was indeed based on that of his poor wife who became mad. And that is why he paints her so affectionately and so sentimentally, and ultimately, why she is one of the least engaging characters in the book.

The idea that he was being ironic about her masochism and stupidity never occurred to his contemporaries or any critics until the post-modern period. Most tellingly, most of his contemporaries found his authorial adoration of her puzzling and repellent. As oppressed as Victorian women might be, readers in Thackeray's day, including men, did find Amelia's behavior abnormal.

But that said, one important fact stands out: I read every one of the 700 pages of this book. And this stood out to me because you do not want to know how many recent novels I've abandoned 100 pages in because I was so bored and so unable to get into the characters that I couldn't bear to read another word.

So that got me thinking about what it is that Thackeray was doing right. His plotting is humdrum. You aren't on the edge of your seat wondering what is going to happen to his characters. His characters' emotions are blunted and every time they threaten to turn into people with feelings you might care about, Thackeray steps out from behind the curtain and reminds you they are puppets meant to teach you a lesson about how rotten people really are.

But even so, Vanity Fair is still fun to read.

A couple reasons why suggest themselves. Even though each of the characters is meant, quite blatantly, to teach us a lesson, Thackeray makes them come alive with that brilliant choice of detail. Every scene and every bit of dialogue is grounded in reality. People walk around real rooms in real neighborhoods and talk to each other like real people would. And each character is painted in a way where they are unique, no matter what use the master puppeteer intends them for.

Becky's speeches could only be Becky's. Miss Crawley behaves as only she would do. This realism was what Thackeray contemporaries found so impressive in his writing. Tellingly, the only passages I found myself forced to skip were those where Thackeray descended to painting an ethnic stereotype--the Irish commander's wife and some of the European scenes where, having got rid of his most interesting characters, Thackeray seemed to be flailing around for something to say until he brings back Becky and finishes his book off with a denouement in which he proves just how little he understands about the emotional lives of actual women.

The other thing that kept me reading was what I think of as the "Gossip Factor." Once people seem real, we want to know what they've been up to. Think of how when you get together with people you haven't seen in a while, you want to know what all your mutual acquaintances are up to. They don't have to have been attacked by a vampire to interest you. You just want to know, are they dating someone, did they change jobs, what happened to their son? So it is with Thackeray's characters. He makes you want to know what they did next, whatever it might be, and that points to what a very good writer he is despite his tin ear for human emotion.

So I came away thinking that Vanity Fair is a puppet show, but realizing too that a good puppet show is compelling entertainment, which is why children even now enjoy them.

What can the aspiring writer take from this? How important it is to ground your characters in reality, to paint them with the telling details that turn them into individuals. That we must make sure our characters; personalities come through in the way they speak. Don't obsess about crafting an unusual plot because if you make your characters real enough, your reader will want to know more about them, even if the "more" is not all that astonishing.

I'd love to hear your ideas about what makes this book work for you, or if it didn't why it didn't.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Thackeray: The 19th Century's First Punk?

I've always loved 19th century novels, with one exception. I could never quite get my head around Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Thackeray subtitled it "A novel without a hero" and I suspect that might have something to do with why.

Thackeray's view of humanity is dark. The way he tells his tale a lot closer to the tone of David Byrne and the other ground breaking punks of the 1980s than it is to Austen or Dickens. The latter are social satirists, but behind their writing you sense that as much as venal or even evil people infuriate them, they believe people could be kind to each other and that redeeming love is possible. There is something fundamentally optimistic about their vision of humankind, no matter how dark their stories may become--and Dickens' can become quite dark indeed.

But though Thackeray's tone, on the surface might make him seem closer to Austen than Dickens, in style, this is misleading. Thackeray has a much bleaker view of life. He gets you laughing, but when you are done laughing at his character-puppets--which is his characterization of them, not mine--you feel a bit less sure that any happy ending is possible, anywhere, for anyone.

It's possible the dark world-view seeping through his wit stems from the tragedy he experienced in his marriage. His young wife, whom he adored, became schizophrenic and had to be institutionalized. The law of the day made it impossible for him to divorce her and he might not have even if he could, given his love for her. This condemned him to live without a partner for the rest of his life and may have fatally affected his ability to trust in love, given how happy he had been in the early days of his marriage.

Whatever the explanation for Thackeray's dim view, his masterpiece, ironically, is a lot less popular now among serious readers than it was fifty years ago at the height of the uber-optimistic, totally fake 50s. Perhaps the degree to which cynicism pervades our media now takes much of the fun out of reading him. Readers have to turn to fiction to find satisfying happy endings and a positive world view--one reason why Romance, as a genre, continues to sell so strongly, even in a brutal market for all other kinds of reading.

The other problem with Thackeray is that much of his humor resembles what you see in today's cynically comic movies in that it is full of self-referential cultural references. But the culture he is referring to is too far in the past for us to get the jokes.

Austen's humor works a lot better for the modern reader because she stuck with making fun of universal traits of human nature. Everyone knows someone like Lady Catherine De Bourgh or Emma. But Thackeray frequently raises a laugh by poking fun at the novels his readers were familiar with, and that kind of humor goes right over the modern reader's head.

Fortunately, since I have been soaking my head in obscure early 19th century writing of late, I have been getting quite a few of his references and enjoying Vanity Fair far more than I could before.

Any of you who have ever researched Regency thieves' slang (cant) or read your way through Pierce Egan should still get a laugh from this Thackeray parody:
One two three! It is the signal that Black Vizard had agreed on.
"Mofy! is that your snum?" said a voice from the area. "I'll gully the dag and bimbole the clicky in a snuffkin."
"Nuffle your clod and beladle your glum banions," said Vizard with a dreadful oath. "This way men; if they screak, out with your snickers and slick! Look to the pewter room, Blowser. You, Mark to the old gaff's mopus box! and I," added he in a lower but more horrible voice. "I will look to Amelia."
This very passage is cited online by a blogger who used it to illustrate why he hates 19th century novels. All that impenetrable prose! The blogger, obviously, missed that this was parody. But in 150 years you can be sure the self-referential content today's cynical punk culture loves so well will be likely to suffer the exact same fate.

If there's a lesson here it is probably that if you want your work to live forever, stick to making fun of basic human nature. It worked pretty well for Shakespeare, too.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Music in the Regency Period

I have been reading a wonderful book, Johannes Brahms: A Biography.Though it is describing events decades after the Regency period, this book is making me understand an important way in which the lives of all people living in the 19th century and before differed from ours.

In the Brahms biography the author points out that in his 34 years in Vienna, the center of the European musical universe, Brahms would have had 13 opportunities to hear Beethoven's Ninth Symphony performed by an orchestra. That works out to one every two and a half years. Mostly he became acquainted with great works of the past by reading the sheet music or by hearing his friends play simplified arrangements of these great works arranged for the piano or perhaps a string quartet.

Most people, of course, would have had no chances to hear a professional production of most contemporary music. An English music lover like Jane Austen, experienced "music" in the context of neighborly get togethers where people performed piano arrangements of famous works that had stood the test of time.

In Austen's day, Beethoven's Ninth hadn't been composed yet, of course, as it came out in 1824, but his sonatas would have been available in sheet music form in the Regency and his other Symphonies and concertos would have been known and possibly available in sheet music forms arranged for piano or piano and violin.

However, it took a while for the musical amateur to appreciate the works of his middle period. Even critics considered them "noise" and "nonsense" when they first heard them, as they were so different from the orderly arrangements of notes and the logical chord changes they were accustomed to hearing from beloved composers like Mozart, Haydn and Handel. Austen never have heard a note of Beethoven.

But it is the rarity of music in this period that fascinates me living as I do in a time when music is so omnipresent. My dad was born decades before the advent of radio and widespread marketing of recorded music He told me once that he still remembered the first time he heard a piano. He was almost six years old and the piano was being played in a department store.

It was a revelatory moment for him that left him standing transfixed, while his mother tried to tug him away and get on with her shopping. It was a moment he remembered all his life. He attended live concerts almost weekly throughout his later years and owned one of the first stereo phonographs so he could listen to his music at home. But recorded music never satisfied him the way live music did.

His experience of music was entirely different from that of anyone now alive. But it gives us a hint of what music might have been like for people in the Regency period. Hearing music was a relatively rare event--especially music that was well performed beyond the amateur level--and it was valued in a way we can't imagine and probably had a psychological impact beyond anything we can imagine, overwhelmed as we are in an environment that is so filled with music that we have lost our ability to marvel at it.

In the Regency period, if you wanted to listen to music when you were alone you could chose from any piece you could play on whatever instrument you owned--assuming those you lived with would put up with it. With an invalid mother, Austen must often have had to console herself with the memory of the pieces she liked rather than the actual sound which might have disturbed the invalid's sleep.

With this in mind, you can see what a valuable present Jane Fairfax's piano really was. Without it she would have had no access to music except when her betters invited her to a musical evening where she'd be at the mercy of the tastes of the other invitees.

The only other place she would hear music would be at a ball where a small group of musicians of varying ability would play dance music. Many people probably attended these balls because it was their only chance to hear even semi-professionals play.

To hear professional musicians play music often--and by often we mean that you might have heard a favorite piece played once every 30 months or so, you would have had to be well off. To hear what you wanted to hear more frequently you would have had to be a dukes or a nabob. Only they had the resources to bring famous European performers and composers to England where they would perform privately whatever they were instructed to play. The super-rich could also afford to commission the pieces to which their names are still affixed.

Austen's collection of sheet music gives us an idea of the kinds of music she valued. It includes " songs by Handel and Haydn and by English composers of the day, like Dibdin, Samuel Webbe the younger and Shield, plus folk songs popular ballads and comic songs, Italian songs, French songs and operatic selections, also instrumental pieces by Corelli, Handel, Gluck, Haydn, Pleyel, Cramer and John Christian Bach." This last quotation comes from a discussion about music in Austen's writings and life you can read HERE.

Here is a snippet of the kind of music Austen and other Regency music lovers would have heard at the orchestral recital that would be, perhaps, a once in a lifetime event:

Here's another, with good video of the small orchestra used for the popular Baroque pieces still popular in the early 19th century.

Here is a song by Charles Dibden that Austen might have heard sung by friends:

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Real Regency Astrologer

In the course of avoiding writing, I mean researching my book I ran into a fascinating account of a real astrologer who flourished in the Regency period.

He was John Varley who lived from 1778 - 1842. He is much better known to the world for his other claims to fame. He was a well known landscape painter who specialized in water colors. You can see many of his paintings by following the links you'll find on this Google Image Search.

But the main reason Varley is remembered is because he was a friend of William Blake, and scholars believe that it was his influence that led to Blake completing the astonishing series of drawings including The Ghost of A Flea which you can now see at the Tate Gallery.

Varley is dear to me because it turns out that it was he who first figured out the astrological function of the newly discovered planet Uranus. Readers of my novel, Lord Lightning, will find that the astrological meaning of Uranus plays an important part in that story.

Histories of science often claim that the discovery of new planets in the 1700 and 1800s dealt a death blow to astrology. But this is simply not true. Astrologers like Varley did what astrologers always do. They tracked the movements of the planets and watched their own charts to see what impact, if any, the new planet would have. Varley did just that, with impressive results.

As recounted by his son, Varley would get up every morning and look in his ephemeris to see what his daily transits would be and work out his secondary progressions. (We'll talk about what these astrological factors are in a future blog post.) Varley had some suspicions about what the new planet might mean, so when he saw an important Uranus transit to his natal chart one morning, he was convinced some dire event must follow.

As recounted in a public domain Google Book James Holmes and John Varley By Alfred Thomas Story, on the day of the transit, Varley was away from home, but when nothing disturbing occurred, he concluded that the event must be manifesting at his house. He rushed home. When he arrived he heard a cry of "fire!"and found his own house in flames.

His son Albert reported that Varley was so "delighted" at having discovered what the astrological effect of Uranus was that he sat down while his house was burning, even though he knew that his house was not insured for a penny, and wrote up an account of his discovery. He had timed the catastrophe to within a few minutes. His son said that he had suspected that the square or opposition of Uranus would have a bad effect but not exactly what. Although he lost everything in the fire he regarded that as a small matter compared with his discovery of the new planet's way of manifesting.

Any serious astrologer will have no difficulty understanding Varley's excitement, though most of us will have a difficult time timing events as closely as Varley did. Many of the traditional techniques Varley would have used were lost in the decades that followed his death when Astrology went through the transformation most closely associated with the Theosophists.

Modern psychologically-oriented Astrology derives from the teachings of people associated with the Theosophists who wrote in the late 19th and early 20th century. Though some of their techniques add richness to the traditional teachings, all too often they discarded time-tested ancient techniques they didn't understand in favor of new ones they'd made up.

Varley also predicted the death of fellow artist, William Collins RA to the very day years before the event took place.

Varley is only one of many people who are well-known to the world whose astrological pursuits have been dismissed by mainstream historians. William Blake took them seriously which is one reason he spent so much time with him and ended up doing his greatest drawings at Varley's home.