I'm afraid you're gonna be stuck with me instead today. Anna has very kindly decided to leave you all at my mercy this month, and me at yours; the prospect of which is infinitely more daunting to me.
But that's not much of an introduction, is it?
Let's start again.
Hello, all you fabulous readers of Anna's blog!
It's Clara, from The Danger of Dreams (dangerofdreams.blogspot.com), a relatively new blog which I've mostly devoted to unpacking the writing process. My biggest accomplishment so far has got to be how I've duped Anna into thinking I know enough about writing and organizing to be of some help to those of you who write.
Good grief. How terrible can an introduction get?
It's this dratted "honesty" thing, I swear. Interferes with all my good intentions.
Because honestly, I'm quite new at this whole writing thing myself, and my own process could definitely use some improvement. I have yet to publish a major work, I procrastinate on drafting stories to read assorted and sundry fan fiction, and I was caught in the misery that is writer's block with my main story up until a few weeks ago.
So I invite you to join me as I basically improvise my way through this first post, and we'll see what happens! If my words aren't enlightening or inspiring, I can guarantee that at least they'll be entertaining. And really, what could be better than being entertained at somebody else's expense?
Anna suggested that I take y'all "behind-the-scenes", so to speak, with a piece of my writing, revealing the backstory on how I got it how it is, and how I plan to get it where I want it to go. Anna has brilliant suggestions.
The following excerpt I'm providing is from the first-person point of view of my character James, in a story I'm currently working on. It's a little of a mundane beginning, but I think it introduces the characters of James and Miles well.
Below the excerpt, I'll criticize my work and sketch out how I organized it. I'm going to leave off writing more specifically about organization until a later post, since I think it's more helpful at this point to give examples of organization rather than try to present it as an abstract concept.
I remember that the day everything fell apart started like any other.
The ear-splitting wail of the alarm clock in Miles' office woke me up at 5:30 a.m. and I groaned as I sat up in my sleeping bag. I could see Miles' faint outline in the sleeping bag on the other side of the room, and I smiled at the way he could sleep through any noise. I stood and tiptoed my way past the short stacks of papers that Miles had arranged around his side of the room, and lifted our empty mugs from his cluttered desk. It was time to make coffee.
Our morning ritual was always coffee together before I left for school. Ever since Miles and I moved out from Georgia to New York City for his work, we’d had to scrimp and pinch wherever we could to make ends meet. We lived out of Miles’ tiny law office in Manhattan, hiding the sleeping bags inside the closet during business hours. Coffee in the mornings seemed to be Miles’ way of reminding me that we could still feel at home in New York, even if only for a few minutes each day.
I filled our mugs from the sink in the adjoining bathroom, and then placed them inside the microwave on Miles’ desk, setting the timer for two minutes. During the day, the microwave was kept under the desk and out of sight; but at the moment, it was mine to command. I took the sack of ground coffee from inside the desk’s top drawer and inhaled deeply, savoring the aroma of the rich, dark powder. Coffee was, and still is, the best-smelling substance I know.
As soon as the microwave’s timer dinged, I removed the mugs and measured a level spoonful of ground coffee into each one. We never used coffee filters; since neither of us much minded a few coffee grounds, a little extra caffeine at the bottom of our mugs. Looking back on it, I don’t know how I would have survived a day of high school without my morning jolt of caffeine-induced energy.
Miles woke up then, as always, to the smell of coffee. He blinked the sleep from his tired eyes and smiled at me before fumbling around his sleeping bag for his glasses. I smiled back in amusement.
“They’re on your other side,” I told him, “Right next to the amicus brief you were highlighting last night.”
He nodded his thanks as he found his thick, black-framed glasses, and then placed them carefully on his face. Then he peered intently into my face.
“Ah, now I can see you. Good grief, James, you must’ve had an interesting dream.”
“Why’s that?” I asked as I handed him his mug and sat down cross-legged next to his sleeping bag.
“Your hair”, he answered with a half-smile, “Your hair seems to have been battling dragons all night long.”
He reached out with his free hand and absently ruffled my unruly brown mop.
“There”, he nodded, satisfied.
“That neatened it up?” I asked with a grin, which he returned.
“Not at all. I merely distributed the mess a little more evenly.”
“Sounds about normal, then”, I sighed, resigned to my fate.
I had given up on my hair a long time ago. As long as I could cover it with a hat, I looked decent enough for school. It wasn’t like girls were going to look at me twice anyway.
Miles raised an eyebrow at me in amusement, and then cupped both hands around his mug to warm them. He sighed as he sipped his coffee, closing his eyes to savor it and letting his shoulders drop as he relaxed. If I loved coffee, he worshipped it. I sipped some of my own and let him lose himself in silence for a few minutes, enjoying his company without really realizing it at the time. I never felt like I needed to say anything around Miles.
He looked up from his half-drained mug with a more focused gleam in his grey eyes.
“Good coffee, this”, he nodded approvingly.
I shrugged. He said it every morning, and would probably say it if I handed him a mug of coal tar one morning instead of coffee. When you drink the stuff black the way Miles does, I doubt there’s any real difference in flavor between the two. Approving the coffee was just his way of signaling that he was now awake enough for conversation.
“So how late are you opening, Miles?” I asked.
Most days Miles kept office hours until 6:00 p.m. so that we could have dinner together, but he was in the middle of a big case, which usually meant interviewing a lot of witnesses, which usually meant closing shop at 7:00 or later.
“Not too late”, he reassured me. “It’s a big case, but a pretty straightforward one. The press will have a field day with this one either way it’s decided; but thankfully, we have our ways to avoid them.”
He grinned mischievously at me, his dark brows dancing on his pale face. I grinned back, knowing that Miles was nowhere near famous enough as a lawyer to gain the attention of reporters. He knew it too, but he found a certain wry humor in it.
He gazed at the empty coffee mug in his hands wistfully, and then stood up reluctantly from his warm sleeping bag.
“So what are your plans for today, James?” he asked in a more business-like tone.
I stood up with him and grimaced as I envisioned the day ahead at school. It was only February, but I’d been ready for the school year to end since Christmas.
“The usual”, I answered. “Sit through class and take the dumb quizzes to prove I actually know stuff, then get pounded by the jocks because I make them look bad by actually knowing stuff, then go change into my janitor’s uniform and muck around in a job where I don’t need to use the stuff I actually know.”
Miles had patiently listened to my complaining tirade, his left eyebrow raising a little. I was pretty good at complaining, and he was pretty good at listening.
He took my empty mug as he shook his head at me.
“James, James, James. You do have quite a cynical view of the world for your age.”
“I’m seventeen, Miles”, I countered, “Old enough to know that it’s ugly out there, and young enough to be allowed to complain without doing anything to fix it.”
He fastened those grey eyes onto mine, amused but with a wariness behind them. Seeing the dark circles under them, harsh in the pale light of a winter morning, I remembered how hard he had it and how little he complained. I looked away and firmed my lip. If he could get through it, I could get through it. At least for today.
And now for a look behind the scenes.
This excerpt is actually from a work of fanfiction for the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series; which for those of you who haven’t heard of it, features the Greek gods and heroes translated into modern America and the ensuing hardships and hilarity for their half-mortal descendants, the demigods. I grew up with the series, and I loved it so much that I never wanted the books to end. So I decided to continue the story with this one.
James and Miles are not from the books, but are my original characters. James is purely mortal without any godly parentage, which makes him different from most major characters in the books. I thought that his unique perspective as a mortal would add an interesting dynamic when he encounters gods and demigods further on in the story, those parts which I have yet to write. This beginning excerpt was meant to introduce him and his relationship with his legal guardian, Miles. They carry the main action of the story, so I spent more time than I would normally use for a introduction scene, in an effort to make them both believable and relatable to the reader.
And now that the back story’s out of the way, it’s time to criticize my heart out—what fun.
The first five paragraphs are bothering me right now. Aside from the first sentence in the story, which I like since it sets up some dramatic tension for later on, they’re…boring. They use far too many words for far too little action. In the fourth and fifth paragraphs especially, James doesn’t have to record every little step in the coffee-making process for it to be convincing to the reader. When I revise this later, I’ll probably cut some description and combine the paragraphs mentioned so that I can move the action along a little faster. For now, though, it’s alright as is.
The initial dialogue between James and Miles in the next few paragraphs is my favorite part of this excerpt. The familiarity and warmth between the two characters comes across nicely, and the detail about James’ unmanageable hair endears him to me. But maybe that’s just me. If I wanted to be really picky about it, I could rework parts of this exchange to make the pauses in conversation sound a little more natural, but they sound convincing enough for this draft.
The rest of my critique concerns nit-picky issues of word choice, character development, and style. Would James, a typical seventeen-year-old, use “tirade” to describe his complaining? Maybe not. Is there a surplus of adjectives in this draft that need to be replaced with stronger verbs? Maybe so. And is the dialogue towards the end adding to the reader’s knowledge of the characters enough for all of it to be kept? As much as I hate to admit it, probably not.
Also, a guy friend to whom I had sent this excerpt for feedback replied with an intriguing character-development-type-question as follows: “Is James more of a shy, in his own world guy or a kind of irreverant[sic], disenchanted with life kind of guy? I think that bears distinction as they're similar but they have a subtle warmness in the former vs coldness in the latter.” I really want to rework this section later to convey a more definite answer to his question. I think James likes to think he's all disenchanted with the world, but honestly, he's too young to really be all that cynical all the time. It'll be interesting trying to flesh out his character and get that across to readers.
In general, the organization of this excerpt is not as cut-and-dry as some of my other works. It is mostly organized in the order of events as they happened, but with some asides and explanations from James. But I’m not going to worry about it too much. Since it’s based off of James’ recollection, it’s okay if things are a little fuzzy around the edges and not as tightly structured as they could be. It could even feel more genuine this way. The main issue will be to keep the action moving while providing enough description to carry the reader through it without getting them bogged down in the details. It’s a delicate balancing act, so I’ll have to constantly reread and revise.
And that’s about it! I’m sure that I could find a thousand other little things to complain about, but this is a good starting (and stopping) point. I hope the comments I made were helpful in giving you a general idea of things to look for in your own writing as you revise and rework. And if they weren’t as helpful as you might have liked, don’t feel too discouraged. I plan to cover smaller, more specific issues related to the writing process in future posts; so I’ll be able to unpack each one more.
Feel free to leave your comments and questions below regarding the story, my remarks, or your own works. I’m always looking to improve my writing, and I love reading what other writers are working on!
Till next time,