I had a very good time with the editor Barbara Rogan's author's colloquium, which ended last Thursday. Unlike some of these courses, which often focus on teaching a technique and then leave you to the task of applying what you learned to your actual work on your own time afterwards, this was one that encouraged us to use our work-in-progress as the source of material that we would submit to be examined and critiqued by the editor teaching the class and by the other participating students.
So I very much took it as an opportunity to put my book in the shop for some body work and a facelift. Several of the scenes I submitted were scenes I'd been thinking of punching up, and did so before submitting them and then modified them after getting feedback. Then I continued with other scenes from my book that were never submitted to the class, drawing on ideas and the energy percolating from all the sharing.
Here's an overview of the modifications to the manuscript:
• Early in the book there is a short overview of childhood in which it is established that as a child I identified with the girls and my friends were girls up until around 4th grade when it fell apart; the main body of the book begins with me in 8th grade, starting in a new school. Clarified brief internal-monologue in 8th grade in which I'm musing that 3rd grade, when I had girl friends, was a long time ago, if I'm going to have friends at all "I needed to learn how to be around boys… and stop thinking of boys as them
because it needed emphasis; story line parses better when it is understood that I've put that "one of the girls" understanding of myself behind me as kid's stuff.
• Inserted new gym class locker room scene in which the other boys throw my underwear in the toilet while I'm showering, + replaced a bland narrative with a full-dialog scene in the guidance counselor's office in which I demand that those boys be expelled, counselor says "not gonna happen, you didn't see them do it", says "you need to pick your battles", and warns me he can bring them in but they're more likely to retaliate & what are my goals here?
first, because I needed a more fully fleshed-out "being bullied" scene and second, because many readers of my book kept saying "I want to see your character react more, all this bad stuff happens and he doesn't get all freaked out and angry and scared". So I realized I needed to establish more clearly that when he (i.e., me) HAD reacted he had been taught in various ways that no one was going to help & that not letting this stuff get to him is necessary and important. (And, as I said in class, "I think if the MC reacted with disbelief and outrage, anger and fear at each of these occurrences, it would be exhausting and tiresome and would take away from the gut-punch moments where the things that happen really shred him pretty awful.")
Those were in the first long chunk of the book. The balance of the changes were towards the end, in the last major chunk, where things come to a climax and resolution. I had been feeling for some time now that I needed this section to be a more vivid burst of triumph and joy—after my readers have borne with me through all the difficult and unpleasant trials leading up to it, too damn much of my "success story" portion was abstract and intellectual, and the parts that contained actual action were too often told as summary narrative and I needed stuff to pop a lot more here.
• There's a party scene where my character (i.e., me) is frustrated that going to these parties over the years hasn't resulted in connecting with any girls and having either sex or sexual relationship as an outcome. Original scene had him musing sourly to himself that maybe he ought to try acting like other boys and coming on blatantly to girls and not caring if THEY want sex etc, -- classic "Nice Boys™" sour angry stuff -- and he tries it cynically and bloody hell it works! Or he enough of it working to startle him. Redid it as a full dialog scene with named characters and body language and the smell of smoke and the music being played, etc
• Turning point scene is where character is listening to Pink Floyd's "The Wall" for the first time while tripping and feels outed by the music. Also redone as full dialog scene with named characters and more interaction, less summary. Also stripped out all but the most central line from the music itself (copyright issues).
• Figuring-stuff-out scene shortly afterwards, Christmas vacation with friend from college, parent's home front porch, redone with the friend used as a foil to have an out-loud conversation, replacing inside-the-head internal monologue summary stuff. Let the other guy be devil's advocate and argue against some of what I'm putting forth, to let me elaborate and clarify in my responses.
• Inserted new scene, coming out to my parents. Actually happened more awkwardly and earlier when I knew less, but helps to flesh out relationship with parents and clarifies how they reacted & felt about me being different "in this way".
Because reviewers have periodically said they wanted to see more about family interactions. Mostly missing in action because there wasn't much to write about: like the dog who didn't bark, my parents were parent who didn't say and do homophobic / sissyphobic things; it's hard to incorporate the absence of a behavior into a story; this is one of the rare opportunities to show their attitude including both their lack of judgmental disapproval and the limits of their interest in discussing or listening to me talk about it.
• Two post coming-out scene in the Siren Coffeehouse (feminist coffeehouse) were punched up with more dialog and more evocative descriptions of the people I interacted with, because I was flirting as well as seeking political-social allies, and my character (me) flirting and feeling sexually confident is a triumphant thing and needed more pop and color
• The last "trauma" of the book is one of those late-in-plot teases, a reappearance of Bad Shit after things have finally started going the character's way etc — in this case, university folks find his behavior disturbing and ask him to be checked out by the psychiatrist "just to alleviate concerns" and his agreeement is treated as a self-commitment to locked ward. Rewrote the arrival scene where he's first brought in, first discovers that he didn't merely consent to a conversation with the school shrink but is being held there, first interaction with the others on the locked ward: redid with full dialog, more solidly fleshed-out characters (the attendant, etc) again to make it pop
• Inserted new scene with dialog with two male gay activist types after a Human Sexuality class in which my character and those two folks presented to the class.
• Inserted new scene of conversation with a transsexual woman in which they discuss transsexuality and my character's own peculiar sense of gender identity, after he is introduced to her by one of the gay guys in the previous scene.
Those two events did not happen in real life at that time, or at all precisely as described, but similar conversations took place about 4 years later. Greatly add to continuity, action, excitement, fleshing out of issues, use of contrast and compare to more fully explain my character's gender / sexuality identity.
• scrapped overly long postlogue in favor of highly condensed flash-forward to give more of a sense of a successful gender-activist life. Previous version tried to do a fast-forward summary of life from approximately the end of the previous chapter to current era; blah and boring and overly long and tedious. New version starts in present era, crisply identified with the closing of a web browser window in sentence 1, main character off to do a presentation on gender issues and genderqueer as a specific category of gender identity. That along with short conversation with girlfriend (and a later "oh and her, well this is how me met" snippet) and a passing reference to a published article do a much better job of "and he lived happily ever after" as well as being much more concise and streamlined.
I am INDEED doing a presentation about being genderqueer, two of them in fact, one later on in April down at Baltimore Playhouse on the 29th and then again at the EPIC Conference in Pennsylvania May 12-16. I need to review my notes and subject anais_pf to listening to me rehearse! But I'm very much looking forward to it.
I'm querying again. Modified my query letter slightly, modified my synopsis a bit (some agents want a synopsis), and of course sample chapters all reflect the above changes. I've got a damn good book here and I will see it into print.
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