Saturday, April 9, 2011

Focusing on conflict

I haven't been journaling about it, but I have been working hard since last Tuesday, and I've been learning a lot that I do wish I had time to note.

I decided I had had enough time away or couldn't stand any more time away. So I printed it out and read it on paper for the first time. One good thing about working on a children's book is that it's easier to read it in a rush and get an overall impression. It took me about 7 hours over two days.

It's not easy for me to read that way, because as I go along I see lots of opportunities for sentence-level corrections and rewrites. On the one hand, the more I do that, the more I undermine the work of reading it for the overall impression, which is really important. On the other hand, I know that the more times I read it, the less able I get to actually spot errors and clumsiness, so you want to grab them when I see them. It took me awhile, but I really had to train myself to leave the editing pen sitting on the table. I ended up marking errors and putting a check mark next to anything that seemed clumsy and needing a revision so that I could keep close to a natural reading pace.

My overall impression was mixed. I didn't feel great about what I saw. There are a lot of moments in the book that I'm proud of, but there was something lacking that prevents it all from hanging together, and I realized I still have some significant work ahead of me.

I'm probably fooling myself, but I think I have a handle on what the problem is. The conclusion outshines the set up. It answers questions that weren't clearly asked, so the climactic scenes don't feel like they matter.

To fix that, I've been doing a lot of thinking about and freewriting about and notetaking on conflict. That seems like a pretty obvious aspect of fiction, but as I often have to point out to my students, it can be elusive. When we're struggling and just want the work to be done, it's easy to confuse a problem with conflict. The character has a problem isn't a conflict. The character has a problem AND something else may make a conflict. For my students, and now for me, it can be unexpectedly difficult to get clear on that.

And then when I have a good sense of conflict, it usually only works in isolation. When I start matching it up with what is actually going on in at different parts of the draft I can see a lot of daylight. Which leads to a lot of brainstorming and notetaking about the revisions I could make, once I get over the panic.

And I'm not sure I do have a good sense of what the conflict is to begin with. It remains elusive.

Anyway, I'm trying not to rush it, or I would have started the next rewrite yesterday. I keep trying to see if I can get a sharper sense of the story first. Once I do start the next draft, I think what it will be is going through scene-by-scene to make it focus on and further the central conflicts.

It feels like a long way to go. One mark in my favor so far is that the language felt pretty tight on the read through. I didn't have a whole lot of those checkmarks. I don't think there's a lot of sentence-level clumsiness or drag. When I do get to work on a polishing draft, I think I'll want to try and punch up the energy and playfulness of language.

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