How to Move a Mountain

Yesterday I attended the midyear meeting for the Fulbright English Teaching Assistants in Rome. This was a huge source of anxiety for me, because not only is Rome a gigantic, chaotic, and frankly terrifying city, but I didn’t know how to talk about what I have accomplished this year. Because I didn’t feel like I had accomplished much of anything: I felt like I’d been moving from one struggle to another and the best that could be said was that I had not been killed by a crazy driver or simply turned around and gone home. No friends my own age. My volunteer project dead in the water. Problems with classes I didn’t know how to teach and teachers who were being unhelpful. How, I asked myself, could I talk about successes when I felt like all I had done was fail? And how could I even express the difficulties I was having when I was sure that the other English Teaching Assistants were doing great?

 

So I came to Rome with this feeling of imminent doom. This was something I just had to get through. Then I just have to get through the next four months, and then I can get out of this country where problems are just a fact of life and there’s no point doing anything to solve them and where a young blind girl shouldn’t need to and has no business trying to live independently so far from home.

 

And then I had a fantastic day.

 

Part of it was that we’re officially past the midway point. Now I can say I’m more than halfway through, which is great, because saying “well, I’m halfway there,” automatically brought on the horrifying thought, “Oh God, I’m only halfway there!” And I’m not going to lie: having a shower that stayed warm for more than five consecutive minutes was a big help.

 

But hot showers aside, there were some bigger reasons that contributed to it being such a good day.

 

For one thing, it turns out that the other English Teaching Assistants are having the same difficulties as me, and it was wonderful to rant about all the things we’ve struggled with and haven’t talked about. It was heartening to discuss how much we miss home and our friends and feeling like we knew what the heck we were doing with our lives and salty food. And it was inspiring to plan how we were going to get through the last months of our year in Italy. To know that I am not the only one who feels this way, to know that I am not actually alone, was amazing.

 

And I was able to realize that I haven’t just survived these months in Italy. I have, in fact, been successful. I have students who respect me, who are interested in what I am teaching, so much so that they are asking for topics. My own Italian skills have increased tremendously. I am navigating a foreign country—an extremely ablest foreign country—independently. And I am succeeding. I’m not dead, right? And maybe I don’t have friends my own age in Assisi, but I have to remember that I had an incredible four years at college and that this year was bound to be hard wherever I was. This weekend, we talked a lot about re-evaluating our ideas of what social success is, and if I look at where I am now versus where I was in October, I have succeeded. People say hello to me as I pass in the streets. People ask me how I do things instead of saying I can’t or shouldn’t or, worse, applauding when I do (but more on all that later).

 

Another thing that helped a lot was being reminded of why I have always been so interested in Italy. We took a tour of the U.S. Embassy, and like everything else in Italy, the complex has an incredible history. The land was owned by a friend of Julius Caesar, then some art-collecting cardinals, then Queen Margherita (she of the pizza), then the Confederation of Fascist Farmers, all before it was given to America as part of Italy’s war reparations after World War II. All of this history is layered right on top of itself: there’s an ancient Roman aqueduct (which Mopsy made a point of drinking from) next to a statue of a young Venus next to a fascist plaque—the modern on top of the rococo on top of the baroque on top of the romantic on top of the ancient, and plenty more layers I don’t know the names for in between. We visited the ambassador’s office and saw the largest Murano glass chandelier in the world, and while the ambassador told us he finds the office a bit too grand for day to day work, it is easy to imagine Queen Margherita holding balls and musical nights there (which gives me a new novel idea).

 

But I’m getting off topic. It’s this layered history, not just in the architecture but also in the culture, that was what drew me to Italy in the first place. It was the thing that made living in Italy the dream. Yes, there was a time when living in Italy was my dream. How much I wish I could go back to that time.

 

I made that comment this weekend. I said I wanted to build a time machine and go back to 2014 Jameyanne and tell her not to do this. I wanted to tell her that it’s too hard, that it’s not worth it, that she’s going to be miserable and lonely and scared out of her mind, that she’s going to want to go home more than anything else in the world . And then I stopped and thought about that. If I had a time machine, is that really what I would do? Has this experience, as hard as it has been, really not been worth it?

 

Yes, it’s been hard. Yes, there have been times when I have been miserable and lonely and scared out of my mind. There have been many times when all I wanted is to give up and to go home. But I wouldn’t tell 2014 Jameyanne not to do it. Partly because, I was 2014 Jameyanne once, and I know that she wouldn’t listen to anyone telling her not to do something. After all, she was still the Jameyanne who stuck out a semester of incredible pain because her right eye was exploding and there was no way she was missing a month of school for a little thing like having her eye removed. And even if I told her this would be worse than that, she wouldn’t listen. But I wouldn’t even say that.

 

If I could, I would tell 2014 Jameyanne that it will be hard, that it will not be fun, that she won’t have friends her own age, that for the first time since high school, she will feel blind, that she will be scared, that she will be more homesick than she has ever been in her life. But I will tell her that this will be worth it. Because she will learn so much about what is important to her, what she loves, and what she can do. She will be taken apart and when she’s put back together, all her pieces will be in different places, and she will have to search for the strength to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving. But she will find that strength, and she will keep moving, and she will, in the end, succeed. This experience will be worth it. It’s a cliché, but 2014 Jameyanne will grow in ways that she can’t possibly understand, and since she can’t understand it anyway, maybe, if I had a time machine, I wouldn’t go back and I wouldn’t say anything. I would just let her experience this year for what it’s been.

 

Last week, I taught a lesson on Dr. Seuss, and I read Oh, The Places You Will Go to my kids. It was the first time I’d read the book since I graduated from high school, and I’ve been picking at it all week, the way I might pick at a hangnail:

 

I’m afraid some times you’ll play lonely games too.

Games you can’t win ’cause you’ll play against you,

And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance

you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.

There are some, down the road between hither and yon,

that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on. (37-39)

 

But if all the bad bits and sad bits are true, who says the good bits can’t happen too?

 

Sorry, couldn’t resist.

 

So this is what I want to say to 2015 Jameyanne, the Jameyanne who is going to stride confidently into the last four months of her Fulbright year in Italy and then beyond: Remember this moment. Maybe this year has not been what I expected or dreamed. But it is still what I make it. I have grown and changed and learned so much about myself in these last five months, and who knows how that will continue over the next four months, if I am open to it. Maybe this is not the adventure I wanted, but it has nevertheless been an adventure, and perhaps it is also a staging ground for more adventures that I can’t imagine yet.

 

Remember this, 2015 Jameyanne. When things get hard, as I’m sure they will, remember this moment. You are traveling back to Assisi. You are listening to “Hakuna Matata.” No, scratch that, wrong message. You are listening to “Go the Distance.” You feel confident. You have new lessons to teach. New lessons to learn. New places to explore. New flavors of juice to try. Seriously, don’t forget the juice.

 

And kid, you will move mountains. Whatever those mountains may be. Maybe not here. Maybe not now. But they’re waiting for you, and here and now is where you build the strength, the courage, and the will that you’ll need to face them.

Advertisements

So… I Just Ate a Pigeon

My mother’s family is Italian, and I grew up thinking I was eating traditional Italian food: lots of vegetables, pasta rather than rice, lots of fish, garlic in everything, fruit rather than sweets for dessert. So I came to Italy feeling like I had a good sense of what to expect, and I was wrong. Not entirely wrong—the olive oil is to die for, there is lots of pasta and vegetables, plenty of fruit—but there’s a lot that I didn’t expect. And since I gave a whole lesson on American food to my students, who were fascinated by pancakes and brownies, I figured it was only fair for me to talk a bit about my experiences with Italian food.

 

Bread: Bread isn’t something that you eat on its own like in America. Most of the time, bread is almost used as a spoon to scoop up other food. This means that the bread is unsalted and, by itself, not all that tasty. That being said, the bruschetta is fabulous—the bread grilled over an open fire and drizzled with olive oil and salt or tomatoes or garlic powder (I want to try making it with roasted garlic instead).

 

Meat: Perhaps it’s because my Italian relatives were from southern Italy, so they ate more fish, or perhaps it’s just because my family doesn’t eat that much red meat in general, but I was very surprised by the amount of red meat people eat here. And all kinds of red meat. There’s lamb and beef and veal and ham, of course, but my landlady got me to try a sauce made from pig’s ear, and she’s insisting that before I leave, I have to try horse. I was not brave enough to try chicken liver or tripe—they just smelled too awful for me to dare. I did try rabbit, though, and it was pretty good. And, as my title suggests, I ate pigeon as well.

 

Salty and sweet: I don’t tend to put a lot of salt on my food in general, but the almost complete lack of salt surprised me. I asked about it, and my landlady said that salt hides other tastes, which is true, if you put too much salt. But even when you buy crackers in the supermarket, you have to make sure you buy the salted ones, and even the salted ones have barely any salt at all. I’ve definitely started dreaming about salty snacks. On the other hand, there’s a lot of sweet food. A lot of people eat cake for breakfast, and when they say snack, they usually mean cookies. Croissants—called cornetti in Italian—are usually filled with chocolate or honey or some sort of jam. At one point, I bought a glass of orange juice at a café and the waitress asked if I wanted to add sugar to it, which, not going to lie, I found a little bit horrifying.

 

Fruit: It’s fabulous, of course. All fresh and local. When you buy a bag of clementines, they still have stems and leaves on them. And the fruit juice is great too. I’ve been having fun experimenting with all the different flavors that I’ve never seen in the U.S. So far, I’m a big fan of blueberry and frutti di bosca—wild berry—and pineapple. I also enjoyed a juice called esotica—which was like mango and papaya and kiwi and passion fruit. Strawberry juice was a bit too sweet for me, and apple kiwi tasted like a green apple Jolly Rancher. But I liked apple banana, and I have a bottle of peach lime that I’m curious to try.

 

Pizza: Because what post about Italian food would be complete without talking about pizza? It’s great. The crust is thin to nonexistent. Usually, if you order a veggie pizza of some variety, there isn’t any sauce at all, just crust, some cheese, and the vegetables. Personally, I’m a big fan of the onion pizza, which is crust and olive oil and a ton of caramelized onions. I also really like pizza marinara, which is just tomato sauce and basil, which you wouldn’t think would be that good, but the sauce is so flavorful it’s great.

 

There’s more I could say. Pine nut gelato and chocolate pasta and salty cake. Chicken with orange sauce, sautéed chick peas and fava beans drizzled with olive oil, artichokes with lemon and capers. Truffles. All of the truffles. Walnut pasta sauce. Fried apples with cinnamon and honey and orange slices soaked in olive oil with a little bit of salt.

 

Yes, I had different expectations when I arrived, and I’m sure my experience isn’t indicative of Italy as a whole, just this region. Perhaps, if I traveled to southern Italy, I would find the food of my childhood. Or I would find something entirely new . I’ve tried so many foods I never dreamed of, and yes, I’ve avoided some foods that I just didn’t think I could stomach. But I did eat a pigeon. And I’m sure I’ll try much more before I go home.

Can You Feel the Secrecy, Suspicion, Discovery, and Love Tonight?

LAST year on Valentine’s Day, I co-led what was supposed to be a workshop on writing romantic subplots for the creative writing club. It turned into more of a group discussion and then Disney sing-along, because it turns out that on Valentine’s Day night, everyone on a college campus is either on a date or avoiding going out so they don’t have to see everyone on a date. Including me and my co-leader, there were five of us in the room, and we had a great time. We talked about the obvious pitfalls of romantic subplots. They need to be paced appropriately. They need to be relevant to the plot. They can’t take up too much or too little of the story, or they will either be seen as extra and unimportant, or they’ll consume the plot. There needs to be some sort of tension between the characters in the relationship. There needs to be character growth because of the relationship. There needs to be some sort of resolution to the relationship—either it continues into happily-ever-after-land, it ends, they decide to take things one step at a time, someone dies, etc. There are endless possibilities. Take your pick. But since we’re talking about romantic subplots and not romance as a genre, it’s important to remember that “subplot” is the key word here. All of this has to happen within the larger plot of the story.

 

The take-away: romantic subplots need to be relevant, interesting, and timely within the larger framework of the story.

 

Also, love triangles in young adult books are evil. They are overdone, and rarely done well, because they almost always make the character in the middle either look like a terrible person or just plain stupid. That isn’t to say that all love triangles are necessarily bad, but tread carefully. The only love triangle I actually enjoyed is the love triangle in the first three books of the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, but that has so many extra appendages it might be better described as a star.

 

Then we started talking about romantic scenes in particular and what made them work or didn’t work. I’ve read a lot of advice about writing romantic scenes, but the discussion we had and the conclusion we came to was entirely new to me, and it’s advice I apply to my writing all the time—and not just with romantic scenes.

 

We examined several successful examples in books, movies, and television shows, and we came to this conclusion: There is always more than one emotion. It isn’t just love. If it’s just love, it’s actually kind of boring.

 

And now for the Disney sing-along:

 

In every Disney love song, there is more than one emotion at play and more than one motivation for the characters. That’s what makes them so great as romantic scenes. For some, it’s very simple. In Aladdin, “A Whole New World” isn’t just about falling in love, though that’s certainly part of it. There’s also Jasmine’s discovery of Aladdin’s true identity and her wonder at seeing the world from a whole new perspective.

 

We see a similar scenario in Tangled. “I See the Light” is about Rapunzel’s realization of her dream along with her fear of realizing that dream, and, simultaneously, Eugene’s discovery that his dream was not actually worthwhile, and their mutual discovery of a new dream—each other. They are falling in love, but there are so many other emotions packed into the scene that make it great.

 

Hercules presents a very different and equally interesting case. In “I Won’t Say I’m in Love,” Meg is actually denying that she’s in love with Hercules not only because of her past heartbreak but also because she’s working for Hades to hurt Hercules.

 

Finally, consider “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” from The Lion King. There’s love, obviously, but at the same time, Simba is hiding that he killed his father (or so he thinks), and Nala knows it. Nala expects Simba to come back and save the pride from Scar, but Simba refuses, because he doesn’t feel that he can lead the tribe after what he did (not to mention the hyenas will kill him). So it’s actually a lot more complicated than just love.

 

These are just some examples, but beyond being fun, nostalgic, and musical, they really do teach us something. All successful romantic scenes, and indeed romantic subplots, are based on more than just love. It’s true of relationships in the real world too. It has to be, otherwise no one would believe it in fiction. A relationship that isn’t based on some other connection or emotion besides love won’t get far. So, whether that underlying emotion is friendship, discovery, secrecy, suspicion, wonder, fear, or anything else you can think of, that’s what will make your romantic subplot successful. That’s what will give you tension, character growth, and plot relevance. And that’s what will make your reader care.

 

So happy Valentine’s Day, and may your romantic subplots, fictional or otherwise, bring you happiness.

An Unexpected Writing Party

I am delighted to announce that my story “Naming Angelo” was named the second runner-up for the 2015 Dell Magazine’s Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing. Check out the official announcement here. I won’t be able to attend the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts this year, but I’m still very excited about this.

 

“Naming Angelo” takes place during the Italian Risorgimento, the fight for Italian independence and unity in  the 1860s, and focuses on what I like to think of as the dark underbelly of naming magic. It’s a little quirkier and more experimental than the stuff I usually write, and of the several stories I submitted , it was honestly the story I kept forgetting about, because I thought there was no way it would place. Which just goes to show that sometimes great things happen when you least expect them. You never know what will happen, so you can never count yourself out.

Choosing the Right Title (Hint: This Is Not the Right Title)

I just finished reading All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which besides being a great book, has an excellent title, the sort of beautiful and meaningful title that I aspire to write one day. Thinking about why this is such a great title and why I love it led me to thinking about titles in general.

 

Titles are hard. A good title, like All the Light We Cannot See, is meaningful to the work and also an intriguing, catchy, or beautiful phrase. Something else I like to see in titles is multiple meanings. The phrase “all the light we cannot see” literally refers to the fact that visible light is only a fraction of the light on the electromagnetic spectrum, a fact quoted by a professor who greatly inspired one of the main characters as a child, but it is also meaningful in a figurative sense, because the other main character is blind and the book takes place in France and Germany in World War II, a very “dark” time.

 

Obviously, it’s hard to hit all of these characteristics in a title at once. Most of the time, I don’t, but there are a few basic tricks I’ve found to finding a good title—if not a fabulous one—as well as things I always try to consider.

 

Use intriguing words:

 

Some words are intriguing, attention-grabbing, or else just plain cool. Some words are not. I want to read Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Throne of Glass not because I know anything about them but because their titles are awesome and full of intriguing words. “Daughter,” “smoke,” and “bone” are good title words. So are “Throne” and “glass.” On the other hand, some words, like “sludge” or “washing machine,” are not as cool and will probably not produce the same ring in a title (The Washing Machine of Doom just sounds silly). There isn’t really a formula to which words work and which words don’t for titles, and sometimes, a word that you don’t think is intriguing can work well with a word that is, as in the chapter title “An Excess of Phlegm” in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. You sort of just have to try out phrases and see how they sound.

 

Important names, places, and ideas:

 

This one is pretty obvious. Look through the story for important names, places, images, themes, and ideas. These are all important to your story, which makes them great title fodder. Look at phrases around these important bits and see if you see anything catchy and meaningful. Any phrases that you already repeat deliberately throughout the story are good for this as well, but be careful, because sometimes direct title drops—even if you used the phrase before you decided it was going to be your title—can sometimes come off as corny or groan-worthy.

 

Length:

 

Pithy one-word titles have been the style recently. Sometimes I like them, and sometimes I use them myself, but most of the time, I feel like it’s hard to capture a lot of meaning or be all that intriguing with just one word.

 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you can have a really long title, like The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, which is a fabulous book, or Flora’s Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room), which I really want to read. The thing about long titles, though, is they’re not for everything. A long title usually indicates a specific tone that the story will have. Usually, when I try to come up with a title, I shoot for something with three to five words, a phrase that’s easy to remember, intriguing, and not a mouthful.

 

Consistency:

 

This is more useful if you’re planning to write a series of books or have a series of related chapter titles, but sometimes it’s fun to have related titles for projects. The Harry Potter books are a great example of this. Each book is titled Harry Potter and the… Another great example is the Mortal Instruments books by Cassandra Clare—City of Bones, City of Ashes, City of Glass, etc. It’s not always necessary to repeat exact words to create a feeling of consistency, either. Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small books have the thematically linked titles of the stages of Kel’s training to become a knight.

 

Obviously, there’s a lot more to choosing titles than just this. You can have alliterative or rhyming titles—as long as their not too cutesy—like Etiquette and Espionage or The Eyre Affair. You can have really convoluted titles that only tell a little bit about the book, or really simple titles that speak volumes. You can title chapters or not title chapters (but that’s another discussion entirely).

 

Sometimes, when I’m working on a story, I’ll change the title three or four times before I’m satisfied—if I’m ever satisfied. Or sometimes I’ll hit on a title right away that’s perfect. No matter what, I always try to have a working title from the moment I start a draft, because having a title that expresses to me what the story’s about helps guide me and keep me focused as I write. That title might change when I finish the first draft and revise the story, or it might still work, in which I’ll keep it. Another thing I do is jot down phrases I see or hear around that might be good titles, even if I don’t have story ideas for them. Even if I don’t ever use them, it’s an interesting exercise to see what’s appealing to me and what’s not.

 

There are definitely things to look for in a good title and things to avoid, but there’s almost never a definitive right or wrong answer, because there’s also a lot of personal taste involved. For example, take the title of this post. I was going for obvious and a little ironic, but I’m not totally sure I nailed it, and actually I think it’s kind of a stupid title, and I could have done better. But someone else might think it’s hilarious. Or maybe before I post this I’ll come up with a fabulous, funny title in the middle of the night or in the shower—where all the best thinking happens—and I’ll change it, and this whole paragraph just won’t exist.

 

Or maybe not.

New Year: New Goals

Actually, they’re mostly the same goals.

 

In 2014, I graduated from college. I was third runner-up for the Dell Award, and my first story was published. I finished drafts of two novels. I was awarded a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship, and I traveled to Assisi and began my year in Italy. I applied to creative writing masters of fine arts programs for next year.

 

But now, 2014 is over, and 2015 is upon us.

 

This year, my goals are simple:

 

  1. By the time I return from Italy at the end of June, one of those aforementioned novels will be edited and ready to start submitting:

At this point, I’ve got three novels on my computer in varying states of desperately-needing-revision. So I’m going to revise. I’m going back to the small child magician novel, which I set aside before my senior year of college in order to work on my honors novel. I will definitely have this novel in submittable condition by June, possibly sooner at the rate I’m going. Maybe I’ll even get back to the honors novel too. But one thing at a time.

 

2.  I will keep this website updated on a semi-regular basis:

Really. I swear. It’s going to happen. I made myself a calendar of posts, and I always stick to my calendars.

 

3. I will actually use my Twitter account and tweet on a semiregular basis:

Last year it was Facebook. This year it’s Twitter.

 

4. I will continue writing and submitting short stories:

Pretty self-explanitory. I’m already doing it. So my goal is to continue doing it.

 

5.  I will make some decisions about what I want to do with my life:

I’ve had some experiences in the last few months that have changed my ideas about this. I’m not sure I want to get a doctorate in comparative literature anymore. I’m not even sure that being a fulltime writer is the best decision for me, even though it’s been my dream since I was little. Not that I wouldn’t be able to be productive, but I’m very close to being a full-time writer now, because I only teach in the mornings, and I feel like if all I was doing was writing, I might go insane. This doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep writing, because of course I do. And this also doesn’t mean that I don’t want to get an MFA in creative writing. I still want to do that, for myself and for my writing. But I need to make some decisions about what I want to do after that.

 

I have two other goals that are worth mentioning:

 

  1. To be accepted into an MFA program.

 

2.  To have another story published.

 

These are both obvious, based on what I already said. These goals are also out of my control. But that doesn’t mean I can’t take steps to accomplish them.

 

So here I come, 2015!

Christmas in Italy

I know. I’m a month late with this post, but it’s still January, so I don’t feel too bad about it.

The city of Gubbio, Italy, lit up on its mountain like a giant Christmas tree

This year, I spent Christmas in Italy. My family came to visit me for the holidays, but they didn’t arrive until a few days after Christmas, so I got to experience a traditional Italian Christmas with my landlady and landlord.

 

I’m not sure what exactly I expected, but it actually wasn’t that different from Christmas in America. I’m more familiar with the Christmas traditions of southern Italy, thanks to my mother’s family, than I am with the Umbrian Christmas traditions. There were no twelve fishes on Christmas Eve in Assisi, and there was much more red meat than my family would normally eat for Christmas in America. In America, we probably wouldn’t pop champagne and eat panettone—a Christmas cake with nuts and candied fruit—on the basilica steps immediately after midnight Mass either. Here in Italy, there really are twelve days of Christmas, and America only has one Santa Clause.

 

After Christmas, I went to Rome to meet my family, and we traveled around Rome, Florence, and Pisa for a week. And everywhere we went, the Christmas festivities continued. We saw crèche sets not only in every church and piazza but also in many store windows. We saw one that was made entirely of pasta, and another in the basilica in Pisa that included a looping audio track of a baby crying, Mary humming, a rooster calling, and cattle lowing. Restaurants continued to serve Christmas specials, and people continued to wish each other “Buon Natale“—Merry Christmas. New Years in Florence demonstrated more of the Italians’ festive spirit, as people set off fireworks in the streets all night and well into the next day.

 

At the end of our trip, we returned to Assisi, where we rounded off the twelve days of Christmas with a fabulous Christmas concert and the celebration of Epiphany on January 6. Italians celebrate Epiphany like a second Christmas with a big meal and La Befana—the Epiphany witch—who comes down the chimney and fills children’s stockings with candy if they were good and coal if they were bad. La Befana is basically a second Santa Clause, because Italian children also hang stockings for Papà Natale on Christmas Eve.

 

We celebrated Epiphany by visiting Gubbio, a small town on the top of a mountain about an hour from Assisi. Gubbio is called the Christmas town, because it has the world’s largest Christmas tree. Actually, Gubbio is the world’s largest Christmas tree, because it’s the whole mountain that is decorated to look like a Christmas tree. We spent the day exploring the town, walking up and down the steep, narrow streets. When it began to get dark, we drove down the mountain and then stopped to watch the largest Christmas tree in the world light up in the perfect finale to a beautiful Christmas.

Here We Go Again: The Dreaded Revision

I am currently in the middle of some major revisions. In fact, I’ve been doing almost nothing but revisions for the last few months, first short stories to submit to the Dell Award and now my small-child magician novel. So I thought I’d take a moment to talk about how I revise. Over the past several years, my writing style has changed significantly, and so has my process for revising, but my goal has always been the same: to tell a good story.

 

For me, revising effectively has a lot to do with understanding how you write in the first place as well as how you read. Because once you’ve finished a first draft, you have to step back and look at it not as your baby that you slaved over but as an editor and as a reader. It’s an oft-repeated bit of advice, but revision does mean reseeing, looking at the work anew with time and perspective and then, of course, changing what you see to make it better.

 

So first, before I do anything else to a draft, I put it away. This is partly because I am a firm believer in writing shitty first drafts—it’s better to get the words down on paper and worry about making them the right words later—so I tend to hate most of my first drafts—sometimes unreasonably so—and I need time and perspective to see what is truly terrible, what needs to be fixed, what is not as bad as I thought it was, and what is actually really good.

 

But before I even look at the project again, I ask my writing buddies to look it over and give me some feedback. I am a very social writer. I do better writing in a group alongside others—even if that group is convening over the internet—than I do writing in a room by myself. I need the ability to ask questions and bounce ideas, and my ability to help others with their own stories can give me insight into my own work. The knowledge that I am not working alone, in short, helps me work more efficiently. And I have to revise in a similar way. I’m working on getting better, but I’m not so good at finding flaws in my own projects, especially when it comes to plot. I need feedback from other writers and readers to point out the things that need to be fixed, and once I know what needs to be fixed, I can usually come up with how best to revise on my own.

 

I am getting better at finding problems myself because I’ve started paying more attention to how I read. When I finish reading a book, I either loved it unconditionally, loved it with reservations, only thought it was so-so, or just didn’t like it. But I don’t just leave it at that. I try to analyze why I feel this way about the book. Why exactly do I love it unconditionally? Or what makes me have reservations about loving it? How come I thought it was only so-so? What about it was so terrible that I just didn’t like it? I examine a book from a writer’s point of view, looking at the choices the writer made and why I think they made them, contemplating what choices I would have made if I was writing it. To give an example, I recently read a book that I really loved, except after everything the characters had done to get this far, the ending fell kind of flat for me. When I thought about it, I realized that any other ending wouldn’t have been right for the characters, but it still felt wrong to me, because after so much excitement, this ending felt anticlimactic. So if I was writing this book, I wouldn’t have changed what happened in the ending between the characters, but I might have changed the setting or the events to make it fit better with the tone of the rest of the story. And by examining books and short stories that I read like this, I am practicing the skills I need to see the flaws in my own writing.

 

And once I see the flaws, I revise. Sometimes the revising is big. I have completely rewritten several stories several times. Sometimes the revisions are small tweaks that change the tenor of a character or a scene. Sometimes, I start at the beginning of the story and revise from there, but sometimes I jump around. There is advice all over the internet about how best to revise and rewrite. Some authors have detailed, step by step processes, complete with questionnaires or color coded outlines, that they use to revise every time. Personally, I try to listen to the needs of the story and the needs of the reader and find the place where those needs intersect and balance.

 

One thing I almost always do before I submit a story, however, is go through it and cut all unnecessary words, because I know that I tend to overwrite my first drafts. I set a target word count that I think the story should be based on its genre and what I accomplish in the story, then I do the math to determine how many words I should cut per page in order to reach that target. Then I use an abacus as a counter, and I start cutting words without actually changing the story. And I can almost always do it, and it almost always becomes a better story.

 

Revising isn’t always easy. Sometimes, it’s downright hard. Finishing a first draft of a project is not, in fact, the hardest part, and sometimes the thought of plunging back in, armed with my trusty toolbox of revising tricks, sounds like a drag: “And here we go again.” But whether I want to delete the file and burn all existing copies and pretend it never happened or else revel in the glory of finishing, there is always more work to do, and it is always worth doing. I try to view that work—revision—as a chance to get back inside my characters and my stories, to discover again why I loved this idea and why it was worth writing in the first place, and to make the changes that will turn my clumsy first draft into a story that shines, a story that others will want to read.

Welcome to Italy!

It’s difficult to believe, but two months ago, I arrived in Italy to begin my nine months as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. Which means, among other things, that a blog post is long overdue.

 

I’m not going to pretend that the last two months have been easy, and I’m certainly not going to say that it’s been what I dreamed it would be or even what I expected it would be. Honestly, these have been some of the hardest months of my life, and that includes the two months I spent in excruciating pain last year because my eye was exploding. Why has it been so hard? Well, for one thing, this is my first year living on my own as an adult, and for another thing, I’m in a foreign country, and culture shock is a very real and very upsetting thing. I have never been this homesick in my life. I’ve had days where, after school, I curled up with a sad book or movie to give myself an excuse to cry, but I’ve also had days where I’ve had a lot of fun, and as the time is passing and I’m becoming more accustomed to living here, the fun days are outnumbering the stressful days.

 

So far, I have seen the best and the worst of Italy. Within my first two weeks here, I was hit by a car (I was on the sidewalk), and my mother and aunt were mugged. But none of us were hurt—just scared—and we also had some wonderful experiences before they left , and I have had some wonderful experiences since then. Some of my favorite have included meals with my teachers and my landlady and my mom’s cousin in Rome (seems like the way to enjoy the real Italian cuisine is to do it in an Italian home), my trip up to the fort at the top of Assisi with one of the teachers I’m working with, playing my clarinet for my landlady’s choir, and the festival for the Virgin Mary this past weekend (which included fireworks set to music and new, interesting street food!). And of course, I am loving teaching English and speaking Italian. I can practically feel my Italian skills growing with leaps and bounds every day, and every time a student asks me a question about America or asks me to elaborate on something we discussed in class, I just get really excited.

 

I want to share one particular story that I think really illustrates what things have been like here:

 

On a Saturday night towards the end of October, I was sitting out in the courtyard in front of my apartment, desperately trying to get my internet to work so I could skype with my friends in America. It was a pretty warm evening. I didn’t even have a coat on. It was already dark, and there was no traffic on my street, so it was pretty quiet. And then, just when I was about to give up and go back inside because the stupid internet just wasn’t working anywhere, I heard singing. I stood up, listening. At first, I thought it was coming from someone’s radio or television, but it sounded too clear for that. It was many male voices—a choir complete with harmonies—but it was too far away to distinguish words or even much of a melody. I stood there with my computer and listened, and I finally decided that I was pretty sure the singing was coming from the basilica, which is about a fifteen minute walk from my apartment. The night was so clear and quiet that it carried all the way to my street. Later, when I told this story to my landlady, I learned that it was the weekly candle-lit procession of the monks, but then, standing there in the dark, feeling confused and frustrated and pretty miserable, and then suddenly hearing this singing that seemed almost other-worldly from that distance, all I could think of was the story of why the lower part of Assisi is called Santa Maria degli Angeli—Saint Mary of the Angels: Because Saint Francis heard the angels singing.

 

Moving here hasn’t been easy (it has certainly been a much bigger adjustment than I ever anticipated), but I think the more comfortable I get, the more fun I will have. For every time I take the wrong bus or momentarily panic at the sudden movement of a car up onto the sidewalk, I also round the corner to find two cellists playing Pachabel’s Canon, or I’m invited to Sunday lunch with someone’s family and have a great time, or one of my students tells me they really enjoyed my lesson on American geography and one day they want to visit some of the national parks I described. And I remember why I dreamed of coming here and remind myself that even if it isn’t totally great now, it will be.

Packing for a Story

In the introduction to Theodora Goss’s short story collection, In the Forest of Forgetting, Terri Windling quotes Goss’s discussion of literature as a series of countries and border crossings:

 

As a student studying literature, I was told there were borders indeed: national (English, American, colonial), temporal (Romantic, Victorian, Modern), generic (fantastic, realistic). Some countries (the novel) you could travel to readily. The drinking water was safe, no immunizations were required. For some countries (the gothic), there was a travel advisory. The hotels were not up to standard; the trains would not run on time. Some countries (the romance) one did not visit except as an anthropologist, to observe the strange behavior of its inhabitants. And there were border guards (although they were called professors), to examine your travel papers as carefully as a man in an olive uniform with a red star on the cap. They could not stop you from crossing the border, but they would tell you what had been left out of your luggage, what was superfluous. Why the journey was a terrible idea in the first place. (Goss XII-XIII)

 

BTW  I’m only partway through In the Forest of Forgetting but so far it’s shaping up to be excellent.

 

I was struck by this quote not only because it is beautiful, inciteful, and witty, but also because this past week I was packing my luggage for a year abroad and at the same time having some literary border-crossing troubles of my own.

 

I recently wrote a short story that I worked really hard on and loved to pieces. (Note: Loving your own first drafts to pieces is usually not such a good idea. I do not recommend.) So, having completed this story, I asked some friends for critiques, and I was told that this was not a short story. This story was a novel, trying—and failing—to be a short story. Now, had I listened to the people I’d originally discussed this idea with—they thought it would work better as a novel too—I wouldn’t have landed myself in this predicament. But I’ve had too many short stories turn into novels that I still haven’t written yet, and I loved this idea. I wanted to write a short story, too, so I did, and now I had feedback I didn’t want to hear.

 

But of course, I did hear it, and since it jived with feedback I’d already received, I thought that I better at least consider it. And the more I considered it, the happier I became with the idea of this story as a novel. I could really explore the world, the characters and their motivations, the plot. I could dive into it in a way I really couldn’t do successfully in a short story. In a novel, I could keep all the intertwined plot lines I already had, whereas if I insisted on writing a short story, in order for it to really work I would have to dissect the plot lines and only focus on one, maybe one and a half. All of this seemed like strong reasons to make this short story a novel, so I set the draft I had aside and added it to my beist of unwritten novel ideas with only a little regret. The only problem was, I also had all these ideas for related short stories, and before I knew it, they had turned into novels too, and I was out of short story ideas.

 

Clearly, there is a lesson here that I understand in principle but still haven’t really learned: Short stories are not simply shorter novels. Short stories and novels are very different beasts.

 

Which brings me back to my thoughts on literature as countries and my struggles with packing. As I was packing this weekend—deciding what to bring and what to leave behind, what was necessary, what I would like to have, and what I could do without—I realized that in a way, planning a project is similar to packing for a trip. If you’re going away for a weekend or an overnight, you’re going to pack less than if you’re going away for a week or a month or a year. Similarly, if you’re writing a piece of flash fiction or a short story, you don’t need—and shouldn’t have—as much plot, as many characters, and as much information in general as you would include if you were writing a novel. When you’re packing for a year abroad, you’re not just bringing clothes and a swim suit and a few toiletries. You’re bringing clothes, some toiletries to start you out (but you’re planning to get more when you’re over there), your electronic devices like a computer or an iPod (though maybe you’ve left your phone behind), lots of books, and anything that is personally important to you (though not necessarily of much use). When you’re planning a novel, you need characters and plot and lots of room for those characters to develop, and don’t forget all that backstory that has gotten your characters to this point. A novel can have multiple plot lines and subplots and character arcs, but a short story can really only have a few characters, one plot and one character arc, and limited backstory. You can’t pack a novel into a short story, just like you can’t pack for a year when you’re really only going away for a week.

 

It sounds ridiculously obvious when I say it like that, but as I said, it’s a lesson that I feel I understand in principle but am only just beginning to really learn in that way that will make my writing better. I started out writing novels (bad ones, it’s true, but novels nonetheless). So I naturally think big, and it’s an effort for me to pare something down to the size of a short story, but effort or not, I still love it. And if packing for Italy has taught me nothing else, it has taught me that some suitcases just aren’t built to hold certain things, and you can’t always fit everything you want into the bag, and you can’t force it. You can sacrifice the thing you want to bring, or you can pay the price of bringing a larger bag, but whatever choice you make, if the story is important enough for you to write it, you’ll find the bag that fits best so you can have the trip of a lifetime.

 

Now, back to packing! Next stop Italy!