Monthly Archives: November 2010

Don’t Go to Work Naked

Sometimes, writing a novel is like getting up in the morning, putting on an outfit, deciding it doesn’t quite work, choosing another outfit, realizing you’re going to have to change your bra or you won’t look decent, deciding to keep on outfit No. 1, realizing outfit No. 1 has a hole in a conspicuous place, changing your bra et al to put on outfit No. 2, realizing you don’t have cute shoes for outfit No. 2, coming up with an idea for outfit No. 3, realizing the tights you’d need are dirty. Such clothing revision might take 15 or 20 minutes, maybe half an hour on a really bad day. Panic can set in, and you start to feel stuck.

With a novel, the struggle lasts years.

The scene I’ve been working on is now in its third major incarnation. The basics haven’t changed. Someone comes home. Another character has gone missing. There’s a confrontation with the people in the house about the missing-ness of the other character.

The missing character has not changed (although the reason she’s missing has). The setting has only sort of changed — the scene has simply moved from a room in the house to the entry hall. The characters have shifted. Originally, two characters came home together and confronted three other characters. Those two characters are now at odds, the other three are out of the scene.

It’s taken three years and a lot of changes in other parts of the novel for the scene to get where it is now. (In fact, this is the scene I told you all I was cutting. In the end, without really knowing what I was doing, I moved it and changed the characters.)

I’m determined to make the scene work and move on.

I’m also fascinated that a scene can change completely, and yet still be the same scene. Sort of.

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Kill all the editors. Wait … stop … I didn’t really mean that …

Last week, I gave a workshop called “Turning True Life Stories Into Support” at an annual conference for people who provide social services to runaway and homeless teens. Three hours before my session, a young man named Billy give the keynote speech at lunch.

Billy ran away from a family that couldn’t, wouldn’t accept him for who he was: a gay young man who liked glee club, who just wanted someone to listen to him without criticizing the way he talked,who  just wanted to walk and laugh and be without feeling slighted or judged by his family and peers. Luckily, he wound up at the doorsteps of several organizations that helped put him on the road to success. Today Billy is in a program that helps older teens and young adults who would otherwise be homeless learn to live on their own.

Let’s just say Billy brought many people in the audience to tears.

I edit other people’s writing for a living, and I’m used to dissecting how words go together and figuring out how to arrange them in the most effective sequence. The thing is, Billy’s speech wasn’t polished and neither was Billy. He kept losing his place and saying, “Sorry, sorry,” then repeating a line before getting back on track. He kept stopping because he was too nervous or because he was on the verge of tears. Yet he had an enthralled audience. He made me cry.

So kill all the editors, because Billy’s rawness–his unedited, uncensored voice–lent his story power.

But no, don’t kill them. Just hit them with a stun gun occasionally. Billy’s speech, in fact, illustrated all the principles I had planned to talk about in my workshop. His story had a beginning, middle, and end. It had conflict and resolution. It included a hook: Here’s what runaway and homeless teens need. And it included a call to action for everyone in the room: Maybe if you hear this, you’ll go back and serve the young people in your programs even better than before.

November is National Runaway Prevention Month. If you’d like to support an organization that works with homeless youth, try:

The National Runaway Switchboard

Larkin Street Youth Services

Any of the runaway and homeless youth programs listed on this map.