The Unexpected in Revisions

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I am continuing to make substantive progress on the second draft of my post-apocalyptic novel, but the revision has made some unexpected turns in its path. I have been working at a pace which I believed would allow me to complete this draft by the end of the year. I was approximately two-thirds of the way through this revision and was on a decent speed to continue tightening and trimming. It seemed direct enough.
It occurred to me that this redrafting was moving a little bit too easily, that I might be missing something important. So, I reread the draft carefully, and I realized there were many pieces of the story missing. I was doing what I had frequently taught my first year writing students to try to avoid: leaving important information out because they know it; they have all the information about their topic in their minds, but the readers do not. This is so easy to do, because as the authors, we know what we are writing, but sometimes we omit important information without being aware that we are doing it.

After rereading the second draft, as it stood, I realized that I had done just that. I had completely neglected to include several chapters that I think are extremely important to the plot. Several points could not occur if certain other details are not included. As a result, I have already added 4-5 chapters, and I have planned out at least 5 more that need to be written. I find, as I continue to revise with an open and questioning mind, that there is a great deal more that needs to be included.

With the necessity to add more chapters, my goal for finishing this draft by the end of the year might have to be adjusted, but with the conclusion of the school year, I believe I can get there. Then it will be time for fresh sets of eyes to look at the book and offer critique.

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What does this mean: write what you know?

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Almost every writer who is looking for advice and guidance at some point comes across this old bit of wisdom: write what you know. But what does that saying mean? What is it telling writers to do? And where did it originate? I would really like to know. If any of you reading this have any opinions or information about this maxim, please offer it.

Since all writing emerges from each writer, it seems self-evident that something of what we know goes into the writing. Does it mean, however, that we should only write about that with which we are very familiar? That approach is extremely limiting and would eliminate all speculative fiction of any kind, including science fiction, fantasy, gothic, horror, and post-apocalyptic since those are worlds that we, as writers, are creating.

It also seems that if we take the saying literally that it would inhibit imagination, which I would argue is the most essential characteristic for writers. We need to be able to see and create worlds that do not exist, even in the most realistic of literary fiction.

So, again, I am left with the question of what does this adage mean, and is it useful for writers?

The Trial of Hamlet

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One of the aspects of my writing life is the teaching of First Year writing classes (formerly known as Freshman Composition). In addition to the assignment of formal papers and a variety of smaller exercises based on the reading for that semester, I also include a large presentation of some kind, often done in groups and performed at the end of the semester.

One form of presentation that I use occasionally is the criminal trial of a character from one of the novels covered during the class. I consider this exercise to be the creation of a living paper, including thesis and antithesis, presentation of argument and counter-argument complete with textual evidence, conclusions, and evaluation of the argument. All of the students take part in some way: there is a prosecution team, a defense team, the defendant, characters serving as witnesses, and a jury. All of the students have to prepare written work in addition to appearing in the trial. I give opportunities for students with varying levels of comfort in appearing in front of the class a chance to choose what they wish to be; however, if all the students prefer the jury, then some are disappointed.

My focus this semester was on Gothic Literature, and one of the novels we read was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I choose the Creature to be the defendant, which presents interesting circumstances since both the charged and many of the witnesses are already dead. In this courtroom though, presided over by Judge Chuck—the final arbiter of all things legal and literary, such supernatural occurrences can be expected. In both English 2 classes I am teaching this semester (not the regular schedule), we arranged the filling of the positions comfortably. I was very pleased, that in both sections, the students were enthusiastic about taking part. The Trial will take place during the last week of the semester, so the students should have sufficient time to prepare for court.

In the past, this exercise has always been an excellent adjunct to the standard writing projects, and I am sure it will be successful and useful to the students again.

Banned Books

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I was working on my book order and syllabus for a class I will teach next semester, a special topics course, Banned Books, and in looking over various sites that detail books that have been challenged and banned, both in the Unites States and throughout the world, I was struck by the sheer enormity of the attempts by people ranging from parents to churches to governments to control what people may read and the courage and strength of those who have opposed such efforts.

If you are interested in this subject, I recommend several good sites: http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/banned-books-around-world#.VFWZdckQM1J and
http://www.ala.org/bbooks/ among others.

One of the issues in creating a course and its syllabus is deciding what books to include, always a difficult task, especially when so many books have either been directly banned or challenged. I wanted to make certain that I included books that have been attacked for a variety of reasons. The novels I chose were banned/challenged for motives ranging from sexuality to religion to government issues. Without giving the entirety of the syllabus, among the books I chose to include are D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone, Talisma Nasrin’s Shame, and Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. As I mentioned, I had to leave many books out that I would have preferred to include, mainly because of size. The reading list is already intensive, and since this is an undergraduate course, I have to consider length of weekly readings. It is always a dilemma in choosing texts.

What is clear though is the courage some authors have to write texts in places where their lives can be put at risk as well as their readers for creating and reading novels. Both the courage of a writer like Talisma Nasrin and a reader and activist like Malala Yousafzai are beyond question. This integrity and bravery have been exhibited by writers and readers for centuries, and I am humbled in their presence.

We, as writers and readers, must always remember that the freedom to read is a crucial part of life, and we need to be vigilant against those who would deny that basic freedom.