Thursday, July 18, 2013

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop, Part 7: What to Do Afterwards

OK, your workshop is over, and you want to revise the piece that you brought to the group. Where do you begin? I think every writer handles this differently, but I can tell you the process I go through after a workshop, in the hope that it might be helpful to you.

First of all, I write down every single comment I get in a workshop that might possibly be of use, and mark it with the name or initials of the person who made the suggestion. That helps me sort through which comments are applicable to the particular work I’m revising. As I mentioned in a previous blog, you have to know the taste, preferences, and biases of your workshop members to absorb their comments most usefully.

Second, I wait one to three months before I look at the comments I’ve written down. Sometimes after a workshop I’m reeling from all the information I’ve assimilated in just a few minutes. I work on a piece for months, maybe years and when I finally show it to my writing group, and I hear all sorts of suggestions in the space of only a few minutes. Many of the ideas I didn’t anticipate at all, and one or two might take this piece of writing in a very different direction.

Even though I usually wait a couple of months to sort out all the information, if there’s something that was pointed out that I know is flat-out wrong, such as a misspelling or a dangling modifier, I usually fix that immediately.

To begin the revisions, I wait for a moment when I have no distractions and a stretch of time with nothing to do in front of me. Revision is a process that requires a lot of concentration. If it involves a poem, I try to allow an hour for the first round of edits after the workshop.

I start by carefully reading every single comment, sometimes recalling the tone of the person making the suggestion, and sometimes I remember my own reaction at the time I received the comment. I include those recollections in gauging how much weight to give to a suggestion. There are also certain comments I may have starred with an asterisk or underlined during the workshop, because the comments felt particularly useful. Those are usually the ones I begin with when I make my edits.

There are sometimes comments that would take my work in a completely different direction. Those are the ones I weigh most deliberately. Often those comments seem to me to be about a different work from the one I brought to the workshop—that wasn’t what I was trying to do, I’m not sure why that person interjected an idea that has nothing to do with the impulse behind this work of mine. Maybe it was a random idea. I discard that suggestion.

But every once in a while, a comment that takes a work of mine in a significantly different direction seems like the best one to me. A member of my workshop has given me a huge gift, a way to rework a problematic piece that otherwise might never gel into a work I’d like to an audience or try to publish. After weighing the alternatives, I rework the whole piece to incorporate that comment.

Just the process of sorting through the comments almost always stimulates other ideas that help me revise the piece in ways that the comments didn’t even suggest. Those fresh thoughts can be really useful in revisions.

One important thing to keep in mind is that a work of literature is a living organism. If you change one thing, you almost always have to change something else to restore the balance. For instance, you might add a line or a sentence that includes a word that you repeat just below the new edit, in which case you might have to find a replacement for that word when you use it for the second time. But this principle can also exist on a larger scale, in the plot of a novel, for instance. You might add a scene at the beginning that then requires adjustments several chapters later, to make the action consistent. Until you get to the very last round of edits, it’s almost impossible to make one change without making another tweak somewhere else. But that's a good thing. It means that your piece of writing is alive, that it is reacting to the work you are doing in revising it.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6

How to Get Published
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

On Being the Child of a Writer

I have met a few writers who are children of writers. I believe that all of us with writer parents live with our progenitors’ careers and work as constant companions. It’s both a huge advantage and a somewhat of a burden to have a writer in one’s ancestry. On the one hand, it legitimates one’s claim to being a writer—this isn’t the first time that a literary career has emerged in this family. In a way, it’s as if your dad is a tailor and you want to become a tailor. If he could learn the trade, why can’t I? But of course, there are fewer good writers than good tailors. Or are there? The disadvantage: you are constantly comparing yourself and being compared to your parent.

My dad, Lee Rogow, was a successful writer. 

Lee Rogow, serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II
My dad wrote short stories for magazines in the U.S.A. that published fiction in the early 1950s. His stories, many of them based on our family life, appeared regularly in Esquire, Harper’s, Colliers, Ladies Home Journal, and other magazines. Rarely in the New Yorker, though he did publish in the Talk of the Town section. His short stories weren't quite edgy enough for that magazine, or maybe he never tried to publish his most artistic stories, since they were on topics that he might not have wanted to write about publicly. My dad wrote an interesting story about adultery, for example, which he told from the viewpoint of the other woman. He never published it.

My dad also wrote many reviews of plays, books, and movies. For years he was the drama critic of the Hollywood Reporter, and during that period he and my mom attended every opening night on Broadway. After the final curtain, they hurried to the Western Union office in Times Square and my dad telegraphed his hastily drafted review to the West Coast—where it was three hours earlier—in time for his article to appear in the morning paper in Los Angeles.

After my dad’s theater review was done, he and my mom would have a late supper and sip martinis at Sardi’s on West 44th Street, where all the reviewers and producers would congregate till the newsboys burst in with the early edition of the New York Times, the Herald Tribune, The Sun, and the Mirror with their reviews, which usually determined if a show would be a hit or a flop.  

Lee Rogow writing
Based on my dad’s experiences reviewing opening nights, he also wrote the draft of a screenplay. The story was inspired by Marlene Dietrich’s daughter, Maria Riva, and her relationship with her mother. Maria Riva appeared in a Broadway play that my dad reviewed. To avoid comparisons with her mom, Riva never used the name Dietrich or mentioned her mother in her bios. Her mother was equally circumspect, trying not to overshadow her daughter. Of course, their connection was well known. At the daughter’s opening night on Broadway, Dietrich couldn’t resist making a grand entrance in a beautiful dress when the audience was already seated, eclipsing her daughter. My dad based the screenplay on that incident.

Tragically, my dad, Lee Rogow, died in a plane crash in 1955 at the age of 36. His career went unfinished, as did his screenplay. My dad had sold his screenplay to a Hollywood studio, but he never had a chance to complete it.  He also had a draft of a book of short stories he was planning to send to publishers.

Part of my motivation for being a writer has to do with a need to complete my dad’s career. I think that desire also motivates to some degree my first cousin, Steven V. Roberts, who has written many books, including My Father’s Houses, where he writes a lot about my dad; and From This Day Forward, which he coauthored with Cokie Roberts.
My dad and I in a photobooth, circa 1954
One thing about having a parent as a writer is that, even though I lost my dad when I was three years old, I feel I know him well. Reading his writing, I see his sparkly wit, at moments a bit forced. I sense his intellect, and his deep and complex feelings for his role as a father. That’s one distinct advantage to having a parent or ancestor who is a writer: you get to know that person through the writing in a way that is extremely close, closer than any other occupation could bring you. Here’s a passage from that story I mentioned earlier, the one about adultery that my dad never published. This occurs near the end of the story, where the other woman finally has it out with her married boyfriend, whose name is Spence:

“You just want to be charming, irresistibly charming, so that everyone loves you. Your talent for this is high octane, my boy. You can charm the birds from the trees. But you cannot be all things to all men—or to all women. You can’t have it all your way, flitting between two worlds, and finding them waiting for you, unchanged, every time you arrive. Sometimes, Spence, it’s kinder to have a scene. Have it with me, or have it with her, but have it.” What a strong female character! And this was in the early 1950s, when almost every TV show showed women in aprons baking chocolate-chip cookies around the clock. My dad was a man who appreciated a strong woman, and in that, I take after him.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka