Are You There, Judy? It’s Me, Elisa

I read these books over and over and over again. They were stories that validated me, made me curious, and made me want to grow up. They were the stories that shaped my own stories, secret stories, like the ones Sally Freeman made up in her head and told no one about.

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When I talk about the writers who have most influenced me as a writer and a storyteller, Aaron Sorkin and Nora Ephron—two screenwriters, predominantly (although Ephron began her career as a journalist and wrote everything from plays to essays to blog posts, and Sorkin is also a playwright)—come to my lips first. In Sorkin I see a kindred spirit of one who hears dialogue like music, and I worship at his altar of “intention and obstacle” when it comes to my novels. In Ephron I find less a kindred spirit and more someone I want to like me, even from beyond. Consequently, after reading Richard Cohen’s book about her, it seems I was far from alone in that regard.

Aaron writes dialogue that sounds smart. Nora wrote smart stuff.

But the writer I talk little about, who perhaps has had an even greater influence on me, for a longer period of time, is Judy Blume.

I was introduced to Judy Blume books in the second grade, when my teacher, Ms. Millman (she was the first woman I knew who insisted on being called “Ms.” instead of “Mrs.,” and she was my favorite grade-school teacher), read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing to the class.

I was hooked from there. As I’ve often said, when it comes to reading, I am a creature of habit—when I find an author I like, I read just about everything s/he’s ever written, often more than once. That was Judy Blume. I took Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing out of the library and read it again. And again. Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great came next, followed by Starring Sally J. Freeman as Herself. I remember when Superfudge came out, and my female classmates all clamored to be next on the waiting list at the school’s library to read it.

And then, of course, there was Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.

It was the book to read if you were a twelve-year-old girl. And it made an impression on every one of them. Three of my friends and I started our own PTS’s club, complete with boy books and discussion about bras (neither the club nor the books lasted very long; besides, I only had one boy and Paul McCartney on my list—this was post-Shaun Cassidy and pre-Duran Duran).

I ordered a Starter Kit after reading that book. Two girls in my sixth grade class threw a co-ed party and announced they were going to play “Spin the Bottle” (I was relieved not to be invited). Like Margaret, I wanted breasts (I got my wish, albeit not during my teens). I wanted my period. I wanted knitted sweaters with special labels (my grandmother made me dresses for my brothers’ weddings, wraparound skirts, funky vests, and knitted booties, so I’m not complaining).

It’s Not the End of the World turned out to be a refuge after my parents split up, although their demise looked nothing like Karen’s parents. Deenie, Blubber, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t—these were all the books of my childhood and adolescence. I read these books over and over and over again. They were stories that validated me, made me curious, and made me want to grow up. They were the stories that shaped my own stories, secret stories, like the ones Sally Freeman made up in her head and told no one about. I wrote lots of stories in my head. I wrote stories in my notebook and hid the notebooks. I wrote in my diary every day and made up stories in which I inserted myself into a soap opera plot or a Duran Duran video.

Last week I began Judy Blume’s Master Class, and was validated all over again from the very first lesson, this time as a grown up. A writer. An author. A storyteller. And a woman.

I found out that Judy and I share the same phobia of thunderstorms.

I found out that Judy gets ideas in the shower and/or on walks, just like I do.

I found out that, like me, Judy re-purposes the things and truths she both witnesses and experiences and feels in and from her own life into her stories. Not consciously or deliberately, but because they’re there and, to step back into Nora Ephron’s shoes for just a moment, “everything is copy.”

She tells stories about herself as a writer as simply as she writes.

I also found out that there are still a bunch of Judy Blume books I have yet to read. I’ll be visiting the public library in the near future. And heck, I’ll re-read all the other ones yet again, because it’s been so long.

I never got the chance to tell Nora Ephron what her writing meant to me. I got to tell Aaron Sorkin online, and even shook his hand in person. I hope I get those opportunities with Judy Blume. I hope I get to tell her that she’s one of my favorites. I hope I get to show her my novels, and tell her that Andi from Faking It voraciously read Judy Blume’s books. Even mentioned that she did. Sage from The Second First Time probably read all her books too. And Sunny from Adulation. And Eva from Why I Love Singlehood. How could they not? I hope I get to thank Judy Blume for knowing me and writing for me, even though she’s never known I exist. I hope I get to hug her.

I am truly a student of her craft as much as I am a reader of her stories. And I am honored and privileged to be both for the last forty years.

 

judy blume books copy
image from http://ashrocketship.com/tag/back-to-school-with-judy-blume/

When Writing is Reading: 3 Steps in the Revision Process

Those who know me know that these three steps are probably my favorite part of the writing/revision process. I love seeing how far the story has come and how much potential it has to be even better. I focus not on the flaws, but on the possibilities.

A couple of weeks ago, I completed the first draft of a new novel. I’m now in the revision stage. The first thing I do is read the manuscript in its entirety and annotate it—or, as I used to tell my college freshmen students, “talk to the text” (back when you could call a first draft a text and not have it confused with messages you send on your phone).

Many ask what my reading/revising process looks like, so here I will take you through it step by step. Keep in mind that this is my process—others may handle revision completely different, and that’s just fine. There’s no right or wrong way to revise, as long as you do it.

 

Step One: Print out the manuscript, find a pen, and dig in.

It’s important for me to work with a hard copy of my book-in-progress. I like the direct interaction with it—holding it in my hands, turning each page, and writing in the margins. A bunch of cool stuff is happening cognitively and physiologically that aids in this process too (although I kinda suck at explaining those things). Nevertheless, I love doing this part because I get to read my book-in-progress as a story rather than the fragmented chapters I’ve been working on along the way. I’m even particular about the kind of pen I use—I prefer Pilot ink pens with the very fine point. I used to love the purple, but they’re impossible to find, so now I go with blue.

 

Step Two: Ink it up.

So what did I mean by “talk to the text”? Essentially, as I read and respond, I’m having a conversation between the reader and the writer. Yes, they’re both me. But when I take on the role of reader, I am stepping outside my writing shoes and reading it with as fresh a viewpoint as possible. I am taking on the role of “intended reader,” making sure I’m reaching my audience and achieving my purpose. After all, the heart of revision is “re-seeing” the writing in ways you previously didn’t. Thus, the notes I make range from edits and/or word changes; crossing out sentences, paragraphs, even entire scenes; asking questions of the characters or the writer; and making suggestions or directions to develop and/or improve the story, scenes, characters, etc. The more I interact with the words on the page, the more the story comes to life, as does my vision for it.

Depending on the length and condition of the manuscript as well as my schedule, these two steps could take from a few days to a week to ten days complete. Rarely, if ever, longer than that.

 

Step Three: Back to the keyboard

After reading and annotating, I return to my laptop, open the draft and save it as a new file, and get to work with the marked up manuscript beside me. Page by page, I implement the notes. Sometimes I can get five or six chapters done in one sitting. Other times it will take me an entire day to rework one chapter or even one scene.

When I finish this step, I call the first round of revision complete and turn it over to my agent and/or developmental editor. They weigh in with their own notes, and the process begins all over again.

 

Those who know me know that these three steps are probably my favorite part of the writing/revision process. I love seeing how far the story has come and how much potential it has to be even better. I focus not on the flaws, but on the possibilities. And when I come across some bad writing, I am removed enough at this stage to laugh it off, be kind to my writer self, and see the fix. And even if I can’t see the fix at the moment, I know there is one. There always is.

 

Discussion: What is your revision process like? Do you like it or loathe it? Why?

Reminder: Have you taken the mid-career writer’s survey yet? If not, do it here!

 

manuscript notes 2

What Does it Mean to Be “Well Read”?

I guess what it all comes down to is this—is being well read about quantity or quality?

When I was teaching college writing, I used to assign my students a literacy narrative in which they write about their history with reading and writing. I had written several as a grad student, and when my peers read their narratives out loud, I used to feel self-conscious because I didn’t believe myself to be as well read as they were.

It didn’t stop there. Often times I’d hear colleagues use “well read” as a marker of character. “I wouldn’t put much stock into what he says; he’s not very well read.” Or: “You’d like her. She’s well read.”

My students also had an expectation of me to be well read. To them, “well read” was not only having read all the classic literature in the world, but also having memorized it. Especially Shakespeare. Seriously, you’d be surprised how many of my students were shocked that not only had I not memorized Shakespeare, but I could remember the few plays and/or sonnets of his I had read. In fact, some students had decided me a substandard instructor the moment I told them my bachelor’s degree was not English, but rather psychology, which, trust me, has served me way more and better than an English degree ever would.

For most of my life, I too believed “well read” meant one who had read—and absorbed—a lot of classic literature. Willingly and aptly. When NPR or Publisher’s Weekly or some other bookish media site releases a list called The 100 Books You Should Read in Your Lifetime or something like that, and my Facebook friends proudly boast their numbers: “I’ve read 60 of them!” “72!” “85!” I keep silent because I don’t come close.

So what, and how much, have I read?

It’s a question I’m asked as an author, and I’m always afraid to answer it for fear of being judged. But I’ll try to go out of my comfort zone here.

For starters, I have always been a creature of habit. If I fall in love with a writer (not literally, with the exception of my husband), I’ll read just about everything in his/her canon. As a child, I loved Dr. Seuss. Then Judy Blume. I didn’t only read each of their books once, but repeatedly. Like listening to an album and then letting it play over and over.

As a teenager, I can’t remember reading much of anything, especially whatever was assigned in school (with the exception of The Outsiders; my older sister loved it so much she read it to my twin brother and me, and I was totally stoked when we were finally assigned it in school.). I especially can’t remember liking any reading that was assigned. I was a teenager and a Duranie, so naturally I devoured every magazine that featured the Fab Five: “Simon Tells All!” “A Day in the Life of Jaunty JT!” and so on. I didn’t only look at the pictures (although, come on—it was all about the pictures). I read the articles (probably few of them true), and during this time I wrote Duran Duran fan fiction, not knowing there was a genre by that name. I read a few novels here and there, but none that stick out in my memory.

In my late teens and early 20s, I had lost my way. I was in a rather toxic relationship with someone who abhorred reading, couldn’t be bothered with it, found it lame and unsexy (how wrong he was). As I started to break free from his clutches, it was books that helped me escape—some were of the self-help variety (I recently wrote a post about the most influential one), some nonfiction like All the President’s Men and Barbarians at the Gate because I’d liked the movie adaptations, and eventually I found my way back to novels.

Then, in 1995, I went back to college.

At UMass Dartmouth, I was immersed in academic reading, including novels for classes such as “Comedy and Satire” and “Literature and Society,” essays for “Writing About Popular Culture,” and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning for a psychology paper on existentialism. (Also a book that has left a lasting impression on me.) The reading intensified in grad school—by then I was immersed in Aristotle, rhetorical scholars like Kenneth Burke and David Bartholomae, and a little Noam Chomsky here and there.

At some point I found myself craving “pleasure reading,” and sought more humorous work, including Douglas Adams, Nora Ephron, and David Sedaris. I’d wanted to write more humorous essays, and found them influential.

Reading Stephen King’s On Writing was the game-changer, however; King’s classic advice of “read a lot and write a lot” sunk in. I was astounded when he said he read sixty to seventy books a year. My graduate work prevented me from coming anywhere near that total, but I definitely upped my game. I listened to audiobooks (including the Harry Potter series) in my car, read a little bit before bed, and tried to get through two or three books per summer. I still don’t come close to the sixty-to-seventy total.

So what do I read now?

Anything from books on how to improve productivity or boost your Kindle book sales to a memoir about Cary Grant or Dick Van Dyke to my friends/ fellow authors’ novels to novels that have come highly recommended in Facebook book groups to books on writing craft. I’m not loyal to any one genre, especially not my own. I also read the occasional blog post, political article (although I’ve cut back on those because they anger me too much), or Top Ten list.

And I’m still a creature of habit. I named 2017 A Year of Nora Ephron and (re)read just about everything of hers that I could get my hands on. I enjoy Marian Keyes’ and Jennifer Weiner’s and Sarah Pekkanen’s books. I read screenplays written by Aaron Sorkin and William Goldman. And all of Craig Lancaster’s books, of course. The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter is my favorite, having read it three times, including before it was released. I have standalone favorites: Richard Russo’s Straight Man. Steve Hely’s How I Became a Famous Novelist. Duran Duran bassist John Taylor’s memoir, In the Pleasure Groove. And more.

And yes, I’ve read a few of the classics. They’re not in a league of their own, as far as I’m concerned. Some I liked and some I didn’t, like anything else I’ve ever read.

As a writer, it’s hard to read anything these days and not be looking at it with a critical eye. All part of the profession. But I love when I read something and think, “God, I wish I’d thought of that.” I also like reading something, putting it down, and thinking, “Well geez, I could do way better than that.” Both instances motivate me need to step up my game. And I don’t ever want to sit back and think I never have to be better than I already am.

So am I well read? I’m sure some will tell me I’m far from. Others will tell me they wish they were as well read as I am. I guess what it all comes down to is this—is being well read about quantity or quality? If it’s the latter, then who is the gatekeeper of that quality?

If you know the answer, tell me later. I’m in the middle of a really good book.

 

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