In which I use too many pronouns in my writing, struggle to write a story about penguins, and learn to give and receive feedback on fiction writing.

I’ve completed my third week of the online course, Start Writing Fiction.  This week we focused on editing our drafts, generating new ideas, and submitting an excerpt for peer review.

I found the advice on editing to be quite “thin”. A messy paragraph was provided for us to edit down to two core lines of text. It was ridiculously full of adjectives and conjunctions – something  a grade schooler might write. After we attempted the edit ourselves, the course leader posted a short video showing how she had cut out most of the words, leaving three simple sentences. I already know how to get to the core of a sentence. What was lacking in the exercise, in my opinion, was modeling the mind of the writer as she made the decisions of what to cut. In teaching we call that scaffolding. The teacher walks through the  process, not only telling what she is doing but why she is doing it. I would have found that more useful to learn the why behind  the editing.

Editing is hard. No one wants to throw away a third ( or more) of what they have generated, yet it is a necessary part of writing. Unless you’re lucky enough to have an editor, or a fellow writer who can be kind yet ruthless with you, you must learn to be ruthless with your own writing.  I found a useful checklist for editing at Jerry Jenkins’ blog. You can download the list here.

In addition to posting our own writing for review, we also reviewed others’ work. The course guidelines were helpful in editing our own work as well as giving constructive feedback to our peers. Here is the checklist :

ASSIGNMENT GUIDELINES

      Give feedback on the following aspects of the author’s assignment:

  • How was the central character portrayed and was this portrayal clear and interesting?
  • What made you think this piece was a story and did you want to read on?
  • What were the most, and least, successful aspects of the writing?

I submitted part of my story about Tiwonge for peer review. The most helpful feedback I received was to look for ways to minimize the repetition  of “she” and “her.”  Here is a paragraph my reviewer cited from my first draft. I’ve highlighted the repeated pronouns.

Tiwonge stared at the floor. Anger welled up quickly, catching in her throat . She looked sideways at the woman who had just spoken. It was Mrs. Chulu, she thought, that woman with the braided hair and gold medallion earrings which flashed when she turned her head . She was always parading around with her new hairstyles , her western clothes and ridiculous shoes.

 Here is my edited paragraph:

Tiwonge stared at the floor. Anger welled up quickly, catching in her throat. Glancing sideways, Tiwonge saw that it was Mrs. Chulu who had just spoken. That woman was always parading around with new hairstyles, western clothes and foolish shoes. Mrs. Chulu turned to look at Tiwonge, her gold medallion earrings flashing in the sunlit room.

Using the advice I received, I cleaned up my writing, reducing the use of the “she” and “her from seven to two .  I hope to put my editing skills to use on the rest of the story, cutting out repeated words and unnecessary descriptions.

One section of our course encouraged learners to generate new ideas for future stories. We were asked to listen to a radio broadcast and write about the first thing we heard. I began a draft in week two based on a podcast that mentioned two penguins which traveled on a passenger jet.  I’ve used that as a prompt to write the beginnings of two stories. I was hesitant to submit the draft of this story for peer review on my course. I feel like the story is silly and not developed enough. Here is my first draft of Ana flying with penguins.

Dear Lord, what are those things? Ana watched as a man made his way down the aisle with two travel carriers. He stopped and put them on the seats directly in front of her. They better not be cats , thought Ana. Her emotions were fragile; this could send her over the edge. Ana looked around for a stewardess to request a seat change.

The seatbelt sign flashed on. The attendant made a swift pass though the plane, checking that bags were stowed and belts buckled. Ana breathed deeply as the engines crescendoed. Why was she on this flight? Was she running from James or from herself ? The scene of her departure ran through her mind like one of those ridiculous videos on Facebook, replaying in an endless loop. “Stay,” James had said. “I can’t,” she’d replied.

The reasons she’d given had been sane and clear, but as the plane roared up the runway Ana’s thoughts were not composed. She looked out the window as they left earth behind.  Flying was like entering another dimension – suspended between heaven and earth. Ana needed this space to think before returning to reality.

As the seatbelt light blinked off, Ana watched as the man in front of her opened up the travel carriers. Was he taking his pets out of their boxes during the flight ? Ana’s jaw clenched. She rose to call for the attendant. Suddenly, the man turn around. He was holding two tiny penguins. Ana stared at their comical black and white faces.

“Meet Pablo and Priscila,” said the man. “They need to get out and move around a bit. “ Ana remind frozen in place.  “They’re lovely creatures, aren’t they?” he said.

Fascinated, Ana watched as he set the penguins on the floor. Passengers leaned into the aisle as the birds strutted towards the back of the plane. Ana smiled as she watched the penguins peek curiously under peoples’ chairs. As the birds waddled back to their seats, Ana laughed at the absurdity of it. Penguins on a plane! Maybe anything is possible, she thought. 

The above story was an exercise for me in writing from a prompt. I am not that attached to this story. However, I am trying to edit it for better flow and to create juxtaposition between Ana’s serious thoughts about her relationship and the absurdity of having penguins walking around the airplane during the flight.  Will I finish it ? You’ll have to check back in to find out! Have a great week writing. Please get in touch and share any  writing resources, especially tips on editing.