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Monograph 2010

Roses of Chesterley: Evolution of a Young Adult Novel

 

This project began with a dream several years ago.  As time progressed, I decided I wanted to record this dream as a novel.  When I began the Master’s program, I wanted to complete a Master’s project and thought this novel would be a great choice.  My committee chair, Dr. Shannon Butler, and I decided that my project would consist of finishing the novel with major plot revisions in place.  This monograph would consist of taking one chapter from the finished novel and revising it essentially to a final draft form to show the progression I have made (and will continue with the entire novel).
 

I met with my committee in fall 2009 with approximately fourteen chapters completed – about halfway through my novel.  The most significant suggestion my committee had was to adjust the relationship of my main character and her best friend, which would require a re-write of the story.  My gut reaction was to recoil at their proposal because it did not fit the characterization I had envisioned.  In my first draft, Anna and William were best friends and nothing more or less.  I specifically wanted this relationship because not every male-female relationship has to be romantic, and simple friendships do exist.  William also acted as a mentor for Anna, and the original draft had him giving her advice periodically throughout the novel, ultimately helping her make a final decision concerning her future.

 
My committee’s reaction to the relationship was that there was something wrong with William (“Is he gay?”).  In this time period, William risked his entire reputation (as well as that of his family) by befriending Anna, and both characters’ morality was questioned by the amount of time they spent together.  My committee suggested I revise the draft to create a love-triangle of some sort instead.  They felt that as the story presently stood, William in particular was an unbelievable character.  As stated above, I did not want to change their interaction, and fought against it for a couple of days.  But deep down, I knew the committee was right. 
 
The type of relationship I had established exists, but is probably a little unlikely for a young adult.  My novel had other believability issues in it, so I decided I should give something expected to my reader rather than take too many risks with her.  (This is a relationship I would still like to explore, but will leave it for a future, less risky novel.)  Additionally, by creating a love triangle, it would add another, deeper dimension to my novel that would also add potential possibilities.  But this major adjustment would change my plot significantly.  No longer could William be the only one who mentored Anna, nor could he be the one to advise her to accept another marriage proposal. 
 
Which leads me back to the chapter focused on in this monograph: “Working the Fields.”  According to my committee members, I did not provide an opportunity for my main character to interact with some of her other peers in that first draft.  My answer to that was adding this chapter in the second draft (the full original chapter can be found in Appendix A).  I had also wanted to show what Anna’s life as a peasant was like, but did not know how to incorporate it when writing my first draft.  My committee’s suggestion provided me the opportunity to show Anna’s lifestyle and an uncontrived situation in which she could interact with her peers.  Additionally, it provided me the chance to create and introduce a new character who could also be a role model for Anna (another suggestion from my committee).  Lady Margery is briefly mentioned in this chapter, and met in the subsequent chapter.  She becomes another mostly unseen, but important confidant for Anna, and ultimately helps Anna make her final decision in the love triangle.
 
When my committee read the second draft, they were glad to see (through this chapter) rather than be told about her interactions with her peers, as well as the introduction of Lady Margery.  As part of my desire to let my reader see Anna’s peasant life, I wanted her to understand how physically difficult that life was.  As a result, I included several descriptions of some of the activities as well as the tools used in the fields.  Unfortunately, my committee pointed out I had a lot of description that was not interlaced with the dialogue; it seemed to be written in pieces. 
 
My next draft took the suggestions of my committee and tried to rearrange much of the chapter so the description fit more naturally with the action.  For example, I moved the entire second paragraph that described how much land was allotted to Anna’s family to later in the chapter where she discusses how long plowing takes.  I combined these two activities by telling the reader that it would take “only two days” to plow one acre of land.  This phrasing tells the reader that in comparison to the other families, Anna’s family does not have very much land, but since it also takes two entire days to prepare the acre, the reader understands that plowing really was slow and difficult.
 
In my first version, I had described much of how plowing worked, then jumped back to Anna’s home and her taking some bread and cheese for breakfast.  My next version moved breakfast to the first of the chapter so Anna’s musings would make more sense as she walked to the fields to begin working.
 
One of the most problematic sections in my first draft of the chapter occurred as I described the plows medieval peasants used.  I felt this was an important aspect to include, but I needed to find another place to put it where it flowed better.  I decided to move it to an area of conversation where one of Anna’s peers talks about her suitor.  She stands and looks at him proudly as he plows a few fields away.  Anna also looks at the beau and observes how difficult his job is because of the awkward plow he has to use.  I made other similar rearrangements throughout the novel.
 
Based upon the comments of a critique group, the changes I made seemed to work better for them.  The action did not seem as separated from the description.  However, this chapter was the very first introduction they had to my novel, and the character names confused them.  One member told me a good rule of thumb he had heard was to never use two character names that even started with the same letter.  My main character was “Anna,” and I had an “Anne” as one of her compatriots.  I had actually done this on purpose initially because I wanted to use popular medieval names, and there would be some duplication of names in any village, which is what I tried to illustrate.  However, the last thing I wanted to do was confuse my reader, and although my critique group may not have been confused had they had the twenty-five pages prior to this chapter to meet Anna, ultimately, it was unimportant.  These were minor characters who would never show up again, so the easiest solution was to change names around.  Anne and Margaret became Sarah and Dorothy.
 
I made some minor phrase or word changes suggested by my critique group when I felt they were warranted.  For example, in the first paragraph, a line read, “Winter was always the slowest time of the year…”  My committee suggested I make it more descriptive by comparing it to something like, “Winter moved like molasses.”  I put that phrase in, but I knew that I would still change it.  “Moving like molasses” just sounded too trite or clichéd to me, but I wanted to follow their suggestion of adding description.  I changed other similar types of phrases throughout the chapter.
 
Some of their suggestions I chose not to take because it would not say what I wanted it to say.  One example was a line that said something about smelling smoke and the cold.  A group member suggested I change it to, “smoke in the cold.”  Personally, I have noticed that when you are outside in the winter, there is a distinctive smell to the cold; there is no other way to describe it.  That is the sense I wanted to convey.  Rather than taking the group member’s suggestion, I tried to rearrange the line so that what I really wanted to say was clearer.
 
In September 2009, I attended a two-day writing conference.  This novel was perhaps the first time I really wanted to take my writing seriously, and I realized I needed some serious help.  I chose to attend an all-day seminar presented by Kirt Hickman entitled “Revising Fiction: Making Sense of the Madness.”  I have always been a pretty decent first-draft writer.  I would “revise” my writing, but it never seemed like I was really changing or fixing very much, but at the same time, my writing (at least creative writing) wasn’t “there” yet.  I hoped this seminar would help me figure out how to take my writing to the next level. 
 
Hickman basically presented the book he had written (of the same title as the seminar), only compacted.  His format was one of reading books and taking multiple classes, seminars, workshops, etc.; condensing the most important and practical information gleaned from all of them; and presenting it in essentially a step-by-step formula.  One thing I especially appreciated about his examples was that they were the same pieces of writing before and after he had applied his revision.  Unlike most writing sources who provide a good and a poor example, at least for me, Hickman’s comparisons made it easier to see how he actually revised the writing and the difference it made.  Of course what works for him does not work completely for everyone, but his book and presentation gave me the direction I needed.  Now I knew where to go in my writing and the steps to take to get there.
 
One of the first steps of revision he suggests after the first draft is written is looking at your scenes.  This was definitely an area I needed work in, although probably not as much in this chapter (after the previous revisions), as I would in other chapters.  The aspect of Hickman’s suggestions I decided to tackle first was that of filtering everything through my viewpoint character.  As he says, “As a rule, include only facts being observed, heard, or considered by your viewpoint character” (105).  I tried to revise my descriptions so that they always came through Anna.  Although Hickman writes his books in third-person, and thus some of his suggestions must be slightly altered for first-person, I felt that as Roses of Chesterley was written in first-person, it was particularly important to filter through Anna. 
 
One example of this occurs near the bottom of the first page.  Anna has an aside thought that originally read, “At least the whole village works together during planting and harvest seasons[.]”  Based upon the context of the story, it was not clear why Anna would say such a thing.  A simple revision focusing more on my character clarifies it: “At least the whole village still works with me…” (emphasis added).  Now suddenly, the character has a reason to make such a judgment – the other villagers will not converse with her, but they have not completely shunned her from their lifestyles either. 
 

Near the beginning of the chapter, Anna goes to the fields early in the morning.  The earlier draft did not mention how she got there.  As I considered how she actually approached the fields, I decided she was walked briskly.  Well then, why was she walking briskly?  I had alluded to many reasons, but none of them were very clear.  She needed to arrive by first light, the winter had been long, she awoke extra early.  Basically she was anxious to arrive.  Again, I filtered through Anna and said, “The long winter had made me restless, and I was grateful for the brisk walk…”  Suddenly there is a reason for her action.

 
The next revision tried to manage information dumps or misplaced information.  Relating back to when I rearranged to make the descriptions more logical, now I dealt with their length in order to prevent them from breaking up the action.  For example, I introduced Elizabeth, Joan, Sarah, and Dorothy all at the same time in the earlier draft, but Sarah and Dorothy do not participate in the story until two pages later.  The reader did not need to know about these two girls until they were important; in other words, I had dumped too much information at the wrong time.  I deleted the first mention of them, and revised their introduction to include all the information important about them when their actions enter the story.  I further rearranged other sections of the chapter to provide better context for all of the information I provided.  I also tried to condense and combine similar information together so the flow of thought was logical.
 
My next revision had to do with the descriptions.  I tried to show what was happening (again, through Anna’s eyes) rather than tell.  As Hickman states, “On what is [her] conclusion based?” (128).  Near the end of the chapter, Anna realizes her conversation with Sarah is being cut short.  In the earlier drafts, I had written that she sees Joan and Elizabeth and figures they are warning Sarah to stop talking.  Well, I asked myself, why would Anna come to this conclusion?  My revised version reads: “…seemingly involved in a discussion themselves, but I could see their eyes still shifting.”  This change shows much better what Anna thinks about what is really happening.
 
I tackled the voices of my characters next.  The characters throughout my novel have three levels of language: 1) the nobles speak very eloquently without contractions; 2) the peasants speak very basically with lots of contractions; 3) and Anna is in-between.  Her language is more sophisticated than the other peasants, but without contractions (unless really upset), or elevated language (word choices).  This chapter mostly involved the latter two levels.  I wanted to make sure that Anna’s language sounded more sophisticated than her peers’, but she did not sound haughty either.  In other words, her sentences tend to be longer, but she still uses simple language.  I really focused in on the uncommon language to make sure the words she was choosing to say were the simpler ones, not the refined synonyms of the highly educated.  I also realized that the other peasants’ voices sounded too much like Anna’s; they needed to be “dirtied” up.  When the conversation with Joan and Elizabeth starts, I looked specifically for ways to add in contractions and dumb the language down.  At one point, Elizabeth describes a potential suitor and how she is happy to marry him, even though she was worried because she is getting older.  The revised version simplifies this paragraph-long response to: “’I hope so. He’s a good man. I was worrying I’d end up a spinster.’”   This is more concise, and a more base voice than I had originally, which fits better with my envisioned character.
 
The next revision, I feel, is one of the most important.  I dealt with my verbs.  My original draft had a lot of weak and filtered verbs.  “Nearing” the field and “greeting” the villagers near the bottom of the first page became “Approaching” the field and “hailing” the villagers.  My most common filter verbs were weakened time markers like had, started, looked, continued, and other similar types of words.  So rather than saying “Some villeins had already started plowing…” I modified it to read, “Some villeins were already plowing” (emphases added), which provided a little more immediate action in what Anna was observing.  Later in the chapter a sentence read: “…I stood to stretch my back and took in a deep breath.”  I strengthened (and condensed) this action with a slight revision: “…I stretched my back and breathed deeply.”  Removing my filter verbs and searching for the strongest ones possible made the story more immediate to my reader.
 
My final revision had to be the absolute last step because of the genre I am writing in.  My novel is a historical fiction novel, so now that I had the feel of the story, I had to make sure that the vocabulary of my characters fit my time period, especially with the non-everyday language.  Periodically throughout the revision process, I would come across words that would make me think, “Hmm, I wonder if this word really existed back then?”  I would highlight them to remind myself to look them up.  Since I have placed my story around 1500 in England, I had to make sure that the first appearances of the word were early enough to consider them viable (like around 1450).  One of the most crucial was peasant.  I accessed the OED and found that word was too modern for my novel.  After going through the other possible synonyms of the actual time period (villein, bondsman, serf, etc.), villein was the only word that really fit with the connotation I wanted.  But as it is an uncommon word, now I must find somewhere in my novel to explain it (through Anna).  I came across similar difficulties multiple times. 
 

Another frustration I encountered as I checked my vocabulary was that more often than not, the exact, perfect word to convey my meaning did not exist.  And to make matters worse, nothing that did exist was quite right.  So, grudgingly, “slob” and “cheat” became “churl” and “knave.”  Unfortunately, neither of these quite fit the description of character I wanted.  This conundrum still bothers me, and I still have not decided if I will accept the accurate vocabulary, or if I will return to my draft and change some occasional language to fit my meaning.  Which is more important – accuracy or precise connotation?

 
As “Working the Fields” was a somewhat simpler (and shorter) chapter than many of the rest, I feel like it was a perfect choice to begin revision with.  Now that I’ve practiced the techniques and methods I’ve learned from multiple resources, I can better apply those same techniques to the rest of my novel.  I have a taste for some of the difficulties I’ll encounter while revising the rest of the story.  I am naturally verbose in my writing, and I found that the revision process helped take care of most of that wordiness.  My final version is shorter and clearer than the first draft without losing any essential information (which can be found in Appendix B).
 
I also found it interesting that even when I was done with one aspect of revision, I was never really “done.”  I frequently found myself color-coding phrases to work on in future revisions, and often changed things based upon earlier revision strategies.  A different day with different eyes helped me see ways to make the writing better even though I had already “addressed” the issue in question.  I guess that is why I am starting to feel like a real writer – nothing is ever really “done,” and probably never really will be.
 
 
 

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