Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Names, and Why to Use Them

Last year, my essay "Atomic Tangerine" appeared in The New Quarterly. In it I reckon a bit with names of things. 

When I moved here a dozen years ago, I wanted to learn everything about this place, and learning names seemed like a good start. 

Then I started to ask why--why did it matter whether that wildflower was a butter-and-egg or a marsh marigold? 

And after that came "so what?" A reader could probably guess that a butter-and-egg would be yellow (butter, eggs...)...and the point is??

I've been thinking about the "so what?" issues around names as I continue revising my novel, which is set in northwestern Ontario. Perhaps a character notices that the types of trees in northwestern Ontario are different from those nearer Toronto. Why bring it up at all? What does that say about him? Does he even know the names of the types of trees? 

I've recently read Melissa Harrison's novel All Among the Barley, a coming-of-age story set in farming country in East Anglia in the 1930s. One of my favourite elements of the story is how Edith, the fourteen-year-old point-of-view character, walks through their farm describing what she sees. 

I can't necessarily see what she sees from the names she uses. (I had to research to learn that the fabulously named wildflower "jack-go-to-bed-at-noon" is gold, for example. Well worth the time to learn it.) But the names mean something to Edie. She can see them--she knows this landscape, she's grown up in it. So of course she uses the names.

Another example: The family (I typed that "farmily" originally, which I like) has named their fields and meadows: Broad Field, Great Ley, Long Piece, Far Piece, Newlands. When Edie looks out over the farm, or walks among the fields and meadows, she names them casually, because to her, that's what they're called, in the same way someone might refer to Main Street or Broadway. 

In that book, that's one of the "what for?" answers; there may be others. It's a rich book, scarily prescient as to politics, and well worth reading.

It remains to be seen in my own work why characters name things--which is (part of) the fun of revision. Or so I tell myself.
Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Toast Workarounds and Multitasking

I have cut way back on small-picture multitasking, which I define as "doing more than one thing at a time." Listening to podcasts while exercising or stretching (which I actually do fairly often because they combine successfully). A less successful example is listening to podcasts while scrolling a newsfeed and ostensibly carrying on a conversation.

However. Bigger picture, I still multitask, by which I mean "working on several projects in the course of a specific time period." Within the same day or two or three, assembling information for income taxes. Preparing (cleaning and cooking) to host the book club. Revising. Writing. For example. 

Sometimes, small-picture multitasking results in toast that looks like this.


I do like almost all toast, and I'm old enough now to eat it even when it has burned bits. However. It's not my preferred toast. I am capable of better. 

But I'm not delivering because I'm not paying attention solely to the toast for the minute it requires. And because I'm not paying attention, the previous workaround I'd devised to create uniformly light-brown toast is no longer successful. See, the loaves of bread we like are too big to fit comfortably in the toaster. So I turn down the setting, put the toast in end-up, and, after one round, flip ends.

Even with my workaround, the center does usually end up being darker than the edges, because it gets two rounds. But it's not not usually this dark. Because usually, I am not multitasking in the small-picture sense, at least not in the way I have been lately.

However. In the next few days I will be able to smooth out some bumps and get back to the usual round of working. I will go back to having lovely toast, made with the skill I know I possess. 

At some point, I may even create a big enough space between projects to find a toaster that will accept the bread we like without the workaround. Just not today.

::crunch crunch::
Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Revision as Decluttering

I'm revising a novel, and not for the first time. In the previous large revision of this work, I eliminated an entire point-of-view character.

It was a satisfying revision--visible in lots of ways. The word count dropped by nearly one-third, in about five minutes. Poof, all those words, gone. (Into a scratch file, but realistically? Gone forever.)

That change required a cascade of other revisions, mostly simplifications, which required time and a bit of help.

For the past few months, I've been doing a different kind of revision, one that I think of as more on the "decluttering" end of a spectrum that includes "renovations" and "building a new house."

Taking out that point-of-view character and her whole odyssey are more like renovations, where you take off that deck that was never really useful.

Other revisions are smaller but still have easily defined edges. For example, downsizing from two bedrooms to one lets you ditch an entire bedroom's worth of furniture. That feels like the simplifying and streamlining I did after removing a character.

Now I'm working even smaller, closer to the decluttering end. I'm culling all the crap that's accumulated over the course of this novel's lifetime. I don't want to chuck everything--a lot of what's happening feels coherent. But much is extraneous.

I can't even use the currently popular "does it spark joy?" question because I'm quite fond of some of the things that have to go. They don't work, even though they're sweet moments or nice images.

I'd like to believe I'm at the "does this word stay or go?" revision, but that's wishful thinking. I'm not ready to pick up every book on a shelf--or even think about it yet.

Perhaps I'm more at the "two bookshelves are plenty in this room, so we should ditch these other two" phase.

These declutter revisions are frustratingly invisible. That's why I log the word count. It's dropping by 500 to 1000 words a day. Not quite as satisfying as ridding a house of bedroom furniture, but good enough for now.