Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Stage a House, Revise a Novel

Photo by Cara Lopez Lee

My husband and I are selling our Denver, Colorado home at the same time I’m revising my novel. I can’t help but notice parallels. Let’s look at a few:

1) Staging my house: A real estate agent told us it might take two weeks to repair, repaint, de-clutter, and clean. It took five weeks, more than twice what we expected.

Revising my novel: Last August I hoped to finish my novel revisions by February. That would have been six months. It’s August again, and I won’t be done until October. That’s fourteen months, more than twice what I expected. I’ve always believed, “Everything takes twice as long as you expect.” Since “twice as long” is what I expect, sometimes I double that.

2) Staging my house: While de-cluttering our house, I began deciding what to keep and what to throw away for our move to Ventura, California. I recently watched a video about the book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo. Here’s my favorite of her tips, and I paraphrase: jettison anything that doesn’t bring you joy. I kept some things for years because they seemed “important,” but they did not bring me joy. I’m now tossing them, giving them away, or selling them. It’s liberating.

Revising my novel: Although I add material when I revise, I also catch plenty of overwriting. Some of my initial descriptions are so dense I need a machete to get through them. Here’s an example from my manuscript: "Yankee swayed forward and back, as if plowing through the push and pull of the water, as if he could will the invisible man across the water by moving in rhythm with him." Maybe the words sound nice, but they were part of an overgrown jungle that needed pruning so readers could see the forest for the trees. I’ve decided to keep the one image that gives me joy, and dump the rest. Here’s my revision: "Yankee swayed forward and back, as if he could will the unseen traveler to make it across by moving in rhythm with him." Now we’re getting somewhere, somewhere simpler to imagine.

3) Staging my house: When I saw online photos of our home, I noticed a personal item I’d left in the kitchen: a refrigerator magnet. It’s a big kitchen, with cabinets, a table, appliances, and plants. Still, that magnet pulled me in like, well, a magnet. It features an image of a fifties-style magazine model, who asks, “was she in love…or was it just allergies?” Fun, yes, but I should have removed it so it didn’t distract from the overall inviting feel of our kitchen.

Revising my novel: Sometimes the details I love most draw attention away from character development, plot, or theme. The distractions must go. However, I tread carefully. Sometimes what seems to be a distraction—say, a woman’s face on a fridge magnet—might be the most interesting thing in the scene. In that case, I would reduce the kitchen to a sketch and zoom in on the woman: who is she, what’s she doing here, what’s her secret? Either way, something has to go, so I can focus the reader’s attention where I want it.

4) Staging my house: I hate shopping. I didn’t want to buy a shoe organizer or flowers to stage my house for showings. I wanted homebuyers to see our home at face value, to say, “I can see the lovely closet floor beneath the shoes.” But now that I have a shoe organizer, it’s easier to pick shoes for the day and the closet looks nicer. Oh, and the flowers? Just three strategically placed bunches have brought the house to life.

Revising my novel: I liked my book the way it was. So did early readers. I had already reworked each chapter as I went. Why do more? But now that I see the story as a whole, I’m discovering possibilities I couldn’t imagine when I first created it from nothing. As I rearrange and add material, the story grows easier to understand, the words more beautiful, the characters more alive.

5) Staging my house: “When you de-clutter, you need to depersonalize.” – a real estate agent

Revising my novel: “This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” – Stephen King

Sometimes I read chapters I wrote, and once considered exceptional, only to ask, “Who wrote this drivel?” (Except drivel is not the word I use.) Let such thoughts not intimidate us, but instead serve as proof that we have the talent to recognize what our story—our home—can become if we’ll admit there’s more we can do…and do it.

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Connotation Press, Rivet Journal, and Pangyrus. She’s a book editor, a writing coach, and a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She was a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Denver.

20 comments :

  1. Excellent advice, especially as we are staging our house to sell. And it is a painful process, much like fine-tuning a manuscript. You're tempted to hide the flaws rather than fix them. Don't. They'll be uncovered and you will fill silly.

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    1. Indeed, Diana. We did have a few flaws in the house that we couldn't afford to deal with, though they were more about improvements than fixes. Funny, I would never let that happen with my manuscript, but then with the m.s. we're mostly talking about time, not big money. The novel might still have a few flaws in the end, but here's hoping they'll be the sorts of things that make it unique rather than true problems.

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  2. Yep, Cara ... any project around the house takes double the time and $$$ projected ... about what it takes to revise a manuscript.

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  3. I'm in the revision/rewrite stage of my newest manuscript as well, Cara. You're right on with this post. I'm especially annoyed with myself now that I've decided to add in POV chapters for a character I'd originally planned to marginalize. She protested, and I gave in. I'd hoped to be done by now, but I'm still writing new scenes.

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  4. I find it so amusing that one of your marginalized characters protested, Pat. I can almost see her standing in court, pleading her case, while you sit in a judge's robes, rolling your eyes because you just don't want to deal with her! :)

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  5. And then you move to the new house, and have to start remodeling, and there you are, in editing mode again! (We always set out some fresh baked cookies when we had a showing --wonder how that fits into the process.)

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    1. Good challenge, Terry! This is a more literal tangent, but: fresh-baked cookies remind me that smell is the sense with the most power to draw me into a scene and yet it also tends to be the sense we authors overlook most.

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  6. I love this comparison! So true!
    Terry--cookies are ALWAYS in order, especially chocolate chip!

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    1. Drat, we didn't bake cookies! That probably would have been cheaper than buying several bunches of fresh flowers.

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    2. I bought the packages of frozen "bake as many as you want" chocolate chip cookies and would pop some in the oven so they'd be ready for the potential buyers. Parchment paper on the cookie sheet, and virtually no cleanup.

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    3. Yum! Thanks for the tip, Terry. Next time, although right about now I'm hoping next time won't be for a lonnnnnng time. ;)

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  7. Love your analogy, Cara. And it's so true -- the revision of my first novel, which was supposed to be out in May, is still languishing on my hard drive, awaiting last minute changes that have taken a back seat to seemingly more pressing matters. Soon...I hope!

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    1. Isn't that always the way, Linda? In my memoir, I had this to say about a long trek through the Himalayas: "If we simply keep moving in the direction to which we’ve committed, we
      have little choice now but to reach our goal, whether it unnerves us or not." Indeed we did, one slow step at a time. I'm finding that it's the same with writing a book.

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  8. I love the advice about jettisoning anything which does not bring you joy. I've done it. I was holding on to too much stuff simply because I'd always had it. Getting rid of it was freeing. And I've never missed any of it.

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    1. I get it, Elspeth. I've become almost unnaturally gleeful about throwing things away. I think my husband has started keeping a nervous eye on his stuff... ;)

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  9. Excellent post and using the staging as comparison to editing made the points so well. Good luck with the move and the editing. I'm still working on a book that I thought I would finish months ago. Part editing and part actually writing the last few chapters, but still a challenge.

    One of the hardest things for me to do is cut large sections, even when I know they need to go. I have the same problem with things in my house. What can I say? I'm clingy. :-)

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    1. Hahaha. Too funny, Maryann. I get a bit clingy with my favorite scenes when I'm the one making the choices. Oddly, though, if a trusted writing colleague says, "You know, this would work great without these 50 pages," I have no problem with dumping them almost immediately. I know I get too close to things to see them clearly.

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  10. What a terrific post. I am never moving, for all the reasons you gave. I can't seem to jettison anything. Not that I'm a hoarder, I'm not. But I do tend to keep clothes, always thinking I'm going to wear them again when I know I won't. My whole house is personal. Maybe I write that way too, I don't know that either. I try to streamline, but I know there are times I'm wordy. Great that I have a good critique partner. Wish I had one for the house.

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  11. A critique partner for my house...hmmm. I like that idea, Polly. Then again, what will my husband say? ;)

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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