Hen&inkblots: A Literary Blog

Can You Hear Me Now? When Characters Speak through Revision, Part One (In which Mima Tipper’s writerly epiphany begins)

February 16, 2012 by Mima Tipper

***Spoiler Alert*** This blog post contains story spoilers. Read the full version of “Waiting for Alice” in the first issue of Sucker Literary Magazine at http://suckerliterarymagazine.wordpress.com/

Writing my YA short story “Waiting for Alice,” the story-epiphany moment came as I stood in line at my local public library. Here’s what happened: I was waiting to check out books I’d picked specifically to help me with my revision of “…Alice,” and imagined having the following conversation with the librarian:

Her: “Are these for one of your kids?

Me: “No.  They’re for my character… (motherly pause)…she thinks she might be gay.”

A silly idyll yes, but one that in a single, astounding moment opened my eyes, or better my mind, to what my Alice had been trying to tell me for the almost year I’d been working on her story.

I walked home in a daze, imagining myself sitting with Alice at the kitchen table. Sitting with her, as I would with one of my children, her looking into my eyes in that hesitant way that asked if I was ready to listen.  When she did speak, there was no hesitation, “It’s true,” she said, “I think I’m gay.” Her words left me speechless. I hadn’t set out to write a story about a young girl’s first realization that she might be gay, but that’s where the writing path led. What held my hand, tugging me along until I could hear Alice speak (more like a remembered conversation than one imagined) was revision—a kind I hadn’t experienced before (Kaplan, 27).

My Alice-epiphany made me re-examine my knowledge of revision. David Michael Kaplan offers these words in his craft book Revision:

I think you revise for style (saying it in the most graceful way, which is often all people think revision is), and you revise for structure (saying it in the most coherent and dramatically effective way), and you revise—and here comes the way you might not have thought about it before—for meaning, for discovering what you really wanted to say in the first place, what the story’s really about. (10)

I was familiar with (and practiced heavily) Kaplan’s first two revision definitions. Regarding meaning, however, until “…Alice” I’d always presumed I knew the essential meaning of my stories before I started writing. So what had happened with my Alice?

To understand, I had to go back to the beginning.

The seed of “…Alice” came from one of my high school experiences. My best friend and I, tenth graders at an all-girl boarding school, decided to go to the first dance of the year, meet a boy each, and kiss him. Fueled by vodka-laced grape soda, off we went. There, each of us found a boy. By evening’s end, my friend had disappeared with hers, but I hadn’t even managed a peck on the cheek with mine. I watched him get on his return bus, and something in me snapped. I rapped on the bus window. He got off and, before I lost my nerve, I threw myself at him. He’d just had a huge bite of brownie, and well—yuck! Amidst raucous cheers from bystanders, both of us had a good laugh and, as the bus zoomed off, I forgot all about him and the brownie kiss.

Fast-forward twenty-some years to my fantasy novel “Faerie Games,” where in a first chapter draft, I drew from this memory to illustrate my fourteen year-old protagonist Selena’s sexual awkwardness at witnessing a friend’s behavior at a school dance:

And she had found her. Out in the hall, tucked into the dark space between a corner and a bank of lockers, wrapped around a junior she’d called “sorta cute” a couple of times. Their eyes had met over junior-boy’s shoulder, and for a long, drawn out heartbeat, Selena hadn’t recognized her best friend. It was like in that moment, Selena saw clearly that the Stacey she’d lived next door to and been best friends with forever had run away to a place where Selena wasn’t sure she wanted to follow.

But that night, Selena had tried to follow. Like a hound scenting a fox, Selena stalked around the gym until she’d spotted Edmo’s hunching back standing at the refreshment table. Without saying a word or even looking at his face, she’d grabbed his hand and dragged him out into the hall. In one swift, blurred move, Selena had pushed him against the wall and with no thought about what she was doing or how she was doing it, shoved her open mouth on his. (“Faerie Games,” 15)

I submitted the chapter to my first Vermont College workshop, and it was workshop leader Martine Leavitt’s comment “What did she see?” written in the margin next to the first paragraph quoted, that sparked me to explore in a short story what Selena saw Stacey doing.

As I began to think of this short story, I remembered Dennis Lehane’s short story “Until Gwen.” Lehane used a second person viewpoint, and I’d found the voice both disturbing and intriguing. Freshly out of prison, Lehane’s narrator was detached, yet watched himself with an intimacy laced with self-loathing. This viewpoint spoke to me as authentic for my self-scrutinizing, awkward teenager.

My story, now tentatively titled “Peer Pressure,” quickly took shape around the awkward narrator Mia and her newly sexy best friend Angie. With Mia’s second person viewpoint, her voice naturally came out full of observations about Angie’s blooming appearance and aggressive behavior; also natural was that Angie’s looks and attitude would be in stark contrast to Mia’s. Though the initial novel-flashback was morphing to a short story, the essential meaning—a young girl’s sexual awkwardness—still drove the heart of my writing. Then an unusual (for me) turn: I got two thirds through a first draft and didn’t know how Mia’s story ended.

Next week: Mima searches for the story’s ending!

About Mima Tipper

Half-Greek-half-American, Mima Tipper and her writing reflect her heritage—a little bit old-country, a little bit rock and roll; one foot wandering through the dreamy realm of myths and faerie tales, the other running on the solid ground of fast-paced, contemporary story. She received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and her YA fiction has appeared in Hunger Mountain’s online journal and Sucker Literary Magazine. She is a member of SCBWI and RWA, and is committed to promoting literacy in her community. Currently Mima lives in Vermont with her family.

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20 thoughts on “Can You Hear Me Now? When Characters Speak through Revision, Part One (In which Mima Tipper’s writerly epiphany begins)”

  1. Oh, you are SO right, Ann, and this story gets even stranger and more mind-bending in the next couple of posts where some of our VCFA colleagues and mentors chime in!

  2. Love your post, Mima. I am often amazed and astounded by my characters–finding they often have hidden truths that are locked away and waiting to find themselves on the pages that I’m writing. As writers we must not only be creators but listeners, especially in these revision stages where the real writing takes place. Thanks for sharing your discoveries!

    1. Thanks for reading, Jess, and yes, astounding is the perfect word for some of these character/story discoveries! And taking the time and making the quiet to listen.

  3. I like idea about revising for meaning. I try to advise other writers, and have to remind myself all them time, no one is expecting me to have it all figured out by the end of the first draft. I heard the novelist Jennifer Egan say at a conference last year that she might write 50 drafts of a chapter. I amaze myself when I just keep trying to push it along, writing whatever parts of the the story I think I have, how things have a way of coming together. Often it’s not until very late in my process that I find out what it means.

    1. Hello fellow Sucker-buddy! Thanks for reading:) I also re-write a ton, but before “…Alice” I was never so consciously aware of meaning being revealed through the layers of actually writing words on the page. I guess I figured those thematic/meaning types of discoveries came through all the re-thinking. Listening and learning I am, every day and with every story!
      PS. Enjoyed your Sucker story!

  4. Going through the major revisions of a novel right now, I relate to what you are saying completely…I can’t wait to read the next part of your blog! xo Hannah

  5. Hi Hannah,
    Oh, you sound like you are in the thick of it:) Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you are finding lots of quiet time to listen to your characters, especially those of the novel you’re working on right now!

    1. Thanks so much for reading, Whitney, and I hope your protagonist questions prove fruitful. It’s any writer’s guess when a character or protagonist will start talking; what magic, though, right?

  6. Insightful and so rightly timed, Mima. I’m in the midst of a revision and, indeed, revising for meaning is the most important part I’m tackling. For me, meaning is the core of the story. Where structure forms the frame and style adds the flesh, meaning is the very core, the bone marrow and the nerve system that brings the story to life.
    Thank you for sharing your insights with us, Mima!

    1. Thanks for reading, Mina! I agree with you about meaning being a story’s core and marrow, yet it is fascinating how that meaning will reveal itself. Like I’ve written, I usually feel like I have a sense of what a story I’m writing’s meaning will be; not here, though. “…Alice’s” ultimate truth really threw me for a loop–in the best possible way. Makes me crave long hours of writerly solitude simply to listen!

  7. I like that you shared the inspirational moments behind this story. When I read the short story I saw how you’d captured the insecurity of female relationships in high school- especially with freshman. Then, when I read the stories behind the stories and found out you’d been pulling from high school memories, I was fascinated. You did a great job taking your experiences and revising them into believable fictional moments that help me understand your character.

  8. Hi Sarah,
    Thanks for reading! I wrote this essay during my semester with Martine, and was really happy (and kind of relieved actually) to have had the opportunity to dive deep into the time and process that brought me Alice. I’m also glad that Alice turned out to be in a short story, because I’m not sure I could’ve encapsulated the experience (and it truly was a life/writing-changing experience) with a piece in any other form.

  9. Great blog entries, Mima, and great story! Yes, it’s amazing when everybody else but you seems to see something in the character that you missed. I really enjoyed reading about someone else’s journey with this experience, so thank you for being brave enough to share. The story rocks, too — so vivid and a little trippy!

    1. Hi Jess, thanks for stopping by! I didn’t really think about how fun and thought-provoking (to me) it would be to have a story out in the world as well as an essay about the writing of the story, but all the dialogue and comments and e-mails have made the experience really rich. I’m going to remember you described my story as “trippy,” too–love that! I’m thinking you mean the part where Alice arrives at the dance? Yeah, helps to draw on actual memories:)

  10. Great post, Mima (and a great story!) Those moments when characters tell us something that we didn’t “know” before we started writing have become my favorite part about writing. I’ll admit–it can be a little scary sometimes (Who is actually telling this story, anyway???) but mostly it’s exciting and rejuvenating. I loved hearing about your process.

    P.S. And I can’t believe the kissing-a-boy-with-a-mouthful-of-brownie part was based on real events. Yuck! 🙂

  11. This was fascinating, Mima! Love how the truth about your character revealed itself through an imagined conversation. I wondered what books you were taking out that made you want to say that to the imagined librarian. Such a great, deeply felt story. I felt almost as dizzied by life as Alice did (in a good way).

    1. Hi Ellen,
      Thanks for stopping by, and for reading:-D The books I checked out in that first batch were: AM I BLUE, stories collected by M. D. Bauer, A couple of D. Levithan’s collections of short stories, 21 PROMS and HOW THEY MET (not all gay-themed stories, but quite a few), Brent Hartinger’s THE GEOGRAPHY CLUB and L. Myracle’s KISSING KATE.
      I also love your comment about my story: “dizzied by life…” yeah, and then some!

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