Hen&inkblots: A Literary Blog

Can You Hear Me Now? When Characters Speak Through Revision, Part Two (In which Mima continues her search for the story’s ending)

February 23, 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/

What I did know in this draft was what Mia saw Angie doing at the dance:

Out in the hall, tucked into the dark space between a corner and a bank of lockers, she is wrapped around a junior boy she called “sorta cute” a couple of times. Their faces press together joined with suction cup mouths. Angie’s arms twist high and tight around his neck. But his hands, fingers spread, move freely, writhing and sliding over her boobs, then slip down, down and around to hike up her short skirt…(“Peer Pressure,” 9)

I also knew that Mia’s response (as in the original bit in  “Faerie Games”) was to find the Edmo character, and rush into an ill-fated kiss that would make her “run to the bathroom and scrub…[her]…mouth over and over” (“Peer Pressure,” 10). These images were as clear to me as my memory of the actual event. What was not clear was where the progression would lead Mia. Ideas surfaced, but none gelled to an ending.

The unfinished story draft, now titled “The Alice Effect” (Mia’s initiation to high school seeming very like a down-the-rabbit-hole experience) went to my VCFA first semester advisor, Uma Krishnaswami. She suggested I read more stories with a second person viewpoint, advising me to “go a little deeper, think about your reasons for using…[second person]…, justify them and it will deepen the work” (Krishnaswami, Letter, 5/6/08). I followed Uma’s advice, and continued to revise.

The changes I made, however, were all about the first two of Kaplan’s revision definitions: style and structure. What I didn’t change about the story, and I believe it is important to note this here, was my instinctive feel that second person was the right viewpoint. Three other aspects of the story also did not change: Mia still watched Angie’s every move closely; Mia still had the brownie kiss encounter; and finally, Mia’s story still had no ending. What this—both what I changed and what I did not—shows me is that even though revision pushed me to get at the heart of Mia’s self-alienation, and even though her story did not have an ending, there were character and story elements that I didn’t change because deep down they felt right.

The next draft, still unfinished, went to VCFA as my fall, 2008 workshop submission, and I determined not to work on it again until I’d received comments. My writing journal shows, however, that the story was on my mind: “July 10, 2008…It freaked me out to hear…[two of my VCFA workshop-mates, pre-workshop]…talk about my YA short that way. It was like I had to get away from them fast” (Tipper, Journal).  During the encounter this entry details, I believe one of my workshop-mates asked me if Mia was gay, or possibly told me she was gay.  I remember being dumbstruck—as my journal shows—but later being curious.  Here’s the next day’s entry:

July 11, 2008…I thought about “The Alice…” and maybe my character will turn to her journal at the end—take back that I voice in writing that will reclaim her soul.  Is she a lesbian?  Is she worried about that? Will she gain a sense of humor?  Write a rap song? I’m not sure, but she will want to get out of the rabbit hole. …Is she in love with Angie? I don’t think so, but she is curious about her and where her head is. Why it seems so easy for her just to grow and feel and be, where she cannot. Mia stands back and watches. (Tipper, Journal)

The ensuing workshop discussion about the story was vivid, and often heated. People made the more expected comments: about whether the second person voice worked; about the structure; about wanting more of Mia’s feelings as opposed to her observations about Angie, etc. etc. But what really struck me was that many of my colleagues, including the two from that earlier encounter, talked about Mia in a way that was completely not as I’d thought of her. Like a window cracking open, I realized that something was going on with my character; something of which I, her creator, was very possibly not aware.

Back home (and determined to find the story’s end) I turned to my next revision, again focusing on style and structure. I thought about the possibility of Mia’s being gay, but clung in the end to the belief that I would have known that about her at the beginning. This choice comes through clearly in the following passage from a letter Martine asked me to write from my protagonist’s viewpoint about the yearnings of her secret heart. I chose Mia’s letter to be to her best friend, now renamed Stacey:

The thing is I’m stuck in my head. I wish I could stop thinking about how weird everything is, how weird I am, but I can’t do that either. I’m this freaky eyeball who watches everything and everyone around me like I’m outside my body. I don’t want to be like that. I want to be like you and “just be”. You know, experience stuff without getting all twisted up inside. I just don’t know if I can do it. (“Mia’s Letter,” 8/28/08)

Choosing Mia’s letter to be to Stacey told me more about Mia’s fixation on her friend, but I chalked that element up to: first, the story being mostly about the two girls, and second, that it seemed a natural teen choice to confide in a best friend.

With the letter before me, I continued revising, still focusing on style and structure, and now including: the image of a scrutinizing eyeball dogging Mia; lines indicating how her parents’ divorce exacerbated her feelings of depression and isolation; and dialogue and narration to give the whole story a more active tone. I also found the following ending:

Snap—the night and everything that’s come before—tastes, smells, touches, Stacey, Mom, Dad, Alec—crowd in, all alive inside you. Makeup drips into your eyes and you rub at them, at your cheeks, until all that’s left is your face staring into the mirror, pale and shiny and clean.

Three girls you don’t know come into the bathroom. They smile at you like they’ve never seen you before. And, you realize, they haven’t. You smile back, looking beyond them to the door. Snap—Come on Mia!

Out. (“The Alice Effect,” 12)

This ending’s great revelation supported my initial presumption of the story’s meaning: that Mia, as a sexually awkward teen pressured by a newly sexy best friend, chooses in the end to stay on her own awkward path. Here’s part of Martine’s response, particularly to the ending:

I kept thinking that something big would be revealed at the end, something that explained this blue funk, this out-of-body eyeball thing. I really thought she was going to tell us she was gay! Because… because why does she act jealous when the boy shows up with Stacey? And why does she watch Stacey undress and get so affected by it? Why does she stand so long watching Stacey and the boy making out? And then… it ends. Are you sure she’s not gay? When I read the letter from Mia, I thought, maybe I just missed it and she will confess it in her letter… (Leavitt, Letter, 8/28/08)

Martine’s words surprised me. Not the part where she thought Mia was gay—after all, I’d heard that before—but how she focused on Mia’s actions. I’d described Mia’s observations as effectively as I could but hadn’t truly examined how Mia watched Stacey. Was she jealous when she observed Stacey in her new clothes the first day of school? Why was she focusing on Stacey being undressed? Or making out in the hallway? I’d thought Mia was both depressed and fascinated by her friend’s changes; what I wondered now though was, what was the true nature of this depression and fascination?  

Next week: find out what Mima discovers about Alice in the final installment!

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.

Get in Touch with Mima:

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13 thoughts on “Can You Hear Me Now? When Characters Speak Through Revision, Part Two (In which Mima continues her search for the story’s ending)”

  1. It fascinates me to be engaged in YOUR process as a writer. Sometimes I am so inside my own process, feeling alone, that no other writer goes through all this damn work to understand her characters…but reading your blog entry I see that we all go through the process and how wonderful for you to be writing about it!

  2. Hannah:) Thanks for chiming in again; appreciate your time.
    And I hear you about sometimes feeling very alone through the process of writing, letting characters emerge, listening, writing some more. I think that’s why I was compelled to write this essay in the first place. When Alice spoke to me at last, I had to go back and trace my path to her. It was all just too heady and strange and wonderful–all at the same time–and I wanted to try to understand how I could’ve been writing about her for so long with so little a clue as to what was happening with my own character in my own story. The second I accepted that that’s the way this process works sometimes, it was as if magic happened. The kind I believe all writers yearn for.

  3. It’s always exciting, Mima, when a character tells you something you didn’t know about them, isn’t it? Excellent essay.

  4. Your discoveries and your process are so rich, Mima. I agree with Hannah regarding the TIME and the effort that truly goes into knowing your protagonist. It’s amazing how many layers exist for us to peel away and then somehow transform and bring to life. In my current WIP, I struggled for days about a plot point, only to find the answer in a brand new secondary character who comes into the story to shed more light on the MC. Amazing what time, patience and a true connection to your character can reveal. Love reading your posts and glad you are sharing!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Jess, and I’m glad you and Hannah both mentioned the time element of revision. I’ve worked diligently on a story for weeks and weeks, but sometimes it’s putting it aside for awhile so that deeper pondering away from the page will take place. I also love the idea of another character showing up and bringing an MC into sharper focus. I’ve had that happen as well, and it is another bit of magic when two characters go off, and I get to sit back and watch them in action!

  5. Great story, Mima. You capture that intensity of a time of windows opening while trying to hold the window shut. Your process is fascinating. And finding meaning is such a tricky thing. I agree that time helps, gives distance. I often find meaning in my work when I’m not looking. Often it’s the only way. Great posts. I’m looking forward to part 3.

    1. Hi Daphne,
      Thanks for stopping by; really appreciate your time and comments. And yeah, at first I thought Alice was simply trying to hold a window shut, but actually she was trying to tell me she needed to open a window. I guess her questioning was where I started, and time allowed me to get a peek into her world that I never expected. Amazing stuff!

  6. I was intrigued when you said that people who had read the story “talked about Mia in a way that was completely not as I’d thought of her.” It reminded me of that great quote about writing (although I forget who said it): “You write a book and the world edits it.”

    I was a “closet writer” for many years, and making my work more public in the last couple of years has been a fascinating experience. It’s so interesting to see how people bring all of their own experiences/prejudices/expectations to your work and come up with something completely different than you intended sometimes.

    Thanks for opening up about your process!

    1. Clete! Really appreciate you stopping by, and with double posts! Awesome! I guess there is a lot of truth in the idea that when we put our work out there, especially for critique, questions will come up that we never expected. It’s a wonderful part of our process, and I’m so glad to have had so much experience with that through VCFA. Critique has become an essential part of my writing process!

  7. I agree with other commenters – it is absolutely fascinating to read about your revision process and even see excerpts from previous drafts! Don’t you wish you could see this sort of brave peek into the process of all your favorite writers? Truly fantastic, Mima. Can’t wait for your next post!

  8. We absolutely love your blog and find nearly all of your post’s to be exactly what I’m looking for.

    Does one offer guest writers to write content in your case?
    I wouldn’t mind composing a post or elaborating on many of the subjects you write regarding here. Again, awesome website!

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