Author Archives: Alisa O'Donnell

About Alisa O'Donnell

I am an alumna of Western Washington University, born and raised on the Puget Sound. I live in Modesto, California with my husband and my cat, reading books and writing anything.

Planning to edit versus editing proper

I lost some steam the last week or two, and I didn’t even touch my computer for editing. But this week (OK, so like three days), I’ve pushed myself to get back to it. This story isn’t going to edit itself.

My story, when I left it, was filled with notes on what to do in certain spots and things to fix, and how to fix them, and just all sorts of would-be scribbles, if I were doing this by hand on paper. What I’ve noticed as I’ve started reading through the story yet again, is how many of those notes took as much effort to write as it would have required to just make the change and move on. I have to confess, I’ve allowed myself to get caught up in planning the edits and, consequently, allowed myself to neglect the actual editing process.

But the actual process can be hard. When you write something, or at least when I do, I get attached to it. And when it’s something that I’m revising, or an idea I’m moving somewhere else, I’m not convinced I won’t need that first attempt anymore. It’s hard to erase, to delete words that you spent time on. There’s the sneaking suspicion that once you delete them, you’re suddenly going to need them again, but you won’t be able to remember them. So then the challenge becomes allowing myself the freedom to recreate things. If I erase something that is bad, then can’t remember the idea I was going to use, did the idea belong there in the first place?

This whole process right now is for me to learn how to edit my own work. I have no deadlines, no demands for when it needs to be done. I have the luxury of taking all the time in the world to work my way through. And if I have to stop a time or two to think hard about where my story should go, that’s OK. Better now than when I’ve published or self-published it and there’s no going back, right?

So I’ve got some big pieces to edit, the ones I mentioned in my last post, the new plot ideas to weave in. The goal I’m setting for myself is to hurry up and wrap up the little things, and choose one big piece to work on. Because then I’ll have something good to write about next week, instead of something boring like how I changed a passive sentence into an active one. It’s important, but most of you don’t really care.

So as I’m wrapping up this week, I’m prepping my editing for next week. As I go through, I’m making notes of places where I need to work in something about the student’s civil disobediences, or key places to start implanting the people who claim to be his family, and the questions surrounding his mental health. That way, when I get to strapping in for the big editing, I’ve made it a little easier for myself. Maybe then I’ll make a dent in the proper editing.

The Girl on the Train

I finally got a chance to read The Girl in the Train, and Paula Hawkins did not disappoint.

The story follows the lives of three women: Rachel, Megan and Anna. We meet Rachel first, a divorced alcoholic who rides the train into London every day. Right off the bat, Rachel’s character is established as shaky, and we aren’t certain if she is struggling with mental health issues, or simply the affects of being an alcoholic– or both. But every day, Rachel observes the people in one certain house, imagining what their lives might be like. In her mind, they are perfectly happy and in love.

In reality, Megan, one half of Rachel’s couple, is struggling with her own mental health issues. Her husband is, in the least, borderline emotionally abusive, and Megan is haunted by her past. She is seeking help, trying to find what she needs to do to be whole, healed and happy.

Finally, Anna is the wife of Rachel’s ex husband, and lives just a few doors down from Megan. Paranoid about Rachel and protective of her family, Anna is on alert for any sign of Rachel in their neighborhood.

Their three stories cross when Megan goes missing and Rachel, convinced she can help but unsure of what she knows, tries any avenue that comes to mind.

Hawkins does an excellent job of showing how someone can have one part of the story, and make assumptions to fill in the blanks. The narratives are full of facts that manage to mislead you, leaving you guessing right up until the end. And yet everyone’a conclusions make sense as they’re reaching them, which makes it all that much more of an intriguing read.

The Girl on the Train keeps you on the edge of your seat, taking the pieces of narrative and trying to reconcile them to each other. And it’s not until you approach the end that you realize how many assumptions you’ve made yourself.

The Push

As the possessor of an active imagination, I’ve already read books and thought how cool it would be to live the story, imagining myself in it or doing something similar. Not often do I really wish to have that life. However, reading Tommy Caldwell’s book definitely woke something different in me, and while I don’t want all his experiences, I do wish I had the freedom and money and talent to climb whatever whenever.

I first heard about Tommy Caldwell in 2014, when he and Kevin Jorgeson climbed the Dawn Wall in Yosemite. And even though that was something I only knew about from a friend, I followed the last half closely, and when I found out Caldwell was going to write a book, I awaited its release with lots of excitement.

In The Push, Caldwell talks about growing up outdoors with his family, doing challenging climbs and mountaineering feats with his dad at young ages. He relates his experience of being a hostage in Kyrgyzstan and how that affected his life for years after, and how, in a way, it led to his passion/obsession with the Dawn Wall.

Caldwell’s story is one of perseverance, if nothing else. He dedicated seven years to the Dawn Wall, unable or unwilling to give up without successfully completing it. Nestled inside his honest, somewhat cavalier writing are some quality truths about failure as a tool to inspire greater success.

I appreciated his honesty as well in regards to how various things in his life truly affected him. Caldwell uses his book as a means of reflection, admitting that he doesn’t have all the answers and that his choices may not always have been stellar. But his honesty prompts a feeling of self-reflection in his readers, or at least in me.

Even though, having followed the climb as it happened, I knew how he story ultimately ended. Yet the book is so much more than the story of climbing the Dawn Wall, it’s the story of how Caldwell developed a need for the Dawn Wall, and how upon completion, he understood what was behind the need.

It’s an exciting, fun, and funny read. And whether you climb or don’t climb, it’s worth the time.

Stories are like onions…

Seeing as I’m no expert in editing, I’ve been mostly making it up as I go for the past month or two. I feel like I’ve had some measures of success, and now that I’ve put on an editor’s hat, I’ve been looking at my story with a different kind of gaze.

First, as I’ve read through it a few times, I’m discovering some inconsistencies. Like which mental hospital the first rumors of Vale originated in. I’ve got it both ways in my story, so there are several comments in the margins of me asking myself where exactly this has taken place. But the inconsistencies aren’t the exciting part; what is exciting are the new layers of intrigue I’ve developed just in the last few days from rereading my story and asking myself if they way I have things happening is really believable. For some cases, the answer has been no, and since I’ve put in time to solve those problems, I’ve come up with more interesting layers to add.

I don’t want to give too much away, but who knows when, if ever, this story might see the light of day. So, here goes.

Because the story is about a man who escapes from a sheltered society and no one on the outside knows it exists, it’s entirely plausible that people think he is making it up and believe he is mentally ill. I thought it would be an interesting psychological twist if Mason himself begins to question what is real and what isn’t. In my first draft, I didn’t even really get there. But as I’ve read through it again, I’ve been struck with a new train of thought. In order for someone to begin to question whether what they know is real, something would have to happen to be a catalyst. Enter a couple whose 5-year-old son went missing 20 years ago. Now here pops up a young man of the right age and physique. If given a nudge or encouragement, a bereaved mother might claim a stranger to be her son, because she believes it to be true.

So now Mason has people claiming to be his parents and a psychologist who is prodding his brain trying to uncover what hidden trauma has made him create an alternate reality to hide from his past. And if everyone believes it to be true, and tells him it is true, it’s now possible and plausible that Mason–unable to prove the truth of his story, and distanced now from it–begins to wonder if they are right, if he did make it up.

This then leads me into creating a more plausible background for a fairly crucial, albeit small character. Fisk originally was the director of the Mayfield Asylum, where Mason stays when he first leaves Vale. However, even as it wrote it, it didn’t quite make sense to me why the director of the hospital needed to be in on the secret of Vale (not to mention some serious issues with medical files, the same ones that I’m not sure where they belong. There is a serious thread here that makes things fall apart). But now it comes to light that Fisk is perhaps just a government contractor linked with Vale in some way, a handler or supervisor, perhaps, and he is friends with the couple that lost their son 20 years ago. So when someone who fits the bill needs to be reintroduced to society, Fisk has the perfect plan ready to go. He tells his friend that there is a man, approximately the same age as his lost son, who needs a home. The man (Mason) is confused about his past. Perhaps Fisk convinces his friend that it’s possible it’s his son, or perhaps the friend knows it isn’t, but takes the opportunity to try to ease the burden and pain for his wife. Whatever the case ends up being, Fisk is now the catalyst, the encouragement behind the couple coming forward to claim Mason as their son.

This, now, is more solid footing for my journalist to reach out to Fisk. Instead of randomly calling the director of the asylum, who may or may not know anything, she can interview the “parents” and get Fisk’s name from the wife, who naively tells Callie the journalist that Fisk brought their supposed son to their attention.

And finally, with this as grounds for Callie getting on the trail of a conspiracy, if need be, it eliminates the need for those pesky, ever-moving medical records that probably wouldn’t still exist in the first place–especially not if they were top secret and the hospital was run by the government people controlling the top secret project.

I don’t know if it’s that I didn’t write as solid of a story this go around, or if I’m using a new mindset, or if it’s just the result of more experience and knowledge, but the times I’ve tried editing before, it was never this easy or exciting. I’ve never looked at my story before and seen pools of potential instead of plot holes. Maybe I was too young the last time (admittedly, probably 7ish years ago), or maybe I was naive and thought my writing was really wonderful (highly likely, I think). In any case, all my whining posts about how awful editing is are now moot. The only thing awful about editing is that I wish I could do it all by hand on paper. But printing 90 pages off for editing is a little excessive, and I’ve got bills to pay. Can’t be wasting all my money on ink and paper if I don’t absolutely have to.

The Light Between Oceans

I know this book got really popular when the movie was announced and came out, so when I got the chance, I snagged a copy so I could see what the buzz was all about.

The book begins with Tom and Isabel Sherbourne discovering a dinghy washed ashore with a dead man and a baby inside. Having lost a third baby only weeks before, Isabel convinces her husband to keep the child. Lightkeepers on a remote island and committed to three-year stints, Isabel and Tom say the baby is theirs, knowing it will be some time before they get shore leave and anyone meets the baby.

From there, the story floats back in time, establishing Tom as a military man who served in World War I and showing his upstanding character. When Tom and Isabel meet, they are instantly drawn to each other, and end up marrying.

The story then picks up where it left off in the beginning, and we see them raising the baby–a little girl they name Lucy. But while life on the island is wonderful, when they return for shore leave, things get more complicated, and thus starts a string of events that takes them down a painful and unintended road, and they must face the consequences of having kept the baby, and consider whether their actions were right.

The story starts out kind of slow and it isn’t an action-packed, dramatic story. Instead, as is fitting with its themes, it is a methodical story that establishes its characters and gives reasoning behind their actions. This story largely deals in grey areas of motives, and it challenges readers to deeper thought. Although readers can understand and sympathize with the Sherbournes in the beginning, as the story progresses, you second guess, and you find yourself caught up in the same questions all the characters wrestle with: what is best for Lucy?

This book deals with some heavy stuff, and it hits you right in the heart, for sure. But it’s a good read and a good story, and worth the time to read.

John Glenn: A Memoir

I’ll admit, I was interested in this book, not because I knew who John Glenn was, but because I’d looked it up for a customer at work and saw that it was a biography on an astronaut. Sometimes I think that if I could go back, knowing what I know about myself now, I probably would have pursued a career in science, and maybe even my dreams of being an astronaut. But, on to the book review.

The book is an autobiography that explores John Glenn’s life from childhood during the Great Depression, to his joining the military and becoming a fighter pilot during World War II, all the way through his two trips to space–the last when he was 77 years old (maybe it’s not too late for me!).

Glenn writes in a very plain way, unassuming. You get the feeling he is just telling his story, not trying to brag about anything he’s done or reap glory for being an American icon and hero. It feels very much like sitting down and listening to your grandfather regale you with stories from his life. Sometimes you can almost here the laugh that goes along with a funny anecdote.

Glenn’s biography is encouraging and inspiring too, a representation of chasing dreams and making a difference through hard and dedicated work. Not to mention just cool to see how much history this guy lived through.

Overall, it was a fun and pretty fast read, considering it’s more than 500 pages. If you like history, science, airplanes or politics, it’s the read for you.

A new beginning (editing is going to take a while…)

The most important part of a story is the beginning. If the first sentence or paragraph doesn’t grad a reader’s attention, they will put it down and move on to the next book. For me, beginning is always one of the hardest parts. Whether it’s writing an essay, journalism article or a story, I can always feel the pressure to start well. Throughout college it served me pretty well to just write something and get the words flowing. If I wrote a good beginning, great. If not, usually by the time I finished whatever I was writing, the beginning was easier to write because I had the whole picture now.

With this story, it’s been more difficult. I’ve decided to work my way slowly through my story so that I can dedicate significant time an energy to problem areas. I probably should leave the beginning for the end, but I focused on it this week, and I feel like I’ve already made some improvements.

I’ve been challenging myself to think about the way other stories begin, both books I’m reading and even from my own writings. I’ve started a little journal, where I write how it begins, and then what kind of story that technique is good for. For example, some stories have one major event and the author weaves narrative strands around it, such as A Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Steadman. Though I’ve just started the book, I know how the writing is going to go. The story begins with the couple finding the baby (not a spoiler, you find out that much just from reading the back cover), and the rest of the book is telling the story. It’s jumped back in time and is telling the events leading up to finding the baby. And once we reach that point, it’ll shift gears and tell about life after the baby. Plenty of stories have this kind of plot set up, and the technique of giving the action scene, or a hint of it, then giving the background before dealing with the aftermath makes the story flow easily. But my book is not like that. Mason (I’ve finally named my character, hooray!) doesn’t encounter any one particularly pivotal moment that I can use as a teaser introduction.

Other beginning techniques include writing a prologue to set up a world or town, giving the history that explains what you need to know about where the character is. This, I think, is the one I use most often. I’m a fan of prologues. But, while I could do that for this story, the challenge with the prologue is that you need some kind of action to engage readers. You still need that pivotal event that sets the character up. And the history of my story is more broad than that. What I’ve decided to go with for the time being is a description of a scene that encompasses a major theme of the story; in this case, a description and encounter between Mason and his father that shows readers life in Vale is all about science, and a person’s value is inherently linked with how well they fit the expectations of society. As an example, I’ll show below the initial beginning I wrote for this story, and the new beginning I’ve been working on this week.

Dying didn’t seem nearly as dramatic as everyone made it out to be.

He had just turned 25, and the pressure he faced was unbelievable. He wasn’t just a late bloomer, his family had given up on him—no one believed he would prove to be an asset to society.

It was unbelievable either way—that other towns could exist, that Vale could be the only town. The town’s leaders were very strict, no one was allowed to explore beyond the town limits, curiosity and questions were no tolerated. Everyone clung to a religion of science. It was science that made them great, science was all that mattered. And science was his downfall.

Mason had never had an affinity for numbers, formulas, and the other complexities that went into the science, technology and engineering fields. He was much better at drawing—landscapes, people, animals, anything. But that wasn’t the kind of thing Vale valued. His drawings wouldn’t save or improve lives, they said, so by their very nature, they were worthless. Mason didn’t agree, but, dissent wasn’t valued either, so he did his best to swallow their context.

Life in Vale was all about society’s good…

Even I look at that and think I probably wouldn’t keep reading. The whole entire first chapter didn’t have any action or dialogue. Too much scene setting, explaining how the society functioned. It’s something I need to show, and maybe not all right off the bat. Here’s a bit of the new one in progress:

All his life, Mason knew science would be his downfall.

Every person in his hometown of Vale clung to a religion of science—it was science that made them great, science was all that mattered. Each child was raised from birth to believe scholastic achievement and worth were inherently connected.

But from a young age, Mason—and everyone else—knew he would never measure up to anything scientifically great. He was smart enough, but he couldn’t compete or compare with the waves of peers surrounding him that, in another place, would be hailed as geniuses and prodigies. Compared to them, Mason was worthless. And how he compared was all that mattered.

When he was about 13, he sketched his house and his sister Mel playing in the yard. He spent all day working on it, trying to get it just right.

“What have you been doing all day?” his father demanded when he returned from his day at work.

Mason proudly held up his drawing. “It’s our house, and Mel out front,” he said.

But instead of pride, excitement, or even interest, his father scoffed. “You’re well past the age of foolish past times, Mason. It’s time you put your mind to something worthwhile or you’ll never amount to anything.”

I’m not going to say it’s golden, but I think it’s far more likely to entice someone to commit to reading a few more chapters, so it’s a start. As always, the key to remember is show, not tell. After this bit that I’ve just shown, I fall back into the telling, telling how life in Vale works. I’ve still got a way to go on this, but, for the sake of anyone reading these blog posts, I’ll move on from the beginning this coming week so that you don’t have to read another post saying all this same stuff again.

Onward into the rest of the story!