Sometimes constructing a story is like collage, where you add layer after layer, hoping that the whole picture somehow works.
Sometimes constructing a story is akin to piecing fabric — moving around existing components until a pleasing design emerges, then adhering them.
Right now, editing resembles lipo-suction. Sucking out the fat in service of a tighter sequencing of events is harder than I thought it would be.
In part, this is because I have ADD. Having my kind of focus means I can endlessly and with rapt attention go line by line and make significant improving edits. But to take in the whole? To understand how big chunks work or don’t work? This is challenging. It took me two weeks of hand-wringing to convince myself I could even do it!
Here’s the upshot: my manuscript is way too long. Industry standard for unpublished authors is 90,000 words (in the neighborhood of 200 pages). Mine clocks in at 310,000 and worse, sags throughout the entire middle. I wish it were as simple as excising the middle, but that won’t get me to my goal of a readable, compelling 200 page novel.
Things to consider:
- they say to write the book you want to read. I like page turners (i.e. plot driven novels). Mine is character driven. Plot decidedly secondary (or absent?)
- I have let the actual events of Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s life inform her narrative and it’s been suggested that to do so is to handicap myself (a small example: her two closest friends were named Mary. I let that stand, even though as a reader it would drive me nuts).
- each scene demands that I ask, does this drive the story forward? Does this?
But! What if our standard idea of narrative progressing in an arc is not only limited, but based on an a masculine sensibility (and specifically, male sexuality) in ways that are limiting?
From Paris Review article discovered last night — Here’s critic Robert Scholes: “The archetype of all fiction is the sexual act … the fundamental orgastic rhythm of tumescence and detumescence, of tension and resolution, of intensification to the point of climax and consummation.”think ‘arousal phase’ ”climax’.
Says author of Paris Review article, Jane Alison: “Well. This is not how I experience sex. Critic Susan Winnett says, “Meanings generated through dynamic relations of beginnings, middles, and ends in traditional narrative and traditional narratology never seem to accrue directly to the account of the woman.” And anyway, why should sex—this kind of sex!—be the archetype of fiction? Why should an art form as innovative as fiction have a single archetype at all?”
Food for thought. Having said that, without any explanation of setting or character, here are two deleted scenes. Make of them what you will. Both fall in the category of ‘too much back story for secondary characters.’
And so, it was on a windy morning in early December 1737, that a Barbadian Christian with something to hide parted with a half-Yoruban, half-Dutch temptress and pocketed the proceeds. As the buyer led his newly-acquired slave and her child down the tamarind-lined path, neither he nor the seller knew that Sally was with child — the cane grower’s child. But Sally knew, as women sometimes do.
Before the Barbadian cane grower even crossed the threshold back into his gracious abode, he was halfway to forgetting the whole unpleasant business. What relief! What shrewd calculation! Without even having made the decision to do so, his mind began to blur the outlines of his ugly (though thoroughly socially acceptable) transgression and its brief, tortured aftermath. Smudge. Smudge. How swift the gracious erasures performed by amnesia — how convenient the mechanism of blame!
He returned to the so-called seat of his empire and exhaled in relief. He patted the arms of his chair as if to say he was back, a man of society wholly in charge of his destiny, and perhaps also a man made generous by recent events. Even though the well-timed disposal of Sally might’ve allowed him to forgo the lavish fete, he would not renege. Wasn’t he a man of his word? He was planning a menu when his wife entered the room.
“Is that vile thing gone at last?” But her husband had moved on.
“I’ll say 200’s the upper limit,” he answered, forgetting that he had yet to mention the gala out loud. “And let’s make it memorable, my pumpkin. How about a masked ball?”
The cane grower’s wife sat down, befuddled for a moment but not a jot longer. She was onto it! They would roast four pigs! There would be dancing! She leaned toward his desk and said in conspiratorial joy, “The date must correspond to a full moon — think of the light on the terrace! Oh and Mrs. Thorp just this week made mention of an orchestra worth the hire!”
He concurred. She glowed. When had they last been this united in thought? He said, “A full moon – indeed! Always the one with the grand idea, you! Imagine it shining on the bay… won’t our guests swoon with envy, my dear, and high time?”
The cane grower dunked his quill into the bottle of ink rather too hard. Dunk after hard dunk. No wonder the point had been dull on that awful morning – but no — he would not think on it. He would take down his wife’s every idea. Nothing like a little scare to humble a person into conciliatory attentiveness!
Surely Mrs. Whittaker wondered at his softened tone, his posture of consideration? She said nothing more about Sally, which could have meant any number of things. Maybe the distraction worked. Four pigs! Mrs. Thorp’s orchestra! Then again, she might have thoroughly skunked him out, but in the interests of marital peace generally and a magnificent ball specifically, let the matter rest. If so, she was not quite as dim as her husband believed. Furthermore, she might be possessed of a larger spirit than he knew as well. Think on it: if his wife so freely abandoned what turned out to be a well-grounded suspicion in order to graciously leap into their shared future, without for a second demanding the consolation prize of being right, maybe she deserved his ministrations of care, not as decoy against his sin but as her rightful due. Had she always been more worthy of his esteem than he’d allowed? He committed to granting her a bit more warmth, a more frequent nodding alliance of opinion. Maybe a dance or two on the moonlit terrace come time? For once, she impressed him.
You could say, therefore, that in addition to preparing and serving meals, bundling alfafa, sweeping the veranda and house entire, watering bromeliads, and increasing the inventory with a son, Sally granted the couple the gift of a much-needed renewal. The fact that it was one the couple could not have engineered on their own made it all the more remarkable. It was the mulatto’s disruptive guile (for he at last concluded it was not diminished capacity but guile, guile, guile) that had generated a significant new conjugal arrangement. One spouse rose up, the other slipped down, causing the two to arrive somewhere in the middle where approach one to the other was possible. Like everything else Sally gave, it was bestowed (taken) without their having to fork out a single letter of credit or clattering coin.
In two months time, when the orchestra tuned up on the terrace and the bay shimmered with moonlight, our sugar exporter on Barbados would hardly be able to recall the mulatto’s voice. In fact, he wouldn’t even really remember that the wench’s voice had been singularly arresting. And, because amnesia does not carefully discriminate in its sweep of erasure, he would also forget that he had given the slave his small Bible. He’d forget how, when he held out his precious Bible – the one given to him by his sister all those years ago — the impudent slattern had had the gall to refuse it. You’d think such an exchange would stick in a man’s mind, but it did not. Smudge. Smudge. The cane grower’s amnesia so thoroughly swiped at that morning in the pantry, in fact, that he would later wonder where the Bible had gotten off to, even going so far as to question another house slave about its disappearance.
In conversation it never came out that Whittaker had placed an advert for the mulatto one week prior. And, just as the cane grower hoped, the Captain purchased the mulatto’s two year old son too, with nary a moment’s hesitation. All traces of the wench would be gone!
Perhaps the purchase of the boy could be supported by South Carolina’s ‘head system’– whereby land apportionments were meted out based on the number of persons in a household, even colored ones, and even two year olds, albeit at reduced count. Surely, the low cost of a toddling boy as compared with the land his head would facilitate surveying made it a shrewd transaction?
A shadowy notion of quid pro quo inserted itself just below the level of the Captain’s attention — not quite conscious enough to make him calculating, but present enough to render him a fool. By purchasing the Negress’s boy, he hoped to purchase the slave’s goodwill, for what exactly remained notional and to the extent any thought arose at all, it surely wasn’t about sexual congress. It did, however, occur to the Captain what a nice presentation the mulatto would make in one of Millie’s well-made frocks and wouldn’t it be pleasant to have the girl sing in the parlor after tea? A refined use. An acceptable intercourse.
And so, on a gray morning in December of 1737, with the purchase of Sally and her two year old son, Noah, Captain George Lucas became for the first time in all his years a man governed by more than mere duty. He renamed his acquisition ‘Melody’ and anticipated with a certain glow the pleasure of hearing her voice again. He was doubly satisfied, for he’d come into possession of valuable military information at the inn the evening prior. Spain was preparing to invade Georgia. Antigua’s Governor would be grateful for the news.
Had the Captain stepped outside of himself for a moment, he would have traveled back to Antigua empty-handed and discussed moving to South Carolina with his wife. A pro forma exchange, but not without value. He might have recognized that it was foolish to risk conjugal peace based on a ditty about peas and rice.
Furthermore, he might’ve recognized the folly of trying to recapture a momentary rapture with a purchase. His nebulous desires were unworthy of his character for a host of reasons, but there was one more flaw in all of this, one which stained his person with the darkest blotch of all and it was this: How on God’s green earth could a man expect rapture to flow from transactions in human flesh?
Why cut? You could make it a trilogy …
I agree with Liz A. I look forward to reading what you’ve thrown out here 🙂
I kept thinking, ‘wait, wait..who is this Sally?’ Your voice has come a long way since these were written. I hardly recognized you.
Also, I think John and Alison should be locked in a room overnight and work it out, one thinking way too much of themselves and the other too little. I don’t know about fiction, but its Story that keeps people coming back for more and I’m really looking forward to your distillation.
Well I can say that I’m starting to enjoy liposuction and that patchwork has come back into play as I rearrange things. Longer writing sessions are required for this kind of editing.
I don’t think Alison’s point was that story doesn’t matter but rather that there has been a tyranny of imposed structure. As she notes, why one way? And why THIS way? The multiplicity-of-viewpoints structure has been popular for awhile now — more like collage and overlay of transparencies than riding a roller coast up up up crest and then down. My favorite example is The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, which I read in college so it’s been around for decades now.
Book first, followed by mini series? Just a little snippet and I’m engaged. Keep on keeping on Dee. Cut what you will , but just like cloth, keep them in a box somewhere for future patching.
I do keep the cast offs. As well as earlier iterations. Thanks for the encouraging words.
currently reading the short stories of Muriel Spark, the favourite so far is a wild tale where the characters from an unfinished short story come back to haunt her til she finished it!
Interesting premise! I love it.
please read the Confessions of Annie Langton- your work is very much like this new book. It might help you decide what stays and what is kept for the second book.
Thanks Joanne. I look for the book.
I was here, couldn’t find my own words…but here now and like the idea Liz states and that of Ginny…but I do understand the refining of writing (something I am not good at, I’m wordy!). Anyway, I’ve really enjoyed reading your writing, as is, and that says something or another. xo
I’m glad you put your words down for us!