Prompt: Write about a character taking something apart
It’s considered “cheating” to explain one’s writing in advance because the writing is supposed to stand on its own. I’m gonna do it anyway.
If a second novel is harder to write (whether the first one bombs or succeeds), it might be wise to have a second subject on deck and maybe even some rough notes before finishing the first.
Most of the initial scenes in the piece of historic fiction I’m now editing came in response to prompts. It’s incredible how participating in an AWA class over time can produce a novel.
Lately, I’ve been “getting” scenes of a family living in Massachusetts in the 1970’s. Closer to home in every respect. No research necessary (except maybe for headlines and number one hit songs). No worries about whether or not it is my story to tell.
What follows is a narrator ‘taking apart’ those initial efforts. Believe it or not, it was fun to write.
Listen, listen. You can’t have a character called Bernadette and one called Bridgette. They’re too much the same, even though it might be common to have certain sounds in a family, like yours — K_____y, D____y, and Finny. And switching out the sex of the oldest child in this fictional family might be interesting to you and maybe even essential in creating distance from your older sister — a person who, after all, had been called not by one or two people but by several, “a monster” — but not interesting to others. Have you pondered the gender change enough to make Robert credible? How would behaviors that were high risk for a 22 year old woman, for instance, translate to a 22 year old man? They’re overlapping but not congruent, especially when it comes to sex. Also, aggressive belligerence goes one way in a female body and another way in a male body. Have you considered adding: drunken brawls and late night visits to the ER? Instead of lawsuits for eviction and reckless driving, there might be criminal charges of assault and battery. In other words, by being male, this character would be softened and teased in some regards and badly amped up in others.
And listen, if Maeve is 17, she has to be 17. She can’t go having experiences from her late 20’s. Compression for the sake of a story is one thing, credibility is another.
Start over. A different place. A different family. Make them Polish instead of Irish. Plunk them near Lake Oswego instead of in the Berkshires. I mean, my god, work a little.
The mother could be a drunk instead of the father and let’s make her a low functioning alcoholic instead of a high functioning one. Give the father a shovel instead of a briefcase. Now we’re talking. It’s a miracle if a kid gets to college, not utterly expected and paid for. The failure of birth control instead of its careful insertion. Instead of zero abortions, how about five? And one baby born out of wedlock. The rebellious antics of middle class kids might just bore the shit out of any audience you can name.
Unless you make one of them a terrorist, like Roth did in “American Pastoral.” Then, of course, you’d go back to making them Irish. What is it about the Irish and bombs, anyway? There are MacVeighs on your father’s side, a fact that of course (of course!) led your sister to assert familial ties to the Oklahoma bomber. But there was reputedly a murderer somewhere out west (in the Yukon? Alaska?) during the Gold Rush. Probably called Kevin. Maybe even Mallon. Or was he the victim?
I’ll say this flat out. Do. Not. Write. About. The. Loss. of a Child. Colum McCann’s character losing a son to the IRA in “TransAtlantic.” John Irving’s parents losing TWO children in “A Widow for One Year.” You do not need to spend time there. Better the fucking self-destructive foibles of teenagers who were given most things, than that.
Given most things, including a genetic inclination toward violence and drink.
Mary Mallon. Typhoid Mary. Reading about her is like reading a character study of any number of your relatives. No problem believing genetic links there! A symptom-free, disease vector. A servant in the kitchen. She stuck to her guns, boy! She wasn’t the problem (YOU’RE THE PROBLEM!). Slamming the door on the way out, you imagine, flinging down her apron in rage. Circulating from one kitchen to the next. Cough. Cough. How do you like the soup? Forcing one to wonder, was this vicious disregard for others or blinding belligerence? Does it matter to the dead?
And by the way, winning the lottery a plot does not make. Shit has to HAPPEN. And one thing that happens has to lead to another thing that happens. Even in character-driven fiction, this is true. Forget about striving to articulate how a character’s cluster fuck of impairments stung and slashed at a younger sibling. You might care about capturing the full toxic flavor of it, and no one else. See? Nothing happening.
Throw out those rough beginnings. I beseech you to make an outline. Instead of writing tangled knots, like fabric coming out of the drier in a clump, it’ll be like hanging ribbons of color off a tree — branches there already, waiting for adornment.