Downstairs by four. Reading. An old Mary Stewart romance: The Moonspinners.
I have a new mental touchstone. Not quite a mantra, but close. At odd times during the day I remind myself that I am having a day that my mother did not get. She did not live to be 63 1/2. A day she did not get.
The next week, at least, will be very busy. The editor and I spoke for close to an hour yesterday. At last! We got into the weeds: chapter heading formatting, the improper use of single quotes, when to italicize.
Also addressed some content: Why Saffron has no African name when the other characters who made the Middle Passage do. Where to cut in chapters of secondary characters (Eliza’s father, Melody’s first owner). And voice. That’s a biggie. An author’s note at front was recommended to address the fact that none of the enslaved characters would have had the English vocabulary I’ve given them.
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.
Today I made gazpacho, rice/corn salad, and a blueberry cake. Sometimes, that’s enough. I don’t mean enough to satisfy hunger but enough to create a container wherein purpose and comfort can dwell.
After the post about trump-fatigue, I had to ask: why do I do this? It’s not to afford others hope. It’s not to teach. I guess I don’t really know, but I’m pretty sure I do it for myself –perhaps with the hope that a few others find value?
Novel update: Conversion of font from Corbel to New Times Roman continues apace (industry standards). Some editing. Since I’m still not used to the modern convention of inserting only a single space between sentences, I’m closing ’em up where I catch an extra space.
Today, a few chronology issues needed sorting. And, the thing is too long.
Angel Oak, Johns Island, SC
But, I have momentum. Also, an unexpected (and pretty marvelous) thing is happening: I am in the story. Really in it. I don’t think I have been before.
So, even though the more I read about agents, the weaker I get in the knees, I don’t think fear will stop me.
When I found out I was pregnant with C, I was working in a women’s prison advocating for mothers. To calm my nerves about giving birth, I occasionally reminded myself that every single one of my clients had given birth. All of them. Surely, I could, too?
That’s not meant to be uncharitable, although the literary corollary is. The corollary says: There are a lot of bad books in the world and THEY somehow got published. Maybe I can be, too.
Drayton Hall, on the Ashley River outside of Charleston
Old map of Charleston
Magnolia Plantation, on the Ashley River outside of Charleston, SC
Such a crashing week of news. One terrible revelation after another. I am gritting my teeth waiting for this tax bill to pass. And that might not be the worst thing happening this week. The FCC. Tom Cotton? The hateful, incendiary retweets. Sexual assault wall to wall.
On a personal front, there was also disappointment: a work place slow down for one of my sons. Money and more money flowing out from here to there. Unsustainable.
Good news? Is there any? It could be that the writing is chugging along with a kind of sparking determination. I’m hard at switching the chapters told in third person close narrative to first person, did I say? There’s a lot behind that. Years of thought actually. And it’s happening with a kind of forward movement that is energizing. Lending coherence.
For years, writing the enslaved characters from first person seemed an impossibility. I built in some distance out of respect. I thought. Then it started to seem like cowardly avoidance. Respectful/Cowardly. Back and forth that went. The debate about Sofia Coppola’s remake of the Civil War movie “The Beguiled” (in which she wrote out the black character, thinking she wouldn’t do the character justice) was a tipping point.*
* the specific debate that was most compelling can be heard here on the podcast “still processing“.
Writing this after midnight.
Here, too is a link to It’s Crow Time blog, where Mo posted about my pennant’s progress for the “I Dream of a World Where Love is the Answer” project. How her summary and the comments uplifted! I want them handy for the next time I sail into the doldrums.
Today, I stitched more than twenty red beads onto the walnut-dyed covering cloth. They look beautiful.
The leaf blowers blow. The dog goes nuts seeing another dog. My sister announces she is going back to bed. Twitter turns unbearable. Coffee cools and I need to get going.
But before I head to Salem, I just want to say THANK YOU to all the readers of this blog and those of you producing your own work and posts because I am so, so grateful for this circle… how it holds me, informs me, and helps me to grow. This community stretches across national boundaries and feels particularly worthy when the world reveals how fragile and fraught with hate it is.
I wish my pace and rhythm here were more sustained, but — you know — stuff keeps getting in the way. Happily, one of the things taking my attention right now is reading through the 400+ pages that I’ve written over the last three years for my fiction project (single spaced!!). Someone said (Natalie Goldberg?) that when she gets a student writing a novel she just wishes them a good journey, because it is like sailing out into the wide, wide ocean alone. Yes. And seeing two binders full of printed pages has provided an island for me to step on for the moment. I can turn and see where I’ve been and I have a little less panic about getting back in the boat and continuing toward the far shore.