Decluttering has officially affected every aspect of my life. Even my novel. Recently I’ve culled this beast down to a two-page synopsis, a two-paragraph elevator pitch, and finally a Twitter pitch. Not fun.
I loved writing TIES THAT BIND duringNational Novel Writing Month.Creating those touching scenes filled with evocative details of time and place was fun. 112K words of fun in fact. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was merely building a stockpile of raw material from which I could (maybe) craft a novel. What I had created was a metaphorical slab of marble. Not a book–yet–just a massive lump of potential.
I should have known this, after all I used to teach a lesson about the writing process, using Play-Doh of all things. Students molded and mashed, pulled and pinched the dough until they knew what it could do. And what it couldn’t. Only then did they try to turn it into something recognizable. And only after it was created could they add details—in this case bits of different colored Play-doh. Details don’t stand alone. Descriptive details do not necessarily make a story, whereas relevant details can.
Of course, now I’m doing the opposite. Removing extraneous bits—decluttering the narrative—to reveal what I hope is the novel hidden inside. Like a sculptor, I’m removing the chunks of cold marble that don’t serve my characters’ story arc.
The heart of my story is in there–I hope–buried beneath this beautiful mess.
With some trepidation, I sent a “completed” draft of my novel (working title Ties that Bind) to four friends who had graciously volunteered to be first readers. Three are fellow members of Lone Mountain Writers. One is a member of my book club, although I hesitate to say “just a reader.” Without readers, there would be no writers. Right?
Every page of this nearly 400 page beast has been read, critiqued, and nit-picked repeatedly, but the whole thing all at once? Not until now. I really wanted to know how–and if– it hung together. Two manuscripts are still out, but the two critiques that have come back are so vastly different, I hesitate to make any major changes before seeing the final two. What? Two readers had very different opinions about one piece of writing?! Unheard of! (And where’s that sarcasm font when I need it?)
My “reader” friend had few comments and wondered if I’d finally publish it now. As if it were within my power to hit “publish” and make my book land on the shelves at Barnes and Noble next week. I explained the daunting process of researching and querying dozens of agents, hoping to convince just one to take on the task of selling it to a publisher. That process could take months. Years, maybe. I was recently told that until I had queried and been rejected by one hundred agents, I shouldn’t consider calling my attempts “failed.” Yes, self-publishing is an option, but…
My “writer” friend thought it was fine writing, just not yet a novel. It lacked a through-line of cause and effect to compel the reader. Crap. She also caused me to question my own judgment about the scenes I had deleted when I cut nearly 14K words from the original 112K manuscript. Had I unintentionally cut out the heart of my story? Double crap.
In light of that, I’ve begun rethinking the structure and scope of what I had originally envisioned as a story of a lifelong friendship between two very different women, the choices they make, and the consequences of those choices. Here’s the most recent version of the blurb:
“Baby boomer, Claire Jordan has spent decades building a satisfying career in international relief while running away from the losses that plagued her troubled youth. However, when she receives news that her one lifelong friend Libby is ill, she books a flight home. Libby too, has built a life, but one tangled in the very ties and expectations that Claire has so scrupulously avoided. Together they will discover if it’s ever too late to change your mind about who you believe you are.”
Too much or too little to drive a novel?
While I ponder that question, I’m re-reading books on craft, especially the sections on plot and story arc. My two much-highlighted and dog-eared sources: Writing Fiction (Janet Burroway) and The Emotional Craft of Fiction(Donald Maass).
I remind myself that I asked for this help. And in recent yoga classes, I’ve meditated on remaining receptive to my teachers and trusting I will be able to untangle the many threads I’ve created and weave them into a story.
The Little French Bistrobegins with sixty-year-old German tourist, Marianne trying to end her life. She’s been belittled by her insensitive, bullying, and unappreciative husband, Lothar for over forty years. During that time, he’s repeatedly told her she’s weak, silly, and stupid. Worse, she’s believed him. She sees no way out other than to drown herself in the Seine.
While she is rescued, Lothar’s response is less than sympathetic. Marianne escapes, but on her way out of the hospital, she is intrigued by and steals a hand-painted tile of a scene at Kerdruc. That tile leads her to the village on the Brittany Coast where she intends to make good on her intention to end her life. Instead, she rediscovers herself. I guess this could be described as a “coming of age” story, except that Marianne comes of age a bit late.
Some womanly wisdom from author, Nina George.
“Every woman is a priestess if she loves life and can work magic on herself and those who are sacred to her. It’s time for women to remind themselves of the powers they have inside. The goddess hates to see abilities go to waste, and women waste their abilities far too often.”
“’People never change!” Marianne retorted. ‘We forget ourselves, and when we rediscover ourselves, we merely imagine that we have changed. That’s not true, though. You can’t change dreams; you can only kill them—and some of us are very good murderers.’”
On the risks of compliance and defiance:
“How many deviations, side roads and senseless detours a woman can take before she finds her own path, and all because she falls into line too early, takes too early the paths of custom and convention, defended by doddering old men and their henchwomen—the mothers who only want the most dutiful outcome for their daughters. And then she wastes an immense amount of time ensuring that she fits the mold! How little time than remains to correct her fate.”
“Life wasn’t too short: it was too long to waste unduly on non-love, non-laughter and non-decisions. And it began when you first took a risk, failed and realized that you’d survived the failure. With that knowledge, you could risk anything.” “…life as an autonomous woman is not a song. It’s a scream, a war; it’s a daily struggle against the easy option of obeying.”
“Every second can mark a new beginning. Open your eyes and see: the world is out there and it wants you.”
“She hoped intensely that the generations of women to come would manage better than she had, having been brought up by mothers who didn’t equate love with abnegation.”
On the power of love:
“…maybe friendship was the most patient form of love.”
“Giving and seeing how a person flourishes and feeds off your love: the amount of power you possess, and the fact that that power makes someone the best they can be.”
I love the themes that it’s never to late to follow your heart and how important it is to show people who you really are, to live an authentic life. As I age, I find these tales of late-in-life transformation quite charming, not to mention hopeful.
While I had read and loved, this author’s Little Paris Bookshop, I had trouble following and getting invested in this book early on. With an entire village full of characters to keep track of, it was hard to know who to care about. Moreover, the omniscient narrator kept changing the point of view which made it challenging for me until I realized what was going on. Nevertheless, this was a Book Club choice, so I stuck with it and was rewarded. I also learned a bit about the Brittany Coast and the Breton culture I knew nothing of. Recommend.
It’s impossible to say how many drafts Ties that Bind has undergone. It’s been in revision since 2008, when I “finished” 50k words during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Each sentence, each scene, and each chapter has been reviewed and critiqued countless times by me and the very capable–not to mention very patient–members of Lone Mountain Writers. It’s now about 100k.
This past spring, I printed out and read the whole thing cover-to-cover in an attempt to get a sense of how it all hung together. Or didn’t. The result was a hard copy filled with highlights, sticky-notes, and huge sections crossed out. I’ve since made those changes in my manuscript. Nonetheless, I thought it needed (I needed?) one more going-over before letting a few beta readers take a look. (Obsess much?) And no, the MSWord spelling and grammar checks don’t catch everything.
Several people recommended reading it aloud to myself. Good idea, but I have been over this beast so many times, I’ve become “error blind.” I do not read the words that are there. I read the words that I think are there. Silly brain.
Then I remembered that my Kindle Fire has a Text-to-Speech feature. I’d listened to e-books while driving, but never used it with a document. I sent the document (a docx file) to my Kindle Fire. If you haven’t done it before it’s pretty easy with your Kindle’s email address. Find yours under “Settings” and “My Account” on your device.
You know what? It worked!
Ms. Kindle’s voice is female and a little mechanical, but certainly clear enough for my needs. I sat at the computer with the document on the screen and the ear-buds tucked in. I listened and made corrections as the nonjudgmental voice read exactly what was on the page. Bless her heart. She read every single typo, every syntax error, and every other embarrassing “little” thing that I hadn’t picked up in my repeated readings. Some errors were the ghosts of previous drafts–you know, tense or point of view changes.
While I couldn’t see them, I could certainly hear them.
Still, as helpful as Ms. Kindle is, she can’t create the tension that compels a reader to keep turning pages. She can’t make my characters believable or likable. She can’t tell me which scenes and details are necessary and which were merely fun to write. Nor can she do the other thousand and one things to make this creation into a book that someone besides my family will want to read. That’s still up to me.
On its surface, this is a coming of age story. It’s told in the lively and distinct voices of three women–Willa and Jottie Romeyn and Layla Beck–during the sultry summer of 1938 in the small town of Macedonia, West Virginia. Annie Barrows’makes readers swelter and seek one cool spot in the days before air conditioning. We sit on the screened porch in creaking wicker chairs in the evening. We feel the relief offered by the tiniest breeze and sweating glasses of iced tea.
In other ways though, The Truth According to Us is the story of how we all come to terms with the stories we tell ourselves about our pasts. Sometimes the truth hurts, even when those we love try to protect us.
Young Willa Romeyn introduces the story, almost as Scout does in To Kill a Mockingbird.
“Everything that was to heave itself free of its foundations over the course of the summer began to rattle lightly on the morning of the parade. That was when I first heard of Layla Beck, when I began to wonder about my father, and when I noticed I was being lied to and decided to leave my childhood behind.”
At twelve, Willa is a voracious reader and has grown suspicious of her mysterious father’s frequent absences and the secrets being kept from her.
“If you’re going to unearth hidden truths, keen observing is your shovel.”
“It seemed so hard that I had to work out the answers on my own, but that’s what I had to do. I had to keep at it, finding out, guessing what would happen next, fighting for the right ending, trying to save them all.”
Willa’s Aunt Jottie is her surrogate mother. Jottie knows—or thinks she knows–the secrets and tries to protect Willa and her little sister Bird from them. She tries to instill in them the Macedonian virtues of “ferocity and devotion.”
“If only Willa could have what I had, Jottie mourned. If only she could be so certain and proud. It was an illusion every child should have. And Willa was losing it, right before her eyes.”
Pretty, spoiled Layla Beck, a Senator’s daughter, is sent here to grow up and earn her keep during the WPA era. She is tasked with writing the history of Macedonia for its upcoming sesquicentennial. She is soon confronted with conflicting versions of events and comes to a conclusion about history in general.
“A successful history is one that captures the living heat of opinion and imagination and ancient grudge.”
Those short weeks in West Virginia reveal “truths” about the town’s founder, the Civil War, bootleggers, the tragic death of young man years ago, and the price of family loyalty. Some of those lessons take a toll, especially on young Willa.
“I didn’t want to know everything anymore; I didn’t want to know anything.”
Nonetheless, the truth is I’d love to have sat on the Romeyn’s front porch sipping iced tea with the colorful residents of Macedonia that summer. Even in the heat. I was sorry to say good-bye.
The book begins quietly with Swedish immigrant, Lordor Nordstrom advertising for a bride to join him on his dairy farm in Missouri. Katrina Olson, recently arrived from Sweden herself, reads the ad in Chicago and comes for a visit. Lordor is smitten, but wisely awaits the verdict of the women of the community.
“It was a look in her eye that certain immigrants recognized in one another. A look of hope and determination, almost as it she was gazing past him, far into the future.”
Lordor and Katrina marry and build a community that eventually becomes the town of Elmwood Springs. Their story reminded me of my own Swedish and German immigrant ancestors who settled in Minnesota, Ohio, and Missouri. They relied on one another and their neighbors when they first arrived here.
“You depended on them for your very survival. It didn’t matter if you liked some more than others. They were your neighbors.”
And the neighbors do talk. And talk. We soon discover that the conversations go on beyond death, as we listen in on residents of Still Meadows Cemetery reconnecting and chatting amongst themselves. They enjoy visits from loved ones they left behind and they remark on some hard-won life lessons.
“I think most people are confused about life, because it’s not just one thing going on… It’s many things going on at the same time. Life is both sad and happy, simple and complex, all at the same time.”
But every once in a while, one of the voices at Still Meadows goes silent and is never heard again. Where do they go? It’s a mystery.
The book also tracks the growth and eventual demise of small-town America, from 1889 through 2020 with references to wars, music, technology, and the arrival of Wal-Mart. The changing times have some residents of Elmwood Springs worried.
“Macky was glad he and Norma had grown up when they had. They had come of age in such an innocent time, when people wanted to work and better themselves… Each generation had become a weaker version of the last, until we were fast becoming a nation of whiners and people looking for a free ride—even expecting it.”
Of course, the young people feel differently.
“… people are so much more tolerant and accepting of everything now: different races, different religions, different lifestyles… Life is so much easier that when you were growing up, and women are just doing everything, and now with the Internet, well…the whole world has changed. Honestly, I have to say I grew up in the very best time possible.”
I was also charmed when Flagg mentioned Elmwood Spring’s connection the WASPS, the fine female pilots she wrote about in The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion.
The takeaway lesson here is “It takes time and lot of suffering, but sometimes, when you least expect it, life has a strange way of working out.”Readers can count on Flagg for a happy ending, even when it happens in the most unlikely of ways. You just never know…
“It may take a while, but everybody gets what they deserve, eventually.”
Bless their hearts. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
My dear friend, Joan, challenged me to write a novel during National Novel Writing Month(NaNoWriMo). While Joan was a NaNoWriMo veteran, I was a virgin. Why not? I was retired now and I’d had this story of love and friendship (inspired by a few real events) rolling around in my head for years. So I rolled up my sleeves, stocked up on coffee and chocolate, and spent the month of November tapping out 70K words. Sure, it was a little rough in spots and probably had a few gaps in the plot. Nevertheless, I believed I could get it into shape during the following year.
That was in 2008.
Cue the deep, resonant voice of an omniscient narrator: “Little did she know…”
Soon afterward, I ran into another friend, the legendary Western Nevada College writing teacher, Marilee Swirzcek. She was enthusiastic about my accomplishment and invited me to join the local critique group that she had founded. Advice from Marilee and other writers? Sure. Sign me up!
I attended a few meetings of the Lone Mountain Writers and critiqued pieces in a surprising variety of genres. Romance. Horror. Memoir. Fantasy. Christian Fiction. Sci-Fi. They all had one thing in common, though: excellent writing. I knew I needed to up my game.
Months went by as I continued to polish my first fifteen pages. I was sure the group would be awed by my as yet untapped literary genius.
Here’s what I heard instead:
“Beautiful writing, but where’s the story?”
“What does your protagonist want and what are the stakes?”
“Where is the conflict, the drama?
“Who is the POV character? And why does it seem to switch in the middle of this paragraph?
Gulp. While I had read a literal ton of books and had written opinion pieces for the local newspaper for a decade, it appeared I knew nothing about writing fiction. Nothing. I could certainly recognize a compelling story, but did not know how to create it. Yet.
Fortunately, the group included several English professors who could offer both criticism and encouragement in equal measure. The group has been discerning and honest and, more importantly, patient.
They have now read most of my 111K manuscript—twice. Last week, I printed a hard copy of it (300+ pages, double-sided, spiral-bound, $40 at the UPS Store, BTW) with the intent of doing a whole read-through and edit while on along ocean voyage (18 days, Sydney to Honolulu) this month. Yes, my highlighters, sticky notes, and flash drive are already packed.
What I hope to do here is to document the next few stages of the process. You know, recruiting a few beta readers and doing a final edit—if there is such a thing. I’ll also be choosing how to publish. Shall I try to find a traditional agent and publisher or self-publish? Only e-books or hard copies too? And with whom? If this is to be a DIY project, then the issues of learning to—or paying someone to—format it and design a cover arise. Then there is promotion and, well, you get the idea. There is still a long way to go.
In addition, I’ll finally have a place to point my dear non-writer friends who keep asking when it will be done. I try to reassure them (and myself) that I don’t want to be embarrassed by something that was put out into the world before it was ready. Unfortunately, the wait has also served to raise their expectations. It seems I can’t win.
So watch this space for news of my progress. And please, if you have personal experience with any part of this, I’d appreciate you leaving a comment or link.