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I guess I should start this by saying that I’ve never had a baby. But still, I am pretty sure that writing a novel is not like giving birth. You may wonder why I am bringing this up, but having recently finished THE SILVER GIRL, people are asking me how it feels to have just “just given birth.” I just don’t think the metaphor works.
For one thing, when it comes to pregnancy, you know pretty much when it will be over. You have a due date and the birth happens at the end of nine months, ready or not. As for a novel, who knows how long it will take. And with babies, you don’t get to revise. Another difference is that babies are the most chill when they are in the womb. When they are born, the real drama starts. With novel, you wrestle with it for years and then it turns into this docile little hardcover. (I guess like having a kid, the book has to go into the world without you, but you don’t really raise a book. You don’t have to save for it’s education or worry about whether it resents you.) I guess the real way that you can tell that the metaphor doesn’t work is by turning it around—can you imagine me going to visit a friend in the maternity ward and asking, “Don’t you feel like you have just written a novel!”
I have heard writers themselves say that finishing a novel is like giving brith. I wonder if that’s just the language we use in order to help others understand the seriousness of our work. I mean, who doesn’t respect the institution of motherhood? Whenever I publish a novel, my mom sends out an announcement celebrating the birth of her new “grandbook.” (This is a true story.) I can see the allure of such parallels, but for me, they just don’t hold up.
I’ve been trying to think of a more appropriate metaphor. But really, I can’t think of anything in my life so far that is similar to the experience of writing and finishing a novel. And that’s beauty of it.
The slender moleskine journals come in two-packs. Last time I bought one, I decided to use one for my musings, and on a whim, I decided to give the other one to my new character, Bessie. I don’t want to give too much away because a new book is like a new romance. You start telling everyone about it and then you ruin it. What I can say is her name is Bessie she 21 and she lives in Chicago in 1930. (And fear not ATLiens… she is born and raised in Atlanta, but she moved to Chicago a couple years ago.)
So, the light blue journal is for me, and the deep blue one is for Bessie.
I really love this exercise. I write the journal by hand– like a real journal. In doing it this way I get the benefit of handwriting. (You don’t get frustrated and delete a days work.) And also, I am getting to know Bessie without the pressure of developing plot or knowing the themes of the work. With the journaling format, I can just wander and let her free-associate the way I do in my real journal.
I have tried this before, but this is the first time that I actually bought a notebook for the character to have all to herself. When I have attempted this in the past, I did it on the computer. I think that I had been thinking of it as “just” an exercise. If you have ever been in my class will know that for me “just” is a dirty word. If you do it as “just” anything, you will not do it right.
This time, I took is seriously and the results have been wonderful. I think about Bessie all the time. At the risk of sounding too crazy or woo-woo, my handwriting is even a little different when I write for her. The penmanship is more formal. She has more pride in her journal than I have in mine. I just scribble and scrawl, but Bessie is the first person in her family to finish ninth grade, so she is very pleased to be telling her story. She is also very aware that this story is being written. She says things like “Talking about something and writing it down is two different things. Pen and paper is forever.”
At the same time, I am not completely possessed by the character. The author-me, the one who is obsessed with Toni Morrison in general and Beloved, specifically has a hand in the project. When remembering her mother’s funeral, Bessie lets us know that she had money enough to get her mother’s full name– first, middle, maiden, and married name engraved on the tombstone. “And I didn’t have to pay with nothing but cash money.”
My editor and I have an ongoing discussion about willful incinsistencies in my new novel, The Silver Girl. To understand what follows, you have to know the plot. Here’s the three sentence summary.
Well, the whole idea that this man has two women in the same city means there is going to be a whole lot of lying going on. Some of the deceptions are big deals, some are not. The problem focuses on the little things. I think they add texture but my editor worries that they will look like mistakes.
Here is an example. Early in the story the secret daughter, Dana, mentions that “James’ wife won’t even let him smoke in his own house. She makes him go out on the porch, even when it’s raining.” But later in the story when he hear from his “legitimate” daughter, we see him smoking up a storm in the living room or wherever else he wants to light up. This inconsistency is willful, but my editor and the copyeditor flagged it. Her: I just worry that people will think that we’re sloppy. Me: So what?
We solved it by inserting Dana in a scene and letting her react with surprise when she hears that he smokes. I don’t think it hurts the scene any, I guess it’s good that the reader is assured that I know what I’m doing.
Another similar moment is when the father is waxing nostalic about the early days of his marraige, “When your mother and I first got married, it was baby this, and baby that….” In an earlier chapter it’s already shown that the couple got together in a shotgun wedding. I felt that the reader would understand that James is changing the story for his own purposes, but again, the worry was that the book would seem inconsistent. I held my ground on this one and just let it stand.
The last such moment involves the title. The Silver Girls is a reference to the song, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Near the end of the song is a lovely moment that goes “Sail on, silver girl, sail on by. Your time has come to shine. All your dreams are on their way.” I intend it as a sort of ironic reference. And silver, of course, is the second place prize, perfect for an “outside” child.
Well, in the section narrated by one daughter, the lyric is credited to Simon and Garfunkel. In the section narrated by the other, she said, “My mother sang along with Aretha Franklin, “All your dreams are on their way.” My editor was worried that, again, it would seem sloppy and that readers wouldn’t know that Aretha had recorded the song, too. On this one, too, I had to stand firm. There are Aretha Franklin households and there are Simon and Garfunkel households.
My editor raises a really important issue. I usually tell students that anything that pulls the reader out of the story isn’t worth it. But this experience has sort of changed my perspective on this. I think you have to decide whether it is worth it to pull the reader out of the story and you have to figure out if all readers will be distracted or just some.
The final issue is whether readers will think you’re sloppy or if they will think you’re doing something smart. It sort of reminds me of the way people read stories in workshop as opposed to stories that are published in the New Yorker. Let’s say you see some thing amiss in a story you have up for discussion in class. You will urge the writer to correct it. But if the story is published somewhere that you respect, you will see the weird thing and try and figure out how it works.
Things were going well as I reviewed the copy-edits for THE SILVER GIRL. Time was tight– the manuscript arrived just as I was leaving for San Francisco and when I returned the deadline was staring me in the face. But still, I figured I could handle it. I was cruising along, posting regular updates on twitter when I found the mother of all timeline errors.
You may know that I have a chapter in the novel where I imagine that the woman who threw the grits on Al Green makes a cameo. Frankly, it’s my favorite part of the whole novel. In this chapter, Mary Woodford comes into my character’s salon to get her hair done in order to travel to Memphis to meet her boyfriend. Prominent in the scene is a baby, asleep in a playpen. Well, due to some time line hanky-panky and sloppy research on my part, the “baby” is actually supposed to be five years old.
It’s one thing to have a eerie connection between two women when a two year old is snoozing in a playpen and it’s a whole other thing to have a five year old in the scene asking fifty-leven question. As much as I tried to re-envision the scene with a little Chatty Cathy in the picture, I just couldn’t make it work.
I even tried taking the kid out of the scene all together. Maybe she was off with her daddy or something. But this really didn’t work well either. I needed the kid to make the connection between the women as mothers. But there was no way to have a five year old in the scene and not change the tone completely. (My downstairs neighbor is five and he talks, A LOT.)
Maybe I would have to just cut the chapter completely. They say you have to kill your darlings.
I was freaking out. The manuscript was due the next morning. It was like performing surgery on the battlefield.
Finally, after three false starts, I came up with a solution that may have even improved the story. Yes, the kid is five. (There is no denying time.) But the kid has the flu. She’s sluggish. She has a fever. This way, the women can still take care of her like they would a much younger child. Also, the physical hotness of a feverish child really adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere of the chapter.
Now, let me go get dressed and hand deliver the manuscript to my editor.
I’m just home from VONA and there is a big task awaiting me. Just before I hopped on the plane, I received the copy-edited draft of The Silver Girl. I have to go through this version and okay all of the technical edits.
My process is to read the entire draft out loud, listening for clunky words. The copy editor in this case was very thorough, taking special care to make sure that my time-line is clear and consistent. I have lot so historical moments in this book. For example, there is a couple who meets right after Martin Luther King’s death. It’s crucial to the plot, but it requires that everything in the book be propelled on that 1968 start. In addition, whenever you have a pregnancy in a story there are nine months to count. And then, try having two almost simultaneous pregnancies. It’s a lot to keep straight.
I am linking here to one of the copy edited pages. Who knew that Peppermint Pattie is the candy. Peppermint Patty is a tomboy. It’s Froot Loops, not Fruit Loops and Miracle Gro for plants and Magical Grow for hair.
I’ll never meet my copy editor, and I doubt that she reads this blog. but I just want to put it out there how grateful I am for his/her hard work.
Today, I ran across and excellent blog post by Danielle Evans, author of the way-buzzed-up short story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. Her post is about MFA programs and what they can and can’t do. I love the way she approaches the issue with a sort of cool-headedness that is often missing from the conversation. When I say she’s cool, I don’t mean that she lacks passion for the subject. It’s just that she lays it out without that barrier of defensiveness that often characterizes this discussion. I will post my own thoughts later in the week.
Here are a couple of really thought-provoking excerpts:
These are some of the highlights, but please go over and read the whole piece. It’s long but very very worth it.
Y’all know that this blog is about love. Not tough love, the other kind. But the other day, I was meeting with a group of young writers and I had to get a little school-marmy on them. It wasn’t fun because you know, I try to be hip and cool and encouraging.
Picture the scene. A table full of writers who are working on their first books. They have been working for a couple of years, or maybe just talking about the books for a couple years. Well, they get together and start dishing about the publishing industry. The book they can’t stop talking about is Twilight. They can’t believe that people read that crap! They can’t believe that publishers will give so much money for that crap! And did you hear that Paris Hilton has a book deal? She’s not even a writer; she’s a model! And there was an article about a #@!$% sixteen year old who has a book coming out! Sixteen years old? What could she possibly have to say!! Next thing you know, Beyonce is going to have a bestseller! And so on, and so on, and so on.
I listened and sipped my caipirinha, but I didn’t join in. Granted, I am no fan of Twilight, but this conversation really wasn’t about vampires. It was about jealousy, or penvy, if you will..
We all get marked up with the green pen from time to time. There’s no crime in that. I am not saying that your are not allowed to criticize other writers or this crazy industry. Yet, there’s is a problem when you become overly concerned with(and angry about)the success of others. This is a warning sign that you are headed down a slippery slope into paralysing bitterness.
How to pull yourself together varies depending on where you are in your career. My rule– and my students will attest to this– is that you are not allowed to claim any other writer is a hack if you have not finished your book. Say what you will about Stephanie Myers, but she finished her book. Have you finished yours? If not, shut up and get to work. It’s really that harsh and it’s really that simple.
If you have completed a manuscript and you can’t get it published although you have done your best, it’s a harder thing to take. I know how painful it is to have given the project your all, but the rejections keep rolling in. (Let me tell you. For about eighteen months, I was bitter as a lemon peel.) If you really feel that you are done all the work you can do on this particular book, all you can do is start writing something else.
When you are working, you feel better about yourself. After all, writing is what makes you a writer. And when you feel like a writer, you are less worried about the latest celebrity book deal. Your mind is on your characters, on your poetry, on your art.
And look at it this way— writing the next book is always the next step. If your manuscript had been picked up by your dream publisher, they would tell you get to work on a new project. It’s never a good idea to stop moving forward. So get to work.
And remember, you started writing because you love to write. When I say get to work, I am not telling you to pick up a hammer and start breaking rocks. When I say get to work, I’m saying get back to you. Get back to where you started from when you said you wanted to be a writer, when you didn’t know anything about the business.
Here is the explanation for the pop quiz.
My mentor Ron Carlsonturned me on to this idea back in 1996 or so when I was working on Leaving Atlanta. I think I have blogged in the past about my two-steps-forward and one-step-back writing process: I can get a good 100 pages into a project and realize that I am going about it all wrong and I have to start over. (My second novel, The Untelling, underwent THREE do-overs!) These set-backs used to devastate me. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get it right the first time. That’s when Ron told me about the wallet.
Being a writer is about making mistakes. Big mistakes. Being bold it about trying new things that probably won’t work. The key to success is how you feel about these missteps.
The people (24% of us who took the poll) who get happy just because they realized that the wallet was missing are in the best position. These are folks who just love being on the road. These folks are really into the process for its own sake.
I am in the middle (along with another 24%) who feels disappointed but am able to regain my rhythm once I have corrected the mistake. I’m the driver who will curse all the way home, but pop in a new CD and set out singing.
The rest (52%) will be mad until they have written enough pages to make up for the “bad” pages. These folks will look at the page count on their computer and think “I would have been finished by now if I hadn’t spent all that time writing from the wrong point of view…”
The lesson, get happier earlier. We do this thing because we love it, right. Learn to love the whole thing. You’ll have more fun and do better work.
Between grading finals and working like crazy to meet my May 21 deadline, I am not posting any new content today. Instead, here is an oldie but goodie. (Part 2 will be posted Friday.)
This has to do with writing, take my word for it. Think of it like a Cosmo quiz– you know the ones that try to explain how the way you eat pizza determines who you’ll marrry. Answer the question below and I’ll get back with you to tell you what it all means.
Here’s the set up:
You are on a road trip, in a fabulous mood as you burn up the highway. About 100 miles down the road, you realize that you have forgotten your wallet! You make a u-turn, go back home, get the wallet, and then set out again.
The word is “freak.”
It’s funny how words that you think means one thing can mean something else to another person. I am going over the editorial notes on THE SILVER GIRL and for the most part, I agree with my editor. However, every now and again, I will be a comment that makes me scratch my head and say, Aroo? These moments usually are due to region and/or cultural understandings of language. Although the example here is pretty minor, it’s a serious issue worth talking about.
The sentence from my manuscript goes like this: It wouldn’t be fair to say that Marcus changed me, that he took a sweet innocent girl and turned her into a freak. My editor wrote in the margin, “How is she a freak? What is freakish about her?” I’d confused her with my sentence and she’d confused me with her answer. I stared for a while, drank some coffee, and then I got it. She understood the word “freak” as in “freak show”. I was using freak as in “The freaks come out at night” as in “she’s a very kinky girl/the kind you don’t take home to mother.”
What to do?
The use of freak in the Rick James sense of the word is perfectly in tune with the voice of my character—she’s a black girl growing up in Atlanta in the late-eighties. But at the same time, I don’t want to use a word in a context that will confuse a reader who isn’t from that place. If I change it, I will alter the voice, albeit in a minor way.
Of course, if I were to change it, what would I change it to? There is no real equivalent. A “freak” is not the same as a “slut”—although there is some overlap. Sluttiness is about lack of exclusivity, but freakiness involves a sort of adventurousness. It’s as much about depth of experience as breadth.
(Sidebar: There are a lot of casual words that sort of defy translation. I will send a signed copy one of my books to someone who can give me a clear definition of “trifling.” And if you can give me a synonym, I’ll send copies of both.)
It’s sort of the issue that Latino authors deal with about the use of Spanish in a story—to translate or not to translate. But the matter of regional or cultural English vernacular is that the reader sees my words and assumes that she knows what it is supposed to mean. If I see a Spanish word, I know it’s in another language, I either use context or I’ll google it. If it’s an English word, the reader may just be confused.
For now, I am leaving the word “freak”, where it is. For me, it’s worth potentially confusing some readers for the sake of preserving the voice, and meaning.