This week is devoted to new beginnings. Not only because it’s spring – blooming time, reaching time - but also because I have worn myself out with novel revisions and am ready to chuck aside the old in favor of tabula rasa, the clean slate. “Maypops in September” is my second novel, sequel to “Sugar Man’s Daughter” and ever-present thorn in my pride. Today, I am launching my third run at a cohesive manuscript, and am feeling thoroughly pig-headed about seeing it through. It will flow!
To that end, I am reading James Lee Burke in my spare time.
And when I finish with him, I think I’ll go back to Steinbeck, and perhaps Harper Lee.
Here is why: when you study writing, you will very early on be bombarded with rules. “Never open a book with weather.” “Limit use of adverbs and adjectives.” “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.” “Remain in one point of view.” Etc, etc, etc. Paralyzing, you think? Ah yes, how on earth to write within these limitations?
The answer, of course, is that you can’t. (Incidentally, another no-no is the word “that”!)
Relax, kick back for a bit and read the masters.
“Grapes of Wrath” opens, I’m afraid, with a very lengthy and detailed description of corn crops dying. Oh dear, the very first sentence – “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma , the last rains came gently.” Sounds rather . . . well, a-hem, weather-related. And exactly whose point of view are we in? Did he just use a pesky “ly” word?
Who could forget Harper Lee’s lovely opening, “Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired town when I knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop . . .”? Uh-oh, rain again. Sigh. And truly, such over-use of descriptive words! “Old, tired, rainy, red”! Could she not have found a more subtle approach?
I hold James Lee Burke in the same high esteem as the aforementioned, and I don’t think I’m alone in doing so. But in diving into his “Glass Rainbow” (a sensation, incidentally, akin to leaping into a cool, deep pond mid August - which is to say, an utter release of tension) the reader is immediately confronted with several sentences which are roughly the size of any normal paragraph. Run-ons, you say? Likely, but aren’t they beautiful? Do they not enhance the reading experience?
And isn’t that what this is all about? I say, write the way you long to write. Pick your words with the abandon of a toddler in a dandelion field, and inhale their sweetness. Wring all that you can from them. We are writers, after all. Words are our currency; we should use them as such.
Okay, enough said, lol! Here is the new revised opening to “Maypops in September.” I have begun with yet another taboo - a prologue, gasp! - and peppered it, I hope, with enough descriptive words to stupefy even the most seasoned critic.
Benny Jones woke to the sound of rain, and the slow awareness of blood pooling in her mouth - a raw, salty taste, and there was far too much of it. She fought the strangle of airbag over her face, whimpering when her fingers encountered the slick gushing beneath her nose, and at last finding the seatbelt release. The thud of her body against the jeep roof made a sound like a sandbag slapping mud, and for a time she lay still, absorbing the blow and allowing the blood passage through slack lips.
Gasoline fumes, at first subtle, finally drove intrusive fingers down the back of her throat; she belly-crawled through the driver’s side window and onto the bridge, not noticing the bite of broken glass in her elbows. The night vibrated with the discharge of wind and water, lightning quick as strobes bursting blue over the swollen creek.
Rafe Giancoli was shrimped in the mud on the far side of the bridge with his chin tucked to his chest; Benny approached him, toes en pointe and breath trapped in her chest. His eyes were asymmetrical, the left lid drooping at half mast, and a lacy pink froth trembled on his lips before the rain washed it sideways; his breathing was ragged and moist.
A turquoise bead bobbed in the puddle next to his head, and Benny hunkered down to reach for it, rolling it absently in her palm. Rafe had been beating her when he lost control in the back-road potholes. Big hand at the back of her neck, up beneath her cornrows, driving her face into the dash so that her nose popped.
Benny stood slowly, pocketing the bead and sucking her bloody lip while her eyes rested on the dark swell of wet road going into town. At last she crouched again, fixed her hands in Rafe’s armpits, and tugged experimentally.
His heels dragged, carving furrows in the mud, but overall the disposal was so much easier than it should have been; the black water swallowed him with barely a resulting ripple.
Showers are but a necessity
Splashed to chase the thirst away -
Ohmygosh, what an insane week this has been, everything from fires to flooding in our little area, and multiple calls in both stations. We’ve outdone ourselves with basement pump-outs, gas leaks and rescue calls, whew. Spring is here, loud and brash! This picture is of an old bridge in our area finally giving way to the flood waters; when the news carried this, they called our creek a river, which made us all smile. By July, you’ll be able to take your kids wading without a problem.
Much the same chaos in the writing world! This week, I have joined Linked and Scribd, and two other online groups as well, in an effort to float my stories out to you! Too much, you say?? Perhaps! Time will tell, lol. In the meanwhile, I am excited – yes, truly! – to be diving into the second round of edits on my novel. I am relieved to note that very few corrections are needed, but more than that, I am thrilled that I still like my characters. I had worried that after this brief hiatus away from them, they might have gone stale for me, but thankfully this is not the case.
Below I’m posting an excerpt from an early chapter where my two main characters, John Santiago and Nicola Thomas have their first significant encounter. Let me know what you think!
In the big bedroom upstairs, she burrowed, still dressed, beneath the covers, and watched him as he took off his shirt and set his wallet on the nightstand. He played with the notion of removing more clothing, but in the end stretched out beside her in his wife beater and dress slacks.
“That’s a great tattoo,” she whispered, tracing a delicate finger along his right bicep. “Oh my, it’s a really big black bear claw. Boy scouts?”
“No sweetie, not quite.” Distracted by her nearness, the swell of her hip beneath the blankets, he did not elaborate, instead brushed a kiss across the base of her throat.
“What else?” She had stiffened at his touch.
He obediently turned to show her his other bicep, the semper fi inked in red there.
“A few years ago.”
“I can’t have sex with you.”
“Well, sugar puss, I never asked you to,” he said gently. “I guess we’ll either get around to it or we won’t, okay?”
“I can’t because I think it might hurt. I lost a baby and I’m sore inside and what did you call me?”
He allowed himself a moment to decipher her rushed words, to net the crucial part of her message. “You lost a baby? Just recently?”
“About a month ago,” she nodded. “And I know I’m all right, but I don’t feel so good, okay?”
“Not okay. Did you go to a doctor?”
“Yes, I got all cleaned out inside. It was horrible.”
“And now I just feel puny. Like a stupid old hollowed-out pumpkin.” She squeezed her eyes closed as though to hide from him. “I’m sorry I got you here in my bed and now I won’t do it with you and…and I’m sorry, okay?”
“Sweetheart, please slow down.” His hands found her beneath the blankets, and he rubbed her belly where her shirt rode up. “Tell me about it.”
“I hated that baby. So much. I just wished it away until it was gone.”
“No, that’s not how that works, chica. Unless some money changed hands?”
At last she turned on her side to look at him. “I’ve only ever slept with Tony. I was so sure I loved him.”
“Well then, you probably did. Do you still?”
“No, not at all.”
“What about your Cindy?”
“What about Cindy? There is no Cindy. Poof, she’s gone, okay?” He tucked the comforter around her shoulders. “And you and me, chica, we’re only laying here, all our clothes on, see? Nothing to fret about.”
“Okay.” She knuckled her eyes and linked her fingers into prayer position beneath her chin. “I have to sleep, I feel a little sick and dizzy, okay?”
“Close your eyes, munequita.” He reached for the lamp switch, throwing them into darkness, and returned his hand to the warm patch of skin between shirt hem and pajama bottom.
“I’m sorry I’m such a freakin’ disappointment,” she murmured into her pillow and he had to strain to catch her words.
“Not to worry, sweetie.”
Easily said, but he knew that he would lie awake for the next few hours. That, another day, he would examine his reasons for staying, and come away uncertain.
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
- William Shakespeare (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Characters are the life blood of any novel, even the more action-oriented tale, and I have always felt as though they should be treated as such. With that in mind, and without further ado, I offer you a few classic tips – with, perhaps, a small Lucy twist – on bringing these folks to life.
Finally, have fun! Remember, you are in a profession that allows you to play God - these tiny lives are in your hands from beginning to end. Try to be good to them! And enjoy!
The hall window in the house where I grew up is at the top of the stairs, immediately upon reaching the thirteenth step, and to your right. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, and it occurs to me that after some thirty years, it could be permanently closed. Stuck in the “lock” position or even painted shut.
But the mind, the memory, provides the opening.
It is the summer of 1974, and I’ll be eleven in October, but for now it is hot enough to suck sweat beads from the nape of your neck before you reach the last step. Ours is an old clapboard farmhouse with no air conditioning, low upstairs ceilings and plain board floors warm beneath bare feet.
The roof is our haven.
On a clear August night, my siblings and I are camped there by ten o’clock , eschewing beds for the damp evening air. You can straddle the peak of that roof and ride the prairie like Captain Hook in the crow’s nest, with the darkness spread above and below. Yard lights, far away and isolated, glitter like scattered moon beads and the stars are a glory, but otherwise the blackness is complete, thick and heavy.
We spread blankets on the porch roof and lie down to inhale the bouquet of ripe field corn and wet earth. Farm kids – our noses fail to register the stink of hog manure, gleaning only the riches from the night. My sisters discuss boys and a future shrouded in the mists of unreality while the transistor radio murmurs assurance that the lion sleeps tonight. My older brother can sing like that, but it is rare that he does, and the little brothers are pests that we chase from our domain until we tire and they prevail. Watergate has scandalized our nation and America ’s youth are bleeding in Vietnam , but the distance to that place is mind-boggling; we are insular, contented in our isolation. And I, the happy middle child - frosting in the Oreo - lay back and watch the stars. Sometimes, if you look long enough, they suck you out of yourself until you are floating, impossibly small and insignificant, among them.
There was a tranquility in that moment that I haven’t touched since.
We were closer to God on the porch roof, but we wouldn’t know that until we climbed down and grew up.
I don’t remember the last time I was there. In the way of so many life events, the date passed unmarked, and I found myself with a job, a mortgage, children. It was always my intent to show them our spot, but they had places of their own – creek, sidewalk, front porch swing – and on the rooftop they may have seen only faded and peeling shingles, the magic dried up like dew before the sun.
In the end, it seemed that time belonged to only to those of us who had been there, shared and understood – a link best left to siblings alone.
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