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.
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