Posted in Writing Fiction

Dean Speaks Out: Images

When I chose the image for background on this new website, I didn’t intend to create A Mystery or A Topic of Conversation. I like the way it looks, it is relevant to my writing, and the scribbled out lines reminded me of the way editing used to look before computers.

People keep asking, and there is a story, so here goes.  I have carried around with me for many decades a photograph of my grandmother and grandfather, taken when they got married. It is a typical formal portrait from the period, 1909.  She was fifteen. He was a twenty-seven-year-old cavalry officer and a boarder in her home.

Late last year I started writing a novel about them. I didn’t know my grandfather, who died when I was two years old, but my grandmother was a constant presence in my life as I was. growing up. Because of their ages, and because of her attitudes about anything sexual when I knew her, I have always drawn the obvious conclusions. It seemed to be supported by what is on the back of that photograph.

I have spent a good deal of time working on that image–lightening it, tinting it differently, getting it into focus. In the handwriting I recognize as hers, my grandmother has recorded these facts:

 

“L.M. & Cornelia Robertson. February, 1909.
(I was sixteen years old preceding January 28th)”. 

My grandparents were married in late February 1909.
My father’s birthday was November 2 1909.

 

Below this is more writing, but it is heavily scribbled out in the way someone does who really doesn’t want it to be legible. I have struggled on and off for years to read that, have made out a few words, but finally gave up on being able even to make a guess at what the whole inscription might be.

 

 

 

I found a man who restores old photographs and who had done wonders with the two I had sent him, and my hopes soared.  I scanned this and sent it off. I know that he used every trick in his arsenal to pull the words up, but ultimately he had to tell me he couldn’t do it.  He sent me a shot of his efforts, the few words he identified marked in red. I wasn’t at all sure the handwriting was the same.

 

 

 

Not too long ago, I had one of those moments when something flashes through your mind and is gone, but I suddenly felt absolutely sure that I had written and crossed out whatever is on that photograph. I still think that’s right. I have no idea what I might have written, but instinct tells me it about the horrors I imagine in my grandmother’s marriage at that age.

However, the mystery remains a. mystery and, in the meantime, I wrote this novel about the two of them.

The image is the story of my experience with the redeeming power. of writing and especially writing fiction. My novel didn’t turn out the way I thought it would. The characters surprised me on every page.  I will almost certainly never know the facts about my grandmother’s early life and her marriage, but the writing of fiction has softened the edges around her life and has given me a grandmother who was a source of stability and great love during my childhood and not the terribly unhappy girl I have always been sure she was.  Did I write the facts? I don’t know many facts about these two people.

But Kafka once wrote that a novel should be an axe fort he frozen sea within us. For me, this novel has been that axe.  And so, the image.

 

 

Posted in Writing Fiction

Literary Competition Season

 Make a List and Stick to It

I have a checklist, much like an old friend, Eddie, had when he took his seat in the cockpit of his small plane and prepared for take-off.  Everyone who knew Eddie casually–that is, anyone who had not been flying with him–thought of Eddie as an almost careless individual who lived life spontaneously. He embodied cliches like on-the-spur-of-the-moment,  on-the-fly, by-the-seat-of-his-pants. Eddie was an adamant opponent of planning of any kind.  I recall vividly the first time he took me up in the plane.  He pulled out a yellowed card on which someone had written a checklist with a small diagram next to each brief, numbered instruction. Eddie’s reading skills were minimal.

I am a retired English teacher. I read with the best. I am one of those mostly undisciplined people who give the impression of great order in my life and, to preserve both my reputation and my sanity, I make lists. I am, in fact, a compulsive list-maker, a person who can rewrite a list several times a day because it has gotten messy or to add a new task to the bottom of the list every time I cross off one at the top.  This is a terrible way to live, especially given my total dependence on those lists. If I don’t write it down on my list, it doesn’t happen.

In the case of the entry process for the high-end literary contests, these omissions can eliminate you from the competition before the judges even see your manuscript.  There is one contest in particular that I entered last year–honorable mention, only–that issues veiled warnings like,

“It is important to label your documents properly. Unlabelled documents will not be opened.”

Chilling.

So, with a deadline of May 1 looming, I now have a completed novel, proofed and edited several times, still needing some tinkering but a clean manuscript and, I believe, a good piece of writing.  I am girding up my loins to read this year’s instructions very carefully, as I have been reminded of the importance of tracking down those misplaced commas because,

“No judge wants to read your errors!”

I recall asking myself a year ago, “Is this really worth it?”  The answer, of course, is yes.

Below you will find my personal checklist, to which I adhere slavishly:

  1. Create a new folder on your computer for each competition.
  2. Choose the first competition you’ll enter and, if possible, work on only one at a time.
  3. Read every word of the competition’s guidelines and requirements. Read them at least twice.
  4. Copy and paste the instructions specific to the submission of your manuscript into a Word document.
  5. Print those instructions and the required forms and read them again, highlighting the essential regulations.
  6. Go ahead and create a Word document for your manuscript.
  7. As you do your last editing, copy and paste one chapter at a time into the document that you’ll submit.
  8. If at all possible, find at least one reader for your manuscript.
  9. Read the manuscript out loud with your reader.
  10. Carefully re-reading the requirements, continue to transfer one edited chapter at a time into the document you will submit.
  11. Double-check details. Last year, I did everything precisely and correctly and, on the form for payment, I transposed two digits on my credit card number and it took a couple of weeks to get it sorted out.
  12. Final check that you’ve followed their directions.
  13. Keep good records, to include your own list of contests entered, with the dates you entered, and the emails you receive acknowledging your submission and your payment.
  14. Send it off, take a 24-hour break, and move on to the next competition.

At this point, I am not quite halfway through the list. I have two people reading and editing. When I get a chapter back with notes, I read it again, out loud, then move it to the form for my first contest.  I am about as obsessive about having a system as it’s possible to be, and I circle each number as I complete it.

My first competition is the very one that gave me the most trouble a year ago, including my credit card error.  The process is difficult and confusing. The payoff is impressive, both in prize money and in prestige. I expect I will re-submit last year’s revised manuscript again.

 

Posted in My Writing, Writing Fiction

My Short Story: Thirty Chapters, Still Writing

I suppose the time is approaching for me to admit that I am not, and possibly never will be, a writer of short stories.  At the very least, this current effort can no longer compete in that genre. I hold out hope that it might be a novella, but I confess to not knowing the requirements for that genre, and I can’t quite bring myself to find out.

September:

  1. I posted a piece called “Ordinary Rituals: A Story,” but that was one of those classic cheats–an edited chapter from a novel.
  2. I finally challenged myself to write a story from scratch. It was to be a story about my grandmother.
  3. At the end of the month, I was still calling it a story and still writing.

October and half of November:

  1. The blog was silent.

November and December:

  1. I published one blog each month about problems with Chapter Nineteen of what, by that time, I had abandoned all pretense of calling a short story.  I managed to make a few smart remarks about my high school boyfriend.
  2. I continued to write.
  3. I rescued from the flames of an old website several blogs about the artist Joseph Raffael.

January:

  1. It crossed my mind that somehow combining photographs of my grandparents at two different stages might, as a cover, suggest a novel about a marriage over time. I spent the entire month and more juxtaposing and printing photographs for every friend and family member I know. I created a great book cover. I was taking a break from writing.

February: 

  1. I had to reorganize and rewrite Chapters Twenty-Seven through Twenty-Nine.
  2. I have just completed a draft of Chapter Thirty.

I am still writing.

And I did, finally, do a bit of research. I found this:

“A novella is a long short story or a short novel.”

That is the kind of thing that makes me want to start pulling my hair out.

Eventually, in time to save my sanity, I found something more specific:

“A novella is a text of written, fictional, narrative prose normally longer than a short story but shorter than a novel, somewhere between 17,500 and 40,000 words.”

 

On the tenth of February 2019 at 8:54 PM Eastern Standard Time, my manuscript is

42,936 words.

I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Posted in Personal, Writing Fiction

Chapter Nineteen: Rewritten twice, still not good. Old Boyfriend perseveres, and I’m moving on. Chapter Twenty-Two: Complete.

This is the third draft of Chapter Nineteen. I might well come back to it later, but for now I am moving on–from the chapter, you understand. The Old Boyfriend and I moved on half a century ago.


Chapter Nineteen
The Ford and the Teacher
“I knew that I . . . came across as a school mistress.”

 

During the years of her marriage to Martin, Camilla thought often and fondly of her grandfather with his church that was packed every Sunday and his house full of books overflowing the shelves that had been built for them. Someone, probably the housekeeper, occasionally tried to put the extra books into tidy piles just in front of the shelves, but her grandfather had a cat who considered those stacks of books his personal challenge, and so the effort was abandoned. That clutter of books was always a comfort to Camilla. When her grandfather died, she had wanted badly to have the cat, who was white and handsome, but she was busy with the baby and, by the time she mentioned it to her parents, the cat was gone.  His name was Icarus, and he had sat in her lap for whole afternoons while she read or talked to her grandfather about books. It was her grandfather who had introduced her to reading and then had seen to it that she always had something to read.  He died a year after Bill was born. She didn’t think of him with any sort of regret nor did she make pointless comparisons between the old pastor and her Martin.  Still, she did think of him.

It must have been partly the memory of her grandfather that inspired her, one morning a few months after her mother’s death, to look into what would be required for her to become a schoolteacher. Looking back on it, she was ashamed to admit that she had not given a passing thought to Martin or to the obvious need to talk with him about a decision that could change both their lives. Normally careful of Martin’s feelings, she hadn’t considered at all what this would seem like from his perspective.  Of course, it would have appeared that she wanted to find a way back to the world she had inhabited before her marriage. She would have adamantly denied it at the time, but wouldn’t that have been at least part of what she wanted? If she had considered telling him, if she had let it even slip through her mind, she would have seen what was obvious–that the whole idea would be hurtful and an insult. No, Camilla dared not let her mind turn in her husband’s direction for fear she would comprehend all too well that by doing this she was saying—without the bother of actually saying it—that she was dissatisfied with her life and that she wanted more of somethingthat Martin wasn’t quite providing: more books; more people who wanted to talk about them; a little more money; some unnamed quality in the marriage. Whatever it was, she had sat down at her kitchen table with a tablet and a pencil and, with no worries about Martin weighing her down, had tried to decide where to begin.

As she considered her options, she saw how completely she had cut her ties to the old life. She had lost touch with Dora and Mrs. Randolph, the two people who defined that life and its promises–promises that had been well within reach. At this point, two things occurred, one on top of the other and without Camilla’s having to stir from the table. First, she discovered that she was sitting with her hands in tight fists in her lap. She didn’t know how long she had sat that way, but she took a deep breath and relaxed her hands so her palms were loose and open. Those fists suggested anger, of course. Camilla understood that, but she wasn’t prepared to think any further than that general acknowledgment. It was a coincidence, probably the purely physical response of sitting in the hard chair, bent over the table and more than a little anxious that she wouldn’t be able to find out what she needed. Whatever was causing those fists, Camilla was sure of one thing. It wasn’t anger. She was not angry. She was not angry about anything she might have lost, certainly not. She couldn’t be angry with Martin, who had done nothing more than love her, and obviously she wasn’t angry with her child. She couldn’t even imagine being angry with Bill. She wasn’t angry at all, and that was that. Because, somewhere down very deep, Camilla knew that anger was her dragon, just as pain was Martin’s. And, while Martin had defeated his dragon with her help and Delia’s, there would be no one to help her and she, and her life, would not have survived. And so, Camilla wasn’t angry.  Whatever happened had simply happened. There was no one to blame.

She had stopped going to the small schoolhouse when she was married, and pregnancy, then a baby, barred her altogether.  The years had passed with a terrible speed, and once she and Martin had moved, Camilla’s attention had turned to what was in front of her. Martin had found a piece of land he liked and could afford, and Camilla was caught up in the endless job of setting up housekeeping and raising her son.  And now it was obvious that Mrs. Randolph was the person who would know how one might go about becoming a teacher, and Camilla was sure she would also know where Dora was.  She felt a rush of excitement.  And in the few minutes required for all this to pour through the filters Camilla had set around her awareness on certain subjects, the second thing happened and cut right through her mostly unconscious decision to carry out her plan without consulting Martin.

He came in so quietly, closed the door so soundlessly, that Camilla didn’t know Martin was there until he pulled out a chair and sat down across the table. She was startled and, irrationally, she felt guilty. She had written nothing on her tablet except the two names—Mrs. R. and Dora—but she moved too quickly to put her hand over them and Martin was curious. “If that’s the start of a list for shopping, Mill, I am going to town in a while and I can pick up anything we need.”

“Thank you, but I think we have plenty of everything. Most likely we won’t have to bring in any groceries from town for at least another week.“  And then, by some instinct, Camilla had the good sense not to try to hide what she was doing.  “I wasn’t making a shopping list. I was scribbling down my ideas for finding out if I could ever go to school, or do anything else, to become a teacher.”

She laughed when she said, “So far I have written down two names: Mrs. Randolph—who was my English teacher—and Eudora Marker, a girl I was just starting to like. I think we were becoming friends.”

Martin was looking at her curiously, so she added, “And that’s as far as I got. I guess it should have been obvious that my old teacher might know something about how to become a teacher.”  When Martin didn’t respond, she went on, “I was thinking I might drive over there tomorrow early, leave Bill with my parents, and just take a run by the school. What do you think, Martin? Would you be able to do without the car?”

Camilla never did unravel the mystery of Martin’s face at that moment, but chances are she tried. Whatever was going through his mind, whatever he was feeling, what Martin said was, “Of course I can do without the car, and you must leave Bill here with me. You’ll spend a lot of time with Megan and William when you probably want to use it all at the school. It’s a pretty exciting idea, Mil, and I’ll do anything I can to help you with whatever you need to do.”

Camilla had no response to this short speech. What with one thing and another, there was an awful lot of silence in that conversation. Camilla was genuinely amazed, not so much by what Martin had said as by her own apparent blindness to the depth of simple goodness in this man.  It was just his nature. It was who he was. It wasn’t what he thought he should say or any kind of posture or performance. It was just Martin. If it were brought to his attention, he would have shrugged and been slightly confused that anyone would make a fuss about it.  As far as Martin was concerned, it was just the way you acted. Camilla hadn’t said a word yet, but he was watching her and he could sense she was about to tell him how wonderful he was. He really felt that he wouldn’t be able to tolerate it, so he cut right in before she had an opening,

“Alright, then, I am going to town to do the few things on my own list, then you can have the car as early tomorrow as you want to start, and with Bill staying here, you won’t have to eat up your time getting him ready to travel. And you’re sure you don’t want to add to the list?”

“I’m sure, Martin. Thank you for tomorrow. Bill staying here will make my day easier and possibly shorter. So you think I’m on the right track to consult Mrs. Randolph first?”

“Yes, I do.  It sounds like she’s so obvious to ask you could throw any other names that come to you right out the window.”

Camilla didn’t have the heart to tell Martin there were no other names, and early the next morning she left him and Bill sleeping soundly, tip-toed out to the car and headed down the road in search of her future.  As she drove, it occurred to her that she wasn’t even sure that Mrs. R was still there.  She was appalled that she had allowed two people who had been so important to just disappear.  Mrs. Randolph’s encouragement, and the confidence she had in Camilla, had been life-changing, and perhaps even more was the friendship with Eudora, her only relationship like that either before or since.  Before, she had her parents and her grandfather. After, there was Martin and then there was Bill. There was no time for friends. Mrs. Randolph had seen the need and made the arrangements for them.  Goodness, she could hardly wait to find Mrs. R and then to track down Dora.  How exciting. Life certainly did have its twists and turns and most of them recently had been because of this automobile. Without it, she would have had no way to even make the trip.

As usual, Camilla was distracted while she was driving and very nearly ran herself into a ditch.  She turned the wheel just ahead of disaster and tried to keep her attention on the road for the rest of the short drive.  It wasn’t long, however, until she nearly wrecked the car a second time. When she drove up to the schoolhouse, to what used to be a one-room frame building accommodating twenty or twenty-five children, she slammed on the brakes and almost threw herself over the steering wheel.  Was it actually possible that in seven years, it had been transformed into a large brick building, with two floors? And more than that, could it be true that for those same seven years, as she came to see her parents, she had never once driven past the school, never seen what was happening, never even tried to visit Mrs. Randolph or ask where Dora had gone?

Much more cautiously, she pulled the Ford into a vacant parking place—they were actually marked out and numbered, right on the pavement.  Camilla was nervous. Actually, Camilla was so badly frightened that her legs were trembling and she was finding it difficult to get her breath.  Determined to pull herself together, she approached the building, climbed the few stairs to the front entrance and pushed open the door. The inside was even more of a shock than the outside.  White walls were covered with student art—bright paintings of every color; hardwood floors gleamed; and she could hear, down the long hall, the quiet murmur of a good many more than twenty-five voices. She looked into a few classrooms and could hardly believe she was in the town where she grew up. She had taken in the radical changes, could see what the school had accomplished, and she was eager to talk to Mrs. Randolph. She found the school office and before she knew it she was inside, asking a bright-looking young woman to tell her where she might find Mrs. Randolph. Mrs. Randolph, Camilla explained, had been her teacher when she went to school there, not too long ago.

The young woman, whose name was Lois, looked genuinely sorry to disappoint, but she shook her head. She had remembered Camilla’s name, and used it in hopes it would soften the bad news.

“I am so very sorry, Mrs. Ainsworth.  Mrs. Randolph left when the plan for the new building was approved.”

This didn’t quite make sense to Camilla, and it was a minute before she responded, “That is a surprise, Lois. Mrs. Randolph dreamed of teaching in a building like this, where the students had plenty of room and there could be more teachers—a teacher for every subject. Goodness, I am puzzled by this news.”

“No need to be. Mrs. R loved the building plans, loved the drawings of the whole layout, loved the classrooms. None of that was a problem. She was very excited about the new possibilities for her classes.  No, it was because every other teacher was in favor of tearing down the old school and putting up this new school right where it was.  I hope I’m not being disrespectful to call her Mrs. R. It’s what we all called her.”

At this, Camilla had to laugh. “Not only don’t I think it’s disrespectful, but it was two of us in my class who called her that for the first time.  But I still don’t understand why she quit her job. That seems like a pretty serious thing to do.”

“It must have been. I think when her ideas were ignored entirely, she just felt she couldn’t stay.”

That day, on the first of many visits she would make to the school, she said goodbye to Lois, closed the office door behind her, and made a decision. She would talk to whoever took Mrs. Randolph’s position, hoping that person had at least gotten an address that she would be willing to share with a former student. Although she didn’t know it, Camilla would spend most of the rest of that day in the building.  She felt both envy and a desire to one day teach in just such a place.

She spotted a classroom with a sign for 10thgrade American Literature, taught by a Mrs. Watkins.  Somehow, although Mrs. R had always taught younger students, this felt right. Mrs. Watkins might even be Mrs. R’s replacement. If she wasn’t, this was still a small town and she would surely know the whereabouts of Mrs. Randolph and Eudora Marker and, for Camilla, just knowing where they were would be a comfort, even if the news was that they had moved across the country. She would feel she had made at least indirect contact and it would give her the courage she would need to do whatever came next.  Camilla was getting more determined and more hopeful.

She reached for the doorknob and turned it without making a sound. She could hear the rustle of clothes and papers and the murmur of student voices. The door was only open a crack and sound was too muffled for her to tell what they were saying. Occasionally, she caught a deeper voice, definitely a woman, most likely Mrs. Watkins, but Camilla couldn’t see whoever belonged to that voice.  She had relaxed a bit and was leaning on the wall, taking the opportunity to get her bearings while she waited for the class to be over.  Her eyes were almost closing when she was nearly jolted out of her skin by a familiar voice shouting her name.

“Camilla Whitfield, you left before we could discuss The Scarlet Letter! I don’t know how you managed it, but you are in luck today. Come in here right this minute, and no arguments.”

Camilla had by now opened the door and, before she could see a thing, she found herself enveloped by a warm body and two strong arms. She couldn’t remember ever being embraced with that kind of enthusiasm.  She suddenly realized that she felt happy.

`           “Dora? What on earth? Is this your class? You’re teaching here? Did you come when Mrs. R left? Oh, heavens, you are right in the middle of a discussion and here I am asking questions. I am so sorry. I’ll go back out and wait in the office until you have time.” Camilla was embarrassed and, as she usually did when she was embarrassed, she was talking much too fast and much too loud. She had begun her quest for information about teaching by making a fool of herself in front of a room full of students.

Meanwhile, Eudora had turned around to face the class and was saying something about The Scarlet Letter.

“Class, we have a visitor. She is an old friend and we were interrupted quite some time ago in the middle of a discussion of this very novel.  Mrs. Ainsworth—is that right? Camilla, meet my class. We are honored to have you.”

Camilla checked herself to be sure she actually felt the way she felt. It was like taking her pulse. She was no longer nervous, not a bit. As a matter of fact, she felt confident and completely at home in this unfamiliar school, facing a room full of young people every one of whom was a stranger. She was going to have to say something about a novel she read years ago. She barely remembered the story, let alone why it was so important. And then the strangest thing happened. She walked toward the front of the room, looked out at the sea of faces, smiled and said,

“Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, is possibly the best-known American novel. What do you think it is about? Take a minute or two to think before answering. Raise your hand if you have something to say.”

And that was that. She spent the rest of the day with Dora, joining discussions in her other classes, watching her friend teach. She was good. Camilla knew she could be good, too. She and Dora agreed to share a quick supper and go together to see Mrs. Randolph.

December 11 2018: A Note on Chapter Nineteen: No, I had not forgotten this, or any of the other chapters in this difficult novel. I will confess that, although I had not forgotten them, I had certainly set them aside and once again devoted my energies to writing about my friend, Joseph Raffael, and–for my sins–reading the NYTimes.

Posted in My Writing, Personal, Writing Fiction

On Writing #7:I Hate Chapter Nineteen and am feeling none too charitable toward my high school boyfriend.

First, about the boyfriend. He actually was my high school boyfriend. Our subsequent relationship is to let twenty or so years go by until something puts us back in touch and we exchange a flurry of emails, have long phone conversations, and generally wonder why we let twenty years go by. As we are both now seventy-two years old, I have pointed out that we most likely don’t have another twenty-two going forward.  For months we have had our usual talks that combine rehashing old memories with catching each other up on what we’ve been doing since we turned fifty–which was our last contact. We have exchanged photos of our grandchildren. I sent him a copy of a photograph of my father and the essay I wrote about it.  He knew and liked Daddy.  And somehow, I am sending him the current manuscript  (still called The Wife) and he is reading it out loud to me over the phone. This week he was having some back pain and couldn’t sit for long, so he read two chapters and I began reading at Chapter Nineteen.

I hate Chapter Nineteen.

I’ve lost control. The Wife, which began as an attempt to write a short story, doesn’t show any signs of being a short story. It is fast approaching a length at which I can’t even call it a novella (a genre I’ve never really believed in, anyway). It seems to be nearly a hundred pages of a novel that is driven by two strong and fully developed main characters, and at least two others who have great potential.  Nothing wrong with that. I like character-driven novels, and they are generally what I tend to write.  So far, so good. Until I got to Chapter Nineteen that, now I consider it, is the point at which I attempted to let the plot carry me. The only problem is there doesn’t appear to be any plot.

But about Chapter Nineteen. It is dull. It is wooden. It goes into great detail about things like the hallway in a new school building. The dialogue is unconvincing. People don’t talk that way. What scant plot it manages is, not to put too fine a point on it, boring.  As I read the chapter out loud to my high school boyfriend who appears to be enjoying watching my chaos at a safe distance (we have been at a safe distance since high school graduation in 1963), I was so appalled that I stopped at several places to exclaim some version of, “This is really terrible.”  And so it is.

I believe this chapter, and possibly parts of  a few others, can be salvaged. But it will not be an easy fix.

The alternative to fixing it is abandoning it, and I’m not ready to do that yet.  So, instead of slipping away from Thanksgiving festivities to discover where Camilla and Martin will go from here, I will be avoiding for as long as possible facing the unwelcome task of a substantial rewrite of at least one chapter.

Maybe I’ll try designing the cover instead.

 

Posted in Personal, Reviews, Writing Fiction

Editing With Pizza and Salmon

Before you start reading this blog, ask yourself one serious question:
Have you ever seen anything that looks better than that slice of “California Dreaming” pizza from Cogan’s in Norfolk, VA??
As I am laboring away at this story, “The Wife,”–which is feeling less and less like a story and more and more like the very bad start of a novel–I have taken a break to open a Patreon account (patreon.com).
There is a good deal of figuring out the site, which always feels like wasting time to me, although I will confess to a thrill of accomplishment when I actually do master any small detail.
And there is a good deal of writing. You know the kind of thing–biographical details that somehow make you sound charming, witty, serious, and a tiny bit eccentric, nothing excessive.  What’s wanted is just enough to enhance your charm and your  seriousness with a soupçon of spice, nothing to make you seem like a whack-job.
However that might be, the writing–in fact any writing–provides the deeply desired sense of Doing Something Important.  Doing my work.
What follows describes an absolutely delicious editing experience I had a couple of years ago.  I hope you enjoy it.

The Author
Rachael Steil is the author of Running In Silence: My Drive for Perfection and the Eating Disorder That Fed It (Koehler Books 2016).
41QgYQner5L

I know Rachael because her mother knows a good friend of mine in Michigan, and my friend asked me to talk to Rachael about a book she was writing.  And that is how it all started.

For over three months, from early February to sometime in May of 2016, Rachael and I edited her manuscript.  When I first read it, Running in Silence weighed in at approximately 100,000 well-crafted, sometimes lyrical words. By the time I finally met her in person, Rachael had cut it down to a more manageable 80,000.  I remember that almost the first thing she said to me was, “I’ve cut 20,000 words!”

Running in Silence is a memoir, powerful and personal, the story of one young athlete’s war with the siren songs of binge eating and starvation as they play out on the running tracks of high schools and colleges coast to coast in this country.

On her first trip from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Norfolk, Virginia, I took Rachael out to meet John Koehler, founder and guiding spirit of Koehler Books, the Virginia Beach publishing company that had released my first book almost a year earlier.  John took us to lunch and gave Rachael the benefit of his experience  from many years in the worlds of publishing and marketing.  He was clear: “Memoirs don’t sell. You have to turn this into a self-help book. You need a good editor. I suggest Dean.” Although she was clearly charmed by John and grateful for all his advice, I saw the look of near-desperation on Rachael’s face as she absorbed his words about a self-help book.

When she climbed into her rental car the next morning, headed for the airport, I told her to think everything over and call me if she had any questions.  We parted on good terms, having enjoyed a couple of very pleasant days together talking about writing in general and our own writing in particular.  She had made a connection with my cat, Isaac.

It was about a month later that Rachael called and asked me if I would edit her book, and that was the beginning of an editing and writing partnership, and a solid friendship, that was more and certainly different than either of us expected.

THE CONVERSATION
Rachael
—“I don’t know how I feel about turning my memoir into a self-help book.”

Dean—“I know exactly how Ifeel about it, Rachael. I won’t have anything to do with turning your manuscript into anything other than what it is. We have to figure out a way to impose a self-help apparatus of some kind onto it, almost like a frame.  But no violence to that text. I won’t do it.”

We were both relieved, I think, and we were soon to discover that we had set ourselves a formidable task.

THE MONEY
I charged Rachael by the hour and considerably below the going rate for professional editing, because I had absolutely no idea how long this would take.  I sent her regular invoices, I think monthly, so she could keep track of exactly where we were.

THE WORK SCHEDULE
**Rachael recently sent me this series of photographs from the four days she spent with me doing a final editing of her book.  I think they pretty well say  it all.

editor

virginia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A NORMAL WEEK
Sunday Rachael sends a chapter or two.

Monday Rachael and I do the first reading, out loud, over the phone, and we stop when we hear that “sour note,” continue to read the sentence or short section over and over and over, often going backwards and reading a paragraph or two before it, hoping to identify the problem in context. When we find the sentence that is out of tune, we take the time to rewrite if it can be done quickly and easily.

Mon-Wed Rachael integrates all the corrections we made or discussed in our reading; I go through the manuscript and, using Track Changes, make more suggestions.

Wednesday, as early as I can,  I send my corrected version to Rachael and she reads it over and either integrates my suggestions or marks them for questions.

Thurs We discuss the chapters as they now exist, Rachael again making changes as we go through.

Friday We read the chapters aloud again and Rachael takes them home over the weekend to write the changes into the text and file these chapters away for the time being.

This describes the rhythm of most of our weeks.  Once Rachael flew in to stay for four days of editing.  We turned off our phones, locked the doors, and read aloud and edited.  Our only contact with the outside world was the guy who delivered the pizza.  The next morning, I introduced Rachael to the thrill of cold pizza for breakfast.

 

California-dreamin-e1486494743701-600x600

 

 

Somewhere in there I cooked salmon and vegetables.

THE SELF-HELP BOOK
I started looking at self-help books online, not liking them any more than I ever had, but this was a mission.  We ultimately came up with a very simple formula.  At the end of each chapter we wrote questions for thought and short assignments for journals. Our goal was to engage the reader in as active a way as possible.  I began to take some delight in this entirely new area of creative thought. For example, and I’m proud of the sheer corniness of it—in this book about eating disorders and running, I labeled the two sets of questions “Mile Markers” and “Food for Thought.” I got us started, but Rachael soon picked up the rhythm and took over.  By the time the book went to Koehler Books’ editor and to press, she had fleshed out all the chapter challenges and had attached a Glossary and an exhaustive worksheet at the very end.  It is an amazing achievement. And the whole experience has led Rachael down some unexpected paths.

THE MISSION
Rachael Steil has become a spokesperson for her cause. She travels to high schools and colleges, speaks to students, teachers, coaches, and counselors, raising awareness of eating disorders among serious student athletes, especially runners.

I believe she will back me up when I say that she never saw herself doing any of this, starting with that self-help book we were both so determined not to write.

Posted in My Writing, Personal, Writing Fiction

A Story Continued. First draft title: “The Wife,” Chapter Two

Chapter Two
“I Supposed Mr. Ainsworth Had Taken a Room”
Camilla Considers

For a good long while, several months at least, I saw almost nothing of our boarder, Mr. Martin Ainsworth.  His days were entirely taken up either by long sessions when Father provided detailed instructions on what needed doing and how it should be done or by the work itself.  Judging from a few pretty spectacular changes around the place and from Father’s increasingly happy mood, I concluded that Mr. Ainsworth learned quickly and there was more work than instruction.

Although Father was by far the best educated and the most successful–with a profession, a wife, a daughter, and a home– somehow their relationship was always one between equals.  I never heard Father speak to Mr. Ainsworth with anything other than genuine respect and liking.  And Mr. Ainsworth, for his part, clearly did not feel inferior or beholden to Father.  He soon was a comfortable member of the household.  His plan for taking his meals alone in his room was abandoned at Mother’s insistence, and we all sat down together as if we had been doing it forever.

I was aware, almost from the day he arrived, of his attention. In the beginning, it was so understated that I might not have noticed it had we not been such a small group, and even then I wasn’t sure all at once. But thinking back, and whether I was aware of it or not, I feel sure that Martin’s attention explains the discomfort I felt in the beginning. It was something new. I wasn’t accustomed to it.  Often, Mother and I would excuse ourselves to take the dishes out to the kitchen, get them washed and put away, make a pot of coffee, and generally get the house into order for the next morning. By the time we had finished with all that, frequently the men had either gotten into one of their discussions–the two of them could talk for hours about nearly anything–or they would have already gone off to bed.

So, with one thing and another, Mr. Martin Ainsworth and I exchanged very few words and hardly even saw each other except at the dinner table.  His presence in the house changed almost nothing in my daily life. Nonetheless, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, a man’s constant awareness of you whenever you are in the same room exerts a pull, no matter how subtle, that is nearly irresistible. These are lessons we learn only with hindsight.

But the day came–and I knew that it would–when Martin and I found ourselves alone.  Mother and Father had made one of their rare trips to town together. Our small Post Office had secured a display of photographs of some of the fancy vehicles used in the cities to deliver the mail.  Once Father heard about it, he just couldn’t stay away and Mother felt up to joining him, a treat for them both. Although they always denied it,  I have wondered over the years whether they had planned this.

I was sitting comfortably at the kitchen table, pages of schoolwork spread out in front of me, when Martin came in. It was early for him to have stopped working, and he surprised me.

“Oh, Miss Camilla, I’m sorry if I made you jump.  I have run out of the nails to finish the fencing around back, and I guess I missed your parents. They could easily have picked up what I need.”

“Yes, Mr. Ainsworth, they left almost an hour ago.”

“Well, the fence will just have to wait a day or two, and I can start on something else in the morning. That’ll work just fine, and I’ve got a couple of jobs in mind.”

“I know Father is very grateful to you for all the help, Mr. Ainsworth. And I think he is also grateful to have the company of another man around the place.”

“I’m the one should be grateful, Miss Camilla. This place, the work, the way you all have welcomed me, it’s just about saved me.”

I remember the conversation between us was awkward at first. It felt odd to even be in the same room with him with no one else there–not improper or anything, just unusual. I honestly couldn’t think of another thing to say, so I looked down at my papers and started shuffling them around, like I was about to get back to working on them.

“I hope it’s alright for me to say, but if that’s any kind of arithmetic, anything with numbers, and you ever need help, I’d be glad to offer it. It’s the one thing I did just about better than anyone in school, and a good thing since you need to know something about numbers to work on machines.”

I laughed, “I might take you up on that, Mr. Ainsworth, because arithmetic is the one thing I did just about worse than anyone else.”

There was silence again, not quite as awkward as before, then we started at the same time.

“Miss Camilla, would you mind if I sat down here at the table for a spell?”    “Can you explain how numbers are important for working on machines? Did you just mean you have to take measurements?”

This time we both laughed and, as he started to describe some of the machines around our place, and how knowing numbers let him use them in new ways, Martin pulled back the chair next to mine and sat down. Even at the time, I noticed how smoothly he managed it, and yet he didn’t seem conniving. I didn’t feel he was tricking me. And I noticed, too, that when he was talking about work he was doing, he talked more easily and seemed more relaxed. His voice even sounded different.

After a few minutes of numbers and machines, most of which I didn’t understand, Martin all of a sudden just stopped talking and sat looking at his hands. I completely forgot the proprieties and just blurted out, “Mr. Ainsworth, is anything wrong?”

“I expect so, Miss Camilla. I expect there is. I don’t even know what I think I’m doing sitting here at this table. I don’t think William and Megan would like it one bit. And they especially wouldn’t like what has been in my head from the minute I walked in and saw you.”

“Mr. Ainsworth, now I think would be a good time to stop. I’d like you to leave me to get back to my schoolwork.”

I remember how sad Martin looked as he stood up from the chair, and I didn’t want to let him go without saying something.

“Mr. Ainsworth, thank you for explaining about the machines and the arithmetic. It gave me some new ways of seeing things. But now you should go out.”

He left without any fuss, and I sat without doing much of anything until Mother and Father came home and I got up to help with dinner.

I must say that Mr. Martin Ainsworth impressed me when he appeared at dinner, the same as always, greeting Mother and describing to Father the nails he needed and the way he intended to use them.

There was one change, though, and I wonder if my parents noticed. Without appearing the least bit nervous or embarrassed in front of Mother and Father, he turned to me, and said, just as if he said it exactly like this every day, “Good evening, Camilla, I hope your day was worthwhile.”

Posted in Writing, Writing Fiction

On Writing #6:Still struggling with writing a story and getting a little worried. Is it really all about page length?

fullsizeoutput_4abb                                           #

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE BLOG BEGINS:

FIRST DRAFT: It has occurred to me that my insecurities about the short story are mostly grounded in a fear of the constraints of length–or lack of length. (27 words)

SECOND DRAFT:  I think I am afraid of the short story because it isn’t long enough for all my words! (18 words)

In the novels I have written, my characters have what seems an unlimited amount of time and space to lead the story toward its conclusion.  It isn’t so much how the novel ends as how long it takes to reach that end.  In a novel, I can begin my descent into my conclusion chapters back–with nothing more than a hint, certainly nothing resembling a plan or outline–meandering along, taking detours, tossing down red herrings, changing course, anything I like.  There is no page limit, specific or implied. A novel can go on for hundreds of pages; some of the best ones do.

In a story, I feel rushed toward the finish line, pressured to have that final paragraph composed in my head before I have finished typing the first sentence.  I can already feel the edge of panic. I have written the Prologue and Chapter One of whatever that untitled work is–story, novel, warm-up exercise–and I don’t know where it’s going to end. Nonetheless, I feel strongly that I should know. And what about that length question? Obviously, there is no set number of pages, and some stories even expand beyond whatever the unspoken limit is and then they belong to that mysterious genre, the novella.

Part of my problem is that, if length is to be restricted anyway, I want something more concrete. Show me a rule that a short story must not exceed 65 pages and a novella is between 65-125. These numbers are completely arbitrary, and that  is my point.  It is all much too vague.

I saw a contest  just last week for “Short Short Stories,” maximum length 1500 words.  That is perfectly clear, and give me the great luxury of facing my personal limitations and admitting that I am not, at least today, capable of producing anything like that.

And that leaves me with the Prologue and Chapter One–1600 words–of a piece of writing that has no plot or character development beyond those 1600 words, no idea where it is going and less of how it might get there.

All that said, there is no question about the relative quality of the first and second drafts of the sentence that begins this blog. Shorter is better. The grand and verbose southern writer William Faulkner had no doubts about it–shorter is better or, more to his point, great skill is required, and better writing is produced, by the author who can say the most with the fewest words.  The hierarchy, in his mind, is that those who can’t write poetry, write short stories and those who can’t write stories, write novels.

Perhaps those who can write neither poetry, stories, or novels, sit around trying to write definitions of those genres.

I believe I’ll take a look to see where the characters in my story want to go next.

Posted in My Writing, Writing, Writing Fiction

On writing #5: I have turned blogs into essays and chapters of novels into short stories. I have been professionally published and have published independently. I have entered contests. Recently, I’ve been giving some thought to that woman on the waterfall.

I want to write a novel about her.

The woman on that waterfall, probably in her fifties when the photograph was taken,  was my father’s mother, and I have a great deal to say about her. Far more than enough to fill the pages of a novel. The only problem, and it is a big problem, is that I just can’t seem to muster the–whatever we should call the Whatever-It-Is that is absolutely necessary if you intend to write a novel.  You need it up front, long before you begin. You need it months before you touch a pen or a keyboard, weeks before anything other than notes–anything resembling a sentence–appears.

I have experienced it as a cluster of physical sensations and behaviors that I never recognize for what they are: my breath catches in my throat; I smile spontaneously at people I don’t know; I cry midway through hilariously funny movies, and I laugh so inappropriately, and so loud, that I am often asked to leave public places; I have ideas. Oh, my goodness, I have ideas. Thoughts almost literally spill from my mind, too fast for me to catch them. I am alive with ideas, some of which might belong in a novel about a grandmother climbing down a small waterfall, others clearly never will. On long walks around my neighborhood I imagine wonderful new ways to prepare salmon, and I am stunned when I hear myself speaking aloud a lovely sentence that contains a semi-colon–used correctly.

Slowly, this first rush settles. I am disappointed to lose it but by this time have begun to understand what it is. It is my grandmother’s novel.

She has always fascinated me. A schoolgirl, a bride, a mother, and a schoolteacher–all before I knew her–too many of her stories have come to me only second-hand and, as a result, only piecemeal.

fullsizeoutput_4a3dfullsizeoutput_4a41fullsizeoutput_4176

 

 

fullsizeoutput_41ec

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And, although I have, perversely, been able to make notes, to write whole sentences, to outline something resembling a plan, I have neither grinned at a stranger nor wept at “The In-Laws.” There is no novel calling to me.

I think back to the past year or so of writing and, after the most recent novel, I filled in the time by pulling chapters from the novels or by combining old blog posts and confidently sending off short stories and essays to literary competitions.  This activity allowed me to hide from the fact that I was not writing a novel.

I have run out of familiar choices. Two of my fellow-writers have thrown down the gauntlet, accompanied by a rolling of the eyes that no novelist could ever describe as subtle.  “Why don’t you just write a short story?”

Why, indeed, don’t I just write a short story?

 

 

Posted in My Writing, Writing, Writing Fiction

On Writing #4: Autobiographical Fiction, A Cloud of Unknowing

 

DECEMBER 16 2017
Not Quite a Year Ago

            “When I refer to Aunt Cade’s ‘big house downtown,’ I am talking about a house that, to my child’s eyes, was a castle. It had turrets and towers and lots of slanting roofs, and it was dark, looming over the street, completely shadowed by the big trees that surrounded it.”

 

fullsizeoutput_4905

 

Recently,  I reported having written a little over four pages of a novel about my family, with a great deal of compulsive “make-work” in between the sentences that were trying to carve their way into paragraphs. In the two months since October 5, those four pages have  grown to almost fifty, and I am stopped again.  Two months. At this rate, I don’t imagine I’ll live to see the end of it.  All the signs suggest that the wise course of action would be to abandon it and get back to something I have a chance of completing.

I haven’t been entirely idle, of course. I have found more than I expected about the family without the help of the whole generation at the center of the novel, who are long dead and buried. I know a great deal about what life would have been like for any family in rural Alabama during the period that began in the late nineteenth century.  I have polished sentences, taken as great care in my word choice as I imagine Emily Dickinson did, read aloud to myself and to friends, enhanced dialogue. I have found a photograph of my aunt’s house that figures prominently at least in the scant beginning of the novel.

But I am not moving forward very quickly. I am circling the novel, working the field around it, but I am writing very little.

Perhaps this slow pace is the undertow that pulls me into this challenging and disturbing engagement with characters and story that both are and are not real.

I have read the accounts by famous novelists of their characters taking over, and I have usually considered that sort of thing an annoying bit of writerly posturing.   Unfortunately, although it might well be both pretentious and transparently affected–dammit–it’s true.  The characters do, in fact and literally, stake their claim to the story early on and continue to speak and act in ways that I have not planned. They do this to the outlandish degree of sometimes actually disagreeing with one another about where we are all going.  It is disorienting and terribly exciting.  I wake in the morning, eager for the next twist in the plot but much, much more than their actions, my characters greet me with revelations about themselves. I am getting to know them. I am entering into their lives and hearts at a depth simply not possibly in life. There is something about this combination of the person known and the person imagined that is pure magic.

My friend and sometime co-author, Alison Daniels, encouraged me in a recent email to take my time. Alison and I have been turning out novels–and pretty good ones–every few months. She assures me that this one is different, that it has the potential to be a serious piece of writing, that I should think in terms of a year, at the least. I’m not sure.  I know that I seem unable to make the decision to simply walk away from it. So I suppose I will continue. And thinking of this as a year-long project has relieved me of some of the pressure I tend to put on myself.

“My name is Emily Cade Ainsworth, and I am going to tell you a story about a family. In many ways, both the story and the family are like all the other families and every other story. But because this is a story about my family, it is also a story about the South. And that complicates things.

There are as many narratives about the South as there were crawfish in the creek behind my house in the North Georgia hills. One common notion about those of us born and bred in the Deep South is that we are stranded, permanently and more or less contentedly, that–immobilized by the heat or our genes–we are unlikely to move from the place or the state of mind in which we begin. Although I am not unaware of those sons and daughters of the South who will remain happily sweating out their July days by the pool at the country club or on the porch of a dirt farmer’s shack, the southerners I have known best are a restless and dissatisfied lot.

And because the South is a land haunted by the Scriptures, we have the perfect metaphor for our odysseys. Whether we are Baptists or Episcopalians, the image of the Promised Land, just over Jordan, informs our dreams. However–with no irreverence intended–promised or not, I’m afraid that in this particular version of the journey, you can only get to Canaan by way of bloodlines, memberships, an air of carelessness, and the casual cruelty of the question, ‘Who are your people?’

Our ‘people’ were pretty much a disgrace, but due to the monumental efforts of the generation before mine, we have achieved a reasonably convincing appearance of gentility.”

I am layering and interweaving time and place, which drives Alison crazy and sometimes, I will admit, even confuses me, but it just seems to be how I write.  I have begun with a present-time first person narration by the main character and have laced in chapters that travel back to the late nineteenth century (my great-grandparents) and forward again to the 1920’s (my grandparents, parents, and aunts).  I have travelled from a dirt farm north of Birmingham to “Aunt Cade’s big house downtown” in Montgomery.

I spend long hours looking at the photographs of all the women whose story I am trying to tell.

Imagination and Memory. Imagination and Life. In my limited experience of writing fiction, I find that I can no longer readily distinguish them. What I find, in fact, is that by imagining them, by taking the risk of just showing up as they worry and decide and speak and act, I am coming to know and understand these women I thought I knew so well.

My cousins and I call them “The Queens.”

fullsizeoutput_3a0e

 

“And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.”

  • Johnston, William; preface:Huston Smith (1996) [1973]. The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counseling. New York: Image Books. ISBN 0-385-03097-5. (first edition, 1973)