Friday, June 26, 2009

Drawing from life

I'm a chronic observer, and an eavesdropper. For several years when I was living in NYC I kept a "street diary" in which I jotted down conversations I heard on the subway or in the street, and sketched people and scenes I saw. I don't think I've ever directly transferred any conversation, or any person, word for word, but it does help give the flow of everyday conversation, as well as the trivial and tragic bits and pieces that make up life. And when I get stuck in a scene I often look to the outside world for a way around and through the problem.
Yesterday I was back at the WIP, and I was revising a scene in which Gertrude, the main figure in the novel, is talking to a panhandler, a one-legged man begging in front of a department store entrance. My idea for the scene is that the man says something to her -- something that, intended or not, has great meaning to her. The sentence had to be something ambiguous, so that Gertrude could read a meaning into it, but it also had to be something a homeless person might actually say -- no flight of fantasy here.
I turned this over in my head awhile and I remembered something from the night before, when I had gone to a Open House for writers at the local library. It sounds like the worst kind of Las Vegas joke, but there was a man there dressed up as Elvis. The reason for this was that one of the writers featured had written a semi-mystical book about "the real Elvis." ("You have to read the book to get the blessing," the flyer said.) A gaunt woman with purplish hair tottered around the room on high heels giving out the flyer. She approached me three times in the course of the evening, though I politely waved her away after I took one the first time. Her air was not so much that of a pushy writer marketing her book as of a divine messenger, working away around the room, too busy to talk, determined to bring the gospel to a suffering world. She hadn't written anything on her nametag, just drawn a large heart.
So it came about that, after a brief detour towards and mild flirtation with hobo nickels, in the scene the panhandler outside the department store digs in his pocket and hands Gertrude a large wooden token with a heart inked on it.
This may or may not make it through further revision. Already I'm thinking, perhaps a little obvious...perhaps a little sentimental... But this is a huge part of writing for me. When in doubt, look at the world around you.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Yours from purgatory

It's the early 1980s. I'm passing time in 11th grade geometry class with Dante's Inferno. Jennifer Brady, who I know from junior high school band and who occasionally says hello to me, turns around and says, "Whatcha reading?" "It's a story about a man who goes on a tour of hell, and then he goes to purgatory and then he goes to heaven," I say. Jennifer digests this a few minutes, and then chirps, "What's purgatory?"
Everyone knows that the Inferno is the best part of Dante's Divine Comedy. Interesting people, interesting punishments, a little defiance, lots of regrets. It's around Purgatorio that most readers' attention flags. You do meet some characters in purgatory but there's a lot of preaching, too, and some pretty crushing symbolism. (Paradiso, forget about it -- it's all angels and light and weird astronomy.) Basically in Purgatory you're recognizing your sins and working through them. Near the end, as I recall, Dante walks through a wall of fire which purges the last of them away. Well, this seems to be where I am now. I realized recently that How to See the Elephant was too long for a YA novel and I have decided to split it into two, stand-alone volumes. (Somewhat along the lines of Octavian Nothing.) As a result, I have to revise the first half so that it can stand alone as a novel. It's not major revision (mainly just smoothing certain patches and tying up a couple of loose ends) but it's not what I wanted to be doing at this point. Yesterday I couldn't help thinking of Dante's wall of flame. All week I've been recognizing my sins, in the form of paragraphs that don't quite mean what I meant them to mean, and purging them away. It's scary work because what I don't want to do is fall down into the inferno of never-ending revision. (I've been there and I'm not going back...) After a few hours my brain is weary, and then I go to the gym or eat and settle back down with my MS and my post-it notes again.
It will be done eventually. But for now, its yours from purgatory.

Monday, June 15, 2009

How to See the Elephant -- Part III

At the train station in Philadelphia, Thetis considers ditching Sheba:

If I abandoned Sheba here she would be safe enough. I had never asked her to come, after all, and it was hopeless to continue to drag her along. I have to get out of here, that's all that matters. I pictured her running loose in the station. It wouldn't be five minutes but that they'd catch her.

The next man in line moved up. "What's the closest city you got to Buffalo, sir?"

On the other hand, helping Sheba escape was getting my own back, so to speak, against the girls and Miss Veda. They thought their Sheba was so happy and devoted! And I would be like a hero -- liberating her from her chains! So what if we were chased by dogs? No child of my generation could have been wholly insensible to the glamour of being hunted by bloodhounds, preferably across floes of ice, but even the Penn Railroad terminal might do in a pinch.

Waking up the next morning on the train, Thetis realizes what she has done:

All the years of riding trains with Pa, I had been used to getting off the train for food, coffee and certain necessities. If I was thirsty between stations I drank water from the tank in the car. But I had never seen a Negro in a station dining room or hotel restaurant, and I did not want to be the first person to ever bring one in there. I knew for sure that Sheba would not be able to use the station washrooms or facilities. And if she drank from that cup alongside the water tank no one else in the car would use it, and they might even complain to the train conductor. And he could throw us off, no apologies.

I looked over at her, perspiring a little in the already airless car.

"You're going to have to listen to me from now on,"I said, "Do as I tell you and if you don't I'm going to put you off the train at the next station and leave you there, forever."

Sheba shuttered her eyes and lifted her chin.

"Uppity," she muttered. "Can't we eat?"

"They'll let us off for breakfast in Altoona. You're going to listen to me, right?"

She rolled her eyes, exactly as she had last night, and looked out the window beyond me.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Someone could have told me that I didn't have space in that little garden to grow cantaloupe, but I generally have to learn things the hard way. Last week the cantaloupe had twined itself about so much and was starting to go up the house so I got a trellis. Actually, it adds kind of a classy touch, I think, to the porch.

We've been having strange weather. Day after day in the 80s, clouds, mugginess, but no rain -- it's almost like summer back East. Frankly, I don't know how much more of this I can stand.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Query Letter (Beta)

On Sunday I did something totally out of character for me. I read my rewritten query letter to my husband Nick. I've always been intensely private about my writing. He gets to read the finished product, and that's about it, and I never fill him on much of how things are going. But I spent an hour and half on Sunday crafting the letter, walking up and down and talking it out to myself (alone in the house, fortunately) and I felt pretty good about it. And he thought it was good, though he questioned the wording of two sentences and we sat down with the thesaurus and had a nice confab over that. So I'm going to post the new version here, and hope for feedback. I thought about sending it over to Query Shark, but that woman scares the bejeezus out of me.

Dear (whoever),
When her father hastily decides to join the Union Army, Thetis Wymore is sent to continue her education at Miss Barclay's, the Delaware finishing school where her half-sister teaches. Miss Veda, the headmistress of Miss Barclay's, is a slaveowner, and Thetis, wrongly tarred as an abolitionist, finds herself cold-shouldered by the other girls, especially after a flea jumps out of her luggage. As she tries to find acceptance at Miss Barclay's, studying music in hopes of meeting her idol, a world-famous concert pianist, Thetis begins to question what she has been taught about slavery and struggles to maintain her independence of mind. When Thetis learns that her father has been wounded and possibly captured, she decides to run away. Forced at the last moment to bring Sheba, Miss Veda's pet slave girl, along, Thetis flees with her across a drought-stricken land under threat of Confederate invasion. Will Thetis and Sheba be able to set aside their antagonism and help each other survive? Will Thetis be able to understand the lessons she has truly learned at Miss Barclay's? And will these lessons give her the strength to respond to the terrible aftermath of the battle of Perryville?
[Usual personal information, publications, etc.] How to See the Elephant is a piquant narrative of American life during the Civil War, told with dark humor by Thetis herself. Even as she grows from a flippant schoolgirl into a self-confident nurse , Thetis' youth is darkened by her exposure to the face of battle, a subject I have treated seriously. How to See the Elephant is a lively and moving work of young adult historical fiction which could be marketed to the same young adult readers who like the works of Ann Rinaldi, Richard Peck and M.T. Anderson. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Pearls before Swine

This one's going on the cubicle wall.
Pearls Before Swine is one of my favorite comics and, along with My Cage, one of the great newcomers to the comic scene, in my opinion. If you don't follow PBS, all you really need to know to understand this is that Rat is usually kind of a jerk.
I'm always interested in how people view the writer's life and the struggle to get published. Usually they make it out to be much easier (a couple of years ago For Better or For Worse ran a story in which one of the characters wrote a first novel and received a $25,000 advance) or much harder than it really is. I like to think that this cartoon is overly negative, but sometimes it really does feel like you're being judged on a single word.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Ideas from dreams

The first chapter of my WIP is largely drawn from a dream. I'm not the sort of person who pays much attention to dreams, except of a general barometer of my unconscious, but about two years ago, while I was making notes for the WIP, I had a dream in which I was trying to solve a missing persons case. I stood on a dock at the edge of a lake and knew that if I swam out to a raft in the middle of the lake I would be able to contact the ghost of the missing person and solve the mystery. So I dived in and swam but I as I climbed up on the raft the dream faded away and I woke up.
I couldn't think of the dream as anything more than a random mess, but the emotion it brought was so strong that I gave it to the protangonist of my WIP and used it to begin the novel. The novel is not a murder mystery, so instead of a missing person, she is trying to swim out to meet her dead mother, with whom she had a troubled relationship. I still think this makes a very strong opening to the book. Something about the idea is just solid and right. I just wish I knew who I had to thank for it.