In 2013, we celebrated the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s iconic novel, Pride and Prejudice. After two centuries, we still can’t get enough of Austen’s “own darling child.” Much has been written about its timeless themes, its characters, and the love story at its heart. What I have discovered is that experiencing the novel is unique to each reader. For those of us who read it over and over, it has become something treasured, a part of ourselves, so personal and intimate that it is difficult to share it with other people. It is something to turn to when the world seems unforgiving and unwelcoming.
One of the great scenes in the book occurs when Elizabeth Bennet and her aunt and uncle are visiting Pemberley, the estate of Mr. Darcy. Months earlier, Elizabeth has turned down his proposal of marriage. She consented to visit Pemberley only because they’ve been assured that the family is not at home. So imagine her surprise, and the delight of Austen’s readers, when the two suddenly encounter each other for the first time since the fateful night Elizabeth rejected him. No, his shirt isn’t wet, he didn’t dive into the pond to cool his ardor—that’s only in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of the book—but he’s suddenly and unexpectedly present. And to our further delight, he is completely flustered when he encounters Elizabeth. He struggles to find the right words and then repeats himself. After a few minutes, we realize that he has changed in some fundamental and profound way.
Even if Elizabeth can’t see it yet, we, the reader, can, and it is this change that leads to the great wellspring of joy we feel from our reading of this novel. When I thought of writing an Austen-inspired sequel, it was that joyousness that I wanted to capture. I wasn’t interested in re-writing Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s story. How could it be more perfect? Rather, I wanted to extend the story with a different sister at its heart.
I settled on Mary Bennet, the discontented and perhaps misunderstood middle sister, as a character I could work with. She’s a bit of a conundrum, isn’t she? Mary’s presence does not loom large in the novel. She has only minimal scenes, and sometimes she’s present only because another character happens to mention her. Mary is more irritating than funny; more foolish than wise; more unlikeable than sympathetic. And perhaps it was for these very reasons that she stood out as a likely choice for an Austen sequel. Mary had the most potential to transform herself and take a new direction.
What most defines Mary? I believe it is her isolation. Wedged between two pairs of sisters, each of whom are the other’s best friend and closest confidante, she becomes the odd woman out. Left to her own devices, she often acts outside the norm, which not only makes her an outcast within her own family, but also in society.
The essential nature of stories is that characters who inhabit them change. Pride and Prejudice is a textbook example. Elizabeth, too quick to judge, is forced to reconsider all she knows about Mr. Darcy—and Mr. Wickham. Mr. Darcy, to win Elizabeth, must reexamine his disdainful treatment of friends and acquaintances and his derisive opinions about them. Only then can they each open themselves to the attraction and love they have for each other.
To belong, to find her place, Mary must change as well. To do so means examining herself in uncomfortable ways. When a possible suitor enters the picture, this complicates her new life and thrusts her back into self-doubt. She must also break from the dismal future her family has planned for her. Mary’s own pursuits, then, are as much a part of the story as a lover’s pursuit of her.
What’s the highlight of my day? Usually it’s that first cup of coffee, and if I’m lucky, a beautiful sunrise peeking over the roof of the theater just across the street. I live in the city now, having left the burbs behind a few years ago.
Somehow, with hard work and a little luck, I’ve found a third career as a writer. I was a librarian first, then a teacher, and now a writer. I love the sound of that! In the summer of 2012, my debut novel, Kissing Shakespeare, was published by Delacorte Press. It’s a time-travel romance for teens. In the fall of 2013, my second novel will be published by William Morrow. It’s a Pride and Prejudice sequel about the socially awkward middle Bennet sister, Mary. If you’re a Jane Austen fan, I hope you’ll watch for it.
No matter how positive I am something I’ve written is worthwhile, I’m never really sure. And even reaching the point where I’m so damned positive I’m not quite sure takes time and requires negotiating numerous detours and obstacles, many of my own devising (though I’d happily blame someone else if I thought I could get away with it).
During the faltering early stages of a project I often find it necessary to fabricate a belief in what I’m doing, or in its potential. I do this both while I’m working and while I’m considering the possibility of attempting to think about the theoretical eventual prospect of, perhaps, working—two states that are indistinguishable in both appearance and yield. Without this feigned belief I would never finish anything. I feed this belief by binge-snacking and deluding myself. I sustain it by drinking.
And yet there are moments during the process when I feel genuine confidence, when I know it’s working. Unfortunately these moments are transient and not to be relied upon to rush in when I’m considering a glass shard sandwich on lye.
When the first draft is complete and it’s time to revise and edit, I slide into a bipolar state, vacillating wildly between confident enthusiasm and demoralizing doubt, occasionally stopping at random locations in between to catch my breath and howl into the mocking silence. This can last a couple lifetimes and is cause for heavy medication and random acts of violence. A piercing pain shoots from my eyes to my kneecaps. I’m inordinately gassy. Teeth rattle and drop onto my lap. They don’t look familiar.
Finally, months or years later, when I am convinced my work is done, when I view it as an entity rather than a work in progress or mere potential, my feelings about it crystallize and petrify. Life is wonderful. Birdies sing Lithuanian lullabies.
Well, that’s what should happen (without those damned birdies). Unfortunately this is how it really works:
For a day or two I might think it’s pretty good, and I’m relieved that it’s done (though for a while, when I sit down to consume a 17-pound bag of chips and slip into a coma, part of me will sense that something is missing), but buried deep in the murky but fertile recesses of my brain is a seed of doubt. What if it’s not an entity, a thing, a complete work? What if it really isn’t … anything. Perhaps, think I, it is shit. Ahoy! Look, over there: It is shit! It’s not even good shit. It’s bad shit. Very, very bad shit. “Bad shit,” I chastise my computer screen. I’m ashamed. It’s not too late to get a regular job, as … as … as a sack of poo! Or a congressperson! Or I could just quietly succumb after an appropriate period of suffering.
But then, a week or two later, stubborn and desperate, I summon the courage to read it again, and I think, Whoa, this is one heck of a good book! And once again I’m strapped to the bipolar seesaw, waiting for that final painful landing, the one where my nibbly bits will launch from my undercarriage into my stomach before shooting out of my mouth and into the atmosphere, where they’ll write my shame in puffy letters across a clear blue sky. This, mind you, is a best-case scenario.
I believe it’s impossible to see your own work clearly, free of the set of filters only the work’s creator—familiar to the point of irrational contempt with every word, every sentence, every turn of the plot—would have, so that the experience of reading it is permanently tainted, rendering you dull-witted and brain-tied. You simply can’t know if what you believe is there will be visible to anyone else. At least I can’t. I can only know how I feel, what I believe and hope I expressed, what I think is funny or tragic or touching or vile. But if no one else finds in my work what I believe is there, isn’t it a failure? Don’t I deserve to die?
Recently I came to believe that my novel Ways of Leaving was a good book, maybe better than good, certainly one worthy of publication. I reached the point, even before anyone else had read or commented on it, where I “knew” it was funny, sad, touching, painful, perhaps illuminating or life-affirming. I was absolutely positive it was a complete and valuable work. But I still wasn’t really sure.
It was only after receiving several wonderful and, to my mind, insightful reviews from people who owed me nothing, who knew nothing about me and probably didn’t care to, that I felt myself drifting toward really, really sure. Their words, read and then reread, convinced me that what I believed was there, what I knew was there, was actually there. They enabled me to me see that my novel was an entity, a funny, sad, complete, emotionally complex work of … well, let’s not get carried away.
But what a strange and wonderful feeling that was!
And how I fear I’ll never feel it again.
It might be easier to suck.
Grant Jarrett grew up in Northwestern Pennsylvania and currently lives in Manhattan, where he works as a writer, musician, and songwriter. He has written for magazines including FOW and Triathlon, and is the author of More Towels, a coming-of-age memoir about life on the road. He is an avid cyclist and a reasonably competent flosser. Ways of Leaving is his first novel.
Several years ago, I started writing my novels at a 24-hour donut shop a couple of blocks from my house in San Francisco. Unlike the new minimalist coffee houses in the Mission District, where each cup of coffee is individually brewed and where every customer there is a twenty-something year old wearing a sixty-dollar t-shirt and working on a MacBook Pro with a Retina display, Happy Donuts is decidedly unhip and old school. The coffee is industrial strength, the donuts are full of trans-fats, and a 40-something-year-old woman can feel perfectly comfortable plodding away for hours on her five-year-old, suitcase-size PC.
Originally, it was my effort to avoid both the solitude and the distractions of writing at home that drove me out of the house. For one thing, I’m a total CNN junkie and will tune into the news if there is a TV nearby. My other role, as a mother of two teenage children, means that there are always mounds of laundry waiting to be folded and hundreds of appointments to schedule. The orthodontist and the dermatologist come immediately to mind. And working in a public place, where life is unfolding around me – but where people are oblivious to me and my characters – also diminished what I saw as the “too serious,” scary, and solitary aspect of writing alone.
And for a writer like me, who is a consummate eavesdropper and people watcher, Happy Donuts is the perfect place to watch the ebb and flow of neighborhood life. Mornings bring people on their way to work and students on their way to school. Late morning to midafternoon brings the elderly, the unemployed and underemployed, people who work at home, and in general, more miscreants than at any other time of day. And of course, there are the regulars, like the man who looks like a Hell’s Angel but reads the Financial Times cover to cover every morning. Or the trim and dapper 94-year-old man in the seersucker suit, who eats three meals a day there. Three!
In the afternoon, it is all students again, and this is good for someone who writes about love and romance. These kids have one thing and one thing only on their mind and it’s not donuts. Though it goes down pretty well with donuts. They come to flirt, to plan hookups, and to pretend to do their homework, but really, again, to flirt. Like the teenage boy, with the soulful eyes and the weary slouch, who hangs out after school with his girlfriend. I’m sorry, did I say girlfriend? I meant girlfriends. There are at least three of them. And sometimes, he’ll meet more than one there in the same afternoon. I keep wondering if he’s going to slip up sometime, confuse his schedule and have two girls there at once, but it hasn’t happened yet. Night, on the other hand, is a quiet time at Happy Donuts. I always feel like I’m in a Hopper painting, as there’s something a little melancholy about the whole affair, but it’s usually my most productive time there.
I must say, over the years, I’ve overheard some terrific lines at the donut shop, especially among customers under 30, who are apparently biologically programmed to not see middle-aged people. I have lifted several lines from conversations and put them directly in my novels, but my favorite was one I heard a teenager say to her boyfriend: “I have to wait four hours to be alone with you? I don’t think I can wait four minutes.”
Another advantage of working in a donut shop is that it’s cheap. I could rent an office, and God knows what office space is going for South of Market these days, but a morning at Happy Donuts is mine for the price of a Diet Pepsi and the dollar bills I stuff in the tip jar.
But more importantly, working in the midst of it all makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger than myself – something, frankly, happier than myself. I mean, who doesn’t love donuts? And who isn’t happy when they’re eating one? Of course, I can’t eat donuts there myself. I’ve never, ever ordered one there. If I did, I would begin a slide down a slippery slope that would end with disastrous results and morbid obesity. So instead, I confine myself to the vicarious pleasure of watching other people eat them. I drink Diet Pepsi, my personal form of crack, and while that carries its own health risks, its caffeinated buzz has powered me through three novels now.
Mary McNear is a writer living in San Francisco with her husband, two teenage children, and a high-strung, miniscule white dog named Macaroon. She writes her novels in a local donut shop where she sips Diet Pepsi, observes the hubbub of neighborhood life and tries to resist the constant temptation of freshly-made donuts. She bases her novels on a lifetime of summers spent in a small town on a lake in the Northern Midwest.
“So what’s up with this first novel? The Sandpiper? Why did you write it?” Questions I keep hearing from members of book clubs I talk to. While I am all about the story, they want to know more about the storyteller. I wasn’t ready for that. And not until I came upon a sentence by Isak Dinesen (Out of Africa) did I even understand for myself the “why.”
All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.
When I was seven years old, my parents divorced. My mother left our small West Michigan town, took her trust fund to California, and never came back. Oh, I’d see her maybe once a year when she came to visit her parents, my grandparents. But she was a distant aunt. I never really knew my mother.
What I did know was that all our family’s screaming fights had come out of brown bottles. I got punished more than once for emptying those bottles into the toilet. But I knew I was on the right track. I just didn’t have the language for it then.
Now I do. My mother had the disease of alcoholism that makes good people – she was one – do bad things. She did them. My mother died of esophageal cancer, as alcoholics often do, when she was a beautiful, smart, trim 55-year-year old without a grey hair.
No matter that it wasn’t intentional, The Sandpiper turns out to be my way of coming to terms with this horrific disease that not only ruins the alcoholic’s life, but also wreaks havoc in the lives of everyone who loves that person. Maybe, I thought, by living in the head of Jamie Cameron, my shining-star alcoholic character, I could finally understand the power of addiction. And from the opening chapter, I was that stunning, athletic, bright, troubled young woman whose war-hero father died before she was born.
Yet no matter how nearly I became Jamie for those writing hours, at some level I knew imagination could never replace experience. And somewhere along the chapters, I realized I could never plumb the depths of Jamie’s – or my mother’s – guilt, pain, and aching remorse.
Creating Jamie’s big sister Kate Cameron, the perfect daughter, gave me the chance to imagine how it feels to face another challenge increasingly common among women today. Infertility. Having walked the walk with a cherished loved one struggling to conceive, I had a sense about that heartache too. Again, however, imagination is not experience; but it can build compassion.
Jamie’s and Kate’s mother is a cateress; I don’t even cook. Maybe it’s because we always admire in others the talents we don’t have. But Ellie Cameron didn’t get rounded enough in The Sandpiper. No wonder that in the sequel, Behold A Rainbow, Ellie is becoming a major player.
And dear big, slobbering black lab Pogo is a way of remembering all the dogs I have loved. Either you’re a dog person or you’re not. But if you are, you’ll meet Pogo as a character every bit as rich as his owners.
Finally, my favorite character, Aunt Nina. And again, from my unconscious right brain came Helena ‘Aunt Nina’ Judd. Not once writing The Sandpiper did I recognize her. Not until this novel was written, rewritten, and edited did I realize who she was.
When my mother left, my two grandmothers stepped up for me, each in her own way. My mother’s mother, a petite honors graduate of the University of Michigan in 1911, spoke German and wrote poems for every occasion in our family and everyone else’s in town.
My father’s mother was a bosomy, devout Methodist who pounded out every Stephen Foster song ever written on our grand piano. She also overflowed with hugs and praise and adoration for me to the point I knew I must be special. She told me Pollyanna stories so often I decided that’s who I would be!
My grandmothers didn’t like each other – the divorce was the fault of the other one’s child. But I loved Nana and Mommie Nelle with all my heart and soul. And do still as they are part of me. In the magic way creativity works, somehow the unconscious brain merged my adored grandmothers into Aunt Nina where my language brain found her.
I hope you, too, will love my Aunt Nina grandmothers. As they were for me, Aunt Nina is the guardian angel of the Cameron women in The Sandpiper.
Susan Brace Lovell earned undergraduate and graduate degrees with honors in English from the University of Michigan and taught high school and college English. She co-founded Cadence, a weekly newspaper in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is the author of four non-fiction histories. Lovell is a longtime member of the Salvation Army and sits on the Grand Rapids Salvation Army Advisory Board. She and her husband live in Grand Rapids. The Sandpiper is her debut novel.
The life of a Mergers & Acquisitions Lawyer. Spanning the country (and beyond) in hushed first-class cabins, bantering with flight attendants and strategizing with colleagues on the ‘Deal Team’ before touching down in it-doesn’t-matter-where. Then a limo to a glass tower where The Other Team would be waiting to gauge our game-faces as we enter the 80th floor conference room, hearty and haughty in a cloud of swagger.
We on the ‘Deal Team’ would be gauging The Others’ swagger and game-faces too, but no worries, we had the Momentum of Arrival on our side (Corporate Lawyers love Upper Case), setting up shop in their shop, manhandling their conference room food platters, barking instructions to their staff, our bravado vectoring into their professional space.
And we would, of course, have demands. Deal points and game-plans, carefully vetted Deal Language prepped and waiting to spring from our designer briefcases once we softened them up with chatter about their fantastic office space and their fantastic city and how we all wanted to get to ‘yes’.
Then the negotiations would begin, the Deal Team arrayed in calfskin swivel-chairs along the polished blonde-wood table inlayed with teak, each member posted across from his or her Other. Out come the Deal Points and off come the suitcoats. Reading glasses are removed to tap out impatience on the polished tabletop, the sun crawling its way down the fantastic floor-to-ceiling glass, dusk engulfing their fantastic city, as ties are loosened and coffee is drained from silver urns and steaks and deals are cut and the moon shines silver on the water (there is almost always a body of water in view). The morning and the evening of Day One.
Sometimes there is a late retreat to the hotel connected by underground shops to the office tower (or on the other side of the tracks if chosen for us by the Others), for showers and in-room conference calls; sometimes there is no retreat (if things are going our way) and night rolls into day amid cold coffee cups and wrinkled white shirts (theirs; the Deal Team sticks to crisp no-iron dress shirts for strategic reasons). ‘Deal-Time’, measured by points agreed-to, drafted, haggled over, agreed-to again and checked off our issues lists, supersedes clock-time. The sun descends toward Night Two and it’s finally time for the Deal Breaker Issues to arise and focus the adversarial clash, often heated, among flashy lawyers and high-powered clients before deals are reached or truces are called and we gather ourselves into the limo and back to the airport.
And then it happens. The thought erupts, while viewing the moon through an emptied shot glass on one flight home, that thirty years of this is quite enough, thank you, the glitz and faux-drama a veneer over what is, at bottom, a real drag — and wouldn’t it be great just to ditch it all and go for the glamorous life of the writer – no, of the published author! — as so many lawyers have done. Get a novel published and bask in the readings and panel discussions and TV interviews (and maybe even glad-hand some movie producers).
Why not? And so I retired to write my debut novel, Skin in the Game.
The Writer’s Life – debut-author style. I descended into solitary confinement, my fully-staffed word-processing center replaced by my fidgety laptop whose blank-screen glow filled my guestroom-cum-home–office. I served a three-year term – and when the first completed draft weighed in at 900 pages, a new, consecutive two-year term in solitary was handed down for rehabilitation and revision. Five years of writing and deleting, of adversarial clashes with myself, often heated, leading to the moment when I would have at last authored a novel – a novel in which high-flying lawyers put multi-million (hell, make it billion) dollar deals together in gleaming glass towers (with aplomb, until the Mob gets interested and things fall apart).
Then comes years five and six, close encounters with big-city literary agents and publishers orchestrated via email from the confines of my cell, approaching gate-keepers bent on getting to ‘no’ until, having given up on the glamour of the writing life and pining for difficult conference calls while running onto jetways, there comes word that my novel has been accepted. That I have been accepted!
Oh Glamorous Writing Life! Released back into the world. Now there’ll be a publicist to hire, TV interviews and the radio and web-blog talk shows and readings and panel discussions to schedule. There will be interviews to schedule, right? Panel discussions?
I’m sure there will be. Where did I put that game-face…
About R. P. Finch
R.P. Finch has written Skin in the Game from the vantage point of personal experience gained from his practice of law. He worked for 30 years for a major Atlanta law firm. Finch has received a Ph.D. in philosophy from Duke University and a J.D. from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His story, “The Truth About Falling,” was published in Fine Print in connection with its national short-story competition. Skin in the Game is his first novel.
In the fall of 1986, I was ten years old, and I found myself sleeping on the muddy ground of a temperate rainforest on an island in Washington State. The muddy bed was supposed to be temporary. My alcoholic Salvadoran stepfather was building a wooden pyramid for us to live in, one that would channel the occult magic of ancient Egypt. My mother was convinced he was the messianic revolutionary hero she had foretold in clairvoyant visions.
Before the pyramid could reach its glorious completion, however, my stepfather threatened to kill the neighbors in a drunken rage. We had to break camp hurriedly, before the cops arrived, struggling down the trail with our most prized possessions. The first thing I evacuated out of the mud was my crate of journals, the repositories for my creative writing and poetry. My correspondence with myself was often my only form of friendship, my only mechanism for processing the chaos and violence around me, and, most fundamentally, the only proof that I ever existed. I wrote to live.
It was only natural, of course, that I would write a book about my remarkably unconventional childhood. Yet I hesitated–for years. I grew up, became a successful lawyer, and relentlessly pursued the American Dream. And I always wrote: scholarly articles, humor, fiction. But my story lay dormant.
The courage to write Free Spirit: Growing Up On the Road and Off the Grid was born in a maximum security prison for women. I was in the prison to meet with my pro bono client, Deborah, a woman serving a life sentence for the murder of the man who had tortured and battered her for years. When I took the case, I naively thought that obtaining Deborah’s release would be easy. Under a new law, essentially all she had to do was tell her story of abuse. But, not surprisingly, Deborah didn’t feel comfortable talking about all of the most horrible things that had ever happened to her. Not in a public document, not in front of a judge. Not even with me. “I can’t help you if you won’t help yourself,” I advised her early on, feeling very wise and lawyerly. But she didn’t trust me – I was, after all, a man. And she wasn’t going to talk to another man about what he had done to her.
A year went by, and Deborah was still only talking about the buildup to the beatings and the aftermath – everything but the details of the abuse itself. “It was crazy,” Deborah said, shaking her head. “The next day I’d be walking around the house like this.” She held an imaginary raw steak up to the side of her head to bring down the swelling. This image was instantly recognizable to me, and it sent me plunging into my own deeply buried past.
“My mother used to do the same thing,” I remembered out loud. “Steak on the eye, steak on the cheek. Her whole face was a wreck.”
Deborah dropped her reenactment in midsentence and narrowed her eyes at me. “Was it your father?”
I had crossed the line between professional and personal, but this inadvertent breach in the attorney-client relationship achieved something my lawyering never could. We spent the next two hours swapping stories back and forth, talking like a couple of veterans showing each other their scars around the kitchen table. When I left the prison, my yellow legal pad was full of the testimony I needed to prove her case.
Shortly thereafter, the San Francisco Chronicle called, wanting to run a profile about Deborah’s legal team. I’d been pitching story after story to the media to help in Deborah’s case, but this was one interview I didn’t want to do. How could I resurrect my memories of violence and powerlessness, spill them into the paper of record, and watch them pollute the hushed white-carpeted halls of my corporate law firm? It was unthinkable.
“Why don’t you want to do the article?” Deborah was puzzled.
“The problem is,” I said, looking down at my hands, “if we open it up to be about the lawyers, we could lose control over the story.”
“Are you afraid to talk about what happened to you and your mom?”
“Well,” I mumbled, “it wouldn’t be very professional.”
“Are you kidding me!?” She was angry. “After all the things you told me? How I had nothing to be ashamed of, how it wasn’t my fault, how the world needed to learn from my story so that the cycles of violence would stop? How are you any different?”
I had to concede that I wasn’t any different and, as I walked out of the prison, an opening chapter began composing itself in my head.
About Joshua Safran
Joshua Safran is an author and attorney and was featured in the award-winning documentary Crime After Crime (Sundance, OWN). His first book, Free Spirit: Growing Up On the Road and Off the Grid, was published by Hyperion/Hachette on September 10, 2013. In its starred review of Free Spirit, Publishers Weekly concluded that “Safran, an attorney, has written a beautiful, powerful memoir that shows how a son and his mother both grew up and survived amid chaos. Even better, he recalls events without condemnation or condescension. This assured debut is reminiscent of David Sedaris’s and Augusten Burroughs’s best work: introspective, hilarious, and heartbreaking.” His website is: jsafran.com.
I’ve decided to train my cat to fetch. I just think that would be amazing – to have Whiskers return sticks, or a Frisbee… it would be so cool! I don’t have a problem with mice in my apartment, but I sure could use a park buddy.
Having made the above statement, I’m pretty sure I know what you’re thinking: that I’m insane, or that I will be shortly. Fetching isn’t something cats do. There is a reason someone coined the term ‘herding cats.’ The feline species is, by its essential nature, fiercely independent, and not generally amenable to training or command. They can be great companions, but I think any ‘cat person’ will agree that they bond with us it because they decide to, not as a result of an innate desire to please members of the ‘inferior race of humans.’
Now, what do cats have in common with writing? I’m glad you asked! Let me explain.
A few months back, I started a Sci-Fi project; my first foray into that genre. I began with a great idea, got the first few chapters knocked out, and then ran smack into a brick wall. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to move the story forward. After several days of frustrated ponderment, I came to a simple realization. The plot wasn’t working because I had no idea how my protagonist would react in the situation in which he had been placed. In other words, I had not done my homework; I had not developed a sufficient back-story for him.
On the other hand, when I was penning my soon-to-be-released fantasy, it was much easier to write. This was because I had created another book first, one in which the origins, emotions, foibles and strengths of the protagonist had been explored in great detail. Thus, when I started the second tome, my task was more like reining in a runaway horse than it was plodding through deep snow. I was merely a scribe, frantically scribbling down the story as dictated by Altira, in her lilting elvish accent. She was my ghost-writer.
I think this is a principle which can be productively applied by almost any author. There are numerous reasons why one might have difficulty moving a story forward, but one of the most pernicious is not really knowing your characters, or worse yet, knowing them, and ignoring their wishes, just to force your story down a particular avenue. I get a strange, sinking feeling inside when I try to make one of my minions do something alien. It’s as if they are tugging at my mind, like kids who refuse to go to bed and instead, end up jumping on the mattress because they ate two helpings of chocolate cake for dinner.
So, the next time you find yourself pounding your head against the keyboard, wondering why you can’t get Julius Cesar to play pool, take a step back and think — is it something he would do? And if not, what do you need to change in his past to enable him to do so? You might just find that there is an even better way to tell the tale, and at the same time, make your players happy. You want happy characters because when they are driving and moving forward, writing becomes a lot less like building the Taj Mahal, and a lot more like Journalism; you’re just there for the ride. You’re only a scribe, carefully recording the story that they tell you with enthusiasm and aplomb.
(By way of full disclosure, my initial example was rhetorical. I don’t really have a cat named ‘Whiskers’, and I don’t own a Frisbee. And although I have nothing against members of the feline persuasion, I’m more of a horse person than a cat person.)
Steven M. Booth works with artists in the film industry to create some of the most spectacular effects and animation on the silver screen. He has worked as a software developer, programming the production and artist tools used to convert 2D to 3D films, on films such as Transformers 3, The Green Lantern, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Smurfs.
Steven combined his love of the natural world with his ability to think outside the box, developed after working in computer software for over 30 years, to imagineer the fantasy world of his first novel, DARK TALISMAN.
Steven has been a competitive equestrian rider in dressage, a championship-caliber amateur ballroom dance competitor, is a certified SCUBA diver, likes flying helicopters, and enjoys sailing, photography, and all things Disney. He currently lives in San Diego.
I always put at least one dog in my manuscripts, mostly because I like dogs and find it comforting to encounter one from time to time in stories: Dogs are loyal, non-judgmental, lovable, heroic, and (generally) lack ego. What’s not to like? But dogs (and other animals) can also serve as useful narrative devices.
Fiction writers work with three major tools: character, plot, and setting. In the same way that the breed of dog someone chooses says something about that person, so, too, does assigning a certain breed to a fictional character say something about that character. Consider these dog-owner personality traits, adapted from Cesar Milan’s website:
Imagine if Charles Dickens had given Bill Sikes a teacup Yorky, rather than his long-suffering bull terrier, Bulls Eye, one of literature’s most infamous hounds.
In addition to breed-type, a dog’s name can provide insight into a character. The name Bulls Eye, suggests to me that Bill Sikes is focused, goal oriented, and shoots to kill. (Then again, Bull Terriers often have a black spot around one eye, so maybe all Dickens had in mind was that Bill Sikes was a literalist.) The eponymous Old Yeller of Fred Gipson’s beloved book (and Disney movie) is a childhood classic with such a tragic ending that many of us were gun-shy around animal stories for years. The name Old Yeller “…had a sort of double-meaning,” says the narrator. “One part meant that his short hair was a dingy yellow, a color that we called ‘yeller’ in those days [in Birdsong Creek in the Texas hill country]. The other meant that when he opened his head, the sound he let out came closer to being a yell than a bark.” Gipson packs a lot of information into those two words.
Dogs in books make great sidekicks who remain grounded as their owners react emotionally to situations. Enzo, narrator of The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, does just that. Enzo, a lab-terrier mix, although dying, remains steadfast, while the humans around him lie to one another, cheat, betray, and make regrettable decisions. Getting a dog’s perspective on all this bad behavior is both humbling and sobering. Stein’s choice of Enzo as narrator was, I thought, brilliant, giving the reader an objective view into human nature. Not a pretty sight. (If we would just put ourselves in the paws or hooves of an animal, wild or domesticated, on a regular basis and think about what they see, we might all live our lives more civilly and responsibly.)
Pooches can also act as conduits and sounding boards for a book’s central character. Charley, aka Charles le Chien, “a old, French gentleman poodle,” who traveled with John Steinbeck does a yeoman’s job at this, as the two crisscrossed the United States in 1960 in a three-quarter ton pick-up truck with little cabin atop, which Steinbeck named Rocinante. Steinbeck describes Charley as “a born diplomat…who prefers negotiation to fighting…a good watch dog…a good friend and traveling companion…a bond between strangers.” The unflappable Charley’s stoic, non-judgmental attitude stands in stark contrast to Steinbeck’s reactions and commentary on who and what he encounters on their journey.
Some literary hounds don’t just enhance the plot, they are the pivotal point of a plot. Marley, of Marley and Me, is an irrepressibly spirited yellow lab with an unquenchable appetite for furniture, woodwork, jewelry, and clothing. Doors did not slow Marley down. Leashes could not hold him. Thunderstorms sent him into the stratosphere. As many a dog owner has experienced, Marley’s owners deliver the training and end up learning the most.
Adding a dog (or, again, any animal) to a household¾no matter how big or small, traditional or non-traditional¾changes the dynamic. Terrier owners, according to Milan’s website, are often “feisty, brave, and competitive.” I put a Glen of Imaal Terrier in my novel, Little Island. I named her Sophie, which means wisdom. Like many terriers, Sophie is stubborn, single-minded, and self-preserving. Grace, her owner, carries her up and down stairs due to Sophie’s arthritis, hand feeds her on occasion, and has showered her with toys. Whether Sophie appreciates these acts of love, is uncertain. But Sophie, like most dogs, understands that her job is to give and receive affection, to listen, to be joyous and free. Grace and Sophie used to take long walks together, but Sophie is aging and can no longer go as far. Grace is getting older, too. As her children gather for Grace’s mother’s memorial service, each so selfishly absorbed in his or her own life that they fail to see their mother’s pain, Grace often turns to Sophie for solace.
I hope readers will, through Sophie, derive some insight into Grace and her family, but that was not the primary reason I put her into this novel. I put her in because my Glen of Imaal Terrier, Maggie, my constant companion for fifteen years, was dying when I began to write Little Island. She taught me a lot about myself, about how to be joyous and free, about what is truly important in life, and how to ask for it. She died a month before the contract was signed. Many of the scenes about Sophie are from Maggie’s life. Sometimes dogs are not simply plot devices. Sometimes they’re there because we love them. I dedicated the book to her.
Katharine Britton earned a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Dartmouth College and a Master’s in Education from the University of Vermont. Her first novel, HER SISTER’S SHADOW, was published in 2011 by Berkley Books (Penguin, USA). Her second novel, LITTLE ISLAND, is scheduled for publication in the fall of 2013 from the same publisher. Her screenplay, “Goodbye Don’t Mean Gone,” was a Moondance Film Festival winner and a finalist in the New England Women in Film and Television contest. Katharine is a member of the League of Vermont Writers and New Hampshire Writer’s Project. She has taught writing at Colby-Sawyer College, ILEAD, and at The Writer’s Center in White River Junction. For more information, visit www.katharinebritton.com.
What do writers actually do all day? Images that readers may have of the writer and how he or she works often come from fictional representations of writers or how they imagine a writer’s life must be. Here are some basic types.
This one never actually does any writing but spends his or her time either lounging by a swimming pool drinking cocktails or at book launches signing hundreds of books for a queue of adoring fans.
The amateur sleuth:
This writer spends very little time writing. One occasionally sees him or her thumping a keyboard but most of this writer’s time is actually taken up with rushing about solving real murders. I am sometimes asked if I am tempted to try and investigate crimes myself, something I feel is best left to the police.
The famous writer:
This one, apparently, only works a four-hour day. I work about a twelve-hour day because –well – I’m odd like that, but I am always being told that A Famous Writer only writes for four. What is less well-known is that a writer’s day is not just about writing; there is research, editing, dealing with correspondence, arranging visits and talks, travelling, promotional work, and so on. And in my case laundry and cooking dinner has to be fitted in somewhere. A Famous Writer may only spend four hours actually writing but I bet there are a lot of other essentials to fill that day.
The tormented writer:
This one spends the whole day staring bleary eyed at a blank page. He or she is haggard and dishevelled, and if a man, unshaven. There may be a deadline creeping up. There are bills to pay. Gallons of coffee will be consumed but nothing helps. The whisky bottle beckons. Yes, it is the dreaded ‘writers block’. Unlike the other breeds of writer this poor soul works twenty-four hours a day and produces nothing. One of the commonest questions I am asked is what I do about writer’s block, something I have never experienced. Of course there are times when every writer realises that it is not worth doing any more work that day as things are not really flowing well, or perhaps there is a plot point that needs to be clarified before work can continue. The answer is simple. Stop writing and do something else. Some writers take a walk or knit or do gardening; anything that doesn’t involve words. For me, it’s bubble bath. Relax the mind and the words will come. My personal torment would be living on a desert island with no writing materials. All those words in my head and no way to record them! Aaaaagh!
The lucky writer:
This writer works hard and produces a lot, not because he or she has a talent that others don’t have, no, because anyone can be a writer it’s dead easy, all you have to have is an idea. Just have an idea and off you go. This writer has found some secret source or spring, the place from which all ideas emanate. If you can only find it you can write a best-selling book, too and be terribly rich and famous and – sorry folks, it just isn’t like that! The classic question all writers are asked is where do they get their ideas? I know this is disappointing but there is no magic source. Ideas are all around us, in the world we live in, and they are there for the picking up.
The hobby writer:
This one just dabbles. She is a housewife who doesn’t take her writing seriously. Does she exist? I’m not too sure, but I am not the only professional writer who during my long working day when I have spent the morning researching and the afternoon travelling to deliver a talk, and am going home to spend the evening writing, is asked ‘It’s just a hobby, really, isn’t it?’
The disciplined writer:
I am often asked if I have to discipline myself to write. Perhaps this is because some writers do like to do set hours, and it might appear that they are sitting down with gritted teeth to do a job of work like anyone at an office desk who would really rather be doing something else. Far from it, writing is the good bit! If there is housework to do, that’s where the discipline comes in, and only my conscience makes me tear myself away from my desk for those essential jobs. So I discipline myself to do the chores with the promise that I will reward myself with an uninterrupted session of writing.
But enough from me, I’m off to work on the new novel!
Linda Stratmann is a British writer of historical true crime, biography and crime fiction. She is the author of Chloroform: The Quest for Oblivion and two previous titles in the Frances Doughty Mysteries—The Poisonous Seed and The Daughters of Gentlemen.
The other day a fellow fifth grader called my daughter, “Milk Face.” Which got me thinking about dialogue. We are pale people. We don’t tan, and if we are even partly naked in the sun we tend to blind people with our reflection. My fifth grade daughter also happens to be platinum blonde. So you can see where the name “Milk Face” came from.
When my milk-faced daughter told me of the boy’s name-calling, I hugged her tight and told her what every good parent does—that he’s shorter than all his friends, way shorter, so he’s definitely going to grow up angry. (She hasn’t studied the French Revolution yet so I skipped the most obvious reference to his condition.) Then I pushed her away, ran to my desk and scribbled “Milk Face!” on the back of a phone bill.
I did the same thing with “Caption Obvious.” This time the name was hurled at me by my 15 year-old daughter. I had done about as much to deserve this as good ‘ole Milk Face had done to deserve her verbal abuse: nothing. I’d merely pointed out to my sweet daughter that she might want to consider studying for her European History test instead of watching Cupcake Wars. “Duh. Thank you, Caption Obvious.
I know I should have taken her phone away or made her clean up the dog shiz in the yard, but instead I waved her off, ran to my desk and scribbled down “Caption Obvious!” on a bank statement.
We writers know that good dialogue is precious. Especially the kind that you can’t-no-way-not-a-chance make up on your own. I mean milk face? How good is that?
But I am no fool. I knew I couldn’t depend on my children alone to feed my addiction. I needed more. I needed a real hook up.
Enter the Urban Dictionary. There’s a slang meaning for every word and/or phrase you could possibly need in your everyday existence. For example, let’s say you’ve finally decided to tell your best friend that her husband is cheating on her. It’s all bad anyway so why not lighten the news up a bit with: “Yo Bisnitch, it’s time you knew your man steak is boinking off the reservation.”
Unfortunately though, this will be an epic fail. Because great dialogue has to be organic, not just slanguistically correct. Trust me. I’ve sussed it out and I don’t want this to happen to you:
Me: Hello Talia. How are you? I haven’t seen you since Hector was a pup.
Daughter: Mom, Talia doesn’t have a dog.
Talia: (head shake)
Me: (nodding) Yes, I know, it means “in a long time,” I haven’t seen Talia “in a long time.”
Daughter: (under breath) She’s like obsessed with the Urban Dictionary.
Talia: (worried look for daughter)
Daughter: Seriously Mom, you’re such a freakin’ loser.
And as they clomp their way up the stairs texting each other about how lame I am, I think: “true ‘dat” – instead of reprimanding her.
See the problem here?
No? Okay here’s more:
Daughter: “Mom, I forgot to hand in my textbooks today.”
Me: “Again? I reminded you three times yesterday. Now we’re going to have to buy them.”
Daughter: (Shrug) “Ghetto rap made me do it.”
Daughter: You stole my Uggs.
Other Daughter: Calm down, Crazy. I just borrowed them.
Daughter: You have to ask! Mom, she took my Uggs.
Other daughter: B**** please.
Me: (getting involved now) Did you just call your sister the b word?
Other Daughter: Ucch, Mom, it’s a thing. Stop freaking.
Me: Oh. Okay.
Daughter: I can’t believe you said that to Talia, Mom. See why I never bring people over?
Me: But it was straight out of the Urban Dictionary. Since Hector was a Pup.
Daughter: That’s not what people really say. No one says the things in there. You can put your name in and get like a thousand different meanings, all of them completely made up.
Me: (remembering I already had. Jennifer: a tall girl, usually 5’6 or 5’7, usually white. scared of the world.) Actually I thought mine was pretty spot on.
Daughter: That’s because you’re a sad, awkward turtle, Mom.
Me: Wait, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Why turtle?
Do you feel me now, Authors?
Writers are bad parents. At least fiction writers. We have to make stuff up and it’s hard. Like trying-to-bend-a-spoon-with-your-mind hard. We need all the help we can get and if that means abusive, disrespectful name-calling once in a while, then fine. If it means your teenagers never bringing friends over, finer still. Because in the end you will have produced excellent work, which means you, my padre, will never be Kanyed.
Jennifer Gooch Hummer is the author of Girl Unmoored which has won more than a dozen awards for Young Adult and Cross-Genre fiction, including a finalist in the 2013 Maine Literary Awards and a Bronze for YA Fiction-Mature Issues from the Moonbeam Book Awards. Jennifer has worked as a script analyst for various agencies and major film studios. Her short stories have been published in Miranda Magazine, Our Stories, Glimmer Train and Fish. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from Kenyon College and continued graduate studies in the Writer’s Program at UCLA where she was nominated for the Kirkwood Prize in fiction. Jennifer lives in Southern California and Maine with her husband and their three daughters. Connect with Jennifer at www.jennifergoochhummer.com.
Apron Bramhall has come unmoored. It’s 1985 and her mom has passed away, her evil stepmother is pregnant, and her best friend has traded her in for a newer model. Fortunately, she’s about to be saved by Jesus. Not that Jesus—the actor who plays him in “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” Apron is desperate to avoid the look-alike Mike (no one should look that much like Jesus unless they can perform a miracle or two), but suddenly he’s everywhere. Until one day, she’s stuck in church with him—of all places. And then something happens; Apron’s broken teenage heart blinks on for the first time since she’s been adrift.
Mike and his grumpy boyfriend, Chad, offer her a summer job in their flower shop, and Apron’s world seems to calm. But when she uncovers Chad’s secret, coming of age becomes almost too much bear. She’s forced to see things the adults around her fail to—like what love really means and who is paying too much for it.