I arrived at a certain point in the writing of Jazzy and the Pirate that felt like a period. An ending about to soar to a new beginning. Exciting, but also a bit daunting. I needed a break. How does a writer take a break? Revise a different novel, of course.
Don’t worry. I’m not abandoning Jazzy. I’m simply letting my mind focus on something different for a couple of weeks. Going with the flow, trusting that my hidden brain will keep working on Jazzy while I consciously and intently work on another project.
I chose to revise a mystery novel set in Memphis, because I was physically in Memphis, and the novel kept calling to me. I wrote this novel last year in between hip surgeries. First time I thought that sentence, I wondered, can that really be true? It’s true. After the first surgery when I could do little else, I devoured mysteries. Then I wrote my own mystery before the second hip surgery. The working title of the mystery is Cracks in the River. My working “elevator sentence” is:
A homeless man gets caught in a deadly real estate scheme when he finds a car in the Wolf River Harbor, a missing developer barb-wired to the wheel.
Yes, the novel includes stuff I know about. Homelessness, from being in the Door of Hope Writing Group for almost nine years. The Wolf River Harbor, on which I live. And, as a former lawyer, the intricacies of real estate deals. I hope I’ve put it all together in an interesting, intriguing way.
Here’s the opening paragraph of Cracks in the River, a Coot Long Mystery:
“Don’t you ever stick so much as a big toe in that swirling river,” Mother would say whenever we drove the old bridge to Memphis, leaving the Arkansas cotton fields behind for the wet cobblestones and low rumbling barges of the Mississippi River. I was not a compliant boy. Or maybe Mother had made the river too tempting. Whichever, I gave in at age six and dashed into the water. I probably would’ve ridden the current to New Orleans if Father hadn’t spied me tumbling head-over-heels fifteen feet south of where I’d gone in. He waded out, snatched me up by my belt, and all was fine. But I’m convinced that ten years later when I was newly sixteen and my mind broke in two, half of it went searching for that river, the golden flow of silt and light rounding into a bubble of sheer terror. Whether the river remembered me or not, it’s hard to say. But that’s one explanation for why, after so many fruitless years of searching for my baby sister’s killer, the river opened its mouth and spit a murdered man at my feet. At the time I thought to myself, isn’t that just like the river, keeping its trap shut all those years then handing me the body of a man I had no quarrel with? Should’ve trusted the river.
It began on the veranda of the Gibson Inn in Apalachicola, Florida, the town locals call Apalach, where oysters once reigned and the river whispers of pirate ships disappearing in the streaky dawn.
In the waning heat of a summer afternoon in 2008, I joined my husband on the second floor porch of the hotel whose bar would make Hemingway weep and there, beneath the widow’s walk and cupola, I read aloud.
For two weeks, we lolled in this charming town, rooting out the public library, taking lazy trips to St. George Island. Riding bikes past shop windows where sponges and scuba suits reminded us of an era when diving beneath the waves required great courage.
When the heat built up to boiling, Tom returned to his Adirondack on the veranda with a book. I wrote. And when I’d rolled down for the day, I scooted my own Adirondack close and read what I’d written that day on a new work I called the Mother Mary novel.
That was 2008.
Over the intervening years, we returned to Apalachicola many times, introducing the kids to the Gibson Inn
and the streaky dawn
but the work on the Mother Mary novel transferred to Memphis, where the novel is set. There inside my treehouse home
I wrote through the blizzard of 2010
and the flood of 2011
and, after we took an apartment in New Orleans, the Zombie apocalypse.
I wrote as I welcomed a new dog to the family
and two other new members of the family
and lost my dad
Finally, in the spring of this my seventh year of work, I finished the novel, read it out loud, and sent it to an editor so I could begin querying agents: will you represent me, I asked, and try to sell my book for me? The opening sentence of the query letter acknowledged the oddness of the book: THE BONE TRENCH is a literary fantasy of 103,000 words that uses religion and humor to explore mass incarceration and the private prison industry—I know, religion, humor and prisons; you’re either going to love this or hate it.
Guess what? An agent loved it! He literally said, “I love it,” and offered me representation. William Reeve of the Virginia Kidd Agency. The agency is the grandmother of all Science Fiction/Fantasy agencies and, because Mother Mary and Jesus aren’t real people (not to mention the Demonittes), The Bone Trench is Fantasy. I’m joining a stellar list of “repped by” authors. And—extra good news here—he required no extensive revisions, so maybe all that writing was worthwhile. 🙂
Many of y’all have been with me on this journey. Acting as Beta readers, offering feedback. Kind enough not to ask, whatever happened to that novel you were working on? Others have followed at least snatches of this journey. So I wanted to share my happiness with y’all. (I sound so calm, don’t I? I’m not.)
Just to be clear: I’ll let you know what comes next.
I’ve slowed down. Reading aloud the first eighty pages whizzed by, but now it’s dragging a bit. This is as it should be. As the story grows, more strands are woven in, and I must be more analytical to make sure I don’t drop a stitch (how’s that for a knitting metaphor by a non-knitter?). I notice things my characters, living the plot, would notice that I, merely writing the plot, overlooked. I see repetitions, some good (ahhh, Jesus first public reading was about setting prisoners free) and some bad (did I really just say ‘then’ again, dammit?).
Trying to work out the description of physical actions can stall me for a half-hour. First, I revise so I can actually follow what’s happening, then rake out two-thirds of the top-heavy revision, then review to make sure it’s still more accurate. (see all those ‘thens’?).
As I read dialogue aloud, I notice where my tongue is amending the words. That’s my brain, trying to help. It knows what dialogue sounds like, and it’s providing the right words. When that happens, I stop and amend the words on the page.
As I read for the first time the revisions I’ve made that Gretchen my editor suggested to clarify the plot, I see the manuscript deepening as well. The metaphors are swirling, rising into view and submerging. The theme winks in and out. It’s there, hovering, waiting to come together in an inevitable way at the end.
Also, it’s been quite a while since I read the whole work out loud, and coming to it somewhat anew, I notice this: a lot of work has gone into this novel. The throw-away lines about prior Marian visitations represent many hours of researching Marian sightings through the ages. Even one word—the correct name for a section of a steamboat—reminds me of the time I spent studying steamboat illustrations. The boiled chicken eggs reminds me: I had to research to see if ancient Nazareth had chickens.
All this work—correcting grammatical tics, refining physical movement, softening dialogue, researching for veracity—is for one reason alone: to allow the reader to believe she is following a Jesus who has returned to earth, his celestial energy shaped by a fleshy covering that, unfortunately, has hidden from him the reason he sent himself back to earth again. The goal is to not do anything that pierces the willing suspension of disbelief that Mary and her obstreperous Guardian Angel are in Memphis, searching for her son but running smack dab into a nefarious private prison project when all she wants is to find her son before harm comes to him—again.
Revising to retain the reader’s vision. I’m half way through. Wish me luck on the rest of it.
I told y’all I was going to keep you in the loop—how many times have I made such a promise then let my commitment fall by the wayside? I’m trying to have more stamina this time, so here goes.
The next step in revising: I’m about to embark on reading The Bone Trench out loud.
I’ve incorporated all the action points from my Reader’s Report-Working Copy into the manuscript. I’ve held in abeyance at the bottom of the Working Copy the big-ticket items I need to make sure to address. I’ve studied those items and lodged them in my brain so that, as I read, I’ll be aware of them.
Why read aloud? The reading aloud gives me a feel for micro-matters (the cadence) and macro-matters (the overall flow of the story). As I read, I’ll make on the Working Copy notations of the pages where major revisions were made. That way I can ensure chronology flows properly—that I didn’t make an astounding revelation . . . only to see where I made it again six pages later.
Reading aloud also helps me see/hear where things stick out like a sore thumb. Primarily this means clunky sentences where I’ve “conveyed needed information” instead of weaving the information into the voice of the character. I hate sore thumb passages; they make my skin crawl. (I, however, love mixed metaphors—sometimes you need more than one to properly make your point.)
Reading aloud also lets me know where I’m bored. And, Lord knows, if I can’t keep myself entertained, I don’t have a prayer with the reader.
I think this process will take about three days. Time me. We’ll see how I do. 🙂
I love this book. It’s about a young woman who goes on a cross-country train trip to clear her dead daddy’s name and winds up repairing her relationship with her mother. It’s funny—really funny—and sad. And, in parts, wise and faintly political—it decries the commercial abuse of chickens. The main character is Southern to her core, but she’s wildly open to new experiences and people and learning. I just adore her. And the ending. The ending is great.
The thing is, I wrote it. I started writing it too many years ago to count, and I put it in the drawer for a while. I picked it back up two years ago and began an extended revision process that included an interested agent and a wonderful editor. When the agent ultimately decided to pass, I put it aside again.
Then I thought to myself, Ellen (I always use my name when I think to myself), you need to take ownership of this novel. You’ve had wonderful advice from the editor and readers and, yes, even the agent. Now. Pick it up. Imagine it has been published. And no one but you is responsible for what is on the page.
When I did that, long-ago comments from readers burbled into my brain. I merged scenes (“the scenes are wonderful, but are they all necessary?”). I killed off characters (bye, bye Biloxi school teacher). I fixed some back-and-forth scenes (why are we leaving the Gminskis, going to dinner and returning?). I also added back in some phrasing I loved, because—remember—I am totally responsible for what is on the page.
Most importantly, as one of the readers had suggested, I moved an interior monologue to the opening paragraph. This paragraph created a lens for me to see the novel through. I spied the true message of the thing. I changed the title to reflect that message: Love Your Heart. I saw, as the agents say, the “bigger story.” The novel changed from a “Southern” novel to a “Universal” novel told in a Southern voice.
I’m serious. All this happened. And I love the novel. I am ready and willing to fight for it. I feel like—and this is really sappy in a meta kind of way—that I went through the process my main character went through, learning what she learned. I learned to take advice, listen to comments, then love my own heart.
I have only one question: how do you feel about exclamation marks in a book title? Is it too cheesy? (Obviously, cheesy is okay, but I don’t want to be too cheesy). Love Your Heart! It’s how Lucinda Mae says it. What do you think?
This is a real word and it describes something I do with my writing. Here’s the definition: The use of a word to refer to two or more words, especially in different senses. Examples: “He caught a fish and a cold” or “She lost her ring and her temper.” (courtesy of Anu Garg of A.Word.A.Day, whom I love BTW)
The reason I’m crowing to find this is because the editor who helped me with Train Trip: Lucinda Mae’s Quest for Love, Honor, and the Chickens HATED it when I did this. She did not like, for example: His boss gave him the short end of every stick, probably on account of his being gay, a disservice he took in elegant stride—he used to be a ballet dancer.
I’m sorry to report she talked relentlessly about how hard this was until I took most of them out of the novel.
The editor of The Rambler magazine did not so object. Here’s how I used a zeugma (!) my essay The Secluded Middle Beach, which she published (zeugma in all caps):
Meanwhile, families in driveways lug sandy bicycles and hampers full of dirty clothes. The men fold rusted beach chairs, the women settle paper cups filled with seashells into seat crevices. Out on the streets, the traffic stalls, waiting, while everyone tries to cross the bridge. Leaving the beach, WE GATHER OUR TREASURES INTO OUR SUITCASES, INTO THE TRUNKS OF ACURAS, INTO THE CURVED CHAMBERS OF OUR HEARTS. There they remain, echoing, to be retrieved and examined long after the creature inside has died.
This word popped up because A.Word.A.Day this week is featuring Rhetorical Devices, which sounds seriously intellectual. So maybe my editor thought I was trying to be clever? I wasn’t. I just love the turning of the mind that this use of words requires. It SO fit Lucinda Mae’s character. She views life as very slippery. It can turn on a dime. Just like a zeugma.
What about you? Do you find yourself doing things with your writing that others object to? Have you ever been validated like this? Let me know!
When I was young, my mother told me I’d gotten a phone call. I was whining about what terrible news it was certain to be, and she said, “How can it be good news if you don’t leave room for it to be good?”
I think of this every time I’m about to open a SASE. You know, the letter that, incredibly, some very high-end literary agents still use—no internet for them. My natural pessimism kicks in until I remember my mom, and I think, Ellen, you need to leave room for it to be good.
Today as I slit open the letter, I took it one step further. I said, whatever is in this envelope is good news. There’s lots of ways to spin this into truth, the primary one being he or she wouldn’t have been the right agent for me anyway. More importantly, it makes me read the letter looking for the good in it, which might otherwise slip by unnoticed.
I’m not going to identify the agent—she probably didn’t expect to be quoted, and I also don’t want anyone to be negative about her. To be clear, she did NOT offer representation. What she offered was hope.
She praised my characters, my writing, my keen observations, and my publishing credentials. I don’t mean to be blasé, but she is not the first agent to do so. What she did that hasn’t been done until this draft of the manuscript was to praise the storyline.
I have worked so hard on the story. I poured my heart into fixing the plot, making it work, pulling it into something desirable in a process that reminds me of my grandmother hand-pulling old-fashioned taffy, the taffy searing to the touch, Mamo working it into ropes before it cooled too much to be formed. To have someone say the narrative promises to be unique and entertaining is balm to my soul.
If you’ve been following this blog, you know I spent about fourteen months attempting to rewrite my manuscript, Train Trip: Lucinda Mae’s Quest for Love, Honor, and the Chickens, into a novel a particular agent could successfully represent. At the end of this process, the agent declined representation.
This is not her fault.
Every step I made along the way—to submit, to analyze her comments and conclude the manuscript could be transformed as she desired, to try and try again—all of it was the result of decisions I made. I knew what I was doing, and I chose to take this route. I do not blame the agent, who has 100% discretion in the manuscripts she chooses to rep, just as I have 100% discretion in the agent I choose to sign with.
In the end, the truism is true: it’s a matter of fit. What I want from an agent is a good fit. Sometimes it takes a while to discover you’re not as good a fit as you thought you were. That’s disheartening, frustrating, makes-you-wanna-holler upsetting. But I have to trust that, ultimately, agents know what they’re doing. They know what they can and cannot sell in the marketplace. That’s the business they’re in.
I’m in the business of writing.
Hopefully, at some point, I will write something an agent somewhere feels he or she can sell. Who knows, I may have already done this with Train Trip—the agent is out there, waiting to discover my manuscript made amazing by a fourteen month rewrite. If that happens, I’ll be glad. If it doesn’t, well, sooner or later, I’ll decide how to best get my work out there. In the meantime, I’ll keep doing what I do, which is writing.
For those of you concerned about me after my Great Public Failure (I didn’t get an agent, to put this in perspective), here’s my current game plan:
* send the Train Trip query to the paid-editor for tweaking: STATUS: DONE
* send Model for Detective (When her model partner disappears, a Memphis fashion model uses her “clothes whisperer” skills to investigate the case, only to discover clues to the murder of her long-lost favorite cousin) to the paid-editor for a reader’s review: STATUS: AWAITING PRICE QUOTE
* continue revising In the Name of Mississippi (A young documentarian returns to the South to film a historic civil rights reparations lawsuit, but when the case begins to fall apart, the mixed-race young man questions his own place in the world.) STATUS: IN PROCESS
* use breaks in revising In the Name of Mississippi to send out Train Trip queries in batches of 20: STATUS: JUST AS SOON AS I GET THE QUERY BACK (or sooner if I can’t wait on her)
* send the Train Trip query to my old agent (yes, I once had an agent when this novel was so grossly unfinished as to be embarrassing) to see if he wants to get back on board with a new, polished manuscript STATUS: IN THE MAIL TOMORROW
* decide whether a hybrid publisher (manuscript review/project acceptance/paid publication) might be the answer for me (moves me off square one; gets the work out there; puts me in control of the order of publication, offers me agent introductions if appropriate to the work; offers publication to manuscripts trad pubs would probably never touch, such as The Bone Trench (A controversial private prison project brings Mother Mary and her son Jesus back to modern-day Memphis where Mother Mary is determined—this time—to protect her son from harm.) STATUS: INQUIRY DRAFTED; MULLING SENDING
On my other blog, I posted a mocku-resume (“Holder of the French Legion of Honor”—after all, who can say what actually happens in France?”). One of my created talents was plate spinning. You know, that thing they do in the circus involving a long pole and frantically scurrying women in white bodysuits.
All I can say is, the subconscious is an amazing thing.
I interrupt revising Model for Deception
to revise Train Trip, bringing with me
the streamlining lessons learned from revising Model for Deception
only to return to Model for Deception with the additional streamlining practice I’ve gained
revising Train Trip
as I read American Gods, learning how to craft a slightly different novel so I can eventually take my Train Trip and Model for Deception learning
and apply it to The Bone Trench.
Why do they call it a dead heat? Because the originator of the phrase was from the South, and she knew what heat can do to you? Or do the dead actually emit heat when decomposing? At this point you’re probably asking yourself, why would her mind go there, and why on earth is she sharing it with us? (BTW: don’t research this question—you will become privy to FAR more information than you want to know.)
Anyway, the vote on which novel to revise next was not quite a dead heat but very close, the results being: Bone Trench 10 Model for Deception 12 In the Name of Mississippi 13
Also ran was Jazzy at 7 and last (and quite least) poor ol’ 1011 St. Lawrence Street which limped across the finish line at 2.5, the .5 being a mention I counted because I felt sorry for its last place status (I am a sucker for the unloved).
I found the vote very interesting primarily because it taught me that you can’t predict folks’ reading preferences based on what you think you know about them. This shouldn’t surprise me. Would anyone guess my favorite novels are by foreign authors? Other than left-over French, I don’t speak a foreign language. I have no connection to any culture other than my own, whatever it might be. But I’m telling you, look at my bookshelf: the books I’ve chosen to keep—the clearest indication that they are my favorites—are dominated by writers from Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, the Dominican Republic, South Africa, etc; and I’m not counting novels written by Americans whose first language is English but who write of life in Cuba, Haiti, etc.
So what next? “Next” already is. While y’all were voting, I was working and this morning I finished revising The Bone Trench—yippee! Now I must move on to Model for Deception or In the Name of Mississippi, the two who are in the semi-dead (comatose?) heat. I’ll pick one of them—coin toss, anyone?—and I’ll get started, the goal being to work through them all, even maybe poor ol’ 1011 St. Lawrence Street. It’s a little daunting, no doubt about it. But I shan’t look at it as work. I’ll view it as a surfeit of choice.
Three years ago, or maybe four, a man I did not know arrived at my writing group, and during a long conversation about the first chapter of The Bone Trench, he said, “I’m ready to see Cat Thomas return.” I assured him Cat, who opened the novel in a brief scene, would be back shortly, specifically at the beginning of the next chapter. Believing his concern satisfied, I put it out of my mind.
During this recent revision process, I’ve been working on development of the Jesus character, trying to make Jesus’s scenes as active as Mother Mary’s. Problem was, I did such a good job that when I read the opening chapter with Mother Mary, I thought, why is this not working?
To answer that question, I did what I often do during revision (not during writing, during revision.). I pretended the novel was being filmed and looked at the scenes through the eyes of a film director. This trick immediately shows me when a scene is flat, static, and ultimately boring—I can just hear the film director saying, what am I supposed to be filming here? Nothing’s happening!
When I directed my camera on The Bone Trench‘s first chapter, I saw them . . . walking down the sidewalk. Jesus, by contrast, was hunting the Mississippi River, preaching to a gathering crowd, and being attacked by Demonittes. When I asked myself how to fix it, the man’s comment from long ago rose into my brain and, mirabile dictu, I listened.
Now Mother Mary meets Cat directly in the first chapter. The scene provides the action I wanted, but it also adds an additional layer to the imagery that will close the novel, a benefit I wasn’t looking for but received just the same.
So, in the immortal words of ZZ Top, to the man, whoever you are, who gave me this piece of advice, I thank you.