A WRITER REACHES FOR THE STARS

My fellow Vermonter, Alison Bechdel, was writing what she knew in her 2008 tragi-comical graphic memoir, Fun Home, a sort of expose of family secrets that her closeted gay and emotionally distant father didn’t want people to know. Alison’s own coming out in a letter to her parents that she’d ‘imagined as an emancipation” only intensified his anxieties. He was enraged, for example, when she refused to wear “frilly girl” clothes or no barrette. “Next time I see you without it, I’ll wale you,” he shouts in her book as he jams it back into her hair. At age 44, just two weeks after his unhappy wife asked for a divorce, Bruce Bechdel was hit by a Sunbeam bread truck in what Alison believes to be a suicide.

The book, as many of you know, was an immediate bestseller. Modest about her success, Alison told a local reporter: “I think many people identify with the idea of a family with a secret.” (We mystery writers would surely concur.) The book ultimately earned her a MacArthur Foundation Genius grant and a windfall of $625,000 to work on her art. All she wanted to do now, she said, was to stay home in Vermont and “draw cartoons.” In her early fifties, she was quietly working on a new graphic memoir about physical fitness and the aging body–a book I was looking forward to!

But Alison’s family secrets flew quickly out into the open, and with it came an offer to turn Fun Home (a nickname for her father’s Pennsylvania funeral home) into a New York City musical. For a time she didn’t know what she was getting into–she felt “like a paratrooper” about to leap out of a plane. “I was anxious about it,” she said of this new (to her) mix of story and song. “Is this going to be terrible, or what?”

But the musical opened off-Broadway in late 2013, garnered great reviews and won Obie awards–far more than she’d dreamed of. Yet she knew she had earned the praise after spending seven years writing the book to get the tone just right and the illustrations detailed into full three-D dimension. Those of us who’ve read the book might recall, for one, the loaf of Sunbeam bread often seen sitting quietly on a shelf, to remind the reader of her conflicted father and his tragic death.

The play was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which helped propel it up into the bright lights of Broadway–in the Circle Theatre in the Round, where it received twelve Tony nominations and has just won Best Musical. Critics call it “dense and poignant and funny–a probing of artistic and sexual identity.” Sitting in the audience, Alison thought: “Oh, I wanna live in this play! But then I have to remind myself: Wait! I kind of did.”

And she brought a bit of Vermont along with her. There are nine characters in the play–three of them portraying herself at various ages. The youngest child, playing her little brother, is Vermonter Oscar Williams, who had just last February starred in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, in my son Donald’s Vermont-based Very Merry Theatre, where the lad had his acting start as a 7-year-old. Now, at the grand old age of 11, the eldest of five brothers, with large luminous eyes and a head of longish dark hair, he’s on Broadway.  “I just know I’m doing my dream,” he exalts as he makes plans to go to the Tony award party for the cast and crew, “and it feels awesome.”

His stardom hasn’t been easy, though, for his family. His father has mostly remained at home in Vermont with two of his brothers, age 9 and 6, while his dedicated mom, along with a 3-year-old, 3 dogs, and a 7-month old baby, stays in a New York City studio apartment. His dad drives down weekends, though, and Oscar somehow juggles his school work with the hoopala on stage. “He’s a really great, creative kid,” says my son, who has directed the boy in umpteen plays, and is proud of his success. But Donald has “subtly” warned the parents that Broadway life can be really hard on a young actor–not to mention his family. Don’s mission for his own Very Merry Theatre is that every kid is his own star. “They don’t have to be on Broadway,” he insists, “to shine.”

The Manuscript Returneth

Wendy Hornsby

Amazon offered a book for free on Kindle. I didn’t recognize the author, but the accompanying blurb promised something interesting. And free’s free, right? So I downloaded the book. The story premise was, indeed, intriguing. The author had a strong voice, and the writing was generally quite good. But overall, the book was a mess. The meandering plot lot was full of holes, the POV shifted randomly, and the protagonist was vaguely drawn. I soon wondered, where was the editor? Need I say that the book was self-published?

Yes, there are some amazing self-published books out there. Quite a few successful, traditionally published authors, like Tim Hallinan and Sue Ann Jaffarian for example, also self-publish some titles, but these are pros who would never make a book available unless it had been carefully edited. By edited, I don’t mean that your mom or your best friend read it, added some commas, and told you it was really, really great. Good editing requires skill, experience, a sharp pencil, and a ruthless, dispassionate eye. Without it, a book is unfinished.

In May, after the usual marathon sessions at the keyboard, I typed The End at the bottom of the last page of Disturbing the Dark, my twelfth book, and handed the manuscript to Meredith, my editor at Perseverance Press. Then I went off to visit family, plant a garden, run the vacuum cleaner, and wait for the copy-edited manuscript to come back so that I could finish my part of the work on the book to make it ready for publication.

Now, with the 4th of July approaching, the copy-edited manuscript has come back, liberally festooned with red pencil and pithy notes that need to be addressed. I always look forward to this part of the process. I haven’t looked at the book since I printed it and sent it on its way. As I read it again after a little time to give me some distance from it, some perspective, I can see where there need to be adjustments, some additions, certainly some cuts. I never met a comma I didn’t like. Or a semi-colon. The book is set in France and liberally salted with French expressions that make it clear that I have forgotten more of my college French than I thought I had. I have confused accents ague and grave to a faretheewell, and Meredith has fixed them. She has also showed me where story needs tightening, where pacing lags, and characters need definition.

I’ll finish my work on the copy-edited work, and it will go back to Meredith for another read through, and perhaps more changes. And then, and only then, will it be a finished, publishable book.

Climbing mountains and sliding down the other side

I’ve reached the tipping point in the book I’m working on now

I don’t outline before I start, I make some notes and start writing. Sometimes random scenes, sometimes the first few chapters in order. When I get to around a hundred pages, I may have an idea of where the book is going, but I don’t know how it’s going to get there and I’ve run out of scenes or chapters. Not much left in my head. So I start finding excuses not to write. Too many students, too many classes, too much demand from my private life.

That’s when I know I have to go into phase two: go through those hundred pages and write a paragraph for each scene or chapter. Voila! An outline of sorts. Followed by more excuses and even less in my head.

This book is the sequel to the novel formerly known as Blackjack—book two of what is to be the Blackjack trilogy. The first book is now called Torch Song. I think this one is called Envoy. Don’t ask what the third one’s named. I have no idea.

When I run out of excuses, I read this initial outline and begin to see what’s missing. Besides a middle and an end, that is. Chunks of information and transition, foreshadowing. Clues and cogitation. That’s when a couple more chapters appear, and more holes to fill begin to chatter at me.

This is, as I said, the tipping point. Because this is where the book begins to take shape. It climbs mountains and slides down the other side. The characters discover new problems or new solutions. New loves and new reasons for vengeance.

I‘m at the stage where it’s chunks of information. Wish me luck.

 

 

Ten Things You Don’t Know About Maggie Summer

Yes, this is Lea Wait, and Maggie Summer is the protagonist in my seven book (so far) Shadows Antique Print Mystery series.

Recently I conducted a writing workshop and one of the pieces of advice I shared was that every character in a book — yes, even the minor ones – should have a secret. Maybe many secrets. And, no, they don’t have to be revealed in the book. (Or books, if it’s a series.) But the author should know what those secrets are, because their secrets can  influence a character to do one thing … or another.

After all — we all have secrets, big or small. And, no, I’m not going to tell you mine. (Maybe another time. Or maybe I’ll give one of mine to one of my characters …..) If you’re in doubt, think for a moment. Have you (or your character) every shoplifted? Lied to a parent, a spouse .. or a policeman? Had too much to drink and told someone off? Used illegal drugs? Used prescribed drugs when they weren’t prescribed? Cheated on a test? Slept with someone who was “off-limits”? Pretended to be someone you weren’t?  Exaggerated (or totally invented) an accomplishment?  Been arrested? Lied to protect someone else?  Lied about your age? Called in sick when you were feeling fine? Turned down an opportunity because you were afraid of something?

OK – some of those things are more serious than others. Often the seriousness would depend on the circumstances … and consequences.

But none of us are perfect.

So … although I won’t tell you my secrets … here are ten of Maggie’s.

1.  She knew her husband was cheating on her long before she found the evidence.

2.  She drinks Diet Pepsi, but she keeps a secret supply of chocolate in that red canvas bag she carries, and sometimes she eats it all.

3. She hasn’t heard from her brother in over ten years – and she’s glad. She’s afraid of him.

4. She wants to be a mother because she’s sure she can be a better mother than HER mother was.

5. She’s afraid to be dependent on any man, because she doesn’t trust men not to leave.

6. One reason she wants to adopt is that a high school friend of hers was forced (by her parents) to give her baby up for adoption.  And Maggie was jealous  of her friend’s pregnancy.

7. She doesn’t drink much wine because she’s afraid of losing control.

8. She’s an intellectual snob.  She judges people by the books they read.

9. She’s allergic to perfume.

10. She thinks her legs are ugly, so she wears slacks instead of dresses.

Will any of these  secrets influence her life?  Stay tuned!

Voices From the Past

I save letters.

You remember letters. Correspondence. Those missives written on paper and mailed, before we had email.

As part of my ongoing campaign to thin out the clutter here at Chez Janet (otherwise known as the House of Cat Hair) I have been going through stacks of paper, including letters. Some have been consigned to the shred box. Others I save, and will continue to do so.

Why? They are voices from the past.

I see a letter in my father’s handwriting. I think of him and picture his face. It’s been nearly ten years since he died, but I still feel his presence. And I can still hear his voice.

I open envelopes and pull out letters written by my Aunt Kat or Aunt Dorothy or Aunt Regina. Even those these redoubtable ladies died a number of years ago, I can hear their voices. I see them.

I had two Aunt Dorothys and three Aunt Helens. The Aunt Dorothy who wrote to me was a short dynamo who loved to garden and made the most delectable butterscotch pie. Aunt Kat loved people and always seemed to have a crowd of them around her. She was the one who organized family reunions. Aunt Regina was an artist and a teacher. In her letters, she wrote to tell me how much she enjoyed reading my books.

Earlier letters tucked away in a file folder call forth memories of both my grandmothers. Grandma Dawson, who lived in Fort Dodge, Kansas, had a large and interesting collection of salt and pepper shakers. Grandma Metcalf’s house in Purcell, Oklahoma, with a front porch swing and mimosa trees in the yard, was the center of many family gatherings, such as summers in the backyard with the uncles and cousins turning the balky crank on the ice cream maker. I remember Grandma’s homemade blackberry cobbler, and the holiday dinners around the big dining room table.

And I recall Grandma and her sister, my Great-Aunt Flora, playing cutthroat, take-no-prisoners Scrabble at the dining room table. Grandma’s Scrabble set, I must confess, had a number of homemade wooden tiles because some of the grandkids used to drop the tiles down the furnace vent on the floor. Was that me? I don’t remember. What I do remember when I see those letters is playing with kitchen utensils that I’d dragged out of a drawer. And how I first realized that I was getting taller because I could touch the latch on Grandma’s china cabinet.

Yes, those letters do take up room. But I can’t imagine getting rid of them. They bring back such voices and images of the past, my past.

A Baker’s Dozen

by Wendy Hornsby

About a month ago, I delivered the manuscript for my next book, Disturbing the Dark, to Perseverance Press.  When this book is published in the spring of 2015, it will be the tenth Maggie MacGowen Mystery, and my thirteenth book altogether. A baker’s dozen. The question my husband posed on the way home from handing the book to Meredith, my editor, was, What next? I did not have an answer.

One might think that by now I would have this writing thing nailed down so that producing a book has become a snap, but I don’t. Every book, like every child, presents its own joys and crises. For various reasons, getting to the end of the recent one seemed more grueling than usual. As Paul said, we were overtaken by events that stopped book progress dead for a bit, so getting it finished was something of a literary marathon. I was both exhausted and exhilarated when I reached the end.

After the manuscript was safely in Meredith’s hands, and the grandson and his parents, who live nearby, had been visited, Paul and I took a much needed long ramble home. Some important questions came up during our drive:

Does a series have a shelf life? We know that many readers love to follow the further adventures of series characters, but do those characters, and their creators, get stale, or redundant, after time? We know that Agatha Christie killed off Poirot and Conan-Doyle threw Sherlock over a precipice before their readers were ready to attend the funerals. But you have to admit that the books that followed Sherlock’s miraculous reappearance and Poirot’s demise getting locked away in the publisher’s vault showed the authors’ malaise. Have I reached that point with Maggie MacGowen? I hope the next book leaves the reader eager to find out what comes next for her, because I am.

Does the writer have a shelf life? A good friend, a writer who, like me, had a hiatus between his early publishing success and a second start, but who came back like gangbusters in part two, asked that question recently. He was weighing the amount of time and energy he spends writing and promoting his books against the years he has left if he reaches his statistical lifespan. At this time in his life, he wondered, are there more important ways to spend the time left to him? Only he and his wife can answer that. However, at the same time my friend posed his query, my husband, who has been endlessly supportive of my writing, always my greatest cheerleader, asked me to take a break. Not to quit, certainly, but to take some real time off to travel and to give hard thought about the direction I—we—want to go. A stand alone, the historical I have wanted to write for a decade, a new anthology of short stories? Another Maggie MacGowen? A new series?

I have no answers yet, except that we have several trips planned this summer and fall. And two short stories with deadlines.  Beyond that? Who can say? Except, I have a great story line brewing, based on something we encountered in a local pioneer cemetery, but a thoroughly contemporary event. Rich material for a book.

Clearing Away the Clutter

My condominium is 859 square feet, according to the various bits and pieces of paper I have in my files. When I first looked at the place 20-plus years ago, it seemed quite large. Well, it was empty when my real estate agent and I unlocked the door. I remember thinking, wow, all that closet space!

Of course, all the rooms, and the closets, are now full. As my cousin Susan says, stuff expands to fit the space available, plus two boxes.

So the condo feels small now. But it really should be adequate space for me and a bunch of cats. After all, the cats don’t take up that much room (unless they all decide to sleep on the bed with me).

It’s the stuff. Too much stuff.

I’ve been cleaning my office as long as I’ve lived here. At least that’s what it feels like. I have a lifetime accumulation of books and assorted knick-knacks. Some of these have sentimental value, such as books that have been signed and personalized to me. As for the knick-knacks, they have sentimental value, too, such as that vase that belonged to my Great Aunt Flora.

Then there are those files of newspaper clippings, saved because they that might possibly find their way into a book. They sometimes do. I once clipped a small article from the San Francisco Chronicle and kept it tacked up on my work station, vowing that I would use it, some day. And I did. It wound up as an important plot point in Bit Player.

I’m such a paper magnet. Through the years I’ve written down story ideas and notes for plots. I still have all those pieces of paper. If I ever get writer’s block, I’ll know which file folders to mine for material.

At least I got rid of the old bank statements that went back years. The old contracts for books that are no longer in print? I think I’ll scan those and shred the paper.

Letters, remember those? Missives written before the advent of email? I save letters. The ones from my grandmother are tucked away in a folder, and they are important to me. So are letters from my mother.

What do I save? And what do I throw away? That’s a question Jeri Howard asks in Bit Player, as she sorts through old letters written by her grandmother to solve a decades-old mystery.

And that’s just the office we’re discussing. The dresser drawers? The closet of clothes I haven’t worn since I retired? Well, I’ve started a donation bag. That’s a step in the right direction.

I have reached the stage of life where I want to downsize. All that stuff I have feels like it’s dragging me down. I want to have less stuff.

However, getting rid of stuff is not a matter of opening a large garbage bag and sweeping the offending stuff into the bag. For me, at least, clearing away the clutter is a very personal thing. It involves going through the stuff to decide what to keep and what to throw away. Sometimes the answer to that conundrum varies, depending on the mood I’m in at the time. It could be, “Why am I keeping this?” Or it could be, “Maybe I’ll need this someday.”

I’m not at the “Hoarder” stage yet but sometimes I wonder. At least I got a short story out of the subject. It’s a cautionary tale, called “Pack Rat.”

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