I’m wiggling back into my new novel, and like many complicated tasks—knitting a sweater for an elephant, cooking a gluten-free banquet for four hundred vegans—I need to regain my rhythm and whack my way through the awful stage where everything I write sounds like this:
Blah, blah, blah.
See Spot run.
Yada, yada, yada.
Barreling through is my only hope. Babying my yada yada is another word for procrastinating. (Though really, I do need to catch up on Tom and Katie’s split.)
Breaking through yada requires hammers from my bookcase. I reach for the highest shelf—not the one where I keep my glossy hardcovers and smart-looking trade paperbacks, but the short shelf where I keep the old mass-market paperbacks from before the days of trade paperbacks. These top-shelf books are the are the ones that never made into the Goodwill bags, or they’re ones I ordered second hand, because they went out of print: books I’d lent out and never got back—but that I needed to have. Books whose characters were so sharply drawn that they’d become family members I needed to visit.
I pull down a pile and to remind myself what makes a book indelible to me. Amazing prose?Lyricism? Depth of emotion? Truthiness? It’s an answer that’s different for everyone—a pot for every cover, and all that—and I needed to remind myself what my markers were. I write for the reader in me—what does she love and how could I access even a soupcon of that?
With a degree of fear, I opened to the first paragraphs of a yellowing book:
When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake—not a very big one. It had probably just been crawling around looking for shade when it ran into the pigs. They were having a fine tug-of-war with it, and it’s rattling days were over. The sow had it by the neck and the shoat had the tail.
Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty begins as it continues, with small-scaled problems growing into epic and fearsome heart-pounding (yes, not using hyperbole here, folks) adventure happening to and with characters I love, fear, root for, and who subsumed me until I walked inside the characters, especially aging Texas rangers, Call and Gus. All are individuals with extraordinary specific details, which told me what I needed to know about their hearts, or lack there-of. In one of main character first scenes, we are told: Call walked the river for an hour, though there was no real need. It was an old habit left over from wilder times: checking, looking for sign of one kind or other, honing his instincts, as much as anything.
His character is oppositional to Augustus’ talkiness—and yet they are best friends, tied to each other as tightly as any husband and wife. I am a fan neither of Westerns, nor of adventure tales—but this book would not let go. Every character, major and minor, is drawn with sharp individuation. There is not a stereotype to be found. McMurty gifted me with small and large tender and outrageous wants for his characters, and then thwarted their desires at every turn. They were in danger, either emotional or physical, at every moment. The book never let me go.
In Before and After by Rosellen Brown, I was torn between the points of view of three family members—a mother, a father, and their daughter—whose lives have been changed forever by the action of Ben, their son, her brother. Brown does so many things amazingly—switching from first person to third, depending on the character, moving from father to mother to child—with no loss of my involvement. Her prose is both lyrical (a word I often read to mean prettily boring) and muscular—as though each word was chosen with an eye not towards pleasing the writer’s ego (oh, look how smart I am!) but towards capturing the most minute of emotional shading, with each description taking the reader on the ride which will keep the fictive dream going.
Brown gives the reader three characters racing towards a conclusion that I needed to know as much as they did: was Ben guilty? Did he kill his girlfriend? And do these characters care more about his guilt or his freedom? This solid gotta know is combined with details that unlock the pictures in our mind. There is no accretion of hair and eye color details—blah, blah, blah—but though she’s never described in that first chapter, the mother, a doctor, had been formed in my mind simply through phrasing, such as this, when she is called to the ER and ducked in without disturbing the curtains.
Sophisticated writing that recognizes the reader’s intelligence abounds along with plenty of ‘page-turning’ moments. The characters inhabited me because I was brought so deeply into their inner world. The father, Ben, in Before and After can be obnoxious, he is a windbag at times, he growls, he is self-involved, even as he fights for his family. But I am drawn too deeply into his head not to be drawn to his side (and then his wife’s, and then his daughters—even as they were disparate in their wants.) I see, when he reflects on his role in the small town, where, a sculptor, how he considers himself superior, even as he wants total acceptance:
I made dinner. This has always been part of our deal—Carolyn gets to put the house out of her head every day and go off into the clear fluorescent spaces of her office and the hospital. I get to answer to nobody, but in return I do the housewifely duties (which I like) and amuse the hell out of some of the guys I know downtown. They don’t exactly say I’m pussywhipped—their word, not mine—but I’m pretty sure they tell it to each other.
There is often argument in writer’s groups about whether or not the character is ‘sympathetic,’ with writers screaming on both sides: Must care about her! It doesn’t matter—the point is honesty!!
* The character is too involved with examining in minute detail their interior, leaving little for me to uncover. I’d rather see a character’s involvement with the world around them.
* The characters motives are unclear, or ones for which I have neither sympathy nor empathy.
Mixed in with the above, is writing that removes me from the story. Head to toe detailing of a character’s looks, clothing, hair, etc., leaves me over-stuffed and I can see nothing. I prefer knowing the woman has an overfull pouting lower lip, than a laundry list of every physical characteristic.
A pile of books is before me. Can I write two-second memories of each, these books I remember loving so well? Are these disparate novels easy to recall?
Exodus by Leon Uris: A sprawling history spanning years, leading to Israel’s freedom, told through characters fighting their own inner wars. Without opening one page of this book I remember Ari Ben Canaan, Karen Blixen, Dov Landau, Jordana, Barak, his tiny wife Sarah. I can still see them all. I remember there names after all these years.
Losing Mr. North: by Elaine Kagan: A wife and a mistress, both waiting for their missing man. They know about each other—and eventually, go to each other. I had to know. I wanted them each to win and get what they wanted—despite the impossibility.
Tin Wife by Joe Flaherty: Sissy Sullivan lost her husband—a policeman—and is determined to find out if he was truly the hero everyone believes him to be.
Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux: Best story I ever read through a young person’s eyes—a son relating his father dragging their family from New England to a jungle in Honduras. The crazy brilliant father who thinks he is far smarter than he is, the wife forced to live as though his reality is where she should be. A classic of the elephant in the living room.
The Bestseller by Olivia Goldsmith: The first time I read this seething story of the publishing world, I was churning out my practice novels. Amazingly, I continued, despite the drunken slut of an editor, the writer who committed suicide after too many rejections, the wife whose work is stolen by her husband, and (worst of all?) the publisher/writer, nicknamed GOD, who moves sales from his writer’s side of the ledger to his own. And that’s just a small piece of this huge juicy pie.
Some of these books were incredibly well written–others, less so. I looked for commonality in the pile of books, unconnected by genre or subject: why did I remember the characters, the plot, the settings, so well?
* Truth revealed.
* Searing writing (some better, some deeper—but all gripping.)
* Gritty characters desperate to find their way home—emotionally or otherwise.
* A driving need they induced in me to gotta know how it ended for these characters.
* Villains who grabbed me by the throat.
And not a bit of blah, blah, blah.
After, once again, immersing myself above my writing station, I vow to work ever harder, hoping against all odds that I can be worthy of touching the hems of these books. I pledge to include small and large questions that build throughout the course of the book. To thwart my character’s desires. To put them in danger—emotional or physical. To choose the specific over the general. To offer readers, please, God, a need to know, the same as these authors did for me.
To minimize weather and shun dreams and nightmares.
I want to breath my life into my characters, give them humility, scars, fears, courage, and heart. And I realize that I will need an awful lot of coffee and chocolate in the coming year.