Writing on Wednesday: (Not) Killing My Darling

lolcat_great_american_novel-300x199Last October I shared some of the feedback from the editor I was working with on revisions to my novel, Cherry Bomb. I also shared a sort of timeline of how the novel had been progressing. This was as much for myself as for my readers—to get a perspective on how the project was moving along. In December the agent who has shown interest in the book agreed to find a different editor to help me with this next round of revisions. I was just not feeling a good connection with the previous editor. Just before Christmas I received the new assessment. With the holidays, some illness and travel and other distractions, I’ve managed to put off this work until this week. Yesterday I spent several hours getting back into the book, and it’s the hardest work I’ve ever done.

I do think this new editor “gets” what I’m trying to say with the book, although there are some big suggestions that I just can’t work with. For my writer friends who read this blog, let me first share some of her encouraging words, because God knows we all need that to help us get through the hard stuff!

This novel is well-written, visually descriptive, and the worlds we enter are quite fascinating…. The novel seems well-researched, as well, and there’s a sense of authorial confidence in writing about these subjects. The reader wonders how these intriguing worlds will collide, and when that finally happens toward the end of the novel, the catharsis is moving and both surprising and inevitable-seeming.

I should probably print off that paragraph and tape it up beside my computer for encouragement when I’m pulling my hair out trying to do these revisions! Here are a few examples of the editors’ suggestions. I’ll start with the ones I’m probably NOT going to follow:

kill-your-darlingsDelete one of the three main characters altogether. This character—“Neema”—is the fictionalized version of St. Mary of Egypt, and she is crucial to the book. The editor wants her to only be part of the backstory. I know William Faulkner (and later Stephen King) said you have to “kill your darlings” at times, but this one is not going away. (And she has three chapters from her point of view—the very chapters the previous editor said were the strongest chapters.) What will I do instead? Follow the editor’s second suggestion for this character and find ways to integrate her into the lives of the other two main characters.

“The fact that there is an opera about Mary of Egypt strains believability.” The editor suggests I cut the scene where Elaine and Mare go to Atlanta to see this opera—that it seems too coincidental. If the editor had Googled this opera she would have discovered that it’s not fictional. It is an actual opera composed by John Tavener. I have the CD and love the music. But I’m not leaving it in just because I love it—I believe it adds to the richness of the story.

Now, here are a few suggestions I AM going to follow:

Re-structure the novel chronologically, incorporating some of the flashbacks later in the novel. Too much is revealed too soon.

Tone down the sexual abuse scenes. At one point the editor says, “… many readers would find this material too troubling to continue to read, which would be a shame because there is so much to recommend about the world of this novel.” At least two of my “early readers” have said the same thing, so I’m going to work on these sections.

Flesh out Mare’s life at SCAD by expanding on her relationships with other students and creating more subplots.

Change one chapter from Elaine to Mare’s point of view. I understand why and this won’t be hard to do.

Make the characters’ physical descriptions stronger. The editor praises the descriptions of the setting, but the characters need to be more vividly drawn.

There are dozens more very specific suggestions that I’m working to incorporate. Did I mention my brain hurts?

bo-ready-to-revise

So that’s a look into my writing world this week. Check back next Wednesday to see if I’m surviving!

Mental Health Monday: Fifth Business and Second Childhood

fifth-business-npr-orgThis morning I finished reading an interesting book—Fifth Business by Canadian author Robertson Davies (Viking Press, 1970). I’m not going to explain what “fifth business” means (well, here’s a short video that explains it) or do a book review here. It’s a complex book—one that I read on the recommendation of a friend and mentor.

You_Are_Fifth_Business_by_PervsIt’s not a book I would have ever chosen to read on my own, and at times I grew weary of it. But the payoff near the end was worth the read. (And I’ve just discovered they made a movie of the book, which I’d like to see.) Okay, here’s an interesting illustration done by a student of the book.

 

The protagonist/narrator, Dunstable (Dunny) Ramsay, is talking about himself and his boyhood nemesis, Boy Staunton who grew up to be a friend and supporter of Ramsay’s in their adult lives. Their relationship was fraught with a tarnished history and ongoing conflicts. Near the end of their lives, Ramsay reflects on Boy and himself:

As a boy he had been something of a bully, a boaster, and certainly a bad loser. As he grew up he had learned to dissemble these characteristics, and to anyone who knew him less well than I it might have appeared that he had conquered them. But I have never thought that traits that are strong in childhood disappear; they may go underground or they may be transmuted into something else, but they do not vanish; very often they make a vigorous appearance after the meridian of life has been passed. It is this, and not senility, that is the real second childhood.

I’ve been wondering if those childhood traits in my own life have “gone underground” and whether or not they are beginning to make an appearance now.  Ramsay goes on to speak of his own shortcomings:

I could see this pattern in myself; my boyhood trick of getting off good ones that went far beyond any necessary self-defense and were likely to wound, had come back to me in my fifties. I was going to be a sharp-tongued old man as I had been a sharp-tongued boy. And Boy Staunton had reached a point in life where he had no longer tried to conceal his naked wish to dominate everybody and was angry and ugly when things went against him.
As we neared our sixties the cloaks we had wrapped about our essential selves were wearing thin.

quote-the-old-are-in-a-second-childhood-aristophanes-302990I can see the cloaks I have wrapped about my essential self in an effort to cover my own insecurities over the years. And I can see them wearing thin as “the meridian of life” has more than passed for me at age 63 (I’ll be 64 in a few weeks).

But where I want to question the narrator’s conclusion (and he was a man of faith who wrote and published books about saints) is on the issue of whether or not people can change. This is a subject I return to every few years, starting back in August of 2010 when I wrote this post, “Can People Change?”

And again in April of 2013 when I penned this one: “Can People Change, Revisited.”

I’m wanting to reconcile the spiritual and psychological concepts I embraced back then with this different way of looking at myself which came at me in Fifth Business. It is another writer, my friend Neil White, who bridges that gap for me in his wonderful memoir, In The Sanctuary of Outcasts. His words, which I quoted in my blog post back in 2010, are circling back to me today:

But I knew my essence had not really changed. I would always be the same person. Same skills, same personality, same character traits.

I didn’t need to be a new person. I needed a new purpose…. Live simply, hide nothing, help others….

What a good reminder. I don’t need to be a new person. It’s okay if I have to live with the same character traits—even the undesirable ones—from my childhood. It’s okay so long as I have a new purpose:

Live simply, hide nothing, help others.

Thanks again, Neil.

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