I am in the process of going back and reading an incomplete novel I started back in 9th grade. It’s about a family of six kids (I’ve written lots of fiction and never once about a small family, which, if you know me, ahem, I’m kind of breaking the “write what you know” dictum) who grew up in an abusive home. It had a nice structure — and I never pay attention to structure when I write, I’m not that kind of writer, generally. It had a prologue, with the kids mostly still at home, though two run away during the prologue (well, one elopes and a younger one runs away). Flash forward 10 years and we’re in the body of the story, the first six chapters of which focus solely on one of the six kids and where they’re at today, before everyone finds each other again in chapter seven (directly or indirectly through an ad the oldest sibling’s ex-husband puts in the paper [gimme a break, it was like 1989, yes, people still put ads in the paper] because she’s dying of cirrhosis of the liver due to years of excessive drinking).
One thing you’ll note about my writing style, I never met a parenthetical I didn’t like. There is grammatical recursion and then there’s parenthetical recursion. If you’re a linguist you’ll get that.
But I digress. (That’s another hallmark of my writing [and talking] style.) And yes, I did that on purpose.
So, body-body-body, two siblings are dead and the rest have worked out their problems and go on to live happy and fulfilling lives. We know that because flash forward another 10 years (the body would cover maybe about six months) and we have an epilogue.
Beautiful. Elegant. Symmetrical. I love symmetry.
And over the years I kept writing in this story, sometimes a lot, sometimes not for years at a time. But before long it became clear that I strongly favored one character over all the rest. I “felt her pain” more clearly, I related to her even though she’s nothing like me, and as I delved more and more into her “backstory” — meaning I wrote it, thinking it was just for kicks, exploring the character so I could write for her better and better capture the complexity of her life and her relationships — (dashes are nice, too) I eventually, not more than a year or so ago, had to admit to myself that I really wanted to write from this character’s perspective. There was no way I could write so “completely,” if that makes sense, for any of the other characters, unless perhaps I wrote some kind of multi-volume thing, or a weird kind of concurrent series followed by a massive tome where everyone is thrown together. Even if I did that I would still have the problem of not knowing the other characters so fully as I do the one — they would be much more difficult to write for, from their perspective. Hah, that is after all why I killed off one of the siblings. She was too hard to write for.
The joys of authorhood.
(Remember, I was in high school.)
So here I am, all this time later, and this story is still with me. I realized I had to start it from scratch, and was really thrown when it meant having to completely jettison my nice, neat, symmetrical structure. It was like banging my head against a wall to come up with a new beginning, and on top of that, I had come to the conclusion that it might be worth pursuing getting this novel published, so I had to come up with a way to not only write it with pretty words but in such a way that a reader is (hopefully) intrigued and wants to keep reading. And then one day at work I was in a meeting that had nothing to do with anything (I’m sure such things only happen in my office), so I started thinking about my story, and WHAM it kind of just came to me, and I started jotting down ideas (I’m sure it looked like I was studiously taking notes). Then when I got home I sat down at the computer and started writing and I wrote until like midnight or one or something, and didn’t know how to end the shortish chapter, but darn if I wasn’t fairly pleased with what I wrote. A bit intriguing (hopefully!), a dash of subtle symbolism, establishment of all the siblings but primarily from Kari’s perspective (essentially — after years of writing something in the first person I am, weirdly enough, still struggling at times with third person), a bit of foreshadowing of what happens to these people. It still has a prologue (gone is the 10-year things though, this one starts a bit earlier), but the prologue doesn’t end with the eloping and the running away. That’s in chapter 1 now, and it’s not an elopement anymore, though the character is still moving out to move in with her boyfriend whom she’s going to marry soon. There’s actually still a “structure” — there has to be because so much time is covered. I’m kind of thinking about it the way Russian novels used to be published — part 1, part 2, etc. So part 1 covers the main character running away, seeking freedom only to find it’s all an illusion as she winds up on the streets, part 2 has her life getting straightened out and meeting the man she’ll eventually marry, and part 3 has was initially the body, the reunion with her family, including her sister with cirrhosis (which isn’t necessarily as terminal as I thought it was when I was 14…maybe she won’t die after all, but I still think it’s a better story that way).
It’s really, really weird rereading what I wrote in high school. Scary that I’m ever happy with something I’ve wrote because, oh my, I think I was pretty happy with what I wrote then, too! And there is not much to be happy about. Gosh, it’s painful to read at times. Embarrassing. Some relationships are complex, but they’re complex in fairly predictable ways, and a lot of the characters have little depth. But on the other hand, just as I roll my eyes at something and think, “Well, that’s got to go!” I’ll often think, “Well, hold on…if I tweak that, that’s actually a good plot or character moment.”
When I wrote back then, there was no internet. So I just made stuff up and glossed over facts. The only real research I did was getting some medical books from a good friend’s mother, who was a nurse, and asking her some questions about cirrhosis. I can remember even then wishing so badly I could go to a hospital and sit down and talk with a doctor who specialized in such illnesses.
And then they (and by “they” I of course mean Al Gore) invented the internet. So now, the things I glossed over before I can agonize over details of. How exactly does a runaway go about finding a place to live in DC? (Oh, yes, instead of all made-up towns, I’ve transplanted the action to the NoVA area — I finally live in a place that works as a setting for a novel that’s not about the place, if you understand.) What kind of services would a homeless shelter offer her? What kind of job offerings would she find online that she could apply for even without a high school diploma? How many buses would it take for her to get from Point A to Point B? Oh yes, all this and more is available at your fingertips. But then I wind up spending so much time on things that are so irrelevant…well, not entirely so, as every detail you add further contributes to making your character real, with a real life’s history and experiences. But still it’s frustrating.
Well, I’m rambling — I’m soooo tired. But I will read another of the old chapters tonight anyway.
And I think I will post in the future on writing in the third person and online researching for fiction writing.
All this because I was too tired to watch the commentary to my latest Netflix film, The Namesake. I am simply incapable of going to bed early. Even when I’m exhausted.