Monday, November 29, 2010

In the Rearview Mirror

I see her in my rearview mirror while idling at a stoplight. She sits in the driver’s seat of the black SUV behind me—cropped blonde hair, 40ish, hands at ten and two. The mother. Next to her sits a twelve or thirteen-year-old girl. Same blonde hair, though longer and it hangs across her brow and over one eye. The daughter.

How do I know one of them is the mother, the other the daughter? I know because of the look on the woman’s face. And I know because of the way the girl cocks her head to the right—a signature move that generally accompanies an eye roll, which I’m sure the daughter gave though I can’t see it from this distance. After the cock of the head, and while we are still sitting at the stoplight, the mother throws both hands in the air, and while looking out her window instead of at her daughter, she begins to speak, shaking her hands, bobbing her head, making her point. There is another eye roll from the daughter, and the mother drops her hands back to the steering wheel, bows her head for a moment, during which time I’m sure she takes a deep breath, and when she looks up, the light just turning green, neither mother nor daughter speaks again.

Pulling away from the light, I smile, not because I’m laughing at the two of them, but because I know exactly what is happening in that car. I don’t know if the woman works outside the home or stays home with her daughter. I don’t know if they live in the area or are tourists here for the holiday. I don’t know if her daughter is good student or struggles or if she takes gymnastics or plays on a soccer team. But I do know how that mother feels because whatever argument she and her daughter are having, every other mother has it had it with every other daughter. The frustration, the exhaustion, the guilt, the doubt, the hope, the pride. This is what I think great writers capture in their great work. They find those emotions and experiences that are universal regardless of our differences. And when that is unearthed, we readers enjoy great fiction.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Last week I wrote about letting go...when does a writer finally let go of that novel she has been working on for the past year? A good thing to do before making such a decision is to take a break from the novel, get a little distance. Toward that end, I am vacationing with my family over the holiday and won't give that book another thought until I climb down off this mountain and make my way back to sea level.

I wish you all a safe and happy Thanksgiving.


Monday, November 15, 2010

When To Let It Go

I’ve written before about the process of writing a novel…the various stages. I have written to you about reaching page 300 of the new novel I'm working on and being happy about that as if the rest of the writing were downhill. I have written about page 301, at which time I realized that I didn’t know what happened next or last. I’ve written about giant whiteboards and sticky notes, excel spreadsheets and abandoned outlines. I’ve written about the slow, steady decline in the state of my office as I write a novel, and the day I finished my first draft.

In the past few months, I have worked my way through three more drafts. I’ve edited for structure, for logistics, for character. I have earmarked a few scenes that aren’t quite working, and I’ll print those page and stare at them for a day or so until I figure out how to fix them. And then, will I be done?

This is the next big step in writing a novel…when to let it go? In the early stages of a writer’s career, I would say most of us let go too soon, and generally we are letting go of a novel that is not very good. Those novels don’t sell and are tucked away in a drawer or a box or a vault where they will never, ever, ever be read by anyone. And then we writers write another novel or two and hopefully write one that is good enough to sell. But it will never sell if we don’t stop tinkering with it. If we don’t stop moving commas and flipping through our thesaurus and rewriting the first 50 pages and cutting adverbs and changing this character’s eye color and that character’s hair color and adding a second story to the protagonist’s house and rewriting the first 50 pages and adding back a few adverbs and searching for and deleting all occurrences of the word shrug and deleting the semi-colons that we really don’t know how to properly use and rewriting the first 50 pages we will never FINISH.

So in the next few days—okay, maybe the next few weeks—I’ll stop tinkering with the first 50 pages of my next novel, stop adding and cutting and changing and rearranging and I’ll let it go, which is to say I’ll start letting other people read it. However, I have learned in the months since I sold BENT ROAD (also a novel that I probably tinkered with far too long) that a novel isn’t truly done and we don’t truly let go until it’s sitting on a shelf in a bookstore.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Perfect Roast

I stumbled upon the recipe in a Williams Sonoma cookbook. I scanned the list of ingredients and then scanned my disheveled spice rack. In an unusual turn of events, I had everything listed.

In a small bowl, I mixed up the half dozen spices, drawing the flat edge of a knife across every teaspoon and tablespoon to level each measurement. I mixed it with a fork and rubbed it over a pork roast I had purchased the day before. As instructed, I let it marinate for four hours. I preheated the oven, tinkered with the oven’s probe until I figured it out, and baked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. I placed the roast on a white serving tray, drizzled it with the apricot glaze I had prepared and served with ripened avocado slices. The family loved it.

Five years ago, long before I prepared this perfect roast, I attended a writers’ conference in Boston where I received some very good advice. I knew it was good advice even though, at the time, I didn’t entirely understand it. “Should you write a novel that is good enough to publish,” Instructor said, “be sure you know how you did it.” At the time I was working on a novel that I would never try to publish because it was not good enough. In the years since, I have written BENT ROAD, a novel that did sell, and as 2010 draws to a close, I’ll finish up my next novel, and indeed, I now understand.

The next time I made the roast, I had to pull the meat from the freezer and defrost it in the microwave, and I don’t let the dry rub set long enough because I forgot to get started early in the day. When it came time to pop the roast in the oven, I couldn’t find the oven’s probe, so I it turned out a bit dry. But it’s wasn’t too bad. We had no leftovers.

I had no ripe avocados the third time. Again, the defrosted roast wasn’t quite as tender as a roast never frozen, and since I couldn’t find the cookbook with the recipe, I tried to mix the dry rub from memory. The kids picked at their dinner, and only out of kindness, Husband asked for a second serving. The leftovers ended up in the trash.

As to making sure I know how I wrote a book that ultimately sold…fortunately, I have had many terrific teachers over the years that have instilled a great appreciation for the craft of writing. So, yes, I think I know how I did it. As to the pork roast...I have retired that recipe unless I find the cookbook. Then, and only then, I’ll give it another try.

Monday, November 1, 2010

An Unexpected Turn of Events

The following took place a few months ago, but I wanted to wait until all the insurance dust settled to blog about it.

The officer opens the back door to his cruiser and Daughter lowers herself onto the hard plastic seat. She looks up at me, and I close the door. Through the open window, I point at her. “This better be the only time I see you in the back of one of these,” I say and slide into the front seat. The officer from the Tallahassee police department starts up his car, and we pull away.

It all started two hours earlier. We’re in Tallahassee for the weekend. Five hours from home. Daughter sits in the passenger seat. I am driving. The other driver flies through a stop sign and crashes into our front end. The impact throws Daughter and me forward. My car comes to rest against the median. Witnesses say the other driver went into a tailspin. He lands two lanes away.

I look at daughter. A large white balloon has exploded from her dashboard. The airbag. I exhale.

“You okay?” I ask her.

She is clear eyed, sitting up straight. She nods and says, “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” I say, still clutching the steering wheel. “We’re okay.”

The remnants from a leftover McFlurry are splattered across the dashboard and me. I wipe it from my forearms and push aside the airbag. Cars fly past us on the three lane road.

“Let’s just take a minute,” I say.

“The car is smoking,” Daughter says. “I think we should get out.”

Smoke rises out of the airbags. Something is burning.

“Yes,” I say. “I think you’re right.”

Across the street, strangers wave at us to get away from the car. My door opens easily. Daughter crawls across the center console and we hold hands as we cross traffic. Once safely out of the street, I stand in a pile of red ants. They coat my left foot, but they don’t sting like I know they should. It must be the adrenaline. A stranger hands me his cell phone. I slip off my shoe and Daughter shakes the ants from it. I call Husband. We’re five hours away. He’s leaving now to come get us. Off duty first-responders check on Daughter and me. We’re sore where the seatbelt grabbed us. Daughter bit her tongue. Sirens whine and grow louder. An ambulance arrives. A paramedic tells Daughter to stick out her tongue. It’s okay. Pressure’s fine. Heart rate regular. The other driver walks away, too.

The tow truck takes two hours to arrive. The good folks at the HoneyBaked Ham cafĂ© invite us in while we wait. They feed Daughter a ham sandwich. Strangers come inside to ask if we’re okay. A police office escorts me back to the car so I can take everything out of it. A few CDs. The title. Two MVP game balls earned by Son during post season play. A hopper full of tennis balls. Pens, pencils, loose change, a brush, Daughter’s hair ties. I shove it all in a tennis bag, knowing I probably won’t see the car again.

I write down numbers for a cab company, but after my car is towed away, the officer offers to take us back to our hotel. This is how Daughter takes her first ride in a police car. It’s my first time, too.

It’s smaller than I would have expected. Just like on television, plexiglass separates the front seat from the back. I tap on it and smile at Daughter. I take note of the hard plastic seat Daughter sits on. No upholstered cushions. Tape covers the small holes in the glass divider. Good details. A writer always needs good details. Not much leg room, and I have to open the door for Daughter because there is no handle on the inside for her to use.

“I wish I had my camera,” I tell daughter when we are safely back in the hotel.

“You are not going to blog about this,” Daughter says.

“Uhhh, yes, I am,” I say.

Many thanks to the good people of Tallahassee, the Tallahassee Police Department, and the folks at HoneyBaked Ham.