Saturday, November 27, 2010

Now what? - after the second first is complete

My manuscript is printed and hole-punched and nestled into three brand new binders, and waiting for next Wednesday. That's when I will hand it over to be read and critiqued by my lovely mentor, Sue Reynolds.
I'm feeling much more confident now, that I have a solid first draft, than I was the first time I had a first draft. My characters are more vibrant. I've sorted out quite a few technical issues, time lines, and added some metaphorical images.
A doorway seems to have opened, with the completion of this draft, to new images and ideas. It was as if I was behind a wall, groping for a crack to get my nails into, in order to imagine how I could present certain developments. I had all but given up, surrendering to the notion that it was as good as it gets, and I sat down on the step with my chin in my hands. I heard a creak behind me, and turned to find the way not only clear, but wide open to a whole field of idea flowers.
So I will hand this thing over, as I continue to give ink to these blossoms, and look forward to the creation of a third first draft. Or perhaps I will grow very bold, and call it my first rewrite!
Here's a sample:
“Let’s walk up the hill on Waverley,” Simon said, pointing. “Then we can cut over and catch the bus further north.”
 Katie let go of his hand to search through a bin of discount clothing outside a shop on the corner. Simon looked up. “We’ve got us some Nimbostratus company. Let’s go.”
Katie followed his gaze and reached for his hand. They began to walk briskly up the residential street when a shreeing sound was followed by a loud thud and the crisp tinkling of splintered glass shattering on the pavement.
They turned to see a rusted Ford Tempo bent into a row of newspaper boxes, their colourful tin sides hugging the right front corner of the car. Simon heard a child’s shrill cry coming from inside the car.
As they peered into the car, Simon could see a baby strapped into a seat in the back of the car, and in the front sat a longhaired man in his mid-twenties. There was a cut on his forehead over eyes that were glazed open. As Katie flung open the front door to speak to the man, Simon opened the back door and examined the baby boy. By the smell it was obvious that the child needed changing. After unbuckling the screaming baby, Simon lifted him out. The child was soaked through to the skin, dressed only in a sleeper.
As he undid his jacket to tuck the baby inside, Simon turned to find Katie bent into the front seat. “I’m going to get an ambulance for you, but is there someone we can call?” She paused. “Do you know where you are?” Another pause. “We’ll just say you had your seatbelt on. Are you hurting anywhere besides your head?”
Backing on to the sidewalk, Katie dug in her jacket pocket and pulled out a phone. She said to Simon, “I’m calling 911.”
He was bouncing the baby as he peered into the car in search of diapers. “What’s with the guy?”
With the phone pressed to her cheek, Katie answered, “I think he’s in shock. He’s just staring... yes, ambulance, please.”
While Katie described the situation, Simon reached across the baby seat to a pile of clothing, but found no diapers. A crowd was beginning to gather. “Has anyone got a diaper for this baby?” he called into the crowd.
People shuffled aside as a woman pushing a stroller came forward. “It’s a size five,” she said, handing him the diaper.
“Doesn’t matter,” he murmured, walking to the crumpled side of the car to lay the baby on the back seat. The baby had stopped crying and when Simon took him out from under his jacket, he saw that he was falling asleep. “Sorry, little guy. We’ve got to get you cleaned up here.” Picking out a clean-looking baby blanket from the pile, Simon undressed the boy and wiped away the dried feces as best he could, before putting on the bulky diaper and wrapping him in a sweater from the pile. The sound of sirens getting louder made him put the baby back in the envelop between his body and his jacket.
“Is he drunk?” someone was asking.
“No,” said Katie. “I can’t smell anything.”

Monday, November 22, 2010

Beginning (again) - preparing for the second plunge

I’m all about the fun. And for me, writing is mostly fun. I have been struggling with the chronology of my novel – what happens when, as well as where I want to put it in the story. In the first flush of writing, there were flashbacks within flashbacks, which I thought was complex and clever, whereas it turned out to be just plain confusing. Not to mention that I had major flashbacks inserted into a love scene. He stroked her silky thigh and thought about the time when he was five and... well, maybe not quite that extreme, but it did knock the reader out, and caused a bit of a shock three pages later to find them back in bed doing the deed.  
The chronology and the issue of how to make my character sympathetic, when to the reader giving up his daughter rendered him instantly stupid and self-serving, were the aspects of this book that kept me staring at the ceiling.  When these problems made me wonder about my own naivety I would invariably meet yet another man to whom this sort of situation was happening. Last April, I went to Amsterdam to visit an old sweetheart and encountered three men who were unable to take part in their children’s lives. One of these men had made a documentary, wherein several more such men were profiled. Yes, some of these men had surely messed up, made mistakes, but essentially, they were good guys whose children were being punished for the sins of their fathers. It made me wonder about the disempowerment of women that withholding their children was the best form of retribution, and it made me question my own constant struggle to make my son’s father part of his life. It made me consider many things, but most of all, it fuelled the urgency to get this book written.

I have let these issues swirl in my brain since I finished the first draft in July, knowing that I couldn’t begin to write the second first draft until I had these turning point scenes clearly in focus. I start messy, “popcorn style” writing what is juicy and fun, and now I’m finding that I can’t continue like that. I needed to make a clear map. It happened, much more simply than I imagined. Once I set aside a few hours to sort, organize, and plot, it was easy. Now I have a draft I can work with. And all the fun is back.

Here’s one turning point scene, from early in the story:

With my red jacket swinging from my hand, I walked up Walmer Road toward Beth’s house. That red down jacket amused, comforted and enraged me. Danny’s gift when Beth threw me out, the snow still knee deep on the streets of Toronto.
Beth let me in. “She’s still napping,” she said, backing into the living room to stand beside my chair. There were really only three things that I needed from this place: Sophia, that chair and my coat.
I stood in the doorway, my hand on the doorknob. “I can come back in an hour.”
“Why don’t you sit down for a minute?”  Her voice was soft, her dark hair loose, her boot heels sharp.
I hesitated. “Sit down?”
She laughed. “Yes, sit down. I’d like to talk to you about something.” Sweeping her hand in an arc toward the couch, she took another step back, so that her calf was resting against the front of the chair.
She laughed again. “Yes, Simon, talk.” Her tone like the cello’s open A string, a sound you could lay your head on.
I crossed my arms and leaned against the doorframe. “About what? Any chance it’s about giving me back my leather jacket?”
“Oh! Of course. Just a minute.” She spun on the toe of her boot and disappeared down the hall into the bedroom, returning a moment later with my jacket. I wrapped it over one arm and rested my other hand on it, my fingers rubbing divots in its sleeve.
“Thanks. I missed it.” I said this in a straight line.
“I’ve missed my little girl,” she began. “I’ve been thinking that I’d like to have her more often.” Her lips didn’t appear to twist
“Yes, seriously. I think it’s time, don’t you?”
Beth rolled her eyes, spreading her hands, palms up. “Time for her to be with her mother.”
“What are you thinking? Another afternoon?”
“Didn’t you tell me that you’d like to get some weather degree?” Some pride in her voice.
“Certificate. It’s a one-year course with an Honours Bachelor. I’ve wanted it for a long time, ever since...”
A sharp white spark lit in her dark eyes. “I know, before Sophia was born. So you see, it’s perfect.” She took one precise step in my direction. “You can go back to school, go back to work, pay down your debts, and still be there for Sophia.”
“I don’t know, Beth. You still haven’t said what you want.” What I wanted was for Sophie to have her mother be a mother, so that I could set things in motion to make a real life for my little girl. One that wasn’t in a basement apartment.
“Weekends are busy, but my week days are flexible ... So why don’t I keep her during the week and you have her on weekends?”
That was exactly what I wanted. “I don’t know, Beth.”
“Think of it, time to follow your dreams - weekends with Sophia, your days free to study, and evenings to work. Isn’t that perfect?” In the muted May light through mesh curtains, her skin looked warm, not its usual cool white. 
I concentrated on my breathing, its even release and intake, my fingers digging into the flesh of my jacket. One word followed the next on the way out of mouth.  “She needs to come home at least one night a week. It would be too much of a shock for her...”
She stepped closer so that I caught the spicy smell of her that always reminded me of Christmas icicles, frost and cinnamon. Her long white hand reached out to land on my clenched one. Its heat surprised me. “It’s going to work, don’t worry. You’ve done such a good job so far, Simon. It’s time to let me do my job.”
My organs felt like wet tissue paper. Let her? “I’ll talk to Renee at the Soho and see what shifts she can give me.”
“Oh Simon, that’s good. This is going to work perfectly. There’s an excellent daycare in the neighbourhood, and they have space available.  I’ll make the arrangements tomorrow.” Pulling my arms down and away from my body, she moved in to hug me, her breasts hard against my ribs.
I didn’t like the way my cock responded to her. I looked up at the lighting set into the ceiling, its row of quiet lights, with my back pressed into the doorframe, and recalled those same lights blurring in my vision when she’d punched me in the back of the head.  Pressing out my elbows to break her grip on me, I squeezed out from between her and the doorway.  “It’s nearly six. I think I should wake Sophie.”
“I think you should just leave her here.”
“Now? Leave her now?”
“Why not? She’s settled in. We’ve had a good day. Why disrupt things and make her go to your place?” A slight hesitation just before the word, place.
“It’s her home.” I smoothed the front of my jeans as if I had just stood up, aware of her eyes on me. “Not now. Not yet. I have to talk to her about it. I can’t just disappear. She needs to know what’s happening before it happens. Even if she doesn’t fully understand it.”
“Children are more adaptable than you imagine, Simon. I know. She’ll be fine. Trust me.”
On the back of my neck were four rivers of toughened skin, reminders that trusting Beth was not always the wisest choice. My fingers rubbed at these thin scars as I spoke. “I know she’ll be fine. But let’s take this slow.” I took one more step toward Sophia’s bedroom. “I’ll take her home tonight, and I’ll call you when I figure things out.”
Her eyes were wide, catching sunlight from the window. “Make it soon. She needs me.”
“She needs both of us.”
“And that’s what she’ll have. The best of both worlds.”

At home, after a quick pasta supper, Sophia and I lay on the kitchen floor with a wooden puzzle of shapes and colours. I guided her little hand as it struggled to fit the triangle into its red confines. The linoleum was cold through layers of tee shirt and sweater, so I went to my room and brought out the comforter for Sophie to lie on.  As soon as it was laid out, she rolled the width of it, her arms above her head and bumped up against me.
“Roll me up!” she demanded.
I obliged her, loosely heaping the folds of the comforter around her body as she rolled. “More tight!” she called.
“Tell you what... let’s get your jammies on and your teeth brushed and then we’ll bundle you all nice and tight for sleep, okay?”
Once Sophia was settled into her cocoon, her eyelids closed. I kissed each of them, flicked on the starry nightlight, and crept out of her room, leaving the door slightly ajar.

Sophia was two and a half. I needed to go back to work, and I wanted that certificate. I was thirty-six years old. A volunteer radio gig at the university and slinging designer hash was not what I wanted for the rest of my life. And that’s all I had – a half hour environmental spot once a week and two shifts at the bistro while Rosa watched Sophia.  People were graduating, coats were being shed like tight skin, and birds were singing loud and clear. I took two fingers of scotch in one gulp. It burned like sand all the way down. From my bedroom window, I watched the dark still sky between the houses on Crawford Street, and knew that I would let her go.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Stage Fright

Into my inbox a week or so ago, there arrived a notice of an upcoming literary evening in an Oshawa coffee house, with an invitation for writers to read their work. What I wanted to read was my new piece, but I had just entered it in a contest and it was quite possible that first and/or second tier judges for that contest would be present. Ten minutes reading time was allotted for each writer. My short stories are long and I couldn't see a suitable chunk that would stand alone. I scrolled through the Weather Vane manuscript and chose a scene. By the time I took the plunge and offered to read, all twelve spots had been filled, but I was given a standby position.

A couple of the readers didn't show up, so I did have the opportunity to read. I imagined that I wasn't nervous.

Simon has filed for custody. The daughter, Sophia, is four years old. After receiving the proposal from Simon's lawyer, Beth invites Simon to talk about the arrangements and seduces him. They have a night of very hot sex. This scene takes place as he goes out into the early morning:

Sun was a thin silver wire along the rooftops as Simon stepped into the street. The world was greyscale: dirty snow, strips of pavement exposed from the heat of tires, a lone car’s engine muffled in the heavy air. Ice as fine as tissue paper lay over the sidewalk. Across Walmer Road, a crouched shape ran, its head elongated and out of proportion to its feline body. At the sidewalk it stopped, the end of its oddly shaped head touching the ground. Simon approached with caution, a rabid fox, perhaps, although it seemed too small. As the dawn light sharpened the edges of objects and buildings, it cast its light on the creature that Simon now could see was a cat; calico and white with the long slender body of a Siamese. A cat whose head was firmly stuck inside a jar. 

As he squatted, extending his hand to soothe the cat, Simon spoke, “How did you manage that?” But as soon as the cat registered his touch, it erupted into a frenzy of claws, limbs lashing in all directions. Simon had managed to grasp the jar for an instant, and when the cat leapt away from him and crouched again at the entrance to an alley, he saw that one long ear had been released. The jar was still covering all the rest of the animal’s face. Simon stepped closer, clicking his tongue and murmuring. Just as he reached out to the cat, it jumped high and shot down the alley. Simon straightened, pursed his lips, and pressed the heel of his hand against his temple. He stood peering into the dark passageway, but couldn’t see the cat. Fatigue swept through him like sudden wind. His legs felt like mud, and the smell drifting up from under his clothes reminded him of fish corpses with their empty eye-sockets decaying on the beach. He turned back toward the street, toward blue and green cars carrying people to work, toward home. He sighed, and followed the cat deeper into the alley. “Here puss puss. Come here, I just want to help you,” he called. 

Tucked into a doorway, the cat crouched, its head facing out. Simon’s hand snapped out and closed around the jar. The cat’s body jumped and twisted. “That’s it, you pull,” Simon said, as he held fast the jar. There was a soft pop, and the cat’s head yanked free. For a second it was still, its huge eyes reflecting the first rays of orange sun, long dirty ears flared, and then it sprang away, its graceful body a streak of white and gold along the alley’s winter brick.

He watched it go, shaking his head. “What was that all about?” he said aloud. All the way home, he turned over the image of that animal in his mind.

He turned on to Crawford Street, the sun staining the clouds pink and purple. No time for sleep; just a shave and a shower and several cups of strong coffee, and no thinking. No more thinking. Not about Sophia, and please god not about Beth, and not about that cat muzzled and suffocating just for trying to get a little taste of something good.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Literary Affair

Novel Holiday

As I have mentioned, my story is in shreds, new chapters blooming under my fingers with nasty little turns, and the old ones with lines shot through and several different versions of each, some in first person, some in third, and some in someone else’s voice altogether. I guess that would be my voice. I’m told this is the hard part – figuring out the structure. I know the story, I keep saying to anyone who shows the vaguest amount of interest. It’s just how I tell it that keeps changing. This story of the man who relinquishes his child into the hands of a narcissist and realizes his mistake too late, who has “intimacy issues” despite his good heart, is a story I’ve been at now for three years. My labour of love, if you will.  And the words pile up at my feet, until I am wading in them up to my waist, as if through piles of paper confetti. I love this story. I love my characters, even the narcissist, maybe even especially the narcissist. I love writing it; the twists and turns and revelations, how suddenly a possibility will open up so that what I have been labouring with for months, such as how to evoke a sympathetic response when my character makes stupid mistakes, will be shockingly simple to resolve. But sometimes, it does feel like an endless journey. Too many possibilities. Too many changes.

And then... along comes a day of sanctuary, where my beloved teacher offers a prompt to launch a small group of us into writing. And I’m off and away from my novel into a place of my own; territory I know well, the back of my own hand. From a simple memory of a photograph, I write a paragraph that in itself is complete. A mini story. The following day, I transcribe the piece to the computer and an idea blooms. I continue working with the givenc  sentence stem until I have five or six paragraphs that map out a life. And I like it. And it’s done. Finished. Complete. By eight o’clock that evening, I have tightened it up, deleted the superfluous and it is looking mighty fine. Next morning, I send it off to a competition. Ah. The sense of accomplishment is exhilarating.

I feel the same way one feels in the middle of a long chill winter, after a week spent in the sun with toes in the sand. I’m refreshed, restored, rejuvenated and ready to bury my arms to the elbows in the waiting pile of words that is my novel. On second thought, maybe the feeling is more akin to being in a long marriage, that is satisfying and gratifying, but has its trials and challenges, and then along comes the incredibly hot and thrilling affair, that gets all the juices flowing, the sex is fantastic and then its done. No "working things out" or coming to an understanding, or wanting him to change. It's perfect as it is and as it was. Now it's time to get back to the deep work involved in sustaining and maintaining an enduring relationship. In this case, my book. My book. In this case, the affair has served to spice up the relationship. No harm done. It's a metaphor, folks, my wanton days are done. Those of the heart and flesh, at least.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Character Flaws and Transgressions

This Monday, I ripped apart my manuscript. I had been hoping that in this rewrite, I would be able to draft a few new opening scenes, rewrite a couple of important ones in the middle and patch it all together. It's not going to work. It's just not. I wouldn't categorize myself as a lazy person, but at times like this any lazy bones I have are screaming, "It's too much work!" This story has gone through so many shifts and changes, agonies and ecstasies, it will be a wonder if the finished product even remotely resembles the original vision.

The writing of this novel has been an intensive therapeutic process. About that: when I brought my first few chapters to my friend, Sandra, who is a wonderfully insightful, kick-ass therapist, she reported that she didn't like Simon. That's okay, I replied brightly, did you find him at least interesting? No, she said. Shit, I said. He's socially inept, a drunk, rude, spineless, and I don't blame his wife for dumping him. Oh, I said. I think you may be working out your men issues with this novel, she suggested. You think?

Simon needed some constructive therapy if he was going to remain my protagonist, since something other than what I had intended to portray had evidently seeped through. So I had him throw a great stag for his friend, be tender to his daughter, have deep thoughts, revealed his traumatic family history, and various other things to try to pump him up a bit. This spring I gave him a cello to play. What do you think of him now?

I knew he needed flaws to be compelling, but I never intended to convey him as an utter loser. Was he a sympathetic character? Apparently not. I needed both some distance from the character and to get right inside him.

This spring I put the manuscript aside. I felt as if I had written the wrong book. The first draft was done, but it didn't ring true. In April I wrote several chapters told from Katie's perspective. She is Simon's love interest and a catalyst for his transformation. My teacher, Sue, read these sixty-odd pages and observed that the writing was "on fire", but what did I have in mind for Katie? Did her story further the overarchingdramaticquestion? In a word, no. And so, I had to slay my darling Katie. Or at least send her on holiday.

This summer I took a  four-day "Freefall" writing workshop with Barbara Turner-Vesselago, and "fell" into my own voice in a way I had never experienced. We had four hours each day in which to write WHATEVER arose, focusing on sensuous detail and moving where the energy took us, not letting our hands stop moving. I wrote about Simon, I wrote about my own experiences in India from a third person perspective, and I wrote about shit that had happened to me. Each day, Barbara put her finger on what I wrote in first person and said, This is the voice I trust. Oh, I thought, great. All I have to do is crack open my ribs and peel the skin off my heart, and voila! there's the authentic voice. Yikes.

She advised me to not worry about the fiction for a while and to try to get my legs under me writing like this - without edit or censure. That lit a fire under my ass that produced fifteen thousand words in a month. It wrote itself. From that practice I began to understand how one actually writes about a life - from past experiences, future hopes, sidetracks, disappointments... that everything feeds into the moment that one writes about, the non-linear-ness of it all. I am aware that this may seem a little first-grade-ish, but at least I feel more competent now to graduate to second grade. All the pieces that I "invented" along the way to illustrate different aspects of character and character response are now in place. I know the story, just as I know my own story: what precipitated change, what rocked his world and why, what he's like inside and out, the different masks he wears and when he puts each on... that's what the first wobbly draft gave me - the life. Now I begin the task of writing it down with past present future informing each moment. And that's exciting. I don't feel half as lazy now.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Jeremiah Hill Photography

Jeremiah Hill Photography
This is my friend's exquisite photography site... great pics for writing inspiration!

The Community - Turning Leaves

I begin this post with a big fat contented sigh. This past weekend I spent immersed in all things writing. creating, learning and sharing. It's the last bit that is the most nourishing and for which I the most grateful.

The Sir William Mackenzie Inn is a stately manor set on magnificent grounds in Kirkfield, about ninety minutes from Toronto. I have used this inn to facilitate meditation retreats of yoga, movement and awareness exercises, and have always loved its perfect graciousness - from the hosts to the grounds to the rooms to the general sense of being so lusciously cared for. This was the first time I stayed there as a participant in a retreat. I have to wonder why I ever wanted to facilitate, when laying back in the arms of skilled facilitators and reveling in the magic of "beginner's mind", is so freeing. And sharing with other writers gets my vote for the most gratifying way to spend a weekend. There were nineteen of us - pens and keyboards at the ready, drawing our up to linen-covered round tables in the grand ballroom to listen to the inspiring words, prompts, and exercises offered by Susanna Kearsley, Ruth Walker and Gwynn Scheltema. Many voices, styles, approaches and attitudes toward writing created fascinating conversation between presentations, as well as lively exchanges during the workshops.

In a perfect world, there would be a regular meeting place to write and share. That's the ticket for me. The lessons, reminders, and prompts are effective launch pads for the writing, but what makes me do my little happy dance in my writing chair is the feel of writers writing, so palpable I can rub it between my fingers. Alone together. The pervasive hum of imagination over the click of  keys, the scrape of pen on page, the sound of shuffling feet across the floor on their way to pour a cup of coffee, the sight of someone gazing out  a window, hand hovering on the page. And then the sharing, hearing the words that just freshly landed on the page, like the brilliant purple peaks of hyacinths in the spring - tender, fragrant and full of promise. There is no end to the wonder I feel when listening to a brand new, unedited piece read by the author. It feels as intimate as being present at the birth of a child... okay, maybe that's overdoing it, but you get the idea.

And to have my new words listened to and heard... well, it just rocks my world. The feedback is so incredibly helpful. I've taken a small step from needing only to be told what is strong or enduring in a piece, and am learning to ask for precise feedback. This weekend I was working on an extremely important scene where my protagonist lets his ex-wife take his daughter. It is so important that I strike the right balance here, so my request was specifically about how he came across in the scene. Susanna Kearsely gave me very constructive feedback with some suggestions, and a few of the others helped shed the light I needed as well. I had stopped reading just before the line that read, "I didn't like what my cock was doing." because I was in mixed company... although, I guess that hasn't really stopped me in the past. Still, I wasn't so sure I wanted to talk about "my cock" with this group. Dale Long  was kind enough to approach me during break and comment that he felt that Simon (my protagonist) came across as not trusting himself in the presence of his ex wife. BINGO! Thanks, Dale. I had been encouraged by the comments in the circle, but this was exactly what I had hoped to bring through with dialogue and physical response. And then, just as Susanna was leaving, she put a hand on my shoulder and advised me not to worry about the scene; that I was moving in the right direction... or something like that. I am so grateful for that. Even when I think I'm all right, it sure helps to get a little encouragement.

Having everything all together in one building lent itself to delightful evening social time - a glass of wine, writing talk, putting the feet up in the games room. Could we do this once a month? That would be a perfect world. Just sign me up. I'll be there.