Tag Archives: daughter

Writing Between Once Upon a Time & The End

After I finished writing the first draft of my latest novel, I thought I had succeeded in crafting a new genre.

How unaware I was of the dangerous second draft.

Upon rereading the manuscript, I noticed the story fell apart in the middle, although the ending was exceedingly strong. My intention was only to fix the glue between “Once upon a Time” and “The End.”

After editing the first 100 pages, I hit the middle. The sludge depressed me. How was I going to make sense of the mess? The characters had evolved, but not consistently. The conflict had escalated, but unrealistically. The complications were more complicated, but required charts, graphs, and a Power Point presentation to understand it.

Luckily, my daughter came to the rescue. She sat down with me one evening and asked me why my mood reflected the rain clouds in the overcast sky. I confided how I was mired in the middle of my story.

“What should I do?” I asked.

My daughter thought it over. “If I was the main character, I would go to my best friend.”

It seemed like such a simple action, but it cut through the dense confusion that I almost cried from relief.

Immediately, 50 pages disappeared from the manuscript. I started writing where my daughter suggested and a whole new middle unfolded effortlessly.

By the time I reached the third act, the characters had evolved and the conflict needed a new resolution. What was I going to do? I loved the original ending. It was strong. It was unconventional. But it no longer worked.

I had to write a new ending.

Is the second draft perfect? Hardly. But it is one step closer on the road toward publication.

Medicine and Writing

Medicine and Writing 2

If you read books on writing, you will find various theories on the art of rewriting. Some writers suggest tackling the whole project head on. Others recommend breaking the story down into manageable pieces: Part 1, Chapter 1, Scene 1, Paragraph 1, and Sentence 1. Still others advocate a multiple step approach, from structure to syntax.

In spite of all the great advice from experienced writers, sometimes things don’t work out. You can’t organize your thoughts in an outline. You can’t structure your plot into three neat acts. You can’t delete that scene or eliminate that character without the whole story coming apart.

You get overwhelmed and lost and don’t know where to go for help.

The same thing can happen in life.

Since my daughter’s mysterious illness, we’ve consulted doctor after doctor, specialist after specialist, seeking first a diagnosis, then a cure. But in spite of all the great advice from experienced physicians, things haven’t worked out. My daughter still sleeps most of the day. She complains of constant headaches and migratory aches and pains. Her digestive system is completely out of whack.

Our family is overwhelmed and lost and doesn’t know where to go for help.

As a writer when I am stuck in a rewrite, I step away from the work. Sometimes I seek out other writers who have overcome similar challenges to see what they have done. Some writers have joined writers’ groups. Others have taken online courses. A few have hired professional editors. Still others have sent their work out to beta-readers for advice.

As a family, we’ve asked around and found others who have experienced the same mysterious illness. A teenage boy suffered for one year until he was well enough to return to school. Another teenage girl was misdiagnosed for several months before she was finally treated. Some parents have hired acupuncturists, herbalists, and even shamans.

In spite of all the advice I’ve received from others about rewriting, I have discovered only one thing remains true: I need to listen to the story.

In spite of all the advice we’ve received from others about our daughter’s health, we’ve discovered only one thing remains true: we need to listen to our daughter’s body.

In medicine and in writing, you need to know the techniques that have worked for others, but you also need to trust in your ability to decide what is best for you.

As I trust in the story, my rewriting gains momentum, building scene by scene each day. As my daughter trusts in her body, she slowly recovers, gaining a little bit of strength each day.

In an uncertain world, sometimes the answers we need are the ones we invent ourselves.


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Cut Above Failed Dreams

"Lips" from The Human Act and Other Stories to be published by All Things That Matter Press

 

As a follow up to last week’s post about the need for education without neglecting one’s passion, I am posting an excerpt of my short story, “Cut Above the Rest,” from my collection, The Human Act and Other Stories, published by All Things That Matter Press. It is a story about a young woman whose desire to finish her undergraduate education at Harvard is thwarted by a lack of funds.

***

After hearing from her Harvard friends only once and not having any luck finding a job as an entry-level economist one-year short of a degree, Becky decided to enroll at the Santa Rosa Beauty College and become a licensed cosmetologist. With her long brown hair pulled into a simple bun and her face without make-up, Becky emerged as someone quaintly mature in a crowd of aspiring hairstylists with cherry bomb red hair and powdered white faces dressed in gray smocks and black leather shoes.

Some of the students Becky recognized from high school. Rodriguez, a slim young man with black hair slicked straight down his back and a goatee on his narrow chin, teased her. “Our Lady of the Perpetual Frown,” he said, narrowing his slanted eyes and laughing. Tina, whom Becky remembered as a high school drop out with a drop-dead figure even after giving birth to twins at seventeen, squealed in unison with Melody, the class clown, who called Becky, “The Harvard Could-Of-Been Graduate.” Assaulted by cruel jokes and mean laughter, Becky focused on washing her mannequin’s head with fierce concentration, often yanking the synthetic auburn hair until it snapped from its plastic skull.

Later, after six hours of cutting and dying and perming and styling, Becky went across the street to Triumph’s Pub for an Irish cream coffee. Her favorite part of the day was sitting beside the iron black wood burning stove and watching the sun set through the picture window and the fairy lights of downtown ignite like fireflies. Becky had moved out of her parents’ home in August after months of sullen silence. Her father, who had disappointed her before, tried to apologize with sweet, encouraging words. “Einstein said imagination was more important than knowledge,” he’d tell her.

“You should have imagined $12,000,” Becky would snap. “Then I wouldn’t be wasting my life with a bunch of goons and styling gel.” Becky’s father would stare at the broken lip of his wing-tipped shoes. “I’m sorry,” he’d say. Becky had heard the words before, when her father had stolen a Barbie doll for her birthday and had been arrested for shoplifting. Even though the charges had been dropped, Becky never forgave him. “You can’t control yourself,” she’d say.

By September, when her Harvard friends were buying books for classes, Becky started a part-time job at Johnny’s Pool Hall as a coat check girl to pay the $300 rent for a room in her former high school math teacher’s home. In her pocket, she kept a love note from Chase, a girl Becky had met at a sonority party, written three months before Becky’s Harvard career ended. “I love the way you look when you study,” Chase wrote. “It makes my palms sweat like I’m working out.” Although Becky had her mail forwarded, she never received another letter from Chase. She tried hard not to think of the bulky football girl who had tackled her heart and won. Becky also tried not to think of her father. The one time she had dropped by to visit she had found him slumped over a set of cards at the dining room table, shuffling and reshuffling, contemplating how much he was going to bet in a game against himself.

Since then, on nights when she wasn’t working, she lounged at Triumph’s Pub and watched the night deepen into a relaxing atmosphere of couples playing darts, drinking their third Guinness, laughing with their arms linked around each other’s backs. When the couples left toward midnight, Becky would order a heavy rum drink she called a zombie and let her mind dissolve into foam. Dizzy with grief and unexpressed longing, she would kiss the stuffed head of a smiling moose before falling asleep on the black leather couch until Zero, the bartender, woke her up at 2 a.m. when he closed.

“Need a ride tonight?” Zero would ask.

“No, I’ll call home,” she’d say.

In the dark amber hall with its dense wood-paneled walls and mirrored plaques emblazoned with the names of imported beers, Becky would drop a quarter and a dime into the pay phone and dial Bob Stone’s number.

On her second day back from Harvard, Becky had waltzed across the campus of her old high school and had stepped into Mr. Stone’s third period calculus class and cried. Disconcerted, Mr. Stone took her aside and drew a horizontal line with arrows in both directions. He placed a dot above the line and said, “Sorrow knows no infinity.” When that did not comfort her, he said he would think of something that would.

Weeks later, after dinner with Mr. Stone and his wife at their cozy restored Victorian, he invited Becky to move into the room behind the garage which he had used as an office once, then later converted into a bedroom for his teenage daughter, Sarah, who was attending U.C. Berkeley on a volley ball scholarship. Unaware of any complications, Becky unloaded her trunks and filled the dressers with her T-shirts and jeans, believing in the peacefulness of new beginnings. Only Lucy, who missed the routine of motherhood, would nag Becky about little things: eating the last piece of bread, misplacing the measuring cup for the laundry detergent, reading Shakespeare out loud. After a while, Becky tired of the accusations. She spent very little time with the Stones, perhaps one evening a month in front of the big screen TV with a movie she had rented and microwave popcorn she had bought at Food 4 Less.

When Becky called for a ride home, it was Lucy who often answered in her sultry after hour’s voice. Since Sarah had left for college, Lucy took sedatives and mood-regulators for a peculiar disorder that quavered through her body in tiny ripples, causing her to overreact to anything that might break her fragile routine. Becky, who was too drunk for a fight, would hang up the phone.

“I’ll drive you,” Zero always said. Becky shook her head, refusing his kindness. In the winter, Zero would stand under the awning with Becky, holding an umbrella over her shiny brown hair until she was safe in the cab. Neither one spoke. Sometimes, while they were waiting, Zero would drape his coat over Becky’s shoulders and press her close until she stopped shaking. In spite of a dark bulk that intimidated strangers, there was a tenderness about him that radiated like warmth from his hands.

***

When educational dreams fail, it is difficult not to fall into despair. But life is full of switchback turns and detours and unmarked roads. If we surrender to faith and believe in the beauty of the unexpected, we can learn to transcend our disappointment and embrace the opportunity to live the life we have been given, whether it has been chosen or not.

Sometimes we are blessed with guides who appear at just the right time to help us maneuver around the potholes in the road, but most of the time the people we need have always been there, visible and neglected from familiarity or pain. It is only when we reach a moment of awareness that things become new again and life breaks open with hope.

To read the rest of “Cut Above the Rest,” purchase an electronic or paperback version from any online retailer or directly from .

Birthday Surprise

It’s my daughter’s birthday. I promised her I would visit her during lunch and surprise her for her birthday. That was the plan until my boss scheduled a luncheon meeting, which is another way of saying I was working through lunch.

But I didn’t want to disappoint my daughter. After all, I was working more than I had ever worked before during her short life and the following week I was going out of town for business. I would not see her for a few days, which seems like forever when you’re young enough to count your age on your fingers and your toes. I had to do something to stop those big crocodile tears from ruining her pretty face.

So…I devised a plan. I would tuck a birthday gift inside her lunchbox.

I bought cherry-flavored lip balm and an ice cream cone-shaped mirror in a gift bag that said, “A girl can never have too much stuff!” along with a card signed by her father, her brother, and me.

When she woke up in the morning, I told her I had already packed her lunch. She eyed me suspiciously, but went along with it anyway since she had been sick the whole week and knew I was wont to spoil her. But on the drive to school, her tell-tale smile gave away the fact that she knew my little secret.

I thought the surprise was ruined, but it was not. “I saw the gift, but I didn’t open it,” she said. “I was just looking to see why my lunchbox was so heavy.”

“It’s because I packed you a drink,” I said. “The gift doesn’t weigh much.”

“I promise I won’t open it until lunch time,” she said.

“It’s all right if you open it up sooner,” I said. “I know you want to show your friends.”

“I’ll open it at lunch time,’ she said.

For a long moment, neither one of us spoke.

I parked and started the short walk with my daughter to school.

I didn’t know what my daughter was thinking or feeling, but I knew what I was thinking and feeling. “I knew you were disappointed that I had to work so I just wanted to surprise you.”

“You did surprise me,” she said.

In front of the lavender tulip tree, my daughter and I embraced. “Happy birthday,” I wished through her freshly straightened hair.

“Thanks, Mom,” she said.

I strolled down the sidewalk, thinking about how different my childhood would have been if my parents had valued imagination over facts. Maybe I would have had a few surprises in my lunchbox instead of the big things that caused so much heartache in the end. As a child, I had very little control over my environment. But as an adult I could act in ways that I felt were not only appropriate but lifesaving. By choosing to take the time and the creativity to show my daughter how much I love her, I was able to fulfill both my role as a provider and my role as a mother without anyone losing anything.

Daughter Knows Best

Trust a Teen or a Publishing Professional?

Last year, amidst the holiday celebrations, I received a letter from my literary agent stating she would no longer represent me. The New York publishers she had pitched my young adult novel to had told her the plot wasn’t engaging enough and the main character was too young.

My daughter tried to encourage me by telling me she would help me rewrite the book so it would attract the attention of another literary agent who would finally sell it.

She kept her promise, read the novel, and critiqued it.

While she was reading and critiquing, I researched current publishing trends. I read young adult novels from The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants to Smart Girls Get What They Want. I filled notebooks with magazine articles and blog posts detailing teen speech patterns, habits, fashion, and concerns. I volunteered to be near teens and chronicled first-hand encounters of student-teacher interactions, relationships between peers, and tensions between grade-levels. I witnessed teens sending secrets texts while pretending to pay attention in class. I overheard stories about how they pirate e-books and music for free from online sites.

When my daughter and I sat down to compare notes on how to approach the rewrite of my young adult novel, our views vastly differed. I wanted to set the novel in present time to use my research, but my daughter wanted to keep the historical context. “It would be fun to learn about a time before cell phones and iPods,” she said. I wanted to start over from page one, but my daughter wanted me to beef up the plot by deepening the romance between the main character and the boy-next-door.

“Rewriting the whole book is a waste of time,” she said. “You only need to change a few things.”

Changing only a few things in the scope of a novel seems daunting. I rewrite like an auto mechanic overhauling an engine. I do not know how to rewrite a book like an auto mechanic performing a tune-up on an otherwise solid engine. But that’s exactly what my daughter had asked me to do.

Of course, I don’t want to listen to her. After all, she’s a teen with limited experience, not a professional who can negotiate a lucrative publishing contract and advance my career. But she insists she knows what she is talking about, as a teen and as a reader. And, being a mother, I have decided it would be best to listen. Because even if the book never reaches hundreds of thousands of teens, it will reach my daughter, who is the only teen who really matters anyway, right?

Poetry…a Priceless Gift


My daughter hates when I write about her. But I’m so proud of her. I can’t help it.

Rose has always been good at math. She intuitively understands abstract concepts and algebraic formulas. But she has always struggled with language arts. She was slow to talk, slow to read, and slow to grasp the structure of a sentence.

A couple of years ago I purchased Rip the Page! by Karen Benke as a gift for my daughter. I had the pleasure and the privilege of meeting Karen at Hedgebrook, a writer’s retreat on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound in the winter of 1997. Karen is a creative writing expert and an award-winning writer. She is the author of the poetry collection, SISTER, and teaches as a Poet in the School. She also offers creative writing workshops for children and adults. Although our busy schedule conflicted with the workshops Karen offered, the book is written to mirror a writing workshop. Rose dove into the workbook-style writing manual designed specifically for children. By the time she finished the book, she had improved her writing skills and increased her confidence as a writer.

She was so confident of her writing skills that she wrote a poem for me on Mother’s Day.

Hummingbird

Mom, you are like a colorful hummingbird
Your soft wings rub against me and comfort me when I am down
Your singing is so beautiful it comforts me more

You wake me up at sunrise with your singing
Then you sit on a branch and watch me
You will never leave my side
Soon I am walking on earth and you are flying right above me

You watch me move ever so softly
You are one of the closest people in my life
You understand me like how you understand the wind

Mom, you give me strength
You are always there for me
You are very special to me
You are my mom and I LOVE YOU WILL ALL MY HEART

After reading the poem, my eyes brimmed with tears of joy and pride. I know my daughter could not have written the poem without Karen’s wonderful instructive writing guide.

If you have a child who loves to read and write, Rip the Page! is a gift that will give back to you just as it has for me through my daughter’s poem.

Watch a video of Karen Benke promoting Rip the Page!