Saturday, October 11, 2008


For the past seven years, I've been working on a novel set in Paris after World War I. It's almost finished and the sense of post-partum depression is tangible. My characters, major, minor and passing, are leaving home, and probably happy to do so. I haven't been kind to all of them. Some died after painful illnesses, others became drug addicts, one commits suicide. There were injured feelings, divorces, bloody noses, and a lot of sleeping around.

The book took a long time to write because, basically, I am a lazy writer. I try to get a few pages a day and don't always succeed, and my writing ratio is three- or four-to-one. I other words, I write three or four pages for every page I keep. There are days when when not a single sentence makes it.

During the rewrite stage, more pages get sacrificed. Entire scenes that provide nothing to the development of the book--scenes that may make me feel good, or erudite, or allow me to show off--get whacked.

When the first draft is finished, I give it to a couple of good friends whose judgements I trust. More scenes and pages vanish, but at this point, some new pages are added as well. Frankly, it gets boring for everyone, including me. This is when I go from writer to bricklayer.

The skills involved here are different: grammar, orthography, continuity. If one of my guys is 40 when the book begins, he has to be older at the end. Don't laugh--errors like this happens and even gifted editors have been known to let one slip through. Names have to be spelled correctly throughout, facts double-checked. This is particularly true when writing historical fiction, because there will always be someone--and probably several someones--who know more about what I've just written than I do.

And then, of course, I have to make sure that nowhere have I employed my particular pet peeve, the deus ex machina escape clause.

In ancient Greek and Roman drama, this is when a god is introduced into a play to resolve the entanglements of the plot. In modern writing, it implies using an artificial or improbable device to end the difficulties of a fictional situation.

I abhor deus ex machina.

Many years ago I read a who-dunnit set on a tropical island. The book had everything: spies, robbers, murderers, dope dealers, beautiful naked women and pirates. It wasn't a big book, maybe 300 pages, tops, and it became obvious by page 290 that the writer would not be able to resolve the various story lines he had established. So he got all his characters into a restaurant, and.... he blew up the boiler and killed them.

I was so angry at the waste of my time reading this piece of trash that I scribbled highly descriptive obscenities on the inside cover and mailed it to the publisher. I added a note saying I would never purchase a book from that house again.

They never wrote back.

Here's installment 50 of Wasted Miracles.

Chapter 13

Mollie Catfish’s conception began with a lie and the pattern of her life was fixed from that day on.
When Billy Raoul (Boy) Custis and Tammy Coe were clotheless from feet to waist down near Skag Lake, Missouri, and Boy was in and on top of Tammy, he said, “I won’t come in you. I promise.” But he lied, and he did. Later, he’d say he couldn’t help himself so that it wasn’t really his fault. Even later, he’d add the baby wasn’t his, didn’t look like him and anyway Custis men always fathered boys, which, since Tammy’s baby was a girl, was all the justification Boy needed to leave Skagville and Tammy behind.
Tammy knew the child was his, but since she hadn’t really wanted to marry Boy, she felt a certain relief when he left town. She would raise the little girl herself with the help of family and church and everything would work out fine. Except that it didn’t. The child was taken in by the state on the eve of her first birthday when Tammy eloped with Billy Raoul Custis’ younger brother Joe. Joe was willing to take Tammy with him to California but he didn’t want children. Children would get in the way, cramp their style. After a few minutes’ consideration, Tammy found she agreed. Motherhood had not been as fun as she’d expected, in fact it hadn’t been fun at all and everyone is entitled to a second chance. So Joe and Tammie left the infant on the steps of the Skagville Baptist Church in a pink plastic basket Tammy bought for the occasion at K-Mart.
The baby was quickly adopted by a childless couple from the northern part of the state and almost as quickly given back to the authorities. She was colicky, whiny, rarely slept at night and the young couple couldn’t stand it after a month. She was placed in six foster homes in four years. Somehow things never worked out. The little girl played with matches and set things on fire; she ruined her clothing on purpose; she liked to run around the neighborhood without a stitch on. By the time she was six years old the authorities seldom bothered to show potential parents her file and she was relegated to a series of state-run schools where she read voraciously, got A’s in English and failed every other subject.
One thing she discovered before she was six was that she often got punished when telling the truth. This didn’t make much sense but there it was. An artful, disciplined lie would get her through better than an unvarnished truth. She tested this theory many times and it proved faultless, got to the point where everything she did and said radiated honesty but was its opposite. She learned that simple lies were better than complicated ones, but that an occasional outrageous fabrication could serve her well. Sometimes she herself came to believe the lies she told and that helped too, it made remembering the past a bit easier and her own history more acceptable.
When she was twelve she seduced the school’s janitor in a broom closet that smelled of Pine-Sol and Windex. She persuaded the young, slow-witted man to drive her across the state line to Jolieville and to give her his life savings of $272.27 as well as a change of clothes he stole from his sister. The jeans fit, though the T-shirt was tight across her top which enabled her to lie about her age and get a job in a roadhouse serving beer and boilermakers to good old boys who drove trucks interstate. One of the drivers took a fancy to her and for six weeks she criss-crossed Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, South and North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. She charged $40 a day plus meals and would do pretty much anything the man wanted whether the truck was moving or not. The driver thought this was a good deal, considering the girl didn’t eat much, kept quiet and had a knack for tuning in good country stations. There was close to $2000 in twenties and fifties when she stole his wallet.

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