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30 April 2009 @ 08:00 am
new column and novel #1  

I have a new column up at IGMS this month on strong heroines which I am particularly proud of. I think I was able to articulate some beefs and some quirks that I have in a clear way. I hope it inspires some thought and conversation.

THE SHEPHERDESS DAUGHTER was the first novel I wrote as an adult. I worked on it my last year of grad school before I got pregnant. I wrote for 30 minutes each night and got maybe a page or two written each day. It wasn't a bad strategy. I didn't really know what to do with it afterward, though. I had just read Marilynne Robinson's HOUSEKEEPING and I suppose this is a sort of homage to her (Sorry, Marilynne!) I sent it around to agents and editors or anyone I could think of, really, for about a year. Then I tried to form a writing group at Princeton, which didn't work super well since the only thing critical anyone told me was to use "neither/nor" instead of "neither/not."

A couple of years later I was invited to go to a pro/am writer's group at my brother-in-law's Rick Walton and there were some really great authors there. Carol Lynch Williams was among them. She and the others sat through twenty pages of what now seems slow, very self-conscious prose. The funny thing is that when I look back on it, I was nervous, but for all the wrong reasons. I had no idea how bad this was, or how completely unsellable. I had no idea who the audience was, except for "people who liked HOUSEKEEPING," and I had no intention of revising it. I can't believe they let me come back, but they did. And for a long time, Carol told me each week, "This is a lot better than last time," which was true, but sort of sad, looking back over a year or two.

I was thirteen the year my mother told me I was to spend that summer with my grandmother, her mother. I was
careful not to say anything to let her know that I was surprised, though I was. It was the game we played
with each other, the hate game. I refused to admit that what she did had any effect on me. And she pretended
that she did not care whether or not I was effected. We hated each other, but we hated politely and quietly.

It hadn't been until then that I found out that my mother had a mother at all. I had never asked. My mother
probably thought I was simply extending our game to refusing to admit an interest in her past life. But in fact, it had never
occurred to me that my mother might once have been a child with a mother of her own. I suppose I had imagined that my
mother had born and raised herself somehow, perhaps by merely demanding that she come into existence. It didn't
seem such an outrageous idea. She could be quite insistent at time. Another possiblity I had considered was that she had
emerged fully grown out of my father's head, like Athena. My parents were both so much alike, and both so much like my
father's parents, that even then it seemed a likely prospect that they had grown up together with the same parents.
They treated each other like brother and sister and they never spoke about a time before they were together.

If I were critiquing this book now, what would I say? First off, the idea that a kid would not have asked about her grandmother is absolutely ridiculous. Why do people who are trying to write serious novels end up writing ridiculous stuff like that? I don't know. The description of the parents relationship as brother and sister also seems ridiculous. Married couples are usually either happy and not at all brother and sister or they fight a lot. Come to think of it, brothers and sisters fight a lot, too. But that's not the feeling you get from these first two paragraphs.

The biggest problem with this opening, though, is that it is all told and not shown. Yes, I know that is an old saw. It's not always true, but it's true here. The first paragraph would be a great chance to show some fabulous conflict, plus a way to introduce the reader to the family situation head-on. Why do I as the writer not choose to do that? I think because I didn't trust the reader to come up with the conclusions I wanted drawn. And also I didn't know how to write a scene or how to write sizzling dialog or how to show character. I was cheating.

I daresay that no one would willingly read past these first two paragraphs. I never revised this novel. It was one of those that was too close to my heart for me to see what to do, and then later on it was too painful for me to want to fix because it seemed so bad, and so arrogant.

(Anonymous) on April 30th, 2009 04:24 pm (UTC)
"First off, the idea that a kid would not have asked about her grandmother is absolutely ridiculous. Why do people who are trying to write serious novels end up writing ridiculous stuff like that?"

I'd say the answer to that question is:

"I worked on it my last year of grad school before I got pregnant."

I know that I remember more about being a kid than my kids think I do, but there is nothing like being around children to help one remember what children are really like. Some things come with experience.

When I was a freshman in college at age 17, my writing class was assigned an in-class essay in response to a short story. The story was about a boy who has to swim through an underwater cave. It's a narrow space and he comes out the other end bloodied with cuts and bruises, but clearly transformed into a new person. The birth imagery here is incredibly obvious to me now, but I completely missed it back then. There is no replacement for experience.