When Writing Isn't Easy
Updated: Jun 8, 2021
My dear readers,
Next month, I'll be as old as my parents were when they died and they died young. I've always wondered if the sins of the fathers and mothers would be visited upon their children, and now that I'm approaching the age at which they died, I find myself in a hurry to finish a novel I've been working on since March of 2019 - Love Letters From Appalachia.
Since I have always had jobs where writing was required (I used to be a stringer for AP and UPI years ago), I thought writing a novel about the love letters of my ancesters and a present-day romance would be easy - and it was. I wrote my first draft in two weeks - 265,000-plus words. No one has ever, nor will they, accuse me of being brief with my words - in writing or otherwise. :)
I've been a talker since birth. Then the hard part came. Editing. Rewriting what I have written. After doing this for a year on my own and only reducing my word count by 55,000 words, I decided to take a class to help me structure my novel and reduce the word count. Surely, experts can help me with this, right?
Wrong. After the first semester, I retooled my upcoming novel, but the huge parts I took out, I replaced with other words, more dialogue between characters, bridges to span the prose I removed. I'm only 4,500 words down from the 210,000 I started with in February. My goal was to cut the word count in half. It was an epic failure. And I hate what I've rewritten.
My problem is that I like my novel. No, it's not filled with a first person point of view and information only given through dialogue, which is the popular method of writing today. Narration in novels has taken a backseat to first person point of view. It's...well, boring to most readers. We want to be part of the action, to ride along in the cool car with James Bond, or to be in the room with the drug addict who just can't seem to quit her meth habit. We want to feel what these people are feeling. We are no longer satisfied with just being voyeuers. And we want short books. We want our authors to "show, don't tell," and write Pulitzer-worthy prose in 70,000 words or less because there are so many distractions out there today and we want to move on to the next book in the series to find out what happens (which keeps authors in a regular paycheck as well). No backstory to characters - who cares what happened to them as a child unless it's discussed briefly with a trusted friend or even an adversary?
Writing styles change. Her Pollyanna views of slavery aside, Margaret Mitchell could never have sold Gone With The Wind today. It was full of backstories, narration concerning the characters, detailed descriptions of the gowns and changes of clothing for women (and the strict rules governing dress while mourning the loss of a dead spouse) that were necessary in wealthy Victorian America, and meticulous descriptions of the military maneuvers surrounding the Battle of Atlanta. I'd pay money to have a millennial (although the first of that generation reached 40 this year) or a Gen Z kid read Mitchell's entire book and give me a book report. I'm not sure many of them could do it, at least not without a long diatribe on Mitchell's incredibly naive view of slavery and how kindhearted, wealthy white planters viewed the house slaves as family and not property. And they'd be right, of course. Mitchell's romantic view of a terrible time in our country's history when African Americans were bought and sold like stocks and bonds is dated and repulsive to the 21st century reader. That's as it should be. Books that rewrite or gloss over the horrific parts of history should always be read with that fact in mind - but they should still be read nonetheless.
While I've read Mitchell's book and have taken it for what it was for its time, I still love the way she writes - without any attention paid to the pedantic details of planned writing in every single scene: Exposition, Inciting Incident, Rising Action, Dilemma, Climax and Denouement (or decision). She wasn't putting a story grid over every chapter to make sure she met each one of those elements in her writing. She had a story to tell and she told it. The entire third chapter of her only novel is devoted to the history of Gerald and Ellen Robillard O'Hara, the protagonist, Scarlett O'Hara's parents. She goes into minute detail about how Gerald O'Hara made his fortune, how he met his wife, her history of a love affair with a cousin with wild ways and why she married a man 30 years her senior (she married him out of spite because she could never have the man she loved; he died in a bar fight in New Orleans, and she never forgave her family for breaking them apart). Mitchell gives meticulous details about their early married life, about the three little boys they lost, all in graves marked "Gerald O'Hara", how Ellen made Tara an elegant place to live out of what was largely a thrown together architectural nightmare, and how she ran the plantation at the tender age of 15 - because that was a woman's job and not a man's. His job was to play cards, ride horses and drink whiskey all day.
Why all of this torturous detail? Because without it, you'd never know why Scarlett was the person she turned out to be - and it wasn't the person Selznick made her out to be in the Oscar winning movie. She was much deeper than that, much more complex and intelligent. Our past and that of our ancestors has a profound influence on us, though we don't realize it until we're facing our own mortality. That's what Love Letters From Appalachia is about. The influence of our ancestors, not just from our DNA but from the people they were and those traits they passed down to their children, and their children's children.
The quote from Mitch Albom on my website motivated me in part to write Love Letters From Appalachia. I was reaching the age where people in my family departed this life early. My parents. My paternal grandmother. My maternal great-grandparents. Two cousins. All died at the age of 64. So I dragged out my letters and the story that had resided in the most inner recessess of my mind for over 25 years, and I wrote my first draft.
I hoped to publish my novel this spring, but it will be 2022 before I do, if then. Sometimes writing takes time. A lot of time. And patience. I hope I'll outlive the family curse so I can publish it and find someone else who loves my story as much as I do. It took Charles Frazier 10 years to write Cold Mountain. Before he became a best selling author, he was the principal at the school where my maternal grandmother taught school and where my mother attended school years ago. I hope it doesn't take me that long to get this novel into print, but I want it to be something my readers will love. A story of family and a new love story within an older one. Be patient with me. In the meantime, I'll leave my short stories here for you to read. Please comment when you're finished with them. I need to know what you think so I can make my writing better. After all, it's you I'm writing for - you, and the people who came before me who will never read my words, but know their story is also mine.
I am always grateful for your time and attention. I know it's a precious commodity these days as we hopefully head out of the pandemic and back into our former lives, though I think they'll have changed forever in many respects. My next short story will be out soon. I'll give you a head's up when it is.