Thursday, April 1, 2010

One More Victory

Tomorrow is my last day at work.  You have got to take the small victories where you can and certainly tomorrow will be a huge victory for me. I've toiled hard at the job for two years without much love. It is very strange to do something you are good at but not enjoy it very much.  I am sure that I am not the first person to have ever said that or uttered that sentiment.

Moving on.

If you read my post from earlier in the week, or have been following my progress in the Amazon/Createspace Breakthrough Novel Award Contest, you will have found out that I did not make the cut from the pool of 1,000 to the pool of 500.  I didn't make it last year either and that's alright. However, one of the benefits of entering the contest is that you get "professional" feedback from some published writers and literary agents.  You actually get two different sets of feedback.  So, without further ado, here is what the public is saying about the early version of From Here to the Last Mound of Dirt, that very novel that is chronicled on this space and which you painstakingly follow as though your life depended on it - because in reality, it does:

ABNA Expert Reviewer #1

What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?

I like these stories where you have a sort of puzzle to solve--what's going on here, how do these people interact. It's very well handled in this piece.

Descriptions are lush and not intrusive--they aren't just plotzed in the middle of a conversation, slowing things down.

What aspect needs the most work?

Almost all of the voices sound the same. If you're going to do 1 person narrative for a host of characters, they need to SOUND different. I thought James using all those sentence fragments was a style thing to differentiate his voice but...they all do it!

What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?

I'm a little unsure as to where the story is going. Some interesting characters and potential for some really fascinating interactions and the prose is *beautiful*. This would be a good weekend read, but it's a bit slow for a big 'edge of your seat' best seller.

ABNA Expert Reviewer #2

What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?

An old setup -- children returning home after the death of a parent -- is handled well enough that it is interesting. The lack of major conflict between the siblings or Ben and his children is refreshing.

What aspect needs the most work?

There are five narrators in this excerpt. Their voices are too similar. With the exception of Maggie, they all sound alike in their cadence and descriptions. They need to be differentiated by the style of their narration.

What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?

The funeral story, characters gathering after the death of a relative or loved one, is a popular motif. The specifics here: four children returning to their old home to see their father, prepare their mother's funeral, and help sell the old house. In tow is also the wife of the oldest son. Dad's drinking, kept in check for 30 years by his now dead wife, has resumed.

The excerpt avoids the usual cliches. The siblings all get along well enough. They all love their father and vice versa. No long standing resentments are unpacked, no bile unleashed, no verbal acid flung about in this Long Island story.

Each section of the story is narrated by either the father or a child. And therein lies the problem. The narration is pleasant enough. It's just not different enough. The voices are differentiated, except for Maggie the magazine writer, by little more than section headings.

There is an interesting element of mystery in why James, the doctor son, has not told his father or his wife that she's pregnant. Other things -- Liza's guilt at moving away and "killing" her mother, Maggie's annoyance that she is not thought the leader of the children even though she's the eldest -- are not so interesting.
What they actually review is about a 5,000 word excerpt of the novel that you submit along with a pitch as well as the complete manuscript. There are some extremely true words in each of these little reviews and there is a lot to take from it, namely that the voices need to distinguish themselves earlier on in the story. As I see it now, the beginning did suffer due to me writing out each of the voices and finding them as the manuscript went along. When we come to Part III on the blog, those of you who have followed the progress, will see how the voices are certainly more distinguishable.  All very helpful stuff in terms of revision, which can  and usually is the bulk of any creation.
So, job almost over.  Little comments from the outside world on my writing.  Something to build on moving forward.  It's like Todd Rundgren said in the song, "One More Victory,"  "we need just one victory and we'll be alright."  We've got a couple here, and the last time I checked, that song was probably the best song to listen to while watching college basketball on mute and drinking whiskey.  I'm just saying.
Now, the next installment of the riveting and distinguished voice of Section 2 of Part II of From Here to the Last Mound of Dirt:
Mr Kosciuzko looked out of his window as he slowed the limo through the school crossing in front of the Setauket School.  He nodded his head at the statues of Benjamin Tallmadge and Abraham Woodhull at the peaks of the two wings of the school – those honorable American revolutionary spies.  He sighed and felt his heart grow heavy, too, as he drove past the Emma S. Clark library with its beautiful latticed windows, lush landscaping, and wood structure that seemed to be something out of a fairy tale.  Peter checked the time on the library’s small clock tower, which faced the road; it was the same as the time in the limo.  His heart was heavy, because he wished that he could tell a story too.  He wanted to write a story about the town, about all of its landmarks because he found it fascinating and thought that there was some similarity in this town and its history that anyone could relate to.  His grandfather had told him that there was a recluse who used to live in a  barn behind the library.  When his grandfather was a teenager they would spy on the recluse – they named him Hank.  Peter’s grandfather told him that whenever they spied on the recluse they would only see him sitting in the far corner by his candlelamp reading a book, they imagined that it was the Bible.  However, one time his grandfather had gone alone to look at the recluse.  He went at the same time of night he and his friends had always gone at.  However, this specific time when he looked in the window he had seen the recluse masturbating.  His grandfather had been shocked and slipped on the pale and crate he used to peer in the window.  When he looked up from his fall he saw the recluse’s eyes in the small window, the candlelight glowing around and behind them.  The eyes both frightened and full of rage.  His grandfather had been so scared that he didn’t even wipe the mud off his hands as he ran down Old Main Street.  When he was far enough away, he had caught his breath in the street underneath one of the streetlamps and wiped the mud off his hands on the grass.  He noticed a decent gash in the space between his thumb and pointer finger.  When he got home he didn’t try to sneak into the house as he usually did, he simply went in the front door.  His parents asked him where he had been and he told them.  He didn’t tell them what he had seen.  His father gave him the belt that night and, his grandfather said, he didn’t blame him that time.
“You know, Petey,” Mr Kosciuzko’s grandfather had said. “There are times in your life when something happens, could be big or could be small but you realize inside of yourself that you are learning something profound. Maybe you can’t define it then or maybe even ever, but you can feel it.  I think that night, I realized what growing up was.”

Peter took deep breaths as he stopped at the three way stop sign next to the reconstructed Setauket Post Office and the Mill Pond Bridge. There were swans out on the pond and he saw leaves falling off trees. He thought of his grandfather and the vanilla tobacco he smoked with his suspenders and his slicked back hair, always parted to the left.  Peter wished his grandfather’s story of the recluse could have been his.  Why was it that he had nothing in him to tell?  He turned right and continued on Old Main Street.  Maybe it wasn’t that he had nothing to tell, but that he did not know how to tell it.  He believed that every monument had a story – even the Mill Pond with its swans and ice hockey in the winter had a story to it.  However, he probably could not tell the story correctly and after seeing men who could tell a good story, he had to retreat to his driver’s seat.  All of the changes that were seen through his driver’s side window would remain in the repose of his chaffeur’s mind.

Mr. Kosciuzko turned the car left up Ridgeway and along the perimeter of Detmer’s Farm.  He remembered picking pumpkins with his children while the sky grey dark grey over the dirt.  On the left, they passed St. James Church.  Rose O’Donnell had been a fixture at the church.  Peter’s wife, Ellen, hadn’t really been friendly with her, and neither had Peter himself.  But they saw her each time they went to mass, which wasn’t so often, though they weren’t negligent parishioners.  Everyone knew that Rose would be a mass every Sunday and the kids would be there with her, all lined up and dressed neatly – the boys with wet hair.  Mr. Kosciuzko could not ever remember seeing Ben with the whole family at church.  Although, it was more like the Irish to dissent from the Catholic Church than it was for the Italians. Peter could not remember where his identification of Rose O’Donnell as Italian came from, but something told him it was true.  She did have the red hair, but stranger things had happened than an Italian with long red hair.

Peter checked his rearview mirror as they turned back onto Main Street. There was a GMC SUV following him.  He saw the older O’Donnell daughter, Maggie, moving her lips through the divider.  She had the same red hair that Rose O’Donnell had, although not as uniquely beautiful as Rose had been – graceful might have been the better word.  Mr. Kosciuzko’s son, Chris, was about the same age as Maggie.  Peter wondered if Maggie had any children.  They would most likely be riding in the limo.  But Ellen had showed him that notice in the paper a year or two ago that said Maggie O’Donnell’s wedding had been cancelled.  Kids were waiting longer and longer to get married and have children these days. Especially a girl like Maggie O’Donnell who was supposed to be quite the successful photographer.  If you were a woman and successful or even a man and successful at an art or a career, why stop to go through the pain’s of childbirth or father hood?  Peter could understand that point of view.  There was more ambition in the world – he could see that from TV and the internet.  However, there were certain lines he couldn’t draw.  He wasn’t sure if he was losing touch or if he was right.  Too often it seem
ed to him that there was an abundance of ambition, but also indecision and inaction in equal doses.

A Volvo stopped in front of Mr. Kosciuzko and he stamped on the break. There was a light ahead.  He checked his rearview mirror again.  He saw Maggie O’Donnell’s lips moving still.  What was she talking about? What were they all talking about?  He respected the families that kept the sound divider up during the rides, although it always raised his curiousity – a trait he hated about himself.  Maggie reminded him so much of his own daughter Sonya.  It wasn’t Maggie’s appearance that reminded Mr. Kosciuzko of his daughter, it was her reputation.  Peter hadn’t spoken to Sonya in five years – it would be six in the upcoming November.  He knew that Ellen still spoke to her.  The last Ellen had told him, Sonya was teaching to deaf children in Washington D.C.  Before that it was working for some small town newspaper outside of Iowa City.  

The traffic resumed and Peter felt the smooth purr of the engine pick up.  She had run off with Lee when she graduated college. He was from San Francisco and that’s where they moved.  Mr Kosciuzko remembered when she told them.  It rained on her graduation day and they stood under the green awning of the restaurant they were going to eat dinner at.  Peter saw the polished gold and bronze of the bar railings through the tinted window.

“Lee and I have a flight tomorrow. We’re going to San Fran.  I’m sorry this is such short notice. But we’re in love. This is what you’re supposed to do right? Just go?”

Peter had bought her a gilded volume of Aquinas.  He had it wrapped in thin navy wrapping paper with a red ribbon around it.  He held it behind his back as he told her.  Later, as they ate dessert and drank coffee, he pushed it across the white tablecloth, past a wine stain.  He wanted her to keep her mind active after she graduated – to never forget the glow of being a student, of having a wandering and active mind.

“Here, honey,” he’d said.

She smiled at him and the way her eyes glistened, he felt like the child. She teased the ribbon until it fell off and onto her lap. Then she tore the wrapping paper so that it almost evaporated, leaving only the book – the gild of the pages shining in the restaurant ambiance.

“Thank you, dad. Its beautiful.  I’ll always keep it by my bed.”

Sonya held the book to her chest and Lee put his arm around her, pushing his long brown hair to the side with his other hand.  He was unremarkable with his scruff of a beard and glasses, but she seemed to love him. 

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