Pennies from Seventh

This isn’t about writing at all, except that I’m writing about it.  It’s about luck and a lot of other things.  Sometime in August I decided that, although I never play the lottery, I wanted to see if using nothing but “lucky pennies” might make a “lucky dollar” and get me a winning ticket. During the summers  I run most days along a pretty heavily touristed stretch and when school starts I have a brisk twenty-five minute walk each way through downtown San Diego, so I have plenty of opportunity to scan sidewalks. I started picking up pennies and the occasional nickel or dime, and I am now up to fifty cents.

The project seems so silly that I am surprised at how much pleasure it has given me. Today I found two pennies on my walk to school, and I was so excited I sent a text message to my partner. But as I walked on, I started thinking about something that happened during the summer, when I was running along a grass easement in front of the Convention Center.  It was already a good day—about ten minutes into my hour-long run I found a dime in a crosswalk used by conventioneers to get to the Gaslamp District. That will put a spring in the step!

Not more than a minute or two later, I saw a glint in the grass and saw two quarters. Two quarters!  The dime had brought me up to twenty-seven cents at that point, and suddenly I was more than seventy-five percent of the way to my dollar.  I was astonished!

As I ran along, I started thinking about the fifty cents.  It was on a stretch where a few homeless men sack out during the day, and it must have fallen out of someone’s pocket. The rest of the run I pondered a lot of things—starting with how much more important it was to him that he had lost the money than it was to me that I had found it. I started thinking about my desire to get lucky and I realized how it was hard to get much luckier than I already was.

I decided not to keep the fifty cents but to give it to another homeless person.  A tattered, sunburned woman always sitting on a retaining wall near the end of my run and calls out “have a good run!” every time I pass by.  If she was there that day, I would give the money to her.

The rest of the run I was happier about the fifty cents than I was when i first spotted it.  I felt more of a connection to the nameless, faceless soul who patted his pockets and knew the buying power of that money had drained from his life. I thought about how it would make some small difference in the day of the woman I was running toward. But mostly I thought about the Jewish concept of a mitzvah, which is sometimes translated as “good deed” but  is so much more than that.

A mitzvah is when we do something in keeping with God’s intentions for our behavior. Take God out of the equation, and the meaning doesn’t really change that much. The world isn’t fair, and that’s not right. It’s up to each of us to do what we can to bring a little more balance, a little more equity, into it.  Call it dharma, call it words carved by divine lightning onto stone tablets on a mountain in the desert–it doesn’t matter. I couldn’t keep the money because it made the world even more imbalanced than it already was.

As I transported the coins from their old owner to their new one, I didn’t really think of it as a good deed, but about my membership in something bigger.  “Have a nice run!”the woman called out as I strode to a stop.

“I found two quarters back there,” I said with a grin.  “I think they belong to you.”

She jumped up and hugged me, despite the sweat.  “Thank you so much!” she said, almost dancing.

Her name was Kelly. I never thought to ask before.

What happened to the dime? Reader, it’s in the pile on my desk.  Finders keepers!

Maybe there’s a blessing now on my quest for a dollar’s worth of lucky change, but I don’t care.  It’s a game I’ve already won.


At War with My Story

Bad habits are hard to break, and sometimes the most we can hope for is to notice a little more quickly when we are falling into them.  I had just such an experience this week with my revision of novel number five, THE INTUITIVE.

One of the main story elements involves the women’s suffrage movement.  In the course of my research I came to admire deeply the “second generation” of suffragists, women like Alice Paul in the United States and the Pankhursts in England. I really had no ideas how much they endured to get me and all other women the vote.  I wanted to do their story justice in my novel, but i was troubled by one thing.

Suffragist leaders were decidedly middle and upper class and almost exclusively white. This makes sense, for other women probably had more pressing things on their minds.  What is not so easy to feel good about is the insistence, even by some of the suffragists I admire most, not to enlist people of color in the movement.  Many people were uncomfortable with black men voting, and suffragists thought the cause would be hurt if it was pointed out that black women would get the vote too.

I’m sure Alice Paul and the others didn’t consider themselves racist, but simply practical. I’m not going to judge, but still it was something I thought my readers should know and have a chance to ponder for themselves.  So I did what every novelist does–I work my interests into the novel through the thoughts and opinions of my characters.

Zorah Baldwin, my protagonist, has been introduced to the suffragist movement through meeting Alice Paul.  After a parade in which she has been assaulted by paint-throwing protestors, she stands with Alice on the stage of Carnegie Hall, a symbol in her ruined dress, of the strength and determination of the movement.  She should be amazed to be thrust in the spotlight in that way, pleased to be standing next to Alice, and feeling a growing commitment to the movement and greater sense of purpose in her life.

And what do I have her do?  Thoughts pass through her mind about the fact that working women aren’t there because the parade was on a Saturday, which was a working day.  She remembers a comment Alice made about not wanting black suffragist groups to march.  In the middle of a fabulous scene, I just couldn’t resist stepping in to ruin it.

Okay, that might have worked out in the end, except that Zorah, over the next few chapters, makes a deeper and more passionate commitment to suffrage.  My need to throw the negative in at the first opportunity disturbed the arc of the story, because both the reader and Zorah have already found the movement a bit off-putting. Why would she throw herself into it, and why should the reader cheer her on?

The whole story rang a little false now. Zorah could no longer be perceived the way I wanted her to be, if these serious issues were just passing thoughts she subsequently ignored. Nor did I want to write pages showing her struggle with this, just to work in some rationalizations for the reader.

I hadn’t re-read these pages in some time, and when I got to them, the answer was simple. “Get out of the way of the story!” I told myself.  Let her just be thrilled and astonished standing on that stage in her paint-soaked dress.  Let her have no doubts at all about the movement. The rest can wait–after all, this scene happens only halfway through the book.  I just took out the material.  I’ll find a way to work it in later, or maybe not.

I’ve been in wars with my books before.  I wanted to write about the crazy excesses of Venetian convents so badly that I came up with a preposterous plot diversion in THE FOUR SEASONS to have Maddalena go live in one.  Fortunately I caught myself before I’d spent much time and effort, and I’ve learned to accept that I am going to know a whole lot of incredibly interesting things that don’t end up being in my books.

Susan Vreeland has very aptly called such authorial indulgences “research dumps,” and the classism of the suffrage movement was just one of these.  I catch myself more easily now throwing something in just because I know it, and I see this in other writers’ work as well.  I guess I should think of research that isn’t dumped as one of the perks of writing a historical novel.  It’s all still in my head for me to ponder and for readers to discover if my work inspires them to learn more on their own.

Alice Paul unfurling the ratification banner over the railing of the National Woman's Party headquarters on August 26, 1920 -- the day the 19th Amendment was ratified. The banner was one of the most important to the NWP. For every state that ratified suffrage, the members sewed on a star. When Tennessee ratified the amendment, the final star was sewn on.




The Intuitive

The Home Stretch (Sort Of)

Winners at the 2011 San Diego Book Awards

I have completed the first fifteen chapters of my work in progress, THE INTUITIVE, and I now have only three chapters and a short epilogue to go–probably eighty pages or so.  It’s an odd point in the process of writing a book, and my guess is it may be the most misunderstood by non-writers.  Barring the unforeseen, I should be able to finish the first draft by Labor Day, but right now I know from experience I am at no more than the fifty percent mark on the work.

How can that be?  I’m at the eighty percent mark, but only half done?  Here’s  ten reasons why.

  1. The last part is the most intense. I have to continue to weave together and differentiate the stories of a dozen or more characters, most of whom are at pivotal moments in their lives.  In some ways this writing is easier than the first chapters because I know the characters so much better now. On the other hand, I am so much more invested and that can make some of the writing really painful.
  2. My protagonist is involved in some new things in the last few chapters, and that means more research to get the facts right.  There’s no coasting to the conclusion on settings, events, and situations I’ve already described.
  3. Writing is like a continuous loop.  I reread and revise what I’ve already written more times than I could count.  The first two hundred pages of the book are in good shape, the next hundred pretty good but the newly drafted last twenty pages or so will tak almost as much work to revise as to draft.  When you work like I do, you don’t worry about the quality or even a lot of the details as you’re drafting, but the time eventually comes to do that.  So I have more to do than just those last eighty pages.
  4. My first and best critic, my sister Lynn, hasn’t weighed in yet, except to say she likes the first twenty pages.  No one else has seen it at all.  There will be a stage where I make a lot of changes based on early feedback.
  5. Revising is truly an endless process, until the editor says it’s too late to do any more.  The revising now is all on my own initiative to get the book ready to sell, but my agent may want to see some tweaks and the editor may as well.  There will be a hiatus between the time it sells and the editor is ready to pay serious attention to it, but once that happens it is back to the drawing board.  By that point revision is no fun.  I feel done with the book.  I am probably writing another.  Still, these last flurries of work are part of publication too.
  6. Writing the book isn’t all the writing in the book.  I will need to write an afterword where I “fess up” to any little facts I might have adjusted to fit the story, and provide interesting information that isn’t in the novel.  I also will interview myself (yes, most of the author interviews you read in books are done by the author, a discussion guide for book clubs, and anything else that seems like a good idea (glossary, pronunciation guide, timeline, etc.)  It is way easier to do this now than later.
  7. There’s other writing to do too.  I write the copy for the book pages on this website, for example, and may need to write out other materials that will be useful when publication nears.  As above, everything I can do now, while the book is fresh in my mind, I try to get done immediately.
  8. As I get close to publication, the writing becomes intense again, because I am sent questionnaires from bloggers or journalists, and get requests for guest posts on blogs.  For FINDING EMILIE I did around twenty of these, and each takes several hours.
  9. When the book comes out, I need to be prepared to talk about it.  For now, I just need to work on what people call the “tweet pitch” (describe your book in 140 characters) and the “elevator pitch” (describe your book in thirty seconds or less).  Later I will need five minute, twenty minute, forty-five minute, and one hour versions of a “stump speech” about the book.  I will also need to come up with variants on demands for audiences interested in specific aspects of the book (suffrage, planned parenthood, unionizing, Ellis Island, intelligence testing, etc.)
  10. And here’s the biggest reason I’m only half-done:  I keep on believing the book can be better.  I believe this because it’s true.  In every read-through, I see phrasings that could be tightened, details that could be more vivid, important emotional resonance I have missed, characters and settings I’ve lost track of, factual errors I’ve made, and even things as mundane as spacing and typos.

And, might I add, I have other things to do?  Most notably, I am headed off tomorrow to spend the weekend with my college roommates in Napa, California.  I have been trying not to let more than two weeks pass between posts, so I am writing this instead of packing!  At some point this weekend, I’ll raise a glass and toast the beautiful muse who has made my life so interesting and rewarding.  For now, I just need to figure out if I need one pair of shorts or two.