Thursday, August 8, 2013

Page One, Once Again

I’m rewriting the first novel I ever wrote and I can just say, AURGH. I decided to resurrect it when I was asked to participate in a boxed Christmas set with the awesome writers Authors of Main Street. I didn’t have a Christmas story, and to be included I have to have one by October. After some dithering I decided I could turn the first novel I ever wrote into a Christmas feel good sort of thing. Shouldn’t take too long, I thought. Won’t be too hard, I thought.
It’s not a horrible story. But just to illustrate the difference of 16 years of daily writing and countless workshops, classes and writers’ groups, here’s page one, before and after.

A Light in the Attic
(about 1997)
At the end of Elm Street, on the edge of a grove of orange trees, there stood a stately California Craftsman home. Surrounding the home was a curved path that wandered through gardens of azaleas gardenias, and roses and other flowers so pungent that their fragrance could brings fits of dizziness.

The sweetness of the evening was punctuated by the words tumbling out of the open window. “On a wing of frosty air, I hear thy prayer and my soul delights in the reverence. I feel thy presence and your longing for love and whisper peace to thy bosom. I will answer thee with a kiss.” The poet’s words circled the room, tickling the imagination of those seated on the heavy mahogany chairs and those perched on the velvet sofas.

A coyote on the edge of the arroyo cocked his head to the unfamiliar rhythmic voice, and a bunny enjoying a late night snack in the kitchen garden paused to listen, but Claude, sitting in the warmth of the café, close enough to touch the poet, Clavell, was oblivious.

Deirdre was his only thought, his only desire. He leaned forward, his muscles taut as if he were preparing to leap or flee.

(Notice there isn't a point of view character for almost the entire first page.)

Christmas Lights in the Attic (still working on title)

His only thought, his only desire—Deidre. Claude leaned forward, his muscles taut as if preparing to leap or flee. Sweat beaded under his oily bangs and he swiped it away, hoping his beloved wouldn’t notice. Claude shifted in his chair, fondled his tea cup, fingered his cookie and picked it to tiny crumbs while his gaze lovingly caressed Deidre’s slim figure. Mentally, he toyed with her dangly earrings and he tasted the sweet skin behind her ear.
                “On a wing of frosty air, I hear thy prayer—” Clavell, the man at microphone, droned on.
                What could such a person know of love? Claude wondered. The poet was handsome, in a slick, shallow sort of way. He probably didn’t know, hadn’t experienced, the pain of unrequited love—a love measured in decades, not mere years or months. Clavell perched on a stool near the great stone fireplace, a microphone in his hand. He didn’t read, but recited his memorized poetry.
                Grudgingly, Claude admired Clavell’s to share his feelings because Claude’s own emotions raged in his chest and he feared that soon his love would burst, and that his proclamations would spill out of him and interrupt the poetry reading. He imagined all his fine and tender words lying in front of him, sullied by exposure. The café patrons would lift their feet as his passion poured from him, staining the hard wood floor with his love.
Feeling desperate, Claude rooted through his postal sack until he found a pen and a flier with printing on only one side. He flipped over the flier—an advertisement from an air-conditioning company addressed to Mrs. Blanchard. Knowing old Mrs. Blanchard would never pay to air-condition her tiny condo, Claude began to write.
                In the soft moonlight I will whisper my love and you will answer with a kiss. His mind grappled for a word that rhymed with kiss while his gaze slid back to the poet. Maybe the poetry thing was harder than he had imagined.

(Look for this untitled story sometime in November.)

When I first started the rewrite/revision/overhaul I was tweaking every single sentence, obliterating clichés, passive verbs and run on sentences. I think at page 50 I decided that it would be easier to write something totally new. But after some thought I came up with a working strategy. I now read a scene and rewrite it. I don’t try to save anything except the gist of the story. It’s a rare and lucky sentence that survives. By the time I'm still tweaking, so when I finally publish the book, the first page will probably read very differently. 

I'm so glad that this first book didn't sell. If I had published then I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't have taken all the classes and workshops. I wouldn't have learned to work so hard at tweaking and obliterating.

My yoga instructor is fond of saying, “Let go of everything you don’t need.” This is a good philosophy for writing, yoga and life.

What do you think of the two versions of my page one?


  1. I think I like V2 better. I like getting right into the character's head and hear what they are thinking. The imagery is nice and beautiful, but I like identifying with a character first.

  2. Seems like the more I write, the more I learn. And those classes, books, and critique groups help a lot too. Although I enjoyed both versions, the second one is clearly more compelling. Good job! I'm looking forward to reading the complete story when it's published.