What A Difference a Word Makes

Well, I’ve just frozen my credit accounts, directed a check to the Red Cross, called a person whom I don’t know to ask why she sent a letter that indicated my mother, age 102, has an insurance policy. (Turns out she does, protecting her cremation plan from Medicaid) and then I delivered to a bank the monthly Mom/Nana checks from her children and grandchildren to cover the fees in her adult foster home. After that I sat for an hour waiting for Medicare or Medicaid or anyone to answer the phone and tell me if she is eligible for funds to help her family pay her bills. I finally gave up. I electronically deposited a small check from my publisher before I was tempted to say What the hell and get a pedicure with it.  All that this morning.  Business.  No writing, only a little reading during the long phone wait. No walk around the park to get my legs moving in a normal, not alarming, way.
 At noon I called a friend, a very good friend who is not feeling good these days, and wished her well. Talking to her was the best part of my To Do list. The second-best part, an hour later, was a self-reward glass of wine on the terrace and the realization that this was the first time I’ve seen blue sky in two weeks. The wind has sifted; the smoke from Eagle Creek is headed in another direction.
The business part of this day had accumulated during the previous week as I plowed through the hundreds of red lines on the manuscript to my editor sent back, not with accolades but with notes: “This character’s name was different on page 30;” “Did you really mean to skip what happened after he hit her?” “The little I know about gonorhea doesn’t include bed care, and it’s spelled differently,” and so on. I finished, depressed and exhausted by the eradication of red lines, and spent this morning trying to distract my depression by frantic busy-ness.
 After giving silent thanks for the return of the blue sky and my glass of wine, I went to my computer. My publisher had emailed: “Jo, we love your writing; send the next one and we’ll be glad to look at it.”
No promises, of course, but the words, We love your writing, wiped out of any remnants of my despair. I celebrated with another glass of wine and understood how words can change a day if not a life. I hope I am able say something that powerful to someone else tomorrow. I’ll start with, I love how you. . .”


I’ve always known how my books will end.  Begin with a character or two, get them in trouble, get them out of trouble, or changed, and end with most everybody as happy as flawed humans can be.  If I have a bad guy, he’s dead or redeemed.  I know my protagonist and antagonist well; I keep their biographies beside my computer and sometimes these folks get a little angrier or sexier or more understanding than I had planned.  So do my real friends as I get to know them better.
However, with this new story, I decided to “let the characters lead me,” as some novelists claim happens and they have led me to Google, dozens of times, because they keep developing in ways I hadn’t anticipated. The book starts with a depressed woman failing at committing suicide. Her son saves her. A new neighbor who is black becomes her friend, a hedge between their houses becomes a metaphor, the husbands of the women are war-damaged men, their children have/are problems.  When I started, this began as a look at depression, a symptom of a number of women, including myself at times. 
In order to follow my characters, every time I sit down (and I’m at 40,000 words), I find myself going to Google. The setting is just after the VietNam war ends. My Google searches are to determine if what I’m writing is anachronistic, since I had young children at that time and did not do much except go to their hockey games and warn them that TV would make them blind and popular music deaf.
So far, my list of searches includes slang terms for Asians, Elvis Presley, antibiotics, weapons used in the Korean and Viet Nam wars, disposable diapers, autism, Down syndrome, grenade blasts, battle fatigue/shell shock/PTSD, how the vas deferens are surgically, and by war injuries, severed, (U tube has a video I couldn’t stop looking at), drug treatment centers, the VA hospital,  Dagwood, Laverne and Shirley (which seems funny even forty years later),  Legos, DNA,  Goodwill sheltered workshops, group homes, state institution, pancreatic cancer, divorce in the 70’s, Ed Sullivan, and more, including hedge trimming.
If nothing else, I have been educated by this study of the Seventies, a decade I don’t really remember. I have recovered some dim pieces of my past and I now know when Presley died and the year our soldiers were airlifted out of Saigon, the first use of DNA. My book is trying to get itself to a climax and a conclusion, and Google and I are struggling to help it get there. As I said, I still don’t know what that will be, but I’m enjoying the trip. Here is the first paragraph of what I’m calling right now, You’ve Come to the Right Place.”
Iclose my eyes, my lips. Only my nostrils move as they take in what air is left. Soon, I think. Plastic film pulls taut against my nose. Now, I think.

A scream slices through the soothing fog, makes me open my eyes. “Mom!  Mom!”

I am rolled over. Cool air floods across my face. Not now, I mourn. “You weren’t supposed to come home until five.”

            I watch my son’s face crunch into its usual confusion. “We finished early. Why are you lying down on the grass?” I feel his arm slip under my neck as I struggle to sit up. “Why did you put on this grocery bag?” 

            My head on his shoulder, I smell the sweat his anxiety has stirred up.


I’ve just cut to pieces, reassembled, re-read and edited my next novel which still doesn’t have a title and if things go as they have been, perhaps not even a life.
What happened to this story that I had created at my computer and in bed at my usual wake-up hour of 3:00 a.m. is that I couldn’t decide at first from which viewpoint I’d tell the story: the fifteen-year-old girl who was in the middle of escaping an abusive relationship at a homeless camp under a local viaduct or that of the seventy-year-old childless woman at whose door the girl appears one night saying, “Hello, Grandma.”
An early morning inspiration decreed that I’d tell this story from both viewpoints, alternate the chapters, and one would be told in present tense, the other in past tense. A kind of challenge to me, the writer.  All went pretty well. I had to keep track of what was happening two chapters before the one I was writing and somehow keep the timeline the same for each viewpoint version. When the girl opens the door and sees her abuser sitting on the porch (her POV), the old lady will hear the conversation and call the police (her POV), one chapter later. 
I somehow did this for two hundred pages. Then I read what I had written. The opening chapter had no hook, the story had an arc but it arced weakly in two places and the tension I had hoped for dissipated into ho- hum. The story might have been interesting, but the telling wasn’t.
So I did what I’ve done before with at least one other first draft. I cut it into pieces and laid them out on our bed. I pushed the pieces around, moving the third chapter (one that caught even my attention) to the opening chapter of the book, and combined the two arcs into one big arc involving both my characters. Then I gathered up the results of the efforts on the bed, stapled the piles all together, and realized when I looked them  over that I’d lost what I wanted to establish when I started, POV and tenses. Plus, the story read as if I’d put it together in a Sunbeam Mix Master
I have bandaged this sad wounded story with edits and re-writes for more than two weeks now. It’s not healed yet. I’m almost sure its condition is terminal.
Sometime this early morning I remembered a book written by William Styron, I believe, describing his bout with depression during the writing of a novel that just wasn’t going anywhere, no matter what he tried.  He, or a writer like him, sat one evening, silent, at a table as guests talked and laughed around him. Suddenly, the writer got up from the table, went into his study, picked up his manuscript, grabbed a shovel in the back hall, went outside, dug a hole, and buried the sucker in the vegetable garden.
I guess my novel is lucky I live in a condo with four small pots of geraniums on the terrace and no shovel.

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