Monday, December 28, 2009
Friday, December 18, 2009
I don't have the answers to these questions, but I find it comforting to know that I'm not alone in my sensory short-sightedness. So now I'd like to do a little exercise with you - one that you can do at home, or wherever you might be spending the holidays. At the moment, I happen to be in a fantastic place for sensory overload - Australia. I've never been to a subtropical continent before, so this is all very new to me. We touched down in Sydney yesterday morning (which is technically tomorrow for all of you in the States ... I think ... ? :-]-). I took a long walk through the area where we're staying (Bronte) and here was my sensory response (an abridged version, that is, because I could go on and on ...)
SIGHT - I was thrilled by the sight of rainbow-colored "lorrikeets" flying out of stubby, waxy-leaved trees so they could perch on low, red-tiled rooftops.
SOUND - I found myself startled every time I heard what sounded like a toddler babbling, followed by a monkey shrieking, only to realize I was listening to bird calls.
SMELL - I couldn't get away from the fragrant odor of eucalyptus oil mixed with a hint of sea brine, and I didn't want to!
TOUCH - It started to drizzle on my way home, and I felt as if I was being followed by a personal assistant continually spraying me with a fine lukewarm mist.
TASTE - When I got home, I opened a bottle of Australian Cab-Merlot and swished the fruity, woody liquid around in my mouth before swallowing.
I'm going to try and do a new five senses exercise every day I'm here (but I promise not to bore you with any more of them!)
FIGURING IT OUT AS I GO: Do you have trouble bringing all 5 senses to the forefront of your writing? Maybe this is because you, like me, don't always make the time to be aware of all that you're sensing in your own life. Try this little exercise wherever you are and see if it sharpens your writing ... I'd love to read YOUR sensory experiences!
Sunday, December 13, 2009
If you're like me, you're careful to show your writing only to people whom you trust, i.e., people who you believe will give you strong, constructive feedback. But sometimes one can get blindsided. I want to tell you a little story about something that happened to me when I sent my first unpublished novel around for informal review.
I sent a copy to an individual (let's call the person Sam) who runs an independent publishing company. Sam is a very nice, helpful person in general, and a friend of one of my good friends/BEs. I had met Sam before and found them to be warm and intelligent. (All the markings of an excellent beta reader, right?)
That's why it shocked the socks off me when Sam ripped my manuscript apart (not literally, although they might as well have.) Now here's where I want to pause and deconstruct exactly why this person's critiques were so jarring, and in my opinion, detrimental. My novel was a faintly auto-biographical coming-of-age tale with a criminal trial in the background (that part was pure fiction!) The nuts and bolts of the trial were not so important as how it affected the family. Sam's comments were along the lines of, "I wasn't at all interested in the family's dramas; why didn't you make the trial the center of the book?; I think you should have gone into detail about the politics behind the case," etc.
My first reaction: "Sounds like a fascinating book, but it's not the one I'm writing." I think I actually told Sam that, along with thanking them for taking the time to read my manuscript and to give me feedback. But in all honesty, I wished I'd never given my writing to this person. I felt numb, and in shock. And most of all, my instincts told me that something wasn't right about what I'd just been told.
I shared the experience with my friend who knows Sam, and she was immediately sympathetic. She pointed out that Sam publishes mostly politically-oriented non-fiction, and it did not surprise her, in restrospect, that they would be so focused on the criminal trial aspect. But my friend, who used to work in publishing, also acknowledged that Sam's critiques were just plain out of line. She validated my hunch that a good beta reader/editor should respect the genre and goals of the author, and not try to impose their own literary vision of the world on the writer. (I later met a professional copy editor who said the same thing.)
So what can we take away from all this? See below ...
FIGURING IT OUT AS I GO: Does the feedback you're getting pass the "smell test," i.e., are your instincts telling you there's something foul about it? I'm not talking about getting all touchy when someone tells you something you don't want to hear about your writing (fyi, one of the best critiques I ever received was from a BE who said, "Your protagonist is completely mechanical, you can do better than this, Cammie!") It's key to remember that your reader/editors' role is simply to bring out the best in YOUR writing, not to try and turn you into a ghost writer for their own ideas.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
(Brief formatting note re Chapter 1 - the section you read the other day is separated from the one below by "***").
Marcus awoke with a start. He tried to open his eyes, but there was something covering the left one, and the right one was having difficulty focusing. Light flooded into the room, exacerbating his throbbing headache. He closed his eyes and reached for the top of his head, which was covered with a bandage.
“No, no, don’t touch that, Darling.” That doting, chirping voice, bathed in a faint vapor of gin and vermouth, could belong to none other than Marcus’s mother, Minnie. He wrenched open his right eye and could almost make out her diminutive frame, haloed by the deluge of light all around her.
“Where am …”
Birdlike fingers were now stroking and tugging at the bandaged cap on Marcus’s head. “Your beautiful hair, all mashed down like that. You’ll look a fright when they take this thing off, but don’t you worry. As soon as they let you go, we’ll run you right over to Alfred’s to get it washed and cut and …”
“Mother, where am I? What …”
“Hush now, my angel. Don’t get yourself worked up. Everything’s going to be fine. The doctors say you’ll make a full recovery.”
“Oh, there was some kind of trouble down on Wall Street today, a bomb or something.”
Minnie’s nonchalance in reporting a bomb explosion, especially in light of her sincere anxiety over her son’s mussed hair, might have seemed odd, disturbing even, to a passerby, if there had been any. But not to Marcus.
The world was rapidly coming into focus through his right eye now, although his mind still felt somewhat mired in a fog. As suspected, he was in a hospital bed, in a hospital room. It appeared to be a private room, for which he was grateful. The only other person in the room was his mother, who perched on a metal chair at his foot. She must not have been there long because she was still bundled in her fox-tail coat, the one she wore from September to May because of her tendency to get chills.
Marcus attempted a smile at his mother to show her that he was glad she had come, but the tension in his face muscles triggered a painful jolt to the back of his head, and he yelped. Minnie was out of her chair and hovering once more.
“I’m alright, just a little pain in the back of my …”
“Well I should say. You suffered a nasty blow to the top of your head. But don’t worry, it didn’t do any permanent harm. There was a nice doctor in here just before you woke – I can’t remember his name, unfortunately – anyway, he said at the very worst, you might have the teensiest little red scar underneath your hair, but that’s it. You’ll be back at Yale in no time.”
Yes, of course, I have to get back to school, Marcus thought. Life has to return to normal. No time to stop and take stock of what had just happened. That’s the way Minnie had raised him: you put on a smile and act as if everything is just fine no matter what blows life deals you. As a boy, Marcus had admired his mother’s ability to maintain a stiff upper lip after his father had left them, and again after Edgar, Minnie’s second husband, ran off right after the twins’ birth. It was only in recent years that Marcus realized his mother’s stoicism was made up of about twenty percent personal resolve, with the rest being attributed to some combination of gin, vodka, and whisky.
There was a light rap at the door, which stood ajar. A pale-faced, be-speckled man of indeterminate age entered the room. Marcus noticed his mother sit up straight, pushing a wayward auburn curl back behind here ear and straightening her feathered cap. She then stood up, flashing the doctor her brightest smile.
“No need to get up, Mrs. Beaulieu. Good afternoon, Mr. Torrington. How are we feeling?”
“Alright. My head hurts a little, but that’s about it.”
“That’s what we like to here. That little lug nut came at you at an alarming speed. It could have killed you had it hit a few inches lower. Thankfully, all it did was knock you unconscious. And here we are now, wide awake.”
The doctor smiled, not in anyone’s particular direction, and Minnie smiled at him. According to them, that was about all that needed to be said.
“What exactly happened?”
The doctor shook his head, half-smiling, half-frowning in a way that made him look like a circus clown. “There was an explosion downtown, a bomb they think. Probably the work of the Bolsheviks, the Anarchists, maybe. I’m sure the IWW had a hand in it somehow.”
Minnie clucked in distaste at the mention of the radical socialist trade union. Marcus’s mind was slower to process the doctor’s words. Anarchic unionists bombing the stock exchange. His grandfather would have been the first to say, “Let’s not jump to any conclusions. Just because someone’s working class and a unionist, it doesn’t make them a terrorist.”
Suddenly, the misty fog in Marcus’s mind dissipated and he bolted upright in a panic. “Where’s Grandfather?”
Marcus felt his mother and the doctor’s hands pressing him back against the bed. Minnie was cooing “there, there”s and the doctor was mumbling, “Take it easy, champ.”
“Where is he?”
“Don’t worry, champ, he’s in good hands.”
“Good hands?” Marcus sat up again, but this time, he was not going to be pushed back down. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Marcus didn’t give a damn at that moment about his mother’s embarrassment in front of the doctor. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” The last word got lost deep in Marcus’s throat. He fell back against the bed and shut his eyes, squeezing them tight to stem off tears. His head was pounding so hard that he did not recognize the pulsating beats as coming from his own body.
“No, your grandfather is not dead, son.”
Marcus opened his eyes. “He’s not?”
“No.” The doctor hesitated, and then smiled like a fool. “Mr. Torrington, your grandfather is in good hands down at Broad Street Hospital. They’re keeping him in the intensive care unit there.”
Marcus sat up slowly. “Intensive care? In a different hospital?”
Minnie chimed in: “That’s where they took everyone after the blast. It was a ghastly sight. I absolutely insisted they transfer you up here, so you could be near home. Unfortunately, your grandfather’s condition didn’t allow for him to be moved.”
“Yes,” the doctor said, “your grandfather apparently sustained some rather substantial injuries from the blast. I had my nurse telephone over to Broad Street, and she reported that Mr. Torrington is in stable condition at the moment, although it’s difficult to say how soon, or how completely, he’ll recover.”
“What are you saying? Can he talk? Can he see? Can he walk? What?”
“There, there, no need to shout, Darling.”
“Mr. Torrington, I’m sure the good doctors at …”
“Answer me!” Every muscle in Marcus’s body seemed to be twitching, so much so that he couldn’t move. He could not do what he wanted, which was to climb out of the hospital bed and shake this grinning idiot until the facts fell from his gaping mouth.
A secret button must have been pushed, because a slim young nurse in pristine white appeared, her arms draped beside her shapeless hips. In her right hand was a syringe. Marcus decided not to fight. He glanced calmly from his mother’s pitying expression to the doctor’s condescendingly serene gaze, and then looked up at the serious young woman, who whispered, “This won’t hurt, Mr. Torrington.”
“Sure, whatever,” Marcus said, offering up his left arm. He closed his eyes and allowed himself to drift into downy nothingness. For years to come, when the anxiety gripped his throat at night and threatened to choke the life out of him, he would try to remember this deep sleep over all else that had happened that day.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
That September morning had been so eerily bright and blue that Marcus would later wonder if some cosmic force had been trying to warn him, and everyone else ambling along Wall Street that day, to be on high alert. He would chastise himself for running early, for once, that morning. His grandfather had made a luncheon reservation at Fraunces Tavern, just around the corner from his William Street office, but that was for twelve-thirty. Had Marcus arrived closer to the appointed hour, they would have gone directly to the restaurant by way of South William, instead of strolling up William and down Wall Street to kill time. However, these thoughts did not yet occupy Marcus’s mind that day when he met the tall, commanding figure whose dark eyes and thick, wavy hair - no longer chestnut but ash-colored - looked so much like his own, add forty-seven years.
Even though he had been to his grandfather’s office at least a dozen times over the years, Marcus still found himself awed and humbled by the grandiosity of it all. His eyes darted from intricately molded ceiling to gilt and mirrored wall as the two men walked from the office of Torrington Wilke Baker to the elevator bay. They stepped into the elevator and Marcus’s grandfather nodded to the short attendant wearing a crisp red suit. The operator punched and pulled the cage’s brass buttons in a deliberate way that made him appear very proud of his role in controlling access to and from this megalithic granite tower.
“I feel honored you decided to spend your day off down here with me, Marcus.”
“I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the day.”
Oliver Marcus Torrington the First laughed in that low, rumbling way that had always made Marcus feel safe and secure as a child. “The last thing I would have wanted to do on a day off from my first week at Yale would have been to spend time with my family. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my father. But he never seemed to want to stray more than half a mile from the Edenbrook campus.” The creases around Oliver’s deep-set eyes multiplied as his lips tightened. “Seven years at that damn place was enough for me.”
Marcus and his grandfather rode the rest of the way to the lobby in silence. Marcus knew better than to make some glib comment when his grandfather brooded about the past. Oliver’s peers at Edenbrook had made it clear to him at an early age that the son of an Academy history teacher was not, and never would be, one of them. Marcus suspected that graduating top of his high school class, going on to Yale with many of them, and then building a financial empire, had not, at least in his grandfather’s eyes, completely erased this hierarchy.
The elevator arrived in the lobby and the man in red opened the cage door and bid a good day to his two passengers. Marcus admired the swirling Japonica designs on the mirrors which paneled the lobby. This was the third office building Oliver had been based out of in his almost forty years as founder and chief financial officer of the ever-growing Torrington Wilke Baker. The brokerage firm had moved into this turn-of-the-century tower just days after the last stone had been laid. It was the only one of his grandfather’s offices that Marcus had ever been to. The building itself had long been branded in his mind as an appendage to his grandfather’s hearty physique.
As if reading his grandson’s thoughts, Oliver said, “I hope you’re prepared to say good-bye to this old girl.”
“This building – she’s been good to us over the past two decades, but I don’t know how much longer she’s going to be able to hold us. Torrington Wilke Baker is expanding.”
“Yes sir. We hired six new accountants over the past few months, and right now they’re sitting two to a cubicle.”
Marcus and Oliver passed through the brass and glass revolving doors and out onto the damp, narrow street. Marcus inhaled the pungent odor of seawater, freshly-washed stone, burnt coal and just a hint of horse manure, any combination of which would forever trigger thoughts of this day in his mind for years to come.
“So when might you make this move, Grandfather?”
“That I’m not sure of. Winston has been looking into office spaces in the area, but has yet to find one that meets all our needs. Hopefully sometime next spring.”
Marcus wanted to ask his grandfather whether he himself would follow his firm to the new location, or might he see this as a good time to retire. Oliver was, after all, about to celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday in a few weeks. But Marcus thought better of this question. Mortality – even slowing down – was not a topic of conversation ever entertained by Oliver Marcus Torrington the First. So as the two men turned left onto Wall Street, Marcus decided to steer the conversation to something light and inoffensive.
“I’m getting hungry. What do …” The reverberant gonging of Trinity Church’s noon bell absorbed the last part of Marcus’s question.
“Yes, me too. Fraunces Tavern has the best …” The church bells swallowed the dish which Oliver proposed to Marcus.
As they continued ambling down the cobblestone street, Marcus was struck by the larger-than-life quality of the view before him. Straight ahead was the pink spire of Trinity Church, one-time spiritual home of Alexander Hamilton. And coming up on the right was Federal Hall, where the country’s first president was inaugurated, and where the Bill of Rights was passed – the spiritual home of democracy, one could say.
Marcus mused that, were someone to drop down out of the sky in front of this impressive structure, they might think they were in Ancient Greece, but for the austere bronze face of George Washington peering down on them from his pedestal on the steps. And finally, Broad Street came into sight on Marcus’s left, and with it, the Corinthian topped columns and highly-ornamented pediment of America’s temple of finance – the New York Stock Exchange. Across the street stood the temple’s high priestess - the office of J.P. Morgan & Company.
The twelfth and final gong sounded, and the low hum of busy bankers chattering on the street could be heard once more. Marcus glanced at his grandfather, whose brown eyes danced as he took in the neighborhood that had nurtured his ambition all these years. Marcus was about to comment on their good fortune at having such lovely weather when a deafening noise, unlike anything he had ever heard, roared through his head. And with it came a strange new odor, one that was acrid, thick, and just a little sweet.
In years to come, Marcus would not be able to remember with any clarity the order of events which ensued. They became like items for sale in a retail catalogue – detached from one another, adorned with romanticized illustrations. Because Marcus’s eyes were soon filled with scratchy bits of dust, he would have to rely on his imagination to create these pictures.
First there was the sound of metal shrieking and crunching. He saw this as a steel-jawed giant waking from a long slumber, bearing its teeth as it half-yawned, half-screamed itself into consciousness. Then there were the shards of glass which cut into his back as he doubled over in the street, trying to stay small. The catalogue illustration for these would depict tiny prisms hailing from heaven, drowning in an ocean of dust and debris. And then there were the chunks of hot metal which beat all around Marcus’s feet. These were pictured as sunbursts shooting from the sky.
And then, when an object (which Marcus would later learn was nothing more than a two inch lug nut) made contact with his scalp, he added the final picture to his catalogue. A wash of bright white, followed by black.
There ends the first half of Chapter 1 ... I'll include the 2nd half in my next post ... ;-)
There ends the first half of Chapter 1 ... I'll include the 2nd half in my next post ... ;-)