Getting the Hawk off the Ground

I am re-posting this blog post about the early stages of writing my mystery Hour of the Hawk, prior to Saturday’s reading with Mar Preston (The Most Dangerous Species) at the Artworks in Pine Mountain Club – 7 p.m. (one of the Written Word Series, a free event).

In the post above, I reported how I finally got started writing Hour of the Hawk, an eco-terrorist mystery, set in the remote mountain paradise of Bear Mountain Place, California. At the time I had written about  3/4s of a first draft- 70,000 wds. Finished, it came in around 105,000 words, which I think is about 280 pages.

“Finished” proved to be a tricky word.

The first revision dealt with logic and structure. P.D. James spent months planning her mysteries, and began writing only when she knew where she was going. John Irving  writes his endings first. When I began with the bear, I knew where the bear would end up, but that was all.  I thought I knew who the villains were. So did my narrator. We were both wrong. One by one, the suspects were eliminated while ever more heinous crimes were perpetrated. At a certain point, I had no idea who could possibly be to blame. Then, one by one, they crept out of the woodwork, a whole conspiracy of them, and each with a different motive for a common cause. I couldn’t keep the whole convoluted plot in my head.

I took a roll of brown paper and drew the plot line, the way I used to ask students to graph short story plots. I eliminated repetition, particularly where the “investigators” – two detectives; the narrator, an older woman; her even older friend and the rock band that is being framed – discuss the evidence they have gathered. I checked for clarity and whether I was giving readers some foreshadowing. It was hard to do that first time around because I didn’t know what was going to happen. I made sure that the characters held up. Were their actions believable, given their personality? One of them, for example, has some degree of psychic ability. Or has been told she has. That was a given. Certain events followed from that. The reader is welcome to call it coincidence.

The edit for syntax and grammar seemed to be completed next, but of course, I discovered it was an on-going process. Every time I reread a  chapter, I find a way to make sentences more concise and punchier- more punchy(?). I was lucky that I had spent 35 years editing students’ writing, although I didn’t feel that way at the time. I would just say that Microsoft Word 2011 has some very peculiar ideas about what constitutes a major clause. I nearly wore out the IGNORE button.

I gave this version to others to read. As reading progressed, two readers got irritated. They would get a third of the way through and I would say, “Stop. Don’t read anymore. It’s awful!” Two others thought I was right. One of them had told me as gently as possible that it was so.

So I went through tightening things up and taking out the archness, the ironic distance, the preciousness. I sent the new version back to my readers. By now they had got 4 versions and 3 “Stop”s. Critic A, as I will call her, gave me the new bad news.: the narrator’s voice was not authentic. Yes, I had eliminated the stand-off-ishness. The narration was more direct. But— the narrator was perceptive and far-seeing, someone who sees into other people’s souls, and that wasn’t coming across. Critic A also had a solution. It involved going to a portrait photographer and having pictures taken, which would suggest the narrator’s character. I did that, wearing clothes she wears in the book.

With one of these photos in front of me, I started again.


The Void Again: Something out of Nothing

A friend of mine beset by ill health and economic downturn, bewailed the fact that at 50, she has nothing. Her business is being sold. Her house is under water (over mortgaged in the failed housing market). She has no pension and she has used up her savings.

Ah, yes, the void again, the great emptiness.

Here we go, my dear, my answer to you: like me you have made you living by talking to others. It was the principal way you helped them heal. All those generous and compassionate words took wing and settled in their minds. They carried your words away and gradually understood them. They became better and better people for it. There is no way to see or measure this effect.

This week, Charlie Rose interviewed Oliver Platt, Lily Rabe and the producer and director of As You LIke It which is being presented in Central Park this month. Lily Rabe, who plays Rosalind, said that she never feels as alive as when she is playing Shakespeare. There is something about just saying the lines over and over that improves her mental health.

I know that feeling from years of reading his plays aloud and listening to students read them and listening to them go out the door still speaking in iambic pentameter without the slightest idea they were doing so. The very cadence and rhythm of the poetry change your brain waves. Behind that, lies Shakespeare’s deep understanding of feeling and his brilliant logic and insight into life. A bracing stimulant like a cool Perrier mist in a tropical bar above a deep blue lagoon.

All that talk just seems to vanish, like my grandmother Gladys’s deep throated story-telling and her great laughter of, for example, the time her French cleaning lady came running downstairs crying, “Gladness, Gladness, the house is on fire.” Indeed the house was on fire and subsequently burned to the ground, but fifty years later, Gladys rocked with laughter. After 96 years and 2 burned-out houses, Gladys is gone and only memory can hold that treasure now.

But it is real no matter how invisible.

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. (Hebrews XI, 1). Now faith is a slippery thing. As best as I can see it is the light of our looking and the sound of our listening. It isn’t some dread effort of will. The important idea in Paul’s words is that what is invisible can have substance, can indeed be evidence.

So we could count up what you really have accomplished substantially and visibly, mention, for example, two brilliant male off-spring and a soul mate. Or we could have faith that much more is going on here, the love that people bear you in their hearts is your Pulitzer, your Nobel Prize, your pearl of great price.

This is, after all, only an imitation of defeat and not a very good one at that.

A Poem a Day Keeps Blues Away: Dickinson and Amherst

I dwell in Possibility –

A fairer house than prose –

Emily Dickinson

It was a family wedding that took me to Amherst Mass. last weekend. I had never been there before although I felt as if I had because I had read so much about its famous poet, Emily Dickinson. She is the one who wrote those enigmatic four line stanzas beginning with such lines as “A narrow fellow in the grass” or “Because I could not stop for death” or “I taste a liquor never brewed”. Her poems turn up in high school and college anthologies and seem at first glance simple enough, but they are full of surprising insight. The lines I have just quoted, have a hopeful sweep upward at first glance. Ok, it’s a dull day, rain forecast, I’ve got that emotional hangover from a glorious event, but -look- here is a little poem that reminds me that the “prose” of this morning is not the whole picture, that I too can “dwell in Possibilty”. (Yes, grammar check, I do want a capital “P”.) Dwelling is not visiting.

Dickinson goes on to describe the beautiful house that Possibility gives with its fairer windows, more numerous doors, and gambrelled roofs that the ordinary house of prose cannot provide. She is talking about poetry, of course, but you don’t need to know that at first. You may figure it out after a few readings but you don’t have to.

Dickinson didn’t title her poems. An early editor Mabel Loomis Todd, did put titles on them and “corrected” the quirky punctuation -dashes- We don’t approve of that now, we Dickinson aficionados, and in modern texts, we have to look up poems by their first lines. The “right” books of her poetry are published by Harvard University. Amherst College has many of the original manuscripts, but Harvard holds the copyright.

We made the long drive -almost 10 hours, what with traffic- from Toronto to Amherst while others were flying in from the west coast, Texas, Arkansas and the Yukon or just skimming up the throughway from NYC, arriving on Friday night. The wedding was scheduled for Sunday afternoon. What now? Five of us met for breakfast in the Lone Wolf, across the road, more or less, from the Dickinson museum. What to do became obvious.

The docent led us to past the dining room to the library.”Isn’t this where Austin used to meet Mabel..” I began enthusiastically and bit my tongue. It was too late. The docent pegged me for a know-it-all who was spoiling her story by getting to the scandal too soon. Dickinson’s brother, who lived with his wife in the Evergreens next door, met his mistress here in the house where his sisters lived. Since he supported both houses, he presumed such rights apparently.

As our little group followed the leader from room to room listening to her stories, she kept throwing questions at me. Did I know that the Dickinsons had lived in another house in Amherst as well? I nodded.  They fell on hard times early on, she said, but bought this house back eventually. At least, she didn’t demand an answer from me. Later the others laughed at that. I was too busy melting into the background to care at the time. When we came to the last room with its display of how Emily experimented with different words -“gables of the sky” for example, instead of “gambrels”, the docent asked one of us to volunteer to read the poem posted on the wall. Silence fell. Well, it needed to be read aloud. “I will,” I said. What have I done, I wondered. I have no idea what this poem means. I began and the most surprising thing happened. “I dwell in Possibility,” I began and the poem read itself through my mouth until it closed with “spreading wide my narrow Hands/ to gather Paradise”.

Here’s an idea: read a poem. If there’s no book of poems beside your bed – an excellent sleep aid -it’s easy enough to find one on the internet. Better yet, read it aloud. Better yet, read an Emily Dickinson poem aloud. It will surprise and delight you.

Report back.