Thursday, April 24, 2008

Can a WIP Get Jealous?

I thought maybe since I'm having so much trouble writing Chapter 12 of The Foundling Wheel, I'd post part of the first chapter of the WIP I set aside for the Dickens Challenge. How do you like that Tracy? Aaron? Hmm? You don't want to tell me what happens next? Maybe I'll go back to my other imaginary friends. How would that be? If you feel like giving it a read, it would be interesting to hear how this excerpt, which I started writing nearly a year ago, compares to The Foundling Wheel, which up until now had been a much more spontaneous effort.

* * *

With her children settled into bed, Mimi led Tash to the cracked flagstone patio and they relaxed into the weathered old wooden chairs with their cold beer. He’d forgotten the sky was so black here, that the stars and the moon could create this heavenly chiaroscuro. The light from stars, some of them perhaps burned out millions of years ago, illuminated the tips of the neatly cut lawn out to the edges of blackness where a row of eastern pines began. Lilac bushes, their heart-shaped leaves the only reminder of their once heavy blooms, crowded the side of the barn, now converted to a garage. First one tiny light flickered and then another glowed, hesitated and moved on. He’d forgotten about fireflies. They both looked up at the stars and sipped from the sweating glass bottles, savoring the hoppy effervescence.

Mimi broke the silence. “Hal’s having an affair.”

Road noise from a faraway thoroughfare ripped through the quiet summer night now and then like sniper fire popping in a neighboring village; the only interruption to the bickering crickets and the pitiable croaking of a lone bullfrog.

Tash tried to view his sister with detachment, the way a stranger might. Having four children would almost certainly have wreaked some havoc on her slim, petite body but her clothed figure gave no evidence to that. She was well past forty, but she was still shapely, toned and tanned from spending time in the garden and at children’s sporting events. Her arms were tight, even muscular; no doubt the result of lifting one or another of her progeny around dozens of times a day. Her legs were strong and pretty, her feet clad in white tennis shoes, flecked with grass stains and earth. There was a nearly imperceptible thickening to her waist. She didn’t appear to be carrying extra weight, but the inevitable metamorphosis that occurs when a woman begins her transition to middle age was subtly redistributing her shape. Mimi’s hair, always thick and shiny, had lost none of its luster, but there was a vague gauntness to her cheeks and a barely noticeable looseness to her jaw line. Never one to wear makeup, she had taken some care to preserve her skin and its only betrayal to her age were the clusters of crows feet framing each eye that were destined to form sooner or later. In Mimi’s case it was sooner. An uncharacteristic vanity made her stubbornly resist wearing glasses, although she’d needed them since high school.

With some relief, Tash concluded that his older sister’s appearance was above average for a woman of her age. Maintaining objectivity when assessing a sibling was tough, and doubly so because of the years between visits. He was always startled at how much she aged between trips. He could not help thinking of her as a young woman during the years he knew her best. A quarter of a century ago, she was an object of desire for his few brainy, libidinous high school friends. If Hal was unfaithful to Mimi, it was not because she’d let herself go. They’d been married a long time. Could it be fifteen years? Could it be longer? It wasn’t news to either Tash or Mimi that infidelity was common among forty and fifty-something businessmen, but there was something disturbing about the matter-of-fact way she presented the situation to him. Mimi was rabidly territorial as a child and it was hard to believe the possessiveness she displayed toward her record collection and her first car didn’t extend to Hal.

“What makes you believe he’s having an affair?”

Mimi draped one leg over the arm of the weatherworn Adirondack chair and squinted through the darkness to look at him.

“I’m not an idiot. That’s the first thing I know.” She began ticking items off on each slender finger as she answered. “He started paying much more attention to his appearance, completely out of the blue. I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say that includes his personal grooming. At about the same time, he suddenly started working out. He got a lot more secretive on the computer. He started running a lot more errands, and taking too long to do them. When he stopped leaving his cell phone lying around, I knew something was up. I checked his sent and received calls and listened to his voice messages. It was pretty obvious.” She tugged at her thumb, the last tickable digit on her hand.

Tash stretched his legs out and crossed his ankles. This sounded bad. Any notion he had of a relaxing, low-stress escape from his own problems evaporated. In between swigs of beer, Mimi jiggled her ankle and picked at a cuticle. Given his unfamiliarity with the adult Mimi he saw through the dimness, it was impossible to know whether this was her usual antsy behavior or if she was about to unravel.

“It does sound pretty damning, but I don’t think you should jump to any conclusions just yet. Did you question or confront him about it?”

“I didn’t ask him anything, and I’m not planning to. He doesn’t ever need to know that I know. Look, I get why he’d do this, I really do. I’m pretty sure I could crawl inside his head and figure out what he’s thinking. I’m not going to see him throw a grenade into the middle of our marriage and fuck up my family, just because he’s feeling old. If I confront him, and he’s convinced himself that this fling is something serious, things could turn in a direction I have no intention of going. I know Hal. At this point in his life I’m sure he’s bored. I’m sure that by the time he’s done working, comes home to all five of us and sees me worn out from chasing them around all day, he probably thinks this wasn’t what he signed up for. No, we don’t have as much sex as we used to. Yes, I get tired, and no, I’m not always ready to worship at the altar of his penis. I’m sure this woman is glamorous, and kid-free and has nothing better to do when they get together than slip her bikini-waxed cooch into some crotch-less, expensive lingerie, pop open some Veuve Cliquot, fall to her knees and go down on him for hours in her tastefully decorated apartment, while he thinks this is what he’s been missing out on. I’m sure they’ve been dashing around New York, dining in romantic bistros and going to parties with her exciting, single, younger friends, and he’s convinced himself he’s denying himself the life he deserves. Who could blame him? I’ll tell you who – nobody, if any of that was real -- but it’s not. I mean, it may be what’s real for him right now, but it won’t stay that way.”

Tash stared at his sister while she tried to examine the backs of her hands in the darkness. He was surprised by the graphic terms, and he wasn’t sure how to react to her business-like assessment of her husband’s real or suspected philandering. He wished he knew her better. If not for Sarah, he wouldn’t make the infrequent calls to his sister that he did and he’d never think to send birthday cards to his niece and nephews or shop for them at Christmas. The sporadic communications never provided an opportunity to really talk to Mimi. If her marriage was in trouble before this, there was no reason to expect she’d confide in him. There was a lot he assumed about her, but nothing he really knew, and Hal was a virtual stranger. Tash didn’t know if Mimi and Hal had a good relationship, if they were friends, if they loved each other, or if they were like nearly every other married couple he knew who looked to be sleepwalking through life, paying the bills, caring for the kids, going to bed at night and endlessly repeating the same quotidian routine.

“Mimi, aren’t you upset?”

“Of course I’m upset.” He could barely see her hands, gesturing in the darkness like two ghostly birds.

“Just because I’m not sobbing and cramming my head in the oven, it doesn’t mean I’m not upset.” She pulled her hands back, as if trying to control their flitting, darting expressions and crossed her arms, hugging herself.

“OK, I’m just surprised you’re not more emotional about it.”

The truth was that it didn’t surprise Tash all that much. As a young woman, Mimi was unusually independent, at times even callous when it came to her boyfriends and lovers. What was disconcerting was that she seemed to want to hold her marriage together, but was employing the emotional detachment he’d seen her use to dismiss others from her life. He couldn’t recall her ever being on the receiving end of a breakup or having her heart broken.

Mimi asked, “What’s the point of getting emotional? Look, I love Hal, even though he’s acting like a ridiculous asshole right now. We’ve built a life together and he’s the father of my children.”

The symphony of crickets approached a crescendo and now the bullfrog sounded suicidal. Peeled rubber barked through the darkness, a dramatic exit from a drunken marital spat or maybe the testosterone fuelled ebullience of youth on a hot summer night.

Their own father had left their mother for a much younger woman before either Hal or Mimi left for college. Victor Lentz loved and was loved by many women and neither he nor his wife, Katherine attempted to hide it from their children. Their father’s infidelities had embarrassed them, forced them to view him as a sexual being instead of a parent; their mother’s self-imposed martyrdom made them feel helpless at first, then alternatively awkward or annoyed. Victor married his paramour, but Katherine remained frozen in time, unable or unwilling to get on with her life.

Tash began peeling away the label on his beer bottle. “Mimi, have you talked with anyone else about this?”

Mimi leaned over and patted her brother on the arm. “Of course I haven’t. This isn’t going to turn into a drama, and nobody else ever needs to know about it. Since you’re here, I take it as a sign that you need to help me. I could use your objectivity and analytical brain to help keep me on an even keel. I need you to come to New York with me for a couple of days. Don’t worry; I’m not going to do anything crazy. I just need to know what I’m dealing with. This will be fun, Tash. I promise you first-class accommodations, fine dining, plentiful adult beverages and of course, scintillating conversation.”

Her enthusiasm and her attempt to color this mission as a few fun days in the city brought on a dull aching in his temples and he could taste acid in the back of his throat. Mimi’s resentment of her mother’s role as victim had bred in her a Do something, even if it’s wrong mentality that fed her impulsive nature. He’d often envied her willingness to chase her passions without regard for the consequences. For once he wished she’d adopt his more reserved approach of When in doubt, don’t.


Bernita said...

Some truly wonderful description!

Thank you, Lisa, for your kind good wishes.
I'm happy to forego the pussy willows in the future.

steve said...

Lisa, I agree with Bernita on the description. It has real possibilities, but it isn't as easily accessible as The Foundling Wheel. I liked Tracy right away, and kept liking her even after it was clear that she had some serious flaws. Mimi clearly isn't Tracy--she comes off as cold and calculating. I can identify with Tash, as I'm not close to my own sibling, a brother. But so far Tash is mainly a sounding board. I'd keep reading, though.

If you need a break from The Foundling Wheel, maybe coming back to this makes sense. But please get back to The Foundling Wheel sometime. Your readers are hooked.

Lisa said...

Bernita, Thank you and I hope your husband has recovered from his ordeal.

Steve, I was hoping you'd read this because I was looking for some external confirmation on a number of things I thought were obvious differences, now that I've been away from this one for a while and you've given it to me. I think the spontaneous nature of the Dickens Challenge unleashed something much more natural. This one feels much more stiff and contrived now that I've come back to it. I think the excessive tinkering I did on this one helped me in some ways, and I think the description is this WIP's strong suit, but you can't build a story on description. It's interesting too that I started this one with the idea that I'd alternate POV between Tash and Mimi (there was some preliminary stuff that came before this scene that gave you more on Tash), but I created two characters and gave them backgrounds I really didn't know anything about. Mimi becomes a little more sympathetic later, but I don't think I ever really got her. Tash is more likable, but I have the same problem with him that I have with Aaron (who I never gave a POV). I struggle with not making them purely sidekicks.

I'm not dropping The Foundling Wheel to go back to this, but I wanted to see if I could detect improvement on this and I feel like I have gotten better.

Judy Merrill Larsen and Candy Harris both have posts up that may have unstuck me on The Foundling Wheel. I'm close to figuring out what I need to do (I hope).

Thanks for the great comments.

Julie Layne said...

Hi, Lisa! Thanks for stopping by my blog and also, I see, adding me to your blog roll. I'll add you, too. In fact, it's been too long since I updated mine, so good motivation!

I just read through your excerpt, and I was intrigued, whatever your thoughts on it's accessibility! Haven't read your other stuff yet.
Glad to know I'm not the only one on a totally bizarre sleep schedule. ;-)

Larramie said...

There is some good description here, Lisa, but maybe too much of it and that's putting up a barrier. The truth is I don't feel a connection to either Mimi or Tash and reading about them is to much of a purely mental exercise. Apologies, but they don't seem likable. *sigh*

Lisa said...

Julie, Thanks for coming by, although you didn't catch me on my best day :)

Larramie, I think when I first started to work on this, I was very analytical about what I wanted to write and who I thought these people might be and I didn't even come close to "inhabiting" them. That may be an obvious tactical error to most writers, but it's something I really didn't grasp at the time. People seem to like Tracy much better, despite her flaws, and the process for letting her emerge (if that doesn't sound too silly) was much more natural. When I first decided to attempt a novel, I used to think it was silly when I'd hear writers talk about characters who had their own ideas about what would happen next, but I completely get it now. Don't apologize! I appreciate for your insight.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Hey Lisa-

I'm with Larramie. technically, it's fine--nice descriptions, not too much "telling"--but I don't particularly like either of these people. They feel too distant.

Can we please get back to our friends in Germany? Please? If you ask nice, I bet they'll come out and play!

Julie Layne said...

Kind of interesting, but I have to be a dissident voice here. I read the first two chapters of the Foundling Wheel yesterday, and while I enjoyed it, too, I actually related more to Mimi and Tash and felt more drawn in by them and wanted more of their story. The brother/sister relationship here and its potential fascinated me. I found it easier to read their backstory than Tracy's, too.

So ... perhaps it has to do somewhat with which characters readers relate to in addition to how they're written.

In the long run, what may be most important is who *you* feel most drawn in by as you are writing. Those characters will surely be the most accessible eventually.

I'm clueless as to what the Dickens Challenge is, and am confused on which project is for what, but am enjoying the discussions here!

You are brave to put it all out there.

Lisa said...

Judy, I can appreciate the sentiment. This scene doesn't do much to endear the reader to either character. I do like them though and I think some of the things I've written about them before and after this scene make them more likable. Having said that -- I am definitely not picking this back up yet. I am committed to moving forward with my DC WIP and will get a new chapter up as soon as I can. Thanks for the feedback on this. I always value your comments.

Julie, You are just so nice to take the time, not only to read this scene, but two entire chapters from my other WIP! Thank you so much. I also appreciate the differing point of view. Naturally, I like all of these characters or different reasons and both works were started under very different circumstances. You've keyed in on the reason I initially wanted to try a story with a brother and sister, told from alternating points of view. I liked the idea of the sibling dynamic. I think you're right -- that this may come down to a matter of reader taste. As a reader, I find Mimi and Tash more interesting too, but I know more about Tracy and Aaron.

The DC is a project that author Timothy Hallinan (link in my sidebar) started in late November. He challenged anybody "crazy or stupid enough" to start a novel from scratch and post a chapter a week in the manner of Charles Dickens. It's been an interesting experiment and as a beginning novel writer, I've learned so much from doing the DC. The Mimi/Tash excerpt is part of a partial novel that was written for the most part when I was in a couple of structured novel writing work shops in a local creative writing school here in Denver. Consequently, there were lots of edits and revisions and tweaks where with The Foundling Wheel, what you see is the first draft and most chapters where written in a week.

Brave -- not so much. Crazy is probably much more like it! Thank you again for your thoughts. I really appreciate them.

Vesper said...

Lisa, I think this is a good piece of writing. You’re very talented! I got an excellent feel of the characters, and it held my interest very well. I agree though with what others have said before me - the descriptions and the background information are a bit lenghty at times.
However, I would very much like to find out what’ll happen next. I hope you’ll give us more…

Lisa said...

Vesper, I guess every piece has its own personality. I agree with the general sentiment that this one is much more weighed down in description and background than the other. Thank you for reading :)))

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf