I met my last reader, Mary Sreden, for lunch at Renaissance Bistro in Brunswick. Across from the old mill on the Androscoggin River, the tiny restaurant is a crimson gem of local art and ingredients. I have to admit I enjoyed the atmosphere more than the food, but that was only because the mint dressing was too oily on my duck salad. My starter, an apple-pear-squash soup, was very good. It was cozy and warm, which was a relief since the morning’s minus five was still below plus five at noon. The bright sun helped, but the stiff breeze did not.
Mary is a nurse who grew up in the Midwest and attended state university. Last June she left her four children with her husband and joined a male crew to deliver a sailboat across the Atlantic. She was the cook and nurse but had no previous sailing experience aside from day tripping. The seas were rough, and she came home bruised yet loved it. I figured she could tackle the novel experience of reading critically, especially since she’s a voracious consumer of women’s fiction. I had noted and admired her ability to speak her mind but with tact and sensitivity.
If you don’t count my family and my literary agency, I’ve had six readers. These women have read drafts of Moose Crossing and offered invaluable commentary. Half of my readers were writer/editor friends, but the others were typical readers of my genre, commercial women’s fiction. Half were local and the others “from away,” as we say in Maine.
When I asked Mary to read, I had just added a prologue and cut over 30 slow pages from my opening. The problem was I had the 101 other versions in my head. I needed fresh eyes to find the flaws and the vestigial traces of old plot.
Mary found an irritating dialogue and one embarrassingly corny line, but she enjoyed the rest. She mentioned several scenes that were either funny or emotionally resonant. The characters felt real to her. Most reassuringly, she was totally hooked on the new prologue and eager to read beyond the opening chapters.
I often find what a reader doesn’t say is as important as what she does say. If she doesn’t mention a scene, perhaps it is too slow and could be cut. The trick is to preserve what is working and prune out the rest, no matter how hard you worked on it. This is no more crucial than in the opening chapters of a novel.
I love the first title in the Lemony Snicket series: The Bad Beginning. Openings are so challenging partly because you write them before you truly know where you’re going. You need to grab the reader’s attention in those first few pages or you’re lost.
Just remember your last trip to a bookstore. How far did you read? I spent a morning at Bookland reading first pages before I tackled my new beginning. Search inside Jodi Picoult’s novels for the catchy first sentence.
Even with a punchy prologue, the job isn’t over. You must move the narrative along while introducing characters and setting while weaving in back story. Good writing takes not only talent, it takes the ability to absorb criticism and use it constructively.
“We’re driving,” I said to my twelve -year-old son. No, the Subaru had not arisen from its grave. We also have an aging Volvo. Actually, the Subaru is not dead yet. The crash looked far worse than it was, and it certainly gave my husband a bad scare. At least the kids weren’t in the car.
“It’s only 7:00, I want to walk to the bus stop,” my son replied. It wasn’t that he was traumatized by the recent accident. “I want fresh air before school.”
“Fresh air? It’s 10 degrees out. Why don’t you go stand in the freezer instead. It’d be warmer.” I’m not exactly a morning person.
“Mom, 10 degrees is warm for Maine in January.” He’s not wrong about that.
Just like last year, it has been a warm winter, and you can’t help but feel worried about global warming. There are people out there who would drive to a bus stop to save themselves a 10 minute walk. I bundled up like Nanook of the North and followed my son out the door on foot.
The snow that came late in mid January was a welcome relief. Skiing keeps me from feeling low. It’s not just winter blues. Every time I come back to Maine from NYC, I experience reverse culture shock.
Before moving to Maine, I had never lived in a place where the trees outnumbered the people. Nine years later I have acclimated and love raising my family here, but I still feel out of sorts immediately after a trip to NYC. It’s so quiet and remote.
The solitude is good because it’s what I need to write. In the woods I ski alone with my dog and my thoughts. I come home to a house that is a mirror of my life. The backyard is old growth forest, but the front yard has a sidewalk heading into town.
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How hard can it be to get from Maine to New York? Friday night (1/5/07) I was editing my first novel while waiting in the Portland airport for hours. They announce that Kennedy is closing due to weather delays. I rebook myself on a flight the next morning and call my husband, Henry. He says he’ll drive in to get me and leaves our twelve -year-old son babysitting his sleeping younger sister.
I get a call on my cell from Henry, “I’m okay, but the car is totaled.” A sudden rainstorm had made the car hydroplane off the highway into a ditch. Some college students, one a former boy scout, stopped to help. By two in the morning we are all back home in Brunswick, minus one Subaru. Henry doesn’t even have a scratch.
At the NYC Party: Petria, Me, Cathy, Jen, Llisa, Amy and Deb
On three hours of sleep, I still enjoy my friend’s party in New York Saturday night (1/6/07). She is the first of my Dalton School friends to turn forty and does it with style. There must have been thirty people there, and I talk to maybe twenty. Petria May, in peacock blue Pucci, quit law to open a vintage clothing store in the Berkshires. Llisa Demetrios, a sculptor from California wine country, bemoans the rising cost of bronze since 9/11. A New York investment banker reads only electronic books. He’s reading War and Peace on his Blackberry one sentence at a time. I promise a book group that I’ll visit when (and if) my novel gets published.
As I leave, my hostess asks if I met their friend the editor who just got promoted at a good publishing house.
What editor? Oh, well.
On Monday (1/8/07) it's raining sideways. I borrow a raincoat and umbrella from my mother and head out in a short skirt and high-heeled flower power boots to meet Jean Naggar, my agent, for a 12:30 lunch at A La Turka on East 74th. Only a few blocks from arriving on time, a man in a wheelchair asks, “Miss, can you help me?” He’d scattered about 20 quarters all over the sidewalk. What would the ethicist say? I bend down to help him, and my hair blows wildly in the wind. I’m wet and running late. I arrive at an empty restaurant and go downstairs to fix myself up. My hand comes away from the banister brown with varnish, but it scrubs off. It’s now 12:45 so I call my agent’s assistant only to learn that the time was meant to be 1:00. By then I’ve had time to look back over my manuscript.
Jean is always a delight and her enthusiasm infectious. She brought along her daughter Jennifer Weltz, who handles their foreign and film rights, because she thinks we have a lot in common. We do. Their advice is helpful and well worth the trip. I come home re-energized to tackle the final revisions. There is more rewriting than writing to creating a novel.
I'm an artist and a book junkie. I grew up in NYC and have settled in Maine with my British husband, our two teenagers and a dog called Scout. I write young adult fiction and review novels for adults and teens. I'm represented by Laura Geringer and Shannon Associates.