Lessons learnt from post-publication polishing, Part III

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There’s nothing better than good old-fashioned time in a writer’s journey. We become better writers with the passage of time, and learn what our weaknesses are and how to edit our work. Excellent, experienced critique partners and the most esteemed editor in the world telling us such-and-such is awkward phrasing, an overused word, cluttery chat, overwrought prose, or infodumpy dialogue won’t mean anything if it doesn’t click in our brains. We have to see it for ourselves, not merely be told it’s a problem. Only then can we begin to understand how to improve.

Thus, I noticed a number of shortcomings while editing the second edition of Little Ragdoll. In addition to what I’ve previously mentioned, I also found:

1. Rehashing established information. We already know, for example, everything good Allen has done for Lenore since he gave her a safe place to stay when she was a 15-year-old runaway. Why be reminded of the main points every time Lenore reflects on or talks about their history together?

We also already know all the good things Father and Mrs. Murphy up in Yorkville have done for Lucine and Emeline, and how they adopted oldest sister Gemma’s birth son Giovanni after she divorced her abusive, unwanted husband and started over. There’s no need to be reminded again and again.

2. Pointless, cluttery chat adding nothing to the scene, or coming across like me putting my own viewpoints into characters’ mouths. At one point, Allen is talking about how his parents were very upset when Giovanni was adopted and taken out of their clutches, since they’d been planning to sell him for at least $1,000 on the baby black market. There’s no need to point that out when we already know how black-hearted they are and why Allen doesn’t want them coming anywhere near his kids.

In another scene, when Ernestine, Julie, and the three oldest Ryan siblings are comforting Adicia after her black-hearted, unmotherly mother coerced her into sacrificing her virginity to save her mother from returning to prison, Ernestine and Girl/Deirdre get into a discussion about the repackaging of Beatles’ albums. Though Adicia snaps at them to have this conversation later, and they apologize, it’s still really inappropriate they began discussing that during such an emotional time.

3. If a character is meant as an intellectual or someone very political, make sure that naturally flows with the overall direction of a scene or dialogue. Emeline just wouldn’t be the same Emeline if she didn’t constantly bubble over with chatter about books, philosophy, music, Eastern religions, and vegetarianism. Likewise, Girl/Deirdre, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Ernestine wouldn’t be the same if they weren’t so tuned into politics and social issues. They have to be discussing that for a reason, not out of the blue.

4. Some dialogues and passages don’t lose anything, and are made stronger, by cutting out the fat. This goes for removing overwrought prose, too many details, unnecessary lines, rehashing established information, and polemics which sound more like the author trying to work one’s opinions in than a character naturally expressing such thoughts.

In the scene of Ernestine and the Ryans riding up to Hudson Falls from Poughkeepsie for Thanksgiving 1972, I cut out everything Deirdre said about a certain topic. Now, Adicia begs to talk about something else after she feels Deirdre’s scathing critique of this subject is finished. I similarly cut out the dialogue Ernestine and Deirdre have when revisiting this subject during baking on Christmas Eve.

5. When a story is set during a very political time, conversations of a political nature are kind of inevitable. The first time the subject of the Vietnam War is broached, it leads into Lenore hoping Allen isn’t drafted, and then turns into the girls planning what Lenore will get Allen for his upcoming 21st birthday and trying to get Lenore to admit she has a crush on Allen.

Chapter 37, “The Year the World Went Up in Flames,” is about 1968, and so it naturally follows there will be discussions about things like the presidential election, RFK’s assassination, the feminist protests by the Miss America pageant, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Were I only starting over with this story today, I’d write certain things differently, maybe change wraparound narrative passages into active scenes. Part I in particular might be drastically different. But this is how the story came together, and I can’t alter everything in the impossible quest for perfection.

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WeWriWa—Mean Girls at Woolworth’s

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors, a weekly Sunday hop where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. For a few more weeks, I’ll continue to share from the opening chapter of my recent release Little Ragdoll, a Bildungsroman (growing-up story) spanning 1959-74.

Five of the six Troy sisters are at an uptown Woolworth’s to buy back to school supplies in 1959, but their shopping is delayed when they run into a bunch of mean girls from school. One of the mean girls has just criticized their decidedly non-trendy names.

Once again, no offense to women with the popular names of that era! I just used those names as an example of extremely popular Boomer girls’ names and don’t have anything against those names or the women who bear them.

***

“What’s the baby’s name, Eunice?  And the name Ernestine belongs on a smelly old lady who has fifty cats!”

“I’d much rather be the only Ernestine at school than lost in a sea of Lindas, Barbaras, Susans, and Debbies,” Ernestine retorts. “I like being unique.  At least no one will ever forget my name.”

“Our baby’s name is Justine,” Lucine says. “A very pretty French name.”

“What’s the little ragdoll’s name?” Nancy Jenkins asks.

***

When I created the Troys at thirteen, the only name I chose with any deliberate significance was Adicia. When starting over from scratch and memory so many years later, I realized four of the sisters have French names, and discovered the surname Troy is also French. So I made their father of 100% French Huguenot descent, and so proud of his ancestry he gave all his kids at least one French name. The ones who don’t have French forenames have French middle names, and a few have two French names.

WeWriWa—Subway Trip

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors, a weekly Sunday hop where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. I’ve been sharing from the new opening pages of Little Ragdoll, the contemporary historical Bildungsroman (growing-up saga) which will be released on 20 June. It’s my imagined story of a poor Manhattan girl who could’ve been the one who inspired The Four Seasons’ famous song “Rag Doll.”

Five-year-old Adicia Troy, her four best sisters, and their surrogate mother were on their way to the Lower East Side Woolworth’s when they ran across Adicia’s two older brothers. Allen, the only sympathetic Troy brother, slips Adicia four quarters for round-trip subway fare and says the youngest members of their party ride for free since they’re so young.

***

After the short walk to the station, she takes Lucine’s hand and makes her way underground.  Once they’ve gotten to the front of the line, Adicia stands on her toes and slides the coins across the counter in exchange for six tokens, three for the trip there and three for the trip back, plus a dime in change.  Then they wait in line again at the turnstile.  Lucine has to help Adicia with pushing it around, while Sarah hands Justine to Emeline and hoists the stroller over before going through.  Adicia stays close to Lucine as they press through the crowd before the doors can close.  They’re lucky to find seats instead of having to stand and hold onto poles or straps.

Adicia takes Emeline’s hand when they reach their destination in the Upper West Side.  The subway lets them off near the Museum of Natural History, by Central Park, so they have to walk about two blocks east to get to the Woolworth’s at the corner of Broadway and 79th Street.

***

Originally, the Troy sisters were just going back-to-school shopping at some unnamed big department store in the Upper West Side, but when I reworked the first chapter and made it Woolworth’s, I did a bit of research on the store’s locations around Manhattan. I found one by 5th Avenue and 39th Street, which seemed like a good possibility, but then I discovered there was one on the Upper West Side, by Broadway and 79th Street.

At the store, the girls still run into some of their classmates and their mothers, who had the same idea about getting out of the Lower East Side and patronising an uptown store to look good.

WeWriWa—Meet Adicia

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors, a weekly Sunday hop where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. I’m now sharing from the new opening pages of Little Ragdoll, a contemporary historical Bildungsroman set from 1959-74. The book opens with 5-year-old Adicia and her 6-month-old baby sister Justine on the fire escape balcony of their eighth floor tenement. Adicia was telling Justine about how they’re going to leave the Lower East Side someday when one of their older sisters came up behind them.

Though the two older brothers are introduced several paragraphs later, I put in the line about the three brothers as a way to let the reader know there are nine Troy children. Tommy, the youngest brother, doesn’t appear till the second chapter, and I felt it were better to introduce his existence from the start instead of by surprise.

This has been slightly modified to fit eight sentences.

***

“Have you forgotten we’re supposed to go to Woolworth’s this afternoon?” thirteen-year-old Lucine asks. “We’ll have to start walking soon to get there in time.”

Adicia pulls herself up, careful not to drop her real-live baby doll, and heads back inside, where eleven-year-old Emeline has her nose buried in a book as always, and seven-year-old Ernestine is having her hair brushed by their surrogate mother Sarah. They all wear clothes handed down from their oldest sister Gemma, with a marked progression from gently-worn on Lucine to worn-out rags on Adicia. Their three brothers have escaped hand-me-downs since the older two are only a year apart in age, and the youngest, three-year-old Tommy, is spoilt rotten by their mother.

“I can’t walk all the way to Woolworth’s in those,” Adicia protests when Sarah extends a dirty pair of socks with several holes and snags. “I’ll get blisters. My shoes are already worn enough.”

***

I hope I don’t sound beggy or desperate, but would anyone be interested in hosting me as a guest blogger, interviewing me, etc.? My recent release hasn’t done nearly as well as I was expecting (only two copies since 9 May), and I’d be very grateful to anyone who wants to help me with publicity and after the fact buzz. I hope my June release also doesn’t result in crickets chirping!

50th Anniversary Special

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In celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ arrival in America (7 February) and their first appearance on Ed Sullivan (9 February), I decided to share the entirety of Chapter 25, “Ernestine and Girl Are Beatlemaniacs,” from Little Ragdoll. I posted the Ed Sullivan section for Sweet Saturday Samples awhile ago, but not the whole chapter. That was also before I wrote in left-handedness for a number of the characters, so that original post was missing the children’s excited discovery that Paul is a lefty.

Ernestine, Girl, and Betsy are almost 12; Julie is almost 10; Boy is 9; Baby is almost 7; and Infant is almost 5.

***

“Wanna come over to my place and watch Ed Sullivan?” Betsy asks Ernestine as they’re playing Aggravation, which Betsy brought over for them to play this Sunday afternoon.

“You mean watch television?” Julie asks excitedly. “Sure, I’d watch anything on television, even if it was just a station pattern!”

“I’ve never watched television except for in store windows,” Ernestine says longingly. “Isn’t Ed Sullivan a variety show, from what I’ve heard?”

“He has on musical acts.  It’s on every Sunday at eight o’clock.  Tonight he’s having on a British group called The Beatles.  They have the number one record in America right now.  I have their single.  It’s called ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ and it’s very good.  I can bring it over and play it on your record player now, unless you wanna wait for the show tonight.”

“We haven’t even thought about buying popular records yet,” Girl says. “We’ve been waiting to break even with our begging and odd job money before buying stuff we don’t need to get by.”

“I don’t wanna miss it.  I’ve been waiting to see this group in person since December.  All of you are welcome to come over tonight to watch it with me.  My parents will make us popcorn and egg creams.”

“It might be fun,” Ernestine concedes. “We do need a break from being miniature grownups sometimes.”

“What kinda music do they make?” Boy asks. “I hope it ain’t like this boring Pat Boone stuff the former owners left behind.”

“They do rock music,” Betsy says. “Like The Beach Boys or The Four Seasons.  You remember we’ve listened to some of those records when you’ve been over to my place, and you liked them.”

“I remember my oldest sister Gemma useta play Elvis records sometimes,” Ernestine says. “Our parents thought he sounded like a cat in heat, whatever that means.  Gemma’s ex-husband said he couldn’t sing or act his way out of a paper bag, which is a funny expression I don’t know the meaning of either.  She had some popular records by Negro singers too, even though our parents don’t approve of Negroes.”

“Oh, they don’t sound like Elvis.  I’m not such a big Elvis fan myself.  My favorites are still The Four Seasons.  Elvis seems like a nice guy, but his old records aren’t my style.  The records he cuts now are kinda boring, like he sold out to the people who useta complain he was too rough around the edges.”

“Your parents are pretty neat for letting you buy and listen to popular rock music,” Girl says. “I’ve heard a lot of parents don’t approve of modern popular music.”

“My parents don’t even care yous guys are squatting.  They’re very open-minded and progressive about almost everything.”

Infant reaches for a grape in the bowl of fruit on the coffeetable. “Will we really get to watch a real television tonight?”

“Yes, we’ll watch television for the first time in our lives,” Girl tells her smilingly. “We’re going to watch a popular music group from England.”

“Where’s England?” Baby asks.

“It’s across the ocean from us,” Ernestine says. “It’s an island that’s part of Europe.  There are two other countries on the same island, Scotland and Wales.  England is in the middle.  Together with Northern Ireland, they make up Great Britain.  Betsy, do you know where in England this group is from?”

“Liverpool.  It’s a sailing city on the coast and along the Mersey River.”

“I don’t remember if I’ve ever heard a British accent before,” Girl says. “I only remember that one of the grownups at the squat once said an English person can make a shopping list sound like Shakespeare.”

“What’s Shakespeare?” Infant asks.

“He was the greatest writer of all time, at least in the English language,” Ernestine says. “At least that’s what I’ve heard.  Emeline and Lucine had to read some of his sonnets and plays in their English classes, and they said it was almost impossible to understand what he was saying without a lot of footnotes.  He wrote in a form of English we don’t use anymore.  Emeline said his appeal over the centuries is more about how he was a writer for all time, with characters and stories that seem real in any era or place.”

“English people also drop their Rs and use long As,” Betsy says. “They have some funny pronunciations of words too, my mother said, like how they say ‘aluminum’ with five syllables instead of four, and pronounce schedule ‘shedule.’”

“Do you know how old they are?” Julie asks.

“I’ve seen some pictures.  They’re pretty young.  Early twenties, I think.  They’re pretty cute too.”

“So they’re a little older than Allen,” Ernestine says.

“Your big brother is cute.  Do you have any other brothers where he came from?”

“My oldest brother Carlos is gonna be twenty-one this month.  He’s a cripple.  Then I have a little brother, Tommy, who turns eight this month.  He’s the spoilt brat of spoilt brats.  Allen’s the only one with a lick of sense or decency.”

“Isn’t Carlos a Spanish name?  What’s the story with giving him a name that doesn’t match with the rest of your names?”

“Who knows what my mother was thinking when she named him.  She doesn’t even like Spanish people, though apparently she doesn’t hate them enough to have refrained from using a Spanish name for her oldest son.”

“Why is he crippled?  Did he catch polio, or was he born crippled?”

“He was in an accident at work in July of ’62.  A car fell on top of him and crushed his spinal column.  He was going in and out of his senses for a long time and only regained his senses a couple of months ago.  I hear he’s going crazy now on account of realizing what happened to him and that he’ll be in a wheelchair the rest of his sorry life.”

“He’s not just any cripple, but paralyzed too,” Girl jumps in. “Paralyzed people can’t even move their legs or anything else below where they was paralyzed.  If you’re paralyzed at the very top of your spine, that means you can’t even move your arms and don’t feel nothing below the neck.”

“Carlos was supposed to be arrested for arson, petty theft, and drugs, but the cops can’t do anything when he’s a helpless hospital patient.  I feel bad for him for being crippled so young, but he was never gonna amount to anything anyway.  It’s not some huge loss to society that he’s a permanent cripple and invalid.  All he did was sell drugs and work low-paying jobs where he tried to get away with stealing.  He was fired from his first job for eating cereal off the conveyer belt, and at his second job, the one where he had the accident, he was found out for stealing stuff from people’s cars.”

“No wonder you don’t want anything to do with certain people in your family,” Betsy says. “I’d move out young too if I were you.”

“Is there enough room for all of us to watch television?” Baby asks. “A davenport only seats three or four people, and the rest of us would have to sit on the floor.  I don’t wanna sit on the floor my very first time watching television.”

“My dad sits in his recliner and my mom has her own cushioned chair.  Julie, Ernestine, and Girl can sit on the davenport with me, and we can find some soft cushions for Boy, Baby, and Infant to sit on.”

“I can’t wait!” Infant says excitedly.

***

A little before 8:00 that night, the six of them trot across the hall and into the van Niftriks’ apartment to watch Ed Sullivan.  Betsy shows Girl, Ernestine, and Julie some newspaper articles she cut out about the British group that’s going to be on the show tonight.  The girls think they kind of look similar, since they all have brown hair and the same haircut, but they agree with Betsy that they are pretty cute.  Betsy is a little surprised they have haircuts on the long side for a man, but Ernestine tells her there were a number of men with hair that long back in the West Village and Greenwich Village.  Mrs. Troy would probably lecture them about being interested in male singers with long hair, but thankfully she’s not here now to spoil their fun.  Someone who was born in 1923 doesn’t know jack about what’s popular nowadays, anyway.

“Here they are!” Betsy shouts as Mr. Sullivan is introducing them.

She and the other three girls on the davenport sit at rapt attention as the band begins their first song, “All My Loving.” Girl’s eyes light up when she realizes the bass player is a lefty, and she turns to Ernestine and her siblings with a huge smile.  Ernestine and the younger Ryans are thrilled to see one of their own in such a public venue, and to see some grownups who stayed true to their left-handedness instead of giving in to attempts to shame and bully them out of their natural inclination.

Ernestine thinks it’s pretty rude how the majority of the girls in the studio audience are screaming.  Even if you really like a band and are excited to see them perform, that’s no excuse for screaming nonstop.  They’re probably screaming over the entire performance and making it hard for the band to hear themselves play, and are missing the entire show because all they’re doing is screaming.

During the next song, a cover of what Mrs. van Niftrik says is a Broadway tune, “Till There Was You,” there are close-ups of each member of the band, providing each one’s name.  Ernestine rolls her eyes when a caption appears under John’s name, saying, “Sorry girls, he’s married.” As though any of the girls in the audience or watching at home stand a chance of marrying someone that much older and that famous.  She and Girl both think he’s the handsomest, besides, married man or not.  The others are cute, but John seems to have a more mature face, like a handsome adult man, not a man still carrying the look of a cute, soft-faced boy into early adulthood.  Girl also feels a special energy coming from him, an aura she has a very good feeling about.

After the third song, “She Loves You,” there’s a commercial break, and then a magician named Fred Kaps performs some tricks.  Infant and Baby are more interested in the magic tricks than in The Beatles.  Boy seems more interested in the tricks too, feeling the musical stars of the evening are more for girls.

Performing next are some of the members of the play Oliver!  After the opening musical act, Ernestine and her friends can’t help but feel bored and anxious for The Beatles to return.  A day ago, they never would’ve been so picky about what they did or didn’t watch on television, never having watched it before, but now everything seems somehow different, like a special kind of magic has been worked upon them by these cute visitors from across the ocean.

Finally The Beatles return and sing “I Saw Her Standing There.” Julie decides she thinks Paul is the cutest one during this song.  Their final song of the evening is the one Betsy told them about, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Ernestine, Julie, and Girl think it does sound fantastic, and hope they can buy their own copy if they can hustle up enough money after they’ve bought some food for the week.

The final performers of the night are Wells and The Four Fays, who do some kind of comedy routine.  The four girls on the davenport barely care about them at this point.  All they can think about are the four cute young British musicians who just stole their hearts and did something to them they can’t find words to explain.  All they know is they feel really different now.

“I don’t feel sad anymore,” Ernestine announces. “There’s been such a black cloud hanging over everyone since we lost President Kennedy, but now it’s like the bad spell has been broken.”

“I think I feel the same way,” Betsy agrees.

“Do they have a full LP do you know?” Girl asks. “After tonight, I could listen to those fellows singing the phonebook!”

“They have an album called Meet The Beatles.  I’ve been saving up my money so I can buy it.  LPs are about three bucks, two bucks more than a single, but I like them so much I don’t care how much I have to pay.”

“When can we see them again?” Julie begs.

“I think they’re going to be on again next week.”

“Can we come over again next Sunday night, Mr. and Mrs. van Niftrik?” Girl asks.

“You girls are welcome anytime you like,” Mrs. van Niftrik tells them.

“Do you have a favorite yet, Betsy?” Ernestine asks. “I like John.”

“So do I!” Girl says. “We haven’t been best friends for almost two years for nothing!  It’s like we’re sharing a brain at this point!”

“I don’t know who my favorite is yet,” Betsy says. “I think I’ll have to see them again and read a little more about them before I make my decision.”

“Paul is cute,” Julie says. “He has pretty eyes.”

“I didn’t know you was into that girly stuff,” Boy says.

“What, just because we don’t do other girly stuff doesn’t mean we can’t do one girly thing in our lives?” Girl challenges him. “Why can’t we fawn over cute guys in a band?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you looking this happy, Julie,” Ernestine says. “I guess the special magic these guys brought over the ocean with them healed even you.”

“Maybe we can even see them in concert!” Betsy says. “I’m sure they’ll be playing here in New York.  After all, they’re right here in the city as we speak, right in the CBS studio.”

“Maybe if they’re here over the summer, you can go to a show as a summer vacation present,” Mr. van Niftrik says. “You do deserve something nice as a reward for your upcoming sixth grade graduation.”

“That would be the best present ever, Dad!”

“We’ll start stepping up our begging and odd jobs to earn money for our own concert tickets!” Girl says with bright eyes.

She, Ernestine, Julie, and Betsy look around at one another with happy expressions and the same special feeling in their souls.  They have no idea exactly what just happened, but they do know they’re never going to be the same again after tonight.