Lessons learnt from post-publication polishing, Part III

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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Sweet Saturday Samples

This week’s excerpt for Sweet Saturday Samples continues where last week’s left off. Allen has just come home from work during the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965, and he and Lenore are going out to a restaurant to eat, in the hopes that there will be at least some power and warm food there.

The Mrs. Rossi referred to near the end is the former aunt-in-law of Allen’s older sister Gemma. Thanks to Mrs. Rossi’s wild imagination and mean-spirited gossiping, Mrs. Troy broke up the happy home Allen and his sisters had made for themselves and ruined what would’ve been their first real Christmas in 1962.

***

They go down the fire escape so the full moon can light the way, instead of having to feel along walls while going down the stairs inside.  It feels very surreal to walk past block after block of darkened buildings and to see broken traffic lights in the city that’s supposed to never sleep.  Perhaps this was what it felt like to walk through Manhattan a century ago, before electricity powered everything and everyone relied so much on it for everything.  Allen remembers how there was only a sliver of the moon in the sky the night Adicia, Justine, and Giovanni went from Tompkins Square Park to the Bowery Mission.  They probably would’ve given anything to have had their way lit by a big full moon in a cloudless sky.

Allen holds the door of a diner for her.  When they walk inside, they see a number of other people in the candlelight, with several gas stoves and wood-burning fireplaces working in the background.  Someone has put a transistor radio on a table in the middle of the diner and turned it up.

“Table for two?” a waiter asks.

“Yes, please,” Allen says. “Can we have a table with extra candles?  I want to see my fiancée’s engagement ring sparkling in the candlelight.”

“You’re engaged?” a woman at a nearby table asks. “How soon is your wedding?”

“July twenty-ninth of next year.  It’s going to be the fourth anniversary of the day we met,” Allen says proudly, pulling off Lenore’s left glove. “Show everyone your ring, Lenore.”

“That’s a long engagement,” a man says. “Most people I know are married within three or four months of getting engaged.”

“We just got engaged under a week ago,” Lenore says in embarrassment as Allen holds up her left hand. “We don’t wanna have a wedding during the coldest time of year.  I think I can wait to have it during a nice time of year and on a special day.”

The waiter leads them over to a booth in the corner, with six candles on the table, and hands them menus. “It’ll be on the house tonight, our gift to you for your engagement.”

Lenore wants to protest, but Allen is so overcome with pride at showing her off and letting everyone know about their engagement that she doesn’t have the heart to disappoint him.  She remembers how overprotective of her he is since her illness, and so orders a turkey pot pie, steak fries, and clam chowder.  When their orders come, Allen insists she have some of his double burger with mushrooms, onions, lettuce, and tomatoes, potato skins with melted cheese and bacon bits, and butternut squash soup.  She hopes no one can see her eating from his spoon and taking bites from his hamburger.  At least he wants his woman to have a healthy appetite, she tells herself in resignation, instead of looking down on her for not eating like a bird and keeping herself skinny like a lot of other girls do.

By the time they place their orders for dessert, they’ve found out from the transistor radio that this blackout is more than just a neighborhood power outage.  Almost the entire Eastern Seaboard is bathed in darkness—New York City and much of Upstate; Ontario, including the capital city of Toronto; Maine; and New England.  They wonder how the girls are doing, and Allen secretly hopes his parents were among the people caught in elevators or subway tunnels and aren’t able to come home tonight.

It would serve them both right to spend a night in the dark and cold, surrounded by strangers, many of them probably the very people they preach against so much just because they have some money and live in nice neighborhoods.  And for good measure, he hopes that mean-spirited busybody Mrs. Rossi is stuck along with them.  She deserves some kind of revenge for how she was the cause of Mrs. Troy destroying their Christmas and giving his parents the wild, completely unfounded belief that Lenore is his “bus stop whore.” He knows that means his sisters’ respective neighbors Mr. Doyle and Mr. van Niftrik must also probably be trapped in a subway tunnel or darkened workplace somewhere, but sometimes the innocent have to suffer along with the guilty.

“Have some of my chocolate ice-cream float,” he insists as Lenore nibbles at a banana split.

“Allen, you’re embarrassing me!” she whispers. “These nice people are gonna think I’m some pig who can’t control her appetite!”

“My older sister’s ex-husband’s family were guilty of that, but not me.  She said they forced all this food on her, even when she was ready to pop twenty times over.  I’d never make you keep eating entire extra portions even when you were feeling sick.  I’m just letting you take some bites of my food.” He leans over and whispers in her ear. “Besides, I’m sure you’ll be burning off some of these calories when we get home tonight with my help, if you know what I mean.  I can’t wait to get to bed with you and generate our own electricity and heat.”

Lenore is a hundred shades of red as she takes a few sips from Allen’s straw.

Sweet Saturday Samples

This week’s installment of Sweet Saturday Samples is again from Chapter 30 of Little Ragdoll, “Blackout,” set during the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965.

***

All the power at the bakery suddenly shut off a little before 5:30, though a number of customers still came by to buy their rolls, loaves of bread, and baked goods, as the bakery was lit up by a couple of lanterns that were in a utility closet.  As soon as the bakery closed down at 6:00, Allen rushed home through eerily blackened streets, not a single light to be seen in any building.  Only a full moon in a perfect cloudless sky lit the way back home.

Lenore is on the fire escape looking up at the beautiful full moon when she hears Allen unlocking their door.  She turns around and watches him feeling his way over to where he can make her out, glad he’s home safe and sound and that at least she’ll no longer be trapped alone in the dark.

“I couldn’t get home a moment sooner,” he says as he hugs her. “I hope you weren’t too scared all alone with no power.”

“I’m always happiest when you’re here, my darling.” She nuzzles her face against his neck. “I hope you don’t mind having something cold for supper.  We can’t cook anything since the stove is electric.”

Allen looks at her more closely. “You’re not wearing a coat?  If you catch a chill, you might get sick all over again.  You have to be extra-careful after what happened last winter.”

“I’m fine.  It’s not like there’s a raging blizzard.”

Allen puts his jacket over her. “You really have a habit of not dressing properly for the weather.  That’s the third time I’ve had to give up a coat to you.”

She rolls her eyes. “I’m not made of glass.  I can handle standing outside for a little while without a jacket.”

“You have no idea what it did to me when I found you lying unconscious in the snow, no winter clothes on, not even gloves or a hat.  I will never forget that image.  It’s even worse now that I know it was my fault you were out there in the first place.  I never would’ve told you that about being in love with some other girl I was afraid to ask out if I’d known you had a mutual crush on me all along.”

“I often cried myself to sleep after you told me that.  I could barely stand to be around you.  You sure had me fooled.  I thought your sisters and Ernestine’s friends were imagining things when they told me you had a thing for me, and I always told them you’d never go for me since I was so inexperienced and a lot younger.  I was really heartbroken.”

Allen hugs her again, tighter this time. “I hate the thought of doing anything that would make my sweet Lenore cry or break her heart.”

Lenore walks back into the apartment and squints her way over to the kitchen. “So, do you want turkey, ham, baloney, or salami?  After we have some sandwiches and cake, we can warm each other up the old-fashioned way.”

“How about we go out for supper?  We can find a diner with gas stoves and some candlelight, and have a nice romantic meal together.  Besides, I wanna show my woman off to as many people as I can.  But you have to put on your jacket before we go anywhere.”

“Are you sure they’ll be open with the power outage?”

“There are always people who wanna go to restaurants.  Besides, I’m sure lots of other people must be having the same idea, since they can’t see or have power to cook either.”

Lenore hands Allen his jacket and goes to the closet for hers. “Maybe it will be romantic.  It’s not every day that you get to go on a date in the middle of the week.”

Sweet Saturday Samples

This week’s excerpt for Sweet Saturday Samples comes from Chapter 35 of Little Ragdoll, “Welcoming a New Troy.” While Allen and Lenore are having their first meeting with their prospective midwife in March of 1967, Adicia and her sisters make a joyful discovery in the midwife’s photo album.

***

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Troy,” she says, shaking their hands. “I’m Veronica Zoravkov and I hope I can be your midwife when the time comes.  I’ll give you a chance to talk with me about what you’d like out of your birth experience, what your expectations are, and what your plans are if you need to be transferred to the hospital, but first introduce me to everybody.  Are all these girls going to be present at the birth?”

“I ain’t no girl!” Boy protests. “Just ‘cause I’m the only guy in a group of girls don’t mean my maleness don’t count!”

“These are my younger sisters, Ernestine, Adicia, and Justine,” Allen indicates. “Those are my sisters’ friends, Julie and the Ryans.  Their parents called them Girl, Boy, Baby, and Infant, though they decided on some real names, I think, for when they go into wider society when they’re older.”

“Deirdre,” Girl reminds him. “My brother is David, Baby is Fiona, and Infant is Aoife, or Eva.”

“Are you a Miss or a Mrs.?” Adicia asks.

“Just call me Veronica.  We’re all friends here.  I probably won’t answer if you call me Mrs. Zoravkov anyway, since only people who don’t personally know me address me by my title instead of my first name.”

“Is that a Russian name?” Julie asks.

“Bulgarian.  My maiden name was Bulgarian too.  I wanted to marry another Bulgarian-American to keep my heritage alive instead of diluting it, since I’m so proud of where I come from.”

“Where’s Bulgaria?” Infant asks. “Is it very far away?”

“It’s on the Black Sea,” Ernestine says. “It’s in Southeastern Europe, in an area called the Balkans.  It borders Romania, Greece, and Yugoslavia.”

“What’s in your picture book?” Justine asks. “Can we look at it?”

“They’re pictures of past clients and their babies. If your brother and sister-in-law choose me and everything goes well, their pictures will be in here too come June.  It’s meant to reassure my prospective clients that normal people just like them have had their babies with a midwife, and that everything turns out alright in the majority of cases.  Of course, if the baby’s breech, we’ll have to take you to the hospital.”

“What’s a breech?” Baby asks.

“It’s when the baby is facing the wrong way,” Girl explains. “Babies are supposed to be born head-first, but sometimes they come out with their feet or rear end facing first.”

While Allen and Lenore are chatting with Veronica, the girls look at the pictures in the album.  A number of times they express surprise that the newly-born babies look rather unattractive instead of all cute, cuddly, and cleaned-up.  The people in the pictures look like normal people, just as Veronica said.  They don’t look like oddballs, but rather people they might pass in the street and not assume any anti-establishment thoughts about.

Allen looks over at them questioningly when there hasn’t been a peep out of them for more than several minutes.  Adicia, Ernestine, and Justine in particular are bent over one page, looking intently at one photograph.

“What’s so interesting?” he asks. “Something we should be alarmed about?”

“Sarah!” Adicia shouts. “It’s Sarah!  She’s in a picture!”

“You’ll have to tell me more details,” Veronica says. “Sarah is a common enough name that I know I’ve delivered more than a few.  Most of my Sarahs didn’t pronounce it with a long A, though.”

“Sarah Katz, our nanny till our mean mother fired her in June of ’62! She was born in Germany and came to America in ’47.  I know it’s our Sarah.  Even the tattoo on this woman’s arm has the same numbers as our Sarah’s tattoo.”

Ernestine brings the book over to show Allen, and his jaw drops when he too recognizes the face of the woman who helped to raise him since he was three years old.  Since he wasn’t as close to her as his sisters were, he wouldn’t know if the tattoo bears the exact same numbers, but he does see a serial number tattooed on this woman’s left forearm.

“I remember that woman.  Her name is Sarah with a long A, and her last name is still Katz.  I think she’s the only woman I’ve ever delivered who had a different last name from her husband.  She said after all she went through under the Nazis, may they all burn in Hell for what they did to so many innocent people, she couldn’t dream of giving up the identity she had when she survived.  She also said she was the only member of her family to survive, so it was doubly important to her to hold onto her original name.  Her husband’s name is Henry Rosen, short for Heinrich.  She was one of the oldest first-time mothers I’ve ever worked with.  I delivered her son Friedrich in August of ’65, when she was thirty-eight.  She called him Fritz for short, after her father.  She’s expecting another child now, and wants me to deliver her again.”

“Sarah finally found a husband and had her own baby!” Justine says happily. “Our mother wouldn’t let her even go back to school.  The bad guys in Germany kicked her out of public school when she was fourteen, so she never went to high school or college.  And then she had to spend all her time taking care of us, so she was never able to really do anything else.  Our mother wouldn’t have let her go on dates, get married, or have a baby anyway.”

Sweet Saturday Samples

My L post for the A-Z Challenge is here.

This week’s installment for Sweet Saturday Samples is one of the excerpts from Little Ragdoll I’d originally had scheduled for some time ago but set aside in favor of other samples. It’s from the conclusion of Chapter 37, “The Year the World Went Up in Flames.” The tumultuous year of 1968 has finally come to a welcome close, and Lenore confides to Allen what she’s recently told her sisters-in-law and their friends, that she’d like to have another baby. The rating is PG-13.

***

New Year’s Eve is a Tuesday this year.  The final day of the year can’t come a moment too soon, Allen and Lenore think as they sit watching the big aluminum ball dropping in Times Square on CBS.  Irene is sound asleep on the sofa bed as her parents bid good riddance to 1968 and welcome in 1969.  Allen and Lenore envy her a little bit for being too young to remember or be aware of what a tumultuous year she’s just lived through.  All she cares about are being fed and clothed, paid attention to, bathed, having her diaper changed, and having interesting things to play with.  Only later, when she’s older, will she be able to really start understanding what it meant to live through those days, the same way Allen didn’t understand till he was older what it meant for him to have been born on D-Day.  For all she’s aware of, this was a perfectly normal, safe, predictable year, and not the year the world went up in flames.

“I have something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about, Allen,” Lenore says after they’ve relocated to their own bed.

He pulls off his clothes and throws them in the hamper. “Should I be worried?”

“I hope not.  It’s just that I’ve been thinking a lot about trying for a second child—that is, if you want a second child this soon.”

He sits down on the bed and pulls her down onto his lap. “Are you serious?  You’d want to bring another child into this crazy world?  Can’t we wait a little while, until things simmer down a bit?”

“That’s the whole point.  Creation is the opposite of killing.  Not only that, it’s older than the act of killing.  What better way to celebrate life than to create a new one?  It’s our way of protesting all the bad things in the world, saying to them we’re better than that, that we’re not afraid to carry on and create life in the face of death.”

He sits and thinks about it. “I know you’re right, but it’s just scary to think about.  I was born during a war, and Irene was born during two wars, the Vietnam War and the Six-Day War.  When does it end?”

“It will end when everyone decides they love life more than death.  World peace is probably a long way off yet, but we can’t stop everything while we wait for the impossible.  Besides, two years between siblings is the perfect age difference.”

“Irene would probably love a little sister,” Allen says, already presuming their second child will be yet another girl in his life. “And I never wanted to have an only child.  You’re a really good mommy, Lenore.  Having two kids would probably make you even better.  And it’s best to have all your kids when you’re young instead of putting big gaps between them or waiting till you’re in your late thirties or early forties.  My old nanny Sarah ended up having her kids at thirty-eight and forty, but not because she deliberately postponed marriage and motherhood.”

“So what’s your answer?  You can think about it for as long as you want to.  I’ll just get my diaphragm out of the night stand and keep using it till you’re ready to have another baby.” Lenore makes a face at it as she pulls the drawer open. “I miss birth control pills, but I can’t take them at the same time I’m nursing.”

“Get rid of that damn thing,” Allen says. “You won’t be needing it for awhile.  Are you ready to try getting lucky tonight, Mrs. Troy?”

Lenore pushes the drawer shut and crawls over to Allen. “I love you.”

“Enough talk,” he smiles, pulling her on top of him. “We’ve got a new life to work on creating.  Here, let me help you out of your clothes.”

During their three couplings that night, Lenore feels she’s got the best husband in the world.  Not only is Allen the guy who took her in after she ran away, gave her a whole new family, was her first and only everything, took care of her and nursed her back to health when she was very sick, made her a respectable woman, made her a mother, and caught their firstborn child, without even complaining he didn’t get a firstborn son, but now he’s also her partner in defiance against the culture of death and violence that reigned this past year.