My writing routine settled into a new pattern recently: working at the desktop computer in my studio, I labor toward a daily goal of 1,000 quality words on my WIP, Failing Billy. The novel is contemporary and mainstream with a literary bent, but also delves into speculative fiction. The protagonist possesses an unusual ability. I don’t want to go into the specifics now. No spoilers. But back to the routine. Several hours in the studio, hammering out the narrative. Reassessing sentences, phrases, and of course, even words, for their propriety within the work. I break…downstairs for a meal. Then it’s revision time. Sitting at the small round table in our front room, beside the picture window that overlooks the park across the street with its pond. A few weeks ago my vista included ice skaters, but now the ice has melted and geese skid onto the pond’s surface as they pause in their journey north.
At my laptop, I review, revise and reconsider the morning’s work, making notes about where to begin the next day, what path to take, which direction to steer my characters (or more often, my characters whisper to me where they intend/prefer to go). I hadn’t intended this dual location routine for drafting and revising. It evolved, as I’m sure other habits will evolve in the future, and I’m finding it useful, even productive. Place is important, can be determinative. The locations have not become exclusive or restrictive. It’s not as though I cannot draft on my laptop or edit on my desktop, but the development of these practices fascinates me. Prior to this I occasionally reviewed the day’s writing late at night on my iPad, checking for typos, etc. But the laptop sessions are more elaborate, with substantial rewriting and reworking of the day’s progress. The mechanics of writing, mine and that of others, intrigues me.
I recently signed with an agent, who now is approaching publishers about the manuscript I completed last spring: “Summers on the Nebraska Shore.” I edited the manuscript a few times with readers’ suggestions, compiled both a short and a lengthy synopsis, as well as a bio. Why is it that a book’s synopsis seems more difficult to draft than the novel itself? Here’s the longer of the two synopses:
Edwin Garside, a successful and acclaimed novelist, lived a nomadic life: moving to a new town or city whenever he completed a manuscript. Following the death of his father, Edwin inherits the family farmstead in central Nebraska, where as a child he spent two weeks each August with is grandparents. The summer visits enthralled him when he was young; exploring the farm and its environs entertained and amazed him. Entering his teens, the visits to the farm felt like punishment and he resented being banished from his friends. His grandfather died when Edwin was sixteen years old, resulting in a final visit: the man’s funeral. Watching his father console his grandmother affected Edwin in ways he had not anticipated, and observing the restrained emotions of the mourners who flocked to the farmhouse after the memorial service inspired him to write his feelings in a notebook. His birth as a writer. He enrolled at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. During his freshman year, Edwin experienced the loss of a childhood friend, killed in Vietnam. The friend’s funeral stirred emotions similar to those he recorded in his notebook at his grandfather’s. Upon returning to the university, Edwin began a short story based on the notes and observations gleaned from the two funerals. The story was accepted for publication in The New Yorker, earning Edwin praise and easy acceptance to the Writer’s Workshop graduate program. When he graduated from the program, Edwin had completed his first novel, secured an agent, married a fellow student, and fathered a child. Hired by a liberal arts college in western North Carolina, Edwin settled into the life of an academic and began work on his second novel. His first novel earned him minor celebrity status on campus. Waiting lists developed for his workshop classes. Students fawned over him and one in particular tempted him into an affair, which ended with the student disclosing the relationship to the college dean in a spiteful act. Edwin lost his job and his family over the dalliance. His wife, Angela, dismissed his apologies and fled to her home in Missouri with their son, Jacob. Edwin fled to a small town in Vermont to finish his novel-in-progress, beginning his life as a literary nomad.
When he inherits the farmstead, Edwin decides to convert what is left of the acreage (much had been sold off to neighboring farmers) into a writer’s retreat. His son, an architect in Omaha, designs the buildings to house the visiting writers and oversees the renovation of the farmhouse in which Edwin will live. Jacob’s wife, Greta, an interior decorator, assists in the furnishings for the farmhouse. Estranged for nearly all his life from his son, Edwin attempts to close the gap between them…he senses time is not his ally. When Greta telephones, asking if Edwin’s grandson and his girlfriend can stay at the farm for a day or two, he balks at the invasion of his privacy, but relents, hoping his acceptance will aid in the repair of his bond with his son. His grandson, Joshua, and his girlfriend, Abby, arrive, and Edwin learns the boy fled a gambling debt in Chicago, where he’s a journalism student at Northwestern. His mother agrees to settle the debt, provided he retreats to the farm to reflect on his actions, as well as his promise that he will cease his gambling, which began as research for an article he was writing about underground gambling in the city. Underscoring all the events surrounding Edwin’s decision to live at the farm he came to resent as a teenager is the loss of his longtime lover, Charlene Barlow, a talented and award-winning photographer. Her death stunned him as no other event in his life had. The intrusion of Joshua and Abby upon his lingering grief, however, transforms Edwin. When Joshua asks him if he will read and critique the article he has written, Edwin agrees but then suggests the boy convert it to a short story, enticed by the themes of family, redemption and commitment. He also lends one of Charlene’s cameras to Abby, who studies theatrical lighting at Northwestern. Joshua’s gambling problem has strained the relationship between Joshua and Abby, such that the boy decides to return to Chicago to finish his story, while Abby stays at the farm with Edwin for an indefinite period.
Edwin uses his work-in-progress (of which a few excerpts appear in the novel) as a surrogate for the anger he feels about Charlene’s death at the hands of a mugger. A local bully parallels the action in the WIP, serving as inspiration for Edwin’s catharsis. His and Abby’s encounters with the bully propel the plot toward a disastrous climax. The bully sets fire to the farmhouse and lies in wait with a rifle to ambush Edwin.
Summers on the Nebraska Shore explores the dynamics and fluid nature of family. Love, passion and loss feature prominently. Edwin Garside reviews his nomadic life, second-guessing many of his decisions, while using the writer’s retreat as a tool for both solidifying his literary legacy and his connections with his family; goals he learns are entwined. The theme of isolation peppers his many novels and the notion of retreating to the farmstead, but surrounding himself with young writers and family, stirs within him a desire to reclaim, or rediscover, those links and connections he abandoned decades earlier. Charlene’s murder influences every decision, every nuance of his actions. When the fire destroys his dream, he steps back and examines the plans he had formulated. He shifts, refocuses on what now seems more important to him: family. He stops trying so hard to cement those bonds and instead places himself within their sphere with the intention of allowing relationships to grow more organically, less forced. It’s a happy ending that is earned. Joshua might follow his example as a writer of fiction. Abby will probably not abandon her studies in theater, but has certainly been bitten by the photography bug. Jacob and Marta are enlisted to assist in the renovation of a loft space in Omaha where Edwin will finish his work-in-progress. His contentment after everything that happens calms him, fulfills him. An epiphany about his aspirations suffuses him with peacefulness.
I recognize that Nebraska is landlocked…that’s part of the novel’s charm. Ever hear of the honor of Admiral in the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska? Probably not unless you lived there, which I did for fifteen years. My Omaha friends will chuckle at the novel’s title.
The current WIP now exceeds 85,000 words and I anticipate concluding the draft in a month or so. The merger of the three main characters is underway and their final interaction will conclude the boo. It’s always exciting to see the end approaching, and I have to stem the urge to race toward the finish line.