The Green House, Chapter 2, Scene 1

[Note: If you want to start reading this novel from the beginning, go here.]

As Constance merged onto the 401 from the Don Valley Parkway and headed east, she pressed down on the accelerator. The tiny stretch in the arch of her foot felt good, and that feeling in turn directed her attention toward a glimmer of optimism in the grey-woolly cloud of pointlessness that normally characterized her thoughts. 

While even one bright spot was welcome, over the past several years of increasing desolation, she’d experienced such glimmerings — sometimes they were sharper, more like “sparklings” — before. She had even occasionally (as in this case, if she were honest) taken to engineering their appearance herself, rather than just waiting for them to show up unexpectedly in the post or by phone or email. They made her feel good for a moment, in the manner of a first infusion of good scotch into her system, but she knew better than to put much faith in them. After a time they’d burn themselves out or scatter beyond her reach. 

Constance considered it a sign of health or at least of life that she hadn’t entirely given up on hope: she still sought out those little sparks, or worked to make them happen. Perhaps she was “hopelessly addicted to hope,” as some song had once said – or should have said. She believed hope to be an essential attribute of a certain kind of writer – the kind she was herself. But, given their temporary nature, seeking or engineering such bits of optimism was not enough: you had to do something that would breathe them into viable life, and do it quickly before they vanished. And that required energy. That she had summoned enough of it today to get herself properly dressed and out into the city was worth celebrating of itself: it had been months since she’d done that. But now she had to figure what she would do next. She needed to make a plan.

About half an hour from home, snow began to fall and Constance’s thoughts turned to the winterizing Bart still needed to do before their annual parting glass (which would probably feature the aforementioned scotch: Laphroaig or something like it, hers straight up, his demeaned through the addition of ice and ginger ale). That’s when they would do their bi-annual settlement of accounts, and she would hand him an envelope with a few hundred dollars in it – money that he would use up over the winter as he cleared her snow on his own schedule and paid himself at whatever rate he found appropriate. Before then, the last of the garden pots and tools would need to be stowed in the shed behind the house, and he’d want to bring the snow shovels and brooms out into the verandahs front and back. She’d thought he was intending to dig up some of the glads and dahlias and wrap and store them for the winter, but he hadn’t mentioned that again since they’d talked about it in early September; maybe he’d forgotten about them or perhaps he’d changed his mind.

There used to be a final raking to do at this time of year as well, but a couple of years ago the two of them had agreed that they should leave the organic detritus for the comfort of insects over winter. Long ago, when she’d first bought the house, there’d been storm windows to put in each autumn as well, but the royalties from her books had been steady and substantial then and early on she’d installed replacement windows, double-glazed.

With the amount of snow coming down, increasingly as she left the highway and headed south toward Ajax, it looked as though it was too late in the season for raking anyway. Bart Samoil, an unkempt man with a raggedy long beard and ponytail who resembled either a leftover hippie or a lumberjack or possibly even a homeless person depending on the day and context, and whose strength in his late fifties exceeded that of most men in their twenties, worked his several odd jobs on his own timeline, getting to her place either when he could or when he felt like it – she was never sure. In an ideal world, he’d have done the final work of the season at least three weeks ago. Now the ground had grown cold and this new winter was not likely to retreat again. But he was as irascible as she was, and she let him have his way in most matters, out of fear of losing him.

As she pulled into her driveway, she was pleased to see that the timers for the living room and bedroom lights had functioned properly. Especially now, with the snow falling through the darkness onto the trees and lawn surrounding it, the two-story house with its grey-green siding and white porch posts and shutters looked occupied and inviting. Her heart did a little turn of satisfaction at the sight of the little nest she’d created for herself. If anything, the bouts of imprisonment during the pandemic had affirmed the rightness of her long-ago decision to purchase property this far from the city.

She gave a small grunt of discomfort as she reached into the trunk of her car for the few things she’d picked up in town: they included a new queen-sized bedspread and two brightly coloured pillows for the couch in the rental suite downstairs. The suite had been empty since a month or so before the first lockdown started, but she’d posted the unit again on Craig’s List earlier in the week: she couldn’t afford to leave it empty any longer. The house needed new shingles and a few other repairs and updates, and her writing income had been waning for too many years. She told herself that it would be nice to have the sounds of another human in the house, and might even prove practical if she should take a tumble down the stairs or in the shower. Not that she intended to do those things: she may have some arthritic moments, but she wasn’t old enough yet to lose her balance and be unable to recover.

She went up the steps to the verandah, unlocked the front door and stepped inside, stamping the snow off her shoes. She felt a moment of relief at being home again. She’d been worried about going to the reading and had nearly reneged on her arrangement with Jayda to attend. For almost a decade — probably since around the time that her agent had stopped pretending to represent her — readings and writers’ gatherings had left her in despair, even physically nauseated. After attending one, it would take her days or weeks to recover enough that she could write again. The pandemic had provided a welcome reprieve from such encounters — it had been more than two years since she’d felt obligated to go anywhere, especially to an indoor gathering. But now she had, and this time she felt almost certain that a connection had been forged that could be constructive, even beneficial, to her future. 

She surveyed the inside of her head and found the bit of optimism she’d noticed in the car. It was safe until Thursday, when she and Sarah had agreed to meet for coffee and after that, who knew? It was in part up to her what happened next, and she had two days to think about it. It hadn’t even occurred to her to make such an arrangement with Sarah until the moment before she’d done it, just as she hadn’t realized that talking with the younger writer might be a brilliant idea until half way through the reading. But she had done it, and she was pleased. This itself could be seen as a corner for the better, turned.

It was almost seven and she was ravenous. After hanging her coat in the front closet, she pulled a leftover serving of tuna casserole from the fridge, along with some romaine lettuce, a cucumber and a tomato. But before she started turning the assembled food items into her evening meal, she was distracted by the sight of one of her notebooks on the table – the one most like a traditional journal, although it was far from a diary. She sat down at the round kitchen table, pulled the notebook toward her, opened it, picked up the ballpoint pen that she kept inside it like a bookmark, and started to record her thoughts.

© Mary W. Walters

The Green House, Chapter One

It turned out that the best part of their relationship was over by the time he’d suggested they get married. They’d been arguing about everything ever since – from who should officiate at the wedding to where they should go after the small reception. They’d ended up at a run-down motel in the Muskoka Lakes, two-and-a-half hours north of Toronto and a world away from how she’d always imagined her honeymoon would be. She knew better than to place any faith in convention, romantic or otherwise, but she found herself disappointed nonetheless.

After three years of squandering themselves down to the verge of bankruptcy, indulging their whims and appetites in celebration of their love, their honeymoon was like a hangover. It rained and rained, and they bickered over every cent they spent on touristy options that would allow them to stay indoors. On that day back in November when he’d gone down on one knee to present her with an engagement ring he’d put on their credit card, they’d agreed – laughing over a congratulatory joint – that it was time that the two of them grew up. But it seemed that neither of them was keen to do it. At least not with one another.

Their final argument took place high above Lake Joseph on the first sunny day since they’d arrived. After talking to some guy at the front desk of the motel, Emil had decided they should take a leap from a sheer granite cliff that dropped twenty meters down into the deep blue lake. It was perfectly safe, he told her. All you had to do was jump out far enough to make sure that you were clear of the rock face. She was having none of it. Online she’d found stories of people who’d been killed or worse at this exact spot, and she said she didn’t feel like being married to a paraplegic. He’d insisted she come up with him to scout the situation, promising that they wouldn’t jump that day but only on the next if she agreed and if the sun was out again.

That’s not how it turned out of course — in part because the moss up top was slippery from the week of rain, and in part because in the split second in which she might have reached out to grab him by his shirt, that’s not what she had done. 

Sarah had decided she would stop reading there and, despite the temptation to continue (she loved to read her work aloud), she respected her earlier decision; it had been based on her conviction that writers should always leave readers hungering for more. She closed the book, took a breath and looked up. 

After a few moments of silence, during which it felt as though the audience were holding its collective breath, the hall erupted. A few people yelled “More! More!” and “Keep going!” 

Someone near the back called, “You can’t leave us hanging!” 

“Or ‘leave Emil falling,’ more precisely,” someone said, closer to the front, causing a murmur of laughter.

She smiled and dipped her head to acknowledge their approval of her writing. There were maybe fifty people in the lecture hall; as was usual at her readings, about three quarters of them were women. She nodded at a few fellow authors she recognized from conferences and Writers’ Union meetings.

She realized that Constance Browning was in the audience, off to her left, about six rows from the front. The older woman, beautifully turned out in a beige suit with a watery pastel print scarf at her neck, was looking directly at her, and she was smiling as she applauded. Sarah had admired Constance since she’d read one of her books in high school and her appearance here, when she hardly ever showed up anywhere anymore, aroused in Sarah an almost bashful pleasure. (She hoped the bashful part of it didn’t show.)

“Thank you,” she said into the mike, addressing everyone in general but meaning Constance in particular. 

When at last – it seemed like several minutes but it was probably just one or two – the applause began to ebb, Toby Green, a bookseller and the designated MC, joined Sarah at the podium and asked if anyone had questions. 

A few people raised their hands. 

Toby pointed at a woman with short blond hair about half way back who appeared to be in her mid-thirties. 

“Where did you get the idea for this book?” the woman asked. 

This was a question that came up regularly at readings. Most of Sarah’s stories emerged from the fabric of her life, and when she’d been promoting her previous books she’d answered similar inquiries as accurately as she could, recounting real-life incidents and explaining how she’d woven them into imagined events to create the scaffolds of her manuscripts. Among the members of her audiences, there were often would-be writers who apparently believed that the acquisition of certain rituals or tricks – ones to which only successful writers like Sarah Elliott would be privy – might lift their own fiction from obscurity. They ate up her responses, which often turned into wide-ranging discussions involving half the audience. Indeed, over the ten years since her first book had been published, Sarah had established a reputation for being a “generous-to-other-writers” writer, largely on the basis of the thorough and articulate answers she patiently delivered at readings, talks and conferences, and online as well, when she was asked about her work or about the writing life in general. 

But the spark that had become The Borrowed Knapsack – her newest novel – had been the rage and embarrassment she’d felt in the wake of a relationship in which, for more than a year before it ended, she’d invested too much hope and a stupid amount of money. When she’d started writing this manuscript, which — ironically — a couple of reviewers had already described as her most tightly-plotted work to date, she’d been seething, seeking vengeance. Fomenting rage had propelled her half way through the first draft. 

She was still furious and ashamed about everything related to Wyatt; she was not about to talk about him to anyone, certainly not to the media or the reading public. But knowing that her readers would be suspicious or disappointed if she didn’t give them something concrete, before the book had even been published she’d reached into her past and managed to come up with a true incident she could use as a response to the “where’d you get your ideas” question for this book. It felt more honourable to her… and safer… than she’d have felt if she’d invented something.

“Well, that’s another story,” she said now, her voice well modulated. “It wasn’t an incident that happened to me directly: I was really just a bystander. But it had a dramatic effect on me. The memory has haunted me ever since, but when I started to work on this”— she raised her copy of The Borrowed Knapsack — “I didn’t focus on the memory itself the way I usually do, but on the feeling the memory gave me.” She looked across the audience, noticing that a couple of people were writing down what she said. “The incident really has nothing to do with the book, but I can tell you about it if you like.” 

There was a chorus of “Yes!” and “Please!” (What else were they going to say?) so she replaced the book on the lectern and, in a confiding tone, continued.

“Okay. Well, early in the summer when I was ten, my dad was invited to speak at a conference in Prague. My mom decided to go with him, and they arranged for me to stay with some friends of theirs — the Thistles, also academics — who had a cottage in Muskoka. My parents probably figured it would be a great little holiday for me, but I barely knew the Thistles, and they didn’t have any kids, and the weather was cold and wet. Mrs. Dr. Thistle was working on a paper, and I was told that she must not be disturbed. Mr. Dr. Thistle read books and listened to music on head phones and went out for walks in the rain without inviting me to join him. I’d brought along a few things to do — books and pencil crayons and whatnot — and I was allowed to help with the meal preparation and the dishes — but most of the time I just sat around, quite bored. I considered it a catastrophe that they had no television.”

She heard small chuckles from here and there and felt the audience settling in to listen, as though she were still reading from the book. She let her mind go back to the time she was describing.

“A few days after we got up there, I woke one night to the sounds of a man and woman yelling at one another. The noise was coming from somewhere outside, at the front of the cottage which faced the road. My small bedroom windows looked out on the lake, so it was all too muffled for me to make out many words. But the tone was clear: it sounded like the people who were yelling wanted to kill one another. I was terrified — too scared to even get out of bed. I was pretty sure it wasn’t the Thistles — yelling didn’t seem to be their style — but in truth I’d never heard adults raging like that at one another so I couldn’t be sure. I remember pulling my bedclothes up over my head and then trying to peek out from beneath them. After five or ten minutes, red and blue lights started pulsing high up on the trees outside my window, and then the yelling stopped. Suddenly it was silent.

“Then I did get up, and I tiptoed down the hall. I found the Thistles in their housecoats in the darkened living room room, silhouetted against the big front window. They were standing next to one another – almost touching but not quite. The cottage across the way — a much bigger place than the one we were in – was all lit up, and there was a police car, lights flashing, on the road that ran between us and it. Behind the police car was an ambulance, its lights flashing too. I couldn’t see any people out there. I asked if everything was okay, even though it obviously wasn’t, and the Thistles whirled around like I’d scared them half to death. When they recovered, Mr. Dr. Thistle said that everything was under control and that I should go back to bed. So I did.

“I have no idea how I ever managed to fall back to sleep! The next morning I asked the Thistles what had happened. Mrs. Dr. Thistle said that one of the people who lived across the way had had an accident, and had been taken to the hospital.

“‘Unfortunately,’ she added.

“‘What kind of an accident?’ I asked.

“‘We’re not sure about that,’ she said, looking at her husband.

“‘What about the yelling?’ I asked.

“‘The yelling?’ Mr. Dr. Thistle asked, as if himself had heard nothing of the sort.

“‘They were probably just worried about her,’ Mrs. Dr. Thistle said at the same moment, and again they exchanged glances. “Sometimes people shout when they are in distress,” she added in a quieter voice. 

“‘It’s nothing to worry about,’ he said. ‘They’re just renters. Not anyone we know.’

“I tried to protest this explanation but got nowhere. The next day some other friends of the Thistles showed up in a boat — they were staying across the lake, and they had a couple of kids my age. The sun came out, the lake got all blue and sparkly, and the rest of the week turned out to be a lot more fun than the first half had been. I was either too busy or too worn out to think much about the night-time shouting match until the day before my parents were coming to pick me up. Two cops showed up at the door around dinner time, wanting to talk to the Thistles. I remember being scared that it had something to do with my parents, but it turned out that the man from the cottage across the way had been found dead in the lake that morning by some other cottager out fishing. Near the bottom of the cliff I describe in the passage I’ve just read to you.” 

Sarah took a sip from the bottle of water on the lectern.

“And that’s all I knew about it for several decades.” 

“Wow,” said Toby Green, stretching up to lean into the mike. “What an awful experience.”

“Not knowing any details was the worst part,” Sarah responded, nodding. “My parents said they knew nothing about it, but I think they must have. They probably decided it was not something that should be discussed with a child. Years later I looked the incident up online, and found out it had been a domestic-abuse situation. But at the time my imagination just went wild.” She paused. “I guess nothing’s ever wasted on a writer…. or on a ten-year old who reads too many Nancy Drew books and will eventually become a writer.”

There were nods and bits of laughter here and there.

“So that’s where you got the seeds of The Borrowed Knapsack,” Toby said.

It was awkward with both of them trying to use the same mike. Sarah waited until Toby had moved back a bit, then said, “Well obviously what happens in the novel isn’t the same as what happened the week I was at that cottage. But I used the same setting for the piece I’ve just read you. It helped me keep that feeling front and centre.” She looked up at the audience, and delivered a tip in case anyone had been wanting one. “I often find that if I have plot problem,” she said, “if I just ask myself how the scene might be perceived or imagined by a nine- or ten-year old, the answer to ‘what happens next?’ will come to me.” 

Toby invited another few questions. The first few were fairly straightforward and then a woman who looked to be in her sixties near the back wondered why Sarah’s main character had said she didn’t want to be married to a paraplegic. “Sounds a bit ableist to me.” 

Sarah nodded, took a breath, and then responded. “It’s not intended to be,” she said. “It’s just the way she talks. It’s the way people talk.”

“But don’t we have an obligation to set an example?” The woman asked. “As writers?”

“I think our obligation is to tell the truth,” said Sarah. “Even when we’re writing fiction. If people talk that way, characters talk that way.”

“Did you think about that, when you were writing it?” The woman wanted to know.

“I did,” Sarah answered. 

Someone near the front turned around and said to the woman at the back, “If we are setting examples all the time, there will be no conflict. No story. Crime writers couldn’t allow their villains to murder anyone, for God’s sake.”

There was a bit of laughter. 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said the woman. “That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m wondering where you draw the line. What if she’d said, ‘I don’t want to be married to a fat person’? Would that be acceptable to you?”

A few people volunteered their opinions. Sarah stayed out of it, and Toby managed to wrap the whole thing up before it could go off the rails.

Then Toby said that people could purchase a copy of The Borrowed Knapsack and Sarah’s earlier novels, as well as books by a few other local authors, at the sales table in the lobby outside the lecture theatre. She expressed gratitude to Sarah for agreeing to stick around to sign books if anyone wanted her to do that. She concluded by saying that since the lecture hall was closing in half an hour, everyone who felt the least bit thirsty could re-assemble in The Half Horseshoe, a pub two blocks away.

It was more like forty-five minutes before Sarah finished signing books and as she headed out, still escorted by the diminutive Toby Green, she was surprised to find Constance Browning and another writer she now recognized as Jayda Banks waiting for them near the exit doors. Jayda was a Black poet in her mid forties who was highly regarded in the literary community.

“We figured you’d be going to the pub,” Constance said. “We thought we’d walk over with you.” She added, gesturing at her companion, “I’m sure you know Jayda?”

“I know who you are, of course,” Sarah said, extending her hand to shake Jayda’s. “We’re Facebook friends, aren’t we? But I don’t think we’ve met.”

Smiling warmly, Jayda said with a trace of a Caribbean accent, “I loved the reading. I’m so happy Constance invited me to come along.” 

Jayda was much friendlier in person than she was in the photographs Sarah had seen of her online, most of which had been taken when Jayda been discussing political issues and looking somewhat fierce. She had beautiful white teeth, silky looking skin, and today her long braided hair was pulled up in a knot atop her head.

Sarah indicated Toby. “I imagine you both know Toby Green?” 

All three of them confirmed that they did know one another. 

Even though they had never met before either, Constance had not bothered to introduce herself to Sarah. Sarah decided that this was perhaps because she assumed that everyone knew who she was, which was probably true  — she was famous by Canadian standards, and had been for more than a generation. Or maybe she’d just forgotten that they hadn’t met before. 

Constance was taller than the three other women by half a head — a full head taller in Toby’s case. She must have been five nine or ten, Sarah though. She was wearing a full-length camel coat over her suit, ankle-high leather boots and a crocheted cloche hat that matched her scarf. Now in her late sixties, she’d lost none of the unique Browning aura that made it seem – even when she was in the middle of a crowd – as though she stood alone, isolated from the rest of humanity by the magnitude of her talent. 

“Shall we?” Toby asked and the four of them pushed out into the chilly late-October afternoon. There was a stiff breeze and they put their heads down and walked quickly. Leaves scurried about their ankles. When they reached The Half Horseshoe, they paused together just inside the door to gather themselves again before heading down to the lower level. There, several tables had been pushed together by others who’d arrived before them.

“I’d hoped to have a moment with you on the way over,” Constance said to Sarah as they went down the stairs behind Toby and Jayda. “Perhaps we could sit next together.”

“I’d like that,” Sarah said. “Could you grab a seat for me? I’m going to hit the washroom first.”

“Of course,” Constance said. Several of those already at the table were pointing at empty chairs, inviting her to sit near them.

When Sarah came out of the washroom, where she’d touched up her makeup, fluffed her hair and double-checked her outfit — a dark green turtleneck, a short plaid skirt and high brown leather boots that exactly matched her attache case and were the most expensive pair of footwear she’d ever owned — she saw that Constance had found a seat near the back of the group against the wall. There was an empty chair beside her. Toby was sitting at the opposite end of the group of tables, and Jayda was about half way down on the side across from Constance. There were several pitchers of beer and a lot of glasses on the tables, and several conversations seemed to have taken root. There were about twenty people all together.

Sarah put her steel-coloured puffer coat and her attache case on a chair that faced a table behind them, and sat down next to Constance.

“Are you tired?” Constance asked.

“Not really,” Sarah said. “The adrenaline’s still going.”

“It does that,” Constance said with a smile. At that moment a waiter came over to see if they wanted anything besides draft beer. Constance asked for a wine spritzer. Sarah, drawing a clean glass and one of the pitchers toward her, said she was happy with the beer.

Over the course of the next hour, several self-declared fans of Sarah’s or Constance’s or both leaned across the table to talk to them, or got up and came around to chat. They wanted to discuss specific books that Constance or Sarah had written, or to tell Sarah how much they’d enjoyed the reading, or to chat about their own manuscripts. In no time, it was almost six and half the people — including Toby — had left. A few of the others were deciding whether to order something from the food menu or to find another place to eat. 

Sarah had at least an hour’s drive across the city, so she extracted her wallet from her attache case, pulled out a twenty to put onto the middle table toward the beer, then started to get her things together. Constance was also getting ready to leave. 

As Sarah was helping Constance into her coat — which was as lovely to the touch as it was to the eye — she asked Jayda if she was ready leave as well. Jayda smiled up and said she’d stay and grab a bite with the others.

“Thanks for suggesting this,” she said to Constance, then added to Sarah, “It was nice to meet you.” 

“You, too.”

As Sarah followed Constance toward the exit, the older woman said over her shoulder, “We still haven’t had a chance to talk.”

“True,” said Sarah. “Maybe I can give you a ride somewhere.”

“I have my car,” said Constance. They were approaching the pub’s glass-windowed exit doors, and Constance gestured to the south. “I’m on College Street. I imagine you’re somewhere closer.”

“I’m in a lot, a block or so that way,” Sarah said, pointing north. It was dark now but the wind was still blowing leaves and litter around outside. Snow was in the forecast. “Do you want a lift to your car?”

“I need the exercise,” Constance said. “But thanks.” She paused. “Maybe we could meet for coffee sometime soon.”

“Sure,” Sarah replied, surprised, turning from the doors to look at Constance. “That would be great.”

Constance was looking evenly back at her. She had lovely grey eyes with dark lashes, and a faint brushing of aqua on her lids. The lines that age had added around her eyes and mouth didn’t diminish her attractiveness. Sarah had noticed before that the appeal of people who were intelligent and engaged was often somehow enhanced rather than diminished as they got older. Their lines added gravitas, she supposed.

“How about Thursday?” Constance asked, now rooting around in her handbag for her keys. “That’s the next day I’m in town.”

Obviously Constance had something specific she wanted to discuss. Sarah was curious, but she didn’t ask.

“You don’t live in the city?” She asked instead.

“Ajax, near the lake,” Constance said.

“That sounds nice,” said Sarah. 

“It’s a lovely spot.” She said, nodding. “Why don’t we meet at the AGO? I’m a member, and they have lovely pastries.”

The Art Gallery of Ontario was right downtown, difficult to get to on a weekday afternoon. If it had been anyone else, Sarah would have insisted they meet somewhere else — Ajax itself would be easier for her to get to. But this was Constance Browning.

They agreed to find one another near the coat check at three p.m. on Thursday, and exchanged cell-phone numbers in case there were any changes. Then they headed off, in opposite directions, into the early night.

© Mary W. Walters

Discount for readers of The Militant Writer

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coverAs a thank you  to the subscribers of The Militant Writer, as well as my many editing and grantwriting clients, fellow writers and friends, please accept this offer of a deep discount of The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid, at Amazon, for a limited time only.

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Turning Writers’ Blocks into Building Blocks, or “What don’t I know?”

 

blocks__4971835856There is no worse feeling for a fiction writer than coming to a grinding halt in the middle of a story. One day all of your engines are firing, sentence after sentence pours out of you like hot metal, almost faster than you can type – it’s like the characters are alive inside your head and all you need to do is write down what they’re doing. You love the story you are writing and you know that everyone else in the entire world is going to love it, too. You are thinking that at the rate you are going, you’ll be finished by the new year, and rich and famous by next summer (or at least critically acclaimed within the decade).

And then the next day, the magic vanishes. You sit down at your computer as you always do, you start to key in words — but these words don’t fit with the words you wrote yesterday, nor do they even fit with each other very well. So you delete them. You try another sentence. Nope. Nothing good is happening on the screen. You tell yourself that you should ease up on yourself: this isn’t the final draft, it’s just the first one. It doesn’t have to be perfect. But still it isn’t working.

You get up and pace. You lie on your back on your bed or on the floor, and you start feeling nauseated. You go back to the computer, but you find yourself checking Facebook instead of writing. You read the news. You play an online game. Only at the end of the day, do you give up — hoping that tomorrow will return you to your state of authorial grace.

But tomorrow, it’s the same or worse. So you start reading back through what you wrote before you hit the wall — and, horror of horrors — you wonder if that part is any good either.

One day you reach a point where you can’t even bring yourself to open the file where you have saved your story.

What to do?

Some writing gurus will tell you to just keep going. They’ll tell you not to worry about whether what you’re putting down is good or bad… they’ll insist you must simply carry on. “Keep getting your daily quota down on paper,” they say, “and it will all work out.” They will cheerily suggest that you stop the day’s work in the middle of a paragraph so that you can carry on tomorrow … as if you could even write half a paragraph today.

Well, I’ve tried following that advice. As a result, I have printouts of several drafts of a novel called White Work in a box somewhere that, taken together, weigh about 20 lbs. White Work will never be complete because I kept going as advised, and never did find my way out of the mess I was making of it. Everything I did just made it worse. I grew sick and tired of it. Twenty years later, I still can’t look at it.

On other occasions when I’ve hit a wall, I’ve put the project aside, afraid of wrecking it. I’ve decided to wait until inspiration returned. Eventually a couple of those projects went into the fireplace or into my filing cabinet or still languish on my computer, unfinished. When I look at them I have no idea where I was going with them, what made me so keen about them in the first place.

In other words, if you don’t deal with them when they first show up, little blocks can grow into big problems.

Meeting the Block Head-on

I have finally found a solution that works for me when I run into a block, and I hope it works for you as well. It’s not really a solution, I suppose: it’s more of an awareness that you can turn into plan of action.

I have learned that when I find it impossible to move forward on a project, it is because there is something important about the story that I do not know.
Not knowing something erodes my confidence, and when I lack confidence I can’t write. Trying to move forward becomes like trying to walk across a frozen pond when I am not sure whether the ice is solid enough to hold me. My fear of seeing the ice begin to crack, of sinking into the deadly water — of getting trapped beneath the ice — becomes greater than my certainty that I can make it to the other side. I start to slow down, and then I stop. And that’s when I start sinking.

So now, when I find myself grinding to a halt in the middle of a story – as I did recently in my new novel, Seeds and Secrets (which you can watch me writing on Wattpad, one chapter at time, if you are interested) – I ask myself, “What do I not know about this story and its characters that I need to know before I can move on?” (There are lots of things I don’t need to know. I’m not talking about those things.)

“Where have I taken a wrong step?” I ask myself. “How did I get myself out here where the ice is so thin? When is the last time I felt myself on solid ground, and how do I get back there so I can once again move forward strongly?”

Kinds of Missing Information

What I don’t know about my story might be something small. For example, maybe the daughter of my main character was traumatized by the 9-11 coverage, but I’ve just realized that she could not have been traumatized by that event because she wasn’t even born when it occurred. Now I need to change everybody’s age in the whole story, or find the child another trauma.

Or maybe it’s a medium-sized problem. Maybe I haven’t spent enough time thinking about my main character’s best friend. I don’t know why she has turned into such a bitter adult. I realize that I need to spend some time thinking about what led her to become the woman she is now. (I may not actually include this information in my novel, but it’s clear to me that I do need to know it before I can move on.)

Or it might be a really big problem, which is, in my case, what almost always happens when I don’t know how a story is going to turn out. Some writers just keep on writing with no real plot in mind, hoping for the best, and some of those writers get lucky. (Or maybe, as in the case of Marcel Proust and Karl Ove Knausgaard, they just keep writing, and writing, and writing, until they stop.) But most authors, like me, need to know the ending before they can write the middle, or they will come to a grinding halt. (That’s what happened with White Work).

In order overcome a block and move on, sometimes I just need to go back a bit and fix something to make the story feel right again, as in the case of the trauma incident. Sometimes I need to draw a map or a floor plan or a family tree to make sure I’ve got my directions and dates and connections right. And sometimes I have a bigger job ahead of me: I need to figure out and then make notes on the balance of the plot, so I can see where I am going. (In Seeds and Secrets, my most recent problem turned out to be minor: I realized that I had no idea what career my central character had taken up as her employment as an adult: i.e., in the novel’s present tense. I had to decide what career path she’d chosen and how that path logically arose from what had happened to her when she was younger.)

To find missing information in my novel, the last place I want to look is at the novel itself. (That’s where the information is missing from, so why would I look for it there?) Instead, I often find it useful to go for a walk or head to the gym. For some reason, if I deliberately force myself to think about the problem while I’m sweating, the answer usually comes to me. Other times, I take my computer to a coffee shop or a park where I try to shake the solution loose — in my experience, a change of setting is much more likely to create a missing piece than is lying on the bed, staring in panic at the ceiling.

Once I’ve figured out what I don’t know about my novel, and have filled in the necessary cracks in what I’ve already written, I find that the ground again feels solid, and I am able to move forward. The book itself feels better — stronger — when I’ve done this. It’s sort of like turning writers’ blocks into construction materials. And when you know how to do that, you almost start to welcome those blocks when they start to crash down in front of you and bring you to a halt. (Almost.) You realize that if you don’t fix the problem, you are going to sink for sure. But you also begin to trust that you can fix it, given some time and focus, and that when you have –  when you’ve made the ground strong enough again to hold you – the readers who follow after will find it strong as well.

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photo credit: turbulentflow via photopin cc

Selling your novel: Genre vs. mainstream fiction

I have recently read that, unless their names are well known, writers in future are going to have a lot more trouble selling genre fiction than mainstream fiction, because readers will buy another, cheaper novel in the same genre (which today often means that they will go for a free novel in an ebook giveaway) before they will pay for a novel by an author they haven’t heard of before.

On the other hand, more readers are likely to be looking for genre fiction than mainstream fiction, so you’re at least going to have them checking out your book.

Your thoughts?

Looking for Beta readers for The Whole Clove Diet

Update Jan 4/11: Thanks for your responses! I have now got ten beta readers. Watch for the next posts on The Militant Writer: How to promote your independently published book — an interview with an author whose books are selling like hotcakes!

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My third novel (fifth book) is currently being typeset and will be published in about two months. I am looking for ten people who are interested in reading the final version of it in manuscript form and then writing a one-paragraph (or so) review for Amazon once the book is published. It doesn’t matter if you like it or not — you are welcome to be honest. I just want some reviews up there as soon as the book comes out.

In exchange, once the book is published I will sign a copy of the print version (it will also be available as an e-book. It’s is going to have a beautiful cover! I’m so excited!) and mail it to you, all at no cost to you.

If you are interested, please write me at mary @ marywwalters dot com or contact me via this blog.

Here’s info about the book:

As she breaks 200 pounds, and not in a good way, Rita (29) finds herself married to a self-focused widower with two difficult kids and a mother who almost makes Rita’s own mother look like a role model—which is really saying something. Graham’s first wife, being dead, just keeps getting better and better in everyone’s memories while Rita just gets fatter and more aggravated. She’s tried every diet in the book, but it’s not until a family crisis forces her out the door that she figures out that the easiest way to thin is to get rid of the baggage on the inside. Funny and insightful, The Whole Clove Diet is sure to make readers of all shapes and sizes feel better about themselves—and ultimately maybe even about Rita.

Thanks!