Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Imagine I’m a writer

Part four – Avoiding screw-ups

The pages of a novel offer the novelist countless opportunities to screw up.

In my first novel, Until the Dawn, I wrote a scene about Marybelle going home after Chuck and Janet’s wedding reception. She was secretly in love with Chuck but was trying very hard to be happy for the newlyweds. This was a scene leading up to when she met the man she was going to marry. She had caught a ride with some friends, and to lend the story verisimilitude I wanted a popular song of the day to be playing on the car radio. I thought the Marilyn Monroe song “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” because it seemed to resonate with what was in Marybelle’s heart. But for some reason – I can’t remember why – I changed it to a Hank Williams song. After the book was published, my friend Larry Johnson informed me that the song had not yet been published when the scene was set. Oops! I screwed up. I wonder how many people caught that mistake.

In a second edition I changed it to Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow,” which I don’t think had the same kind of resonance.

In The Backside of Nowhere I looked back at the history of the Lawrence family to when Pop Lawrence’s great grandfather, Jedadiah Lawrence, founded the family store in 1856. Nice little back story. The only problem was I had said the town was founded by former slaves right after the Civil War. Check the dates. I screwed up. Fortunately I caught that one.  

Such mistakes are easy to make because the people and events in a novel aren’t real. The writer makes them up as he goes along, and it’s very easy on page 230 to say somebody was overweight while forgetting that on page 12 you said he was skinny. Mistakes like that are why God made editors.  Unfortunately she didn’t make them flawless.

I’ve learned from my many mistakes to keep notes on each character, what they look like, how they dress, what kind of car they drive and so forth, and to keep a timeline of what happens when. I even draw maps of fictional towns such as Freedom, Mississippi and Wetside, Washington, and floor plans of houses, because I don’t want someone looking out across the deck when playing the piano that was not on the deck side of the house in earlier chapters or catching the bus to go home from Barney’s Pub when they live only two blocks away.

See? You thought writing a novel was easy.

A novel may have a dozens or more characters, each with his or her personal quirks and speech patterns, etc., and the story has to take place in a specific time and place, and if you don’t get it all right you can rest assured that somebody is going to call you out on your screw-ups. There are two things I’ve done to, if not eliminate embarrassing errors, at least keep them to a minimum. One is to have major characters be my age so that at any point in their lives they will be listening to the same popular music and watching the same movies and wearing the same fashions as my friends and I did at the same time (although for the life of me I can’t remember what kinds of dresses my mother wore in 1954). Since my memory of those things can be faulty, there’s always Google. Thank you, Google. I don’t know how writers managed to write without you. The second thing I’ve done that makes it a little easier is that in my last two novels and the one I’m working on now, I’ve set the stories in fictional towns. Since the towns don’t really exist, they can have floods and hurricanes and riots whenever I want them to. But I still have to maintain internal consistency, and that ain’t easy.

Now I’m working on a sequel to Backside, and that presents a whole new set of problems. I have to keep going back and re-reading the first book in the series to avoid stupid inconsistencies. For example, at the end of Backside I said that Beulah discovered she was a lesbian – oops, I gave something away – and that she broke up with her longtime boyfriend, Abdul, and fell in love with another woman (never identified by name). Well, in the new book Beulah and Abdul got married and he was a rookie linebacker for the New Orleans Saints, and then they got divorced, and finally met the new love of her life, Marcia – a street performer who showed up one morning at Little Don’s Diner riding a unicycle. I wrote big scenes with these characters and then went back and re-read parts of Backside and discovered things I had written and forgotten. Such as, Abdul turned down the offer to play for the Saints and Beulah’s new lover was an old friend from high school. In the new book Beulah and Marcia had never met before that morning when Marcia came riding up to Little Dons. So I had to rewrite big sections of the book. Yikes. Sometimes this crap can be very frustrating.

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