Stuff That Has to be Cut Out of a Novel – Part 3

I have a closeted penchant for bluegrass music. As such, I felt the need to devote a chapter to it, in my novel, Second Stories. Some turn up their noses at bluegrass and say “but it’s so whi-iii-ney!” That’s precisely why I like it. I like the whine, and the close harmony.

I am a fan of the Dixie Chicks, may they rest in peace (as a group) because there is speculation that they have broken up and the sisters, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, remain as the Dixie Chicks and Natalie Maines is out. Back when Ms. Maines was their lead singer, they released an album, Taking the Long Way, and there was a song on that CD that moved me called Silent House. It was written for Natalie’s grandmother who had Alzheimer’s and the message is, I will remember so you can forget.

I thought about that and decided to interview my father about some things I feared he’d forget and I’d never know what he knew unless I asked him while he could still remember. I sat him down, and typed as fast as I could while he talked, about his experiences in World War II.

The story of my Dad’s experience is immortalized in the final Alice chapter that was cut from the book. Clint is the veteran in the story, and his wife has died, and his kids decided he needed to be put into Assisted Living. He is unhappy there, and wants Alice to marry him. Not that it’s a great love affair, but Alice is a young woman at 81 (he’s 90, it’s all relative), and he believes it to be mutually beneficial, since Alice is a widow. None of this is relative to my father, it’s the specifics of the war experience that are his story.

Alice turns down the proposal, of course. Lydia, (wife of Geo, the depressed guy who makes up his own reality and believes it) learns of the marriage proposal and she and her sister-in-law decide that Alice is a “one man woman”. Lydia thinks about that, and it is one of the many reasons she makes the decision to stay with her undeserving husband of forty years.

I thought the story of Alice and Clint added something to the novel, but the editor said out with it. So out it went.

My father was drafted into the army, which was the norm. He was working in the oil fields, single, uneducated. He was drafted so he could be cannon fodder, basically. One of the guys who risks everything and there’s a 50/50 chance you will live through it. You either will or you won’t. 50/50.

The things he told me gave me the shivers, and especially so when I realized that but for his probably being just plain lucky, I might not be here. He was born lucky, I think. Many of the things he’s done in his life have turned out well, when it could have been very different.

He was in the Battle of the Bulge, and never knew, from day to day, if he’d be shot by the Germans. He slept in foxholes filled with water. He woke one morning to see a church maybe 100 yards away, completely destroyed, that had been standing when he fell into the exhausted sleep only a soldier can describe, the night before. It had been bombed while he slept, and it never woke him, he was that tired.

These stories never surfaced before, not when we were kids or afterwards. He didn’t talk about it, and if I hadn’t asked him about it a couple of years ago, I wouldn’t know about any of it. I asked him if he had nightmares, or flashbacks about it. I figured something that traumatic must have caused a lot of sleepless nights.

“No,” he said. “I put it behind me. I didn’t think about it.”

He didn’t think about it. Can people really do that? I think some can. He grew up poor, lived through the depression, and was “raised like a barn cat”. You survived. You did what you had to do. That’s exactly what he did. He did what he had to, and when it was over with, he didn’t think about it. He went on with his life, he got married, raised a family, started a business. He became someone, someone he’d always wanted to be. A business man. A family man. Someone the people in town all knew.

It’s hard for me to comprehend this. How can anyone forget? I think it’s possible for some, and maybe more men of that generation could do it than of ours, but the horrors of war are lost on us civilians, we can only imagine how terrible it is. I guess I’m glad he could forget about what happened back then, and the close calls he had, but I still wonder about it. And know he’ll soon forget forever. I’m glad I asked him about that part of his life. And now that I have done that, I have the memory so he doesn’t have to remember it. Like the Silent House song,

And I will try to connect
All the pieces you left
I will carry it on
And let you forget

Click here to be redirected to Veteran’s Day

When It Doesn’t Belong in Your Book, Make It a Short Story

Earlier this year, I blogged about stuff that needs to be cut out of a novel. If it doesn’t contribute to the story, out with it. And the offshoot stuff about Alice and her grief, her widowhood and eventual recovery, while interesting, did not really have anything to do with the storyline of Second Stories. I was told to cut three chapters about Alice. I posted the first chapter, entitled “Alice“, and now I’ve edited the second chapter that didn’t make the cut.

Alice is Geo’s mother. Geo is a really screwed up character. Alice didn’t know how screwed up her son was, because he wouldn’t have allowed her to know, and people just didn’t talk about depression back then, in the sixties. We can’t blame Alice for that, it’s just the way it evolved. Perhaps she might have been more vigilant, but she didn’t know what to look for. We can excuse her for that.

Alice is a good person, what’s not to like about her? She is a good wife, and a good mother (with the exception noted above), and she’s even a good mother-in-law to Lydia, who is married to the above-mentioned screwed up character. Alice does what she thinks is right, and has an unremarkable yet happy life, and goes down life’s highway until her husband gets sick suddenly and dies within six weeks of his diagnosis.

Like many of us, Alice doesn’t think too deeply about things, she’s more concerned with whether the weather will hold for her weekly trip to the grocery store. She’s sees what happens around her but it strangely doesn’t seem real to her. And when family members died, she was much younger. Oh. Yes, Grandpa died. He was eighty-something. Oh, well, then. People die when they get to that age.

Unless a person dies at a young age, or maybe in an accident at a less than young age but still not old age, at some point we all examine our own mortality and the light comes on. Hey, we’re going to actually die one day. When George died, that was Alice’s wakeup call. She was grief-stricken at the loss of her husband, but more that she hadn’t been able to do anything for him. She hadn’t had the education, or the time, to think about death, so she could discuss it with him.

Alice could have withered into a comfortable widowhood but she made a choice not to do that. She chose to do for others what she couldn’t do for George, and become a hospice volunteer so that she might help some people who are at the end of their lives. I could probably write a book about Alice and her hospice adventures. But here is one of them, her very first hospice experience.

Click here to be redirected to White Place

Design Your Own Book Cover

Recently, I read a couple of blogs about creating book covers. I probably should have read the articles before I designed my own book covers, instead of after, but mostly I read them hoping they would reinforce what I already knew.

I knew early on that I didn’t want to use the book cover designs available in CreateSpace (or BookSurge before it was CreateSpace), and someone suggested BookCoverPro. I investigated and decided to go for it, it was a fairly simple graphics package, and all the basics were there, adding text, borders, boxes, pictures. Once you put in the size of your cover, and the number of pages in your book, it figures out what size the cover (back, spine and front) must be and presents you with a blank template.

My first attempt was pretty basic, I plopped a picture of the Gulf of Mexico and clouds, with sun shining through on and sized it to cover the entire area.

After that I added text, and was done. This was a very simple cover, indeed, probably a bit too basic. I was going for a feeling, of loneliness, or melancholy. I’m not sure I succeeded with that. Once inside the book, the reader might think it was a picture the main character, Jay, had taken, because he is an amateur photographer.

My second attempt was a little more involved.

The wilted flower is referred to twice in the book, and it’s meant to be symbolic. That perhaps Lydia, to whom it was given, should have looked at it, drooped and dead before it could blossom, as an omen that her relationship with Geo be allowed to go the way of the rosebud. It comes back into the story years later and she tells him, “This is what happened to the first one.”

I bought a miniature rose bush in a pot, at Kroger’s and snipped the bud, placed it in a glass of water and waited. A few days later, it was perfect. So I took pictures of it, pictures on a black background, pictures with a bright background, with and without flash. This is the one I chose:

I used my photo editing software to get rid of the background and fill with black. I use a package called Photo Studio 5.5, which came with my Canon camera, and it’s a subset of what PhotoShop offers, but is usually enough. You can buy PhotoShop but it’s a bit pricey and if you aren’t very serious about editing pictures, it might be overkill. A good alternative is to download a free copy of GIMP which is every bit as comprehensive as PhotoShop, and it’s free. There are tutorials available about how to do anything you want in GIMP. I wonder how they do it, the authors of GIMP, offer such a complex, professional-looking package for no cost. There will be a learning curve to it, and I haven’t mastered it yet either, but I plan to.

Now the picture looks like this:

I made the cover of the book black and put the picture on, made the text white and I liked the combination, of dark pink, black and white with green. I got a little more creative with the back cover this time, put a picture of the author there, a dark pink box, and inside that another light gray box, which made the dark pink now a border, with black text.

The first blog I read, The Dos and Don’ts of Cover Design, stressed three points, and I felt I had them all covered.

Letters that pop. I had that, white letters and a black background, and black letters against a pale background. Check.

Contrast. The dark pink against the black, and white lettering, I think that’s contrast. Check.

It should say something about the book. Not sure I can give a check here, although maybe it counts that there is a story about the wilted flower inside.

All in all, I’d say I didn’t do too badly here. On to the next article. Ten Tips for Effective Book Covers.

The title should be big and easy to read. Check, the title is big enough.

Don’t forget to review a thumbnail image of the cover. Check, it looks okay as a thumbnail.

Do not use any of the following fonts (anywhere!): Comic Sans or Papyrus. Check, used standard font.

No font explosions! (And avoid special styling.) Check, no explosions.

Do not use your own artwork, or your children’s artwork, on the cover. Does photography count? Probably not, check.

Do not use cheap clip art on your cover. Check, no clip art.

Do not stick an image inside a box on the cover. Check, no image inside a box.

Avoid gradients. Check, that’s where the color washes from dark to light.

Avoid garish color combinations. Check, I don’t think I did that.

Finally: Don’t design your own cover. No check! Uh oh.

And there was a Bonus tip: No sunrise photos, no sunset photos, no ocean photos, no fluffy clouds. Can’t check either, as there are three out of four here, on the cover of Whatever Happened to Lily?

I am not too sure how well I fared on the Ten Tips.

What do you think?

Realistic and Believable Characters

Characters evolve. They might start out with one characteristic, a flaw, a problem, something that will be important to the story. I had a vision of one of my main characters, let’s call him Leo.

Leo should be moody, depressed maybe so that his depression can be the cause of a breakup, or a problem. I didn’t want him to be depressed all the time, but wanted him to go through periods of it, so he could be un-depressed and normal sometimes. I didn’t want him to be bipolar, because I didn’t think I could research that enough to make it seem realistic, and anyway, I didn’t want him manic when he wasn’t down, I just wanted him to have a period of depression once in awhile. Basically a normal guy, but…

Okay, then, Leo gets depressed occasionally. I researched the types of depression, and it can happen, there are disorders like that. He needs another flaw, or quirky thing about him. He sometimes has difficulty talking about certain issues, certainly about his depressed periods, and other things, like, uh, sex. He just doesn’t feel comfortable discussing it. But he wants it, as much as anyone. Let’s throw in another issue. He believes very strongly in his Catholic values, that he would wait until marriage and that marriage is forever. He’s a bit of an unusual character. I’m starting to like him now. And since he’s not all that easy to understand, and he’s not a real straight-forward kind of guy, I’ll bet he could get involved in one huge misunderstanding.

Once he has a few things established about him, I start thinking about things he would do and things he wouldn’t do, things he’d say and things he wouldn’t say. He would think it wrong for, say, politicians to have affairs. If he thought it were funny, joked about it, that wouldn’t really ring true, because he’s just not made that way. And he’d get together with his friends in a bar, and swear a little, and drink beer, though not to excess. He would do these things though, because he’s a normal guy, with a few unordinary traits.

And after thinking about him for a few months, and tweaking him just a bit, until becoming satisfied that he is a believable character, I’m satisfied with him. He becomes a real person to me, it’s as if he lives in my head. So when I write scenes he takes part in, I know how he’ll react, what will make him unhappy, or disgusted, or feel good. And if I write something, and reread it, I might say to myself, “Leo would never say that.” It’s out.

I kind of miss Leo, now that he isn’t around in my head so much. I liked him.

It’s that Time Again…

I just did a review of a book on the Boomers and Books blog, where I am now a collaborator. It’s a humorous book, called According to Jane. Click to be redirected to the blog and my comments about this delightful read.

The blogging group is a bunch of authors who have attained a certain age, thus the title. It’s relatively new, so the look and feel may change from time to time. But it promises to be a good resource for all us baby boomers who like to read.

I find myself in that anxious time, during the “I just ordered your book” phase and the phase where any feedback is offered. So, yet again, my insecurities rear their ugly heads. I try to be objective, and reread my own book and think, does it suck? Is it any good? I still like it, but of course, I would like it, I wrote it. Certainly no one would write something they, themselves, didn’t like.

It’s true then, it’s not possible to be objective. I can’t read it, as if I’d never seen it before, and give myself an honest opinion. I’ll just have to wait. And assume that if I hear nothing, then that means, well, it sucks.

Stuff that has to be cut out of a novel

You might remember, in a previous post I talked about first books being autobiographical. I wrote a chapter in Second Stories, which closely mirrored a situation I encountered first hand. I don’t want to be too specific, since I don’t want to share a story all over the whole entire world wide web net thingy such that the person it was patterned after might be identified, but there was a death, and the story of Alice could have happened the way it did, but that part really is fictional.

The chapters about Alice were rejected by my editor, as not having anything to do with the actual novel. I realized he was right, I just liked them. I liked the story of Alice and how she evolved into widowhood, how she dealt with the death of her husband. I have two other chapters about her, and I’d like to share them with my readers so I’ve posted the first one on my website, and also here. Two more coming, about Alice’s adventures with her volunteer work in hospice and an assisted living facility. None of these chapters are in Second Stories.

And it’s a little autobiographical too, since I lost someone once, before I felt it was time to really lose her. And some of the feelings Alice experienced are my own, both because I have been through the loss of a loved one, and because I’ve had what could have been a near-death experience. We change how we view death, when it has been close enough that we confronted it eye-to-eye. It becomes less scary.

Click here to be redirected to Alice