Tuesday, March 27, 2012


OK, so I got my first bits of feedback on my novel tonight. I read a scene from the middle of a chapter early in the book, one that is still basically in "first draft" status. It was scary not only because I've never done this before, but also because the passage contains the "n" word in several places, and this was a very noisy restaurant, so I was going to have to yell. And you know how that goes: You'll be yelling something, and all of a sudden, just before you say something awful, the whole place goes quiet. . .

That didn't happen. I did have to yell, and my dinner companions still had trouble hearing me. But when I was done, the woman next to me said, "Is that the beginning of your book? I  would definitely keep reading!" and I wanted to pump my fist. My friend Andi told me she couldn't believe I could write convincingly about something I had not experienced, and that was welcome confirmation that all this background reading I've been doing is paying off.

But best of all, really, they were asking questions about the characters and the situation that would be already established in the book by this time, but which were not clear from this excerpt. I was pleased to find myself coherently explaining things like the Fort Pillow massacre and the role of the USCT at the Crater. The first woman wanted to know something about the characters' backgrounds, and I explained that J.T. was a carpenter before the war, and Fanny was working as a housekeeper. She told me, "I thought so, from the way they spoke," and I knew I had nailed the dialogue!


Experienced writers, I am sure, take this stuff for granted. But not beginners like me. 

There was no critique--this group will not be good for that. But it was good for me to try a reading and not have everybody suddenly find excuses to leave the table, or perhaps worse, just sit there in dead silence. When I do hook up with a proper reading group and read for some criticism and suggestions, it won't be so scary.

Or so I'm hoping.

Friday, March 23, 2012

My First Reading

"TUESDAY" production sign"TUESDAY" production sign (Photo credit: Vaguely Artistic)A few months ago, my friend Andi invited me to drive up to Goin' Coastal in Canton for $20 lobster night and have dinner with her and three of her friends. Andi is a neuropsychologist and my consultant on head injuries and neurological disorders not only in my day job, but also for the novel and an unrelated short story I'm working on. Andi is the only woman I know who can discourse on decorticate Confederate soldiers and lobsters (something to do with humanely killing the latter without destroying the taste, right before they go into the pot) almost in the same breath.

Perhaps taking her consultant role a bit too seriously, she told everybody I'm writing a book (she's almost worse than Mr. Wood in that regard) and so of course the ladies all wanted to know all about it. Seems they've tried their hands at writing, too. I am practicing taking myself seriously as a writer, and so I was able to say a bit about it in an organized fashion and to make clear that it is little more than an idea at present without disrespecting it or myself. One of the women offered to be a beta reader, when it gets to that stage. I was thrilled. People have said they can't wait to read it, or would buy it when it's out, but I get few serious offers to read it. This was clearly a serious offer. So. Now I won't have to beg for readers. The lobsters arrived (presumably decorticated--none of us wanted to believe they'd been boiled alive), the conversation moved on to other things, and that was that.

Or so I thought.

This afternoon I got an e-mail from Andi saying they all wanted to do the dinner thing again, same place, same menu. And that her friend the beta reader suggested that we all bring some of our writing. I immediately began thinking of excuses to be on the west coast come Tuesday night (which would take some doing as I could, hypothetically speaking, barely manage bus fare to Atlanta). I rationalized my visceral reaction by reminding myself that better writers than me have advised against letting friends and family or writing groups see your work "too soon". Of course, I have no idea exactly when "too soon" is, or is not, but it was convenient to interpret it for my purposes as easily encompassing Tuesday.

But then I got to thinking about it. Maybe it's not such a bad idea. Maybe a scene or two, a snippet of dialogue, is ready for prime time. Hell, this could even be fun!
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Saturday, March 17, 2012

I remember the instant that I discovered that Bill had been a soldier. I was wandering through the cemetery at Mount Bethel, randomly photographing stones with family surnames. I had not been tracing our ancestry for long, and so I did not know who to look for.

My father resolutely refuses to talk about the past. He says he never thinks about it, and consequently does not remember it. Or maybe it was vice versa. It doesn't matter. Either way, there never were family stories told around the dinner table. My grandmother died before I knew the importance of asking.

I figured I'd shoot them all now, and sort them out later, so to speak. It was too hot to do anything else.

I wandered among the stones, not even stooping to compose, focus, and shoot. I had a little point-and-shoot digital camera then, and I just hung my arm down by my side, aimed in the general direction of, pressed the button halfway, listened for the beep, and fired. No dramatic vista shots.

And then I came to Bill's grave. Someone had put a new stone up. The etching was stark and clear:


I was stunned. I had no idea that any of our family in that branch had been in the war. I didn't know then what I know now, which is that there was a universal draft in the South, and that nearly every adult male in that branch of our tree--indeed, in the county--had fought. Unlike other relatives of mine who'd exaggerated their lineage (and in some cases fabricated it), Grandmother Sutton never bragged about her ancestry. In fact, she never talked about it at all.

My father says this was because her father, Bill's oldest, was illegitimate, and that had been a source of deep shame for the family.

So I read Bill's footstone, so proudly announcing his fight for--what? the glorious Lost Cause? the perpetuation of slavery? I did the math, counting back nine months on my fingers. Sgt. Griffin must have seduced some innocent local maiden while he was home on furlough, I thought, and then left her high and dry. The mental image that formed as I read the stones was of the dashing cavalryman in his handsome uniform, cantering down the road on a spirited horse, which all combined would of course have simply charmed the drawers right off any girl with eyes, right?

Since then I have learned so much more about both of them. I have come to see Bill as a responsible man who would have tried at least to Do the Right Thing. And I have come to see Fannie as an independent young woman who seems to have gone her own way on her own hook. I have also learned that by then Bill would have been more dirty than dashing, his uniform ragged and worn, his mount more likely hungry, tired, and dispirited. And that Bill and Fannie would have both been in Petersburg at the time.

Fannie is buried on the grounds of the old state hospital in Morganton where she lived out her last years and died at 57 of "cerebral softening", presumably as the result of a stroke. I have never visited her grave. I would like to, though, and when I do I would like to take the time to sit and talk with her. And I would like to visit Bill again, to sit a spell with him, too.

I still have so many questions, and so much to tell them both.
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