Writers: We’re Not Alone

1:05 am

music playing: Rasputina’s In Old Yellow Cake

I’m still stuck revising the first three chapters of my draft.  More and more I am learning how important the beginning must be.  Of course, I want my whole novel to be great.  (I certainly don’t want a reader to get to the middle and then throw it across the room)  But if the very first page isn’t flawless, an agent is never going to look further.  And there goes the chance for any reader to ever even get to the middle of my novel.

I’ve been working on this all day and somehow have managed not to O.D. on caffeine.    And I still frigging have not made much progress.

Grrr…

But as difficult as all this is- I also love it. I love thriving towards something. Have something to dream about, and work on every day. I think life must be rather dull for people who have no dreams.

And I’m further comforted by remembering that all writers struggle.

Nathanial Hawthorne reportedly destroyed countless manuscripts in fits of despair.

Emily Bronte wrote in July 1836:  “I am more terrifically and idiotically and brutally STUPID than ever I was in the whole course of my incarnate existance.”

Faulkner was certain The Sound and the Fury would never be published due to its experimental tone.

Richard Adam’s classic tale of rabbits searching for a new home on Watership Down was rejected 13 times.  Adults wouldn’t want to read about bunnies.  Or so agents gathered.

No matter what century- writers struggle.  They struggle with the first draft.  With the countless revisions.  And then they struggle with finding that initial agent who believes.

So fellow writers, when you get down, just remember every single writer on this planet- from the immortals to the midlist to the still unknowns- have gone, and are going, through the same thing.

And the ultimate victory is so worth it.

Writing: Sinful Adverbs

In recent years, adverbs (words used to modify verbs) have fallen into great disfavor.  Adverb opponents insist they indicate weak writing.  Go to any writing forum critique board and you’ll see any and all adverbs swatted away like mosquitoes.

I’m going to be heretical and declare,  “There’s not a darn thing wrong with adverbs.”

If adverbs in themselves indicate weak writing than many of our most critically acclaimed and beloved authors including Dickens, the Bronte Sisters, Wilkie Collins, Thomas Hardy, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville, Steinbeck, and Austen sure fooled a lot of people.

It is the overuse of them that indicates weak writing.

It often takes a writer a long time to learn less is more.  Precision is key.

A sure-sign of an amateur writer are pages cluttered with adverbs.   Uncertain of their writing ability,  they fear they must spell out everything.   None of their characters simply speak, stand, walk, cry, or laugh.

“He ran quickly”

“She screamed loudly”

“She whispered softly”

“John noticeably cringed as the woman on stage sang horribly.”

Avoid adverbs that are redundant and clutter the sentence at all costs.

Imagine a little girl receiving a toy doll.   She smiles.  That is it. You would not write, “She smiled, happily.”  The fact she smiled already showed she was happy.

So when is it okay to use adverbs?

Here is a quote from John Gardner: “Wilson rocks slowly and conscientiously—a startling word that makes the scene spring to life (adverbs are either the dullest tools or the sharpest in the novelist’s toolbox).”

And here is an example from Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White : “I wound my way down slowly over the Heath, enjoying the divine stillness of the scene, and admiring the soft alternations of light and shade as they followed each other over the broken ground on every side of me.”

One may argue the word, “slowly” is not necessary.   Yes, the sentence is clear without it.  However, it also does not clutter the sentence.   Rather than being redundant, it adds a certain nuance.   So in this example, the choice of whether or not to use, “slowly” is a stylistic one.

Think of adverbs as spice.   Carefully placed they add a certain tone and color.   Too much and they overtake the main flavor of the dish.

The House of Seven Gables

The oldest surviving mansion in the United States was built in 1668 for Captain John Turner in the historic seaport of Salem, Massachusetts.   This house inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne to pen his 1851 classic novel.

Hawthorne’s relatives, the Ingersolls, acquired the house after John Turner III lost the family fortune.  During several visits, Hawthorne’s reclusive cousin, Susannah Ingersoll, entranced him with stories of its lore.  According to papers, the impressive dwelling once boasted seven gables.  This seemingly innocent fact stirred Hawthorne’s imagination.

When creating the novel’s villian, Nathaniel  had only to turn to his own family ancestry.  One infamous ancestor was Colonel John Hathorne, a judge at the Salem Witch trials.   He presided at the trial in which  Sarah Good swore: “I’m no more a witch than you’re a wizard!  And if you take my life God will give you blood to drink!”  In the novel, the character, Matthew Maule, sentenced to death as a wizard, hurls similar words to Judge Pyncheon who falsely accused him in order to steal his land.  After Judge Pyncheon’s sudden and mysterious death, his descendants move into the house.    His evil deed holds a subtle but affective hold on each passing generation.

When the novel opens, the current inhabitant, spinster Hepzibah Pyncheon, has been reduced to opening a shop to make ends meet.  Reclusive, she has become as lifeless as the faded curtains and darkened timber.  Her only real companion is Holgrave, the radical daguerreotypist who rents a room in the house.

Into Hepzibah’s carefully guarded world comes bright, country cousin Phoebe (less of a person than symbolic of the free world beyond Seven Gables). Not long after Phoebe’s arrival, Hepzibah’s feeble-minded brother, Clifford returns home after being released from prison.   Clifford had been falsely accused of a crime by their cousin, Judge Pyncheon, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Puritanical judge of long ago. Things come to a climax when Judge Pyncheon threatens to send Clifford back to jail unless he discloses the whereabouts of hidden wealth.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was a member of the literary movement, Dark Romanticism, which included  Byron, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe,  Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville.  As with Gothic fiction before, their stories often involved vampires, ghouls, and haunted houses.  While the earlier Gothic writers concentrated on sheer terror, the Dark Romantics explored the dark nature of man and universe.

Nathaniel Hawthorne told his publisher he wished to write passages, “with the minuteness of a Dutch picture.”   Indeed, the house and shop are so finely described that one can hear the old stairs creaking, the window shutters banging, the shop door opening.   Readers see poor Hepzibah, frightened, out of her depth, yet determined as she meets her first customer  (a little boy who wants a gingerbread).  They watch as  Phoebe reads to the child-like Clifford and walks in the garden with Holgrave as they quietly fall in love.

The chapter, “Judge Pyncheon” is a poetic tour de force on death.  “The shadows of the tall furniture grow deeper, and at first become more definite; and then, spreading wider, they lose their distinctiveness of outline in the dark gray tide of oblivion, as it were, that creeps slowly over the various objects, and the one human figure sitting in the midst of them.  The gloom has not entered from without; it has brooded here all day, and now, taking its own inevitable time, will possess itself of everything.  The Judge’s face, indeed, rigid, and singularly white, refuses to melt into this universal solvent.  Fainter and fainter grows the light.”

The novel is not without its flaws.   The conclusion comes too quickly and easily.  Also, while Hawthorne richly describes the characters of Seven Gables, the reader is still kept at an emotional distance.  The camera lens zooms in to study them like an impassive scientist.  One explanation for this is Hawthorne struggled with his desire to be a writer, considering it “unmanly”.  Throughout the novel he keeps himself tightly leashed, afraid to reveal any part of his inner being.

The House of Seven Gables is not a frightening tale of any kind.  In fact,  it has sprinkles of quiet, macabre humor throughout.  It is not a passionate novel.  It won’t raise anyone’s temperature.  Yet the house and its inhabitants linger in the mind of the reader long after they’ve turned the last page.