A Visit from the Story Fairy

The Story Fairy bounced onto my bed. “Okay,” she gushed. “While you’re waiting for your novel to be edited, I have the best idea!”

“How much of an idea?” I asked warily. “That novel was supposed to be a novella. 70K words, not 130K.”

“No, this one is definitely shorter. It won’t take you two years. So what I’m thinking is…” She launched into a story pitch.

“Wow,” I said. “I think that will work!” I catapulted to my laptop. “I need to get this down! I might have a draft written in a month!”

“Right? I told you it wasn’t going to be as involved as the last one.”

About halfway through, however, my fevered typing slowed down. I wrote a paragraph and then deleted it. I sat back and stared at the screen. Finally, I said, “I’m stuck. Where do we go from here?”

The Story Fairy didn’t meet my gaze. “Hm? Oh. I didn’t really work out that part.”

“What do you mean that part? This is the entire second half!”

“Hey, sorry, I have to go. Other authors to inspire, you know!”

“You can’t just leave me hanging halfway through!” I shouted, but the Story Fairy was already gone.

A moment later, she stuck her head back into my room. “Um, have you considered an explosion?”

I threw my coffee cup at her.

Racism Is Bigger Than Me

The recent Amy Cooper incident snagged something in my brain.

Amy Cooper is a white woman who was approached by Christian Cooper (no relation), a black man, and asked to leash her dog in New York’s Central Park. She protested (although the rules clearly stated that dogs should be leashed), so Christian said, “You won’t like what I’m going to do.” He took out a dog treat — apparently he carries them because owners will leash their dogs to prevent them from eating a treat from a stranger’s hand.

This made Amy angry. As her words grew heated, Christian began filming her. Furious, she called 911 to report that she was being threatened by “an African American man.” While on the phone, she finally leashed her dog. Christian said, “Thank you,” and ended the video.

Once the video was posted, Amy caught hell from the internet. She lost her job. She did apologize, and she said, “I’m not a racist.”

I’ve been thinking about her a lot since I watched the video. Because, see, I’m not a sadistic officer who gorges on power to the point that I kill a man. I’m not a belligerent, trigger-happy vigilante who shoots a jogger in my neighborhood. But an ordinary white woman, frustrated by quarantine that’s kept my dog housebound, embarrassed and alarmed and angry by a strange man filming me — I saw myself in Amy Cooper.

She says she isn’t a racist. I seriously doubt she’d get in a truck with a gun and track down a black jogger. In fact, I thought it was interesting that in the video, she uses the term “African American,” not even “black.” In everyday life, Amy Cooper probably isn’t racist.

But she didn’t like it when someone pointed out that she wasn’t following the rules. In fact, she took great offense to it, to the point that she was willing to lie to the authorities about being threatened. And while Amy Cooper might not personally be a racist, she knew how to leverage a racist system against Christian.

She says — twice — “I’m going to call the police and tell them that an African American man is threatening me.”

It’s not even so much that she identified him as African American. That’s necessary in some contexts: “He threatened me. He’s African American, about 35, clean-shaven, wearing a blue shirt.”

But no, she was using his race as a weapon against him. She knew that by saying an “African American man” was threatening her, she had ratcheted up the alarm level. The confrontation was no longer between two people; it became a scared white woman vs. an angry black man. And history can tell you how that story usually turns out.

I doubt Amy wanted Christian arrested, and I doubt she revels in the idea of injustice. She was just angry, affronted, and wanted to punish him for making her uncomfortable. She reached for the closest and easiest way to do that — a little lie, a little reminder of his vulnerability, and Christian would regret that he ever approached her and her dog.

So yeah. I see myself in Amy Cooper, caught publicly behaving in a way she’s not really proud of. Like Amy, I’m not a racist. But this entire incident highlighted to me that there’s more to racism than me. There’s an entire power system that I can draw on as a white woman. That’s the racism that oppresses and kills black people, while exonerating and benefiting white people.

And that system is too big for me to dismantle. In fact, I’m not even sure how to identify what needs to change. I might even be reluctant to change it because it would impact the comfortable life I’m used to. That’s a slow, difficult revelation, an ongoing conversation I have with God and myself.

But I can see what five years ago I didn’t believe actually existed: that I can punish a person for being black and making me uncomfortable.

Christian Cooper, thanks for your poise and civility — and presence of mind to capture an encounter for the rest of us to see and understand. Amy Cooper, I hope this life disaster becomes something redemptive in your life. I’ve learned from it. Let’s both become better people.

Not Just One Square

“I know it sounds like I’m just making it all about race, but if you see it as part of a bigger pattern…”

She waved a hand at the quilt spread out under the light.

“Just one square of cloth isn’t anything. But you put a lot of them together, and over time you see the big picture. … You look at the big picture over the last forty to fifty years, you can see that it wasn’t that Larsen didn’t know JJ. He knew him well enough to see he was black.”

I wrote these words in my novel long before the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. In fact, my character, Carondellay, isn’t even talking about murder; she’s talking about much more ordinary, everyday injustices.

Yet, sadly, the words ring true.

It’s a pattern, it’s a problem, and white people need to acknowledge it. The heritage that was handed down to us — our heroes, our ideals, that which we hold sacred — is mixed with injustice and oppression.

Fortunately, all is not hopeless. We can work to make it right. And we should.

The Best Name Book Ever

But not, surprisingly, by Richard Scarry! (Parents of small kids will probably get that joke.)

The Baby Name Wizard, 2019 Revised 4th Edition: A Magical Method for Finding the Perfect Name for Your Baby by [Laura Wattenberg]

When I was a teenager, some of my favorite reading was baby name books. Not only did I have characters to name, but my family shared a general interest in names and naming trends. It took me a while to figure out that not every dinner table perked up at the mention an odd or trendy name you came across last week. That, in fact, some people didn’t even care about the difference in spelling a name Michaela or Makayla.

I also learned that I needed couch my hobby in the proper terms. An 18-year-old reading a baby-name book gave rise to two immediate assumptions:

  1. I was pregnant.
  2. I was not pregnant, but so looking forward to having babies that I was already thinking of names for them.

Neither was accurate.

I grew up, got married, and for a while I read baby names books with actual babies in mind. (Although I found our third child’s name long before I got pregnant with her — I just thought of it one afternoon, called DJ at work and asked if he liked the name, and it went on the list.) Yet it was also simply because I love the subject. It was during these years that I first discovered The Baby Name Wizard by Laura Wattenberg… only the best name book ever.

The Baby Name Wizard was a revolution in the world of baby-name books. Most of them tended to just be a list of names with dubious definitions attached to them. (Many name meanings are uncertain or irrelevant anyway; our culture doesn’t generally choose names for their meanings. And in a world where you can build names like Abralyn and Jaycee, name meanings don’t even exist.) Some of the better books would give you a short commentary about a name, or list famous people who have the name.

TBNW does way more than that. In one small entry, you get:

  1. Name pronunciation
  2. Variations in spelling
  3. Common nicknames
  4. “Brother” and “sister” names. These are names that the author has decided match the name in style and association.
  5. A graph to show its popularity trend, especially which year it was the most popular
  6. A short blurb about the name — its sound, its origin, its associations
  7. A brief mention of well-known people who have the name

Here’s the entry* for my name:

And it sure doesn’t hurt my feelings that she gives “Sara” its own entry, separate from “Sarah.” When I was 13, my very first stories featured a character named Sarah Robsin who was not in any way a fantasy version of myself, since Sarah is such a different name from Sara.

Beyond the actual name listings, you also get sections that group names according to certain styles — African-American, Brisk & Breezy, Mythological, Nicknames… Y’all. It’s just good reading.

I’ve used this book extensively while writing my current novel. I needed to know what a woman would be named in the 60s (so, naming trends from the 40s). This book lets me find a name, then follow it to other, similar, names. I can see from the graph whether the name “Brittany” would have been cutting-edge, trendy, or passe depending on how old the character is. For someone who finds it jarring when a contemporary teenager is named “Judy”(and nobody remarks on it as unusual) or 35-year-old man in 2011 is named “Tristan” (and he wasn’t tormented in middle school in 1991?) — or, heck, who thinks it’s wildly convenient that all of the Twilight Cullens have trendy old-fashioned names like Edward and Rosalie and none of them are named Herbert or Flossie — this book has been an enormously helpful resource.

The 2019 (fourth) edition just came out, and I just got my copy. It’s familiar and fun, and good quarantine reading. You should pick one up! Just be prepared to explain to people that you aren’t actually pregnant.

*(Not the whole entry, just in case, and here’s hoping Laura Wattenberg doesn’t object to me posting this. Or maybe she’ll track it down, realize I’m a longtime loyal fan, and become pen pals with me.)

Tragically Current

It takes a long time for a story to get from seed-of-inspiration to bloom-of-book. I’m always worried that by the time I finish, my chosen subject will be outdated and I’ll have wasted two to three years of my life.

And in the case of my current novel, I didn’t even set out to write a book. I wanted to write a short story about two present-day women who discover an old quilt, and each thinks it belongs to her grandmother.

For diversity’s sake, I decided that one of the women would be black. Instantly, my story tangled up with complications.

There was no way I could write a story about their grandmothers — a white woman and a black woman in the 1960s — without taking race into account. No story would be simple. I could always say that the two women had crossed racial lines and became good friends; but that came with its own problems. Not necessarily because they wouldn’t want to, but because existing society had ways of punishing people who tried to cross that line — violence for blacks, social ostracism for whites.

And then I realized how recently that society had existed. It was within living memory. I myself was born in the late 70s when the great Civil Rights battles were still raging. I was thirteen years old before I realized that it wasn’t morally wrong for a white person to marry a black person. I was stunned at how we white people treat this heavy history as long past, when I now could see how it still oozes like toxic waste in our culture even today.

I pondered my newly-complicated story and was faced with two options:

  1. Embrace the challenge, face the wrongs and injustices that my people perpetrated, and commit myself to honest research about what life was then, and how it affects life now.
  2. Change the black character back to a white one.

I’ve spent two and a half years writing — and being — a “friendly white girl” who has to come to terms with the existence and effects of racism. I have nothing new to add to the black voices who have spoken up about their realities. But, it turns out, I have a lot to say to white people, especially Christians, who consistently downplay, deny, or vilify those who bring up this “old history” or “won’t move on.” I have, in fact, a whole novel.

And just in case I wondered if the subject was passe… Two months ago, in Georgia, an unarmed black man was killed by two white men. According to available evidence, Ahmaud Arbery was out jogging when accosted by a father-and-son duo who say they thought he was responsible for recent burglaries in the area. It’s unclear exactly what happened, or whether their suspicions were justified, or really anything except that Arbery was shot. That’s because, until now, no arrests had been made, and no investigation had been launched.

It’s that last part that rips the wound wide. It’s part of a pattern that was pieced together a hundred and fifty years ago and is still intact today, even if (thank God) we’re tearing at the seams now. These men weren’t immediately arrested and investigated because they had connections and friends among authorities. That’s an old, tired story. It was true for my fictional grandmothers in the 60s, and it’s apparently still true now.

In all honesty, I don’t know what it’s like to be oppressed, nor do I really know what it’s like to actively oppress. But I thought, institutional racism is kind of like being in an abusive family. What would be like to be the victim of blatant abuse, but have the rest of the family downplay, deny, or vilify me for speaking up?

And then I realized that, against the backdrop of that quilt of mysterious origins, I had my story and my protagonist.

I’m just sorry that the concept isn’t outdated by now.

My Protagonist Would Like to Speak with Me

My protagonist, Richmal, walked into the room and sat down. She stared at me. I stared at my laptop.

“I’m pretty busy right now,” I said finally.

“Must be nice,” she said. “We’re just just hanging around waiting for you to fix the gaping plot hole you created during this revision.”

“I’m in negotiations with a new character.”

“That’s your solution? Creating a new character? Not sure that’s a great idea.”

“Since when do you know how to write a novel?”

She crossed her arms and looked at me over her glasses. “I’m a librarian. We can find out about anything.

I blinked. “Oh. Wow, that’s a great line.” I jotted it down on the orange sticky-note next to my laptop. Richmal looked slightly mollified, but she wasn’t deflected.

“We’re all desperately bored,” she said. “The villain’s been having long, deep conversations with the hero and is starting to get uncomfortable with his role in the story.”

“Too bad. He has to stick to his character arc on the page,” I said.

“And I heard a couple of the supporting characters talking about jumping stories over to The Raven’s Landing, taking up swordplay and questing.”

“That’s a bad idea. No character of mine has the qualifications for that genre.”

“Also, speaking of character arcs, are you sure about how I decide between the two love interests?”

“What do you mean, am I sure? I’ve been writing toward that decision since the first page!”

“Well, the three of us have discussed it a lot over wine and pizza…”

“Richmal,” I interrupted, “your job is to be the story, not write it.”

“I can’t be the story if I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing!” she snapped. “People always complain about protagonists who don’t move the story along. Well, how about authors who leave the story stagnating?”

I tightened my lips. “I leave y’all alone for a few weeks, and you fall into anarchy. Well, let me correct your misapprehensions. Nobody is stagnating anything. Allow me to introduce you to our plot-hole filler. Cecil will be happy to get the story going again.”

A man about seventy years old, with a leather coat, tall boots, and an aviator’s cap over his shoulder-length white hair, strode into the room. “Hullo, hullo!” he exclaimed. “Bit of a surprise for me to pop by, what? Glad to make your acquaintance, old girl!” He held out a gloved hand to Richmal.

She stared at him in astonishment. “Are you serious? Our genre is realistic fiction. This guy talks like a Wodehouse character.”

“Just a bit of an affectation on my part, don’t you know,” Cecil said affably.

“And he sounds like… an off-brand Cary Grant,” Richmal added.

“Oh, hey, that’s perfect!” I exclaimed, making another note on the orange paper. “Anyway, this is what we’re going with. Why don’t you two get acquainted? We’ll get this thing up and going again.”

Richmal got to her feet, still eyeing Cecil, and shook her head. “Sometimes I think you’re just making this up as you go along.”

I gave her a look over my own glasses. “Welcome,” I said, “to the world of a writer. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a novel to finish.”

(In related news, Draft #4 is finished. No villains filed complaints, no supporting characters defected to a new genre, and Richmal is satisfied with her romantic choices. Cecil seems to be fitting in fine. It is, I hope, ready to be bundled off to my editor.)

Revision in a Time of Quarantine

Nothing like rekindling your memories of your first great literary love just as a pandemic sweeps through the world.

To be honest, my daily life hasn’t change a whole lot even as everything is canceled and shut down. We already homeschool and we already prefer to stay home as much as we can. I’m used to shopping for a week or two at the time and feeding six people all day, every day. I’d also stocked up a bit because my mother told me to. DJ is working from home for a month, so that’s been a big change for him; but it turns out that my preferred lifestyle adapts pretty well to pandemic living.

While we continue with school and take long drives when the walls start closing in, I immersed myself yet again in that original Great Literary Work of mine.

An advantage of the revision of 2007 was that the story now had a plot. A disadvantage was that for some reason I decided to lower Ria’s age from 18 to 13, and I changed the tone of the story accordingly. It was not a happy choice. Re-reading it was, as my kids would say, massive cringe.

“Most of the time, she was just plain Ria. And this morning she was a very sulky Ria.”

“She didn’t intend to apologize to him, either, once she got her revenge.”

And to think she’d complained about being bored in her Castle. What a silly little princess she’d been!

Apparently in 2007 I was temporarily possessed by the spirit of an early 20th-century Sunday school teacher.

Earlier this month, I sat down to rewrite the terrible first chapters, and then send the rest to my sister. But once I got the first part in better shape, I couldn’t leave the rest of the tripe that Miss Flossie Jones of Millerville Baptist Church, circa 1902, communicated through me.

So for the past two weeks I’ve worked my way through the story, smoothing out the dialogue, creating better conflicts, and removing the saccharine moralization.

Since I returned Ria’s age to 18, I also reintroduced the romance that Flossie seemed very uncomfortable with. I suspect it was this aspect that made me decide to lower the age in the first place. I spent my teenage years in a real-life version of the Fellowship, so even at 30 I didn’t know quite how to handle romance in fiction.

The hardest part of the rewriting was Ria herself. She was a typical first-timer’s heroine. She had no real motivation, and she spent the whole story being propelled by other people’s decisions. She was also, as a writer friend of mine put it, “insufficiently hobbied.” What did Ria like to do in her spare time? The answer appeared to be “ride horses and complain about having nothing to do.” Ria’s sister, on the other hand, is always designing clever contraptions and figuring out how things work. She would have made a far better heroine. But this is The Ria Story, so I just had to try to work with what I had.

It was a lot of work… but so much fun. I stopped worrying about the unfixable worldbuilding problems and just let the story be what it is. Yesterday I finished it and emailed it to my sister. It’s not a great story, but I think I made it into a solidly “okay” story.

And now I’m at loose ends again.

Well, unless you count my actual serious novel. I’ve left Richmal and Co. cooling their heels in the third draft for nearly two months now. I’ve been stuck on a pretty thorny plot problem. Oh, hey, here’s a message from a reader who has a suggestion! BlessedAssurance.millertownbc points out that Richmal’s story features a lot more kissing than it does Bible reading, and she would be happy to take over the writing for a while.

Get thee behind me, Flossie.

Second Draft: A Group Chat

Group Name: Novel Strategy Chat

Members: Author, Protagonist, Love Interest, SubVillain

Author: Okay, welcome to this Group Chat. As we are all aware, the Second Draft of The Novel has been a pretty intense process. Thank you for your hard work. I only had to threaten explosions once to get people to cooperate, haha!

Protagonist: Explosions?

Author: Anyway, in this next section, the Protagonist faces strong opposition. I’m attaching several suggested courses of actions. Please consult your part and prepare accordingly. Let’s get this knocked out by Thanksgiving!

SubVillain: It says here that I leave an anonymous message. How do I do that? If I call her work phone, my name will show up. I can’t call her cell phone because how would I get her number — and callerID again.

Protagonist: I definitely would not give him my number.

Author: Dang.

Author: Dang cell phones.

Author: Cell phones ruin everything. Do you know how much easier it was to create mystery before caller ID?

Author: And it was simple to find a phone number, just look it up. Then you called the one line in the household, talked to somebody else in the family, and had them write down a “message from an unknown person.”

Author: Nowdays, you’ve got to create an entire subplot just for one anonymous message. Cell phones make everything harder.

Protagonist: Hey, 1991 called. It misses you.

Love Interest: Well, we think it’s 1991. Don’t have caller ID yet.

Protagonist: *high five*

SubVillain: lol

Author: Okay. So what if the call seems to come from someone the Protagonist trusts? I’m thinking from Love Interest. The villain has stolen his phone and used it to message Protagonist.

Love Interest: He got past my screen lock? He’s not that smart.

Author: Maybe you don’t lock your phone.

Love Interest: Everything you’ve written about me suggests that I am a private, skeptical person. Why would I not lock my phone?

Author: Ugh. Stupid cell phones!

Protagonist: ok genXer

SubVillain: Wait, where would I get his phone? It’s not like we hang out. And I don’t go digging in his pocket, do I?

Love Interest: If so, I quit.

Author: There is no pocket digging. Focus, please! Look, I was reading this women’s fiction thing recently. When the hero crashed into a tree, emergency personnel called the mayor about it

Protagonist: The mayor? Why the mayor?!

Author: and the mayor’s sister was the hero’s love interest so

Author: The heroine needed to know about it. This was the easiest way.

Love Interest: That whole scenario makes as much sense as that explosion you threatened me with.

Protagonist: Oh, it was you.

Love Interest: Yeah, it was either express my feelings for you, or BOOM

Protagonist: I thought things really picked up between us in this draft.

Author: People! Focus! The point is that the information transfer was successful. That’s what I’m going for here. We need this to happen. So what we’ll do

Protagonist: Let me guess. I jot my number on a piece of paper and carelessly leave it in view.

Love Interest: Or you’re going to have me take out my phone and carelessly leave it on a table, aren’t you?

SubVillain: And I’m going to happen to be around and find either the paper or the phone, and come up with an elaborate plan on the spot, right?

Love Interest: You aren’t that smart.

SubVillain: I know, right?!

Author: Okay. OKAY. Anybody got any better ideas?

SubVillain

Love Interest

Protagonist: Well, not really. That’s your job, isn’t it? We’re just here to follow orders!

Author has left the group.