Saturday, October 10, 2009

Your Honest Opinion Greatly Appreciated

Okay, I am in one of those funks in which I am not happy with anything I write. This does not keep me from writing, but I write, and then I reread what I've written, and I find my thoughts are those that, were they numbers on a number line, would all occupy ticks on the left-hand side of zero. The worst go something like this,

"No real person would ever act that way. Who is going to believe this?"

"Did a third-grader with A.D.D. write that?"

"You meant that to be funny? It isn't. Not in the least."

"Good thing you don't communicate often with the blind. Given your pathetic ability to describe a scene, you'd never be able to help them picture anything."

In the old days, I would have begun burning or tearing up pages. These days, I've decided, I don't have the luxury of doing that if I plan to write a series of books in my lifetime. What I think I need to do is to stop listening to me, because I am the least objective person I know when it comes to my writing. So, I am going to put the burden on you (nice of me, I know). I've suddenly realized that this is the wonderful thing about living in the age of blogs. I can share stuff with a varied group of readers and get opinions before I'm even done with a first draft.

Below is the Prologue to my novel. I'd like to know what you think. Am I right to be stuck on the left-hand side of the number line, or do I need to make a move to the other side of zero, ignore all my insecurities, and just get the thing done? If you picked up this book at your local library, would you continue reading? Please be honest. There is nothing you can say that I have not already thought, and I am looking for real feedback, not a pat on the back and encouragement to keep writing crap, if that's what it is.

"Welcome to Laurel Ridge"

In the summertime, when the oppressiveness of day after day of swamplike heat and humidity gets to be too much for all the New York and New Jersey transplants, they decide to leave Richmond to spend the weekend in the mountains. They've heard that Laurel Ridge is such a quaint little town, with its ancient church steeples, old colonial homes, and Virginia's oldest college. They'll leave work early, pile the kids and dog into the S.U.V., crank the air conditioning as they leave town, thinking soon enough they won't be needing it. They imagine instead that they'll be needing the windbreakers and blue jeans they've packed, that maybe in the evenings they'll light campfires in the pit outside their cabin, like the one depicted burning so brightly in the pictures on the web site.

Too bad when they were reserving their cabin online they didn't bother to head over to the weather site. They would have realized that Virginia is not California. One doesn't escape the heat by heading to the mountains. They will arrive at their destination to discover an even more oppressive heat and humidity (although, yes, about five degrees cooler than Richmond), if only because they so haven't expected it. They'll ask the "natives" at the general store as they're busy buying up the stock of tank tops, circa 1987, emblazoned with, "London...Paris...Laurel Ridge, VA," if this is normal weather for July. Without missing a beat, the natives will tell them that, well, it's been a number of years since it last snowed in July (216 to be exact).

They'll spend the next few days either on the beach at Lake William or inside, the window units blasting cold air at full throttle. The screened-in front porch where they'd planned to sit around playing cards will be all-but-neglected, as will the sweatshirts packed for such activities and the ingredients for S'Mores, because lighting a match, much less a campfire, would be like arriving in hell and requesting to curl up by the fireplace with a blanket. No one wants to drive the fifteen miles into the center of town to walk the hot sidewalks and tour Old Morgan Manor or the oldest, still operational, four-room jailhouse in Virginia. Nor do they want to head five miles south of town center to tour Morris and Dunne College.

July gives way to August and September, and along with the return of the over packed vans carrying tearful mothers and fearful freshmen, come the Floridians. They've packed fleece-lined coats, walking sticks, and binoculars to get them through a week of hiking trails and leaf-peeking. They're surprised to find that their coats never make it out of the cabin closets and that they are more likely to come down off the trails with sunburned arms and faces than with frostbitten toes. They do sit out on the screened-in porches in the evening, playing cards.

"I just don't get it," Evelyn says to Betty. "I thought the leaves were supposed to be so pretty here."

"I know. Last year, when we were in Vermont at this time, they were spec-tac-u-lar," Betty concurs.

"I'm giving that trip planner a piece of my mind when we get back," Betty's husband Don says.

"You should hear Don when he gets going. Last time he gave that trip planner a piece of his mind, we got a free one-night's stay in Orlando. I took little Rich and Jamie. Of course, that was before The Divorce. Now we never get to see little Rich and Jamie."

"Well, at least there is a reason. Both kids still married, but do I ever get to see any of my grandchildren? Never. And Jennifer only lives two hours away. You'd think she could make time for her old mom and dad."

Two weeks after Betty and Evelyn have boarded their flight home, the leaves don their fall colors: deep reds, sometimes with a hint of purple; bright yellows; and fiery oranges. The new students who've never witnessed the area's display race around with their cameras, excitedly emailing pictures to their families to show them how beautiful the quad is in the fall. While they're at it, those who thought they were going to school in the South and wouldn't need such things ask that their fleece-lined coats be sent. They had no idea it would be so cold and damp when they were our carousing around at 1:00 a.m.

The old-timers talk of ice skating up and down the creek in Decembers and Januaries of yore. Mr. Dixon, who likes to sit on the park bench in front of the Bank of America downtown (but who calls it the "LRSB" -- Laurel Ridge Savings Bank, a name it hasn't seen above its doors since 1976) will tell you about the blizzard of '51 when he and his wife got stuck down here at the bank, and he would've walked the six miles home, but he wasn't about to make his new bride do that, what with all the wind and whirling snow. Mr. Radcliffe, the bank manager at the time, took pity on the young couple and invited them to stay with his family for the night. Well, they were snowed in for three days with the Radcliffes, and Mrs. Radcliffe had the strangest way of preparing her eggs you ever saw (not that they would have complained, the Radcliffes being so generous. Not like young couples today who are all on fancy diets and won't eat anything put in front of them). And young Tommy Radcliffe was addicted to that new television set they'd been the first in Laurel Ridge to own. But, you know, Tommy was the life-saver in the blizzard of '63, the way he went around town diggin' out cars. People don't do that sort of stuff these days, you know. Back then, people cared about each other, and they knew their neighbors. These days, we're all strangers in this town.

These days, not only are there a lot of strangers in town, but no one in his or her right mind would let a child strap on ice skates to skate anywhere other than the rink next to the mall. Although occasionally, Mother Nature still comes along and dumps a ten-inch snowfall, the last blizzard to hit Laurel Ridge was in 1979. Even the college closed when that one hit. Still, this isn't Key West, which is what those from Illinois and Michigan are expecting when they descend on the town at Christmas to visit their parents who just retired here. They sit around gas-powered fireplaces in brand new condos at the retirement community, closing the blinds to the ice-covered bushes and sidewalks.

"I just don't get it," Jason says. "This place was so beautiful and warm when we came through last February. That's why you guys decided to retire here."

Ahh, yes, February! The "cruelest month" comes early to these parts, usually right after Valentine's Day. Temperature will soar near seventy for a few days. After months of bone-chilling damp and cold, everyone begins to dream of spring. They take off their sweaters, remove flannel sheets from the beds, and open their storm windows. By mid-March, a wet, heavy, five-inch snowfall has immobilized the town. The snow has come just in time to greet visitors from the Southwest who've made the trip east to see the cherry blossoms in our nation's Capital and to drive up and down the Blue Ridge Parkway. They are bitterly disappointed that the Parkway is closed in places and that there are not daffodils in sight.

The long-time residents of Laurel Ridge, however, know not to take her tricks too seriously. They know that, although -- like any true Virginian -- flattered by the attention, she's just not extraordinarily fond of the tourists and the transplants. She loves her native sons and daughters, though. She knows they are all patient enough to wait until she decides it's time to give them fairytale-white dogwoods blooming on warm spring days; peaches that only her children know are the best and not to praise too highly, because then people will flock here to get them instead of Georgia, leaving fewer for them; pippins whose sweet and sour crunch are the taste of fall; and the occasional white Christmas that settles on the magnificent evergreens, turning the mountains into white-topped old men, and giving them a story to tell for years about that time it snowed and Daddy skidded the car into the garage.

The young people these days, of course, can't wait to get out and get away from her. They're going to D.C. or N.Y. or San Francisco and never looking back. They go off to Ivy League schools up north, spend a summer backpacking in Guatemala or Costa Rica, and settle down in The Big City. But then they come back. They take over their fathers' businesses. They open microbreweries or bakeries. They take teaching positions at their Alma maters. And they moan to anyone who will listen to them about those "damn students from up North who come here to go to school and then never leave."

So what does Laurel Ridge do? She welcomes them back with open arms. She helps them renovate the houses their grandfathers and great-grandfathers built. She smiles down on them, pats them on the head, and then sits back in her rocker to watch history repeat itself.


Charlotte said...

Don't beat yourself up, Emily. Put that inner editor away until you're rewriting, because she won't be of any use to you until you're redrafting a full manuscript.

You can write, you absolutely can. You set a scene wonderfully - I particularly love the "white-topped old men". It might have helped me to know what genre you're writing, as it was hard to tell from the Prologue. If this is to be a mystery, as I suspect it is, then I think the sense that Laurel Ridge is unreliable is great, but I would want it heightened. I would want a little more tension injected.

If it's not a mystery, but a story around a group of people, then perhaps you need to focus a little on someone who is germane to the story. Not the main protagonist perhaps, but someone who is important who you can bring in sideways to surprise us.

My feelings as I read it were "this is lovely and I want to know more", and while Prologues are just prologues to the story, I think as a reader I would be even more drawn in if the foreshadowing were a little stronger.

Keep going, dear Emily, this is wonderful!

litlove said...

Well, I agree with Charlotte that this is beautiful writing and a fine opening. I'd say keep going, because prologues are really hard to tinker with. After all they are introducing a story you haven't written yet, and so it's hard to know what exactly you need to introduce. As I read through, I thought it was all about false expectations, how people from other places were surprised, and how older people over emphasised the past. If the lure of expectations and their being proved false is important to the story that follows, then you could signpost this more. But as I say, chances are you don't know at this stage what you need to signpost, what the deeper meaning is that you want to draw out.

So be content you have a great start, that you can jiggle in one direction or another later on, and just crack on with the next chapters!

Stefanie said...

I agree with Charlotte on all counts.

I like the unexpectedness about the weather. The pacing seems a bit off to me though. It took a long time to zero in on the people who actually live in Laurel Ridge but when it did, the pacing picked up. I'm not sure I like the Betty and Evelyn dialog. I don't see what purpose it serves. I'd be more interested in dialog in the part about the Radcliffes and the blizzard, but I'm not sure in the prologue dialog is even necessary unless you bring it to focus on an actual character that will be in the story revealing some bit of gossip or something that will carry the prologue into the rest of the book. Hope that makes sense and hope that helps. Tell your inner critic to be quiet and please keep writing :)

Courtney said...

this is why I suck in writing groups and in workshops - I am not fabulous about giving feedback. All I know is I really enjoyed it - this seemed a tiny bit Stephen King to me, even - and I wanted to keep reading, definitely! So I think it is a GREAT start and I would just keep me, you just have to keep going or nothing will ever be accomplished!

Linda E said...

Emily, I know I am not a book person. Well, other than the fact that I read alot of them. I really am not that good at analyzing and deconstructing the things. I will say, however, that I like this. You've given a place a bit of a personality, and made it somplace I'd like to visit, maybe. At the right time of year, of course...
Keep going!

Rebecca H. said...

It looks like you got some good comments here, which is great. I like how you personify Laurel Ridge, and the piece makes me wonder what else Laurel Ridge is going to do. There seems a lot of room here for stories to crop up -- natives vs. tourists, expectations unmet, people who leave and people who can't. I agree with the others who say that it's probably best to leave the prologue as it is and see where the rest of the story goes, and then you can use the prologue to better set up the rest.

Emily Barton said...

Charlotte, oh so helpful! Thank you very much. I will see if I can find a secure lock (our doors are ancient and couldn't hold a flea) and lock that inner editor away in a closet. Meanwhile, I will keep what you say about foreshadowing in mind when I revisit the Prologue, AFTER the first draft is all done.

Litlove, oh my! You mean I really HAVE managed, miraculously, to capture all that false expectation and older people emphasizing the past the way I'd hoped? Okay, I must keep writing then...

Stef, that makes perfect sense, and you've got me thinking. I will gag the inner critic before I lock her in the closet with the inner editor.

Court, Stephen King? Really? I think I'm blushing again. I mean, Stephen King? Really? I used to think I could only hope to be able to paint scenes as well as he does, but someone who has read him and has read this is making that comparison? Really? (You should be able to see that this is why I'm no good in writing groups either. Not only do I not know how to critique others' material, but I am in utter shock if something like this is said about my stuff.)

Linda (just an aside: I am SO thrilled you've "come out of the closet" and commented). Contrary to what you say, you are too a book person (as well as someone who obviously completely gets the humor), and so I can trust what you say and will keep going.

Dorr, sound advice (which is exactly what I would expect of you). Glad you like the way I've personified the town, and it seems it's worked the way I wanted it to.

Heather said...

Wow! Some really great comments that I really agree with. I liked how everything was written except for:

"Well, at least there is a reason. Both kids still married, but do I ever get to see any of my grandchildren? Never. And Jennifer only lives two hours away. You'd think she could make time for her old mom and dad."

I'd say take it out unless 'Two Hours Away Jennifer' is going to become an important character.

I am now DYING to know what this book is about. Write it faster so I can buy it and read it. hehe

ZoesMom said...

I am not a writing critic, but I can say I really enjoyed this and I would love to read more. I agree with everyone who has said you should just keep going. Keep writing -- this is good stuff!

Bob said...

Emily, Being a transplanted Floridian from Connecticut who looks still for paradise in the hills and mountains along the Blue Ridge Parkway in the fall, I feel familiar with the Laurel Ridges of the region (and rented a condo in Asheville ironically called Laurel Creek). I also recognize an old town that has been claimed by seasonal invaders and new full time residents that change a town’s personality. This is what Updike touches upon in Widows of Eastwick and Richard Ford in The Lay of the Land. And of course Russo examines the generations left behind.

I liked your Prologue and want to read more. So how does Laurel Ridge “welcome back” ensuing generations and why? You have a down to earth, homey way of writing, but, unless Betty, Evelyn, Don, Rich, Jamie, and Jennifer are central to what follows, I found that dialogue out of place, even prosaic. If they do figure in the story, maybe you can make them less stereotypic old fuddy-duddies.

I purposely did not read what was posted before so not to be influenced, so maybe I’ve just repeated what was said or missed the whole point!

Emily Barton said...

Heather, none of these people is going to become important, as far as I can tell, so I think I'm beginning to understand that the dialogue needs to go.

ZM, glad you like it, and thanks for the encouragement.

Bob, so glad to hear that it's working for a transplanted Floridian from Connecticut. I've been so worried it wouldn't. And for those great writers to come to your mind when reading MY stuff? Well, I don't know what to say, except that maybe I'd better keep writing (oh, and take out that dialogue that just doesn't seem to work for anyone). Thanks!