A Time of Firsts: My First Pregnancy and My First Novel-Writing Class

So I’ve puzzled a bit over whether or not to share this information on my blog, mostly because, though I’ve been open about my reading and writing, I haven’t shared much about my personal life here.  BUT…this is something that will affect every aspect of my life, including my writing, and I’ve been working on some poems around this topic, and if they evolve enough, I’ll likely include them here.  I’m about five months into my first pregnancy.  So far, so good.  A lot to think and feel, and moments that have been a bit overwhelming, but I’m on the road forward and looking ahead to a new family member this winter.

In other news, I thought I would try a novel-writing class this summer.  I took one poetry class and a few short story classes as an undergraduate.  As an English major, I did a concentration in creative writing and wrote a novella as my honors thesis.  So while I have taken creative writing classes before, I had never taken a class designed around a novel.  I’ve been to a couple of conferences and attended lectures and workshops on novel-writing, but haven’t done anything more long-term or intensive.

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I signed up for an online class called “Novel Builder” through the Grub Street organization.  A few friends of mine in my weekly writers’ group had taken Grub Street classes before and recommended them (despite the fact that they are a bit costly!).  I decided to go for it.  I have a draft of one novel complete, but have shelved that for future thought while I’m working on another novel, women’s fiction with paranormal elements.

Salesses

The course was taught by Matthew Salesses, who has several credentials in fiction and nonfiction writing, including a forthcoming novel, The Hundred-Year Flood.  (By the way, The Hundred-Year Flood is available for early reading through Kindle First, free for Prime readers.  I read it and really enjoyed it! – official release date 9/1/15.  Here’s the link to my brief, spoiler-free Goodreads review)

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Without giving away the content I’m sure Matt Salesses worked hard to put together, I definitely want to say that the course was worthwhile.  Based on the idea that many successful contemporary novels are comprised of twelve major scenes, the goal of the course was to write and receive feedback on six scenes.  Over the course of six weeks, we watched craft talk videos given by Salesses, read the novel excerpts he’d prepared, commented on our classmates’ scenes from previous weeks, and then posted our own scenes based on weekly prompts.

I found it was immensely helpful to consider the structure of a novel at length and from the angle that Salesses presented.  I was able to see my protagonist’s arc more clearly.  I was also able to more clearly see how I could make the plot accomplish what I wanted it to accomplish in order to get my characters where they needed to be.  I enjoyed my classmates’ writing very much, and benefited from their thoughtful feedback, as well as the feedback provided by Salesses.  We are all working on very different projects, but I found each story fascinating, and hope that I’ll be able to keep in touch with my classmates and read these novels in full when they’re ready.

Though I expect things to get very busy in the coming months, with my return to teaching and this pregnancy and whatever it brings, I hope to take another online class through Grub Street.  Feel free to write in about your own experiences or with any questions.  Based on my experience, I would definitely recommend taking a novel-writing class to move your novel forward, and in particular, I’d recommend this one; I can see online that it will run again through Grub Street, starting in October.  I’m hoping to keep putting in as much time as I can on my own novel and I feel a renewed confidence in my ability to finish it (and maybe before our future child is able to read) after taking the course.  Next steps: write the climax, figure out what the ending is for my secondary villain….

In other news, watch out for an anthology on the way from Three Line Thursdaymore news to come!

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“The Favorite” – Monday’s Finish the Story – Flash Fiction

This story was written for Mondays Finish the Story, a weekly prompt provided by Barbara Beacham.  We get the photo and the first line, and then have 100-150 more words to complete the story.  The first line is in italics below.  Click on the blue frog below to read this week’s other stories and to post your own!

2015-08-24 – Photo taken of an old photo in 2014 – Barbara W. Beacham

2015-08-24 – Photo taken of an old photo in 2014 – Barbara W. Beacham

The Favorite

(1st phrase + 150 words)

The family had no idea that little Luigi would grow up to be their ruin.  There never was a boy more loved…perhaps he was spoiled.  There were many women in the family, and he was their darling.  The men spoiled him too, though they wouldn’t admit it.  He sat on their laps during trips to town and was hoisted onto their tall shoulders.

Signs of trouble surfaced, but were seen as fighting spirit, which any boy ought to possess.

When the Rowland girl went missing, Luigi’s bed was empty.  His mother woke from a wingback chair when he came in; what she saw must’ve told her the worst.  She walked right past him, out toward the lake, and was never seen again.

Luigi got involved with gamblers and worse.  The family shut the doors to the mansion and changed their name.  Luigi was caught, imprisoned.  No one visited, save the apparition of a woman.  The guards said she wept and kissed his brow.

“Go Set a Watchman” Book Review & Analysis – Spoilers Aplenty – You’ve been warned!

I just finished Harper Lee’s new (old?) novel, Go Set A a Watchman, published this summer.  Though we’re first encountering it this summer, reports are that Lee finished this novel first, and after it was rejected, reworked the story into To Kill a Mockingbird, shelving Watchman for several years.

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**I want to give a warning here: this review is FULL of spoilers.  If you don’t want spoilers, stop now!**

I admit not being sure what to expect.  I had heard a few mostly spoiler-free reviews from NPR and a few other sources, and knew that I was in for an older Scout, now going by Jean Louise, and a very different Atticus Finch.

While I feel there are some weaknesses in the text, and some which other reviewers have noticed as well (see some of the review links posted below), I found a lot to appreciate.  The weaknesses include awkward flashbacks which serve the narrative but are not woven seamlessly into it.  I also feel that the novel is perhaps too much in Jean Louise’s head, with little action in the present tense of the novel.

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As some of you readers may know, I’m a high school English teacher, and have taught To Kill a Mockingbird, so part of me is asking the question: What conversations could I have with my students about this?  The answer, I think, is several interesting ones, if they had read it.  I think that while To Kill a Mockingbird, at least after its initial chapter, is fairly accessible to a variety of high school readers, part of this accessibility comes from two tense and dramatic plots with concrete action.  While I, as an adult, can very much relate to how 26-year old Jean Louise feels confronting the adults who raised her, I’m not sure that as many high school students will have the patience to go along for the ride…I’ll be interested to see how conversations evolve around this book.  I do think that, were I about to do another Mockingbird unit, I would definitely bring in excerpts of Watchman for the conversation, and I’d throw down the gauntlet of this challenging read, and I don’t doubt that some students would pick it up.  Any thoughts, readers?

I was a bit taken aback by the change in plot around the Tom Robinson case, which other reviews have noted.  While in Mockingbird, Tom is innocent and was only trying to extricate himself from Mayella Ewell’s advances after being kind to her, in Watchman, Jean Louise recalls that Atticus got this man acquitted on a rape charge by proving that intercourse with the 14-year-old white girl was consensual.  Personally, I wished that this change hadn’t occurred, and I wanted harmony in these facts despite the well-done dissonance elsewhere in the novel; however, one could argue that this change functions to complicate our sympathies as much else is complicated in Watchman.

Jean Louise finds that her father, on whom she had always relied as her moral compass, is part of Maycomb’s Citizen’s Council, a group with a varied membership including corrupt and offensive people.  Atticus speaks ill of the NAACP, and while Jean Louise feels a momentary relief that Atticus says he will be the lawyer for Calpurnia’s grandson, Atticus says it is to prevent the interference of the NAACP and black lawyers using this case to further their cause.  Atticus tells Jean Louise that, in essence, black people are not ready to fully participate in society, and that he is part of a group that wants to prevent society from going downhill through their participation.  This not an uncommon viewpoint in the South during this time period, and it infuriates Jean Louise, even as she struggles to respond to it, agreeing with large parts of it, even as she is disturbed.

Jean Louise finds everyone around her seemingly changed, especially Atticus and Calpurnia.  While she (and we readers nostalgic for Mockingbird) may find past memories comforting, she is now, in her adulthood, tasked with coming to grips with the present.  Uncle Jack becomes our font of wisdom, telling Jean Louise, “it’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago.  It is hard to see what we are.  If you can master that trick, you’ll get along” (Lee 269).  In this phrase, we hear the echo of Atticus’s advice from Mockingbird, telling Scout to “learn a simple trick” about seeing things from others’ points of view.  Once again, Watchman shows us that perspective and truly seeing are important, and it pushes us, along with Jean Louise, out of the comfortable Mockingbird nostalgia.  As Uncle Jack points out, Atticus is a man, not a god, and Jean Louise must rebel against him, even “kill” him along with a part of herself, in order to “function[] as a separate entity” (so very Freudian!) (Lee 265).  Such startling diction!

I could easily relate to this–as one goes out into the world and has one’s own experiences, and then returns home, one has to to confront the nostalgia-shaped images of our childhood, appreciate them for what they are, and try to see our families and ourselves more clearly.  For Jean Louise, as for many of us, this is incredibly painful.

Things have changed in the South since Jean Louise was a child.  Black people are gaining ground in their fight for equality, and this has changed Atticus, Calpurnia, and the relationships among many of Maycomb’s citizens.  I thought that Jean Louise’s trip to see Calpurnia was one of the most interesting scenes in the novel.  Your thoughts, readers?  After the flashbacks in Watchman and reading Mockingbird, I longed with Jean Louise for warmth and recognition from Calpurnia, but not getting it leads to important realizations and growth for Jean Louise.

One of the other big lessons for Jean Louise, is that not only is Atticus not who she thought he was, and not only does he believe in racist principles she struggles with, she can still love him.  Throughout the novel, Jean Louise has struggled to imagine her future.  Will she marry Henry?  Will she return to New York, which doesn’t feel like home, but which has views she’s more comfortable with?  Will she settle in Maycomb, where she feels pressured to succumb to ideas of gender, race, and class that sicken her?  Uncle Jack suggests, nearly at the novel’s close, that Jean Louise consider coming “home,” because Maycomb could use someone like her (Lee 271).  He then tells her that, despite her instinct to run, she must go into town and pick up Atticus.  Even though their consciences have split, they don’t need to be a divided family.  He tells Jean Louise that “it takes a certain kind of maturity to live in the South these days,” and perhaps we all need “a certain kind of maturity” to see the truth, to grow with it, and not to turn our backs on those who believe differently from us (Lee 273).  Lee is trying to show us the real complexity that exists in both discovering what you believe and standing up for it, and reconciling having different viewpoints with those you love.  In other words, you can be friends or family with someone, and vehemently disagree on the shape of the world.  You can and should stand by your principles, but you don’t have to do that by clumsily cussing out your “enemy,” as Jean Louise does to Atticus (Lee 278).

This reminds me, not just of relationships with family and friends, but about recent comments about our Congress.  In the past, senators and congressmen spent more time in Washington and more time socializing.  Today, some lament that politicians of opposing views have little collegiate feeling, and that this makes it ever more difficult to come to the table for frank discussion on important issues.

I should take a moment to talk about Henry (Hank) Clinton, Jean Louise’s love interest in the novel.  I was interested to see what Jean Louise in love looked like, but this story line is certainly secondary to Jean Louise’s revelations about Atticus.  Henry helps Jean Louise to imagine what her future could look like in Maycomb if she is more traditional: married to Henry, agreeing with him and supporting him, giving Coffees like her Aunt Alexandra…but as a reader, I feel with Jean Louise that she could never really marry him.

I should also take a moment to mention Jem’s death, as Lee so startlingly does early on in the novel.  We then return to think about Jem later on, but the first mention is brief!  Though I missed Jem, and his initial absence, especially introduced so abruptly into the narrative, felt like plot device without much disguise, I can why Lee took him out of the story.  Jean Louise’s struggle, to fit with the themes of this book, had to be her own, and couldn’t be shared with a sibling.  (Though I can’t help wondering, what if?  Would Jem have believed as Atticus did?  Would the Jem that cried at injustice in Mockingbird have been just as set on it twenty years later?)

All in all, this novel made me think, and for that alone, I think it deserves praise.  It has moments which feel beautiful and powerful.  It further characterizes Jean Louise, Atticus, Uncle Jack, and Calpurnia, among others, and it characterizes the South at this time, which, as a Yankee, I always find interesting.  I was intrigued by the descriptions of the South as full of individuals, all seeing differently, all fighting for their own causes and resistant to blanket actions.  As I’ve explained, I felt like this is a very different, but still relatable, coming-of-age novel for an adult reader.  I also felt that the way Watchman complicates the characters and the struggles around race and other issues feels right for a time in our country where some of these conversations are coming (quite justly) back to the forefront.  Well worth a read, a think, and a conversation.

A Few Other Reviews:

Time Magazine

Washington Post

Telegraph

Articles on Congress

“Washington Gridlock Linked to Social Funk” – CNN Politics

There was one I remembered from NPR, but I couldn’t find the particular article–this one deals with the issue I mention briefly.

“What Comes Next” – Flash Fiction – Monday’s Finish the Story

The following story was written for the weekly flash fiction prompt provided by Barbara Beacham on Mondays Finish the Story.  We get a photo and a first sentence, and then 100-150 additional words to make a story.  Click on the blue frog to read other responses to the prompt or to add your own story!

Copyright Barbara W. Beacham 2015

Copyright Barbara W. Beacham 2015

What Comes Next

(1st sentence + 149 words)

The team employed the use of Nightshade to get the information they wanted from their captive.  She was disoriented.  She hadn’t eaten and they hadn’t let her sleep.  Now, they were threatening her with one of the last poisons left in the new world.

The problem for the team was that she didn’t care.  She was stalling, seeing what fate would bring.  She was not here to alter death’s course if it was set, especially when she knew what came after death.

She’d join the mostly invisible ranks of the ghosts.  She’d become deadly, as fast as she could.

The team didn’t want to kill her, of course.  She understood that.  She was supposed to become scared, desperate enough to say yes to whatever they wanted.

She wouldn’t.  She was the center of the resistance.  They didn’t know, or they’d be using different tactics.  Her group understood the harmony between life and death.  The team wanted to elongate life forever.  That was not the way.