canning the tennessee williams

Truth-telling time. If I can tell you when the writing is going well, I can also tell you about times when it's all over the map, which is right now, with Book Two of the Sixties Trilogy.

I have a draft, I do. It's not a GOOD draft, but I knew that, even as I sent it to my editor to read before our meet-up at ALA.

But what I didn't know was just how far off the mark this draft was. As I looked into my editor's face last Monday (a week ago) and listened to him talk about the draft he had just read, I realized: it's got to go.

I didn't jump to conclusions. I just listened, offered my take, listened some more, and spent the rest of the day in a kind of dumbstruck cloud. I slept on it. I considered my options. I love this story. I love these particular characters. I don't want to let them go.

I've written a story about two girls, cousins, who intensely dislike one another -- they have just met, and are as different as night and day -- and who are forced to spend the summer together in Mississippi. They end up making a trip together from Mississippi to Memphis, to find Elvis Presley, whom one of them is convinced -- with reasonable proof -- is her father. They journey north into the James Meredith March Against Fear, which is journeying south from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi. It has always been this way. I have been working on this story for... years.

I love its premise. And, for all the years I've worked on this novel, Birdie, our Mississippi girl, has stolen the show. Margaret, who comes into this family suddenly, has been unlikeable, and she is my heroine. So I worked hard on this draft to make Margaret a sympathetic character.

And, lo and behold, my editor thinks Margaret's voice is spot-on. Excellent! He thinks Birdie is unlikeable. And so is most of her chaotic southern family. They no longer serve the story, as it is now part of the Sixties Trilogy, and must do its work in that context.

I didn't see this at all, as I worked on this draft, but as I listened to my editor, I began to understand it, too. This story isn't what I need for the Sixties Trilogy. Yes, it takes place in 1966, but this loving, chaotic, amazing, nutty cast of characters aren't serving the story I need to tell right now. I have built a world for my girls to inhabit, but this is a long, languid story full of the atmosphere and craziness of the steamy sixties south, and of the kind of southern storytelling this story needs. I think it may be an adult novel, truth to tell, and this isn't the first time I've had that thought.

I need a story that grabs the reader and tosses her squarely into the middle of the 1960s and shouts GO!

Sorta like I did with Countdown. I need to remember that Countdown was re-written and revised so many times, in order to get it right, and that the beginning was crafted over and over, to lend it an immediacy and authenticity that it needed. But I didn't let go of my characters.

Still, at this moment, it feels right to let go of Margaret and Birdie, and come back to them another day. It feels right to "can the Tennessee Williams," and to begin again. I am not even scared to do this, and I know why: I am still numb. Numb from that conversation, and numb from the contemplating on where to go next.

So I started a new file called "1966." I pulled out my research materials -- and boy, do I have research materials!  I began to read and call to me my story. I did little else but sit in the pink chair and play midwife (so don't come visit right now; it ain't pretty). And I woke up a few days ago with a girl named Sunny whispering in my ear:

"I am reading The Good Earth, and I am suffocating."

I leaped from bed -- literally -- and ran for my notebook, where I began to capture all I could before it evaporated. I have a first chapter. I'm not sure where it's going. I'm using my notebook and I'm making my lists -- list after list -- by hand, so I can figure out what I'm trying to say and what is asking for expression --

I'm keeping the Meredith March, 1966, Stokely, and I'm adding some favorites that feel right and that I have researched to death over the years: Virginia Durr, Ruby Doris Smith, NOW, Bob Zellner, voter registration in the Delta, Greenwood, maybe Alabama, hmmm....

I have chronicled this decision on facebook, here (scroll down a bit; what affirming, supportive comments), and I may keep going there, for short updates, and on twitter, so you can follow along there if you like, although I will always come back to the blog to keep a record of my progress -- and process.

Yesterday, I opened up the old file again, the one that's not working. What can I use from it? Can I use more than I thought? Now that I have this new beginning... maybe. So I renamed it "1966  CAN THE TENNESSEE WILLIAMS." ha!

My husband surprised me with a copy of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth. Already I see parallels between that story and the civil rights movement -- can I use this in some way? It's been decades since I read The Good Earth -- why did it come floating into my consciousness as I awoke? I trust that there is a message here. I will stay with it, and see what comes.

I'm trying hard not to get into the what was I THINKING? place of despair with this new story, and to just go with it. Maybe I will end up melding one draft with another. Maybe it's going to be much SIMPLER than I thought, in some ways. Maybe not. But I am in the very thicket of revision and rewriting now, and need to stay with it, stay with it, stay with it. I owe book two as soon as I'm able to release it back into my editor's hands for another go-round. We've agreed on Labor Day Weekend and again in November at NCTE. So I've got -- what? Seven weeks until Labor Day? And I'll need to send it soon. Let's say six weeks.

The pressure is coming from me. "Take the time you need to take," my editor says. I will. But I will also move forward steadily. I'm going to try something new (and old; each novel has its own trajectory, so I have tried some of everything, from time to time, it seems). I plan to suit up and show up EVERY DAY and -- like a professional writer -- direct this story to come to me.

Let's see what happens. Send me lifelines now and then. I'll need 'em.


  1. Ohmygosh, this is SO fascinating. I am in the first painful phases of a new book with a pretty good beginning, great characters, good setting - and no story! I am just groping my way along in the dark. When I read this, I actually felt encouraged! You can do it. I can do it.

    Let's do it!

  2. Okay! Let's do it, working at the same time, cheering each other on. Excellent! xoxoxoxoxo and gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! xo

  3. Okay, you're on! We'll DO it!

    Thanks for this. It's just what I needed.

  4. Can I be cheerleader? 'Cause you guys are my favorite.

  5. But of course, Miss Sarah! Do you have pom poms? (We'll cheer you, too.)

    Barbara, I've just read your blog entry and boy, have you raised the bar, sister! I don't think I said I'd FINISH a novel by Labor Day. Did I? I'll read it again. And respond on your blog as well. xoxo

  6. You were already one of my writing heroes, but this pretty much clinches it.

    Do you prefer rainbow pom poms or red, white, and blue?

  7. Thanks, Laurie. Rainbow, most definitely, as we're gonna have to shoot for that pot of gold at the end (metaphorically speaking, of course). Right, Barbara? Sarah? You may as well join us, Laurie!

  8. My pom-poms are silver, to match my toenail polish. :D

  9. haha - Sorry I raised your bar! But, hey, rough draft is FINISHED to me - cause that's the hardest part. If I could "finish" a rough draft by Labor Day, I'd be in heaven.

    You better stop reading this and get back to that book. Now that I've told the world, you HAVE to finish.


  10. I am struck again, reading all these comments -- and boy, the comment quotient is WAY up -- how much pure unadulterated guts it takes to do what we all do. How isolated we sometimes are, locked in with our convictions and our doubts. How we have to dig deep and bring ourselves back. How we need to kill (or at least seriously reorient) our darlings. And how good we get at it after awhile. Rethinking. Re-believing. Beginning afresh and feeling the electricity that rewards us for our courage. God bless us all.

  11. Thank y'all so much for these wonderful comments. It's lovely -- and important -- to have such support. I've written a new blog entry today about where I am with the novel. Are you all writing? Strength to our sword arms! xo

  12. Is it horrible of me to be sad that you're writing about new characters? I just finished COUNTDOWN and was so hoping I'd see more of Dixie and the gang in the next books. *Sniff*

  13. Did I write Dixie? I meant, Franny. See how distraught I am?

  14. Susan -- ha! I see how distraught you are? :> I love Franny, too, and part of me wants to continue with her story... but I think you'll love Sunny, too. I hope so. Thanks for writing, and for the kind words!


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