march against fear

Thank you so much for the supportive, encouraging, you-can-do-it mail this past ten days regarding this post about starting over with book two of the Sixties Trilogy.

I have wrestled mightily this past ten days, over and up and under and out and down and through with this new story, and as I have, I have realized some truths about myself, the way I work, my resistance to killing my darlings, as well as a huge truth about the original novel for book two.

Long and short, I am going back to the original draft. But not entirely. I am going back to it in the way that I made lunch today, pictured (in part) below. Let me explain. 
I am still rewriting the entire original novel. So much so, that it may as well be brand new. I am using Sunny -- my new narrator -- as my main character. I am tossing so much about the original draft that I can hardly see it as the original story. But here's the thing:

I am using the spine of the original novel as my plot for the new novel, and we are staying in 1966. If you followed my twitter stream last week, you'll know that, at one point, I was convinced that we needed to move the entire novel to 1964 and create a new plot from the ground up.

I called my friend Diane Ross at the McCain Library Civil Rights Archive at the University of Southern Mississippi and told her I needed her to pull together every oral history she had from Freedom Summer volunteers in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, so I could visit in the next few weeks and sit in the reading room with all those primary sources, in order to find my story.

I pulled off my bookshelves my dear-to-me books about Freedom Summer, about personalities I one day want to write about -- maybe I could include them in this novel! Yes! I was on the right track! Excited, I ordered Bob Zellner's book about his participation in the civil rights movement -- Zellner was the first white field secretary for SNCC, has a terrific story to tell about Freedom Summer, and is the subject of a new film by Spike Lee. Oh, was I ever on the right track.

In fact, my first published book was a picture book, Freedom Summer. That book is going into its 14th printing! Still going strong. I did so much research for that book, read so much, internalized so much, that I feel I could bring 1964 alive in a heartbeat. Yes, 1964. Freedom Summer. We'd be further away from the protests of the Vietnam War, and firmly entrenched in the civil rights movement. That was the way to go.

At the same time I was feverishly gathering my forces last week, my good writer friend Deborah Hopkinson sent me the new biography of Pearl Buck -- many of you wrote to me last week suggesting it as well, and I hadn't known about it; I had only known that my Sunny begins her story (as you read in that same previous blog post) by saying, "I am reading The Good Earth, and I am suffocating."

My sweet husband bought me a copy of The Good Earth. I read it for the first time in decades.  I saw immediately how this amazing novel of turn-of-the-century China fit with the modern civil rights movement -- my undermind, my subconscious was indeed at work, and I was listening to it, listening and obeying, making connections right and left.

But my story wasn't coming. I had two pages. I eeked out a chapter. I loved Sunny's voice, but the story went nowhere. It petered off in each of three different directions I took it. All my previous novels have built up and spilled out, thirty or forty pages, all these fabulous characters vying for center stage. In previous novels, including my original version of book two of the Sixties Trilogy, I sit back, spent, after those first, breathless thirty or forty pages and say, Whew. Now what?

But I see a shape. I see a path. I understand I have a novel, and that is exhilarating.

I am not exhilarated by what I've got so far for the new book two, but I am highly intrigued and very hopeful. And I'm beginning to use my practical mind, here. Be realistic, Deb. You love Sunny. And maybe, just maybe, Sunny belongs in the original book two. Maybe, just maybe, we really do belong in 1966 with book two. (The music is better, for one thing.)

Maybe, just maybe, I need to trust my original instincts with book two, and with the trilogy, instincts that told me I needed to be in 1966 with book two. And if I do that, if I trust my gut and go with it, that means the thing I did not want to face when I met with my editor at ALA and we had the hard discussion about the original draft for book two:

I need to face the fact that Hang The Moon, as I have called this book for thirteen years, is dead. Oh, what a grief I feel over this! You, my reader friends, thought I canned it and started over? Not on your life. I saved it -- off to the side, like some jeweled thing to come back to one day, in all its Tennessee Williams glory -- and then I started a brand-new book two.

I'll show you, you editor you! Can the Tennessee Williams? This entire NOVEL is Tennessee Williams! You can't take my characters away from me! I'll hold on to them for dear life! I'll just tuck them over here, in this safe place, and I'll go off and create a whole new book for you!

But that won't work, friends. If it would, I would be well into a new book two, with its forty pages of exhilaration, calling to me. Instead, what I've got is a lot like my lunch elements, above, piecemeal, but waiting to be combined into something wonderful: I am going to cannabalize from the original book two, I'm going to lift its spine out of its body, right now, and put it into the new book two, which I will then make Sunny's story.

How will I do this? I don't know. I have hope, and the tools of my trade, including a great willingness and persistence, and my lovely subconscious, to help me make connections, to help me structure this plot, create characters who serve my story... or the story will serve them! -- and to finish book two, smack in 1966. Elvis. The Beatles. Rock and Roll. James Meredith's March Against Fear from Memphis to Jackson, June 1966. My girls, caught in it, but a brand-new story within that framework.

My subconscious didn't steer me wrong about 1964. It's a stellar year, full of glorious stories. And I will revisit it. Just not for the Sixties Trilogy.

So my task is a total and complete rewrite of book two, letting go of the Tennessee Williams, simplifying (which is so hard), finding Sunny's voice and her path, unearthing her people, and allowing her story to unfold.

No small task. But no one said it would be easy. My editor wrote me an editorial letter when we met at ALA. It applies to every character in the new book two, and to me as well. I share it with you in its entirety, below. 
 I am ready to do this now. Please come with me. As Joe and John Henry discover in my very first book, Freedom Summer, it's important to walk through new doorways with a friend.

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