Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The cherry on top

 Last week I hit a milestone in my current work in progress. After about ten pads of foolscap scribbling, I wrote ... 

This has been an extremely challenging book to write. Many times it felt as if the words, the ideas, the plot, were being dragged out of me, inch by painful inch. I don't know the reason for this; perhaps the overarching angst of the pandemic, with its distraction of waves going up and down, the wait for a vaccine, the ongoing daily struggle to stay safe, and the increasing, astonishing craziness of people ranting on social media, throwing stones at politicians (in nice, peaceful Canada), blocking health workers from accessing hospitals, and guzzling horse dewormer.

I've been trying to write this book as this drama dragged on and on and often felt the pointlessness of it all. What did my made-up story matter, after all, compared to the catastrophe unfolding in the real world? So the book was written in fits and starts, with real life disruptions in between which made me completely forget where my story was going. All the usual writerly doubts were magnified. Doubts like "this story is crap, I can't write anymore, it's nothing but a jumbled mess," etc. 

But finally, I got to write The End. Now I know it's a book, and I know what it's about. Now I can fix it. Rewrites are all about fixing the jumbled mess. Normally when I am writing, I keep a separate file containing all the things I have to fix. Add this, take away that, change this, develop that. Plot holes and inconsistencies need to be plugged, characters need to be tweaked to fit the job I have ended up giving them, or their job has to be tweaked to fit what they've become. Settings and background are enriched. 

This time, I never did keep that file. I spent so much time wandering in the wilderness that I had no idea what needed tweaking or changing until I finally limped across the finish line. So I now have to keep all these things in my head as I reread and adjust the story. So the rewrites may be as arduous as the first draft.

This is not to say that the book is bad, or that I'm unhappy with it. Against all odds, I think I have managed to write a pretty good book, although readers (and my editors) will be the judge of that.

One of the challenges I faced was choosing the title. The title is like the cherry on top of the sundae. Until it's in place, the book doesn't feel truly finished. For me, a title should capture the essence of the book. It is my final statement about what the meaning of the book is. Titles come to me in various ways at different stages of the writing process. Sometime I know it before I start to write, like HONOUR AMONG MEN, sometimes a phrase that I write suddenly leaps out at me as the perfect title, as in FIFTH SON. 

Wreck Bay, site of the 1960s commune,
as it is today.

This book has a few themes but the historical backdrop to it is the hippie movement of the late 60s and early 70s, coinciding with the anti-Vietnam war movement. As I was writing, the Dylan song "Blowing in the wind", kept floating through my head as a reflection of the struggles of the central character. Dylan was the voice of that movement and that era. So the first title I came up with was Blowing in the Wind. But I wasn't sure whether younger readers would know the lyrics well enough to get all the references, so I sprinkled a few lines from that song through the book (in dialogue and other ways). However, although copyright laws allow me to use a song title, they don't allow me to use even a single phrase of the lyrics if the song can be identified by that phrase. 

Back to the drawing board. Or rather back to the internet to research other 60s protest songs to find one that would work using the title alone and that would reflect the character's struggles just as well. Fortunately, having been part of that protest movement and having listened to all those artists many times over, I had some basis for where to look. And I soon found a title that was not only just as good, but in fact better. THERE BUT FOR FORTUNE. This is a phrase so well known that people can finish the sentence even if they have never heard of singer/ songwriter Phil Ochs.

Now THERE BUT FOR FORTUNE is heading into its first rewrite, with its cherry sitting firmly on top, capturing its essence perfectly.


blogcutter said...

I've never heard of Phil Oakes but I've definitely heard of Phil Ochs (but maybe that wouldn't interest anyone outside of a small circle of friends...)
Congratulations on bringing your latest work-in-progress to its logical conclusion - I look forward to reading it!

Barbara Fradkin said...

Yes, yuo're absolutely right. I knew I should haave checked the spelling and not relied on fifty year-old memories! Fixed now.

Donis Casey said...

Congratulations! It seems to me that reaching that elusive "the end" is getting harder and harder.