by Laura Kalpakian
November has closed, NO REST FOR THE WICKED, Takes One and Two are finished, weâ€™ve had our fine moment at Village Books with the reading. However, unfortunately, we didnâ€™t get a chance to talk about what weâ€“collectively and singlyâ€“learned from the experience. This strikes us (Cami, Susan and I, the RWB Founding Mothers of Invention) as something of a loss and weâ€™d like to open up this blog as a place for Collective Novel Writers to chime in. Since I started with the first chapter (and the last chapter of Take Two) Iâ€™ll begin.
Certainly NO REST FOR THE WICKED gave many of us a reason to be excited to check the computer every morning in November: who had written what? What would that mean for my chapter? Why didnâ€™t the next writer pick up on the material I wrote? Both novels had lurching inconsistencies and the occasional WTF? Responding immediately to dramatic situations is excellent training for a writer, and fun for readers as well.
To me the novelâ€“any novel, those you write and those you readâ€“can best be described as a handful of characters tossed into a potful of circumstances. Bubble and Boil. This collective novel subscribes to that same axiom. The title, NO REST FOR THE WICKED, is taken from an old expression of my dadâ€™s which I always loved. It has a Biblical basis, though the add-on â€œAnd the righteous donâ€™t need itâ€ seems to have been the contribution of my Dadâ€™s old Mormon ancestors. About a decade ago I contemplated a novel with this title. Eli, Minerva (Bo), Seneca, the four daughters, were all part of the possibilities. The scene with the angry, impoverished flour-coated Eli coming to tea at the Professorâ€™s house and meeting his lovely daughter Minerva, was already written, as were a few other scenes. Eventually however, I hadnâ€™t any clear vision where this story might go, or who would be the central consciousness, central character. Many of them were interesting to me, none was compelling. I moved the whole into my folder called Books Abandoned and forgot it.
When called upon to write Chapter One for the Collective Novel I knew I wanted to posit some big family gathering so as to offer a lot of characters with complex relationships and backgrounds. Eli and his daughters came to mind, and I used that original premise: an angry, driven man whose hard work and success seems all for naught since he has no sons, and he does not value his daughters, nor his wife. His anger and his disdain would have affected the destinies and choices of all of these women.
At the October Red Wheelbarrow Happy Hour Cami suggested people offer up â€œcuesâ€ to be used in the first chapter. From these came the dog, Callie and the phrase â€œA failure to communicate…â€ and a few other elements which only tangentially made their way into the story. Most responses were anecdotes which didnâ€™t fit into the broader picture that the first Chapter needed in order to provide fodder for thirty days of drama.
I went for the big, troubled family, developing Sallyann and Nora, but leaving the other two sisters Hannah and Susan mentioned but not detailed. I brought in Noraâ€™s low-life boyfriend Randy and his son Jess, Jessâ€™s wife/girlfriend Lizette, and their un-named little boy. (Next to Eli, Randy was the most consistently used character in both strands of the novel.) I tried to offer hints of possible physical danger with the rising river (an aspect not touched on by either Take One or Take Two), and a life for Sallyann outside the family (part-owner of a Seattle wine bar, also not touched on by either Take One or Take Two). Though Eli and Bo and their backstory were developed, neither made an actual appearance in Chapter One. The central dramatic dilemma that both Take One and Take Two enlarged upon as the core of the novel was Eliâ€™s wish for a son, and the question of his money: who would that money go to.
For myself, I was astonished, gratified and indeed, educated to read the similarities in Take One and Take Two. Both novels offered up King Lear-like responses to the question of the money, and legacy: to whom would Eli leave the money? In each this central dilemma provided the narrative thrust of the book, and in each that question was tied to Eliâ€™s wish to know who truly cared for him. In Take Two he faked bankruptcy: who would love him without his money? Answer, no one loved him with his money. Take One had the most succinct response to that question: the dog. Eliâ€™s thwarted wish for a son naturally brought out the bastards and one legitimate son (oddly) switched at birth for a girl. In both novels, Eli died. In both novels Randy ended up in jail. In both novels Minerva, crushed into Bo (short for Bo-Peep) for her whole adult life, shows some spunk. The two undeveloped sisters took very different paths. In Take One Susan is renowned surgeon, holding the knife (and the power of life and death) over her old man. In Take Two she worked at Powells, had a gambling addiction which she had (sort of) kicked and was last seen having her stomach pumped from alcohol poisoning sheâ€™d imbibed at a casino. In terms of length, these books were within a few hundred words of one another. (Take Two however, had fewer participants than Take One where every day slotted was filled.) Both books were high-spirited, full of lively writing, humor and the occasional OMG!
In short the Red Wheelbarrow Collective Novel writers had tons more fun with the Hale clan than I ever had when I thought they might become a novel. Collectively we created unforgettable characters and situations with core dramatic links.
What did you learn from participating in the Collective Novel? What was your take-away as a reader? A writer? Chime in and be part of the ongoing conversation.
I co-wrote a novel in the 80s. My friend paced and talked, I typed and embellished. We had a great time, but determined that we were not fiction writers. With no plans to participate in NR4TW, as discussion progressed at the October Red Wheelbarrows meeting, I was suddenly seized with Eleanor Roosevelt’s maxim, “Do something that scares you every day,” and signed up for the last day of Take One. There was NR4ThisWriter because I read every day, took copious notes, and absented myself from work on day 30. It took me until 10 that night to post my chapter. I was engaged by the process and my writing life much enriched.
As someone who pounds out a novel on my own every November–and doesn’t care how bad it is–this was a new experience. I knew the draft would be seen by others and that what they did in their work may depend on details I left in my chapter (11) so it couldn’t suck as bad as my usual November drafts do!
It turns out I can also write when I know someone will be reading my craptastic first draft.
As I wrote my chapter I considered my identity as a writer and if I should let my personal interests into this project and I did. I didn’t take the sex scenes as far as I normally would, but that was OK. Even when I write with the sensibilities of other writers in mind, I can still produce something I can live with.
The best part has been getting to know other writers who were a part of this and I look forward to doing this again next year.
I wasn’t sure if I would have time to participate but so glad I did. I enjoyed the discipline of getting ready for my day by sitting and down looking for unanswered clues I might need to handle for my chapter, Day 21 of the writing project. And really enjoyed putting a twist into the story with a new son (answering that mystery of the 1962 date). Loved setting the scene with him in the bar and back story, bringing in the bakery of Hale’s earlier life. But most of all, I didn’t want a boy of dubious name to be the one who started the fire. I wanted it to be an adult. I was glad that other writers picked up the fact that Steve was a pretty decent guy. Just wanted to hurt Hale materially, but not sad that he died. Fun stuff.
I learned how hard it is to write on a deadline. I also need to do it on a daily basis no matter what. Writing is a lonely and beautiful practice. Thank you Laura, and to all at Red Wheelbarrow Writers for inspiring and pushing me to write.