It’s been a crazy few weeks, to put it mildly. Work pressures (including an unusually complicated appellate brief and a client preparing for trial), holidays, out-of-town relatives in town, and rehearsal for this weekend’s performance of Haydn’s The Creation. When I was finally able to take a day off last week—my first in nearly three weeks—I spent it cleaning the house and finally putting down most of the rugs I’d picked up from the cleaners a month earlier.
Unsurprisingly, writing has been sidelined during this period. Although my mind has never stopped trying to resolve various plot problems in my novel-in-progress, it’s been a struggle to find time, inclination, and energy all that the same time so that I can commit any of it to the page and see whether these notions actually work.
The person who said this to me is an aspiring fashion designer I’ll call “Jon.” We have never met in person. I have never seen his work. Our sole contact to date has been one telephone conversation that started out in the context of both of our day jobs. And yet. . . .
“You’ve inspired me today.”
It all began when I called the appellate clerks’ office to find out whether an appeal has been filed. In the course of the conversation, Jon asked me to spell the name of the potential appellant. I did so, and he reported that no appeal had been filed.
The problem is that I used most of them in my first book.
When I wrote State v. Claus, I sort of took the easy way out. After all, writing a novel was daunting business—no reason to make it harder. So the main character was a lawyer because I know how to be a lawyer. After decades of appearing in court and reading reams of trial transcripts, the courtroom scenes were a snap to write. Deciding what crimes Ralph would be charged with and what the elements were required nothing more than the legal database I use on a daily basis. The dynamics of law firm life were second nature. Even researching details of criminal procedure was easy: I talked to a lawyer I knew whose practice consisted primarily of representing individuals accused of crimes.
I wish the research for the sequel to State v. Claus was a fraction as easy.
“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.” ~ Flannery O’Connor
From the time I was twenty until I was forty-six, I barely wrote a word of fiction.
God, what a waste.
A devastating college workshop experience left me convinced I had nothing to say and didn’t know how to say it anyway. On that dark February evening, I sat in stunned silence at a conference table as a handful of seniors mocked my story mercilessly. No one else spoke up (although one student told me later, “I didn’t think it was that bad.”). The professor did nothing to stop the train of ridicule, nor did he ever say anything to suggest that my writing wasn’t hopeless. He gave me an A in the class, but I’ve never believed it.
Several years ago, David Handler gave a talk to aspiring writers at the inaugural Writers Weekend at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut. David is a successful author who has been writing for decades. Inevitably in such a setting, someone asked about his writing life. David replied that he spent the morning writing and the afternoon working on his small business.
“What’s your small business?” someone else asked.
“Being an author,” he replied. He explained that in the afternoon, he routinely dealt with the business end of writing, including communications with his agent and his editor, correspondence with readers, and planning talks just like this one.
“Big deal,” you think. “You’re a writer. It’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Except to be honest, I’ve been struggling in recent months to come up with something that—in my humble opinion—is worth writing.
Maybe I’ve gotten pickier. Or maybe it’s that I’ve written some stories that I truly think are good, and yet they’ve have struggled to get off the starting block, and so I question my own judgment. One story has been a finalist in two different competitions and was highly praised by the organizers of one of those competitions–but as I sent it off today, I noticed that this was its seventeenth launch. It’s already awaiting judgment at three publications, but I submitted it anyway, albeit with more stoicism than optimism.
Last week, many of us in the U.S. were bombarded with boisterous urgings to have a merry Christmas. As I recall, the British version is “Happy Christmas!”, while the French wish one another a joyful Noel (assuming my high school French is accurate). Even those of us who never studied Spanish know “Feliz Navidad” from the song; the internet tells me that “feliz” can mean happy, blissful, or felicitous. In the midst of these determinedly cheerful greetings, some Christians will wish one another a blessed Christmas, but for the most part, our traditional holiday wishes are energetic and robust.
On Saturday evening, after dozens of rereads, corrections, edits, corrections, and rereads, I finally set the manuscript of My Brother, Romeo off to the formatter.
This morning, I realized that I need to make another change.
I wrote the original version of this story as fan fiction fifteen years ago, in 2006. Senses and sensibilities were different then. I’d already posted a few stories on a now-defunct fansite whose readers were almost exclusively women, many of whose philosophies and belief systems skewed toward the traditional. The story was set in the 1860s on a ranch in Nevada, where one might also expect traditional beliefs to predominate.
All of which explains why a particular bit of dialogue in the original version not only came naturally, but caused no fuss. In the scene, the narrator comes home after a frustrating attempt to cast the production of Romeo and Juliet. As he recounts all the inappropriate contenders for the role of Juliet, he mentions that a man in town wanted the role because in Shakespeare’s day, all the roles were played by men. One brother responds, “I always wondered about him,” to which the other says, “You and me both.”
On its face, this brief exchange is as innocuous as they come. Certainly, it is consistent with the characters of the original show, most of which was written and produced in the 1960s. Readers of the original version loved this bit of dialogue, seeing it as humorous and nothing else.
This morning, though, it occurred to me that these two lines carry an unintended flavor—one I don’t like. Granted, my story is set on a ranch in central California in 1962, and the lines are still consistent with the kind of comments people like my characters might have made without thinking. But the story is going to be read by modern audiences, and that needs to be borne in mind.
Since I’ve been guilty of overthinking things at least once or twice in my life, I debated contacting a friend for a quick sensitivity read to determine whether I was seeing ghosts. In the next minute, I realized that if I’m concerned enough to ask for the sensitivity read, there’s probably something there that needs to be addressed.
So I’ve worked out alternate dialogue that I plan to substitute when the manuscript comes back for finalizing. In my opinion, the new lines work better than the original. They’re equally humorous, plus they shift the focus away from the tone I find troubling. Win-win.
Some people will think it ridiculous that I would even consider this change. For them, the fact that the lines are consistent with the characters and the setting is defense enough against any who might object. Many would likely not even notice anything unusual, much less find it offensive. Still others might rail against the idea of my “sanitizing” my work to make it “politically correct.” (Side note: “political correctness” is actually code for “think about how this makes someone else feel, and try to craft a phrase that isn’t hurtful to them.”)
For me, the decision to edit this dialogue comes down to a couple of basic points. One is that this story is meant to be lighthearted and fun; anything that is going to jolt a reader out of that mood needs to be reconsidered. Another is that fixing this tiny segment doesn’t detract in any way from the story. I’m not making the characters less authentic—I’m changing the landing point of the humor.
I’ve been writing long enough to know that no work will every please every reader. I’ve seen stories where the author is bending over so far to please a particular demographic or send a message to the reader that the rest of the story doesn’t ring true or is sanctimonious and annoying. A sentiment famously attributed to a number of Hollywood producers is that filmmakers are supposed to tell stories–if you want to send a message, use Western Union. (For those not old enough to understand this reference: for many years, Western Union was the company people used to send telegrams.)
In the end, the writer needs to be honest in telling the story, which includes being honest about how characters speak, think, and behave—but which doesn’t mean that there are no holds barred. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn might have been accurate for its time in certain aspects, such as how the characters referred to Black people (although the book has been controversial ever since its publication in 1884), but it’s enormously unlikely that the book would be published today with the same language even if it were presented as historical fiction.
Assuming that an author has written a story to be read, a reasonable maxim to follow is that if a line is going to yank the reader out of the story’s world for any reason, from inaccuracy to offensiveness, chances are that’s a line that needs to be edited. At the very least, the author needs to take a long, hard look at the line and consider carefully whether—or why—it should remain in its original form and what possible effect it will have on the story if it is kept, modified, or even deleted.
Probably none of my stories are perfect in this regard. A few have been designed to make readers uncomfortable enough to begin a discussion or at least consider a different point of view. Most are meant simply to entertain. My characters may speak or act in ways that readers don’t care for, as with my mother’s objection whenever a character curses. The line between an honest telling and a troublesome one can be murky, and it’s one every author needs to find for themselves.
The world is not the same as when I wrote the original version of My Brother, Romeo fifteen years ago. Dialogues have become commonplace that were barely alluded to back then. Diversity and inclusion are more prevalent in both modern fiction and daily life. Simply put, many authors have learned that even though we have the best of intentions, our words may have caused someone to feel hurt, passed over, or unseen. We’re trying now to do better.
That’s why I chose to make this edit: I’m trying to do better.