Friday, February 19, 2010

I Love a Good Fight

By Kim

Last week I sent a new chapter of The Oak Lovers to Joan for her critique. In my e-mail I confessed to getting a perverse sort of pleasure from pitting Carl and Madonna, my two main characters (and great-grandparents), against each other. I agonize over tender scenes, but the moment tempers flare, accusations fly and doors slam, my fingers fly over the keyboard. I hear them most clearly when they’re shouting at each other, perhaps because they so often did. They remain with me when Real Life interferes, two volatile souls bickering in my head as I grocery shop or run the kids to school.

Joan replied: “You might have to infuse a few more shouting matches earlier [in the book] then. I remember one or two, but if they fought all the time…”

Those are dangerous words for a compulsive editor. Later, I thought. Move forward, edit later.

Over the next few days, Dallas was hit with the largest snowfall on record and my progress ground to a halt with children unexpectedly home and a 12-hour power outage. During a quiet moment I pulled up an early chapter, intending only to read it and see if I could easily tweak a disagreement into a full fledged argument.

I happened upon a scene I originally wrote as narrative nonfiction and have reworked at least four times since. In it, Carl Ahrens, then married to another, confronts seventeen-year-old Madonna about a rumor he has heard about her accompanying a young man into a notorious alcove during a dance at Roycroft. She quickly deflates his rage by explaining it was all an innocent mistake…

I grinned. What if it wasn’t a mistake? What could have prompted her to do such a thing? How much would she tell Carl, given that she is unaware of his feelings for her? What would tempt him to make them known more than his muse sending him into a full-blown jealous rage?

I mulled it over. Making such a change would involve far more than a tweak here and there. It was a vital scene quickly leading to two pivotal scenes. Each escalates in sexual tension that must be kept in check given their age difference, his marital status and, well, the facts as I know them.

As an experiment, I rewrote the scene in a separate document. 734 words – 300 more than the original. Damn. The last thing I need is more words. I re-read both versions and there’s no question I’ll go with the one where Madonna, like any teenager, first minimizes and then conveniently omits parts of her story. It will most certainly come back to haunt her, setting the stage for a glorious fight. Damn again.

As I scan through the next scene, I’m horrified at all that must go in order to make it work. Some of it I dearly loved, and I doubted I could figure out how to salvage my favorite lines. Unwilling to commit just yet, I opened another new document, writing without any thought of the future consequences to the text. 928 words later I hit save, exhilarated that there had been times Madonna baited Carl so strongly even I didn’t know what he might do. Even better was that I accomplished this in 450 fewer words than the original scene, with more to be chopped in the next.

I’ve yet to decide how to keep them balanced on this knife’s edge until fate intervenes, but one of the greatest pleasures of being an author is that in the end, it’s up to me.

Note: Artwork shown are details from paintings and sketches by Carl Ahrens (1862-1936)


  1. I can already feel the tension crackling in the air! I've been there too... you know you can make something better but the knock-on effect (word count, continuity) is so frustrating. But good for you for taking the risk.

  2. Hi Dreamstate,

    I've had to accept the fact that my book will not fall into the 100,000 word or less category that many agents/publishers recommend for a first book. I would have to cut too much to make that work. However, I do want to make certain that an agent will see at once that each word must be there. They won't mind so much if the book is long-ish if it is never dull.

    And yes, after the edits I've made so far, the tension is bordering on explosive. Sexual tension + battle of wills + restraint = way too much fun for Kim (and hopefully my readers down the road.)

  3. As your first reader, I can attest to the fact your recent revisions border on explosive. No doubt your muses are clapping over all the changes you're making, and I'm applauding with them.

  4. Thanks for the extra little shove yesterday, Mom. Madonna sure grew up quickly, didn't she?

  5. She sure did. Forgot to mention how much the featured etchings and charcoal add to the bunch of this post, but then Carl sure had a special way of bringing out the human characteristics that trees often show.

  6. Sometimes disagreements, the push and pull between two souls that long for eachother, it is most evident in those moments that they love eachother and long for eachother so much it makes them mildly insane.

    What may appear to be an uncomfortable struggle may be two people making their way to one another internally. I actually enjoy those scenes as well.

    In Jane Eyre, her debates with Rochester, their banter and arguments, the despair they felt when she had to leave him and bury her heart, those were some of the most beautiful and poignant moments.

    These themes are universal, and tension can often be instrumental for the development of love, a way to expand and deepen it. Can't wait to read more Kim. Bravo as always. I am glad for you and I am inspired by how artistic you are.

    Katrina N.

  7. Interesting you mentioned Jane Eyre, Katrina! I did my Master's thesis on that book - arguing that Charlotte Bronte may have been writing it as an allegory based on Pilgrim's Progress, which was a favorite of hers. Carl has always reminded me a bit of Rochester, which could be part of why he's always held such fascination for me.

    The early arguments between Carl and Madonna are largely sparked by the fact that emotions between them run high and they are in no position to tell each other why that is until much later. After they are together they simply butt heads a lot.

  8. I love all of the books I have read by the Bronte sisters, even the most overlooked and least celebrated sister, Anne Bronte. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in my opinion is also one the best books ever written, and she is given so little credit for her writing abilities.

    I can see a connection between Rochester and Carl Ahrens now that you mention it. I can see some parallels: the worldly experience, the disappointment of feeling trapped in a loveless marriage, the desire for what was considered taboo, a much younger woman who oddly seemed to fit him best, etc. No doubt those similar themes are inspirational for your book.

    That is interesting that you think Jane Eyre may have been inspired by Pilgrim's Progress. Haven't read that yet, but I might read it now based on that comment.

    By the way, saw the clip your kiddo on youtube. She is so much fun! Nice to hear your voice finally.

    Katrina N.

  9. Kim, You are the consumate writer - constantly re-examing and re-writing . . . I can see this story eventually being picked up by a film company.

    It's amazing how you can sit down and write off hundreds of words and you do it with such ease.

    I might be concerned that you may end up with a book so overwhelming large that many readers may be discouraged to pick it up. That would be a shame.

    Carl and Madonna are really living in your head and your heart. . . sounds like opposites attracting and then repeling . . .but I hope you don't lose that deep, spiritual bonding, that I thought they had and that bound them so irrevocably together--or did their relationship change so much after the 'honeymoon state' was over? Of course, they were human like all of us.

    I can remember feeling that warm glow in my heart when I fell in love with someone whom I had to keep at arm's length, because of circumstances. It can be a very powerful emotion and I often reflected that it was a more beautiful state than having a passionate romp in bed. I always thought that that was what Carl and Madonna had, because of their circumstances.

    I am sorry to hear they fought so much and so hard, but then, I am the consumate romantic.


  10. Paula,

    One thing I am constantly conscious of is the length of the book. The changes I have just made actually allowed me to shorten it some. No matter what it will be a "longish" book, but my writing is tight enough to avoid being truly epic. I am well aware that makes for a difficult sale and that it would dissuade some readers from even picking it up.

    The stories from my grandmother and aunt indicated that Carl and Madonna fought a great deal. I imagine a lot of it was simple bantering - he needed someone who challenged him. Early on, when they could not be together, the tension between them is mainly a side effect of attraction and restraint. Once married, some of it was due to his possessiveness. Despite that and the hardships that come with being married to an ill, penniless genius, she adored him. They were, as I say in the book, fused at the root. My grandmother said there was no one Carl could not live without besides her mother. Madonna still reached out with her foot to find him in sleep thirty years after his death. I assure you I will never lose sight of that bond in my story.


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