I typically like detail work. I like precision. My eye is trained to see tiny variations in a pattern or errors that others might skip over. That doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes miss things or get things wrong. But I’m accustomed to settling down and doing careful, painstaking work.
I have to confess, however, that there have been times recently when I was ready to raise my hands in surrender as I have worked through the final intensive edits of my novel. I know how critically important this phase of writing is. I usually relish the final polishing. But after three rounds, I am exhausted.
Before I say more about that, however, let me first say how deeply indebted I am to the editors and readers who pored over the manuscript and alerted me to issues that, without correction, would have embarrassed me or confused readers. There is no question the book will be better because of their efforts.
But back to my numbing fatigue. I have written before about how writing is an infinite series of decisions: choosing the next conflict, the next scene, the next setting, the characters’ reactions, the syntax of the next sentence, the next word, a better word, and punctuation that is both consistent with convention and imbues the rhythm and music—and meaning—that you want to convey.
For someone who hates making decisions (that would be me), it can be torture.
In this late stage of the novel-writing process, everything is a decision. An edited page that appears to have two simple markups takes 30 minutes to revise. Shall I take that comma out or leave it in? Grammar rules say it’s acceptable, but the short clauses make it optional. Does it change the emphasis if I remove it? Does it change the rhythm? Why did this editor suggest taking it out? Read it with the comma. Read it without the comma. Repeat. One more time. Which option relays what I’m trying to say? Will any reader ever give a damn? Is it time to walk Lucy?
Chicago Manual Style or AP Style? Arabic numerals or all numbers spelled out? Spaces between the dots in an ellipsis or use of the ellipsis symbol?
And the comment I now dread the most: Is this phrase too modern? Since I started putting words on the page three years ago, I’ve recognized the importance of getting the language right. The bulk of the novel is set between 1921 and 1942. I wish I had a dollar for every phrase I have looked up to see when it came into the lexicon. “Pratfall”? “Down payment”? “Hang with”? “Have my back?” Even with the convenience of the Internet, those searches take time.
Once I’m satisfied that the words on the page are the best they can be, there’s the book design to consider. A few weeks ago, I told an interested party that I was starting the page layout process. It was clear that she couldn’t imagine the decisions that requires. A novel has a simple layout, so even I thought that part of the project would be relatively straightforward. But I found a way to agonize over the font size, the line spacing, the margin size, the Table of Contents.
Tonight, however, I am celebrating. I am done. I’ll request one final proof. Complete one final read-through. Pray that any remaining issues are tiny and easily remediable. But, mostly, pray that I find them before my careful readers do!
“We’re living in a terrarium.”
Those were the first words I heard as I stumbled downstairs in the perpetually dark mid-morning gloom. Even my husband was beginning to feel the oppressiveness of the weather. We hadn’t seen the sun in weeks. Heavy rain had turned our yard into an Ichthus-like mud pit. The small lake abutting our property looked like the Mighty Ohio. I contemplated terracing my side yard into a working rice field.
With stubborn, heavy clouds trapping the persistent rain, it did indeed feel like living in a glass-cased terrarium. The abundant moisture condensed, fell, partially evaporated, and condensed again. There seemed to be no escape from the cycle.
We, fortunately, are not facing the critical, life-threatening flooding of other parts of Kentucky and the South. But my mood and my productivity have suffered during the most depressing winter I can remember. We’ve only had a handful of days where the overnight temperature dipped below freezing and the ground was even partially frozen. Walking the dog across the flooded fields in our neighborhood was, I imagined, like sloshing through a rice paddy. I wash piles of muddy dog towels every other day.
The weatherman, however, says there is hope. Tomorrow, perhaps, for the first time since February 2, we may glimpse the sun. According to my running log, the last sun before that was on January 16. No wonder I’ve been suffering. With partial vision loss, my days start off dark. When there is no natural light, I fall into an abyss.
A friend recently sent me an unfamiliar word I have now embraced: apricity. It means “the warmth of the winter sun.” Evidently the word was first introduced to our language in 1623, but it didn’t catch on. Today you won't find it in most dictionaries. But apricity is precisely what I’ve been craving for weeks. I’m almost giddy at the thought of it.
The word also reminded me of a scene in Next Train Out. Effie Mae is living with her children and her brother in a godforsaken coal camp west of Middlesboro, Ky. One day when she’s out and about she sees an unfamiliar man who ends up playing a key role in her life:
“It was late March, as I recall, and the sun had finally risen above the Cumberland Mountains. I found a spot in the sun’s warmth and just stood there, staring at the door he had entered. I don’t remember having no clear intentions. It was as if I was hypnotized by the warmth and the sight of a stranger.”
A little sun warms our blood and renews our life force. It gives us hope. It softens our hard edges. It prompts us to act. It may not solve all our ills, but it might provide the energy we need to renew the fight.
Peggy Cooper, of northern Kentucky, introduces Clearing the Fog readers to Celebrate A Community, soon to be reprinted by Murky Press. More about this exciting project coming soon!
The stars spread across the sky as they do only when you live on a dairy farm acres away from the nearest neighbor. The milking was finished and I walked with my father, hand in his, from the barn to the house. At the sidewalk to the milkhouse, he suddenly paused and sat on his heels, his scratchy bearded cheek against mine, one arm around me holding me close and the other pointing into the sky, guiding my gaze to the Big Dipper. It was there at the end of his finger, the Big Dipper, over the milkhouse. Who knew that there were pictures in the sky made of stars, and over our milkhouse?
When I started this book project, my husband would tease me about “the Center of the Universe,” the little town I was writing about, Fayetteville, in Perry Township, Ohio. He was making fun of my attachment to this little one-stoplight crossroads.
My father lived his entire life on the farm where that milkhouse stands beneath the Big Dipper. My brothers are farmers tilling the same land farmed by five generations of our family. That milkhouse is now on the cover of the book that is filled with photos and memories of the community around that milkhouse, and many of my father’s stories are within the covers of that book.
Who knew that there were pictures in the sky made of stars, and over our milkhouse? Indeed, who knew that Fayetteville and Perry Township really are the Center of the Universe?
For many, writing is a solitary pursuit. I prefer a host of collaborators.
The novel I’ve been working on for a number of years would never have been completed without my “support team.” It started nearly 10 years ago when my then-neighbor, Chuck Camp, while chatting on my back patio, took an immediate interest in the story of my mysterious grandfather. Within hours he had begun to discover the path my grandfather had taken after abandoning my mother and grandmother. Over the next few years he continued to unearth amazing details about Lyons’ early life and his military service. I owe the story, in all its richness, to Chuck.
I had never written fiction before, and I had a lot to learn. I depended on classes and instructors at Lexington’s Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning for teaching me the nuts and bolts of the craft. I’m still an unabashed novice, but they helped me understand what was important to readers and how you put together a story that will keep them engaged.
There were numerous times over the last three years when I felt I wasn’t up to the task. I started and restarted and reimagined how to construct this story. I tried a variety of different approaches. Even when I felt I had a solid half of the book complete, my determination waned. It was just too hard. Too time consuming. I had no idea what I was doing.
That’s when my intrepid readers and editors stepped in to shore up my confidence. My long-time friend and former boss, Roi-Ann Bettez, was my first beta reader. She is an enthusiastic reader of all sorts of material and an acute editor who has applied her talents to her husband’s award-winning books about the First World War as well as to nonfiction books produced by her friends. She offered honest critique of what worked for her and what didn’t. She helped me focus on what the reader needed from the characters. And she let me know what parts of the story she found satisfying. She’s still working with me, offering encouragement and insights at the very end of this process.
Readers of this blog know that Tim Cooper took on the role of nearly full-time mentor and coach after retiring from teaching in 2018. A voracious reader and former writing instructor, Tim and his Minnesota buddies are competitive readers who know more about contemporary literary fiction than anyone I know. He patiently coaxed me to go where I wasn’t comfortable. I was able to lean on his academic interest in history for creative ways to keep the novel firmly rooted in its times. Tim and I have spent hours in his living room poring over chapters and paragraphs and arguing about specific words. He pushed me. He encouraged me. He wouldn’t let me quit.
My cousin Bob McWilliams loaned me his family scrapbook full of photos and newspaper clippings, which were invaluable in putting together the stories of our Marrs ancestors and their McWilliams contemporaries. Rogers Bardé, my cousin through my grandfather Lyons’ family, was the original impetus for seeking information about him. Her voluminous genealogical research into that branch of my family helped me understand my Paris, Ky., roots a little better.
As I approach the final publication phase of the book, I am once again relying on the talents of Barbara Grinnell, whose cover design for The Last Resort perfectly captured the book, its author, and its historic period. I’ve pulled in yet another former colleague and expert editor, Jo Greenfield, as my final proofreader. I’m delighted to have her as part of this process.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Mr. Vice President of Everything, my husband, Rick. He does battle with the print store managers, hobnobs with local authors, shares his creative marketing ideas, opens his wallet wide for the next class or the next production expense, and is an incredibly helpful commenter on the novel itself whenever I can convince him to sit quietly for an hour and read.
This project would not be coming to fruition without the unselfish contributions of all of these folks. I offer them my heartfelt gratitude, and I hope the final product is worthy of their efforts. I’ll be satisfied if I learn that the novel offers a little entertainment, a little illumination into our human contradictions, and a little distraction from our contemporary afflictions.
Nearly two years ago a friend sent me a review of Michael Chabon’s 2016 novel Moonglow. In the book, Chabon pieces together the remarkable life of his crotchety grandfather, a World War II veteran and a rocket aficionado. One reviewer, Hamilton Cain, in O, The Oprah Magazine, calls it “an exuberant meld of fiction and family history.”
I realized immediately that I needed to read this book. It’s an amazing story of family secrets only revealed when painkillers loosen the grandfather’s inhibitions—and his lips—during the last days of his life. There are phantasmagoric tales of mental illness, war crimes, civilian crimes, the space age, Jewish slums, and Florida retirement communities. And if you’re familiar with Chabon’s work, you know it’s brilliantly written. I highly recommend it.
As I’ve worked on my own novel about a somewhat mysterious grandfather, I’ve frequently returned to the words Chabon wrote in his Author’s Note:
“In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it. Wherever liberties have been taken with names, dates, places, events, and conversations, or with the identities, motivations, and interrelationships of family members and historical personages, the reader is assured that they have been taken with due abandon.”
One of my chief struggles has stemmed from my desire to reveal all that I have learned about my ancestors and about the times they lived in. I know this is not what the reader of a work of fiction wants. And I have worked assiduously to rein in those tendencies. I recognize that some of my best characters may be the ones I invented whole cloth because I didn’t have the details of their lives available to me. And, of course, all conversations, all motivations, all emotional reactions were fabricated. With no family letters or other personal artifacts, how could I know any of that? I sometimes remind myself that the imagination can be the best conduit for the truth. There’s a reason Chabon’s note ends with the words “due abandon.”
However, I freely confess that the facts have largely dictated the broad strokes of the narrative. After all, I started out wanting to tell the story of my grandfather’s life. And there were some truly eye-popping discoveries that I hope have led to a compelling story line. But at times I allowed myself to get bogged down in details that a general audience will not care about.
With help from my early readers, I have trimmed a good bit of that out. I know I still have a little more that needs to go. It always helps to reread Chabon’s words and remember how critical it is to stick with facts “except when facts [refuse] to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” It is, after all, a work of fiction--“Scout’s honor,” as Chabon defiantly states in the disclaimer for his memoir.
Tim Cooper, of Oakdale, Minn., has poked and prodded me to finish Next Train Out for most of the last two years. He has been a stalwart reader, editor, and friendly foil. Recently, after reading the novel one final time, he wrote the following letter.
The great director and acting teacher Lee Strasberg implored his students to overact, to over-emote in their roles. When his students reached the point where they felt they had gone too far, where they felt embarrassed by their acting, Strasberg assured them they were exactly where they needed to be.
As you worked on your novel, I and others encouraged you to “go big,” to exaggerate the way your characters use language, the way they ruminate about their situations, and the way they engage the historical exigencies of their day. You pushed yourself to the point of discomfort, either your own or your projected audience’s.
And dare I say it, you’ve pulled it off. The characters come alive through these very techniques. We as readers know them, although we may each “know” them differently depending on our own experiences. I imbue Lyons with a nobility that others may find difficult to grasp. I fall in love with Effie Mae because of her feistiness, her strength, and her intelligence—traits that always appeal to me. Others may be appalled that she remains devoted to Lyons, forgives him, and ultimately uproots herself for him. However readers respond to these characters, your success will come, ultimately, from the fact that they will, indeed, react.
All novels are situated in a specific time, and that time serves as a separate character. You have done this beautifully. As you recall, we had some tussles over how much historical fact to include in your novel. I kept reminding you that you were writing a work of fiction; you kept reminding me that the historical backdrop was a major part of the story’s appeal. I’m not sure when or how it happened, but you found the happy-medium. We understand the characters better because we see how they navigate the reality of their times. You nailed it.
Secondary characters are just as vital to a novel’s success as primary characters. Your novel brilliantly draws these peripheral characters, and they only add to our understanding of Lyons and Effie Mae. Flossie in the speakeasy. Doug responding to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Johnny wanting revenge.
And finally, the “Prologue” and the “Epilogue.” These two short pieces are among the finest writing you’ve done. The ways in which both inform the novel as a whole are striking. We tussled a bit here, too, didn’t we? But you eventually grew comfortable with a minimalist approach, and I believe it is wildly successful. You have created literary art.
You started with the simple proposition of writing a novel based on your grandfather's life. But the novel can now be read on any number of levels. Some may read it as a love story. Or a family biography. Or an accounting of the Appalachian diaspora. I prefer to read it as an anti-war novel. How do we account for a veteran’s actions after the war? How do we apply civil morality to individuals who were expected to kill or be killed, and yet survived?
Finally, allow me to say simply how much I enjoy reading your novel. What you have done is magnificent. Thank you for letting me have a small part in this process. It’s been so much fun. I hope my role as a reader was valuable, and I hope you know I remain your biggest cheerleader.
You already know that I love words. I love to play with their meanings and their sounds. I take pleasure in creating musical sentences that sing to readers. I want to get the rhythm and the beats just right.
I also enjoy laying out the words on a page. I want to create a page that draws a reader in with an appealing typeface and plenty of white space. I understand that, in the early moments when you’re trying to hook a reader, the look of the page may be as significant as the very words themselves.
In 1985, Aldus Corporation introduced PageMaker, the original desktop publishing software for Apple Macintosh computers. I started using the software shortly afterwards, and I’ve been fascinated with page layout and design ever since. I’ve read books, taken classes, and sharpened my layout skills at nearly all the jobs I’ve held, designing user’s manuals, restaurant training materials, marketing flyers, annual reports, and tourism books. Some years ago I moved on to Adobe’s InDesign, but I still enjoy the process of laying words on a page.
After I decided that Murky Press would publish Next Train Out, one of the first decisions I had to make was what font I wanted to use. For The Last Resort, I chose Garamond, a classic font commonly used in books. That would have worked fine for the novel, too. However, I did a little research to see what fonts were popular in the burgeoning self-publishing business. Most I was familiar with, but one I wasn’t, and it piqued my interest.
What drew me to Bembo was not necessarily its whimsical name, although that may have tugged at me just a bit. (I learned that Pietro Bembo was a 15th-century Italian poet and cleric.) What caught my eye was the font’s lightness, its simple clean lines and the beauty of some of its individual characters. It is an “old-style” font, based on Venetian designs from the Renaissance. When I learned that Monotype created its commercial version of Bembo in Britain in 1928-29—key years in the novel—I decided it was perfect for my purposes. When I saw that Penguin Books and Oxford University Press use the font, I figured I couldn’t go wrong.
Acquiring Bembo for use with my page layout program required a small contribution to Monotype Corporation, but I have already reconciled that expense. After creating some sample pages, I can’t imagine using anything else.
The Bourbon County Courthouse, which was destroyed by fire on October 19, 1901, just eight months after the arched gate at the bottom right was used to lynch George Carter. The citizens of Paris preserved the iron gate after the fire and it still stands adjacent to a historic building in downtown Paris.
As I’ve worked on my novel over the past three years, I’ve dedicated large chunks of time to researching or writing about the first half of the 20th century. I’ve tried to grasp the cultural and societal impact of two World Wars, the Great Depression, the rise of labor unions, and expanded access to telephones and automobiles. I’ve thought about how different parts of the country—from Miami to Toledo to the coal towns of Eastern Kentucky—responded to those changes.
That’s a tall order, and I’m certain I’ve barely scratched the surface of all I need to know. Nonetheless, I’ve frequently found myself immersed in another place and time—worlds that one would think are quite different from our 21st-century reality.
So I was somewhat surprised when I opened the Sunday Herald-Leader on November 24 and discovered two articles on the opinion page addressing a theme that runs through my novel. In one, Western Kentucky native LaTonia Jones writes about her youth in Paducah, where she played innocently in the cool grass on the very site where two black men, Brack Kinley and Luther Durrett, were lynched on October 13, 1916. In the other, University of Kentucky Ph.D. candidate Carson Benn recognizes the 100th anniversary of the efforts of the citizens of Corbin, Ky., on October 30, 1919, to expel all the black residents from their town.
Unfortunately, the term “lynching,” and all the ugly and unforgivable history it represents, has recently been a part of our national conversation. And it was only a few short months ago that we were talking about sending certain people in our country back where they came from.
It appears that in the 100+ years that have intervened since the events memorialized in these articles we have progressed very little. That we would resurrect these expressions and use them for personal advancement is unthinkable. That we still shy away from the conversations necessary to address simmering resentments is inexcusable. Can we ever find a way to embrace all our fellow citizens equally and justly?
My grandfather, whose life is fictionalized in Next Train Out, worked at a pharmacy in Corbin in 1914. In a scene in the novel, he returns to Corbin in 1934 and reflects on this shameful event in the town’s history, an event he views through the lens of a World War I veteran who trained alongside black recruits. At this point, he has also spent a lifetime coming to grips with the perverted justice he witnessed as an eight-year-old boy in Paris, Ky.—the same sort of justice that LaTonia Jones’ ancestors witnessed.
Evidently we still have much to learn from our history. Almost despite ourselves, we continue to find ways to inflict harm on each other, wittingly or unwittingly. And that is why it is so important that Ms. Jones and Mr. Benn and others continue to remind us of our past. Burying it will only let the cancer grow. Bringing it into the light, as is the goal of the Sunup Initiative in Corbin, is how we may best be able to change course.
After the longest summer in memory, we’re finally transitioning to winter. A little snow this week offered a taste of my favorite weather: bright blue skies, snow balancing on the tree limbs, and temperatures in the 20s keeping the ground hard and the mud at bay.
One sign of impending colder weather at my house is the dry-docking of our metal johnboat. In our case, this simply means hauling the boat out of the water and leaving it to rest upside-down on the nearby shore.
I came back from an event last Sunday afternoon and saw the boat was missing from its slip. That always makes me a little sad. Although we rarely take the boat for a spin on the lake these days—lightweight kayaks are just so much easier—its mere presence suggests the possibility of a lazy summer day fishing on the lake. It evokes nostalgia for a more tranquil time when bobbing on the water was an acceptable way to spend an afternoon.
But we have found that ice tends to build up inside the boat in the winter, and harsh winds can then heave the extra weight against the aging dock and pull hard at our makeshift mooring. Removing it from the water this time of year eliminates one thing we have to worry about. When it’s missing, however, I feel the void, the absence of something significant.
I’m in the middle of another transition that could also symbolize a sort of loss, if I allowed it to. But I prefer to see it as an empowerment, a taking control of a situation that could at times feel hopeless, a situation that made me grapple with my own worth and the value of the work I’ve chosen to do.
This is familiar territory for every writer who wants to see work published. I’ve spent several months reaching out to literary agents and small publishing houses searching for someone who might be willing to take a chance on my novel. Like so many writers, I now have only an inbox full of rejections to show for my efforts. It’s a tedious, time-consuming process that I still find interesting, but I’ve decided it’s just not how I want to wile away my hours. I’m ready to accept defeat and retake control of my project.
It takes a certain self-assuredness—or even cockiness—that I don’t normally possess to assume that my book has value even though no legitimate enterprise agrees. What’s at stake, however, is small: personal embarrassment, acknowledgment that my talent and skills are limited, shunning by those with legitimate claim to the title “writer.” I can accept that. I have no other literary aspirations. I’m ready to take the chance.
So I’m getting excited about designing the book that I want to offer to willing readers. I’ll be able to title it what I want, include the front matter I want, and rely on my talented graphic designer, Barbara Grinnell, to create a cover we both love. Of course, the final editing and proofing will now fall on me, or on other professionals I enlist to help. But I think I have a course mapped out, and I’m excited to be going down this road.
It’s freeing sometimes to let go of dreams that are only weighing us down. Sometimes we have to turn a corner, move in another direction, accept a transition to an imperfect state of things.
I’ve written a story that I want to share with friends and family who are interested, and I have a path for accomplishing that. That’s what’s important. And that I can do.
Two years ago, I took an eight-week essay-writing class with the irrepressible Teri Carter. At some point, she alerted us to a call for essays from a North Carolina writer and editor who was putting together a compendium of brief pieces by emerging writers. The theme of the collection was “facing adversity and making do”—more specifically, overcoming challenges as Daniel Boone had done 250 years ago when he was trapped by an early snowstorm in Kentucky during a hunting trip.
At the time, I was accustomed to writing short essays, both for Teri's class and for this blog. I didn’t have an inspiring story to share, one where I had faced danger or personal calamity or had demonstrated unusual courage or forbearance. But I was working through how to construct a novel-length narrative based on my maternal grandfather’s life, and one evening I dashed off a tongue-in-cheek reflection on what I had in common with him.
On a whim, I submitted the essay to the project editor and coordinator, Randell Jones. And then I promptly forgot about it. I devoted the next months to figuring out how to write fiction. Sometime that spring, Jones alerted me that he planned to include my piece in the book Bearing Up.
When I finally received a copy, I read through the other submissions and felt a little sheepish. The best pieces were short stories—something my contribution definitely was not. I ended up being mildly embarrassed by the whole thing. And I once again forgot about it.
Until a few days ago, when I received notice that Jones has now included my essay in the series of podcasts he is releasing. I admit I was surprised. When I rustled up the nerve to listen to his rendition, I liked it. He captured precisely the tone I had hoped to convey.
So I offer you Mr. Randell Jones’ 7-minute reading of “Adieu Encore,” my public admission that my “rapscallion grandfather,” as Jones calls him, and I have much in common.
Submit an essay for the 2020 Personal Story Publishing Project!
Write a personal story (780 words or so, 800 max) about "that Southern thing—living, loving, laughing, loathing, leaving the South. No fiction. You may share a story of someone close to you or an ancestor whose story you know well."
Deadling for submission: December 15, 2019
Click for more information.