All the Problems With NEXT BOOK, Part 1 (of Many)

Remember how I was going to spend the last two weeks of summer doing a second round of Jami Attenberg’s 1000 Words of Summer? Wellllll… I ended up writing 4,228 words before realizing that there were so many problems with my current draft that the only way to address them might be to rewrite the entire book.

From the beginning.

But before I do that, I’m just going to tell you the story of the book. Spoilers and all.

Because… I want to find all of the problems in it, and decide whether the story I’m trying to tell is worth rewriting the book to fix all of the problems.

So here we go.

We begin with an outstanding first seven sentences, which I put together using Maggie Stiefvater’s First Seven Sentences method and will reproduce below:

Grace never came home for Christmas, not even when she was still Julia. She traveled to Thailand, played a gender-bent Feste in Twelfth Night, married Charles. Now she and Charles took one of the two flights into the tiny municipal airport on January second, or on the third if there was snow, and although their presents were under the tree—all the presents, for Grace and Charles and Ellen and Carolyn and their father—they didn’t want any of it; they’d had a week with Charles’ family at the ski lodge, with the carols and the hot chocolate and the champagne on New Year’s. They didn’t want another Christmas dinner, another gift that Grace would whisper to Ellen to ship them later because their suitcases were full. 

They wanted to sit, and rest, and tell stories about Charles’ aunts and cousins, and let Ellen take care of them. They still thought of family as a place where you are taken care of, even if it’s a place you don’t necessarily want to be and are only going out of duty because it’s Christmas—or it was, over a week ago.

Ellen thought of family as a series of actions.

VERY EXCELLENT ESTABLISHMENT OF CHARACTER AND THE CENTRAL CONFLICT! (What, did you think this would be about portals? It’s always about family. Or relationships, anyway.)

After this opening, we learn that Ellen’s series of actions involve caring for her stepmother, Carolyn (who is in the middlish phase of Alzheimer’s; capable of doing “activities of daily living” like eating and toileting but likely to wander off if she is left alone), and acting as a medical advocate for her grandmother, Trudy, who is in an assisted living home.

Right away we have a problem, because these two characters could very easily be truncated. I wanted to keep them separate for a few reasons; first because a lot of people are caring for multiple aging relatives at once, so it’s realistic, second because it’s a commentary on healthcare in America (Ellen’s dad has to keep his job so he and Carolyn can have health insurance; Ellen quits her job, starts freelancing from her father and stepmother’s living room, and gets on the ACA), and third because Trudy also functions as the mentor in the classic Hero’s Journey structure.

But they could very easily be ONE CHARACTER, and it would still address the core family dynamic: Ellen quits her job and moves back home to help her father because two decades ago, when Ellen and Grace were both in college, their mother disappeared. Presumed dead; Ellen assumes suicide.

So Ellen takes some time off from college to help her dad deal (also sell the family house and all her mom’s stuff and most of their childhood stuff and move Dad into an affordable sad apartment which he lives in for maybe six months before announcing his engagement to Carolyn), establishing herself as The Person Who Shows Up When People Need Care. Grace goes in the completely opposite direction, expressing her feelings in theater camp and launching herself on a path that will eventually lead to a name change (for Equity reasons, also so she’ll be perceived at least five years younger than she actually is), a strategic marriage to a successful tech guy who didn’t blow his sold-a-startup money, and the kind of eclectic, artistic career you can build when you don’t have to support yourself with the income, establishing herself (at least in Ellen’s mind) as The Person Who Receives Care From Others.

(Remember, I explained it all in the first seven sentences of the book.)

PROBLEM NUMBER TWO. Grace’s story is way more interesting than Ellen’s. I could solve this problem by writing from both Grace and Ellen’s perspectives, but I wanted this to be a book about Ellen moving from STUCKNESS to POSSIBILITY so I gave it a very limited focus (also I set it in December 2018 so I could parallel Ellen’s stuckness with the government shutdown, which seemed like a good idea at the time). Later in the draft I try to solve this problem by having Grace give Ellen her diary to read, which is a completely ham-fisted way of getting around it.

Anyway, it’s Christmas, and after writing this scene where Ellen does a Solstice ritual because she wants some small part of the holiday for herself that doesn’t involve caring for other people (which NEEDS TO BE CUT because it DOESN’T GO ANYWHERE and THERE’S NO PAYOFF and even though I wanted to show that ELLEN IS INTERESTED IN THE POSSIBILITY OF SOMETHING BEYOND HER CURRENT REALITY because that sets up the PORTAL FANTASY, I could also just have Ellen do what she nearly always does whenever she gets a minute of free time, which is READ A LIBRARY BOOK THAT FEATURES A WOMAN ON THE COVER RIDING A HORSE WITH A SWORD IN ONE HAND AND THERE’S ALSO A MAN IN THE BACKGROUND THAT SHE FALLS IN LOVE WITH), Grace and Charles show up and they’re all “how’s the rural Midwest, we brought you a box of fancy jam and cannot wait to leave.”

Also Grace is pregnant, and Ellen’s first thought is you get that, too. (Even though Ellen doesn’t want kids, in part because her mom disappeared before they had a chance to resolve their fractious adolescent-and-perimenopausal woman relationship. Even though Ellen knows, now that she’s older, that she and her mother would probably have been able to form a better relationship as adults.)

Soooooo Charles magnanimously offers to watch Carolyn for an afternoon so Grace and Ellen can do some sister bonding time, and Ellen’s first thought is that they should go visit the BIG OLD MANSION built by a SOYBEAN MAGNATE that has BILLBOARDS ALONG THE HIGHWAY because it holds the WORLD RECORD FOR THE NUMBER OF CHRISTMAS TREES PUT INSIDE A MIDWESTERN MANSION because they did it once when they were kids and Ellen has dreamed about the mansion on the reg ever since. And Grace says “sure,” but when they get there she is feeling extra first trimester pregnant and she asks if she can take a nap in the car instead.

(If you’re wondering BUT IS IT NOT THE DEAD OF WINTER, I based all of this on the actual weather in Iowa in December 2018/January 2019. Sleeping in the car would be totally doable, at least during the first week of the year. ALSO HEY THIS BOOK IS ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE BUT WE HAVEN’T GOTTEN TO THAT PART YET.)

Ellen decides to take the tour on her own, and while the docent is busy checking other guests in, Ellen decides to walk up a staircase to see if it really does match the one in her dreams. Look at Ellen, making all of these decisions! THAT’S HOW PLOT HAPPENS, EVERYBODY.

At the top of the staircase is a man. Dressed in clothing that Ellen can’t quite place, except that it isn’t a Hawkeye sweatshirt and jeans. He introduces himself as Robin and asks Ellen if she’d like to see a part of the house that nobody has ever seen before. She “well actuallys” him on “ah, but someone would have seen it at some point, duh,” and that turns into adorkable flirting, and she is just about to go with him when the docent’s bell rings and she’s like “um, I should probably take this tour that I paid for, also now I feel weird about following some guy I just met into a spooky old mansion that I dream about on the reg.”








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