Thursday, May 28, 2009

Moment of Truth

In spite of nearly a week of fighting a fever and a horrible cough, in the grip of which I remain, I've managed to finish the current edit of Kindred. I've known for some while now that the word count wasn't going to end up nearly as low as I hoped.

From an original total of somewhere above 325,000 words, I've cut the novel down to 184,000. That is still so very long.

I know back in the early sections a few scenes were left in blue font, to indicate further cutting possibilities if necessary. Although I'm in no shape to be making rash decisions about cuts right now, what I reckon I'll do is go back to the beginning and tackle the first half of the book again. The second half, or thereabouts, is tight and fast paced.

As far as I can tell, anyway, having long found objectivity a slippery little devil to hang onto.

Holding out hope that the agent still looking at the first half, who requested I give her a month to do this, will have some very practical bright ideas about how to make this book more appealing to more publishers than the very narrow market she felt it would appeal to, at present.

As for just now... I shall crawl back into my comfy nest of quilts, and bid you all adieu.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Minding Chickens

This chapter used to introduce my female protagonist, Seona (pronounced Sho-nuh). Several edits ago I took it out, even though I still like it a lot. Why'd I take it out? Well, mainly because all it did was introduce Seona. As well as a few other characters, and the setting, and gave a little backstory and a sense of her present circumstances... right before the last line, when her status quo changes. I was starting the story over again from her POV, about 5 chapters in, which halted the novel's forward momentum.

What I've chosen to do instead is present the same elements in different ways, scattered throughout scenes that are pushing the story forward. Aside from the prologue, which is very brief and in her voice, we now meet Seona through my male protag Ian's eyes. I think it's better that way.

Copyright 2009 Lori L. Benton
All Rights Reserved

Minding Chickens

9 September, 1793

I was minding chickens the day Master Hugh’s nephew rode back north with his daddy, and I was minding chickens the day he rode up again. The tobacco had been suckered and we were days from cutting, which meant near every morning the mistress told me save the washing and hoeing for later and go with Esther out into those long green rows to pick the worms off the leaves.

Some folk let turkeys at their tobacco. Master Hugh didn’t keep turkeys so we made do with chickens—and me and Esther and a couple of the field hands to tend the worms the chickens couldn’t reach.

“Eee-ew! Seona, will you look at this nasty thing?”

The crinkly leaf I’d been peering under sprang back as I straightened and rubbed my back. Some of the plants topped my head, but it took a deal of stooping to be sure the chickens didn’t miss any worms down low. We’d hear about it come cutting time if the worms ruined those precious leaves. Master Hugh didn’t hold with beating his slaves but the overseer, Jackson Dawes, had been known to take a lash to a back on the sly. Never to me or Mama, but it was a thing to bear in mind. Worse than having to bite the heads off worms we overlooked.

I was made to do that once, the year Lucinda Prescott Bell became Miz Lucinda Cameron and took the running of the big house away from Mama. The overseer found two worms I missed. He shoved them under my nose and made me choke them down.

Choke I did. I lost my supper and those worms directly on the overseer’s boots. Master Hugh got word of it—from Mama, I expect—and it never happened again. I was nine years old then, maybe ten, same as Esther was now. I spied her squatting down among the plants. Most I could see of her was the straw hat, twin to mine, that kept the sun off her face.

“Quit thinking on it, Esther. Just pick it off and stomp it.”

“I can't, Seona. It’s the king-granddaddy of the lot.” Her narrow brown face popped up between the plants. She pushed her skinny shoulders through and scrambled down the mound, mischief in her eyes. “What you reckon Miss Rosalyn do was I to slip that nasty thing into her bed?”

I tried not to smile, but my mouth got away from me. Miss Rosalyn Bell, Master Hugh’s eldest stepdaughter, thought right high of her clean bed sheets and fine white skin. Not that my skin was much darker than hers. Or it wouldn’t have been if I spent as much time as she did tatting lace and embroidering slipcovers and arranging her shiny blond hair.

“I’ll tell you what she’d do. She’d screech like a painter cat, grab one of them pretty shoes of hers and squash it flat.”

Esther giggled, then flipped the hem of her skirt up to fan her shining face. “How much longer we got to do this, Seona?”

“Till it’s done, what do you think?”

Esther rolled her eyes.

"Just wait ’til time come for cutting this mess and getting it put up to cure.”

That got me a look at Esther’s tongue. The girl wasn’t used to field work. Miz Lucinda had finally judged her old enough to be lending a hand beyond the house and yard. That didn’t mean she’d have to put in a full day’s work in the tobacco or the corn, like the men. Early on, the mistress tried to force that on me and Mama, but Master Hugh put an end to it quick. Mama was a sempstress. She spun flax from the fields and wool from the sheep we kept, and wove cloth and then made the clothes for everyone. Even some for white folk when the mistress bought the fancy satin and dyed-pretty stuffs they favored.

Mama also tended the ailing for miles about. She mixed healing herbs in a shed out back of the kitchen, and helped Naomi with the cooking, breakfast and supper—which taken altogether was enough for one slave to be getting on with.

Still, when harvest came round the extra work got parceled out to everyone, even Old Malcolm, Naomi’s daddy, whose hands were twisted up with the rheumatism.

“House-spoiled is what you are,” I told Esther, but I didn’t say it meanly. She wasn’t to blame. Her mama and daddy were dower slaves, come to Mountain Laurel with Lucinda Cameron and her daughters, and were favored. Since Esther had been born to them, she got favored too.

Sweat tickled down my neck. The stink of ripe tobacco lay over us like a blanket in the heat. It felt like getting on to noon. We’d been at the job since breakfast, with no pausing save to grab a swallow of water from the bucket set in the oak shade between the orchard and the lower fields. A couple of the hands were working toward us from the far end—I could hear the chant of their work song—but there was a fair piece to go before anyone reached the middle. And I still had the wash waiting on me.

“Wish I could put worms in all their beds.” Esther squatted in the dirt between the rows, lips pursed. “Maybe not Miss Judith’s. She like to make a pet of it after she get over the fright. But I hanker to see the look on Miss Rosalyn’s face after she puts her clean white toes all over this mess.” The girl stood and turned the bottom of her foot up, pulling a grimace at the worm slime mashed into the dirty sole.

She’d done it again. Esther had the knack of waylaying a body into nattering whenever unpleasant work waited. I twisted my smile away, trying to look serious.

“Have your snicker. But directly after Miss Rosalyn sends that worm on to Glory she’ll come looking to give you the back of her hand. And guess who’s gonna have to wash those wormy sheets?”


“That’s right, me. So put the notion out of your head—and mind those chickens.”

Esther scuffed a grimy toe in the dirt, wrinkling her nose as the hen perched on the mound beside me pecked a fat green worm in half and swallowed the pieces. The hen was a scrawny, speckled creature, unlike most of the other chickens, which were shiny-black and plump. It had come as payment for a baby Mama helped birth two weeks back, on a farm up-creek.

I bent to turn a leaf of the plant under which the hen was feeding. Lightning quick it darted at me, neck stretched low. I kicked out and sent that chicken squawking down the row, leaving a cloud of feathers and me, sitting on the ground with my fingers pressed over the sting at the base of my thumb.

Esther rushed to my side. “Wicked ol’ biddy-hen! That one’s pecked me afore. You hurt bad, Seona?”

"Just a nip.” I put the heel of my thumb in my mouth. My skin tasted bitter with tobacco juice and blood.

Esther slapped a mosquito that landed on her arm, then lifted her hat to scratch beneath it. Her wiry hair was plaited tight to her head and covered with a head-rag, darkened with sweat. My braid hung heavy down my back. I wound it up and tucked it under my hat, hoping it would stay. Mama and Naomi were forever after me to cover my head. My hair seemed to consternate folk. It wasn’t sleek-straight like Mama’s crow-black Indian hair, or wiry like the other slaves’. It was somewhere between—long springy curls that defied brush, braid and head-rag. No matter what I did with it, my hair went the contrary way.

I got up off the ground, thinking how Mr. Dawes would be making his rounds to see we wasn’t sitting idle. I tucked a damp curl back from my face and bent to the picking.

That’s when the shouting started up. I shielded my eyes and spotted Alasdair gallumping through the oaks, calling to me and Esther and waving us in.

“We ain’t near done yet, Ally,” Esther called back.

From a distance I could see the grin split a gleam in Ally’s face. Naomi’s son was a great ox of a man, about Mama’s age. But inside he was still the age he’d been when a mule kicked him in the head and he didn’t wake up for a night and a day.

When I was small, Ally used to wade the creek with me or go tree-climbing, on a Sunday when the slaves had time to themselves. Sometimes he’d make a present out of something he found—a cardinal’s feather or a shiny rock from the stream, or an arrowhead he turned up with the plow. Now when he wasn’t working the fields or helping Jubal with the stock, he liked to be with Esther.

“Maisy want you cleaned up to serve, Esther. Seona—you needed in the kitchen!”

Esther turned to me. “What for? It ain’t hardly noon yet.”

When we didn’t budge, Ally broke into a run, heading toward us like a charging bull. We stood and waited. It was too hot to move more than was needful—unless you were Ally, who didn’t notice things like cold and hot. He lumbered to a halt, and bent over between the tobacco plants, big hands splayed on his knees, gulping breath.

“We… gots… company.”

The way he said the word, a coldness seized my spine. Bound to be someone important, if we were being called in to help with dinner.

“Hope it ain’t them uppity folk from over Chesterfield,” Esther said, and with all my heart I said a silent Amen. Chesterfield was the biggest plantation for miles. The mistress and her daughters went visiting there more than to any other place. “Like moths to a flame,” I’d heard Naomi grumble. It was something rarer for the flame to come to the moths.

Ally wagged his big head. “Naw… ain’t them. You never guess… who it be!”

I was too relieved over who it wasn’t to guess.

Ally caught his breath at last and straightened. “It the boy what was here before. He done said yes to Master Hugh’s letter and come back, all growed up. He got hisself a roan horse, red as strawberries with cream on the side and he come right when our mare done dropped the prettiest brown filly you ever see!”

Esther planted her hands on her hips. “You was meant to tell me when that foal was coming. Now I missed it!”

Ally’s head drooped. “Sorry, Esther. You was way out here and I got caught up and then Mr. Ian come,” words tumbled like rocks downhill, “wearin’ this coat-o’-many-colors just like ol’ Joseph from the Good Book, with his own slave set up on a horse black as crow feathers, leading another horse loaded down with I-don’t-know-what-all. Guess he here to stay.”

All the while I’d stood, mute as a scarecrow, reeling from this rush of news about foals and horses and colored coats and… him.

The boy with the angel-halo hair was back.


This must be addendum week. In glancing over this scene, I realized what I posted is the shortened version. It used to go on a bit about Naomi needing a couple chickens to roast, the girls telling Ally to go on, they'll take care of it (because he gets blubbery when animals are hurt) and Seona setting her sights on the skinny hen that pecked her. I snipped that bit off because the final line above about the boy who's come back was a better hook to end a chapter on.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Consuming Passion

On Thursday this week I had tea with a friend and fellow unpublished writer. She and I try to get together at least once a month at a cafe downtown, mainly to hash out where we are in our writing journey, what God is doing in us, showing us, through the ups and downs, triumphs and setbacks of growing in the craft of writing. We often talk about what else is going on in our lives, too, but far more often the subject of conversation stays on writing, because, well, it's really nice to sit across a table from someone whose eyes don't glaze over or go all shifty after two or three sentences on a topic such as capturing a character's voice, or the research required to set a story on a modern day cattle ranch (her story) or an eighteenth century North Carolina plantation (mine), or how if we'd realized what we were getting into from the start we might never have had the courage to plunge into this consuming business of writing a novel.

And consuming it is, as author Bonnie Grove blogged about, tongue-in-cheek (I think!) at Novel Matters today.

Writing is demanding. Learning the craft takes time and dedication. That's a given. But sometimes writing can become too consuming, a subject my friend and I talked about Thursday morning. She and I both find comfort in solitude. We're the introverted types that are rejuvenated by long stretches of alone time--when we can get it. Social interaction often drains us. Even if we weren't writers, we'd be this way. Have been this way since we can remember.

But we are writers, and writing requires even more solitude for thought, for reading and for the actual work of fingers-to-keyboard. Yet there are family members, friends, errands to run, houses to clean, dogs to walk--the fullness of life that needs to be taken care of--too. More than taken care of. Needs to be lived, fully engaged. For many reasons, but one of them is, in fact, for the sake of our writing. As author and literary agent Donald Maas writes:

"How can you engage readers in your fictional world if you, the author, are not engaged by your own world? To write about life, you must live it. You cannot make readers cry or feel joy until you have wept and exulted yourself."

~ Writing The Breakout Novel

Every so often we find ourselves in the opposite mode--mentally stiff-arming those we love, because we feel compelled to be spending time with those who live inside our heads, whose story we're trying to get out of our heads so it might be transferred via the page into someone else's. And this inner resistance isn't in play only while the interruption is going on. It's the hours before (if we are forewarned interruption is coming) and the hours after, while we mentally unwind from whatever the interruption was. The whole day can be colored by an unexpected visit, urgent errand, or someone legitimately in demand of our time and attention.

We might (might!) seem gracious on the outside, as we deal with life, but on the inside we're clenched and resentful. We get through it and get back to our computer (at last!). But we're tense, unsettled, unfocused. It's hard to write when one's mind is clenched like a fist.

Or, when those interruptions come, we refuse them. We jealously guard "our writing time" because, for crying out loud, God gave us this need to spill words on the page, we are ob-leee-gate-ed to work it out, invest it, see it multiply like biblical talents. Well done, good and faithful servant!

Yeah. Perspective check. We know this isn't an attitude that's healthy or God-pleasing.

What I've described are our bad days, of course. Those days when we've let writing take too big a place in our hearts, until it blinds us to other areas in our lives which are also gifts and need nurturing. Some days grace seems to flow through us, and we make the choice to tend to family, friends, errands and home without the angst, realizing the importance of these things over the gifting we feel called to nurture and see God use. Knowing that time for writing will come again. For my friend and me, it's all about balance, and being in tune with the Lord day by day, so we recognize His voice when it's time to focus on those other facets of life, and when it's time to say "No" to things that might be good, but are only distractions.

I wonder if this is a struggle other writers have? Many are introverts, but not all. Perhaps there are writers who find it easy to bounce from running errands, to a lunch date with friends, to child care (or parent care) to a day job to writing and back.

I'd love to be one! But not being one, it keeps me clinging close to the Lord, listening for His Spirit to give me a check when I'm too jealously guarding my time and space, or give me the peace in saying "No," and protecting it.

Addendum: today was a life stuff day. I did laundry (requires trip to laundromat with a week's worth), I shopped for groceries for two households, I delivered groceries, I ran errands for others, I wrote this blog post. That's all the writing that happened today. My plan is to post that aforementioned out-take scene... tomorrow. And edit. Edit with all my undivided heart. :)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"The Hunt" is on

Later this week I plan to post an out-take scene of chapter length, from Kindred (you know, that historical novel-in-progress that this blog is really about). I've strayed off topic a bit lately in my posts. I'm doing it again (it's my blog and I'll digress if I want to.... digress if I want to....).

The Hunt For Gollum is an independent fan film based on Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. It's 40 minutes long and free to view on line. Here.

I've yet to watch more than a few minutes of it, as my home computer isn't fast enough to watch it in HD. But what I've seen looks pretty good.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Gold of Kings, by Davis Bunn

At the Mount Hermon Writers Conference, back in early April, I took the morning track class on "taking your fiction to the next level" taught by author Davis Bunn. It was a wonderfully informative class, and since then I've received the CDs and listened to it again. I suspected there was too much information to absorb on first hearing. I was right.

During the class, Davis Bunn spoke of his newly released book, Gold of Kings, to illustrate several points in his presentation. Intrigued, I recently began reading it. All I can say thus far is I'm hooked.

Here's a great interview with Davis Bunn, talking about the background and research for Gold of Kings, as well as on his writing and upbringing.

He grew up on the Outer Banks. I thought he sounded like a Carolinian. My dad is a surf fisherman, who designed and built his own surf rods, and we spent many a vacation on the Outer Banks during my childhood and teenage years. That brief view at the end of the video of the row of fishing poles anchored in the sand is a familiar one from my childhood.

A Book By Any Other Name....

... might not find its targeted audience. My good friend, author/editor Karen Ball, is posting a series on book titles on her blog, in which she lists several ways to find a title both content appropriate and with audience appeal. Check it out:

What's in a Title?

Tips for Terrific Titles

Tips for Terrific Titles #1

Tips for Terrific Titles #2

Tips for Terrific Titles #3

I "borrowed" the title for Kindred from another published work (titles are not copyrightable), because it fit so perfectly. I've kicked around ideas for an alternative, wanting something original, but never to my satisfaction. Karen's criteria for choosing a title, which I've never seen presented this way before, is sure to prove a help in the future.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Some blogs I visit

I want to direct writers to this short post by author Robin Lee Hatcher, over at Novel Journey. She's obviously answered the question that I was once faced with.

Would you continue to write even if you never get published?

And over at Novel Matters, they are discussing good opening paragraphs.

Agent Nathan Bransford is (was, on Tuesday) talking here about the futility of forecasting the market, and writing the story you are passionate about. And today, he's got a book list going in the comments section. I love these. I find all sorts of books to add to my teetering To Be Read tower that I'd have never known existed.

Favorite PASTimes did their second day of an interview with Bethany House author Julie Klassen. She's written The Lady of Milkweed Manor, which I've read and liked very much. She's also written The Apothecary's Daughter, which I hope to read soon. Day One of the interview here.

Friday, May 08, 2009

May Goals

Over on the Books & Writers Community forum they do a monthly writing goals update. I don't usually post mine. This month I did.

May goals for me: finish editing Kindred down as low as I can possibly get it, without doing a butchering job. It stands at 186K now (started at 325K), while prospective agent reads the first half of the manuscript, and I wait to hear back from a second agent.

Also begin plotting/brainstorming/daydreaming about the sequel (which I'm calling Over Jordan, at the moment) and/or possibly another stand-alone novel I began many years ago and abandoned, but now have other ideas about.

Continue early research for OJ, in conjunction with figuring out a Plot.

PS: Doree, you are visitor 1793 to this blog. That's the year Kindred begins. Huzzah! I've been waiting to see who it would be. I shall send you a book, to mark the occasion.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

agent news

One of the agents I met at Mount Hermon, who requested three chapters of Kindred after the conference, called and requested more of the story.

***break for Snoopy Dance***

I've sent the agent a little over half the manuscript, which is how much I've currently edited. The agent requested a month to read and think over some issues about marketing and editing.

While this isn't a promise of representation (far from it, at this point), I'm shuffling forward in small steps. That's how this business usually works. S-L-O-W-L-Y. It's very encouraging to have some feedback like this, and to know one of my top pick agents is this interested.