There “we” are, The Angry Woman Suite and me, right above Bill O’Reilly. October, 2013. Lovely.
“One Book, One San Diego” is a community reading program (partnered by KPBS and the San Diego Library) wherein San Diego readers select, read and critique one book en masse.
This year’s selection is Geraldine Brook’s Crossing Caleb, ostensibly the story of Caleb, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard University, in 1665. I say ostensibly, because we know Caleb solely through the eyes and voice of Bethia Mayfield, daughter of a Calvinist minister, so Crossing Caleb is really Bethia’s story, in my opinion—which is fine. What’s really interesting is that Bethia tells her story (and, ergo, Caleb’s) in archaic, but gorgeously lyrical, 17th century language (and you can forget about finding the Kindle definitions for many of these now obsolete words, because our smart Kindles know they’re obsolete … I figured most of them out, though, to my satisfaction at least, by context).
I found the history fascinating, especially how hard Puritan life was—and I mean hard— and the clash between Calvinist and Native American cultures, and the—ugh—oppression of women in a patriarchal society. What I didn’t experience (and I think I was supposed to) was the depth and breadth of a twin-soul relationship between Bethia and Caleb. While the author discloses that information on the historical Caleb is thin, she had license, by virtue of this being fictionalized history, to depict a fully fleshed-out character. But what I got was a cipher. Bethia told me what Caleb looked like, and relayed words he spoke, but I never felt him, his essence, his draw, and so, while I knew and appreciated many other things in Bethia’s life—her yearning for education and her resentment toward her brother, for two—I rarely experienced Bethia’s Caleb. He remained elusive for me.
In light of the awe I have for Ms. Brook’s ambition and talent, and the fact that I was more than satisfied on so many other levels, I almost feel as if this is a niggling criticism—but, on the other hand, if this is to be a true review about the larger story of a woman touched by a man who defied the convention of his time and culture and voluntarily left his tribe for immersion in English education and religion, then that man had to have been super-extraordinary … I missed out on that oh-so-close opportunity to see and know him. I rated “Caleb’s Crossing” 4.0 out of 5.0 stars on Amazon.
I’d almost forgotten I’d answered Readers’ Favorite’s call for submissions for the RF’s annual international competition. It seems a hundred years ago that I’d submitted my novel, The Angry Woman Suite, though somewhere in the back of my brain, I more or less remembered it was September that winners would be notified.
Yesterday was September 1. I sat down to my computer first thing, like always, and there it was, a big congratulatory announcement: The Angry Woman Suite had been awarded the Gold in the Historical Mystery category. Wow! The award ceremony is next month in Miami. Thank you, Readers’ Favorite!
Following is the lead judge’s critique (I’m amazed how s/he summed this book up—great job!):
“The Angry Woman Suite is quite a ride. Set in the early 1900s, it is a story of family conflict, mystery, drama, and love. Young Francis Grayson grows up with a slew of women referred to merely as “the women,” consisting of two aunts and a grandmother. Unfortunately, Francis is subjected to abuse at their hands. Young Francis does not know much about his history and even the true identity of his father is kept from him. Elyse, Francis’ stepdaughter, tells the story from her point of view in a rather compelling manner. A third narrator is history buff and schoolmaster, Aiden Madsen, who also plays the roles of music teacher and friend to young Francis. Francis is talented, something that runs in the family, but he lets his desire for fame get the best of him.
Filled with deceit, outright lies, anger and resentment, this book is very cleverly written, with different points of view bringing unique perspectives to the story. The characters are fully developed and easy to understand, and as the story comes together one finds oneself empathizing, loving and sometimes even hating them. The novel is quite a trip through time as the characters tell history as they see it. It seems that each character is on a quest for truth. It is hard to decipher whose version is correct, but this adds to the flavour of this outstanding novel.”
The above header is a San Diego U-T headline, and I’m the “debut novelist.” The Angry Woman Suite (also a Discovery Award winner and Kirkus Critics’ Pick) is my baby—and I am still walking on air after winning the 2013 San Diego Book Award for Best Mystery last weekend AND then the Geisel Award for “best of the best.”
I’m still saying to myself, Really?
I went to the awards ceremony intending only to show my appreciation to the San Diego Book Awards Association for moving my historical-psychological mystery novel forward to finalist status—and was SURE I’d be home in bed with dog and book by 9 PM—in fact, couldn’t wait to get home to bed, book, and dog. I didn’t even prepare comments (and preparing for every eventuality (tsunamis, malaria outbreaks, stock market plunges) is part of my job—er, makeup; Felix Unger has nothing on me), but that’s how sure I was about the TEN hours of reading and shut-eye I’d scheduled for later that night.
Well, goes to show … let down your guard for one minute and the universe pounces—this time, though, in the best way imaginable—although the mind picture of me walking down to that stage twice with no comments prepared—a wordless writer!—makes me cringe (and laugh—gotta laugh, because, oh, the lovely irony).
What I ended up saying (I think) when I was “crowned” with that familiar red and white Cat in the Hat chapeau (San Diego’s Geisel Award, which is awarded to each year’s judges’ pick for “best in show,” is named for our city’s own Theodore Geisel aka Dr. Seuss, the world’s most beloved children’s author), was of course “thank you” (a million times) and then I told a little story (I think) about DDF (my husband who passed last year), and how supportive he’d always been, and how thrilled he’d have been seeing this, and that I intended placing my two trophies alongside the very first print copy of The Angry Woman Suite, which became DDF’s, the book I’d presented to him shortly before he died (and he’d been ecstatic—seriously ecstatic).
But not quite yet.
Yep, you caught me: I’m still carrying them around with me everywhere.
AWARDS SEASON RIGHT AROUND THE CORNER:
Author: Lee Fullbright
Judge Number: 73
Books are evaluated on a scale of 1 to 5. This scale is strictly to provide a point of reference, it is not a cumulative score and does not reflect ranking.
Structure and Organization: 5
Plot (if applicable): 5
Character Development (if applicable): 5
What did you like best about this book?
“THE ANGRY WOMAN SUITE will stay with me for a long time. You created extraordinary characters, a compelling plot and original settings. I liked the background of history into which you invited the reader: Washington’s Headquarters, the museum, Grayson House, etc. However, I think the outstanding thing about the novel is the characterization. I liked that you opened with Elyse, an extraordinary child in an unusual family. But then, if you consider the family long enough, it might not be as unusual as we think, but it is Elyse with her insight and understanding who makes it seem that way. It is the three sisters, Magdalene in particular, who drive the plot of the book. For me Lothian is the least understood of the three. Then there is Francis, the abused little boy trying to make it big as an adult musician, and he does despite his unfortunate childhood. I admire the way you took all these unique characters and wove them into a story that captures and hold the reader’s attention throughout the book. I also wonder, as a novelist myself, how you balanced all of them in your mind. Wonderful read … I loved it.” –Judge 73
It seems everyone has watched Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abbey, which means we all know who Sarah O’Brien is—but if you don’t, here’s the in-your-face “thumbnail”: she’s a snotty, meddling, opportunistic lady’s maid at Downtown—and of course we all pretty much dislike and distrust her, because what’s there to cozy up to?
I’m working on a new novel; specifically, the development of characters (character development is my favorite part of novel-writing, which, if you’ve read The Angry Woman Suite, you’ve probably already guessed)—and I just realized I’ve created a character who’s very much like O’Brien (though she wasn’t inspired by O’Brien, but by someone I used to know). Because the worlds my characters inhabit are never black and white, rarely are my characters either (an exception is Lothian in The Angry Woman Suite). So when I start fleshing out a character, I list her or his not-so-shining qualities on one side of a page and on the other side those characteristics that are attractive—the ones that can make us doubt our own assessments, as in it’s just an eccentricity we might tell ourselves (about a “difficult one”), and we should maybe cut her or him some slack.
Because even O’Brien herself has a soft spot (for her nephew), so she can’t really be all bad.
And O’Brien has no clue she’s a meddler; she actually can be helpful, so she can’t be purposely cruel, right? Right?
She also doesn’t know that almost every time she opens her mouth she pretty much alienates everybody, because of a naturally critical nature—but she can be friendly and approachable as well.
Just as she doesn’t see she’s overbearing and judgmental, because she can be charitable and self-deprecating, too.
She doesn’t see herself as scheming or controlling, because what she also is, is quite bright, and intelligent people are often forward-thinking (we tell ourselves).
However, despite a sturdy IQ, her EQ (emotional intelligence quotient) is quite low and so she lacks perspective and empathy, as in how her words come across as demeaning to others. Ironically, she is an overly sensitive individual always on the lookout for slights. She is easily hurt, often feels misunderstood, and would be crushed if she knew how many people go out of their way to avoid her.
One can actually get on with difficult people for some time. Years, actually. How? Well, for one, it’s a good idea to not let a difficult person “in” too close. Tread carefully. Sharing feelings can become ammo for O’Briens at some point in time, against a sharer. O’Briens often want to “fix,” which is not helping or supporting; it’s taking over instead, running roughshod, stepping on boundaries and telling others what to do. And know ahead of time you will always be offending them in ways you can never possibly see coming. The O’Briens are seemingly wired to be offended. It’s the first thing they consider in the morning, as in why did so-and-so get me this present? Or not come to my retirement party? Or (if they did attend) leave so early? To their prickly minds, there are no mitigating circumstances.
And I think this must be the aspect of the world’s O’Briens—how easily offended they can be—that is the foundation of their most unpleasant qualities, those cutting remarks and undermining ways.
O’Briens likely have less than optimum beginnings, maybe even got kicked down the road early on, and unfortunately they’re not resilient, though they can be ambitious. They love an imaginary glory, and see themselves racing against “competitors,” elbowing them aside, tripping them up in their mad quests for long-denied recognition, and turning a screw or two before it’s turned on them—which obviously begs the question: With profiling like that, who among the O’Briens of the world wouldn’t be on the lookout for “offenders”?
Does it help knowing this about the difficult ones? That they probably had tough starts they could never put in perspective? Because … ahem … remember, perspective is something they completely lack.
Depends. On how much distance you can keep. Or how much you want to punish yourself. Because that’s what it feels like after a time of interacting with or having befriended one. It feels like you’re slapping yourself in the face.
Stories are always about overcoming conflict or giving into it. One way or another, a story must have conflict, or it’s just words. Which is why all O’Briens make for great characters—despite a “stiffness” they all, strangely, seem to have, they are conflict in motion. They thrive on it—but unless some upward momentum, some change, occurs, these characters are doomed to predictability. Their snottiness begins to outweigh their positive attributes, and once a balance is that tipped, the weight of an O’Brien becomes a pain-in-the-ass burden.
And so there’s the answer. At some point, when burdens become static, they morph from boring to heavy, to hurtful, and even sometimes dangerous (as in worse than slapping your own face). The difficult people of the world need to be cut loose when they become static, whether they are real-life PIA’s bad for anybody’s mental health, or (safer) characters in novels—or, yes, even fixtures like Sarah O’Brien of Downton Abbey.
The other day a friend told me about the number of indie books she’s been reading lately (mainly via Goodreads giveaways—love that site), and how appalling (and really, really sad) the oh-so-apparent lack of copyediting is in some of these books.
And yesterday I had lunch with a reviewer who told me she’d been given an indie non-fiction book to look at, and that she filled two pages of notes about what needed fixing, and that was the first chapter only!
I’ve also been doing my fair share of indie fiction reading—and so before I get into ripping into those writers who are NOT securing copyediting for their “babies,” thinking they don’t need it (really? and now define “arrogance,” please), I have read three really great indie novels this year, and recently started another that is so excellent it’s keeping me awake nights.
Now, for the (gentle) ripping:
I have been in your shoes, thinking I know it all, because I DO know the rules; I can punctuate and spell like nobody’s business, till the cows come home—BUT it oftentimes takes a pair of professional eyes to point out that I just stacked a cliché on top of five others—and the reason I didn’t already know this? Because I get so close to my projects and the elements therein—plot threads, characterization, dialogue—I oftentimes can’t see a cliché for the life of me (and, okay, before you consider banging your heads against your ipads here, enough already with the clichés—though that WAS kind of fun).
When I finished the first draft of The Angry Woman Suite, and polished it and then polished it some more, I took a section to my writers group, heart pounding, fearful of all the things they could say, like maybe go home and set your laptop on fire.
But that didn’t happen; my story had them. Something else happened instead. I had typos! I had misspellings! (And, yes, I do know where spellcheck is, too—and it’s NOT to be 100% trusted); I sometimes had too many spaces between words, inconsistent formatting —and, ugh, way too many adverbs. How could any of this have happened, after all the hours I’d put into my baby, checking and rechecking?
Well, get this: After my writers group finished poring over the entire book, and after I polished some more, I gave my manuscript to a copyeditor who found even more boo-boos—and then another copyeditor after that, and she found stuff, too!
Moral of this story:
If you’re a writer and you want your projects to play in the big leagues, indie OR traditional, you absolutely CANNOT get there without a professional copyeditor—trust me on this. Not just a proofreader, but a professional copyeditor who will do everything a proofreader does PLUS inspect for style and consistency and formatting and a million other things that can get by anybody—but not necessarily by your audience!
As for who I trust, and know to be the absolute best, I know a few. Here’s a resource I can personally vouch for: http://www.hjseditingservices.com/#
You might also message your favorite indie authors via Goodreads and ask who they recommend—and successful indie authors WILL thank you for asking, because the better you are, the better the whole here-to-stay indie movement will be. And then we’ll all look good.