Remembering it All Wrong

So we’ve officially met Emma. I knew I’d be writing one of these follow ups for chapter 3, but I’m actually really surprised by where I’m going to go here. I was expecting this chapter to basically survive whole cloth, as I thought it was pretty much the best thing I’d ever written at the time and I’ve was pleasantly surprised with the first two chapters. I figured I’d have to do some verb re-tensing and whatnot, of course, since that is a written tic I had at the time. I figured that meant I’d do some quick little thing about how, “Oh, hey, this is Emma, she’s the best, isn’t she?” Then I assumed I’d toss in something about how I had no idea what her motives were and didn’t care when I wrote the book the first time because, really, narrative convenience, people!

Then I ended up basically re-writing the entire chapter. I was up until two in the morning getting something that I thought would take, like, half an hour. Funny, that.

Part of the problem was the first paragraph.  This was the original:

A faded green sign at the base of the off ramp informed the travelers that they were at Shackner Road, a narrow strip of asphalt that would take them to Chauncey, Kansas.  It stretched arrow-straight to the horizon, forcing them to take the sign on faith.  Every once in a while a dirt and gravel track intersected the road before meandering off into the distance.  Buildings seemed to pop up every once in awhile, but Nate could never be sure if they were real or mirage.  For a brief moment the urge to discover the truth took hold of his mind, nearly compelling him to turn off the main road.  He successfully fought the urge by telling himself there were nothing more than a farm to be seen at the end of journey.  He did make one stop, however, pulling over near the end of the seventeen mile drive to give Molly a quick walk.

That’s…that’s kinda terrible. I’m honestly not too happy with the results of my edit, but I can live with what I did last night and I can’t live with the original. I tried to do too much in a single paragraph, for one. I was also trying to work through some internal monologue stuff and a build-up to something important. I was trying to foreshadow or something, but I was also trying to get Nate from the highway to the diner in, like, fifty words. I was all about the journey, not the destination.

This is actually one of the big problems with the book as a whole. I had the entire plot and I wanted it to happen and the whole thing where Nate just freaks out and leaves is kind of inconvenient. I realized at the time that I was probably shortchanging the intro and asking a lot of the theoretical audience. Part of that, though, is because I think there was an even older version of the first chapter that was even less explanatory.

I’m actually okay with the first two chapters from a structural perspective now. Part of that is because I’ve actually lived as an adult and spent the last few years in a lot of situations where I’ve just wanted to get up and run away. I think it’s something everyone can understand and empathize with by the time they’ve hit their early or mid 30s. The real world kind of sucks. I can trust an audience to say, “Yeah, I get that.” Most of us wouldn’t follow through, but I think most of us would say, “Yeah, I’d do that if I could,” and, as such, Nate kind of exists as a proxy.

When he gets on the road there’s no reason to prolong the agony. Driving across the cornfields of northern Illinois and Iowa isn’t inherently interesting. Nate’s internal life could, in theory, be interesting, but I didn’t want him to spend too much time thinking about it before he came to a point of rest. He didn’t even know what the hell he was doing, after all. Chapter 2, then, exists as a plausible explanation for his path. I tossed in a couple of bits about his fascination with small town life and the west to justify a snap decision once Emma arrives in the story.

So what, precisely, are we to make of Emma? If you’ve read the introductory post to this project I think you know more about her than I did back when I started writing Second Chances. At the time she was a combination plot device and bit of authorial wish fulfillment, as she was modeled after a girl I had a massive crush on at the time. She didn’t really have any reason to exist outside of being a convenient plot device to get Nate to sit around, work out his shit, and get converted to Christianity (remember, this was originally a Christian Fiction project, so it ended with a conversion to Real, True Christianity).

Emma quickly became more than that. When fiction writers talk about writing and characters they often talk about how the characters seem to be real and they won’t conform to the plot and purpose of the book in question. Emma was the first character who did that for, or — I suppose — to me.[1]

The first draft of chapter 3 makes the fact that I had no idea who Emma was painfully obvious. I was surprised to hit the first exchange with Nate and discover that she came off, to put it bluntly, as a total bitch. No, really.

It came quickly.  “So, basically, you got scared and ran,” she said after a short pause.

“What?  No!” he responded, practically shouting.  “I told you, I realized that I didn’t want to get married and have a family and give up my dog.  I wasn’t scared.”

“Sure you were,” she told him, completely confident in her hypothesis.  “You were scared that being married would get in the way of everything you wanted to do with your life and ran.  You thought you wouldn’t be able to handle the changing priorities in your life and the stress of living with someone for the rest of it, so you used your dog as an excuse to run away and live the carefree life you always wanted.  You can’t handle the thought of being somewhere you don’t want to be.”

“Sure I can.  I just…” he trailed off, trying to come up with something, anything to say in response.  “It’s just that I didn’t want to give up Molly,” he winced, knowing she would not take simple repetition as an argument.

“So basically you’re telling me you can handle living anywhere as long as you can keep your dog?” she asked, a smirk forming at the corners of her mouth.

“Y..yes…I suppose,” he stammered out, knowing that he had lost, but not sure exactly what he had actually lost.  “But I haven’t decided where I’m going to go yet, so it’s kind of a moot point.”

“Anywhere?” she refused to let him off the hook.

He sighed.  “That’s what I said.”

“So go back to Chicago.”

“I would, but Julia would kill me.  I’ll admit to being scared of that.”

“Fine, no Chicago,” she said, her voice indicating she had never meant the suggestion anyway.  “How about Chauncey, Kansas?”

Feeling trapped, forgetting all about his theory that life away from cities was overflowing with fulfillment, Nate searched desperately for a reason not to stay in the small town.  Realizing that the simplest situation was often best, he came up with a simple one.  “I don’t have anywhere to stay,” he told her.

“It just so happens,” she said, a smile forming on her lips, “That my aunt has a house for rent just out of town.”

That was the initial exchange leading to Nate’s decision to stay. She also took a few more potshots at Nate in the rest of the chapter. Nate comes off as a moron, but Emma really doesn’t look particularly appealing in this version. I think there were three reasons.

First, I didn’t know who Emma was at that point. Since she was just a plot device it didn’t matter what she’d say or do. Nate needed a reason to stay in town and Emma was the reason so, hey. In reality, though, I’m sure he would have said, “Fuck you, I’ve always wanted to move to San Diego,” and gotten the hell out of town.

Second, I wasn’t particularly good at writing sympathetic characters just yet. I still think Nate comes off as a total doofus and he’s not particularly sympathetic, but I don’t really mind that just yet. I don’t think he should be entirely sympathetic. I hadn’t realized at the time, though, that Emma needed to be an attractive option and not just someone who told him what to do. The thing that scares about that realization is that it’s already forced me to re-evaluate several things that happen later in the book and, well, that might mean a major re-write is in order.

Third, I had shit to work out in re: women. That’s a real life thing, not a writer thing. I was pretty bitter and resentful toward the female gender as a whole at the time and I think I had a sense that women are bitches. This means that it’s entirely possible that a fictional woman who existed only in my head and on the pages of a book I wrote was a key figure when it came to informing me of the need to treat women as people because eventually Emma demanded that I treat her as a person with hopes and dreams and failings.

There’s also an interesting bit between Emma and Aunt Ruth. Their relationship in the original book was very different from what I now realize it should have been. That didn’t occur to me until I wrote the little character sketch from the intro post. There will undoubtedly be a few fairly major rewrites that go on there, too.

Either way, Nate has met Emma and that matters. He’s also met an Emma who’s actually worth his time. Having done this rewrite and looked ahead a bit I think that there will be some more major changes than I originally expected. I’m actually pretty excited.


[1]The other major character who did that was one Eleanor Jane McIntire, whose story still hasn’t really been told because I can’t figure out how to write the book in question. That particular storyline came hard on the heels of the end of the original MS of Second Chances and Jane’s genesis was similar to Emma’s. Now she’s the co-protagonist (cotagonist?) of the book and her backstory is way more interesting than the original main character’s.

I’m not entirely sure what it says about me that it’s the female characters who take over my stories.

One thought on “Remembering it All Wrong

  1. It’s very clear from the chapter 3 you’ve posted that Emma is the Designated Heroine, even before she’s said anything. Woman on her own in a social setting, about the same age as the protagonist, something clearly wrong in her life that she isn’t sorting out for herself…

    Now I realise that you’re going to do better than have the Magical White Guy be the simple solution to all her problems, but that’s the way it came over to me. Chapters 1 and 2 are all about expansion: break out, leave, do anything. Chapter 3 brings it all back down to the small scale: to three people, one town, and a plot we recognise at least in broad outline. I don’t have an answer to this, and indeed I’m not entirely sure it’s a bad thing, but it rubbed me wrong.

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