I remember few details from high school English classes, but I do remember learning that with Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, a quick visual image triggered the entire novel’s creation. Benjy’s older sister Caddy climbs a tree, and her brothers look up from below, seeing that her underpants are muddy. The muddy underpants image is a strong one for Benjy — associating his sister with trees throughout the novel — but evidently it was also an essential image for Faulkner. Somewhere there must be a brilliant Ph.D. dissertation on important novels’ striking-visual-image-triggers. In fact, I’d love to find that.
For me, Rapeseed began with both a visual image — an actual scene in England — and a phrase that accompanied it… a phrase that instantly became the novel’s working title: The Color of Rape. April 2003, I was head of the American Women’s Club Antiques Discovery lectures in Surrey. I’ve always been big on dusty discards and treasures — and the fact that one is often the other. A 53-seater bus, (coach, even), was taking our group to Woburn Abbey. The bus rounded a bend… the slanted evening light was perfect, the vibrant yellow rapeseed fields were in full bloom, and everyone on that bus was awed to silence. Suddenly a chorus: Mustard? Marigold? Oilseed? Margarine? Of course, I’d married into being British, and I’d known it a long time. That is the color of rape.
That’s my next novel, I said. The Color of Rape. And before we made it back to Surrey with our glass rummers and blue-and-white porcelain and bills of sale for mahogany dining tables, I had the novel’s opening scene all fleshed out. Synesthetic teenager Carolann Cooper and her twin sister’s boyfriend, back of a station-wagon, one of them taking drunken advantage of the other. The colors and sounds and cross-wired smells of it, the guilt, and the giddy inebriated joy.
But just as my protagonist has a problem with doing things out of traditional, logical sequence, I learned that beginning with a title doesn’t necessarily open a smooth pathway to writing a fully developed story arc. And it’s pretty inefficient throwing scenes together until a story emerges. You do it that way, and you’ll be writing draft after draft after draft. So you better really love those characters you’ve invented. But you better not love them so much that you get all squirrely and protective of them, because everyone knows there ain’t no story if everybody’s happy running around the rapeseed fields. Lessons. You’d think I would have learned those valuable lessons with novels one and two, but this was in fact novel number three, and I’m working on number four in much the same seat-of-the-pants manner. Might as well accept the fact that this is my way.
In Story Engineering, Larry Brooks proposes a better way. When I grow up, I fully intend to try planning. But with Rapeseed, it was a year of scenes and story, story and scenes, until I knew where I wanted it to go, and pushed it there. And then I straightened out all kinds of flashbacks and sequence shifts in numerous revisions. That first station wagon scene, now revised a hundred times, was the original opening scene in the novel, an in your face, front-loaded-action, teenage sex scene that perhaps not all readers were quite ready to face on page one. It’s now embedded as a flashback in chapter fifteen. I was perfectly willing to soften the start, lead the readers in gently before, well, you know. But as many times as the novel has been revised, there are still phrases that emerged in the original draft that I can’t drop or move or mess with.
Jack Daniels steam diffusing blue moonlight as he moved.
For a drunken synesthete losing her virginity, this non-negotiable phrase had to stay. I still find it bizarre that anyone wouldn’t get it.
The car smelled like sweat and steam and the sweet tang of brown sloshing slow-fermented sour mash….
I mentioned the drunkenness in this scene, right? Again, in my mind, this set of words says what it’s meant to say. And it’s a simile! The word like ought to allow that phrase to stand without objection. Yet more than one editor has objected. But here again — not negotiable.
There are certain rare phrases that don’t just point at the truth or reveal the truth — they are the truth. An author must be deeply reluctant to give them up. Of course, all writing needs its points of access for the reader, assuming the author does indeed desire readership, but there’s a balance with every scene, every sentence, between what is accessible and where the truth lives.
An author asks, does my reader experience this phrase the way I intended? The answer better be yes — often. But in some significant instances, a writer must risk losing a reader. If some readers are snagged by a disconnect when a sentence is unclear or a scene seems untrue, that becomes a risk the writer must occasionally take. Some of the lines in Carolann’s head — her synesthetic responses to experience — are those lines for me. I hate to think I’d lose a reader here. Just the opposite — if a single reader truly appreciates those deeply loved lines of mine, the lines worth risking reputation and readership for, well, that one reader who gets it is worth writing for.