The Prologue

Okay, so I’ve edited this historical novel of mine about a million times. Where I think I’m shaving off thousands and thousands of words I’ve barely skimmed two thousand. The book as it stands right now is too long and I know I have to cut – a lot. I have about fifteen more chapters to go in this round of rewriting before I can sit down with line edits, fine-tuning, make some corrections, and so on. I also have an amazing beta reader who is tackling one chapter at a time and providing me with spot-on edits.

I don’t willingly normally share my work. I remember editing a newspaper piece I wrote once so many times that the editor told me he didn’t even have to touch it. Of course, that piece took me two weeks to get “just right” and a lengthy review of my old college journalism books. Perfection is a problem with me and so sharing my work makes me a little jumpy. Because are the words ever perfect enough?

Right above my desk is a white board and a quote from the writer, Sean Platt, “Perfection is the enemy of done.”

Exactly.

That.

I read that damn quote every single day to remind myself to stop fiddling with this novel that has been with me now for several years. Oh sure I’ve written several books since this one but I keep coming back to it to rewrite…there is something about this book – a historical novel set in Los Angeles during WWII – that holds my heart.

But it can’t be my own personal baby forever. I must let it fly and go out into the world one of these days. I certainly can’t coddle it forever.

So here goes.

The Prologue to my historical novel. Perfect, not perfect, pathetic, awesome, lovely, horrible. Whatever it ends up being.

One more thing: the formatting may be a little wonky when I copied it over.

Prologue
1980

 

The screams could be heard from miles away.

It was 1959 and Sophia stood back and watched the horror unfold as the Los Angeles police drove their Ford Fairlane’s into Chavez Ravine with their sirens blaring and officers slamming doors with such force it felt like the earth was shaking. In an instant a woman was screaming and yelling and cursing in Spanish that Sophia could only guess what was being said. The bulldozers were ready to tear down the only houses left in what now looked like a giant hill filled with debris and dirt mounds. The sounds of crushing glass, wood crumbling to the ground, and cement cracking as easily as toothpicks filled the air of this once-tight community and left only hatred and anger behind in its wake.

The thin, dark-haired woman that Sophia remembers playing cards with and eating her homemade tamales was being roughly carried out of her home by the Los Angeles police, who held her by both her arms and legs like a rag doll. The more the woman struggled the tighter the police held onto her. Her black and white polka dot dress blowing in the mild summer afternoon as if she were sitting carefree on a beach chair instead of being forcibly evacuated from the only home she knew.

Her screams made Sophia shiver and even after almost six decades, Sophia still shivered when she thought of it.

Most people left Chavez Ravine broken and depressed but only the woman with the black and white polka dot dress, along with a mere handful of residents, refused and had to be taken out by force.

The media cameras captured all the horror and across Los Angeles people read with disgust what levels the residents of Chavez Ravine had sunk to. The image of the screaming woman being dragged out of her home would remain the sole image of Chavez Ravine used over and over for years to come.

Sophia stood on the hill, quite different from what she remembered, but in her mind the memories were as clear today, despite the smog that covered Los Angeles like a thin blanket, as they were over sixty years ago.

Looking around Sophia could still make out where Palo Verde elementary school once stood and if she closed her eyes she could see her four boys all playing on the playground and hear the laughter of young children. Of course, the elementary school has long since been buried underground, filled in with dirt and replaced by a cement jungle of blue and white.

This will always be home, Sophia thought as she stood lost in memories of the past.

Chavez Ravine. Her home. Her heart.

A place where Sophia and Joe Giacalone raised four boys and built their home on Davis Street overlooking the lights of downtown in a community that was wedged in a ravine surrounded by hills.

Sophia took pride in her home and loved decorating her living room with photos and light blue curtains. She embroidered towels for the bathrooms, hung shelves above her washing machine, and grew parsley in galvanized pots on the windowsill. The same windows that she had to close, even in the heat of summer, when the Arroyo Seco Parkway was under construction and the pounding noise made her crazed with the sounds of drills and hammers and sheets of concrete being laid into place. She didn’t care that this new stretch of highway was creating a faster passage from downtown to the suburbs of Los Angeles, Sophia hated the constant noise that lasted for two long years.

Sophia took a deep breath and was filled with the aroma of freshly brewed coffee as she waited for her best friend and neighbor, Blanca, to stop by for a quick game of gin-rummy and catch up on all the latest news in their tiny, shabby community.

Of course, Sophia never thought her quaint town was shabby. To her the dirt was love and the smiles of neighbors were golden. The tinny sounds of music that filled the streets on weekends, the friendly wave of a neighbor, and the fragrances of sweet peas and bread baking in hot kitchens was what her life was about then.

Chavez Ravine was never considered a desirable place to live by those that didn’t live there. There were no mansions and well-manicured lawns. In fact, no one even had lawns. Instead, their front yards were filled with large fruit trees, grape vines, colorful flowers, and lawn chairs to sit and enjoy the wonderful southern California sunshine, some with bottles of beer, others with a jug of wine, sipping from plain, stubby glasses.

There was nothing fancy about life in Chavez Ravine in the 1940s. Many homes had peeling paint and were supported by stacks of cinder blocks. But, when you walked inside the homes, they were filled with scents of chili peppers roasting in the oven and tomatoes cooking on the stove. The tiny kitchens, barely enough room for one woman, was a bustling thoroughfare of activity. Women baked breads and cookies every afternoon while they waited for the laundry to dry on the line outside. If a rabbit happened to hop within reach, it was often caught and cooked into a cacciatore for dinner.

A place where a B-rated actor, Crispy Martin, lived on Reposa Street and often threw parties for his neighbors which was a highlight every summer when everyone was given an invitation that was hand delivered and tied with a gold ribbon. In a time when most actors chose to live in places like Pasadena or Beverly Hills, Martin picked the closed-knit community of Chavez Ravine, giving his neighbors plenty of bragging rights.

The children of Chavez Ravine played make-shift baseball in the open fields and chased each other in the middle of Gabriel Avenue or Bishops Road where only a few cars ever traveled. Sometimes the children would roll down the large hills of Davis Street and Shoreland Drive and tramp through mud puddles on their way to the dime store to buy a few pieces of hard candy.

Chavez Ravine somehow escaped the trappings of life in a big city. The small valley in the middle of Los Angeles felt immune to the harsh realities of the city. In Chavez Ravine neighbors were also friends. They talked on the corner and housewives walked to Marbetta Market for their weekly groceries. They shared life stories after Sunday mass or over a game of cards. They had dreams and hopes for their small community. And, they watched and prayed as the country began sending their boys off to war.

For a while, not one boy from Chavez Ravine had been sent to fight in Europe. Of course, that wouldn’t always be the case but even war couldn’t break up the rhythm of Chavez Ravine and the beating heart of its residents.

One can always look back on a life spent and think of only the good, the idyllic, and the special. But, there were bad days in Chavez Ravine too.

Kids would get ahold of their parent’s liquor and break windows and tear down trees with saws. The Great Depression took the livelihoods of many men in the community and left poverty in its wake. When Dr. Wood, a famed Los Angeles surgeon, was killed on the streets just outside Chavez Ravine after a house call, the authorities automatically assumed the killer lived there. It took three years to finally free the innocent man who was wrongly accused. By then, however, a dark cloud had begun to hang over Chavez Ravine.

Sophia closed her damp tear-filled eyes when she recognized Effie Street below them and could still see where her family’s grocery store once stood off Boylston and Shoreland Streets. The one story green building with, “Marbetta Markets #5” printed in block white lettering above the double doors and painted signs offering quarts of milk for fourteen cents and five pounds of potatoes for a nickel.

Her mind went back to women wearing bright floral-patterned dresses and comfortable shoes carrying small baskets through the dirt parking lot as their children ran towards the doors of the grocery store. Inside the sounds of Frank Sinatra playing in the background as women squeezed oranges and smelled melons before buying them. The women carried their loot back home, walking because many had never learned, or been permitted to learn, to drive, humming “I’ve got the world on a string” and wonder why that song was stuck in their head?

And when the gossip of a baseball team moving from Brooklyn to Los Angeles was on the minds of everyone in Chavez Ravine people would ask one another, “Could one man buy an entire town and turn it completely upside-down?”

Ultimately the answer would be yes and their world, as they knew it, would never be the same again.

Chavez Ravine proved it was not immune to the imperfections of life.

“Nana? Are we going to stay on this hill forever? I’m starving and my feet hurt,” Sophia’s granddaughter, Pippa, nudged Sophia out of her trance down memory lane.

Sophia looked at the box she was still holding onto and somehow it felt heavier now.

“Is this where we’re gonna to do it?” Pippa asked. For a young girl Pippa was more aware of life and death than Sophia remembered being at that age.

Sophia placed the heavy box on a bench at the top of the Lilac Terrace, a hill that still exists in Chavez Ravine, “Yes, this is the spot. This was where Papa and I lived and the place he truly loved more than anywhere else,” Sophia struggled with the sights around her. The trees that all looked too big now, the hills that no longer created a ravine, and the buildings of downtown Los Angeles that seemed much taller.

And now Dodger stadium occupied the space where her life had felt meaningful and rich.

Pippa had long parted her hand from her grandmother’s and began fumbling with her Sony Walkman trying to find her favorite song, “This very spot?” Pippa said not looking up from her Walkman.

“Yep. Of course, we lived here before Dodger stadium was built. And I think the hill got steeper because I don’t remember it being quite that difficult to climb,” Sophia chuckled to herself.

Sophia opened the box that was filled with Joe’s ashes.

His final wish, he had said in a note.

Actually, Joe had left Sophia with three final wishes, like a genie in a bottle Sophia laughed through her tears when she first read the note in the days following Joe’s funeral.

And she was about to take care of the first one.

Together they stood on top of the hill with the hum of people filling Dodger stadium and the distant horns honking in downtown Los Angeles and neither of them speaking for a couple of minutes. Pippa was thinking about hot dogs and peanuts and Sophia couldn’t seem to stop the mental walk down memory lane. But, since her granddaughter was growing more impatient by the minute, Sophia tried to stay focused on what she was here to do.

Sophia opened the box and scattered her husband’s ashes over what used to be Chavez Ravine.

The smog filled Sophia’s lungs as her eyes began to water.

For several minutes Sophia and Pippa watched as the ashes swirled and blew in different directions around them, floating finally down the hill and nestling among overgrown shrubs and weeds.

Now Sophia had to face Joe’s second and third wish.

One that she had been dreading from the minute she had read the last note her husband had ever penned, days before his death.

Pippa was hopping on one foot, restless, “Can we go now?”

Sophia nodded as she closed the box and gave one last glance around.

Sophia and Pippa waited in the long line and handed the woman in a blue t-shirt with matching cap, two tickets. Beside her, Pippa was excited to be at a baseball game, her favorite sport, and where Joe had taken her many times from the time she was five.

As they walked into the stadium, Sophia felt her heart began to race, “I never in a million years thought I would ever step foot in this place.”

“Really? Never?”

Sophia shook her head.

“It’s too bad that Papa had to die just before the game,” Pippa said.

“I didn’t even know he had tickets to Dodger games,” Sophia said quietly.

“Ohhh, Papa kept a secret! Papa kept a secret!” Pippa giggled as she chanted and Sophia couldn’t help but giggle too.

Joe had indeed kept a secret. He had season tickets to Dodger home games for the last twenty years, a gift, his final note said.

Sophia felt her heart race.

A gift she was about to meet.

Sophia and Pippa found their seats and nibbled on peanuts and drank soda. “Pippa, see where third base is?”

“Yeah,” Pippa nodded as she threw her shells on the ground.

“That was the spot where our house was. Where your father grew up.”

“Really? That’s cool, Nana. How can you be sure, though?”

“Well, I remember being able to see the police academy from our front door of our house and if you look out just beyond third base you can still see the academy.”

“Is that the same police academy when you used to live here?”

Sophia nodded slowly, “That’s all that has remained of Chavez Ravine, Pippa.”

How About Now?

I have written 10 novels, 1 children’s book, and a couple of non-fiction type book projects to date (I’m sure there are more in here somewhere). My biggest novel is the one I am still rewriting. I know there is going to be a day (gawd, let it be soon) that I will have to officially put the baby to rest in a colorful pasture filled with big, beautiful trees and hopefully lining the shelves in an Amazon warehouse – or wherever books go these days.

I get asked the publishing question a lot. Do I have any books published? The answer is no. Not yet. Articles, yes. Books, no.

I am gun shy about self-publishing although I’d like to give it a try. But I don’t want to be hasty and just publish garbage either. I have a few shorter fiction pieces that I would like to rewrite and edit and eventually self-publish.

The book I’m working on now – a historical fiction book about Los Angeles during WWII and mixes in city corruption and a dose of Dodger bits is one very close to my heart. The characters feel like they are alive somewhere in another dimension (okay, that could be reading-while-the-hubby-watches too many episodes of ‘Fringe’) and I almost hate to see them go. But, it’s time. I need to get this book out of my stack of “Work in Progress” and out into the world.

Gasp.

I am working with someone who is reading my chapters, one at a time, and her input has been invaluable. I’m not any less scared to send it out but her responses have been encouraging.

I wonder sometimes if the pressure to “publish” (Or as my mom so kindly points out, “when are you ever going to publish something worthwhile?” Ouch.) kills some of the creativity or if I’m just making lame excuses?

It reminds me of a time my dad used to make these wooden animal basket things. He would cut the wood, paint them, nail them into turtles, bears, ducks and the minute my mother (I’m seeing a trend here, doctor) insisted he start selling these wooden animal baskets his creativity and desire for them diminished and he never made them again.

Look, I’m totally not saying if I sell my book it would kill anything. Except maybe my back from too much jumping up and down. Those days are – well, anyway.

But I do feel the pressure. And it isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. I am motivated at the moment to wrap up this almost-final rewrite before I start school at the end of next month.

I have many chapters left to plow through and all I seem to be doing is ADDING to my word count and not taking much away. But right now I am working through plot issues mainly and tightening up the writing and editing where I can, although that isn’t my total purpose yet. It is so close – and yet so far.

Critique Writers

For years I have dabbled about with fellow writers. I spent years in college among fellow fiction-writer hopefuls. I’ve been to a few writer’s workshops and I have had my share partaking in a writer’s group or two. 

When I was in one of my writer’s group I stumbled onto a woman who seemed to edit the critiques line by line. After a few chapters of trying to do the same in return I just became overwhelmed and felt it sucked entirely too many hours of my time. When I sat around a table of fellow writers the critiques were a bit of a hit or miss and only occasionally helpful. Maybe it was the fact that 99% of the writer’s in the group at the time were all science fiction writers and I was probably as lost among them as they were in the middle of my manuscripts. In the end, it simply wasn’t a good fit. 

Then I spent several NANO months in April and July in what they called “cabins” among fellow writers. For two of the sessions I suggested being partnered with people my own age. This last time I thought maybe I should go with people who write in my same genre (historical fiction) and found it to be a more enjoyable experience.

At the end of July a few of us had bonded and we shared our Facebook and Twitter pages and I stumbled onto one of my fellow cabin mates Facebook page. A post she had prompted me to private message her and ask her a question. That led to a back and forth discussion and a spark about critiquing each other’s manuscripts. 

An idea was hatched. 

We instantly hit it off via emails and attaching chapter after chapter. Her critiques are always spot on. The exact parts I struggled with editing she nails as a part that needs tweaking or adjusting. She makes suggestions that I never would have thought of and yet make perfect sense to meld my story better. She makes me want to keep plugging along with this manuscript that is almost as part of me as one of my fingers. Sometimes it feels like I will never have this thing completely edited and rewritten – and yet I see light at the end of the very long tunnel at last. And I have my writing partner to thank. 

She has been blunt where I have struggled and patient as I stumbled about like a third grader trying to form readable sentences. She has lifted me up to the point that when I am finished reading her emails I am instantly motivated to tackle that chapter I just can’t seem to get right…or a POV problem I simply can’t rewrite another minute more.  

She lives in the south and I am in the pacific northwest and I have never spoken to her nor seen her in real life and yet as I am editing and rewriting I swear I can hear her voice in my head telling me to keep my POV in one person. 

I feel incredibly lucky and thankful to have found this gem of a fellow writer friend who is willing to tackle my 150k+ manuscript one chapter at a time and offer an honest and uplifting critique to the point that it gives me the one thing writer’s always seem to struggle with, at least I do: and that’s HOPE. She gives me so much hope I want to jump up and down every time I get an email critique back from her.

National Novel Writing Month Is Now Over…

My novel ended up being 56,244 words, much less than I had originally hoped for, but I succeeded at meeting the required 50,000 words with about two days to spare. My goal for these writing month marathons is always to finish the complete first draft of my novels in addition to the word count goal.

The novel I worked on in November, “Before I go” turned out to be 41 chapters (I took one out towards the end that seemed to be a pointless chapter once I got to it) and was inspired by a photo I spotted on Facebook that looked like a family member that died many years ago…coupled with a handful of old family folklore stories I have heard repeated many, many times.

This novel, not unlike my other first drafts, is in line with being just as awful. I saw some glimmers of hope peppered throughout but I am now ready to bench the manuscript for a little while and pick back up where I left off with my queries and (older) novel rewrites.

This is also the first December that I am still plugging forward. Normally I am exhausted (you can’t see me but I am putting the back of my hand up to my forehead and am ready to faint) after writing a complete first draft during November plus being knee deep in the holiday season – my writing has always taken a backseat during December. The problem with that, I have discovered over the years, is that by the time I get myself into full swing come January it is the end of February. So I’ve lost a good three months “recovering” from the oh-so-difficult writing of a first draft. Oh, the horrors. Poor me.

I have decided this year I don’t have the luxury of not writing for several months (not to mention how cold and out of shape it makes me) and while the first couple of days of December is hopefully not an indication of what is to come…especially with the goals I have set for an exciting and hopefully VERY productive 2015.

Here is my opening line from “Before I Go”:

The casket was sealed without embalming the man that died suddenly on his anniversary.

And there are 56,230 words left that are equally horrible…(for now.)

Making Time to Write

I have to make time because this is what I do. Or at least what I tell my husband I do all day. But let’s just say the laundry doesn’t fold themselves.

Right now I am knee deep in National Novel Writing Month (NANO) – writing about three thousand words a day, on average (I did have one stellar day when I wrote six chapters and over 7k words before breakfast). So far, I’m just over 40k words with less than 10k to go before November 30th. I’m confident I’ll succeed at the NANO challenge – the first draft, on the other hand, is a special sauce kind of awful. But that’s okay too. I am actually beginning to love rewriting because then I get to see rainbows and an occasional unicorn flying overhead instead of choppy, awkward dialogue and cheesy narrative so common with a first draft.

But my novel for NANO isn’t the only thing I’m working on. I have two rewrites/edits happening on two novels, one contemporary and one historical. I have my weekly goal of sending out at least five queries so that means there are articles to write as well when I get a green light. Then I have a handful of other projects. Like, a children’s book. And a cookbook. And a couple of non-fiction books (but to be fair, I am just gathering research and information and shoving it all in the file folders until I have enough information to actually form a substantial book). I have many books in line to be rewritten/edited. I have short little pieces with pesky little deadlines that require my time. And of course there is all the research and reading that piles up fast.

A friend asked me, “Why do you have so much on your plate? Wouldn’t it better to just work on one thing?”

I think the answer to that is, “Because I’m crazy and definitely!” it would definitely be easier if I had only one thing on my plate. But here’s the thing. I thrive on the variety of projects. I look forward to touching different projects each week or day or month. I tried, believe me, to do the one project at a time technique and I struggled. After awhile I stopped working on the project altogether because it began to bore me. I just need the variety. It’s all about the spice of life, folks.

But I’m not gonna lie. There are plenty of distractions in my day. Like when my son calls me to tell me he left his ID at home and he won’t be able to get to his off campus class without it. Or when I walk by the laundry room and the laundry shoot door is so full it won’t close. Then there is morning television, or as I call it, The Kiss Of Death. Luckily, I TiVo whatever I want to watch but occasionally I’ll flip on the news to catch the weather or something and then I’m stuck listening to clever gift ideas for your friends for Christmas and a hundred ways to cook a turkey. And before I realize it, I’ve sat engrossed for forty minutes. I also have a crazy Beagle who occasionally needs to go out so much I think she is hooking up with a cute Golden Retriever near the fence and sharing a stolen bag of treats.

Sometimes I’m surprised at how much I can get done in a day despite the distractions.

Here’s what works for me.

I have a list of all my ongoing projects with detailed steps of what needs to be done before it is ready to be sent to an agent or publisher. Some projects have thirteen or more steps – anything from writing an outline, conducting interviews, editing, researching, and filing. I just break down every little step so the chance of getting overwhelmed by the enormity of a project is reduced.

Then, all projects get what I like to call a “soft deadline”. I don’t know about you but deadlines, even soft ones, seem to work for motivating me and keeping me on track and slightly less scattered. I need to see that there is something pressing. The only projects I don’t use a deadline for would be my article work. I query and if I get the green light, then I add an actual deadline (no longer soft) to my calendar.

By now all projects have a home. A nice, comfortable, warm place to put their heads at night. Be it a file folder, color coded, or a three-ring binder – or both. Sometimes I keep first drafts and my outline notes in a file folder and the research in the three-ring binder. All the projects deserve to have a home to live in – and it makes for a neater desk, easier organizing, better filing, and an overall feeling of joy and peace and goodwill towards all.

It’s important to know how many hours in a day you have to work. I’d love to say I have somewhere close to ten. I’d love to even have eight but that isn’t always the case. So, I fit in the projects in the time frame I have during the day – and use a timer when I feel pressured to finish a lot in a short amount of time. There is something about a timer that helps me stay focused.

Then, I set about working on those projects that have deadlines within this calendar year and the next. I use a weekly goal plan that I fill out every Sunday night and it helps to keep me reined in and not flopping all over my office opening one file folder after another and lost in the land of color-coded labels. It can happen, believe me.

Some days I just sit here. I am distracted by social media and finding a bread pudding recipe to use up a huge panettone I have sitting in my pantry. Sometimes I have errands to run or the car needs to go in for an oil change. Sometimes the only thoughts coming out of my head are a hodge-podge of words that form absolutely zero sentences. I get scattered more days than I prefer to admit, thankyouverymuch.

But I cannot imagine doing anything else. I miss being in the vortex of words when I’m not writing. I love being creative. I love the business part of writing too. I love it all.

Plugging Along

July was a blur.

And somehow between an illness that would not leave for anything to a houseguest for an extended weekend I managed to write almost forty thousand words on my novel, Chavez Ravine. Or rather, rewrite.

The first draft was finished back in ’12 and I have been working on fixing plot holes and character issues since the beginning of the year when I benched the project for a number of reasons.

But in July I picked it back up and tried like hell to find my voice again. It was my fear when I had to step away from the project back in spring that my momentum would be lost and it was. Slowly, however, I am feeling the flow again.

It helps that I met a fellow writer during the July Camp NANO and we are in the beginning stages of critiquing each others novels. I will say after keeping this project to myself for so very long it is kind of exciting having another person read it with fresh eyes…and who isn’t related or married to me.

I have let a handful of people read the prologue – mainly because it was the one chapter that I rewrote in a writer’s group probably fourteen times and felt it was the strongest chapter. The benefit of having a fellow writer read and critique your work is because of this: I let a friend read the prologue. Her response was quick and predictable. “Oh it was great.” And, here is the kicker: “Was Sophia based on your mom because I could have sworn it was!”

Oh. Me. Gawd.

Really?

No. The characters aren’t directly anyone I know in real life. They are people who just happen to speak to me at all hours of the day and night.

Okay, that sounds creepy but if you are a writer, you know what I am talking about.

Anyway.

I wanted to make it through the entire book by the end of July. At the beginning of the month I was on chapter 17 and when the month was over I was on chapter 28. One chapter shy of finishing act two. This was definitely a more difficult month for me because writing first drafts I can do quickly and awful-ly and bang out anywhere from fifty to eighty thousand words in a thirty day span. This time every word felt like I was walking through a swimming pool, in a rainstorm, with bees buzzing at my face.

As of today I have exactly fourteen more chapters to rewrite before I can turn back to chapter 1 and begin the edit process all over again. (Sigh. Sometimes it does feel like it is never-ending.)

Crazy as it seems, I love it all. The entire process – even the walking in the swimming pool part.

This story will simply not leave me until I finish it. I keep stumbling onto little tidbits about Los Angeles and Chavez Ravine and the Dodgers and it draws me in and I think, “Oh, I have to find a way to put that in the book.” I wonder if there will be a time when the book is finished and I stumble onto a new little gem and can just leave it be?