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.

There is a First Time for Everything

I thought it might be interesting to share with you the first chapter of the first book I ever wrote. It was a young adult book that takes place in the White House about the daughter of a president – a girl named Summer. The title: “Be Careful What You Wish For.”

I wrote this book for a class assignment way back in 1992 (and the dot-matrix printing is still attached, accordion style).

I am not editing it at all (although it pains me not to) and I’m typing it from the actual document. I realized something today…besides the one-dimensional detail and grammar issues…I don’t think I have read through this manuscript since I turned it in over twenty years ago.

Here goes. Chapter one:

             Summer knew that in five days her life would change forever.
            “Carrot and beet juice? For breakfast?” Summer’s mother said with disgust knowing that her only daughter hated both carrots and beets.
            “Yes mom,” Summer said as she sat down in the lavish dining room of their new home. It was going to take Summer a long time to get used to living in such an old and historical house.
            The maid walked slowly into the kitchen to retrieve the requested juice brining the concoction to Summer in a cut-crystal goblet.
            “Isn’t dad going to have breakfast with us anymore?” Summer asked as she got up from the table pushing her straight auburn hair away from her eyes.
            “Probably not. He’s already in the oval office.”
            That afternoon Summer and Ben returned home from school in a white stretch Cadillac limousine followed by two secret service men, Tony Harrison and Peter Montgomery.
            Summer sat down at her white wicker desk in her newly decorated purple room which overlooks the rose garden and pulled out her new book on angels. The book was a gift from Summer’s best friend Amanda on the day before Summer left California for Washington, DC a few months ago.
            “This just has to work.” Summer thought to herself as she flipped through the book until she landed on chapter thirteen, “how to summon your very own angel.”
            Summer is certain that an angel can help her get good grades like her older brother, Ben. She wants her parents to be proud of her like they are proud of Ben.
            “Yuk! Only four more mornings of drinking carrot and beet juice by 8am. That night, at exactly midnight, Summer needs to stand in the light of the moon for five minutes for five evenings.
            Summer stared at her bulletin board which contained tacked pictures of Amanda and her at the carnival last summer, a picture of them in Amanda’s backyard in the swimming pool, a postcard of a beautiful angel and a signed autograph of Michael Bolton that her father just recently got for her when he sang in the White House.
            At 11:50pm Summer got out of bed and walked out of her bedroom, quietly shutting the door behind her. Under her foot a floor board creaked and Summer stopped and stood still for a few seconds. She couldn’t risk anyone waking up and wondering what she was doing at this hour.
            She walked slowly to her brother’s bedroom down the hall passing portraits of past presidents, McKenna, Washington, and Adams.
            Summer turned the knob of her brother’s bedroom and walked into the large bedroom with the adjacent balcony.
            She passed his queen sized bed with a dark blue bedspread thrown on the floor and a chair that had a stack of folded clothes on it.
            The French doors linking his room to the balcony were slightly ajar. Ben liked to be cold, Summer thought. She passed his pine dresser and a glass-top executive desk they had shipped from California and tripped over a trigonometry book lying on the tan carpet.
            Ben rolled over with his face facing Summer as she stood still waiting for him to settle back to sleep before proceeding through the French doors. Once outside, she glanced at her watch which showed both hands straight up. Midnight.
           After five minutes she went back to her bedroom to wait. 

I have an apparent liking to the adverb ‘slowly’ (sorry, Stephen King) because I use it a lot, still do, and have to change it all the time (I mean, really, how often can people do things ‘slowly’?). Also, I realize there is no president by the name of McKenna. I believe, if I remember correctly, I wanted to use McKinley but my instructor advised me against it stating that the family of President McKinley may not appreciate nor like me using him in my story. And since the story takes place in the fictional White House in present times you can only guess where the story goes…

Need Me Some New Blogs

There used to be a time when I wrote on three different blogs every single day, including weekends. Then, I ditched two of them and wrote only on the one, every single day. Then, I stopped posting on weekends. Then I began a new blog over here at the Wordsmithery and I most certainly don’t update everyday but I certainly try and update as often as I can. My folder of idea clips is overflowing and had to be moved into the filing cabinet. And all those ideas are great and all but they do nothing just sitting there patiently waiting…

I also enjoy reading blogs (I certainly hope you do too) but recently I noticed a terrible trend among the blogs I read: NO ONE UPDATES REGULARLY.

Or, even kinda regularly.

Hell, one blog’s last update was back in April. Another in August. Yet another in February. And that is just a sampling of three. Many I have given up on completely and have deleted altogether.

Some went to the dark side of parenting. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a parent and there are plenty of times I blog about my kids but something happens to a blogger who becomes a parent for the first time.

And then when the realities of writing sets in the rest of the bloggers give up feeling like all this writing was just Too. Much. Work.

So now I am on a mission to find me some new blogs to read.

Do you have a blog? What are some of your favorites?

A Certain Way To Write

I was asked recently if there was a certain way I wrote – and does it ever change?

For starters, hardly anything is done in longhand – and that has been the case since I first discovered a little thing called a typewriter. (Yes, I’m that old.)

I hear about writers ALL THE TIME writing their books or screenplays in longhand. Oh dear gawd, hold me. I Can’t. Even. Imagine. For starters, it would take me forever. And my hand would be aching on a regular basis. And I would forget half of what I wanted to say because my hand holding a pen would simply not be able to keep up with the speed in which my brain pops out words that magically form sentences.

But, it would be unfair if I said I never did anything handwritten. I usually begin a quick outline in longhand on a legal pad. I make notes on pieces of paper all the time and they are everywhere (in fact, I have piles of scrap paper with very valuable information, thankyouverymuch, all around me as I speak). I will make lists in longhand. And I will initially edit a project with a pen.

For everything else, I immediately turn to the computer. I can write faster and edit and change things much easier.

When I begin a novel I first start out with scraps of paper with several ideas on them; maybe a few character sketches or names. Then, I will pop onto the computer and write out a very loose outline with a lot of “Character X could go here…” and “Character B might think this…” From there everything is done solely on the computer – chapter by chapter outlines, character sketches, and the first draft. With my Los Angeles historical novel I did write out highlights of each chapter under each act, including a color coded system, all in longhand – but that is rare.

I talked to an author who writes a bunch of individual scenes and then pastes them into some form of novel. Another writer I read about writes all over the place – her book doesn’t even take form until she is finished writing the ending, then a few things in the middle, then the beginning, back to the middle, back to the ending…ohmegawd, my head would not be able to wrap around any of that. I tried the individual scene thing once and got myself thoroughly confused.

I need to work in some kind of linier fashion. I need order…and most definitely to start at the beginning.

The only exception to that is my non-fiction work which I have file folders that collect information and research and notes here and there until the file is bulging and ready to be put into order at which time I would turn to the computer for all the writing.

So, does it ever change? Not really, no.

If you are a writer, do you have a certain way to write?