September 22, 2015 by Gregory Josephs
Beauty in the Mundane and Balance
This week’s revision of Chapter Four is moving slowly at best. Combine the surprising amount of effort I put into reworking Chapter Three and a delightful but exhausting week in my personal life and I think I’m left searching for the energy to tackle these next 5,000 words. I’m still very much in it—really invested in moving this project forward—but I could use a little bit of a breather!
Appropriately so could Ryan.
My favorite thing about these first few chapters is that from my perspective (and hopefully yours) each one exists for a specific purpose—to get a point across or to show us something specific about Ryan and his world. Chapter One introduces us to a kid whose world is turning upside down but he’s got this idea of a relationship that serves as his life preserver. Chapter Two is meant to give us some hope that he’ll land on his feet while exposing a little of his naïveté. In Chapter Three my intent was to further demonstrate the disconnect between Ryan’s idea of his relationship with Darren and the reality. I also hope that after reading it you feel a little love for him. Haven’t all of us experienced something in the vein of romantic humiliation?
Chapter Four has a specific purpose as well. Its intent is to allow some time to pass and let the central conflict (of the moment) lay fallow. Its a chance to breathe and let a few good things happen to my tortured protagonist. Please, don’t misunderstand. Things are going to get a lot worse for Ryan before they get better, but in this chapter he’s allowed to rest easy.
So here is my conflict:
This week I’m seeking the beauty in the mundane.
Thats a nice sentence, but what does it mean? The last chapter was rich with dialogue and as a result, even the longer scenes moved quickly. In contrast Chapter Four is a lot of really ordinary and otherwise boring stuff. If I’m not careful it’ll be too dense to read. I need to find a way to make really unremarkable tasks and events—the kind that show the passage of time—easy, interesting and even compelling to read. I need readers to feel a sense of waiting on Ryan’s part without putting them to bed.
Where is the line between too much detail and not enough when it comes to making a pot of coffee? In this specific example it is necessary to write about making coffee because it is the mechanism by which I am going to trigger a flashback. One of the things that I’ve learned from sharing Chapter One is that I’m pretty good at letting events that are mostly insignificant to my plot become overblown. Even with my revisions, Chapter One is still bloated and a little difficult. I’m doing my best to avoid that. To demonstrate my progress, here is an excerpt from the original draft of Chapter Four:
“After closing the windows again, Ryan stretched and walked out of his room into the kitchen. Although he didn’t care much for coffee, he enjoyed the idea of the morning ritual—ten minutes to sit quietly and sip something warm without having to worry about the trials and tribulations of a day barely begun—and so declared the day a special occasion and went about brewing a small pot. Just as the initial lift his mood had received from the weather began to ebb, the aroma of strong black coffee—from a small can of french roast he kept in the freezer—began to fill the air around the coffee pot, and lifted Ryan’s mood further still. He stepped into the pantry for a mug, filled it with an abundance of sugar and milk from the fridge, and then the coffee was done.
After filling the mug the rest of the way with the rich black liquid, he moved into the ‘dining room.’ Cara had left him a number of things when she’d moved out of the house on Elizabeth Street, among which was a fairly unremarkable blonde-colored wooden table and two matching chairs, which Ryan had placed against the outer wall of the apartment. Ryan seated himself in one of these now, with his elbows on the table and his mug grasped tightly between his hands. He closed his eyes, lifted the coffee and inhaled deeply. Then an unexpected thing happened.
The aroma triggered a memory.”
I think we can all admit its a hell of a play-by-play! I mean its nice and thorough. We get a lot of information. Its also heavy. I can’t say that my rewrite of this section is perfect yet, but I hope you’ll agree its lightening up in advance of posting this chapter on Friday:
—As quickly as he’d opened them he shut the windows and left the bedroom for the kitchen.
From a high shelf in the pantry he pulled down a battered white coffee machine and set it on the kitchen counter. Although he liked the ritual of drinking coffee—fifteen minutes with no obligations other than to sit quietly and sip something warm—he didn’t drink it often. This morning however he needed it, hoping it could erase the flavor of the tumultuous night. He set about brewing a small pot from the can of French Roast he kept in the freezer.
As the machine finished brewing he put a couple spoonfuls of sugar and a generous amount of milk into the bottom of an empty mug. He topped it off with the steaming black liquid and took a seat at the little dining set Cara had gifted him from Elizabeth Street. With his elbows on the table he grasped the mug tightly between his hands, closed his eyes and inhaled deeply.
The aroma triggered a memory. His mind reached backward to the previous January at Asbury Drive—the night he first met Darren. He’d known from the start they were destined to be together—
As I said, I expect to put this little scene through the rock tumbler another time or two before it goes out to the world as a second draft, but hopefully you see where I’m going. I know it can be pared down further.
But then there is the question of balance! I guess I could really make this entire scene into two sentences:
He brewed a pot of coffee hoping the rich black liquid would erase the flavor of humiliation that lingered in his mouth from the night before. He inhaled as he took his first sip and was surprised when the aroma triggered a memory.
Actually, I don’t think thats half bad. It might work in this particular circumstance, but if I wrote this entire book that way? Everything in-between sections of dialogue would just end up a laundry list of thoughts or actions.
It wouldn’t be very good writing.
Ultimately, in my real life I celebrate the beauty in the mundane. Perhaps thats why I tend to write these insignificant scenes so exhaustively. This week I’m hoping to find a balance between glorifying the ordinary with words and not being so wordy. Is it a question of style over efficiency? Thoughts or suggestions? Please comment!
And speaking of comments I got some great feedback last week. First, for my post on drama versus melodrama my dear friend Erin and I had a thoughtful conversation about voice. She also gave me some fantastic suggestions about how to help readers learn about Ryan’s life—how to create connections and ultimately make him a character for whom we can feel real sympathy.
Secondly, on Friday night I read a chapter aloud to my husband while we had a little wine on our back porch. In many ways he is the inspiration for this post—we had a long, wonderful conversation about putting emphasis where it matters and letting the insignificant details take care of themselves. I’ve got some great ideas and I’m eager to see if I can put them into practice.
The decision to make this project public was two-fold. One, its been a great way to keep me accountable and keep me working. But perhaps more important is the second reason. Its difficult to write in a vacuum! Whether you’re also a writer, just a reader, or maybe a friend wondering what I’m trying to accomplish here I deeply respect and crave your opinions. If you’ve got one—good or bad—please reach out and share. It can only help me grow.
Have a great week. Come hell or high water Chapter Four will be posted Friday afternoon.