Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Novel in the Attic

How I spent my summer vacation

by Cindy Jones

The first completed novel of my dedicated writing life was banished to the dark attic long ago where, with twenty one rejection letters it lingered in solitary confinement.  I wrote Trials of a Lawyer’s Wife when I had four small children and a minivan.  No time for research, I wrote what I knew, and this novel was set in carpool line.  Protagonist Lucy Barnes, a young mother, struggles to find her place in the private school Parents’ Association all the while wondering:  when did affluence become a virtue?  My first novel was destined for immortal obscurity.      

But secretly, over the years, the banished novel grew to mythic status in my imagination.  Time and distance softened its edges and it acquired the aspect of a Romantic figure; heroine of its own banker box.  Like money in the bank or a casserole in the freezer—the mythic novel-in-exile made me feel secretly rich, as if I could write long into the late afternoon and still put dinner on the table.  Whenever I felt like it, I could reach for this fully-formed novel and instantly enlarge my body of work.  Absence heightened its possibilities; editors might be less aloof now that its author was listed in Contemporary American Authors. 

So when Girlfriends Book Club announced the topic for this blog cycle during which everyone would share their novel that never got published, I relished the idea of exhuming my manuscript. 

I will not belabor the sense of complacent assurance with which I approached this task except to say that, left to the last minute before leaving for vacation, I suffered attacks of panic when I realized my folly. 

My trunk novel was banished to the attic for a reason. 

No sooner had I opened its pages than I realized my first novel was a walking talking embodiment of every newbie writing mistake possible.  A simple excerpt from the first chapter was not possible because the story didn’t start there.  I read on and on seeking the beginning until I found it—in Chapter 5.  The sentences are poorly constructed, the reader is constantly being told and then reminded.  It sounds juvenile; it is improbable.   I included too many things from my own life that didn't apply to the life of my protagonist therefore my protagonist is inconsistent and unworthy of a literary life.  But horrors--it is full of filler, none of which flows in any discernible direction.  Perhaps there is evidence of crude artistic ability of the sort reviewers declare would have done well in the hands of a more skillful writer, but any attempt to resurrect this manuscript now would require a lot of work.          

I realize I may have violated the spirit of this assignment but I could not provide an excerpt for this blog without major revision.  So I spent a good day reworking the following excerpt--a short scene in which Lucy, a young mother who is barely able to navigate carpool line, is stood up by her Help.  I've had so much fun revising, I'm thinking about resurrecting parts of this novel to use in a series of stories.  

I hope you like it.   


Lucy Barnes vs. the Laundry
On Monday morning Adela did not come to work.  Lucy checked the front window every three minutes expecting to see Adela parking her car but Adela did not show up and the morning did not assume its usual sense of direction.  Lucy pushed back her shower and refilled her coffee mug, stacking the used cereal bowls in the sink while Anne Elizabeth stood directly in front of the screen full of Muppets.  Adela had never missed work without calling. 
At 9:30 Lucy gathered her hair in a barrette and cleared the dishwasher she’d been leaving for Adela.  By 10:00, when she had the washing machine, the dishwasher, and the vacuum cleaner operating simultaneously like a symphony in minor housekeeping, Daisy barked so seriously that Lucy thought Adela had surely arrived.  Lucy threw down the Windex and walked to the door but it was the mailman delivering an envelope with big red letters.  If only Adela would show up and guide the house into its normal routine, Lucy would be free to call the car insurance company and beg for retroactive reinstatement.  Instead, she dithered between kitchen and laundry room, tripping over a jumble of video equipment John had left charging, further derailing her commitment to the morning.  She made beds, sorted laundry, carried toys to the playroom, and hauled John’s golf clubs from the entryway to the garage, all the while feeling as if she’d been stood up on a date. 
Lucy drove to the grocery store and the dry cleaners wishing she hadn’t said that thing to Adela about not forgetting to clear the dishwasher.  But on the other hand, as she fetched the boys from school, she told herself that Adela might have a perfectly logical explanation for her absence.  Things come up.  But Lucy was home, single-handedly unloading groceries and transferring laundry while the boys ate one cookie each, when she thought to check her messages.  Adela might have called while she was out.  The first message was from an alpha mom of the Parents Committee trolling pre-K moms for fresh blood.  The next was from John, full of heavy sighing—not the romantic kind—complaining that Lucy had not paid the auto insurance premium.  “Would you please take care of this?  I’ll be home late tonight.” 
Lucy leaned against the wall.
“Mom, Jack called me hamster-head,” Andrew whined.
           “Not now,” Lucy said.
           “But Mom!”
           “Andrew, I’m on the phone.” 
           Lucy retrieved the third message but the voice was so timid she had to replay it twice to understand the words. 
           “Hello Miss Lucy, I am Elena, the niece of Adela.  She asked me to call to tell you she has cancer.  She can’t work for you anymore.  Bye.”
          Lucy hit replay again and again hoping she’d missed something, but the child’s voice repeated the same information, saying the word cancer as if it were a simple calendar conflict.  Lucy slid to the kitchen floor where toddler hand-prints on wall and windows cried out in silent need.  All productive activity stopped and the Tudor household went into limbo.  The Windex would stay where it was, next to a roll of paper towels on the counter.  The laundry would not move anymore today.  The pile of clothes waiting to be folded would wait overnight and dinner would be an impossible task.  Andrew made haste to remove a handful of cookies from the jar on the counter.  One of the cats strolled over and rubbed up against Lucy. 
If Adela died now, nearly one-third of her short life would have been spent picking up after Lucy and her kids. 
           “Mommy.  Are you crying?” Andrew asked.

If you like this excerpt, you might enjoy my published novel, My Jane Austen Summer.  
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  1. Love the story Cindy! I have a bad feeling I'm going to have the same experience:)

    1. Thanks Lucy! It's not so bad once the initial shock and disappointment wear off...

  2. Having fun writing - that should always be the goal. Great post Cindy

  3. I'm becoming increasingly aware of how true this adage is: No piece of writing is ever finished; it's just due!

    Thanks for sharing, and I love your book cover.

  4. I recently found an old manuscript and my post is up this week and I'm really debating what to share from it. It's...awful. Loved your post!

    1. I can't wait to read yours. Everyone's trunk novels are so good!

  5. My trunk novel has everything you mentioned and I am so overwhelmed with what to do with it. I loved this post--learning that every writer has at least one trunk novel is a relief. It CAN be worked over, made over, or started over and turn out great...someday.

    1. It just takes time!! Thanks for reading and leaving your comment! I'm glad I have company.

  6. If you will exchange that dog for a cat, I'll take that summer vacation.

    1. You are so funny! I'll even throw in some shade!

  7. What a story, Cindy!! It would be a lot of fun to see the original cringe-worthy ms and compare it to this polished gem!

    1. Interesting idea but the original went back to the attic!! Thank you for organizing this topic!

  8. Excellent, Cindy, would love to read more!