This is part IV and the final post of Bookmarks and Writing Prompts, where I’ve added two vignettes every week over four weeks from a first draft that came via a self-assigned writing prompt. If you missed part III, check it out here.
I’ve added Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing to my reading list this week. Based on reviews, it’s an exceptional craft book that focuses just as much on the adventure of writing as it does on techniques and practical tips. It even gives the lowdown on the author’s prolific writing life. I’ve also added James Scott Bell’s The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises. In addition to exercises that cover all the important aspects of writing a novel, he has also included advice on what to do once it’s finished and how.
Now for the last two vignettes and developmental questions and thoughts, which are below.
The pages of her philosophy reader compiled with a bunch of dinosaur men in frilly-collared shirts – Don’t any young and still alive people philosophize? – part ways and crowd around the cylinder mass of the pencil.
She could rant on and on about how she uses pencils to sketch crying eyes and generally, pathetically sad faces when sitting through her second semester of algebra, or to write those boring essays for her political science course at Community College that her mother makes her attend, or how the boys in class act like they’re still in high school, poking each other and flicking pencils across the room and breaking them when having pencil wars. But really pencils have got her thinking about what people would do without trees – aside from the obvious, she means other than dying – like the ginormous one near the parking lot where she sits when skipping classes, thinking about her father and if it’s time she started taking his calls.
It’s been over seven years of holding the grudge, of being angry with him for leaving her mother, of letting her voicemail answer and dodging him when he’s picking up or dropping off her brother for the weekend, or pretending not to notice him at the back of her Shakespeare play, or her speech on the importance of philanthropy and blah blah, or her high school graduation, etcetera.
It seems her mother’s over it, especially since she told her, “Your father really wants to talk to you. Maybe you should give him another chance.” Yes, she’s definitely moved on with her new husband who treats her well, understands her quirks, respects her geek for nature, and doesn’t mind her drinking.
And sometimes she does miss him. Besides, although she doesn’t know for sure, she thinks some things are harder than dying still, like a girl living without her father her whole life.
Dad sat at the kitchen table after the kids ravished the ham and cheese sandwiches he made for lunch and disappeared like the wild banshees they are. He threw the bread tie in his book, a book he purchased at the local bookstore before he read the reviews, and he was sorely disappointed with it. He started clearing the table.
He had to do it, he told himself, while wrapping up the sandwich fixings – tell his wife he had made the decision they were both trying to make about filing for divorce. They had yelled about it, read about it, sulked about it in therapy. She knew it was coming, because he had known for ages. But how to tell her and go out with the little grace and dignity he had left? As soon as he told her, like the many times he tried to tell her stuff, he’d regret it, because she’d run through the house, throwing her grown woman tantrum in front of the kids and making him out to look like the devil she thought he was. Really he wanted to tell the kids first so they could hear his side of the story and he could reassure them that all would be okay, without her sobbing and screaming tainting everything. But that would look all kinds of bad, since they were kids, just seven years old and twelve, and adults were supposed to deal with adult stuff, and they would go tell her anyway and then she’d still throw the tantrum and everything would be a mess, which was the reason he was leaving in the first place.
His daughter walked into the kitchen while he was putting away the mayo and mustard and asked him if he needed some help, and then he had an idea. He would tell her first, the oldest of the two children. At least he was sure she knew what a divorce was since her classmate’s parents were getting one too and she came home not too long ago with a bunch of questions he’d painstakingly answered.
His adorable daughter, spirited and charming and nice and pulling herself away from kid play to help him clean up. He hated that the divorce might change things between them, what with not being able to ask him questions all day long like he was OK Google. “Dad, what’s the average weight of a pig?” “Dad, how many cups of sugar does it take to blow up a gas tank?” But he couldn’t think about that now, nor about what it would do to his son; he had thought about it so much already, and now he just had to tell someone, her, before he lost the nerve.
“Sweet dumpling,” he called to her.
She crinkled her nose. “Don’t call me that,” she said with a smile. “It’s weird.”
“Okay, cream puff,” he responded. He wanted to forget the whole thing when she let out one of her buttery giggles, but he persevered. “Remember when you told me your friend’s parents were getting a divorce?” he asked and then gripped the back of a chair. Oh, this was hard, he thought.
She was quiet.
“You remember what that word means, right?”
“Yeah,” she said grabbing a cup. “But they’re not getting one anymore. Jenna says her dad even moved backed in.”
Damn, he was depending on that example of people getting a divorce and the kids surviving, especially since she knew the kid personally, to help ease this situation for the both of them. What was he supposed to do now? And since he didn’t have a clue, he just blurted it out: “Your mother and I are getting a divorce,” he shouted, and leaned over the chair for support. But as soon as the words came out, he wanted them back. Not because he didn’t mean them, but because the look on her face said that he could’ve done better, that he could’ve said it differently and at a different time, not while standing in the kitchen with a ham packet in his hand, rushing out words because he was scared. What a coward.
She thumped the glass in the sink, and ran passed him, glaring at him in a way he didn’t even know was capable for her sugar eyes to do. He hoped that glare wasn’t there to stay.
“Mom,” she belted out as if the kitchen was on fire.
And he stood up straight, trying to prepare himself for the mayhem.
Pressing questions and thoughts:
1. Openings. These two vignettes have brought to my attention that most of the vignettes I’ve written thus far, open with sentences that feel contemplative in a way. They give the reader a general sense of the setting and the characters’ lives before being grounded in any real action or a clearer time frame of events, etc. If that’s the way the story wants to be written, then okay. But I am asking myself why, and what I would lose if I, for example, ixnayed the first paragraph of “Pencils.” That paragraph has lots of description I like, so yes, I’d be losing something. But what if I folded that description into the second paragraph instead? I could work it into the first sentence, right after “…or to write those boring essays for her political science course at Community College that her mother makes her attend.” This would lengthen an already really long sentence, so then I should think about how to break some of it up.
All of that’s a fine choice, but really I wrote the first paragraph while picturing the setting of this vignette. The daughter is sitting under a large tree on her community college campus and her philosophy book is next to her, and I’d like the reader to know this. So I’ll most likely opt to revise the first paragraph in order to make the setting clearer, like it is in “Bread ties.”
2. Avoiding conflict. In “Pencils” we learn that the daughter has managed to avoid her father for over seven years. That’s serious determination and I’m not quite sure how a child could do that if the father’s still actively participating in her life. By having her avoid him I’m missing an opportunity for her to be drawn into the conflict more so we can see more of what she thinks and feels and how it goes down when her father, for example, shows up at her school or drops off or picks up her brother, especially if she has refused to go with them. I like that she has started to reconsider this “grudge” she’s held for so long, but I want to see more of how she gets to that point.
3. Closings. I want the last lines of each vignette to be hard hitting, to really punctuate the situation. I feel I’ve accomplished that with a few of them, and “Pencils” is one. But now I have to decide whether the weight of that last sentence is undermined or supported, given the times we’ve seen the father and daughter together, which was in “Feather,” a vignette I posted in Bookmarks and Writing Prompts II, and now in “Bread ties.” This leads me to my next question.
4. M.I.A. We never see the family interacting altogether in one scene. We know they’re all at home in “Bread ties,” even though only the father and daughter directly interact with each other. The rest happens in the father’s imagination. And in “Feather” they are all at the park, but the mother is only pregnant with the son at that point. It’s important to create scenes where all of them appear together, especially given what the story’s about.
Also, in addition to creating more moments where we see the couple happier, as I noted in Bookmarks II, I could develop a vignette that shows them in therapy instead of briefly mentioning it in “Bread ties.” And I could create a scene to show one of those really explosive moments between them that the father mentions as a way to get closer to the reasons why their relationship isn’t working.
This post concludes Bookmarks and Writing Prompts. I’ll be moving on to my second draft soon, keeping in mind the questions and thoughts raised in the first. Hopefully they’ve been applicable and helpful to your stories. If you’d like to leave a comment, please do so below.