A good Facebook friend and aspiring author/writer recently asked for my advice regarding the length of chapters. Is it something predetermined before even putting thoughts to paper (or keyboard to monitor)? Or is it advisable to just write and see how it all plays out?
An excellent question for sure, and one for which I am not entirely certain there is a correct answer. As I’ve noted many times, the process by which I wrote Water Signs was highly unusual and most likely, unrepeatable. In another post, I described the circumstances that opened the floodgate of memories that led to the steady stream of consciousness that ultimately resulted in a 435-page novel. The words literally came through me from a higher place, and in most cases, I didn’t have to consciously or deliberately think about the mundane mechanics of the work itself. I intuitively knew when to end one chapter and begin another — though most ended up being 20 pages or so in length.
With Sea To Shining Sea, I am attempting quite deliberately to maintain that 20-page chapter limit, since it was very effective the first time around. But there’s a little more to it than that. For example, one of the literary techniques I employed successfully in Water Signs was flashback — whether to an event long-ago or in the recent past. So I would in effect, finish a chapter — leading the reader to believe they knew everything there was to know about the events contained therein, only to discover some new insights about the same event(s) in the next chapter. This helped to create a little more intrigue and drama.
Keep in mind also that I am a creative type who knew from the start I wasn’t going to follow the traditional publishing path, i.e. jump through all kinds of hoops to entice a literary agent, including conducting research on my genre at a book store. With the advent of Print-on-Demand and social media, I realized that a new and wondrous vehicle to reach my audience and achieve success awaited me. So I was pretty much unconcerned with “trivial” things like chapter length, outline, competing titles and authors within my category, market research and all of the other things publishing houses obsess over (and demand that their potential authors research on their own time, with no guarantee of getting the contract anyway).
So put me in the “just write it” camp. You can always go back and edit later. Write from the heart and get ‘er done. That’s my advice.
While we’re on the topic, some other fascinating things occurred during the evolution of Water Signs — and here’s where the fusion of fact and fiction was at its most enjoyable. When I determined (somewhere around Chapter Eight) that this book was actually going to come into being very soon, I decided to take a proactive approach and search for the person who inspired Ken. For the record, my best friend (on whom the character of Elyse is based, and the same one who was there when I had the reading that ended my selective amnesia about this guy) thought it was a terrible idea. In fact, she tried her best to talk me out of it. Ironically, she’s bumped into “Erin” unexpectedly a few times this year at business functions — something that had never happened before in all of her 25 years of living in Boca Raton. But I will discuss that at length when I explore the female friendships of Water Signs.
I am not sure if stubbornness is also a Pisces trait, or merely a personality foible, but I am the kind of person who — once I make a decision about something — cannot be convinced otherwise. For good or bad, I’m in.
So just like Madeline in Chapter 27 (after having a reading similar to the real ones I experienced, though altered a bit for dramatic purposes) sits down and pens a letter to Ken, I did the same with “Ken”. Though taken from real life, the one readers discover is a little more flowery and poetic than the one I wrote:
How are you? I can’t even imagine how you might feel right now, holding this letter in your hand. I mean, how long has it been? About a million years? And yet in so many ways, it feels like yesterday.
I don’t know what it is about 2008, but ever since this year began, I have had a palpable feeling that everything was coming full circle somehow. It took me a few months to realize exactly what that meant, but now I have no doubt it involves you—and some important things I’d left undone and unsaid. Things you really need to know.
It’s strange that you would be on my mind now; I can’t explain why this is suddenly the case since I hadn’t thought about you much at all over the years. For my own survival, I’d willfully blocked you out of my thoughts to the point where it was as if you never existed in the first place. There was just no way I could’ve been your friend, not in any sort of active way, at least. It was just too painful to see you with another woman, so I did the only thing I could do. You made your choice; I made mine. I even concocted a story to tell people whenever they would ask me why I moved to Florida. And the mind is such a powerful thing that I actually believed it myself.
Look, I know it is ancient history, but I am so very sorry for everything I ever said or did to hurt you. You were so good to me, so kind and caring. If I had a time machine, I am certain I would go back and make very different decisions where you were concerned. If I could go back with the knowledge I have now, I would understand just what I’d had in you. In many ways, you were so much more mature. You saw qualities within me that I was unable or unwilling to see for myself. And I never truly appreciated that.
You once told me that I inspired you; but the truth is you inspired me, too. I never realized just what a catalyst you have been in my life. These last fourteen years have been an incredible personal and spiritual growth journey, one that would not have been possible without you. While I’ve endured some pretty traumatic experiences (along with good ones), I can see now how every seemingly insurmountable obstacle, every hour of darkness, every tear shed in moments of anguish, have all contributed to making me the mature, self-adjusted woman I am today.
There are absolutely incredible people in my life that I am blessed to call friends, my writing career is finally in full swing and my health is excellent (warm weather definitely agrees with me). Perhaps most significantly, my faith is stronger than it has ever been in my entire life. I owe all of this to you. Ken, you opened my eyes. You made me realize that the world—my world—was more expansive and wonderful than I’d ever imagined.
This may or may not be appropriate, but I want you to know that no man before or after you has ever treated me with the same amount of respect, affection and concern. Sadly, at 25, I didn’t know what I had. You were everything I didn’t know I wanted. Yes, hindsight, as they say, really is 20/20. And no matter where you are or what you are doing, I hope it makes you feel good to know just how much you have positively impacted my life. At least, that is the intention of this letter.
Anyway, I am sure you are an awesome father, and I pray that you are well and happy. Take care of yourself and God bless!
In this same chapter, I employed the literary technique of juxtaposition, to create more intrigue throughout the sections following the letter, which is where it also becomes a fusion of fact and fiction. Just like Maddy, I believed it safer to mail the letter to the home of the guy’s parents, who happen to live in the same town. But since I had no way of knowing how it all went down from there, I had to use my imagination. Thus, in the very next scene, Ken’s mother Paula Lockheart is engaged in an active power-walk in her neighborhood, while musing about all of the recent events in her son’s life. This is also where we learn of Paula’s deep-seated affection and love for her son:
Paula Lockheart looked at her pedometer and picked up the pace as she conducted her customary late-morning power walk. An attractive woman in her late-60’s, she was diligent about remaining active and eating right to maintain good health. After all, she had two adorable grandchildren to see into adulthood. And now that her youngest son had endured a bitter custody battle and an acrimonious divorce, she was more determined than ever to support him and his offspring.
She’d always been so proud of Ken; from the time he was a little boy, he’d been her most affectionate and devoted son. Even as a newborn, she’d noticed something different—and wonderful—about her “baby.” His soulful blue eyes showcased a natural exuberance and passion for life. And despite their modest means, she knew from the very beginning that her fourth and last child was destined to be a success in every sense of the word.
So when she bumps into her mailman and enters her air-conditioned home with a stack of mail, she’s intrigued by the pink envelope addressed to her son, conspicuously missing the name of the sender, although bearing a return address. By this time, we’ve also found out that Paula is an intuitive mother who nevertheless makes it a practice to refrain from interfering in her children’s lives. Using more flashback, I have the character reminisce about Ken’s heart-wrenching dilemma many years prior when “the girl from Media” shocked him by actually relocating to Florida. Engaged to another woman, we learn that Ken had met his mother at the Deerfield Beach Fishing Pier to talk things out. And true to her nature, a sympathetic Paula listens but does not offer any advice other than to follow his heart.
All of this, dear readers, is a product of my imagination, conjured up at this particular juncture of the story to flesh out the character of Paula Lockheart (whom we’d only known through Ken up to this point), and clue readers in to some other previously unknown events that had taken place.
However, Ken’s reaction to the news, and Madeline’s concurrent visit to Disney World with her mother is a blend of fact and fiction. In real life, my mom and I took a few days to head to Orlando during one of her visits here to South Florida. We’d left on a Sunday and came back on a Wednesday night, making the 2 1/2 hour trip via car. And the night we got back, I listened to my voice mail and discovered a message from “Ken”, recorded on the Sunday of our departure (so I must’ve just missed him) and apprising me of his mom’s calling to inform him of the letter.
But the little fantasy he plays out in his mind while waiting to leave the voicemail is an example of creative license on the part of the author:
Ken felt his heart pound in his chest as he listened to the familiar ring tone and eagerly anticipated hearing the sounds of her sweet voice again. A few moments later he did, though it was via voicemail, and not the live version: Hi, this is Madeline Rose. I can’t take your call right now, but it is really important to me. Please leave me a message and I promise to return your call just as soon as I can. Talk to you soon and have a great day!
As her outgoing message played, he felt for the first time in over fifteen years the welcome bolt of electricity igniting his soul and coursing through his body; suddenly, it was 1992 again, and he and Maddy were making out on his waterbed, while the moonlight filtered through the skylight above them.
His hands caressed her face as he gazed into her expressive amber eyes. Nestled beneath his body, he could feel her heart beating fast while he placed his lips tenderly on hers, and then eventually tasted the sweetness of her mouth with his soft, subtle tongue. Maddy sighed, returning his advances with equal amounts of passion and fervor. In the background, the sensual sounds of their favorite music amplified their desires, steadily leading them on a mesmerizing path of fulfillment for body, mind and soul.
“Kenny?” Her voice was a mere whisper as he nibbled at her ear. He brought his face close to hers.
“Yes?” Her fingers traced the waves of his blond hair as she made her request.
“I want you to make love to me.”
Happily stunned, but wanting to confirm the words he’d been longing to hear ever since meeting her, he studied her face for a moment before asking, “You sure, sweetheart? ‘Cause you know I’d like nothing better than to make passionate love to you all night. I just need to know it’s what you really want, too. Otherwise, it won’t—”
Madeline answered him with a kiss that left him breathless as he proceeded to slowly unbutton her blouse to reveal her delicate, porcelain skin and the black lace of her bra. He began to trace kisses down her neck, working his way down to the curve of her breasts as he gently moved his hands over her. In the next moment, he carefully slid the garment off of her body and shifted her on top of him as he moved onto his back in one smooth move.
With her auburn hair cascading past her shoulders and her fair skin gleaming in the soft light, she far exceeded any vision of beauty he’d previously held in mind, both as an adolescent and a young man sailing around the world. He reached around her back to unhook the last trace of clothing from her chest, barely able to contain his excitement as delicious thoughts of finally seeing and experiencing every inch of her petite, curvy body conflicted with genuine concern for this being her very first time, and his desire to make it as beautiful for her as possible.
The whole concept of the “first time” is one that weaves its way throughout the entire novel because it is inextricably intertwined with the traditional values the characters espouse — which are simultaneously a cause of tension and heartbreak via Ken and Madeline’s inability to communicate effectively with each other.
Back to the voicemail.
The one Ken records in the novel is almost identical to the one “Ken” left for me. And the conversation the characters have the next morning — the first in several years — is faithful to the actual event.
More on the fusion of fact and fiction in my next post.