Has anyone read Rick Bragg’s book on cooking? I learned about The Best Cook in the World in my critique group last week and have added it to my queue of must-reads. From the discussion I heard last Thursday, Bragg doesn’t just list ingredients, he writes of finding them, making sure of their ripeness or readiness for cooking, and of preparing and sharing the mouthwatering results. “It’s the story, y’all,” my writer friend explained. “It’s all about the story, and he’s a master story teller. Who’d have thought cooking a mess of greens could be so captivating?”
I love my writing group. Love is a strong verb with lots of different meanings and shades. In this case, I mean definition #17 in dictionary.com: to have a strong liking for; take great pleasure in: to love music. After listening to the above book recommendation, I knew we were in for a lively meeting, one in which the submissions would be discussed and critiqued in a serious, yet animated, fashion.
When I first joined this group, my critique contributions consisted largely of spotting misplaced commas and misspelled words. I soon learned to look for holes in the story, overuse of passive voice, and misplaced modifiers. Oh, and I learned that I had a tendency (still do) to use “it” too often. I’m not alone in this. Someone has his or her its circled at every meeting.
Here are a few things I’m still thinking about from last week.
In one story, an elderly painter with a lot of personality (you’ll have to wait for the book to come out to read the writer’s description of this crusty and endearing character) is in danger of getting written out of the novel. Everyone in the group likes him and was disappointed to learn that the author is considering taking him out of the story. I don’t know whether he’ll get the axe or not. I do know we unanimously agreed with the member who said, “Leave Mr. L. in. I like him.”
Another member’s novel is about spousal abuse, and we’re all feeling angst as the protagonist attempts to get away. Will she make it?
“Please tell me that her husband isn’t going to find her,” I begged the writer.
After a moment or two, she said she didn’t know yet. Some writers plot their entire books ahead of time, but many of the ones I know don’t know all the twists and turns until they progress in the work.
As the brave woman flees her abuser, she has to stop for gas and provisions along the way, and she pulls in to a “gas station.” I’m getting better about recognizing things that might date stories and mentioned that I hadn’t heard that term in years. Today people might say truck stop or convenience store; they might even mention the specific name of such an establishment.
The writer seemed interested,, so I continued by telling her of one of my favorite stops between Camden and Myrtle Beach, the Markette outside of Florence. There’s food there…and a Dunkin’ Donuts, too. Often, a man wearing a straw hat stands near his truck filled with watermelons or sweet potatoes toward the front of the parking lot. From my observations while pumping gas at one of self-serves, he seems to do a brisk business. I wondered if the protagonist might also notice his presence on her flight to safety.
The writer wondered aloud if it would be okay to mention the specific name of the establishment, and a discussion about libel ensued. The upshot was that it’s fine to mention it, especially since listing names of streets, businesses, and cars helps give a time and place to the story. Markettes weren’t around until a few decades ago, but gas stations were.
As a follow-up to the above, I attended a craft workshop in Greenville Saturday in which the presenter read the opening lines of a story that mentioned three thriving businesses in Seattle at that time (1974): Bon Marche, Newberry’s, and the Crescent. That little factoid was quite telling. There used to be a Newberry’s, a five and dime store with a lunch counter, in my home town of Camden, but like so many businesses of that era, it no longer exists. Kmart came along, and now that’s becoming history, too. Now we have dollar stores and fast food restaurants.
There were other submissions that morning, but I’m over my self-imposed word count. I’ll get to the story based on dialogue with Siri, the flash piece about appropriate restaurant attire, and a poem tomorrow. For now, I’m thinking of how to incorporate time and place into a little something I’m writing. What about you?