Since the early 2000s, I have participated in a novel writing workshop in Baltimore. The concept of writing workshops is very popular, and among them, the novel workshop stands out for its inherent difficulties. By virtue of their length, novels require patience and a commitment for the long haul. We meet every two weeks and review (critique) two submissions of about 15 pages each, due to obvious time limitations. We are eight core members and one’s turn to submit and be critiqued comes about once every two to three months. Generally authors submit excerpts from the same novel, following the order in which the novel is being written. Remembering earlier details is difficult and while we have a general recollection of what we have previously read, the focus of each meeting is on the pages on hand, and not on the overall structure of the book or the arch of its story. Sometimes we nitpick, talking about unnecessary words and word choices, punctuation, spelling, grammar and paragraphing. Discussions about dialogue, point of view or character development are based on the piece in front of us, while impressions about the total work are vague and incomplete. Unfortunately, when it comes to novel workshops, this is the best there is.
By rotation, we meet in each other’s home, serve hors d’oeuvres and drinks, greet family members and debate our submissions as honestly and supportively as possible. Over time, we have become good friends, understanding our individual frustrations and doubts about the creative process and offering encouragement to each other.
From time to time, one of us publishes a completed novel, and what a pleasant surprise that is! You can hold the finished product in your hands, read the story from start to finish without months of interruptions, see the eventual improvements in the writing, sometimes based on the comments made by the group, and share in the pride and satisfaction of your colleague, the author. I once visited an automobile assembly line somewhere near Tarrytown, New York. During the tour I saw the myriad components, large and small, colorful or dull, sharp and blunt. I looked at them, touched them, smelled them and tried to imagine how they come together to form that yet undefined final assembly. But then, I walked into a room where the new cars were on display — beautiful and well-made objects ready to be taken out for a spin. (In my many years of workshopping I experienced the opposite as well. Once I read the entire novel of a friend — most likely a first draft — and then, as part of the workshop, with a know-it-all smirk on my face I listened to my colleagues’ critiquing of excerpts from that same novel. Some comments were right on, while others were off, and understandably so, since they were reacting to only a part of the total. The author’s long-term intentions were unknown to them.)
Recently, my friend and fellow author, Clark Riley, published Dots, a novel about “cancer sleuthing on the 21st century frontier.” He did it only several months after the publication of his novel What If They Lied? (just a little), “an economic thriller.” He had presented both in our workshop, along with at least two others, and of all his works, Dots is my favorite. It’s only two hundred pages long, but they are dense pages, with an amazing amount of detail on many different subjects that Clark excels in, like (in no particular order) quilting, botany, cattle, biblical themes, medicine, and the importance of remembering and using people’s names. The story is told in first person by Dr. John Parker, a meticulous person, “obsessive” even, and possessor of a big heart. He is an “epidemiological researcher with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta [who] has journeyed to a tiny town in rural Kentucky to investigate a cluster of four cases of an extremely rare cancer…” His description of the medical sampling kit he is taking with him is astonishing in its precision and detail, and representative of other descriptions in the book: “The kit consists of a hard plastic case with handles. The case can be autoclaved in the event of a sample spill. It has snap mounts for 12 coring samples, 12 syringes with needle guards, 24 sample vials, 30 triple-ridged heavy-gage looking security bags, a roll of numbered labels, a logbook pre-numbered, an audio recorder, a disposable digital camera, a pencil and a pen that writes even on wet surfaces. Finally, there are three sterile envelopes of latex gloves with rigorously defined chemical signatures. The vials contain preservatives for the sample on their journey to the lab.”
Dr. Parker’s story has clearly two sides — one is the rural setting, presented with unmistakable talent, the other being the plot itself, a testimony to the author’s preference for the action/mystery genre, which reels the reader in and surprises in the end. I loved the first, and here are some excerpts from only five pages of a random chapter (Respectful Omnivore) in the middle of the book, in which the author explores small town America. Notice the simple and direct language, the precision of expression, and the variety of topics.
“I strolled along her peony bed. If we did live here, Baylor [Dr. Parker’s wife] would have a huge bed of peonies. Ellen’s [peonies] were a uniform shell pink, no doubt originating form a single division long ago. Baylor had told me about the newer varieties, which had a much wider range of colors, and many had different forms. Unfortunately, the newer varieties often mildewed, having been bred more for appearance than disease resistance.”
“Old man Taylor out on the Russerville road still runs a sorghum press — just for his friends. He told me a few years back he was going to get out of sorghum because no one was buying his grain at a reasonable price. Then Gina started taking all that he’s produced for her Limousin cattle, since old man Taylor doesn’t spray his crop with anything. He’s kinda set for life there. And the rest of us get fresh sorghum molasses every fall.”
“The day’s lesson dealt with forgiveness of crimes. The passage was in the eighth chapter of John, the one about a woman who had been caught in adultery brought to Jesus. It’s a fertile passage for discussion and a bit of an anomaly. The same story appears in Luke, though in a different part of Jesus’s ministry.”
“We entered the State Forest with its cool, dark woods. Northwestern Christian County is hilly — much more so than the rolling meadows of southern Todd County. Once inside the State Park, we followed signs to the boat docks. We parked and got out. Pennyrile Lake is not very large, perhaps 10 to 20 acres formed by a dam at the northern end. It’s nestled below steep cliffs and ledges, shrouded in deep woods.”
In the end, the victim finds her revenge and the mystery is solved, but as far as I am concerned, it is obvious that the author loves small town America. It shows, and we love it with him.
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