July 24th, 2008


A Stab at Self Criticism

Ever since beginning to write my novel Bluebonnet Circle, I knew that it would be deeply flawed. This is not by any reason of low self esteem, but by the simple facts that I was writing in isolation, without any dynamic feedback, and that I had no experience attempting a project so large and complex. I understood the strategic difficulties, but had little practice in tactics, by which I mean that I knew what I wanted the story to be about in general and had the overall plot outlined well in advance of the narrative process, but that I was (and remain) largely unschooled in the proper use of environment, characterization, and plot devices. I made many changes during the writing, some more drastic than others, but what emerged was surprisingly close to the story as I originally envisioned it. Where changes in plot were made, at least one large one will stay, but most details are still subject to revision.

Of the flaws within it that I understood before fleshing it out, as well as the ones I have found since, I must say that the deepest must remain. They are flaws, that much I am humble enough to admit, but they are of a nature that I think can be used as object lessons for my future as a writer. For my own edification, and perhaps the beginning of an explanation for those who read the story, I will try to lay out these changes and flaws. Since I have the full story internalized (and much back story and sequel possibilities), and feel that even a quick outline would take up many paragraphs, I'll assume that anyone reading this post has also completed the novel itself or at least is willing to search the website for suitable study.

Let me begin with a change forced by continuity issues. Originally, Part III was meant to be the preparations for, and return from, a camping trip to a ranch in West Texas owned by an uncle of the character Kevin. Derek, Kevin, and Lizzie are said to have gone on several such trips since childhood, the literary reasons for mentioning these being to help give a sense of the special relationship shared by the three as well as to show how that relationship has changed in the major stages of their lives. This was to be done through memory recalls of past trips by the characters and special attention given to their attitudes upon returning. The idea itself has its origin in my own numerous experiences camping as a child and the more recent, peculiar one of watching a group go through this very activity without myself being able to go on the trips with them. While outlining the story, I thought that this last trip together was a unique way of having some of the characters finally find the limit of their accustomed routine and relationships (hence the title of the Part, "Escape Velocity"), but overlooked the difficulty of "hiding" the trip itself behind the scenes and trying to reveal what happened through recollections at the same time as I would be trying to have the characters recall earlier trips. Not only would this be an overt break in narrative continuity, but the reminiscences would necessarily become confusing. Which trip would I be referring to in each exegesis and would it be meant to further characterization of a single person or deepen the picture of their relationships? Also, the true plotwise break with their past was supposed to come in Part IV, with Jennifer's rape and Lizzie's subsequent shunning by her friends.

Since I had intentionally written the first two Parts ostensibly as lead-ins to parties meaningful to the plot, I decided that I should instead find a way to do the same with the third and, as a result, make this the last get together that the group would have; its unintended "going away party". As I had originally meant for the story to end a week or two before their yearly Halloween party (a bash that would have been looked forward to by everyone, but unfortunately would not happen due to the unfolding of events), I found that simply moving the timeline back would allow the characters to have that party after all. Not only could I shift the preparations for a camping trip to preparations for a costume party, but I could actually include the party itself in a way to further the character Jennifer's role as an introduction into the group's lifestyle. Furthermore, I could still reveal pertinent information from Derek, Kevin, and Lizzie's past through memories without as much confusion with present, though offstage, activity. Although I wrote these chapters out without redoing the outline and, as a result, came up with some sloppy segues, I think Part III came out as well as I could expect. As such, beyond some tweaking for coherence, it will stand.

Other, smaller and less important, changes are numerous. For instance, Jennifer was to buy a bicycle partway through the story, which she would be using on the day of the tornado and also on the last day. Lizzie would have 'borrowed' the bike for her surreptitious activities during her stay at Jennifer's apartment, for which she would be found out by dried mud left on the wheels. While writing, however, I completely forgot when I should have her buy it, and so got all the way to Part IV with the discrepancy. Although, in this case, it would have been a better device to use than just having her driving the whole time (and Lizzie walking while they live together), I decided that it was too artificially convenient and dropped it.

For the same reason, I almost left out the character Derek's belated inheritance. It plays no part in the plot except to allow him to freely live toward the end after losing his job, getting kicked out of his mother's house (which I also dropped), and losing the ability to stay in Kevin and Archer's apartment after the tornado. Nevertheless, it is a possibly central prop in the sequel story, Butterfly Tattoo, that I hope to begin writing in earnest soon, so I decided to leave it, at least in passing mention.

Finally, and in contrast, I changed the encounter between Jennifer and Derek's mother, Clarice. In retrospect, the change was done with too much haste and so goes way over the top in terms of adding too much to the story at the end as well as giving too much importance to a character who previously is only given token mention. This, I will revise, both to downplay Clarice's purported manipulative and intuitive genius and what she asks of Jennifer. I had planned for Clarice to come in as a surprise all along and to have her ask Jennifer to do something along the lines of looking after Derek (also for use in a sequel), but to make her an absent mastermind was plainly unnecessary and indulgent.

The last change I might as easily have called a mistake, but it is one that will hopefully be easy to remedy. The story has many more mistakes, of course, from overlooked typos and persistent troubles with grammar, which I tend to overlook or correct randomly whenever I reread the story, to glaring whoppers so clichéd that a published author would be justified in laughing at them. Certainly, I do. I may decide to alter the story to get rid of some of the less obvious continuity errors and 'mid-range' plot devices that aren't needed as I recognize them, such as putting less emphasis on the bongs as an indirect indication of Wandrin' Willie's character as a symbol and unspoken ultimate progenitor of their pot culture. I will keep the 'hidey-holes' and 'hiding in plain sight' aspects of that culture, however, because things like these were a ubiquitous part of my real experience in the area during the `90s.

As the aside from Chapter 26 about Derek and Shake's habit of sharing a joint alone at Fort God on late nights long after the practice was abandoned by the rest of their groups shows, many of these traditions that I had held dear actually ended in that time period for socially significant reasons, and for those reasons I intend to use the same kind of poignant reminders in the sequel to help complete Derek's break from his past. Differently, but in the same vein, Jennifer's noting the activities of her friends as resembling religious rituals is deliberate, but in the writing I mistakenly left out several times where Derek makes the same connection by virtue of his growing acquaintance with her. This I can remedy, but it may be difficult to insert them cleanly.

The mention of Lizzie's chaotic thoughts becoming "demons" in Chapter 24 was a mistake born of my own confusion of my original intent to have her hearing "whispers" in comparison with Jennifer's "voices" with my decision on writing the narrative to stop trying to make Lizzie so obviously psychotic (Jennifer's voices are admitted by her to be her conscience and motivation, however distorted by events). This also can be excised without too much trouble.

A slightly more integral mistake for the character of Kevin is that in concentrating on the verbal interplay between Derek, Lizzie, and Archer, I left out mannerisms that show him as a less self-absorbed and less serious version of Derek. In fact, rereading it, he sounds much more suspicious than I had intended. Considering that I have also touted him as being Lizzie's long-time foil and rival for Derek's attentions, this might be the more appropriate way to go, but it is an unintentional outcome, regardless.

The biggest problems with the story that I see are ones that were planned from the beginning, and so will remain, but I think that if I can recognize them all and see just why they are wrong, I might use that knowledge to be a better writer in the future. First, and most transparent, is the deus ex machina of the tornado. Although I had intended for it to be more apparent that Derek sees warning signs throughout Part V (owing to his weather-awareness), I neglected showing his interest in natural science to a degree that trying to find ways to add it now would be dauntingly problematic. This was another mistake I made by over-emphasizing dialogue and skimping on characterization while outlining the story. The tornado itself was based upon the very real one that hit Fort Worth in 2000 and damaged a nightclub called the Wreck Room along with many houses in the nearby neighborhood and several buildings downtown. Having Derek's mother be the "luck" it took to get Kevin and Archer (and, by association, Derek) into the Grande Park Apartments is in itself a deus ex machina, but I hope that this is to some extent alleviated by her conversation with Jennifer.

I meant to include the tornado as a catalyst even before I had worked out most of the rest of the story and still cannot think of a better way to dispatch the character of Shake, force Jennifer to come to terms with her (now reluctant) love for Lizzie, and set the appropriate stage for Lizzie's suicide, which was also preordained. Nonetheless, Lizzie was always supposed to leap to her death from that apartment building in front of both Derek and Jennifer; that the destruction by the tornado would cause it to eerily echo how it had looked while left deserted during the characters' childhood (and as its real life counterpart looked during mine) is a point that I can find no other logical way to accomplish. Likewise, Shake's sudden death and Derek's guilt over it can be had by other means, but none that fit all the other pieces.

In short, the story can be altered to include a car wreck or some other more personal calamity that would be easier to set up as deriving from the characters themselves, but I've already surrounded the tornado with too many specific consequences to leave the last two Parts intact. Besides becoming the stage for Lizzie's final "performance", it is also the reason for Kevin's moving back in with his mother (needed for Jennifer to meet Clarice), Jennifer's being forced to go to multiple places looking for Derek, and Derek's, as well as Archer's, final excuse to leave town. For all of these reasons, besides the fact that I just like the scene itself for selfishness alone, the tornado stays. Perhaps by studying it I can avoid such things in the future.

At last, there is the problem of the nature of the characters themselves. As amalgamations of persons I have known in real life, all of them have traits which I consider authentic; I have experienced their like too often to call them artificial. However, in at least some cases, they are admittedly stereotypical. Lizzie's near one dimensional predatory bisexual sadist, for starters. Although I have known many sexual predators, none have been as callous or calculating, at least to my knowledge, and none have been as good at it as she is portrayed. I have also known many persons who were mentally ill, and one who has committed suicide, but none who so completely fit the "sexually abused becomes sexual abuser" role. Also, I have known several lesbian and bisexual women, but none of them were either sexual predators or remotely psychotic. It seems, therefore, that I have taken the worst attributes of some of my past acquaintances and mixed them up with what I see as morally neutral sexual preferences and come up with a character who I myself should consider an insidious misrepresentation of bisexual or lesbian women.

Alright, I'm guilty. I always meant Lizzie to be this way, to be Jennifer's irresistible tempter as well as her own unwitting destroyer. So not only is her character hopelessly stereotypical, her part in the story is as well. While initially forming my ideas for the story, I felt that I needed a provocative trickster who would hold an unstable equilibrium for the group, which was the dynamic I had most often seen in the circle in which I ran at the time, as well as a coequal antagonist for the egotistical leader of the band and an object of insatiable concern for the character who was ultimately the one who the reader is meant to follow throughout, yet otherwise desires to break away. As tempter, trickster, attention-stealer, power player, and focus of hopeless dreams of redemption, Lizzie fit perfectly.

Somewhere along the way, I decided to add a character through whom readers unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the lifestyle shown could be introduced to it. Jennifer came in as the one who would be seduced and, as such, quickly took all the attributes of "good girls" I have known in school, through work, and (ironically) in the college bars around Fort Worth. She is certainly an extreme case of the "good girl looking for a good time", but again, she is not too far from people I have actually met (male and female) and fits the circumstances perfectly.

Archer is only a slightly more over-the-top version of many lead singers I have known and, regrettably, finds no lesson here, but his "cock rocker" attitude is not only blatantly stereotypical, it's also pervasive in our society. Blame me for using this easy tool, but just because he's stereotypical doesn't mean that he isn't true .

I had hoped that Shake's character as a black man who had been raised in white, suburban Detroit was far enough away from other black stereotypes that I would be comfortable with him, but even he, or characters very much like him, have shown up in random television shows and books that I have read since I began to conceive the story. So, I guess he is neither unique nor very deep, but at least I have known persons like him (of various colors and musical persuasions), so I will keep him as is, self-deprecating "niggertalk" and all.

Wandrin' Willie has turned out to be as shortchanged in personality as Kevin. There are more quaint sayings attributed to him by other characters in the story than those he says himself, because most of his dialogues are with Derek, who is the only person he shows his 'serious face' to. Before I changed Part III, I had planned a conversation between him and Lizzie (who he still calls Annie), but made the mistake of leaving it out afterward. Considering the revelations at the end of the story, this is a pretty big sleight, but I cannot find a good way to replace it. Willie, then, remains little more than Derek's "anti-Obi-Wan", the stereotype of the would be advice giver who most people ignore as background noise.

As for Derek, he's a younger me, and unapologetically so, with the exception that he gets some of the undeserved respect that I get now, as opposed to the misplaced disrespect that I got when I was around two years younger than he is in the story (it makes sense from my perspective). The rest of the group; Katie, Scrape, and Carla, aren't really fleshed out enough I think for me to criticize. Katie is more or less defined by her sexual ambivalence and guilt, and her inability to realize that her desires and beliefs cannot be changed merely by wanting them to (as well as Kevin's 'belief' that he is allergic to her cat). Clarice, Derek's mother, is only seen in one Chapter, and my problems with her character have already been shown. She may figure more promenantly in the sequel, but I am leaving those details to be filled in as I write them, unlike I did with Bluebonnet Circle.

If anyone has read the story, I'd still like to hear any comments, especially concerning this critique. I will continue to revise it for the forseeable future, but once I begin to seriously get into Butterfly Tattoo, that will almost certainly end. I plan for it to be a sequel to Bluebonnet Circle, but beyond the vague sketching that I have done of it so far, I do not mean to plan out the plot to the detail that I did with the first. I have read that that way leads to overmanagement, and have seen it borne out. Maybe I can get more voice into the next one, and less talking. Wish me luck!
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