The Creep Factor

Funny what comes up in discussion when people talk to me about “Sarah’s Survival Guide.” Early in the story Sarah refers to “an old guy” who’s ten years older than her. When I was Sarah’s age (19) I thought anybody over 30 was old. That was the age line I drew in the sand for dating. If a guy over 30 tried to ask me out, it felt creepy.

Until John. He was the lead singer and lead guitarist in a band that played at a bar I frequented after my waitress shift was over. I didn’t think about John’s age. Any guy with a guitar was auto-hot to me back then. And he didn’t seem old, not a bit. So we started dating. By the time I learned he was 30, I was already in love. I realized my line in the sand was silly. The same thing happens to Sarah.

John and I eventually moved in together. He had a house. He was a real grown up. And he had a dream to move to California, with or without me. We lived together for a year or so and in that time all of our differences, none of them age-related, came out. I wanted children; he did not. I wanted a conventional life; he still dreamed of making it big as a musician.

I liked a cocktail now and then. John didn’t drink or party at all. A bad experience with LSD made him straight, while I was still a little bit bent. He tried to talk to me about drinking, and why I shouldn’t, but it felt like lectures. Now I see the wisdom in his words. (Although I still drink wine and the very occasional vodka martini.) He wanted complete clarity in his life. He also wanted to become a vegetarian at a time when my usual dinner was either from Taco Bell or McDonald’s.

I tried to enter into the spirit of healthy living by making veggie burgers one night. Wow, what work! Way more work than forming some ground beef into a patty. But I did it for John, because I loved him. It’s ironic than I’m a vegetarian now. I like to think John would approve.

The real sticking point for us was family. I approved of his idea about moving to California, but I knew he was not “the one” because we wanted such different things. In the end, he moved to California with another girl. When you’re a singer in a rock and roll band, there is always another girl.

By then I was dating the guy who would become the father of my children. He ticked all the boxes, home, family, conventional life. Plus he was only five years older than me. Not that I think ten years is too big a gap. That was not even part of the problem with John and me. But it’s a bit of a problem for David, the “old guy” Sarah starts to like a little too much for his comfort.

 

Sarah’s Story

Sarah's Survival Guide Cover_largeSome readers may remember my long ago posts about having to take most of Sarah’s story out of The Paris Notebook to meet editorial requirements. I’ve always wondered if that made the book better, or worse. I never wondered whether Sarah’s story was worth telling in full, I wanted to tell it, so I took all those deleted scenes and wove them into a longish short story of about 40 pages.

I hired someone to make a cover for me and I slapped the story up on my website as a free PDF read. I recently featured it as a free read for Valentine’s day. I’m not sure how many people read it. I never got any feedback. It was just one of those things I kind of let float along. Then all my widgets disappeared. If you write a blog, you know what widgets are. They’re the stuff on the sidebar. That’s where I keep my clickable book covers that will swoop you right over to Amazon. Sarah was stuck in the middle of that and had vanished right along with all the rest.

When I wanted to put her back, she resisted. So I thought, well okay, I can put Sarah on Kindle, explain all about her, charge the lowest price, and then I can use an Amazon link. I did that, but Mercury is in retrograde until February 28, so of course there were all kinds of problems. Today I solved them all! Sarah is back and she is getting the respect she’s always deserved.

Now I am wondering, since according to my publishing contract, I can ask for my rights to the story back now, if I should do that with The Paris Notebook and fold Sarah’s scenes back in. I’m really not sure. But down the line, after I gather learned opinions, I just might reunite my Sarah with the rest of The Paris Notebook.

Stand-Alone Sarah

Sarah’s Survival Guide is a free 40 page story right here on my website. Anyone can read it, even attach it to their tablet or reading device. Makes it sound like I wanted to do something nice for my readers. I do, of course, but the real reason Sarah’s Survival Guide stands alone is because my former editor asked me to consider taking it out. I was writing romance at the time, and Sarah’s subplot was stealing the spotlight from the main lovers. Sarah is still very much a part of The Paris Notebook, especially the penultimate scene.

What Sarah does not have in the novel is a point of view. Sarah’s story is not filled out as I meant it to be. That’s okay, I’m a tough old writer and have been edited many times. I also understand the rules of writing romance. So I’m not saying my editor was wrong. She was spot on. The problem was me, I had not written a romance. The wonderful folks at The Wild Rose Press knew I was not a romance writer, and through two novels helped me become one. Then when I proposed a women’s fiction series, they said YES. They said that was where I should be, writing women’s fiction, with more going on than true love. Nothing against true love! I’ll always have a love story or three.

Almost the minute I learned I needed to cut Sarah’s story, I began plotting. I was able to pull it out almost seamlessly. I added a few bits into the book so it made sense and I took all spoilers out of Sarah’s Survival Guide. Then, after paying a friend a shamelessly small amount for a gorgeous cover, I was ready to roll.

I don’t know how many people have read Sarah’s story. I have never, in ten years, quickly going on eleven, looked at my page views. But I love hearing people tell me they wished there was more about Sarah in The Paris Notebook. And that’s happened at least a dozen times. Every time, I say “You’re in luck! Click on Sarah’s Survival Guide on my blog.” I think it’s a sweet love story. It works as a short story, but if you read it first, you might want to know what happens next. Well, that answer is in The Paris Notebook.

Discovering Theme

Alice Munro has a new book of stories out. In Dear Life, the final four stories are as close to memoir, she says, that she’ll ever write. I was disappointed when a reviewer mentioned that the quartet takes place when Munro was a young girl growing up on a fox farm in Ontario, Canada. She’s written about that before. What I hungered for were stories about her adult life, her writing life.

Munro is one of the few fiction writers who has been successful with  that short form, bringing out a dozen or so books. I’ve read them all. Twice. But so far, not the new book. Reviews can sometimes dissuade me and one in particular, by Sam Sacks, regarding Munro’s themes, caught me up in surprise. Sacks says that “…her themes are psychological estrangement, spiritual emptiness, sexual degradation and the pitifulness of death.” Sacks goes on to comment that  Munro’s overall take on life, at least in her stories, is “methodical bleakness.”

Wow. I think I probably have a naturally bleak outlook on life, because I love Munro’s stories and think they are beautiful. The writing is elegant and crisp, the stories compelling, but more, her themes strike my soul in a way that Sacks captured through close examination. The review made me think about my own themes. How do I hold up against Munro? Do I love her work because her themes mirror my own? I wish:)

Yes with psychological estrangement, no to spiritual emptiness. I’m spiritually optimistic, but if anything of my spiritual nature translates into fiction, I don’t see it. That’s my loss, and some day, when I’m braver than today, I intend to correct it.

Sexual degradation–yes, I find to my surprise that all of my work has that undercurrent. Somebody somewhere is sexually degrading someone else in my novels. Sometimes they do it to themselves. In The Paris Notebook, that theme was mostly excised from the text by my editor. Later, I used the story of self-degradation as a gift to readers of my blog. Sarah’s Survival Guide can be read right on my website or downloaded as PDF. So that theme was not lost, just placed elsewhere.

My novels are more about life than death, and I have not really explored the theme of death in fiction. I’m still getting used to experiencing it in life–when loved ones die, the grief of it. When they sicken and a sad slide into senility or physical incapacity begins, yes, it is pitiful. I’ve always thought it was more than pitiful, horrific in fact.

Except at a distance, like when Cher’s grandmother dies in flashback in Sister Issues, I don’t feel skilled enough to take on death in my fiction; it’s difficult enough for me to deal with in real life. In real life, I think of it every day. I mourn friends who have passed; I plan my own exit strategy. (Move to Oregon or Washington). Looking deeply into Munro’s stories, I see the shallowness of my own themes. But, also, I would rather write hopeful stories than bleak ones.