Friday, February 13, 2009

I thought Up a Rutted Road was progressing just fine. One editor with a major publishing house had looked at it and liked it. "But our middle-grade list is already too full," she wrote in the rejection letter.

Another editor was excited about the proposal. "I want to see the full manuscript when it is finished," she said. Unfortunately, she went on an extended medical leave before she could see the completed project.

Then I sent it to an agent with whom I had chatted at a conference. "It lacks a sense of place," he said. How dare he attack my opus, my firstborn! (One tends to mix metaphors when one is upset.)

Initial reaction aside, I began to ponder what the agent had said. Could he be right? I read it through and realized that he was. And so began the laborious revision, still in process.

Up a Rutted Road tells the story of Camie, who spends her tenth summer in the southeastern mountains of Kentucky on the hardscrabble farm of her Uncle Glen and Aunt Charlene. Before summer's end, she must confront death and her own feelings of guilt.

"It lacks a sense of place," the agent had said. How could I correct that? I had to become more familiar with certain elements in the story so that I could accurately show them to the reader.

Elsie Blue, for example. I knew from the beginning that she was a blue-tick coon hound. I knew her by yowl, but where were her spots? What exactly was her coloring? I only needed to do a quick search of the web to find her! Now, I keep her picture before me whenever she's in a scene.

I also went in search of Uncle Glen and Aunt Charlene's "old-timey" house, its siding weathered to an ashen gray. Once I found it, I drew the interior layout. Finally, I had a house I could accurately describe.

The next step was to interview a close friend and fellow storyteller who grew up in southeastern Kentucky. He told me about the coming together of the highlanders in the gloaming, to meet on a neighbor's porch and sing or play various folk instruments-- fiddles, home-made banjos, Jew's harps, mountain dulcimers, etc.--sending the music bouncing around from one mountainside to another and down in the hollows. That luscious story will find its way into the pages of Up a Rutted Road.

Finally, I reached deep down into my own fear, returned to my childhood, and looked out of the window of my father's car to where a mountain road appeared to drop away, leaving nothing but air between the car and the fast-flowing creek far below. I gave my churning stomach and my dizzy head to Camie for a moment in Chapter One, as she looks over just such a cliff.

Writers love that first passionate awen that produces the initial draft of a manuscript. Beginning writers resent and reject the various revisions that are necessary to arrive at a polished work fit for submission. They have not yet learned the value of an agent, an editor, or a critiquer who dares to say, "You need..." or "It lacks..." I have come to the point where I invite such comments and actually enjoy the edits and revisions, because the story is worth it.