Thursday, March 30, 2017

Managing the Subplot

My current work-in-progress is really a recovery project. I decided to take a break from a new series I’ve been working on and rework an Anita Ray manuscript I set aside after Five Star/Gale, Cengage decided to drop its mystery line. The ms was ninety percent finished, and I’ve felt reluctant to abandon it completely. As I read through the story, which I hadn’t looked at for well over a year, I recalled the question I’d struggled with earlier. The problem was a subplot that introduced a character who wanted more—more space, more dialogue, more control. defines subplot as “a secondary or subordinate plot, as in a play, novel, or other literary work; underplot.” The site also notes that the term is only about one hundred years old. As part of a general understanding, the subplot should also throw into relief, illuminate in some way, the main plot of the story or novel. This took me to the heart of my problem.

In this story, In Sita’s Shadow, a middle-aged widow is about to make a decision that is momentous for an Indian woman in her circumstances, edging into the middle class, with her daughter married and well launched on her own career and in married life. I don’t want it to be an easy decision, but I don’t want it to take over the main plot either, which is the identification of the murderer and the motive.

The theme of this Anita Ray mystery is the choices we make when life closes in on us. If the subplot for each aspect of the story is too well developed, it may eclipse the main plot, and take the novel in a new direction. That’s not necessarily bad, but it means I’m writing a different story. If the subplot takes over the story, as characters sometimes do, the book will feel unbalanced. The structure may seem like its collapsing under the weight of the subplot.

I liked the subplot I came up with for Deepa Nayar, the character in question, but the minute I began to rework it, I knew this could be trouble. The characters that came onto the page pushed themselves into the action, flashed across scenes that had been intended to do something very different. It didn’t take me long to acknowledge that this wasn’t a subplot. This thread was bigger than a subplot; it was the theme of a novel and deserved its own book.
Any story requires many threads, different characters and their perspectives, motives, behaviors. But not every thread belongs in every story, and that was my conclusion. Deepa Nayar’s subplot will get its own novel. She’ll finish out her life story in this book, but the question that her decision raises will be explored in the next one. My vision for In Sita’s Shadow is a single story whose subplots in the lives of the suspects contribute to a single fabric.

There’s nothing wrong with letting a subplot take over a story, knowing that it will become the main story line. But that’s not what I wanted in this book. But it is a discovery that will help me shape the next one.

To find the Anita Ray stories, go to these sites.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Review: White Trash, The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg

I don't usually post reviews on my blog, but this is an important book, so I'm making an exception.

I would give this book a ten if the ratings went that high.

In 300+ pages with extensive notes, the author explores the history of the lowest rung of the people of America and the USA, the vagrants and criminals sent by the early British investors to work in the New World, thus solving the problem of the undesirables spoiling London and the need for cheap labor in the New World. By exporting their least desirable population, called "waste" and other names, however, the early investors set in motion an economic and political situation that has grown and changed over the centuries but continues to bedevil this country.

This is the story of the harsh reality behind the soaring and uplifting rhetoric of the Founding Fathers, and the failed attempts to address the growing numbers of "waste" or "rubbish" or "trash" in the US population. The men of means, who could afford to buy land and exploit the laborers, disliked this segment of the population but could never figure out what to do with it. Some seemed to think that by opening up the west the landless would move and "disappear," but of course they didn't. The plantation system in the South exacerbated the plight of the farmer/laborer, and its collapse after the Civil War created another version of that culture that crippled both poor whites and blacks. Few politicians looked at those living on the margins and understood that they too were Americans, and had earned a place at the table.

The author offers insightful discussions on the development of the lower economic class, and the form class conflict has taken in different eras while politicians spoke movingly of equality and opportunity and upward mobility. Published in mid 2016, the author discusses the 2008 campaign but little beyond that. Her purpose is to bring the reader to a more accurate perception of the lowest class in America and the treatment its members have been subjected to by those on the rungs above. She explores how this class has appeared in the world of entertainment in recent years, and how others have tried to grapple with a social group that offends their sensibilities and perception of the United States. She ends with a deeper discussion of the myths that are crippling us and an understanding of how our own country operates. Her examination of the impeachment of President Clinton and the report by Kenneth Starr is a telling unfolding of the role class has played at the highest levels.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017


Surveys soliciting the opinions of strangers used to be a rare phenomenon. In the thirty years, my parents lived in the home where my brothers and I grew up, the household received one telephone survey, which I took because I was the one who answered the telephone. No one asked if I lived there (I was only visiting). The caller asked about political issues.

As soon as I began buying books on the Internet I had to get used to the surveys that followed. Did the book arrive on time? Did I approve of the packaging? Was the product what I expected? Was the service polite and helpful? The first time had the expected air of novelty.

Once I got waylaid in a shopping mall by a woman who wanted me to look at a “short” film and give my opinion. After about ten minutes I told her I didn’t have time for this. Her reply was not “polite and helpful.” I’ve steered clear of anyone with a clipboard ever since.

Surveys over the telephone are harder to avoid unless you have Caller ID. These calls are ubiquitous during an election year, but have begun showing up year-round for all sorts of things, not just candidates. Since most are robo calls, I can easily hang up. But some are from people hired to get at least one answer out of me. When I refused to be drawn after being told I had won a free trip to Las Vegas, the young woman asked, “You don’t want a free trip?” No, I don’t. “Have you ever been to Las Vegas?” Yes, I have. I hung up.

A live person from my bank calls me every time I conduct a transaction there. After the first three calls I pointed out to the man asking the questions that I had been using this bank for over twenty years, and no one had ever asked my opinion on anything. Only now, with the appearance of men behind the counter and in the front offices, was I getting questions. No one ever asked me anything when all the people in the offices were women. The next few transactions were completed survey-free, but, alas, the calls have started up again.

As soon as I visit my doctor, a survey shows up on email. I ignore it, and another one shows up. And then the robo calls begin. I’ve made it clear that I’m not happy with my doctor’s office, so I shouldn’t be surprised with the attention. Now the letters have begun, offering me a new way to access care. If they can’t get my opinion, they’ll give me theirs.

You would think I would be pleased to have a bank or a medical office or anyone else interested in my opinion on how to improve services. After all, we all like having a say in the important issues of our time. But I don’t think that’s the intent of the surveys, and I have yet to see any change from anything I suggested.

These surveys are the result of short-term thinking. Let the consumer feel she has a channel for voicing her likes and dislikes, and she’ll trust us more. She’ll remain a customer. She’ll be less likely to leave because of a minor unsatisfying encounter. That intent may be sincere, but it is still cynical and definitely blind to long-term effect. After a while, the little resentments build, and one day the CEO looks at the weekly report and wonders why he and his minions can’t reverse a year-long trend of departing customers. He can’t find anything specific to go after and change, but the trend continues.

The undercurrent of frustration has to flow somewhere. I’m not a fortune-teller. I don’t know where we’re headed with all this. But we are moving, not standing still, and some of us will be very surprised at where we end up.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Women and Their Days, March 8

I celebrated International Women’s Day and A Day Without a Woman, today, March 8, by doing something unexpectedly relevant. The Essex County Needlecraft Guild meets monthly and invites speakers on needlecraft.

CelesteJaney is a well-known quilter whose work is owned by several museums. Today she talked about the code that has been discovered in quilts made by slaves, and used to guide those fleeing slavery for the North. Different patterns in different colors had different meanings for those looking for the trail north. The Underground Railroad, it seems, was a network of stops, like the squares in a quilt, guiding men and women safely out of the South. The quilts could be hung over a porch railing to signal the important message, such as “Don’t stop here,” or “Get food and provisions here,” or “The slave catchers are chasing you,” or “You’re coming to a crossing.” Quilts could also prepare the traveler for the helper he or she was going to meet along the way soon, and where to wait for that person.

CelesteJaney’s own work is stunningly elaborate, combining genealogy, printed squares with historical information, yarn trees and loose fabric leaves, and more. She has recreated some of the squares used in slave quilts as well as making elaborate scenes in applique.

One of the most striking displays were two pieces of mud fiber cloth from Mali.

For those who might think this way to spend International Women’s Day and A Day Without a Woman seems a bit regressive, consider that the dozens of women in attendance and others who do a lot of handwork are also professionals in a number of areas—science, psychology, education, medicine, and business, as well as the arts. 

But I for one believe there is something important about making something useful or beautiful by hand. We need more work that we are willing to hold up and say, Look, I made this. Here, you take and use it. We need to make things we can be proud of, whatever they are and in whatever area.