The view from the shower caps gave me another point of view about my story. First you have to understand what I mean about the shower caps.
I drive an old car. It’s heading toward its seventeenth birthday, still serviceable, but showing its age. What once was shiny black is now weathered charcoal, what had been well stitched is frayed, and the leather head rests on the back seats are crackled like antique china from roasting in the relentless sun all day. So I came up with a brilliant idea because when you can’t come up with a great paying job in order to purchase a new car, you manufacture great ideas instead.
To protect the head rests, I covered them with white plastic shower caps. They stretched to cover, they tucked quickly, and they resembled white pleather. They protected the rests from further sun damage. How silly, you say, and you would be right, because several months later the shower caps flaked, chipped, and fell off the rests in chunks, landing on the car seats to decorate the jeans of travelers riding in the back. A short respite from the sun but proof of how relentlessly destructive it is.
Next I covered the rests with pink flowered terry wash cloths, and so far they’ve done a good job without casting loose strands on the back seat. (Ask me in a year if I’ve had to come up with another brilliant idea or if the wash cloths are still doing the job. Yeah, I’m still gonna have this old car in another year.) I stood on the sidewalk and stared through the back window at my newest idea and thought, yeah, gimme a problem, I’ll make a fixit.
I try to find and apply life skills from every opportunity, however bizarre or obscure, so it was natural that I learned something important from my car. Cars can u-turn and so can I. I’d been working on one of my books for a long while when I started trying to save the head rests. Like the old rests, some things about the book were not working. One reviewer stated that the story lacked insight. That hurt. It implied that I lacked insight. It implied that as a person I had no depth, couldn’t make meaningful connections, or impose important value in my character’s actions. As a writer, I recognized that was accurate. I had little substance, or if I did, it wasn’t showing up in my book.
Imagine my conundrum with my book, Lolli and the New Car. It’s a story about middle-aged Lolli who needs a new car, and all her adventures in choosing it. OK, it’s a fake story, but it will work for purposes of demonstration. Lolli looks at all the dealers in the area, is tempted by the terrific financing at one, the fabulous options at the next, and the low prices of the third. Wandering around the lot of her choice, she wonders if she should have invited her hubby to join her in car scouting or if she should just go pick out the red one – or the blue one – or the black one – and surprise him. Lolli chooses white, because it’s just so shiny, from the dealer offering the best options, trades in her old car, and drives the new one home. Cowboy, that’s her hubby, meets her on the driveway, aghast at her impulsive behavior, announces he’s headed to the divorce lawyer in order to find himself in unattached solitude, and leaves Lolli in tears as he peels away – in the new car. The rest of the book chronicles Lolli’s efforts to salvage the marriage with her rodeo king on the white horse (OK, in her new white car) – she gives him his own key to the ignition – and ends happily ever after with the renewal of their vows in the back seat of Whitey.
Not a bad story. (OK, it’s a terrible story, but how much do you me want to invest in a fake story?) See, as I considered it from the perspective of the shower caps, I realized what my story was missing. Depth, consequences, relationship history, insight, lifelong values lessons. In the re-write, I contrived a back story about Cowboy’s complaint that Lolli was painfully dependent upon him to make all decisions and a pain in the butt with her impulse shopping. I added internal dialogue from Lolli’s POV, showing how she wanted to show Cowboy that he didn’t have to hold her hand at every crosswalk, she was a big girl now, and she’d done a ton of research about cars before making her choice.
Lolli finally realizes that it’s Cowboy who’s truly the impulsive half of the marriage, as evidenced by him pilfering her new car for his independence break and peeling out on the marriage at the drop of a new tire. He’s projected all his own doubts and bad habits onto Lolli in order to blame her for the failure of their vows. She remembers all of Cowboy’s whispers late at night, though not to her, the emails he erased as soon as she walked into the room, a few whiffs of a perfume she doesn’t wear. She knows the marriage will never live to see old age and hires her own lawyer. Lolli also realizes she is a truly independent woman who doesn’t need to be attached by a lasso to a cowboy, and will do just fine in her own rodeo. The end of the newer version shows the couple signing divorce papers while leaning on Whitey’s hood. Grittier, more realistic if a little darker, and engaging. (Pretend, readers, pretend. It’s an example.)
The entire next year I undertook a total re-evaluation of my real book, reading it front to back, in chunks and chapters, finding the empty spaces my reviewer had spotted. I pulled out thousands of words, not only the empty ones such as like, that, nice, sweet, tiny, very, and a dozen others we all know are cheap but vacuous filler. I also deleted whole chapters, ones I’d scraped off my eyelids, yanked off the souls of my feet, and pulled from my gut. Chapters I’d struggled to write as well as possible but finally decided to dump on the computer’s floor. They weren’t working. They described moments and showed a little action the way toddlers show a little tolerance toward other toddlers. But they weren’t essential and they’d added fluff without content.
I walked around my house and hiked through the nearby woods, thinking relevant details, imagining a universal theme, planning resolution with an impact on the protagonist and the reader, and identifying the loose pieces and a way to pull them tight. Home again, I tackled my story with a new fervor for adding something of value. I tore apart many chapters and refitted them with internal dialogue or action. It meant considering what the main characters really needed and whether they’d achieved their goals, if resolution had occurred, not just if the book arrived at an end point. Then I read my book once more, front to back, out loud, and realized it was much improved. Sounds loosey goosey but in essence I’d added content and context to my story, infusing it with the kind of thoughtful purpose that a story should imply for readers.
Why had the shower caps inspired such wisdom? They looked classy but proved a shallow and flimsy solution. The wash cloths had more substance and endurance. That ultimately is what my story needed.