Deborah Jackson

Monday, July 09, 2012

Death of a Story

How to Find the Balance Between Modification and Destruction

Have you ever wondered about those stories buried in an author’s filing cabinet? Well, perhaps nowadays they’re buried in a layer of digital dust. They’re labelled and relabelled until they’re finally scrubbed.

I once wrote a middle grade story called Ghost in the Piano. A couple of  my novels had already been published, but I wanted to improve my writing, so I joined a critique group. Now I think critiquing is the best way to improve writing, but when you’re first introduced to it you have this notion you have to listen, erase, rewrite until every line is absolutely perfect, according to someone else’s vision.

Here are my relabelled examples:

Ghost in the Piano

Ghost in the Piano Another Revision

Ghost in the Piano Version 3, 4, 5, 6 etc.

Ghost in the Piano A New Beginning

Ghost in the Piano Whatever

The “Whatever” stage is when you scrub. It’s rather sad, actually. I think I did some of my best writing on that story, but eventually I couldn’t look at it anymore. I pull it out every once in a while, intent on finally finishing it, but I always sigh and shove it back into that bloated digital file.

Critiquing to the nth power is an effective way to kill a story.

It all started with the beginning. Beginnings are so difficult. They need to acquire that magical power to draw the reader in. So we write and rewrite our beginnings. But there has to be a point where a red flag appears, where you stop bringing the story to a critique group because they will ALWAYS find something to criticize. Eventually the magic gets warped from the strain of too many rewrites.

I loved Ghost in the Piano. Now I despise it. And yet, I still love some of it.  It was my greatest failure.

I know most authors don’t talk about their failures. They came from a time when the writer struggled through the mire to get to solid footing. They feel like children that died in utero. But I think it’s important to remember, in everything, that too much criticism can be devastating. Our failures are shining examples of what never to do again.

Now I only bring my beginnings to a critique session once, maybe twice, at the most three times. Of course I’ve polished it many times before it reaches this stage, but it can only tolerate major upheaval a few more times before it explodes. I’m serious. I have fragments of Chapter One all over that file.  I will only bring a full manuscript to my critique group once. I get several ideas of what others think is wrong from this one session and I can sift through these ideas to zero in on the problems. But I won’t be replotting ten more times. It won’t help the book and it will destroy my sanity.

Sometimes your sanity is more important than a perfect book or great reviews. Think about it.

Besides, once you hack it apart, it’s sometimes hard to recapture the voice you began with, or the smooth-tender flow. The style can become choppy and inconsistent. The magic of that storytelling voice taking you through the trials of time travel, or the deadly burrows of a cave, or the terror of a haunted piano is lost, never to be found again.

I have other dead stories, buried in that digital drawer, but they were never of sufficient caliber to mourn. By the time I wrote the ghost story, I’d grown as a writer and I was hoping the story would touch many young hearts and give them hope and courage. But it will remain forever locked away, an unfulfilled wish.

I will leave you with this. Fragments, unrequited love, rotting bits of flesh.

There was a single clang—one jarring chord that rang crisp through the bottom level of the house and vibrated in my head. That’s how it all began, exactly a month after I’d quit playing the piano—a month after the worst day of my life.

I crept over the icy floor tiles in my bare feet. I shivered, but didn’t stop. After all, it must have been only gravity that had caused the piano to sound off. Into the living room, across the hardwood strips—that seemed even colder, although that wasn’t possible—right up to the ribbed keys. There wasn’t a book in sight. Only a wispy cloud above the keyboard, as if someone had blown the dust off the keys.

I kept playing over his sharp and painful notes. Soon I was drowning him out, my own less than perfect music chopping through the angry melody. Eventually the dreadful sound petered out and there was nothing between the notes. Now there was no one else but me—licking notes that were soft and belting out those that needed to be bellowed. As my fingers flew over the keys, and caught the elusive harmony, I knew, then, for sure, that I would never hear the ghost in the piano again.

This is an excerpt from my favourite chapter: The Spiritualist

“Okay,” I said. With extreme relief, I slammed the door as my parents and Uncle Max departed. Two minutes later, Rosie and Char slunk in, both wearing long droopy clothes and hoods like medieval monks.

“It’s a séance, not an inquisition,” I said, grinning despite myself. It was great how friends knew just how to take the edge off sometimes.

Rosie shrugged and flounced into the living room. “I thought they looked cool. My brother had them left over from Halloween. He and his friend were Grim Reapers.”

“I think you’ve totally missed the seriousness of this situation,” I said.

I led them into the living room, around the dingy leather couch and scuffed walnut coffee table, to where they could cast long stares at the mysterious piano. The scratches seemed more pronounced today, like ivory spider webs crisscrossing the dark casing. And dust clung to it, as if it had sat there unused for decades.

“So?” said Rosie. “You gonna talk or what?”

I sighed. “It doesn’t work that way. It usually plays in the middle of the night, just to make my life a living hell. It probably won’t make a sound unless this Madame Tussaud can set it off.”

As if on cue, an old baby blue Cadillac swung into the driveway and flashed bright beams through the front window. The lights switched off and a tall thin woman with a pale face and globular glasses teetered up the walk. She wore a long black gown, like a grad would wear, and her arms hugged some silver and black instruments. She leaned with her elbow on the doorbell. I ran to let her in.

“Madame Tussaud?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said in a smoky voice. “You must be Jenna.”

I nodded and stepped aside so the woman could enter. The taps from her spike-heeled boots on the front tiles echoed throughout the house. She handed me what appeared to be a tape recorder and a digital thermometer. She held onto a couple of other strange devices that looked electronic, but that was about all I could make of them.

“We need to measure the psychic energy in the house, my dear. The temperature usually drops along with some other interesting environmental changes when there’s a discarnate entity. Otherwise, we may be dealing with your run-of-the-mill poltergeist.”

“Okay,” I said, thinking that a poltergeist hardly seemed run-of-the-mill. “The piano’s right this way, in the living room.”

Madame Tussaud followed me closely, her husky breath like a warm breeze on my neck. She gave a slight nod to Rosie and Char, then tapped over to the piano. After laying her remaining instruments on the floor, she rose and her fingertips, then her palms drifted over the piano’s mud-brown casing.

“Odd,” she said. “So odd.”

“What? What is it?” I asked, venturing closer to the woman, despite the creepy feeling she gave me.

“It’s closed to me,” said the medium. “Like a closed casket. I feel no energy at all.”

I looked helplessly at my friends who just shrugged. Rosie stifled a giggle. “Well, what does that mean?” I asked.

“I can’t be sure. I’ll have to run some tests. First, though, there’s the matter of payment.” She smiled and looked at me expectantly.

“Oh, of course,” I said.

I shot up the stairs to my room, and dumped the contents of my purse onto the bed. I had twenty bucks stuffed in my wallet. Along with Rosie’s five and Char’s ten, we still didn’t have the fifty the woman had asked for. So I tiptoed into Joey’s room. He was so zonked that he didn’t even raise his head from the pillow when I grabbed his piggy bank and ducked back into my room. I managed to squeeze another fifteen from his crumpled bills and scattered coins. Then I raced back downstairs and handed Madame Tussaud the money. An oily grin painted her face as she slipped the cash into her pocket, and it made me wonder if this woman was for real. But she set immediately to work, seizing the first instrument on the floor.

“This is a Geiger counter,” she said as she tapped on some buttons. “It checks the radiation in the room.”

I frowned. “There aren’t any nuclear bombs in here, you know.”

She smiled and shook her head. “There are a lot more things that give off radiation, including the sun. If I get a reading between 2 and 7, that might tell us if a haunting is occurring in this house. Most man-made radiation sources are higher and natural levels are below 2. Even a quick spike might tell us if there is a concentration of paranormal energy.”

She pointed the instrument at the piano, aimed it around the room, at the coffee table, the abstract paintings on the wall and the beige leather couch, then back to the piano again.

“Nothing,” she finally said. “Only a 0.9. We’ll try something else.”

She put down the Geiger counter and picked up another instrument with gauges and dials. “The electromagnetic field meter. It traces a moving magnetic field, even that made by a human body, since we have electricity flowing through our nervous systems. If the needle moves when I point it at the piano and there’s also a high-pitched tone, that would indicate the presence of a discarnate entity.”

She swept back and forth, over and around the piano, but there was no movement of the needle and no sound from the device. Finally she put the EM meter down and turned to me.

“There’s no entity here, my dear. How old are you?”

“Fourteen. I told you.”

“Yes, on the cusp. Some parapsychologists might say ‘too young.’ But I’ve seen it before.”

I gritted my teeth. “What are you talking about?”

“Your abilities, my dear,” said Madame Tussaud. “Have you had a quarrel about the piano? Something that irks you deep within?”

I paused, not wanting to tell her, but if she could help . . . “I had a . . . bad experience . . . at a recital, but what has that got to do with a ghost? There’s something haunting this piano.” I slammed my hand down on the top, shaking the instrument just a little, but it still didn’t eke out a sound.

“Really?” said the spiritualist. “But I haven’t found any evidence of a haunting. Let me demonstrate, my dear. Then perhaps you will lay your skepticism aside and trust me.” She looked pointedly at Rosie. “I am surrounded by skeptics.”

“I believe you,” said Rosie, trying her best not to giggle again.

Madame Tussaud took the thermometer—what she called the thermal scanner—from my hand and waved it over the piano. “Seventy-three degrees,” she murmured. “It’s not very cold.”

“So?” I said. “It’s only cold when it plays.”

Then the woman held a pendulum over the piano, suspended by a thread. It swung back and forth, steadily, with no change in direction. “No disturbance in the flow of energy.”

I rolled my eyes. “And that means what exactly?”

“There is no ghost, my dear. No displaced spirit. If there were, it probably wouldn’t disguise itself in the piano, unless it had some potent connection to it. Spirits usually haunt the place where they took their last breath. They can’t move on, because they’ve been done an injustice that they feel must be corrected. Often they wander the place for years or centuries even, moaning or screaming, trying to be heard. Some can use the energy around them to manipulate or move objects or even in some cases can transform that energy to make themselves solid for a short time, but that takes a lot of concentration and skill that most of them don’t possess. But even the strongest among them don’t usually play nasty tricks. Poltergeists, however, like to play with objects.”

“So there’s a poltergeist in my piano?”

Madame shook her head sadly. “The poltergeist is you, my dear.”

I stepped back, my jaw unhinged. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not a ghost, or a poltergeist, or whatever. I’m alive.”

Madame Tussaud swept around and placed spidery hands on my shoulders. “Of course, you’re alive. Poltergeists are troublesome spirits that focus their noisy pranks on one particular child or adolescent. The child is usually very gifted with psychic powers and . . . ” She paused.

“And?” I prompted.

“And the poltergeist activity is usually caused by the adolescent. Unconsciously, of course.”

I goggled at the woman in horror. What a ridiculous statement. She was saying that somehow I had made the piano play by itself, that I was tinkering with the instrument even when my greatest desire was not to touch it. That I was driving myself crazy.

“I am not a poltergeist,” I said loudly. “I am not making the piano play with my mind, although it is playing with my mind!”

“Calm down, dear.” The woman patted my shoulder, trying to soothe me with her buttery tone. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It means you have extraordinary abilities. All you have to do is harness them and the piano will rest easy again.”

“Really? Well, I’m not satisfied with your explanation. You came here to talk to the piano, and you’re going to do just that. I didn’t use up all my allowance just to get ‘harness your abilities.’ We’re going to sit down and you’re going to conduct a séance. I want to hear what that piano really wants.”

Madame Tussaud was flabbergasted. Her pasty face seemed to whiten even more. “Séance, my dear? But I haven’t done one of those in years.”

“What?” I said. “Then what do you do?”

“She reads your future,” Char broke in. “She tells you about the past using her psychic abilities. You just phone her and she tells you everything about yourself.”

“She’s a fraud,” I said.

“No, no,” Madame Tussaud objected. “I am a genuine psychic and a registered parapsychologist. It’s just . . . I’m a little out of practice with the séance business.”

“Well, you have to get back into practice.”

“I . . . I suppose,” she conceded.

I motioned for the woman to sit in a circle with the other girls. We lighted candles and incense, and the air was soon clouded with the cloying scent of cloves and vanilla. Madame Tussaud fumbled through her bag and withdrew a container of salt—sea salt, she said it was. “If there is a genuine haunting, it should turn brown. It’s an old fashioned method, but still quite effective.” Then she clasped our hands and began to hum, tilting glassy eyes to the ceiling. We were told to wipe all thoughts from our minds, particularly me. Then she called on the piano to play a note if there was some restless soul within its strings.

The piano stood silent, as if it were once again a dead thing. I gritted my teeth and begged it to sound off, to tinkle or to moan. Something to prove that it was more than just the imagination of one girl, or the restless poltergeist stirred from within her own troubled mind.

Finally the medium stopped chanting and shrugged her shoulders. “Empty, I told you.”

“The piano is not empty,” I said. “It keeps talking to me, playing music that I used to play, and waking me up at night. It even got mad at me when I said I hated the piano and dumped me on the floor.”

The medium frowned. “It reacted directly to your speech? The entity must be very strong.” She stared back at the piano, her dreamy expression gone, replaced by a look of fright. “Perhaps it’s a cold spirit and that is why it’s closed to me.”

“What do you mean by ‘cold spirit?’” I asked.

The woman’s lips twitched. She blinked and looked away. “Evil, dear. Deserving of death.”

At her last words, the room swelled with sound. The keys depressed in harsh stacatto rhythm, pounding out a miserable version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The notes bounced off the walls and echoed in our ears. It was so painfully loud we hunched over in agony. I tried to crawl away and tripped over the Geiger counter—reading a five—and the EM meter, its needle jumping all over the map. The air in the room was so frosty I could see my breath. Char scrambled behind me and knocked the sea salt from its container. It was an earthy brown.

Together we crawled out of the room, sobbing as the vibrations throbbed through our bodies. Just as we got to the hall, the front door exploded inward and the piano’s notes cut off in midstream. In stumbled my mother with wide eyes, my father with narrowed ones and my uncle with a look of sheer fascination on his face. The smoke haze was still in the air. The sharp scent of incense lingered. Madame Tussaud lay sprawled on the floor.

“What in heaven’s name is going on?” asked Mom.

Suddenly the spiritualist sprang from the floor, and, thrusting aside the three adults in the hall, she fled out the door.

“Wait!” I called, brushing aside my family as well. “Wait!”

Madame Tussaud was opening the door to her car with trembling hands.

“How do I get rid of it?” I yelled to her.

She looked back at me, her eyes bulging and her face as pale as snow. “You can’t!” she screamed and slammed the door. Then she gunned the car backward, spun around, and sped off down the street.