This is the fourth post in my Writing Right Out In Public public novel project. Read the introduction for full details and links to all currently published posts.
One of the problems with writing a novel in public, at least in my mind, is that the public gets to see your mistakes and false starts. I suppose that may be interesting for some, but it’s nerve-wracking for me. So right out of the gate, we have my first mistake in the books–if you want to call it a mistake. That opening scene? Yeah, how about we scratch that.
That’s right, I’m calling a mulligan. As I was working on the second scene of the novel, I kept getting stuck. I worried about writing from the perspective of a twelve-year-old boy and whether I was getting it right. The opening scene did not feel like it gelled and the second scene wasn’t coming together as well as I had imagined it, either. While out walking and running errands, thinking about the story, it came to me that I did not want to write it from Ren’s point of view.
The funny thing is that I had already considered this. In my notes on the story, I wrote that the story was really about Ren’s sister more than him, and that a good chunk of the novel would be about his changing view of her–about him starting to truly see her. At the time, I considered switching the main view point but decided not to; Ren’s a key part of the story, after all, and I have some interesting things in mind for him (and no doubt he has some interesting things in mind for me). And yet, out walking around Portland on a sunny and warm day, it dawned on me that I needed to write the story from Lillian’s point of view.
Oh, and I needed to change her name, too.
So here we are. Never mind that opening scene, and you may have to discard a few previously claimed elements of the story’s structure. We’re going to do this from Lissi’s point of view (yes, that’s Lillian’s new name). I do reserve the right to jump into Ren’s perspective at intermittent times down the road, but I don’t yet have specific plans for that. We’ll see. The story will unfold as we go, and there’s a good deal that I have yet to figure out and that has yet to make itself known to me.
Meanwhile, we have a new opening scene–one that I feel much better about. It feels stronger, it came easier, it seems right, and already a few new elements of the story unveiled themselves to me during the writing, including some early hints to this community’s religious beliefs. I’m taking that as a sign that this re-launch has me on the right track. Let’s see how far it goes, shall we?
Without further ado, here is the new (and real, at least for the moment) opening scene.
Lissi found him in the main room, curled up on a worn, oversized chair and facing the ancient wood stove. It ticked and groaned with a curling, licking fire inside, its door cracked open and emitting the flickering orange light of flames. Ren had stoked the fire back to life, opening the damper and cracking the door, bringing the fire more present into their home as he liked to do. The light of it in the otherwise dark room played across his face. He was awake; his gaze focused on the stove. She stood in the entryway and watched him until he turned his eyes toward her. They appeared otherworldly in the strange light, glinting in some odd, muted way. It disquieted her.
“Why didn’t you come in to my room?” she asked him.
The boy shrugged, an awkward gesture in his position, leveraging and twisting his whole body. Small obstinances like that helped to remind her of his young age: only nine, pushing toward ten. He often seemed older, especially these days, but then moments like these came when he would retreat into his youth. She sighed—she knew it was a mistake even as she did it—and the boy flicked his eyes away from her back to the stove. Of course, she knew why he had not come to her. The memory still tugged at her. She hadn’t meant to snap at him late the night before, but her frustration had overflown, driven by lack of sleep and the small terror that it would always be this way, that she would never find a way to fix him.
“Was it a dream?” she asked.
He didn’t answer for a long moment, and she began to mull what to do next when he whispered, “No. I just woke up.” He spoke without looking at her, as if mesmerized by the flickering firelight. “The room was really empty. I didn’t want to be in it.”
“You gotta sleep, though.”
He shook his head. “I couldn’t go back to sleep.”
Another sigh almost slipped out of her but she caught it, then stepped into the room, crossing over to her brother. Squatting down next to him, she put a hand up against the side of his face, forcing him to look at her. His eyes jumped as though he wanted to look away. “We both need to sleep, okay? We’ll be doing bunches tomorrow—tending, lessons, foraging, and you have the afternoon with Donya.”
“I know,” he said.
She stood, crossed over to the stove, filled the fire chamber with more wood and closed the door, cutting off the fire’s erratic orange light. The room settled dark around them while waves of heat radiated off the stove. It was too hot; she damped it down and stepped back from its muffled roar, turning back toward Ren. The moon shone just enough to cast a soft glow through the main room’s four windows: two on either side of the front door, opposite where Lissi stood; one above the kitchen sink, off to her right; and another nestled between book shelves on the wall to her left. The kitchen counters were a jumbled mess of jars and pots and pans, a small dining table with three chairs stood just outside the prep area, and the rest of the room was filled with enough chairs for a conversation with friends and a good amount of wall shelving for books and other items, though mostly books. The thin moonlight made it all look passable enough, but she knew the next day’s sunlight would once again show the furniture to be shabby and threadbare, repaired one too many times; the books thumbed through and well worn; a top panel on the wood stove cracked, emitting a faint glow whenever the fire roared, as it did now; the shelving scraped and gouged, bowing under the weight of so many books. It all needed a tending that she didn’t have time or money to provide.
In the middle of the room, softly illuminated, Ren watched her as her mind wandered, and she realized several long moments of silence had passed. “Why don’t I sleep in your room the rest of the night?” she said.
She thought he bit his lip, a habit of his, but couldn’t quite tell in the alternation of moonlight and shadow that traced his face. “Okay,” he said after a minute. “But I have to pee.”
“That’s fine,” she said. “Go on, then we can go back to bed.”
The boy unfolded himself from his perch upon the chair, gangly limbs looking like extensions of the room’s shadows as he stood. He went to the front door and opened it, stepping outside. A moment later, faintly, she could hear him relieving himself; as usual, he went near the corner of the house rather than taking the short trek to the compost pile. She had long since given up trying to get him to go there at night, though he did in the daytime.
He returned, closing the door gentle behind him. He was always considerate in that regard. It was one of the reasons he could sometimes sneak out into the main room in the middle of the night without her realizing it even though their bedrooms were both small and on top of each other. It wasn’t his carefully placed steps or quiet opening and closing of doors that gave him away, but the fires he made in the wood stove. Sometimes the roar, faint as it was in her room, awakened her; sometimes the way the fire chamber’s door squeaked when he opened it. She had attuned herself to the clues. She couldn’t bring herself to leave him out here alone, accompanied only by the fire—even if it seemed at times to be all he wanted.
“Come on,” she said, giving him a small, tired smile. He came to her and they went together into his room, both of them climbing into his bed. It was actually two small beds pushed together and made into a larger one. Lissi had moved into her mother’s room after the flood, leaving Ren a room of his own. It only took them a few nights to realize Lissi’s old bed lying empty next to him disturbed him deep in the night. At that point, they pushed the two together, dressing it as one. It helped—he said it felt less lonely that way. But still there were the nights like tonight, and Lissi was thankful that when they came and she slept in his room with him, she could do it on a bed rather than on the hard, cold floor. And so they settled beneath the heavy blankets, Ren on his side and facing her, Lissi on her back staring at the darkened ceiling above.
“The stars were bright,” he said in the darkness.
“Yeah?” she said.
She heard the small rustle of him nodding. “The moon’s just a sliver and all the stars were making up for it.”
“What stage is it?” she asked.
“It will be new soon.”
“And then we begin again,” he said, a small edge to his voice. She turned onto her side, facing him, and saw that he stared at her with wide eyes. I hope we sleep, she thought. God, she needed sleep.
“When else do we get to begin again?” she asked him, the words a familiar rhythm.
“Every day,” he whispered.
“Good.” She touched his shoulder, squeezed it. “Let’s sleep now, okay?”
He nodded. Lissi closed her eyes and almost immediately darkness began to close in, a sense of falling taking her over, small voices mumbling conversations in the background that she could almost make out. One voice grew louder, clearer, speaking with emotion and a increasing clarity, her words tight and pointed—so familiar, this voice. Lissi strained to hear, trying to pick this one voice out of the multitude, the din of conversation and argument and debate, and it kept ringing through at staggered intervals, triggering her memory each time and bringing her closer and closer to the knowledge of who this person was, what she was trying to tell her—
“Liss,” Ren said, and she tumbled back into the waking world, the voices slipping away and back into their own. She mumbled a questioned response, trying to find the words to tell him to go to sleep. “What if she’s in one of the cities?”
“What?” she asked, confused as sleep continued to fall away from her.
“What if Mom’s in one of the saarmen cities?”
She blinked up at the ceiling, refocusing her mind. A faint echo of the voice stayed in her mind. “She’s not.”
“I saw them grab her, though.”
“I saw them!”
“Ren . . . no. That’s not where she is.”
“How do you know?”
She hesitated. “Sometimes . . .” He waited, watching her, and she caught his eye. “I just know. She’s not in any of their cities. You gotta trust me—she’s making her next life, not trapped in one of those cities.” How long is this going to go on? Lissi reached out and stroked his hair, thinking that tomorrow they might have to go to the creek again. “We gotta get some sleep, baby.”
“But I keep thinking of her there.”
“Just think of her making her next life, finding all the pieces. That’s what she’s doing.” He said nothing, turning away from her. Hesitating, she touched his shoulder, worried he would pull away. But he did nothing, gave her no reaction. “It’s a good way to fall asleep,” she said.
“What?” he asked after a long moment.
“Imagining her making her next life.”
She often did it herself, seeing her mother somewhere deep in a forest, pulling together so many pieces from the forest and its occupants and crafting them into a creation she would inhabit, into the creature she would be next. Knowing the judgement that would come upon that creation—the importance of it—Lissi always focused on the process of its formation, of her mother’s hand plucking leaves of maidenhair fern from a forest slope, cupping a Pileated woodpecker, stripping a thin piece of bark from a western red cedar, finding a perfectly worn stone at the edge of a creek. She never knew what kind of life these would make, but she saw them all vividly and knew her mother could only make something special.
She didn’t know if Ren took her advice or not, but after a few minutes his breath evened out and deepend, and she knew that he finally slept. Closing her eyes, she did as well, quickly, familiar voices rising once again to murmur in the background of her mind as she watched her mother’s hands work.