I registered for the Advanced Novel class at Sarah Lawrence this spring. I had a solid first draft of The Forge of the Heart completed when I got my Master's at City College, but never did anything else with the manuscript after that. One does not go to the trouble of writing a book in order to put it in a box on a high shelf and forget about it. But at the time, I was teaching high school English to fourteen-year-olds, and the treadmill of making lessons/grading papers prevented me from working on the book.
Post-retirement, and post-retirement travels done for now, I began thinking about what was in that box again. Ed and Richard held a couple Read 650 events at Sarah Lawrence, and I got onto SL's emailing list that way. There was a one day workshop called Story Mapping in the winter with Veera Hiranandani, and I learned that the same way I wouldn't drive around the country without a map, I needed to map out the manuscript so I could find my way through the whole story to survive the revision process. I also realized that I could not labor away on this project in isolation.
The Spring Courses for the Writing Institute arrived, and I saw The Advanced Novel class being co-taught by Pat Dunn and Jimin Han. I had high hopes. The class and the instructors more than fulfilled them. There were just six students, and we workshopped our complete manuscripts, in addition to weekly free-writes and whole classes on craft.
My classmates were five writers with great stories to tell, and we spent a dozen weeks together reading the manuscripts and giving each other feedback on what worked well and the places in the text where we had questions. Often, we had great discussions where the creative suggestions would fly around the room on ways to bring forward certain themes, to clarify or strengthen something in the text. It's been a supportive process, and a nurturing one. I've been in classes where you needed a first aid kit after a critique. I have to say, I look forward to reading the finished, published versions of all the manuscripts we workshopped together this spring.
The end of term student readings went by in my email, and I didn't plan to read. But my classmates were planning to attend and to read, and Pat Dunn, the director said that she hoped we would all read.
My entire college career, I attended school as an adult, working all day and taking classes in the evening. What happened on campus after my classes were done didn't really concern me. This spring, I've been pretty busy, but truly it was just my habit to attend class then skedaddle--back to my regular life already in progress. But as my class was winding down, I regretted that I hadn't even walked around and found the library! I'd never bought a cup of tea on campus, so I resolved to spend the day playing student, between my class in the morning and the readings at 6:30.
It is a beautiful and walkable campus of old stone buildings and some modern structures, as well as a hole in the ground and giant pile of dirt where the new Barbara Walters Student Center is being constructed. Despite the instant heat wave, I thoroughly enjoyed the day. We began with Irish Soda Bread in class for breakfast, and some silly photos, thanks to Jimin.
And ended with a party and student readings. A perfect last day! (For now)
You know, in addition to a complete revision of my manuscript, all semester I’ve been fooling around with the way the book opens. But thinking about reading for two or three minutes, which is all many people would give the book in a library or bookstore, laser focused my mind on my first impression. I looked at my most recent revision, and realized I was once again doing that thing of “setting up” the rest of the book, or the rest of the chapter at the very moment I need to be drawing my reader in.
You only get one first page. Revising again, I went back to opening with a scene that hints at my ghost story sub-plot, has action, and a crisis for my first main character. Boom! I think this may the one.
Here's my new-and-improved opener. Care to have an opinion? You can do so in the comments section below.
Michael Conlan was a slender young blacksmith most folk called Smitty. He walked down the hill from the house to his forge just before dawn to stoke the fire. He saw something ephemeral, moving away from the back of the building as he approached. He told himself it was just a reflection in the mist from the stream. Still, it made his heart skip a few beats, and he felt the hair on the back of his neck bristle. He was always unnerved by this phenomenon, and chided himself for his fear. Shivering, he glanced overhead into the canopy, and thought …leaves will be falling soon…
Conlan’s forge was located near the front of the property, just off the road. It was a noisy place, but the house was far enough away to have peace. The rear boundary of their yard was marked by the stream that flowed down the steep hill behind the cultivated part of the property. The far side of the stream was lined with river birch and willows, which fluttered in the slightest breeze, making the air visible in the trees as the ripples do across the pond. Pin oaks, maples and thickets of conifers grew densely up the hillside.
Midmorning, after repairing a wheel out behind the building, Smitty went back inside. He was momentarily blinded by having been outdoors in bright daylight, and peered blinking into the smoky darkness. He considered once again how to have more light inside the building without freezing all winter long. This was one thing he’d always wished he could change about the shop his father had built to house the forge. He scanned the room for other places to put a window and thought, “Ahh, not practical. We must see the color of the fire, and the iron. Too much sunlight would make that impossible.” He stretched and rolled his shoulders; felt tight in the chest, and his upper arms felt strange. He thought if he could just stretch in the right way, the sensation might disappear. He thought, not so sore really this time, just tight.
The worst part of fixing wagon wheels was that they were wide and so heavy, their repair was usually at least a two-man job. He had been foolish not to wait for his helpers, but was satisfied that it was done, and he could move on to other work he had promised. Standing in front of his dirty brick forge he used a short-handle shovel to scoop charcoal from the storage pile onto the embers that glowed red down in the forge center. With a poker, he scraped the new fuel this way and that until the pile was the shape he wanted.
He reached up to pull the long handle that pumped the huge bellows, and felt a sharp, crushing pain in his chest; he hunched his shoulders and put his fists up to his breastbone. In a moment, he straightened. Ignoring his pain and fear, he cautiously reached up again to pull the handle. The fire leapt at the air the bellows was providing, greedily consumed the new fuel. Smitty kept his focus on the fire; in a few minutes, it would be hot enough to begin the next job. He wouldn’t think about anything else.
Slowly, he picked up a flat iron bar and held it next to the broken plough blade, envisioning the way the two pieces would fit together. He turned and thrust both parts deep into the fire with a clear picture in his mind of the next steps in this ancient process. Pumping the bellows seemed a little less painful now. Keeping his breathing shallow he thought, "Aye, that’s easin’ up then."
He watched the iron change from black to red and orange. Soon it would be white hot, the temperature needed for welding two parts into one. With a pair of long-handled tongs, he grasped the plough blade, and placed it on his anvil. He grabbed his hammer, turned back to the forge to remove the bar with the tongs, and placed it atop the broken blade. With a few hard blows the sparks began to fly, but the tightness in his chest returned again as a sharp pain.
Truly frightened now, he thought, “Jaysus—what is the matter with me today? I can barely lift the hammer!” The two pieces of hot iron slid away from him off the far side of anvil. He watched, and couldn’t do a thing to stop them. He let the hammer and tongs fall to the floor, brought both hands up to his chest. "Can’t breathe—can’t... " He sat down hard, and with both hands against his solar plexus, toppled over onto the hard packed dirt floor.