Jun. 4, 2010

Inventing Laurie Barber

Last Friday I turned in a second version of the manuscript of my novel-in-progress, and this week I got back notes from my editor and agent. The changes they suggest are mostly minor — an off-key note here and there, a few details to clarify. The book is in good shape, for the most part.

One not-so-minor problem continues to dog me: the novel still does not have a title. The latest suggestion, Cold Spring, was rejected (rightly) as “not big enough.” [sigh] It is hard to believe I have been puzzling over this title as long as I have, only to find on the eve of finishing the book that I have no idea what to call the damn thing.

The tallest task in this rewrite, though, is to breathe life into the female lead, Laurie Barber, a suburban mom whose 14-year-old son is accused of murdering a classmate. For reasons I can’t quite articulate, Laurie still feels a little flat to me. My editor and agent both are women (as are most editors and agents) and both expressed reservations about this character. I wonder if they are more alive to the gaps in her presentation — if they sense something missing that I had not, until now. They suggested only tweaks in Laurie’s character, “I wanted to hear more from her” or “I didn’t think she would really say this on page 22.” But to me the problem is bigger: Laurie does not come off the page and live the way the other characters do. She still feels faintly artificial, a creation of words. You don’t sense a real person with a beating heart behind all those words on the page.

Of course women are difficult for a male writer to create, as men must be for women writers — as any alien character, a Belgian or an extraterrestrial, would be for any writer. It is quite a leap to imagine the actual experience of being the opposite sex. Which is odd, since I have had no problem imagining the experience of being all sorts of homicidal or otherwise deviant characters. (Empathize with the Boston Strangler? Sure. But a suburban mom? Impossible.)

The task is made harder by the fact that I don’t like to base my characters on real people. I prefer to write them into existence from a blank canvas. That is obviously a more laborious, painterly process, sketching them in with ever more detail until somehow, mysteriously, the girl in the picture quickens into life.

I have two weeks to accomplish it. One last chance before I turn to the next project. Who are you, Laurie Barber?

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