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Terez Mertes

The story needs music

November 13, 2009 at 6:16 PM

 So, I fired my characters the other day, the whole lot of them. They stood there, dumb with confusion, as I raged at them.

“You’re dull, you’re cardboard cut-outs, you’re not revealing anything to me, no matter how many hours I sit at the computer or in front of my notes. I’m here, floundering, and there you stand off in the distance, offering no hints or advice. So I give up. I quit. I quit this whole stupid business. Get out of here. Out of my head, out of my life.”

They don’t move.

“What are you waiting for?” I ask, my voice rising. “Get out!”

“Dad?” Kylie, my thirteen-year-old narrator asks, looking up at Patrick, who steps forward.

“Here’s the thing,” he says in that irritating father-knows-best tone of his. “There’s not enough music in the story. That’s why it’s not working.”

“What, like the cadence of the words, the paragraphs, the way the story flows? It doesn’t sing yet, is that what you’re telling me?”

“Well, that, and more,” he says, and Susan, his wife and my second narrator, nods in agreement. “Literally, there’s not enough music mentioned in it. Like there was in the last novel.”

“But that was a novel set in the performing arts world. This one isn’t.”

“Well, why don’t you just toss some in?” Patrick suggests. “A little Beethoven, maybe Dvorák. Did you know he was passionate about trains? It was a hobby of his.”

“Look.” I wave my hands as if that might make their spectral presences back off. “Trains and composers and classical music—that’s way off the mark. Catholicism, faith and spirituality, duty to family, everyone sort of stuck in their beliefs and perceptions—that’s my story.”

Kylie whispers something to her mother. My ears prick up. “Excuse me?” I call out.

She shrinks. Susan answers me instead. “She said it sounded dull.”

You’re dull,” I shriek. “That’s why I’m firing you. All of you.”

“Um, with all due respect?” Susan sounds both nervous and resolute. “I’m not dull. You just made me that way. Because you never bothered to figure out what made me tick. What I yearn for and dream of.”

I let out my breath in an explosive exhale. “Fine. Tell me.”

“Okay.” Susan reaches up to pat her long, unruly blonde hair—I really need to write in a haircut—and then nods. “You made me a literary specialist. It’s just that I don’t want to be a literary specialist. I want to work with kids, grades K to 3, fine, but not as that.”

“As what, then?”

“As a ballet teacher.”

“You?” I don’t even bother to hide my scorn.

She lifts her chin a notch before replying. “Why not? I took ballet classes all the way from elementary through high school. I performed.”

“Really? I didn’t know that.”

“I know.” Her tone is reproachful.

Patrick rejoins the debate. “Teaching ballet would support a music motif. And look, you’ve already got that scene with Kylie going into an ecstatic trance while listening to the Bach Toccata and Fugue.”

“And later I bring up the Schumann story to Freeda,” Kylie says eagerly.

“The Schumann, of course,” Patrick says, looking at Kylie and Susan but not me, which annoys me. “That part about throwing himself into the Rhine.”

“Perfect.” Susan beams. “She could expand on that, on the way it ties in with Freeda, the way she…”

“Stop right there,” I exclaim, looking around nervously. “That’s giving away crucial plot. Do you mind?

They manage to look both perplexed and smug. “Well, didn’t you say it was all over?” Susan asks. “That we were fired?”

They’ve got me and they know it.

It’s not hard, what they’re proposing. In fact, it would be easy as anything. I’d much rather be writing about music than about church ladies squabbling over Catholic doctrine in regards to Kylie’s mystical experiences that form the core of the story. Music and mysticism—that works.

And Kylie was right. There’s the Schumann that’s already mentioned.

Something sleeping in me awakens and my thoughts begin whirring. I could have Susan and Kylie go to the symphony one Sunday. In fact it would be perfect. Susan, aching over the troubles I’ve thrown on her shoulders, aching over Mahler’s Symphony no. 1, the way I did last September, the Mahler exposing all my secret hurts and pains and longings.

It would work perfectly.

I look up and they’re trying to hide the smiles growing on their faces. I do my best to scowl at them. “Well, don’t just stand there. We’ve got work to do. Come over here and help me lift this thing off the ground.”


© 2009 Terez Rose

From Tom Holzman
Posted on November 13, 2009 at 6:53 PM

What a wonderful vision of the writer at work!   The thought of the creative act of writing as a sort of collaboration between the writer and her characters is fascinating.  May your novel be successful and land you and your characters on the bestseller list. 

From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 13, 2009 at 7:02 PM

 >The thought of the creative act of writing as a sort of collaboration between the writer and her characters is fascinating.

Tom, you'd be amazed. Maybe not all writers work this way, but me, I need my characters' full cooperation. It also works against them. If they don't put out, they're out. That's how it was with Susan's gentle, soft-spoken mother in the earliest draft of this novel. She did nothing for the story. So I killed her. She dies in the new draft's opening scene.

Hmm. Maybe that's why Susan wasn't speaking to me. : /

From Anne Horvath
Posted on November 13, 2009 at 7:41 PM

Wow, I didn't know you had chats with your characters.  How Interesting, and it is probably a good thing that you didn't take up my suggestion of adding zombies to your next novel...

(Insert smiley face here).

Hope the writing goes better.  Hang in there!

From Laurie Niles
Posted on November 13, 2009 at 8:17 PM

Strange reaction I had to this humorous blog, it made me cry! The creative process -- when you are creating something in the honest way it sounds like you are -- makes deep demands on the creator's heart and soul. Restraint is a huge part of it, but where do you draw the line? It can be confusing, even heart-wrenching. Sometimes you really do have to cut off an entire huge limb of the tree to make it grow again, and other times you stand with the ax poised, then you back away. Good thing your characters are so articulate!


From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 13, 2009 at 8:54 PM

 Anne - yes, I am rather glad there is no negotiating with zombies. So potentially taxing. : )

And Laurie, aww, your reply was both touching and eloquent and I'm so glad you can appreciate the challenges of a fiction writer. It's funny, an outsider might think writing fiction was an easy way out for a soft-hearted person, but really, when you get deep into the process as I always do (wishing I didn't get quite so deep and take it all so seriously), it truly is wrenching. Writing novels (well, of a quality caliber) is not for the faint of heart. I'm too soft-hearted and I've gotten told, over and over that my writing is "too quiet," but, dang. It's hard to march fearlessly through these created lives and wreak havoc on them. A certain amount of ruthlessness is required by the writer, along with a whole-hearted investment. I've yet to figure out how those two balance out. I think I'll practice by trying to saw off my own foot. : )

I guess that's what makes each writers' voice unique. Some are good at the ruthless stuff and excel in thriller-esque writing, but it lacks heart. (Then again, readers of thriller-esque fiction aren't looking for that "soft touch," are they?) And for those of you who chose journalism over all this agony, GOOD CALL!!! (Then again. It's a very delicious, utterly engrossing agony.)

Whoops. I'm writing a book here. I do that a lot.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 13, 2009 at 9:03 PM

 And I will add this. While I wrote this in a humorous tone, it really is quite a scary thing to have your characters stop talking to you and act all wooden. Muse-less writing is about the toughest thing there is, and it's always accompanied by a sense of panic and the though of "maybe the creative well has dried up for good." This project was really intimidating me, and I'm soooo glad the realization that I should add music came up. The ideas are flowing again. Whew.


From Mendy Smith
Posted on November 14, 2009 at 3:29 AM

"....... Catholicism, faith and spirituality, duty to family, everyone sort of stuck in their beliefs and perceptions—that’s my story.”

Ya know, many of the "greats" composed for the church....   should be an easy to sneak in some music in there somewhere... :)

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on November 14, 2009 at 12:02 PM

 Yeah, music can go to the core of spirituality and belief.  That blog you wrote a while ago about visiting a church . . . the ideas you explored there sound like they would fit right in here somewhere.  Are any of the Catholics in the story lapsed?

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on November 14, 2009 at 12:05 PM

 I'm also wondering about those names.  Kylie is interesting, but . . . Susan?  It's one of those names (like Karen) that baby girls were all named in the 1960's.   Does Susan chafe against having such an average, vanilla name?  Does she make something special out of it?  And Patrick, is he Irish Catholic?  I don't think the spiritual part sounds dull!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 14, 2009 at 2:16 PM

 Mendy - you're right, and the first name to spring to mind in that department is Bach, which is why a rendition of his Toccata and Fugue has always been in the story. He really does hit the mark where spirituality (the old fashioned "Catholic" kind) meets art in a very positive way.

Karen - actually that blog I wrote about the church and spirituality, back last fall, was indeed part of this novel-in-progress. That's "their" church. An aside - I went back there about two months ago when I spent the night in SF, and did a Saturday night mass, which is always a more casual affair, and I must say, they did a good job with it and it felt lively and welcoming. Ironically, though, I just hated the "let's jazz things up and sound like a folk rock band!" music. I couldn't sing to it so easily, and I love to sing in church. And the other mass, the "Solemn Mass," while it had an oppressive element to it, it was just so beautiful and stately and timeless, and fit much more into my classical music sensibilities. It would sure be nice to find the happy medium. Hmmm. The 9am family mass? (Goldilocks and the three masses...)

To answer your question, Karen, one of the characters is sort of starting to lapse. It's Susan - and you're right, she has one of those generic '60's names, and yes, she was born in that generation and she is a dutiful daughter, people-pleaser sort, so it fits. But you brought up a great point -- I will have her chafe at the vanilla nature of the name when she starts to kick up her heels and act out and question everything she'd been trained not to question. That's a big facet of the story but I think what got me in trouble (in making it sound "dull") was that I was focusing too much on the opening mood of the story, where they are the perfect prototypical Catholic family in a Catholic community, with a priest in the family and deep roots in the community for generations. But the story isn't that, it's what happens after Susan's mother dies, Kylie descends into her own little mystic-imbued world and starts having charismatic experiences, while at the same time Susan makes this new friend, a spirited, free-thinking single woman whose actions seduce Susan away from the straight and narrow path she's followed her whole life. And out goes the sedate family life -- which doesn't make husband Patrick very happy and, like his namesake, he is the most religious and serious about Catholicism. A little too conservative for his own good. But, um, that's about to change.

So. I sure hope the religion angle of the story doesn't come off as dull. But I have to get Susan in trouble faster. (Oh, God. Now I see Susan approaching me, from the periphery, pointing at your post, saying, "She has a point, you know. My name is dull. Can we negotiate?" Oh, God. What have I started?!)

The wild friend is a German woman, by the way. Her name is Ilse. She's a lot of fun to write. Quite the troublemaker.  : )

From Theodore Cohen
Posted on November 14, 2009 at 2:33 PM

Terez, I had to laugh out loud (really!) at your blog. I just published my first novel (you may have seen the ad on this Web site) and one of the most difficult aspects of writing the book, which is based on real events in my life, was fleshing out the various characters and bringing them to life for the reader. I can't count the number of times I rewrote certain passages, changed a person's description, altered his or her dialogue...until I could paint just the right picture to support the plot and focus the reader on the particular message I needed to convey at that point in the story. Someone once said told me that "easy reading requires hard writing".  While not the best English, it certainly lends credence to what you have been saying.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 14, 2009 at 3:31 PM

 Oh, yay, another person who gets it! Thanks for your comments, Theodore, and big congrats to you on having your first novel published - that must feel wonderful.

I just loved this comment, too: 

>Someone once said told me that "easy reading requires hard writing".

Boy, well-put. : / 

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on November 14, 2009 at 4:14 PM

 Ilse?  Cool!  That was my husband's mother's name.  She died rather suddenly in 1989, only in her early 50's, of neutropenia, while my husband was 19 and doing his national service.  I regret that I never had a chance to meet her.  She's always been a bit of a mysterious presence in my life, the mother-in-law I never met.

I was thinking more about Susan, the name.  Is your Susan now, or was she ever, a Sue?  In addition to being all you said, Susan can also be a name with gravitas.  My boss, who is a professor of Biology at MIT, is named Susan.  (As is the current President of MIT, Susan Hockfield).  When you get to a certain position in life, "Sue" doesn't quite fit, at least for the public persona. 


From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 14, 2009 at 4:49 PM

Oh, that's cool that you have an "Ilse" connection. My character's name soooo fits her, in ways I can't explain. Sometimes I really fall in love with a name.  I actually love the name Susan. (No, Susan was never a "Sue." That conjures up a different image entirely, doesn't it?) When I was a kid and my friend's newborn sister was named "Susan," I marveled at how pretty it was. And yes, this was the late '60's, further confirming your theory, and, wouldn't you know it, her other sister's name was Karen. : )

Well, I'll certainly think of you and your husband's Ilse now, as I write out my own Ilse. So sad, that your mother-in-law had to die so young. I like commemorating people who've died in my stories, even if only in the tiniest of ways, sometimes only significant to me. It's my little way of honoring those who've come before us.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 14, 2009 at 4:58 PM

 I should add that Ilse is one of those characters who doesn't bother to stand in the periphery and let me "write" her into a scene. Basically she strides onstage, seizes the pen (well, the keyboard) from me, and commences to write her own part.

Thank God for the Ilses of my fictional world. So much easier on a writer. : )

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on November 14, 2009 at 10:59 PM

Terez, your story reminds me of Luigi Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author."  I like "easy reading requires hard writing."  It's so true, even in highly technical fields, where I have a lot of writing experience.  You wrote so well here.  If your book is written as well as this, it will be great.

From Christopher Liao
Posted on November 15, 2009 at 1:46 AM

This is a wonderful read! I take an Expository Writing class and we have been working on using effective dialogue for the past two weeks. I find it amazing how gifted writers like you have the skill to allow contrasting characters and personalities to be so naturally expressed onto paper. Thanks for the great learning experience, I should say. :)

From Anne Horvath
Posted on November 15, 2009 at 2:47 PM

Off topic, but I picked up a copy of Devil's Trill: A Novel by Gerald Elias at the library the other day.  So far, so good.  The central character, a difficult violin teacher, is vividly drawn, and I found myself distracted from my reading with the thought of this author arguing with his grouchy anti-hero.  Thanks for insights into your writer's mind!

Also, zombies wouldn't be so difficult to negotiate with.  They just want BRAAAINS!  (Smile)


From Joan Coy
Posted on November 15, 2009 at 4:32 PM

Hey! Another we know each other from any of the writer's groups....I'm wondering. I also throw music into my mss. Do you belong to any of the RWA sub-chapters?

@ Anne H. ...Devil's Trill...... crap, my current ms has that title....guess I should have done a search on it, lol. Well, I'm not changing it.

From Laurie Trlak
Posted on November 16, 2009 at 12:13 AM

Terez, maybe that's why, after the novel I wrote as a teenager (but never submitted to anyone other than my English teacher for criticism), I was never able to come up with anything again: I didn't talk to my characters!

Seriously, the idea of bringing your characters to life that way inside your own imagination seems like an obvious, yet not so obvious, way of getting to know who they are and to understand their motivations and what direction the story should take.

Now if I could just get a story idea that would energize me to start writing again...

From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 16, 2009 at 2:37 AM

 Oh, my, what WONDERFUL continued replies. I went away to San Francisco for half the weekend (the symphony, yay! Gautier Capucon playing Schumann's Cello Concerto - wow!) and came back to these great replies. Thanks so much for the great comments, Pauline, Christopher, Anne, Joan, Laurie T. (Wow, I should leave the computer for 1 1/2 days more often...) I'm just tickled that others like what I wrote and don't think I'm psycho for it. (Or maybe you do and you're being polite and not mentioning it here.)

Pauline - is that a book or a short story? Sounds fun - maybe I'll hunt it down. Christopher - you might have been less impressed with the dialogue I was producing last week, prior to writing this essay. No joke - it was going so horribly bad, I couldn't believe that it was possible to work on novel-writing for seven years now and still produce such dreck. I'm learning - one is never too far along in the game to produce dreck! Happily, one is never too green to produce gold. I think every writing day is a grab-back of the two. The skill of the craft comes in editing it all.

Anne, I liked your comments, and Joan, I'm cracking up that that's your title. Oops! Two of my novels had to have a title change b/c of complications. I've solved it by using a "working title" and not getting so attached to it I can't give it up. (Joan, to answer your question, no, I'm not in RWA, but I am a member of Backspace - have you heard of that? Great writers' forum and support community - check it out.)

Laurie - it really, really does help me to dig deeper into characters' lives and thoughts, particularly when they seem wooden. Some characters spring off the page from the first line, others take work. And trust me, ideas that can propel an entire novel are solid gold to me, and very hard to come by. Sometimes it scares me. I consider it a gift from the fates when one drops on my lap. And they've always dropped down, just like that. And never b/c I'm thinking about it. So. Keep that lap ready for the moment - it rarely announces itself beforehand. : )

From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 16, 2009 at 2:49 AM

 Anne - btw, once you're done with Devil's Trill, tell me if it's worth reading through. The Music Teacher, which I recently read here (someone suggested it - can't remember who now, but thank you!) was darkly comical, featured a difficult violin teacher, but by the end I was pretty depressed by her and really wanted to get out of her head sooner than later, back into the light.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on November 16, 2009 at 3:16 PM

I finished Devil's Trill yesterday, and I liked it a lot!  It's a mystery, and follows the usual formulas, at least up to a point, which adds to the interest.  I especially enjoyed how the author skewered the Classical Music Business Archetypes.  Part of the fun of reading this book was figuring out which characters were based on which real people.  The other part of the fun was thinking "Wow, I can't believe the author had the guts to publish this while he is still alive!!!"  (Smiley face here)

Two thumbs up.  The characters are vivid (and argumentative, I imagine!), the plot is tight, and the music of the words is just right. There are some really great touches of humor here and there, with lots of hilarious puns. 

I'd loan you my copy, but it's due back at the library next week...

From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 16, 2009 at 5:07 PM

Ooh, good review, Anne! Okay, it's a must-read.

And further luck - it's available through my library system, so I was able to put a request in for it. Cool! A good read and free - doesn't get better than that.

I so enjoyed The Rainaldi Quartet, another classical music mystery (I know I've said this 5 or 6 times here now, but what the heck, I'll say it again). Anyone out there who's looking for a good music-mystery read, that's one.

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