Tag Archives: Gregory Maguire

Picking My Fleas – aka, Constructive Criticism Part 1


I’d mentioned ages ago that I would share the feedback I received at the Festival of Writing, so today I’m finally getting around to it. Along the lines of my post last week, the 10-minute one-on-one sessions were geared toward discussing the marketability of my story based on its first chapter (which the agent/author read in advance). I met with UK literary agent Juliet Pickering of AP Watt and author Emma Darwin (yes, she’s related to Charles), and this is what they wrote on the standard session form…

Market Appeal:  Is the concept of your MS well-designed for the market?

JP – “Literary fiction – female readership? Any authors you could reference in intro?”

ED – “Always room for well-written high-end commercial women’s fiction, but it still needs to be strong in narrative drive, and the history-plot needs to have an effect on the story of the modern strand.”

Me: Juliet had a harder time discerning who my market would be exactly, so she recommended being more specific in my query letter. I’m still not exactly sure what authors I would list…My inspirations for story came from Rumer Godden’s A Fugue in Time, Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes, and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw to an extent, but I kinda modeled my approach (*wishful thinking*) after more modern books by Audrey Niffenegger and Gregory Maguire (Lost, not his fairy tale retellings). I haven’t aimed to copy anyone’s style nor do I want to, but I guess I’d aspire to Kate Morton if I did.

In any case, during our session, Juliet did say she thought the ghost-story element of my manuscript is marketable at this time. I have two threads of narrative running through the manuscript of different time periods, so Juliet had also echoed what Emma later said about one narrative needing to have an impact on the other. Rest assured, they do relate, though the interaction only gradually becomes clearer by the second half, and I leave the reason for this relationship open to speculation until close to the end. Right or wrong, I’m relying on the mystery of that to keep the reader going and give the ending its ta-da!, so hopefully it’s okay that the connection isn’t readily obvious from the start.

Prose Style:  Is your prose style strong enough to sustain an agent’s interest?

JP – “Yes”

ED – “Potentially rich, and very evocative at its best, but it is over-written: too many elaborate words getting in each others’ way. Also I think it’s blinding you to where you’re using words loosely or wrongly, or a sentence doesn’t actually make sense.”

Me: Juliet’s commentary during the session was short-in-sweet on this point, too. Emma, however, was invaluable in calling me out on what I do get criticized on time and again. I had a professor in grad school who told me, “You’re a very good writer. You could be great if you relaxed it more.” The indie publisher who previously offered me a rewrite opportunity likewise said that my writing at the outset of my story was “very ‘erudite’ sounding with lots of metaphors and description, lots of almost ‘purple prose'” and needed to be “simplified a bit to make it more accessible so as to meet with the expectations of our typical readers.” So let’s just say I know this about myself and have for quite some time. I was also reading A.S. Byatt and stuff like Of Human Bondage and Victorian Gothic fiction at the time I started, which made a lot of old-school formality creep in. I’m working on it.

Interestingly enough, that publisher found my language to evolve over the course of the book, which no doubt has to do with practice making, well, closer to the elusive “perfect.” The act of writing itself is the way to become a better writer, and, not having tackled such a lengthy project before, I know that I fell into a more natural groove as the story progressed and had been applying other lessons learned along the way. So I’ve been concentrating lately on these opening chapters to make the writing more consistent. And when Emma says, “using words loosely or wrongly,” ha! Ouch! She’d noted specific instances in my first chapter, and they were definitely parts where I let myself drift into a bit of prose poetry without considering whether I’d let myself get too experimental/abstract. I’m hoping my writing prompts or Eda vignettes will be my outlets for that sort of thing and help get it out of my system for longer prose that should be more straightforward. 🙂

There are a couple other items on the list that I’ll leave for Part 2. In the meantime, happy writing-to-write-better, everyone! And please do tell what feedback YOU’VE received on the two questions above. How did you respond?


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Shifting Perspectives

Page 8 of Room to Write asks us to write what is essentially at the crux of fan fiction:  that is, take an existing story and write it from the perspective of a character other than the original protagonist.  Think of the famous books that have emerged from such a concept–Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, inspired by a Bible story, and Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, which reinvents the Wizard of Oz from the Wicked Witch’s point of view (most of Maguire‘s fiction falls into this category, in fact, including his retellings of Cinderella andSnow White).  Such an exercise makes us at liberty to cast an altogether different tone and agenda upon the story, transforming it into our own by giving voice to those who may lack it in the original story, for they may have looked at the situation from an entirely different angle.

The Prompt:

In the interest of keeping this activity relatively brief, Goldberg asks that we experiment by transforming a well-known work like a fable, fairytale, biblical story, or literary tale.  I’m going the route of Greek mythology (and, mind you, in the interest of time, this will be a first-pass.  I’ll give it more thought than a freewriting, of course, but I won’t go back for revision beyond mechanics…I’m just tellin’ it like it is…)

Response:

I was already dwelling inside the stone when he “created” me.  My outward form was different, to be sure–rough, chipped, stained, weather-worn–but it was me.  All along.

When I came into his possession, I enjoyed the way he would look at me, his eyes alight with the potential he saw in me and shaded with a tinge of humility of what he himself might achieve of me.  But he never doubted me, only his own actions.  From the beginning it was a labor of true love, the sculptor and me, he placing his hands upon me, circling me to summon what could come out, and I standing patiently, quietly, liking the way his hands felt.  I may have felt cold to the touch, but he warmed me, his oils seeping into my pores to give me a luster I’d never outwardly known.  He gazed into me so intently, caressed me so fondly then.

And then, he began chipping away.  In place of the soft beds of fingertips and palm, I felt the cold rigid steel of his instrument of torture, the chisel that wore me down from the outside in.  I stood in mute terror as I watched my outer fortification crumble, pieces of me clattering to the ground like so much rubble.  At the end of each day, he would clear the debris and thereby banish bits of what made me ME.  I had lost my natural coloring, along with the scars of my environment and experience, and the ridges and dips that used to catch the warm rainfall–send it trickling down the ivy with which I was clad to sprinkle just lightly on the delicate grasses at my feet–were smoothed and buffed into curves and mounds untrue to me.  I would peer from my pedestal, beseeching him to look at and touch me the way he once did when he glorifyied me for what I was and could become, believing what he and I saw of me was the same.  And still he would chip and hammer and chisel away.

Yes, I had loved him, and he had loved me, but what his spiraling admiration had evolved into in the end was not love.  As my figure slimmed and limbs emerged, I saw marble tendrils coiling from what I supposed had become my “head” and tumbling down my backside, and what had once been so raw and naked and pure of my surface was sculpted into imitation of silk in motion that puddled at my “feet,” a prudent human convention binding me in.  The dust of my own decay choking my once porous flesh, I was stifled, and the more imprisoned I came to feel, the more he appeared to delight in the look of me.  In my state of paralysis, I looked on with no choice, in disgust of the way his ravenous eyes now consumed me, no longer meeting my gaze, but gawking at the swells above my midsection and seeming to imagine what was concealed beneath the draping folds of my “gown.”  He would stare at me hungrily, fingering his tools as though contemplating whether he ought to just refine my stone away further to see what he really wanted to and leave little to fantasy, and at times I felt that he would; it was at these times he throw his implements down into my dust and approach me with hands in the way I had so long hoped that he would.  These times would be different, though, his touch not being of affection as he groped my swells and ran a finger down my curves and forced his tongue onto what he sculpted to look like lips on me.  The warmth and moisture he projected onto me at these times were not what I’d once felt.  Unsatisfied, he would fall away and moan and pull at his hair and raise a hand as if to strike me, only to sink to the earth among the gravel of my former self and weep over his unrequited physical love.  I would not see him for days after spells like these, but he always did return, gawking anew and repeating the futile cycle.

When he’d determined that he had “completed” me, he tested another means of persuading me to yield to him.  He brought me gifts, laying them one by one at my feet, disregarding wholly that it would never be material items that meant anything to me, that all that he could give was not what would die and disintegrate along with this mortal world, but that which would transcend the heavens into the infinite.

By this time I had hardened to him.  I was aloof, detached, even colder to his touch.  I almost came to delight now in the way that my new exterior would allure him, tease him, send him right back into pitiful despair.  I once had hoped he would, in his most desperate of moments, affix his chisel to the heart that refused to offer me real love and drive it in to take his life as he had taken mine.  Yes, this had become something I’d wanted badly, and I prayed to the gods that one of them would come to my aid.

And She did.

As the sculptor slept, snoring away in his miserable stupor, Aphrodite descended unto me, asking me, “My dear Galatea, what is it you request of me?”

“I desire that you please take pity on poor Pygmalion lying there.  Go to him, and bid him what it is he requests.  He has endeavored so much to deserve that which should come to him.”

Aphrodite smugly responded, “I shall go to him, but I alone will determine the merits of his request.”

“Fair enough,” I conceded, and left the goddess to take matters into her own divine hands.

By sunset of the following day, as the sun bled red into the purity of the periwinkle sky, Aphrodite had given Pygmalion exactly what he deserved.  I stepped off my pedestal, feeling the residue of my identity poking and scratching underfoot, and I allowed Pygmalion to hold me.  I allowed him to marry me.  And I allowed him to make love to me.  At first.

What Pygmalion had not thought out in advance was that, on wishing so extravagantly that I could be transformed from my stone shackles into a real woman, I would no longer be his ideal.  The male concept of beauty he had so lustily carved into me would now fade with time; intercourse led to weight gain when I conceived and bore my first child, but, alas, while Pilates may sound like an ancient Greek exercise, that regimen had not yet come into being, so I lifted not a finger to regain the figure he’d once bound me within.  Along with the blood in my human veins coursed my  human hormones, and I squawked and berated him for being lax in his marital and paternal responsibilities.  I assumed control over the household finances, and I enacted a curfew for him.  Then I forbade him from sculpting any more females, and this dramatically impacted his livelihood for the worse.  Penniless and destitute, he drank himself to ruin and ultimately rotted from within.

My son and I were taken in by generosity of a blind gentleman of comfortable means.  He would touch my face only to know my expressions, to pinch my chin with affection or to dry away my tears.

I liked the way his hands felt, and I emerged from the stone I had been dwelling inside when he loved me.

Reflection:

This exercise was much fun for me.  This is something that I think I could go back and revise and expand to a great extent, and just might.  For a first pass, though, it quite clearly became a retelling through a feminist lens; I first considered simply just writing from the statue’s perspective as though she really was as in love with her creator as he was with her (and that the love he felt was genuine, somehow, being based on her superficial beauty), but I quickly veered my course in the other direction to make the transformation more dynamic–I am probably also jaded by the consequences that befall Henry Higgins as Eliza Doolittle becomes empowered when George Bernard Shaw turns this myth on its head in his play, Pygmalion (later adapted into the musical, My Fair Lady).  For being a piece of stone, Galatea is capable of having quite a range of emotion in all her incarnations once she’s given the  limelight for something other than her beauty.

If I were to go back and revise this piece, I would likely expand upon what her essential, good qualities are that are worth loving and try to better reconcile these virtues with the cold, hateful revenge she ultimately exacts on Pygmalion.  I’m not sure if at the end I necessarily sympathize with her and applaud her for eventually finding love.  Does she deserve it?

***FYI: I have since revised this story to give it ever so slightly more dimension and optimism… It now appears in the Beyond the Pillars anthology here.


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