On page 153 of wildlife scientist Delia Owens’ novel Where the Crawdads Sing, nineteen-year-old Kya Clark—the “Marsh Girl” of a certain section of the Carolina coast—recalls a poem by “a lesser-known poet,” Amanda Hamilton:
Love is a caged beast,
Eating its own flesh.
Love must be free to wander,
To land upon its chosen shore
Bits of Amanda Hamilton’s poetry recur throughout the book; and though the fictitious poet does not play a large part in the story, the six lines just quoted could well stand as the Marsh Girl’s personal manifesto. For Kya Clark’s story is one of isolation, of love frustrated, and of a huge conflict between hoped-for relation and indispensable freedom.
Abandoned by parents and siblings, spurned as “swamp trash” by the larger community, possessed of tenuous alliances with a handful of individuals, Kya raises herself. She marches to her own tune, responds to Nature in all its variety. She collects feathers, shells, leaves, and other wild things; eventually she builds a catalog of her collection. She delves ever deeper into her wetlands environment to go “where the crawdads sing.”
Crawdads (which you may know as crayfish, crawfish, freshwater lobsters, mountain lobsters, mudbugs, or yabbies) do not actually sing. But an imagined place where crawdads do sing is the author’s symbol for mystic union with Nature. The quest for that union turns out to be, after a host of disappointments in her relations with the human race, Kya’s only constant chord of survival energy.
Along the way she learns a great deal, becomes an acknowledged authority on the life of the marsh, and forms romantic relationships with two men (yes, a sort of love triangle)—one of which works out better than the other. However far life takes her, however, it is the quest to go where the crawdads sing that defines her.
Much else in this book will entertain and delight the reader: sudden death, mayhem, police procedures, courtroom drama, and the verses of Amanda Hamilton and others. At its heart is the story of the Marsh Girl, a remarkable woman who remains an enigma to the end. Speaking of which, do make sure you read all the way to the end. Even at that point, you may be surprised.
Three and a half years ago, in January 2016, I retired from other pursuits so I could try to write fictional stories that other people would like to read.
After a few small success with short stories, I got the idea to write a historical novel based on my ancestors Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro, who came to Illinois from Norway in the 1850s. We had scant information about their lives—a few dates, places, and milestones—not much more. Not enough real knowledge to support a detailed, book-length factual account of their lives—even if I had wanted to write one. But what I actually wanted was to use the bare facts as a framework on which to hang a made-up story, through which we might discover the world in which they lived.
I spent more than six months on the trail of Anders and Maria. I struggled to imagine a plot around the known and unearthed events of their lives that would make a good fictional story, yet would not much distort the known facts. At last, early in 2017, I began to write text.
The first draft of this novel, Freedom’s Purchase, took more than a year to write, at a steady rate of 1,500 to 2,000 words per week.This time also included research “on the fly” to support the detailed demands of particular scenes in the story.
My writing process is iterative. Contrary to what many great writers recommend, I invest a lot of time and effort, while laying down the first draft, in simultaneously revising passages already written. So by June 2018, when I finished the “first draft” of the novel, it was really anywhere between a fifth and a fifteenth draft, depending which part of the book you’re looking at.
I loved my book so much that I started to query agents, seeking a traditional publication contract. After nine months, I felt a bit stymied. At the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute in April 2019, I asked Laurie Scheer about this. She said, “How many agents have you queried so far?” I said, “Thirty or forty.” She guffawed. “Try three hundred!” she said.
Discouraged? On the contrary, I found myself reassured. The problem was not necessarily with my book; only that the literary market is tough to crack. However, that very reassurance gave me the freedom to consider the niggling little thought that if the manuscript itself were a bit better, that would make it easier for agents to see its merit. Perhaps a hundred fifty queries would be enough to do the trick!
My other friend in the UW Writers’ program, Christine DeSmet, read my first ten pages—the most important part of any book for making a first impression—and gave me very useful feedback. Her comments showed me how I could make the first chapter not a little better—rather, a whole lot better. So I did. But Christine also recommended dissecting the whole book scene by scene, then improving each scene as needed. I blanched at the thought. I decided to do it anyway.
Toward a Smashing Second Draft
I spent the whole next month just reading my book. I analyzed 159 separate scenes; I wrote down the overall purpose of each scene, its setting, its characters, their goals, their conflicts, the resolution of those conflicts, and the particular moments of dramatic change. This yielded an analytical document 54 pages long.
So now, I revisit each scene to fix the problems that have shown themselves through this process of analysis. A huge task. Yet, not enough.
After I work my way through a chapter of scenes, I do the next step, suggested by another friend, Tracey Gemmell, author of More or Less Annie, and other members of my Tuesday evening writers’ group. In Microsoft Word, I search for every “ly” in the chapter (many of these turn out to be adverbs); for every “ing” (present progressives, present participles, gerunds); for every “and,” “or,” and “but” (conjunctions); for every “is,” “are,” “was,” and “were” (verbs of being); for every “saw,” “heard,” “knew,” “felt,” “smelled,” and “tasted” (“filter” words). Then, I re-read the chapter in search of introductory time phrases or other introductory adverbial constructions.
That step is a lot of work, too.
Not that there is anything wrong with adverbs, a progressive verbs, passive constructions, conjunctions, or introductory adverbial expressions. All those things have their places in effective prose. But they can become crutches that allow us to write gimpy narrative, when overused. By considering each occurrence in isolation, one often finds a more vivid and robust way—a less distanced, less stand-offish way—to say what one meant to say. If you change even a quarter of those expressions to more powerful constructions, it’s worth the effort.
By the end of this process, I’ll have a book more worthy of readers’ time and attention. And, perhaps, a traditional publishing contract.