I’m in Houston visiting my sister. Last year was hard on her, in that both our mother and her boyfriend died. While her depression isn’t mine, it does set the tone. Her house is dark and her cats are old and her days hold no adventure.
So, to lift my spirits, I set out on the walking path, planning thirty-five minutes in each direction. Usually, on these walks, I have plots to ponder or imaginary conversations to keep me mentally occupied. But today I’m flat, worn down by my baby sister’s pain. Also, the novel I’m working on is becoming more and more unruly by the day; and I really miss the writers’ group in Singapore, where we read each other’s work and offered suggestions.
Because of my dull mindset, all I notice is what is wrong in front of me. For instance, this is usually a lovely walkway, but somehow it has become littered with white plastic bags and bits of tissue. Furthermore, the fences that border the trail are in horrendous disrepair. Come on, people, this is a nice part of town. Maintain! And why is it eighty degrees and muggy in February?
My current authorial project is an experiment, a spinoff from the Fran Furlow novels. That the theme (control, or lack thereof) is obvious doesn’t disturb me; what’s bothering me is that I’m not having fun with it—and that I cannot blame on my hapless sibling’s state of mind. The absence of humor is all on me. Or maybe I’m too close to it. It’s hard to see the sparkle in something you’ve read a thousand times.
Stampede Day is about Karen Parsons, a compulsive shoplifter, who is assigned community service in place of jail time. The service she is to perform is to organize the city’s annual reenactment of a cattle mishap that happened eighty years before. But because I found this event, the focal point of the book, not terribly interesting, I started throwing random snags at Karen: her grandmother dies, leaving half the family business to a schizophrenic uncle; her mother has become agoraphobic; her best friend gets the whole town riled about how nepotism played a part in her receiving a light sentence when anyone else would have gone to prison; and her boyfriend, concerned about her lack of impulse control, gives her a service dog that howls like it’s dying every time she steals something.
An elderly couple walks toward me. The man, overweight and slumped, moves slowly and relies on a cane. His white-haired wife is tiny, and the timid way she places her feet tells me that she hurts with every step she takes. But they’re getting it done, they’re out in the world, living. I want to drag them back to my sister. I would present them to her and say, “See, even these almost dead people get out of their house now and then.”
The issue with Stampede Day is that, at this point, it’s seventy-one thousand words, and that’s a lot of words, especially considering that very few of them work to move the plot along. My novel that will soon be published, Why Stuff Matters, is a tight and trim fifty-nine thousand, five. My fear is that Stampede Day will go on and on, forever unending, with my ill-fated main character eternally striving, but never achieving.
Oh, I’ve come upon something unusual. Most people whose homes back up to the hiking trail don’t fix up the area beyond their fence, but these people have set up an inviting bench beneath a trellis. Construction was involved. A blue glass-fronted cupboard next to the bench draws my attention, so I step close to have a look—hey, this is a wonderful notion! It’s a library. How civic-minded. The unexpected appearance of books causes me to consider all the books I’ve read, and how every one of them has influenced me in some way, even the predictable romances and the poorly written thrillers (one of which I’m reading now; too many details, too many extraneous words; the author badly needs my guidance in editing). Behind the glass Wolf Hall catches my eye. It’s one of my favorite books—Thomas Cromwell was one shrewd and spidery badass. I’m always surprised when I come across someone who hasn’t read it—I think, how could you not have read this? It’s mind-blowing!
A man and his small dog come toward me. I miss my dog, but I’m not ready to get another one. For one thing, it’s nice to be able to travel without the guilt associated with putting a beloved animal in a kennel. The kennel I used for Trip charged an extra five dollars per day if I wanted someone to give him individual attention for ten minutes daily; five more if I wanted him to have social time with other dogs; five more if he needed regular medication. What a rip.
I’m heading back. Though this was meant to be a time of contemplation, I’ve come to no decisions about Stampede Day. A chapter awaits and I have no idea where to take it. Finished or not, someday soon I’m going to put it on a raft and kick it away.