About your opening: editors often judge a story by the first paragraph, and yours has no hook. Take the description of the father: his soap-encrusted wedding band, the blue tennis shoes he wears with suit pants and tropical shirts, the fading hair that crests above his forehead — these are all fine, specific details, but they come too soon and contribute little or nothing to the narrative. Always keep in mind that writing fiction is about choices, painful choices.
This principle applies equally to back-story. Think of the present action as the motorboat and of the back-story as sandbags, too many of which will strand your reader at the dock. Later on, you might fit in something about his living with his mother until she died, the master’s degree in history he received at fifty-three, the work in Catholic movements for social justice that led to his career in politics. But the day she visited him at work and he took her around the state capitol introducing her to everyone, the newspaper clippings he sent to their cousins in County Cork when she won a speech competition, the World War II films they watched at the local air-force base, the fact that he cried during Goodbye, Mr. Chips — how do these anecdotes launch the story you are telling?
Which brings up a good question: exactly what story are you telling? Not the story of a man who had children late and died early. Not the story of an Irish Catholic who loved history and ate peanut-butter-and-avocado sandwiches and dragged his children to Sunday Mass and could read and walk at the same time and felt guilty spending money on anything but travel and books. This story does not belong to him. He’s gone by the second page, but she’s still around for the next four thousand words.
So, in the next draft, keep a steady eye on your protagonist. Ask yourself what she wants. Judging by her tight perm and halter top, she wants boys — boys and blonder hair and skin that would tan and a few more inches of height and a few more inches of breasts. She wants to stumble less, except when she’s drunk and it’s considered funny. She wants to keep her grades up, yet become cool. She wants to spend the summer in France sitting in cafes, mature and sophisticated, an ocean away from strip malls, Burger Kings, and roller rinks. She wants her mother to stop snapping at salespeople when they are too slow. She wants her father’s face to stop flushing when he climbs the stairs. She wants him to stop getting old. Can you see the potential for narrative tension here? She wants her father to be all right; he isn’t.
Don’t make your reader machete his way through a jungle of detail to find the story’s plot. Airdrop him straight into the action. Begin with the drive through her neighborhood in the passenger seat of her best friend’s white Mustang convertible, with the radio playing some Billy Joel song (whose title you’ll want to figure out by the final draft, or else drop it altogether). Show her flying by the supermarket parking lot, the smiling bear on the yogurt-shop sign, the gas station, and the pizza parlor where she and her friends rendezvous on Saturdays for trips to the movies or the bowling alley. The car pulls up to a light by Saint Michael’s Church — a drab brown building hunched like a beggar next to the road, asking for something she’s too young and alive to give. Then her friend revs the engine, and they race with a truckful of boys, who make whooping sounds and honk their horn.
She is streaming through her ordered stucco, plastic, and wood-paneled world where nothing ever really happens. She feels liberated and almost pretty. She is singing along with whatever song it is and knows all the words. On her street, the Mustang dips and slides and coasts up a hill that she descended as a little girl on her bicycle, her heart in her throat even though she was sure that her tires would stay beneath her and that no car would run the stop sign at the bottom.
The second before the Mustang reaches the summit, when she looks into a pale blue, smoggy suburban sky and feels the warm seat against her back — that is the last moment of her childhood. Once the car crests the hill, she can’t turn around, and neither can your prose. Accelerate your sentences to match the beat of her heart as she sees the red fire engine, the ambulance, the neighbor peering over the fence into her front yard at the not-yet-visible something on the lawn. See what she sees as she leans into the wind, her hair whipping her face: his feet in the blue tennis shoes and the top of his head; the rest is hidden by men in white uniforms. Keep the part about her pushing open the car door before her friend has time to stop; keep the part about her falling on the street and splitting her knee. Add blood. Show her running over the long, soft grass of the front yard, running and stumbling with her heart thumping like a small animal in her chest. (What kind of an animal? A rabbit?)
Don’t mention the yellow tongue flopping in his open mouth, or the waves breaking over his naked stomach each time the paramedics push on his chest. Graphic physical details such as these will put off your reader. Instead, use his broken, gold-rimmed glasses lying a few feet away. Have her pick them up and put them in her pocket before running over to the paramedic who is walking calmly out of her house. Don’t mention that he’s handsome: is it realistic that she would notice this? All you need are his mirrored sun glasses and the clipboard in his hand. As for the dialogue, make it more concise:
“Your father’s had a heart attack, but he’s in stable condition.”
“What do you mean? Is he going to be all right?”
Stable means “resisting sudden change of position or condition.” Stable means “maintaining equilibrium.” She’s in honors English and would more or less know this, but, even so, her confusion is understandable. Death, after all, is a stable condition.
Show her watching them load her father into the ambulance, his feet bouncing limply off the sides of the stretcher, his mouth covered by a transparent oxygen mask. Describe her brother as he runs to her across the neighbor’s lawn in his Mickey Mouse shirt with the grape-juice stain on it and his light brown hair and his freckles suddenly dark on his face. These details count because his innocence ages her suddenly as she grabs his hand and they run inside the house.
Keep the strange buckling of her body in the chair by the phone, the way her finger trembles as she dials her mother’s work number over and over, whispering, “Oh, Mommy. Oh, Mommy.” Perhaps use the flashback to the time they went horseback riding in Yellowstone and a hornet got under her father’s saddle and he got bucked into the air three times before thudding onto the ground, and she held the reins of her horse so it wouldn’t kick him in the head as her brother slid down from the saddle, crying, “Oh, my little Daddy.” There is something ritualistic about the return of such chanting. It shows that she and her brother always knew that they had been given damaged goods — an over-the-hill father who gritted his teeth when he opened mayonnaise jars, watched only black-and-white movies, called the television the “idiot box” and threatened to throw it into the swimming pool, sat on mannequin platforms to read when he took her clothes shopping, and told long stories about the origins of words like posh; a father with shelf upon shelf of books that smelled of old churches, who didn’t take his family to Hawaii for Christmas to lie on the beach, but to Guadalcanal, where they took pictures of smashed planes in the jungle.
Keep what she’s thinking as she holds the phone to her ear and listens to the endless ringing: that this is all her fault because she did the cooking and made too many things with ground beef — burritos and meatloaf and Bisquick pie. Describe the game she and her brother played with her father, sneaking down the hall while he was in the kitchen and racing around the corner shouting, “Snack patrol!” Tell how he once threw a chunk of cheese into the garbage when they burst into the room, his cheeks still stuffed, a guilty smile on his face.
Don’t mention her dreams that he would die that summer: dreams are cheap in fiction, and premonition cheaper. Besides, you don’t need them; you have plausibility. It is entirely plausible that a fifty-seven-year-old man who rarely exercised, ate too much fat, drank no red wine except at Communion, and had just spent an afternoon walking political precincts under the hot June sun might have a massive heart attack and keel over at the wheel of his car just as he entered his driveway with his eleven-year-old son in the passenger seat. But how plausible is it that he’d first manage to pull up the parking brake? Not that, in this story, you would want the car to roll down the driveway and crash into the fence. That would be too dramatic, over the top. So allow yourself the parking brake, but do something about the birthday. Who — besides Shakespeare — dies on his birthday? Lose the carrot cake with the cream-cheese frosting and the orange-frosting carrot and the words “Happy Birthday Dad” that her mother is holding when she steps onto the front porch, soon after the ambulance and the firetruck have wailed away. Keep only the description of her mother’s smile through the glass pane of the door before your main character turns the knob and tells her what has happened.
Cut the drive to the hospital with her mother and her brother and her best friend’s mother at the wheel and her best friend crying next to her. There’s no need to brush your character’s teeth every night. Just get them to the ER, where a nurse leads them to a cramped waiting room with low couches and chairs. Describe the wet clench of her mother’s hand, the tissues peaked in ready triangles on the table, the pacing, the sitting, the twisting of her stomach with each shadow that darkens the crack under the door. Show her closing her eyes and trying to pray. She has been baptized and confirmed, woken up by her father every Sunday morning for nine o’clock Mass, eaten countless Knights of Columbus powdered doughnuts, worshiped in a French cathedral and a Fijian grass hut. She knows all about Father Damian and Mother Teresa. She knows what to say to fill the time during confession without lying. But at this moment, when all of her chips are down, when she must rally the saints and martyrs and angels to her side, she can remember only the opening to the Lord’s Prayer. Our Father who art in heaven, she is thinking as the door opens, hallowed be Thy name.
As for the doctor’s line: it’s terrible, a television cliché. Remember, dialogue is not about how people really speak. Better simply to describe his strained face and the stethoscope dangling from his neck and then cut to white space.
In the next scene — she and her mother and brother standing in the small white hospital room — rethink your choice of detail. She wouldn’t see the sun coming through the blinds in long, bright stripes. She wouldn’t see the blinking red numbers on the machines or the contaminated-waste bucket. She would just see her father, lying on a table with a paper sheet tucked under his arms. Perhaps she has memories — the things you cut from the opening, or others, such as the way he sang, “School days, school days, dear old boring rule days,” in the mornings, or his car in the school parking lot with him leaning against the door reading, or the way his fingers got sticky and black when he worked on the family scrapbook, or the time not long before when she sat with him in a Chinese restaurant beside the freeway somewhere between San Francisco and Sacramento, and he told her how that area had once looked: no houses or shopping malls, just rolling green fields with cattle and forgotten towns. Staring at him now, she might think that he has become like those towns, that he has faded completely back into the black-and-white world from which he came.
But then again, maybe she wouldn’t think anything at all. Maybe she’d just stand there next to her mother and her brother and look at his useless body and his face that has become a mask of his face, with the yellow tongue now hidden and the eyelids locked down over eyes that were sometimes green and sometimes blue. Maybe she’d just stare and then take her mother’s hand and walk out the door into the hall, out of the hospital, back into the hot afternoon. Maybe birds are singing in the parking lot. Maybe not.
Tone down your descriptions of the next few days: she’s on Valium, so everything is blurred from her point of view. Show her going into his closet again and again to bury her face in the lining of his coats. Show her flipping through the pages of the last book he was reading, looking for notes in his handwriting. Make a scene of the afternoon when she and her mother choose the coffin: the gleaming wooden top catching the light and the silver handles and the pale blue prom-dress satin lining bunched up around the inside. Show her sitting at the kitchen table with her mother and her uncle, talking about flowers. Keep her line: “Not gardenias. He hated gardenias. They reminded him of funerals.” That’s a good line — it’s real. Show her climbing into her mother’s bed each night and rolling herself tight in the comforter.
Don’t try to tell what’s going on inside her. Don’t presume you’d know how.
Choose something like the sound of the doorbell to punctuate the activity that hums around her as she moves through the house not eating or drinking. Describe the tennis mothers and car salesmen — people who never knew how to talk to her father because he was Irish Catholic rather than Protestant, drove only American cars, didn’t golf, wouldn’t cross picket lines at the supermarket, and read the Christian Science Monitor and the Jerusalem Post instead of the Sacramento Bee — now swarming the house with their compassionate faces and their banana bread and lasagna and potato salad. They are brewing coffee for her mother and telling her she has to eat. They are cleaning the kitchen counters and watering the plants. They are everywhere with their kindness and sympathy that she both wants and does not want. She prefers her father’s friends — the priests and nuns and civil servants — not because they have anything better to say, but because they remind her of him, with their sagging chins and rumpled clothes and quiet, teary eyes, with their slight air of discombobulation as they sit on the edge of the sofa eating polenta pie, paper plates balanced on their knees.
Can you see how her desires are intersecting? Finally, she is receiving all the attention she has craved; finally, her family is being accepted into the suburban flock — only she can’t enjoy it. A good example of irony. Look at her now: She hasn’t combed her hair in two days. She is wearing a pink T-shirt and red pants and no makeup. She is drinking orange juice and suddenly starts crying and the juice goes up her nose, making her snort and cough while the huddle of girls at the table stare, but she just wipes her nose and chin with the back of her hand and then dries it on her shirt. When the most popular girl in school — the one she’s been trying to befriend for two years — sends her a card covered with roses and violets that says, “I’m sorry,” she reads it once and throws it away.
Spend more time on the morning of the funeral. By now, she is playing her part. She smiles bravely, even cracks a joke, and her friends all shake their heads and say how strong she is. She puts on a bright green silk dress of her mother’s and fastens her hair with a black bow. A green dress is odd for a funeral. You don’t have to make anything of it, but know why she is wearing it. Know, too, why she is now embracing the commotion in the house, opening the door and answering the phone, inviting her friends to come over. Perhaps she has realized how it would be if there were no sobbing and bleary eyes and hugs and murmurs and casseroles and strangers in the living room drinking from plastic cups and her aunt and uncle flown in from Canada and cousins calling from Ireland and a mailbox stuffed with envelopes. If, instead, she had woken up the next morning to a silent house with her mother at work and her brother playing with his friends in the backyard. If her life were one of the half-hour sitcoms that her father detested rather than one of the Shakespearean tragedies she is studying in her English class.
Look through her eyes as she enters the cathedral and walks toward her father’s priest friends, who stand on the altar in flowing white vestments with orange geometric designs. Keep the description of the shiny pew, but mention, as well, its coldness against the backs of her knees. Describe the wobble of the coffin as it moves along on the shoulders of the pallbearers, and the creaking sound when everyone rises to recite a prayer. Depict all of these things as she sees them: as mere sensations and actions and objects; as orchestrated elements that do not produce in her the emotion she thought they would as she lay awake in bed the night before, anticipating.
She hears that her father has joined the kingdom of God and that he went young, but that “our Father has his reasons.” She hears her name and her mother’s name and her brother’s name. She watches the long white arms of the two priests rise parallel into the air, embracing something called her father’s spirit. Then she walks to the front of the church with her mother and reads a passage from the Bible that someone thought fitting, her eyes moving down the column of tight black words. As she steps down from the altar, show her looking around at the sadness and admiration on everyone’s face because her voice did not break or stumble, because she did not cry or faint or fling herself on the coffin or scream into the microphone.
Keep the procession of her father’s friends in their black suits and dresses, who lean in toward the microphone and speak from notes written on index cards. Include bits of what these friends say, words like “wonderful,” “beloved,” “devoted,” “kind,” “principled.” Cut the description of her face as she stares at the altar and squeezes the spine of her prayer book. Instead, move into her mind and tell your reader what she is thinking: about all the things they are forgetting to mention, like how stubborn her father could be, how embarrassing with his anecdotes and Irish jokes and mismatched clothes. How he could be sullen at parties and disappear into the host’s library to read. How he picked his nose in public with his thumb. How he put his napkin over his mouth and laughed until his forehead turned red when her brother did his “Godfather” imitation. How, when she was little, he read to her from Hans Christian Andersen, and his breath smelled like coffee, and the pages made a soft, scraping sound when he turned them.
Follow her gaze as it moves above the altar to Jesus, hanging on his cross with his eyes rolled toward heaven, frozen in his own denouement. Then show her looking back to the stranger who is reading from his index cards about her father’s march to Selma, his work for human rights, his love of history. Suggest by this juxtaposition what she has only begun to understand, but you can make clear: that death has rewritten her father’s story. Death has chosen certain themes from the material of his life and trimmed off those parts that do not fit. Death has smoothed down his edges and straightened his collar and tucked in his shirt and sifted his personality of its quirks and contradictions. Death has made him into a character much like his God, who never goes to the toilet or picks his nose in public or tells a bad joke or makes mistakes.
But you can’t abandon her there, just after the climax. Move forward in time, to her twenties. By now, she has forgotten enough to begin writing her own version of her father’s story, organized into chapters like “Irish Bachelor Days” and “Meeting My Mother” and “History Buff’ and “Crusader for Social Justice” and “Ways He Got Us to Go to Mass.” Show how she presents each chapter only to carefully chosen readers, who no longer say they are sorry because it was all so long ago.
Explain that now, when she cries, it is over simple things — not on her wedding day, or at her graduation from college, but when she watches a Jimmy Stewart movie or sings along with a Cole Porter song and thinks about how much she’s come to value these things that she once endured only to make him happy. Mention that she has developed his allergies to spring flowers and grass, and that her French is now better than his ever was. Describe how she visits the War Rooms in London, where he once took her when she was a child. Show her sitting alone in the bomb shelter, listening to the recordings of Churchill’s voice, which hasn’t changed at all.
Because any good ending contains a beginning, conclude with a summer evening on the back porch of the house in Sacramento where her mother now lives, a house built on flat ground by the river. She is home from graduate school, eating dinner with family friends and thinking about how hot the valley gets in August and how little she misses that heat. She is only half listening to the conversation when somebody says, “He was so devout for an agnostic,” and she realizes that they are talking about her father.
Show her pretending not to be shocked when her mother says later that it was no secret, that he would have told her someday. Show her in bed that night, tossing back and forth between resentment and confusion, feeling closer, and then farther, and then closer to him, feeling that, with one sentence, he has changed into someone she hardly knows. Describe her frustration, her attempts to understand. Describe what you remember of that frightening, wondrous moment when one of your characters first took you by surprise, when one of your characters first became real.