Subjects touched upon herein: the talking heads, this is 0.000035% less a cursing book, professional jargon, look at somebody being all well-adjusted (in one regard), fatal flaws, foreshadowing, and stage-2 gardening.
Take me to the river (or the lake)
Sit-and-talk scenes are ungood. Characters are supposed to be engaged in some activity that can be used toward (a) subtext and (b) painting a dynamic word picture for the reader.
So why, if I know this, did I stick Tally and Ben in a car for at least part of 10 of 40 chapters?
- When you live in a box of Tic Tacs and there’s nothing to do except stare and/or be stared at, you go for a lot of drives to kill time and to experience the sensation of escaping — especially when you’re a teenager, which Ben and Tally did all the time, so it’s just like old times to do it now.
- Tally wasn’t going to be alone with Ben unless forced, so the schlep-to-neighboring-town scenario was necessary to put them in proximity to one another.
- As Ben notices on the schlep to Sterling and confirms in Chapter 19, when Tally doesn’t have something to do with her nervous energy, what she will do is talk, so hell yes he’s going to keep her trapped in a moving vehicle, preferably in the passenger seat where she can’t use driving as a distraction, just short of the point where she dives out the window.
- The physical journey is, dare I say, thematic. From the first scene, where Ben’s exit options are limited and his goal is to get his mother to leave, to the end, where, to get out of her emotional rut, Tally has to physically leave, movement or lack thereof is a recurrent issue.
I wouldn’t allow it in any other story about any other characters. I let it stand in WCAD because they’re tearing at each other, not shooting the breeze, and both of them, if they weren’t physically confined, would walk away to avoid being hurt or inflicting hurt, and there’s no walking away allowed in Act II.
Once I decided the first car sequence was going to stay, I didn’t just do it — I did it repeatedly. Because obviously, if you do an ungood thing repeatedly, it’s a pattern, not a mistake or accident, and then it’s art.
Chapter 19 is also exceedingly long for a midpoint scene and for a sit-and-talk scene, but when I went through trying to find places to break it, the change failed the “who cares more” test. It’s shocking new information to process and significant insights (the way Tally eats and the way she treats herself come straight from her mother) for Ben and same-shit-different-day for Tally. The only emotional peaks for her are “damn his mom for making her be the one to tell him,” “Why didn’t I keep my mouth shut?”, and “I appreciate his conviction I didn’t engage in prostitution,” and those could be covered in a couple of hindsight sentences in her next scene. The reasons for changing it are weaker than the reasons for leaving it alone. I DO NOT MAKE WRITING DECISIONS BASED ON MATH, so I left it long. Is it a pacing problem? Yes. Does it convey the information it’s supposed to convey? Yes. Is it ideal? No, which makes it commensurate with life as I know it. So I picked out my wedgie and moved on before it became another Chapter 11.
I have had it with these monkey-fighting snakes on this Monday-to-Friday plane!
During the time period when I was editing these chapters, I had to explain to another parent why I don’t speak like the mom in a Disney movie. To be clear, I rarely direct swearing at people, as in calling them names (because I’m not that aggressive, at least out loud), and I’m generally able to restrain myself in environments such as schools and places of employment (at least in front of teachers and clients).
The operative word being “restrain.” I have intense, passionate, stressed-out thoughts that are full of swears. To avoid causing offense or hurting someone’s fee-fees or inciting someone to punch me in the face, I process and filter and distill or keep my mouth shut entirely or some other form of self-censorship.
Censored speech is not the whole truth, and I resent being made a liar by social convention. Therefore, when I’m with people or in an environment where I feel comfortable, I’m entirely honest, and that involves not running every thought I have through a sieve to hold back the “bad” words. (I may even throw in a few extra to clear out the ones detained previously.)
During this explanation, I had one of those light-bulb moments (that probably look a lot like a stroke to witnesses) that writers get when a piece we didn’t know was missing falls out of the box we thought was empty and lands right where it belongs in the puzzle. Who do I know who’s likely to self-censor to avoid causing offense or hurting someone’s feelings or inciting someone to punch her in the face? Tally overtly lies — why stop there? Make her a liar linguistically, too.
I knew Tally swore in her head (I clearly remembered no fucks to give showing up during her first appearance), all of which could stay — this wasn’t an act of ritual purification, just leashing her verbal expression. I couldn’t remember if profanity came out of her in conversation, though. As it turns out, I had to censor only three words of her speech in the entire book (two damns and a bullshit) to eliminate swearing to the extent intended, so I’d intuitively gone in that direction all along — a limitation that was unique to her because every other significant character drops bombs at will.
I left three occurrences of “get(s) shit done” because she’s quoting Stella and a “goddamn” because she’s mimicking Ben, and I left “pretty damn good” in the last chapter (put it back two minutes after taking it out, actually) as a subtle nod to loosening up and not policing every word out of her mouth, especially with Ben.
My family relocated a lot during my childhood. After second grade, I never went to fewer than three schools a year. I was so disoriented that most of the time, I didn’t even know what state I was in until two days before being transplanted to another one. At other times in subsequent years, I’ve been trapped and stagnating in one place years longer than was healthy.
I’ve never set foot on the middle ground between detachment and imprisonment, so the ability to choose when/where/how/whether to move (literally or figuratively) is one of my many “issues.” You’ll probably see it again if you stick around.
Vocabulary lesson for the sheltered
that special man with booze breath and a semi
In the context of a guy observing live nude girls, a “semi” refers to a semi-erect penis, not a variety of motor vehicle.
Stop hitting yourself
- Tally wasn’t interested in her pride./The problem sounded like pride. — Though Tally understands poor pride perfectly well, she wasn’t interested in Julie’s when it came to “free” pizza versus the additional overtime she’d have to put in to make it herself. Ben has no more patience for his mother’s pride when it comes to her car problems, but he doesn’t understand, even when Tally spells it out for him. When you’re short on material possessions to form attachments to, you get a death grip on intangibles, such as dignity and agency, which have no value to anyone else but mean everything to you because they’re the only thing standing between you and having nothing, and you therefore respond poorly to attempts to “unburden” you, well-meaning though the attempts may be.
- his tendency to run out of the house in the morning without shaving — This was on Ben’s list of things his wife hated about him. Though Tally wouldn’t complain about a smooth jaw, she has reasons for appreciating when he’s a little scruffy, too.
Ben actually has a freakishly healthy attitude about material wealth. Money was tight when he was a kid, but as long as he never went hungry (which he never did), having duct-taped shoes and using a grocery bag for a backpack weren’t things that bothered him (because he was attached to people instead of things and attracted them with charm instead of $200 sneakers), and now that he has money to spare, he’s all about using it to make life easier, not amassing it for the sake of amassing it.
Speaking of which…
Tally has a number of big, obvious dysfunctions. There is nonetheless a nice boy with the means and willingness to take care of her who loves her, so she’s crazy or stubborn or it’s authorial interference that she’s not jumping all over him and locking that down. Right?
I mentioned in the walkthrough for Chapters 3 and 4 that Ben needed to be broken out of nice-guy mode, so his flaw is being too nice, right?
Nyet. Come on. We all know when a woman rejects a man on the grounds that he’s “too nice,” she’s not stating her preference for being treated like shit by a man — that’s her polite way of saying, “You bore me.” Failure to be titillating has nothing to do with niceness, and there’s no such thing as too much genuine niceness. (When you start talking “smothering” and “courteous stalker” type behavior, you’re also far afield from the Land of Nice.) Tally finds Ben plenty entertaining, and the last thing she wants is adventure — she’s all about security, which he’s financially and emotionally able and eager to provide.
Well, damn. He sounds perfect for her. So what’s the problem?
Ben is a Nice Boy. He is not secretly a Bad Boy. He doesn’t have a Dark Side. There is no hidden menace or malice in him. He’s practically a freaking paladin.
He is not a Man Whore. It’s not excessive to kiss every age-appropriate girl in town between second and twelfth grades when there are only ten such girls in town, and you know nothing about his sexual history with any of them other than Tally. He dates a lot not because he’s looking for hookups — he wants a relationship, and he’s not boning every unsuitable candidate just because of genital proximity, gossipy speculation about his promiscuity aside.
It’s not outrageous for somebody at 30 to have a failed marriage because OHMYGOD WHY DID YOU GET MARRIED WHEN YOU WERE A BABY YOU WEREN’T DONE COOKING YET NO WONDER YOU MADE EACH OTHER SICK. He’s genuinely baffled about why the wife left because he is genuinely nice and wants everybody to be happy and does everything in his power to make sure they are.
And therein lies his problem: he thinks he has the power to make everybody happy. He sees what would make everybody happy and how to achieve that and cannot fathom why everybody doesn’t just jump on the Ben Train to Happyville and let him take them there.
He means well. And he is not wrong in thinking that some changes would improve the lives of people he loves.
But even if you mean well, and even if you are right, steamrolling the free will of others is not okay. Even if they go along with it because they know you mean well and they know you’re right, being pushed down their life path on your cow-catcher is going to start to chafe eventually, and there will be snapping and snarling as a direct result of all that well-meaning, gently controlling behavior.
When he eventually stops pushing his happiness agenda on his mom, she immediately says, “You’re right, but this is the timeline I have in mind instead.”
When he stops pushing his happiness agenda on Tally, she… takes a little longer than immediately because she has a lot more issues to grapple with internally and bigger adjustments to enact externally, BUT SHE DOES TAKE STRIDES TOWARD HAPPYVILLE INDEPENDENTLY — while Ben gets a taste of being at the mercy of someone else’s train schedule.
When he eventually self-diagnoses his flaw, he’s immediately given the opportunity to demonstrate he can change it. He gets at least a passing grade on that test and thereby earns his happy ending — which is a spoilery distance in the future (THERE WAS A SIGN), but since the midpoint is where I thought, “Golly, he’s such a nice boy, why do I have the urge to pinch his nose shut while he sleeps?”, this seemed like the appropriate time in the walkthrough to address why that is.
Omens, prophecies, and portents, oh my
- “You can keep pushing like you know better than she does and really piss her off, or you can accept her answer and be there when she decides she needs help.” — expect this warning to ease off the pressure and be supportive to go unheeded until it’s too late
- “She’s a smart lady. She’ll ask for help when she needs it.” — expect Tally to smarten up and realize it’s okay to admit she has needs and to ask for help meeting them
- Yes, Ben had to be protected from his reckless choices — expect a lot of “protecting” of this grown-ass man, particularly from his emotional choices, pursuant to him always giving, never taking, and acting like he needs nothing, creating a deficit people who love him know isn’t fair and seek to shield him from
- I don’t want to repeat history — expect to repeat history because, except for superficial deviations, they’re still behaving according to the same old patterns
- Mention was made early on of a rejected marriage proposal — now we know the rejection was for “his own good.” Before there can be a happy ending, somebody’s going to have to realize, hey, this is him asking for something he wants. Even if she thinks the something benefits her more, he’s asking for him. And maybe it could turn out to be good for both of them…
- Do whatever you want. — We know Tally’s mom dominated every aspect of her life. We know Ben has a business partner who does the bossing around of employees because that’s not Ben’s thing. It’s not an accident that I paired a woman who desperately needs to experience freedom with a man who has no interest in controlling her (apart from passively with his “All aboard the Ben Train to Happyville. I’ll have you there by noon if you’d just get off the fucking platform already” — also not an accident). She needs to seize the freedom that’s available to her now, which she hasn’t been doing because she doesn’t innately know how and Ben is the only person who has ever offered, “Do whatever you want.” He needs to let go of even that little bit of gentle, passive control of others and focus it on himself instead, or this is not going to end well.
- The last time they found themselves engaged in smutnasty pornytimes, Tally was impressed that Ben used her name and treated her like an individual rather than any dickport in a bonerstorm, whereas, for much of that encounter, she was mechanically going through the motions of what “men” like. This time, she’s more conscious that this is Ben, Ben is different, Ben is not going to be an asshole about anything, Ben, Ben, Ben, etc. She’s still carrying a lot of old baggage, but the balance shifts here.
Enough, already. Insert your suggestions where the sun don’t shine, by which I mean the comment section below, of course. Otherwise, on to Chapter 21.