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By Jane Kirkpatrick
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2011 Jane Kirkpatrick
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI built a ship, a great large ship, And Pride stood at the helm, And steered for Fame ... W. H. Auden
* * *
Cathedral bells don't clang in Barcelona; they vibrate through the soul. No amount of ruckus or rescue in the heart of a big city can change the direction of love. Miranda knew this now. She'd never again mistake the meaning of this passionate journey nor let Jaime Garcia convince her that she had.
* * *
"The end," I read. "Miranda of La Mancha is finished." I turn over the last printed page and even out the stack and then lean back. I sit on the blue stuffed couch that takes up most of my Milwaukee flat living room, that and the coffee table I'd shipped back from Barcelona, a venture costing nearly as much as my ticket.
It's a huge couch with rounded arms that my grandmother gave to me, and when I curl into its corners I can feel her arms around me. I squirrel into the corner, needing all the nurture I can get while I wait for the critiques of my four closest confidants.
Bette blows her nose, wipes at her eyes, then holds her clasped hands to her heart. Misty polishes her nails and air-writes as she says, "Good job!" Darlien, my sister, looks thoughtful. "It's good, it is. But I don't like the character that plays Miranda's sister, the golfer. Is that supposed to be me, Annie? Because if it is, it doesn't ring true."
"It gets you right here," Bette says, her slender hand patting again at her heart. "It's excellent. I can't believe Miranda came to that decision at the end and yet, it was so perfectly orchestrated."
Kari, my cousin, sits up now. "It's grand, hon. All the while they traveled through Spain, with all those things happening to them, I thought, will she? Won't she? Then you ... well ... it's perfect tension. A very satisfying read. I love how you worked in actual events with the fiction."
Misty says, "It's so emotionally uplifting. Inspiring. Makes me want to celebrate." She rips open a second pack of baby carrots and passes the roasted red pepper hummus as she makes specific points about the story that she loved.
Relief settles on my shoulders. I know it'll be short-lived, but at least for the moment I have a sense of satisfaction. My friends approve, even my older sister.
Bette wipes at her nose again, then uses hand sanitizer before reaching for the carrots. "It's going to make you famous even without our help! You have to be pleased with it."
"I still think the sister is too pushy," Darlien insists. She has her long legs crossed at the ankle where lines mark her tanned legs. She wears those little socks golfers wear with pompoms attached to the heel. Her arms are crossed over her chest. She sneezes.
"You need to eat healthier, Darlien. Burritos are not part of the food pyramid."
"It's allergies," Darlien reports.
"You can tone down the sister, can't you, Annie, I mean if Darlien objects?" Bette says.
"The editor will have suggestions about my characters, lots of them," I say. "Truth is, he may not even want Darlien, I mean the sister, in the story."
"So it is me!" Darlien says sitting straight up in her chair.
"No, she's just a composite of policemen who are golfers, people you've talked about and ones that I met in Spain, too, remember. And of course a composite of older sisters I've known — and loved."
"Editors can do that, wipe someone out?" Misty asks. We all sit and crunch.
"If her presence doesn't move the story forward, they might suggest cutting her," I say. I sigh then share my deepest fear. "This could be the worst book I've ever written."
"What? Why would you think that?" Misty says.
"Honesty may be one of your strong points, Annie Shaw," Cousin Kari says. "But honesty without sensitivity is just plain rude. A person can be rude, even to herself, you know." I stare at her. Her voice softens. She crosses my living room to gently push loose strands of mousey brown hair behind my ears. Kari wears dangly earrings that one wouldn't want to wear around a baby. They look like teething rings. She's a social worker in Chicago, but we all get together often in Milwaukee where we grew up. Bette, Misty, and I attended the same Christian school. Darlien was a few years ahead.
"I didn't think I was being critical of myself," I say. "Truthful."
"This is novel number four, and still you thump yourself on the head about how terribly you write." Bette stands now and taps her fingers on my head. "Must be brain damage under those lovely brunette curls," she says. "From all that thumping."
"Mousey brown," I correct. "And yes, it is novel number four, but here's the thing: number one was a huge hi —"
"Because it was the story of you and Stuart. So romantic. I loved that book," Misty says.
Silence fills the room, looks exchanged.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean —"
"It's all right," I tell her. "You're probably right. Anyway, the book after that tanked." Number three just came out, The Long Bad Sentence, and if it doesn't do well, Ardor Publishing might decide to bury Miranda's story before she ever arrives in Barcelona.
"Sales will pick up," Darlien says.
Bette thumps me again, playful, but her wrist knocks my glasses slightly ajar. I straighten them and stand, thinking I'll get us some lemonade.
"What ... what's wrong with your pants?" Darlien points.
"Nothing. Why?" I look down at my khaki capris.
"It's ... your stomach, it's pooched out funny."
I reach for the front and see a tag. — "Oh for heaven's sake! I've got them on backwards!"
"I thought you'd put on weight," Bette laughs. "But I didn't want to say anything in case you've been eating your anxiety about this book." Bette is two years younger than I am and the food freak of our group. She knows all the calories, carbs, and chocolate bars necessary for a nourishing life. She's also a part-time aerobics instructor for seniors. She hasn't introduced them yet to tai chi or yoga. Bette says the best instructors of those arts use Wii to prevent tangling one's toes with one's nose. Aerobics is a group sport, she tells us, and that's what her seniors really need. Her upbeat nature is one of her fine features and one of the reasons they love her as a cook at the We Care Senior Living Center.
"I guess I got nervous, knowing I'd be reading to you guys," I tell them.
"Us? We're harmless," Misty says.
They are, really. I sometimes think of us as a gaggle of geese who fly together, know where we're heading, and who remain loyal, no matter what.
"At what point will you stop being so hard on yourself?" Bette says. "You'd never say such unkind things to those kids you work with when they write their stories down. Why are you so critical about your own?"
I honestly didn't think I was being critical or whiney or discouraging — only objective.
Kari says, "If you want us to make this book a bestseller, you have to believe in it yourself first."
"We need to work on the plan," Bette says. She uses a low voice as though "the plan" is some deep dark secret out of Homeland Security. Her words take on a Stephen King feel, spoken through the algae-laced mask she put on as I started to read.
"I bet your publisher will love it. Best of all ... it's finished!" Kari says. She claps her hands. "Why don't you go twist your pants around and we'll get ready to celebrate! Want some lemonade?"
"I was going to do that for you," I say.
"Nope. This is our time to take care of you."
"Then I'll take hot tea." September in Milwaukee can be beastly humid, but I still prefer hot tea to cold lemonade. The ice hurts my teeth.
Everyone gives their orders, ranging from tea to power drinks to fruit juice. Darlien orders decaf coffee.
Bette and Kari pad barefoot to my kitchen, a room nearly as familiar to them as their own kitchens, while I hit my bedroom and turn my pants around. I wondered why they pulled funny. Sometimes, I need a keeper.
"If you can't tell your friends the truth, then who?" I shout to them down the hall. "Besides," I tell Darlien and Misty when I return to the living room, "it isn't really finished."
"It sounds finished to me. It's a great love story," Darlien says. At thirty-two, Darlien is two years my senior and she's had three unhappy marriages, I'm sad to say. She says it's an occupational hazard when cops marry each other, a lesson she didn't learn the first time. Now she says she'll be single for life. She returns to one of two wing-backed chairs from our childhood, curling her legs under her to keep my Persian blue cat, John, from leapfrogging over her. I've had both chairs reupholstered in bold reds and purples to go with the mauve couch. At the time, Darlien didn't want the chairs, but she always chooses one of them to sit in when she visits. She strokes the fabric that Misty helped me pick out.
A cupboard door closes. A tray scrapes along the tile counter. "Darlien and Misty, get in here," Kari calls. Misty stops me when I try to follow them into the kitchen, points me back toward John and my couch. I watch her walk on her heels, with orange rubber dividers between her freshly painted toes.
I hear them whispering. My friends prepare to pamper.
I stare out my window, checking on Lake Michigan's condition. A mere sliver of gray today, no waves surging against the shoreline. My view is the size of a crescent moon seen through the treetops and the roofs covering other Shorewood flats. I live in a second-floor flat with a view of the lake that today reflects the size of my confidence: small and gray. Not just because the book's future is so uncertain, but because I know it really isn't finished.
A book is never truly ended except when read, and then, if it's good, it lives on in a reader's mind maybe for years. But I'm speaking of the practical, physical side of a book, the one readers download onto their Kindle or Sony or buy at their local store. A book with paper pages and binding. Even during readings at little bookshops around Milwaukee's suburbs, holding the small paperback in my hands, I edit out a sentence or two, wondering why I kept that word or phrase in at all. Sometimes, I even suggest that in an additional printing of the book — if it goes to a second printing — a word or phrase be changed. Always perfecting, never complete, describes my books and my life.
I rub my fingers on the pile of manuscript papers. I always print out a copy to view the black on white. I still like to see the words march across the paper, how much white space there is, what short sentences might need to stand alone for emphasis. Reading it out loud helps me find glitches in rhythm too. At this stage, when the pages are clean and white and not yet in the mail, when a cyber copy pants, ready for attachment, waiting to be shot through space to an editor, I know it isn't even close to being finished, despite the words "the end."
My new editor hasn't seen the manuscript since I've made the recommended revisions of the other editor who went on maternity leave, so I know there'll be more changes to come. No, Miranda of La Mancha isn't finished, and Ardor Publishing and I are beginning a whole new relationship, one not at all romantically inclined.
What are those women doing in the kitchen?
One of the troubles with computer composition is that one never really knows how many "drafts" of a book they've written or which draft they're on when the editor finally says it's accepted. "It's accepted" is one more swish through that long and twisted waterslide of a publishing experience. A waterslide at an exclusive theme park, where writers risk being tossed and tumbled about, hoping to plunge into the deep pool of published, bestselling, famous authors. We all hope someone will notice if we sink, and that they'll want to pull us out; praying we'll surface to take the slide again.
"I write trash," I shout to my friends. "And someday soon, everyone is going to find out. Maybe they already have."
Laughter draws me toward the kitchen, but Bette stops me at the door and, hands on my shoulders, turns me around, back through the dining room to the living room, followed by the girls. I can hear their footsteps behind me on the hardwood floor, including Misty's distinctive heel-walk, her toes likely still wet with polish.
"Did you know that the top CEOs in the country list their number-two fear as getting up in front of people to speak?" Kari says as she sets a tray of drinks on the coffee table in front of the couch, the place Bette led me to and pushed me down.
"I'm pretty far below a CEO," I say. They're hiding something, a twinkle in each eye, hands behind their backs now as they form a half-circle in front of me.
"Because their number one fear, is that they'll be found out. That someone will discover they don't really know what they're doing and that they shouldn't be at the top at all. That's you," Kari says.
"You're telling me this to make me feel better, right?"
"We're telling you so you'll stop being so critical of yourself," Bette says. "Everyone feels inadequate sometimes. It's part of life." She lists on her fingers the evidence that her assessment of my work is correct and mine isn't. "You get tons of hits on your website. People write you wonderful letters. You travel to exotic locations on trips you can deduct as research. You pay your bills without having a part-time job. You have a contract for more books. You have a good life. What more do you want?"
What more do I want?
"Ta-da!" Misty interrupts. "We have treasures."
From behind her back, Darlien pulls out a chocolate bar to rival the American Heritage Dictionary and braces it beside my teacup on the tray. It's wrapped in distinctive brown paper, and the blue lettering and oat colored string around it bring back memories of Barcelona. That city boasts the best dark chocolate in the world. Misty, Bette, and Kari then add their own packages: a See's chocolate bar, Rogers' finest dark chocolate, and Seattle Chocolate's Extreme Dark Chocolate. "I got the Rogers' at Nordstrom," Kari says when I raise an eyebrow at finding chocolate from British Columbia this side of the Rocky Mountains.
"Dwight Eisenhower loved that brand," I tell them. "He had it ordered in to the White House."
"You are full of the most amazing pieces of trivia," Misty laughs.
"I can rarely use them in a book so I have to abuse my friends with them," I say.
"Chocolate cures what doesn't ail you," Bette says. "And what shouldn't ail you is the future of this book. So let's celebrate with chocolate and then we'll help figure out how to make your latest release a bestseller."
"Make a note," Darlien says. "When you do the revisions in Miranda's book, change that sister character. Her bossiness really isn't realistic."
* * *
"What makes a bestseller?" Darlien asks, a notepad in her hand. We're down to work now. She reminds me of the cops on old television shows where they actually took notes instead of speaking into smart phones. She's never had a bad hair day. Her soft waves look coiffed even when she first wakes up.
"You have to get Publishers Weekly and Kirkus to review them," I say, urging my friends to indulge in the chocolate bars. "Hardcovers get more reviews. At least that's what Stuart always said."
"Since when do you listen to your ex-husband's advice?" Darlien asks.
"He is a writer," I say, though he's never had a hardcover or any other kind of book published. Articles, though. In Kite Magazine and the Milwaukee Journal's sports page.
"Getting one made into a movie, that would make a bestseller, wouldn't it?" Misty asks. She flexes her arm muscles as she sits on the window bench. It jiggles. "Or winning an award." She bites a small piece of the See's.
"I guess awards would help, but what really makes a bestseller is the story. It has to be full of such value that one day people will leave signed copies of the works in their wills or at least want to share it with a family member before they die. It has to make us care about the characters and find ourselves inside them, even the weird ones. It has to sweep us from our everyday into their everyday and hopefully, make us swoon and laugh and cry and hope."
Excerpted from Barcelona Calling by Jane Kirkpatrick Copyright © 2011 by Jane Kirkpatrick. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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