*This post contains spoilers. If you haven’t yet done so, read “Rasp” now.
The first draft of “Rasp” was written, I want to say, in 2011, as a creative writing student at Grand Valley State University (Go Lakers!). I don’t remember many details about the first draft, or the second draft, or the third, but I do remember that it was, at most, half the length of what it is today. I think it was one of those stories that I proudly handed in for workshop on multiple occasions that came back each time with a whole lot of, “more please” in the margins. Which honestly used to frustrate me a bit — something I don’t love about my writing on occasion is my desire and commitment to subtlety, which was something I relied pretty heavily on back then. Why don’t I love it? People miss details I never wanted them to miss. And it isn’t their fault! It’s mine, for not making something more obvious, or not making something more digestible.
A case in point: there are a couple of not so shining reviews of my novel Wounded Tongue over on Goodreads (here and here) where each reader says something along the lines of, “It’s too depressing and hopeless”, or, “We don’t know how this world came to be.” While the “we don’t know how this world came to be” conundrum is perplexing (in the novel’s description, it says explicitly that a blackout has left the world dark, which is something referred to at multiple points within the novel; what isn’t clear was left intentionally murky, as in: what caused the blackout?) It bothers me that the reader feels that sense of negativity, though, because, while there are depressing moments and circumstances, it was never my intent to write something with hopelessness. There’s no way to please everyone, but when I wrote, and read through today, Wounded Tongue, what I experience is a character full of hope. So I kick myself for failing to bring that out further.
Anyway, I think that relying upon subtlety can be demanding for readers. And I think that “Rasp” is a demanding story, particularly the first portion of it, where Bruce outlines the events of Baby Cameron’s murder, and then goes on to detail the day Tyler and Celandine moved in across the street. It’s an intentionally lengthy section that I hope still moves forward at a good clip. I wanted readers to really get to know Bruce here, and to hear the facts of Baby Cameron through Bruce. I wanted readers to look to Bruce as a reliable source, because, as becomes evident later in the story, Bruce isn’t a reliable source. His realization of that is crucial to the story, and I believe the reader has to go through the demanding introductory phase in order for that to hit home.
That said, Bruce doesn’t necessarily do a whole lot in the story. He didn’t have a career as an adventurer. He wasn’t a pilot. He was a columnist at a waning small town newspaper — a job where he’s paid to ponder something until he has an opinion, and then to share that opinion — at a rare moment when extreme events occurred.
In the present time, Bruce is removed from those extreme events. Time has passed. He drops hints about the current state of he and Annie’s relationship, as well as about the state of he and Tyler’s relationship. Here is a man who’s reflecting about a time when he was pondering something deeply and figuring out how to write about it.
I feel as if it bears repeating at this point: Bruce doesn’t do a whole lot.
But I don’t think that means that the story has no movement. The movement may be slow burning, but it’s present through characters that Bruce observes and interacts with, like Tyler, Celandine, Annie, and Mark. Bruce may not verbalize this, but some part of him is conscious of his lack of movement, his lack of action — in fact, he refers to wood carving as something that calms him and gives him hope when he otherwise doesn’t have it; he’s calmed by movement he doesn’t experience as often as he’d like.
To combat the drawbacks of that slow burn, the latest draft of “Rasp” focused on transitions. At one point, the transitions were smooth. They were conversational. They made sections read as if they were continuations of one another. Which, as I reflect, I think was a product of what you’re taught in undergraduate creative writing classes. By that I mean that the timeline offered by quarters, or semesters, dictates broad strokes be applied. In other words, they don’t tell you that sometimes clean stories don’t work, that seamless transitions actually can be boring, and that they can be detrimental to the story rather than serve it. So, I went in and “messied” it up a bit. I made the transitions abrupt, which I think helped achieve a fractured feel that allows for the readers themselves to create the movement to drive them through the story (reading something abrupt; something doesn’t fit; can’t look away).
I think with “Rasp”, there were altogether over twenty drafts. I submitted it to the few literary journals that accept longer stories. Though they wish they could, editorial staffs don’t have the time or energy to provide feedback on submissions, so nearly every time it was rejected, I went back to the manuscript and tried to find those “more please” areas. I’m glossing over a lot of uninteresting footage here of my dealing with rejection, but I ultimately just kept shading things in.
The shading, I feel, went far more toward character development than it did toward plot. In many of my projects, contrary to what “the greats” preach, I tend to start with plot rather than character. That plot is free to take other shapes, but for the most part remains the same as it was in earlier drafts — it’s the box I get to put my characters in, and it’s the box that causes me the writer to truly discover who my characters are. What makes “Rasp” different is that the plot was based in reality.
The first draft of “Rasp” was influenced by the Baby Kate coverage that started when Katherine Phillips, a 4-month-old baby, went missing on June 29th, 2011 in Ludington, Michigan. To this day, Katherine hasn’t been found, though a 12-person jury found Katherine’s father, Sean, guilty of second degree murder in 2016. Sean is currently serving a 19 to 45 year sentence at the Carson City Correctional Facility in Montcalm County, Michigan.
The area where I come from (Hart, Pentwater, Ludington) is small, tight-knit, beautiful, and sleepy. Terrible things do happen there, don’t get me wrong, but kidnappings? Murders? No way. Those aren’t normal occurrences. So, when something like that does happen, people become tense. They become paranoid. And they act as if the crime involved a family friend or a distant relative, which at 21 years of age was difficult for me to understand. At the same time, though, my father was a police officer in Mason County, Michigan — the county to which the city of Ludington belongs. My father and his fellow officers participated in search parties for Baby Kate. In the days immediately following her disappearance, I remember him working really long hours, as in: three hours tacked on to his 6am to 6pm shift. And I remember picturing him walking in the night, fanned out alongside his coworkers, flashlights scanning the woods. He wouldn’t so much as admit it to me, my brother, or my mother, but I believe my father was affected by this case.
I mean, he had to have been, right? He had to have had thoughts and opinions. Maybe he’d seen someone like Sean Philips before. Maybe he’d pulled a Sean Phillips over, or put handcuffs on someone like him. Or, maybe he hadn’t.
I should call and ask him.