Monthly Archives: August 2019

Revisiting Misty of Chincoteague

This summer I went to a writing retreat (at the beach home of my friend and critique partner, Susan) on the pleasant shores of Delaware. The house was just north of Chincoteague and Assateague, the setting of my all-time favorite book from my elementary years, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. I hadn’t thought about the book in decades, but when I looked at a map and saw how close I would be, I knew I had to reread the book and to try to catch a glimpse of the famous wild ponies for myself.

A Newbery Honor book in 1947, Misty of Chincoteague was already considered a classic when I discovered the book. The book tells the story of wild ponies, who washed ashore from a the shipwreck of a Spanish galleon in the 1600s,* and lived on the island of Assateague “alone and forever part of the rocks and streams and wind and sky.”

Set in the 1940s, the nearby town conducts a yearly round-up of the wild ponies, swimming them across the narrow part of bay and selling the foals. Paul and his sister Maureen buy the sweetest little filly, who is named Misty, along with her mother, Phanotm, the most elusive, wild mare in the herd. Through heartwarming trials and tribulations, Phantom returns to the wild and Misty remains with Paul and Maureen.

It’s always interesting to reread books we loved as children as adults. Rereading Misty of Chincoteague, I was able to reflect on what was so delightful about the book to the 10-year-old me. But, rereading the book through the lens of adulthood, there were also some disappointments.

As an animal and nature loving girl growing up in suburban Denver, the wild ponies, the windblown island, and the adventures of the Paul and Maureen, siblings who live with their grandparents on a pony farm, captured my imagination.

As I reread the book, I could remember imagining myself as Paul or Maureen, galloping my horse through the ocean surf, riding a pony into town to do chores for the neighbors, and laboring on the pony farm where I mucked the stalls and gentled the mares. In my imagination, I raked clams and gathered oysters, halter-broke colts, rode in and won a big race, and hurled myself into the sea to save a colt from drowning.

It should be noted I have never done any of those things and I never will. But as a child I loved the idea  someone out there had. The book opened up my world and let me know there are many exciting and different ways that people live.

As an adult reader, I cringed at the underlying assumptions in the book. Paul, the brother, made all the decisions and experienced most of the excitement, while Maureen was stuck in the farmhouse doing chores. It was hard to read Paul’s constant belittling of his sister for being a girl. There were volatile social, economic, and environmental issues simmering beneath the text. The grandfather’s dialect was nearly impossible to read and his over-the-top adult moralizing set my teeth on edge. It wasn’t the exciting adventure story I remembered. In many ways it was just a flawed, old-fashioned children’s book.

But there I was… one hour away. Despite the summer traffic and tourist crowds we woke early and made the pilgrimage to Assateague Island National Seashore. We knew from our research the wild ponies are elusive and often visitors do not see them.

When we drove over the bridge onto the Assateague Island, there they were. The band of wild ponies grazed on the salt grass as the wind blew their manes and tails and the sunlit Atlantic sparkled behind them. The stallion imperiously watched his band, as a trio of juvenile males hung around looking wistful. A little foal with Misty’s coloring, gold and silver with a blaze down her forehead nuzzled and nursed as her mother, reminiscent of the wild mare Phantom, eyed me warily.

Just as my 10-year-old self knew, the wild ponies were special beyond belief. Seeing them was absolutely delightful. All my adult cynicism was suddenly gone and I was left with the magic of the moment. I was in a spectacular place, led by the power of a book, imagination and memory.

 

*This is a myth. Assateague National Seashore scientists have determined that the ponies are descendants of ponies grazed by colonial farmers on the island to avoid taxes.

 

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Getting Rid of an Attention-Grabbing Secondary Character

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

Over the years, my MG historical novel has been critiqued, revised, submitted, requested, and rejected. It is a grueling process. In fact, there is only one reason why I have not abandoned this project all together – I love this story. I really do.

It was time to take some drastic action. Try something “out-of-the-box.” After thinking about it for weeks, I decided to hire a well-respected private editor to do an in-depth critique. I had recently attended her workshop and felt she would be a good fit for the story.

The editor agreed to do the work and asked me to email the book. I was elated, thrilled, and proud of myself for taking this step. Unfortunately, months went by without a word from her. I began to worry. I became convinced  the manuscript was beyond repair which was why it was taking her so long  to getback to me.  Finally, her response  arrived. I opened the attachment and braced myself for the  news. And there it was,  twenty-four, single-spaced, pages of notes.

I took a deep breath and began scrolling. There was good news and bad news. The good news was that the writing was strong. Yay! I had done a wonderful job of building my world. The setting was  authentic and believable. Double yay! She also loved my lively cast of characters. Jumping up and down!

But there was bad news. Well, let’s not call it that. After all, I had hired this editor to find out what wasn’t working. Bottom line – My main character’s story-worthy problem was not story-worthy. The stakes were too low. The outcome was unsatisfying. I needed to amp it up – make my protagonist’s dilemma more urgent and emotional. I read on, hoping  the editor had provided ideas on how to fix this. She had. She identified two meaty subplots that could  be “mined” and turned into story-worthy problems. Great! I could do that. I loved those subplots.

Except for one more problem. My main character  was being overshadowed by some of the more interesting secondary characters. Ugh!  I had done that on purpose. This particular protagonist was supposed to start out naïve and meek and evolve into a dynamic, action-taking person as the story unfolded. Only it wasn’t happening fast enough. This girl was a wishy-washy pushover who was being too influenced by those around her. Especially her rebellious older sister and her spunky best friend.

The editor assured me that this was a common mistake. Main characters needed to grow and change over the course of the novel. They had to stretch themselves and become risk-takers as they jumped over hurdles and surmounted obstacles. But this girl needed more pizazz, more flaws.  Readers were not going to care enough about her to follow her to the end of the journey.  She had to drive the action more, make larger mistakes, recover, flounder, and keep going until her new story-worthy problem was solved.

My head began to spin as I read through those twenty-four pages. This was going to be a ton of work. A total rewrite! Then, suddenly, a plot-twisting possibility popped into my brain. It was like an annoying mosquito buzzing in my ear.

Get rid of the rebellious sister,” it hissed.

“What?” I said, swatting at the invisible bug. “I can’t. I love that sister. And she’s critical to the plot.”

The buzzing continued. “She needs to gooooo.”

“No,” I said, more emphatically. “She’s too important.”

She’s not,” the insect hummed, flying around to the other ear. “She’s stealing the thunder. Grabbing the attention away from your main character. Delete her! NOW!”

I didn’t want to admit it, but the editing mosquito was right.

I opened my computer and took a deep breath. It was time to re-plot. I began by eliminating the snarky older sister. Then I focused on transplanting her “attention-getting” traits into my main character. I made a new plot-map and merged it with a SAVE THE CAT – Beat Sheet. It was only a preliminary plan, but I could already see my protagonist morphing into someone who was more impulsive and action-oriented. She would have good intentions, but would make a lot of mistakes as she went along. Readers would root for this girl. They would cheer her on as she ran amok before solving her brand new story-worthy problem.

I miss the sister. But deep down, I know my story will be stronger without her.

Have you ever had to get rid of a lovable secondary character? Let me know how it turned out.

 

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