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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

Third Draft was the Charm: “What Beauty” is nearer to launch

My second novel, title “What Beauty”, is complete. I put the final changes into the text, with a final re-reading, on December 22. The manuscript is ready for page proofs, then a proofreading, and final approval.

To tell the truth, I’m ready to be finished with this book, and this story. It has been a pleasure to write about Minus Orth, a Chicago sculptor living in NYC; and of his relationship with the once-famous writer, Karen Kosek, now a bag lady living on the Upper West Side. My emotional investment in these, and other, characters has been one of reflection on what it was like to live in NYC during my few years there, and for whom I met (including genuine homeless people) and worked with and fought against; reflection, too, on what it takes for an artist to create beauty. Not merely art, but something that is empirically beautiful; a beauty that transcends cultures, eras, and taste.

Likewise, to feel the emotions of characters in whom I created from nothing more than ideas, glimpses of what they look like, and how they see the world, is one of the highest achievements I think any artist can hope for. Poets, composers, dancers, and of course visual artists all make this commitment when they find their first image of “story.” I feel privileged to be a member of such a group.

Sometime in March, I think, my publisher, Siren and Muse, will have it available for online purchase. The ebook will follow shortly.

I’m excited about this book. Although its my sophomore effort to be published, it is my 5th completed novel. Not bad for 15 years of an apprenticeship. But then again, all the heavies in literary fiction have claimed that the learning process is a life-long achievement.

A book trailer is in the planning stages (see the trailer for my first novel, The Village Wit, here) I’d like to have that prepared before the book comes out. Two+ months seems short, but that also is the time for reviews, marketing, interviews, blog posts &etc. I’ll be busy.

“What Beauty” has taken me 2 1/2 years to complete. I’ve written three complete drafts, and have read through the book at least six times. Many changes have been done since the first, and rough, draft was completed nearly a year ago. It’s safe to say that I may have rewritten every sentence, in some ways. The book is 180,000 words. This is a good size for a novel; what used to be called “a full-length novel,” back when traditional publishers printed such works.

Here’s a bit of the novel, the first few paragraphs, something with which to tease:

What Beauty

by Mark Beyer


The shoes give her away. People are otherwise fooled. She can walk the streets in anonymity without the shoes, only there they are. A straw hat, a child’s hat, covers the top of her head. She wears the hat in a manner to rival a queen’s crown. Its brim and crease are smeared black, the weaving pitted and torn. Her hair looks worse than the hat, if this is possible. Pigeon gray with stringy curls. The curls, like metal shavings, spill uncontrollably across her shoulders — and here’s a nice bit of added veil — the ends stuck together in pasty clumps, reminding me of a low-traveling dog which picks up detritus with its shuffle gait. The hair alone makes her unrecognizable. Added to this, this … cast … is an old corduroy jacket, fitted snugly over a yellow blouse, its original chroma (dark chocolate) yet visible under the arms, though faded to a weak coffee across the shoulders, the sleeves, and along the frayed lapels. All for the middling look, it strikes me, that an Ivy League prof from the Sixties would have liked, would have found anti-establishment. Straight off the pages of Life magazine, standing in front of a campus building, lacy vines in shadowy black & white, a grainy image. Maybe this coat is a twenty-five-year remnant accepted from the charity bin at the Salvation Army, or has been pulled from a dumpster behind a retirement home. Grease stains spot the lapels like sloganeer badges, the narrow cord ribs are crease-worn inside the elbows, and countless finger caresses have smoothed the cloth to halos behind the buttons. The collar on her blouse curls up at the points, high up under her chin, something a clown might invent using a lot of starch and imaginative ironing, a trick done to make children laugh (or cry). The linen blouse, faded to an off-yellow found in beach stones rattled in the surf, disappears into the waistband of canvas trousers, stained with white paint, like Christmas tree flock.

This grimy stew bum lacks the gestalt Karen Kosek wants. I’m certain of this; a certainty that touches me like religion touch others. I know this must not be the Karen Kosek that the world knows (or had known her) because she is none of these touchstone fragments. Except for the shoes and … something else.

Seeming to be a bag lady and being a bag lady are not the same. Go look at a bag lady and this becomes axiomatic: there’s a funky odor you smell ten feet around her — the stench of a sort that takes weeks to ferment; hair like matted sackcloth; watery eyes, blurred and vaguely unfocused, or else glaucomatous; pants crotch stained by piss, soaked and dried a dozen times (the root source of the reek?); green armpit stains of the perpetually unwashed, fading toward the edges and tinged white by perspiration salts; and the filthy skin whose grime penetrates the dermis so deeply you swear you’re in the presence of animal hide (no way to forge this look by rubbing fireplace ash like it’s a balm).

Yet here she is, in disguise.

Beneath her disguise, because it has to be that, I see Karen’s hygiene and vigor. Her skin is bright, not so loose around the eyes and mouth for a woman of her age (fifty? fifty-five?), what otherwise you’ll find on the indigent, the drunken, the commonly diseased; her fingernails gleam in manicured gloss when she stops to adjust the grip on two plastic bags; she takes a beat to look up into the sunshine, she smiles, and her teeth advertise money of a quantity having no use for group dental plans.

©2011-2012 mark beyer


  bonalibro wrote @ March 22nd, 2012 at 12:58 am

Since you asked, I’ll give you my take on it, I am more intrigued by the last four paragraphs than the first, in which I found myself getting lost in a tangle of descriptive detail where one or two more telling details would do. Maybe the shoes and the lack of odor. We all have our own image of bag ladies with which to engage the text.

The question is, how much of a first impression is your reader willing to give you. I usually give a book the first sentence. Your first sentence engaged me so I read on into the briar patch. Then dropped to the following paragraphs where I got interested again.

If you hadn’t asked, I would not have read on past the thicket. Hope that helps.

  mark beyer wrote @ March 22nd, 2012 at 7:15 am

As a reader I’ve always demanded the writer give me his view of the world, for better or worse. I don’t want to add my details, or in fact do the writer’s job by having to add the details or “sights” of people, place, characterization &etc that are supposed to be his focus. I recently began “How the Dead Live” by Will Self and fired that book after 15 pages because (1) I didn’t know where the fuck I was, (2) what time of day or night it was, (3) who was speaking to whom, (4) or any semblance of characterization other than a stream of dialogue shot back & forth like urban warfare. That’s a mash, to me. And yet he is widely popular. I don’t get it, give that people (readers) are as distracted as they are. You’d think people would want a fictional world that is specific and detailed as much as jolting from their little world in which they live day by day.

Details and specificity are part of the craft of being a writer, as I’ve understood it and have seen it done by those whom I’ve read and will extol (Tolstoy and Flaubert, Joyce & Woolf, Fitz & Hem, Bellow & Faulkner, Roth & Atwood & Rush & Theroux & Murdoch) —— they all give me that complete world. It’s an all-at-onceness act, that gives us the visual-imaginative experience. Without the details (and this is the writer’s main task: which to include and which to leave out) the story is simply an internalized hash of “talking” between the character and the writer or the narrator and himself.

Likewise, a writer’s job is to give the reader the view of a world in which he sees it, not how I might see it or a fourth or fifth party. I understand that you (and everyone else) has a specific sight and understanding of a bag lady. But then there is this bag lady that I have imagined and present. This is a specific bag lady that you have not seen, or have not taken the time to notice among all the bag ladies you’ve watched. Who among us focuses on bag ladies anyway? And when we do, what do we see? Do we ask the questions that the narrator asks?

Criticism is as ephemeral as stories themselves. Should I listen to the negatives, the positives, make stories the way “they” would like stories, or employ the techniques of the major authors (and major prize/award winners)? It’s not even a toss-up Q/A, because I’ve always been drawn to story that gives it all to me, not minimalistically or with opaque veils of talking maelstroms from the writer’s mind.

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