First Brush

Gig's moon and stars.
Aunt Gig’s moon and stars.

For an author, reading the first draft of one’s novel is a little like an actor watching themselves on screen.

I’d like to claim that analogy, but I must give credit to my hairdresser (or level III stylist or whatever the politically correct title). Mariana is a very astute woman who, like many of her profession, dispenses a great deal of useful advice that often has little to do with my hair.

Take my last appointment. She stopped by the sink where I was being shampooed to greet me and compliment me on a pendant I was wearing — a gold locket encrusted with a half moon and stars of tiny diamonds. It belonged to my great-aunt Gig (my grandmother had 18 siblings in all) and languished in my mother’s jewelry box for years. I’d been drawn to it lately and had taken to wearing it.

“That’s so pretty,” she said, leaning in to examine it.

“Thanks,” I said, twisting painfully in the sink’s awkward hold. “I think it’s missing a couple of stones, though.”

She squinted. “No, it’s not. I can see them all. It just needs a cleaning. Dip a little brush in some window cleaner and scrub it gently. That’s all it needs.”

Or the appointment before that, when we puzzled over unusually dark results from an at-home root touch-up. After a grilling that would make a detective proud, Mariana had two theories: either problematic iron levels in our neighborhood water created an iron buildup, or a sweaty workout left a hefty salt deposit. The presence of either mineral could cause color to ‘take’ more deeply than usual.

That’s the kind of information I count on Mariana for. She tells me she keeps an arsenal of stain removal products in her laundry room — armed to attack any spill or mishap on hers or her husband’s clothes. She ticks off a few solutions when I complain about discolored towels. (Problematic neighborhood water again; everything we own tinged peach for the last year.)

Subconsciously, I may have been thinking of her when I had Iris, a secondary character in my novel, Transported, dip an old dress in chamomile. That’s just the kind of thing Mariana would do.

She credits her knowledge to her late mother, a seamstress. Mariana grew up watching her create and repair clothes for other people. During a blowout, she offers a tip on reviving faded black clothes: dye them. I think of a favorite shirt in my closet that could benefit from this facelift. I would have tossed it otherwise.

On the day Mariana made her astute analogy, I was grousing about the read-through of my first draft. Though I poured my heart and soul into this 350-page bundle, the going was extremely painful, especially at the beginning, where I really flailed. As in any first draft — book, film, garment — there’s some brilliant stuff, some terribly cringeworthy stuff, and just a lot of stuff that should be cut. I longed to hand off the whole mess to someone else to fix.

And that’s when I thought of Mariana’s shelf. Writers need their own go-to tools to attack the stains and messes in their work: editing, rewriting, and the most challenging of all, leaving a WIP alone for a good long while, then picking it up again with fresh eyes.

It’s only then that I, the author, can decide which elements really sparkle, which need a gentle brushing, and which, like old clothes that have had their day, are best tossed.

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