One of the most beautiful features of Paris is its streets. I love the ornate buildings, I love the beautiful landmarks, I love the stately cathedrals, but I also love the streets. They are cobbled unevenly, smoothly paved, or somewhere in between, geometrically decorated with modern pavers. They are grand like the Haussmann-designed boulevards and averagely wide like the Rue Milton or narrow like the Rue de Nancy. They each have their own little personality in the decorative facades or foliage or parking or modern features.
My favorite streets are the tiny pedestrian alleys where you can cut through quietly while dwarfed by the stone cavern rising up around you. Those are secret and mysterious, especially at night. In fact, the passages are one of the reasons I set most of my stories in Paris.
A Real Life Street That Wasn’t Quite Right
So, as I began my novel The Forgetting Flower, I knew I’d need the perfect street for my protagonist Renia and her plant shop. I’d walked the Rue Saint-Placide, named after Saint Placidus who was rescued as a boy from a lake in an alleged miracle, and I liked it. Saint-Placide is jammed with businesses and had a deep terrace, which my character used a lot for displays. It even had a real life plant shop, thus inspiring me to use its name in the novel.
I also liked that the street implied the word “Placid” or “stillness.” It was a nice bit of irony to name a thriller that included a death and some nefarious incidents on a street described as “placid.” Recently though, in editing the book, I realized the street was too busy for what happened there not to be obviously noticeable and public. Also, the street is not technically in Saint-Germain-des-Prés though it’s very close. And my protagonist’s desire to live in chic Saint-Germain was integral to the story. So, I nixed it.
The Search Continues
That led me on a Google maps goose chase. I knew the Rue du Bac. It nicely captured the spirit of Saint-Germain with its boutiques and hotels and restaurants. It runs in a snug narrow lane. Fewer cars travel it but tourists do, which was in my story. It had great sunlight and one of the first acts Renia does is look up at her friend’s balcony against the sunny blue sky. It had the makings of the perfect size and culture of the street in my dreams.
But the Rue du Bac bustles with tightly packed businesses. In my novel, a certain liquid rolls down the limestone wall of a building. There’s little if any limestone wall space between businesses on the Rue du Bac. And that moment kicks off the story’s plot. Sadly, I ruled out the Rue du Bac.
I’d also walked the Rue Gozlin, whose quiet, tucked away feel at the center of Saint-Germain seemed unassuming and hidden. It had a lovely, out-of-the-way quality where tourists might not travel and locals would. And it had lots of stone with some businesses too. But the street is a single-lane street and throughout the story I describe vans and cars coming and going. Parking a car on this street would be impossible because of the iron posts lining the sidewalk. And the sidewalk was too shallow as well.
An Imagined Street
I continued virtually visiting various streets, many of which I’d walked and some I hadn’t. But with Saint-Germain at the heart of the story, I couldn’t find the exact street I needed. This annoyed me. I wanted the setting to be as true to life as possible, somewhere I could stand and point and say, “That’s where it all happened.” As a literary tourist, you can do this with streets in Flaubert, Balzac, and Hugo’s novels. I wanted the same true-to-life accuracy.
Still, I had a lot of true-to-life accuracy with other streets and sites. It was just this central location that dogged me. But it wasn’t meant to be. Not in such a tight neighborhood. So, I decided to create the street in my imagination. It’s a one-lane street like the Rue du Bac with lots of sun and has parking. It has a deep terrace and bustles with commercial activity like the Rue Saint-Placide. And it has classic limestone building walls. It’s in Saint-Germain and ironically named. The Rue Sereine.
The World of the Story
Though I now can’t pinpoint the exact location of Renia’s plant shop, I’m okay with my fictional choice. It’s always disappointed me as a reader when I can’t place a novel’s street in real life and so I hope I don’t disappoint my own readers. But it can’t be helped. And most readers probably won’t care anyway. They’ll be following Renia through her trials of the plot. Hopefully The Forgetting Flower’s words and characters and story will engage them so wholeheartedly that they won’t notice or care whether the Rue Sereine even exists in real life. Time will tell.
I’ve been searching for representation for about a month now. Recently, one agent requested my full manuscript but passed on it. In her comments she mentioned the first chapters were slower than she preferred for the books on her list. (She represented grittier, faster paced novels than mine.) And she said her comments were, of course, “subjective.” I felt sad that she thought she needed to include that caveat. But I knew the underlying subtext. She was worried I’d defend myself immediately. But I don’t do that. I’ve worked as an editor. I know I don’t need to be defensive. I need to write a good story (though I appreciate her sensitivity). I actually welcome editorial feedback from agents. I appreciate it. I’m always ready to revise because I want my work to be better. And editorial feedback from agents is some of the most precious feedback out there.
Literary Agents Know Story Structure
Agents read dozens of manuscripts a year. They know issues of plot, character, setting, voice, etc. Conflict. Even if a story doesn’t match their list of titles, they know a strong story when they read one. So if an agent is willing to offer aI actually welcome editorial feedback from agents. I appreciate it. I’m always ready to revise because I want my work to be better. And editorial feedback from agents is some of the most precious feedback out there.particular comment about my book, I’m all ears. I’m not so wobbly that I’ll for sure change it, but if the comment touches on a doubt I have, it tells me the issue resonates in a more universal way. If more than one person thinks an aspect is weak that means it’s not a matter of taste, but a flaw that needs to be addressed.
A Comment Can Be Inspiring
That this agent who passed told me my book was “beautifully written,” made my day. I take her comment to be authentic since she has no investment in flattering me, especially since she ultimately passed on representing me. But that one positive note propelled me to go on. Okay, I thought, I know the writing’s strong. Mark that off in the plus column.
Of course, my writing ego doesn’t live or die depending on one agent’s thoughts. As my husband says, I should write the book that I want. But feedback from a person who sells books for a living holds more weight than the average reader, and helps me narrow my editorial focus.
Feedback Strengthens a Story
Since that agent’s comments came in a week or so ago, I’ve since revised my manuscript. In the past when I’d edited the book, I thought, “Wow, the danger really starts cooking on page 67.” I often wondered if I needed to move that danger up in the story. I decided to go for it. Now the main conflict starts earlier and a piece of essential back story is further on. My lesson learned is to be open to the feedback and think carefully about how it fits in to my overall vision. In this case, I believe it did. It helped me strengthen the story for the next agent who may request a full manuscript. And when that time comes, I’ll feel more confident when I send it off.
Every day that I haven’t been working in a client’s garden, I’ve been revising my novel. I stay inside and sit, feeling my body spreading out in a weird, sedentary ooze. I have a Fitbit now and I feel the lack of motion, the lack of steps. What I lack in motion I make up for in neuropathy in my hands. My fingers are sometimes numb at night, a result of overworking my tendons as I weed or cut branches for clients, and then overworking my tendons as I type and delete words on my laptop. I go to sleep, making sure to tuck my hands under the blanket so they don’t get cold and more numb, and when I wake up, I take Advil and do either activity all over again. It’s not a great situation but I promise myself to rest my hands on the weekends.
These chunks of time enable me to pound this mess of scenes into a sculpture that’s recognizable as a novel. I’m accomplishing what I set out to do last summer, tell the story of a botanist who propagates a rare tree, a tree so rare and special, mysterious forces rise up to try and defeat him. But the logic still needs to be worked out, the sentences still need smoothing. The series of events need to lead into each other naturally as if this whole thing were happening in the real world. In one giant, believable motion. It’s an enormous task and I consider myself a third of the way through. A third that’s tied to later scenes and chapters. I jump around inside the scenes every day. Oftentimes, I get ideas about characters and happenings completely unrelated to what I’m working on and I have to spend a half-hour diving into a part of the book I never intended to edit. Then time gets short and I get frustrated and I have to close the laptop. I stretch my hands and do the little, wiggling exercises the doctor gave me to do. I try to relax about not finishing all that I wanted to finish that day. I put on my shoes, go outside, and take as many steps as I can around the neighborhood.