What’s The Big Idea?

What’s the Big Idea?

The Big Idea is a novel by Nerissa Nields. It tells the story of the Becket Family, a homeschooled trio of siblings from Jintucket Massachusetts who form a rock band when they are in their late teens and early twenties. The novel follows them over the course of a decade, and then picks up twenty years later. There will be an accompanying soundtrack for the book. The Big Idea’s songs will be sung and played by Nerissa and Katryna Nields, Dave Hower and Dave Chalfant. Liv First’s songs will be sung by Dar Williams.

 

Meet the Beckets

Peter. Oldest child, visionary, on a mission to achieve eternal life through his pursuit of his ambition, which is nothing short than changing the face of pop culture, like his heroes the Beatles, and Phillip Petite, the high wire artist who danced a mile above lower Manhatten on August 8, 1974, the day the Beckets moved from New York City to a small college town in Western Massachusetts. He plays guitar and writes songs. He falls in love with a Yale grad named Liv First.

Rhodie. Middle child, introverted, introspective, deeply connected to her family, secretly a virgin at the age of 22. She is the best songwriter in the band, and like a songwriter, is constantly looking for the right metaphor, the hook, the meaning of things. She adores her brother and is furious when he falls in love and begins to edge toward a life independent of the family. She has a huge crush on the band’s new bass player, Jack Slade.

Zhsanna. Youngest child, wild and undisciplined with a heart as big as Texas and a voice that transports its listeners to another time and place. When the band is a trio, she is its drummer, but once they add Jack to the mix, the band wants to replace her, put her more in the spotlight. She recruits Mose Healey to join the band.

 

Meet the In-Laws and Out-Laws

Olivia (“Liv”) First. A disciplined Yale-educated third-wave feminist and sometime anorexic struggling with her desire to be loved, to fit in with the Beckets and somehow be adopted by them, she falls in love with Peter and the band when she sees them play as a trio at the Daily Caffe in New Haven. She sees how easy it would be for them to get famous if they only made a few good decisions, and she attempts to manage them. But they are a bit ungovernable.

Jack Slade. Seven years older than Peter, Jack is the best bass player in Jintucket. Getting him in the band would be a huge coup for the nascent Big Idea, and a little daunting for Peter who was kicked out of a Jack-led band (Notorious Ingrid) in the recent past. Jack is married to Susie, a recovering heroin addict, and the father of Millie, their young child.

Mose Healey. Raised by a single mother in Somerville, and also by a couple of Jesuit brothers from Worcester, Mose wears a Trust bracelet and is flirting with a future as a priest. But he loves music, and he is intrigued by the band’s invitation to join them. He is an easy, lovable dude who reminds Rhodie of Hephaestus. When his band Tourniquet breaks up, he inherits their van, which becomes the de facto home of the Big Idea for much of the span of the novel.

Meet the Parents

Rita Puccino Becket. Daughter of Italian immigrants, she fell in love with Harry when they were in a Gypsy-inspired production of Kiss Me Kate. She homeschooled her three children, teaches yoga, modern dance and drama, and dreams of traveling the world.

Harry Becket. Son of old money, he dabbled in various careers, and his basement displays the relics of various paths not taken—law school, massage school, carpentry––before he settle on writing a series of chapter books for young readers that featured a character named Julius Collie and his trusty sidekick Rude Cat.

The book is about fame, immortality/mortality, ambition, addiction, recovery, love, redemption and engagement with others. The book is told from multiple points of view and takes the reader all over the continent. You can read an excerpt of it here.

Summer Writing Camp, The Fiery Furnace and Sugar Snaps

It’s Day Two of my Summer Writing Camp. The writers are just finishing their 3 pages of brain drain and are moving around the house, finding the perfect place to settle in for the morning. I just read them a passage from Dani Shapiro’s wonderful book, Still Writing. In it, she reminds us that many fiction writers have no idea where their novel is going when they sit down to write. Part of the fun is in watching the characters lead on.

This is exactly what I need to hear. In my revision of The Big Idea, I still don’t know what happens to my characters by the end of the book. I have ideas, but I know from bitter experience that when I tried to boss them around, the results rang false. I am still excavating the first half of the book, trying to get the voices just right. One of my main characters recently underwent a name change. Somehow, this changes everything about her–the color of her skin, her diction, her whole sense of self.

Writing this novel is hard.

And so I am distracting myself by thinking of the sermon I am to give later this month. I looked up the passage from the lectionary: Matthew 13. It’s a tough one, full of images of sinners being cast into the fiery furnace where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Did Jesus really say this? Fire and brimstone! Yikes! I don’t want to preach on this, and I don’t have to–West Cummington is not exactly a lectionary following church. Yet something in the passage speaks to me. I want to explore it a bit before I give up. Jesus, as Steve points out, was something of a shock jock in his time. I want to sit with the shock. More tomorrow.

The last of the sugar snap peas, visible from the kitchen window. The vines are yellowed. Last night, the rain came gentle at first, then forceful. I ran outside with my kids and we whooped and danced. Jay stripped off his clothes and followed me over to the garden, where I gathered what was left–the still-green peas, and the shriveled yellowing ones. Violin practice is a struggle right now. Not enough time. No one–especially me–is behaving well. It’s OK. We are learning. We are showing up, very imperfectly. I think that’s our main job.

How to Write a Novel

Disclaimer: This post is really just my scribbling about process. So skip this if you are looking for deep spiritual insights or cute stories about my kids and read this instead.

Damned if I know. Well, OK, I do, actually. I have written a novel, and really I have written two novels. The first one, Plastic Angel, was published by Scholastic in 2005, and it’s a YA about two girls finding themselves (and each other)through music. The second, called The Big Idea, is about a folk-rock band who is also a family (write what you know…). I finished a draft–five years in the writing–in 2005 and my agent tried to sell it and could not. I got many kind and encouraging letters back from various publishing houses which I stuffed away somewhere and concentrated on my growing belly and eventual daughter, and the son who came two years later. Every year or so, I would revisit the pages, making small changes. Almost every day I have thought about the characters. It feels as though they are in prison. I want to set them free. But the task seemed so gargantuan that I needed to give myself a pep talk and a plan.

And so this fall, I threw The Big Idea into the midst of a group of five incredibly talented writers, my Weeding & Pruning group. Every other week, I submit a chapter from TBI and they go at it, telling me where they are thrown out of the story, what they like, where they want to know more. We talk about what we should be reading to strengthen and inform our own writing practice. I am writing new scenes. I feel reborn, and my characters are talking to me again.

What are my professional and artistic goals in life? I ask myself this question all the time.
-I want to write gorgeous inspiring funny vibrant books and CDs that will make people feel, smile, cry, relate, understand, feel connected to each other, and grow.
-I want to be able to spend more time writing and making music. (but I need to make a living, and right now, those pursuits don’t pay the bills. So….)
-I want to make a greater income than I do now through sales of my books and CDs. So…
-I want to finish my ebook How to Be an Adult, sell it online, and thus learn how to self-publish
-I want to write The Big Idea so that it is as perfect, complete, absolute as a book can be. Then I want to publish it myself.
-I want the book to come with the CD of songs the characters write. I want the CD to be a recording of a band just like the Big Idea, which will necessarily be different from what Katryna and I can do. So I want to find these musicians, find a producer, executive produce that soundtrack.
-I want to be able to pay these musicians and producer, so I need money. Maybe I will do a Kickstarter campaign when the time comes.
-In order to do any of this, I need to re-write the book. I need to find times every day to write AND to read, for I am convinced that in order to write well one must read well.
-In order to this, I need some more discipline, self-control, grit and determination, and I need to schedule my time even more precisely than I do now.

The book I am reading now is Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed. I am a little more than halfway through, and I am quite taken by the premise and ideas. In a nutshell, Tough argues, it’s character that makes the difference between success (a happy, productive engaged life) and failure, and not cognitive skills. Moreover, failure–or rather, learning how to use failure–is as important as success.

Paul Tough: That’s an idea that I think was best expressed by Dominic Randolph, the head of the Riverdale Country School, an exclusive private school in the Bronx where they’re now doing some interesting experiments with teaching character. Here’s how he put it: “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure. And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”

That idea resonated with a lot of readers. I don’t think it’s quite true that failure itself helps us succeed. In fact, repeated failures can be quite devastating to a child’s development. What I think is important on the road to success is learning to deal with failure, to manage adversity. That’s a skill that parents can certainly help their children develop–but so can teachers and coaches and mentors and neighbors and lots of other people.

I can’t tell you how bummed I was every time I opened a letter from yet another publisher rejecting the book I had poured my heart into for over five years. A (bestselling) writer friend of mine said, “Just write a new book. That’s what I did.” And I was tempted to. I was also tempted to just say, “Well, I guess I can cross ‘novelist’ off my list,” and focus instead on music, or non-fiction, or blogging, or the hardest and most important of my jobs: mothering. I have a full, rich life. Do I really need to be a novelist? Being a novelist is so all-consuming. It requires me to read and re-read “my own princess self” as Anne Lamott would say, encouraging my already frighteningly narcissistic tendencies. Who cares about characters who don’t even exist? Pay attention to the sweet souls around my kitchen table!

Shorthand: in How Children Succeeed, Tough lists these character virtues as being the most critical:
-grit
-curiosity
-self-control
-gratitude
-zest
-optimism
-social intelligence

I took the grit test on the UPenn website and to my shock and disappointment scored about a 33%. My husband laughed when he heard this; to him I am nothing if not gritty, which may or may not be a good thing. But the questions really gave me pause. One was, “Do you finish what you start?” Another, “Are you easily distracted?”

Oops, just left this page to go check Facebook to see if my old high school buddy Wendy Gabriel had “friended” me yet.

So here’s what I need to do.
1. Re-read the book.
2. Write new scenes
3. Re-read the book with the new scenes
4. Make changes accordingly
5. Read some other novels by writers I like
6. Read Suzzy Roche’s novel Wayward Saints and Scott Alarik’s novel Revival: A Folk Music Novel so I can see what my peers are doing with a similar subject.

In the end, finishing this novel–and by finish, I mean to my artistic satisfaction– might be one of the most important things I do as a mother. Someone asked me recently what my goals are for my kids as little Suzuki violinists. Orchestra? A career with the Boston Pops or BSO? No. No. No. My goals for them are about the day-to-day. I want them to have music. That’s it. And I know, as my sister Katryna would say, that while listening to music is powerful and can be transcendent, making music, the actual play, is always transforming. After we enter this particular communion, we come out different, changed. But having music by making music, by participating in this particular way, as a player, demands a daily practice–and grit, self-control and zest. So I will continue to practice with them, and I will model my own practice by working on my novel every day too.

Besides. The Big Idea needs a fiddle player.