Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Stillwater Bubbling Up

My dears,  I have been sitting on this for a week, trying to be a responsible person and not say anything until I knew anything, but I am weak and giddy and must call you all to rejoice with me.

An agent is reading Stillwater.

An agent requested to read Stillwater, through recommendation, not because I queried.

It's really the worst piece of nepotism ever, because it's my sister-in-law's agent. I was thinking that it was time to get moving on Stillwater again, so I wrote to Rose to see if her agent might have suggestions for someone who'd be interested in the kind of thing that Stillwater is (because agents often only represent specific genres), and Rose obligingly sent off a note with a kind word about my modern adaptation of Mansfield Park. The agent responded that she could certainly make some recommendations, but that if the book was brilliant she'd love to read it herself.

And this note showed up in my inbox right before we had to go sit through an hour and a half of German lessons, so I couldn't start taking immediate action. Ach.

I compiled the latest version of the manuscript and worked all night to scan it over and make formatting changes such as putting all my italics back in and making sure the scene breaks were just so and the typos were not, and the next morning I sent it right to the agent, stepping daintily over the slush pile. And later in the day I discovered that my document was not saving any of the changes I'd made, so the manuscript went over pretty much as it compiled. Fortunately, it's nothing that would sink the story, but it is a good tablespoonful of humility for me.

That was last week, and I can't possibly hear anything for a month, so if you see me obsessively checking my email, gently pry my phone out of my grabby little hands.

1. Buy my sister-in-law's new novel, Bright Smoke, Cold Fire. Romeo and Juliet, but after the story we know is over, in a world where the dead don't stay dead and there's only one safe city left in the whole world.

2. To celebrate, here's the revised beginning of Stillwater.

In the aftermath of the War Between the States, John Spencer of Stillwater Plantation, Iberville Parish, Louisiana, established the Stillwater Fellowship to provide an education for deserving young men who lived within the boundaries of his estate. Such philanthropy was an uncharacteristic turn for a man so ambitious that he built the largest, most elaborate house on the river simply to spite an upstream rival, but John’s charity had tightly circumscribed limits: the only eligible recipients were Stillwater’s own ex-slaves. He didn’t intend to go to expense educating his neighbor’s freedmen or white trash from Plaquemine.

The days of Reconstruction were a strange, hard time to found a scholarship for former slaves based on the revenues of a sugar plantation, but John Spencer was a strange, hard man. Even as his sons now worked the fields and his daughters turned their dresses to eke one more season of wear out of them, he sent the first Stillwater Fellow up to Baton Rouge to St. Mary’s Institute — the Sisters would give him as good an education as any white man might get, at half the cost! — and feasted him economically at annual Stillwater Fellowship Balls. The motivation for this piece of charity remained a matter that John chose not to divulge even to many journals. Perhaps the harsh realities of the new postwar economy pressed in on him, as both weather and politics conspired to make producing sugar an increasingly dicey proposition. Perhaps the scholarship was an enlightened decision to buy the loyalty of the best and brightest of his freedmen now that he could no longer compel their servitude. Perhaps he stood on the back gallery of his war-worn house and looked over his cabins and his sugar house and his commissary and his cane fields, stretching as far as the eye could see, and considered that his entire empire was built on the scarred backs of his slaves and that one day soon he too would face his Master and be called to give an account of his stewardship.

Whatever its reason, the Stillwater Fellowship was effective. The share of revenue allotted to the Trust was only large enough for one Fellow at a time, but  workers flocked to Stillwater, desperate for a chance for their sons to get a leg up out of poverty. The Stillwater Fellows, treated as partners in the running of the plantation, devised new business practices and implemented agricultural innovations to keep the business afloat even in days of hurricanes, drought, and debt. As other plantations fell into ruin, as the river gnawed away year by year at the half-mile of oak groves that stood before the house, the Spencers held onto Stillwater, battered but intact.

When American Cane leased the Stillwater sugarlands from Harold Spencer after the disastrous harvest of 1915, and financed the equipment to modernize production, the fortunes of the estate were at such a low that the suits at the sugar conglomerate thought nothing of guaranteeing a certain percentage of income from the land to the Stillwater Trust. The pool of available candidates was reduced, anyway: the new machinery meant that fewer laborers were needed, and many of those who still worked the fields moved into town. Most of the old slave cabins on the plantation were demolished so that more cane could be planted. The few remaining cottages were updated for the convenience of those employees who still lived on the estate. Of those employees, few likely lads still qualified for the Fellowship.

The Balls, of course, were held whether the Fellowship was bestowed or not. The Trust could not be diverted to purposes other than the Stillwater Fellowship, not even to the upkeep of Stillwater itself. Fellowship Balls took on a gothic grandeur, dancers in their grandmeres’ hoop skirts sweeping past decaying pilasters under the flicker of chandeliers still not wired for electricity. In those lean days, the family inhabited only a few of Stillwater’s 75 rooms, and great dramas were enacted over whether it was time to sell the house, or to have it demolished before it collapsed on itself. Yet Stillwater remained, and the Spencers remained with it.

Old John Spencer, having witnessed the devastation of a Civil War, could not have imagined the bounty bestowed by a World War. In 1942, American Cane wrangled a valuable contract from the government to supply wrapped sugar cubes for military rations. The boys returned from the front hungry, and with sweet memories of American Cane products, if nothing else, urged their wives and sweethearts to look for the signature pink and green package. When domestic sugar rationing ended, sales of sweetener soared, and with them the fortunes of Stillwater. The patched shell of the house was restored by Thomas Spencer to its antebellum splendor, and the grand front rooms were opened for tours.  The Misses Spencer again took their places as the belles of the Stillwater Fellowship Balls.
World War II, though it strengthened the Fellowship financially, caused it to atrophy practically. The war drained the plantation’s supply of young men, and when the boys came back, they didn’t return to Stillwater. The G.I. Bill provided them with mortgages for their own homes and sent them to college independent of Spencer largesse. And so the Trust continued to grow. The scholarship, owing to its restrictive clauses, had gone unawarded since who knew when, but there were no such restraints on the annual dinner, so that what had begun as a sober evening of scholastic reflection had mutated into the premiere social event of Iberville Parish. Without any Fellows to spend down the money, the purpose of the Stillwater Fellowship Ball seemed to be nothing more than that the good times should roll, as extravagantly as possible.

As a result, when Richard Spencer named René Arceneaux the first Stillwater Fellow in more than six decades, there was general surprise -- not because anyone doubted René's obvious genius, or his residency on the property (who could miss the passel of noisy young Arceneauxs bursting out of the small cottage behind the big house?) -- but because hardly anyone remembered that the Fellowship existed to be given instead of merely celebrated.


Jamie said...

How cool is that?! Hoping for the best!

Kate said...

Very cool! I really enjoyed reading Stillwater, and would gladly buy a copy to keep. :-) I've rarely seen an adaptation do so well at preserving the spirit of the original while still being very much its own story.

Sherwood said...

That is not nepotism, that is connections. Nepotism is getting a job when your ONLY qualification is being someone's spouse/lsibling/lover. You're getting a reading and the story must sell itself on its own merits. Which are legion--I have high hopes!

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Hurrah! I have always loved your "translation" of Austen's novel. It is no small achievement to present that particular novel (with its thesis intact) in a way that the average modern novel reader can grasp.

Mary said...

WOW!!!! What a fantastic step this is!!!

Anonymous said...

"Stillwater" was wonderful, and you should give her "Profiles in String" too! Gosh, I loved that so much. I just reread it 2 days ago when I was feeling weepy over my father's failing health.

Jenny said...


Brandon said...

And later in the day I discovered that my document was not saving any of the changes I'd made, so the manuscript went over pretty much as it compiled. Fortunately, it's nothing that would sink the story, but it is a good tablespoonful of humility for me.

I've done something similar -- I submitted a paper to a conference, and it was accepted, and I got back the anonymous reviewer comments -- and they just sounded odd. So I went back, and they didn't match what my paper was. It turns out I had accidentally submitted the first draft rather than the final draft. On the plus side, the reviewer and I had agreed almost completely about what needed to be changed and why.

mrsdarwin said...

Anon, I really want to revive and rework Profiles -- I think it's a great story, but it's not near a publishable state yet. I have some ideas for fleshing it out and making it a richer story. Profiles is the project on which I learned to write a novel, so it's dear to my heart, and I actually have done a good deal of editing to raise it from the rather rough state of some of the installments, but there's more to go.

Prayers for your father.

mrsdarwin said...

Brandon, even more embarrassing is that I went back and read the Stillwater intro on this very post and realized that I'd left out a word: should be "The motivation for this piece of charity remained a matter that John chose not to divulge even to *his* many journals." The problem is that I know what I mean to say, and so if I'm proofreading over a piece that's been rewritten many times, I have a kind of snow blindness for my own mistakes.

Even more frustrating was that after I'd sent the manuscript to the agent, I started editing through it at more depth, and made it to the halfway point before I realized that none of the changes had taken. I've gone back and created a new file which I've tested to make sure it's good, and now I'm almost back to that halfway mark. Anyway, the version I sent you was probably the same thing the agent got, so you can tell me if it seems unpublishable. :)

Banshee said...

I still don't know why you didn't start selling it indie several years ago.

But if you do end up going the traditional publishing way, make sure you read The Passive Voice and Kristine Kathryn Rusch's blogs about some of the no good, very bad current industry contract practices. Even if you like your sister in law's agent, you have to be a pro and look out for your own interests. That agent won't be at the agency forever. There are also some weird accounting practices that hurt writers.

Anonymous said...

I'm so excited! I really loved that story. The year it's published will be any easy one for my Christmas shopping!

- Finicky Cat

Anonymous said...

YES!!!!! :D :D :D
And I like the new beginning, it makes a lot more sense than the old one did.

Anonymous said...

(SPOILER ALERT) Also here's my two cents on stuff that could be improved: Maybe make it more clear that the Spencer and Arcenauex families go to Mass regularly? (Do they? I think it's implied in a few places that they do). It's not clear why exactly why Malcolm and Melly care about being Catholic and their families don't. (Except her sister I guess?) So I guess Melly's family went to Mass regularly but she and her sister were the only ones who cared? And the Spencers went to Mass regularly and the kids were sent to Catholic schools but only the dad (and mom maybe) and Malcolm cared? I ask this cause I thought for a while that they were Christmas/Easter only Catholics (except Malcolm obviously) and the dad didn't care about his faith and sent his kids to Catholic schools for educational reasons. But then at the end it explains how he had tried to raise his kids in the Faith, but had mostly failed because he never explained anything to them. I guess that was when I thought then they must go to Mass every week, though it's never really mentioned? (And I think Melly's family goes because her mother tells her at one point to take her youngest sister to Mass?)
The plot hole is that Sophia is living with Chris prior to her marriage. At first I just assumed that her dad wasn't a very faithful Catholic and didn't care that she was cohabiting, but then later, he's upset when he realizes that Olivia's been sleeping with her boyfriend. So why was he not upset about Sophia? Is he really so unfocused on his family life that he managed to entirely miss the fact?
I hope my ramblings are somewhat helpful. Looking forward to publication! :)