In which I am, once again, too subtle

I have heard from a couple readers over the past few months who have been disappointed in the role Miss Zula plays in Tied to the Tracks. These readers like Zula better than the main characters and would have liked the story to be more (or entirely) about her.

This is a compliment, in a way. But on some level it does frustrate me because my intent was to present Zula as a bit of a mystery. All the clues are there, all the information you need to piece together her story — but you have to look for them. Some readers didn’t get this.

I thought about stringing together all the chapter openings that deal, directly or indirectly, with Zula to see what people might make of that, but I stopped myself for a very good reason:

If you have to explain to your readers what you intended, you’ve failed. There are two possible reasons for this failure:

1) you didn’t write the story well enough;
2) the reader wasn’t reading closely enough.

When I’m teaching creative writing I always focus on the first. When I teach a piece of a novel or a short story, I focus on the second. In this case I must assume this is all my fault. But it’s also a little sad that I failed to make this part of the story work the way I wanted it to.

Hint: Zula’s entire name is Zula McGuffin Bragg. There’s a hint in that name, but nobody has picked up on it, as far as I can tell.

11 Replies to “In which I am, once again, too subtle”

  1. Well sure. McGuffin – a device to advance the plot. And she did. To me this was Angie’s story, a yankee from an Italian family. Angie learns about the modern south, including some (and some fairly strong hints) about a black female that grew up 2 generations ago.

  2. I dunno. I enjoyed the enigma of Miss Zula when I read Tied to the Tracks. I focused on John and Caroline and Angie. Zula’s private life seemed to be in the past and legendary in the town’s own mind, so to speak. It was a rich background through which the drama was woven. From my not-close reading. Just as the Rose sisters’ contemporary dramas were part of the background, although maybe in bolder colours. To take the tapestry metaphor (allegory?) to an extreme.

    Is it possible that readers differ in their approach to reading? As in: I’m a passive reader who won’t quibble over the outcomes of fictional stories, while others I know are outraged by fictional turns of events. I just sit back amazed, applauding the creative effort.

    The internet seems to have allowed for many more points of contact with readers/with authors. Good and bad, the same old story.

    Is ‘McGuffin’ an academic term or writer’s jargon? I didn’t recognize it meant something for Zula to have McGuffin in her name.

  3. The readers took to Miss Zula because the pieces of information they were given were just too interesting.

    I think what went wrong (astray from Rosina’s plan perhaps, but not in any way bad,)is that McGuffins are not supposed to really engage the reader, they are just an item the plot revolves around. Miss Zula was too well drawn to ever fade into the background.

    Pam, a McGuffin is an item with advances the plot in mystery novels, the goal is usually to obtain the McGuffin. Its a term associated with Alfred Hitchcock. An example of a McGuffin is the Maltese Falcon, everybody was after that statue and that is what guided the action in the plot.

  4. Talking about this very thing with a fellow reader a while back, we agreed that the way the book ended without our getting Miss Zula’s “whole story” felt authentic, felt like the way things work in families… that is, when did the elders ever tell the kids all the good stuff? You get bits of the stories, and a considerable amount of misdirection and distraction, and over time you might be able to piece together a lot of the picture — especially if you pay close attention and discard the assumptions you started with. But there are going to be parts that forever remain none of your business, thank you.

  5. I don’t think you left anything out of Zula’s story. To me it was completely complete. No mysteries left. But I have been wrong before. Maybe there is yet something I don’t even know that I don’t know. This would be a good topic for the TTTT book discussion.

  6. This comment pane never remembers me until I try to modify my handle to something really descriptive.


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