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Some Assembly Required

Photobucket [1]Some books are gift books. They arrive fully cloaked, with feathers and beads and exquisite shoes, all in place. The writer is required only to transcribe the material and send it off into the world. Books like this tend to be written very fast, with little of the gnashing of teeth and throwing of typewriters out the window that accompanies the usual writing process. I have no idea where they come from, or why they arrive whole and complete. If I did, I’d make it happen every time.

Instead, most books seem to arrive as a big collection of things dumped in a tall wicker basket that I have to sort out. Each one so different from the other that the process almost doesn’t even seem like the same thing at all.

They’re like my children, my actual human children, that is. Who are lovely children, don’t get me wrong, but they were not the easiest kids on the planet to raise. One made an art form of adorability. He was popular and beautiful and the class clown. Teachers were not amused.

The other is a bona fide verbal genius. Which means he can be exceedingly entertaining, and after all, we pray for brilliance. Except, do you want to debate the finer issues of the Constitution with a twelve-year-old? Me, either. Nor did his teachers, who didn’t take kindly to his insistence that he knew more than they did.

Everyone wanted to tell me how to raise these very, very different children. Everyone had ideas on how to transform them magically into good little citizens who could then take their tidy spots in society. They gave me scripts and manuals and Techniques Guaranteed To Work.

But…they were, after all, my children. Eccentric. Inner directed. Independent. My job in raising them was not to impose some outside idea of what they should be, but to pay attention to the individual child and find ways to facilitate his growth, help each one find his way into a life that would him joy and a sense of purpose and satisfaction, with enough money that they could meet their needs and some of their wants.

My most recent book, The Lost Recipe for Happiness [2], wasn’t exactly a gift book, but I had the luxury of retreating for a whole winter to write without external influences. It had been brewing for a fairly long time, so by the time I got the chance to write it, a lot of the material had been combed through. It was like receiving a juicy scholarship to the best school in town for a whole year.

By contrast, the current book is like my eldest child’s fifth grade year.

It will not behave. It will not do what I think it should. It leads me on a merry chase right down a path—to a cliff!–then when I scream and pull back, it goes silent and won’t allow me a single glimpse for days.

Sometimes, an idea is not ripe, or there are things that are just never going to gel. This is not one of them. It would take too much time to tell you how I know which ones are solid and which ones are not, but this one is solid. It’s also a big complicated plot, with a fairly substantial number of characters, and here, at this stage, I feel like I’m in a crowded theater with a dozen little pockets of interactions going on, as characters try on clothes and hats and shoes, figuring out what will work. It’s chaotic and noisy and hectic and confused.

On Saturday, I wrote a fresh scene in a new file, and thought I copied it into the main file. Somehow, I didn’t, but I closed the unsaved file.

Zap. Gone. Naturally, it was brilliant, because those are the only ones you lose so completely. Every writer with a word processor has done something similar. By accident or power failure or computer crash. I gnashed my teeth and moaned for ten minutes, tried all the tricks to get it back, and accepted that I’d just have to rewrite it the next day.

Except, when Sunday arrived, I couldn’t. It wasn’t there. Not anywhere in my head. And as if that little revolt gave everyone else the right to revolt, the whole book seemed suddenly wrecked. The plot. The motivation. Even the main character, who was boring. B.O.R.I.N.G.. Who even cared? Not me. If I didn’t care, surely no one else would either.

And yet…..there was so much I loved, too, all those solid markers. My gut said it was material that will be right for my voice and my market. What is a writer to do?

Work. Roll up the sleeves, take it all apart, and make some rational choices. I spent Monday morning careening around the house, wailing, then I called my mother (a very thoughtful critiquer of stories) and talked it out. A glimmer of the required change shone in the dark. I lit a candle and headed off to the library with a notebook in my bag to sort it all out.

For a week, I’d been aware that things were not quite going the way they should, but I ignored it. Finally, the girls in the basement stopped production entirely and sent up a red flag. Trouble, trouble, trouble.

In the quiet of the library, with no notes or backstory or distractions, I opened my spiral notebook and rationally wrote out the problems I could see with the manuscript.

There was the character who was boring me. The backstory that was as tangled as a jungle, with vines and flowers and weeds going hither thither. A thread of plot that excited me but was still not working in the current setup. Every time I tried to hammer it together, the boards fell apart.

Next, I wrote all the things I loved about the work, and it was almost everything else. Every other character on the page. The actual plot line of finding home and finding our place and surviving terrible things (which is always my theme). There is food and magic and a great romantic lead.

All was not lost. It felt like the time my eldest got kicked out of school in fifth grade for fighting in the classroom. (To be fair, another kid called his dad the N word and that was that). I had to find a place that would be a better fit for him than the local, working- class middle school he’d head into the following year.

The main character in the MIP wasn’t working because all the things that made her compelling to me were things that were causing trouble with the rest of the material, so I kept gutting them. If I kept them, the character worked, but the plot didn’t. How could I fix that?

I stared at the mountains through the library windows. (At such points, a little nap will work, too.)

The glimmering of the solution that I spied on the phone with my mother rose out of the ether: change the location.

I whined a little, but just for the sake of trying all solutions, I gave it to the Girls to see what they’d think, and went home to cook. (Cooking is one of the ways to brew a book, especially my food-centric storylines.)

After dinner, I headed out in the dusk to walk for an hour, listening to the songs on my Ipod in shuffle mode. If nothing else, a good long walk can blow away the cobwebs. The book was not on my mind. I thought about the elections and autumn arriving and how beautiful the sky looked and if I might see a coyote or a fox in the gloaming. I shook rocks out of my sandals and wished I had my camera to shoot the little sunflowers blooming in the sagey fields.

Then, as I was nearly home, a voice pointed out the legend that was the underpinning for all the material I’ve been working with. It’s one of my favorites, and it’s rich and sexy and dark, and I would tell you what it is, but that would ruin the fun for you later, so I’m keep it to myself. Enough to say:


The change of setting pulls everything together. I can keep and explore the juicy angles of this character, and the plot bits that were clanging against each other are now harmonizing. In terms of rewriting, it will mean some work, but not as much as I might have imagined. There are some other things I’ll have to figure out, but in general, this works.

At least that’s how it looks now. Just as when I sent my son to a new school across town (where he met the teacher who changed his life), all you can do is what looks best, and believe in the process.

Stay tuned.

What do you do when you get stuck or take a wrong turn in a book? What are the signals and what do you do about it?

About Barbara O'Neal [3]

Barbara O'Neal [4] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [5], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [6].