This past weekend, I had a business trip to St Louis, and something happened that almost never does when I’m traveling: I wrote in the shuttle on the way to the airport. It’s a fairly long slog, about 90 minutes, and often I have a whole bench to myself, but I’m not one of those writers who feels she must work at all times. Nor did I this time—I just…er…wanted to.
When I got to the airport, I had more time to kill and…wait for it….I wrote some more. On the way home, I actually opened my laptop in my crowded seat and wrote another thousand words, which means I wrote nearly five thousand over a weekend in which I wasn’t planning to write at all.[pullquote]Every book is a lot of hard work, and between that seductive moment of conception and the finished offering there is a wander through the desert.[/pullquote]
Anne Stuart used to exuberantly post on a loop we were on together, “it’s alive!” and I’ve always loved the visual. That moment when a book takes its first gasping breaths, and sits up and starts to breathe on its own without me propping it up in a thousand ways. This book has been difficult to get up and breathing. It has gone through a number of incarnations. I just couldn’t see where it needed to go, but the main character wouldn’t leave me alone. Frustrated, I shoved it on a back burner for a year and went off to write other things.
I don’t often do this. Everyone who has written for any length of time knows that the best part of a book is when it first comes to you, dressed in gossamer scarves, as shimmery and magical as fairy godmother. “Write my story,” she says in her sonorous voice. “I will not be any trouble at all, not like that—“ she casts her eyes toward the current book “well, you know. With me, your fingers will fly across the keyboard, and we’ll enchant everyone who reads us, and we shall rise to the top of the lists and sell everywhere in the world and —“
I am so hungry to believe her every time, aren’t you? This whispery, Marilyn Monroe voice in your ear is what makes newer writers abandon projects that are well underway, over and over chasing a will o’the wisp into the forest, leaving all you know—including that book with well over a hundred pages done–behind.
Only to discover that you are at the long, hard beginning of another book. One that is not going to be any easier than the last one or the one before that. Every book is a lot of hard work, and between that seductive moment of conception and the finished offering there is that wander through the desert. One of the most difficult stages is the time between the exciting first glimmers of the idea and characters, and the time it begins to get up and breathe on its own. The breathing usually takes place around page 100 or so, and I feel it is my job to get the book there, show up and do the heavy lifting of character development, follow the painfully slow process of world building, in this world, which is different from any other book world I’ve created.
So I don’t usually abandon a book before that moment of breathing, especially because there is a fairly rigorous audition process—I don’t make notes on ideas or characters; they have to be so persistent that I can’t escape them before I’ll even open a file.
But on this one, I just couldn’t seem to get the character right. I had two things—her name and her main conflict, but everything I tried seemed to be just wrong. I gave up for awhile.
This winter, she showed up again, with a sexy new title and a storyline that startled and surprised me. She brought a new character with her, her best friend, and something has happened to that friend, and, well—gosh, there was a lot of good stuff there. I was inflamed and excited. I wrote over 15K words and knew what I had was solid. I had to take a break to finish the final book in my Going the Distance series, and then came back to this one.
It was all still there, objectively. But the excitement of that first rush was gone and now I had to dig into the actual structure, into the slow, painstaking work of world building. I made a few mistakes and had to cut some scenes. I dropped one character in favor of another. The storyline needed to lighten up ever so slightly. I’ve been working for nearly a month, eeking out the minimum number of words per day or less, feeling the agony of sewing an arm to the torso, the feet to the legs, finding a head for the body.
And then I had that urge to write on the shuttle and in the airport and on the plane. I took a wrong turn in one section, but it’s fixable. I realized a major theme that I hadn’t seen coming and then I wrote a scene of a character under great stress—
The book gasped and sat up. A string of unrelated scenes all made sense. A character I hadn’t understood stepped forward to say what she was doing there. I wrote that last scene on the plane and the book was breathing fully on its own, and I was seriously irritated when the guy in front of me put his seat back and forced me to stop. (Would it kill the industry to just end that seat back adjustability on domestic flights? #endrant)
How do I know that it’s breathing? That’s the thing that I thought about as I resentfully closed my computer and put it away.
For me, it means things happen that surprise me. Characters reveal information I had no access to. The fragments begin to weave themselves into a whole, a whole that almost always looks quite a bit different from the original vision. From here, things will not be easy—writing a book is a lot of hard work and this one will be, too—but I can feel that it will be organically right now, that it is a thing that I’m serving, rather than forcing. I can, at this point, give myself up to the magic of writing. Show up, write, repeat. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s just easier.
But to get to this point, I had to force it for awhile. I had to show up and write clunky untrue scenes and wooden character gestures. If I’d flown away to a new shiny, I wouldn’t have been able to get here.
Have you felt the stages of a book like this? Do you fall prey to the siren voice of new ideas and abandon old ones too soon? How does your audition process work? How do you know when a book is going to work?
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