Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Religious calling

One of the biggest mistakes I made as a beginning writer was taking on too much, especially in fiction. I'd have too much for a short story and not enough for a novel, and I couldn't tell which was which.

I began a novel about an Air Force pilot, a woman, who was allowed to teach other combat pilots, but not fly combat. This was about thirty years ago when things were different. Women fly combat all the time now. I had a romance brewing and the characters were talking to me. The male romantic lead kept waking me up to tell me he knew the heroine before they met in the book, and it was the first time a character bothered me in my sleep and hounded me day and night. I thought I had something.

I plotted. I made outlines of the action. I knew where I was starting and where I would end, but had not clue about the middle. I thought it would come as I wrote. It didn't.

I had great scenes. There was laughter. There were tears, brilliant dialogue, rapid-fire exchanges and heat, lots of heat. I had everything to make a great book, or so I thought. I got to the middle of the book and hit a brick wall. It felt much harder than brick when I banged my head against it, writing this way and that to get out of the rapidly closing cul-de-sac from hell. I was stalled. Nothing came. I couldn't get past it to the end of the story.

Thinking I had everything covered, I had no idea the mid book slump could happen to me. I was fearless. I had prepared carefully. I was lost. The remains of the book are still on a 5.25" floppy and is probably no longer readable. The hard copy is still in a folder in a locked cabinet that is probably food for mice by now.

There are times when a book just won't jell no matter what you do. Even with the best outline and covering all the points of plot, characterization, dialogue and time lines, a book can, and often does stall. There are many reasons for this stall that turns into a horrible crash-and-burn. What it amounts to is running out of gas -- enthusiasm. There are ways to write past that point and find energy by working on the last part of the book, hoping that something will come out of the blue and save the story, and sometimes it means a whole rewrite. Such is the case with Whitechapel Hearts.

When I began writing the book, I tried it in several different points of view and styles, from confessionals to dairy entries, and nothing came. I couldn't figure out how to get from point A to point D and was having a difficult time bypassing B and C, which was a new experience for me. I usually bypass them without any difficulty, but I found I couldn't bypass them in a novel. I gave up, printed out the hard copy of everything I did and stuck it in the locked cabinet in a file next to the combat pilot romance, moving on to other projects that didn't tax my abilities quite so much. During a conversation with a friend about Victorian pornography and morality, I had a flash of insight. I knew what was wrong with Whitechapel Hearts and I knew just how to fix it. Mind you, this is a few years after I originally began.

Everything started coming out as though I was typing from a finished book until I hit the brick wall in the middle again. It wasn't a lack of story or not knowing what came next; I simply ran out of gas. After several tries at writing around the wall and tackling it from different angles, I decided to put it away and work on something else. That was several years ago.

I have since worked past the wall and finished the book. I have rewritten sections and added layers I never knew were possible before. As I learned, the book became better and better. I refused to give up and now it's a done deal. No doubt my editor will put me through the paces once again and she will help me see textures I didn't know were there.

There are some books that should remained in a folder in a locked file cabinet and some that won't let you go. I've been lucky enough to have more of the latter than the former. There are stories and books bouncing around in my head jostling for pole position, and they will eventually get their turn . . . when they have simmered long enough. I'll have to face the wall again in other books and sometimes it will be closer to the beginning or right before the end, but I know how to get past it now -- brick by brick.

I have lots of books in me, yet I am reminded of another author who wrote a best selling novel that is still a best selling novel decades after its first publication -- Harper Lee who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. When asked why she never wrote a second book, Harper replied, "I never needed to." It was not the whole truth and it wasn't completely a lie. She wrote another book, but it was declared so awful that she stuck it in a folder and hid it in a locked file cabinet never to see the light of day, and has lived very well since then on the proceeds of Mockingbird. I think she might have given up too quickly, should have tried another publisher or written another book, but we are not the same people. Some writers only have one book in them. And some writers never know when to quit.

Writing is as much a vocation as it is a calling, and writing is in some ways a religion. You either believe or you don't. Some writers lose their religion and some backslide from time to time, doubting their calling and their faith. In the end, the only things that matter are the words and how the come together.

For some writers, they will come together effortlessly without the sweat and blood it costs other writers every time they put fingers to keyboard or pen to paper. For the rest, it will look effortless from the outside and like anyone can do it, but that's because those writers have sweated blood, cried, pleaded and battered the words until they were pounded smooth as silk and come out looking like child's play.

Only another writer can understand the hard work that goes into the magic that happens when the story becomes a tangible reality between the covers of a book. And that makes it worth all the trouble, anguish and hard work. Ask any writer who has held their first check for a story or received their copies of a novel that was years -- or weeks -- in the making. You won't have to ask, just look into their eyes and see the shining light of the faith and religion that is writing.

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