I can tell you up front, I know no secrets about writing. As we all demonstrated on Tuesday for our ASK MSW day, as you keep going in this business, you learn a lot of facts and details, but secrets? Nada. I had sort of hoped that, by this point, I would have found the mysterious code, the secret handshake, the door in the back that opens with just the right combination of knocks and pauses. There may be such things; I don’t know them.
I’ve thought about that a lot this last year. When I knew that I was going to write something else besides a Bobbie Faye novel, I felt a sense of exhilaration, followed almost immediately by a sense of terror. I’d been hostess to that set of characters for almost seven years, at that point. It was a bit like growing up with the same friends, going to the same school, living in the same house in the same small town; at some point, you yearn to see what the rest of the world is like.
That series started off as a script, and then after deciding to adapt it to a novel, I had to work long and hard to break myself of a bunch of script-writing habits and re-learn how to write fiction. The whole ability to show internal thoughts? wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Seriously. That was a trip and a high after years of having to keep everything external and yet somehow physically convey the internal, or use dialog, without getting to dip even a toe into the interiority of a character. (The exception, of course, is voice-over, and I’m not a fan. I think it shows a weak script, most of the time.)
It was time for a change, though, and the problem with suddenly having that freedom is that there were too many options.
For the first couple of months, I thought I’d develop something funny, since that seemed to be my “niche.” The oddity about that as my niche is that it’s really not what I first loved to write. Everything I’d written in the early script years had been very dark, psychologically. The humor was something I didn’t think I could write. Oh, I was a natural smartass, and I learned early on to curb that online (bit me in the ass a few times, it did)… but conveying humor on paper? I hadn’t really planned on it, and yet, my screenwriting agent at the time felt like I should give it a try. [And that script still gets calls, almost 14 years later. It’s been optioned and re-optioned. I refer it as the script that refuses to die.]
Funny became my bailiwick. I loved it, it was a joy to get letters from people who were going through really crappy days or months, and learn that I’d helped them through it. There’s just nothing quite like that feeling, when you read those letters. So I thought I’d do that again, just set in a different world.
I brainstormed the world, had the characters, and tried to write. And a frustrating thing happened: it went dark. Not just a little dark. Not like mildly slate gray when you were aiming for the whitewash of dawn. It went very dark. Bleak in places.
The story and I had a talking to–a come to Jesus meeting if you will. It seemed to agree to shape up, to do what it was told, so I would throw out the pages and start over, and try to go back to the lighter side. It curved on me, swerving back. Nothing I did worked.
I got a lot of well meaning advice at the time about sticking with what I was known for, keeping my fans happy, and so on, and every single bit of that is valid. People who have built amazing long-term careers said these things to me, so there was no doubt they were speaking from experience.
And the more I tried to pretzel that story, the more miserable I was. I sort of hated writing there for a while. In fact, we kinda broke up. I didn’t mention it here, but I had started to wonder if I was a writer, you know? [That is not me fishing for compliments. I think every writer goes through this, multiple times during their careers. Hell, during each book.] I couldn’t get that damned story to work, and I couldn’t leave the idea behind. It had grabbed me by a chokehold and I was squirming away.
It was back in October and early November when several friends said a few things to me. I would like to think it was provenance, fate. I hope it wasn’t because I was whining incessantly. [I was whining, people.]
That’s when I had the realization that I hadn’t gotten into writing to do just one thing. I get bored easily. I hadn’t become a writer because I thought I’d be famous. (The Naked Cowboy is famous. These days, you can do the stupidest thing on the planet, and be famous. Thinking you’re going to write a book, one among hundreds of thousands and suddenly be famous? Not likely.) And nobody sane gets into writing for the money. Just look at the flux publishing is in today–nobody really knows what the hell is going to happen two years from now. Two years ago, e-readers were the clunky dim future and nothing worth worrying about. Now? The percentage of ebook sales is rising, fast, and there are all sorts of quakes ripping through the industry. It’s going to change by next month, and definitely by next year, so writing for the money is fairly laughable. The majority of writers either have a job to support them, or are lucky enough that a spouse can handle the bills while they toil away, hoping to create something that will sell.
So, then, why the hell write?
Because I can’t not write. I cannot function without telling this story. It’s occupying my heart, my soul, my mind. I might as well get it down on paper.
I quit fighting the story.
If it was going to go dark, then fine, we’d go dark. If it wanted to be told in first person, then dammit, we’d do first person. (Scared the living hell out of me, that one did. I had never written a first person story. Ever. Thought I never would.) If it was going to break my heart a dozen times over how hard the main character’s life was, well, then, fine.
I would simply tell the story.
And it started working.
I’m here at a point in the story where today felt like I was carving each word out of my own skin, syllable by bloody syllable, because the scene was painful. People lose things, in this scene, that cannot be recovered. It changes everything for them in this story. And as painful as it was, as scared as I had been to go here, I have to tell you, I sat back at the end of this day, and there was joy.
I am so grateful I didn’t listen to the peer pressure of doing the same sort of thing I’d done before. I will go back to lighter stories–I have another one I already know I want to do, eventually. But I am so grateful that my friends–several ‘Rati members included–encouraged me to go with my instincts. I can’t write that to you as someone who sold this thing–I’ve held it back, with the blessings of my agent–because I didn’t want it out there until it could be a whole book. If I do it right, if I pull it off, it will be heartbreaking, but the end will be worth it. So when I tell you that there is joy, it’s a joy of the writing. There is no other reward, here, than that, because everything else is fleeting.
The first couple of years of being a writer, there is so much pressure to promote. No one really knows what works; it’s all a guess. I’ve tried a lot of stuff, because people said I needed to, and some of it might’ve helped, and a lot of it was completely useless, as far as I could tell. The first couple of years, you spend a lot of time suddenly caught up in the spin cycle of publishing–writing as fast as you can, sending things off, getting the next book started or the next proposal done, proofing copy edits, writing a bit more on the current one, starting up promotional stuff, proofing the galleys, frantically writing more of the next one, trying to squeeze living and family in there, having very little time to breathe, much less enjoy.
None of it matters more than the work.
At the RWA conference last year, I went to an early morning no-holds-barred chat giving by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. (She’s got a gazillion NYT bestsellers under her belt and is gorgeous and nice. You kinda want to smack her for being perfect, except she’s funny and disarming and you end up liking her a lot before you know what happened.) She said a lot of useful things, but at one point late in the hour, she said, “Whatever you do, protect the work. The work is all you have.”
There is a joy in that. I honestly know that I am writing far far better than I did before. Everything about how I write has changed with this book. That part is neither better or worse–just different, I suppose. What’s important is that I didn’t keep thinking, “Well, I should do it this way or I should do that other thing, because that’s what’s expected.” Instead, I said, “What does this story want to say?”
I love what I do. I am so incredibly grateful I get to do it. I may never sell again, and I will be bummed, if that happens, but I’m here to tell you that this part? This writing what is gut-wrenching and honest and letting the story stay true to itself?
Sometimes, it’s going in the complete unexpected direction that will break you free of the chains, and bring you joy.
So how about you? What brings you joy?
*originally posted on my blog day on www.murderati.com — reposted here because I want to hear about YOUR joy, this wonderful group of MSWers. 🙂