The Highs and Lows of Writing Fiction
I am a writer. I feel lucky to be able to be able to spend my days alone in my office living in a world of my creation, having conversations with people who live solely in my head. I’m luckier still to be able to share my stories with unknown strangers. Yes, I love my work.
You wouldn’t think there could possibly be a downside to this, right? I mean, loving what you do, no matter how crazy you make yourself with second guessing your choices in a manuscript (because that stack of blank pages can turn into anything, and if you don’t make the right choices you can end up with one hot mess); or how many times you question your own talent or the validity of your endeavor, loving your work is a blessing.
If I didn’t love my work, I’d blast ahead with confidence. I would make bold, careless choices without a backward glance. I would never consult another writer (I’m very fortunate to have brilliant critique partners in Karen White and Wendy Wax) for an opinion. I’d let my brain child run wild. But I want him to be loved. I want him to be respected. I want him to find his place in the literary world once he leaves my office.
And because I feel that way, every nuance of every character, every small twist in plot, every word of every scene is a careful—and probably over-analyzed—choice. Definitely over-analyzed. It took nearly two years (as opposed to my normal 9 months) to write WHISTLING PAST THE GRAVEYARD, a novel of only 320 pages. Because with this book I was in uncharted territory: I was stepping outside the world of genre fiction, a land with defined boundaries.
It was liberating. It was exhilarating. It also came with a boatload of new decisions. When the world is your oyster, you have to figure out if you want it raw, fried, or in a stew.
I tinkered. I toyed. I pondered. Luckily, I had Starla, a spunky little girl and my main character, talking steadily in head, so I knew I was going to use a child narrator. But is her story ultimately a coming-of-age, or a child in jeopardy? Exactly how old was she going to be? (This became very, very important not only from the plot perspective, but for the narration as well.) Do I tell her story in first or third person? Do I use multiple points of view? Do I use past or present tense? Do I tell her story as Scout Finch told hers, from the perspective of an adult recollection, using her adult understanding to filter her observations? Or do I use a more immediate perspective, as in Huckelberry Finn, telling the story strictly through the eyes of a child, with her misunderstandings and her childlike sensibilities fully intact? The list of decisions went on and on. Raw, fried, or in a stew?
In the end, I had to start writing, using variations of all of the above before I struck on the right combination.
I discovered Starla’s voice was so strong and so specific that, after all of the experimentation, I had to go with the pure child’s perspective, in deep first person. It made this work stand out from other child-narrated stories, but it also challenged my writing abilities to maintain it. I was limited to Starla’s vocabulary. I had to filter all events through her understanding and still convey to the reader a true picture of what was happening.
I plunged ahead, pushing away the worry that this book may not be marketable. Then I held my breath while my agent read it. Once I received her enthusiastic phone call saying she was thrilled with it, I held my breath again while it made its rounds to publishers. Lo and behold, there was interest! Lots of interest.
WHISTLING PAST THE GRAVEYARD found a loving home with Gallery Books at Simon and Schuster. There, Starla and her journey are being treated with literary joy and respect. My brain child has found a place that validates the long and winding road on which it was reared.
Now I’m off to worry about that next batch of oysters.