Bread Crumbs in the Forest
If you're a real writer, you keep a journal. At least, that's what I've been told. So every couple of years, I start one.
I wrote this on the first page of the last attempt:
Every time I start writing a new book, I think it should be easier than the one before. It isn't. In fact, writing a book seems to get harder and harder. I'll keep a journal this time to help myself remember the process, the techniques, the sources of inspiration so I won't have to start from scratch the next time.
That journal lasted 37 pages before it petered out. The rest of the pages are blank.
Now here I am, a year later, plugging through the first 100 pages of a book that's due in March, and I'm cursing myself for not keeping that journal a little longer so the work of creating a new story wasn't such a slog.
Mind you, I did leave myself a few bread crumbs. Like this:
I'm reading someone else's book right now, and it reminds me that it's so much more compelling for the reader to see and hear a new character speak for himself rather than having other characters introduce him by talking about him.
And even more mundane, yet practical:
Don't let (the protagonist) sigh. It makes her sound weary. Dreary, not dynamic. A quick retort has more energy.
And here's something that feels ripped from Carolyn See's book, or else I'm smarter than I think I am:
Dialogue is such a struggle at the beginning. It seems as if nobody has anything to say to each other. Then I realize it's because they don't want anything yet. They need their own agendas, and suddenly they're chatty.
It's actually nice to be reminded of this useful stuff by me, for once, not by my critique partner. Or my editor. Or my daughter, who often reads my early pages and gets this look on her face that makes me wonder if I left a hunk of cheese under the sofa.
Okay, rewind to Thanksgiving morning when I went to the basement and blew the dust off the old electric roaster. This particular turkey roaster has been in my family for--believe it or not--60 years. (We replaced the electrical cord twice, and the asbestos lining seems to have crumbled away, so it gets very hot on the outside, but otherwise it's perfect. Really.) But when I lugged the roaster up to the kitchen and opened the lid, a cold stab of fear plunged down through my chest.
The roaster was empty.
It seems I had lost the precious cookbook, the original cookbook that had not been separated from the roaster for three generations. After 60 years, I was the one who managed to misplace this key component of the Thanksgiving experience.
Naturally, this kind of roaster isn't built anymore, and the cookbook was the Rosetta Stone. What was I to do? I couldn't possibly figure out how to make a turkey without the directions that came with the appliance!
I did some fast internet research (bless you, FoodTV.com!) and consulted my tattered Joy of Cooking. But with the guests already on their way, I couldn't delay for long. I had to get the turkey started. I had to make up my own recipe.
I wish I could say it was the best turkey ever. But it wasn't. It was good, but not great. Flavorful, but a little dry.
Yeah, I wished I hadn't lost the cookbook.
Fast forward to a few days after Thanksgiving. A writer friend sent me a review from Publisher's Weekly that included the line, "fans of Nancy Martin's Blackbird Sisters Mystery Series will enjoy" this book.
As far as I know, this is the first time my work has been mentioned in such a context. My first emotion was pleasure. Hey, it's nice to be recognized.
Because I'm a writer, though, the pleasure did not last long. It quickly morphed into: What does this mean? Have I arrived at last? Or am I officially over the hill? Is this one of those, "Get me a young Julia Roberts!" moments? (Yes, most writers are unattractively needy and paranoid and obsessive.)
A supportive friend e-mailed soothingly. "It means you're the standard by which others are judged."
Standard? You mean, as in . . . average?
Finally, I pulled myself together. The reality is, getting mentioned in somebody else's review doesn't mean anything. Nada.
And the turkey roaster? Oh, dear. The plug caught fire as we were making the gravy. She's a goner. Without the cookbook to keep her complete, maybe the roaster just felt it was her time to go, too.
So I'm back to Square One on the new manuscript, trying to figure out how to do it from scratch--without a cookbook, without drying out the turkey too badly, without making the story too . . . average. I'm also trying to put a few more notes in the damn journal. Live and learn, right? Plus the paranoid and obsessive traits are actually helpful.--They prevent me from sending in a manuscript until it has been revised and polished ad nauseum.
But if anyone has any more practical tips for making those first 100 pages scintillating, I'm listening. I can use all the help I can get.