Whenever I face my own reluctance to start a new book project, with all its messiness and murkiness, false starts and mistakes, I remind myself that each draft supplies the mud from which a lotus may bloom.
Writing fiction that includes actual historical figures requires a willingness to “hear” their voices. My job, however, is not to ventriloquize historical voices but to channel the spirits of figures from another era through language that personalizes their perspectives and renders the past present for modern readers.
Multiple rejections from publishers who didn’t see a market for my first novel didn’t change my own vision for it. I came to realize that the absence of “market evidence” for the commercial success of a story like mine meant simply that no one had published such a story before. And now, someone has!
Resisting my own desire to direct my characters along the paths I may have in mind for them enables them to fall down, pick themselves up and take me to places I hadn’t imagined.
What I learned from writing my first – unpublished – novel, with its trials and errors, gave me the skills and confidence to write – and publish – Imperfect Alchemist.
As a novelist, I have learned to draw on my experience as a mother. Sometimes it’s no use trying to direct my characters along the path that I envision for them. I have to listen to them and allow them to make their own choices. Only then can they realize their true potential.
Receiving feedback on my drafts from perceptive readers can be enormously helpful. But at a certain point, I need to listen to the work, and not the readers, in order to be true to my own vision.
I’ve learned that I cannot protect my characters from the consequences of their actions, even when (especially when!) I think I know better. Until I recognize that they know their own minds and must choose their own paths, they cannot come alive on the page.
I like to keep a file for “compost” into which I throw a scattering of quotes from my own or others’ thoughts that have initiated or supported “organic” growth in my writing, which I can revisit when I’m in need of inspiration.
It’s hard to “kill your darlings” – to delete plot lines, characters, or passages that you’ve labored over but that no longer fit into your current project, so instead of putting them in the “trash can” you can keep them in a “treasure chest,” a file for rejects that you still value and may yet prove useful as the work evolves.
When I’m tempted to explore a digression that might prove to be a “rabbit hole” – a distraction from my current project rather than a productive path – I name it and save it to revisit for another stage or future project.
Revising a draft to reawaken its potential sometimes calls for widening the authorial lens, from zoom to wide-angle, or even choosing an entirely new tool – whether telescope or microscope – in order to see what may have been present but not wholly visible.
As an author of historical fiction, I embrace the pleasures of deep research into my subject, which can open avenues for a story that I might never have invented on my own. But I also need to let go of “expertise,” whether my own or others’, in allowing the story space to grow into its own potential.
In the aftermath of publishing my debut novel, I return to the draft of its predecessor, a novel that now offers the ground for a sequel to the published novel. So much intervenes – my hopes and labors over that first draft, my labors over the subsequent novel that was published, my hopes for this re-vision of my original vision. Taking a breath, I begin anew.
Although I may start a project by gathering shiny or unusual pieces of research to adorn my story, I must choose the moment at which I build my nest less like a magpie and more like a hummingbird, crafting each chapter with spider silk and attaching it to a branch of the novel securely enough that it cannot blow away.
Just when I think I’ve successfully condensed a rambling passage or chapter to its essential elements, I’m liable to discover that I’ve lopped off Hydra heads only to end up with two new sentences or passages for every deletion! Recognizing this tendency forces me to practice more rigorous revision.
After a grueling year, committing myself to a period of restoration yields a surprising discovery – letting go of my default goals for measurable output allows my experience of daily life itself to become more spacious, enabling my creativity to bloom unquantified, without expectation or urgency.
Resisting what to me has often been the siren call of productivity – how much more can I accomplish in the time that I have? – I find to my astonishment that I can be present with myself in new ways. Time itself slows down when I stop multi-tasking, expanding rather than contracting, so that I can breathe anew.
Contemplating revisions of a previous novel after publishing my debut novel feels like diving from a clifftop into a newly unfamiliar body of water that I used to move through with ease. Writing a new opening for the older novel is at once terrifying and exhilarating – but after the initial shock of immersion, I can’t wait to keep swimming.
Like swimming, writing enables me to journey through another medium, using words to move forward, like swimming across a lake, with full awareness that more creatures may inhabit this body of water than are visible to the swimmer, trusting to the water itself to carry me across variable depths to the end of my journey.
Revising the draft of an earlier novel, I face a decision – wipe the slate clean and begin again, or overwrite sections that no longer work. Sometimes the layering of a palimpsest enables additional dimensionality, and sometimes a clean slate is required. Recognizing the difference is the challenge of revision.
Storytelling offers an opportunity to enter a world of possibilities defined by characters whose voices I’m becoming acquainted with in the very act of writing them down. What I care about most as a reader shapes my priorities as a novelist, demanding my attention to not just what but who – not only what happens next, but who inhabits the story.