My book about Briseis, Hand Full of Fire, is finally out in search of a good agent. So far the process has been more positive than the horror stories I have been told, so I am not complaining. At a writing conference this past weekend, an editor who critiqued the opening of Hand Full said she loved it; it grabbed her interest, and several other really lovely compliments (along with some very astute tweaks and cuts) —so I’m pleased with how my first literary child is making her way in the world. Baby steps, but she hasn’t stumbled yet.
I’ve begun working on a new novel, a mystery this time. (There will be other books set more directly in the world and characters I created for Hand Full, but a slight change of pace seemed sane for a number of reasons.) For those of you who follow my reviews, you’ll have noticed I love historical mysteries. Mine is set in the heart of the Hittite Empire with a famous queen as my “solver of mysteries”. We have lots of her correspondence so I feel I’ve heard directly from her to some extent, even if through the medium of cuneiform tablets. With this mystery I’m moving eastward from the Trojan setting Briseis lived in, to an area not far from where modern Ankara is. I’ve barely begun this book—still in the research and early sketching of plot and character, rough scenes.
All this brings me to this past weekend’s “Word Craft” article from the Wall Street Journal, a regular column I love and often comment on in my blog. This week’s article, by Alex Shakar, whose second novel Luminarium is just about to be published, touches on a subject I’ve been thinking a lot about: the balance between planning, i.e. the dreaded “outline”, and letting the mysterious journey unfold as you go.
I confess with Hand Full of Fire it was definitely a mysterious journey with no plan. I had only the vaguest sense of the overall arc of the book when I started, and even that changed dramatically over time. The original beginning of the book is now a couple hundred pages in, for example. However, I was not only writing a book, but to a great extent teaching myself how to write a book through constant practice and learning from my mistakes. To prove how much of a learning experience it was, there are a few hundred drafts that have felt the delete key (if they still existed to be used as evidence…). I’m probably not exaggerating about the number of drafts, either.
Writing is hard work and unless you are willing to smack your head against a brick wall every time you sit down in front of the keyboard, do not try to build a writing career. But it’s so darn seductive. Characters and places rise out of nowhere (okay, they rise out of hours of research and bad drafts) and they do the most extraordinary things. That’s the mystical journey, and I love it. But it’s slow and painful. Much of the time I started a chapter with no clear notion of where I was going. It unfolded as the words hit the page. But I also cut more than 350 pages out of the original “complete draft.” There has to be a simpler, hopefully faster method of writing.
So this time I have a plan, a rough one, but a plan. I know who the villain is—but even now I can feel some other contenders for that role creeping around the sidelines—and I know what the crime is and mostly how it’s going to be uncovered. I know, definitely, what the romance is—one of the best from history with the goddess of love and war thrown in as sponsor, a Hittite version of Ishtar. I know a lot more than when I started Briseis’s story. And best of all, I now know many things about writing, how to make dialogue sound better than sticks of wood, how to keep things moving along, how to cut out most of the adverbs that insist on appearing in the earliest version of all drafts, and a host of other useful writer stuff.
So can I bear to give up some of the magical mystery tour for some efficiency with a plan? I can’t answer that now, but I’m happy to be finding out. So far, a plan, a loose, entirely flexible plan, feels quite comfy and still mysterious. I certainly had fun this afternoon as I reverse engineered a sorcery-removal rite. (Apparently no self-respecting Hittite ever wrote down how to curse and cast spells, just how to get rid of them, so I had to work with that. Too dangerous to put the real thing into solid words on clay, I guess. Witchcraft was taken very seriously, and the pollution from even accidental contact with it was a huge concern. It is one of the few crimes that involves the death penalty in the Hittite law codes.)
On this subject of whether to write from an outline or allow an unknown journey to unfold, Alex Shakar has some truly eloquent things to say in “Scientists Versus Mystics”. His discussion is far more coherent than mine, but for those of you interested (and I’m deeply appreciative that so many of you are and have asked), you now have an update about my writing life.