After publishing five books with varying but largely good success I’m under contract for my sixth, my fifth novel. This is an enviable position to be in, but for the first time I’m struggling through the edits, trying to get it right. This is a book that began life several years back (and actually the seeds were planted when I was in my MFA program, back in 2009). Every attack I’ve made on the manuscript has been difficult. I’ve been through every aspect of character and plot, voice and theme. I’ve checked backstory wounds and antagonist goals and tried to put tension on every page. What, I keep asking myself, what more can I do?
What am I missing?
This comes in the face of what counts as wonderful milestones. My most recent novel, THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE is a Crystal Kite Award winner. It’s received numerous accolades of which I’m very proud. I’ve earned out my advance, meaning the novel has done very well, and I’ve made my agent and editor happy. My first book, GET ORGANIZED WITHOUT LOSING IT, has just been released in a new edition after ten years of excellent sales.
And now I can’t seem to get a handle on a story I love. Why not?
The nasty little voice inside me answers that I’m a failure masquerading as a success.
Today I had a startling realization. First I read this piece by Kathleen McCleary in Writer Unboxed, which so resonated with where I am. Then I read an amazing Twitter thread by Minh Le @bottomshelfbks, and found myself in tears. Here’s just a sampling of the latter: “It is not selfish or self indulgent to create something esp when the hope is to connect with a young reader in the future. #whykeepwriting”
And as I wept, I knew. What’s wrong with the story I’m writing is that I haven’t put my heart on the page.
Back when this story was born, I was a different person, with different ways of approaching writing. Not so skilled perhaps, maybe more intuitive, so I opened up in those early drafts. But more importantly, back when this story was born the world was in a different place.
What’s been going on around us has been breaking my heart, day in, day out. I’m exhausted. Traumatized. Feeling helpless, and wanting to help. Feeling like I’ve done this before (hadn’t we closed that book in the sixties and seventies?) Wanting to stand up for what is right. Wanting to make a difference.
All this emotion is being channeled in the wrong direction. All this emotion, funneled into things I cannot control, is making it impossible for me to expose my heart on the page. I’m just not that masochistic. Except.
I want to make a difference.
Some books are harder to write than others. Some books need to be told differently. But all books need to be written from the heart, with those universal emotions on the table. As Kathleen McCleary says, “And that is what the best writing is—a witness to the human experience, a companion that lets readers know you’re not in this alone.”
My son, an excellent reader as well as writer, said, “Put away the plot chart. Stop trying to hit the turning points. You’ve got it all there, just write the book.” He’s right. I’m going to have to write this book from my heart, from where I should have been writing it all along. I need to become a witness. That’s how I can make a difference. That’s how I can connect with a young reader.
Please wish me well.