If I could write I’d set all the words free ….

It’s release day! I know, I know – this is a technicality, since the big online stores have been shipping my book early already, and I had one early signing event, etc. But it is the release day for the ebook! So if you’ve been waiting to get your electronic hands on the ebook of “A Ragged Magic,” now is your chance! Order from Amazon or Barnes & Noble at any time! And here’s the reminder that my first author reading event is this week on Friday, 11/21 at 7pm at the University Bookstore. There will be cake after. (Confirmed!) {Added: Your reminder that you can also order this book from any bookstore you like – your local indie shops, or your big indie online shops like Powells, are perfectly happy to order it for you. Go books!}

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In honor of release day, here’s a little something I wrote about writing, rewriting, love, loss, and perseverance.

It took me 18 years to write my first book.

All right, that’s not strictly true – it took me 2 years to write my first book. The first time.

I was 23 years old, finishing my college degree, working two jobs, all the trimmings. While waiting for a bus outside on a spring day, hoping it wouldn’t rain, I pulled my notebook out and started writing – as usual. A character showed up in my head. The first line of the story flowed down, the beginnings of that first scene flowed down, and I felt fantastic. Story was often easy, then. Maybe not great, or even good, but it showed up when I asked for it, and I wrote it down. Some of those words are still in that first chapter – some of them were Good Enough, even after all this time, to stay.

The character is a young woman in a lot of trouble, and she is going to be in more trouble before she gets herself out of it. It’s one of my favorite story types: someone in over their head, scrambling for ways out of a tidal wave of trouble. Sometimes the trouble is of their own making, but often it’s trouble that happens despite them, or to spite them. Trouble that crashes down without warning and screws everything up. I have always been drawn to stories with sudden, irreversible life implosion. Possibly because when I’m reading a story, the life that’s imploding isn’t mine.

I’ve had life implode on me a few times now. Sometimes implosions make for good stories, long after the fact. Usually while they’re happening I’m too busy scrambling and swearing. Maybe that’s why I enjoy reading that kind of story – what does life look like after it’s imploded? How do you continue on afterward? What kind of patchwork comes out of it?

It took some months after those first words to realize this particular story about a young woman in so much trouble was becoming a novel. I was nervous. A whole novel? Written by me? So daunting. With a lot of help from friends, I managed to finish it after about 2 years. I started submitting it to editors and agents, following all the rules of submission I could find in those very early internet days. I spent precious money on publisher’s guides. I started finding far-flung writer friends, and attending conventions. I paid money to print the whole dang manuscript out. I paid money to mail it around. I kept a notebook and my favorite pens with me all the time. Story still felt like a thing I could do, like the one thing I wanted to do.

After a year or two of submitting (and waiting), I got my first – very exciting! – ‘this is close: please try again’ letter from an editor. I worked to revise the story according to the notes and resubmitted. After many months of agonized waiting, I received a rejection: they really liked it, but not enough. I was crushed, but convinced I was so close. Meanwhile I was still looking for agents, and writing other things. I worked on other projects, but life was gathering up for implosion, and I wrote less. Story slowed down – it didn’t always show up when I asked for it, and it felt too much as though my reach not only exceeded my grasp but fell short halfway across the chasm. I struggled to finish anything, hoping that if I could just figure out the next story, I’d find my footing again.

I revised the first novel again over the next year. I submitted it to agents – and one of them decided she loved the book and took me on as a client! I was certain that my book would find a home now. I started a sequel on her advice, although I hadn’t planned one originally. I revised the first book again. But after several years, it was obvious we hadn’t found an editor who wanted to take a chance on this story. The words that had once felt so easy dried up. I wasn’t writing anymore.

Other parts of my life were bent on proving that sudden life-implosion is really no fun at all to actually live through, thus disproving the tortured artist trope. I felt tortured, certainly deeply unhappy, but I couldn’t write. Could. Not. Write. Considering writing was what had pulled me through other tough times of my life, I found myself lost. Story stopped showing up at all, even in my head. I stopped carrying notebooks and pens everywhere. There were several years where I wrote nothing, and I despaired of ever finding story again. I felt broken, because one thing I’d always counted on was story. Who was I if I didn’t make up stories, not even to myself? It frightened me that such a key piece of my personality could just disappear like that.

Slowly, with a lot of work and care, my life and my creative mind pieced themselves together again. I had ideas, and I started (a new) novel. I could write once more. It was such a relief, even when I floundered. At least story wasn’t gone from me.

Two years ago, my friend who is an editor was looking for manuscripts. We started discussing this at a party. My partner told him “Lindsey has a novel!” and emailed it to him on the spot from his phone. I felt worried and embarrassed. I downplayed it. “It got a lot of good feedback, but it needs work,” I told him. “I think it has some potential, but don’t feel obligated to read it. I haven’t looked at it in years.” He looked dubious, but said he’d read it. “I’m working on new things,” I said, trying to sound positive, realizing I am my own worst PR. “I think the new stuff is going really well. But feel free to read that one.” I smiled in an unconvincing manner and slunk away to introvert in another corner of the party.

Several weeks later, Fabulous Editor Jak ™ said he loved it – he had some ideas, and if I agreed to some changes, he’d like to publish it. Excited, I jumped at the chance. We discussed changes and ways to make the story better. I took the suggestion to make a certain minor character more important, to create a stronger tie to my protagonist, rather to heart. I kept thinking it wouldn’t take me too long to do this revision ….

I spent a year rewriting the whole book from scratch – same basic scenes, almost entirely different prose. With Hey Presto! Brand New Character Interaction and Growth. Except the hey presto! took me that whole year and a lot of banging my head on the keyboard. I rediscovered carrying notebooks around. I rewrote the old scenes by hand in the notebook, typed them up again later. I mulled. I scrawled. I called Jak and almost everyone I know in great gusts of nerves to ask what ifs and what thens. I … wrote. I wrote this novel. Again.

So that’s, let’s see – four major revisions, a long hiatus with bonus life implosion, an entire rewrite, then another revision (this one only took 2 months! I’m getting better) then copy edits. It took 18 years from that first sentence and character in my head to publication. And the words, while not as easy as they were in my halcyon youth, show up when I ask for them, at least most of the time. I am still friends with story, and sometimes story comes out to play.

This book went through many changes over those 18 years, but at the heart, it is the same story. The same character in a lot of trouble, who works really hard, through death and destruction and grief and doubt, to put her life back together again. Oh, and try to save the day, of course. From my older, and one hopes wiser position, I can appreciate the story – this story, that I wrote, mine – on new levels. Life implodes. If you work hard and hope, losing bits and pieces of yourself and adding others, pushing through pain and despair and the heartbreak and joy of other people, you can stitch something back together again. It might be mostly the same, but completely different. It might have scars and wrinkles and crabby knees. It might not look anything like you planned. But persistence pays off, and life and love are worth the work.

Title is from “If I Could Write” by Sam Phillips

2 thoughts on “If I could write I’d set all the words free ….

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