Novels and children. Sometimes planned, sometimes not. Sometimes almost trouble-free, and sometimes . . .
I bet you’ve already figured out some other similarities between novels and children, haven’t you? Here’s another. A mother protects her children the way a novelist protects her books . She might know they have faults, but even on a bad day a parent can visualize the happy ending. College graduates. Fabulous job offers. Perfect choices of mates who produce perfect grandchildren.
Or at least that’s what we parents tell ourselves when times are rough. And don’t tell me you haven’t had any of those. Mom of four here. I cannot be fooled.
Some children are tough to raise. They just are. They come into the world screaming and continue to make unbearable noise until they finally ride off to their new lives. And you know what? The quiet is worse. You miss them. A lot. Because you wrestled with them, saw their true essence up close, cheered them on, found ways to communicate and comfort. And by the end, they were as much a part of you as a finger or . . . your heart.
Books are like that, too.
Let’s talk about The Swallow’s Nest, coming to bookstores on June 13th.
Sometimes ideas just pop into our heads, seemingly out of nowhere. The central idea for The Swallow’s Nest was a “what if” I couldn’t let go of. Initially, though, the idea seemed perfect for a character in my Goddesses Anonymous series. I had thought to use it for the final book, making a total of five. Unfortunately my publisher had other plans for my career. So I tucked away the idea, perhaps for an indie-pubbed finale for the Goddesses, or perhaps, as it turned out, for a standalone novel.
An idea is really, really not a book. Readers often want to share ideas they’ve had, assuming they will then receive at least half the royalties once said book is written. Don’t try it.
- Novelists do NOT want to hear or use anyone else’s ideas. Not ever. We have lots of ideas–comes with the territory–and even if your idea appealed to us, we couldn’t use it because of legal issues.
- The hard work in a novel is not the wisp of an idea that sets the story in motion. It’s the frustrating hours at the computer, typewriter or legal pad that turn that wisp into something worth reading
Here’s a case in point. The only thing easy about The Swallow’s Nest was the central idea. The rest was a struggle from beginning to end. Quite frankly three months after turning it in, I’m still in recovery mode.
So what did I struggle with? What kinds of issues do even seasoned novelists struggle with on book #74. (I think that’s the right number.)
- Readers love characters with whom they can empathize. Readers also love conflict. In The Swallow’s Nest three of the four major characters are the cause of a heart-tugging conflict. How did I, as the faithful scribe detailing their lives, make all the characters sympathetic enough to assure my readers kept reading, while keeping conflict in play?
My agent pointed out this problem when I first showed him the story. I told him I knew that on the surface, two of the major female characters might seem to be tough to love. But I was sure–I said with a complete lack of humility–that I could make them sympathetic.
As I found out, easy to say, and hard to do. I wrote and rewrote their stories, working my way through various drafts, changing major plot points and background, adding and subtracting secondary characters until, at last, I knew the book I wanted to write was finally emerging.
Continual, knock-head-against-wall revision was key for this book. And not only because I needed to get the characters right.
- Research was painful and plentiful.
When I first proposed this book to my brainstorming group, I told them I absolutely had to take a break from intense research, that When We Were Sisters had required so much research that this time, I wanted something easier.
Then, of course, I decided the book would take place in San Jose, California, and would revolve around a child custody and guardianship case, (under California law), and, oh, yes, swallows would feature into the plot. And did I mention the major female characters, Lilia, grew up on Kauai?
I’ve been to Kauai. I’ve been to San Jose. I’ve seen swallows. At the time my son and daughter-in-law, both attorneys, were living in California. Did any of this help? Not one bit. My California lawyers practice in completely different fields, and so did their friends. And there’s a lot more to California and Hawaii than a visit or two turns up.
- I really wanted to write the book in first person point of view and couldn’t.
In the immortal words of the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want.” (I just finished Keith Richards autobiography. I promise that won’t happen again.)
I tried the first chapter in first person. Twice. When We Were Sisters was a slam dunk. It needed to be in first person, and from the first page I loved writing in first person. This book? Swallow’s just wouldn’t work in first and I admitted that with reluctance. I ended up in third, where I’ve spent most of my time as a writer. You do what you have to do for the best book you can write.
- My editors envisioned a different ending than I proposed.
When I turned in my proposal for this novel, my editors were enthusiastic and didn’t question any of the things I fully expected them to. However they were concerned about my ending. Would I consider changing it. They didn’t tell me how to do it, only why I should.
I’m happy to announce that a revised ending really wasn’t a problem. In fact I’m ending with a positive here. Because they were absolutely right. I like to think I’d have figured this out myself. I’m, let’s say, 95% sure I would have. But it took awhile to agree their way was the right way, the best way, to end this story. My original ending, as well as some dreary plot points that I changed along the way, really wouldn’t have improved a thing. Luckily because I knew I was heading toward a different ending, everything else changed for the better, too.
Novels and children. Both are clearly worth the struggle, but sometimes the going isn’t easy. Frankly I think The Swallow’s Nest is a more complex and readable book because I did struggle, and in the end, when I sent the manuscript out the door, I was both proud and happy.
Just exactly what every parent hopes for, too.