He felt now that he was not simply close to her, but that he did not know where he ended and she began. ~Leo Tolstoy

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

How to Save a Book

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” ― George Orwell

Back in October of last year, I had just published Endless Possibility, the RUSH novella, and I was ready to roll on the next book in my City Lights series, Beside You in the Moonlight. (the Paris book)

I had 20K words written and all systems were go...Except that I had an idea pop into my head for another story. Actually, it wasn't even a story. Just an image. A young man treading water in a pool at dusk. Alone. And he was wearing a white t-shirt, like an undershirt soaked through, and I could see the bruises darkening his skin.

That's it. I didn't know what it meant, if anything. But it wouldn't get out of my head. Much in the sae way I "heard" Noah interviewing Charlotte in my head to kickstart RUSH, this image was a buried artifact, waiting to be unearthed. And it was a helluva lot more demanding than the Paris book. Who was this guy and why was he bruised up?

So I thought I'd explore and wrote this:

His white t-shirt was already threadbare, and the water revealed everything through it: the planes of his chest, the cut of his abs—not yet a full sixer, but well on the way. And his bruises. I could see the greenish tinge of one on his right pec that told me it was old. I tread water around him. He didn’t move, didn’t counter, but let me take in the dark purples and blues of fresher bruises all over his back and arms.
            I swam closer, my heart thudding dully in an unfamiliar cadence. It had been a long time since I’d been afraid for someone beside myself.
            “Who does this to you?” I asked, anger lending my faltering voice some strength. “Your foster parents?”
            “Brothers,” Evan replied. “My foster brothers.”
            I glided closer; the water carried me to him so effortlessly. “Why?”
            “To remind me I’m not blood. And that I’m different.”
            Still behind him, I raised my hand, poised it over a particularly dark splotch on his right shoulder blade. “Is it true? What they say about you?”
            Still not turning, he said, “What do they say about me?”
            “You don’t know?”
            “I want to hear it from you.”
            “They say you know things no one could possibly know,” I said, and let my hand rest on his back.
            He flinched, but I don’t know if it was from my words or my touch. I didn’t let up with either one.
            “They say that you can read minds.”
            “That’s stupid,” Evan said. “Isn’t it?”

That's not what ended up in the final book but pretty close. The words came easily and I thought, "Hey, there's a story here." And so I got excited. Maybe overly so...

I'm the kind of person who gets super excited about teasers, covers, blurbs...even before I have much written. I love throwing ideas and words out there and seeing how they land. (I'm also seriously addicted to Canva and if you try it once, you will be too.) So in a fit of optimism and armed with a title, I set up a preorder on Amazon for How to Save a Life. 

For the uninitiated, setting an Amazon preorder is a solid deadline. To break it means you lose preorder privileges for a year. That's kind of a big deal to me, which is why setting such a crazy deadline without a draft was a dumbass thing to do.  

But I was feeling good, super excited about the story, and this was late October. Loads of time between then and Feb! 

What could go wrong?

If I had one piece of solid advice I could give to writers who are unfamiliar with the concept of time (like I am) it would be NEVER set a preorder on the other side of December unless you've got AT LEAST a first draft. I lost the latter half of November (totally failed NaNoWriMo) and ALL of December due to holiday shenanigans. I wrote in fits and starts. Not nearly enough words for where a normal sane person would be with an early Feb deadline. 

When Christmas was over, RUSH got accepted to a BookBub promotion in early January. So alllll these new reviews and love for RUSH came pouring in from my overly generous readers. And like a rising tide raises all ships, RUSH raised HTSAL. Its Goodreads TBR list started to grow, preorders were coming in, and fabulous bloggers started getting interested in it. So the expectation to write a better story than RUSH, with a more beloved hero than Noah; PLUS the fact HTSAL was a rapidly turning out to be waaaaaaay more emotional a novel than I had anticipated, ANNND adding the extra fun of a crazy deadline looming...well it all piled up. I started to lose it. 

Really lose it. I woke up every morning with panic twisting my gut. I was paralyzed by insecurity, the deadline, and the mind-crippling fear that this book was just too weird for anyone to like.  I not-too-subtly mentioned this a time or ten on my Facebook page, but tried--TRIED--to keep the drama away from my readers, lest I sound whiny or incompetent, or worse, like I was trying to lower expectations by complaining. 

But this book wasn't going to make it without help. It, and me, were sinking fast. So I reached out to someone I am fortunate enough to have in my life, and she threw me a lifeline. 

I "met" Suanne Laqueur via her novel The Man I Love. (You really really should read it; here's a link----> http://amzn.to/1Kbbr2g

The writing in this novel blew my mind and I wrote a review to say so. The review resonated with her, we got to chatting, and bada-ding bada-boom: friendship. Only not JUST friendship. There are certain individuals you meet in your life (you know who I'm talking about, we all have them) where you just click. Or gel. Or feel like you've known them forever. The kind of people who, if you started out as online friends and then met them in person you'd probably just burst into tears and hug them for an hour. I'm not saying that's me, but that's totally me. Point is, you only get a handful of these special people in your life. Maybe only one or two, so take care of them. :) 

Anyhoo, I felt a strong connection to Suanne that transcended internet space and time, so that I felt like I could unload my anxiety about HTSAL on her like a dump truck. I was sure--SURE--that I wasn't going to make it. That the book would either have to be delayed (a notion I hated) or I'd have to abandon it altogether if I couldn't pull myself together. 

And then Suanne asked me a very simple question: Do you believe in your story?

And like that...boom. Sliced through all the angsty bullshit and got to the heart of it. Did I? Because if the answer was NO then it would be a simple thing to just set the book aside and move on. But the answer was YES. Hell yes, to be exact. So the time to get my act together had come. 

I then tiptoed for about six or seven more texts to her; subtle shit like, "Hey, know any good editors?" and "Hey, you know who are cool people to hang with? Editors!" and "Gee, I sure wish I had an editor." She got the hint. Turns out Suanne was available and willing to be my editor for this book and voila! Book=saved. 

For Career Day during my seventh grade, a published novelist came to our class to speak. I SO wish I remembered her name, but I'll never forget her lesson. She pulled out a piece of pristine paper, typewritten, with nary a wrinkle. She said, "This is what a page of my book looks like BEFORE it goes to my editor."

She then showed us another typewritten page, this one wrinkled at the edges, dog-eared, and covered--and I do mean, COVERED--in red ink. And then she said words I've never forgotten, "This is what it looks like after my editor is done with it. It's what real editing looks like."

In this digital age, we don't mess with actual paper and ink from real pens. It's all electronical, but the result is the same. REAL editing, by the way, is NOT red ink for the sake of red ink. Nor is it the blood of many wounds because the editor cut you to the bone with harsh criticism. It's the blood of toil and hard work. It belongs there. Any author who gets a paper covered in red ink from an editor they trust, who knows their shit, and whose only intention is to HELP, should be thrilled . They should be Tom Cruise-couch-jumping for joy to have someone who took that much time and effort to go over their work.
Case in point: I sent Suanne a page that looks like this:

It came back looking like this:

That, friends and neighbors, is editing. Every. Single. Page. 

Now, this doesn't mean I was typing shit...just upchucking my worst and saying "Fix this." (Though that would have been a time saver, amirite?) 

No, it means that there is ALWAYS room to do better. I had been without solid beta/editing input for months as my schedule moved too impossibly fast for my fabulous writer's group to keep up. I'd have monopolized every meeting in order to get the level of feedback I wanted/needed for HTSAL. And time was of the essence. 

I stayed up until 2am almost every night for weeks. I drank coffee by the gallon, lost 5lbs, and woke up every single morning with anxiety twisting my guts. I took to speaking into a headset to get the words down even if that meant every single time I spoke the words "Evan said, " it came out as "Heaven sent" or "I've resend." 

It was rather torturous. But I have this thing about being punctual. I'm OCD about it or anal retentive or whatever you want to call it. When my kids are running late for school, I literally start to panic. So the idea of blowing my self-imposed deadline was horrible to contemplate. I didn't want to lose my preorders for a year, but moreover, I didn't want to let my readers down. You can't, in my humble opinion, tease the shit out of something and get everyone all excited and then say, "Sorry. I was too busy being a chickenshit to make deadline." Yes, life happens and there are legit unforeseen events that can derail a project. I'm just saying, for me, being paralyzed by anxiety was not sufficient reason to blow my deadline. The only way out is through. 

I typed as fast as I could and I gave the emotionally raw pages to Suanne, and she helped me to polish them up. She showed me the way. She pushed and prodded. She mentored me through this thing, and I do not mind saying that. Everyone should be so lucky to have someone of extreme intelligence, artistry, and generosity of spirit to mentor them. To say, "Yes, this shit is hard, but you're going to make it. I'll help."

Suanne, there aren't enough ways to say thank you for what you did for me, but this is one. 

Now, this may sound like a helluva lot of angst over a book but it was a gut-wrenching experience to write. That's a fact. So if that translated to the page, then I'm happy because there were a lot of tears and late nights and nausea that went into it. But the end result was worth it. So worth it, and it wouldn't have made it without Suanne. Holy crap, I still can't believe we made it, lady. 

This business is so weird. As a writer, you're torn in half (or at least I am) by an almost manic urge to share your work with the world, coupled with a deep, gut-wrenching fear of what people will think when you do. It makes no sense. Why torture ourselves? The only answer I can think of (beside the Orwell quote above) is that the good outweighs the bad and that if you can reach someone and move them, and make them feel something they might not have otherwise, well shit, that's pretty cool. 

If there's any takeaway to this post (besides Suanne Laqueur's imminent sainthood in the House of Scott) it's that you should never give up. This is a tough business. If you're a writer reading this then you know that. But keep going. Even when it's hard as fuck. Even when you think it's impossible, if it's your dream, keep the fire lit underneath it. If you're struggling right now, maybe I can help you as I was helped:  Do you believe in your story?  If the answer is yes, then please share it with us.  Love and bravery, as Daisy might say. It takes love and bravery, and always keeping your compass pointing north. Always north. 


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