I have finished my first novel and now have it in the hands of a wonderfully talented editor, Linnet Woods, who lives on a boat off the coast of Spain. This seems a good time to consider the question of why am I am finally writing my first book. Maybe my story will make readers believe they, too, have enough to say to begin (or complete) their story.
Why do I write? I couldn’t answer that question until I came to terms with why I haven’t written. Even that must be clarified: I have always written, but never even thought of writing a book until I started writing Pieces of You. I wrote in a journal as a child, but it was primarily about my parents’ horrible relationship. Then I took up journal writing again as a divorced adult, but my second husband destroyed that book. (Evidently he thought the memories of my former male friends would be erased if the pages on which they lived were eliminated.)
I wrote for work—annual reports, marketing material, curriculum, and other such works required of a bank manager, economic development director and then college instructor. I remember a former boss, the head of Battle Creek Unlimited, commanding me to write a book while in the Peace Corps.
I did not. I had nothing to say.
Yes, I had many amazing experiences while in Kazakhstan and while living a life that was never the typical fairy tale. I was always busy trying to accomplish—and to escape. And I always read novels–to escape and/or to learn, so I could accomplish more. But I didn’t find the inspiration to share what I was learning…until Kirk/Mark’s death.
In trying to answer the why question, I have concluded that, for me, writing a book is about sharing what has changed me enough to believe (or at least hope) I can answer questions others have, too. When the model for my protagonist died unexpectedly, I had lots of questions: Where was he? Why did he have to die just when our relationship was becoming something very special? Why weren’t prayers answered? To answer some of those questions, I had to do considerable research, soul searching, and creative thinking. As I detected answers, I began writing his story—or what I believe could be his story.
Why do I write? More specifically, why did I write my first novel at 60 something? I finally have something to say. When I faced my haunting questions, I found some incredible answers. But most of all, I wrote this one to recover pieces of him.
It’s an older edition but most of the information is highly relevant in 2011. Permission to post the book as a learning lesson was granted through a wonderful editor, Karen McLeod, who has worked with the authors (and edited my manuscript). For more about Karen and her work, please go to MacLeod Workshops.
Excerpts from Chapters One and Two of Pieces of You
The Swiss version of an Amtrak train raced past the lovely villages set in a postcard view with layers of mountains, valleys, and quaint cottages, but Kirk was oblivious to its enchantment. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate the romantic appeal of his second home; he was just tired. He was also lonely.
In the compartment where he alternated reading a business magazine and speculating about the disadvantages of retiring, an invisible companion observed Kirk, a look of compassion making the stranger’s nondescript face almost shine. A slight sound that simulated a whisper caused Kirk to look up. Seeing no one, he decided it must have been wishful thinking. I can’t remember the last time I had a female traveling companion for flights across the Atlantic or even on the train from Zurich to Geneva.
His son, Martin, waited at the Geneva station while his dad grabbed a travel-worn overnight bag and came over to him, giving a customary vigorous hug. Martin readily accepted the public display of affection, even though he was a husband now and soon to be a father. His dad was still the one person he idolized.
“Dad, you look a little drained. Am I the only one thinking that you should take more time off, maybe even quit this constant traipsing between here and Chicago? Your clients don’t need your presence to get advice. They can call. Long distance calls are easy to make and don’t even have much static interference these days.”
“Ok, son, I got your point. You don’t have to equate your dad’s use of technology with the Father Knows Best era. I would like to take some time off. Maybe you and I and your lovely wife could take a long weekend with me in the Florida house and do some sailing and scuba diving. What do you say?”
“Let’s ask Claire over dinner. If she feels up to it and if I can get a few days off work, I’m game. Her morning sickness seems to have subsided so she may be ready for a little diversion from decorating the nursery.”
Every time he walked up to Martin’s front door, Kirk blessed his employer. If he had not been with the United Bank of Switzerland and if Martin had not been a resident, the wait for permission to purchase a home in the canton of Geneva could have been 18 months or more. Instead, the young couple took possession of their dream house three weeks before their wedding, only a little over a year ago.
Kirk followed Martin through the front hall into the open design living area glowing with sunlight that flowed through the wall of windows and dropped from dual skylights. Aromas from the lunch-in-progress beckoned both men to the table, although they had strong competition from the overstuffed leather recliner that beckoned Kirk to its lap. Claire was an abnormally good cook and the food won.
“Dad, we’re worried about you spending so much time alone since I left. Claire and I would like you stay with us, at least until the baby is born.”
“My dear ones, I know you mean well, and I’m grateful that my caring son has found himself a generous and kindhearted wife, but, no, I have always been self-sufficient and don’t expect to change anytime soon.”
Martin looked at Claire, and Claire took it as a signal to speak up. “If you won’t share our home, then please let us help you find someone to share yours.”
“Even though I have ample space, I don’t think I’d be a very good landlord.”
“Come on, Dad,” Claire said, “You know what we’re getting at. We want you to find a good woman. And we have some ideas about how to do it.”
“Now that’s a new dilemma. My children don’t think I can attract members of the opposite sex anymore. Actually, I haven’t had a date in a few years….only because I didn’t take the time to pursue a relationship.”
“We know that, Dad. We also believe that you are the best man any woman could find! Because you travel so much, we think you should try an online dating service. Several of our friends have used them very successfully.” As she said this, Claire gave her father-in-law a big hug, accompanied by a kiss on the cheek.
Succumbing to her feminine charm, Kirk agreed to look into it. Before he left for home the next day, a subscription to Seniorfriendfinder and a detailed profile were waiting for his approval.
[A few pages later]
Kirk and Franz, his long-time neighbor, sat in Schobers, their favorite village café waiting for their kaffee. The mountains on the other side of the valley shimmered in misty blue on this lovely day in late October, but Kirk’s countenance did not mirror the gloriously tranquil landscape; instead, his face seemed to reflect the pallid color of the weathered rooftops.
“I won’t admit it to Janine, but I’m really worried,” he said, hardly even tasting the sweet fruit and filo dough generously brushed with real butter melting in his mouth. As he ate the kirschen-strudel, a Swiss delicacy much loved by the natives and expats like himself, he shared with Franz what was eating him up inside.
“I can’t believe my good fortune to find her now—seven months after Martin got married and moved out, and the loneliness was really beginning to take its toll on my state-of-mind. I don’t want my health issues to frustrate her and cause her to give up on our relationship.
[A bit later in the discussion between Kirk and his Swiss neighbor]
“My Swiss doctors say some infection might have been introduced into my body as far back as 1968 during my surgery in Vietnam when they removed my spleen. It was not performed under the most ideal circumstances.”
Franz read in his companion’s eyes the fierce memory of physical pain and abject fear. He left other probing questions on the table with the few remaining crumbs he couldn’t shove into his mouth without seeming ill-mannered.
Kirk continued, “If I understood their explanation, cysts sometimes form to surround and contain the infection. Then as the infection expands, more cysts are needed to keep it in check,” Kirk shrugged. “It seems a likely theory. So, yes, this could indeed resolve some of the questions, and maybe even put an end to their constant probing.”
“That all seems to be rather positive news, Kirk. Now what about the surgery to remove your kidney…how risky is that?”
“Other than the infection, I’m told I’m in pretty good shape. The doctors say my other kidney is very healthy, and barring any tremendous strain on my heart, I should be on the road to complete recovery two or three weeks after the doctors do their thing.”
“From what you’ve just shared, I would prescribe removing a few kilos of that worry I see etched in your forehead by having a little faith and a glass or two of good Swiss wine. And next week, if your heart muscles can bear it, go visit the lady you can’t stop talking about.”
CHAPTER TWO: THE STRANGE GUEST
Kirk didn’t recognize his environment. It certainly was not his bedroom. The bed wasn’t a king size and didn’t have the turquoise blue and tan comforter that Martin and Claire had given him for his birthday last July. This bed sat right in the middle of what might have passed for a luxury hotel except that it sprouted wires and tubes reminiscent of a hospital. In the background the bleeps and beeps of life support machines filled Kirk’s ears and the medicinal smells besieged his nostrils. The shocking realization soon hit him that these wires and tubes were attached to his body; this must be his bed in this hospital room.
Why do I feel so strange? What have they done to me? Even though he could see people moving about—men and women dressed in what had to be medical uniforms, no one responded, not even his son, Martin, whom he heard reading aloud somewhere nearby. Hearing Martin articulate the words to one of Kirk’s favorite books, Carl Sagan’s Contact, had a slightly calming effect…until he tried to move.
I’ve dreamed these dreams before where I tried to move but could not. A harrowing feeling until I willed myself to wake up. OK, wake up now. If this was a dream, the characters seemed eerily real and familiar but blurry, almost like scenes from the Super 8 home movies he and his ex-wife had made when Martin was a toddler.
Scenes from the hospital room rotated and spun like a kaleidoscope, bouncing the views around in his head, much like the time years ago when he had tried pot. The rotating became dizzying, defying his will to remain lodged in two-dimensional time. Whether these episodes had just begun or had been occurring for much longer, he could not tell. And then everything stopped. All activity was interrupted as if all actors had been jerked from the stage in mid-sentence. Now he appeared to be in a void–no noise, no one in the room, only whiteness all around enveloping his body… (more…)
Yesterday I commented on Robert McCrum’s post: Why Writers Make Reluctant Revolutionaries at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/series/robert-mccrum-on-books. When I looked up the meaning of revolutionary in Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, I adopted the (c) entry: “constituting or bringing about a major or fundamental change.” Using that definition, I refute Robert’s thesis because authors often lead the charge for change without offering their bodies as barricades. Their characters do that. I have not been the same since I entered the world of an international sweat shop in the shoes of one of Davis Bunn’s characters in The Great Divide. A good story, more often than media images, lures me into reality and onto the path of redemption. Surely, bringing about change is an irrefutable reason to write.
Reason #2: To make a career of doing what seems most natural
If we don’t do what we love, we risk doing nothing or even worse, doing something very poorly. For those who know writing is their talent, it would be reckless to ignore it. But what if we don’t know? Carl Jung wrote in The Stages of Life, “We limit ourselves to the attainable, and this means the renunciation of all other potentialities.” People with potential who don’t believe they can demonstrate a level of competence similar to [insert your favorite author/book title] may never write anything not required. Ignoring the inner impulses, they work abnormally hard or hardly work; either option subdues lasting satisfaction. Surely, using natural ability is an honorable reason to write.
Reason #3: To become famous and leave a legacy
Becoming famous may or may not be concurrent with making a lot of money. Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, tells her students that becoming a better writer leads to the pay-off of becoming a better reader. Most want more than that; they want to be published. Even putting aside the money issue (the pot of gold has already been found by J. K. Rowling), most of us would like to be fondly remembered after we leave this world. Wouldn’t a best-seller or two do that? But wouldn’t our significance be assured by living our lives treating others as we wish to be treated? Surely, becoming famous is a popular, but defective reason to write.
Reason #4: Because someone else pushed us to achieve their dream.
Surely, doing it to please others is not a reason to write.
This is my list and in the order of importance to me. What is your reason for writing… or for not writing?
to keep his characters connected to the scene and readers connected to the characters.
Here’s a beat written by Dan Brown: After ending a phone conversation…“Nola rubbed her eyes and looked blearily back at her computer screens. She had not slept in over thirty-six hours, and she knew damn well she would not sleep again until this crisis had reached its conclusion.” (“The Lost Symbol, p. 200)
This sentence was not written as dialogue; it tells the readers what’s going on with Nola, the character in the scene, and makes her seem more real because as readers we can identify with her sleeplessness. The bit of action also creates an interruption to the dialogue and in this case, allows a smooth transition to a new scene.
As in our daily interactions, body language often tells us the truth more clearly than a truck load of words. That little bit of action, if described uniquely, can do the same for a character. How do we find exceptional beats? According to Browne and King, the authors of “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, Watch your friends…watch old movies…watch yourself. Keep an eye open for those little movements that bring your personality to the surface, the gestures that reveal who you are or how you’re feeling.” (p. 152)
Hmmm….how might I add a little bit of action to this tiny excerpt from my book?:
“Pay attention to your spirit, Kirk. Acknowledge what you are feeling inside. Do you feel anything but peaceful and protected when I am near?”
“I just want to go home. I want my life back. I want to talk with my Janie. Above all, I want to wake up and realize this was just a bad dream. Find another dream to haunt and please, just get out of mine!”
I just finished my first reading of the first Harry Potter book – HP and the Sorcerer’s Stone.The first paragraph does what experienced editors tell us is vitally important, engage the reader immediately. Rowlings does it in this book by revealing things “strange and mysterious” to come. She then describes the perfectly normal family HP is to live with for several years (his time before Hogwarts). The first page ends with “the Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.” The suspense builds.
In the first paragraphs of the first draft of Pieces of You, published in an earlier post, I tried to create suspense but followed it with a flashback. According to Jeff Gerke in his book, The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction,flashbacks are just another form of telling: “If the reader does need to know it, can you come up with an organic and chronological way to show it through scene and dialogue? Most likely, yes.” (2009, p. 165)
I have changed my first paragraph to the following. Is it better?
He boarded the Swiss train alone, just after having made a quick call to schedule an appointment at the clinic. After finding his seat in the first class section’s quiet zone, Kirk drifted between reading a business magazine and speculating about the advantages of an early retirement. Startled by a peculiar sensation, almost like a gentle stroking of his tense neck muscles, he looked around. Seeing no one, he decided it must have been an overactive imagination relaying to sensory receptors his longing for a woman’s touch. His attention diverted, Kirk turned to stare through the window. Soon absorbed by the train’s unbroken motion and totally oblivious to the postcard view of majestic peaks framing the village-strewn valleys sweeping by, Kirk daydreamed his way to his destination, visited by specters from his past and a strange guest sharing the ride.
I promise to use this site to encourage, train and learn from my readers how to “be the change we wish to see in the world.” Focusing on engaging writing and enchanting reading, especially speculative fiction that not only entertains, but beckons readers to think more deeply about issues, I hope to provide the stimulus for impassioned discussions.Your responses are vitally important because if I am only talking to myself, how will I know when I am wrong...