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What’s so special about Ash? It’s not my first book, it’s not the last book in a series. There’s nothing remarkable about the plot or the writing. No leaps in ability, no revelations.
What’s special about Ash is something every romance reader and author will immediately understand: Second-chance love. But we have start at what went wrong, what caused the breakup.
‘Finish the damn book!’ It’s one of the many wonderful catch phrases I associate with author Cherry Adair. In her presentation to the RWA conference a few years ago, Cherry gave some real-talk about manuscripts: There is nothing noble about taking six years to finish one. In fact (my words) there’s nothing very smart about it. You cannot survive as an author on one book every five years. Let me know if you figure out how to survive on a book every one year.
But what happens when you finished the damn book, finished in respectable time, but are too afraid to do more?
I wrote Ash in six months between October 2008 and April 2009. The story was good, plot-wise; looking back I’m surprised by how good because my stories up till then were derivative and thin. The writing was so bad, though. So bad that I can’t bear to open those original drafts. But I sat down with a fire in my soul to write a full novel, and I did. At eighty-seven thousand words, it was the most words I’d ever written, and maybe more than I’d collectively written in my entirely life.
Print on Demand and vanity publishing were beyond my barista budget in those days, and KDP existed but I didn’t know about it, or at least I didn’t understand that it was potentially for me. I didn’t even have Facebook; I had lived in the days when Facebook was for students only, and it wasn’t a networking tool for me. I know; take a minute to let that crazy idea sink in.
No one wanted to read what I’d written. If we think the prejudice against romance is strong now (and it sure is, sometimes), no one a decade ago even averted their eyes when they told me they preferred real, meaty, or legitimate books. I tried to get my boyfriend at the time to read. He put me off for a year and finally confessed it would kill him if he had to tell me it was bad. In his defense, it probably was, sort of. In my defense, it was a first draft that no one would critique. In everyone’s defense I was by turns pushy, and spineless.
I had told a story that grew inside me, lovingly hunt-and-pecked it into Word and hunt-and-cried it back from a document recovery folder at least twice. I wanted to tell that story, but nobody, please-and-thank you, wanted to listen.
Reader, I abandoned it. The writing was weak and the exposition made Tolkien’s six pages about a horse look like a leaflet. Dialog? Why let the characters talk and potentially say something inconvenient to the plot when I can just tell you what they’re all thinking? Soon I was leaving the document minimized for moments when I worked up my nerve enough to make myself look at the story, sort of like bracing to tear off a band-aid because it’s going to hurt like hell. That didn’t take the jelly from my spine; it made anxiety worse. I closed the document. I moved it to a deep-web tree of folders. A few years later, bitter and frustrated, I moved it to the recycle bin.
I did not pluck it out again. I wasn’t sorry I’d done it – I was relieved. The divorce was final. Time to move on.
So, I went off and lived for the next almost-decade. My ship came in, though not from books like I’d always dreamed. I joined the fire department and found a family among my crew and a career that made me soul-satisfyingly happy. A firefighter who filled shifts at our station was a writer; he reminded me what I’d been missing. Even though I plunked out a few short stories now and then, it wasn’t the same as a novel-length marathon.
I started writing again, and this time I was ready. My skin was thicker, and more importantly, I knew how to separate myself from people who actively worked to pierce it. A few years in a profession where all learning is painful and all feedback strikes like a hammer blow had taught me to receive even the harshest words with a teachable spirit: Either there was a lesson and I should be grateful, or there was no lesson and I could let the criticism go. Instead of throwing my passion at every single person, like a myopic paper boy, I learned how to identify the people who cared that I wrote, and respectfully not badger the hell out of those who couldn’t give two figs.
I wrote a thing, a pretty wonderful thing. Vermillion took about 16 weeks from start to finish, one hundred hours of research, and another 8 weeks of editing. When it published I couldn’t shut up about it for a month. I had no decorum, no respect for how over it people must have been by a week in. I had no chill.
Nothing I’d written before Vermillion ever crossed my mind after publication day. None of it mattered. I’d moved on and I was so, so happy. So very happy that I wrote another book, and another book, and the writing gig got pretty sweet. There were nice reviews and a few awards, and of course, some money.
That happiness meant I had to choose between my two greatest loves. I’d done the FD full time, but I didn’t know about writing. My heart was heavy, but not heavier than my need to see what was out there for my writing career. I took early retirement and kept on writing. One evening last year, while I was about halfway into a manuscript I’d made a mess of, my husband sat furiously searching our email for a form he needed (it was my email account before we met, so, consider the address you choose carefully if you wish to have dominance in the post-vow technological dominance game). He’d finally managed to sort almost twenty years of sedimentary digital layers into emails with document attachments, and was opening the messages one by one. “What’s this thing you sent yourself?” he asked.
“When?” Before I had text messaging and Facebook Messenger, emails to myself were how I LIVED. Details would have to be a lot more specific, to jog my memory.
“2009. It says E&S April Draft.doc.”
All I could do was stare at him above the laptop screen. Before Dropbox and Clouds and sensible backup methods, if I was feeling especially adult and organized, I would send current drafts to myself. From here, it was pretty much that scene from Pride & Prejudice where Bingley returns and proposes to Jane, but cut out everything from when he arrives, to Jane’s uncontrollable tears of wtf and happiness.
A decade ago I couldn’t love Ash the way it deserved; for what it was and what it needed in order to be its best. It was just supposed to change and please me, and I wasn’t willing to fight to make that happen. I was unfaithful to Ash, and I’m not sure I deserved to have it back. But like all the best romances, reconciliation is about earning that second chance, and I would love to believe that some cosmic force saw that I’d grown, atoned for my early shortcomings, and felt I merited another go.
It wasn’t easy. Like two people rediscovering each other and learning to trust, there were rough moments. Twice I wanted to give up and for a whole week I pretended I had. I had to accept that I was clinging to so much of the old. The wreckage had to be cut free, no matter how sentimental. I chopped and rewrote, in total, close to 70,000 words. Characters died without ever being known to the reader, and plot threads were clipped at the spool, both perhaps to live again in another story.
Ash was worth the work, every minute of it. For the first time I’m not concerned about the reception, the reviews. It doesn’t matter if Ash sells a single copy; that really isn’t the point. Metrics and sales are for other books.
Ash is all about love.
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