I usually write this blog on Wednesdays. This week that would be New Year’s Day, so I’m writing in on New Year’s Eve instead. Now that the fog has lifted it’s a bright and sunny day outside. In fact, there’s a ray of sunshine zeroing in on me through the clerestory window, and the glare is about to send me in search of my long unused golf visor. But there’s a reason I’m writing this today. Tomorrow I have to go back to Beaumont.
Let’s just say that my great start on Sins of the Fathers has turned into an interrupted melody. A serious health issue on Bill’s part meant that the very best Christmas present of all was having him by my side on Christmas morning. Due to HIPAA protections and good taste, I’ll spare my readers (and Bill) the gory details, but let’s be clear. It was a serious, life threatening situation, and I could very well have lost him. So hat’s off to an excellent doctor—Thank you, Dr. Garrison Bliss! (Did I ever mention that when I first came to Seattle in the early eighties, Garrison who has been our personal physician for a quarter of a century was one of my first insurance clients? What goes around, comes around and, in this case, in a very good way!)
So I, for one, am very glad to see the end of December and the end of 2018. The kids all came for Christmas, and that was fun. And this year, instead of having our decorator do the decorations, the kids showed up the Saturday after Thanksgiving and did the job in a single day. Fortunately they’ve learned at Jim Hunt’s knee and when he came to check out their work, his comment was that we’d done was fine, and the house wasn’t nearly as “forlorn” as he’d hoped it would be without him.
Bill is the one who usually handles all the wrapping. This time it was on me. (Do I ever love gift bags!) And the meal planning for our family gathering Lil Jul Aften, was on me as well. (Did I mention that when Bill isn’t ailing, he’s the one who usually handles the cooking? And if he had corked off, I never would have been able to figure out how to get back to Netflix or Amazon Prime. I may write fiction that verges on SciFi, but believe me, but in my natural state, I’m barely clicker literate.)
Yesterday, finally, we finished the rest of the leftovers. The last of the batches of company have come and gone. (Yes, we’re delighted they all came, but there’s a lot of laundry still lurking in the upstairs bedrooms.)
This past year, with my shoulder ailing, I discovered that being creative while dealing with chronic pain is just not doable. I think I struggled with writing The A List more than any book I’ve ever written. Most of the time, once a book hits 60%, I’m on what I call the “banana peel” and the book practically finishes itself. This time, the book came to a screeching halt at 70% and wouldn’t move forward.
One of the things Bill and I could do together this holiday season was watch TV, and one of my favorites was watching The Man Who Invented Christmas on Amazon Prime. It’s the story of Charles Dickens who, when faced with financial ruin, sat down and wrote A Christmas Carol in six short weeks, starting in October. What I loved about the movie is that it’s a lesson in writing—it’s all about Charles Dickens going about his life and picking up little bits and pieces of character and experience that go into the book. That’s how it works, and it’s how I do it, too. The customer I saw having a real estate appointment in a Denny’s years ago with an agent and a newly acquired wife. She was there to find a new house—a high-priced spread in every way. He knew how much money he made and how much he owed in child support and alimony. There was no way the proposed mortgage was going to fly. As I watched the story unfolding from two booths away, he had no idea that his whole dilemma was there for all to see. I immediately went home and turned him into a cop in Eastern Washington, and he had no idea about that, either.
When I’m deeply engrossed in a book, the characters start interacting with me and adding their two cents’ worth of opinion into the creation of the story. The Man Who Invented Christmas suggested that Charles Dickens’s characters did the same thing to him. In the movies his collection of characters form themselves into a kind of Greek chorus, appearing in unexpected places and ganging up on him, telling him in no uncertain terms that Tiny Tim shouldn’t die. If you’ve read the story or seen the movie or play, you know who comes out on top on that score!
The thing is, that depiction of the process of writing was an all too real representation of what had just happened to me in writing The A List. I hit the 70% mark with a horrific automobile wreck in which one of the characters died, and as soon as that happened, the book stopped cold—dead in the water! I went back to the beginning of the story and worked my way back to that same critical point in the plot. As soon as I got there, the same thing happened again. No go. So I went through the manuscript yet a third time, only this time—after three months of physical struggle—my frozen shoulder had finally thawed. This time once I reached the car wreck, I was able to make the most difficult correction a writer ever has to make—I CHANGED MY MIND! As I write these words, I’m hearing my mother’s voice saying, “A wise man changes his mind. A fool never does.”
I won’t mention the character’s name, but I’m here to tell you, her time wasn’t up and she just flat wasn’t ready to cork off. I went back through the jaws of life scene. Instead of being loaded into a coroner’s van, the victim was hustled into a waiting ambulance which hauled her off to the nearest emergency room. Within a matter of days, the book was finished and off to the publisher. And spoiler alert or no, I’m here to tell you that in the final pages of the book, that stubborn character who refused to die ends up having the last laugh.
So why am I writing this today? I’m someone who’s finally managed the art of learning from my mistakes. When Sins of the Fathers stopped cold at 15% I tried to convince myself that it was all because of the disruptions that were going on in the world around me—Bill’s health crisis; getting ready for the holidays; having a houseful of company. But the truth is, it was really a matter of what was happening in the book. What I had written in that last scene was, to quote one of my book titles, DEAD WRONG!
So I’m changing my mind early this time out. The character I had just written will probably be moved to a different part of the book. I thought she was a good guy. Maybe she’s not. I’ll figure that out later. But for right now, another character, one that showed up in my head when I opened my eyes this morning, is hanging around and giving me HER version of events, and it’s time for me to pay attention.
Yes, tomorrow is New Year’s Day. It’s a holiday. There’ll be a Rose Bowl Parade and the Huskies will be playing, but I’m guessing I’ll be working instead of watching because, as a writer, you don’t get paid holidays off—not when the damned characters are keeping you awake at night.
Happy New Year, everybody, and Happy Reading, too.