The Other Side of the Coin

Since writing is what I do, it’s hardly surprising that’s often the subject of these weekly posts—writing. Last week I wrote about the magic of writing mysteries. This week I’m at the opposite end of that spectrum—the hell of writing mysteries.

In my world, there’s nothing better than getting to the last scene on the last page and finishing writing a book. On the other hand, there’s nothing worse than starting one. In some instances, that means sitting in my writing chair staring at the blank page of a new file on my computer screen. In other instances it means staring at an empty spot in my head. No matter how many steps I take while I’m thinking about it, no matter how many times I toss and turn over night, the place where the new story should be is still … well … a complete mystery.

When I finished writing Nothing to Lose, the next Beau book for HarperCollins, I received news that the Ali books would now have a new editor at Simon and Schuster. Editors change from time to time. Sometimes it’s a good fit; sometimes it’s not—like the editor who told me in our first telephone conversation that what I really needed to do with Hour of the Hunter was “get rid of all the Indian stuff.” By the way that’s also what another long ago editor once told Tony Hillerman. Fortunately neither one of us took that ill-conceived bit of advice to heart, and that new editor didn’t last long, either. But I digress.

So in my first conversation with my new S&S editor two months ago, I already knew several of the questions she would ask. “What’s the new book about? What’s the title? And when will it be finished?” As mentioned above, I had been down this road before, so I had given those topics some serious thought prior to the phone call. I told her I believed the book would be titled Fatal Vows, and it would be about a young woman worrying that her mother’s new boyfriend was big trouble. Oh, and I expected to have the book done by the end of October. So much for our initial introduction.

But then I went to work on one of the most difficult part’s of the writing process—thinking a story into existence, and the more I thought about a book called Fatal Vows, the less I liked it. With a name like that there’s not much doubt about what’s going to happen–someone, the wife most likely, is going to die one way or the other. So where’s the suspense? Where’s the mystery? And wait just a minute here, haven’t I already written this story in another book, maybe even in another Ali? Chewing your cabbage twice occasionally might be fine in casual conversation, but not in a book that people would end up having to buy in order to read it. Don’t my readers deserve something new?

Which brought me straight up against the most difficult change a writer ever has to make: I had to change my mind. I had to start over. I had to think up a entirely different plot line. Meanwhile the number of days between then and my upcoming deadline was steadily ticking downward.

My least favorite part of the writing process is what I call “wrestling with the devil.” That means the story line has suddenly come to a screeching halt and won’t move forward. In each case, the only way to get around that obstacle is to think my way through it—usually when I go to bed at night. Instead of sleeping, I spend endless hours tossing and turning. In most cases my devil wrestling episodes occur in midstream of a book. Inevitably, after one of these events, I wake up the next morning exhausted and feeling as though I’ve spent the previous night slogging through hot dry sand in the Hassyampa riverbed north of Wickenburg.

This time, however, I had an early on-set case of devil wrestling. It occurred this past weekend when we happened to have out of town guests. I had been busy hostessing during the day, but when I went to bed that night, the blank spot where a story should have been reasserted itself in spades! I tossed and turned and then tossed some more, trying to let go of one story line and pick up the trail of a new one, and when I woke up the next morning, I thought I had one.

Sometimes when people say they were “up all night,” it may have felt like they were awake the whole time, but usually that’s not entirely true. In this case, however, it was because my new Apple Watch was keeping score. When I checked my sleep time on Sunday morning there it was in black and white—One hour thirty-three minutes. Total!

I crawled out of bed, made sure everyone had breakfast, and did my steps. Then, company or no, I went back to bed and took a four-hour nap. That night, I went to bed and slept for nine hours in a row, which meant that by the next morning I was pretty well caught up.

On Monday I checked with some of my medical consultants and realized that part of my new idea required some tweaking, but yesterday I ran the new title, Collateral Damage, past my new editor, then I went to work on the prologue.

So here I am on August 11, 1500 words down, and only 93,500 to go.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with that first step, so I’d better get a move on. Starting writing a book is the hard part, but once I reach the end, it will be worth it because, for the last thirty-nine years, it has been, EACH AND EVERY TIME!