"I think you overdid
That statement, along with other pointed criticisms,
stopped me in my tracks. It was written in a rejection letter
I received from the final publisher to whom I sent my first
novel attempt. I realized there was no hope for my story.
Dead end. Nowhere else to go. I had failed, despite the fact
that I had worked on it for three years and fourteen drafts.
I had perfected the grammar, cleaned up the diction and usage,
perfected the syntax -- and all to no avail. Even though I
had read almost one hundred books on the craft of writing
and taken several writing courses at the local writer's guild,
this train was derailed. What did "they" want --
dammit! I labored over the novel, Ricochet in Time,
for so long. What did I need to do to get it accepted by a
I've heard of authors shelving their manuscripts,
putting them away in drawers, and burying them in metal tins
in their backyards. I didn't do any of those things. The 300
page tome went on a zip disk, and I set it aside, heavy of
heart and now certain I was no writer. I had failed with essays,
short stories, and now a novel. It was 1996, I was 36 years
old, and I had spent ten years trying to get published.
I gave up.
I believed it was the death of a dream. Even
though I continued to write in my journal, to observe the
oddities and peculiarities of the world around me, I grieved.
I remembered wanting to be a writer since age 10 when I sent
a story to Reader's Digest about a scuba diver (a diver who
was remarkably similar to Lloyd Bridges from "Sea Hunt").
I never heard from that magazine, but there were times over
the years when I remembered how fearlessly I mailed off my
first scribblings while still in grade school. Surely I could
summon up the confidence of that 10-year-old? Yes,
a voice in my head said. You can . . . but
not yet. Not quite yet? When? I didn't know, so I
resorted to what any aspiring writer who doesn't drink would:
I promptly got a cold which turned into bronchitis which turned
into walking pneumonia, and by the time my fever was gone,
I had blanked the disappointment from my conscious thoughts.
Life went on, and a dear friend, Marie Sheppard
Williams, got word that her book of inter-linked short stories
would be published. We celebrated with bagels, cream cheese,
and orange juice while listening to an old tape of Cris Williamson's
lovely album, Changer and the Changed. It wasn't
too long before I was serving as moral support while Marie
went through a hellish time editing the book, and I was actually
thankful that I didn't have to live through the same irritations
with my own literary baby. Gradually, over time, whenever
I thought about my neglected step-child of a novel, it was
with a wistful fondness. Though I still wrote down my thoughts,
ideas, and dreams in my journal, I had no intention of writing
a short story or a novel. Never again.
I experienced a series of losses: I tore my
Achilles tendon playing basketball and had to have surgery,
and shortly after, I had to have an abdominal operation. My
dearest uncle had a heart attack and left this world. My mother
fell ill and nearly died, and my best friend abandoned our
friendship. As I went through such unsettling times, I wrote
less and cried more. I was troubled by strange dreams. One
night I stayed up late watching The X-Files
and Xena: Warrior Princess, and, under the influence
of the two shows, I dreamed of extraterrestrial women on horseback
chasing shape-shifting criminals. When I woke up, it occurred
to me that if Xena and Gabrielle lived in the present, they'd
be cops or investigators, like Scully and Mulder. I found
myself writing about that a lot in my journal, and I kept
asking myself key questions: Why do I write? Why does anyone
write, and why do I care about it, anyway? How do we choose
what we write?
Then I came across a quote by C.S. Lewis.
"Whenever you are fed up with life, start writing:
ink is the great cure for all human ills." I
wondered if Lewis had been on to something. Once again, I
asked myself the same questions about writing. In my journal,
"Why do I write? It's not to be
published or to worry about what other people say about my
writing. I write to ask questions, to puzzle through things,
to try to understand the crazy world where I live which is
peopled with so many oddballs. I write to create some semblance
of order. I think I've been trying to force myself into a
mode that I thought I was supposed to be in, but I just cannot
be that. Dylan said it best, 'It ain't me, babe.' I have an
informal, not-high-literature voice, which at times is sad
or serious, but is also sometimes wacky or grief-struck or
wild with anger. I need to put my thoughts and feelings on
paper. I need to go ahead and write and not worry about publishing
because writing is, simply, good for me. There is no reason
not to trust that the act of writing will be enough."
With that epiphany, I felt like I turned a
corner against the wind, so I began to write a story about
a year in the life of two St. Paul cops -- neither extraterrestrial
-- but both of whom were lesbian. The story, the process,
and everything about Gun Shy took on a life
of its own. I felt like a locomotive roaring down the tracks.
I couldn't put the story down, though, of course I had to,
all the time. Real life constantly intruded, but I wrote during
every free moment with the words rushing out of me scene by
scene, willy-nilly, without regard for continuity or proper
order of events. I began the novel in October 1998, writing
evenings and weekends, and eight months later I had 160,000
words and a manuscript totally unlike my first novel. Without
much regard for convention, usage, or what my mother might
think, an entire book had poured out of me. I was stunned
at its scope and size. It was in no way perfect, but even
in its first draft, it seemed superior to my first effort
at a novel. My partner read it first and assured me that it
was good. I showed it to others and was thrilled when my friends
went wild over it.
I was asked, then, by a number of people how
I wrote this giant novel. I didn't really know, but I sat
down and tried to lay out the process I had gone through,
and it was a surprise when my instructions came out looking
To Write A Novel
a character-or two or more....
Start writing a scene and slave away at that for a while.
I actually wrote the very first scene first, but that isn't
Then keep writing more scenes-willy-nilly all over . . . with
no regard to where they might go, though you will want to
Pretty soon a sort of theme starts to emerge that you may
not have expected.
Keep writing scenes.
Keep getting to know all the characters.
Start seeing connections and motivations and causality.
After about 150 pages, you will realize that everything you
first thought the book was about is inaccurate.
Dream and think and talk about it and wonder and worry, and
just go crazy because there's not enough time to focus.
Keep writing scenes and getting to know the main characters,
plus all the secondary ones that have suddenly started popping
Start noticing what other themes come up, and see how stuff
After about 200 pages, cut and paste all over the place, forming
a giant mosaic in your mind (or your living room).
Suddenly it becomes clear where everything is going, and now
you can see the transitions you have to write and the new
scenes that will be needed in order to finish.
Write 150 more pages.
That's about it.
Ready to give it a go?
My friends laughed at this. They thought I
was joking, and if I hadn't gone on to write three more novels
using the above technique, perhaps I would have joined in
their mirth. But that is the way I write. I
don't compose well using a stiff and formal process, and I
don't write in a linear fashion. I write like the work is
one big jigsaw puzzle that must be painstakingly assembled
from pieces that are given to me in random order. Sometimes
I wish I could write in a linear fashion, but, "It ain't
I edited and revised the novel, Gun
Shy, and I lost none of my enthusiasm for it. I wasn't
sure others would enjoy it, but I knew I liked it and that
upon completion, I was satisfied. I wrote the novel for my
partner and me only, never considering others' points of view.
I wrote a long story that I felt I would have liked to have
read when I was younger, a story that interested me, and only
me -- at least that's what I thought. I didn't have to tell
friends or work colleagues or anyone in my family if I didn't
choose to. Sure, I had poured my heart and soul into it, but
no one need know what parts of the characters or the narrative
were about "Me."
I systematically posted the long story at
an Internet site, 30 or 40 pages at a time over a two month
period. After posting the first segment, within 24 hours I
was astounded to find 22 emails in response. Over the course
of the next few months, I received over one thousand emails
from most of the United States and from all over the world:
Canada, Korea, France, Hungary, Germany, New Zealand, Australia,
Spain, Czech Republic, and more. I was stunned even further
to get a publication offer after the posting of part three.
Suddenly, my simple little cop story was being
commented upon and analyzed, and other people were making
assumptions about me based on the qualities and actions of
the characters in the book. For quite some time I felt tremendously
vulnerable, especially as I gradually discovered that the
themes in the book -- themes of loss and trauma, rebirth,
and gaining new love -- did indeed spring from the inner workings
of my own psyche. As Kafka once said, "The book must
be the axe for the frozen sea within us." I'd had no
clue I'd even needed an axe. How embarrassing! How revealing!
How in the world could I let others read something that felt
like it stripped me bare and sent me wandering naked through
city streets where everyone could stare? And why did all these
people want to read this, anyway?
What a switch. Where once I had wanted to
publish, now I was afraid. Friends chuckled at my chagrin,
assuring me that I'd get over it. But the very act of creating
something that spoke from the heart meant that I was revealing
my heart; and somehow, it was ever so unsettling. It took
me a number of months to become accustomed to the idea of
it. Over time, I did adapt, and one of the things that made
it easier was the realization that the very writing of the
story made my own psychological process concrete and almost
tangible. As Paul Theroux once said, "Fiction gives us
a second chance that life denies us." The puzzle within
me began to take a more recognizable shape. I examined the
jagged jigsaw pieces, assembling them so that the whole gradually
revealed itself. Once I understood some of the themes and
issues, I could move on.
Filled with energy and excitement, I went
back to my first novel, Ricochet in Time, and
looked at it with a fresh eye. I went through all of it, word
by word, sentence by sentence, and focused on making it less
stiff, less proper. I softened the characters, infusing them
with life. I smoothed out the rough spots. After thorough
revision, I submitted it to my publisher, and she accepted
it. What a difference five years had made. Sadly, in the wake
of publicity about high profile hate crimes against people
such as Brandon Teena, Matthew Shepard, Tyra Hunter, Billy
Jack Gaither, Private Barry Winchell, and Jamie Nabozny, as
well as the campaign of terror aimed at Camp Sister Spirit,
suddenly nobody was saying, "I think you overdid the
Over three decades have passed since I wrote
my first story about the scuba diver, but when it comes to
writing, I have finally returned to a state of childlike wonder
and excitement. I no longer worry much about what others might
think or what they might approve of, and I try not to think
about what inner demons or faults I might be revealing. Instead,
I focus on what plots make my heart sing, what narrative flow
jazzes me up, and what characters wake me in the middle of
the night, calling out that they need me to bring them to
I am an author.
I am a writer, a scribbler, and a thinker.
I am alive.
© 2004 Lori L. Lake