Press/Media

There is No Reason Not to Trust
That the Act of Writing Will Be Enough

 

"I think you overdid the homophobia."

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 publisher?

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, I wrote:

"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 like this:
.

How To Write A Novel

Start with 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 necessary.
Then keep writing more scenes-willy-nilly all over . . . with no regard to where they might go, though you will want to know!
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 up.
Start noticing what other themes come up, and see how stuff connects together.
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 me, babe."

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 homophobia."

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 life.

I am an author.
I am a writer, a scribbler, and a thinker.
I create.
I am alive.

© 2004 Lori L. Lake

 
 

This page last updated on August 23, 2008

All contents of this web site are protected by U.S. and International copyright laws
and may not be reproduced in any manner without the written consent of the author
and/or her publishers. Please contact lori@lorillake.com with questions.

 
Press/Media