I was poised at the edge of ‘the moment’. There she was--Charlaine Harris; the woman whose books had so thoroughly charmed me, I'd morphed into a mouth-breathing fan. She's famous for her Sookie Stackhouse southern-vampire series, which some of you boob-tube lovers will recognize as the basis for HBO's True Blood. Over her long career, she's penned several other award-winning series; my own favourite being the Harper Connolly books. What’s so great about Charlaine Harris? It’s the way she writes--deceptively spare, wry, and quick-witted. It’s the fact that her books always have solid mystery plots. It’s because her style looks natural and easy, and trust me, that's an art. There is no such thing as easy.
That day in April 2010, the best-seller novelist was so close, all I had to do is lift my hand to touch her. She’d met me once or twice before, but those had been fan moments, wherein the fan tries not to gush, and the writer tries to make a smooth getaway.
This was different. This was ‘my’ opportunity to tell Ms. Harris exactly how her books and craft insights had encouraged me.
She’d had a busy day. Possibly her hand hurt from signing all those books and maybe her feet were paining her after all those meetings, but none of that showed on her face. With infinite grace and a very sweet smile, she said, “Hello Leigh.”
So, did I launch into my carefully prepared speech?
I rewarded her generosity by bursting into a crumpled-chin, squeaky-voiced, teary melt-down. In public. In a line up. With maybe 300 people there to witness it. Just to put it into perspective; I have a list of approved boo-hoo moments--the end of sad books, the OMG-don’t kill-the-dog movie scenes and my kids' graduation ceremonies. And all right, yes, I did once get a bit damp over a telephone commercial. But in real life? I’m frustratingly short on tears. Trust me, there have been times I wished I could cry.
Just as FYI for you blog-skimmers, I still had a vague idea of the character I wanted to write about, and was starting to get a better sense of what type of world I needed to create for her. Cue the cymbals--I had begun working on novel attempt no. 3.
I was doing things in the manner I understood to be the right way. My Intro to Novel Writing class had ended (praise heaven, and let's get the hell out of here). I'd joined a writer's group with three former students--an association doomed to an early death, but I didn’t know that then. I continued to write every week day. I submitted stuff for critique. I observed the rules for good writing as I understood them. But still, a lot of the times, I wanted to give up. I’d read a good book and feel humbled, and annoyed with myself. Why couldn’t I write better? I’d get stalled on a plot point or a motivation and want to delete the whole damn thing. I’d write a choppy page and despair that I’d ever learn flow. There were many, many head-thuds-on-desk moments. But despite a truly awesome collection of bruises, this time I wasn’t giving myself an out. I was going to continue pounding those keys all the way to the last period.
Because somewhere, I’d read that’s what you were supposed to do.
Well, here's the sodding truth. Trying to write in such a rigid, self conscious manner can make you miserable. Thus, I did what I have always done in times of great distress. I read. When I wasn’t at the keyboard, I was burning my way through series, chewing my way through the library stacks and scouring book lover forums for suggestions. And without realizing it, I had stumbled on an essential writing tool. Reading. I can’t over emphasize how important that is. If you’re serious about finishing a manuscript, read everything you can lay your hands on. You will pick up things unconsciously, and develop unshakeable opinions about what makes for a good or bad read.
Still I carried on--heroically, tap-tapping my way past the dreaded 25K. But even as I blew past that benchmark, I was growing more aware of my isolation. I didn't know anyone, outside of a classroom, who understood the writing process. I had questions, and no place to ask them. And there’s a LOT of potholes on the road to finishing a novel. Some of those nasty little craters are filled with dark water, and you have no idea how deep they are until you're past your knees and still sinking.
Which is when I discovered Charlaine Harris’ community board had a thread titled, “On Writing’. Holy Hannah. There they were--the questions and the answers. The support. That little corner on the internet is an superb example of giving back to emerging writers. That loop became my new classroom. The people on her board my dear friends. And on the way, I got to meet (and cry over) Charlaine Harris; a possibility that never occurred to me the day I shut the cover on my first Sookie novel.
Lessons for this one?
Don’t try to write in isolation.
Go find people who share your writing obsession.
And oh yeah,
Bring a box of Kleenex.
Tip: If you're going to buy one Sookie book, I suggest you buy the boxed set. It will save you on gas, because seriously, you think you can stop with just one?