My first book, Daughters for a Time, took me years to write because I wrote without an outline, without a plan — and before I knew it, I was toggling between multiple documents on my PC that added up to more than 300 pages of disorganized writing, character sketches, and notes. I was juggling a handful of characters and their backstories while, at the same time, trying to push the plot forward. I was researching countries I knew little about (China and Italy), becoming an expert on cancer and infertility — and learning the language of a pastry chef.♥
There were so many elements, it seemed to me that the effort really was like baking. If I measured incorrectly, or added an ingredient at the wrong time, the entire thing would either explode or implode. I was writing aimlessly, without knowing where I was going — an Alice in Wonderland conundrum. At one point, my early manuscript was so unruly, it seemed to be growing multiple heads and limbs. I needed an ax. I took my book-length manuscript and chopped it down to a manageable short story (maybe 50 pages of text). That was the new plan. Instead of writing a novel, I would write a short story. Once I had done this, I could suddenly breathe again, I could see clearly, and I knew exactly who my characters were and where they were going. It all at last made sense. From here, I made a plan and charted it, chapter by chapter. And because it made sense, I decided to let it grow again. But this time, I was in control. The novel was born.
My second novel, Acts of Contrition, taught me a different lesson, which had to do with pacing and when to reveal key information. In this book, my main character, Mary, is a married mother of four. She loves her life, but it is based on a giant lie: her ex-boyfriend, Landon, not her husband, is the father of her firstborn child (the result of an indiscretion only weeks before her marriage). Early in the book, there are hints of Mary’s past with the ex-boyfriend and the ongoing significance of their relationship. There are also allusions that Tom, Mary’s husband, has always questioned her relationship with Landon. In my first draft, I didn’t have Mary reveal the truth (the biological father of their daughter) until exactly halfway through the book. I thought that construct would make the situation more suspenseful. After working with my editor, I came to see that withholding that vital information from the reader was compromising Mary’s credibility, and we decided that letting the reader “in on the secret” sooner gave her or him a sense of inclusion and also built trust with the main character. So even though Tom, Mary’s husband, doesn’t discover the truth until nearly halfway through the novel, the reader knows earlier on. There is much to be said for how we develop and reveal our main characters (they must be likeable in the sense that we must relate to and root for them), and there is much to be said for how we, as writers, narrate our books in order to make the reader feel part of the story from the start.
My third book, The Light of Hidden Flowers, is a modern-day hero’s journey in that my main character wakes up one morning and realizes that she is thirty-five years old, her beloved father has died, and life is passing her by. She decides to venture an exotic trip and gets a lot more than she bargains for. She ends up in impoverished India, while at the same time reconnecting with a lost love and then trying desperately to help a struggling teenager through hard times. This book was all about finding courage, but not in the sword-and-shield sense — instead, through being open to and showing vulnerability. By revealing their vulnerability, each of my characters became a study in nuance. Missy, my main character, was almost too smart to take a risk in life; she knew that safety could be found in the fat middle of the bell curve, not in its thin edges. Joe, my main character’s love interest, was a war veteran, but he was anything but stereotypical or easily definable. This book wasn’t about getting from point A to point B, necessarily; it instead had more to do with the struggle encountered in between any such clearly defined points — and the feelings and justifications one makes while navigating the terrain along the way.
Even so, plot remained vital. As writers, we must always remember that something must be at risk in the story we tell — and ultimately, that trouble is interesting, even if the main character is her or his own antagonist (and even if she or he gets what’s desired).
I am already hard at work on my fourth book. And once again, I’m finding myself in new territory. In this book, in alternating chapters, I’m switching between one character in modern-day times and another who is firmly rooted in 1964. Many lessons will come from this journey, and when I have them clearly delineated, I will pass on any pearls of wisdom I have gathered along the way.