Donis Casey is the author of the Alafair Tucker Mysteries, set in Oklahoma during the booming 1910s and featuring the sleuthing mother of ten children. The ninth Alafair Tucker Mystery, The Return of the Raven Mocker, was released this year. Read the first chapter of each book at www.doniscasey.com.
You think that it would be a pleasant life to be a published novelist, do you? Allow me to let you in on a thing or two about the act of writing a novel that no one may have told you.
It isn’t pleasant to spend weeks of your life writing scenes and sentences and paragraphs that are actually wonderful, and then have to take them out because you realize – or your editor or your writers’ group points out quite correctly – that they don’t fit the story. It’s horrible! I loved that character. That was a brilliant line. But the vicious truth is that a well-constructed novel does not include anything that does not advance the plot or reveal something about a character. You want that story published? If your publisher/editor says to change or delete that scene you love, you suck it up, wipe your eyes, and take it out.
If you have signed a contract, and you have agreed to deliver an acceptable manuscript by a certain date, you will undergo a period of hair-raising terror and desperation as the deadline approaches, mark my words. You will offer your first born to the muses if you can just get the requisite number of words on the page by the deadline. You will pray that your manuscript is at least good enough that your editor won’t throw it back in your face and tell you that you’ll never write in this town again. Once the MS has been read and approved, and even praised, you will be relieved beyond measure while at the same time swearing that you’ll never put yourself through this again. Until another damn good idea pops into your head. I promise you that Toni Morrison, Steven King, and William Shakespeare have all had this experience.
You will undergo actual physical pain. I’ve just spent the past week in a writing frenzy. This frenzy includes long interludes of staring at a computer screen, waiting for just the right word to occur to me. Aside from doing what is necessary to keep myself alive and fit for human society, I’ve spent day after day, hour after hour, in this chair, typing away. When I cannot take it any more, I wrench myself up into a standing position. I’m bleary-eyed, and have a headache. My back hurts. My butt is numb. My wrist hurts. Where did I put that wrist brace? My husband asks why I’m walking like Quasimodo. Take a stretch. Get a drink. Get a pillow for the chair. I go to the bathroom, splash some water on my face, and examine my face in the mirror. Oh, my God. No more writing today. I have to have something to eat. I sit down with Don and have a bowl of soup and some crusty bread. He asks me how it’s going.
Well, my dear, I wrote a scene in which a character visits her mother-in-law’s house and discovers a clue in the bedroom. I worked on it all day, but I’m not happy with what I’ve got. Perhaps if I approached it from another angle. Perhaps it would be more effective if it weren’t at her mother-in-law’s house, but in her own. I’ll have to rework that whole scene. Maybe I don’t even need it.
Four hours of writing, shot.