Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Coming back to writing, and to working on something new, after a time away is akin to being a swimmer caught in a riptide: you must make many repeated attempts to get to where you want to be... and patiently, ever so patiently, hold steady.

I grew up spending quite a bit of time on the South Carolina coast, even lived on a sea island for a while, and I know all about riptides and how you're supposed to free yourself from one. I was even a lifeguard for a decade. But none of this seems to matter when it comes to my writing life, and the analogy I'm attempting to make: I am caught in a writing riptide, I have the tools and resources to set myself free, but I'm impatient and worn out from fighting my own daily life to get there. I know I should lift my feet, float on my back and let the current take me a ways first, but who has the time for that sort of release?

During the last week of April I worked like I haven't worked, writing-wise, in years, all in order to get my historical novel ready in time to be submitted to the 2011 Novello Press Award. The award is for N.C. and S.C. writers, and it's through the Charlotte Mecklenberg Library. Past winners, like Ron Rash, have gone on to publishing success--regionally and beyond. It's a great contest, and a wonderful opportunity to get your writing in front of the right eyes. Since my literary agent has been unsuccessful for the past almost three (gulp) years in finding a publisher for my novel, he gave me the go-ahead to submit. I do not think, for one moment, that I will win.

This is not an attempt at false humility: I really don't have a chance. Past winners have written, for the most part, modern fiction, the only "historical" winner a novel set in the early 20th century. Genre fiction was not allowed, "genre" including horror, romance, western, mystery, etc. And since my novel is possessed of several different "types" (which I loathe to even type)--adventure, romance, historical, literary, popular--I thought, What the heck? Maybe the judges will at least read until the end.

Finding time to write has become almost impossible. I have a 9 month old at home with me, and she is not fond of napping. If I'm lucky, I get 45 minutes to myself in the morning. (This, I know, is punishment for all the times I rolled my eyes pre-pregnancy at the mothers of one child who complained at lack of personal time. God is a woman, and She is enjoying my idiocy.) Said 45 minutes sometimes include getting my allergy shots at the doctor's office, paying bills, making a phone calls(s), doing laundry, or--but less often--cleaning the house. So, for a week while working on my manuscript, I worked and wrote new pages late into the night and many nights into the wee morning hours.

I had not, necessarily, put off getting my manuscript ready for the contest until the last minute. I only learned of it two months before the deadline, and a maelstrom of events conspired to keep me from it: an almost three-week bought with a cold/sinus infection that I thought would simply go away, several weekends out of town or with guests, and a nice little sparring match with food poisoning... plus a teething baby. I suddenly turned around and I had a week left to rework a vastly researched, painstakingly and lovingly written, 430+ page novel.

Since I wanted to make a few changes several of the big-time NYC editors who'd read my novel had mentioned to my agent, and since contest rules stated that manuscripts had to be, at most, 400 pages long, this meant much work and stress on my part. By adjusting my story, making these changes, I altered the plot quite a bit. And so the week before it was due--also the same week before my in-laws were coming for a
visit--I wore myself completely out.

I'd taken on the challenge of the contest for two reasons: 1) to get my manuscript in front of a regional publishing professionals, who are perhaps more open to a story like mine; and 2) to get myself back into a writing schedule--to work with a deadline. And as exhausted as I was with caring for a baby all day and writing all night, I was happy. (My husband, maybe not so much--as he was sadly ingnored, but he was supportive as always.) Writing again, and even getting back to this work I'd spent two and a half years researching and writing (and even more working with an agent and suffering the tightrope walk that is waiting while editors at publishing houses take a look and judge, judge) was like coming home. I felt, more than I had in a long time and in the midst of being Mama, a role I happen to love, that this was me. Well, look at that... here I am.

But now the riptide. I have no novel to rework, no deadline to meet. What I have are three unfinished novels (one historical, a far sequel to my first; one modern; the third an amalgom of past and present), one finished novel that simply CANNOT SELL, a teething baby, a sadly neglected husband, a terrifying amount of weight to lose, and a desperate, yearning need to do and work at all of these things in a way that leans heavily on perfection. In the midst of it all, I ache to be extraordinary.

Experienced swimmers, strong and able, drown in riptides each year. The urge is primal: fight. Only those with an unerring patience and sense of permanence are able to let the current take them out to sea, knowing that when the time is right, they will swim at that curving parallel, a tang of saltwater in their mouths and a burn in their eyes, the swells rising--to finally arrive at shore.

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