How a Novel

gets written. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing today. Not a whole novel, but editing one I’ve already finished. My third. It’s almost ready for its close-up. There are just a very few more lines to double-check. I’ll have it done before close of business tomorrow.

In the meantime, my calendar tells me to write something under the “Prose” tab in The Bookhouse today. But since I haven’t finished reading any books recently, I thought I’d write a little bit about writing. About how I came to actually write my first novel. There was a time – a long, long time – when I didn’t think it possible.

The first and best lesson that it took me far too long to learn is simply that if you write one type-written page a day, in a year you will have 365 of them. And that’s enough for a book. It won’t necessarily be a good book, but you will have written enough to work on, to make it better.

I had no concept of that. I thought that I would need “time to write.” As in, everything is done, every need attended to, and finally I can sit and write – or think about writing. Because writing involves a lot of staring off into space trying to remember the right word or remembering what happened next. More on that in a minute.

The problem with this approach is that everything is never done, and if you are a woman, every need is never attended to and there is never a time to “sit and write.” The first chapters of my first novel were written in stolen time, time when I dreaded being discovered. I couldn’t conceive of the concept of my own time. I was always writing on somebody else’s time.

That novel was The Year of the Crow, and it was begun long years back, when the characters with whom I peopled the novel were living around me every day. I didn’t have a story. I had description and a germ of an idea, and I wrote my descriptions as true to life as I could. I thought of them as a tribute. These were people, I thought, who deserved to be noticed by art. They were, each one of them, characters in search of a story. So was I.

I ran out of story in about the same instant that I ran out of time. As I slipped the chapters into a file folder, I promised myself that I would finish it someday.

There was a breakup, a questionable relationship, and a move across country. There were more relationships and questionable choices, new friends and some good choices, and time marched on, as time is wont to do, until about 20 years later, when one of my questionable choices propelled me into the best choice of all.

I was sitting in a circle of people who had come to pick up their loved ones from rehab. I didn’t want to be there. I wanted him to go elsewhere. But he had nowhere else to go, and when someone you thought you loved for a time gets out of rehab, it was a need to which I thought I had to attend. I was wrong, but to tell the truth I’d probably do the same thing today. Old habits die hard. However, I did have one moment of shining enlightenment. The counselor went around the circle, asking the relatives how they were going to support their addict, and as one after another told how they were going to get more involved with NA or AA or whatever the A, I rebelled. I’d been to those meetings. I wasn’t going back.

So when it came my turn, I told them that actually his addiction bored me to tears and I wasn’t going to spend my life in it with him. I was going to find a writing group. He could do as he liked.

And that’s how I finally finished The Year of the Crow.

I found Writers’ Cramp online, and this brings me to my second best lesson in learning to write at long last. Criticism doesn’t mean you’re bad. It makes you better. I had long assumed the former. I had to learn the latter. The folks at Writers’ Cramp taught me to do that.

I still had in my possession those first few chapters of Crow, and when I reread them there were parts I still liked. Parts that still resonated as exactly what I had wanted to say at the time and still did. Parts that brought old friends to life.

The story, however, had been overtaken by events. It took me another five years to finish the book. I remember thinking, when Obama was elected (which made the political me very happy), that nobody would buy my little dystopian novel now because everything was going to be all right. By 2011, when The Year of the Crow saw daylight, I knew there was still a chance that my book would be relevant. All too relevant. The tide that washed Trump ashore was rising.

And this too I learned. It was only after I wrote The End at the bottom of a page that I realized I was only halfway done. Re-reading the manuscript, the one line that kept running through my head was, “But I don’t think that’s what really happened.” Remember what I said about remembering? That’s when I realized that sometimes writing a work of fiction is about “remembering.” And sometimes you have to finish your book before you begin to remember. I never know how a book is going to end until I’ve gotten there. So it’s only after I get there that previous sections begin to make sense – or to need to make sense. Because now I know what really happened.

One more thing. Writers must be read. Musicians must be heard. Painters must be seen. Writers must be read. I’ve written elsewhere about the problem writers have being read, and this is the gift that Writers’ Cramp provided. They read my work, and they talked about it.

Without them I might never have noticed the little things, like overdone adverbs and how my characters were always “starting” to do things instead of actually doing them. Without them I might never have heard someone tell me that, although a sunrise in the Rockies was not something he could imagine for himself, thanks to me he had seen one. Without them there would have been no first novel.

Or the second. Or the third. Ghosts of the Heart came out in 2013. A Dream of Houses has taken me a little longer, but it will hit Kindle within a couple of weeks now.

I was 63 when Crow came out. I am 74 now. Living proof that it is never too late to keep a promise to yourself.