Wednesday, October 29, 2014


I've been overthinking things with my new novel. I tend to overthink things, anyhow. My husband hates going to movies with me because I dissect them in detail on the drive home. Sometimes--often, actually--when I'm taking a riding lesson and stop to ask a complex question, my instructor says, "Kim. Shut up and ride." With novel-writing I'm even worse because 1) I have only myself to talk to; and 2) all first drafts are lousy.

I know this. I know that the first rule of writing is to get the crap on the page. I know that the magic mostly happens in revision. This will be my 17th book, for heaven's sake. I'm not new at the game.

And yet. I'm piddling, agonizing. What is this book About? Where's the Plot? As if I could ever answer those questions in a first draft. Get on with it, darling.

Yesterday I finished Katherine Paterson's new semi-autobiography, Stories of my Life. I adore Katherine Paterson. I still remember reading The Great Gilly Hopkins when I was quite young, and getting to the part where Gilly, a brat of a foster child, has given a handmade card to her African-American teacher. The front of the card reads, "They're saying 'black is beautiful,' but near as I can figure is that everyone who's saying it looks mighty like a-" and then the inside says, "person with a vested interest in maintaining that point of view." That line made me howl with laughter, probably 35 years ago, and it makes me howl now, but it also--way back when--it showed me a glimpse of how writing works, how you can manipulate words with fascinating results. I met Katherine Paterson once. I wanted to kneel and kiss her ring. I love her so, have always loved her so. So you can imagine my relief when I learned, in this last book, that the time between when she started writing seriously, and when her first book came out, was the same as mine: nine years. Oddly enough that nine-year figure crops up again and again in writer's biographies. It's almost as though it takes nine years to become any class of writer.

The book I'm working on now is the sequel to The War That Saved My Life. It's the first true sequel I've ever written. It's a bit easier to write a sequel, because I already know the characters and the setting, and I've done a lot of the research. But--I realize how self-aggrandizing this sounds--I keep getting good reviews for TWTSML, and they sort of paralyze me with regard to the current book. What if it sucks?

The answer is: of course it sucks. Keep writing.

For my last several books I haven't waited to finish a first draft before I sent it to my publisher. I've mailed off the first 70 pages or so, and mostly they've responded with enthusiasm and contracts. When I sent the first pages of the first draft of TWTSML, I got a concerned phone call from my editor, asking, "Is this really going to be your next book?" Translation: ain't nobody gonna publish that.

I sighed. "Yes, it is my next book," I said, "only, obviously, not quite in this form." I dumped the 70 pages into the trash and started again. And again. And again. Six drafts later, I finally found the main character's voice. From there it wasn't quite smooth sailing, but it was at least open water seas.

That's what I need to think about: the work, not the reviews. The story, and the work, and the inherent lousiness of every single first draft in the world.