Pat here with our Ask A Wench for July. Liz Veronis asked: Which was the most difficult of your books to write, because of emotional investment, time demands, editor problems, etc.?
For her insightful question, she wins a copy of one of my books.
From Susan King:
Oh, the difficult books! They're like kids (or cats, dogs, or whatever!) that sometimes need more than the other kids, and you love them all the same. Sometimes it's the story itself if the elements aren't fitting together as neatly as hoped, and sometimes it's outside circumstances that make that book-mountain a little steeper to climb.
One of my biggest challenges was getting past outside obstacles while writing a book that was going very well. When deep in the research and writing of The Stone Maiden, loving the story of my stone-carving Scottish heroine and her English knight, I suddenly needed major surgery with a few weeks to deadline. I set the work aside, got through the hospital stuff and got back to work as fast as I could, with dragging energy and an extended deadline. A couple of weeks later, one of my sisters died unexpectedly–I had another hurdle to clear, and no more extensions available. So I shelved the grief best I could and finished the book. I think Stone Maiden was a better, stronger, richer book for the experiences that I went through during its creation.
I'll admit that Lady Macbeth was no picnic to write either — a bigger book than I had ever done, with more demands on me as a writer, a researcher, a historian. But that's the sort of challenge I love, and I was plowing through like a pig in mud…until editorial committee decided their hardcovers that year should be shorter for marketing reasons. Suddenly my nearly complete manuscript of 134,000 words had to come in at around 100,000. Chunks of the story went flying — really I went after adverbs first and weeded through to preserve the story. Yet whole scenes had to go, so if here and there the story takes a bit of a jump — that's probably why! … Lady Macbeth did live up to her reputation as a little bit difficult to deal with…but I love her anyway. —-
From Mary Jo:
Most difficult book to write? I can’t come up with just one, because there are different ways for a book to be difficult. (All books are difficult; some are just more difficult!)
My top three list would include Veils of Silk, which is the longest book I ever wrote, with two tortured characters, and a vast, sweeping plot that included much adventure, several cultures, and subplots galore as my protagonists end up trying to stop an Afghan invasion of India. Plus, I was late delivering the book and writing in a white hot fever as I tried to reach the end of the !#$%^&! book. When I delivered, my editor thought it was basically okay, but something was off, and she didn’t know what.
Not a lot of help there! But a friend of mine who later became an editor read through and said the problem was pacing. She helped me figure out how to tighten the book, which was a very fine skill to acquire.
Also on my “difficult” list would be my first contemporary, The Burning Point. I had to figure out how to write in a modern setting and develop a contemporary voice. (Less description, more dialogue, among other things.) A first book in a new genre is always a learning experience, but never more than here. Ultimately, I did find out how to do it, but there were also editor problems that resulted in the book being pulled and later sold elsewhere.
There are plenty of contenders for the third spot: Nowhere Near Respectable, in which I reached the middle and realized that the set-up totally would not work for the last half of the book.
Or Dark Mirror, which was another example of the challenges of being the first book in a new genre.
Or Dark Destiny, out just this month. As my third YA, I had sort of figured out the voice, but the cascade of deadlines caused by taking on too many books meant that I had a flat three months to write the whole book. I know people for whom that speed is normal, but me? No way!
None the less, the book was completed and delivered about ten seconds before the clock struck midnight, after which I felt like road kill for weeks. <g> (Moral: do not agree to write books faster than you can write!)
Interesting, some of my books with the most difficult issues for the characters have turned out to be easier to write. I guess the narrative power of the problems drove the book quickly.
The books I've had most difficulty writing are the ones I was trying to write while my elderly parents were sick or dying — a slow decline, rather than a short, dramatic illness. That kind of stress seems to affect me in one of two ways: either I go dark and intense in the writing, or I go fun and light — pure escapism. I've also been late with several books for family reasons, but my editor has always been supportive. Strangely enough, nobody ever seems to be able to pick the books I've had most trouble writing, which is a relief.
I've had difficulties with different books for different reasons. My second book, The Virtuous Cyprian, had editorial problems - my then editor took it from me before I was happy with it and I never had the chance to revise it to my satisfaction. I found that very difficult. I also find it hard to write when under stress. Some people find that they can escape into writing from other problems that are going on in their lives and whilst I've occasionally been able to do this, most frequently I find that the stress weighs my writing down so that each word feels as though it's been dragged from treacle. I've had quite a few treacle books over the past few years as a result of family illness and other problems. Then there are deadlines. Sometimes a deadline focuses my mind and I become quite prolific; at other times it paralyses me. The most difficult book from that point of view was Mistress by Midnight. I re-wrote it three times because I simply could not get it right and the clock was ticking and I was awake all night panicking about it whilst my editor was ringing me whilst on holiday to try and help! As long as the problems don't show too much in the final book then I'm happy.
From Jo Beverley:
Back around 1990, when I was a new author, I hit a health problem. It started vaguely and then turned into panic attacks. Having often been accused of being too phlegmatic, this was new, but I put it down to hyperglycemia, and some instant sugar did seem to help.
But then I got agoraphobia — the word means a terror of open spaces. If I walked more than a block from my house I would get a full-blown panic attack, and if you've never had one the main symptom is the heart racing at a speed that no heart should race. Once I turned back toward home, it settled down.
I thought I was going crazy, and my doctor was beginning to talk about Valium. Later I realized this was my body screaming, "You're anemic. Your stores of iron are critically low. Get in trouble that involves bleeding and you will die. Go home, sit in a safe chair and do nothing." The anemia was due to very heavy periods, by the way, a not uncommon thing as we approach menopause.
Iron supplements sorted it out, but over quite a few months. The key factor here was not the iron in my blood, which stayed within acceptable levels through most of this, but my back-up store of iron, which is measured by a blood test for ferritin levels. For some reason doctors rarely do this test, but it was my ferritin stores that were going down and down until I had virtually no reserves to call on. Please, if you or anyone you know is having panic attacks, get the ferritin checked. I try to spread the word on this, and it's helped a lot of people.
This problem came on and worked out over the best part of a year, and I was trying to write The Fortune Hunter then. My problems didn't prevent me from sitting down to write, but I knew the book wasn't going well. Later, when I was better and sat to it again I realized how very tired most of the characters were most of the time!"
From Joanna Bourne:
The hardest book for me is always the one I'm working on. And the highest hurdle to overcome is myself. I'm my own worst critic. Nothing ever seems right and the further I get into the manuscript the more impossible it seems.
About the middle of writing a story, it's like being inside of some mad labyrinth with no way out and nothing makes sense.
What keeps me going is the characters. I hate to let them down. They really deserve to have their story told.
And back to me:
Like Nicola, I can stress over deadlines, so I try to write well ahead of any possible disasters and life interferences. So when I was scheduled for major surgery, I calmly finished the draft before I went into the hospital and actually enjoyed starting a new book right after. I know, I’m warped. I lost my mother to cancer, but there was nothing sudden about it. I had no choice but to keep writing over all those years. And when she decided she didn’t want to live any longer and quit taking her medication, I was on a huge book tour with half a dozen people. The book had been drafted on schedule, but the last of that tour was a blur. That might have been the one book that wasn’t turned in until the last minute because it was impossible to focus on editing.
So my difficult books are caused mostly by me, and me alone. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, The English Heiress took me a dozen years to edit, revise, and patch together from corrupted disks and old files and yellowing pages because it sat around too long on an editor’s desk and romance had undergone a sea change before it came back to me. The original version was a fascinating mish-mash of Regency and old style historical and a comedy of errors, so I’m rather glad I had the opportunity to make it fresh with the wisdom I hope I’ve gained over the years.
How about you, do you act or react to the hardships in your life? How prepared are you for an interruption in your regularly scheduled routine?