Somerset Maugham once wrote:
“There are five rules of writing and nobody knows what they are.”
Which sums up the way I work.
My second book, The Sacrament of the Goddess, is a lot closer to completion than it was in August, when I logged the first 200 words. It’s been a hoot, and the first challenge was learning how to write in the third person. If you think that is easy, you try it. Go ahead!
He thought it was easy at first. Just like being God, he chuckled to himself. I can see into the brain of any character I choose. The person next to him on the bench at Starbucks asked him what was so funny.
“I can now control a woman’s thoughts,” he said, “and know with certainty what they are thinking.”
She got up and sat in a different part of the coffee shop.
I had a recent exchange with one of my beta readers that went like this:
If you really must know and will promise not to tell, it was only after the bones were laid out on the ground, sets of bones, sometimes a femur had been stolen by some stray dog, that I started looking for the organs of each character, I knew I would find them if I looked under the piles of leaves and after all, I enjoy the woodsy smell of mouldering plant life.
By way of saying that I knew I would have to learn things as I went along and not think that it would all spring forth in a torrent that needed no editing like Kerouac. I wrote the plot first, just the action elements only. Other authors do it other ways.
I did know what the ending was going to be and I wrote backward from there. I got the action sequences down, just the events, the bones, and played with those for awhile. I wanted to have enough drama in the plot to make it a Bollywood movie. I had two heroines and the first impulse was that they would both be a love interest of the hero. Also, I included an inventory of women’s health issues specific to the setting. Between them, the two women were going to experience the Perils of Pauline.
Paying my dues
Over the course of four trips I have lived in the setting of the novel for eight months. I have lots of notes of daily life and culture there, and it is easy for me to conjure the setting. I scavenged my blogs for entries that could become book chapters, such as poisoning via Amanita Phalloides mushroom.
There were times when researching the background of the book required a detour, such as the military history of the Nepal civil war. Detailed factual exposition of how to go about attacking a town in a river valley. Likewise going over medical details of types of surgery that appear in the book. (don’t try this at home, folks!).
When I got to about 40,000 words, I needed to keep track of things more closely. From my first book, I recalled printing a copy every now and then, using it to make notes, and transferring the updates into the computer version at intervals. It is a good feeling to lug around a copy of the manuscript. At last something tangible. Yes, this phase involved killing of trees.
Mysteries of Nepali culture
I queried my Nepali friends on points related to cultural practices, and Skyped a bit with one particular friend on the subject of out-of-wedlock pregnancy, arranged marriage, the Gurkhas, Nepali slang, and courtship. This was helpful.
Should I have two heroines?
The idea of two heroines was unworkable. (Polygamy is legal in Nepal and at one juncture I considered the ending in which he marries both. Rejected. We need a happy ending!). I wanted to emulate the kind of page-turning twists of plot typically found in a Bollywood movie, but this got to be ridiculous. Especially since I wanted to use the book to discuss serious issues such as sexual violence against women, and the role of women in general. So anything that objectified female characters would be out. This does not mean they can’t be beautiful or feel attraction to the male characters. I means I have to respect them for who they are.
Deciding what to save for a future book – the sequel?
this also created a writer’s problem – to say the least. In real life, surviving a rape (which one does character does) is life-changing. She doesn’t simply pick up and resume normal life. But yet, though I have cared for victims of rape and assault, I knew I needed to research this as well. So I bought a book about the topic of recovery after sexual trauma, and studied it, along with doing a websearch or two. Now the book would also portray PTSD and counseling. All this was before the tragic and horrific events in Delhi this past fall.
Grasping just beyond reach
I was up to 115,000 words, and I was lost in the woods. I wanted to weave the two main women in and out but I simply didn’t know how – I am not that good a writer. I took English in college, but throughout my life I have not found much in common with English majors. I hang out with nurses and doctors.
That’s when I sought advice from beta readers. I knew I had a great story but I was picking at the edges of it. I had exhumed a pile of bones from a shallow grave, and was sorting them out like a forensic anthropologist. One beta reader told me I had more than one skeleton; another told me that a pile of bones doesn’t tell the story of the whole person.
In other words, clear out one major section involving the PTSD victim “…and save her for her own book – the sequel – which will do her justice and give her the space she deserves.”
She was clever enough to say “I fell in love with (the hero) and couldn’t get enough of him.” Ahhhhh…..
Excising the second heroine was brilliant advice. It took out about 37,000 words and left me with about 76,000 – enough space to fill out the remaining events. The goal is to end up with 80- 85,000 words these days.
Howls of wonderment and delight
The next beta reader turned out to be the truest possible friend.
“It was so bad I had to put it down,” she said, “You simply don’t have a clue how women think.”
And best of all, she got very specific as to why she thought that. She also got very defensive, wondering whether that was too blunt. She was expecting me to react the way a person does when they have received a fatal gunshot wound (but haven’t died yet). For the record, she is too kind to ever fire a shot at somebody.
Yes folks, I laughed out loud. Truth is, I don’t know how women think. Not a clue. Despite a lifetime of study. Despite eminent credentials. She had a point there! I want to meet the fellow who does.
My reply? “I need this feedback. I am trying to improve my writing, I am learning as I go.” And a lot of gratitude. When a simple thing such as writing in third person was new to me, I was going to have even more trouble with point of view. Even if you understand it, you have to be able to write it, which is also difficult.
To put it bluntly.
“Joe – you need professional help!”
One reader is a published author in her own right, and she suggested I get my hands on “The Breakout Novelist” by Donald Maass, and start thinking about the whole project in a different way. I had a story to tell, yes, that was for certain. But would anybody want to read it?
So the next two months of writing were focused on character development. Making each person three-dimensional and more nuanced. Relating this to plot trajectory. As they would be in real life. Even a good person can have bad days. A villain may have some redeeming features that create tension. Every person does not speak the same or have the same level of self-awareness.
I also subscribed to blogs by writers and read a few books recommended for me. The revision process included ways to re-tell certain parts of the story using point of view of the people who were in those sections, which was a gateway to the soul each time. In other words, I did a revision in which sections of cut-and-dry description were replaced by passages that focused on how the event was perceived. Shortened the technical descriptions of certain surgeries and the blow-by-blow of the battle.
I heard back from more beta readers, one of whom didn’t have as much to say about the characters but who found all the typos and fixed my problem with the way commas are used. This was also valuable.
There are two passages where the physical attraction between the hero and heroine are explored. This is a major plot element and I felt I had to describe it. The anticipation, the tension, the nuances of emotion in the prodrome – these act to set up the climactic scenes. Writing erotica is fun. Not as easy as you might think. Probably not something you should write at Starbucks – too many people are watching. But – fun. Not easy to get feedback on though. It pushes buttons for some readers. Still needs work. I admit it, I don’t tend to read erotica on a regular basis, and not out of context. I certainly never wrote any in the patient’s charts at work, or in the policy and procedure manual or course syllabi. Some female friends shared with me the names of their favorite writers who excel in this area.
returning to the subject of PTSD
My beta reader who prodded me on the emotions also got me thinking about PTSD again. A major section is about the battle that hit the town. They all have PTSD. None of them will be the same. Oh. Maybe this was obvious for some folks, but it was still an insight for me. From my own experiences with death in the hospital setting, I know that medical folks don’t always think of death the way others might. So – let’s explore that for a wee bit.
The book is about hospital care and deals with death. A couple of the deaths stand out for the personnel, and I wanted to portray the mixture of emotions to accompany. this will seem a shock to some lay readers I suppose, but the staff of a hospital does not weep for every single death. They don’t have time. How does their PTSD affect their coping? Again I wrote these sections at Starbucks. I used my headphones and listened to sad love songs in Hindi as I wrote and revised. Drawing from my own experiences in health care and trying to convey the essence of grief and loss.
Anyway, into the present day, I feel as though I myself have survived a major battle of the Nepal civil war and I am sadder but wiser. I feel as though I have also been through a(nother) major relationship with a woman which broke my heart and hers before we got back together. Oh, we’ll have some things to work out, but I enjoyed it. Along the way I reported for duty every day and stood at some of the same bedsides that were so familiar to me from Nepal. Or at least, that’s how it feels to create such events and bring them to life. All this without leaving Honolulu.
I am now resending it to other beta readers. I have something more in line with what the vision was. I know it will need more work. I am taking a break from intensive revision for a bit, until the next phase is revealed. Later this week i will send it to a professinal editor.
I will end this with a question to my readers.
Can you recommend any authors who do a good job of portraying the woman’s point of view? esp if they are a male? I need to get a feel for this…..