In two weeks, I’ll finish my residency for the Fifth Semester program in New York City with a final four-day weekend where we’ll spend time learning more about the craft of writing and the path to publication. I’m excited to meet up with the others in my cohort and hear how their work has progressed. Everyone was jazzed and inspired at the end of the Chicago residency in July. I wonder if it has carried them through the intervening months.
For my part it has been hot and cold. On the one hand, I’ve learned a lot about writing a novel, but on the other hand, I’m tired of my current project. I’ve had moments of furious writing where I’ve been excited about a new direction, and I’ve had other moments where I felt the project had met its end, a dead end to be exact. I’ve landed somewhere in the middle for now. The project has totally changed in terms of tenor and direction. What was once a story of a flawed heroine exacting revenge on two clueless men has now morphed into a more complicated story of two best friends, one beset by jealousy, whose life-long relationship comes apart at the seams when they both fall for the same woman.
The current story line sounds cliche, but it’s more complicated than that. The irony of this entire process is that I started out wanting to write a psychological thriller, and I did, but it has morphed into a literary novel studying the complex psychology of what motivates us to do the things we do. In the first draft, the male characters were essentially cardboard cut-outs, while the female protagonist had this intricate backstory that drove the whole novel. Now, things are reversed, in a sense. The two male characters are thoroughly fleshed out, while the female character has become a secondary one. It’s too early to tell if this works as I’m still piecing the story together from the many parts I have written. Needless to say, it will be a very different story when I’m done.
The residency program has helped me through this process. An exercise on actions-reactions helped me ensure that my plot stood up to logic. A chart on novel organization helped me put the necessary pieces in place for a solid story. My mentor’s unvarnished assessment of my work gave me some much-needed perspective on what was working and what was not. I think it helps to have someone challenge your work early in the process so that you can make it better. In the past, I’ve worked with editors who have fulfilled this function beautifully. I feel I have the same support from my mentor. She makes me think about what I’ve written, and ultimately, her feedback makes my work much better. I need that, and that alone has been worth the cost of the residency program.
While I don’t feel I’m close to publication at this point, I have progressed, and that’s all I wanted from this program – to take my work to the next level. The road to publication is long. It rarely happens in the whiz bang fashion often parlayed in the press. What’s often missing in those stories of literary success is the years-long slog of working to improve and perfect the art of the written word. Every author is different, but a truly dedicated writer will reach his or her point of perfection and add to the tapestry of literary achievement. Eventually. And so will I.