Writing a book is challenging. It takes imagination, organization, persistence and the ability to turn one’s inner editor on and off. It takes the ability to keep the big picture and the telling details in mind at the same time.
But why are some books so much harder to write than others? Sometimes the reasons are clear. The material is too autobiographical or in some other ways risky, or the technical demands of the format the author has chosen are just too great. For example, an author might choose to create a complex and interwoven tale that jumps back and forth in time, as Audrey Niffenegger did inThe Time Traveler’s Wife. But sometimes the difficulty arises for reasons that are not clear to the writer.
After years of study, stories, and botched beginnings, my first published book, LOST IN LEXICON, came with startling ease. I wrote it for my youngest son, Damian. Thinking about how he would like a series of math and language puzzles made it a delight to write. I started without knowing where I would end up, and I whipped off a first draft in six joyful weeks. Of course, revision took a lot longer, but I’ve always enjoyed revising. It’s getting the words out in the first place that’s the struggle.
After LOST IN LEXICON, I began work on THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE . It took forever. I plodded, got stuck, turned back, tried a different route, got stuck again. I persisted out of stubbornness, determined to prove to myself that I could finish a difficult book as I had an easy one. At one point, stuck above the Serpent Falls, I put the book away for months, for the simple, dumb reason that I couldn’t figure out how the spring barge got up the river past the falls. Only after a long wait did I stumble upon an obvious solution, that there were two barges that met at the Serpent.
As mundane as it sounds, transportation remained one of my bugaboos in writing this book. I had to get my hero downriver three times and upriver twice. Each journey was important; each was a quest journey of its own in this three-part book. Yet I didn’t want to repeat myself in a boring way. It took me a while to truly accept the power of white space in moving a narrative along. (What, leave out some little event?) For insight into the power and elegance of white space, I thank my editor Ian Leask.
Very likely my problem with the technical details of transporting my character through space reflected deeper issues with transporting him authentically through stages of psychological growth. That meant probing my own values and memories and taking some risks as a writer. But what the problem felt like was just how to get poor Kiran from one physical place to another.
I put a finished manuscript of BEECHWOOD FLUTE aside six years ago, proud that I had finished a strong second or third draft. From the woods of Catora I returned to the land of Lexicon and wrote THE ICE CASTLE, which has plenty of transportation issues of its own; but I had learned a trick or two and once more the writing flowed.
Recently I picked up THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE again and found that it said what I wanted it to say, and what I think is especially important now at this moment in our history. To polish the book felt right and meaningful. I’m happy that it’s out there, and I hope that some readers will find that it speaks on some deep level to their own concerns and doubts.