Sunday, July 4, 2010

Flop Sweat

The best thing about writing is that you do it alone.  It's your world that you're creating; there are no committees, no censors, no taste arbiters -- just you and the keyboard.  When it's going well, it's one of life's most glorious indulgences Later, you'll get input from your early readers and your editor, but then you'll be alone again as you either change or don't change the story.

The worst thing about writing is that you do it alone.  You're putting a story on paper (or whatever), worrying about how best to tell it, trying to balance God knows how many characters, keeping an eye on tone and pacing and clarity and word count and brief reader attention spans, and at the same time you're probably trying to push the envelope, creatively speaking.  If you don't push the envelope, you don't get better, and you also get bored.  So you're doing this no-net balancing act all alone for, let's say, a year.  Is it any wonder that at times it all looks like head cheese?  Is it any wonder that sometimes you get night sweats?

I get flop sweat on every book.  Ten have been published (under my own name) now, and I've hit the wall on every one of them.  For weeks, at times, I've been convinced that this is the one that will kill me -- or, to be less dramatic -- that this is the one I'll have to abandon.  But they all get finished somehow, and when I send them off to the publisher I usually figure they'll like them.

ALERT:  I'm about to talk about my upcoming book.  Those who are sensitive to anything that looks like self-promotion should avert their eyes

The exception was the most recent book I wrote, the one that's coming out this August: The Queen of Patpong.  I believed, when I sent it off, that there was a fair chance that the people at William Morrow would either send it right back to me with "No, thanks" paperclipped to it, or else ask for a thoroughgoing rewrite.

The book has two possible problems.  The first is structural.  In it, I kick off a thriller, get it up to speed, and then interrupt it for a 45,000-word novella about the transformation of my continuing character Rose from an awkward village teenager into the "Queen" of Patpong Road, long Bangkok's most lurid red-light street.

The second is content.  That 45,000 word story is almost all women, and women at a delicate, even intimate, juncture -- they're either entering or enduring prostitution.  I've always been nervous about writing women; I'd written eight books before I ever wrote a scene between two women without a man present.  And all of a sudden I found myself 20,000 words into a story I had no idea I could write.

I would have quit, but the material had hold of me.  I'd originally thought I'd tell Rose's story in two or three chapters, maybe 6,000 words, sort of threaded through the book.  Instead, I was lost the moment I wrote the painfully shy girl whom everyone calls Stork, looking out on the dusty street of her village as jewels gleam on the neck and wrists of a young woman she's never liked, now a Patpong dancer come home for a visit.  The woman, whose has taken the name Nana, stops and talks to Stork as though they were friends and throws her a sapphire earring,  That earring started everything.  After Stork caught it, there was no way I could let go of the story, in which Stork would run to Bangkok, change her name to Rose, and gradually turn into the woman Rafferty marries.  And then we're back in the thriller.

I was terrified about reaction to that section.  It's a long, painful journey, and very much a female experience.  So in the past three days, I've been ecstatic to have just terrific reviews by two very good female writers, Beth Terrell and Barbara Fister.  In a really positive review on Murderous Musings, Terrell says, "The moral message is both powerful and subtle . . . and the portrayal of Rose is pitch-perfect--thoughtful, insightful, and always authentic."  And Fister, on the Yahoo group 4 Murder Addicts Only, says, "This is an amazing book: an honest and utterly absorbing depiction of women's lives in Bangkok, showing their strength in the face of huge odds. And the writing is just lovely on every page."

So I'm immensely grateful to Beth and Barbara.  Even if there are some bad ones in the future, at least two writers I respect believe that I got it right.  That makes an enormous difference.


  1. So, two women whom you respect and whose opinions you value have used the words and terms "powerful...subtle...pitch-perfect...thoughtful...insightful...authentic...honest...utterly absorbing, showing strength...the writing is just lovely on every page" to describe their experience of the book then it would seem that to honor their honesty you must accept the truth of their views. As I read it their opinions,it seems you got it more than right.

    That "...the writing is just lovely on every page" is one of the reasons that I read your books and want everyone else to do so as well. You have the gift of words, of being able to describe terrible circumstances and situations and wonderful and true characters and wrap them in poetry. And, there is the philosopher in there, too.

    The Poke Rafferty books already attest to the fact that you can write about men, women, and children and make them true. Rose may have been a prostitute but first, and always, she is a woman. In her life with Poke and Miaow, she is a woman who will do whatever it takes to support the man and protect the child. I never found anything about Rose not be be real.

    BSP? I don't think so. I wish there was a way for ordinary people who read and love books and want to support writers had a way to make a real difference.

    Tim, I am waiting impatiently for August 17.


  2. Tim--

    Sometimes a character or a scene or a storyline or a 45,000-word portrait just insists, "Write me," and you damn well better.

    I bet it came easier than the rest of the book, and will come to be known as the most vivid part of it.

    Great luck with the release.