I don’t buy clothes often—books, not shoes, are my luxury of choice. But even someone who works and writes from home has to update the wardrobe occasionally, if in a strictly proletarian fashion. Thus I decided, a couple of weeks ago, to buy a new pair of jeans. After an early success in which I added a sale item or two and placed the order in minutes, the process quickly went south. The normally reliable online retailer, patronized for years, had just upgraded all its computer systems days before a major late-season snowstorm took out the power, and two weeks and three phone calls later, I still don’t have the item I originally went online to buy. But the rest of the order arrived yesterday, so this morning, for the first time in years, I found myself struggling with a new pair of jeans.
Now, on the off chance that you only buy wool trousers and chinos, let me mention that jeans are not like other pants. Those you put on, and they fit or they don’t fit, in which case you keep them or send them back. Jeans ... grow. Each time you wash them, you have to stretch them out again, but that first try-on is brutal. I tugged and pulled. This was the same model and size I had in my closet. Had the manufacturer mislabeled the product? Had I put on that much weight? Should I have ordered a larger size? (Insert wild outbreak of denial here.) Then experience kicked in, and I remembered the drill: squats and bends, wriggles and twists—and behold, the jeans not only buttoned but zipped. A few hours later, they feel almost comfortable, if not yet cozy like the old friends hanging in the closet.
Of course, this post isn’t really about clothes. Book projects are like that, too. Start a new one, even with familiar characters, and it’s like struggling into that new pair of jeans. But do enough wriggling and writhing, twisting and pulling, and the book stops feeling like an alien object and starts to mold itself to your shape.
The Vermilion Bird is just about at that point. With a solid week of writing under my belt, twenty-three chapters (however rough) on the page, and two more sketched out to bring the book to its conclusion, I finally know where it’s going. And on Tuesday, in a flash of inspiration after re-reading the central third of the novel, it came to me what my main character’s inner conflict is all about. Specifically, what has made her so prickly and unlikable throughout the series that I have to convince some of my readers that it’s even worth picking up the new book to find out what makes her tick. (I promise: you will sympathize with her when you find out—and if you don’t, I will have put her in enough hot water that you will feel satisfied at having watched her squirm.)
Yes, I know: we writers are supposed to work on motivation beforehand—and I assure you, I did. But characters are people, too, and what I thought was driving Maria turned out to be only a symptom of her deeper conflict. So with enormous thanks to Ariadne Apostolou and Courtney J. Hall, whose questions and comments kept my virtual nose to the grindstone long enough to discover what my latest story is, I’m poised to finish my rough draft. And that’s when the real fun begins, once I’ve broken in that new pair of jeans.
Image: Clipart no. 109537280