In between promotion travel for Burn Baby Burn, I’m turning my attention to writing my next projects with Candlewick. I have an anthology story due soon, and a middle grade manuscript due in December.
I have friends who have mastered the art of airplane and hotel room writing. Some even write for as little as six minutes before going off to jobs in offices every day. But writing on the run has always been a struggle for me. I need a lot of quiet to sink deeply enough inside my imagination to connect with my characters, especially at the beginning.
So, I was cleaning up my computer desktop – which is what I do when when I’m trying to avoid something unpleasant, like battling my writing insecurities. The process of beginning never seems to get easier, even after all this time. (The only thing worse is writing endings, but more on THAT another day.) I still spend weeks circling like a vulture above the story. I can see the characters vaguely. I can see their neighborhood, their school, the general shape of their lives, but I can’t quite zero in on where to start. I can be caught like this for a long while, writing and rewriting the first 30 pages as I flesh out the book’s world, looking under every rock for the heart of my main character.
I bring this up because I stumbled upon hard evidence of why I should just embrace this wandering and stop worrying. Right there on my desktop was a file that contained the draft of how I had originally planned to start Burn Baby Burn. Back then, I decided I would open in the winter of 1977, on the day that news outlets were reporting about the suicide of Freddie Printze. Here it is as a pdf, if you’re interested. ORIGINAL BEGINNING OF BURN BABY BURN
I remember how cold it was that year in New York – almost as extreme as the summer heat that would follow. But what I was really after was the emotional window of Freddie Printze’s death. Who didn’t watch Chico and the Man? I loved that Latin God and all the ways his show spoke to me, wrapping its comments about racism in humor. Here was this good looking Puerto Rican-playing-a-Mexican, in tight jeans and puppy dog eyes. I was in love. News of his suicide left me stunned – and his death somehow became entwined in my mind with the long unraveling of the city that year. Something in the loss of a cultural hero brought me to the story of New York City in 1977. It reminded me that every piece of innocence and hope we had was at risk that year.
So what made me change my mind and abandon that opening? I’d love to claim that it was my own fantastic sense of storytelling, but really it was my editor, Kate Fletcher. To her credit, she politely stepped over my original beginning for months until we were very late into our editorial process. Finally, she pointed out the obvious. So much was going on in the novel that maybe I needed to narrow the timeframe a bit to keep the focus. Spring to summer seemed about right.
Kate. This is her gift. She knows just when to offer a suggestion so that I can hear it.
Had she insisted on this change earlier, who knows what I would have said? Likely, I would have fought her because Freddie Printze’s death was my way inside my own memories, and those memories are what gave me the courage to sink into research and the unfamiliar hard work of writing historical fiction.
I was reminded yet again that beginnings almost always change substantially once you’re “finished” writing. They are not sacred – except for those fragile, early days when they are what give us permission to reach inside ourselves.
So, where am I on my next novel? At the beginning. Or, so I think.
Just for you: You might like this master class CD about writing beginnings with Richard Peck.