A Book, Changed — On Writing

At what point in writing does one book become another? In the editing, rewriting, re-editing and re-rewriting of a project engaged over years, should we just call it a different book? (The shadow question is, of course, at what point does one pack it away, brush off one’s hands, and turn to something else?)

In the book I’m working on now, I have gone from two main characters to one, and she from a spoiled princess to a tomboy with no sense of her worth. I have gone from a many-faceted narrative to a single tale, driven by a young woman’s desire to protect the wild land that she loves.reading-and-writing Suzanne Lilly

I am not obsessed with ancient Persia and Babylon. I love dragons and urban fiction and ecological issues, poetry, food, and cheesy Italian American love stories. Yet I cannot yet give up on the (now quartet) series of historical novels set in ancient Babylon and Persia. Admittedly, in the meantime, I’ve also dabbled in YA fantasy, a stage play, three nonfiction book projects, and a few short stories.

But I keep coming back to the women of Cyrus’ ancient Persia, back to one in particular. There is an energy to the editing that remains and that tells me, rightly or wrongly, that the project keeps getting better; that there’s something there of value – entertainment-wise and for the heart, I hope, too; that it’s a contemporary story, a modern story with modern concerns that also introduces a woman who was quite possibly responsible for the existence of the Bible.

I’ve been learning a lot about screenwriting lately and finding ways to apply its techniques and form to fiction. It’s exciting but also a little bit terrifying. I worry that I may be diluting the strength of narrative or silencing rich characters by streamlining the plot and prose. And facing the fact of still working after, gosh what is it now, three years (four?) can be demoralizing.

Next weekend, we’re heading to a big family wedding. I’m sure it will be beautiful and loads of fun. And I’m sure that people will ask what I do and/or “how’s the book coming?”

Writing is humbling. The nonfiction that I published reflects an academic expertise and came out when I had a recognizably professional identity – a professor, tenure-track and then with tenure. Writing fiction, full-time, is another kind of humbling. Now, I am a small woman in old sundresses who works unseen and alone but for the company of a couple of dogs. I fill the bird feeder and turn the compost, and I re-write again… and again… and again.

How’s the book coming? It’s coming… or something is, anyway. I sit down at my desk, each day, and begin. At some point, if my inner Boss Lady has succeeded in keeping me in the chair, the Muse shows up, and sometimes, if I’m lucky, even offers to spell me for a time.

No one really cares if I finish this book (much less the series). And they shouldn’t. I took this on of my own volition and bear its burdens only because I choose to. Maybe stories come that way, appearing to an unsuspecting author at first to be delightfully benign. But so sneaky: soon insidiously demanding that you dig deep, deeper and then that you not only own what you find, but lay it bare out there in the wide open. I think of my nonfiction BIBLE BABEL less as everything-you-wanted-to-know-but-were-afraid-to-ask than as things-you-didn’t-know-to-ask-and-cannot-now-unknow. Stories of fiction are that and more — more, because good ones tug at who you are.

Really good stories invite you inside. Before you know it, you’ve reciprocated… and are changed, even if only by the entertaining escape they provide. No one is clamoring for my take on Amytis (who?) or even on Cyrus, for that matter. All I can hope is that if it does “get out there,” it offers not only a window into a person and past about which next to nothing is known (exempting a handful of experts) but also a few hours of entertainment that somehow, deep down, feels worthwhile.

If the book is now a different book than when I first began… and becomes yet another before it’s done, so be it, as long as it’s better. I can only hope that I am so changed, too.

P.s. Since posting this entry, I’m troubled by the statement, “No one really  cares…,” concerned that it’s too easily misunderstood to become a betrayal of all of the wonderfully supportive people behind me in this endeavor. My husband Craig, my parents, amazingly patient and encouraging friends who keep egging me on… There are so many people whose care I treasure. I think about the people at the Women’s International Study Center who so recently granted me a fellowship to keep pressing on with what is now Book 3 and offered a forum to introduce Amytis more broadly, and others who following some passionate discourse or another of mine on the topic have said to hurry up and finish so that they can read the book! Bless your lovely souls. So, what I mean is how lucky I am that no one has a gun to my head, forcing me to write and that I have the liberty to choose to do so. I also know that each and every one, friends and family, would support me still should I take the shadow road and chuck the whole thing. So. There are people who care deeply, and I am ever so grateful to them. But it’s my own darn row to hoe, so I’d best be getting back to it.

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