Checking for Doneness v3011 28 11.docx: A Guest Post by Jo-Ann Mapson

In two days my 11th novel is due in New York.  Right now it’s in a file called v3011 28 11.docx.  This file occupies a mega folder called Finding Casey.  Next to it are three other mega folders, each with different titles, each filled with fifty or more other files, research documents, and so on.  Writing a novel is mostly sweat and uncertainty, trying to get to this destination vacation over a crazy, sweaty, rocky, long path.  I start with an image, and I write into the void until something connects.  But I’m not fully capturing the magic and other emotions that are also there, part of the process, and the more enjoyable brief stops along this long, winding way.
The seed of Finding Casey came about when I purchased a small micaceous covered pot at Indian Market years back.  They’re made from mica clay dug near a river here in New Mexico.  They cost a lot.  My friend Judi Hendricks has several and ooh do I envy them.  I bought my little pot from a young woman who was clearly uncertain about her work.  The exchange we had was jarring and odd.  It stuck in my writer’s mind as certain things do, and I thought about all that day while I walked the booths and wished I were a jillionaire.  She was young.  Her pots were small, and priced low.  The guy with her in the booth seemed a little controlling and I worried about that.
Days later, when I unpacked the pot, I found a blue ribbon from the Taos County Fair inside, and an entry card that the artist had filled out.  A bit of serendipity, I thought.  Things like this happen.  Later when I was talking to my friend, mystery writer Earlene Fowler, I told her the story.  Earlene was one of my very first students to go on to publish and we are good friends.  She has 18 books in print, and we read each other’s manuscripts and comment on them, usually at the finished draft stage.  She told me the story I’d just explained was the perfect plot for the book I was making notes on.  I resisted as I often do, but in reflection I began to see the wisdom of her words.  My novel now had an object in it that could function in several ways: concrete object, plot device and wait for it—metaphor!  Hurrah.  Metaphors are organic sprouts.  One can plant many, but few ever bloom.
My first start to this book focused entirely on the pot.  I wrote about the characters shopping at the Indian Market, a chance encounter between my characters, Glory and Juniper from Solomon’s Oak, and the creepy guy in the background.  I wrote 90 pages.  Then I foolishly gave them to a couple of writers for their opinion.  Translation: I was hungry for praise.  This was a very stupid move, and my book suffered as a result.  The responses were not encouraging.  WTH?  I’d sold this novel on the very same pages.  I lost my confidence.  I lost my way for several months and I could not figure out why the pages I’d written were so poorly received by these two trusted readers.  After much stomach churning, and months of not writing, I started over. 
I’m still not sure this was the right move.
What I finally realized was that I’d come to a new stage in my writing.  The stage where I need to trust myself, keep the story close to my heart, and finish a draft before I show it to anyone.  It might help to explain at this point that I’ve gone through many of these stages since publishing my first book in 1992.  Early on, I took a college workshop, and 30 people read my pages every week.  Thirty opinions influenced the next word I typed.  Then I was in a small writer’s group, and 5 people read my pages every week.  Then I stopped the group and had 2 writers reading my chapters every couple of weeks.  Then I was home alone, exchanging chapters every week with one writer.  Then it was down to me, pestering my husband every once in a while.  Then I stopped showing him anything until it was a finished draft.  Then I wrote this book, and foolishly showed it to 2 very different writers, both of who reacted as writers, not readers.  I’ll never do it again.  I now know I’m at the private stage of writing, where I must dwell in the story and trust my heart to know something I can’t fully understand.
Finding Casey started out as Miracle of Miracles, a title I took from a line in Solomon’s Oak.  Then came the day that I was writing some catalogue copy for my book, and I typed the words: finding Casey.  They were in the middle of a sentence, and when I saw them, I knew they were the title, come to me at long last, a kind of reward earned from spending a year writing about them.  I changed the title, and never looked back.  When I was reading through the finished draft this weekend, I saw the words had first appeared on page 93 of the manuscript, little flakes of gold, waiting for me to notice them, thank them, and make them the title they deserved to be.
This Thanksgiving my son was home for a visit.  He’s on his way to becoming a R.N. and a P.A.  He is a terrific reader and editor, and he went through the medical scenes in my book and helped me correct my mistakes.  His overall comments on the book were favorable, and he mentioned a couple things I might strengthen.  I’m fairly paranoid at this stage of a book, with no perspective whatsoever.  I had to mull his comments around for a few days to believe them.  That’s because at the finished draft stage all the seams and clumsy stitching and glue drips glare out at me announcing my inability, but apparently I’m the only one who sees them that way. 
Imagine, I’ve been publishing books nearly 20 years and I still don’t believe I can do it one more time.
Today is the last day that I can edit the manuscript.  I’ll attach it to an e-mail and send it to my editor and agent tomorrow.  They’ll read it in record time and send me letters suggesting changes and sometimes they are huge and other times they are minor.  I adore my agent and editor.  They are right 90% of the time.  We compromise and that changes the book.  When it comes out next October, I will read it again and see things I am too close to see right now.  The process of writing a book is a journey.  I always pack the wrong clothes, am traversing uneven, icy ground, get rocks stuck in my shoes, am lugging a heavy suitcase, getting sunburned, am thirsty, don’t understand the currency exchange, and yet I always arrive at my destination.
Thanks for the opportunity to blog here for the month of November.  I’d write more, but I am onto novel number 12.

4 thoughts on “Checking for Doneness v3011 28 11.docx: A Guest Post by Jo-Ann Mapson”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Thanks for all your posts this month, Jo-Ann! This was wonderful. There is nothing more valuable than candid, honest descriptions of the creative process — in particular, your changing use of readers over the years, and your need to trust yourself, and the fact that one never feels certain, even at the end. I look forward to sharing this.

  2. Wow, what a great way to describe the journey. I am at an earlier point in my career, but still, that's just how it feels. Thank you. I am sorry your term as guest is up, and hope to hear more from you down the road. Enjoy your next book!

  3. Many, many thanks for this one, Jo Ann! I'm also at the beginning point – doing those weekly critique groups, about to send my first proposal off on its first venture into the world – and yet your descriptions ring so true. This post makes me imagine that we're all hiking this same rugged, uncertain ridgeline. I'm uneasy with heights, really not liking how exposed the trail is. You've gone way ahead; I can't see you, but I can hear you call back assurances. Yes, it stays a bit scary, and yes, I'll pack these feelings of self-doubt and insecurity along to the end, but my feet will get surer and damn, is there a beautiful view ahead. Truly inspiring – thank you.

  4. Thanks for the feedback, folks. Last night I was ready send my book, and then thought, nah, wait until tomorrow. So I drove into town to get my haircut, la la la, listening to Rodeo on my car radio, and out of the blue, I knew ONE MORE THING that I needed to change in the book. That's how it happens. It can seem so frustrating to sit at the computer during regular work hours and think of nothing, but remember that your subconscious is also at work. I think it must stay up all night puzzling things out, and when it lets me know, then it goes and takes a well-deserved nap. So write on, write on, and know that we are all indeed on the same journey.

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