Butterflies keep turning up in my work, as you can see even from the cover art (and titles!) of What Can't Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly. Recently I saw a beautiful photograph on Flickr* that got me thinking about what it might mean that I keep seeing butterflies in the inkblots of my characters' worlds.
It has to do with obvious things, like my iron-clad optimism. I like (and need) the notion of change and growth. Of breaking out of confined spaces. Of surprise. After all, I believe no one is more surprised by transformation than the butterfly himself.
But there is something more to the butterfly thing. Fragility. Flight. Upward movement. Silence. The ephemeral.
That seems to be the direction the butterfly theme is taking in novel #3, which is darker still than The Knife and the Butterfly. The butterflies in my WIP seem to be a kind of negative image, their absence marked out by the contours of events. I think maybe I am the only one who will see them, gathered in the shadows.
*"Rorschach" by Robby Cavanaugh. It's not available for reposting via CreativeCommons, but it is so worth the click. Go on, click. You won't be sorry.
A while back, a blog reader asked this question in response to a writing inspiration post:
I hear authors talk all the time about how awfull they used to be, and how they're glad that first book they wrote won't ever see the light of day, etc. But they say they thought they were hot stuff while they were writing those not so great stories . . . So, my question to you, how can you tell when you work stops being crap, and starts being more like the work you admire? When you publish a book, are you ever afraid that in a few years your writing will be so much better, and you will be embarrassed you let that earlier work into the world?
The truth is that I don't know when that frontier from embarrassing to worthy is finally crossed. Usually it happens when I'm not paying attention, when I'm just trying to get from really crappy to less crappy.
There are things about "finished" work that a writer will never be wholly satisfied with. Somebody said that you don't finish a book, you simply abandon it. And he was talking about published work!
What I do know is that there are many writers who will never find readers because they can't bear the gap that always remains between what we write and what we dream of having written. They can't stand for readers to read the work that is, so they never publish at all. But I say that is a shame.
Regarding the last question, I don't think there's anything to be embarrassed about in "young" work. Every book sets its own terms, and its success depends on how well it fulfills those terms. In general, a first novel--my own What Can't Wait included--is a bit less ambitious, trying to do something small well rather than trying to take over the world and failing. (Of course, there are exceptions, like Junot Diaz's first novel, to name just one.) I feel my second novel, The Knife and the Butterfly, attempts something larger and riskier. I stepped outside of my comfort zone with the plotting, for example, and there's something of a paranormal twist.
For me, being a writer means embracing the challenge of working with words--and pushing the envelope of what I'm able to do with each word. I know that I'll (still) write a lot of crap along the way. I don't think the crap every goes away. But most of it stays in writer's notebooks and scrivener files that the reader never sees.
This is another reason that a good editor is indispensable. He or she will usually spot any crap that tries to sneak into the final manuscript.
It appears I have a new authorly addiction: Skyping with students. In the last month or so, I've been lucky enough to have a Skype author visit with students almost every Friday. Forget chicken soup for the writer's soul--these chats are RED BULL for this writer's soul!
A month ago, I talked with students at Yes! Prep Gulfton (in Houston) which is in the same neighborhood as Chavez High School, where I taught six years ago. In the past two weeks, I've made new friends through chats with book clubs in Georgia and Kentucky, both of which were reading What Can't Wait because it was one of the recommended books on their state's reading lists. (Yay for the awesome librarians who made this happen!)
I do charge for the Skype chats (we have to pay for Liam's daycare somehow), but I am pretty sure I enjoy the experiences at least as much as the students do. They remind me that there are real students out there (some of whom rarely finish a book) who are benefiting from my labors. And their stories and questions send me back to my work revising novel #3 with a sense of urgency, excitement, and energy.
The only downside of Skype is that I haven't mastered the virtual hug. But otherwise--amazing.