Every time I start a new Dixie Hemingway book, I proceed in the same halting, tentative way throughout what I call Act I, roughly the first third of the book. I make false starts and begin anew. I change characters and locations. I throw out chapters and write new ones. I always feel like I’m swinging a machete to create a path through a dangerous jungle, hacking down thick vines that obscure my vision, hyper-alert to constrictor plots that can squeeze the life out of my story or slavering character beasts poised to pounce on it and devour it. I write myself letters from my characters in which they explain themselves to me. I have them write letters to one another, revealing the deepest, most personal secrets that drive them. If their communication with one another doesn’t spark some anger or fear or envy or something that I think they can sustain to the end of the story, I bring in new characters and start over.
I don’t feel safe until I’ve written the crucial last scene of Act I, when I finally know my characters well enough to know what they’ll do when push comes to shove in Act II. When I get to that point, I change obsessions. I dream about them. I wake up in the night and scrawl ideas. I go around during the day speaking their dialogue. My desk piles up with papers, post-its, miscellaneous stuff that I won’t notice until the last sentence of Act III is written.
With every book, it’s always the same thing. Everything new, everything the same. You’d think it would have changed with time and experience, but it hasn’t. The only thing I can say has changed is that when I first started writing I was pretty sure I would suffocate under the weight of my own words before I ever got a story written. Now I know that if I keep hacking away, I’ll eventually see daylight. A credible story will emerge. I’ll write “The End” and feel satisfied.
So if anybody is looking for me, I’m here in the writing jungle with my machete. Are you in here too?