Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Being Helen

It started so long ago I honestly don’t recall how it exactly began to form. A dream? A setting? A plot device? A scene? The story just was and when I ran it by critique partners and writing groups (which I rarely do with just an idea) the response was the same:  “You  HAVE to write that.”
So I wrote an opening. And the other writers who read it connected to it and told me: “You HAVE to finish this book.”  Only they didn’t say 'that book', they called it by the name of the framework character. Helen Nesbitt.   “You have to write Helen.”
Meanwhile back at the career…
My agent didn’t get it.  “Maybe if your characters were more likeable" she'd say - likeable being agent code for super nice and in no danger of confusing or offending anyone on the planet. And: “I know I told you I’d like to see something that went back and forth in time, but I don’t like the year you picked for the past scenes.” And:  “I know the twist at the end is the thing you think makes the whole book worth the trip and brings home the theme but I don’t know if I can sell that twist. Can you make it a more traditional ending?”

I couldn’t. I WOULDN’T. So I set it aside. For years after writer friends asked, “What’s happening with that book?”

Nothing was happening to that book. But something happened to me because of that book… or I should say because of Helen.  

I grew more and more unhappy with the path my career was taking. I compromised again and again on the little things then on the big things because I had a contract and was being told I HAD to. I wrote to please some truly unpleasant editors and an agent who obviously had grown bored with my writing but not with the regular checks my slowly-made middle-of-the-mid-list-mind-set writing produced.
What about writing for READERS? What about writing for yourself? What about MY story? All the while my inner Helen haunted me.
When my agent of 14 years refused to even read Helen’s story unless I made endless changes, I did the thing that has been the best thing for me and maybe one of the worst for my financial security – bye bye agent. 
I went back to writing The Book, changed Helen’s name to Helen Hartman and got enough written to make solid pitch and land a new agent.

My original vision of Helen Nesbitt

 And to try to help Helen out - I gave her a blog.

I soon learned readers saw Helen and I was one, so Helen Hartman was born

DearHelenHartman.com. Opinionated Advice Columnist. Wry Observer of Humankind.  Lover of All Things Vintage. Owner of the Infamous Sweet Little Thermos O Gin. It took some time to find her but with each blog post, each comment, each new follower, every beckoning adventure  –   ‘Like Helen on Facebook’ is slowly growing and other things are in the works as time permits – Helen has come to life. And in doing so she has informed my life.

Helen Hartman gives me hope. Helen Hartman gives me creative energy. Helen Hartman gives me back the voice that publishing as a commercial enterprise had all but silenced.
I ADORE Helen. I love her style.  I love her sense of humor and her willingness to say anything. I love that she doesn’t let anyone dismiss her. I love that now and then she sneaks in a real life lesson.
Most of all I love what she has done for me as a person and a writer. Scary as it is, I have written my last genre romance for my current publisher (not saying I wouldn’t love to write more elsewhere and my updated backlist will be showing up in ebook form soon – starting with the Route 66 series, more on that soon). I love that as I let go of the literary life, I was able to grab onto Helen. In her I have so many opportunities that I’d never imagined. She has grown as a character, too. And that has affected the shape of the story, the goals and motivations of the actual protagonists of the book. It has added a depth that all the editorial input in the world could not have given her, um, me.

Elvis, Bait AND Karaoke. No editor would ever have approved but it works down at the Bait and Bullet (an actual place near my house - yes, I Am kinda in the South, why do you ask?)

And so, even though money is beyond tight and I keep thinking that a responsible adult author would  ‘man-up’ and pitch another book that was most likely to bring a check (ever diminishing as they are in the print publishing world) I have to ask myself – what would Helen DO? After almost a year of writing as her, I know the answer to that question.  
I am finally going to finish Helen’s story.  
I owe it to her.
Pink highlights in my hair? Yes, I believe I will... after all, Helen would!

Ever blog in character? Have a book that won't let of you? Taking a big leap of faith in your writing path? I'd love to hear about it. Please comment and leave a link!