Writer’s Cramp is the blog and site for B. Jenne’ Hall, writer, genius, and pathological optimist. She’s written her first book, is working on her second, and she’s trying to get published. Which from all accounts seems to be as approximately attainable as the gift of flight, but who doesn’t love a challenge?

The story behind the story

So I got an offer to write a book.

Not this one. A different one. About this. Seems that post made the rounds of the virtual world and the real world, and six months after I posted it, I was approached about writing a book about my experience.

It was an amazing offer. A once-in-a-lifetime offer. One I agonized over for weeks. Months. I think really, I’d made my decision pretty early and the time I spent agonizing over it was just me finding my way to it.  Because, you see, I decided not to do it, and there are lots of reasons why not, but the biggest, more important reason is this: 

It wasn’t the book I wanted to write.

I’d said what I wanted to say in that essay and while there were more stories to tell about that experience, they weren’t the stories I wanted to tell. So I decided not to pursue the offer, even though it was amazing and wonderful and exciting and I knew that I wasn’t going to get an offer like that ever again.  Ever.  Believe me, it wasn’t an easy decision to turn down such an incredible opportunity.

What I did decide, however, was that if I was going to turn down this amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, that it had to be for something even bigger and even more amazing, something worthy of shutting that door on the chance of a lifetime.

I decided to try get my book published.

But before we get to that, we have to start at the beginning.

A not-so-brief history

I actually started this book – a very, very different version of it – waaaaay back in 1998.  (More than a decade ago?!??)  After an initial burst of inspiration, I worked on it off and on over the years – pieces of that early, early version are forever immortalized on our coffee table, by the way – but it just seemed to stall and never really go anywhere.  Occasionally, I’d make more headway, feel like I had a better handle on the story, but the inspiration never lasted and I kept walking away from it, getting distracted by other stuff.  I knew it wasn’t working, which is why I kept walking away from it, but there were some jewels buried in it in places and I just couldn’t give up on them.  It was quite frustrating, actually, because I could feel it…burning inside of me. I just couldn’t seem to draw out what I needed of it to see just exactly what of the story was compelling me.  In the meantime, I compiled more than 300 manuscript pages and it just became, I don’t know, this Thing, like Damocles’ Sword or something.

And now, a short detour…

You remember awhile back some guy went rock-climbing in Utah and a rock fell on his arm and trapped him, and he was out there in the wilderness for days and days?  And he thought for sure he was going to die out there?  And he cut off his arm to save himself and somehow managed to survive?  Well I heard him interviewed on NPR about 9 months after it happened, and the way he described it, the act of cutting off his own arm was an amazing experience that it had given him new life, that it was almost spiritual in its way. There he was, facing certain death, and then all of a sudden here’s this way out and he could live again.  He knew what he had to do.

(The guy’s name, by the way, is Aron Ralston, and he wrote a book about his experience called Between a Rock and a Hard Place, because DUH OF COURSE THAT IS THE MOST BRILLIANT BOOK TITLE IN THE HISTORY OF BOOK TITLES EVER IN THE UNIVERSE WHEN YOU HAVE BEEN LITERALLY CAUGHT BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE.)

What happened with my story was like that guy and his arm.  In early August 2006, I had a series of…well, epiphanies.  Sort of.  I suddenly understood the story and where it needed to go in a way I hadn’t before – how it needed to be built, the world that it lived in, how it would start and how it would end and all the rest.  It would mean carefully culling out those few jewels from the chaff (sorry, mixed metaphors!) and scrapping pretty much all of what I’d written, but I was so over the moon about this story, and it was so clear in my mind that even the thought of binning 300+ (!!!!) pages of written manuscript didn’t scare me – it freed me.

I was ruthless.  I saved maybe 30-40 pages of that original manuscript.  All just little nuggets to get re-woven into the story, little vignettes, or sometimes a particular turn of phrase.  Scraps, really.  The main characters would remain, the framework of the world I’d built, but everything else was going to be redone, right from the beginning.  That empty Table of Contents that used to have chapters numbering in the double digits didn’t even faze me.  That first day after the pages were scrapped, I could hardly sit still long enough to type I was so excited.

And then…

Two weeks later, I received that fateful email that led to an incredible string of events and an offer to write a book about an entirely different story.  When that email arrived, I’d been up until the wee hours of the morning the night before working feverishly on this story.  And suddenly, my life took a decided tilt in a whole new direction.  Who knows what might’ve been different if I’d gotten that email a few weeks earlier?  Maybe I would’ve been over the moon about writing that book instead, and the previous version of this story that had been languishing on my hard drive for nearly a decade would’ve died quietly.

I don’t know what might’ve happened.  All I know is that this is the story I wanted to write, and I was already writing it when that offer came.  Even if this story never sees the inside of a bookstore, I needed to write it, and it couldn’t wait, couldn’t be put off.  I’d chopped off my proverbial arm to free myself from a rock and a hard place and there was no going back.

I worked on it steadily after that. I had long stretches where not a single word got typed, as I worked out a character or figured out how to get myself out of a corner in the plot. But there was rarely a day in the last two and a half years it took to write it that I didn’t open up the file and work on it, even if it was just editing a particularly clunky passage or looking up arcane pieces of information for some descriptive detail, like the name of that middle groove* in a sword blade.

*(It’s called the fuller, if you want to know, and although its main purpose is to make the blade lighter without sacrificing structural integrity, it also makes it easier to pull the blade free of the body when you’ve run someone through….  Now, isn’t your life better for knowing that?)

But whether I’ve been writing ten pages a day or ten pages a month, this story has been as much a part of my daily life as my job.  In many ways, it’s more of my job than my paying job is.  Maybe someday those two things will be one and the same, but whether or not that day ever comes, I am doing what I love the most, and isn’t that all anyone can really ask for themselves?

The End

When I was, oh, 14 or so, I started keeping a list. It started out with about 10 items, but I intended it to be longer eventually. It was called “101 Things To Do Before I Die”.

I kept the list in a little wirebound notebook that had a unicorn and a rainbow on it; it was about the size of a paperback book. I added to it over the next few years until the items on the list numbered 101. It had things on it like “travel to Europe” (#4), “eat a mango” (#60-something), “have a surprise birthday party” (#13, I think?), “be kissed by a guy (not my dad, brother (gross!), or other family member or friend)” (in the top ten), “meet Al Gore, Future President!!!” (#76, added during my 1988 presidential campaign phase), “learn a language” (top twenty), and “see the ocean” (#2). The number one item on that list? “Write a book”.

I accomplished quite a few things on that list over the years, I’m happy to say. I still have the notebook in a mementos box in the attic eave closet. I haven’t looked at it in many years, but I’ll bet there are more things I’ve accomplished on that list that I’ve forgotten were even on it. I don’t remember what prompted me to start the list in the first place, why I felt the need to make this list about life accomplishments at a time when I didn’t even have a driving permit. And I don’t remember when I stopped carrying the list with me and marking things off of it when I completed them. But it was a big part of my life for awhile.

And at 8:10 PM on Sunday, February 8th, 2009, I officially completed item #1.

The final stats: 498 manuscript pages (excluding the Appendices), 69 chapters, and 248,717 words.

Something I’ve learned

This book and the experience of writing it has been a learning experience almost daily, but one of the biggest things I’ve learned in that time is how much of the experience of writing I’d been missing out on by not sharing it around with people. All these years, I’d always written for me. Occasionally, I’d share something out, like The Cathedral Park Chronicles, but there was so much that no one had ever seen because I have such major anxiety issues about letting people read what I write. Like to the point that I had every single story on my hard drive password protected within an inch of its life. I guess I had this secret fear that someone was going to break into our house and…read my stories? Whatever, I was crazy, the end.

But whatever burst of inspiration hit me that day about this story also must’ve scrambled my internal sensors about sharing my writing because not long after I’d gotten the first ten chapters (re)written, I was craving an audience, and I couldn’t even keep going on the story until someone had read it. After much nail biting and pacing and wiping my sweaty palms on the cat (eww), I sent a friend those first ten chapters. And then I waited.

I’d told her what was coming and begged her to please be honest, that I would be able to tell if she was lying. And that I needed feedback – lots and lots of feedback. And that she had to email/call me as soon as she finished because I would be climbing the walls waiting to hear from her. She will tell you that I called her every hour on the hour to see if she’d finished yet, but I most certainly did not. I only called her once, and that was to tell her what time it was. In case her clock was broken. You know. It might’ve been.

ANYWAY. Sharing it with someone opened up an entirely new facet of the writing experience for me. I was thrilled to get to talk about these characters, to discuss themes and subtext in something I was writing, and to shrug enigmatically about what might happen next.

It was like a gateway drug…within a week, I’d sent it to another friend, and then she asked me if her husband could read it and then I decided to share it with four more friends, and with my mom and my dad and my stepmom and…and now…well now, I have my own little book club.

And you know what? It’s awesome. Opening up to other people about my writing is part of the reason I started to even consider trying to get published at all, after years and years of telling myself I would never do that. Without their enthusiasm and interest, this story would be finished and sitting on my hard drive destined to go no further and be read by no one but me. It may still not go any further, but at least this story and the people in it and the world they inhabit won’t live and die with me. When it comes right down to it, I think that’s all any writer really wants.

That, and to be able to say this:

I wrote a book.