When Tufa and I left on our walk early yesterday morning, we came across a strange looking little creature lying in the road. I thought at first it was a deformed gopher snake, because his length was about half what I would have expected for his girth. I realized quickly, though, that this creature was an alligator lizard, not a snake. It was as still as death.
It’s not unusual for us to come across dead snakes and lizards in the road because we have so many of them living here on our hill with us. They fall asleep while warming themselves on the asphalt and end up road kill. If they aren’t totally flattened, I’ll offer up a quick prayer for the dead, then pick them up by their tails and set them at the very edge of the road for the ravens, who eat them. (I move them so the ravens don’t end up road kill, too.)
I said my prayer for the dead and started to reach down to pick up the alligator lizard. But at the last moment, I hesitated. You don’t want to be bitten by one of these little guys; there’s a reason they are called alligator lizards. Instead of picking him up, I nudged him gently with my foot, at which point he made it quite clear he was still very much alive. He opened his mouth wide as if to bite, then turned tail and scurried off into the leaf litter.
Happy the little guy was still alive, and happier still he hadn’t clamped down on my finger, Tufa and I continued on our walk around our hill.
As we walked, I got to thinking how much alike my encounter with the alligator lizard and the writer’s block I had when I wrote The Storyteller’s Bracelet were.
When I started writing The Storyteller’s Bracelet, I had a much different plot in mind. Otter and Sun Song and Wendy were still central characters, of course, but I had two other major players: Lark and Sophia. These two women lived in contemporary times, more than 100 years after Otter, Sun Song, and Wendy. Lark and Sophia had the storyteller’s bracelet, and went on a journey to discover the meaning of the bracelet’s pictographs, and in the process, discovered a very personal link to the bracelet’s creator.
But I couldn’t get the timeline to work right. There were too many years, too many generations, between the characters. In order to make the timeline work, Lark and Sophia would have had to live in the early 1940s—right during WWII. Gas rationing would have made their travel across America highly improbable, and women simply didn’t take road trips alone in those days.
There’s something called “willing suspension of disbelief” that’s crucial in good fiction: the reader must believe what you’re writing is real, at least within the context of the story. And while I might have gotten away with overlooking the women on a solo road trip issue, I couldn’t overlook the gas rationing issue, because readers wouldn’t overlook it.
So The Storyteller’s Bracelet sat in a drawer (actually, on a flash drive) for several years while I wrote Smoky’s Writer’s Workshop Combo Set and Observations of an Earth Mage. But Otter and company still nagged me from a remote part of my brain, whispering “We’re here. We’re not going anywhere,” to me, usually at very inconvenient times, like when I was trying to sleep. They kept me awake more nights than I could count.
And then one day I heard the voice of my Muse, who’d been suspiciously silent on the subject of The Storyteller’s Bracelet. She whispered in my ear as I lay in bed, trying desperately to fall asleep, You know, you don’t have to write the story you set out to write. You could write an entirely different story. The story isn’t Lark’s, or Sophia’s. This story belongs to Sun Song and Otter.
I listened to Muse. It was painful, cutting almost 30,000 words out of a work in progress, getting rid of characters I had really grown to love, and getting rid of what I considered some fine prose. But it had to be done. Lark and Sophia got relegated to a new file on my flash drive, away from Otter and Sun Song and Wendy. Perhaps they will rise again some day; perhaps I’ll find their true story. But it wasn’t in The Storyteller’s Bracelet.
After Muse gave me the proverbial kick in the pants (or, more accurately, a gentle nudge), it took only a few months to finish The Storyteller’s Bracelet. I wrote like I’ve never written before, all day, almost every day. It was worth it, because the book has been greeted by stellar reviews and sales my publisher and I are happy with.
Just like I thought the alligator lizard in the road was dead, I thought The Storyteller’s Bracelet was dead. I could have given up on the book and deleted the entire file. I certainly considered doing that on more than one occasion. I could have ignored the alligator lizard in the street, and left him there to be run over by the next car that came along. But I did neither.
A little nudge was all it took to get both moving in the right direction.
If you’re in Southern California, come hear Smoky talk today, Saturday, September 22, at 4:30 p.m. at the Big Orange Book Festival at Chapman University. Details at http://bigorangebookfestival.com/.
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