Orphan Pearl, Three Times

I've gone back and forth about writing this post. I'm not sure that anyone needs to hear the story behind a book, especially when it's so torturous. As a reader, I like it when books feel effortless. I think one indicator of skill is the artist's ability to make all the hard work disappear. Authors are like stage magicians in a way, hoping to distract our readers with flash and patter so they don't see how the trick is done. 

Plus, I'm just starting out. I've been published for six months. How much of a journey could I have had? 

But maybe that's why, if I'm going to write this post at all, it has to be now. Publishing The Orphan Pearl marks the end of an era for me. I wrote it last year, starting in March or April or so. But the first thing I ever wrote about the orphan pearl, the object, was a paper for a class I took in graduate school back in 2003 or 2004. Here's an excerpt--I picked an especially boring bit, because it doesn't require much context and I'm not trying to pretend this is scintillating stuff: 

"None of the sources... claim to have actually seen the Yatima – not Abu al-Rihan al-Biruni (d. 1038, author of an eleventh century treatise on gems), not al-Wasiti (a Jerusalemite preacher), not al-Azraqi (the first historian of Mecca, who wrote c. 865), and not al-Fakihi (a later historian of Mecca, who wrote c. 883).  None of them having even pretended to a first-hand knowledge of the gem, it is difficult to understand how their accounts could provide solid proof that the Yatima had ever existed..."

Gripping, right? 

Well, it was to me. I was completely captivated. I'd been primed by all the McGuffins I'd run across in books and film, and here was a real one. A legendary gem that important people wanted to own and other important people pretended to own. I loved everything about it. The lore surrounding pearls, the symbolism, the name. 

I was so taken with the idea that I... wrote a book. My first book. And it was terrible.

I wish I still had a copy of this first Orphan Pearl but it's gone. I did every single thing that writers aren't supposed to do: I gave my heroine a wacky name, she had crazy ninja skills that she'd acquired by means I could not have explained if you put me in front of a firing squad, she looked an awful lot like me... oh, and, to top it all off, the hero and heroine didn't meet until sixty pages into the manuscript.

60 pages! And I thought I'd written a romance!

You will be shocked to learn that even though I shopped this masterpiece to many agents, it was not picked up.

Eventually I decided I needed help figuring out how to sell my book. Not how to improve as a writer--just how to sell. The book was perfect, of course. I joined RWA and started attending meetings. A few long-established members offered to read my stuff and they let me down gently. They were much kinder than I deserved.

The monthly meetings included craft presentations and talks delivered by prominent romance writers. I learned about things like story structure and conflict and stakes. I learned that wants and needs are different and that this difference can be exploited. 

I realized that my book was bad.

So I decided to rewrite it. From scratch. In fact, one of my first posts on this blog, back in 2011, was a scene from this new and improved Orphan Pearl. Version 2.0 was... not terrible. I mean, I cringe at the thought of letting anyone read it, but it could have been a lot worse. 

It didn't sell either. But I'd learned that the best thing for new authors to do while querying one book is to start the next one, so that's what I did. 

The next book turned into The Secret Heart, and I could tell that it was a lot better than anything I'd written before. All the lessons I'd learned had clicked. I'd set goals, and I'd met them: the plot made sense; the characters had agency; the romance forced the characters into a crisis and catalyzed personal growth. I thought it was sexy and the characters felt real to me.  

At this point I'm going to skim over the sad story of how I tried and failed to get a traditional publishing contract. I got my hopes up, I got my hopes dashed. Rinse and repeat.  

But I kept writing. I wrote The Lover's Knot and I was really proud of it. It felt more 'me' than anything I'd written before. I was starting to understand what makes me (for good or ill) unique. I felt confident about my voice and my direction, and I'd gotten enough nibbles to believe that I might find an audience. 

So I decided to self-publish. At this point--a little more than a year ago--I'd spent years waiting patiently and hoping for a break. I'd had enough.

But soon I ran into a problem. Back in the day, when I was sure one of those early Orphan Pearls was about to land me a sweet multi-book contract with a trad house, I'd kept writing--like I was supposed to--but always with the assumption that my first book would definitely make it to print. 

So the hero of The Secret Heart felt a lot of angst about his dead sister. Alfie brooded over his lost love in both The Secret Heart and The Lover's Knot. And, in those early Orphan Pearls, Julian from The Lover's Knot showed up as the hero's best friend. 

After finishing Lover's Knot I wanted to move straight to Alfie's book. I had spent enough time trying to make The Orphan Pearl work. Starting over again--for the third time--felt like a mistake. Like chasing a white whale--an unhealthy obsession that could only lead to disaster. 

But I couldn't write Alfie's book without writing the book where Lily rejects him. He wasn't going to move on without it. Even if it were possible, the fact remained that The Orphan Pearl was the linchpin of the series. It tied the other books together. 

So I sat down to write The Orphan Pearl for a third time. 

I started from scratch, again. I changed as much as I could. I did not want to risk getting stuck in old ruts. I changed the year--the original had been set in 1838, the final version is set in 1840. (All of my books are set in the late 1830s because of that first, trunked Orphan Pearl) Changing the year allowed me to come up with a completely different plot, arranged around a different set of historical events. I gave the heroine a new personality. I stuck the hero's backstory in a blender. 

I wrote something new, not a final iteration of the books that came before it. I think The Orphan Pearl has some of The Secret Heart's urgency and high drama, some of The Lover's Knot's moody complexity. I feared that I'd regress; instead, I built on what I've learned. It was an ambitious book for me, with a lot going on, and it tested my skill.

And it deals with issues that I'll never stop thinking about--the costs and benefits of extended travel, the problems inherent in tourism, compromising for the sake of belonging, home as nourishment and trap, the minefield of international politics. As much as I've groused in this post, I suspect I could keep rewriting The Orphan Pearl until I die and that it would come out differently every time, evolving as my thoughts evolve. 

In a way, I'm a little bit like The Orphan Pearl's protagonists: circling my way back around to where I began, so that I can move on to something new. Hopefully getting it right this time, or close enough.