A Writer’s Growth: The Blackbird Season by Kate Moretti
In 2010, I did what many women in their late twenties/early thirties do: I had a baby. She was actually my second baby, my first was at preschool all day, and the new beautiful, happy baby ended up sleeping twenty-two out of twenty-four hours a day (before you throw daggers at me, my oldest had colic. I earned those hours!). I spent a lot of time reading and watching daytime television. I developed an elaborate cleaning schedule that involved baseboards (baseboards!), and finally, because of the power of suggestion from a friend, I wrote a novel. I say all this tongue-in-cheek, knowing it sounds preposterous and even pretentious (isn’t it supposed to be hard?). But I will tell you: that first novel wasn’t hard at all. I never thought one iota about craft or story structure, I just mimicked the structure I’d read a thousand times being the avid reader I was. It was the most fun I’ve ever had writing.
It was also terrible. It dragged. It made promises I didn’t deliver. The characters were kind of shallow and half-baked and (groan) one was based on me. I thought it was absolutely brilliant. It had a secondary POV with no arc of his own (later removed) and almost no point other than I liked him.
I uploaded the first ten chapters on a writing website and waited for the accolades. What I got instead was a few hundred comments of constructive criticism, each one like a dagger to my heart. I took it down.
I nursed wounds for a few days, then printed everything out and realized: I have a lot to learn. I bought craft books. I gave the manuscript to friends, family, strangers in coffee shops, and begged for feedback. Be mean! I said. I can take it! And I could. Eventually.
A year later (yes, a year!), the “baby” was no longer sleeping but writing had gotten under my skin, somehow it became an integral part of who I was, even though I hadn’t written for years prior to that. I found an ad for a small, brand new publisher called Red Adept and I submitted. They called me a month later and offered me a publishing contract. There will be edits, she warned me. And a title change. And the removal of an entire point of view.
Bring. It. On.
The terrible book became a good book. Maybe not a great book, maybe not the best book you’ve ever read but a good, solid first effort. I bought more craft books. I realized writing well is very, very hard. I will always remember that first novel, though. There is a rush of excitement that seems to stem directly from ignorance. You don’t know the rules, and therefore, can’t know all the mistakes you’re making as you go.
Now, four published novels and one novella later, craft has become an integral part of my planning. Oh yes, I plan for books now. From a writing perspective, I try to tackle something new in each book: multiple points of view, dueling timeline, surprise ending, and now with the next one: an ensemble cast. From a reader’s perspective, I try to make sure I write the book that would keep me engaged.
For The Blackbird Season, I wanted to examine the way a small town influences family dynamics, friendships and alliances. How far can you push a friendship until it breaks? How much pressure can you apply to a marriage before it’s irrevocably ruined? Blackbird is more of a character study with some murder thrown in, as opposed to The Vanishing Year, which was a standard thriller. In Blackbird, I wrote with the understanding of how the characters would all end up in relation to each other, but not fully knowing the plot until I got to the end. In Vanishing, the plot point at the end (the twist) was the first thing that came to me and I had to work backwards to find the beginning. The hardest part of writing The Vanishing Year was finding exactly where the story started. To me, it always started with her decision to find her mother.
I do sometimes look fondly back to the beginning, back when I knew nothing and was able to construct a full and complete story, start to finish, by the seat of my pants. I know there are writers who still do this and kudos to them! I’m no longer one of them and sometimes I miss that. I don’t miss the full year of restructuring and revisions that came after it, but I do miss the high of throwing an idea on the page that seems crazy, out of left field, and finding out it works, completely. While this sort of spontaneity still happens, it’s on a smaller scale: a plot point or minor character or secondary twist. For me, becoming a “better” writer means doing a lot more pre-work: character sketches and setting research, and giving a big chunk of brain time to theme and arc, something I never thought to do with my first or even second novel.
I think it pays off in a more coherent story, an over-arching sense of story and depth of character, so I can focus on those plot twists that keep you turning pages.
(c) Kate Moretti
About The Blackbird Season:
In a quiet town, a thousand dead starlings fall onto a school playing field. As journalists flock to the scene, one of them catches a teacher, Nate Winters, embracing a female student. The student claims that she and Nate are having an affair, sending shockwaves through the close-knit community. Then the student disappears, and the police have only one suspect: Nate.
Nate’s wife, Alecia, is left wondering if she ever really knew her seemingly loving husband. Nate’s co-worker, Bridget, is determined to prove his innocence and find the missing student. But both women will have to ask themselves do they really know what Nate is capable of?
Order your copy online here.
Kate Moretti is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Thought I Knew You, Binds That Tie, and While You Were Gone. She worked in the pharmaceutical industry for ten years as a scientist, but now writes full time. She lives in eastern Pennsylvania with her husband and two kids.