I’ve been killing my darlings in the past week. And not just any darlings.

The summer of 2005 marked a turning point. My big martial-arts action-adventure epic bombed at literary agencies across the country. I had no idea what was wrong with my writing other than it wasn’t good enough. I was never less sure of my ability to sell a work of fiction in this century.

So I went on writing.

And one day, I wrote the following opening to a historical romance:

It was a truth almost universally acknowledged that Madame Durant’s cooking killed Bertie Somerset. The proponents of this conjecture intended it to be a moral lesson—Mr. Somerset, having paid for his gluttony with an early demise, would dine for the remainder of eternity where steaks were perpetually charred and soufflés everlastingly flat.

But the fortunate few who had actually been invited to Bertie Somerset’s fabled twenty-course spreads pondered that same theory with awed envy. Lucky chap, to have feasted upon Madame Durant’s delectable food for more than a decade, and then to have departed this earth with his face buried in a bowl of the silkiest, densest mousse au chocolat known to man. Lucky chap indeed.

While England’s dozen or so gastronomes reminisced fondly over tarte au citron and escargot en croute, the rest of Society, master and servant alike, regurgitated old rumors concerning the special relationship between Mr. Somerset and Mme. Durant—namely, whether she slept with him and how often, though more intrepid souls went so far as to speculate on depravities involving pastry cream and rolling pins.

I remember being astonished. That writing had a voice. Where had that come from? I’d never had a discernible voice before. And suddenly there I was, writing as if I’d always had this voice that perfectly reflected my cynical, sly take on life.

I’d finally hit my stride. Six weeks later, I would rediscover the old manuscript of SCHEMES OF LOVE in a cardboard box, flip through it, and be inspired to re-tell the story, with this brand new, slightly arch, self-assured voice of mine.

When my editor approved the proposal for DELICIOUS, I tossed most of what I’d written in 2005 to start afresh, but there was never any question that this opening would firmly remain in its place of honor. Because it instantly establishes the book as a Sherry Thomas book. Because it is fun and slightly naughty. Because I am ever so fond of it, my darling, my own, my precious.

I chucked that whole opening this past week. I tried to save it. I tried long and hard. But my darling has become like that favorite blouse from fifteen years ago. It looked wonderful then. There are so many good memories. But it doesn’t go with anything else in my closet and I just can’t wear it anymore.

Taking out the old beginning has opened up the story to go where it needed to go (I hope). It has uncorked my thinking, sharpened my editing pencil, and given me renewed zest. After all, if I can handle taking a knife to my most beloved darling, I can scare this story into shape (I hope).

Happy Thanksgiving everybody!

When You Can’t Go Forward, Go Back

I’ve been away from my manuscript for a while. Partly because of all the demands of school—tests and cases being their own unalterable deadlines—and more because I was stuck.

The forward momentum on Delicious had been decelerating for a few weeks before it halted altogether. And where it finally ran aground was an unexpected place, a mere reaction scene, or a sequel, if you’ve heard of scene-and-sequel. (If you haven’t, imagine the scene is a big fight that ends with everyone banging the door storming out, the sequel would be one or more of them trying to sort out what happened, what it all meant, and where to go from there.)

The heroine, Verity, is a cook. The hero, Remus, is her new employer—and half-brother to her late employer who had, at one time, been her lover. There is a strong attraction between Verity and Remus, but neither of them wants it to go any further: he, being a rising politician, does not want the complication; she, because she’d long ago stopped believing in Cinderella stories. Finally, one night, Verity gets a little tipsy and almost manages to land Remus in the sack.

That scene is done and in the can. The scene that followed, during which Remus directs Verity to return to his country seat, ostensibly to prepare for the Christmas feasts, is also finished and usable. Then I thought, hmm, we never got to know what was in his head during his near-seduction, better put in a few paragraphs.

The few paragraphs refused all cooperation. I wrote and deleted and wrote and deleted, baffled by my inability to make progress. What was the matter? Why didn’t the words flow? Why couldn’t I accomplish something as simple as describing a man’s reaction to almost sleeping with the woman with whom he was in deep lust?

Then it hit me: I’ve lost all touch with him.

From the moment my proposal for Delicious met with approval from my editor, I’d been racing against the clock, pushing hard to move the story along. I’ve written many scenes but almost no sequels: no introspection, no reflection, no layering of character and very little revealing of backstory.

And that is no way to go for a character-driven story. The estate Remus inherits should have been a character in its own right, full of scents and sounds and textures that trigger long-forgotten memories at every turn. Remus himself, born illegitimate, and not legitimized until just before his mother’s death when he was in his late teens, should have been a much more interesting and multidimensional character than just this handsome gentleman who arrives once in a while to speak a few lines to startle Verity.

I knew, of course, that the beginning of the story needed much reworking. But I kept putting it off in the name of progress. Now I’m totally pumped to go back and flesh out the skeletal frame, to give weight that would anchor the story much more firmly, and to make my characters real people, as opposed to obedient pawns in my drive for victory against the deadline.

Midterms went swimmingly. Thank you so much for all the good wishes.

Why I Don’t Hate Angelina Jolie

I remember the first time I saw a Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movie poster. I was amazed. Lara Croft is the ultimate wet dream. And yet there exists a person who looks exactly like that.

I’m fuzzy on the timeline. I know this happened after the infamous liplock Angelina Jolie shared with her brother at the Academy Awards, and probably before her sudden marriage to Billy Bob Thornton and those vials of blood. But all the same, it was becoming firmly established in my mind that Miss Jolie is God’s joke on mankind, or rather, on anyone who’s into women. She has it all, eyes, lips, boobs, ass, legs, and a wild, uninhibited sexuality on hyperdrive. Her beautiful mug is on every print and TV tabloid. A giddy Billy Bob gushes to Leno about the-thing-she-does-with-her-feet. And you chance of shagging her is roughly, exactly zero.

In other words, she was that quintessential stereotype, the kinky, kooky sex goddess. She might be alive, but she was not real in any sense, not in the staid suburban existence I led, light years away from L.A.

And then one day—shortly before I quit watching TV altogether—I tuned in to an evening entertainment show and there she was again, doing press for some movie. This was near the end of her marriage to Billy Bob. Speculations were rife but I couldn’t care less. It was Hollywood after all, the American Babylon, everyone got divorced sooner or later. Besides, between the two of them, they already had enough divorces to give Liz Taylor a run for her money.

Angelina looked a little wan that day. She looked like she’d rather be somewhere else, away from the incessant camera flashes. But this was part of her job, so she smiled and took questions.

Eventually, somebody shouted, “How’s Billy Bob?”

An indescribable expression came over her face–resignation, sadness, and a lot of bewilderment. “He’s okay, I guess,” she said something to that effect. “I haven’t seen him in a while.”

Suddenly my heart ached for her. She might be the sexiest woman alive, and the kinkiest. But at that moment, she was just a woman in pain, wondering how everything so right went so wrong. And she had to live that pain with hordes of paparazzi dogging her heels and the intimate details—real and fabricated—of her second failed marriage splashed across supermarket tabloids from sea to shining sea.

Since then, Angelina Jolie has become one of the public figures I admire most, for her dedication to her children and to the forgotten children in forgotten corners of the world who have few other advocates for their plight. But whenever I think of her, it’s back to that moment, that moment when I caught a glimpse of not just her vulnerability, but her valiancy in the face of it, that moment when she ceased being a stereotype and became a real person to me.

In fiction, the best writers manage to catch exactly all those moment, when all a character’s fears and hopes are flayed open, when she must stand amidst the broken pieces of a dream, or simply, when she wants to tell that special person across the table all her aspirations for the future, when she rehearses the speech in her head again and again as the courses come and go, and ends up saying at the end of meal only “The cake was really good.”

I measure my scenes and characters against my Angelina Jolie memory. Do they ever come alive? Is there ever that defining moment when their joy becomes my joy and their pain my pain? A moment after which schadenfreude becomes impossible and I wish for their happiness as ardently as I wish for my own?

I’ll let you know if I succeed. And Angie, you carry on. Don’t let postpartum blues get you down. Things will get better, I promise.

Next Tuesday, He Was A Burning Pyre of Concupiscence in a Sarcophagus of Despair, or, What a Good Agent Does for You