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Teaching a Butterfly to Fly

Originally published at Joely Sue Burkhart. You can comment here or there.

Continuing the story behind Beautiful Death

Have you ever wondered what it feels like to be a caterpillar wrapped tight in darkness? Trapped in that chrysalis, it must wonder if the dawn will ever come, or if darkness and death are all that’s left.

I found myself in a chrysalis with Beautiful Death, and I almost didn’t crawl out of it.

I’m nearly 5 years old as a writer. In the fall of 2003, I wrote two full-length novels that went on to become The Rose of Shanhasson and Road to Shanhasson. The first novels I completed after tinkering for years. Yet they were definitely freshman attempts: raw, silly, and immature. I started learning about the craft of writing, I entered some contests, and even sold two short stories in 2004. In the summer of 2004, I rewrote Rose from scratch again and it had some success in RWA contests that summer. Dorchester even requested the complete of it and I had such huge hopes.

Yet I was teetering on a dangerous slope and didn’t even know it. The waiting game is agonizing at the best of times, and I’d set such high expectations on that beloved story. In the months that followed, I day-dreamed while I began the rewrite of the next book, but month after month went by with no word from NY. I kept writing, but I hesitated to finish that second book until I had an answer on the first. Reading that beloved ms, I felt that something was still missing — but I had no idea how to fix it. My brain tried to reason that it must not be so bad if the full had been requested, but my heart insisted the story wasn’t RIGHT. Not yet.

I started an entirely new book and tried to apply all the theory of writing craft I’d been learning…and that book sucked bracken swamp water. Dismayed, I tried to return to my old beloved world and finish the rewrite of the second book in the series, but I was stalled, badly, with no idea how to proceed. How could I keep going with no answer? When I knew something was wrong?

Other than the first rewrite of Rose, I didn’t finish anything but short stories in 2004. In 2005, I started Beautiful Death. I decided to try my hand at erotica, but it just wasn’t working. It was forced and awkward. I can write sex, sure, and I have nothing against spice and even non-politically-correct Romancelandia topics, but that first 100 pages or so of the first draft was not working. At all.

So now in 2005 I’m sitting looking back at my path so far, with two recent failed novels in my hands and no answer from NY yet (by the way, no answer ever did come, and I withdrew it from consideration when Rose sold to Drollerie). I was crippled. I couldn’t fix Rose. I couldn’t finish BD. I was afraid to start yet another book when I’d failed on the last two attempts. In short, I’d lost all sense of myself as a writer. I had no confidence, no voice, no vision, no heart.

Like a racehorse forced into a carriage harness, I’d kicked and fought my way free of the traces I imagined strangling me, destroying myself in the process. I felt trapped in Romancelandia, but couldn’t keep myself out of the genre no matter how hard I tried. Dismayed, I really thought about quitting. I couldn’t find my place, my voice, and I was tired of failing.

Yet a friend gave me a different perspective. She told me that I needed to find a way to stay — and color as vibrantly as I wanted — within the lines.

For some reason, this made me think of a stained glass butterfly. I’d taken a stained glass class in 2004 before Littlest Monster was born, and I’d enjoyed picking out the various colors of glass and framing each piece within lead to make the picture. My mother-in-law had taken the class with me, and she’d chosen a butterfly pattern. I was tempted to do the same, but pride drove me to do something different. Her finished project was lovely — and totally not what I would have done. I never would have selected those textures and colors of glass. She’d made the pattern her own with her choice of colors in a way I never would have done.

She’d colored within the lines and was thoroughly pleased with her project.

Although I didn’t finish a novel in 2005, I sat down with those 100 pages or so of Beautiful Death and tore it apart. I eliminated all the stuff that wasn’t working for me. I eliminated a few characters that I still miss (Phillip) and used all the craft I’d studied the past two years to start from the beginning. The butterfly metaphor was still with me, and somewhere along the way toward The End I stumbled across Wings of a Butterfly by H.I.M.

For your soul, my love, Rip off the wings of a butterfly.

Oh, how those words spoke to me. I’d ripped off the wings of my writer butterfly. I’d made a sacrifice of my blood and dreams. And only I could make that butterfly fly again.

I set that song on an endless loop and wrote the last chapters straight through, finishing in the middle of the night nearly a year after I’d started BD. One novel in a whole year, after writing 2 (big novels) in 4 months in 2003. Yet that novel was the turning point. It threw my butterfly back into the sky. I remembered why I loved to write. I colored within a lead pattern and found a way to fly again with stained glass wings of my own voice.

Bouyed with the high of finishing BD, I turned back to Rose late in 2006 and murdered my heroine. I mean, I really killed her in my mind and created her fresh. I threw out that entire second draft and started AGAIN from scratch. I finished that draft early in 2007. Moved on to Survive My Fire in Feb. 2007. Sold it in April to Drollerie Press. And the rest is history.

Remember the butterfly if you read Beautiful Death. It’s not just a cool design Icarus uses for inspiration. It’s not just a pin from Isabella’s childhood. When Isabella pulls herself out of the chrysalis, I was pulling myself out too. It’s a desperate, frightening, dangerous birth in which one wrong move can lead to death.

In the end, she learns to fly even with Hades’ silver piercing her wings, and I learned to color within the lines.

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