The Amazon Iowan

Blog of Author Heidi Cullinan

Lighthouses: Who I’m Writing For

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I’m writing this blog post as a running start as I finalize the last drafts of Sleigh Ride, Book 2 in the Minnesota Christmas series. It’s due in a week, and its completion comes on the heels of turning in Fever Pitch, which I’d wanted completed by December 1 and turned in January 10, only five days before the absolute last second deadline. Since December 27, I’ve been putting in regular 10-15 hour days with no weekends, only occasional stops to start a load of laundry or watch some TV with my family. To say the very least, I’m tired. I love Fever Pitch a lot, and I adore Sleigh Ride too, but the latter in particular, right now? I would rather scrub a toilet.

This is a problem, of course, because who wants to read a book someone wrote with their teeth set? In that first you’d-have-to-be-drunk-to-read-it draft, that kind of balls-to-the-wall force doesn’t hurt anything, because whatever it takes to get a draft on the page is worth doing. But now I’m trying to make this a fun, happy Christmas book, something to look forward to. This means I need to not hate it. I’ve taken the surface precautions: great Spotify soundtrack, a good night’s sleep, a Keurig carousel full of coffee. But there’s one element more important than any other, and writing this post is my way of reminding myself of that fact.

I need my lighthouse.

Lighthouses are the people you write for, the audience or person you see when you look up from the mess and you need to remember where you’re going. They have nothing to do with whether you’re a plotter or a pantser (if you write with an outline or set off merrily into the wilderness without a clue), because the lighthouse is the final destination. God knows it’s easy to wander into the weeds, to go up your own ass, to sit back and marvel at how tidily you’ve summed up the meaning of life or how utterly you have failed humanity. The lighthouse is what you look up at in those moments.

The people in the lighthouse are waiting for you. They’re hungry for your story, desperate to embark on the journey you promise to take them on. They’re the people who keep you humble, keep you real, and keep you going.

What was most fun about me in writing Sleigh Ride was that as I tackled the bulk of it, you were all reading Let It Snow, the first book in that universe, and my lighthouse felt really strong and bright. One of the things I love about writing series, which I’m doing a lot of at the moment, is drizzling in gifts for the people in my lighthouse. Bringing back favorite characters, hinting subtly to parts of a previous book in a way that would go unnoticed by a reader starting out of order but that is a wink to those in the know. I also like taking accidental/subconscious things from previous books and building a book around them, so what was me reaching for something handy becomes a seed of something greater. Like the casual mention of a librarian in Let It Snow becoming one of the heroes in book two.

Sometimes I have specific people in mind when I’m writing and I leave them little jokes or winks, but sometimes I leave presents for strangers to discover. And you all find them! I got big love from Brits for the Doctor Who and Saint Etienne references in Love Lessons, and I got some passionate dissertations from people all over the world for the John Inman discussion in Let It Snow. I do my best to make the on-the-ground maps for both real and fictional cities as accurate as possible, which leads to things like people taking pictures of what they’re sure is Laurie’s apartment in Dance With Me…and they’re right.

At this point in editing, though, the lighthouse is how I find my way. One of the biggest parts of laying down a first draft is finding the theme, and when I go back through the story I do my damnedest to make it resonate like a tuning fork. I want a reader to have a subconscious idea of that theme in the first scene and have that sense validated all the way through. In a short Christmas novel (short for me: 60,000 words) everything should snap, move quickly, and while the themes can be important, nothing is too deep. I don’t want this to be a book that feels heavy. I want people to pick this up and sink into a bubble bath. I want them to have big feels, to laugh, to feel vulnerable…but safe. And in the end I want them to feel all wrapped up and hopeful, filled with a renewed sense that the world really will be okay.

Sometimes my lighthouses are specific people. I wrote Fever Pitch for someone very particular, and I kept angling it trying to please him, because I wasn’t sure he’d actually like the book when I started, so I kept challenging myself. But as I finished drafting, I had someone else in that lighthouse, a beta whom I love and who I wanted to give it to right away, to please her and make her happy. I would write parts thinking, “I bet she’ll like this,” or  I’d hope she would. I always write a little bit for my husband too, because I know where I’ll hit him in the solar plexus or make him go download a song because it sparked a memory or sense of curiosity.

Mostly though when I get to this part of creating a novel and I’m tired and whiny, I think of the loyal lighthouses. Of the fans who have been there since day one, who are the first to buy and leave reviews, who read every blog post and like every tweet and enter every contest. People who come up to me at conventions and gobsmack me with stories about what a book meant to you, or send me emails. Who remind me that when I write about a stammerer or a sufferer of OCD and I get it right, I don’t just move you, I hear you and make you feel validated on a very public scale. Who remind me that when I have the guts to put my own chronic pain on the page you use it to fuel your own fight against illness and suffering. Who remind me that sometimes a simple book about bears and blizzards can be an escape, a light, a refuge after a weary day or harrowing night in the emergency room.

For me the people in my lighthouse remind me that for all the ego that goes into this business, for all the seriousness that is making a living doing a job, what I write for more than anything else is you. I’m a servant, not a star. Cute blog posts are nice, and self-depreciating tweets and links on Facebook might make you laugh, but why I’m really here is to write you a story. You want a light to follow for a few hours. Something to entertain you, to take you away. You might empathize that I’m up against a deadline, but mostly what you want is something to read. You want to put a quarter in and get a story, and I’m fortunate that a number of you have said, essentially, “I’m pretty much open to whatever story comes out of you. Just write something, okay? It makes me happy.”

That’s my job at this point in writing Sleigh Ride. I slopped some stuff together, dug into my experience and my ego, did my diligence and behold, there is story. But now I’m looking at you, shining on that hill, waiting, and I’m thinking, I could make this better. I could make this shine brighter, sing louder, ring clearer. If I get out of my own way, if I do my homework and keep myself honest, if I remember what the goal of this story is and what makes you happy, I could make this not just some story but a great one. One the people who keep me going, who lift me up when I’m down, deserve.

Is it gonna be tight to do it in a week? Yeah. But there’s more editing to come later with someone I trust, and when I think of her, and I think of the joy I could maybe give you, it doesn’t feel like work so much anymore. It feels a hell of a lot like a privilege.

Here’s to you, lighthouses. Thanks for shining bright. Can’t wait to show you what I’ve brought home this time.

Author: Heidi Cullinan

Author of gay romance. Iowan. Wife. Mother. Very tall.

6 thoughts on “Lighthouses: Who I’m Writing For

  1. Lovely post. I love your books, and I love when you write posts. They always seem to come from the heart.

  2. Fabulous blog post. I’ll be one of your lighthouses anytime.
    Now…get busy! lol (just kidding of course) Take a deep breath and dive in.
    Happy editing. :)

  3. I found this post absolutely fascinating. I’d never thought about how an author might have to picture and identify the people she’s writing for. Thank you – food for thought. And good luck with the editing!

  4. Such a lovely post, Heidi. Non-lighthouse readers appreciate those lighthouses of yours! And you, too, naturally.

  5. This was a fantastic post!!! We all need our lighthouses for sure. Thanks for such an insightful post :D

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