The Finishing Party: ZZ Packer's Writing Group
We quickly drew up a chart: Half the group volunteered to read Lita's novel immediately; the other half would respond by the end of the month. Lita would be my writing partner. Alyss would call Farai every week to dispense some literary tough love. And all of us would help the members who had less specific dreams—like Renée, who wanted support and sisterhood, and Deborah, who wanted guidance. For years, Deborah had dedicated herself to others. As a young woman she'd dated the inchoate musical great Sly Stone (whose stardom and egotism eventually fueled his physical abuse of her). After splitting from Sly, she met and married Carlos Santana, opened a restaurant, and became a philanthropist, setting up the family's Milagro Foundation to aid underprivileged children. As chief operations officer of Santana Management, she helped overhaul the company that engineered Carlos Santana's resurgence in the late 1990s. And she did it all while raising three kids. Writing her memoir, Space Between the Stars, was Deborah's first step in fostering her own talents, and her wildest dream has been to keep going. We've been here to cheer her on.
After our requisite break—during which we stretch, load up on seconds of the grub du jour, and visit the loo—we turn to Jackie's novel-in-progress, whose working title is Searching for Tina Turner. It's the story of a black woman who has it all—marriage to a handsome, successful man, kids, huge house, vacations around the world—yet still feels unfulfilled. She decides that what she needs is the strength to say no to all that is extraneous in her life, and Tina Turner becomes the icon from whose story she derives that strength (even as everyone tells her she's crazy for giving up the cashmere cocoon of the upper middle class).
Jackie's face is the picture of anguish: She looks defeated before we've even begun. When we call her on this, she reminds us about our earlier responses to her work. "I thought I had a draft, then you guys said it wasn't ready. Then I came up with another draft, and that wasn't ready. So now I'm just resigned to going back to the drawing board yet again."
She has a point. Much of the first draft had been written during the group's writing retreat to Palm Springs—a trip that turned out to be more flash floods, bombinating insects, and squalor than the desert paradise we'd envisioned. Still, Jackie dashed off half of her novel that week; when she gave us the manuscript, she imagined she wasn't far off from submitting it to an agent. Yet while it was incredible for a first draft, it wasn't ready.
But Jackie has often succeeded on the first try. Formerly a sales representative for Xerox, she made a name for herself in the corporate world, then approached motherhood with the same dedication. Now, ten years and one divorce later, she's had success as a caterer, interior decorator, and real estate agent. Her photography, though only a hobby, is professional quality. So she can't understand why it's taken more than a year for her novel to even approach the caliber required to submit it to an agent or publisher.
"Writing takes a long, long time," Nichelle says. "It took me two years to write my first novel and six months to revise it." Nichelle goes on to talk about the U-turn she had to make when she realized that what she thought was a coming-of-age story was actually a mystery. Once she understood that, everything began to fall into place. The resulting novel, The Dying Ground (like its successor, The Last King), is a first-rate whodunit.