When I told my students, I was tired of reading books about dysfunctional families and teens, so I was contemplating writing a book about a normal teen, the biggest football player in class stood up and cheered. A murmur of approval from everyone else followed.
That was in 2006-2007. When I valiantly managed to write some during that school year, I read pieces of it to the kids, and they affirmed that I captured the language, angst, and all the other stuff that normal teens experience.
I don’t remember exactly when I finished the story, maybe two or three years later as I worked through everything with a wonderful writing workshop. By that time, I was retired, and I printed out the manuscript, smiled broadly, and set it aside in its very own three-ring binder.
It “fermented” for a number of years before I pulled it out again, after a long hiatus from the workshop, followed by a welcome return. With encouragement and coaching, I got gutsy and submitted it to a dozen small publishers. One picked it up, and I was on the way.
But what happened before that? Every manuscript has its own “birth” story. To Know Her, my first published novel, grew out of frustration with portrayals of abnormal teens, troubled teens, damaged teens. I figured there had to be a story outside of that turmoil. Not that teens don’t face all sorts of problems, but many, if not most, of them learn to cope. Kids are flexible, and for the most part, not dumb. I worked with teens for thirty years, and saw how “normal” they really could be. How kind, generous, yet innocent too. We don’t always “see” them.
Out of that came the question, how well can we really, truly know anyone? We simply can’t discern everything about the people we know, the people we are related to, even the people we love. So, I devised a situation where parents didn’t know everything about their beloved daughter. They thought they did, but…they didn’t.
This doesn’t really contain spoilers, as the synopsis on the cover of the novel sets up the fact that the daughter is in a coma as the result of a car accident, and the parents, after receiving all the stuff from the car, find things they can’t explain.
The funny thing was that, as I wrote the parents, they told me that they were battling over whether or not to withdraw live support. That was a total surprise! I had not intended to go in that direction at all, but the characters let me know this was true to their lives. Well, all right, then.
You may have heard about these strange “conversations” between writers and their characters. I am here to tell you that we’re not crazy. It does happen. If I try to write it the way I think it should play out, and the characters “told” me, “Nope. I didn’t do that,” then I’d better listen, because the scene will be nothing but frustration to write. It just won’t work out the way I first planned it. Call it crazy, but sometimes all the planning is wrenched aside, or just plain discarded.
Speaking of planning, I do tend to plan ahead. Not outline, exactly, but I at least figure where I’d like the story to end. That sometimes doesn’t work out either, but most of the time it does. I have to resolve the conflict I’ve introduced in the beginning somehow, after all. But how to get from A to Z can change as I go along. I can choose the “beads on the necklace,” but I can’t always choose the order or intensity of events, or what links it all, until I keep writing.
I’d love to say I write from start to finish, and I’m done. Ha! I do write from start to finish, but it looks more like one of those mountain switchbacks. Up, loop around and change directions—and oops! Look down there! I need to go back and add more drama, more dialogue—or take out something. Sometimes it’s lots of somethings. Two steps forward, one back. Four steps forward—moving right along, then—five steps back!
And once through isn’t enough. When I’m “finished,” I usually end up going back three or four times to check, double-check, proofread, re-write. With To Know Her, once the book was accepted, I eventually had to do three more read-throughs, looking for all sorts of mistakes, and possibly do an edit or two. Even on the last read-through I found one spelling mistake! Who knows what readers will find?! This is where I truly realized how important and powerful editors are. Necessary task-masters.
Initially, writing is a solitary endeavor, but it surely doesn’t stay solitary very long!