Monday, September 10, 2012

The Story of a Book

Even after all these years of writing stories I still think it's strange and cool how they get started. For me it happens when two or three unrelated ideas click together. Sometimes this takes years.

Example: my young adult novel Thin Space.

Six years ago at a school bus stop, I noticed a boy stepping off the bus behind my son, barefoot. When I asked my son about it, he just shrugged and said the guy was always barefoot--at school, on the bus, always. But didn't he get in trouble? I asked. I mean, did the school just let him do this? And what about his parents?

The mother part of me was worried about the boy stepping on broken glass or stubbing his toe or maybe catching a fungus off the cafeteria floor. But my writer brain was mulling over motivations. What did this teenager have against shoes? Was it some kind of political or religious statement? Did he have an obsession with hippies? My son had no idea what the kid's story was and nobody around seemed as fazed as I was about it. Still I couldn't stop thinking about the barefoot boy at the bus stop, as I called him. He would make an interesting character in a book...

A few months later my family was waiting for a seat in a restaurant and I was browsing through a local magazine. A couple of sentences in one of the articles caught my eye: "The Celts believed in thin places, where the veil between this world and the Other is, well, thin... In these places the seen and unseen world are most closely connected and inhabitants of both worlds can momentarily touch each other." Cool topic for a story, I thought, and tore the passage out and slipped it in my purse.

The two sparks of ideas--a barefoot boy and the belief in thin places--didn't seem related, but for some reason they churned around together in my head.

My family had moved to a new town not long before, and in the fall of 2008 (I'm putting dates now so you can get a picture of how LONG this process can sometimes take), I decided that it was the perfect time to start another novel. I signed up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and committed myself to write a book I called Thin Space. (Here's something I didn't realize until recently when I dug that crunched up article from purse: all those years I'd misread the quote and thought it said thin space instead of thin place. Oh well.)

Let me say here that when you're writing a 50,000 word novel in less than 30 days, it's all about the quantity. This draft was a big old mess of massive big old mess proportions. With pointless and meandering digressions and flashbacks within flashbacks. Whole chapters that droned on about what the characters were wearing and the seating placement in the cafeteria. I thought I was writing about a girl named Maddie who'd just moved to a new town. (It was a town suspiciously like the one I'd just moved to, complete with the drizzly, dreary, gray weather we were having. And of course, it was November.) Unbeknownst to Maddie there was a thin space in her new house, a doorway from this world into the world of the dead.

That's what I thought I was writing about anyway.

But on like, day four of my NaNo project, Maddie walked to the bus stop and there was a weird barefoot guy standing there. His name was Marsh and he had a secret (a secret I didn't know) From that point on Marsh took over the story and on day 24 when he finally told Maddie what his big secret was, we were both surprised. I don't even know if surprised is the right word. I remember going to bed the night before, tormented by how the whole plot was going to come together. What the heck was the boy's story and what did it have to do with the thin space in Maddie's house? And then waking up with an answer that gave me goose bumps.

End of November I won my little NaNo prize for "finishing," then closed the file and didn't look at it again until January.

That's when the real work began. First time I read it through, I was nauseated. The truth was, except for the parts where Marsh had inserted himself, the book was kind of boring. Maddie didn't really have much of a conflict and her story didn't go anywhere. I whined about all of this to my daughter, who at the time was in sixth grade. I didn't think she was interested in my struggles with this silly book but I kept ranting to her, hoping that hearing myself talk about it might give me an idea what to do next. My daughter, God love her, listened, then she looked at me and said, "So why don't you write the story from Marsh's point of view?"

"No!" I said, because that's always my initial reaction when people give me writing suggestions, and I gave her a litany of reasons why she was wrong. It was Maddie's story, didn't she see that? And besides, Marsh had this big secret. If he was telling the story, how could I keep his secret from the reader? Did I tell you my daughter was in sixth grade?

"So," she said again. "Don't tell the reader."

We were sitting in Panera Bread having this conversation and my daughter bounded up to go buy another cookie or something and I sat there blinking at her and covered in goose bumps, thinking, Huh. Maybe that idea could work.

Next day I started the book again--the whole thing over from page one, this time from Marsh's point of view. It took me three months. I finished that draft in March 2009.

There have been quite a few drafts since then. But the core of the story--about a barefoot boy and a thin space--is still there.

Today is September 10, 2012. Next year on this date, Thin Space will be on the bookstore shelves.


  1. Do you know Sid Fleischman's "two sticks" theory? Just as it takes two sticks to make a fire, it takes two ideas to make a story. In your case, it took three--and what a story it sounds like! I can't stand to wait another year!

  2. Tracy, I actually should've given credit to you--you talked about the "two sticks" theory when you were a visiting author at my school years ago. You were describing the back story behind your book On Etruscan Time. The idea struck me then and stayed with me!

  3. Jody - this post gave ME goosebumps. I can't wait to read the book!

  4. I enjoyed hearing how your story gelled in your mind. I often think writers are random thinkers. We gather a little something from here, a little something from there, and after much mulling it over, disparate elements combust and form something magical.

  5. I read about the merging of ideas held in waiting years ago in one of Orson Scott Card's books about his writing process (maybe it was the intro to his short story collection?) and it stuck with me as well. So that's also how I talk about the genesis of my NANO 2009 novel Pretty Girl-13. It was the collision of a title, a question, and a character. The title was the last piece of the puzzle that pulled everything out of deep storage in my brain.

    1. It's really cool how this process works. And three cheers for NaNo, right? Pretty Girl-13, by the way, is an INTENSE absorbing book. I can only imagine what it was like to write something like that!