Sunday, June 7, 2015

Book It: Reflections on a First Novel Nearly Ten Years in the Making

I saw a photo of me and the kids--well, 'twas just David and baby Rachel at the time--circa 2006 or 07, I think it was. My hair was darker than it is now, at any rate.

Around the time I took David to one of the Harry Potter movies and when we emerged and I observed his sense of wonder at the magical world into which he had for the past two hours traveled, I determined that I would write a story for him, something also magical, with none other than David himself at the center of whatever world(s) I might conjure. I told him about it, made a promise that it would be written.

Soon thereafter a storyline fell into my head--it would be a YA Fantasy, and have some pretty damn cool elements. But I remembered hearing Michael Crichton talk about how Jurassic Park--though the dinos naturally provided the hook and stole the show--was more than anything about Chaos Theory, and, of course, the people whose lives were profoundly impacted.

So I knew there needed to be  more than magic and fantastical elements at the heart of my story, and it was immediately evident to me what that would be. From the moment she'd arrived, David had been protective of his little sister. Once at a birthday party at a park I was with the kids and Rachel--not yet two--was playing in a field. I may have been distracted by my phone or whatever else but I recall a look of concern spreading over David's face and he gave me that split-second "you're the father aren't you going to do something" look before realizing I was clueless and rushing over to his sister. An enormous, buzzing bee--unbeknownst to her--was circling just above her. David had always had a pretty healthy fear of them, probably accentuated by his cognizance that his grandmother and therefore possibly he, was extremely allergic to their stings. But seeing that not only had his father not yet pieced together what was unfolding but that even if in that moment I had, it would now be too late, he shot in, scooped Rachel up in his arms just as the angry insect prepared to alight upon her,  and backpedaled quickly out of harm's way.

A small thing, perhaps, but it moved my heart. He understood that his actions could be injurious to himself; so too did he understand that inaction could prove catastrophic for the little sister he'd already come to watch over with such vigilance and care.

And there it was, the heartbeat of my tale. The Awakening of David Rose.

I wrote in dribs and drabs and fits and starts but never really got any traction until about three years ago. I finally finished a draft and then a few more until last night I finished what I hope were final  revisions(significant ones, anyway). I took about nine months to do so, partly because the whole working full-time, three kids thing, you know--but also because I was trying to get this right, really improve it. I hope I did. Whatever is better owes in large part to my editor, the amazing Ally Bishop, and my dear friend, freakishly-talented scribe and amazing beta-reader Amira Makansi. Whatever is not, is my fault alone. I am grateful to Booktrope for being my publisher and giving me and this story a chance.

A few quick observations, as I look back. Most books on writing that I read said that it is typical to end up paring around 20% of your manuscript's original length. Those who know me know becoming 20% less wordy is no small feat for me--alas, when I clicked save last night I'd indeed gone from 100,000(too long for YA) words, to just fewer than 80,000. I found things to pare and improve every single time I went through it. Commas and adverbs suffered the greatest annihilation, and rightly so.

One of the biggest things I wrestled with(was one of the key aspects of Ally and Amira's sage feedback) was the need to have my protag take at least a little bit of the lead in all that is happening. That sounds simple and obvious enough, but the fact is I knew this story was the first in a series and deals largely with a young man trying desperately to cope with the crazy things unfolding around him and the unseen, sinister forces which have pursued him through the centuries to this day. A story of a good kid whose family has endured a trauma and it’s all he can do to try to look after his little sister and deal with normal teen angst, much less deal with this ethereal, mysterious stuff beginning to effervesce around him. Of course, the problem is, it is becoming less and less ethereal and more and more real and that indeed becomes a key source of tension: we must always present what our characters most want, as well as what stands in the way. David wants more than anything to take care of his sister and to find the truth about what really happened to their mom—but all these crazy,  dark, fantastical things are proving one hell of a distraction.

But of course Ally and Amira were right---a protag is not much of  a protag—even a kid—if he is little more than an always- reacting milquetoast. So I endeavored to transform that aspect at least in part. Not radically, because one of the most important aspects to me in all this was that I wanted David to be a “normal” teen—albeit one confronting some pretty heavy and now increasingly strange, things—and it wouldn’t be terribly normal for him to just readily accept and take in stride, all these extraordinary things that until now would have struck him and most rational beings as impossible(Amira in fact stressed this point to me in her inimitable way as well, telling me I needed more of that “holy shit” element for David when the shit, so to speak, really goes down. She will be pleased to know that I not only worked to improve this but also at the 11th hour in fact inserted that very phrase). So, given all David is dealing with and given typical human reaction to the seemingly impossible, it made more sense to me that he would indeed be on his heels a bit. That said, it was of course necessary to the development of his character and the arc of the story to have him gradually take the reins a bit as he comes to understand and accept a bit of what’s happening, and its implications. That necessity was also a golden opportunity to mine the character more deeply than I had—whether that translated effectively to the page others shall decide but I enjoyed the process. Part of this process included injecting a bit more of a sense of mystery, and some scenes where David and his friends set about trying to do a little investigation concerning his mother’s purported death a year ago. David increasingly suspects  whatever happened to her is linked to these other mysterious developments but whether it is or not he is determined to discover the truth about her either way—a resolve which in itself tells us he will no longer accept just being acted upon. Their sleuthing must occur in rather clandestine fashion, owing not only to the topic, but also to the fact that David’s father remains adamantly opposed to what he believes are his son’s(understandable, given the trauma) conspiracy theories. So this afforded me an additional layer of conflict to mine.

Each time through I had to really assess voice. Mine leans heavily toward the literary and of course this was YA. I remain, however stubbornly, convinced that we needn’t patronize or dumb things down for young readers—but there is of course a difference between doing that and being too florid and stuffy in one’s prose. So, I made some inroads there—whether sufficiently, we’ll have to see. I have a few  pretty aristocratic kinda British characters in there, and even one of David’s friends who upon first glance may speak “above” the typical fifteen year old is in fact based loosely on a friend of mine who spoke a bit that way. Part of the fun of it, I think, is seeking that elusive balance of an overall voice which resonates with most readers, yet also sprinkling in some quirky touches, even if that includes a kid in a wheelchair with who thinks and speaks like a young Sherlock Holmes (and yes, those who know me shall be unsurprised to know I have that character articulate a preference for Poe’s Dupin).

I like both. In any case, this journey for me has been anything but “elementary.” My hair is a lot grayer than on that evening I made a promise to my son. We have been blessed with another son in the time since the story was conceived (Rachel reminds me frequently that I MUST include Daniel somehow in the sequels. She also reminds me I must give her a bow and arrows in one of the stories too). David has likely forgotten that night, and Rachel has become much more interested in the story, and has become a budding and extraordinary literary soul herself. But I hope both will read it, and like it. They are its heartbeat, after all.  I hope you might read it and like it too. If nothing else, nearly a decade later but what the hell, it is a promise fulfilled, and that feels pretty good.