I can’t say that I’d want to write every book this way, but living with my current project as long and intensely as I have been these last two years has been incredibly fascinating. At every turn, just when I think I could not possibly be more firm or confident in my next step, something seems to always pop up and steer me otherwise. And even though these arterial turns can be rather exhausting, the change or evolution that results from that change in direction is always far superior to whatever my original plan would have been.
Stephen King says that “Good books don’t give up all their secrets at once.” I think he is correct about this in two separate aspects, actually. Good books don’t give up all their secrets at once for both the reader and, as it happens most often in my experience, for the writer as well.
The kernel of the idea that eventually mutated and grew into what is now my nearly completed novel has taken quite a few turns since it first appeared in my imagination almost 20 years ago. But since that initial inception, the theme and overarching message of the book and the whole series (it’s gonna be a trilogy—if I can muster the courage and persistance) has remained largely intact and untouched. Until now.
When I was in Wisconsin two weeks ago to visit my family at our summer camp, Birch Trail, I reconnected with one of my dearest and oldest friends, the delightful Dani Steele. This summer, Dani is doing a totally kick-ass job as Birch Trail’s Head Counselor. In the winter months, Dani works as one of the most passionate, talented elementary school teachers I’ve ever known. Because the genre of young adult fiction is still such new and strange terrain for me, I took the opportunity to bounce a few ideas off her because she knows my audience so well. Instantly, she helped me see that although the message of my series was alright, it needed something more.
Initially, I set out to make a statement that is contrary to almost everything I’ve read in other popular YA fiction—I wanted to say to kids that although we wish it were otherwise, there are sometimes bad things that happen to good people, or bad people who do bad things and you have to be careful, have to know how to navigate the world, such as it is. But Dani ever so gently guided me to understand that there needs to be something beyond that, something that can give kids the hope they need to push through those bad times. As suddenly as one could imagine, the missing puzzle piece clicked into its rightful place in my mind. There was indeed something more that I wanted to say, sitting there right at the precipice all along: that even though things do get really sad or really scary sometimes, and even though it often feels like it will feel that way forever, it won’t—things get better. You go through rough times and you emerge on the other side of them a better and stronger version of yourself. That is the ultimate message I hope my readers will glean from the story I’m creating; it’s the most important one, too.
As we spoke, drifting in and out of other subject matter as the night wore on, I kept coming back to that central message and wondering how I’d neglected it all this time. It’s so peculiar and so interesting to see how things emerge and evolve as time goes on. The trick is, apparently, to have the presence of mind to allow those things to happen, to be flexible and open to all the twists and turns that take place before, during and even after the words make it to the page. I suppose I could extend the metaphor to the whole endeavor of life as a human being, but let’s not get into that just now.
Stephen King also says that it is ideal to spend no more than one month writing each book. Well I can’t say I have any real experience working at that pace; my first book took me over eight years to write and though I wasn’t actively writing every single day of those eight years, I did live with it every day and in some form or another worked toward its completion. And this current, hopefully-soon-to-be-completed project of mine is moving into its third year. I can’t imagine trying to fit all that research and rumination, all those various changes of creative direction (not to mention the actual writing) into one short month.
I should clarify, though: I can’t imagine it now, but this coming winter I’ll have to live it. Because (if all goes according to schedule) the first book of my YA trilogy will be completed by the end of this fall, I’m going to embark upon a new writing challenge. I’m going to take on a grandiose task that is sure to be a great and terrible adventure and try—really try in earnest—to write my next book in just one month. Of course, I’ve been researching and ruminating and plotting and planning everything out for some time now, so I won’t exactly be starting from scratch. But because I don’t think I’ll be able to and certainly not want to live with such a bleak, solitary story as my next project centers around, this seems the best method.
I don’t know how it is for other writers, but I am downright terrified by this plan. This will definitely be something new, something difficult, and something totally thrilling. What I know for sure is that it will be a learning experience for me, trying to keep myself open to all those aha moments without many outside influences and in such a limited time frame.
But, first things first. I’ve taken the incredible bits of advice Dani gave me, and let them marinate in my head for a few weeks. I’ve been writing at furious paces lately, seeing it all settle into place with greater ease than I anticipated. I wouldn’t say that the book is exactly writing itself, but it appears that when all the necessary elements finally arrive, the whole thing moves along rather smoothly.
Hey, when it’s right, it’s right. Right?