The other day, when I was toting around my galley for WHAT HAPPENED TO GOODBYE, my husband gave me a look. “What?” I said. He shrugged. “You just seem especially excited about this one. It’s nice.” Which was very sweet. And yes, I am excited. Also: relieved, thankful, exhausted. Just like the other nine times. As I said here last week, it never gets old, that moment when you rip open the envelope and your book actually looks like, well, a BOOK. It’s the moment that you count on during those long, awful, early-dark days in January, when you’re stuck somewhere around page 188 and NOTHING is working. It’s cold, you hate yourself and your book, and even chocolate isn’t helping, which is like a DEFCON-5 in my world. Someday, you think. Someday, it will be done.
And usually, it is. Except when it isn’t. (Gotta love that, right?) I have at least three finished YA novels sitting in storage that just Did Not Work. Characters were flat. Plot was nonexistent. Narrator was totally unlikeable, as was her best friend. (True story!) There’s really not a lot worse than putting six months to a year plus into something only to realize no one will EVER see it. Except for realizing that this is a good thing. That’s when you hit the ice cream store and cry a little, not necessarily in that order.
The thing is, you just never know when you start a book which one it’s going to be. Like I wrote here about Just Listen a few weeks back, I was SURE it was going to end up with the other failures. It had closet storage written all over it. (So to speak.) I’ve been thinking lately about the backstories about ALL my books, and the one thing they have in common is that at one point or another I was sure they were all misfires. What that says about me, or them, I’m not sure. It’s just, well, true.
Take my first book, That Summer. It was actually the third book I wrote: the first was this terrible entirely-too-autobiographical opus I wrote in college, the size of a doorstop, that no one should ever have to read unless they’re being punished. The second, about a waitress at an outlet center restaurant who marries her high school sweetheart, only to see him become a country music star, was slightly better. It at least got me an agent, who then asked to see what else I had.
Well. I had this book with a teenage narrator, about a girl and her sister’s wedding and parents’ divorce. It was giving me fits at the time, seriously. I was always about one lousy writing day away from pitching it into the trash. The only things that kept me going were that I loved the idea of a family reeling from a painful divorce dealing with wedding plans, I loved the ex-boyfriend of the bride to be, and I loved that my narrator worked at a children’s shoe store, just like I did in high school. I also liked this crazy subplot I had about this local girl who’d gone on to be a high fashion model, only to suffer a breakdown. I’d named her Gwendolyn, because there was a girl named Gwendolyn Gillingham who was playing for the UNC Women’s Basketball team at the time, and she was SO gorgeous and SO tall. She’d been in one of my classes at UNC and I was just fascinated by her.
So there I was, working on this book, waiting tables at the Flying Burrito. I’d write during the day, then leave my house to go to work, cursing the book and myself, then spend the night slinging salsa and Flying Mayans (sweet potato and black bean burritos, the BEST). Every day that I was really ready to toss the book, though, the weirdest thing would happen: I’d see Gwendolyn Gillingham. She’d walking down the street, or leaving campus, and it just was such a crazy coincidence that I thought, okay. I’ll keep going. So I did. I finished the book and sent it to my agent, who said it was YA. I was like, no, I’m not YA. She said, “Trust me,” and because she scared me (and still kind of does, if I’m totally honest) I did. The next thing I knew, an editor was faxing me a letter telling me she liked it. And that’s how I became a YA author. Totally backwards, and because of Gwendolyn Gillingham.
Okay, there was a lot of hard work in there, too. But it just goes to show that whether it’s book one or ten, there is always a second story behind the one you guys see. Not usually as good, often much crazier. (Burritos and supermodels, I mean, come ON.) It’s actually been kind of fun to write about this, even though I know I come off like some freaking lunatic. (Oh, well, my secret’s out. Are you really that shocked? Didn’t think so. )Maybe I’ll do it for all my books. Although I’m not sure I can put myself THAT out there. I mean, when I was finished writing my first draft of Someone Like You, all I could think was that the middle seriously sagged. It was like a fat man in a hammock, I kept telling people. I have to get that fat man out of the hammock! It was a big job.
See what I mean about the lunatic thing? So maybe it is best that the world just sees the finished products, all lined up pretty and edited, with none of this craziness apparent. That said, I would like to thank Gwendolyn Gillingham, wherever she might be. Funny how someone won’t even know how they kind of saved your life. Or made it.
Have a good night, everyone!