“So, What’s Your Novel About?”

People often ask me what my novel is about when they know I’m writing one. I never know what to say because it’s difficult to take a whole crazy beautiful mess in my head of character-building, world-building, plotting and imagery to break it down into a nutshell. So, here is what I usually fall back on: “It’s about two teen guys who are in a secret relationship, and one of them dies texting while driving”. That is exactly where this chaotic mess that is my novel brain began, with a simple notion of a teen dying because of how dangerous texting and driving is. But a nutshell never does a story justice.

The idea came to me not long after my husband had a teenage girl run up the back of his car because she was texting and didn’t see him brake at a junction. She wasn’t insured, turned out to be a costly mistake for her when he needed the back of his car repaired. He had previously seen her on her phone in the rearview mirror. She was lucky  the only damage she caused was to her bank account and didn’t cause anyone injuries or kill them. How often do we see someone on their phone on the road and either out loud or in our heads think, “GET OFF YOUR DAMN PHONE! YOU MIGHT KILL SOMEONE’S FAMILY!” It’s true. They could. So very easily. They could also kill themselves, but young people think they’re invincible.  Phones are a static part of their lives these days, but they’re also a weapon when misused (not just with this but cyber-bullying). And it’s human nature to not connect with the horrors of something until it happens to you. That was where the germinal seed of an idea blossomed for the novel I’m writing. The ‘what-if’ a teenager died because they sent a text behind the wheel at that one wrong little moment?

It’s not only teenagers and young people. Not by a long shot. I see grown adults doing that crap all the damn time. You see the errors people make on the roads when their concentration is taken from it. The laws against it don’t exist just to get in the way of peoples’ online social lives. But really, can’t that text or phone call wait 10 or 15 more minutes until you’ve parked your car? I don’t understand it. Never have, never will. It made me think of how far a tragic fatality like that would have a knock-on effect on so many lives, not just the one that was lost. Parents, siblings, family, friends, school friends, teachers, locals… the list goes on. They would never forget it. It would stay with them for the rest of their lives.

My novel was born from a short story I wrote for an assessment in the early days of my Masters of Arts (Writing) in late 2015. It was a series of inner monologues of mourners at the funeral of a teen who died because of texting while driving. Each character came alive in my head and their reactions to the death were all different, all-encompassing various stages of the grief process. I had the idea that the teen who died had a rivalry with another student, someone completely opposite to him so they had constant personality clashes. It turned out he would have the loudest voice of all because he had a secret and he let me in on it. There was no real rivalry anymore. They were dating secretly and now he had to pretend his whole world hadn’t crushed beneath him.

Meet Liam Steele, the main character of my novel, c u l8tr.

Liam had a story to tell and he began whispering it in my ear once I finished and submitted the short story (which I got a High Distinction for, so it seemed like kismet that the story wasn’t over there). That is how all my stories come to me. A tiny glimpse of a character pops up in my head and they begin to feed me their story and who they are, piece by piece. Until it turns into a monster that can’t be told properly in a short story word count. My job is to take all those puzzle pieces and begin to put them together in a timeline to see what the story is.

This takes time. A hell of a lot of time. And we’re only talking the first draft. To write a novel, a writer will have countless drafts through the editing stages. However many drafts it takes to get the story to a place it is polished enough to be pitched for publishing. No writer will ever nail it on the first draft and we don’t want to. All we’re doing it trying to get this hot mess of crazy beautiful out of our brains and onto paper. I see it as similar to making playdough. The first draft is the flour, water, cream of tartar, food colouring in the bowl being mixed. You mix and mix until it turns into the dough, and dump it out onto a surface for someone to come along and turn it into a masterpiece (or something that looks like Mr Potatohead got into a bar fight, but that’s still art! Think of Picasso.)

Needless to say, every single writer is different in how long they take for their first drafts to be finished, and every project will be different in what it needs. Every story has a different set of emotions attached to it that we have to mine, or different knowledge, life experience or research we’re drawing on to develop it. Some days, the words flow like a waterfall. Other days, they sit hidden in a nook of your brain, as stubborn as a blocked drain to get moving. All you can do is literally let the process happen and take each day as it comes.

So, from Liam beginning to whisper his story into my ear, he ended up getting shelved for around 12 months so I could finish my Masters of Arts (Writing), which depleted all the energy and working brain cells needed to be creative. I was battle-weary and writer-fatigued, squeezing the last few little drops out to get over the finish line and complete the degree. In that 12 months, I also had weird health issues begin and took a trip back to Scotland with my husband for my father-in-law’s 60th birthday and our 10 year wedding anniversary. You can read how that culminated HERE. Breaking my ankle throttled my writer’s brain and creative flow (hence not being able to finish the travel blog). Having fibromyalgia, the pain was excruciating but I had to throw up the walls and facade that I was doing okay because I didn’t want to be a buzzkill for anyone on the holiday. The pain stuck around for about six months, so 2016 into early 2017, I had to put my professional writing goals on hold to get my energy and creative mojo back while I addressed the medical crap getting in the way and let myself recuperate.

As soon as the door to my writer’s brain was nudged back open, Liam came barging through it with some creative expletives and demands for attention. Every writer knows you can’t ignore your characters when they do this or they will pack up and bugger off to someone else who will tell their story. He came with a list of demands and he helped me over the finish line of Camp NaNoWriMo in July and NaNoWriMo in November last year.

This novel has bloomed and grown into a firmly structured narrative with an array of interesting characters. It is told over two timeframes: directly in the wake of Braden’s death, interwoven with scenes when he was still alive via Liam’s memories of the moments that built their relationship right from the beginning when Braden called a truce with him. I have been writing each of these as their own chronological story, so I’m technically writing two novels in one, with the characters in significantly different emotional headspaces in each. Braden turns out to be hiding so much beneath the popular, rich, smart, successful School Captain facade and little by little, he opens more and more of himself up to Liam. As a result, Liam begins to learn more about himself and his own identity. They bring out the best in each other, shedding the boxes school and life has had them falling into for conformity. But suddenly it’s all torn away from Liam when the phone call comes that Braden has been killed in a car accident.

So, there you have it. That is what my novel is about and how the story came to me and evolved into a full novel that was demanding to be written. I’m a substantial way through my first draft, but I’m considering  signficant structural changes to Liam’s narrative in his memory scenes. I’m toying with the idea of telling them in first-person instead of third-person, but it will be a trial and error basis to see what ultimately works. That will come when I begin the second draft and start to go over everything with closer scrutiny to identify what works and what doesn’t.

Until next time, remember to do what makes you happy and feel alive because somewhere out there, someone has just lost the person they love in an accident, maybe caused from texting and driving. Even if it gives writers like me something to write about, in reality, life is what you make it or let other people make it. Make sure you listen to where those tugs in your heart are pulling you. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here today writing a blog about being a writer.

Take care and thanks for reading.

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