Four years ago on a dark and stormy night, I started writing a dark and stormy memoir.
Can you believe it? What was I, meshuganah?
Do you know when you write one of those you have to write about other people, not just yourself? And when you write about yourself and those other people you can’t pick and choose what you share? And you have to 100% honest? Well, it’s true (just ask James Frey). So, since I wasn’t willing to do that in that way, the memoir idea tanked and the pages of my 72K word manuscript called Every Other Weekend went into the never-to-be-seen file.
What did I learn from abandoning that project? That I liked writing long form. I was a journalist, PR writer, columnist and essayist. And now I wanted to write something with — you guessed it — chapters! A few brave writer-friends suggested I try fiction. I laughed. I slapped my thigh. I couldn’t even make up bedtime stories when my kids were little. I fancied myself without much imagination. But, I wanted to write so I clicked on my discarded manuscript and changed the names. Not enough. I refocused the plot. There ya go, fiction! Ok, it was roman à clef, or, thinly veiled fiction. I figured if The Devil Wears Prada was a smash and no one was sued, I’d just call mine The Devil Wore Spandex and we’d be in business. No such luck. I was so caught up in matching up people and things and actions and reactions from the fiction back to reality that it made me feel like I was in a Chinese restaurant choosing dinner components from Column A and Column B.
Slowly I abandoned 99% of the traces of truth from the manuscript as I had best writer epiphany of my life: Just make it all up.
And so I did.
In the interim, as I deleted, revised and rewrote, the middle of the book became the beginning and the beginning became a memory. The end of the book became the middle which left me without a middle or an end. It also left me without a title, with characters who didn’t fit their names and plot points that made no sense.
Making things up is good. Making no sense is bad.
When I finally typed The End on a real live, women’s fiction manuscript it was called Starting From Scratch and the main character’s name was Tracy and she opened a bakery as a way to start a new life (get it? from scratch? ha!). She was pretty much a goody-two-shoes with a spatula.
Gag. Me. Now. And use the spatula.
Then, the cliché police knocked on my door. The reality-check police were close behind.
I rewrote the novel. Tracy became Evie (I pronounce it Eh-vie, short e.) Her best friend Bev became Beth because face it, you can’t have an Ev and a Bev. Well, you can, but you shouldn’t. Evie became a math teacher instead of a cupcake baker although she does bake cookies for her kids (I have sweet tooth, what can I say? And I so imagine cookies as part of my future book promo). I can’t do math or bake so they were both fun characteristics to write. The main character’s motives for change became a little more self-centered, realistic, palpable. The title became The Glass House, because, well, it’s not that anymore so it doesn’t matter. I typed The End a few more times before I queried and once more before I found my agent. Then I typed it again and will so again soon. The story which started as a memoir and evolved into full-blown fiction bears very little resemblance to the book I started about four years ago or the one I finished a year and a half ago. Since then, it’s been a matter of making the book-as-is as good-as-can-be.
What have I learned from the journey of my women’s fiction manuscript? That what you start writing might not be what you end up with. That starting point may not be anything near what you’re supposed to write. Don’t be reluctant to write the story you have in you right now at this minute and then allow it to change. Or, make it change. Make it different. Make it up. Don’t play it safe. Change names, arcs, plots and titles until it fits and flows. Don’t be stubborn, be persistent. Reach high — women’s fiction readers deserve books that read true.
Why am I reminiscing on the origin of my novel? Because I’m working on a final round (I hope) of revisions for my agent and as I write some new scenes I realize how far the book has come and how the characters of the now-titled The Glass Wives (don’t you love it?) have evolved; how my writing has improved; how my story-telling has intensified.
And all because of a misbegotten memoir. And a little Spandex.