Last week, I received news that threw me into a frenzy of rewrites on a contemporary YA manuscript of mine. That means on Saturday, I made this:
The white cards are the current scenes. The Post-it notes are changes or additions to accommodate a new, stronger climax. And that row on the bottom is all spaced out because I know I'll need additions there, I just don't know what all it'll be.
It's been a year since I've spent much time with this project, so I have lots of tweaks and such that I'm making, but I've also noticed a few scenes that are falling flatter than I would like. And do you know what they have in common?
They all happened to me.
They're the scenes I borrowed from my real life, including the first scene of the book.
One of my most embarrassing moments in middle school happened to me in math class. It was right before class started, and I was chatting with my best friend about her dog, Buttons. So Jodi and I were having a very normal conversation when out of nowhere, the guy sitting next to me calls out, "What, Stephanie? You're in love with Palmer Freeman?!"
Totally and completely out of nowhere, and he clearly intended everybody to hear it. Including Palmer, who was standing in the doorway of the class. I remember looking at Brian and saying, "We're talking about Jodi's dog, Brian," as if there really was a chance that he'd misheard us, and he would now readdress the class and clear up this misunderstanding. Palmer was incredibly popular, and I definitely wasn't, which made it a 7th grade social nightmare.
I don't remember if Brian ever answered me, because Palmer (whose assigned seat was in the desk behind me) swaggered across the classroom with a loud, "Hello, sweetheart." I kept sinking lower in my seat. I was so mortified, I couldn't even speak, plus I was afraid I might cry from all the attention. I kept thinking my best friend was going to back up my story and say to Brian or Palmer that we had been talking about her dog, not Palmer, but instead she was watching Palmer and laughing along with everybody else.
When I originally started writing this book, which involves a nobody girl secretly dating the school's golden boy, I knew I wanted to open with something similar happening to my main character, Ellie. After all, I had lived it, and it was humiliating. Especially when you really DID have (what you thought was) a secret crush on the guy.
I wrote the scene exactly as it had happened to me. I kept the name Palmer, because it's such a cool name, and I left Brian as Brian, because it was the only scene he had in the whole story, so who cared if his name was cool or not?
I wrote the book - drama, drama, drama, secret relationship, more drama, secret revealed, Ellie and Palmer end up together. The End.
I loved the book, and I began to edit it.
When I started in on edits for that first scene, you know what hit me right away? Why did Brian do that?
I had written the scene exactly as it happened to me, and in my real life, I had no idea why Brian did what he did. It's not like it was a crazy thing to have a crush on Palmer (almost all us girls did), and Brian and I hadn't spoken to each other in a year. And I don't remember ever talking to him again after that moment.
But Ellie could. So I wrote a scene where Ellie confronted Brian about why he had done what he'd done. And I liked it. It had great tension. But Brian wouldn't tell Ellie why he'd done it, so I had to write another scene. By that point, it was occurring to me that Brian might have some kind of crush on Ellie. And that maybe he could threaten the Ellie and Palmer relationship. Though not with a name like Brian. If you're reading a book and one of the guys has a cool, unique name, and the other has a common name, it's rarely a mystery who's going to get the girl. (Plus I had used Brian as the father in the Skylar Hoyt series.)
I renamed him Chase, and from that moment on, he completely took over the story. It was actually a little scary, and I remember emailing Roseanna and saying, "He wasn't even supposed to be in the book, and now I think he might be a better fit for Ellie! Now I can't figure out why she's dating Palmer!"
I wound up doing two more sets of revisions after that, and then I had to put the manuscript aside for awhile. Yet when I pulled it back out last week, I still wasn't satisfied with the first scene. Chase's reactions fell flat. And so did the best friend's. And so did Palmer's. The only character who seemed well thought out in that scene was Ellie.
Because I had taken it straight from my middle school nightmares, I hadn't given a single thought to why the other characters did what they did. Why did Chase pick that moment to humiliate Ellie? And why was Lucy laughing instead of defending her best friend? And why did Palmer inflame Chase's joke instead of all the other reactions he could have had?
And this is why writing from our real life can be a trap to our creativity. If this event hadn't actually happened to me, those are things I would have thought through as I wrote it.
If you've taken something from your real life and written it into your book, ask yourself, "How would the same scene feel if I wrote it from the perspective of another character?" Before I redid the scene this last time, I took time to think through what was going on in Lucy's head while everything unfolded. And then in Chase's. And then in Palmer's. The result was much richer.
Do you ever borrow things from your real life and plug them in your story? Characters? Scenes? Jokes?