Friday, August 28, 2009

A spo(R)ting life retrospective: A reflection on writing SO, SAVE ME

Periodically I will do this here in ths blog. I have pages and pages of stuff I wrote about various things dating back to the time I started writing my first novel. Some of them are fit for print and some of them are not. The majority of the original document I am about to reproduced was written in December 2005 which means that most of it was written prior to me entering into my the mentorship program at the Writer's Guild which means I used it in a way to work out what I was going to do in my 4th draft. It is 22 pages long, double spaced, so you can guess that the title of my first entry is entirly ironic. I know nothing about brevity. So what I re-copy here, I will edit. I, in particular am going to take out everything that discusses the plot. (That's me, by the way, above, doing my reading at the Mentorship wind up in June 2006.)

I like the rawness of this old document and the obvious emotion and excitement I was feeling while I wrote SO, SAVE ME. It is excitment I have only been able to reproduce recently when I do things like ride my bike 100 miles or chase 5 men down the highway on my bike at over 40 km per hour (with a bit of a tail wind) and actually stay on their back wheels for a couple km's..... It's like nerdy teenage giddiness. It was like seeing a band of your teenage idol's live for the first time and screaming your face off. It is an adrenaline rush you can never reproduce again doing the same thing. You always have to up the anti.

SO, SAVE ME is my first novel. It by far was and still is the best thing I have ever written in fiction. When people ask what it is about, I sometimes say it is about a girl who is trying to get laid without losing her sense of self. It is hard to summerize in one sentence. It is about a lot of things. It is about grief. It is about drinking too much. It is about figuring out what a good relationship is.

I can't take care of the day-to-day stuff but I fantasize about the big rescue. Like one day I will be some guy's saviour and maybe he will save me at the same time.

I wrote that sentence without really knowing what I was saying at the time. There were lots of sentences like that. Now I call them subliminal messages because I can now open up So, Save Me and see, not a young adult novel, but one big commentary about the state of my marriage........

A Reflection on Writing SO, SAVE ME (December 2005)
I’m not sure at what point it was that I knew I was going to sit down and write this. Sometime in the spring I was in McNally looking through the bargain book shelves and I came across the novel How to Deal, I can’t think who the author is at the moment but it was made into a movie with Mandy Moore, and I picked it up and thought, I should buy it and learn from it – but the part of me that has been repressing the need to write for way too many years won out and I didn’t spend the five bucks or so that it would have cost me to buy that book.

Around the same time I was browsing through the Children’s Hospital book sale shelves and I migrated to the young adult section as somehow I always manage to do because I am always looking for books that made me feel good after I read them, and I found an old book that I probably read for the first time when I was about 13. It was Francine Pascal’s My First Love and Other Disasters and I bought it for $0.30. And I think it started there. It started with me reading this very old book and thinking I am capable of doing this.
And then life went on. And I went to work and I did my thing and I revised that monstrously bland research study that was under review at Heart and Lung perfecting my ability to strip every sentence of any personality and interest and I came home and I did scrapbooking and played with the kids and cooked supper and quietly wondered if I could write an entire novel during my summer vacation. And then it was summer and I was thinking about what I would have to give up to write. I would have to give up scrapbooking for one. I would have to give up sleep for another. I would have to give up TV as a third and I would not be able to do my Ph.D. and I figured it was all worth it.

But instead of writing I read. I picked up books at Costco. I picked up The Year of Secret Assignments and the cover blurb said something about really great kissing and I thought, yep, that’s the book for me. And I read it over a couple of days and it was really clever (not much kissing though) and I noticed something about young adult books that wasn’t around when I was a young adult reading these books and that is that they were a lot more risqué than they were in the 1980’s. I believe the catch word of the day is edgy. They are much edgier now. And edgy is what I needed. I started writing what has now become So, Save Me when I was around 18 or 19 and while I was writing it back then in 1989-90 I kept thinking no one is going to want to publish this or at least not with all the swear words and the obvious sexuality and innuendo. You can do all that now – the sexuality and the innuendo. There is still a bit of cap on the foul language – it appears the F word is out – but I did see the word shit in Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants and 12 year olds read that book. I did also see the F word in Catcher in the Rye – so who knows – I am thinking 15+ here.

So my summer went by and I hadn’t started writing and I went back to work and I was doing the final edits on that damn research article prior to publication and I just felt depressed because none of this was what I actually wanted to be doing. I manipulated my way into getting a lap top and I had been thinking all summer about what I wanted to write about. I wanted to write about how relationships were not like they are on TV and how they are scary and you are rarely confident and because you aren’t confident you sometimes do things that are humiliating and insecure. And I had a whole opening scene where my lead character, a high school girl, was walking home with a guy and it is a guy she doesn’t know well and he is really friendly but she knows the only reason that he is walking home with her is because he is interested in her best friend and she knows that the only reason she is walking home with him is because she is interested in his best friend and it goes from there.

That is not the story I ended up writing about and I never used that scene – that one is in the archives for another novel. What I did instead was re-read all the stuff I had written when I was a teen. I read that start of a novel I wrote when I was 14, the one that has no plot and no ending and is just a bunch of things that happen. Then I read the handwritten pages that I wrote when I was 18 or 19 and they were extremely difficult to read because they were so honest and too reflective of something that actually happened to me at that age and I know I was writing them at that time as a way to relive every moment I spent with the particular guy that they are about (therapy as I say), and I also know that I quit writing them because I didn’t know how it all ended. I didn’t know at that time that I would get over him and I would turn out OK.

And it is those handwritten pages that really got me and they got the story idea flowing because I could take some of the incidents that happened in those pages and I could turn them upside down on their head and create a new story and the new story would be about a relationship-phobic girl who meets a messed up guy who is still grieving the loss of his mother, he has a binge drinking problem, and he drinks and drives and it just so happens that our make-out queen relationship-phobic girl has had a rather embarrassing fling with a very good friend of the messed up guy and as soon as she gets together with messed up guy the other guy pops back into her life.

I didn’t want the story to have a gimmick. There are too many teen novels out there that the driving force behind them is a gimmick which I define as some clever fantasy thing that happens that would probably never happen in real life to a real teen (like a pen pal handwritten letter exchange between two schools or a pair of pants that fit four girls of different shapes and sizes and they mail them around the world for a week at a time for one summer). But I did have to have these characters do something all together as a group on a regular basis. It couldn’t all be about house parties and going to the bar – even if that is what 18 and 19 year olds in university actually do (and I will admit that a good chunk of this book does take place at house parties and bars but alcohol is a big theme here so it was unavoidable). So they play baseball. I think at 18 if I had played softball that I would have played like Janey (I am but a shadow of the player she is as I describe her). But I knew I could do softball. I could talk nuances of softball and not look like I was pulling facts off a website.

The other thing that I knew that I was going to have to deal with was the whole French-English thing. I have known for a long time that I wanted to write a story about the French English relations in this city and how they play out socially, and the French underworld, so to speak, that the English people never even notice and I make a few comments about those issues in various places throughout the book. I didn’t want to make that the driving force behind the book but I knew it had to be an issue as well as the Catholic and religion issue and everything I say about those two issues are things that happened to me and are how I felt being in similar situations. And obviously the story’s perspective is the Anglophone perspective because I am Anglophone and I can’t do the other side. I am not sure I resolve those issues, and considering how the story ends I am not sure that it matters if they are resolved. I am also not sure that they are resolvable issues in this story or in real life either – they just are as they are.

And so I wrote. Getting started was the hardest thing. I was deathly afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do fiction anymore when I started this. And when I sat down and wrote for the first time all I could do was 2 pages and it was really slow but that didn’t concern me because I know from 20 years of writing that usually if writing comes too easy that it is probably bad writing. But never once, while I wrote the first draft, did I think I was doing bad writing. In fact I was quite frequently stunning myself.
I found the writing process all consuming. It was the only thing I could think about and I frequently found myself not being able to concentrate and I would start getting the shakes around 4pm because I couldn’t wait to start writing (it might have had a little something to do with too much coffee too – lack of sleep has been my middle name the last few months). Sometimes I would write when I wasn’t supposed to be writing, like at work, or when I was supposed to be cooking supper and I couldn’t resist because it was like a drug and I felt like I was addicted.

I also had this overwhelming sense that it was a do it now or never do it situation. I had looked into doing my PhD and I knew that if I started writing that I would not be able to do my PhD too because the PhD would kill all ability to write. I really had this constant sense that the time and situation had aligned themselves (like the planets) and that this was what I was meant to be doing right now and if I didn’t do it now the time would pass and it may never align itself like that again.

I plunged myself into a couple rather serious cases of the blues during the writing process. The first came when I made the very bad decision sometime just before or just after starting the first chapter, to go and re-read my journal from the period of my life that I was writing about – the summer of 1989 the summer after graduating high school before starting university. I was looking for catch phrases and slang from the time period but what happened instead is that I reminded myself of exactly what happened between myself and the guy I was with that summer and I felt absolutely horrified and for a brief period of time I put myself back emotionally to a time and place where I was in that relationship again and I read about how I reacted to that situation when I was 18 and I felt horrible for that person that I was, that sad, insecure girl who had so very little self esteem.

The second time was after I finished the first draft. I took about 4 days off before I wrote the last section. I really felt that I was going to go back into my manuscript and I was going to have to do no more than a good polish and I would have a solid manuscript. That was what I was used to with my writing – in my academic writing – I had gotten to a place where I could write a clean first draft and it didn’t require a whole lot of content revision or editing. I could write it well the first time. So after I read Stephen King’s book (On Writing) and I thought my writing was fabulous and I could let other people read it and they would think I was brilliant and the best undiscovered talent in young adult fiction to come around in a generation and all other kinds of delusions of grandeur.

Then I broke King’s number one rule. He said to let the manuscript sit for six weeks and not look at it – gain some perspective and distance – and as I read this in his book I was nodding to myself and thinking: of course, I do this all the time with my other writing – I always let it sit, I always give it distance. But it kept calling to me and I printed it out one day at work and then I started reading passages at random and it was horrible. It was awful. It was dreadful. It was worse than bad. It was embarrassing. Things that I thought were cool while I was writing them I thought were stupid and corny and they made me role my eyes and ooooh I can't stand books that make me role my eyes. My own book was making me role my eyes every five pages it felt like. I was afraid it was unfixable.

Obviously I got through that stage. I did a few of the things that I have been doing to get my inspiration back (music and TV shows did that, for one) and I did start revising and I convinced myself it was fixable and it turns out that it was. That was a bad one though. I almost quit during that one.

The third bout of the blues came sometime in the middle of revisions. I kept going back to the beginning because they kept calling to me from my subconscious. So I sat down at work one day when I should have been thinking about Epidemiology or something equally dry and I started reading. I haven’t ever actually read the whole manuscript cover to cover yet. I just keep looking at it in compartmentalized sections but that day I sat down and I read through the first 9 chapters without interruption and I started off excited because it was working and it was fabulous and I wasn’t hating it. Then I got into chapter 5 and I found myself drifting off and it suddenly occurred to me that the reason why I was drifting off was because I was bored and then it was like, Oh God, I am boring myself, what will my reader think? And I was at it again. I was in the just give it up and go to do your PhD mode, you’re a hack, you suck, you’ll never be a writer. GIVE IT UP.

But I figured out how to fix that too. I have always been a little worried that my academic background was going to be a detriment to writing fiction but I have learnt one important lesson in academic writing and that is that if something isn’t working then cut it. Just cut it out don’t try to fix it and that turned out to be the solution in part 4 too. I ended up cutting about 3 pages and that did it. I needed to get Janey back with Marc sooner than it was happening and there was a bunch of stuff in 4 that was not really necessary to the plot but all that stuff was preventing me from getting back to Marc and re-introducing Colin. Cutting fixed the drag.

But by time I started revising I started thinking about how what this story was really about was a girl of contradictions and about being in the wrong relationship and not recognizing it and the reason why she is in the wrong relationship is because she is hoping to save Marc in some way, to rescue him, to fix him and the fact that he needs to be fixed emotionally is what attracts her to him in the first place and then somewhere around revising part 8 I was listening a lot to Forty Foot Echo, two songs in particular, Save Me and Brand New Day, and both songs are about basically the same thing to some extent, about trying to hold on to who you are as a person while at the same time having regret and needing to pick up the pieces and carry on and recognize the need to change and evolve from your mistakes, and the chorus in Save Me actually starts off “So save me” and I thought if you think of that line with a little bit of attitude like you are giving someone a dare – So, save me – I dare you to try, that it would be a better fit for this story because Janey starts off trying to save and she ends up being saved in a way by both guys.

So then that begs the question that all writers get asked about their writing at some point and that is how much of me is in this story. How much of it is real life? It would be fair to say I have been through every single emotional circumstance that happens in this book. I have felt jealous of my friends, I have felt like I didn’t belong with my friends, I have felt that my friends didn’t get who I was, I have felt irritated by them, I have felt like my feelings were being discredited by someone I was in a relationship with, I have felt like the way a guy was behaving towards me stifled my personality and made me feel like I didn’t know how to act, I have said mean things about another person not intending to be overheard but I was overheard and I had to face the consequences and apologize afterward, I have felt like I was freaking out over sex, I have been in sexual situations where I did things and went to a certain “base”, so to speak, and didn’t really want to go as far as I let myself go. I am the only non Catholic amongst a group of very Catholic friends and I pretty much feel no affinity to religion. All my friends growing up worked at Canadian Tire (two different ones though) and I worked at Safeway. My friend’s Dad was the manager of a Canadian Tire. I hung out in a French Canadian bar for a short time that was above Le Rendezvous called Canot which is basically exactly like I describe it. All that is semi-autobiographical.

I worry about being too crude in places because my sense of humour can be crude and sometimes I don’t recognize when I am being crude and I, to this day, say things out loud that shock people and I don’t want the humour to be toilet humour but it is quite possible in places that it is toilet humour or borders on toilet humour (e.g. the big guns not being her breasts; the part about Marc being the same guy who’s had his hands in her shorts almost every night this week). But I did kind of always want to write the kind of novel that was honest and real and really reflected what my life was like with my friends and how we really talked to each other and how sometimes you make bad choices and not every teen has the goody-two shoes response to morally wrong situations and you kiss people for the wrong reasons and how you size up every guy you meet by his sex appeal and you do sexual and intimate things with people when you don’t really want to, and there is always the guy that every word that comes out of his mouth is a sexual advance and so on. I wanted to write a book that the kids whispered about in the halls – “Pssst you gotta read this book. Your parents will hate it” – like Catcher in the Rye was or Are You There God It’s Me Margaret? Or Forever.

It’s a long process, this writing thing, and I am learning something every day and it’s not finished yet, but I needed to get these reflections on paper so that I can look back and see how far I have come when it is finally finished. It’s time to let this thing sit for a while, catch up on preparations for term 2, and get some sleep. It’s time to let some people read it. That is the hardest thing for me, to let other people read it, in particular my husband who makes fun of my obsession with teen culture. But I will never know where there are truly gaps until I start farming it out and piloting it to readers. That and if I don’t stop picking at it now while I am the only one that has seen it then I will end up polishing the life out of it. At least as time goes by less and less things about it wake me up in the middle of the night screaming at me to change them and fix them.

It just feels so personal. I feel very fragile. I feel like my whole self esteem is wrapped up in this project. But on good days – like today – I feel excited. I feel like I could go somewhere with this and you can’t be a published author by sitting around and thinking about writing.

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