The making of a novel, part 6—how writing is like parenting

Granted, I only have one child, but all of my friends with multiple kids say the same thing: the second is nothing like the first. In many cases, it seems, they’re the complete opposite.

Having finished one book and begun another, I’m tempted to say the same is true of writing. With Dell’s story, I knew I needed to do a lot of research to get the details right. But I didn’t want to be doing research; I wanted to write. So I started writing scenes in random order, working on the ones that didn’t require medical knowledge—just a solid feel for the characters and their emotions. After I put in the time to learn what I needed to know, I built the structure of the story around the treatment journey and fit the character scenes in where they made sense.

That seemed to work well for me. Only a few scenes couldn’t find a place in the narrative, and it made writing from the beginning go faster and more smoothly. So as I embarked on this next story, I figured I might as well approach it the same way. But my second novel, the little bugger, is nothing like the first.

Rae’s story doesn’t need the framework that Dell’s did, which is good on the one hand because it gives me more freedom, but bad on the other because I don’t have a structure to guide me along. I didn’t edit the last book as I went. But I’m about an eighth of the way into this one and I already feel the need to revise what I’ve got.

We’ll see what happens when I get to the third book. Maybe a pattern will emerge and one of these two will be the outlier. But I have a sneaking suspicion that—like kid #3—it will be its own unique blend of challenges and joys as well.

The making of a novel, part 3—puzzle pieces

Before I put pen to paper, I like to 1) know the characters well and 2) have a decent idea of the major plot points of the story. I don’t need all the specifics, but I want to know the landmarks to be on the lookout for. I knew this book would open sometime before the anniversary of Rae’s father’s death, and I knew the actual anniversary would be the turning point as far as kindness. What I needed to figure out was 1) what she does on that day and 2) what act of kindness someone performs to inspire her to embark on her own crusade of kindness.

The simple act of changing the title from GNR to Bon Jovi answered both of those questions and more. Because I, too, am a fan of Bon Jovi, I knew they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018. If Rae’s dad loved 80s rock and loved Bon Jovi in particular, surely he would have wanted to see their exhibit in the Hall of Fame, especially given that Cleveland is only a couple of hours away from Columbus, where my story is set (write what you know). But maybe he died before he got the chance.

So on the anniversary of his death, Rae skips school to go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and see the Bon Jovi memorabilia in her father’s honor. When she arrives, the exhibit is closed. Despite all her pleading, the person at the ticket counter refuses to let her in. Enter the kind stranger—an employee who sees her huddled on the floor, despondent, and sneaks her in.

The Bon Jovi change also gave me an idea for the opening of the book. Previously, I’d had the idea to use an 80s rock song title to open each chapter. With the Bon Jovi connection, it seemed obvious that the first chapter has to be a Bon Jovi song. And while I’m still not sure about the whole opening scene, I think it makes sense to open with Rae’s musing on the connection between Bon Jovi and her dad. Here’s what I’ve got:

I like to pretend my father’s mortician was Jon Bon Jovi’s grandfather. Granted, we didn’t go to Bongiovi Funeral Home because we don’t live in Raritan, New Jersey, and Bon Jovi’s grandpop is probably dead too, but if somehow Mr. Bongiovi had buried my dad, it would have made him happy.

Now I just need the right song title….

How parenting has made me a better writer

Accepting criticism

Curious about what I’ve been writing, Ellie once asked if I would read it to her. Figuring a book about cancer isn’t appropriate for a six-year-old, I read her one of my old middle grade novels. Because I hadn’t looked at the manuscript in a decade, the flaws were painfully obvious, but Ellie was hooked by the story of a girl who is put-upon by her brother. She was engaged until the very end, when the sister teaches the brother a lesson and they declare a truce. But the parents never know how horrible he was to her, and Ellie was offended by this lack of justice. Crying actual tears, she told me my book was terrible and that was why no one wanted to publish it. I’d like to think agents will be kinder than that.

Reading aloud

Years ago, having heard the recommendation to read your work aloud, I sat alone in our guest room and awkwardly listened to the sound of my own voice. Whether it was helpful or not, it was definitely uncomfortable. But once you have a kid, you get pretty used to hearing yourself read. And when I started recording myself reading my current novel aloud, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it not only felt more natural but also turned out to be quite enjoyable. Despite the criticism of my brother-sister saga, Ellie frequently compliments my reading prowess—I pride myself on my inflections and voices (my favorite is Roald Dahl’s The Witches).

Mind over matter

I’m not a fan of bugs. But I didn’t want Ellie to acquire my fear. So once I became a parent, I forced myself to think of insects as fascinating specimens of nature. Seven years later, Ellie picks up every bug she finds in the house and escorts it back outside. She doesn’t hesitate to put her face right next to a cicada or hold a cockroach in her hand. I’m not quite that brave, but I’m far less afraid than I used to be. The mind is a powerful thing. So when I was at a writing conference last month, preparing to pitch my book to agents, feeling the nerves creep up on me, I gave myself a little pep talk. Reminding myself that agents are people like everybody else and that they were there to help aspiring authors like me, I was able to calm myself down and go in with only mildly sweaty palms.

Random acts of kindness: how we began

Toward the end of 2013, I was starting to realize that Ellie would have a lot of stuff in her life. Shawn and I were pretty sure we didn’t want more kids, and we’re both only children ourselves, which meant all the love, affection, and buying power from two sets of grandparents plus other family members would be concentrated on her.

This was especially true at Christmas, when each day brought her closer to an influx of toys to add to the pile she already had. Not wanting to deny her the pleasure of presents, I wondered if we could embrace her good fortune while also establishing a family tradition of giving back.

Every year, we hang on our wall the same fabric countdown calendar I used to anticipate my childhood Christmases. What if we borrowed the countdown idea but changed the payoff?

Starting December 1st, in addition to marking time until The Day of Many Gifts, we would think of something to do for someone else—a way to brighten their day or lighten their load. Once the holiday season ended, we would have 24 “happy tasks,” as we’ve come to call them, to complete over the next 12 months.

Now, more than five years later, with nearly 100 unique random (or not so random) acts of kindness under our belts (plus many we repeat from year to year), this tradition is one of my proudest parenting accomplishments. Ellie is an active participant, coming up with her own ideas and helping execute nearly all of them, and the habits this endeavor has instilled in her shine through her actions—from leaving her money for other kids to find to wanting to donate her hair (more on that in a future post).

And because this has become a regular part of our lives, it seems only natural that it should make its way into my writing. With Dell, I proudly set her treatment in Nationwide Children’s Hospital, a recipient of many of our happy tasks. One of my new projects is a story about a 16-year-old girl named Rae, who is struggling to overcome a major loss and needs the healing power of kindness.

As part of this blog, I’ll periodically feature posts about random acts of kindness that Shawn, Ellie, and I commit—the Happy Task Series. Please check back, and feel free to take our ideas and spread some joy yourself. Leave comments too with suggestions—the world can’t have too much kindness.

Writing in the midst of life

After graduating college early, I devoted a year to writing. I decked out my office, bought a new desk, and attended my first conference. I wrote a middle grade novel that…wasn’t really about anything. While I had all the time in the world, I lacked experience, the kind that would make my stories mean something.

Enter life.

I met Shawn (my husband-to-be), moved to another city, got a full-time job, and started becoming a grown-up.

I still wrote—until we had a baby.

Although I occasionally found a burst of motivation and a pocket of time in which to put it to use, my focus lay elsewhere.

Now almost seven, Ellie has grown more independent, and I’ve reclaimed enough brain space to yearn for a creative outlet. So when the time for New Year’s resolutions came around this past January, I decided to recommit to my writing. Seeking time that would be free from distractions, I set my alarm for 5:15, prepared to chip away at my work-in-progress an hour at a time.

Then a funny thing happened: I loved that time so much, I found other opportunities to write. Working in a crowded dance studio waiting room or hearing My Little Pony in the background might not be ideal, but I wrote within the realities of my life today.

I was surprised by how quickly I finished the first draft of Dell’s story. Partly, it’s because the idea stemmed from something I do every day. Undoubtedly, I would not have written a story about a girl with cancer if I hadn’t taken a job at an oncology-focused advertising agency.

Similarly, when Shawn, Ellie, and I starting performing random acts of kindness throughout the year, it was because I wanted to offset the pile of gifts I knew Ellie would get at Christmas with regular reminders to be grateful for what she has and to do things for those who might not have as much. I didn’t anticipate these experiences making their way into a book, but my next YA novel centers on exactly that.

I named my blog Writing in the Midst of Life because I recognize that I have to carve out moments for writing now. But it’s not just about finding time to write; it’s about what drives my stories—what I think about, the questions I need to answer. Life gives my writing its heart.

Why I write: it starts with a question

At the heart of my best work is a question I’m compelled to answer for myself.

Sometimes it’s a challenge of craft. With my short story “Going Up,” I wondered if I could write a piece in which characters interact without speaking. I used different fonts to represent the distinct thoughts of eight people sharing an elevator and to illustrate how we can find connection simply by opening ourselves up to those around us.

Other times, the question is a matter of perspective. In “The Apple Tree,” I wanted to find out if I could surprise readers by revealing the true nature of the relationship of the narrator—a father—with his daughter.

And lately, with Dell’s story and others that are percolating, I find myself striving to delve into characters’ pain with the goal of pulling something positive from their struggles.

When I think about my projects, I ask myself, “What is this story about?” I don’t mean the plot—that’s the superficial answer. Because there’s a bigger issue I’m grappling with, what the story is about is why it means something—why I have to write it and, hopefully, why others will want to read it.

I think great stories answer questions we all have in some form or fashion. That’s why they resonate. I want to answer the questions that keep me up at night, in a way that lets me sleep tomorrow. Writing is cathartic—I’ve experienced this many times as a reader, and by using it to face my own emotional demons, I’ve seen that it’s true on the other side as well.

Not everything in life has a happy ending. But if I can write books that celebrate hope, gratitude, kindness, and love—in spite of, and often in the midst of, hardship—I am encouraged to live my life the same way. Because ultimately, happiness is what it’s all about.