Writing the Edge

If you were to ask ten authors how they came up with their first book, they’d tell you it was a story that stuck with them. One that played over and over in their mind, desperate to be told. The same applies to me, especially with Undertow (though I’ll admit that Undertow evolved into this massive story that I DIDN’T see coming until I was eyeball deep writing it).

I am four books into the Undertow series and I’m very, very pleased with how its turned out – and trust me, many times I’d stare at my Mac’s screen and think, “wow, this is shit” and tear the scene apart for the tenth time.

But Undertow is easy for me to write, mainly because the characters are so clear in my mind. They are REAL to me, so when I sit to write, I just follow their lead. Authors who are eyeball deep in a series will probably tell you something similar – that their characters drive the story and just drag the author along to take notes.

But as authors, we have to evolve – push the envelope.

I knew that after I finished True North I needed to crank like mad and get a story written for the industry and the hopes of grabbing an agent. As pal Trisha Leaver says, “Nothing sells your backlist like your front list,” which basically means each new book you put out helps sell the books you already have published. To keep Undertow moving and growing, I needed a book that was not part of the Undertow series at all and that would go to an agent. I figured it would be easy – I had a bunch of story concepts laid out, I just needed to pick one, right? RIGHT?

HA! Yeah, that worked about as well as trying to de-ice your windshield with an ice pick. My problem was basic – I wanted to write what I believed the industry wanted: literary (The Coffin Crew) or Contemporary (Paint the Ponies).

And truth be told, I can write just about anything. I’ve been a professional writer and journalist long enough that if I’m given a story to write, I can write it – I just may not LIKE it.

And that became my biggest problem – I realized that for me to write the character-driven, wild stories that I am known for, then I needed to passionately LOVE the characters and the story. I needed to live inside the skin of the characters easily and feel my way through their world in an effortless, almost mindless, way.

I had a story in my head that I knew would be seen as controversial, but it constantly, CONSTANTLY whispered in the back of my mind while I was writing True North. I’d go for walks to try and map out a scene in my head between Eila and the gang, and I’d end up thinking about this other story . . . over and over. The scenes were clear in my head, but a dark corner of my mind kept whispering that the story would never be grabbed by an agent (and it may not).

It was TOO forbidden and I’d probably get my ass handed to me, repeatedly, by different groups of people. But I LIKED it. It laid out all those things that are whispered about in homes across the world, but no one dares ask outright. It spoke to me, as a Psych major who studied terrorism and who was raised on tales of teens at war thanks to my Grandfather’s Iwo Jima experience.

I was willing to stick my neck out for it.

But then I had a chance to have a manuscript critiqued by an agent at a conference I was to  attend. This particular agent I really liked, but I knew that she would prefer Paint the Ponies over the terrorism book. Paint the Ponies was in her wheelhouse and what she liked to rep, so I could totally respect that. And truth be told, my mother and a YA librarian here on the Cape adored the first few pages of the story. And yes, I could totally write it if I had to.

But then Fate intervened and I got an email stating that the agent was overbooked and I needed to pick someone else. So I dug through the other agents, looking over who they were as people (very important to me), what they repped and sold, and what they were looking for. I stumbled on a younger agent and was intrigued. Between his dry humor and what he was looking for, I suddenly realized that my terrorism book may have someone bold enough to at least consider it. So I slid Paint the Ponies aside and focused completely on Code Name: Hell Cat.

I have no clue if this agent will like what I’ve done. I hope he does, but it’s okay if he doesn’t.

I know this industry. I’ve lived inside this industry for a long time now. I could never be an agent – I’d lose my mind. I don’t know how they do it, reading piles and piles of queries. I get asked all the time to edit stuff for people and even ghost write and I’m like, “Hell, no!” So yeah – total props to the agents.

Their eyes must bleed.

I guess, in the end, I wrote what I felt – the characters, the questions raised by terrorism, the music, the landscape, and the psychology of teens at war . . . and I twisted it. It’s what I do. It’s what I’m known for. As one reviewer of True North said, “The story has the power to make you roll with laughter and then ever so casually it flips you a papery finger, and shatters your heart.”

Truth is, I like a brutal twist. I like my readers screaming out loud at the pages, or laughing so hard they snort in public, or crying so much they put the book down for days. I like villains who you root for and heroes who are total screw-ups. I doubt I could ever write a “quiet” book – I live too loud to be mouse-like.

The question is, have I pushed too far in Code Name: Hell Cat . . . or did I simply give a voice to the darker questions that run through our minds after a suicide bomber lays waste to the innocent?

Hopefully, time will tell.

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