People occasionally ask me what the processes of writing and editing are like. Since I'm currently wrapping up revisions to a beloved, previously shelved project, I thought today would be a good chance to answer those questions with a real-life example.
The Real Friend is a project that I undertook during National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo) all the way back in November 2011. NaNoWriMo is a worldwide writing initiative that takes place in November every year. The common goal of participants is to write the first draft of a novel (50,000 words or more) in one month. That works out to about seven double-spaced pages each day, thirty days in a row (one of which is Thanksgiving).
But by the fall of 2011 I had finished drafts of my first two novels (the second of which was Ugly Stick), and my husband and I had just taken a ten-day trek through France and England, in what we supposed would be our last big pre-child-rearing adventure together. And over dinner in a cafe in Paris, David and I talked through a new story idea for me: the story of an imaginary friend who got accidentally abandoned, and everything he would go through to find his creator again. I felt on top of the world, like I could absolutely write seven pages a day for a month straight. Right?
Spoiler alert: I hit the 50,000 word mark at about 11:40pm on November 30. :) It was a beautiful first draft--full of plot holes, parts that dragged and parts that zipped, characters whose hair changed color between chapters, the works. I set it aside for a few months, revised some, shopped it around a little bit, and set it aside again. I knew The Real Friend was special, but something was missing from the story, something that would make it stick. Something that would make it a genuinely important story.
Fast forward to this past winter: my publishing partner and dear friend Samantha, who had read the original draft in its entirety, gave me a little push. "I really think you should do something with it," she said. "Those characters deserve to get out." It was one of the best pushes I'd ever received.
On New Year's Day 2014 I sat down in front of my laptop with a bunch of index cards and basically made a patchwork quilt of all the ideas, scenes, and characters that were changing and how they would fit together. Then I started fixing things. I added a whole new, terrifying Big Bad to the story and learned to wield that valuable virtual editing machete, the delete key, more fiercely than I ever had. Thousands upon thousands of those 50,000 original words have been cut and replaced over the past few months. And I have gotten really, really, really excited.
Here's the pitch for the revised version of The Real Friend, in case you're curious now:
An abandoned imaginary friend will do anything to find the boy who created him: he’ll uncover secrets, cross realms, and even fight the darkest monsters that children have ever faced.
I can't wait to share the final, completed story with you, whenever that exciting day might be. For today's Throwback, though, here is the opening scene of The Real Friend, circa 2011 and 2014, to demonstrate how the editing process can change things.
2011 (Original Draft):
The first day of my life was a cold, rainy day, and Ricky was sick in bed. I later learned that he was three years old at the time, but when he imagined me I had no thoughts other than the shape of his pink face and his big blue wondrous eyes staring at me. Ricky imagined me with mossy green hair and fuzzy blue skin, wrapped up in a fiery red tunic, and there I was. I had twice as many toes as him and half as many teeth.
The moment Ricky illuminated me and brought me to life, he spoke my name: “Samby.” I think now that he was trying to say “Sammy,” but he had a cold and a stuffy nose. I pointed at myself, and he nodded.
Ricky wiggled his hand at me. I raised my own hand and wiggled it back. He clapped his hands gleefully. I clapped mine. He waved for me to come closer. I took my first few steps, but my feet weren’t used to the slick wooden floor. I slipped and knocked into a cup of juice on the night table.
The plastic cup clattered to the floor as purple juice splattered everywhere. Ricky’s eyes got big, and I heard footsteps for the first time.
“Ricky,” a pretty woman scolded as she hurried into the room, “didn’t Mommy say to be careful with your juice?” She scowled and pulled a towel off the dresser.
“Sorry, Mommy,” Ricky said. “It wasn’t me... it was Samby.”
“Samby?” Mommy repeated. She looked around.
I thought she might like me better if I helped to clean up, so I dropped to my knees and tried to lap up the juice. It didn’t work, though—my tongue slid through the juice like it was nothing more than mist on the floor.
Ricky giggled again, and Mommy stared hard for a minute.
“Is Samby a new friend?” she asked.
Ricky nodded, bouncing in his bed.
Mommy’s face changed into a smile, and she set down the towel. “I’m glad you made a new friend, Ricky,” she said. “Samby can stay as long as she likes.”
“He, Mommy. Samby’s a he.”
“Of course,” Mommy said quickly. “As long as he likes. And as long as he doesn’t spill any more juice, okay?”
Ricky and I nodded together, and Mommy finished cleaning up the mess. I haven’t spilled a drop of juice since that day.
I often think about that very first day. I wonder what life was like before it—pretty much the same, I expect—and I occasionally ask myself what would have happened if Ricky hadn’t caught that particular cold. I’m glad he did, though. Whatever happened afterwards, I am very glad he did.
2014 (Revised Draft):
I was born on New Year’s Day in 1975. It seemed like a good day to be born, when the year was just starting. A pink-cheeked boy sitting in a bed shaped like a race car was the first thing I saw.
“Hi. I’m Ricky,” he said, and he waved at me. “You’re Samby. We’re friends now.”
“Okay,” I said, waving back. He grinned at me.
I looked down at myself: two hands, two bare feet, and striped pajamas. My skin was peachier than Ricky’s. There was a mirror over the dresser, and I saw my own face—I had a round squashy nose and light blue hair. At once I liked myself almost as well as I liked Ricky.
“Do you want to play?” I asked.
Ricky nodded, but then shook his head. He was sick with a cold on that New Year’s Day. “Mommy says I have to stay in bed until I feel better,” he said.
I paused to consider this first obstacle to our friendship. “Can I just stay in bed too?” I asked. “We can still play. We could… pretend the bed is a boat?”
Ricky scooted over to make room for me, and I climbed into the race car bed.
“Okay, now we’re in the ocean,” he said, waving his hands slowly around us, and the floor began to shimmer and swell. I sniffed and smelled salt in the air.
“It’s a pirate ship,” he added. “I’m captain, and you’re first mate. Raise the Jolly Roger!”
A black flag with a skull on it unfurled and rose upon a wooden mast at the foot of the bed. I watched it whip in the breeze that was suddenly blowing through the room. I had never seen a pirate ship before—or any ship, for that matter—but I could see what Ricky saw. The bed sheets disappeared, replaced by wooden planks and heavy cannons. We began to rock from side to side as waves tilted the bed.
“Shiver me timbers!” I said. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I knew it was something a pirate would say.
Ricky laughed, but then his face suddenly turned serious as he gazed over the ocean. “Ahoy, look out! Over the starfish side… it’s a sharkodile!”
“What’s a sharkodile?” I asked. My timbers, whatever they were, felt shivery at the very name. I looked into the water and saw a big scaly fin sticking out over a wave.
“Half shark, half crocodile,” Ricky answered solemnly. “The fiercest beast in all the seven seas. And it’s headed straight for us! Ready the cannons, matey.”
“Aye aye, captain.” I jumped towards the closest cannon, and we prepared for battle.
Years later, when I was alone, I often thought back to my very first day. Sometimes I wondered what the world was like before New Year’s Day in 1975—pretty much the same, I supposed—and sometimes I wondered what would have happened to me if Ricky hadn’t caught that cold. I was glad he did, though. No matter what came afterwards, I was very glad he did.
Happy Throwback Thursday! What's changed in your work in the past three years?