It started as a story shared by a coworker.
One of the nicer perks of working for a corporate executive—besides a beautiful office that included quite a bit of solitude and free coffee—was the occasional opportunity to visit with staff. I had developed a pretty good camaraderie with most of them as they sat in guest chairs, waiting for the boss to become available.
One day, several years ago, I was speaking with a woman who told me about her niece. The girl had lost three friends in a terrible accident and, had she been with them that night, she too would’ve lost her life.
The story struck such a chord with me, I started thinking about what it must be like to know that you dodged a bullet like that. You’re basically being given a second chance at life and what a colossal amount of guilt must go along with that type of fortune.
Your friends died, so you may truly live.
I started researching the accident, formulated a fictionalized story from it, and began the journey of writing The Girl Who Didn’t Go.
In the summer of 2014, I participated in an online writer’s retreat. Camp NaNoWriMo, held every July, was my chance to work out some scenes for the novel I wanted to write. I decided on my selected word count—30,000 if memory serves—and proceeded to hit that goal by the end of the month.
I humbly admit, I wrote some pretty good scenes, but it needed work. 30,000 words was barely a first act. And, as usual, life and other story ideas got in the way, and I put The Girl Who Didn’t Go aside.
Let’s break here for a moment and discuss the well-being of the writer—this writer specifically.
The writer is a strange character. Alone but rarely lonely. Hunched over a keyboard typing out the stories of make believe people in fictionalized places doing crazy ass things with and to one another.
Sometimes it involves turning on a specific playlist or talking to oneself. Sometimes it’s rewatching the movie that motivated you to write your own story. Or reading resource books to help you become better at your craft.
It’s about your arms at 90 degree angles, imperfect posture, arthritis sinking into joints thanks to hours upon hours of tapping or handwriting (cramping hands I feel ya).
The mental gets caught up in the storytelling.
The physical suffers because if it.
For years, cervical issues have plagued me. It’s caused many a sleepless night, it’s led to several rounds of injections, physical therapy, self-medicating (wine). It’s been the excuse for long breaks of not writing a thing for weeks, and it’s the struggle to power through in order to write the words you need to expel despite your aching joints.
After almost a decade, I finally decided to do something about this busted old neck of mine. The spine surgeon recommended a plate and screws in my C6-C7 to alleviate the pressure on my nerve. I agreed it was time. The pain is consuming me and I can’t continue like this. Surgery was the answer. But, it had to be on my terms.
There’s the day job stuff that needs to be in order before I even think about taking time off. The Thanksgiving holiday I look forward to every year, where I do all the cooking. And the mental preparation it takes to have surgery, knowing there’s recovery and down time I truly feel I deserve after this last year of other “life stuff” going on.
But more importantly, to me, I had vowed to participate in NaNoWriMo this year—the 30-day writing competition where you write 50,000 words in the month of November. I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity to write TGWDG, and maybe there’s a little procrastination on my part because, yeah, I’m freaked out about the surgery.
Therefore, on December 4th, while I’m basking in my NaNoWriMo glow, I’ll get the surgery and fix my shit.
There comes a time when you hit the wall. You love the story, you just don’t love the work it takes to finish it.
I burn out all the time when I’m writing. I feel overwhelmed and find that I start to focus on a different story, whether it’s new or old. A new motivation and inspiration comes with the alternate story and I feel invigorated.
The down side, is that when I’m ready to return to an old novel, I forget a lot of what I’ve written and have to reread the manuscript.
Well, it’s four years later. I find myself stuck in a novel I’m working on. Tame My Racing Heart was already winning awards (along with another unpublished WIP), but I was growing weary of it. I needed a break. I needed to focus on something else for a while.
I was working on the edits for a short story that’s being included in an anthology when something made me think of TGWDG. The excitement I felt in 2014 for the story’s possibilities came rushing back.
Around this time, I had also listened to a webcast (Jeff Goins - How to write a bestseller), and it hit me as I reread the work I’d completed in 2014. I had been writing a series of things that were happening to my characters, and not an exciting, thrilling, suspenseful novel someone would stay up all night to read.
Immediately, I pulled out all the instruments for a successful writing experience. Outlines, resource books, the research from the actual event, and so on. I started brainstorming. I could feel the story coming together again, even better than the original draft. I added another POV, gave everyone purpose, and even came up with a hook and a twist. But something was still missing.
It needed to be richer, more interesting, situations more dire and my characters needed to stop sounding like whiny bitches.
If this was going to be a suspense novel, then I needed to research how best to write it, read some of my favorite authors (Sandra Brown, I’m talking’ to you), and I needed to plot the outline within an inch of its life to take the story to the next level.
I couldn’t phone it in when it came to my characters’ careers.
If my main character was a forensics expert, then I needed to become one.
Off to the library I went (on a Friday!). I checked out books on criminal investigations and criminalistics. Side note—law enforcement has always been an area of interest for me, I had written stories in high school and college about undercover cops (I blame 21 Jumpstreet. The TV show, kids, not the goofy movie). Maybe if I’d taken a different path, I would’ve had a career in the system.
When I cracked The Bodies We Buried: Inside the National Forensic Academy, I thought to myself, take notes and use things that will help you sound like you know what the main character does for a living. Make it general for your audience, don’t get too technical.
I didn’t expect to get so caught up in this world. There is so much to forensic science. I became engrossed in the book. I discovered little details that will enrich the narrative. I now know how a crime scene is processed, and sometimes, corrupted.
I felt a rush of excitement as ideas burst onto the page. Now, if I could just connect the dots. I took the month of October to do just that. Note cards taped to my office’s closet doors, a binder with handwritten ideas scribbled onto legal pads cut and taped into each chapter, a pile of other books tabbed and highlighted. And an ending that not only gave the main character retribution, but all characters get a little somethin-somethin, if you know what I mean. No stone left unturned here. It all came together. Now I just have to write the damn thing.
Because really, that is always the hardest part. The start.
Welcome to NaNoWriMo. See you on the other side.