Monday, December 14, 2015

ADVENT CALENDAR Day 14 - Anatomy of a Story - Behind the Scenes

*** Giveaway Below! ***

I'm often asked about the editing process. How does a story change? Do I always take the advice of my editor? How do you decide what to keep and what to cut, or change?

It occurred to me that Every Ugly Word had been through so many iterations, it would be really interesting to see how the story had developed. So today I'm opening the vaults and showing you four versions of one of the opening scenes of the book which has been there since the very first draft! You can see how my agent molded the story, how my editing partners helped me refine it for self-publication, and what my editor ultimately did with it.

If you want to skip to the giveaway, today I'm opening entries for a signed paperback of Every Ugly Word. You can just scroll to the bottom to enter!

 This is the very first version of this scene, written even before I'd finished the draft. 
At this point I hadn't introduced Doc into the story, so this scene opened the book!
In this original version, the protagonist was named Stacy, and her best friend was called Matt. 
They would stay that way until my publisher acquired the book.

 My breath made a cloud on the bedroom mirror, but I had to stand that close to make sure I didn’t miss any of those fuzzy tufts of hair around my face.  Having red hair was bad enough.  Frizzy red hair was the height of uncool.  Tonight everything had to be just right.  Mark had to take one look at me and think ‘perfect’.
My fingers were still damp from pulling water through my unruly strands.  Twisting my bangs around the barrel of the curling iron, my wet finger touched it and sizzled.  I howled and yanked my hand away.
“You’re doing it all wrong.”  In the mirror’s reflection, my twenty-eight-year-old-self leaned against my chest of drawers with her arms folded.  She had a look on her face exactly like Mom’s when she thought I was being stupid.
“Well, tell me how to do it then!”
“Oh, no!” My older self showed me her palms and shook her head.  “I refuse to be a part of this.  You’re going to make a fool of yourself.”
“How do you know?” I rolled my eyes and gave her exactly the same look I give my Mom when she’s being stupid.  “You said you don’t remember this far back.”
Older Me scoffed and pushed to stand straight, her face twitching at the reminder.   “I don’t,” she said.  “But I’m old enough to know… I mean, you’ve told me what he said.  I just think-”
“Either tell me how to do this, or shut up.  He’s going to be here in ten minutes.”
She closed her mouth, but her eyes stayed on me the whole time I tried to figure out how the schmeck I was supposed to get that silky, straight look to my hair from this little round hot-iron.
Older Me had a really boring haircut.  It was long.  Too long.  And she hardly ever styled it anymore.  It looked okay a few months ago when she cut her bangs and got more layers, but now they were grown out again, it just made her – me - look fat.  Especially in that sweatshirt she was wearing.
Not that seventeen-year-old-me got any say in what twenty-eight-year-old-me did, or what she wore.  Oh, no!  It had always been that way.  Right from the beginning, she was all talk and advice.  No listen.  Never listen. 
I was only five or six the first time I saw her - the her that’s me in, like, twelve years or something.  I was still young enough to assume everyone must see both versions of themselves whenever they looked in the mirror.  Why else would Mom spend an hour there every morning? 
I don’t know how many months it took Mom to realize I wasn’t playing imaginary friends.  I don’t even remember what I said.  I just remember her face going really white and her mouth pulling down at the corners.
“Stacy, you can’t tell anybody about this… okay?”  Her voice was too quiet.  It scared me because she looked scared.  “That’s not…  I mean, other people don’t have…what you have.  So just keep it between us, okay?”
“A secret?”  I loved secrets when I was little.  I might have clapped my hands.
Mom nodded and her lips pushed into a really thin line.  “Yes, dear.  A secret.”
Older Me told me to keep it quiet too.  So I did. 
If you can’t trust yourself, who can you trust?

 After querying agents for a few months and receiving a lot of manuscript requests, but no "bites", I'd been given a lot of feedback by some very experienced agents and tried to work their suggestions into the scene. At this point the scene still opened the book and eventually got me signed with my former agent:

My breath made a cloud on the bedroom mirror. I had to stand that close to make sure I didn’t miss those fuzzy tufts at my hairline. Tonight everything had to be just right. Mark had to take one look at me and think “perfect.”
In the mirror, behind my own reflection, it looked like my twenty-nine-year-old-self leaned against my chest of drawers. She wasn’t actually in the room, of course. I just saw her over whatever was in my mirror. She said I always looked like I was in her room, too.
Older Me looked just like me. Except older. Go figure.
Our hair was exactly the same shade of burnished red. My freckles had lightened on her -- something to look forward to. Except where my blue eyes were smooth at the edges, hers were feathered with wrinkles.
I’d never been skinny, but Older Me was downright pudgy. Her too-long hair dripped down her back. She hardly ever styled it anymore. Not that seventeen-year-old-me got any say in what twenty-nine-year-old-me did, or what she wore. Oh, no! It had always been that way. Right from the beginning, she was all talk and advice. No listen.
“You’re doing that all wrong,” Older Me sighed. Typical.
“Then either tell me how to do it, or shut up. He’s going to be here in ten minutes.”
She closed her mouth, but her eyes stayed on me as I tried to figure out how the schmeck these little flat plates were supposed to deliver that silky, natural look to my hair.
I stepped back from the mirror, turning my head left and right to examine the effect. My hair hung a little too straight. Like it was pulling for the floor. At least there wasn’t a hint of frizz.
In the reflection Older Me stepped right up behind me. “Look, we should talk about this before you go. I really don’t think he meant-”
The doorknob turned and the door swung wide to reveal my best friend, Mark, leaning against the frame. The entire house seemed to hold its breath when he was there.
Or maybe that was just me.
Mark was cool. The kind of cool some people are born with. When he walked into a room people watched him because he always looked like he was on the verge of doing something. I knew better than anyone that if we hadn’t become best friends in third grade, he wouldn’t even know my name now.
“Hey, Stace.”
I’d always wanted to try drawing Mark, but I was sure I wouldn’t get the angle right on his jaw, the perfect weight to his brow. And I’d never be able to show how his sandy hair turned blond in summer, or how his eyes, blue like the sky, had green flecks when you got up close.
“You do something to your hair?”
I glanced at Older Me to make sure she realized he’d noticed.
Mark’s broad, muscular shoulders rolled forward underneath the letterman’s jacket he’d earned as a sophomore. Then his perfect, full-lipped mouth dropped open in exaggerated shock. “Your room’s clean?”
I ignored him, turning away to look for my bag, heart racing off at a gallop. But he misread my silence.
“C’mon, Stace, I’m kidding. Let’s go.”
“Just a sec.” I hoped he wouldn’t notice the flush in my cheeks that rose because he was almost in my room -- a place my mother had barred him from entering since the day he’d turned twelve. Back then we’d both found the rule hilarious. Now I was blushing because I really hoped that when I got home tonight, Mark might sneak in with me.
Mark shrugged, muttering about the time and how I couldn’t even dress myself. It was a joke. He never treated me like the loser everyone else thought I was.

By this time I had introduced Doc -- though he still didn't get as much page time as he does in the final version. So when I put the book out, this had become the second chapter / scene in the story:

A billow of steam rose from the chunk of my hair flattened in my straighteners. The vapor licked the surface of the mirror, obscuring my reflection and turning the bedroom behind me into a smudge. Wretched things. I should have dried my hair more. But I was already running late. I’d gotten distracted by another argument with Older Me.
Somewhere to my left, my phone buzzed. I fumbled on the carpet with my free hand to find it, then dragged a finger across the surface. The name “MARK” appeared at the top of the screen, scrolling to “come 2 my room wen u get here”
I texted back “leavin in 5”
Cursing my frizzy strands of copper hair that insisted on defying me at every turn, I redoubled efforts to turn my mop into some kind of sleek…something.
I swiped my sleeve down the mirror, smearing the vapor aside.
In the mirror’s reflection, Older Me stood over my shoulder, appearing close enough to touch if she’d actually been in the room, her face twisted into that look of concerned pity I hated.
She’d been giving me that look in the mirror since I was twelve. The first time she appeared I thought I was crazy. It wasn’t until she told me stuff no one else could know that I realized she was real. Too bad I’d already told Mom at that point. She was horrified – and embarrassed. She made me promise never to tell anyone else. A course of action that Older Me supported.
“Was that text from Mark?” Her voice, still sullen, was an oddly deeper version of mine.
 “Yes,” I sighed. “He’s expecting me soon and my hair is just… ugh.”
The too-long beat of silence that followed my complaint meant we weren’t finished discussing things.
“I just–” she began.
I groaned. “Can we just agree to disagree? I have to get out of here.”
But she kept talking. “I don’t understand why you insist on going to this dance when you know they’re going to give you a hard time.”
“Would you let it go already?” After all, it wasn’t like she was going to help.
Once I’d gotten used to seeing her, it wasn’t long before I figured out Older Me would know how things happened for me in the future. I’d been giddy, rushing to the mirror, calling for her until she appeared, demanding that she tell me. She refused.
I got mad. She didn’t care. I screamed. She shrugged. I cried, she apologized, but still refused to budge.
And so began a conversation we’d repeat ad nauseum for…well, for almost six years so far. Oh, she was great at telling me why people acted the way they did after the fact. But what’s the point of having a window into your future, if half the time your future self refuses to clear the fog so you can see through it?
So I’d stumbled through the last few years, screwing everything up. Now all I had left was Mark. My best friend and, I hoped, soon-to-be-boyfriend.
Mark was my future. I’d written the letter in my pocket to make sure he knew that.
“I’m not talking about this anymore.”
Older Me glared. “You always say you want me to help.”
“I wanted you to help me break up Mark and Belinda in ninth grade. I wanted you to tell me what to study on my Chemistry final. I wanted you to help me not make a complete ass of myself at that party last spring.”
“But that’s just it, Stacy,” she said through gritted teeth. “You don’t want help when it means missing out on something. Like this dance. Where you know they’re going to make your life hell.”
“Do you really think I need you reminding me that everyone hates me?”
She sighed. “Hate is a strong word.”
“Exactly my point.”
She met my glare with a worried frown. My stomach clenched, just for a second. But I wasn’t backing down this time. Not now, when I finally felt like maybe things might happen between me and Mark. I hadn’t told her about the letter. No matter what the future held, I knew she’d think that was a bad idea.

My editor thought we could move the story forward by essentially combining the second and third scenes. So we've skipped the mirror and hair scene completely, and worked many of those details what was the next scene in the former versions. We've also changed the character names, so Stacy became Ashley, and Mark became Matt:

The headlights of my mom’s ancient Civic cut across the deep black of the Oregon countryside, turning the grass silver and bringing the post-and-rail fence into sharp relief. The engine whined as I downshifted and took the corner too fast into my best friend Matt’s long driveway.
“You know, in moments like these I’m grateful I never have to actually ride with you,” a familiar female voice said.
“Stop scowling. You’re giving me wrinkles,” I replied, adjusting my rearview mirror so I could see her better. In the small, rectangular frame, it almost looked as though she were in my backseat, arms folded across her chest, her too-long reddish hair falling limply across her shoulders. But she wasn’t there, not really.
She appeared five years ago, the same day I lost all my friends. I’d run home from school, refusing to cry until I was alone. When I made it to my room, I caught sight of my pathetic self in the mirror. Except, it wasn’t just me staring back—Older Me was there, too.
“Are you in the bathroom again?” I asked.
She nodded. “My roommates are home.” She’d moved into an apartment a few months before. She didn’t seem to like her roommates much, but then, she didn’t seem to like much of anything.
As I braked in front of Matt’s huge brick house, she frowned again, worry lines creasing her forehead.
“I told you I don’t need you tonight,” I reminded her.
Tonight was about me and Matt.
If you’d asked me twelve hours earlier if tonight would be That Night for us, I would have laughed. But that was before art class this morning. Matt had grabbed my elbow as the bell rang. He’d shifted his weight and avoided my gaze.
He was . . . nervous. Twitchy.
Matt was never nervous with me. And I’d only ever seen him twitch when he was talking to a girl he wanted to ask out.
“What’s up?” I said.
“We need to talk.” He glanced over my shoulder. “But not here. Can you come over tonight, before the dance?” His Adam’s apple bobbed.
“Of course.”
When he left, I’d almost floated to the cafeteria.
Matt was nervous. And he wanted to talk . . .
Older Me’s voice yanked me back to the present. “Look, I know you like Matt, but he’s your best friend. Dating would just make everything . . . complicated.”
I sighed heavily and killed the engine. I’d gotten used to Older Me being around, popping up in mirrors and glass surfaces, always listening, commenting, offering advice. Usually it didn’t bother me. But tonight was big.
I’d hidden in the library after school and written Matt a letter that confessed everything—my feelings for him, and what I saw when I looked in the mirror. Then I’d tucked it deep in my purse where there was no chance she’d catch sight of it and try to talk me out of it. She’d always sworn upright and sideways that no one could know about her and me. Especially Matt, though I was pretty sure she’d said that because he was the only person I would tell. She hated it when I went to other people for advice. And she was full of advice. Always. You’d think that’d be awesome, right? Advice from your future self. A literal glimpse into the future.
I wish.
I’d learned years ago that asking her about my future would be met with stony silence and pursed lips. You and me . . . we’re taking different roads, Ashley. How can I tell you what your future is when it might be different from my past?
She cleared her throat. “What about just giving it some time?” she suggested. “You don’t have to tell Matt how you feel tonight. I mean, you guys are so close now. Wouldn’t it be better not to risk the connection you have?”
Before I could comment on the irony of my older self asking me about the future, my phone pinged with a text, no doubt Matt asking where I was. I picked up the phone from where I’d left it on the passenger seat . . . and dropped it immediately.


“What is it?” Older Me asked, the irritation gone from her voice.
My cheeks burned. The caller ID said UNKNOWN, which meant it was Terese. She was the only one with a private number because her mom was the local district attorney.
I could just picture Karyn and Brooke peering over Terese’s shoulders, cackling, telling her what to type. With shaking fingers, I deleted the message. My stomach hardened into a knot, the bitter taste of bile rising in my throat.
How had they gotten my new number?

That's it! If you've read this far, applause! That's quite the journey!  If you have any questions for me on how this progression occurred, or other queries about the publishing process, just ask in the comments or tweet / email me!

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