Wait a minute, baby…stay with me awhile.
Ah, Sara. The first actual book I wrote for a young adult audience, and what a long and tortured history this story actually had.
I started writing stories when I was really young, my own versions of the kids’ series books I was addicted to and were blatant rip-offs, frankly, but it was good practice, I started writing original fiction when I was in high school; basically, I started writing about a group of high school students at a small rural high school (kind of like the one I was going to), and always felt that someday I would turn them all into a book about those kids. A couple of years after high school I abandoned the first actual novel I tried to write (I don’t even know if I still have it anywhere but I don’t think so; it most likely got lost in one of the many moves over the decades), and decided to write a novel about high school students in Kansas. Writing in cursive longhand, I expanded the story beyond the teenagers–who were still the primary core of the story–but also wrote about their parents and siblings as well. It was very soapy–this was the time when my daytime soap addiction was at its highest–but ultimately, the real story was the murder. I wrote whenever I could, often changing character names and ending subplots and starting new ones willy-nilly as my mind bounced around, always coming up with new ideas for it. I started in 1980, and I finally wrote the end on it in 1984; four years. I had thousands of wide-ruled paper filled with my loopy, pretty handwriting; now the trick was to somehow type it all up and edit it, cut out all the excess and tighten it, decide on final names, and so forth.
Needless to say, I never did that. I still have it all somewhere, in a box–it did survive all those moves–but over the years I pilfered plots and character names and stories from it. I have a tendency to come up with character names for ideas for stories and books that never get used; I then turn around and use those names again in something else I am writing (I talked about Chris Moore and Eric Matthews before; I came up with those names for an idea I had for a book set in a fraternity, and have used them in Todd Gregory “fratboy” books and they’ve turned up elsewhere, too).
Sara is one of those books born from that original manuscript, and no, despite the opening sentence of this entry, I didn’t take the title from the Fleetwood Mac song. I’ve always liked the name, and right around when I started writing the book as a young adult novel, I went to a family reunion and met a cousin’s daughter for the first time, and she was absolutely adorable. She actually looked like she would grow up to look like my mysterious title character–and her name was Sara. (I had originally named the character Tara; it was an easy switch.)
Being a senior sure doesn’t feel any different, I thought as I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror, and I sure don’t look any different–besides that damned pimple on my chin.
I don’t know what I’d been expecting. I;’d been looking forward to my senior year almost from the very day I started high school. This was it–when the year ended, I’d be an adult. No more being treated like a kid, no more getting up Monday through Friday at six thirty, no more being at the mercy of teachers and coaches and guidance counselors–it would all end when I cross the stage, took the diploma, and put the tassel on the other side of the cap.
It couldn’t happen soon enough, thank you very much.
And then I could get the hell out of this podunk town in the middle of nowhere, and never look back.
I finished toweling my hair and hung the wet towel on the rack. I looked in the mirror again. I touched the angry-looking red blotch in the direct center of my chin. It might as well have been blinking and neon–no one could miss the stupid thing. I sighed and wondered what kind of omen that would turn out to be as I put on my underwear and a pair of jean shorts. Probably not a good one, I thought, sighing again as I brushed my damp hair into place. I was out of hair gel, so I just parted it on the side and combed it flat.
I was already starting to sweat. It wasn’t even eight in the morning yet, and our crappy house was already turning into a sauna. The house didn’t have central air conditioning–all we had was some window units in the bedrooms. Mom kept saying when she got a little bit ahead she’d buy one for the bathroom, but until then we’d have to make do with fans.
I walked down the hall back to my bedroom, wiping sweat off my forehead. I stood in front of the window unit and raised my arms so my armpits would dry. When I didn’t feel damp anymore, I reached over to the bed for my purple Trojan Football T-shirt. I pulled it over my head, but had to yank it down hard to get it past my chest. The weightlifting I;d been doing all summer had worked–the shirt stretched so tight across my pecs it looked like it might rip. I looked into the full-length mirror hung on the back of the bedroom door and smiled. It made my muscles look huge–so maybe no one would notice the stupid pimple. I tucked the shirt into my shorts and rubbed some antiperspirant into my armpits, hoping it would work this time. I picked up my backpack and made sure one more time I had everything: notebook, pens, my cheap cell phone–yeah, I hadn’t forgotten anything. I put my wallet into my back pocket and sat down on the edge of my bed to put on my socks and shoes.
I’ve often joked that Sara is my “get even with everyone I went to high school” book, but that isn’t true. Yes, I did not have a great time in high school–either of them–but it wasn’t all bad; I did have some friends, even though it often felt like I didn’t have any, and after graduation, I decided to shut that door behind me firmly and move on with the rest of my life. I harbored a lot of anger and bitterness about my high school experience, but time does provide some healing, even if there’s a scar left behind. I was weird and different from my classmates from kindergarten on: I was gay but I was also an artistic child with a wild and vivid imagination in an environment where no one knew what to make of either. I was different, and that was all that mattered, even if they couldn’t quite process that I wasn’t from another planet or an aberration that needed to be shunned and excluded and mocked.
As I have mentioned before, I started writing in high school about a group of high school kids in a rural high school similar to the one I was attending. That eventually morphed into a lengthy, hand-written (and incredibly amateurish and terrible) first novel from which I have pilfered plots, stories and characters ever since. Sometime in the mid-1980’s, as a fan of Stephen King and Peter Straub, I decided to try my hand at writing horror short stories, with an eye to maybe writing a horror novel. I even started writing a horror novel (The Enchantress, which I occasionally think about getting back out of the drawer and working on again; it did, however, lead me to write a different book decades later, but I still think about The Enchantress from time to time). By this time I’d taken a junior college writing class and was starting to get my confidence in my dream back after the horror of my first creative writing course in college; I took another course in it when I started going to Fresno State (CSU-Fresno at the time, to be correct) and that teacher, in a conference about one of my stories (which he really liked), told me, when asked about writing a novel, “The best way to study how to structure a novel is to take one that you really like, and then break down how it’s structured; how the story and the characters are built and the pattern and rhythm of how action is interlaced into the plot.” I’ve always remembered that, and sometimes when I am stuck on a book I think about his advice and think about how a book with a similar story to the one I am trying to tell is structured.
I put The Enchantress aside and decided to try, once again, to do something with fragments of that horrible first novel I’d written, and introduce an element of horror to it. I decided to structure the book the way Stephen King structured Christine–something awful happened when we were in high school, and now, many years later, the main character is looking back and remembering, and at the end of the story we find out that the reason he is telling us this story is because he’s afraid the awful thing is coming back again (reoccurance/revival of something evil is a strong theme in horror, and King has gone to that well numerous times, most famously with It and the dueling timelines). So, I started writing Sara with a prologue written in the present day; ten years later, the main character has gotten an invitation to the high school reunion and starts remembering back, and then in the first chapter we’re back in the late 1970’s and don’t return to the present again to the epilogue. I also decided to do the different POV thing King did in Christine (which I still think is one of his most underrated novels of all time); he tells the first part and the third part of the book in the first person point of view of Dennis, but the second section is the third person and bounces around from character to character before the return in the final section of the book (it really is a three-act structure). I thought this was very clever and decided to use it in this book, too. But instead of an evil car, we had a mysterious new girl at the rural high school who dazzles and enchants all the boys–but there’s something not right about her.
I decided that the book–primarily focusing on teenagers–would work best as a young adult novel (ater discovering there even was such a thing as y/a horror) and so I dropped the looking back prologue/epilogue framing and moved the action into the present day. I finished a first draft in about six months, and then put it in a drawer for about fifteen years before returning to it, overhauling it and dragging it into the new present day and publishing it.
Revisiting Sara now, thirty years after I first conceived it and ten years after publishing it, the first thing I noticed was “hmmm, you should have reread this before turning in the final draft of #shedeservedit, since technically the two books were supposed to be connected; with the newer book set in the county seat and Sara taking part in the rural southern part of the county” but I am also recognizing that my books don’t, in fact, all need to be connected together; there’s no reason why this particular county and its county seat can’t be a county or two away from this one, even if they are remarkably similar geographically; it’s the plains, after all. There may even be characters in this one with the same name as a character in #shedeservedit, but again, it doesn’t really matter–and I’ve written other stories set in Kansas in the same area where the geography is the same and maybe even some of the character names. I used the ten-year-reunion (or possibly twenty) in rural Kansas thing in my story “Promises in Every Star,” for example, and revisited the Kansas well for “This Thing of Darkness” too.
And will probably return to that well at least once more for a book, if not more than one.