By Michele Young-Stone
My writing process is rewriting. I start with an image, usually of a character in my head. He or she has some problem: she was struck by lightning and no one believes her, her father isn’t there for her, her mother is a drunk, she feels abandoned (novel #1, The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors); she was born with wings, they were considered a birth defect, her parents separate, she doesn’t understand her place in the world or the significance of the ghostly wings she wears (novel #2, Above Us Only Sky); when she’s seven, her mother’s twins are born prematurely and don’t survive, she loses her mother to sadness and mourning, she falls in love with a girl and struggles with her notions of right and wrong (novel #3, Lost in the Beehive). These are the bones, the beginnings. I don’t ever know what’s going to happen until I start writing. With Lost in the Beehive, I knew that I wanted to explore societal norms and conventions. I wanted to investigate the choices people make to either follow or break with convention. Gloria is attracted to the same gender, but this is not acceptable in 1960’s New Jersey. (Sadly, for some people, this isn’t acceptable today.) Is Gloria going to follow her heart, or is she going to try and live as society expects her to live?
My process is very tactile. As I’m rewriting, I’ll often make collages or draw my characters. With Lost in the Beehive, I used old magazines from my research, copies of Life, Photoplay and Good Housekeeping, to make collages of the major scenes I was writing. Some of the scenes made it to the novel’s final draft, but most didn’t. They were a part of the process. The writer Valley Haggard recently reminded me in her book, The Halfway House for Writers, that nothing is wasted. Sometimes I get really frustrated and down on myself because I will have written thousands of pages that seem wasted, that will never make it into the final book, but as Valley writes, “Nothing has been wasted: none of your writing and none of your time. Even lost years and lost manuscripts were necessary to bring you where you are now.” I believe her. She’s right. I desperately need to be reminded of that fact. I’m never going to sit down and write an outline and follow it and voila, have a completed manuscript/novel. It’s never going to happen. My process is putting down layers and scraping those layers away (rewriting) to find what the story wants and needs to be.
In every novel I’ve written, some character inevitably shows up on the page and starts bossing me around. I don’t know why he or she is there, but this is the really good stuff because this is the subconscious at work, and I have to have faith that this is happening for a reason. I often reference “the faith of a writer” because a writer has to have faith that what’s being created will at some point, with enough love and hard work, take a reasonable form that’s accessible and satisfying to readers. In Lost in the Beehive, Sheffield Schoeffler showed up. He became Gloria’s (the main character’s) best friend. The novel became a platonic love story between them, each character struggling to fit into a world that didn’t seem to want them. While I was writing, I made magnets and little paintings that read, “I love Gloria” and “I love Sheff.” I love them both.
In between writing The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors and Lost in the Beehive, I wrote Above Us Only Sky. I had a two-book contract with Simon and Schuster, and they decided that they wanted to publish the novel about the girl born with wings first, but the problem was that I hadn’t written that book, so I had to set Lost in the Beehive aside and get to work.
Four years later, when I returned to Lost in the Beehive, I realized that it was a book about Gloria’s life: about her childhood, her first love, about her friendship with Sheff, and about her adult life, but it wasn’t cohesive. To quote my agent, Michelle Brower, “It needs a narrative vehicle.” If you’re wondering what that is, I was wondering the same thing. It’s basically some force that compels the story forward, that makes it cause-and-effect, and not just this happened and then this happened and then this happened. Finding the narrative vehicle was far more difficult than you can imagine. I literally stuck all the characters on a train at one point. I was desperate. I had a book that wasn’t technically a book. I had characters I loved, I had events, but the structure just wasn’t quite right. As I considered structure, I realized that I had to cut Gloria’s first love interest from the book. She was part of Gloria’s backstory. The novel was more about Gloria’s relationship with Sheff and her family than it was about her first love—Isabel. Again, I had written hundreds of pages that would never be a part of the novel.
Right now, as I work on my fourth novel, I’ve already written as many drafts, and I’m still trying to figure out what the book is really about. I struggle not to beat myself up. I tell myself that if I keep writing, if I keep spending time in the world I’ve created, the truth of the book will rise to the surface. I’ve written and published three books already. Why should this one let me down?
Michele Young-Stone, author of Lost in the Beehive (Simon & Schuster), will be among five featured authors at the Women’s National Book Association-Charlotte’s annual Spring Meet the Authors Evening from 7-8:30 p.m. on Monday, April 9, at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road in Charlotte. The event is free and open to the public.