I'm in the middle of Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall. It's a book I kept hearing about, but since I don't read a ton of contemporary YA (I usually favor dystopian, paranormal in the YA category), I didn't hurry out to buy it upon release. What a mistake. This book is beyond what I expected. Beautifully written with a fresh and honest voice, I'm falling in love with this novel as a reader and a writer. And although the reader in me is berating myself for not purchasing it earlier, from a writer's perspective, I couldn't have picked it up at a better time.
A few months back, agent Mary Kole at kidlit.com posted about Giving Yourself License to Try, in which she encourages writers not to get so locked into their original outline/first draft that they close themselves off to the possibility of something better. Wrote a novel in first person POV and not working? Go ahead and rewrite the first few chapters in third person, and see if that works better. Daunting much?
I don't outline, so adhering to one is not a priority for me, but at nearly 25K words in, I figured I at least had firmed up all of the main characters that would be making an appearance. Well, I was wrong. Sometime earlier this week, a new character popped into my head. And she added a completely new dimension to the story. But the idea of adding a new character, carrying through yet another story thread, at this point, was pretty daunting. What if I completely ruined everything I'd already built? What if she changed the story so much I didn't recognize it anymore? What if what if what if?
Before I Fall drove home the point that it's the What Ifs that can elevate a good book to a great one. Oliver's novel is basically a 500-page exercise in What If.
For those of you who haven't read it, the novel is about the day that high school senior Samantha Kingston dies--only she gets to re-live the day 7 times. 7 times! The same day! I know what you're thinking--how could Oliver possibly keep your attention for nearly 500 pages when the story is about the same thing happening 7 times over? Well, she does--and it's not.
Before I Fall is about that game we play with ourselves. What if I didn't go to that bar with my friends that night? I never would have met my future husband. (Totally hypothetical, as I did not meet Hubsy in a bar) What if I majored in Engineering instead of International Studies? Oliver successfully rewrites the same basic idea in a number of unique and engaging ways. She demonstrates how the smallest of decisions set Sam's life on a completely different course from one do-over to the next. And as Sam goes back and puts together the pieces of events leading to her death, her character evolves. She goes from being this one-dimensional Mean Girl to someone you can identify with, even have sympathy for. Basically, she goes from being a caricature to being human.
Writing a book follows a similar process. We start with a basic idea, a hook. And usually it's something obvious, something that's been done before. And that's nothing to get down on yourself about. After all, there's a finite number of basic plots out there, right? So then we write it, and our first draft is probably going to be full of cliches and stereotypes, things that come automatically to us because we've been conditioned to expect them.
The trick is to take it that next step. Start playing around with What If. What if the cheerleaders aren't your typical popular bunch? What if they are like the band geeks of the school, and the tuba players are the ones getting all the hot action on Saturday nights? Because chicks dig a guy with a giant instrument, right? Or maybe because tubas make awesome bongs. A must-have staple for any successful party.
Ok, I'm being silly, but you get my point. Take the basic idea, and flip it. And twist it. And give it a good shake. And don't be afraid it won't work out. So what?* It's not life, there aren't any permanent consequences. You've got unlimited do-overs. You can keep rewriting until it does work. Even if it takes 7 tries.
*Yeah, I wish I could really be this cavalier. But I'm getting there! I used to be minorly obsessed with word counts, and it's taken some time to accept that quality comes at a price, and that price is often quantity (ie, word counts creeping up instead of skyrocketing). But Before I Fall has been really inspiring from a craft standpoint and if you suffer from Impatient Writing Syndrome and haven't read it yet, you should!