I got to talk to Janci Patterson about her new YA novel Chasing the Skip when we recorded a Writing Excuses episode with her. The way she approached writing this book was completely fascinating and I so much enjoyed talking to her. While that episode isn’t up yet, you can listen to her talk to the guys back in Season 4 when she had just signed the deal. I’m delighted to be able to host her today so that you can hear about her Favorite Bit.
I once was talking to a friend who worked as a programmer. He was telling me about how he loved his job, because of the thrill he got when all the pieces of code he wrote came together and actually worked. Another friend of ours said that was a lot like writing–when all the words and sentences and pages of a story actually work together to create the intended effect, it’s a beautiful and thrilling thing.
For me, this is what the mid-novel blues are all about, because for most of the process of writing a novel, things don’t work together. Drafts, in fact, do the opposite of working together to achieve of cohesive effect. When I was a kid, we had a box of iron ore and a strong magnet, and my sister and I used to run the magnet over the top of the box, and watch all the unruly little ore shavings line themselves up like hairs on a cat. My first drafts always look like that unruly box, and it takes more than one (or two or seven) passes with the revision magnet to get all the disparate pieces to line up and work.
Every book has its own challenges, and for me the most challenging thing about writing Chasing the Skip was my main character Ricki. The beginning of the novel finds her in a tough situation–her mom has walked out on her, leaving her to live in a travel trailer with a Dad she barely knows, far from her boyfriend and her friends. Yes, Dad is a bounty hunter and she’s riding along as he chases fugitives, which can be exciting, but it can also involve long stretches of driving in which Ricki has nothing to do but worry about her mom. In short, Ricki’s life kind of sucks.
But while it might not be fun to live, my job as the writer is to make sure it’s fun to read.–that Ricki’s misery (and then hope! And then triumph!) are always engaging. Ricki is allowed to be confused, but the reader must never be. Ricki can be miserable, but the reader must never be. Ricki can make stupid decisions, but the reader must never think she is stupid.
It was a balancing act. And 90% of the revision I did on the novel focused on getting that balancing act to work. I tweaked dialogue. I deleted interior monologue. I rewrote scenes. And the result of all that work is a character I’m proud of more than anything else in that book. By the time I was done, I really loved Ricki, in all her imperfection. Her journey to figure out her life mirrored my own journey to figure her out, and we grew together.
I know not everyone will love Ricki the way that I do. In fact, probably no one will love her quite the way that I do after spending so many hours getting to know her, and dealing with so many versions of her that didn’t work. I’m sure her character won’t work for everyone. But I got her to the place where she works for me, and for my editor, and for some early reviewers at least. The highest compliment I’ve had on the book is from people who say that they don’t always like Ricki’s decisions, but that they were right there with her as she made them. As it goes out to more readers, I hope that you’re right there with her, too. Because when you can really be in the head of a character and follow their decisions through to the conclusion in your own heart–that’s when the magic of reading happens. That’s what happens when fiction works. I hope with Chasing the Skip that magic happens for you.