I want to thank Angie for letting me take over her blog today. In keeping with Angie’s theme of “The Things I’ve Learned” I wanted to talk about some story decisions I made while writing Hereafter—specifically things I let go (things that were cut from earlier drafts) and things I held onto (things that people wanted me to change but I ended up keeping) and the reason why I made the decisions that I did. For writers, I think this is one of the biggest struggles—to know when to let go of something that we really love about our story but which just isn’t working, and when to hold onto our vision, even when others (including agents and editors) are pushing us to change it. Warning—there are some light spoilers in this post, so if you hate that kind of thing, best to come back after you’ve read Hereafter. J
Things I Let Go:
1. At first, Jonah was a walk on, bit player. Irene meets him at the beginning of the story, he informs her that she’s dead, and gives her enough information to get to the city. Then he was out of the story completely. Jonah, however, had much different ideas about his role, and pretty quickly, try as I might to prevent him, he wormed his way into a co-starring role. The interplay between the characters was just too good to let go of—whenever Jonah and Irene were in a scene together, the scene basically wrote itself. At the same time, it was the dynamic tension between them that pushed the plot forward. People notice right off how much Irene bullies Jonah, but he bullies her right back quite a fair bit. If it wasn’t for Jonah, Irene would still be sitting in her living room drinking screwdrivers. Out the window went any idea of leaving Jonah behind. Of course, this decision was created all sorts of problems—see #1 below—but it was clear from the beginning that this was the right way to go.
2. Originally, the story concept was that Madame Majicka was a kind of gatekeeper of the tunnel to the other side, and she gives Irene a list of six items that the dead need to have in order to cross to the other side. The original concept was much more of a treasure hunt/epic fantasy odyssey. Pretty quickly, I realized this wasn’t going to work. Irene wasn’t having it, first of all; she pretty much plopped herself in the bar and sat there, refusing to participate. It was too much work and she didn’t have to go through the tunnel, so what was the point? I realized Irene needed a reason to seek out the tunnel and want to cross over; her first choice would always be to stay on earth—it’s familiar, it’s what she knows, and it’s safe. I began to see that the “real” story was Irene’s personal, inward journey—her growth as a person. The original idea of an outward odyssey was relegated to being the framework for the inward journey.
3. I had planned to have Irene confront LaRayne and Alexia at some point—though the point kept moving around from the beginning of the story to the end. However, there were all kinds of problems with this—LaRayne and Alexia couldn’t see or hear Irene, so the confrontation was really one-sided and didn’t have any resolution. Irene would get to call them out as bad friends, but since they couldn’t hear her, what would the impact of that be? Perhaps cathartic for Irene, but it would mean she would also have to face up to the fact that she was in large part to blame for her death as well—the blame doesn’t entirely rest with LaRayne and Alexia—and that would require a lot more self-awareness on Irene’s part than she really had at any place in the story. By the end of the story, where she has developed enough self-awareness, she has both moved on mentally from her life to the point where she doesn’t really care about them anymore and also at the same time is still refusing to face up to some harsh truths. She’s not in denial, per se; rather she’s avoiding doing the hard thing (okay, let’s just say it: she’s being a big baby), and so a confrontation with LaRayne and Alexia didn’t seem to gel here either. In the end, the quieter self-confrontation at the funeral over the depth of friendships and her choice of friends was much more in line with Irene’s character, where she was mentally, and also seemed more realistic. How many of us have kicked ourselves for not dealing with something at the right moment? For not speaking our mind, for not facing a situation head on, for not putting on our “big girl pants”? I think we all have, at one time or another, and so, my final approach was a reflection of this.
Things I Held Onto:
1. The number one thing I was pushed to change was Jonah’s age. Everyone almost universally hated his age at first; most wanted him to be either much younger, so there was no “squishiness” about his relationship with Irene (some readers found it highly inappropriate for a thirty-six-year-old woman to be hanging out with a fourteen-year-old boy), or much older so there could be a romantic relationship. One agent urged me to make Jonah a “nineteen-year-old college hottie that Irene cougars.” Several agents (including the “cougar lady”) felt the mixed ages of the main characters made it unclear what market this book was intended for—as one agent put it, “kids don’t like to read about adults and adults don’t like to read about kids.” I dug in and absolutely refused to move Jonah’s age. I didn’t want to write a romance and absolutely did not want to write a story where the hero swoops in and saves the woman, or even a story where the woman changes in order to make the man happy (sort of passive saving from the man, if you will). I wanted a story where the woman saves herself. In this case, she needed a little push—which she gets from Jonah. She changes not to please him and not because she’s in love with him, but because she doesn’t want to let him down. She wants to protect him and take care of him, not the other way around; one could say he makes her want to be an adult. However, if he was too young, the story wouldn’t work because Irene isn’t maternal in the least. She would have no use for and no urge to protect or care for a very young child. Once I realized that story I was telling was about a woman’s personal growth, I knew Jonah had to stay fourteen, no matter what—he had to be old enough to help her grow but young enough that he’d need some taking care of.
2. The second thing everyone pretty much universally pushed for was for Jonah to have a deep, dark, tragic secret. I’ll talk more about this in my guest post on bullying at From the Bootheel Cotton Patch (http://fromthebootheelcottonpatch.blogspot.com/) on September 10th; however, I will say here that this was a “never gonna happen.” I felt VERY strongly about this—too many of us, especially our teens, live lives of “quiet desperation,” and I felt that was compelling in and of itself. Jonah didn’t need “and the kitchen sink” to re-enforce his feelings of isolation, loneliness, and depression. What I loved about my publisher, Eternal Press, was that they never once asked for any changes to Jonah’s age or motivations—everyone at EP “got” the story that I was trying to tell. That was such a relief!
3. The one thing that never changed was the core world-building concept, which was to create a version of the afterlife in which every culture’s and religion’s beliefs are true in a very literal sense. This, of course, meant I had to do a lot of research. There were times I wondered why I was doing all this research or would think “you’ve got plenty, just go with this.” However, I would end up going back and doing just “a little bit more,” which usually ended with me finding some totally awesome little factoid that I just had to incorporate into the story. So far, readers have identified the world-building in Hereafter as one of their favorite parts of the book, which thrills me to no end and definitely makes me feel that all the research was worth it.
So there you have it—a little bit of insight into the behind-the-scenes negotiations, both internal and external, that I went through with Hereafter.
Why let a little thing like dying get in the way of a good time?
Thirty-six-year-old Irene Dunphy didn't plan on dying any time soon, but that’s exactly what happens when she makes the mistake of getting behind the wheel after a night bar-hopping with friends. She finds herself stranded on earth as a ghost, where the food has no taste, the alcohol doesn’t get you drunk, and the sex...well, let’s just say "don’t bother." To make matters worse, the only person who can see her—courtesy of a book he found in his school library—is a fourteen-year-old boy genius obsessed with the afterlife.
This sounds suspiciously like hell to Irene, so she prepares to strike out for the Great Beyond. The only problem is that, while this side has exorcism, ghost repellents, and soul devouring demons, the other side has three-headed hell hounds, final judgment, and eternal torment. If only there was a third option…
"Yes! It’s me!" Relief flooded through her. LaRayne could hear her!
There was a pause and then LaRayne said, "Hello?"
"LaRayne? Can you hear me?"
Relief fizzled away. Disappointment washed over her, so strong her knees buckled and she grabbed the counter for support.
The line went dead. LaRayne had hung up.
Slowly, Irene replaced the receiver, numb with shock.
The phone rang again. Irene let the answering machine pick up this time.
"Hey, Irene. It’s LaRayne…I’ve left you some messages...well…you know…call or whatever."
Irene cleaned up the spilled drink, sweeping the broken glass into a dustpan and dumping it in to the trash, and then mixed herself another one. She wandered back to the hall and then back to the kitchen and finally to the living room where she dropped heavily onto the couch. She sipped her drink, not really tasting it. Then she spied her laptop across the room on a chair. She fetched it, firing it up.
Email. Yes, that’s it—email. I’ll email everyone and tell them what happened, she thought through a fog of mounting hysteria.
Even as she thought it, dully watching the computer scroll through start-up screens, the "drunk emailing" incident of a few years ago—which had led to then-boyfriend Chase becoming ex-boyfriend Chase—came to mind. The part of her that was still thinking rationally pointed out that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to email anyone until she knew for certain what exactly was going on.
You still don’t know what you want anyone to do, she thought. Call a doctor? Perform an exorcism? What, exactly, was the remedy here?
Publication Date: August 1, 2012
Publisher: Eternal Press
Number of Pages: 296
Genre: Contemporary Fantasy
About the Author
Terri Bruce has been making up adventure stories for as long as she can remember and won her first writing award when she was twelve. Like Anne Shirley, she prefers to make people cry rather than laugh, but is happy if she can do either. She produces fantasy and adventure stories from a haunted house in New England where she lives with her husband and three cats.
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