FROM DRAWER TO BOOKSTORE IN JUST TWENTY-FOUR YEARS:
The Long and Worthy Journey to Publication
by Ona Gritz
The oldest version of my forthcoming middle-grade novel that I can access on my computer is dated 2010, though I know the drafts go back much farther. For one thing, these pages have equal signs where apostrophes should be, indicating that it was wonkily converted to Microsoft Word from WordPerfect. Anyone remember WordPerfect? I recall that the initial glimmer of the idea came to me soon after the release of my first book—and only other children’s novel—when my now twenty-six-year-old son was two.
As is often the case with fiction, the idea was born out of an image from my own life: me, as a little girl, staring at a childhood photo of my much older half-sister and noting the similarities in our faces, along with something else I recognized, something beyond appearances yet somehow there, even in a black and white snapshot. This wasn’t a sister I was close to. In fact, I barely knew her. For most of my childhood, my parents had passed her off as a distant cousin. Still, our resemblance was unmistakable and that fascinated me. Meanwhile, the sister I lived with and loved fought with our mother constantly and, the year she was twelve and I was six, she ran away. Back then, running away and general “incorrigibility” were illegal offenses for minors. My parents brought her to court and she was sent to reform school, a situation both heartbreaking and complicated.
Even in my thirties, when I saw that glint of a novel in the memory of a small, lonely girl holding a photograph, I barely understood the fraught dynamics of the house I’d grown up in and had no intention or desire to try to capture them on the page. What I was interested in was much simpler and more universal: a younger sister’s longing for an older one who is out of reach.
I named my fictional half-sisters Molly and Alison and separated them, not by the kind of family secrets and strife that kept me from my own sisters, but by mere distance and logistics. Ten-year-old Molly lives with her parents in upstate New York, while twenty-year-old Alison lives with her mother in London. I began a first draft in 1998 when email was still a rarity in homes and video calls were far in our future. Without these luxuries of communication, the sisters write letters on slender sheets of airmail paper. But technology wasn’t the only thing missing from my earliest manuscript drafts: so was a plot. If I had to sum up that original story in an elevator pitch, it would have sounded like this: Ten-year-old Molly begins to worry that she’ll ruin her older half-sister Allison’s long-awaited visit after Molly’s best friend complains that she finds her own little sister clingy and annoying.
A friend who is a literary agent read my first less-than-fifty-page draft and gently told me that more had to happen, and that without trouble there was no story. Fine, I thought, and threw in a necklace that Molly had stolen from Alison the one other time they saw each other, back when Molly was five and Alison fifteen. The truth was I didn’t really buy that such strife was necessary. While reading, I tend to wade through conflict the way I wait out chase scenes in movies, anxious to get back to the good stuff: beautifully rendered scenes and sentences, characters whose inner lives reflect and inform my own.
I should mention that my background is in poetry, which may be why my focus, as both reader and writer, has never been on action and tension, but on sound, resonance, and well-drawn moments. I say may because it occurs to me now—and perhaps you’re ahead of me here—that the very thing I became a reader to escape was the tension in my childhood home and the devastating actions of the adults around me.
That 2010 draft—the oldest salvageable attempt at my novel—ends abruptly in the midst of its one tense passage: Molly returns Alison’s necklace, meaning it as a kind of welcome gift, but is met with her sister’s hurt and fury that Molly had taken it in the first place. It’s an overblown response and a completely unbelievable scene, which I’m sure is why I stopped there and went back to poems and personal essays, genres where I felt sure of myself.
Yet I pulled that fragment of manuscript out of the drawer periodically through the years. I can see why. Molly has a captivating voice, even in her earliest iteration, and the pages contain lovely moments. And there was something necessary in that undeveloped story. While there was no lack of children’s books about divorce or newly blended families—the young protagonists living through the trauma of unexpected, unwanted, and often colossal change—I hadn’t found any that explored the unique but also common experience of being a child of a parent’s second or third family. I still haven’t, and I get why that situation is overlooked. Place a story years after the painful decision to divorce or the dramatic reshaping of a family, and you miss out on some good plot-driving, page-turning material. But what I know from the inside is that, if the children of those latter marriages have siblings they don’t live with or fully know, it’s likely they long to have them in their lives. And one thing that propels a more internally focused story is desire.
“What does your character want?” the gurus of story structure ask in the many books I read as I oh-so-slowly taught myself how to write this novel.
It’s hard to explain why in retrospect, since I had my desire line from the start, it took me so long to find Molly and Alison’s story. Especially given that I’d already written one middle grade novel and sold it to a big five publisher. But my first book, inspired by the quiet lyrical children’s novels I loved—Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall, Cynthia Rylant’s Missing May—made it in just under the wire before most agents and editors would only consider books, especially for kids, that had Plot with a capital P.
Here are some notes from my agent friend after reading one of my many revisions: “Give Alison an inheritable disease, or let Molly discover Alison is a drug addict…Don’t just give Molly one big thing to contend with, make it five.”
I held the phone to my ear and wrote this all down, disheartened but not entirely surprised. In my day job as a librarian, I watched children’s fiction, by then frequently set in fantastical worlds, growing busier and more action-packed. Though I knew my novel needed higher stakes, when I thought of throwing one dramatic event after another at Molly, my mind grew cloudy, and I put the manuscript away yet again. What kept drawing me back were the exceptions to this trend— beautifully written, realistic, and compelling books by Jacqueline Woodson, Rebecca Stead, Rita Williams-Garcia. I read and reread them, trying to understand how they were made. I also continued to read craft books, including Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, where I found this:
“Plot can be as intricate as a whodunit, or as simple as a character experiencing a small but significant shift in perspective. But invariably it comes from the people we create on the page.”
By this time, I had inserted the Internet into my manuscript, not simply to bring the story up-to-date, but I had begun to see how its use could deepen the sisters’ long-distance connection. With video calls a regular part of their lives, their relationship can already be in place when the novel begins. Alison is no longer just an idea to Molly, but a person. As Molly puts it, “…what I am is worse than being an only child. Only children don’t have someone in particular to miss.”
Someone in particular. Plot comes from the people we create on the page. What does your character want?
Molly wants her sister. She wants her the way I wanted my own after she left our troubled family, the way I still want her (though she’s no longer alive). But after you ask what a character wants, the next question is: What is she willing to do to get it?
That’s where I was stuck. Alison lives thousands of miles away. She’s twice Molly’s age and has her own life. Molly could do no more about that than I could have done about what kept either of my sisters from me. This was the wall between me and my plot. Molly needed agency where she had none.
Unless…she thinks she has agency? Buried in my notes from that long-ago call with the agent is this: “Show Molly moving forward and fouling up.”
Make Molly foul up. That, at long last, was it.
I changed the opening so that when we meet Molly she’s operating under a misconception. Having learned that Alison is finally coming to visit, she assumes that Alison is moving in with the family. This makes sense to her because, in every other family she knows, siblings live together. Upon learning this isn’t the plan, Molly does everything in her meager power to try to make it so. As she attempts to bend things to her will and fit them into her deeply felt belief about what a family should look like, conflicts arise, along with enough twists and surprises that I found myself excited to know what would happen next. Also, because Molly comes to us flawed, she’s able to grow. Over the course of the story, she develops a fuller understanding of who Alison is and what she’s been through and finds her way to a compromise that serves everyone. Molly also comes to the realization that there are many ways to be a family.
By taking my time and uncovering my novel’s plot in my own way, I’d discovered its theme.
I am sometimes frustrated with myself and embarrassed that it took me nearly a quarter century to complete a hundred-page novel. But all along, I worked on writing projects in other genres, each informing the other: my ear for poetry evolving into an ear for dialogue, attempts at plotting the novel teaching me to add more movement to my essays.
“Things take the time they take,” as Mary Oliver says. Still, I’m startled to realize that the children I originally imagined reading August Or Forever are now all grown up. My hope is that they’ll pick it up anyway, to share with their own kids.
Ona Gritz’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Ploughshares, Brevity, River Teeth, One Art, and elsewhere. Recent honors include two Notable mentions in The Best American Essays, and a winning entry in The Poetry Archive Now: Wordview 2020 project. Her new middle-grade novel, August Or Forever, will be out from Fitzroy Books on February 14th. Find her at onagritz.com