Monday, 16 January 2017

Another Good Friend

Welcome to the shadowy and not-so-shadowy space behind Sally's books. That's Sally Odgers; author, manuscript assessor, editor, anthologist and reader. (Sally is me, by the way, and I am lots of other things too, but these are the relevant ones for now.)

The goal for 2017 is to write a post a day profiling the background behind one of my books; how it came to be written, what it's about, and any things of note that happened along the way. If you're an author, an aspiring author, a reader or just someone who enjoys windows into worlds, you might find this fun. This preamble will be pasted to the top of each post, so feel free to skip it in future.

The books are not in any special order, but will be assigned approximate dates, and pictures, where they exist. 

Another Good Friend Post 16

Another Good Friend (1991) was going to be the first book in a trilogy. Then it was going to be the first book in a pair, which I thought I'd call Musical Pairs. But before that, it had to be written, and before that it had to come from an idea.

I remember some things about writing it very well. The initial notion came about when someone hired me to work with some high school kids to write a musical play. The idea was that I'd mentor them while they worked on the job. The play was to be based on the life story of a well known Australian literary figure from the 19th Century. I'm not especially musical but I agreed with pleasure because I have long had an interest in musical theatre and, having been a writing child and teen myself, I thought it would be interesting to work with some others.

I visualised the whole thing as an intensive exercise with lots of meetings and collaboration but it didn't work out like that. Unfortunately, the kids chosen to work on the script team with me were what one might call over-achievers. That is, they had other extra-curricular things such as Student Council, Library Monitoring, Sports... you name it, they did it. It seemed virtually impossible to get them all in the same room at the same time, and as this was a school project, we had to meet at the school and during school (or lunch) hours. I think I saw those kids twice; once for the initial plot meeting and once for their input towards the end. Anyway, I ended up writing more than 90% of the script. I didn't particularly mind, but I did feel (and still feel) that those kids were short-changed. They were offered the opportunity to work on a script but not actively given it. Something else went a bit wrong too... I'd timed the script to make sure it fitted the designated running time, but I didn't realise the lyrics were not meant to be counted in the running time. That meant another scene had to be done in a hurry.

Anyway, The script was done and the play was staged and that was the end of that. Then came the opportunity to write for a new series of teenage novels. Along with other authors, I submitted a story line. I chose to write about a group of high school kids working with an author to write and stage a musical play. Instead of using existing material, I invented a story line, basing it, ostensibly, on the ancestors of one of the characters. In reality, it is based on something that really did happen in the early days of Van Diemens Land.  I filled out the two tiers of characters and wrote lyrics. I had fun with school politics, with a teacher named Ms Corry (whom I'd used in an earlier book) giving script duties to those she thought should do them rather than those who had the talent to do them. That wasn't based on the school I worked with, by the way! Thus the script team consisted of stroppy outspoken Amber, musical fair-haired Dominic, quiet Helen, class clown Herrick and sporty Tania. The author served up to help them was named Andrew, and he was a jobbing gardener as well as an author. 

The team argued the point so much Andrew threatened to walk out. Tania kept slipping off to basketball. Amber and Herrick clashed big time. Much squabbling ensued. Then, with the script running behind schedule, Andrew the author was in an accident and Ms Corry announced the script team was disbanded. The four remaining members (Tania having dropped out) suddenly realised they didn't want to waste the work already done, so they got together to continue in their spare time.

Apart from Ms Corry, who had appeared in a book named Down River, I'd also written about Amber, Andrew and Dominic before. A younger version of Amber had been in three books, Dominic in one, and Andrew in an unpublished science fiction novel. It was fun taking them up a little later in their time lines, and delving more into their backgrounds. 

To get back to the fortunes of the book though: the story line was contracted by the company who'd offered the work, and I went off and wrote the whole book in nine days. I named it Another Good Friend after one of the songs in the musical the team wrote and sent it confidently to the publisher. I was flabbergasted when the company wrote and said they didn't want it. I asked why, since they'd contracted it from the story line and I'd delivered a faithful rendition in plenty of time. They told me they'd had another book on a similar theme and were already underway with that. Now, since the theme was clearly obvious from the story line, and since my ms was delivered in nine days, it seemed unlikely to me that this could be quite true. If the other book had been underway before mine, then my story line would have been rejected, not contracted. Therefore it seems someone else wrote a story line similar to mine after I wrote mine, and wrote their book in less than a week. No matter how I tried to parse it out, the time-line didn't work. I never did get to the bottom of that. My best guess is that the second book was actually still in story line form when my finished book was submitted, and someone accidentally contracted two. It also seems possible the second author (and I genuinely don't know who it was) was a bigger name than I was and so my finished ms was the one they chose to dump. That was a good lesson on the worth of book contracts. 

I wasn't too pleased, but fortunately for me, another company put out feelers for teen fiction, so I sold Another Good Friend to them. Initially they were looking for trilogies, so I decided the script-writing book would be book 1, the rehearsals and performance would be book 2, and the aftermath and let-down would be book 3. At some point, they decided to do duos instead of trilogies, so the third book was never plotted, let alone written. The twosome did quite well though.

The story doesn't quite end there because of course I did the sequel (which will be another blog post focus) and then the musical play was such fun to construct that I used the story of that for another book (which will be yet another blog post). As for Amber, Herrick, Helen and Dominic, they came in useful yet again in a somewhat different project.

As one of the first of my overtly YA/teen books, there's yet another interesting thing about Another Good Friend. I reread it a few years ago... (what? Yes, I sometimes reread my older-pitched books just for fun. Why not? If I don't like my own stories how would I expect anyone else to?) and was amused by how much it's dated. The computers are the kind where pulling the plug by mistake means you lose your work. They're massive desk tops, and none of the teenagers has one at home. They have to wait for the author, Andrew, to show them how to use one. The clothes they wear... um, Amber has on silkies and Herrick wears a particular kind of shoe. I must have consciously included some of the research I did around that time into teenagers of the '90s (I was in my early thirties and my children were pre-teen) and I seem also to have been researching body language. A lesson here; if you write your books to be up to date, they will inevitably date much faster than if you keep things vague. So, should we be vague (he wore jeans, she played a song, the kids played a game, Dad drove his car... or should we use vivid detail that will date the book faster than yesterday's celebrity scandal? One way out of it it to invent our own trends and fashions, but that's a topic for another post.

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