It’s very hard for me to talk coherently about this story without clarifying myself every couple seconds. For one thing, do I call it a novella–the story it started out being–or a novel, after the story it became? Do I call it by the title my friends and family know it by, even though that title is definitely getting changed, or do I refer to it by the working ‘title’ that nobody really knows?
These issues aside, I do have a finished first draft for this novel (there, I bit the bullet) on the table, so I’m going to do a deconstruction. Yay! Again, if this isn’t your thing, please feel free to skip over this post.
Original Idea: Much as I hate to say it, I came up with the root of this story through a mixture of necessity and random brainstorming. When I signed up to do an honors thesis through the U of IA my senior year, I knew that I wanted an idea I would have to do some research for. One of the caveats of our program is that you have to do an annotated bibliography complete with 12-15 sources, even if you’re working on a creative piece.
Cue me combing through my brain trying to come up with an idea. I don’t explicitly remember what I was doing or thinking when I came up with the plot seed that became BETWEEN TWO LIVES. What I do know is this.
After a few days worth of thinking on it, I came up with the character of Tanya, a young woman who has just received a positive diagnosis for HIV infection. Why HIV infection? There are a couple reasons. When I was in high school, I was introduced to the musical RENT. We played selections from the show for my first Pops band concert, I bought and summarily fell in love with the CD, and I went to see the movie with one of my best friends.
But as much as I adored the show in its original incarnation, I liked the ways the movie was able to expand on what being infected near the start of the epidemic was really like. At the same time, I didn’t feel that I came away from either the film or the musical knowing enough about what being diagnosed with an incredibly stigmatized (and at the time, deadly) disease was like.
This is the first novel I’ve written where I was not only forced to do a ton of research at the behest of the honors college, but required to do so because the story called for it. I read books about dealing with the disease, guides full of questions to ask a specialist, accounts from people of different backgrounds living with AIDS, and digested more facts and knowledge than I would’ve thought possible. And, of course, I read fiction–lots and lots of it–prior to beginning.
The Writing: Like always, I went into BETWEEN TWO LIVES with my original outline intact and expanded upon to help the story fall firmly into the novel category. Maybe because this was a rewrite of my honors thesis, in essence, but the writing process flew by almost too fast for words. I went back and forth between redoing/transcribing and fixing parts from the final thesis draft that were already in decent shape, and writing new material.
I’ll tell you what, guys. If I could write every story that way, I would. It made my life so much easier. There were days where I’d crank out between 3-4k words without even stopping to check the clock. However, those days mostly occurred near the beginning and end of the story. I had no problems getting started and minimal problems getting finished, but I fell victim to the dreaded middle more than I have in any other novel.
Just like in FACING THE MUSIC, there were a couple of scenes that I put off writing because I was uncomfortable with them and–as a result–completely unsure of how to approach them. Ironically, I feel that those disconcerting scenes turned out much better in BTL than in FTM. Not sure how to explain that one.
Another noteworthy point: By the time I’d gotten to the very end of my outlining, I actually ventured into the forbidden territory of writing blind. My outline for the final chapter before the epilogue said something to the extent of “Make this up.” My ‘making this up’ went on for two or three chapters more than I’d planned on. (As I’ve said before, I can be too long winded when given free rein.)
Sadly, in spite of all the expansion I did of those final few chapters, I managed to disregard a fairly major plot point and a few minor characters who kind of dropped off the face of the Earth. To be honest, that’s probably why I finished the book in just over 50,000 words and just under a month. So, I already know where I’m going to have to start when I get editing.
The Reflection: What I have to say about this MS could probably fill three blog posts. I could talk about some of the more personal aspects of my research. I could go into detail involving what I need to fix/change/edit in the story itself. Or I could discuss some of the reasons I wrote this story. Because I’m trying to keep this limited to one blog post, I’ll touch–briefly–on all three topics.
It’s one thing to read about a disease that turns whole communities against its victims, and it’s entirely another to have it. I know that. But when I checked out a stack of books from the library, most of them directed at AIDS patients, I couldn’t ignore the sideways glances, the odd tilt of the head from the librarian that seemed to ask what I, as a college student, was doing with those.
Even knowing that carrying around a bunch of books means less than nothing to someone actually infected with the HIV virus, it was a glimpse–albeit a tiny one–at just how judgmental certain people can still be. One of the things I hope I’ve already begun to build upon was just how afraid Tanya is of having her secret discovered, and how grounded her fears are in the reality of what she knows. It’s not that the characters who don’t react favorably are bad people, it’s that they’re ignorant. I’m also hoping to develop further just how dangerous that can be.
Sadly, the stigma of AIDS or HIV infection still exists. Reading the first, edited chapter of BETWEEN TWO LIVES to my writers groups at home has already provoked discussion about how poorly some people react, even today, when they learn that an acquaintance or friend is positive. Just because over twenty-five years have passed between the start of the epidemic and today doesn’t mean that public opinion has completely changed.
When I was reading AIDS-based fiction as part of my research, I noticed that very few books dealt with women in any demographic, much less women who weren’t children, teens, or wildly promiscuous. If anything inspired me to keep going on this story, it was knowing that there’s a large gap where there needs to be more books. Fewer people in the Western world die of AIDS-related complications today than in the nineties, but education still needs to happen.
I just want to tell a good story, but if it means something to someone or changes someone’s mind, I’m more than okay with that too.
What’s Next: I’ve started sending the first chapter or so to my betas, as those are in pretty good shape. That being said, I’m still planning to wait a little while longer yet before I make any sweeping, large scale changes.