Wednesday, October 31, 2012

From Initial Idea to Novel

My first idea for The Awakening was that there would be six pregnant women.  Tara Spencer was still the main character, and she was still a virgin when she got pregnant.  But at least one other pregnant woman also was a virgin, one was in menopause, and the others simply hadn't had sex with a man recently enough to have caused their pregnancies.  I wrote three chapters and an outline, submitted that to the Maui Writers Retreat, and was accepted into the thriller writing class with author Gary Braver.  (  On Day 1 of the retreat, the group, and Gary, loved my chapters, but questioned my idea of 6 pregnant women.  I envisioned all 6 working together against the forces that wanted either to kill them or prevent their pregnancies from coming to term.  The other writers felt it would be too complicated to have so many protagonists and said the story needed just one woman to root for and follow.  I was skeptical -- I really thought I could make it work, which seemed to me to be proven by how much everyone was drawn in by the opening chapters. 

Later the same day, I attended a retreat session with horror writer John Saul and his long-time writing partner Michael Sack.  It was know as getting "Sauled and Sacked" and not all retreat attendees wanted to risk it.  The deal was that the student writer had to write a 21 word (or less) description of his or her book starting with "What if..." on a whiteboard in front of the whole room.  As likely as not, Saul and Sack ripped it to shreds.  I'd learned a lot in previous retreats from watching the process, and once from running an idea past them for a book I'd already written.  This time, I was determined to get their feedback before I wrote 80,000 words.

And so I did.  Saul and Sack found the premise interesting.  But they, too, insisted that 6 pregnant women was too many unless most would be killed off early.  They also asked if it would be catfight to see who was really pregnant with a new messiah.  That absolutely was not the way I wanted to go.

I returned to my retreat group the next day with revised chapters, killing off a couple of women early.  The chapters fell flat.  Gary asked why I wanted the 6 women.  I told him I wanted to show strong women with substantial roles in the book working together against those who wanted to harm them.  So many thrillers, especially in the movies, offer only walk-on parts for women, at best as wives or girlfriends, at worst as victims.  (I am so tired of watching movies where women are beaten, kidnapped, raped, or murdered that I hardly go to see action films any more.)  And even in books, if there is a woman protagonist in a thriller or suspense novel, she's often shown interacting only with men or, worse, always at odds with other women.  Gary suggested that the other women could stay in the book and could be Tara's allies, but she should be the only one pregnant.  That way, I'd have a clear main character and could still show women interacting, both through conflict and cooperation.  I rewrote again.  By Day 5 I had a solid outline to work from, as well as new opening chapters.

As you might guess if you've read The Awakening, Sophia and Nanor (now mentors to Tara), Kali (daughter of Nanor, eventual friend of Tara), and Anne (yoga instructor and friend of Sophia) are later versions of the characters who in the first draft were protagonists.  (I am revisiting the idea of mutliple pregnant virgins in the second book in the series, though with a very different slant.)

During the years it took me to write The Awakening, I never heard of the Bechdel test.  But I came across it later when I started reading blogs by other women writers and realized it hit on what bothered me about so many movies particularly.  To pass the test, a movie (or book) must include at least one scene where two or more female characters converse with each other (meaning back and forth dialogue) about anything other than men.  When I'm at the show, or reading a book, I often mentally pause to see how many, or how few, meet the test.  It can be discouraging.  It's not that there aren't good books or movies that don't meet this test.  I'd just like to see a lot more that do.

For a list of movies that fail the Bechdel test see 

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