Thursday, February 17, 2011

Anatomy of a Novel: Girl Meets Cake

Anatomy of a Novel: Girl Meets Cake (aka My Invisible Boyfriend – USA title)
Guest post by: Susie Day

1: 80s roller disco Shakespeare on lightbikes
When I was a teenager, going to Burger King was an event (I remember the opening of Wales’ very first one: we were underwhelmed by the lack of cutlery), so any 80s American  movie where quippy teens with cars and phones ate Twinkies seemed to take place in an intoxicating parallel world of grown-up cool. I wanted to capture that urgent need to catch up, that conviction that there is something truly glorious, exotic, adult going on just outside your field of vision - and though there are far better 80s teen films, the trashy party in Teen Wolf nails that.

I was wary about 80s referencing, because readers are canny and they know when you’re trying to sell Tron, mixtapes and  Pacman as hipster retro when it’s just ‘stuff I happen to have lived through’ – but once I’d settled on Twelfth Night: The Musical!  as the school show (for the nifty misindentification), I remembered seeing a production with this artsy Morriseyesque Bowie-clown Feste when I was about 16, and it was like the 80s was pursuing me. The saddo drama teacher who can’t quite accept he’s not ‘one of the kidz’ any more is my attempt to acknowledge/handwave the icky.

2: Fangirling
There are TV shows I observe, and others I watch. I reckoned a girl who invents an imaginary boyfriend ought to have that fangirl gene. When my UK editor suggested I include Heidi’s conversations with Mycroft Christie, her favourite time-travelling TV detective, I did the happy writer dance. Mycroft is part-Wimsey, part-Sam Tyler, part-Time Lord, and if he existed I would own the boxset, so getting to write him into the story was a bizarre thrill.

3: Buffy’s Scooby Gang
And on that theme... a while back I got deep into noodly introspective email with Luisa Plaja (genius purveyor of funny/clever/girly Brit YA) about why we both wrestle with expanding sub-plots and incidental characters we can’t bear to cut, and it’s simple: we both love Buffy. We want our sidekicks to have interior lives too. We want the potential for 22 episodes worth of hyenas, bunnyphobia, and Miss Kitty Fantasticos, even if we’re writing self-contained single titles.  I suspect that ultimately this isn’t down to Slayers, so much as the shy retiring novelist’s conviction that heroes (even Frog Girls like Heidi) are presumptuous attention-hoggers, and really it’s the human scenery you should care about.

4: Not Malory Towers
I work as a warden – like a house parent, for 15 teenage boys – in a boarding school, and am intimately aware of how very not like Enid Blyton it is. Once you uproot the lacrosse sticks ‘n’ tuckboxes stereotype, you’ve got an environment where lots of very different teenagers are living in close quarters, away from their parents, maybe not always for the nicest reasons, and that’s ultimately more involving than whether Darrell will win her tennis match. (Though probably not more than the ‘will Wilhelmina-aka-Bill’s horse die of colic?’ plotline, which remains the best thing ever.)

5: Ludo, from the film Labyrinth
I always wanted to name a character after the big orange fluffmonster. He has absolutely no relevance to the flirty dippy Italian girl in the book, but being a writer is mostly like work, and only very occasionally like being Queen Of Everything, so you have to grab your chances.

6: That L Word
Sometimes you don’t realise what a book is telling you until it’s written. Heidi’s hunt for A Real Boy is really about self-acceptance and self-definition, not romance, and I was fumbling with exactly the same while I wrote it (though without the handy excuse of being 15). I’d been single for eons and, like Heidi, I just really really wanted to fall in love, the way everyone around me seemed to be doing without any anxiety at all: not only to have a lovely snoggable person of my own,  but to feel typical, sane, on the playing field like all the rest. And then, suddenly, somehow, all those times my friends and family had fondly said ‘But are you sure you aren’t gay?’ had the real answer, the one I’d been ducking for forever, and actually it wasn’t new or unexpected at all: it had been there all along, and was just waiting for me to be ready to see it. Holy classic romance plotline, Batman! Heidi’s isn’t a coming-out story, it’s a romcom with a pretty trad outcome - but the real happy ending comes from her sense of security in her friendships, and above all in herself.  And I think I needed to write that for someone else before I could let me have it too.

 Anatomy of a Novel is an occasional series where authors dissect their own work all for your delight.

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