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I can't remember a time when I didn't think of myself as a writer. I started submitting stories to magazines when I was ten, painstakingly pecking them out on my mother's manual typewriter, and shipping them off to the addresses of publications I found on my parents' coffee table.
Needless to say, those manuscripts were quickly returned.
The editor of
Ladies Home Journal
was kinder than the others. Instead of a form rejection slip, she sent me a personal note that said, “Try us again in ten years.” That bewildered me, as I had not disclosed my age and thought no one would guess I was a child.
Rather than stopping me, those rejections stirred me on to greater activity. My writing attempts became more and more ambitious. Tales of flaming romance, blood spurting violence, pain and passion, lust and adventure, flew back and forth to New York in a steady stream. My parents thought me cute and funny. My teachers thought me horrid and precocious. As for myself, I was proud. While my schoolmates were playing jacks and trading comic books, Iâplump, bespectacled, and unimpressive as I might appearâwas plunging ahead toward the glorious career that I was certain would be my destiny.
Three years passed, and I accumulated so many rejection slips that my mother made me stop saving them.
“After all, dear, once you've read one of them, you've read them all.”
Then one day I came home from school to find a craggy-faced giant of a man occupying the living room sofa. He was a new neighbor who had just moved in down the beach from our home in Sarasota, Florida, and he was a writer. His name was MacKinlay Kantor.
“Lois,” my father said after introductions had been made, “why don't you show Mr. Kantor that story of yours that came back yesterday from the
Saturday Evening Post
?” He did not have to ask me twice. What an opportunity! A published author was right there waiting to appreciate me! I rushed to get the story and stood expectantly at his elbow as Mr. Kantor scanned the pages.
The praise I anticipated did not come.
“My dear,” Mr. Kantor exploded, “this is pure shit!”
It was the first time that word had ever been used in my hearing. My mother was as shocked as I was.
“Mack,” she said reprovingly, “Lois is only thirteen!”
“I don't care how old she is,” my idol roared. “If she is putting her stories into the market and expects somebody to buy them, she is old enough to take criticism. What kind of subject matter is this for a kid? She's never had a love affair or seen a man get murdered. Good writing comes from the heart, not off the top of the head.”
He turned to me and added more gently, “Throw this stuff in the trash, child, and go write a story about something you know about. Write something that rings true.”
I was crushed. I was also challenged. Later that week I
did write a story about a fat, shy little girl with braces and glasses who covered her insecurity by writing stories about imaginary adventures. I submitted it to a teen publication, and by return mail I received a check for twenty-five dollars.
That was one of the most incredible moments of my life.
From then on, my fate was decided. I wrote what I knew about, and could hardly wait to rush home from school each day to fling myself at the typewriter. The pain and joy of adolescence poured onto page after page. My first loss, my first kiss, my first heartbreak, became subjects for stories. I flooded the teen publications with manuscripts, and despite the unpolished writing, the gut reality of the material carried them over the line, and a number of them were published.
And MacKinlay Kantor went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.
didn't start out as a book, but as a short story called “The Presentation Ball.” The idea for the plot came to me one day when I was thumbing through my hometown paper and found a notice on the society page that gave a schedule of events for “this season's debutantes.” I couldn't believe what I was reading! A debutante season in a little town like Sarasota, Florida? That town where I had grown up had had one high school with such a small student body that, when I attended it, there had been no dividing line between students from affluent families and poorer ones. Popularity was based upon personality, not social background.
What a gruesome holiday season, I thought, for a girl whose friends were awhirl in the high school social scene, but who, herself, could not make the debutante list! And what a good story idea!
I worked hard on that story and was pleased with the result. I'd decided to have my heroine, Lynn, forbidden to participate in the debutante season because her idealistic father did not feel it was democratic. Understandably, Lynn was resentful, and that resentment grew more intense when her steady boyfriend was drafted to escort the girl whose mother was organizing the ball. The story built to climax with the Presentation Ball, where a series of events helped Lynn regain her sense of values.
The story did not sell. I was bewildered. The situation was interesting and the characters believable. Still, back it came from one magazine after another, even from those who often published my work.
Finally one editor included a note of explanation.
“This is good material,” she wrote, “but it just doesn't work as a short story. There is too much here that needs to be further developed. Have you considered writing a book?”
Had I considered writing a book? Yes, of course, I had. It was a dream for some distant day when I was more experienced. What scared me about the thought of tackling a book was the simple fact of its size. A short story might run up to fifteen pages or so, while a book would be over two hundred. How many years would it take to write one, and how could I help but get bogged down along the way?
But that suggestion kept nagging at my mind, and I couldn't seem to let it go.
After all, I reminded myself, I did have a head start. “The Presentation Ball” was seventeen pages. If I cut it in half, I could call it two chapters. Then, if I tacked five chapters onto the beginning and five onto the end, I would have a twelve chapter book. I could do that by starting the book at the time of Lynn's birth, and ending it when she got married.
Such were my thoughts when I purchased a new box of paper and sat down at the typewriter. Such were
my thoughts six weeks later when I read the chapters I had written and dropped them into the wastebasket. It took me that long to realize that what I was attempting was not working. Writing a novel by adding onto a short story was just about as feasible as trying to make an evening gown by adding taffeta to the top and bottom of a swimsuit.
There was little that I could add to either the beginning or end of “The Presentation Ball” that would have any bearing on the story, which was about a teenage girl's reaction to a difficult social situation. Anything that happened before that point in Lynn's life, (her childhood, elementary school experiences, summer trips with her family), or afterward, (college, a job, a husband and babies), was superfluous.
The confines of my story were set. I could not make it longer, only larger. And to do that I had to deepen it. The short story had a “plot,” a string of related events leading to a single climax. For a book, there would have to be a series of climaxes, each advancing the story and leading Lynn a little further along the road to maturity. Instead of a simple plot, a book must have a theme, and the one I decided upon was; “A year of difficult social change, although at first deeply resented, opens a girl's eyes to ways of life other than
her own and helps her mature into a better person.” Since the Presentation Ball was only one incident in the development of the theme, I changed the title of the novel to
I knew now what it was I was trying to accomplish; my next problem was how to accomplish it. How could Lynn's difficult year change her radically as an individual? To work this out, I asked myself some questions: If Lynn can't take part in the social activities in which her friends are involved, what does she do with her time? Does she sit home and brood? Does she make friends with girls who have not been selected for the debutante list? What is Lynn's reaction when her steady is drafted to escort a deb to the parties? Does she retaliate against him or against her parents? If so, how? Does she attach herself, perhaps, to another boy, one she knows her parents won't approve of?
When I reached this point, I'd become so interested in what was going to happen next that I could hardly bear to leave the typewriter long enough to go to the bathroom. That was when I knew the story was working.
It took me close to a year to turn “The Presentation Ball” into
. When I stood, at last, with my impressively bulky manuscript in my hands, I realized that I had never enjoyed writing so much, largely because the expanded framework of a novel had given me a chance to develop my characters. In “The Presentation Ball” I'd had Lynn's father state simply, “No, you may not be part of this debutante thing. It's ridiculous.” In
, I'd had the leeway to present this man in depth so that the reader could know the “why” behind his attitude.
Another character who appeared briefly and insignificantly
in the short story was Lynn's sister, Dodie. The reader was told only that Lynn and Dodie had little in common and did not get along. In the book there had been room to develop Dodie as a person, to see her in rivalry with her sister, to hear their arguments, to study their contrasting reactions to a variety of situations. As Lynn matured during the course of the year, we saw the two girls begin to grow closer. Lynn's gradual acceptance of her sister had become a mark of her own change of character. Even though it was a subplot, it had furthered the main theme.
I entered the manuscript in “The Seventeenth Summer Literary Competition,” a contest for first-time novelists, held by Dodd Mead & Company. To my astonished delight, it not only won first prizeâ$1,000 (which was like $50,000 back then), hard-cover and paperback publication, and serialization in a popular magazineâbut the contract contained an option to publish my next young adult novel.
My next novel!
I couldn't wait to get to the typewriter and roll in a new sheet of paper to start on a book that I planned to call
The Middle Sister
Like Lynn in my story, I now knew my true identity.
No longer was I just “a writer.”
I was an author!
, July 2013
“Lynn! Hi, Lynn, wait for me!”
“Hi, Nancy! I didn't see you back there.” Lynn Chambers turned with a smile for the bright-haired girl behind her. “In fact, I almost stopped at your house on the way by, but I thought you'd probably left for school already. You were always such an early bird last year.”
The September wind, still warm but with the faintest hint of autumn, whipped past the two girls, swirling Lynn's plaid skirt around her legs and mussing the blonde hair that had recently been so carefully combed. The result was that she looked prettier than ever. There was something about Lynn Chambers, a fineness of bone, an ease of bearing, a graceful, unconscious little lift of the head, that made newcomers to Rivertown, who had never seen her before, nod approvingly and ask, “Who is that?”