Today the fabulous Liz Coley answers some of my questions about her thrilling debut, PRETTY GIRL-13. Here’s a blurb to get y’all started before we jump into talking to Liz:
Angie Chapman was thirteen years old when she ventured into the woods alone on a Girl Scouts camping trip. Now she’s returned home…only to find that it’s three years later and she’s sixteen-or at least that’s what everyone tells her.
What happened to the past three years of her life?
Angie doesn’t know.
But there are people who do—people who could tell Angie every detail of her forgotten time, if only they weren’t locked inside her mind. With a tremendous amount of courage, Angie embarks on a journey to discover the fragments of her personality, otherwise known as her “alters.” As she unearths more and more about her past, she discovers a terrifying secret and must decide: When you remember things you wish you could forget, do you destroy the parts of yourself that are responsible?
Doesn’t that just send chills down your spine? Okay, on we go to the behind-the-scenes of PRETTY GIRL-13.
Well, I guess we should start with the question everyone always wants to know: Where did the idea for PRETTY GIRL 13 come from?
PRETTY GIRL-13 was the collision of a character in search of a story, a question in search of a vehicle, and a title in search of a novel. In my mental bank, I had the goal to write a story where the protagonist had Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and the question “if you could obliterate your most painful traumatic memories, should you?” When the image of a book cover with PG-13 as the title jumped into my head, everything fell into place. Of course, the abbreviation is now used only by me, but the title was the final catalyst for the novel.
In PRETTY GIRL-13, Angie is sixteen, but she has no memory of the last three years. What was the biggest challenge in writing a character whose sense of self was so fractured?
Angie’s emotions and affect were the trickiest balance. To keep the reader engaged, Angie has to feel the all the confusion and frustration of her situation. She has to experience the pain and anger of having three years stolen from her. At the same time, one effect of DID is a flattening of emotion, a certain numbness to the swings, because blunting dangerously strong feelings is part of the DID self-defense system. Because the alters themselves were so vividly individual in my mind, writing their stories was easier than writing Angie’s.
PRETTY GIRL-13 is full of twists and turns and a lot of tension and high stakes. Do you have any tips for other thriller writers, on how to keep the tension of the story moving forward?
I once attended a SCBWI workshop session in which the instructor, Katherine Ayres, talked about making things difficult for your protagonist. She said, “My character needed to swim across the Ohio River, so I broke his leg.” That made quite an impression on me. In a thriller, things just keep getting worse and worse. The candlelight glimpsed at the end of the tunnel needs to be snuffed out quickly. Some people may criticize—how could so many bad things happen to one person? But I think we all know people who get into a disaster spiral, or people who are bad luck magnets. And if real life isn’t fair, certainly fiction doesn’t have to be, at least in the conflict development section.
You’ve visited in a ton of places, from Croatia to Slovenia. Do you have a favorite?
There are so many wonderful, historical, colorful places in the world. England always tugs at my heart—the smell of leaves burning on a damp morning makes me homesick for English villages. I loved Belize, which was the inspiration for my first self-published novel OUT OF XIBALBA.
What is something that you wish someone would’ve told you about writing when you were starting out?
I think I actually got excellent advice along the way, thanks to my instructors at CONTEXT and at the SCBWI annual conferences in Cleveland. The most pithy advice was “writers write and submit” and “act like you already are what you want to be.” The first piece of advice speaks to productivity, effort, persistence, and resilience. The second speaks to projecting professionalism and developing a supportive community around yourself. I am really glad that no one with a crystal ball told me just how long it would take from my first baby steps to publication.
Can you walk me through the process of publishing PRETTY GIRL 13? What was your journey like?
I wrote most of PRETTY GIRL-13 during November 2009’s NaNoWriMo. It came together very quickly, and I sent it off to my agents faster than any previous novel. We spent over a year in revision, mostly working on Angie’s voice and a couple of plot points. By January 2011, it was ready to go on submission. There was one early low offer which I was advised to turn down. That was a heart-rending moment that demanded all my trust in my agent, because I’d been writing seriously for almost ten years at that point, and I’d had representation for four years without a sale. As life turned out, it was the right decision, but I chewed my fingernails for the six months it took to get “the call” again. The manuscript was almost print-ready at that point, so it has been a long wait to go through edits, first pass pages, copy editing, second pass pages, and into production. We had one late addition of an Author’s Note that threw off the page count and had to be finagled. Most of 2012 was spent networking with the Lucky 13’s and trying to develop more on-line presence and a revised website. The last couple of months have been dedicated to preparing for a blog tour and a few bookstore signings. Everyone says, “You must be so busy,” but actually it’s a lot of waiting.
As this community is All for One and OneFour KidLit, we’d like to know what two or three books inspired you as a kid.
This is easy, since I just prepared blog posts on each of these books and what they meant to me. HOP ON POP by Dr. Seuss was the first book I learned to read all by myself, which opened the door to the rest of my life. I HAD TROUBLE IN GETTING TO SOLLA SOLLEW also by Dr. Seuss is my favorite kid book and the most perfect hero’s journey story. THE SECRET GARDEN wove a spell over my imagination, even more than Narnia or Middle Earth. It’s such a beautiful tale of redemption and renewal and yet it takes place in the real world, no actual magic required.
Liz, thanks so much for taking time to chat with us! We can’t wait for the world to get their stomachs twisted in knots, reading PRETTY GIRL-13.