While I’ve been a writer of some sort for years and years, I still feel like a relative newcomer to the novel writing gig, a little wide-eyed and wet behind the ears. I just haven’t been doing it for very long. Until early in 2004, when I wrote the first sentence of what would become my first novel Love Walked In, I hadn’t written a word of fiction, at least not in my adult life. A lot of poems, some book reviews, a couple of screenplays that will never see the light of day, a few personal essays, but no short stories and, certainly, no novels.
Naturally, the process has been, and continues to be, richly surprising, and one of the most startling surprises—and one I never quite get used to—is how little I get to be in charge. Of course, intellectually, I know that writing is a process of decision-making and that since I’m the only person in the room while the writing happens (well, occasionally, there are other people in the room, sometimes loud, jumpy people, but while they might be asking for snacks or telling me stories or showing me caterpillars or art projects, they’re not actually helping me write), I must be the one making the decisions. But, much of the time, that’s not how I experience it.
For instance, sometimes, characters just show up, out of nowhere and completely uninvited. In Belong to Me, there is a character named Lyssa Sorensen. She is sixteen-years old, blonde, and when we first meet her, she is sitting next to my character Dev in his Advanced Biology class. I knew from the beginning that Dev would have friends. I planned for him to have friends, but I planned for him to have just one friend who would be a full-fledged, fleshed-out character, and that friend, Aidan Weeks, a loquacious, biracial, high school soccer star and entrepreneur, was already in the book. I didn’t plan on two full-fledged character friends, and I certainly didn’t plan on Lyssa because, upon meeting her, what became immediately clear to me was that she has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
I know quite a bit about certain psychological disorders. Manic-depression, for example. Depression. Anorexia. Bulemia. Body dysmorphic disorder. ADD. ADHD. But while I had bits and pieces of information about OCD, I hadn’t read much about it and didn’t have a close friend or family member who had been diagnosed with it. Definitely, I didn’t know enough to write a character with OCD, and I was on a roll with the writing. I had no plans to stop and do research. So I looked at the character of Lyssa and said, “OK, you’re here. Fine. Stay. But no OCD.”
After all, the OCD was not all that defined Lyssa. She is bossy, judgmental, funny, sarcastic, lonely. I could see some reasons for her having a psychological disorder of some sort because so many such disorders involve secret keeping, and I understood that what would bind her to Dev was the fact that he would figure out her secret and would keep it to himself. But anorexia fit the bill. Bulimia, too. It didn’t have to be OCD.
Except that, somehow, it did. Nothing else seemed to work. Lyssa was who she was, insisted on being who she was, no matter how difficult on inconvenient, so I sighed and went with it. I did the research. I read through books; I went to online chat rooms to read what people with OCD or parents of children with OCD said about their lives. At the time, I could not have articulated why it needed to be that particular disorder, but I decided to listen to my character, to put aside my own plans and put my faith in the demands of my story.
It’s something I had done before, would do again, and expect to have to do as long as I’m writing novels, which I hope will be a very long time: to acknowledge that the novel writing process is organic, with its own inner, inscrutable logic; to go on instinct; to trust my book, and to hope that it will all make sense in the end.
In Lyssa’s case, it did. After I finished writing Belong to Me, I realized how Lyssa’s OCD fits in. Lyssa’s rituals are complicated, fueled by fear, and they interfere with her ability to live a healthy, happy life. But what I came to understand, as I looked back at my book as a whole, is that in her own extreme way, she is doing exactly the same thing that all of the characters are doing: trying to keep the universe in order, to keep bad things from happening, to keep chaos at bay, trying and, very often, failing. She fits. The book, the process knew this, even when I had no idea. Lyssa knew it.
A big thanks to Marisa de los Santos for writing this guest post!
As you can see, Marisa de los Santos is a beautiful writer; and I think BELONG TO ME is just a great book. I just happen to have three copies courtesy of Harper Collins to giveaway.
There are lots of ways to gain entries:
1) Leave a comment with your e-mail address telling me why you want to read this book.
2) Blog about this giveaway with a link back to this post.
3) Tweet about this giveaway with a link back to this post.
This giveaway is open until June 21st at 11:59 p.m. EST, and I will notify the winners the following day. Only those of you with U.S. or Canada mailing addresses are eligible -- no p.o. boxes please. Good Luck!