Lessons From Lexie #1
I set out to do The Lexie Project in the way I do so many things: running headlong into it before thinking of the long-term challenges and/or consequences. This mode of being has generally served me well and so it has with Lexie. If I’d thought too long about it, I might have lost my nerve. I might have, for example, been worried that people would think I was Lexie, that her worldview and way of interacting with the world was my own. I might have realized that writing this book would be a constant struggle to balance telling a story in weekly serialized form (a chapter a week) and keeping the quality of one’s craft just as good as books I’ve worked on for, oh, a million times as long. I might have worried that I was putting tons of work into something that might be a total crash and burn, an utter failure la Waterworld. Good thing I can’t resist an artistic adventure.
This is the first of many posts I’ll be writing over the next year as I embark on the multiplatform storytelling extravaganza that is The Lexie Project. I have lots of sneaky plans and together we’ll see if they work out or not. It could turn into Fidel Castro’s exploding cigar. Or not. (Let’s hope not, shall we?). This is a work diary of sorts, just as much for me as it is for the writing community. So, let’s begin.
How I Do This
Or, an alternative heading might be: “This Is The Plan In All The Spy Movies Where The Plan Doesn’t Work And The Hot Spy Guy Has To Improvise, Which Usually Involves His Hot Spy Girl Accomplice Taking Off Her Clothes.”
First, let me say that my process in writing this is similar to how I write all my books except that everything is compressed and I sleep less and am at serious risk of an ulcer. This is what I do: I write a first draft and I revise twice before I hand the chapters off to my beta readers (usually it’s a whole book, but this is written in serialized form so chapters it is). I take their notes into consideration for a third revision, then I read it out loud for a fourth revision (yes, I read all my books out loud during the draft that will become the ARC). Because I don’t have a copyeditor or months in between revisions from an editor (which I don’t have either), I decided to reserve the right to polish and do some light editing throughout the series in order to maintain the integrity of the story’s craft. I won’t change plot points or add characters or anything like that, but I will always go back to make it better. Tweak a sentence, eliminate a line of dialogue that I have a niggling feeling about. And when the book goes into print and my editor actually goes through it line by line, she and I will go through that same process again.
This all means that now, more than ever, having beta readers is necessary. Not only will I never catch everything as I revise, but my beta readers make sure I stay in Lexie’s voice. Whether it’s an expression that seems odd for Lexie to use or vocabulary/language that reads more like her sister, Chloe, my betas keep the narrative honest. I don’t want to post crappy chapters that I plan on revising later. This is my work and both my readers and I (and my characters) deserve my best. Because of that, many hours will be put into the chapter I post every Wednesday, both by myself and my betas.
(Kind of like that scene in Mission Impossible, where Tom Cruise is hanging right over something he can’t touch).
One of the biggest problems I’ve encountered so far has been encouraging a suspension of disbelief among my readers while at the same time having a character who is very confessional and tells us things in the novel that she would never want anyone in her life to see. So this begs the obvious question, phrased in such a way by one of my beta readers:
If all of this is meant to be posted live in real time, as it’s really happening to her, would this have consequences that we’re going to see play out? Like [characters in the story] would then know immediately that [event in chapter two] happened, any higher ups at Meta Reel, any tabloids, they’d all know. Is that going to have in-universe real world consequences that she’d have to deal with?
I read that and sat back in my chair and said, “fuuuuuuuck.” Somehow, I thought I’d get away with it or I’d figure it out as I go—some things would have real-world consequences and some would not. But my beta’s question forced me to see that I had to really formulate an answer rather than just SUSUPENSION OF DISBELIEF DON’T ASK ME ANY QUESTIONS ABOUT THIS. The short answer is: readers will have to suspend their disbelief and pretend that no one in Lexie’s life—her producers, her family, her friends—are aware of the novel in any way. If Lexie tells us she did something very bad with a certain person I will not name right now, that won’t be in a tabloid unless I want it to be. If I do want it to be, that means a character will have to discover what she did and snitch to the press.
HOWEVER. Lexie’s social media is something that the characters in the story are aware of. This is why Lexie doesn’t complain about her producers in her Tumblr posts, or why she doesn’t say anything on Twitter that she doesn’t want the world to know. Sometimes these will make it into the narrative. The novel might mention a blog post Lexie wrote that made another character upset. Make sense?
Here’s the long answer: I happened to write my master’s thesis when I was getting my MFA on fantasy literature, and while I won’t get into what my thesis was about, I will mention that I did loads of research into secondary worlds (which, as someone who also writes fantasy, I am well acquainted with). The secondary world is separate from the primary world (think of it as Narnia, whereas the primary world is London/England). When you read fantasy, you believe there’s magic and magical creatures because that’s the only way you can read the story. You can’t read a fantasy and keep rolling your eyes and saying things like, “oh my god, there is no magic—this Hogwarts place is total bullox.” Savvy?
I decided that in order to read Lexie and enjoy her presence on social media as an opportunity to go deeper into the story and the world, readers would have to use, yes, a suspension of disbelief, as well as understand that the novel itself is a secondary world. Which means that in The Lexie Project, the primary world is our world—reality, here and now. My protagonist is reacting to real tweets on Twitter by real people: she retweets and posts her own tweets in real time. She references current events in her blog. The whole conceit is that Lexie is really in Hollywood, trying to make it and that I am by her side, her ghost writer that isn’t a ghost (except she writes her blog and tweets and posts on her Instagram—that’s why they don’t read like this blog, yeah?). Thus (and you know I’m about to put my smart pants on when I use a word like “thus”), the reader has to accept that Lexie is able to be completely confessional with us, her readers, in the context of her novel. Everything else we can assume her producers and other characters in the novel see. But there’s no way they could see her novel—if they did, there would be no Lexie Project. Mostly because her producers would sue her ass for defamation of character and totally breaking all kinds of rules in her contract.
Okay, onto the next challenge.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges was that I suddenly realized that if the story was in real time, then my entire idea for how the story began was out the window. See, I had envisioned that it would begin in October, just a few months after we last saw Lexie and her crew in Something Real. Silly Heather—Lexie launches on June 8th. And if the whole point of the story being written this way was that it’s happening in the now…you get it. My characters then, were not eighteen but nineteen. They’d been off doing stuff for a whole year. Also, all the fun plot things revolving around Benny, Lexie’s twin, being at USC—gone. Yes, they will be there in October, when I physically am in October and posting during that month, but my novel has to start in June. My first feeling upon realizing this was panic (it usually is—good thing I don’t have a Vicodin habit). See, I told myself, this is exactly why you shouldn’t just jump into things. This is your writing, your story, your work, your reputation—and now look what you’ve done!
My mistake was actually brilliant. Because now my backstory is so much more interesting. It’s already taking the first few chapters of the novel to interesting places I couldn’t have gone (and, because of how I’m writing the novel, I can’t go back and totally change the first part). It forced me out of my comfort zone and into a whole world of uncertainty and suddenly I was Ethan Hunt, trying to fix some shit before some angry Russians shot my ass. This is one of the great joys of working on Lexie at this speed—this is a revelation I might have had if I was writing this in the traditional way, yes. Maybe one of my beta readers would have said it after I wrote the whole novel, saying something like, Is this where the story really starts? I don’t think it gets interesting until they’re nineteen and Benny’s done with his freshman year at USC. Because I’m in the position I’m in, writing in serialized form, I had to get there much, much sooner. I know I won’t always get there and when I realize it, much bourbon will be consumed by yours truly. Or maybe tequila. Or maybe both. But, for now, I can rest in the relief that the constraints this form puts on me ended up giving me a much richer story beginning.
Yet another challenge
The next challenge I ran up against was this: The first thing I wrote was the forward that Chloe “wrote” for Lexie’s book. I posted it right away, so readers could have a better sense of what this story was and see the character they hung out with so much in Something Real (Chloe, who was its protagonist). However, I found myself having to revise it again and again because it had loads of spoilers. I had to remember this was written in real time and it was originally written as though Chloe were looking back on Lexie’s experiences in LA. This goes the same with the cover copy. I revised that about fifteen million times. There were so many spoilers! Fun fact: I write all the jacket copy for my books. Yes, I’m that neurotic Type A writer that wants all control. My husband often rejoices that I didn’t go into politics because I’d likely be a fascist dictator. I cheerfully agree with him.
The key to writing good jacket copy is the same rule that applies to good movie trailers: give the reader enough so that they have an idea what the story’s about and can guess what some of the drama might be, titillate them, but don’t hand them the whole plot on a platter. Have you guys noticed lately that every movie trailer basically gives you the entire story arc so that, really, you don’t need to see the movie (unless it’s starring Channing Tatum’s abs—then you need to see the movie). The annoying part about having to change something in the text is that I had to change it everywhere I posted it. Lammmmmme.
Things I Need To Keep In Mind
I have to be careful not to post the same things as Lexie on my own social media—whether it’s a movie she’d recently watched and enjoyed (yes, that was me watching the movie, but we can’t both tweet about it) or a specific opinion on something, I have to keep us separate. I decided re-tweeting her was my best bet when it was something I’d given to her. Maybe I wanted to say I re-watched Mean Girls and loved it, but I’ll give that to Lexie because it’s something she would watch. Birdman, however, might not be her cup of tea and then that’s all mine.
Probably, though, the biggest thing I need to keep in mind is that I’m working in satire and, as such, I need to go for it all the way or this whole project will not have been worth my time. This means people will think my book is just some little YA book about a pretty girl until it’s finished and maybe by then they wouldn’t look at it because they’ve already judged it as an inferior form of literature (and they would use air quotes on the word literature, of course). This breaks my heart.
If you haven’t read Gentleman Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos, go get it. You’re in for a real treat. Her narrator is a girl with a whole lotta moxie, but she’s not the brightest bulb. Despite that, she’s smarter than even she knows. Loos does an excellent job of balancing those things and wasn’t afraid to misspell words or get facts wrong on purpose (for example, thinking the American Revolution was truly fought over a disagreement over a shipment of tea—I made that one up, but you see what I mean). I love Lexie because she’s a complicated girl and I like complicated characters. But my tendency to protect her or telegraph where her arc is going is strong. Ultimately, I think it’s because I’m scared and I’m proud. If I purposely write something that is incorrect or misspelled or shallow or whatever—without any qualification—I’m afraid people will think that’s my mistake. I know a lot of people might see the cover and think this book isn’t for them. They might assume it’s just another book about a blonde girl trying to make it into Hollywood and so they’d see these mistakes and assume it’s just some hack writer getting in on the YA bubble before it bursts. I know it’s so much more, or at least I hope it is (Kirkus called Something Real a “chilling satire” with “sobering and thought-provoking ideas wrapped in an engaging plot” and I’m going for the same thing here).
Here’s the thing: this book is a marathon, not a race. I’m playing a long game. Most readers won’t have any idea what I’m working toward. They’ll just think it’s a fun YA with some romance and drama. Yes, those things are present and I’m glad they are—I dislike dry stuff just as much as the next avid novel reader. But because of the way I’m writing this, I won’t have the chance for someone to read the whole thing through to see where I’m going until a year from now, when the story will be finished. I get a chapter a week and while I have to make them count, I can’t tell my readers where we’re going—they’ll have to see for themselves. And that will take time. Lots of it. This means I need to revise the chapters I’m posting on Wednesday—the very first four of the novel—yet again. I have to police myself and not put my words in Lexie’s mouth.
It’s going to be a crazy ride that I suspect will be like any road trip: sometimes I’ll get lost, sometimes I’ll have to rely on the kindness of strangers, sometimes I’ll be plain miserable and keep asking “are we there yet?” But then there will also be grand vistas I’ve never seen before, happy serendipity, unexpected friendships, and life changing moments for reflection.
I won’t be the same person I was when I started—and neither will Lexie.
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