When the stories are giving me fits I try writing letters to my characters to see if I can unlock some of the problem areas. Sometimes the characters even write back! This has led to some interesting insights into the stories and created opportunities in telling the story that may not have otherwise come to me. Sometimes it has been tricky writing and answering the letters without giving away the book but I think that part of the challenge has been fun.
Flyboy is the main character in a young adult novel. I confess that I have written and rewritten this novel at least a dozen times across as many years. I’m talking just first drafts. The fine details of the plot has eluded me but the letters help me figure out some of the story.
Dear Main Character in my current WIP,
Why in the world would you make that kind of a deal with your dad? It doesn’t make any sense to me that you would agree to stop doing what you love doing more than anything else unless you were forced into it. What happened? Why won’t you tell me? Keeping it a secret from me isn’t going to help you one bit. If you don’t tell me soon I’ll be forced to go back to the plant book and let you stew on your own. Either that or I’ll let the girl fly instead. What do you think about that? Humph!
With the deepest frustration, Me
Yes I broke my promise to my dad. So what! I had a chance to do something important to me for a change and I took it. I am sick and tired of trying to be like Mr. Perfect. Gag! Besides, now that we’re moving, he’ll never know about it, will he?
Unless you tell him. And you better not. You know what happens when people snitch. You remember what happened, don’t you? Uh huh. I thought you might.
How about helping me pack up my room now?
Signed, Your MC
You are too nice. TOO NICE. Do you hear me? No kid is that nice, that good. Not all the time. Not unless they’re hiding something. Are you? I didn’t think you were the one with the secret in this book but I can’t figure out any other reason for your perpetual Eddie Haskell attitude. If I, the author, am breathing life into you with pieces of me there’s no way you can be that nice. No frigging way. Because I am sometimes a nice person but NOT ALL THE TIME.
What are you hiding? What are you afraid people are going to find out? What do you think they are going to do to you, think of you, when they know the truth.
This doesn’t have anything to do with your dad at all, does it? This has to do with you trying to fake what kind of person you are so you can trick people into believing what you want them to be. But why?
Signed, Author who is not feeling very nice at all
Dear Person Who THINKS She is in Charge of MY Story,
First I thought it was an accident. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe I meant to do it (which is dumb because I didn’t even know that Mrs. B was going to be there. I didn’t know she was going to have her iPod plugged in and turned up so loud that she wouldn’t hear me coming. I mean, come on, old people don’t use iPods, do they?) so I guess it was really just an accident.
And it’s not like I killed her. If you kill someone it can’t be an accident, can it? Killing someone is permanent. You can’t undo it. You can’t fix like you can fix a broken mailbox and a fence. She didn’t even want to go inside. She just asked me to go into her house and bring out a couple of cans of soda.
But you can’t trust anyone, don’t you know that by now? And you really shouldn’t trust me because I’ll just let you down.
Thought I should warn you that Spencer is a girl. Yes, I realize that complicates things and puts the two of you in direction competition but cripes, you’re almost 17 years-old, there must be hormones in there somewhere and this is the only way I could think of for me to find them. Can you at least pretend, for my sake?
(PS—no, I don’t think you’re gay.)
Isn’t it enough that you’re poking around in the thoughts in my head, now you want to know about the thoughts I have in my bedroom (which I might remind you is supposed to be a private place, as is the shower). No. Absolutely not. Girls are trouble. They mess with your head and play games and I don’t have time for that. And you do remember my mother don’t you? And what she did? With my luck any girl I meet will be just like my mother, ripping anything I love right out of my life and I don’t think I could handle that.
Back off, will ya?
Did you really think he wouldn’t find out? Did you really think you wouldn’t be punished? Really?
Signed, Author who thought you were smarter than that
Dear Author Who Thinks She’s So Smart,
What did you think I was going to do when you put the opportunity right in front of me like that?
Signed, Flyboy, grounded for the moment
Okay, yes, I suppose I knew exactly what you were going to do when I gave you the chance and I can’t blame you for that. I just know you’ll pay for it later and I worry about you. You are much too serious for your own good. You’re a kid, not an old man.
Tell me something new. Tell me about your first time—your very, very first time. And no, not THAT first time. Contrary to what you might think I’m really not that interested in your sex life or lack of one. (Personally I could write the entire book and never once think about your hormones and what they may or may not be doing but I don’t think that would be realistic considering the fact that you’re a teenage boy.) What I mean is, tell me about your first memory of flying and how it made you feel.
Signed, Author trying to remember her first time
If I’m made up of pieces of you (looking for that reader connection you love to talk about so much) is it any wonder that I’m a serious kid? How much time did you spend when you were my age laughing and having fun and how much time did you spend in your room worrying about things you couldn’t change? If you don’t like what you see in me maybe you better quit using me as a mirror.
I can’t remember the first time I went flying. Or the second or the third or many times after that. My dad, my NOW dad, told me that my real dad used to strap my carseat in the seat of the big P and take me just about everywhere with him, except for when he was filming. I think I remember flying somewhere for Christmas. I wanted to go to the North Pole and see Santa Claus and we went somewhere where the snow was piled up high on each side of the runway and there was barely enough room for the big P to touch down without jamming a wing into a snowdrift. We never found Santa but I remember drinking hot chocolate with marshmallows in some old shack while we waited for the weather to clear and listening to my dad play hangar trivia with his friends.
How does flying make me feel? How does writing make YOU feel? Flying makes me feel like I am alive and free and capable of doing almost anything, of being almost anything, even a good kid.
Remember that grandfather you had that I said was the reason you were moving and then I killed him because everyone convinced me there were too many people in the book? Remember him?
Well I don’t think he’s dead.
Signed, Author returning to her original idea
Dear Author Who Can’t Make Up Her Mind,
I’m going to tell you some things you already know and if it sounds like it’s coming from you and not from me, remember how much of yourself you have poured into me.
I am you. I am the insecure, can’t make his mind, why doesn’t anyone love me you. I am the you who doesn’t understand you are afraid to let people know how you feel, why you worry so much about what they will see in you and why you put up a wall that keep people at a distance. I am the you who can’t sleep because of worrying all the time. I am the you who wants a family and doesn’t feel like they deserve it.
Keep that in mind when it comes to telling my story. Trust yourself.
I need you to tell the truth about me because I’m too afraid to do it for myself. I need you to explain to people how I really feel about what my mother did and what I really remember about my dad. I need you to find a way to support me so that people don’t freak out when they hear the whole story.
I need you.
Isn’t that enough?
You made me cry.
I was okay until I got to the last couple of lines of your letter where you said:
I need you.
Isn’t that enough?
And suddenly I was sitting at my desk bawling like a little kid. Do you know how many people I’ve said that to in my life? Do you know how many of them never said “yes?” Maybe it’s all this therapy I’m doing lately or maybe I’m just finally peeling away enough of the layers of myself that I can see you there, waiting for me to find you. It’s going to be so hard to write your story because yes, you are me.
You are the me that never knew my father and was always afraid to ask anyone any questions about him. You are the me that is filled with hundreds of questions about why I do the things I do and wondering if anyone else ever felt the same way I feel right this moment. You are the me that questions who makes us what we are, heredity or environment or some combination of the two. You are the me that doesn’t laugh out loud and is always afraid of looking silly in front of other people. You are the me that is sure I am the only one in the entire history of the universe who ever did something wrong and can’t forgive themselves for it.
To write your story means to lay myself wide open to feeling everything you feel. It means actually allowing myself to FEEL. Do you know how many years I have spent not feeling things? Sigh. I suppose you do. Your story is going to rip me up in a lot of ways and what if I can’t put myself back together again? You will turn me inside out and then everyone will be able to see who I really am and then, well, and then they might all turn away.
If I put myself out there for you like that and then your story falls apart, I don’t know if I can handle it.
But I think the hardest thing about your story, the very hardest thing about writing your story, is that by the end of the book you are going to understand where you came from and what made you the person you are today. You are going to get answers to all those questions you jot down in that notebook you hide in your flight bag. You, Flyboy, are going to get to know all about your dad.
And me, I never will.
Signed, Author with a hole in her heart
Dear Author Who Isn’t Really Empty,
I know how you feel. I know, people say that all the time but really, I know just how you feel right now. I remember when my CFI had me try a stall for the first time. It was a good flying day, clear sky, no wind. The 152 was humming along. Okay, humming is too nice a word. Flying in the 152 is like being locked in a metal shed with a lawnmower going full blast. But that’s okay. I liked the noise. I liked that I had to concentrate on the voice in the headset for any directions from my CFI in the seat next to me. I liked feeling the power of plane vibrate all around me. With my hands on the yoke and my feet on the rudders I could feel the airplane hum up from my fingertips and down to my toes. It made my whole body come alive. It made me FEEL alive.
Stall practice was the only time I’ve been flying that I felt like I might need a barf bag.
First we were drifting then all at once the stall horn blared and the right wing dropped. I thought for sure we were going to go into a spin and I was praying my CFI would be able to yank us out of it before we crashed.
Maybe you think my CFI was crazy to have me do something that sounds so dangerous but the way he explained it to me made sense. He said you do stalls in practice so you can avoid them in real life.
So maybe writing my story is like stall practice for you.
What do you think?
When did you get so smart?
Yes, writing about you will help me but what I am supposed to do when the siren goes off and there’s no one in the seat next to me to bring me out of the spin before I crash?
No, don’t answer that.
Instead, tell me how it is that you can remember what all those lights and dials and meters mean on the dashboard of an airplane, you can calculate things like the weight of fuel and passengers and and baggage how it effects lift-off and landings, you can plot a long cross-country flight that will take you an entire day and 3 fuel stops, but you can’t remember to feed the dog?
Signed, Author who didn’t even know you had a dog
Dear Author Who Should Have Known Better,
Remembering things I care about is easy. It’s all that other useless crap that’s hard. Tell me how diagramming sentences or conjugating French verbs is ever going to help me fly a plane? When I’m flying, I don’t much care how clean my room is or whether or not I made the bed. It doesn’t matter. Nothing else matters. Just flying.
About the dog. There’s always a dog. Haven’t you figured that out yet? Madison, Zero, Max, Guster, Fuzzbucket and Baron. There’s probably more. But there’s always a dog.
Dear Flyboy’s dad,
I need to hear the story of his birth. It won’t be in the book but I need to know the truth. It’s okay to whisper. No one else has to know.
Signed, Author who needs answers
Find the leather jacket. That’s all I can tell you right now and you probably won’t like me very much when you do but trust me, you need to find the leather jacket.
Signed, Author who knows the secret
I don’t know anything about a leather jacket but I did find a box. A box I don’t think I was supposed to find. And I am pissed off big time about what I found inside.
I’m not really sure what to do about it. It’s times like this I really wish I had a mom or a sister or someone that I could talk to about this stuff. I’m really sick and tired of people telling me to be grateful for what I’ve got because crap, there are a lot of things I don’t have or know that are more important to me than what I do. But I’m a kid and I’m not supposed to think like that. I’m supposed to suck it up and be happy I’m not in some foster home or living on the street or off in some foreign country with bombs going off all around me.
Well screw all that. I’m 16 years old and I’m self-centered spoiled brat.
Deal with it.
While I know you think you are doing a good of hiding what you are really feeling I think someone is going to figure you out pretty soon. Boy are you going to ticked when you find out who it is.
There’s that saying about hiding in plain sight and how it makes it harder for people to find you. Do you think that’s true?
Letting people know what I am really feeling gives them power. Giving away your power is never a good thing. Trust me on that.
Arrested? Really? You ARE tough,
I’m a woman in a man’s world, of course I’m tough. But I’m a mom too. Don’t forget about that.
Dear Flyboy’s dad,
I don’t know if you are ballsy or just plain dumb. For Flyboy’s sake, I hope it’s the second one.
Have you ever done something and wished you could undo it? Have you ever had to wake up every single day of your life and sit across the breakfast table from someone who reminds you, just by his appearance about how much you screwed up?
Any guts I had rotted out years ago. You know that. I know I was an idiot many times over. I know he is going to find out the truth. And I know that everything is going to hit the proverbial fan when he does.
Signed, Flyboy’s dad
Where ARE you? Or did you decide I didn’t really need you after all?
If you would give me a name I might tell you where I am. Until then you’re out of luck.
You know that mom you thought you could just turn your back on and not deal with? I don’t think that’s going to happen. The logic doesn’t map. Anyone I’ve talked to about your story says it doesn’t make any sense that you would want to know about one parent and not the other. I can’t pretend like she never existed, well, except for the whole giving birth to you part. There’s something else going on there, something Wilson isn’t telling you about her. I don’t know what it is, maybe she’s actually a really nice person with a good reason for what she did. It could happen.
Okay, so maybe she isn’t very nice at all but don’t you want to know for sure? Won’t knowing about both parents be the way to really understand who you are?
Or do you already know something and you’re just not telling me?
Dear Author Who Needs to Grow A Pair,
I’ve got three things for you:
First off, habits are funny things. Sometimes you don’t even realize something’s becoming a habit until you’ve been doing it for years. And if someone asked you why you do some of the things you do, you might not even be able to pinpoint where it all started. Maybe that matters. Maybe it doesn’t.
Second, maybe I did wonder about my mom when I was a little kid. I don’t remember. But since no one could ever tell me much about her I really didn’t care. Really. But Tate, well there he was right on the television set doing all sorts of crazy things in airplanes and somehow that made him more real to me. The kind of real that had me hoping he’d walk through the front door any minute and tell me the crash was just one more crazy stunt he’d pulled off.
Third, quit thinking like a girl.
You’re always so calm, so cool, so collected. Is that the real you? I don’t think so. I think there’s something else going on underneath the surface. Something’s simmering. I wish I knew what set you off and made you explore.
Did I ever tell you about the time I lost my temper back in the fourth grade? Jason Johnson was picking on this little kid, Micah. Micah was about half Jason’s size (everybody was about half Jason’s size because Jason was huge!) and walked around with his nose buried in a book all the time. Never bothered anyone. When he was reading Micah could just tune out the rest of the world, even Jason Johnson and all the stupid comments Jason would make trying to get a rise out of Micah.
Micah never did anything to Jason. He didn’t talk to him. He didn’t make eye contact. Nothing.
And that made Jason mad. He started kicking Micah every time he walked by. Stole his books from him and ripped pages out so they were ruined. He spit on him, threw stuff at him at lunch, popped the tires on his bike, typical bully stuff.
And Micah just ignored it all. Never said a word. Never told a teacher. Nothing.
So one day Jason just snapped. Saw Micah sitting under a tree, reading, and decided to beat the crap out of him. I was riding my bike home from school and started to ride on by until I realized that Micah wasn’t fighting back. He was just letting Jason beat on him and I think Jason was mad enough to kill him.
I saw red. Yeah, just like they say in books. I saw this film of red in front of me and I charged at Jason from about 20 feet away. Torpedoed right into the side him and knocked him off of Micah. Before he could get away I plopped on his stomach and started beating on his face and his chest feeling fifteen different kinds of angry all at the same time. He was screaming and calling me names and finally pushed me off and then we got into it good. By the time a couple of high school kids pulled us apart we were both pretty bloodied up. I had a black eye and a broken wrist. Jason was missing a couple of front teeth. Micah was nowhere around.
Go ahead and cut me loose.
Consider yourself warned.
It’s been a while since I wrote you. I’ve missed you but I didn’t know what to say to you anymore. I’ve felt like I’ve been talking in circles in your story for years and just not getting anywhere and, to tell you the truth, I was starting to wonder if it was worth the trouble. I was starting to think that maybe your story was just for me and that maybe I ought to let it go.
Then along came April and National Poetry month. I wrote all these poems about my dad that I never knew and I started thinking about how much you and I were alike, how many questions we both have about our pasts.
April surprised me with all the feelings that got stirred up inside of me. Things I didn’t think bothered me started to bother me something fierce and things that should have pissed me off didn’t seem like such a big deal. Hurts I thought I had buried a long time ago came bubbling up to the surface to hurt me all over again but by the end of the month I had a few more answers than I’d had at the beginning of the month and even if I didn’t like the answers, well, they were my answers to my story.
Which got me thinking about you and Wilson and Tate and how, if I’m going to tell your story, the right story, I’m going to have to hurt you. A lot.
I’ll just go ahead and apologize for that now.
Dear Author Who Has Been Ignoring Me,
You wouldn’t be the first person to give up on me, you know. You remember what my mother did. People think I should be pissed off about that but I really don’t think about it too much. And no, I’m not lying. Maybe if Wilson talked about her once in a while I might start to think about it more but he doesn’t so I don’t. Case closed.
Tate now, that’s a different story.
I don’t know how you figure you can hurt me but hey, go ahead. Bring it on.
That is, if you think you have it in you.
Thanks for being such a good sport about the name change thing. I realized you’d had that other name for over 20 years and really, it was hard for me to see the new character you’d become while you were lugging around that old name. I let you keep your last name though. It’s the only remnant of my silliness when once everyone in the book had a name that was connected to airplanes.
And you’ll notice I upgraded you from a bike to a car of your own. Hopefully this will help people who were thinking you were younger than you were. I know how much you hated that. But here’s the thing about the car, how can someone who is so careful when he’s flying be such a demon on the road? How many speeding tickets have you gotten already and how come Wilson lets you keep driving?
I’m rethinking the whole idea of Wilson’s dad and the stroke. I’m thinking that may be a little extreme to cover in the course of the story without it becoming THE story. I’d like to get rid of him completely but I’m not sure what I’d do without him, why Wilson would pack you guys up to move and all that.
Yeah, I know I’m rambling and you’re probably wondering why I’m really writing this letter. Here’s what I need to know. This story of yours is all about you going off on this great big search. That’s fine. Interesting even. But what I gotta know is why now? What happened with Wilson to make it so all fired important that you go searching now?
Why is today different from yesterday?
Signed, Author expecting you to throw me a curve ball
Kill off the old guy. Personally I don’t think you have the balls for it but I guess we’ll find out.
Today is different from yesterday because today I KNOW instead of just suspect. Nothing is the same once you know for you.
I’m going to turn you upside down and see what happens. You’ve always been in control. Always held back. Never wanted to let me see you cut loose. Well guess what? All that’s about to change. Let’s see how you like it now.
Bring it on. If you can dish it out, I can take it.
What’s in the wallet? Does it matter, really, or are you just playing with me? I’ve been driving toward that scene for what feels like forever and now, wham, you took the wind right out of my sails. What gives?
I don’t think you’re really that afraid of the dog after all but Spencer, yeah, she scares the crap out of you.
And eventually you need to talk to Wilson and Duncan or I might as well just kill them both off.
I don’t have anything to say. Not to you. Not to Duncan. And most especially not to Wilson.
I wonder what a perfect day is like for you or would you even recognize it when you saw it? Are you so busy feeling sorry for yourself that you’ve forgotten what it is like to be happy? Can you tell me about one absolutely perfect day in your life?
Signed, Author in search of happy days
Dear Author Who Has Trouble Recognizing Happy Herself,
Happy is easy. It’s when I fly. Anytime I take to the air I feel happy and if something is pissing me off, I forget about it as soon as I grip the yoke. Most of the time anyway. Perfect is tougher. The day I flew my first solo was pretty close. But I think the day Edna took me up in her old Stearman was about as close to perfect as I can remember. One of those lazy summer days where for once there wasn’t a pile of something gone wrong waiting for me on the ground. The sky was clear and still and I gazed out at it from between the flying wires and wanted us to keep on flying forever. The pockety-pockety sound of the engine was better than anything I had on my playlist.
Yeah, I’d say that day was pretty close to perfect. Until we landed.