The Big Idea: Sharon Short
Posted on January 31, 2013 Posted by John Scalzi 24 Comments
Sharon Short made a name for herself as an author of mystery novels — but sometimes an idea comes to you from outside the usual places. In the case of her mainstream novel My One Square Inch of Alaska, that idea came from the northern wilderness… and the 1950s… and a cereal box. Here she is to explain how all three came together.
At a book club gathering, one of the women asked if anyone remembered the deeds to one square inch of Alaska that used to come in cereal boxes in the 1950s. (The question wasn’t related to the book we were discussing.) The 1950s were before I was born, but I was immediately taken with this compelling concept… the desire for a deed to one tiny bit of land in a vast frontier, and what that could symbolize. Almost immediately, the shadowy image of a young woman and her little brother (Donna and Will), standing together and holding hands, appeared in my imagination. I couldn’t ‘see’ them yet in sharp detail, but I could ‘feel’ them saying, “tell our story.” I had no idea what their story would or should be, but by the time I returned home, I’d written in my head one of the closing scenes, which narrated itself in what would become Donna’s first person voice.
Frankly, it took a while for me to firmly grasp “the big idea” that’s the driving force in my first mainstream novel, My One Square Inch of Alaska.
First, I had my doubts about an entire novel kicked off with the concept of a kid longing to get a square inch deed in a cereal promotion. (In real life, the promotion was for a deed to one square inch of the Yukon Territory, but interestingly, everyone remembers the promotion as being to Alaska, which I think says something about what Alaska represents in the collective imagination, so I went with the way the promotion was remembered. Besides, “My One Square Inch of Yukon Territory” doesn’t quite flow off the tongue.)
Yet, the story wouldn’t let go of my imagination. So I kept plowing along, writing draft after draft, trying to figure out just who Donna and Will were. And why their story was important. And why I had to tell it.
For a while, I thought the novel might be suitable for a Young Adult audience, since Donna is 17/18 in most of the novel. I’d written a draft of the opening chapters that was good enough to win a local literary arts grant, and I invested that money in going to a conference that focused on writing for children and young adult readers. That conference happened to be in New York City… and coincided with the big snow storm of January 2011.
My flight was cancelled. So, I tossed my luggage in my trunk and started driving east. On the drive out (10 hours of boredom followed by 30 minutes of sheer terror), I thought, hey, look at me! I’m off to get advice on this YA novel I’m writing.
But at the conference, an editor (not mine!) told me that YA fiction set in early to mid-20th century America never, ever sells. (That afternoon, it was announced that a wonderful novel set in the late 1930s Midwest America won the Newbery Award.) On the other hand, that same editor told me that she thought my novel’s concept and theme were better suited to an adult audience, with crossover appeal to older teens—if I’d think more carefully about my protagonist’s story goal.
On my drive home–30 minutes of sheer terror followed by 10 hours of… well, not boredom, because I realized that on this point she was right. Somewhere in Pennsylvania, I pulled off the highway to a rest stop and re-thought my novel, then went home and revised (again), feeling much more on track when I finally realized I was writing an adult mainstream historical novel.
But… I still hadn’t quite tuned into The Big Idea of my novel. Then I started writing what I thought was the opening to Chapter 18, with Donna (a wanna-be fashion designer) describing how she’d discovered her mama’s suitcases full of costumes and beautiful clothes. And suddenly, I realized I’d actually just written the opening lines to my novel. (Fortunately, I didn’t have to toss out Chapters 1-17… just revise… yet again.)
I’d also discovered my novel’s Big Idea. Not about suitcases and clothes and mamas… but about dreams. About the power of embracing, believing in and following one’s dreams…. even if the odds are long or everyone else is saying ‘you can’t do this!’ And about the danger of ignoring those dreams.
And I realized that’s what Will’s quest for one tiny square inch in all the vast Alaskan Territory represents: the life-affirming importance of embracing one’s dreams, even surrounded by the vastness of the challenges life can offer. Will himself represents the wonderfully innocent belief of the very young in chasing dreams simply for the joy of the chase. Donna represents the journey from not believing in one’s dreams to embracing them. Other teen characters find themselves under pressure to ignore exploring their own dreams in order to follow others’ expectations, while many of the adult characters have denied their dreams or followed a dream that’s really an illusion. Two of my favorite adult characters, though, are the exceptions to this; they understand and embrace their dreams, and encourage Donna and Will in theirs.
I’ve always believed in following one’s dreams and working hard to achieve them, balancing that belief with realism. (For example, it’s a good thing that being a world class diver wasn’t my dream; I’m terrified of heights and deep water.) But I think this novel was important for me to write to reaffirm my own writing dreams, as well as to find the courage to tell a story that, in a way, is very personal—Donna’s emotional coming-of-age journey tracks very closely with my own, although the details of her background are different than mine. Additionally, my children were transitioning from being teenagers to being young adults, so this also influenced my attraction to exploring the Big Idea of the impact of affirming (or denying) personal dreams.
I hope readers, whatever their dreams are, enjoy going along with Donna and Will on their journey in My One Square Inch of Alaska.
My One Square Inch of Alaska: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Read the author’s “Literary Life” columns in the Dayton Daily News. Follow her on Twitter.
Hanging in my parents’ downstairs bathroom for the past 20+ years has been a deed to a square foot of land in Alaska, given to them as a gift. In other words, I like this premise.
Alaska, figuratively, is where Minnesotans go to die. It is the last Happy Hunting Ground, writ extremely large.
@Matt — thank you!
I love the idea of this book, as well as its unusual inception. What is particularly interesting to me, though, is the description of your process for discovering the story, and how it (in a very personal way) dovetails with the theme of the story in a way that it speaks to my own life.
Since I was a child, I wanted to be a novelist. For a very long time, I had convinced myself that this was an unrealistic dream. After all, who knows anyone who is a successful novelist? (Present company excluded, naturally, but I’m saying that most of us don’t have personal relationships with people who have accomplished this goal.) It seemed to me as though it was the cliche aspiration of the idealistic daydreamer, “Oh, I’m writing a novel.” To which people would respond and say, “Oh, that’s nice for you. Don’t quit your day job.”
Recently, I decided to make myself vulnerable enough to begin admitting my dream out loud, because it has resurfaced over and over again as I’ve plodded through a professional life that has often been less than fulfilling. I came to the conclusion that life is far too short not to try and do even the things I think are almost unattainable, because – hey! – that’s what I really want to do. So I’m now almost 40,000 words into my first manuscript, and it’s agonizing. I keep trying to quiet the editor in my head screaming at me what a pile of worthless crap it is, or to stave off my ADD that makes me want to do anything and everything except actually keep my butt in the seat and write.
So ironically, reading you talk about how many revisions you had to make to find the real story, and the way the real story is about the discovery and embrace of one’s dreams, are both things I needed to hear right now. This morning. So thank you.
@Steve–you are welcome. And thank you for sharing that! Just a few other thoughts for you this a.m.:
–Congratulations on those 40,000 words! That’s about halfway, right? So keep going.
–And it’s not a steaming pile of crap. At ‘worst,’ it is a pile of clay. And we need clay to work with in order to shape beautiful sculptures or pottery. At least, that’s what I tell myself about my first drafts, especially when I think ‘egad, steaming pile o’ crap!’ Hey, I’m just making clay, and through rewriting, rewriting, rewriting (which is really what writing is all about), I’ll eventually turn this clay into something else that others can enjoy/use!
–RE: ADD… well, I don’t have that as an official diagnosis, but I definitely get twitchy (sort of a self-induced, oh, let’s check FB now form), and my solution is… a kitchen timer. Seriously. I wind up my little timer on my desk, set it for 55 minutes, and when it goes ‘ding!’ I get to take a 5 minute break to do other things.
Good luck and enjoy the journey!
Sharon Short, I often don’t read the Big Idea posts, but I happened to read this one, and I’m very interested in what you say about dreams and the different responses people have to them. I’m intrigued by your description of the book, and I’m going to check out the sample right away.
Thanks, Sharon. The clay is a good analogy. I also sculpt, and I was thinking about that very thing this morning. At first, you just take your wireframe and start smearing on clumps of clay. Once you’ve fleshed it all out and gotten a rough form, you pare it down. Putting together a story where you only know some of the major important bits but not all the interconnecting details feels a lot like that. I have to imagine that the most valuable part of writing your first novel is, well, writing your first novel. You get to learn all these lovely, painful lessons. And hopefully it gets easier the next time.
Also, I completely agree about the pile of clay metaphor. I’m working on a novel too, and that’s how I’ve learned to look at the first drafts of any part of it I’m working on. I’ve got to get some clay out there so I have something to shape and mold and trim and embellish. First drafts are often excruciating for me. Rewriting, editing, and editing some more is where the fun is, and I do mean fun. So my reward for churning out the clay is getting to play with it until I have something that I can feel is right (and then play with it some more).
That’s awesome, BW. And encouraging!
(A novel set in the 50’s is “historical”? Dang, didn’t realize I’m THAT old)!
This has been added to my “to read list.” It sounds very intriguing and I swear I would have added it to my list even if your main character didn’t have such and awesome first name!
Did you see you’ve become a verb in the manosphere now Scalzi?
Sharon, congrats on the book – it sounds like something we want to read. I agree with Steve, the insight on how you recast your story is wonderful to behold.
I don’t think I have 10,000 words, yet . . .
I would certainly agree that I don’t conform to their expectations of manhood. This is of course a feature, not a bug.
As I wrote yesterday on Twitter, “Today I will offend racist sexist homophobic dipshits simply by EXISTING. Evidence of a life lived correctly, I would say.”
The square inch of the Yukon comes up from time to time mainly from people hoping their one inch might be part of an oil field or gold mine. Straightdope has an entry in their archives. The usual response is that though the deeds were real, the people who received them didn’t bother to register their property with the proper authorities.
Ultimately, the parcel of land was eventually sold by the Canadian government due to failure to pay back taxes.
thebechtloff, thanks so much for that link. My brain now needs re-bleaching. And I thought I’d already exposed myself to most of the sad things of the internet.
Also, I should note that the discussion of “manosphere” stuff belongs in a thread different than this one, please.
Who did the cover? Speaking as someone who is actually living in Alaska, that picture isn’t in Alaska.
Since all we have besides fish and oil is scenery, we’re sensitive about it.
Is that an itty bitty trailor or a horse masquerading as a dog?
If you are interested here is a link to the episode of the “Under The Influence” podcast where Terry O’Reilly talks about that promotion. I’m a big fan of the podcast, but you can usually read much of the material too. http://www.cbc.ca/undertheinfluence/season-2/2013/01/12/post-3/
To all of you working on your novels, this reader says Thank You! If it weren’t for wonderful brave people like you, I wouldn’t be supplied with books to read and new worlds to explore. I have never had any affinity for writing fiction and admire anyone who even attempts a novel. So be proud of yourselves for putting pen to paper (or the virtual equivalent) and dream on!
The cover was done by an artist hired by the publisher. The trailer is a ‘tear drop’ style from the 1940s; having seen such trailers (and huskies) in person, the proportion is right. The cereal company set up a company for the sole purpose of buying the Yukon land for the promotion; the company had a deed to the entirety of the land, but did not register square inch plots and so the ‘owners’ couldn’t either. Legally, it was basically set up as giving away an inch… without specifying which inch. And yes, the land ended up back in the hands of the Canadian gov’t in real life. Thanks to everyone for the questions and comments about writing! And thank you John for hosting my guest post. Now to go find that manosphere thread…
The trailer is a ‘tear drop’ style from the 1940s; having seen such trailers (and huskies) in person, the proportion is right.
My father has one of those on a hunting lease; for obvious reasons, he calls it “Lucy”. They are surprisingly roomy inside, even though they look like they wouldn’t hold a munchkin from the outside.
Wow, I’ve never heard of Sharon Short, and now I want to go out and find her back catalogue. What a great Big Idea.