Fun fact: Back in the day, I edited a humor area for AOL, and one of my regular contributors was a fellow named David Lubar, who wrote reliably funny and interesting stuff (this is a more rare talent than you might expect). Here in the future, both David and I are authors, him primarily of middle grade and young adult books, the latest of which is Character, Driven. I’m delighted to have seen David do so well, and I know for a fact David’s proud of what he’s pulled off in this new book, which has managed starred reviews from Booklist and Publishers Weekly. Here he is to tell you what he’s done, and how.
Character, Driven begins with a bang, a chase, a tumble down the stairs, and snapping bones. It then slams to a dead stop against the brick wall of narrative intrusion as our hero discusses the importance of grabbing the reader with a strong opening. That scene lay untouched on my hard drive for ages, along with scads of other sentences, paragraphs, passages, and chapters I’d written over the decades in an attempt to bolster the self deception that every writing day is a productive day, even if I spend fifty percent of it Googling myself. I saved the scene with the filename Edgy, in a nod to the ubiquitous editorial call for “edgy YA novels.”
Several years ago, Susan Chang, my editor at Tor, came to my house to help me brainstorm my next novel. I shared a variety of my ideas with her, sticking with science fiction, fantasy, and horror, because that’s what Tor is most known for. Just as she was leaving, on a whim, I read the edgy sample to her.
“That’s your next novel,” Susan said.
I pointed out that it wasn’t speculative fiction. She pointed out that she didn’t care. I agreed to take a shot at it. When I sat down in earnest (a small town in Idaho, named after Hemingway) to turn that scene into a novel, I thought the big idea was to break the fourth wall. My main character, Cliff Sparks (wink, wink), frequently pauses the action to point out some aspect of the novel-writing process, such as the difficulty of describing himself without resorting to trite devices, or the art of seamlessly emerging from a flashback. He even talks about the problem of talking to the reader, and confesses that the novel will have to be plot driven because he isn’t charismatic enough to draw the reader along on personality alone.
That’s a tasty mouthful to pitch to the target audience: Hey, want to read a metafictional coming-of-age novel? And it’s an enthralling and joyful project for someone like me, who took an abundance of English classes while drifting through college, adored Borges, and wanted to be James Joyce, or Hunter S. Thompson. Metafiction, stream-of-consciousness, wordplay, and the like are wonderful tools. But a hammer isn’t a bird house. And a narrative conceit is not necessarily a big idea.
I didn’t even realize I’d crafted an authentic big idea until I noticed that nearly every early reader, blurber, and professional reviewer used the same unexpected words to describe Cliff’s voice. And they weren’t words I’d strived to evoke. I am, at heart, a goofball. My most popular books, the Weenies short story collections, feature anthropomorphic hot dogs on the cover. I’m proud to claim the creation of the largest lit fart in contemporary literature. I started out my career writing magazine humor. I live for retweets. I want to make you laugh. I need to make you laugh. And Character, Driven will do that. But it does something more.
The big idea is not that Cliff speaks to you, but that Cliff, who desperately wants to lose his virginity and is socially ill equipped to make much progress in that direction, speaks in an honest voice, holding nothing back. That’s one of the unexpected words: honest. Another is authentic. For example, when Cliff learns that a classmate involved in a tragedy might have been pregnant, he reveals his chain of thought: If she was pregnant, that meant she had sex, which meant he might have been able to have sex with her, had he had the courage to press his case. He also admits feeling guilty that compassion took second place to hormones. He shares his most intimate thoughts about sex, suicide, friendship, and art, among other things.
Cliff’s story is not my story. That’s a very good thing, given what he goes through. But his thoughts are drawn, in part, from my own memories of those awkward high school years. Most of us have dark thoughts, fleeting or frequent, that we’d never dare admit to even our closest friend or partner. Somehow, as I traveled with Cliff through his story, I forgot to switch on that filter.
Many of my other narrators have said what’s on their mind, of course. Though, to overwork a metaphor, they’ve only stripped down to their underwear, while Cliff has removed not just clothing, but layers of flesh. I really can’t explain why this book took the turn it did. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I never told myself I was going to reveal the deepest thoughts and secret yearnings of Cliff Sparks. I just gave him some of my pain, my regrets, my sorrows, my disappointments, and my youthful misconceptions, tempered with the lens of time. Fear not, I also gave him courage, strength, heart, a sense of humor, a love of books, a fondness for wordplay, a fierce loyalty to his friends, and the ability to triumph against brutal obstacles. Somehow, I think it all worked out. Honestly.