Sunday, February 01, 2009

Behind the Book: ABSOLUTELY MAYBE by Lisa Yee, Part I

Today is the official release date of Lisa Yee's new YA novel, Absolutely Maybe. Hooray Lisa! She is celebrating over on her livejournal and at her official website for the book, (Especially worth checking out: the multiple cover designs the book went through.) For the Behind the Book here, I asked Lisa if she'd collaborate on a sort of oral history of how the book developed and the changes it went through editorially. She agreed, so here's what happened with the first draft:

Lisa: ABSOLUTELY MAYBE came out of nowhere. Well, not exactly nowhere, but it did take me by surprise.

Originally titled CHARM SCHOOL DROPOUT, the novel was supposed to be a humorous middle-grade story about a goth girl whose ex-beauty-queen mother ran a school for beauty pageant contestants in Florida. Maybelline (named after her mother's favorite mascara) was slated for a major makeover by her mother to get her pageant-worthy.

Only, it never happened.

As I began writing, I discovered that Maybe was more cynical and sensitive than I had imagined. And her home life was awful. So I upped her age from twelve or thirteen years old to sixteen years old when the book begins. By making her older, it gave me more latitude with the story, like having her run away to Hollywood with her two best friends. It went from a frothy story to one with more depth as Maybe struggled to come to terms with her alcoholic mother and herself.

I had no idea I had written a young adult novel until my agent, Jodi Reamer, read the story. She called me and said, "I love this, but it isn't what Arthur and Cheryl are expecting. You need to tell them it's a YA before they read it." Then I got scared, because I wasn't sure if I'd breached my contract by writing something wholly different than what we had decided on. So, I told my editors to prepare themselves for a novel for an older audience, sent in the manuscript and held my breath.

Cheryl: Arthur and I have been working with Lisa for five books now, and even if we know more or less beforehand what voice she's tackling or where the plot is headed, it's always exciting to get a new manuscript from her. So the news that CHARM SCHOOL DROPOUT had become a YA novel made us doubly excited and curious -- not just "Yay, a new novel from Lisa!" but "Wow, Lisa's doing a YA! What's that going to be like?"

Well, the answer was wonderfully fresh and character-driven as always. It was the character of Maybe that set this story in motion -- both literally and literarily. But the supporting characters were just as clear and real and full of life: Ted, her hilariously honest best friend; Hollywood, the aspiring filmmaker who crushes on Maybe and takes both her and Ted to California to look for Maybe's dad; and looming over the entire journey, Chessamay Chestnut Abajian Wing Marshall Wing Sinclair Alvarez and soon-to-be Himmler, Maybe's alcoholic, ex-Miss-Florida mom.

Arthur and I read the novel and talked about it, and while the book had all the strengths of Lisa's middle-grade novels, we also thought it reflected the very YA theme of identity -- how you figure out who you are, and how your parents, your friends, and your own interests all contribute to or fit into that. But Lisa had created an embarrassment of riches in terms of her storylines and characters, and not all of them were carrying their equal share of that theme. We asked her to reconsider the roles of two characters in the book in light of that fact (they still appear in the final novel, but in greatly reduced screen time). More importantly, Maybe herself wasn't really carrying her share of the novel; she felt a little too passive to us in the search for her father, her reconnection with her mother, her whole Getting a Life. We wrote in an editorial letter:

So what is the change that Maybe needs to make in the course of the book—not in relation to her dad or Chessy, but within herself? Who does she want to be, and how can we see her evolve into that? . . . What we suggest is that you look back over the course of the book and see if there are places throughout where Maybe could take more action . . . Could you show us something in Maybe’s choices that might lead to [a certain event] instead?
We sent this letter back to Lisa, and, after she'd had time to digest it, we talked on the phone to be sure Lisa was comfortable with everything in the letter and we all knew where things were headed. Then it was her turn to respond . . .

Stay tuned!


  1. You know, it is SOOOO helpful to know that even great writers like Lisa Yee have discussions with their editors about making their protagonists "protag" (to steal a term from Sarah Prineas) more. Thanks for sharing some of the behind-the-scenes moments.

  2. Agree with Rose. When I think, "Hey, I've written a good story," and then I read about banters between agent and writer and editor and writer, it really makes me take a deeper look at my own "good" story. Thanks so much for sharing, Cheryl & Lisa.

  3. Hi Cheryl,

    Hanging over my desk at work are print-outs of some of my favorite poems. I thought you would enjoy this bit from Billy Collins' "Candle Hat" in light of character development--

    "But once you see this hat there is no need to read/any biography of Goya or to memorize his dates./To understand Goya you only have to imagine him/lighting the candles one by one, then placing/the hat on his head, ready for a night of work."

  4. I read the book this weekend and totally got caught up in the story. That often happens to me with a good book. Now I think I'll have to go back and look at it from more of a writer's perspective. I'm looking forward to more behind the scenes!


  5. I always love getting the inside information from an author, and behind-the-scenes stuff is always neat. Thanks!

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