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The Birth of a Novel: CAMPER GIRL

Toyota Dolphin

In November 2011, I started to tell a story.

But the story actually began earlier than that, way back during the summer of 2000.

I was in the village of Saranac Lake, NY, which is situated in the Adirondack Mountains, a short drive from the famed town of Lake Placid. I'd earned my Masters degree the previous year, and after piecing together adjunct teaching gigs for a few semesters, I applied for full-time professor jobs. One school I had in my sights was North Country Community College. To work and live in the Adirondacks sounded perfect. Never mind that Saranac Lake is often the coldest spot in the continental US.

I applied to and got an interview at NCCC (and later received a job offer.) After the interview, my spirits were high. I drove north, back into the village. At the corner of Lake Flower Ave. and River St., I spotted a Toyota Dolphin, which is a small motorhome. Behind the wheel was a young woman. She couldn't have been more than eighteen.

There I was, at major intersection in my life, and the sight of that girl sitting behind the wheel of a motorhome, alone, at a literal and perhaps symbolic intersection of her own, struck me.

What was her story? Where was she going? (Where were any of us going?)

What life choices had she made? What was her path? And why was she driving a beat-up camper? When was the last time you saw a person younger than 30 drive a camper?

The girl looked determined and a little nervous, like she was setting out on an adventure. Maybe she was simply driving the vehicle across town for her parents. Maybe she was picking up friends, and then going camping at one of the many nearby lakes. Whatever the case, and for some reason, the possibilities of her story took root.

Fast-forward: I took a full-time teaching job (though not in Saranac Lake), got married, bought a home, had kids...

Then, after earning tenure and a promotion to Assistant Professor, I left my teaching job. My wife's career had blossomed and was enough to support the whole family. My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. My son was an infant, and I had the rare opportunity to raise him full-time.

I was at another intersection: if I wasn't a college professor, who was I?

I threw myself into full-time parenting and dabbled in photography and music. At that time, writing wasn't really on my radar. I'd started a few novels, but was feeling lost and uninspired as far as writing went. Still, the truth remained that I was happiest when I wrote. It was that simple.

Then I heard about National Novel Writing Month. Every November, writers around the world committed themselves to writing 50,000 words in 30 days. 1667 words per day. Six pages, give or take.

I could do that, I decided. If nothing else, it would be a fun challenge. I hoped that the experience would kick-start my writing mojo, and that having a complete (though very rough) draft of a novel come would be the boost my self-confidence needed.

In the days leading up to Nanowrimo, I mined my memories and notebooks for a promising premise. After toying with several ideas, I decided I was going to write the story of that kid in a motorhome, that seed of a story from a decade earlier.

Shannon's story is my story, and yours, and your friend's--anyone who's ever found themselves at a critical juncture. Do I stay or do I go? Do I turn right or left? The worn path or the road less traveled? Or do I say "To hell with roads," and head blindly into the wilderness?

Fast forward three years: 2014.

My novel, CAMPER GIRL, was done. I was convinced it was the best it could be.

But several months and over 100 query letters later, the novel remained on the bench, just like the kid who doesn't get picked for a team. The fact that Shannon is that kid seemed fitting.

What to do? I did the only thing I could wrap my head around.

I shelved it.

I focused on writing short stories. I racked up a number of publications, which helped to heal my wounded ego.

Another intersection: we moved to Florida. I searched for and found a writers group. I mentioned the novel, talked about how it had received several requests for full manuscripts but no takers. My new friends encouraged me to share it with them, and I did.

They ripped it apart.

I considered quitting the group and burning all my notebooks. Maybe I'd train for a triathlon. It would be less painful.

But the group saw worth in Shannon's story, too. Underneath dead-end plot points and a sad-sack protagonist were the makings of a very strong novel, they said. And who was I to argue with a bunch of strangers? (Who, by the way, have become some of my dearest friends.)

During the next two years, I tore the novel down to its bones. It reminded me of renovating a house. At its core, it was a good story. It had a solid structure and good curb appeal. But it also had crooked walls, uneven floors, and mismatched paint. Patchwork wouldn't be enough. I had to gut the entire novel and start over. I needed to re-envision it.

I dove in, a scalpel in one hand and a chainsaw in the other. The novel took shape. It was a painful process, but an exhilarating one as well.

2017: I was ready to query the novel once more. This was it. If there were no takers this time around, I'd consider self-publishing but more likely, I'd shelve the story again and move on. Life was too short, and there were more stories waiting to be told.

Responses came more quickly this time around. Several publishers requested the full manuscript. Then, one morning after taking my kids to school (at an intersection, of course), I checked my email, and there it was: the letter I'd been looking forward to for a long time.

2020: And now--in the midst of a pandemic, an economic disaster, and a potential election crisis--CAMPER GIRL finally arrives. Maybe it won't change the world, but I hope it gives you all a bit of respite from madness.

And there you have it, the birth of a novel.

A huge shout-out of gratitude to the amazing folks at Fitzroy Books/Regal House Publishing. Thank you for your encouragement, support, and guidance! And, of course, all my love to my family, for being there at every junction along the way.

And to CAMPER GIRL: enjoy the journey, little book....


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