The Birth of a Novel: CAMPER GIRL

Updated: Aug 7, 2018

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. Whereas Lake Placid gets most of the attention (it hosted two winter Olympics, after all), Saranac Lake has always held a special place in my heart.

And that's partly why I was there.

I'd earned my Masters degree the previous year, and after piecing together adjunct teaching gigs and gaining experience for three semesters, I applied for full-time professor jobs. One school I had in my sights was North Country Community College in Saranac Lake. To work and live in the Adirondacks was a dream of mine since childhood when my family would camp every summer, and I would get a pang of heartache when we had to leave the wilderness behind.

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, a small motorhome. Behind the wheel was a girl. She couldn't have been more than eighteen.

There I was, at a 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? What life choices had she made? What was her path? And why was she alone?

People drive motorhomes all the time, but they're usually older people -- couples or families -- not teenage girls.

The girl looked determined and a little nervous, and I imagined that 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 was, the questions and implications that came to me in those few seconds took root in my psyche.

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 novel, but was feeling lost and uninspired. Still, I knew that despite the effort and difficulty a writing life demanded, 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.

Sure, I could do that. If nothing else, it would be a fun challenge. My hopes, though, were higher. I hoped that the experience would kick-start my interest in writing, and that having a complete (though very rough draft) of a novel come December 1 would be just the sort of push my self-confidence needed.

All during October 2011, I mined my memories and notebooks for the one -- that perfect premise. After toying with several promising ideas, I decided to write her story: the girl in the motorhome, the girl I spotted more than 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 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. Heavily revised, assisted by professional editors, the book was ready. I was convinced (and, by that point, a little impatient).

But several months and well 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 seems fitting.

What to do? The only possibility I could wrap my head around.

I shelved it.

I turned my focus to photography and writing short stories. I rack up several publications, which helped to heal my wounded ego. Meanwhile, CAMPER GIRL stayed on the shelf, and I tried my best to ignore it. We needed space from one another.

Another intersection: we moved to Florida. I searched for and found a writers group. I mentioned the novel, talked about how there were several requests for full manuscripts but no takers. My new friends encouraged me to take it off the shelf. I did. I shared it with them. They ripped it apart. I considered quitting the group and burning all my notebooks. Maybe I'd take up guitar building.

But they saw worth in it, too. Underneath dead-end plot points and a sad-sack protagonist were the makings of a very strong novel, they told me.

During the next two years, I tore the novel down to its bones. I liken it to renovating a house or doing a frame-off restoration of an antique car. 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 disassemble the entire novel and start over. I needed to re-envision it.

Among the changes were tense, point of view, and new plot details that deepened the story and made Shannon more likable. I dove in, time and again, 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 once more query the novel. 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. There were a lot more stories waiting to be told.

This time around, the requests for full manuscripts came in quickly, and while there were some disappointing 'close calls' from literary agents, it was the small to mid-size publishers I was most excited about.

Spring 2018: I was driving home after taking my kids to school. At a long red light, I checked my email, and there it was: the letter I'd been looking forward to for so many years.

More than a simple contract, the offer from Regal House Publishing was a promise that Shannon's story would be brought into the world. This was a story that had taken root eighteen years earlier and wouldn't let go. As corny as it sounds, this tale of courage and independence really did demand to be told.

After receiving and accepting the offer from Regal House, the interest continued to come.

It felt good to be able to tell those other agents and editors that CAMPER GIRL was no longer available; my novel had found a home.