Friendships begin in many ways; mine with Barbara O’Connor started with a fan letter sent in response to one of Barbara’s books (NOT Greetings from Nowhere, where the bully is named Kirby. But she didn’t know me then.) Not too long after those initial email exchanges, we met in person at ALA in Orlando and the rest, as they say, is history. She is my pal, for sure. And my hero. Every time I’m writing something that feels over the top, I pick up one of Barbara’s books to be reminded of the power of a spare text. Every time I’m struggling to get a handle on a character, I turn to a story like Wish, where we meet Charlie, an angry girl whose favorite activities are “soccer, ballet and fighting.” And there is no way Charlie’s EVER going to eat a squirrel sandwich. (Read Barbara’s Friend Friday post about her book, Wonderland, here) Because Barbara’s books are spare, they can up and fool you: make no mistake, she tackles tough issues. But always, always with love and humor and great respect for the folks who populate her stories. It is an extreme honor to host my dear friend today in celebration of her newest middle grade novel, Halfway to Harmony (FSG).
All of my books start with the following four things, usually in this order: title, character, first sentence, and a hazy idea of the story.
Yep, the first thing I have when starting a new book is the title. And, for most of my books, I’ve had the title before I even had a hazy idea of what the story was about. Strange, but true.
I consider the title the front door to the story. It must be bait, to lure the reader to pick up the book. It also serves to set the tone and mood of the story. And for me, it’s the creative jumping-off point.
Next, I must have a fully realized and perfectly visualized character, because it is the character who leads me through the action and emotion.
Now I’m ready to jump into the story. But first, it’s imperative that I have a killer first sentence. While the title should lure the reader to pick up the book, the first sentence should lure the reader into the story. And as with titles, sometimes I have the first sentence before I have more than an inkling of what the story is going to be about.
It might seem odd, but usually the last thing that comes to me is the storyline. But, alas, as much as I would love to be a plotter and have a chapter-by-chapter outline, I am a hopeless pantser. I never have more than a very hazy idea of the story when I dive in.
My latest middle grade novel, Halfway to Harmony, has been no exception to my rule of fours. First, I had the title, which was originally Happy Birthday, Walter Tipple. (Yes, occasionally I’ve bowed to pressure from my editor and/or the marketing department to change a title. It kills me, but I’ve learned to listen to wise advice.) I liked the upbeat tone of that title and I liked the character’s name.
But next, of course, I needed that fully realized character. This is the part in my process when I have to let things, like characters, percolate a bit in my head before putting pen to paper. (And, yes, I write first drafts by hand.)
Now I was ready for that first sentence: The night that Posey and Evalina moved to Harmony, Georgia, Walter Tipple had that dream again.
But who were Posey and Evalina and what was the dream? I still had to figure that out.
While I was busy letting Walter Tipple percolate and mulling over that dream, a tiny seed of an idea popped into my head: a hot-air balloon. Wouldn’t it be fun to write a story that involved a hot-air balloon. And, then, I got a cosmic sign. That very day, while driving to the grocery store, what should be floating along above me but a colorful hot-air balloon! It was meant to be! Halfway to Harmony would be about a hot-air balloon.
About the same time, I got inspiration from a country song. Since I write books set in the South, I’m often inspired by country music. The song was “I Drive Your Truck” by Lee Brice. It tells the story of a young man whose brother has been killed in the war. To help him connect with his deceased brother, he drives his pickup truck.
Now I had the two key elements of the story: a hot-air balloon and a character tending to his deceased brother’s pickup truck.
Armed with only my four must-haves, I dove into the first draft, letting the character of Walter lead me blindly along.
Next came the secondary characters adding layers to the story line and making my merry romp through my hazy story a lot more fun. Walter’s life is much more interesting with Posey, the brash new girl from next door, and Banjo, who’s off on a bodacious adventure of his own.
And there you have it – my somewhat unconventional process of making my way from a title to “The End.”
Barbara O’Connor is the author of award-winning novels for children, including Wonderland, How to Steal a Dog, and the New York Times bestseller, Wish. Drawing on her South Carolina roots, Barbara’s books are
known for their strong Southern settings and quirky characters. In addition to seven Parents Choice Awards, Barbara’s distinctions include School Library Journal Best Books, Kirkus Best Books, Bank Street College Best Books, American Booksellers Association Best Books and ALA Notables. She has had books nominated for children’s choice awards in 38 states and been voted the winner by children in ten states. Barbara is a popular visiting author at schools and a frequent speaker at conferences around the country.