I was thrilled when Donna Gephart agreed to share a bit of the process of writing her newest book, In Your Shoes (Delacorte Books for Young Readers) and even more delighted when I learned that even a terrific writer like Donna sometimes throws gutter balls in the creation process. And this introduction to her extremely honest and helpful essay allows me to brag that my dad once bowled a 300 game. I think you will agree with me that Donna, too, scores a perfect game with her newest novel.
When a friend told me how much her nerdy son loved his bowling team, I remembered my own bowling experiences. My parents were on bowling leagues and had the trophies in our garage to prove it. The first date with my husband was babysitting (my newborn niece) and then bowling. Hubby had been on a bowling team, too.
Who didn’t love bowling?
But my books are never about only one thing.
I’d been thinking about death, too. My mom had died when I was twenty-nine and pregnant with our youngest son. It was awful. Our son’s girlfriend lost her mom when she was only eleven. My father-in-law, whom I adored, passed away just before my first book came out in 2008. His funeral shredded me.
I wanted to write about navigating grief, too.
But how to combine these two disparate things?
Writing a new book is like planting different seeds in the earth, providing sunshine and water in the form of hours at the desk, and waiting to see what sprouts.
I was tired of reading stories set in school, so I decided to have the settings be a bowling center, a funeral home and a bed and breakfast.
I’ve always wanted to write a fairy tale, inspired by Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon, which he wrote for his kids. And the fact that my mom used to tell me different fairy tales before bed. Those stories felt like part of my DNA.
I also wanted to include a nosy, noisy, science-loving narrator who intruded in the story now and again.
Figuring out the structure of including all these elements in a cohesive way was killing me.
I’d go weeks unable to put a word on the page as my subconscious tried to work it out. I went on a short writing retreat with a friend, who asked me all the right questions to get me unstuck. When I’d finally created a 250-page draft and revised it, I sent it to my editor.
She offered substantial revision suggestions.
I knew the book didn’t match the vision in my head.
So I threw it out.
And started over.
I remembered reading that William Goldman nearly lost his mind and gave up while writing The Princess Bride until he figured out the structure of the story within a story.
I’d have a story within a story. My main character, Amy – a writer – would create a fairy tale throughout the story that mirrored what was happening in the larger novel. The other main character, Miles, would have anxieties and relax by looking up bizarre ways people have died throughout history. There would be a magical school librarian. The whole thing would be loosely based on the Cinderella story. And it would be structured in bowling frames.
That is the book I wrote.
In Your Shoes (Delacorte Books for Young Readers) is the favorite of my books. It’s about surviving grief with the help of quirky friends and flawed family. It’s humorous and heartbreaking in equal measure and brimming with love.
I can’t wait for you to share Miles and Amy’s unlikely journey that all begins with a flying bowling shoe.
As these things sometimes do.
Donna Gephart’s award-winning middle grade novels include: Lily and Dunkin, Death by Toilet Paper, How to Survive Middle School and others. She’s a popular speaker at schools, conferences and book festivals. Donna lives in New Jersey with her family and her canine office assistant, Benji, a sweet retriever mix. Visit her online at her website.