The first part of the Tamika Wood’s Birthday Party saga that I wrote was a version of the flashback chapter which is now called ‘And out of Order.’ It wasn’t called that then, because I hadn’t decided where to put it in the story.
I knew I didn’t want it to be a prologue. I wanted to introduce the main characters of Alan Sebastian and Scott before we flashed back to the past. But of course, obviously, it would have to come somewhere before ‘The Tape‘.
Or did it?
When I put together Tamika Wood’s Birthday Party part one I realised that ‘The Tape‘ didn’t need an introduction, necessarily. That what was important in that story was Gillian’s resolve to help her family rather than anything related to Shell and what she did or did not know. So I moved it to Part Two. It should be part of ‘I Can’t Talk About That‘, I thought. Because it is a that. So it needed to go there.
Or did it? I couldn’t seem to make it fit in there either. It seemed superfluous. Including the that seemed to undermine the can’t talk about so it was better that I save it for later.
At one point I wondered if perhaps it should just go nowhere. If maybe it wasn’t necessary at all. Or maybe it should be an optional stand-alone prequel story.
But then it turned out that I had a chapter title of ‘And Out of Order.’ And that was a perfect title for a flashback. I feel good about it and I hope you like where it ended up.
The version of the 1982 chapter which I wrote before I wrote anything else about the Tamika Wood story wasn’t bad. Some of my favourite lines I’ve ever written were in it. But I hadn’t quite figured out my feelings:detail ratio back then. Also I’d pulled out enough of Gillian’s thoughts and feelings about her past to write ‘Gillian vs Michelle’ and ‘Reminders’ that the part of that chapter from Gillian’s POV became a bit redundant. So I rewrote it entirely.
It doesn’t contain all of those favourite lines, but it fits into the story much better. I assumed that when people read it they’d realise immediately that she’s trans and that Alan Sebastian and Cello are her kids. I don’t often completely forget that other people don’t know all the things I know but I often assume that given enough information to know a thing means that they will then know it. But of course someone can have enough information without knowing that there is any kind of connection to make or anything to know.
I left hints. There were juxtapositions that I thought were very clever. There are clues. There are also red-herrings. I thought at every small hint that someone would comment or contact me and ask. But it wasn’t until the final chapter that people had the “omg Shell is trans and ohhh shiiiit” reaction. Which did sort of surprise me. As Alan Sebastian would say… “I thought that was obvious.”
Edited to add: thankfully I have now had people assure me that they did work it out ahead of time, along with people who were shocked when it was actually spelled out. The dichotomy pleases me greatly and is exactly what I wanted.
One morning early last year I got up at 2am and wrote more than 6,000 words. Those 6,000 words taught me more about writing – more about the way that I write best, anyway – than anything else and I think I grew at least 3 sizes as a writer. It is still some of the best writing I have ever done. But it’s not the best storytelling I have ever done so I deleted 5,000 words of it. What remains is the dinner party chapter ‘You Don’t Realise’.
Anyway with the flashback chapter and the dinner party chapter ‘Cupboard Ghost‘ is about 8,000 deleted words better than it could have been. So I’m immensely proud of that.
The day before ‘Everything is All Mixed Up‘ I was trying to make a decision about which paragraph of Chapter Four to use as preview. Not because there weren’t any good ones to choose from – I liked basically all of it, and there was one paragraph in particular that I thought was particularly evocative. But using 78 words as a preview of a of a 213 word chapter seemed like I was giving away far too high a percentage of the chapter. And given how succesful the previous chapter – ‘But Inside‘ – had been… I was, for the first time, slightly worried that my audience might be disappointed by the chapter. ‘But Inside‘ was the first chapter where I did get a lot more hits than usual almost as soon as the chapter dropped. Up until then it had usually been more spread out over the days following the release.
Usually I write chapters and hope that when my readers reach the end of the chapter they will quietly say “oh no”. But that Thursday when I read what I had written for ‘Everything Is All Mixed Up‘ it was me who quietly said “oh no.”
So in an effort to avoid thinking about that I was reading through some things I had written for a story which is currently titled The Elephant Girl.
And there it was. The chapter that ‘Everything is All Mixed Up‘ should have been.
I said “oh no” slightly louder that time.
It was just after 10 am. By the time I finished editing it it was after 11. A 213 word chapter became a 1285 word chapter. A chapter which I was no longer worried might be disappointing. But a chapter which did not have an audio recording.
My son needed to be picked up from school at 12:30 for a speech therapy appointment. I can only record things when the house is empty… and once I picked him up that would not happen again until 9 am – an hour before the chapter was due. I had already announced on Twitter and Mastodon that the chapter might be late… but I really didn’t want it to be late.
So I asked my support worker to leave early and recorded a new version of ‘Everything is All Mixed Up‘ in two takes. So it was a little rushed. I hope it still sounds okay.
Since I first started day-dreaming up Tamika Wood’s Birthday Party there have been many different iterations of how Shell found out. When it came to start writing things down I never felt like I could do any kind of mystery justice or sustain any kind of will-she-or-will-she-not-discover-it tension. And it became dangerously all about the ‘trans thing‘ instead of the whole… betrayal and making-choices-for-other-people thing. Shell is trans because that’s the way she showed up in my head and demanded to be included in the story. Not as like, some shocking twist. I really hope I balanced that okay.
Anyway the only thing that is actually important is the way that everyone feels completely betrayed and devastated and guilty and sad. Hooray!! Apart from Scott. He’s fine, obviously.
At one point I wasn’t going to ever reveal anything about how and focus entirely on how-everyone-feels (a few different kinds of bad) but I’m pretty happy with what I decided. There is enough information to puzzle out a likely route for the knowledge of the twins’ existence, but unless you really care about that, it’s not important at all (Edited to add: This is mostly in the ‘hidden tracks’). The important part is just all of the different ways in which I made people feel bad!! Hooray!! Apart from Scott. He’s fine, obviously.
(I’m a monster)
I’m not a hugely experienced writer. I think I’m better than I deserve to be based on how little I’ve actually done of it before now… but I’m still at the point where I’m getting a lot better very rapidly which tells me I’m definitely not anywhere close to “there” yet. BUT I am confident that I am remarkably good at chapter titles. I hope you enjoyed these ones.
Edited to add: I am very excited by hints and little things that people may or may have noticed and I would absolutely LOVE to point them all out if people do want to know. If you want to hunt for things or notice yourself and feel smug about them please go ahead but I really love explaining things so… go ahead and ask if you want!!
- Cello’s return at one point came after the Jazz dinner. What a weird choice, past Le.
- The Gillian vs Shell chapter was the third chapter I ever wrote.
- I struggled to keep the ‘previously on’ chapter recommendation list as low as I did. There are more links to things mentioned in the past. I want to point all of them out!! None of them are very important but if you do notice them I hope you enjoy the noticing.
- Although I have always had a very strong impression of Shell’s voice and expression in my head I found it surprisingly difficult to make it come out of my mouth. Although I recorded most of the other chapters in one or two takes each, it took a few goes to get Shell right. I’ve had a lot more practice with the other five POV characters!
- I have never used he/him pronouns to refer to Alan Sebastian and Cello’s father even when they didn’t know who she was. Sometimes this caused some awkward phrasing but luckily Alan Sebastian’s phrasing is generally awkward.
- Scott is fine, obviously.