Almost two weeks ago, I finished my first novel, Paint Everything Blue, (I think that 48,508 words is close enough to 50,000 to be considered a novel, don’t you?), and I’m just so delighted that I wanted to share the story of my story with you, and how, as Tolkien would say, it grew in the telling.
It’s difficult to really communicate how in love I’ve been, and still am, with this story; how it’s affected me just in the writing of it; how much I’ve discovered about myself as a writer in this seven-month project; how it all came together and turned out to be the first of many, many story ideas to come to any real fruition as a book. It was such a God thing, such a Mary thing. . .but I’ll start from the beginning.
Really, it began years ago; well, when I was fifteen or sixteen years old. It feels like years. It was after a weekday morning Mass, and we were stopping by Jack’s before we headed home to a strenuous day of schoolwork. (By the way, if you’ve never eaten at Jack’s, you’re missing out. It’s our family staple restaurant. I’m sure the franchise had us in mind when they decided to build one right off our exit.) I’m pretty sure I had ordered a gravy biscuit plate. Anyway, when we pulled around to the window, the young guy who took care of us was quite congenial. He struck up a friendly conversation with Mom as he worked and we waited, and when we drove off I mused, You know, I really like people like that–just cheerful. They seem rare these days. More people should be that way. I should be that way.
So that was the glorious beginning. Obviously it doesn’t take much to thrill or inspire my imagination, and so my mind began weaving a dramatic story around a young man who worked at a restaurant, who had all sorts of difficult circumstances, but managed to maintain a real joy, and thus impacted the lives of people around him who were struggling and anything but joyful. It was a concept I liked; but it had a lot of rough edges.
Like the fact that it was set in America. Modern-day. At Jack’s. Those would have to go, sooner or later, although I didn’t discover it for a while. I had come up with a few characters besides this boy (whose name I could hardly ever decide on); a middle-aged woman customer and the boy’s doctor (who were married), a nurse, a boss, and a co-worker. All of these characters, although drastically grown, have survived into my current draft of Paint Everything Blue, even though I wrote and rewrote the few scene ideas I had for them to death long before the story was ready to be written. (Sorry guys!)
Thing No. 1 that I learned about my own writing style: stories need germination time before they are ready to be written. This particular one needed a couple of years of living in the back of my mind before it was ready to stand in broad daylight. Yet it wasn’t dormant; during that time, while I worked away at my junior and senior years of high school and chased other story ideas, it was slowly forming, taking shape. The most important progression it made in that time was the taking on of a definitive Marian theme. During those couple of years I had begun to know our Lady as I’d never really known her; reading first Mother Teresa: In the Shadow of our Lady, and then True Devotion to Mary, (after which I made my Total Consecration to Jesus through Mary) opened my heart to her, embraced her, and sealed her in. There was no turning back; the Cause of my Joy would be the cause of my (still nameless) character’s joy. This story was hers, and I knew it. She made me want to write it.
So yes, I made my Total Consecration last December, and in doing so gave myself and every possession, of body or soul–which included, I must assume, my story ideas–to Our Lady for God’s glory. And what she has done with that one idea since has blown me away. I’m not trying to make my story out to be something that it’s not, or brag on my prowess as a writer. On the complete contrary, I’ve been reminded that nothing of my own is my own anymore–it’s all hers. This story literally came out. Yes, it took thought and effort and perseverance through difficult moments (like having to rewrite my last scene three or four times), as well as a good bit of time. But I have the feeling that if Our Lady hadn’t been in possession of the whole project, I could not have written a single successful scene–much less reached the ending. I would have sat staring at my monitor with a blank expression and a blank imagination. She was what it needed, and once it was hers, it didn’t take long.
She must have planted Italy in my mind, because I’m really not sure why I first thought of it. Maybe it was the fact that so very many of my favorite Saints were Italian–and many of our favorite Saint movies are Italian (and must be watched in Italian; one, because the English dubbing is terrible, and two, because Italian is just an awesome language)–maybe because I like Italian names–or I just thought it would be a romantic setting. And then there was time period. . .it didn’t take long to decide that, to be as modern as possible while still having the TLM, it would be set in 1960. Done.
It was during the first weeks of Lent this year–I was actually fasting that memorable day–when, exasperated after browsing through all my other writing projects and ideas, I opened up a fresh document on my old laptop, (said a prayer, I hope; I can’t really remember!), and began writing what is now the first scene of Paint Everything Blue. And as I said before, it just came out. And I loved it. It was alive–the characters were alive in my head, with voices and movement and light in their eyes–and it was so easy for me to make it so very Catholic.
Thing No. 2: I should never have been afraid of “using my writing as a soapbox” for the Faith. If the most important part of my life–my Life itself, in fact–is not the most important part of my story, then what’s the point?
I began flipping through a thick volume we have, a character naming sourcebook for writers, and found the Italian section. Beautiful names popped out at me everywhere. Alfonso was a no-brainer; Evalina, Gianna, Paolo. But what about my main character?
Carlo. There was a significant reason behind that choice; a lot of Carlo Acutis (whom I posted about here) went into Carlo Mannarini; and so it only seemed right that they should share a name.
So the first scene sprouted; and then another. And another. I don’t guess I expected it to last much longer than any other sudden writing inspiration ever had before it died out. But then came my sisters.
Thing No. 3: I need encouragement. And they provided it. From the start, my two sisters have been my readers and editors, and their enthusiasm and love for the story, as well as their occasional criticisms, have been indispensable. Especially in writing the very last scene. As I mentioned before, it took a few tries to get it right. And a lot of critique. And, I will admit, some tears (yes, I’m such a melancholic!). And patience. And more critique. But it was so worth it. They never stopped loving the story, and made me love it more than I ever could have alone. So thank you girls!!!
And then came Scrivener. I am the biggest fan ever of this software. It provides just the right amount of organization. It’s snazzy. You can have each scene as its own file (with its own name! So fun!) and view them individually, or with a bird’s eye view, or just view the story as a whole. You can have files for each of your characters, with pictures (best part!!!). Being able to have Scrivener as my writing zone limited distractions; being able to see my whole story at a glance, and at the same time to break it down scene-by-scene, for some reason was extraordinarily helpful. So yes, that was the best money Mary ever spent on something I’ve probably used much more than she has!
Scrivener really enabled me to take off with scene after scene, developing gradually the six points of view that make up my story. No, Carlo doesn’t have his own. I have to give credit to Mary for that immensely important innovation; I think I could very easily have killed this story by giving him a point of view. Once steered away from that danger, the story concept took its shape as a mosaic of different characters who are all affected in one way or another, and connected, by Carlo. Also to Mary belongs credit for the (I think amazing) title of Paint Everything Blue. I sort of stole it from a song she wrote inspired by the story. I know. Could it get any better than to have a super-talented songwriter for a sister, and one who claims to love your story more than you do and writes songs for you?
So yes, it was growing. And I was having a ball writing it. It felt like no other project had; again, it was just so Catholic. Themes and events took shape as the characters did, even though there were times I nearly plotted them to death.
Thing No. 4 (and possibly most significant): I am a complete pantser. In writer terminology, this means that instead of being a “plotter”–someone who meticulously outlines and structures and plots and plans their story before setting pen to paper–I “fly by the seat of my pants” through the first draft of my story, coming up with and solidifying the plot as I go. This was such a wonderful thing to finally see in my writing personality. Plotting sterilizes and kills my inspiration; it takes away the sense of adventure, the reliance on instinct, that makes writing so fun for me. I feel that my best and most exciting ideas came to me while I was writing, or just dreaming in an abstract way about the story. Yes, I pretty much always knew the concept of the story; the beginning and end at least for Carlo; but honestly (and this does sound a bit scary), I usually didn’t know exactly how I was going to fix some of the messes my characters made for themselves, or how exactly I was going to heal their deepest wounds. Including the resolution of my most major point of view in the very last scene (which is probably why it took so many takes!). But that’s just how I roll. And it took trust–trust that, if, as I strongly suspected, Our Lady wanted this story to come to completion, and to end a certain way, she would guide me there. And I strongly suspect that she did.
In building my characters for stories, it’s always helped me to choose actors (or sometimes people I know) for each of them; sometimes more for the sound of their voices than anything else. Maybe it’s a weakness in my imagination; but, seeing as I’m not God and can’t create a character with the utter complexity and beauty He puts into each one of us, I find it very helpful to my own characters to put the faces and voices, stature and expression of a real person to each of them.
So yes, a lot of awesome Italian (or passable-for-Italian) actors from Saint movies went into the making of this book.
And then you must have music. Or at least I must have. I needed a soundtrack, and it seems really fitting to me now that the soundtrack for the movie Therese happened to be it. I really did steal that soundtrack, to the point that the next time I watch the movie I’ll probably be completely distracted imagining the parts of my story I fit the songs to. In the same wise, the last time I was watching Don Bosco, I really felt as though I was watching all of my characters acting in a movie. I know, I’m crazy. . .But yes, Therese captured so beautifully the different themes of my story; which isn’t really surprising considering how her spirituality and parts of her life infiltrated it. And that I finished it on her feast day; one of the beautiful roses she obtained for me, along with my Lily.
Above is a peek at my Windows Media Player playlist; mostly songs from Therese that I renamed for my own purposes, as well as some Jon Foreman, Switchfoot, and For King and Country. Awesome stuff. I’ve listened to this playlist so many times that I’m pretty sure I’ve made everyone in the house sick of these songs. . .although Mary generously protests otherwise. I’m still not sick of it. It was so much fun renaming songs and applying themes to different characters and scenes. Also inspiring were Voces8’s Second Eve (from which the title of my blog came) and Steal Away, although for some reason I never got around to putting them on the playlist.
My original goal was to finish the story in six months, which technically would have been at the beginning of September. I feel pretty proud that I was only a month late! Seriously, though, I am certain that it was meant to happen on St. Therese’s feast day, no sooner. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So yes; for seven months, and especially in the months since my graduation, my imagination has been consumed by Paint Everything Blue, by Italian voices and coffee shops and churches and alleyways. I can’t begin to describe how perfect God’s timing is; it’s as though He wanted me to finish this project before distracting me; but as soon as I had, He gave me this Lily, which is now largely consuming my thought. (By the way, I’m meeting with my spiritual director tonight to begin this journey anew under his guidance. If you would say a prayer for me, that would be great!)
As of now, I’ve submitted my first draft to a few friends and to my parents for their reading and thoughts; so far the report has been largely encouraging, with really only a couple of helpful thoughts (like the fact that the name Michele, Michael in Italian, looks too much like Michelle, and is thus confusing. So, with a few sniffs, I’ve changed Michele to Matteo. Which I also love). I hope to self-publish soon with Lulu (whose work we’ve been happily satisfied with in the past) in order to give copies to friends; after that, I’m not sure where it will go. I hope to research different Catholic publishing companies; but, as it has been from the start, this story is Our Lady’s, and whatever she wants to use it for is fine with me!
So there you have it: probably more than you ever wanted to know about my writing life and the making of Paint Everything Blue. Happy feast of St. Hedwig!
“Listen and keep in your heart, my littlest son:
There is nothing for you to fear, let nothing afflict you.
Let not your face or your heart be worried.
Do not fear this sickness or any other illness.
Am I not here, I whom am your mother?
Are you not in my shadow, under my protection?
Am I not the fountain of your joy?
Are you not in the fold of my mantle, in my crossed arms?
Is there anything else you need?”
-Our Lady of Guadalupe
(This quote is so special to me, for manifold reasons, and has been the inspiration for the main theme of my story for a long time–thus I quoted it on my dedication page.)
God bless you!