A Penny on the Tracks

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It is a program that challenges writers to complete a 50,000 word novel in one month — 50,000 words in 30 days.  If it sounds insane, that’s because it is, but I’m sure I saw a quote somewhere from Stephen King stating that a writer should be able to finish a first draft in 30 days.

I have never finished a first draft in 30 days — not even a first draft of a 15,000 word short story I recently wrote. That tale took me two months to complete.

 

For four straight years, I have promised myself I’d take part in this challenge, and for the fourth November in a row, I backed out before I even began.  I’m not against pushing myself as a writer. I think this is a great motivator for people to actually finish writing a book because so many books are left unwritten because, well, writing is hard.

So, if this gets writers to stay in their seats and write, great. But I don’t approach writing with a word count. I really hate getting caught up in counting words, which is probably why I have not been motivated to take a shot at this challenge. I shut the word count feature off on my computer so that I can’t see the number as I write.

When I sit down to write, I tell myself, “Alicia, write one good, solid scene.” My hope is that I come up with a page or two of dialogue or prose that either advances the plot or develops the characters, basically anything that moves the story along.

I’m currently writing a book about a teenage girl in the 1950’s called, Annabel. Even if I wanted to compete in this NaNo challenge, I’m too far along in this story (about 250 pages, don’t ask me the word count, because I don’t know) to even attempt to write a thousand-plus words a day. I’m mostly in the “fill-in-the-blanks” part of the writing process.

My YA book, A Penny on the Tracks, will be released tomorrow. It is a 75,000 word novel that took me about a year to complete. I couldn’t tell you how long I had been working on the book before I finally had a first draft completed, but I can tell you there were a ton of revisions. An absolute ton.

But in the end, I came up with a story that I’m very proud of and was totally worth the many frustrating late nights I spent writing it.

Here is an excerpt from my coming-of-age book about life, love, and friendship:

I was making our favorite sandwich—bologna, lettuce, and cheese smeared with mustard and mayo on white bread—when Abbey called for me from the living room.
“Lyssa! Hurry up! Poison’s on!”

The sandwiches lay on the counter amid a mess of open condiment jars and scattered pieces of lettuce and lunch meat. I quickly smashed the top slices of bread onto both sandwiches against the piled-stack of a sloppy mess I had created and hurried into the next room, dropping bits of food as I ran.

Abbey was standing on the couch, shouting out the lyrics we both knew by heart as Brett Michaels’ voice filled the room. I handed her a sandwich, jumped on the couch, and screamed out the chorus to “Talk Dirty to Me.”  I took bites of my sandwich during the guitar solo, and Abbey held her sandwich high in her left hand, as though it were the end of a guitar, and strummed her right hand against the front of her shirt. We banged our heads in unison, hair (and food) flying everywhere.

Abbey’s house had a bigger TV and better food options than bologna and cheese sandwiches, but we never could have done what we were doing right then if we were at her house. Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” came on next, and we both lost our minds.

We dropped what was left of our food onto the table and yelled out the lyrics to our favorite song. Abbey sang the song with more conviction, as though she had a lot more that she didn’t want to take anymore.

The video ended, and we both collapsed onto the couch and finished our lunch. After, I went into the kitchen and grabbed a couple cans of pop from the fridge. Hanging on a magnet, on the side of the refrigerator, was a note from my mom reminding me she was working late that night and that there were frozen dinners in the freezer. At the end of the note she promised a home-cooked meal soon.

Abbey was often envious of the lack of parental supervision at my place, especially when it came to dinner. She was jealous I got to eat whatever I wanted. Even if my mom left dinner for me in the fridge, if I wanted to eat S’mores for supper, I ate S’mores.

“You eat dinner on the couch while watching TV?” Abbey had asked me one day.

“If I feel like it,” I answered.

“You’re so lucky. My mom makes me eat with her at the table, even if my dad isn’t home yet. And I can’t even put my elbows on the table.” 

I ate on the couch while watching TV because my friend didn’t know the loneliness that crept inside a person while eating dinner among empty chairs.

But I had forced a smile. “Yep. I am lucky.”

I walked back into the living room and handed one of the cans to Abbey. Abbey didn’t take it.

“My mom said I drink too much pop.”

“Your mom’s not fucking here.”

Abbey smiled and grabbed the can from my hand. About eight videos later and a sore neck from head banging, Abbey had to go home.

I walked her to the door. “Let’s ride our bikes tomorrow.”

“Where to?”

“I don’t know. Somewhere far.”

“Last time we did that we were almost too tired to ride back,” she reminded me.

“That was because of the wind,” I explained. “It was blowing against us on our way back.”

Abbey considered this. “Okay. If it’s not very windy tomorrow, we’ll ride our bikes far.

 

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A Penny on the Tracks

 

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Getting the Title Right

My new publisher and I are in the beginning stages of creating a cover for my new book, A Penny on the Tracks. The expected release date is October of this year. A Penny breaks away from the romance-themed kind of story my first two books were categorized. A Penny on the Tracks is a Young Adult book  that revolves around the friendship of two eleven-year-old girls and into their teenage years.

A Penny started out as a short story I had written in a Creative Writing course in college almost nineteen years ago.  The story then was called The Hideout, and until about the halfway point of revising this short story into a 75,000 word novel, that title remained. I was writing a scene of one of the young girls, Lyssa, placing pennies on a set of railway tracks they hang out at all the time, and the title just popped out at me.

It was so obvious I’m not sure why I had ever considered another title because placing pennies on the tracks becomes a symbolic part of the story. I am sure I had originally selected The Hideout as the title of my then short story because the place where the tracks lay is a spot Lyssa and Abbey spend a lot of time at and refer to it as their “Hideout” because aside from a high school boy they befriend there, they’ve never seen anyone else at their secret place.

So this space does feel like their very own hideout, but the scene is so much more than that. Those grounds will be the place two characters of the book will choose to end their lives. I’ve only felt this good about the choice of my book title once before; when I felt the title really matched the story.

I’m not sure how much other authors struggle with titles, but I usually have a hard time deciding on one. So I am delighted when a title pops out at me, especially  while in the middle of writing a scene.

Although my publisher and I have yet to go through the editing process, here is an (unedited) excerpt from my upcoming book, A Penny on Tracks:

I balanced the weight of my body on my back foot and dug the heel of my high-top sneakers deep into the thick gravel. I wound my arm like a major league pitcher, and with all my strength, I launched a rock, almost the size of my head, at a passing train. The rock landed against the moving steel, and the cargo it carried, with a loud thud.

“Damn it!” I slapped my hand against my thigh. “I wanted to smash the glass.”

I quickly turned to search the brush for a rock as good as the one I’d just wasted a terrible throw on and noticed Abbey was still holding her own rocks tightly in her hands.

 “How come you didn’t throw yours yet? Throw em’ before the train’s gone.” I moved to continue my hunt, but then looked back at her and added, “And aim for the windshield!”

“I can’t,” Abbey said.

“Then aim for whatever you want.”

“No, I mean I can’t throw it.”

“Yes, you can.”

“No I can’t,” she insisted.

“Just do it!” I yelled.

“But I don’t want to!”

I peeked down the tracks, checking if the train was near the end. It wasn’t. We still had time, but not much. “Hurry up and throw it!”

I watched Abbey hesitate while gripping two medium-sized rocks in each hand. She moved a couple steps closer to the passing train, and chucked the rocks, one at time, at the cars mounted onto the train.

I cheered loudly after one of the rocks hit its target with a loud crash. “Did you hear that?” I yelled.

I looked down the track again, but this time, I could see the caboose. The train was coming to an end. “Come on! Let’s hide in the woods so no one sees us.”

We squatted near the edge of the grass, just inside the woods, behind a thick tree trunk.

“That was a bad idea,” Abbey said. “We shouldn’t have done that.”

I laughed and told her to shut up. “It was fun.”

Once the train passed, we popped out of the woods and watched as it disappeared down the tracks.

“How come you always make us hide at the end?” Abbey asked me.

“In case someone’s in the caboose and…”

“Unloads a salt gun on your asses,” a voice behind us finished.

I turned around and saw Derek standing near the brush, a cigarette dangling loosely from his lips. His faded blue jeans were torn at the knees and a black Led Zeppelin T-shirt, underneath a worn jean jacket, tugged against his lean waist.

“Don’t even get her started,” I warned him. “No one’s gonna unload a salt gun on our asses. They don’t even have a salt gun.”

“Then why do we run?” Abbey asked.

“Like I was saying before I was interrupted,” I paused and gave Derek a hard look. “In case someone’s in the caboose and gets a good look at us.”

“A good enough look to shoot your asses full of salt, you mean.” Derek smirked at me.

“See!” Abbey threw her arms in the air. “It’s true! That guy really does have a salt gun, doesn’t he, Derek?”

Derek pushed a strand of his long tangled brown hair away from his eyes and sat atop a large rock. He leaned his elbows against his knees, his skinny body crouching forward. “It’s what I heard,” he said. “But keep it up and soon you’ll know for yourself.”

“Shut your trap, Derek.” I pointed my finger at him.

Abbey shook her head. “I’m not doing this anymore.”

“Don’t listen to him. Does he look like he knows anything?” I argued.

“Then don’t listen to me.” Derek took a long drag off his cigarette and let out a deep exhale of smoke. Off to the side, near his feet, a dirty black and white bandanna lay in a twisted mess across the gravel. I recognized it as one that Derek used to wear. The old bandana must have slipped from his back pocket one day and he never bothered to pick it up. “Get hit with rock salt,” he continued, “and feel the burn when that shit tears into your flesh.”

“Shut up!” I rushed at him, but he dodged my efforts to grab him.

“That’s it,” Abbey said, determined. “We are definitely not doing this again.”

I watched Derek flick his cigarette in the direction of the tracks.

“Are you happy now, Asshole?” I asked him.

“Nice little girls aren’t supposed to talk like that, or throw rocks at trains,” he said.

 I sat down on one of the rails of the track. “I’m not nice.”

“No, you aren’t.” Derek laughed.

“And I’m not little,” Abbey said, even though she was.

 

Thanks for reading.  Please check out my books, Her Name and Loving Again, available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords.

 

https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=Alicia+joseph

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Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

A Writer in Need

I’m currently in the midst of writing a story which I had planned on being completed by the end of this month. I don’t feel confident that will happen. This is not an unusual place for me to be, struggling to finish a manuscript. I love writing, but there are moments I really hate it, too.

I sent the first hundred pages of my new story to a trusted friend who reads all of my work. She is honest. There is no blowing smoke anywhere with this woman. If something she reads is shit, she tells me it is shit.  I appreciate that about her. She’s a strong reader even though she hates to read, but she knows when a story works and when it doesn’t.

I believe she is the reason I received my latest book contract last September for the story, A Penny on the Tracks, coming out this October. When I was finished with the third draft for A Penny, I had sent the MS to her and she texted me after reading a couple chapters asking what the heck the story was about. “Where is this going?” she had asked. “I’m tired of reading about a day in the life of Lyssa and Abbey.”

It was a bit of a crushing text because by the time I had gotten to multiple drafts of the story, I had almost a year invested into the story. Now, she wasn’t telling me the story was exactly shit. She had thrown in a couple positive texts, too. She liked the writing, but the story lacked any strong direction for the reader.

Before I had given my friend the MS to read, I told her very little about the story. A Penny on the Tracks is a coming-of-age story about two young girls who find a secret hiding place in a field, near a set of train tracks, that they refer to as their “Hideout.”  They spend a summer at this secret places and take on fun adventures. They meet a high school boy there and forge a friendship with him.

The first half of the story centered around showing the girls’ daily activities, allowing the reader to get to know the characters and their friendship. The story was leading up to the deaths of Abbey and the high school boy, Derek, but I had originally written the story to not reveal their deaths until it happens.

After my friend questioned me where the story was headed, basically, what the point of the story was, I knew I had to change something. I went to bed that night a little bummed out because I already had the story written. The plot revolved around showing the path to the deaths (suicides) of these two characters.

Suddenly, I had jumped out of bed knowing exactly what I needed to do. To make the story more interesting, to give the reader the direction the story apparently lacked, I had to reveal the deaths of Abbey and Derek first. It was a two o’clock in the morning revelation that seemed so obvious I couldn’t believe I had written the story any other way.

So a story that had originally began set in 1986 with the girls being 11 years old, now begins with a Prologue set in 1993. The girls are eighteen year old, the age Abbey kills herself. The book opens with the news about Abbey’s death before the reader even knows a thing about her, other than the fact that she kills herself.

Now I have the reader’s attention.

Chapter One opens in 1986, the girls are 11. Now, there is some direction in the “day in the life of Lyssa and Abbey” scenes because the reader is now reading towards something, unlike before.

Telling the reader the fate of not one, but two, characters in the book increased their curiosity and interest in the story by giving them a reason to want to turn the page. To want to read more.

When my friend had expressed her dissatisfaction with my original story only a few chapters in, I had told her to stop reading it. Put it away. That was when I went to bed that night and realized what I needed to do. After I changed the story and sent her the revised version, it had made all the difference.  A couple chapters in, she texted me that she couldn’t wait to find out the reason Abbey and Derek both killed themselves and had spent most of the book guessing.

I am certain that had I sent my book to the selected publisher, the way it was originally written, I would not have been offered a contract. No way. Publishers are busy. They wouldn’t have wasted their time reading a story that seemed to be going nowhere.

My friend saved my previous book and now that I have sent her a large portion of my current story, I know am I asking her to save this one, too. I need her to lead me down the right path because I fear I have lost my direction with a story I’ve already spent six months writing.

 

 

Hopefully every writer has a friend like her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Penny on the Tracks

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I’m close to finishing my latest novel, A Penny on the Tracks, a coming of age story about  friendship, family, love and loss. The story centers around two eleven-year old girls who discover a place hidden in a remote area not far from where they live. They call this place their “Hideout”. Believing the secret spot is known only to them, and the high school boy they meet there named Derek, the girls spend the summer of ’86 sneaking off to their hidden hang out and experience a reality of life that would haunt them forever.

Melancholy at times, A Penny on the Tracktests the resilience of friendships during the threat of betrayal, explores the tumultuous relations of a dysfunctional family shattered to pieces, and shows the desperate limits life can impose on a person struggling for a reason to live.

But through all the heartache portrayed in this story, the book ends with the hopeful sentiment that even in death, a loved one never completely leaves us.

Below is an excerpt of A Penny on the Tracks:

I wasn’t sure who else knew about our Hideout. Aside from Abbey and me, Derek was the only other person I’d ever seen there. But anyone with an interest in exploring deep into the field, behind the big Nabisco building that sat across the street from the park, would have no trouble finding the spot near the railroad tracks we loved so much.

 About a hundred yards beyond the brush lay the tracks and an area covered in gravel, which Abbey and I had declared our spot. It was the place we’d first met Derek, sitting on his rock, smoking his cigarette and, seemingly, deep in thought. But when he looked up and nodded his head nonchalantly at us, and asked, “How’s it going?” I knew he was gonna be cool.

There was a wooded area just east of the tracks, thick with trees and a small creek. Abbey avoided going there as much as she could, but when she did venture into the woods, she never delved as deeply as I did. She preferred staying out in the open field.

Abbey and I didn’t consciously go searching for a place just for us. We were hanging out at the park across from the Nabisco building, and heard the faint sound of a train’s whistle.

We’d been goofing around in the tennis courts, competing against each other over who could hit the ball the farthest over the fence. I had always won, even though I’d let Abbey have the better of the old, worn rackets—the one with the tighter strings.

 She still could barely hit the ball over the fence.

But every time I smacked the ball, it shot off my racket, like a rocket, over the fence. And I’d give my best Tom Hanks impression from the Bachelor Party, imitating his “tennis homeruns” by tossing my racket in the air and cupping my hands around my mouth, producing sounds of exhilarating crowd noises.

Abbey’s lack of ability to hit the ball very far was always the racket’s fault.

“These rackets are old and broken,” she’d say. “Hardly anyone would be able to hit with these rackets.”

“I can,” I’d shoot back with a tight smirk.

She’d tell me to be quiet, and I’d tell her that losers have to fetch the balls.

But Abbey was right. The rackets were in horrible shape. I had found them shoved behind a dusty cabinet one day in my garage. They must have come with the house because my mother didn’t remember buying them.

I’d often wondered how far I could lift a ball through the air if I’d had a real tennis racket, one with all the strings attached. But tennis rackets weren’t in our budget, and I wouldn’t ask my mom for one because I knew it made her feel bad whenever she couldn’t give me something I wanted.  

Even though Abbeys parents could afford new rackets, we both knew her mother would never approve of such a purchase. Her mother didn’t believe girls should play any sports. It was too rough and un-ladylike. At first, I thought she was worried Abbey would get hurt because of her slight stature, but when her complaints about girls playing sports were even extended toward me, with my huskier build, I knew safety wasn’t the reason.

I had skinned my knee pretty badly once playing basketball in my driveway with a couple neighborhood boys, and Abbey’s mom gave me an earful when she saw the cut.

“This is why girls shouldn’t play sports,” she’d said.

“Ah, it’s fine. It doesn’t hurt me any more than it would hurt a boy,” I’d said.

She’d given me a stern glare. “But look at your knee. What boy is going to want to take out a girl with cuts all over her legs? You two better stop playing so rough. Boys don’t like that.”

As much as we hated our rackets, I was sure Abbey knew, like I did, that they were the best we were going to get.

But from the moment we heard the train, and ventured far beyond the Nabisco building and discovered our train, we no longer cared about old, worn tennis rackets.

We had found our Hideout.

 

Thanks for reading!

Please check out my other books, Her Name and Loving Again, available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords.

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=alicia+joseph

 

Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net