As a writer, I’m used to surprises. Characters suddenly piping up with new tangents don’t freak me out anymore. New plot twists, subplots, or taking out something that just doesn’t work isn’t new. Still, it seemed that In the Red was a title that was determined to throw every single curve ball that it could in my direction.
From the start it combined my love of fairy tales, my love of rock music, and my love of the Midwest (though the characters perceive don’t exactly appreciate that last one).Originally it was a much (much, much) shorter piece, more of a narrative, and more of a “punch line” story, where the ending was a shock and the rest was buildup. It would have been right at home on a new style of Twilight Zone, and it wasn’t a bad short story. I got a lot of decent feedback on it, but still, something bothered me about it. I adapted it and worked with it off and on for eight years, putting it away, pulling it out, making it shorter, making it longer, and just trying to figure out what it needed.
And suddenly, at the eleventh hour, I knew. I don’t even remember what spawned this sudden epiphany, but I was chilling out one evening, rereading one of the shorter versions, and suddenly realized that there was more story to tell – a hell of a lot more story, in fact. I didn’t realize it at the time; I assumed it would be a novella, maybe a short novel. It definitely had plans for me, though, because it kept going, and going and going…I began to wonder if I was at the mercy of my imagination, being dragged along by my ideas for the ride. At the end of the day, though, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It had to be this way. I didn’t have it in me to give Jeremiah (my lead character) his original fate. He had a lot more growing to do, and he deserved to be given the time to do it. The other characters, too, had a lot of surprises up their sleeves. His sister, Daniella, evolved from a single reference to an important character. Jeremiah’s wife grew important enough to warrant a grisly little scene of her own that to this day makes me shudder and makes me feel sorry for her.
All of the supporting characters that I had swept aside before had something to say, and longings of their own. While they don’t all go through their own character arcs, you get glimpses into their lives, former lives, and own personal hells. Even Jack Scratch, that shadowy, ruthless manager, has his moments. That was what was fascinating to me. When I took my time and gathered the courage to add in the sleazy moments, the painful moments, the slow and fumbling moments, it made me look at nearly every character in a whole other light. I had a definite plot in mind, but the twists and turns the book took towards getting there definitely made it a better work. I’ll go out on a limb and say I needed that time, too. I needed the time to gain confidence in my skills as a writer, time to get over my trepidation about people I know reading some of the scenes, and time to really get to know and appreciate my motley cast of characters for who they really are and what they had to go through.
I had to decide what I’d be willing to trade for if it was me in Jeremiah’s place. I had to remember my frustrations and loves of small town life so I could reflect it through his eyes. I had to decide what I would do if knocked to my knees and faced with the long climb back up. I had to decide what the people in my life meant to me so that I had some sort of comparison of his feelings. We’re very different personalities, but in a lot of ways I had to really get in touch with myself so I could understand Jeremiah’s conflicting viewpoints. I go around these days asking readers “Are you in?” but really, that’s exactly what I had to ask myself as I was writing it. Before I could toss around a clever tagline, I had to take a deep breath and forced myself to slow down as I expanded, polished, edited, and re-edited. I had to gather my courage and my personal feelings and jump right in.
~ Selah Janel
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