The Long and Winding Road to STORM DOG
August 11, 2020
Fledgling authors—young and old—often ask how I came to write certain novels, how to get published, for secrets that will guarantee success. The truth is every writer’s journey is idiosyncratic. I truly have been incredibly lucky in my career, which doesn’t always help provide tangible answers to people looking for defined steppingstones. But what I can provide is a sincere promise that the road is a beautiful one, with many soul-lifting vistas, a few rather awful canyons, but mostly an incredibly rewarding path winding through the most amazing of landscapes— human imagination.
And here’s some reassurance, for those who perhaps are despairing over having to tweak and re-twist a piece—STORM DOG almost died, flawed, rejected, and shoved into a file drawer. Its first version had many good moments, but simply didn’t hang together. For the story to live took revamping the voice; jettisoning one character and replacing her with a new one; eliminating overly ambitious magical-realism (which meant realizing and accepting that I really don't write that kind of narrative very well); killing some darlings inspired by my years of studying Latin and its Roman mythology; and most importantly, the faith of my extraordinary editor, Katherine Tegen.
Let me explain.
STORM DOG is an unusual narrative for me in terms of voice and tone, and not being historical. It’s contemporary, told in first person by a slightly quirky, whip-smart, 14-year-old misfit who finds her self-definition through nature, music, her creativity, and a lost dog. Set in Virginia's Fauquier and Clarke counties—a world I know and love deeply—STORM DOG also explores definitions of beauty and belonging; self-esteem; the push-pull between disparate but neighboring cultures/philosophies; and the poison of stereotypes and xenophobia—told through what I hope is a whimsical and surprising story featuring dog-dancing.
Yes—dog-dancing! And Winchester’s Shenandoah Apple Blossom Parade. In case you don't know dog-dancing—(and few of us do)—here is a video of the latest Crufts winner of "canine free dancing": https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=ARR5DoLXa7w&t=297s as well as some images of the Crufts competition
You can find more about dog dancing on STORM DOG's page: https://www.lmelliott.com/book-landing-page-contemporary/storm-dog
So, from the beginning, I was working with less familiar paints and brushes. (The only other book of mine similar in tone and audience age is FLYING SOUTH, set in 1968.) But I do know to listen to what a story is telling me it wants in terms of format and reader, and the first person voice allowed me to really play up both the offbeat and philosophical in Ariel’s personality and story. Writing her also took me back to some of my first loves—the hills and streams of Virginia, school bands, and the embrace of a dog in need of love. So I had to trust myself—not always easy but critically important for writing. (How can you expect a reader to believe in your story if you don’t?)
BTW, I call myself an accidental novelist. I was a Washington DC-based journalist for 20+ years, covering women’s issues, health, and the arts before taking what I thought would be a side-step into fiction for one specific story—a fictionalization and expansion of my father’s WWII homecoming (Under a War-torn Sky). I’d written an adult non-fiction book on domestic violence and many long, narrative magazine articles (now often called “creative nonfiction”) on topics like sexual assault, child abuse, addiction treatments, etc.. Not exactly a portfolio that screamed YA author in the making! And yet, those years taught me to spot and then report a story, and to adapt its telling to suit the subject. And that served me well in STORM DOG.
For instance: Just as Ariel finds the beginnings of salvation amidst a thunder-rager in the hills that mirrors the tempest within herself, STORM DOG came to me during a maelstrom of my own—in the haze of two surgeries and “blasts” of radioactive iodine to treat thyroid cancer. I opened a National Geographic, and there, to my astonishment and delight, was an article on the magic of dancing, including a photograph of a woman and her golden retriever pirouetting. Now there’s a story! I thought.
In my magazine days, I would have found a trainer/competitor and followed them through creating a routine and then on to a dog show. With a novel, I can incorporate more!
The story’s world and themes can grow layer upon layer, with a little splash of this, a little dab of that. Here are some of them:
My daughter happens to be a champion equestrian, an eventer (a competition with three components—cross-country, stadium jumping, and dressage). In her riding days, I’d trailered her and her horses to many a rally, including dressage, where I’d been blessed to watch musical freestyle dressage—in which young riders coaxed their 1,200-pound steads to float, turn, and sashay under saddle to routines they’d created and rehearsed over and over. So I had witnessed that creativity’s magic, the sense of accomplishment and self-esteem these riders felt in their ability to understand, befriend, and train an animal, and then the truly astounding partnership and symbiosis displayed during the “dance routines” those teenagers had fashioned to match their horse’s individual sensibilities and poetry. Some fun Olympic-level examples, if you're curious: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3uXXW8_NMOs
Anyone who’s had and loved dogs will know from whence Duke came in STORM DOG. Growing up on what had been my grandfather’s dairy farm, I didn’t really have many neighbors, so my dogs became my comrades and confidantes. (See my last blog for more about them: https://www.lmelliott.com/lauras-blog/all-dogs-ive-loved?fbclid=IwAR3umX1lEgprXr5ABanCIK_rw6dO593sZ1XCctzRV8BEF8QuPLGWL0TQeNI)
My next blog will be about the ennobling, the fun, the sense of communion music has always brought me. (And yes, I used to march in my high school band in the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Parade!)
And for Ariel’s sense of salvation in nature, if you need your heart lifted, a reminder of the hint of divine in a catbird’s song or in Spring-beauties’ tiny blossom faces, please come to Sky Meadows State Park. Walk its trails up to the Blue Ridge foothills, gaze back over a bitty little village tucked in a crook of rolling green called Paris and perhaps, if you reach the top, take a moment to contemplate the shimmering Shenandoah River sliding its way through the Valley.
And as for the mess and angst of rewriting.....This is another example of the influences of past experiences and friendships seeping into a piece of fiction. Originally the role Sergeant Josie plays as friend and mentor in Ariel’s life was occupied by a wildly eccentric, hillbilly-goddess named Birdie. (That was the magical realism part). I was trying way too hard to have her be a soothsayer of sorts, a Delphic oracle even (what can I say, I'm a total nerd about these sorts of things!) Birdie was a mixture of two “maiden-ladies”—as elderly single women were once called in Virginia—who I knew and loved. One was a State-Department lawyer in the 20s and 30s and my beloved surrogate grandmother. The other was my exacting and slightly terrifying high school Latin teacher. (She once made me play Apollo, saying, “I am Apollo, God of manly beauty” at a Latin Club banquet, which did wonders for my dating status.) I was highly amused by Birdie, the fusion of these two formidable ladies, but no one else seemed to be! So, after a long break from the manuscript that gave me clearer, impartial eyes, I was ready to ditch Birdie. I replaced her with a character that came easily to me, having written several articles about PTSD survivors for the Washingtonian magazine, where I was a senior writer for so many years.
The final step in STORM DOG coming to fruition was bad news, quick regrouping, and having a leftover, unused story I could pull from my pocket. (Journalists call that “saving string”—never throw away a story, a character sketch, or an idea—it just may need to wait for its day to come.) After already doing the research for a new novel and just sitting down to start writing, my publisher had to cancel its contract. A competing novel on the same person had just come out, preempting mine, and its intended market—a readership dubbed “new adult,” 20-somethings who loved YA—had suddenly shrunk. I took a deep breath and asked if I could take another stab at STORM DOG (which was then titled Tempest Baby).
Here is a prime example of how incredibly lucky I am. Katherine thought a moment and then said, “Let’s see what you come up with.” If you find any value in STORM DOG, please know it has everything to do with her adroit editing, and her courageous loyalty to writers she cares about. That’s probably the best piece of advice I can give you: find a gifted editor, HEED what she/he tells you needs to be changed, and then give him/her hosannas of thanks.All in all, it took about ten years for STORM DOG to be born. I hope you enjoy these characters as much as I do! And someday, I promise to find a way to introduce you to Birdie, or a better cousin rendition of her. I just need to find her story.