Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Life Imitating Art Imitating Life

by Susan McBride

As of 2011, I've reached 12 years as a published author, and I must say my career has been anything but boring. I started out writing mystery series before trying my hand at a non-mystery young adult series. Then I was offered the chance to do a women’s fiction stand-alone, THE COUGAR CLUB, which came out last year. I loved the freedom of writing a novel that wasn’t meant to lead into a second book and then a third. It was great knowing I could leave my three forty-five-year-old “Cougars” and move on once I’d gotten them to a pretty happy place (or at least a better place than they were in when the book started). It’s funny, though, how many people thought it was the start of a series with more to come. I’m not sure if my history as a series writer caused them to assume that or if it was the ending, which leaves a few unanswered questions, mostly in the vein of, “Will she or won’t she?”

I have trouble wrapping up a story so completely that there's no room to wonder. Isn’t that what makes real life so interesting: not knowing what each day will bring? For me, it’s the same with my novels. I know the characters will live and grow beyond the time I spend with them…unless I decide to blow them all up, which I’ve yet to do (but I have been tempted).

After COUGAR, I knew I wanted to write another women’s fic book, and I had an idea about a grown-up SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS (well, sort of). It involved a black dress that was worn by three different women, and it fit them all, no matter that they were different sizes. And it had an indelible impact on all of their lives. Although when I presented my first one-page synopsis to my agents, they were hardly bowled over. “Um, this isn’t it,” I remember them saying. “So take that premise and try again.”

I’m not sure what happened—or how—but it was likely in the shower or on the treadmill (two of my best idea places) when I realized what LITTLE BLACK DRESS was really about: two sisters from a generation back and the magical black dress one of them buys at a vintage shop the day before her wedding. She wears it that night and has a vision of her future that doesn’t involve the man she’s about to marry. She disappears to avoid marrying the wrong guy and she doesn’t come back for years, leaving her sister behind to pick up the pieces…and to discover for herself the secret of the little black dress (which she does, in spades).

When I sent this revised synopsis back to my agents, they were excited. “Yes, this is it! More please!” they said, and so I keep thinking and dreaming and writing. Pretty soon, I had a three page summary and 50 sample pages with the POV alternating between Evie, the “responsible” sister who must deal with Anna—her younger sibling—running off and leaving her behind, and Toni, Evie’s daughter, who’s made a life for herself in St. Louis but must return to her small Missouri town when her mom has a stroke. In the process of being home again, Toni has to confront her own past and all the skeletons buried in the closets of the old Victorian. What Toni discovers about Evie and Anna--and herself--is beyond surprising.

I had no idea when I embarked upon this multigenerational tale that I would feel such an emotional pull. Normally, when I write, I’m in such a zone that I don’t feel anything but eager. I don’t cry when my characters cry. I don’t laugh when they laugh. Okay, most of the time I don’t. But with LITTLE BLACK DRESS, I found myself gut-wrenched by the emotional scenes; maybe because so much was going on in my life in 2010 as I wrote it, like putting on a breast cancer fundraiser (I’m a survivor) and having my mom show up on my doorstep a week before the event saying, “I have breast cancer.” My reaction, "You're kidding, right?" She’s doing GREAT, thank heavens, as it was caught very early but it freaked me out just the same.

As if that wasn't enough, one of our cats got deathly ill and nearly died. She spent two days in the emergency vet hospital and underwent tons of tests and a blood transfusion then required twice a day meds and weekly vet visits for two and a half months. Since our three cats are like our children, Ed and I lived on pins and needles until we knew Blue would be okay.

It’s no wonder I felt drained while working on LBD, and I recall feeling particular angst while writing a scene with Evie suffering a miscarriage. I had never been pregnant so I could only imagine the devastation at losing a baby and the toll it takes on someone mentally and physically. I was weeping as I got through it. It was only after I turned the manuscript in before Thanksgiving that I found out I was about four weeks pregnant. Oh, boy, that explained a lot! Ed and I were over the moon.

Unfortunately, I miscarried on New Year’s weekend (yeah, Happy New Year!). I had to revise the book—and tweak the miscarriage scene—barely three weeks after. It broke my heart a second time, but maybe in some way it helped me get through it. Writing is like that for me, it’s my personal therapy and maybe why my characters endure so much; because I can work through my own heartache through them.

It's strange when life imitates art when it's usually art imitating life. Although I tell myself that everything I do is purely made up, I realize pieces of me seep in, no matter how hard I try to keep myself out of it. Still, all of our experiences shape us in various ways, hopefully making us more empathetic people and better writers, too. Every hardship or devastation or brilliantly happy moment lends itself to stronger characters and a more believable story. It makes me feel good to think so anyway!

Susan McBride is the author of Little Black Dress coming out as a William Morrow trade paperback in September (yes, the date was just moved up from December!). She has also written The Cougar Club, a Target Bookmarked Breakout Title and a Midwest Connections Pick, as well as five Debutante Dropout Mysteries and several "Debs" young adult books. For more scoop, visit SusanMcBride.com.


  1. Oh, Susan, I had no idea one of your characters suffered through a miscarriage in LBD...I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to revise that scene later {{hug}}. You are such an incredible person. And you're also so right -- parts of ourselves seep into every story...the experiences sometimes, the emotion other times. I think that's the way readers can tell we're speaking the truth. Yes, what we write is technically fiction, but many times characters in a novel have seemed more real to me than people with a pulse. I have no doubt the characters you've created in LBD will be very much alive. I cannot wait to meet them ;).

  2. Can't wait to read LBD, and see the cover. It will be a book I'll make time to read no matter what my future military life will be like and no matter how crazy...er my life gets. :)

  3. What a beautiful, candid post that captures so much of what it means to be a writer. Thank you for this, Susan!

    Can't wait to read LBD!!!!

  4. Susan,

    You have had quite a year. Sorry about all the setbacks. Your description of LBD sounds compelling. I'm also looking forward to reading it.

  5. Can I just tell all of you--LBD is amazing! I'm lucky enough to be reading a draft . . . opened it yesterday after lunch and then, all of a sudden it was time to start dinner. And when I woke up this morning, I thought, "Yes! I get to see what happens next."

    Susan, you write so beautifully and honestly in this post about what it was like to write this book and all of that emotion and love and heartbreak are woven through the words of your book.

  6. Marilyn, you were such a great support through so much of what I went through last fall that I can't thank you enough! I know I kept saying it all felt surreal (my life more than the book!). But it seems like we always manage to muddle through the worst stuff, and it certainly helps to have good friends around us (like you, my '80s music loving comrade!)! It's been awesome doing this blog, too, and meeting so many wonderful, wonderful women. I have made new great friends because of it, and my life is richer for it (so thanks again, Ms. Karin, for letting me in!). :-)

    Jessica! It's awesome to see you here! I can't wait for you to read LBD, too, as you were such a huge cheerleader of mine for The Cougar Club. You're joining the military? OMG, they are lucky to get you! You have so much to offer the world (and someday that's going to translate into a most amazing book!). Keep me posted, please! Sending you a hug!

    Ellen, thanks so much! You didn't know it, but you were part of my getting over things because I read the ARC of THE OTHER LIFE during my crazy winter, and the storyline of Quinn's pregnancy touched so many chords in me! Needless to say, I wept, but it was good to get the tears out and the end of TOL made me smile, which was a very good thing. :-) P.S. I hope you get to read Little Black Dress very soon, too!!!

    Karin, when you asked us to write about highs and lows, I went, "Oh, boy, I've had plenty of those just in the last six months!" But, man, I'm always glad to have books to write when going through drama. I had two deadlines during my boob stuff, and I tell people it saved me. Nothing like escaping into our fiction when real life gets gnarly. At least we can control those worlds, eh?

    Judy!!! (Who got to watch me weep through lunch not long after my poopy New Year!) You are making my day saying those lovely things! I am beyond thrilled you're reading LBD and enjoying it! It's such a different step for me that I feel like I'm mentally gnawing my nails everyday, wondering what people will think. You are a good pal to take the time to do this! And I can't wait for our next lunch! Woo hoo!

  7. Hi Susan--so sorry to hear about the rough times during the last few months. I think you're right about bits of ourselves and our experiences working their way into our writing--the high notes and the low notes.

    Looking forward to Little Black Dress!

  8. Hi, Sara! I'm not sure how any fiction writer could keep from weaving a little of herself into a story. It just happens sometimes, whether we mean it to or not. I'm looking forward to LBD, too! Thanks! It holds a special place in my heart. :-)

  9. Oh, Susan, I'm so sorry to hear about all you went through.

    So, so interesting to hear about your process with the proposal for LBD-- the shower and the treadmill are two of my good thinking places, too! Can't wait to check out LBD!!

  10. Susan, You are so very strong to go through all you've been through and keep on truckin'. (Is that close enough to 80s music?) By striving to survive your ordeals and continuing to write through them, you became stronger and so did your book and your characters.

    I must say how sad I am that you had a miscarriage on New Years. How awful and experience and how awful the timing. Yet you still took that experience and turned into a positive learning experience.

    Susan, you rock!

    Sandie Herron

  11. Wow what a year. And what a candid, emotionally raw post. Thank you for that! I've got TOL on my TBR stack and a looking forward to LBD!

    ps: my mom and I are also breast cancer survivers. Thaa is if taking proactive whacking on a precancerous spot is "surviving".

  12. Brenda, it was a very crazy fall and winter to say the least! I'm hoping 2011 is a lot calmer and without any major crises. So you're a shower and treadmill thinker, too! I figured I was not alone. ;-)

    Sandie, thank you for being one of my cheerleaders through the years! (And for remembering my anniversary and sending a card!)

    Amy, yay for survivors! And good for you, getting something precancerous whacked out. If I've learned anything from my experience (my mom and I both had lumpectomies and radiation therapy), it's that you can never be too vigilant or too concerned. I urge women to see their doctors if something doesn't feel right, since that's how I found mine after a negative mammogram (yeah, sometimes our gut works even better than technology!). Hey, enjoy reading Ellen's THE OTHER LIFE...it's a page-turner!

  13. Your story moved me to tears. Congratulations on all your success.

  14. Susan, I almost don't know what to say. Those revisions must have been so painful for you. I want to pull you through the computer screen and give you a big hug. ((())) There, just did it:)

    I'm so excited about Little Black Dress! The premise sounds intriguing. September can't come soon enough!

  15. Thanks for sharing all your emotion and experience that goes into writing. I'm sorry for your loss and admire (as others have said) how you keep going.

    I look forward to reading Little Back Dress.

    It is amazing how often life imitates art. Many times I find myself saying "i just want to remind you I wrote that BEFORE you told me this story" when situations mimic words I have written.

  16. Great post, Susan. I just bought a copy of The Cougar Club this past weekend along with six other books by sisters GBCers!

  17. Oh, Paulita! You are so sweet. And thanks for your good wishes. :-)

    Maria, all of a sudden, I saw these arms reaching through my monitor and then I felt a big hug! Now I know why. ;-) Thank you for being such a kind-hearted friend (who writes such good books!).

    Ariella, I've told my husband that I think I've crammed enough drama into the last four or five years to last a lifetime! I'm hoping that means I'll have five years of peace and quiet. ;-) I love that people comment on your books and think you used a story, when it's something you made up that happened later in real life. That's a strange feeling, isn't it? But kind of cool!

    Lauren, thanks! Oh, I hope you enjoy Cougar (and know that it's not nearly as cheesy as it sounds!). ;-) I've got a big stack of books that I'm diving into since I finished revisions...and more than a few GBCers are in my pile, too. What a talented group!