Thursday, September 30, 2021

Being Fearless with Your Darlings from Heather Levy

Jim here. Today we’re hosting Heather Levy, whose fabulous debut novel, Walking Through Needles, has garnered the highest praise from all sides, including the New York Times, the LA Times, and bestselling author S. A. Cosby.

A spellbinding novel at the nexus of power, desire and abuse that portends a bright future." ―Sarah Weinman, New York Times 

"WALKING THROUGH NEEDLES is a challenging but worthwhile read, a standout for its frank but sensitive exploration of trauma and desire." ―Paula Woods, Los Angeles Times 

“An unflinchingly brutal and beautiful journey through the darkest rivers of desire.” ―S.A. Cosby, bestselling author of Blacktop Wasteland 

We’re thrilled that she’s here with us today to discuss her “darlings,” those bits of writing that authors consider their best. What Heather does here is offer us a remarkable glimpse into one of the most complex creative processes. It’s a brilliant case study. Once you’ve read this post, go buy this book! You will be getting in on the ground floor of a future star of crime fiction.

By Heather Levy

Q: Show us your darlings. Give us five or ten lines of your own work that you think shine.

“Sam twisted her old yellow ducky blanket, the one her grandma said she was swathed in at birth, and wrapped it tight around her throat until she couldn’t breathe.”

This wasn’t always the opening line to my debut dark crime novel Walking Through Needles. In fact, the opening punched me in the face quite a few times over the course of many revisions. It wasn’t until I went through Pitch Wars with my two outstanding mentors, Layne Fargo and Halley Sutton, that I realized I already had the best opening line until I stripped it of any grit. Basically, I was a coward. I was trying to write something I hadn’t seen in an opening line before—a teenage girl masturbating while choking herself—but I was too concerned with not offending readers that I ignored what the story wanted.

For example, this was the original opening when I had submitted for the Pitch Wars mentorship:

“Sixteen-year-olds don’t wear giant pink bows. Sam Mayfair thought everyone knew this, that it was an unequivocal fact her mama was simply ignoring to piss her off.”

See? Not a lot to inspire continued reading, right? So, during a video meeting with Layne and Halley, they had asked me where I thought I needed to start the story. At the time, I wasn’t sure, but my gut said my original draft’s opening line was the right place. After I told them about the masturbation scene, they both gave me a resounding, “Yes! That’s your beginning!” And it ended up being the opening line that survived through more edits and made it to print.

So, why do our darlings sometimes scare the hell out of us? I’ve thought about this a lot as many, including the wonderful S.A. Cosby, called my debut fearless. I didn’t feel fearless, but I did feel uneasy throughout much of the writing process. In fact, drafting this book (not my first) was the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been while writing, and I think I know why. To me, to be fearless is to be fully immersed in a moment without thought of repercussions. 

At the beginning of Walking Through Needles, my 16-year-old protagonist Sam is exploring her budding masochistic sexuality, one of the themes in the book, and she certainly wasn’t thinking a lot about repercussions at her age. To get Sam’s story right, though, I had to live those pleasurable, and sometimes horrific, moments with her. I had to stop thinking like a writer, about what a publisher might think about marketability, of what my family and friends would wonder reading it. I had to be in the moment with my guard down. I had to be my character. And, yes, that also included being my male protagonist, Sam’s stepbrother Eric Walker.

In the following scene, Eric’s visiting (or, rather, trespassing) the property where he used to live for a brief time with Sam and her family after Eric and Sam’s parents jumped into marriage: 

“The mid-afternoon sun made the whitewash appear to glow, reminding him of the church Jeri had forced him to attend, how the Sunday morning sun reached its fingers out from the sides of the building. Each time he approached the barn, his heart sped up with the thought that Sam would be there waiting for him when he entered. The disappointment of knowing he was alone dragged his stomach down to his feet until he felt like he was tripping over memories of her.”

These lines survived through many edits with the addition of three tiny words: “he felt like.” When my editor thought the original last line leaned a bit too purple prose, I had to ask myself if it was worth fighting to keep it. In this case, I compromised my darling by adding those three words. I needed the reader to be in the moment of apprehension and loneliness with Eric, and the line felt too right to completely let it go.

One of my simplest darlings was the hardest to write because it takes place during an assault scene: “His words were a knife wrapped in silk.” Here’s the sentence within the scene for more context:

“He put his mouth to her ear again. ‘Be still.’
She pushed against him as hard as she could, her voice trapped under his fingers. 
‘I don’t want to hurt you, but I will if you make me. Be good.’
She froze. His words were a knife wrapped in silk.”

I needed something short and threatening without surrendering my love of lyricism. Towards the end of the book during a pivotal scene, I decided to fully embrace lyricism, resulting in these darlings I’m proud of:

“Somehow, she smelled cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg. Her grandma’s famous gingerbread cookies, how she used to help roll the dough, not too much flour. Ground mustard, the secret ingredient. Not even her mama knew, but she did. She wanted to hug her grandma and touch her silky gunmetal hair. She wanted to make gingerbread cookies with her again, let the spices warm her tongue, but she could only taste copper bubbling up in her mouth.

She tried to swallow, but the muscles in her throat wouldn’t work. She choked and coughed hard. A thousand bright red dots misted her jeans.” 

Who doesn’t think about cookies as they’re slowly bleeding out? Well, my character did, so that’s what I wrote.

There’s a freedom in writing from the hip, hopeful something magical will hit the target. It doesn’t always work out, as the many darlings I’ve killed can attest, but when it does—whew! And now when I’m feeling fearful during the writing process, I try to relax and remember it’s really fearlessness challenging me to go to unexpected places, no matter how much it may hurt, because reaching for the truth is always worth it.


Catriona McPherson said...

Welcome, Heather. I love what you said here: that it takes a lot of trembling and gathering courage to get to "fearless". Cx

James W. Ziskin said...

Isn’t this a great post? Thank you, Heather! I’ve learned a lot, too. Fearless.


Heather Levy said...

Thank you for this opportunity! Appreciate you all!

Heather Levy said...

Thank you, Jim!

Heather Levy said...

Thank you, Catriona!