The Evolution of Cicada Summer: A guest post by author Kate Constable

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Steph said that she'd be interested to know a little more about why Cicada Summer was such a hard book to write. This is how it came into being:

The very first incarnation of Cicada Summer was begun at the start of 2006. It was called The Summer of Charlotte To Be, and it was the story of a seventeen year old girl who meets a visitation of herself from twenty years in the future. Future Charlotte gives her all kinds of well-meaning advice, from how to cut her hair, to which course to take at uni, but it all goes horribly wrong one day when Future Charlotte appears, no longer confident and successful, but miserable and bitter. Something 17 year old Charlotte has done, or failed to do, that day has changed her whole future. Can she figure out what went wrong and save herself?

I didn't actually get very far with this. The problem was, it was the kind of story that needed to be plotted out to the last detail if it was going to work, and by the time I'd plotted it all out, I was bored with the story and felt as if I'd already written it. There was nothing left to discover, no reason to keep writing. So I abandoned it. Though I still reckon it's a pretty solid idea for a book! I'd love to read it; I just don't want to do the work of writing the damn thing.

(I'd forgotten until today that most of the secondary characters, Charlotte's school friends Iris and Bec and Georgia, reappeared in Always Mackenzie. Nothing wasted!)

But I was still keen to write something with a time-travel theme of some kind. The next version was called Charlotte's House. In this story Charlotte became much younger, a primary school kid, exiled to the country while her mother's ill, who discovers a big old ruined house, and meets the various ghosts (or are they?) who live there. This soon became Hannah's Ghosts, and the background was crowded with the whacky relatives she stays with. In this version, it's Hannah who adores the house on first sight, and her father who feels dubious about its prospects. (In Cicada Summer, their attitudes were reversed.)

I was surprised to see that Hannah and her dad had just returned from PNG, which will be the setting for my next book. That was something that vanished from the final version, too.

Hannah meets several "ghosts" -- an old woman, a middle-aged painter, a young girl, a teenager -- one of whom warns her of danger to her depressed father, and Hannah is just in time to save him. There are several extra sub-plots, involving nasty cousins, nice Muslim neighbours, racist graffiti, a grandmother who's a green activist, painting, ribbons and a wrecked car. At some point Hannah stopped speaking and became mute.

In the course of the next year, Hannah's Ghosts went through five false starts and five full drafts before I took it to my editor. I realised I was trying to cram in far too much stuff for a little book. Every time I sat down to write it, I decided it was about something different, and all these story threads and themes were tangled together in a big messy jumble. Hope, despair, the future, the past, racism, art, secrets, time-travel, family, swimming, gardens, growing up, terrorism, environmentalism, and no real story structure to hold it all together. This was the point where I said, "It's a mess, isn't it," and my editor said, "Yes."

Was it a mystery story (who are the ghosts?) Or a drama about a dysfunctional family? Or a story where Hannah discovers herself? Or a story about the struggle between hope and despair? Was it about inside/outside, water/dryness, speech/silence, past/future, action/passivity? And where was Hannah's mother? I couldn't decide if she'd run away or died, and whether this had happened recently or long ago.

After that meeting with my editors, I came up with a list of elements that we all thought were worth keeping -- Hannah's silence and her passion for art, the ghosts, the nice neighbours, Mo's reclusiveness, Dad's depression, the house -- but without trying to shove all of them into the foreground of the story. My publisher also suggested that at the end, there should be "a big surprise!" which is one of the annoying, so-called helpful type of remarks that editors make sometimes!

I went right back to the beginning and planned the whole thing out again. I cut out the nasty cousins, the aunt and uncle's cafe, the graffiti on the statue, most of the ghosts, the attack on the car, the suicide attempt, the retaliatory banner Hannah and Sammy painted together. I changed Hannah's name to Eloise, and Sammy's name to Tommy.

This time it only took two more drafts before I was ready to show it to my editors again, and it was substantially finished in June 2007.

These were the possible new titles I'd come up with (with help from Penni Russon):
The Summerhouse Girl
The Time Before
The Girl Before
The Summerhouse Before
Eloise Shifts
When Eloise Swam
When Eloise Swims
The Other Summerhouse
Past The Summerhouse
Before The Summerhouse
After The Summerhouse

Penni and I liked The Summerhouse Girl, but Allen and Unwin preferred Cicada Summer, which I must say has grown on me. I'm very, very happy with the book. Even though I cut out or de-emphasised a lot of the initial story elements, I like to think that their ghosts (if you will) still haunt the book, giving it a depth and texture that it might not otherwise have achieved. The garden and the drought are still there in the background, the country town is sketched rather than explored, Dad is more manic than depressed, but Eloise's painting, her relationship with Anna, and her gradual re-emergence into the world are still at the heart of the story.

It was a lot of work for a little book, but I hope it was worth it.

As well as Cicada Summer, Kate is the author of The Singer of all Songs, The Tenth Power, The Waterless Sea, Winter of Grace and The Taste of Lightning and Always Mackenzie (which I reviewed here).

You can find out more about her here. She also has a great section of advice for young writers on her website. She also has a wonderful blog that is a lot more interesting and intelligent and writerly than this one.

Thank you, Kate!

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