Guest Blog: “The Art of Being Normal” – deleted scenes
MuggleNet welcomes Lisa Williamson, author of The Art of Being Normal, as a special guest blogger to celebrate the release of her debut novel. Here Lisa tells us all about the process of choosing what to include in the final draft of a book and what happens to the scenes that get left behind. The Art of Being Normal, published by David Fickling Books, explores the lives of two British teens with two big secrets as they build a friendship and realize they are not alone. You can find out more about Lisa and her novel at davidficklingbooks.com and find her on Twitter at Lisa_Letters. You can also find the other sites Lisa is visiting on her blog tour at the bottom of the page.
The Art of Deleting Scenes
I’ve come to the slow realisation I’m not the most economical of writers! I wrote over 250,000 words in the process of writing The Art of Being Normal, only 85,000 of which made it into the actual book. Going through all the words I deleted, I came across numerous long-forgotten characters and plotlines, some of them representing hundreds of hours of work. I initially felt a bit sick before managing to convince myself that no words are ever wasted! Every single one, even those I deleted almost straightaway, helped me get to know my characters better, something I really hope comes across in the book. The two extracts below are perfect examples of my process of exploration and experimentation (at least that’s what I’m calling it!).
The first marks one of the first times David (a fourteen[-]year-old boy struggling with his gender identity) dresses up in a [traditional] female role. In the end I decided David has been cross-dressing in secret for quite some time (pre-dating the beginning of the book) and so removed the scene. However, I’m still very fond of it, not only because it was one of the very first scenes I wrote but also because I think it really captures David’s joy and excitement in embracing his female identity, contrasted with the fear of his parents[‘] possible reaction.
Extract One (David):
I poke my head out of my bedroom door and look left then right. Satisfied, I embark on my journey across the landing. I take exaggerated footsteps, like I’m playing a pantomime villain. According to my calculations I have at least an hour before Mum and Dad are likely to return.
They’re at a party next-door-but-one. If I open my bedroom window and stick my head out, I can hear music and grownup laughter and see the tops of heads of the smokers gathered outside the patio doors. Next-door-but-one hold a party every year. Mum and Dad always come back all drunk and giggly. Even worse, Dad starts to get touchy-feely with Mum and puts his hand on her bum when he thinks I’m not looking.
Apart from birthday parties when I was little, the sort with jelly and ice cream and pass-the-parcel, and family gatherings like weddings and christenings, I’ve never been to a proper party. You hear about them at school sometimes, people gossiping on a Monday morning about who got the drunkest, who was sick, who kissed who. But I never get invited.
I’m almost at my destination. I flatten my back against the wall and take two wide sidesteps before ducking into Mum and Dad’s bedroom. I shut the door behind me and snap on the light. A damp towel is strewn across the bed. Another hangs over the top of the door to their en-suite bathroom. I creep over to Mum’s dressing table, which is not really used as a dressing table at all, more a dumping ground for bus tickets and leaking pens, receipts and out-of-date coupons clipped from magazines. Tonight, though, there is evidence that Mum’s applied makeup. I edge forward and inspect the makeup bag that sits open amongst the debris. I conduct a silent inventory of its contents: eye shadows in blue, brown and grey[;] a cracked powder compact[;] two mascaras[;] pale pink nail polish[;] bronzer balls. I sniff at a stunted red lipstick. It smells waxy and foreign. I set it back down before moving on.
My bathrobe catches the edge of the dressing table, and the bronzer balls fall on the carpet, bouncing in all directions. My eyes dart about the room, and I half expect my parents to leap out from behind the curtains or wriggle from beneath the bed and yell ‘Surprise!’ but the room remains still. I fall to my knees to gather up the tiny balls. My heart is hammering in my chest. I take a moment to allow my breathing to return to normal, before continuing on my quest and making my way towards the wardrobe.
At first glance, there is nothing of note [-] just Dad’s old work suits in boring shades of grey and black and navy and Mum’s jeans and fleeces. I push them aside and reach to the back of the wardrobe, praying Mum hasn’t thrown them away. My fingers find a black bin bag. I pull it out. It is stuffed full and heavy. I ease open the knot at the top, and the bag falls open. The contents are better than I could have hoped.
Back in the 1980s, when she was student, Mum went out to discos and crimped her hair and drank cocktails called [B]lack [R]ussians and wore sequins and chiffon and satin. I only know this because I’ve seen it in the grainy photographs that Mum and Dad heave out every few years to ‘prove’ they once had lives. And now the physical evidence is in a magical heap at my feet.
I kneel down and begin to sort the bag, the friction of the manmade fibres buzzing between my fingers as I inspect each item in turn. I end up selecting an emerald green taffeta cocktail dress. Slowly, I stand up, slip out of my bathrobe and step into the dress, pulling it up over my torso. It’s too big for me at the back and won’t stay up. My eyes roam for a solution. I spot a plastic clothes peg in the ironing basket by the door and use it to gather the excess material and fit the dress against my body. The taffeta feels cold against my skin and smells sort of smoky, forbidden.
I position the wardrobe door open so that I can see myself in the mirror fixed to the inside. I stare at my reflection. And although it’s David that stares back at me, it’s a new and improved version[,] one that I hope is the first of many new and improved incarnations. I inspect myself from every angle, and although I don’t own the curves the dress was designed for, and although it’s still a boy that looks back at me, I can’t help but feel right.
I dare to walk up and down in front of the mirror, the rug serving as my catwalk. The dress makes my body move differently, as if it’s sending overriding signals to my brain. They cancel out my tendency to hunch over and hide myself. Instead I’m standing up straight, limbs long, head up. And I look almost graceful.
My eyes fall on the red lipstick once more. It sits invitingly on the dressing table, its lid removed. I sit down. I like the way the dress makes me sit – like a lady would – with my knees touching and angled to the side, my toes pointed. I haven’t applied lipstick before, but it’s easier than I thought it would be. When I’m finished I blot my lips on a tissue, like you see women do on the TV. I sit back. The lipstick is brighter than it looked in the tube and makes my lips jump out from my face, like they’re in 3D. I reach across and switch on Mum and Dad’s ancient radio. The song that comes on is from the sixties or seventies. It’s a happy song, upbeat. I start to sway my head my from side to side, and then after a minute or two of that I stand up and begin to dance properly, realising I haven’t danced in ages. I keep dancing, to song after song, my movements getting wilder and wilder, and I discover that if I spin fast enough, the reflection in the mirror doesn’t look like a boy at all – just a whirl of green taffeta and dark hair and red lips.
It’s as I’m whirling, I sense the weight of footsteps on the staircase, the extra bodies in the house. I switch off the radio, kick the black bag under the bed, swipe the back of my hand across my lips and grab my crumpled bathrobe from the floor, wrapping it around my body just in time for the door to open.
‘What are you doing here?’ Mum asks in surprise. Her lips are stained from red wine. I can hear Dad downstairs in the kitchen, banging about as he makes tea.
‘What are you doing here? You’ve only been gone a couple of hours.’ I stammer, praying there’s no taffeta sticking out from beneath my robe.
‘Your dad had a few too many whiskeys with Brian from number three,’ Mum confides in a stage whisper, sinking down on the dressing room chair and taking off her earrings. ‘You know how those two get when they’re together.’
‘Okay. Well, night.’ I say, edging out of the room. I risk a look over my shoulder. The black bag is hidden from site [sic], but the tissue, the one imprinted with my red lips, is sitting innocently on the dressing table. I hesitate for a moment, but there’s no way of me rescuing it without her noticing.
I return to my bedroom and rush to the mirror to inspect my darkened mouth. Did she notice? Could she tell? I sit in a ball on the bed and wait for a knock at the door, but it doesn’t come, and twenty minutes later the house falls into silence [-] [a]part from my heart, which is beating so hard it almost deafens me.
I wake up at 10am. Mum and Dad’s bedroom door is open. The bed is made, and the curtains are open. I crouch down to discover the black bag is still under the bed, where I kicked it. I pull it out and shove it to the back of the wardrobe.
It’s then I remember the tissue. I search every inch of the dressing table, but it’s nowhere to be seen.
The Art of Being Normal is a dual narrative. This second extract is told from Leo’s point of view. Leo is fifteen and keeps himself to himself (he’s kind of a grump, actually!). This scene with his gran shows his softer side. Sadly, Leo’s Gran is one of the characters that got the chop in the editing process! At the time of writing, I was living with someone with dementia and desperately wanted to include a character dealing with the disease in the book. However, I soon realized this was a massive topic that perhaps deserved more attention than my plot could give it (I hope to explore it in more detail in a future project). It was therefore with reluctance I killed off Gran! Another point to mention is that in this draft, David and Leo are attending different schools, and Alicia is the new kid, not Leo!
Extract Two (Leo):
After school on Tuesdays and Thursdays I go to visit my [g]ran. Gran is Mam’s mam. Mam’s dad died when I was six, from a brain tumour. I don’t remember all that much about him, just bits that I’ve picked up over the years from people talking about him – that he told really racist jokes, liked to drink stout, wore false teeth, played the banjo. I don’t know where my other set of grandparents (my dad’s parents) live. As far as I know they disappeared with him, an entire family of ghosts.
Gran lives in a care[ ]home about a mile away. She has early onset Alzheimer’s. Until last year she was living in a sheltered housing flat of her own but she kept getting more and more confused. At first it was just stuff like leaving the tap running in the bathroom or losing her glasses, then it sort evolved into her forgetting her pin number and not understanding the plot of EastEnders. Then one night the warden found her wandering up and down outside her block because she’d forgotten which flat was hers. After that they got her checked out and diagnosed, and it was as if the diagnosis then sped things up because she got worse really quickly and even started to forget things like how to use the microwave or toaster and would get in a big mess about which pills to take and when.
Five months later they moved her into the care home.
It was a horrible day. She got even more confused and upset and started to shout and cry. I’ve never seen Gran cry like that before. It was really horrible. Her face and body all sort of crumpled, like she just wanted to give up on everything. I hugged her until she stopped crying and kept telling her it would be all right, over and over again. They took her to the new home in a wheelchair. That narked me off big-time because her legs are fine[;] she can walk for miles. She looked tiny in the wheelchair, like it was swallowing her up. I asked if I could push her, but they said no. She’s only 63.
The place she’s living now is all right. Gran has a room that looks over the garden, and the staff are nice to her and call her ‘sweetheart’ and ‘duck’, but she misses her flat and all her little knickknacks and her canary, Eric. Pets aren’t allowed at the home, so Auntie Kerry’s got Eric now although she can’t stand him; [she] reckons he stinks and that he ‘watches’ her all the time. Most of all Gran hates having to sleep in a sing[l]e bed. She says it makes her feel like a child again, which must be extra hard because she sort of is like a child again, with everyone doing stuff for her – waking her up, feeding her, giving her pills, putting her to bed.
I push open her door. She’s awake.
‘All right, Gran?’
‘Oh, hello, Leo, love,’
This is a good sign. Some days she doesn’t know who I am at all and just calls me ‘young man’, or Pat (that was Granddad’s name), but other days she’s crystal clear, although that somehow makes the bad days, when they come along, seem even worse. Today she’s sat up in bed, with lots of pillows fluffed up around her. Her cheeks look a bit pinker than they did last week. I perch on the end of the bed, near her feet, and rub them through the blankets. They feel like blocks of ice.
‘Oooooh, that’s nice,’ she says, smiling and wriggling her toes, ‘You’re a good lad you are, Leo.’
‘How’s your mam doing?’ she asks.
Mam visits Gran once a week but mostly sits and watches Gran’s TV or flirts with the bloke who works in the kitchen. She says she’d come more often only the other old people ‘freak her out’.
‘Mam’s all right,’ I say. ‘She’s got a new bloke.’
‘Oh aye. Any good?’
I shrug. I don’t want to tell Gran about getting angry with Mam the other night and Spike having to drag me off her. She’ll only worry.
‘He’s called Spike.’
‘Spike? What a name! Bloody hell, she does pick ‘em.’
‘And how’s the new school?’
‘It’s okay. It was first day back today. There’s a new girl.’
I don’t know why I say this, but the words tumble out of my mouth before I have chance to stop them. I feel my cheeks flame up. Gran notices and starts grinning immediately. When she’s on good form, she doesn’t miss a thing.
‘Oh aye?’ she says, her eyes dancing. ‘Pretty, is she?’
‘She’s all right,’ I mutter, picking at the bobbly bits on her blanket.
Gran chuckles. ‘Leo Denton, you’re just like me[;] you wear your heart on your sleeve whether you like it or not.’
I look away but can sense Gran’s eyes on me.
‘You going to ask her out, then?’ she says.
‘That her name, then? Very nice. Well, are you?’
‘Ask her out? No. Why?’
‘It’s not that easy, Gran. Anyway, I haven’t even spoken to her, not properly. She just looks okay, that’s all.’
Gran doesn’t reply. I look up. She’s snoring softly. I’m off the hook.
She does it loads these days – falls asleep mid-sentence with absolutely no warning. I tuck her arms under the covers and pull them up under her chin. She hates to be cold.
I stay for another half hour, but she continues to sleep, her snores louder now and rattling.
‘Bye, Gran. See you Thursday.’
I bend down to kiss her cheek. Her skin feels loose and cold against my lips.
On my way out I pass the main living room. About half [of] the chairs are taken, their occupants gazing into space. It’s like they’ve been frozen in time, their eyes all starey, like they’re made from glass. And even though I think Mam’s excuse about not coming to see Gran more often is rubbish, I can see what she means about a whole building full of people about to die being sort of spooky.
The telly is on (Deal or no Deal) but none of the old people appear to be watching it, apart from one bloke in the corner who keeps yelling ‘No Deal!’ every five seconds and whacking his stick against the lino.
I shrink back from the door.
I don’t want to live that long if that’s what’s going to happen to me. I’d rather die now. I’ve been reading about Alzheimer’s and dementia on the Internet. And they reckon it’s hereditary – that there’s a dementia gene. And that scares the shit out of me. I want to be sharp forever; I’ve got to be. Because if your brain turns to mush, what else have you got? Gran’s got me, but who will I have? Amber maybe, but she’ll be busy with her life – a career and a house and babies and all the other stuff she talks about having and will probably get because Amber’s determined like that. And Tia? I know she’s only seven, but she can barely tie up her own shoelaces. I’ll be alone – just me and my messed-up thoughts. Because that’s where you live really – in your head [-] so if your head’s not right, it’s almost like, what’s the point?
I say goodbye to Sonia [at] the main desk and step out into the damp afternoon. I clear my nostrils of the scent I’ve come to associate with old age – disinfectant and boiled cabbage and lavender [-] and wish life [were] that bit fairer. For a lot of reasons.
The Art of Being Normal is out now in the UK. Join in the conversation using #whatisnormal.