By April of 2011, I had detailed notes outlining a sad, tender story of two young lovers. But Every Time You Speak You Break My Heart (ETYS for short) was buried on the depth chart. I had just begun writing Liam Wren and the Dragon Wand for HPFF. Waiting in the wings was another compelling teen love story, The Gospel of Thomas. ETYS would have to wait.
I started writing Revelation, the first half of The Gospel of Thomas, in December of 2012. Dated that same month and year is another handwritten passage from ETYS, a scene in which Camille coaxes Zack into asking her out on a date.
Camille asks, “So, how come you don’t have a girlfriend?” Zack answers, “I can’t talk to girls. I never know what to say.” Camille: “You’re talking to me. I’m a girl. I’m ugly, but I’m a girl.” Zack: “I don’t think you’re ugly.”
The draft states: “For a moment, she is unable to speak.” It’s not just one time. Every time he speaks, he breaks her heart.
Though I had worked out much of the novel, a few areas remained completely undeveloped. It was clear that Zack had received some sort of counseling while in college, but I had no idea what that counseling should look like.
My older daughter read a book for one of her college classes called A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, et al. I asked to read it when her class was over. I found it fascinating. The book does a deep dive into brain development, but also describes effective methods for healing psychological wounds without the use of medications.
Reading this book led directly to the development of a key character for ETYS. In typed notes dated April 14, 2014, I describe Zack, struggling to make friends in college. The Dean of Students recommends he get counseling. On the way to the Psychology Department with his referral slip, he meets Madison, a Psychology Graduate student. She recognizes the referral and asks if she could work with him, as she needs to do case studies for her Master’s degree. Madison becomes a key mentor for Zack, helping him heal and grow emotionally.
The notes suggest that snippets from Zack’s conversations from Madison be mixed into the narration. As College Zack reminisces about his time with Camille, he would also be reflecting on his discussions with his mentor.
The Gospel of Thomas has its share of heavy scenes, particularly in Part 2: Rapture. When I finished it in June of 2014, I was in no rush to jump into another heavy book. Instead, I wrote The Witches of Slytherin for HPFF. Then I jumped right into Love and Arithmancy, which I finished in May of 2016, posting the last chapter on HPFF on June 6th. Between April of 2011 and May of 2016, I had written over 1700 manuscript pages, nearly half a million words.
There were signs that it was time to write ETYS. One was hearing a teen reading a poem at a high school talent show. Her friend had recently committed suicide. The poem was part of her grieving process, and showed her determination to press onward.
It was a reminder that, when writing for young people, you shouldn’t sugar-coat life or pull your punches. Life comes at you whether your ready or not. Saying “you’re not ready for a book like this” is just condescending. It was time to write my big, dark melancholic book about heartache, loss and facing up to one’s mistakes.
I wrote up a new outline, this time using MS-Excel. This was something I started doing while writing Love & Arithmancy. The neat columns and straight lines really help keep me organized, and it’s easy to move items around without the whole thing turning into a mess.
On the afternoon of July 4th, 2016, I started writing. I knew that I had better bring my A game to this story. I wanted ETYS to be beautiful and sad, like a love song. (Risking all of my hard-earned street cred, I will tell you that my model here is Barry Manilow. “Oh, Mandy! . . .”)
Here’s a sample of what I mean, a paragraph from Chapter Two that I posted on Facebook and Instagram on July 12, 2016.
When he played the cornet, Zack’s shyness fell away, and he was transformed. Confidence and assertiveness, which he possessed at no other time in his life, were suddenly at his command. The cold night air, the buzz of the crowd, the perky chants of the cheerleaders, the grunts and pops from the battle on the football field: all of it vanished from his sight and hearing. The world was the bell of his cornet, the valves under his fingers, the breath in his lungs, the song in his ears, and the silver mouthpiece pressed tight against his lips.
Since the year 2000, I had been using MS-Word as my word processor. For ETYS, I decided to write using Google Docs. I shared the document with a few of my regular readers, including my friend Pixileanin, who I met on HPFF. (Pix is the author of Rabbit Heart, a popular novel on HPFF/HPFT.) When she would leave a comment, I would get a notification. I could respond to her comments, and she could respond back in real time, a remarkable experience considering that we live on opposite coasts of the United States.
My outline was detailed, but it had one big hole in it. Towards the end, there was a single line: “Zack joins a jazz ensemble and meets his future lover.” I had no idea who the next girl was, or who any of the other people who were with Zack in this jazz ensemble.
On September 15th, 2016, I got my answer. I was far away from this scene in the manuscript, but on this particular day, out of my subconscious came, not one, but four new characters: band leader and tenor sax man Carl Eldon; bass player JP; drummer Angelique; and the keyboardist (and Zack’s future lover), Layla.
I had a business meeting in San Francisco that day. To get there and back, I took an hour-long ride on the subway. I took my notebook with me, and on the train, I wrote out by hand three + pages of notes. (This time, I put the date at the top!)
Several months later, I would flesh out these notes into several chapters of ETYS. Eldon, Angelique and JP were less distinct at that first moment. Layla, however, was a revelation, one of the most complex characters I have ever attempted to portray. A music composition major, a musical prodigy with antisocial tendencies, she is often deep into her own head, listening to music that doesn’t yet exist. She is a stunning surprise at the end of ETYS, akin to Charlie Sheen’s appearance at the end of the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I could hardly wait to work with her.
When I finally did reach Layla, in the summer of 2017, I was in a very different place emotionally. There are three heavy scenes in the first half of ETYS, and they had taken their toll on me. My mood picked up when I got to Madison. I hoped things would accelerate further when Layla made her appearance. Instead, I started slowing down. I was emotionally spent, and I found I could not press ahead and write Zack and Layla’s tumultuous affair.
It didn’t help that 2017 had been the busiest year of my life. My younger daughter graduated from high school and went off to college. My elder daughter got married. I chaperoned a band/orchestra trip to Disneyland and later spent ten days in Alaska. And, I organized and hosted my 30 year high school reunion.
Reading through the manuscript of ETYS, I saw plenty that I wanted to fix, but the story had worn me out. In August of 2017, I suspended work on the book. Fifteen months would pass before I returned.