Monday, 23 March 2009

Jen Banyard discusses Spider Lies

Spider Lies had been brewing for quite a while before Freo Press’s Children’s Publisher Cate Sutherland called me in to talk about it. I came across its seed just the other day – on a sheet of yellow pad paper from some years ago. On it I’d scribbled a few story ideas. ‘Boy who blushes uncontrollably’ was followed by ‘Someone’s Spying on Me - Kid keeps a cockroach/spider in a jar – One day looks out the window to see a giant spider’s eye – Only goes away when spider is released.’ There were two ticks against the spider story and none against the blushing boy story. Wise choice!

Some time after jotting down these possibilities, I found in my ideas box an article from The West Australian on a schoolchildren’s experiment in which spiders had been sent into Space. It was the spark I needed for my scribbled idea to come to life. For a creative writing course at the University of WA I wrote a ‘spider story’ outline and the following year, for a major assessment, wrote it up into a 12,000-word novel – the maximum word length allowed. I’d like everyone to assume that just to have cracked a Pass at university my young readers’ story must have been twice as good as all those literary adult ones – but they’d be wrong. The university encouraged creative writing of nearly all genres, though I think they might have drawn the line at text message novels!

Still, Spider Lies has changed a fair bit since its first, shorter version. The title, for instance, has gone from ‘Eyes Spy’ (too dull) to ‘When the Spider Cried’ (too gloomy), to ‘Eyes, Lies and Spider Stew’ (submitted to Freo Press, but thought too convoluted) to the current one with its sinister overtones complemented by Tracey Gibbs’ cover conveying the underlying humour of the story.

But by far the most significant developments lie in the 9,000 words that I added a year or so and one rejection later. With time, I realised that (egads!) some of the criticisms along the way had been well founded, and there was now no word limit as an excuse to ignore them. So, before burning any more bridges with publishers, I sat down in November ’07 to tweak the story, thinking I’d be done before Christmas. It took me well into the following year! I excised a clunky plot twist and a few sorties that, though sublimely written naturally, added little; I restructured so as to escalate suspense; I wove in more character growth and difficulties in Connor’s friendship with Wart; and I developed their teamwork in saving the world. My writing mentors liked it and – da-da! – so did Publisher Cate.

But it wasn’t over yet! Just when I was thinking that I’d got away with glossing over the ticklish business of how the spider had escaped and come back to Earth, Cate slipped her cattle prod out of her desk drawer. ‘You’ll come up with something,’ she smiled, zapping my toes. Cate got out her cattle prod on several other occasions too, spurring me to greater efforts that in the long run were undoubtedly worth the discomfort. So here we have it – Spider Lies – a story that, hopefully, will make lying in bed at night beside an open window never quite the same again. Mwa-ha-ha-ha!!!

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