The Truth behind TRUTH OR DARE by Barbara Dee
My sixth novel had the unlikeliest inspiration: a YouTube video. Remember this one, titled First Moon Party? A few years ago, it went viral. Everyone was chatting about it, charmed by its mischievous humor and its empathy for the mom and daughter going through that most sensitive time, a girl’s first period.
At the time the video appeared online, I wasn’t writing. My oldest son was battling cancer (osteosarcoma), and I was overwhelmed, spending long, draining days with him at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital. To write a book, you can’t have your child’s health crowding out everything else in your brain. You need to get into the “zone”–you can’t be typing in a noisy Pediatrics waiting area. Also, I’m a humorous writer, but it won’t surprise you to hear that I wasn’t feeling especially funny.
One day in the spring of that year, my agent called me at the hospital. She told me that she’d had a casual conversation with my publisher about the First Moon Party video, which they both thought had touched a collective nerve. Why weren’t there more humorous, tween-appropriate books about girls going through puberty? And if Aladdin/S&S were willing to publish such a book, would I be interested in writing it?
I said yes immediately. This topic was definitely for me: girl-centric, angsty, exploring the main character’s relationships with her peers as well as her mom. As I kid, I’d devoured Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, which felt important and personal in a way other books didn’t. More recently I’d read Lauren Myracle’s Winnie books, and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Alice series–but certainly there was room on the library shelves for other takes on this subject. My year off (although hardly a vacation!) had made me eager to test myself, explore new topics, write something different. I’d need to branch out from the Aladdin MIX line, because this type of content wouldn’t be appropriate for their brand. But I’d get to keep my MIX editor, Alyson Heller, who trusted me to be tasteful and wholesome–and also to make it funny.
Cancer survivors sometimes tell you that the disease bestows certain gifts–one of which is a reluctance to waste time. As my son’s year of treatment drew to an end and he was ready to focus on physical therapy, I felt ready to tackle my subject. But I didn’t want to invest a precious year developing a story that wasn’t what my publisher had in mind. So I decided to write a synopsis of the plot first.
After a few unsuccessful tries, I came up with the idea of a Truth or Dare game forcing the late-blooming protagonist, Lia, to fake puberty for her friends. I decided to make the protagonist mom-less–her mom gets killed in a car accident when the other driver is texting–so a lot of the book is about Lia connecting with various mom-substitutes in her life. This gave the humorous Truth or Dare plot some depth and also poignancy: moms can drive you crazy, but would you really want to go through puberty without one?
Most authors find synopsis-writing torture. I know I always did. Synopses are basically just plot summaries, and I’ve always considered myself a “characters first, plot second” sort of writer. I’ve also always detested any sort of outline, which seemed to me too constricting. When life is so hyperscheduled, where’s the fun in writing according to a rigid formula, I’d tell author friends who tried to sell me on the virtues of Scrivener, or other organizational tools. I was a seat-of-the-pantser, a groping-in-the-dark sort of writer, and proud of it.
Boy, was I wrong. Writing a synopsis of TRUTH OR DARE allowed me to sell the book before I’d written a word. Knowing that my story was pre-approved meant I could relax and just have fun with it. I wrote TRUTH OR DARE quickly, joyfully. Right afterwards, I wrote two more synopses–and sold both. STAR-CROSSED (Aladdin/S&S–March 2017) and STUFF I KNOW ABOUT YOU (Aladdin/S&S–September 2017) were both delightful writing experiences, despite their tricky subjects.
Am I recommending taking a year off, even for happier reasons? No. But my year away from my desk changed the way I look at a lot of things, including writing. I think it’s made me a better writer. And a happier, more productive one, too.
Barbara Dee writes humorous fiction for tweens. She is the author of THE (ALMOST) PERFECT GUIDE TO IMPERFECT BOYS, TRAUMA QUEEN, THIS IS ME FROM NOW ON, SOLVING ZOE and JUST ANOTHER DAY IN MY INSANELY REAL LIFE, all of which are published by Aladdin/Simon & Schuster. Her next book, STAR-CROSSED, will launch March 2017. Barbara is one of the founders and directors of the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival, now in its fourth year. A former English teacher and lawyer, she lives in Chappaqua, NY with her family, rescue hound, Ripley, and two naughty cats.