There are certain topics, certain words, and certain aspects of life that are rarely, if ever, addressed in Christian fiction. Anything sexual is typically avoided, and definitely anything explicit. When I started writing The Ticket, I was not planning to break this taboo. But as the novel unfolded in my head and on paper, it took on a mind of its own.
In particular, I introduced a middle-aged sexual predator who, in my first draft, merely made a couple of inappropriate remarks to my main character, a fourteen year old girl. When this character appeared again in a later scene, it began to feel like the proverbial gun on the shelf—if you see it in an early scene, you expect it to be fired at some point. In my final draft, he lures the girl into his car on the pretext of giving her a basket of practice tennis balls. When I write, I try to get inside the head of one character and feel, see, taste, hear, and smell exactly what she’s feeling, seeing, tasting, hearing, and smelling. As a result, this brief scene proved shocking for some readers. Many others, however, have been very supportive.
We all know that bad things can happen to good people. But do we want to read about them? Readers of a particular genre grow to know what to expect, and there’s a certain comfort in that. Yet the books that stay with us long after we finish them are often the ones that veer into an unexpected pathway.
Sexual abuse in its varied forms is way too common in our society. The victim may suffer repercussions throughout his or her entire life. Are we better off by pretending that our family is exempt from this risk, or by opening a dialogue about how to react if it should ever happen to our family? In The Ticket, fourteen-year old Tray doesn’t tell her parents about the incident for a long time. This incident leads her to tell a lie that haunts her for some time. Feelings of shame—or fear of being viewed with skepticism or pity or, worse yet, of blame being transferred to the victim—may keep young people silent. Reading and discussing some of the bad things in life before they happen could, I hope, serve a purpose if the inconceivable should ever become the conceivable.
I don’t mean to give the impression that only bad things happen to Tray in The Ticket, or that the controversial scene lies at the heart of the novel. In fact, The Ticket is about a family that wins the lottery. While the win itself doesn’t provide the happiness they long for, good does come to Tray in various ways. A new girl at school turns out to be Tray’s dear friend. A boy she has a crush on begins to pay her some attention. Her relationship with her dad is strengthened. And, little by little, Tray becomes a more confident young woman who believes in her ability to survive the tough things that sometimes come our way in life.
There’s a lovely poem about prayer by Grace Naessens you’ve probably heard. It begins:
I got up early one morning and rushed right into the day,
I had so much to accomplish that I didn’t have time to pray.
Problems just tumbled about me, and heavier came each task.
“Why doesn’t God help me?” I wondered.
He answered, “You didn’t ask.”
The poem ends:
I woke up early this morning, and paused before entering the day.
I had so much to accomplish that I had to take time to pray.
I love this poem! What Ms. Naessens writes is so true of prayer. I have found that for me, it’s also true of writing. Before starting The Ticket, I had been writing off and on for years. My writing came in spurts. Sometimes I’d go for long stretches without writing a thing, except for the writing of the exams, class notes, and academic research papers demanded of me as part of my job as a professor at Vanderbilt University. At other times, I might start a short story and write obsessively for a few days until it was finished. It wasn’t that I believed I had to be inspired to write; it was just a pattern I inadvertently fell into. I observed one truth about myself: I was generally happier in my personal life and more productive in my academic career when I was doing some outside writing.
When I started The Ticket, I decided to write at least one draft of the novel from start to finish in one year. I resolved to break my habit of writing either nothing or too much at once, rather like a person who crash diets and then binges on her favorite sweets. This time I was going to write steadily week-in and week-out until I had a decent draft.
To aid in this process, I used Robert J. Ray’s book on writing, The Weekend Novelist, to provide a structure. In it Ray describes a fifty-two week program designed to produce a finished novel writing only on weekends. I didn’t follow his plan exactly. For one thing, there were often weekends that didn’t lend themselves to any extensive writing. Stuff comes up. Fortunately, my hours as a professor are fairly flexible. This allows me to start the day on certain weekdays by writing at least a couple of pages, although I aim for five pages. I can make up for this by doing my class preparation late at night, right before I go to bed. Second, I skipped a few of the steps in Ray’s plan, but found that some of the others took me two to four times as long as he allowed. Third, I discovered that, by the time I got to the “key scenes” outlined by Ray and drafted by me early in the process, some of them no longer worked as I intended. By then the novel had taken on a life of its own. Still, using Ray’s book gave me a structure and kept me moving forward when I might otherwise have stalled.
One of the challenges I faced in writing The Ticket was getting past inertia at the start of a writing day. For me, the first sentence of the day is almost always the one that comes hardest. The more I tell myself I need to get on with it, the harder it is to make my pen move (yes, I write the old-fashioned way using pen and paper). I didn’t discover any magic tricks here, though I tried copying a passage from a favorite novel a time or two. What I avoided was giving up for the day. Instead I would tell myself that I could always trash the pages later if they stunk, as I often suspected they would. Then I’d force myself to start moving my pen. As a part-time writer, I didn’t feel I had the luxury of waiting until later in the day. Usually, after the rough start, the words would start to flow. But not always. Some days I’d have to grind out every word. Later, though, I discovered surprises in both directions. When I would reread what I had written, the stuff I wrote when I felt inspired sometimes turned out to be lousy; and some of the most painfully written pages turned out to be pretty good.
When I was writing The Ticket, I got totally absorbed in my characters and their lives. As a part-time writer with lots of other demands on my time, I learned to scribble thoughts on anything and everything whenever a sentence, a phrase, or an idea struck. It might be on a napkin in the middle of a business lunch, or on a scrap of paper in my handbag during my commute (not a recommended strategy, from a safety perspective), or on an order of worship during a sermon. I can’t always explain where or why an idea comes to me when it does, but I tried to take advantage of every one if at all possible. If I’d wait, thinking, “I couldn’t possibly forget this one,” I might surprise myself.
Finally, I tried to turn my status as a dual career person into a strength. The initial idea for The Ticket actually came in part from one of my colleagues at Vanderbilt University. As I fleshed out my characters, both externally and internally, I had ample opportunity to draw on my observations of men and women around me at work on a daily basis. I could listen to their patterns of speech, watch their mannerisms, observe their body language, and so on. Now that I’m in the stage of trying to promote the novel, I find that most people in the workplace are interested and more than happy to help spread the word. Since writing can be a fairly solitary occupation, those of us with a second job face challenges but also have the benefit of unique opportunities.
There is one scene in The Ticket that some readers have found controversial. This is a delicate subject, and the last thing I want to do is to offend anyone. So feel free to stop reading at any time.
A sexual predator exposes himself to my protagonist, Tray Dunaway (who is fourteen years old), at the tennis court. Tray does not tell her parents for a long time. She tells herself that this is because she’s afraid they won’t let her go back to the tennis court. But there could be other reasons. Deep down she might be afraid that she did something to provoke him, or that other people might think she did. She may feel ashamed.
The Ticket deals with some tough, realistic issues. The situation referred to in the controversial scene is one that arises all too often, and I think it’s important for young women or boys who might face something like this in their lives to know that it’s not their fault. They are not alone. They should not feel ashamed. Ideally, I’d like for my book to open a dialogue within families about how to handle such a situation should it arise.
Let me assure you I do think long and hard about the scenes to include or not to include, both with respect to how a particular incident advances the plot and how it might affect readers. There are many things in this world that I’m uncomfortable with. When I was the age of my protagonist, Tray, I was incredibly naive. Fortunately I never experienced anything like what happened to Tray, and I have no idea how I would have handled it if I had. But, unfortunately, many young people do.
I know many of you have followed the recent revelations in the Duggar family. I think this highlights the fact that no one is exempt. Maybe it’s something we should open a dialogue within families about—how to respond, what to do if it should ever arise.
I would like to invite anyone interested to attend my online book launch on Tuesday, June 9, from 6:30 to 8:30pm CDT. I will post details of how to find the website when I know them.
The first shipment of copies of The Ticket arrived yesterday. Then, late last night, I received a phone call from my sister, Jana Little, who had just gotten two copies in the mail and sounded almost as excited as I was.
On Tuesday, June 9, I'm planning to launch the book officially with an online party. As I 'm totally new to all of this, I'm very excited but also more than a little nervous. Please come! It's at 6:30 pm CDT and should be over by 8:30 pm. You can come for some or all. There will be give-aways for certain questions, and a drawing of everyone who attends for a bigger prize. The plan is that every time someone enters a comment, he or she gets another entry in the drawing. Should be fun! Please join my launch team and spread the word.