45 POUNDS (MORE OR LESS) essentially evolved from a character. I imagined a girl who struggled with her weight and her place in the world. She’s from a typical American family, and by typical I mean atypical. Families today are likely to include step-parents and single parents and gay parents, so I wanted my character’s family to reflect that, too. I envisioned the mother/daughter dynamic to be one of the central conflicts. However, I wanted the main conflict to be within the girl herself. Probably because growing up, most of my conflict was internal.
Here’s where the evolution begins: I have this character, and I feel connected to her. I know her. I've seen her in my classroom, in the park, and in the mirror. But when I started the book around 2005, technology was quite different. In my first draft, my main character spends time in a chat room. (Groan, I know, but hey, it was 2005.) The title of the book was actually her user name: ANN_ONYMOUS. At the time, I thought I was being clever. She felt invisible, and her name, I discovered, was Ann.
My beloved grandmother had recently died, and I’d witnessed her decline from strong matriarch to frail patient needing around-the-clock care. What better way to process those feelings than to have my main character experience them, too? So, in my first draft, Ann’s grandmother suffers a stroke in chapter one, and by chapter three, she’s moved in with the family. It was a chubby-girl-takes-care-of-elderly-grandma story. The more I wrote, the more I fell in love with the characters.
Then I got feedback. A paid critique from an editor at a SCBWI conference commented, “Why should we care about this grandmother who had a stroke? We need to see her first so we can feel Ann’s devastation.” So I start writing back story with Ann and her Gram to get to know them myself. A few years later, I went to Vermont College of Fine Arts, and I got more feedback in workshop. “Does the grandma have to have a stroke? Please don’t tell me she’s going to die. Hasn't that been done already—a lot?” (Keep mind, the feedback isn't verbatim, but that was the gist.) My brilliant advisor, Martine Leavitt, challenged me to ask Ann what she wants. Martine had me write a letter from Ann to her exploring both concrete and abstract desires. That forced me to re-vision the focus of the story.
I spent my second semester at VCFA weeding out old technology, resurrecting a sick grandma, and mining for the heart of the story. The only things that didn’t change were the basic characters. (Well, except for Gram—she got a make-over and a new lease on life.) I revised the manuscript for fourth semester as my creative thesis, and Sara sold it later that year.
Exactly one month from today—on July 11—45 POUNDS (MORE OR LESS) releases from Viking Children’s (Penguin). I can’t wait to introduce you to Ann and her wacky, yet normal, family. I hope you love them as much as I do.