New Voice: Sara Beitia on The Last Good Place of Lily Odilon

Sara Beitia is the first-time author of The Last Good Place of Lily Odilon (Flux, 2010)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

We’ve been over this, he says. We have to get to her first.

I know! Olivia snaps. I’m keeping company with a suspected murderer and I’ve probably become an accessory at this point, and a runaway besides. So don’t tell me what I need to do. I’m doing it.

Lily Odilon–local wild child from a small Idaho town–has vanished after spending the night with her sometimes boyfriend, new kid Albert Morales. Suspected in her disappearance, Albert sets out to discover what happened to her. Kidnapped? Runaway? Murder victim?

Joining Albert is Lily’s prickly younger sister, Olivia. Their distress is mirrored in a fast-paced narrative that jumps through three timelines. Each thread adds a new level to the mystery and reveals clues that paint a startling picture of all three teens. Their intertwined destinies come to a head in an unconventional climax.

Are you a plotter or a plunger? Do you outline first, write to explore first, or engage some combination of the two? Then where do you go from there? What about this approach appeals to you? What advice do you have for beginning writers struggling with plot?

I am a plotter, and firmly so. I look at this way: A coherent book needs a plot and a structure to serve the plot, and figuring all that out beforehand is like having a rough road map. Rough, because there will always be surprises as you progress, no matter how much you’ve worked out in advance—blind alleys and unexpected turns that keep the process exciting.

I love stories, and I love the mechanics of crafting them. What keeps me from throwing my computer through the window when things aren’t working is taking a step back, going back to that plot touchstone, and then returning with a renewed confidence that I can get the story out and get it right.

We all know that the plot is what happens in the book, but it’s more difficult to spot what makes a good one.

To a beginning writer struggling with this, I would say: Identify the story you want to tell—what does your protagonist want, what stands between her and her goal, and how does she get it? In other words, what is the conflict? And even more, is it a conflict your readers are going to care about? Will it be a satisfying journey? This is a good place to start the work, anyway.

I do a lot of the plot exploration as I work my way through an initial outline, and it can take me weeks and several revisions to work out and get down on paper what I want to do before I begin chapter one. Once I’m down to the actual writing, I will find all sorts of ways in which I need to tweak my outline, but it keeps me sane to have a narrative reference point.

The plot of The Last Good Place of Lily Odilon turns heavily on its structure. There are three separate time threads (color coded in the original outline to keep them straight)—a timeline of events leading up to a “present tense” timeline (told in regular past tense); italicized past-tense flashbacks, and a “present tense” timeline marked with time-stamps at the top of the chapters into which the separate threads all flow.

With invaluable input from my editor, these mechanics ended up helping to keep a rather complex plot structure working—a structure that (hopefully) serves the plot by piecing out certain information at certain times, to balance suspense with coherence and propel the story to the end.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

I find people interesting, so I listen to strangers’ conversations in the line at the grocery store, or at the bank, or in restaurants. I listen to children, teens and adults talking with one another, and I talk with strangers, too. It’s all this sort of inductive research that goes into some internal file marked “characterization.”

The world is different from when I was a teen, technologically speaking, but fundamentally, in the things that matter, it’s not so different. The particular problems of adolescence change rapidly, but the essential challenges of growing up are the same.

We were all teens once; for me, this makes the more superficial differences between myself as a teen and teens now—particulars of taste and mode of expression—easier to navigate.

I’m banking a lot on the hope that an authentic teen voice can come from digging into that uniquely painful and exciting interval between childhood and dependence, adulthood and autonomy and responsibility.

Every one of us has or will go through it, and I’m suspicious of adults who have forgotten that trial by fire.

In that spirit, I’m not aiming to write a teen type per se, but individuals. Some of my characters will tend to be more savvy and cool, and some will not. There isn’t just one voice for any stage in life, but many, and they’re unique.

I would not want the best thing about my books to be a sense of timeliness—deft working into the story of Twitter or MGMT or what have you.

Even as I write this, those things are already growing rapidly dated (after all, timeliness is ephemeral—Aristophanes may have kept his audiences in stitches, but now we have to refer to footnotes to even get many of the jokes); so I have to look elsewhere for a longer shelf life, for relevance and a more lasting, authentic voice. Of course, I’m still working on that.

As for Albert Morales, the protagonist of The Last Good Place of Lily Odilon—I’m not really sure how I came to understand him, only that I did. It can’t hurt that I don’t feel so far removed from my adolescent self. I got caught up in Albert’s story, and he became very real to me; maybe that was what freed that tricky thing called “voice.” I remember vividly the way I felt as a teenager—the good the bad and the ugly—and I can only hope that this carries through in my writing to cover a multitude of the squarer sins. (Do the kids still say “square”?)

My advice to other writers pondering voice is stupidly simple (and to be taken with a grain of salt from this newbie): Pay attention—not only to what people say, but to the thoughts, feelings and context behind it; pay attention to how writers more skilled than you capture voice, and when you’re doing your own writing, get caught up.

Cynsational Notes

From Flux: “Sara Beitia (Caldwell, ID) has worked as a staff writer and arts editor for the Boise Weekly, an independent alternative newspaper.”

Photo of Sara by Paul Marshall.