How I Fixed ‘Mainlanders’ After 13 Years

The question came from the right side of the room: “Why is it that ‘Mainlanders’ took 13 years to write?”

I was at Politics & Prose a few days ago, and I’d just finished reading the first third of ‘Mainlanders,’ a coming of age Jersey Shore story. I’d spoken about the fact that one of the reasons I wanted to read ‘Mainlanders’ in DC is because it was the first story I submitted to my fiction techniques course at the Johns Hopkins MA in writing program 13 years ago. And, I explained, it was the very last story I finished before sending my collection to my publisher earlier this year.

Why, a woman wanted to know, did ‘Mainlanders’ – a story about adolescent yearning – take so long to write?

A very good question.

‘Mainlanders’ is about two boys, Nick and Tubby, from fictionalized Bay City, NJ. They grew up at the beach. The beach is all they’ve ever known. Tubby’s father is mayor (and plumber), and Nick’s is captain of the Miss Bay City fishing boat. They have the hots for two girls, Anna and Caitlyn — tourists they spied on the beach while bodysurfing one day.

The basic story arc is straightforward: Nick and Tubby fall head over heels, and make their move — asking the girls on a date.

And yet it would be difficult, honestly, to count the number of failed drafts of this story over the years.

The main reason: In most early drafts, the girls were flat-out mean to the boys. I realized earlier this year, after a fantasic critique from a trusted reader, that the story would work much better if readers empathized not just with the boys in their quest, but also with the girls, the objects of the boys’ desire. If readers could feel for the girls as well as the boys … if they could think, in effect, You know what? I get Nick and Tubby — but I also get Anna and Caitlyn … I understand why everyone does what they do … well, then you really have a story.

I went back to work, trying harder to work through the girls’ motivation. I dialed down the meanness. The girls became much more likable.

Thirteen years later, I finished the story.

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