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My Writer's Journal

Behind the Books: Hotlines

Almost 25 years ago I was contacted by a book packager wanting to develop a series of books about high school kids who, in the aftermath of the suicide of a friend, decide to form a telephone hotline for kids to call when they want to talk to someone about a problem. The packager had the concept; I was to come up with characters and plots.

I had never done anything remotely like this, but I was willing to give it a shot. Creating four main characters and a slew of minor characters wasn't too difficult, but developing storylines to run through a series of four books, each focusing on one of the main characters, was a big challenge. I had once helped to develop a hotline for survivors of breast cancer, so I knew basically how they worked. But I still had a lot to learn.

I signed up for training at the suicide prevention hotline operated by the local university. The sessions were interesting , but I was in a panic when I had to take my shifts, sitting in a bare office with a desk and a telephone and hoping that nobody in drastic straits would call. I did listen to a lot of serious problems, but none were suicidal, thank God!

I also hung out at a large high school known for the diversity of the student body; I can't remember now the number of languages spoken, but I think it was in the dozens.

Then I was ready to write. There was the usual back-and-forth with editors on each of the four books. I do remember describing Jenny, the main character in BECAUSE OF LISSA, as "skinny" and being told to change it to "slender," because nobody wants to read about an unattractive girl. That book and THE PROBLEM WITH SIDNEY were published in December 1990; GILLLIAN'S CHOICE came out in March 1991, and THE TWO FACES OF ADAM in June 1991. And I went on to write many other books, becoming more interested in historical fiction.

Fast forward to Summer 2012. My writer pals and I were talking about self-publishing ebooks--we'd all read the stories of Amanda Hocking and others who were hitting it big--and one of my friends said to me, "Why don't you resurrect some of your backlist titles and publish them as ebooks?"

Well, why not? I thought the old Hotline series would be a good candidate. Except I didn't have a clue how to proceed. Fortunately, I knew someone who did: my stepdaughter, Vered, is a book designer and has started her own small company. We quickly struck a deal: I would retype the Hotlines, doing minor editing as I went along, and she would design new covers and perform whatever magic tricks were needed to do the electronic conversions and get them sold through Amazon, B&N, and so on.

Did I say "minor editing"? Well, not so minor. It's a different world , and the original Hotline books are quaintly old-fashioned. Clothes, car models, language have changed, as I expected. The biggest change is the ubiquitous presence of cellphones. They have altered behavior and forced me to rethink some of the plot points.

It was a big job, but the books are out there, starting last fall with the last one issued in January. We'll see how they do. And one of these days I might consider resurrecting another one of the oldies. Maybe one that doesn't involve the use of a phone.
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