"Burke transforms what at first seems a well-observed but unremarkable coming-of-age story into a darker,more suspenseful thriller." - Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday Spectrum, Sept 7-8, 2013.
One girl’s dead.
One girl’s in hospital.
And one has a secret.
This is a story about 4 girls Sarah, Paige, Jess and Tallulah who were all best friends at school. Now they’ve begun university and are living together at the exclusive Galston College, but it’s not turning out the way it’s meant to.
Tallulah’s partying too hard and Jess has become secretive. Paige is embarrassing herself, almost stalking a guy who doesn’t feel the same way about her and as always, Sarah’s struggling to keep up with her wealthier friends.
One night, Sarah saves Paige from drowning in the university swimming pool. Because of the accident, Paige has lost a couple of days from her memory and can’t remember why she was at the pool. But Sarah thinks she saw someone there that night yet she’s too afraid to tell anyone, especially her boyfriend Wil.
Then a month later, Jess’s body is found outside the college laundry.
Now Tallulah and Sarah are the only ones left at college and they can barely even look at eachother.
Sarah keeps bumping into a gorgeous guy called Jonny, also a resident of Galston College. Jonny does the one thing her boyfriend Wil has never done. He tells her she’s pretty. Soon Jess and Paige are forgotten and Jonny is the only thing on Sarah’s mind.
"A stunning thriller, the background of the 4 girls and their companions at the college is gripping." - Fran Knight, Magpies Magazine
"This is a gripping psychological drama and a rather cautionary tale." - Deborah Marshall, Readplus.com
'Pretty Girl' was the hardest to write. Why? I’m not sure. Perhaps I didn’t plan it as well as my other novels. Perhaps it was because I decided to make the villian a ghost (what a dumb, dumb idea!) and suddenly I was confronted with all the things a ghost could or couldn’t do. How come they appear to one person but not another? Can they talk? Are they made of flesh and can one touch them? On and on it went because the problem was that this was a ghost in a real life setting, this wasn’t fantasy where the writer can create a world to suit their character.
But..... I kept writing and not only that, I kept writing while ignoring all my instincts that were telling me this story wasn’t working.
After handing in the first draft (98,000 words) to my editors and sitting for many hours with them in our first ‘structural edit’ meeting, (this is when the big ideas of the story are discussed) I returned home not feeling too great about life. The story wasn’t working- I knew it and they knew it.
That night, I deleted over 90,000 words of the manuscript. This was not to be a ghost story. In fact making the villian a real person was going to add many more layers than a ghost ever could. Besides ‘ordinary’ is usually the most unsettling.
The other lesson to swallow in that meeting was understanding that a mystery and a thriller are two different things and I seemed to have been writing a ‘Thrillery’ or maybe a ‘Mysteriller’. In a mystery, the reader doesn’t know who’s committed the crime. In a thriller, the reader can guess reasonably early in the story who the baddie is. The suspense and tension are caused by the other characters not being aware of this. To me, a thriller is the type of book when a reader yells at the characters because the reader is aware of the trap they’re walking in to. This situation creates the narrative drive. The reader keeps reading. It doesn’t mean a complete disaster if the reader knows more than the characters in the book! So, sitting at my desk, ready to start a new, fresh draft of 'Pretty Girl', I now knew three things:
- The villian was a just a ‘regular’ human.
- I was writing a thriller and not a mystery.
- And most importantly, I needed to go back and plan carefully.
Always, I knew that I wanted to explore the world of the “fresher” or first year uni student. It’s a strange, somewhat disorientating time. The routine of school has finished and parents are maybe less in your face.
In the first few months everything is shifting under your feet. Friendships are tested and often broken; new people are coming into your life that have different stories and backgrounds. The world is opening up and one can feel very, very small.
On top of it, is the pressure to perform well academically yet the structure of school and close support from teachers isn’t the same. Suddenly there’s an expectation to organise your own life. Boundaries, safety nets and rules are no longer what they used to be. There’s untold freedom, a lot of spare time and a new experience to be had beckoning at every corner. There’s also the idea of ‘initiation’ at university colleges. Freshers being forced to perform humiliating, degrading and often dangerous acts. When I was in the ‘thinking stage’ of 'Pretty Girl', before even scribbling down an idea, there were allegations of student misconduct at some of Australia’s university residential colleges. I had also read Helen Garner’s ‘The First Stone’ and ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’- two books that really stayed with me for a long time. So this is one aspect of 'Pretty Girl'. It’s a great background to set a story in as it’s jam packed with conflict and change.
'Pretty Girl' is written in third-person present-tense. The point of view alternates between two characters, Sarah and Paige.
Sarah’s had the same boyfriend Wil, since Yr 11. He may be a little dull but he’s safe and Sarah likes ‘safe’. The other thing about Wil is that he’s privileged, from a wealthy, well-established family and that means alot to Sarah the eternal ‘scholarship’ student. For me, this was an important part of Sarah’s character and I wanted to explore this. Sarah has always felt that she stood on the sidelines and could only watch the world of what she calls the ‘genetically privileged.’ So how much would one compromise their true feelings, their better judgement, in order to be a part of this world? This is the dilemma I throw Sarah in to. It influences her development as a character but also adds to the ‘thriller’ element of 'Pretty Girl'. Sarah has the most to loose in this story.
Paige is one of the ‘genetically privileged’. She has never had a boyfriend and is less sexually experienced. This is what I wanted to explore in Paige’s character. Do you give everything up for a relationship? Your friends, your family? Do you only hear what you want to hear and filter what you don’t? Do you loose a sense of yourself because you may be so involved in the relationship that everything else seems insignificant? Again, this aids the fleshing out of Paige’s character while also helping to increase the tension and suspense in 'Pretty Girl'.
Their stories run in chronological order but what makes this different is that Paige has lost her memory. This enabled me to run the two stories together until they run into one another as the final piece of Paige’s memory is recalled. This is the climax when their stories collide. The planning phase was important here as the timing had to be spot on with just enough clues and signals along the way. Constantly I was referring back to my planning book, noting what clue I’d planted on what page and if it had been followed up. There are always lots of crossed out pages in my planning books which tells me I’ve followed up on all the points on that particular page. All loose ends need to be tidied or it’s frustrating for the reader.
A note on the ending. I’m not into ‘Hollywood’ endings where everything magically works out and characters walk hand in hand into the sunset. Always reality is what drives my stories and this can be a problem.
In 'Pretty Girl', my editors wanted more resolution and explanation as to who and why the baddie was the way he was. I kept saying ‘Some people are just born that way. Why do I have to explain it?’ (probably more of an exclamation than question mark there). My editors answer was always ‘The reader needs to understand the baddie’s motivation.’
I did try to at least suggest the motivation without making it too neat because life and people aren’t neat.