Creating Dog Girl — From Start to Finish
by Gabi Justice
Dog Girl’s journey began on March 20, 2015, on a plane to Puerto Rico. I was supposed to be working on another manuscript, book 3 in a trilogy, but instead, I watched television. The screen carved into the headrest in front of me on the JetBlue flight played Pit Bulls and Parolees and hooked me. I watched at least two episodes. Ideas popped into my head. A main character that rescues dogs. A story set at a dog rescue center. My fingers flew across the keyboard, capturing these thoughts before they vanished.
We landed in San Juan, then took a three-hour shuttle across the country to get to our destination. All the while, I couldn’t get this story out of my head. We were there for my daughter’s tennis tournament. We were with friends and a coach, so I had obligations when all I wanted to do was break out my laptop and write. Fortunately, I had a lot of downtime and wrote more than half of the story. Or course, it was a very rough draft, but I knew I had something special.
The reader will find many aspects of that tennis tournament in Dog Girl. Ryan plays his match on the court where my daughter played. It’s actually a combination of two trips we made, one with my son and daughter to Cabo Rojo and the other to Mayaguez with just my daughter. I pulled from both experiences to create those chapters but not because of tennis. A timber wolf I held at a sanctuary in San Juan inspired the idea to send Kendall on a rescue mission to Puerto Rico. Dragon, the wolf Kendall desperately fights to save, grew out of those real-life events.
The story initially had Kendall’s mom, Cat, as the primary rescuer and Kendall following along. However, my agent wanted Kendall to be in control. So, I had to figure a plausible way to make a seventeen-year-old the rescuer of a shot pit bull tied to railroad tracks. My agent, Sharon Belcastro, continually pushes me to be a better writer and create more conflict. Your character should be between a rock and a hard place, she always says. Between her and several beta readers’ critiques, I rewrote Dog Girl at least ten times, made so many changes.
One change was to place the rescue of Trax — the pit bull tied to the railroad tracks — at the beginning. The book needed to open with a bang, with that dramatic scene. In the original version, I started with Kendall walking to school alone, running across Ryan in a Jeep that dusted her with dirt. The first chapters introduced her school life and friends. They led up to the climatic dog rescue. That was all cut or reworked into later chapters. It made a huge difference and created instant drama.
The pit bull rescue was a real-life event I’d heard/read about years earlier, and the horror stayed with me. Anyone who brutalizes a dog is a horrible human being. This is a universal truth, and I knew if I could write it successfully, I’d gain a reader’s attention.
Kendall’s mental health issues evolved slowly through rewrites. I wanted a socially conscious story. I wanted characters that everyone could relate to, and I wanted my story to make a difference. I began with Kendall suffering from mild anxiety, but it quickly escalated into a diagnosable mental illness. And what did that mean? How could my character help others who suffered from these same feelings? I researched. I went to teenage mental health panels. I observed the teenagers all around me as I was raising two teenage children at the time.
Then there’s the aspect of diversity. I wanted diverse characters and all the angst that accompanies different races and sexual preferences. It’s important in today’s literature. It has to be a conscious effort on the part of the writer. Yet, at the same time, the writer can’t just throw in diverse characters haphazardly. It felt organic to me. Diversity was in the back of my mind at all times, so these wonderful characters from all walks of life materialized naturally. They are so real to me that sometimes I forget they’re not.
Acceptance of others is another central theme that lurked in the back of my mind as I wrote. I chose an alternative family life for Kendall. Her mother is bi-sexual, and her stepmother is lesbian. On the one hand, it was a determined effort to include diversity and acceptance in the story, but on the other hand, it just happened. These characters and this world just sprung to life, and I embraced them. It’s the embracing of your uncensored ideas that free you to develop interesting stories. Then you go back and fine-tune it. You send it to beta readers, critique partners, your agent and ask for advice and guidance.
Sometime between October and November of 2018, Dog Girl was finally ready to be submitted to publishers. I gave it to my agent and tried to forget about it. Move on. Write another story. Almost one year later, she called with a publishing offer. Writing is patience. Writing is waiting. Writing never stops.
About the Novel:
by: Gabi Justice
YA, Contemporary, Fiction
Summary: Dog Girl is Fangirl meets Pit Bulls and Parolees.
Saving the dogs who end up at Delray Dog Rescue is Kendall’s life. It’s the perfect job for a girl with severe social anxiety.
Delray Dog Rescue doesn’t just rescue dogs, it’s a second chance for felons, like her dad. Losing the rescue means losing Kendall’s home, her sanctuary, the dogs she loves, her identity and her dad, all over again.
But money’s tight, and soon, Kendall must decide between keeping a roof over her head and saving the rescue.
When a video of Kendall’s harrowing rescue of a pit bull from the path of an oncoming train goes viral. Suddenly, everyone wants a piece of Kendall, making her anxiety worse. But this is an opportunity to put the rescue in the spotlight and secure the donations needed to save it.
Can she overcome the social paralysis that’s plagued her all her life? Can she ignore negative comments on social media about her looks and smell? Can she accept help from a boy who really sees her, even though she can’t understand what he could possibly see in her?
DOG GIRL is the story of a teen girl who wants to save the world, and ends up saving herself in the process.
Goodreads Link: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54471917-dog-girl
Book Club Link: https://www.gabijustice.com/book-club-kit
Grand Prize: Dog Girl T-Shirt! (U.S. only – Sizes S-XL)
1st Prize: $10 Amazon Gift Card (International)
About the Author:
Gabi Justice is the author of Dog Girl, her teen and young adult contemporary romance debut set to publish in the fall of 2020. She is the mom to three dogs and one stray cat named Luna Buna. She lives in Florida with her husband and children. You’d be hard-pressed to find a tennis court in the state that she hasn’t visited, having three competitive junior players in the family. She spent most of her adult life writing editorial copy for local magazines after graduating from the University of South Florida. Florida provides the settings for all her coming-of-age stories that highlight bullying, misjudgment, acceptance, and teen anxiety. Her main characters are goal-oriented teenage girls with a drive that can be fierce and dangerous.