When I started writing 22 Scars, I knew it would draw heavily on my own experiences and life as someone struggling with depression and self-harm. The first thoughts of the story came to my mind sometime in the late summer of 2005, visiting New York City for the first time and thinking that it would make an interesting setting for a novel (the ‘city’ mentioned in 22 Scars is undoubtedly New York). And although there are of course countless stories set in New York, the ideas and scenes that were germinating in my head were unlike anything I’d ever read before. By that point in my life, I was a diehard Stephen King fanatic, although I’d read other authors as well, but nothing in any of them mentioned anything like depression or self-harm—certainly not in the way that I knew it.
So as I sat and wrote in a large purple-bound notebook, I dreamt of a novel that would take place over decades and tell of life, death and despair. I have hundreds of pages of ideas and notes, and wrote out Amy’s entire life by hand, long before I ever committed a first word to paper. But by the time I knew what my story was, how it needed to be told, and how it was going to be structured, I quickly learned that my writing skill was no match for it.
I’ve discovered that I’m still not the only one to discuss the same traumas and real-life struggles of young men and women.
The very first draft of 22 Scars included a four-page opening description of a city before even introducing a character. I thought I was building setting; what I was really doing was boring the pants off the reader. It was going to be 200,000 words long, because that’s what I thought a novel was supposed to be. And unsurprisingly, I found myself rejecting my own writing, falling into a deep despair, and giving up on the project.
But it remained in the back of my mind. Every once in a while, while I was reading, or writing music, or just lying around … I’d remember this story that I needed to tell. And when I started writing fantasy in 2011, I was more mature, more cognizant of what made a good book—and by the time late 2016 came around, I had three completed (two published) novels and a much better grasp of storytelling. It was time.
Eleven years is a long time for a novel to gestate, even one as personal and important as 22 Scars. And in that time, other people started writing about depression and self-harm, too. I didn’t know it; I wasn’t looking for those other books. I was too busy writing my own. But the first shock came when Netflix aired a series called Thirteen Reasons Why. Based on Jay Asher’s novel of the same name, it told the story of a sad teenage girl, the abuse she both witnessed and received, and notably ended with a very graphic suicide scene (although the realism of this scene left me wanting). The format of the book was intriguing; eschewing a standard plot and pacing, it is told via recorded diaries of the deceased girl, speaking in her own voice about the things that brought her to choose to end her own life.
But it hit me like a sack of bricks; here I was pouring my heart into a novel about depression and suicide, and it seemed the gold standard was already here: who would want to read my book after reading/watching Thirteen Reasons Why? They were too similar, I thought.
But I persisted, because there were things in my story that were not in Thirteen Reasons Why. Things that only I knew about. And so I drafted, wrote, edited, and tweaked until I thought the story was as good as it could be—and in November of last year, I published it. When the reviews came in and said they enjoyed it, I was thrilled. When one person said they felt “22 Scars succeeded in portraying the ugly and painful truth better than Thirteen Reasons Why,” I felt validated. I had written something that could stand in its own right, and not under the shadow of this other great novel.
But more recently, I’ve discovered that I’m still not the only one to discuss the same traumas and real-life struggles of young men and women. Not long after I published 22 Scars, I became aware of a book called Cut, by Patricia McCormick. Cut is about a teenage girl who self-harms, and the treatment she goes through. Damn.
And just the other day, I discovered Scars, by Cheryl Rainfield. Again, a story of a troubled teenage girl with an abusive past and self-harm as a coping mechanism. This time, I was taken aback—almost frightened. Both my book and hers deal with sexual abuse. Both my book and hers feature a major character who might be gay. Both books detail self-harm graphically. And stunningly, both books have a scarred woman’s arm on the cover.
Rainfield’s book was published in 2011; McCormick’s was also published in 2011. Asher’s novel came out in 2007. All of these were written long before my book, but not before I started my book; remember, I first thought of the story in 2005. And I was unaware of these books until very recently. It’s just so strange that in all this time, in all my research and googling of my own book (who doesn’t do that?), I never came across any of these stories. And now there seem to be endless variations on a theme.
At the end of the day, I’m confident knowing that my story is truly my story, and despite the parallels to many others, I know its value, and its originality. I just wonder what others might think, reading all of these books. Which one deals with the subject of depression and self-harm better? Which one tells the better story? And which one is the new gold standard?
Perhaps none of them; perhaps there is a book somewhere that I have yet to discover that deals with all of this in a deft, succinct and engaging storyline. Perhaps my book is doomed to the slush pile, never to be noticed or bought.
I suppose only time will tell. but to Patricia McCormick, Cheryl Rainfield and Jay Asher—thank you. I hope one day I can be held in your esteem.