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Novels have I loved

Posted on April 24th, 2008 by Anna Jarzab

The Manuscript Mavens have been rifling under their beds and through their closets (metaphorically speaking, mostly, I’d imagine), digging up long-forgotten manuscripts and displaying them for all to see. Today, Diana Peterfreund did the same thing. So, you know, being the lemming that I am, I’m following suit! I actually think this a really fun and interesting experiment, because it proves that 1.) writing makes you a better writer, and you should never feel bad about previous (failed or otherwise) attempts at writing because you always learn something, and 2.) that writers almost never sell their first completed manuscripts. I mean, some writers have upwards of six manuscripts sitting around in drawers or in computer files that will never, ever see the light of day.

Now, I have a pretty terrible memory, so while I’m going to try to remember everything I’ve ever written, I probably won’t. But I think I can get close.

Juvenilia: I started writing little stories when I was about eleven, and I don’t remember very many of them. I would type them up on the family computer at first, then I got my own when I started high school. One was heavily inspired by Gone With the Wind, I remember that. I also remember handwriting a story in a little notebook I’d been given; it was about a girl who somehow came to possess a pair of ruby-slipper-esque shoes that granted wishes. She was embarrassed at school (I must’ve been suffering from some middle school angst at the time) and wished that “the floor would open up and swallow her whole”, so of course it did. I don’t remember what her name was or what happened to her after that. I suppose I just left her in the hole. Maybe she wished the shoes away. Also, there were long periods of fanfiction, including more than one (read: three) Lois & Clark fanfic novellas (I know, cringe, right? I mean, that show is awesome, but seriously? THREE fanfic novellas?). They were actually fairly clever (I think; I don’t really remember), and had reasonably good stories, and I even let my aunt Christine read one (double cringe!). Anyway, I lost everything from this period in the Great Mac Crash of 1999, so all that is left is the one hard copy that I let my aunt read, but I bet that got thrown away a long time ago. Ha! What will my biographers do?

Novel #1: I started this one my senior year of high school, and I remember telling Cambria, now one of my best friends but back then only a class acquaintance, about it. She later told me that she thought it was so cool back then that I was writing a novel and that it kind of made her feel better about her own writing ambitions. Anyway, it was called The House on Gilmore Lake (name probably inspired by that great show, brand new at the time, Gilmore Girls) and it was about a woman named Kate who had just broken up with her boyfriend and took a leave of absence from her job to go back to her small town to convince her sister to undergo chemotherapy for a cancer that was going to kill her if she didn’t seek treatment. Gumming up the works was the fact that her sister’s husband, Kale (later they used that name, which with a sixteen-year-old’s naivete I thought I’d invented, in Disturbia, and I was like, “Stolen!”), was her (Kate’s) high school boyfriend and they were soul mates and she was still in love with him. Also, Kale and the sister (don’t remember her name) had a child…a boy, I think. Yeah, definitely a boy, although I don’t remember his name*, either. Further complicating things is that the girls’ mother died from cancer when they were teens and also refused treatment, so of course Kate sees that her foolish sister is trying to follow in the footsteps of their mother, who she so deeply admired but who Kate hated for choosing not to fight her illness and leaving them. Ah, the melodramatic yearnings of bored suburban youth! It also kicked off a creepy fondness of mine for naming slightly sinister characters “Laura”**–the mother’s name was Laura, and there’s a Laura in AUT and there’s a very sinister Laura in this quasi-apocalyptic (“quasi” because there’s not really an apocalypse, it’s just supposed to feel like there was; it’s an emotional apocalypse) novel I’ve briefly sketched that I won’t get near for a few years. As for the ending of The House on Gilmore Lake, well, the sister (Amy? Nope, still don’t remember) does die and Kate gets back together with her boyfriend (Winston? I don’t know, he had a “W” name and was a doctor) and they take over temporary custody of Kale’s son because he’s such a mess. Even back then I decided that not everybody gets a happy ending.

Novel #2: I wrote this one when I was a freshman in college; it was around 180 pgs and TERRIBLE! Probably worse than the first one. It was even more melodramatic, IF YOU CAN BELIEVE IT. It was about a woman named Giley*** (Wuh? Also, I didn’t even remember this; Cambria reminded me of it recently and I was like, seriously? Are you sure?). Apparently, I like giving some characters weird names–Giley, Kale, etc.–and this has continued on, as one of the protagonists in AUT has a fairly unusual name. Anyways, Giley was trapped in a sad, crumbling marriage and she is a former professional who stopped working to have children and then miscarried three times and is totally tortured by all of this and then starts working for a battered women’s shelter and meets some women in worse situations than her and then one of them is a teen mother who Giley takes under her wing and then she eventually leaves and Giley adopts her daughter. I think Giley stays with her husband, but I wouldn’t know–ask Cambria, apparently she remembers more about this particular work.

Novel #3: AUT. No, seriously. BUT. I started writing AUT when I was a sophomore in college (that would be, um, about six years ago). It started off as a story about a sullen teenage boy whose mother gives him some awful news, but I quickly abandoned that storyline as, even though it was inspired by somebody I actually knew, I couldn’t have written it very well and I was aware of that. So, I came up with a whole new story, about a sullen teenage boy (he stayed; I love him) who is a senior in high school and kind of a loner. At first it was supposed to be about a girl he used to be best friends with who kept trying to kill herself and landed in a mental hospital (my affection for melodrama had not waned, even with the cancer and miscarriage storylines out of my system), and then he saves this other young woman from killing HERself and through that somehow he learns something. Anyway, that didn’t go as planned. While writing the first draft, I scrapped the second woman and concentrated instead on the friendship between my male and female protagonists, telling the story half in flashback and half in the present. Eventually, he tries to break into the hospital to free her (seriously) because he’s discovered that her apparent psychosis is caused by repressed memories of her father killing her mother, but she escapes without his help in the middle of a huge storm and drowns herself in the town’s creek. Also, an investigator who has come to town looking into the murder of the girl’s mother teams up with this teenage boy and the boy eventually gets a confession out of the father, who escapes. I wrote a follow-up short story where the father is finally found by the police and ruminates on his enormous guilt before killing himself. That story was actually okay. I turned it in for a fiction writing seminar my senior year and Ron Hansen, my professor, gave me pretty excellent feedback, which I found encouraging, but the thing is that the novel was NOT good and I knew that pretty much from the moment I finished it, when I was a senior in college. I put it aside and tried to forget it.

Novel #4: A novel-in-short-stories I’ll call Flyleaf. This novel started with the title short story, which was published in the Santa Clara Review, where I worked as Associate Editor at the time. My friend Ben, who was the Fiction Editor, published it, saying, “This is not the sort of stuff I’d normally like, but it’s good. It’s going in.” It was a good short story, although other ones in the novel are better. I still would like to publish this one day. There are fifteen stories, and they all center around a young woman in her late twenties who is a self-help editor, and her relationship with her male best friend, with whom she is in love. There’s a delightful cast of characters and a bookstore that seems like a character and it’s mostly a light, funny story about friendship and books and New York. The problem is, I wasn’t living in New York when I wrote most of it (14 out of 15 short stories are finished; it’s just that last one that keeps eluding me), so a lot of it needs to be fixed up, and the later stories are funnier and better written than the earlier ones, so I need to even out the style a little, but writing it was a really great break from the intensity of AUT and I love it dearly and intend to return to it someday soon.

Novel #5: A YA fantasy I intended as part of a trilogy. I finished it, it was okay, but it’s unpublishable. I’m embarrassed to think that I even tried to find an agent for it. Let’s just call it a result of Harry Potter fever and let me off the hook for it, okay?

Novel #6: AUT, the remix. I had thought I was done with AUT, but after a huge lightbulb went off in my head I picked it back up during what I call my “Thomson year.” (That’s the year after I graduated from college when I was living at home in Northern California and commuting two hours and fifteen minutes each day to Belmont, working at Thomson Learning, a textbook publishing company.) Anyway, I decided that I had all the ingredients of a good story, but I just needed to do a little switching around and turn what was just sort of a mystery into a real mystery. I took the female protagonist and killed her off. I brought back the idea of the second female protagonist, but I completely changed her. All that remains of the previous incarnation of AUT is the town it takes place in, the male protagonist and his parents. Oh, and the private school they all attend, and the principal of that school. The female protagonist remained in name, but though I managed to maintain the essence of her personality, her story changed and with it her character to an extent. I invented some new characters, including the second female protagonist, who I really love.

I did something entirely new with this novel–I plotted it. I got a notebook, wrote the title on the cover (oh, yeah, the title stayed, too), and went to work fleshing out the mystery plotline, writing character manifestos, and drafting scenes. I didn’t put any of this onto my computer until right before I started my Master’s program at the University of Chicago, and I abandoned the effort for a while as I tried to figure out what I was going to write for my creative thesis. Although I wanted to write a semi-fictional account of my grandmother’s WWII memoirs, I realized that it was too large an undertaking for a six-month project, so instead I decided to write AUT. I completed it in roughly six months under the supervision of my adviser and my preceptor and with the help of my friends Nickie and August. They all read draft after draft after draft and I’m so grateful for all their feedback. You know the rest–got an agent, revised some more, looking forward to submitting soon, etc.

Novel #7: Right now I’m calling it MB (the “M” can stand for two things right now, and I can’t decide which one would be best–I know which one I like best, but not which one works best, you know?), and it’s another YA mystery but with a little bit of a lighter feel and a non-tragic romance. It’s set in Northern California, like AUT, but instead of the East Bay area, it’s set more in the Sacramento-ish area where my brother lives. Can’t say much more about it right now, but I’m about six chapters in and I haven’t been working on it very much lately, what with the AUT revisions and the laziness that followed. I’m in a writing valley right now, which I’m okay with. I know I’ll get back on the horse soon enough; I’m just taking a much needed break. But I’m SO excited about MB–I think about it constantly–and I really can’t wait to take up writing it again. It’s a summer novel, so I’ll probably give myself maybe another week and then launch in, taking advantage of the New York summer (hot, oppressive, etc.) to inspire (or perspire! HA!) me.

*ETA: Miles! The boy’s name was Miles! I think.

**I do not know why I do this. I have a very good friend named Laura, so Laura, if you someday read this, know that it has nothing to do with you–obvs, as I was doing it long before I met you!

***ETA: No! Her name was Gelsey.

3 Responses to “Novels have I loved”

Suzanne on May 2nd, 2008 at 2:00 am Said:

I cannot express how encouraging it was to read this post as I sit at my computer revising one of my early novels for the nth time.

It is so easy to think when you see a ‘first time’ novelist hit it big that it is indeed their first ever attempt at writing. The reality is of course that they have a closet full of the ms.s that never saw the light of day.

-suz

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[…] couple of weeks ago I detailed for you the early days of my writing “career”, including all the novels I’d written. When I first thought about it, I was like, “Yes, definitely, I write a lot of […]

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