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  • I read a lot, and I have a lot of opinions, so I can't believe I haven't made a list like this before. If you are even a little bit like me or you want to get a peek into my psyche (you probs don't), these are the books to read.


Writer’s commentary, AUT: part 1

Posted on June 19th, 2010 by annakjarzab

So one of the things I love to do is watch director’s commentary on movies and television shows that I love. If I own a movie and have watched it more than once, I’ve probably watched the director’s commentary. I get mad when there isn’t one. I watch it for the same reason that I spoiled myself entirely on BSG before I even started watching it–because I enjoy deconstructing narrative, looking at how it works and its various parts, intentions v. actuality, intentions v. audience reaction, etc.

I think there’s something really interesting about a creator commenting directly on their work as it’s happening, or maybe it’s just interesting to the creator, but I don’t think so, or at least that hasn’t been my personal experience. So I thought I would take pieces of my own book and do some writer’s commentary on it, so you can see the story behind the story, so to speak. I’m just going to start with the excerpt for now, and do commentary in pieces, but I think if people are into it I’ll lift some stuff from other parts of the book and comment on those, too.

By necessity, it’s going to be a little long. Sorry!


Chapter One

Senior Year

It was the end of summer, when the hills were bone dry and brown; the sun beating down and shimmering up off the pavement was enough to give you heatstroke. Once winter came, Empire Valley would be compensated for five months of hot misery with three months of torrential rain, the kind of downpours that make the freeways slick and send cars sliding into one another on ribbons of oil. On the bright side, the hills would turn a green so lustrous they woud look as if they had been spray painted, and in the morning the fog would transform the valley into an Arthurian landscape. But before the days got shorter and the rain came, there was the heat and the dust and the sun, conspiring to drive the whole town crazy.

This is probably one of my favorite things I’ve ever written; Northern California, where Empire Valley is, is really exactly like this, and I’ve heard from people who are from this area that they recognize it immediately. Empire Valley is basically the Pleasanton/San Ramon/Dublin, CA area outside of Oakland, where I was living when I first wrote this paragraph. There was another paragraph describing the town, which I LOVED, but eventually I deleted it on my editor’s advice because it was slowing down the narrative. You have these things from time to time, and I guess that’s what people mean by “killing your darlings”, which is advice I hate, but whatever–you have these things that you love that you don’t need, and you could keep them or not keep them, I don’t know that the blanket “kill your darlings” advice is really helpful. But the general wisdom is that the less explaining you do up front, the better, because you want to get into the action, so even though I loved it, I cut that paragraph because it was just coming at the setting from a different angle, which ultimately we didn’t need. I miss it, but I think it was right to cut it.

School was starting on Monday. I had two more days of freedom. I hadn’t slept very much since Wednesday night; my palms were sweating, and everything ached with the ache that comes after a long hike and a couple of rough falls. My mother wanted to take me to a doctor for the insomnia, so the night before school started I didn’t go home. Instead, I went to Empire Creek Bridge, where I thought I could clear my head. The bridge was a small, overgrown stone arch, a mimicry of ancient Roman architecture that was more about form than function and could only accommodate one car at a time going one direction on its carefully placed cobblestones. A narrow, slow-moving body of water ran beneath it, and clumps of oak trees rose up near its banks. The bridge was almost useless, but very picturesque, and this was where I lay down so that I wouldn’t get run over, and closed my eyes. I needn’t have bothered. All night, not one car passed. I could have died on that bridge and no one would have noticed.

So this version of AUT has always started with this scene on the bank of the creek, but it went through a lot of drafts–ramping up the melodrama, dialing it way down, that sort of stuff. It’s a pretty self-centered scene for Neily; he’s in a place of feeling sorry for himself, really wrapped up in his own pain, his loneliness. Still, most readers tell me they love this scene. I think that’s interesting, considering that you don’t really know what’s making Neily suffer so badly (I guess you do if you read the flap copy, but whatever)–you just feel sorry for him because he’s so sad. This paragraph changed a lot from first to last draft (is it sad that I can remember most incarnations of specific paragraphs? I usually can’t even remember where I put my glasses). I think the mention of specific days of the week is awkward, but they were added towards the end as a way to orient you in time, just like the subheadings (the “Senior Year” stuff), which I don’t entirely love, either, but which may have been my idea, so I can’t complain too much. The stuff about the bridge was also added in later, to give you a more vivid picture of the setup of this first scene.

Another fun piece of behind-the-scenes information is that the word “overgrown” was a capitulation to Random House. After we got the cover image, someone high up at RH, who was very supportive of the book, took issue with the fact that she’s lying in the grass when really she was found on the bridge. I wasn’t willing to move Carly’s body physically in space, so we compromised on saying that the bridge was “overgrown” to give the idea that there was grass on it, so that C could reasonably be on the bridge in that cover shot. Everybody seemed happy with that, and it didn’t bother me at all, but it was cool to know that there was someone thinking about this in an even more detail-oriented way than I was!

This is not to say that I wanted to die. I wasn’t–and have never been–suicidal. The valley was blanketed by a late, torturous heat wave that made the shadows the only decent place to sit during the day, and the dry winds kicked up the dust, making me uneasy. I had grown up Empire Valley and was used to these uncomfortable summers, but this time I had begun to feel a restlessness reverberating through my bones like the persistent hum of cicadas.

Whenever I read this scene aloud at a reading, I always realize that the first sentence of this paragraph doesn’t fit very well with the rest of it. I think we deleted something here, combined two paragraphs or something. We probably could’ve cut that first sentence. It bothers me so much now, but oh well.

The book is set over a couple of months when the weather in Nor Cal really changes, and at the end of the book you get that rain I promised in the first paragraph, so I felt the need to tell you what the atmosphere is like at the beginning, so that you see how the stifling summer air eventually gives way to this relief at the end of the book–relief that comes with its own messiness, because rain chases away the heat, but it also causes its own problems (i.e. the cars sliding around the freeway, per the first paragraph). I hate heat of all kinds–dry, humid, whatever–so when introducing uncomfortable weather, that’s where my mind goes.

It had been a long, slow summer. I had spent most of it reading massive Russian novels on my porch, playing video games, and sleeping until noon. I didn’t have a lot of friends and I didn’t see much of anyone apart from my parents. I had plenty of schoolwork, too–my class schedule for the upcoming year promised to be brutal, with six AP classes and college application season right around the corner–but nothing seemed to be able to occupy me for very long. My mother had an easy explanation for my agitation–it was my senior year, and I was under a lot of pressure, especially from my father, to chart my future–but it was more complicated than that.

I remember that this was a paragraph we introduced near the end of the revisions process with Joanna, my agent. One of her questions was, “What was Neily doing all summer?” I gave it some thought and was like, well, he doesn’t really have any friends, so he was alone most of that time. I like the idea of Neily having this goal of reading all of Dostoyevsky’s books over the summer, just to have something to do, but I thought that stating that would be a little ridiculous and hammer home too hard what a brain he is, so I diluted it. I feel like, he’s sort of depressed, so he’d sleep a lot, and read these sad novels about violence and pain and loss and unhappiness–and he’s a teenage boy, so he’d also play video games. Sort of a high-low guy, our Neily is.

There was another reason I had come to Empire Creek Bridge. The year before, almost to the day, a girl I loved had died on this bridge, shot in cold blood. The police considered the matter solved–there had been an arrest, a trial, a guilty verdict–but Carly’s murder retained an air of mystery for me and so did the place where she died. I had so many questions, but nobody except Carly seemed capable of answering them, and by the time I had found her body she was already dead. Despite all the effort I had put into blocking that night from my mind and trying to forget, the murder still haunted me. I didn’t know what good spending time at the bridge would do, but I had been drawn there throughout that boiling summer, and I thought it was best to go with my instincts, even though they never seemed to do me any good.

I think this whole first part works really well to establish a bunch of stuff that’s important early on. You get a good snapshot of who Neily is, how he feels about his life, what’s haunting him, what he’s doing about it (i.e. not very much), and the sense of unrest in him that is the foundation for his willingness to team up with Audrey to figure out who killed Carly. He’s not yet able to vocalize exactly what it is that’s bothering him about Carly’s murder, and he doesn’t trust himself at all, which is a big character arc for him, and he’s retreating from the world because he doesn’t know what else to do. I’m proud of the intro because I think it establishes exactly what it needs to for the book to work, for you to buy the premise and to sort of plug you into the story. You know who, what, where, when, and why the story is happening. It took a lot of editing to get it to that point, but aside from that one sentence I would cut if I could go back, I think it’s the tightest it can be and very much does its job. I also think it’s pretty in places, the language, but I’m going to try not to pat myself on the back too much for that. 🙂

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