Posted on February 7th, 2011 by annakjarzab
If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I finished my latest revision of The Opposite of Hallelujah yesterday. I am very excited about this! Mostly because books are hard to write and even harder to revise and I’m tired, etc., but also because I’m hoping this will be the draft that my editor gets to read and I’m excited for her to see it, mostly so that I can give you fine people an actual synopsis of it instead of a vague description. I just don’t want to jinx it and say THIS IS WHAT MY NEXT BOOK IS ABOUT because, as I know from experience, the book you are writing is not necessarily a book anybody wants to publish. So we shall see! Hopefully soon. I have no idea.
Also, did you know that All Unquiet Things is coming out in paperback on May 10, 2011! This is way sooner than I thought it was going to be; I think we originally discussed it being on the Spring 2012 list, with my new book, which is also not happening in that season. (I’m guessing Fall 2012? But that’s just a guess, nothing–and I mean NOTHING, not even the actual project–is for sure at this point.) I’m so excited about the paperback. First of all, I love paperbacks, way more than hardcovers. Second of all, the back cover is BLACK, which is super cool. Third of all, it has a wonderful blurb from New York Times bestselling author (and Edgar-award winner) Nancy Werlin, who has written a bunch of really great teen thrillers and also Impossible, which was a huge hit (and a great book, I think I finished it in, like, three hours because I couldn’t put it down). I’m really honored to have Nancy’s seal of approval!
Not that Hallelujah is even remotely finished, but I’ve already got a new project in the pipeline that I’m excited to work on. I’m also excited about all the TV I now have time to watch can now stop pretending to not be watching instead of doing my revisions whoops. Like the new season of Parks & Rec (Rob Lowe, we did not know what we were missing until you came along (Adam Scott, you are really great too, please don’t go anywhere))! Last week’s Twilight themed episode was exceptionally brilliant. Not that those books need any more publicity or anything (although, probably everyone who was ever going to read Twilight has read it and/or seen the movies by now), but really, just some superb stuff. That show is getting really, really good. Or Greek! Do y’all watch Greek? First of all, as a sorority girl myself, I can tell you that it’s the most realistic show/movie about college and Greek life I’ve ever seen. Also, Cappie. He is a beautiful, beautiful man. And the writing is pretty good and the acting is pretty good. It’s the last season, so you should definitely catch up via DVD and then watch this sucker till the end! And Bones is still okay even though they are really jerking us around with this Bones/Booth business and I am tired of it, and Castle is heating up (I’m even starting to care about/like Beckett!), 30 Rock remains funny, Community is LOL, Perfect Couples is way farther away from terrible than I was sure it would be, and GUESS WHAT IS COMING NEXT WEEK! Jeopardy! Man vs. Machine. Plus the return of Glee (maybe it will be good again–just kidding, it won’t be, it’s a ridiculous show, but the music) and Raising Hope. AND MAKE IT OR BREAK IT IN MARCH!
Oh boy. If I get anything else done this spring, I will be shocked.
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!
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. 🙂
Posted on April 6th, 2010 by annakjarzab
I just read this post author Alex Flinn put up on her blog about choosing names for characters, which I thought was really interesting and got me thinking about why and how I name characters what I name them, so I thought I’d throw in my two cents.
I have owned the same baby name book for 10+ years (probably closer to twelve). It’s called The Last Word on First Names, which makes very little sense as the authors, Pamela Redmond Satran and Linda Rosencrantz, went on to write several other books about baby names, so really it’s not the last word on first names. And it’s actually not the best baby name book in the world–I would really prefer if it told you what the meaning was behind all of the names, not just some of them. Mostly it’s just the authors’ commentary on the names, putting them in a contemporary context (although, you know, contemporary circa 1997, which is no longer contemporary), talking about popularity and literary/historical context, etc. It’s useful in many ways, and quite the crack up. The entry for Hortense just says “No,” which is still a big joke with my sister and I (who knows why).
One might ask why I purchased a baby names book (because I definitely purchased it with my own dollars) at age thirteen or fourteen–obviously, I was not considering having a child, and there were no siblings on the way. I bought it because I was a writer and needed a naming resource, considering the Internet, though it had been invented (thanks Al Gore!), wasn’t really the intense repository of information that it is today. I read that thing cover to cover like a novel, and it shows–its pages are ripped and creased and tea stained beyond what is normal. I used it for a really long time. Now I use the Internet, in the form of Behind the Name, which was actually a website my mother told me about (she’s very hip to the jive). It’s very useful, especially when I want to name peripheral characters–I usually go for names that were on the top 100 lists in the year that the characters were ostensibly born (usually about fourteen to eighteen years prior to the year in which I’m writing the book, which I guess now is about 1993/1994 or so), because they have them for every year post-1990 and for every decade before that until the late 1800s.
I tend to be attracted to classic names myself, especially for boys–saints names, basically. Your Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Michael (although even I have to admit that one’s pretty played out), James, Thomas, Christopher, Stephen, Joseph, Anthony, William, etc. With girls, I tend to be the same way. I like how old fashioned names are coming back into style–Ruby, Mary, Emma, etc.
But if you look at what I’ve written recently, you can tell that my personal preferences for actual human children living in the flesh and blood world (especially ones that might someday carry my genetic material) are a little different than the names I actually use in my books. The characters in All Unquiet Things have rather odd names, most of them. Neily’s name sort of comes from a teacher I had in high school, an English teacher that I really liked, and that was her last name, although spelled differently. If you look up the way she actually spells her name, Neely, it means “son of the poet” in Gaelic. I thought that was rather appropriate for Neily, actually. I don’t know why I changed the spelling, but I did decide that “Neily” was actually short for Neiland, which was his mother’s maiden name. I knew a girl in high school who shared her middle name with her brother, and it was their mother’s maiden name. I thought that was kind of interesting, but I took it one step further and Neily was born. I’ve thought about Neily’s name and what it means for him a lot. When my editor acquired my manuscript, she suggested changing his name, thinking it might be too effeminate, a criticism that I understood because I’d recently read The Valley of the Dolls and there was a main female character in that book named Neely. But in the end I was so attached I didn’t want to change it, and she was fine with that. The thing about Neily’s name being a little effeminate, and probably too young for him, is that that is a part of his story. When he was younger, he was sort of a shy, lonely kid that everyone treated like he was a baby. The diminutive form of his name shows just how small and besides the point he felt all the time growing up. He really should just go by Neil, and I think that if he thought he could get people to call him Neil he would, but he knows that would never happen. In the “sequel” I started writing post-AUT, just as a little diversion and a place to put my ideas for where the characters would be in six or seven years, Neily has changed his name to Neil–he’s gotten away from Empire Valley and everybody who knows him as “Neily” and he takes advantage of that to forge a new identity. Except then he goes back to Empire Valley and of course Neily resurrects, even though he tries to maintain his new Neil identity.
Audrey’s name is simple; it’s my grandmother’s (father’s mother’s) name. But it’s a little old fashioned, although I personally think it’s really beautiful. However, I was not as plugged in to the YA community as I am now, and if I’d known how big of a resurgence Audrey was going to have in mainstream fiction, I’d probably have thought about changing it (and then I probably would’ve decided not to change it, because I like things the way I like them and I’m stubborn like that). That’s really the most thought I ever gave to the name Audrey, but it means “noble strength”, which I like a lot and think describes my Audrey pretty well.
Carly…I don’t really remember how she got that name. She’s had it so long it’s all receded into the mists of antiquity. I do know that I went to school with a lot of Carlys/Karlys when I was a kid, mostly popular girls who didn’t like me. It’s not actually a name I particularly like all that much, it just seemed to fit her and I cannot imagine her being named anything else. It’s hard to pin down what Carly actually means; according to Behind the Name, it’s the feminine form of Carl, which is the Germanic form of Charles, which means either “man” or “army, warrior.” But according to BabyNames.com, it’s the diminutive form of Carlotta, which means “free.” I think both of those meanings are interesting when reflecting on the way Carly behaves in the novel and what her ultimate resting state is, emotionally speaking. It’s interesting to think about, but not my main intention when naming her that.
Wow, are those names so ingrained in my head. I’m moving on, though, to other books and other characters. My three main characters in Untitled Book 2 are Will, Jacie and Robbie. I really like the name William; apparently it means “strong willed warrior,” which Will is…not, really, although he is decidedly persistent, which you have to give him credit for. Jacie is a name I’m surprised I picked, honestly–it feels trendy and slightly made up to me, and I’m not into the trendiness. But her full name just sort of popped into my head all at once: Jacie Fisher. I didn’t even consider a different spelling (Jacey, which I guess is the accepted spelling, would be one option). Baby Names says it’s a shortened form of Jacinda, which means “hyacinth”, but I never for a moment considered that her name might be Jacinda. Her family is not the type to name a daughter Jacinda. Usually I’m very, very against naming children nicknames instead of full names, but it definitely would not have fit for Jacie to have any other given name than exactly that. Rob/Robbie is named after Robbie Turner from Atonement. They don’t have, like, a ton in common, but there are similarities. I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve ever named a fictional character after another fictional character. And it’s not like Robbie’s mother named him after Robbie Turner from Atonement–I did. Because of my love for James McAvoy, OBVS.
And now that I have another WIP in the works (that’s kind of redundant, huh?), I have a slew of new names, especially since what I’m working on has a lot of characters. I have some old school names, some nickname-y names, some nice normal names, and a name I just pretty much made up. For this one, I just started pulling names I liked or from people I knew/had met. The fun thing about being a writer is that your characters tell you who they are. Would I ever have named my daughter Jacie? No. It’s a perfectly lovely name, but I would never pick it for a child of mine–it’s not my aesthetic. But Jacie is totally a Jacie, no two ways about it. Neily is most definitely a Neily. In a way they choose their own names.
Posted on March 30th, 2010 by annakjarzab
I know I haven’t been around much, but that’s because I have been writing! Which is really what I should be doing, right? Riiiiiight. Anyway, I just wanted to take care of a few housekeeping things:
- I have an event on Thursday, April 1 (that’s this Thursday), in Centerreach, NY (that’s on Long Island, near my favorite stop on the LIRR–Ronkonkama! Seriously, how fun is that to say?) at Best Bargain Books. It’s my first event, so I am both excited and nervous about it. I even had a stress dream about it last night, where I was inappropriately dressed and the entire staff of Teen Vogue (I would wonder about this, except I watched The September Issue last night) was there to watch me fall on my face. I also dreamed, because you care, that there was a made-for-TV movie based on AUT, and even though it was ostensibly based on the book it didn’t really, um, have anything to do with AUT. And Carly was blonde. So…what? But yes, Best Bargain Books on Thursday, April 1 at 7 PM. Be there or be…somewhere else, I guess. But if you’re there you’ll have more fun.
- Speaking of events, my April 17th event at Mysteries on Main Street in Jonestown, NY has been moved to the following weekend, April 24th. Visit the events page for more details.
- Courtney Summers, who is by far one of my favorite YA novelists and the author of the kick-ass Cracked Up to Be and Some Girls Are, was lovely enough to interview me over at her website–and she’s giving away a copy of AUT! Run, don’t walk.
- I have another event to put on the events page–I’ll be at Anderson’s in Naperville, IL on Friday, May 14th. Yay! Come visit me!
- I’ve created a Facebook fan page for All Unquiet Things, in case you wanted to shout your love for my book from the rafters (insofar as that’s a thing that is possible on the Internet). I’ve posted my growing library of photos taken by friends and fans in an album there–if you have anything to contribute, you should email me!
Also, I’ve been getting some fan mail recently, and I just want to say a blanket “Thank you” to all the people who’ve taken the time to write to me. I will write you back, I promise! I’m working on it piece by piece. But this is a preemptive thank you, because you guys are awesome.
- Filed under: Books, interviews, Publishing
- Tagged: AUT, Courtney Summers, events, facebook, interviews
- 1 Comment »
Posted on March 10th, 2010 by annakjarzab
OMG she’s blogging. Yeah, well, I’ve been busy. Busy writing? Oh God no, why would you think that? Okay, that’s not entirely true. I did revise Part 1 of Book 2. Oh, and I wrote a three page synopsis of a book I hope to write someday, a full-blown romance, which isn’t really my standard mode but always something I’ve wanted to do. And I figured out (mostly) how I’m going to fit the final pieces of the puzzle together for Book 3. Yeah, you heard right: Book 3. Because my natural inclination is to do something today that I could put off until tomorrow and put of until tomorrow that which I should do today. Awesome.
But I have some news. Lots of you have been asking if I’m doing any events for All Unquiet Things (that’s a joke, not one person has asked that except my mom), and the answer is that I am! I’m doing a couple of events in the New York area and a couple in Chicago. Here are the details for the events that have been confirmed:
April 1, 2010 at 7 PM
Best Bargain Books
217 Centereach Mall
Centereach, NY 11720
April 17, 2010 at 1 PM
Mysteries on Main Street
144 W Main St
Johnstown, NY 12095
May 13, 2010 at 4 PM
The University of Chicago
1010 E. 59th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
I’ll be adding events to the events page on the site as they’re confirmed, and announcing them here if I remember–which I probably will!
I’m excited about all of these events. The stores are so nice to have me, and each one is going to be cool for its own reasons. One of my best friends in life, Kim, lives very close to Best Bargain Books, so she’s coming to the event and threatening to bring coworkers. One of my other best friends in life, Jenny, is driving me up to the event in Johnstown. And the U of C event will be kind of surreal, because I’ll be reading from the very beginning of AUT: the same exact pages (give or take some small stuff, but in all other ways almost completely identical!) that I read in Classics 110 in April of 2007 during my Works in Progress presentation. And look at me now! Wait, don’t, I’m having a bad hair day.
Plus, my agent Joanna will be at the Chicago events, and I love spending time with her. Get ready for me, Windy City! And Centereach. And Johnstown.
Posted on March 2nd, 2010 by annakjarzab
You guys: I’ve made it through Part 1 of the Book That Shall Not Be Named Until God Knows When. This is a major achievement! I feel like I need a marching band to play “We Are the Champions” or something. I’m trying to be excited about the fact that I’ve gotten through this part without being totally depressed and overwhelmed by the second part, which is only 1/3 written and scares me.
Let me tell you the truth here: this book is slippery. The characters are slippery, what I want to say at any given moment is slippery, the words are slippery–I feel like I can’t get a hold of anything in this novel without something else just bounding off into the darkness. I miss that feeling of certainty I had with AUT, the fierce belief I had in it. I’m hoping that I’ll get something out of this book, too–if nothing else, a feeling of triumph that I can take a problem book and make it work in a way that I’m satisfied with.
Unrelated: I just put up something on the site that you might want to check out. Lauren, the model who portrays Carly on the cover of All Unquiet Things, wrote an essay about her experience posing for the cover that she generously let me post here. It’s really interesting (and hi-LOL-arious in parts), so go read it.
Posted on February 28th, 2010 by annakjarzab
Before I get into the meat of this post, I wanted to direct you to a post I put up on The A Team the other day about my rules for writing, which is a follow up to my last post here about that Guardian UK article, which I realize I didn’t link to there but I do on The A Team! So go read that (and learn my revision “secret”, aka an insanely disorganized probably useless points system!) and come back here for some discussion about unlikeable characters and the authors who love them.
Okay, so I, like many writers, am incorrigible about reading reviews. Sigh. I want to be cool about it, I do, but I’m hooked up to the Internet ALL THE TIME and I can’t just not look. Whatever. I comfort myself with knowing that I freak out about bad reviews way less than other writers do. I mean, some people flip out on Twitter, for heaven’s sake. I’d rather die.
So I do read them. And every once in a while, I come across one that’s not so flattering, but every negative/lukewarm review but one has praised the quality of my writing, which is an awesome compliment and really helps dull the pain. 🙂 Oh God, I just used an emoticon. (I wanted you to know that I was JUST KIDDING about the pain business!) A couple of reviewers have brought up something that I think is a really interesting discussion/authorial struggle and I wanted to talk about it here because it means a lot to me.
I’m talking about the unlikable narrator (or character, but to avoid having to write “narrator/character” throughout this post, let’s just assume when I say “narrator” that I mean both). I love ’em. Can’t get enough jerks and mopes and snarks and bitches, because they are way more interesting than bland ciphers who are more like pawns than people. Not all likable narrators are boring, of course, but a lot of them are. That’s just my opinion. I realize, however, that not everybody reads and writes in order to poke around in the dark parts of other people’s hearts and minds to figure out how they work, so I totally respect people who would rather read about genuinely nice folk–certainly nothing wrong with that.
I do think, though, that personality creates conflict, and the sharp parts of us are the ones most likely to stir up a story. I’ve got a couple of doozies in All Unquiet Things. There’s Neily, who’s snappish and angry and rigid; Audrey, who’s withholding and stubborn and passive aggressive; and Carly, who’s damaged and self-indulgent and let’s not forget that cruel streak. And they’re the good guys! But, okay: Neily is also sweet and caring and deeply loyal; Audrey’s strong and moral and determined; and Carly–well, she’s been through some stuff. It’s the combo of their good bits and their bad bits that make the story possible. If they were all angels, they’d just be nice to each other the whole time and the book wouldn’t exist.
My new book has yet more unlikable characters. One of my main guys, Will, is a total snob. My (hopefully) next book has a narrator who’s just kind of a bitch (although, like Carly, she’s been through some stuff). These are my people! But okay, so I don’t see that as a problem (and I love reading unlikable narrators, too, by the way–Courtney Summers is positively brill at writing them), but some people do. But I think that A.) a lot of boring, dull characters in fiction come from an author’s fear of being criticized for having an unlikable character, and B.) that people mistake “unlikable” for “unsympathetic” and they’re two totally different things.
Unlikable means you don’t like them. You wouldn’t be friends with them, you’re not interested in hanging out and going to the mall, or being in a relationship with them. Unsympathetic means you don’t connect to the characters on any level, that you don’t care about their lives or their story, and thus reading about them is a completely worthless endeavor for you. Unlikable is an opportunity in disguise, because it forces you to think about exactly what it is that bothers you about the person, and why that is–and, really, that’s what unlikable characters are there to do: stir up discussion about the things that make us human, which are, of course, our flaws.
Unsympathetic, however, is a Big Problem. I do think that, on some level, my characters are likely to be unlikable to a certain percentage of AUT readers. That’s a given; they’re tough people to love, because NEWSFLASH: we’re all tough people to love. I do love them, and so do a lot of readers, so I’m not particularly worried about that front. But not caring about them? That’s a whole different kettle of fish.
I was doing an interview recently where one of the questions was, “What was the purpose of all the flashbacks, and what do you think they added?” AUT needs the flashbacks, because their whole purpose is to make Carly sympathetic. The more stuff you find out about the person she was before she died (or the person you think she was before she died), the less and less sympathetic she gets, and without the flashbacks the reasons for her choices and the circumstances surrounding her most pivotal actions are not clear. On just a base writing level, that’s bad mojo. But it’s a bigger problem in AUT because Carly is the dead girl; if you don’t care about her, she’s just a MacGuffin–just something they’re chasing, that drives the plot, but has no real meaning.
Carly as MacGuffin could work if AUT was always intended to be about Neily and Audrey and nothing else. But it’s not. It never was. It’s about the three of them and their relationships and growing up and loving people and hurting people and regrets and friendship. Carly is a very important part of that, the lynchpin of the entire operation, and if you, the reader, do not care about her, then you might as well put the book down and walk away.
Now, this post was not intended to be a justification of my narrative/character choices–like I said, I totally respect dissenting opinions about my work, because I certainly have been known to be just a tad bit critical of other people’s work myself. I’m just using AUT as an example, because I can speak to the writer’s side of it. I’m just a little bit sick of reading about boring, impossibly perfect people falling in love with other boring, impossibly perfect people in YA. Come on! Real people are flat out messes half the time (90% of the time, if they live in New York City), full of insecurities and flaws and urges and sorrows.
I want, in my fiction, to create completely three dimensional people with good and bad parts in full view. I encourage other writers, particularly new ones, not to shy away from the tough stuff. If you’re clueless about how to do that, I suggest taking a good look at your own psyche, choosing something you don’t like about what you see, giving that trait to a character, and making it their tragic flaw that leads to their inevitable downfall–and then giving them the opportunity to redeem themselves. That’s what I do. It’s working out pretty well so far.
Posted on February 10th, 2010 by annakjarzab
Hey guys, I’ve picked a winner of the All Unquiet Things contest and it’s:
Whitney, go ahead and email me with your address and I will send you your copy of AUT. I hope you enjoy it!
Posted on February 6th, 2010 by annakjarzab
All Unquiet Things is a mystery; I think we all know that. But for me the mystery is sort of a subplot in comparison to the emotional journeys the characters take in the story, and from the reviews I’ve read (i.e. all of them, because I’m incorrigible), it seems like readers are really happy with the way in which the characters are developed, grow and learn throughout the novel. So that’s great.
AUT might pose as a mystery, but what it’s really about is grief. It’s about what happens to us when we lose a person, and how we battle feelings of guilt and remorse, anger and the deep, unrelenting sadness that comes with that sort of finality. Neily and Audrey have surface reasons for investigating Carly’s murder, but the truth is that neither one of them (Neily most obviously, but Audrey, too, in a much subtler way, I think, because she’s much more restrained emotionally) can let go of Carly. There’s a sense that if they can keep getting to know her and spending time with her (via memories, and also the things that they are learning about her life outside of them), they can keep her alive in some way that is meaningful and fulfilling. This is an illusion, but it’s a true illusion–their investigation brings them to a place where they can not only get her a piece of justice, but also where they can square their memories of her with the truth of her (insofar as anyone can ever get to the “truth” of anyone else) and put her to rest in their minds and hearts.
There’s a part in the book where Neily and his friend Harvey talk about what we can reasonably expect from people, and what the point of loving them is. There’s a sense–at least, I hope there is–that having people in your life who you care about so profoundly that when they are gone, really gone, it leaves a hole in your heart so big you think it might be possible for you to fall into it and never emerge is a huge gift, the greatest one there is in the human experience. There’s a reason why all of the kids in the book are wealthy; it’s not because I was hoping to provide a sordid peek into the lives of the truly privileged, although that’s a side effect of what I was really trying to accomplish–this isn’t Gossip Girl, and I’m not saying that in a dismissive way, but it’s true. You’re not supposed to aspire to these kids’ lives. The point of making them so wealthy is to contrast possession and privilege as a result of having a lot of money with the real riches life can provide for us, if we’re open to them, and that there’s no heirarchy in love except that which we create by being to a greater or lesser degree deserving of love and giving it freely to others.
But when you talk about love, you always have to at least think about loss. Loss, and the terrible pain that can come with it, is the price we pay for caring about other people. This is not to give the impression that AUT is a cautionary tale when it comes to talking about that stuff; I meant the journeys Audrey and Neily take to reinforce the idea that love is totally fucking worth it, in spite of the way it can shred us, because it’s the only thing that can redeem us in the end. Does their discovery of Carly’s murder fix anything? Absolutely not. They don’t miss her any less, and I don’t think they ever will. What it gives them is a sense of peace that comes from the fulfillment of their last act of love for her–this dangerous, foolish, reckless mission they undertake despite the physical and emotional risks it poses.
My grandmother died last week. In spite of the fact that she was sick, it was wildly unexpected and totally devastating to me and my entire family. My grandmother helped to raise me, she cooked for me, she counseled me, she disciplined me, she tried several dozen times to teach me Polish (her first language), though naught but the occasional vocabulary word and a vague idea of how to pronounce things actually stuck. She opened her house to me when I needed a place to live the summer after graduating from the University of Chicago, and it was in her basement that I finished AUT and started the book formerly known as MB, which I’m working on now. She was a complete inspiration–independent and opinionated, she had a very strong sense of right and wrong and she expected a lot of people. She appreciated hard work and best efforts, despised laziness and complaint. She went to church every day until she got sick; she taught me to pray the rosary. She was pretty much my hero. It’s impossible to believe that she’s not alive any more. That was the refrain at the wake–“I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it.” I thought she’d live to 90, possibly 100. This was, is, and will continue to be a complete shock to me, and I don’t know when I’ll get used to the idea.
In the last week, I’ve wished (when I’ve even occasioned to think about it) that AUT hadn’t been published yet, that I could revise it one more time using my evolving understanding of what it means to grieve in order to talk more intelligently on the subject, but it’s too late now.
Although, I did write a scene in which Carly and Audrey lose their grandmother. Audrey says on the subject, when Carly’s father comes into her room to tell them both that Mams (their fathers’ mother) has died:
I remember Carly’s expression of utter disblief. Se seemed stunned to find out that one major loss didn’t immunize her against others.
Carly didn’t speak very much at the funeral, but she did say one thing that’s followed me ever since.
“How many people are we going to lose before the universe decides we’ve had enough?” Carly asked me. I didn’t answer, but if I had known what was coming I would have said, “All of them.” Horrible, but true.
I remember writing that passage in a state of complete obliviousness. When writing about Carly losing her mother, and the way in which that affected her, I thought a lot about what it would be like to lose my own mother, especially at such a young age, which was a hard place in my mind to go, but go there I did, for the sake of the story. But I didn’t even say, “What if Grandma Helena died? How would I feel?” when I was writing that passage above. I’d already lost a grandmother (my grandfathers have both been deceased since I was a very small child, and I have no true memories of them, only what I’ve cobbled together from pictures and other people’s stories), and since that event had a lot to do with why I even went back to AUT in the first place I guess I might have been thinking about that, but honestly I don’t remember it. I certainly never thought I’d lose my other grandmother. It seems completely delusional to think someone might live forever, but aside from a few moments of panic as a child, I was never afraid of that inevitability.
There are other things I remember from writing that scene. I remember how sad Carly’s question is, how resigned–she’s not expecting an answer from Audrey, she knows that the answer Audrey wants to give in retrospect is the truth. And I also remember thinking how that there is a glimpse of the old Carly, the pre-Miranda’s-death Carly–she’s not just asking on her behalf, she doesn’t say “How many people am I going to lose before the universe decides I’ve had enough?” She says we. She means Audrey, too, and Carly’s father, at least. At most, she’s asking about the world. She recognizes the cosmic unfairness of what death does to the living, of what it means to have someone that you love ripped from your life. But Carly’s mistake is that she focuses on the price, not on the gift. It’s hard not to, when the wound is fresh. But time does heal all, except Carly doesn’t get enough time.
Lord, this is morbid. I’m sorry. It’s hard to talk about the heavier parts of living and feeling and writing without getting all maudlin and dark on everybody, and I hope that if you’re truly bummed by this post you’ve stopped reading by now. But as hard as this past week has been for me, I’ve also been realizing how well AUT has prepared me for what I’m going through now. What I’ve written in there is a very honest portrayal of what I think this growing up, getting hurt, learning to love, learning to lose process is all about, and what it gives us. I take comfort in a lot of the things I wrote in AUT, because I really believe them, and I haven’t stopped believing them.
When I originally decided to sit down and write this post, I wasn’t intending to give writing advice, but it’s pushing its way to the surface anyway. If you’re a writer–published, not published, just starting out, whatever–please, please, please, take advantage of the writing process to really sift through what you think and feel about the world. It might prepare you better for things you never even imagined.
Posted on January 27th, 2010 by annakjarzab
Guess what I got today? You’ll never guess, so I’ll tell you: my author copies! Tons and tons of copies of All Unquiet Things for me to do with what I like. Of course, some of those are reserved for VIPs, like the adviser who helped me turn AUT into the book you can read today (Nic Pizzolatto, he’s brilliant, read his book of short stories, Between Here and the Yellow Sea, and then preorder his novel, Galveston, which comes out in June), and others, but some of them are for you guys! Because you know I love you.
I’ve been working hard at my day job and on my second book at night, so I can’t make this too complicated or else my brain will explode and then you’ll get no more books from me. Because of that, if you just leave a comment here on this post you’ll be entered to win. One entry per commenter (not per comment), but if you’d like to leave a few that’s great, too. I’ll run this contest for two weeks, so it will end at midnight on February 9th. Go forth and comment!
Two other, sort of business-y things: would you like me to set up a spoiler thread for people to discuss what happened in the book? I’d be happy to do that, I just didn’t know if people would use it or not, but if you think you’ll use it I will totally make one and we can chat openly about the book with the knowledge that we’ve all read it (or don’t mind being spoiled; some people don’t, I don’t mind at all). That’d certainly be something to comment on, if you’ve read it (or if you haven’t, whatever).
The other thing is that, in tandem with the spoiler thread idea, my wonderful web guy and friend, Eric, is going to create a special piece of hidden content (NOTE IF YOU’RE NEW: There’s some hidden content on the site, and you won’t know what it is until you find it, and I won’t tell you how to find it but it’s sort of easy, just give it the old college try) exclusively for people who have read All Unquiet Things. I’ll let you know when that’s up so you don’t have to go fishing around the site every day looking for it and coming up empty, but it’s coming, just FYI.
This is my first contest for AUT, but it won’t be the last, so if you don’t win this time around, rest assured that you will get another try later. Also, you can enter a contest to win AUT at Teen Reads, and at the Frenetic Reader. So much AUT in the world right now! Go forth and enter. (If you’re giving away a copy of AUT and I haven’t posted about it and you would like me to, email me a reminder and I’d be happy to do it.)
Also, if you were wondering how my dentist appointment went today, I have no cavities! I win this round, teeth.