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The True Story of My Imaginary Manuscript

I was too tired—flattened, exhausted, completely drained—to tell you the details before, but, yes, I did complete the first draft of IMAGINARY GIRLS, my first YA novel. I did it on Thursday night. There were points when I thought I’d never get it into shape, and there were points when I felt so close to the end I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t finished already. But no matter—it’s out. I’m going to work on it some more before I will—nervously, knees shaking—send it to my editor on the official deadline of February 1.

Here are some things about IMAGINARY GIRLS: It’s not like DANI NOIR. It’s older, it’s longer, it feels deeper. There’s bad stuff in it; it’s far more surreal.

IMAGINARY GIRLS had two beginnings.

The first beginning was as a novel I tried to write for NaNoWriMo in the fall of 2007. It was my third original novel—the first two were literary fiction for adults and were never published. This new novel was told in a teenage voice, but I didn’t know if it was adult or YA and I told myself not to label it and just write. Halfway through I realized it was definitely YA. Still, I failed to complete 50,000 words of it, I lost much of it when my hard drive died that spring, and I eventually ended up putting 200 pages of it aside to write DANI NOIR. I told myself I’d go back to the YA novel in the future, but I’d have to start over from scratch. There are no words from the original draft that made it into the one I’ve since written. No one has read all those pages, and no one ever will.

The second beginning was as a short story originally intended for adults, when I was still unsure of being a YA author and didn’t know if I could pull it off and be good enough to do it. I first began writing this story at the end of 2006. The main characters, two sisters named Ruby and Chloe, found in that story are in the novel IMAGINARY GIRLS. And you also might recognize two—heavily revised—paragraphs. The story was workshopped at Tin House in the summer of 2008. The workshop went well. But I never revised the story or sent it out after that.

Because something had happened. There was a moment. A Moment. And that moment changed everything.

I’d decided—secretly—a deeply personal thing: I didn’t want to try to write novels for adults anymore. No more. The heart of that story I’d workshopped at Tin House was this deep bond between the two sisters, told in the voice of 16-year-old Chloe. And Chloe and Ruby’s story was meant to be a YA novel. I wanted to be a YA author. Would anyone let me?

Frustrated, scared, unsure of myself and where to go and how to do it, I went out to dinner with E, the love of my life and the person who reads everything I write, to try to talk out the story. I love how he’s always willing to do that with me. That night, we talked about my YA novel idea, the one of the 200 pages I’d trashed, trying to figure out the plot from this new first chapter and 30-page outline I’d written. We were in a restaurant on Bleecker Street, a sort of hole-in-the-wall place, and we were in a dark booth in the far back of the restaurant, a private little hole in the wall, it felt like. He’d read my outline, and he didn’t think it worked. But then he said a very important thing. He said, Why didn’t I combine part of the plot from the YA outline with the world and the characters from the Ruby and Chloe story? He suggested a way to do that.

Zing!

I can’t tell you how my world came crashing down in that moment—one of those creative avalanches where everything you’ve done has to be let go because you now know what to do instead and it’s so much better. E rocked my world. It’s this moment that brought to life what has since become IMAGINARY GIRLS.

That life-altering night on Bleecker Street occurred in the winter of 2008/2009 (I wish I could remember the day). DANI NOIR, my first original tween book, would come out in the fall of 2009—a book I’d sold without an agent, with no sequel in the works or anything under contract to write next. I had no excuse to keep me away from trying the YA novel again.

So I began working on the YA novel with renewed intensity. I threw out every page I’d written before. I ignored the outline I’d spent months planning. I started fresh. By April I had just 25 pages. Petrified, I showed them to E. He went wild for them.

I then did something you are NEVER ever supposed to do: query agents, even though the whole novel wasn’t written yet. (Aspiring writers: Don’t do this! Seriously. I’m not advocating doing this.)

Then there was this moment. (Spoiler: I sign with an agent.)

This agent put me to work revising the original 25 pages and writing two more new chapters.

Then he said it was ready. He went out in the world, performed some kind of magic I have no idea what, and then this happened. (Spoiler: I find a publisher.)

And then I sort of broke down and cried.

On top of that, I sent the first two chapters out to an artists colony—and, months later, I discovered they let me in. I’ll be there this spring.

I don’t know how this came to be, I don’t know why the universe let all this happen except to give me the opportunity to work harder than I ever have, to say, You want to try for this? Then TRY. Stop talking about it and TRY. So I’ve been trying like mad.

Since the summer, the novel has enveloped me. I dropped everything in my life to make it a priority. I put my all into it. Just two days ago I was able to step away and admit that I’ve completed a first draft, but I also know there’s so much more work to go—I’m very grateful that my publisher was excited enough about it to buy it and give me this opportunity to write it. I’ve put so much into it and I’ll continue to do so, at every point of revision, at every stage. I fully admit I’m scared, but now that I’ve reached the first hurdle of the first draft, I felt like I could tell this story of how it all came to be.

So this is the story—so far, anyway—of IMAGINARY GIRLS.

This first draft is all thanks to an uncountable number of mochas, especially those made by the talented baristas of Think Coffee; the spacious and inspiring Room where I write; my Pandora music station, especially a song called “Hanging High” by Lykke Li; magical literary agents who are so lucky to be living in California now, jealous!; brilliant and dedicated editors whose books make me want to be the best writer I can be; generous friends, publishing and otherwise; adorable genius husbands who made this novel exist in the first place; the gift of a contract; and the time to write.

This first draft was inspired by books such as Pedro Páramo, with thanks to the MFA seminar where I first read that book; Boy Heaven and Feathered by Laura Kasischke, who I discovered my first day at my day job, when I was assigned the task of doing a bound galley check for one of her books; Eva Moves the Furniture; and Story of a Girl. By places such as the Ashokan Reservoir and the town of Woodstock, NY. And by my beloved baby sister, the beautiful and amazing Laurel Rose.

Now… off to revise!

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19 thoughts on “The True Story of My Imaginary Manuscript

  1. Brava! I love that E helped you work through your plot. N is really good at that too. Must be something to do with filmmaking and the overlap of narrative techniques/storytelling.

    Your story is also very valuable to all my students who cringe at the thought of extreme revision, or consider pages cut “wasted time.” It’s not a waste if it was part of the process that birthed your brilliant novel!

    And finally I want to echo the whole, “uh-oh, what now?” sensation that comes when you DO sell your labor of love. I have been SHOCKINGLY anxious since I sold “family” which, I told N, definitely springs from feeling like, “okay, I fooled them–now I have to pull it out.”
    SO SCARY! But I definitely believe in you WAY more than I believe in me. (Isn’t that always the way?)
    :)

    • There really is something about that filmmaker mind—and having a husband with one!—that helps strip away all the “pretty” language and see through to the skeleton of the plot. I wish I had it! But I’m so grateful to be with someone who’s willing to help me with that… and I love that you are too, with N! Lucky us ;)

      I’m glad you think my story is helpful to your students! I really did think I was wasting so much time *in the moment* — but looking back, I see it was all necessary to find what the novel was supposed to be. Scary but true.

      And thank you for believing in me. But I believe in you so much, and in “family”! Which I knew — KNEW, fact: KNEW — was going to find the perfect home. I can’t wait to plug that book and tell everyone I know about it when it’s coming out. Just wait.

  2. You know, there is immense value in writerly struggling (and personally, I think there’s a lot of *glory* to be found in the struggling, too, if you’re willing to see it), because it usually leads to even better writing. And I love your blog for being so honest about the struggling and the process as a whole. But all that said, I do simply love it when there’s a post like this, where your joy at the WORK of being a writer is undeniable. Jubilant Nova makes me smile big. Congrats on getting to this place!

    • It’s always hard to see when you’re in the struggle… but after, after, THEN you can face it and see the truth.

      But thank you, Molly, for being one of the most incredible people I have ever known, thank you. Thank you, for more reasons than I will say here. You know.

      I am forever grateful.

  3. Aw, Nova. I’m so freaking proud of you! Not only for sticking with this story and seeing it through, despite all the hardships and …stuff…, but for getting accepted to the artist’s colony and for having the guts to work hard and strive for your dreams. I know I told you this already, but I just have to repeat myself – I am utterly inspired by you and all of your accomplishments! You make me want to become a better writer!

    • Oh, thank you so much! I’m honored to be an inspiration. And congrats goes to you too for finishing YOUR first draft, just days ago!

      Hey… another first draft completed. I’m beginning to see a pattern here!

    • Blythe, yes, I remember that moment so vividly. I don’t know if I’ve ever had such a PHYSICAL memory of certainty as I did then, and to see so soon after how it came to be correct… just amazing.

      All thanks to my E!

  4. what an inspiring, joyful, fun post to read, Nova! I am so, so happy for you and cannot wait to hear about this process as it goes forward! Seriously, I am smiling as I read this and I had a bad day at work! You totally made my day!

  5. I know the ‘creative avalance’ feeling as well. It hit me when I read Looking for Alaska and said, “HOLY CRAP… I’m YA!”

    What a great post, by the way.

    • I had a similar eye-opening experience when I read that book (and BOY HEAVEN and STORY OF A GIRL). I loved loved loved LOOKING FOR ALASKA!

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