Writing a novel is a mess right now. I’m close, but I’m not done yet. I’m not done yet, I’m not done.
I don’t know what I’m trying to say, is the truth of it. I don’t know what I should say. I don’t know what my words mean. I haven’t found the meaning yet, though I’m digging in the dirt still and I’ve pulled out some stones and I’ve got a good hole going, I’ve gone deep in places even though so much is still so shallow.
Writing a novel is the most difficult thing and also the easiest thing in the world, because what else can I do? I said it was a gift to be allowed and able to do this, didn’t I? I told myself to not forget that the last I wrote here, didn’t I?
The worst of it is wanting to say something important, something memorable, especially when you’re surrounded by a fog and your mouth is full of jelly and everything itches with possibility but you can’t scratch every spot, you only have two hands.
Writing a novel is a messy pursuit. This close to deadline I’ve taken to wearing the mess on my sleeve—hair a jumble, roots screaming, T-shirt occasionally on inside out and I don’t realize until hours later. Makeup? I laugh. Bumping into signposts on the street? Yes, that was me, I’ll try to pay better attention.
I used to tell myself I could not do something. I would set limits. I would say, “I am a slow writer. A good day is five hundred words.” Then I blast through that number with barely a glance over my shoulder and I realize I can do things I thought I couldn’t. And also, I put myself in a small box. And also, I don’t do well when there are rules. And also, every book is different and if you sit in the audience at an author panel you’ll hear that a thousand times and you’ll be like yeah, yeah, yeah, but in fact it’s true.
Writing a novel is an exercise in hope. You hope you can finish it, first off. If you have an agent or an editor, what you are hoping is that your agent or your editor will see a spark in there somewhere and help you finesse and dig it out. If you don’t have those people yet, you are hoping this novel will be the way to lasso them to you. If you are not yet published, you hope this will be the one. If you have been published before, you hope you won’t get kicked off the boat. You hope to not disappoint anyone. You hope to not disappoint yourself. You hope you will make it to your pub date and an actual book will come out. You hope, too, that you make it through the gauntlet of reviews. That people will read it. Yes, that actual living people will read it. Will anyone? Will anyone? Three years between books—is that too long, is that too late?
These are not things you should think about when you’re writing.
Instead think of how it will feel when it’s all over. Think of how you can print out the novel then, and allow it to take up physical space in the real world. Only the space of it. The weight of it in your hands. The weight of all your work. Lie down on a bed, set it on your stomach, feel it hold you steady. You did this. You wrote a novel.
There is one thing—well, a few things… but here’s just one—that I’m often asked about The Walls Around Us, and it’s about the books mentioned within the story. The books that appear in the library of the Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center. The books that Amber wheels around on her book cart to each of the young female prisoners, to see if they might like to pick a title to read today. Here’s more on how and why I chose the books that appear in the story…
“Most girls weren’t too interested in spending voluntary time flapping the pages of some stale, old book, but there was always someone needing the escape like a gulp of fresh water in the desert. Besides, not every book in our library was old. Some were fresh faced and still had the new-paper smell, and reading a new book before anyone else got to was like getting the first hot lunch and not the murky, lukewarm depths of the middle of the line, or, worse, canned-bean cold like the last few trays.
“Some were books we shouldn’t have even had, judging by the well-thumbed sections paged down for sharing, but thinking of what some girls did under cover of a strategically draped blanket while reading a certain section of The Clan of the Cave Bear made me squeamish. The point is, every book we had could save us in a different way—only, we had to open it. We had to drop our eyes to the page and drink in the words that were there.”
—Amber, in The Walls Around Us
One of the questions I asked myself while writing The Walls Around Us was what would my crime be, if I were one of the girls locked up in Aurora Hills at thirteen or fourteen or fifteen? What might I have done to end up behind those walls?
Out of all the characters, Amber was the one I related to the most. I, too, had a stepfather I wished could have vanished from our lives, and I, too, found an escape in books and clung to them for many years as if they were a life raft. If I’d committed the crime Amber is accused of, if I’d found myself spending the rest of my teenage years locked up in Aurora Hills, I would have handled my time much the way she does: That book cart would have been my saving grace, my most precious thing.
Maybe it’s because of this that the books Amber and the other girls encounter on the book cart and in the prison library were books I encountered at some point in my life, books that made an impression on me somehow, books that mattered. Every book mentioned has some kind of personal connection or resonates to a piece of my past in some way. Clan of the Cave Bear is the book we passed around and read to pieces in junior high (corners turned down at certain passages). Same with the Sweep series when I was a fully grown adult working in a publishing company and a group of us got addicted to the delicious series about witches. I slipped in some of my current favorite authors (Libba Bray, Jacqueline Woodson, Sara Zarr) while acknowledging Sister Carrie, a book I was forced to write an essay on in an independent study my senior year of high school that ended up breaking my heart in a definitive way. Isabelle Allende is there. Sylvia Plath is there. Zora Neale Hurston is there. And how could I not mention Jane Eyre, one of my favorites as a teenager, the book I chose for my acting class final presentation? My monologue was a scene from when young Jane was locked, so cruelly, in the red room. I was a terrible actress, but I performed with great conviction.
There are also the books called out in the epigraphs. It felt fitting to begin with Margaret Atwood, because she’s where my life as a writer began: I discovered her books on my mother’s shelves when I was twelve years old, and they are what inspired me to put my own words down on the page.
In The Walls Around Us, the story in a book is sometimes all a girl may have to herself in the world, now that her freedom has been taken away. I understood this deeply when I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. I would have been the girl in Aurora Hills who gravitated toward that book cart, who read every single title in that library at least once and probably more, who found an escape route in those pages… and stayed as long as she could. Surely that’s why I write books today.
What three books would I want to be locked away with in Aurora Hills and read and reread for eternity? Hmm… Probably The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, whatever Libba Bray is writing right now (you and I know it will be genius) and, for old time’s sake, The Handmaid’s Tale. How about you?
Once upon a time, there was a writer who was filled with doubt and questioning her every move. She was stuck. She had published three books, but now that she was facing what would be the fourth she didn’t know what to write or how to write it. She thought for sure she should try to be more commercial and relevant and give people what they wanted from her, if only she could figure out what that might be (???!!!???). She worried about all of these things until she worried herself into a stupor. And before her, staring back with ugly intensity, was a blank white page.
That writer was me. That blank page was my next novel.
I got out of this slump because The Walls Around Us pulled me up by the throat.
But how did I get from the death glare of the blank white page to the beautiful book object that is The Walls Around Us with its gorgeous and sinister vine-covered jacket?
I think we’re all hoping for a formula or a trick of the trade that will unglue us from that awful stupor. I don’t have a formula. I don’t have a good trick. Being stuck is not usually something that you can wave away with a nice nap and a walk around the block to clear your head. (I tried.)
There are those who say that writer’s block does not truly exist and that you must simply do the work and stop making excuses—you must sit yourself down in a chair every day and write, and that’s how you get unblocked. But forcing yourself to write when you’re not feeling it can be a waste of time and energy… and heart. The answer to being blocked isn’t flooding the room with random words and trying to choke your way through making them worthy.
Sometimes the answer is putting your novel aside for a while and writing something else. Yes, a whole new novel, even if you want to smack me for saying it. Sometimes the answer is some other creative pursuit that has nothing to do with books or writing.
Sometimes the answer is not thinking so hard about what everyone else wants of me.. That’s what happened when I was facing my fourth book. I was thinking of reviews I’d read of my previous books. I was thinking about how my books often confuse readers, because the explanations are left open to interpretation, and I was thinking that I needed to be more plain and clear. I was thinking about how my language and style don’t grab everyone. I was thinking that I really should add a romance. I was thinking of what a YA book is—what the most popular YA books are—and I was thinking to myself: OKAY, DO THAT.
And as I thought all these things, the blank page gazed back at me and sneered.
I was trying to be someone I’m not. And I did that for years, when I was writing under different names and mimicking voices for a paycheck, before I ever published under my own name. I didn’t want to do that anymore.
So this is how I got unstuck. I’ll warn you—it’s kind of ugly: I reached a breaking point. I banged my head against my desk and maybe I cried and maybe I had a series of really bad days as I warred with myself, stomping around my apartment and my life. Then something in me snapped. I realized I’d come to a place where I cared way too much about what everyone else thought of my books (lines from reviews swimming in my head, questions buzzing in my ears) and I’d hit a wall. All that caring flipped over and turned into CARING NOT AT ALL. I stopped reading reviews, of course, but there’s more to it. I stopped weighing myself against those reviews.
I would never be able to write a book for everyone, so the best I could do was write a book solely and completely for myself. And maybe someone else would see themselves in it, the way I have in books, again and again.
If I wrote a book for myself, what would it include?
Surreal, strange happenings that aren’t fully explained? Check.
“Unlikable” girl characters careening through the pages free and as alive as they’ll ever be? Check and check and check.
Voicey writing flooding my paragraphs. Oh my yes, check.
No romantic subplot. No easy commercial handle. No fear of being weird. In fact, I was embracing all the weirdness and rolling around in it and streaking through the forest with a crown of weirdness on my head.
This is The Walls Around Us: my weird and wild book about killer ballerinas and a ghostly prison. It’s everything I wanted to write and then some. And, because of that, I had no idea if anyone else on the planet would even like it.
Anyone who attended the New York launch event for The Walls Around Us will remember I was interviewed by a writer I love and admire, Libba Bray, whose books are daring and true and wonderfully strange and completely her. She called The Walls Around Us my “middle fingers book.” Let me explain.
This comes with a possibly offensive visual. I was writing with Libba in a café here in New York and I was somewhere deep in the wilds of The Walls Around Us, and I said that I had stopped caring what anyone might think of me or what I was writing. I told her I was writing this book for myself and putting in every single thing I wanted and reactions be damned.
Then, to illustrate how I felt about the publishing world and my own place in it at that defiant moment, I lifted my arms and raised my middle fingers in the air and waved them around like a maniac. Sorry. But there it is.
That came to illustrate this book for me: not so much my two middle fingers and acting ridiculous in a public café, but being defiant. Being myself no matter what. Not caring one iota about what was presentable and serviceable and… commercial.
So it was that The Walls Around Us came to be.
In a (weird? wild?) turn of events, this book that was my strangest… this book that didn’t even try to be likable or easy… this book that didn’t care what anyone thought of it… this book has found its readers. In fact, it has become the most well-received book I’ve ever published. If you scroll to the bottom of this post, you’ll see some of the amazing things that have happened to this book and, thanks to the book, to me.
What’s the lesson in this? I’m a better writer when I’m not trying so hard to make everyone else happy. I’m more free on the page. More daring. I go deeper. And all that shows. And maybe, just maybe, readers respond all the more to a book that feels unique and specific to the writer in all its strange glory. Maybe they recognize the honesty in there, and that honesty is compelling. I think they do.
When I work with other writers on their novels, privately and in workshops and classes, I like to push the writers to go deeper. To not just do the easy thing. Even if it means tearing up what you have and starting over… Even if it means getting stuck first until you unstick yourself and break through that wall.
Because the writing on the other side of the wall is so very worth it.
I look back at my career and all the pages I’ve written over the years—pages that include unpublished novels and unfinished scraps of novels and of course the novels I have published. I look at all I’ve written and I know that the best writing came out when I was not trying to fit a mold or write toward a trend or appease an audience.
It came when I was alone in a dark room with only my book and me. When I was scared. When I had no worldly idea what might happen. When I took the biggest risk of my life and made a leap.
It wasn’t just the writing of The Walls Around Us that changed me—it ended up changing the trajectory of my career. I decided to leave the Big Five publisher I was with and I took this book proposal elsewhere, finding a home at a smaller, more boutique house. I landed happily at Algonquin Young Readers, a fledgling imprint at that time just about to launch its own first season of YA and children’s titles when I signed with them. This was the best decision I could have made for myself, for the book, for my career. But at the time, it was scary to go somewhere new and start over.
Once upon a time, in the future, I’m sure I’ll be facing new struggles. Writing is never a snap of the fingers and a word count from the gods. But I found something during my time with The Walls Around Us and I’ve been carrying it with me ever since: Confidence.
Simply put, I trust myself more now. I know I’ll find it. I know how.
If you’re struggling with what you’re writing—if you’re afraid to be your true self on the page—I dare you to stop listening to the outside voices and try listening only to yourself this one time. Write the book you most want to write. Write as if your fingers will fall off tomorrow. Write as if a ship of aliens is about to land on Earth and ask for one manuscript out of all the piles of pages on our planet that would communicate who you are to them, and this is that book.
Write the book that is the most unapologetically YOU, no matter how long it takes.
And know this: I want to read it. Let me know when it’s time and I’ll be there beaming at you from the front row, lifting my middle fingers if it comes to that, clapping my hands if it comes to that, or just simply grabbing your book off the shelf and drinking in every word.
The paperback edition of The Walls Around Us is available March 22. In the past year since the hardcover released, The Walls Around Us became a #1 New York Times Best Seller and garnered seven starred reviews from trade journals including Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Booklist. It was named the #1 Kids’ Indie Next Pick for Spring 2015, a 2015 Edgar Award Nominee for Best Young Adult, a 2016 YALSA Best Book for Young Adults, the winner of the 2016 Cybils Award in Speculative YA Fiction, and a Best Book of 2015 by The Boston Globe, NPR, School Library Journal, the Chicago Public Library, The Horn Book, and Book Riot.
Its author is shocked and very grateful. Now she’s hard at work on her next novel with Algonquin Young Readers, and whenever she feels stuck, she recalls her own advice to be daring and true, and she pushes that much harder.
At the end of every year, I have hope for the new year. Every year, I think of all the things I could make happen… all the things I want to try for, all the ways I might do better, do more… I am extremely ambitious, many times blindly and to my detriment, and it’s my ambitions that are always staring me in the face when I reach the last days of December. I get to the end of the year and I look back on all the things I didn’t accomplish and the guilt trip commences.
I have a box in which I wrote down all my goals for 2015 on little slips of folded paper, and I’ll be opening it on New Year’s Eve to see what came true and what didn’t. I can’t remember what they all were… but I am positive there are more than a few in there that I didn’t reach. I happen to know, too, that at least one important wishful goal actually did happen… and I get a lightning-zing of excitement knowing it did.
I’m not in the mood for my usual guilt trip this year, I have to admit. I don’t feel like I failed. In fact, I feel pretty great about what I was able to do this year, considering. I may not have written as much as I planned to in 2015—to be clear: not even close—but I’m seeing that this was a year about something else that was significant in moving my plan for the next chapter of my life forward. This was about other parts of my life, my public life, my teaching life. I may have disappointed myself as a writer, but as an author, and as a teacher, I surprised myself like whoa.
For me, 2015 was a mix of these things:
Publicly, this has been an extraordinary year for me. I had written a whole other blog post about how strange and shy I felt about seeing The Walls Around Us named to a number of Best of 2015 lists, something that didn’t happen with my previous books, but I ended up feeling too strange and too shy to even publish that post. But that did happen to The Walls Around Us. It happened… to me. I’ve never ever ever had the kind of response to a book I wrote until this year. The words I have said about this (“I am honored” “I am shocked” “I am thrilled”) feel utterly inadequate, so I will go wordless here . . .
The year of 2015 was also extraordinary for another reason: This was the year I did more public appearances and events and author-things than I ever have before—things that would have caused me to panic and want to hide my head in the sand before, things I never would have thought possible, knowing how shy I used to be. But things I had always wanted to be asked to do.
This year was the first time I was sent to a conference by a publisher. (ABA Winter Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, was my first-ever publisher-sponsored conference! I didn’t know how to be an “author” and took the subway home from the airport instead of a cab because I wasn’t sure if taxis were really okay!) After Winter Institute, I was sent to a number of other conferences, culminating with NCTE/ALAN in Minneapolis, and leaving me feeling proud of myself, amazed, and… I’ll admit… exhausted.
This was the year I had my first-ever launch party for a book I wrote—I was too shy to do this before. It was at my favorite local bookstore, with one of my favorite authors, and it went so well that I went away saying I don’t think I’ll ever need to do a launch event ever again.
I am immensely proud of myself for doing these things, and doing them well (I would say; I hope others agree!), and I’m also so grateful and happy that my publisher invested in me and thought I was worthy enough to send to conferences and festivals.
Here are some photo highlights from this whirlwind year of events (click the images for the full caption):
My first-ever publisher-sponsored conference: Winter Institute in Asheville. I’m sharing a signing table with Gwenda Bond!
Here I am with my incredible Algonquin Young Readers editor, Elise Howard!
My first-ever launch party… and I was interviewed by one of my favorite authors (and a good friend), Libba Bray
At a book signing at Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, MA. This reader drove for hours with all of my books to get signed! So honored!
Signing books at my first-ever ALA conference
A YA Trio event at McNally Jackson with darlings Maria Dahvana Headley and Camille DeAngelis
Moments before my panel at the Texas Book Festival (kind of nervous)
Interviewing Kim Liggett at her launch event for BLOOD AND SALT
Having a blast at BookPeople in Austin, Texas, with Suzanne Young
Signing the Writing Barn in Austin, Texas, after teaching a week-long workshop there
This was also the year my teaching began to really take flight. I taught three private workshops at retreat centers. A dream came true when I taught a class this summer at my alma mater, Columbia University. And I was hired to join the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts, something I’d been dreaming about for years!
The Walls Around Us was reviewed (so very well!) in The New York Times. It collected stars. It made those end-of-the-year lists I never found myself on before. It made the Indie Next List, something I have always wanted.
This was also the year that I had a short story published in an anthology, another one of my dreams.
Talk about a pinch-worthy year.
Extraordinary, yes, oh yes, a thousand times yes.
But what about what was going on behind closed doors?
Privately, I’ve been… distracted, overwhelmed, and having trouble writing something worthy enough to follow The Walls Around Us. There. That’s the honest truth.
Partly it was all the public events I was doing—my first time for so much of this—and the toll that took on me, after. There was a lot of recovery time, I kept getting sick and facing migraine headaches and other issues, and I found myself needing to retreat, needing to tunnel inside myself, needing to isolate, desperately needing to be alone.
For long stretches—and especially as the year comes to a close—I find that the only person I can be near is my love, E, who understands this part of me and knows how I get when I’m overwhelmed. He has a calming vibe I need right now. I feel better just sitting next to him, resting my head on his shoulder, holding his hand.
Looking back now on 2015, I realize with a start that I became much more isolated than ever before, and have pulled away from many people. I’m not sure why I’ve put up this armor and hidden myself inside it, except that I think I needed to get through so much of the public part of my life and this was my best way to cope.
It’s made me melancholy though, at the end of the year during the holiday season, realizing how much I’ve isolated myself and how many people I’ve pushed away.
Then let’s talk about word count. Or better yet, let’s not.
Creatively, this was not a good writing year. The book I thought I had made progress on by the end of 2014 ended up not doing it for me anymore in 2015, and I made the difficult and terrifying decision to put it aside for now and work on something else. That means I’ve lost a year out of my publishing schedule, and I’m still not close to finishing a draft of the new book to turn in. I keep thinking of what some kind people are saying about The Walls Around Us, and I keep asking myself, Is this good enough? Is that the best I can do? Will I ever write anything I’m that proud of again?
I don’t know, but I am trying.
I also had a series of rejections all throughout the year to pretty much everything I applied for, but I have no bad feelings about it, because I know I’ve been lucky in the past. It’s not my turn right now. I’ll try again for some new things in 2016. I’ll keep trying.
What do I see ahead for 2016? A whole lot of hopes.
My first semester teaching for Vermont College of Fine Arts begins in January. I’m hoping my first residency and semester goes well—I’m hoping it’s a good fit, for me and for them. My biggest hope for 2016 is finding a permanent teaching home, and I hope VCFA will be it.
I’m also working on that second book on my contract with my publisher, Algonquin. I will have a draft in my editor’s hands for sure in 2016, even with the little misstep I took this year. I’m hoping I can make it wonderful. I am hoping my editor loves it. I am hoping I love it.
I also hope to continue publishing with Algonquin and sell a new YA novel to them in 2016, but I have to finish this one first, so I’m hoping to be very, very productive so I can make both of these things happen.
And on a personal note, I hope that, in 2016, E and I are able to find ourselves a new home.
I ended last year in Sylvia Plath’s attic studio at an artists colony, thinking I was writing the next book I would publish (the one I ended up shelving), terrified about what the first trade reviews of The Walls Around Us would bring (and then they were shockingly wonderful), hoping I would be able to find a new teaching job that would help me balance my career (I found more than one).
I end this year at home in New York City, just having spent a solitary day alone at my writing space. I just had the most extraordinary year of my career, and I am intensely grateful. I have no new book coming out in 2016, so I have nothing to be so terrified about, do I? I have a lot of teaching to do, and a wildly intense schedule for the first half of the year that includes VCFA and two back-to-back Djerassi workshops. I have a book due. I really, really have a book due. And I have these giant ambitions, these hopes, these wants, these desires, these what-ifs.
To everyone who was a part of making my 2015 so incredible in so many ways: thank you, thank you, thank you.
To anyone I pushed away in 2015 because I was so overwhelmed and needing recovery time on my own: I hope you understand and can be patient with me.
Fellow writers… This is your reminder that the deadline to apply for my 2016 YA Novel Workshop-Retreat at the gorgeous Djerassi Resident Artists Program in the mountains of Northern California is December 17, exactly one week away!
Here are some things that past workshop attendees have said:
“Nova Ren Suma often focuses on turning points in one’s writing career. The five days spent at her Djerassi YA novel workshop was mine. Insightful, kind, and inspiring, Nova sets the tone for an incredible retreat—and Djerassi provides the space and muse that every artist craves.” —Anna Waggener
“Nova is the kind of workshop leader who sees straight to the heart of your novel. Whatever you’ve envisioned, she’s there with you. She puts so much of herself into helping you move closer to the truth of your story.” —Courtney Leigh
“Nova is an absolute gem! She was wise, generous, and perceptive—in workshops, in one-on-one sessions—and set up a safe, inspiring space for us to share and grow our stories. I traveled many miles and crossed a time zone to work at Djerassi and it exceeded my expectations—it’s heaven on earth for artists and dreamers.” —Pip Harry
“So many writers, especially women or older people with families or jobs or both, cannot get away for a month. This doesn’t make us less dedicated to our craft, our art, our passions; it’s just a reality. These week-long workshops also give us the ‘gift of time’ and community that some of us may not have access to. This period of quiet has been nothing short of bliss.”
I’m not sure if there will be a workshop in 2017, so I hope you’ll consider joining me this coming March!
I’m struggling with something, an ongoing thing I’ve been struggling with for years. It’s about the novels that live under my bed. The two unpublished novels I wrote before I almost gave up writing, and then discovered ghostwriting, and, soon after, YA.
Two novels totaling eight and a half years of my life.
Two novels encompassing almost the entirety of the writing work done in my twenties.
Two novels that, in their own distinct and specific ways, broke my heart.
Every once in a while, I think of them, the way you’d think of an old love, someone who disappointed you deeply, but someone who meant a lot to you way back when. Someone who could’ve been a real and solid someone… if only things had gone another way.
I’ve only ever been in love once—with a human—but with books? I fall in love with each one I’m writing, over and over, again and again.
Lately I’ve been thinking back to my first novel.
I think that’s because an important yet tiny little piece of The Walls Around Us was taken from this novel, and snatching that piece and heading off into the sunset with it got me thinking about it again.
Today, the day after spending Thanksgiving at my mother’s house, I found myself drawn for no conscious reason to the cobwebbed recesses of my hard-drive, where some old drafts of the very first novel I ever wrote can be found. This book was my heart in a shameless, undeniable, mortifying way. It was more autobiographical than a novel should be, and it’s not something I could publish as is now, even if I had the opportunity, because many of the people in this story are still out there, living. It would have to be rewritten if I wanted to do something with it. I know this… and the weight of that has stopped me every time.
Even so, every once in a while, every few years, I take this manuscript out of its dark place, and I consider it.
I think of what could be done and redone.
I think of the possibility.
(I think, too, of the five years I spent writing and rewriting it—who wouldn’t—and I think, I do admit, of how incredibly amazing it would feel if one day, years into the future, I was able to publish a shiny, new version of it and how much I’d celebrate and probably cry.)
I look at this manuscript every so often, with curiosity.
Could I do it?
Would someone publish it?
Is it worthy, after all these years?
I’ve often heard—and I tell this to writers I teach as well—that for many writers, you need to write some practice novels before you reach the one you are meant to publish. The first novel you write may not be the first novel you publish… and maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe you are better than that.
In my heart, Imaginary Girls was that novel I was meant to publish first (complicated by Dani Noir, I know, but publishing is nothing if not complicated). So much of what I wrote before Imaginary Girls was what led me to be able to write it. See? See how it was meant to be? If I had to have all that practice time, all those pages, all those years, it’s worth it to me, to have Imaginary Girls.
I regret nothing. Well, I don’t regret putting it aside then.
But hey, what about now? When I’m a better writer and could make something of this story in a way I couldn’t before?
When I have the distance?
Maybe there is a reason I keep opening this old file and peeking at the scenes I wrote so long ago that there are actually two spaces between sentences… (Aaargh! I was young! I didn’t know!)
My heart hurts today because I read some of it. I didn’t let myself read the whole thing—it’s a tome, overwritten and meandering and clocking in at an even 500 pages. But I read the opening pages, and I went through each of the seven sections, reading the last pages of each. By the end of the sections, by the last scene of the book, where my character finds a kind of closure with the person who’d terrorized her throughout her life, I felt a hard, heavy lump in my throat.
But I also had some ideas.
This novel was written before I knew what YA was. Now that I do, now that I have a career here, might that change some things?
I would have to rewrite so much of it.
I would have to reimagine, rethink, re-plot.
I would have to disguise a great many things.
Barely anyone has read this—the manuscript was only ever read by a single (adult-fiction) agent. I put the manuscript aside mainly because it was too close to me, it was too true, it was too painful, and I was unable to separate myself. I wonder now… has enough time passed? Can I be honest, can I be serious, can I be ruthless?
It could be a YA novel, or a middle-grade novel, if I cut out some things—I’m not yet sure.
It could be something.
And yet, do I want to go back there?
• • •
I wonder, fellow writers: Have you ever returned to a long-buried novel that you relegated to live in your closet, or desk drawer, or deep under your bed?
Have you performed a resurrection?
And if you have, did it fail and did you have to shove the corpse back under your bed, or were you able to breathe new life into something that, it turned out, did ultimately deserve to have a day in the sun?
This has been my most public year, ever, in my life. It’s been wonderful… and it’s also been somewhat of an adjustment for a shy person like me.
So much of 2015 has been about teaching. I really made this goal a priority to have better balance in my life—the ultimate goal was to get a lot of experience so I could get a job at a low-residency MFA program, and I had a specific school in mind—and I’m astounded at how much I did this past year, and how, even before the year was over, I made my goal come true.
I’m going to talk about some of the not-so-good stuff, but first, let’s focus on the good…
Last week I was in Texas, at the Writing Barn, Bethany Hegedus’s wonderful retreat center in the heart of Austin, leading what was billed as A Week in Residency with, well, me. This was a weeklong workshop-retreat for YA and middle-grade novelists, and ten wonderful, enthusiastic writers signed up to spend the week with me. We workshopped, we did writing prompts, we talked, we got inspired, we had guest authors visit, we did readings, we had a real whirlwind… I was so thrilled by how well it all went, and I miss the writers now that it’s over. My TA Jess Capelle (one of my former Djerassi workshop writers!) helped me through the whole week and was rewarded one night by a visit from a possible chupacabra making noise on the rooftop of her cabin! I left the week feeling really inspired, really content and excited, and I hope the writers who worked with me did, too.
Here are some photos from the truly fantastic week (I am sorry to tell you there is no photo of the chupacabra):
I may as well take this moment to tell you that if you’re reading this post thinking it might be nice to take a workshop like this with me, I’ll have to calm down with the outside teaching very soon, because I’m now on faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts. BUT, I am still committed to teaching this last weeklong workshop in 2016, at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in California, quickly approaching in March. Apply now, before the deadline of December 17!
And I should tell you that Bethany has some wonderful programming upcoming at the Writing Barn in 2016, and keep an eye on the website!
Now a breath.
I do need a breath. It’s been a busy year of events, teaching, and coming to a great realization about the book I was writing, which meant shelving one thing and starting fresh on another.
I have one last thing before the year is out. In case you’ll be at this conference in Minneapolis, I’ll tell you:
This weekend I’ll be at NCTE/ALAN (I’ll be signing The Walls Around Us on Saturday, November 21 2-3pm at the Algonquin booth 525–527, and I’ll be on a panel at ALAN first thing Tuesday morning).
But after that I need to go quiet. The teaching and appearances have been important, but know what also is? The writing.
So what about the writing, you may ask? What about the writing…
I know I made the right decision about my next book. I know that in my heart and my gut. But what I don’t know is what’s ahead for me, for my writing career, and the weight of that has been pressing down lately, pressing down hard. Being online and seeing all the news of book deals flashing by makes me happy for the writers… and mad at myself for not being faster, more prolific, more career-minded, more smart. This ugly game of comparison is something that gets a lot of us down.
I’m worried my negativity is seeping out. Not to my students, no, not during my workshops—not when I’m talking one-on-one with another writer about her novel and wishing her all the great and lovely things. I mean when I’m alone with myself, in my writing corner, as I am today, when it’s just me and the page and my whole future is reliant on what I do there, what words come out, and how well they sound and how slow or fast they dribble onto the page.
Sometimes all those doubts and second-guesses and ugly thoughts get animated into a creature that follows you and wants to take you down: a chupacabra on your rooftop, and you’re huddled inside wishing it would go away.
I think what would help is some time off from social media (Twitter especially) and my bad online habits (Googling myself to see if there’s something I should know and seeing snippets of bad reviews of my novels by accident in the search results… Clicking away incessantly on distracting, unnecessary things… Comparing myself again and again to everyone else, when I have always and only been myself in all things and I need to remember that).
I may take off the month of December, apart from sharing the Djerassi deadline and book news, when/if I have things to share.
I may hide from the chupacabra for a while. I know so many of you understand.
I want to make real progress on this novel before 2016 gets here, so I can look at this year and see that I didn’t just make my teaching goal come true… I also moved forward as a writer. That’s what I am first and foremost. (Otherwise, why even bother teaching at all, right?)
For those of you feeling like you let this year slip away from you in some places… it’s not over yet. We still have time.
What if we wrote a ton of words that we felt good about to round out the end of 2015?