a year in passing: a novel update

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Last year I sat in a hotel in Biarritz, France and started a story about a woman who set another woman’s hair on fire. The opening scene reveals a woman who has a penchant for torching things, reporting the incident, talking about the smell of hair, the blaze of it. A few pages later, I took an image of a barnacle and devoted two pages to untangling its meaning to be one of a metaphor for this woman’s unhealthy attachment to her step-father and his adulterous affair, all the while her mother lay dying. At the time, I literally said out loud, What is this? What am I doing? but I pressed on for forty more pages, and when I came back to New York, I wrote forty more. After a four-year drought, the writing was a torrent and I was thrilled with the fact that I was writing something, even if I didn’t know what it was.

However, in the midst of all of this something had changed. When I think about when I wrote my first book, Sky, and now, everything is different. The words command and voice immediately come to mind, meaning I feel confident in what I lay down on paper. I know what works, what doesn’t work, and I’m focused on the rhythm and cadence of a line and how it connects to the flow of the story. My voice is strong, pronounced, and I’m finding that I’ve created a suite of characters that are bombastic, nuanced, and powerful as individuals, but they form some sort of chaotic, beautiful symphony when they interact on the page. To be candid, I was shocked by all of this at first because I always questioned an image, always endlessly deliberated over a piece of dialogue, but felt assuaged when a friend told me, just because you’re not actually writing doesn’t mean you haven’t been writing. It doesn’t mean you haven’t been working all this time.

That simple sentence served as a tremendous breakthrough for me, because it finally occurred to me that I had been writing all this time. I’d been reading. I’d been developing these characters in various forms for the past few years — in my head, but regardless — so when it came time to write that first scene, I already knew my character. I knew how she moved, the tone and sound of her voice, and it would be over the course of a year where I would finally get inside her head and lay there.

What started out as a novel about two families unraveling as a result of an affair has dovetailed into a meditation on mental illness, familial love, history and the repetition of it, and all the ways in which we can experience love and hurt. I’ve also learned this: a book is never what you intend it to be. Once you think you’ve defined it, it changes shape and form and becomes something else. For over a year my novel has been this elusive thing that has been hard to describe to people until now. I’ve got 170 great pages, and if you asked me a year ago I would have never predicted that I’ve gone to places I’d never thought I’d go. I broke all my rules — I wrote about sex and an attempt at parental love.

And I made myself try an outline.

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After I delivered 100 pages to my agent and two key readers, they all agreed something magical was here, but the story, in its structure, was entirely too complicated to render a verdict. All of them pressed pokers on my back and told me to keep going. My agent told me to draft an outline and timeline, much to my violent chagrin. I hate outlines. While the rest of my life is structured and defined, I like a certain itinerant quality to my work. I like being a nomad. I like creating people and seeing what they do and how they surprise me. Yet, that’s all well and good, but when you’ve got a book that doesn’t have a linear narrative, when you’ve got a story that moves through forty years of time, you need a damn timeline.

While in Fiji last year, I drafted something loose, and spent the bulk of the winter working on Part II, which takes place in the 1960s-1980s.

And that’s when magic started to happen. When you’re in the thick of a novel, in the meat of it, all sorts of strange and mythical things start happening. I created new characters out of nowhere. I started to create links between the parts of the book and I can finally see Part III on the horizon. I also changed the title of the book from Mammoth to Follow Me Into the Dark because the latter felt right for what I’m having my characters do.

What has surprised me most is that I’ve remained with these people all this time. I tend to get bored with characters relatively quickly — this is why I love the compact nature and completeness of a short story. I write my story and my characters do what they need to do and then we shake hands and part ways and I’m on to the next looney tune. Yet, I’m sticking with these characters, creating all of these layers I never saw a year ago, and I’ll actually be sad when I finish Part III, because I know my affair with them, the longest I’ve had, will be over.

Perhaps this is a long-winded way of giving you a novel update. But, if you have any questions about writing + publishing, please don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments. I’d be more than happy to help!

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