Monthly Archives: March 2014

So, I wrote a novel


Here is the summary I scribbled down for Wattpad:

Noa Ryvverson has a problem: he dreams. In a society dominated by logic and intelligence, he sets out to find a cure for this anomaly before it dismantles a promising future for the young engineer. His research brings him into contact with a girl named Zefyr, who defies reason with every encounter. Her peculiar nature and ethereal ways begin to pull at the threads of Noa’s carefully ordered life, revealing a terrible secret about not only his past, but the history of their entire city. This story explores the relationship between a boy and a girl, emotion and logic, urban and rural, and the frail balance that exists between them all.

(I hate summaries. Der.)

Since sitting down and pecking out my prologue back at the beginning of October, I still feel an overwhelming sense of vulnerability by admitting this – as though the product of my mind and fingers was more an illegitimate child of an extramarital relationship than an offspring of my creative soul. Sometimes, I try out the phrase in my head. I think about scenarios where I might casually say, “well, I’ve been editing the second draft of my novel in my free time”. It almost never works. I am hopelessly reclusive when it comes to showing my work. In fact, the first time I read any of it out loud to Jason, my mouth went dry and, much like Noa the Dreamer, I had to go through the routine of four deep breaths to ground myself.

My mind plays tricks on me. It tells me that I am nothing more than a sloppy girl-child running around with stick drawings, showing it to every single person whose attention I can lay hold of only to be ignored or worse, sneered at. In short, I am not good with criticism, even the constructive kind. The thought of it sends me into a panic.

But here’s the truth: if you’re going to create, you have to be bold enough to show off, and with showing off comes the good possibility that you will be criticized. As someone who thinks of creativity as being an intrinsic part of who I am, I need to get over this.

So, I wrote a novel. More accurately, I wrote an atrocious first draft in a two-month time-frame. Inspiration comes easy – hits you over the head when you’re out hiking with your husband, visits you in those last few moments of sleep, stands out in still frames while you’re flying down the highway. But I was quickly confronted with the fact that writing is hard. It’s hard to get your characters to arrive at those beautiful sun-drenched scenes that you see in your head. It’s hard to put the conversations that you practice between them on paper (does anyone else have conversations with their characters while driving? Ahem.) It’s hard to write prose and subsequently draw your reader into the world you’re trying to create. I think I was starting to get it, towards the last few chapters, but for the most part, it read more like an online fanfiction than anything.

I knew it wasn’t good writing, but I also knew the value of buckling down and just getting through it. It’s like adolescence. You need to experience it, awkward and acne-ridden as it is. But you will get through it.

And then, I went back and started from scratch. I kept the characters and most of the plot, and on occasion I was able to salvage a few sentences from my first draft. I discovered a Thesaurus. In fact, I loaded up my editing gun with adjectives and blasted the first six or so chapters full of them, only to have to go back and patch some of the holes later on. Because really Johanna, you don’t need five or six adjectives along with two adverbs in one sentence. Hopefully, I’ve paired it down enough for it to be palatable.

I also wrote background information – colors and themes and what I would feel like if I walked the streets of Halcyon or gathered chicken eggs in Luella. What does Noa do when he’s nervous other than think to himself, “I’m nervous”? What changes on Zefyr’s face when she laughs? What does her voice sound like? Who are all of these phantom peripheral characters – Symian and Mae and Ceyla and the Chancellor?
I did research. How many miles per hour do you go when sledding downhill? How many kernels of wheat are on one stalk? How many breaths does the average human being take per minute?

You know, all stuff that a real author might do.

Strange things began to happen. When I went to tell stories to my nieces and nephews, I found that my creative muscles were limber and I could rattle things off the top of my head. I developed an appetite for words. Oh, words. I would read the dictionary and cry over them. I started looking at people and noticing the shape of their noses, their eyes, their smiles…and the world became a beautiful place to me. I started drawing again, because drawing helped me flush out my characters. And before I knew it, I realized that drawing made me so blindingly happy that I bought a moleskin and now some of the illustrations in my draft are drawn by me.

I started reading the first few chapters to Jason during any long drives in the car together. He liked it! This was a turning point for me – I would bask in the afterglow of his approval for days because, remember? I hate criticism. And then as we got into the plot, he began to chip away here and there – why is this happening, who is this person, I don’t think that this character would behave like that. Until we got to the more pivotal moments in chapters 5-7, and he blew the whole thing open with all of the grace and wisdom that my husband possesses. Note: I was already editing chapter fifteen by this point. We sat up until one in the morning and I ended up draping myself over the arm of the couch dramatically and saying, “I can’t. Oh god, it’s too hard. There’s too much.”

And then the next day, we parked ourselves at a coffee shop and I started cutting and splicing and realized that, if I dug deep enough, if I listened to what he was saying and to what I knew about paradigm shifts in my own life, this was a good change. And it turned out great, in the end, better than it would have been had I left it. I was able to salvage the things that mattered most and I felt like I rounded out some sketchy bits of Noa’s character in the process.

I’m not through the whole thing yet, but I’ve been dropping pieces of it in conversation here and there for months and I finally thought, “Why not?” Maybe it will give you all something to look forward to as I post new chapters. Maybe it will give you hope. Here is the prologue and the first chapter. More chapters will be posted on a fairly regular basis, likely in batches of four or five at a time.

So, I wrote a novel. And of course, it’s not flawless. It’s the first novel of a part-time author. I know that good writing doesn’t come naturally, good writing takes years to develop and I don’t have those years under my fingertips just yet. But here, look at this anyway. Look at it with all of the imperfections and all of the things that you disagree with and know that this is a piece of who I am, cut out for you to share in. Look at it and know that it represents more hours than I can count of tea, music, research, and the tap-dance of my fingers on a computer keyboard. Look at it and know that, whatever comes of it, whatever people think, it represents an accomplishment for me, one that I intend to see through. Know that this is still a work in progress – even the first chapters are not entirely safe from the editing knife. But still. Look at it and tell me graciously what doesn’t work and what worked well; what made you cringe and what reverberated against the walls of your heart.

That being said, here are a few questions I’ve gotten in regards to it that I figured I could get out of the way:

What’s genre is it?
Loosely, I refer to it as speculative fiction. It contains elements of science fiction, fantasy, and a little dystopian/utopian thrown in. However, those things are more so the bones of the story – at its core, it’s about coming of age, falling in love, and those petulant things whizzing around inside of us called emotions.

What inspired it?
Two completely unrelated things. My family watches one of the Lord of the Rings movies at every single holiday gathering, and once, while watching The Return of the King I was looking at Minis Tirith and thinking of how sad it was that you had this beautiful white city full of noble people, yet the constant threat of war and death really prevented them from being present. I thought of myself as a young woman there. Would I fall in love? Would I even try? Would it even be allowed? Eventually, it grew into this notion of a white, shining city where no one ever fell in love, for whatever reason.

The other thing that inspired it was a series of conversations that Jason and I were having waaaaaay back when we were engaged, about emotions. We approached the topic from very different view points; he being quite straightforward and analytical, at times I felt like I had to hold his hand and explain what it meant to feel. This conversation continued (and really, still continues), but I am pleased to say that both of us have a better grasp on the subject now.

Are the characters based off of real people?
Yes and no. The thrilling part about writing is that you get to split out pieces of who you are and deepen them. If you took my introspection and desire for neat, rhythmic things and ran as far as you could with it, you would probably find someone who looks much like Noa. If you took my impulsivity and wildness and ran in the opposite direction, it’s safe to say that you would find Zefyr. However, that wasn’t my initial intent – I think I envisioned Noa being a representation of Jason and Zefyr being a representation of a brave, fierce little girl that I aspire to be. And really, when it came to writing from Noa’s perspective (which most of the book is written in) I often went to Jason for advice because I don’t naturally think like that. I, like Zefyr, see little value in equations. So, Jason was the signpost that kept me on the goodly path of an analytical young man discovering his emotions and trying not to lose his mind in the process.

There are a couple of side characters that are directly based on real people (some of you will be able to pick them out right away and hopefully will have a good laugh about it), but for the most part, I tried to base characters off of general ideas of people – for example, Chancellor Wallace represents the collection of fake, corporate women that I’ve had the unfortunate pleasure of meeting in my short life, but she doesn’t represent one in particular.

You know this isn’t an original idea, right? It kind of sounds like The Giver meets Nineteen Eighty-Four meets the movie Equilibrium.
I’m aware of the similarities. To be honest, I wasn’t when I first started writing and I almost stopped when I did some research and had a meltdown over the fact that people have explored the idea of emotionless societies before.

And then I got over it. How many songs have been written about the concept of love? Of heartache? Of happiness? And yet each one, to some degree, expresses some of its own originality. I will tell this story differently than George Orwell or Lois Lowry – nowhere near as good as they will, but differently nonetheless. It’s a good story to tell, and I think it should be told over and over for as long as people are waking up to the world around them, realizing how fake it is, and falling in love in the middle of their revelation.

That being said, I do want to tread carefully. If something stands out as being too obviously parallel to other works written on the topic, please feel free to express your opinion.

But dystopian fiction is so over.
Yes, it is. As I mentioned, I got the inspiration for this story almost five years ago. Before Katniss and Tris and Cass and Peeta and Gale and Four.

This is a hard one to navigate around. Mostly, I’m placated by the fact that a) I’m not trying to write a best-selling novel that I hope will be turned into a movie, b) I’m not writing about teenagers and c) there’s no damn love triangle. Shallots, if I read about another love triangle in YA Lit, I’m going to bust a vein. Seriously, falling in love with ONE person is hard enough. Why add another into the mix?

Are you pursuing publishing?
Not at this time. When I finish, when I have a draft that I’m really satisfied with, I might stick it to the man and self-publish. I’m not attempting traditional publishing for a few reasons, but the gist of it is that I don’t agree with turning art into a commodity. I’ve read what’s selling these days and while there are a few brilliant strokes of inspiration and deep, blood-and-guts characters, most of it is written because it turns a profit.

Also, pursuing traditional publishing is quite a bit more work than I’m ready for at this time. I’m not setting out to be an author by trade; I’m setting out to tell the stories that are both hanging out in my sub-conscious and that I’ve actually participated in on some level.

Why did you write it from Noa’s perspective?
It was a challenge. A good one. Writing from Zefyr’s perspective exclusively would have been too easy – she gets so few “first” experiences compared to Noa.

If I’m careful about certain elements in what I read (language, sexual themes, violence, etc) is there anything that I should look out for?
There is some violence, yes. Nothing too gory, but it’s there. Hopefully, I won’t give too much away by saying that the romance does occur between two adults and so there are some aspects that may be more PG-13. In terms of language, well, I’d look out for Noa and Zefyr’s tempers ;).

Is this a Christian story?
Not strictly. I am a person of faith, and as such, this seeps into almost everything that I create. There are some Biblical elements (the motifs of faith, hope and love, the characters Noa and Nico, etc) but there is no explicit higher being expressed throughout the story. That being said, I firmly believe that God created us for vulnerability and authenticity, and this gives the exploration of such topics inherent value.

When does Noa take his shirt off?

I know you all blushed there.

That’s the question that Jason asks me every time he sees me writing. Basically, he’s mocking all of the “he took his shirt off and I ran my hands over his muscles and felt like my veins were on fire and oh, does he like me and I’m just a plain jane girl and if this doesn’t work out I can always hook up with any other hot, sadistic guy that I want” stuff that’s became an unfortunate attribute of most popular literature. Really, if I read about romance being described using fire metaphors one more time…and don’t get me started on the love triangles again. I’ll over inflate my chances of feeling irritation and anger (props to you if you get the reference!)

Will you write more novels?
There’s a good possibility that I will. I certainly have more inspiration. I’d love to write something about Milwaukee (or a city like Milwaukee) or about the Midwest in general. I’ve always said that I would love to memorize the places that I’ve lived like John Steinbeck memorialized California. Obviously, I have a long way to go before I get there.

For right now, I really want to focus on getting through this and then perhaps take a breather from writing anything other than blog posts before I go at it again and start a third draft. I could write four drafts total, I could write fourteen. Who knows. I’m learning so much about my writing voice as I go.