Wednesday, November 14, 2012

First Loves, First Novels

My sophomore year dorm room.
Just looking at this picture caused a mini WTF-explosion in my brain.

I read Marie Lu’s very sweet essay about first novels today over at Pub Crawl, and it reminded me of my own forays into writing.

I wrote stories all the time when I was little, starting in first grade when I wrote a sparse, poetic, experimental novel called “Cat, Mat, Flat” (I got a check plus plus! It was my first moment of literary success).

Around the time of the Goosebumps series (I want to say third grade?), I wrote a multi-part horror story wherein a girl gets brutally murdered because she turns down the nerdy kid for prom. That one was a lot of fun. While it was still a work in progress, I shared it with a friend, who shared it with another kid, who passed it on.

Eventually I would sit at the lunch table and, like some literary assembly line, as soon as I wrote a page I’d hand it off to be read. I have a very distinct memory of looking up and seeing eight or so kids quietly reading what I had written with an intensity usually reserved for Power Rangers or Saved By the Bell.* Some were friends but not all, and I was struck with a powerful feeling that even though I didn’t know these kids, they knew me, just by reading what I had written. Weird, but also pretty cool.

My first big, actual novel came in middle school (don’t they all?). It was Newsies fan-fiction, because, like I said, I was in middle school. I’ve written about fan-fiction before, and, generally, I’m in favor of it. For me, it was a little like writing training wheels, being able to rely on a world and a whole set of characters and drop my own stories inside instead of making up everything myself.**

I ended up writing three full-length novels, the third clocking in at over 50,000 words. They are, of course, terribly-written, melodramatic, and better serving the world stuffed into some random corner of my hard drive,*** but the biggest take away I got from writing them was that I could do this. I could write a novel, plan it out, keep characters moving and developing, and get to an ending. I can’t tell you how valuable this was, to be able to tell myself when I was really trying to write a proper novel: I did it when I was thirteen and damn it, I can do it now.

In college I fell, like so many twenty-somethings do, into the world of short, thinly-veiled essays about life as a young woman at a demanding university located somewhere in the Northeast. They got published (anonymously, because this was already the time of Facebook) in lit mags and zines and e-editions and all sorts of bastardizations of actual publications. Oh! And once I read one on the radio. That was sorta cool (sound effects!).

When I tried to write a real, adult novel, I completely and utterly failed. In retrospect, I don’t know what I was thinking trying to write from the perspective of a Jewish, middle-aged woman whose mother has Alzheimer’s. But I’d written a good-length short story about it, it was well-received, and so I gave it a try. And? Terrible. Not the writing—but the experience. I hated sitting down and working on it. I hated thinking of ideas. But I had already told people I was working on a novel and, even more than my writing, I hated having to tell people “Oh, my novel? Yeah, it’s still not finished.”

For years, that experience chased me away from writing. I thought that once I graduated from high school, I could only write “grown-up” stuff. But I was in my early twenties. I couldn’t even balance a checkbook, let alone imagine what it would be like to have a job or a family or a house. I kept thinking back to my fan-fiction days, when I would spin whole scenarios in my head every night. It was fun and exciting and made me love writing. I wanted that back.

So, I tried to start another first novel. No promises, I told myself. No dreams of publishing, just try to find that love. I went to my roots, writing about a teenage girl. I stopped trying to write like a grown-up and instead focused on what made me happy and wanting to write (read: not pseudo-intellectual navel-gazing with rhetorical questions in place of plot). And it worked. I got the love back, got the drive, finished the novel, and proved to myself that I could do this as, like, my life.

That first novel is a few years old now, and I feel properly embarrassed by it. It’s easy for me to see, now, the plot holes and stumbling prose that I missed on the first go-round, and when I think about it at all, it’s with a sense that I’ve come very far. But it was on my mind yesterday, and I remembered how much I loved it, how I thought it was going to be my big debut, and how, when that seemed less and less likely, I was able to set it aside and focus on the next novel.

“I was pretty delusional, wasn’t I?” I asked the husband last night, and he nodded.

“But not in a bad way,” he said, and I thought I knew what he meant, that I was just delirious enough to believe in my own talent but not quite so far-gone that I was some literary Miss Havisham, waiting for a publishing contract that would never come, my wedding dress in tatters, surrounded by dust and dirt and a gently-moldering feast (or, you know, the writing equivalents of all that).

So, those are my first novels. My first loves. Every single one taught me something and made me better at writing (also better at being human and worse at wearing pants). There’s a tendency to feel embarrassed about first novels, and I do, the same way I remember feverish crushes and wonder what the hell I was thinking. But there’s fondness, too, because, like falling in love, every new experience brought happiness and pride and wonder and showed me, if only in glimpses, that the things I’ve always wanted in my life aren’t as far away as they seem.

*It was the 90s!
**Aaaaand I just realized that my favorite genre to write in, historical fiction, is essentially dropping a unique character and story into an already-existing world. Coincidence? I feel like I just had some Freudian break-through: All my writing is to get back the thrill of fan-fiction!!!! But I digress (I mean, obviously).
***Even though they still exist online! Every year or so I check out the comments and lose myself in nostalgia.


  1. re: "All my writing is to get back the thrill of fan-fiction!!!!"

    I have a fan fic writing friend who insists that my attachment to fairy tales is fan fic.

    More than once in her bewailing the unfairness of life (and foolish copyright laws) she's ended by saying, "You're so lucky your fan fic is legal!"

    And i was about to protest that *I* didn't write my first novel in Jr. High, but then some memory of an assignment in 8th grade came back. It wasn't a whole novel, but it was a work of fiction.

    I've heard other women theorize that the reason Jr. High is when writing gets serious is because that's when Barbies (or in my case, My Little Ponies) are set aside.

    1. Interesting theory re:writing in Jr. High. I think what got me reading though was wanting to copy the books I loved (see: Goosebumps!).

      Thanks for stopping by!