(Originally posted here)
In December of 2006, I was working as the senior production editor at Grosset & Dunlap / Price Stern Sloan, managing the copyediting of a great many mass-market children’s books and movie tie-ins and every known version of Mad Libs, and I was also quietly, in my downtime, a writer. I would get up early before work and write at a coffee shop near the office until it was time to go in. That December, I started writing a short story called “Werewolf.” (I may or may not have been listening to this song on repeat, from an album and artist my little sister introduced me to.) The story was about two sisters, the older one who lives with a violent, rageful man and the little sister who lives with her because she can’t live with their parents. The sisters dream of escaping to Paris. Instead they rarely leave the house. There wasn’t actually a werewolf in the story, but just go with it.
I wrote this short story on the side, cheating on the adult novel I was telling myself I should revise, again, and try to query agents with, again. The story started off as a diversion, a simple piece of writing that was entirely separate from the disappointment and hope and years of work that had gone into the novel. Untainted. Fun.
The original sketchy, unfinished file of “Werewolf” from December 2006 contained this paragraph from the POV of the little sister, Chloe, about her older sister, Ruby:
“I knew her another way. She did have a tongue, and she used it to lick peanut butter off a spoon, her most favorite snack. She was beautiful, truly, what I wouldn’t give for the way our collective features arranged themselves on her face, for the greener eyes, for the silkier hair, for the five distinct freckles that cast themselves over the bridge of her straighter, smaller nose. But he hadn’t seen her when we hennaed our hair, the mud we’d mixed for the most copper color dripping down her face and turning her ears orange. he hadn’t seen her after a crying fit, hadn’t seen her throw the rocks at our parents minivan when they picked up and drove it away. No one else had seen her that way, only me.”
I wrote that and sat up straight in my chair—or let’s say I remember I did. Let’s say I knew something important had happened. Let’s pretend.
In truth, I worked on that short story—changed its name from “Werewolf” to “Mythical Creatures,” but never changed the heart of the story between the two sisters, Ruby and Chloe, never ever let go of that—from the end of 2006 through 2008. I brought it to a short-story workshop with the full intention of polishing it up and sending it to a literary journal. That was its fate, if I were lucky, I figured.
I didn’t know it would become a novel.
I didn’t know it would become a YA novel, and that I’d become a YA author.
I didn’t know it would become the novel of my heart, the most true piece of writing I’ve ever set down on the page. The novel about my hometown. The novel about two very close sisters. The novel that became a love letter to my own sister—and though my sister is really the little sister, and I’m the big sister, pieces of us are tangled up in both Ruby and Chloe.
The novel that was wishful thinking. The novel that would become very important to me, in a whole other way.
Imaginary Girls was published on June 14, 2011, three years ago today. Though Imaginary Girls wasn’t my first published novel (haha, you think that I’m talking about Dani Noir, don’t you? My first published novel was actually a paperback series novel written under a pseudonym, on assignment), and though Imaginary Girls wasn’t the first original novel I wrote (that was a novel called Bardo, which got me my MFA, but not much else), Imaginary Girls was my first true novel. The first novel that was really me and felt worthy at the same time. If I die tomorrow, the creative part of my life will have been complete because I wrote this book. I would have no regrets.
It’s the book of my heart for this reason, yes, and another. I’m going to tell you about the other.
I always knew that it was a book dedicated to my little sister, but something happened during the writing of this book. Something that feels so connected to everything the book is that I can’t now separate it. While I was writing Imaginary Girls, she was going through some health problems and having difficulty getting a diagnosis. She was having trouble with her eyes. She kept getting tests. I was aware of this, and concerned, but it didn’t truly hit me until she called me one day with the news. I was under deadline, frazzled, a mess, doing revisions and unable to focus on anything else. But I remember stopping everything and sitting on my bed while she told me over the phone from where she lives in Philadelphia.
She told me that the test results had come back. She had been diagnosed with MS. It was the summer of 2010.
She was just about to turn twenty-six years old.
What can I say here to explain how I felt about my little sister so you can sense the impact? How much I love her? How when she was born, when I was nine and a half, it felt like she came into this world for me and only me? How can I explain how after that phone call it all came down on me and I didn’t know what to do and there was nothing I could do and my heart felt broken and I cried for two solid days? Why I had to suck it up and tell my agent what was going on, and ask him to please tell my editor, and that I wasn’t going to make the deadline because I couldn’t word an email to explain it myself? Because how could I work on a stupid book? How could I think anything I did was important when my sister, at not even 26, was facing this? How can I explain how I Googled “multiple sclerosis”—the symptoms, the treatments, the reality, the possible future—and how until that moment I didn’t realize what exactly this degenerative disease was, and that there is no cure? There is no cure. How can I even put to words how it felt to be so helpless, apart from my sister, knowing I couldn’t do a thing, realizing I had no true sense of what she was going through, and I didn’t know how to express to her how I would always be there for her, forever forward, until we were both old ladies, and how empty those words sounded? How much I loved her, how much I meant those words?
Oh, maybe you know. If you’ve read Imaginary Girls, it’s there. The way Ruby loves her little sister, Chloe? What Ruby does and would do for Chloe to keep her safe?
It’s there. It’s all right there. It’s in the book.
That’s why it’s the book of my heart. For that reason and all reasons beyond it. Because it felt like the first real piece of me I published and put out in the world, because it features my hometown in the way I sometimes remember it, but mostly because the beating heart at the center of the book is really my heart beating.
It’s what I didn’t know how to say to my sister—before I even knew I’d need to say it.
I’d written it down already. It was in the book all along.
To enter a giveaway to win a signed hardcover or paperback of Imaginary Girls, visit the original blog post. (Giveaway runs through June 30.)
I realized (finally) that this book I kept pushing at, kept returning to and struggling with (kept being terrified of) is about our fear (and hope) that what girls desire could turn them into monsters.
Which is something that I’m always arguing against: this societal fear of teenaged girls being powerful in and of themselves, and loving things for no other reason than they love them. It’s something I felt when I was a teenager. I was afraid of myself, because I loved things I was not supposed to love. I was terrified of being a bad person because of what I wanted—sometimes just because I wanted anything at all. Don’t be too ambitious, we say. That thing you scream over is stupid, we say. You’re too emotional. You aren’t allowed to feel desire of any kind.
No wonder it was hard. I was writing a book about trolls and Valkyrie and riddles and gods of poetry and love and betrayal, and oh yes: a whole lot of my own personal baggage.
And now other people are going to read it.
Something happens when you publish a novel for the first time. And I mean after the shock and thrill of selling the book and all those glorious and dazed dream-worthy moments leading up to when the book hits shelves, all tangled up with your hopes and expectations and the promises you may have been led to believe… I mean after, when people outside your writer friends and your agent and editor and significant other and the people who work at your publisher start to read the book. When you see how it performs in the world. How it’s taken, remembered or forgotten. How it’s interpreted, or misinterpreted.
All these other voices start seeping in. Critics. Reviewers. Bloggers. Readers. Goodreads-enthusiasts. Tweeters. Screamers. Whisperers. People at events who ask kind of odd questions. People who sound disappointed. People who seem confused. People who say beautiful things—even and especially the people who say beautiful things.
Maybe this is just me, but I started hearing a lot of voices after Imaginary Girls was published. When I was writing the next book, 17 & Gone, I was hearing them. During every draft, on every page, I was hearing these outside voices, considering their expectations and their confusions and their hopes and their dislikes and likes and food preferences. The little cocoon I used to write in was burst open and slashed by fingernails. I was never alone. My mind was never quiet, even at a writers colony. I couldn’t stop hearing all the things I would do wrong, would screw up.
I fought this and finished the book and it was published… But the experience changed me. I vowed to never put myself in that place again.
When I was writing The Walls Around Us, I decided to be simply and only myself. This led to me choosing a new publisher: Algonquin Young Readers. And this led me also to be honest with myself about what I wanted to do this time. I wasn’t writing for recognition. I wasn’t writing for commercial success, or should I say “success” because the idea of that changes with every new hoop I jump through. I stopped caring so much—honestly, I began to not care much at all—what would be expected of me from my next book or wanted from me or what would disappoint. I wanted to write this story the best way I could, and nothing more.
Like I’ve said before, I wrote this book for me. Completely and entirely for myself, in the way I wanted it to be. And in these past months while I’ve stayed quiet on this blog, I was revising and working with my brilliant editor who helped me reach my vision, and the book was finished, polished, sent off, and copyedited. Next there will be ARCs.
The other week, while I was reviewing the copyedits, I allowed myself one last read-through of the manuscript. A close, careful read. A scrutinizing read. A chance to pick myself apart and be honest about how I felt about what I’d written.
I kept my ears open for those voices I remembered flooding me during the writing of 17 & Gone.
…But there was a clearer voice. Mine. And I finished my last read of my book with this strange, new, itchy feeling inside me.
I’ve never felt so content with anything I’ve written—EVER.
I found this note on the last page of the copyedited manuscript:
It was wonderful to see that, and I will never forget it.
But the best feeling was knowing I stayed true to myself… and after a whole ton of work, because yes I did work hard on this, I was able to make the book into everything I’d wanted it to be. I stood there on the creaky, slanted, wooden floor in my living room, and I felt myself in my own skin, the weight of my well-read pages in my hands, and I told myself to remember this moment.
No matter what happens after (after the book comes out, after, after, after), I have this.
Remember the good things, writer friends. Hold them close. Keep them safe. Try not to let the outside voices drown them out.
(This post originally published on my blog distraction99.com)
Oh, fellow writers. So, while I work on the revision of what will be my fourth published novel (my sixth written novel, and none of this is counting any of the work-for-hire novels I’ve ghostwritten), I look up and keep seeing this ugly face in the mirror.
I thought, by now, now I’m writing book #4, surely, surely I’d have vanquished it by now. But no.
The funny, though not really ha-ha, thing I’ve learned as my career as an author moves on is that the doubts don’t go away. In fact, I could swear that they are all the more heavy on my shoulders and heavy-breathing in my ear than they ever were when I was first starting out, and surely before I published.
Before I published, I had no idea what would happen in the “real world” once my books hit the shelves. (If they even did.) If I got so lucky, would my books be despised, lauded, ignored, used as a stepstool to climb up and get a better book? All of the above, it turns out, but when you are in that place in your career when you don’t yet know, when the road before you is hazy and fogged up and could lead anywhere at all… Well, anything could happen.
I felt oddly positive back then. I had doubts, sure, but I also had so much blind hope. So many dreams. So much possibility.
Now here I stand with the third book—17 & Gone—out last spring and due to come out in paperback this March, and my fourth book—The Walls Around Us—getting closer and closer to what I want it to be as I work through this revision. And while I do look at my pages and realize I’ve learned so much and have gotten better as a writer, I find myself doubting so much more often than I did before my first book—Dani Noir—and then my first true book of my heart—Imaginary Girls—came out. The doubts are now something I war with every single morning as I sit down to write.
I look ahead now and I see the road. I see all the turns in the road. All the potholes. All the steep hills and the far drops. I don’t want to drive that road.
In truth, as we all know, I can’t really see ahead to the road (none of us can see the future to what will happen when our books come out, it’s always a mystery), but because I’ve been on the road a few times by now, I think I know what to expect and it’s coloring everything I’ve yet to experience.
It’s damning. I wish I could pluck some of my old innocence back and just write away, lalala. And yet, I’ve also learned so much from my previous experience and I want to build on that and grow.
The truth is, you only get one (possibly two, as I did in a way, because not too many people knew about Dani Noir, and it was middle-grade) chances at a debut.
I tell myself that, in a way, each new book is a new shot and a new chance at being the best you can be… But I also know that, in a way, each new book after the first one is jumbled up with what happened before. You can’t truly separate yourself, even if you change your name. (Sometimes I wonder about that.) Readers remember. Publishers remember. Bookstores remember. And you remember.
I think all of that has only made me doubt MORE. How is it possible to have learned so much, to have gained confidence as a writer and at the same time lost it and question everything?
I’m beginning to see that this is just a natural part of the publishing process for some of us. It’s a piece of this job. So now the job grows to include ways of getting past this.
So each morning when I sit down at the café table to write, I have to make the daily effort to sweep the doubts away. I don’t look in the mirror at the monster. I avoid picturing the road ahead. I try very, very hard to think nothing about the after.
I have to think only of the here-and-now, which is all any of us can control anyway. The here-and-now of writing this draft at this café table this morning.
My ways to cure creeping doubt include:
Fellow writers, those of you who share my affliction, help me out here: What cures your writing doubts and how do you face down your doubt monster?
Writing this novel reminds me of being driven through the Lincoln Tunnel when I was a kid in my parents’ van, when they’d commute to work in the city. All that traffic just to get to it, but once we were in the tunnel it got worse. Would we ever reach the end? Why aren’t we moving? Why all this traffic? What if the tunnel collapses on us? Isn’t the tunnel underwater? Someone said we’re underwater. What if it floods? What if the river crashes in? What if we never get out? Will we die down here? Ugh, the exhaust smell is leaking in. What is that bus ahead of us doing, why isn’t it moving? Is the end of the tunnel around that next bend? No. The next bend? No. The next? The next? The next?
Only when I gave up hoping for it did I see the light at the end of the tunnel and we’d drive out. Then of course we hit more traffic in Midtown, but at least we were out of that goddamn tunnel and I could breathe.
I can’t wait to finish this first draft.