On Getting Started

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I get a lot of questions when people find out I wrote a novel. One of the most popular is: how did you start?

So if you’re thinking of writing a novel, I thought I’d share some advice on how to get started.

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On Grass-is-Greener Syndrome

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Today’s post is less on writing, more on life, but what’s one without the other?

So this thing started happening to me towards the end of college. Throughout most of college, I was thrilled to be there and aware of how lucky I was to be spending my days reading and discussing ideas with like-minded people (I was a French major, English minor), and living within walking distance of all my friends. It wasn’t until the end of school that I got an itch to go out into the “real world”. I had applied for a teaching assistantship in France, and was scheduled to start in September.

I’m over college, I told myself. I can’t wait to move to France.

So I moved to France, to Normandy, and lived in this tiny town called Saint-Lô. And it was hard, especially at first. (Moving to a new place alone, never mind a new continent, always is). There was the worst apartment of my life, with linoleum floors and fluorescent lighting and lukewarm to ice-cold showers and heat that got turned off on the weekends. The attempting to teach English to teenagers who made fun of my accent. Being at the mercy of the French transit system. Making so little money I often had to go through my pockets for change to buy a baguette to tide me over until I got paid. The incessant rain from December to April.

Don’t get me wrong: there were many good things about living in Normandy. The aforementioned baguettes. The crepes, the croissants, the cidre. The wine. The proximity of Paris. This trail I used to walk on that leads out into cow country where you felt like the only human being on earth. The adventures I had. The friends I made from all corners of the earth.

But a lot of the time, I found myself nostalgic for college, and at the same time, dreaming of the future.

I’m over France, I said, towards the end. I can’t wait to have a steady job and live in a big city and be near my boyfriend and watch football and have a car again.

So the next year, I moved to New York, got an apartment in Brooklyn, got a decent-paying administrative assistant 9-5 job. I watched football, saw my boyfriend all the time, had money to buy food.

But I had problems, too. Being a real adult for the first time was hard. I found myself nostalgic for France, and dreaming of the future.

I’m over Brooklyn, I said. Over this admin assistant job. Over being a relationship. I can’t wait until my life changes.

It did. I moved to the East Village. I became single again for the first time in three years. I got a new job, a *real* job, in the marketing department of my company.

The marketing job was hard, especially at first. So was dating. And living with roommates. I missed my old colleagues. I missed my old boyfriend. I missed Brooklyn.

Life changed again, as it tends to do. I got a promotion at work, doing something I like to do, at which I’m actually good (social media). All that dating landed me another boyfriend, one for keeps, this time. We moved back to Brooklyn together. I finally finished my book.

But I still have dreams. I dream of living in an actual house, with more than two rooms and a yard and trees (actually, I dream of living somewhere like this). I dream of quitting my job and becoming a full time writer. I dream of wide open spaces, of time to bake, of spending more than two weeks a year en voyage.

It’s okay to dream. Good, even. But somewhere along the way I figured out I have to be grateful for what I have, for the way my life is in this very moment. Someday I’m going to be nostalgic for my 375-square foot apartment two blocks from the Promenade. For the ease of taking the subway anywhere I want to go. For a steady paycheck, maybe.

I’m still nostalgic for days gone by and still dream about the future, but I’m trying really hard to keep my eyes wide open to appreciate the way my life is right now.

Wanderlusty Wednesday

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The current story I’m writing is about a group of high school kids on a school trip to Paris. It draws largely on my own experiences. I just wrote the part where they take a day trip out to the Loire Valley to see the chateaus, and writing about seeing those amazing places for the first time just sent shivers down my spine. I remember that everyone else liked Chenonceau the best, but my favorite has always been Chambord. It’s the one that makes you think What could I possibly do with this many rooms? and then your imagination goes into overdrive trying to supply the answer. When I retire I’m becoming a tour guide at one of these places, you wait and see.

On Character Inspiration

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Do you base your characters on real people? From everything I’ve read, this is somewhat of a no-no.

I remember reading somewhere that J.K. Rowling has stated that none of her characters are based directly on real-life people (except for Crookshanks, who’s based on a real-life cat! I love that), but that shades of people she knew, as well as herself, naturally creep into the characters.

Of course your own emotions and experiences are going to fuel your characters. Realistic human emotions are what make good books so good. For my first novel, I was very careful about not making the protagonist too much like myself, but I’ve had friends read it and think otherwise. For each character, I did draw upon traits of people I know or have known, and for some I drew upon traits of fictional characters I felt were particularly well-drawn. But in the end, each of my characters was entirely fictional. I couldn’t say that one or another has a real-life counterpart somewhere.

As I’m querying my first novel, I’m hard at work on my second. I had immediately jumped into a sequel, but then I read somewhere that your second novel should be something totally different–if the first one doesn’t sell, the sequel won’t either, for obvious reasons. So the sequel is on hold (just for now, since I love it so far and can’t wait to see what happens next).

So I decided to do something drastically different. I started writing an epistolary novel about a shy teenager on her school trip to Paris, drawing heavily on my own experiences (as well as my high school journal). It’s written in the first-person present, which are both firsts for me. This novel is a little uncomfortable, to be honest. High school was not a great time for me, and the more I write, the more I find myself tapping into the pain of the awkward teenage girl still inside me somewhere, pain from wounds I thought were healed long ago. And while none of my characters are thinly-veiled real people, every single one of them draws from people I actually knew in high school and beyond. And some of the scenes I’ve written–such as the one where my protagonist smokes her first cigarette under the Eiffel Tower–are fictionalized versions of stuff that actually happened. Most of the people involved are people I’m no longer in touch with. But I can’t help but wonder if someday someone I knew once will pick this up and recognize an element of themselves in it somewhere.

I’m only a month and 36,000 words into this new work, so I’m not sure yet if it’s something that will pan out. The rawness and realness of it scares me a little in the way my first novel didn’t, but I think that’s a good thing, no?

Wanderlusty Wednesday: Honfleur

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Over the weekend, I encountered a couple who was thinking of taking a trip to Normandy next year. I immediately started providing my unsolicited travel advice, since I used to live there. But before I had gotten very far, they interrupted me and said, “No no–we don’t have time for all of that. We just want to see Omaha Beach, then leave to see Germany.”

To which I can only reply: don’t do that.

There’s a lot to see in this world, I know that. And I know that living in Saint-Lô, I had way more time to travel around Normandy than the average visitor. I would spend days on end in one little town, just soaking it in. I’ve since moved back to America, making my European excursions few and far between. Yet I still make it a point to travel at least twice a year, and when I do, I opt for the slow-soak version, rather than the get-it-all-in-while-we’re-here turbo-charged trip.

I took the above photo in Honfleur on a random weekday in 2007. Honfleur is a gorgeous little town on the bank of the Seine. If you don’t have a car, it’s not the easiest to get to–I took a train to Caen, and then switched to a bus–but it’s so worth it. I spent the entire day wandering the little streets, eating at a cafe on the harbor, watching the boats float in the water, then as the sun began to set, I got back on the bus and went back to Saint-Lô.

If you ever find yourself in Normandy, do yourself a favor and spend more than a day there. Spend a week, a month, a year if you can. There is so much beauty in that little corner of the world.

On Rejection and Perspective

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I finished my first novel–I mean edited-down, polished-to-a-gleaming-shine, FINISHED-finished–about 3 months ago now. When I was done, I thought, FINALLY. Now my writing life can finally begin!

You know nothing, self of 3 months ago…
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