By Jen Conley
I’d rather get up and sweep my floors, eat something that puts me over my allotted daily Weight Watchers points, or go back on Facebook once again to see…well, it’s pretty nuts out there so there’s a lot to see.
I’d rather watch the birds gather in front of my window. I’d rather go to the gym. I’d rather watch an episode of The Crown, even though I’ve watched it already. A few times. I’d rather think about buying bird food for those birds.
I’d rather contemplate cutting my hair with my own scissors, or twisting the skin on my arm to see if I can create a bruise.
Just kidding about that last part. But it feels like that when I try to write a novel. I’ve written about three dozen stories, some which can be found in my collection Cannibals: Stories from the Edge of the Pine Barrens. Most of them came pretty easily to me. But writing novels, not so easy.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried a few times and bailed about two-thirds in, or just did one draft and chucked it. I’ve finished a novel that I really like but it’s not really a novel so it’s never going to sell. I finished a YA novel but I don’t know…I like that one but it takes place in 1983 so that’s a big barrier. And do I really want to be a YA novelist?
Anyhow, last fall I dove in again, this time telling myself that if I don’t get this right, I’m never going to try a novel again. I’ll stick to what I know best—short stories. And why not? I love writing short stories. I look forward to it. I enjoy tackling a story, getting that first draft on the page, tinkering with it, getting it done. And getting it done in a decent amount of time, which for me, ideally, is about in two nights, a week off, and then another night, a few days off, and then one more night to give it a last look, and then out to submission land.
I have no patience. If you’ve ever driven with me, you’d know I’m a pretty aggressive driver and I’ll ride your tail if you’re doing the speed limit. I will hit the horn if you’re about to make a left when you should be going right for the jug handle—it’s New Jersey, follow the rules! I will curse you out if you’re in the left lane doing 40 mph, then I will go around you on the right, curse you out again and probably, in perfect Jersey fashion, flip you the…you know. If you’ve ever gone sight-seeing with me, especially a big city, you better walk fast because I don’t like to stroll. If we’re traveling through Europe and you’re my friends and you need to rest but you’ve rested already—because I noticed—and you’re all super slow walkers and dammit, we need to see shit, I’ll let you know. Then you’ll all tell me to piss off, hand over your cameras, and I’ll climb that somewhat-famous tower in Germany or Switzerland by myself and take the pictures for everyone. (This actually happened.)
With all this impatience, writing short stories appeals to my nature. I can come up with one plot, a few characters, put them in the one-plot situation, flesh out their personalities, point out an existential yet depressing observation about humanity and how so many people get one shot in this world and one bad choice can destroy the life of a person of limited financial means. Maybe put a cardinal or turkey vulture in the story for metaphor sake (I like birds in my stories), and voila, it’s done. I go back, play with the language, make sure every single sentence is absolutely perfect, with the right beat, the right rhythm, every description is the way I want it, and then it’s really done. In time to make dinner, sweep the floors, do the wash, work at my job, be a mom, all that stuff.
I really like getting things done.
Novels go against my nature. I have to take my time. I have to mull over stuff, rest, think, take notes, think, outline. I have to hang out with these characters forever, add and take away, edit edit edit, rewrite, pull stuff out, rewrite again, outline again, take that character out, delete that chapter, rewrite this scene and that scene. And one plot just won’t do. One bird won’t do. One existential depressing point won’t do. In fact, you can’t leave novels without a defining point: you have to leave some hope or leave the character with a final revenge. Nobody wants to spend 300 pages with a character only to learn the world is awful and nobody gets retribution and people will just die. You can do that with a short story—and I love to do that—but I find novels that end on that note really annoy me.
Anyhow, this past year, I’ve written a novel. I tried to write a solid novel, something that didn’t meander, something that had a defining ending, something that says a few things about the world of adults.
So how does one write a novel when they consider themselves a short story writer? I think when you finally have a lot to say.
I wrote my novel during this past year, during one of the most volatile election cycles the country has ever seen. Writing was sort of a respite for me, and a vehicle to get out how I feel about the way women are treated in this country. My novel is about a woman who gets involved with a bad man. That’s the gist. Now bad can mean two things—bad meaning, bad boy and all that that implies, and bad meaning, bad. Cruel, mean, violent. And yes, this guy is both.
I thought I had it right and I sent it to Chuck Regan, one of my writer friends who volunteered to read my book. In a week and a half, he sent it back to me with notes and suggestions. The gist: I wasn’t done.
His analysis: I wasn’t hitting the beats hard enough, not diving in deep enough. The arc and plotline worked, and I was almost there, but my big theme: “If you let yourself be controlled, you will be controlled,” wasn’t the big punch he knew I could hit with. His advice was to use everything that makes me mad, everything I feel is unjust, and throw it at my character and her world. And throw it hard.
He was right. I was skirting around the hard stuff, being too careful, too soft. I was too worried about offending people, which made it difficult to follow my gut. It made it too easy to take time off to—wait for it—write more short stories.
So I followed Chuck’s advice and let myself get really mad.
And what I’m really mad at is this country.
I was an outspoken Hillary Clinton supporter and I was open about it on Facebook. Many people roll their eyes when you bring this up but like it or not, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, and so on—this is our new way of communicating. Sometimes it can be great, sometimes it can be hell.
I took some shit.
Mostly from guys I grew up with, and some women too, and one former co-worker, and someone’s mother, and some random dude who was friends with one of my former high school friends.
As in real life, when men take shit, it’s usually just shit. Sometimes awful, cruel, mean, but if they’re both white and not Jewish, the playing field is usually even. But when women take shit, even if they’re like myself and haven’t called anyone names, the retorts back can be super harsh. There’s more subtext to it, something more nefarious, more primal. It usually goes like this:
“Who do you think you are?”
“You should lose your teaching job.”
“You’re a dumb ass.”
“You’re a dumb bitch.”
“Why don’t you go kill some unborn kids in Europe? I’ll buy you the ticket.”
One of my former friends took a screen shot of my Facebook page with my name and picture and limited information available, posted it on his page under the PUBLIC category, and proceeded to make fun of me for unfriending him. (He had been out of line with me, which got him unfriended.) Others joined in the mocking, because who could resist a good juicy game of Hate the Hillary Supporter on Facebook? They called me a baby, ridiculed me for my views, told lies about me and although I reported it to Facebook—several times—Facebook said he didn’t violate anything. Their advice was to block him.
Thanks Zuckerberg. I guess.
I want to tell you this situation didn’t bother me, that I was tough about it, that I laughed it off. And sure, immediately after I learned about that screen shot (a mutual female friend alerted me to it), I did laugh, roll my eyes. When my fifteen-year-old son saw it, his response was: “And adults call my generation mean?” More chuckles followed. But the truth is, the next morning when I woke up, I felt sick to my stomach. I’d never been cyber-bullied before, especially by someone I’d once considered a good friend, and although I’m an adult and I can handle some nasty stuff, this one left me rattled.
And why was it done?
Because I was an open Hillary supporter on Facebook. Because I dared to challenge him and others on their views. Because I spoke up. Because I didn’t go make cupcakes and sing, “Let it Go.”
As I’ve been going back into my novel, recalling this election, recalling how it grew darker and meaner by the day, remembering the sad pit in my stomach as I watched some of my friends become irrational and cruel, it fueled the passion in my writing to get this right. Get it right. What do I have to say? What am I saying about women who dare to get out there, to make mistakes, to live, to try? What am I saying about the judgement and punishment of women who speak their opinions, who have sex with men they aren’t married to, who choose not to be religious? What am I saying about other women who judge their fellow gender for living a non-traditional life? What am I saying?
Yes, its 2017 and we’ve all watched Sex in the City and there’s been countless books and movies and TV shows which promote independent women, and that’s all fantastic. Unfortunately, there still is the double-standard judgment: Why doesn’t she have a child? How many sexual partners has she had? She must like being abused because she hasn’t left him. She must’ve made some poor choices to end up alone.
Yes, this is what I’m writing about. This.
And now, what do I do?
I have to get into the rewrite with a punch. Hit my character harder with what I feel is unjust, hit her with my anger, hit her with my own weak spots. Because when you put your character through hell, the ending can only go two ways—the sad “That’s How Life Is” ending or the “I’m Going to Hit Back” ending. I’m choosing the latter. There will be consequences, and it might not be good for her, but she will hit back. And that satisfies me, and hopefully my readers.
It’s clear now. It shouldn’t take long. I’m kicking through it quickly.
Maybe the birds and The Crown and eating beyond my allotted Weight Watchers points were helpful, but I’d say the political arguments on Facebook were helpful too. In a demented twisted way.
So there you have it. How a short story writer becomes a novelist. A dash of this and that, five cups of anger, a slew of hard work, and finally that wicked word LUCK. But that’s a topic for another essay.
I hope my rewrite is a success. I’ll keep you posted on Facebook.
Jen Conley’s short stories have appeared in Thuglit, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Crime Factory, Beat to a Pulp, Protectors, Pulp Modern, Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Bruce Springsteen and many others. She has contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books and is one of editors of Shotgun Honey. She lives in New Jersey.
To learn more about Conley’s debut collection of short stories, click on the cover below: