writing a book

Big Bite: A Student’s First Novel

Creative writing major Eleanor Haglund has written plenty of short stories and even one novella before, but never tackled something as long and involved as a novel. Until now.

Haglund, a Humanities Scholars Program student with a psychology minor, has embarked on writing her very first novel. She spent the summer figuring out just how to do this as part of the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences’ Honors Fellowship. The fellowship allows students to get a head start on their Senior Honors Program thesis work.

eleanor presentationHaglund presented her work so far earlier this week – about how her story switched focus and how she made so much progress (100 pages written and counting!)

“My novel is a coming of age story about a girl in college,” Haglund said. “The girl is struggling with school and her family as she comes into her own. It’s totally fiction.”

Haglund was advised by English Professors Kevin González and Jane McCafferty not to outline as she began the writing process.

“But I love structure and schedules, so I freaked out,” Haglund admitted.

However, she said by not having a pre-determined path, so many doors opened for her.

“I would have focused on events and plots – and wouldn’t have focused on characters,” she said.

Haglund said that she needs to write every day, and even blogged about her quest to find the perfect location. But she’s writing and not looking back.

“It’s really hard to revise a large project as you’re going, so I plan on revising later,” Haglund said.

She plans on having a completed first draft by November.

“Then I will start with what Jane said, ‘re-envisioning what I’ve put down,’” she said.

Learn more about her novel.

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How do you find Inspiration? You stop trying.

haglund1Hello!

I’m back after my vacation on Vancouver Island and in Vancouver city. During my time there, I went hiking, surfing, caving and, of course, did some eating. At the beginning, I thought I would write during this time, just a few hours in the morning. But after the first few days, I realized that what I was trying to accomplish was both impractical and not conducive to my writing.

So, I decided to take a real vacation. I stopped trying to cram writing time into the mornings and let go. And suddenly, I was flooded with ideas. Each new experience brought me a new narrative, begging to be told. Inspiration flowed in from the peace of being below ground, seeing a chance sculpture on a walk, being pummeled by cold ocean waves and listening to the stories of the people who call Vancouver their home.

Flowstone from my caving experience.

Flowstone from my caving experience.

My mind is now filled with scenes, characters and themes from the short time I spent in Vancouver. I did not make much, if any, progress in my novel, but writing is so much easier now that I have been refreshed with all of the incredible experiences I had.

Side note:

One of the really cool things about Vancouver is that it is where Ruth Ozeki, one of my favorite authors, lives for part of the year. It is also where she chose to set her novel A Tale for the Time Being. Experiencing the natural beauty of British Columbia that she describes was breathtaking. I also found the name of A Tale for the Time Being’s main character, Nao, carved into a board on a bridge I was walking across. It has absolutely no relation to the book, as the name beside it is Mike, but it was a fun coincidence.

haglund2

Learn more about my project.

Alternatives to the Guidebook

Another few weeks have passed and I’m almost to 75 pages! Which is almost to 100, which is almost to 150! Yes. Let’s go with that. Stay motivated.

I feel like my time has been flying by this summer. On one hand, I like that, because I can see that the writing I do everyday is coming together and building up. On the other hand, I want it to slow down so I can enjoy my experiences and savor the summer before I go out into the unknown world. The jump from the safety of college to the freedom (but also confusion) of the real world is a big transition for myself and for many of my fellow students.

Something I really appreciate about the fellowship is that it gives Dietrich students, students who don’t necessarily have a straight and narrow guidebook to what we will do after college, the opportunity to create a project that we are interested in and give it our all. This gives us the chance to figure out whether or not we want to be doing something similar once we graduate.

I really appreciate that I have been given the chance, within the safety of college, to attempt novel writing and see how I like it. One of my friends wrote a novel for her thesis last year and she came out of it knowing that she never wanted to write a novel again. College is the time to discover these things and learn about ourselves.

So far, I have loved the novel writing process. I have enjoyed sitting down, every morning, dreaming up new scenes and immersing myself in the world of my characters. It is a dream come true to be able to write my first novel and I hope to be doing it for many years to come.

Read more about my project.

The Quest for the Right Location

Carnegie Library

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

I was always told that having a designated spot, in which to do my homework, was a necessary part of the academic process. I never understood this, as my on-the-go lifestyle prohibited me from always doing my homework in one quiet, well-lit place. I was always working with what I had at that moment, whether it was a noisy common room or the hallway outside of a class that was about to begin.

I think that I have reformed my views because of the magnitude of this project. Writing a novel seems to me like such an enormous mountain to climb that I am now ready to listen to any advice I can receive.

As I was starting out, I planned on working at my kitchen table, or at a café, or outside at the benches. I was relying on my past habits. It was recommended to me that I find a quiet space, somewhere that I would work on my thesis and stay completely focused. I relented and thought I would give it a try.

I chose the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, a stately building that speaks of the echoes of the Carnegies and the Mellons of Pittsburgh’s first glory days. I knew when I saw it that it was where I had to write. I walked into the library and discovered that International Poetry Room. It was a quiet room and I would be surrounded by the radiant words of those who had written before me, the true masters. I was sold.

I love writing in this room and I am so thankful I found it. Working in the library has made my writing time more productive and focused. I think this aspect of the writing process will remain with me as I continue to write in the future.

Writing A Book To Which I Do Not Know The Ending

My name is Sayre and I am writing a book to which I do not know the ending. Perhaps this isn’t so unusual. I know of several real adult writers who aren’t sure of how a certain story will turn out from its beginnings. But my case is slightly different, being that this book indeed has an ending, however the only person who really knew it died of brain cancer almost seven years ago.

This single enlightened person was my grandfather, Chick McKinney, who was writing his first and only book: a novel that in many ways mirrored his own life. It was essentially a memoir, disguised as fiction. Unfortunately, what now remains of the so-called novel is a collection of handwritten fragments. It’s possible that there’s an ending written somewhere amid the approximately four thousand loose pages that I have stacked in boxes in my room, but so far, I haven’t seen it. In fact, a lot of the middle is a mystery as well—iffy at best.

I came across one page that is labeled by my grandfather as “story line.” The entire contents of the page are the following sentence: Young boy vows to pick up where his dead brother left off and live his life for him but finds that fame and glory is a tough act to follow. Unfortunately, although I’d like to think that all of the answers are still on the pages in the boxes, I know that I’m going to have to look beyond the obvious or the tangible. I hope that my grandfather’s own biography, for one thing, will provide some answers.

Adam, the book’s protagonist, has a good amount in common with my grandfather simply in the fact that they both grew up in small Appalachian towns. My grandfather’s town had a population of a few hundred. In order to go to high school, he moved away to “the big city,” Raleigh, with his older sister. His sister Wilma offered to take in one of her younger siblings after their older brother died, as a way to help their mother, and so she chose Chick.

Below are some photos to give more context to the story of my grandfather’s upbringing:

Chick’s father at work

Chick’s father at work

Chick and his older brother

Chick and his older brother

Chick and three sisters

Chick and three sisters

Chick’s parents

Chick’s parents

Although I’m very convinced that my grandfather’s relationship with his own brother played a large role in his construction of the story, I’ve sometimes doubted whether it’s appropriate or even correct to assert that his cultural upbringing also plays a role. It’s probably true that there was an unintentional influence of actual memory in my grandfather’s writing, because of his increasing confusion as to what was true and when it had happened. But a part of me likes that idea even more. Take the following passage, for example. Originally, the protagonist was just a “he,” and I changed it to “Adam” to fit with the book. But it could just as easily have been an actual memory that my grandfather had of himself and his brother. An ambiguous passage like this might not belong in the book, and perhaps I had no right to change anything about it. But at this point, and I hope I’m right, I believe that moments like this will be the best thing about the book.

It was still dark when they turned off the paved highway onto a dirt road. There were a few ramshackle houses perched on the steep banks to the right, and three junk cars sat in a patch of tall weeds in the flat next to a small branch. Further on, the road narrowed, became rocky, and laced with gullies. “You’re going to shake every bolt loose in this old track” said Adam. They crossed over the shallows of Sassafras creek to an old logging road grown up with waist high pine seedlings. The Chevy groaned in low gear up the steep grade.

“You’d better have some g-r-u-b” said Daniel, mimicking the slow drawl of a good ole’ boy he had seen in a western movie. “Yew’ve got a l-o-n-g h-a-r-d day ahead of yew.”

            Adam laughed. “I don’t want to take your lunch.”

            “Not to worry, my good buddy. We’ve got enough to feed a couple of bears for a week.”

            “Well then, I’ll take you up on your offer.”

            “There’s a bottle opener in there somewhere.”

[…]

Down there’s your birthday present, Daniel said with a chuckle. I told papa that I was going to bring you here when you were old enough, say thirteen.

            “I told you I was only eight.”

            “Yeah, I keep forgetting that.”

[…]

            Then, a sudden strike. Adam set his hook the instant he saw the flash in the water. He let the fish run, but guided him gently into his net. It was a nine-inch native brook trout.

“What a beauty,” Daniel said. The fish was a male with a dark back and colored spots on the side. The belly and fin had an orange tint.

            “The locals call that speckled trout,” said Daniel.

            “They’re really not a trout,” said Adam. “They’re actually char.”

            “Mama always said you were a prodigy.”

            “Mama also said you were an adventurer and a romantic. But I say you’re a poet.”

            “I’ll settle for any of the three.”

            What a glorious day that was.

Read more about my project.