Jennifer Hillier

Old to the new

Jul 31, 2009 | Uncategorized

I haven’t talked about my first novel much.  It took three months to write, almost two years ago, and in hindsight I think I used it as a way to cope with the stress of moving to the States.   I hadn’t planned on writing it.  It wasn’t like I woke up one morning with an idea I was itching to explore (like with Creep).

I was working as a receptionist at my uncle’s chiropody clinic, sometime in November of 2005, and one stormy day half the patients canceled.  Since at the time there was no internet at the clinic, I passed the time playing Solitaire on the computer and writing a story.  I wrote off and on over the course of the day, in between answering the phone and attending to the few patients who managed to make it in, and by the end of the day I had four single-spaced pages in MS Word.

I printed it out, deleted the file off the computer’s hard drive (God forbid my uncle or aunt might see my pathetic attempt at writing fiction, which was something I hardly did anymore), and brought it home.  Forgot all about it.  A month later, I quit my uncle’s clinic, moved to Cambridge and into our first house, and got a new job.

Fast forward to July 2007.   I was in my office in our house in Cambridge, which we’d sold.  We’d been there less than two years and now here I was, at midnight on a Tuesday, packing stuff up again.  Steve was already in Seattle working, and I was home alone going through my things, some of which I hadn’t even looked at since we’d moved in.  Came across those four printed pages.  Sat down, amused, to read them.  And thought, Wonder how it’ll end. One day I should finish this.

Worried the pages might get lost during the move, I sat down and retyped them into my laptop.  And then kept going.   Next thing I knew, it was four in the morning and I’d added another ten pages.  Single-spaced.  Which is about 4,000 words.

That was the night I became a writer again.

Three months later, I finished the manuscript.   It was October 27, 2007, and I celebrated with chocolate (what else? Steve was out of town working and I was by myself), then went to bed thrilled that I’d just completed my first novel.

Then woke up the morning of October 28 with two thoughts:

Where the fuck am I?


My novel sucks.

It was like I hadn’t even realized we’d moved to Seattle.  Obviously we had, because I’d called and arranged the moving company, I’d set up all our utilities, and I’d shopped for new bedroom furniture at Pottery Barn.  My friend Dawn had even come to visit over Canadian Thanksgiving and I had the pictures of us at Pike’s Place market giggling over the hot fishermen to prove it.

But it was like I’d done all of that sleepwalking.  I’d been totally consumed with writing my novel and, with it behind me, it was like someone had woken me up.   I was disoriented, completely freaked out, and suddenly homesick.

And utterly convinced the novel was shit.

So in the “trunk” it stayed.  Until this week.

I think I mentioned in a past post that I was up against a wall with my third book.  And have been, for months.  So in desperation I decided to pull out my first novel.  After all, that’s where the characters were born.  The novel I’m writing now features all the same players as in my first book but with a new plot, because I couldn’t bear to see Sam, Matt, Jason, Shank, Rita, Anthony, and Doug wasted.  If it’s one thing my first novel has, it’s characters with tediously detailed backstories.  Makes for a shit novel but it’s terrific groundwork.

But the third novel wasn’t working and I needed to read the first to see what I’d done differently.  For a shit novel, it at least had a middle and an end.   It had been easy to write. Which is more than I can say for my current book.

And then I realized – that first novel isn’t so bad.  It’s not great (let’s not be ridiculous), but it’s fixable. Revisable.  Structural problems aside, the writing doesn’t stink more than any other first draft I’ve written.  The premise is consistent and the theme is evident, which are two things lacking in my third novel.

And that’s when it hit me. I’ve been trying to turn this new story into a thriller.  Because I consider to myself to be a thriller writer (I attended ThrillerFest, after all).  But it’s not a thriller.  It was never meant to be a thriller.  Creep is a thriller.

But Magnolia is a horror story.  And for it to work, it has to stay that way.

Talk about a light bulb moment!  Two, actually.

First, I can write whatever the hell I want, regardless of the label I happen to attach to myself.  And I can’t imagine writing one type of the book for the rest of my life.

And second, sometimes there’s no point in reinventing the wheel.  Sometimes it makes more sense to work with what you already have and make it better.  So my new story is being weaved into my old story, and rewrites will progress from there.

A blend of old and new.

I wish it hadn’t taken me almost two years to figure this out.