A life in words – Jennifer Miller on writing The Year of the Gadfly

Jennifer Miller’s novel, The Year of the Gadfly, is a hard to pin down. With a teenage protagonist who chats with the chain-smoking ghost of Edward R. Murrow, prep-school rules and secret societies, love stories and mysteries, and asides into extreme micro-biology and the personal and public ethics of journalism, it’s an unusual read.

And that was just how she intended when writing  it. “In my mind, the Year of the Gadfly goes across genres. It’s good for adults, mature teens, people who like coming of age stories, mysteries, campus novels. I hate how everything in publishing these days is relegated to particular genre or shelf – especially in the adult/YA world.”

In The Year of the Gadfly teenage reporter Iris Dupont and failed microbiologist-turned-biology-teacher Jonah Kaplan both embark on their own private investigation into a secret society operating in their prestigious private school. What they uncover challenges their school, their town and their own minds. Like most novels, not all of the events in the novel are purely fictional as several situations draw on events in Jennifer’s own life. “I was selective about which personal details I included. For example, while Justin Kaplan is closely based on my high school boyfriend Ben (he was killed in a car accident the summer before our senior year), I made Justin’s parents into unique characters. I wanted Gadfly to be a tribute and honor to Ben, but I also wanted to protect his parents’ feelings.”

Journalism and a decidication to uncovering the truth play a big part in the novel, with deceased American journalist Edward R. Murrow providing (disembodied) perspective. Jennifer found that mixing a real historical figure in with her characters wasn’t as difficult as you might imagine. “I did quite a lot of research to bring Murrow to life. I didn’t have any trouble inventing his dialogue, though I’m sure that would have been much more complicated, had he been a central character. I did want to stay true to his world view and personal history. For this reason, Iris learns some unsavory details about Murrow’s life–like his marital infidelities.”

This is Jennifer’s first published novel but she’s no stranger to seeing her words in print – she has a background as journalist and non-fiction writer. “Reporting allows me to meet people and visit places I never would have the chance to otherwise. It also lets me understand how different types of people think and feel and speak. All of these things help me create stronger, more well-rounded characters in my fiction.”

While journalism is a big part of her life, she has always wanted to write fiction. “I love the creativity involved in creating specific images and feeling simply by putting words on the page. I love language–particularly the sound of words. I also love creating a unique world out of thin air. I think writing fiction is a little bit like acting. As the author, you have to inhabit different characters and try to see the world through their eyes–and speak like them, which isn’t easy. But it’s so rewarding when you do it well. You’re tricking readers (and yourself) in believing that fictions exist. How much fun is that!”

In addition to her background as a journalist, Jennifer had her studies to draw on when she was writing the book; she completed Master in Fine Arts at Columbia while she was working on the drafts of Gadfly. She found it hugely useful, but not indispenasable, as she worked her way through the process of getting the book to a publishable story. “The MFA introduced me to amazing fellow writers, who are now some of my closest friends and supporters. I’d say those relationships are much more important than anything I got out of the program on a craft level. Not that the classes weren’t helpful, but I found it really difficult to workshop a novel (as opposed to short stories, which is the trend).”
Jennifer’s advice to other writers? Don’t give up. “Novel writing is a marathon, not a race. Gadfly took me seven years and countless drafts to write. There were a number of times when I almost gave up, because I was frustrated or felt daunted or was convinced the book would never sell. If you truly stick with your project, I think you much more likely to achieve success (or at least publication)!”

The Year of the Gadfly will be released on the 23rd of May.

A Book

November is sneaking up again and with it my usual yearly urge to throw my free time away and take a trip on the good ship NaNoWriMo.

National Novel Writing Month – or NaNoWriMo to its friends – takes place every November and has a simple approach to getting your much-procrastinated novel actually written. For the month of November participants abandon overtime, the internet, their hobbies, their social life and occasionally their families with the aim of writing a 50,000 words by the time the clock hits 23:59.59 on November 30th. It doesn’t have to be great, it doesn’t have to meticulously researched or grammatically perfect. It just has to be 50,000 words.

The first NaNoWriMo took place in 1999 in the San Francisco when 21 friends decided to challenge each other to write a novel in a month and in 2000 they had 140 participants. The idea took off, perhaps a little too fast for the organisers. In 2001 they anticipated 150 participants to visit their rough and ready website and email group. Five thousand showed up. They realised that, to quote my favourite bit of  Jaws, they were going to need a bigger boat.

Once they got the infrastructure sorted the idea just kept getting bigger. In 2010, they had over 200,000 participants, with 30,000 of them crossing the 50K finish line by the deadline. That’s a lot of aspiring novelists and a lot of hastily-written words. With NaNo, the only thing that matters in your output and by the organisers’ own admission, you’ll probably end up sacrificing form to do so.

“Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved. Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.”

I’ve tried Nanowrimo a few times and haven’t yet made it over the finish line. I’ve ended up with 20,000 words of swear-laden chicklit and 15,000 of what may be the worst vampire comedy novella of all time (I realise that’s a small field, but it really is a very bad book). I had considered it to be about as gung-ho as you could get as an (unpaid) writer, but then I found an article over on WetAsphalt that makes a book in a month look positively sleepy.

For those of you for whom NaNoWriMo isn’t hardcore enough, you can make like Michael Moorcock and write a book in three days. Moorcock started out writing badly-paid sword-and-sorcery action-adventure and, faced with the necessity of fast writing as he was living on piece-work pay-cheques, he came up with a writing method that allowed him to pump out a book every three to ten days or so including tips on plot devices, and characterization. My favourite tip is on designing a pulp hero that keeps the plot moving briskly:

“The hero has to supply the narrative dynamic, and therefore can’t have any common-sense. Any one of us in those circumstances would say, ‘What? Dragons? Demons? You’ve got to be joking!’ The hero has to be driven, and when people are driven, common sense disappears. You don’t want your reader to make common sense objections, you want them to go with the drive; but you’ve got to have somebody around who’ll act as a sort of chorus.”

There’s enough information in the article to get you up to speed (bad pun, I know) on Moorcock’s method and it is a fascinating – if utterly terrifying – look at what it takes to be truly prolific.

Moorcock isn’t the only writer out there who makes NaNo’s goals look a little soft. Stephen King, for example, was forced to invent his pseudonym Richard Bachman to satisfy his urge to release more novels after his publishing company urged him to calm down his schedule (he likened it to a wife who didn’t want to put out sending her husband to a prostitute to satisfy his urges). He was so gripped by the urge to write he even managed to make the experience of writing under a pen name into another book – The Dark Half.

And it’s not just horror and fantasy – Barbara Cartland wrote a mind-boggling 723 romance novels. In 1983 she wrote 23 novels, and holds the Guiness World Record for the most novels written in a single year.

South African writer Mary Faulkner wrote 904 books under six separate pen names and holds the Guinness Book of World Records title of history’s most prolific novelist. Enid Blyton churned out over 600 books – with lashings and lashings of ginger beer no doubt. Alexandre Dumas, the French author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, wrote 277.

It’s almost enough to make you think that 50,000 words in a month is a bit of a holiday. Ask me how I feel again in mid-November. Anyone up for joining me on the NaNoWriMo boat?

Reading like you write

Do you write like your favourite authors?

Over on Cam Roger’s* website, there’s a comment thread getting going on social groups and networking amongst your friends and someone raised an interesting idea; that we are the sum of a few people that we spend the most time with.

This is an idea popularised by motivational speaker Jim Rohn who argues that if you think about the five people you spend the most time with, you are probably the sum (or more accurately, the average) of those people.  Basically, you are who you know. It’s not a ground-breaking idea – we’ve all heard about the dangers of “getting in with a bad crowd” and seen many books for aspiring writers/artists/rich people that recommend surrounding yourself with successful writers/artists/rich people.

(Although, speaking as the struggling writer type myself, perhaps I should surround myself with rich people instead of writers? After all, my writer friends can come up with their own prose, but perhaps someone rich might be able to spare a few pennies for my writing. I reckon it might be beneficial for artists generally to meet less other starving artists over a bottle of homebrew and go out with more people who can shout them a bowl of soup.)

But it got me thinking – if we gravitate towards the people we want to be like, does this mean that we read the people that we most want to write like? It’s an interesting idea, that our favourite books are not so much guests on our bookshelves but a style guide to our thinking.

What about people with very varied tastes? What if you have some Jane Austen next to your copy of Mama Mia, like many women I know? I have friends who are equally at ease with easy-reading humor such as Freakonomics or wading through the thick prose of Tolkien. I enjoy the acerbic abstract brevity of Chuck Palahnuik every bit as much as the frothy levity of Bill Bryson, and I like to temper my taste in biographies with occasional forays into the fantasy worlds of Robin Hobb and George R. R. Martin.

And believe me, if I could write as well any one of them I would be a very happy – and also pretty rich. What do you think? Would you like to write like your favourite five authors? And would mixing their styles even be possible?


* For those of you thinking that name looks familiar, yes this is the same Cameron Rogers who I interviewed on this blog last year. He’s an Australian author and his blog, Wait Here for Further Instructions, is both a useful site full of information on writing and traveling and a repository of some of the strangest and funniest true stories I have ever heard. Don’t believe me? Read this one on coffin-bashing undertakers, the richest man who ever lived in a shed and the Cooktown cyclone.