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Jason Gurley: Five Things I Learned Writing Eleanor

Eleanor and Esmerelda are identical twins with a secret language all their own, inseparable until a terrible accident claims Esme’s life. Eleanor’s family is left in tatters: her mother retreats inward, seeking comfort in bottles; her father reluctantly abandons ship. Eleanor is forced to grow up more quickly than a child should, and becomes the target of her mother’s growing rage.

Years pass, and Eleanor’s painful reality begins to unravel in strange ways. The first time it happens, she walks through a school doorway, and finds herself in a cornfield, beneath wide blue skies. When she stumbles back into her own world, time has flown by without her. Again and again, against her will, she falls out of her world and into other, stranger ones, leaving behind empty rooms and worried loved ones.

One fateful day, Eleanor leaps from a cliff and is torn from her world altogether. She meets a mysterious stranger, Mea, who reveals to Eleanor the weight of her family’s loss. To save her broken parents, and rescue herself, Eleanor must learn how deep the well of her mother’s grief and her father’s heartbreak truly goes. Esmerelda’s death was not the only tragic loss in her family’s fragmented history, and unless Eleanor can master her strange new abilities, it may not be the last.

Dumb, blockheaded persistence sometimes wins the day

Let’s just get this one out of the way, right up front: This book took a long, long time. Nearly fifteen years long. That kind of long. And let me be clear: This isn’t a badge of honor. This isn’t Look how many hours I worked this week, did you work that many hours? No? You’ve probably worked with people like that. And you know that those people probably work more inefficiently than you do. There’s a reason you didn’t work seventy-six hours this week. You can get your work done in the usual forty. And that’s exactly the case here. Eleanor took nearly fifteen years for a lot of reasons, most of which had to do with my inexperience, my inefficiency, my tendency to be derailed by shiny objects—like the nearly two years I spent adapting it into an amateur comic instead of working on the novel—and some of which were more practical, like:

Sometimes you aren’t ready to write the book you’re writing

I was twenty-three when I began working on this novel. I wasn’t a newcomer to the idea of writing books—I’d already written and shelved three of them—but it was immediately apparent to me that Eleanor was the first personal novel I had attempted. This was a book that was going to answer some big questions that I had about life, the universe, et cetera. There’s a problem with that, though: when you’re twenty-three, you don’t know the answers. Or if you do, your answers are pretty damp and unformed, not yet tested by age and experience. In my case, Eleanor—at least in those early, long-ago drafts—was struggling to reconcile some major questions I had about faith, belief, the existence of god. I grew up in the Pentecostal church, where questions like that weren’t only dodged, but discouraged. In my early twenties, I was finally trying to face them head-on, using Eleanor, my novel-in-progress, as my tank. I didn’t know how to drive a tank then, and still don’t.

I chipped away at this novel until about 2010—the comic detour—and then again until late 2012, when I put Eleanor aside entirely. My wife had found a novel-writing competition, and suggested I enter. It seemed disingenuous to try to rush Eleanor to completion for the sake of a contest I probably wouldn’t win, so I wrote something else, and finished it in record time—about three weeks. I skipped the contest altogether—I never win contests anyway—and self-published this lark of a novel. It found some readers, and gave me a high I’d never experienced. People were reading my work! It was as if a dam had burst: in the next eight months, I wrote and self-published three more novels.

I returned to the lump that was Eleanor after that, having restored my writerly confidence, and to my surprise, discovered another major impediment to my earlier progress:

Sometimes the book you’re writing wants to be a different book

Remember all those big questions I was asking? And how I was using Eleanor to try to answer them? Yeah, well, more than a decade had passed since I first started down that road. I’d gotten married; I’d become a father. When I returned to the novel in 2013, I realized that not only was Eleanor a failed self-help book masquerading as a novel, I’d long ago stopped asking those big questions. I’d already resolved my personal opinions about faith and belief and god and such, and here was my old book, still throwing pebbles at that hurricane. I couldn’t relate to it at all. I expected this to depress me, I think, but instead, it was utterly liberating. I didn’t have to write that book anymore.

But the characters stuck with me. I’d known Eleanor and her family for more years than I’d known most of the tangible, real human beings in my life. Giving them up wasn’t that appealing. So instead of throwing them away, I just threw away the story I’d constructed for them, and began looking for their story, one that wasn’t my own. And it turned out that the story I discovered was way, way more interesting than my own derailed, earlier draft.

Writing is fun (sometimes), but revision is magical

Okay, writing isn’t always fun. Most of the time it isn’t fun, even. There are good days, but mostly you just have to do it. It took several novels for me to learn this particular truth, but once it finally sunk in, it stuck: you don’t have to write a perfect draft the first time out, or the second, or the ninth. You just have to make each one better, a little at a time.

Revising a book is pure, unadulterated magic. You step back, you look at what you’ve made, and suddenly, if you look long enough, you start to see the threadbare parts, or the areas where too much fabric piled up. It bunches too tightly in this area; it’s too taut over there. You tug here, snip there, and suddenly entire sections of the garment begin to hang just right. In the case of Eleanor, the biggest themes emerged after I’d finished writing the new draft. Once I saw them, I could work my way back through the book, drawing them out a little more.

Beware, though: once you fall in love with the editing process, you might have a hard time ever stopping. Eventually, you have to put your hands up, push away from the table, and call a thing done. There’s always something more you could tweak. You’ve got more stories to tell, though. Right? I definitely do.

There are, like, seven thousand ways to get to the finish line

When I was eighteen years old and I wrote my first novel, I set a goal: by twenty-five I’d be a big literary star. (Oh, those heady teenage dreams.) Five years later I started Eleanor, not knowing I’d be approaching forty before the book was complete. (And boy am I grateful that self-publishing wasn’t as easy and accessible when I was eighteen years old. Hoo, boy.)

When I finished Eleanor, I half-heartedly sent it to a few agents and editors, but then I did what I knew how to do: I self-published it, in the summer of 2014. If that’s all that had happened, it would have been enough. People were reading the book, sharing it with their friend. It found an audience, and that audience connected with the book in ways I genuinely didn’t expect. I was surprised when the book shot up the Amazon bestseller list—I think it peaked at #25 or so, to my amazement—and even more surprised when an email arrived from a Hollywood producer who was interested in the film rights. That was a conversation I wasn’t prepared to have on my own, but it helped me find an agent who could help. And then things just kept going: the agent helped me sell the novel to a major publisher (Crown), and then several foreign rights sales followed. Months of additional editing came after that, and then my first journey through the mechanisms of the publishing world began. I’ve crossed so many different finish lines with this book now that I’ve lost track. I’ll be thirty-eight this year, though, and I feel like I’ve just crossed the starting line.

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Jason Gurley is the author of Eleanor (Crown, 2016) and the fiction collection Deep Breath Hold Tight. His short stories have appeared in Lightspeed Magazine and various anthologies. He lives and writes in Oregon.

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