Eleanor and the story that never ends

If my characters aged as I wrote my books, then Eleanor would be twenty-six now. That's a bit of a mind-splosion for me. Though probably not for most of you, who have no idea what I'm talking about. So let me back up a little bit. There's a lot of story to retrace.

In 2001, I started writing a new novel. I called it Eleanor, tentatively, because that was the protagonist's name, and I figured I would come up with a new title when I figured out where the story was going. That's something I was comfortable with at the time -- not knowing where a story might lead -- and in retrospect, it generally had more to do with my immaturity as a writer. I was twenty-three.

But Eleanor was a little different. I didn't know where the novel was going because the novel was... my story. Sort of. More specifically, the novel became the tool I used to process some complicated thoughts I was having at that age.

I'd grown up in a Christian home, one in which my father was (and he still is) a pastor and minister. I was part of a larger family that had deep southern Christian roots. There were multiple preachers in the family. I was singing Bible-themed songs from the time I learned to talk. My grandmother has a rather adorable audio recording that she made when I was five years old -- on it, I'm singing songs about King David running through enemy troops, and leaping over walls like Superman. (My little sister mumble-sang in the background, still figuring out what words were.)

At twenty-three, things had begun to change for me. My life didn't make much sense to me anymore. I was firmly entrenched in the Christian life -- I was a board member on the incorporation papers for the little church I attended; I was married to a Pentecostal girl; I was a Bible college dropout. I played the drums during worship services, I had taught Sunday School classes. I had even preached once or twice myself.

The problem was, I didn't really believe any of the things that I was immersed in anymore. I'd been poking at my "faith" for years by then, and was only beginning to build enough courage to confront what I was afraid of admitting: I didn't share my family's belief in god. I wasn't quite comfortable coming clean about this yet, so I did two things:

  • I stopped attending church, figuring that if I stuck it out, I would irreparably damage my ability to believe in something I'd poked so many holes in;
  • I started writing Eleanor.

It became very clear to me early on that Eleanor wasn't just a novel about a girl who had a terrible accident, fell into a coma, heard the voice of god (presumably), and spent the rest of her life trying to find that god in the real world. I mean, it was all of those things, but it was also a way to explore my own questions about the existence of god, the pros and cons of religion, and other complicated things. This isn't a new thing. Countless writers use their books as a form of coping therapy or catharsis. I was doing this, too.

But those are big questions I was trying to answer, and I found it difficult to write Eleanor's ending without finding answers for myself. The book had become so connected to my own personal fact-finding mission that I had a hard time drawing a line between it and myself.

And so the novel grew, and grew, and grew.

Prior to writing Eleanor, I had already finished three novels. I was young, and the novels aren't great, and I'll never publish them. But I wrote them, and I finished them quickly. My first novel took just three months. My second, about six. My third, close to a year.

It's 2013 now, twelve years after I began writing Eleanor.

That book still isn't finished.

2012-04-16A lot has changed in the years since I began writing it, though. The story ballooned, then shrank; it ballooned again, and then its voice changed. Through all of this, I would rewrite the story. Between all of the drafts and sketches and vignettes and short stories tied to this manuscript, I've probably written close to half a million words. And while all of that was happening, I was discovering things like Carl Sagan's bibliography, and listening to Ann Druyan on Radiolab, and reading everything I could find by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I was exploring more deeply a fascination with science and logic, one that I'd had since childhood, but that had been forced to cohabitate with incompatible religious beliefs. I haven't been back to church since I left, twelve long years ago. Along the way, I even turned Eleanor into a graphic novel, and that experiment lies dormant, though it was a wonderful thing to share the story with readers (finally!).

Something changed during all of those years. Without my really noticing, Eleanor stopped shouldering the burden of being my vehicle of exploration. I didn't need the book to figure out what I did or didn't believe anymore. I'd sort of come to a reasonable conclusion about those things on my own.

You'd probably expect the book to become less relevant, then. After all, if it existed primarily for the purpose of solving the mysteries of the universe, and I had come to my own conclusions about those mysteries outside of the book, then hadn't it served its purpose? And I wondered about that, too.

But the answer is no. Eleanor's story still completely fascinates me, and in the past year, as I've thought about it more and more, I've discovered that there's a bigger story here. One that I haven't fully explored in the primary narrative, but that has been lurking around the edges for years and years. It's peeked through in character sketches and vignettes that I've written, these little experiments that had no bearing on the main story, but that allowed me to throw the character into unusual situations and write about her just to get to know her better. There were moments where I wrote vivid, almost paranormal dreams, just to find Eleanor's voice. I wrote scenes of Eleanor wandering through empty cities. Scenes where she sleeps while her lover sneaks around behind her back. Scenes where her recurring dream begins to blur into her mother's recurring dreamspace...

And it's incredibly clear to me that not only is there still a story here, but it's a bigger and more wonderful one than ever existed before. Eleanor's story is probably still my epic, the one that's taken years to rise in the oven, and still isn't finished.

I'm writing the final installment of Greatfall, the fan-fiction novel based on Hugh Howey's Wool universe. When I'm done, I'm returning to my Movement Trilogy to write the final volume, The Travelers.

But after that...

After that I'm returning to Eleanor. And I'm going to genre-fy her story. Because there's a powerful story here, and a strong and determined teenage girl, and a hint of mythology that bleeds into the real world, and a dark world that lies beneath the one we all know -- or perhaps the one we know lies beneath it. And that story has nothing to do, anymore, with my own search for truth. Now it can be what it always should have been: Eleanor's search for truth.

After more than a decade, I think I may have a plan for finally giving this character her long-overdue, much-deserved day in the sun.

Even if it is a dying sun.