Nora Zelevansky is a multi-talented writer: she blogs about all things beautiful and cultural for the Huffington Post, she does weekly recaps of The Bachelor on her own blog, and now she’s a Young Adult novelist! Her NaNoWriMo novel, Semi-Charmed Life, is out now from St. Martin’s Griffin press. She took a break from Bachelor-blogging to answer a few quick questions for us and share some writing advice.
Can you tell us a little about Semi-Charmed Life and where the concept for the novel came from?
Of course! Semi-Charmed Life is a comedic social satire with a quirky tone about a college senior named Beatrice Bernstein, who has grown up in the midst of the art world on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (Her family is a holdout from the old lefty intellectual types that used to characterize that neighborhood 20 and 30 years ago). While her family has esoteric high-art tastes, she craves a more mainstream existence, but can’t seem to find her way there. In many ways, she is caught between two worlds.
She arrives at her off-campus apartment for senior year and quickly, through a series of mishaps, gets sucked into becoming a ghost blogger for this mysterious, famous-for-nothing socialite named Veruca Pfeffernoose. During that experience, her identity gets even more confused and her trajectory is changed forever. There’s a love story, too, and some magic realism! I dreamed about Veruca Pfeffernoose and her wildly opulent apartment while I was on vacation in the Caribbean with my husband actually. When I woke up, I wrote down the details of the dream, which flowed well. Then, months later, when I needed to pick a topic for my NaNoWriMo project, I pulled it back out. I’m so glad I remembered that it existed because I do tend to write down ideas and then never look at them again! (It’s, I think, the writer’s curse.)
Do you tend to plot your writing in advance or do you prefer to fly by the seat of your pants?
I’m not someone who invites a lot of structure into my life in general, for better or worse. I’m disciplined, but not structured, if that makes any sense. So, in my journalism work (my day job), I don’t tend to outline or plan too much in advance. This is my first novel, so in terms of fiction, I can only speak to this experience. But, because I was doing NaNoWriMo, I was encouraged not to outline and that worked for me! Realistically, I probably wouldn’t have either way. Too much outlining just takes the excitement out of the experience of writing for me.
Your background is in journalism—did writing from your imagination instead of the real world feel different?
Yes! And I was worried about it before I began and actually specifically chose to write in the third person instead of the first, so I wouldn’t feel like I was writing memoir (my creative writing has historically been largely personal essay). I do love to describe what I actually observe, but it’s a very different thing to write within a magazine’s constraints, for example.
Once I started the novel, writing fiction was like heaven to me. It was so freeing! Especially with this first book, which I was writing for myself without real expectations or pressure, I felt like I could create whatever I wanted and that felt like a huge amazing indulgence to me. I loved it!
I feel like letting your imagination do its thing is sort of what NaNo is all about and that’s why it’s a great process for writers, but also simply as an outlet in life. I was just happy doing it.
What, if any, revision regimens do you swear by?
As a journalist, I am used to revising and condensing until a story feels tight, without a lot of wasted words, so I was more than ready to revise when that time came. I’m not sure all writers feel that way. In fact, I think they probably don’t. But, for me, although editing can get exhausting, I see stories of all kinds as puzzles—and when I get it right, I can feel it click and that’s such a great feeling. In other words, I actually like editing a lot of the time.
In terms of regimens, I don’t think I have anything specific. I just read the material over and over again until I feel like I’m losing perspective and then leave it for the day.
I’m also a huge believer in getting lots of notes from different kinds of people with varied perspectives (people who know you, people who don’t, men, women, friends from different backgrounds and places, etc). Inevitably, some themes emerge and then you know what problems you really need to solve. Some criticisms are just opinion. Others point to actual issues.
How did you find out about NaNoWriMo, and what convinced you to participate?
You know, now I can’t remember how I first heard about it, oddly. I know I wanted to write a novel and I may have been looking for novel-related classes to take. I actually did end up enrolling in one at UCLA, but it wasn’t ultimately very helpful because I didn’t connect with the teacher. Also, you really don’t need a class to do NaNoWriMo.
Either way, the whole system made perfect sense for me from the very beginning. In the past, I’d often had ideas for novels about which I’d get excited and then later I’d decide that they weren’t good enough. I think that’s probably a relatively common obstacle. Writing an entire novel seemed intimidating and the NaNoWriMo process made it approachable—a day-by-day activity that didn’t require a plan. (And, as I mentioned, I was discouraged from outlining, which I loved because I was off the hook!)
Do you have any advice on writing or revision for NaNoWriMo participants?
My only advice would be to do it. It was just such a rewarding experience for me. Writing everyday was like getting yourself to go to the gym. It felt like a success in itself.
If I had to come up with a piece of advice, I guess I would say that I think it helped me to pick a topic to which I wasn’t married. I didn’t feel precious about the idea; it wasn’t something I’d been contemplating for years or anything like that. It allowed me to be really free with the story and I think that’s the greatest benefit to NaNo. It seemed like it made sense to choose something less stressful like that for the first time around, and to have fun with it!
Lastly, and most importantly, how likely would Veruca Pfeffernoose be to win a season of The Bachelor? What about Beatrice?
Ha! I guess you read my blog and know my dirty little secret obsession with The Bachelor. I love this question.
Well, Beatrice would be disowned by her family if she ever went on the show. But, if she went on it anyway and the bachelor that season was the usual meathead type (as opposed to her match in humor and intelligence), I think she would either be voted off right away because she couldn’t bear to compete with the pageant-girl types, or she’d make it to the top three or four, and then get voted off because she was too much of a spazz—you know, kind of like a friend vibe.
Veruca would win every time. No doubt about it!