My debut novel, Affinity, is now available on Kindle HERE and I couldn't be more nervous and excited to share this story with everyone. It's a contemporary teen romance with a paranormal twist!
I love reading and I love writing and the YA genre is my jam. I essentially feel like a 16 year-old at heart because that age was something I remember looking forward to as a child, and the things I experienced and discovered at that age forever influenced future Jenny.
My journey with this book was a strange one because I am normally not a novelist. I'm a filmmaker. I trained as a filmmaker at USC and I have only ever wanted to write for film because I see the things I write and I want to direct them. But many years ago, when my kids were little, I found myself in the midst of an identity crisis.
I had never meant to leave Los Angeles. After studying at the best film school in the country and working in the industry, I was where I wanted to be and where I wanted to build my career. But life has a funny way of switching things up. Those years after graduating USC were some of the most difficult in my life, full of bad decisions, mental health issues, relationship issues, and incredible financial debt. Add on top of that getting pregnant! These led me to moving to New Orleans where my husband had gotten a job in Oil & Gas, hoping to get us out of debt. My son was born and four months later Hurricane Katrina came through. We evacuated to Houston. Three months later, we were officially relocated to Houston and we moved to the far-out suburbs where we could afford a house.
Part of me was excited to be in a new city, but Houston's a wild place and very spread out. I struggled to find people I identified with. Luckily, I connected with Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP), a local film non-profit that had networking events and workshops, but it was in town and I was in the suburbs and anyone with infants knows that distance can feel insurmountable. I also was desperately trying to keep my connection to Los Angeles alive, screening my USC MFA thesis film, Searching for Angels, there, and also luckily my in-laws lived there so I was able to travel back every couple of months.
So I lived in two different worlds. In Houston, it's not unusual to have kids. I wasn't even a terribly young mother there. It's family-friendly and family-centered. I was a stay-at-home, a luxury to so many, and my husband's job was demanding - long hours and lots of travel. Because of the debt situation, and living in a city where we had no family, childcare fell solely to me. There were many things about that situation that I loved and wanted to provide for my child, like being able to nurse on demand and attachment parenting. But infants aren't exactly intellectually stimulating! In Los Angeles, I felt like a pariah with my baby. I vividly remember going to a cafe with a friend of mine in Santa Monica. She had her English bulldog with her and I had my baby with me. Streams of people stopped by to coo at the dog. My son got the stink eye. I'm sure this was all in my own mind as I wrestled with how I was going to be able to do things in film with a baby. I was raised to think I could do whatever I wanted and I had always wanted to have kids young, but looking back I see how reckless I was, and naive. I made permanent decisions when my life was feeling out of control and dealing with the massive responsibilities that came with those decisions were their own whirlwind.
So I had another kid.
I love my kids and I don't regret them. We've managed to make it work and I have found my happiness and life is better than I could have ever imagined it to be. But there was suffering that paid for that happiness, which is probably usually the case. There's a lot to be said about gendered roles in relationships and families - what we internalize, what we expect, what is put upon us by others/society. There's also a lot to be said about the childcare situation in America and how mother's are the default. Then there's the workaholic culture and youth-obsessed culture - especially in the film/entertainment industry. With mental health and how neglected and dismissed it is - here and everywhere - this is all a ripe recipe for disaster. I don't have the words for these big things just yet, though the themes are woven throughout my work.
I think for a lot of creatives, there's this split between what we think is possible in our minds (infinite possibilities!) with what is actually realistic given the circumstances and reality that you live in. The ego alone that's required to believe that anyone would ever want to watch/read your work, and pursue that belief past failures and rejections, and that someday you'll make it to the Oscars/Grammys/top of the industry is probably a red flag for many things! I had many privileges, but I also lived in a reality that made production work very difficult because I had two little kids and I was the primary caregiver and didn't have the resources to pursue the freelance work that is Houston's industry.
So I made my own path. I filmed the things I could, sometimes with my kid in a stroller or on my back. I paid for childcare when I could (and absolutely needed it), and I continued to make films.
After doing twelve short documentary-style videos for a Montessori school in the span of six months while having a nursing baby at home, I was burnt out. As a human, as a parent, and as a filmmaker. I needed something creatively fulfilling that was also reasonable given my circumstances. I also knew that my daughter would be starting pre-school soon, so I would have a few glorious hours to myself, and I needed something to make me feel like me again, get me excited and inspired. My brother suggested doing a NaNoWriMo. It's where you write a 50,000 word novel in the 30 days of November, inspired by marathons. There's no content judgment, just a word count goal and deadline, on the honor system.
Anyone who knows me, and who's gotten this far in this blog article, knows that I can write. A lot. Words are not a problem for me and I type really fast. But writing a novel? Structuring something like that? Writing a screenplay is a constant fight for efficiency - how to convey the geography, people, and movements of a scene that moves a story forward and is interesting. Screenplays can't have any internal thoughts, no insight into a character's mind unless you put it into a voiceover, dialogue, or some kind of action. But, as I said at the beginning, I love reading. I was an English major at Oberlin College, so I figured I could probably put something together.
You're not allowed to officially start writing until midnight on November 1st, but you're allowed to plan. So I did character profiles, wrote backgrounds, and outlined. November 1st came around and I started typing. I wrote over 11,000 words that first day. THAT FIRST DAY. Not exactly a sustainable number given my circumstances, but it was the lightning bolt I needed to jumpstart my creative heart.
So what did I write about? My husband and I were high school sweethearts who started dating when...yep...we were sixteen. I wanted to capture the excitement and energy of that rush of first love, but I wasn't interested in doing anything too autobiographical. (I wouldn't be ready to bare all until I started working on Acid Test the short film in 2015.) I wanted to write about good kids who get into bad situations. I was also inspired by a couple of vampire stories that had come out around that time where people could read minds...except their lovers'. It was an intriguing idea to me: what would it be like to have full access to your lover's thoughts and feelings? There have been many many times where I've wished for that ability. It's the impulse to check your partner's emails and texts. The realization that you can't really KNOW anything other than your own mind. And then the follow up realization that if you did have access to another's mind, knowing the randomness and volatility of my own at least, how crazy would that drive someone? Because not every thought or feeling is "true" or even actionable. And then added to that the prison of being a teen, living under your parents' roof and rule, where you feel like you're an adult, capable of making adult decisions, but in the eyes of everyone around you - and the law - you're not. How utterly frustrating. So as things go crazy, and there's a secret you can't tell your parents, and the only thing everyone sees is a bad situation...hello novel.
By the end of November, the novel was over 80,000 words.
So like any creative venture, the question then becomes "What's next?" I shelved the book immediately to give it time and space to breathe. Of course you want to share it with the world and jump and shout and give it to everyone, but I figured it needed work. I did give it to some friends to read and give me feedback. Most of it was "Wow! Congrats! It's great!" and some of it was confused about why I was writing a novel when I was a filmmaker and some still was negative. One friend said it reminded her so much of high school - in a depressing way!
Writing about teenage romance and consuming books and shows and movies about love, though, also revealed schisms in my reality. It was easy to get lost in the fantasy, in the memory, in my mind, and ignore the real person in front of me and the real relationship I needed to navigate. There were so many things in that whirlwind of life that had been ignored, shoved under a rug...and as I started to regain some sense of self, I found myself in a marriage that was falling apart.
Therapy helped me start to unpack and work on the things I needed for myself, and revealed things that were ultimately unfixable in my relationship. I thought that maybe this would be my time to return to Los Angeles, return to my industry, but with two young children and changed circumstances, that reality was not as available to me as I wanted. Despite my frustrations and dislikes, I had built a life in Houston full of friends and resources that made things that I wanted - making films, raising my kids, earning a living, living affordably - infinitely more possible than returning to LA.
Over the years, I sent my novel to agents for consideration. I wanted that validation of being picked for publishing. I workshopped it twice with a group of people who knew far more about novel-writing (and writing in general) than I did.
I also did a lot of growing up. Working on myself. Raising my kids. Living life on life's terms. Facing reality. Using my creative, fantastical mind for projects. I produced a bunch of projects, I started teaching film, I kept writing and directing. I grew as an artist and storyteller.
Last summer, when I handed off the post-production files from my debut feature film Acid Test and found myself with time on my hands, creatively, I looked at the pile of unfinished projects that every creative person carries with them. There were projects that I now wanted to turn into TV shows and the Baytown project I'd been developing as my second feature film, but there was also this novel that had been worked and reworked and still needed some work. COVID provided both time and a sense of urgency with its reminder of how fragile life can be.
Over the years, the novel had grown to over 150,000 words. I had always seen it as a Part 1 and Part 2, but had struggled to find the right split point. As I opened the file on my computer and started going through it again, I had new perspective on story-telling and on this particular story based on all the learning and growth and experience I'd had in my time away from it. I don't think I can recommend taking 10+ years off a project, but I'm glad that I did. Part 1 was solid and ready. Part 2 needs a little more work, but should be ready soon! And while there was a part of me that wanted to make changes and then sit on it once more, I had enough friends who kicked me in the butt and said "Wait for what?"
Like independent filmmaking, there's a thrill and pride to owning your work - for all the good and all the flaws it might (still) have. Putting it out there without the need for permission from some larger entity is freeing. Of course the money and reach of an industry and the companies therein are great reasons to wait and play the game and network and strive and pitch and...but you also spend so much time schmoozing and not as much time making the work. The work is what makes you better. The people can help connect you to better collaborators and more money for more resources and marketing stretch and audience building, but it's the work and the creative journey you take learning from each project and moving on to the next that matters.
So...what's next? I hope you enjoy Affinity and look for Aflame (Affinity Part 2) coming soon! Please make sure to leave a review and share about it on social media. I'm always learning!