The Oberlin Stories Project

On writing a novel

Chantal de Somer ’09

“I was afraid I would not be able to finish the novel by the end of the semester, but I did it. It is not polished, but it is a complete story. Coming to Oberlin and taking creative writing classes has improved my writing in more ways than I can count.”

Four people peek over a snowbank

I started writing a novel in high school. I literally wrote the first pages in ninth grade World History and continued it in tenth grade Geometry. By the time I was applying to colleges, I had a main character (a thirteen-year-old girl named Catriona who can use music to perform magic), a quest (a search for her mother), and a lot of foreshadowing, but no central problem. The fairies were in a lot of trouble, but why? I made my novel a large part of my admission essay, and this required me to summarize it. As I wrote the essay, I decided that the fairies were dying because the Ice Sprites (human-sized beings covered in white down with arms like flying squirrels’, who make the frost and direct snowstorms) were stealing magic from them.

At Oberlin I was able to work on my novel, titled Catriona: The Half Music Fairy in two classes, both of which changed it for the better. My freshman year, I took the winter term fiction workshop (taught by a senior creative writing major and open only to freshmen). I wanted to fix a middle section of the novel, but with twelve people in the class, it was impractical for anyone to turn in more than fifteen or so pages per week, much less than the fifty I had already. Instead I invented a new character, a fairy named Carnelian Ophrys, to observe Catriona and summarize for my classmates what had happened already. I liked him so much that I decided to keep him, not as a device, but as an important secondary character. Turning the novel into a screenplay for my Screenwriting Workshop my sophomore year forced me to figure out the end and fill in some scenes in the middle that I had skipped. My classmates and professor encouraged me to describe the setting more - a necessary part of a screenplay since movies are a visual art form - but the exercise also helped my work as a novel. Even outside of classes, Oberlin has influenced my novel. I did not set out to write an allegory about sustainable farming or conserving energy, but somehow those dialogues that are present on Oberlin’s campus have snuck themselves into my novel.

When I told Professor Chelsey Johnson at the beginning of the fall semester of my senior year that I wanted to make finishing my novel my Advanced Writing Project, she was skeptical. “If you’ve been working on it since high school and you still haven’t finished it, maybe it’s not worth finishing,” she said. Fortunately for Catriona, she changed her mind when she read what I had so far. This was the semester in which my disparate scenes would finally come together and make sense as a whole. When I came to Oberlin, I had about 50 pages written, and I thought that was a lot. At the beginning of this semester, I had 181. At the end I had 272.

Of course, it hasn’t always been easy. Last summer I doubted whether I even wanted to finish the novel. I am seven years older than I was at the beginning, and my character is only two years older. I was feeling too old to continue, more interested in the mother than in the young protagonist. I was afraid of not taking her seriously anymore. Ironically, it was one of the only things that I disliked about Oberlin’s creative writing department that stopped me from giving up altogether. None of the faculty writes children’s literature; instead as a faculty they emphasize contemporary literary fiction. As a result, my writing has been aimed at my peers or a general audience. In deciding to continue my novel this semester, I had to approach it as if I were writing it for myself, not for a younger audience. This was originally for my own sanity, but looking back at what I wrote, it was the best thing I could have done. When I stopped worrying about her age, I could focus on the quality of the prose and the plot. I also added some sections about the mother that I believe enhance the story.

I was afraid I would not be able to finish the novel by the end of the semester, but I did it. It is not polished, but it is a complete story. Coming to Oberlin and taking creative writing classes has improved my writing in more ways than I can count. For example, I always considered writing dialogue to be my forte. My professors have encouraged me to think about not just what the characters say but also how they say it and what happens when they are not saying anything. I am still too close to my novel to judge whether it is any good, but I do know that it is much better than it would have been without the instruction and guidance of my creative writing professors here at Oberlin.