So, I admit it: I love The Vampire Diaries. I’m talking about the awesome TV series, not so much the books—I somehow managed to miss those when they first came out. My novel’s main character, Donna Underwood, has something in common with Elena Gilbert (no, she doesn’t have two hot vampire brothers in love with her).
They both keep diaries.
I’m also a huge fan of a famous book that came along more than a century before any of the current crop of ‘Bit-Lit’: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And no, this isn’t a blog post about vampires—much as I love them. My book, The Iron Witch, is about alchemy, dark elves, a gorgeous half-fey guy and, in the middle of it all, a girl with magical iron tattoos that give her super-strength. The question Donna has to ask herself is: how far will she go to save someone she loves? And when her best friend is taken by those she has been raised to call ‘Enemy,’ what is she willing to sacrifice to get him back?
So. Donna keeps a journal, and those entries are scattered throughout the main narrative. We begin, in fact, with her journal—you can read that in the free excerpt up here on the Figment website—and there’s another entry you should be able to read between Chapters Two and Three. It isn’t by taking a look into Donna’s thoughts, or by listening in on her conversations with others, that we find out what really happened during ‘The Incident’ that gets her kicked out of school when she’s sixteen—we don’t need to do those things because it’s all written down in her diary. That’s where we (well, those of us who keep diaries) share our darkest secrets or pour out our hearts and go into graphic detail when something upsets us (or makes us happy, though the angst is often more fun to write about!).
Random House Children’s Books are publishing my book in the UK and they liked the second journal entry so much, they decided to pull out part of it and use it as a ‘teaser’ at the very beginning of the novel. A bit like an advertisement, so that someone who picks up my book in a bookstore can glance at it and see if they might like to read the whole thing:
Whenever I think of ‘The Incident’ at Ironbridge High School—the one everyone remembers but pretends they don’t—I get a horrible feeling in my stomach. Like nerves, but a lot worse. More painful. I feel ashamed of my behavior, and yet I was also standing up for myself which can’t be a completely bad thing. Right?
I just wish people would forget for real—like, have their minds magically wiped or something—rather than have to pretend it didn’t happen. I think that maybe people don’t want to remember it—events that can’t easily be explained are best left well alone.
For me, as a writer, using journal entries within The Iron Witch was the best way to get a true glimpse into my main character’s heart and soul. It’s also a useful way of showing backstory that needs to be shared, without (hopefully) boring the reader with it. 🙂
But anyway, where was I? Ah yes, diaries. More specifically, the use of journals within fiction and all forms of storytelling. It’s something I’m passionate about, and I even wrote an article on the subject for an anthology about The Vampire Diaries. (Not that I’m thinking about Damon again… Nope.) In that piece, I talked about Dracula and how the classic novel uses a mixture of letters and journal entries to tell its darkly gothic tale. I really think it works brilliantly—maybe even better than if Bram Stoker had just written down his story as a regular narrative rather than as an ‘epistolary novel.’ An epistolary novel, as the all-knowing (most of the time) Wikipedia tells us, is a novel “written as a series of documents. The usual form is letters, although diary entries, newspaper clippings and other documents are sometimes used.” You’ve may well have studied books like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which is a famous example of the form.
After I’d written The Iron Witch, people also told me that I’d used ‘intertextuality’ to tell Donna’s story. I was very impressed with myself! I hadn’t even set out to do that… Of course, then I had to quickly look up Intertextuality and find out what it was exactly that I was supposed to have done. (Just kidding!) Basically, it’s all about how different texts shape each other; how one text relates to another and helps us to build new meanings and a deeper understanding of the story and characters. So in The Iron Witch, Donna’s diary helps to shape the main narrative, while also bringing the reader closer to what’s going on inside her heart and mind. In Book 2 of the trilogy, The Wood Queen (which I’m just finishing off now), I’ve introduced a second set of journal entries by another character which hopefully adds a new layer of ‘intertextuality.’ I feel quite pleased with myself for being so clever! 😉
I think the thing that I enjoy the most about getting a peak into someone’s fictional journal, though, is how much more intense it can make our experience of events. There’s a feeling of intimacy that you might not always get from a straightforward narrative. You can also get a raw glimpse at the motivations of characters that you might not always have been able to figure out—or you could even read a fictional diary and discover that the writer of that journal is fooling themselves about what they think they want or why they’re doing whatever it is they’re doing in the novel.
There is so much possibility. I love that.
Of course… there is also the ‘possibility’ your editor might suggest that you cut some of the words you’ve written, while in the process of revising/editing your novel. This is very common once you’ve sold your manuscript to a publisher and an editor starts helping you to improve it. With The Iron Witch, I was lucky because my editor at Flux in the US loved the journal entries and actually wanted a few more of them. However, I ended up overdoing things and then had too much material. So I have a few ‘deleted scenes’ (not really ‘scenes’ as they’re from Donna’s diary, but you know what I mean) that I can exclusively share on the Figment website. I’m just going to dig them out of a file somewhere on my ancient laptop so you can read them…
Oh! And while I do that, I think I might have a ‘real’ deleted scene that I wrote from Navin’s POV. It’s from when he’s taken by the dark elves a bit later on in the story, but that’s not a spoiler as it tells you that on the back of the book. You might as well take a look at that, too. I feel like I’m giving away DVD extras—it’s pretty cool. I hope you enjoy them!