Jane Austen is now so acclaimed an author that it’s difficult to imagine she might have suffered, as many in the writing profession do, blank page paralysis. Did she charge into a new book without a single qualm, confident of her story and her ability to tell it effectively? Or did she suffer a fresh attack of trepidation each time, even after having achieved a measure of success?
I thought long and hard about these questions when I wrote The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen (mentioned here in a BookBub top ten list recently). Here’s what I came up with – my interpretation of how she might have felt beginning her sixth and last novel, Persuasion.
My breath catches in my throat as I hold my pen, suspended over the sheet of pristine paper. This is the moment that both thrills and terrifies me, the moment before commencing a new novel when all things are possible but nothing has yet been achieved. To begin is to risk everything – crushing defeat, utter failure or, worse still, mediocrity. However, not taking the risk is unthinkable. I have come through successfully before, but that hardly signifies. With each new work the familiar doubts and niggling questions resurface, chiefly these. Do I really possess whatever genius it takes to do it again? And if so, what is the best way to go about it?
I don’t know for certain that this is how our beloved Jane felt at the time, but I doubt she could have been completely immune to these emotions. And it does express a lot of the excitement and insecurity I feel right now, because I’m also, at long last, beginning work on my sixth novel. As I wrote above, I’m both thrilled and terrified. Yes, I’ve come through successfully five times before, but each book is a new challenge. And how to begin is, once again, the most troublesome question.
This is going to be a different sort of book for me. Although it will still be very much a Jane Austen fan fiction piece, it won’t be a sequel or variation of one of her books. It will actually contain elements of three of them (P&P, S&S, and MP). It even starts in a different time period than usual. I say “starts” because we won’t be staying in the modern day. Yes, you guessed it; there will be time travel involved, which will definitely be a new challenge for me!
Our perky and impossibly optimistic heroine, Katie, who has always believed she would feel more at home in Regency England, will get a second chance at a life of her own choosing. She thoroughly intends to land in a life worthy of a Jane Austen story, with a romantic happy ending. But as you might imagine, things don’t go exactly according to plan. I hope to inject a lot of humor and good, campy fun into the story. I’m just three chapters in so far, and no title yet. Here’s the prologue as it stands now:
Katie Berg – recent orphan, college student, and Jane Austen devotee – awoke completely uninjured but mystified to find herself in unfamiliar surroundings.
The last thing she remembered, she had been minding her own business, just walking down one of the many tree-lined sidewalks on campus, on the way from her freshman English class to a ten o’clock appointment with someone by the name of Mrs. Tanaka, a guidance counselor. It was a beautiful spring morning – deliciously cool but already hinting at the balmy South Carolina summer ahead. The air smelled of fresh-cut lawns. Birds were singing. Magnolia trees had begun bursting into bloom all over town. Long-legged youths in khakis and polo shirts played Frisbee with their dogs on the quad.
In short, it was the sort of day that made a person glad to be alive.
And Katie was… glad to be alive, that is. No, her life wasn’t perfect. For one thing, she was pretty much alone in the world. She’d never had any siblings. Now her parents were gone. And she still hadn’t stumbled across the hunky-but-sensitive man of her dreams that the Regency era novels she read inspired her to expect. Yet her native optimism, which had allowed her to move beyond the tragedy of her parents’ deaths a year and a half before, also told her Mr. Wonderful was bound to turn up at any moment. She was sure some romantic adventure lay in store for her, at least she dearly hoped so.
In the meantime, she planned to focus on finding her calling. The fact that she didn’t know exactly where she was headed, career-wise, wasn’t at all unusual. Less than half of the kids on campus had decided on their major by the end of their first year. Most of the others had changed their minds at least once.
It wasn’t so much that nothing interested her. Quite the opposite; nearly everything did. College was a glorious buffet to Katie, with a hundred tantalizing entrees to pick from. English literature had the upper hand at the moment, but public health, environmental science, art history, and even paleontology had all been contenders at one time or another. Making a definite choice was the challenge, and, even more difficult, sticking to it. But that’s what guidance counselors were for, right? – to help students who lacked clear direction get things sorted out? Even though she had never met the woman, Katie placed the utmost confidence in Mrs. Tanaka’s ability to do just that.
And there was plenty of time to get herself sorted, have adventures, and fall in love, she reasoned. After all, she was only nineteen.
Yes, plenty of time.
Ironically, that’s what Katie Berg was thinking that April morning as she leisurely made her way toward Grady Hall. Then suddenly she heard a roaring noise overhead and time ran out.
I’m eager to hear your comments. Are you intrigued enough by this prologue that you would read on? Do you want to hear Katie’s story? How do you think a modern-day coed would deal with the confining facts of Regency life? Would you like to see Katie discover her Mr. Darcy, or would it be more interesting if she got sidetracked by a rake such as Wickham or Henry Crawford? Many questions. I don’t have all the answers yet, but I think it will be fun finding out.
I have a lot of work ahead of me to turn three chapters into a completed novel, but it feels like I’m over the first hurdle. At the least the page isn’t blank anymore. Yay!
PS – You might get a kick out of this related post, Blank Canvas, from 2011, documenting how I had donned my “artist” hat and started work on what would become the cover art for my first novel, The Darcys of Pemberley (pictures included). Blast from the past. Seems like a lifetime ago; so much has happened since!