I’ve been working on the second draft of Werewolf Story all day, which is going swimmingly thus far. I am absolutely a rewriter as opposed to a reviser. I’m splicing in the odd paragraph here and there from the first draft, but I think only two full chapters will stay more or less unchanged, with two or three more smaller scenes. I remember back in high school and early college, the idea of a blank page rewrite totally terrified me. It felt like throwing work away. It was only once I started writing the first draft of Story five years ago (which, good lord, five years) that I realized that, oh yeah, literally all of this was going to have to go, and that that was okay. The work was technically discarded, but not at all wasted, because I learned so much from doing it. Turned out, I didn’t keep much of my second draft of Story either. Or third. Or fourth. But each one was extremely important to me as a writer.
So I’m not expecting the second draft of Werewolf Story to be some polished product, although all those drafts of Story did teach me a lot, not least of all how to work considerably faster than when I started. So it’ll get there, and in the meantime, I’m really enjoying the second draft. Second drafts are exciting because after the long hard slog of figuring out who these people are and why you’re writing about them, you can finally sit back and look at everything and say, oh, hey, themes! And complete character arcs! And then even though you know you may start everything all over again, at least you’re writing something that feels like a book.
So now that I have those themes and such, I’ve been thinking a lot about the kinds of stories I care about and the kinds of stories I want to tell. This is an Important Existential Consideration for me, because stories are essentially all I’m good at and therefore they’re my one shot to provide the world with a little TLC, which as we all know it rather desperately needs. Since I just finished grad school, my head is pretty full of Important Existential Considerations these days. Meanwhile, I just finished a thesis about monsters in His Dark Materials, I’m trying to convince agents to love Story, I just wrote a guest post about Hey Arnold! on my friend Gizmo’s blog, and, uh, I hang out on tumblr a lot. Oh, and I’ve been internally weeping about Captain America for the last month and a half. So all of these things have provided lots of good food for thought re: narratives that I want to create.
That also means figuring out what kind of narratives I don’t want to create, and for me, that means anything where A Lone Hero Emerges to drive the plot — any sort of plot, but especially a plot where they save a bunch of people and/or the world, probably in a badass manner — all by themselves. I’m not interested in stories that uphold exceptionalism. That can be either on a grand scale with uninterrogated chosen one arcs, or it can be on a smaller scale in less fantastical genres. The latter can be harder to define, but it usually occurs when a character is portrayed as more virtuous/clever/all around great than everyone else. This doesn’t mean when the character themselves thinks that, because then there’s a chance that they’re just kind of an ass and I can roll with that. But when the narrative validates and rewards that opinion, then I start rolling my eyes.
Instead, I really, really care about narratives that have to do with cooperation. Stories about mutual care and mutual effort. Instead of A Lone Hero, strength in numbers. Connection, integration, multiplicity. Look, I’m a millennial. Individually bootstrappin’ it was the Baby Boomer way, but there are a lot of people my age who are looking at the world right now and saying, “Well, that didn’t work.” Within YA specifically, I really like narratives that present a different way of coming of age. Though millennials aren’t teenagers anymore, I guess (what are the generation parameters on that one?), that’s still something we’re figuring out, and definitely something that younger readers are figuring out, as well.
This probably doesn’t make any sense without examples, so I will provide some, starting with the ones I mentioned above:
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman: IN MY ANALYSIS, ANYWAY. So these books have Issues (what book doesn’t) but when you think about how deeply and profoundly Lyra and Will connect with one another, and how deeply Lyra connects with, like, everything, especially the things she’s supposed to fear (the dead in particular), and how these connections reconnect nature with nature, joining the parts that have been sundered by violent autocrats back into a whole — well. WELL. That’s a good story. And it’s directly contrasted with the more traditional narrative of a powerful man (Lord Asriel) deciding to Fix Everything by causing more destruction, except that super doesn’t work at all and he winds up having to (spoiler alert, I guess) literally erase himself from existence to make way for these two twelve-year-olds who’ve got it more figured out than he ever could. There’s a lot more going on in these books, hence why my thesis was 108 pages long, but this is the aspect of the trilogy that I love best.
Hey Arnold!: If you want to know all my feelings about this show from my childhood, here’s the link again, but essentially, this show was ALL ABOUT the complex interpersonal relationships young children have to navigate, and it was funny and thoughtful and compassionate, and I’d forgive you if you stopped reading now and just went and marathoned this cartoon until 3:00 in the morning.
Captain America (the movies, as I have not read the comics): “But Kathleen, isn’t a story about a character literally called Captain America going to be about exceptionalism?” YOU’D THINK THAT, WOULDN’T YOU. Except while a blond, blue-eyed American supersoldier does seem like the worst kind of Better Than You protagonist, that is very much not what the movies are about. In fact, the literal enemy is exceptionalism, in the form of the Hydra organization. “What makes you so special?” “Nothing. I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.” And then even more importantly, basically the whole second movie is about friendship and trust, and how relationships between people are what will ultimately hold up in the face of Great Powers trying to bend the world into uglier shapes. Also, Cap will never, ever stop being an idealist and believing in people even if it literally kills him. That is the kind of hero I can look up to: someone whose faith is not only in himself, but in others.
Pacific Rim: The plot of this movie is “let’s save the world by literally sharing all the thoughts and feelings in our brains with each other, which allows us to be big and strong and powerful and caring.”
The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud: I read these for the first time this spring and I’m still not over it. By the end of the trilogy, averting total disaster hinges upon making a huge effort to put oneself aside in order to reach out and understand a way of being that’s completely different from one’s own, without ego, without judgment, and without self-preservation, even. (Though he’d never admit it, Bartimaeus is also a frustrated idealist. He hopes so hard it hurts.)
Chaos Walking by Patrick Ness: I gave the first book of this trilogy to my coworker as a gift, because I like to cause other people suffering, apparently. But emotional devastation (emoshunnal devastayshun?) aside, these books are 100% about interdependent sefhood, because that’s what Noise, the broadcasting of thought that takes place in this alien world, engenders. Those who try to impose a hierarchy on this system wind up ruining everything. Of course, some things are allegedly unknowable — human women don’t have Noise, but human men do. So for misogynistic men who can’t stand to be in a position of vulnerability . . . well, I suppose you can guess that doesn’t end well. But Todd realizes that he can know Viola’s silence just as she can know his Noise. The Mayor (who is terrifying) tries to teach Todd to suppress his Noise, to constrain and diminish his selfhood into one tiny hidden spot, but Viola’s name in Todd’s Noise expands him (and Viola) into something greater.
Those are enough examples for now. If you’d like to recommend something to me based on my ~WE ARE MORE THAN WE ARE; WE ARE ONE~ preferences, let me know! Also, bonus points to the first person to name that reference.
So in conclusion, these are the types of things knocking around in my head as I create my own stories. I suppose that’s how I wound up with four very different protagonists in Story and a found family narrative in Werewolf Story (my wolves are not lone wolves). Even in sad, neglected Middle-Grade Story, I have a central character who finds herself positioned to be a Chosen One but thoroughly rejects the notion of her own specialness in favor of elevating everyone else around her.
(The unbearable earnestness I warned about in the intro post is approaching.)
I want to write stories about change for the better, because I want to live in a world that’s capable of change for the better. I don’t want to write a narrative of change that I’m never going to see in real life — namely, one person changing everything. Instead, I want to write about people joining together to change whatever little things they can, which in turn will cause more people around them to change what little they can.
And of course, I want to be one of those people, too. So I’m working on that narrative, as well.