Monthly Archives: October 2014

Story Origins, or How Athletic Failures Can Change Your Life

Since last I saw you, dear blog, I have been working on my first ever set of Official Revisions (a.k.a. as per my agent’s request), so for once I have a good excuse for such a long time between posts. This was the first pass of revisions on story that wasn’t a total overhaul (I did, um, a lot of those), so I’m feeling a little bit of DID I DO ENOUGH second-guessing, but mostly I’m excited that blank page rewrites are apparently no longer a necessity. My work on these revisions was rather . . . concentrated. By which I mean my attitude essentially was CAN’T STOP WON’T STOP until I finished. In a related story, there actually IS an upward limit of how long you can stare at word processing programs before your entire brain tries to chisel its way free of your skull. (My paid job as a transcriptionist did not help in this regard.) Hermit life was definitely conducive to nonstop work, though, so I feel very lucky that the timing of recent Life Events have fit together well, since I feel like few 25-year-olds can actually say that.

When I was preparing my revised manuscript to be emailed and waging unholy battle with Scrivener and Word (FORMATTING *shakes fist*), I named a temporary document “story.” This was what the first ever Word document of The Children’s War was named, and consequently why I still refer to it simply as story whenever I’m speaking about it. (The document title was not capitalized, so it’s not actually a proper noun, even though I use it like one. Explaining that further will force me down a mysteries-of-cognition rabbit hole [“seeing” written words in my mind’s eye when speaking, etc.], and I’m too tired for that, so let’s just leave it there.) Having a new “story” document got me thinking about the history of story, and how important it has been in my life.

Story is my first novel, and therefore it has taught me very nearly everything I now know about writing. For a long time, though, I had no idea it was going to be my first novel. I just had a couple of characters who I would occasionally take down off the mental shelf, poke around a bit, and then set aside. For this, I have the Bernards High School girls’ fencing team of 2006-2007 to thank. Specifically, I have to thank them for being so good they were boring. 

Let’s back up. Not many high schools have a fencing team, so most people I know are only really familiar with college fencing clubs – not actual teams, but just a recreational group that meets like once a week. I can’t speak for all college fencing clubs, but of the ones I’ve heard about, I can only say that there is an EXTREMELY different vibe. College teams are obviously super competitive, but many clubs tend to be, shall we say, the athletic option for the super nerds. (This is not a derogatory comment, by the way. I make up fake societies for funsies, and therefore can never cast stones w/r/t nerdery.) People would gather casually, learn and practice the basics, and generally have a good time, if you like that particular brand of physical exertion. (I do not. More on that in a minute.) This, however, is not what high school fencing was like.

High school fencing was intense. 

If you were good at it, that is. Which many, many of the fencers at my high school were. However, my high school was also rather small – small enough that it had a no-cut policy for sports teams. Anyone could get on a team, they just wouldn’t start. This is how I wound up as a fencer my freshman and sophomore year.

My motives for joining fencing were not pure. Like all the “honors kids” in my school district, I felt the college pressure from an early age. I entered high school with the neurotic need to pad my application as much and as early as possible. One of the easiest ways of doing this was getting into our chapter of National Honor Society in the beginning of junior year. Once inducted, my work would be done, because our NHS did precisely nothing. However, to get in, I would need not only good grades and no enemies among the faculty, but also enough extracurricular points each year – five, to be exact. Clubs and community service carried one-point values. Sports carried three. In hindsight, I find this remarkably unfair, but since I had a choice between a sport and two other activities versus FIVE activities, I had to pick a sport. Since most of my friends (some of whom are legitimately good athletes, and some of whom had the same motives I did) were joining fencing, I did as well.

My friends, there has never been a worse fencer than your humble blogger.

Look, I’ve never been an athlete, really. However, in my elementary and middle school phases of life, I generally was able to start a sport, achieve mediocrity, and then plateau forever as neither actually talented nor an embarrassment. Fencing, though. Oh, fencing. I progressed about as far as “learn the rules” and then could go no further. This wouldn’t have really been a problem if the team’s starters weren’t as good as they were. You see, once we won enough bouts to win the whole meet, then the rest of the no-cut-policy-team-members would be subbed in. There were enough of us that I didn’t have to fence in every meet (and I mean, we weren’t the only good team in the whole state, so sometimes good fencers were required the whole time), but far too often for my liking, I’d find myself standing in front of a crowd of my peers and our parents, in a slightly rusty robot’s version of the en garde position, facing down a fencer who was a) almost certainly better than me and b) pissed that her team had already lost. My defeats were no less humiliating for how quickly they transpired.

Plus, every night we didn’t have a meet, we had TWO AND A HALF HOURS OF PRACTICE. These were dark times for me.

NHS doesn’t care if you’re actually good at your chosen sport, though. I got my three points, and fall of junior year, I got my college app fodder. Then the fencing season began to creep up again. Now, technically I was supposed to maintain my extracurricular points, but like I said, our NHS didn’t actually do anything. Once you were in, they kind of stopped paying attention to you. So as the fencing season approached, I had an epiphany. After weeks of thinking things like “maybe I’ll break my leg,” “maybe I’ll become deathly ill,” “maybe I’ll DIE,” I realized: maybe I could just quit.

So I did.

All my friends were still in fencing, though, so I made an offer to our coach: I could act as scorekeeper. Did we really need a designated scorekeeper, instead of just using a fencer who was not currently fencing? Not really. But the coach said yes, so I still got to hang out with my friends during meets without any of that pesky actual fencing getting in my way. Plus no more two and a half hour practices. It was a perfect solution.

One day my senior year, though, I was not having a good time as scorekeeper. We were at an away meet, and the team we were playing had a very tiny gym. So tiny, in fact, that there were no bleachers or even room for chairs to watch the bouts. I was propped uncomfortably on a pile of fencing bags against the wall. Also, I was freezing, because the door was open and it was January. (I don’t know why the door was open. Possibly because if it were closed, the tiny tiny gym would have become very hot. Or it was broken.) Meanwhile, this was one of the most boring meets of the year. Like I said, our team, for the most part, was good. This team was not. They weren’t as bad as me, because that’s physically impossible, but they were losing 0-5 almost every bout. This is not interesting when you are keeping score.

My mind began to wander to the mountains of homework I could have been doing instead of shivering on a throne of masks and breast protectors recording the world’s least exciting fencing meet. At this point, I was a second semester senior who’d already gotten into college, so my attitude towards almost all of my remaining responsibilities swung between apathy and seething resentment. I was fast approaching a Very Bad Mood.

Abruptly, I decided I was displeased with being in my own head, so I’d rather inhabit the mind of someone else. And just like that, the first character of story was born. Moments later, the second character followed. They didn’t have names then, and wouldn’t for about a year, but some of you now know them as Mat and Beidrica.

Though Mat’s inception predated Beidrica’s by only a matter of seconds, he was the one whose head I first leaped into, and he was the one who stood at the center of a world that slowly built itself around him, almost without me noticing. He is very different from who he was that cold, boring January evening, but then again, so am I. While I genuinely enjoy writing all four POVs equally (Tamma came later, and Dayvec came MUCH later), Mat holds a special place in my heart, because without him, none of this would have happened.

Without the Bernards fencing team, none of this would have happened either, so this is my seven-years-overdue thank you to them. I’m glad you won states that year.

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Career Day

I don’t remember when I started saying “I’m a writer” instead of “I write stuff.” It can’t have been more than a few years ago. Saying “I’m a writer” seemed arrogant somehow, or at the very least presumptuous. Never mind the fact that I knew I wanted to write since I was in second grade, knew I wanted to write for children and young adults since I was in sixth, and had gone halfway across the country to major in writing. I think by the time I went to grad school for even more writing education and opportunities, I had started to claim the title, but I was still somewhat tentative about it. I felt like that claim needed some proof behind it, and in a way, I wasn’t totally wrong. The proof didn’t have to be out there in bookstores, though. I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone else. In order to claim that I was a writer, I had to write. And as the years went by, I wrote. A lot.

I’m not tentative about saying I’m a writer anymore.

There were still terms I shied away from, though. “Author,” for example, felt like a word that belonged to people who could hold their books in their hands. Then of course there’s the phrase “writing career,” which I’ve only spoken aloud with the accompaniment of sarcastic jazz hands and a nervous laugh. How long I have lusted after the unironic utterance of that phrase, though. During Awkward Home Summer, I requested for my parents to stop differentiating between “work” and “writing” in favor of “paid work” and “work.” They’re my parents, I figured. They won’t mind if I’m pretentious about it.

Here’s what I think we should tell ourselves as writers, though: go for it. If you treat it like work, claim it as your work. As your career. Writing has been my career for a while now. I proved that to myself when I proved that I was, in fact, a writer.

Today I had a conversation in which the words “author” and “career” were used without a trace of irony. I am absolutely thrilled to announce that I will be working with Carrie Howland, a literary agent with Donadio & Olson, Inc. Thanks to my perfect and wonderful friend Susan, who let me follow her around when I was a terrified puppy of a new grad student and who hasn’t stopped brightening my life since, The Children’s War (a.k.a. Story) made its way to Carrie’s desk. I was blown away by Carrie’s enthusiasm and excitement for my writing, and I can’t wait to get started on our work together. I feel like this manuscript that I care so much about is in excellent hands. For my part, I can promise that I will be a diligent, responsive, and obnoxiously earnest client. This is, after all, my career, and I really love my work.