Writing villains under Trump

(Content notice: this post contains a description of being followed by a street harasser.)

So it’s been a Month, nationally speaking. Right now, every website I go to is screaming at me about the Paris Accord. My brain is kind of always screaming about the Paris Accord, so it’s nothing I’m not used to on one level. And hey, as of this writing, nothing’s official-official. Maybe we’ll stay in? And if we don’t, then at least that means we won’t be sabotaging everyone else?

Yeah, I know, not much of a bright side. But it’s all we have to work with right now. That and constant constant constant constant political pressure from all of us. Miles to go before we sleep and all that.

Hmm. Thus far, the tone of this blog post is a little wearier than I intended it to be. I am tired, but I’m nowhere near giving up on believing in all the things humanity is capable of achieving. I’m honestly not. Like, this is not a bad zombie apocalypse drama. The answer to “but do we deserve to survive?” is still a resounding yes. It will always be yes, and the people who believe in that yes will always keep fighting. Listen: there are a lot of us, in my country and everyone else’s. We’re tired, but we don’t give up.

Of course, there are those other people. The ones who necessitate the fighting. A couple of months ago, I wrote about good guys and bad guys. I was focused on the former, but man there have been a lot of the latter hanging around lately, haven’t there? Big-time bad guys in charge. Small-time bad guys coming out of the woodwork. The other week, a man followed me in his car and called obscene things out the window at me. When I detoured away from him, he waited for me to reemerge so he could continue. His voice was very, very calm. After the second time I turned, he didn’t follow. A block later, the feeling returned to my fingers as I stopped hyperventilating.

Of course that could have happened under any other president. But that experience just felt like it fit into a pattern. Even now, I want to downplay what happened: he didn’t get out of the car, he didn’t touch me, he didn’t follow me home. So no big deal, right? I probably wasn’t in real danger. But as brief as that encounter was, it felt like real danger, and that was the point. That man tried to scare me, and he succeeded.

I don’t get that. I fundamentally don’t understand what it feels like to want someone to be terrified. I also don’t understand what it feels like to have access to a whole world’s fear — fear of environmental degradation, fear of crushing poverty, fear of escalating wars — and just not care. What is it like to see someone who is afraid and not want to comfort them?

Don’t get me wrong, I know how it happens. I know there are a million different sociological and psychological forces that can bleed the empathy out of a person. A man who takes pleasure in scaring a woman doesn’t empathize with that woman because he fundamentally does not see her as human. Insert a bunch more isms, blow it up on a national scale, and you have a group of rich, white men who don’t care about the fear of everyone else in the same way that I don’t care how the huge spider who hung out in my apartment for a few days felt. I just wanted it to leave me alone and not interfere with my life.

But knowing how people become that way is not the same thing as understanding what it’s actually like to see other people as inconvenient spiders. I guess their lack of empathy is the limit of my own. I can digest and comprehend all of the sociopolitical reasons, but on a purely emotional level, I still keep coming up with “but why?

Honestly? I’m okay with that. I do think it’s absolutely important to be able to intellectually understand the forces that drive the people who do harm in the world. Hiding from that will never be a good idea. But I don’t think gazing into the abyss necessarily requires diving in headfirst. I’m not going to be playing Donald Trump or scary-car-guy in a movie any time soon.

I do, however, write villainous characters. The main antagonists of THE CHILDREN’S WAR, MISBEGOTTEN CREATURES, and middle-grade story are different in a lot of ways, but they all essentially boil down to hunger for power. I’d be interested to hear if anyone ever wrote a bona fide villain who didn’t. (I do know that some antagonists are motivated by other things, but of course not all antagonists are villains.)

So I’ve made these people up. I know their backstories. I know the sociopolitical forces (and grievous personality flaws) that have made them who they are. But I don’t emotionally connect with them the way I do with all of my other characters. I don’t feel what they feel. I don’t know how.

In MISBEGOTTEN CREATURES, one of my characters is an empath who literally (like, on a brain chemistry level) feels the emotions of everyone in his immediate vicinity. (It’s one of the crueler things I’ve done to a character, though there is some steep competition in that regard.) Spoiler alert for a book that doesn’t exist in the world yet: the antagonist does wind up in his radius at a certain point. Actually, now that I think about it, he also is around street harassers in another scene, so he fits this blog post doubly well. His reaction to both of these situations is total scorn.

Of course, I’m just guessing, because I can’t do what he did. I can’t emotionally get inside their heads. But I stand by my guess. Power-hungry villains are interesting because of the effect they have on other characters, but I don’t think they’re very interesting in and of themselves. Donald Trump does not fascinate me. If you can kind of think of the president as the protagonist of the country’s story, then the plot is certainly off the rails, but the character development is shit. How does a character grow if they don’t care? How am I supposed to get invested in a character who is not invested in anyone else?

Waste of time, if you ask me. Maybe that means my villains will be flat. I hope not: I work hard on their dialogue and try to make them compellingly menacing. (Based on Trump and scary-car-guy, maybe I’ve been putting too much thought into the dialogue. Neither of them really seem to.) But the interesting people are the ones who care. So go forth and be interesting.

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Continuity

When I was at my parents’ house for Easter a couple of weeks ago, my mother plunked a sheet of sketchbook paper in front of me. It was filled, front and back, with an elaborately loopy cursive scrawl that I recognized as my 10-year-old handwriting. I recognized it instantly: it was the first two (and maybe only two?) pages of a “novel” about vampires. I could remember the exact unit in Australia where I had scribbled it down. We were there with lots of family, visiting lots of family. Australia owns a lot of my heart and I really want to go back, but that is perhaps a different post for a different day. What I was delighted to discover/remember was that a) apparently my fondness for writing in hotel rooms started super early (the first thing I ever wrote down for story was on hotel stationary in Venice) and b) clearly so did my fondness for monsters.

I had not remembered this particular vampire idea in — well, probably about 18 years — but it immediately came back to me. It was written from the point of view of a kid named Dan, who has been best friends with Van (short for Vanessa, or “Vannessa” as I apparently thought it was spelled) for several years. They bonded over their rhyming nicknames. Van always came over to Dan’s house, though, because her parents were very “private.”

Of course, it turns out that the real reason is that they are VAMPIRES.

Van will be a vampire, too, but she isn’t one yet. You see, vampires can totally have kids, but they don’t start off as immortal creatures of the night, because then you’d just have a newborn with insatiable blood lust forever, and that’s not a good idea. So the process of becoming a vampire starts slowly around puberty (at age 10, I was morbidly fascinated with the concept of Puberty) and completes in early adulthood, at which point you stay like that forever. Van doesn’t want to become a vampire, or at least not the killing people variety, and so the story was going to involve figuring out how to remain partially human. I don’t know if I ever worked out those details, but I do know that substituting citrus fruits for blood was a major solution. For some reason. She did remain part-vampire, though, I know that; shades of Renesmee aside, I’m pleased that baby Kathleen knew that monsters had to stay monsters.

Also, I’m not sure if Dan’s “voice” is something that’s really detectable in two handwritten pages by a 10-year-old, but what little was there was pretty much straight up stolen from Marco in Animorphs.

All of this is to say that I was DELIGHTED by my mother’s discovery and also by my weirdo childhood self. If you had asked me before Easter when my love of monsters began, I probably would have placed it around age 13 (that was The Summer Of Thinking About Literally Nothing But Remus Lupin). Apparently, though, I was already predisposed to think about monsters — and to root for them.

I spent most of today working on an academic paper about monstrosity, and I couldn’t help but think about that 10-year-old in the hotel room. She wouldn’t like everything I had to tell her about age 28. She’d expected more to have happened by now. She’d thought that, at this point, everything would be settled and sure. Hadn’t she already done the heavy lifting of deciding what she wanted to be when she grew up?

(I wouldn’t tell her anything about the sociopolitical state of things in 2017, because I’m not a horrible person.)

But then I’d tell her that I still think about monsters every day of my life, and most days I write about them in some form or another. I’d tell her I haven’t stopped inventing girls with deadly bites who choose what kind of monster they want to be, and boys who are willing to do the dangerous thing and stand by their friends. I’d tell her that I have long and jubilant conversations about stories, like, all the time (because, oh yeah, I have way more friends now, and they all love to read). I’d tell her I still write in hotel rooms, and when I write longhand, it’s always in cursive (just a little less loopy now).

She wouldn’t be brave enough to ask if she really had to be as afraid of growing up as she was, and I wouldn’t be brave enough to attempt an answer. But I’d let her know that the things she loved are still the things I love, and that would make us both smile.

Read It Out

I’m sure every writer out there has been told to read their work out loud while editing. It’s standard advice, and it makes sense. It’s much harder to miss little details when you slow down enough to say every word. A lot of entry-level writing advice is aimed at inserting some practicality into the sometimes chaotic process of making stuff up and writing it down. Even the most ~artistic of souls has to occasionally be methodical.

Here’s the thing, though: I’ve never heard anyone talk about how ridiculously fun line-editing is. You get to read all the stuff you wrote! Out loud! As dramatically as you like! Theoretically, you like the stuff you wrote at this point, because it’s not like you’d be line-editing your shitty first drafts. (Unless you’re the kind of writer whose first drafts aren’t shitty, in which case: well isn’t that just wonderful for you.) (Just kidding, I respect everyone’s ~process.) (But I mean, honestly.)

Anyway, I’ve been doing a lot of line editing in 2017 on a couple of different projects, and honestly it’s been a blast. I was always the kid in high school English who got uncomfortably into the read aloud assignments (I have a specific memory of just going for broke as Oedipus). I never took any drama or acting classes (which I regret), so reading out loud is probably my way of indulging my own desire to perform, even if I’m my only audience. Plus, is there anything better than getting to a line you’re really proud of and just hearing your own words in the air? Or discovering a paragraph with a perfect rhythm?

Yes, line editing is work — you’re also going to run into some godawful sentences that assault your ears. I mean, that’s the point of line editing in the first place: to find and fix all those mistakes. But enjoy the parts that you got right. Pat yourself on the back. Have fun.

Also, for both writers and non-writers who love words, a self-care method that I highly recommend is to read your favorite books out loud to yourself. Roll around in some great language. My last several blog posts have been kind of heavy and I didn’t want this one to be, but suffice to say that everyone can use a little self-care in 2017. I read Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo this year (and have been unable to stop thinking about them since), and they are an absolute joy to read aloud. I love reading anything by Mary Doria Russell (a.k.a. one of the only authors for adults I care about) aloud, as well. Of course, there are entire passages from Harry Potter that I still “hear” in the rhythm in which I recited them as a child (often in a bad British accent with my friend Francesca to a highly indulgent audience of our parents).

So this is my spring 2017 advice to you: work hard, care hard, and when you’re tired, immerse yourself in a story that you love, whether your own or someone else’s. Savor the sound of your own voice speaking beautiful words.

On Truth

Sometimes I worry that I only have one story in me, and that I’m just telling that same story over and over again in different ways. It’s a worry that I imagine a lot of writers share. Impostor syndrome is a strong force in creative circles, and it’s easy to fear that someday we’ll be found out. What if, that doubting voice whispers, everyone discovers that I don’t have that much to say?

But of course all my stories are going to have some things in common. They wouldn’t be mine if they didn’t. And one thing that I’ve realized they share is a deep preoccupation with truth-telling.

This discovery was something of a comfort. Though the capital-T Truth may appear to be flat and non-negotiable, there are actually many things to say about it. As a writer, I am reassured that my stories won’t necessarily all feel exactly the same to my future readers (or my small and beloved gaggle of current readers). As a person, I am reassured that no one will ever run out of worthwhile things to say as long as we’re committed to the truth.

The types of truth-telling that interest me the most are speaking truth to power and speaking truth to the self. Neither one is easy, and both rely on the other. I don’t think it’s possible to speak truth to power until you’ve figured out what you believe in, which requires figuring out who you are and who you want to be. But I also don’t think it’s possible to truly be honest to yourself without feeling the need to speak up and speak out about the important things in life.

After all, how can you protest or make phone calls or argue or attend meetings or engage in any other means of resistance — up to and including straight up breaking unjust laws — without first admitting that you’re sad and angry and afraid? These are not easy truths. They require you to admit that you’re not in control of everything in your life, and that just opens up a whole other can of worms. Our own lack of control is everything that we hide from. When we stop hiding from it — well. It can be unpleasant.

The alternative, though, is pretending that everything is fine. As any writer will tell you, stories need conflict. There can be no growth, no change, until that conflict is acknowledged. And yeah, there are some real life conflicts I really wish had been avoided. I’m definitely not saying that all the awful things happening in the world are okay because they lead to ~personal growth or anything like that. There is an upside to admitting your own sadness and anger and fear to yourself, though. Once you acknowledge those things, you get to tell yourself another truth: that you care. And a caring person is a beautiful thing to be able to see when you look in the mirror.

So I guess that’s another running theme in the stories that I write: I write about people who are learning how to care. And if that’s the only story I have in me, then I’m okay with that. That story is beautiful, and I believe that it is true.

Being Good

So I’ve been thinking a lot about good guys and bad guys this week. It sure seems like there are a lot of the latter these days, with more popping up in the news every day. Bad guys in high positions of power, bad guys passing unjust laws. So does bad leadership and bad laws make a country — well, bad?

As I said in my last post, I know what I believe when I’ve written it, so I have a couple of answers to that question. They both come from THE CHILDREN’S WAR (a.k.a. story). The first, which played on my mind a lot as the refugee ban went into effect on Holocaust Remembrance Day, is a synthesis of two reactions from two of my protagonists upon reading about crimes against humanity that their empire has perpetrated. One character refuses to believe this information is true; the other knows that it is. Paraphrased, their reactions, respectively, are: “If that were true, then we’d be the Enemy!” and “It goes against everything we stand for.”

These statements contradict each other, but they’re both true. I always knew I was writing about my own country when writing story, but I also always thought I was exaggerating at least a little bit. Now it seems that I’m not. Right now, America’s bad leadership and bad laws have made my country a force for bad in the world. That is true.

However. It goes against everything so many Americans stand for. Elsewhere in story, another character explains that he has struggled to put his country above the people he loves, because the people he loves are his country. You can’t serve one and neglect the other at the same time. “America” is not an independent entity, a personal god with its own wishes and personality that demands worship and fealty. America is Americans. Some of them are awful. Most of them are not.

That’s not unique to America. I totally reject any notion of a country being the “best country in the world,” because all countries are made of people: some awful, most not. That’s just the general demographic of every group of humans in the entire world. Unfortunately, the awful ones are great at grabbing power. To stay there, they try to exploit any latent cruelty they can find in others, because we’re all microcosms of our species in general. A little bad, mostly good. That balance can tip if we let it. If we give into the easiness of willful ignorance, the comfort of a false persecution complex (pro-tip: real persecution never feels comfortable), or the thrill of fear for the other, then we’ll wake up to find that we’ve joined the ranks of the bad guys. The more privilege you have in your society — so if you’re American, if you’re white or male or straight or financially stable or cis or able-bodied or neurotypical (and I’m a fair few of these, so I’ve got to be careful) — the easier this process is. It must be resisted.

So remember what you stand for. Don’t accept anything that goes against that. Remember that the balance of people in the world is still and always will be “mostly good.” Remember that that’s true of every group of people you’re supposed to fear.

Explicitly: remember that that’s true of Muslims. Remember that refugees are refugees because they’ve already suffered under the bad guys. Don’t be another bad guy making their life hell. Oppose those who do.

I know that “bad guy” and “good guy” are flat and unnuanced terms, but the reason they’ve been on my mind is that the Muslim refugee ban is, flatly and without a shred of nuance, bad. It is wrong. It is evil. It is the Enemy of the good guys. It is, currently, American.

But the ACLU is American, too. So are a whole lot of Muslims who’ve never done anything to deserve the hatred thrown their way, and have instead added to this country’s aggregate goodness (and some of them are writers — you can find and support their work by looking up #muslimshelfspace on Twitter). Your Daily Action is American, which has become my favorite activism resource. Wall-of-us, Color of Change, the American Friends Service Committee, and the Indivisible Guide are also great American resistance resources. The National Parks Service and the Taxi Workers Alliance and millions of protesters and Teen Vogue and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary: also American.

Of course, there are plenty of non-Americans in the groups I’ve just mentioned, too, because American goodness is not just American, but human. Our good people are not better than anyone else’s good people. We don’t have to be. Goodness isn’t a competition. Greatness isn’t a competition, either, as much as some people would like you to believe that it is. Greatness is the combined goodness of many. Goodness and greatness are both a hell of a lot of work, and I’m trying to learn how to do that work, from all of the people mentioned above and more. Check out those links. Take care of yourselves. Learn and work. Be the good guys.

 

We’ll Meet It

Well. It’s been quite the year, hasn’t it?

Listen, I’m not going to write a thinkpiece about the state of the country/world/human race here. I’m sure you’ve all read as many of those as I have lately, and I’m not really in the mood to read, let alone write, one more. Instead, what I’ve got at the end of this bizarre year is a list, some quotes, and some writing.

Because I’ve been a terrible blogger this year (again) (look, it’s on the New Year’s resolution list) (…again), here’s a list of some things that happened in my life this year:

  • I completed an AmeriCorps term, having spent 10 months helping families whose homes were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy finally come home.
  • I wrote two separate Strongly Worded Emails in a professional setting (one to a potential employer, one to an actual employer) about how they were Doing It Wrong (the former about mental illness, the latter about racism in children’s literature).
  • I got fired for the first time, from the actual employer in the above bullet point. I genuinely don’t know if these two things are related. Either way, no regrets.
  • I’ve spent about six months of this year getting paid to teach in some capacity, which is a major step down the life goals path.
  • I was the maid of honor at my beautiful twin’s wedding and now I have a brother-in-law! This is the best bullet point on this list.
  • I wrote the first draft of middle-grade story, several drafts of werewolf story (Misbegotten Creatures), and two academic papers.
  • I presented one of those papers at a conference.
  • I’ve dedicated at least two hours every week to political action since November 8th )(and will continue to do so from now on). I’ve also pretty much held on to my mental health since then, which given the specific nature of my intrusive thoughts is something to be damn proud of.

Which leads us to the quotes. I’ve written on this blog before about my two tattoos, which both involve flora and words. The words are “Watch me” (and though context-less on my ribs, the intended context is from Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go) and “with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah” from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” (Clearly, this was one of the many deaths of 2016 that got to me, but at least he was actually fairly old, unlike some of the others.) I’ve been thinking a lot about both of those lines lately, about how I’ve etched determination despite all odds into my body. After all, the lines leading up to the end of the last verse of “Hallelujah” include “and even though it all went wrong,” and anyone who’s read Chaos Walking knows that like 2 of 10,000 of the things that happen in those books are actually good things. The plants, too, are about this: a branch from a willow tree, fragile yet abundant, and a Christmas cactus blossom, which blooms only in the darkest part of the year.

So all of that is who I am and who I will continue to be. I’m glad I already know that about myself. I’m glad I know I’m not one to give up.

Another quote that’s been on my mind is from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: “What’s comin’ will come, an’ we’ll meet it when it does.” Not much to add to that, other than this line has been a helpful mantra to me in the past, and also we should all try to be more like Hagrid in our daily lives. (I mean, within reason.)

Last quote, also from J.K. Rowling, but this time from an interview. She once said “sometimes I know what I believe because of what I have written.” This has definitely always been the case for me. I have figured out so many things that I think are important (as well as a lot of things about myself) through writing fiction. Sometimes I’ve found it’s a good idea to lean into that and allow writing to help me define my own state of mind. So I wrote a scene that takes place in between story (The Children’s War) and its as-yet-mostly-unwritten sequel that’s about all of the above quotes, as well as waiting, as well as loved ones. And some architectural theology, because why shouldn’t I have some fun with it, too? I’ve been waffling about whether I should put it on this blog, but I wanted the few of you who know these characters to be able to read it if you want. So click through if you’d like, and happy New Year to everyone. I’m glad I get to meet whatever’s coming with all of you.

Continue reading We’ll Meet It

Life in Marble

Well, the New Year’s resolution to blog more clearly hasn’t been working out so well. :/

In my defense, life has been hectic and odd since my last post. Yeah, I know, what else is new? I’m sure everyone’s heard the oft-told historical tidbit that Michelangelo could envision his entire sculpture when he looked upon an untouched block of marble. Well, my life is still mostly uncarved, and I don’t have Michelangelo’s power of foresight. But I’m chipping away anyway.

The job situation has been rather an adventure this year, but the good news is all of the teaching experience I’ve gained has been really great and helpful for moving forward. It feels really good to be able to say that I know I want teaching to be my long-term day job. And if I may be taking a circuitous route to actual job permanence and/or security (ha haaa), at least I know that’s only because I have an extra consideration when planning my future: writing. It always comes first, even when it doesn’t feel like it — i.e., when I can barely squeeze an hour in because of various other life factors. But I’m juggling all these life factors specifically because I’m trying to find a path that intellectually, emotionally, and temporally (hardest one) allows me to be a better writer.

The stress of uncertainty has been getting to me a lot lately, but I’ve been looking at it all wrong. I’ve not only been searching for a writing-friendly life, but also a life where I get to help people on a daily basis, and those aren’t the easiest conditions to fill! Just because I haven’t been able to completely crack that particular code yet doesn’t mean I’m not a functional adult. What my continued quest to do so does prove is that I’m really freaking dedicated to not just the act of writing, but also the values and passions that inform every story I write.

Sooo that was a pretty important personal revelation. Uh, thanks for sharing in that with me. ANYWAY, and update on writing: I recently finished the first draft of middle-grade story, hooray! (And a full two weeks before my self-imposed deadline, which, given what this summer looked like, is a minor miracle.) It went exactly how I thought it would, which is to say endlessly frustrating. But I got to know my protagonist and several other key characters very well, which is (in my process, at least) the point of a first draft. I even wrote like  5 or so scenes that may survive into the next draft! Not too bad for the queen of the blank page rewrite.

While middle-grade story sits in a corner and thinks about what it’s done, I’m now embarking on some (more) revisions for MISBEGOTTEN CREATURES. I’ve jokingly (“jokingly”) referred to MC as the therapy book, because writing it forced me to deal with some Issues. But after speaking with my agent (nearly two years in and still not tired of saying that), I understand that pushing myself a little bit further is necessary — but also doable. Which is something to be proud of, I think. I realize that’s kind of vague, but suffice to say I’m happy with this development and am excited to improve this manuscript that means so much to me.

And of course there are many more things happening right now, but I’ll leave it there for now. I will continue to update this blog (hopefully more often…) as I keep carving out a life for myself. Even though I can’t imagine the end result yet, I have a feeling I’m going to love it.

Another new direction

I feel like a theme of this blog thus far has been “I’m trying something new with my life!” Which is probably appropriate for the blog of a writer in her 20s, and I’ve done some pretty cool things in the last few years, but I would like to transition into more of a theme of stability sometime in the next century. To that end, the new new thing I’ve doing with my life is about to be teaching. Starting essentially simultaneously, I will be embarking upon two lit teaching jobs for the summer, one online for elementary school kids and one in person for a huge range of ages. Long term job? Not yet. But maybe this time, that’s the road I’m starting down.

Obviously, I already have a long term job, which is writing. (Actually, when speaking to my mom recently about all my friends who are obtaining shiny new degrees and professions, I remarked, “Everyone’s becoming what they’re going to be.” Without missing a beat, my mom immediately replied, “Well, you’ve been what you’re going to be for a long time. You’re a writer.” In conclusion, my mom is amazing and every creatively-inclined individual should be so lucky.) But I also want to have a long term, also beloved day job, and I’m pretty sure that teaching will fit that bill. I’ve been a TA, a private tutor, a camp counselor, and even a home school English teacher, and now it’s time for me to get in front of my own class and see what happens.

When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was talk about books. Of course, that’s still all I want to do. As a rule, I’ve been pretty consistent in the things I love. That’s how I was able to realize so early in life that I wanted to be a writer. I’m not sure why it’s taken me until now to commit to my other love of literary analysis and teaching as a career path. I guess it’s always seemed a little daunting to teach and write at the same time, since both require a lot of energy. I never wanted to shortchange my writing. I still don’t; no matter what, I need to make sure that writing remains a top priority in my life.

However, I think that it will be easier to commit myself to my writing when the rest of my time is also spent doing things that I love. Passion requires energy, sure, but it also gives it back to you. That’s what I’m betting on, anyway. So here’s to this new experiment! If I can’t have stability yet, at least I can have fun.

And Now For Something Completely Different

When people ask about my writing process, I doubt the answer they’re expecting to get is, “well, first I write 10 to 15 chapters that just don’t work at all, then I scrap those, start over, and write an entire first draft that also doesn’t work at all, but in a different way.” This seems to be the case for me, though, and I’ve just completed what I now think of as the Obligatory False Start on my long-neglected middle grade story. When I tell people this, they also don’t seem to expect me to be happy about it, but I am. It feels like progress. Now the real work can begin.

Before I jump back into the inevitably shitty first draft, I’ve been doing some research, which is always fun. So much fun, actually, that I almost felt guilty doing it — surely there was some more arduous and therefore productive way I could be spending my time? But nope, that’s the best thing about being a writer: sometimes work and play are indistinguishable. Of course, not everyone would consider reading roughly 600 pages of Ancient Mesopotamian poetry (as I did over the last two weeks) to be “play,” but hey, we all have our eccentricities.

(A note on Ancient Mesopotamian poetry: some of it will definitely be discarded from the “useful research” pile on account of being too brutal not only for my target middle-grade audience, but also humanity in general. Those of you who’ve read my YA work may have some idea of what it would take to get me to say this. YIKES, Mesopotamia.)

So now I’m ready to jump into a project that is once again drastically different from previous works. The Children’s War is a high fantasy (???) upper-YA beginning of a trilogy with four revolving close-third POVs. Misbegotten Creatures is also upper-YA fantasy, but a semi-futuristic alternate universe science fantasy written in the first person. Writing MC felt so incredibly different from writing TCW that I sometimes felt like I was writing a first novel all over again. So many of the things I learned writing TCW were inapplicable to MC, and I had to learn so many new things for MC that had never come up in TCW.

(I’m making a conscious effort to use the actual titles of my completed(ish) manuscripts because professionalism, I guess? Middle-grade story has a title but will remain “middle-grade story” until at least after the shitty first draft.)

So of course after all of the frustration of writing a second first novel, I am now going to write a third first novel. I started this work in grad school (actually, a precursor short story happened in undergrad), but I’ve never written a complete work of middle-grade fiction before. I know for a fact that my first draft is going to be about a million words too long, and that won’t be the only challenge. I predict a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth will accompany the first several drafts, while I curse myself for not sticking to what I’ve already gone through all the trouble of figuring out.

But we all know that deep down, I don’t want to do that at all.

Don’t get me wrong, I am dying (in what sometimes feels like a literal way) to write The Children’s War’s next two books. I need to finish that story. (And I will. Someday, someday, I will get to do that.) I also feel like YA is likely to be my main home over the course of what I hope will be a long career. But I don’t want my body of work to be like an album where all the songs sound the same. I want to write vastly different books. I want to be frustrated and afraid that I’ll never get it right, because no one ever enjoyed the thrill of discovery without feeling scared first.

And hopefully this post will remind me of that in a couple months, when I’m contemplating throwing my laptop out the window.

A Backward Glance

Today, instead of waking up at a frankly unseemly hour of the morning and commuting directly and dangerously into the rising sun, I instead began my first week as an AmeriCorps alumna instead of an AmeriCorps member. My unexpected life detour into disaster recovery has come to an end. It was a pretty bumpy road at times, but I’m glad I took it. I was able to help some people along the way, which is really all I wanted out of this experience.

I also met some really lovely people. I keep making mental notes of topics of conversation to bring up in the office, forgetting that I don’t actually work there anymore. I mean, I’ll be back there at some point, possibly to borrow their scanner and also to return the traffic cones I inadvertently stole. Also, social media is a thing. Still, it’s always strange when you see someone every day — whether a classmate, a roommate, or a coworker — and then you suddenly don’t.

“Abrupt change” has been sort of a theme of my life the last couple of years, I guess. Like I said in my last post (which was almost two months ago — so much for New Year’s resolutions, whoops), I do have some constants, though. Writing, of course, is my greatest constant, and I’m excited that I’ll have some more time to do so now.

I also have plenty of Plans, but none of them are quite Reality yet, so that can wait for a future post. Writing is my Reality, though. It’s maybe strange that something as intangible as making up stories out of thin air can be as solid a bedrock as it is for me. I just appreciate having an area of my life that I don’t have to question. I’m not sure where my writing will take me, but I’m sure about the writing itself. I know I’m very lucky to have that.

For now, I’m going to be working fewer money-making-job hours than I had been (though I’ll be earning considerably more, because AmeriCorps), so lots of people have been asking me what I’m going to do with my “free time.” This has got me thinking about when I stopped thinking of writing as “free time” and when I started thinking of it as my job. The switch must have happened pretty gradually, because I can’t pinpoint an exact moment. But yeah — I’m not actually going to have any more free time than I ever did. I’ll just get to use more of my work time to do the job that I love the most.

And someday, I hope, I’ll be able to say the same thing about my writing as I can say about my AmeriCorps term: “I really helped some people with this.” I definitely never felt sure of myself as a disaster case manager the way I do as a writer. I actually spent a pretty large portion of my 10-month term thinking I was kind of awful at it. If I could go and tell myself one thing at the beginning of my term, it would be to try to get out of my own head occasionally. Of course, I’m fundamentally incapable of doing this literally ever, so the advice wouldn’t have done much, but I do realize that people in need don’t need the people helping them to be perfect. They just need them to keep trying. That’s something I did do, and that’s something I’m proud of.

One of the tenets of the organization I worked for was that people have an innate desire to help others. While that’s hard to fit in with some of the contractor fraud I saw (some people will literally steal tens of thousands of dollars from children and little old ladies after their houses are destroyed! So that’s a thing!), I genuinely think that’s true of most of us. I also think that if someone is anxious or prone to guilt due to personality or brain chemistry or latent childhood religion (or all three, in which case hello and welcome to the Existential Crisis Club!), then they probably worry that they don’t help enough.

At my AmeriCorps class’s graduation party (bowling! Which I actually really enjoyed — maybe I’ll follow in my mother and grandmother’s footsteps and become an Intense Bowler), my bosses and coworkers made speeches about us, which was emotionally overwhelming and embarrassing but also really gratifying. So, I guess if I were to actually arrive at a point in this meandering post, it would be that I encourage you to go and emotionally overwhelm/embarrass someone who’s helped you in your life. Tell them what they did was good and enough. Because while (good) people don’t help others for the recognition, letting them know they’re appreciated is an easy and kind way of turning it around and helping them in return.

So there’s my sappy moral. That’s the end of my free time for the morning. Now: to write.