But Just You Wait

The line between a diary and a blog can be a thin one. As you can tell by the time between my posts on here, I’m not very good at blogging in general yet, and while I journaled for a while as a kid, my efforts would always trail off. I’ve always been far more motivated to write fiction, but sometimes I think I could stand for addressing my mental state in writing somewhat more directly, as opposed to foisting it all off on my poor characters (sorry, darlings). It’s been a very introspective year for me. I’ve been discovering a lot of important things about myself, which has been accompanied by all the hysteria-edged agony that self-discovery usually carries with it. I recently wrote down a bunch of these frustrations and mood swings and intended to post them here, but then I realized: nope. That’s a diary entry, not a blog post. It was useful to me, but surely not interesting to literally anyone else.

So there’s another self-discovery. I’ve always considered myself a bit of an oversharer, but apparently I do have some boundaries. Good to know.

However, one thing that I did talk about in that diary entry was my current all-consuming love of the musical HAMILTON. If you haven’t listened to the soundtrack, go and do so right this very instant. I’ll wait. . . . Welcome back. I’m going to assume two and a half hours have now passed and that your life has been completely transfigured by this mind-blowing masterpiece. Everyone who has listened to HAMILTON, please share all of your thoughts and feelings about it with me. I’m not kidding at all.

The HAMILTON soundtrack came at exactly the right time for me. I recently became the sole case manager at work, since my coworker’s term ended and the person set to replace her rescinded at the last minute. Literally a day before this happened, I finished the most recent draft of werewolf story. My media consumption always sees a brief uptick in the weeks after finishing a draft, since I like to take a brief brain break before starting in on the next one. Of course, due to the doubling of my work load, my “brain break” has been anything but. Yet that’s exactly why the media I’ve consumed in the last three weeks has been so important. With my own quarter life crisis raging, I’ve clung onto the stability that a really, really good story can provide.

It may seem odd to consider something that’s made me cry as much as HAMILTON as a mood stabilizer. (“It’s Quiet Uptown,” oh my god, don’t even look at me.) But hey, that’s what Aristotle was on about with that whole catharsis thing, no? Not to defer too much to old dead dude philosophers, but it’s true that borrowing the troubles of fictional (or in this case, fictionalized historical) characters has always been an important way for me to deal with my own. It’s not just about emotional purgation, though; I also need to borrow the Deep Thoughts of a good story when my mind is overrun with self-absorbed worries. HAMILTON has me covered there, too, with all its themes about the ways personal legacies and national identities are formed and skewed by history (which people who’ve read story will recognize as My Favorite Topics).

None of these observations about the healing powers of stories are new, as evidenced by the fact that I cited freaking Aristotle. I’ve known how much I need stories since I knew anything about myself at all. But in the last few weeks, I’ve rediscovered it. I’ve read five books back to back. Two were rereads (Melina Marchetta’s FINNIKIN OF THE ROCK and Kristen D. Randle’s THE ONLY ALIEN ON THE PLANET) and three were books I picked up for the first time (Nancy Farmer’s THE EAR, THE EYE AND THE ARM, E. Lockhart’s WE WERE LIARS, and Jacqueline Woodson’s HUSH). I couldn’t put any of them down. Meanwhile, HAMILTON has been my constant chores-and-commuting soundtrack. (“The Battle of Yorktown” is better than a shot glass of straight caffeine for morning commutes. You just have to be careful not to start speeding.) I have needed and been grateful for every word (and in HAMILTON’s case, every note) of these works of art.

I’ve taken a longer break than usual between drafts this time. Usually I’m back to the grindstone within about a week and a half. It’s been three weeks now, and I’m just getting ready to get down to work now. There are a few reasons for this. One is that werewolf story has been a very personal and difficult project in a lot of ways. I often jokingly refer to it as “the therapy book,” in keeping with the Intense Work On Myself that has characterized my mid-20s. I kind of needed a long time to exhale after this draft. The more straightforward second reason, obviously, is the whole doubling of the workload at the day job situation. I am a tired little writer person over here, friends.

The third reason, though, is something that a lot of writers-with-day-jobs will recognize. I won’t be able to read as much once I’m back to my work-write-repeat schedule. I mean, at least I still have to clean and commute, so I still get to listen to HAMILTON one million more times. But reading is one of the greatest joys of my life, and I don’t get to do nearly as much of it as I’d like. World’s tiniest violin? Maybe. But sometimes I really do need those mood stabilizing effects of a good story that I didn’t have to put all the hard work into writing.

Still, if reading is joy, then writing is more than joy. It’s everything. It’s the love of my life. And I will pick myself up out of my exhaustion and existential meebling to keep doing it, because I want to produce stories that have the same effects on others as other people’s stories have on me. I want to strike cathartic wounds into people’s hearts, so that my readers look up from my words feeling both cleaner and fuller. I want to dash away their personal anxieties by occupying them with the Deep Thoughts I’ve poured into my books. I want to exercise their souls.

My best friend was instrumental in much of the development of werewolf story, a.k.a. MISBEGOTTEN CREATURES. She already knows it’s dedicated to her, although she didn’t get to read it until I finished the most recent draft three weeks ago. The revisions she suggested were spot on, because she is a wildly talented editor and knows exactly how to make books better. The personal reactions she told me? Those were nothing short of life-affirming. Apparently, the desires I listed above are not pipe dreams. I can write stories that are important to other people. Not only that, I can write stories that are important to the people that are important to me. Can you imagine anything better? I can’t. Quietly, in the midst of a strange and confusing year, one of my dreams came true.

I may be tired and worried and frustrated, but I’m going to make the rest of my dreams come true, too. I may have to go back to reading at a snail’s pace for a while, but only because, to quote HAMILTON, I’ll be writing “like I need it to survive.” Because I do. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Team Howland

I am a lucky writer person, friends. Not only do I have a wonderful, dedicated agent in Carrie Howland, I also get to share her with a bunch of really talented fellow writers. One of them, Dionna L. Mann, has taken it upon herself to write up thoughtful, personalized interview questions for a bunch of us and host a Team Howland Blog Party on her website.

In her own words: “Dionna L. Mann is a spinner of children’s yarns, a weaver of nonfiction articles, and a forever-learner enrolled in the Institute of Imaginative Thinking. As a SCBWI member since 2005, she has placed work with Highlights for Children and Ladybug. As a freelance writer, she writes human-interest articles for Charlottesville Family Magazine, a Parent’s Choice winner. She is represented by Carrie Howland of Donadio & Olson, Inc. She can be found online at dionnalmann.com.”

Definitely check out Dionna’s site to learn more about her and a bunch of other members of Team Howland! When I signed on with Carrie back in the fall, I was so ecstatic just to have an agent that I never even imagined the instant support system I would gain in the rest of her authors. They found me immediately and have been so kind ever since. I know I need to be more proactive in talking to them, to be honest. (I kind of need to be more proactive in talking to a lot of people in my life right now — overwhelming busyness is an explanation for being a little withdrawn lately, but it’s not an excuse!) Luckily, Dionna’s made that really easy for me!

I’ve met lots of different types of writers in my day. Some can be awfully competitive, but I’ve found the ones who produce the best work are also the ones who always have other writers’ backs. I think that people who truly love working with language and crafting stories are naturally excited to find other people who feel the same way. I know that I want everyone in Team Howland to have success, and it warms my heart to know that they feel the same way about me. So hooray for Dionna, hooray for Team Howland, and hooray for Carrie for bringing us all together!

Story Origins II, or How Grad School And Also The Entire Sociopolitical Setting Of My Life Produced Some Awesome Werewolves

LONG TIME NO SEE, BLOG. Figuring out my new job and whipping werewolf story into shape have left me with little time for literally anything else. I’m trying to nail down the whole work-life balance thing, I swear. I’m just . . . not very good at it yet. I’m assuming I’ll get it right just about the time my AmeriCorps term ends. Although I have gone swimming (and introduced a friend to ~the Atlantic Ocean~) so I haven’t taken my beach-side location totally for granted. (Beach writing is still the best.)

Meanwhile, I’m a third of the way into The Readable Draft of werewolf story (so far, it’s still worthy of that title), and I’m looking forward to finally sharing this work with some people. Werewolf story doesn’t really have a romantic origin story; I just needed a new project to work on for school. I needed to write a proposal and I didn’t have any ideas yet. I sat down in the living room of my Cambridge apartment with a sketchbook, stared at the wall, and thought, “Well, what are things that I like?” The obvious and immediate answer was “werewolves.” I began to meditate on the concept of lycanthropy while I drew random things in my sketchbook. Before long, I had two pictures of two very different girls, and I knew that they were both werewolves. (Artistically, both of these pictures are super ugly. I’m pretty decent at drawing from life, but awful at sketching from my head. But that’s not the point.)

I immediately wrote down two pages of intro material in a voice that is hilariously different from what I wound up with. But I had two characters and the barest foundation of world-building. By the time I wrote my proposal, I had not much else (though I pretended I did, and luckily that paid off in being paired with a great mentor). The first draft, naturally, was horrific. I guess about 1.5 scenes have sort of remained from then, albeit still heavily altered? That seems to be my average for that sort of thing. But in that one draft, werewolf story had gone from a project I needed for my degree to a book-to-be that I loved.

Werewolf story and story are so technically different that I really didn’t get to coast much on what I’d learned from writing story. Instead, werewolf story has sort of been “Teach Yourself to Write a Novel: Take Two.” But I’ve been thinking a lot how, for all their differences, they’re both super, super obviously from the pen of an American millennial. Story has always been my way of working through questions I had when I myself was a teenager, whereas werewolf story is clearly a product of the concerns of my mid-twenties. (Or at least it’ll definitely be obvious to the people who know me; sometimes when I’m revising, I can’t help but think at myself, “oh, YOU WOULD.”) I’ve realized that a central question in both of them (though I approach it in very different ways) is “can I still do good if I’m a product of a bad system?”

Spoiler alert: I believe the answer is yes. I wouldn’t write about it if I didn’t.

So I shall continue being exhausted and worried and confused like a proper millennial, but I will remind myself that even though I don’t really feel in charge of my own life very often these days, I am in charge of the stories I tell. Which, to me, is sort of the same thing.

On optimism

I have officially survived my first two weeks of my new 10-month service venture. Everyone on all the different teams in the organization seems terribly nice and I have not been nearly as shy around them as I was afraid I would be. Apparently hermit life hasn’t completely destroyed my ability to interact with others. Also, the more I learn about this organization, the more sure I am that I have made the right decision about what to do for the next 10 months. I’m even already starting to take on Responsibilities, despite the fact that the first week was orientation, so I’ve only had one week of training so far, and I also have zero experience in anything I’m doing.

As a newly minted client services coordinator, I have literally been dreaming every night about grants and insurance and loans. I expect to be completely mummified in red tape soon. Part of my job — apparently a fairly sizable part, too — will be telling people no. No, you don’t qualify. No, we can’t help you. This will suck for me but suck a whole lot worse for them. In a weird way, that’s motivating me. My frustration will be nothing compared to the people still rebuilding after a natural disaster that happened two and a half years ago. Even when I have to say no, I’m hoping I will also be able to say why. Maybe, if nothing else, I’ll be able to clear up some of the agonizing confusion.

Of course, that means I have a whole lot of learnin’ to do myself. Early in the week, I found myself falling back on grad school strategies: “Don’t just take notes on it if you still don’t know what it means,” I told myself several times. I kind of enjoy squinting at the computer screen with a skeptical eye, trying to determine if a) the text makes sense and b) I agree with it. I always did love school, but now the stakes are higher than just my own grades.

A couple of times, the topic of “rose-colored glasses” was raised — as in, make sure you’re not wearing them. I’m really not, but some people may l think that I am, because there is nothing that can stop me from being blazingly, doggedly, indefatigably optimistic about the work I’m about to do. Optimism is very often conflated with naivete, but to me, they couldn’t be more different. Rose-colored glasses are for the naive. Optimists are the people who look straight at the hard truths of a situation and say, “Yep, we can work with this.” Optimists do not deny pain. They also do not deny joy.

Writing off positivity and hope as some sort of illusion is just as unrealistic a worldview as pretending that negativity and hardship do not exist. I know because I have done both. As a child, I knew that there were some bad people and bad circumstances. I have always felt and thought deeply about the suffering of others, even before I’d lost my first baby teeth. (I was a kind of intense kid.) But I assumed that suffering was by and large a rarity. I assumed that all problems could and would be fixed by the adults of the world. I projected my parents’ goodness onto everyone, and therefore I thought that nothing could stay very bad for long. As a children’s lit person, I don’t mean to imply that all children are naive. But I was, and I’m glad I was, because it stemmed from being loved and protected and safe.

It wasn’t until I was much older that I swung the other way completely, and that was by brain chemistry, not choice. By the time this happened, I was nearing the end of college. Obviously at this point, I wasn’t as naive as I had been at age six, but I still had great faith in humanity — a faith that vanished seemingly overnight. Suddenly I thought that no disaster could be prevented, and every person on Earth was simply rushing towards a series of unavoidable catastrophes that would eventually claim them. Simply put, I found myself believing in the doctrine of “nasty, brutish, and short.” I’d pass a stroller and pity the baby for having been born. I’d sit next to a stranger on the bus and envy them their ignorance of the hellscape I was convinced was about to unfold.

You’ll often hear people say that if you expect the worst, you will be pleasantly surprised by a better outcome, but I found nothing pleasant about pessimism at all. I didn’t even feel like I was myself anymore — and, as a pessimist, I did not believe I could get myself back.

And then I proved myself wrong.

My optimism these days is not about platitudes or blind faith. My optimism is fierce and furious. I didn’t solve the problem of my own despair just to leave other people in theirs. So I will believe the best can happen because I am going to make it happen. And when I personally can’t be the one to make it happen, I will put my trust in the other optimists of the worlds, the ones who stave off helplessness and hopelessness by working as hard as they goddamn can because that’s the only way they know how to live. These are the people who, like me, would much rather be disappointed by a bad outcome than never even trying to make something good happen.

I know these people are out there. I just joined a whole organization of them. I don’t need rose-colored glasses to see that.

Spring contentment

So you know all of that stuff I was whining about in my last entry? Well, it’s been (temporarily) resolved! And there was much rejoicing throughout the land. By which I mean I rejoiced, and so did all the people who no longer have to listen to me having daily existential crises. I am currently sitting at my kitchen table (what’s up, Habitat for Humanity ReStore) in my new apartment, exactly one week out from beginning a new job working with homeowners still rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy. A great deal of frustrating paperwork is in my future, and I’m pretty pumped about it. The job itself will only last for ten months, but I’ll be leaving with that magical entity known as EXPERIENCE. Hopefully some people will have moved back into their houses in that time, too, which is definitely the most exciting part of this venture.

Meanwhile, the latest draft of werewolf story is going well. I feel like with each passing draft of any project, I sink deeper into new emotional territory for my characters, to the point where all previous drafts suddenly seem terribly shallow. Also, now that I’m thinking about it, I always also worry that I won’t be able to sustain the heightened intensity. This morning, I was wondering if I’d dialed things up to 11 too soon, but now I realize that I thought the same thing at the start of the most recent rewrite of story, and that was not the case. So I’m going to stop worrying about that now. That’s a relief! Thanks, blog therapy!

Now I’ll just have to make sure I make plenty of time to write despite the longer hours I’ll be working soon. This will definitely be challenging, but I do have a few things going for me. One: my apartment gets a ton of light, which makes it ideal for a solar-powered creature such as myself. (I’m blissfully in love with this apartment.) Two: my new job is literally across the street from the ocean, which means BEACH WRITING, WOO.

If I let myself, there are a thousand things I can start fretting about with regards to writing and the new job and Health Stuff (always the Health Stuff, sigh), but I’ve done so much fretting in the last two months that I just refuse to do it right now. Right at this moment in my life, I am listening to music and looking out the window at a cherry tree that’s about to bloom. There is a basil plant on the table, books on my shelves, and monster teens in my head. I have a helping people job and a place to call my own. I haven’t cracked the whole future plans thing yet, but the present is pretty damn good.

Onwards and . . . well, somewhere

Now that hermit life is coming to an end, I am naturally feeling reflective. A short but important phase of my life will soon be over. It is, notably, the last phase of my life that came pre-planned, which means that on top of reflective, I am also feeling utterly terrified. When experiencing either of those emotions, I find it is a good idea to make lists. So here is a list of things I accomplished during hermit life:

  • I got an agent! A really cool agent whom I will hopefully get to meet in person after hermit life. This happened at the beginning of hermit life, which I took as a sign that this whole weird live-in-the-woods idea was the right thing to be doing, because I am extremely prone to magical thinking. This was also the crowning achievement of 2014, which I’m beginning to think of as “the year I made a lot of really cool things happen.”
  • I completed a set of revisions for story at the behest of said agent. I absolutely marathoned that work, which made me feel busy and slightly frantic and very writerly. I love the feeling of making a story I love better.
  • I submitted myself to getting my ass kicked by werewolf story enough times that it finally got tired and allowed me to wrestle it into a draft that I can (finally) work with. I finished this draft last week, thereby completing my Last Writing Goal of Hermit Life.
  • I survived a mouse infestation, a poor dying snake, the absence of all sunlight for the entire month of December, unbearably cold temperatures, getting my car stuck in a snow bank (twice), my pipes freezing (twice), and the aforementioned six-month-long ass kicking by werewolf story.

Here is a list of things I did not accomplish during hermit life:

  • Figuring out what I’m going to do after hermit life.

So, whoops.

In my defense, it’s not for lack of trying. I have submitted oh so very many job applications, and I will be continuing to do so as soon as I finish this blog post. (And actually, I can also add “went to a ridiculous amount of trouble to get to an interview that turned out to be a complete bust” to the list of things I survived.) I am trying awfully hard to mold a shape for my immediate future. But unfortunately, at the moment, it remains a void.

So this means that Awkward Home Summer will have a reprise in Awkward Home Early Spring, but while I hope a new job comes quickly, if it doesn’t, I won’t be waiting around too long to move somewhere else. I’ll need to, because in a lot of ways, hermit life was completely successful. I knew that I needed some time away from the world after grad school, that I wasn’t yet ready to take on all aspects of Real Adulthood. I am now, though. I want a semi-permanent place to live (or at least general location), a social life again, a love life even, and a non-writing-paid-job that I feel is contributing to the world in some positive way. I’m ready. But all of these new beginnings sort of hinge on finding the last item in that list, and that’s what I haven’t managed to do yet.

It is very frustrating to be ending something without beginning something else.

And I know it will happen, because something has to happen and I’m going to make it happen. I just don’t know when. So that’s unpleasant. Also, the “positive contribution” part is another thing I hate waiting on, as you’ve probably gleaned from my last post if you read it or from my general desperate existential anxiety if you’ve had any sort of conversation with me in 2015. In a beautiful ideal world, I would be a paid writer with time to do volunteer work, but writing + paid job + substantial volunteer work = no sleep for Kathleen, so I’m trying to squish the last two parts of that equation together. (General plea: if you know any nonprofits or really positive for profits looking for entry level workers remotely near New York or Philly or anywhere in New Jersey or I’ll take some Connecticut too, and you can put in a good word for me because I have literally zero networking connections, let me knooooow.) (I’ll love you for eternity and be forever in your debt if you know of something even tangentially related to the environment.) (Or schools, too.)

So that’s where I am: frustrated and anxious about all areas of my life — except for writing. And that’s where I find comfort, because I knew I wouldn’t switch it. I couldn’t switch it, because I could not possibly be content about any aspect in my life if I’m not giving my all to writing. While I always wish I had more time to write, I know that I have spent hermit life working as hard as I could to produce work I am very proud of. In the void of my future, I at least have a direction for werewolf story (research computer hacking, plant biology, and corporate accounting, and then start a new draft that (sob!) cuts one of the secondary characters). And no matter what I wind up doing next, I have other stories waiting for me to write them.

Writing what I know, apparently

“Write what you know” is one of the first things writers learn to unlearn. Lots of common writing advice out there isn’t actually so spectacular, and even the good advice doesn’t work all the time. Dismantling bad habits and faulty preconceptions is as much a part of becoming a better writer than building up your skills. It’s certainly harder.

To be honest, though, I don’t know if I ever really had to unlearn “write what you know.” I was never interested in writing what I knew in the first place. Case in point: in third grade, I wrote a story for Writing Workshop called “Lilly and the Blinding Light.” It was, theoretically, a mystery, although it failed at being so on every conceivable level. (There was no solving of anything. The criminal just kind of revealed himself for no reason. Also his threatening note read like one of those superstitious chain emails — “if you don’t do X, Y bad thing will happen because magic and also I said so” — although I don’t think I really had much exposure to those as a third grader, so apparently I came up with that level of ridiculousness all by myself.) As a character, however, Lilly was important for one profound reason: she wasn’t at all like me.

There is a scene that takes place in Lilly’s kitchen, where she asks for the same sandwich she eats every day, which in hindsight I blatantly ripped off from Harriet the Spy. However, I made sure that the food Lilly asked for was food I myself did not like. I remember writing this and being thrilled with the fact that this character was different from me, that she was her own person who I had made up. This summer, I discovered a sequel to this story, which I have no recollection of writing whatsoever, in which Lilly is a raging jerk to her stepfather. Here again, she was different: I do not have a stepfather, and if I did, I would like to think I wouldn’t be so mean to him for no reason. Lilly apologizes for her behavior at the end, so I must have deliberately chosen to have her act poorly. Having a character make mistakes I had not made and liking things I did not like and having triumphs I had not had — well, that’s what made writing fun!

As I got older and better at plots (marginally) (I mean eventually I get there but first drafts still have echoes of Lilly in them), I also began to realize that it was important that I not always write what I know, because that was how I learned things. For example, Beidrica in story is my basically my polar opposite. When it comes to how we interact with the world, we have almost nothing in common. In fact, a lot of the things she does and believes are things that I hope to dismantle in my own society. But through writing her, I developed an insight into the terror and guilt of having to turn your back on a dogma that has guided your life. I am relieved that I was raised in a way that ensured I would never have to face that particular brand of terror and guilt. I think it is important that I can now understand it, though, not because these emotions excuse my character’s or any real world people’s actions, but because they must be acknowledged in order for there to be any change. I sincerely hope one day story and its sequels will be part of the public discourse on acknowledging the difficulty and also the necessity of rejecting harmful jingoism and exceptionalism. If someday it is, then it will be because I did not write what I knew.

Another reason it has been important that I do not always write what I know is that I obviously want to represent many different types of people in my fiction. Diversity in YA and children’s lit is very important to me, and frankly there are plenty of characters out there who already match my demographics. We really don’t need many more of them. Of course, while I am not writing what I personally know from my own experiences, I am trying, to the best of my ability, to absorb and apply the knowledge of other writers and theorists and thinkers through the ages who have expressed their own thoughts about race, gender, disability, sexuality, and even trauma. Not writing what you know isn’t the same as inventing unrealistic experiences of important matters. It’s a lot of work to not write what you know, and it should be. (I think telling a worthwhile story should be hard, and that part of why “write what you know” doesn’t work is because it’s too easy.)

So there’s all that.

But then sometimes I find myself kind of, well, writing what I know. It even happened once with Beidrica. I don’t even remember how many drafts ago, but I had written a scene where Beidrica is just heaping responsibilities, including literally impossible ones, onto her shoulders, thinking about how she couldn’t possibly let herself off the hook for things going wrong in the world — even when she had absolutely no control over them. I meant to show how heavy the burden of her ideology was becoming, but then I took a step back and started laughing. We may not have arrived at that feeling for the same reason, but for once I knew exactly what Beidrica felt because I had felt it too.

I wonder, does everyone react to personal epiphanies by letting out an unhinged laugh and saying, “okay fine yeah I GET IT”?

With werewolf story, not all of my write what you know moments have been so accidental. Millie and I are very different, but we share a lot of the same frustrations. Central to the entire story is the question of “how could I possibly make anything any better”? Millie has a lot of reasons to ask this that don’t match my reasons, but the longing and doubt inherent in the question are things that we share. As a result, there are some scenes that, when my loved ones finally read them, will probably make them laugh and say “YEAH YOU WROTE THIS.” But I also hope that those scenes will really resonate with people. And I don’t want them to resonate to a greater extent than any of the parts where I’m not writing what I know, per se — I hope everything feels true and right — but the flipside of the ease of writing what you know is the vulnerability of it.

Especially because I don’t have the answer to that question yet. But maybe if I can figure it out for Millie, then I will also know it for myself.

Holiday thoughts

Hello for the first time in a shamefully long time, blog! In my defense, it has been a VERY cloudy early winter in Hermit Land, and I am a solar-powered life form. All of my hastily dwindling energy has been going to typing (because I’m paid to) and writing (because I need to) with none left for anything else, including coming up with a coherent topic for this entry. But I wanted to check in, so this will probably just be a disjointed list of recent thoughts.

Draft four of werewolf story is going pretty well, though this is definitely where my desperation for sunlight is felt most keenly. Every word that I manage to eke out is written in direct defiance of the featureless gray sky. That is … not an enormously fun way to write. BUT I PERSEVERE, etc., etc. All my characters are generally angrier and jerkier at the beginning this time around, and I promise that’s on purpose and not just a reflection of my mood while writing them, although hey, maybe that’s actually helping. I would make a silver lining pun, but when the entire sky is ONE BLOCK OF CLOUD, there are no linings to turn silver. I’m going to stop complaining about the weather now.

I’m going public with werewolf story’s title, because it’s gone from “maybe????” to “I actually really like this”: Misbegotten Creatures.

I feel like I can’t say much more about werewolf story right now without explaining everything I’ve done in this draft so far, so suffice to say that I am in that state of being in deep and aching love with my protagonist. I love her so much. SO MUCH. She’s gonna be such a good monster, you guys. She’s always fought against being a monster, but one of the last chapters I’ve written has her monstrosity fighting her right back, yet not fighting against her, but instead fighting to be with her, and I’M SO EXCITED ABOUT THIS. Monsters monsters monsters monsters!

Speaking of monsters, I’ve recently read Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, and I am in agony waiting for the last one. That is some prime monster material there. I want to write a paper about them, though I should wait until the fourth book comes out to do that. Unnervingly, mystically, transcendentally powerful teens who are so bad at feelings = literally everything I love about YA fantasy. Also Stiefvater’s prose, pacing, and plotting are so perfect that if I think about it too long I will probably cry in despair. Teach me your ways, O Wise One!

Aaaaand speaking of perfect books and transcendence, I just reread William Nicholson’s Wind on Fire trilogy, and I cannot express how much I need everyone in my life to read them. They are very difficult to describe, because I’ve really never read anything else like them. The story begins with young twins seeking to restore the ancient “voice” to a strange statue called the Wind Singer, which they hope will break their city’s cycle of examinations and rankings and deep, unhappy selfishness. The scope only gets grander from there, and yet they stay so intimate as we follow the twins and their loved ones through “the time of cruelty” to the hope of a peaceful homeland. The world building and characters are phenomenal. Nicholson absolutely does not pull his punches, so there are are scenes of terror and violence and emotional anguish, but there’s also whimsy and wonder and beauty. Every time I reread them, I sob hysterically through the last 100-ish pages of the last book while also feeling — well, transcendent. Just read them already.

I will be spending the next few days with my family, and I am very excited about this. My sister, her fiance, and her dog will be here soon (I hope very soon, because we’re waiting for them to eat lunch and I’m hungry), and there will be many, many more relatives tomorrow and then again on Saturday. If you’re celebrating Christmas, I hope you have a great holiday. If you celebrate Hanukkah, I hope you already had a great holiday. If you’re not celebrating anything in particular, I hope you have a great week, and that we will all have a happy New Year!

End at the beginning

When I was younger, the concept of “starting over” frightened me. The phrase itself smacked of wasted time and effort, of defeat, of failure. If something — anything — needed to be started over, then that meant that mistakes were made. Better to just get it right the first time so you wouldn’t have to start over. Better to just not fail in the first place.

Well. Fantasy writer though I am, I have at least learned a bit about realism since then.

This misguided view applied to a variety of situations, but of course it also applied to writing. Even as late as high school, while I accepted revision as a necessity, I resisted rewriting. How could I just dismantle everything I had already done? Who knew how long that would take? It’s a cliche that teenagers believe themselves immortal, but this was definitely not true for me. I knew my life was short and my youth was shorter, and I needed to get shit done before it was over. I didn’t have time to start over.

I got over most of this in college and all of it in grad school. I am now queen of the blank page rewrite, and I enjoy every minute of it. (Well, most minutes of it. While I distrust writers who only talk about the ~struggle of the ~craft and never seem to actually enjoy themselves, I also distrust anyone who would claim to not want to throw their laptop at the wall sometimes.) Now I barely even think about it anymore. However, I have been thinking about endings lately, and how to my mind, the best endings are about starting over.

Incidentally, I’ve been thinking about endings because of the most recent thing I’ve started over, the outlines of the next two books of story. They were maybe one draft removed from the current version of the first book, which apparently was enough for me to look at them, go NOPE, and get down to business. I’m definitely someone who figures things out by actually writing it (and then rewriting it), so I have no illusions about my changes sticking forever, but I have been slowly cobbling together more useful frameworks to take me through to the end of the trilogy.

THE END OF THE TRILOGY. What scary words. Meanwhile, werewolf story has been percolating in the back of my mind through all of this, and its ending is also a somewhat frightening concept, because I definitely haven’t managed to get it right yet. (There are a lot of things about werewolf story I haven’t managed to get right yet, but that is a post for another day. See above: throwing laptop against the wall.) (I still love you, werewolf story.) But whatever I do (and redo and redo) for these two works and many others in the future, I feel strongly that the key to the endings will be starting over.

My characters are teenagers. The ending can’t be final. What I must do is bring them to the end of the first great effort and up to the beginning of the next one. There will be a lot that has yet to be resolved. This doesn’t mean that I want to leave anyone wondering what the hell just happened. (No, that’ll be for Judas story. YEAH, MOM, I’M STILL GONNA WRITE THAT SOMEDAY.) (Don’t get preemptively mad at me about the ambiguous ending of Judas story please.) What will be up in the air is what happens next. What will happen when they all start over.

Because they will have wasted time and effort, made mistakes, and faced defeat and failure. But they will have also gotten some things right. Those will be the things they will take into their futures, just as I have with their stories, just as I do with my own life. It’s not about thinking you’ll figure it all out this time. It’s about knowing that this time you won’t get it all quite so wrong. That’s where I think books should end: with the characters in a position to do better.

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.