Tag Archives: middle-grade story

Notebooks

So it’s … not August. There goes that particular New Year’s resolution. Most of them took less time for me to break, though, so I still choose to be impressed with myself. (So there.) Also, I was studying for the GRE, so there was that.

(For those of you who may be wondering, yes, I have already gone to grad school, but I never had to take the GRE, so I had to take it to go on back. Which made me feel some kind of way, as I’m sure you can imagine. But the multiple choice part went well, and hopefully the essays did, too!)

Anyway, while I was camped out at my parents’ house studying, my parents were going through old stuff in their basement. Though my apartment is pleasantly airy, I have approximately two centimeters of storage space here, so a lot of my old stuff is still living there. They asked me to go through some of it to see if anything could be donated to the upcoming VNA sale. (Hometown shout out — I remember when people used to cut class to go to opening day of the VNA sale. Honestly, some of the teachers didn’t even mind. Even more of the teachers didn’t mind if students cut class for the soccer team’s empanada sales, as long as they brought some back to share.) Whether or not any VNA customers will want a bunch of DVD box sets for TV shows I don’t care about anymore or the entire CD collection of a teenager circa 2004 is an entirely different question, but they’re there now if anyone does.

What I didn’t get rid of were my boxes of first draft notebooks. Pretty much the entirety of THE CHILDREN WAR’s first draft was written longhand, and that first draft was long. It was also remarkably bad. I’d like to say that’s because I’d never written a novel before, but honestly I’m not sure if my first drafts have actually gotten any better since then. So I have no intention of actually reading these notebooks, but I also don’t want to throw them out. How delightful was it to flip through and spot bygone characters (some of whom I’d completely forgotten existed) and old spellings? How great was it to see my old writing exercises exploring my characters’ pasts? I will never probably never again write anything at such a leisurely pace and with such a tolerance for pure self-indulgence. That’s not to say that I didn’t take it seriously; I definitely did. But I knew that I was traveling without a map, and the best way to do that is to investigate every walkway, no matter how seemingly unimportant.

Much of the first draft of MISBEGOTTEN CREATURES was represented in the notebooks, as well. I didn’t write all of that longhand, mostly because I had actual grad school deadlines to meet with it. But I remember taking a notebook down to the Charles River and glaring at the geese as I tried to figure out how to make that story work. (I didn’t figure that out for a few more years.) The margins are crowded with notes to myself that seemed important at the time but generally weren’t. Some more beloved cut characters live in those pages. Maybe they’ll find new life in a future project, or maybe they only existed to teach me things about the characters who did make the final cut.

To my mom’s delight, I found some ancient Judas story pages (EVENTUALLY, MOM). There was even some old work on middle-grade story; I sometimes forget that this is by no means a new project. In fact, I workshopped my first outing with my main character in undergrad. I spent a semester working with the story in grad school, but then werewolf story came along and took over for the next couple years. I was actually annoyed about it at the time. I wanted to keep working on middle-grade story, but the requirements of the program wouldn’t allow it. Obviously, I’m happy with the way things worked out now. Werewolf story was a book that I needed to write at the time in my life when I wrote it, and I’m very proud of the way it turned out.

I’m glad I saw those old notebooks again, because they reminded me of a few things. First of all, they reminded me to write longhand when I get stuck. Why on earth have I not been doing this with middle-grade story lately?? I focus better writing longhand, partially because I don’t have to use the old distraction box (a.k.a. my laptop) to do it, and possibly also because my thoughts and my writing are more evenly paced than my thoughts and my typing. (That was a humblebrag about how fast I type, or possibly how slow I think? I’m not sure I humblebragged right.) Also, seeing words and worlds spilling across a page in my own handwriting pleases me.

That was another thing that the notebooks reminded me to do: enjoy the ride. Every word of those notebooks was written with love, even when I felt like throwing said notebooks into the river with the geese. Having a physical reminder of the joy of writing was something I needed right now. It’s been a weird … three years … personally and professionally, not to mention politically. Honestly, it’s been getting to me. I’ve spent most of this summer exhausted, castigating myself for self-perceived laziness that I know I don’t actually possess. I’ve had a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it. Not always a great combination.

But I’m doing it. Slowly and without a lot of tangible outcomes, but still. I’m constantly engaged in labors of love, just as I have been since the first time I touched pen to paper. I’m not saying those notebooks completely cured me of every envy or frustration or anxious negativity of 2017, but they were a balm to my striving soul. Hey, you make up people and places and turn them into language, they said to me. That’s cool and weird. Keep doing it. Have fun.

So that’s what I’m doing.

Advertisements

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.

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.

Stories confused millennials like

I’ve been working on the second draft of Werewolf Story all day, which is going swimmingly thus far. I am absolutely a rewriter as opposed to a reviser. I’m splicing in the odd paragraph here and there from the first draft, but I think only two full chapters will stay more or less unchanged, with two or three more smaller scenes. I remember back in high school and early college, the idea of a blank page rewrite totally terrified me. It felt like throwing work away. It was only once I started writing the first draft of Story five years ago (which, good lord, five years) that I realized that, oh yeah, literally all of this was going to have to go, and that that was okay. The work was technically discarded, but not at all wasted, because I learned so much from doing it. Turned out, I didn’t keep much of my second draft of Story either. Or third. Or fourth. But each one was extremely important to me as a writer.

So I’m not expecting the second draft of Werewolf Story to be some polished product, although all those drafts of Story did teach me a lot, not least of all how to work considerably faster than when I started. So it’ll get there, and in the meantime, I’m really enjoying the second draft. Second drafts are exciting because after the long hard slog of figuring out who these people are and why you’re writing about them, you can finally sit back and look at everything and say, oh, hey, themes! And complete character arcs! And then even though you know you may start everything all over again, at least you’re writing something that feels like a book.

So now that I have those themes and such, I’ve been thinking a lot about the kinds of stories I care about and the kinds of stories I want to tell. This is an Important Existential Consideration for me, because stories are essentially all I’m good at and therefore they’re my one shot to provide the world with a little TLC, which as we all know it rather desperately needs. Since I just finished grad school, my head is pretty full of Important Existential Considerations these days. Meanwhile, I just finished a thesis about monsters in His Dark Materials, I’m trying to convince agents to love Story, I just wrote a guest post about Hey Arnold! on my friend Gizmo’s blog, and, uh, I hang out on tumblr a lot. Oh, and I’ve been internally weeping about Captain America for the last month and a half. So all of these things have provided lots of good food for thought re: narratives that I want to create.

That also means figuring out what kind of narratives I don’t want to create, and for me, that means anything where A Lone Hero Emerges to drive the plot — any sort of plot, but especially a plot where they save a bunch of people and/or the world, probably in a badass manner — all by themselves. I’m not interested in stories that uphold exceptionalism. That can be either on a grand scale with uninterrogated chosen one arcs, or it can be on a smaller scale in less fantastical genres. The latter can be harder to define, but it usually occurs when a character is portrayed as more virtuous/clever/all around great than everyone else. This doesn’t mean when the character themselves thinks that, because then there’s a chance that they’re just kind of an ass and I can roll with that. But when the narrative validates and rewards that opinion, then I start rolling my eyes.

Instead, I really, really care about narratives that have to do with cooperation. Stories about mutual care and mutual effort. Instead of A Lone Hero, strength in numbers. Connection, integration, multiplicity. Look, I’m a millennial. Individually bootstrappin’ it was the Baby Boomer way, but there are a lot of people my age who are looking at the world right now and saying, “Well, that didn’t work.” Within YA specifically, I really like narratives that present a different way of coming of age. Though millennials aren’t teenagers anymore, I guess (what are the generation parameters on that one?), that’s still something we’re figuring out, and definitely something that younger readers are figuring out, as well.

This probably doesn’t make any sense without examples, so I will provide some, starting with the ones I mentioned above:

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman: IN MY ANALYSIS, ANYWAY. So these books have Issues (what book doesn’t) but when you think about how deeply and profoundly Lyra and Will connect with one another, and how deeply Lyra connects with, like, everything, especially the things she’s supposed to fear (the dead in particular), and how these connections reconnect nature with nature, joining the parts that have been sundered by violent autocrats back into a whole — well. WELL. That’s a good story. And it’s directly contrasted with the more traditional narrative of a powerful man (Lord Asriel) deciding to Fix Everything by causing more destruction, except that super doesn’t work at all and he winds up having to (spoiler alert, I guess) literally erase himself from existence to make way for these two twelve-year-olds who’ve got it more figured out than he ever could. There’s a lot more going on in these books, hence why my thesis was 108 pages long, but this is the aspect of the trilogy that I love best.

Hey Arnold!: If you want to know all my feelings about this show from my childhood, here’s the link again, but essentially, this show was ALL ABOUT the complex interpersonal relationships young children have to navigate, and it was funny and thoughtful and compassionate, and I’d forgive you if you stopped reading now and just went and marathoned this cartoon until 3:00 in the morning.

Captain America (the movies, as I have not read the comics): “But Kathleen, isn’t a story about a character literally called Captain America going to be about exceptionalism?” YOU’D THINK THAT, WOULDN’T YOU. Except while a blond, blue-eyed American supersoldier does seem like the worst kind of Better Than You protagonist, that is very much not what the movies are about. In fact, the literal enemy is exceptionalism, in the form of the Hydra organization. “What makes you so special?” “Nothing. I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.” And then even more importantly, basically the whole second movie is about friendship and trust, and how relationships between people are what will ultimately hold up in the face of Great Powers trying to bend the world into uglier shapes. Also, Cap will never, ever stop being an idealist and believing in people even if it literally kills him. That is the kind of hero I can look up to: someone whose faith is not only in himself, but in others.

Pacific Rim: The plot of this movie is “let’s save the world by literally sharing all the thoughts and feelings in our brains with each other, which allows us to be big and strong and powerful and caring.”

The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud: I read these for the first time this spring and I’m still not over it. By the end of the trilogy, averting total disaster hinges upon making a huge effort to put oneself aside in order to reach out and understand a way of being that’s completely different from one’s own, without ego, without judgment, and without self-preservation, even. (Though he’d never admit it, Bartimaeus is also a frustrated idealist. He hopes so hard it hurts.)

Chaos Walking by Patrick Ness: I gave the first book of this trilogy to my coworker as a gift, because I like to cause other people suffering, apparently. But emotional devastation (emoshunnal devastayshun?) aside, these books are 100% about interdependent sefhood, because that’s what Noise, the broadcasting of thought that takes place in this alien world, engenders. Those who try to impose a hierarchy on this system wind up ruining everything. Of course, some things are allegedly unknowable — human women don’t have Noise, but human men do. So for misogynistic men who can’t stand to be in a position of vulnerability . . . well, I suppose you can guess that doesn’t end well. But Todd realizes that he can know Viola’s silence just as she can know his Noise. The Mayor (who is terrifying) tries to teach Todd to suppress his Noise, to constrain and diminish his selfhood into one tiny hidden spot, but Viola’s name in Todd’s Noise expands him (and Viola) into something greater.

Those are enough examples for now. If you’d like to recommend something to me based on my ~WE ARE MORE THAN WE ARE; WE ARE ONE~ preferences, let me know! Also, bonus points to the first person to name that reference.

So in conclusion, these are the types of things knocking around in my head as I create my own stories. I suppose that’s how I wound up with four very different protagonists in Story and a found family narrative in Werewolf Story (my wolves are not lone wolves). Even in sad, neglected Middle-Grade Story, I have a central character who finds herself positioned to be a Chosen One but thoroughly rejects the notion of her own specialness in favor of elevating everyone else around her.

(The unbearable earnestness I warned about in the intro post is approaching.)

I want to write stories about change for the better, because I want to live in a world that’s capable of change for the better. I don’t want to write a narrative of change that I’m never going to see in real life — namely, one person changing everything. Instead, I want to write about people joining together to change whatever little things they can, which in turn will cause more people around them to change what little they can.

And of course, I want to be one of those people, too. So I’m working on that narrative, as well.

Intro post part 2: my writing

So this really isn’t going to be a writing advice blog, partially because several million of those already exist, and partially because I don’t consider myself particularly good at giving advice, whether about writing or anything else. I mean, I don’t think I’m actively terrible at advice-giving or anything like that. It’s just that my advice usually tends to boil down to I DON’T KNOW, MAN, DO WHAT FEELS RIGHT, which in my defense is usually what any advice-seeker does need to do. I will admit that this is unhelpfully vague, though. The thing is, this vagueness is sort of necessary at least for writing. No two writers do it the same way! Which is not to be all ~creativity cannot be categorized~ or anything like that. It’s just that making up stories is a very long process with a lot of moving parts and no fixed formula. Plus, we’ve probably all read different advice blogs.

I also don’t feel super in the position to give advice because I am in a new stage of my writing life at the moment. Actually, I’m in a new stage of my life in general: Not A Student Anymore. Everything I have written to date has been written while simultaneously being a full-time student. (To be fair, much of it was written in conjunction with being a full time student, considering I was a creative writing major and then got an MFA.) I now have to write while simultaneously being a full time person, and I have a feeling this may be more difficult. (The person-ing will also be difficult. I think I may have a better handle on the writing.) As with anything else, I’ll be figuring it out as I go along.

I figured I’d give an overview of my works in progress, though, as I will probably be referring to them frequently. They are:

1. Story. Otherwise known as The Children’s War. Book 1 of Story is my most complete project to date, and I am currently querying it. (There will eventually be three books, because of course there will.) It’s a YA fantasy that I call high fantasy sometimes, but there’s no actual magic or, indeed, any supernatural/paranormal elements at all. It’s just a pseudo-historical (or rather, pseudo-past-but-not-connected-to-any-actual-historical-period) secondary world. Genre is hard, is what I’m saying. Anyway, Story is kind of the love of my life. There are four protagonists (war historian, soldier, messenger, and deserter from the other side), and they are very different and therefore exciting to write. But as different as they are, what they have in common is that they try really hard. Sometimes it pays off. A lot of times it doesn’t. They keep trying. I don’t think I’d know how to write any other type of protagonist.

2. Werewolf Story. Otherwise known as . . . uh, Werewolf Story. TITLES ARE HARD. It’s a standalone YA fantasy that is also slightly hard to put a more specific subgenre to, but I’m going with alternate universe. As of today, work on the second draft of Werewolf Story has begun! The protagonist is Millie, a rather unsuccessfully genetically engineered werewolf, who winds up falling in love with a girl named Gret, who was born a werewolf. There are various other monster teens, as well, of various sorts. Millie tries really hard, too, often just to figure out what it is that she should try really hard at.

3. Middle-grade Story. Otherwise known as Sky Child. It has been sadly neglected for, uh, two years. Sadface. But maybe now that I’m no longer a student, I can get back to it! I feel like it’s probably going to be my “I’m frustrated with everything else, so let’s tinker with this” story for a while, but that’s okay, it’s good to have one of those. It’s about people with wingggggs!

4. Judas Story. I’LL GET BACK TO THIS EVENTUALLY, MOM, I SWEAR. (My mom really likes this story.) This has been sadly neglected for like one million years. It’s, uh, about Judas. It’s probably going to continue to be neglected for a while. But I haven’t forgotten youuuu, Judas Story.

So that’s where I am in my writing life at the moment. I’m excited about all of it, all the time, and if suddenly the world decided no more new books were going to be published ever again, I’d still keep writing. I figure that’s a good thing.