Tag Archives: story

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

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.

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.

Poor long-suffering characters

I bothered one of my characters today. He is one of the four POV characters in Story (a.k.a. The Children’s War), and he is the first character I came up with, waaaaaay back in the day. Like, high school back in the day. Lest that sound alarming (wow, kid, you’ve been working on the same book since high school?), let me assure you that I didn’t actually do anything but bother this character for like two solid years. He didn’t even have a name for one year, and neither did the other characters I’d come up with by that point. (One of the protagonists didn’t make his debut in my mind until like right before I started the First First Draft [i.e. my first novel attempt ever, and it was just as hilariously bad as it sounds]).

Anyway, for those first two years, most of working on Story consisted of taking this character out, poking him until he cried, observing the effects, and then putting him back in time to go to my first college classes and such. I had no idea if these characters would ever actually go anywhere until right about the time when I named them. Once they had names, I knew they would, but I was young and scared of not knowing what I was doing, so I didn’t start yet. I just continued to bother that first character and his growing number of world-mates. The world itself slowly built itself around them all. I began to realize that I now had more than a boy I began bothering in my mind because I was bored during a high school fencing meet. (I was the score keeper, because I am the world’s worst fencer. I was bored because our team was absolutely crushing the competition.) I had a pretty complex society. I had Themes. And I had ideas for bothering my characters in a defined direction, also known as a plot.

I have written many drafts of the first book of Story since then, and I’m going to start putting together a new batch of queries for it this week. (And on we go with that ride.) Of course, I still have two more books to write, and the scene I wrote today belongs to probably the second book, if it makes it into a book at all, which who knows. But it was fun to write, and it was also a sign: when I start bothering this character, I’m ready to move on to the next thing. So: queries and draft three of Werewolf Story. (And probably more occasional dips into the future of Story, because I miss bugging those kids.) After an awesome Friend Vacation and my volunteer experiment of the summer (kids were super cute, environmental impact was okay?, still clueless about my future), my brain is now ready to get back to constant writing. Let’s get started!

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.