Tag Archives: writing

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.

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Writing villains under Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read It Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Life after school

I have been a student for as long as I can remember. I took no time off in between high school and college or college and grad school. Since it’s only the beginning of June and I wouldn’t be in class right now anyway, it hasn’t quite hit me yet that I’m not a student anymore. I expect I’ll have some sort of deep existential crisis in September when, for the first time ever, I will not be starting a new semester. But at least then I’ll be in a short-term hermit in New Hampshire, which I’m hoping will have a soothing effect on any crises, existential or otherwise.

One part of not being a student anymore has hit me, though. The future used to be parsed out to me in neat little segments. Next up: four years of high school. After that: four years of college. Then three years of grad school. Now?

A summer back in the hometown. The rest of the year hermiting (can’t wait!). And then . . . just future. One giant mass of it.

Depending on what on earth I decide to do after hermit life, maybe there will be some little sections. But for the most part, it’s just future becoming present becoming past. A past that I hope I can be proud of, as I am for my student past. I just don’t know what it’ll be yet.

Of course there’s one thing that I hope my future and my future past will contain: published books, with my name on them. So that’s why my current giant mass of present is write, write, write, write, write.