When I first started to become aware of oppression, I was angry.

Not only that, but I was angry all the time.

Suddenly, so many of my life experiences or those of my closest friends were put into a new context, and that context was ugly. The world seemed like a very dark place where the people with the most power in our society were actively out to screw me. I entered the Tumblr social justice community in the hopes of educating myself further and began to read about campaigns such as #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

Generally, these were good things. I embraced being POC instead of framing myself as white, critically analyzed the media I was consuming from a feminist perspective, and committed myself to having diversity in my own fiction. But because my avenue into social justice was Tumblr, I was exposed to “call-out culture” and encouraged by then-friends to engage in it.

Call-out culture, for those of you who don’t know, is the idea that in order to be considered truly progressive, you must publicly confront anyone who says something racist, homophobic, sexist, or transphobia. If you “value” a person’s “delicate fee-fees” over pointing out oppression on a public forum, you have failed at activism.

As #keepYAkind has proven, someone being embarrassed or hurt by civil discourse about an offensive comment they made is far less important than treating marginalized groups with respect and not erasing them. But call-out culture isn’t about discourse. Call-outs themselves are generally full of witty, sarcastic quips, often include character attacks, and tend to end with the author calling the “problematic” person “filth”, “trash”, or “garbage”. They don’t differentiate between genuine ignorance about terminology (which is incredibly classist, as it assumes that everyone has the same level of education) and the intentional use of vicious slurs and stereotypes.

Things hit rock bottom for me when someone who frequently made call-outs told me that a man we were both acquainted with had “traded in his humanity card”. Therefore, we “didn’t need to feel guilty” about anything we did or said to him.

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I subsequently spent the next five minutes doing this.

I do still speak about politics and oppression on social media platforms in order to call attention to various issues. But for the most part, I allow my fiction and poetry to express my views for me; a story that resonates with a reader is much more likely to change their mind about a topic than an angry comment on an internet thread.

Thankfully, call-out culture has been coming under fire in the last few months and this time, it isn’t privileged people who are discussing its harmful effects. Asam Ahmad, a queer man of color, recently wrote an excellent article critiquing it. Trans woman and feminist Julia Serano wrote in her book Excluded: “The best thing for us to do moving forward is to create intentionally intersectional spaces where we both talk and listen to one another, and where we give people the benefit of the doubt.” Evan Flory-Barnes, an African-American jazz musician, expressed similar sentiments. “I had a teacher who once told me, you can’t get angry enough to heal all the atrocities of the world,” he said. As someone who tried to use my rage to change the world, I believe he’s right.

Since leaving Tumblr’s social justice culture behind, I’ve called people in (to use Ahmad’s terminology) on sexism, homophobia, and racism. All of these affect myself and my loved ones, and I obviously feel very strongly about them. And while I was firm when I discussed these topics, I didn’t resort to implying that the person I was talking to lacked any semblance of human decency for having a problematic viewpoint instilled in them by a problematic society. I’ve been met with positive responses more often than not. Most of the people I spoke to legitimately didn’t know they were being some stripe of *ist and vowed to do better in the future.

Marginalized people don’t have to stay silent and be used as punching bags, nor are we obligated to educate those with privilege at every turn. But we all live in a world that is classist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and racist, and even someone who is invested in social justice is still unlearning those scripts.

One of the most common questions writers receive is about what kind of music we listen to when we write. My playlist for The Dollmaker is quite long (you can listen to the entire thing here), but I decided to gather up a sampling of the music I find the most inspiring while I write.

Oz the Great and Powerful Oz was a fairly mediocre movie, but Danny Elfman’s soundtrack skirts the line behind whimsy and drama perfectly.

Jónsi & Alex created the perfect blend between beauty and wistfulness, which was ideal for the character of the Dollmaker. Music like this is inspiring yet unobtrusive for me.

I wrote many of the scenes that place on the streets of Krakow prior to the German occupation to this song. I imagined it as a living watercolor painting and this Debussy piece captured that idea perfectly.

The quality of Doctor Who as a show varies from episode to episode, but Murray Gold’s score never fails to impress. It’s fitting that my favorite of Gold’s pieces is from a season that centers around the Doctor not as a science fiction character, but as a fairy tale one.

A confession: I don’t play video games. But I do love video game soundtracks, which are usually exquisite and atmospheric. This track is no exception. It brings to mind the feeling of being lost in the woods and the chilling beauty of the dark.

Whatever your opinion of Lady in the Water itself, the score by James Newton Howard is pure magic.

I usually find lyrics too distracting! But song became one of my few exceptions when I was working on the first draft last November. The lyrics were too perfect. (“All it ever wanted was your love / And children I was made to have your love…”)

“Pas de Deux” from The Nutcracker, which often accompanies Clara’s departure from the Land of Sweets, has a palpable sense of loss underscoring it. Which is why I wrote The Death Scene while looping it for over an hour.

Sarah Flynn, a recent graduate from Stonecoast, wrote a great post about using Pinterest as a tool for drafting novels. I thought I would elaborate on my own experiences with the site.

It’s strange that Pinterest became such a hub for writers at all. When I first signed up for an account there in 2011, most users were people planning their weddings and overly ambitious crafters whose attempts to be the next Martha Stewart are now immortalized on Pinterest Fail. But I knew several writers who had utilized the platform to create character sheets, collect inspiring horror and fantasy images, and save pictures of settings. I decided to do the same.

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“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Christian Schloe

My own Pinterest account is a chronicle of everything I’ve written in the last three years. There’s pinboard dedicated to my thesis, one about faeries, and another containing images of people who clearly belong in stories. And there’s a lot of evidence of failed or dropped writing projects, too. But not every novel you write will end up being the novel you wanted to write, and there’s usually something you can salvage from it for future works. Images collected on Pinterest can act as a reminder of characters and concepts that you love, but haven’t yet found the right place for.

My favorite Pinterest users and boards include:

Like all social media sites, Pinterest can be a time suck. But if used well, it is an excellent place for a writer to organize characters, setting, and even research materials. If you haven’t signed up for an account, you may want to!

the secret princess

March 1, 2015

As Jupiter Ascending continues to acquire a larger and larger cult following, there have been numerous discussions on why women in particular love a movie that has garnered poor reviews from the film community. The answer is simple: Jupiter Ascending is a wish fulfillment fantasy that revolves around a woman. “This is the precise gender-flipped equivalent of all those movies where some weak-chinned rando turns out to be the Chosen One, defeats a supervillain despite having no real personality or skills, and gets rewarded with a kiss from Megan Fox,” writes Gavia Baker-Whitelaw in her article about Jupiter AscendingIndeed, the rarity of seeing a woman as the Chosen One in a blockbuster is astounding–and one of the many reasons why we need more female writers and directors like Lana Wachowski at the helm of big-budget projects.

In feminist circles, the primary criticism aimed at Jupiter Ascending isn’t about its quality but rather that the protagonist, Jupiter Jones, is a damsel in distress who lacks agency. But I think many of these critics are confused about the definition of agency. It is not whether or not a character beats anyone into the floor, or whether they save the world by leading an army into battle and slaying the Bad Big. Agency is simply whether a character makes choices rather than being dragged from scene to scene like a piece of carry-on luggage. And Jupiter Jones does make choices after finding her footing in a strange, new cosmos. She chooses to claim her inheritance, to take steps towards ending the genocidal practice of “harvesting” planets, and to return to her ordinary life while still maintaining a relationship with the people she encountered on her adventures. She just does it without shooting anyone.

Jupiter-Ascending

And in a headdress made of Swarovski crystals no less

The idea that “butt-kicking” women who wield guns and swords are somehow “better” characters than women who chose to use more peaceable or intellectual means of solving their problems is a trap writers often fall into. Not only is it cliche, but it sends a terrible message: a a woman must be masculine or else she is weak, pathetic, and unworthy of having her story told. “Femininity is not bad, just as masculinity is not necessarily good,” says Rhiannon in her defense of the much hated Sansa Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones.

It goes without saying enforced femininity–the cultural notion that all women must be thin, hairless, meek, and accommodating–is toxic as well. Women should be able to choose how they present and act without being limited by misogynistic cultural standards. And they may well prefer masculinity over femininity. But as a kid, I had a difficult time feeling like I could be the hero of my own story because I wasn’t a tomboy like all the strong women I read about or watched on television.

We need more heroes and heroines who value diplomacy, mercy and compassion over violence, and use those traits and attitudes to win their battles. I write a lot of men who demonstrate typically feminine traits in the hopes of normalizing and assigning value to them. My male protagonists want to be good to be people around them, feel comfortable expressing emotions other than anger, and take pride in being husbands and fathers. If they wield magic (like the Dollmaker) their magic is gentle. The storyline of one of the characters I love writing the most, James Forester, features him in the role traditionally filled by a female love interest. That doesn’t make him less of a man, either. He’s still brave, he’s still a hero–just an atypical one for Western fiction.

By constantly disparaging femininity and feminine narratives, we teach feminine people that they are stupid, shallow and unimportant.  To see oneself reflected in fiction is a gift that people other than masculine white men deserve and that’s exactly what characters like Jupiter Jones give us.

Writing is a solitary profession by nature. As wordslingers, we spend most of our free time huddled over laptops and scribbling in notebooks, often while wearing headphones. We talk to ourselves–sometimes, using different accents. We act out fight scenes with beloved childhood stuffed animals in the comfort of our homes, because where else is that socially acceptable?

But that doesn’t mean we don’t need people around who understand what we’re doing.

The Stonecoast community has offered me invaluable support since I first stepped into the Stone House almost two years ago. The students and faculty in the program have been genuinely invested in my success as a writer and I’ve never been in a workshop there that went poorly. It’s understood that whatever criticism we give one another is not aimed at making us wanting to burn our work and sprinkle the ashes in our hair, but at helping us improve it. I exchange stories for critique with my classmates via email during the semester and there’s always a sympathetic ear on FB or Twitter when any of us is struggling with a particularly snarled plot line or a moment of self-doubt.

Outside of Stonecoast, I have two close friends I am always talking to about books and writing with on Twitter. We ask one another questions that would raise eyebrows in public (“So…about that sexual tension between the dragon and the princess.”), vent our frustrations with whatever we’re working on, and share our triumphs. I consider them my creative partners, even if we haven’t written anything together. They inspire me and keep me going when I’d ready to throw dramatically slam my laptop closed and declare my career to be over.

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Image by Hans Borrebach,1938.

Then, of course, there are true collaborative efforts. Nowadays, it’s possible to produce everything from novels to podcasts with partners who live on the other side of the planet thanks to the wonders of the internet. Working together with someone can be a great, energizing experience…or a terrible one.

The first and only time I worked on a collaborative book series, I quickly discovered that I wasn’t passionate about the same kinds of narratives and themes that my partners were. But I kept trying to make it work; my collaboratives were also my friends and I didn’t want to abandon the project. However, twisting characters and concepts I’d been invested in for years in order to fit the direction my partners wanted the novels to go in made me feel like a terrible writer. And even worse, I lost touch with why I’d loved those fictional people and ideas for so long; they barely resembled the ones I’d started with. I did eventually drop the project and go back to writing the characters as I’d originally envisioned them; as difficult as it was at the time, it was the best choice for me.

Writing communities and creative partners come in all shapes and sizes, and places like Twitter and Tumblr are great places to hook up with other writers, as are workshops and MFA programs. Depending on what kind of a person you are and what sort of support you are looking for, some will serve you better than others. But there is a place for you.

Thesis. Forever.

February 17, 2015

I’ve been somewhat quiet on the blogging front recently, although I do post pretty pictures and the occasional poem on my Tumblr. For the most part however, I’ve been working on my thesis, 115 pages of an original manuscript complete with a bibliography of every book I’ve read since I enrolled in Stonecoast and a preface explaining my work. The funny thing about the thesis is that it wasn’t the book I intended to write when I entered the program.

But when is a book ever what we set out for it to be?

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My desk, complete with fairy tale artwork 

The first piece of children’s fiction I ever wrote was called “Star Girl and the Light of the Realms”. It had been a gift for my best friend’s daughter that used her family and friends as characters, but it was warmly received by everyone who read it–including multiple children. The story was rejected from a SFF magazine last year, but the rejection included a heartening note from the editor. While it didn’t work for them as a short story, they urged me to expand it into a full-length middle grade novel. I didn’t think I could make “Star Girl” into a proper book, but after many twists and turns, I did find a story for children that I could flesh out: The Dollmaker, Pan’s Labyrinth meets The Velveteen Rabbit and The Nutcracker. 

I was, for the most part, moving through uncharted waters with The Dollmaker. I’d written dark fiction before and didn’t know how far I could take things with a children’s story. I’d found most dolls to be exceptionally creepy long before I was introduced to the concept of the uncanny valley. Everything I knew about Slavic mythology was drawn from Russian fairy tales told to me by old friends, and I had to heavily research folklore specific to Poland and the Krakow area. I even had to read The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and was surprised to find that an animated adaptation I’d loved as a child, The Nutcracker Prince, was more true to E. T. A. Hoffmann’s original story than the famous ballet.

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Look, it’s a German story. We should be grateful we got a dying madman of a Mouse King instead of more cannibalism

When we go outside of our comfort zones as writers, we often discover where our true talents lie. In 2013, I never thought that my MFA thesis would be a historical children’s fantasy novel, but that’s where my work at Stonecoast has lead me. I’ve experimented with so many different genres and types of stories that I feel as if a thousand doors are open to me. Will I finish the YA fantasy I’ve been working on since I was in undergrad? Will I continue to write middle grade books? Will my faeries finally find a good home?

Maybe…or maybe not. I don’t know precisely which direction my writing career will take me next–but I’m excited to see where it does.

My poem, “Demeter Sails the Stars”, is now available online at Ideomancer!

The story of Persephone’s descent into the underworld is one of the world’s most enduring myths. It has been retold in countless ways over the years and no two versions are exactly alike. In some, Persephone is abducted by Hades and tricked into becoming his bride for half the year. In others, she is a psychopomp queen in her own right.

Being the kind of person that I am, I prefer the tales in which Persephone chooses the crown. But how would her mother react to this choice? Would she understand Persephone’s desire for power and her love for a creature shrouded in darkness?

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“Proserpine” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

It is that narrative I chose to explore in my poem. I hope you enjoy it!

In writing the second draft of my Middle Grade novel, one of the questions I’ve been asking myself concerns content. What can we “get away with” in children’s literature? What is and isn’t considered inappropriate? I was honestly started to despair that my particular story (which deals with a living doll living in WWII era Krakow) would pass the test because of how heavily I was drawing from the non-“Disney-fied” versions of fairy tales and folklore. Then I happened across a miniseries recently produced by Cartoon Network called Over the Garden Wall, which was very dissimilar to the Disney formula in style and content.

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I am by no means dismissing Disney entirely; most of the early films of the studio’s “Renaissance” are legitimately good. Beauty and the Beast, with its breathtaking animation, enchanting songs, and clever dialogue was worthy of the Oscar it was almost awarded. But the Walt Disney Company’s mid-90s decision to (for the most part) treat the target audience of children as children and not as tiny people capable of responding to complex emotional stories shows. It was Studio Ghibli and movies produced by Pixar (which Disney did acquire in 2006) who picked up the slack in that area with movies like Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Up. The latter two are certainly children’s stories, but they deal with heavy topics–self-reliance, grief, environmentalism, and parental abandonment among them.

I was surprised to discover that Over the Garden Wall is firmly in the camp of Up, Beauty and the Beast, and Spirited Away rather than Pocahontas (questionable Oscar bait that it was) or Spongebob Squarepants.

Over the Garden Wall understands that it is a (decidedly American) fairy tale and that fairy tales need their teeth intact to be effective narratives. It even has a worthy Hansel and Gretel premise, featuring two brothers who become lost in “the Unknown” and encounter a wide range of tricksters, monsters, and magical creatures in their quest to return to their home. It’s a smart series, peppered with references to Dante’s Inferno, Southern gothic literature, and the whimsy of the early 20th century Little Nemo cartoon strips. And it’s beautifully animated in the bargain. The series respects its child audience and that is exactly what children need from fiction.

In other words, kids are people too. They have internal lives, they have hopes and fears, and they have their own distinct perceptions about the world. We need to follow Over the Garden Wall’s example and keep writing stories for them that reflect that.

Stephen King recently did in an interview in Rolling Stone in which he discussed the novels he’s least satisfied with and I noticed a pattern that reflects my own habits as an author. When King was desperate to write anything just to feel like he was being productive, even if he was suffering from severe physical and/or mental health problems, the work he produced wasn’t up to his usual quality.

2010 and 2011 were difficult years for me, and I wrote very little in the way of fiction during that time period as a result. By the end of 2011, I wanted to throw in the towel when it came to writing. I would study English literature, psychology, even basket weaving, but I was done with creating. Yet six months later, I started telling stories again. Being a writer gives you the power to reorder the universe however you like, which can be a great way to channel anger–and I was very angry about the things that were happening in the world back then.

I regularly wrote 8,000 words a day while pulling 40 hours a week at my day job. I wrote on my phone every day while taking the bus to work. I wrote on napkins and in the margins of magazines. I wrote what I still consider to be a really chilling piece of horror in the back of a car while the driver put “Call Me Maybe” on loop for an hour. I toppled governments, pursed criminals across seas of stars, brought about the end of the world with zombies carrying the Black Death, and saved girls from monsters.

I was on fire.

Or so I thought. I failed to realize that depression that often manifests as futile anger.

littlered

Churchill called depression the “black dog”. It seems accurate to me.

(Art by Rives Alexis)

From late 2012 to early 2013, one of the things I worked on was a novel I would elevator pitch as a fusion between Doctor Who, the fairy tale Bluebeard, and Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Ballad of the Sinister Mr. Mouth”. I looked it over recently after letting it languish for over a year. On a craft level, it’s fairly solid. The characters are interesting, the prose is reasonably good for a first draft, and the plot is serviceable.

It’s also a book I never want to touch again.

The message–that the people you love most are the ones who will betray you in the end–is the antithesis of what I want to put out there. It’s also not a message that’s indicative of my actual worldview. What it is indicative of is how I was in a bad frame of mind when I wrote it, regardless of how ostensibly “productive” I was being. This novel and many of my other books from that period feel like they were written by a stranger; they’re essentially bitter stories that lack a heart, and readers notice that.

Perhaps those stories saved me in their own way because they gave me an outlet for what was going on inside my head. There was certainly a time last fall when, after losing a friend, I found refuge in telling even the grimmest of tales. But the books I wrote back then aren’t ones I’m proud of and I’ve since rescued many of those characters from the dark woods and placed them into better worlds.

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Case in point: these two time travelers 

If we find that we hate everything that we write consistently, if we start to think that what we’re writing no longer sounds like it comes from the heart or if we’re ill, it can be valuable to step back from our work. And if we have to shelve our current project for the moment and do something else that will bring us joy, that’s not a failing. The characters and worlds will still be waiting for us when we come back.

Because we’re writers, and we will come back.

We always do.

catventures

November 13, 2014

I wasn’t always a cat person and I rarely thought about the mythological importance of the animal. Then, I met Ilsa.

In 2011, I decided I needed a companion animal and since I wasn’t home enough to care for a dog, a cat seemed like the natural choice. So, I adopted a shy, silver tabby kitten named Ilsa from the Miami Humane Society. Within days, we underwent a trial by fire together when she managed to find the hole under my sink and nest in the wall between my condo and the next. Being a cat, she couldn’t figure out how to get out of said hole and eyed me pitifully from the shadows, as if demanding that I bend time and space to ensure she never got stuck in the first place. That story ends with me using a hammer to break her out. I earned her undying loyal through that strange twist of fate. From then on, Ilsa would groom my hair when I was upset, followed me everywhere, and waited by the door for me half an hour before I was scheduled to arrive home from work. I loved Ilsa.

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Ilsa in 2012. I took this photo while writing a novel about a dystopian society ruled by faeries. It contained a number of magical cats

Then she was diagnosed with FIP–which has no cure and no real means of prevention–and I was heartbroken.

I didn’t let what happened to Ilsa deter me from adopting again, however. Shortly after she passed away, I went to the ASPCA to look for another feline companion. There, I found the ugliest cat I’d ever seen: a huge, black Maine Coon with a scarred face, comically long legs, and half-lidded yellow eyes who bore an uncanny resemblance to the Salem Saberhagen puppet from Sabrina the Teenage Witch. “We found him up a tree being attacked by crows,” the ASPCA volunteer told me. “He was probably feral, but he’s a real sweetheart.”

Colonel Brandon, AKA Boo, turned out to be just that. He’s a highly vocal lap cat with the problem solving skills of a toddler. In many ways, he’s the exact opposite of little Ilsa. But I call him my familiar for a reason.

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Boo acting as moral support while I edited a short story last summer

I’m temporarily back in Miami with Boo, who is currently watching the steady process of people walking towards the beach. But he’s not the only cat I’m looking after. A few days after I arrived, I found a feral colony living in the building across the street and started to feed the six cats I often saw sunning themselves on the pavement. I soon discovered a litter of kittens nearby and making sure all of them have food and fresh water has become an item on my daily to-do list.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the resources here to do more than that, as much as I would love to.

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Snow White, the friendliest of the feral cats. In a piece of fiction I’m working on, she helps the heroine escape from Baba Yaga

There are thousands of feral cats here in the Miami, the result of careless owners who either abandoned their pets or refused to spay and neuter them. Ilsa and Boo both began their lives in a colony like the one I’m trying to care for, and that has made me protective of them.

As you may have noticed, almost every story I write now featured a cat in it. Why? Because they make for great characters, especially in fantasy; they’re deeply entrenched in our ideas about magic. Historically, cats have been goddesses, witches, and soothsayers. They catch evil spirits as easily as they catch rats and spiders, and move in and out of Faerie with greater ease than any mortal. Cats are revered in Islam and welcomed into sacred spaces, and they are considered lucky in Russia, China, and Japan.

What can you do to help these magical creatures? For one, you can adopt from or volunteer at the Humane Society, ASPCA or, if you’re in the Miami-Dade area, the Cat Network. If you’re have transportation of your own, you can also trap feral cats and bring them to a low-cost clinic to be spayed or neutered and prevent overpopulation. And, of course, you can feed them and give them water. All these things help make the lives of the animals in feral colonies lives a little less difficult.

Live your life like you’re in a fairy tale and help a cat today. You’ll be rewarded with a little magic–I can guarantee you that.