Narnian exiles.

May 14, 2015

To say I was obsessed with The Chronicles of Narnia as a child is an understatement.

I spent about ten years convinced that I could find my way to Narnia if I knocked on the backs of enough closets and wardrobes. (Yes, this included custodial closets in elementary school. Narnia sounded like a much better place to be than math class.) And when I finally gave up, I chose to enter other worlds through a different means: by writing. But I was still thrilled when I heard that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was being made into a movie. I remember waiting for an hour for my dial-up connection to load the first trailer.

The Lion, the Witch , and the Wardrobe is not a perfect adaptation of the world I spent so much time inhabiting as a child. It suffers for the post-Lord of the Rings tendency to turn all fantasy films into action films. There is also a strange of thread of realism that runs throughout the film. It is tonally dissonant from the books, but I found it appealing nonetheless.

This realism means that when Peter Pevensie goes into battle, he is not suddenly an expert swordsman; he looks so weary by the end he can barely lift his sword when he duels with the White Witch. It means that magic is greeted with extreme (if amusing) skepticism by Susan, who at one point reminds her siblings that their parents sent them away from London to spare them from being in the middle of a war. It means that the movie opens not with the Pevensies exploring the Professor’s house, but with the London Blitz, and Jadis grounds us further in the Second World War by throwing a Nazi salute to silence her followers at the Stone Table.

As an adult, this Narnia felt like a real world that could exist next door to our own, one where there were tangible consequences to every action. After leaving the theater, I began to think about what would happen to these Pevensies after they returned to England. In the books, the four kings and queens of Narnia seem to have no adjustment issues, but I couldn’t see that being true for their film counterparts.

narnianexile

Photo by Rebeca Cygnus

A few years after The Lion, the Witch, the Wardrobe was released, I tried to answer this question in the form of a novel called The Never Bridge, a deconstruction of the portal fantasy. It was about four siblings who returned from another world and were unable to cope with the transition back to being ordinary teenagers after a lifetime spent as monarchs. In desperation, they turned to a magician who claimed that he could return to them to their lost fantasy kingdom…for a price.

While the protagonists inhabited the bodies of teenagers, it never fit comfortably in the YA genre, which made is very difficult to write for any specific audience. There were no epic battles, no romance, and the protagonists made no attempt to find their footing in the real-world. There were uncomfortable questions about underage sexuality and what it was like to perform childhood. The ending was a complete downer, with the magician revealing that he had been unceremoniously booted out of a fantasy world himself as a child and lost most of his marbles in the ensuing decades. And the siblings became dysfunctional adults themselves.

So in many ways, I relieved when Lev Grossman’s The Magicians came out. “Thank God,” I thought to myself. “Someone else wrote that book, so now I don’t have.” But Grossman’s trilogy has received polarizing reactions. It’s a series readers either love or hate. It’s my opinion that The Magicians seems to appeal to a very specific type of adult, one who was once a “gifted” but troubled young person. The protagonists are all intelligent but destructive teens and twentysomethings who refuse to invest their energy in anything that doesn’t offer physical or mental stimulation. They are selfish, arrogant, and self-loathing all at once. Having been that type of young person, I felt a strong kinship with most of the characters and admired Grossman’s often harsh take on what magic would look like in the real world.

Because of my fascination with stories that deal with children and teens who come back from magical lands, I was thrilled to hear that Seanan McGuire will be releasing her own take on the idea next spring, Every Heart a DoorwayBeing YA, McGuire’s book will probably not be as dark as The Magicians, and I wonder if friends who were displeased with Grossman’s series will find it more appealing. Either way, I’m excited to see another writer’s take on the subject of Narnian exiles.

“Hello, everyone! I’m Amy’s imaginary friend. But I came anyway.”

— The Doctor

A few years ago, a fellow writer and I were walking through Target. We had gone there to get something purely practical, but as we were making our way to the checkout area, the other writer paused in front of a tacky turquoise lamp fringed with blue feathers and sapphire rhinestones. I couldn’t imagine why she was so interested in it until she said, “One of my characters would just love that hideous lamp.”

To someone who doesn’t write fiction, this might seem like a strange response. But we writers spend more time with our characters than do we with some of the flesh and blood people in our lives. This means that we think about our “imaginary friends” constantly.

Character development is the driving force behind any story. No matter how fascinating the worldbuilding or how exciting the plot is, a story will fall flat if the reader doesn’t connect with at least one of the people in it. They don’t have to necessarily be someone we’d like to have tea with, but we should at least feel something about them, whether that’s affection or disgust.

When I workshop stories, the compliment I hear the most is that my characters are very vivid. (I’m still working on that “plot” thing everyone keeps telling me about.) I started to think about this as a craft issue but unfortunately, I’m one of the lucky writers whose characters frequently show up on the doorstep of the house in my imagination almost fully formed.

But how do you really get to know your characters, whether they arrive in your head with suitcases full of emotional baggage to be explored or they’re complete strangers to you?

  • Interview them about their history, likes, and dislikes. What is their favorite food? How about their worst childhood memory? How many people were in their family? Did they like their hometown or did they escape as soon as possible? Finding out the answers to these questions may give you insight into what motivates them, even if the material never makes it into the story itself.
  • Propose scenarios, even if those scenarios won’t make it into the story itself, and allow your characters to explain how they would handle them. As a writing exercise, I once put two characters I was stuck on into the Hunger Games universe to see how they would react to stress. Obviously, I’m not Suzanne Collins and I can’t use the material from that story, but it helped me get to know my characters better and solve a tangled plot thread.
  • Create a Pinboard about your character. You can gather pictures of actors who you could see playing them in a movie, clothing they would wear, quotes that remind you of them, and even pictures of what their house or bedroom looks like. These are all details that can help your character come to life in your own mind and if you can do that, you can translate it for your reader. Here is a board I made for my character Mei-Xing, who is the subject of a flash piece that is going to be published soon and a novel that I have been writing on in various forms for years.
  • Make a playlist of songs your character would listen to or that make you think of them.

A few of these characters might be cagier than others when it comes to talk about themselves but be patient–they’ll eventually open up to you. Some of these fictional people may even become semi-permanent residents in your head, determined to stick around until you get their story right. I joke that I’m haunted by two particular characters who have been knocking around my imagination for over seven years.

Even when we hate our stories and are deathly sick of looking at them, characters force us to return to our desks and put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) once more. They can be demanding–but they lead us to the most extraordinary places and we should listen to what they are telling us.

I’ve always been secretly embarrassed by what I write, but not in the way that most genre authors are.

I never had a high school English teacher or undergrad professor dress me down for writing fantasy instead of literary fiction. I’ve never left a critique at my grad school feeling that I was metaphorically bleeding. And yet, I sometimes feel that the themes and characters I tend to fixate on are unworthy.

As writers, we are quick to point out that we are not our stories. How else could we take criticism and improve our craft without weeping over every cut scene and character we have to kill for the sake of the plot? And while that generally is true, it is equally true that our stories do tend to reflect some corner of our internal landscape. It stings when someone attacks their cores.

My embarrassment was heightened by an experience that made me feel that someone had taken my very best things and dismantled them in the vein of Sid from Toy Story in order to fit their vision. It left me questioning the value of the story I’d originally wanted to tell with that set of characters, as the message I received was that I could write reasonably well–but I couldn’t write that story. That story had no value. Wendy Darling always goes with Peter Pan, not Captain Hook, silly girl.

So, I twisted it to make other people happy. Then I stopped telling it altogether.

When I first began at Stonecoast, my work was very different than it is now. Some of it from a place of truth (albeit a dark place), but I was often writing the books I felt other people would want to read. Marketable books, books that were about the Right Things instead of the things I valued or that stirred something in me. Why? Because I was afraid that the stories I really wanted to tell would be received with the same derisive air they had been before and/or that someone else I admired would tell me: “You can’t write that. That’s stupid. No one is ever going to like it.”

Then, on a whim, I turned in a fairy tale to my first Stonecoast mentor. I was probably blushing when I hit send; the story felt childish and too earnest. But I did it anyway–and my mentor loved it. She said that I had finally found what Marian Rosarum sounded like, not what Marian Rosarum was trying to sound like.

I considered this. I ended up watching Hayao Miyazaki’s adaptation of Whisper of the Heart (a film I think all writers can relate to) during the semester break and I realized, looking at the heroine’s journey to find her own voice, that my mentor was right. I stopped thinking so much about writing and just wrote from the heart. The end result of that course was my thesis, a story I’m very proud of.

Here are a few suggestions for finding your own voice.

  1. Look at the books that mean the most to you and think about why. It is the characters? The style? The worldbuilding What is it about these stories that resonates with you so much?
  2. Go back and read your early writing. Yes, even the Mary Sue magical girl epic you wrote in the 6th grade. I’m not suggesting that you try to salvage these works–most of them, frankly, won’t be salvageable. But you may discover an emotional truth to them, a point of origin for the themes and characters you find yourself returning to as an adult, and that can be greatly inspiring. “These rambling tales were of course not very good, but they possessed a certain sparse magic that I often still marvel at,” says Sarah Taylor Gibson. “I think that we as authors are always trying to re-capture that old magic, whether we know it or not.” I happen to agree. It would be safe to say that my thesis would not exist if it hadn’t been for a novella I churned out when I was twelve.
  3. Ask yourself what your obsessions are and run with them. Are you into fly fishing? Ancient Greek philosophy? Environmentalism? The First World War? You can build a story around anything, so long as you can generate the same passion in the reader that you feel about a subject.
  4. Acknowledge that your writing might sound a little (or a lot) like the work of the authors you admire most in the beginning. That’s okay! When you discover your own voice, you’ll find that you no longer want or need to imitate another writer’s.
  5. If someone tells you that your story is wrong, they are probably not the best critique partner for you. A story cannot be wrong. Your characters might be coming off as a little flat, your plot could be a hot mess, or you could be using problematic stereotypes you’ll need to reconsider. But if you genuinely want to tell a particular story, don’t let someone else dissuade you from doing it. Surround yourself with people who want to help you put the world inside your head onto paper in the best way possible.

What happened to the story I dropped all those years ago?

A month ago, I took a deep breath and I picked it up again. I handled it delicately at first; I felt like I was holding a porcelain doll and one false move could reduce it to splinters once again. I’m still shy about approaching it, but I’m working on regaining my confidence.

I have 20k thus far. Let’s see where it goes, shall we?

mer·cy (noun)

/ˈmərsē/

1. compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.

My new poem, “A portrait of the witch at sixteen”, is now available online at Abyss and ApexIt is the story of a young girl who learns the trick of resurrection and uses it to revive the unloved dead.

Here is a secret: the witch of the title is a real person.

She reunited me with someone who is incredibly precious to me, and she granted many of the people I am closest to second chances through simple acts of compassion and forgiveness. The witch taught me a very important lesson in doing these things: there is more strength in showing mercy than there is in seeking revenge.

As for whether or not she can raise the dead…

I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

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.

wendy

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.

moongirl

“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.

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.

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 collaborators 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?

thesis

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.

nutcracker

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.