on saving yourself

August 7, 2014

During my last Stonecoast residency in July, I attended a panel called: “Mental Health For Writers.” After the professor who was going to lead it came down with the flu, the presentation became a community discussion about how to maintain the right environment–physically and mentally–for writing.

I had been looking forward to the original presentation, but I feel I got a lot out of the conversation nonetheless. Guided by the program director, we covered topics ranging from how to motivate yourself to write when daily life has worn you down, how to stick to a project when inspiration seems to have run dry, and (of course) the mental health issues we as writer’s face.

I see writing as an escape. It offers me the opportunity to not only remove myself from my own problems, albeit temporarily, but to craft an ideal world. Though not right away–the heroes have to strive for it before they can reach it, and overcome demons both personal and very real. I wouldn’t write speculative fiction if their existential crises didn’t manifest physically, now would i?

One of the most important lessons I learned during my second semester at Stonecoast was that writing saves me every time, an idea echoed by many in the community discussion.

 

butterfly

Acción Poética Colombia

In the beginning of my career as a graduate student, I tried to write grittier fantasy fiction, but it never quite worked out the way I hoped it would. At the end of 2013, I turned instead to fairy tales, which I’ve always been fascinated with; they have been a means to discuss difficult, even controversial topics for centuries, and in the guise of entertainment no less. And perhaps more than any other type of story, they have an agenda–for the best celebrate not conformity, but how clever people can beat back the dark.

Initially, I was afraid I was wasting my time and I wondered if words could ever be enough. Really, what sort of weapons were homemade fairy tales against the dark? What impact could such stories have on my own heart and those of other people? But for me, fairy tales became a means of engaging in real life acts of katabasis and renewal. Through them, I could write the happy ending denied to me, and to many of the people I am closest to.

On the page, I have the freedom I normally do not have in my ordinary life to speak my mind.

I just choose do so through talking dolls and kind dragons.

Slate.com published what many are calling a “clickbait” article about YA fiction in which the author demanded that adults who read the genre to be embarrassed by their lack of intellectual maturity. Author Ruth Graham went so far as to imply that YA fiction stunts the emotional growth of adults and in order to be truly be mature, one must embrace the messiness of untidy endings in fiction, since we so rarely have neat endings in life. Naturally, many people were offended by the article.

I feel C.S. Lewis says it best: “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”

I will be the first to admit that much of YA fiction is derivative and poorly written, and that it often frustrates me. I think that teens deserve better than a thousand and one knock offs of popular series such as Twilight and The Hunger Games. But a sea of bad novels exists in any genre, and I’m not able to disparage anyone’s love for a book. (Unless you liked Atlas Shrugged, in which case I reserve the right to judge you) If it resonates with you, embrace it, share it with your friends, write blog posts about how important it is to you.

Protesters against the military coup in Thailand have adopted the three-fingered salute of the Districts as a means of peacefully defying their government. Many of my fourteen-year-old sister’s friends use Factions they think they would choose as a means of self-identification. I’ve seen people my age who have found quotes by Albus Dumbledore so meaningful to them that they had them permanently inked on their bodies. YA fiction does inspire people in positive ways.

albusdumbledorequote

By Made With Magic on Etsy

For authors however, what we read is a different matter. To be a writer, you can never read only in one genre, be that literary fiction, YA, SFF, or romance. You must read widely and you must read often, as Stephen King advises in his craft book On Writing. I prefer SFF and slipstream over realistic fiction, but that doesn’t stop me from picking up books like Goldfinch or listing Everything Is Illuminated as one of my favorite–and most formative–novels.

We writers must be open to new experiences, be they out in the world or in our imaginations. We have the unique gift of transforming pain into beauty, after all. I no way agree with Graham; no one should be ashamed for loving YA or even reading mostly in that genre. But there is something to be said about broadening our horizons and leaving our comfort zones as writers.

A friend asked for my thoughts on tropes vs. cliches in fantasy fiction, a subject I have numerous opinions about…

Dreaded Cliches

  • Pseudo-medieval Europe as a setting grows staler and staler with each passing day, especially since the country of long ago and far away and its people represents no distinct European culture or landscape. Typically, it is a generic cross between Middle-earth, the vaguely English fields and forests featured in a dozen films about King Arthur produced in the 80s, and what Americans think Germany looks like. I admit to having a fascination with Bavaria myself, thanks to being the daughter of a former serviceman who was stationed there during the Cold War and backpacking through the area in 2008; it’s one of the most haunted places in the world, and it has a liminal quality to it that seems ready made for ghost knights and faeries. But that’s just it–every place has a character all its own and if you know nothing about it beyond the popular conception of it, the result would fit nicely into one of the many, many Shrek films. A vital part of worldbuilding involves researching real places and historical periods.
  • In popular fantasy media, there is a depressing lack of POC heroes, heroines, and even secondary characters to the point where this too has become a cliche of sorts. Katniss Everdeen was white washed in her film incarnation. Peter Parker is a skinny white kid, and so are most superheroes who appear onscreen. Disney’s upcoming adaption of the beloved musical Into the Woods has a cast made up entirely of white actors. The majority of the most prominent characters featured in A Song of Ice and Fire? You guessed it: they’re white. The excuse typically used in such situations is that in a story based off of German fairy tales or real conflicts in England of France, there would be no men and women of color–as if someone had drawn an imaginary line across the Mediterranean that forbid anyone from African kingdoms, the Middle East, and countries further to the East to enter Western Europe. Or, worse, authors simply forget that the empires of Ghana, the Abbasid Caliphate, and the Songhai even existed, their political and economic importance forgotten. If you are fascinated by Elizabethan England and want to write historical fantasy in which faeries attend Shakespeare’s plays alongside human beings, go for it! Just don’t forget that not everyone there is going to be white.
  • Cis, white, (usually) heterosexual heroes behaving badly is one of the ugliest cliches in Western media. By “badly”, I mean that these characters act in ways that would have a person who belonged to a more marginalized group labeled as an obsessive psychopath. They flagrantly break the law, treat civilians like canon fodder, and engage in practices that violate the rules of ethical combat such as torture. But we are told that their actions are excused because of the losses they have suffered before the curtain rises or because they are seeking revenge against a shadowy figure whose crimes are greater than theirs. When such a character is on the receiving end of the ever popular speech in which the villain declares he and the hero are very much alike, I can’t help but agree. The only difference between these protagonists and the so-called monsters they fight is the narrative rewards them for their misdeeds. If you want to write a villain protagonist, own it.

 

unicorn

From Der müde Tod “Destiny” (1921) dir. Fritz Lang

 

…And Far Less Dreaded, Tropes 

  • The central conflict in most fantasy stories is that of good vs. evil. You have your hero(ine) and you have your villain, your knight and your dragon, your lovable rouge and your corrupt monarch. Conflict is necessary to propel the story along and develop one’s characters, and the easiest way to generate such a conflict is to have another character antagonize your hero. If the villain does something morally questionable to the protagonist or his loved ones, the reader will usually side with the hero, thus setting up the moral compass for the remainder of the story. Though in recent years, it has become popular to delve into the mind of the antagonist as well as the hero–at least briefly. Two-dimensional villains have indeed become cliche as our definition of what a monster is changes, and our understanding of human psychology develops. No one, not even the wicked queen or the Dark Lord, is born evil–whatever your fantasy world’s concept of wickedness is.
  • Magic is a key component of any fantasy, though what form that magic takes varies drastically from tale to tale. In some stories, magic is an inherent and accepted part of the world, practiced openly by trained witches, sorcerers, and mythical beasts. In others, magic exists but it kept secret from the general human populace, a conception particularly favored in urban fantasy. Magic can take the form of spells mastered and cast by the characters, extraordinary abilities inherent to them (empathy, telekinesis, and so on), or it can be a force outside their control. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to portray magic in a fantasy story, so long as its rules are consistent.
  • Mythical beasts themselves are usually at the heart of the genre. Dragons, faeries, the jinn, unicorns, phoenixes and firebirds, kirin, goblins, rusalki… The list of magical creatures we fantasy writers can populate our stories with is almost endless, as are the possibilities for how we use them within the tale. They can exist in the background, merely adding to the reader’s general sense of the world, or they can be secondary or even primary protagonists or antagonists. Fantasy literature as a whole would be at a deficit if Tolkien’s Smaug or Beagle’s Unicorn had never been brought to life on the page.
  • The lost princess who comes to claim her crown skirts the boundary between the cliche and the trope, though I respect it more than most despite the ways in which it is pure wish fulfillment. (I am less fond of its brother trope, that of the lost prince) These stories are about women and intended for a primary female audience, and there is something inherently empowering about the lost princess herself. She is a heroine who discovers that she is extraordinary, is called to adventure, realizes her competency beyond her birthright, and saves her kingdom from great evil. Unfortunately, it’s a story that’s already been told so many times that it’s difficult to add a fresh perspective or twist to it. But I think it can be done.

 

 

an unexpected dragon

May 29, 2014

Recently, I started writing a novel.

I can promise you that I didn’t mean to do it. Writing a novel was in fact the opposite of what I set out to do this semester, which was to focus on short stories in order to perfect writing plot on a smaller scale than a book would require.

I wrote four short stories before embarking on what I thought would be a fifth. But for better or for worse, the story got away from me.

I don’t feel prepared to write a novel, even a short one. My mentors tell me I create interesting characters who operate as fully fleshed out human beings in the worlds I have made for them and that my prose is lovely, but that I still fumble with the art of telling a story.

And I have so many stories I would like to tell.

This particular one overstepped its bounds. What was meant to be a short parable about a girl and a dragon and the shape true monsters take became something greater than its original self. Perhaps the attraction of the tale lies in how it’s more clearly a piece of my heart than the shorter pieces I’ve sent off to my mentor since the end of January.

I demanded it to stand down. I, as the writer, have control–except for the moments when I truly do not, when the story takes me by the hand and leads me down paths unknown. Stories don’t care what you as the author want, but they make things such an adventure that one cannot help but follow them into the dark woods.

They’re like faeries in that sense.

into the woods

I Capture The Castle, 2003

Upon the suggestion of a friend, I began to handwrite the novel in a paper journal, something I hadn’t done since the pre-smartphone days of high school. I take my sunflower notebook to cafes around town, where I listen to wealthy Boulderites decide the fate of the world. It’s like being surrounded by supervillains with poor taste in footwear. But I like the experience, and I like seeing the girl and the dragon–her dragon–come to life on paper rather than a computer screen.

No, I don’t feel prepared to write a novel. But I have to wonder if anyone truly does.

I’ll follow the faerie lights and see where they take me. What else can a writer do?

On the 15th of each month, I turn in two book annotations and a short story between 20 and 35 pages to my Stonecoast mentor.

I began work on the short story I sent out last night in the middle of February. I came up with three different drafts, which I then began to paste together, but I was daunted by the task. This meant I engaged in productive procrastination. I completed the annotations well before the due date. I went through more than 30 stories for the online speculative fiction magazine I am a publisher’s reader for. I worked on the retelling of The Iliad I began for NaNoWriMo last year. 

But as D-Day approached, I knew I had to crack down. “I will finish this story and it will not suck so badly I will weep over my keyboard when I send it off to my mentor!” I thought. And so, like any bookworm, I did the logical thing: I went to the library. Not just any library either. I trekked up to the University of Colorado’s Norlin Library, a place I spent considerable a considerable amount of time at as an undergrad. But my fondest memories are not of being huddled in a study cubicle reviewing for the Praxis II Social Studies exam1, but of getting lost there as a child with my mother when we went to see an exhibit on illuminated medieval manuscripts. Because that was my idea of a great time at age eleven.

In spite of the pleasant memories, I couldn’t concentrate. I got distracted by spiral staircases, books on physics, art on campus, and a bizarre conversation between two young men who seemed to believe they had been caught in a time loop in which they were forced to take the same chemistry test over and over again.

photo

They were not, so my stripped Amy Pond shirt did not grant me Protagonist Aura after all

By the third day, I was ready to give up. Hoping to clear my head, I packed up my things and left the library to go for a short walk. I wandered aimlessly until I found myself at Columbia Cemetery, one of the weirder haunts from my high school days. It was empty and sunny, and hovering outside the gate, I though to myself: “What the hell.” I settled down amid the headstones, pulled out my laptop, and started to work.

Two hours later, I had completed the story.

Why?

The library, as much as I love it, had been stifling to work in. A week before Spring Break, the atmosphere was tense as students frantically worked to complete papers and study for tests. But in a cemetery at two o’clock in the afternoon, I felt considerably less restricted.

Writer’s block can be a symptom of many issues. You may be bored with your story, frustrated with how your characters have rebelled against you, or stress outside of your writing life could be distracting you. But other times, all you need to break through that creative wall is to change your scenery.

1 In a nearby universe, I teach high school history. I am probably not very happy

the visual writer

March 3, 2014

I often tell people that I became a writer because I can’t draw to save my life, despite my best efforts to improve,

Growing up, I was always surrounded by stunning visuals in movies, television, beautifully illustrated books, and even graphic novels. Animation was the storytelling medium I loved best of all, as it wasn’t constrained by reality in the same way that movies featuring flesh and blood people were in the pre-CGI age; literally anything the producers could conceive of was possible to depict on-screen. As a teenager, I became enchanted with the process of how movies are actually made and mildly obsessed with the aesthetics of music videos, which frequently added layers to songs I might otherwise have dismissed as yet another shallow, bubblegum pop piece.

In other words, I am shaped just as strongly by the visual imagery of my formative years as I am by the books I love most.

wake

“Wake Up Call” by Andréia Takeuchi

As a writer and storyteller, I remain a visually oriented person. I hoard images that remind me of my projects and pictures often set off a spark that eventually becomes a story. When I post to social media, I often frame my experiences around photographs. The scenes I envision in my head are appear in a very cinematic way to me, meaning I must “translate” what I am seeing into English. (With the occasional scattering of German. The Germans have a word for everything)

Sometimes, I succeed and the images that carry me through the story wind up on the page. Other times, I stack metaphors in ways that my exceedingly patient teachers have told me is aesthetically pleasing, but can border on nonsensical. I am still learning to pare down my writing without stripping it of its lyricism, to create beauty without sacrificing clarity. One of the things I have learned studying at the Stonecoast Creative Writing program is that this can be done. You never want to lose the reader or force them out of the story as they try to decode your similes; you want them to be carried along by both the story and the language.

Every word a writer puts down on the page is intended to pull the reader in–and they have to be used wisely.

My poem, “Ladyknight”, is now featured in Mirror Dance‘s Spring 2014 edition! You can read it online here.

When asked by editor Megan Arkenberg what inspired me to write fantasy, I had the following to say:

Love and frustration are motivating forces that should not be underestimated when it comes to inspiration. I write about the things I am passionate about and that fill me with joy, and I write about the things in this world that infuriate and sadden me. Fantasy in particular allows authors to speak out when we otherwise might not be able to. Just because something is not real, after all, does not mean it is not true.

The catalyst for “Ladyknight” was, in fact, stories several women I know had told me about the abuse they had suffered at the hands of men who claimed to love them. I could have tackled the subject from a more “realistic” angle…but I felt that envisioning an abuser as a literal dragon–terrifying, beastly, and utterly lacking in compassion–was more powerful in the end.

Alice Jabberwocky

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

I will always advocate speculative fiction as a means of deconstructing and changing reality. Fiction has saved the lives of countless people I know–and that makes it one of the most important things in the world.

love songs for exiles

December 26, 2013

Within two weeks of graduating from undergrad, I moved from Colorado to the island of Miami Beach at the height of the Great Recession.

I had spent time there briefly as a child, sending letters to mermaids and getting stung by freakishly large jellyfish, but I went completely unprepared for what life would be like there. Nor did I particularly care that I was going into the situation blind. On the contrary! Graduation had empowered me; in my mind, I could go anywhere, speak to anyone, and do anything I could conceive of. I was utterly nonplussed by the 20% unemployment rate that greeted me when I touched down in MIA.

I came to love Miami Beach fiercely. Hearing salsa music blaring from the clubs mere blocks from my apartment if I left the windows open made me feel giddy and alive. The antics of the endless waves of tourists from across the globe never failed to amuse. I was no longer a minority; I looked like every other Cuban girl on the street, with my bleached blonde hair and rhinestone studded chancletas. I ate lunch in the botanical gardens. I practiced my Spanglish. And, within a month, the island felt like home.

miamibeach

An accurate depiction of life on an island. (Source: shiftypig)

But it wasn’t all wonderful.

I ended up working in the Human Resources at a department store at odd hours. I once had to take a hammer to my wall to free my kitten, who had managed to seemingly teleport inside it. The malfunctioning fire alarm in my apartment complex went off so often the other tenants and I eventually began to ignore it. And let’s face it–the public transportation in Miami is…

Well…

sbussucks

Preach it, sister

Yet I even after I moved, I still believed and was inspired by the mythology I myself and so many other people of color had constructed around the area. It retains a hold on my imagination; it does not take me much to recall the smell of it, exhaust fumes, Victoria Secret’s Angel perfume, the ozone tang of air conditioning. And, of course, the the sea. The sea was in everything, the sea was life.

Islands are protective; they do not allow their borders to be easily breached. They snub tourists, hiding behind a glittering facade of neon as they laugh. But if you open yourself to them, they will open themselves to you in return. The Beach embraced me, and it embraced me for what I was: an exile.

I write stories about exiles now. Because I know what it’s like to run and to find sanctuary in the most unexpected of places.

I spent about a year and half working on a novel called The Never Bridge and only recently scrapped it. I decided for a number of personal reasons that this was the story someone else should telling instead of me. But the protagonist, Mei-Xing Zhu, stayed with me.

Mei-Xing began as deconstruction of the female companions in Doctor Who. She was a time traveler in her own right, a temporal fish out of water who responded to the atrocities she had seen throughout history with disgust. By the time the novel opened, she already wanted minimal contact with other human beings; as far as she was concerned, the human race destroyed everything beautiful it came in contact with. This attitude made her something of an antihero by default.

Mei-Xing was somewhat arrogant and didn’t have time for other people’s delicate feelings when they came from a place of hysteria. She was cynical and not very tactful. She was highly critical of mainstream culture. She had empathy for people, but she had difficulty properly expressing that empathy.

After I shelved the novel, I continued to find Mei-Xing interesting as a fictional person, though she remained someone I wouldn’t want to sit down and have a cup of tea with. The appeal for me was that she was not perfect; she was difficult and flawed. But what could I do with a character like that?

Then a few days ago, Seanan McGuire’s post about Strong Female Characters resurfaced on my Tumblr dashboard. The portion that interested me the most concerned McGuire replacing the name of her female protagonist with that of Harry Dresden from The Dresden Files, and how her editor’s reaction to that character subsequently changed because of the gender switch. Looking at the beginning sections of The Never Bridge, I too saw that if Mei-Xing had been an handsome man instead of a woman, suddenly all the things I had seen as potential problems indicated a nuanced character. Had she been named Tony Stark or Sherlock Holmes, her less than attractive traits would be entertaining and endearing, not just “bitchy”.

Forced to confront this, I began looking at Mei-Xing’s character arc in in the book and discovered that until the 11th hour, it had been a story about a woman who had to learn how to live in the world again after a traumatic event. And I liked that story. How do you live after the final battle when you had hoped that you would die slaying the dragon? How do you return home after undergoing trials most of the people around you cannot relate to, and might not even believe took place? In a SFF universe, these questions are relevant to everyone, and our fantasy keystones don’t provide many satisfying answers.

childrensfantasy

XKDC, on the other hand, says it well

I want to write that story for Mei-Xing.

I think it needs telling.

I do believe in faeries!

September 22, 2013

My mentor at the Stonecoast MFA program, the incredible Theodora Goss, brought up in her response to the first chapter of my novel that while I had a number of vivid human characters, I had yet to develop the faeries much of the story was based around. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that she was right. I didn’t know who my faeries were, or what they wanted.

As I thought about the issue and read academic literature about the history of faerie lore, I came to realize that I don’t have as much of an issue with the “girls with butterfly wings” construction of faeries as I originally thought.

After the Enlightenment, society became concerned with the disenchantment of the world, and artists began to conceive of faeries as their allies in bringing wonder back into everyday life.  This idea of the fey is beginning to feel very natural to me as a writer, because I don’t think our already cynical society necessarily needs the darker and more “traditional” faeries that have become popular in the last three decades.

What bothers me even more than the constantly rehashing of novels like Holly Black’s Tithe is that if faeries are a different species entirely (who may have more in common with the nephilim if we do draw from the original mythos), why are contemporary authors limiting themselves to Western European aesthetics and political models? Why does the landscape of Faerie frequently look like an idealized version of medieval England? Where are the stories that draw from Chinese legends or Eastern European fairy tales rather than Irish folklore? Faeries have evolved over time and they should continue to.

In the fourth chapter of the novel, I will follow my heroine into Faerie itself–and I don’t know what awaits her yet. But surprisingly, I wouldn’t mind if she ran into wonderworking faeries on her journey.

faerie

“Summon” by Jamie Ibarra