Lately, I’ve been channeling Dorothy Gale in the unfortunate area of general confusion about how to proceed with my writing. (If only I’d started channeling Judy Garland in the area of singing. If only.)
I’m at the point where I have first, even second, drafts of more than one novel manuscript. They all need work. Like a lot of work. And revising is never a hardship for me—I’m an editor, after all. I like editing. and trying to find solutions to story problems. So what’s the hang up?
For a long spell this fall, there was a sizable hang up indeed—that of deciding upon what to spend my sadly few writing hours. Do I keep pushing forward with the historical fantasy story that was my thesis in Lesley’s MFA program? Do I dive whole-hog into one of two contemporary YA stories instead? It’s nice, of course, to be in the position where I have multiple drafts of multiple stories.
But which way do I go?
The siren song of first one, then another, would call me. And I’d answer each call. Briefly. Always very briefly. It look a while to figure out that there’s a way I could use this to my advantage. Which is what I hope I’m now doing. So I have two stories that I’m revising—one much more complex than the other. I give time to both and then take breaks from both—it’s turned into a giant switch-up.
There’s clearly going to have to come a time when, like Odysseus, I lash myself to the mast and force myself to listen to the siren song of one of these stories—and do my best to sail right past it and stay on course with the other.
But for now, I’m doing what makes most sense—and keeps me sane and writing. Even if, alas, not singing like Judy Garland.
If you’re someone who’s aware of and thinks at all about young adults and their worlds, you must also be aware that it’s prom season. I went to both of my proms, both times with boys who I was dating. Both times, I did the asking. As a student at an all-girls school, there wasn’t a whole lot of choice if you were looking for a male date—if you wanted to go to our prom, you found a guy and asked him.
This is not the norm in our society, though. And if news and cultural reporting over the last few years is any indication, it’s getting to be less and less the norm. What’s replacing it? The promposal, of course—in which (mostly) boys are expected to put together elaborate scenarios in which to ask (mostly) girls to the dance in question. Said promposals are meant to be photographed and/or filmed so that they can be publicly disseminated to as wide an audience as possible.
I’ve seen pictures and watched videos of these public “asks”—some of them are sweet and thoughtful. Some are clearly just an excuse for showboating, and still others seem pointedly created to put the girl in question on the spot. I’ve been reading more and more about this relatively new phenomenon and several things bother me about it.
The first is a problem that I have with actual proposals and the fact that the word promposal is derived from the marriage proposal. The latter is, even in these modern times, expected to be something driven by the guy in a heterosexual relationship—in other words, the kind most likely to be found in advertising, television, films, and even books. He picks a ring, he chooses when to ask. Woman are taught that they have no agency in this—you just sit around and wait for your significant other to pop the question. It doesn’t matter if the woman in a relationship is ready to get married or not—all that matters is when the man is ready to ask.
Frankly, I find it a little disturbing that this idea didn’t go out of fashion with the dowry and trousseau. Haven’t we got more advanced ideas about marriage now (on every possible level)? Even more disturbing is that we’re now passing it on as an ideal to be achieved to younger and younger men and women, along with the idea that it has to big, it has to brash, and it has to be as public as possible. Having this kind of pressure cooker—where one teen has to create something extraordinary that no one else has ever done before and the other is put on the spot in a public way, thereby robbing her of any real choice as to with whom she’s going to prom—is unhealthy for anyone, regardless of what their sexuality or gender identity is.
A recent Boston Globe article touched on one of the reasons why this is so toxic—one that even the teens “engaging” each other in promposals recognize: “It’s more likely to prompt a ‘yes’ from a girl.” One student whom the Globe interviewed came right out and admitted it: “I thought I should do it publicly because the pressure of it being public would increase the chances of her saying yes.” Another piece on CNN talked of the pressure on girls. A young woman named Ria Desai was quoted from a blog post on the topic saying, “Turning him down marks her as a ‘huge bitch,’ a label she doesn’t deserve in any way. Yes, rejecting him will hurt his feelings, but doesn’t every girl deserve the chance to make the decision that she wants to make?”
Yes, every girl does. So does every boy. And I do understand that there are many people who think is this sweet and romantic and shows a nicer side of what’s perceived as a hook-up culture among young people. But I can’t help but see it as a slippery slope: and one in which the person being asked is put on the spot in a way that a private question—will you go to prom with me?—could never achieve. There will be plenty of time for high school students to be educated into societal relationship expectations. Why rush them into “proposing” when they can’t even legally vote?
What’s next? Holding an NFL-style draft to see who gets to ask the more “desirable” girls to prom? Alas, that one’s already been achieved….
Good friend, brilliant writer, and fellow Lesley MFA type, Sabrina Fedel, tagged me as part of an on-going “My Writing Process” blog tour. Since it’s good to stop sometimes—especially when you’re in the throes of something like writing a creative thesis—and really ponder what on earth it is that you’re doing, I took up the call. So, without further ado, here’s my two cents.
What am I working on?
Um, it’s complicated? My thesis is a historical fantasy novel set in the late eighteen hundreds and told in three voices. If this sounds more ambitious than it strictly speaking should be, that’s because it is. It has entailed an absurd amount of very hard work just to get a first draft completed, and will continue to require the same for near, as well as distant, future. BUT…I love this story with all of my heart and soul, and so the researching and revising will, like Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio’s love in Titanic, go on and on. Hopefully the end result will be less tragic, however.
Now that I have Celine Dion firmly in my head, let’s continue.
Because this is only one of two large writing projects I’m working on at the moment. As I’ve mentioned before, I stress write. And my current stress writing manuscript is well past the first draft but not quite to a finished second draft yet. Let’s just say that the last two thirds of the story is being entirely rewritten. Far from an overcomplicated historical fantasy, this one is contemporary YA that focuses on family—the one you’re born with and the ones you can create for yourself—with a healthy dose of romance thrown in for good measure. If my first story is my Titanic, this is one more akin to say, Bring It On (in my dreams, at least).
Both are necessary for my sanity.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Ha—well, let’s just say that I hope it does? Right now, I’m in the thick of both and so it’s hard to tell really. I find with my own writing that it’s necessary to take a step back from it in order to gauge something like this. Mostly, I hope for the best and I keep revising.
Why do I write what I do?
The aforementioned need for sanity is a big part of it. This does not mean, however, that I’m the type who works out her neuroses on the page. I write fiction and I find that the world of make-believe is much easier to tackle when it’s not tied down to my own special blend of emotional issues.
At this juncture in my writing, I guess the question I’ve been thinking about a lot more is why I’m attempting to write YA fiction rather than why I’m working on a specific story. The answer is a complicated mix (yes, I’ve used that word twice now—it’s not by accident) of factors. Clearly, I edit books for young readers for a living, so literature for kids and adolescents is something near and dear to my heart. And while I love, love, love writing picture book stories, right at this moment, I’m feeling really captivated by YA and how, for this age group, so much is in flux and changing—or about to change—in momentous ways. And so, this is where I am right now.
How does my writing process work?
Okay, at the risk of continuing to make myself sound like a madwoman, it works in giant bursts of writing energy—often in the middle of the night when I’m in the midst of a first draft of a story—during which I am hyper-focused on what I’m writing.
Then there’s a cooling down period. It’s almost like having a crush. At first, it’s hard to think about anything else, but then you get to know your crush better, and either you lose your initial fervor, or your attraction grows into something deeper. I try to take advantage of that first rush of the crush while it’s with me and get as much done as I possibly can during this little honeymoon period.
Then it’s on to the harder work of figuring out of this crush is worth my while, or is just a flash in the pan. My laptop is filled with discarded ideas that have proven themselves unable to keep my attention—whose dashing concepts or brawny shoulders of plot briefly captured my eye, but whose long-term relationship prospects were dim.
The two projects I’m working on right now are at different stages in their post-crush lives, but both are firmly in that phase. For my thesis, I feel like the story and I have hit a few bumps and we maybe need to take some time away from each other before we recommit. For my contemporary YA story, it’s still a newer relationship, so while there are kinks to work out, it’s not hitting the skids or heading into therapy or anything. Yet.
I’m not taking this metaphor too far, am I?
The long and the short of it is: I write in bursts, and when they come, I write a lot and whenever I can possibly fit it in. If that means at 2:30 in the morning, so be it. I keep my laptop by my bedside, just in case (no long hand writing for me, thank you very much). For many years, I tried to keep myself on the straight and narrow when it came to writing time, but I’ve learned to just go with what works. Often this means I am tired. But it’s worth it in the end.
So, there you have it. I hope Sabrina’s not on the verge of disowning me as a friend and fellow writer because of these answers to her questions, and I’m looking forward to reading some of the other responses, which you can check out here:
Too much work? Check. Needing a little procrastination break? Check, again. Wondering what to do to celebrate the looming National Poetry Month? Well, not as much, really (you can’t win them all). But armed with two out of three, when I saw this post on the School Library Journal website the other day, I knew my path was clear.
I could have gone an actually poetic route here. I could have gone for something more philosophical. Instead, I opted for the silly and borderline gross route. What can I say? Anything that can work Harry Allard and James Marshall’s The Stupids Die into everyday life is a good thing in my book (and if you have not read this book, please run out and do so).
Want to procrastinate and come up with your own book spine poetry to share—or just want to peruse others’ works of genius? Then pop by here!
The last few weeks have been among the most exhausting and stressful that I’ve encountered in many, many years for reasons far too mundane (and personal) to get into. Suffice to say, I’ve been feeling flat out.
When stress hits, some people turn to food. Some take to alcohol. Others turn to caffeine, exercise, bad TV—you name it. But I’ve got dietary restrictions that limit what I can eat and drink, and caffeine and my stomach are not the best of friends. So what’s a gal to do when stress hits hard?
Certainly, I’ve watched my share of good (and bad) television of late in an effort to take it down a notch or two. But I’ve also taken to writing to blow off some steam. Not writing of the useful MFA program variety, or even of the lucrative freelancing variety. Instead, I’m writing fluff. And it turns out that it’s a wonderfully fun to write fluff—where there’s no pressure, no deadlines, no expectations. Nothing at all but me sitting by the fire with my laptop and churning out whatever I feel like writing. And what I feel like writing is pure fluff.
This would have distressed me to no end mere months ago. I would have further stressed myself out by worrying that I wasn’t expending creative energy in more serious ways. Now…well…who honestly cares? It’s fun, it’s harmless, and it’s gotten me through the rather tedious month of November and beyond. I wrote 51 pages of a new story last week, just because I was on edge.
So, while I cannot actually eat the marshmallow-y goodness known as Fluff, it turns out I can churn out fluff on the page at breakneck speed when my psyche needs it.
Alas, some promises are easily broken. Just ask poor Dawson.
This isn’t a matter of Joey Potter breaking my heart. (She was better off with Pacey, anyway.) It’s a matter of me breaking my own. Way back when, I wrote about how hard it is for me to write bad things into the lives of characters to whom I happen to be very attached.
It was hard then. There’s been a bumpy ride between then and now. Which means It’s even harder now. In finishing a first draft of a YA story I’ve been writing for seeming ages, it was time to face the truth of the matter. This was never going to end a blaze of hearts and flowers. I’ve known this from the beginning. It’s not that I don’t appreciate a blaze of hearts and flowers—truth be told, I kind of love them. But this just isn’t that kind of story.
So I sat down and wrote the hardest stuff that needed to be written, and I wiped away many tears as I did. Is it weird to be this caught up in your own story and characters? I hope not. Because if it is, something’s clearly gone awry with me. I’m awfully fond of these folks—I created them, after all. And like any good parent, I wanted to protect them from these ugly parts of the story, but there was just no way to avoid it.
But the deed is done.
I’m feeling good about it now that this part of the journey is over—and ready to start all over again (hopefully I’ll take a page from Melissa Manchester, though, this time around).
I never read comic books as a kid, so when I went to see the very first X-Men movie, I didn’t quite know what to expect. So, imagine my surprise when the movie began at the gates of Auschwitz as a young Eric Lensherr is being ripped away from his parents. Imagine my even greater surprise when, at this horrific moment, his powers emerge.
It takes guts to tell a story in which the reader or viewer so immediately sympathizes with the person who’s supposed to be the villain in the story. Of course Eric becomes Magneto. How could he not? And that he and Charles Xavier are such old friends adds still a layer of depth to this character.
Now, it doesn’t hurt that Magneto is played by Ian McKellan in the movie, who is, without question, a source of amazingness in the world. But the depth of the character lies in the comic books and in the story they chose to tell on the screen as well. This is not your run of the mill villain. This guy’s got a purpose—and one you can thoroughly understand.
What got me thinking about villains, you might ask? Well, I’m currently revising a story that has a (completely non-supernatural, fantasy-based) villain in it. And I want her to be more than just the villain.
A movie poster featuring the villain, and only the villain. Sure, there’s one of Thor, too. But having seen both the first Thor movie and The Avengers, I am here to tell you that there’s a reason why folks love Loki—and it’s not just Tom Hiddleston’s boyish good looks (though that helps, of course). It’s just that he’s a much more interesting, nuanced character than Thor is.
And being someone who reads a lot of fan/geekgirl stuff, it’s clear that the makers of the second Thor movie (and the second Avengers movie) are fully aware of this. In fact, in a recent interview, Joss Whedon tried to explain why Loki’s not going in the next Avengers movie, basically by admitting that the movie’s about the Avengers, not the villain. Or in other words, Loki might be just a hair more popular than some of the actual Avengers.
Then there’s Gollum, both on the page and on the screen as performed by Andy Serkis. But for an accidental finding of a ring, Smeagol (who becomes Gollum) might have lived, if not a happy life, at least an uneventful one. The hints of Smeagol still emerge in Gollum, making for a heart-wrenchingly duality in him. Alas, the ring eats away at him and ultimately destroys him. Sure, the supposed villain in The Lord of the Rings is Sauron (and even Saruman). But Gollum steals the villainy show on every level, just because he’s so much more than just a villain.
So, how do you build a better villain? I guess the only answer I’ve come up with thus far is to make him or her a real person as well as a force of badness—to make a really compelling villain you first have to make a really compelling character. Which is no small task.
And with that, my little exploration of sci-fi and fantasy villainy is finally over. Just be glad I spared you my treatise on Anakin Skywalker….
Every good baker knows that a recipe is really just a jumping off point. You might like nutmeg, while I prefer cinnamon. You’re all about cocoa powder, while I favor melted dark chocolate in my brownie. It’s all a matter of taste.
The same holds true for literary romantic heroes. You might like them dark and brooding, I’m all about funny and charming. But as I write and rewrite not one but two different YA stories, I’m thinking about what ingredients make up my idea of a romantic hero—and how best to create a fella that appeals not just to me, but to (hopefully) a larger audience at some point.
So what makes a good romantic hero in my book? It takes equal parts of the ingredients below
When it comes to creating a hero with humor, Jane Austen might have fashioned something akin to perfection in Northanger Abbey’s Henry Tilney. He’s got a great sense of humor—so much so that occasionally it’s hard to get him to be serious. But when the going gets tough, Mr. Tilney rises to the occasion. Even if he might joke around as he’s doing it. Never was there a more delightful literary clergyman, or one with whom the reader can more readily share the heroine’s completely obvious affection.
And not just of the romantic variety (though clearly that’s a must as well). The ideal in this category for me is George Elliot’s Will Ladislaw, the young man who ultimately captures the heart of Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. Even when Will is idling his time away on his cousin’s dime, he’s passionate about art, beauty—and his cousin’s wife Dorothea. Ah, youthful enthusiasm. But even Will settles down to a real pursuit and career at last, and he’s got politics and reform on his mind. His zest for the downtrodden and ignored—as well as for the best heroine in all of literature (yep, I said it and I meant it)—make him pure romantic hero gold.
On a certain level, rare book seller George Friedman in Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector seems completely wrong for Jessamine Bach. He’s too old, too set in his ways, too cultured, and too much of a carnivore for the twenty-something tree-hugger. But theirs is a love affair born of books. And any man who goes about wooing with a perfectly ripe peach and a T.S. Elliot reference is a man worth keeping. Never has eating a piece of fruit been laden with so much sexual and intellectual tension.
The Ability to Change and Grow
When Brigan meets the titular character in Kristin Cashore’s Fire, he’s not able to like or even remotely trust her. And when you have ugly family history of epic proportions between his father and hers, who can blame him? Unlike some folks, though, he’s open to seeing who she is as a person (or in this case, a human-monster hybrid) and eventually to trust her. That he falls so deeply in love with the one person he most despised speaks not to some weird “opposites attract” plot device, but rather to depth of his character. Which makes Brigan something of a dream come true, romantic hero-wise, and Kristin Cashore downright brilliant for creating him.
So does identifying all of this make it so much easier to write a wonderful romantic hero (or two, as is the case right now)? Alas, no. But it does give me some key ingredients off of which to base my recipe. And take it from George Friedman: it’s fun to experiment in the kitchen.
There are days when the words just flow off my fingertips and onto the screen—when I can’t type quickly enough to get down what I need to (and subsequently skip multiple necessary words in the process). There are days when, like the machinations of a well-planned A-Team operation, everything just falls into place.
I’ve had a couple of days like this of late, and it’s kind of a gift. Getting not just words but whole pages of them out at one time; having a piece of story (even entire chapters) pop out in one fell swoop. When this happens, I have a true Hannibal Smith moment, and treasure how much I love it when a plan comes together.
Then there are other days when I pity the fool (in this case, sadly, me) who attempts to write anything at all. These are the days when this whole endeavor feels like an exercise in frustration—one that will add nothing to my life in general but gray hair and a whole lot of eyestrain.
It isn’t just the golden days of flowing words that keep me going on this path. It’s the sweet spot that lies in between the gold and the despair—the days when I think it’s a lost cause and then realize something important about the story I’m writing, or the one I’m attempting to revise—that make up my writing life.
Sometimes, even when you least expect it, a plan does come together. B. A. Baracus can get on that airplane after all. Face uses his charm to turn a seemingly hopeless situation around. Even Murdoch’s craziness comes in handy at just the right moment.
And a little puzzle piece of your work falls into place, right where it should be.
A long time ago, in a galaxy that feels far, far away, I met Judy Blume. I went with a good friend (and fellow Judy Blume fan) to a Barnes and Noble in Boston for a signing—I think for the book Summer Sisters. I didn’t buy the book. Instead, I stood in a very long line with my beaten-up old copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. This book meant a lot to me growing up. It felt like the only book I read as a kid that spoke—quite directly—to what I was feeling at the time. So, I blubbered shamelessly to Judy Blume about how much I love her work, and she very kindly signed my old book.
I was thinking the other day about how gracious she was—and by all accounts, still is—and what an amazing group of books she’s written. In particular, I’ve thinking about her as I’ve been diving back into writing and hitting some snags. Tough times for characters always turn out to be tough times for me on a certain level. And as I pondered how to write about these difficult things, I wondered: When faced with hard topics, what would Judy Blume do?
Treat the reader with respect.
This is something Judy Blume positively excels at. Whether she’s writing chapter books, young adult novels, or books for grown-ups, she has an uncanny (and completely enviable) knack for knowing where her readers are at emotionally—and going there with them completely.
This one is not easy to carry off (speaking from experience!). But if Judy Blume has taught me one thing—and let’s be serious: she’s really taught me a lot of things—it’s that there’s no beating around the bush. Sometimes your little brother kind of stinks. Sometimes your body isn’t perfect. Sometimes your parents make you move, or make other life-altering decisions over which you have no control. Sometimes things are great. Sometimes they’re positively awful.
Know that there are no easy answers.
Love doesn’t always last, even when you think it’s forever. God can feel really far away—and the path to finding him can be damned near impossible to make out. Part of being honest is admitting that life, in all of its complexities, is messy. Kids can not only handle this fact—I think they yearn to have it acknowledged. Just because the answers aren’t easy, doesn’t mean kids can’t take the truth.
Despite this, keep your sense of humor.
Okay, so your brother not only stinks, but he ate your pet turtle. And maybe, just maybe, chanting, “We must, we must, we must increase our bust” will somehow make those mammary glands grow. Or maybe not. But at least we can laugh as we give it a try.
There are so many more lessons to glean from the books of Judy Blume, but these are the ones that I’m going to carry with me during these days and weeks when bad things will happen to perfectly good (at least my opinion!) characters. And while I could never dream of writing with as much honesty and humor as Judy Blume, I can still ask: What would Judy Blume do? And I can be inspired by the answers.