Bits of Fun

A World of Figures: The Rhetoric of Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb”

In case you somehow missed it, please watch National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman deliver “The Hill We Climb” as the inaugural poem for Joe Biden.

[ETA March 2021: My page statistics suggest that a lot of readers may be finding this article through searches they’re doing for school. Wonderful! I’m so glad you’re here. If you’re in search of other rhetorical resources, I’ve recommended some of my favorites down in the comments. I do want to caution all students, however, that this blog post is exactly the sort of thing that will turn up on your teacher’s plagiarism checker! I’m happy to be a source, but be sure to use good citation practices.]


First things first: This poem is so good that when I finished the initial rhetorical markup, I felt buzzed. As much as I love rhetoric, that dopamine/endorphin/adrenaline rush doesn’t happen every time. Julius Caesar‘s “Friends, Romans, countrymen”. Richard II‘s deposition. Hamilton’s “Satisfied” and “Burn”. Every once in a while, the language is just so gorgeous that I swoon.

I will not have found every device worth noting in this poem. I imagine that for decades to come, I will be able to return to it and unfold a little more of its intricate beauty. Amanda Gorman has a delightful grasp of rhythm and imagery and the awesome power of our language’s flexibility and potential complexities. And she’s only twenty-two. Mercy sweet heavens, I cannot wait to see what else she gives us.

The dominant devices in “The Hill We Climb” are consonance and paromoiosis, both figures of repetition. Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds; paromoiosis is a little more complex, the repetition of sounds between words of adjacent or parallel clauses or lines. It is partly rhyme, partly slant rhyme, but importantly the combination of rhyme and some level of isocolon, parallel structure. I usually look at isocolon as a grammatical device, but in this sense, we might also consider it a metrical device, where the parallelism lives in cadence in addition to or instead of in grammar alone. Paromoiosis is, broadly, that not-quite-rhyme sense, highlighted by parallel structure. It’s the crash of waves within the larger motion of the tide.

Paromoiosis is what makes the poem feel “lyrical”, but it isn’t only aurally pleasing. Like many devices of parallelism, it will help you hear the equations as Gorman builds them and will call your attention to the ideas she is linking together. I won’t point out every instance of consonance and paromoiosis, because there are so very many of them, but I will draw attention to the uses that have a particular impact.

One more note before I dive in: I’ve seen a few different transcriptions of “The Hill We Climb” out there on the internet, and there are some slight variations between them. I’m using this one, but it may well not be definitive, so forgive me any minor deviations between this and the official, finalized version, which I suspect we will see in Gorman’s upcoming book. (Have you pre-ordered? I have!)

Gorman opens with aporia, a question which asks the audience the best way to go about something. In this, she presents her central concern: how do we move forward now, at this moment in time, from a past that has often been so dark? The antithesis (arrangement of contrast) between light/shade and the metaphor of the day breaking are important to a rhetorical concept known as kairos: the idea of the moment in which a text occurs. Kairos takes into account the occasion, the needs of the moment, and the greater social/cultural/political context. Here, the day/light imagery places “The Hill We Climb” squarely within the canon of the Biden administration: consider Biden’s inauguration morning tweet or some of the music played during the evening’s “Celebrating America” event (Jon Bon Jovi’s rendition of “Here Comes the Sun” and John Legend’s performance of “Feeling Good” were my favorites). Certainly Biden is not the first president to wield this particular metaphor, nor does it guarantee a sunnier period of time to follow — consider Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign — but it is nonetheless both powerful in its own right and a thread that links much of the art surrounding this political moment.

The next two lines branch into other metaphors: there’s something interesting about “a loss we carry”, something that has weight and proves a burden through absence rather than presence. “A sea we must wade” also has conceptual curiosity inside it. A sea, after all, is not something you wade across. You might wade in the shallows, perhaps, but that’s not quite the force that the verb takes here. “Wade”, then, becomes meiosis, a reference to something with a name disproportionately lesser than its nature. Gorman does not say “a sea we must sail” or “navigate” or even “swim” — but “wade”, suggesting that the problem is perhaps both greater and lesser than we imagine. Wading is something done slowly, your leg muscles pumping against the water and perhaps the undertow — but it is not something you can do if you are, say, drowning.

The next two lines introduce some of the figures of repetition we’ll see throughout the poem, notably the consonance I’ve mentioned already and the devices of anaphora, repetition at the beginning of lines or phrases, and isocolon, parallel structure, typically a device of syntax. Anaphora and isocolon often work together, as they do in “We’ve braved”/”We’ve learned”. The metaphor of “the belly of the beast” following the imagery of the sea made me think of the trial of Jonah and the whale; I’m not sure if Gorman intended that particular connection or not, but if so, it becomes anamnesis, a reference which calls to mind past matters or another author.

The next few lines contain a particularly gorgeous arrangement. “What just is isn’t always justice” has a few different things going on. The repetition of “isn’t always” from the prior line is ploce, unstructured repetition of words. We see conceptual chiasmus, one of my favorite devices, in “what-is-isn’t-justice”. Chiasmus is, as I’ve noted elsewhere, a device which ties a knot, repeating either ideas or grammatical construction in A-B-B-A order. Sometimes that reflects a thorny issue, a character tangled up in a problem; sometimes it ties things off neatly, putting a bow on the issue. Here, I think we see a bit of both. America is a thorny problem, all over, but reducing the arrangement to its key words, “what is isn’t justice”, well, that does sum the problem up succinctly. It’s also very nearly antimetabole, which is a specific form of chiasmus repeating exact words in A-B-B-A order — and that takes us to the other clever wordplay that Gorman works into this arrangement.

“Just is” and “justice” are nearly sound-alikes, and Gorman links them by placing them in parallel position to each other (at the end of the lines and as balancing figures within the chiasmus) as well as through antisthecon, a device which substitutes a sound within a word. The harder “z” in “is” transforms to the softer “s” sound in “justice”. I would also argue that this transformation gives us an aural antanaclasis. Antanaclasis is a device which repeats the same word with a different meaning. A famous example is in Othello: “Put out the light, and then put out the light”, where the first “light” is literal, the candle or lantern he carries, and the second is metaphorical, Desdemona’s life. “Just is” and “justice” are obviously not exactly the same word, but the auditory effect is, I feel, the same. We are meant to hear them as equal, but not.

With “and yet the dawn is ours”, Gorman signals a move into the next phase of the poem, both recalling the imagery from earlier and stepping forward to acknowledge the present and future. “Before we knew it. / Somehow we do it” gives us the first paromoiosis, and I like that this one also shows us a progression from the past tense verb “knew” to the present tense “do”. The anaphora on “Somehow” carries us to the next thought, which similarly acknowledges that past/present/future tension in the comparison between “broken” and “unfinished” (syncrisis rather than antithesis, for the two items are not really in opposition to each other).

You may notice that I mark a lot of small omissions as either ellipsis or zeugma, and often I won’t comment on them. Ellipsis is a simple omission of a word or phrase easily understood in context. Zeugma is a device with multiple and sometimes competing definitions. The one I use is grammatical: one part of speech governs two or more others. From Cicero: “Lust conquered shame; audacity, fear; madness, reason.” The verb “conquered” is omitted from the subsequent occurrences. (This is why I consider it a device of Omission under my ROADS system, though you could certainly make an argument for Direction).

Another definition of zeugma, though, conflates it with syllepsis, which I consider to be a form of zeugma. In syllepsis, the governing word must be understood differently with regard to each thing it governs. From Alanis Morissette: “You held your breath and the door for me.” The verb “held” has a slightly different context as applied to “breath” or “the door”. It’s like antanaclasis, only you don’t actually repeat the word.

Anyway — here, “a nation” is the object attached to both the verbs “weathered” and “witnessed”. That I’ve marked it hypozeugma refers to the position of the governing word (here, at the end). Is it syllepsis? My instinct is yes, though I can’t quite unpack why I feel that we “weather” and “witness” a nation in different senses. Complicating the matter is that “nation” is synecdoche. Typical use of synecdoche is where a part stands in for a whole; here, the whole stands in for its parts. We cannot, really, witness a nation. A nation isn’t really a thing. It is always a sum of parts. What we both weather and witness, then, are the actions of the people who comprise the nation.

We see a form of zeugma again in the next line, “successors of a country and a time”, before Gorman moves into a short self-identification. She does this through enallage, a device which substitutes semantically equivalent but grammatically different constructions. Here, the use of the third person rather than the first. That substitution broadens her message: she is not only telling her own story, but a story in which other skinny Black girls might see themselves, too. The descriptions are short but powerful: “skinny Black” is simple enargia, a generic term for description; “descended from slaves and raised by a single mother” is appositio, the addition of a corollary, explanatory, or descriptive element. What makes it so rhetorically elegant, though, is the antithesis of “descended/raised” within that line, particularly since the contrast rests on secondary meanings of the words rather than only their strict function in the sentence. A small flourish, but the sort that I go absolutely giddy for.

The next stanza (of sorts; no transcription I’ve seen actually breaks the poem into stanzas, but I’m going to apply the term to where there are conceptual and lyrical breaks or shifts) echoes the prior, as the opening “And yes” forms paromoiosis with “and yet”. “Far from polished/far from pristine” has nice isocolon and consonance, but also strikes me as epanorthosis, an addition that amends to correct or make more vehement. “Pristine” is a more intense descriptor than “polished”.

The anamnesis to the Preamble of the Constitution inherent in “form a union that is perfect” is lovely. Gorman invites the listeners to think of the phrase she’s not-quite-quoting, but by leaving out “more”, she leaves herself room to explore the act of that striving — 

–so that we get more nice repetitions echoing in the next line. Again, it’s syncrisis, ideas not precisely in opposition, but compared. We can never form a perfect union, between human foibles and the idea of what’s “perfect” always changing. But we can put in the work (and “forge” is such a great word there, invoking a craft that is so physical a labor) to create a society that has been purposefully constructed.

Gorman really lets the consonance off the leash in the next couple of lines, such that it becomes paroemion, where the consonance involves nearly every word in the sentence. The items in the series are taxis, a device which divides a subject (the country) up into its constituting parts (culture, colors, characters, conditions — all those things implied by the synecdoche of “nation” we saw before). 

“And so” doesn’t quite pick up the “And yet/and yes” aural echo, but it’s still launching us into this next stanza. “What stands between us/what stands before us” is a lovely pairing of antithesis and isocolon, again hitting that idea of the present as compared to the potential of the future — a theme Gorman will open up more in the next few lines.

The conceptual chiasmus of “close the divide (action on a breach) – our future first (communal noun and primacy) – we must first (communal noun and primacy) – put differences aside (action on a breach)” is augmented by the consonance of f-sounds and the unstructured repetition of “first”, as well as the paromoiosis in “close the divide” and “differences aside”.

The next two lines give as fine an example of antanaclasis as you could ask for: “arms” as in “weapons” and “arms” as in brachial limbs. That balance is augmented by the isocolon of the phrases, the antithesis between “lay down” and “reach out”, as well as epistrophe, repetition at the end of the line (which I mis-wrote as epizeuxis in the markup there; ignore that). “Harm to none and harmony to all” has a similar balance to it, and again Gorman is playing with words. Rather than substituting a sound as in “just is/justice”, here she adds to the word to make “harm” into “harmony”; adding that sound is a device known as paragoge.

Notice, too, the anaphora/isocolon in the way each of these sentences begin: “We close”, “We lay”, “We seek”. This “we [verb]” pattern is one that Gorman returns to throughout the poem, stressing both the communal nature of what’s important here and the active quality.

Again we see synecdoche of a whole standing in for its parts: now the “globe” rather than only the “nation”. Then Gorman launches into a beautiful auxesis, a series which builds to a climax, augmented by isocolon, anaphora (“That even as”), and consonance throughout (grieved/grew, hurt/hoped, tired/tried). The last of those pairs is also another sound-shifting device, this time metathesis, transposition of letters within a word.

After three lines of parallel structure, the fourth is unlike the others, but connected through the “That” anaphora — and this is the line that gives us the climactic point, bringing us from the past to the future. We get a little bit of hyperbaton, syntactical disorder, a device common in Shakespeare but less so in modern English, as the usual phrase would be “we’ll be tied together forever”, but Gorman moves “forever” up, which better balances the aural quality of the line, I think. “Tied” transmutes the “tired/tried” pairing yet again, this time through syncope, the omission of a sound. “Victorious” is a small appositio, describing the condition of being tied together, and then Gorman follows up that addition with another, longer qualification.

Those next two lines are aetiologia, a figure of reasoning that explicates a cause for a given effect. If the effect is that “we’ll forever be tied together, victorious”, the cause is in the difference between defeat and division. Again, Gorman stresses that difference between a perfect union and a purposeful one. The lines are balanced through isocolon and antithesis, as well as mesodiplosis, the repetition of the same words in the middle of a line (“we will never again”). 

The next section begins a new thought, but it’s tied to what came before through homoioteleuton, a device I am guaranteed to never spell correctly on the first try. Homoioteleuton is much simpler than it sounds: the similarity of endings in adjacent or parallel words: here, “division/envision”.

The “vine and fig tree” allusion is anamnesis on multiple levels. Gorman has acknowledged it as an easter egg for “One Last Time” from Hamilton; through that, it is also an allusion to George Washington, who used the phrase in his letters often, and to Washington’s original source, the Bible. Gorman thus positions herself in this literary heritage and positions this poem’s kairos as part of the ongoing American and human experiences.

“Own time” forms paromoiosis with “own vine”, which is a marvelously subtle way of transitioning to her next thought: “victory” picks up from “victorious” several lines earlier, through polyptoton, the repetition of a word in a different grammatical form. 

Gorman echoes her “arms” dichotomy with the antithesis of “blade/bridges”. I absolutely love the phrase “promise to glade”. She elides a bit: “the promise we make to the glade” would likely be the full expression, but in condensing it, she’s given us something delicate and beautiful, like a seed to nourish. Too, she has personified the glade, that idea of the place of the vine and fig tree, as something you can make a promise to. Personification is known as prosopopoeia; Gorman endows the dual idea of the land itself and the vision of the future with human qualities.

Then, the poem’s title, “the hill we climb”, comes in through exergasia, the repetition of the same idea in new words. Much of this poem, really, is exergasia in a broader sense, but here Gorman immediately augments the “glade” with the “hill”. 

The past/present/future progression continues in the next stanza, as Gorman imagines us not only receiving the past (“a pride we inherit”) but also participating in it (“the past we step into”). “Repair it/inherit” gives us another nice paromoioisis, underscoring that weaving together of history and modernity, which then brings Gorman to the immediate past.

Again, kairos is important. Though Gorman never names the insurrection or those who participated in it or prompted it, everyone watching knew exactly what she meant by “a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it”. That awareness was heightened by her physical location at the time she delivered this poem: on the very west front of the Capitol, which two weeks earlier had been stormed by terrorists. Both verbally and visually, Gorman participated in a reclamation of that space for the America she describes as being possible, the forged union of purpose.

Zeugma carries the “force” down from the antithesis of shatter/share into the next line, “would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy”. The following line, “and this effort very nearly succeeded”, is almost jarring in its simplicity, lack of rhetoricity, and lack of lyrical connection to what precedes. That feels deliberate. It is a line meant to shock recognition into us, to remind us that the reclamation was by no means certain.

But, Gorman reminds us, “while democracy can be periodically delayed / it can never be permanently defeated”. Apart from the ploce of certain words, the consonance of th e”d” sound, and the paromoiosis, I feel like there might be a bit of anamnesis in here, too. The “delayed/defeated” phrasing and the general cadence reminded me of the legal maxim “Justice delayed is justice denied”.

I ought to have marked “in this faith” as exergasia on “in this truth”; together, they are part of a hyperbaton as well as a hypozeugma. There may be anamnesis there, too, as the form “in [blank] we trust” recalls the nation’s motto “in God we trust”.

(As a sidebar, could we as a nation please ditch the Red Scare era religiosity and go back to e pluribus unum? Such a better aspiration — and something which speaks to communal effort, not fatalism)

Another Hamilton easter egg follows in the anamnesis of “history has its eyes on us” (“on you” in the musical). This line personifies history (prosopopoeia again) and also gives us another chiasmus: “eyes – future (temporal state) – history (temporal state) – eyes”.

Gorman now start threading together many of her themes: the idea of what is just or justice returns through ploce; the common responsibility rises in “on us”, “we feared”, “we did not”; the past-future connection shows in “heirs”. We get homoioteleuton in “redemption/inception”, polyptoton of “inherit” from several lines back into “heirs”, and meiosis of “hour” to describe not only the very long day of the insurrection but this whole era of American history we must confront.

I really love the line “we did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour”. That fear, I think, is a feeling many of us have had, whatever our age, when we have to confront the idea that this nation is not guaranteed. Democracy is not safe if left unattended. It is a fragile and delicate thing which requires so much hard work — but Gorman is optimistic about our ability to keep it going. Paromoiosis links “power” to “hour”, and she does one of my favorite things for a writer to do when she makes a metaphor about writing in “author a new chapter”. 

These lines form a nice little capsule all on their own. We get antithesis of “once we asked” and “now we assert”, contrasting not only the past with the present, but question with declaration, and thus uncertainty with certainty. Then, antimetabole: “prevail-catastrophe-catastrophe-prevail”. 

The “we [verb]” structure continues, as it has throughout the poem, in “we will not march”, and we have more antithesis between “march back/move to” and “what was/what shall be”. Gorman then describes for us what, exactly, shall be, in an act of chorographia, the description of a nation. (The whole poem, in a sense, is that, too, but here we have it in miniature). “Bruised but whole” and “benevolent but bold” I ought to have marked as syncrisis, since they are comparative but not necessarily contrasting terms. I love that she puts two “but”s in a row and then caps it off with an “and”; it makes a nice progression within the description.

The next few lines have neat little anaphora, this time not of a full word or phrase, but of the prefix “in-”. Gorman returns to the idea of “inheritance” again, this time thinking not about what we have been heir to but what we will leave for others. “Blunders/burdens” is another syncrisis, and once with a sense of escalation in it. A blunder is a mistake, a slip, an error, something that arises not through ill intent but through incaution; but it can create misery down the line, growing exponentially as it gets passed down if it isn’t (as Gorman noted earlier) repaired. 

Her cadence is really starting to gallop here. It starts in the chorographia, and as we charge into the four lines beginning “If we merge”, the pace becomes relentless, and Gorman drives that home through the rest of the work. We have lots of little devices of repetition throughout these lines, as you can see: we also get a neat new one, anadiplosis, the repetition of the same word at the end of one line and the beginning of the next. Anadiplosis has a laddering effect, an apt device for a poem with much imagery of building and climbing. I think all the intertwined consonance augments that effect, too, one idea building upon the previous and laying the ground for the next.

“Legacy/birthright” hearkens to the past/future dichotomy again, as does the chiasmus of “leave behind-country-one-left with”. I know I go on about this a lot, but chiastic structure is so beautiful. I love what it does to cadence; I love how it ties ideas together. Chiasmus is satisfying; that bobbing in-and-out sensation feels secure, somehow. It lands in a way that echoes the confident optimism that courses through this whole poem. Because so many of these things aren’t certain or secure, of course — but if we “author the next chapter”, if we write them into the future, then they can become so. 

“Bronze-pounded chest” is just a hell of a phrase. Turning the noun-verb pair of “bronze-pounded” into an adjective is anthimeria, another favorite device of mine, which transmutes a word from one part of speech to another. It recalls, too, the language of the “forge” from earlier in the poem — something that is a labor, that takes time and effort to construct. It calls up imagery of armor, a bronze cuirass protecting the heart. It calls up imagery of statues. And yet it has breath; it’s not something metal, it’s something that lives.

And then she kicks off an absolutely astonishing sequence that’s doing so many things at once. This is one of the places where I just about swooned. So many of the devices Gorman has shown us so far, she showcases simultaneously in this sequence.

So. She returns to chorographia, this time describing the nation in more detail, region by region. 

There is syncope and paraomoiosis when “we will raise” turns into “we will rise”; there is anaphora in the repetition of “we will rise” at the beginning of successive lines, driving the point home.

There is auxesis, in that it will build to the climactic idea of “every known nook of our nation and every corner called country”; there is taxis in that it considers each region as a component of the whole.

There is prosopopoeia in “gold-limbed hills”, giving the west a body; there is enargia in the descriptions of the northeast as “windswept” and the south as “sunbaked”; there is appositio in further describing the northeast as “where our forefathers first realized revolution”; there is epitheton (a pithy descriptor, as in “rosy-fingered dawn”) in “lake-rimmed cities”.

Those descriptors then form a grammatical synchysis stretching across the lines, which is A-B-A-B structure (as opposed to the A-B-B-A of chiasmus). Gorman alternates the hyphenated descriptors with the single-word ones: “gold-limbed – windswept – lake-rimmed – sunbaked”. (Note that this is one definition of synchysis; another is less organized, taking hyperbaton to extreme disorder. In this use, however, the device is purposeful).

And then, not quite content with that big auxesis of the regions, Gorman embeds another one in “rebuild-reconcile-recover”, with the series augmented by anaphora/consonance.

She gives us no time to breathe, charging onward: the consonance in “known nook of our nation” and “corner called our country” recall phrases from earlier in the poem. Hyperbaton places “people” ahead of its descriptors “diverse and beautiful”, and then she adds through appositio/epanorthosis: “battered and beautiful”. One does not negate the other. 

In the last part of the poem, Gorman returns to her opening metaphor and opening day/shade antithesis. It is not a question now, but an assertion, just as in the “once we asked/now we assert” lines. We will step out of the shade. In appositio, Gorman tells us that it is not just light but “aflame”, drawing even stronger contrast between the light and the dark. That also indicates that we are the source of the light — which I feel is a pretty big message! And she’s gonna hammer that home in her final lines.

The idea that the “dawn blooms” is catachresis, a misapplication of words that nonetheless makes a certain degree of sense. Dawn breaks; flowers bloom; yet somehow the words feel right together. It’s the sun, after all, that encourages the flowers to bloom. Notice that we are active here, too! Day comes “as we free it” — and that “free it” sets up the paromoioisis that makes her final couplet so strong and memorable.

The last three lines are epitasis, her summary of the message of the whole poem, neatly encapsulated. The last two lines rely on repetition, with only one word different. That difference feels like epanorthosis: a correction that makes the message more vehement and reminds us of our duty. It’s not enough to see the light; we must be it.

So! That is my initial analysis of this truly dazzling poem. As I said at the top, I imagine I will look on this again and see different bits of excellent wordcraft as I return to it with fresh eyes in the future. “The Hill We Climb” is a magnificent work, and I very much hope teachers are already making adjustments to place it in their curricula.


If you’ve enjoyed this rhetorical analysis, it’s the sort of thing I do every week over on Patreon! Pledging at $1/month gets you immediate access to the full Hamilblog, a breakdown of every song in Hamilton, as well as the ongoing Shakesblog, where I’m working my way through Romeo and Juliet, and any other works that I do in-between the primary projects.

Bits of Fun, General

A World of Figures Series: The Rhetoric of Memes

So y’all know how much I love rhetoric. I’ve decided to come back to the World of Figures series, which I’d sort of abandoned in favor of the Hamilblog on Patreon, so that I can explore some rhetorical concepts in more depth.

All memes work because of repetition. That’s their very nature. Memes can also be seen as a type of metonymy, a type of metaphor in which a symbolic token stands in for a person, place, or idea. Think of a crown representing the power of monarchy, or the ways that emoji represent your mood or your response to something.

A simple example of metonymy in memeage would be the use of popular reaction gifs in many situations. It’s a repeated image that takes on cultural context of its own over time. If it achieves great enough saturation, you don’t even need to include the image itself to reap its benefits. Say there’s some drama going down on twitter. I could insert an image as a reply — or, I could type “[MichaelJacksonpopcorn.gif]” — and a meme-literate audience will know exactly what I mean. It works because of repetition — an image that has been seen enough times by enough people to be recognized even without the image itself — and it works because the image stands in for the idea “I am vicariously enjoying this while staying out of the mess”. That’s the metonymy.

Other popcorn gifs carry slightly different connotations — different exercises of metonymy. [DuleHillpopcorn.gif] is a little more active, implying a more engaged spectator, its connotation less petty but perhaps more visceral; [gazellepopcorn.gif] is by contrast a bit more passive, implying a spectator at a greater state of remove from the drama. [popcorn.gif] on its own might invoke any of these, inviting the reader to draw their own particular out of the abstract.

(Okay, if you aren’t familiar with those gifs, I bestow them upon you now.)

MichaelJacksonpopcorn.gif

DuleHillpopcorn.gif

gazellepopcorn.gif

Many memes, however, flourish not through repetition alone, but through the transmutation of the original material. This phenomenon often occurs in what Know Your Meme calls “Object Labeling” memes, where words are imposed on an image to make a point.

I would argue that these memes become a form of antanaclasis. In verbal rhetoric, antanaclasis is the repetition of a word with a different meaning in the second usage. An example from 2 Henry IV‘s Falstaff: “O, give me the spare men and spare me the great ones.” In the first case, “spare” means “extra”; in the second, “save me from” or “let me do without”. Our brains appreciate that the shape and sound of the word is the same, but its underlying meaning has changed. Similarly, in the visual rhetoric of memes, there are instances where the shape of the meme is the same — the basic format, the image, and so forth — but the details create a different meaning grounded in the same context.

Some memes also function, in and of themselves, on a rhetorical basis. That is, they work on our brains in the same way that a particular rhetorical figure does. Take “Distracted Boyfriend“:

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The meme usually works by imposing something you should be giving your time/attention onto Blue Shirt and the distraction/temptation onto Red Shirt, like so:

distracted-boyfriend-books

This meme works on the basis of hysteron proteron: the disorder of time, when what should be first comes last. In this meme, it works like this: For those of us in cultures which traditionally read left-to-right, we tend to first register the words imposed on Red Shirt first, then on Boyfriend, then on Blue Shirt. (Font choices and positioning can alter this somewhat; sometimes it’s easier to notice Boyfriend first, but if our brains are used to reading left-to-right, they’re still going to try to go to Red Shirt). This is something of a temporal inversion. Logically, the first thing of relevance is Blue Shirt. That is the status quo, the origin point, the reference. Neither Boyfriend nor Red Shirt have any relevance without it. And yet it’s the last thing we see! Our brains work in reverse — and that’s part of why it’s funny. It also enhances the visuals: in finding out Blue Shirt’s importance last, we also get to share/appreciate the expression on the model’s face.

Consider this reversal, which (I suspect unawares) calls out the nature of the rhetorical form — and isn’t as funny!

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There’s no surprise there! It makes logical sense and progresses, but our brains don’t get to enjoy the inversion of expectations. The meme relies (at least in part) upon the Incongruity Theory of humor: something that rubs contrary to our expectations and established mental patterns is more likely to be funny. Cicero talks about this in On the Orator: “The most common kind of joke is that in which we expect one thing and another is said; here our own disappointed expectation makes us laugh.” (For more on that topic and humor in general, I’m going to shout out my W&M professor John Morreall, whose scholarship I still think about all the time in so many contexts).

Now, this meme also allows me to offer an example of another type of visual rhetoric: when the composition of the meme is re-created but with different figures.

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Appreciating this one takes a little Star Wars context: “Red Shirt” becomes Princess Leia, “Boyfriend” is Han Solo, and “Blue Shirt” is Qi’Ra, whom we learn in Solo was his first love. The cosplayers have taken the meme in a different direction, altering the image rather than imposing new text. It feels, to me, like a visual kind of isocolon, parallel structure. In written language, that’s the repetition of syntax. Take Brutus in 3.2 of Julius Caesar: “As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him.” But in memeage, the pattern is visual rather than verbal.

I feel like this topic, the visual rhetoric of memes, could be a whole interdisciplinary dissertation. I’ve found myself thinking about it more and more, and since memes don’t appear to be going anywhere, it’s likely well-worth the study on the similarities and differences of their effect on our brains as visual language.

Or, I’m just This Much of a dork. 😉

Want more rhetorical goodness? Or want to be the first to see these posts before they hit the blog? Join my Patreon at the Patricians+ level to make sure you don’t miss out on anything!

Bits of Fun, Images and Artwork

Word Cloud: Give Way to Night

Now that I’ve handed in copy edits, Give Way to Night is… pretty much done and dusted! The only thing left will be page proofs, and really all I can change there will be minor typos. This is, as you might imagine, simultaneously extremely gratifying and sort of terrifying. Letting go of a book can be a hard step for an author, because it requires a lot of faith in oneself. For a book I’ve been wrangling with as long as this one (thanks, Curse of Book Two), it’s especially difficult. But I have to remember: I have written the book I wanted to write. That has to be enough. Time to let it go and focus on the next one.

It being done, though, means it’s time for a new word cloud! I don’t think it’s wildly dissimilar from the last version, but there might be a few minor variations in which words are more prominent.

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Have any thoughts on this word cloud? Anything about it make you excited? Or scared? ;D Let me know!

Bits of Fun

I Want to Send You Mail

20171014_203531041_iOS (2)In case you haven’t heard, the USPS is in trouble. This is bad for everyone. The USPS is the only service willing to deliver to rural areas without charging exorbitant rates. Private services like UPS and FedEx frequently rely on USPS to handle their actual deliveries. Mail carriers are vital parts of the community. The postal service is literally in the Constitution, that’s how important it is. But we’ve got a maniac in charge of the government who has somehow reasoned that cruise ships are more essential to our society’s functioning than mail and who has threatened to veto — yes, veto — any pandemic spending bill that gives money to keep the postal service viable.

The USPS operates entirely off of sales. It doesn’t get public funding, which is absolutely wild to me. (That change happened in the 1980s; thanks, Reagan). So if you had “citizenry has to step up to save the post office” on your 2020 bingo card, time to mark that one off. Buying stamps is a super-easy way to help them keep revenue up. You can even get them online and they’ll be dropped off in your mailbox!

As it happens, I realized I’ve got a huge stack of From Unseen Fire promo postcards which were intended for spring and summer cons. So I’m going to do my part to help the USPS by buying a big ol’ roll of postcard stamps and sending these puppies out!

Want one? Just let me know where to find you! I’m going to attempt to embed a form below, but in the event that doesn’t work (I’ve heard that Google Forms often have trouble with mobile embedding, particularly), here’s the direct link.

This roll has 100 stamps on it, so I’ll guarantee a postcard to the first 100 people. Past that, we’ll see about getting a second roll. 😉

Bits of Fun

Reading Recs for Women’s History Month — 2020 Expansion!

Five years ago, I put together a rec list for Women’s History Month. I’ve read a lot of books since then! So I thought I’d expand the list with some newer titles (or new-to-me titles) featuring amazing women from history.

As in 2015, inclusion on this list doesn’t mean the book is perfect or 100% historically accurate. It just means I enjoyed the read, and I think other folk might, too! For the purposes of this list, I’m focusing just on books with real historical figures as characters. I’ve read a ton of other books featuring invented female characters inside real historical context, though, and I might make another list with those, because so many of them are just so good.

Fiction

  • 48355011The First Actress, by C. W. Gortner: I would subtitle this book “The Rise of Sarah Bernhardt”, as it mostly follows the early life of the Divine Sarah. It’s a rich exploration of the formation of one of the modern world’s first celebrities. Much attention is paid to her family and their echoing influence on her life. I don’t know enough about Bernhardt to know how much of that is historically verified and how much was authorial invention, but I could certainly believe it all within the context of fiction, and it makes for a compelling character study.
  • The Borgia Confessions, by Alyssa Palombo: A dark spiral into one of the Renaissance’s most fascinating and infamous families. While the main female character is Palombo’s invention, we see enough of women like Lucrezia and Vanozza that I feel solid including it on this list. Palombo also faithfully re-creates the world of Renaissance Rome in all its spectacle and decadence.
  • 44059557._SY475_The Magnolia Swordby Sherry Thomas: I’m including this one even though Mulan is more of a legend than a historical figure, because this retelling is so rooted in the history of 5th-century China. This YA novel centers not only Mulan, but other women she encounters on her journey, plus it has some really spectacular fight scenes, all rendered in Thomas’s typically wonderful writing.
  • Ribbons of Scarlet, by Kate Quinn, Sophie Perinot, Laura Kamoie, Stephanie Dray, E. Knight, and Heather Webb: This ambitious multi-authored project tracks six women across the French Revolution’s various phases, showcasing a variety of political opinions and socioeconomic realities. I really appreciated how the authors gave each heroine her own voice. Sophie de Grouchy and Charlotte Corday’s sections were probably my favorites, but each section of the book invests you in its characters and their trials navigating a period of upheaval and danger.
  • Glass Town Game, by Catherynne Valente: This book really is a fantasy, but I’m including it on this list anyway, because the heroines are the Brontë sisters as children! Who get transplanted, along with their brother, into a strange world derived from their games and imaginings. Somewhere between Wonderland, Narnia, and Fairyland, you’ll find Glass Town. This is a middle-grade novel, but I can highly recommend this flight of fancy for readers of all ages.
  • 46138193The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: A deep dive into a witch trial I had no idea existed, in 1620s Norway. This book is bleak and moody but absolutely enthralling, exploring the poisoned psyche and power dynamics in an isolated Arctic town. (FWIW, I’ve seen it positioned as a fantasy novel in a few places, but I would definitely place it firmly on the historical side of the fence. The narrative never really suggests that the folk magic some of the women get attacked for has actual magical force in the way you’d expect from a fantasy novel).
  • Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood: I read this after watching the miniseries, and only then realized that it was based on real historical events. Grace Marks, aged 16, was arrested in 1843 for the murder of her employer and his housekeeper/mistress. The trial was sensationalized, and it was never quite clear how culpable Grace was — but it makes for a gripping read, and the book unfolds in a way that unsettles the reader’s brain.

Non-Fiction

  • 36525023._SY475_Women & Power: A Manifesto, by Mary Beard: Look, Mary Beard is just awesome. This tract is a trumpet calling out the deeply ingrained misogyny of our world, in history and in the modern day. I’d love to read a deeper dive from her on the same topic.
  • Domina: The Women Who Made Imperial Rome, by Guy de la Bédoyère: I had some issues with this book taking Tacitus a little much at face value, but overall, it’s a solid exploration of the women of the Julio-Claudian dynasty — who are the only reason, Bédoyère frequently reminds us, that the dynasty existed at all. Particularly great is the examination of Roman feminine virtues and the way in which transgression could lead to both power and punishment.
  • Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin: I don’t read a lot of biographies, but I enjoyed this one. It goes into incredible detail about Jane Austen’s life and the world she was living in, lending color and context to her books. I only had a sketchy outline of her bio prior to reading this book, and mostly her early life at that (which, okay, I mostly got from watching Becoming Jane); this filled in a lot of those gaps.

And here are a few historical books on my TBR!

  • 40993442Bakhita, by Véronique Olmi
  • Queens of the Conquest, by Alison Weir
  • Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore, by Emma Southon
  • The Hidden Lives of Tudor Women: A Social History, by Elizabeth Norton
  • My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
  • Alison Weir’s Tudor Queens series
Bits of Fun

Book Recommendations 2019

Io Saturnalia, friends!

As the holiday season is upon us, I hope you’re having a lovely time, whatever and however you celebrate. And if you’re still looking for some gifts, allow me to recommend some books!

Everything on this list is something I read this year, which doesn’t necessarily mean it was published this year. I did read a lot of new things; I also did a lot of whittling down the TBR and catching-up on things I’d somehow missed. I read 116 books this year (so far! Still a couple of weeks left, after all) and enjoyed most of them! But in the interests of a somewhat-concise list, here are ten that I could most easily imagine a hypothetical ideal reader for:

9780735210936Because Internet, by Gretchen McCulloch
Buy it for: Whoever you know that’s addicted to the most social media platforms or that family member who still asks if you’re on the Google
Because Internet is an absolutely fascinating study at the language of the internet and how it has evolved over the past few decades. McCulloch dissects the informal written communication that has really only developed with the internet, how we learn it, how people of different ages and online entry points learn it differently, and how it keeps changing. I have flung this book at so many people.

9781524796280Fire & Blood, by George R R Martin
Buy it for: That friend who was losing her gd mind during the Game of Thrones final season
Fire & Blood will not be a five-star read for everyone, but if you’ve got a friend who seems to have encyclopedic knowledge of fictional universes, then this book will be a five-star for her as it was for me. This in-universe history of House Targaryen is wonderfully involved, but also a tongue-in-cheek examination of historiography and textual transmission. It’s a deep dive and perfect for the hyperfixation-prone geek in your life. I loved it so much I actually consumed it twice this year, once in print and once in audio.

9780756410261The Thorn of Dentonhill, by Marshall Ryan Maresca
Buy it for: Someone who loved Terry Pratchett’s Discworld
The Thorn of Dentonhill is the first in a truly epic series, though each book is a self-contained adventure. Overall, Maresca has written an astonishing twelve novels in the Maradaine saga, ten of which are currently out, following four different groups of citizens of Maradaine whose stories interweave with each other. (You could start with the first book in one of the other sub-series, but I read them in chronology of release). Maradaine is not so absurd a place as Ankh-Morpork, nor as overtly allegorical, but the stories share a street-level view of a complex fantasy realm. Our heroes often tack along different moral, ethical, and practical lines from each other, but all are sympathetic, compelling, and fascinating.

9781440348389Damn Fine Story, by Chuck Wendig
Buy it for: Your friend who spent November in a NaNoWriMo frenzy
Damn Fine Story is a great dissection of the craft of writing, composed with Wendig’s particular brand of incisive irreverence. I tend to be picky about craft books, because it’s so hard to find one with a tone I don’t find abrasive to my own sensibilities, but this one was a treat. It provides some basic storybuilding terminology, but it also breaks down a lot of the why stories work and how to use what you enjoy about the stories you love, as a consumer of fiction, to build compelling narratives as a writer.

9781683690436Geekerella, by Ashley Poston
Buy it for: A hopeless romantic who goes to nerd conventions like Dragon*Con or NYCC
Geekerella and its sequel, The Princess and the Fangirl, are just charming as all-get-out. These are YA romances built around the conceit of a Star Trek-esque show’s reboot and the subsequent fan fallout. The fairy-tale strains are clever without weighing down the stories, and the easter eggs for geeks are an absolute delight. These books are fresh, witty, and have so much heart. I found myself squealing out loud with pure joy at so many points in each one — and talking out loud to the characters, as though they could hear my advice.

9780062916075Ribbons of Scarlet, Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, Laura Kamoie, E. Knight, Sophie Perinot, Heather Webb
Buy it for: A virtuous citoyenne or readers who you often see with those historical novels where there’s a woman in period dress looking over a cityscape on the cover
Ribbons of Scarlet is the story of the French Revolution told through some of its women, and told by a collection of wonderful historical fiction authors. It offers a complex view, featuring women from all strata of society and all kinds of political opinions. You also see some of those opinions shift over time: under the pressures of the Revolution, some women become more radical, and some less.

9780062691316We Set the Dark on Fire, by Tehlor Kay Mejia
Buy it for: A reader who loved The Hunger Games and The Handmaid’s Tale
We Set the Dark on Fire is an absolutely gorgeously imagined dystopian tale set in a Latinx-flavored secondworld. The power negotiations in this book are intricate, layered, and dangerous. The world Mejia builds is intriguing and has curious mythological underpinnings. I absolutely love the twist that Mejia puts on the traditional YA dystopian love triangle; that alone would make the book worth reading. The heroine’s voice is also so strong and exciting.

9781984831927House of Salt and Sorrows, by Erin A. Craig
Buy it for: A reader who loves fairy tales
House of Salt and Sorrows is one of the most absorbing books I read all year. It’s a gothic mystery, a mythological epic, and an atmospheric fairy tale all wrapped up into one tale designed to consume a reader’s imagination. It goes to some seriously dark places, which took me by surprise and which I appreciated. Based very loosely on The 12 Dancing Princesses, this is a book to get lost in, and it would be particularly good to curl up with in the deep chill of winter.

51pcMG05OnL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_Great Goddesses, by Nikita Gill
Buy it for: A strident feminist still searching for beauty in a rough world
Great Goddesses is a stunning poetry collection — and I say this as someone who is not always a fan of poetry. Gill explores the women of Greek mythology, from the primordial forces of night and chaos to the titanesses and goddesses with incredible powers to the mortal women damaged by the gods’ designs. Each one is an indictment of patriarchy; many have a particularly vicious-glorious energy that I really enjoyed. It’s not always an easy read, since so many stories cut straight through heart and mind down to ichor and bone, but it’s cathartic and gorgeous.

9780062931795The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, by Olivia Waite
Buy it for: A romance novel reader with a sense of adventure or someone who liked Gentleman Jack but wants something a bit softer
The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is queer historical romance! Yes, thank you, more of this, please! It hits all the standard beats that a romance novel should, so you get that comfy and familiar feeling while reading it. It just happens to feature a f/f pairing. Both ladies are charming and interesting characters, and the focus on science within the story is also refreshing. I was reminded a lot of Courtney Milan’s and Lisa Kleypas’s books while reading this one.

So those are some focused recommendations! I encourage you to look for them at a local independent bookstore, if you can.

Other things I really enjoyed this year:

  • The Tethered Mage and sequels, Melissa Caruso
  • The Perfect Assassin and The Impossible Contract, K. A. Doore
  • Wanderers, Chuck Wendig
  • Lost Stars, Claudia Gray
  • The Temeraire series, Naomi Novik
  • Space Opera, Catherynne Valente
  • The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep, H. G. Parry
  • Rage, Cora Carmack
  • City of Brass, S. A. Chakraborty
  • The Magnolia Sword, Sherry Thomas
  • Fray, Rowenna Miller
  • Hello Stranger, Lisa Kleypas
  • Rebel Rising, Beth Revis
  • Enchantee, Gita Trelease
  • The Everlasting Rose, Dhonielle Clayton
  • The Borgia Confessions, Alyssa Palombo (forthcoming in 2020)
  • The Body in the Garden, Katharine Schellman (forthcoming in 2020!)
Images and Artwork

Word Cloud — Aven Cycle Book Two, Revised

Word Art

I turned in a new draft of Aven Cycle Book Two to my editor last week! And, as is traditional, I made a word cloud for it. The five most-often-used words in this draft (apart from articles and pronouns and such) are: Latona, Sempronius, Vibia, magic, more.

I’m glad to have this draft turned in, and I’m eager to hear what my editor thinks. The changes in this draft feel solid. The sequence of events is better paced, and the ending is a lot more emotionally-driven. It still needs some work, to be sure, but it feels like now that work can be polishing and smoothing, not full-on chiseling.

Bits of Fun

The Battle of Winterfell Predictions

I was going to do this on Twitter, but then I realized it would be too long and annoying to thread. This will obviously have spoilers for the whole series up to this point, including the first two episodes of Season 8. Read at your own risk.

So, here are my “who lives, who dies” predictions for Episode 3/The Battle of Winterfell (recognizing that it’s not impossible that the Battle will span more than one episode). Dead on the left, living on the right, and I’m stuck in the middle with you.

20190422_151341932_iOS

My guesses are grounded in my theory that the very last episode of the series will be winnowed down to essentially the same cast as the very first, excepting those who were dead before Season 8 started. If I weren’t committing myself to that, I think I’d have Theon and Bran on the other side of the chart. Theon definitely feels like noble sacrifice wight-fodder at this point, and it seems impossible that Bran’s “lure the Night King to the godswood” strategy is going to work, with three episodes left after this one, so they’d be easy to mark for death. I’m guessing, though, they have some plot armor to get them through to the endgame.

I also, broadly, think that those in possession of Valyrian steel will make it through Winterfell — which means Sam gave up his hall pass to Jorah. They just made such a big deal of the passing of that sword, it feels significant. I can easily see Jorah dying to protect Daenerys ultimately, but I don’t think it happens yet.

The exception to my Valyrian steel theory, however, is Brienne. I think she’s tragic toast. She was given too big a hero moment in episode 2, with the knighting. She got what she’s wanted her whole life. She’s been validated and supported by men she thinks well of. She’s been acknowledged. She’s happy. And so it feels like she’s reached the pinnacle of what the series would allow her and is going to go out in an epic act of heroism. Podrick probably goes down with her. (If this were a different kind of series, she’d be pulled back from that brink by someone, probably Jaime, reminding her that the problem with a death worthy of song is that you’re not around to enjoy the singing… But that’s not the sort of world this series lives in.)

Grey Worm made the mistake of making life plans for after the battle, which is hard to see as anything but a jinx.

Beric Dondarrion has been fighting for the Lord of Life for all of his improbably-prolonged life; it makes sense that he’d go down defending the living now. I’m thinking maybe he makes it through a lot of the battle and then does something heroic to help cover the retreat of the survivors.

Tormund has been excellent comic relief, but he’s really not necessary to anything going forward, and being a fan-favorite makes him an easy gut-stab for the audience.

The Hound, also, has been superfluous for a while now. Although… wait. He was in the first episode, wasn’t he? Damn. I might have to move him to the other column so as to be consistent with myself. Plus, it would give him the opportunity to finally engage with The Mountain, which the show has telegraphed a lot across the seasons. Okay, consider The Hound moved to the Dohaeris column. I had just genuinely forgotten he was in the first episode.

Royce is on the death list mostly because I only just remembered he’s still around? Representing the Vale, I guess? But he’d be an easy commander-figure to take out without actually offing any of the main characters. Same for Edd, really, which is a shame, because I enjoy Edd. But I think the 999th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch is destined for death, so that, however the endgame turns out, the next phase of Westeros opens appropriately symbolically with the 1000th. (Though it’s an interesting thought… if they really defeat the Night King, will a Watch and a rebuilt Wall be needed?)

Clearly something terrible is going to go down in the crypts, which is what will do for Gilly and Sam, I think. I’m not sure if I’m convinced of the theory that seems to have simultaneously occurred to the entire fandom just as Episode 2 ended, that the Night King will power-up all the dead Starks. (Though the Episode 3 preview might well be canting in that direction with Daenerys saying, “The dead are already here.”) My hesitation is because I can’t recall quite how firmly the world has established its own rules on how wights are created. I can’t remember if they need direct contact from a Walker or not. I feel like they do? Yes, early on, wights re-animate inside Castle Black, but it’s pretty clear they’d been turned before they were taken back there and had just been in stasis or something. So, if the corpses in the crypts are in a position to be re-animated, it seems like the people down there already have plenty to worry about. And that may well occur — or maybe the Night King’s magic will reach them without direct contact. One way or another, the frosting of the crypts in the teaser trailers and the focus they’re given in the opening credits both seem to signal something major happening there, and I don’t think it’s just that people keep deciding to have poorly-timed conversations in front of Lyanna’s tomb.

Speaking of Lyanna — the other Lyanna, that is — she’s another fan favorite, it would hurt to see her go, but she’s not critical to the plot. Yes, we might all want to see her set up as Queen of the North when the dust settles, but do we really think the series is going to give us that? No. They want to hurt us. I mean, imagine that little bundle of ferocity suddenly going blue-eyed. (Especially if she doesn’t die first and goes Walker, not wight? She’d be a hell of a lieutenant for the Night King to have on hand).

Gendry is a gamble on my part. He’s one I’d put on the bubble of survival. But I suspect he does something dumb and heroic on Arya’s behalf. (As Dany told us last season and as Sansa reminded us last episode, heroes are really fond of doing dumb things that get them killed for the sake of love). It’s possible that happens a little later on, though.

Varys I’d also put on the bubble. I’ve got him in the death column largely because he’s been so ignored this season so far. They don’t seem to be investing in his future as a character. I could also see, however, Melisandre miraculously turning up to help him out of a tight spot in a “It’s not quite our time yet” sort of way.

Davos lives to keep being our Everyman, at least a little while longer. Missandei lives to make it hurt more that Grey Worm dies.

And then, I think, Daenerys has to have her dragons set fire to Winterfell to cover the retreat and to save the fallen from becoming wights.

I would love to be wrong about any and all of these. I would love this to be a different kind of series, less nihilistic, where it felt like more people would get to enjoy the future they fight for. But, well, that’s what fanfic’s for.

Bits of Fun, General

False Starts

The theme this week over on the Deb Ball is “the manuscript in the drawer”, and I thought I’d expand a little bit upon what I wrote over there. I chatted about this on Twitter a while back, too. I have been, across my life, a prolific writer. Since the age of 11, when I decided I wanted to be a writer, I’ve started scores of projects. Honestly, it’s possibly hundreds — but that just sounds ludicrous, and lots of them were, like, single-page vague concepts anyway, so I usually just say scores.

The point is that From Unseen Fire is my first book on the shelves, but it’s so far from my first book that I hardly know where to begin. Here’s just a sampling of some of the things I’ve worked on in the past twenty-one years: 

  • Age 13, a cyberpunk novel written at the behest of my 8th grade English teacher. We were supposed to write 50 pages of something over the course of the whole year. I turned in a 300-page novel. I’m pretty sure my teacher was both proud of my dedication and a bit dismayed at having to grade that mess. As I recall, the plot consisted of lots of spying and subterfuge to save a futuristic empire from a maniac warlord, or something. My parents read it and were alarmed that I knew what a concubine was.
  • Phantom of the Opera from the POV of the corps de ballet, cowritten with a friend. It was filled with every cliche trope you could possibly imagine — torrid love affairs, heroines struck down with blindness and/or tuberculosis, the Opera House catching fire, main characters madly in love with our not-at-all-self-insert OCs… the whole shebang. We role-played a lot of it out, too.
  • Something I started around age 14 that would have been sort of like Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives — fantasy focused around a competition w/ rebellion knitted in. Hero’s journey with female lead, too. This is one I had completely forgotten about until I tripped over it while combing through old files. I feel like a lot of “I’ve started to read fantasy books yet am not finding myself in any of them because it’s all boys doing boy things, well, to heck with that” attitude fueled this one.
  • “Wings of Glory”, which was something with…bird people? I don’t even know. I wrote a few highly dramatic interpersonal scenes but had no greater plot.
  • “Fire”, a secondworld fantasy that actually held the seeds of what would become the magic system of the Aven Cycle. There was a princess who did a lot of questing. This one I actually finished, about age 16, I think?
  • Young CassSo. Much. Fanfic. Starting with a Star Wars series called “Days of the Alliance”, written and rewritten many times from ages 12-mid 20s, most recently with the characters as morally-grey Rebel SpecOps. My middle and high school friends got this distributed to them via inbox. I had learned a painful lesson about sharing anything to the Star Wars section of fanfiction.net, particularly if you had the nerve to be a girl writing these things, so I kept most of this closer to the chest — but I had the delightful experience of having friends begging me for updates!
    (Dear Disney: I’d still super love to write this for real; call me).
    Later on, through college, the fanfic was mostly Harry Potter based. I spent a lot of time exploring Bellatrix Black, Sirius Black, and Rowena Ravenclaw, in particular. The Blacks just fascinated me in a sort of Jungian “explore the dark mirror of your own nature” sort of way, while with Rowena and the other Founders, I was determined to write a more historically-appropriate version of the Founding of Hogwarts, since JK Rowling apparently can’t distinguish pre-Norman England from the 15th century. Then, post-grad-school, my attention turned towards Wizarding America, in concert with two of my besties, and we wrote a ton of material for a Tumblr Blog that was very successful right up until JK started trying to write America, which she does so poorly that it depressed us into giving up. (JK Rowling does. not. understand. this country).
  • A dystopia set in rural Virginia, also written and rewritten many times from about ages 16 on. In senior year of college, I re-envisioned it in my screenwriting class and ended up polishing it to the point where I felt willing to submit it to contests. It actually made it to the semi-finals of the Final Draft competition (a fairly large and well-known one) in 2011!
  • Map“Relics”, a rewrite of “Fire” in my early twenties that was somewhat better but still groaning under the weight of fantasy tropes. In this version, the questing princess had a bit more of a purpose: she had to go looking for the sacred relics that represented the eight magical elements of her world. (I told you it contained the seeds of the Aven Cycle’s magical system; I’ve been thinking about these things for a long time). This project was also a ridiculous worldbuilding timesuck. I’m pretty sure I charted the royal family tree back, like, eighteen generations. But, hey, if George R R Martin can get away with it…
    (Also, looking at that map helps me pinpoint roughly when my handwriting cemented into its adult form).
  • A Trojan War retelling from the viewpoint of (of course) the prophetess Cassandra.
  • Steampunk Camelot. Honestly this one never got much farther than that general idea. Might be fun to revisit as a sort of Celtopunk project instead?
  • A few false-starts at Regency romances. I figure I read enough of them, why not give writing them a try? Answer: I get too bogged down in the history.
  • An Aladdin retelling set in the pre-Islamic Sassanid empire. This one I’d love to pick up again at some point when I can do the grad school level research required.
  • A high tech Trojan War set in outer space, where Troy is a space station & its walls are impenetrable force fields. Also never got much further than concept.
  • A story of the Fae set in Williamsburg VA in the 1760s. Another one I’d like to revive. Maybe as a short story?
  • “The Antares Project”, a steampunk AU I’ve been dabbling with since ‘06. This is the one I blogged about for the Deb Ball this week. It has a great world (based on if the US lost the War of 1812) and fantastic cast that I adore and no plot. A lot of great scenes written. No coherent story. Sigh.
  • And then the two I’m *actually* working on now in addition to Book Two: the Julie d’Aubigny-inspired space opera romp, and a secondworld fantasy with star-based magic.

And that list is so partial, y’all. Just the major things that sprung to mind. If I combed my files and old notebooks, there are so, so many more kernels. There are probably a bunch I have literally no memory of. Because I keep it all — I seriously never delete anything, and I’ve never thrown out a writing notebook. They’re all there, waiting, in boxes that are currently in storage. On my computer, the files are are all neatly archived away. But they’re there. Some of them I may never look at again. Some may only get glanced at with fond remembrance for the child I once was. Some may have good bits I can cannibalize and reconfigure. Some may actually be worth reviving.CMd4-9AUYAEmhZP

I don’t feel that any of them were wasted effort.

Because the thing is this: If you want to be a writer, write.

Write things that don’t work. Write character profiles you never use. Write stories that don’t get past the first page. Write down hazy ides that come to you in dreams. Write ridiculous self-insert fanfic.

Yes, you do have to finish something eventually, if you want to publish, but all the false starts have value, too. It’s all training.

I’m so glad I’ve spent so much of my life playing with words.


If you’re interested in seeing bits and pieces of some of these false starts, join my Patreon! I share snippets of them from time to time — even the embarrassing juvenilia! 😉 

Bits of Fun

Which elemental magic would you wield?

Here’s your chance to find out what sort of mage you could be in the world of Aven!

Which elemental magic would you wield?

Take the quiz, find out what god or goddess has blessed you, then share your newfound powers with the world by posting your results to FB, Twitter, Pinterest, all over.

I am, of course, Spirit. 😉

AvenQuiz-Spirit

I’m super-curious to see what results folk get, so if you haven’t already told me on other social media, comment here with what element you control!

And, for the next week, there’s also a link to a new giveaway sweepstakes for an advance copy of From Unseen Fire at the bottom of the quiz, so don’t miss out!