Personal

What I Learned at Summer Camp

As many of y’all know, I spent this summer working for Plato Learning, a company that runs mythology-themed summer camps all over the country. They’re inspired by and somewhat based off of the Percy Jackson series, none of which I had read before applying for the position. (I’m ten books in now). My job, as Quest Director and Chronicler, was to immerse the campers into the mythological world of Camp Half-Blood.

The whole experience was wild, and I loved it so much. Even when it was stressful, even when I was tired, even when it was 95 degrees and 99% humidity outside (which was every day except one). I’ve never worked with that age group (7-13yos) in so much depth. We’d occasionally do middle school workshops at the ASC, and sometimes I’d have tours for elementary schoolers, but most of my work there was with high schoolers and college students. My K-5 work at the science museum was very hit-and-run, 45 minutes with a class and then out. So this was new for me, but a lot of fun, because I actually love this age group. They’re old enough to be somewhat independent, they don’t need constant hand-holding, but they’re (mostly) not so old that they’ve abandoned make-believe. (This varies by kid, of course; some are 40 years old when they’re 5, whereas I, obviously, have never actually outgrown fantasy play).

Blonde woman in an orange racerback tank; her hair braided with dandelions

So here are some things I learned at summer camp:

Kids Make Friends So Freaking Easily

Seriously. This is a skill children have that adults have forgotten. Put kids together in a group, and they’ll immediately sort out a social hierarchy with the ruthless efficiency of a pack of hyenas. Like a bunch of stray protons, neutrons, and electrons, they gravitate into molecules. It takes basically no time.

Established units can be hard to break into, mind you. If two kids came already friends, they sometimes needed nudging to branch out and include other people. That happened more with our sets of girls who came pre-packaged than with, say, sibling units — who were often perfectly happy to be separated.

But it’s just amazing to watch these total strangers figure out, in the space of a morning, who they share interests with, who they like to play with, who they want to be on a team with. It was brilliant to watch the older campers who were willing to take on a mentorship role with our itty-bitties.

Kids Worry Too Much about Being Cool

Okay, some adults do this, too, but there were so many times this summer when I wanted to take a kid aside and just be like, “Look, you can keep trying to be ‘cool’, whatever that’s even supposed to mean, or you can lean into the story of what we’re doing here. I promise you will have a better time if you lean into the story.” Every single camper that didn’t enjoy camp was a kid more worried about being cool than having fun. A few campers fell into a really interesting place, where I could tell they were on that cusp — old enough to start to feel that worry, but they could still be lured into forgetting it. Who they were around mattered a lot — those social groups they instantly formed weren’t always a good thing.

Take this one kid. Let’s call him Eric. Eric, week one, paired off super fast with another kid, who we’ll call Trey. Trey was a mopey zoo lion. He had his own problems with divorcing parents and being hyper over-scheduled — not a bad kid, but he tended to become A Problem because he was just absolutely not in the headspace to enjoy this camp. This camp has a fairly high level of buy-in necessary! You have to be willing to play make-believe. And Trey did not have the spoons to spare for that. Eric did. Eric wanted to be into it. Not always in the best ways — he was one of our murderbeasts who frequently had to be reminded of heroic conduct during swordfighting — but he wanted to be in the world. Unless he was hanging out with Trey. When they were together, they got into this awful feedback loop which led them to be disruptive, bully other kids, deride all our activities as “so cringe,” and generally make me want to dunk them in the lake.

Trey phased himself out and stopped coming to camp. And when he wasn’t there, Eric was so much easier to handle. Still a wildly energetic little murderbeast, but one who was playing the game. Playing it so hard that we almost had to tackle him sometimes, but also — in a moment that made me so proud I could’ve cried — the first kid to put down his sword and show compassion for one of the monsters the campers needed to befriend rather than attack. Once he let himself go and stopped worrying about how other people were judging him, he was fully immersed.

So many times during camp, I was grateful that I realized very early in life that cool was never going to be an option for me. I had to lean into weird, and I did so with gusto.

The Buy-In

Mind you, once you get the kids to buy-in, they do so whole-heartedly. The kids who were there for the game — even though they were plenty old enough to understand the difference between fiction and reality — went all in. These were my favorite kids, honestly. The ones who wanted to unravel every riddle. Who were convinced every single thing they found in the forest was a clue — not just the things that were part of the Quest, but, well… Litter. Broken twigs. Park signs. Bird feathers. Mortals.

Yeah, kids. You reject that reality and substitute your own. Go for it.

GIF: Pocahontas jumping off a cliff into water, captioned "I regret nothing"

What’s particularly wonderful is the ability they have to terrify themselves once they get into it. I was most proud of this with my monsters the last week, which were as creepy as I could make them on a budget. And the kids did not want to fight them. They were petrified. I had never heard them so quiet as when they were trying to sneak past these ghoulish creatures.

I remember that feeling, where the boundary between reality and imagination blurs. Where you manage to psych yourself up and actually feel the thrill of fear, the heart-pounding exultation of Being On A Quest. I miss it, not infrequently, but you hit a certain point of adulthood and it just gets harder and harder to summon. Getting to be the person who built it for someone else, though? That was fun.

Pratchett Was Right

I mean, he generally is. But what I said above about the murderbeasts? I’m thinking specifically about when, in Hogfather, Pratchett wisely tells us:

Most people forgot that the oldest stories are, sooner or later, about blood. Later on they took the blood out to make the stories more acceptable to children, or at least to the people who had to read them to children rather than to the children themselves (who, on the whole, are quote keen on blood provided it’s being shed by the deserving*), and then wondered where the stories went.

*That is to say, those who deserve to shed blood. Or possibly not. You never quite know with kids.

I’ve always been vaguely aware that, yes, this is correct. But it came into sharp focus when I realized I was spending a significant amount of any given day telling the campers that, no, they could not sacrifice one of their number to the gods. No, they could not sacrifice me, either. No, not their counselor. No, you may not catch a lizard and sacrifice it. No, you may not sacrifice a mortal (our term for the mundane folk wandering the park, often quite oblivious to our chaos). No sacrifices, I swear to Juno, if I have to tell you again!

We also tried to steer them away from language of death and killing when it came to dueling, whether each other or the monsters and villains that showed up during Quest Day. The idea is to defeat them, stun them if you have to (which is what our foam swords are designed to do), but murder is not heroic. (Never mind the example set by… Well, basically every Greek hero in the traditional mold. And most of the Celts. And the Norse. It’s been 3000 years; we’re supposed to have evolved from them — and several of our Quests did include things like Odysseus and Perseus apologizing for all the morally questionable things they did back in the day). We were more successful with some kids than others.

GIF: Theoden, raising his sword, screaming "DEATH"

Also, Cults

This, I knew instinctively and from my own youthful experiences, but these kids verified it for me. Leave a group of children to their own devices long enough — and it won’t take long — and give them liberty of imagination, and they will inevitably start a cult.

We had at least three in in four weeks, that I was aware of. One was to a pig-god of their own invention. One involved T-posing. (I’m still not really sure what that is; I am assured it’s a TikTok thing; no, I am not asking for further information.) One was dedicated to the turtles in the lake. They came up with chants. They performed summonses. And, of course, they wanted to perform sacrifices, because what good is a cult without sacrifice?

They’re Here; They’re Queer; I’m Jealous

I think one of the things that surprised me the most was that we had a few queer kids in every week. Some were very certain of themselves; some were still exploring, testing out new names or pronouns, trying on new identities. Which is fine, by the way! “It’s just a phase”, okay, so? That’s how kids discover who they are. They try things on to see what fits. Let them. I really love that camp was a safe place for them to do that. There were a few who wanted us to use one name with them during the day, but not use it in front of their parents.

What gobsmacked me, though, was how comfortable most of them were with it. The ideas weren’t baked-in for everyone. I overheard — and monitored — several conversations about what “trans” and “nonbinary” mean, but I didn’t hear any meanness about those things. Confusion, lack of awareness from some, yeah; but once it was explained, they pretty much all just shrugged and went on with the day. And so many kids already had that language. That was what astonished me! This one little boy, in discussing who his “godly parent” or patron might be, talked about Apollo. And he went on about different things, liking music, liking to be out in the sun, and so forth. Then he quite casually adds, “Plus, he’s bisexual and I’m bisexual, so that’s cool.”

Ten years old. Just pops out with that.

I was fully eighteen before I was able to reconcile that within myself, even though in a lot of ways it should have been staggeringly obvious well before then. But I didn’t have the language, and I didn’t have the comfort. I only knew a few people who were openly queer in some way (then; many have turned out to be in the course of time), and it was still much more furtively discussed. The counselors, who aren’t that much older than these kids, but enough to be just slightly more towards youngest-Millennials/oldest-Zoomers than these late-Zoomers/early-Alphas (is that really what we’re calling the post-Zoomers? Ugh), were also astonished. In just a few years, the awareness and acceptance has radically accelerated. (Representation matters, y’all).

A Week Is Long, But Not Long Enough

It’s amazing how much you can get to know a kid in a week, even at just a day camp like this one. Their personalities are so open, so much on display, and at that age, they’re so eager to tell you who they are and what they like!

But there’s a difficult side to that, too. A week is long enough to get a glimpse into their lives — and to see which kids, like Trey, are having a rough time. Or the kid with anger management issues and a lot of self-blame about them, who I had to talk down out of a couple of shame spirals. Or the hyper-competitive daughters of Nike whose bullying behavior could, I figured out, be traced to and in no small part blamed on a sports coach that appears to be an absolute monster.

I can learn those things in a week. But I can’t fix them. A week — or two or three, even, since we had some campers join us for more of the month — just isn’t enough time to dig in and really deal with the hard issues. I was surprised at how rough that was on me, and it made me realize that if I were to have a job where I was with kids full-time, like an elementary school teacher, I would just be perpetually emotionally exhausted. And I’m not a therapist or anyone else with actual training in dealing with those issues, anyway. I’m just a person who’s dealt with her own share of bad stuff and has developed some tools to deal with it.

The best I could do, I realized, was just… try to be a counterpoint in their lives. An example of something other than what they’d been taught by toxic influences. To show empathy and compassion, to say some words that I have found useful and meaningful in tough times, and to hope they remember that later.

GIF: Cinderella, "We must simply have courage and be kind, mustn't we?"

So those are the things, by and large, that I learned at summer camp.

It was awesome. I want to keep doing this. Yes, a lot about it was challenging, but I loved being responsible for building a fantasy world, and these kids are fascinating and just so much fun.

Personal

Twenty Years

It’s taken me a year to write this post.

I knew it was coming, of course. Last year was nineteen, so this year is twenty. Most years, I spend the eleventh day of September engaging with social media very tentatively. I mute a lot of terms. I don’t like the reminders.

Part of me hates that I’ve written this at all.

I was nine days shy of my sixteenth birthday, a junior in high school. I went to a magnet school, and that year we had transferred into a newly renovated building, so everything was so very shiny and new. I was still getting used to the layout and the fastest way to get from one class to another. I hated the “ergonomic” seats, which were oddly balanced and kept snagging my hair. That morning, I was in physics class, at a table near the door. We were doing something — I don’t remember what. It was still early in the year, but we were running some activity in small groups, maybe on velocity. The teacher wasn’t lecturing, I know that, because I was near enough the door to hear when another teacher came in and whispered to mine that a plane had crashed into the Twin Towers. ‘My gods,’ I thought, ‘what a terrible accident.’

If I’m remembering correctly, that class period ran from roughly 8:30 to 9:45. I may be off by five or ten minutes; it’s been a while. It’s been twenty years. I can’t line up exactly when we knew what early on, but by the time class ended, we were aware that it hadn’t been an accident, that there had been a second plane hitting the second tower. That happened at 9:02am. I think it had happened already by the time we heard about the first one, but information was filtering down to us in layers, you understand. Someone not teaching who had a radio or tv on heard something, and went to tell someone else, who went to tell someone else, and at that point, no one was telling the kids anything. We were overhearing hushed conversations and then whispering amongst ourselves.

Those whispers turned into a roar when the classes changed. The kids who’d been in study hall, and thus able to use computers during that hour, started spreading what they knew. And that, I think — and it seems so strange now, that certain moments of this day are embedded in my memory, and other things I can’t quite piece together — was when I heard that, at 9:37am, a plane had crashed into the Pentagon.

I sat down in my next class — 9:50am? Or thereabouts? — and began, very quietly, losing my shit.

My father, I knew, was on his way to the Pentagon that morning.

He worked in the Department of Public Safety in Virginia, and it was very normal for him to have meetings at the Pentagon. Not an every day or even every week occurrence, but nothing out of the ordinary. He was part of an anti-terrorism task force. He worked with the FBI and CIA and generals and Cabinet Secretaries. It was normal.

He had dropped me off at school, because I was still nine days away from being able to drive myself, and he was on his way to the Pentagon, and now a plane had hit the Pentagon.

Now, had I been in my right wits, I would have done the math. There was really no way he could’ve made it from downtown Richmond at 8:20am and been at the Pentagon by 9:37am. But it was nearly 10:00am by then, which was plausible if still unlikely, given I-95’s weekday traffic, and I don’t think I was sure then exactly when that strike had happened. We were all confused and frightened, and a fifteen year old’s brain is only but so well equipped to handle the onslaught of emotions and stress. So I was freaking out.

My creative writing teacher — the incredible Bear O’Bryan — walked into our room, always kept gloomy with low lights, wearing a stormy expression. He switched the radio on to NPR, said “Take notes,” and sat down. And that was it, for the next half hour or so. We mostly didn’t even talk. We listened, horror-struck, as the North Tower collapsed. (The South Tower had, I think, fallen during the change between classes). And then we heard that a flight had gone down in Pennsylvania.

I think that was when I really started losing my shit. Shaking and trying not to cry, because I was suddenly so afraid for my father. And Bear, wonderful, empathetic teacher that he was, noticed. He came up behind me and very quietly said, “Is there someone you need to call?” I nodded; I couldn’t even speak, because if I did, I was going to start sobbing. “Go.”

So I rushed to my locker — which seems so quaint now, when I think the battle to keep cell phones out of classrooms has been entirely lost. Back then, we weren’t even supposed to have them in school, but my parents insisted, and as long as I kept it switched off and in my locker all day, who would ever know? Well, I switched it on and dialed my father in a state of absolute panic, just daring someone to come find me in the hall and tell me I couldn’t have it. (Bear would have had my back; I knew that for certain).

My dad was fine. He’d been turned around halfway up 95 and was with the governor, back in Richmond. I think that was the first time in my life I knew what it was to be “sick with relief.” Everything that flooded through me then turned my stomach. Dad didn’t know when he’d be home — and my mother was in New Mexico for a conference, so I’d have to take care of my sister (then nine years old) tonight. Could I do that?

I guess? I had no idea. I was nine days from having a driver’s license. I promised him I would. There was really no choice. I’d have to try.

I don’t remember most of the rest of the day until I got home. I’m sure I spent lunch with my usual set of drama club friends. We must’ve been in the drama room; we always were, when we could be. I had Bear again, for AP Lit, after lunch. I can’t remember what my last class of the day was. Maybe Latin? Yes, I think it was Latin. After-school activities must have been cancelled, or else I would’ve had drama club. Or did I skip Fall Festival prep to go home to my sister? I can’t remember.

My sister was in the fifth grade. So I got to explain terrorism to a nine year old.

Mama had instructed me to stay online, because she and Dad would use email to be in touch. This was before smartphones, but they had Blackberries. The cell phone networks were jammed and unreliable, though. I hadn’t heard from Dad since calling him during 4th period. I made Cait do her homework and take a shower. I think we ordered pizza? Mama also told us not to watch tv, and while I obeyed her in that, I was getting a constant stream of information online.

I didn’t go to school the next day. Henrico must have cancelled, and since my nine year old sister couldn’t be left home alone, I stayed home, too. I remember being angry about that, because I wanted to hug my friends. It took Mama days to get home, because the airports were still shut down, so she and her colleagues drove back to New Mexico from Virginia. And Daddy was busy with the governor.

Over the next few weeks, I remember being torn between getting swept up in the patriotic fervor that seized the nation, and being terrified there was going to be a war.

Sweet summer child.

At some point that fall, my dad packed a cooler full of MREs and told me if something happened in Richmond — they were very worried about the Federal Bank being a target — I should take my sister and drive west. (He claims to have no memory of having done this, but it sure made an impression on me).

Trauma is ongoing. A lot of this story and how it touched my family for many years afterwards, and continues to, isn’t mine to tell. A lot of it is the stuff that touched my entire generation, all of us who were old enough to remember but not quite adults yet. And the fallout went on for years, is still happening. I remember opposing the Patriot Act, wearing black ribbons to school. I remember Colin Powell trying to sell the UN on falsehoods to justify a war. (The local news came to my AP Gov class to get our reactions; we were underwhelmed, unconvinced, unimpressed. I seem to recall they didn’t use a lot of our interviews in the actual broadcast, but relied just on the B-roll they took of us watching attentively). I remember the security theatre that mushroomed up, the trading of liberty for security that happened in increments, all of us boiling frogs.

Part of me hates that I’ve written this. Part of me hates dredging up the memory of adrenaline. A lot of me hates how it all gets flashed about every September, and I know it’ll be so much worse today, all over the media that I’ll be dedicatedly avoiding. So why did I? Why am I contributing to that public swell of tainted nostalgia?

I don’t know. I’m a writer who loves history. Marking important events and how they’re perceived later on is an instinct. It felt important to remember, even if I hate remembering, in more detail than I’ve allowed myself to do in a really long time, and to record that remembrance.

Many of my students weren’t born yet when this happened. None of my campers were. This day is something that has shaped their lives, but they’re a step or two removed from its reality. They have no memory of a day that is in some ways so vivid in my recollection, and in some ways a blur, or even a void. (Trauma is weird). I wonder what context they have, what connections they see. They didn’t experience firsthand how that day changed what “patriotism” meant in a fundamental way, how it became a poison and a weapon (not for the first time; certainly it long has been for some communities, but in a way that seems more all-consuming, more a total paradigm shift). They didn’t live through the steps that took us, inexorably but not inevitably, from 9-11 to 1-6.

I don’t know why I wrote this, and so I don’t know how to end it. I suppose with a reminder that dissent is patriotic, that the best thing you can do for a nation you care about is hold it to account, and that my optimistic heart still believes it’s possible to change course from the one that fear put us on twenty years ago.

General, Personal

Student Q&A

Back in November, I had the great joy of getting to “visit” (via video chat) a creative writing class at Clover Hill High School in Chesterfield County, VA — just south of where I grew up and currently live! They were participating in NaNoWriMo, and their teacher asked if I’d come speak as someone who had done Nano for a lot of years and was now living the writerly life. I was delighted to oblige.

Their questions were fantastic and thoughtful, and I really enjoyed chatting with them! With their teacher’s permission, I wanted to share some of those astute questions and my answers more publicly:

Did you start writing for fun or was this something you always wanted?

I’ve always been a storyteller, but when I was 11, I decided I wanted to be a novelist. Since then, there’s really been no stopping me. I don’t see writing for fun and writing professionally as mutually exclusive, though! I love the things I write professionally, but I also still write occasional fanfiction purely for my own pleasure.

Was there a particular teacher or friend or another person you knew personally that influenced you to become a writer?

I had several teachers who did a lot to boost my confidence. Bear O’Bryan, to whom From Unseen Fire is dedicated, was my creative writing teacher in high school. He was the first one to tell me that I could really, really do this. Actually, what he said was, “We’ll be studying you someday,” which I think is over-optimistic when it comes to literature classes’ general engagement with fantasy books, but! it was incredibly affirming to hear.

Do your parents support your writing? And if so, does that make things easier or harder on you?

This is an incredibly astute question from someone whom I am guessing has parents a lot like mine! Yes, my parents are incredibly supportive. They are my biggest fans and loudest cheerleaders. I am so, so grateful that for 24 years, they have believed in me and in my ability to do this. But it can be a weird sort of stressful, too! They love me so much that they can’t always understand why the rest of the world hasn’t caught on. I have to temper their expectations sometimes, which is hard when I also want to make them proud!

How do you get over writer’s block?

First, by not believing in it.

It’s like the Fae. If you name it, you give it power. If I’m having trouble focusing on writing, it usually means one of two things is going on: there’s something wrong with the story or there’s something wrong with me. If there’s something wrong with me — if I’m having a high anxiety day or a depressive fit, or if there’s something external with family or friends or work putting pressure on me, then I need to give myself room for that. Some days, the juice is just plain not there, and I can’t force it. If there’s something wrong with the story, then I need to figure out what that is. What pieces aren’t fitting together? What character is being railroaded into an action that isn’t right for them? Where am I going through contortions trying to justify a plot element?

So the better question is: How do I generate new words when I’m struggling and it isn’t a moment when I need to grant myself grace? When I need to buckle down but am having trouble doing so? There are a few things I try:

  • Change the scene: Sometimes I just need to jump to a new place in the narrative in order to reinvigorate my attention span.
  • Change the POV: Sometimes I’m trying to write a scene from the wrong character’s perspective — or I might have put them into a situation that’s wrong for them, an action that goes against the grain of their character.
  • Sprinting: This works particularly well during NaNo seasons, when there are word sprints on Twitter, but I can force myself to do it on my own using a good timing app.

How do you generate new ideas for writing?

Too few ideas has never been my problem. Too many is. I have to figure out what ideas are workable. That’s where the heavy lifting of being a writer comes in.

Where do I find inspiration? History and art. History is full of so many interesting stories, but what I really love is social history, how people have lived their lives throughout time. Art reflects that through a lot of lenses, cultural and aesthetic and political. I love looking at paintings and statues to see how artists represent themselves and the past, figuring out whether they’re presenting something realistic or idealized.

Unconscious Rivals, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1898

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Yes.

How much do you write in a day?

Utterly depends on the day and the kind of work I’m doing. During NaNoWriMo, the goal is 1667, and I usually do a pretty good job with that. Some days, I can go way past that, when I get into a really good flow. Other times, I might struggle to hit 200 in a day.

Editing is a different kind of work where the word count isn’t what’s important. I might be restructuring scenes, I might be condensing bloated scenes or plotlines, I might be staring at the screen trying to figure out what mystical ingredient I’m still missing that makes this perfect. That’s all work, too.

It’s important to remember, too, that “more words” does not always equal “better words”. A 2500 word day is not superior to a 200 word day if those 2500 words are self-indulgent padding or a pointless digression that I’ll end up cutting later on. The challenge is always finding the right words. I track my progress each day for the sake of accountability, to make sure I’m at my desk and focusing, but that can’t be the only measure I validate myself by.

Do you ever feel tired of writing?

I don’t think “tired of” is the right phrasing. I get frustrated with it, when I can’t figure out the solution to a plot problem. I get aggravated when the pieces aren’t coming together as well or as quickly as I’d like. And there’s a lot in the publishing realm that’s mentally and emotionally challenging in a whole different way, separate from the writing work itself.

There are times when I’m simply not in the right headspace to write. I have to acknowledge that and give myself room for it. When anxiety and depression are eating me, or when I have 80 papers to grade in a short span of time, or when, for instance, armed maniacs storm the Capitol and try to dismantle our republic, I have to give myself permission to have “off” days!

What’s the process for publishing a book and what’s necessary in order to get it ready for publication?

So, a caveat: This will look different for everyone. No one’s path is exactly the same as anyone else’s. I’ll also be talking about traditional publishing, which is different from the process for a hybrid author or a self-publishing author.

  • Write the book. Edit it. Get some beta readers — people who will read the book carefully and give you thoughtful commentary on it. (There are helpful guides online if you’re not sure what to ask them!) Edit it some more based on their feedback.
  • Query an agent. There’s a lot of advice out there on how to do this; broadly you want to make sure you’re choosing agents who are right for you and your book (ie, don’t query someone who doesn’t represent your genre) and you want to follow whatever guidelines are on their website. They may request either a partial or a full manuscript if they want to see more.
  • If you get signed, they may or may not take the book out “on sub” immediately. “On sub” means that your agent is submitting your book to editors at publishing houses. My agent, Connor, is an editorial agent; we did months’ worth of edits on From Unseen Fire before he took it out — and then we did some more when the first round of submissions didn’t land us a deal.
  • When an editor likes your book, they may still have to justify that to a board for approval. If the board says no, there’s still no deal. This happened to me; it happens to lots of authors. I mention it because it’s a part of the process that not many people talk about publicly, but it can be so nerve-wracking to wait for that news. I wish there were more resources preparing authors for being on sub the way there are so many resources for querying.
  • When an editor makes an offer, your agent will negotiate the contract. Connor got me a 3-book deal off of one manuscript and managed to hold onto audio and other rights so that we could sell those separately.
  • Then the editor has at it. You’ll generally have several rounds of editing, starting with developmental edits, which covers the big structural stuff — plotlines, character arcs, pacing, etc. There may be a lot or a little to work on there! From Unseen Fire still needed heavy lifting when it got acquired; Give Way to Night was already tighter by the time my editor saw it. Then, line edits, which addresses your word choice, sentence flow, the detailed stuff. Copy edits check for errors and consistency. Then, finally, proofreading makes sure the print copy is going to look exactly the way you want it to! (In theory; the occasional typo will still get through even if many eyes have been on it!)
  • Somewhere in there, you start talking about cover art, jacket copy, getting blurbs, and it’s all quite terrifying, because that’s when it starts to hit you that this is real and really happening and actual people are going to read it.

How long did it take you to write From Unseen Fire? How about Give Way to Night?

The drafting of FUF began in November 2011 (it was a Nano project!), and I finished it in June of the following year. Not every month was a heavy writing month — I feel like March and April I really slacked off because they were such busy months where I was working then. And then it took the rest of that year to edit into a shape that was ready for querying. Edits happened with both Connor and the DAW team, so it was almost six and a half years from initial drafting to on-the-shelf.

GWtN took longer to draft, even though the overall process was shorter. Some of that material was stuff that had been excised from FUF, so you’d think I’d have a head start — but so much of FUF changed during various rounds of editing that not much was useable as-is. I had to do a lot of alteration of that material to make it fit the new arcs. Then, I was also trying to write it during what was a very difficult year for me personally — and as a result, it took a long time to write what was not a very good book on the first try. The revision took about another six months, and that was much better, much stronger. I learned a lot through that whole process, with the result that I think Give Way to Night is an even better book than From Unseen Fire.

What’s the difference between writing the first book and then the second one?

Expectations. The first book, I wrote with a lot of hope, but with no one’s voice in my head but me. The second book, suddenly there are all these other voices. I was trying to make so many people happy — not just me, not even just my editor, but everyone who had read From Unseen Fire. I wanted to improve the things they thought were weak and give them more of what they thought were strong.

The problem, of course, is that not all readers agreed! I got really self-conscious about the things that readers criticized, but it was almost harder when there was, say, a character that some readers loved and others thought was pointless and boring. What do I do with that??The answer: Ignore it.

This is part of what took Give Way to Night so long to draft on the first go. I hadn’t yet learned how to tune out all that extra noise. I had to recommit myself to telling the story I wanted to tell.

I also learned my lesson about reading reviews. I don’t do it anymore. I have someone I trust look at them for me occasionally and send me the best comments.

Is it scary putting writing out there in the world and waiting for people to respond to it?

Yes. Horrifying. That in-between place when it’s done and dusted but no one’s read it yet is an absolute nightmare, because at that point, it’s out of my control. All I can do is hope I wrote a strong book.

Worldbuilding is a really big task and can be as detailed as an author wants. Where do you typically start when building a world (setting, character, theme, etc.)?

I tend to begin with an aesthetic. I have a sense of what the world looks like. That’s typically influenced by history. For the Aven Cycle, it’s late Republic Rome. For other projects I currently have on the back burner, it’s late-medieval Byzantium and early modern London. Then I start putting together characters to move around inside that world. I may still be designing the world at the same time! But I sort of build the dollhouse and the dolls simultaneously. One informs the other so much that it’s difficult to pull apart.

Cast of Henry V, American Shakespeare Center, 2015/2016; Photo by Tommy Thompson

Is it difficult to keep track of character development from one novel to another?

No. Not for me, at least. Other authors’ mileage may certainly vary. I know who my characters are. If I have one particular strength as a writer, I think that’s it. So I have a strong sense of who they are at any given point in time, how they respond to pressure points, how they developed as they grew older, what they’ll grow into in the future, all of that. I can manipulate the world around them and easily see how they’ll react.

Now — Keeping track of eye color, ages, things like that, yes, that can be rough, especially for the tertiary and functionary characters that I spend less time with. I have spreadsheets for that and I still screw it up.

How do you write about characters or worlds that you haven’t experienced yourself?

A lot of research. Never-ending research, really, because it’s not just research about one historical period or place; it’s research about people and how we live. I try to expose myself to new ideas and to stories outside of my own life experience, so that I get a broader view of what moves and shakes people. I read a lot, fiction and nonfiction. I listen to a lot of podcasts. I never want to stop learning.


Thanks again to the students of Clover Hill for such wonderful questions! I hope my answers were in some way helpful.


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General, Personal

Hustle and Bustle, and the Dangers Therein

Long post is long. You have been warned.

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across a Tumblr thread that made me incandescent with rage; I remain tweaked enough about it to make this worth posting. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen my initial rant on the topic. It involved a new trend among fanfiction writers to charge commissions for writing fic.

I went down a rabbit hole. I shouldn’t have, because all it did was make me livid. Some of the arguments were so staggeringly entitled. Just breathtaking.

Y-Yes? Fanfiction should remain free. It has to.

It’s wild to me that one type of entitlement seems to be responding to another. If people are really bitching and moaning because they can’t find fics specifically catered to them — Well, they’ve misunderstood what’s going on. Fanfiction is such a gorgeous thing precisely because it’s born out of a writer’s relationship with the original work. You as a reader don’t get to demand that their relationship be what you want it to be. You go looking for what’s there and hopefully find something to delight you. You are accepting gifts that the writers have put out there for anyone who wants to enjoy them.

Now, there have always been fic exchanges and such where requests may be filled, but that’s still happening in the spirit of sharing mutually in excitement over the source material. Outside of that, if you can’t find exactly the fic that tickles your fancy, the answer has always been: Write it yourself!

The solution is not to decide people should accept commissions for derivative work!

I feel like these are the same people who defend piracy with the “all knowledge should be free, I’m just sticking it to The Man” arguments — which are equally ill-informed, ignorant, and just a cover for selfishness. (I’m restraining the impulse to delve into that tangent for the moment, but just know, given the current shape of how writers are compensated and in lieu of a currency-free society a la Star Trek, there is absolutely no ethical justification for book piracy). Apart from the illegality, your actions are not going to hurt the people you think you’re hurting. Accepting commissions for fanfic jeopardizes sites like AO3 and undermines the entire foundation that allows fanfic to exist for public consumption in the first place.

And then there’s nonsense like this:

Sugarplum, d’you know why we don’t have a platform like that? Why we cannot, should not, must not have a platform like that?

It violates Fair Use.

Fair Use is the legal defense against accusations of copyright infringement that protects, among other things, satire and educational use of materials. Whether or not it applies to fanfiction is, honestly, murky at best. To my knowledge, no statute has yet added fanfiction to the list of things explicitly protected by Fair Use. It’s just the best defense we currently have.

Here’s what the Organization for Transformative Works, the company that runs AO3, has to say about it:

What exactly is fair use?

Fair use is the right to make some use of copyrighted material without getting permission or paying. It is a basic limit on copyright law that protects free expression. “Fair use” is an American phrase, although all copyright laws have some limits that keep copyright from being private censorship.

Fair use favors uses that (1) are noncommercial and not sold for a profit; (2) are transformative, adding new meaning and messages to the original; (3) are limited, not copying the entirety of the original; and (4) do not substitute for the original work.

It’s worth noting that I’m largely talking about US law here, though I believe the UK has similar statutes and understanding of derivative works. Fanlore has a lot more in-depth information, but at the base of it all is this: the current Fair Use defense depends upon not profiting from the derivative work.

Case law has seen mixed results, and when the authors of derivative works have prevailed, that has usually hinged on the critical or parodic nature of the derivative work. While the OTW argues that fanfiction is sufficiently transformative by nature, providing a commentary on the original works, that has by no means been settled into law. Copyright holders and publishing houses simply have not chosen, in most cases, to press the point. But if you start profiting off of your derivative works? If that becomes a common trend? If you have the utter gall to try and build a website based on that concept? You will be baiting them to come after you — or decide to use your infringement as a reason to screw over a content creator.

Here is my authorial understanding of the issue with copyright law and fanfiction (with the caveat that I am not a lawyer): The reason many authors still won’t take a public stance condoning fanfiction and why almost no author will read fanfiction of their own works? Is because of the legal jeopardy it can put them in. If an author is considered to have abandoned their copyright, their intellectual property can be redistributed. Not defending against infringements — like fanfiction that violates Fair Use! — can be grounds for being considered to have abandoned copyright.

It is not impossible to imagine a situation where an author, “failing” to defend against copyright infringement perpetuated by someone taking commissions for fic based on their work, has their IP taken off of them and handed to another writer. Now imagine a publishing house doing that to an author who is a member of a marginalized community and handing their characters and ideas off to a more popular author (who is likely not of that marginalized community). It’s not impossible. It might not even be improbable. A lot of publishing “wisdom” already purports that there’s more value to be found in piling all your eggs into a basket of proven ROI. You see it in how it’s the already-successful authors who receive the largest advances and the heftiest marketing budgets. Fanfic commissions, like piracy, could directly jeopardize the original content creators — but they’re not going to hurt The Man a bit. If anything, they just hand the Powers That Be more tools they can use to control who gets to produce what kinds of content.

“But Cass?” some people may be thinking. “You’re a professional writer. Surely you agree that writers deserve to be paid for their work?”

Well. Yes. They deserve to be paid for their work. Derivative works are not the same. And I say this as someone who’s written derivative works for a very, very long time. Longer than these commission-hungry ficcers have been alive. I know the difference between work I do as a hobby and work I do as a job — The same way that if you cook a meal for your family and friends, you don’t expect to be paid for it, but if a caterer prepares that meal, you’d damn well better pay them. Now, maybe your friends and family reward you in some other fashion — cooking for you at another time, bringing wine, bringing dessert, etc — but that’s not payment. You’re not doing it to get paid; you’re doing it to share joy.

Fanfiction is supposed to be an act of joy.

I mean, it might be rage-joy, as you reclaim what you believe the source material has irredeemably destroyed. As I’ve said before, sometimes fanfic is a love letter to canon, sometimes it’s a strongly worded letter of correction, and sometimes it’s 95 theses on what canon did wrong nailed to a door. But it has always been something done for the sake of doing it, born of attachment to the original material. It is, inherently, a leisure activity. If you view it as an income source, you have fundamentally misunderstood what it is. I mean, apart from the fact that you’re breaking copyright law, you have just absolutely missed the point of fanfiction.

“But some fanfic writers work really hard!”

Yes. I certainly did. Would you like to know how much research I did on pre-Norman England and Scotland in order to write historically accurate Hogwarts Founders fic? It was way more than JKR ever did into that period, I can tell you that. (She seems to think the 11th and 15th centuries were indistinguishable, to say nothing of metalworking and gem-cutting techniques that wouldn’t evolve for centuries but I digress). Or would you like to know how many schematics of Federation and Klingon starships I have saved to my hard drive? The extensive family trees I’ve drawn? The hours spent teaching myself details about the lead-up to the French Revolution that no teacher ever though essential enough to impart? The sheer total tonnage of trivia permanently lodged in my head about a galaxy far, far away?

Many hobbyists work very hard on their hobbies. They invest time and energy and money into their leisure activities. That doesn’t mean you’re entitled to be paid for that investment. You’ve chosen to do it.

I took fic writing very seriously. I still do! I don’t write a lot of fic these days, but when I do, I put as much of my heart into it as I do my original works. And back in the heyday of my fic-writing, on LJ, ohh, I took such pride in being known for what I did. It was within niche corners and small fandoms, but I won contests and cherished every comment and celebrated when my works appeared on rec lists. I sought recognition, even when the only tangible reward was a little graphic to post in my bio. I wanted people to acknowledge how hard I worked and, frankly, how good I was at it.

But I never, ever, ever sought to make a dime off of it. The very concept would have been absurd, and I knew full well that we all put those “not mine, just borrowing the characters!” disclaimers up precisely so there could be no doubt of that. (This is how I know I’d do well in a Star Trek style “prestige economy” as interpreted by Manu Saadia: I am very happy when striving to be acknowledged as the best at the thing I’ve chosen to do; I am unhappy that we live in a world where financial value is the only kind of acknowledgement society accepts as real).

Your hobby might be great training for a job. But it’s not a job. A hobby is leisure. That distinction is actually important, not only for your mental and emotional well-being, but as a way of pushing back against certain capitalistic pressures dominating our world. And that brings me to the thing I actually want to talk about. (Yes, all of that was just build-up).

Your hobbies do not need to be monetized.

When I had this rant on Twitter, a friend pointed out that the younger generation has been indoctrinated to believe that their hobbies only have worth if they are making money off of them. The pressure to “go viral”, the monetization of TikToks, affiliate marketing, IG influencers — It all sends the message that it’s not enough to enjoy something and share that joy. No, you have to make a Brand out of it. If you’re not getting paid, it’s not worth doing.

It honestly makes me so sad.

I mean, underneath the fury I’ve been wrangling since becoming aware of this whole commission debacle, I’m just heartbroken for all these people who are viewing fic as a commodity rather than a freely shared gift. It’s so cynical and so depressing and such a capitulation to the very worst aspects of how our society is constructed.

It ties into something else I’ve thought, which is that people who’ve been on the internet since, oh, 2007 or so had a fundamentally different experience than folk of my internet-generation. (I reference Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet for an explanation of internet-generations, which may overlap but are not synonymous with traditional societal generations). If you were on the internet in the late-90s and early-00s, especially if you are what we would now call Very Online, you sort of had to build your own experience. I started teaching myself html to build my AOL Hometown page and really refined those skills on LiveJournal. I learned how to link to an image and how to turn an image into a link. I learned about hex codes so that I could find just the right shade for my background.

That’s not the way it is now. Everything is pre-packaged for you. There’s no customization in Facebook or Twitter besides being able to upload a header banner (the dimensions of which you cannot control, and which will change without notice several times a year). In some ways, yes, that’s easier; it’s nice that most blogging sites now automatically include white space around an image without my having to set the h-space and v-space for them. But at the same time, I hate having sacrificed customization for convenience. It’s so frustrating to want to change something and not have these options available to me, because the Powers That Be have decided, nope, these margins are correct, this much white space is correct, this color palate is correct. Corporations have control of our online experience. And that feels inextricable from the urge people now feel to monetize what they do on the internet.

We have confused hobbies with jobs. We have forgotten what hobbies are. We have forgotten leisure. The pressure to always be productive and performative has reached absolutely ludicrous force.

And the thing is, I am not innocent of falling into this mindset. I am deeply uncomfortable on days I feel like I’ve “done nothing”. I post to my Patreon three times a week, and I’m constantly trying to entice new members to join up. It’s part of my hustle. But I do try to maintain some barriers between my hobbies and what I do for cash. Someone once suggested that I sell my embroidery on Etsy, and I had to gently push back: No. Embroidery is something I do for myself, for the sheer pleasure of it, and something I give as a gift to people I love. I do not want that to become something I have to fret over because it’s not giving me good enough ROI.

I feel there’s another larger issue here, too, which is the loss of art for the sake of art. And leisure for the sake of leisure. I’m not enough of a theorist to go too deeply into that, but I suspect others have said clever things about it. It fits hand-in-glove with the increased corporatization of our world. Algorithms drive everything. Movies plots are influenced by focus groups. Everything is a Brand. And I do not believe that encourages the proliferation of good art. It makes art safe, predictable, palatable. Boring. It discourages invention and innovation.

Fanfiction has long been a push back against that corporatization. It’s a reclaiming of storytelling for and by the public. Fanfic commissions are playing into capitalism’s hands.

So that ties back to what I was saying before, about how, yes, you might work very hard on this hobby. But you should be doing it for the sake of the final product, for the pride you can take in that work, for the pleasure of sharing it with others. Not because you expect to get paid.

I don’t want to discourage fanfiction. That is the last thing in the world I want to do. I owe my career to my experience writing fanfic, and it would make me the happiest person on the planet to discover someone had decided to write Aven Cycle fanfic, even though I could never read it. But if I discovered someone was profiting off of that fanfic, I’d be furious — not least because it would be so galling, considering the various legal and financial eccentricities of how authors are currently rewarded for their efforts. Someone else making money off of my stories could very well impair my own compensation, and nothing in the world will convince me that would be fair.

What I want people to remember is the spirit fanfiction is supposed to come from — not the hustle, not the monetization of the internet, but the attachment to the original material. Fanfiction is supposed to be something you do for you, before anyone else! And that is liberating! You can do whatever you want! No one’s going to come tell you that you have to change something, tighten the pacing, get rid of that character, take out that scene, add a conversation about this topic. You are beholden to no one but yourself and your own pleasure — and how often is that true, in our modern world? Own that.

If you want to make money off of writing, I support you in that as well. Going from fanfic to pro is an increasingly common track in publishing! I’ve been on multiple convention panels about it. But you have to do it with your own characters and concepts, or with those already in the public domain. It’s a different sort of endeavor than writing fanfic — because it is work, it is a job, not a hobby. Writing professionally means doing a lot of the large and small hard things that you don’t have to worry about as a ficcer — and then you get compensated for that work. Now, the issues related to that compensation in current structures are many, but they are entirely separate from the issue of fanfiction.

And, of course, there are other options if you want to be paid to write — journalism, for instance, which is another place many well-established authors have started. I want more people to be able to make a living off of writing, I want opportunities to be open to more people and to people from more backgrounds than most traditional avenues currently support — but that does not mean opening avenues to profit off of fanfic.

tl;dr? Don’t flipping try to make money off fanfic. You’re breaking the law and missing the point.

General, Personal

On Reading Tolkien

So I said I wanted to blog more, and Twitter has, this week, given me an opportunity.

If you’re a part of writing Twitter, and specifically of fantasy writing Twitter, you’ve likely seen the Tolkien-centric turmoil. It started when Chuck Wendig Said A Thing. In response to a prompt about unpopular epic fantasy opinions, Wendig said that Tolkien is not the end-all and the be-all of epic fantasy fiction. He then said some other things, which some readers took to be criticisms of Tolkien in particular when they were not, necessarily, and the whole thing spiraled from there. Some of those spirals were actually fairly erudite discussions of literary canon, who gets included in it, who decides what gets included in it, how we can disrupt the norms of who gets included in it, and so forth. Some of those spirals were… less erudite, as we might expect. And in the way of Twitter battles, it’s all wandered a great deal off-course from the initial discussion.

I’ve resisted commentary on Twitter because, honestly, I didn’t have enough of a dog in the fight. But then I started seeing one line of comment that I sort of bumped on, and I decided to blog rather than tweet about it because Twitter is not a great platform for nuanced discussion. The tenor of this line of commentary was, “I don’t owe Tolkien anything”. And that… Enh. Whether or not you like Tolkien, whether or not you’ve even read Tolkien, if you’re reading and writing fantasy in the English language, you owe something to Tolkien, at least indirectly.

The analogy that sprang to my mind was that Chaucer. Tolkien : fantasy fiction :: Chaucer : English language and literature.

Whether or not you’ve ever read The Canterbury Tales, if you’re speaking and reading in English today, you owe something to them. They had lasting influence and they helped in shaping the English language as we know it today. Part of that was sheer dumb luck, writing in the right place at the right time. Around 1400, English was still really fractured. For example, The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were both written in Middle English. The Canterbury Tales is hard, but not impossible, to read without a translation.

A knight ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To ryden out, he loved chivalrye,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye.
Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,
And thereto hadde he riden (no man ferre)
As wel in cristendom as hethenesse,
And evere honoured for his worthinesse.

That’s recognizable as English, even if it’s quite clearly not the English we speak today. It’s not even the English of Shakespeare, two centuries later. But it’s English.

Now check out a sample of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written at the same time, but in Northern England:

After Crystenmasse com þe crabbed lentoun,
Þat fraystez flesch wyth þe fysche and fode more symple;
Bot þenne þe weder of þe worlde wyth wynter hit þrepez,
Colde clengez adoun, cloudez vplyften,
Schyre schedez þe rayn in schowrez ful warme,
Fallez vpon fayre flat, flowrez þere schewen,
Boþe groundez and þe greuez grene ar her wedez,
Bryddez busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen
For solace of þe softe somer þat sues þerafter bi bonk;
And blossumez bolne to blowe
Bi rawez rych and ronk,
Þen notez noble innoȝe
Ar herde in wod so wlonk.
After þe sesoun of somer wyth þe soft wyndez

That is… not the same language. We call them both Middle English, but you can tell at a glance that they are not the same. The northern dialect in the 14th century was still much closer to Old English and its Nordic influences.

VerilyThis.jpg

Because The Canterbury Tales was written in London-English, it was written in the English which eventually “won”. London-English came to dominate because, a few decades later, London was where the printing presses were — and printing presses helped to begin the process of standardization of the language into what we know today. So Chaucer benefited from that — and he influenced it, since his work was proliferated in that dialect and influenced future works. He was also part of a trend towards vernacularization in English literature. He may not have been the first writer in Middle English to write in that fashion, but he was the most popular. And so, he became a tentpole of English literature.

Now, do you need to have read The Canterbury Tales in order to speak English or to tell stories in it? Of course not. But if you want to study how English language and literature came to be as they are today, it would be difficult to avoid engaging with the work. If that’s your goal, should you only study Chaucer? Of course not! Chaucer isn’t the end-all and the be-all of late medieval literature, let alone the whole of English literature. Even just looking at his era, many scholars credit the Chancery Courts with having a greater influence on the standardization of language that moved England towards its Early Modern form. Chaucer is not the sole definition of English language or literature, but a number of factors combined to make him an outsized influence on both.

And I feel similarly about Tolkien in the context of the fantasy genre. You don’t need to have read Tolkien to be a fan of fantasy fiction, to enjoy it, even to write it. But if you want to understand how the genre developed and came to be as it is today, it would be foolish to ignore him. And it would be equally foolish to study only Tolkien and to assume that he alone defines the genre.

There’s a lot to criticize in Tolkien, particularly where issues of race and gender are concerned. There’s also a lot to enjoy, if you’re the right sort of reader in the right frame of mind. I feel very fondly towards the books now, but I didn’t always, and I still can’t just pick them up to re-read in any sort of mood. I couldn’t get through them at all until after I’d seen the movies, a sin for which I’m sure many gatekeepers would be delighted to flagellate me. I’m someone who loves to luxuriate in detailed world-building, so my problem isn’t the pace or the digressions, but rather that I find the writing itself sometimes dense and stilted. And the lack of women is and always has been a big problem for me. But there’s still a lot in Tolkien that I appreciate. After the 2016 election, for example, I had basically lost all faith in humanity, and I couldn’t get through reading anything. Until I decided to pick The Fellowship of the Ring back up. In that moment, that was what I wanted: simple morality where good eventually triumphs, and I was happy to lose myself in the Middle Earth when the myriad complexities of the world I lived in felt overwhelmingly cruel. But I’m far more likely to revisit the stories by way of the movies than the books, because I find them more accessible and emotionally moving.

Eowynsword

I’m firmly of the opinion that Tolkien could never get published today. He’d be told his pacing is uneven, his story starts far too slowly, he spends too much time on world-building, he introduces too many characters in the first chapter and we never hear from many of them ever again. He couldn’t get published today. But if he hadn’t been published in the mid-20th century, a lot of other books never would have been, either — for better or for worse. I don’t know what the fantasy genre would look like if there had never been Tolkien. We’d likely still be facing the same issues of race and gender, because, considering the era, whoever stepped into the void he left would likely also be a white male. It might have taken the genre more time to achieve the popularity it currently enjoys and the faint measure of respect it’s still striving for in many literary circles. It might not have. Swords and sorcery might still have been the dominant form for decades, or maybe it would’ve been something else. I don’t know. No one can know. Because Tolkien was, and he shaped the genre.

We don’t owe him all, any more than modern English owes all it is to Chaucer. And maybe what we owe him is equal parts honor and a kick in the pants, for both the good and the ill in his work. But suggesting we owe him nothing strikes me as either incredibly naive or willfully childish. Even if you’ve never read him, doubtless some of the authors you do read were influenced by him. They may have been influenced in the negative, driven specifically to do something different, not to replicate his form and format, but that’s still an influence. And there’s no extricating Tolkien’s popularity from the development of the publishing industry’s fantasy wing. The publishing world we work in, whether or not we’ve read Tolkien ourselves, was partially shaped by Tolkien and his legacy.

Should you read Tolkien? I don’t know. What do you hope to get out of it? If you’re looking for a good tale, it may or may not suit your fancy. If you’re looking for detailed and well-researched world-building, you’ll get a lot of that (if in a narrow northern-and-western-European scope — Tolkien was a truly remarkable scholar of what he studied, but it certainly had its limits). If you’re looking to learn the history of the genre and how it developed, then yeah, you probably ought to have at least some familiarity with such a major tentpole. But you don’t have to know that history or have a desire to learn it just because you want to read or write in the genre. It’s a subset of what there is to enjoy, a dish on the menu. It doesn’t make a meal, and it’s not the only thing the restaurant serves.

Hobbiton

And that winds me around to the idea of literary canon and what one “must” read.

“Must” is a silly word. The books you “must” read to be a fan of a genre, or to create within it, are the books which speak to your soul, the ones that resonate with you.

Enjoying a thing need not be the same as studying it, and studying the thing itself is not the same as studying its history. I’m a historian, so I know that influences my viewpoint. It’s why the Chaucer analogy leapt to my brain. It’s not the place everyone stands, nor the place everyone should. It does, though, lead me to the following consideration:

If we’re looking at fantasy from a scholarly viewpoint, perhaps we ought to consider that the genre is large enough and has been around long enough to need more than one intro course, as it were. A survey of fantasy literature and a history of fantasy in the English language would have different syllabi, and maybe you’d only find Tolkien in the latter. And that’s fine. It’s not like he’s suffering for exposure. Nor are many of the other authors you’d likely find in such a course — Lewis, Le Guin, Brooks, Jordan, Pratchett, Gaiman, Martin — though some of the longer-ago forbears, like William Morris and Lord Dunsany, would be little-remembered outside of it. The purpose of such a course would not be to say that every work studied in it deserved to be a tentpole of the genre, but rather to acknowledge that they have become sofor a variety of reasons, and to examine the effect that each had on shaping the genre as we now know it. Whether or not you think Tolkien merits his outsized importance, he has long had it, and a scholarly course on the history of fantasy literature would have to address that — in part to understand why and how the “established canon” has so long excluded certain voices, and what needs to be done to remedy that in the future. Understanding how the past failed the present can help the present choose how to shape the future.

But a survey course in fantasy literature? Now, that ought to be different, more diverse, less focused on the history of the genre and more concerned with giving students a taste of everything the genre is and can be. It should look at alternate influences, and it should look at subgenres, and it should look at those works which have grand merits on their own yet did not spawn a legacy of imitations in the way that the tentpoles did. If I were to devise such a survey course, I’m sure my syllabus would look a little different from that of anyone else who might do so — and if I were teaching a real course, with real students, I’d be adjusting it a bit every semester, to take new works into account, and to try and provide representation for the cultural makeup of the class.

And all of that would be different from the books that were my “musts” — the books I have read which brought me to the place I am now. My tentpoles of the genre, which have shaped my reading and writing. Like a history course, it might have gaps and omissions — things I ought to have read, things I wish I’d read earlier than I had, things that slipped by me. It might have things I read and which shaped me which didn’t deserve that influence, or which were important at the time but which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone else now. That list is going to be different for everyone. Certainly there are things I’ve read that I didn’t enjoy, that were high-quality but didn’t resonate with me, that have had a huge influence on others. But the wonderful thing is, it need never be a finished list. As readers, we can always keep doing better, reading more broadly, exposing ourselves to new influences.

So when it comes to the idea of Tolkien and fantasy canon and all of that, what I really come down to, I guess, is this: Build your own canon. Figure out why you like the things you do — what calls to you, what resonates? Map your own personal history within and without the genre, and know how it has affected you. That’s what matters most.

General, Personal

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There is  moment, in Man of La Mancha, that struck me very powerfully from a very young age. Cervantes, in prison and interrupted in his tale of Don Quixote, is challenged by another prisoner, who asks him why poets are so fanciful, why poets can’t just face up to life as it is? And Cervantes responds gorgeously, bitterly, passionately:

I have lived nearly fifty years, and I have seen life as it is. Pain, misery, hunger … cruelty beyond belief. I have heard the singing from taverns and the moans from bundles of filth on the streets. I have been a soldier and seen my comrades fall in battle … or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I have held them in my arms at the final moment. These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing. No glory, no gallant last words … only their eyes filled with confusion, whimpering the question, “Why?” I do not think they asked why they were dying, but why they had lived. When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. To seek treasure where there is only trash. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!

I have always been a storyteller, and I have always been an optimist. This, I think affects the way in which I tell stories.

I’ve said — and written — before about how sci-fi and fantasy hold a mirror up to life and question it, but there are a lot of ways to go about that. The dominant trend for the past fifteen years or so has been the grimdark version. Not so much a mirror as a magnifying glass, turning the saturation up on misery and pain. Everything from Batman Begins to A Game of Thrones to Altered Carbon — these things dwell on agony. They stripped down the glitz and color of the 80s and 90s, and with them, the hope. The prevailing message is that everything is terrible, everyone is terrible, and there is no escape.

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Now, obviously, that’s not 100% of what’s out there, but it’s quite a lot of it, especially in SFF. I consume this media, because it’s the current paradigm, but it’s not what I most enjoy. And it’s not what I write.

I’ve been analyzing this in myself lately, and I’ve realized that, when I write, I look at the way things were in the past or the way things could be in the future, and then I ask: “What would change if we, individually and as a people, made better choices?” I imagine life a little more as it should be.

And then, because of the way my brain works, I set about trying to figure out what tuns that should into a could. I’ve watched myself do it in far-off history, re-imagining the Romans; I’ve seen myself do it with nearer history, re-imagining America in the 19th century; I’ve seen myself do it with the future, imagining life in space. I never want to create a utopia. Those go too far; I tend to find them somewhere between boring and unbearably bleak, and they just don’t ring true. No matter how good we humans get, we’re never going to be perfect. We’re messy, emotional creatures, and we’ll always make messy, emotional mistakes. But if we were just a little better, a little kinder, a little more aware, a little less selfish, a little more long-seeing — How might that change things?

And it’s not just about the past or the future. As I started thinking about it, this desire to imagine a better world plays into the characters I’m drawn to in fiction, as well. It’s particularly noticeable in, though not exclusive to, romance.

Because let’s face it: scoundrels with hearts of gold are a rare commodity. Most of them are just irresponsible jackasses. Maybe they’re not bad guys, really, but they’ve never learned to be better. And those dark, brooding types? Entitled jerks, on the whole. Selfish and self-righteous. They are not really the kind of people you want to give your heart to.

But in fiction… they can be.

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In fiction, you can spend at least a few hours imagining that people can change for the better, and that the redemptive power of love can make them want to do so — that the Beast works to prove himself worthy of Belle’s love, that Han Solo does care about something other than his own skin, that the rake reforms. And yeah, I get the argument that portraying relationships like that in fiction sets a dangerous precedent in real life, that it encourages girls and women to think wrong-headedly and invest in men who don’t deserve them. I get it. I’ve lived it. Heart many-times-broken; lesson perhaps-eventually-learned.

It doesn’t stop the yearning to imagine that it still might be true, that loving someone enough could make them want to do better — by you and by themselves and by the whole damn galaxy.

Just like I understand the instinct for the grimdark stories. I understand the idea that forcing us to view our darkest natures might make us own up to them. There’s a place for all these stories. But there’s a place for the rosier versions, too. There’s a place for people to dream, to hope, and to imagine something less brutal. In some ways, that’s a relief; in other ways, it’s a necessary coping mechanism. It’s what keeps us from dying despairing. A story of hope gives us something to keep reaching for.

I know there are some who find that point of view naive, irrational, or unsophisticated. They’re wrong, of course, because they’re assuming it comes from a place of ignorance or insulation, and that’s often quite far from the case. Rather, when you’ve been battered about by the Real World, it’s not unreasonable to want to believe in a version of the universe that could be just a little bit better.

I rather think it’s a thing of courage, to gift your heart with such imaginings.

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This is why I like fluffy romance novels. It’s why I like Rogue One so much, because even through the tragedy, the message is one of hope, not of annihilation. It’s why I liked the X-Men of the 90s. It’s why Cap and Thor are my favorite MCU Avengers. It’s why I like the vision of the future that Star Trek presents. It’s why I still love and weep at Disney movies. And it’s why I write books the way that I do.

If I’m going to spend time in a fictional world, whether my own or someone else’s, I want it to be a place where I can imagine, at least for a little while, life as it should be.

Personal

Change is the constant

Change is the constant, the signal for rebirth, the egg of the phoenix

[Warning: What follows is a heavy, introspective post broken up with humorous gifs, because that’s how I roll. I’ve been writing this post over the past few weeks, as I am wont to do, but it got harder to resolve myself to its spirit yesterday, when I lost the feline companion who has been my best friend since I was thirteen years old. But then I remember her royal sassiness looking at me, those beautiful yellow-green eyes seeming to say, “I love you, but get it together, woman.” And so I think I must do even better than I promised myself, for her.]

In the summer of 2012, I launched something that I called the Bold New Me Initiative. It was two years after the end of an abusive relationship, though it had taken me most of those two years to stop mourning for it and instead to realize that what had happened had been abuse. And, having realized it, I was mad as hell and determined to refashion myself into someone who could never have “let herself” be treated that way. I had finished drafting and doing initial edits on what would become From Unseen Fire. I was going to go to a convention and pitch it, and then I was going to query, and by the gods I was going to be the novelist I’d always said I would be, come hell or high water. I was going to glitter and glow as I knew I was meant to. I was going to recreate myself as something astonishing.

It almost worked.

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My intentions were certainly good, but there were still things in my life I was blind to. Those things held me back from managing to evolve entirely into the sort of person I wanted to be.

It’s rough to look at yourself and know you have been susceptible to toxic people. To know that you still have that susceptibility, that that weakness will always be in you, however strong and independent-minded you want to think yourself. To know you will have to learn to vigilantly guard against it.

It’s only a little mollifying to know you’re not alone, but the internet does occasionally help in that regard. I don’t know what reasons other people have that give birth to that vulnerability, but for me, it’s entirely because of how badly I want to be liked. Gods, I wish I didn’t. Life would be so much better if I gave as few fucks as I sometimes pretend I have to spare. But that’s just not who I am.

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I want to be liked, to be loved, to belong. And it makes me horrifyingly susceptible to the love-bombing that toxic people open and often sustain damaging relationships with. In 2012, I had freed myself from one poison but didn’t realize I was drinking another on a daily basis. And that would lead to… a whole lot of bad. It would keep me from living up to the image I have of myself. It would trap me and encourage me to make myself small in ways I wouldn’t be able to see clearly for years. It would cause me to isolate myself more than I realized, ignoring opportunities for fulfilling friendships and letting slip some of those I already had. It would dial my anxiety disorder up to 11 on an almost-constant basis.

Living like that… the center cannot hold.

Last year, I tried again. I left the city I’d lived in for close to a decade, the stable job I’d gotten right out of grad school. It all felt right, at the time — cleansing. So many things happened all at the same time — the car I’d had since I was 16, for example, finally gave up the ghost. It seemed like a sign. Yes, move out and move on. Let go of everything that has so ill-defined you these past few years. Start over, entirely fresh.

I still think the time was right for it. I very clearly needed to make some changes, or I was going to lose my grip on sanity entirely.

But I didn’t stick the landing.

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In a few weeks, I’m going to be going back to my high school to talk about careers and adulting. I’m likely to be a bit too honest about it. One of the things I’m going to stress? Don’t make decisions in crisis mode. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

Because that’s really what I can trace this past Lost Year to. I had let myself get so knotted up that the only way I saw to get out was hacking through everything with a sword. And, I mean, that works… but then you’re left with a bunch of frayed ends that don’t do anyone any good.

I spent the dark of the year in a very dark place (literally as much as figuratively). I started my self-imposed exile a few weeks before the autumn equinox; I returned to a familiar home a few weeks before the vernal. The symbolism is too much for a pagan to ignore. A cold, lonely hibernation. Everything folding in on itself, unfed by the sun, blasted by icy winds. A journey to the Underworld, bleak and grey.

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But spring always comes. Snows always melt.

As miserable as it was, I’m starting to think this year nonetheless had Purpose. Perhaps I had to go through this year in order to really and truly strip away all those things I don’t want to be. I think I had to die a little in order to figure out how I want to live.

The phoenix, after all, has to reduce herself entirely to ash before she can blaze again.

So from here on out, I blaze. (And if I say it to all of you, perhaps that will force me to be accountable to myself and actually land on my feet this time.) No more excuses. No more ducking my head. No more making myself small. From Unseen Fire comes out in a few weeks, and I think I have a few lessons to learn from my own heroine. Starting now, I walk with my head up and my core tight and my hips under me, rather than slouching my way through the world. (You know, like this). I’m going to go back to wearing clothes that say “pay attention to me” rather than “please ignore me”. I’m going to start wearing high heels again. I will be the lioness, not the mouse. I will take what is mine — with fire and blood, should that prove necessary.

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I will live up to the image I want to have of myself — and I will live up to the image that those who love me have of me, because bless them, that my friends can still think me worthy of affection seems a miracle, some days. I don’t want to let them down any longer. I will spend more time nurturing those friendships. I will remember that I am an extrovert, that avoiding people makes me unhappy, and so I will engage with the world rather than shutting it out.

And wherever I land next, I am going to summon every ounce of regality in me, and I will own that place.

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Bold New Me Initiative, v2.0.

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And, as is appropriate, an accompanying 2.0 playlist:

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/1270613493/playlist/4Kk5oVSgDDLaIl9qf6KIho