Writing Our Own Deliverance

Once again, a Tumblr post has made me think thoughts.

This piece on geek girls/growing up female/becoming a female creator came across my feed recently, and the bit that struck me the most was this:

so we made it up. we gave barbie a cape and our spotted dog the ability to control the weather. we wrote barely-legible fanfiction about vampires who were also terribly in love with us – because we were perfect in this world, unlike the mess of what really was – we crafted entire sub-stories about how the main characters in our favorite universes were secretly girls in disguise. we made 17-year-old characters who would cut the throats of anyone who hurt them. we drew pictures of women in full, angry armor. we wrote bad poems about the girls we loved and the ones we were jealous of.

It got me thinking… Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if all the women writers shared their first efforts? The heroines they created in youth, ludicrous and wonderful. The princess-superheroes, the werewolf-ninjas, the warrior goddesses. The shameless self-inserts who saved the day. The Mary Sues.

Mine started out as an Alderaanian refugee/X-Wing pilot/spy/Jedi knight who was, of course, fantastically beautiful, as tall as I never turned out to be, prodigiously talented and independent at 16 (which, when you’re 11, seems perfectly reasonably grown-up), and the epicenter of a totally kickass strike team/soap-opera-worthy drama. Everything I wanted to be, I poured into her. Every story I loved, I ended up filtering through her. Over the years she was also an actress, a courtesan, a sharpshooter, a bartender, a mother, a great lady. She was whatever I needed her to be at the time. Others of my wish-fulfillment heroines were lion-women with gorgeous snarls and pitiless claws. They were warrior queens, adored by their armies, who flew into berserker rages when faced with injustice. They were femme fatales with starlit eyes and no mercy for men who did wrong. That first one stuck with me, though, and she’s been reworked into a dozen heroines since.

As the world turned more violent towards me and my friends, as I learned just how ugly it can be towards women, particularly women who don’t match up to certain expectations, my heroines got more violent, too. Looking back, the theme of vengeance trails through so many of my stories. Something was taken from them — a kingdom, a child, their liberty, their choice — and they would fight through anything to get it back. They would land themselves in trouble, captive and deprived of agency, and they would slaughter their way back to freedom. Bruised and bloodied they might have been, but they were always survivors, always the last one standing. And like I’ve said before, it wasn’t as though any thing so truly heinous happened to me — but I was reacting to the permeating misogyny of culture I couldn’t escape.

And I know so many other women who did the same thing. This was how we claimed space for ourselves, even if it was only in our own hearts. Even if we only shared those stories with each other, in safe small groups, on email chains or whispered over laced fingers in the dead of night, because it didn’t take us long to figure out what response we’d get if we shared them more widely. But they were our characters, our stories. We owned them and we took power from them.

I shamelessly advocate fanfiction not just as excellent training for those who want to be writers, but as a worthy pasttime for anyone in need of an outlet — most particularly for young women. On the page, you can scream and rail and punch and claw and kick and do all the things you can’t do in life. On the page, you can have power that the world denies you. If you do become a writer, you get better at it. Your characters cease to be perfect and all-powerful; they develop flaws and weaknesses. They fit into their worlds, rather than bending existing worlds around them. But what can still live in there is the sense of the fight.

So that’s why I’d love to know, from all the female authors I adore, who their first heroines of shameless self-fulfillment were.

Bonus material: I’m a paper packrat who’s kept every writing notebook and sketchbook she ever had. Proof of concept right here:

The Fandom that Lives

If you’re as big a Harry Potter geek as I am, you know why today’s a big deal.

Four years and two weeks ago, I wrote the following on another blog, marking the release of Deathly Hallows, Pt 2:

This is not the end of my childhood.

My childhood was already almost over when I got into Harry Potter. I was sixteen, closing in on seventeen. I had to make a run to the drugstore to pick a prescription, and I picked up the 1st book, completely on a whim, just from the little newsstand there. I devoured it in a day, and then had to get CoS immediately — which I then had to balance with studying for my physics final. I remember distinctly sitting on my back porch, alternating a chapter of one with a chapter of the other. By the time I finished PoA, school was over and I was on my way to Italy. But, Goblet of Fire was still only out in hardcover — and my packing restrictions for going to Italy meant I couldn’t carry a hardcover book with me. So, I spent three weeks in torment, not knowing what happened next, having to cover my ears when the other girls started talking about it. This was sort of my first introduction to the concept of spoilers.

I wasn’t an adult yet, but I wasn’t a child, either. I’d known love and I’d known betrayal and I’d known heartbreak. I still had a long way to go on the path to maturity, but I didn’t enter these books in a state of innocence. I sometimes wonder if that’s why the characters who fascinated me — Sirius Black, Bellatrix and Narcissa and the Lestrange brothers, Remus Lupin, Minerva McGonagall — aren’t as much the younger characters, not the ones we watched grow up (though I do have a great deal of affection for many of them as well).

As much as I loved the series from the moment I picked it up, I didn’t really get into the fandom, though, until a little later — about the time, I think, that Order of the Phoenix came out. Slightly before, probably — I started hunting the web for theories and clues and ponderings, and I stumbled into fanart and fanfic as I was doing so. And from then on… oh, I was immersed. The spot that Star Wars and musical theatre had once occupied in my heart and mind, Harry Potter now claimed.

I can’t even express how much this series and this fandom have meant to me. Even though I’m not really in the fandom anymore, or at least not the way I was — it was so big a part of me for so long. There are so many memories, glittering and laughing and, well, magical. Online and off, in text and in real life, there’s just so much. Whole afternoons and nights spent discussing theories, both about the past and the future, with my friends. Helping to found WizMug, a HP fan club at William and Mary, becoming their projects chair, organizing Death Day parties and Yule balls, playing Quidditch for Slytherin and discovering that I make a damn good Chaser.

And then online, where I met so many people who have become such good friends to me,  some of whom are now in other fandoms with me. I love that HP brought us together, and that we’ve stayed close. I remember discovering the Lexicon and all its cross-referenced wonders. I remember discovering Mugglenet and its forums and theories. I remember hovering on JK’s site whenever she was going to make an announcement. I remember being delighted over wonderful fanart.

I remember, and still re-read, the fanfics I wrote, oh my goodness, crafting an entire life for Bella Black, making her so full and real, drawing up proper family trees with sensible math, sketching out the floor plan of Ebony Manor, spending ages on timelines and details and all the little moments that made up her life and made her what she was — and becoming so well-known for it, at least for a time, at least in a certain part of the fandom. I was, for a while, the queen of the House of Black, HBIC, an acknowledged force to be reckoned with. My stories became head!canon for a lot of my readers, which is still so flattering. I remember the fic challenges, and the communities, and the exchanges. I remember running a prompt community for a year, and running a Death Eater reclist. I remember how hard I pushed myself, and how good it felt to get the story right, and how even better it felt when other people took delight in it, too. My writing grew so much from writing her — and it also led to me exploring a rather darker side of my own nature. Bella helped me fight through the deepest, grimmest depression of my life. It took exploring that darkness, through her, to know how to combat it in my own life.

Then, the RPGs – Sanctuary, which was my first one, an OC-based, PoA-set game, filled with so many Mary-Sues, but which was still fun, and that’s where Alexandra Bradford started — dear little clumsy, bubbly, sweet-natured Alex (the antithesis, really, to Bella). Then Oblitesco, Race, D&S briefly, Magic-on-the-Web that never was. Getting so frustrated with the lack of plot in one comm that we, with our tertiary side characters, created a completely bonkers sideline plot that we somehow sucked Harry Potter himself into — and then getting fed up and just starting our own game, which I still think had a better plot than HBP did. Staying up all night RPing with my friends, spending far too many hours with Heather detailing the precise breakdown of votes in a wizarding election, caring so much about what happened with Bella or poor little Alex. And then Lumos, the great sorting comm, where I fought so hard for Slytherin’s dominance game after game — and where I met a great many people that I still cooperate and compete with over in a different sorting community, based on A Song of Ice and Fire.

I remember the book release parties — coming within several beans of winning the guessing contest, faux-groveling at the feet of a kid who came as Quirrel, complete with Voldy-head, having to wash black dye out of my hair, giving my name as “Black” at a restaurant just because it made me giggle to do so. For HBP, when we all went as Death Eaters and spent the night asking people to join our cause — and getting one seven-year-old to yell “Pureblood pride!” which still makes me giggle inappropriately. Crawling underneath the table at the Short Pump B&N to get away from the crowds, and sitting on the floor between two racks of greeting cards because there just wasn’t anywhere else to go. Just being so happy to be sharing the love with so many people, with complete strangers who were also so happy. There was always a whole lot of love in those rooms. I remember not getting OotP at the store, because I’d already pre-ordered it on Amazon — I remember the way the FedEx guy just grinned at me when I bounded out the door to meet him, because he knew what I wanted, because Amazon made those special boxes just for HP. I remember falling out of my chair during the second chapter of HBP, because Dez and I had had that exact conversation while RPing.

I remember the excitement of getting my parents to read them. Mom caught on early, but it took forever to persuade Dad. They’re both pretty adorable about it now, though. I remember getting text messages from both of them when JK announced that Dumbledore was gay.

I remember the movie releases — taking over an entire theatre with WizMug for Goblet of Fire, shuttling people back and forth from the University Center, sitting grouped with our Houses, a riot of colours and banners, all cheering and shouting. I remember taking a veritable hoard of costumed folk to New Town for OotP, taking pictures in the hallway of the Jamestown dorms. I remember not making the midnight showing of HBP, but going to Short Pump the next day. DH1 wasn’t as much of an event, due to time constraints and poor planning, but it was still an exciting evening I got to share with friends. And now… now I’ll have Deathly Hallows 2 to remember, too.

And then, just a couple of months ago… going to Hogsmeade, getting to immerse so fully in that wonderful dream. Just being dazzled and delighted, all over again, and realising that — this series is going to stand the test of time. Haters to the left. It is certainly not without its flaws, but it is still something really special, and it always will be.

I may not have come to HP as a child, but part of what the series reminds me is that — you don’t have to be a child to feel that wonder, that splendour, that sense of magnificence. You don’t have to be a child to get wrapped up in a story. You don’t have to be a child to learn lessons from a story, either. And you certainly don’t have to be a child to love something so much that you overflow with it, that you have to share it with all of your friends. I’m so glad HP has given me such an opportunity to stay playful and creative, an excuse to dress up and not care what anyone thinks about me, to laugh and debate and get excited with my dearest friends. I’m a woman grown, and I wouldn’t trade back a minute of what HP’s given me over the past nine years — nor do I intend to give it up now.

Everyone’s sad that it’s over. Everyone’s worried this really is the end, that what’s left of the fandom will die out after this.

I’m hoping there are, phoenix-like, the seeds of a new beginning here. It won’t ever be just as it was, it won’t ever be that same golden moment again — but there could be something else, just as special, in its own way.

I wept my eyes out last night, make no mistake. My heart was breaking for so many reasons. But I do not accept this as The End.

And what’s happened since then?

If anything, my fandom involvement has re-escalated. I went to Ascendio in 2012, and I’ve been to a con a year since then. I’ve been the winner of Wizarding Advanced Readiness Training and have danced my heart out at wizard prom. This exact day last year, I was in Orlando for LeakyCon. This past May, I worked on the staff of MISTI-Con in New Hampshire, and it was some of the most fun (ridiculous, exhausting fun) I’ve had as an adult. That con also saw the premiere of a wizarding murder mystery by Clever By Half Productions (wherein I got to play with wrist-mounted flamethrowers, so if nothing else I have this fandom to thank for making that lifelong dream come true). I’ve continued to make friends near and far, thanks to this fandom. I’m involved in real life and on Tumblr. I turn 30 this year, and damn if my party isn’t going to be themed to the wizarding world (but, y’know… in a grown-up way). There have been and will continue to be so many golden moments.

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And it’s certainly not just me. Harry Potter remains a cultural touchstone for so many people. Just a few days ago, my dad texted me that he and mom think Quidditch should be played using drone technology. No. Seriously. They had that conversation, and then texted their daughter about it.

So thank you, JK. Not just for inspiring so many readers and so many writers, but for giving so many people a love to share. And happy birthday to you and to Harry!

5 Fandom Friday

The idea for this post comes from The Nerdy Girlie, by way of Gail Carriger.

What five fandoms were my gateway into the reader and writer I am today? This was actually really easy for me to suss out, though I did decide not to include some of the earlier childhood obsessions that, while I’m sure Tumblr might call them fandoms today, weren’t thought of in that way then — or, at least, I never conceived of them that way. I spent years obsessed with dinosaurs, for instance, or my early fixation with The Last Unicorn, or my life-long love affair with Disney — none of those were formative fandom experiences, though, as they were mostly private. So for the purposes of this post, I’m not counting “gateway fandoms” as “things I liked a lot”, but I’m thinking about the things where I really got involved with discussion, fanfic, RPGs, etc on a public level.

1. Star Wars

just a short little girl with a gun

This can’t possibly come as a surprise to anyone who knows me or has been following this blog. I’ve talked about how Star Wars changed my life. I have strong feelings about its future. But it was also the first real fandom I participated in publicly. This was where I realized that you could share your geekery with people other than your cousins or next-door neighbors. The original trilogy was re-released right as AOL was becoming a big thing, and man alive, did I jump in head first. At 13, I had unquestioned dominance of an RPG chat board and room, and I had the high score on AOL’s Star Wars trivia for several months running in the late 90s. I played X-Wing vs TIE Fighter (badly), dressed as a Rebel agent for Halloween twice, and drove a LARPing campaign in my middle school before we even knew what LARPing was. (And when I tell people about the contorted tricks, convoluted schemes, and nefarious double-crossing I came up with in that game, most find it somewhat alarming and wonder why I didn’t become a CIA agent). The obsession eventually waned, replaced by other items on this list, but my love is no less. I still watch the movies several times a year (and am waiting with apprehensive optimism for Episode VII), and just a few weeks ago, I joined a Star Wars: Edge of the Empire RPG group and am enjoying myself immensely.

2. Broadway

fun dresses

Bless anyone who knew me from the ages of about 13-17, because they had to listen to more off-key belting than anyone should ever have inflicted on them. I’ve loved musical theatre my entire life — one of my earliest memories is of seeing Cats when I was three, learning difficult vocabulary just so I could read the entire libretto, and dancing to “The Jellicle Ball” with my mother when she got home from work. But when I was a teenager, it turned into a whole other thing. My friends and I went through a series of fixated obsessions on particular musicals — The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Mamma Mia!, Into the Woods, Aida, Chess, Wicked — and sang them. Everywhere. Living Room Musicals were a staple of our entertainment. We attached fierce meaning to various songs, communicated in quotes via our AIM away messages, used them as weapons in intra-group feuding. And we wrote fanfic. So. Much. Fanfic. I am so damn grateful that YouTube wasn’t a thing yet for most of that time, because there would be some seriously blackmail-worthy material out there if it had been. But the thing is — musical theatre can teach you a lot about the heights and depths of emotion. I build playlists for books and characters that I’m working on, and most of them are still dominated by showtunes.

3. X-Men

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This is something I’ve flitted in and out of throughout my life. I got hooked early, with the 90s animated series. I distinctly recall the Pizza Hut tie-ins, and I think I still have one of those comics you used to get with Personal Pans. As a teenager, I came back to it with a mania. My favorite was, is, and always has been Rogue — and believe me, I’ve done all sorts of psychological soul-searching as to why I feel such a strong connection to the untouchable Southern spitfire. When I was 16, I even managed to convince my parents to let me bleach a white streak into my then-auburn hair so I could be her for Halloween. I’ve actually been more out of than in this fandom for a while, mostly because I started getting so ticked off about what the series I’d typically followed were doing with my favorite characters — but I’m sure I’ll come back someday, when new writers take over, and in the meantime, I’ve been branching out into some new material (it helps to have a friend who edits at Marvel and another who writes for DC to nudge me towards different titles). Because comics are such an ongoing medium, I feel like this fandom introduced me more than any other to the idea of writing being subject to the various pressures of the time. Just since I was a kid, the X-men have diversified a lot. They’ve been as subject as everything else in fiction to the “dark and gritty” treatment that’s been so popular the past few years. They’ve dealt with shifting perceptions and philosophies in regard to feminism, race relations, LGBTQ, terrorism, the economy, and so forth. Writing never takes place in a vacuum, and pretty much all published works are subject to a lot of different influences, from those within the writer’s own head to those imposed by the industry. I feel like those influences are more public in comic books than they are in other forms.

4. Harry Potter

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This fandom dominated late high school and pretty much all of college. It took no time at all after reading the books (up through Goblet of Fire, when I got into it) to start costuming, writing fanfic, and joining RPGs (now on LiveJournal rather than the dying AOL or other forums). HP fandom is a lot of why I am so positive on fanfic in general. There is really no better way for young writers to get feedback than writing in a popular fandom. It’s really, really hard to get people to read original works, especially when you’re an inexperienced teenager (who, let’s face it, is probably not that great a writer yet) — but fanfic brings folk in. You get reinforcement and you get concrit. For me, it ended up building a really tight group of friends, many of whom I still chat with regularly. I certainly won’t claim that there isn’t a lot of nastiness, competition, and trolling out there, but if you pick your cohorts well, you end up with a great support system that can last for years. HP was and remains the most public of all my fandom loves, too. I was a founding member and the social chair of Wizards and Muggles, William and Mary’s HP fan club (which is now thought to be the largest in the nation), and I now co-run Virginia is for Wizards. All the cons I’ve been to so far have been HP-themed, and I’ve easily costumed in this fandom more than in any other.

5. Kushiel’s Legacy

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This fandom is so niche. The others on this list are all pretty huge names, so it’s not really surprising that they were what I’d consider gateway fandoms, but Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy has never gotten much mainstream attention. It’s easy to see why — the masochist heroine, the frank sexuality that imbues the entire culture, the overt paganism, as well as a lot of other darker themes and experiences that aren’t quite middle-America-friendly. It’s sort of just slightly more beyond the pale than A Song of Ice and Fire (which merely shocks, but all the alarming things there are overtly bad — the pearl-clutching bits in Kushiel are often the things held up as good, one of the reasons I like it so much). I didn’t find this until college, making it the latest addition to the list, but it definitely had an impact on me as a writer. Aven owes a lot to the complex interplay of politics, fantasy, history, and sexuality displayed in Kushiel’s Legacy. I think it influenced some of my writing vices as well — It’s a cast of thousands, which I love (though I know not everyone does), and it definitely has moments where it doesn’t move as swiftly as it might, choosing instead to luxuriate in character studies and world-building — but I’m okay with that. My fandom involvement here was mostly online, in a tight-knit group (that had a lot of overlap with HP and ASoIaF groups).

So — Those were the five fandoms that I think had the biggest influence on me, as a geek and as a writer. How about you? What were your starting fandoms?

How Star Wars Changed My Life

I mentioned a while ago that I really ought to tell this story on this blog at some point, and since I’m sitting here watching this movie on my parents’ enormous-screen TV, cozied up on the couch with the company of two terriers, basking in the warm glow of a Christmas tree while torrential rains fall outside, I thought… sure? Why not today?esbbest_11

I somehow made it through much of my childhood without seeing Star Wars. I’m not sure why. I watched a lot of Disney as a kid, but not to the exclusion of quite everything else, and I was definitely getting into live-action sci-fi by the time my age reached double digits. I was eleven years old in January of 1997, when the movies were re-released in theatres. I was already of pretty persistently geeky inclination, but it hadn’t yet found its true channels. I was, at that point, mostly just an unfortunate and awkward sixth-grader. In social studies class, I sat in front of a boy who would eventually become many things to me — friend, arch nemesis, boyfriend. We were discussing movies one day before class when he turned to me with a horrified expression and exclaimed loudly, “You haven’t seen Star Wars?!” His incredulity was so perfect, and tinged with such a mixture of disdain and taking-of-offense, that I promptly decided I must have been missing something tremendous. I convinced my mother to take me that weekend.

I was entranced. Despite the five-year-old kicking my seat the entire 121 minutes, I could not have been more enraptured. Afterwards, I sat there in the theatre, watching the credits roll. I’d never paid much attention to end titles before, yet there I was, thinking, This is it. This is what I’m meant to do.

I don’t know that I even knew what I meant by that at the time. I’d always been creative, always a natural storyteller, but something about Star Wars crystalized it — perhaps just making me consciously aware as I hadn’t been before that that sort of creation really is something a person can do for a living. But why that movie, and not something else? Something about it was magical to me, captivating and alluring. I loved the majesty of it, the galaxy-wide stakes, the sheer scope of the epic. I loved the high drama, the interplay of love and hate and friendship and betrayal. I loved the little moments of unexpected humor caught up in all ofthat. But I think what I liked best was the completeness of that universe — how big it was, how much room there was to play in, how many stories there were yet to tell. I wanted to create, and I wanted to create things like that: stories and characters that people would love, worlds they would want to live in.SW on set

In the meantime, though, I started playing in the universe already set-up for me. I started buying the novels and visiting the online forums. I devoured every supplementary material there was to find. I learned the reference guides by heart, memorized thousands of facts and details that are still locked somewhere in the recesses of my brain (and which I’m pretty sure are the reason there was no memorial space left for trigonometry). When I found fanfic and role-playing, it was really just all over. There was no extricating myself after that. The character I created then, in AOL RPG chat rooms at the tender age of eleven, became the heroine of my first novel, and traces of her certainly still surface in my current works. It was pretty cringe-inducing to start with, but I’ve still kept all my old notebooks — however embarrassing they might be now, I also still have a great deal of affection for those early days.  I can look back and see so much growth, from the self-insert instincts and derivative styles that I think all young writers start with, progressing to more and more creativity, more sophisticated storytelling. I can see how Leia Organa and Han Solo informed not only my ideas of heroines and heroes, but of love stories. I can see how my obsession with learning all the trivia helped me to keep world-building details straight once I started creating my own universes to play in. And it’s while I’ll never disparage fanfic and other derivative activities, either as purely recreational activities or as training for something more. I owe Star Wars and its derivative worlds too much.

I eventually moved on to other genres and other obsessions, but Star Wars was what started it. In the full throes of captivation as a teenager, I watched at least one of the trilogy at least once a week. Now it’s probably not much more than once a year — but I still return there for inspiration when I feel like my creativity needs a kick-start. It still works. Something about these movies gives me a shove between the shoulderblades. And, as today is proving, while a lot of the trivia I absorbed in those early years has been relegated to my brain’s archive folders, I can still recite pretty much the entire movie start-to-finish. I’ve gotten sixteen years’ worth of joy, entertainment, and inspiration out of this series, and I’m sure I’ll get many more. After all, A New Hope‘s 40th anniversary is coming up soon — and it’ll be my 20th anniversary as a fan. I’m sure there will be all kinds of celebrations, and I intend to find a way to take part in them.

Hanwink