False Starts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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:

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