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

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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?

Book Meme (with bonus matching game and sociopolitical commentary)

So, I stole this meme from Facebook, but decided to post it here because I wanted more of a chance to pontificate about these books — specifically, what sort of a reader and writer I think they’ve turned me into.

List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes and don’t think too hard. They don’t have to be ‘right’ or ‘great’ books just the ones that have touched you.

  1. The Scarlet Pimpernel – Emmunska Orczy
  2. Mists of Avalon – Marion Zimmer Bradley
  3. Deathless – Catherynne Valente
  4. The Last Unicorn – Peter Beagle
  5. Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
  6. Catherine, Called Birdy – Karen Cushman
  7. Kushiel’s Chosen – Jacqueline Carey
  8. Lords and Ladies – Terry Pratchett
  9. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J K Rowling
  10. Sandman Volume 3: Dream Country – Neil Gaiman

First off, I’m pretty pleased with myself that the list features six female authors. I walk the walk when it comes to supporting women in media. (Numbers 11 and 12, for what it’s worth, would probably be Gone with the Wind and Julia Quinn’s Everything and the Moon. And The Handmaid’s Tale probably comes in at 13 — so there’s three more female authors who rank highly in my esteem, all for very different reasons). I don’t know what it says that of the three male authors, two of them are featured twice, except that I really like what those guys write. I’m also fairly pleased with myself for not copping out and listing entire series, as I often do with these memes. Narrowing it down made me think harder about what it is that has stuck with me, even out of those series that I most cherish. But the list came easily, for the most part. These are all books I revisit frequently, old friends who always welcome me back.

So what does this list say about me? I like epics. I like sweeping romance, but I like it complicated. I like the middle volumes of things, where it’s dark and twisted and unresolved. I like history and fantasy, and I have little interest in modern reality, so far as my pleasure reading goes. A lot of these books have stuck with me for a really long time. I first read Catherine, Called Birdy when I was nine and The Last Unicorn when I was twelve (though I’d seen and loved the movie since I was two). A good chunk come from my mid-teenage years: The Scarlet Pimpernel, Mists of Avalon, Good Omens. The most recent addition, Deathless, I only read last year, but it made a huge impression.

I’m certainly attracted to an elegant turn of phrase. While not all of these authors write in the same style, I would say they’re pretty much all writers who really love language for its own sake — and that lends itself to a similar felicity of expression, even if it manifests in dissimilar ways. I can definitely quote all ten of those books off the top of my head. Which is making me want to play a matching game. So we will! Because it’s my blog and I do what I want.

  1. “Things need not have happened to be true.”
  2. “A woman’s heart is such a complex problem – the owner thereof is often most incompetent to find the solution of this puzzle.”
  3. “If I had to be born a lady, why not a rich lady, so someone else could do the work and I could lie on a silken bed and listen to a beautiful minstrel while my servants hemmed? Instead I am the daughter of a country knight with but ten servants, seventy villagers, no minstrel, and acres of unhemmed linen. It grumbles my guts.”
  4. “…muttering prayers and love-words like a curse…”
  5. “And they branch. But, and this is important, not all the time. The universe doesn’t much care if you tread on a butterfly. There are plenty more butterflies. Gods might note the fall of a sparrow but they don’t make any effort to catch them.”
  6. “‘All this time, and you speak to me as though I were a flighty pinprick of a girl. I am a magician! Did you never think, even once, that I loved lipstick and rouge for more than their color alone? I am a student of their lore, and it is arcane and hermetic beyond the dreams of alchemists.'”
  7. “Pride, she thought drearily, was a cold bedfellow.”
  8. “The men in the room suddenly realized they didn’t want to know her better. She was beautiful, but she was beautiful in the way a forest fire was beautiful: something to be admired from a distance, but not up close.”
  9. “‘They deserve their fate, they deserve worse.  To leave a child out in the snow…’   ‘Well, if they hadn’t, he couldn’t have grown up to be the prince.  Haven’t you ever been in a fairy tale before?'”
  10. “‘Don’t worry. You’re just as sane as I am.'”

I also (shockingly) like heroines. Of the ten books on that list, only two, maybe three, don’t have what I would consider central female characters — Harry Potter, since no character manages to be as central as he does (but we do still get, y’know, Hermione and Minerva and Luna and Ginny, all of whom shine so brilliantly in that book in particular), Good Omens is such an ensemble work (but still features Anathema, Pepper, War, etc), and Sandman, since if it has a central figure, that would be Morpheus, but that particular volume is even more ensemble than most of them. Of the rest? Marguerite Blakeney. Phedre no Delaunay and Ysandre de la Courcel. Morgaine and Vivivane. Amalthea and Molly Grue. Birdy. Marya Morevna. Esme and Gytha and Magrat. It’s a wide spectrum and no mistake. There’s not just one way to be a heroine. The only thing all those women have in common, really, is that they act. And this has always been true, in other media as well as in books. My heroines growing up were Princess Leia, Xena, and Queen Elizabeth I.

There’s a chicken and egg thing here, I think. Did I like these books with these amazing heroines (and anti-heroines, and occasionally female villains) because of the type of person I am, or did reading books with those characters shape me into that person? A little of both, probably. I can credit my parents with the fact that I think I internalized a lot less misogyny than a lot of women of my generation. Not none, mind — I’m not sure that would be possible, even in the most liberated of environments. But it was never, ever implied that there were things I couldn’t or shouldn’t do because I was a girl, whether it was playing with dinosaurs or learning to rappel at the age of five or dressing up like Disney princesses for Halloween. I could do all of those things — and did. And that spread into the media I consumed, too. My parents bought me books by both male and female authors, with both male and female characters. When they made up bedtime stories, it was always a little girl going out and adventuring. And so that’s what I sought out as I grew old enough to choose my own media.

I can look back at my very earliest writings — the stories about the people inhabiting my Playmobil dollhouse, the Star Wars fanfic — and from the very beginning, I was writing ensemble casts that were at least 50% female, if not weighted even more heavily to the distaff side. I was too young then to have done it to prove a point — that was just the way I saw my word, and so it was the way I sought to tell stories. It startles me sometimes, to remember that some people actually have to put conscious thought into that — that the idea of more than one prominent female character in a story is still radical in some ways.

Now, what I know I’ve had to get better at is racial diversity. That’s a very white list up there, both for authors and characters. That, I did internalize. I certainly never sought to be exclusionary, but I started off with some default assumptions that needed interrogation and, often, demolition. And so, the past several years have been a quest to better educate myself on those cultures that don’t derive from western Europe and to incorporate them — and I’m damn sure my stories are better for it.

I think a lot of narratives about writing focus on the writer discovering him or herself, but I think you get better stories when you’re more interested in discovering the world.

Word Choice and Authorial Patterns

I was super-intrigued by the Slate article that’s getting passed around the internet, comparing the most-often used sentences and descriptive words in The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter. Textual analysis is a big part of my day job — as my blog entries for the company will show — so I thoroughly enjoyed the comparative exploration of three authors.

Most people that I’ve seen have been more interested in the “most common sentences” chart, and that one does reveal a lot — I think, more than anything, by way of illustrating the differences in first person present, first person past, and third person past styles. It doesn’t surprise me that all three demonstrate fairly simple sentences. You can tell an amazing story without needing to convolute every sentence, and the ones likely to repeat will undoubtedly be the simple ones. A more complex sentence would lose power in repetition. Rowling and Collins still exhibit far more variety in their simple sentences than Meyer does, however (read into that what you will), which makes the difference between Rowlings and Collins more interesting to me. Collins’s simple sentences are explanatory — the first person narrator has to introduce the reader to a lot of given details. Rowling, on the other hand, describes action, often emotionally inflected, to tell the reader what’s going on.

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On the whole, though, I thought that the most distinctive adjectives list was more interesting — at least more telling, for what it says about each author and each story. Setting aside “drunk” (a descriptor for Haymitch used both in the narrative and in a lot of dialogue, from what I remember), the other adjectives in The Hunger Games are very action-oriented in a way that demonstrates Katniss’s blinkered focus on the task at hand. It represents her character well — she is not a big picture person. She is task-oriented. Meyer’s adjectives, on the other hand, illustrate pretty clearly what I find to be the disturbing emotional tenor of those books. And then JK’s are, like her sentence structure, more varied. Some are emotional, some sensory, some descriptive of “what’s going on” in the same way as her common sentences.

As y’all have already seen, I love creating word clouds, so my head naturally gravitates to this sort of analysis. I would love to have a program that would analyze my common sentences, not just individual words — or an automatic rhetoric scanner! That would, I’m sure, point out that I’m overly fond of zeugma and that I really might consider backing up off the tricolon. I wonder what adjectives I’m most prone to, what words I use that aren’t as common to other writers, where my grammatical constructions give me away. (See what I meant about the zeugma and tricolon? It’s a compulsion, really). As the Slate article points out, all writers have “tells” — personal tendencies that might also identify something particular about the story they’re telling. I’d be curious what an external analysis of my own patterns might reveal.