That’s right! There’s going to be an in-person type thing!
So some of you may have seen on social media or in stores that every Barnes & Noble store is participating in the first ever B-Fest, a national teen book festival, and it’s happening THIS WEEKEND (June 10-12). There is a ton going on at every store and, in addition to the national events, there are author signings all over the place. It’s going to be a ton of fun!
Why am I posting about this? Well, partly because I think it’s going to be awesome, partly because I’ll be working some of the events as a bookseller, and partly because I’ll be holding a signing! So here’s a break-down of events.
FRIDAY JUNE 10: 7 pm B- IN THE KNOW
Think you know YA? Put yourself to the test with our Trivia Blast, created by Penguin Teen and Random House’s First in Line. One winner in each store will spend the next year receiving advance reader’s copies of the hottest new teen titles, plus there’s swag!
SATURDAY JUNE 11: 11 am B- FIRST
There are so many amazing titles coming out, and you can be among the first to see them! Get samplers and sneak peeks from some of your favorite authors, including a Maze Runner prequel from James Dashner, new stories from Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children (don’t forget the movie of the first book, out this year!), and others! Other exciting giveaways are in the works, and the publishers sent some pretty awesome stuff.
SATURDAY JUNE 11: 2pm B- PART OF THE FUN
Settle in for a great time, as we unload spelling showdown, story ball, games, and activities, with even more prizes. Guys, I’ve seen the author coloring book. It’s amazeballs.
SUNDAY JUNE 12: 2pm B- CREATIVE
Learn how to develop your story in a workshop created by Adaptive Studios and find out more about this awesome publisher and their dual-media projects.
I’ll be at the Crossroads Barnes & Noble in Omaha to lead the workshop on Sunday (among other things) and it’ll round out with a signing for A WOUNDED NAME. To address the question that may or may not come up: we’ve got THE BUTTERFLY GARDEN on order and hopefully it will be there as well, but the focus will be on A WOUNDED NAME because it’s actually the teen book. (Teen book, teen book fest…you know.) But if our timing from when the book hit the warehouse works out well, we’ll have both books there for those who are interested.
Authors are booked at locations all over the country–call your local Barnes & Noble or check them out on twitter, facebook, or instagram to find out who’s coming to the stores near you. You can also check out #BFESTBUZZ, @bnbuzz, or visit bn.com/b-fest.
While this is primarily intended for young adults, the adults young at heart are welcome to join in the fun. The weekend is a fantastic opportunity for fans to come together and celebrate all the awesomeness that is the teen book scene. Hope to see you there!
Tomorrow marks two weeks of unemployment for me. I’m not panicking yet- last time I couldn’t get a job, it stretched for a whole six months- but it’s led to a lot of thinking for me, in between the cleaning and procrastinating. Mostly, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about control.
Because realistically, I can’t control my employment. I can put out applications, I can search and interview and do my best, but I can’t control what actually happens. It’s led me to other things I can’t control.
I can write the best book I can write, but I can’t guarantee that the book will sell. It’s out of my hands, and in the hands of an editor who can decide that he or she wants to buy it. I can do my best, my fabulous agent can do her best, but in the end, it depends on a lot of factors, like what else is in the catalog, like what the current trends are, like the purely subjective likes and dislikes of an acquisitions board. A lot of factors, factors over which I have no control.
Once a book is out there, the way it’s perceived is entirely out of my control. Books become, to many readers, very personal things. The way we enjoy them, the way we react to them, says a lot about us. I can’t control what people think of my writing. Once it’s out there, I can’t argue with people that I think miss the point, can’t tell them what I meant to do. Hell, J.K. Rowling is a superstar and she can’t get away with it without a furor. And really, that’s as it should be. Once it’s in the hands of the reader, it’s open to interpretation, to personal perception. I can’t make anyone like my book. I can’t control whether or not someone enjoys it. Love it or hate it, it’s out of my hands.
Publishing is a crazy industry that attempts to balance art and business. It’s a juggernaut, really, that steams along to its own timeline. There are eight million numbers and considerations and factors and none of it is in my hands. I can make my contributions on one end or another, but I can’t control it. YA readers on Twitter the other day may have seen #TheArchivedNeedsaThirdBook. For some context, The Archived is an absolutely amazing book by Victoria Schwab. It’s creepy and atmospheric, exciting, heart-wrenching, unexpectedly funny, with the lyrical, gorgeous writing we’ve come to expect from Victoria. It’s sequel, The Unbound, came out at the end of January, and it is just as good. Where the first book was an external enemy, this book is largely internal; the main character is shattering and struggling to make everyone believe she’s okay. A very large part of this book is the realization that it’s okay to NOT be okay for a while after trauma. The story is such that things can end here; it’s the characters that need a third book, and there was originally supposed to be one, but as we know, in publishing, sometimes things happen. They’re not done intentionally, they’re not done to hurt anyone, but it is, at the end of the day, a business, and a business is about numbers and projects and yes, about passion. The hashtag was a fan movement to try to sway the publishers, but at the end of the day, a trending hashtag isn’t going to make a difference to the business. (It will, however, make a hell of a difference to an author to get that kind of outpouring of love and support). What makes a difference to the publisher is sales. Aside from the contribution of buying books from authors I love so they can hopefully make more of them, I can’t control other books. I can’t control other authors. I can’t control publishers, or timelines, or release dates. I can’t.
I’ll be honest, Other People as a collective tend to piss me off. Not in a “you’re awful” kind of way, but in an “I don’t want to be dealing with you” kind of way. I am an introvert; I prefer not to deal with people if I can possibly avoid it, because I’m awkward and self-conscious and I hate feeling like an idiot in social situations. But I learned a long time that I can’t control other people. I can’t control behavior, or statements, or preferences. I can take accountability for my own actions, but not for theirs. I can’t control luck or good fortune, or bad fortune, I can’t make other people live with compassion or mindfulness.
There are so many things out of our control it’s frankly a wonder we can convince ourselves anything IS in our control. There is so much about life that we don’t get to decide. We can’t choose the weather, or the climate (unless you choose to move, but even then, have you noticed how things have been recently?). We as individuals have a say in our government, but we don’t really choose it. We can’t control the jury summons or the illness or the falling in love. We can’t choose a lot of things, and where there is no choice, there is no control. It all seems rather a hopeless business, doesn’t it? But there’s something comforting, in a strange sort of way, about acknowledging how small we are, how generally powerless we are. Because when we admit to ourselves all the things we CAN’T control, we start to understand the things we CAN control.
I can’t control what happens with my writing, but I can control the writing itself. Yes, there are bad days, where every word is a struggle and I’ll probably end up deleting most of them the next time I sit down to work, but those are generally rare. More to the point, what I can control is sitting down and DOING IT. I can control the process of sitting my butt in the chair and WRITING. I can choose to open the file, the notebook, the book. I can choose to exercise my craft and expand my voice. Whatever comes after is out of my hands, but it is precisely in my hands to shape the story and spill it onto the page.
I’m not by nature a disciplined person, but I can change that. I can control that. I can make it better. Right now my apartment is slowly getting cleaner than any living space of mine has probably ever been, and it’s kind of creeping me out a little, because everything is getting organized and neat and in its place, and that’s just not normal for me. But I’m making the choice, here and now, to keep it that way. To start the good habits and maintain them. I’m usually someone who waits for the mood to write, or who waits for the day off, but I would very much like to get into the habit of writing at least five hundred words every day. Even if it’s not on my main project of the moment, just so I’m writing SOMETHING every single day. Starting good habits is hard. Maintaining good habits is REALLY hard. But- I can choose to have the self-discipline to enforce them, and right now, I choose that.
I’m not able to control what happens to my books, but I can choose to keep pursuing the goals I’ve set. I can control whether or not I give up. Determination, persistence, they’re hard, especially because they traverse so close to the border of delusional and trying too hard. Sometimes, no matter how badly we want something, no matter how hard we work for it, it just doesn’t happen, and we do have to accept that. Sometimes that means we have to shift our goals. It doesn’t mean we have to give up. Determination got me my first book deal. I can choose to continue that determination.
Okay, so this one is actually really difficult. Life has a way of throwing things at us, and it’s hard to control your outlook in trying times. But if I can’t control my emotions well enough to be optimistic, I can at least control them enough to not wallow in misery. I can choose to temper my outlook with a bit of joy and hope, or at least a really sick sense of humor. I can’t control the world, but I can control how I look at it, and I can control how I choose to move through it.
Because at the end of things, the only thing I can really control is myself. All those other factors, all those other things, that I can claim to control, all those really boil into one single thing: me. And as long as I can control myself, as long as I can choose to make myself better, to do better, I can get by.
And what that also made me realize is something else I can control.
When you tell someone about a project you’re writing or have written, one of the first questions you usually hear is “Where did it come from?” Or, as my agent puts it, “Your brain must be a terrifying place.” (Reason a billion and one that Sandy and I are a really great fit) And most of the time, someone asks me this, and I just kind of start to stammer. The truth is, I have no idea where most of my stories come from. I remember strange things, I think of strange things, and they all just sort of stew together in my brain until suddenly two or more things click together and I sit up and go OOH! THAT COULD WORK!! I can occasionally trace back influences, things that have been roiling around in my mind for weeks or months or even years, but I can only really think of two projects where I could specifically point to something and say “This, this is where it came from”.
But A Wounded Name is one of those projects.
In some ways, it starts out as a pretty broad answer: a lifelong love of Shakespeare. I was the kid who brought Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing and Measure for Measure to elementary school with me, struggling through the language, and even though I got none of the subtleties or dirty jokes, I could more or less understand what was going on. It was in eighth grade that the appreciation shifted into something deeper, and there are two reasons for that.
The first was that my friend Carl, who was in Junior Thespians with me, performed the dagger monologue from Macbeth for the Districts and State Competitions/Festivals. And did it REALLY WELL. Even the kids in the audience who’d never come up against Shakespeare before got it. Even if they didn’t know the story or the character, they knew that this guy was coming seriously unhinged- and planning something really awful.
The second was that our gifted humanities teacher, Mrs. Shaughnessy, introduced us to Shakespeare in a way that was FUN. We read through Henry IV, Part I in class, and it’s a history play, so it’s easy to get bogged down in the poetically framed politics, but she very brilliantly focused on Hal and Falstaff. Dude, Shakespeare was FUNNY! And PERVY! We were cracking up about it, and when there was a filthy joke based off of slang we didn’t understand, she explained it. This sweet, delicate-looking, soft-spoken teacher in her fifties actually stood there and explained to teenagers that this page and a half of text was actually full of jokes about whether or not a guy’s junk worked. And, to reward us for successfully getting through the play, we took an end of year field trip to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where they were performing As You Like It, and we DIED. The performance was amazing, incredibly well done, and that’s when we finally understood that Shakespeare was meant to be performed, not read.
Shakespeare wasn’t published within his lifetime. It was after his death that some of his friends got together and published his plays. Before that point, you experienced Shakespeare by actually experiencing it, by seeing it, hearing it, feeling it. Shakespeare is meant to be performed, and some of us took that to heart.
The next year, three of my good friends and I decided we wanted to do an ensemble acting piece for Districts. We were nervous, because we were freshmen in a program that wasn’t, at the time, freshmen friendly, but two of us had done the summer theatre program with the school and gotten to know a bunch of the older kids, and more importantly the teacher, who was also an old friend of my family, and we figured if we put together something really good, it wouldn’t matter that we were younger, maybe we could still get a spot. I honestly don’t remember how we ended up with the play we did- I remember us looking, all of us digging into any play we could get our hands on. I don’t remember who found the winner.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, by Tom Stoppard, is an absolutely brilliant play that’s woven through Hamlet, but it’s pretty much based off of two lines.
TWO LINES. In all of Hamlet an entire play was able to be based off of TWO LINES.
And they’re an innocuous two line set, nothing glorious or earth-shattering.
CLAUDIUS: Thank you, Rosencrantz, and gentle Guildenstern.
GERTRUDE: Thank you, Guildenstern, and gentle Rosencrantz.
Now this is one of those places where performance is everything, because you can do a LOT of different things with those two lines. Most productions just kind of gloss over them. After all, Ros and Guil are hardly significant characters. They are so generally un-important, in fact, that Shakespeare gives us absolutely nothing to distinguish between them. They are utterly non-distinct, a pair never seen separated. So, some productions play off of that by saying that Claudius doesn’t know them that well, that he puts the adjective with the wrong name, and so Gertrude is gently correcting him with her statement.
Stoppard took those two lines and spun out this wonderful journey of one existential crisis after another, where these two characters are totally at sea in everything that’s going on around them, and lost as they are, can’t help but cry out again and again WHO AM I AND WHAT AM I DOING HERE? Guildenstern even argues, though he thinks he’s talking about the situation, that rather than being opposite sides of the same coin, they are actually the same sides of two coins, able to be manipulated separately and yet still the same thing. This play is fiendishly intelligent, full of wordplay that would make the Bard proud, a tragic sense of inevitability, and yet an unapologetic love of the absurd. Ros and Guil are adrift, are utterly incapable of understanding everything going on around them because Hamlet is, after all, a play where everyone has secrets from each other, but they’re being manipulated by EVERYONE, everyone is trying to use them for their own ends and aims. And in Stoppard’s play, the director is the devious, somewhat implacable Player, leader of the company Hamlet hires for his trap.
We fell in love with this play, and we finally found a scene we thought would work for all four of us, where Hamlet welcomes his pair of old school friends to Elsinore and bids them be respectful to the Player. From that point on, Ros and Guil are trying to figure out what’s going on, and the Player is…well, let’s call it less than direct. There’s a lot of stumbling over words, because English is, after all, a bizarre language, imprecise at the best of times. We practiced and practiced and practiced, we watched two or three different movie versions of Hamlet, we watched the movie production with Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, and Richard Dreyfuss (which is brilliant, by the way), we argued ENDLESSLY over stupid things. Seriously, we spent probably five weeks arguing over the pronunciation of gesture until we finally asked someone. But we had a fairly solid piece when we auditioned, and so our teacher gave us a slot for Districts, and we started practicing even harder.
Our rehearsals often got sidetracked, because as much as we wanted to polish this and make it awesome, the word-play was fantastically fun. We kept looking outside of the scene, or even all the way back to Hamlet to pull in context or hints or allusions because there was just so much wealth to work it. And we asked questions. Not just what does this word mean, or what is he trying to say here, but bigger questions.
Is Hamlet actually crazy?
Does the Player know all of what’s going on?
What are the consequences of trying to understand the situation?
And we asked questions that had absolutely nothing to do with the scene, but were just such interesting questions that we couldn’t help ourselves.
Does Hamlet love Ophelia?
Why does Ophelia lose it?
How much does Gertrude know?
How much does Polonius know?
SO MANY QUESTIONS, and we could debate them endlessly. Honestly, in high school the four of us could debate almost anything endlessly, simply because the discussion itself was that much fun.
We took the piece to Districts and did REALLY well. We got straight superiors, so all three judges in the room thought that we did an amazing job. Not the absolute best job they saw in the room (Critics’ Choice) but a really solid, wonderful job. We were ecstatic. And because of those straight superiors, we automatically got one of the very few slots available for State. Which…pissed off a bunch of the upper classmen, who felt they should get preferential treatment because we had three more years ahead of us to compete. To which our teacher replied that if they wanted that badly to compete in State, they should have worked harder, done better, and ranked higher.
Our teacher didn’t really put up with anyone’s crap.
State is a lot harder than Districts- you have to get at least an excellent at Districts to be able to compete, and because of limited slots, each school tries to bring its best stuff, so the judges rank accordingly. We got an excellent at State, and were ridiculously happy about it.
Senior year, in a fit of nostalgia, we decided to do the same piece again. We hadn’t all four been in a single competition piece since freshmen year, so there was something that felt pretty right about it, and we knew even at the beginning of the year that we weren’t going to all be going to the same colleges. And this time, we had three more years of debates under our belt, three more years of independently dissecting the play we’d all fallen in love with. And someone, one of the parents, I’d suspect, decided to get a picture of us this time.
Now, keeping in mind that this picture was taken TEN AND A HALF YEARS AGO, we have, starting at twelve o’clock: me, as the Player, Betty-Jane as Rosencrantz, JD as Hamlet, and Jeff as Guildenstern.
This time, the ensemble piece wasn’t our main focus. We all had different things we were doing that year. JD was in a duet pantomime (I’m Not as Think as You Drunk I Am, which was absolutely hysterical and won Critics’ Choice), Betty-Jane had monologues and a duet acting scene that were both absolutely brilliant (and off the top of my head I can’t remember your scores, Betty-Jane, sorry!), Jeff was doing Publicity Design (Critics’ Choice and Tech District Representative), and I had a solo, a duet musical, and Playwriting (for Playwriting I received Critics’ Choice and Tech District Representative). We were mostly focused on all of that, so this piece was really just for us, something fun to do together because we’d all been so crazy busy with everything.
And it was. It was brilliant, and fun, and we did well at Districts and not quite as well at State, and that was okay. Because we loved it, and we had a blast asking all those questions again, and asking better questions, deeper questions, questions that used the play as a stepping off point and tried to apply the possible answers against the broader human condition.
Okay, we were super pretentious in high school- aren’t most high schoolers?
The next year, Jeff and I both went down to the College of Theatre and Dance at the University of South Florida, him for the technical track, me for the performance track. Our senior year, he did the theatre honors track, combining that thesis with his honors college one, and he and his honors classmates created, from the ground up, a study on Ophelia. They researched and debated and eventually wrote and designed a production called Remembrances, also known as the Ophelia project. I went to see the performance, and really, it was just brilliant. From every standpoint, honestly, the writing, the acting, the design and execution.
Its sense of time was fluid- interspersed with scenes from Hamlet were moments where the fractured pieces of Ophelia interacted, and memories of happier times with her family. It didn’t try to define Ophelia- it tried to explore her. To understand her.
During its larval stage, Jeff and I used to get together every Thursday for Wine and Laundry night. I lived in a place that didn’t have laundry facilities, and I lived in an area where you REALLY didn’t go to the all-night laundromats unless you wanted to get mugged or raped, and at that time, my weekends were dedicated to Job Number One, which was retail, Job Number Two, which was rehearsals and then performance for the Renaissance Faire, Unpaid Job Number Three, which was tech work on the shows the college put on, for which I received mandatory credits, plus working on my own honors thesis, which was a novel. The only thing that made the weekends distinct was that I didn’t have sit-down class. So, Thursday nights, where conversations would range over every possible topic, and frequently came back to Ophelia, because we both had a long-held interest in her.
Backing up slightly, at the end of my junior year, I’d proposed a thesis project that would take seven questions from/about Shakespeare’s plays and explore them as novellas. One of these seven pieces was going to be about Ophelia, a fractured time piece where her sanity has already slipped but she’s still trying to tell us the story, only she can’t piece it together in the right order. I ended up not doing that because my potential thesis advisor and I disagreed on how to approach them. I didn’t want to research other takes until after I’d written mine, so as to avoid influence, and she felt I needed to research them first so I could support my own opinion.
I love research, but an academic researcher I’ll never be.
And in a way, I was a little grateful that it fell through, because of all the questions I’d intended to face, that one TERRIFIED ME, and when it came to writing, I was only learning to be brave at that point. Back then, I thought if it scared me, that was a sign I should do something else. So, I went back and looked at the only original novel I’d ever finished, back from the beginning of freshmen year of college which desperately needed to be re-written pretty much from the ground up, and asked around for advice on who to approach as an advisor, given that the Creative Writing Dept had never waivered me in to their classes, and at the end of the year, when I met with Dr Omlor, my advisor, for my final evaluation, he told me I was an idiot if I didn’t try to get published.
Over the next few years, Ophelia kept creeping out in small ways. The next year, when I was taking a poetry class at the community college (long story), she found her way into one of the poems. The prompt was to take lines from established pieces and use them within our own poem. I borrowed from both Hamlet and T.S. Eliot (several of his poems, really), and what came out was…I loved it. And I suck at poetry, so for me to say that I love this poem is really kind of extraordinary. There was something broken about it, the way the original lines were left justified and the borrowed lines right justified, the way your eye had to travel across the page, the way the original lines could be read entirely on their own and still tell the story but the borrowed lines added something…I don’t think I’d ever loved one of my own poems before. At about the same time, I was writing a Harry Potter fanfiction called (and here I’m outing myself, oh well) “Where the Breezes Know My Name”. It’s a STRANGE little piece, but at the time it was the most poetic prose I’d ever written, and for YEARS I swore about it, because I thought it was beautiful and there was no way in hell I could unravel it from the original source enough to use it for anything original.
A few years later, I woke up in the middle of the night with Ophelia’s voice in my head, specifically the first few lines of the book, which have remained unchanged from that moment.
The sky is blue today.
Blue like glacier ice, like hidden springs. Blue like jays’ wings, peacock feathers. Blue like my mother’s skin.
Well. Hello, Ophelia!
But I was in the middle of another project at the moment, one that was quickly growing to the point that it needed to be split into two books (and will thankfully never, ever, EVER see the light of day), so I wrote down the lines on the notebook beside my bed and figured I’d forget about it.
But Ophelia, as a figment, is sneakily persistent. She’d pop up in my dreams, shoving these eerie and lovely and unsettling images at me, I’d hear her voice and write the lines down on napkins, scrap papers, business cards, sometimes even my arm or the back of my hand if I didn’t have anything else handy. Ophelia would not go away, and she was bound and determined that she wasn’t going to be quiet.
Having Ophelia in my head was like edging into a kind of insanity, and it didn’t really stop until I finally sat down, typed the first lines in a fresh word document, and let her take the reins.
From start to finish, the first draft took twenty-three days, and because of work and other obligations, I couldn’t write every day. Once I typed in the last line, it was like this massive weight was off me, like suddenly I could breathe again. For weeks, I’d been drowning in Ophelia, and suddenly my head was clear again.
But where she first started gaining form, where the questions first started giving her a distinct and permanent existence in some part of my brain, was 1999, when Jeff, JD, Betty-Jane, and I first sat together over a battered library copy of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which an eye towards taking it to competition.
And that is the story behind the story, behind A Wounded Name.
Until next time~
There are a number of words in the English language (or, honestly, probably any language) that have been used so loosely, so borderline inaccurately, for so long, the perceived meaning has started to shift. We actually have words for that (how cool is that?): connotation and denotation.
Remember those from ninth grade English?
Denotation is the literal definition of any given word. The dictionary definition, if you will. It’s the meaning that doesn’t shift much over time, or at least, is much more slow to shift. Like, a glove is an accessory/article of clothing worn over the hand with individual fingers.
Connotation is the not necessarily slang, but it’s the perceived meaning of a word. Much more so than denotation, connotation reflects the current culture. In this case, a glove isn’t only an article of clothing on the hand, it’s also a slang term for condom.
…well, I guess we know my mind’s in the gutter on a pretty regular basis.
Why do I bring up connotation and denotation? Because there are some words we use on a regular basis in talking about books that we use incorrectly.
Like dystopia. It’s become rather a catch-all for genuine dystopia, post-apocalyptic, evil modern regime, and some genre-benders that only partially fit within the definition. We use it to describe just about everything grim and touching on anything loosely governmental. BUT. The definition of dystopia (and don’t trust Merriam-Webster online, their definition sucks) is a society built upon utopian principles that, through innate human error, political or spiritual corruption, a/o self-initiated disaster, decays into something nearly a parody of its original, idealistic principles.
Here’s where we tie back into the title: cliffhanger is another term that’s experienced a shift between original and perceived meaning. We hear it being used for anything that makes you want more, anything that ends abruptly in such a way as to leave you intensely craving more.
The thing is, the original (and accurate) definition of cliffhanger is contained within the phrase itself. Cliffhanger. It came about as radio and television shows developed, and they’d leave you at the end of a week’s episode with someone literally hanging off a cliff. Does he make it? Or does he fall? Will she celebrate a rescue? Or have to plan a funeral? Do the humans understand Lassie? Or does Timmy finally drown in that damn well? You’d be left with your character in genuine, life-threatening DANGER and then have to wait until next week’s episode to find out if he or she is okay.
Here’s an example where the meaning has blurred. (WARNING: SPOILERS FOR CATCHING FIRE BY SUZANNE COLLINS BELOW) If you talk to most people who’ve read Catching Fire, they call the ending a cliffhanger. What?! *gasp!* There’s no District 12 anymore?! *shock!* It’s not, though. A cliffhanger, that is, it’s sort of a shock if you haven’t been paying attention to the repeated stories of the 13th District that wasn’t really mentioned at all in the first book. It’s not a cliffhanger because it’s not leaving us in the middle of active (or if you’re a Tom Clancy fan, clear and present) danger. Katniss and a handful of others have been rescued from the arena, they’re on their way to promised safety, the main action of the second book is finished. The “There is no District Twelve, Katniss” is the lead-in to the next book, a way to spark the interest that naturally wanes as the resolution ties neatly together, a way to keep you chomping at the bit for the next installment. It’s the carrot dangling from the end of the stick.
But it’s not dangling over the end of a cliff.
On my second What I’ve Been Reading post, The Streelight Reader asked me if The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater ends in a cliffhanger, and I had to think about what to answer. (Don’t worry, NO SPOILERS) Because, by the current definition of cliffhanger, by the connotation of the word…sure, it’s a bit abrupt, it’s a definite lead in to the next book, and it’s a pair of sentences that make your heart skip few beats as you stare at the page.
But I wouldn’t call it a cliffhanger.
One of the things I love about Maggie Stiefvater’s books, especially the two we’ve seen thus far in the Raven Cycle, is that each book has its own story. The series has an arching story, an overall goal and way of getting there, but the individual books aren’t merely installments. Each book has its own arc, has its own threads that mostly resolve and tie back together even as they form a pattern within the larger story.
Do you remember those friendship bracelets that little kids make with embroidery floss? (Or not so little kids, given that I made one right before BEA) There’s one that’s called, among other names, a Triple Diamond. Hang on, let me throw in a picture:
It uses twenty strands of floss in five different colors, knotting in chevrons and inverted chevrons to form the diamonds, and you have to be able to knot both left and right, sometimes switching direction in the middle of a knot. The overall design, the finished pattern, is like the series. The story of the Raven Cycle is that completed work, with all those individual diamonds linking together into a cohesive creation. But every thread, every color, every individual knot, those are the elements of the books on their own. Just as the main characters can each be assigned a thread color and we can call it that character’s path through the series, we can also call those threads individual plot elements. They have to resolve in every set in order to continue through the rest of the books.
So the black thread (let’s call it Ronan) can’t just dangle off into nothingness and still be fully present through the resolution of the series. His smaller stories, his episodes, HAVE to resolve within each set.
The Dream Thieves is not merely a continuation of the quest for Glendower. It’s not merely a second installment, continuing the same story and trudging relentlessly onward. This is its own book, its own story, a set of snarls and knots that resolves into a part of the larger pattern, even as the threads set themselves for the next block of pattern. Without that preparation, without those two sentences that make your gut clench with wonder and anticipation and just a bit of fear, things would just kind of…fizzle…after the necessary resolution of those smaller threads.
But we’re not left in the middle of something. We’re not left with our Raven Boys (including Blue) in imminent peril. We’re not left with them over the lip of a cliff, literal or metaphorical. Instead, we’re left with a clue- the frame of a question that hasn’t yet found its voice or shuffled the words into the right order to follow the transition from declarative to inquisitive. That question, once it’s found, will be the starting block for the third book (and seriously, can’t wait; if I haven’t scared you off with grammar and craft-based-analogies, READ THESE BOOKS IF YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY), but it’s necessarily built off the resolution of the book two story.
This is a very long answer to what’s probably a simple question, Streetlight Reader, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, as I see the word cliffhanger more and more in book reviews.
Until next time~
Seriously. Never trust your draft.
In a sense, I know this goes counter to a lot of advice that’s out there. You have to trust your story, your characters, your writing, and that’s still all true. You have to trust the greater concept.
But you still can’t trust your draft.
Drafting, the process of creating the story, (of giving birth to it, if you will) is an emotioal and at times painful process. Oftentimes with drafting, we become so thoroughly wrapped up in the characters and the story and the world that we lose touch with small bits of reality. Not all of it, or at least not usually all of it, but the things that filter through our experiences, the things that put everything else in proper context, those are usually the first to go.
This month, outside of a flurry of real life issues, has been devoted to editing my October and November projects, and it’s led me to realize some interesting things about drafts.
Emotions, when it comes to how you’re reading your first draft, are largely unreliable.
Not entirely, and not always, but largely, because we haven’t applied that filter in the process of writing, and so we’re often unable to apply it in that first re-read.
After finishing the rough drafts on both projects, I didn’t touch them again until this month. The first book sat for two and a half months, the second sat for a month and a half, with absolutely no contact or conscious reminder of the contents. I needed some distance before I could even hope to do a satisfactory job of improving things, because when I write, I lose myself in the pages. I know the characters SO WELL that it’s hard to separate myself from their lives sometimes, especially because I know so much more of what’s going on than the pages will ever (should ever) tell. I know what’s supposed to happen so well that if I don’t get a little distance from it, my brain somehow skips over the fact that it doesn’t always actually happen.
And with my October project, I learned that I really can’t trust the emotions that come up even on a re-read, even with that distance.
Real life directly influences our writing.
Not always in the way non-writers assume (not in the sense that we deliberately translate people we know into the story at every opportunity), but in the sense that what we’re going through, the emotions we experience even when we’re not at the computer or notebook writing, resonate in our work.
October was a very stressful, strange month. I was out of work more than I was there because I had to use all of my paid time within a couple of weeks, so there was a lot of running around immediately beforehand to get everything appropriately arranged there. I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands and not much idea what to do with it other than writing- I haven’t had that kind of free time since I started working nine years ago. (The summer of unemployment doesn’t count, as I was frantically putting out applications and hoping for interviews) I was tackling a story that scared me. My October project had a great deal to do with mothers and daughters, with fathers and daughters, with twisted friendships and relationships, with fear and murder and a kindlier death. It was a story that relied almost entirely on emotions in all their terrifying range. And in the end of September, there was a death in my family. In October, there was a funeral. In January, we’re still adjusting.
What we write finds ways to resonate. Through the month of October, as I wrote of death and family, I more than once found myself literally sobbing in front of my computer, hardly able to breathe for the emotions lodged tightly in my throat, tears blurring my eyes until I could barely see the words on the scree, and I couldn’t be sure if that was because of the high-charge of my characters’ emotions or it was because of my own. Or both. Even two and a half months later, going back through with a critical eye to edit it, I find myself choking up at the same sections.
And this is why you can’t trust your drafts: because you, as the writer, are too invested to know if your reaction is from the process of writing, or from what’s written.
Even distance, even time, aren’t enough to force a separation if emotional recall is woven through every word.
Catharsis may be what some readers seek, is what more readers achieve (books like The Fault in Our Stars and The Statistical Probablity of Love at First Sight are amazing examples of books that left me feeling drained and filled at the same time), but it’s not the writer’s catharsis that anyone is interested in. This phrase comes up all the time when we’re talking about reviews, but it was a broader application: books are for the reader. When we make the decision to publish- by whatever means we choose to publish- we are deliberately putting our book out of our hands. We can’t control how it’s received, how it’s regarded or reviewed, and we can’t control the reactions people have. A book, the act of reading a book, is an intensely personal thing, and everyone will respond in a different way. Different things resonate, reverberate, different notes and chords are struck based on each individual history and experience and emotional state.
When you’re reviewing your draft, you might be bawling at a certain scene- but it might not be the immense impact on readers you think it might be.
It might be a reflection of your mental state at the time of writing.
It might be a reflection of some horrible thing you know will happen to the character later, and right now it just hurts like hell to read how happy they are (I get that during Avatar: The Last Airbender frequently through season two, pretty much any time Zuko is actually happy, because you know, you just KNOW, he doesn’t get to stay that way yet).
It might be a reflection of your mental state NOW, as you’re going back through and finding resonances that weren’t in place when you wrote it.
This is why other readers, even if they’re not critical readers or true critique partners, are so essential. SOMEONE else needs to read it, preferably more than person, so you have a way to measure your own response. There’s an assumption out there that writers must think everything they write is either brilliant or trash-worthy, and the truth is, it’s both at any given moment. The emotional ups and downs of a dedicated writer are…dizzying, at the least.
If we’re lucky, when we’ve given a project time and distance, we come back to it more impressed than when we left it. We come back to it awed and humbled by funny lines we don’t remember, by touching scenes that tug our heartstrings, but remember, DON’T TRUST IT.
Because drafts are devious and deceitful.
Until next time~
I mentioned a few times that my NaNo project was a rewrite, so I thought it might be interesting to do some first draft comparisons now that the numbers are all in.
I wrote the First Version in early 2008. It was my first time writing YA, and for a while it refused to settle into a voice. Somewhere in a folder I still have the paperclipped stash where the first two chapters were written in first person, then rewritten in third. Then I ignored both of them and started over in first. I don’t have the day by day breakdowns, partly because this was before I started doing that. Writing by hand meant that I didn’t really have a good grasp of word count, either per day or per chapter, and even though I typed up each chapter as I finished instead of waiting for the end, I didn’t really understand at that point how word count was supposed to translate.
(As proof, I offer you the word count of the novel I wrote for my college honors thesis: 215K+. I so wish I was joking)
But, I do have the chapter counts.
Prologue: 286 (yes, it had a prologue, and worse, it was one of those that drops you present tense into the middle of a high-octane moment, then takes you back however long for the beginning of the story)
Chapter 1: 7895 (waaaaay too long for a chapter, as I didn’t understand at that point)
Chapter 2: 7805
Chapter 3: 7758
Chapter 4: 7875
Chapter 5: 10665 (and no, I didn’t accidentally include an extra number in there, that’s really how long it was)
Chapter 6: 8161
Chapter 7: 5107
Chapter 8: 7173
Chapter 9: 6478
Chapter 10: 8161 (am I a nerd that it seriously amuses me how two chapters had the exact same word count?)
Chapter 11: 8076
Chapter 12: 5211
Chapter 13: 6840
Chapter 14: 4241
Total word count: 102028
On its own, it’s not an egregious word count. A little overlong, but not terrible. I was in love with it, not so surprising, and given that I’ve never had much of a hand at self-editing, I started researching agents pretty much as soon as I went through looking for typos and inconsistencies. Still, I got a few bites off of it before I reluctantly retired it to query a stronger a project.
When I retired it, though, I had no intention of leavig it to die. I still believed, very passionately, in the story and the characters, and (strangely enough) in the setting. It just needed more of some things and less of others. It needed a tighter line, higher stakes, needed some sharper edges. I just wasn’t sure at that point how to achieve those things. So I set it aside, waiting for the pieces to come together.
It took a little over three years, but in mid-October or so, as I was neck deep in another project, suddenly something clicked. Or rather, about a dozen somethings. I couldn’t play with it until I was done with the other project, so that’s when I made the decision to do NaNo, even though I prefer to give three or four weeks between projects so my brain doesn’t fry.
Here are the counts for the Second Version (chapters are listed under the day they were finished, with total chapter word count)
1 November: 8429 words
Chapter 1: 5221
2 November: 2502
Chapter 2: 4527
3 November: 990
4 November: 7402
Chapter 3: 5465
Chapter 4: 5229
5 November: 2530
7 November: 3879
Chapter 5: 5486
8 November: 7610
Chapter 6: 5114
9 November: 1768
Chapter 7: 5189
10 November: 5066
Chapter 8: 5066 (yes, that was all I did that day)
11 November: 3292
15 November: 1839
Chapter 9: 4821
16 November: 2464
18 November: 6911
Chapter 10: 4321
Chapter 11: 5037
20 November: 9482
Chapter 12: 4707
Chapter 13: 5102
22 November: 7425
Chapter 14: 4751
29 November: 7498
Chapter 15: 5037
Chapter 16: 5154
6 December: 15279
Chapter 17: 5154
Chapter 18: 5180
Chapter 19: 4945
Total word count: 95571
No prologue, no epilogue, five more chapters, seven thousand fewer words.
Average chapter length Round 1: 7246 and spare letters, not counting prologue and epilogue
Average chapter length Round 2: 5030 and spare letters
Rewriting something is very, very different from writing something new. I had to decide what to keep, what to keep but change, and what to discard completely, and had to decide what that did to the story and to the characters. There are scenes that I miss SO BADLY because I loved them, some of them because they were sweet, some of them because they still have the ability to crack me up, but I had to evaluate everything on a simple question: does this do what I need it to do? For a lot of those scenes I loved, while they did wonderful things purely for character, the overall answer was no. They didn’t do enough for the story, so they had to go.
For me, doing this rewrite was a lot harder than putting down something wholly new. I knew the characters so well from three previous books that sometimes I forgot that my audience wouldn’t know them the way I did (something that will doubtless prove to be a trial when I go back to edit it in a few weeks). I wanted to stay true to the characters I’d fallen in love with, but more importantly, I wanted the characters to be true. Which actually made me fall in love with some of them even more.
And made me realize that I am merciless when it comes to putting my favorite characters through horrible things.
What doing this also taught me is that I have a process. It’s a weird process, based on writing only a couple of days a week but writing ALL DAY, but it’s mine. That process works for me, lets me get a LOT done, and going outside of that process, while a valuable experiment, is something I need to not do in the future if I want to spare myself fruitless frustration.
After I saved the completed file, I closed it out and haven’t looked at it. Starting this evening (maybe), I’ll be starting on edits for my October project, the file for which I haven’t opened since I finished it. I need time away from a draft before I can go back to it constructively, need the time to back away, to gain some distance so I can see more clearly what needs to be repaired, replaced, or removed. After I do the edits on that one, and take some time to mentally recover, then I’ll come back to my NaNo project with a wiser eye.
Until next time~
This is where I admit that I’ve learned two very, very important things this month.
First thing- trying to push myself to write every day around a full time job is basically equivalent to stomping all over my productivity. I am not a writer who paces myself. I’m a writer who binges on words and scenes and whole chapters at a time.
Second thing- I need to never, ever, EVER draft back to back. Going from a draft to an edit, all good. Going from an edit to a draft, still good. Draft to draft? NEVER AGAIN. I need time to recharge after a draft, and editing uses a very different part of my brain than drafting. Trying to draft two projects in a row, especially projects SO radically different, damaged something in my brain, I think.
That’s not to say my NaNo was a failure- it definitely wasn’t. I made my word count and then some.
More importantly, it’s taught me more about how I write.
There are a lot of books and websites and people out there purporting to tell people how to write. I kind of hate them. Not in a personal sort of way, but in a “it’s the principle of the thing” kind of way, because everyone writes in a different way. The important thing isn’t to learn “how to write”, it’s to learn “how YOU write”. Learning what does and does not work for you, for your productivity and efficiency, for your style and voice, for your characters, that’s essential to your growth as a writer.
And doing NaNo has taught me that doing NaNo is not necessarily what’s best for me.
I only wrote one day this past week- I spent Thanksgiving morning and early afternoon sinking into the words, got seven thousand or so of them down, and I’m happy with them. And then I didn’t touch it. I started the Christmas movies. I played with my new phone- or more specifically, played with the ringtones, which kind of makes me wish I received more calls. I pulled all my many MANY boxes and bags and containers of beads and started organizing them all. I repaired some old jewelry. I read some old manuscripts.
And I desperately needed that break.
Because I have a day off tomorrow, and I fully intend to go to my writing cave and lose myself in the story again. I’m super excited for what happens next, and I’m actually really near the end of the story, which always adds a certain thirst to keep going. In trying to force myself to write outside of my habits, outside of ways I knew worked for me, I made writing into a chore, rather than letting it be the joy it is and should be.
So I’m going to write tomorrow, but after that not for a few days, and we’ll see how it goes after that.
How is your NaNo doing?
Until next time~
By now I’ve admitted to myself that the next time I do NaNo, I need to not worry about churning out daily word counts. I’m not quite sure how I’ve managed it, but somehow the attempt to write every single day actually made me less productive. My results this week show that to a very large degree, mainly because once I hit the NaNo goal, I went back to doing it my way.
(which is to take my days off and camp out in a public writing cave, where I don’t have nearly as many distractions, and whenever else in the week inspiration strikes)
14 November: Didn’t write at all. Instead, I took another reading day and lost myself in Reached by Ally Condie. It’s hard for me to read new stuff while I’m writing, so I tend to either reread old favorites, or save the new stuff for days where I know I’m not going to be writing at all. It keeps what I’m reading from sneaking into what I’m writing. Plus, after work, it was pizza and bad movie night with my brother. We’re continuing my education in the Bond movies, but I’m having trouble forcing myself through the list. The early ones hurt my brain SO BADLY.
Word count for the day: zero.
15 November: Day off, but also kind of an off day, at least writing wise. Went over to the mother’s house to do laundry while the brother baked pumpkin bread (which smelled and tasted DELICIOUS), and we watched Starship Troopers and John Leguizamo’s Freaks while those things were happening (oh, and Troopers? He’ll deny this vociferously, but that was my first official bad movie night). Then we went and saw Wreck-it Ralph, which, if you’ve grown up playing any sort of video or arcade games, you HAVE to go see. The story was cute, led exactly where it was supposed to, still had a nice little surprise, but the characters were superb and the gamer jokes AWESOME. Eventually got some writing done, but wasn’t really stressing about it. By this point I’d landed pretty solidly in the ‘meh’, not in the story but in the process.
Word count for the day: 1839
16 November: Full day of work, but felt pretty good afterwards, and I was starting to get into a really challenging, difficult, exciting part. I often find that the pieces that are the most difficult to write in any given story are the ones I most look forward to. We’re reaching a point of political and personal trauma, rapid changes, lines being drawn, and someone having to choose which of those lines to step up to or cross. All about decisions and choices, and most importantly of all, consequences.
Word count for the day: 2464
17 November: Full day of work, a good one but a busy one, and I came home completely brain dead. I was going to write- even opened up the computer and put one of the old standbys in the player- and then ended up reading some amazing Harry Potter fanfic while letting the Whitney Houston Cinderella play four times in a row because I was too lazy to get up and change the disc. Probably should have felt guilty. Didn’t.
Word count for the day: zero.
18 November: Schedule wise this was a weird day, but an ultimately productive one. Went to the mother’s and watched the brother play Lego LOTR, which was funny enough on its own, but then you combine the ACTUAL MOVIE VOICES and the ridiculous Lego in-jokes, and I was dying. Lunch instead of dinner with the family, because the mothers were on their way out of town for the week, and then I found a writing cave for a few hours. This early-dark stuff has my brain all turned around; it makes writing near windows very strange. BUT- lots of words and good scenes done, enough that I wasn’t that grumpy about having to go to the holiday meeting for work that night.
Word count for the day: 6911
19 November: Full day of work, then came home, put the South Park movie on repeat, and read more Harry Potter fanfiction. No shame.
Word count for the day: zero.
20 November: Day off, spent MUCH time in the writing cave, and came away with my most productive day of the month, applicable to word count, chapter tally, and just what I accomplished in the scenes I got down. Got less productive once I got home and had some chores to do, and then tried to write while watching Firefly, which gets a little un-shiny, but I was still REALLY happy with how everything turned out.
Word count for the day: 9482
Total word count so far for NaNo: 65310
So I’ve met the NaNo goal, but stopping now just seems silly. I’ll keep going until I finish the draft. Then I’m spending at least two weeks binge-reading all the shiny new things I’ve been stockpiling over the past two months.
If you’re doing NaNo, how are you doing? Check in below! And remember to back up your stuff, even if you just email it to yourself. After so much work, it would greatly suck for it to vanish.
Until next time~