A Personal Evolution in Fantasy

(or, What Happened When My Childhood Met the Works of Patricia C. Wrede)

Believe it or not, I spent the better part of my early childhood as an insufferably girly girl.  Everything I owned was pink.  There were unicorns and butterflies and rainbows everywhere.  My number one fantasy was to be a beautiful princess awaiting rescue by a handsome prince.  And when I played make-believe with my little sister, we usually played house.

Then, around maybe fourth or fifth grade, something began to change.  Suddenly, I was reading tales about princesses being rescued from fire-breathing dragons, and I was rooting for the dragons.  I began thinking it was awfully rude of those brash princes to just rush on in and slaughter an innocent dragon without asking the princess if it was really necessary.  What if the princess and the dragon had become friends?

And then I read the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede, and I felt like a whole new world opened up in front of me.

dragons

For anyone who was not so fortunate as to encounter these books as a child, let me sum them up for you:  The story starts accounting the adventures of a dark-haired princess named Cimorene who, in a world where her pretty blond sistren are traditionally kidnapped by dragons so as to be rescued by princes, chooses to run away from home and become a dragon’s housekeeper.  She befriends a lady dragon named Kazul who eventually becomes the Dragon King (because in dragon society, the King may be male or female) and a witch named Morwen with a plethora of clever talking cats, among others, battles evil wizards with soapy wash water scented with lemon, wields swords and flying carpets, marries for love a man who respects her for her power and spirit, and goes off on a mission to save magic while pregnant with her first child.  The series addresses and delightfully satirizes nearly every fairy tale trope in existence, and in the character of Cimorene, you get a brilliant, willful, resourceful character who is absolutely true to herself.  She is both warrior and housekeeper, adventurer and mother, shrewd problem-solver and compassionate friend.  Kazul, likewise, is an icon of strength and perseverance, and Morwen a wise and steadfast individual who also knows how to be comfortable in her own skin.  These women became role models to me at a young age, and I think I’m a better person for it.

Since then, I’ve encountered numerous works that attempt to do similar things, satirizing and parodying old tropes, painting dragons in a positive light, presenting tomboy princesses who don’t do as they’re told, but for me, these books were the first, and still to this day among the best.  I was a voracious reader as a child, and I can’t remember most of the books I devoured, but these stories have lingered with me fondly.  They resonated with the desire in me to be a part of a world of magic where my role as a female wasn’t to be bandied about as a plot device or used as bait to lure magical creatures to their demise.  These books were the first to teach me that a woman can be a hero, can fight fear with understanding and compassion (or soapy water, as the case may be), can live the life she chooses no matter what popular opinion may say to the contrary.  These books will always hold a special place in my heart, and if I ever have children of my own, you can be sure I’ll read these books to them a hundred times … which probably means I should invest in some nicer copies.  My old paperbacks have certainly seen better days!

As an aspiring writer now, I have a renewed respect for many of my favorite works of fiction, and a devastatingly more critical eye.  It’s all too common to return to an old favorite and find its brilliance dimmed from what you remember.  I will never again be able to read these books with the kind of wide-eyed fascination and unconditional adoration I met them with as a child, but I can still learn from them and see what it was that made me love them in the first place, applying those lessons to my own storycraft.  Maybe one day I too will have written something that will find a nostalgic niche in some girl’s heart.  Until that day, for all that these books did to help me realize my potential, for all the times they made me laugh or read on with bated breath late into the night, and for all they did to open my eyes to what women in fantasy could be, I tip my hat most respectfully to Ms. Wrede.

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2014 Comes Rolling In

(or, Another Year, Another Chance to Achieve the Impossible)

2013-Winner-Vertical-BannerGreetings, all!  It seems I’ve suffered something more of a hiatus than I’d anticipated, but I’m back, New Year’s resolutions and all.  First off, exciting news – I have once again faced the oft-indomitable challenge of NaNoWriMo and emerged the victor!  November’s project saw the start of a novel in which a young woman born with a special gift condemned as a curse by the society in which she lives struggles to establish her sense of identity and morality, discovering the potential within all people for both great good and great evil.  I may see this project through to its end this year, but my primary goal is to return to the story that has consumed much of my time these past few years and finally get a complete, edited draft I can usher out the door into the greater world beyond like a kindergartner off to her first day of school, blossoming with hope and promise.  Will she flourish into some brilliant beauty, top of her class and good at everything she does?  Will she muddle through just fine, making no great name for herself but basking in the warmth of her closest friendships?  Will she … drop out and start slumming it with the twenty-something from downtown with the skull tattoos and a nickname that’s some breed of canine, coming home only long enough to blast me with obscenities and steal my debit card?  Only time will tell.

That said, with the new year comes little change.  I’m still writing, still working, still grappling with the metaphysical crossroads of my existence … still playing Skyrim, for crying out loud.  But there are new hopes and dreams and possibilities and best-laid plans to put to the test.  Here’s to 2014, everyone!  May we all find joy in some little way.

Moving Forward

(or, Concerning the Worries of a Budding Novelist)

I’m not going to lie to you – this article is about to drop some truth on you.  Heavy truth, the kind that comes out when you’re philosophizing with your best friend at 3:00 am after a night of heavy drinking.  Hopefully, that means it will be a therapeutic, inspirational kind of truth as well, not kind that will result in us going comatose and waking up the next morning with regrets.  It concerns moving forward in pursuit of a dream.

Camp-NaNoWriMo-2013-Winner-Campfire-Circle-BadgeCamp NaNoWriMo has finally come to a close, and it is with great pride that I announce I have reached my word count goal!  Well, my adjusted word count goal of 25,000 words, anyway.  I admit this is far from my original goal of 50,000, but 25,000 words is still nothing to sneeze at (unless, of course, you’re allergic to this much raw, unbridled progress!).  I am making significant headway with my novel, and for the first time in my life, I feel like I might actually finish a book.  Maybe I have what it takes; maybe I can succeed at a life goal I’ve had since I was a child.  I’ve written so much and I’ve learned even more, maybe these dreams are possible.  Maybe I can throw everything I have – all my focus, my energy, my extra time – into becoming a writer rather than just one who occasionally writes.

Of course, that’s easier said than done.

You see, I felt this way once before, years ago when I had dreams of being a video game designer.  I did my research, I enrolled in classes, I made plans and worked what jobs I could to get by, and I worked harder than I’d have thought possible trying to make that dream a reality, barreling forward with what felt like supreme clarity.  Then, I got tripped up.  A financial screw-up left me with an extra heap of student loans but no qualifications to show for them, and my situation was worse than when I started – certainly no closer to my goal.  I had to surrender then or dig myself into a deeper hole without even the slightest promise of being able to climb out again at the end.

The experience of hitting that colossal roadblock still haunts me today, and it makes it difficult for me to readily commit to another leap.  This time, I don’t need an extra degree, I don’t necessarily need documents saying I’m qualified to do what I do, and I don’t really need to make a monetary investment in order to proceed.  But I do need focus.  I’ll need to set the things I dabble in aside while I dive deep into this one pursuit.  I’ll need to see that my paying work doesn’t interfere with my writing and vice versa.  I’ll need to write even when I don’t want to, and I’ll need to risk making myself hate the thing I love.  I’ll need to face rejection and failure as well as the possibility, years down the road, that I’ll look back and see all of this as wasted time that I could have spent trying to get a fancy job that would let me get a fancy apartment of my own.

I could just continue as I have been.  I love writing; I could easily keep it up as a hobby.  This book has been on my mind for the better part of three years now, and if I’m lucky and still quite diligent, I could finish the first draft within the year.  But then, for the second draft, how long would that take using just free moments here and there?  How many edits will I go through?  How long will I search for a publisher?  When will I start the next book I want to write?  What happens if I meet someone in the meantime, suddenly taking up rock climbing in a blind fit of infatuation?  What happens if there’s an alien invasion?  Will I wake up one morning, grey-haired and tired in the service of our alien overlords, still wondering if I’ll get published someday?

That may be a bit over-dramatic, but it illustrates my concern.  I know from experience that when I hedge my bets, I stay safe, but I go nowhere.  I keep doing art, writing, random job searching, and intermittent studies, always in spurts, never committing myself in full to any one pursuit lest I miss an opportunity provided by another.  However, by doing this, I fail to improve any one skill to the point where I become extraordinary.  I know I’m capable of charging ahead toward a single goal like an unstoppable force, but I don’t have enough faith in myself to know that the goal I choose is the right one – the one that can make me happy and keep me out of the poor house, more or less.  Maybe that’s the main thing that needs to change.

I will see this story finished, one way or another.  Whether or not it will meet the world at large one day is yet to be seen, but I hope it will.  Maybe it’s time for me to just give in to that tricky little can-do feeling and shut out the naysayer within.  My instincts were wrong once, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?  Besides, if you don’t try, if you don’t give it your all, then you can’t rightly weave a touching cautionary tale from your failure, can you?  If all I’m destined to be is the master of feeling sorry for myself, I might as well earn those laments!

Every celebrated author was once a struggling, aspiring author.  They were all the way up until the day they were not.  Some may have suffered less than others, some may have had extraordinary luck, some may have been identified as geniuses early on, and some may have gotten more recognition than their mediocre writing deserved, but there was a time for each when success was uncertain.  For whatever reason, they plugged on – maybe in wild, inspired bursts, maybe in a long, drudging crawl.  And then, one day, it all became worthwhile.  I don’t think I have it in me to fail utterly, completely, and permanently, not yet.  So, by my humble reckoning, it seems the only option left is to one day succeed.

Publishing, Professionalism, and You

(or, Why Every Time I Learn New Things About Getting Published, I Feel Completely Oblivious)

I have this terrible habit of choosing life ambitions for which I have no good personal mentors, barreling blindly along toward a goal that I slowly discover to be more and more unattainable.  Coming from a family where college educations were rare and career paths were often just whatever came along first, any time I stood up and said, “I’m going to do something crazy and amazing and clever with my life!” all they could really do was smile and say, “Cool!”  Not that the emotional support was undesirable, but it usually came with the understanding that they had no idea what challenges I would face, how I might face and overcome them, or what were the right and wrong things to do.  They operated in the same school of thought that tells children they can accomplish anything they set their mind to, if they want it badly enough, or work hard enough, or whatever, and I’ve learned from experience that that mentality, when not supported by knowledge or experience, can lead to soul-crushing frustration as you begin gaining that knowledge and experience.  Eventually, you hit that brick wall where you know enough about what you’re doing to know that you have no idea what you’re doing or how you’re ever going to get it done.

When you hit that wall, it’s discouraging.  You begin to see clearly for the first time just how difficult the path ahead of you is.  You begin looking back at all the wrong decisions you made, decisions that cost you time and money and got you nowhere closer to your goals.  You start looking ahead at all the time and money yet to be spent toward uncertain returns. I have to believe this is the point where many people give up.  The nagging doubts and the nay-saying become the most prudent-sounding voices.  At the very least, this is where you have to really look at the costs of your pursuits and decide whether the end result is worth the effort.  Are you capable of achieving this goal?  Are you good enough?  Strong enough?  Persistent enough?  Charming enough?  Lucky enough?

I’d like to believe you can break past this point simply with the power of positive thinking, but to me, relying on optimism alone here seems irrational.  This stage requires honesty more than anything.  Honesty to yourself, and honesty from the world around you.  I think that if you’re honest with yourself here and decide that you can and will proceed to your goal, then nothing can stop you.  Well, nothing apart from a freak hot air balloon accident or a hostile alien invasion.

Now to circuitously get to my point.  It seems that the further I get into my writing process, the more things I learn I should be doing or thinking about.  Writing, like anything, is an industry, driven in no small part by cash flow and complete with its own rules, regulations, best practices, and etiquette.  It’s one thing to set aside your idealism and acknowledge that fact, quite another to actually operate within that understanding.  To me, it feels a little like wandering around in a foreign country where your language skills are just about equal to the first ten pages of your pocket phrasebook.  There are a lot of exciting things around you, but also a lot of confusion and awkward, shuffling silences as you search for the right words to express the simplest concepts.  For every new scrap of information you learn, three new questions emerge, and at some point, you find you’ve gotten yourself inexplicably lost.

So where do I stand now?  Well, apparently I should a) have a website (for which this ramshackle blog may or may not count), b) have a social media presence, c) be a member of some sort of writer’s association and/or d) be subscribed to some publication about the writer’s market, e) be networking with publishers and authors at conventions, f) be shamelessly self-promoting, and g) probably be looking for an agent.  Of course, the list changes depending who you talk to, and there doesn’t seem to be any proven method of “success.”  I’ve encountered writers over twice my own age who have done everything “right” for longer than I’ve been alive and still seen no success while on the other hand some starry-eyed teen strolls out of high school in a haze of invincibility and promise to get work published from the get-go.  I’ve obviously passed the stage of youthful prodigy, but where on that spectrum am I going to land?

The best I can do right now is take all the things I learn and just file them away.  First things first: finish the first draft of my novel, then worry about publication, publicity, and professionalism.  Some sources seem to suggest that I should establish myself as an author before I’ve actually written anything final, but however prudent that may be, I can’t help but feel like it’s a little pretentious.  For the time being, this little blog is my web presence.  A story will unfold here as I bring my novel to completion and (hopefully) get it published, and maybe as I start putting the things I learn into practice, I’ll become that smart, professional author I’m supposed to be.  In my most idyllic dreams, I imagine looking back at this moment years from now, with several published titles to my name, and laughing over my panic and naïveté.  Maybe some other young author with no clue what they’re doing will dig up this blog post and say to themselves, “See!  She was a wreck too, but she turned out ok!”  One can only hope.