Monday, January 14, 2013

On Writing What You Know

I’ve been thinking about the kinds of stories I want to write lately – both because I wrote my first book outside the Glitch world in December and am looking towards my next few projects, and because I’m editing Shutdown, the last Glitch book (a book that I was really able to sink into and take the characters some intense and cool places, emotionally).

I guess that’s what I’ve really been thinking about: how to write stories that emotionally, readers can relate to or think, ‘hey, I’ve felt like that,’ even if I’m writing impossible and outlandish plots.

I often think the best books are ones where you can almost feel authors struggling with something on the page, whether it be a big question about life (see Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere), or teenagers with cancer (John Green’s TFIOS), or grief (Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere, McNamara’s Lovely Dark and Deep, Courtney Summers’ Fall For Anything), or an experience of being the mean girl (Summers’ Some Girls Are), or thinking about temptation and good and evil (like the ring in LOTR), or exploring an existential crisis about what it means to be human (Marion’s Warm Bodies), etc.

So because I’m trying to write emotionally resonating characters, and one way to do that is to write what you know, like Flannery O’Conner, my stories are often going to have physically broken people. People with the wooden legs or deadly allergies or other health problems that neither medicine nor magic can fix.

Any resolutions to these problems are going to be hard fought for, and will most likely leave the character very different than when they first started out, sometimes very battered. This is certainly true of Shutdown, when one character veered off in ways I didn’t expect. I had an idea of where the character would end up back when I wrote the synopsis two years ago, but the journey getting there was far more arduous than I first expected. The character dramatically changed as I wrote them, because I realized there was no way these circumstances wouldn’t change the person. I’ve experienced the way that life can dump things on you that you can’t escape, whether you see them coming or not. You can’t run away and you can’t pretend your entire life hasn’t changed. So you find ways to cope with it, both good and bad.

In the book I just wrote and the one I’m thinking of writing next, I’m tackling—in a very sideways manner—the way that circumstances and physical disability can intrude on your plans and dreams. And then letting it fly and watching how my characters react. In one book, the main character reacts by being furious about his situation, in the other, the MC is so accepting of her bad circumstances at first that she doesn’t fight back against them at all. In both cases, the illnesses are somewhat supernatural, but I’m exploring some things that very much resonate with me in real life, with the debilitating chronic illness I’ve fought with for eleven years. Anger and acceptance are kind of constant warring states in my head. I can write these characters so easily, because I know how it feels.

But these obviously aren’t just stories for sick people alone—in fact, I don’t think most people will even see this as a subplot when they read the books. Still, the question I most want to explore through my writing (and my life really) is: how do we find peace and joy through difficult life circumstances? Because this at least is universal—you will have difficult circumstances in your life, no matter if you are fifteen or fifty. You will encounter conflict and sometimes, you will suffer.

This is all the inside track though, the things going on in my head as I wrote. As I mentioned a moment ago, I don’t think any of this is explicit, you might not pick up on these underlying themes in these books unless you’ve read this blog post and remember it. After all, in addition to wrestling with these problems that create internal conflict for my characters, they are also all falling in love. Because well, in addition to wanting to explore some meaty life questions for myself, I’m also just a sucker for romance J

Anyway, all of this is a tool I’ve used to help me dig deeper with my characters. Too often we think that ‘write what you know’ just means we should write about external experiences we’ve had in our lives. Um yeah, if I stuck to that, I'd be writing stories no one wants to read about sitting on a couch for hours on end! But I’m learning that using ‘write what you know’ can really ratchet up your characters by infusing them with the emotional and mental dilemmas you yourself have wrestled with.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Looking Back & Looking Ahead

So New Year’s is a time of looking both back and forward. Back on the year that past, forward to what’s coming next.
Looking back: 2012 was a wicked f’ing crap-ton of a hard year, physically, emotionally, and work-wise. I experienced more health problems than ever before in my life, but I also wrote two books and took them through most of the editing stages, then for fun wrote another book entirely in December. I lost my love for writing, then powered through and eventually gained it back again. I faced deadlines and met each one. I’ve learned SO FREAKING MUCH about writing this year. It was a crash course, a dump-you-in-the-deep-end-and-hope-you-don’t-drown course, but I finally figured out how to swim (though there were a couple of times I was sure I was gonna drown). Btw, if you know a debut author, give them a hug, because the debut year all on it's own is a crazy intense and stressful thing.

Let’s see, what else? My eating habits have changed entirely due to the Meniere’s disease, so I consume only trace amounts of salt every day, drink no coffee, and drink no alcohol. I live pretty much like a little nun, sans the headdress and plus pink hair.

And best of all, I’m happy.

Looking forward: Lots of uncertainties that will make me crazy if I let them. The second and third book of the Glitch trilogy will be out this year (Override in Feb, Shutdown in July). But will they all sell well? Will readers like them? Will my agent like the new book I just wrote, and will my editor want to acquire it? Will this one exciting thing happen or won’t it, and will I be okay if it doesn’t?

My response to most of these is to limit my expectations and expect the worst. I know that sounds bad. I’m not actually a pessimist, but I prefer to expect the worst rather than hope for something so hard and then have the hope stomped on (especially after a year of lots of stompage!) Then if the good thing happens, I’m happily surprised. And when good things come, they feel more like grace, like things I didn’t deserve but was given anyway, and I feel a deep and profound gratitude. And when bad things come, I do lots of meditation and try to turn my sights back only on the day in front of me, which is the only thing I can control, and let the future worry about itself.

Up directly ahead on the docket is editing the book I just finished today, all the way up until edits for Shutdown come back from my editor. Then I’ll hand off New Book to agent man to see what he thinks, and lose myself in Shutdown edits for several weeks. Then turn those in, and go back to editing New Book with whatever thoughts and critiques agent man gives.

At least this is how I envision it working, but I’m certainly familiar enough with how life likes to intervene in our nicely laid little plans.

Either way, 2013 ought to be a far less stressful year than 2012, and I’m looking forward to good times ahead.

What are you looking forward to this year?