Online Event Tonight and Exclusive Map Giveaway

A couple time-sensitive pieces of book news for those of you not on Twitter, where, among other things, I’ve been posting my sister’s careful scrawled calculations of the vote count in Pennsylvania :o).

One, Flatiron Books invite me to chat with Melissa Albert, author of the gorgeous and chilling Tales from the Hinterland, tonight (Friday) at 8:30pm ET as part of  #yallwrite

 Info at @YALLFest and https://www.yallwrite.org/schedule#specialevents

Come join us! I for one will be exhausted yet (I suspect) calm, and Mimi and I will have plenty of bookish stuff to talk about!

Two, Penguin Teen has organized an exclusive map giveaway for anyone who preorders Winterkeep. Here’s the entry form: http://bit.ly/WinterkeepPreOrder

Tag @PenguinTeen with any questions. And enjoy! :o)

Pictures to Distract You: A Snowy Day, and Tools of the Trade

Hi, all. Waiting is hard. So here are some pretty pics to distract you. 

Friday was the day I’d scheduled to take some time off, go for nice walk, and get some pictures of the fall foliage.

In typical 2020 fashion, it didn’t go quite as planned… 

So I went with it.

Everything is great.

Here are some scenes…

…of October…
… in Massachusetts…

…just for you.

Now for some pictures of inside things. I don’t know about you, but this is a pretty stressful time for me, and I’m using every tool in my toolbox to stay healthy and well. One of those is — always — writing, and hardly anything gives me greater comfort than having fun with my writing tools.

I’ve explained before that I write by hand. Then, when I’ve written a sufficient amount that I start to worry about the house burning down, I transcribe my writing into a Word document, using voice recognition software. If you’re curious about the kind of notebooks I’ve written in previously and what my writing used to look like — and if you’re a writer who wants a reminder of how normal it is for writing to be hard — go check out my old post, Pictures of a Book Being Made

In recent years, I have some new tools.

Writing by hand has always been my way, even before I developed a disability that makes typing prohibitively painful. I’m left-handed, but not too long ago, after doing some realistic thinking about how much pain I work through on a daily basis, I began to teach myself to write right-handed, so that I can increase the likelihood I’ll be able to write forever. 

Now, after much practice, I alternate between hands pretty regularly as I work. The right-handed writing is slower and messier, and my hand gets tired faster. But it’s fine.

I’ve also started using smaller, lighter notebooks. This is partly to save my hands, and partly because the most recent books I’ve been writing feel different, and have been asking me for new supplies.

In particular, they’re asking me for smaller, lighter, less intimidating notebooks — and stickers. :o)

I’ve been hunting for stickers that feel like my books. Stickers that match my characters, my plot, the feelings that imbue my story. Then, as I write, I plop the stickers onto the page… And it helps. It gives me ideas; it slows me down, so that my writing is more thoughtful; it gives me joy. 

The two stickers on the left are the work of Katie at BearandFoxCo.
The sticker on the right is the work of Audrey Miller at CloudCatArts.

I’ll share some pictures of my stickers… And include, with some of them, samples of my right-handed writing, so you can see what I mean about that. Anytime you see handwriting, that’s my right-handed work. And anytime you see a sticker created by an individual/independent artist, I have gotten permission to share it.

Here goes.

Made by Katie Harmon at PinkPolish Design.

Made by Katie Harmon at PinkPolish Design.

Made by Katie Harmon at PinkPolish Design.

Made by Katie Harmon at PinkPolish Design.

This is an image from a cityscape washi tape, superimposed over some pale-blue sky washi stickers I can no longer find a link to.

Made by Katie Harmon at PinkPolish Design. (I colored her right eye red!)

I got a whole series of ship pictures on Etsy, but alas, they no longer seem to be available.

I found these butterfly/moth washi stickers on Etsy.

There’s one more artist whose work I wanted to share, but I didn’t get permission from her in time. Her Etsy shop is on a short break at the moment, but keep the shop of Helen Ahpornsiri in mind; she creates animals using pressed flowers and plants, and the results are beautiful.

And that’s my distraction for today.

Everyone, give yourself a break over the next few days and then however long this takes. Try not to check the news compulsively; wear masks to protect the vulnerable; forgive yourself for being stressed out. And hang in there.

♥♥♥

Some WINTERKEEP Blather, Plus All Eight New Covers

Hello, lovely people.

I have another craft post planned for sometime soon… I’m hoping to write about The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa, if I can just figure out how to articulate what I want to say. It’s such a beautiful book! One of those rare books I got out of the library, read, then decided I needed to own.

Until then, I wanted to share a little bit of blather about Winterkeep (January 19, 2021), plus display all eight new covers — the new USA and UK covers for Graceling, Fire, Bitterblue, and Winterkeep — altogether in one place. If you don’t care about the blather and just want to see pretty pictures, scroll down.

So. The first few drafts of Winterkeep were written in many, many points of view. It was early days, and I was trying to figure out how to tell the story I wanted to tell. I pretty much allowed anyone a point of view, sort of as an experiment, to see how each character felt, and figure out whose feelings were most important. Then gradually, across revisions, I whittled those POVs down. In its final form, Winterkeep is told from five points of view — and only three of them are human! 

One is Queen Bitterblue, whose POV will be familiar to those who’ve read my book Bitterblue. Bitterblue is a little bit older now, twenty-three. She’s always working, always doing the best with the problems facing a young queen, and at the moment, she’s worried about two of her advisers who died mysteriously in a shipwreck in Winterkeep. She’s also worried about a friend, a Keepish man she’s sort-of-maybe romantically involved with, named Katu Cavenda. Everyone says Katu is traveling… so why does it seem like he’s actually disappeared? These questions, among others, bring Bitterblue to Winterkeep, to figure things out for herself.

Another point of view is Giddon, a character who’ll be familiar to readers of Graceling and Bitterblue. Remember what a jerk Giddon was in Graceling? He actually told Katsa once that he was confident she’d want babies someday, because after all, she wasn’t “an unnatural woman.” YUCK! 

Then, when I started to write Bitterblue, I discovered that Giddon had evolved. I was touched by the friendship he began to develop with Bitterblue, which surprised me while I was writing. I realized that over the course of the last few years of his life, he’d taken responsibility for his behavior and grown up a bit. After all, he was only eighteen years old in Graceling, and he hadn’t encountered much pushback against his viewpoints yet. I like to think that Giddon paid attention to the good influences around him and rethought a few things. Anyway, now he’s back, and he’s had a few more years to grow up even more.

Another point of view is a Keepish girl named Lovisa Cavenda, age 16, who’s depicted on the USA cover (below). Lovisa’s a sneak and a secret keeper; she’s a manipulator and a survivor. Katu Cavenda’s niece and a student of politics and government at the Winterkeep Academy, she lives in the dorms but sneaks home frequently, spying on her own parents, who are important political figures in Winterkeep. If I had to choose one character at the very heart of this book, it would be Lovisa Cavenda. Through no fault of her own, she finds herself in an impossible situation… Will she find a way out?

Another point of view is a telepathic blue fox, who has a special, exclusive mental bond with Lovisa Cavenda’s mother, Ferla Cavenda. And trust me, though Ferla has a warm hearth and a warm coat with a fuzzy hood it’s cozy to ride inside, Ferla’s mind is not always a comfortable place! The rules of foxkind are fairly strict. What happens to a fox who can’t decide whether to follow the rules?

Finally, my last point of view is a gigantic sea creature with thirteen legs and twenty-three eyes who lives at the bottom of the ocean, protecting her treasures (sunken anchors, sunken human corpses, sunken ships). All she wants is to be left alone… but the machinations of humans and the interests of her undersea world keep interrupting her peace.

Those are my five points of view! Together, they tell the story of Winterkeep, which is, above all, a story of relationships. I hope you’ll enjoy watching these five characters come together.

And now for my shiny new covers. 

First up are the USA covers. In the USA and Canada, Graceling is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Fire, Bitterblue, and Winterkeep are published by Penguin Books. These covers were illustrated by Kuri Huang (@kuri_huang) and designed by Theresa Evangelista and Jessica Jenkins. Shown below in series order.

 

One of my absolute favorite things about this reboot is that both my USA and my UK publishers are updating the series, and both went with a beautiful, rich, textured look — but they’re so different from each other. Below are my new UK covers. In the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, my books are published by Gollancz. The covers were illustrated by Micaela Alcaino (@micaelaalcaino) and designed by Tomás Almeida.

 

And that’s my update for today. Hope you’re all hanging in there. More soon. 💜

Writing Emotion: The Craft of H IS FOR HAWK, by Helen Macdonald

Today in my craft post, I’m going to talk about a straightforward skill… while referencing a book that’s wonderfully un-straightforward.

H Is for Hawk is a memoir by Helen Macdonald that weaves together several threads, the three biggest of which are: her experience of training a northern goshawk; her analysis of T. H. White’s memoir about training a northern goshawk; and her grief following the death of her father. In terms of balance and weaving, it’s beautifully done. In terms of psychological insight, it feels searingly true. And in terms of the expression of emotion, it’s stunning.

It’s also an uncomfortable book at times, in ways that recommend it. And it’s a fascinating memoir for a fiction writer to read while thinking about how to write character. H Is for Hawk left me with a lot of questions, for the book and for myself.

If you just want the straightforward writing lesson, which is on the topic of writing emotion, jump ahead to the *** below. If you’re interested in a fiction writer’s thoughts about memoir, read on.

I sat down to read H is for Hawk because a friend had described its structure and I was intrigued. I’m not a memoir writer; it’s far too personal a style of writing for me. But I like to read books that differ greatly from my own writing, and I especially like to learn to write from them. After all, the more a book diverges from your own writing, the more it can stretch you into a broader perspective of what’s possible. I was curious about what a memoir that weaves separate but related threads could teach me about writing a work of fiction that weaves separate but related threads; but I was also curious about what it could teach me that I didn’t know about yet.

Here are some of the unexpected questions that arose for me while reading this book:

In terms of writing character (if one can use that word with a memoir, and I believe one can; more on that later), what are the differences between memoir and fiction?

For example, what advantages does the memoir writer have? Does a reader come to a memoir with a greater willingness to believe in a character than they bring to the reading of fiction? A fiction writer often has to go through a lot of contortions to keep a character believable while also fulfilling the necessities of the plot. Push the character’s behavior too far outside the characterization you’ve so carefully established, and the behavior becomes unbelievable. The reader is left thinking, “I don’t believe they would actually do that.”

In contrast, in a memoir, a character is an actual person. They did what they did. The memoir writer reports what they did and we believe it, because it’s a memoir. Any “unbelievable” behavior consequently brings power with it: amusement, surprise, shock value. (This is not to minimize the work it requires to make any character in any kind of book engaging. I don’t mean to suggest that a memoir writer has an easy job creating character, only that they may have a believability advantage.)

Okay then, what advantages does the fiction writer have when writing character? Well, the fiction writer can make shit up; that’s a pretty huge advantage. The fiction writer also generally doesn’t have to worry about getting sued for defamation of character :o).

Another huge advantage: Though it’s true that as a fiction writer I sometimes encounter readers who mistakenly assume I’m like my characters, for the most part, fiction readers remember that fiction is made up. This means that the fiction writer is unlikely to be accused of having done the things their characters did, or judged for that behavior. In contrast, a memoir writer writing about her own actions is opening herself to all kinds of very personal judgment. All writing requires courage and involves exposure… But this takes things to a whole other level! Fiction writers have some built-in emotional protections that I tend to take for granted, until I read a memoir and remember.

This leads me to another question that arose while reading this book: What is the place of the memoir reader when it comes to judging the people inside the memoir? For example, Helen Macdonald writes a compassionate but blistering exposé of T. H. White in this book. It’s an exposé that T. H. White wrote first; anyone can learn from White’s own memoir that he was heartbreakingly, sometimes sadistically abusive to the goshawk he trained. But Macdonald presents it anew, and she presents it with an analysis of White’s psychology that shows us more about White than he ever meant us to know. She shows us the abuse, familial and societal, that brought White to this place. She shows us his heartbreak, failures, and shame. White feels like an integrated, complete person in this book.

But also, she shows us what she wants to show us — she shows us the parts of White that fit into her own book, about her own experiences. She’s the writer, and this is her memoir. To be clear, I don’t mean this as a condemnation — I’m not accusing her of leaving things out or misrepresenting White! This is a part of all book-writing. You include what matters to the rest of your book. Everything else ends up on the cutting room floor. As far as I know, Macdonald did a respectful and responsible job of incorporating T. H. White into her book, and I expect she worked very hard to do so. I believe in the T. H. White she showed us. But I think it’s important to remember this part of the process when reading any memoir. Even when a writer is writing about themselves, their book has plot and themes, it has content requirements. There’ll always be something specific the writer is trying to convey, about themselves or anyone else, and there’ll always be stuff they leave out. No book can contain a whole person.

Personally, when I read memoir (and biography and autobiography), I consciously consider the people inside it to function as characters. It’s hard to read H Is for Hawk and not come away with some pretty strong opinions about T. H. White. But I keep a permanent asterisk next to my opinions, because White was a real, living person, but I only know him as a character in this book. No matter how many books I read about him (or by him), I’ll always be conscious of not knowing the whole person.

As a fiction writer, I find all of this fascinating. I think it’s because I see connections between how hard it is to present a compelling character study of a real person and how hard it is to create a believable character in fiction. What are the differences between a memoir writer who’s figuring out which part of the truth matters, and a fiction writer who’s creating a fiction that’s supposed to invoke truth? Also, I’m fascinated by how much all of this lines up with how hard it is to understand anyone in real life. How well can we ever know anyone? How much can we ever separate our own baggage from our judgments of other people? There’s a third person getting in the way of my perfect understanding of T. H. White: me.

Next question: How does a writer (of memoir or fiction) make a character ring true to the reader? How does the writer make the character compelling and real?

A writer as skilled as Macdonald knows how to bring her characters, human or hawk, alive for the reader. One way she does this is by keeping her characterizations always in motion. White is many, many things — kind and cruel, sensitive and sadistic, abused and despotic. Macdonald’s hawk, Mabel, is also constantly growing and changing. Mabel is a point of personal connection for Macdonald, but she’s also always just out of reach. And of course, Macdonald herself is a character in the book. Macdonald lays bare her own successes, failures, oddities, cruelties, kindnesses, insights, ambivalences, and delights, and lets us decide. Personally, as I read, I felt that I was meeting a human of sensitivity and compassion; an anxious person whose need for both solitude and connection was starkly familiar to me; someone consciously composed of contradictions; a person of deep feeling who cares about what matters; a grieving daughter; a person I can relate to. Or should I say, a character I can relate to? Having read this book, I don’t presume I know Helen Macdonald.

Here’s something I do know about Helen Macdonald though: She’s a damn good writer. In particular, as I read, I kept noticing one specific thing she does so well that it needs to be called out and shown to other writers.

***

All page references are to the 2014 paperback published by Grove Press.

Okay, writers. When it comes to writing a character’s emotion, there’s a certain skill at which Helen Macdonald excels. Namely, she conveys emotion via action.

Put differently: rather than describing an emotion in words, Macdonald shows us a behavior, one so meaningful that we readers feel the associated emotion immediately.

Here’s an example. For context, Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly one March, throwing her into a deep and unexpected grief. Listen to this description of one of the things that happened next:

“In June I fell in love, predictably and devastatingly, with a man who ran a mile when he worked out how broken I was. His disappearance rendered me practically insensible. Though I can’t even bring his face to mind now, and though I know not only why he ran, but know that in principle he could have been anyone, I still have a red dress that I will never wear again. That’s how it goes.” (17)

While there is some effective emotional description here — like when she’s rendered practically insensible — the real punch in this passage is the red dress. Macdonald tells us that there’s a red dress she’ll never wear again, and immediately I get it. I get that the identity of the man is irrelevant; what’s relevant is the passion she had for another person and how it connected to her grief, and I feel that passion and grief because there’s a red dress she’ll never wear again. I can see the dress, hidden away in the back of her closet. I don’t have a dress like that, but I could. I get it.

Here’s another moment. This one takes place at a much later point, when Macdonald has been grieving for a long time and is finally noticing that she’s capable of happiness again:

“But watching television from the sofa later that evening I noticed tears running from my eyes and dropping into my mug of tea. Odd, I think. I put it down to tiredness. Perhaps I am getting a cold. Perhaps I am allergic to something. I wipe the tears away and go to make more tea in the kitchen” (125).

It’s hard to write about tears in a way that doesn’t feel like a cliché shorthand for sadness, grief, catharsis, whatever you’re trying to get across in that moment. Macdonald succeeds here. This dispassionate report of tears conveys what Macdonald needs to convey: that grief is layered; that a person can have many feelings at once; that sometimes your body knows what’s going on before the rest of you does; that when you’re grieving, sometimes happiness brings with it a tidal wave of sadness. But imagine if Macdonald had listed all those things I just listed, instead of telling us about her tears dropping into her tea. Her way is so much better, and it conveys the same information!

Let me be clear, it’s not bad to describe emotion. In fact, it’s necessary in places. You need to give your reader an emotional baseline so that they’ll know how to contextualize how plot points feel for the character. But if you can find a balance between emotional description and the thing Macdonald is doing here — using action to convey emotion — it will gives the emotion in your writing a freshness, an impact, a punch that you can’t get from description alone. It will also give the reader more opportunities to engage their own feelings — to feel things all by themselves, rather than merely understanding what’s being felt by the character.

It’s hard to write emotion. It’s especially hard to figure out non-cliché ways to explain how a character feels. Sometimes it’s fine to use a known shorthand or a cliché. Sometimes it’s fine to use emotional description. You want a mix of things. But Macdonald’s book reminds me that whenever I can, I want to look for ways to use plot to convey feeling. Show what my character does in response to a stimulus. Let the reader glean the emotions from behavior. Your character is happy? Show us what they do with their body. How do they stand, how do they walk? Does it make them generous? Does it make them self-centered and oblivious? Remember that an “action” doesn’t have to be something physically, boisterously active. If you’re writing a non-demonstrative character, it’s not going to ring true if they start flinging their arms around or singing while they walk down the street. But maybe instead of “feeling ecstatic,” they sit still for a moment, reveling in what just happened. Maybe instead of “feeling jubilant,” they listen to a song playing inside their own head. Internally or externally, show us what they do.

Here’s Macdonald describing her childhood obsession with birds:

“When I was six I tried to sleep every night with my arms folded behind my back like wings. This didn’t last long, because it is very hard to sleep with your arms folded behind your back like wings.” (27)

I can feel the devotion to birds. She doesn’t just love birds; she wants to be a bird.

Macdonald goes on to report that as a child, she learned everything she possibly could about falconry, then shared every word of it, no matter how boring, with anyone who would listen. Macdonald’s mother was a writer for the local paper. Here’s a description of her mother during the delivery of one of Macdonald’s lectures:

“Lining up another yellow piece of copy paper, fiddling with the carbons so they didn’t slip, she’d nod and agree, drag on her cigarette, and tell me how interesting it all was in tones that avoided dismissiveness with extraordinary facility.” (29)

What an endearing depiction of a mother’s love for her tedious child :o).

And here’s a scene that takes place at a country fair, where Macdonald has agreed to display her goshawk, Mabel, to the public. Macdonald is sitting on a chair under a marquee roof. Mabel is positioned on a perch ten feet behind her. There are so many people at the fair, too many people for the likes of both Macdonald and Mabel:

“After twenty minutes Mabel raises one foot. It looks ridiculous. She is not relaxed enough to fluff out her feathers; she still resembles a wet and particoloured seal. But she makes this small concession to calmness, and she stands there like a man driving with one hand resting on the gear stick.” (206)

Oh, Mabel. I get the sense that when it comes to the writer’s need to convey emotion, Mabel is a challenging character. Macdonald does such a wonderful job creating a sense of the gulf between a human’s reality and a hawk’s reality, the differences in perception and priority. But she also gives us moments of connection with Mabel. Since Mabel is a bird, these moments of connection are almost always described through Mabel’s behavior.

I wonder if Macdonald’s intense connection with the non-human world, and with hawks in particular, is partly what makes her so good at noticing behaviors and gleaning their emotional significance? And then sharing it with us, the lucky readers.

That’s it. That’s my lesson: When you’re trying to convey feelings, find places where an action or behavior will do the job.

And read H Is for Hawk if you want an admirable example of writing emotion! Also, Helen Macdonald has a new book, just released: Vesper Flights. I’m in.

Reading like a writer.

To the Student Stuck in a Toxic Home during the Pandemic

A number of friends and mental health professionals helped me with this post. You know who you are. Thank you.

To the student for whom school is a safer place, but now you’re stuck at home in a toxic environment during the pandemic,

I see you. You’re not invisible. In fact, a lot of people see you and are thinking about you. I can’t tell you how many of my friends and colleagues have brought you up in the past few months, and expressed worry for what you’re going through. Hang in there.

When schools started sending students home in March and April, I thought of you immediately. I waited with you to see if schools might open again in a few weeks, but of course that didn’t happen. I waited with you hoping this country would get its shit together and start prioritizing realistic approaches to containing the pandemic, so that you’d be able to go back to school in the fall. And now it’s clear that many of you won’t be able to do that. It’s also possible that those of you who can go back won’t be able to stay there for long, though I continue to hope it won’t play out that way. I, and a lot of people, wish you didn’t have this uncertainty pressing down on you right now.

Hang in there!

Here are some tools from my own PTSD toolbox that might help. Some are more immediately helpful, some are stopgaps and temporary coping mechanisms. Some might spark ideas for you:

When possible, create distance from the toxicity. In my own experience, sometimes the smallest amount of distance can help. If you can safely go for a walk now and then, do it. If there’s a physical spot where you can be alone sometimes, find it. If you can spend time online with friends, or even socially-distanced time outside, do it. Are you caring for siblings in some way? Is there some way in which you’ve been placed in the position of caring for your own parents? If so, that’s a lot. If you ever have the opportunity to take some time to care for no one but yourself, I hope you won’t begrudge yourself that. You deserve care as much as anyone else.

For some of you, maybe there’s even some other home where you could live (if only temporarily), like the house of a safe relative or family friend. Have you considered whether that might be the case for you? Give it some serious thought. This is important, though: Before making any major decisions or drastic changes, talk it through with a trusted adult. If you don’t have a trusted adult, talk it through with a youth crisis line (see below). Your safety is the most important thing, and setting off an internal family drama may not be worth it and may even be dangerous. Also, you don’t want to move yourself into a situation that’s just as harmful, or even more so. This leads me to the next step.

Reach out to people who can support you. This might be friends, other family members, teachers, therapists or counselors, anyone in your life who actually sees and cares who you are and what you need when they look at you. Reaching out to trustworthy supports might give you a place to vent some steam and get some validation, and it might also lead to some practical help. Don’t be afraid to consider professional organizations and helplines too. The first two organizations below are geared to helping kids and teens in danger of physical and sexual violence, but according to my professional source, they’d likely help if the threat is emotional too. The third organization is open to helping with any kind of crisis:

Safe Place
https://www.nationalsafeplace.org/
Here’s a link to find a Safe Place site near you.
Or, to use TXT 4 HELP, text the word “safe” and your current location (city/state/zip) to 4HELP (44357). Within seconds, you will receive a message with the closest Safe Place site and phone number for the local youth agency. You will also have the option to text interactively with a professional for more help.

SafeHouse Center
https://www.safehousecenter.org/friends-family/children-youth-services/ 
https://www.safehousecenter.org/
They have a National HelpLine, available 24/7, at 734-995-5444 (English and Spanish). Advocates and volunteers can answer questions, give support, and provide information and referrals.

Crisis Text Line
https://www.crisistextline.org/
Text HOME to 741741 from anywhere in the United States, anytime. Crisis Text Line is there for any crisis. A live, trained Crisis Counselor receives the text and responds, all from their secure online platform. In the UK, text HOME to 85258. In Ireland, text HOME to 50808.

Note that while these are (inter)national organizations, there are a lot of local organizations as well. Do a little poking around and see what might be available to you, or ask someone you trust to do so.

Journal. This one definitely isn’t for everyone, but if it’s something you can do safely and if it appeals to you, give writing a try. It can be immensely clarifying — and can help with plans and goals — to write what you’re going through and how it feels. I have a journal now, and years of journals stashed somewhere or other, and I’ll probably never look at them again… I don’t know that I’ve ever once gone back to look at something I’ve journaled. But I 100% know it helps me feel understood while I’m doing it, which is what matters.

Do creative projects. Again, this one isn’t for everyone, but my larger point is this: If you can find an outlet for your distress, and most especially, a way to express it, so that there can be some way you’re telling the truth of your experience to the world rather than bottling it up — it can help. It can allow you to take back your ownership of yourself and your experience, and it can give you power against the lies to which other people are subjecting you. I would venture to say that everything I write is some version of this. (But you don’t have to write a book! I also knit, sew, draw, do collage, take pictures, or even get pleasure out of arranging items symbolically in my house. You get to decide what creativity is, and what helps you feel better!)

Find an anthem. This is also in the category of self-expression and connection. Find artists who seem to get what you’re going through, and spend time with them. (Of course it doesn’t have to be musicians. A book, or a character in a TV show, can do the same thing!) Some of my anthems over the years: “Girl” by Tori Amos. “Oh Father” by Madonna (the link opens a YouTube video).  “No More Drama” by Mary J. Blige. “Cold As It Gets” by Patty Griffin.

Trust your sense of things — while having compassion for your self-doubt.
If you live in a toxic home, there’s a good chance that the toxicity around you includes other people’s denial of the fact that it’s a toxic home. Trust your own unhappiness, anxiety, avoidance, self-loathing, fear. Trust your sense that all is not okay. This self-trust can be challenging no matter what kind of abuse you’re experiencing — but I want to give a special shout-out to people experiencing emotional abuse. It can be especially hard to believe your environment is toxic if the damage is “merely” emotional. In fact, it can be hard to metabolize a word like “abuse” when the abuse is “merely” emotional. Surely no one’s abusing me? Surely this is just regular life, not abuse?

It’s okay if that word doesn’t feel right to you. You get to decide what words apply. But trust the panicked feeling you have, the one that’s driving you to want to escape. Trust your gut. Something is wrong, whatever you want to call it. A person in your situation deserves help and relief, just like anyone else.

At the same time, this is important: Depending on your situation, you may not be able to do much with your gut realizations at the moment. And if there’s not a lot you can do to fix your situation right now, there might be limits to how helpful it is to realize how bad your situation is. So, also have compassion for the ways you end up doubting yourself. It’s normal and okay to doubt yourself; it’s not a weakness. Your self-doubt may even be a temporary survival mechanism, working hard to keep you safe and get you through this, which is important. Your self-trust, in the meantime, will outlive this situation and be a source of healing someday.

If you can, hold onto your sense of humor. This might not be possible, depending on your situation. But if it is, it can be another release. Example: I once went through a stretch of time during which I had relentlessly recurring dreams that I was moving to a new home that wasn’t emotionally safe for me. When I say relentlessly recurring, I mean that I had some version of this dream every single night for three months. Every single night for three months. Except for one night! One night during this stretch, I had a dream that I was moving to a new home and it was perfect. It had an elegant dining room, fancy staircases, a lounge — it was noticeably bigger and fancier than any of the other homes in any of the other dreams I’d had — and I belonged there, I could be myself there, I was emotionally safe there. I was so, so happy. So were all the other people who apparently lived in this home, because it seem to be sort of like… a gigantic, perfect hotel? It wasn’t until I woke up from this dream that I recognized this “hotel.” We were on the Titanic.

I’m sorry, but that’s hilarious. Thank you, unconscious, for cracking me up. If there’s anything right now that cracks you up… Hold onto it.

Hang on. Someday you’ll be able to build your own life. You will. For now, whenever you can, do get whatever help you can. You deserve it.

I hope something on this list is helpful. If nothing else, remember that I, and so many other people, are thinking about you and pulling for you. There are even people who’ve dedicated their lives to looking out for you; reach out to them. We know there’s light at the end of your tunnel, so hang in there. You’re not invisible. We see you!

Love,
Kristin

A Book Is a Story — But Which Story Is It?: The Craft of THE CHANGELING, by Victor LaValle

Before I start talking about Victor LaValle’s beautiful book, a point of housekeeping: Now that an eon has passed, I’ve finally updated my praise and awards page for Jane, Unlimited. I have a bad habit of never getting around to this task until it’s time to start clearing things out for the new book. The nice thing about it is that I get to revisit a book that’s dear to me, years after I’ve stopped thinking about it. Jane is a book that divides readers for sure. I want to thank everyone who got that book and took it into your hearts and brains. If you don’t know about Jane, Unlimited, here’s a quick intro: An orphan named Jane arrives at an island mansion owned by a friend, then quickly starts to get the sense that strange things are afoot there. At a certain point, when Jane needs to make a decision, the book breaks off into five different decisions she could make — and each decision takes her into an adventure in a different genre. There’s a mystery story, a spy story, a horror story, a sci-fi story, and a fantasy. They’re all connected and interwoven; and yes, the multiverse exists :). It’s a weird book and I’m very, very proud of it! If you’re curious, I’ll point you to the NYTBR review, which is concise and generous and does a good job expressing its flavor.

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So. Today I want to talk about the craft of using existing, well-known stories to fortify your own story — thus building ready-made narrative magic into your story’s foundations.

Reimagining a classic story is, of course, an age-old tradition. There was a time when I read all the King Arthur retellings I could find, though this list shows me that I missed a great many. Some of my all-time favorite books come from this tradition: Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, a retelling of the old Scottish ballad that takes place in a fictional college in Minnesota in the 1970s; Deerskin by Robin McKinley, which I held close to my heart while I was writing Fire and which is based on the Charles Perrault fairy tale Donkeyskin; Ash by Malinda Lo, a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. Every writer who goes down this path has their own take on whatever story they’re reimagining, disrupting the familiar in their own unique way so that we can get some objective distance and consider the story again in a new light. One of the best things about stories is the way they all change and grow in meaning and significance with every new story that joins the pantheon.

Victor LaValle’s The Changeling is a modern-day, New York City-based retelling of the old changeling folktale. In the classic version of that tale, fairies steal a human baby and replace it with something else, usually a (creepy) fairy child. In LaValle’s retelling, the focus is the emotional journey of the baby’s father, Apollo Kagwa, whose wife Emma Valentine starts acting odd after their baby is born. Horror ensues. In the wake of the horror, Apollo must figure out what the heck just happened, and how to move on.

LaValle’s take on the changeling story is unique in plenty of ways. For example, the way race and gender factor into the power dynamics. The choice to center the point of view around a father. The extreme horrificness of the violence that occurs. The story’s broad-ranging modern-day New York City settings, from a fancy Manhattan restaurant to Apollo’s home in Washington Heights to an abandoned island in the East River to upscale suburbs and a forest in Queens. These are the sorts of alterations commonly made by writers retelling old stories: time, location, culture, tone. When we know we’re reading a retelling, we expect changes in these categories.

But LaValle does something else too: he infuses this book with many, many stories that aren’t the official story he’s retelling. The Changeling is a book positively swimming in story. And one of this book’s charms is that as a consequence, Apollo spends a lot of the book making mistakes about what story he’s in. LaValle uses stories to illuminate, but also to mislead. I think it makes for a really unique approach to characterization.

It also steers Apollo through a character transformation that I find exquisitely touching, for reasons I’ll try to explain without spoiling the plot too much.

Apollo Kagwa’s father, who disappears before his fourth birthday, is a white man from Syracuse. His mother, Lillian Kagwa, is a Black woman, an immigrant from Uganda, who raises him and who recognizes early on that her son lives and breathes stories. Lillian can’t find enough books to satisfy young Apollo. He also has a mind for business. When Lillian discovers that Apollo has been selling his books after reading them, she helps him establish a used bookselling business. In due course, he grows up to be a rare bookseller.

Unquestionably, this is the story of a man who knows all about stories. As a rare bookseller who spends his time digging through rude and racist people’s basements looking for valuable treasures, Apollo deals in stories. He seeks stories out, recognizes their value, owns them, sells them. He also builds stories around himself as protection and comfort, often repeating to himself, in moments of anxiety or fear, the mantra, I am the god, Apollo. I am the god, Apollo. And he uses stories to comfort and ground himself — particularly Maurice Sendak’s picture book Outside Over There, a changeling tale that Apollo believes his missing father lovingly left for him.

So. Apollo knows stories. And yet, as I said above, as this story plays out, LaValle gives us evidence that Apollo is often wrong about what story he’s in. He admires the wrong people in his life as heroes (for example, his father). He misses the incredibly powerful sorcerers right in front of his eyes: his wife Emma; Emma’s sister, Kim; Emma’s friend, Nichelle; his mother, Lillian. As he moves through the world, he imagines he sees fairy tale traps where there are none, and he misses the huge, important fairy tale turning points, the moments that really matter. The clues are right in front of his face. Sometimes the women in his life even announce them aloud to him, and he still disregards them. Like all of us, the story Apollo tells himself about his own life is flawed and distorted by his own wishes, heartbreaks, assumptions, and biases. Among those biases, by my reading, is the tiniest edge of unconscious condescension to women. Or maybe even that’s going too far; maybe it’s simply that Apollo fails to see and appreciate the women around him fully. He’s a good man. But he doesn’t quite get it.

And yet, Apollo’s story is one of transformation. Over the course of this book, through a great deal of trial and tribulation, Apollo learns to see what story he’s in, who the heroes are, and who has the power to create a safe world for him and his family. And who are these heroes? Ultimately, women. What Apollo learns is that he’s in a story in which he needs to see and respect the intelligence, insight, and power of women. Black women, specifically. By my reading, this is a tale of a well-meaning, vulnerable, flawed man learning feminism.

Maybe you can see why I love it?

And I also love how it’s done. I love the way this book swirls with stories, and the way both the reader and Apollo are moving along on different paths through the stories, trying to understand which of the stories matter to Apollo’s story, and how.

It makes me think in a fresh, new way about how to weave other stories into one’s story, whether one’s story is a retelling, or just a story with narrative influences. There’s no end to the creative approaches to this — but if you’re imbuing your own story with other stories, I do think it’s a good idea to choose a deliberate approach. There’s a danger in trying to use other stories in your story as a shortcut for creating mood and meaning. The author who throws lots of existing stories into a book might create the impression of depth, but you want to make sure it’s not just an impression. You don’t want to use other stories to obscure an empty hole or a weak foundation in your own story, or make it seem like your story has meaning it doesn’t have. I say this as a writer who’s familiar with that moment when, after trying to shoehorn a known story into something I’m writing, I realize I’m being lazy. I’m trying to make someone else’s work do my work. Or maybe I realize that I simply don’t know enough about my own story yet, and I’m using those other stories to obscure that fact from myself.

If you’re alluding to another story in your story, there needs to be a reason. Ask yourself, what structural function are these references performing? What manner of tool are they? What do they accomplish? Why have I chosen the stories I’ve chosen?

There doesn’t need to be a profound or complicated answer, but there needs to be an answer. For example, in Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, Miranda’s favorite book is A Wrinkle in Time, for what turn out to be some pretty straightforward textual reasons. In the space of that book, it ends up being a perfect allusion. In the review of Jane, Unlimited I linked to above, the reviewer notes that it turns out there’s a reason Jane wears Doctor Who pajamas. Though I wouldn’t call Jane my most straightforward book, there are some pretty straightforward reasons I dressed her in those pajamas! You can have simple or complicated reasons for referring to other stories in your story. It can be a reason that’s quiet, subtle, and small. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking. But you have to link those stories to yours in meaningful ways, and you also have to make sure that your own story is the biggest and most relevant story in the book. If you find yourself trying to create depth in an insubstantial story by borrowing someone else’s story, then I recommend spending some time focusing on the hard work of your own story.

And if, in the process, you find yourself jettisoning some of the references to that other story, or even abandoning that other story altogether? That’s fine too. One of my current works in progress started out as something of a Peter Pan retelling. It’s now come so far from that point that the only remaining allusion is a couple of names — that I’m probably going to change, because the book doesn’t need them anymore. That book needed to grow the way it did. J. M. Barrie’s book was my path in; my story needed to start with his, then diverge. Another example: Earlier in this post, when I explained that Jane, Unlimited is about an orphan named Jane who comes to a mysterious house, maybe you thought of Jane Eyre. In early drafts of that book, I kept trying to work in versions of actual scenes from Jane Eyre. For example, I tried hard to find a place for a scene paralleling the one where Jane almost gets run over by Mr. Rochester in the dark. Eventually, I let all that go. At a certain point, the needs of my story became a lot more important than strengthening allusions to Jane Eyre (or Rebecca, or Winnie the Pooh, or any of the other texts that Jane, Unlimited references). I found a balance with all the allusions — or I hope I did, the reader is free to disagree! — and tried hard to focus on my story, my versions, my point. I think Jane still swims with those other stories, hopefully in ways that create depth, and part of getting to that point was letting some of it go. Often it doesn’t take much to invoke a story that’s part of our cultural consciousness.

To demonstrate that often it doesn’t take much, let’s return to The Changeling. I want to show an example of what I’ve explained about how this book uses stories to elucidate Apollo’s failure to recognize his own story. I’ll focus on one scene that I think encapsulates the skill with which LaValle layers story over story over story — to tell Apollo’s story about misreading his own story. It’s also wonderfully written, so that’ll be fun to talk about too :).

The scene I’m going to look at takes place over the course of Chapters 11 and 12. The setting is a fancy New York restaurant that evokes a fairy tale aura. If you want to read along, you’ll find this scene on pages 41 through 51 in the 2017 Spiegel & Grau hardcover edition. Point of view shifts in this book, but these two chapters are told from Apollo’s point of view.

First, some context: in the scene after this scene, Emma Valentine gives birth to their child. (That’s an incredible scene too! It happens in a stopped A train on its way to Washington Heights!) This means that the scene I’m about to talk about is Apollo’s last chance to understand his own story before everything changes. As I think you know by now, he fails. He barrels into  parenthood still unable to see what’s in front of his eyes, and the consequences are catastrophic.

But first, he has dinner at a restaurant! Or rather, he doesn’t have dinner, because the items on the menu are terrifyingly expensive, so he just fills up on bread — but we’ll get to that.

Let’s start with the opening of Chapter 11. We’re on Duane Street, a fancy street in lower Manhattan. Apollo has just been digging through the old, abandoned books of some rude people in Queens. Now he’s meeting Emma and Emma’s friend Nichelle for dinner at Bouley, which is a real New York restaurant. Or rather, it used to be; it closed in 2017, the year this book was published.

Here’s how the chapter starts: “Entering Bouley Restaurant felt like stepping inside a gingerbread house. …. when he opened the door and stepped into the foyer, he found himself surrounded by apples. Shelves had been built into the wall, running as high as the ceiling; rows of fresh red apples and their scent enveloped him. The door to Duane Street shut behind him, and Apollo felt as if he’d stumbled into a small cottage off an overgrown path in a dark wood” (41).

(By the way, if this room sounds too playful, magical, or wonderful to be true — here’s an article that includes a photo of Bouley’s apple entrance: “What’s David Bouley Going to Do With all Those Apples When He Closes His Flagship Restaurant?“)

So. With these opening lines, LaValle accomplishes two things: (1) he fixes a real-life restaurant firmly in the world of fairy tale. And (2) he signals to us what story Apollo thinks he’s in. Because we all know that when Hansel and Gretel step into a cottage off an overgrown path in a dark wood with walls made of gingerbread, cake, and candies, things do not go well for them.

I don’t want to take any of the fairy tale references in this book too literally or drag them out too far. Though LaValle can be pretty explicit sometimes about what he’s referencing, his touch remains light, and I don’t want to beat it to death. But as I said before, Apollo doesn’t eat anything but bread during this dinner. He tells himself it’s because he’s afraid of the bill, but we also know that on some unconscious level, he thinks he’s inside the story of Hansel and Gretel. And if you’re inside that story, you know damn well that it’s not safe to eat the food! Of course, as it turns out, Apollo could eat anything he wants safely, because Nichelle is paying for the dinner. Apollo’s wrong: his story isn’t Hansel and Gretel.

This is a pretty straightforward example of how this skilled writer uses a conscious and deliberate reference to a widely-known story that then shows us that Apollo is a little bit lost inside all the stories of his life. Also, as settings go, this description of the foyer of Bouley is evocative and beautiful. The sentences of this book are eminently readable. It’s something I noticed again and again: despite a fair amount of description, my eyes never glazed over and I never struggled to picture what was being described to me. LaValle doesn’t use flowery language or waste words. He tells you what it looks like and he tells you how Apollo experiences it. And he attaches it to story spaces we already know, spaces that are part of our cultural language of stories, so it feels familiar and right. For me, at this point in the book, it was enjoyable to be a little bit lost with Apollo, because the language was so lush and the setting so fairy-tale familiar; because I myself, sitting outside the story, could go eat something if I got hungry, without worrying about evil witches; and also because I had some grounding that Apollo doesn’t have. Apollo doesn’t know that his own book is called The Changeling. He’s just trying to survive each new story, whatever it turns out to be, as he steps into it.

LaValle does a good job creating sympathy in the reader for Apollo’s mistakes and confusions. Consider Apollo’s experience as he moves further into Bouley: “The dining room’s vaulted ceilings had been laid with eighteen-karat gold leaf sheets, and on top of that a twelve-karat white gold varnish, so the ceiling seemed as supple as suede. The floors were Burgundy stone, overlaid by Persian rugs. If the foyer felt like a woodland cottage and the waiting area a haunted parlor, the dining room became an ancient castle’s great hall.….Apollo felt as if he was trekking through realms rather than rooms. If there had been men in full armor posted as sentries, it wouldn’t have surprised him. And in fact, when the maître d’ reached the right table, there was a queen waiting there. Emma Valentine, too pregnant to stand” (42).

This is one of the dangers of being a story man: If your entire life is steeped in story, you’re going to see those stories everywhere. Surely that makes it confusing to isolate which story is yours?

On the other hand, Apollo totally notices that Emma is a queen — but then he dismisses it. This is another danger of a life steeped in story: you make associations and assume that they’re metaphors. Emma isn’t like a queen. She is a queen — or if not a queen, some other category of extremely powerful and important woman. Maybe one of Apollo’s problems is that he’s so steeped in story that he can’t get hold of what’s real? Or maybe he believes in magic within the context of a story, but he doesn’t believe in magic in real life? Or maybe he lives too much inside stories, and needs to wake up and live his real life?

This is what good layering does. It leaves the reader with lots of fascinating and fun questions!

By the way, Emma has her favorite stories too — and LaValle’s choices for her illuminate her character to anyone who’s paying attention. The most important movie from Emma’s childhood, which she watched repeatedly in her hometown library in Virginia, is a Brazilian movie called Quilombo, “the only movie in the entire library that had black people on the cover. Of course I wanted to watch it!” (28). It’s a movie about the slave uprisings in Brazil, and it “shows tons of Portuguese people getting killed by those slaves” (28). At dinner, Nichelle brings it up: “This girl tried to get me to watch a movie about a slave uprising when I was busy trying to figure out how to marry that boy out of New Edition” (47). While Apollo is worrying about eating the food, LaValle reminds us that Emma is engaged in matters of disruption to major power structures. Ding ding ding! Pay attention, Apollo!

But Apollo is too hungry and anxious to pay attention. The dinner progresses as dinners do. Apollo, not knowing that Nichelle is buying, becomes more and more horrified as Nichelle and Emma order delicacy after delicacy. Nichelle gets roaring drunk. Emma, who rarely sleeps anymore, is drifting, half-asleep in her seat. “Apollo, meanwhile, had ingested nothing but tapwater and the restaurant bread. While the bread tasted magnificent, it wasn’t enough. By dessert, Apollo and Emma had low batteries, but Nichelle seemed wired to a generator” (46).

Near the end of the dinner, Emma leaves the table to find the bathroom. She’s thirty-eight weeks pregnant and “That flan wants to come back up,” she says quietly (47). When she leaves, Nichelle, like any good soothsayer in any good folktale, takes the opportunity to try to tell Apollo what matters.

First, she tells Apollo that “There’s a nude photo of your wife in an art gallery in Amsterdam.” Then she explains that before Emma married Apollo, Emma went to Brazil, where “she had a few adventures” (48). In particular, “Emma met this Dutch photographer down there in Brazil” (49).

Nichelle goes on to explain that one day while the photographer was taking photos in an abandoned factory, he needed to pee, so he left Emma alone with the equipment. And she decided to take a picture of herself, setting up the shot with a timer. “She makes the shot in front of a wall that’s been half torn down so you can see she’s standing inside a man-made building that’s gone to the dogs, but over her right shoulder you can see the forest that surrounds this factory. Two worlds at once. Crumbling civilization and an explosion of the natural world. / “Emma walks into the shot, and just before the shutter clicks, she pulls off her dress and takes that photo nude!”

What’s the photo like? How does Emma look? “Wiry and fierce, naked and unashamed. She’s looking into that camera lens like she can see you, whoever you are, wherever you are. She looks like a fucking sorceress, Apollo. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen” (50).

So, here’s Nichelle, telling Apollo what he’s glancingly considered before in a fond, condescending sort of way: Emma is a sorceress. Nichelle is saying this to Apollo in simple, straightforward words: Emma is a sorceress, with a great capacity for adventure.

What is Apollo doing during this conversation?

He’s sitting there thinking to himself, “Dutch photographer? / Dutch fucking photographer?” (49)

And when he finally speaks, what does he say?

“‘And the Dutch guy?’ Apollo asked. ‘What was his name?'” (59)

This moment is, of course, the stuff of everyday real life and the stuff of fairy tales. Jealousy and possessiveness, leading to a character’s blunder or misbehavior. In fairy tales, we see jealousy as an archetype — like the queen who decides to destroy the young woman who’s usurped her position as the fairest of them all. In Apollo’s life, it comes across as fairly typical and annoying sexism.

Nichelle’s response to this question contains everything. Everything this book is about; everything that leads to catastrophe, and ultimately to Apollo’s growth and transformation: “Nichelle watched him quietly for seconds. She narrowed her eyes when she spoke. ‘I’m trying to tell you something important, and you are focused on bullshit'” (50).

For just a moment, Apollo gets it. He falls “back into his chair as if Nichelle had kicked him” (51). He tells her he’s ready, he’s finally listening.

And then the maître d’ appears, sprinting across the restaurant, shouting for Apollo, because the baby is coming. Which means that everything is about to change, and it’s too late.

Apollo’s failures in this scene are familiar and understandable, even when they’re annoying. He’s hungry, distracted, and worried about his wife who’s probably vomiting flan in the bathroom. Also, Nichelle is completely, obnoxiously drunk, so why should Apollo recognize the power or truth of her words? Maybe I should clarify that at this point in the book, I didn’t appreciate that Emma was a legit sorceress either. We haven’t learned the stakes yet, and we don’t know how much we’re going to be needing a sorceress later. But more to the point, most of this book is from Apollo’s point of view, and right now Apollo is hungry, distracted, and worried. There are more important things to worry about, or so he thinks. And I care about him. Even though as the reader, I’m better positioned than he is to recognize his mistakes, I’m right there with him.

This all comes down to LaValle’s skilled balancing of story and character. So much comes across in this one scene, and there are so many other equally rich scenes. If you like to sit in that place where spinning stories come together, you should read this book.

I’ll close my study of The Changeling by adding this: I know enough from my own experience as a writer to suspect that while LaValle was writing this book, he wasn’t always certain what story he was writing either. As we write, our story keeps surprising us, interrupting us, frustrating us and sending us off in the wrong direction. But not only did he find his own story (and Apollo’s too), but he did a beautiful job weaving all the other stories in.

If you’re writing something that alludes to other stories, I hope you’ll find LaValle’s use of classic stories exciting, rather than intimidating. When you ask yourself, Why this story?, it’s an opportunity to figure out how far along you are in establishing your own story. If you don’t have an answer yet, maybe you need to be focusing less on the classic story and more on your own story. If you have a few answers, but you’re completely overwhelmed and not sure how many references you should make or where anything is going — take a moment to congratulate yourself, because that sounds to me like progress. When you’re in the middle of writing something, there’s always a sense of overwhelm and confusion about how well you’re balancing things. You have a few potential answers? Great! Soldier on, and after a while, check in again. What’s your story now?

And that’s that. I hope you’ve enjoyed my post about the balance of story in Victor LaValle’s The Changeling!

Reading like a writer.

Checking in Again — Plus, Cognitive Dissonance and Restorative Justice

Hi there everyone.

This is such a challenging time.

Every day we’re having to sit and watch in disbelief as people lie to our faces about COVID-19, how bad things are, and what to do about it. We watch in disbelief as nonviolent protesters are arrested and accused of violence — while the police use tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and batons against them. We watch in disbelief as white women pull guns on Black people after saying the actual words, “White people aren’t racist… No one is racist.” Our president lies so often, so willfully, childishly, self-centeredly, and so without compunction that FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan advocate for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics, has a Donald Trump archive that is 107 pages long. And now I read that we’ve started executing federal prisoners again — despite what we all know about how flawed our criminal justice system is.

It can be hard to keep on top of how awful everything is.

I wanted to provide a few clarifying links, and recommend a book.

First, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the number of people in denial around you — and the capacity for people to lie to themselves and others about reality — I want you to know that you’re not alone. Also, you’re not crazy. Also, THERE IS AN OBJECTIVE REALITY. Keep hold of it. And if you don’t know what cognitive dissonance is — this might be a good time to learn! A couple links —

Cognitive dissonance, when handled badly, is a killer. It makes people inexcusably ignorant, hurtful, and destructive. I find it helpful to learn about it, so at least I know what we’re up against — and also so that I can be better equipped to watch for it in myself, because after all, I was socialized into this society too. Maybe you’ll also find it helpful, especially now. When you’re surrounded by people who are lying to themselves… It can be incredibly disorienting! And distressing, if these are people who profess to care about you. Learn about cognitive dissonance and shine some light through the bullshit around you.

Next, on the not unrelated topic of “The Letter” (“A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” published on July 7 at Harper Magazine and signed by 153 writers, artists, academics, and journalists). I really liked Hannah Giorgis’s thoughts about The Letter, over at The Atlantic: “A Deeply Provincial View of Free Speech“. Giorgis skewers The Letter’s vagueness. She also reminds us of what free speech actually is, and what threats to free speech actually look like. An excerpt: “Any good-faith understanding of principles such as free speech and due process requires acknowledging some basic truths: Facing widespread criticism on Twitter, undergoing an internal workplace review, or having one’s book panned does not, in fact, erode one’s constitutional rights or endanger a liberal society.” Yes!

Finally, I’m listening to a really great audiobook: Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair, by Danielle Sered. Sered is the director of Common Justice, which is a program in Brooklyn that provides a survivor-focused alternative to incarceration for violent crime. What I love about this book is that while I’ve been aware that our criminal justice system is broken — and that it’s a lie that prisons keep anyone safe — I hadn’t realized that there are workable alternatives already in play. Sered presents an alternative to incarceration that creates not just safety, but healing. The program is very survivor-focused. Survivors are deeply involved in decisions about how the people who harmed them are held accountable. And since most people who commit violent crime have also been victims of violent crime, the program helps those who’ve caused harm to heal too. The book is realistic about why people harm each other, and about how to change the system. It’s a good introduction to the growing movement of restorative justice, and reading it makes me hopeful.

A heads up that Sered has a crystal clear grasp of what it’s like to have PTSD and is searingly articulate about how it feels to want and need a person who harmed you to accept responsibility for what they did. If you are a survivor — of any kind of harm, not just violence — parts of this book may be gutting. I recommend taking breaks now and then.

Also, if you don’t have time to read a book or if you can’t access it right now while the libraries are in flux, I can recommend a recent podcast episode on the same topic. It’s from the The Ezra Klein Show and it’s the episode called: “A former prosecutor’s case for prison abolition: Paul Butler on how our criminal justice system is broken — and how to fix it“. I learned a LOT about how broken our criminal justice system is from that episode. I noticed that Ezra also has an even newer episode, an interview with sujatha baliga called “The transformative power of restorative justice.” I haven’t listened to that one yet, but it’s on the same topic, so I’m guessing that’s also an interesting and informative conversation.

Okay! So those are the things I wanted to share. Hang in there, everybody. I’ll be writing another craft lesson blog post soon. Also, in Winterkeep news, I expect to have a cover (or several) to share with you soon! Be well, everyone.

A Book Is a Web: The Craft of MONDAY’S NOT COMING, by Tiffany D. Jackson

I’ve decided to write some essays on the craft of fiction writing, each focusing on a particular and specific skill, and each referring to a stupendous book that serves as an example of that skill. That way, I get to dive into some nitty-gritty craft topics while also recommending good books.

This post contains some spoilers — though not the biggest spoilers! — for Monday’s Not Coming, by Tiffany D. Jackson.

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Today I want to talk about a particular writing skill that, when done well, is often invisible to the reader who isn’t looking for it. That’s because it’s a skill that prevents the reader from being pulled out of the book. It’s a little hard to sum up in a few words, which is why I plan to write several paragraphs about it :o), but my first attempt at summing it up is this: in a masterful book, most building blocks — most aspects of character, most events, most settings, most every single thing that matters — serve multiple narrative purposes at once.

You know that moment when you’re reading a book and you’re suddenly knocked out of the narrative dream because something happens that seems random, arbitrary, or forced? As if the writer has shoehorned something in, and instead of it fitting, it pops you out?

You know when you’re reading a book and suddenly a fact seems too convenient, as if the only reason it’s in the book is because the author’s trying to make something else in the book believable?

You know when you’re reading a book and a character feels more like a list of characteristics, rather than a real person?

When you’re writing a book, problems like these arise constantly. It’s the nature of trying to fit a whole lot of different ideas into a cohesive whole: your first few attempts are lumpy, clumsy. Nothing is connecting yet. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that my first drafts are a big messy pile of events, personality characteristics, badly-placed clues, characters who aren’t comfortable with each other yet, etc., etc., all of it waiting to be fixed. And the more complicated the book you’re trying to write, the harder it is, in subsequent drafts, to weave all the parts together into a pattern smooth enough to soothe the reader into believing your story.

When this weaving works perfectly — as it does in Tiffany D. Jackson’s Monday’s Not Coming — it’s because of intensely hard and skillful work on the part of a writer. A lot of skills contribute to the weaving, but today I’m going to talk specifically about how most aspects of Jackson’s book perform several jobs at once. And I’m going to try to illuminate how the consequence of this is a perfectly woven web, so strong that a few chapters into this book, I relaxed, knowing that I, the reader, was safe. I knew that Monday, a missing girl in the book, wasn’t safe. I worried that Claudia, the book’s narrator, wasn’t safe. But I was confident that this book wasn’t going to drop me.

I’ll start by sharing a little plot to set things up.

In Monday’s Not Coming, after spending the summer with her grandmother in Georgia, Claudia returns home to Southeast, her neighborhood in Washington DC, ready to enter eighth grade, but worried about her best friend Monday, who didn’t write her a single letter the whole time she was gone. This lack of letters is Claudia’s first sign that something’s wrong in the life of Monday, and many more signs follow. When school starts, Monday doesn’t show up. When Claudia tries to call Monday, Monday’s phone has been disconnected. When Claudia asks Monday’s family members after her, they give inconsistent answers — she’s with her aunt, she’s with her father. When Claudia tries to visit Monday, Monday’s mother won’t even let her inside the house. The evidence mounts that something is gravely wrong… But no one will take Claudia’s worries seriously. Claudia is alone, growing increasingly distressed as Monday continues not to show up. The reader follows along as Claudia tries to find her.

At the same time, the attentive reader is trying to solve a mystery taking place on another level. This is because the events of this book don’t occur consecutively, and there’s a mystery about their order. We go back and forth in time, learning about the events that took place before Monday disappeared, then always returning to Claudia’s experience of trying to find Monday. Each chapter of the book has a title that places its events in time for the reader. Four times are represented: The Before; One Year Before the Before; Two Years Before the Before; and, The After. (There are also nine very short chapters each titled with a month name, starting in September and continuing through June, but for the moment, I won’t get into that.) The second-level mystery the reader is trying to solve has to do with the chapters labeled “The After.” These chapters seem consecutively interspersed with the chapters labeled “The Before,” as if they’re part of the same timeline… So the reader starts to wonder, before what? After what?

It’s so puzzling that in a different book, I might have started to wonder if the titles were mistakes, or if maybe it was some sort of strange artistic license that wasn’t working for me (“Time is a beautiful tapestry, la la, who cares!”). But I didn’t wonder that, because the skill of Jackson’s writing was so apparent — largely because of the thing I keep talking about where most aspects of the book performs multiple jobs — that I knew it was leading me someplace good.

Now I’ll finally explain what I mean! Note that the page numbers I reference are in the paperback edition, published by Katherine Tegen Books in 2018.

Okay. Here’s an example of an aspect of this book that performs multiple jobs. It’s one of my favorite characteristics of Claudia: her relationship to color.

Claudia has an unusual eye for color. It’s so unusual that in Claudia and Monday’s first scene together, on page 30, Monday teases Claudia about it. When a low-rider Cadillac creeps by, Monday chuckles and says, “Hey, Claudia, what color is that?” Claudia responds with, “Hmmm… It’s like a mix of rust and apricot with a yellow undertone.” Monday laughs and fondly tells her she’s weird, probably thinking, like I am, that the Cadillac is orange. But when Claudia looks at colors, she sees so much more than orange. Colors matter to her, deeply. It’s an interesting and endearing quirk. And as every student of writing knows, you need to give your characters a few quirks, something to make them feel like more than words on a page.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I’m writing, I assign a characteristic to a character, then, because I’m trying to juggle so many other things in this ##@$ goddamn stupid BOOK, I promptly forget about it. Unless l I remember again at some point, then try to make that characteristic work for me in other ways, it can feel a little tacked on. The sort of thing that draws the attention of the reader, because it interrupts the book’s feeling of authenticity.

Well, Jackson remembers about Claudia and color. Again and again, she reaches for this characteristic, using it to illuminate conflict. To advance the plot. To serve as a metaphor for growth. To demonstrate healing. This is what I was trying to explain above: Any aspect you choose to add to your book will sit more comfortably in your book if you attach it to other aspects of your book. When you decide something about one of your characters? Consider what other ways, beyond character-building, you can make that decision work for you. When you hit a snag in some other part of your book — be it plot, setting, mystery-building, dialogue, pacing, mood — remember that characteristic and ask yourself, could that characteristic illuminate the solution to this problem? Look for places to weave that characteristic into other parts of the book — not too much! But just the right amount — and don’t worry too much about that balance early on, because that’s the sort of thing you’ll work out over the course of several drafts, probably with the help of other readers, but mostly with the direction of your own instincts.

Oh, and by the way? It isn’t like there’s going to be one aspect you need to remember and weave. There will probably be dozens, if not hundreds. It’s okay. You can keep a list! Whenever you’re stuck, you can refer to your list. When you’re not stuck, refer to it then sometimes too, just to remind yourself what your aspects are! And if you feel like you’re constantly about to forget a hundred different important things, don’t worry. That’s one of the many normal ways to feel while writing a book.

But I’m getting carried away. I was talking about Claudia’s relationship to color.

Ready for some examples of color’s multiple jobs in Monday’s Not Coming?

  • Color demonstrates Monday’s affection for Claudia (as shown above), which is really, really important, because the relationship between these girls is complicated. It’s rough in some places and built on some jealousies, selfishness, and lies, but it’s also really, really devoted and substantial. The reader needs to see these moments of affection, to clarify the love and closeness between these girls. 
  • Color also demonstrates some of Claudia and Monday’s mismatches. For example, late in the book, Claudia learns that Monday has always pretended that her favorite color is pink, to please Claudia. It might sound like an odd thing to be devastated about, but not for Claudia. It’s a spotlight on all the things she’s failed to see about her friend, and all the ways she’s never been able to help. On almost the last page of the book, Claudia says to herself, “Still felt a pinch of guilt whenever I saw pink” (431).
  • Because of Claudia’s gift for color, we get a really rich sense of what people look like and how they dress — a richer sense than we get from most books. On the morning of the first day of school, Claudia’s mother wears “her short auburn hair still in pin curls. Sometimes in the light, little specks of gray peeked out behind her rose gold highlights” (7). Also, Claudia’s mother has a great sense of style. I began to look forward to Claudia’s descriptions of her outfits. On page 120, she wears “a sandy-colored long-sleeve dress with her black church blazer.” On page 141, it’s “a rose-colored skirt suit.” On page 383, she wears “a black wrap dress, church heels, and a frown on her face.” At school, we see a range of skin colors — Shayla has a “pretty brown face,” and Trevor Abernathy’s “white button-down shirt [makes] his rich black skin glow” (11). At one point, Monday decides to dye her hair blonde — “Not like white-people blond,” Monday explains. “More like Beyoncé blond” (206) — but when it goes wrong, Claudia almost screams at the sight of her. “Her hair was a violent burnt orange, her roots a rusted burgundy” (207). One of my favorite moments is when “April, enraged, snatched up my collar, pulling me so close I could see the drops of gold mixed in her brown eyes.” I totally believe that in a scary moment of being grabbed, Claudia would notice the gold flecks in her attacker’s eyes.
  • Color is part of Claudia’s psychological therapy, thanks to the research of her father, who’s  read an article about coloring books being calming. “I take my time picking the right shade,” Claudia says. “There’s a distinct difference between periwinkle and cobalt blue” (25). (This is also a moment to mention that color connects her to her father, who’s clearly noticed how much color means to his child, and who regularly finds her new coloring books.)
  • Color illuminates the path to Claudia’s social growth. Before Monday went missing, Monday was Claudia’s only friend. How does Claudia begin to cement her friendship with other girls? She does their nails. “Megan, red with black dots like a ladybug; Kit Kat, pink with silver stripes like a candy cane; Paris, French manicure with a coffee base and black tips” (288). The girls are stunned at her eye and her skill. Claudia can use her facility with color as social capital.
  • Color plays a huge role in the lyricism of Jackson’s prose. Remember those short month chapters I mentioned before? They’re reflective, lyrical passages, beautifully framing and positioning the rest of the book, and every one of them refers to color. Maybe my favorite passage from these is on page 337: “If Daddy was a color, he would be forest green — thick, lush, calm, whispering refreshing wisdom only few could hear. / If Michael was a color, he would be bark brown — cocoa, mocha, chocolate, the color of earth. Quiet, supportive, but strong. A softness that loves grows from. /Together, they are the tree I lean on when I’m weary. The tree I swing from.” This is just one of many moments where briefly, the scary story slows down and we sit with Claudia and feel what she’s feeling. In these moments, we’re also sitting with the mood Tiffany Jackson creates with her beautiful, color-specific imagery.
  • Color serves as part of the tapestry of Claudia’s neurodiversity, her dyslexia, which she’s always ferociously hidden from every single person in her life except Monday. A teacher gives Claudia “a pack of these plastic gel filters, the size of looseleaf paper, tinted in various colors: aqua, coral, celery, and apricot.” (144). First of all, who besides Claudia would ever define the color of a gel filter as “celery?” I love her. But also, color becomes one of Claudia’s main tools for ease of reading. “They’re supposed to help me read better when I lay them over pages in books and stuff. I held them close over my face and watched the whole room turned blue, like we were sitting at the bottom of the river.” Claudia’s relationship with her dyslexia is a huge and important part of this book — so the discovery that color can be a helpful tool really matters. It also feels appropriate, and not the least bit shoehorned in, because color has so many other important roles in the book.

That’s seven examples of the functions of color in the book. As a reader, you’re encountering all of them at once. Can you see how they’re a web holding you up?

I’m not going to try to list all the other aspects of Monday’s Not Coming that Jackson uses as multipurpose tools, because I want you to read this book, and I’ve already given enough away. But as you’re reading, notice what Jackson does with the love and anger (and especially the loving anger) of Claudia’s mother. Notice what she does with the gentrification, racism, and poverty that beseige many of the residents of Ed Borough. Notice the ways that Ma’s miscarriages touch on different parts of the plot. Notice how Claudia’s dyslexia plays into her own character arc, but also illuminates some of the conflicts in her relationship with Monday. Notice all the ways Claudia’s dancing weaves through the book. Think about time: There is so much skillful weaving in this book with regards to time that that could’ve been my entire blog post. Notice the varying tools Jackson uses to demonstrate how differently this story would have played out had a cherished child like Claudia been the one who went missing.

Also, notice how nothing is shoehorned in. Nothing is sticking out at weird angles. Nothing feels random, arbitrary, or forced.

Also also! One of the things that happens when everything is woven together so nicely is that the real, true clues to the mystery — both the mystery of where Monday is and the mystery of what’s going on with the timeline — can rise sparkling from the page. Notice how those clues don’t get lost. You’re not left wondering what matters and what doesn’t, because everything has its clear purpose. This doesn’t mean that as the reader, you won’t miss some clues — I missed clues! And I followed some of the red herrings, just the way I was supposed to. But because of the way the book was woven, when everything finally came together at the end, I was left with that satisfying feeling of Yes, this was always where everything was leading.

I want to add that I don’t know Tiffany Jackson, and I haven’t talked to her about how she wrote this book. I don’t know how conscious or intentional any of her weaving was. I make no assumptions about her process. But I can see the results. And being a writer myself, I can appreciate what an accomplishment it is.

So. For the writers out there, what is the lesson here?

Here’s one way of putting it:

When you’re deciding who your characters are, be thinking about every other part of the book at the same time. If you decide to give your characters a particular personality quirk… Decide why that matters to the story, and weave it into plot. Weave it into mood or setting or dialogue. It doesn’t have to serve 7+ purposes, like color does in Monday’s Not Coming! But try to attach it to some other part of the book besides itself. Also, at the same time, think about it from the other direction. If you’re at a place in your planning where you’re trying to untangle some plot complication… Focus hard on what your book already contains. On who you already mean your characters to be. Is it possible that the solution you’re looking for can come from some aspect of your characters that already exists?

Here’s another way of putting it:

When you’re writing and revising, planning, rewriting, and reshaping, it’s always great to be looking outside your book for solutions and answers. But don’t forget to look really, really hard inside your book too. Find the solutions that create new connections between and among the materials you already have.

Make sense? Writing a book (and reading a book) is a complicated business. It can be tricky to articulate why and how. But I hope this was helpful! Now go read Monday’s Not Coming!

Reading like a writer.

***

A little housekeeping here at the end, since I’ve been mostly away from social media during the ongoing protests about the murder of George Floyd and police violence against Black people.

Here are some links that have helped me get my mind around what’s happening and figure out what to do to help:

This interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates on The Ezra Klein Show: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x7uahcx

This article, called “The Story Has Gotten Away from Us: Six months of life and death in America,” by Betsy Morais and Alexandria Neason, which cuts through the bullshit and clarifies the story of the pandemic and how it intersects with racism in America: https://www.cjr.org/special_report/covid-floyd-protests.php

This Radiolab episode, called “Graham,” which explains the origin of the concept behind “the reasonable officer,” and how this affects the trials of police officers: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/graham

This list on Medium of “75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice”: https://medium.com/equality-includes-you/what-white-people-can-do-for-racial-justice-f2d18b0e0234

Finally, it occurs to me that for those of you who aren’t on Twitter, I should mention that I have a new book coming out on January 19 :o). It’s a Graceling Realm novel called Winterkeep, told in multiple perspectives. You can read more about Winterkeep here.

Messy Writing, Mean Cowbirds, and More

Hey there everybody. Here’s a little bit of pandemic distraction for your day. If you’re not interested in messy writing or mean cowbirds, skip to the end for a beautiful piece of interdisciplinary art from Juilliard!

First, I have a project (of questionable success) to share. I’m a left-hander who spends a gigantic proportion of my time writing by hand. In the past few years, as I grow older, the toll on my body grows worse. Arm pain! Hand pain! Shoulder pain!

In hopes of giving my left side a break now and then, I’m finally doing something I’ve meant to do for a long time: teaching myself to write right-handed. I did a little research online, I watched a couple videos (because right-handers hold their pens VERY differently from left-handers!), and then I commenced muddling through.

Every day, with my right hand, I print one entire page of writing on the topic of whatever crap is in my head, using both pen and pencil.

Then I do a page of doodles, based on a penmanship worksheet I found online (with maybe some cursive opining at the end). One of the main challenges is making sure I’m using my fine motor muscles — writing by moving my fingers and hand, NOT my entire arm. It’s tempting to use the arm, but the whole point is to develop control in those little muscles.

After two weeks of practice, you can judge for yourself how it’s going :o). This feels less like a project I’m doing by choice and more one I’m doing out of necessity, so I’ll be keeping this up. If I ever get past this current stage of slow and sloppy, I’ll let you all know.

I bet by now you’re intrigued about cowbirds, right? Well! In case you couldn’t read my writing above… I recently learned (from one of my sisters, who knows such things) that cowbirds are really shocking parents. In fact, they force other birds to raise their children. They never build nests; instead, they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. I mean! Look at this picture.

Picture found on Wikimedia Commons, credit to Galawebdesign. Link to the license. No changes were made.

That’s an eastern phoebe nest with one cowbird egg in the mix. According to my sister, the bird parents who return to the nest to find this screamingly obvious egg interloper often know they’ve been duped, but there’s nothing they can do about it, because the cowbird positions itself nearby, watching. If the nesting bird tries to remove the cowbird egg, the cowbird will destroy the entire nest.

And then!

Do you have any idea how big cowbirds babies are?

Below is a picture of an adult common yellowthroat (on the right) feeding a juvenile brown-headed cowbird. These little birds have to feed these giant galumphing cowbird babies, often to the deprivation of their own babies! I mean, it’s not the cowbird baby’s fault. But it’s pretty ridiculous.

Picture found on Wikimedia Commons, credit to Agathman. Link to the license. No changes were made.

This practice is called brood parasitism and some other birds do it too. In the picture below, a poor beset reed warbler is feeding a cuckoo chick in (ON) its nest.

Picture found on Wikimedia Commons, credit to Per Harald Olsen. Link to the license. No changes were made.

There. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about cowbirds and brood parasitism. Nature is amazing and cruel! But people who take beautiful photos and then make them freely usable online are the best, because the photos are what made this story. Thank you, nice people.

Finally… Some Juilliard students, teachers, and alum came together to create a piece of art for the pandemic. I think they really captured something. I hope it’ll help you as much as it’s been helping me.