”There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
- Ernest Hemingway
When we think in terms of “depth” in writing, I suspect we conjure up the image of the serious literary author, all cigarettes and Starbucks writing while he troubles himself over every small metaphor, hoping to convey the most complex ideas and symbolism in the fewest words. We might also conjure up the busy academic, fussing over the truth in a thesis and importance of every single cited quote.
This is about where the world scoffs: “Depth is for nerds. Depth is too serious. That’s why I don’t write that way…”
I speak in hyperbole, but I know more than my fair share of writers who reject the idea of depth, usually on one or two reasons. A) “Depth is equal to elitism,” and the above examples prove that much. We are in an age with elite behavior and cultured ideals are seen as too big for their own britches- a representation of a snobbish culture that we no longer embrace, especially when it comes to American points of view.
B) is a bit less cultural though: “Depth is unneeded for writing general fiction.” There is a line of thinking in writing circles that depth is a distraction to readers, perhaps accredited to the idea of “purple prose” or overwriting, we try to trim the fat, making things easy to digest and quick to thumb through. We draft in quick, numbered strokes, planning the novel that Writer’s Digest swears that everyone wants to read. In the name of good writing advice, we assure that reading is solely built for entertainment. Because that is all that writing should be, yes?
So, let’s first dispel with a myth: depth is not a synonym for elitism. Depth is not a thing we aspire for when we attempt to sound intelligent, not in its true form. Depth is the thing we touch upon when we, as readers or writers, reach beyond the surface of a novel’s idea. Depth to the novel is a layered cake to the baker, and just like any good cake (in my opinion- I’m from Louisiana where we have our own complex cultural rules about food), you should be able to cut into that bad boy for surprises. Fillings, flavor, the odd plastic baby! What makes something truly good is not its surface attractiveness, but the ingredients and work that went into its making. It’s the difference between a candy-colored Walmart cake and a homemade one, and it means the world to the average reader.
I speak from experience. It was a breath of fresh air with I met NYT bestselling author, Joshilyn Jackson, at a conference last weekend. During her panel on writing alone and working with author communities, she gave some sound advice to this topic. “If you’re writing something, unless it bleeds when you cut into it, it’s gonna sound flat. Unless there is something of you in there, it won’t sound honest.”
This struck me in a deep way, the idea that so much of yourself is associated with depth in writing. To write with your heart open. I had written like this before, but found myself discouraged from it after a few books. It wasn’t “fun writing” like my peers were doing. No, it was made of the emotional turmoil of late-night research, of scenes so brutally truthful that I’d sobbed over my own words. It was the evocative energy that encouraged me to dig deeper on a scene or five, simply because I knew I could do better. It was filling whole pages of a notebook with character notes as I tried to pin down my protagonist’s true motivation, the one that he bled for in the corners of his soul.
These are moments I don’t forgot about from writing my first and second novel, and I watched them shape something about me as a writer. As the book grew deeper, I learned more about the person writing it, and who she really was behind her fantasy and monsters.
And that is the really scary part about honest, in-depth writing; the truths that showcase us to the rest of the world. The characters that reflect something dark about us, or our lives. The stripped form of the author’s soul, shimmering through their ink.
The stuff that hurts this way, ironically, is usually what deserves the most sunlight. It will starve in the wake of exposure, and personally gave me the space to heal once I’d finished sharing it. I was a better me in the wake of exploration, and the book was better for my efforts.
We jilt “depth” in writing as a passe concept and an unfun, too-serious way of creating. But is creation anything without a life to support it? Is depth truly something we have no time for when passion is the very thing that drives fiction- good fiction into existence? And do we truly fear depth because the audience rejects it, or do we imagine rather, that the audience will reject what is real about us? Perhaps, most of all, our rejection of depth is about what depth will make us examine when we visit it between pages.
I first realized that men and women read differently when I was 16, and I binged the Twilight books with love, only to emerge from them and find that… the world really disliked them. My first date with a guitarist was to the 2008 film, and his response out of the film was that “it was a girl’s film. He wasn’t supposed to like it.” We didn’t click well after that.
Not that the film for Twilight is very good (it’s not), but the dismissal of Twilight at large was a problem to me. It rang of the same dismissal I’d faced from bullies for liking dolls and unicorns (I’m seven here), the same dismissal I’d faced for enjoying Taylor Swift and Kesha (I’m fourteen here), and the dismissal I face later for enjoying shoujo manga and traditional YA, like Vampire Knight or Rainbow Rowell. “I just get tired of all the fairytales and boys,” I remember one friend saying.
Keep in mind, this isn’t about quality: every kind of story has its share of garbage, and I’m not what one would consider traditionally feminine. But comic books and action novels typically have the emotional maturity of junk food, and I don’t hold them to a higher standard than that. Why then is girls’ fiction any different? Why is it cool to like comics and Star Wars, but a loss when women enjoy what may be more traditionally female?
This issue is only a surface point to something deeper, after all. It’s the issue the demands female readers have ‘morally good’ role models in their fiction. It’s the issue that demands women change their pen names to something less… you know, particularly in science fiction and fantasy. It’s the issue that proudly compartmentalizes women’s fiction to YA, while snickering that YA is a childish genre.
I’m not a “woman writer,” I like to claim. I’m a writer, and I also just so happen to be a woman: I don’t see these a mutually inclusive. Women’s stories are sometimes, as we’ve seen with YA and Twilight, labelled for simply being written by women, even when we have so much to offer for young readers.
My endeavours into female-written fiction didn’t begin with Twilight, though I certainly give the series credit for creating the current environment in YA. But I started much younger, with the help of Mary Stanton and Cornelia Funke.
I discovered Mary Stanton while browsing a newly-opened bookstore, back in the late 90’s; I am still too small to reach the top shelves on my own. I have a great collection of Barbies and stuffed animals for my ongoing political storylines, I have not quite outgrown my imaginary friends, but am old enough to keep them secret (spoiler alert: I never really do). My world is still small and colored with the veins of an odd feminism: Sailor Moon is everywhere, Britney Spears is the queen of pop. Stanton catches my eye because she writes the long-maligned horse genre (you know, for girls), and has added unicorns to the docket. I’m six, and unicorns are the best thing ever, so I grab the first book and try it.
I devoured Unicorns of Balinor quickly, beautifully- saddened when I realized Stanton wouldn’t release anymore. To summarize eight books, a fantasy world princess, Ariana, recovers her memories after she is thrown into our world, then re-enters Balinor with her dog, a unicorn, and a girl named Lori. They go to stop an evil sorcerer and save Ari’s parents. It’s not… good fiction or very original (indeed, my well-worn copies are very young in tone), but they had good lessons in them, good adventures. Ariana might have been the first princess I ever encountered who was more interested in magic and her adventures than finding a prince to marry, or a pretty dress to wear. I touted them around my Girl Scout meetings and on car trips- #4 still have water damage from when I dropped in a puddle. I loved them, even though other girls around me disregarded them as “girly.” Unicorns were too girly… which confused me as a child. Even if they were, why was that so bad?
Flash forward: I am twelve when I find Cornelia Funke, already knee-deep in comics, cool superhero characters, and Hilary Duff. My ears are pierced, makeup is a clumsy new tool that I never quite master. I have cut off all my hair after too many other girls started calling me “Hermione”, after my frizzy curls. I stop wearing my cute rainbow sweater and hip black boots to church or school, because the bullies get too relentless at clothes too. Being twelve sucked.
I am given the translated Inkheart by a reading teacher whose face I remember more than her name. Excited that I liked books and have started writing (spoilers: that doesn’t go away either), she passes me a book about storytellers. I start the book at lunch that day: I complete it by the end of the week. I seek out the sequel, and the third novel, as they release over next few years. I bought all of Funke’s work, and still credit her as the biggest influence on the author I became. I loved that her adult characters were important and carried their own mature-for-the-genre plotlines; I loved that the children were just as troubled and awkward as I was.
Though Inkheart and The Thief Lord are still my favorites, I am always drawn back to Inkdeath, the last book in her main trilogy. After reading it at 14, I left the book a bit confused. Meggie, the main character by most definitions, spends most of the adventure story improving herself and choosing between two boys: her original love interest, Farid, a thief pulled from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. And now, Doria, a young inventor pulled from a forgotten, yet-unfinished short story.
A love triangle? This offended my sensibilities greatly, and what was worse- Meggie chose this new character over her love interest; she leaves Farid, feeling they were too distant to continue. Farid, though charming, is too dedicated to his craft and magic to truly love her.
This left me so enraged, so annoyed as a teenager: “why would Funke reduce her to that? Farid was great!”
I stayed annoyed about it… until I reread the book, and realized the kind of honest, adult truth the author had snuck into a Middle-Grade novel. Something brutal about first loves, and cute bad boys, and why we don’t settle. My jaw dropped; Funke wasn’t slacking, she was brilliant, and I’d fallen to the very girl hate that had long haunted me.
Let’s return to Twilight, but really, to the disparagement of a genre full of serious love triangles, bad tropes, rescue romance, and fluff. Let’s discuss why we throw out Austen and Bronte as “boring” while highlighting Mary Shelley as “badass” because she started science fiction (a genre now, ironically, populated with mostly men.) Let’s discuss why women correct other women for taking on more traditional feminine interests, not just because it doesn’t appeal to them, but because society says it’s “bad.” Let’s really observe those things in ourselves.
I loved Twilight when I was a teenager, and no, I probably wouldn’t read them again, but goodness, they were fun when I was 15. These days, I still find myself occasionally buying shoujo manga, I still love Rainbow Rowell, I still listen to Taylor Swift- all while enjoying gritty comics, dark fiction, and video games. I don’t really make a principled effort to dress more feminine or masculine. Because these things don’t matter, make me any less of a woman, nor any less of a feminist.
In the world of feminist fiction, we should take pride that diverse topics allow women the right to choose their reading material, whether it be Twilight or Batman. That’s what makes them, well, people. I consider myself a person and a writer more than I consider myself a woman; society owes women the same.
I started 2018 by publishing for the dead. Since December, I have revised three books for posthumous publication. The authors, all elderly, had either been on the road themselves, or their families had found the books and wanted them published out of respect. So, when these books passed into my hands, they came with the full weight that I was probably the last editor. This book was eternally out of the author’s hands, and potentially all that remained of them in life.
At the same time, I- twenty-five and still effervescent, am slowly, emotionally parting ways with my first novel. Sending it off to agents and preparing it for publication- for real this time, I mean it. It’s not my book anymore, after all… But then, with all of readers and sharing, was it ever truly mine to begin with?
Owning art is a tricky subject, and owning writing even moreso. If Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings hang in a gallery for the world to see, did Van Gogh ever truly own his work? This doesn’t even account for him being dead, nor the fact that he left this world under the notion that his art was a failure.
Artists exist in an odd space, typically. Their work is often a middle ground between something entirely too personal and something meant to be shared with everyone. A voice for the world to hear. Some things are more personal than others (indeed, I have a slew of poetry I won’t publish under my author platform), but mostly, we fall between that which is ours and that which is the world’s.
Some things are harder to give over to the world than others, notoriously the first novel. In this, I like to think of first novels like the oldest child; the one parents are the most nervous around, the one with the most rules and curfews.
And even when it’s off to publication, they can be hard to let go. I have seen story after story of authors pulling published books just for full re-edits. Authors who shredded their old works just so they could write something new. Authors who simply cannot make peace with their lack of ownership. It wasn’t something I understood until I planned to share my first novel, via indie publishing, only to lose my nerve and renege at the last minute. “Never mind… I was wrong. It’s not done.”
And no, it wasn’t done. Far from it, but it forced me to re-examine what made me so possessive of my work. After all, I loved sharing with my two alpha readers and often pulled ideas directly from our discussions. I had plenty of beta-readers, and even tested a few early chapters with online audiences. The world had already trickled into my work by then, so it wasn’t fully mine anymore. But even with another novel to write, letting go of what was mine in my first novel became a trial.
Sometimes that’s a lifetime of struggle. We might all know someone who’s been writing the same book for years now, though they never dare to share a word. Many of the books I receive- typically from older authors, are those same first novels: last efforts to finally release a dream. And sometimes it is the last thing they do, which always gives me a bit of pause, wondering if they parted with their books happily. Were they content to publish, or did they simply run out of time? It is assumably impossible to worry about that ownership when you’ve passed on, after all.
Writers are a proud kind of artist: they want a lot of different things from their work, but like any other creative sort, they do seek validation. They hope that if they revise long enough, work hard enough… That they can be enough for their book, so that their book will be enough for the rest of the world. Definitions of “enough” vary from person to person, and there’s nothing shameful about wanting one’s work to reflect a certain “enoughness” in yourself. We all want to be valid and praised for what we do: that’s a symptom of humanity.
I suspect this is what makes leaving a project so difficult sometimes, particularly for the novice. It requires you step back and admit that what you’ve done and been for this project is enough. I’d also reckon that most authors- if not all, will never feel like they’re enough, and must be brave in spite of it.
Returning to Van Gogh for a moment: my favorite episode of Doctor Who (well, one of my favorites) concerns the famous painter. The Doctor and Amy end up working with him in the late days of his life, in pursuit of a monster that Van Gogh has painted. The end is less monster-centric though, as The Doctor decides to take Van Gogh on a trip to a 2010 art exhibit. The rest is best experienced when viewed.
When we “own” our works, we are often too close to them to realize their own power. And if we try to own our works at all, it is because we fear we are simply not perfect enough, talented enough, or savvy enough, to share them in a way that is meaningful.
But I leave you with Vincent, because maybe- just maybe, the world is better for knowing your story. We are enough sometimes, simply for having created.
The last weeks of the year were cluttered with the howls of internet drama. Forums and Facebook posts filled with disappointment and rage- why? The Last Jedi is why. The latest installment in the Star Wars movie franchise proved its worth in record breaking sales and glowing reviews, but some fans were… less than pleased with the film. A lot of reasons come up, but it’s usually come down to three things: a different style of plot, a different direction with characters, and a different direction with lore. Different than expected, and unpredictable when compared to the previous seven Star Wars films.
Fan outrage is nothing new (indeed, we could argue that it’s become worse and/or easier to spot with the internet), but the question remains: why are some viewers and readers so adverse to change? Vocal push-back emerged when Avatar: The Last Airbender’s sequel series took a new direction, Star Wars fans never seem to be happy with new additions to the franchise, and every time a remake or new retelling is announced, there is an associated outrage attached.
Sure, we could argue that Hollywood’s run out of ideas, but are we prematurely judging something instead? Some push-back for The Last Jedi has been summarized with the fact that Star Wars is a modern myth or fairy tale, meant to be happy and heroic… And this ignores that folklore and myth was made to grow, and made for us to grow with it.
Let’s talk retellings for a bit. Disney recently started rebooting their animated properties into live action films, earning their share of sighs and groans. Nevertheless, some of these movies have tried to do something unique: Cinderella was a subtler, Grimm’s-based story when compared to its animated counterpart. The Jungle Book film integrated a few familiar scenes from Kipling’s original book- something the animated movie dodged. Maleficent, for all its flaws and silliness, explored a completely new angle of its main character and her relationships with others. Likewise, Disney’s theatrical release of the musical, Into The Woods, turned out to be a morally challenging fairy tale that outright ignored most of their canon.
And these are modifications on their own retellings, but let’s not forget that Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and The Sleeping Beauty are much, much older stories that Disney themselves retold many years back. I often wonder if people in the 40s, 50s, and 60s were rolling their eyes, complaining about more fairy tale retellings? I wonder if they were defensive of the original (much darker) stories now whitewashed for Disney’s growing public?
Likewise, when Disney’s young audiences discovered the original stories, did it change their perception of the movie? I know this happened to me as a child, after stumbling upon some of darker, more violent versions of Cinderella and the original story for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Not only did I find these versions better, I began to resent Disney for missing the original point of the stories.
These days, I still don’t like these movies very much, but… I see why they exist, and what audience they were for. Maybe not for me, but they were for someone. A retelling’s point, I suspect, is to offer incite to the original work. Interpretation and context that may have been missed once, and while we might roll our eyes at the trivial nature of these stories, we forget that the exchange of stories sometimes means those stories change.
Star Wars itself has gone through a few retellings, whether it be deep in the extended universe, which changes every time a movie revises the canon, or in the very tone of each trilogy. The originals came out to a young Generation X, starry-eyed and full of that 1980’s hope. The prequels released to young Millennials, a darker yet sillier galaxy far, far away to open up the franchise (notably, the only PG-13 entry to the prequels released right as most kids turned tween and teenaged. Hmm). The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, Rogue One, and the remaining unnamed films are probably, as is the pattern, meant for the young Gen Z. But they’re also for the older generations, who can connect with callbacks through Luke, Leia, and Han Solo, now aging adults with real problems, real flaws, and real shortcomings. Millennials can come in for the dynamic, relatable characters in Rey, Poe, Finn, and Rose (or Kylo, depending on your preference- no judgement). These elements have upset some viewers though, citing that they hate watching heroes fail and act “out of character.” Akin to learning that our parents aren’t perfect, or that or favorite celebrities are awful people.
But isn’t that true of life? Don’t these depths and shades exist? It would be a disservice to Luke or Han if they didn’t change after forty years, because that will be what happens to all of us as well. Perhaps we are resistant to change of quality in a series, but deep down, it’s worth wondering whether we resist it in face of something that’s different, or too honest, for our liking. “Witches can be right, giants can be good,” comes as a lyric from Into The Woods, stating well that our assumptions can be wrong about heroes, villains, and the norm.
One of my favorite scenes in The Empire Strikes Back is when Luke trains with Yoda, and enters the Dagobah Cave to meet his biggest fear. At first, he’s faced with Darth Vader, but upon defeating this phantom visage of a Sith, he discovers that what he truly fears is the evil within himself. This is paralleled in The Last Jedi with Rey, when she enters an undersea cave and faces herself against her greatest fear: her own loneliness reflected back at her for an eternity.
These are incredibly powerful scenes, but also summarize beautifully why we fear change. We don’t just hate that Luke Skywalker is flawed and old, we hate that we now see ourselves in him. We don’t resist retellings and sequels just because of faltering writing, but we resist them for defense of the status quo. We long for the moment when the cave confirms that Darth Vader is our worst nightmare, because anything more challenging will require thought, and inner effort, and reflection.
This week, I got my first rejection on a full manuscript. Three months and a handful of days into querying, I received a kind but stern “no” on my first novel. And I won’t lie- it stung. It doesn’t matter how many novels we’ve written since, nor how distant I claim myself from this book: rejections hurt. But after nursing my wounds on poetry and wine, I final;y understood one of those universal truths: your first novel is the hardest to sell.
And that can feel a bit unfair to the novice author. First novels, statistically, take the longest to write and revise. We toil over them with ink, and sweat, and tears, striving so much just to finish, polish, and share with the whole wide world. The greats got their first novels published, after all; surely you can too? There’s a six-figure deal in the wings, just waiting for you. Surely Warner Bros. will call you any day now for a seven-movie adaptation, pleasing your wondrous fanbase?
The reality of the first novel is much less glamorous, and more about becoming a novelist. To learn, after all, we must first try. We must fail, climb, change, and grow. This is true of life, and it’s true of writing. And I can think of no better example than the story of my first novel, and what I learned from writing it.
If you dug through my old, old, old notes, I mark Chimehour’s start point in 2012, which is half true. That summer, I scratched out concepts for a bunch of stories that I will probably never write. Almost 20, and not yet in college at this point. A good friend and I sat down one slow afternoon to kill time. The following conversation unravels:
“There should be a story about a seer therapist who deals with troubled monsters and fae. Like, he solves problems that way rather than having weapons and powers, like in Natsume’s Book of Friends.”
This is not Chimehour yet. But it plants a thought in my head.
My good friend and I started clashing. We were fighting; then we stopped the fighting, because we stopped talking. Unrelated issues unfold when I’m caught in a head-on collision with a drunk driver, leaving permanent damage to my leg. Your life does flash before your eyes in incidents like that, and you realize you still have a lot to do at 20.
In the following September, I sat down and wrote a prologue. The same prologue that begins Chimehour, sans some changes and edits.
I also begin the new year by losing that prologue to computer failure. I save what I can and start again. I begin camping out at my nearest Starbucks, and tell a couple of people that I’m writing a “steampunk zombie story.” I begin filling binders with notes, pictures, maps, dialect quirks, mythology. socioeconomics, and any related thing I can get my hands on. I spend the next year drafting this book and its sequel, from January to November.
And how much of that draft still exists, you might ask? One scene- maybe two. There’s a fight in the middle of the book where my protagonist first faces off this manic Druid. It was written at 4am to the tune of a lot of caffeine; it was the best writing session I’ve ever had to date, and the scene still reads perfectly. Everything else? Edited, revised, or thrown out. Because first drafts are always going to be pretty bad. Finishing them is the first step. Don’t fear the re-writes.
Revision was much larger task than I expected. I suspect this puts new authors off from editing a lot, because you return to a first draft a month later, only to find your precious novel is imperfect. Dare I say- messy. I treated this as a crisis for a bit, but eventually buckled down and began taking Chimehour apart. Re-reading, rewriting, and editing with two early readers for almost six months. A break, then I did it again: read, revise, rewrite, each pass making the story a little clearer. Working with different, trusted early readers and beta readers also helped clarify something- that authors do not always have the clearest perspective about their work.
In fact, they probably have the least clear perspective, muddled by closeness and the high of a first draft. My earliest readers picked out weakness and oddness in my writing that I might otherwise miss, allowing me an easier path with editing. Yes, I had to kill some darlings along the way, but editing isn’t a defamation of the author’s vision. Rather, it’s refinement; it’s the polish that makes the project sparkle.
I revised for almost three years, writing a few new projects along the way. A lot happened in that span of time (so much, it could easily fill a whole other blog), and slowly, I felt myself returning to Chimehour with less to say. When I finished a round of revisions early this past spring, I realized that there wasn’t any more I could do it. It wasn’t perfect yet, but… I was finished. This was hard to stomach, the idea that you will stop pulling returns from a project, and it can still be flawed. But then, I’ve heard plenty of stories about books that have been edited to death. NYT bestseller, Shannon Sanders, talks about how her first novel was deemed unpublishable due to over-editing. There comes a day where you recognize that your book- your baby, has grown up and entered the University of Queries and Publishing. You, the author, must now step aside and let the work speak for itself. It is no longer your work, but the world’s to read.
It’s hard. It’s heartbreaking, and there’s still so much rejection to be found. You look back at the years of writing, revision, and work, wondering if that journey was really worth it?
And the short answer is yes. Because novels aren’t just about finishing and publishing and fame. This is why it’s silly to compare yourself to other authors, because novels are the product of learning, and becoming a better novelist than the one you were yesterday. It’s also about learning to be a better you, in some ways. I know the person I was when I started Chimehour is not the person I am today, and I have my book to thank for that.
I started a new novel this year, unknowing of the roads it will open. But it’s that beautiful? When we start a novel- our first or our fifty-fourth, our work with it is more about a journey than a destination. It is about the lessons we learn, the projects we finish, and the person we become through creating something new.
A fissure has formed in the book community as of late, and over a topic we don’t often assign to the average bookworm: censorship. Reviewers have grown more passionate about defending diverse books and criticizing common racial/LGBT pitfalls that less diverse authors fall into. This was a great, purposeful movement,… until it became a weapon.
Popular reviewers and bloggers began leading hunts after writers and books they deemed ‘problematic’, full of 1-star reviews and call-out blogs. Readers were told not to buy, or read, or even speak positively of books the community found troubling or questionable. This ‘problematic’ label now ranges from actual poor representation to lead characters who simply don’t align with upstanding morals/beliefs- it’s even been directed at book before they’ve released in ARC. This aslso came a very anti-classic novel movement, aiming to snub the patriarchal roots of fiction found in the likes of Hemingway and Updike.
The lines have been drawn, and many people have come out with criticism over the movement. Likewise, there are authors, agents, and reviewers that defend the movement’s core idea is being upheld.
The image that comes to mind for community censorship is not usually a group of awkward bookish teens, but the conservative Midwestern housewife, storming into her son’s school after she’s discovered the many uses of N-word in To Kill a Mockingbird, or all the course language and scary content of Bridge to Terabithia. This happens every year, after all. It’s a culture of church pamphlets that scare parents away from Harry Potter and Golden Compass, or whispered fear of why someone won’t read Kurt Vonnegut.
Community censorship isn’t new, but do we actually serve progressive writing and diverse works with it? Are works of the past, or difficult topics, now impossible to broach in this ‘more sensitive’ era?
Doubtful. If the aforementioned books can survive controversy, then so will many of the recent troublemakers. If a book stirs something in the world, chances are it’s worth reading- if only to see why it stirred up said reaction. If the combatants of problematic books meant to taper down interest, it failed with novels like Carve The Mark, The Black Witch, and All The Crooked Saints, all of which sold brilliantly. And that’s not to say these books are immune to criticism; indeed, we should discuss the ideas behind a bigoted character taking a lead role, or a white author writing outside of their race or culture. We should discuss the pitfalls and merits to these kinds of books, but the key word is “discuss”: not “banish.”
If we’re truly being supportive of diversity, we have to learn to critique without bashing. We also have to read older works with an understanding of what is historical, and therefore may not age well by our standards. Most of all, we need to remember that authors are just people (albeit weird people) who do not usually mean to attack in their portrayals or narratives. I suspect internet culture buries this etiquette in the face of personal opinion and virtue signaling, but I still find it exists.
Fostering this mindset is so important these days, simply because one of the biggest issues in censorship is that people simply refuse to read widely enough. Like the man who never leaves his small American hometown, limited reading makes a limited reader. Yes, there’s a lack of proper representation in popular fiction, a selection of books that makes up about 0.11111111% of what books you can buy. There are scores of incredible indie and less well promoted books, written by authors from all walks of life, about characters and stories from all over the world. These books not only deserve your reviews, but the market will continue to have a hard time changing untilpeople make an effort to positively support these kinds of books and buy them. Be the change you wish to see realized.
The same goes for your experience with classic fiction. You can’t just disregard the eras past fully, where Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf, notable LGBT authors, reside. Or how about Jane Austen, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Christina Rossetti, incredibly feminist voices of their day? Shakespeare himself explored complex themes with race, homosexuality, and gender roles in an era we often don’t associate with progressive anything.
Are these old works flawless in their pursuits? No, and many of them are marked with their era’s views, and the same will happen with the works of the 21st century. In Shakespeare’s time, readers found Chaucer unreadable, troubled, and dated. A hundred years from now, groups of scholars will study our scores of YA books and chat box novels, and students will scoff that these works: “how dated! How problematic! Why would they even think this way?”
There are few paths to a perfect, truly “unproblematic” book- and why would we want our characters perfect and unbiased anyway? Humanity is flawed, people are messy and sometimes wrong. When we have characters that are the same way, it allows an audience to reflect on that wrongness through the lens of fiction. Old books also allow us a glimpse a past and an understanding of it, so that we might do better. That should be the purpose of the hard, controversial, and downright upsetting.
If we are never challenged, then we never truly reflect. And I suppose that’s a good question to ask one’s self: if a book or character stirs anger in my soul- if I feel the need to hide away from it, what exactly am I hiding from? What truth do we see, looking back at us from those pages?
“Reading is easy. I just don’t have time.” I hear this at least once or twice during my year, often more now that I’m in college, where fellow students are assigned multiple novels during a semester. They will probably skirt by through SparkNotes, skim their books, and follow the movie versions for an easier, two-hour viewing.
“Reading is easy,” yet many of us would rather do anything but settle in to read something in-depth for a few hours. Reading consumes time and takes effort- save for maybe the lightest fair that makes up your local grocery store’s books, abound with James Patterson and Nora Roberts. For something that’s gained the reputation of being easy, we sure treat reading like a Herculean task in our day. In many ways, people speak of reading the exact same way the speak of writing: “anyone can do it, but I’d rather not.”
So perhaps we should reframe what reading is, or better yet, the different kinds of reading we engage in. Because we often ignore the value of critically reading- and I don’t just refer to the critical reading we do in school. I refer to the critical dissection of work that goes beyond reading for fun.
I think this makes more sense from the author’s perspective. There is a space you reach, at some point when you write, where it becomes harder to just “read for fun.” Not that you won’t ever read for fun again, but the enjoyment you garner from stories will come from different places. Your favorites’ list will start to become a narrower, cleanly trimmed path of books that you revisit a lot and fill with sticky notes. You begin to admire the sweep of a sentence and the structure of a story arc, rather than the garnish and straight plot that makes up a usual read. Like any good magician, you suddenly understand how the tricks are put together; you see the mirrors and extra cards. It’s only worse if you have a strong inner editor.
When I first experienced this, I was a little heartbroken. There were suddenly so many books I was critical of, and I feared it made me hate them. I would never siphon true enjoyment from reading if all I could think to do was pick apart sentences and story arcs… It took me some time- not until I first considered an English major in college, that I changed my mind.
Flashback to spring of 2015, in my small English 102 class, where we spent a lot of time interpreting contemporary poetry. We had one novel to write about for the class, Robert Cormier’s YA terrorist thriller, After The First Death… I hated this book. I still really hate this book, and the way it’s written, and how horrible its one-dimensional characters are to each other. I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to write about it, since I spent ¾’s of my read picking it apart. When the professor approached me about my essay ideas, I made it clear, “I don’t particularly like this book. In fact,” I said. “I’d have enjoyed it better if I spent more time on the relationships and characters. There’s so much to be desired there.”
“I agree. So, write about it,” my professor offered. “Interpret it through that perspective.”
Two lengthy, handwritten drafts later, not only did I write an entire essay on the critical issues surrounding After The First Death, I had completely reshaped one of the final scenes and accredited two characters’ tension to Stockholm and Lima Syndrome, with scientific evidence to back up the claim. It led to two of the best grades I ever got on essays. From my critical read, I had gained something else Cormier’s book that I might not have gleaned otherwise. Yes, I saw what Cormier did, but also why it worked for other readers, and how to interpret it differently.
This was for a class, but I try to maintain this style of reading now, whether studying Shakespeare or cracking open the latest novel by Marissa Meyer. I try to cobble together deeper meaning from the fiction I read, and love when books can meet me with that level of depth. I love when I can peel back the layers of a story, and surprise myself with what the author created.
Reading this way isn’t always easy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable. There is magic to be found in between passages, after all.
While at an author talk on fairytales and the writing process at my university, a question came from the audience about writing challenges, sensitively, and how to overcome both. The author smiled warily and paused before answering (and this is not quite verbatim), “You know, I struggled a lot with finding a voice in the process, and tuning out critics who didn’t care for this kind of storytelling. I can’t quite tell you how to move past those fears or be less sensitive, because chances are- if you’re drawn to writing, you are a little more sensitive anyway, and you’ve learned to embrace that as part of what you do. It’s okay.”
The statement struck me with all sorts of memories, the first of these being the descriptor from my previous job managing an authors’ community: “must have good bedside manner: authors are sensitive creatures and known for their moodiness.” In the most negative connotation, this can sound like chiding for melodramatic behavior. But then, I had to admit, all authors have a flare for melodrama, don’t they? It’s not our fault, really- it is part of the makeup of creating something. The double-edged sword of art is the confidence to build out of thin air, and the crippling fear that you have created it wrong.
I’ve written longer than I had means to form words on paper, and used storytelling as a harbor to deal with a sometimes difficult childhood. Writing helped translate many of my personal anxieties into something more tangible, making them less scary. Ironic that writing can become, in its own way, a new form of stress and worry. We begin to fret and fuss over our own skills, how our audience views us, and if we live up to the very expectations we place upon ourselves.
I’m no exception to the rule. I am the most and least happy when I want to write; the writing itself is a joyful process. Editing and revision less so, and boy, do I ever hate working on middles. I can become so wrapped up in the process of not writing and the guilt I feel when not writing, that I work myself up into a sad frenzy. “That’s it- I’ll never write again. Been a nice ride, but clearly, I have used all the talent. I am a fake, a fraud…”
And that’’s never true, is it? We always end up back on the grind- pen to paper, fingers to keys. We find our way back into the land of make-believe eventually. A failure in creating is when we give up, after all, not when we make something less than desirable.
During my time as a community manager, I heard a lot of stories from authors. So many emails and comments about emotion turmoil, mental illness, or just good ol’ self-doubt. About coping, drinking, and all the bad and good habits we’ve accrued in hopes of finding a short route to art. But on the business front, I was often asked why “x author here” was acting this way. Why are artists so damned quick to sadness, or anger? Why do they need all this… encouragement?
And I couldn’t help but wonder, just for myself, how much better it was knowing I wasn’t alone. How comforting was it knowing that other writers struggled with the same worries, doubts, and fears.
There is a part of the world that disregards ‘sensitive’ folk as tenderhearted, as something flawed. We discount these nervous behaviors as odd, but what if they are as much part of the writing as the writer themselves? What if it is that very anxiety that drives us to do better?
Not to say you should cripple yourself with worry and doubt, but rather it’s important to recognize that those doubts and worries don’t make you a bad writer, and they certainly don’t make you a bad person. Caring about what you create means far more than to have never cared at all. There is bravery in continuing in spite of writing woes.
So, go ahead: write the scene that scares you most, press forward in miserable revisions, send out query letters even if you fear rejection.
Find someone whose shoulder you can cry on, find a writing tribe who gets that you aren’t out of your mind for despairing over your imaginary friends.
Make yourself a fresh cup of tea or pot of coffee- spike it with something strong, if needed, and keep going. Courage, dear heart.
Caitlin Jones is an author, film editor, and lover of all things Victorian and fantastic. Please check in for information on her upcoming series.