Done lovingly by the amazing Bored Barista (also responsible for the SaTG cover), she and I will be teaming up for the release of Chimehour in October 2018!! She's been hard at work with this and all sorts of other goodies! She's done a great job capturing the energy of the novel, which I will have much more news on this week!
Summary: "On May Day of 1901, Dublin falls. Dublin dies in the wake of a disease, dragging its victims back from the grave, mindless and very hungry. The people of Ireland flee in fear of plague, but Stanley knows better, and this is no plague; this is a curse.
Stanley Brigham only wants peace. Born a Chime Child, his second sight connecting him to England’s magical and supernatural, and long giving him grief as a secret world he shares with seldom few. The introverted British youth has only come to Ireland to introduce himself to his newly betrothed fiancée, but an outbreak of death and decay ruins the social call, unleashing a massacre on Dublin. Only Stanley hears the undead voices calling from the other side, and suspects something more magical is afoot.
His suspicions are confirmed by Maggie MacNamara, an eccentric-but-powerful spiritualist keen on saving her home. Though returned to England, a reluctant Stanley finds himself involved once more when Maggie approaches both himself and his inventive companion, Vincent Cammish. She proposes that he can use his ability against the curse. Someone is behind these undead, and she wants them found. Armed with little save for a folklore guide, Stanley ventures back to Dublin in search of the curse’s mastermind. He is soon drawn across The Veil, into another Ireland: one full with Druids, good folk, and all manner of magical kin. He finds an ally in a faerie named Willow, as charming as she is suspicious. An erratic practitioner comes on her heels, deeply involved in the curse and aiming to take the faerie away, but to what end? Stanley, Vincent, and Willow must work together to find out and unearth to cause of Dublin’s undead, soon unleashing a world of ancient magic and dark creatures the British Isles had long forgotten. And perhaps with good reason."
On August 2017, I decided that I was finally, finally, finally had finished polishing my first novel and wanted to try my hand at querying it with agents and then indie publishers. I never really saw traditional potential in my work (it’s a gaslamp fantasy novel with hints of zombie fiction and gothic flare; not a crowded field). Before I started this foray into traditional publishing, I came up with a few stipulations for my experiment:
-Only one year of querying and then I can move on with my book.
-I am querying for the experiment, and so ultimately plan on going indie with my work.
And so, I set off to polishing query letters and writing up a synopsis. I tried to hit every Twitter pitch event possible and kept both QueryTracker and Manuscript Wishlist handy while I sent everything out. Everything was perfect!
By the end of the year, I had sent out 80 queries, received over 40 rejections and then 11 full requests, most of which have come up in rejections at this point. I have two that remain out with unknown responses. This is, as far as I’ve understood now, not a bad way to start off one’s query adventures. Most people never even get far enough to get fulls, and yet… there was a rough point during the summer where the last thing I wanted to do was write. It didn’t matter how many agents had given me “almost” answers and explained that my work was worthy of sending them another book. It was a little heartbreaking: why not this book? I’d done everything right. I’d edited and gone through beta readers and run the book through countless early audiences. How could I get so very close and still not get an agent?
I realized then I had already broken one of my querying rules. I had gotten hooked on the idea that in order to validate my project, I must find an agent and get into traditional publishing. What a change- just a year ago, I had wanted nothing to do with traditional work. I’d always wanted to go hybrid or indie in the event I published at all. What had happened?
We all want validation. Every single one of us wants someone to enjoy our work and give it the proper treatment. We want to be the author that makes it- perhaps not to become uber famous, but just famous enough. Convention famous, “fanbase online” famous. “Cool signings at the bookstore” famous. “Respect from our peers” famous. And we hope, deep down, that we can become that great story of the nobody from a nowhere town who made something of their art.
And perhaps, less epic and star-studded, we simply want the space to call ourselves an “author.” Officially and seriously. We never say it out loud, because we love our indie friends and their books, but we always assume that we might just be better- at least good enough to find an agent. And we forget in our fervor, that publishing is a narrow space. Going through my QueryTracker statistics was telling of this: 35% of all queries were rejected, with another 49% simply going on without a response at all. Fulls were as rare as 4.9% of the general writing populace. For numbers’ sake, my personal rank for fulls came in at a tiny 9%, with the rest of that pie chart percentage rounding into endless rejections. That is a great deal of work for a tiny piece of pie.
This industry isn’t built for the faint of heart: Of the responses I received, 98% of them were forms of some kind. I did receive a meaningful one from an editor at Penguin (who had no business reading my whole novel with all she does), and she pointed out the exact point at which she felt the novel lost steam and compared it with the stronger spots. I have a similarly, very personal rejection from the first agent who read and loved my whole novel, but didn’t feel strongly enough about it to represent the project. A big motivator towards my indie goal was that many personal responses I received included some variation of “this is good, but I don’t know how to sell it.” Not a bad thing by any means, but I still felt more gutted than I had before. There is a faint illusion that nothing stings worse than an empty response (or no response at all), but I quietly learned that the closer you edge to the door of trad publishing, the worse it will sting when that door shuts on you.
Passion vs. publishing: Though writing by itself is a very heart-based, publishing is not… in a way, and we must acknowledge that. By all means, agents and editors pick from projects they know they want to invest in, and the industry would not be the same without the relationship agents, editors, and authors must form to create a project together. Passionless publishing often comes in the form of algorithm-based projects now; I have worked and tried to publish in that industry. It has taken two years for me to recover from that damaging space, both for my own self and for my work. I have seen that without the core of an industry that invests in projects based on personal interest, authors become nasty and competitive over numbers, and publishing constantly diverges into writing that is either trendy or easy to digest. Or worse, to those that can most easily produce the numbers in readership. Between the two, I would rather keep the human heart in publishing, flawed though it is.
To that end, writing is best served when you write projects and try to query them, rather than writing projects to fit a query. There must always be a passion behind a project for it to grow wings in the first place, and this industry really isn’t built for the famous and popular. It is a slow, revision-heavy, “right place and right time” process, and if you simply want to make NYT Bestsellers’ List, I suggest you step away from this profession. Its rewards are found in smaller spaces.
My first novel is now on track to be published in October, so I remain busy with proofing and cover art direction and ARC reader hunts. It is as fun to read as it was the first time. You begin to see more of its flaws- but aren’t flaws what make books unique? Or at least, this is what I try to tell myself before I try to hunt down every single typo left in the novel. It is these flaws that make it a harder book to sell, but that doesn’t make the book a failure by any means, just a step in the right direction. I am in the process of editing my second and third novels, and writing a new series right alongside all my other work. Which I suppose begs the question…
Would I ever query again? And yes, I will, someday. Not yet, but perhaps with the next series. I have fairly strong feelings, now and forever, that I will write first for me and then let the rest take its course. That is not always the easy route to a publishing deal, but then, nothing is the easiest route to a publishing deal. I would still write whether or not I found an agent, so onward writing I go! The querying process was a long, but educational experience that I feel a little tougher for trying out. Hopefully the book I wrote has come out just as strong, ready to face off with the rest of the indie world.
Recent waves were made in the author community by one Faleena Hopkins,an indie author who decided that too many books could be confused with her series, and so trademarked the word “cocky” (though really, a logo version of her title) and proceeded to send out DMCA requests to other authors with the word in their title. The internet has, not surprisingly, reacted with laughter and shock. This really isn’t a word you can copyright, yes? We sorta raise an eyebrow at this attempt to draw attention to her books, given how negative the feedback has been. Does all press truly equal good press?
Hopkins isn’t the first author to get heat from the internet. Last summer, debut author project, Handbook for Immortals, was pulled from the NYT Bestsellers List for cheating the system, and in the years following the rise of KDP, several drama storms have been unleashed by authors picking fights with and threatening reviewers, antagonizing other authors, and all manner of other drama. The big dogs aren’t immune either, given recent incidents with Cassandra Clare and Terry Goodkind.
The internet and it community is hard to traverse at times, and controversy amongst authors is nothing new. A famous story from the Romantic Period comes from the summer of 1816, when Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, and John Polidori all ventured into a brutal winter and decided to start one of the most famous writing competitions in history. This story is remembered for Frankenstein and, less so, The Vampyre, but the contest is also known for becoming a stew of drama between the writers. Lord Byron reportedly went through fits and fainting spells that required restitution, and his doctor, Polidori, was so aggressive and toxic- attempting duels and fights with the other members of the party, that Lord Byron, the definition of drama by all accounts, kicked Polidori from the group when they departed. Their drama didn’t cease there, since The Vampyre came from an unfinished fragment of Byron’s writing. Later in 19th century, Edgar Allan Poe would gain a reputation of meanness from the way he reviewed other authors, and Oscar Wilde would continue this tradition in his own biting humor.
Authors aren’t kind people, and they certainly aren’t public figures like other creative folk. “Writers aren’t rock stars,” my English 102 professor said, a poet and introvert in his own right, and it’s true- because we’re not. Being a rock star isn’t an extroverted skill; many musicians have poor social skills and bad public image, but a bad public image does not always hurt the musician. A course, rude, or even outright destructive image can be part of a musician’s act, making them much closer to actors and actresses than the writer. There are masks you wear in art, but writers have to where a different kind of mask, since they get to wear all of them at once. When I was a child, I would tell you up front that I wanted to be a circus performer; a horse rider in particular, though I couldn’t really ride a horse. I also wanted to be a ballerina (no ballet lessons to be found), a pop star, an artist, a princess- the like. This was about the time I realized that as a writer, I could be all of these through characters and storytelling.
It is through this that the writer finds their inner actor, but that actor, you see, is focused on characters and creation, and not on persona. This, in the most unscientific terms, is likely why writers struggle with online and celebrity personas. There isn’t room for more characters to play.
Not only that, but as the age of the internet has shifted into being, more authors have been made to join the social limelight, breaking up the “late-night smoker who writes five books a year” image left by more famous authors with persona, like Stephen King and James Patterson, revealing those of us that aren’t likably stoic, introverted, and fitting of the writer image. There is some discussion to be had on whether or not this benefits the writer: when writers behave badly, it reflects poorly on all of us and, of course, our work and image are better expressed through their books themselves. I wonder if Faleena Hopkins would agree?
Whatever comes of bad press for writers, the persona and the author will always be a strange relationship, drawing less from the inner rock star then we’d like. Still, isn’t that unpolished strangeness the thing that makes writers brilliant at their job? Look at Neil Gaiman or Amanda Palmer! It is that nature that allows us to create and embrace a different kind of audience with our honesty, rather than celebrity status. It is that earnestness that matters in the long run, and truly makes the author shine.
If you have spent any amount of time on the internet’s author corners recently, you caught wind of the “describe yourself like a male author would” challenge and the #misandryinpublishing tag that came in angry response to the trend. You know that the Male Gaze has been on the social radar lately. Specifically, the kind of “male gaze” that appears when authors find need to describe their female characters not so much as women, but as objects to be lusted after.
It’s not a new subject; the male gaze has been panned pretty widely for a long time, and for much more famous books. Several big fantasy authors have been called out on using less-than-realistic descriptions from a female perspective. The now older “Witches of Eastwick” by John Updike recently came under heat on Twitter for a somewhat lecherous and confusing description of bathroom habits. Given Updike’s prowess in the literary world, it seems few authors are above this keen eye of criticism.
But with criticism comes outrage; some male writers feel attacked by the recent Twitter challenge, stating that they have the right to write and create as they well please. The #misandryinpublishing hashtag quietly turned to an upheaval over why men are “censored” or not allowed to describe women “in the eyes of a worshiper.”
Ignoring the eye-rolling concept that women need be worshiped for beauty to be good characters, it is worth examining why the “male gaze” does or does not work. Are men truly being put upon if this is constantly called out and publicly shamed? For the answer, it’s first important for us to examine the “male gaze” in fiction as a trope, and where it stands in terms of quality writing.
TVTropes defines Male Gaze as, “the tendency of works to assume a male viewpoint even when they do not have a specific narrative Point of View, and in particular the tendency of works to present female characters as subjects of a man’s visual appreciation.” It also mentions that Not All Tropes Are Bad, and that this particular perspective can work well under the actual perspective of a male character. No one assumes that Male Gaze isn’t- well, inherent to most men.
The problem itself isn’t in a man’s perspective, but when the male author gets in the way. Depending on the kind of third person you write, the narrator rarely expresses a personal opinion on characters’ appearances. And first person is always written from the perspective of a character, meaning that a male character could theoretically fall to Male Gaze about a woman, but a female character wouldn’t use Male Gaze to talk about herself. That’s not even a problem of sexism or misogyny, that’s a that’s poorly written perspective, much in the way that Damsel in Distress or Action Girl are poor tropes if they are simply played straight. Tropes are not the root of all evil, but they are useless in a poor writer’s hands.
“Writing attractive women doesn’t make me a poor writer!” you may argue, to which I agree. But writing women under the perspective that their only characteristics are their attractiveness is nothing less than thoughtless. In TVTropes’ terms, it may even fall under Author Appeal, which isn’t inherently wrong. There was a time when Robert E. Howard and Updike could get away with these things, but these days… it probably won’t win you an audience that reads you for your acclaimed wordsmithing.
“That’s not fair,” you might say. “I’m not trying to write something voyeuristic about women- that’s just how my writing works! Why would my work just get tossed aside as cheap?”
Welcome then, my friend, to the company of female romance authors and YA authors, also discounted for the “female gaze” and woman-centric tropes for a long, long time. Now the playing field is even.
Yes, writing about the opposite sex can be difficult and comes with a lot of hurdles; everyone can attest to that, whether or not the character they’re writing is an object of their attraction. Humanizing any character can be very difficult, simply because deep characterization takes more time than a second and third draft. Many of my own main characters are men, a fact that not only took research, but interviews, quiet studies, and above all, empathy, to create.
I say “empathy,” because there are things that come with a male perspective that I will probably never understand fully, but I can try to understand why and try to portray those elements of male perspective in a non-biased way.
Much the same way, there are elements of the female perspective that male authors will never quite understand; that still doesn’t mean we earn licence to give up and portray our characters as objects to decorate the main character’s life. What makes us, men and women both, dynamic and interesting ought to transcend clichés and fanservice shots, and what makes women interesting (and by proxy, your story) extends far beyond the Male Gaze and the author’s proclivities.
The discussion of pen names recently came up on my Gothic Literature course this semester, notable because in the earliest days of gothic fiction, many authors resigned their stories to the ownership of “Anonymous,” as to add to the mystery of the text’s publication or discovery. What better way to write untold horrors than through the eyes of the unknown narrator? Horace Walpole didn’t disclose his authorship of Castle of Otranto until after it had become such a massive success, and many shorter, less famous works have never been credited to a proper author. My class chuckled about this at times, particularly in stories like “Ruins of The Abbey of Fitz-Martin,” where the unknown narrator, upon reading an old text’s contents, conveniently finds that parts of the story are “too decayed” to be deciphered and so skips scenes. A mighty fine way to avoid fixing a plot point when readers and critics don’t even know who penned the tale to begin with.
”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.
Caitlin Jones is an author, film editor, and lover of all things Victorian and fantastic. Please check in for information on her upcoming series.