Our Novels Ourselves

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Writing is therapeutic. Sometimes I like writing about mermaids. Therefore, I have invented the Mermaid Self-Help genre, an exciting development in literature and mental health.

We all know that writers put observations about themselves and their world in their work. The challenge then becomes how to create authentic characters without sliding from forgivable Author Avatar to indigestible Mary Sue. Tangent: the best explanation I’ve ever read about why the Mary Sue template “works” is The Oatmeal’s take on Twilight. Good writing invites readers to connect with the authenticity of a character’s experience rather than the optics of the reader’s mirror image. The main pitfalls are confusing archetypes with default relatability and being oblivious to how much of your work is effortlessly you.

I’ll explain.

Mary Sue characters are directly connected to one of the fallacies against diversity in books. Able bodied readers who don’t kill people will connect with your down on her luck quadriplegic assassin (I have to write that now, tucking it into the idea file) just fine if you promise them a really good story and deliver. Sure it’s possible to give an Every Hero archetype a single feature that makes him so unique he is both familiar and totally novel from the outset, but considering the breadth of fiction ever printed it’s not plausible. Guy transforms into a robot dragon in space has probably been done already. Try harder, do better. I doubt J.K. Rowling consciously set out to make a Diverse Book, by creating Cormorant Strike, a veteran with a prosthetic limb, it was merely a side effect of expert character creation.

Taking my own advice, the Cryptid Coterie series was an act of therapy from the outset. When I started writing it, I was stuck in Seattle. The move I desperately wanted was not in my cards at the time, and it was my outlet for working through it. Toni Morrison said write the book you want to read, so I did.  Characterization is one of my strengths as a writer so while Tabitha is without a doubt my Author Avatar (but then so was her antagonist Irene) there are significant things that separate Tabitha from being a Mary Sue copy of me. Flaws were an integral part of Tabitha’s build. I didn’t want to write about the perfect, gold-hearted elemental that triumphed over the mean two-dimensional people. I wanted to create a living, breathing person and that meant obnoxious personality traits. Tabitha is a fair parody of myself at her age, in a wardrobe of self-awareness as well as wish fulfillment. Likewise Irene was Neutral Evil but also an exploration of aspects of myself. Dividing the chapters between them allowed for an antagonist with her own demented humanity that readers could identify with. The Villains we love to hate are successful because on some level, we understand them. We applaud them even.

When it came to being vulnerable in writing, I discovered that I was infusing my work with vulnerability without even trying. Every word comes from some nook deep inside the writer, how could it not be revealing? Blame shifting is difficult when it’s your name under the title. My magic happens when I can take the Reader to that same place inside themselves.

Go forth, and trope responsibly.

W

How Great Leaders Inspire Action, as translated by Winifred

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“Why,” I mean: What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?” – Simon Sinek, Author of Start with Why.

Let it be known I’m a TED talk devotee. I discuss my favorite TED talks and This American Life segments with all the faith of the religious and all the fervor of a fangirl. They’re a big deal. I’ve seen/listened to about 2/3 of both properties, because I am constantly searching for a perspective I haven’t considered or investigated. I am desperate to understand the mechanics and mysteries of other people’s lives. I want to ask invasive questions about their creative processes, and look into their medicine cabinets. TED and This American Life are two of my favorite ways to eavesdrop on people grappling with life.

Simon Sinek’s talk is primarily focused on leadership and innovation as it relates to commercial success, but it has stuck with me for repeated viewings because “why” comes up a lot when you’re an independently published author/creator, and you have to explain to yourself and justify to others why what you do matters.

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I’m pleased to report, that while I frequently make this face, terrified that I have no clue what it is I’m trying to say, or where my work in progress is heading, I do know why I’m writing. That, I have a two-part answer for.

There’s been much made in the last few months about the lack of diversity of representation in popular culture, especially books. NPR has done stories on it, and there was a hashtag.

In the years to come, I hope the issue of representation in media and culture will be quaint if bizarre. “Hundreds of thousands of words about why it’s important for more than one kind of human social group to appear in media and culture? Was everything else done? Were they bored? Was this truly a problem?”

Yes anthropologist and culture critic of the future. Yes it was.

I’ve had this conversation in any number of settings and with several different kinds of people, but for some reason, it is still necessary to declare the importance of all kinds of people in all kinds of stories. I waited years to read books with people who were like me: young (ish), brown, and female exploring real and imagined worlds. Those books rarely appeared, so I figured out I had to start writing them.

Some writers and content creators will tell you “If the reading market wanted these books they’d exist already, you can’t make us write “other” people! That will derail our good stories and fill them with angsty mobs of disabled queer people of color who want a plot totally based around social justice and, and that would be TURRRIBLE!” To those people I say, you do know it’s possible to write about different kinds of people without focusing solely on how they’re different right? Do let me know how that defense of privilege holds up won’t you?

This “why” is only the most obvious. Not having to justify my existence based on capitalist market demands is actually not the primary creative motivator. I know, right? Weird. I struggle with being good enough, with working hard enough, turning a clever phrase, and making people out of characters because it fixes something in my head that I didn’t even know was broken until writing strengthened it. Lots of very famous and lauded writers have said something like this. It happens to be true for me too.

My inner fangirl wants a piece of creation. She wants to craft the same experiences other creators have made for her; the gift of other universes. A ramshackle cradle of myth, betrayal, love, and awe. That’s my why. That’s why I continue to write in the independent author echo chamber, creating deadlines, obsessing over cover elements, and browbeating myself to sit down at the keyboard even when I’m not sure how many people will connect with what I’m trying to say. I’m stumbling along, secure in the knowledge that creating meaning in this way is reason enough to continue.  I wonder if I can get my own TED talk?