the Monica Chronicles

I really like writing. I mean, obviously. I’m looking to make a living out of it. And whether it was my job or not, I’d still be doing it, because I just really like playing around with words, making or borrowing characters and spinning them through stories. (Yes, I write fanfiction. Hush.) I’ve mentioned before that I keep a little black book – or a collection, now, I think I’m on the thirteenth? – where I write down the stuff that goes on in my life. Sometimes funny quotes, occasionally rambling about the latest song or movie that wormed its way into my head, mostly just downloading whatever’s been going on in my life. I’ve been writing in these journals off and on since I was fifteen. It’s one hell of a doozy to look back at the kind of stuff you were thinking in high school, let me tell you. But it’s really cool to have a record of the ways I’ve changed and the ways I’ve stayed the same.

One thing that’s been pretty consistent about these books is that when I’m in an irregular place, I write a lot. Whether that’s a visit to my sister’s college campus, or holiday with the folks, or whatever, on the transit time I write like a Muldoon, at a greater volume than normal. Maybe because those trips are more exciting, but it’s not like those long drought intervals are exactly boring, either. I mean, just because life is relatively stationary doesn’t mean it can’t get interesting sometimes. And there’s the other aspect – like the one time I brought a video camera to a church youth group trip and spent way less time recording than I anticipated – when you’re chronicling something, you’re not actually doing it. You’re just watching.

The best middle ground I can find is to play catch-up. You spend the time when things are happening, actually participating. And then in whatever downtime you have, you write down how it went, as soon as possible, while it’s still fresh in your memory. I know there are some things from years ago that I only still remember because I had the presence of mind to write them down at the time.

Case in point: if I hadn’t recorded it, I probably wouldn’t remember that this Halloween I got to overhear – with regards to the chalk outlines drawn on our driveway – a snippet of conversation between two tween kids:

“Yeah, don’t step on the body parts, Monica.”

Priceless.

you’ve gotta work at it

It’s always been pretty easy for me to understand Shakespeare. That sounds awfully pretentious. The language of it, I mean. There are Easter eggs in there that I wouldn’t have understood without the benefit of a de jure English minor (like the fact that Macbeth was written tongue-in-cheek for King James just a few short years after the Gunpowder Plot), but the language of the plays, written as they were in Renaissance English, is fairly transparent to me now. It helps if you have an edition of the plays that has handy definitions on the verso of every page – if I recall correctly, the editions my high school used were the Folger Shakespeare Library editions – but even when I was just starting to read Shakespeare in eighth grade, I picked up on the language a lot more easily than some of my classmates did.

It also helps if you have a proclivity for language in general. I mean, I was the kid who named one of her plastic frogs Aquaculture in elementary school, and bragged about reading the dictionary for fun in middle school. (Mostly the name etymology section. Not the actual definitions. But it’s very fun to pore over the ~meaning~ of names when you’re writing awful original fiction on your parents’ crusty old Windows desktop.) And then again I also majored in French in college, and spent my senior year translating excerpts of Victor Hugo into English, so language has never been something I struggled with.

Math, though? Absolutely horrible. I had to repeat pre-algebra in middle school, and struggled through pre-calc in high school, and it was with relief that I discovered I didn’t have to take calculus my senior year, but that statistics filled the math requirement just as well. I took one (1) math course in college, and that was only because I had to fulfill a requirement there too, and you can bet that I made sure it was statistics.

Some things, you just have a knack for. Some things you don’t. I’ll never like math the same way I like language; and there are other people who feel the reverse. I’m sure if I wanted to, I could work at it and become if not comfortable then proficient in things like calculus and physics and o-chem. These things are skills that can be developed, whether you have the initial boost of talent or not. But it’s human nature to like the things you’re immediately good at more than the things you have to struggle with. And the more you like something, the more you practice it, so the better you get, so the more you like it, and so on … and vice versa. The less you like something, the less you practice, so you don’t progress as far, and then maybe you even start to hate it. I had a friend in high school who could not abide Shakespeare, because the language of it came about as easily to her as flying comes to a tortoise. I was baffled, because look at this soliloquy, isn’t it perfect? And she just wanted to know what the bloody hell Macbeth was going on about seeing a dagger for.

It’s all in how you look at things.

But here’s the thing: if you’ve got the knack, but you don’t practice the skill, you won’t get very far. And if you’ve gotten used to being automatically good at something, the first time you hit a road block – whether that’s a new subject you don’t have the knack for, or a more advanced version of what you’re already studying – boy, it sure is easy to get intimidated by failure. Whereas someone who doesn’t have the talent, but practices the skill anyway, already has that valuable experience and will chug along pretty steadily while the talented person is still trying to figure out what to do next.

A tortoise walks a mile a hell of a lot better than a flightless eagle.

Do what you can, when you can

Sorry for disappearing off the face of the earth, folks. The busy season at work started a couple weeks ago and we’ve been swamped, and we’ll probably stay swamped until Thanksgiving. Wading through ten times the usual amount of phone calls makes getting everything else done a little harder, and then coming home, well, sometimes a body just wants to veg out on the sofa and not think for a while.

A bad habit of mine is that when there’s something big I need to get done, I divide it into the fewest number of steps possible. On the one hand, simplifying things is good. On the other hand, within each big step are a zillion tiny steps, and my brain likes to gloss over the big parts and then obsess over all the tiny things I need to do. They’re all important, I insist. Every single small thing is important and I have to do all of them at once before I can move on to the next step, my God, how am I going to do this, let’s sit and stare at the tv for a while instead because just thinking about it is too stressful.

It’s not exactly the most productive way to go about things.

So I’m trying to get a little more laid back about my personal writing requirements. I don’t have to pound out 1000 words in twenty minutes, but I do have to write something. Because if I get too fixed on the word count to actually write anything, that defeats the purpose. (Yes, I know, it doesn’t make sense. It’s like hating regular sized tomatoes but loving cherry tomatoes. That’s just how I roll. Sorry.) (Not actually sorry. I’m serious about the tomato thing.)

Do what you can, when you can. You won’t be able to climb the whole mountain today, but you can get started on the foothills, and even if you don’t get halfway up, you’re still farther than you were when you started. Any progress is still progress.

We’re looking at end of September/beginning of October for Book 2. Stay tuned!

It’s all in how you look at things

In other news, I aten’t dead, just … restin’.

Perspective is probably the first thing you notice when you crack open a book. Whether it’s first-, third-, or second-person — yes, I have encountered second-person — it’s going to make an impact on the reader, and of course on the story itself. I don’t usually like first-person stories, though there have been notable exceptions (the Resurgam books by Joan Frances Turner immediately come to mind). Second-person immediately gets jettisoned, unless it’s a choose-your-own-adventure story, and I haven’t read one of those since I was in middle school.

That’s a prompt for another blog post, though. There are other kinds of perspective thay matter in a story, and those are the ones I want to focus on today.

Innocence versus experience is probably the one used most in Western literature. You’ve got Wordsworth of course, and then you also have writers like Philip Pullman who prod at the notion, unravel it, and stitch it back together to make something new. Then you’ve got the hero’s journey where a character gets dragged kicking and screaming into caring about other people. There are other shifts in perspective, but usually they can be boiled down to innocence versus experience, or selflessness versus selfishness.

And these are interesting character arcs in and of themselves.

But — and I refer back to my favorite zombie book Dust by JFT– sometimes, using a changing perspective to look on the same event (or using the audience’s different perspective) can be just as interesting, and just as thought-provoking.

In one of the flashbacks, Jessie (our undead protagonist) meets up with a group of other undeads and becomes particularly attached to Joe, a Chicago biker who died sometime in the seventies. At the time of their meeting, Joe has been undead for over thirty years; Jessie, meanwhile, is fresh out of the grave, and was just fifteen when a drunk driver killed her. So we, the audience — as well as Joe, who keeps reminding her of the age difference — know that he has a huge psychological advantage over her, even if she can pound him into a pulp just as much as any of the rest of the undead crew. Jessie, freshly dead and twitterpated, stays with Joe when she has every ability to leave, and Joe of course is perfectly happy with this outcome.

But the main story takes place nine years after Jessie died, and when she narrates this flashback, it’s from a position of experience and disillusionment. “Like I said,” she tells the audience, and we can hear the bitter wistfulness, “I was fifteen.”

It’s that darn verisimilitude at work again. We’ve all had something happen that we feel differently about years after the fact. And if we can identify that same feeling with a zombie? Then maybe the rest of the story will feel real, too.

Accountability

Technically I’m in two lines of work right now: the writing job, and the day job. Sneer all you like at the concept of day jobs but right now this one is bringing in a lot more money than the book (singular, soon to become plural) — that old saying about beggars and choosers, et cetera et cetera. But I like my day job. I get a sense of accomplishment, and I get to help people out. It’s pretty nifty.

I’m also accountable to a solid handful of people. If I muck up, it isn’t just me on the line, it’s my manager, and her manager, etc. Turtles all the way down, as the saying goes. But the other thing is, my job hinges on other people doing their jobs, too. If I don’t know the answer to a problem, sometimes I can find it out on my own, but sometimes it isn’t up to me. Sometimes all I can do is ask the question and wait.

It’s not the most uncomfortable of situations, but still. One of the reasons indie publishing appealed to me so much is that I don’t have to rely on the decisions of some agent or publisher in order to get my work out there. As an indie, every aspect of the process is under my control. What the cover art looks like, which scenes get cut, when the final product gets released. And if something goes wrong, or I find a mistake, it’s on me — which also means, I have the ability to fix it. I am accountable to and for myself, and no one else.

Some people like to think that nothing is their fault, that they are the victims of circumstance and the machinations of others. It’s all one big conspiracy against me specifically, they cry. It’s not fair. I don’t deserve this!

Mm, sorry, since when did “deserve” enter into the equation at all? The whole concept of a free market means that if you work hard and often, and your product or service is good, you have a higher chance of succeeding. Notice the use of the word “chance”. There are no guarantees in life except death and taxes. And frankly, no one owes you anything, not their money, not their respect, not their patience. You have to earn it, no matter what line of business you’re in.

Even more so if you’re part of a team working together, with other people relying on you to do a specific job.

Is that harsh? Maybe. But personal accountability is something that everyone should have, and use, and examine. Playing the victim means giving up part of your power to affect the world around you, and it’s a self fulfilling prophecy. You can’t just wish for good things to happen. You have to work at it, and test it out, and work at it some more.

Now I’m off to go work at it.

The trouble with Bad Boys

Aka: the Twilight phenomenon.

Acknowledging that I was a wee middleschooler when the Twilight books first boomed kind of dates me — as either Too Old To Be Cool or Very Much A Young’Un — but hey, I have an insider’s point of view. Yes, I was Team Jacob. Hold on, this is actually relevant.

The fact that Jacob was a werewolf was the main reason I was Team Jacob, but there were other reasons too. (Hold on, I’m getting there.)

My sister was very much Team Edward. One of the mutual friends we had at summer camp was also incredibly Team Edward. And naturally we had big arguments about who was better and, naturally, which of us was right and which was a soppy idiot. Ah, middle school. Preteens are savages.

In fact the main reason I was so firmly Team Jacob and so anti Team Edward was that Edward was a creepy vampire stalker who literally wanted to drink Bella’s blood, but Jacob, on the other hand, Would Never Hurt Bella Ever.

Yes, I believed this even after reading New Moon. You know, the one where Jacob forcibly kisses Bella and she punches him to try to make him stop, and then he tells her it’s her fault her wrist is broken.

So romantic, right?

</sarcasm>

But this whole Girls Liking Bad Boys, whether the boys in question are vampires or leather-studded bikers or powerful demigods hellbent on conquest, is a bit of a puzzler. Loki murders hundreds of people on the screen and girls swoon? I mean, really? I was fourteen and embarrassing once too, but really, younger self?

I think I’ve figured it out, though. Here it is, the Theory of Awkward Antihero Obsession:

“Bad guys are attractive because they have the ability to do bad things to other people BUT, and this is the important caveat, they would never hurt ME.”

Makes sense, mostly. There’s a sense of self-preservation in there somewhere, so that’s alright.

The problem with the Twilight books, while we were mid-craze, is that our definitions of the word “hurt” varied so much. Now, of course, we’ve grown up a bit and we can recognize that both Edward and Jacob are creeps.

Pete and Repete were on a boat

I have a friend who can only watch a movie or read a book for enjoyment once every few months, and even then, it’s iffy. Over the years that we’ve known each other, we’ve had the following conversation more than five times:

“Do you want to watch x?”

“We already saw that.”

“Yeah, six months ago!”

“Yeah! We already saw that. Can we watch y?”

And sometimes, you know, once every six months is more than enough when it comes to a book or a movie. The Water Diviner with Russell Crowe, you know, I’m glad I saw that but I could happily never see it again in my life. And if I never see Repo!: The Genetic Opera again, well, I think that’ll be alright too.

But mostly the idea of not seeing a movie, or reading a book, just because I saw or read it a few months ago, drives me slightly bonkers.

I may be biased because one time my sister and I watched Pride and Prejudice (2005, the one with Keira Knightly) four times in a row and enjoyed it each time. But, well. That’s an extreme case.

The fact is that I can watch the same movie once a day every day for a solid week (or longer) and still enjoy it. I did it so many times in college that I can’t possibly count them. Movies like Kung Fu Panda, The Mummy 2: The Mummy Returns, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, Captain America: The Winter Soldier … the list goes on for a while. And for each of these movies, I’ve now gotten to the point where I can comfortably recite lines of dialogue for an embarrassingly long amount of time. What can I say? Repetition is good for memorization.

And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the Discworld books, or Good Omens, or the Resurgam trilogy by Joan Frances Turner — to say nothing of the musical soundtracks that I listen to during the daily commute.

But the thing is, although repeating a word or a song often enough saps it of all meaning, I can experience the same book or movie a thousand times and still want to experience it again. I don’t know if that’s due to the greater amount of time it takes to experience those forms of media, versus a song that only takes up about three and a half minutes. But these movies and books are like old friends.

Some of them I only want to re-experience every so often. The Chronicles of Narnia are one such series, as is the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. But others, they’re like coming home after a long day.

Cursing in YA

On the one hand: You need a relatively good imagination to be able to insult people without using a curse word, and if you cram enough multisyllabic words in there it can be quite satisfying in and of itself. Shakespearean insults are nice for this sort of thing, but pull out a thesaurus and I guarantee that you’ll find something that not only came from one of the past two centuries but that sounds pretty impressive. SAT words! Yay!

On the other hand: There’s no substitute for the pure simplicity of saying a four-letter word. It gets across your meaning exactly.

On the other other hand: Characters who want to swear, but who can’t swear for one reason or another, are freaking hilarious. See Calhoun in the Pixar film Wreck-It Ralph. Now there’s a lady who wants to cuss a blue streak.

On the fourth hand: Characters (and people) who swear all the time, at the drop of a hat, can also be funny, but it’s a fine tightrope between “okay that was hilarious” and “dude, what the heck, you use these words so much that they’ve started to lose all meaning”. See the Melissa McCarthy movie Spy, where every single scene contains at least three four-letter words.

And YA is a touchy subject because, you know, kids are involved. Teenagers. I shudder to think what teenagers would do with the knowledge of swear words! Swearing in their literature! They’d start swearing in real life!! Oh the uncouth youth!!!

Yeah, I went to public school, and I guarantee you, they already know all of those words. They just don’t say them in front of you.

So when it comes to YA — books written for and about teenagers — it doesn’t really make sense to cut out swearing altogether. Like I said, they already know the words; a lot of them use them like they’re going out of style; frankly it’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise. And to quote from Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day:

“I didn’t hear you swear.”

“Yes I did. I said ‘damned’ and ‘hell,’ and I meant them.”

“Oh, that’s not swearing. They came out of the sinful category an age ago!”

I’m not going to tell you that you have to swear. Sometimes coming up with alternatives can be way more fun, a way to flex your creative muscles. But let’s keep the pearl-clutching censorship to ourselves, shall we?

Homebody

I really like to travel. I’ve been doing it longer than I can remember; apparently I’ve been to Canada before, but I was too small to actually have any recollection of it. (Gives me an excuse to go again.) Studying abroad in France for a semester in college gave me the opportunity to travel to a handful of countries by train. I really like visiting Europe; the food of course is good (praline hazelnut ice cream is The Best), and there’s a sense of age and history running through everything. Also, there are castles. I love me a good castle.

Funnily enough, I haven’t really traveled that much in the US. As a family we’ve traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and out to the Midwest for family. But my last trip, out to Utah in the beginning of June, is the farthest west I’ve been in America that I can remember. Altogether I’ve been in 17 states and was born in an 18th. (I was born there, but we left when I was two or three, so I don’t really count that one.) Seventeen sounds like a lot all by itself until you remember there’s fifty of them. I’ve just gotten started.

When I tell people I got a degree in French, sometimes they ask if I’m going to live there. Having stayed for five months, I guess I know my answer. Europe, and France in particular, is a nice place to visit. There’s a little restaurant in the northern part of Paris that does a mean salmon tagliatella, and it’s not too far from a cozy second-hand bookshop. The people there can be kind and patient, the architecture is lovely, and nostalgia puts a pretty shine on everything (even the time I got hopelessly lost in Toulon). Really, it’s amazing, and I’m so glad I went. If you read carefully, you can see the marketplace in Arras is very close to the marketplace in Tomelin City. Yes, I do miss Europe, and France in particular.

But it’s not home.

And home is vast.

I know there’s a lot of people, both abroad and at home, who talk about how horrible America is. Okay, bully for you, you’re allowed to speak your mind. That’s one of the inalienable rights those dead white men kept wittering on about. Yeah, America isn’t perfect (don’t get me started), but what country is? And if you want to fight about it, hey, we’re back-to-back world champs.

I love to travel. But my home is big enough for the world. We’ve got all the geography you could want; we’ve got history and breathtaking architecture of our own; and a thousand different cultures elbow to elbow. It’s amazing, and we made it ourselves. And yes, I’m proud to be an American.

I don’t need to leave home to travel.

Characters in Real Life

Sometimes people you meet are really good at being antagonists, even if they don’t know it. Sometimes people you meet are wise mentors. You find a cliché, and you can probably find someone you’ve known who will fit the basic requirements. After all, those clichés and stereotypes have to come from somewhere, right?

It’s a little more complicated, a little more interesting than that. Of course it is. Real people are all sorts of tangled contradictions — and characters in books should be complicated too, unless you’re writing a ten-page picture book. So you can take certain aspects from people you know and put them in your characters. And even if you’re not writing new characters, you can still recognize aspects of old friends in new ones, the same mannerism between two people who probably have never and will never meet, or find that two people in two completely different situations irritate you in almost exactly the same way. Or, even if they have absolutely nothing else in common, sometimes a new person you meet will look almost exactly like someone you already know. (It’s weird. It’s uncanny. It’s cheating when you put it in fiction, I’m afraid, because coincidence tends not to exist in fiction, where the world actually makes sense.)

What sort of people do you meet again and again? Antagonists, friends, mentors, that weird person in the corner? What kind of stories would those types of people be suited for? Tell me in the comments!