On Storytelling and Perspective and Re-Watching Game of Thrones in Two Weeks

Last Wednesday, I made an extremely foolhardy decision: I was going to re-watch Game of Thrones, in its entirety, before the final season.

Here’s the background: in 2012, I dated this guy who was all “you haven’t seen Game of Thrones, let me fix that for you” and so I watched the first two seasons and read all of the books.

I continued watching Game of Thrones after that relationship ended, in part because I started dating another guy who was also a GoT fan, and after that relationship ended—and after going to a Game of Thrones Season 5 premiere party by myself and getting inadvertently alcohol poisoned*—I was all I am done with this show, it has only led to heartbreak and vomit.

But I’m a sucker for cultural phenomena—especially when it’s related to storytelling. I started showing up at Harry Potter midnight release parties not because I cared about Harry Potter (I enjoyed the series, but it didn’t shape my soul the way other stories did), but because I cared about experiencing this story simultaneously with the rest of the world.

So I decided I didn’t want to miss out on the pleasure of discovering how Game of Thrones ends at the same time as everyone else, which meant I needed to get myself caught up.

I have re-watched 30 episodes of Game of Thrones in the past five days. (Yes, I could have started with the first episode I hadn’t yet seen, but I figured that if I was going to do this, I wanted the emotional experience of the entire epic.) Turns out you can watch a lot of TV, without cutting back on any of your other commitments, if you just leave the TV on all the time. I’ve been making dinner while watching Game of Thrones, folding laundry while watching Game of Thrones, etc.

It has been surprisingly exhausting to pay 30 hours’ worth of attention to a story in such a short period of time—and I have 40 hours left to go before the Season 8 premiere on Sunday. (I suspect I won’t get fully caught up until the second episode of Season 8, which is fine by me. As long as I’m ready to watch the series finale with everyone else, I’ll be satisfied.)

But none of this is the point.

The point is that, a day into my rewatch, Maggie Stiefvater posted an analysis of contemporary storytelling that focused on our relatively recent shift from single-POV narratives to massively-multi-POV narratives.

The shift from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones, as it were.**

Now, I know that A Song of Ice and Fire was written before the Harry Potter books were published (though not by much; the first ASOIAF book published in 1996, and the first HP book published in 1997). But Harry Potter became a cultural phenomenon before Game of Thrones did, and in between 2007, when Deathly Hallows released in hardcover, and 2011, when Game of Thrones premiered on HBO, the type of stories our culture valued had changed.

To quote Maggie Stiefvater:

Readers and viewers no longer believed in the straightforward hero’s journey. No one was that simple. Batman got rebooted, James Bond got some consequences. Heroes got more and more morally gray. The world was getting more and more morally gray, too, after all, and narrative kept up. What was the price of privilege? What was the price of winning? Was this really a happy ending?

Narrative answered the question by glancing at the situation from other points of view, and those glances got longer and longer and longer. One POV became two. Became three. Became four.

One of the responses to Maggie’s blog post identified television as the impetus for this trend-shift:

The format of television shows almost REQUIRE several multi-character arcs, because the main goal of a show is usually to stretch the story into as many seasons as possible, and you can’t easily do that with just one protagonist. You need viewers to stay to watch every episode every season, and you need a lot of different types of stories to keep their interest. Of course, this leads to a big cast that grows as the show goes on, and viewers get more and more used to connecting with several different characters. Think of Friends, which started with Monica as an everygirl kind of protagonist with a group of eccentric friends, and then gradually morphed into a show that gave equal weight to every character in the main group, because that’s what the show needed to be to keep its viewership. 

If we’re citing television, of course, we have to go further back than Friends; this type of narrative has propelled soap operas, for example, for as long as they’ve existed.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if the internet, with its ability to provide us with thousands of points of view at once, has made us more interested in telling stories that feature a multiplicity of perspectives—and if authors don’t provide us with these perspectives (and even if they do), we write them ourselves, fanfic-style.

The other point of all of this is that I am currently writing a novel that is told entirely from a single character’s perspective. I have asked myself, more than once, if I should pop into someone else’s head for a bit, or if I should do the thing where I divide the book up into multiple sections and give each section to a different character.

But that doesn’t feel like the story I want to tell, even though that’s what the SF&F genre is all about these days. I want the readers to have the same experience my main character has: to be given the call to adventure, to have to choose whether to follow that call, and then SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER.

To write a chapter from the perspective of the character who asks my protagonist for help, for example, would feel like giving my reader more information than my protagonist has, which would make her emotional journey and her discoveries less compelling.

I’m not even jumping to the omniscient viewpoint; you only get to experience what the protag experiences, and her limitations are your limitations.

One of the reasons I made this choice was because I just finished writing two books from a multi-character perspective and wanted to try something new.

The other reason, I think, was because I wanted to cycle away from stories like Game of Thrones, where we follow multiple characters and multiple plots and ask the audience to choose where their alliance lies and create surveys that determine which house we belong to.

I wanted to explore humanity by focusing on one human, the same way other writers wanted to explore humanity by focusing on many different people.

We’ll see if I made the right choice. ❤️

*The party was at a bar, and every attendee got one free cocktail with their ticket. I was not aware that the cocktail, which was handed to me as I walked in the door, was nearly pure alcohol (think Long Island Iced Tea but with a Game of Thrones-inspired name). I knew something was very wrong about five minutes after finishing the drink. I generally vomit after three ounces of liquor, which is why I try not to drink more than two at any given time. That night, I puked so much I had to throw away everything I was wearing including my purse.

**Yes, I know there are these little blips in Harry Potter where we step outside of Harry’s POV, but the books are still Harry’s story.

I’m Writing Daily Posts for Lifehacker!

If you enjoyed my daily financial blogging at The Billfold, add Lifehacker to your reading list or RSS feed — I’ll be writing two daily posts for them for the next several weeks as they look for a full-time personal finance writer. (Here’s how to apply, if you’re interested.)

I’ve written for Lifehacker before, of course, but today was my first day in the interior of the Lifehacker machine, as it were.

Expect another post later this week on how this new gig is reshaping my daily schedule. ❤️

On Writing That Scene

I wrote that scene this morning.

You know the one.

The piece of the project that inspired the whole project.

The piece of the project that you’ve been carrying in your head (and in your heart) this entire time. Imagining how someone else might react when they get to it. What you hope they might think or feel.

And then you have to write the scene or, if you’re working in another medium, create the moment, however you do it, and it’s never quite what you felt, just like a retelling of a memory is not the same as feeling that memory which is not the same as having that experience the first time.

And part of you is like “Yay! I did it! I got so far into the project that I finally got to write the scene!

And the other part is like “Oh. This is the best I could do at this scene, and it’s already disappointing me, and even though I know I can always revise it I also know that it’ll never be the thing I imagined in my head because you can never make anything exactly like you imagine it.

But hey, I’m 18,547 words into this project and I finally got to write the scene.

And I’ll get to write again next Monday, and add another thousand words to the story. ❤️

On Writing for the Reader, Not (Just) for Yourself

My NEXT BOOK draft is currently at 8,916 words, and I’m hoping to break 10,000 by this weekend.

(Remember, I started drafting on February 21, so… two weeks ago.)

This draft is delightfully messy and somewhat ridiculous, in the “I don’t know which vivid description is the vividest so I’m just going to write three different options in a row and pick one later” sense. It’s a very different process from The Biographies of Ordinary People, in part because it’s a very different book — this story is about mysterious strangers and hidden doors and unexpected worlds, and since I’m not doing the whole “let’s just describe the library in my hometown but make it a little different” thing, there’s a lot more “is it this? is it that? let’s get something on the page now and we can make it more specific later.”

There is one area in which I am trying to stretch myself, and it has to do with something I learned at the Maggie Stiefvater Portraits and Dreams seminar: whenever possible, make the most exciting choice.

This has made this draft… a lot more fun. 😉

The trouble is that I’m second-guessing myself, a bit, on what I might find exciting compared to what a reader might find exciting. For example: at one point in the story our heroine sees the Mysterious Stranger, for whom she’s actively been looking after committing the grievous error of refusing his initial call to adventure. (Because that’s how heroes journey, y’all.)

So.

Option one: she goes to Mystery House and there he is, just hanging out in the lobby. Meh.

Option two: she goes to Mystery House, thinks he isn’t there, and then when she turns around to leave THERE HE IS. Slightly more exciting. Also kind of cinematic, but in a cliched way. What you’d expect, really.

The option that’s currently in the draft: she goes to Mystery House, does not find him, gets frustrated with this whole biz, pushes her way through a group of people who are getting ready to tour the Historical Landmark House That Is Definitely Not Full Of Hidden Doorways, opens the coat closet, and MYSTERIOUS STRANGER IS THERE AND HE PULLS HER INSIDE.

Now, I’m already seeing as I write this blog post that the way to fix this scene is to change the PULLING ASPECT, which is EXCITING TO ME (because I have had the specific experience of being pulled into a secret makeout nook by this person I had a crush on, and even though I had not verbally consented I had already consented multiple times in my imagination, so I was all, like, finally*) but PROBABLY NOT EXCITING TO EVERYONE FOR REASONS THAT SHOULD BE OBVIOUS, to a BECKONING ASPECT.

I can probably keep the part where he takes her hand. That’s exciting! His mysterious touch is mysteriously electric! I can definitely keep the part where they hang out in the closet until the tour group goes by and then sneak out so they can go into one of the Hidden Doorways, because that’s also exciting IF WE KNOW AS A READER THAT OUR HEROINE WANTS TO BE THERE.

Which I’ve totally established with the whole “she goes back to Mystery House looking for adventure” thing, but could make a little clearer by having him take her hand — or even just hold it out, Aladdin-style — and say something like “Come in,” or “you can hide in here,” or whatever, you get the idea. An exciting version of that.

I mean, there’s got to be some balance at this point in the story, because our heroine isn’t full-on ADVENTURE LET’S DO THIS yet. She’s more like “I can’t stop thinking about that mysterious guy and his stinkin’ mystery doors, so I’d better go back to the mystery house so I can just stop asking myself whether I should go back to the mystery house.” This part of the story shouldn’t be THIS IS EXCITING, it should be more like IS THIS EXCITING? YES IT IS! BUT ALSO A LITTLE SCARY.

But the scary part shouldn’t be WORRYING THAT THIS GUY JUST PULLED HER INTO A COAT CLOSET WITHOUT ASKING.

Okay, so I think I just solved this problem.

Anyway, MAKE EXCITING CHOICES! And then figure out if they’re equally exciting to the reader, for the right reasons.

Also, feel free to take bets on whether any part of the “getting all flirty in a coat closet” thing will make it into the final draft. It’s a little Chronicles of Narnia-esque, plus there are connotations associated with the words “hiding in the closet” that I may want to avoid. So maybe he invites her to hide in the pantry, instead. Or something else. I’ll figure it out. ❤️

*I should note that, although being pulled into Secret Makeout Nook by Secret Crush ranks as one of the best makeouts I’ve ever had, it was also a good prognosticator of the way that very brief non-relationship was going to go (he got to decide when and where and how we interacted, I got the anxiety of sitting around waiting for him to decide to spend time with me). INTERESTING.

On Cli-Fi and Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘Flight Behavior’

I’ve hinted before that climate change is one element of NEXT BOOK, which feels a little odd to write because at this point it’s like saying NEXT BOOK will include air, or food. NEXT BOOK, though technically a fantasy novel, begins in our immediate present, and so of course climate change is a factor.

How could it not be?

But since many novels aren’t really dealing with climate change, beyond an offhand comment by a character (like the way Meredith in The Biographies of Ordinary People notices that there’s no longer snow at Christmas), the novels that specifically include climate change as an element of the story have been lumped into a subgenre called cli-fi, which is a TERRIBLE NAME.

Still, The Millions recently listed a bunch of cli-fi novels that included everything from The Parable of the Sower, which makes sense, to Station Eleven, which — I mean, if acknowledging that climate change played a factor in the spread of an infectious disease is all it takes to get your book slapped with the label cli-fi, A TERM THAT IMPLIES CLIMATE CHANGE FICTION, LIKE SCIENCE FICTION, IS NOT BASED IN REALITY, then we are doomed.

But The Millions also suggested reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, a cli-fi novel set in our immediate present that did not include speculative or fantastical elements, and since that sounded different enough from NEXT BOOK that it wouldn’t corrupt my writing work, I did.*

Flight Behavior was published in 2013 and, though the story itself is fiction, centers itself on a real-world, climate-change-based event: monarch butterfly migration patterns.

Or, to quote Harper Perennial:

Flight Behavior is a brilliant and suspenseful novel set in present day Appalachia; a breathtaking parable of catastrophe and denial that explores how the complexities we inevitably encounter in life lead us to believe in our particular chosen truths. Kingsolver’s riveting story concerns a young wife and mother on a failing farm in rural Tennessee who experiences something she cannot explain, and how her discovery energizes various competing factions—religious leaders, climate scientists, environmentalists, politicians—trapping her in the center of the conflict and ultimately opening up her world.

Flight Behavior reminded me a bit of The Overstory, in the sense that it’s also about a person who experiences a real-world, climate-change-based event and changes her life because of it, but I found it somewhat more compelling than The Overstory simply because Dellarobia Turnbow did not give up her day-to-day responsibilities and climb into a tree. (In fact, she has some thoughts on the people who make that choice.)

She’s like us, especially those of us who grew up in tiny rural towns and dreamed of getting out (aka me), and her actions are in line with actions many of us might take — that is to say, realistic.

Flight Behavior is also firmly based in science, in the sense that the beginning of the novel posits that the butterflies might have migrated to this particular town for mystical or spiritual reasons but, by the time you get to the end, you understand every environmental factor that got them there. This isn’t about God or faith or love or any of those intangibles. It’s about observable, measurable changes.

And yet people also observe and change, and those changes often involve God and faith and love and all of those intangibles. I think the biggest reason I loved Flight Behavior is because it acknowledged the importance of both love and science. The world that exists and the world we create.

Anyway, I wanted to recommend it — because you can’t have a writing practice without a reading practice, and Flight Behavior is well worth reading.

Even if your next book isn’t about climate change at all.**

*What I mean by “corrupt my work:” my mom recently suggested I read Stephen King’s 11/22/63. As soon as I figured out that the first chunk of the book would be about a man deciding whether to go through a portal, I noped out. I didn’t want my protagonist’s choices or thought processes to be influenced by this other guy’s thought processes.

**In which case I assume it’s… historical fiction? Set on another planet? Fantasy kingdom? It had better not be contemporary, is all I’m saying. With love.

Three-Act Structure vs. Hero’s Journey

As promised, I did some work last night to reshape NEXT BOOK’s plot into a traditional three-act structure.

Except once I got started, I realized that my outline for NEXT BOOK already fit a fairly standard plot structure: the Hero’s Journey.

The two plots are similar, in that they both follow the general “exposition, inciting incident, midpoint, rising action, climax, falling action” shape, but the specifics of each path are slightly different and YOU KNOW I’M ALL ABOUT SPECIFICITY.

I don’t want to get too spoilery about what I’m planning to write, but I’ve already shared enough about NEXT BOOK that very little of this should be new information. At this point, my outline goes something like this:

Our 30-something graying-haired heroine feels stuck in her responsibilities and MILLENNIAL BURNED-OUT.

She meets a mysterious stranger* (one of the two ways to start a story, if you believe the cliché) who’s all “you’re interesting, let’s have dinner.”**

Since she’s a 30-something woman in a year that is very like 2019, she’s all “um this is not how it’s done these days, also I don’t have a free hour on my calendar until April and maybe I don’t even want to deal with men right now” and nopes out.

The very next thing she does, according to my outline that I wrote before I reminded myself of what the Hero’s Journey actually was, is visit her grandmother. Because eldercare is one of her many responsibilities, and also because Grandma’s got some intriguing information to convey.

At this point, I was all huh, that’s the Refusal of the Call followed by the Meeting With the Mentor, wonder how the rest of my outline fits into the Hero’s Journey and it turns out that it fit, like, 80 percent perfectly and the rest can be handled by tweaking or not caring.***

If you would like to learn more about the Three-Act Structure and/or the Hero’s Journey, Reedsy has some excellent posts on each, with infographics (I love a good infographic):

How to Write a Novel Using The Three-Act Structure

The Hero’s Journey: an Author’s Guide to Plotting

And at this point I do think I’m actually ready to start writing. Which is good, because that’s my favorite part of the process. ❤️

*Yes, I know you’re thinking “but she said this would be a portal fantasy,” where do you think the mysterious stranger came from?

**The minute I figured out the whole “if you eat a food, you have to leave your home and live in a strange world” thing was not just a big deal for fairies, but also for Greek mythology and literally the story of Genesis, was a BIG MINUTE.

***Even some of the episodes I had originally written into my outline fit the Hero’s Journey — “our heroine Slacks her friends to ask whether they would theoretically go through a theoretical portal if they had the theoretical chance” counts as Gathering Allies, and the friends turn out to be very helpful at the end, NO SPOILERS.

Using Comp Covers to Clarify What Readers Need to Know About NEXT BOOK

I already had a mood board for NEXT BOOK (by which I mean I had a Google Doc with a bunch of internet images pasted into it), but at the Maggie Stiefvater Portraits and Dreams workshop last Saturday we discussed getting really specific about both mood and what types of emotions a reader can expect to have while reading the book.

One way to clarify this is to find other book covers that communicate the mood/emotion “if you pick up this book, you will get this kind of story” thing to the reader.

So… here we go.

Covers that suggest portal fantasies centered around a female character

Fun fact: neither of these books are actually portal fantasies! But they both feature a woman standing in front of SOMETHING NEW without fully stepping into it, which is the emotional conflict that drives Act 1 of NEXT BOOK.

Both books also suggest the SOMETHING NEW is SOMETHING OLD — an old clock, an old castle, etc. This is also an important component of NEXT BOOK, and something I’d like to flag for potential readers.

The colors on The Lost Girls of Paris are also kinda right for the mood I’m going for: this story includes both a portal and a mystery.

Yes, these books are both women’s fiction titles, which means they’ve got the perhaps-overdone FACELESS LADY on the cover, but FACELESS LADY works for a reason. (The reason is we imagine our own face on her face.)

Covers that suggest the primary conflict takes place inside a female character’s head

A Kingdom of Exiles, by S.B. Nova.
More Than Words, by Jill Santopolo

This set includes one fantasy title and one women’s fiction title, and of these two the fantasy book feels more like the overall mood I’m going for, but what I like about both of these books is that they suggest the story is about A WOMAN WHO MAKES A CHOICE. Does she choose the dream inside her head, or the expectations outside of it?

I also like these books because both of these women have their hair pulled up, and when I was doing image research for my main character I found this exactly-what-I-was-looking-for Instagram photo:

View this post on Instagram

“There are a lot of things about getting old that are far worse than the gray hair. I almost caved and dyed it the other day when some 11 year-olds figured out my age and said they were confused because their moms are at least a decade older but don’t have any gray hair. I didn’t cave, though. I’m going to teach loving oneself by example. 👵🏻” thanks for the inspiration! -Jen, 34, gray since my early twenties thanks @jdowt for sharing a courageous story with us. #grombre #gogrombre ▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️#goinggrey #greyhair #greyhairdontcare #greyhairs #grayhairdontcare #grayhair #grayhairs #silverfox #goinggray #goinggreygracefully #greyingout #naturalisbeautiful #confidence #naturalgrey #naturalgreyhair #naturalgray #naturalgrayhair #saltandpepperhair #saltandpepperhairdontcare #silversisters #silversister #naturalgreyhair #naturalbeauty #naturallygrey

A post shared by Going grey with (grohm)(bray) (@grombre) on

So that’s another reason why these covers feel right to me, although I’d also like to tip the reader off to the fact that this character is a woman in her 30s with graying hair. (BECAUSE THAT’S WHEN IT STARTS, Y’ALL.) We are often attracted to books that feature people similar to us, and I want to make sure that similarity is visible on the cover.

Covers that imply the universe and/or light science will be involved

I don’t think either of these covers contain enough information about the themes present in NEXT BOOK to be particularly useful, but I like the idea of cuing the reader in to the fact that THERE WILL BE A SCIENTIFIC EXPLANATION FOR THE PORTAL. Is that the most important thing the reader needs to know before deciding to read the book? Not really. (I could probably communicate it just as easily over flap/back cover copy, too.)

But as a reader myself, I tend to avoid the types of fantasies that aren’t rooted in reality (or at least a plausible reality). Suddenly finding yourself in the Magical Kingdom of Whatever isn’t good enough. I want to know why you, and why is this place a monarchy, and how does this fit in with the available parallel universe theories that are legitimized by math.*

So that’s where I am, in terms of figuring out what I want this book to communicate to its reader. Because that’s what this exercise is really about, since book cover trends change so quickly that you can’t set your heart on one type of cover before you’ve even written the first page.

*No, seriously. It is extremely mathematically likely that there are parallel universes, if the universe operates according to the rules of mathematics. Go read Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos.

On Real-World Worldbuilding: THE CALL TO ADVENTURE

I told you I’d share the BIG PROBLEM at the core of NEXT BOOK, and here it is:

You’ve probably figured out, if you’ve been reading carefully, that NEXT BOOK takes place in the real world, in our current present — and then, something unreal happens.

You’ve also figured out, because I’ve written it more than once this week, that one of the themes of NEXT BOOK is STUCKNESS vs. POSSIBILITY.

So. Here’s the problem.

Will NEXT BOOK imply that the only way out of the stuckness is an unreal event?

Am I creating a story in which the possibility given to the characters is an impossible possibility for the reader?

Am I suggesting that the only way out of our current stuck-and-possibly-dying world, the only path away from political cruelty and late capitalism and Millennial burnout, the only way these characters’ lives change is through A DOOR INTO NARNIA or AN INVITATION TO WIZARD SCHOOL or FIRST CONTACT FROM AN ALIEN SPECIES* or something like that?

I’ve been thinking about two of my favorite fantasy series, The Raven Cycle and The Magicians. Both are set in our current world, and both hinge on characters wanting something more (which is a specific Raven Cycle phrase, gotta cite your sources) and then finding it through a combination of hard work and emotional honesty and friendship and discovering that magic is real.

I guess the question is: if magic weren’t part of these stories, would these characters have found their something more?

I know that these types of stories include enough real-life experiences, like FACING YOUR FEARS and ACCEPTING RESPONSIBILITY and WORKING AS A TEAM, that readers can take the feelings that the characters have and the lessons they learn and apply them to their own lives.** No magic required (besides the magic of fiction, of course).

But if I’m specifically writing a story about people in their late 30s (aka Millennials, yes we are THAT OLD NOW) feeling stuck and then finding new possibilities, and if those possibilities are not available to the reader, what story am I actually telling them?

That, since they don’t have a Narnia or Hogwarts or Brakebills or Glendower, they have to stay stuck?

That’s the big problem at the core of NEXT BOOK.

I’m hoping I’ll discover the answer as I write it. ❤️

*We all know that first contact from an alien species would be disastrous, right? Look at how America treats the actual humans trying to cross its borders.

**How many times have I thought about what Henry says to Gansey in The Raven King? Or Julia, in The Magician King, becoming who she is becoming? (Also, yes I just noticed the way the two titles parallel each other.)

On Real-World Worldbuilding: STYLE

When I wrote The Biographies of Ordinary People, I not only gave each chapter a title but specifically styled them in a way that both paid homage to previous works and told the reader what they could expect from this one: “Meredith writes about her worst fear” and “Anne gives Meredith advice” are echoes of Anne of Green Gables’ “Mrs. Rachel Lynde is surprised” and Little Women’s “Meg goes to Vanity Fair,” and The Biographies of Ordinary People is also an episodic, domestic narrative about artistically ambitious girls growing into adulthood.

(Quick side note: if you have not yet read The Annotated Little Women, which I did not realize existed until this year and just finished reading, GET YOURSELF A COPY. It includes so much information on how Louisa May Alcott structured her writing life, combined income-earning projects with passion projects, and balanced both writing and work— because she served as a Civil War Nurse — and writing and caretaking.* I found it hugely inspiring.)

When I started thinking about NEXT BOOK, I had a particular phrase in mind that I wanted to use as the first chapter title: The Leftover Christmas Family.

Except whenever I thought about starting the book with the words “The Leftover Christmas Family,” I kept hearing them read in Neil Gaiman’s voice, and the characters at the center of the narrative were suddenly twenty years younger. They were still themselves, thank goodness, which means I’ve done a solid job of creating them, but they were just… approaching the end of adolescence instead of the beginning of middle age.

Which, okay, I could definitely write a book about teenagers, and I could even have the adult characters reflect on the events of their youth, the way Gaiman does in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, if I wanted to pull the middle-age thing in there too.

But even if that story included all of the events I currently plan to include in this story, even if the plot were exactly the same, the style of the book wouldn’t help me address the central theme of STUCKNESS vs. POSSIBILITY.

That’s a middle-age conflict, after all (thanks, Erik Erikson). The adolescent version is more like LACK OF AGENCY vs. POSSIBILITY. Both of them are, in a sense, about being limited by external structures (family, money, time, societal expectations and prejudices, obligations to school/work) but one of them suggests that there’s a whole big world waiting for you as soon as you come of age, and the other… well, that’s what NEXT BOOK is going to be about.

So I thought really hard about what I wanted this book to be, and I also tried to make space for my mind to solve the problem without my thinking about it (MORE ON THIS NEXT WEEK), and then I realized that I could have one of the characters say the words “leftover Christmas family” instead, or think them, or maybe just describe the feeling of being left behind.

The point is that I recognized that making this choice (to use chapter titles, to use this specific phrase as the first chapter title) would lead me down a stylistic path that would not serve this story, so I threw out that choice and started looking for better ones.

I swear it made more sense in my head.

Tomorrow I’m going to address the big problem at the center of NEXT BOOK that I haven’t figured out yet.**

*According to The Annotated Little Women, Lizzie Alcott was going to be the family caretaker and remain at home as the Alcott parents aged. Louisa was going to be an independent spinster-by-choice and career woman. Then Lizzie died, and Louisa had to step into the caretaking role. Louisa also raised May Alcott Nieriker’s daughter Lulu after May died, because Lulu’s father was too busy traveling for work. (Yes, seriously.)

**No, not the problem of whether the setting should be in a real or ficticious city. That’s actually a small problem.