On Storytelling and Tension

We’re in the final week of rehearsal for the Brahms Requiem, and I was going to use this blog post to share the lyrics to the piece and make an observation about how Brahms crafts a narrative arc that takes us from “I am mourning a loved one who has died” to “This mourning reminds me that I am anxious about my own death” to “I have accepted death by accepting God’s love.”

Of course, this particular narrative arc requires a little bit of interpretation on the listener’s part—I mean, Brahms doesn’t come out and say any of this in his lyrics, he just drops in quotes like this:

Lord, teach me
That I must have an end,
And my life has a purpose,
and I must accept this.

Translation © 2010 Ahmed E. Ismail

And then he lets us put the piece together (literally).

So I was all ready to write about what I thought Brahms meant to do with this piece and how it fit in with the Hero’s Journey, and then I had a conversation with our conductor.

Basically I babbled out a bunch of thoughts about whether Brahms was a character in his own piece, and whether Brahms-the-character was discovering that death had no sting or communicating something he had already discovered, and whether we, as a choir, should treat it as a revelation we’re just now learning or a statement meant to comfort others.

“Treat it like a release of tension,” the conductor said.

And my immediate thought was of course, that’s exactly what it is, I should have realized it myself.

Not just because it’s difficult, if not impossible, to do something like “sing the Requiem as if you were Brahms discovering its message in real time” in a way that effectively communicates that to an audience. (You could always write a note at the beginning of the program telling everyone how to interpret your interpretation, or put up some projections of an actor playing Brahms as he walks back and forth and worries—but if you have to explain it in a matter extraneous to the text, you’re failing at your job of performing the text.)

Nor because everyone in the audience is going to come up with their own interpretation of the piece, the same way I created my interpretation of Brahms’ narrative arc. (In other words: if you’re listening to the music, you’ll understand that it is about coming to terms with death. Any additional thoughts or emotions you experience while listening are your own.)

It’s because of this: when I attended Maggie Stiefvater’s Portraits and Dreams writing seminar, she explained that storytelling, at its core, was about tension and release. A good story has the right amount of both, and puts them in the right places.

Tension and release are what provide the emotional journey—and after you’ve experienced that journey, you can sit back and ask yourself whether Brahms meant to write himself as a character in his own Requiem, or what Sean wished for in The Scorpio Races, or whether The Wizard of Oz is really just a giant allegory about the gold standard or whatever.

I feel like a bit of a goober for not having figured that out on my own.

But I’m glad I’m thinking about it now. ❤️

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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.

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.

How to Earn Money From Your Creative Work: Part 2 (Finding THE AUDIENCE)

Before you can make money from your creative work — before you can even ask for money for your creative work — you need to find your audience.

Which, in keeping with the conventions of this blog, we’re going to call THE AUDIENCE.

Finding THE AUDIENCE is a creative project in and of itself, which is one of the reasons some creative people hire other creative people, e.g. publicists, to help them.

It’s also one of the reasons people sell the rights to their work to a larger company, e.g. a publishing house or a record label. These entities are theoretically supposed to find the audience for you, although lately it’s become more of a collaboration and many artists feel pressure to prove that they already have an audience (you’ll see this called “the platform”) during the early stages of this process, e.g. when querying agents.

At its core, finding THE AUDIENCE is a simple process.

All you have to do is put your work in front of people who might be interested in it.

Repeatedly.

Until you have enough people to form THE AUDIENCE.

You also have to maintain the interest of the people who initially showed interest in your work, but you can generally do that by creating NEW WORK on a REGULAR BASIS and putting that in front of them as well.

In fact, every time you create NEW WORK, you have the opportunity not only to maintain and/or grow the interest of your current audience, but also to share your work with new people who might become part of THE AUDIENCE — and might be interested in both the NEW WORK and your back catalog.

That’s also how you make money from your creative work. You put it in front of people who might be interested in it, over and over.

Then, when enough people are interested, you give them the opportunity to participate in the creative work by paying for it.

I’m using the word “participate” deliberately; as you might remember from my post on play vs. performance, a successful piece of creative work is an experience that includes THE AUDIENCE — and people are very eager to pay for experiences.

Think about the types of creative work you’ve paid for in the past month. Why did you make those purchases? I support artists like Mikey Neumann and Lindsay Ellis on Patreon because the stories they tell about storytelling help me see the world in different ways, and I want them to keep providing me with those types of experiences.

When I went to the Maggie Stiefvater Portraits and Dreams writing seminar earlier this month, I bought a copy of a book I had already read multiple times, for free, at the library because I wanted the experience of meeting Maggie in the book signing line.

I own a red Steven Universe T-shirt with a yellow star on it because maybe someone will see it and say “hey, I also like Steven Universe,” and then I’ll have the experience of meeting someone new.*

None of this is about making sure artists get paid or wanting to show my appreciation for their work or anything like that. I mean, it kind of is, in that I understand that if people like Mikey and Lindsay don’t earn money they’ll stop making videos, but mostly it’s about ME ME ME.

So. If you were to email me and ask how you can earn money from your creative work — and people do — I’d suggest:

  1. Create the type of work that takes an audience through an experience.
  2. Put that work in front of people.
  3. Create new work.
  4. Put that work in front of people.
  5. Give those people the opportunity to pay you, either for the work itself or for accessories related to the work.

When we continue this discussion, we’ll look at how to put your work in front of people, because — as I noted at the beginning of this post — that’s a creative project in and of itself. ❤️

*I also own a red Steven Universe T-shirt with a yellow star on it because some days I want the experience of feeling courageous and thoughtful and empathetic like Steven.

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.

What the Maggie Stiefvater Portraits and Dreams Seminar Taught Me About Plot

I’m flying back to Cedar Rapids this morning,* but I wanted to tell you all that Maggie Stiefvater’s Portraits and Dreams writing seminar was AMAZING and HUGELY INFORMATIONAL and OH WOW I WANT TO START WRITING THIS BOOK RIGHT AWAY EXCEPT I HAVE A FEW MORE PIECES I NEED TO PUT TOGETHER FIRST, and if you were thinking about attending one of the upcoming Portraits and Dreams seminars you have my word that it is SO SO SO SO WORTH IT.

That said, I’m not going to give you any specifics as to what was discussed at the seminar, because no spoilers.

I will note that before I actually start writing NEXT BOOK I am going to do some extra background work on the mood I’m trying to convey with this story, which is not technically a spoiler because Maggie Stiefvater has already written about the importance of mood in storytelling on her Tumblr.

I’ll also note that the seminar made me think absolutely 100% differently about plot. This I think I can share, because it wasn’t actually discussed in the seminar at all.

Well, plot was. In the traditional three-act-structure sense.

I have never been a huge fan of the traditional three-act structure, mostly because I could see through it by the time I was ten years old. (It was 1992. I was watching The Mighty Ducks, and when they got to the part where the coach did a bad thing and the team split up but then someone came back with an inspirational speech and they all went out on the ice anyway I remember thinking all these stories are just telling the same story and I was furious.)

This is one of the reasons why The Biographies of Ordinary People is episodic. That and the fact that I was trying to write a contemporary book that made 30-something readers feel the way we did when we read (or re-read) Little Women or Anne of Green Gables, both of which are episodic stories.

But Maggie was talking about the way she used three-act structure in The Raven Boys, and I was sitting there thinking “well, but that isn’t really three-act structure because there isn’t the part where the coach does a bad thing and then the team splits up and then someone comes back with an inspirational speech and they all go out on the ice anyway OH WAIT.”

Substitute Cabeswater for “the ice,” and literally all of that happens in The Raven Boys. It’s just not the emotional focus of the story. When Gansey and Adam fight and the team does in fact split up, you don’t really notice that’s where you are in the three-act structure because emotionally you’re with Gansey and Adam in this intimate, human, complicated moment. You don’t even notice that the team has split up because the team doesn’t think they’re split up. (Or, more accurately, they’re still hoping they can stay together.)

In other words, unlike the types of books that made me never want to write a traditionally-plotted novel in my life, the chapter doesn’t end with “The door slammed. That was it. The Raven Boys were through.”

Maggie did not discuss how to write the type of story that has the emotional satisfaction of the traditional three-act structure** without the predictability of such, but it made me think of her blog post about how to create characters that aren’t cartoons or clichés.

I suspect the path towards creating a plot that isn’t a cliché leads in the same direction.

Anyway, NEXT BOOK is going to have a traditional three-act structure now.*** First to see if I can do it, and second to see if I can hide what I’m doing while I’m doing it.

Wish me luck. ❤️

*This is a lie. Not the part where I’m flying back to Cedar Rapids on Monday morning. The part where I actually wrote this post on Sunday night.

**We did discuss emotional satisfaction in the seminar, so no spoilers, but I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to hint that Aristotle was right.

***I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a goof, but no I didn’t really have a structure for NEXT BOOK. My outline had an opening, and it had an inciting incident, and then it had a bunch of episodes because I’m reallll good with episodes, and then it had a big thing that changed everything, and then I told myself I’d figure the rest out when I got there. TIME TO FIGURE IT OUT, and also cut a few of those episodes and make the whole story actually story-shaped.

How I Found the Time to Write NEXT BOOK

I’m going to be attending Maggie Stiefvater’s Portraits and Dreams writing seminar this weekend, assuming the ARCTIC OUTBREAK doesn’t ground me in Iowa.*

Here’s the workshop description, aka “why I signed up in a hot minute:”

Join Maggie Stiefvater as she covers developing ideas into novels you’ll truly love (and finish), crafting memorable characters, writing supernatural elements in unique and meaningful ways, and structuring your writing work day. Four hours of lecture and one and an hour of informal Q&A.

I am particularly interested in that “writing supernatural elements in unique and meaningful ways” part, as it is one of the big problems I have to solve in NEXT BOOK.

But I’ve told myself that, when I come back, I start writing. I’ve spent plenty of time outlining and thinking about the characters and pulling together inspirational images and researching the death of the universe.

So I do the workshop, and then I start.

And I see what happens.

The question then becomes: when should I do this writing?

My original assumption was that I’d write after hours and on weekends, same as I did for The Biographies of Ordinary People. However, my life is a little different than it was back in 2015 — I’ve gotten involved in a lot of stuff, from running a small business to singing in a choir, and maybe it’s just because I’m a little older, but I don’t have the energy to put in evening work in addition to my all-day work. Evenings are for reading and playing the piano and spending time with people and choir rehearsal and taking Les Mills classes at the YMCA.

Then I realized I had created this lovely slot of focused writing time, right here, right now, first thing in the morning when I tend to do my best work.

So I’m going to give some of these writing slots to NEXT BOOK.

This means you won’t get a new Creative Practice Club post every day, since I’ll be spending some of this time actually doing the creative practice.

Right now I’m thinking MWF for blog posts and TTH for book drafting, though we’ll see how it goes. I reserve the right to make things work the way they need to work so I can get THE WORK done.**

Anyway, I’ll keep you posted — and I’ll keep posting. ❤️

*Right now, my educated guess is that my Thursday CID-ORD-LGA flight will be canceled but they’ll get me there on Friday. The workshop itself is Saturday, and I gave myself that buffer specifically for this type of situation. Midwest winters, y’all.

**That’s what building a creative practice is all about, after all.

On Reading the News While Reading Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle

I checked Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys out of the library for three reasons:

  1. I love her posts on writing.
  2. I love her rules for living.
  3. Her background appears to be similar to mine in some interesting ways.

Supernatural/paranormal YA is not usually my genre, but character is my genre and feelings is my genre and mythology was definitely my genre when I was a teenager, and I ended up reading all four Raven Cycle books in five consecutive days.

I’m not sure that reading is the right word, though. More like actively hallucinating. I remember taking this pause, looking away from the page, and realizing that my bedroom looked wrong because it wasn’t the kitchen in 300 Fox Way. (Then I asked myself: Nicole, can you mentally walk through every room of that house the same way you could walk through the rooms of any place where you’ve actually lived? And I could. It was weird. I’d also created a memory map of Monmouth Manufacturing.)


Even though I love my adulthood much more than I ever enjoyed my teenagerhood—which can be emotionally, though not factually, summed up in The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 1: 1989–2000The Raven Cycle made me wish I could be a teenager again.

It’s like… I wasn’t just seeing the walls of everybody’s houses, I was also inside those houses—and caves, and cars, and characters’ perspectives. Although I had a very different adolescence, I still had a moment with a guidance counselor and I still had a smile that I put on in public and I still had so many questions about love.

So I felt all of these emotions that are so vividly associated with youth and then I had to put the book down and be in my thirty-five-year-old body. Which was just as jarring as seeing my own bedroom and not the kitchen at 300 Fox Way.


But here’s why I’m actually writing this post:

If you haven’t read The Raven Cycle, I don’t consider it much of a spoiler to say that there are several primary characters and each character is involved in at least two or three intersecting plotlines. Sometimes one of the plotlines will be experiencing some stress, shall we call it—you could also call it property destruction, demon possession, or occasionally blood—but then you get to the next chapter and it’s about characters learning how to trust each other or finding joy in a cup of Dannon “Fruit on the Bottom” Yogurt.

(I don’t have time to write about the role that socioeconomic class plays in The Raven Cycle—and anyway, it’s already been written—but that cheap cup of fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt struck me right in the lived experience. Also the sentence describing the bookshelf that also holds cooking stuff. That bookshelf is in my apartment right now.)

Anyway, by the time you get to the fourth book in the series, all the plotlines start experiencing stress. You turn the pages and there is no relief; you keep turning the pages and things start happening that can’t be undone. You watch a few powerful people make choices that you know are going to hurt so many other people and there is nothing you can do to stop them.

And then you take a break and make yourself a cup of Celestial Seasonings tea and check Twitter or the Washington Post as the electric kettle on your bookshelf heats up, and you feel like you are still in the book.


The trouble is that I’m not a teenager, and I’m certainly not a YA teenager who is crucial to the narrative. I haven’t even figured out the love thing to the point that I could—well, now I am getting dangerously near spoiler territory, but what I mean is that I feel very unpowerful right now.

I’m not the Chosen One and I’m not young enough to feel like I could be someday. I’m a background character and I have to watch the monster or the earthquake or the government or the corporations and wonder if the heroes will show up—or if the only person who can fix this is off doing their homework, leaving me stuck within the boundaries of my single paragraph. Calling my reps and saying my one line of dialogue.


There is a section at the end of The Raven Cycle that addresses what we can do when we don’t know what else to do; when we feel powerless and afraid and the bad news keeps coming. I don’t want to spoil it, but I read it I felt so grateful that it had been included. You don’t have to be the Chosen One to do it, either.

Of course, the drawback is that it doesn’t really change anything except yourself. But you already know how I feel about magic only working when it’s applied to your own actions.


Maggie Stiefvater’s #1 Rule For Living is this:

Decide life is going to be great. All other methods will fail without this prerequisite. A decision that life will be great allows a terrible event to turn into a plot twist along the way, not a confirmation that your life is shit.

I love that it begins with the word decide, and I love that it implies that we can write, though not necessarily control, our own stories. Mostly I love that it’s about keeping on, moving forward, doing the work, pursuing happiness if you want to describe it that way—even when, to borrow a phrase I learned when I was an executive assistant at a DC think tank, the situation on the ground has changed.

The situation on the ground is changing faster than I can turn the pages, these days.

I don’t know what to do when all the plotlines start falling apart.

I really want to end this with “I guess I’ll write my own,” which feels like the most selfish and honest thing I could possibly say.

But I’m going to keep doing the work, which is to say doing what I can for the world and then doing my work, which is to say doing what matters to me BECAUSE IT MATTERS TO ME and that is enough reason to do it.

And because, as I wrote earlier this month, I feel emotions through stories—which means that if it does in fact come down to love, this is how I create and share it.

Now go read The Raven Cycle.❤️

Photo credit: Andrea Pokrzywinski, CC BY 2.0.