In Which I Run Into A Wall And Rethink Some Things

Since I started my experiment I’ve managed to get about 50 pages written (remember these are 50 hand-written pages), but I also ran into some trouble. One of my workshop leaders at Vermont College of Fine Arts, A. M. Jenkins, said that a novel is like a picture frame, but you as the author have to know everything that’s going on outside of the frame. Well, after 50 pages I discovered I have no idea what’s going on inside or outside of the frame.

One difficulty is that I have no idea what timeperiod I’m in. Parts of it seem to be in the 16th century, other parts are in the 18th century, and there may even be some earlier time periods stuck in there somewhere. I’m realizing I have a very tenuous grasp of history. I also decided to include some characters of various ethnicities around the Mediterranean, which just made me realize how little I know about the Mediterranean and its various cultures and history in general.

I’ve been reading an enormous tome of Mediterranean history, which is nothing if not daunting, and trying to decide how much research is necessary, whether I should start with research or start with writing and research later, etc. etc. Thankfully, I had a very helpful conversation with fellow Secret Gardener, L. Marie, in which she reminded me that I’m writing fantasy and can make things up.

So this brought about an interesting internal debate. Am I writing historical fantasy? Am I writing about an alternate universe Mediterranean? Or am I writing a Mediterranean-inspired fantasy? After some angsting, I’m leaning towards a Mediterranean-inspired fantasy. I think I will still have to read about the history and culture for inspiration, but I’m going to make things up because that’s what I’m best at.

I wonder if some of my fear and anxiety about this is an unconscious belief that making things up isn’t as legitimate. History seems so much more, well, serious and intellectual. Not like making things up for fun! Of course, I also don’t want to fall into the trap of perpetuating cultural stereotypes and hurting people. I still haven’t decided whether choosing the route of a Mediterranean-inspired fantasy isn’t at its heart an act of cowardice on my part. But it does feel safer.

What about you, readers? Do you write historical fantasy, alternate universes, or culturally-inspired fantasy? Do you do research and how much? And do you start with research or wait till after you’ve written the first draft or write and research in tandem?

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In Which I Reveal My Plans For The Summer

I disappeared again! I apologize. I’ve been dealing with some ongoing health issues and I’m still getting used to the logistics of living in a new place. Anyway, I’ve decided to buckle down this summer and write through an entire draft of my new WIP, The Island of the Moon. BUT this is also going to be an experiment for me because I’m going to try to free write the entire draft by hand. I have a binder and a bunch of looseleaf papers so I can move things around. And I’m going to make a collage for the cover because that’s how writers procrastinate.

Why do I want to free write the draft by hand? Partly because typing hurts my hands and arms and partly because I want to stop myself from fussing with language, which usually happens when I type. I want to use the binder instead of a notebook because then I can move scenes around, draft out of order, throw things out if I want to, rewrite scenes. Basically I want to give myself as much flexibility and freedom as I can. Why free writing? Because drafts intimidate me. A draft is serious business. Free writing is exploration. Once I finish the draft I have some voice recognition software I can use to type it out without hurting my hands.

I’ve never tried this before so I have no idea if it will work, but I’m excited about it. I’m also going to focus on research as much as I can. So I’ll be reading books about Spain, the Mediterranean Sea and its history and culture, myths and legends of the ocean, and whatever else comes up. One resource I’m really excited about is the website rvte.es. It’s the website for radio and television in Spain and they have a lot of documentaries and shows you can watch for free. I’m definitely going to take advantage of that.

I’ll try to keep checking in to give you an update on my progress and I might also post any interesting historical or mythological tidbits I come across. My deadline is October 1 so I have about five months. Please feel free to nag me incessantly.

Experiments in Point of View

Okay, so I know I’ve been very bad and skipped another week of posting, but I’ve been swamped with rewriting everything (again) after getting some awesome feedback from my advisor (and a few other people). I haven’t even had a chance to work on my lecture yet and my next packet is due a week from today so there has been a lot of panicking. But I didn’t really think I could get away with skipping two weeks in a row, so here I am!

I’m trying an experiment this time around in my rewrites. I’m writing everything in third person instead of first. Why? Because I was curious to see if it might help me get a better grasp of my characters, especially my protagonist. I know that sounds a little strange. It seems like the usual advice is to use first person as a way to get more deeply inside the head of one’s protagonist, but the difficulty there, I think, is that it can be hard to capture a character’s voice when you’re not really sure who that character is. And one thing I like about third person is that it lets me see that character from the outside as well as the inside. Lately I’ve been feeling so locked inside my protagonist’s head that I’m stumbling my way through the story like a blind person. I don’t know if that makes any sense. Anyway, I thought, why not? Let’s try it in third and see what happens and honestly the result has really startled me.

I’d forgotten how much I love third person. I won’t even go into how much I love omniscient because I’m trying to steer clear of that POV for this story. I haven’t yet figured out how to write an omniscient voice that really works and I don’t want to make this harder than it already is. But third person in general is a POV that I feel comfortable in. It’s familiar and welcoming, like an old friend. I grew up reading mostly varying degrees of third person because I read so much middle grade fantasy as a kid and it’s been odd to see how much first person has infiltrated the current YA market. Not that there’s anything wrong with first person, but, my god, it is everywhere. It is inescapable! And sometimes I really do want to escape from it, especially when all those first person teen voices start to blend into one voice.

Of course, I’m not entirely sure what I have now works. I’m not sure the story’s actually better in third than it was in first. But it feels so much more like a story! I don’t know how to explain that. It feels like a real world with people and places I as the narrator can describe, instead of constantly being tangled up in the inner workings of my protagonist’s mind, especially when I’m not even sure half the time of who my protagonist really is. Maybe third person is a way for me to tell myself the story so that I can then translate it for other people 🙂

The irony of all this is that the story didn’t start in first person originally. This whole novel started as a messy short story/sketch of a novel that was written in a pretty distant third person. I wrote it a few years ago and realized it really had to be a novel, that it was way too complicated for a short story. And when I decided to make that transition in my second semester at VCFA (I can’t believe I’ve been working on this for a year!) I thought it would be a good opportunity to practice first person. After all, I never wrote in first person and I came to VCFA to learn and try new things, and so many YA books were written in first, and my protagonist was a writer so I thought I could make the voice lyrical and poetic without sounding forced, and anyway I was having such a difficult time writing third in the novel I worked on first semester. So I tried it and it was fun and I do think I learned a lot. I think the third person I’m writing now is so much more solid than what I was writing first semester. I’m much more able to get into my protagonist’s mind with all that first person under my belt, but maybe this story just wasn’t meant to stay in that POV.

It reminds me of something Tim Wynne-Jones said to me when I was working on my critical thesis last semester. I was writing about intrusive narrators and I kept talking about narrators as if the authors had chosen them out of a box. Like, hey, I’m writing a silly MG novel about a governess. I’ll just pick a voice that reflects the theme I’m writing about and be done with it. But Tim pointed out that a narrator is the voice of a story and that implies something heard by the author. Many of us when we start writing hear that voice and write accordingly. It isn’t necessarily a cerebral, intellectual thing. It’s instinctual. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read an interview with an author writing in first person who says they clearly heard the character’s voice in their head begging them to write their story. I never had that with this project. The voice I heard when I was first writing that short story was the traditional once upon a time, fairy tale voice. I’ve only heard the voice of a story in first person a few times. So maybe there’s something to that. Maybe I ought to just stick with my gut instincts. Now I just have to wait and see what my advisor thinks 🙂