What can fairy tales possibly teach us?

I didn’t get to go to Disneyland until I was a grown woman – and I was wholly unprepared for the rushing feelings that swept over me as I stood there and watched the real-life incarnations of some of my childhood fairy-tale iconic images come dancing down the road in the parade. I was practically in tears watching Sleeping Beauty wave from her float, preceded by those three ditzy fairy guardians in their little pointed hats and color-coordinated outfits.

But the Disney princesses were just the most obvious, most prevalent, most visible and recognizable avatars of stories which, for me, had far deeper roots.

When I was young, I read the actual fairy tales. The fearsome, bloody, no-holds-barred, emotional ones. In my childhood fairy tales, Cinderella’s stepsisters sliced off bits of their feet to fit into the glass slipper. In my childhood tales Sleeping Beauty wasn’t just wakened with a kiss, but something far more visceral than that.

And in my childhood I wept over the tale of the Little Mermaid – and perhaps it was this that crystallized it for me because to this day I can’t watch what Disney has done to it. Hans Christian Andersen’s original story is full of power and drama and pathos and poignancy – and I simply cannot bring myself to accept a singing lobster sidekick with a Caribbean accent.

I read Oscar Wilde’s wonderful dark fairy tales, when I was a little older, and there were things in there that pierced me to the heart, just like the rose thorn did his immortal nightingale.

I think that fairy tales are a deep and visceral influence, and they are handed out to young minds which they then help shape. A famous paraphrase of a G K Chesterton quote applies – Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten. The lessons of fairy tales start with that – with courage. They also teach wisdom, and strength, and compassion, and an obstinate refusal to give up hope, because in fairy tales even the worst possible things that happen work out in the end. In some way.

Maybe not the obvious way – not in Hans Christian Andersen, at least – but in some way. It might sound overblown if fairy tales are credited with the formation of the inner moral creature of the human adult by shaping the still malleable stuff that is the child, but in some ways that is exactly what they do. That is what they are for.

It has become fashionable to shield and shelter the child from many things and this is where the Disney Princesses come from, a sanitized and often saccharinised version of a more rough-hewn and visceral original tale. But there are generations who grew up with those older and rawer stories and who didn’t end up damaged by them. Children have far more strength and intelligence than they are given credit for. In some ways it is a regression when they grow up through all the Disney fluff and fairy dust and end up faced with grittier life realities afterwards, anyway, inevitably, as we all are.

When I was growing up with fairy tales I was not shielded from the bitterness and pathos of “The Little Match Girl” because some adult did not wish me to know that it was possible for a child to die cold and hungry in the street.

The best fairy tales had a hint of a happy ending, not just a happily ever after slam where everything just ended on a nice high note and nobody ever questioned the ever-after. I learned young to question the “happy ending” as such – because I had an early suspicion that somebody had to lose for someone else to win absolutely everything. Yes, every story has an ending and you have to be able to close the book in a satisfying way when you are reading the tale to your child and say, yes, here we conclude and here this story is ended.

But fairy tales, the best fairy tales, are not just pieces of cake which exist separately and are delicately snacked on one at a time. They are a part of a greater fabric of Story, and they are formative, when they are encountered at a young age.

We learn how the world works from inside a fairy tale. We learn that the world isn’t always fair. We learn what we are supposed to want in order to make us happy – but we also learn that on the way to that handsome Prince, the Princess-in-waiting first has to have friends and allies, be they a fairy godmother, a bunch of dwarves, or animals who can communicate only with her. It’s okay to be offered help. It’s okay to accept it. There are a lot of smaller moments of happiness on the way to the happily-ever-after.

I wept at the Disney parade because it brought fairy tales – their own versions of it, which I don’t always agree with but still – to life, and breathed existence, actual existence, into characters which had hitherto lived only in the imagination. But it is in that imagination that the real power remains. Those stories read by flashlight under the covers when you were very young – or were read to you by people who loved you – remain with you. Always.

You carry the fairy tales of your childhood into the adult world with you. And they will always be your friends – even the dragons which they have shown you how to defeat – because a fairy tale is a fundamental building block of the world. With them, we build ourselves.

~~~~~
Faerie Magazine cover

This article first appeared in Faerie Magazine, a quarterly print magazine celebrating enchantment.

It’s website is HERE

 

~~~~~

About me      My Books       Email me

If you found this blog post interesting, amusing or helpful, then please use the icons below to share it with other writers, readers or the guy next to you on the subway.

Where are the women?

Why can’t a woman save the world?

I watched the first episode of a new disaster TV series, ‘Salvation’, and while I was entertained enough to keep watching, there was something that bothered me.

Take a look at the place, the time, and the protagonists. The dateline is “present day” America. , . Your world. Your everyday real world. They’ve added a potential catastrophic asteroid impact in 186 days – but other than that, we’re fine, folks, this is our world, nothing to see here.

Protagonists:

Handsome maverick rich guy/entrepreneur/tech wizard who’s out there with a (somewhat selfish but eh) vision to save the world from itself: a hetero white male.

Bright young genius MIT student who falls into this because, you know, he’s a genius and he’s the only one doing this research which is really boring and all that but oh hey there’s an asteroid coming and who ends up as the above maverick’s sidekick – handsome, adorable, with the BEST pick-up lines ever, quirky, witty, sexy, fun, and did I mention preternaturally BRIGHT: a hetero white male.

Powerful government figure – deputy secretary of defense – high-falutin’ political type with all the proper tentacles, er, connections, in the highest circles of government: a hetero white male.

In the other corner:

The efficient press secretary/press release writer/sophisticated media personality, blonde and vivacious, and in a secret affair with the Head Political Guy: a blonde white female

The young sidekick’s girl – the one he picked up with that adorable line and immediately bedded – quirky, pretty, savvy, a writer of science fiction (dear god at least they didn’t make her write Harry Potter fantasy): a white female.

A spunky journalist type with moxie and connections, one who looks slated to be “trouble”: a slightly darker female.

ALL the women are pretty, *TWO* of them find an occasion to slip into something slinky and sexy for an “Embassy ball” halfway through the episode (and the third one, by that time, is wearing nothing at all because she’s already between the sheets with Genius Boy With The Good Pickup Line. All of them are gorgeous, and all of them appear to have a head for no more than just the feminine stuff.

You know, words. While the men get on with the actual IDEAS, with THINKING, with ACTION. The women merely get to write about those things. They’re important, to be sure – because without them how else is all that masculine excellence going to get communicated to the audience who need to see and admire it?

There is a certain sense of a dynamic here – the powerful man and his relationship with the beautiful but subordinate arm candy woman (the politician and the PR flack) – which would admittedly be harder to sell if the politician, for instance, was a woman and the flack a man.

But it’s been done, if only rarely. Take a look at something like “Expanse”, with that oh so ruthless and powerful female political star in that heaven, and you see it can be done.

But even if you leave that alone – why couldn’t the grad student, for instance, have been female? And why couldn’t she have been appreciated for what she did and what she understood rather than for the fact that she might have been REALLY HOT once she took off the obligatory pair of scientist spectacles which she would no doubt have been made to wear in the beginning, just to establish that she was, you know, scholarly, a nerd, a geek?

In one sense I know I am giving a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t scenario.

There is indeed the version of the stereotype where the girl scientist is all nerdy and geeky and unattractive because, you know, the hot girls really don’t DO this kind of thing with their lives – or else she’s EITHER just pretend-geeky and once she shakes down that severely pinned up hair into cascading curls and takes off those glasses she’s a rocks star, OR she’s just a rock star to begin with, a scientist with a body of a Playboy centerfold and the face of Boticelli’s Venus who also just happens to have two PhDs in relevant disciplines plus a stray Master’s degree in Russian, just for funsies.

And more often than not, if we DO get a female scientist thrown in, she’s either the bossyboots who terrorizes everyone else into doing the right thing, or else she’s the one who drops the ball on whatever is being done, and then stands there and SCREAMS…

Yes, I know, I know, it’s all fiction and I am being a curmudgeon. But somehow these things never arise when it comes to male figures of power. They CAN be brilliant and good looking at once and nobody bats an eyelid or makes any snarky comments (much like the ones I was making).

But remember this – men age gracefully. An older man with graying temples is actually believable as a scientist of standing or a power figure and yes, he can STILL be sexy.

While the Hollywood standard has – as has been described by someone whose identity I now don’t recall – precisely three levels of roles for women. The sexy ingénue, someone’s mother, and Driving Miss Daisy. In recent years it might have been expanded – marginally – to suit-wearing corporate bitch (or genre equivalent).

But nowhere in there does an older woman with a touch of gray and a quiet sense of power have a place to stand. Nowhere there does an intelligent younger woman stand, either, one who might have stepped into that Grad Student Sidekick’s shoes. SHE, you see, would have had to fall back into ingénue – she would be young enough for Hollywood to demand that she had to be pretty and easy on the eyes, all other qualifications be damned.

Anyone who’s ever known a grad student in the advanced stages of pursuing a PhD could tell you that those people usually look rumpled, bleary-eyed, carrying the weight of two worlds in the bags under their eyes, wearing clothes they might have slept in (and probably have done at least once), with way more than five o’clock shadow if they’re men and hair that hasn’t been brushed for a while if they’re women, basically focused on what they are doing rather on what they look like or whether they own a tux (or a fetching evening gown) to show up at an Embassy ball in.

I think I may have to go an WRITE the kind of thing I want to see on the screen. The only problem is that then I will never see it on the screen. Because the kind of character I write… is way too real for the fiction that people are apparently willing to accept.

All I can say is, keep soldiering on, the female half of humanity.

Even though nobody wants to know that you’re doing it. If a real asteroid comes hurtling down to this planet… we’re probably going to bungle things badly enough to destroy ourselves anyway, whoever is in charge, but it’s likely to have been the old boys’ club.

We might never know what could have happened if they’d let a girl scientist whip off her glasses and release her hair and save the world.

~~~~~

About me      My Books      Email me

If you found this blog post interesting, amusing or helpful, then please use the icons below to share it with other writers, readers or the guy next to you on the subway.

How do you…

… get your ideas/write a book?’

One of the perennial questions posed to authors in many many many interviews is the fabled “Where do you get your ideas?

I too often answer with a snarky quip…”Off the Idea Tree in my backyard.” The true answer is simply, “Everywhere.”

A much harder question is “How do you write a book?

The “you” is generally generic. The questioner might mean how does anyone write a book, or how can s/he write a book, or how do I, Alma Alexander, write a book.

The first answer to that is another question: “Which book?” Because one of the fundamental truths of the craft is that there are a lot different kinds of writers.

One kind is the writer who tends to write the same book over and over again. Different characters, different settings, but very similar plots.

Barbara Cartland, who wrote 723 mostly romance novels, comes to mind. Writing things like category romances or the average mystery tends to be a fairly regimented process because of the often rigid set of rules which governs the finished product. If you’re writing your third, tenth, twenty seventh book, you’ve got it honed down to a fine art. You can probably churn out a decent story within a month – you’re putting together a product very similar to something you’ve done before and familiarity breeds speed and confidence.

Another kind is the writer of a fabulously successful series that his/her fans want more of, sometime even if s/he wants to go on to something else. The author of a series is constrained by a certain amount of stuff already established in previous books – a certain setting, a certain character, things you can’t just arbitrarily shift because you’ve now made it canon and the reader will roar in outrage if you futz with canon.

A third kind of writer is like me. Even if the fundamentals of our approach to worldbuilding, to style, remains basically unaltered, even if we continue to write in our favorite genre (fantasy for me), EVERY book we write is different.

How does that happen? It depends on our initial approach to a specific book. What was the inspiration? What were we trying to do? What kind of story were we intending to tell?

Let me illustrate that by offering you a quiz about a few of my own books. Here’s a selection of paths by which I arrived at specific books. If you have read a book or two of mine, or are a fan who has read several, see if you can match the initial inspiration I describe here to the book that was published.

1) I wrote a single scene featuring the protagonist and a handful of the main characters. I liked the scene, and set out to write the book in which it would appear. But when I started writing the story, and I began to write it fairly linearly, from the beginning, it took me literally 2/3 of the tale to actually GET TO THE FRIGGING SCENE WHICH STARTED IT ALL.

If I asked you to pick the scene I am talking about, all y’all would probably pick a different scene. Truth is, it’s integral to the plot, to the book, and it is impossible, once the story was done, to actually pry that one single brick out of the mortared wall. It is impossible to tell that the entire wall once hinged on the existence of that one single brick, or which brick it was. The whole effort took… years. At least a year to write, and then more years before it saw publication.

2) I wrote down a list of ten characters. Nameless, milieu-free characters. Just a short paragraph about each. When I showed it to my husband, he asked me what it was.

“My next novel.”

“What’s it about?”

“I have no idea?

It was the simple truth. At that point I had NO clue what the story was that these characters wanted to tell. Then somebody sent me a newspaper article about a real-life situation – and the fantasy which involved that news story and those characters blossomed into my mind, fully formed, with the characters taking on a vivid and brilliant life and literally dictating the book to me,

I wrote 200,000 words in three months. I didn’t stop to think, to breathe, practically not to sleep or eat – I wrote it at a white-hot fury. What’s more the draft I wrote down was not draft zero or even draft one. It was pretty much the finished thing, with a few tweaks but no major changes. It was a miracle book that was sold worldwide in 13 languages.

3) After finishing the miracle book, I was asked if there was a sequel. I denied it, right until the moment… there was one. An editor was involved with this one right from the start; we discussed the bones of the book, I presented a loose sack of ideas, she approved them, and I wrote the book. It came back to me with an editorial fiat that unequivocally demanded that I rewrite the ending completely. I did. It still worked and the book was published.

4) A combination of a series of ideas culled out of frustrations with the popular culture, a real-life but rather larger-than-life character I wanted to write about, and a desire to explore a different magic gelled to produce a story about a youngster coming into her potential through fraught circumstances.

It was a difficult story to write because it was more structured than some of my other tales were – and I don’t work well to outlines. But while I tried to stick to the original proposal, my OWN jaw drops at the difference between what I proposed to the finished series. 

This story took me longer to write than anything I had written before. In pure
wordage, it adds up to not THAT much more than Book 2 above – but while that took me three months, this series took several years. 

5) This book started life as a short story for a themed anthology. When I was almost 5000 words into the “short story” *and was still worldbuilding, I realized I was writing a book. And if I fitted certain things together in a certain way… I had a considerable amount of story I didn’t know I had. In the end I had a powerful trilogy.

So, then. You want to know how I write a book?

WHICH BOOK?!? They are all different for me. Every. Single. One. I reinvent myself as a writer with every single manuscript I produce.The answer that vexed question is that there IS no single way that a book can be written or has to be written. If it works for you, and produces something good, it all comes out even in the end.

Stop worrying whether you’re writing a book “the right way”. There IS no right way. No two books are exactly alike. Listen to them, and they’ll tell you what their preferred process is. And after that… just TRUST them. Your stories know what they are doing.

Were you able to figure out which of my published books came from the paths described above? They are:

1) Hidden Queen/Changer of Days
2) The Secrets of Jin-shei
3) Embers of Heaven
4) Worldweavers trilogy – (“Gift of the Unmage”, “Spellspam”, “Cybermage”, “Dawn of Magic.”)
5) The Were Chronicles (“Random”,”Wolf”, “Shifter”)

~~~~~

Wings of Fire coverA copy of my latest book, Wings of Fire,

is up for a giveaway. If you want to get

on the list

Sign up HERE

~~~~~
About me        My Books        Email me   

If you found this blog post interesting, amusing or helpful, then please use the icons below to share it with other writers, readers or the guy next to you on the subway. 

YA and the ‘Real World’

The Were Chronicles: “Random”, “Wolf”, “Shifter”

At a certain level, the line between YA and adult literature becomes so fine as to be totally irrelevant.

Yes, there are always some readers whose worlds are so cushioned, so protected, so absolutely walled off from reality that they can can find reading about real problems to be distancing and completely alien. But those readers are very few, And even they, growing up, have to deal with SOME issues in their lives no matter how gilded they are.

There are books which are labelled YA that deal with a lot of subjects which might be considered difficult. Subjects like suicide, like discrimination, like loss, like fear, like helplessness.

The books aren’t there to exacerbate or underline a reader’s own issues. As with all literature, they exist primarily to tell a story. At least, the best of them do. They don’t moralize, they don’t frighten or terrorize, they don’t stroke a love of violence

But they do have real power. It lies in the fact that they let readers know that they are not alone, that they aren’t the only ones to suffer such things or feel such feelings. That can be empowering for the reader. Sometimes it is safer to sublimate such feelings into the pages of a powerful story, to learn how to deal with one’s own situation through the prism of storytelling, than it is to blunder about trying to solve overwhelming problems.

YA literature isn’t sweetness and light. It can be harrowing. Because young people can sometimes live harrowing lives.

When Weres become human

The Were Chronicles logoWhen I set out to write The Were Chronicles books, the whole thing started as a light-hearted thing. The project began as a short story intended for a Were-creatures anthology which wanted something other than the traditional wolves. So I pulled an odd creation out of the story-cauldron, something I’d never seen anyone play with before – a Random Were, a creature which can literally become the last living warm-blooded thing they see just before the Turn comes upon them. The idea had immense comic possibilities. In fact – as I put it in the first book – due to an “unfortunate farmyard accident”, my main protagonist’s mother is a Were-Chicken.

But while I was clucking to myself about that… the story changed under my touch, became bigger and darker. What was originally a short story became abook – and the book became series. It changed into that most amazing thing, a YA story but also a story about what it means to be human.

My Weres became a persecuted minority in society, and themes of discrimination and bullying reared up and demanded to be addressed. What do you do when your peers are bullying and threatening you and making you miserable, because you are “different”? That’s hard enough as and of itself, but what happens if those attitudes are then taken up by people in authority over you, whom you aren’t in a position to question or to fight?

My Weres touched off a nerve – because they explored, in my fantasy setting what it means *in our own world* for people to be a different color, or a different faith, or a different sexual orientation. I wrote about the power of persecution, and the power of spirit necessary to rise against and above that.

And then the themes multiplied. What does it mean to be considered an abject failure at something – by your own peers, your own class? How far would you be willing to go to prove yourself worthy? What things, what people, what ideas in your life are you willing to fight and die for? What happens if you are the only one of your kind, and you don’t know where you came from, or what is going to happen to you because there is no precedent for what you are?

The story unwound in a powerful and explosive way, the same story seen through the POV of three different characters who play a major part in the tale, a story seen through three separate prisms which thus acquires a certain three-dimensionality which was never before so obvious in any of my stories.

This is a work of fiction, a work of FANTASY no less, but its world… is our world, and it matters. It matters deeply. These are some of my most beloved, most astonishing characters, avatars of so many out there who face pain with courage and with knowledge and with earned wisdom.

The power of story

That is part of the power of story – this identification with a protagonist, who somehow arrives out of nowhere ready to completely understand our own innermost feelings and secrets. For adult readers who have had years of living under their belt, who have been working to acquire that necessary wisdom for a long time, stories like this may be memories – a look back into a time when things were difficult for themselves, and a recollection (with or without pain) of how they dealt with those situations.

For young readers, stories like these are part of that acquisition of wisdom and experience. If there is a good reason for a YA label at all then this is it – stories of people LIKE THE YOUNG READER, characters who are potential friends, but also potential role models in how they react and respond to fictional situations that the reader might find something to identify with. The best such stories are not moralizing or didactic or arrive with a knuckle-rapping “lesson” embedded inside – the best such stories are involving, enveloping, enfolding, they are things in which you can wrap yourself, and come out of wearing them as armour against the realities which might be out there waiting to assault you.

The best “lessons” are not the ones that are forcefully and insistently taught, but those answers which you find within yourself when a story like this helps you ask the right questions. What, then, would you do? In that story, in similar circumstances, what then would you do? How would you overcome?

The story gives you the pieces, the hints, but they don’t add up to anything that is a overweening Answer To Everything. Those pieces are different for every reader. They combine with pieces you bring to the story yourself. And every book connects with every reader in a different way, and the answers are always YOURS, deeply and personally yours, because every reader is unique and there are no two questions out there about people’s identity or their life situation which are exactly alike.

Stories are powerful. And stories aimed at, and read by, young readers are amongst the most powerful stories of all. We may read many books during the course of our lives – but by the time we get to be forty, fifty, sixty years old and half a century has rolled away from underneath us… for all too many of us, it is the books we read when we were sixteen which somehow remain with us, and in which we finds the roots of many things that we grew up to become.

You can find the first book in The Were Chronicles, Random, HERE

Wolf is HERE

Shifter is HERE

~~~~~
About me      My Books      Email me

If you found this blog post interesting, amusing or helpful, then please use the icons below to share it with other writers, readers or the guy next to you on the subway.

Letters tell the story

The epistolary novel in the digital age

The story-in-correspondence found in epistolary novels is by no means a new thing. It’s been going on for centuries.

Letter writing to people who mattered but who were not close enough to speak to every day was once an art form, both in content and in execution. Some people sat at a kitchen table writing letters with a pencil. Others sat at a writing desk with inlaid leather surfaces touched with gilt, dipping quill pens into silver inkpots, writing in elegant cursive about the important things that mattered to the heart and the soul, as well as about what one had for dinner and whom one invited to share it.

Then came email….

But I digress. Stick a pin in that for the moment.

Stories told in the form an exchange of letters had a strange quality of intimacy, as though the reader had somehow gained access into the innermost citadel of the keep of someone’s life, suddenly privy to their hidden thoughts and feelings, because you HAVE to have access to those, if you’re writing a letter, if you’re writing from the heart. Letters were a glimpse inside a soul.

That is why those books caught on – because the letters are an invitation to become a part of the letter-writer’s world, and then share the sensation of being stamped and mailed, sometimes sent across the globe, the glory of that journey being a part of the glory of the communication. The waiting for a reply was part of it, too. It was a slower, more delicate time, a golden gleam, a communication in nuance where people took the time.

Then came email.,..

But stick a pin in that again.

I still remember special onion-skin notepads which one used to write “airmail” letters, because the thin paper meant cheaper postage. I recognized the red-and-blue-edged “airmail” envelopes – and those were special, they meant letters from far away. Probably not one kid today would know what one of those envelopes on your hallway table meant, the excitement of an OVERSEAS letter from someone so very far away.

But letter writing withered when the concept of distance disappeared with the Internet.

These days you write an email from one coast of America and it is instantly received on the other — or in Europe, or Japan, or anywhere someone is with a laptop and a hotstpot connection to the Internet. Time and space disappear in the blink of an eye. Instead of waiting weeks or months for a reply, in gleeful anticipation or grim foreboding both made bigger and more intense by WAITING, you get impatient when you don’t get a response IMMEDIATELY. What could anyone else possibly be doing that they cannot answer your email the moment it pops into their inbox? I mean, how RUDE.

And yet there is a nuance that can linger in emails too. I treasure a four-word email from my then hospitalized husband:”Need socks. Love you.”

Letters from the Fire coverEpistolary novels have always existed – but these days the communication can be electronic, too. I co-wrote an epistolary novel with the man I later married, with the two of us “writing” to each other, in email, in character, to create a story of two people who moved from enmity to friendship to love at digital speed when the Internet connected them as their nations went to war.

That’s how ‘Letters from the Fire‘, was born, an epistolary novel in which a lifetime of living is encapsulated in an exchange of emails which covers a period of time measured in days, not years.

In the era of email, we’re still writing letters, still reaching for each other’s souls. These days, it’s just faster, that’s all.

If you think that it’s also shallower, more perfunctory, more ‘surface glitz’ than anything that went before – well – there is something to be said for the handwritten letter inscribed by a fountain pen in an elegant hand. But story and emotion can transcend that.

Write a letter.

Read a book of letters that others wrote.

It is part of what it means to be human.

My epistolary novel, ‘Letters from the Fire’, can be bought HERE

~~~~~
epistolary novels illusttrationThe Guardian takes a look at 10 other modern epistolary novels. See them all HERE

 

~~~~~
Quote of the Day

Writing fiction is like remembering what never happened” ~ Novelist/Poet Siri Hustvedt

~~~~~
About me      My Books      Email me

If you found this blog post interesting, amusing or helpful, then please use the icons below to share it with other writers, readers or the guy next to you on the subway.

Just what is YA?

Children’s Book Week – June 12-16

When books were just books

When I was growing up, there was no such thing as “young adult” as a marketing niche.

In my house, there were just books. Never was I told that any of those books were not for me. I was reading fully “grown-up” literature when I was 7. I read my mother’s Pearl Buck collection before I was 10 and I didn’t have any difficulty with any of it.

Children who are encouraged to read and permitted to read will find their own level. They might well enjoy today’s “age-appropriate” middle grade or YA offerings, But then, if the books are good enough, so will many people who have long since left their teens behind. A good story can be read by anybody who loves to read, from age 12 to 92, without any artificial age boundaries in there.

And I’m using 12 as a beginning with a distinct sense that it is fungible. There are precocious readers who can read this stuff much younger, as I did, The relationship between a book and its reader is always very individual and specific and quite often unpredictable.

Age distinctions are a recent development, and since their arrival we have had kidlit fragment into picture books for VERY young readers, chapter books, middle grade, YA, New Adult.

People are constantly asking where are the lines? And that is a good question because it simply isn’t true that a young protagonist is all that it takes for a book to be YA. You could look at “Lolita” through that lens and because it has a young girl center stage – she’s even the title – you might throw a wholly undeserved YA label on it.

For a long time Harry Potter was pretty much THE YA genre. Everyone knew about Harry. And a generation grew up having picked up the first book when they were Harry’s age and then aged concurrently with it, adding their years just as Harry did his.

But the Harry Potter books and movies are very much a ladder and the first one feels almost simplistic. The subsequent books are much darker, much more complicated while still rated YA. Young readers are expected to cope with a very broad range of material, and this is often underestimated when it comes to “children’s literature”. Children can understand so very much – especially if you root it in familiar tropes.

My first YA series

Worldweavers coversThe first series I wrote for a YA audience was Worldweavers (“Gift of the Unmage”, “Spellspam”, “Cybermage”, “Dawn of Magic”) It was born out of a YA panel at the 2002 Fantasy Worldcon, where Jane Yolen, the grande dame of children’s lit, said at one point that she didn’t like the way the Potter books treated their girls. I lost the rest of the panel completely because that was all it took for Thea Winthrop to step out of the shadows and introduce herself to me.

Her story had all the tropes. Thea went to a school known as the Last Ditch School for the Incurably Incompetent, a place for the weird and geekish in her magical world. Thea was a Double Seventh, the seventh child of two seventh children, and her magical gifts were expected to be profound. Instead, she grew up as the Girl Who Couldn’t Do Magic.

It wasn’t that she was bad at magic in her magical world – she could not do it at all. To her, it was like she was standing behind a glass wall, unable to reach or touch or practice it. The reason behind that initial paralysis drove the whole series.

I peopled my book with three different kinds of creatures.

There are humans, much like us who can’t do magic. And there are those who can. And some of the magic users were rather famous in our own world, like Nikola Tesla, known widely as the Wizard of the West during his life and, when he appears in my books, the only quad-Elemental mage in human history.

The second group group of creatures are those I wholly invented, like my Alphiri. They look like Tolkien’s elves but have the grasping souls of Star Trek’s Ferengi and a built-in conviction that everything is for sale.

The third group of creatures are drawn from the American mythos – creatures like Grandmother Spider, and Tawaha the Sun God, and Coyote the Trickster.

I wove a story around them all – a story which revolved around one thing: about Thea’s coming of age, and into her own.

In fact, she becomes powerful indeed – becomes something quite unique (no spoilers; you’ll have to read the books to find out what.) But this doesn’t happen overnight, or easily. There are things she has to be willing to sacrifice on her road to the apex of her existence. She has to be willing to offer things she cherishes deeply, in order to save a friend. And then in order to save her world, she has to make tough choices that will haunt her for the rest of her life. By the end of these books, my little girl is a little girl no longer. She is a grown, fully developed human being.

That is not to say she has become perfect – but that is not the point of a YA book. It is not to tell a young reader that one has to be flawless in order to survive. It is to assure them that flaws are inevitable, even necessary, but that it is possible to transcend them, or incorporate them into one’s being, and grow through that process.

Thea Winthrop is an amazing character who was a gift to work with. She is fourteen when we first meet her, and she is the perfect insecure teenager, one who disappoints her parents and knows it and is made miserable by it. She doesn’t quite know how to make it right. This is familiar territory to many young readers, who don’t live in a world of magic but who have, in their time, known that look of disappointment on their elders’ faces and have quailed at it. They will be standing right there next to Thea when she has her experiences. They understand – and they will be waiting for her to deal with that burden, to see how she does it, to see if they can learn something about how to deal with their own.

I wrote a book and series about choices and about growing up DIFFERENT and how to handle it all, even when you have to do it with fear, or with reluctance, or with only just enough grace to scrape by. And also with joy – the joy of discovery of one’s real identity, one’s real potential. The joy of friendship. The joy of learning, and of growing wise. And also the bitterness of betrayal, and the agony of failure, and what sometimes feels the almost unbearable burden of survival against the odds. It’s about proving something, both to oneself and to others.

In some ways, that journey is the best of “children’s literature” – the coming of age stories – and there are many out there, from Susan Cooper, to Madeleine L’Engle, to C S Lewis, to J K Rowling and the Potterverse. And I’m not talking about just fantasy. There are plenty of authors over there in the REAL “real” world who tell stories that could well have happened in our own real lives. But is something like “Stand by Me” or “The Outsiders” truly limited to a YA audience? Can the people who might already have passed the finish line of the “coming of age” race and are acknowledged as fully adult not be allowed to look back and remember the road they travelled to get there, in the worlds of “children’s literature”?

It’s all about the story

The best of children’s literature is basically a good story which can be enjoyed by a reader of any age. In the end, what it boils down to is whether your young reader can stand beside a character in a story, stand beside them and support them, at the same time stand beside them and learn from them what is possible, what is permitted and what is unthinkable – and why.

“Children’s literature” is formative, introducing the young to the realms of Story where they will either flourish and thrive or where they will founder – and foundering is easy enough, if the readers in question are bullied or forced into books. A fostered love of reading is essential when it comes to staying in love with the written word.

In my books, that translates into a certain complexity of story. Thea’s tale is layered and complicated, just like any “real” growing up would have been. I paint relationships there – very different ones – relationships where she is very much the acolyte, relationships where she is the adversary, and relationships where she is loved and cherished.

They are all necessary for the story to get woven together. They form as complex a backdrop as any “real” life might, and the reason they are necessary and the reason they work are the same – they sparkle with recognition, with tiny glittering pieces which a reader might pause and take a closer look at and find something very familiar in them, perhaps a reflection of themselves.

When we are adults, we assume that we understand the world we live in and are able to deal with what it throws at us because we are familiar with the context of it all. In “Children’s literature” the protagonist is just starting to come to terms with a world – that is often baffling and sometimes frightening.

That is what makes the Worldweavers books the “youngest” books I have ever written, not because of a simplistic measure like the age of their protagonist but because this isn’t about a journey finished and now remembered, being, instead, about the journey AS IT HAPPENS, counting the steps it takes to cross a room, a river, or a world. The young readers of such books are sharing that journey themselves, in real time, and that is why a good “kid” book is going to appeal to them – they will recognize themselves in the protagonist and that protagonist’s position in the story they’re reading.

In the space of a few short days devoted to a Children’s Literature Week, it is impossible to cover all the books that matter in this context – but what is important is simply this: that there are certain books which are The Beginning, the origin station for a lifelong journey into the world of the word. And that is to be celebrated.

My second YA series is The Were Chronicles – but that’s for another time.

~~~~~
Quote of the Day

“The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you have been.” ~ Novelist Madeleine L’Engle

~~~~~
About me      My Books      Email me

If you found this blog post interesting, amusing or helpful, then please use the icons below to share it with other writers, readers or the guy next to you on the subway.

How do you build a world?

Part 1: The Five W’s and a H

Before reporting became a dying craft, every newbie was taught that a news story had to answer five fundamental questions:

Who, What, Where, When, Why

… and sometimes, How.

In any piece of fiction, these questions are just as fundamental.

I’m going to talk about The Questions, here, while referencing a particular set of books, my own, The Were Chronicles – “Random”, “Wolf”, and “Shifter”.

Question 1: WHO?

When a squib arrived in my inbox announcing a forthcoming anthology of short stories about Weres, – accompanied by an admonishment of “and let’s see something different than the usual tired old tropes!” – I sat down to write a story that immediately popped into my head.

It was a story about a kind of Were-being that was very definitely not a “tired old trope” – it was something that I’d never seen described before, a wholly crazy out-of-left-field idea…

…the Random Were.

A Random Were was a shape-changer who would change into the last warm-blooded creature they saw just before the moment of their Turn – and if it was their FIRST Turn then that would remain their primary form, the form that they will always turn to if they do not see any other critters cross their path in the crucial moments.

The idea had some wonderful comedic possibilities – and in fact the short story I began for that anthology was very light and humorous. It began by positing an unfortunate farmyard incident which left my protagonist’s mother stuck for the eternity of her existence on this world… as a Were-chicken. And trust me, this still gets a laugh if I read that section of the story in a public reading. A Were chicken is FUNNY.

Except that this story quickly ceased to be mindlessly amusing. The Random Were could not exist without rules, and the more I thought about the rules the more a cohesive Were society began to shape itself – a society consisting of various clans who shift true to their form (the Corvids, the Felids, the folk who turn into dogs or bears or sheep or llamas…), the wild-card Randoms (who were the lowest on the totem pole, for obvious reasons) and another new thing, the New Moon Were, the kindred who shifted at the New Moon and not the Full Moon and who generally found themselves living as bats for the three days and nights of their Turn.

They rose in front of me, these people, these races, this society, and they became as solid and real for me as any (now all too ordinary) human being I happened to cross paths with in the street.

I abandoned the short story. It became clear that “Random” wanted to be a book, a huge book, in concept if not words. It meant creating a whole new world and building it up from its foundations… peopled by characters who quickly became some of the best fictional people I had ever had the privilege to work with.

But quite aside from tackling the big questions this book was also an intensely focused one, dealing with things on a much smaller scale than societal pressures – dealing with family secrets, and very very personal issues. The big picture was the Weres and their society – but within it, etched with a diamond-tipped pen, a sharp storyline emerged, and at the center of it was a girl called Jazz.

Jazz was the youngest in an immigrant family of Randoms who came to a new place looking for safety from persecution in the land in which they had been born. The safety proved to be somewhat illusory, because it was, first of all, bought at the very high price of personal freedom. The Were kindred was just as feared and hated here as they had ever been before except in the new world this was carefully hidden behind “rules” and “laws”.

Laws, of course, have always existed to be broken – and there is a level of both subtle and quite open torment – bullying, discrimination – leveled at the Were from their human peers. Jazz’s older sister Celia, who is central to this story, bore the brunt of this torment, to the point that it led to the fracture at the heart of this family – the silences and the secrets surrounding Celia’s death from an overdose of a Were-specific drug.

“Random” is an exploration of an individual trying to find her place in her world (particularly when her own Random nature leads to a transformation which will leave her in a very uncomfortable position) as well as an exploration of what it means to belong to a family, a clan, a race, a species.

It is, on the surface, a story about Were-kind. It is on a deeper level a story about what it means to be human.

“Random” wanted to be a full length book – but it was obvious very quickly that the story I had begun telling would not fit into a single book. I had a series on my hands.

What The Were Chronicles became is not so much a trilogy as a triptych, with a story arc being approached in three different books by three different POV characters – and in “Wolf”, book 2 of the series, the POV character is Jazz’s brother Mal. Mal is battling his own demons – he is at 17 the oldest unturned Were of his generation, which is destroying him, especially since his younger sister Turns before he does; and also, perhaps far more powerfully, he sees himself as guilty for his sister Celia’s death (because it was he who procured the tablets which she took, which then killed her).

The frustration and the guilt make Mal a dark character, perhaps even an unlikeable one – but it is his strength, his convictions, his ability to grasp a nettle when required and endure the stings which are necessary in order to achieve a particular goal, his growth as a character, his willingness to learn and change and shoulder both love and responsibility when they are both laid upon him, it is all these things that make him unique, and wonderful, and real.

He begins his book, “Wolf” as a whiny and petulant boy. He ends it as a man. This is a coming of age story, and it charts a path which may be thorny but which is always true.

Mal’s friend is the titular character of Book 3, “Shifter”.

Chalky is a young man who has lived by his wits and fended for himself since a very young age. He has acquired self-reliance, and power, and knowledge, and a mastery of his not inconsiderable gifts. He is a talented computer hacker, and he is also, as the book’s title implies, a wild card in the Were universe. 

He can change, as his kind can, into something other than human but for him this is not constrained by the phase of the moon or restricted to three days (neither more nor less). He can Turn into whatever he wants or needs to Turn into, whenever he wants, for however long he wants.

So my characters Jazz in “Random”, Mal in “Wolf”, “Chalky in “Shifter”, and Celia, the eldest sister, who spans all three books – these are the faces of the answer to my “WHO” question.

These are the characters who bear the weight of my story on their shoulders, which sometimes look entirely too fragile to hold up the load. But they are strong, my people. And they have a story to tell of their kind, of their families, of themselves.

Aspiring writers often ask how characters are created – and I have to disappoint them with an answer that, for me, characters aren’t created, they are born. My characters tend to step out of the back of my mind, fully formed, demanding that I sit down and take dictation.

They are real to the point that they will come and sit on my bed at night, kicking the side of the mattress with their heels, and tell me I am “doing it wrong” if they feel that I am. And they are usually right, damn them. To me, the person telling the story is a real companion, someone I know well, someone with whom I can squabble and tussle but whose opinions about their own story I deeply respect and whose suggestions (if I may call them that) I take very seriously indeed.

When it comes to “WHO”, it is very important to me that I know and understand the dramatis personae of my stories. Because without a strong “WHO” everything else can disintegrate fast. Do I begin with character, then? I could answer yes but again every story is different.

Sometimes it’s a situation that the characters are in. Sometimes it’s no more than the whistle of a distant train. Stories go where they will. But in the end, they are anchored by character – by the “WHO” in the equation. Because without a strong answer to that question you have invisible people who never come to life at all, and a story with characters who do not live – for you, the creator, as well as for those who will be reading about their lives when your story is done – is a story which will crumble to ashes at a touch.

Find out more about the Were Chronicles HERE