As the Romans do

Backpacking through Termini Station and out onto the chaotic cobblestone streets of Rome, clutching my husband’s hand, I can feel the rain streaking down my face. Nope, definitely not tears of joy.

All I can think is, we have finally made it to the Eternal City, the birthplace of my mythological muse and the basis for my novel, and the rain makes it feel like home (the PNW).

It is our last destination on a bar crawl-style tour across France and Italy, but it is the one I have looked forward to most of all. I’m a small town girl myself who finds city life too fast and often ugly. But the beauty of Rome is the cling of ancient ruins to a mecca with all its modern creature comforts and crazy traffic, and the juxtaposition of the two is one of the strangest and most incredible things I’ve ever witnessed.

 On our first night we find a local hole-in-the-wall and eat porchetta and drink Peronis, Italian beers. I am here to experience Roman culture and lifestyle as much as to understand what Rome used to be, to catch a glimpse of a past long since dead but never forgotten.

When I step into the Pantheon, it feels so open. The wind spirals through its open dome and flutters through my hair as if ushering me in, and it’s as close to a spiritual experience I’ve ever had. Here is where the dead history comes to life — the geometric marble floor unchanged for centuries, the stone shrines to pagan gods encircling us, and a sunspot shining through the oculus. We have been into many cathedrals on this trip, but this is the  biggest and oldest and most sacred to me. It is so hushed and peaceful.

 

At galleries I hunt for my huntress, and for the famous Roman She-Wolf. I have already found depictions of Diana, with her bow and hounds, in Florence. Some of them are partials or replicas. I look into Diana’s alabaster eyes and wonder who carved them, wonder if they hoped as much as I do that the version I’ve crafted of her is satisfactory enough. Only then does it become clear that these manifestations of her were really worshipped, that there were entire cults dedicated to her.

 

The Colosseum is the biggest attraction, but it does not leave as much of an impression on me as Palatine Hill. Supposedly Romulus lived here. Its mythological significance features in my novel, and even more prominently in its sequel.

Here, though the structures of huts and temples crumble, the landscape itself is breathtaking. Olive trees and purple flowers grow wild and rabbits grow big and fat. Here wealthy Romans once overlooked their city, turned this earth, burned their hearthfires. I can’t fathom exactly what their lives must have been like, but this place feels magical, like something out of my dreams. In some ways it feels like my own writing come to life — especially the rabbit who has clearly become used to the presence of humans, munching happily away at clover, just like the one Dianna and Aimes released into the wild at the end of my book.

 

On our last night, we picnic by candlelight on our balcony in the midst of a thunderstorm. In the distance, St. Peter’s basilica glows bright as the crescent moon. I take in the surreal paradox of Rome, and think about how its mythical origins have survived for so long, how they are taking shape in my fictional world even now. I am so grateful.

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Women, agency, and storytelling

Think about some of the bestselling titles in YA fiction (especially those featuring a female protagonist) that you’ve read or heard of, and you’ll find a narrative pattern: most of these stories are told in first person. The Hunger Games comes to mind as an example. Katniss serves as narrator, telling her story in present tense. We are able to understand her character on a more personal level of thought while witnessing a dystopian world through her eyes.

It’s not a necessity for successful YA, although some say it helps. They might say the target audience for such fiction likes to experiment with telling their own stories; therefore they like to read stories told in a more personable manner — from the inside out, rather than the outside in.

I still say it all comes down to character. When executed well, first-person narratives can create a richer, more compelling story. They also color our perspective as a reader with the character’s inherent biases, subconscious emotions, and potential unreliability.

When they’re done poorly, it’s usually because the character lacks agency. The character becomes “lost” in the story itself, because she/he is passive instead of active. There is little reason to use first person when the character’s decisions have little or no bearing on the plot at all.

I’d argue that third person is much better suited for this task, depending on the story you’re trying to tell. My choice to write The Soft Fall in third was not just an aesthetic one. If I had told the story through Dianna’s perspective alone, I wouldn’t be able to cover the larger issues of the empire as a whole — because although she is the protagonist, her story is like just one facet of a cut gemstone. Each side has its own story to tell.

Third person made the most sense to me, not only because of the multiple viewpoints to address, but because none of the main protagonists really have agency. In fact, the main cast of characters — we’ll call them the pack — are basically at the mercy of their bodies and their environment. They can do things, they can make decisions, but only within limitations.

At the start of the book, Dianna has almost no agency whatsoever, and for good reason. If she did have agency, within the sphere of oppressive ideology she’s grown up to obey, she knows she’d get herself killed using it.

That’s why, in the very first chapter when she witnesses two of her townsfolk being burned at the stake for alleged crimes against god, she does exactly nothing. She wants to, but she can’t. What can a fourteen-year-old girl do to effect any real change?

She can do one thing, and that’s reject god.

The story begins here, at this tiny act of rebellion, this seed of agency that flourishes and blooms as the narrative continues. Whether she knows it or not yet, her primary goal throughout the narrative is agency, a goal that is consistently thwarted by conflict. Character development needs to occur before she can fully attain it.

That’s why, when she meets the pack for the first time, she comes to understand them fairly quickly. They’re all working toward agency. They’re all in this together.

When it comes to limited agency, Ram is a slight exception. He may be helpless in context, but he’s still the Prince of Myre (and, though it won’t be fully explained until book two, still pulling the strings in his own small way). His personal story has consequences for the entire empire, which his why his first-person prologue opens the book. But Eccka ends it with her first-person epilogue because his agency, his power as Prince, is transferred to her.

That’s why the sequel will also be written in first, alternating between Eccka’s and Dianna’s voices.

Because The Soft Fall‘s very title has multiple meanings, and one of them alludes to the fall of the empire. It is “soft” because it happens on a small scale, barely seen and hardly believable by anyone, derived in part from a question of quantum theory: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

In this case, yes. It is the sound of these women’s voices, which will resonate across an empire that has never seen women in positions of power. This power shift means they’re finally able to reclaim their stories. And it gives me a chance as storyteller to explore many feminist questions. Now that they have agency in the world, how will they use it? What new obstacles will stand in their path?

Writing stories about women’s agency inevitably makes me consider my own agency as a woman author in publishing, and in the sci-fi/fantasy genre as a whole. I’m currently in the middle of reading The Geek Feminist Revolution by Hugo award-winning author Kameron Hurley, who explains that navigating such territory as a woman often feels dependent on maintaining a constant self-awareness. She writes:

What I learned was that I had to work harder than the guys. I had to assume that when people looked at me, they’d automatically give me crappier offers. They’d assume I was stupider than I was. They’d pay attention to me less. They’d judge me by gender, by looks, by weight before anything else. I automatically started every interaction at a disadvantage.

In some ways, realizing this made things easier. I no longer worked on the assumption of equality. I always assumed I was starting ten steps behind. I learned I had to fight harder, shout louder, and demand more just to get five extra steps ahead, so I wasn’t starting quite so behind in the eyes of those who passed judgment on me, from bosses to colleagues to new friends.

These automatic disadvantages, I think, is what makes writing women characters so appealing to me — especially in a fantasy world where those disadvantages are made clear from the start, a world not unlike our own.

I want to watch women reclaim their stories as much as I want to tell my own. Like Hurley points out, I know it won’t be easy, but knowing is half the battle.

I know I will struggle with finding acknowledgement for my writing in a genre dominated by male writers. Even when I do receive acknowledgement, I’m anticipating inevitable yet misguided comparisons to urban fantasy or paranormal YA like Twilight, the likes of which have hardly anything in common with my story except werewolves (a word I actually entirely refrain from using in the narrative, because it is so loaded with preconceived notions). I’m anticipating such commentary  because I’m a woman writer.

But that isn’t going to stop me from trying, and it shouldn’t stop other writers who are women, or of color, or LGBTQ, or any marginalized group, either. Because publishing is undergoing its own power shift, toward a future of more diverse narratives. And the point of Eccka and Dianna’s journey toward agency is that once you have it, it’s time to take matters into your own hands.

We’re all in this together.

It’s time to tell our stories.

From concept to page

Happy summer solstice! Tonight there will also be a full Strawberry Moon (Rose Moon in the Myre lexicon), so it seemed fitting to make a post about how I came to write The Soft Fall.

Unlike some authors, the concept for TSF didn’t come to me in a dream, lucid or otherwise; in a sudden burst of inspiration; or even with the simple desire to write a novel. It began, first and foremost, with an affinity for the mythological figure of Diana the Huntress.

Diana

In childhood, I received my first crash course in Greco-Roman mythology from a set of audio tapes. The stories were simplistic, interspersed with lute melodies, and very dry. But I always found myself wanting more details instead of these bare-boned narratives. I wanted to know why the gods behaved the way they did, because they always made terribly mortal mistakes. So I imagined, what if they were, in fact, mortals who were only venerated as gods? What if I could expand on these simple stories by retelling them in some way?

I wouldn’t begin writing about Diana until midway through high school, and only then did I have a partially formed idea of what the story could be. I’d wanted to be a writer since a grade school class project in which we were given blank hardbound books to write in and illustrate. After that I started typing chapter books on MS-DOS and printing them out. None of them survive because my teenage self looked upon them in mortification, like artists often do with their past work.

I was a pretty quiet kid who spent a lot of time in her imagination, but when I wasn’t inside making stories, I was playing in the wooded area across the street with the neighbor kids. We’d build makeshift stone bridges across the creek, flower crowns out of honeysuckles and clover, fairy castles out of twigs and leaves. Naturally, I felt a strong connection with Diana, goddess of animals and wild woods.

My favorite animal came to be the wolf. My mother had always been a strong supporter of reintroducing gray wolves to the wild, which is a heated and controversial debate among Oregonians. Growing up, I remember photographs of wolves adorning the walls, a knitted blanket with soft wolf faces, wolf magnets stuck to the fridge. I may have been well-versed in fairy tales, but I never feared the big bad wolf, and imagined a happy ending for him too.

So the two stories were married. When I envisioned a story for my Dianna, it made sense to associate her with wolves, being a goddess of the moon and daughter of the she-wolf Leto. In college, I began outlining and penning The Soft Fall with abandon.

I had a direction, but I also had a purpose — I saw Diana as a product of her time. In traditional mythology, she is a virgin goddess sworn never to marry. She turns a man into a stag just for looking at her naked! And she was a protector of women and childbirth, which was appealing to me as a feminist. And yet, as a feminist, I couldn’t help but envision her potential value for modern feminism. What if, instead of deciding to abstain from desire, Diana’s journey was one of self-discovery and growth? What if I explored the social consequences of womanhood through her eyes, in an oppressive and theocratic society? And then, what if she shattered that barrier, came into her own, and changed the course of an empire?

This is when the vision really coalesced. After college, newly married and settled into an apartment across the country, I spent a year in semi-isolation finishing the first draft. There were no distractions, and I had no full-time job. It was just me and my computer and my stack of notebooks, and my wonderful husband whose undying support for my dream of writing pushed me to the finish line.

At the end of this summer, we will be traveling to France and Italy (which I can still hardly believe) and hopefully be fortunate enough to see some of the ancient sites in Rome influenced by the mythology of Romulus and Remus, as well as the goddess Diana herself: Lake Nemi, the town of Ariccia, and Palatine Hill, to name a few.

The story has come a long way since the first draft, and I feel especially grateful to those who have helped it come to life. I’ve had some incredibly positive reactions to the manuscript during this submission process, and I’m beyond thrilled to see where Dianna will lead me next.

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More of my inspiration:

Ancient Rome research masterpost from my Tumblr, diannathehuntress

The Soft Fall: A Soundtrack compiled on 8tracks

The Soft Fall: Unofficial Book Trailer on YouTube

…And they lived happily ever after

Today marks the anniversary of the day when, 10 years ago, my high school sweetheart asked me to be his girlfriend. He was about to take his SAT that week, and I, in the smoothest fashion, gave him a kiss “for luck.”

That’s what prompted it, really. I like to pride myself on that fact, because I’m a classic introvert who prefers not to make the first move. Not in this case. That move was mine.

This memory probably wouldn’t seem significant if I failed to mention that we’ve consequently spent these past 10 years madly in love, he eventually also asked me to marry him, and we had a decidedly perfect fairy tale wedding. We wrote our own vows. I threw the bouquet backwards into the hollow of a light fixture like an intentional trick shot. There were fat little polymer clay birds on the cake.

But no good fairy tale begins without darkness, and that’s why I call him my sunshine.

You could say that luck worked out for us both. “Lucky” is a term we collectively tend to ascribe to these uncommonly fortuitous situations, but that’s only part of the story. Devotion, passion, a willingness to grow up and grow together, and casually flipping off any “obstacle” like temporary long distance also worked out for us.

People have also said, “Wow, that’s so rare.” And they’re not wrong. I’ve heard young love is a flint and tinder that strikes only fleeting sparks, that the flames that do burn die fast.

Yet here we are.

There’s a fictional trope called insta-love, in which a romantic relationship between characters begins with “love at first sight” or some melodramatic variation thereof. They just met, but their destinies are intertwined! They must be together forever! They would die for each other! (Romeo & Juliet come to mind as the ultimate paragon of insta-love, but guys, I’m pretty sure Shakespeare had the jump on us all by satirizing the trope before the term ever officially existed, as Shakespeare was wont to do.)

The trope is considered unrealistic, for good reason. But if my 10-year relationship is also considered rare — really just another word for “unrealistic” — where does that leave me? Do I exist in some unseen plane of reality far from the mortal coil? Am I a robot? EXPLAIN PLEASE.

The problem is, readers are quick to stick the “insta-love” label on fictional relationships even when they’re not — they’re just perceived as unrealistic, like mine. Sometimes, the problem is our inability to consider the possible. We cannot move beyond our own limited definitions of love to understand the many, many kinds of love that we haven’t experienced or witnessed firsthand.

Next time you pull the “insta-love” card, ask yourself why. Is it because the characters are underdeveloped? Is there little basis for romantic attraction? Is it because Love Interest A compares the eyes of Love Interest B, upon their very first meeting, to microcosms of untouched galaxies within which (s)he must spend eternity exploring?

Or is it because you’re seeing what you want to see, and refuse to accept the alternative: that these characters actually have every reason to fall in love?

Maybe dating culture is partly to blame for our skepticism. Some people seeking partnerships can go about looking for them in the wrong ways. They look for the “right” kind of man, the “ideal” kind of woman. Active dating is inherently a process of judging, classifying, scrutinizing. One might seek commonalities in a potential partner above all else, when maybe someone with entirely divergent interests would be much better for that particular person.

There is too much focus on finding a partner with qualities that seemingly align with our requirements, when focusing on an alignment of goals will be more beneficial in the long run. We ask, “What kind of person are you? What can you do for me?” Not, “What are our needs, desires, and goals? Can they coexist and function well together?”

People are never static and always imperfect. The truest kind of bond does not come from meeting someone so great, you hope they never change. It is not about possession or manipulation. It is looking at the one you love and saying, “I love you for all that you are and all that you have been. I understand you, and I am recognizing you. And you will change, and I will love you then, too.”

It is strange, transcendent, and yes, rare. So it can be difficult to write convincingly.

In my novel, there’s a couple of characters who become romantically involved under dire circumstances: they’re going to die, and there’s nothing they can do about it. They haven’t known each other personally very long, but they decide they are, really and truly, in love. They don’t claim the extreme that they would die for each other — but they’ll die with each other, because at least they’ll be beside someone they love and care about deeply.

Conveying a real and powerful relationship is a challenge, but that’s the kind of love story I’m interested in telling. It’s the kind, after all, I’m living.

The alchemy of the intangible

The query letter is an elusive, special kind of witchcraft. It must perform several functions: market your story in one neat package, use an attention-grabbing angle, and offer something that can’t be found elsewhere.

One of the first sentences will serve as the “hook.” This is the most commonly used term, although I prefer to think of it as the “bait” — that juicy nugget that will entice your prospective agent, not the sharp dangly bit that will scare them off. (Please do not scare off your prospective agent.) This is also marketing lingo, because that’s exactly what you’re trying to do: sell a concept.

That hook should give the agent reading it a sense of the story to come, but keep it at just enough distance that (s)he will want to tease the rest from you. Crafting this single sentence is perhaps one of the single most difficult tasks a writer must face.

If you asked me, “What’s your book about?”, the hook is often the follow-up line I use. You, while well-intentioned, likely did not understand how incredibly difficult that question was for me to answer. How to distill so much work into so few words?

Years ago, before having muscled through the query letter like trying to squeeze an artisanal espresso out of a rusty French press, I would have just gone off the top of my head. I would have babbled that my main character is a Strong Female Character (which is subjective even in modern literary discourse), that the plot is based on Ancient Roman mythology but not really (and even the Romans were derivative), or that it’s a serious book ultimately about werewolves (although the word “werewolf” isn’t used once).

“So…what’s your book about?” you’d then repeat, disappointed, but no more disappointed than I’d be at myself. Immediately, I’d go create a shame-space in the corner, sit there, and think about what I’d done (or in this case, failed to do).

As a writer, while your idea might appear fully formed and real as the world you inhabit, it’s intangible to those around you. The entire process of writing it, in fact, is shrouded in a veil of secrecy. Your readers won’t know the lengths of your research or the scrapped drafts that produced the end result, and that’s just fine.

But if your ability to summarize your project is only halfway there, others will inevitably stick their own assumptions on it. “It’s a fantasy, so it will involve dragons”; or, “it’s YA, so there will be a love triangle.” Maybe not in so many words, but it’s human nature to stereotype genre fiction, and we tend to be immensely critical as a mass media consuming culture.

Meanwhile, you (the writer) are in the background flailing your arms. “Wait! That’s not what it’s actually about!” you say. “My intention was to subvert those particular expectations while retaining some intrinsic tropes!” Your yelling is futile, because people are very good at believing what they want about something before being exposed to its true nature.

Your job, then, is to convince without hesitation, and that’s where the hook/bait comes in. It is witchcraft, and more specifically alchemy, because you are transforming that intangible idea, shaping it just so, into an object others can touch (and hopefully relate to, and understand, and even love).

“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” readers say, perhaps without realizing the books they hold were each given merit on the judgment of a single sentence.

Further reading on query letters:

Trying To Find a Literary Agent Is the Worst Thing Ever, Ken Pisani, Publishers Weekly

X Meets Y, or the High Concept Pitch, PubCrawl Podcast

The Complete Nobody’s Guide to Query Letters, Lynn Flewelling, SFWA

The catharsis of “finished”

There is an immense satisfaction in writing this post, as it has been exactly a year since my penultimate update on my novel, The Soft Fall. And I don’t expect these long stretches of silence to continue, due to my reason for posting this now.

The final draft is finished. 

Technically, it was finished before Christmas — a nail-biting deadline I set myself, since the holiday season is the crunchiest of crunch times for us little independent booksellers. This allowed me the foresight to order a personal printed and bound hard copy of the manuscript, stick a festive bow and a gift tag to it, and present it upon the tiny pile of gifts under our tree (which is really just two overwintering potted oak saplings sharing soil).

How seemingly meta to place my tenuous project beneath the brittle and browning twigs of our barely grown little oaklings, Thorin Oakenshield and Professor Oak. Both my book and these plants are lifeforms in their own right, straining against their rooted natures, longing to create breath, reaching toward sunlight. They are so delicate, so susceptible to a cold untimely death. They want to be touched, studied, nurtured into being. They want to live.

This time in my life is the culmination of blood, sweat, and tears: a marathon of research, outlining, editing, hiding in cafes, the frantic jotting of spontaneous ideas bursting through synapses with ink-stained and paper-cut fingers, more editing, crying sometimes, the peaceful gray of a rainy morning with only Alt-J and black coffee for company while trying to tap out turns of phrases on my keyboard. Creating is messy. Creators only hope to shape their ultimate creations into something less so.

And it’s for you.

That is why I wrote on the gift tag: “To: You.” With the addendum, “Sorry.”

This is not intended to be self-deprecating. I’m sorry because between all these messy moments, I have truly enjoyed this experience from which I am beginning to diverge. Of course I am still learning, always. I am crafting query letters to selected literary agents. I am sketching my characters and settings because I don’t want to leave the world I made. This new process could be likened to the joys and terrors of raising a first-born child who is then to be released on the cusp of adulthood. And then you are wondering, “Did I teach you the right things? Will you be safe? What will become of you?”

The draft is finished. These words smack of doubt, because what really constitutes a “finished” product?

To me, you know by your a gut instinct. As Aimes would say, it’s a soft Fall.

 

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The Deadline cometh

The Year of Revision is midway through. I’ve compiled the final beta comments and I’m working on the final changes now.

Expect more silence from me here, for now. I’m going forth, and when I come back, I’ll have a story ready to tell.