This past November, I participated in a well-known internet challenge known as NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. If you have not heard of it before, I highly recommend checking out their website at www.nanowrimo.org--it's a fantastic contest based around personal inspiration and discovery, and all done for the love of writing.
This is not the first time I have participated in NaNoWriMo--in fact, it's the third. I've won every time. (By winning I do not mean I gained some fabulous prize, or was awarded a super power. To win in NaNoWriMo one only has to write 50,000 words between November first and November thirtieth, and the prize you win is that you have written 50,000 words. Pretty bad ass prize if you want to be a novelist...) Suffice to say that I have thoroughly proven by now that I can write a novel-length story successfully. It has happened before, and if I have any say in it, it shall happen again.
However, I have also found that with each NaNoWriMo I compete in, I face a new and more worrisome challenge.
The first year I competed, I faced the dreaded opponent of my own laziness. It was hard to overcome the instinct not to write--not to create something new and fantastic. The internet became an enemy to me as I struggled to stay on target. I would sabotage myself--stranding myself in places without wi-fi to force myself into writing. I came up with all sorts of sneaky ways to trick myself into completing the novel. But around every corner was that perpetual block of 'I could be doing nothing.' It was a hard fight, but in the end, I had a book that no one but me could write. (Whether that is a good thing or not, I leave to the reader's imagination.)
The second year, I struggled with expectations. I wrote a story that was how I though a story ought to be. There were characters, a plot, interesting visuals, and creepy locations. And yet, despite having the formula for a perfect fantasy novel, I fought every scene. I pounded words onto paper with undue force and bitterness. Laziness was not the problem, but I fought my own mind, forcing myself to stay focused when all my imagination wanted to do was run wild with plot twists and complications. I beat the challenge, but in the end, I did not have a novel. I never even got to the words 'the end.' The book was dead from the moment I started it--a stillbirth of a story.
The third year, this year, I faced insecurities. (Here comes the title of the blog, everyone, hold on to your britches.) I wrote a sequel to the first story I ever wrote--the rambling NaNoWriMo of the first year, with its heart of gold. I'll admit right now that I love the book I wrote this year. I loved it from the moment I sat down to type the first words. It was the story I wanted to tell--I gave myself free reign, let go of what 'ought to' happen, and kept only the barest of plot threads outlined in my head, letting the story grow around it naturally. It should have been perfect. Except for one thing.
This year, halfway into writing my book, I realized all my female characters were victims.
It was a horrible moment. I am a lover of strong, independent female characters, and I had always intended to write them myself. And yet here I was, with two female characters who were physically strong, and emotionally damaged, who were both trying to gain their footing, but were still victims. In the first book they had gathered power and trained hard. Now in the second, they had run from the very people who had trained them. I had intended them to dabble in the darker side of things--use their power for evil a little, realize what they had been doing, reform and be stronger for the experience. There was only one problem with that.
It turned out my characters didn't like that idea. There was a schism between my two beloved female leads--Erin and Lee (properly her name is Leanne, but she really dislikes it.) Erin was thrilled to be off on her own with no responsibilities. She tuned out anything negative Lee had to say about their new friend Cala, a teenage boy I desperately need to rename. She tuned out her closest friend Miranka, her ghost follower who is himself a victim. She fell easily into the life of semi-crime that Cala provided for them.
Lee, however, didn't like it. I thought she would, but she didn't. She thought it was dishonorable and wrong of them to turn their backs on the people who had helped them before--and she was right about that. And yet, she didn't force Erin to see reason. She sat back, thinking Erin would see it for herself eventually, and basically watched the situation crumble around her, while feeling grumpy that she hadn't been listened to.
Enter the problem. I don't want to give too many spoilers--this book WILL eventually be something I want to market--but I'll give you the run down. Lee falls under the control of the bad guy. Erin doesn't notice. Bad guy takes control of her ghost friend, and hides that from Erin as well. He then brings in a character from the first book, and has the brainwashed Lee torture him, even though she was once his friend. Erin, though uncomfortable, sits back and watches because she doesn't want to rock the boat when she's finally where she wants to be in life.
The realization of who my characters were becoming shook me. Erin, I had always known, was a victim before. She was an adopted child, who'd been rescued from an abusive home, and she had never quite gotten out of the victim mentality. But Lee? Lee was supposed to be her support structure. She was supposed to be the strong female character of the books--unwavering but not inhuman. And here I was halfway through the book effectively writing her out to be replaced by an imitation her who conformed to Cala's will.
I reassured myself that this was always supposed to be a bad thing. This was the center of my trilogy, where the girls tread the most closely to darkness for the sake of experimentation and got burned by it. A story with infallible characters, after all, is rarely very interesting.
But the reassurance didn't stop the flood gates that I had opened. I examined with meticulous detail everything that might be read into my book. Would the fact that two lesbians were being manipulated by a straight man cause people to think I hated straight men? Would people think that I was saying that lesbians are just confused and easy to brain wash? Would they think I was saying that all blonds were evil if my villain was blond, or that all gay men are victims if my ghost was gay? Would they take the whole thing as some moral tale about the dangers of exploring your darker side?
I reconsidered everything--every choice I had made thus far. I went back over plot points, my fingers hovering over the backspace button. I went to my outline and searched for whether or not I'd let myself become a stereotyping jerk while I was plotting the story's course. It seemed like everything in my perfect story was falling apart in front of me.
Finally, I had to just put those thoughts away. I just stuck them in a box and forgot about them while I blazed on with my story. I haven't gotten closure on them--not in the slightest--but I couldn't deal with them and write at the same time. I had learned my lesson from Year Two. I wasn't going to change my story to be what I thought a story should be.
Today, I finally finished this novel. It stands as a proud 78,005 word document, with the final two being 'The End.' I gained some closure on the issue through the finale. Backbones were grown. Big girl panties were put on. Erin impressed me--I have hope for her for the sequel.
And yet, here I am, still worrying.
Of my cast in this book, three out of four main characters were victims. The character who was not a victim was the bad guy. It's a disturbing thing to consider, and I hope I'm reading too much into it.
Of course, the one thing I can count on to help me is change. Victims can grow into survivors--I've met some survivors myself, and they are some of the strongest people I know. The fact that my characters were wounded and taken advantage of by someone does not mean they are not strong people, good people at their cores--at least I hope it doesn't.
I feel like I've seen my characters at their weakest now. Erin, Lee, and Miranka have fallen about as low as I can foresee them falling. Now I have a third book looming. It could be a book that would highlight my flaws as a writer in striking detail if I fail to allow my damaged characters to become survivors and face their own demons head on, while still maintaining the air of believably I've been working so hard to build. However, it could also be a book that makes all the trauma, and difficulty, and soul-searching agony of writing this painful fall worthwhile.
(Erin, Lee, and Miranka are part of the as of the Bones Like Birds trilogy, which may still be renamed. The book in question here is The Wingless, the second in the series. To learn more about the book, hear more ranting, and possibly get a sneak preview of the books themselves, stay tuned to Hodgepodge-o-phoria!)