On Faith and Fiction

“Are you a person of  faith?” He leans out of the car window, his face searching mine. We’re newly neighbors, and this meeting in the grocery store parking lot is random.

What do I say to that? Last night, I stood in our backyard and talked over the fence with him about the night sky. He has a good telescope and I like him. What do I say to this question?

“Yes,” I say.

He nods, satisfied. “I knew you were,” he says.

A car pulls in behind him. I back away, wave goodbye so he can move on.

On the drive back, I think about my answer. Am I a person of faith? Not the way he meant it, I think. No every-Sunday-morning church, Wednesday-night Bible study, and evangelizing to the neighbors faith. I don’t stand on street corners with God is Great signs and I don’t ask my co-workers if they have found Jesus.

I suspect these are the sort of things my neighbor would count against my claim to faith. But am I a person of faith?

Not blind faith.

But am I a person of faith?

I think about that Sunday in Quaker Meeting, the epiphany that We Are Not Alone, even when everyone we trust abandons us. How I–or something, or Someone–purged the fear in my gut that day, shook it out of me in one great gush, replaced it with faith that Help Is On Its Way. How I walked forth in courage. Because I knew then that I am held in God’s hands, that we all are.

Am I a person of faith?

Last May, Annie and Glennon, two people I admire, said “Write for one hour a day,” and so I did, and I wrote a novel. Is that faith? Saying, “I’ll give it a shot” and then doing it, day after day after day, even when it’s hard, even when it feels pointless. Is that faith?

Let me tell you something about faith. I had very little when I started my book. Maybe as much as a mustard seed–ever seen a mustard seed? They’re small. Not microscopic or anything, but no bigger than the head of a pin, anyway. Small. That’s what my faith was like.

And it didn’t tell me what was in it, either, any more than an unlabeled mustard seed tells you it’ll turn into a mustard tree. My faith said: “Start writing. Do it every day. Something will happen.” It made no promises about what that Something would be.

Then the book started to grow. It grew to 5,000 words. Then 10,000. 20,000. It kept getting longer, and a story started to emerge. Around 40,000, it started to feel like an actual novel. Along with the novel, my faith grew. I could do this.

And it was a good thing, too, that my faith had grown roots, because after 95,000 words, it was time to revise. Revising is hard.

Some weeks, I spent days doing nothing making no measurable changes. I was writing character sheets, or developing a timeline, or literally cutting and taping the manuscript. Writing scenes I knew would never end up in the book, but that were necessary for me to understand what the characters were doing in other scenes and why.

Did I have faith? It didn’t feel like it. It felt frustrating. It felt like I’d never, ever ever be done. Like a sailboat in a lull, no momentum, and no motor to get it going again. Did I keep going, well, yeah. But only because… well, I guess you’d call it faith. But it didn’t feel like faith. It felt like paddling without an oar.

It did get done, though. Eventually I found myself with a completed second draft, a book organized and corralled into almost-presentable format. An actual novel.

Faith grew roots. It’s stronger now. Or maybe that’s not faith. Maybe what grew was confidence. But confidence feels rather like faith, don’t you think?

I’m now in second revisions (third draft), which means I’ve been through this before. When I stop changing the actual manuscript and start working on other things (right now I’m writing chapter synopses to get a handle on the order of events and better build tension in the right places), I don’t panic. It’s part of the process. I have faith that it is what I’m supposed to be doing. That it will all get done.

Am I a person of faith?

I believe in God, because I’ve experienced God in the Silence of Meeting for Worship, in the quiet of my heart. I’ve felt God take my hand when my hand most needed taking. Is that faith, or is that knowledge? (Superstition, whisper my atheist friends.)

I don’t actually know anything. I have no proof. I have only my heart, and experience, and faith that Something will happen if I just take the next step. And so far, every time I take that next step, Something happens. I’m not moving mountains, but if the pen is mightier than the sword perhaps it is also at least as mighty as a shovel. I’m writing books.

Am I a person of faith?

Maybe faith is just doing Something You Believe In, and stepping forward with the belief that Something Good will come of it. Which is another way of saying we are held in God’s hands.

Am I a person of faith?

Sure. You betcha.

P.S. Plant a mustard seed and Something will happen. But not a mustard tree. Mustard does not grow on trees, no matter what the preacher told you. Sometimes the Thing that Happens when we do Something We Believe In is not the Thing we were expecting. Often it’s far more beautiful.

It is kinda pretty, though.

How to Write a Blockbuster YA Novel

I am woefully behind the times in my reading. Ask me about the classics, and I’m all over it:

  • Sophocles (check)
  • Thucydides (indeed)
  • Aeschylus (yup)
  • Vergil (certainly)
  • Homer (you bet, and I even know this is out of chronological order)
  • Plato (uh-huh)
  • Xenophon (in Greek, love him–have you read his bit on horse training?)
  • Shakespeare (duh)
  • Milton (of course)
  • Chaucer (in the original Middle English, yes)
  • Too many to list (you betcha)

What about novels, you ask?

  • Mark Twain 
  • Hemingway
  • Jane Austin
  • Charles Dickens
  • Eudora Welty
  • Kurt Vonnegut
  • Heinlein
  • Lovecraft
  • Philip K. Dick
  • Harper Lee
  • Etc. Etc. Etc.

Now ask me about anything written in the past ten years, and, well, look:

  • Hunger Games
  • Harry Potter
  • Um.
  • Twilight (hangs her head in shame…)
  • Uh.
  • That’s it.
  • I think.
  • WAIT! The Magicians. Of course.
  • Yup.
  • That’s it.

twilight poster_9

I can’t un-read Twilight alas, but I can do penance by reading a whole bunch of other recent YA titles. My Amazon bill has grown ridiculous. But that’s okay, because I’m about to get rich. Because it turns out you don’t need to be original to write a blockbuster. All you need is a recipe. And I have the recipe.

Recipe for a Blockbuster YA Novel

  • Take one gorgeous but troubled female teenager who has no idea she’s beautiful, and put her in the center of the plot
  • Mix in insecurity, self-deprecation, and a selfless desire to please everyone at her own expense.
  • Add one gorgeous but troubled male teenager who is inaccessible due to a bad-boy reputation, his community/school role, or his own dark secrets.
  • Mix in a large pinch of “why do I like him?” angst.
  • Add a crisis that throws them inadvertently together, often in close physical proximity, and mix well with breathlessness each time their skin touches.
  • In another container, mix together a large quantity of possessiveness, controlling, and jealousy, add carefully to the male teenager, and disguise it with the sweetness of I Love You.
  • Gradually fold in a good reason why they can’t be together, that inevitably boils down to “I’m afraid I’ll hurt him” (because of her special talent, because the bad guys are after everyone she loves, because she also loves someone else, because she always hurts everyone she loves, or similar–you get to be a little original here if you want, but don’t go too crazy.)
  • Add heat.
  • When plot reaches a full boil, place a decision in the hands of female character–on the one hand, she can be with the boy forever; on the other hand, she can do something selfless that will serve to separate them forever. It’s okay if this one is a stretch, as long as she definitely has to choose and there is no middle option.
  • When she chooses the selfless act, remove story from heat.
  • When male & female settle out separately, leave them in proximity, but not mixed.
  • Cover with a cloth and leave to ferment. Will they end up together or not? That is the delicious finish everyone craves. Don’t answer.
  • Wait for film deals to roll in, along with riches.

Try it and let me know how it goes.

By the way, my WIP doesn’t follow this formula. There’s very little romance, way too many main characters, and not nearly enough teenage angst. They’re too busy trying to not be eaten or tortured to be overly concerned about pimples. Is my book YA? I’m no longer convinced.

Also, I’ll probably die poor.

Let The Games Begin: Candidate #1

If you aren’t sure what’s going on here, please read this first.

The story intros will be offered up in no particular order. There are seven candidates. I quite literally used a random number generator to choose which to do first.

First up is the intro to an adult (adult as opposed to YA, not THAT kind of adult) sci fi concept centered around a young slave who discovers a way to use her master’s own desires against him–and change the world in the process (hm. I seem to have this thing about slaves & changing the world. I’m going with it anyway). Here you go. (UPDATE: I’ve modified this since first posting, in response to outstanding feedback. This new version is shorter & gives away less, and I think it’s better. Enjoy.)

Art by Mandy Tsung http://mayhemandmuse.com/mandy-tsung-paints-the-art-of-sensuality/

Art by Mandy Tsung http://mayhemandmuse.com/mandy-tsung-paints-the-art-of-sensuality/

Working Title: Slave Chip

Mother was gone to town the day Asha’s code was transferred. She had known this sort of thing could happen to a person, but it was not the sort of thing that happened to her. She was the charmed one. She was the one who had inherited all her mother’s best traits, tempered by her father’s. Beauty, wit, charm, and a hefty dose of good luck.

That morning there had been just enough sugar and flour to bake a tart with the cherries from the tree outside the kitchen window, and Asha had been the one to find the wooden whistle Mother baked into it. Having seen thirteen summers already, Asha was a little old for the toy, so she licked it clean and gave it to little Horace to blow, and got a sweet sticky kiss in exchange.

Lately there had been a lot of parties at the big house, parties where Asha had danced and been celebrated as the belle of the ball. Standing in the hall outside the parlor of the big house, little Irena in her arms, Asha was still blissfully unaware that those parties had been designed to make her master rich off her sale price.

The master and his guest would be arriving soon, but for a few precious moments she and Nan, the housemaid, could gossip and giggle.

Ten summers later, she would still remember every detail of that morning. How the sun had slanted through the Smartglass windows, striping the wall with light. How Irena’s chubby arms had wrapped around her neck, and the dampness of her delicate curls after their walk across the hot compound. The baby smell of her skin coated with drying sweat.

When the master called for Asha, she handed Irena over to Nan. Asha smiled at Irena’s pout, and later wished she had kissed her one last time before entering the parlor.

Of course, there was no physical sensation associated with the code change. The only evidence was that when her new master Dexel ordered her to his shuttle, Asha found she had no desire to resist. It felt to her as though she wished, with all her heart, to forever leave behind her baby sister. And Mother. And Father who was kind and generous and the cherry tree and the whistle and the kitchen window with herbs drying over the sink and all the little siblings she had helped to care for all their lives–and to walk down that path and up into the elaborate private shuttle that would take her away, without even saying goodbye.

Failing the Test

This one passes.

Have you heard of the Bechdel test in fiction? Basically, if two named female characters in a work of  fiction have a meaningful conversation with each other about something OTHER than a man or men, then it passes. Try it on a few of your favorites. I was surprised how few of mine pass. Try it the other way around, and you’ll see that nearly every work ever has men talking to men about something other than women.

I feel angry about this. What is wrong with our society, that our fiction shows such a strong bias in this way? I feel angry with the authors too. I adore the Hunger Games but guess what? Fails the Bechdel. I mean, you could argue that Prim and Katniss qualify it, but it’s rather thin. They love each other, but they don’t seem to actually TALK to each other much. Harry Potter… doesn’t really qualify either. I mean, Harry and Ron and Hermione talk to each other on screen (by which I mean, on the page) all the time. Ginny and Hermione and Mrs. Weasley, presumably, have conversations… but not with each other, not on screen. Lord of the Rings? Nope. Star Wars? Uh-uh.

Shouldn’t our young peoples’s literature reflect a more balanced view of humanity, of what it is to be female? Don’t we owe this to our young women?

So anyway. Here I am plugging away in my own novel. I hit the 57,398 word mark today. Big milestone, right? I mean, you don’t hit 57,398 words every day. The first Harry Potter book had only 76,944 words, so I’m like, 74.59710958% of the way there. I’m cheerfully counting words (not that I’m obsessive about it or anything), and patting myself on the back for a well-planned plot that proceeds beautifully scene to scene…

…until it hits me that my novel DOES NOT pass the Bechdel test.

Geez.

So, what is it do you think? I just don’t know. Is it a sign that I am not a “liberated” woman? That I harbor some resentment toward my fellow women that makes me not want to talk to them, or have my characters talk to each other? Furthermore, as I noticed yesterday, my female characters all seem to defer to their male counterparts. What the heck?

I gave this a great deal of thought over the course of yesterday, turning it over and over in my mind. Does it make my novel weaker, or is it a natural part of what it is? If I work to change it, to grow stronger female characters, to make them talk to each other, will that stilt my novel, ruin its integrity?

I really don’t have answers to this. I started to write a scene introducing a new companion to one of my main characters, a named sister, so they could walk through the woods together, having lovely non-man-centered conversations, but that did NOT turn out well. For one thing, their very first conversation was about the brothers they’re trying to find. Right. It wasn’t about a BOY, exactly (I mean, it was, but not in THAT way), but it was still about a BOY(s). More importantly, it’s stilted. There is just no particular reason why this new character needs to play any kind of central role in the story.

Is it a problem that I’m even thinking this way? Should I be focused instead on just letting the story come out the way IT wants to come out and stop worrying about my own inner journey and what it says about me that I can’t seem to get it to pass the Bechdel test?

So then I asked myself whether the story passes the reverse Bechdel test, and the answer to that is “no, not really.” There are some boy and boy conversations, but they’re minor and not among major characters. So maybe it’s just that I don’t like same-gender conversations.

Or maybe it’s just that this particular story is not about boys talking to boys and girls talking to girls. It’s just about what it is, it’s just the story. And so far, the boys haven’t been talking to each other, and the girls haven’t been talking to each other.

And, it turns out, further on, that is going to happen. Some of these groups are going to meet up, and there are going to be main character girls and main character boys all in the same room.

And some of the girls are going to find their voices and their power, and take the lead. They will come into their own.

And so. Two things:

1. Maybe I can just let the story be what it is and stop meddling, and that will probably be best for all.

2. And maybe at the end, THEN I can analyze what exactly happened there.

And one more thing:

3. And maybe all those stories that fail to pass the Bechdel test, or that show female characters in second-fiddle roles, maybe they’re not trying to show how things SHOULD be, but how they ARE. Maybe it’s pointless to feel so angry at the authors, and instead we can work on changing our society?

Yeah. I think that’s it. Also, it’s clear to me that we females, we have to work pretty hard to have our voices heard. Even when we’re fictional characters.