Oh, F*ck! It’s a Period Piece…

You might remember from an earlier post, that I’m using a couple of guidebooks to aid in the process of writing my first novel. Well, a couple of weeks ago, I was reading The Everything Guide To Writing Your First Novel and breezing through the novel elements checklist on Chapter 3. That is, until I reached the Setting subsection. I had (and still have) a pretty good idea of where my story is set, but the problem wasn’t the where; it was the when. The more I thought about the story that I’m trying to tell and all the elements at play in the world I’ve created, the more obvious it became. There’s no way around it: Carrot Cake is a period piece. 

I use the term “period piece” somewhat fearfully, since it likely conjures images of medieval dungeons and petticoats and chainmail, and my story has none of these things. And yet it is a period piece because it takes place in the past, in a time before smartphones and WiFi. My story takes place, I now realize, at some point between the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.

You’re probably wondering if such a “small” change is even worth it. Dear Reader, I promise you I tried to avoid it. For a while, I tried to convince myself that the changes would be minuscule, and that twenty-some years would scarcely make a difference. But none of that is true. Our world has changed considerably over the last two decades, and Anne Marie’s story simply doesn’t fit in this modern world.

I toyed around briefly with the idea of adopting a timeless setting and never actually specifying the time period—something I have done in the past with some success (by “success” I mean that it went over well with the other students in my writing workshop). But I believe the reason it worked in the past is because the piece in question was a screenplay.

It’s easier to get away with an ambiguous time setting in film because film is a medium of omission. As we start to learn the rules of the world on-screen, we rather readily accept that what we don’t see on-screen does not exist in this world. For example, I was happy to hear among the workshop responses for the screenplay I mentioned above, that it “reads like a timeless story-of-our-childhood movie.” Besides being an awesome thing to hear about your writing, this validated my choice not to include any modern technology. I never specified a time, and I was careful about what to include, and, perhaps more importantly, about what to exclude.

Onscreen, it’s relatively easy to get away with ambiguity in the setting. Who knows when “Moonrise Kingdom” takes place? Or the popular show “Twin Peaks?” The idea is that they could be set at any time in recent history. This technique, however, doesn’t translate as well into prose. I know because I’ve tried to use it. Every time I take a story to workshop, at least a handful of the readers want to know how the story fits into current events. Last year, I wrote a story set in Puerto Rico, and my professor said I needed to reference Hurricane Maria, even though I hadn’t specified the time when the story took place.

In literature, if we are not explicitly told otherwise, we assume the story is set in the present. Therefore, if I were to write Carrot Cake in a way that is true to my vision, I expect it would prompt a lot of questions about the time. So, in summary, I’m screwed.

Because writing a period piece means doing a boatload of research.

Back in college, I read Syd Field’s book “Screenplay” for a screenwriting class. (I majored in Media Studies, in case you hadn’t yet caught the obnoxious film student vibe). Field says that “every creative decision must be made by choice, not necessity,” and that “the more you know, the more you can communicate.” Both quotes are meant to illustrate the importance of research, and both have stuck with me through the years.

In the past, I’ve always tried to steer clear of stories that might require a lot of research. It’s not that I’m bad at it; in fact, my attention to detail and my perfectionist spirit mean that I’m actually quite good at research. And, unlike those writers who would much rather zoom through the researching stage and get to the “real” writing, I do not dread research. I love it. That, I think, is the problem. 

I’m such a fan of rules and of doing things “right,” that I’m easily sucked down the research rabbit hole. I can already see myself determined to read every article and every book about the time period. In fact, I’m even wondering if I should start by researching how to research for a novel. Not that I don’t have research experience—let’s face it 70% of college is research—but, in the past, it’s been relatively easy to know when to stop researching and start writing. In college, I’d stop researching when I was nearing a deadline. At work, I’d stop when I got a new assignment. Yet I was always left with the feeling that there was more to uncover.

And that is where I’m at right now: not quite sure where to start researching and scared that, once I start, I won’t know when to stop. Which brings me back to my original sentiment—fuck, it’s a period piece!

Yours,

Miss Breathing

Note: Carrot Cake is the name of my current WIP, and Anne Marie is my protagonist’s name. If you want to know more about my novel progress, you can start with my previous post What If It’s A Novel?

A Writer’s Journals

I got my favorite journal in Venice when I was seventeen. Had we known that the pretty, Italian leather journals and customizable wax stamps were a staple in all the large Italian cities (an obvious tourist trap), maybe we wouldn’t have stopped in that Venetian shop. But it was our family’s first time abroad, and Venice was the first city we visited.  After a full day of seeing me stare longingly at displays on store windows, my uncle caved in and offered to buy me a journal. 

Inside, the store was heaven. It was dimly-lit, as if by candlelight, and wooden shelves covered the walls from floor to high ceiling. The scent of leather-bound books was intoxicating. I deliberated for at least a half an hour, trying to choose the prettiest journal to take home. Eventually, I picked a blue-green hardcover with a leather spine and a set of thick strings holding it shut. 

Some of my favorite journals. Featuring the Venice one (the second from the top).

At first, I was scared to use it. I’ve always been a little superstitious, and I kept holding off on writing on the new journal until I could find something important enough to write about. I brought the journal with me to Boston when I started college that fall, and I christened it by writing a crappy little poem about some boy I never saw again after the first month of classes. I’m no poet, but the moment felt just right regardless. I was sitting under a tree in the Boston Commons, the leaves had begun to turn, and there was the slightest nip in the air. It was my first autumn, and arriving in Boston for the first time had felt like coming home. It’s hard to explain, but that moment sitting in the Commons felt like a (happy) conclusion, like everything in my life had led to that small moment. 

A small sampling of my journals.

It gradually became easier to write in the journal. This was notable in that I had never before been able to keep a journal; I had tried countless times, and I have shelves of evidence at home. But, little by little, I began to fill the pages of that journal with everything from haikus (all of which suck) to opening lines to character descriptions.

Years later, as a junior in college, I had a scriptwriting professor who gave us a grade for keeping what he called a writer’s journal. According to him, a writer’s journal is different from a regular journal because it’s not about reflecting or documenting; writer’s journals are meant to be a place in which to document anything that might lead to stories. At that point, I had already learned to carry my Venice journal around with me everywhere I went, and I found it extremely validating that someone had thought of a name for this. My favorite journal was a writer’s journal. 

On the last day of my junior year, we were having class in the Boston Commons when I felt the sudden urge to write a poem. I have to reiterate, I am no poet; however, the need to write these words down was strong. I stuck around after class, and I sat on a solitary stretch of hill to write. The words flowed out of me until they filled every corner of the very last page. I thought it absurdly fitting that both the first and the last thing I wrote in the first journal I ever filled was a poem inspired by the Boston Commons. 

When I started writing this, Dear Reader, I intended for it to be a brief and practical post about the usefulness of keeping what my old professor dubbed a writer’s journal. I didn’t mean to get into overly-sentimental detail about my one journal, but I suppose this kind of discovery is what the blog is meant to be for.

My current writer’s journal has a full family tree for the character

I won’t try to preach to you about the importance of keeping a writer’s journal since I’m well aware that the process is different for everyone. But I will say that writer’s journals take many forms–I’ve seen everything from an iPhone Notes document to an actual piece of crumpled notebook paper kept in jeans pockets. And I can personally attest to the usefulness of journals kept specifically to jot down and expand upon creative ideas. Everything I know about Anne Marie and her family started out as a few lines in my current writer’s journal. At first, it was a handful of descriptions of things I found inexplicably alluring: a Cuban restaurant, a homemade carrot cake. It wasn’t until I began asking myself, “what’s the story here?” that I could flip back through the pages of my own writing and begin to connect the pieces. Writer’s journals, I’ve found, really work for me. I urge you, Dear Reader, to give it a try too. 

Yours,

Miss Breathing 

Loving-Kindness and Writing Teenage Characters

Back in 2014, I had the chance to attend Leaky Con in Orlando. It was an all-around great time, but the absolute highlight was a panel called “I Was A Teenage Writer.”

One of my Leaky Con 2014 treasures.

From what I understand, “I Was A Teenage Writer” is a recurring event in these conventions. With good reason, too—it’s an amazing panel! It consists of some of the biggest names in YA literature—back in 2014, this included Rainbow Rowell, John Green, Holly Black, and many others—reading excerpts from their early works. And when I say early works, I mean early. The featured authors read from stories, poems, and essays they wrote as tweens and teens. The goal is to show aspiring writers that everyone was a “bad writer” at first.

The 2014 panel was, for the most part, hilarious— at one point, Holly Black burst into tears from laughing so hard at one of her old poems. While most of the authors present took jabs at their old writing, there was one notable exception. Writer and artist Kazu Kibuishi took a slightly different approach to his old writing. Before he started to read, Kibuishi made a disclaimer that he wanted to “show his younger self some respect and compassion” (I’m paraphrasing here. 2014 was a little while ago.).

At the time, I didn’t think much of Kibuishi’s statement, except maybe that his seriousness had briefly shifted the mood in the conference room to a careful silence. But all of this came back to me last week when I was writing Wednesday’s post.

The title of this post was almost “What The Jonas Brothers Taught Me About Loving My Teenage Characters & Younger Self,” but

  1. That’s a fucking mouthful.
  2. Two back-to-back posts about the Jonas Brothers might be a bit much for this audience, no?

Writing about something you loved so passionately as a teenager is tricky because there’s a tendency to talk down on our younger selves. Being in my early twenties, I think about my teenage self quite a bit. But it’s usually something along the lines of “thank God I’m not sixteen anymore.”

All of this reminds me of a meditation term called “loving-kindness.” Essentially, loving-kindness is about killing judgemental thoughts and replacing them with gentleness and understanding. Recently I realized that, when I think about my younger self, I’m often missing loving-kindness.

I’m not exactly alone in this, either. I’m willing to bet I’m not the only twenty-something who cringes at the thought of all those Team Edward posters. (And T-shirts. And the New Moon themed birthday party.) I can’t be the only person who went to the trouble of deleting old social media accounts in an attempt to erase boyband-related posts made at suspicious hours of the night back in 2012.

I can laugh about it now (because 48 posters of Robert Pattinson is a laughable amount), but sometimes I wonder whether I should. Hating on our teenage selves is an almost unavoidable bandwagon behavior; we all do it. And the closer in age we are to our teens, the more vocal we are about how “dumb” and “childish” we used to be as if by doing so we’re putting some sort of metaphorical distance between our present selves and the people we were six years ago. Well, recently, I started thinking about whether that’s fair to past me. 

Speaking of merch…

The flip side of being so close to my teens is that I still remember what it felt like to be a teen. A lot of the embarrassing things I did as a teenager came from a place of strong emotions. When I liked a book or a show, I hung posters and live-tweeted and bought all the merch my Christmas money could buy. When I loved someone, I was loud about it. When I hated someone, it consumed me. And just because I don’t feel the same way anymore doesn’t mean those feelings aren’t valid. 

This is 11 year-old me at her first Jonas Brothers concert.

For me, showing my teenage self some loving-kindness means admiring the strength of her emotions. Sometimes, when I catch myself being overly critical of my younger self, I try to flip the script on myself. It usually sounds something like “I love the way you love things. I love the way your eyes go wide when you’re talking about a story you love. I love the way your heart flutters when you see your favorite actor on screen. I love that you feel so strongly.”

I can’t say I’m perfect about this. I still talk down on my younger self sometimes. But, after a few months of loving-kindness, I have a newly found respect for my teenage self.

Strong. Fucking. Emotions.

The reason I’m writing about this now, Dear Reader, is because the protagonist of my WIP is a teenage girl. Her name, I might as well tell you now, is Anne Marie. I absolutely love Anne Marie, but, as I was looking through some old drafts of the story that inspired this novel, I realized I could have shown her a little more loving-kindness.

It was interesting going back to my workshop notes and finding that readers really liked the narrative voice poking fun at Anne Marie’s flair for drama. Anne Marie, much like my younger self, is all about strong emotions and wearing them on her sleeve. Going back to those early drafts made me realize that when we’re writing about all the awkwardness and urgency and the theatrics of being a teenager, we can choose to talk down on our characters. Or we can choose to show them some loving-kindness. 

Writing teenage characters in a way that truly honors their experiences is all about compassion and understanding. It’s about toning down judgments. It’s a practice I’m finding especially challenging as I attempt to write a novel with a teen protagonist but for an adult audience. 

I am not an expert writer, and I’m not trying to tell anyone how to write. But I find that practicing loving-kindness with my characters really helps me understand and sympathize with them. If you’re writing a character that you aren’t quite sure how to feel about—especially if this character is a teenager—I urge you to try some loving-kindness with her. You might be surprised at what you learn about her. And about yourself. 

Yours,

Miss Breathing 

The Jonas Brothers Breakup My Life Needed

It’s around sundown on the afternoon of October 28, 2013, when my uncle breaks the long silence to ask if I’m ok. That’s one of the things I like most about him: he can be as melodramatic as a sixteen-year-old girl. I try to laugh it off–I’m fine. I’m not a little girl anymore. It’s not even for sure yet. But the rumors have been circulating on the internet for days now, and we both know what’s coming. The Jonas Brothers are breaking up. 

The other girls at my high school think it’s “hilarious” that I’m “still into the Jonas Brothers.” At home, I’m known for being a drama queen. But sitting in the passenger seat of my mom’s Chevy, just my uncle and I going down a nondescript Florida backroad, I finally let myself feel all the things I’ve been pushing aside. The Jonas Brothers breaking up feels like the end of something, and although I can’t quite grasp why, I can’t help but feel a sense of mourning.

I’ve always rolled my eyes at those Tumblr edits with phrases like “Bands Save Lives” and “Her Playlist Is A Glimpse Into Her Soul” stamped over a black-and-white background. But I’d be lying if I said that kind of thing didn’t unironically cross my mind that October. The way I loved the Jonas Brothers and their music had, in a weird way, saved my life. The last gift my father gave me before passing away in 2009 was Jonas Brothers tickets. I listened to their music as a means to cope with problems that were simply too much for an eleven-year-old girl. I could play A Little Bit Longer when I felt like crying and blame Nick Jonas for my tears. The summer we lived in a haunted house, I’d blast their albums on my speakers as if the joyful music could drive away that heavy sense of dread. 

If any of this sounds melodramatic, it’s because it is. But your favorite band breaking up is an end-of-the-fucking-world scenario when you’re sixteen, and I’m not trying to invalidate the things my younger self felt so deeply. And now, nearly six years later, I still think of the Jonas Brothers breakup as a formative moment in my own life.

When I think back on the year 2019, I can honestly say the best thing that’s happened to me so far is that the Jonas Brothers got back together. It’s been a year of loss, mourning, confusion, and rejection, and always-expensive-and-not-always-effective therapy sessions.

Now, I won’t pretend I know what Kevin, Joe, and Nick were going through back in 2013 because I don’t know them personally (imagine knowing them! I bet they smell heavenly and have really soft hands), but it’s safe to say they were going through a tough time. I imagine that, when they were trying to produce V, their unreleased fifth album, they struggled with insecurities and uncertainty about the future. I’m almost certain I know how they felt when they released Pom Poms and First Time–like they were stumbling around in the dark, hoping and praying that things would go right but knowing they wouldn’t. Of course, I can only extrapolate, but something tells me I’m close to the truth here.

Back in 2013, I couldn’t understand how or why JB had come to the point where a band of brothers needed a break from each other and the fame and creative beauty they had achieved together. But I was sixteen, and things had mostly gone my way up until then. I knew what I wanted (to write) and who I wanted to be (a writer) and how I would get it (by studying writing in college). In short, life hadn’t kicked my ass yet. But all of that began to change when I started college. For the first time in my life, I doubted what I wanted and how I wanted to get there. I read “The Bell Jar” my freshman year (bad idea if you’re clinically depressed, friends) and couldn’t stop thinking about Plath’s fig tree metaphor where every fig represented a different life for the same woman. Would she pick one? Would she starve? Author, TV writer, producer, teacher, lawyer–which fig was I going to eat?

College zoomed by, and eventually, I had to pick a fig or two. I chose to change majors from media production to media theory. I chose to stay away from LA, which meant I couldn’t be a TV writer. I chose grad school, and I applied to a grand total of two institutions (not my best idea, I’ll admit). During my last semester, I was rejected from both at around the same time my grandmother died and I inadvertently (but also maybe intentionally?) ruined things with a really great guy by standing him up on our first date. 

There was a lot of crying going on that semester. I must’ve run through twice my bodyweight in tissues (is this where I try to get Kleenex to sponsor me?). None of the crying episodes felt particularly climactic at the time, but some moments do stand out in retrospect. I remember crying in the Public Gardens (a really nice place to cry, actually. I highly recommend it if you ever find yourself sad in Boston), not caring who saw. I remember crying so much it left ugly, unignorable streaks in my foundation. I saw myself in the bathroom mirror when I got home, and the crying turned into hysterical, hiccupping laughter, which in turn led to some more crying. Next thing I know, I’m on the bathroom floor, staring at a mousetrap and asking God why He’d allowed me to get my hopes up about my future if it was all going to go to shit. You know, real classy stuff. 

But here’s the thing. I should have never doubted in Him. 

I’m not trying to get too religious on you since I promised you a post about the Jonas Brothers and this is like three whole ballparks away from that, but bear with me. Whatever you believe in–God, several gods or goddesses, the Universe with a capital U, some cosmic power or other–you believe for a reason. For me, the reason is that every awful thing I have experienced has been temporary. Every bad thing I have lived through has ended, and there was almost always something better waiting on the other side. The Jonas Brothers broke up in 2013, and early this year they announced their comeback. Well, roughly a month after the triple catastrophe of early 2019, I received a miraculous little email from NYU. 

I’d applied to two different MFAs at NYU and had received rejections from both. So, when I checked my email in bed one late March morning, I was tempted to believe I was hallucinating. Maybe it was a mistake? A marketing ploy? Was Ashton Kutcher about to pop out with a camera crew? The email was an invitation to apply to an MFA program I had never heard of before, one they thought I would be a better fit for. I looked up their website and burst into tears. Happy tears, for the first time all year.

It was almost too good to be true. It was the kind of program I could only dream of, a hybrid program that perfectly combined my creative pursuits and my interest in critical theory. Perfect for the girl who couldn’t decide on a fig. 

I’m scheduled to start there next year.

How does any of this relate back to the Jonas Brothers? Just like Kevin, Nick, and Joe needed some time apart, I needed things to fall apart so that better ones could fall together. Maybe crying on a bench in the Gardens on a cold February morning was my interview on Good Morning America. And this doesn’t necessarily mean that my struggles are over with. I still have rough days (and weeks, and, hell, even months). But there’s an odd sort of relief knowing the worst is behind me. Just like Kevin, Joe, and Nick took time to heal, I’m taking a gap year before starting at NYU. I think I still have some stumbling around to do before I make it to the Jonas Brothers comeback of my life, but I have a feeling that, for me, happiness begins soon.

So, Dear Reader, if you ever find yourself going through hell, think of the Jonas Brothers. It works for me! 

Yours truly,

Miss Breathing

3 Beginnings

I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings lately. What makes a “good” beginning? What makes an effective beginning? As I start to think about where I might begin my own novel, I’m driven to remember some of my favorite literary beginnings. So, in this post, I will break down three of my favorite opening scenes from recent(ish), contemporary novels in the hopes that they might teach me something about beginnings.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub: This novel follows an eclectic and dysfunctional upper-class family as they navigate their mundane and largely fixable (yet artfully written) problems while on vacation in Mallorca.

Emma Straub is an exceptional writer, and the composition of her sentences is a great testament to this. In fact, the first sentence of “The Vacationers is one of my favorite things about it: “Leaving always came as a surprise, no matter how long the dates had been looming on the calendar.” This sentence feels like both a universal truth and a unique literary observation. It’s effective because it is immediately interesting and insightful.

This first scene follows Jim, the patriarch of the Post family, as he prepares to leave for the airport. Despite the third person voice, Straub manages to create proximity between Jim and the reader right away. Even more notable is Straub’s ability to create intrigue right away. The second paragraph of the novel consists mostly of one long sentence, part of which reads “there were things Jim would have taken out of his bags, if it had been possible: the last year of his life, and the five before that, when it came to its knees; the way Franny looked at him across the dinner table at night; the feeling of himself inside a new mouth for the first time in three decades(…).” Here, Straub once more shows us her mastery over the art of structuring sentences (it really is an art, isn’t it?). With lines like that one, Straub hints at intrapersonal conflicts, begins to set up interpersonal conflicts, and presents us with an initial idea of who this character is. She achieves a surprising amount of exposition that doesn’t feel expository at all, and she does it all within the first two paragraphs.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater: Blue, the only non-psychic in a family of clairvoyants, has always been told that she will kill her one true love. Despite this ominous warning, she can’t help but get involved with a group of boys from a local boarding school and their quest to find an ancient Welsh king.

Maggie Stiefvater’s one-of-a-kind Raven Cycle series is triumphant in more ways than one. The characterization and character development is impeccable. The infusion of Welsh mythology and paranormal elements lend the books an air of fantasy, yet they feel grounded in reality. And the lyrical, insightful prose sets the series apart from other paranormal romance books out there. All of this is either present or hinted at in the first chapter of The Raven Boys.

While the first chapter runs a bit long, it sets up a lot of information. This first chapter can be a bit expository, repeatedly taking us out of the scene to give background information, but I’m not entirely convinced this is a bad thing. “It’s expository” comes up a lot in workshops, and writers are taught to trim exposition during revisions. But, ultimately, exposition is necessary. The focus, I think, should be on making those expository bits unique, cohesive (in relation to the primary scene being described), and enjoyable to the reader. Stiefvater accomplishes all of this in the first chapter of The Raven Boys. 

Another important thing the opening scene of The Raven Boys has going for it is that it’s memorable. The unique scenario–a teenage girl and a psychic standing by the ruins of an old church, documenting the names of the people who will die in the coming year–immediately stands out to readers. Years after my initial read, I still remember this scene vividly.

By the end of the first chapter, we already have a protagonist, hints of what will become the main conflict for her, and an established tone. By the end of the first chapter, we already have all the fixings of a story.

Red, White, And Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston: When the ongoing feud between the First Son of the United States and the Prince of Wales comes to a public climax involving a royal wedding cake, the two are forced to feign friendship in an attempt to save face. This novel follows their journey from rivals to friends to secret lovers.

My favorite thing about the first chapter of RWARB is that it starts at the last possible moment. The first chapter follows Alex Claremont, the First Son of the United States, as he gets ready to confront his nemesis, The Prince of Wales, Henry. We’re quickly introduced to Helen Claremont’s White House and the people within it who surround Alex. We’re briefly introduced to Alex’s conflict with Henry, and we start to understand that it is more internal than external. And, finally, we are taken to Henry’s brother’s wedding: the moment Alex has been dreading. The first chapter ends when a drunk Alex trips and pulls Henry down with him into the massive wedding cake. Since the story takes off once Alex and Henry are forced to pretend they are friends as a way to do some damage control after the cake situation, the scene at the wedding is the inciting incident. The first plot point. McQuiston’s ability to get us there so promptly makes this a memorable beginning.

On a more microscopic level, the first scene in the first chapter is also very telling. It involves Alex finding a hidden carving on a wall of the White House that says “Rule #1: Don’t Get Caught.” This becomes a huge theme throughout the book as Alex and Henry carry out a relationship where secrecy is a must. This makes the first scene both intriguing (because who knows what kind of tiny secrets like this one are actually hidden in the White House?) and thematically important. 

There are so many things that make a beginning memorable, effective, and vivid. While I don’t claim to have the recipe for a perfect opening (that’s what the guidebooks are for!), I think (and hope) that taking a closer look at successful first chapter is one way to learn by absorption. At the very least, it was fun in the nerdiest way!

I hope, Dear Reader, that you might find this post useful too.

Yours, 

Miss Breathing

Copyright Note: I believe in giving credit where credit is due, and I always do my best to properly cite my sources. However, if you feel I have improperly credited someone’s work, please message me privately and I will make the necessary changes. If the work cited in this post is yours, please know that my intention is never to regurgitate your ideas but to discuss how they have impacted me. If you feel I have misused your work, please message me privately and I will edit the post or take it down altogether.