Buffy the Vampire slayer was my childhood hero, my saving grace in adolescence, and as an adult I have found that meeting another BTVS fan is like a show recommending a person. We’re instant friends, trading favorite scenes, funny quotes, and devastating heartbreaks. Did my Buffy obsession predestine me to one day write a “chosen one” series…Maybe. But looking back, Buffy also gave me a female role model who was confident, flawed, and evolving. Being different was part of her superpower. Being ordinary was also part of her superpower. The balance of this was her struggle, and it made her so relatable, even as she was slaying vampires (and falling in love with one… errrr… two.)
In my twenties, I began to see a shift in mass market YA fantasy/paranormal stories where the female lead crushes on a guy and wonders how on earth this “perfect” guy could possibly like her back. Gone were the days, it seemed, of a bad ass, tender hearted, leather wearing, quirky female character who still had relationship issues, but certainly not: I AM NOT WORTHY OF THIS DUDE. The damsel in distress was back, and I, a new mom of a baby girl, was miffed.
I was also unwittingly deep in the hole of postpartum anxiety and agoraphobia. My mind had become my worst enemy, each terrified thought another brick I used to build a wall between myself and the outside world. For nearly a year, I only left home if I absolutely had to, and each time I did I was sure I would die, or someone would try to take my daughter. I lived in fear, and as it reached a crippling level I wouldn’t venture beyond where the edge of my lawn met the sidewalk.
After an intervention with my husband and my mother, I knew I needed a way to retrain my thoughts and to feel in control. If any of you reading this are also parents, you understand how out of control life can feel as this tiny, incredible, helpless little soul commandeers the control you thought you had over, well, anything. Add to this an all-consuming fear of other people, and I had made myself an island. I wasn’t ready to throw my arms open and greet the general population with the warm and fuzzies. What I first needed was to remember how people interacted, how they build relationships, make promises, sometimes break them, betray each other, let each other down, come to each other’s rescue. And what I really needed to remember was that 99.9% of the time, everybody lives through day to day interactions.
I read a lot, and as I recognized the fear and question of self-worth in these female leads, I realized what I didn’t like was how much I saw of myself. My fear was born out of this idea that I was not worthy of having a happy, healthy child; HOW COULD THE POWERS THAT BE PICK ME AND TRUST ME TO RAISE THIS PERFECT LITTLE HUMAN? I AM NOT WORTHY. I’ve made mistakes, I’ve said things I regret, I’ve made a few terrible choices, and so I kept waiting for the shoe to drop, for the guillotine to fall, for someone – a stranger – to swoop in and destroy it. Identifying this source of fear was incredibly helpful, and suddenly I realized what I needed to do: take this creative brain that can conjure worst-case-scenarios at every gas station, grocery store, get-together, playdate, etc., and put it to productive use. I wanted to reclaim my stubborn, spitfire, can-do, don’t-tell-me-no nature. So I began to write a story about a no-nonsense horse girl who becomes fearful of the woods beyond the barn where she works, and Tanzy Hightower was born.
In Tanzy’s world there are two parallel universes. The king of the unseen reality pulls out all the stops to coax forth the darker sides to Tanzy’s nature. In this way, I realized I was facing down my own demons, acknowledging their presence, and the fact that sometimes they win, which Tanzy comes to learn too. At a public event during my first year on tour, a fan asked me why I put Tanzy “through utter hell.” In answering him I began to understand I had created Tanzy to have a voice in my head besides my own that was better at talking my thoughts off the ledge, or out of what I have come to call the “rabbit hole” of anxious feelings, where one worry gives chase to the next, again and again, faster and faster until you’re paralyzed and out of breath, even if you’re sitting dead still.
Over the course of two more babies, three books, two worlds, numerous betrayals, wrong choices, Hail Mary’s, and one epic end of days battle, Tanzy and I learned how to trust again, to dare again, to take chances, to regroup and rebound when things do go horribly wrong, and most importantly: how to put one foot in front of the other until we’ve reached the edge of what’s comfortable, and then take one more step.
Tanzy’s journey was a crash course in writing, too – like swimming and learning how to swim at the same time. Here are three of the best pieces of advice I can give new writers.
1. The first draft doesn’t have to be any good; it just has to be written.I liken a first draft to walking into a dark, cluttered, unfamiliar room with only the knowledge that there is a second door in here somewhere, and you have to reach it. You stumble around, feeling your way with your fingers (and your shins.) It’s painful. It’s slow. It’s dizzying. But along the way you start to remember this cold flat surface on the left leads to this low, wooden thing and if you keep going straight you’ll nail your shin again, so you turn and find a clearer way. You reach the end of the first draft. You find the door, and in opening it the lights come on and now you can see everything, all the little pieces that made your road map from Door 1 to Door 2.
2. Write what you know. And if you don’t know it, learn it.In that first draft, the horse aspect was minimal. I worried non-horse people would be put off by the horse details. Then I sent the second draft to a friend for feedback and she said something that surprised me: the horse-related scenes were her favorite, and this came from someone who does not like horses at all. She advised me to beef up the appearance of horses in the story – not because they mattered to her, but because it was clear they mattered to my character and my world building, and both of these became clearer and stronger when horses were present in a scene. When a character cares, it is easier for a reader to care.
When you write something you know well, little details come to the surface that add depth and authenticity. That being said, a writer can’t limit her/himself to write only from areas of previous expertise. But you also can’t write authentically and richly about something you don’t understand. Research is your friend. Sometimes research means spending a hundred hours on Google or YouTube. Sometimes it’s taking a lesson, volunteering somewhere relevant, traveling to your setting, or interviewing experts in the given field. Having just finished a crime thriller, and having never spent any time inside a court room, jail cell, interrogation room, or you know – KILLED SOMEONE – I spent hours and hours picking the brains of defense attorneys, paralegals, a jail warden, and police officers. I watched every true crime documentary I could get my hands on. I am also positive my internet search history has me flagged on every FBI list in the book. If you don’t understand your world, you can’t build it.
3. Get fresh eyes on your work.Once you have a solid draft, which means a complete picture of your world and road map, strong voices for your characters, and a clear idea of what’s at stake for all involved, I recommend inviting fresh eyes (“beta readers”) to evaluate your work. As the sole creator of this universe and story, you’re too close to see the proverbial forest for the trees. Your mind will fill the gaps your words may have left. Your foreknowledge of the plot arc will trick you into overlooking a lagging place in your pacing because you’re anticipating what’s coming later. Fresh, unbiased eyes are the single best outside development tool for any manuscript.
Recommended reading: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and On Writing by Stephen King
Writing is a long game. It is both artistry and business, demanding of heart and mind. It will make you feel incredible, insane, frustrated, fulfilled, on top of the world, invisible. There are so many ways to become a writer now, which makes the process both easier and harder. During a recent podcast recording I was asked to define what it meant to be a writer. The question threw me a bit because to be honest, even four books later I still feel like I’m faking it from time to time. But once I wrapped my head around an answer, I knew it to be true: a writer is someone who hasto write, for whom the idea of not writing is unacceptable, even if it means facing down your demons and exploring the dark within. And I realize now that in a way we are all the Chosen Ones of our own lives, our own stories. This is our superpower.