Muse in Pocket, Pen in Hand · Novel · Reflection

Winter Blooms

It’s 2021, and somehow, still January. At the beginning of the month, I almost gave in to my yearly desire for a planner, something cute with stars and moons and fresh pages waiting to be filled. But I stopped myself.

Because I know this feeling, this desire to Get My Shit Together™ that happens every year (or once a month more like), but then after a week, maybe two, of using it, the planner falls by the wayside and I’m back on my usual bullshit. So this year, I decided to save the money, and find other ways to get organized. This has taken the form of free print-out lists, and then lists for my lists, but it’s working ok so far.

I’m also proud that I’ve kept up with my big goal so far, which is, generally, to read more than I did last year, and more precisely, two books a month. 2020 completely eroded my attention span, as I know it did for a lot of people, so I’m taking this goal gently, one month at a time. And I just finished my second book, one I’ve been looking forward to for a while, The Silvered Serpents by Roshani Chokshi. I loved it, perhaps even more than the first book, The Gilded Wolves, and now that the third book is going to be set in Venice, and comes out this year? *heart eyes* The first book I read was Fable by Adrienne Young, which I also loved. (I’ll be writing full reviews for the Muses blog coming soon. . .)

Honestly right now I’m also just so grateful to be alive, and to be safe, with my partner at home. We’ve been so lucky, and we’re so thankful. We try to go on walks a few times a week, and have started finding new routes and loops around our area. On our most recent amble, we passed the most amazing tree. I don’t know what kind it was, but the way its branches stretched and spread, it had to be a hundred years old. And I had to take a picture, like the tourist I am. There’s something about big old trees that I find endlessly comforting.

It also never fails to amaze me each year when I see blooms popping up here and there in gardens and side-yards. Coming from New England, where it’s usually frigid and/or slushy from late November through March, and nothing grows until at least April, when I see snowdrops or roses or any flowers appearing in deepest darkest January here, it always thrills me. Especially when I’m struggling through another depressive episode, as I know a lot of people are right now too.

I’m so grateful to be reading again, I feel like it’s helping refill my creative well. I also liked diving into the new prompt over at the Muses blog, and my new story may or may not be an early character exercise for my new novel idea. . .I’ve been letting it percolate for a while, and it still needs a lot more time simmering (gotta love cooking metaphors), but it was fun to jump into a quick scene and test drive the characters. I remember this is how I started fleshing out ideas for my Venice book, in two different short stories on the Muses blog. I’ve heard of writers putting their characters in different situations with writing prompts, and seeing how they’d act/react, so it’s definitely been fun to try.

I’m still trying to figure out what I should work on next. I feel compelled to FINALLY FIX HONORS, somehow, in some way. I’ve got a few ideas, but I think the reality is that I’ll have to rewrite it all. From scratch. From the ashes. I’ve heard other writers say that this was a necessary step for them, and it resulted in a better story, and even landed them their agent or publishing deal. So maybe Honors needs the full remodel, where I keep the good bones, but rework the rest of it into something stronger. It also still needs to be shortened, so I’ll need to reconfigure the plot as I cut scenes and maybe even some more characters. I’m still noodling on what I can do, what angles I can take to start gutting it. (Can you tell I’ve been watching a lot of renovation shows? And cooking shows. . .)

One thing that I’m still pondering, in addition to my previous question on how to make the story Right (which Nicole amazingly wrote about as well!), is the idea of the active/reactive protagonist.

In previous drafts, the MC of HONORS was too reactive, too passive. I’ve learned a lot since then (I hope!), and rewritten parts of it to bring her out more and make her more active. But I still find myself coming up against a few snags.

One: when writing about women in historical fiction, for various reasons to do with the goddamn fucking patriarchy, women often weren’t very active in their own lives. In some ways they were, yes, and then they had to work to maintain what power they did have, in their home or community. So for example, my MC can’t become the chieftain of her clan in Scotland, because that wasn’t possible in her time. But she can do other things. I’ve been trying to toe that line of what she could do within the constraints of the time, of her family, of their expectations, of her own self-beliefs, but I’ve also tried to break all of those down as the plot progresses and put her in a situation where she finally CAN decide her own fate. So I guess my frustration is that this doesn’t happen on page one. It happens a few chapters in, once I’ve established the world and its rules, and then it all gets flipped on its head, and that’s when she can take the reins a bit more. But I guess, this means she comes across as quite reactive/passive early on.

And I’m struggling with a few other scenes, where I’ve gotten feedback from CPs that she fades in to the background, which is completely fair, and yet, the conversation in those scenes doesn’t have to do with her. Part of the fun of historical fiction is when the main character gets swept up in a larger historical event, so there needs to be a bit of exposition and setting the context/stakes. She’s reacting to that, but she isn’t dictating it. Is that a bad thing? I guess I’m just realizing how the genre I’m writing in—historical fiction —can be limiting in certain ways, because it was actually incredibly limiting for women and people with uteruses ‘back in the day’. . .

One solution I think, is that I need to lean more into the fantasy elements I have, and not be afraid to make some things happen in the story, even if they’re not 100% historically accurate. (Curse my strict academic reflexes. . .)

But that idea of the active protagonist, who drives the plot forward, and who makes things happen one way or another, is still nagging me for another reason. Don’t get me wrong, I love a smooth, articulate MC just as much as anyone, the kind who always has a perfect comeback, who knows what to say and delivers it in a Deep and Poignant one-liner that makes the reader go ‘Ooohh’. . .The one who always has a trick up their sleeve, or who might make mistakes, but dang it they’re confident in whatever decision they make.

However—what if the person reading about this MC doesn’t relate to that? What if they were/are an awkward, insecure, anxious ball of neuroses, and never had the confidence to deliver a suave one-liner, let alone walk across the school cafeteria without panicking? I guess, what I’m saying is, maybe the kind of story that would most resonate with me is when the MC doesn’t know what to do. When they’re trying their best and it’s still not good enough. When they’re so paralyzed by the choices before them that they shut down and need to have a quick cry before they can move forward.

I know that doesn’t exactly sound riveting, and I’m not saying there needs to be seven chapters of contemplation before the MC does anything, but I just feel like maybe this kind of character is slightly less proactive for a reason? I’m thinking out loud here, as I try to articulate all this, but I feel like there’s room for MCs (in genres other than literary fiction) who don’t know what to do at first, and who grow in confidence as the story goes? Where the character maybe has anxiety and depression, and wants to do the right thing, but doesn’t know what that is right away.

I was elated when I found a discussion on Twitter the other day about this whole idea of passive protagonists, because it articulated some of what I was trying to ponder, but more importantly, it highlights this from the point of view of writers of color. It absolutely blew my mind to consider how their stories might come up against this ingrained rule in western books and storytelling, and that’s why they keep getting the dreaded ‘didn’t connect with the story’ or ‘MC not active enough’ in their feedback from agents and publishers. I’ll link to the thread here to credit the author, but here’s a screenshot as well.

Now I am absolutely not saying my story has the same struggle, because I am a white author with incredible privilege. But it helped to see that my MC is dealing with trauma from her past, and is constrained by her circumstances, and that’s why she is passive (at first). It’s not that she’s weak. So from a mental health perspective, this helped me see my story and main character in a new way, and maybe gave me hope that my MC can still learn and grow in confidence through the story, just like we all do in life. Anyway, I just learned so much from that thread, and wanted to share it, in the hope that we can all finally start moving away from the limited western style and rules of storytelling!

I’m arming myself with this new knowledge as I look to my next round of revisions, whether it’s on HONORS (let’s be honest, it most likely will be because I CANNOT LET THIS STORY GO), or my Venice book, which is out with CPs now.

This is why I love Twitter so much, it’s helped me realize so many things I’ve been blinded to, and I want to keep learning and levelling up my writing. I’d love to hear what you think, or if you’ve struggled with this as you plot or revise your stories.

Thanks for reading!

~M

3 thoughts on “Winter Blooms

  1. Ahhh, I loved reading your thoughts like this, Meredith! I am not a historical fiction writer by any means, so feel to ignore me completely, but I think having some leeway of what she can and can’t do compared to what was historically accurate…should be okay? (I mean, again, maybe this is a major “no” in the hisfic genre, but it’s not an autobiography, so why can’t you make it more feminist if you want to, you know?). And I think it’s amazing recognizing the passive versus active dilemma with Maeve. I think it’ll be a fine line to make her more active, yet still show a protag who *is* more passive; and what is that like? I think you can still tell a riveting tale and, quite possibly, a refreshing one, to boot!

    I believe in you, no matter what you work on next. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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