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We Rebuild

My social and news feeds have been full the last couple days of the news of fires at the Al-Aqsa mosque and Notre Dame, cornerstones of our history and cultures. I’ve seen people both talking about how we can possibly rebuild and how rebuilding will never make it the same; both are true.

The intense reactions and grief people have to even perceived loss of these landmarks (much was saved!), and how these places figure into our personal experience, is something that I keep thinking about.

When I moved to Japan, my Japanese colleagues introduced me to the concept of a “power spot.” This is a term used to mean, essentially, a place that seems to be imbued with spiritual power, particularly of the natural world, powerfully enough that you can feel more spiritually in-tune just by physically visiting.

My Japanese colleagues all agreed that one such power spot is Ise Grand Shrine, or Ise Jingu. Travelers more often visit prominent shrines in the Kansai region of Japan, but Ise Jingu is Japan’s preeminent shrine because it’s dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu, from whom, the mythology goes, Japanese emperors are directly descended. The chief priest or priestess of Jingu, accordingly, always comes from the imperial family. So it’s not a power spot because of its natural beauty; it’s spiritually sacred in a more literal way.

But the reason I’m thinking about Jingu and power spots is because of a unique tradition they practice: the shrine is rebuilt every twenty years.

They’re not the only shrine to practice rebuilding, but barring a few circumstances like war, Ise Jingu has been rebuilt every twenty years for centuries. According to my quick check of Wikipedia, the first ceremonial rebuilding occurred over a millennium ago.

It’s not the same shrine as it was then—but it also is.

Ise Jingu has stood in that spot, in a form people recognize as Ise Jingu (and presumably the goddess also recognizes as the place where she is enshrined), for centuries.

There are many reasons for the rebuilding process, but to me, it seems to be a critical part of the act of commitment to caring for the shrine and what it represents. And I wonder if that demonstrated commitment to caring is part of what gives the shrine its power, and what countless people feel when they visit.

Even when the structure has remained the same, our conception of and relationships to them change, because humans—their values, their societies—change. It’s not just a landmark’s place in history that gives it relevance in our lives and makes it powerful: it’s the power we give to it when we decide what it stands for and how we will relate to it.

Notre Dame will never be what it once was, but neither will we. And I believe that not only will Notre Dame be rebuilt, iterated to endure with changes—because in a way it’s a kind of power spot, too, and we haven’t lost it in the ways that matter—but that the act of doing so will change and rebuild us, too.

the cats helpfully enduring my own personal commitment to iterating (art) by blocking me in.

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Holding the Emotional Core

I’ve been doing a lot of story brainstorming and outlining work lately, and I noticed an interesting trend in my process I thought I’d share!

(All usual caveats that “process is personal” and “do whatever enables you to make stories that work” apply.)

There are parts of stories that are movable for me, but there are core beats–whether it’s a clear understanding of character motivation, a plot turn, or a world-building detail–that I often come up with on the fly but once thought up I know can never be changed, like a fixed point in time in Doctor Who.

When I’m brainstorming what needs to happen, or who a character is, or how a magic ability works, I know I’ve hit upon an idea with thematic resonance and merit when the act of writing it down makes me wince (or cackle!) in the sense of, ‘wow, self, a little close to home! I see we are Calling Ourself Out with that burn’.

These are the questions I’m grappling with in my own life, which means that when writing I’ll be teasing out issues I don’t have easy answers for. That’s the kind of chewy, meaty core where great stories brew (how many metaphors can I mix in only two clauses? I’M LEAVING IT), where characters make imperfect decisions and there’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer, only trying and doing and changing.

These are the pieces, for me–perhaps especially the off-the-cuff, wallop-me-from-behind-in-surprise pieces–that don’t change, that I make extremely sure not to change no matter what kind of revisions a story goes through, because they’re the emotional core of the story. So they tend to become the pieces I hang other bits off of, like story core nodes that hold everything together into a cohesive whole.

These are the truths that make it my story, the one only I can tell. And because they’re important to me they naturally lend the story weight and matter. When you write what you know in an emotional sense, it feels authentic because to you it is, and I think that carries through to readers.

So there are some puzzle pieces that I will still shuffle around, remove and replace, after making various decisions. But there are some that may look just like all the others from the outside, but that I know are the thread of why I’m writing and require special care, even if I landed on them by accident.

In related news, I remain convinced my fingers understand story better than my brain, which means I’d better go apply them to my notebook again!

Happy reading,

Casey

The cats demonstrate commitment to holding the line.

Making My Life and Rounding a Decade

This morning I woke up late, was finally coaxed out of bed, and returned to my cats with tea to spend the next couple hours reading a book without any particular urgency or guilt that I really ought to have been doing something else. While this was the first day in several I was able to spend in this excellent fashion, it was possible, which is a remarkable indicator of my success this year: to be able to be happy being.

Strap in, friends; this is a long one.

In past years, my annual year-in-reflection birthday post (yes, I know it’s December, life happens and I’m not fretting about it) has often been a way of discovering for myself the pattern of my efforts and accomplishments. This year, I knew ages ago what I’d be writing about, which is this:

Sustainability.

After an incredibly rough year culminating in a deeply upsetting outcome, this year I decided I needed to adjust my course. I’ve been pushing as hard as I could for years, learning how to prioritize writing for myself, how far I can push myself.

It’s far.

And I crashed and burned out, hard.

Because what I hadn’t established for myself was stability. I didn’t have a job I could foresee myself still working at happily, or sufficiently lucratively, five years down the road if a publishing contract never comes about. I could prioritize writing, but I’d also learned to de-prioritize myself. Financially, emotionally, logistically—I needed to shift my goals for myself to be less dependent on what is ultimately outside of my control.

I made myself take a step back, which was a feat in and of itself. I thought about what kind of life I want, and I worked on building some structures into it and slowly settling into them.

Stories are absolutely part of the life I want, will always be, but taking a step back in terms of writing means that I only fully wrote and edited one novel and one novella this year. That only had me feeling unproductive, even though there are countless professional writers who don’t manage a single book in a year—or perhaps insufficiently ambitious, because I can do another full novel plus revisions on top of that in a year if I choose to. This year I deliberately did not.

And I’m proud of the work I did. I got to work on some secret projects I’m excited about. I love my weird shounen anime-style but with women (tournaments! friendship! magic swords!) novella. Tea Set and Match is the first sequel I’ve ever written, which was its own education and journey, and I’m happy with where I landed. Tea Princess Chronicles resonates more strongly with people than I ever imagined, and readers’ responses to it have heartened me in turn. (I am still not quite over the shock that people want to give me money for my fiction, particularly fiction I give away for free. It flabbergasts me every time.)

(As an aside, if you want to support artists: tell other people about their work, buy their work, and tell the artist their work mattered to you. Those three things get us through.)

Stories are also now part of how I make my living, which has long been a goal, and now it’s taking another form. I’m going to keep writing, and I’m also now a professional indie bookseller, which combines a lot of my project management skills as well as a long history of shouting at people about which books they should buy!

On another axis, bookselling has given me an avenue to build a form of activism into my daily habits, working on change on a local scale. I don’t have the time or money for many other forms of activism that matter, but engaging day by day and face-to-face within my community is something I’m prepared and satisfied to be practicing. I look forward to taking that even farther as I grow into this work.

Working at a bookstore has been a dream of mine for years, and now it’s work not instead of but in addition to writing that I actually care about and can sustain me. That’s huge.

Adventure and friendship are also hugely important to the person I want to be. This year I ventured off to Tibet with a friend, a trip I haven’t written about much because it’s difficult to convey how surreal it was. It truly was an adventure, in both the positive and negative connotations that word can imply—in the sounds and silences, in the visible history, in how we use and are used by our bodies. But it was also an exercise in traveling in a way that still felt like an adventure without going at a pace that made me unhappy, with support in place to address the unexpected—and friendship that is uplifting rather than pressuring.

And after what seems like forever of living where I do, I finally begin to feel like I have a core of close friends. The kind who go out for ice cream when you’re bored or sad or just very enthusiastic about ice cream, answer calls at weird hours and talk about everything, and share otter pictures and watch ridiculous movies; the kind who are there for the fun and the hard.

I also got engaged, which is its own kind of adventure! There’s the adventure of wedding planning, of course, but I really mean the adventure of deciding you want to build a life with another person and actively setting about entwining your lives together structurally, in figuring out the life you envision for yourselves and working to make it reality. This was a step a long time coming, and I am glad to have finally made the choice to go down this path.

I also turned 30, which seems like it ought to have been a bigger deal than it was. I went out of my way to make sure I celebrated thoroughly, but I think the most notable thing about embarking on a new decade is that I don’t feel any stress about it.

I had a great year.

I expect even better to come.

And I’m going to go and make that happen for myself.

For those keeping track of my flying adventures, this year I flew on a hot air balloon, accompanied by my fiancée. A less dangerous flight for me than some—given, in succession, skydiving, flying trapeze, indoor skydiving, ziplining in Thailand, and paragliding (…okay now that I’ve located 5 years’s worth of posts on this website I do feel a little old)—but one I could share with the most important person in my life.

I’m not giving up on flying adventures, but for my 30s I’ve decided to change the annual adventure requirements:

Every year, I want to go somewhere new.

And I started that this year, too: with Tibet, and again on the actual day of my birthday with a tea party to visit friends in Victoria. Sustainable adventure and connections, in concept and action.

So I’m still busy and sometimes overwhelmed. I always will be, because I am too ambitious to ever truly rest, and I will never, ever stop pushing myself to be more. But I’m learning to adjust my goals and expectations, plans and efforts accordingly.

I’m learning to have the life full of stories, adventure, impact, and connection that I want—sustainably, all at once, because I am also too ambitious to settle for less.

Ready for a new year and decade an adventures,
Casey

Thanks, Goku

I am having Actual Feelings about Goku’s appearance in the Macy’s Parade and what it means.

For one, it’s that we now live in a world where Goku can appear in an event of this profile in the US. As a nerd who stereotypically grew up largely isolated among people who disdained anime, I can’t deny there’s an element of vindication in this—but also wonder, that this is now where we are today. It’s not exactly a surprise to me anymore that there are other people who grew up on Dragon Ball Z, but this is a different level of recognition of cultural significance.

But it’s also waking up Thanksgiving morning to all of the reactions (I’m on the west coast) to Goku flying above us. I don’t just mean the many in-jokes, although those are absolutely giving me life today. I mean the unabashed enthusiasm people are publicly expressing, the wonder we’re all sharing, at seeing an actual giant Goku flying through our streets.

Not mockery, but earnest delight. It is, for one, Americans rallying behind a non-white illegal immigrant refugee and alien character literally and figuratively from another world as our hero.

And what’s really getting me in the feelings today is that this is also about who Goku is as a hero specifically: no matter how old he gets, how often he literally has to sacrifice his life, or how often people around him fail, Goku as a hero is not cynical or grizzled.

He always delights in silliness. He is endlessly hopeful. He dares to dream and gather his wishes into reality. He never stops working toward what matters. He never shies away from the impossible but instead takes it as a challenge to make it possible. He enthusiastically welcomes new friends and celebrates their victories, no matter the scale. He always believes in people, and in the power of ordinary people—because to Goku, nothing and no one is ever ordinary.

That’s who we’re celebrating as our hero today, and it’s a reminder I will hold with me. This Thanksgiving, I am 100% Team #ThanksGoku.

And with that, I’m off to prepare enough food for a Saiyan, a tradition I think Goku would heartily approve of.

grateful to these cats who never cede the paw ground

Criticizing “Tropey” Criticisms

I went off on Twitter the other day about a subject I want to expand on a bit. I’d been looking at reviews for a book and found myself irritated by criticisms that it’s “tropey,” and it’s worth unpacking what people mean when they talk about fiction being tropey.

The short answer is they mean different things, some of which are more problematic than others. The long answer is, well, longer, so let’s get started.

People often misunderstand what tropes are, so let me begin by saying a thing:

Tropes are not inherently good or bad.

Tropes are storytelling devices. They are common elements that give readers a familiar structure to latch onto in a new narrative world. You have read them before, because all stories use tropes.

Once more for the seats in the back:

ALL!

STORIES!

USE!

TROPES!

There is no such thing as a completely original story. A certain trope may be new to you, and stories may certainly help develop new tropes. But trope-less? No.

Some tropes are considered clichés; this does not make all tropes clichés. So why do stories get criticized for being tropey? What’s going on here?

Sexism is one answer. I’m going to spend the least time on this one because I’m just so bored of this deeply uninspired form of sexism, but: a lot of literary criticism of tropey-ness* is just plain sexism.

*(what is the correct noun form here anyway? tropey-ness? tropyness? tropiness? MY GOOGLE-FU FAILS ME, but it’s too late to stop this rant now and I grimly soldier on.)

Sometimes that bias is conscious; sometimes not. Our culture overwhelmingly targets anything teenage girls like with criticism, and if you ever dip a toe into AO3 or Tumblr you will find more tropes and unashamed, enthusiastic embracing of them than you know what to do with.

Tropes themselves can be coded feminine, too: for example, girls love stories about overthrowing the dystopian patriarchy; cue a predictable response of ‘ugh those stories are tired’.

When you criticize a specific trope, consider who it’s popular with. If the answer is teenage girls, perhaps reconsider.

It’s important to note that “tropey” is also applied to work by marginalized authors across intersections as a way to undercut literary merit. Be wary of criticism that amounts to “it’s just x trope but with people of color.” That reader not only isn’t the target audience, they’re unaware of or uninterested in their own biases.

Aside from prejudice, there are two primary reasons for criticisms of tropyness:

  1. They’re tropes the reader personally is tired of.
  2. The tropes are poorly executed.

The first case is not super complicated. People are sometimes remarkably bad at distinguishing “arranged marriage plots fill me with ennui, having read approximately a gazillion of them in my lifetime” from “arranged marriage plots are lazy writing.”

A story that uses tropes you personally don’t like is not necessarily a poorly crafted story.

However, it leads us into the second case, which is more nuanced: what does “poorly executed” even mean? This gets us into tricky territory, because people don’t often like to consider craft as subjective as art, but let’s dig in here anyway.

I, personally, am not a fan of love triangles. This does not mean that all or even most love triangles are bad, nor does it mean I can never like a love triangle in fiction. It depends on execution.

Sometimes a book avoids criticism of tropiness by deliberately subverting a trope. If it’s a trope you’re not fond of, that may make it more likely to work for you!

But again, not all tropes are bad in their original form. Admittedly some extremely are, but that’s not what I’m focusing on here. Frankly, even a well-executed love triangle sometimes won’t work for me, because I just don’t like the trope (note to self to write a future blog post for you all on why).

But many love triangles I come across in fiction aren’t well-executed, because capturing the essence of a trope can be more complicated than it first appears. How does a particular trope work, and why, and for whom?

And this is where authors run into trouble, in two different ways that both manifest out of a failure to understand the original form of the trope.

Say an author does not live in a box and thus recognizes that Harry Potter is wildly popular. They too identified with Harry’s plight and subsequent introduction into another world, and so they start a book with a boy who lives in a cupboard under the stairs. It’s fairly obvious that this hypothetical author has failed to capture the meaningful aspects of the story or Harry’s origins, and any reader who is likewise familiar with Harry Potter will look at this and roll their eyes.

However, it less obvious why writing any other portal fantasy magic school won’t do on its own, yet there are plenty of other coming-of-age magic schools before Harry Potter and after. Some of them are fantastic, others are not, that generally has little to do with their commercial success, and alas this is not actually a blog about how magic school tropes work.

The point being, if you want to use a trope well—or to subvert it in an interesting way—you have to understand what makes it work in the first place. If you slap it into a book without that groundwork, it can feel false, pandering, or disappointing to readers who do love that trope.

Sometimes, that is what a criticism of tropeyness means: the author knows a trope is popular and wishes to replicate it but has not fully understood the storytelling device they’re working with.

Which brings us to the second common iteration of poor execution that leads to criticisms of tropeyness, which is the matter of balance.

When there are too many very currently popular tropes out of proportion with new twists the author is bringing to the narrative, it leads to the impression that the story is in service of the tropes rather than that the tropes are in the service of the story.

Importantly, this balance is super subjective and varies greatly depending on what the reader brings to the text. For instance, I found it difficult to get into Eragon in large part because of this over-familiarity at the point in my life I read it. Readers that were new to those tropes, though, inhaled them like tea. (that’s how that simile works right)

Whereas an undertaking like Pride by Ibi Zoboi deliberately adopts the tropes of Pride and Prejudice and retells the story with people of color in modern Brooklyn. So many of the tropes are going to be intentionally familiar, but that twist alone can make everything fresh and new and different.

So, in summary, sometimes “tropeyness” means the author has erred in their craft, but a lot of the time people apply this term out of a lack of self-awareness. Criticism needs context and should be considered as critically as anything else.

All of which is to say I side-eye criticisms of tropeyness because they’re often slapped onto reviews more casually than misapplied tropes.

Anyway, hooray for tropes and stories and the people who write them thoughtfully and passionately, THE END.

well-executed iterations on the “cat in box” trope

Don’t Wait

A short post, because I have a lot going on today.

For one, I’m planning a wedding—mine, specifically, which is a new enough development it still seems bizarre! I’m also putting the final preparations together for my trip to Tibet (!!), which I leave for tomorrow. I’ll be gone two weeks, without internet access, and largely also without access to things like, say, convenience stores, so preparations are taking somewhat more doing than usual. But I’ll be traveling with my friend and fellow writer Nicole Lisa, and we’re planning to use the long train rides to and from Tibet as a mini writing retreat.

It’s all adventure, and stories, and important relationships, and my life is so, so full, in the best way.

So before I head out, the thought I want to leave you all with is this:

Don’t wait.

Don’t wait to use your good ideas—for stories, adventures, moments. Using breeds them. There will be more. I promise.

Don’t wait to be ready. Is your craft not up to writing a particular story yet? You grow from the writing. Do you think you need to do more research? There is always more research that can be done; at some point you have to move regardless.

Don’t wait until you’ve hit a particular career marker, or anything outside of your control, before pursuing what you care about. There will always be uncertainty, and there will always be other goals to reach for.

Don’t hold back on what matters to you. Show important people in your life that you love them. Fly toward your dreams. Plan and work for them as if you can reach them, and you may find more often than you expect that they’re closer than you realized.

I trust you all to take my intended meaning here—there are obviously things in life you can’t control, things you’re not able to reach for external reasons (finances! health! they are legit!). But so often people lament experiences they missed because they never chose to take the steps toward having them.

Don’t wait for life.

Go.

cats snuggling together

These cats are living their best life.

Make Your Process Work for You

I wrote a little bit on Twitter last week about how I’d used my writing process, and more specifically my awareness of it, to troubleshoot a problem with drafting Tea Princess Chronicles, and it occurred to me that might be worth expounding on. So! Here we go.

The most fundamental thing to understand is that your writing process is whatever enables you to meet your writing goals.

For me, my primary goal is completing books. My process is the structure I build into my life to enable me to do that.

Your goal can be pushing your craft limitations, writing consistently, writing at all–whatever you want, provided you have some ability to control it.

(By which I mean, your goal should not be, say, getting published traditionally, or getting fancy movie deals, because notice the passive voice there? Those decisions are reliant on other people; you’re not the agent ultimately in control of them. But setting attainable goals is a blog post for another day.)

If you have a process, yet you’re not meeting your goals? Maybe it’s worked before but isn’t anymore? You can change it. Process isn’t sacred; it evolves with you, your needs, and your stories.

So how do you figure out a process that actually works for you? How do you make it reliable? How do you figure out what’s extraneous?

The summer before I started high school, I decided I was going to actually write a book for the first time. I’d read David and Leigh Eddings’ The Rivan Codex, and I used the process outlined in it for my first attempt. I had a lot of fun but ultimately produced way more world-building documentation than actual story. A learning experience! Happily, the Eddings had the foresight to specify that this was just the process they used and that it should not be taken as gospel, so I didn’t. Instead I started looking up the writers I admired, researching how they worked, and experimenting.

That’s the answer, essentially: experimentation, plus time and work.

The good news is most writers I know are huge process nerds and are happy to share how they work. Their processes almost certainly won’t map 100% to what you need, because writers are different, and books are different. But pieces of their processes can be useful as jumping-off points of what to try, especially if you know whatever you’re doing demonstrably is not getting you closer to your goal.

It may not work! Sometimes you’ll know in advance that something definitely will not work for you–and sometimes you won’t.

Any process that requires me to get up earlier in the morning is definitely never happening, writing out of order is also never happening, and I can explain the reasons for both at length. But outlining, it turns out, is a skill I was able to acquire, though there was a time I couldn’t have imagined that working.

Writing every day seemed like the sort of thing I ought to be able to do, but it turns out that extremely doesn’t work for me–I can only do it for a few days at a time and then I burn out for way longer than I wrote. On the other hand, I’ve learned I don’t have to write every day, because instead I can arrange my schedule such that I can get the same number of words done in a few shifts each week as it takes colleagues consistent daily shifts to accomplish.

Here are some purely logistical questions about writing process to consider:

  • Do you write best with a lot of hours all at once, or do you run out of steam? Do you write best with momentum, a little every day, or in bursts?
  • Can your schedule be shifted at all? Does its structure already mimic your priorities?
  • Is it easiest to start writing if you’ve left off in the middle of a chapter, or if you can start fresh?
  • Do you write better typing or writing longhand with your favorite fountain pen?
  • Do you focus better alone in your room, or at a coffee shop where there’s nothing to do but work?
  • Is drinking tea while you work soothing, or is the excitement caffeine jitters?
  • Do you write best with an outline?
  • Have you tried?

If you don’t know the answer to questions like those and you’re not satisfied with your process (remember, in context this means whether what you’re doing is enabling you to meet your goals), try something different. It doesn’t have to be a complete overhaul, but if you’re not meeting your goals as-is, something has to change.

Process is more than just logistics, of course. But logistics are a concrete thing you can control a lot more easily than other aspects of story creation, so they’re a useful place to start if you’re looking to make a change.

Writing is art, but it is also craft. What I can control I will, and being actively aware and working on my process is one of the most fundamental and simplest (not easy, necessarily, but basic) parts of writing that is within my control. I want to complete books, which means I don’t just wait for a muse to strike with inspiration; I figure out how to make my words and stories happen.

I’ve written eleven books in the last decade. (That’s not counting shorter works or projects I didn’t finish; that’s just novels.) That didn’t happen accidentally or by magic; those manuscripts exist because I took steps to make them. I doubt I’m done learning my process–I’m not sure such a thing is possible, especially as I expect it to change as my life and books do–but being aware of it consciously helps me not just plan my life sustainably but to finish books reliably–which, again, is the goal.

In the case of Tea Princess Chronicles, I was able to figure out there was a story problem because my process wasn’t working. I knew how the story should be coming along–namely, faster and with greater ease–but it wasn’t. The logistics of my process were all in place, but the story wasn’t flowing. That’s how I knew I actually had a craft problem.

Because I know how I work, I knew to go back and check the character fundamentals, since that’s my entry point into stories. (I believe the writing advice “POV fixes everything” is attributed to Emma Bull, and I have found it to be true in my work.) And sure enough, that’s where my problem was. It required a little shifting but ultimately wasn’t difficult to address at that stage. Which is fortunate, because Tea Princess Chronicles posts weekly! There’s not much space to backtrack, which also makes it super important for me to have a reliable process.

It also means that, say, when I have a rush deadline for creative writing, I know what I need to do to meet it. That also happened this year on a different writing project, and I knew what I needed to do with my schedule, and how it was going to affect other deadlines, and made it work. Specifically, I made my process work for me, in the service of my goals.

The important thing is process shouldn’t feel limiting. When it’s working, it should enable you to meet your goals, not something that makes them harder. Process is a means of empowerment, helping you accomplish what matters to you.

So experiment, build the structures you need, and tell your stories.

 

the process of a territory takeover in action: