The Storybook Villain

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So I’m twelve chapters into my sequel and something is bothering me—there is no obvious villain in the story. Or should I say I still haven’t decided who, among the many characters, I want to assign the role to.

Literature is littered with too many cases of cardboard villains who, for reasons unknown, have decided to exist solely for the pleasure of thwarting or doing harm to the protagonist. These days, however, it’s hardly enough to be a baddie, just because. One’s gotta be a good baddie, complete with a credible backstory, unjustifiable yet understandable motivations, a dangerous but persuasive personality, an underlying vulnerability, and so on.

Given the implications, and how I’ve grown to care deeply about every single character, no matter how minor or major a part they play in the story, I’m going back and forth on several possible scenarios. Even the possibility that the baddie is everyone and no one.

Stop overthinking it, just write, I tell myself. But to pull off a convincing showdown between opposing forces, I first have to be convinced—and I’m struggling with the struggle because I’m a toughass critic when it comes to these things.

Because here’s the thing: I don’t want to have a villain simply for the sake of having a villain, especially the sort that everybody loves to hate. And then I wonder, more generally: in life, do we even need villains in order to overcome obstacles? Granted there are many irritating people in our lives who’ve made difficult situations almost unbearable—but are they the issue itself or just the catalyst that forces us to face a more significant, pre-existing problem?

Pondering on the subject of villains has got me a little introspective, I’ll have to admit. Revisiting my history of run-ins with ‘baddies’—and dredging up memories that are tied to specific times and places—has not been easy. Also, in order for me to reframe these unpleasant individuals within a larger narrative, a fair bit of reconditioning is involved.

That’s been an interesting exercise, to say the least.

As I unpacked my memories (especially ones I’d much rather forget) and reconsidered their place within my mental catalog, I was able to detach them from the emotions that went with the particular encounters. As a result, many horrible people of my past started to look less like the powerful and enigmatic villains I’d made them out to be, and more like, well, people. Yes, they were manipulative, calculating, opportunistic, and mean-spirited, but still just people.

And as I examined the various instances in which various ‘baddies’ made my life hell, I noticed that my fears and insecurities—and how I responded to them—were a common thread.

These same fears and insecurities were the real villains, whose rules everyone played by, me and my tormentors included. The ‘bad guys’ only won because they recognized this fact, and I didn’t. As a result, even if I believed myself to be on the side of ‘good,’ I lost. Every single time.

As someone who grew up reading any book she could get her hands on, and being thoroughly acquainted with every storybook villain imaginable, I always assumed the bad guys came to bad endings. The evil character was always, always vanquished, no matter how seemingly weak the protagonist was. Because that’s how it is in fiction. Good always wins.

But frankly, since I began to write my own books, this whole villain conundrum has made me think twice. Why did I always assume a novel’s main character was ‘good’ just because they narrated the story, and that the antagonist was someone outside themselves?

So what happens if the villain lies both without and within? I guess I’ll have to keep writing to find out.

Happy 2018: New Year’s Resolutions

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Happy New Year, folks! I hope 2018’s gotten off to a wonderful start for you.

For a number of reasons 2017 wasn’t the most productive year for me, nor the most conducive in terms of writing and self-improvement. But I really do feel the gears shifting for 2018 and I’m hopeful I can meet some milestones I’m setting for myself. Namely:

  1. Finishing my sequel. I’m 10 chapters in and I think I have another 5 to go. Fingers crossed that the manuscript can be completed by Q1. See point number 4.
  2. Getting an agent/publisher. I’m keener to explore the traditionally published route this time, but self-publishing may still be an option—especially if I get a grant again.
  3. School Tour. Are you an educator, principal or school administrator? Book me for a storytelling session and drawing workshop. I’m populating my calendar with visits to local and international institutions, and looking forward to meeting literature-loving kids.
  4. Making writing a priority. I didn’t carve out and commit to proper ‘writing days’ in the past year, which explains a lot about my output (or lack thereof). Toward the end of 2017, when things began to wind down at work, I had more opportunities to write, and I was amazed at how easily the pace picked up and how quickly the ideas translated into prose. I suppose writing is like working a muscle—the more you put it to use, the more naturally it flows. Previously I’d always felt so ‘stuck’ and unmotivated because writing was something I did only after I’d completed my ‘more important’ assignments and chores. And how do people normally feel about that very last item on their to-do list? Less than enthused, I’d imagine. So yeah, writing will take precedence this year and I will give it the attention it deserves.
  5. Less time on social media. YouTube, Facebook and Instagram have definitely been blackholes into which chunks of my free time disappeared, and I’m determined to limit this unproductive use of my mental bandwidth. Besides, FOMO is real.
  6. Rejigging the spiritual life. An extension of point number 5, which is to unplug from the noise and spend more time in prayer and contemplation. 2017 was exceptionally anxiety-riddled (actually my entire life has been), exacerbated by health scares and feeling overwhelmed by a combination of work and mom stuff. So the spiritual life fell by the wayside somewhat, especially when I chose to numb myself with brainless distractions (back to point number 5 about too much time on social media).
  7. A book club. I read voraciously, my bookshelves are bursting at its seams, and my Kindle is about to explode. So it makes sense to either start my own book club or join one. Perhaps something to explore with the schools?
  8. Decide what I want to do with my ongoing Everything Takes Forever series. Adapting it into an e-book was my original intention, but I wonder if I should explore building a larger narrative around it and structuring it as a non-fiction chapter book.

What about you? Do you believe in New Year’s resolutions and have you set any? Somewhere, somehow, I assume everyone’s striving always to be a better version of themselves, so here’s hoping 2018 takes us one step closer to that.

What Now?: Impostor Syndrome Is Real

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Second in my #WhatNow? series chronicling life after publication, is an unfortunate condition called “Impostor Syndrome.”

Wikipedia calls it a concept describing someone who’s unable to internalize their accomplishments and feels a persistent fear for being exposed as a fraud. This Fast Company article talks about the five types of people most susceptible to it, and this piece from The Guardian calls it a confidence-sapping form of anxiety which only grows more acute when one achieves more external success.

Well, not to get into semantics or anything, but since Tea in Pajamas was published, this whole people will soon find out you’re useless monologue has been playing out in my mind ad nauseum.

Despite all evidence to show the book’s been generally well received, I keep undercutting and downplaying my success (even writing the word ‘success’ gives me the heebie jeebies) to all and anyone who’d even think to praise it.

Typically included in my litany of self-abuse is the strong assertion that I’m in fact not a writer—and that my sequel’s gonna expose me for the fraud that I am—as well as the fixed idea that no one in the literary community would ever take me seriously because I self-published.

That’s pretty harsh, wouldn’t you call it? And that voice sounds suspiciously like the lizard/dragon creature from a time not so long ago. In my ED recovery, I found that the tried-and-true way of getting it to shut up and get lost is first to tell it to do that, and next do the exact opposite of what it claims you can never do.

It’s a pity, therefore, that have I haven’t exactly been standing up to the negative mind chatter. Instead, I’ve been pleading “writer’s block” and “lack of time” — legit reasons by themselves — when for the most part, I’ve been passively allowing it to get to me.

When Tea in Pajamas was published, I truly thought the hardest part was over. I didn’t even begin to imagine the weight of pressure I’d put on myself for producing a sequel that would do the first book/my readers/myself justice.

On the whole, most people felt the first book was a light-hearted read, but a good number also shared with me their desire to see a heavier hand in the adventure sequences. And the sequel needs to and absolutely will have that, but I’m also not gonna  throw in a bunch of dragons, knights, and wizards for the sake of it. My present challenge is injecting the right amount of adventure, mystery, fantasy, and—dare I say—darkness, without jeopardizing authenticity or distracting from the essence of the storyline. And it’s tricky and time-consuming, and boy does it take quite a bit of guts to pull off!

I am now five and a half chapters in, and maybe that might appear to be the midway mark, but we’re only just moving into the crux of things. A lot is going on both in the sequel and in my head, and Impostor Syndrome sure doesn’t make it a smooth ride.

Will it all be worth it?, I often wonder. What does this book want to achieve? Do I have anything to prove by writing it? Wouldn’t it all be easier to just be happy that I published Tea in Pajamas and left it at that?

It is my earnest hope that in calling out Impostor Syndrome for what it is, I am taking my first steps toward recognizing the problem and finding a way to move forward constructively. God knows the number of times I’ve taken the mental diatribes at face value and seriously considered aborting the sequel and shutting down this website altogether.

And yet something has always kept me from doing that.

As I finish up this post, I’m thinking of the odd possibility that the voice behind Impostor Syndrome is right—that I’m not a real writer and I’m only trying to pass off as one. That I’d be shunned and ridiculed by real publishers, and my sequel would be an embarrassing legacy long after I’ve passed on.

And actually I think… so what? Even if I produced a laughably awful sequel—though I’m working hard to diminish that possibility!—I’ll know at least I bothered to try when I could’ve easily called it a day. And I have yet to meet an author who was hauled into prison for bad writing.

Perhaps at the end of the day, writer or no, I’m OK with just being someone who loves to write. Is writing easy? No. Will I get there? I don’t know.

But do I consider it my honor and privilege to breathe life into another world and bunch of characters I’ve grown to know and love deeply?

Yes absolutely.