I feel like there are two different kinds of people.
The first person binge-watches the newest season of STRANGER THINGS in a single weekend. There are snacks involved. On a scale of 1-10, you gave the experience an Eleven.
The second person watched THE LAST OF US every Sunday night for nine weeks. You realized that this was a magical time in your life. The Sunday blues fell away. You were untouchable on Sunday. You talked about it with your buddies on Monday and Tuesday. Then on Friday and Saturday, you were like “OMG, it’s almost Sunday.”
I grew up in the 90’s, so the plot twist is that I am both people.
That’s why I’m attempting to go all serial on my next project! Join me, won’t you?
GODFATHER DEATH, M.D. is my return to YA after a long detour through the Middle Grade realm. (IMPORTANT: This is firmly rooted in the YA camp. It doesn’t even straddle the middle grade line, like The Carver occasionally did. Content warnings include strong language, mention of death/dying, and the emotional realities of grief. You’ll know within about 2-3 chapters if it won’t work for you. I’m not here to do “shock value” or ruin your day for no reason, and, given the subject matter, I still recommend reading with care.) I’m not giving up on Middle Grade, just as I never gave up on YA! Again, I am both people.
People whisper that death follows Daniel Grimm everywhere. They even call him The Grimm Reaper.
Then on the ten-year anniversary of the tragedy that shattered Daniel’s family, Dr. Miguel Mortiz–his estranged godfather–reappears. Miguel is one of the few people alive who can understand Daniel’s grief. After all, no one grasps pain better than a healer. So why does Aunt Cass warn him to stay away from Miguel?
He longs to understand, but some secrets are probably better off left in the graveyard.
I chose Kindle Vella as the first home for this because there are pieces of this story that flowed more like TV in my head. This will be told in 3 “arcs.” The first feels like a family drama with a hint of mystery. The second part feels like a sitcom slowly going up in flames. The third… well, by the time you get there, you’ll know. 😉 So a serial format is perfect for the vibe! Beginning this summer, you’ll be able to find weekly installments of GODFATHER DEATH, M.D. on Kindle Vella. Some weeks I may post one chapter. Some weeks, I may post 2 or 3. But you’ll never go hungry. 70% of the story has already been written, and I’ll probably be finished by the time I finish posting the first third!
But, if you’re Person #1–the one who binges the entire experience, then wants to collect a hard copy and display it on the shelf, I’ve got you covered! I do need to wait until the full novel has been living on Vella for at least 30 days, but there are already winter plans in place with a cover artist and formatter–the magical Molly Phipps of “We’ve Got You Covered”!
If you’re already intrigued and want to get a feel for the vibe, feel free to poke around my vision board or my Spotify playlist! Both are constantly evolving.
So, are you a binge-reader, or will you be tuning in weekly and savoring the suspense? 😉
Have you played God of War: Ragnarok yet? No spoilers (I’m only about 7 hours in), but there’s a line where Mimir tells Atreus that there are multiple ways to be tired, and that he’ll learn this as he gets older. I feel that in my soul tonight. I’m not just 10pm tired. I’m like, April tired. I’m 30-something tired. I have just enough energy to write this post, then enjoy a little Netflix tonight. But, I don’t have the energy to April Fool you. You can put your guard down now!
I feel I’m due for a catch-up post.
Last year at Phoenix Comic Con, my good friend Katie did my astrological chart.
I wasn’t entirely sure how much I believed in these sorts of things. I do, however, have a vivid memory of a woman named Nora.
Nora was a coworker of mine when I got my first real job at Century Theater. We used to clean theaters together. A core memory is the fact that we used to have to check behind the curtains at 2 a.m. to make sure nobody was sleeping there. (They were.) Anyway, Nora had a gift. The first night I worked with her, she asked me if I was a Virgo. I definitely AM a Virgo, and maybe this is obvious. The thing is, I’m a cusp, and Nora knew that, too. And I was baffled. Virgo is a 1/12 shot. Knowing that I’m Virgo/Libra is a 1/365 shot. I never forgot Nora. (Side note: Century Theater was demolished a few weeks ago. I’m feeling oddly nostalgic about it, and also smug as hell about it.)
Back to Katie: What I remember most about my chart is that she told me I’m supposed to be in front of people… that I do my best work when I’m “public facing,” as long as I have my safe haven to retreat to and can look forward to going home. This was probably one of the realest things anyone has told me about myself. I AM a hardcore introvert, but I do feel that my best work is done when I’m out and about. Writing is fun… when it’s not frustrating. Editing is thrilling… when the pieces come together. Being out and about sharing my stories with others? It’s always priceless. I could do it all day. My 9-5 life? It’s highly social and service-oriented. My least favorite days are the ones where I’m behind a screen all day. BUT, I need to go home, I need to tune everything out, and I need to be a whole turtle in my shell.
I have somewhat of an “introvert hangover” from the electric energy of March.
I had a wonderful time presenting for a very special group at the Tucson Festival of Books. The following weekend, I made four drives between Tucson and Apache Junction for the Arizona Renaissance Festival, which was the best and most productive signing I’ve ever done. And the FOLLOWING weekend, I had a writing deadline. More on that later.
Things are not about to get quieter. I have no free weekends in April.
Then May, June, and July? If you know me, those are the months when it’s REALLY go time. There’s another deadline tucked in there, too.
Somewhere in all this beautiful chaos, my inboxes have exploded. I’ve had to say a lot of no’s, put up some boundaries, and a lot of messages are going unread or unanswered. If this is you, I’m sorry and it’s not personal! Social media in general has started to feel a lot more laborious for me. There was a time when I posted every day and leaned into the mundane aspects of my life. Here’s the Sexy Grilled Cheese I ordered from Sexy Grilled Cheese! Here’s the book I’m reading at the laundromat these days! Here’s my cheesy grin after the gym! But lately, I guess I feel more protective of those simple joys–like if I post them, I minimize the moment I actually have with them. There was a weird study that I saw once, where it was determined that “Instagramming” one’s food actually diminishes the taste. Isn’t that wild?
So, one update is that now when I’m home, I’m FULLY at home. In other words, I’ve scaled back tremendously on my social media time. Maybe you won’t notice the difference. I hope it still feels cozy and relatable on top of what I share about my book stuff. But I’m warding off those “introvert hangovers” and being more selective about what I share. I promise, if I meet the love of my life or discover the sexiest grilled cheese in the world or read something that changes my life (aren’t these all the same thing?), I will not keep it secret. Not forever, at least…
Speaking of social media: Have you watched The Circle? I find it hilarious and entertaining when I need something mindless to watch.
Oh! Back to that deadline… in the middle of the summer, I will begin posting weekly episodes of a fantasy serial called GODFATHER DEATH, M.D. This is based loosely on a lesser known story by the Brothers Grimm, and it’s beyond my comfort zone in a couple of different ways. The serial nature will be different for me. It’s also more dark-and-dreary than it is fun-and-heartwarming. I will be providing content warnings about a few instances of strong language, and about the deep dive into the characters’ experiences with grief. With that said, it will not be entirely off brand for me–just aged up! It will start on Kindle Vella, and it will then be bound into an omnibus at the end of the run. I can’t wait to share more later!
So to recap… social media is draining, and I’m writing a book drenched in grief. You’re probably like, “Are you okay?” Well, thank you for checking in! I’m still going to the gym a few times a week. I’ve spent the past few weeks doing a really difficult Iron Man puzzle and have like 300 red pieces scattered all over the floor. I started watching Ted Lasso recently, because two separate people have told me that I’m Ted, and I’ve decided that was one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received. I finally bought a PS5 after months of planning, saving, and looking around for one. The world is chaos, but hey, I’m still chillin’ and finding comforts and joys. I hope you are, too. 🙂
Sondern: The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passing in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it.
I don’t remember where I first heard this word–only that I found it really beautiful. For one thing, it makes me super curious about the people I see in the airports, and it generates empathy and humanism for them. Where are they going? Is it for business or fun? Is it spontaneous? Is the other place home or is Tucson home?
If Tucson is home for you, you may have seen the “Umbrella Lady” walking through town at some point or another, if not multiple times. If you’re not from Tucson, I wonder if you have a legend such as she was.
I felt compelled to write a little bit about her tonight, because she has sadly passed away from a tragic hit-and-run incident. I don’t quite know how else to process or explain why this affected me so deeply today. It was truly a chemical reaction. I saw the headline, I did a double-take, and then the tears came. I’ve never spoken to her in my life. I don’t know one true thing about her, except that her name was Lydia.
The first time I saw The Umbrella Lady was when I was in college. Around that time, I was really branching out and coming to appreciate my city, taking the bus around to explore its hidden gems and the things we tend to take for granted about our backyards. My mom had mentioned the lady at dinner one night, and I had no idea who she was talking about.
“You’d know her if you saw her,” my mom said. “She looks like she stepped out of a time machine, and she always carries an umbrella with her and has her hair done up in ringlets.”
“Huh,” I said.
Then Fourth Avenue became a popular hangout for me. I spent many a college night at a bar called O’Malley’s, including my “going away” hangout, commencement day, and a couple of birthdays. By day, it’s a fascinating street to simply wander. There are a couple of bookstores there, an ice cream shop, local foodie paradises that have been featured on the Food Network, and it has a distinct personality. My uncle and I used to have burgers with strange names at Bumstead’s (Michael Bolton Mullet, anyone?). As my friend said when the Spring Fourth Avenue Street Fair was one of the last events to cancel at the dawn of COVID, “It takes a LOT to scare Fourth Avenue.”
Go figure, that’s where I first saw the Umbrella Lady–inside of the Goodwill, sipping on a drink from the Chocolate Iguana. There was NO mistaking the woman from my mom’s description: ringlets, a big eccentric dress, and an umbrella!
“I see her all around town,” my mom said. “She’s always walking and she always has her umbrella with her.”
I saw her again a number of times before I left Tucson. With every passing occasion, I wanted to know why. Where was she going? Where was she coming from? Why did she choose to dress that way, and what was the story with the umbrellas? Wasn’t it too hot to be walking around all day?
For a while, I thought this was just a “thing” my mom and I talked about, but one day I found a Facebook page. Sure enough, it was called “Tucson Umbrella Lady,” and it was just a collection of posts from people all over Tucson who said, “I saw her today!” A lot of these posters had stories, and they were spinning a tall tale. People talked about how they stopped and talked to her, how they offered her a ride once, how they believed there were multiple umbrella ladies, how they weren’t even sure she was real, how she knew she had a “following” and thought it was interesting, and so on. She was a legend.
I remember telling my uncle about her once, and he was probably the one person I knew who didn’t understand who I was talking about.
“Sooo what? Did she talk to you, did she scare you, what happened?” he asked.
I just shrugged. “I dunno. It’s just a thing. That’s the story. I see her all the time and I wondered if you ever have, too!”
That was shortly before I moved to Virginia.
Coming back to Tucson after two years was somewhat difficult. Old restaurants had closed. Friends had moved away or changed. In some ways, I changed. I jumped headfirst into the full-time workforce. My tia grew ill. There’s a bitter note of truth to the adage about how “you can’t go home,” even if I’ve since reforged it into something new for me.
But I can’t even describe the joy I felt when a few years ago, I spotted The Umbrella Lady on one of her walks again. To be honest, I had forgotten about her for a while, and that sighting on Ina Road was everything. I told my mom almost immediately. It became a routine whenever I saw the woman, usually on either Oracle or Ina. “GUESS who I saw today?”
Three days ago, she was hit on one of her walks, and yesterday she succumbed to her injuries.
More stories pour in: Someone had her over for Thanksgiving dinner once, and she was quiet and sweet and happy. People talk about how they’ve seen her walking around for 25 years. A few more people talk about the rides they gave her on hot or rainy days, and what she chose to share about her past along the way. A picture begins to form, but it’s a little blurry. It’s a mosaic of all kinds of people chiming in with imperfect memory, so it feels almost like a game of Telephone. I believe what seems to be consistent, but I’m not sure it’s my place to air it here. What’s said tends to invoke a lot of grief and a tragedy in her life. I’m astounded at what it reveals about her resilience and heart.
I feel this because on some level, The Umbrella Lady was constant. Before and after my time in Virginia, she was always out and about taking her long walks. She always had her unique style, her umbrella, and a sort of mystery to her. All of this made her a sort of legend to the Tucson community.
I feel this because it’s tragic that she would be killed doing something we saw her doing every day–something that must’ve brought her peace, joy, or meaning.
I feel this because underneath the tall tale that she’s become, The Umbrella Lady was a human being with a full story and a whole life, as we all are. She was the embodiment of sonder, and her name was Lydia. May she rest in peace.
What a feeling it was to dust the cobwebs off this blog and realize I haven’t even posted since October 2021. That kind of says it all. 2020 and 2021 left me so drained that I didn’t even have it in me to set an intention or to hope for much more than “surviving.” If you’re still with me, I hope you’re hanging in there. I hope 2022 was a little better than the years before it. I hope you’re thriving, and if you’re not, I hope you still have the fighting spirit to demand better of 2023. 🙂
It turned out 2022 wasn’t so bad for me. Maybe it was my low expectations. It was a strange cocktail of ugly and beautiful things. Among the beautiful things:
Book events returned! I missed these deeply. The Tucson Festival of Books (where I met V.E. Schwab again and T.J. Klune, and swooned over both), Phoenix Fan Fusion (where I got to reunite with two of my besties after a few years apart), Tucson Comic Con, and YumaCon were fantastic.
I got into the podcasting world. It started with my friend Vickie inviting me to cohost an episode of her new show, Speculative Sandbox. Speculative fiction lovers: I highly recommend you check it out! Since then, I started my own little show called The Quantum Realm. As a Marvel love, a writer, and a human, it’s been medicine for the soul. Connecting with friends and talking about the MCU? What could be better?
In November, I flew to Miami, Florida to finally accept my Reader’s Favorite Award for Roses in the Dragon’s Den! I had never been to Miami before and had fun exploring their downtown book fair, enjoying the local food, and being in “adventure mode” again. I also learned a TON and can’t wait to put my new knowledge to work.
Writing this out, I’m filled with gratitude. Ugly things did happen along the way, and I won’t even attempt to expect anything different from 2023. But for the first time in a while, I feel good about looking ahead! I set up my new notebook for the year, and the word I bolded on the first page is NOURISH:
Nourish my body: I’ve lost about 50 pounds and lowered my blood pressure since 2020, and I want to keep the benefits going! Cook good food, hit the gym a few times a week, actually sleep…
Nourish my mind: I got a book on mindfulness exercises for Christmas, and want to try them out! I want to do more reflective journaling, even if it’s just one line every day. This is especially important when I get into the middle of the year, when I’m likely to fall into patterns where I spiral into stress and DON’T nourish myself. 🙂
Nourish my financial health: The short version of this is that I’m 2-3 years into a 5-year plan for a “debt avalanche.” Debt avalanches involve a LOT of initial patience with no instant gratification, but this year I’ll hit the huge first milestone and see it all slide down and wipe out the remaining debts with more and more momentum over the next 3 years. YAY!
Nourish my passions. I’m working on two books right now! The first is called Dark Deals and Tarnished Gold, which is my “spin” on Rumpelstiltskin. The one I chose to tackle for NaNoWriMo is a twist on Godfather Death, one of Grimm’s lesser known fairy tales. I’ll share more about each in separate posts this year, but the goal is to keep the progress going on these. I also have a new event lined up for March: The Arizona Renaissance Festival! I plan to keep looking for new ways to connect with readers in person, and doing SOMETHING for my writing every day, whether it’s reading, thinking, or putting words on a page.
The last thought I’ll leave you with is that I fell into a habit of apologizing for being true to my intentions. Does this sound like you? “I don’t have much energy to hang out today and need to rest up–I’m really sorry.” “I’m not going out tonight because I’m trying to save a little cash this week. Sorry!” I would genuinely feel awful about saying no to something, and it would drag me down. Let’s experiment with being unapologetic about the time we need to nourish ourselves. The past few years have been WILD. We deserve some grace and kindness, especially from ourselves. 🙂
Do you have a one-word theme or intention? How will you nourish yourself in 2023?
What’s your favorite thing about Halloween season?
I can’t say I have a tradition, but I’ve always looked forward to this time of year. When I was little, it was ALL about dressing up and becoming my heroes! I remember being Batman one year, the Riddler a few years later, and there have been many years where I recycled a pirate costume. This year, I’m looking for any excuse to keep using the WandaVision costume I pieced together for YumaCon! All I can say is, “She recast Pietro?” (Again?)
Maybe you carve or paint pumpkins? Scoop out all the goo and toast the seeds?
I’m not a huge fan of scary movies, but for years, I loved watching the Disney Channel Halloween marathons. Usually they’d usually show some originals like Phantom of the Megaplex, Mom’s Got a Date with a Vampire, Halloweentown, and of course, Hocus Pocus! I’d grab some snacks, get all cozy, and watch all the good stuff. It was in this spirit that I wrote A THOUSAND DREADFUL CURSES.
“Devlin’s best story-telling yet.” – Kandy, School Librarian
This story is so important to me for many reasons. In addition to the Halloween aspect, I wanted to release this story close to National Coming Out Week, which starts today! A Thousand Dreadful Curses isn’t necessarily a coming out story. However it does feature two gay protagonists, and there is some musing about what this means for each of them in the worlds they grow up in. I feel that middle grade literature needs more LGBTQ+ representation, and those doors are beginning to open. And I sincerely hope that readers of any orientation, age, race, or gender will find some comfort and joy in the message woven into A THOUSAND DREADFUL CURSES. Click on the cover below to learn more and purchase on Kindle or Paperback!
Until next time, I wish you so much happiness and many good stories to fill your minds and hearts!
Happy almost Fall! Trust that I’m over here doing everything I can to manifest the best of the four seasons. (I know, I know, September 22 or whatever.) My favorite jackets are ready to go on my computer chair, I tried one of those new Apple Crisp Macchiatos, and I’m watching the weather app like a hawk waiting for Tucson to get out of this 100+ degree heat.
Oh, and I wrote a whole novel that takes place the week leading up to Halloween. That’s how deeply I’ve committed to this. XD
Cover conversations are happening, editing is just about done, and I can’t wait to introduce you to a brand new setting and cast of characters! That being said, it is very loosely related to CARVER and ROSES and there will be Easter eggs for those of you who have been following my little universe from the beginning. Or, you can simply jump in, and you won’t feel like you’ve missed a thing!
A THOUSAND DREADFUL CURSES is a love letter to the “spooky-lite” genre of entertainment that I loved so deeply growing up, and still enjoy. Remember the days when that first breath of autumn would arrive, and you’d come home from school and Disney or what-used-to-be-ABC-Family would start advertising their marathons featuring Hocus Pocus, Halloweentown, Phantom of the Megaplex, maybe some Harry Potter here and there? I look back on those days so fondly.
I also took deep inspiration from Italo Calvino’s RAGAZZA MELA, or APPLE GIRL, which is a shorted and twisted little folktale that originated in Florence. In just about 3 pages, there’s a beautiful princess and a dashing prince, an evil queen, an enchanted apple, jealousy, and just a little bit of blood.
Except that I wanted to do this my way. With pumpkins and familia and LGBTQ+ characters. There aren’t enough middle grade books that tie all three of these things together, so I made one myself! Here is the blurb for A THOUSAND DREADFUL CURSES:
You can add the book on Goodreads here, and watch for a preview to come soon!
Also, are you near Yuma, AZ? Come see me at YumaCon on October 2-3! I’ll have books AND art prints this time, and if I may say, I’m VERY excited about my new cosplay outfit… just make sure to vaxx up and protect yourself so we can fully enjoy. 🙂
Y’all. Somehow I haven’t written to you on this blog in over six months. With every passing day, it didn’t feel like I had much new to say or anything special going on. Besides being at home to survive a global pandemic and explosive political turmoil and Zoom Brain and all those things. Someone threw an open bottle of Coke at my car the other day, so that was exciting. Also I got my vaccines. They knocked me OUT and they sucked and I’m so very grateful I got to receive them and protect myself/others. 😀
And now I look back at all these nebulous, time-bending months at home and realize all those maddeningly repetitive, seemingly uneventful days added up to a LOT that I need to share with you in my creative life! So, here are three big things that are happening:
Every Rose has its Thorns!
ROSES IN THE DRAGON’S DEN is getting a sequel, and if you only know me through this blog then I can’t remember if you knew this already! At the very least, you probably haven’t seen the shiny new cover, so check it out! BRAMBLES IN THE WISHING WELL is currently projected for a release sometime this summer, and it will tie up all the loose ends of the first book. Carver fans, you’ll get some treats as well. 😀
2. A THOUSAND DREADFUL CURSES
BRAMBLES is the first of TWO releases I have coming this year! To be perfectly honest, writing has been incredibly difficult for me since the pandemic began, and I know I’m not the only writer in this boat. But I did have a loose idea in my head for about five years. I think I spent those years collecting “bones” for it. Personal experiences, consuming media, sorting out my values, and developing a greater understanding of myself. (I know I’m not the only person in that boat! What a year for soul-searching, lol.) I think around the time I turned 30, I didn’t realize it, but I’d collected the last bone I needed to build a skeleton. And then lightning struck and animated that skeleton! The full idea started dancing around in front of me, spewing all the words I’d been trying to find for 5 years. About a month later, I had poured out an entire novel. It was the fastest I’ve ever written anything, because I was terrified that the story would escape me if I didn’t seize it on time.
And so, I’m excited to be preparing an upper middle grade fantasy called A THOUSAND DREADFUL CURSES for Halloween 2021. It’s rooted in three things:
a “spooky-lite” aesthetic that fascinated me in my tween years. (Think Halloweentown or Hocus Pocus. If that was before your time, then you need to go watch those because you’re missing out!)
a Florentine folk tale recorded by Italo Calvino: LA RAGAZZA MELA or APPLE GIRL. It’s just about the weirdest fairy tale I can think of off the top of my head. Vengeance. Jealousy. A tiny bit of blood. Nutritious fruit!
above all: the fact that love is love. Family love will remain a theme as it has in all my books, AND it will lean into other understandings of love as well. Oh and to be abundantly clear, the protagonists are gonna be GAY! *shouts from the top of a hill and listens to the echo* Did I clear out the haters yet? Good. Everyone else, expect some Easter eggs! This will be entirely its own story in an different world than Florindale, and yet if you’ve been with me since CARVER or even ROSES, you will be rewarded and see some hidden connections. 😀
So, that’s A THOUSAND DREADFUL CURSES in a snack-sized intro. I can’t wait for Halloween!!!
3. When the words won’t flow 😦
CURSES was a fluke. As soon as I finished the story, my writing brain shut off again. I can edit things. I can come up with ideas. But I can’t string stories together right now. A lot of the creative energy is going into a new hobby I picked up last summer: drawing! I’ve had a lot of fun with digital art and the “minimalist” style, so on Procreate I’ve been creating some things. A lot of it is fandom-based: Marvel, video games, and what-not. But I’ve also tried to recreate some of the characters from my books! Here’s Hansel, for example:
It’s brought me a surprising amount of joy and taps into my need to create, especially when the words won’t come. I’ve started having certain images made into prints, and I’m really excited about how they’re turning out! If you’re interested in one or just want to support, consider donating a cup of joe on my Buy Me a Coffee website. I try to update this every couple of days or so!
Hokay! I think that captures what’s been going on in the right side of my brain these last 6 months… I continue to wish you all wellness, health, joy, and creativity! The world needs an abundance of those things in these times, and if you’re still following me, I know you’re one of the folx who is putting all those good vibes in the world right now! Just make sure to receive some for yourself too. 🙂 *flings good vibes at you*
Being 20 always seemed cool to my teenage self: smack dab in the middle of college or finding some footing with adulthood. I always picture Spider-Man as a twenty-something. The FRIENDS gang are all twenty-somethings at the start of the show. I didn’t have a lot of real-life examples growing up, but 20 just always felt like the prime!
When I turned 26, I started telling people I was riding “the slippery slope to 30.” This was not a positive thing. Thirty felt too real, and I didn’t feel that I was meeting the expectations people have of thirty-somethings. Every time I visit my primary care physician, the main lecture is, “We need to work on your love life.” Many friends of mine have kids now, or they’ve nailed down a solid career. The pressure was on, especially in the age of social media. You can’t help but compare your life to other folx your age and wonder if you’re on the “right track.”
Then COVID-19 hit, and I spent the second half of 29 adjusting to social distancing, working from home, and masking up. It became pretty clear that this was going to be the reality of my 30th birthday, and this pulled the anchor down even deeper. I’d hoped that maybe I’d celebrate 30 doing karaoke with friends, sharing a meal, and then spending time with family. How lonely was the real day actually going to be?
And almost paradoxically, turning 30 has been one of the best and most joyful birthdays in recent memory, even considering the strange context all around me.
To set this up, last month I decide to do a modified Whole30 with a friend: We’d do the traditional 30 days limiting certain foods, and this time we’d also cut Facebook. I logged on once or twice to post book updates on my author page, but other than that, the app was gone from my phone and I took careful measure of how this affected me.
Y’all, it was amazing. I felt more “free” in those 30 days than I’d felt all quarantine. I wasn’t comparing my life to anyone else’s. I wasn’t getting into political fights, or logging off in a bad mood because of somebody’s overt racism. I wasn’t chained to my phone checking notifications at Facebook’s will.
And I decided that Facebook didn’t need to go back on my phone at all. (Watch The Social Dilemma for more on this. Netflix, y’all!)
What was more: with 30 right around the corner, I’d realized that there was something almost . . . lonely about my Facebook birthdays. Maybe I’m the only one who feels this way: I’d spend most birthdays chained to my phone, watching the notifications bubble up. Each would bring me joy, but by the end of the day I’d be wondering how my day compared to last year.
Had I lost anybody?
Did I get less “wishes for joy” than when I turned 28, or 27, or 20?
Did the folx who posted actually remember, and did they all mean it?
Do I actually even know all of them?
Do we talk at any other time besides this one “Happy birthday” we exchange every year?
And aw man, now I have to comment back to every single person.
Sure, this might be severely over-analyzing, but all of this really made me dread turning 30 in a pandemic. I thought Facebook would only magnify all this.
So, I hid my birthday on Facebook. 😀 Only I could see it, muahaha!
And this turned out to be awesome.
Now, if Facebook birthdays feel lonely, how does it make sense that hiding it made it less lonely? After all, it really cut down the number of wishes I got today. It’s probably been the least “online birthday activity” I’ve had since high school.
But some people remembered! And their texts, emails, and good thoughts meant that much more. Every time one rolled in, I was beaming. Wow, some of my coworkers thought to put it on their Outlook calendar! Dang, I haven’t seen my “broski” in over a year, but he’s consistently remembered the day since we were 21. And OMG, my grandma discovered texting!
So I did get out of the house for a few hours, and I enjoyed a socially distant lunch with my best friend. And yes, that friend outed my birthday on Facebook. But after I came home to finish a quiet day cooking dinner, listening to music, going to class on Zoom, I read their comments, and the few that trickled in felt a lot more genuine. I didn’t want them not to wish me a happy birthday–I just wanted them to mean it if they did. (After all, you should’ve seen the guy who rang me up for a bottle of wine at Target. “Wait, 9/21… isn’t that TODAY?! HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MAN!” Thanks, Target guy.) Maybe that’s high maintenance, and we just need to accept the convenience and accessibility of the Facebook birthday. But there’s a trade-off, and I found it to be worth trading in the large, somewhat lonely Facebook birthday for a small, quiet day that felt a little more real than I ever remembered. (And if you want to “remember” without Facebook, “remember” Earth, Wind, and Fire: the twenty-first night of September!)
To be clear: No judgment on my part if you let Facebook share your birthday! I’ll wish you one if I see it, but I’d love to get to the point where I don’t need it. 😀
So if you’re curious, I ended my day filled not with existential dread (okay maybe a tiny, human portion of that), but profound gratitude. If I have a few good people who really care, access to higher education for that long, late night Zoom class, and fond memories of my twenties, then hey, 30 won’t be so bad at all, even if I’m starting it in the hellscape that is 2020. Bring it on.
So I can admit it: I’ve become a bit of a TV-head since the work-from-home days began. It’s been six and a half months now. Here’s to the day I thought to myself, “Well, if I’m gonna be home for three weeks, why not rewatch all the Harry Potter movies?” Those were simpler times.
Around April, I was already running out of shows. I grew so bored one night that I rented CATS. CATS, people. Do you understand how serious that is?
Luckily, Annalise Keating swept in to save my brain, and it became my nightly ritual to watch one episode of How to Get Away With Murder as my night was winding down. Some nights, I got a little carried away and just kept going, but I averaged about one a day when I could help myself. By the end of season two, it was official: After 10 years, a new show had finally dethroned LOST as my favorite TV drama. I’d found a new guilty pleasure, while at the same time, my writer brain was soaking up some lessons to mull over for my own craft. I can’t say HTGAWM is perfect writing, but it does give us a gold mine of techniques to think about. So, let’s talk about seven takeaways we can use as writers.
(This is also a great time to put up the SPOILER ALERT! I’m going to do my best to keep things loose for folx who are still early in the show, but there may be some big reveals especially toward the end, so proceed with caution!)
On Diversity and Representation:
Diversity and representation is a hot topic in the literary world today. We still need more of it, and we also need for it to be done well. When not handled appropriately, there’s a risk of creating more problems: cultural appropriation, or writing about a marginalized experience you don’t understand as opposed to providing a voice and space for underrepresented groups; and/or tokenization, tossing in a marginalized character whose only purpose to the story is to be “the diverse one”, without any real storyline of their own.
Feel free to chime on this if you feel differently, but I was incredibly happy with the diversity of the cast in HTGAWM, more importantly how their identities were portrayed. The show does not shy away from topics of power and privilege, particularly through the lenses of race and sexual orientation. Annalise is the perfect lead for this show. She’s a strong, confident Black woman, and we see all the ways that the system has oppressed her for her intersectional identities. We also see how she’s gained power and privileges from her level of education, and how she uses that to benefit those who are even more oppressed (particularly in season 5 with her big trial.) But she’s not a token. She’s positioned firmly within in a community that can round out her character and interact with those identities in various ways.
In episode one, I was convinced that Connor was going to be the “token gay man,” and while he defies many stereotypes that are so easy for other writers to reach for, he isn’t portrayed in a very positive light at first. I’ll say more on him later, but the rest of the show did a great job of complicating his story so that it wasn’t all about his identity–it was a story that anybody could’ve had, while fitting his identity neatly into the context of his character. This is so important because nobody’s ever just one identity with a spotlight on it at all times. Identity is salient in some contexts and more internal in others, and remembering this is one way to get representation right. 🙂 (Kudos to the show for complicating and being real about sexual orientation in general. It’s fluid and it’s not as simple as “gay/straight,” making it feel portrayed more authentically here than many shows I’ve seen.)
The “Ticking Clock” Effect:
This is how the show hooked me right at episode one, and continued to do so every season. They keep the basic structure each time because it works. Episode one shows you right away that something BIG is coming: the cast is carrying a dead body, and they’re flipping a coin over whether to burn it or bury it. The moment they do that, the writers make you a promise: “This IS going to happen to these characters in three months. Wanna know who’s under the sheet?”
Then in every episode that follows, the writers ingeniously and gradually peel back the curtain just enough to keep you hooked. By episode two, you already know who’s dead, but how did it happen? Then you see the bloody weapon. But who was holding it? Then you get a mugshot. But why in the world would they do something like that? Every time you get an answer, you get a new question, and the reminder that we’re counting down: two months later… one month later… 48 hours later…
And what’s even cooler about this effect: the big reveal always comes in the middle of the season, when you still have quite a ways to go before the big finish. “Here’s the whole night that the murder went down! The aftermath is enough to cover the whole rest of the season.”
Now, if you’re not a master of flash forwards, flashbacks, or cutting between two timelines, there’s still a lot of value here! Introducing a “ticking clock” really keeps the plot moving. Give your character 12 hours to find the holy grail, and make each chapter worth an hour. Show us some proof that the dragon attacks the city about every three days, and there’s not enough time to evacuate before he returns. Hint at a coming prison break, and show us why this doesn’t bode well for the protagonist. It’s one of my favorite techniques!
On Flawed Characters:
Ohhh, these characters. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve seen more of them than I’ve seen of my friends or family in the past six months, but I’m really going to miss them now that I’ve finished the show! I was an emotional mess during the finale, partly because I just didn’t want it to be over.
I learned this early on in my writing days: Nobody likes a “Mary Sue” or “Gary Stu”, a character who is so perfect that there’s no way any of us everyday folk can possibly relate. So, it’s a good thing all of these characters are FAR from perfect. In fact, every single one of them can be downright shady, but you root for them all the way through.
Michaela is attractive and incredibly intelligent–the star student who is determined to be president one day. In her quest to seem perfect for her professor and her community, she can be downright manipulative and kind of bratty, and the other characters call her on it. Bonnie will do anything for Annalise, but she has a weakness for Frank that clouds her judgment sometimes. Connor is charming and has the strongest moral backbone of the group, but his guilt makes him broody and gets in the way of his relationships. Annalise herself is strong and confident. You want to stand up and cheer every time she gets in someone’s face or gives a speech in the courtroom. But she’s also highly insecure deep down, and her desire to protect her students leads her to do some questionable things. The final two episodes were a GOLD MINE of great characterization for Annalise, from her inner voice talking us through the outfit she’d wear to court, right up to the last minute of the finale.
Some of the best characters are walking contradictions, never an absolute in any of their traits. PLOT PERFECT by Paula Munier has a great exercise on making characters well-rounded, using Hannibal Lecter as one of her case studies. (He’s a psychiatrist, but he’s also a psychopath. He’s well-mannered, but he’s also a killer… He loves gourmet meals, but he’s also, well, a cannibal.) I recommend this for further reading!
On Powerful “KABAM” Closers:
I’ve been on this journey for 90 episodes. Ninety, and there wasn’t a single time when the credits started rolling and I didn’t whisper, “…damn. Now I HAVE to know more.” In the last season, I was much more obscene, because the endings were just so well-delivered.
This is also what I loved about LOST, and about many of my favorite books. The end of every chapter is just as strong as the first sentence. Maybe there’s a big reveal, or the promise of one. Maybe we’re peeling back the curtain a little more to get closer to the big twist in the middle. Maybe it’s just a character delivering a killer, bad-ass line. We all know ’em well. What if Star Wars was a TV show and Darth Vader said, “No, I AM your father!” at the end of the mid-season finale? We’d be spilling our popcorn and talking about it for WEEKS.
I call these KABAM statements, and I’m not happy writing a book until every single chapter has one of those statements at the end. I want you to read it and imagine the trombones sounding at the end of LOST, or the chalkboard flashing on the screen at the end of HTGAWM. Because that’s what keeps us turning pages or telling Netflix not to bother us–that yes, of course we’re still watching. Please stop judging.
On Shared Universes:
This was a really cool treat in season five: learning that How to Get Away With Murder doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but in fact shares a whole universe with Scandal. To be clear, I don’t even watch Scandal, but I know it’s another one of those Shonda shows and that Kerry Washington is the lead. So when I saw Washington writing on a chalkboard in season five, I dropped my remote and said, “Whoa! That’s the Scandal lady!”
Sure enough, that episode ended with someone speaking the character’s name out loud: “Please welcome Olivia Pope!”
Suddenly the show felt so much bigger, and I went down an internet rabbit hole telling me that yes, Annalise also showed up in Scandal that week, and I went hunting for the episode to soak up all the crossover goodness.
Here’s what made it really work: I could’ve skipped that episode of Scandal entirely, and I still wouldn’t have felt like I missed anything. The writers did a great job making it and independent story. All Scandal really did was give me a little bonus side trip to enrich the experience.
But guess what? Now I’m open to more of it. I won’t jump in right away–I need time to grieve the end of this show first, but I commend the producers for getting my attention without taking the spotlight off Annalise. There was a real, legitimate purpose for these two to show up in each other’s shows, and once that purpose was served, they didn’t milk it any further.
Ever since the MCU started crossing movies and setting up their own epic universe, a lot of people have jumped on board and tried to replicate the model: myself included. Not every attempt has been successful (looking at you, The Mummy) and there are risks to doing this. But we can learn a lot from how Shonda approached this: Both shows were still self-contained, and nobody was alienated if they didn’t watch the other. There was a real purpose for characters to cross over, and the writers stayed within the boundaries of that purpose. Had they stretched it too far with no context, they might’ve sent viewers running the other way. Instead, we run back for more!
On The Protagonists’ Journey:
Now THIS is what the show does best!
These poor, poor folx. Every protagonist in this show has been through HELL. They each have goals. Every season has a pretty clear end game. But at no point do the writers make it easy on the protags. In fact, if a character makes a plan, you can be 100% confident that something will go wrong. Another character will come in and mess it up. A new piece of evidence will be revealed, or damaged. The car brakes might even fail. These characters work HARD to get through the season, and through the day! Honestly, I felt for them.
Writers, let’s take notes on this one, because it’s our main job: We’re supposed to mess up the lives of our protagonists. If they’re making plans, we’re supposed to poke holes in them and make it as hard as humanly possible. Cut the power in their home. Hack their laptop. Make Annalise give them an exam the next day. Send Frank or the Castillos after them. It’s not nice, but it has to be done. This makes it that much more rewarding when we get to the end…
On The End:
I just finished this about two hours ago, and I have feelings. I’m a little mad about some things (well, one thing… a certain death or two that just cut a little too deep. Let’s talk.) but fundamentally, I loved this finale.
What I loved specifically: We got the resolution we needed, and a lot of peace of mind about some characters’ futures. We know that despite all the torture these characters have been through, some characters live long lives. We know that some find happiness. We know some leave an incredible legacy.
And there’s also a lot of room for us to fill in our own blanks.
We don’t have the survivors’ entire lives spelled out for us. I’m still sitting here thinking, “But does Coliver STAY together, or do they get back together years later? Or are they just reuniting as friends all these years later?” I wanted a tiny bit more aftermath for folx like Laurel and Michaela. But to some extent, a lot of that didn’t matter. The point is, at some point far in the future, they’re happy and alive. That was what I needed to know. I have some freedom to speculate on what I want to know.
And that’s what makes ending so tricky. If a story really grips us and we fall in love with the characters, we’re always going to want to know more. A lot of times for me that’s, “But are they happy now? Do they live? Are they actually free from all this?” This time, we got that answer.
I also believe that when a story is complete and out in the world, it no longer belongs to the author alone: It belongs to the audience. And the writers seem to believe that, too, because the lingering questions are the kinds that we can dream up answers for. They’re not central to the themes of the show–they’re just for fun. They’ll linger for a while without nagging or forcing us to worry. 🙂
I won’t lose a ton of sleep tonight, except to keep thinking about how much I loved watching this show for the first time.
Now, I want to hear from you all! Did you watch HTGAWM, and do you agree with my take on these seven areas? Let’s talk writing, or let’s talk TV!
I went back and forth all day about whether I should post this tonight, as you and I have already had to sift through four billion messages from our bosses, government officials, teachers, and the CEO of every business we’ve ever given our email address to. (Wendy’s, you’re up next! Get up here, Wendy!)
I try to find some levity where I can, but it’s been a wild couple of weeks to say the very least. We’re all trying to find the pieces as news continues to evolve almost by the hour. For me, it’s been wading through bad connection and getting kicked offline as I Skype in for my first Ph.D class. It’s cancelled book festivals and tower of paperbacks accumulating in my living room. It’s the new colossal “unknowns” of my day job. It’s braving the grocery store for something simple like a loaf of bread and leaving with frustration.
Is any of this familiar yet? I spend a few minutes a day writing down the little ways the world is changing. It’ll be interesting to look back on it later… to see this turning point in history condensed into a few daily bullet points. I find that my mind is buzzing a little too much to get any substantial writing done, but when it calms down, I’ll be ready to pour all of this into art.
There is so little happening within our control right now, but I’m growing increasingly appreciative of small wins and simple joys:
A clean(ish) living room.
Mac n’ cheese that’s just as thick as I want it. YES.
Cheap projectors + butcher paper = a movie theater in my bedroom.
It’s times like this when I really love an artistic escape. A good movie (Disney+ just released STARGIRL, which was a favorite book of mine in junior high… took me right back and I wasn’t mad about it.) Music that just cuts right into your soul. TV with all the feels. (People are telling me THIS IS US is TOO many feels and way too sad to watch in quarantine–I think it’s kinda relaxing…) A book you can really lose yourself in. (Hello, Wheel of Time series! I’m glad I loaded up on the first five to keep me busy…)
All this to say: I’m right here with you, and I hope you’re finding your escapes and little wins right now. To contribute what I can, I’m making THE CARVER free for the next five days. If it helps even one person laugh, hold their breath, or roll their eyes at me, I’ll call that a win.