By Megan Crewe
1. Challenge your defaults.
The idea to tell a story about a deadly epidemic came to me around the same time as as series of discussions and debates that came to be called RaceFail ’09 sprang up in the internet SF and fantasy writing community in early 2009. I had certainly been thinking about diversity in YA fiction and my own work before then, but seeing those conversations pushed me to realize how easily I fell into the standard defaults of white/male/straight with my own characters. Those defaults didn’t reflect the world I live in: I’ve spent my whole life in a city where about half of the people around me are visible minorities and where there’s a huge gay pride celebration every year; I’ve had close friends from all different backgrounds since early childhood. And yet, partly out of fear of screwing up and partly out of complacency, my first published novel, which was set in an unnamed city based on mine, had a completely white straight cast (to the extent anyone’s race and sexuality was noted).
I didn’t want to do that again. I didn’t want to make readers feel they didn’t belong in my fictional world. I wanted to reflect the actual world around me so much more accurately.
And you know what? Once I made myself aware of my defaults and started questioning them, opening to the idea that there were so many more possibilities for my characters, that diversity started happening naturally. As I outlined the books that would become The Way We Fall and its sequels, I didn’t sit down and assign characteristics by some sort of metric. I just knew that my main character, Kaelyn, felt like an outsider in her small town partly because of her mixed race heritage. I realized that her bond with her best friend, Leo, had been strengthened by his understanding that struggle as a Korean adoptee. I “saw” Kaelyn’s brother confronting their father’s uneasiness with his homosexuality. That was simply part of who they were. And the story felt that much more real for it.
I’m still so far from perfect at this. I still, when I’m coming up with characters major and minor, have to stop and ask myself, “Is this how I really see this person, or am I just falling back on my defaults?” Those defaults get so ingrained that even when they’re contrary to who we are, they can become automatic. (I can’t tell you how much it frustrates me that even as a woman, I tend to default on random side characters, and especially characters like doctors, soldiers, and those in leadership positions, being male.) But I’ve definitely learned that challenging those defaults is worth it–and not half as hard as it used to seem.
2. Attempt journal format at your own risk.
I figured out pretty early on that I wanted to write the first book in the Fallen World trilogy in journal format. Mostly to blame would be Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It, in which the format captured a sense of realism and intensity I knew I wanted in my own story. It was only when I started the actual writing that I realized what a challenge I’d set up for myself.
On the surface level, journal format looks pretty much the same as standard first person, but it’s actually at least twice as complicated. With standard first person, which I’d used in my first novel, you can wave away concerns about when exactly the narrative is being told, and how, and to whom; it’s part of the automatic suspension of disbelief. When you have a character physically sitting down and writing the narrative in a journal, though, those logistics matter. With every new entry, I had to ask myself, where is Kaelyn when she’s writing this? How long has it been since the events she’s writing about, and why is she writing about it now, not earlier or later? What would she think is most important to relate about what’s happened, and in what order? What would she leave out?
I wrote that book more slowly than any before or after, and I think that’s why! I never stopped believing it was the right way to tell that story, but I have to admit I was a little relieved when I realized that to tell the rest of Kaelyn’s story properly, I was going to need to switch to regular first person.
3. The story knows better than the author.
From early on in my brainstorming right through to starting the first draft of the book that’s now The Lives We Lost, I thought I was writing a duology. In my head, the series consisted of “the island book” (where the epidemic starts, and the characters are trapped, simply trying to survive, in their small island community) and “the mainland book” (where the characters head out to try to tackle the epidemic head-on). I had everything outlined; I was good to go.
So I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote, and I came up on the halfway point in my outline with more than 200 pages already down and the knowledge that I’d already skimmed over some parts I needed to go back and flesh out more. The Way We Fall was only 300 pages. I couldn’t imagine telling the rest of Kaelyn’s story in less than 500.
The funny thing was, when I looked over my outline, it was as if the story had known all along it was actually two. I had a very clear midpoint where Kaelyn’s main internal and external conflicts shifted and the group’s goals were adjusted in a new direction. Both halves had a clear emotional arc. I asked my editor whether she’d prefer to write one long sequel or turn the duology into a trilogy, and when she voted for trilogy, I hardly needed to change my original outline at all to make it work.
My only regret is that this left The Lives We Lost (book 2) with a rather cliffhanger-y ending. My apologies to any readers who gnashed their teeth over the final page! I can assure you that was not my original intention — but the story never cares about the author’s intentions.
4. Expert advice is invaluable.
I did a heck of a lot of research while writing the trilogy, on everything from viruses and epidemics, to winter survival strategies, to US highway routes (Google Maps and I have become good friends). But as I worked out the details of my specific virus and how the scientists in the story would tackle it, I could see that books and reference websites weren’t going to cut it. I needed an actual person to bounce my ideas off of, with the knowledge to set me straight if I had my facts muddled.
Luckily for me, I happened to know a fellow writer who was also a microbiologist. Jacqueline Houtman (The Reinvention of Thomas Edison) graciously listened to me ramble on about immunity and vaccines, shared relevant articles, and suggested alternate approaches where mine didn’t make sense. I can honestly say that the resolution of the trilogy in The Worlds We Make would make 100% less scientific sense if I hadn’t had her guidance (and any mistakes that still exist are mine alone). So thank you again, Jacqueline!
5. Viruses are even scarier than I thought.
I decided to write an epidemic story because I already thought viruses were pretty much the scariest things in existence. Then I did my research. And found out that there are viruses that attack bodies and brains so much more stealthily and horrifically than I’d ever realized. That we’ve been inches away from what would most likely have turned into a brutal worldwide pandemic more than once. And that it can still take scientists months to identify and understand how a new virus works, let alone create a vaccine.
So let’s just say, I wash my hands even more carefully than I used to.