This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? Here is Bethany Griffin revealing hers…
Guest post by Bethany Griffin
I once sent my former agent an email with that subject…And Now For Something Completely Different. It didn’t turn out very well. But, since we are discussing turning points, it seemed a good place to start! My first agent signed me for a book called Handcuffs, and she loved that book very much.
It was a book about this horrific place called high school, and this blog post is about the meandering path—as I’m not sure there was one clearly defined turning point—that took me from writing a book set in high school to writing a post-apocalyptic slightly steampunk (or at least speculative historical) retelling of a classic Poe story.
I still love my first book in the whole slightly-cringing doting-parent sort of way. It was like trying out a hairstyle that, while flattering, didn’t really work out. And while I’ve moved on, and grown as an author, there were parts of that book that were so honest, and so me, that they still make me uncomfortable. Like this passage:
That’s how shyness works. You want to talk but you can’t. People look at you with scorn. Being an ice princess is infinitely better, even if some people think you’re a total bitch. A snob. Reserved. Those are choices a person makes, to be reserved, to be quiet, or to be a snob. Shy isn’t a choice.
I will never be able to read that passage and deny that this book is a reflection of middle/high school me, perhaps more so than fiction should be (though the plot is purely 100% fiction). But what was I doing writing a realistic contemporary novel, anyway?
As a kid, I read any and everything, but my first love was fantasy. LOTR, The Prydain Chronicles, The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, so many awesome books. In middle school I veered off into reading historical novels for several years, and then something weird and wonderful happened: My mom started giving me all these gothic…romances? By authors like Victoria Holt. I won’t argue that these were great literature, and I think my mom gave them to me because I was reading above grade level and those books never had any sex in them, but they also had all these dark haunted manor houses and moors, and secret passages, and mysterious deaths. In middle school I also read Poe for the first time, and his work obviously had an impact on me, but my love has always been the novel, which may be why I took it upon myself to take the essence of Poe and try to make it into a novel, who knows?
In early high school I read everything ever written by VC Andrews, twice, and everything by Stephen King, and then I restarted with fantasy, science fiction, and every other weird bit of speculative fiction that I could get my hands on.
What this history of my childhood reading habits is meant to show is that if there is a particular type of book that I am well-suited to writing, that type of book is NOT realistic contemporary.
So that crazy weird dark mix of genres that I mentioned in the first paragraph? My post-apocalyptic steampunk reimagining of the world created in Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death? Add in speculative history, and maybe a dash of dystopia (since there is an evil dictator) and maybe that’s what I was meant to write. Or at least what I believe I am best suited to writing. And I guess figuring that out is the turning point that this post is meandering toward.
At the time when I composed the email to my former agent, gave it a lovely Monty Python–inspired title, and hit send, I hadn’t quite figured out what I wanted to write.
But I simply wasn’t that excited about doing another realistic book, so I sent her this other manuscript that I’d written during this dreamy state that I’d drifted through during my first pregnancy. It was a weird little fairy tale that I still sort of love. But, I mean, you can’t really spring a surprise like that on a person who is expecting a book about high school and expect anything good to come from it. My former agent said the voice was fantastic, but the rest was vague (it was) and that if I wanted to write fantasy I’d need to start from scratch and define all the rules of my world before I even started writing.
So, I never mentioned that manuscript again. Not to anyone. Not until right this minute. I didn’t respond to that email, I didn’t ask questions. I mentally shelved it forever.
And I went on to write a realistic contemporary manuscript that was probably as good as my first book, but wasn’t really where my heart was, and it didn’t sell.
At that point I didn’t really feel like a writer at all. Certainly not a successful one. And I had an idea for my next story that was huge and awe-inspiring and daunting, and I wasn’t sure I could do it. But that’s the sort of thing that speaks to me (huge and daunting, very dark and quite disturbing), so I jumped in.
My former agent had left the business, and I was agentless, making it a good time for reinventing myself, though the process, for me, was never that deliberate. I was still me, just a me who had become daring enough to create the sorts of settings and characters and stories that I was more qualified, and possibly uniquely qualified, to write.
I’m sure my current agent, Michael Bourret, will be reading this, since he’s also Nova’s agent, and if I wanted to be all sentimental (I don’t) I could say that signing with him was also a turning point, because he really got what I was trying to write, and I really needed someone to get it. These words from an early email, describing my writing—It’s dark, and sexy, and just the slightest bit wrong, but all in such a delicious way—expressed exactly what I was trying to do!
And I needed that validation.
So, I set out to write something different and unique, and what I came up with was Masque of the Red Death. The voice, the world, the setting, the characters, they were all exactly what I was meant to write. The sort of story that came naturally and felt right, and happily, I think it’s the sort of thing some people will enjoy very much. At least I hope so, because I’m going to leave realistic novels to the authors who have so much more to say in that genre. I’ll stick to weird dark gothic stories, with horror, adventure, and secret passageways. And scary crocodiles.
And just maybe, the occasional love triangle.
Bethany Griffin spends her days coaxing teenagers to read, and her evenings writing books that someone else can coax teenagers to read. She spends too much time reading and on the internet, and not enough time doing anything else, but rationalizes that everything else is overrated, anyway. Masque of the Red Death was just released on April 24, by GreenWillow Books.
Visit her online at www.bethanygriffin.com.
GIVEAWAY WINNER ANNOUNCED!
Congratulations to the giveaway winner of a *signed and personalized* hardcover of Bethany Griffin’s new YA novel Masque of the Red Death:
Congrats, Celeste! I will email you for your mailing address. Thank you to everyone who entered—and to the author for the prize.