Bloody Feathers and How to Tell a Complete Story – a Guest Post by Lauren DeStefano
Intro: I am at ComicCon today speaking on a panel discussing dystopian fiction with Neil Shusterman, Paolo Bacigalupi, Michael Grant, Daniel H. Wilson, Marie Lu and our own Leaguer Gennifer Albin. My agency-sister and novelist of the Chemical Garden Trilogy – WITHER, FEVER and soon SEVER - Lauren DeStefano, was kind enough to step in for me today. I love her writing and I know you will too – Lissa.
When I was invited to do a guest post for the League, I started mulling over possible topics that I haven’t covered before. If you’ve ever been to my blog or my twitter page, you know that I like to talk… a lot, so this was going to be difficult.
But then something happened. While I was out having lunch with a friend, my mother called. She was at my house, making her rounds in my garden, planting perennials and making sure I hadn’t killed the tomatoes, and she noticed something. Two small birds had been nudged from their nest. When she approached, the mama bird swooped at her, so she wanted to warn me to approach that particular shrub with caution.
Now, I don’t make it a secret that I’m sort of a hippie about animals. Not just animals, really—I was deeply offended a few months ago when the deliveryman stomped on a spider in my house. And this past spring, when there was a mouse in my garage, I set a snap trap, and that night I tossed and turned until I begrudgingly stomped out of bed to do away with the trap before it had killed anything. I’m fascinated by living things, and I’m more of an observer than an interloper. (Besides, I have three cats, so the spiders in my house aren’t long for this world anyway). So the idea of baby birds in my heavily-wooded neighborhood unnerved me, and I checked on them when I came home. There they were: fuzzy and gray and clearly new to the concept of life outside of the nest that sat just three feet above their heads. I had an uneasy feeling about them, but mama bird was circling and I could see that my presence was keeping her from her job, so I left them alone.
The next morning, I took a step outside and peered into the shrub. From where I stood, it appeared to be empty. But that emptiness was confirmed by the bloody feathers pressed into the sidewalk at my feet. It was an ugly answer to my unasked question. Later in the day, my mother returned to tinker in my garden some more, and when I came outside, I noticed that she had watered the sidewalk. My mother being my mother, she probably hoped I hadn’t seen the carrion and wasn’t going to mention it. The water was already beginning to dry under the hot sun. In a few minutes, it would be as though the baby birds had never existed. Mama bird was gone, and her nest was pointedly empty. But I could hear other birds in other trees—birds who had been hatched, and been bumped from the nest, and beaten the odds. Every living thing can make the claim that it battled odds of some sort just to be born and to make it this far. Every insect we see, and every animal, and every person. The only thing that connects us to birds and bugs and people and that squirrel darting in front of your car is that we all survived.
When people ask if my writing is personal, I think they mean more along the lines of, “Is this character based off of anyone you know?” or “Did you draw this story from one specific experience?” And my answer to these is usually no. But what is writing but the words we say? And words come from thoughts and from experience. It’s impossible for writing not to be personal. If I were to write a story about baby birds being killed before they learned to fly, that story would be incomplete. I wouldn’t be telling of the birds that migrate, and nest, and peck at my strawberry plant. And it wouldn’t be much of a tale.
Writing, like life, won’t go as planned. Or at least mine doesn’t. When I’m beginning a new story, I don’t always know what it will be about. I don’t always know the name of the town or what the central conflict will be. All I know is that it will be a world in which awful things happen, and happy things. It’s a world where things live and things die. In order to write believable fiction, all one needs to do is live. And I don’t mean fly to Paris or be the son of a serial killer. I only mean to live—to pay attention and to see enough to tell a complete story. A complete story acknowledges the ugly things, but also the pretty things. Your characters were born—they battled those odds, and here they are. They aren’t props for entertainment, and you aren’t telling just a story—you are telling a LIFE story. Don’t worry about taking the story too far. Life certainly doesn’t worry about that. Life doesn’t apologize; it doesn’t explain; it doesn’t pander. So neither should the writer. The act of writing requires bravery, because living requires bravery.
Lauren DeStefano was born in New Haven, Connecticut and has never traveled far from the east coast. She received a BA in English from Albertus Magnus College, and has been writing since childhood. She made her authorial debut by writing on the back of children's menus at restaurants and filling up the notepads in her mom's purse. Her very first manuscript was written on a yellow legal pad with red pen, and it was about a haunted shed that ate small children.
Now that she is all grown up (for the most part), she writes fiction for young adults. Her failed career aspirations include: world's worst receptionist, coffee house barista, sympathetic tax collector, and English tutor. When she isn't writing, she's screaming obscenities at her Nintendo DS, freaking her cats out with the laser pen, or rescuing thrift store finds and reconstructing them into killer new outfits.
She blogs at www.LaurenDeStefano.com. Her twitter handle is @LaurenDeStefano and her facebook page is www.facebook.com/LaurenDeStefanoFan. On tumblr find her at www.laurendestefano.tumblr.com/.
The League of Extraordinary Writers is a group of debut YA authors who write science fiction and dystopian works. The ten of us have works that run the gamut of near-future mind control to far-future space travel, but they do have one thing in common: a future where the Earth we know now is twisted, gone.