The Lost Manual for Life (™)
Guest post by Jo Thomas
Futurefire.net Publishing recently (at time of writing) announced their next anthology, Problem Daughters, which will look at intersectional feminism and excluded voices, including (among many others) disabled women. Which set off a bunch of neurons in my brain, because I’m a woman with Asperger’s Syndrome. I’m not sure whether it shows to others in my writing but I feel that the experience of life it has given me does actually make it easier to write particular styles.
The best place to go if you want to know more about Asperger’s, considered to be part of the Autism Spectrum, is to go and have a look at some sources like the National Autistic Society. However, the bit that I want to mention is feeling like you lost the manual to life and everyone else has a copy.
This is, I’m told, a very common feeling. So common that when it’s mentioned to your GP or anyone else while you’re considering pursuing a diagnosis, the “But everyone feels like that” response will run the whole gamut between affectionate exasperation and outright dismissal. The main difference is that an aspie, given that we have problems processing facial expressions and tones of voice, may not actually pick up on the display of emotion that went with it. It depends on the aspie’s mindset as to how painful that disagreement is to them, not the feeling the other person was trying to convey.
Again, you may say this is universal, and I agree. These things are never binary and there is a matter of degree involved.
Because this feeling of not fitting in is so universal, it’s often a key part of a view-point character. As a reader, it’s easier to grasp what’s going on in a new world if it’s also new to the person they are experiencing it through or is describing it to them. As if they, too, are writing their own manual as the experience the world and adjust their understanding accordingly.
For me, this goes so far that it’s much easier for me to grasp the story I need to tell—and the world it is unfolding in—if I can hook into a particular character who is new to the world and to the plot I’m exploring. (Again, I have no doubt this is a “But everyone feels like that.” Then again, I can’t speak for other writers.) So it’s probably not a surprise that my first published novel was told in first person.
The first person in question is the young Elkie Bernstein who, in the not-so-urban fantasy 25 Ways To Kill A Werewolf from Fox Spirit Books, is a teenager without a manual when she finds out that werewolves really do exist. The first book is essentially Elkie working out how to write her own manual for life (something her creator has yet to achieve). Of course, even if she knows that there’s a way things are supposed to be, her plans are somewhat ruined by having monsters going bump in the night. Something her creator has yet to experience, thankfully.
Just when Elkie thinks she’s got a handle on things, despite not being on her imagined life-track, book 2 came along. A Pack of Lies (also Fox Spirit Books) is what happens when you realise that the world is bigger than you thought—that feeling we all run into when we gradate, or change jobs, or move somewhere new. These are all things that can be stressful for anyone, because the rule book changes and we have to learn what the new-to-us community or neighbours will or won’t accept. In my case, this is something I’m starting to realise is easier when one can understand more than the literal meaning of the words people use.
Now, of course, I have completed my act of trilogy, a common crime against fantasy writing, and Elkie’s world has expanded again. Fox Spirit Books saw fit to release this one into the wild as well and Fool If You Think It’s Over is due out in January. This time, Elkie’s manual needs to expand as she realises that no-one does a favour without expecting something in return. She’s also finally come to that stage of adulthood, required by the plot in order to tie everything up as much as possible, where she’s beginning to realise that much of what is happening is in response to her own reactions in earlier situations. It’s very rare for us to realise the full implications of our choices, and our misunderstandings, until it’s too late to do anything about them. Elkie’s misunderstandings and reacting without forethought has made her realise the manual needs to cover more than werewolves.
Writing Elkie has been about trying to make someone who had an experience that irrevocably moved their expected life-track and left their manual changed in a way that was difficult to get over. After all, 25 werewolves are going to leave a mark. Elkie, like the rest of us, has to deal with the results of every decision and face the next choice with the rules she has already worked out. As the quote goes “generals are always fighting the last war.”
Using first person allowed her to tell me the story in a way that made sense—and pulls the reader (and me) into Elkie’s view of things so that her reactions and mistakes are understandable rather than being just another young person flailing wildly in the dark. If she’d been given a manual, or even the script, in advance, I strongly suspect she would have refused the role.
I know the feeling.
Jo Thomas also has three stories in TFF: “Good Form,” “Hunting Unicorns” and “An Invisible Tide,” and can be found at journeymouse.net. The Elkie Bernstein trilogy can be purchased from Fox Spirit Books.