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Thursday, July 8, 2021

Guest Post: How embracing all my favorite tropes saved my mental health in 2020 (by Virginia McClain)


Author Info

Virginia McClain is an author who masqueraded as a language teacher for a decade or so. When she’s not reading or writing she can generally be found playing outside with her four legged adventure buddy and the tiny human she helped to build from scratch. She enjoys climbing to the top of tall rocks, running through deserts, mountains, and woodlands, and carrying a foldable home on her back whenever she gets a chance. She’s also fond of word games, and writing descriptions of herself that are needlessly vague.

Sairō’s Claw by Virginia McClain

Series: Gensokai Kaigai (#1), Chronicles of Gensokai (#3) Published: May 7, 2021Genre: Fantasy, Action-Adventure, LGBTQ, Seafaring Adventure Fantasy, Samurai-inspired Fantasy Pages: 471 CW: Violence

Book Links: GoodreadsAmazonBookshop (Hardcover)Bookshop (Paperback)


2020 was a hard year for everyone. And while it was an extra hard year for me, it was an even harder year for thousands of other folks, so it feels weird to talk about how much it sucked. So let’s start this off by saying I am incredibly lucky in so many ways. Privileged, fortunate, just all around lucky, and as bad as my 2020 was, it was way worse for a lot of people. So, yeah. This isn’t a pity party. That’s not where this is going, even though there are some sad bits ahead.

It is, however, a discussion about how protecting our own mental health is always a worthwhile thing, and how despite the whole “suffering artists make better art” narrative we are often fed (which is a lie, I might add) protecting yourself from harm can actually be the best thing for both you and your art.

So, first, some context: I started writing Sairō’s Claw in 2019 after having taken two years off from my Gensokai series and writing a humorous urban fantasy series instead. The first two books set in Gensokai (Blade’s Edge and Traitor’s Hope) are hopeful books with goodhearted protagonists, but they are set in a very dark time and, particularly after finishing Traitor’s Hope, I needed some time off to write something lighter, because the darkness was draining me. Hence the break to write a whole other five book series that was pure humor and fun.

At the time I started writing Sairo’s Claw my mom was already battling cancer for a second time and my dad’s dementia had progressed to the point that he hadn’t known who I was the last time I’d visited. Back in late 2018 I had started counseling because I was struggling with depression, in mid 2019 an anxiety attack triggered by my mom’s illness added anxiety to the list of things my brain needed to deal with. Counseling, exercise, and meditation all worked in concert to help me through that though, and by the end of 2019 I was feeling much better, getting back into the swing of writing, and thus planning a new project in Gensokai.

And knowing that my mental health was tender, I was already planning to have Sairō’s Claw be a lighter story than Blade’s Edge or Traitor’s Hope. Yes, you read that right, I planned to take it easy on myself in my own writing because of my mental health. So, Sairō’s Claw started off with the intention of being more action adventure romp, and embracing a few tropes I really love to read but had never let myself write. But as I continued to work on the story, real life got even harder. My parents’ health continued to decline, a pandemic shut down the world so that I couldn’t go and visit either of my parents or any of my siblings… and so I leaned even harder into the fun things I wanted to write. More grumpy wolf spirit! More charming smuggler! More banter! More fight scenes!

And then both my parents died on the same day from completely different causes, and I stopped writing for a while.

(And, as an aside, just because it keeps coming whenever I mention this event, I’ll save you some awkward condolences. My parents had been divorced for two decades by the time they died and both had new partners they loved. So please don’t tell me they are together in the afterlife or whatever. Beyond the fact that I don’t believe in an afterlife, they would be pissed if they were stuck together for eternity, so let’s skip that one.)

I’m sure no one is surprised that losing my parents at the same time, when I was unable to be with them to say goodbye except via video chat, unable to be with my siblings, and unable to hold any kind of memorial for them beyond a Zoom toast to their lives, wrecked me a bit. I put aside writing for a time.

I told myself I didn’t have to write for as long as it took. That deadlines didn’t matter and that I didn’t have to make progress on the book for as long as it took. I gave myself permission to grieve and not worry about writing for a while. And, for a few weeks, I really couldn’t even fathom writing anything at all, but… the truth is, writing has always been part of my emotional process, so it was less than a month before I dove back into writing Sairō’s Claw. I couldn’t help it. I told myself I didn’t need to write the book, but the characters were there and… they were just begging to be written and I didn’t want to say no. So, I dove back into the book, and I embraced the fun bits even more. There was already a wolf spirit trapped in a katana, and a badass warrior mom, but now there was a sea captain, sea battles, sea SERPENTS, a friends to “it’s complicated” relationship, and a giant chase scene! Ok, a couple of giant chase scenes. In other words, I went all in. And as I wrote the end of the first draft in November of 2020, I realized that I was having so much fun with the story that I didn’t want it to end. So, I started writing the next book of the series right on its heels, and got about 20,000 words into it before I decided to pause and get started on revisions for Sairō’s Claw right after some time off in the new year.

And, then the weirdest thing happened. As I was revising, I realized that the characters had developed so much by the end of the first draft that I was going to have to rewrite every scene from scratch to make sure I captured who they were now. That’s not really the weird part though. The weird part was, as I rewrote every scene from scratch—starting a new file, typing each scene out anew even if I was barely changing what happened—I realized that I was having just as much fun with the rewrite as I’d had writing the first draft. This is weird because… well, I never have that much fun in the rewrite. But I did. I was giddy every time I got to write these characters, even on the second run. I got to write the banter again! I got to write the action sequences again! I got to explore these character’s emotions and reactions again! And it was… fun. For the first time ever, I’d leaned so far into all the parts of fantasy that I love most that I actually loved writing this book TWICE. All of my author friends think I’ve gone off the deep end at this stage. Most of them think I’m ridiculous for writing the whole book over again to begin with, but they ALL think I’m beyond silly for actually ENJOYING it. But here we are. I let myself write the book that I NEEDED in a year that was awful, and it was so much fun that it was fun twice. Actually, it was fun even when I was going through and addressing edits from my editor, AND it was still fun when I did my final proofread pass where I read the whole thing aloud to myself. So it was fun more than twice.

Ok. So, the point of all this? The point is, I wrote this book not in spite of my mental health, or by overcoming my mental health. I wrote it to protect my mental health. It started as a fun project to dive into when my parents were sick. Then it continued to be a safe haven as the world shut down for a global pandemic. Then it kept me afloat in the midst of a sea of grief. It has been a shining light in my life for just over a year now, and I think that’s something we don’t talk about often enough in writing/reading circles. How fiction—upbeat, hopeful, sometimes silly, fiction—can save us both as writers and readers. In addition to writing this action adventure fantasy romp featuring a grumpy wolf spirit, a badass warrior mom who can’t find childcare and a whole lot of chase scenes, I spent 2020 and 2021 reading a bunch of romance, fantasy romance, and humorous fantasy. Those reads helped me a ton. So did writing this book. And without those books I don’t know if I would have been able to push through the grief, sadness, horror at the state of the world, and everything else that 2020 and early 2021 threw at me.

We all deal with emotional turmoil differently, not everyone writes through it. And honestly, I’m surprised at how quickly I got back to writing after my parents died. I was expecting it to knock me out of the game for longer. I think it probably would have if I hadn’t already been halfway through a book that was so fun, and embraced so many things that I loved.

And yes, for anyone wondering, I did write one really sad story about my grief and it will be releasing in an anthology later this year. But even there I allowed myself to embrace some of my favorite story telling tropes, first person, a sword fight, some time travel. And that’s a single sad but hopeful short story that I needed to write as part of my grieving process. I literally knocked it out in two hours while sobbing the whole time, shortly after my parents died.

But it was embracing FUN in my fantasy writing that got me through this time. It was by embracing the pure escapism of the story that I shielded myself from a lot of what might have broken me otherwise. And I think we hear a lot about how artists use SERIOUS ART™ to process their heavier emotions, and that’s perfectly valid and wonderful too. But I think we don’t often talk about how embracing the fun things we love, leaning into tropes really hard and letting ourselves do things we haven’t before, is also a way to process and protect ourselves from heavier emotion. I know a ton of readers (myself included) who reach for more lighthearted reads when they are in a dark place, but I don’t know if we often talk about the creators who do the same thing with their work. But maybe we should.

And, I don’t want to give the wrong impression here and make you think that my other stories aren’t books I’ve loved writing. They are. I never write stories that I don’t love. But prior to Sairō’s Claw I hadn’t let myself write certain things because I’d been worried that they were “overdone” or that I couldn’t improve on them. But I finally acknowledged that, I could read every fantasy book ever written with a talking wolf in it, and I would never get tired of it, so why did I feel I had to do something new with it to allow myself to write it? And furthermore, if it’s something I love so much, why was I denying myself from including it in my own work? And that’s just one example of a trope I embraced in this book.

Look, there are no wrong ways to process your feelings (as long as you’re not harming others). And, as artists, I think we’re so often fed the idea that we need to suffer for our work that it can be hard for us to ignore that myth. Sure, suffering can create empathy and empathy is important to good art. But believe it or not, you can have lots of empathy without suffering, and trauma and stress more often kill productivity than encourage it. When I was the most wrecked by grief I couldn’t write anything. It was only when I started to push through with the tools that counseling, meditation, and medication had given me that I got to a place where writing was possible, and then I used it more as a protective shield than a processing tool.

I suppose if there is a point to this post at all, it is this: let yourself write the things you love. Let yourself joyfully embrace all the tropes that tickle you from your favorite genres and let your heart swell with the sheer fun of your next project. And, to be clear, for some of you those things might be the gory dismemberment of the main character by demons. Not talking wolves and charming smugglers. I’m not here to judge your tastes. I happen to love animal companion characters, enchanted/cursed swords, action movie chase and fight sequences, women who like to solve their problems at the pointy end of a blade, and love “triangles” that actually end in contented polyamory instead of angsty jealousy. To each their own! But, I let myself write a lot of the things I love into this book and it made the whole process not only enjoyable, but possible in a year that did it’s best to completely shatter my mental health, and thus my creativity.

So write all your favorite things! Be they dragons, animal companions, dark heroes, war torn continents, or steamy sex scenes, they deserve a place in your story if they are a thing that you love.

Life is short, writing books is a long commitment, and in the end the only person you can be certain of pleasing is yourself. And, if anyone gives you crap about it, feel free to send them my way.

NOTE: Many thanks to Justine, Timy & the Storytellers On Tours for giving us an opportunity to take part in this tour. Event Link



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