Emmie Mears: Five Things I Learned Writing The Masked Songbird
Mildly hapless Edinburgh accountant Gwenllian Maule is surviving. She’s got a boyfriend, a rescued pet bird and a flatmate to share rent. Gwen’s biggest challenges: stretching her last twenty quid until payday and not antagonizing her terrifying boss.
Then Gwen mistakenly drinks a mysterious beverage that gives her heightened senses, accelerated healing powers and astonishing strength. All of which come in handy the night she rescues her activist neighbour from a beat-down by political thugs.
Now Gwen must figure out what else the serum has done to her body, who else is interested and how her boss is involved. Finally—and most mysteriously—she must uncover how this whole debacle is connected to the looming referendum on Scottish independence.
Gwen’s hunt for answers will test her superpowers and endanger her family, her friends—even her country.
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Lesson the First: Be Yourself
This is the first full story I ever wrote:
It’s admittedly brief. But even as an almost-thirty-year-old human-shaped thing, I’m rather impressed with its themes. There’s an obvious moral in there about, you know, not peeing on people or sentient flowers, but there’s also undertones of vengeance and retribution and a certain dash of whimsy that I rather like to this day.
When I scribbled that little comic in 1989 or so in an Alaskan apartment, I don’t remember feeling like I had a flash of brilliance or that one day I’d win a Nobel Prize for literature or anything. There was joy in creating – and of course, the gleeful satisfaction of making a pee joke.
It was another fifteen years or so before I came to understand that the stories I wrote and bled onto hundreds of pages of 1s and 0s on a decrepit laptop as a teen could be, in all seriousness, a viable career choice.
Lesson the Second: Do What You Gotta Do
My high school guidance counselor, a panic-prone man in the waning days of the 20th century, was a big fan of the “flipping burgers” threat. “If you don’t go to college, you’ll be flipping burgers! BURGERS! FLIPPING THEM!” he’d squawk, then run out of the room cackling and leave the rest of us scratching our heads wondering how that threat would play out in a one-stoplight rural Montana town that had exactly one place that served burgers at all. Would we all be forced to crowd behind the register and take turns with the spatula and grease-spatters?
I never found out. Because of course, even once I realized that writing stories did, in fact, pay some people money, I went to college for other things. I followed the advice of the Wise Grown-Up Sorts in my life and got a degree. I graduated a year late in the illustrious, economically booming year that was….2008.
Take that, Mr. Counselor Man. I don’t flip burgers. I hand them to people for dubious amounts of money. BOOYAH.
Lesson the Third: Write Crap Sometimes
By that point, I had completed a novel that I thought would change the world. (Feel free to cackle at me like my old guidance counselor.)
I eventually came to realize that said novel was actually a festering turd, and then later that even “turd” was giving it too much credit, because turds have some structure to them.
Through that time, I started writing the sequel, which was half turd-like in the sense that by the time I finished the second half of it, I’d learned enough to actually give it some structure. Or literary Imodium. Do with that metaphor what you will.
Lesson the Fourth: Know Thyself
My mind did a funny thing in the years between 2008 and the completion of my second novel in 2011: decided that writing might actually be the only thing I could do to simultaneously keep what was left of my questionable sanity and possibly earn a living that would allow me to stop slinging beers for a living. And because I slung beers for a living, it wouldn’t have to be a good living – I’d settle for one that allowed me to keep my now-normal routine of treading water and slurping it down various throat-tubes when breathing got boring.
After all, Sallie Mae was coming for my soul, because I had of course followed the decree of my elders and gone to university.
Let’s pause for a second. If you’re expecting this to go to a “NOW I MAKE VERITABLE FOUNTAINS OF MOOLAH AND WEAR NOTHING BUT GOLD LEAF WOVEN INTO CARDIGANS,” let me disabuse you of that notion immediately.
Lesson the Fifth: Do What You Love, Goddamn It
I’ve yet to make a single penny to pinch and hug and love and dub George.*
I might never make enough single pennies to feed the gobbling Sallie Mae monster (or, alternatively, to bury my high school guidance counselor whilst other former classmates flip burgers onto his head). The point isn’t that, after this long slog from my comic strip debut to my actual prose debut, I can see people queuing up to chuck money at me money for stories.
The point is that after several years of working jobs I really hated, I found one I could tolerate that allowed me to expend my mental energy on something I love. I might not always adore the people who sit at my tables and watch me run up and down the stairs for one beer at a time because the four of them get more of a kick out of ordering one beer every three and a half minutes than allowing me to get all four in one trip. (What would be the fun in that?) But I get avoid seeing 6 AM’s obnoxiously chipper face. I work three doubles a week and have three or four days off per week.
It’s not gold leaf cardigans, but it pays my bills. It sometimes gives me inspiration. It sometimes makes me new friends who like to geek out about Doctor Who and play tabletop games. When I’m home, I get to curl up with my cat (see exhibit B) and tell stories.
That’s what makes this whole thing worth it. I don’t have to give a flying fire-bellied toad of fucks that my degree will probably only be useful in future survival situations as kindling. I don’t have to feel bad when peers buy homes I can’t or won’t ever afford. I don’t have to worry that I missed my calling and got stuck in a career that drained me of creativity. Even though handing someone a burger isn’t glamorous or particularly lucrative, the only bottom line I have to worry about is the bottom line on a page full of words I made.
I still get that gleeful joy of creation, of making something up that wasn’t there before. Spinning yarns and universes, tales and talismans. Part of being a grown-up writer is maintaining the wonder of a child regardless of whether you make money for the stories you tell, beyond the employment history on your resume, in spite of the degrees you earned and use – or don’t.
So do the thing. More importantly, do what you need to do in your life that allows you to do the thing. Books only sort of grow on trees these days – you have to plant them yourself. Learn. Get better. Evolve your word-making craft.
I myself have come a decently long way from that first comic strip. I moved on from pee jokes…to wedgies.
Because I’m a fucking grown-up.
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Emmie Mears was born in Austin, Texas, where the Lone Star state promptly spat her out at the tender age of three months. After a childhood spent mostly in Alaska, Oregon, and Montana, she became a proper vagabond and spent most of her time at university devising ways to leave the country.
Except for an ill-fated space opera she attempted at age nine, most of Emmie’s childhood was spent reading books instead of writing them. Growing up she yearned to see girls in books doing awesome things, and struggled to find stories in her beloved fantasy genre that showed female heroes saving people and hunting things. Mid-way through high school, she decided the best way to see those stories was to write them herself. She now scribbles her way through the fantasy genre, most loving to pen stories about flawed characters and gritty situations lightened with the occasional quirky humor.
Emmie now lives in her eighth US state, still yearning for a return to Scotland. She inhabits a cozy domicile outside DC with two felines who think they’re lions and tigers.
Masked Songbird: Amazon