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Elissa Sussman: Five Things I Learned Writing Stray

A cross between The Handmaid’s Tale and Wicked, with a dash of Grimm and Disney thrown in, Stray is part coming-of-age story, part fairy tale, part adventure, part sweet romance.

Stray tells the story of Aislynn, a princess who misbehaves and must give up her royal trappings and enter a life of service as a fairy godmother. Will Aislynn remain true to her vows and her royal family, and turn away from everything she longs for? Or will she stray from The Path and discover her own way? Epic, rewarding, and provocative, Stray will appeal to readers of Entwined, by Heather Dixon; to those who grew up watching the Disney princess movies; and to fans of the acclaimed musicals Into the Woods and Wicked.

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1. Kill your dragons

Ok, sure, the actual advice is “kill your darlings”, but in this case dragons is more accurate because the beasts had to be slain for STRAY to become what it is.

It wasn’t an easy decision for I am an unabashed dragon-lover. But when it comes to literature (and life), sometimes you have to make the tough choices. And the dragons, those magnificent scaly beasts, just weren’t working. So they had to go. Along with 90% of the original manuscript. Sometimes you have to be brutal.

2. The curse of the strong female character

Women. You can’t draw them. You can’t animate them. And you certainly can’t render them. But can you write them?

If I’ve learned anything about being a female writer and a female reader, is that no one comes under scrutiny quite like the female protagonist, especially is she’s a teenager. She doesn’t get any passes – she’s got to be a role model, a “strong female character”, but she can’t be too good, too perfect, or else she’s a “Mary Sue”.

However, the best thing about writing young women is the awesome YA community, the one that supports and loves these contradictory characters. So write those female protagonists – because at the end of the day, some pretty amazing people have got your back.

3. Screw breadcrumbs, give ‘em bread

In a previous professional life, I worked in production on a bunch of different animated movies. Animation, like publishing, is a slow process. And it can be hard to muster up a sense of accomplishment when you’re working on something that you can’t share with others for months, sometimes even years. So I turned to baking.

Comparatively, baking is a very fast process. Gather a bunch of ingredients, mix them together, put it in the oven and voila! You’ve accomplished something.

When it came time to write STRAY, I wanted to give my main character, Aislynn, something that brought her a sense of calm and order. Something that made her feel accomplished.

Most people say “write what you know”, but also write what you like. Write what excites and interests you. Get your character’s hands dirty, messing around in the things you love. Nothing will be more fun to write.

4. Diversity in fantasy

I didn’t even think about at first. My book was a nod to Europe-style fairy tales, so of course every character was white and straight. It’s not like gay folks or people of color existed in the olden days, right? And was one thing to have a world where only women could do magic and society is ruled by a strict doctrine called the Path. But diversity? That’s just crazy.

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

Your story needs diversity. It just does. Aislynn’s story certainly did. There was no reason I shouldn’t populate the world of STRAY with LGBT characters and characters of color. And let’s face it – anything that makes you question the knee-jerk assumptions you make about your own writing and storytelling is a good thing.

5. Making magic bad

Magic is awesome, right? I’m the Harry Potter generation – I waited for my Hogwarts letter like everyone else (still waiting, but it’s cool, I don’t mind being that much older first year) and I’ve spent plenty of time imagining what it would be like to have magical powers.

But what if it wasn’t awesome? What if our society saw it as something untoward. Something…dangerous.

It’s easy to forget that a character like Aislynn has never read Harry Potter. In fact, if she lived in our world, she’d probably be of the mindset, like some are, that JK Rowling’s books promote witchcraft.

Subverting the impulse to think of magic as wonderful and, well, magical can be tricky. I recommend drawing comparisons to things our culture has problems with – such as women and what they should be allowed to do with their bodies. After all, there’s nothing more dangerous than a woman who does things without society’s permission.

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Elissa Sussman is a writer, a reader and a pumpkin pie eater. Her debut novel, STRAY (Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins), is a YA fantasy about fairy godmothers, magic and food. She received her BA from Sarah Lawrence College and in a previous life managed animators and organized spreadsheets at some of the best animation studios in the world, including Nickelodeon, Disney, Dreamworks and Sony Imageworks. You can see her name in the credits of THE CROODS, HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA, THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG and TANGLED.

She currently lives in Los Angeles with her boyfriend and their rescue mutt, Basil.

Elissa Sussman: Website | Twitter

Stray: Amazon | B&N | Indiebound