Everyone I know who is a writer seems to think writing is really hard. And maybe parts of it are. You basically are building a simulacrum of the world, filtering signal from the noise so that your storytelling focuses on specific things that create the idea of a story or the idea of a world, rather than a fully fleshed out one. It’s like a map that hasn’t fully rendered. Or the edges of dreams. Things on the edges get squishy, but the tiny, blood-fed mechanical heart of the thing is a thousand feet marching in lock-step, perfectly attuned to the machinations of solar systems you built with your own hands.
Usually when people say “writing is hard” I feel like what they might mean is “I am not enjoying my writing.” This is something I try to avoid.
I try to enjoy my writing all the time, but I definitely don’t always succeed. In 2018 I wrote half a YA novel that was depressing and angsty with a rape scene in the first twenty pages and overall high dramatic flair. But my New Years’ Resolution in 2018 was to think of a fun idea. I kept calling it that, “a fun idea,” but I think what I really wanted was a safe space. I wanted to build a world in which I could experience joy and awe and pleasure, and just generally have fun, rather than writing singularly from a place of fear and pain and outrage. My “fun idea” was Magic Princess Academy.
For writing to be fun for me, I need a fun world. That’s basically the difference between YA and MG fantasy–YA fantasy is sulky and torrid and #drama while MG fantasy is fun and hopeful and playful. YA knows how to wield magic, but MG still believes in it.
I wanted to play, so I built a world that I could play in. It has many things I like: magic, dragons, found friendships, tasty foods, soft textures, and the possibility that maybe you’re not as big of a dumpster fire as you think you are, and maybe things will turn out okay. (I wrote it before 2020–don’t @ me.)
My mission of 2019 was to become an Ambassador of Fun. A Scientist of Cozy. A cute-ologist. I took a well-known premise (a magical school) and I tried to stuff it full of as many cute things as possible. Many magical schools exist. I have studied at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, the Mystwick School of Musicraft, Luna Nova Magical Academy, Dear Old Shiz, and many mooore, but like the premise of Every Heart A Doorway, just because they were doorways doesn’t mean they were my doorway.
Miss Cackle’s didn’t quite have enough heartbreak. The Magicians had a bit too much (and a horrifying day-drinking problem). And no one, absolutely no one, had enough fuzzy dragons! No one had quite written the book I wanted to see, so I had to write it myself.
I think that’s where a lot of writers start. Taking something that exists and changing it slightly. Telling a new story with old tropes. If you do it in someone else’s domain, it’s fanfiction. But all art is in dialogue with other art. Could Rowling have written Harry Potter without reading Edith Nesbit? Could Grossman have written The Magicians if he hadn’t read Harry Potter and Narnia? Would Every Heart a Doorway exist if the market wasn’t “saturated” with portal fantasies? (Personally, I think we could use more, but that’s just me.)
You work with what you have. You don’t reinvent the wheel. Genres have expectations. Maybe you keep the wheel round but invent a new carbon polymer that is more resilient on tarmac than rubber. Or maybe you don’t change the wheel at all, but you change everything around it–the driver, the engine, the traffic. That’s how art works.
For me, I took the ubiquity of Disney princesses (who sing and work magic and talk to animals) and I said, “What if that was a DnD class, where they had specific skill sets? What if a princess was a specific type of spellcaster?”
From there, I brainstormed what came to mind when I thought of princesses. They sing–that’s the source and ritual of their magic. They’re protected by dragons–I made those their familiars. And they have values of helping each other and believing in kindness even in the face of adversity–those became the themes.
I think for a while maybe I couldn’t have this idea because I was blocked by societal expectations. A “girly” book didn’t win awards. A “girly” book was “hard to sell.” In the late 90s, Rowling hid her gender to publish Harry Potter. In 2015, V. E. Schwab published A Darker Shade of Magic under an androgynous psudonym–she stated at Sirens conference that people have come up to her since and said “I’m so glad I didn’t know you were a woman–otherwise I wouldn’t have read your book!”
Magic Princess Academy is a firmly gendered book, and that is a rebellion in a way, for me. It is me saying, “If you can’t love me for what I am, then I will find someone else.” It is me saying, “I am Chelsea Counsell. My name is obviously female. My book has the word ‘princess’ in the title. The protagonists are mainly female and it will have girls on the cover. If you’re not happy with that, then don’t buy it.”
But I think it’s silly for people to assume that Chelsea or princess or girl protagonists make a story only for girls. There are many girls who want to be CEOs or athletes or astronauts, so why can’t boys want to sing and love animals and wear a tiara while doing it?
Magic Princess Academy is a book about accepting who you are and the place you’re in, and trying to make it better. For me, that was my safe space. That was the world I wanted to create because I didn’t see it in media and I didn’t see it in real life. Writing is a tool you can use to work through trauma, to see through a different lens, to have adventures far greater than you could ever dream of having in real life.
I suppose that’s why I enjoy writing–because it is a reflection of the self in which you can learn to understand your personage and others more deftly by working out conflict on the page. For me, writing was a rebellion. It was also a refuge. And most of all, it was making my dreams a reality.
Are you a writer? What drives your writing? Is writing a special place for you, too? Let me know in the comments!