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YA Wonders from This Year

I’ve read many amazing books this year! Find all the reviews at my Goodreads page.

  • A Time to Dance (YA, MG): About pursuing artistic passion (dance) and losing a limb. My review at Teachers Workshop is here.
  • A Wrinkle in Time (YA, MG): About love and hope and interstellar time travel. My review at Teachers Workshop is here.
  • Boost: (YA, MG): About tall girls, basketball, drugs, and sibling crazy
  • Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead (YA, MG): About friendship and first love
  • If You Could Be Mine: (YA) Love between two teen girls in Iran, where it’s forbidden.
  • I’ll Give You the Sun: (YA) Twins, first love, being artists, and coming out and speaking up.
  • Saints and Misfits (YA): About identity, defining your faith, first love, and assault
  • Second Impact (YA): About CTE, small-town football, and intrepid teen journalists.
  • The Hate U Give (YA): About losing a friend, police brutality, and interracial love
  • The Unraveling of Mercy Louis (YA): About basketball, small towns, sexual awakening, and getting out of Dodge
  • Trell by Dick Lehr (YA, MG): About finding the truth: a journalistic thriller led by a strong young woman who wants to free her incarcerated father.

Find even more at my guest post, “9 High Flavor Reads for Your Teen (and You)” at Jennifer Puryear’s Bacon on the Bookshelf blog.

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Why Didn’t She Say Something?

“Why didn’t she say something?” That’s what a reader asked me back in 2013, angered that Wendy suffered in silence after an assault. My YA novel grapples with a survivor’s dilemma: speak up and risk not being believed—or worse, being destroyed by the perp and the public.

When a woman speaks out shouldn’t be the point, but watch it become the subject. Trust that Wendy’s silence is complicated, as is her eventual speaking out.

The simple truth is what Jessica Goldstein said so well recently in McSweeney’s: “As young girls, we feel like maybe now is a good time to just throw something out there. See if it sticks. A PSA to all grown men on the face of the Earth: We do not want to have sex with you.”

Let’s try this again: Why didn’t she say something?

Because what happened is too horrible to put into words.

Because reliving it might make you faint or vomit. Or kill yourself.

Because he’s older.

Because Mom is overwhelmed by her life and always upset about something.

Because he’s Mom’s boyfriend.

Because he knows a ton of people in this town.

Because you won’t be believed.

Because everyone will talk about you.

Because now you’ll be That Girl.

Because everyone else is living a simpler, happier life and your trauma will interrupt theirs.

Because you’ll be asked why–about the outfit, about the time, about the situation. About the relationship.

Because you must have done something to encourage him.

Because smart girls should know better.

Because the candy store at the mall uses girl bodies to sell sugar.

Because someone near you just made a joke about sluts.

Because you’re busy looking over your shoulder in the parking lot.

Because close to 50% of Alabama electorate just voted for a pedophile.

 

 

 

Why Do You Assume You’re the Smartest in the Room?

Ever give someone feedback–nicely said, constructively given, solicited, in the appropriate context–and someone still gets mad? Mad because they didn’t think of it themselves? Cold and resentful because they suddenly aren’t the smartest person in the room?

Ever ask for feedback and proceed to get skewered by someone who makes the critique sharp, cold, and personal?

Fortunately, my writers’ group is the absolute opposite of that. And they just gave me a huge and timely piece of advice.

That scene on page 170? Move it to page 70, girl. ‘Cuz there’s your Catalyst. 

Oh my sweet Lord, they are so right.

I am grateful. This is how it gets done. You write, they read, you listen. You ruminate. Then you move in for the kill and rip those pages. Because nothing there is sacred.

I’m not the smartest person in the room. Some of my best ideas have come from my agent and my editors and my writers’ groups.

I get it: the What Ifs that suddenly open up when someone tells you to make a change–those are scary. When someone throws you a new What If, you better be Jedi Ready–not against them, but against the beast that is your bloated, mediocre manuscript (speaking for myself here). But to get mad? When our stock and trade is brainstorming and re-visioning?

I’m not really sure how you’ll survive as an author if you have to always be the first to think of things.

On the days where I’m feeling super-sensitive, and when the writing does not flow, and my goals seem light years away, I may be tempted to argue with the critic who presents a totally different view of my work. And sometimes, yes, that critic could be self-serving, or competitive, or just plain mean–but usually, there’s a grain of truth worth diving for.

“It’s soooooo looooooong,” complained an editor once, to whom I’d agreed to pay a lot of money for feedback. From the moment I eagerly sat down with her, she seemed strangely angry. Mad, even, that she had to read the manuscript. Then she proceeded to say some mean-spirited things. She even questioned the reality I was portraying (a story about teachers, as if I’d never been one and didn’t know who they were or how they acted.) She showed no curiosity as to what I’d experienced that perhaps I needed to describe better. I finally had to ask: is there anything worth salvaging? She sighed, shrugged, and said something nonspecific.

It was a memorable and yet unmemorable critique.

What was unsaid, but clearly there in the cold, reptilian gleam in her eye, was a resentment that I and my manuscript even existed. She was an editor who didn’t take joy from editing–in and of itself, a huge problem–but I also sensed then a competition, since she too was an author, regarding Who Would Make It. Everything in her body language said, I hope it’s never you. 

Get over yourselves, Those Who Need to Win. You wear me out with your tense and stingy lips, your nervous ears. I know your bad behavior is rooted in a deep insecurity, and a desire to be perfect. I get it; I have those same dark thoughts and urges, too.

Never mind me. You can block me out, because I won’t be chilling at the feedback table with you any longer. Pretend I didn’t write, and pretend I didn’t say anything about your writing. Good luck going it alone.

Meanwhile, the truth is still there: my manuscripts tend to be way too long. After licking my wounds post various takedowns in my life, I’ve realized that I needed to be a bit smarter. Write tighter. Plot better. And vet that editor before you agree to pay her.

You have to embrace feedback, and sometimes turn the other cheek while it hurts. First and foremost, seek those who give and take feedback openly, who come with an open, joyful energy to the process. Where the attitude is flex, and the love of the work, paramount. Where there’s not power struggle or oneupmanship. Where ego is on the shelf.

The badge I seek at the end of this life is, She told a damn good story. I hope everyone is there with me at the finish line. I see us there, laughing and feasting, all very smart together, with plenty of room at the banquet table.

This is Not a Fail

Image by Leunert

Editors look at my book and say nice things. They say lukewarm things, too. And they say no.

The subbing process can be full of no’s or versions thereof, found in forwards from your agent where it was “so close” or “Ugh!”

When you spend years on a book, you might start to think a pile of no’s during the sub process equals failure.

No. This is a not a fail.

A fail is envy.

That person with publishing success? On his own path, on her own journey. They don’t write what you write, they don’t do what you do, even if the genre is identical and even if their age seems particularly close. Or unfair. Yes, those people who get on the path early and seem (operative word, seem) to have the way cracked wide open for them…that may seem wrong but who made you judge? Jealousy, the kind you nurture unabashedly: that’s a fail.

A fail is using your mean words on social media.

Do better, authors. We ought to know how words are weaponized.

A fail is expecting the world to hand you success and fame and fortune.

No one owes us anything.

A fail is defining your art by revenue alone.

A fail is giving it away for free all the time.

A fail is believing your work will never, ever get better.

A fail is blaming others for being in your way.

A fail is focusing on the moment and what’s not right and then sitting back, paralyzed.

When you feel that bad, grabbing your dragging heart off the floor and pinning it back on is all you can do.

Or in Hamilton terms:

Rise up!
When you’re living on your knees, you rise up
Tell your brother that he’s gotta rise up
Tell your sister that she’s gotta rise up

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Setting for a Reason

 

I believe everything happens for a reason. So I like to keep my eyes and ears open for signs that help my novel, especially when that novel feels “meant to be.” Everyday life gives me so many gifts of inspiration.

 

 

Example: a conversation at work this week about whether the location for a problem-based learning scenario (PBL) could be changed, in an educational program for gifted kids: that inspired me to better set the stage in my novel.

 

I’m lucky enough to work in a place where we get to have discussions about best practices in education, one of which is using the power of narrative to reinforce and explore concepts. Our debate was whether we could make the setting of the problem in a small town that would get quite hyped by a minor incident. You know, the way small towns do.

 

Setting is its own character. I’ve said this to myself a whole bunch, but I don’t always practice this in my writing.

 

Setting breathes and pounds like a beating heart around and within characters of your novel.

 

Setting is a vehicle to carry larger truths.

 

 

You can be explicit in descriptions, symbolic and weighty as I was with Wendy Redbird Dancing in my novel How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought. Burdened by trauma, walking her neighborhood, here’s what she thinks:

 

When I disembark from the EZ Rider bus, the air is thick as water and I part it with my body, heaving against it. I pass a dull procession of dying trees lining Oak Street from downtown Millboro toward the Passive Solar, hung with a green, bright, and curly killer, kudzu that suffocates the pine, birch, and oak beneath. Lumpy, monster trees trapped by cancerous masses. Wouldn’t it be nice if a big net of suffocating vines would o’ertake me and let me sleep awhile.

 

Kudzu’s always freaked me out a little, especially as a teen when I moved here from California. I’d seen ivy but never enough that it appeared to be taking over a small country. Driving by kudzu on the way to work, I saw it as something Wendy would definitely notice as she navigates a very painful existence, one where she feels trapped like a mummy in a perpetrator’s web.

 

Some writers don’t want that deep a connection, and worry, rightfully so, about pathetic fallacy. My description doesn’t tread there but it’s symbol writ large.

 

 

Or you can just set up the facts of the location with plans for those rich details to matter later. (Hopefully, the reader will make those connections, not us.) The conversation at work had me thinking about the four-week span of a story for our program’s PBL scenarios, and how breaking news featured each week is a pacing strategy we use to engage student interest. In the same way, a setting as its own person can not only keep my readers with me but also set things up for later drama.

 

In my novel in progress, NO SMALL THING, I’m working to develop a setting of extreme fandom and loyalty to the boys’ high school basketball team. Here’s a first draft (first!) of a setting nugget I inserted in a dialogue between Audrey, aspiring sportscaster, and her mother, not a basketball fan. Mom is lecturing her about choosing education as a career instead.

 

She sighs. “We’ve talked about this. Entertainment is nice, but—”

She’s interrupted by blaring horns and hollers as a huge caravan of pickup trucks pass us on the main drag, festooned with black and yellow streamers. Kids are standing, shaking posters while horns blare, and people on sidewalks salute with brown bags since everyone started drinking early tonight—the kind of pregaming the whole town does when the season starts. THREEPEAT and ALL THE WAY TO STATES pass us by, and then GOT RABIES? with the Farrington Wolverines mascot, and CALL ANIMAL CONTROL RABID WOLVERINES.

Mom shakes her head. “So not safe. Who’s driving?”

 

This type of fandom will not just be an annoyance to Mom later—it’ll be a real threat to Audrey.

 

Or there’s the fact that it’s October in North Carolina, 37 degrees one moment, and 77 the other. This is not the norm. Audrey’s mom uses it as a part of her pitch to Audrey (propaganda, really) to become a teacher:

 

We get in the car before we turn to icicles. A big mosquito buzzes around the dash and bangs against the windshield, half-hearted and sad.

“Lovely,” Mom says. “Thirty-seven degrees tonight and mosquitos are bopping around. See, another reason to get into the classroom and teach these kids science.”

 

This writing strategy is true for creative nonfiction as well. Writers exploring their memoirs are often faced with the question of whether to recall certain setting elements (and also the moral dilemma of did I really smell that rose and was I really tasting peanut butter so fully when I was four?).

 

I celebrate that kind of sensory exploration as we dive into setting our life stages in memoir because these are necessary vehicles to grounding our readers in our reality. Whether I really tasted PB & J just that way back in 1970-something isn’t so much the issue as a) I did get PB & J sandwiches for lunch and b) I was a kid of age four who probably fixated on how PB does stick to the roof of your mouth and I would probably talk to my mom about it. And the kitchen was probably yellow and brown in that seventies goodness way of decor. That truth of setting is worth sharing.

 

 

All this to say that I wouldn’t have had this epiphany if I didn’t have the day job I have, the conversations we have there. Sometimes, I let negative thinking distract me from my true writer’s purpose. I somehow think I should be working faster, writing better, and doing this whole thing PERFECT.

 

Crazy talk. Everything is perfect in its time when it comes to artistic process. Things must flower and unfurl…and yes, maybe they’d unfurl faster if I were listening a little harder.

 

That’s my plan for next week. Listen, ask, discuss. And keep jotting down those fleeting ideas with strings attached

 

(Note: right now, I’m in an AWESOME writing zone but back in the spring, I felt exactly the opposite than this post. So if you’re having a crappy time with getting pages together, I feel your pain. Sometimes it’s hard to listen to the world around us when we feel our well’s run dry or we can’t generate anything better than the basics.)

 

How about you? Are things happening for a reason in your writing process? Is real life triggering your story elements?

 

 

 

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A Writer’s Time…

 

…is precious. Watch it get stolen daily. Three questions to help you keep it safe:

  • What’s your freshest hour–or hours–of the day? Find them, use them, guard them. For me, it’s before 11 AM.
  • What device and which space will let you hunker down? I have to turn off Messages, Chrome, and Mail in order to write. My office is the best place, and I need wordless music or music that gets me in a trance. Oh how I adore the Hamilton soundtrack but the rich language distracts me.
  • What guilt do you need to shelve? Name the people, places, and things: For me: my cat, my messy house, and dishes/laundry/daily grind.

How do you protect your time?

 

Filed Under: Uncategorized, writing process  

Why Caleb, Now?

I just posted the first episodes of a new novel, CALEB IN MINOR KEY, at Radish Fiction, a place where writers post new works for free as well as for a small fee.

I’m excited. But I’m also nervous. Caleb is biracial.

Here’s the book blurb:

All Caleb wants to do is rule the world with music, but he’s torn between warring parents. Should he stay with chaotic Dad, fight it out in a racist small town, and come up hard like his idols? Or is it time to move in with controlling Mom and try a rich college town where there’s a chance at fame?

There were other titles for this blog post, such as “What White People Must Do/Must Not Do” and “I Wake Up White Sometimes, But Rarely.” Or, “What Do I Get to Write, and Why?”

Why write a biracial male character when I’m a white female whose ancestors are Italian, German Swiss, and Scottish?

  • Because I heard Caleb’s voice and saw him with his dad. And that meant in my world, the story had to start. The white redneck father in a small town, the black lawyer mom in suburbia, two different locations and racism in both, struggle in all for Caleb. And through at all, a young man’s search for identity through his music. (Some argue that some white authors are trying diverse characters to be trendy. I’m writing a unique individual who’s occupied my head. I’ve written diverse characters in my books since the early ’90s–not as types, not to fill a space or requirement, but because they live and breathe just like my white ones. They exist, they are, they demand to be heard. A feverish and demanding place, the writer’s imagination!)

    Caleb in Minor Key

  • Because I refuse to write an Anywhere, USA, default-white landscape. I’ve read a number of YA books where one has to assume a character is “white unless otherwise specified.” I hate that. Not sure who lives in that world, but it’s not me. We need diverse books written by everyone. White people do not get to sit back and write only white characters and assume that’s the best or safest route.
  • Because racial injustice makes us all sick, and it needs to be openly dealt with via art, conversation, and honest dialogue. Everyone has a role in making our society well.
  • Because Radish is a serial fiction platform where fans of my other work or new readers can access Caleb’s story for free. (Some argue that if I publish this book in traditional or indie channels, I’ll take someone else’s place at the table in a historically white industry. Radish is application-based but doesn’t offer a severely limited number of seats like traditional American publishing. And if the last ten years of indie publications have shown us anything, it’s that many have chosen not to attempt the narrow pipeline, which can sometimes squeeze out meritorious books, while putting harsh rules on talented folk of all backgrounds.)
  • Because I need to grow. Radish is a place where readers can experience Caleb and tell me what’s working and what’s not. If they feel like it. Or not. Either way, I’ve hired a sensitivity reader, and I remain open to helpful feedback if people have the time and interest. (Some argue that certain whites demand that people of color “fix” their writing for them, which is so strange to me. I don’t expect anyone who’s not expressly hired in this capacity to step up and assist me just because they represent a certain demographic. I welcome helpful critique, but I don’t require or expect it, from anyone.)
  • Because what we call white or black or any other color denies the multi-faceted, colorful rainbow of personality.  Each person I write aims to surprise. If all my characters, whatever demographic they might represent, are so individual that they can rise above their labels, then I’ve succeeded. Does my queer teen girl obsessed with Christiane Amanpour, does my German-Russian immigrant grandmother, does my South Carolina-born-and-bred bluegrass redneck talent leap from the page, just like Caleb? Then let Caleb be his own strange and wonderful self among these white folk.
  • Because I’m the only one who knows exactly what I’ve lived, who I’ve known, and what I know now. Or how I came to know it. Some may look at my picture and think they know exactly how my life has gone. Thanks for playing, but you don’t know. And if I do this novel well, those ready to judge need to trust that I got my information from living some interesting life and knowing a whole range of people who make my life rich.
  • Because my story is an entire work, not one line on a page. If someone says to me, “But you can’t write that,” then I sincerely hope they’ll follow up with at least one suggestion of what I should write instead. If someone chooses to step out in judgement, then I invite them to see how the person, place, or thing I’m portraying doesn’t exist somehow, somewhere. If my white privilege is showing, I hope they tell me with specifics. I hope they take the story as a whole, because you never know how my Chapter 7 might just balance what you deem a troubling illustration in Chapter 2. Have you seen the entire landscape of people and how my characters evolve? Is there empathy, realism, honesty, and respect for each character? Give the whole book a try before you make a declaration.
  • Because I keep putting myself in places beyond my comfort zone. I read, I hang with people different than me, I travel. Living in California and North Carolina, teaching in several different secondary schools, and traveling a lot of places has taught me that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy. It’s a good place to start when writing.
  • Because I’m an artist who walks in others’ shoes. I can’t stop, and I never want to. 

Join me at Radish (download the free app) and then join me at my Facebook page and leave me a comment.

For more meditations on this subject, check out Mary Anne Morhanraj’s post on this subject, or Justine Larbalestier’s post, “How to Write Protagonists of Colour When You’re White.”

Why I Stopped Watching 13 Reasons Why

I was really excited about it. I figured I’d watch it all. But sometimes a Netflix series is not the best idea for a version of a story. And sometimes art raises questions that it’s not fully ready to answer.

Maybe a few episodes, not a series, would have been the way to go. Maybe if this adaptation from a book were not trying so hard to be hip to our binge-watching age, the story could be something I could really embrace. Maybe if a fleet of psychologists, educators, and parents were already behind the show, and had been instrumental in aiding the transition from the medium of pages—which generate different sensations—than images flashing at you from a screen—we might not have so much controversy. Those are my three reasons why I had to stop.

I read Jay Asher’s book, the inspiration for the series. The plot is a page-turner, based on a unique premise of a girl leaving behind 13 cassette tapes explaining the reason for her suicide. It is not a brilliantly-written book, but when it was released, it struck a chord, and Asher now travels to schools to discuss bullying with students. I applaud him for that. And I think a book doesn’t have to be an expert in all things—in other words, the author doesn’t have to master psychology, counseling, suicide prevention—in order to write about it. But yet when you put that story out there, you are now subject to any and all experts, pundits, parents, and the youth who follow your story, and you must answer to them.

After the fourth or fifth episode, when the protagonist is still a tortured soul unable to listen to all of Hannah’s tapes explaining her reasons for her suicide, I thought, “Enough already. Dude, listen to the damn tapes!” The book was not plagued by the overextension of plot. The book moved swiftly though each person’s hand in bullying Hannah or not helping her soon enough, or how one person was not “the reason.” So that was the first reason I stopped watching.

The outcry from concerned adults sparked me to pay attention again to why they opposed the series and make me wonder if I should clarify my reasons for stopping. Now that I analyze more carefully what I saw, I’m troubled. I’ve been thinking again about what it means to parent a teenager, or to teach students in middle and high school. I learned last year that two former students had committed suicide. And I know what it’s like to have someone come to you and admit they have thoughts of hurting themselves. And after listening to some psychologists talking about suicide contagion, I’m wondering whether the story, by its sheer length as a miniseries, overexposes people to the idea.

Suicide contagion, as the HU.S. Department of Health and Human Services describes it, is “an increase in suicidal behavior in persons at risk for suicide, especially in adolescents and young adults” that has been seen to occur after “direct and indirect exposure to suicidal behavior.” If the creators had been willing to do two or three episodes, that choice would have possibly captured the book better, maybe because it would have forced the story to be tight in the way a feature film must be. I wonder if catharsis isn’t as likely in a binge-watching experience as with a real-time, unified experience of theater or feature film. I wonder if instead of us being purged and cleansed, we’re not saturated with a persistent sadness we can’t really handle. I’d love to learn more from a psychiatrist about catharsis and art and how that might heal us.

In this adaptation, Hannah’s tone of voice on her tapes can sometimes sound like someone glorying in her revenge—a tone that didn’t come through as strongly in the book if I’m recalling correctly, so my impression echoes the concerns I’ve heard that the series promotes a revenge fantasy. Suicide is not “the last word,” however much someone might fantasize it is. It’s loss, for everyone.

With Netflix, the cast grew, and because of the timing of this series, so did the necessity to modernize with social media in ways that the book could not, being published in 2007. Things got super-sized in this version. Not surprising: our culture can’t seem to do things in moderation. We over-feed ourselves, we over-share, we over-think, we perseverate.

I have a fourth reason why I stopped. If we could guarantee in this age of Bring Your Own Device Everywhere that teens, preteens, and eight year-olds were not watching Netflix unsupervised and that the conversations were happening and warning labels were noticed, I could feel more encouraged about Netflix’s aims. But for now, I’ll err on the side of a book that by its very medium slows things down.

One good thing about the culture we live in, and the choice Netflix made? There are students out there who contribute to the culture of bullying, and this culture makes suicide an easier choice for some. And if those individuals who perpetrate cruelty, or the “good people who do nothing” when witness to bullying saturate themselves in this story, and walk for a moment in the shoes of someone bullied, will they change?

I hope that the TV version wakes up some who weren’t stirred to action by a book or someone else’s pain. Maybe that’s the overriding reason—reason enough—to keep exposing people to the story.

More information on the series:

What’s in Your Writer’s Shrine?

Welcome to my writer’s shrine.

We all need hope, faith, and love as writers. We all need to believe in the power of our words, even if everything else in our life is telling us “nah.”

Talismans, symbols, icons, saints.

Gifts from friends who love us well.

From the ether and in the electricity of the unseen, the great Cloud of thoughts, something’s got to manifest.

I cling to these somethings.

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A Prayer for this Sunday

Yesterday I marched with people whose heads had just been bowed in prayer. Who said Amen to the words of an imam, and a pastor, and a rabbi. We marched peacefully for love and justice.

A marcher at Raleigh’s February 11th Moral March. Photo by Lyn Fairchild Hawks

We own the words freedom, America, and patriot like anyone else. God, too. God is ours.

Many Americans are rising up to take back our faith in all these things in the public sphere. Privately, we have worshipped and sung and believed in all these beautiful words. But for many years, we’ve let those who act out of fear and hate to hijack these words.

No more.

God bless America that rises up to protect the people. God bless America that seeks liberty and justice for all.