Good morning, blog followers! I’m joining a contest, The Writer’s Voice, sponsored by Love YA and Monica Bustamante Wagner, which offers a chance for authors to share their manuscripts with agents. Part of the process is to post your query and first 250 words on your blog.
Dear Agents of This Cool Contest,
I seek your representation for my YA novel, How Minerva Mae Set the Record Straight. It’s a crossover story at 100,000 words for a range of ages, YA meets women’s commercial fiction.
9th grade hasn’t started too well for Minerva Mae Christopoulos, a gifted, weird, wise girl who’s survived some serious bullying thanks to her nebulous sexuality. All Minerva wants is to become the next Christine Amanpour and hang with her best friend, Diana. And though the first goal is looking likely—the school just approved Minerva to be the first freshman reporter—there’s no time to celebrate, because the girls who called Minerva “lez” all through middle school are after Di. They’re not just claiming her; they’re setting her up with a dangerous senior guy. Now Diana’s on the fast track to cleavage-baring camis and the “Hot or Not” tournament.
This can’t be. Minerva will have to muster every bit of journalistic genius to keep Di from becoming #thatslut—and figure out how not to lose a girl who feels like more than a friend.
I’m an indie author of How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, which was the 2011 first runner-up for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and has been reviewed in Publishers Weekly. I have a loyal following of readers; a strong website, Twitter, and Facebook presence; and experience with bookstore signings, a blog tour, and a book trailer. I’m also the winner of an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant and in my other life as an educator, have published three books (National Council of Teachers of English and Chicago Review Press).
I’ve included the first 250 words of the manuscript, and I would be happy to send you the complete novel. I appreciate your time and consideration.
Lyn Fairchild Hawks
How Minerva Mae Set the Record Straight
It being the demise of August in Jamesborough, North Carolina, the afternoon heat spreads its suffocating evil upon all creatures such that no sane person should venture outdoors. If I glance out my diamond-pane window above my desk, I have to rub the fog from the glass to see our little neighbor girls across the street, sweating it out under a hoop in the humid air and hellish sun. The house rattles as the air conditioning kicks in, and my hot little attic room, what I call my third-floor garret, the place I nurture deep thoughts as once did great women like Austen and Brontë, finally fills with gusts of air.
I go stand near the vent, flapping my t-shirt. I’m still slick with sweat after my mission into the world—a visit to my future stomping grounds, Jamesborough High. ’Twas all for a noble cause—the sake of journalistic justice.
I can’t wait to tell Di.
A few miles away, Diana Lucy Woods, my best friend since seventh grade, finishes up practice after swimming like the mermaid she is. She keeps insane hours with an elite crew of club swimmers competing for Division I schools. In a few minutes she’ll be here for Ancient Movie Night because it is Friday—the best day of my week. Thanks to my film fanatic father and his massive DVD collection, we hook ourselves up with old-school celluloid so we can hang with gals like Lana, Tippi, and Ava till Di’s curfew.
“While I don’t believe in heaven, I do believe in energy, which is neither created nor destroyed. My mom’s molecules still vibrate in this present universe, dissipating into the soil as we speak; still swirling are also her breaths. And it probably doesn’t hurt that Erin Connelly Christopoulos was a force of nature; the universe doesn’t just forget someone like that.”
— Minerva, in How Minerva Mae Set the Record Straight
Today, Mother’s Day, I’m thinking of all those who miss their mothers very much.
Minerva, the 13 year-old protagonist of my current novel, lost her mother at age 10. Through my writing, I’ve tried to imagine what this is like. Today, in my forties, I still get unconditional love and support from my wonderful mom. So not having the personal experience, I’ve witnessed the bravery of friends and tried to walk in their shoes, to try to begin to understand what this must be like.
I’m blessed to know several strong women who’ve lost their mothers and who navigate health, child-rearing, marriage, and work challenges without motherly advice. They press on without the counsel of someone who’s seen you at your best and worst, who can remind you that this moment you’re suffering doesn’t have to define everything past, present, or future.
When Minerva’s best friend chooses new friends and leaves her alone to navigate the first days of high school, Minerva turns to nature. She hikes up a trail behind her house, seeking the trees and plants her mother once loved. Minerva’s more of an indoor girl, but she knows if she’s going to find any peace, she needs to head outside. She’s on a mission to commune with nature’s energy where she believes her mother still resides.
Out of nowhere, Minerva hears guidance in the breeze. She hears the words of someone else’s voice, but she can’t interpret the message. It won’t be till she suffers some misadventures at the hands of her own hubris that she can interpret what her intuition (or is it her mother’s spirit) tried to tell her. Those words will suddenly make all kinds of sense.
I have a delightful friend who lost her mother very young and still embraces this world and all its crazy with resilience and joy. In fact, she jokes about her “Mom complex” and how it drives her to seek advice from certain grumpy old ladies, ones who makes it their mission to put people in their place. There’s something comforting about being told where to go and what to do by someone with lots of surety. Moms know, and they know best. Whether you lost her young or old, it fits you would seek her again and again, wherever you might find her, and that you’d be drawn to those teachers, coaches, colleagues, supervisors, and other female authorities who can set you straight on the rules of life. Thanks to my mom’s gracious and wise guidance, I know I gather around me those who remind me of her energy and presence, who give you that peace of being known in a particular way.
This same friend is like several others I know who are mothers of a different sort–the mentors, the aunts, the teachers, the friends, the principals, the supervisors, and the neighbors who help raise other people’s children.
I am also thinking today of those who grieve the mother who never was and yet who carry love and light to the world despite the lack.
By a certain age, we all become parents to this world, like it or not. We are all keepers of the village. I lift up those who share their best selves in the face of great loss and who still help mother this fragile place.
Writers don’t talk about how we’re constantly living with a couple lovers in our heads.
You know I mean characters, right? The figments we create, the protagonists and antagonists, Frankensteins we piece together to make a walking, talking body so readers will believe the very aliveness.
As I’ve slogged through my second novel in the Gifted, Weird, Wise Girl series, I’ve pursued Minerva, my teen narrator, trying to understand her heart and soul. The obsession is not unlike crushes I had on guys when I was a teen, the ones I only caught glimpses of in the halls. I’d overhear a conversation, get an accidental glance, then make a feature film out of those details. I crush on every one of my characters, dying to get to know them.
When you fall for someone, you see that person everywhere. Minerva haunts my commute to work and songs on the radio, she comes to mind when I’m reading a seemingly unrelated NPR story, she flickers through the pop culture drivel of the E Channel updates. Minerva, Minerva, Minerva—how can I help people see all your beauty?
Just like a crush out of reach, a character is that unfathomable mystery you hope to crack by the book’s end. And after you paint the glowing portrait, much like a propaganda dance in that first draft, you find good friends to bring you up short with a reality check. Thank God for beta readers. They’ll help you back off the obsession, put your stalkerish needs in perspective, and start editing to make the character more than a Sleeping Beauty or a Prince Charming—a real-life, flawed kid that makes the reader flip a page.
Minerva wants to take over the world as a journalist and be Christine Amanpour. She is disheveled with wild curly hair, and whenever she speaks, abrasive and always spouting big words. She challenges her teachers and her peers. And she wants to exact revenge on her bullies since childhood: girls whom she’s named The Bitches on Behalf of Carli. Minerva adores her best friend, Diana, the one who saved Minerva from lonely misery in seventh grade. Now it’s ninth grade and Minerva is poised to remedy the past by making a mark on the school with her words—and fighting back should the Bitches dare mess with her again.
Because I was so obsessed and somewhat blind while writing the first draft, I missed the fact my girl was too vengeful in the first act, never mind somewhat cold. I forgot to show depth and range of her loyalty and passions. Funny how devotion can look hard as metal and passion, dark and ugly. As I’ve walked with my character through the second phase of life, my love has deepened to something more mature, a relationship where I still adore despite the flaws, and still fight to the end for her rights.
I realized my deep love for Wendy Redbird Dancing when after three years, this hot mess of a girl and I were still friends and she, stronger in fiction than I’ve ever been in real life. She’s made bigger mistakes, taken greater chances, and survived more trauma than I. My heroine, my touchstone, my pal.
There are many strategies out there to get to know your character, and I’m a fan of list-making brainstorms and also Elizabeth George’s methods of character building (see her book Write Away). I think one truism that writers don’t want to admit when starting a novel is, It takes time. Lots of it. Just as you don’t really know a friend or a a spouse until it’s been a year or so—and even then, that’s truly just the beginning!—you don’t know your character till you’ve wandered in the woods with this person a good nine months. Of course I chose that symbolic gestation time; we can now switch to metaphors of birth and such.
Sorry, Relentless Era of Instant Gratification: you can’t know a character till you take that time. We may wish we could author books just like machines, but the laws of writing physics don’t move. There must be the ups and downs as there always are in the relationship rollercoaster, and ugly truth must surface as much as pretty epiphany.
The fact is, I’m in a relationship, and I’ve committed to this girl for life.
Now that’s a ring-tailed doozy.
This past October 11, my Grampa would have been 100 years old.
A jokester, singer, and actor, my grandfather had a way with words. My father remembers holiday dinners with my grandfather making speeches that would begin like this: “Now that we are all stuffed with sage, I would like to introduce the sage stuffed with turkey.” I would make Grampa repeat his famous expressions, “ring-tailed doozy” being my favorite. “Grampa, what’s a ring-tailed doozy?” I’d say. He’d give a deep, hearty laugh because he found my constant questions amusing. I don’t recall his exact answer, as it’s one of those idioms beyond exact definition, but I can imagine him saying, “A doozy, now that’s something. But one with a ring tail? Then you really have yourself a problem. Hoo boy!”
Grampa was a smart, generous, ethical man. He couldn’t stand bullies, so he had no trouble telling off those of his youth or the fearsome father-in-law. He ran a dairy seven days a week (open on Christmas Day, too); was a Kiwanis member for 29 years; and also was a Mason and a Shriner. A Dale Carnegie student and instructor, he preached the power of mind over matter. You make your life and no one else. He said that if you wanted to be a good conversationalist, all you have to do is let people talk about themselves.
He sang in a men’s choir through his late seventies. His deep baritone would have made a great radio voice. The story goes that he met my grandmother, Madelyn, in D.C. when they were both auditioning for a play.
“She’s for me,” said my grandfather’s friend, pointing at the very attractive maiden who happened to be a model.
“No, she’s for me!” Fred said, and made sure he got that gal. Handsome and witty, my grandfather no doubt nabbed her attention in an instant.
Soon after they were married, he left his D.C. job with the Department of Agriculture to return home and help my grandmother’s family at their dairy in the small town of Wheatridge, Colorado. It’s a choice that made sense in the 1930s, even though D.C. might have been a place where both he and my grandmother, also a government employee, might have found great careers and artistic success. His generation faced an economic meltdown, world wars, and social mores that could easily thwart those with artistic yearnings. It was a time to buckle down at a guaranteed job, do your duty by your family, and shove that safe money under a mattress. I wonder if Grampa would have taken to the stage or studio if he had come of age in the 1980s with all my options.
My sister got the singing voice and performance gene, and I got the way-with-words gene. We were encouraged from a young age to pursue our artistic dreams. Now we find the only things blocking us are time, laziness, and fear—though I suppose the right dose of luck wouldn’t hurt either. No matter what, I’ve always felt that my life has had options rather than directives. As Grampa once said, “Only the individual can change his life.”
After he visited us in 1982 while my parents were on a trip, I sent him some of my poetry. I was 13 and already full of writerly ambitions, and Grampa was so good at making up verses on the spot, I wanted to know his opinion of my work. The other day, when I was going through a shoebox of mementos, I discovered the letter he wrote me back.
If you can write poetry like you do at your age (and sober) imagine what you could do if you partook of a little bubbly (or grape). I am not suggesting that you start drinking but I love your free style in writing and your active imagination. It’s beautiful.
Not being an expert, I cannot criticize your writing but I do suggest as soon as possible that you get professional advice from a writing expert to steer you in the right direction and give you some of the finer points in context as well as style.
You probably have a better start now at your age with your innate, natural ability than many do in their twenties.
I sometimes wonder if Grampa had my same deep ambitions to make art. He certainly had enough talent in several arenas. We think now that he fought unspoken depression at the time he wrote me this letter, and even long before that, but you would never know when you read his words. He had weathered a number of setbacks by 1982—the loss of my grandmother, health issues, and investments gone bad. He didn’t have the energy of a man who once was president of the DC National City Players or who led the Denver Dairy Council. He didn’t speak of his struggles, like many men of his generation. He didn’t blame anyone but himself for events in his life. He kept cracking jokes. And he found a way to send encouraging words to a 13 year-old who dreamed of one day writing a book as good as Anne of Green Gables.
I wonder what Grampa would say now if I could show him my books, share my worries, and tell him about my dream to spread my stories.
I think I found the answer on a questionnaire my sister gave him for her high school genealogy project, in response to a query about difficult obstacles and how he faced them.
He wrote: “To thine own self be true. Believing will make it happen. Don’t give up.”
Grampa, I won’t.
Plus, if I did? Hoo boy! Now that’d be a heck of a ring-tailed doozy.
Do you believe in spirits? I do, and Wendy Redbird Dancing does. Someday soon Minerva Mae, my next gifted, weird, wise girl in progress, will realize that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in her facts-only philosophy. I’m thrilled to have mystery author C. Hope Clark pay a visit to my blog to talk spirits and some of life’s mysteries.
Halloween was a candy holiday for me as a child. Few tricks made me jump. I never was one much for haunted houses or graveyard treks, either, except for the time I volunteered to be Frankenstein for the school’s fundraiser, and a scared boy almost broke my hand kicking me.
I don’t mean the macabre sort of being that scares people then hacks their heads off. I’m talking about the essence of humans who have died but not moved on. I choose to believe their presence can be true. It makes a sort of sense. That energy has to go somewhere; why not amongst us?
We all have our What If stories, where we aren’t sure if something we heard, saw or felt was a ghost. Most of us are too afraid to mention them for fear of being taunted, but in close circles of friends we trust, we bring them up.
For instance, the year after my grandmother died, she appeared to me in a dream, led me through the sky to a church on a hill, and pointed to a cross. The message I read was that she now knows that religion is real. I recall my mother turning pale when I described the experience.
Fast forward to my adulthood. I built my current home on the site of a small, hand-built house we had torn down. The owners, Mr. and Mrs. Christmus, died in their eighties. He loved the place, having done most of the building. It faced the lake, and even when he couldn’t walk much, he rode a riding lawnmower to check out his garden and get the mail. He died there. She left a year later to an assisted living facility and died shortly thereafter. Before we tore down the house, I spent many days in it trying to envision how this family lived, wondering how I could respect their memories. I could sense them unlike anything I’d ever felt before. Picking through the personal items, I saved doilies, a Depression glass platter, a butterbean bowl, a velvet rocking chair, and several other mementos that seemed too precious to dispose of. That was nine years ago.
Almost every night now when I’m in my recliner, watching my token mystery show, I smell cigarette smoke between ten and eleven P.M. Some evenings it can make me cough. Keep in mind that nobody has ever smoked in my home. However, Mr. Christmus smoked. I often wonder if he’s making himself at home, and if he approves of his new digs. If he ever appeared, I don’t know what I’d do. Thus far, he honors my wishes of keeping things aromatic.
Some late night evenings, my dachshunds walk to the doorway and look into the next room, toward where we used to keep a dog bed that belonged to two other dogs that are passed on. Those two older dogs were precious to us, and I often wonder if they stroll around enjoying their old lives as my current puppies study those that occupied this home before them. My husband used to jest. It’s happened enough now that he no longer laughs.
Sometimes he smells the cigarette smoke, too.
I run all my experiences by a close friend of mine on Edisto Beach who is visited by spirits on auspicious days like birth and death days. She can name which relative appears on which day. Her jewelry gets moved, water comes on, lights flip off, the usual. Occasionally a waft of cologne blows across the air. A tissue flutters when there is no air. I used to chuckle at her stories. Today I grab a drink and listen.
I no longer discount the presence of spirits. While I have no proof they are there, I also have no proof they aren’t. To me, there’s something comforting about the idea we will be able to see people left behind once we pass on to the next life.
I’m a Southern author, and a couple of my books hint about haunts, or haints as they’re called in many places in the South. That’s what my grandfather called them. Ain’t with an H.
In my first mystery series, Tidewater Murder incorporated the Gullah culture that exists on St. Helena Island, South Carolina. They practice a voodoo of sorts, deeply entrenched in the actions of spirits. In addition to hexes and conjure bags, my protagonist also talks about the ghost of an old man who used to live in the house torn down near a lake. Imagine that.
In my second mystery series, Murder on Edisto takes place on gorgeous, secluded Edisto Island. A secondary character I created happens to look like my friend who happens to sage her home to rid it of bad spirits, and she takes time to entertain the good.
For future Edisto books, I’m researching the abundance of ghost stories in the region. The island owns a wealth of tales to include a love lost in a stormy sea, a bride murdered on her wedding day, and a child buried alive in a mausoleum. My spirit-loving character will have a chance to move front and center in those tales, and we’ll see just how much the spirits really love her. I can’t wait.
No, I’m not a fan of Halloween and all its silliness. Dracula, werewolves, zombies, they’re not real. But when it comes to spirits of people who’ve once been on this earth, people who had a story and seem to still want to relive it, I sit up and take notice. They receive a nod from me, and maybe a place in my next book. Hopefully that will give them something to take back to Spirit Central, on the days they aren’t kicking up their heels on Earth.
Hope Clark still smells cigarettes at night and gives her spirit his distance. She’s written the award-winning Carolina Slade Mysteries and the newly-released Murder on Edisto, the first in The Edisto Island Mysteries. She lives on the banks of Lake Murray most of the time, with frequent trips to Edisto Beach. Learn more at www.chopeclark.com.
The other day, I rejoiced for several hours at someone else’s good news. It was fantastic and well deserved. A friend who has labored long and hard got his brass ring: a publishing deal. His humor, wit, and intelligence have finally been recognized by gatekeepers who know what can sell. I had some flashbacks to our shared misery over the last five years while we both strived after agents, publishing contracts, and our work to be known. Recently he told me he wasn’t sure he could survive another slew of rejections. Now with an advance in hand and a two-book deal, he can finally say he’s arrived.
As the joy has faded, I’ve felt twinges of wistfulness for the road I hopped off and what it might have offered me if in 2012 I’d said, “I’ll stay the course.” I wonder what it would be like to work with distributors that could get my book easily to brick-and-mortar stores. I’d love to give a publisher’s name to ensure a book signing. I’d love to have a marketing team set up interviews, conferences, and events.
I chose a different route. I decided after 14 months with an agent to blast myself into the self-pub universe. I’ve had nothing but fun and autonomy doing this, with a lot of blessings from good friends, family, and strangers who took the chance to invest in my work. I assemble a support team for all projects and make all the decisions. I’ve got a great website, good reviews, and a monthly newsletter. I have a beautiful book trailer. I’m blessed with the remainder of my “advance”—a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation—that allows me to plan to self-publish my next book.
My sales remain small and occasional because I rarely promote. With a fulltime job and a family, I only have time to write my next book. I have a 10-year plan, one that involves writing several more books, playing with prices to give my readers good deals, and hiringa publicist in order to increase my reach. All in good time, I keep telling myself when vaulting ambition threatens to flagellate me and when others’ good news makes me wonder if I’ve chosen the wrong road.
Over a decade ago, I went to a dear friend’s baby shower that happened the same week as another dear friend’s wedding. In a weak moment, I confessed to one of them, I feel you all have moved on. It felt very childish to admit at the time, but I couldn’t help myself. Sometimes, a lot of change hits all at once, where you think everyone else is grown up while your own future stays blank and unscripted. There are moments where you not only can’t predict the future, you sometimes think there might not be one to get excited about. My friends’ news didn’t leave me wanting something different for them, just for me to join them in the same headlines.
The self-pub lifestyle is a lot like being single: in order to survive it, you gotta build your own tribe. Just as I left these celebrations and got back on Match.com and made plans with friends, today I have to hire editors, graphic designers, filmmakers, book formatters, and web designers so I can publish a book. In the same way I couldn’t magically expect a social life to appear, I can’t expect a book to be born on its own. I can’t feel sorry for myself if sales don’t happen; I need to regroup, strategize, and keep working.
I never would have predicted that three years after the wedding and the baby shower, I’d be married at 37 in a boots-and-jeans wedding with a pig-pickin’ to follow. I couldn’t imagine that my beloved friends would suffer sorrows I’ve never had to bear. During that week of celebration, I could have told you they had a better deal than me, with a case of grass-is-greener kind of sadness. I can tell you now, I was foolish to focus on what I didn’t have and believe others had their happiness set.
My friend’s good news meets me wiser today than I was in 2002, when I believed there was a timing and momentum in life that I must follow or else I was somehow less than. My friend’s great news assures me there is justice and reward for some who keep trying at the traditional route, and that good stuff does indeed make it into print. My friend’s amazing news gives me hope that legacy publishing might be a route for me to someday try again, that perhaps could get me the agent who is that awesome advocate, brilliant negotiator, and savvy adviser. This event in someone else’s life reminds me to stay my current course with persistence and integrity, check my gut when necessary, and never say never to self-pub or traditional success.
I trust in the rightness of what is right now. The joy I have for my friend mirrors the joy I feel when I open the file to my manuscript in process. Isn’t this fun, my whole body says. For in this moment, I get to write.
What is your finest work? I’m not talking about masterpieces or magnum opuses. I mean, what is the day-to-day grind that you embrace with joy. What do you work hard at without regret, no matter what the results? What work do you miss or crave?
“A lot of writing is simply showing up. A lot of writing is being willing to show up day after day, same time and same place. A lot of writing is being able to put the work first simply because it is the work. A lot of writing is being able to delay gratification.
…Authors are those guys who hope to get rich quick with a big sale to a big publisher followed by a lucrative movie deal. They write the same novel over and over and they declare at the beginning of their careers that if they don’t get published, they’ll give it up.
Writers, on the other hand, are those guys who’d write anyway. They have to breathe, after all. They have to live.”
— Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life.
I’m wondering what makes you live.
This post came to me at the most unglamorous of moments: scrubbing the orange mold off my shower walls. It was a grimy, slimy job I’d avoided for months (and I won’t tell you how many). As I submitted to the work, I thought about the story of a friend whose roommate never cleaned the tub, to the point that there was a black tub with white footprints where she stood each day. Fortunately, it was a two-bathroom flat. I comforted myself with the fact I wasn’t that reluctant to clean. But as I worked on the nooks and crannies of the yucky job, fighting not just mold but mineral stains and rust, I thought how hard it is to get excited about this work because I never will be able to get the tub to anywhere near sparkling, no matter how hard I scrub.
But writing…writing is not only the magic of finding the right word in the moment, and then escaping into a phrase, person, or scene you’ve made; it’s also the belief that the story can be a glistening pearl someday. The work is long and slow and there is always sacrifice. But it lifts me up, makes me a better person, and always gives back. I write to live and live to write.
Note: Some of this post is adapted from “How Much Reality Can I Take,” posted originally on April 16, 2011.
“Time for another sweeping generalization: YA novels will end with more connections (new ones or healed ones) than disconnections. And most certainly, the book’s major relationships will not be left disconnected.….that teen reader is delivered to an emotionally safe landing place. The assurance that there will be such a landing place represents the line between YA and adult literary fiction.”
By page 24 of the YA novel Rage: A Love Story by Julie Anne Peters, we learn that the protagonist, Johanna, has lost her mother, has been abandoned by her sister, has been assaulted by a mentally disabled boy at school, and has a crush on a decidedly violent girl named Reeve. Oh, and did I mention that Johanna works for hospice?
When I pick up novels, I need a coherent story woven to produce meaning. I don’t turn to narrative for a “here’s what’s happening” reflection of reality, the fact that life is terrible sometimes or all the time. There is plenty of hell on earth to go around–disconnection, as Qualey calls it, abandonment, and abuse. Johanna of Rage connects with no one, really, in these first pages and is pretty much abandoned or ignored by everyone. She also shows no signs of conscience or love. Her actions are based on either fear and lust.
This doesn’t mean Johanna won’t find parts of her best self beyond page 24. I just wasn’t willing to wait around for a sign.
By page 24 of my YA novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, we’ve seen Wendy at age 15 ripped from her home to a new state, furious with her narcissistic mother, and bullied by a Mean Girl. Enough bad things happen that a writing partner told me at one point during the drafting process, “I just want to see Wendy happy.”
I understood what she meant. I answered this concern by showing Wendy passionate about something, which led to new chapter where Wendy struts down a school hallway with her life soundtrack blaring, Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” Wendy’s not doing cartwheels of delight, but she’s empowered and she’s inspired, enough to take on the Mean Girl. I also revised to introduce two other teens, Tanay and Andrew, who reach out to Wendy and show an interest. It’s not happy-happy-joy-joy portrayal of life, but, there’s some hope for real relationship.
Is that enough light to balance the darkness? I like to think so.
I’m a huge fan of The Wire, The Killing, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and House of Cards. I willingly follow gruesome mafia killings, sociopathic politicians, and desperate drug deals. I do avert my eyes, I do gasp in horror, and I do think about these situations long after the credits roll. Why? In each of these stories, someone has hope, faith, or ambition to change something. The characters grow, they face consequences of their actions, and they struggle to find meaning. Even the sociopaths get their due; no one escapes unscathed.
Officer McNulty of The Wire strives to be “natural police,” and Bunk and other cops rise to the occasion alongside him. In Episode 4 of Season 1, McNulty and Bunk return to an old murder scene, and while cussing colorfully with gruesome images of the murder victim splayed out on kitchen linoleum, garner enough evidence that sloppy police work didn’t recover before. They go back to do a job right, and amidst the graphic horror of things, there is renewal and hope.
Weeds, on the other hand, I had to stop watching. Tell me if you love it and found a moment of redemption; I couldn’t stick around with the careless, flippant, and nihilist lifestyles.
I write about sexual abuse and recovery. I write about racism and adultery and envy and isolation. There are sociopaths, and there are pedophiles. But as I present shades of various hells on earth, I need to know there is love and redemption somewhere in this mess. I need my Wendys to find a reason to keep dancing.
Nihilism supposes that no one’s looking out for us. No one cares now or later. If the world you write about has no journey towards Good or Right, just photographic rendering of actions, habits, and tendencies, then those readers like me who believe there’s a purpose to our lives may not stay for the rest of the show.
At the end of the movie Immortal Beloved, the young Beethoven races away from home in the middle of the night, having been beaten horribly by his father–so badly, he will one day lose his hearing. The movie imagines young Ludwig diving into a pond and floating, a smile lighting his face as he suddenly sees the glorious array of stars in the pitch-black night. The soundtrack swells with Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, often called “Ode to Joy.” In the midst of great sorrow is respite and healing peace. While his ears ring with pain, the boy still hears the strains of a melody in his head, beauty he will one day create.
We all seek joy, that “bright spark of divinity” Schiller wrote of in his poem “Ode to Joy” and Beethoven set to music. Literature can give us that safe landing space where happiness thrives. Stories can let us trust for at least a moment, perhaps only in our heads, that all is well.
How much reality is too much reality in a young adult novel? Let me know your thoughts.
Ask these questions of your favorite YA novel:
“What bothered me a bit with the world building was I just felt like the school Wendy attended was racism central. I know that racism is a huge problem is some places, but it just felt a bit over the top in the beginning of the book. Luckily, about a third of the book in, the over the top racism thing stops, and the world building becomes more believable.“
— from a review of my novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought.
How well did my novel capture race relations in a North Carolina high school? An author can fail at making a setting real or at making readers care about a character’s situation. The reviewer didn’t buy my portrayal of a world where white girls at Wendy’s school would say:
“This place has gone goth, ghetto, and Mexican.”
“I don’t see race. I think the people who always talk about it are the racists.”
Perhaps the issue is characters talking about race too much. Maybe the reviewer’s point is that racism can be seen and heard but not necessarily discussed with the frankness or detail my novel uses.
Perhaps the issue is subtlety. The argument this reviewer makes against my fictional school, “racism central,” is that I should have captured the more subtle ways racism plays out.
But is it subtle if it’s your race that feels the discrimination? I’ve had few experiences with prejudice, and 99% of the time, it’s not been because I’m white.
Read Chapter 2 of my novel and see what you think.
Then ask yourself: What was the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic composition of honors classes at your high school? What happened in your class when you talked about any literature where race relations were depicted? Which authors did you read in English class?
Who got suspended at your high school? Was it a mix of genders, races, and economic classes, or did it tend to be certain groups?
I wonder where this reviewer grew up and the demographics of the community. I wonder if there are any schools in the area that are desegregated but not integrated, where “separate but equal” lives on in its 2014 manifestation. Many schools are no longer Little Rock’s Central High School of the 1950s, but listen to today’s Central High students speak on the lack of integration:
A black side and white side of the cafeteria. If we aren’t truly integrated yet, what is the work left to be done?
When I read a book that touches on race, I might find my critique saying, Dear Author, Racism is still a real issue. Please render it more believably. I’m less likely to say, Racism is over. Please let’s talk about something else.
I see racism every day. Any racism is “over the top” to me. And as easily as we want to wish away a book’s portrayal of social injustice, I also wish it could stop so easily in real life.
Obama’s election didn’t solve racial hatred or resentment. It didn’t stop the fact that your grandparents survived Jim Crow or your grandparents helped keep it alive. It doesn’t change the fact that some institutions, run by certain cultures and genders, keep certain myths and prejudices alive. I’ve seen racism in my workplaces—white people confusing black people with one another, faces I can’t imagine could ever be confused. I’ve heard patronizing statements or questions asked about the education and competency of people of color, despite an excellent track record of performance. I’ve seen people make decisions–I’ve helped make decisions–that are ignorant of certain constituencies needs because I assume every grew up and thought like middle-class, white me.
Even last night’s playoff footage–the interview between black Richard Sherman and white Erin Andrews–can’t be seen without the racial lens all Americans bring. Why else would Twitter go wild with such racially-laden language that Erin Andrews had to step up and tone things down? Perhaps we could talk about football and sportsmanship only…but we can’t, because this is America, and we have a racial history in all things. I like how blogger Tommy Tomlinson takes a wider, athletic view of the landscape as he discusses the behavior–and context–of Richard Sherman, my fellow Stanford grad.
These small stresses every day—what is the long-term impact of these judgments and barriers on people reminded daily they wake up black or brown or yellow, not white? Does it become “over the top” after years of facing different treatment? I can look at the rate of heart disease in some communities and wonder how those trends happen. Is it purely genetics?
The point is to ask.
Acknowledging white privilege is not about browbeating whites or white people’s self-flagellation. It’s not about lumping all whites into one box. As a grandchild of immigrants who struggled hard to survive in the United States, who escaped war and privation to reinvent themselves here, I have some opportunity for sympathy, to better understand stories of those families who had fewer choices or life-and-death choices. (You can read about Katherine Schlegel Fuoco, my grandmother, here.) I don’t empathize with enslavement, but I can try to imagine. Acknowledging both the points of commonality and the points of difference is where I can begin. I can face facts of my ancestral privilege and wonder why.
A white person’s job isn’t to sound the gong of how horrible whites are. My job is to resist prejudicial habits and grow sensitivity and empathy. It’s my job to examine the tape of judgment playing in my head when I recoil at something, feel superior to anyone with what King called “the drum major instinct,” or want to separate people into categories. Ask why, right away, and wonder if my judgments are sound. Ask if I would treat someone of a different gender or race or sexual orientation differently in this same case. Ask. Think. That’s a start.
Racism is over, right?
Racism is over? Right on. Thank you, Dr. King, for articulating so well that dream we pray one day shall come to be, this dream that needs time, love, and labor still.
See my other posts on the topic of race relations in America.
Two Girls + A Car, the Passing of a Pop Icon, and a Devil to Dodge…and L.A. Bound….
Will They Make It There?
on Blog Tour
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