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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.”

And the Winner Is…

I’m excited to announce my series title!

The Girls Outside series. Gifted. Weird. Wise.

Image found here

In December, people voted here at the blog, or wrote me messages on Facebook, or commented on my status updates. After gathering all the feedback and mulling for a few weeks, I feel great about this choice that has both a title and a tagline.

A special thanks goes out to Madeline, Jen, and Nancy whose ideas inspired me this direction. Madeline gets credit for thinking up “Girls Outside” and Jen and Nancy encouraged me to think about keeping individual titles for each book, and to perhaps have the titles themselves follow a pattern. Nancy challenged me to think about why I need a brand at all, and that thought helps me to keep everything in perspective. The brand is not all. The work is.

And we discussed that while that is true, this age requires artists to market their works themselves, no matter whether traditional or self-publishing is the mode of release. Understanding your target audience and who will be most drawn to your book is the first order of business for a writer who wishes to tell the world, “Hey, my baby’s here!” You want what’s called “word-of-mouth on steroids.” The UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School shares an interesting post on the fast pace of today’s marketing and how branding evolves from audience. One of the subheadings, “Learning to Listen,” is exactly what happened here–I asked The People Who Might Like My Book what they thought of my ways to describe my characters. I’m not just invoking cliche when I say I couldn’t have come up with a name without you, Dear Readers!

I also appreciated the meditative posts and comments from Maureen that explored connotations of all the words on the table (nerd, geek, etc.). It’s just that kind of analytical thinking that helps me weigh the resonance of terms and what will last with certain groups. I should do that with every word of every story I publish. When I draft well and meticulously, that’s actually the writing process I can follow.

There are too many others to thank, so instead of listing all your names here, please know I am grateful for the time you took to think on behalf of my creative work and help me with your opinions.

When I publish HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT this spring, Wendy’s story will be the first of three books where teen protagonists overcome strange, crazy, and sometimes traumatic situations. They’re survivors, all of them, so the next book could likely have “SURVIVED” in its title, as would the next. Or not. What’s important here is that Wendy, Minerva, and Alastrine are all girls on the fringe, trying to find their voices, and they are definitely gifted, weird, and wise.

So what’s on deck now? Wendy’s story is in final developmental edits, and my first publication, a short-story collection, will release very soon. THE FLAT AND WEIGHTLESS TANG-FILLED FUTURE is uploading to Kindle in a matter of days. The product of eight years of toil, and happy toil, for sure, will be hitting the electronic shelves, and I couldn’t be more pleased. Stay tuned!

Yes, Virginia, It is Rocket Science

Doris makes teaching look so easy, doesn’t she?

Those of you who follow my blog know I write YA fiction, but you may not also know that I’m a former high school and middle school teacher (15 years), an online instructor, and a teacher trainer. That my other consuming passion is writing lessons for teachers and talking shop with them. I’ve authored, co-authored, or contributed to four different works on the art of lesson design.

That’s right, I said “art.” And let me mix metaphors, in a major way, right now: The art of lesson design is rocket science. An excellent unit of instruction is hard to launch, you have a million variables to consider, and everyone is watching you fail.

Yet there are people who talk about teaching as if they could step in and take a teacher’s job tomorrow. These are the same people who would never dare presume to talk about their lawyer, doctor, or plumber’s skill with any type of knowledge or dare say, “Excuse me, I could do that!”

But let me reel myself in here: this post is not a rant against those who have done seat time in a classroom, apparently suffered, and then look down their noses the rest of their lives at the teaching profession.

Though I do believe it would be a lot of fun to see those folks take on a full day of teaching and see where they are by 3:00 PM. I’d like to be there to tell them to, “Peel yourself off the floor; keep going. Your day has just begun. You have parent phone calls to make; practice/club/rehearsal to run; papers to grade; meetings to attend. Nope, you’re not going home yet, or if you are, please take this bag of stuff, or these gigs of digital work, and please get cracking. And just when you’re most exhausted, you need to be designing cutting-edge, differentiated, 21st-century, Common Core State Standards-aligned, engaging, student-centered, blended, and flipped lessons.”

If you are not a teacher, I imagine at least a few of the adjectives I used sailed over your head. Ed jargon, some call it. And that’s how it should be. A profession worth respecting has a vocabulary–not unlike nanotechnology and neuroscience–cultivated from years of research, experience, and experimentation.

As I work with teachers headed into a new school year, I consider the vast array of knowledge, processes, and new mandates our educators have to juggle when designing lessons, and something in me craves a formula, a distillation of all the complexity in order for our teacher-soldiers to march onward.

So for those of you surrounded by notes, texts, computer, and other resources to plan those units of instruction, I’ve created a formula for lesson planning. It is not perfectly comprehensive or suited to every teacher’s learning style. For example, some of the sequence may not follow the way your brain thinks, but try to take each step as a crucial task and determine how you can approach each one thoroughly.

  1. Select a complex text with colleagues.
  2. Identify concepts, or Big Ideas.
  3. Create Essential Questions, global and local, to be used in every assignment.
  4. Select 10 scenes or chapters of the complex text.
  5. Identify CCSS goals and subskills, finding at least three readiness levels (ELL or novice, on-target/grade level, and advanced/gifted).
  6. Identify “how to read” skills, strategies for independent reading.
  7. Develop assessments, formative and summative, with rubrics. 
  8. Develop lesson activities.
This may seem like a quick and simple formula to outsiders, but there’s lots of knowledge and expectations and standards buried in these. I could do a full-day workshop on each step–and we could spend a whole year perfecting the art of each step in our classrooms.
For those of you who don’t teach, please take a moment to take in these steps and appreciate the hard work teachers do to prep one three-week unit of study. For those of you who do teach, you do so much with so little time and resources, and I applaud you. Enjoy this adventure of launching great ideas, thinking, and explorations with our students this year. 
Stay tuned for future blogs with writing prompts for you and your students at the end of each post. And check out the last 4 years of posts; there’s probably a concept, a whole set of journal prompts, that might suit a unit you’re teaching now.