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.
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:
“I’ve lived in silence and denial for 22 years and I can’t spend another moment in that. In order to truly heal I have to speak my truth and I have to speak the whole truth.”
— Wade Robson
Dancer and choreographer Wade Robson has gone public with a claim that for seven years, Michael Jackson sexually abused him. When asked why he is telling this story now, he said:
“All it takes is a little bit of education into child sexual abuse and realizing how unfortunately typical my scenario is. The trauma and the psychological effects of child sexual abuse last for so long. I had no understanding of this until up to just over a year ago. I’m just at the beginning of my healing process. I ‘m sure I’ll be dealing with this for the rest of my life.”
What Robson calls “typical” makes sense to me. As an educator, friend, and girlfriend, I’ve heard many tales of sexual abuse from survivors. People are afraid to come forward, and so they don’t. Children are shaped by the adults, and if an adult who is a constant presence and influence tells you the earth is flat, the sky is fuchsia, and sexual abuse is love, then you believe it. Later, when these same survivors are cutting, isolating, rebelling, or contemplating suicide, many times they don’t call the abuser a predator. They keep silent, feel terrible, and ask themselves, “What’s wrong with me?”
As the character of Wendy says in my novel, “I’m bad. Hounded by night creatures. Stamped by the smoothest of criminals.”
Survivors might even protect the perpetrator and return to him. There still can be trust and loyalty in the face of abuse. The relationship between predator and victim is emotionally complex and can be paralyzing static. When ages are dramatically different, the dynamic is not unlike a carnivore with fangs sunk deep in the weaker animal. Imagine hearing when you are seven, You’ll go to jail. I’ll go to jail. This is love. This is right. It’s you and me against the world. We’re soul mates.
Do you easily lose that imprint to trust your abuser, that stamp so deep it forms daily thought and action, automatic as your ABCs? Do you just slough off those routines and habits like a cloak and say, I’m over it? I remember unpleasant incidents from 1978, 1981, and 1983. And those fifth, seventh, and ninth grade moments still impact how I see myself. Sometimes I am still that embarrassing nerd who uses too many big words, that “big palooka,” or that girl in the “dog parade.” If I still recall these little slings and arrows from formative years, I can’t imagine how sexual abuse might have changed my life. I know my self-perception and esteem is shaped by my interpretation of those experiences. We evolve in response to experience; it doesn’t disappear but gets locked into our bones.
So if Robson was indeed abused, to say that Robson should have just outed his story at 14, 24, or even now—like that’s an easy thing—is like me saying I should feel comfortable broadcasting how Carolyn mocked me in front of the fifth grade class and Colleen called me a big palooka in front of two girls in the Parish Hall and Andy called me and my girlfriends “the dog parade” in the freshman hallway. These aren’t trophies from my adolescence I like to brag about; I look weak, ugly, and lame. Again, these are just the little wounds of everyday living; these aren’t sexual violence or trauma.
Just like coming out of the closet, there is much to lose when you voice your truth. If people know you’ve survived something ugly—never mind your claiming that someone they like has committed evil—you are not only truth-teller but life-changer. You are breaking the rules of the game, stopping the dance, and flipping others’ perceptions. You will be hated for speaking up.
You may wonder, why risk it and speak up now and take up the fight? Robson’s detractors claim he’s a liar who wants money. Perhaps. Perhaps Robson is making this all up, and he’s not experiencing PTSD in his thirties, and he doesn’t need justice. Perhaps he’s only money driven. Perhaps.
But this is not my battle nor me trying to prove Robson right or wrong. I don’t know him personally. This story, to me, is about why survivors don’t tell truth right away, and what the dynamic of abuse creates. Instead of taking sides, we should ask, How does abuse happen, and how do predators work? How long does it take—or should it take (because people ask, “Why’d he wait so long?”)—a survivor to confess the abuse? What does the data say?
In my book, Wendy nurtures a rarefied Michael Jackson obsession. It’s a point of connection between her and her mother’s new boyfriend, who gains her trust through music and charisma and attention. Her mother ignores her, but he doesn’t. As he gains her trust, her crush ignites, and her hopes for a stable future with him as a potential stepdad soar. Until the day when the flirting goes way past flattery to molestation, and then rape.
At first Wendy thinks it’s her fault, that she somehow brought this on herself. It doesn’t matter that she’s 15 and he’s 45. She still takes full responsibility. She says, “For nights I’ve dreamed of cleavers separating his hand from his arm, his head from his neck. But each dream ends with my hands, arms, head flying into outer space.”
As I wrote this book, I had in the back of my mind the testimony of several people (friends, former partners, and former students). I read The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse with its stories of many survivors. I learned about profiles of predators, the patterns of grooming and abuse, and the trauma that persists long after the crimes have stopped. I listened to evangelist Joyce Meyer’s story. But I don’t pretend to be an expert. My fiction bubbles up for many reasons, and no doubt one of them is response to stories told to me, my artistic processing of the tears, fear, and physical and mental breakdowns I was privileged to share.
Wendy knows one thing for sure: her voice will out. She doesn’t know how or when, but it stays like a chant in her head her when she can’t sleep at night. “Coming soon,” she says, “The Big Reveal. This girl will peel back the glittering glove, and she will doff her mask.”
Wendy Redbird Dancing wants the truth to unfurl. Maybe Wade Robson does, too. But since I’m not his judge, I’ll trust only in my fiction. It attempts to represent the testimony of those I love. And that testimony tells me that sexual abuse happens, it’s hard to tell, and the outing of it can be a lifelong journey.
Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 115,027.
Page Count for the Novel: 414 pages. (No changes since last post.)
“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
— Douglas Adams
So I just met a major deadline. Yesterday I struggled toward that finish line, 12 hours spent in last efforts to edit a manuscript, the culmination of months of work. I felt so deeply for poor, dedicated me, slogging through the fields of footnotes and the no man’s land of Works Cited. I was such a trooper, soldiering on. I slaved.
Then I looked up the definition of deadline.
It was the name of a fence no prisoner would scale unless he wanted to be shot, that man being a prisoner taken by the Confederacy and kept at Andersonville prison during our Civil War. You would think a light pine fence would be no match for thousands of prisoners, but there were posted sentries ready to shoot any man who broke through. When this stockade famous for introducing “deadline” to our language swelled to 32,000 prisoners, far beyond what the acreage could contain, the story goes that the deadline became a simple white line. That and some guns kept the malnourished men in place, racked by disease and weakened by exposure. By the war’s end, nearly 13,000 men had perished.
Except for my ancestor, John Fairbairn. A Scottish immigrant appalled by the slavery he saw in Georgia, he volunteered for the Union Army. He was captured in Memphis and shipped off to Andersonville, landing right after overcrowding hit its peak. He emerged at the war’s end a mere 98 pounds. He had lost all his teeth. Yet he had the wisdom to make it a slow recovery, refraining from the gorging that killed many of his fellow inmates after release. He had the gumption and hope to become a brick layer and a stone mason, to take a soldier’s homestead, and to get married. He raised six children. Thanks to him, my great-grandfather was born. This is a man who persisted well beyond and despite deadlines.
And I thought I suffered so when it came to those…well…dates on the calendar.
It’s not about whether I make the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award deadline (I didn’t) or the NCTE deadline for Teaching Julius Caesar (I did). I am not the sum total of those accomplishments, no matter how much I define myself by them. And I am certainly no martyr for the cause. All that matters after I choose such challenges is whether I walk with gratitude through all the comforts and conveniences of my modern day — into that hot shower, toward that sofa to watch the Super Bowl, along with family and friends who, like me, haven’t known hunger. That was the aftermath of my deadline. John Fairbairn’s life was about surviving a prison that became a concentration camp, and then about keeping the hope and faith to build a new life. I can look back to him and say, as Marc Antony does of Brutus, “This was a man!”
In his Inaugural Address, President Obama told us that “…our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America…For everywhere we look, there is work to be done.”
In the spirit of my ancestor who knew the value of tenacity, hard work, and a dollar, I vow an end to begrudging or bemoaning these deadlines. They are a fact of life, and I should be so lucky that the only kind that threaten me are numerical, calendar sort. In the spirit of my grandparents who struggled to feed a large family after the crash of ’29 and who rationed stockings and butter and anything that would support the war…in the spirit of all those ancestors with gumption, a word the Scots coined as a way of calling out courage, spunk, and guts…. I will get a perspective, a clue, and a clean attitude about just how hard my life is. If I were to listen to the 24-hour news cycle, I might otherwise think I’m at death’s door.
Nope. Just nearing a deadline is all, one of those lines we all have to cross, and not even one written in dirt. Just a phantom fence of this modern life I’m breezing through, carried on a gentle wind I only hope my ancestors sometimes felt.
Much love and thanks to my father, Stephen Fairchild, who hails from this long line of Fairbairns, call them fair-bearers of the tough tasks. He keeps our history alive.
Today’s Writing Goal: Begin on page 414 and keep going. Stay under 530 pages. Send off that stopgap short story waiting in the wings.
Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others. © Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author. Elementary Tougher Than the RestWho do you know who is “tough”? By tough, we mean someone who is strong inside and out. They have what is called character. They can stand strong when difficulty strikes. They can pick themselves up when things are really unpleasant. For example: a person who loses their job and works hard to find another, or a person who is injured and keeps a good attitude in spite of all the pain.
Write a poem of admiration to the person who you see as a strong role model. You can spell out their name and write a name poem, one line for every letter in their name. You can list several examples of all the ways that this person shows toughness and strength. Or you can tell about one time when you saw this person show great toughness.
Thanks to My Family
Think about people in your family (and by family, it can be people you live with, friends, or any way you think of family) who have given you a lot of help in your life. Who’s been a really big help?
Maybe it was the person who taught you a sport or how to sing a song. Maybe it was the person who helped you up when you got hurt. It could be a person who made great sacrifices in order for you to have things you enjoy. Think of someone who has given a lot to you and who you appreciate.
Write an inscription for a thank you card. This should be a special thank you card, the kind you can’t find in a store. That’s because you will make this card very personal. Write the person an inscription that is one of two kinds:
A Complimentary List.
Title this card, The Top Ten Things I Like About You , and inside write your list, or
You are a/the _______________. Compare this person to something strong, beautiful, or impressive in nature (such as mountain, flower, sun, ocean, stars). List all the ways that this person is like this beautiful part of nature.
Are you usually on time? Or do you tend to run late? How do you and time get along?
Imagine that Time and you are having a conversation. Tell Time all about how easy or hard it is for you to be on time, and while you’re talking, let Time know anything else on your mind: whether you like having a clock or watch in your life, and if Time is going to change anything, you would recommend that s/he or it change ___________ first….
Secondary and Adult
A Time for Toughness
You have survived many different periods of your life. There were, as Charles Dickens writes, the best of times and the worst of times. Consider one of the worst of these moments in your history. What got you through it?
Write about the toughness in you that helped you survive it. You might not have thought yourself tough at the time, but you’re still here, aren’t you? What was the challenge, and how did you face it? Return to a moment where your toughness manifested.
Who is an ancestor you admire deeply or an older role model in your life, representing a particular kind of courage?
Define gumption as you have seen it in those you admire. Gumption – guts, spunk, courage – is the stuff of survival. Some also define it as shrewdness. Think how gumption has shown itself in those you respect.
Tell an anecdote that is one you could tell for many years and to future generations. Record a bit of history for posterity.
Deadlines and Me
What is your relationship with deadlines? Are they friend or foe? How often do you meet them?
Write a dialogue with Deadlines. Deadlines is the thing, entity, person, or whatever you wish it to be, as long as you have a conversation with it, and your only job is to have a conversation. The only rule is that Deadlines gets the last word.
Bonus Prompt: Tougher Than the Rest
Read the lyrics to Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest,” and if you can, listen to his singing or a cover of this song.
What kind of a character does Springsteen paint for us? What does “tough” mean in this context?
Write the lyrics of a new version of “Tougher Than the Rest.” Take the first-person point of view of someone or something that believes s/he’s tougher than the rest.