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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.”

There Was a Reason Prince Was Purple

His Purple Highness, the Prince we all loved, rocked a color that is neither red nor blue. It’s more than a royal shade; it’s the perfect blend that holds all things. Masculine and feminine; hot and cool. Two distinct identities in a loving embrace.

I had my own purple moment these last few days as I wended my way through the health care system.

Last week I saw a doctor who ordered a CT scan. Before she did, I told her what my acupuncturist noted when she treated me. “I may have gall bladder issues,” I said to the doctor. “I have these sore points on my legs.” I indicated where they were.

My doctor nodded and said with wonderful diplomacy, “I think it’s great you seek alternative therapies. Myself, I need visuals and data. So I’d like to run some tests to rule out some things.” Seeing her acceptance of East while she did West, well–it was a violet moment for me. Purple

Today I saw my acupuncturist, CT results in hand. Those results didn’t give an “impression” as the radiologist says, of gall bladder issues, but some other possibilities, maybe colitis. She gave the data careful consideration, then placed needles accordingly across my body. I could feel, from the moment the fine, wavering needles touched my skin, instant tingling and energy swirling. I soon slipped into a restful, half-aware state, as only acupuncture can do for me. I’ve tried regular massage, but I never zone out. Only the needles can work mauve magic. I left the session without a rod of stone-like muscle frozen in my back. I left looser, calmer, happier. Mauve, you might say.

This week I hear from my doctor about next steps, Western style, based on the result of the CT. I will probably see a specialist and work in concert with that person and my acupuncturist. I’ve already begun seeking answers to the most lavender of all questions–what’s a good diet while I learn more about what’s wrong? Because we must live in the in between, right?

If you’re not one to flex with the overreaching metaphor, let me make it plain: Prince, medicine, politics, and so many things, are best handled with lots of purple.

As I write the next draft of Minerva’s story, under the wonderful eye of my agent, Amy Tipton, I am listening to the voice of a teen who declares herself “beyond labels.” Is she gay or is she straight, or is she something kind of periwinkle? Or does she really, truly, have to declare a color?

“Plum,” my mother-in-law would say, as they say in Mount Airy (AKA Mayberry). “Plum pretty.”

In these next weeks of writing, in these next weeks of political conventions, in these tearful and lamenting weeks of violent conflict in our streets, I pray we all bow to the most royal of colors and see the compromise, empathy, humanity, dare I say, mixed blood in all our souls.

I’ll turn back to Prince to set us all on the lovely purple path.

Honey I know, I know, I know times are changing
It’s time we all reach out for something new
That means you too
You say you want a leader
But you can’t seem to make up your mind
I think you better close it
And let me guide you to the purple rain

Minerva Mae Would Like to Be Heard

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.

Enjoy!

 

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.paper-pen2

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.

Best,

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.

 

How Much Reality Can I Take?

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.”

– Marsha Qualey, “Real or Imagined: The Line between Young Adult, Crossover, and Adult 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?

On page 24, I had to put the book down. And ask myself: In my fiction, how much reality can I take?HWRDSTDAON 300x200

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. 

  • Do you recall reading a book or seeing a film at a young age that marked you for life? (For me it was the amputations in Gone With the Wind; at age seven I was haunted for days by the scene of a solider screaming, “Don’t cut! Don’t cut!”)
  • If you read my Wendy novel, is it “young adult” or better described as “young adult for adults”? At what age would you introduce it to someone, and why? 
  • What young adult books have you read that ride or cross the line? Which ones are “just right”?

Writing Prompts:

Ask these questions of your favorite YA novel:

  • Is there realism?
  • Do characters act “in character” and follow a code of consistency?
  • Is there an arc, or journey, that transforms a character?
  • Do things “fit” together? Is there coherence among plot, character, setting, image, etc?
  • Is there emotional connection between characters?
  • Is there redemption and hope?
  • Does the story accurately portray young adulthood while allowing an “emotionally safe landing space”?
  • Is there enough resolution balanced with realistic limbo and possibility?

 

Help Wendy and Tanay Get to L.A.

Two Girls + A Car, the Passing of a Pop Icon, and a Devil to Dodge…and L.A. Bound….

Will They Make It There?

 How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought

The Book Trailer!

on Blog Tour

More sites to be listed soon!

What is Special? Indie Bookstore Signings

Recently I had the pleasure of reading and signing at two North Carolina independent bookstores–Purple Crow Books and McIntyre’s Books. With fellow author of Skater in a Strange Land, David Frauenfelder, and as part of the writers’ co-operative True North Writers & Publishers, I had a chance to share my YA Manifesto and speak of Doris Betts, our beloved mentor. 

Check out the wonderful film made by my stepson, Henry Darr, who not only captured events at these great stores but also captured who I am as an author. 

 

There’s nothing like the intimacy of a place packed with books and readers. You feel your heart accelerate as you try to read with feeling and bring your book to life for an audience. You sweat through your clothes, but happily, because the place is full and friends are smiling and you are finally in community with the larger world, not just in your own mind with your characters’ voices. You take questions, you shake hands, and you try to keep your hand from trembling as you sign, thinking hard once again of the best thing to write. You say to yourself, What a beautiful thing that people are willing to leave their homes to hear me and be together; how wonderful is it that someone gets up day after day and unlocks a shop full of rich, luminous, colorful books!

I’m all for ebooks, but I love print pages in my hand, too. I love seeing books stacked up on my nightstand. The world feels full of possibility when there are too many books to read. And walking into a place full of stacked shelves, with the papery scent of dust and carpet and bindings…it’s a pleasure that hasn’t changed since childhood. 

When was the last time you strolled a bookstore, browsed, and bought? 

New Rules for My YA

When I was in kindergarten, I dissolved in total melt down over a snowman project.

“No scissors today,” the teacher said. “We’re ripping a snowman out of paper.”

I was already quite handy with the play scissors, or so I thought. No way was I going to tear when I could cut!  A snowman needs smooth circles, not raggedy edges!

Image found here

I burst into tears and the project came to a screeching halt. The teacher had to explain to my mother later why the day didn’t go so well.

39 years later, I find myself tearing a snowman out of a big blank piece of paper, white and blank with emptiness save for the big old question mark of HOW WILL YOU REWRITE THIS NOVEL?

So in this blizzard, this wilderness of white cold powder, when and if you learn something, it’s like the hut you come across in the storm, where you can build a fire for a night. Cling to these epiphanies.

Here’s what I know thus far about writing YA:

  • If your character has a strong, clear voice, one that won’t stop speaking to you, love that voice with all your heart. Trust the sound of the character’s words in your head. Ever since Wendy started speaking to me, I listen. Voice is attitude, angle, words said and words thought; it’s rhythm and inflection and pacing and tone. I tell myself not to ever lose that sound and keep revising till she says it right, just like only Wendy would. 
  • Anything an adult says is suspect. Every time you write a scene where the adult gets too much airtime, face time, anytime, question it. The hero’s journey of YA is to prevail sans adults, against adults, in spite of adults. Young adults want to redefine adulthood. One of YA’s main themes is, This is how we do it. Not like you did. You people screwed it up.
  • Avoid, “I wake up and then I did this and then I did that…” No matter how interesting the dream, no matter how interesting the next moment after waking, find a way to start in medias res. Begin in the middle of things in as many times as you can during your story. Hook readers at the beginning of every chapter.
  • And leave them hanging at the end of every chapter.
  • Outlines are made of silly putty, not bone. Write the outline, then write the scenes. Step back, and write a new outline based on the scenes you have. You’ll be surprised to see how you’ve deviated from your intended outline, if you write the way I do. See if this new outline is working. If it works, return to the scenes and remove whatever clutters. 
In the midst of all the rips and ragged edges, a shape is forming. I’m building that snowman. Somedays it’s a shadow in the blizzard, but most days, there’s something, something, up ahead!

Writing Prompts:

  • Scissors or rips? Which kind of writer are you?
  • What snowman is giving you trouble lately?
  • What rips and ragged edges are hardest for you to accept?
  • Do you need a clear path out of the blizzard, or when you write do you take it step by step without headlights or GPS?
  • How do you define revision? What epiphanies have you had about it lately?
  • Write about snow and cold and ice; write about confusion and seeing a light in a hut ahead in the blizzard.

Juicy Revision

Image found here

When my husband and I tried our new juicer this past weekend, we had some adventures. Pulp started spraying everywhere–on us, the counter, the floor. Turns out the pulp container wasn’t secured properly. It is truly a pulp catcher, therefore be advised not to leave even the smallest of gaps between it and the machine or the vegetables will turn violent. Once that got fixed, our juice emerged without further incident.

Juicing is all the rage now because it gives us quick access to micronutrients. I’m turning to it because I recently saw the documentary FAT, SICK, AND NEARLY DEAD and felt compelled to improve my diet. My excuse for eating too much processed food is that I have a busy job, almost 90 minutes of commuting per day, and a writer’s life stuffed into every nook and cranny. I’ve eaten more turkey sandwiches than I can count.
I’ve only so far tried one of the Mean Green recipes that Joe Cross recommends from his documentary, but I love it. I love the fresh sting of ginger, the sweetness of apple, and the bite of lemon. I love knowing I’m getting kale and carrot straight into my system. Last night we tried lime, lemon, celery, kale,  parsley, and green apple. Excellent.

Writers are forever cursed with seeing symbol, and pathetic fallacy or not, we get ideas from life and its objects constantly. That ol’ living-to-write curse: our dramas and struggles grip the juicer, too, and get mirrored in the fruits and veggies. So of course you know where this is headed: how juicing = writing and pulp catcher = revision in that classic metaphor equation.

The pulp is that frothy, fuzzy, even fluffy mix of rind and pith and whatever the juicer sees fit to reject (who am I to question the wisdom of the Breville). It’s no doubt healthy and even edible. But it must go. To get a consumable juice for our best drinking pleasure and dietary benefit, you need to let go of the pulp. My husband tried some last night, because it is kind of pretty, and he said, “You know what? It’s bitter.”

Obvious connection, right? Discard pulp just like you rid your draft of excess weight? But when that pulp started spraying and we feared for seconds we had a bum juicer, I was reminded how revision scares and singes like the devil. I was also reminded that we writers can step up with a clinical, mechanical eye and crush what’s needed to squeeze out the essence. And that what glitters ain’t always worth keeping in the manuscript.

Take my most recent revision of my novel. When I opened the manuscript sent back to me by my agent, Sarah Heller, with line edits, it looked like half of it was gone. Red lines through close to 80 pages told me that no matter how delicious or pretty, what I deemed sophisticated turns of phrase, incandescent imagery, and character-rich spates of dialogue did not advance the story.  “Nothing has happened by page 150,” Sarah told me. “Young adults don’t give a s*** about this scene, that bit, this part..”

I’m an abuser of the editorial comment. I must be contained, if not squeezed into silence. What was it I was preaching in 2008 about my art of editorializing?

So I opened a new Word doc titled “Excess” (I have one for every manuscript of a short story and as many of these as there are drafts of a novel) and dumped about 75 pages of pulp there.

Pulp includes those “telling” words and phrases–lines I deemed witty that only emphasized a point already made. Sarah showed me how I’d already shown things, that the reader gets it, and momentum slows when the supposed darlings stay. My eyes began to see where whole pages were fluff in the way of people getting the story.

Because this was round three for me with agent edits and draft 20-something since I began the novel in December 2009, I felt confident–more like machine than weak, defensive, and emotional writer. In this equation I have become the juicer and though I’m not as sleek or efficient as a Breville, I could juice out a draft worthy of a next read.

Some passages I couldn’t part with and my head found a way to make them advance the story (we hope). If Sarah needs to cross through them a second time, then so be it. What is nutritious is in the eye of the agent and the market. YA wants under 75,000 words; YA wants page-turner; YA wants youth focus, not adult focus. My agent pared away the rind and leaves and stalks that I think make fruit oh so pretty.  Because of teen taste. Because we want to sell this thing.

I also find it interesting that the pulp container sometimes catches whole pieces of apple. Maybe because we didn’t buy the Cadillac version out there; maybe because the juicer saw a bad part of apple. Who knows. The point is, I’m not going to be digesting that bit; the wilderness that is our yard will. And that’s okay. My stomach is only so big; my eyes might want it all, but reality says, all things in moderation.

After each juicing, the pulp container is FULL. The juice emerges bright green, bright orange. Beautiful.  I drink it, and my evening cravings have disappeared. I’m eating less, yet, eating more.

Writing Prompts

  • Are you a writing machine or hopelessly human? Do you cling to your words or do you know how to toss them? Why do you think you cling so hard?
  • Find a juicy piece of writing. (Do not go to a first draft.) Recall how you juiced it. What was your secret?
  • Research your favorite writer and find out his or her secret for juicing.
  • If you struggle desperately with revision, try one or more of these exercises with a draft already in existence. 1) Write a paragraph of 100 words and then insist on it being 50. 2) Leave a draft for three days and return to it with a new name and hat on (for example, if you are a romance writer, you are now Romance Reader Rita who has ‘tude and little time; you are Mystery Mike, or Young Adult Yancey, and you have no patience for excess. Read with an evil eye aiming to laser away excess and pitch the story at the first distraction. 3) Meet with an English teacher or a writer you respect, buy them a latte, and ask them to bring a red pen. Suck it up when they cross through more than half your draft.
  • Ask yourself these questions to see if you have the support (machine) you need to juice a revision out of your writing: Do you have a log line, a 25-word sentence to sum up your story, one that will highlight which parts of the story are excess? Do you have trustworthy readers who will draw lines through your work? Do you make time to read your work aloud? Do you have files labeled Excess or Beloved Darlings I’ll Be With You Again Someday so you can relinquish lines? Do you set word limits that are market standard? Do you try to enter works in contests with word limits? 

Great Voice, But Don’t Be a Tease

“I just need to know that someone out there listens and understands and doesn’t try to sleep with people even if they could have. I need to know that these people exist.”

— Charlie, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

Today on the bus I saw some teens taking a picture of a stranger they were mocking. I heard, “Dude, this is so going to Facebook,” and “I’m tweeting this now” while one boy tapped his phone. Mockery gone viral. Ah, modern youth: everything’s for posting, and everything’s for comment. For one shining second, each of us can be paparazzi or celeb. Take your pick.

Beyond sociological observations, I could classify this scene as a “man versus man” external conflict, or even “man versus machine” for the stranger whose picture was taken unawares by cell phone. Or perhaps, assuming the mockers have a conscience, it’s a “man versus self” situation where someone in that mob asked himself if his actions were right and wrong.

With youth in mind, I read YA wondering how well it will fly with teens. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m pursuing my “personal MFA” here, reviewing YA while polishing my novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought. Studies are going swimmingly. Besides wondering how today’s kids take these reads, I take my own pulse–what’s my taste?–while weighing the craft of many talented authors–how well does characterization, plot, setting, style, etc, work?

Charlie, the protagonist of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, had me at hello. His voice is honest, to the point of being embarrassing, and it’s calm, to the point of being robotic. The whole novel is Charlie’s letters to a stranger:

“I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. Please don’t try to figure out who she is because then you might figure out who I am, and I really don’t want you to do that. I will call people by different names or generic names because I don’t want you to find me. I didn’t enclose a return address for the same reason. I mean nothing bad by this. Honest.”

After defending himself against a bully who attacks him during his first week of high school, Charlie notes without any particular worry, “Some kids look at me strange in the hallways because I don’t decorate my locker, and I’m the one who beat up Sean and couldn’t stop crying after he did it. I guess I’m pretty emotional.” Even with the frequent crying, it’s as if there’s a thick rubber curtain between Charlie and us; his emotions bat against it and sometimes, creep around the barrier, but the time they get to us, they’re muted, enervated, distilled.

So naturally, I wanted to know what was up. I kept reading to find out what this boy’s issue was. I knew his best friend had committed suicide before the novel began. I knew Charlie had lost his Aunt Liz to a car accident. From a great distance Charlie offers brilliant observations about the worlds around him–that of his family and then very slowly, new friends he manages to make, and then the girl he secretly loves. Friends treat him with kid gloves, like a breakable toy they play with or a small child they’re teaching the ropes.

The entire novel I wondered if at the end we’d learn Charlie is on the autistic spectrum. We can only speculate what Charlie’s psychiatrist visits are for, though I agree all along he needs them. I liked his differences that touched every relationship he forms–whether with his English teacher or other students–because you sit on the edge of your seat wondering if they will abuse him or take advantage in some way. But people find him charming–particularly two seniors who become his constant companions–and his teacher feeds him advanced reading all year. With the help of these “normal” people who all struggle with various issues of their own, Charlie can come of age in a somewhat normal way, learning how to make friends and survive classes and join the community. The friends have dramas that Charlie reports on as if embedded with the troops but not quite moved: cheating boyfriends, questions about sexual identity, and drug and alcohol use. Their dramas filter through Charlie’s insulated perspective, we need to see how their train wrecks will turn out.

SPOILER ALERT

But I had no idea that Charlie suffers from a past trauma of sexual abuse. He cries often, and as the book progresses, suffers a few breakdowns, even catatonia. He discovers masturbation at a fairly late date, age 14, so maybe that was a clue. But it’s not till the final pages that we learn of the abuse that fueled his current behavior and sadness. We also never learn who he’s been writing all this time.

And so Charlie, a character I’d cared about, deflated for me like a balloon. All that rubber insulation had to pay off in some way, but not with this neat diagnosis, this tied-in-a-bow ending of a hospital stay. I liked the story, but I wasn’t moved.

Obviously, if I made it to the end, the work was a success, correct? But Charlie’s internal conflict is hinted at only via smoke signals–Charlie versus his buried pain–and even with his odd actions of writing to a stranger, his clinical observations about fellow humans, and the bouts of crying, I didn’t learn enough to expect such an ending or even suspect who turns out to be the actual perpetrator (Aunt Liz).

I realize that trauma goes underground. I realize that Charlie is giving us hints all along of PTSD. I don’t doubt that his character is quite possible and that his experience probably speaks to many readers. The goal of this novel is not to explore the terror of his flashbacks or his work with the counselor where we might descend into myriad labyrinths and never emerge. The novel aims to tell us the perks of being a strange, withdrawn boy who somehow manages to cross his own barriers, however unexplained to us.

Fine. I say, “Great voice. Great character worthy of being followed. But don’t be a tease.”

By “tease,” I mean that if Charlie can’t tell us what’s up, then someone, maybe the surrounding characters, maybe elements of setting, must tell us somehow. Or how about the recipient of the letters? I know that Charlie leaves no return address–a clever way to ensure no contact–but why not let that plot be foiled? Lush by Natasha Friend has a similar premise of writing to an unknown person, where a girl with an alcoholic father and family chaos leaves messages for a stranger in a library book. But the stranger writes back, and Samantha the protagonist evolves. The mystery (AKA the tease) morphs into a conflict and complication for her character. We as readers feel rewarded for our time spent in anticipation, confusion, and wonder.

I find myself doing the same thing Perks does in my own novel: starting down a path and not finishing what I began. In my revisions, I’ve looked at the secondary and tertiary characters and asked, What’s the consequence of their interactions with Wendy? What’s the pay-off? For all actions there must be an equal and opposite reaction, if I may dare create a physics formula for fiction; there must be that gun going off…wait, I just plagiarized Chekhov. You write a stranger, we need to see that stranger’s face some day. You act strange, we need to know why, or get some hints that are stronger, more helpful, long before the last few pages. Give me a chance to build a thesis about Charlie’s internal conflict at least–and then fine, blow it out of the water like any good mystery novel, but give me a fighting chance.

I still recommend Perks. Do pick it up. See if you felt satisfied or thwarted. I felt some of both.

Writing Prompts:

— If an internal conflict is the essential drama of man versus self, what types of feelings and beliefs cause these struggles? What aspects of self do humans struggle with?
— Have you ever experienced one of these internal conflicts: self versus love or lust you don’t want to feel? Self versus physical pain and suffering? Self versus addiction? Self versus grace or forgiveness?
— Of all the types of internal conflict a character faces, which is most interesting to you?
— How clearly does a character in a story you’re writing manifest his or her internal conflicts?
— How do you manifest your internal conflicts?
— What topics are taboo for your writing? Aren’t taboo? Can your characters explore anything?

How Much Reality Can I Take?

“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.”

— Marsha Qualey, “Real or Imagined: The Line between Young Adult, Crossover, and Adult Fiction”

Photo by Nathan Cook

By page 24 of 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?

By page 24 I had to put the book down. And ask myself: How much reality can I take?

What we like to read is all about taste–whether you like chocolate with your peanut butter in an orange wrapper or chocolate so dark and pure from a Belgian clime that it tastes like butter…I know people who would gobble either. I’m not much of a memoir or nonfiction reader, so it’s no surprise that 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. I can turn to truTV (supposedly “actuality”) for that. I also don’t need darkly realistic fiction with no sign or hint of redemption (see my guide for signs of redemption in a work).

I know life is terrible sometimes or all the time, depending on who you talk to and when you talk to them, and I don’t avert my eyes from the news. There is plenty of hell on earth to go around–disconnection, as Qualey calls it, or abandonment and abuse. Johanna of Rage connects with no one, really, in these first pages and is pretty much abandoned or ignored by everyone. And she shows no signs of conscience or love. Her actions are based on fear and lust.

I know this is how humans behave, and some people run on these two gears only most of their lives. I wouldn’t want to be friends with them, though. I consider my reading much like my taste in chocolate–something I want to keep around and maybe try again sometime.

M or F? by Lisa Papademetriou and Chris Tebbetts I did keep reading. Some would say it is unrealistic because there’s a Gay/Straight Alliance at school with kids who are definitely out and there are devoted environmentalist teens. Having taught at schools where this is possible, I question those who say it can’t happen, but all the same, I don’t feel a novel must represent the majority or the average rather than the exception. But let’s get beyond details of scenery and character type: let’s get to meaning, because this book has plenty of it. M or F? follows the relationship of Frannie and Marcus, two devoted friends who share a brain. They think alike and care deeply for one another. Marcus has been out to Frannie since he moved to the school, and they accept one another, foibles and all, with open hearts. When Frannie falls for the environmentalist who also strikes Marcus’ fantasy, things get interesting. Their struggle with romance and friendship ignites a series of IM high jinks worth following.

Bleah! Sounds like a romp, you say. The feel-good movie of the year! Give me stark reality. I want blood, guts, murder, real–with a healthy dose or redemption.

I can hang with that, too. I just started watching two series–The Wire and The Killing–and love both. I loved The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. Why do I stick with gruesome mafia killings, violent deaths of teen girls, and desperate drug situations in low-rise projects? Because in each of these I’ve mentioned, someone has hope, faith, drive, or ambition. 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. Somebody went back and did 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.

M or F? deals honestly with sexual orientation and young love. It also explores loyalty between friends and how we can betray one another while pursuing our own desires. This important exploration makes the book worthy of a classroom read, and co-author Lisa Papademetriou also provides a teacher’s guide for this purpose. There’s lust, but it’s not reveled in with graphic sidetrails the way Rage quickly descends. I believe in describing teen lusts and teen dreams, but like the judge, I know when things wax a bit too pornographic and don’t care to quote it for you. Or, let’s put it this way: before you show me your panties, show me your brain. I want to know why I should like you as a person before you undress.

In Rage, I know that Johanna means well, trying to tutor the violent boy and serve at hospice, but she goes through the motions of serving, either spacing out while someone dies to fantasize about her love interest, Reeve, or trying to escape when forced to tutor the violent boy. She is powered by loneliness and lust. Her best friend asks her to leave the house so she can sleep with her boyfriend.

Now this portrayal is authentic and no doubt strikes a chord with teens wracked by these struggles. We are selfish creatures in high school and act out of our worst desires. A teen or adult reader may appreciate this honest mirror and want to immerse herself deep in the ugly of the moment. Johanna is a lost protagonist, headed into a downward spiral after a dangerous girl. The blurb promises this: “In the precarious place where attraction and need collide, a teenager experiences the dark side of a first love and struggles to find her way into a new light.”

I don’t think I can wait around for the “new light.” It’s not that I can’t hang with trouble. It’s just that I need to know that Johanna has something to cling to–a decent friend, a concerned adult–and not a careless teacher who leaves her alone with a violent boy or a self-centered older sister or best friend. I haven’t met a redeeming soul yet by page 24. There is a hint of Johanna’s mom being a good force, but that’s not fleshed out yet.

I think about “how much realism” issue all the time because I’ve had an least one writing partner say of my WIP, ST. MICHAEL, PRAY FOR US: HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT: “I just want to see Wendy happy.” I understood the comment, and how I answered it is was by showing Wendy passionate about something. I wrote a new chapter where she 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, she’s inspired, she’s angry, she’s righteous. After this scene she takes bold action of revenge. Within the next 15 pages, there are three “interventions” by individuals striving to connect with this alienated, freakish girl: two teens and a teacher. I can’t say there’s much happy-happy-joy-joy swirling and very few warm fuzzies, but, there’s some hope for real relationship.

In the first 24 pages, I can’t find a single soul who Johanna would want to trust. That scares me a bit. Realistic? Sure. Readable? Not so much.

I write about sexual abuse and recovery. I write about racism and adultery and envy and isolation. Sociopaths. Pedophiles. Life is ugly and that’s a truth key to my tale. I present shades of various hells on earth. But call me Pollyanna or Fairy Tale Fanny, but I need to know there is love and redemption somewhere in this mess.

Nihilism supposes that no one’s looking out for us. No one cares now or later. If the world you write about has no Good, no Right, just habits, traditions, and other human endeavors of an anthropological bent, then those readers 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 crossing his face as he suddenly sees the glorious array of stars in the pitch-black night. The soundtrack swells with “Ode to Joy.” Here in the midst of great sorrow is sudden respite and healing peace. The boy still finds beauty in the strains of a melody he will someday create while his ears ring with pain.

Maybe Johanna will find love and light somewhere within the pages of Rage. I hope so. Maybe someone else who likes a certain kind of read will stick around to see.

Redemption versus nihilism. Guess which wins for me, every time?

Writing Prompts:

Ask these questions of your YA manuscript:

Literary Goals:

• Is there realism?
• Do characters act “in character” and follow a code of consistency?
• Do things “fit” together? Is there coherence among plot, character, setting, image, etc?

YA Goals:

• Is there emotional connection between characters?
• Is there redemption and hope?
• Is there enough clarity in the resolution for YA (ages 16-18), balanced with some realistic limbo and possibility? Does the story accurately portray the liminal stage of young adulthood while allowing an “emotionally safe landing space”?