Room for Reality

Last fall I was on a panel discussing trends in YA. One author talked about the need for more fantasy and the view that YA readers want to escape reality. As an author and vivid reader and mostly as a human, I agree that people need an escape sometimes. We need a mental vacation from the monotony of daily life and from the stressors and tragedies that plague our world.

We all need a little sip of Netflix now and then. A giant gulp of a sweeping fantasy where a character just might have magical powers that make anything seem possible.

But what happens when the book is closed, when the movie is over?

Is there room for reality in YA?

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YES!

We all live in a real world. If Shakespeare was right, if “All the world’s a stage,” then some people get better parts in better plays, and others…well…others, through no fault of their own, end up in in horrific plays, in the role of tortured people.

Then all the more reason to escape, right?

All the more reason to curl up, alone, with a good fantasy.

It’s the ‘alone’ part that bothers me. Teens, like all humans, have to deal with reality. They have to live in it, and no matter how good a book is, if you’re locked in a lower cabin on the Titanic, reading that fantasy might not give you much comfort.

Okay, if you’re about to drown in icy, dark waters, nothing might bring you comfort, but given the choice, I think I’d prefer to read something about another person, another soul speaking to me from another doomed ship. “You’re not alone,” the words would read. “I’ve been where you are. I’ve felt what you feel. You are not alone.”

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As a psychologist, I have been humbled so many times by what people endure, kids especially. People can be unimaginably cruel. The world can be unimaginably cruel. Whether today’s challenges are extreme or benign, the one thing we all desire is to not be alone. To be understood.

Reality in books lets readers know that they’re not alone — that there are others out there like them. Others fighting to get through each day, others fighting to keep their rage at bay, their fears hidden, and their tears confined to their pillows.

Realty in YA gives voices to real teens who may feel as though they have no voice, or who fear that using their voice will result in more pain, not less.

It reminds them that they are not alone. It tells them that they are understood, and if others are reading the same book, about the same difficult issues, then maybe, just maybe, a dialogue can be started. Other voices can be heard and things can get better.

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I’m always telling my students not to escape from reality. If there’s something you don’t like, something stressing you out, making your life more difficult, change it. But you can’t change something you’re constantly running from, hiding from, escaping from.

Yes, give me a good fantasy,  a good science fiction story, a good romance. Let me step out of myself for a while, away from work and school and dishes. But once that story is over, let me not be alone. Let me read about others who struggle too. Others who have seen what I’ve seen, who know what I know. Others who have been in the dark, whose voices can sound in my head when I am there again and can tell me what I most need to hear.

You are not alone.

Is there room for reality in YA?

Of course there is. Reality is what life is made of.

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I’m here!

Hi Everyone,

I can’t believe it’s been so long since I posted. I’ve fallen into that place where writers are told not to go. You know, that place where you start a blog, keep up with it somewhat and then masked men with Mac computers come take you away to a special place where you’re ordered to write and write and write and are forbidden to do anything else — including dishes, laundry and taking the dog out before the next accident on the carpet.

Okay, maybe I’m being a little dramatic.

The truth is, I have fallen into the trap so many writers, and other professionals, fall in to. We start a blog, and then….life happens. Or in my case…a book happens.

Writers love their books, we have to to spend so much time with them, but this book is very special to me. To be honest, I didn’t think I was ready to write it. (It’s definitely one of those training-wheels off types of projects!)

I’m nearly done with the first draft and I’m still not certain I’m ready to write it, but sometimes a thing just has to be written and if that thing lives in your head, you have to be the one to write it.

That said, that’s where I’ve been — writing and researching and living in a mental cave deep within the earth, excavating very very dark things.

I love blogging and reaching out to people and feeling that odd cyber-connect. I also love reaching out to people with pages and pages of black ink on white paper and touching people in, I think, the most intimate way possible — by sharing stories.

Anyway, just wanted to let you know that I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth, I’ve just fallen in a very deep hole with my laptop and my story.

I’m near the end of it now and there’s that excited running-downhill thing going on.

I’ll be excited to share this book with you when it’s ready. Though I have to warn you, it’s dark, and truth be told, it might take me a while to climb out of that dark cave. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll make it all the way out.

So if you see a hand reaching out from the earth and hear a voice calling from the darkness, it might be me.

“I’m here!”

 

 

 

Waiting = Writing

Every writer knows that waiting is a part of the job. Waiting for beta readers to give feedback, waiting for responses on query letters. Waiting for your agent to say it’s time to submit and then waiting to see if any publishers want to offer you a deal.

It’s excruciating, but there is something to ease the pain and to make the minutes, days, weeks, even months go by faster. Work!

Writers write, so write already!

In an earlier post, I compared the publishing process to having a baby. It is a lot like that, the waiting and the wondering what life will be like once it (the book or the baby) arrives.

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Because we tend to think of our books like offspring, it’s hard to imagine getting pregnant with another baby, before the one you’ve been carrying is born. But writers never carry just one story inside of them at a time.

Right now, I bet there are characters, just waiting to be written, passing the time playing cards in the deep regions of your cerebral cortex. We think waiting is hard for writers, just imagine what it’s like for the characters who get hopeful every time we pick up a pen or sit down at our keyboards. Think how their hearts race when we order that double shot of espresso at Starbucks and take a table in the back corner.

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The thing is, stories want to be told and as writers, it’s our job to tell them. So forget the clock and the calender. Stop checking your email every hour. Eventually, you will hear something, but in the mean time, work. Give life and freedom to your characters. Spring them from your brain and let them live on the page.

For me, there’s nothing better than the moment a story takes hold of you and pushes you, blindfolded, down a steep hill. The exhileration of not knowing what’s going to happen and the certainty that you’ll figure it out is the best!

So yes, waiting is a part of being a writer. But remember that waiting should always equal writing.

 

 

 

The Power of Words

Last week I went to a creative writing open mic night. It was held at a local community college, in a small auditorium with brick walls, a wooden stage, and a bright spotlight to shine down upon all those brave enough to walk up the stairs and stand behind the microphone.

The tension in the intimate setting was literally palpable. I even heard one girl say to another, “Don’t fall off the stage this time.”

Most of the readings were poems, and most dealt with things like homesickness, the daily grind of college life, and about falling in and out of love, and while the poetry may have covered various topics, in reality, each performance was about the same thing – about the power of words to make us stronger.

As I listened to writer after writer speaking in rhythm about love and loss and hopes and dreams, I realized that they were all really saying the same thing, displaying the same thing — the ability to be brave enough to expose themselves to others.

I can’t imagine how difficult it was for the petite girl with short blond hair to get up on the stage after having fallen off it during the last open mic night. I can’t image how difficult it was for the girl who had proclaimed her undying love for a young man with brown eyes, and another girl for an older man, both then telling of how these men (one young and one old) had chosen to love someone else. Corazn Roto

Sure, it’s tough to get up in front of people and say anything — anyone who’s taken public speaking knows that. But for any human being to get up and undress their emotions in front of others, to stand naked in the spotlight, takes incredible courage, and words are what gave them the courage. Their words.

Whether we’re writing prose or poetry, we can never underestimate the power that words have, not only for the reader, but for the writer as well. No armor or bullet proof vest, no weapons of any kind, can give a person the courage or the character that words can.

Who needs X-ray vision or the ability to leap over buildings? Finding the right words to say what we need to say, is the only power we need.

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Deadly Design: An excerpt for your pleasure :)

This excerpt from Deadly Design is one of my favorite scenes, but it requires just a little backstory. Kyle and Connor are identical twins, who were born two years apart. They were conceived in a fertility lab because their parents carry a gene for a deadly disorder. Their perfect egg was created and then split into identical twins. In the hopes of ensuring safe pregnancies, Connor was born first, while Kyle spent two years frozen in the lab.

The family doesn’t realize that the boys have been genetically altered to be superior beings. Connor succeeds at everything he does, and Kyle, being two years younger, doesn’t think he can compete with his brother’s greatness, so he doesn’t try. Over the years, he starts to resent his brother’s almost superstar status in their small town, so much so that he flips off anyone who accidently calls him by his twin brother’s name.

The following scene occurs after Connor dies on his eighteenth birthday and Kyle is asked to read Connor’s valedictorian speech during, what should have been, Connor’s high school graduation.

Hope you enjoy!

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There is silence, real silence. There are hundreds of people surrounding me.

Hundreds of people breathing and fidgeting and thinking. And staring. The principal has said something. She introduced me, and the gymnasium has filled with the silence of waiting.

I stand, then walk, taking a second to look at my parents. They’re sitting in the first row behind the graduating students, and while I know they want to give me encouraging smiles, smiles to settle my nerves, they can’t. I reach the podium, look down, and start reading. It’s typical stuff, at least what filters through the haze in my brain. Motivational, fortune-cookie shit. “Work hard and you can accomplish anything. Don’t let the difficulties of life dissuade you from your dreams, blah, blah, blah.” And then there’s a space between paragraphs and a handwritten note. It reads Find Kyle in the audience. Look at him. Don’t say another word until he sees you.

I glance back at the principal. She nods her head knowingly at me and smiles with trembling lips. I look up at the crowd of faces staring down at me. I’m searching through them, but for a second, I’m not sure if I’m looking for Connor or looking for me. I go back to the words.

“Kyle,” I read, “I don’t believe in regrets, at least most of the time I don’t. I don’t regret that we were born separately, because the truth is, if Mom had tried to carry us both at the same time, we might both be dead now.”

Everyone is quiet, breath-held kind of quiet. No one fidgets against the hard chairs; no one fans themselves with their programs or turns through the pages to see how much longer this will take. Even the quivering cries of a discontented infant stop. All anyone can hear are the electric fans moving back and forth to aid the school’s ancient air conditioning system.

“I guess I do regret a few things. I regret that I didn’t wait for you. I arrived on the path first, and I ran ahead, so far ahead that you couldn’t catch up. I shouldn’t have done that. To make it worse, being twins, I should have figured that people would always be comparing us. It was up to me to set the bar, and I set it too high – for both of us. There’s always been this thing inside me, pushing me to be perfect. And once it started, it was like running down a hill, and you can’t stop, because if you try, you’ll fall, and the hill is so steep you know you won’t survive.

“I’ll never forget when you were in first grade. We were walking home, an you wouldn’t talk to me because the teacher made you miss recess when you didn’t get a perfect score on your spelling test. She thought that because we have the same DNA, we’d have the same brain, the same likes and dislikes. But the truth is I had to learn those words. Maybe it’s that oldest child syndrome or something. I had to get them right, but you didn’t. You could have if you’d wanted to, but you didn’t, and that’s okay. Hell, that’s great, as long as you know you could have.

“I regret now that I studied for those stupid tests. I mean, really, who cares if a seven-year-old can spell umbrella or a ten-year-old can recite the fifty state capitals? It doesn’t say anything about who we are. Not really. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have taken Calc 2 or Spanish 4. I don’t think I would have even gone out for track or football. Not because I don’t think education is important or because I don’t love sports, but because there’s no achievement in my life that means as much as being able to walk the path with you. You are my brother…and I love you.” I say these words slowly because they are for me. They are mine. “Nothing means more than that. And to all of you out there who have ever called Kyle ‘Connor,’ and especially to all of you who ever judged my brother for not learning his spelling words or his state capitals or his quadratic equations, this is for you.”

It doesn’t say anything else, but I know exactly what Connor intended to do. I look out at the young and old and middle-aged faces. I take a deep breath and, with tears burning in my eyes, extend my middle finger to the crowd.

Sleeping with the Lights On

I’ve recently started a new manuscript. The idea has been swimming around in my brain for a while, but I was somewhat reluctant to pursue it.

Part of it was timing. Part of it was fear.

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All writers know the importance of research — of immersing oneself in the real world to help you create an authentic fictional one. For Deadly Design, I had to swim in the waters of DNA and ghost hearts and all things genetic. While science certainly has it gray areas and ethical dilemmas, this new project requires me to delve into a world which will NOT leave me unscathed.

One of the things I love most about writing is how writers become mini-authorities on the various topics that come into their fictional worlds. It’s fun to learn about science or space or history. But sometimes we get ideas for stories that are of a darker nature.

I have never been to a war-torn country. I have never seen, first hand, the way war destroys everything. But I have this idea, an idea that I truly love and that I believe could become an amazing piece of literature. Do I want to learn what war tastes and smells and feels like? No.

I don’t want to experience it first hand, and yet I want to create it on the page. So how do I do that?

I’ve talked before about writing naked — figuratively speaking — and when it comes to research, it’s the same.

If we are to have vulnerable characters, we have to become vulnerable ourselves. If war changes people, we have to be open to changing ourselves.

I have literally watched hours upon hours of war videos and interviews, and each is like having a flu shot, only instead of protecting me from some awful virus, the exposure makes me feel things — awful things, but necessary things.

When Elizabeth Kostova was researching and writing The Historian, I’m sure she slept with the lights on, and maybe with garlic hanging from her bedroom door. She created a world where vampires seemed as real as anything anyone had ever read about in a history textbook, and I’m sure there were times when she wanted to take a shower in holy water.

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We expect our characters to learn and to grow. But before we can create our characters and create their world, we, as writers, have to grow and to grow, we must be vulnerable.

We have to be willing to put ourselves on the front lines. We have to be willing to expose ourselves to things that might make us toss and turn at night. To things that might make us cry and make our souls age.

Before we can make our readers cry or cringe, before we can make their hearts double-over with joy or sorrow, we have to open ourselves to those emotions.

What would life be like without stories? The best stories are often the ones where invisible fingers reach from the pages like spirits and they inhabit us. They make us feel something new and unique. The make the reader more than they were before they started reading.

As authors, as creators of the stories, we must lay ourselves wide to the world, not to sacrifice ourselves for our art, but to become more. To get the stories right, even if it means sleeping with the lights on.

Surviving Limbo

Anyone who writes knows all about waiting. Whether it’s waiting for beta readers to give you their opinions or waiting for a response to a query letter, writers spend a lot of time waiting…and waiting…and waiting.

It’s almost enough to make a person go mad — as in main character in a Poe story kind of mad!

If purgatory is a real place, any writer ending up there will spend eternity logging into their email to no avail.

So how do we keep from chewing our fingernails off and pulling our hair out or chopping up a body and storing it under the floorboards? How do we keep from going mad? Well, it’s not easy, but the answer is obvious — we do what we do when facing any challenge. We write.

My agent and I are currently waiting to hear back from my editor on a project, and I asked my agent if she would mind if I sent her another project. To be honest, I was afraid that since we’d so recently finished rewrites on one novel, she’d want a take a break from my writing. Instead, she was delighted (of course, she hadn’t read it yet so time will tell if she stays delighted). But agents represent books and writers write books so it just stands to reason that working writers make for happier agents.

The point is that we have to keep working. (Even if she doesn’t like the new project, at least I’ll know so I can move on to the next story brewing in my mind).

Now, I’ll admit, waiting has gotten to my psych on occasion (that whole hearing the heart beating like a clock swaddled in cotton comes to mind, but don’t worry; there are no elderly gentlement with cataracts sleeping in my home).

Last week after another day of waiting, I felt a strange kinship to the protagonist in the tragic story of The Little Match Girl, only instead of envisioning a table of food set before a warm fire, I was envisioning my new book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble.

All right, I wasn’t  freezing or starving to death, but sometimes mental starvation can be almost as bad.

Waiting is not fun. But it is necessary, and it is inevitable. But there is something wonderful, something magical and almost god-like we can do to not only force the current of time to quicken, but to actually enjoy the minutes as they flow by.

We can create. We can write the next story and then like an expectant mother resting before the contractions start, we can wait. And wait. And wait.

A Writer’s Dreams Come True in Pieces

As writers, we have dreams.

When Deadly Design, my young adult thriller, came out on June 2nd of this year, it was a giant dream come true. Seeing my book on the shelf was (and still is) amazing. Having a complete stranger purchase the book and want me to sign it, is also completely amazing, but…

Okay, here’s where I try not to sound like a brat. Here, I’ll go ahead and say it for you.

“How dare you minimize the wonderful experience of being a published author!” “Do you know how much this would mean to many struggling writers?”  “Do you know how grateful you should be to have gotten a book deal, especially one with a major publisher?”

First off, I don’t mean to minimize the experience at all and I DO know what it means to a writer to be validated, to have someone say that their work is worth reading.

It means everything.

But here’s the flip side of that —

As writers (as humans) we have dreams, goals, aspirations. And they usually come in a sort of surreal completeness. We form a picture of what our lives will be like after we achieve our goal, down to what we’ll wear, how late we’ll sleep each morning, maybe even what we’ll have for lunch once this major life achievement is accomplished. But dreams don’t usually come in package deals.

Sometimes they come in pieces.

Before going to my first book signing in Tampa, Florida, my husband asked me why I didn’t seem ‘happier’. Besides being nervous that no one would show up, there was just something missing. My life hadn’t magically changed because I had a book out. There was no quitting my day job. My son’s health problems didn’t magically go away. Our aging dog still had a nasty cough and my house was still a wreck because I’d just finished my grading for spring semester.

Before being published, I can’t tell you how many times I fantasized about getting that magical letter or phone call from the agent who just happened to love the pages I sent. Followed, of course, by him or her saying that they’d already discussed the book with a publisher who is so excited about it. Here comes the nice advance, (few rewrites are needed because, well, this is a fantasy). Book stores can’t keep the book on the shelf and so on and so on and so on.

Of course, this isn’t how it goes, but I don’t think any writer can keep writing without those fantasies. To work so hard, for so long, to give up sleep and sometimes sanity for our craft, we have to dream big or we’ll quit.

But we also need to remember that dreams are often puzzle pieces. Encouragement from a beta reader is a piece. A rejection letter with a positive, personalized comment is a piece. A request for pages is a piece. Signing with an agent is a piece and so on and so on.

Writers are a special breed and we have to be content with each piece we get and we have to have faith that once all the pieces come together, it will make a beautiful picture.