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.

 

 

 

“This Generation”

Hi Everyone,

Sorry it’s been a while since I posted. I’ve been busy working on rewrites of a novel that will be going out to publishers soon and it’s this novel and some other things that have inspired this post today.

To start off, last week I saw a post on Facebook about ‘this generation’.

 

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Needless to say, when the term ‘this generation’ is used, it’s probably not going to be a post about how studious, respectful and wonderful today’s youth is. I’m not a teenager anymore, but as someone who once was, and as someone who writes for teens and tweens, this really annoys me!

First off, generations are made out of people and people are individuals. Everyone has their own story, their own triumphs and tragedies. Not everyone born in the sixties or the seventies or the eighties or nineties are the same. Yes, we are all parts of the eras we grew up in, but we didn’t grow up in the same houses or neighborhoods, with the same incomes or religions or talents or handicaps. We’re all different and grouping a whole generation of teens together is just plain wrong.

Secondly, I happen to like this generation of teens. As a teacher, they make me laugh and sometimes they make me cry. I see them struggling in a world that isn’t like the one I grew up in. When I was a kid, bullies weren’t that common and if you had one to deal with, you knew once school was over for the day, you were free of him or her. Today kids are never free — not with cyber bullying.

When I was a kid we had fire and tornado drills. We would never have imagined someone coming into school with the intent of killing as many of us as possible just because they have a desire to kill.

The point I’m trying to make is that teens don’t have it easy and most of them, if they feel entitled, it’s only because they want what’s fair, like a decent education and healthy food to eat. Most are grateful for the good things in their lives and most are much more attuned to what’s happening in our world than we ever give them credit for.

So to all the teens out there, when I first wrote this novel, it contained letters to you. Now, these letters are written by me, but I wrote them trying to imagine what God would want to say to the youth of the world if He or She decided to drop a line every once in a while. (I prefer to believe that God doesn’t have a gender one way or the other because…well…God created the universe and somehow genitals just shouldn’t matter to a being capable of such a feat.)

In the various rewrites of the book, the letters were taken out, but I’d like to give them to you all the same. So starting this week I’ll be posting the letters — the love letters from God.

Now, it may seem presumptuous of me to think that I can speak for God, and I’m not trying to. I’m simply imagining what the Almighty might want to say, or is already saying, but in our crazy, hectic, and sometimes angry, societies, we’re not hearing.

God gets a pretty bad wrap today and to be honest, I’ve struggled with sorting through the bigotry and downright evil that is paraded around our country in the name of religion. These letters aren’t about religion. They’re about spirituality. They’re about you and the fact that you mean something. You are something.

Anyway, I’m not sure what I’m hoping the letters bring you. Peace maybe. Guidance…well, we’ll see. Mostly, I want them to help each one of you know that while you are part of a generation, you are a part of something much bigger than that. You are a part of a gallery of art that is beautiful, rare and utterly magnificent. You matter.

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Curse the Day Job!

Okay, the fact is that most writers have day jobs, or sometimes, night jobs, or second shift jobs or maybe jobs that seem to never end, like teaching. Day jobs are great in that writing these days generally requires electricity and caffeine, both which are hard to pay for without money.

But while day jobs are a blessing, they also have their downsides. Talk to any writer and the one thing they’ll tell you they need the most is time. For many people, they work the 8 to 5, pick up the kids, fix dinner, do laundry or whatever. For the writer, the real work begins after they’ve punched out, but there’s still dinner to fix, still laundry to wash and still a big steaming pile of “whatever” to get done.

Day jobs take up time. They also keep us from getting hungry, figuratively and literally. The bills are paid, there’s food in the fridge, and there’s a danger of becoming comfortable, of forgetting the dream and the stories we want to tell.

I’m not saying we should quit our jobs. (Yes, I think all writers fantasize about getting out of bed, filling their favorite mugs with coffee and getting to work in our pajamas  —  in short, quitting our jobs), but you may have noticed that few homeless people today are getting published. Most of us can’t quit our jobs, at least not yet. We have to see the dream through, and to see the dream through means, at least for now, getting up to the alarm clock, getting dressed, and heading to the only 8 to 5.

My point? Do your job, but don’t forget that no matter what it says on your pay check or your name tag, you have two jobs. You’re a writer. Let the day job feed you and pay the bills, but don’t let it feed your ambition. Don’t let it feed your dreams. Don’t get comfortable being part of the status quo. Don’t let your day job turn into the thing that keeps you from fulfilling your dreams.

Getting in the Mood — to write

It’s Saturday morning. The kids are asleep. Dad is working in his garden (hooray for spring) and the dog’s gone out. It’s time to write! And yet….

It has occurred to me that writing is like sex.  Sometimes we’re more ‘turned on’ than other times. Sometimes we’re in the mood, and sometimes…our creative side gets a headache. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a Viagra for writing! Okay, I know this sounds ridiculous, but we all know that writing takes focus and energy (the mental kind of energy that’s much harder to come by). So just like most people have their turn-ons for sex, maybe we writers have turn-ons for writing.

Let’s see. For me there’s….

Music:  Trying to find a song that would go with the scene I’m working on. Youtube is great for this. Last week I was working on a scene where a character is playing the violin. I found a wonderful video of an artist playing a heart-wrenching Bach piece — perfect.

Ambition: Okay, this is a big word that can mean many things, from just wanting to be able to pay bills to going to that next high school reunion and telling the girl who made head cheerleader and razzed you about not making the squad at all that you have a book deal. Ambition can be wanting your kids to go to college, wanting a bigger house or one with a basement that doesn’t flood when it rains. Or for someone like me with a child who will be battling health issues his whole life, the ability to know he’ll be able to go to good doctors and have a good life. Ambition isn’t a four letter word. There’s nothing wrong with ambition, and reminding ourselves of ‘why’ we want it so badly can be just what we need to get us to work when it’s hard to get in the mood.

Dreams and stories: I think this is the most important one. Writing isn’t easy. I think that horse has been beaten to death and the only people who believe writing is easy are those people who don’t write. We hack away at writer’s block, at the insecurities and rejections because we have a dream and we have stories. In a world of destruction, we dream of being creators, of giving birth to characters and scenarios and tragedies and moments when something magical happens on the page and we cry and we know that someday someone on the other side of the globe might hold our book, read our words, and cry too. That’s the dream. Stories move in us, beseeching us to tell them, to exorcise them from our souls and release them into the world, to set them free.

Right now, the sink is full of dishes. The couch is covered with laundry and very soon, too soon, the dryer will buzz like some sci-fi beast to let me know I have responsibilities! And yes, I do have responsibilities — to my craft, to myself, to my characters and their stories.

There is no viagra for writers, but we can turn ourselves on to writing. It’s not easy, but it’s what we do.

Waiting

There’s no way around it. If you’re a writer, you’re a waiter, and I don’t mean someone who works in restaurants taking food orders. Whether it’s waiting to hear on the latest round of queries you’ve sent out, waiting to hear about a partial or full an agent requested, or waiting to see if your agent is able to find a home for your manuscript, we wait. We wait. We wait some more.

I’m a terrible waiter. I try to explain, especially to my family, why for the next so many days or weeks, I might not be the most pleasant person to be around, and I know they don’t get it — they aren’t writers.

We wait for a response and that response is everything. It’s the answer to questions that burn continuously in our souls.

Am I wasting my time?

Do I have any talent?

Will I ever be able to quit my day job or at least, pay a bill just once with money I’ve made writing?

These are huge questions, and sadly, an email rejection on a query doesn’t answer any of them, and too often I’ve heard agents say that they had a great writer with a great book that they just couldn’t find a home for.

So what do we do?

Some writers drink whiskey or vodka or vermouth. Some take second jobs in order to afford their twice daily trips to Starbucks because not only do we need caffeine, we might well develop relationships with the staff at Starbucks and seeing their kind, smiling faces may be the only thing that keeps us from falling off the edge of ‘waiting’ insanity.

It would be nice if we could wait like expectant mothers. That we’d be guaranteed that by such and such a date, our manuscript will have developed a beating heart, a brain, and by such and such a date, we will be able to hold our precious creation. But no.

We can’t just gestate our characters and plots into existence. We have to work constantly to create  and recreate them. Maybe our protagonist is a male one day, a female the next. Maybe she has a brain the first fourth of the book but by page eighty-seven, her brain’s been sucked out by alien insects.

We create and wait. Create and wait. And while I may not be the best person to hangout with during those periods of waiting, I know the best advice I can give myself and others to help us through the endless ticks of the clock.

Create. Start the second book in a series, even if you don’t know if the first will sell. Start a totally new project or go back to an old one. Work. Create. It won’t silence the ticking, but it will muffle it a bit, and while we wait, we become better writers because that is who we are destined to be.

Two Great Writers

Just a quick post today to say how very fortunate I’m feeling. Last November I got the opportunity to see Stephen King in Wichita. This week I traveled to Tulsa to hear Neil Gaiman talk about the craft of writing, and other various impromptu things, at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.

Living in Kansas, the opportunities to see such well-known authors are rare, and while the theater was mostly filled for Stephen King, I was awed by the massive numbers of people who showed up in Tulsa to hear Mr. Gaiman.

I think what I took away from the evening that I treasure the most is Neil Gaiman’s passion for the arts and how, while we are a society that is increasingly turning to the practical, the arts are what make life worth living.

What would our lives be without music, dance, visual arts, and literature? What is the purpose of life if not to feel the swell in our chests when we witness the beautiful, amazing things that humans are capable of?

The world and history is filled with reminders of the other side of humanity — the destructive side instead of the creative side. Thank God for the artists who create and inspire and feed our souls. Who illuminate the dark halves of ourselves so that there is hope and purpose and a glimpse of something more than just work and bills and all things mundane.

Six hours in a car was well worth it to be reminded that there are individuals out there who are brilliant, talented, humble and above all, creative.

Dear Teens,

Up until now, most of my posts have centered around writing. I am a member of a very important species called “writers” and we need to stick together, to support each other through the moments of doubt, joy, elation, depression, and temporary (hopefully temporary) madness.

But as a young adult writer, I feel the pull, the need, to communicate not only with other writers, but with those most likely to read what I write. So here goes.

Dear teens,

I’m not of your generation. I grew in a world where the word terrorism was never spoken and 9-11 was just another date. And all too often today, I hear people saying that ‘kids today’ have no work ethic, they take everything for granted.

And I wonder what it would be like to grow up in a world where you’re told to be yourself, but then people look down on you because you’re not conforming enough. To be told to get good grades so you’ll get into a good college and by the way, terrorists are plotting to kill people in shopping malls so YOLO!

Life today is a kaleidoscope of paradoxes. Pursue your goals, your dreams, your ambitions, but beware of Ebola and North Korea and student loan debt.

I think my niece put it best when she was two years old and she went around saying, “Life a bitch.”

Sometimes it can be, but sometimes it can be pretty amazing.

The truth is, I don’t know you. I don’t know what struggles you go through every day. I don’t know what crap have you to put up with or how many people care about you and do a good enough job showing it.

But I don’t think you’re a generation of “kids today”. I think, no, I know, that you are as full of possibilities as any human being who has ever lived before you.

I want to listen to you. I want to cheer for you. I want to understand and I want you do know that when I write, I’m writing because a) I have to or I’ll explode! b) it’s my way of reaching out across the miles and the houses and the apartments and fields and the oceans — to tap you on the shoulder and say hey, this is for you. I hope you like it.

Here’s the pitch!

I know that it’s hard to think about spring when the wind is howling and for some of us, the snow is blowing. But spring will come and that means writing conferences! While you can find lots of helpful information online about query writing, conference pitching is something that could use more attention.

Agents receive hundreds of queries a week. Depending on the agency, maybe even thousands. Since bribery is frowned upon, especially money and certified letters saying you’ll give up a kidney to any of their family members who might need one if they’ll just read your manuscript, it’s difficult to get the agent’s attention.

That’s where conferences come in. If the conference allows pitching sessions to agents, and to be honest I always chose to spend my money at conferences that did, then this is the perfect opportunity to have an agent’s complete attention. So what’s the best way to pitch your work?

Rehearse. Think of pitching your book like an audition. You wouldn’t go to an audition without preparing, and pitching is no different. Most of you have probably heard the elevator analogy, where you imagine that you happen to find yourself on an elevator with the agent of your dreams. You have at most three or four floors to convince the agent that he or she should read your manuscript. What do you say?

I remember going to the OWFI conference some years ago. My husband and I went down the night before and stayed in eco-friendly hotel room. That basically meant the room was the size of a closet and the air conditioner, which sounded like a lawn motor, was up against the bed. I didn’t sleep all night and to make matters worse, I hadn’t practiced my pitch. For some reason I thought I knew the book well enough and thought that a spontaneous pitch would sound fresh.

It was a disaster. Especially when the agent, who was trying to be very polite, started asking questions that, to my amazement, I couldn’t answer. How could I not have answers to questions about my own book? But I was so frustrated because I knew it wasn’t going well, and I knew I’d blown the opportunity.

Conferences aren’t cheap, and they don’t come around that often, especially if you live in the midwest. A few years later I attended a pitching competition, and I was determined to have a positive experience. I practiced writing a pitch that I thought would make people HAVE to read the book.

I timed myself, trimmed down the words that weren’t as powerful and practiced emphasizing the words that were. I practiced and practiced and even though we were allowed to read our pitches, I kept eye contact with the panel of judges. At the one minute mark, I had one word left of the pitch and even though I was out of time, I blurted it out. “Corpse!”

These are the months to start researching conferences and preparing for them. This is your work. This is what you’ve spent countless hours to create. Take the time to prepare yourself. Your work deserves it.

Below is the pitch I gave for Deadly Design, the pitch that led to me getting my wonderful agent. I’m especially fond of that last word!

Connor and Kyle are identical twins. Having been genetically modified, both are extremely handsome, athletic, and intelligent. They were also born two years apart. Due to their parents’ fear of yet another miscarriage, Connor was born, while Kyle stayed behind, frozen in a fertility lab.

Connor’s perfect; he’s a track star, quarterback of the football team, valedictorian of the senior class, and Kyle’s good at video games. How can he compete with his older brother? Being born second meant he lost the coin toss. That is until children born at the Genesis Fertility Labs start dying on their eighteenth birthdays.

Now Kyle has two years to find the mysterious doctor who created them. Two years to solve the mystery in his DNA before he becomes yet another athletic, intelligent, blue-eyed corpse.