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?

pexels-photo (1)

 

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.”

pexels-photo-342469

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.

pexels-photo-13918

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.

pexels-photo-157231

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.

baby-84626_640

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.

Old vintage typewriter

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.

 

 

 

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.

Not My House

I just came home from the inservice meeting for the college where I teach. To be honest, I didn’t come straight home. I had My Chemical Romance blaring on the iPod, and I found myself taking wrong turns to finish one song and then another.

When I turned down my street and looked at the green house sitting on the corner, I found myself thinking that I didn’t want it to be my house. I didn’t want the flowers on the porch to be my flowers. I didn’t want the front door to be the door where my key fit.

Now, don’t be mistaken. I have a lovely home and a lovely family. My husband in the perfect blend of fun and serious. My recently published novel sits on the coffee table and I’m waiting for a response on a new project. I’m getting ready to start another semester teaching classes that love. Life is good. But…

I didn’t want it to be my house.

As a writer, I can’t help but look into lit windows, into dark windows, and wonder who lives inside. What type of lives do they live? Are they struggling? Are there secrets within the walls that twists and burn or is every room bright and filled with the aromas of hearty meals and sun-scented dryer sheets?

I have lived in a house filled with laughter and silly singing. Where every Thursday night was spaghetti night and we’d move the furniture in the living room and play dodge ball.

We’ve laughed in the green house on the corner and occasionally, we’ve cried. We’ve talked about dreams — from my youngest wanting her daddy to be president so we could have our own bowling alley to the eldest wanting to be a news anchor and now wanting to be a college professor.

But in-between those two children are the dreams of the middle child. These are aspirations held hostage, and it’s these dreams that make me want to drive away to a different house. A house where no one knows what gastroparesis is.

I love writing. I love creating stories and getting emails and comments from readers who enjoyed the brief escape from reality that my novel provided. My dream of being published came true, and I would pay with that dream — that ransom — if it would unbind my son’s dreams.

For a mom, there is no greater wish than for her children to be healthy and happy. And when the cabinets start filling with pill bottles and when the squares on the calendar are covered with times for doctor appointments, she finds herself pressing to fulfill her dreams not so much for herself, but because doing so might make trips to far away doctors or pharmacies easier. Because fulfilling her dreams (dreams that were so long fought for) might act as inspiration to keep other, frailer dreams alive.

I didn’t want it to be my house, because I don’t want my child to be sick. But there is no parallel universe (that we know of) where things can be altered to our liking. All we can do is press on. We can pull into the garage, put the key in the door, and we can hope.

And we can write. Thank God, we can write.

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.

There’s no crying in writing!

We all have stories of people who encouraged our efforts to write and some who discouraged our efforts. My story is a combination of the two. Years ago Richard Elman came to Wichita State University and taught a course on creative writing. It was a tutorial course, one in which individuals met with him weekly during which time he would critique our work.

I gave him a short story that I was somewhat proud of. The next week I arrived at his office with my fingers crossed that he would see some talent in it — that he would say something encouraging to fan the tiny, feeble flame that was my writing ego.

I sat down across from his desk. We greeted each other in a nice cordial manner, then he threw the manuscript on the floor and said, “If this was the only copy that existed in the world of your story, and it suddenly combusted, I wouldn’t waste a drop of my spit trying to put out the flames.”

I didn’t cry, well, not until I got to my car and contemplated whether or not I would ever go back to his office. But then I asked myself why I was going in the first place. I was going to learn to be a better writer. That was the whole point and if anyone could teach me about writing, who better than a man who obviously had no regard whatsoever for my feelings.

I went back the next week and the next and the next.

Mr. Elman was, to some extent, ruthless, but he was exactly what I needed; he was a great teacher. I wish I could remember everything he taught me, but when it comes to any art, the lessons are evident in the work. They are seen on the page; they are heard in the nuisance of words.

I was sad when I learned of his death just a few years after he’d taught me so much. He taught me to be tough and to remember that the quality of writing is all that matters. There’s no crying in writing (at least not in getting critiqued)!

He also taught me to be present in the writing, in every word, and like all great teachers, I know he lives in the writing all of those he taught.

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.

Two Dirty Words — “No Time”

Okay, I’m going to say it and hate me all you want, but sometimes it’s just true. Some days there is no time to write!

It’s a horrible reality, like death and taxes and waiting for replies to queries.

Writers are told that nothing is more important than the craft. Like Stephen King says, if you want to be a writer, you have to read and you have to write. In the make-believe realm of Writer’s World, there would always be magical moments when the clock stops, the children take naps, and the dryer hums quietly making sure nothing wrinkles until the spell breaks and it’s time to get back to reality. In today’s world, writers are often Cinderellas stuck mopping floors, just waiting for our godmother to send us — not to the ball- but to some quiet sanctuary where we can WRITE!

Non-writers don’t get it. They don’t understand that not writing is like not getting the drug we’re addicted to. It’s literally like all the characters in our brains start running their fingernails (and some of them have very long fingernails indeed) across some chalkboard in our brains. To put it mildly, we get a little…irritable when we don’t get to write. But it happens.

Life gets in the way. Things like the need to pay bills and eat and avoiding ending up as guests on Dr. Phil because we’ve neglected our children and spouses and we remember our characters’ birthdays but not theirs.

So what do we do?

What can we do?

First and foremost, we have to not beat ourselves up. We may create superheroes on the page, but sadly, we can’t turn ourselves into them. We can’t go without sleep or food or somehow add hours to the clock. We can however remember that tomorrow is a new day. Sure, it will come with challenges, like every day does, but it’s new. It’s fresh. It’s a blank page.

Even if you can’t get a word physically on that page because the one hour you’d carefully set aside is taken up by an emergency trip to the vet because the dog ate a roach hotel, you can still think about writing. You can turn the radio off and visit with your characters at stop signs and traffic lights. You can jot an idea down in the little notebook you carry or on a fast-food napkin. You can fan the flames of your creativity until things settle down a bit.

They’ll never settle down completely. Writer’s World doesn’t exist. But we can remember that tomorrow is a new day, and with it comes a new night and new minutes and new moments. New opportunities to push the laundry and the grading and the dishes aside, and do what keeps us sane.

Write when and what you can. Fifteen minutes at lunch is better than nothing at all. And amazingly, if we give ourselves small goals, they have a way of growing bigger. Fifteen minutes at lunch turns to thirty. Maybe we wake up thirty minutes before the alarm goes off and instead of going back to sleep, we get to work.

Stephen King is right in that to be a writer you have to read a lot and you have to write a lot. But when life becomes our own personal antagonists, we have to remember that ‘life’ is what it’s all about. Enjoy the cuddles when the kids are sick, don’t forget to listen to the birds when you take the dog for a walk. After all, if we get too out of touch with our own lives, how will we be able to write about the lives of our characters?

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.