Actually, I’m a rather accomplished driver when it comes to stick shift. I had the advantage of learning (out of necessity) on a dark Ohio road in the wee hours of the morning when the two other drivers were out of commission. Too drunk to drive, they were still excellent at hollering directions from the back seat.
But it’s not driving I’ve revived the blog to discuss. It’s the many gears and speeds involved in writing a book I’ve come to discuss. The first two thirds of any novel I’ve written have been the easy part. And by easy I mean some days the words flow and other days I’m lucky to get a sentence. The last third is always a challenge. This is when I’m required to pull together all the various plot threads and character arcs I’ve been developing without more than a loose idea of where it might end up.
My most recent draft is YA science fiction about a girl on Earth who dreams of being a Mars colonist. I’m still unsure about the last third but I’ve recently sent a draft to my agent to peruse. So now I’m idling in neutral with a couple weeks off from that fictional world. I know that my brain needs the break even if it feels weird not to be making progress.But making progress doesn’t always mean moving forward, at least not in the writing world. Sometimes it means being still and allowing your brain to percolate.
The other day I was on my way from a summer teaching gig to pick up my daughter at camp and I had a half hour to kill. Luckily, I was 5 minutes away from the beach. I fashioned a pillow from a few choice items in the back of my car, lay back in the sand and closed my eyes for a few minutes. It was one of those rare times when my over-active monkey mind was still. I was tired, drained from teaching all day, nursing a head cold. The warm sand felt delightful pressing into the backs of my legs and arms.
I found myself rolling the final chapters of my recent work in progress around in my mind like marbles in a glass jar.
And then, “Pop!”
What if you did it this way?
I can’t lie. It’s like freakin’ magic sometimes. It might be my favorite part of writing; the part that feels so much like me and yet totally out of my control. And I know this can only happen when I let go, of the plot, the writing, the long drawn out driving metaphor. I don’t know if the idea is good yet, if it is the answer I’ve been looking for, but it’s appearance gives me the excitement, energy, and faith to get back on the road even if I still don’t know how I’ll reach my destination.
Totally normal things authors think when their agents take more than 24 hours to return an email.*
*My agent is a wunderkind who never takes more than 6 hours to get back to me. But, if say an email were to get lost in the shuffle…..
- She hates me
- She hates what I wrote
- She is in the middle of negotiating a really important deal for someone else
- I will never get important deals because I suck and shouldn’t ever have gotten her as an agent anyway.
- Everyone has better deals than me
- She thinks I’m too needy
- Am I too needy?
- I bet her other clients aren’t this needy
- Was my question dumb?
- Maybe I can google the answer
- Maybe I should add dolphins or an amusement park to the ending of my book
- I bet her other clients write about dolphin-themed amusement parks
- There is probably a huge dolphin-themed amusement park book about to be HUGE any second now.
- Shit, we’re going to miss it.
- *Hits refresh*
This, in my mind, is the difference between writing for and about teenagers.
There are problems and they are not resolved.
I have a book coming out this week and one of the things on my mind, besides the fact that I’m a teacher and I’m going back to school and my kid is starting first grade and I selectively forgot to do all the major cleaning projects I thought I might tackle over the summer, and the damn Subaru dealer won’t call me back about replacing my faulty airbags, yeah besides all that. I’ve been thinking about the fact that not everyone will like my book.
Art and literature is subjective. I accept that because if I didn’t I’d be an idiot/insane. In WIRED MAN AND OTHER FREAKS OF NATURE there is a lot of (teenage) drinking and some drug use. I didn’t think that much about it when I wrote it because it was consistent with my high school experience. I did most of the things my characters did without any major related tragedies. This is not to say I condone those behaviors -whether I do or not is not the point -the point is they happen.
SOME PEOPLE think that if you write YA fiction, you should write books in which teens who have sex regret it, or get pregnant or a disease. If teens drink or do drugs they should regret it or get in car accidents or develop addictions. That way no actual teens will read the book and think these things are a good idea. As though teens (or any of us) might be more influenced by fiction than the trusted people around us. SOME PEOPLE like things tidy and morally unambiguous. That’s not the kind of fiction that interests me whether it’s written about teenagers or adults. It’s not what I’d choose to read so it’s not what I choose to write.
There are problems in WIRED MAN AND OTHER FREAKS OF NATURE. Big problems about friendship and identity, about moving past life in high school and reconciling the future with the past. There will be some resolution because a story needs that. But life is messy and often times morally ambiguous and I think it’s okay for teenagers (and all of us) to know that too.
I spent a lot of middle school and the early parts of high school trying to be normal. In WIRED MAN AND OTHER FREAKS OF NATURE my main character Ben is obsessed with the appearance of normalcy and doesn’t understand people like Ilona, the blue-haired skater girl, who reject it. (Who are these people I’m referencing? See last week’s post for character details.)
In order to write a whole book about something I have to connect to the material on a fundamental level. I distinctly remember experiences from elementary school, middle school and high school where I felt called out for being other than normal. In 4th grade I had friend ask the boy I liked what he thought of me. His response: “She’s pretty, but she’s kind of weird.” So for more years than I care to admit I tried really hard to be less weird. Something I understand now as a very typical part of adolescence -but what a waste!
As a middle school teacher I’m most in awe of those kids who seem to move through middle school with a strong sense of self firmly intact. Those kids who don’t try and be anyone but themselves. which in middle school this is not only an act of wisdom but one of bravery.
I have a weird name and weirder still -I made it up when I was 2. My family played the guitar and sang folks songs at Thanksgiving and went to nude beaches on summer vacation. I gave my stuffed animal monkey the name Harriet Irving because I couldn’t tell if it was male or female and I didn’t want to impose gender on it….I was nine. I was weird. And the only thing I regret about it is that I didn’t learn to embrace it sooner.
Next Wednesday I’ll be revealing the cover for WIRED MAN on the awesome YA Interrobang site -stay tuned!
Warning -some cheesy content, and evidence of my hippie upbringing to follow.
You are perhaps familiar with this little bit of pseudo-spirituality? If not, no matter. It’s good advice if a bit over used and awkward. I mention it because last weekend I spent 72 solid hours at the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference. It was my second time attending the conference and once again I found myself completely, and quite pleasantly, immersed in the world of words. The theme of the conference was being brave and making one’s mark. My personal takeaway this time was a message I heard several times over the course of the weekend but perhaps most effectively communicated by Laurel Snyder in her keynote.
Laurel emphasized the importance of writing the book that only you can write, ignoring trends and whatever other voices are in your head telling you what you should write. She encouraged us to consider the reader, but only one reader at a time; the one reader you reach when your book is opened, not the massive snarling throngs of fickle and hairy public opinion. And she reminded us that the act of writing a book is brave in of itself, that books matter because they are important not because they are published. It was a great keynote.
“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.”
― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Tonight I sat down to work on the last 30 pages of a book I’ve been struggling to finish. Where the first 180 pages really came quite easily, this last bit has been like pulling teeth. And I think I realized that part of that reason is because I’ve had the ghost of publishing sitting on my shoulder as I write. I’ve been writing like someone -someone very judgmental – is watching. I’ve let my fears that the book won’t be marketable, or good, or liked creep into my consciousness and judge me as I’ve struggled to finish a first draft. A draft, which according to Annie Lamott, most writers, and just plain common sense should be messy and terrible by its very nature.
Tonight I pushed through the doubts and wrote a few more pages, getting to the end of a critical scene and writing at least one sentence that made me damn pleased with myself. Ha! I thought, that sentence has never been said or thought in quite the same way before. That sentence is a sentence that only could have come from me. I was quite pleased sitting all alone in my writing cave with no one at all perched on my shoulder.
I wonder sometimes if John Steinbeck sat around obsessing about whether or not F.Scott Fitzgerald had more twitter followers than he did. Or if more people added his book on goodreads. But I jest, because these weren’t the problems of authors even twenty years ago, much less fifty.
And they don’t have to be a consideration for authors today either, except that they kind of do. Children’s authors (YA included) have a huge social media network including twitter, tumblr, blogs, and probably a whole lot more I’m unaware of because I’m not young or techy enough. (Full disclosure; when my students use a noun as a verb or a verb as a noun, I generally keep quiet and assume they’re talking about something on the interwebz.) A social media presence is pretty much an expectation for authors trying to reach a younger audience.
And it’s not all bad. Being part of social networks as an author can be an incredible community builder and a great networking and promotional tool. It’s also a slippery slope for the green-eyed monster. You have instant access to everyone’s book deals, promotions, festival appearances, etc. And because you have that access you have the ability to compare yourself and your success to that of everyone else in the kidlitosphere. Not so helpful.
What I would like to share this evening is the best piece of feedback I’ve gotten since my book hit the shelves just a few weeks ago. It comes from a friend who sent me this email about her teenage son who was reading my book. And it reminded me of why writing and telling stories is so powerful and so important to me.
“I heard my son laughing to himself up in his room tonight on my way up to say good night and saw that he was reading your book. As I walked toward his bed he looked up from the book with a huge grin and said, “How did she write this? It’s like…she knows what boys think..how does she know what it’s like?”.”
And that my friends is big success – suck it F. Scott.