Friday, March 7, 2014

Addressing Grief in Young Adult Novels

I attended a panel at the AWP conference in Seattle about addressing grief in books for children and young adults. Every one of the the panelists spoke about John Green's book, The Fault in Our Stars. This is not a post about that book.

This post is about The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson.   This book was also mentioned in the panel about grief, though I was disappointed at the one tiny incident they focused on that had nothing really to do with the entire book that was her grieving. In the panel it was brought up that Lennie cut all these roses from her Grandmother's beloved rose bushes and then later, using the same garden clippers, cut up her own beloved copy of Wuthering Heights. First of all, anyone who has read the book would know that these two things come nowhere near touching the very weird way that Lennie actually acted out on her grief, which was making out with her dead sister's boyfriend. (um.. SPOILER ALERT! ? Maybe? Sorry).

I absolutely loved the way that Lennie is devastated so badly that she is then consumed by this intense need to make out with anything and everything--including the spoon at the breakfast table. It was a refreshing, funny, and complicated way at looking at grief which is why I think it was so successfully done. All the characters in the book were grieving (except for that one guy, but everyone else pretty much was) and the great thing about it is that they all grieved in their own unique way. I think that's a very important concept to keep in mind. I got this feeling with the panels that people want specific guidelines and instructions for how to use or implement certain plot devices (like grief or death or loss), but there is never one answer. One character will react in a totally different way than another character will even if they experience the exact same sort of loss (except it could never really be the exact same, but you get the idea, right?).

The sad thing to keep in mind, too, is that grieving is a process that takes years. When my dad died two years ago, everyone wanted to offer their condolences. They wanted to help me along in my process of accepting my loss and moving on and yada yada. The irony of loss is that while we may go through many of the same sorts of grieving "steps" like anger, denial, depression, etc, it may take years before we are in a place where the real sadness of the loss sinks in. When my dad died I was so angry with him. I had accepted his death before he ever died and I wasn't sad over it. But I was angry. Every now and then I see a photo taken in his kitchen or something reminds me of his house or his hair or his smile or how he sat in that ugly chair with the dirty pillow to drink his coffee. And in those moments I feel a little bit of regret, a little bit of longing. I wish I had drunk a cup of coffee with him--I wonder if that would have made our relationship any better somehow. Like maybe we would have both been more comfortable with each other if we both had a cup of coffee in our hands. I don't think that we ever fully recover from our losses (at least not the major ones--like that pink teddy bear I had when I was 6; oh how I loved that little teddy bear) but maybe our losses become a part of who we are. The memories that we could have had and the memories that are real come back to us at the thought of a semi truck or chemo therapy or a 60's era Dodge truck.

During the panel at AWP, a girl asked a question at the end about how a writer can really write about grief when they haven't experienced it. By grief, I can only assume she meant some BIG grief/loss such as losing a close family member or having your parents divorce or something that seems like a BIG DEAL. But the truth is we experience loss all the time, and, though we may not really recognize it, we go through the  grieving process all the time. We lose pieces of ourselves every day. A lot of people miss high school like crazy. Graduation is the mark of a new beginning, but it's also the mark of a loss. Friends move away. We move away. We get gym passes and then we cancel them even though we had a really awesome trainer friend and our muscles got so tough. We have pets and sometimes they get run over because we live on a highway.

Sometimes our loss may not be something that others think we should grieve over…but, here's something to show that we ALL (even the brainiest and most "protected" or "sheltered" of us) experience grief of some sort:

Grief doesn't have to be big. And, if our characters are experiencing grief that might seem bigger than anything we've really gone through (like losing a sister or a parent or a child), it doesn't mean we are disqualified from writing their story. We all know what it's like to feel loss. And, like Carol always said, it's a great thing when we borrow emotions and use them in places where we might need to use a little more imagination. Maybe I've never been to the moon, but I can imagine it and draw from other experiences and emotions to write about what would happen if one of my characters were to go to the moon. What makes for strong writing when it comes to grief is detail. It's about the little things--memories, twitches, ticks. It's about coffee, and root beer mixed with orange juice, little debbie snacks, pencil sharpeners, cigarettes, lug nuts, and the water spigot on the top of the million-year-old refrigerator.

How do you mourn?

Write on!

Monday, March 3, 2014

AWP Conference in Seattle

Imagine burnt hot-dogs mixed in with extreme b.o., car exhaust, and sewage sprinkled with wafts of chocolate and sugar, and you have the busy streets of Seattle. In this big, beautiful city everything seems to be so normal while being so strangely wild at the same time. Trees painted blue and strung with white christmas lights, people of every age and color and type tromping up and down the wide sidewalks past used bookstores and vegan restaurants and fancy, expensive places like Anthropologie. No one really seems to belong there together and that's exactly what makes them belong there--together.

Seattle is an experience. Expensive parking. One-way streets. Extra-long busses. And that city smell (see description above). What I loved about it was the people. All speeding up and slowing down, waiting at stop lights and cross walks, sitting on benches, running down the sidewalk--all in a sort of flow that only exists in large cities where people must move, breathe, and exist simultaneously in the same place.

The actual writing conference itself was no different (except the smells were a bit less potent) than the outside, city world. A wide variety of people--writers, poets, teachers, agents, editors--walking and running, and idly waiting on the escalators to get to the next panel or reading or lecture. All of them old or young weighted down by the free canvas bag with a 300 page schedule and various pamphlets and other items (candy bars, bottled water, wadded-up tissues, jackets, notebooks, menus from restaurants down the street) that only spacious bags tend to accumulate.

Many of the classes were crowded. Some of them because the rooms were simply too small, and the topics too interesting to pass up. People filled the chairs and sat on the floor, leaned against the walls, stood in the doorways--all the things you can think of to break fire-safety codes. The people were eager to learn, to ask questions, to meet other writers (but mostly to find out who was an agent or an editor). They were also exhausted and struggling to stay awake, antsy to leave and get something to eat. Some of them came and left as they pleased, not caring if anyone found their abrupt exit offensive.

AWP is the first writing conference I've attended that was so BIG. The classrooms spread throughout all three to six levels of three different buildings. Every person seemed so different, too.

I'll end right now by saying that I very much enjoyed the conference…though I think I enjoyed Seattle and hanging out with my mom more than anything.

Have you been to a conference lately? Or a new city? And what did you think?

Write on!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Finding Literary Agents

It has officially been a month since I submitted my first completed novel to my very first literary agent.
I feel anxious, of course, because I've not yet had a response. I have never been very excited about this part of the process. Writing is hard enough, but sending my beautiful words out into the unknown space of the internet to be judged on quality and sell-ability is the hardest thing.

I have been researching literary agents over this past month here and there, hoping that I won't have to submit to any of the new people I've found. But, it's time now to get more serious about finding someone I'd like to submit to next.

Trying to find an agent on the internet is like online dating. You find certain websites that have literary agents and you scroll through looking at their pictures and reading their profiles. But you never really get a glimpse of who they are in real life. You don't get to see how they carry themselves, how they speak, how they dress, what mannerisms they have. You don't get any idea of how they might represent you or your book to the rest of the publishing world, and that's a very difficult thing for me.

I know that online dating works for some people, but I am not a fan of it. The agent I first submitted to was someone who I had met personally at a writing workshop. Someone who I was able to listen to give a presentation, and who I had the chance to speak with. I could ask questions. I could watch how he walked, how he used his hands as he spoke, and I could see the excitement in his eyes when he mentioned books he'd represented and authors he'd worked with. I could see the confidence he had for himself and for his clients.

If I were to come across this agent online, I would not have been so charmed. On the literary agency website all that is listed under his name other than the specific guidelines for submitting queries are three very short sections: "Currently looking for," "Currently not looking for," "Adult books," and "Books that I love."

I will trudge on in my search, but I must leave one piece of advice. If you have the opportunity to attend a conference or a workshop where you will have the chance to meet editors and literary agents in person--do it! You will not only have a better chance of them looking at your work, but you will also have a better idea of whether or not they will fit you as a writer.

Write on!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Story Ideas Never Stop

After I came up with the plot line for my first novel (which I call Some Secrets Aren't Secrets) I wondered how in the world I would ever come up with plots for other books. It seemed like everyone around me had all these ideas for books that piled up, and I was so proud of myself to have come up with one.

Now here I am with three main characters and three (mostly) solid plots, and I'm worried that the ideas won't stop coming. How will I have the time to write all of these books? Luckily, I've got one of them sort-of written (but needing loads of re-writing and editing). But the other two are still in the very early stage of establishing characters and places and sub-plots. I hope I can just get these stories down before I think of any more ideas.

Where do you get your ideas?
How do you choose which ones to tackle and which to leave by the wayside?

Write on!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

I Submitted To An Agent

That's right. I submitted my manuscript to an agent. It was time, I guess. I felt like my novel was complete enough to start sending out (and of course the next day I had all these ideas on how I could possibly change it and add to it--is that normal?). I feel excited, and very nervous.

I've began a slow research for the next agent I will submit to--once I get my rejection from the first one.
I know that some people will send out their manuscripts to several agents at a time, but I'm not sure I can do that. I know there are probably dozens of agents out there who could represent my book and do an excellent job of it, but I am currently of the mindset that I must really be convinced that the agents I choose to submit to will be the best for my book (and for all my other books to follow).  I want to be able to wear this t-shirt (to the right) and really mean it. The agent I chose to submit to very first is someone I've met in person and who has a lot of experience. This agent is someone that I feel like I can say I heart already. That's important for me.

It might make the rejections hit a little harder, but the important thing to keep in mind is that literary agents are busy people and they can only do so much. Just because I think an agent would do great work for my novel does not mean that particular agent thinks the same--and that's okay.
It might make for a very SLOW process, but for right now, that's what it will be.

What's your tactic for finding an agent?

Write on!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Review

I found this weirdly titled book-on-CD stashed in a compartment in one of the trucks at work. Because I have become an avid driver, I stole the set of CDs (okay, maybe borrowed is a better word) and let this book become my driving companion on long solo trips.

I have already been mostly committed to being vegetarian (and I say mostly because I have eaten meat on occasion over the past few years), and I've always told myself that "one day" I will be vegan.

When I was in college I ate like a vegetarian most of the time simply because I did not like to buy meat or to cook it. I also hardly ever felt a craving or desire for meat (unless it involved a bottle of barbecue sauce). Because I didn't eat a lot of meat (meaning, I guess that I didn't have it at every one of my meals) I had a few people who asked me if I was vegetarian. I thought this was a really weird question--why would I ever be vegetarian. I, like most people I know, seemed to have a negative idea of vegetarianism. Vegetarians were portrayed as crazy, extreme, animal rights activists. I was not one of those. However, despite not being "one of those" I still had little desire to eat meat. It just wasn't what my body wanted.

Without really thinking about it, I stopped drinking milk and eating eggs. Maybe I just hated buying them and there was never enough room for things like that in a fridge shared by six girls, but it's something that I just slowly stopped doing and never gave any real thought to.

When I met Jo, I began to learn all kinds of things about food and about listening to my body. She has taught me to slow down (though I still am not good at this) when I eat and take the time to enjoy my food. At first it seemed weird to me because I think I grew up eating quickly for a couple reasons. One is that any good food was gone very quickly if my brothers were around. Another is that nobody in my house was a very good cook, so eating quickly was helpful if you didn't want to taste what you were eating. I've since come to learn (thanks to Jo) that food can be amazing. And it really is worth it to slow down, because it really is possible to enjoy food.

After reading (listening to) the Omnivore's Dilemma, I've discovered new ways of looking at food. I am  still not exactly the crazy, extreme, animal rights activist, though I'm a little ashamed that I'm not. I am not only committed to never eating meat again, but I have very strong convictions now about any "foods" that have been heavily (or even lightly) processed.

As for the book itself, I think it was good overall. The stories were good and personal,  and the information was well researched. I did get lost a few times trying to listen to the words and words of facts, but I feel like they were facts that I needed to hear nonetheless. The ending was disappointing and abrupt, which seemed to steal something away from me, though I'm not quite sure what. The book was informational and eye-opening. I would recommend it to anyone and everyone because I think it's important for people to know what exactly they are eating.

Have you read this book or one like it? What do you think about food?

Write on!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Not All Bats Are The Same

This is a fruit bat:

This is a baseball bat:

This is a softball bat:

The difference between the last two is very important if you are writing a story about someone who plays softball (which I am). I am a fiction writer. I used to think that I wrote fiction because I get to make up the story and don't have to do research and know all the facts. I'm learning now just how important in-depth research really is. 

The other day I went to a sports store trying to find a cheap bat that I could conduct an experiment with. I was surprised to find out that the scenes I had written (and needed to test out) were completely wrong because of one small detail: softball bats are metal, not wood. I was also (not really) surprised to find out that sports equipment is outrageously expensive. Now, I have a few changes to make to my novel so if a real softball player reads my book they won't think I'm a complete loser. 

If only my characters were runners instead of softball players and swimmers--things I know nothing about. 

What research have you done for you fiction writing?

Write on!