Finding My Balance

I’ve made it through to the second round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA for short). Of course I’m thrilled. Look for my entry, Rock Solid, in the Young Adult category.

I’m also knocked off-balance.

This small step forward makes me happy. But it also means that, instead of writing my thousand words this morning, I’ve spent a chunk of it obsessively following the ABNA discussion boards, emailing with my writing group (Four of them also made it through. Yay!), and rereading the pitch that got me through.

Which means this afternoon I’ll have to choose between writing and fulfilling my other responsibilities. We just got our dental insurance; I need to find a good dentist and make appointments. There’s shopping to be done. Meals to be made. Prescriptions to pick up. Grades to check. And always, always the laundry.

Every time something either good or bad occurs in my pursuit of published authorship, I let it knock me off the beam. I end up wasting precious writing time, and worse, ruining precious family time. Two years ago when I made the quarterfinalist round in this contest, I got so wrapped up in it that I forgot to attend my daughter’s new school’s open house. (And that’s just the lapse I’m willing to record here in my blog. There have been others.)

When I signed with my agent last spring, thrilling as it was, for weeks I staggered around like a drunk, completely off-balance. Missing this, forgetting that, not even hearing my kids talk because the voices in my head were so much more interesting.

This has prompted some soul-searching.

Writing has always been my dream, but I spent a lot of years NOT writing. For a long time, I didn’t have the discipline to sit and write. Then I was busy with very young kids, moving from place to place and immersed in being mommy. With a husband who was away A LOT, I struggled to find some balance between pursuing my dreams and caring for my family.

During his third deployment and facing another move, I made an active decision to put my personal goals away. Something had to give, and it was that. Just getting through all the days on my own – dealing with sick kids, fixing the broken dishwasher/car/roof, preparing for yet another move, staying sane – often felt like trying to walk a high-wire with a kid in each arm and no safety net. It was them or me. I chose them. As you do.

My favourite saying during that time was “This too shall pass.” It did. Things eased off. I’ve been walking a wide and sturdy low beam for a few years now. Once my kids were all in school, a beautiful chunk of time opened up for me. I’m so happy to have reached a point where I have the time AND the discipline to (mostly) use it well.

I’m living my dream. Day by day, I’m putting words on the page and making stories come together. Published or not, paid or not, I get to do something I love. How lucky is that??

So now, I’m choosing me. This year I’ve been letting myself say no a lot. No to the PTA. No to volunteering in my daughter’s classroom. No to playing Scrabble Junior when I don’t want to. I bid a fond fuck-off to the laundry pile.

I’m getting all too good at saying no.

But they still need me. It’s a struggle to put away the writing and give my family my full attention.To remember the damned open houses. To chaperone a field trip or two. To pick family game night over editing time. Showing up and being there are harder than they sound.

I may be on the low beam now, but all too frequently I still lose my balance.

Banning Books in Colorado

Just an hour or so away from where I live, there’s yet another case of book banning in progress. A high school English teacher is under fire from some parents to change her reading list. Here’s a post from John Green (who has several books on said reading list) about it.

And here is the reading list in question:

Young Adult Fiction Elective Course (grades 10-12) Book List:

Feed by M.T. Anderson
Thinner Than Thou by Kit Reed
Delirium by Lauren Oliver
Uglies by Scott Westerfield
Taken by Erin Bowman
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Will Grayson, will grayson by John Green and David Levithan
Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson
Paper Towns by John Green
If I Stay by Gayle Forman
Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Looking for Alaska by John Green
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

To me, this list reads like a dream. Although I’ve always been a reader and even ended up majoring in English, I despised most of my high school English classes, in part because I had to read and discuss books that felt so far-removed from my life that I couldn’t relate. They bored me.

Now I’ve read nine of the books on this list – some as a youth and most much more recently – and each of those nine seems to me a whole lot more relevant and engaging to a high school-aged person than For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Furthermore, I can say with certainty that none of those nine are “profane, pornographic, violent, crass, crude, vile…” as the parents claimed. Some contained violence and profanity fitting the stories, but not more than what is readily available on TV and in video games. In fact, I’ve shared some of these books to my own high schooler.

I also have to wonder what these parents think they’re going to accomplish by challenging this teacher’s book list. If/when I manage to get published, I kinda sorta hope my book finds its way onto a banned/challenged book list. It’s a surefire way to raise interest and increase sales. Lord knows I’m chomping at the bit to get my grubby hands on those ten vile books I haven’t yet read.

Which leads me to wonder…. Maybe these parents are actually very smart. Maybe their kids resist reading, and they want to change that. Telling a teen – hell, telling anyone – he/she can’t do something is going to make them want to do that very thing…. Hmmm…. Crafty, parents. Very, very crafty. Hats off to you.

P.S. If like me, you want to express support for this Colorado teacher, here’s what John Green suggests:

“Please join me in emailing letters of support of the teacher at Strasburg who has heroically stood by her curriculum and stood alone at School Board meetings defending the books. It’s important to keep your letter as civil as possible, even if this kind of thing turns you into a giant squid of anger.

Letters should be addressed “To the School Board” and emailed to StrasburgYALiteratureCourse@gmail.com.”

A Likeable Character

Recently I submitted a manuscript to my critique group. I loved my story and I loved the main character, and I was anxious to get their feedback.

Let’s just say they didn’t feel the love. After sinking into despair for a few days and then revisiting the manuscript I saw why. I’d submitted way too early a draft to them. My story needed work, work, work!

And so to work I went. It’s a much better story now, and I credit my critique group for that.

But one thing has niggled at me. Some commented that my main character isn’t always likeable. And so I changed her. I made her spunkier. Less introspective and more active. And I’m worried that I’ve changed her in a fundamental way that makes her less the girl I want to write to.

As readers we have to feel that a main character is worth our time. We have to root for him or her enough to want to read their story to the final page. An easy way to show a character’s worth is to make them likeable.

When I was a little girl, I devoured the Anne of Green Gables books. I loved Anne Shirley as if she were my best friend. But I was no Anne Shirley. I wasn’t spunky and effervescent and unself-conscious. I was shy and withdrawn and watchful. I was not a particularly likeable child, and so I didn’t see myself in many stories, except as a side character. 

I’m not saying the quiet kids can’t learn a thing or two from all those fearless, charming heroines. Imagining ourselves into a different way of being is a powerful tool for change and growth.

But don’t we all deserve to be the main character once in a while? I’m not writing my stories for the feisty, fearless girls. I’m not writing to the popular girl or to the class president or the class athlete or the smartest girl in the room. 

I’m writing to the quiet girl sitting midway down the side row. She has a couple of friends or maybe none. She walks quickly from class to class, head down, holding her books like a shield across her chest. She gets good enough grades to escape notice but not so good as to gain any. She’s not anything extraordinary to look at, and she doesn’t offer anything willingly in class. She’s no talkative, redhaired firebrand. When you look her way, you might not even see her.

But this quiet, unobtrusive girl is fighting battles on the inside. With nobody telling her otherwise, she’s starting to think she’s not worth the space she takes up. And so, without any fuss at all, she is giving up hope. She is falling through the cracks.

When I was fourteen years old, I would go to school and slink through my days, trying desperately to escape notice. Then I went home and tried desperately to escape notice. Mostly I managed to stay under the radar, but when I didn’t it was bad.

One night everything hurt enough that I took a whole bunch of pills and went to sleep hoping I wouldn’t wake up in the morning.

I did wake up. I went to school, and there I got very sick, so they sent me home. That was all. No one noticed. No one helped me. No one knew.

I hope and believe that today those kids have more resources than I did. I hope people are noticing the quietly desperate kids and giving them the help they deserve. And I hope those kids are learning to speak up, not be ashamed of their pain. But in 2013, suicide was the third leading cause of teen deaths. That’s thousands of kids. Even more try and fail. Kids are still falling through the cracks. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.

I made it though, and I do believe I’m a stronger and more compassionate person for it. However, I’m still quiet and more inclined to think than to act. Am I likeable? Only to a few people, but I know I’m worth the world to those few.

So when I write my characters, I guess I’m just not thinking of likeability.

I’m thinking of quiet, desperate girls who are worth a story too.