It’s List of Five Friday over at The Great Noveling Adventure and since my husband never knows what to get me for my birthday (which is next week) I thought I’d take the opportunity to drop a not so subtle hint about what he could get me.
If you’re tired of the same old “writerly gifts”, maybe you’ll find these ideas inspiring.
Also, for those of you participating in NaNoWriMo and needing to meet your word count goals, I run writing #sprints on Twitter every week day morning over @Novel_Adventure. Feel free to join me!
As I mentioned last week, a series of fortunate events led to me receiving a copy of Robin Talley’s debut novel LIES WE TELL OURSELVES. I posted a review over on The Great Noveling Adventure blog and promised an interview with the author herself this week. And here it is!
(Stay tuned after the interview for your chance to win a copy of this outstanding book.)
In 1959 Virginia, the lives of two girls on opposite sides of the battle for civil rights will be changed forever.
Sarah Dunbar is one of the first black students to attend the previously all-white Jefferson High School. An honors student at her old school, she is put into remedial classes, spit on and tormented daily.
Linda Hairston is the daughter of one of the town’s most vocal opponents of school integration. She has been taught all her life that the races should be kept “separate but equal.”
Forced to work together on a school project, Sarah and Linda must confront harsh truths about race, power and how they really feel about one another. (Summary from author’s website.)
Valerie Lawson: What was the inspiration for this project?
Robin Talley: The idea for Lies We Tell Ourselves started with my parents. They were both teenagers when their schools were integrated in the 1960s. They used to tell me stories about that time when I was growing up, but I never really understood what a big deal it was until I was older and knew a little more about the Civil Rights Movement.
It struck me as a good potential setting for a novel, but I was still conscious of the fact that I didn’t know much about what school desegregation had actually been like for the black students who were on the front lines of that battle. I wanted to explore their experiences. I immersed myself in research, and not long after that, a 17-year-old closeted lesbian named Sarah Dunbar entered my mind as my protagonist for a fictional story about the integration experience.
VL: Starting with your parents’ history, what a great idea. And I love how Sarah emerged from all of the elements coming together.
I’ve always been fascinated with the Civil Rights Era and thought I understood it, but reading about school integration from a teen’s POV was so enlightening, so terrifying. I’d never really thought about their day-to-day lives. Your book did a fantastic job showing the opposing views of the times and how turbulent, yet delicate this step in the struggle really was, and how the children bore the weight of it.
Tell us about your experience writing this story from the two different perspectives, from Sarah and Linda’s POV.
RT: Both Sarah and Linda’s POVs were incredibly difficult to write. I’ve never experienced anything like what these characters go through, so I had to do a lot of deep POV exercises to try to imagine what the world looked like from their perspectives. There are also a lot of discarded drafts of Lies We Tell Ourselves from when I was learning to work with these characters and get into their heads.
Linda was much harder to write than Sarah. Sarah is very different from me, but at least her view of the world was based on rational facts. Linda has a warped view based on a dangerous, elaborate fantasy created by generations of people who spent a lifetime brainwashing her, basically. So to try to contort my brain into being able to talk in Linda’s voice ― well, let’s just say I didn’t realize exactly how big a task I was taking on when I first had the idea to make her a POV character.
VL: Writing a character like Linda had to be quite daunting, and yet, you nailed her voice. She wasn’t a caricature. Those POV exercises really worked! I, for one, am glad you took on that big task.
You did a massive amount of research for this book – reading memoirs, newspaper articles, watching recordings of oral histories, 50s film clips, etc. What surprised you the most about what you discovered?
RT: I can’t believe I didn’t know this before I started researching this book ― I can’t believe it isn’t taught in every school everywhere ― but there’s a public school system in Prince Edward County, Virginia, that shut down completely for five years to prevent integration. So if you were, say, ten when the schools closed, you missed out on getting a public education from age ten to age fifteen.
Kids in that time had to either go to private school somehow ― of course, this was relatively easy for the white students, since the county opened up an all-white private school paid for with taxpayer money, so it was cheap or free to attend ― or move to another school district (at their own expense), or just try to do the best they could by reading books at home or gathering together with friends to study. This period is a horrific stain on the history of my state and my entire country, and I think everyone needs to know about it.
VL: That is so crazy! The lengths the segregationists went to – wow! I thought the school being shut down for a semester in the book was insane.
I absolutely love the complexity added to your story with Sarah and Linda’s relationship. It brought the struggle of the past – so raw and angry – right up to the present and reminded us that we are still fighting this fight of discrimination, today.
Did you have that lofty goal in mind when you started out or did this evolve throughout your writing process?
RT: I didn’t really have any lofty goals during the writing itself. I just thought it would be an interesting story to explore. From the initial kernel of the idea, I wondered what it would be like to be on the front lines of a very public social justice battle like school integration, while also dealing with a much more private struggle ― because in 1959, sexual orientation was not discussed out in the open. So I wanted to take on that conflict and explore what it would’ve been like for a teenager dealing with a very normal teenage issue ― sexuality ― while also dealing with something that’s much bigger than any one person, the Civil Rights Movement.
VL: You wrote such a phenomenal debut book, do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
RT: Read everything you can get your hands on, both fiction and nonfiction. Read books that are in the genre you want to write in, for sure, but also read newspapers and magazines, read memoirs and essay collections, read Wikipedia articles about people you know nothing about and places you’ve never imagined living. You’ve got two goals here ― to learn how other people write, and to step outside your comfort zone and learn about lives that aren’t like yours. Both are essential to writing!
VL: Totally agree! I get on my soapbox about reading all the time. I like that additional part – “learn about lives that aren’t like yours”. I haven’t heard that before. Great advice.
What was the worst job you ever had while going to school?
RT: I worked at Kmart one summer in college, in the sporting goods section. I sold guns and hunting licenses. No one ever believes me when I tell them this.
VL: Ha! That sounds dreadful. I’d have died of boredom.
What are you currently working on?
RT: I’m editing my next book, Unbreakable (though the title may change). It’s coming out in fall 2015 from Harlequin Teen and it’s a contemporary realistic story about two college freshmen ― a so-committed-they’re-practically-married high school couple who are determined to make their relationship work despite the distance. Gretchen is starting at NYU, and she identifies as a lesbian; Toni, who’s starting at Harvard, identifies as genderqueer.
VL: Oh, wonderful! A new book!
What has been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?
RT: Oh, there are so many! Can I cheat and talk about a book that’s coming out next year? The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore is a truly astonishing magical realism romance. It’s a Romeo and Juliet story about the son and daughter of two rival families of traveling performers, and the writing and the complex characters will take your breath away. It’s so rich with description and depth ― it’s basically an oil painting in the form of a YA novel. Look for it in 2015!
VL: “…it’s basically an oil painting in the form of a YA novel.” I love that description. Sold. And now, my anticipated TBR can grow some more. Will definitely keep an eye out for that one.
What would be your dream assignment/what would you most like to write about?
RT: I’d love to write about two teenage girls who are highly competitive athletes (think Olympic level) and are trying to balance their careers with a romance. I don’t think I could do it, though ― I’m not athletic at all so the physical stuff would just be too hard to describe accurately. I hope someone else writes that story, though!
VL: Sounds intriguing. Maybe someone out there will be inspired to write it for us.
Robin, thank you so much for joining us! Your book is amazing and I look forward to the next one, UNBREAKABLE, coming out next year.
You can order your own copy of Robin Talley’s book LIES WE TELL OURSELVES here:
You can enter for a chance to win a hardback copy of LIES WE TELL OURSELVES by either visiting The Great Noveling Adventure blog post where I reviewed Robin’s book or by clicking directly on the Rafflecopter link below. Entry to the contest is open to until November 30th. Good luck!
We all have to face fears in our lives at one time or another.
My daughter drops whatever she’s doing and runs inside at the sight of any flying insect with a stinger (mostly bees, but on occasion she has run from butterflies by mistake). My husband has to put on his iPod and listen to Pink Floyd whenever he goes to the dentist. What can I say? He had a bad experience with a dentist overseas once who didn’t use anesthetic. I don’t really blame him for that one.
I recently faced one of my fears around Halloween. This one had to do with my son, Trevor.
I had been dreading Halloween for weeks. I remembered the year before how Trevor had been so much bigger than most of the kids going around the neighborhood and even though he went out with a family friend who was in grade school – something of a holiday tradition – we still got some puzzled looks. No one said anything mean, but I felt uncomfortable all evening. And I knew this year, with Trevor being even bigger and older, things would only feel more tense. I couldn’t get Trevor to understand that he was too big for Halloween and I’d tried the year before to have him stay home and help me pass out candy, but that didn’t work out.
My fear was that he would be turned away. Shunned. That he would receive hurtful stares or ugly comments – not that he was likely to notice (unless he didn’t get any candy), but I would. And it would hurt. No one wants to see their child be rejected.
So, I thought of a different strategy. I’ve been doing some part-time work for our local autism group and that inspired me to do some outreach of my own. I’d open up and let our neighbors in. THIS WAS WAY OUTSIDE OF MY COMFORT ZONE. I am not good at asking for help or reaching out to people, so this step was huge. But then, it wasn’t for me. It was so my neighbors would understand who my son was and welcome him.
Here’s the message I posted on our Neighborhood Association Facebook page:
There was such a huge positive response to this post that I was overwhelmed. And even one other family in the neighborhood told about their young child with autism, too. They hoped to have their child be able to leave the comfort of his stroller and go door-to-door this year. (Stretching the boundaries of social difficulties that accompany autism.) How nice was that? Finding another family who shares our same issues?
When we went out trick or treating, Trevor was recognized several times by neighbors who went out of their way to introduce themselves. Later people posted how nice it was to meet Trevor and how sweet and polite he was. Now, when we take our dogs for a walk, more of our neighbors say “hello” than before, and more greet Trevor by name. We even met an actual firefighter who invited us to bring Trevor down to his station for a tour. That made Trevor’s night.
One fear conquered.
Fear & Art
When it comes to dealing with fear in our writing or any medium of art, it can have a crippling effect. Even keep us from making art altogether.
Being a writer can be so thrilling when everything is coming out just right. The words are flowing, the characters are bending to my will, I am the master of my imaginary universe!
YES! YES! YES!
And then that tiny little voice of doubt creeps in. This isn’t working. I suck, my writing sucks, my characters suck, nobody will ever want to read this drivel. EVER!
During our SCBWI OK Fall Retreat in September, Romney Nesbitt did a workshop on Conquering Procrastination & Self-Sabotage. One of the first things she had us do was name off all the different ways we procrastinate.
Some of the examples tossed out were fairly typical:
The Serial Projects excuse (“Just as soon as…then…”)
The “I don’t have time excuse” (too many responsibilities)
Perfectionism (waiting for the right conditions/right moment)
Social Media (worse than television)
So I voiced my own reason. The one thing that holds me back from moving forward on projects more than anything?
Fear of Failure.
Romney responded that this is actually a “problem with expectancy”.
That answer surprised me.
Expectancy meant it was coming from me. It made me realize I was in control of that fear. And that meant I could change it.
I also knew I wasn’t the only one who grappled with creating art and fear. Not just of failure. But of what others would think of what we created. Even of success.
I wanted to explore this further.
So, this month, I’m doing just that. I’m forcing myself to do some things to push past this fear.
One thing I’m doing is taking the NaNoWriMo plunge and vowing to actually complete the 50,000 words in one month challenge. I’ve participated for a few years now, but I’ve never made it to the finish line.
I’ve also started reading ART & FEAR OBSERVATIONS ON THE PERILS (AND REWARDS) OF ARTMAKING by David Bayles & Ted Orland. I’ll be sharing some of my insights from that book later in the month. So far it’s quite enlightening.
How about you? What are you afraid of as far as your art is concerned? What do you do to combat that fear?
It’s Things I’ve Read Thursday over at The Great Noveling Adventure and I’ve been dying to share this book, LIES WE TELL OURSELVES by Robin Talley, ever since I blazed through it. My dear writer friend Gwendolyn Hooks passed this book along to me after receiving it from the writer’s publicist. She asked me if I’d liked to review it. I’d already heard about this book from a variety of websites and I was looking forward to reading it. I had no problem agreeing.
Here’s a preview:
Having always been fascinated by the Civil Rights Movement, I thought I understood the struggle, that is until I read this book. I truly did not have a clue. Robin Talley forces us out of the spectator role and puts us directly into the view of the kids who had to endure the reality of integration. Robin Talley’s characters invite us to question our own beliefs as they explore the lies they tell themselves at the beginning of each chapter while they struggle with what’s happening and with who they are becoming. I was gripped by this story from the first pages.
This was such a beautifully written book. Definitely one of my favorite reads of the year.
Robin Talley will be visiting this blog for an author interview in the near future. We’ll discuss her fabulous book, what she learned from her extensive research, and much more, so stay tuned! I’m also giving away the copy of her book that I received. You can enter on the TGNA blog or on this blog once the interview posts – or both!
Wrapping up the month-long celebration of our local SCBWI Oklahoma group, I’m going to share some of my insights from our Fall Retreat. It was a relaxed, 3-day event packed full of inspiring, helpful information.
The first day was all about craft. Which is something all writers are never too advanced to brush up on, if you ask me. There were so many great workshops, it was a harrowing decision just narrowing down the choices, let alone finalizing a selection.
I sat in on a workshop by Anna Myers about point of view entitled “The Real Difference Between First and Third Person” where I learned that this difference is more than a matter of pronouns. To begin with, she told us that first person is the easiest and the hardest POV to write. It’s all about voice. Character drives the story in first person, in every word, in every sentence. “If you don’t have a strong voice, you shouldn’t write in first person.” Voice is still important in third person, but the story’s success is not as dependent on it. The great thing about third person is that not every word has to come from the viewpoint character. Anna walked us through a great exercise with a movie camera, demonstrating how the different aspects of third person – from third person intimate to third person distant – could move you in close or take you out wide of a scene, depending on how close you wanted the view to be – on how much you wanted the reader to experience.
In another craft workshop, this one led by Sonia Gensler entitled “Kidlit Romance and Friendship: Keeping it Real”, we learned how important it was to develop the main characters separately. You have to make the readers fall in love with the characters individually before asking readers to fall in love with them as a couple. “They must have an identity separate from the relationship.” Character is key. To attain this, Sonia suggests you start with an in-depth understanding of your characters before you start writing. It is especially helpful to know the answer to the fundamental question of what your character wants versus what your character needs. She gave the example from THE HUNGER GAMES using the main character Katniss. What she wants more than anything is to keep her sister safe. That is her motivation for volunteering as tribute in her sister’s place. But what she needs to survive in the games is to learn to let people in, to trust.
Pati Hailey taught us in her workshop entitled “Building Memorable Worlds” that every story has a need for world-building elements, even those populated by ordinary humans. What makes a world memorable is when the elements of the world are put into perspective and introduced throughout the story. Elements need to be specific, authentic, and distinct. A great way to add some of these elements is through the use of similes and metaphors that are not cliché, but specific to your world. Use them as an opportunity to tell something about the character or the world. When describing a room, be specific. Don’t give a laundry list of items; give things meaning and connect them to a character. Also be more original with body movements – wide eyes and shoulder shrugs are over done. Pay attention to what people really do.
After a complete brain workout with the amazing crafts, our day wasn’t even finished, we got a little introduction to our wonderful featured speakers. I tell you, our SCBWI OK group knows how to spoil us.
Minju comes from a small agency based in San Francisco that doesn’t do much advertising. They do work very collaboratively and they love SCBWI. She represents MG and YA of all genres and some PB as well. Minju was just brilliant and so enthusiastic about the business of books.
Minju said, “Rejection is inevitable.” She said she and her colleagues understand the frustration. They deal with rejections all the time as well.
She then decoded some editorial rejections for us:
“Not right for my list”This is an umbrella form rejection
“I love the idea, but I didn’t make a connection”View this as a bell curve. This means your manuscript is hitting the middle.
“I love this, but I couldn’t get my team on board” May have already tried to sell similar book and it wasn’t successful.
“I like the concept/character, but there’s not enough story”Quiet. This is a dangerous word. This means it’s difficult to sell.
Minju then said when she has a client receive this last type of rejection, she may suggest setting that manuscript aside to try again later. Maybe after they’ve made a bigger name for themselves and a quiet book won’t be so scary to publishers.
She was there to teach us everything we didn’t know about publicity. That, my friends, was a lot. After talking with us for awhile about everything that goes into promoting a book and showing us all of the different social media options out there, she said the important thing was not to get overwhelmed. (Oh, I was overwhelmed. I didn’t recognize half of the social media logos. And there were at least thirty of them!)
You have to be realistic with your books and with your goals. Know yourself. Be honest about what you want to do to promote your book. Do what is right for you and your book. Not every book needs a big tour splash. The publicity budget your publisher allots for your book may not be as big as you’d like. You may have to invest some of your advance or your own money to do some publicity yourself. Whatever you decide to do on your own, make sure to communicate clearly with your publisher’s publicity department. You may be surprised how much they can help you.
The most important publicity tip she gave us was to create an on-going contact database. This should be a detailed excel spreadsheet with every industry contact you’ve ever made – past and present. This will be an invaluable tool as you move to the publicity/promotion part of your career. Be meticulous! Keep city, state, and zip codes in separate columns. This allows you to search your database by location.
She had so many fantastic ideas for making connections and generating ideas, it was astounding. I wish I could share them all with you.
Our second day was all about the featured speakers. We were finally introduced to our third speaker, Brett Duquette, editor with Sterling Publishing. His appearance was delayed due to the fire at the O’Hare airport, or rather the fire set at the traffic control center near Chicago that grounded hundreds of flights. Yes, that fire. Brett had a less than stellar travel experience and yet he was still in great spirits when he arrived. He was just delightful. (Even though he announced being a proud Cornhuskers fan while deep in Sooner country, I think we’ll still claim him as an honorary member of the SCBWI OK tribe.)
Brett spoke to us on the elusive subject of voice.
Voice, Brett said, is the cornerstone of the creation of the narrative. “Everything comes from the voice. It’s where we begin to build something out of nothing.”
Brett went on to explain that in his mind, all parts of the story are the voice, really. Narrative isn’t just the beige carpet, it has a voice, too. The language used is in harmony with the character, narrative, setting, etc. Each piece has a voice which adds up to the capital “V” Voice.
Most people forget about the narrative and when they are told they need to work on voice, they only focus on dialogue. Voice is so much more than that.
Consistency is key to voice and good writing. Without it, the story feels unreal or boring.
It’s much more apparent in illustration when voice doesn’t work. You see it immediately. To avoid this, you shouldn’t over explain the action in your text. Make sure to leave room for the illustrators. Brett brought out CHICKEN DANCE by Tammi Sauer. “This is perfect picture book writing because it allows the illustrator room to do their job.” Brett discussed a series of pages spreads where the chickens were trying to pick a talent for the talent contest.
Bowling was out. So was juggling. And tightrope walking.
With concise language choices, Tammi set up the joke and let the illustrator deliver it.
Much to his surprise, Tammi was in the audience, just a few feet away. Brett then said it was a good thing he only had nice things to say about her book. It was a fantastic moment to witness. Then it was back to business.
He said the way you learn to do what Tammi did, to leave those spaces for the illustrator to be creative and tell part of the story, is you have faith that the editors will be able to envision a great book and the illustrator can do their job and create great illustrations.
Brett had so many great writing exercises for us to work through to help us really understand what he was telling us. It was an awesome session on voice with a capital “A”.
The final day was for wrapping up, a speaker panel, and for saying goodbye. Some goodbyes were more tearful than others.
Our dynamic leader of 14 years, Anna Myers, passed the torch on to Helen Newton with many tears spilled, but not before she received some love back in return. We all pitched in a gave her a quilt made with all 20 of her book covers on it, including her latest release, her first picture book. Anna will still be a part of our SCBWI OK family as an Regional Advisor Emeritus.
Although I don’t see how this retreat could ever be topped, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the next one was even better.
If you somehow missed this awe-inspiring event, make sure to mark your calendars now for the spring conference on March 28, 2015. You will not want to miss it.
Thank you to all of our guest speakers who traveled so far to be with us and to all of our fantastic local talent that made the craft day such a wonderful success. I learned tons of new information that will stick with me and I know I’m not alone there. This great event wouldn’t have been possible without all of you.
It’s Writing Wednesday over at The Great Noveling Adventure and I am so excited about today’s post! The idea for this craft post came to me a few months ago when yet, again, I was having a discussion about reading and why it was important for writers to be well-read.
Cue the excuses from some novice writer why they didn’t read/couldn’t read.
Cue my head exploding.
How could I get my fellow newbie writers to understand, to maybe see from a different perspective, how reading was not detrimental but essential to their growth?
This post entitled Variations of the Mona Lisa (Why Studying the Masters is NOT an Exercise in Futility) is my love letter to them, my misguided peers.
Here’s a preview:
I consider myself to be a fairly open-minded individual. I understand that mine is not the only opinion on any given subject and that each person brings a different perspective to a discussion, shaped by their own unique life experiences. I’ve never met anyone that didn’t have something to teach me or that didn’t have an interesting story to tell.
That being said, there are some hot button topics that will put my strong sense of open-mindedness to its ultimate test. One of those issues is whether or not a writer needs to read books (and read a LOT of books) in order to be a good writer. Want to see me bend over backwards to restrain myself from mentally body-checking someone? Let me hear someone say, “I’m afraid I’ll take on another author’s style if I read too much” or “I don’t have time to read.”
Flames. Flames will shoot out of my eyes.
To demonstrate why these and other asinine arguments just don’t cut it, I thought I’d turn to another art form to demonstrate how studying your craft by studying the masters of your medium – which is what reading IS for writers – can not only lead to you mastering your craft, but it can also lead to you discovering your own artistic voice.
Let me count the ways. From the very first page, I stopped to reread passages that took my breath away, that made me want to hug this book to me and never let it go.
I could have started a Twitter account dedicated to tweeting the entire text from beginning to end, and then when I was finished I would have had the pleasure of starting all over again. And I tell you I would not have regretted it one bit.
As it was, I had a hard time not broadcasting the entire book all over social media as I read along. I did pester my family quite a bit and read parts of it to them. After awhile, I’d just stop, wave my arms about and say, “This book! Damn!”
Here’s the first passage that stopped me in my tracks:
As far as I was concerned, the sun could have melted the blue right off the sky. Then the sky could be as miserable as I was.
And that’s from the very first page. Saenz is only describing the heat of summer. He’s literally just getting warmed up. He digs in deeper and deeper with his observations, told through a guileless, naked teen voice. He breaks your heart with his words. And you’ll want to thank him for it.
This is a book I will read over and over until its pages fall out.
Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)
This simple summary doesn’t begin to do this story and this beautiful, complicated relationship justice. Aristotle, or Ari as he prefers to be called, isn’t just another angsty teen with anger management problems. He lives in a house filled with silences. His dad came back damaged after returning from Vietnam without the words to talk about it. Ari, for his part, wants nothing more than to hear from his dad. His older brother went to prison when Ari was very young and even his pictures have been banished from the walls. The silence of his absence is deafening. Ari is a big thinker. He’s always wondering about how the world works and why things are the way they are. Like in this passage:
I wondered about the science of storms and how sometimes it seemed that a storm wanted to break the world and how the world refused to break.
Dante has completely different problems. For one thing, he’s not Mexican enough. Compared to Ari, who is just the right combination, Dante thinks he’s too light-skinned and too into art and reading and doesn’t really like anything that “real” Mexicans like. Except for menudo, which Ari says makes him a real Mexican. He also gets along with his parents too well. And he’s afraid of disappointing them (they way he’s disappointed Ari). Dante over-shares his feelings, where Ari keeps his hidden, even from himself. Still, they find a kindred spirit in each other and manage to make their relationship work in a beautiful way.
The voice, the plot, the setting all worked together in harmony and kept me firmly engrossed in the world of Ari and Dante and I never wanted to it to end.
I read this book at the recommendation of a dear writer friend of mine, and now I’m recommending it to you, and to everyone who loves a great story and words and beautiful characters. You will take this story into your heart and it will never leave you.
Learn more about Benjamin Alire Saenz here and here.