The Fear

The longer I write, the more I try to make this a legit career, the more I realize one important thing. It never stops being scary.

Writing wasn’t that scary when I was younger. Those short stories and attempts at novels that failed before they ever got off the ground were all warm-ups. They were laps around an empty track. They were throwing a softball and shagging fly balls behind the house with my dad.

The first time I sat down with a book idea and actually began to write it in earnest, that’s when it got real. Committing an idea to the page and investing ninety-something-thousand words in it is a scary thing. At least, it was for me. Letting someone read it made me really nervous. (Later realizing I let them read that many words of crap embarrassed me to no end). Reading it in front of a critique group for the first time petrified me. I was no longer hidden in the back yard, I was on the practice field with the whole team.

Writing the second one wasn’t any easier. The writing improved, but that manuscript came with a new, even scarier step. Sending it to agents. Querying. Oh my gosh, querying. All of a sudden, I went from the practice field to a game. People were watching. What if I messed up? What would happen then?

A fair amount of tears, it turned out. Rejection. To be honest, the first rejections weren’t as scary as the requests for fulls. Knowing an agent had my work was ten times more frightening than the critique group reading it.

Each step in the writing process has come with a new fear. The fear of committing to a new idea then discovering it sucks. The fear of someone else reading my words and thoughts. The fear of rejection. Of judgment. Of revising and doing it wrong and having to do it all over again but still not getting it right. Of letting down my family and friends and agent and myself.

It doesn’t stop. It’s an infinite roller coaster that you never get off.

I just finished my fourth manuscript. I love it. SO. MUCH. This is a big deal. It’s uncharted territory. Don’t get me wrong, I usually like my writing, and there are always passages and phrases that I love in each manuscript. But upon finishing my final read through before I send it off to my agent, it hit me that I’ve completely fallen in love with this book.

Loving a book isn’t that different from romantic love. Before my husband, I had several boyfriends, each of whom I thought I had a deeper connection with than the last. It wasn’t until I found my husband, though, that I realized what true love is. Those feelings for those other boys all paled in comparison. I still like my other stories, and I still harbor a deep affection for my last manuscript. But I didn’t know true book love until this one.

And that scares me more than anything else has so far with my writing.

When I went on sub with the last book, it was pretty nerve-wracking. I made my standard color-coded spreadsheet. I jumped at every new email. I prayed someone would want it. The first rejections came and, even though I’d steeled myself, they stung. I cried. I wallowed for a bit, then I brushed myself off and moved on. I’d already starting writing another one–and I’d already started falling for it–so I had something to keep me preoccupied. Each rejection was a little easier to deal with. When six months went by and the list of editors with my sub dwindled, I was prepared. I knew we weren’t giving up on the book, just putting it aside awhile until the timing was right. It was hard, but I’d seen the writing on the wall. Instead of fretting, I threw myself into finishing the new book, and despite trying to keep it at arm’s length, I fell head over heels for it. So much so, that sending the final draft to my agent was the scariest thing I’d done.

Falling in love with your writing is a dangerous thing, and I really felt that danger for the first time when I submitted the draft. The more you love something you’ve written, the harder it is to tear it apart. “Kill your darlings” isn’t just a cliche. Writers can get so swept up with something small that sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. I’ve never had a problem cutting into my writing. My agent signed me after a massive revision in which I reworked the entire story. She’s hands-on and editorial, which I love, and I know she knows her stuff. But I didn’t want to see this story carved to pieces. If she’d come back and said it needed major revisions, I would’ve heard her out and given it a shot, because I trust her and I know she sees things from a different vantage point, she sees the whole forest. It would’ve been hard, though.

Fortunately, she loved it too. No major changes, no ripping my baby to shreds. I was thrilled (and shocked, haha). Now it’s time for this one to go on sub. It should be old hat this time around. I’ve been here before. I’ve played a game under the lights in front of a big crowd. This time, though, I’m naked. I’m terrified to sub this. I actually cried when I found out it’s time to send it.

I’m not ready. I’m not ready for this manuscript to get rejected. I love it too much.

When I started writing seriously, I thought I would eventually reach a point where it isn’t scary anymore, where I’d be comfortable. There is no comfort in writing. Each step is just as terrifying, or more so, than the last. If the impossible happens (which I can hardly begin to hope for) and this book doesn’t get rejected, if someone wants it, then I have the fear of it getting ripped apart again. The fear of the whole publishing process. Of readers not buying it, or worse, hating it, or not caring at all. Of never selling another book.

It never stops. Just because you reach that next step in your journey, doesn’t mean it gets easier. Rejection doesn’t hurt less, you just get used to the pain. Fear doesn’t lessen, but you figure out how to cope (at least not until you get into Stephen King/John Grisham/John Green territory. I bet they don’t feel the fear anymore. Although, who knows, maybe they do?). I’m, obviously, still working on that coping bit. Maybe I’ll get the hang of it one day, but until then, I’m going to build my color-coded submission spreadsheet, eat some chocolate, wait to pounce on my phone when I get an email, and write another book to fall in love with.

Because regardless of how scary writing can be, I love it. I can’t imagine not doing it. Fear and all.

(Also, this is the song (Lily Allen “The Fear”) I’ve been humming while writing this post. It will get in your head. You’ve been warned).

Just Write It

Yesterday, my amazing CP, Alison, wrote an equally amazing guest post for YAHighway. It got me thinking about my own writing process.

A couple weeks ago, I finally finished the manuscript I’ve been working on since June. Right before Christmas, I posted on Absolute Write looking for a couple beta readers. I told them I’d just finished my first draft and needed fresh eyes before submitting to my agent. I had some great people offer to read, and they all told me the same thing. When they saw the words “first draft,” they got really nervous, until they started reading and realized it read like a later draft.

“Well,” I said, “I guess technically it’s not a first draft when I think about it, but in a way it is.” Which, I realize, makes no sense. Around this time my agent tweeted that she’s convinced everyone’s first drafts are complete crap. Everyone.

This all got me thinking: what is a first draft?

See, I consider my first draft to be the first one I complete. When I type those last few words and lift my fingers from the keyboard, I have finished my first draft. But I don’t think it’s crap, necessarily (depends on the day, haha), because I’ve already worked it to death by the time I finish. Technically, I suppose, it could be thought of as a second draft, or even third–but that feels weird to me, since it’s the first time I’ve finished. See how I talk it in circles? It’s kind of confusing, so let’s back up.

Google “writing advice.” Go ahead, I’ll wait. One of the first links you’ll get is a post called 21 Harsh But Eye-Opening Writing Tips From Great Authors. I linked it for you in case you didn’t Google it. The very first tip comes from Ernest Hemingway. It says basically the same thing my agent tweeted. If you keep going through the links, though, or talk to the majority of writers, or read writing blogs or websites, you’ll inevitably see these words over and over again: “Don’t self-edit. Just write the first draft, then go back and edit later. Keep that momentum going.” Pretty much everyone hands out this little piece of advice like Halloween candy.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but they’re wrong. Dead wrong. Don’t close the page just yet, hear me out.

Ever read Query Shark? Janet Reid gives excellent advice for writing queries. One thing she constantly harps on is following the rules. No rhetorical questions, no gimmicks, no first person, start with the plot, etc, etc. However, she says once you have a good grasp of the rules, they can be broken. The famous example of this is the wonderful Josin McQuein’s query. It breaks all the rules, but is so darn captivating it doesn’t matter. (The book, by the way, is also excellent. Go pick up a copy. Get Arclight while you’re at it. You’ll thank me for the cover alone. All the pretty!). Man, I’m all about some links today!

Janet’s query advice should extend to all writing. When you’re just starting, yes, follow the rules. If you’re having trouble getting motivated to write, by all means just get words on the page. Get the first draft down, however crappy and messy and convoluted it may be, and fix it later. I started this way. I just wrote, and wrote, and wrote.

But it didn’t work for me. By the time I finished, I had SO MANY WORDS! Plots that started and dropped off. Threads that twisted into a tangled mass. Characters that weren’t consistent. Revising was such a headache. I would look at the draft and think “I can never do this. It’s too much.” You know what? I was right. I got overwhelmed by the amount of work the first draft would need. It was like finding some pretty necklaces at a yard sale, but they’re all in a box together and the chains are intertwined. You try to tease out the couple you like, but everything is so tightly knotted you just throw the whole mess down and say screw it.

Then I found my CP. We started working together by exchanging a few chapters at a time, initially of a finished draft, and then of a WIP. I’d write a few, then she’d email and ask how the writing was going. So I’d send her the pages, she’d send feedback, and I couldn’t not go through her comments when I got them. (How do you like that little double negative? Here’s another). Then I couldn’t not incorporate changes and fix problems she’d noticed. Next thing I knew, I had a finished first draft that read more like a second. I self-edited. And I didn’t die. (By the way, I totally have this scene from Mean Girls in my head. Except insert “self-edit” for “sex,” and “write terribly” for “pregnant.”) My writing didn’t suffer. In fact, I think it got better.

My most recent WIP went through lots of changes I as wrote. I ended up plotting more than I ever have, even though I didn’t marry my outline or anything.The initial words that went on the page: yeah, they were crap, but I fixed them as I went.  I rewrote the beginning and moved chapters around. It went slower than any other ms I’ve written, which frustrated me. I’ve always thought of myself as a quick writer. When I think about it, though, it really took the same amount of time. Before, I wrote the first draft in three months, and revised for three. This time around it took six to get through the “first draft,” but it wasn’t the sloppy, just-get-words-on-the-page kind of draft I used to turn out. It was polished, edited, neat. Reading back through and revising was a breeze.

So, self-edit, or don’t self-edit. Revise chapter by chapter, or revise all at once. Follow the rules, or break the rules. It doesn’t matter. Just write it. Everyone is different, and everyone works in their own way. There is no one size fits all writing advice. Find what works best for you and do it.

I’ve heard a few writers refer to their first drafts as “draft zero.” Personally, I’m not sure what to call mine. First draft? Second? Fred? Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter (although I’m partial to Fred). As long as the ms you finally query, or submit to your agent, or whatever, is polished, who cares what you call it? Forget rules and advice and labels and everything. Clear your mind of all but the story, and write.

Let’s Talk Career Direction

Want to be published? Want your book out in the world to be read by a bunch of strangers? If you’re serious about writing, then the answer is probably, “Uh, yeah. Duh.” Sure we love the stories we craft and we love the act of writing itself, but the point (for most at least) is that other people read and enjoy that writing. *Okay, so how do you do it?

Well, there’s a tricky question. Back in the day, it used to be easy. Take it to a publisher. If it’s good they’d publish it. Then publishers got too busy and too big, they had too many submissions rolling in to address them all.  Enter agents. Gatekeepers of sorts. Today, most publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts–meaning it has to come through an agent. If you look at the “Big Six,” Hachettte Book Group, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, and Random House all require a literary agent. MacMillan and Penguin do not. (It will be interesting to see which way Random Penguin goes–yes, I will always call it that). Smaller and indie presses, like Dalkey Archive PressPress 53, Entangled and Month9Books don’t require an agent, but having one can get your manuscript read sooner. There are also publishers like Angry Robot and it’s imprint Strange Chemistry that have open submission windows for unrepresented authors once a year (please note that AR and SC’s links go to last year’s open door. They haven’t announced one for 2013 yet).

So what does this mean? Basically, if you want to publish traditionally, you should look into getting an agent. If your dream, like mine, is to see your book on shelves in major stores, an agent is the way to go. It is almost impossible to get a store like Barnes and Noble to shelve your books if you self-publish or go with a tiny publisher.

But.

If you don’t care about that. If you just want your book published and out in the world, there are a lot of other options. Musa Publishing, for example, is an e-book only press if you still want the backing of a house. OnStage Publishing is a small press that produces both print and e-books. Or, you can self-publish. Amazon and Create Space are frequently used formats for self-publishing e-books. The problem with them, though, is the volume of self-pubbed books they have available. How do you make yours stand out? How do you ensure it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle?

This can also be a matter of concern if you go to a small press. Small publishers may not have the time or money to market your book. You may have to do most, and in some cases all, of the legwork. This means literally going to stores and libraries and begging for your books to be shelved, school visits, blog tours, websites, tweets, Facebook–getting a presence online and in the real world. Online, obviously, is more important for e-books. For every self-published e-book that makes it big (I mean Amanda Hocking and, yes, E.L. James big), there are millions of others that are barely read.

There’s something else to think about if your long term goal is seeing your books on shelves in major stores. If you have already published on a small scale, low sales numbers could scare potential agents and big houses away. I’m not saying it definitely will, an excellent book is an excellent book, but there’s always that chance. So I caution you to think about that if your plan is to start small and go bigger.

It boils down to this: where do you want your career to go? There is no right or wrong way. Each person has their own path and what works for one may not work well for another. Timid and shy people (like me) may have a hard time self-promoting, they may need the marketing of publishing house, or an agent backing them. Outgoing folks may be able to market up a storm.

My recommendation? Imagine your book. Dream as big as you want. Do you see it on shelves in big stores? Do you see it on the top of Amazon’s e-book list? Do you see it in local libraries and in the hands of friends and family? Whatever it is, go do it. Query agents if that’s the route you want to go, or hire an editor and self-publish, or send it out to those small publishers. It doesn’t matter how big the dream is. Go make it happen.

I leave you with the song that’s been playing in my head as I wrote this post. Runnin’ Down a Dream. Now quit procrastinating on the internet and chase that dream!

*This is by no means an all inclusive guide to publishing, and doesn’t even come close to listing all the publishers out there. I intend this as something to get you thinking and maybe highlight some options or issues you hadn’t previously considered. Do your research. Google is your friend!

Featured! Agent-Author Chat

Hey guys! I’m really honored to be featured on Krista Van Dolzer’s latest Agent-Author Chat. Scoot over there and check out my query for DOOR NUMBER FOUR, the manuscript that caught my agent, Mandy Hubbard’s eye, as well as some great advice from Mandy herself.

While you’re there, follow Krista, because she’s pretty awesome.

What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been- My Agent Journey

As I’m sure you guessed from the title, I’ve got some pretty big news. Okay, that’s putting it mildly. I’m freakin’ ecstatic! I have an agent! After several manuscripts, lots of queries, tons of tears, and a boatload of perseverance. Here’s how it all went down:

Back in May, I had this crazy dream one night. I don’t remember the date, but I remember the day. It was the day my orthopedic surgeon removed Carl (my leg brace) for good and cleared me to drive again. My brother, and chauffeur for the day, went to lunch with me (lunch buffet at Pizza Hut–just in case you were curious), and I told him about my weird dream. Now crazy dreams are nothing new, but this one…it felt special.

Soon as I got free time, I transcribed my dream idea into words. First, a synopsis, then a first chapter. Then the words just kept coming. I kept writing and next thing I knew, I had 30k or so written and started sending it off to my amazing critique partner. I wrote and edited and finally got it done, then edited some more and got it ready to send to betas. They liked it okay but had some concerns. So I edited some more, went through another round of betas, drafted my query, compiled a list of agents to submit to, researched those agents (i.e. stalked), whittled it down, then, finally, I was ready.

Four months after my dream, on October 12, I decided to submit a round of queries, not really expecting anything to happen, but hoping I would at least see the kind of responses I got to my query. I submitted to twelve wonderful agents, any of which I would have felt extremely lucky to have in my corner–although I must say, I did have a couple favorites.

Because I’m my own special sort of weird, and OCD, I put the agents and their submission info in a color coded spreadsheet, alphabetized by name, grouped by submission requirements, then alphabetized within the groups. See? Kind of crazy. Okay, and maybe I was really nervous about submitting and the more I played with the pretty colors, the longer I put off actually hitting “send.” But send I did, finally. Then I did that thing where I tell myself not to get my hopes up, no that blinking light on my phone is not an email from an agent, agents don’t respond that quickly, they’re busy people and–

Holy crap it’s from an agent! Just two hours later, I got a response, from one of my top choice agents. Not just a request for a full, but a literal “YES, PLEASE!” written just like that, in all caps. I couldn’t believe it! I did a happy dance in my chair, completely forgetting my office door and window blinds were open, and that I’m in a high traffic area of the building. When I collected myself, I started to read over my manuscript again, stopped myself, and submitted the full. I marked it down on my spreadsheet, colored the cell green, then I tried to put it out of my head.

I got another couple requests, but none made me quite as excited. Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled with each request, but there was something special about that first email, about the level of excitement for my work. My work! Then I got some rejections. My attempts not to think about it failed. I still jumped every time that green light on my phone blinked, even though I kept telling myself it could take months for the agent to respond. Sometimes they have fulls for–

Nope. Four days after I submitted the full, the agent responded. I took a deep breath, opened my spreadsheet, and clicked the email, ready to mark “Rejection 10/16/12” down and color it in red (of course). But it wasn’t a rejection. It wasn’t an acceptance either. The agent said she found a lot to love, but had some concerns. She asked if I would be up for exclusive revisions. Uh…yeah, of course I would! I did another happy dance and tried to call Hubby, but he was in California for work and didn’t have his phone. The most exciting news of my writing career and the one person I wanted to tell was in Cali-freaking-fornia. I had to sit on the news for hours, then practically squealed in the phone when he finally called. It’s like all that excitement just built, and built, like Mentos in Coke, then came spewing out all at once.

The agent and I exchanged a couple emails, then the next night I received her notes. All six pages of them. Six! Yeah, it was a bit overwhelming, and I didn’t know quite what to think. Then I read a blog post she referred me to by Imogen Howson. Her experience was similar to mine: five or six pages of revision notes, and a lot of trepidation. It worked out well for Imogen, so I decided to give it a shot.

The agent wanted the first seventy-five pages revised. Full of excitement and nervous energy, I opened my manuscript, laid my fingers on the keyboard, and sat there. All of a sudden, I was completely petrified. “I can’t do this. How did I ever think I could do this?” I opened a new document, and found the blank page too intimidating. I went back to the original manuscript and tried writing a new first chapter. Then I deleted it and went back to the blank screen. Nothing.

So I closed everything and tried to breathe. The revisions weren’t just big, they were world-altering. Literally. I had to move the story to an entirely new planet. Problem was, I didn’t know the planet yet, and I was still too close to the original story. I needed space, in all sorts of ways. (The great folks at Absolute Write helped me realize this too).

I turned off the computer, and turned on the television. Finally, I had an excuse to make Hubby watch all the nerdy science shows! “Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking,” “Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole,” all the space shows I could find! Coincidentally, the Sunday before I received the revision request, Hubby and I had watched “How the Universe Works,” perfect timing, eh?

Instead of going back to the computer, I pulled out my trusty legal pad, and began drawing: a planet, continents, oceans. I named the planet, the continents, and the countries, wrote back stories for how the people found the planet and how they terraformed it. I figured out how far it was from the sun and how many hours there were in a day. I named other planets in the solar system.

Then, I finally turned my computer on again, and started to write. Those first couple chapters were the hardest. I tried jumping ahead in the story, but had to go back to the beginning. When I finally had something (that I thought was crap) I sent it off to my CP. Shockingly, she loved it! She suggested places I could expand the world-building, and I was off again. Writing like crazy.

I wrote and tweaked and edited and fretted for a month. Exactly a month, although I didn’t plan it that way. Then, November 16, when I thought I couldn’t possibly edit any more, I bit the bullet and submitted, jumping every time that stupid phone light flashed. After a couple other emails, twenty minutes later, she responded. She’d read a little and liked it so far and would get back to me when she’d read the rest.

If you follow this blog, you know I’m the self-deprecating sort, so I prepared myself for her to hate the rest. Readied myself for rejection. Two hours later, I was at lunch with Hubby and the green light blinked. I saw it was from the agent and held my breath.

She loved it. She’d read the whole thing and enjoyed it so much she offered rep right then! Yes, I jumped up and down in my seat in the restaurant. Yes, strangers gave me weird looks. No, I didn’t care. Nor did I care when I jumped more in the parking lot. I still can’t believe it. I have an agent. I don’t think those words will ever get old.

We talked on the phone Monday night and although I was nervous and I’m sure I sounded like some kind of country bumpkin (nerves tend to deepen my already thick Southern drawl), I soon felt totally at ease talking to her. She’s everything I wanted in an agent, but didn’t dare to hope for. She gave me the chance to go back to the other agents who had my manuscript and give them a chance to offer. Instead, I withdrew my submission from them. Let’s face it, I knew as soon as I got that first email I would accept if she offered rep. The excitement she showed from the outset, and continues to show, well, it sold me. I have someone as stoked about this story as I am, how could I say no to that?

Who is that someone? Well, I’m thrilled to say I’m now represented by Mandy Hubbard at D4EO Literary Agency!!

So, dear reader, I want to thank you for going on this journey with me so far. I still have a long way to go to my dream of publication, and a lot of revising left. But dreams can come true. Just ask my main character in this story. One night she was a wacky dream, the next, a character coming to life on the page. I can’t wait to finish telling her story, and I can’t wait to see how it weaves in with mine. Thank you, Mandy, for having faith in the story and in me, and thank you readers for being interested in what a quiet girl from Alabama has to say.

Writing is Just Like Playing Guitar…Sort of

Writers have tons of tools in their little kits, but one of the most important is one I think is the most overlooked. The ability to take criticism.

Look, I’ll just say it plainly: if you can’t take criticism, you should find something else to do.

You’re going to be criticized. Your ideas, your word choices, your plots, your characters, your everything. Just accept that from the start.

That being said, it’s not easy. You take something you’ve slaved over, fretted over, stressed over, poured your heart and soul into for the last however many months, and you send it out into the world then duck beneath the covers and wait. It’s scary. Really scary. You’ve scattered pieces of yourself throughout your story; it’s hard not to take a critique of your work as a personal affront, but that’s exactly what you can’t do. You can’t take it personally.

On the Absolute Write forum, when you first join a sentence appears under your screen name: “new fish learning about thick skin.” I think that’s a perfect way to describe the process.

There was a point in my life when I’d decided to play to guitar. My dad bought me this beat up old thing from a pawn shop (I loved it by the way) and a few tab books and I set off full of grand dreams of all the amazing places my band, Siamese Cousins, would go (our first album was to be called “Joined at the Spine”). Then I tried to actually play. The strings cut into my fingers, especially the thin ones! It was like running wire under my nails. Especially doing any sort of slide. When I finished the song (“Brown Eyed Girl”) painful red lines striped the tops of my fingers.

For those of you who have never played guitar, you have to play constantly and build up callouses across your fingertips. The more you play, the thicker your skin becomes until one day you pick up a guitar and it doesn’t hurt anymore. If you don’t play much your skin will stay thin and supple and you won’t escape the pain. (I never progressed and quit trying after a while, but my husband is really good and plays a lot–so I know this from him).

Writing isn’t much different. As a baby writer, your skin is soft and pink. It hurts when people criticize your work. You can’t stop and dwell on the pain, though. If you stop, the callouses never grow and it will always hurt. The same holds true if you ignore the criticism. You won’t grow. So you keep at it. You keep writing and keep putting yourself out there and, gradually, you realize one day the pain isn’t so sharp, your skin is thicker and you can take more pressure.

Like I said, it’s not easy. And even after you think your skin has thickened, it’s possible for criticism to cut you pretty deep. The key is to pick yourself back up, and keep moving on.

I write this because I think I’ve got pretty thick skin. I know the feedback and criticism makes me a better writer and I embrace it. “Bring it on!” I say. “Hit me with all you’ve got! Tear my manuscript/query apart so I can whip it into shape!” I can usually take the heat, but sometimes…sometimes I get knocked down and find it hard to get back up.

I’m in the middle of editing a manuscript I just finished. The ending needs to be pretty much re-written, and I’ve got a good idea where I want it to go.  There’s just one problem: I read the first couple chapters at my critique group last week. They loved the writing, but they didn’t get the plot. Maybe I didn’t explain it correctly, because some key elements were misinterpreted, but, while I usually leave the group feeling energized and ready to write, this time I left dejected. Worried. Nervous.

Were there really holes in my plot? I didn’t think so. I thought I’d explained away any gaps and problems throughout the story. My husband and CP both thought the same thing, but that little nugget of doubt had been planted. Every time I sit down to finish editing, that doubt creeps back to the surface. “Are there really problems?” I think. “Is it worth it to finish? Will anyone want it?”

The answer, of course, is yes, it’s definitely worth it to finish. I still believe in the story. I still love the story and I have faith it’s something people want to read. The only answer is to uproot that dadgum seedling of doubt and throw it away. Develop even thicker skin to keep it from wriggling back in there.

So, it’s a process. You don’t just start writing and are magically able to take criticism like a champ. Heck, there are some published authors who I’m sure still have trouble with criticism. But you pick up the guitar every day and play. You grow. You take the criticism with a grain of salt; mine what you think is helpful, discard the rest, and move forward. You’re a new fish, learning about thick skin. Learning. It’s not going to happen overnight, but with time, and practice, it will happen.

Be Real–Rabbit and Bear Real

There are all sorts of conversations flying through the YA world on characters. Just this past week, I’ve been involved in a pretty intense debate on whether you should include diversity for diversity’s sake, a discussion on stereotypes, and even one on whether characters all have to be model pretty.

There’s an annoying trend, at least I find it annoying, for all the characters in a book to be amazingly hot, straight, white, able-bodied individuals. To me, this is just another side of the wish fulfillment character. There’s the argument that readers don’t want to read about themselves, they want to read about extraordinary people. Writers have also said, “why diversify? If it’s made into a film/tv show, they’re going to cast beautiful white people anyway.”

Sadly, this is true more often than not. Jane Eyre is a good example. In the book, she’s not attractive and isn’t supposed to be, however, in film a beautiful actress always plays her. Like Joan Fontaine, Ruth Wilson, Anna Paquin, and Mia Wiasikowska  for example. Or take “A Wrinkle in Time.” Meg Murray clearly regards herself as ugly, of course many teenagers do, but even her family and those around her comment on how average looking she is. There isn’t anything special about her. She’s been played by Katie Stuart who I guess could be called average for an actress, but is still way prettier than I ever imagined Meg to be. (In that adaptation, Calvin O’Keefe was played by the non-redhead Gregory Smith. I love the actor, but he’s not Calvin-so the casting director got the whole thing wrong in my opinion).

The authors always support the casting with the same answer. “The character is more than how they look. Personality, mannerisms, movements are bigger than appearance and actor XYZ who auditioned nailed it. He is the character, physical looks aside.” (I’ve melded several quotes into one here. If you’re really dying to know the actual quotes and authors and I can try to find them for you). I can agree to a certain extent, that the character is more than looks. But you can’t convince me they couldn’t find an actor just as good to be that character. Especially when they sub in a white person for a black/Native American/Middle Eastern/you name it character.

Then there are times when casting is spot on, but people still aren’t happy with it. Like the drama with the Hunger Games and the casting of Amandla Stenberg as Rue. Some were outraged they would *gasp* cast as black girl for a character described as having brown skin. The nerve of those casting directors.

I think everyone agrees there isn’t enough diversity in literature, especially YA, but no one agrees on how to go about fixing it. Should you be intentional about describing skin tone? Or should you not bring it up? If you mention that a character is black, isn’t it weird if you don’t mention another character is white? Will you get accused of pandering for praise for your diversity or will you get blamed for whitewashing?

When I write, characters just appear to me fully formed. I know their hair and eye color, skin tone, the way they stand, how they sound, and so on. But I don’t describe my characters all that much. Sure I’ll throw in a sentence about their hair, and then chapters later mention their eyes. There aren’t any descriptive paragraphs, though, unless that trait plays a specific part. I have a character who is a thief, so I mention she’s thin and can squeeze in small places. If not for that, I wouldn’t have mentioned body type.

Same goes for attractiveness. Unless the fact a character is really beautiful or ugly or just average plays a part in the story, I don’t bring it up (To be fair, I don’t mention many things that don’t play into the story. I’ve written about my problem with word count before–hence the name of this blog–so every word has to have a purpose or else I’ll end up with 100,000 words and a lot of revisions ahead!). I like to give a few characteristics and let the reader fill in the gaps. To me, that forms more of a connection between reader and character.  We all have our own ideas of what is attractive or unattractive or average. I’d rather let the reader get their own image. It’s something I liked to do anyway, but cemented itself after I read “On Writing,” by Stephen King. He chastised writers for giving too much away and not letting the reader participate, and I agree. I hate seeing a movie before reading the book because then I get the cast in my head instead of forming my own version of the characters.

I will say that most of my characters are average looking, because most people are average. If you ask me, there should be more average in YA. The majority of YA lit features characters who are hot. Plain and simple. What about the regular folks? All the crap about casting directors casting pretty people is just that. Crap. Diversity can be done, and well, and it can work.

Take a look at the British show “Skins.” That show, at least the first series, I never caught the others, is a great example of fairly normal teens with an average, yet diverse, cast. That’s why it was such a smash. The characters were flawed, externally and internally, but likeable and, most importantly, real. The majority were white and straight, but they were by no means drop dead gorgeous. Even the lead, the “hot guy” wasn’t conventionally attractive in the way American TV stars are hot. He was kind of quirky. His best friend was socially awkward and a bit odd. The lead’s girlfriend was insecure and pretty, with an absent parent. Her best friend was a black girl who was super smart and an incredibly talented clarinetist with a close family. Other friends included a lazy, fun stoner whose mom abandoned him, a goofy Indian guy who just wanted to get laid and had strict, religious parents, his gay best friend who was artist, and a mentally ill anorexic girl. Spoiler if you haven’t seen it, but at the end, the lead gets hit by a bus and isn’t exactly able-bodied anymore. The show defied stereotypes, included diverse characters, and was highly entertaining.

Compare this to, say, “Gossip Girl” in the states. Not that I watch the show, but I’ve seen enough. It’s about beautiful, white kids in New York. I’m not bashing the show, I’m sure the characters have their intricacies, but click my link and look at the IMDB page. Zero diversity and model pretty, stereotypical rich kids. Entertaining as people may find this show, I think we can do better. Of course that’s tv and I’m thinking more about books, but “Gossip Girl” was a book first. (Again, that’s just the first example that came to mind, I don’t have anything against the show or the book).

What it comes down to, for me, is be real. Write characters who feel real, who have depth and dimension.  Whatever kinds of characters you include, straight, gay, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, able-bodied, wheelchair bound, autistic, mentally incapacitated, genius, and so on and so forth, make them multidimensional. The more real your characters are, the more people are going to connect with them, root for them, and most importantly for writers, continue to read about them. The best advice I’ve read about writing is “be honest,” which I think goes hand in hand with be real. Readers will totally tell if you’re fake. They’ll know if your characters are cardboard cutouts of real people. Be honest about your characters and how they act and what they do. Be honest with yourself about why you’re including those characters. Are you intentionally trying to be diverse? That’s fine, but flesh the characters out, don’t just drop in a black, gay, Jewish, one-armed, paraplegic for no other reason than you want that character in your story so you can claim diversity and leave him. Give him some depth. Be honest with yourself if you’re not trying to be diverse. Why aren’t you? Is there a reason? Be honest with yourself about why your characters are all gorgeous/average. Do you just like pretty people?

One of my favorite stories as a kid was “The Velveteen Rabbit.” If you’re unfamiliar (you poor, deprived child!), it’s about a boy who gets a stuffed rabbit for Christmas. The toys come alive when no one is around, but they aren’t truly real. The rabbit finds out he can only become real if his owner loves it and “…once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.” The boy does love the rabbit and carries it everywhere, until he becomes ill and all his toys must be burned. The boy receives a new rabbit and forgets about his old one. While waiting to be thrown into the fire, the Velveteen Rabbit cries a real tear. A magic fairy appears and tells the Velveteen Rabbit that because his owner loved him, he can become real. He then discovers he’s a real rabbit and hops off into the forest with the other bunnies.

I insisted my teddy bear was real, just like the rabbit in the story. She was my dad’s first teddy bear, given to him on his first Christmas and loved by both of us so much she had no fur left. She eventually got so old, she’s 47 now, she started falling apart and has had several reconstructive surgeries. Even though I’m married, Mama Bear still sits on my dresser. And to me, she’s still real.

That’s what we have to do with our characters. Give them time and attention and love and eventually, just like the Velveteen Rabbit, just like my Mama Bear, they’ll become real. Then you will know you’ve created something truly magical.