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Back in my relative youth when I was learning to write screenplays I came across a fascinating tidbit. What it came down to was that on a deep thematic level, everything a writer writes is about what is currently gnawing away at them in the moment. It didn’t matter what the plot or the story was about, deep down all the character issues and concerns were the manifestation of the bubbling subconscious fears and anxieties of the moment.

If that were true, a story written five or ten or twenty years ago would have characters behaving one way, while if that story were being written today they would behave differently. And it wouldn’t be that one version of those characters was more “true” than the other, or that I had learned more about them, but that the things that concerned twenty-something me were different than fifty-something me. The characters — if this line of thinking is to be believed — were mere reflections of my state of mind.

But then, what of these stories? Do their themes not change with the desires of the characters? Aren’t those old plots with current characters like an old man trying to put on the clothes of his youth?

Earlier this week I had a little down time and no access to my current larger WIP so I doodled around with a short story idea. Three pages into the idea I found myself writing a variation of a scene from a project I started working on over 20 years ago. The characters were different, their motivation and reasons totally unlike the older piece, and the eventual outcome would be… similar?

Both stories are about a group of boys who create a club on campus, both clubs are mere shells designed to allow the boys to act outrageous with some semblance of school authority, both ending in a sort of disaster that would raw national scrutiny. The moment I realized the new story was on the same path I stopped and took stock. Who the heck were these two boys, and more importantly, what did their appearance say about where my head is currently at?

Originally, 22 years ago, I had finally come up with a story I thought was a perfect encapsulation of high school. I was planned as an epic tale, with so many subplot and character arcs, that I jokingly referred to it as The Great American Young Adult Novel. In truth, that original story contained over a dozen plots worthy of their own books, some I’ve attempted, some I realized were a bit goofy. At the heart of them all was a story about a club of mostly boys who ventured out through three years of adventures that eventually lead to a cataclysmic ending that garnered national attention.

And my main character was some kid trapped in the now yearning for the future away from the madness.

All those years ago I didn’t know what I was doing, what I wanted, what I’d hoped to achieve. Today I do, and the fact that those old feelings are manifesting themselves again in stories is an equal combination of alarming, reassuring, and frustrating. It’s not the same story, it’s a better story, this time with a character who knows where he stands and is clear about what comes next.

So I’m really writing two stories now, one on the page and one in my life. I have a good feeling about both of them.

Things don’t always go the way you plan when you’re a creative type. I happen to be of the writerly-variety, but I’m fairly sure this happens to other stripes as well.

Last year was terrible, but this year is going to be different. I know I thought last year was when things were going to happen, but they didn’t, and after a while I realized I needed to set my sights on this year.

The year before that things seemed like they might have worked out, but then half way through the year things got tricky and I had to shift priorities. Just the nature of living in the real world, I knew there’d have to be some sort of give-and-take along the way.

Before that? Promise and potential. Not wasted, mind you, but explored. I dove in, delved deep, accomplished only some of what I set out to do knowing full well that you can’t always force things to happen on your preferred timeline. Hey, wouldn’t we all rather be instantly successful and retired already?!

And in those dark moments, echoing from the back of a cave, that dark place the inner critic-cynic likes to call home, that shaky voice of doubt saying

“I just want a sign, something to let me know its worth putting up with all this crap.”

At what point do you truly hear that voice? At what point do you turn and decide that you have been given a sign, and that sign has been there all along. They were there in the couched doubts when I declared myself a writer. The signs were lurking between every line of dialog I gave my confused and befuddled characters. The signs were there in every rejected-if-you-don’t-hear-from-us query. Days and weeks and months and years worth of signs, piling up like debris at a narrow in a river, waiting to be acknowledged and either blown to smithereens or come crashing down in a flood of soul-crushing truth.

When does that truth finally sink in and become the sign you were waiting for – not the one you were hoping for, but it’s opposite, the sign of giving up? When do you finally give in to that doubt?

Never.

This past year I felt there was a shift, but it was more a slip into neutral than a full-on slide into reverse. Things weren’t working out on a lot of fronts, not just the writing, and I was too close to get any sort of perspective on things. It wasn’t an intentional move, and there can be benefits to downsides and laying fallow, but it would have been nice to know up front that it was going to be one of those years.

You know, like if I’d had some sort of sign or something.

mi pueblo fantasma

Facebook is an amazing sea of nostalgia, nestled in a never-ending cocktail party.

It far too easy to get sucked into any number of vast rabbit holes into the past, but the one that hold my fascination most is the private group for my old stomping grounds. These private groups (there are several) with insider photos, names, dates, places, and random reminiscences have had the double-edged distinction of helping me relive so much lost history while making me saddened by so much that has been lost over time.

When did we decide new was better, that reinvention was better than renovation? Things change, life moves forward, and yet as we look back through the prism of the past it can’t simply be a delusion that we find a happiness in longing for the long-forgotten.

It doesn’t help that I grew up in a town that was built on illusion. It isn’t hyperbole to say that Culver City was more Hollywood than Hollywood, because it simply was. My home town was the home to MGM who helped perpetrate the myth of Hollywood on its own back lots. As a kid I had no idea that the run-down looking properties that occupied pockets of my town where know the world over as the town of Mayberry, Tara Plantation, Stalag 13, as well as sections of New York, St. Louis, and the Wild West. But as these imaginary places disappeared with the encroachment of civic development in post-war America so did the rest of my home town. Most of the bungalows and tract homes remain, but the rest of it is nearly unrecognizable. In half a century’s time the place I grew up became a shadow of its former self, a ghost town razed and graded into its current shape.

Old memories are replaced by new. the kids who hung out at the mall remember it as fondly as the older kids who remembered the horse farm and go-kart track that the mall replaced. The famous jazz club that hosted some of the greats in its time, forgotten even when I was growing up, is now an even more anonymous office supply store. The mighty Helms bakery, with its boxy trucks that delivered fresh bread and donuts and made-to-order cakes to our neighborhoods, its building has been redeveloped and its trucks retired to a local museum.

These things, they disappeared, they gave up their ghosts, they haunt our memories. They may have earned the sentimentality of our collective nostalgia simply by having been taken away from us, but we’d rather have them back than have the memories.

Sadly, all that remains are the ephemeral artifacts of memory gathered by a virtual community on social media. One day we may even long for this much connection to the past.

Okay, this isn’t me lecturing you, it’s me convincing myself.

Because rejection is hard, and I need to suck it up if I’m going to keep doing this writer thing for real.

To be fair, some rejections hurt more than others, and I’ve discovered that the more I invest emotionally in a particular submission the bigger the hurt. Or actually, the less I thought in advance about what I was doing the more surprised I was when something good came from it.

It’s that fine line between caring deeply for something you’ve invested a lot of time and energy into, and not really giving a crap about what happens to it (while secretly caring a lot).

Everything I’ve read and been told about the process of becoming a writer points out that rejection is part of the process, perhaps more of the process than any other part of it. I know that, and I get that, intellectually, but how do you shut off the emotional stuff? That sensitivity is the font of all that creative joy after all.

Or is it?

I long ago learned that creativity could be taught and learned; heck, I used to teach art to kids who protested they didn’t have the talent they assumed you had to be born with to execute. The difference between kids and adults in these matters is that kids are more flexible in their thinking, more willing to give things a try and shrug them off, and less experienced in their failure. They can still be taught to build on failure because they’re more vested in gaining the experience than they are in preconceived expectations. Sure, if their first drawing doesn’t look like the work of a master artist they are disappointed, but over time they can and will improve and in the end are easily convinced that creativity is a question of persistence.

I hear that rejection isn’t personal, that it’s merely a question of timing, finding a champion, reaching that one person who sees the way you see. It’s not about you, it’s about the work, I’ve been told.

Bull.

Rejection is personal, just as it’s an individual’s personal tastes that rejects something. Agents, editors, anyone with the power to say no (if they bother to say anything at all, which is just rude beyond rejection) is making a personal decision. They may hide behind market forces or some other polite excuse, because this is what we’ve become as a society: Nobody wants to get hurt, nobody wants to hurt anybody.

Rejection is not only personal, it’s a challenge, a dare if you will. Rejection asks How much do you believe in this project, in yourself? Do you believe enough to try again? Do you believe enough to take another hard look at what you’ve done and critically decide if it’s your best work? Rejection is the heckler in the audience trying to throw you, the comedian, off balance, the guy in the stands shouting accusations that you, the ref, are blind, the surly kid in the back row unimpressed by anything you, the teacher, has to offer.

Ultimately, rejection stands as a sort of proof-of-effort, tangible markers on the journey that proves, in the end, you’ve earned every right to be accepted in the first place.

It still stings like hell along the way.

Something I have learned to experience as a reviewer of books and movies is that the more you have to convince someone the less likely what you’re trying to get across is true.

I have learned, for example, that when a publicist sends me a synopsis of a book they’d like me to consider, and they tell me the plot is “wacky” or “outrageous” or “zany,” I know they are lying.  I know from way too much experience that if you have to convince me something is funny, it isn’t. If you can show me that something is funny, really show me, then the humor will be obvious and I won’t need so much convincing to check it out.

In my day job I make a presentation once a week of the new book titles that are released. Obviously I cannot (nor do I have the desire to) read upwards of a dozen books a week just to keep up with the publishing industry’s pulp factory. Sometimes I might do a little research about an author or a title, but more often I read and summarize the jacket copy.

Turgid, dull, and unoriginal don’t even begin to crack the surface of what I find there.

The problem is that they tell more than they show, they do the one thing authors are so painstakingly told to avoid in their own writing. How am I supposed to trust that the author can deliver what the jacket copy promises, especially if the jacket copy isn’t up to the job?  Am I supposed to believe that something is truly side-splittingly funny just because you say it is?

I can count on one hand the number of books that made me laugh out loud. They did not have to “sell” me on the humor, it was inherent in their title and plot. Captain Underpants, Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder, Beat the Band to name three in the kidlit camp. Granted, mostly pre-pubescent boy humor, but none of these books had to sell me on the funny, they told me all I needed to know from the title and their premise. If you have to tell me these books are wacky, zany, or outrageous then I know they aren’t. Telling is like the canned laughter of sitcoms, there to convince you of an emotion you aren’t feeling.

But the world isn’t full of truly funny books. There are more than enough mildly amusing premises, boatloads of unoriginal slapstick, plenty of sarcastic stories out there, from picture books up through young adult, but these descriptions don’t make for good sales because, frankly, they’re too honest.

By telling a prospective reader what to think and feel about a book before they have read it is the laziest and most insulting form of salesmanship. It presumes a reader cannot come to these conclusions on their own in its weak attempt to shore up what is an inferior product. It is insulting to the intelligence of the readers, and readers aren’t stupid, especially the young ones. They know its adults out there lying to them and they’re extra wary of the anonymous book cover that is trying to win them over like a creeper offering candy in a van.

So all you publishing interns, book publicists, and junior editors out there writing jacket copy and press releases, take note: if you really want your books read and purchased and reviewed, show us its worth our time, don’t tell us why.

And authors, if your query letters read like bad jacket copy, and you’ve sold your book, please share the secret of your success.

Recently, I read another author’s blog post about The Bechdel Test being applied to YA literature. I discussed the test, and my take on it, three years ago (twice, actually) when I first was thinking about its applications in my own writing. I was trying to make a conscious effort to not make the mistakes I saw repeatedly in middle grade and young adult fiction and was positing that, as writers, we perhaps had the greater burden of doing for children, in books, what Hollywood can’t bother to do in their movies.

A little less recently, but recently, another author brought up the dearth of African American boys in children’s literature, which naturally sparked an interesting discussion on his blog. At least in many books aimed at non-adult readers there’s a mix of both genders, but the lack of a multicultural diversity is appalling. Now, like the old Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial (“Hey, you’ve got diversity in my litmus test!” “You’ve got a litmus test in my diversity!”) I’m just going to throw it all out there and suggest that we need to have something similar to the Bechdel Test for multiculturalism in YA literature.

And, yeah, I named it after myself. Obviously I’m open to (better?) suggestions.

First, let me say, I did discover a Racial Bechdel Test out there, which follows along the same lines as the original (and why keeping Bechdel in the name made some sense) but for me the “test” doesn’t go far enough. Let’s take a look for a moment:

There must be more than one character of color
At least two characters of color must have a conversation
The conversation has to be about something other than a white person

That’s a pretty low bar, if you ask me. First, according to this test, the character of color doesn’t have to be a main character. That right there is open to stories where the main character has multicultural friends, and the friends can talk to one another, but then they don’t have to be as integrated (pardon the pun) into the plot as the story isn’t about them. Hello, Tonto! Hello Sidekicks-of-Color! A white main character with a rainbow coalition just ends up looking like a story with multiculturalism grafted into place. So we have out first real tenant of The Elzey Test, which is:

The main character must not be a white person, by default or design.

Sounds kinda harsh laid out like that, but you know, it has to be done. Better to take the medicine and move on. Also, by making the main character a person of color you pretty much guarantee they’ll also have name. Nameless women are an oft-cited limitation of The Bechdel Test, so I’m trying to avoid that here.

The fact that white is a default setting – characters aren’t described as white, but non-white characters are always defined against that default – is a very subtle problem that draws attention to itself once underscored. You might not even realize a character is white until they meet up with another character who isn’t, but it’s usually the non-white characters that get delineated. You know, just so you can see that they’re the ones who are “different” from the hero. Describe them all, I say, and let’s make it the white characters who are different from the main characters for a while.

Now let’s look at the conversation aspect. Two characters of color having a conversation, I don’t know how important that is compared with the simple fact that there should be multiple characters of color of non-token status within the story. Again, the point isn’t to build a model UN but to tell stories that include the various races and ethnicities of the readership. Yes, there are monochromatic schools and neighborhoods with all-black and all-white kids, but a book is a window into a world where kids can see that characters of ALL colors have issues and commonalities, and we should be telling more of those stories in a non-divisive way.

But there has to be more than conversation, it has to be natural to be the character and the story, integral without calling attention to itself or the character’s race. This sounds a little more convoluted than it needs to, all I’m really saying is

Characters should sound realistic when speaking to one another without becoming stereotypical.

That is, not every conversation is a cultural clash between races. There’s some great territory to be mined in having characters misunderstanding each other, but there’s a lot more value in finding the things they share. And I don’t mean appropriating or mimicing a subculture. There are billions of stories to be told out there, and aside from those that center around race, the majority of those stories are about people who happen to look different from one another. So for our final point here

Conversations should be about anything but racial differences.

Which is not to say that dialog should be neutral or “whitewashed” but that those differences are undertones, or if necessary contextual, but not the topic. Kids from poor neighborhoods will talk differently than kids from gated communities, but let’s get away from that being what the story is about. Let’s see some poor white kids and some middle class minorities and just have them deal with the reality of their narrative situations, not what makes them different by appearance.

To writers who might be afraid that they cannot write “outside the lines” in terms of their own experience, or that swapping out white characters for people of color is a band-aid to the issue, let me suggest the following exercise. Take a beloved classic in children’s literature, swap out the white characters, then ask yourself: does this make a significant change to the story? I’m not suggesting that all one needs to do is write a story and swap out the white characters, I’m saying that in a lot of cases there really is no need for the “white default” that is prevalent in YA literature, so let’s change it. Or challenge it at the very least.

Oh, and while we’re correcting these defaults, let’s keep in mind that upwards of 10% of these characters are gay, too. Not to put any sort of quota on things, or that the fact that they may be gay AND of color automatically changes the narrative significantly, but let’s throw that possibility into the mix.

So, let’s see what this looks like all put together.

The main character must not be a white person, by default or design.
Characters should sound realistic when speaking to one another without becoming stereotypical.
Conversations should be about anything but racial differences.

Okay, now let’s fine tune this. I’d be willing to concede that the second and third points should go without saying, but there really has to be more to correcting the issue of color in YA than simply changing out the main character.

Right?

If we’re living in a post-racial America we should start providing literature for teens that reflects that world.

What do you think?

I’m back, I’m tanned (okay, burned in splotchy areas), rested, shaking the sand out of my clothes, and ready to get back into things.

Or rather, I’m ready to see what new things I can get into, because the old things made me want this vacation so badly that clearly there is something wrong with what I’ve been doing.

There are no promises to make here, no resolutions, no grand agenda, but there is an enormous desire to undo what I’ve been doing which isn’t hard, because lately it’s it felt like I’ve been doing nothing.

I have not been reading. For months now. I have picked up books here and there and never got into them then let life get in the way. That’s just stupid. The “life” I let get in the way had to do with things I’d rather not be doing, i.e. a job for money, where the reading constitutes the necessary manna required for the thing I love, which is writing.

So I’m back to reading.

I have not been writing. Not seriously. I have squeezed in 20 minutes here and an hour there but I’ve also only been toying with things until I could find the time to do the “real” writing. Wrong. That’s just flawed thinking. Back-burnering larger projects because I don’t have time for them? No, I MAKE time for them and stop giving myself these little outs of being busy. Busy doing what? Things I hate, things I don’t want to do?

So I’m back to writing.

And the book reviews, my poor sad book review blog. While I have been reading for some reason I have fallen out of the habit of writing about those titles. In the past I have tinkered with the point and purpose of those reviews – initially they were part of my personal exploration and education, then they were an offshoot of both grad school and the reviewing I did for The Horn Book – but I’ve had a sort of crisis-of-faith that reviewing on a blog was somehow pointless. But I was able to do some quality reading while on vacation – my one and only goal for vacation was to read, which I did – and that reading kicked up some spark that makes me want to rethink and revisit the notion of writing about what I read. Hang the purpose and the style, if it isn’t for me first and foremost then it won’t matter to anyone else anyway.

So I’m back to blogging.

I guess there really is a list there, a plan, a scheme. Basics, I’m back to basics. It isn’t hardcore, planned on a calendar and scheduled to the minute, but the desire is there and I think, ultimately, its important for my soul that I get these parts of my house in order. Of those thing the blogging might lag behind the others, as I have recently been reading non-children’s books which don’t fit within the scope of that blog. I see this occasional gorging on “adult” literature as a sort of palette cleansing but also as a way of refreshing my critical reading skills. How much different is reading Don Delillo from a graphic novel? How are short stories for adults different or the same as those for teens? Whole new topics seemed to materialize out of the salty beach air. Cobwebs of the brain, be gone! I have things to think about and discuss!

So now we’ll see.

How is your summer shaping up, world? Any brain-clearing vacations on your horizon, any grand plans for these next couple of months?

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