Friday, March 28, 2014

Girls Like Me

There was never a time when I wasn't aware of my identity as Other. Homeschooler, Christian, artist. Fan of punk, hardcore, and Celtic folk. Too much or not enough to fit into convenient lables.

Senior portrait, featuring men's khakis, kid's shirt & paint

It wasn't until my late 20s that my baby sister showed me everyone feels this way. She's 11 years younger and doesn't remember when I wore combat boots and fishnets to school or how I struggled to find a place between my fellow art students and the students who shared my faith. What she remembers is that I graduated college and that I'm happily married and that I live in Los Angeles.

Normal behavior when hanging unsupervised in a boy's room. Right?

But when she looked at me and said "You're so normal" I nearly burst out laughing.

Me? Normal? NEVER.

And thus I discovered an almost universal truth: we all feel like outsiders.

Yet despite that, I saw very few girls like me in books, movies, or even real life. The girls I read about were either popular or wanted to be popular. I embraced my outsider status, deliberately upping my weird factor for effect. I didn't see many grown women like me either. They all seemed to have some secret knowledge that let them fit into the molds society built for them. I wanted more. I wanted permission to grow up to be weird (and mad props to my parents for being okay with that).

(I say girls because to date, all my POV characters save one have been girls, but all this applies to boys too.) 

14th birthday hijinks. I'm hiding behind Big Foot.

This is where I came to love fantasy. Be it Lucy Pevensie or Meg Murry or Alanna of Trebond, I found girls who resonated with me. Still, no matter how much I loved their bravery, intelligence, and strength, their experiences and their worlds were so far outside of my own. I still didn't see a road map for how to live my ordinary life.

There is power in reading something that reminds us that, outsiders or not, we are not alone. When we see characters who validate our experiences, it sends a message that we're okay. So when I began writing with the aim of publication, I knew I wanted to write about girls like me

Girls who dye their hair black or pink or purple. Girls who wear Chuck Taylor's and leather jackets. Girls who aren't afraid of a mosh pit. Or even if they are, rush the stage anyway because when you feel the bass in your bones, it doesn't matter if you get kicked in the shin or take an elbow to the face because it hurts so good. Girls who are totally unathletic or rock at sports and feel like a freak either way. Girls whose bodies are beautiful even though they don't fit societal expectations. Girls who read the dictionary and quote Joss Weadon or Nietzsche or G. K. Chesterton. Girls who wear contacts so no one knows they need glasses and girls who wear fake glasses because they like the look. Girls with deep faith and deep doubts and deep friendships. Girls who know they're misfits and choose to celebrate the things that make them unique. Girls who love and hate and feel everything.

Graduation day with my pet freshman

I wrote Bria in THE ART OF FALLING almost as a love letter to those girls, hoping to celebrate the things that make them so special. I wrote her so that maybe another girl would feel less alone. I wrote her so that girls like me could see that I grew up to be me and that's awesome. Three months after publication, not everyone loves Bria. But that's okay. I didn't write her for everyone. I wrote her for everyone who feels like an outsider.

Maybe my kids will grow up to feel like they fit in. Maybe they'll be popular and traditionally attractive and good at all the things they're supposed to be good at. It seems unlikely as I watch my son twirl in a tutu and my daughter body surf down the hills in the park, and, honestly, I think I'd be a little disappointed if they did. I want my kids to grow up confident enough to embrace their weirdness and celebrate the things that make them uniquely who they are.

To that end, I will keep writing about girls like me. Not everyone will like my heroines. Not everyone will relate to their struggles or understand their choices. But I don't write to make people like me. I write to be honest and to tell stories I think need to be told. And hopefully give my readers the courage to be themselves.

So cheers to all the other outsiders. To the girls like me. May your freak flags wave forever proud.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Dreaded Query

I've spent months writing my Summer Story, agonizing over bits of dialog and plot and character development. I've played with half a dozen titles (I'm currently calling it THE TRICK TO LANDING), created a Pinterest board, and built a playlist. I've drafted and refined and polished until it's very near to something I'm proud of. I seriously love this book.

All of that? That was the easy part. NOW I have to somehow take those months of work, those 52,000 or so words, and condense them into a 250 word query letter that entices the reader, summarizes the story, and somehow does justice to the character's I've created.

This book has been hard to write and even harder to summarize. I've technically been working on a query since before I started writing - and I'm still unhappy with it. I've basically forgotten everything I learned about query writing prior to signing my publishing deal.

But wait! Published authors need to write queries?

In a word, yes. I have to give my editor something to describe the book I've written. Publishing is a business and my publisher has the right to either take this book on or not. A query letter is part of that. It can also be part of the cover copy. If you look at the book description for FALLING on Amazon or another bookseller, that is 90% word-for-word from my query.

There's never really a time when you won't need to succinctly describe your book. It's definitely not my favorite part of the process, but it's important. I'm going back to the three Cs - character, conflict, crisis - and examining my story with new eyes. If I can't break it down into those elements, there's something wrong with the book and that means it isn't read for a query anyway.

In the interest of transparency, here's what I've got so far. It's a work in progress and still so rough. But everything starts somewhere and here's my start :)

Sixteen-year-old skater Summer O’Neill wants to forget her past on the half pipe, blazing new trails in a sport that doesn’t exactly welcome girls. After a gnarly wipeout destroyed her chance for a spot in the X Games, it’s been one mistake after another, culminating in a DUI and a move halfway down the coast to tiny Oceanside, California. Life in Oceanside is a chance for redemption – on a board and off – but it also means adjusting to life with a mother she hardly knows, navigating new friendships, and redefining who she thinks she is. 

The very last thing Summer is looking for is a boyfriend, at least until she meets Sebastian Vega. Steady, unassuming, and sensitive, he’s everything she’d not. Before long, she’s sneaking out for midnight sandcastle building excursions and trading in her art class for private photography lessons in the darkroom with Bastian.

But Summer’s past isn’t finished and Bastian has problems of his own – including a bleeding disorder that shapes every aspect of his life. As he fights against the very restrictions she needs to make up for her past, their issues collide in a perfect storm of failure. Now Summer must let go of her past and embrace the moment if she has any chance at a future with Bastian.

I'd love to hear your thoughts! Any brilliant query advice you have for me? Any tips for keeping sane while shrinking a beloved story into a tiny description? Good luck to all writing the dreaded query.