YA by Any Other Name…

I just finished Shirley Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I won’t do a proper book review here since you can read my thoughts on Goodreads (sidebar). I will say, however, that it’s striking to me that she’s writing for adults but using a teenager as her main character (and in first person, no less).

Today, publishers would put Castle in the YA category. But it isn’t.

Bear with me as I nerd out for a moment. Jackson wrote in the forties and fifties when there was no special reading category for teenagers. In her day, there were children’s books and books for adults. The age of the main character in a novel did not put the book in a special lane for “young adults”. This meant that any non-kid lit could, and often did, deal with serious themes, regardless of whether its protagonist was 12 or 35.

[Nowadays, publishers would call The Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, and other classics with young protagonists YA fiction. They aren’t. These novels incorporate adult themes, some of which are easier to absorb because the characters living them out are young. In the end, though, they’re heavy books meant for grownups.]

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Why does it matter?

Okay, it doesn’t unless you’re a novelist like me who’s going the traditional publishing route. In my last novel, my main characters open the story as adult women, but at some point they go back in time. They sound like teenagers and process information like teenagers, but the novel itself is for adults. This can be a bit of a sticky wicket because of the YA category.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle reminded me that today’s publishing categories didn’t always exist. And, in many ways, they don’t matter unless a book is being marketed to the wrong group.

In that case, it matters a lot.

Still, I have to believe the best writing advice is to write what you love regardless of the name the industry gives it. Then, hopefully, the right readers will find it.

On Getting Unstuck

I usually write from home. I don’t have an office with a beautiful cherry desk with a globe on it. I have my bed. That’s where I’ve penned at least part of three previous novels (plus the one I’m working on now).

At some point in every project, though, I start to feel claustrophobic. I dread the idea of sitting on the same bedspread, looking at the same closet. I find I can’t concentrate–even in complete silence. So I go to the library.

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The library is a surprisingly noisy place these days. I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the line, people stopped whispering there. They started answering their phones, coughing loudly, and watching YouTubes until, now, it’s almost as “atmospheric” as a coffee shop.

As an HSP, I find it’s not the sanctuary I might have hoped for.

Still, it has what my bedroom does not–thousands and thousands of other people’s books, which represent millions of hours of concentration, determination, and pure grit. And seeing those stacks filled with ideas-come-to-life helps me to get out of the creative doldrums and back to work.

Every time.

Next time you’re in a rut, think about how you might put yourself in a different setting for an hour or two–somewhere that might inspire you to remember why your work is important. It could just be the thing you need to get unstuck.

As Ordinary as Fiction

I don’t normally write about my kids. I used to, but they’re teenagers now, and I’m trying to respect their privacy. Even so, my writing habits are punctuated by mothering episodes, and it’s hard to think about my creative life without also thinking about my parenting life.

My sisters read my novel recently. They said, “It feels like YA in some parts because of the teenage voices.” I thought that was funny. I didn’t set out to write about teenagers. It just happened because that’s my world right now.

So often, our creative lives are our ordinary lives and vice versa. We conceive ideas from of the soil of our liturgies. Novels are birthed after a million laundry-folding moments.

This is as it should be–life informing art, art taking its place among myriad other realities. I hope I always have people or things to take care of, duties that demand I escape the world of fiction and join the one in front of me.

It can only make my life and art better.

Tunneling Through

I wish I had this lil’ gadget on my forehead. It would be so helpful as I continue to press forward on draft 1 of my next novel.

And I have bangs, so I could hide it, sometimes.

Instead, I’ve been giving my loved ones vacant smiles. To be fair, I may have been doing that all along. In any case, I’m using the vast majority of my creative strength on a new project, and what’s left of me isn’t worth much.

On a happy note, my debut novel advanced to the finals of the ACFW Genesis contest in the contemporary fiction category. I’ll head to San Antonio in late September to attend the awards ceremony and, obviously, to see who wins.

It’s such a shot in the arm to get outside validation on one’s work, though we shouldn’t really need it. (That’s what we tell ourselves and each other, anyway. We’re human, though, and this kind of work often leaves us wondering if we’re living in outer space). To have made it to the finals gives me courage for my current project.

Anyway, I’ve promised myself I’m not going to fall off the face of the earth just because I’m in creation mode. It’s summer, after all, and I need to feel like I went outside some. Also, I don’t want to lose momentum in the blog world.

So here I am, popping my head above ground and saying hello.

Keeping On

Still over here hacking away at a new novel. I’m officially around 20% of the way finished. This one’s easier to write than the one before it. Still, I find I have to negotiate with my brain every, single day in order to make my word count.

This is with the wind at my back, friends.

I don’t know why I find it so hard to beat back Resistance, even when I’m in a predictable writing habit. I wish it weren’t so.

All work, even creative work, requires grit and determination, though. (And writing feels like work, sometimes, let me tell you).

So, here’s to keeping on keeping on. Whatever you have going in your life right now, may you find the wherewithal to continue with it until it’s time to move to the next thing.

On Staying in the Purple

I’ve started writing a new novel. I’m 11,000 words in to what I expect will be an 80,000-ish word project. Since I’m pumping out the chapters, I find myself with depleted verbal reserves (most often of which I access to lecture my teenagers). So I though I’d just share this today. Seems about right.

Staying in the purple ain’t easy, folks. But the alternative is moving to crazy town.

In the End

On Saturday night, I got a voicemail from a writing contest coordinator. I’d entered a big thing and, it turns out, my novel made it to the semi-finals.

I cried.

The writing life is one in which a person can go a long time without any kind of outside validation. It’s hard to tell whether your writing is “good enough,” hard to find an agent, hard to break into traditional publishing.

Hard to keep going, sometimes.

So the news about the contest came at a good time. It made me feel I’m on to something, that my story resonates and is well-written. Four days later, however, I got my first ‘no’ from a major publisher. They asked if I had any other novels to show them (which, I guess, is a kind of compliment since it means they liked my writing). Still, a rejection.

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It made me feel like I might have been kidding myself, that my story is confusing or weird, that it’s poorly written.

I didn’t cry, but I felt like someone had punched me in the gut.

But then two creatives whose careers I’ve followed died this week. They were young. One was a multi-published author with a big following. I felt sick and unsettled.

In my grief and shock, I decided, once again, that I’m not going to allow my life to be consumed with things that don’t matter in the end. I’m not going to be ruled by the ups and downs of the writing/publishing life.

I refuse. (Of course, I’ve refused before, so I’ll need to be reminded when the next big thing happens).

I’m here to say: I have an agent who’s great, a novel that is winning awards and is on submission to big houses, and I have a growing platform. These are the things I would have salivated over last year. Now that they’re my reality, though, I’m no happier than I was. I still worry about the next thing. What if a publisher doesn’t understand what I’m trying to do? What if I get published and no one buys my book? What if they buy my book and hate it? Or worse, don’t care at all?

My life could be over tomorrow. Or today. I refuse to spend it hand wringing about things I cannot control.

In the end, there are more important things than whether I’m published or not. And being published will not end up making me happy.

To South Africa with Love

Friends who live in South Africa stayed in our home recently. The last one left last night, and they will head back across the ocean in a short while. It was a sweet, if crowded, time of relearning about the world and discovering, once again, how similar people are no matter where they live. We were reminded that true friends are like canned goods. They keep.

Having others in my home is stretching, though. Even if they don’t mean to, our guests (and we’ve had many) hold a mirror in front of me. They cause me to notice my routines, my “must-haves” and quirks, in new ways. The fact that we have to have music playing during every meal? That’s not normal, turns out. Our multiple-pots-of-coffee mornings where even the teenagers imbibe like addicts? Different. The way I fold underwear. The fact that I fold underwear.

It can be a little uncomfortable to see myself and my habits through someone else’s eyes. This is not necessarily because I’m doing things wrong, but because I thought I knew myself well. Turns out, I’m often on autopilot. I fail to notice things. I can be a little (lot?) blind, sometimes…

Like a good spring cleaning, letting others into my personal space can bring on a life audit. It’s easier to discern which things I want to keep and which I could possibly let go when I’ve lived up close with someone who does things differently. It produces growth, which, yes, can be painful. But the alternative is stagnation and status quo. I’m not interested in those.

So I’m thankful for the last ten days for several reasons, among them the chance to see myself and my loved-ones more clearly.

Thanks, South Africa. Until next time.

Diving into the Darkness

As a creative, I look for windows into the human psyche wherever I can find them. I listen to conversations in the booth behind me at my local coffee shop (I know. Bad). I watch interesting documentaries on Netflix, pay attention to the lyrics in folk songs, read essays and poems, and watch indie films.

Almost more than anything else, I listen to podcasts.

Podcasts have an advantage over other forms of media because I can consume them while I’m running or washing dishes. I’ve written before about how well-chosen episodes stay with me for days, even weeks, after I’ve listened to them. They send my mind down new paths and bring fresh insight into old problems. All of this helps me craft better stories.

Recently, though, I’ve had to call it quits on one of my favorite genres–true crime.

The problem is I get into the habit of binge listening to one horrific incident after another. I’m riveted by them, but my spirit sinks with each gory detail. I notice I don’t feel like going for my afternoon run or talking to my kids when I’m on a listening jag. Worse, I dream about crime and often waking up groggy and disoriented. Finally, I start obsessing about how God sees all the wickedness people commit against one other, and how he could stop it but often doesn’t. At least not in this life.

I’m left lethargic and on edge.

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So, yesterday, I went to my playlist and deleted my crime shows. I sort-of hated to do it because, as I’ve (also) mentioned before, I’m waiting to hear back about the status of my novel, and listening keeps my mind off things, at least for 30 minutes at a time. No amount of distraction is worth the emotional darkness, though. I’m simply going to have to find another way to survive, and, hopefully, to stay productive and present.

How about you? What do you do to pass the time when you’re in a season of waiting? How much darkness is too much?

On Choosing the Blue Cord

My family and I just got back from a short vacation in the mountains where we celebrated my in-laws’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. Fifty years is longer than I’ve been alive. It’s more than twice as long as my husband and I have been married. My in-laws make marriage look easy, though I know from 19 years’ experience it’s anything but.

I’m lucky. I have a deep friendship with my husband. We met in college and became inseparable in fairly short order, partly because we shared a major and partly because we just “clicked.” According to statistics, we have an advantage in seeing our marriage through to the end. After all, we married without a ton of debt. Our parents have stayed married to their spouses. We share household and childrearing responsibilities. We bend and flex for each other’s careers. Most importantly, we share a common religious faith.

Still, it’s hard to stay married, sometimes. Even for us.

As I stood on the back porch of our mountain cabin, I noticed two saplings tied together by a blue cord. They pressed against it in opposite directions, clearly wanting to grow apart, but someone had made sure they couldn’t. The blue cord holds them together no matter how hard the wind blows or how their own intertwined roots might cramp them.

Me, too, little trees. Me, too.

We choose our own cords, I thought. My in-laws chose theirs, and fifty years later, we are all better for their dogged determination not to untie themselves when things (inevitably) got hard.

I hope my children will say the same about my husband and me someday.