Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The (seemingly) Endless Verginess of the Verge

Dear Reader,
Take a journey with me.

January, 2000. I had just gotten my first acceptance letter. The story was "The Parade of Princes" and the magazine was Cicada, a literary magazine for young adults in the Cricket group. The kind editor and I shared a few back and forth letters (this was all done in the mail back then) and the story appeared in the Sept/Oct issue. I got paid 25 cents a word. I was thrilled. It really seemed like I was on my way. A few months after the story appeared, Cicada forwarded me a letter from an editor at Viking. She loved the story, she said, and wondered if I’d ever considered writing a novel. I got another letter from the editors at the Institute of Children’s Literature. They wanted to include the story in a book called First-Time Authors that they planned to use with their students. Oh yes, Baby. I was ON MY WAY.

Now digress with me:

Several years later I was working in a fifth grade classroom as the gifted/talented collaborator. The teacher was teaching a cool lesson about fractions and measurements (I think that was the purpose of the lesson. One of the things I realized that year was that I had never really learned fifth grade math.) The gist of the activity was the kids drew rulers on long slips of paper and marked off the segments into inches (or maybe it was centimeters. Another thing that never clicked with me: the metric system) The teacher wanted the kids to note how you could keep dividing a segment in half. There would be a point when you wouldn’t even be able to see it, but conceivably you could continue to break the segment into smaller pieces. Sort of a reverse infinity, if you will.

Back to my point:

The verge. For a long time I measured the verge as a definitive line, the moment when I crossed from Unpublished into the Land of the Published Book Author. In the “Hero’s Journey,” the basis for pretty much every story ever told, including the story of our own human lives, the hero leaves the comforts and/or discomforts of home and sets out on his journey. He leaves the ordinary world and crosses the threshold into the special one, the place where the adventure really starts cooking. He’s tested. He makes friends and enemies along the way. He does battle. Etc. And eventually the journey ends (usually right back where the guy started) but now he’s a changed person, a true hero who’s earned his reward. The end.

So in my journey, I always saw the moment I got my book deal as crossing the threshold into the special world of Book Deal-dom. I imagine this lovely kingdom as a place of books signings and school visits and fan letters and on particularly bright dreamy days, it includes fame and fortune and a gold sticker on a book cover. When I said I was on the verge, I meant that I was steps away from crossing over into this blessed land.

The trouble is the threshold—the verge—is not a line after all. Instead it’s more like those segments on the paper rulers the fifth graders were drawing. It’s much wider and contains many more pieces than I ever suspected. Since January 2000 I’ve had more stories published. I’ve gotten nice rejections to the stories and books that weren’t published. I wrote many manuscripts. Some multiple times. I got an agent. I lost an agent. I found another agent. I have people that love what I write and champion it. And I have people who think it’s “meh” and/or won’t give it the time of day. There are times when I wonder how wide this freaking threshold is. Surely I am about to cross over. Soon? Ever?

Then it hit me.

I already have. The Verge isn’t the moment of the book deal. It's when I began to believe in myself as a writer. That’s when I crossed over. That’s when I left the ordinary world and entered the special one, my own writer’s journey. Along the way, I’ve been tested. I’ve made friends. And enemies. (the biggest one is Self-Doubt. That guy’s a bastard, let me tell you.) And I have truly done battle. Every day with the blaring blank computer screen. It’s entirely possible that I’ll never get The Deal. If it does happen, it may turn out to be the climax of my story. Or maybe it’ll be just another blip of a sub-plot.

Here’s the funny thing: the verge is not an elusive, ever-widening line. It's the journey itself. On this rare sunny day in Columbus, all's right with the world, and I can say without a hint of sarcasm or self-delusion, what a cool up and down adventure it’s been.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Musings on Carnivorous Horses

I am not a horse person. I know many people are. There’s a whole genre of horse-related books that I’ve never read. The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Black Beauty. I didn’t read that one either.

So I really had no desire to read the book The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. Something about the cover. I hate to say I judge a book by one, but it’s true. The picture on the front didn’t grab me. It’s a girl riding on a horse, in kind of a cartoon-like style. In addition to not being a horse person, I’m not an artistic person. I don’t pretend to know what goes into the design of a book cover. I just know what appeals to me and what doesn’t. This one fell into the second category. I was sitting at one of my favorite places in the world, Cover to Cover, a children’s bookstore in Columbus, and I had an array of new books to choose from, advanced review copies piled in front of me. I kept passing by the horse one, picking it up and putting it back down. In the end the only thing that made me hold onto it was the author’s name. Stiefvater wrote the novel Shiver about a girl who loves a wolf (really a beautiful boy named Sam) that lives in the woods behind her house. That was a good book so finally I took this new one. And, out of some sense of obligation to read it before it comes out officially on October 18, I opened it.

To say that I loved this book is a gross understatement. I spent an afternoon reading it when I should’ve been working on a revision. I am knee deep in major revision of a novel, a novel that for the first time in my life I think might possibly, dare I say it?—be published. (Maybe I shouldn’t have said this. "Scratch that," as Willy Wonka would say. "Reverse it.") Anyway, the last thing I needed to be doing today was curling up with a book.

But I am so glad I did. It reminded what I love about reading and books and children’s books andreading children’s books, and all of that draws me back to my own childhood when one of the only things that kept me going sometimes was the ability to escape into the world of a book.

The Scorpio Races is exactly the type of story I would’ve loved to fall into as a child. Even though, as I said, it’s filled with horses. These aren’t ordinary horses, though. Did I mention that? They’re killer ones based on an ancient myth of horse monsters that swim in the sea and rise up out of the waves to gallop on the shore. And occasionally eat people. The island where they roam builds an entire culture around these horses--catching them, riding them, racing them. The two main characters, a boy named Sean and a girl named Puck, have their own complicated relationship with the horses and eventually with each other. Sean is something of a horse whisperer. He’s a trainer and four time-race winner but he dreams of getting out from under the thumb of the owner, tired of propping up the owner’s worthless son. If Sean wins the next Scorpio race (which involves riding a horse on the beach between the cliffs and the sea while praying that you don’t get eaten or dragged into the water) maybe he can buy his beloved horse and gain his freedom. Puck’s got more serious problems. Her parents are dead (courtesy of, you guessed it, a horse), her older brother’s about to abandon her and her younger brother, and their cottage is about to be repossessed by Sean’s boss. If she rides in the big race (something a girl has never done before) she might win enough money to save her family from ruin.

I am not doing this book justice. The gorgeous language. The description of the sea and the beach and the strange people that inhabit the island. I don’t know where the novel takes place, or when. It doesn’t matter. It’s another world, a place you wish you could drop into and stay.

I don’t think there will be a sequel, something that surprises me (because sequels are so obligatory lately) and it makes me sad. I reached the last page and I wanted the story to keep going. Which reminds me of another favorite pastime I had as a child—rereading my favorite books so I could escape into them again.
It’s something I will certainly do with this one.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The End of the World as We Know It: The Latest in Apocalyptic Fiction

When I was in high school, I was convinced I would never make it out. Maybe all teens have a touch of this fatalistic sense—that they can’t possibly ever grow old, that no way can the world keep spinning, especially as you begin to look around and notice what a big mess things are. Wars, natural disasters, disease, never mind the cruddy way people generally treat each other. And teens are very stuck in the moment, thinking that things can never be so horrible as they are NOW, for THEM. When I was a teen, the Soviets shot down an airliner that had strayed into their airspace and the news was talking about how it might be the start of World War Three. The nuclear war disaster flick The Day After came out on TV, and I stayed up late to watch it. I believed that it was only a matter of time before some loony warmonger pushed the wrong button. The signs were everywhere…

But here I am. Older than I ever thought I’d be, raising two teens who are noticing the sometimes sad state of the world and wondering how it can possibly go on like this. My son read Cormac McCarthy’s post apocalyptic nightmare The Road a few months ago and asked me if we should start stockpiling canned goods. I’ve read that book too and halfway through found myself scrolling around on Mormon websites. (They have really good tips on rotating your pantry, in case anyone’s wondering.)

Last week I read the new novel everyone is buzzing about, a YA version of The Road that has the added element of zombies. Like the poor survivors of the apocalypse need anything else to worry about. The book is Ashes by Ilsa Bick and it’s brilliant. I’m giving you fair warning here. If you get your hands on it, clear your schedule. You won’t be able to put it down. Having a well-stocked pantry will help too, so you won’t have to worry about that while you’re reading. Also, you might want to reconsider your squeamishness about guns. Guns are big in this book. You need them to fight off the freaking zombies.

Before I sell you on Ashes, I want to say a word about dystopian fiction (a fancy way of describing End of the World books). This is the latest trend in YA fiction. I don’t know if it’s ever not been a trend. But it’s very big right now and kind of bleeding into other genres such as fantasy and science fiction. These books all have their own take on the apocalypse and/or its aftermath. Here are a few of the really good ones I’ve read lately, in no particular order:

1. The new classic that all of these are measured against is the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. If you’ve been living under a rock, here's the rundown: a sick, gritty society emerges after the end of the world in which kids compete in real-life, Survivor-style games for the entertainment of the privileged. The “lucky” selected boy/girl pairs are thrown onto a nightmare TV show set where they literally must kill each other. It’s horrifying, addictive, thought provoking and masterfully written. And there’s a movie coming out soon. Added bonus: all three books have been written so you can read them all without waiting.

2. Dark Inside by Jeyn Roberts (official release date is November 2011) is a teen twist on Stephen King’s The Stand. The narrative alternates between the points of view of various kids across the country as the end of the world begins. There’s an added pressure of townspeople turning on each other in zombie-like rage. And there will be sequels. In fact all of the books on my list are part of a series. Something that sort of ticks me off. Can’t a book just END anymore? Give the reader a satisfying conclusion? Tie up all the loose ends in one neat volume? Apparently not.

3. Matched and Crossed by Ally Condie. I’ve blogged about these before because they are SO good. They take place well after the apocalypse and society has evolved and/or degenerated to the point that nearly everything is decided for its members, including who they will marry. One girl buys into all of this until she’s mistakenly given two “matches,” which gets her questioning the system and wondering what else the powers that be have gotten wrong.

4. Across the Universe by Beth Revis is dystopian on a space ship. The world is so messed up a few scientists volunteer to be cryogenically frozen and put on a ship for hundreds of years to start anew on another planet. A larger number of volunteers have been running the ship and their descendants grow up not knowing exactly how it all started. One girl who is frozen with her parents wakes up to find that someone has (inadvertently/purposely?) pulled the plug on her. And the ship she’s trapped on is VERY unlike the world she left behind.

5. Ashfall by Mike Mullin. More realistic and therefore more disturbing. The super volcano lying (supposedly) dormant under Yellowstone erupts and destroys half the country. A fifteen year old boy has the bad luck to have been left home alone for the weekend while his parents visit relatives he doesn’t particularly feel like visiting. The book is his horrifying journey to find his family.

6. Delirium by Lauren Oliver. Long after the apocalypse we find ourselves in a world where love is defined as a disease. The solution is some kind of surgery to take away desire. Our heroine is all set for her cure when she falls in love. Teen girls LOVE this book. And adults (okay, just women, let’s be honest here) will read it and remember those crazed romantic feelings churned up when they first fell.

And now to Ashes.

The author Ilsa Bick (and let me just pause to say that I love the name Ilsa) throws her heroine Alex into a non-stop, heart-pounding, terrifying adventure. At the beginning, ironically, Alex's world already feels like it’s over. She has a brain tumor and knows she’s dying. Her parents died years before and because the tumor robbed Alex of her sense of smell, she can hardly remember them anymore (funny how closely our memories and sense of smell are intertwined). On a final trip to say goodbye—Alex is hiking in the mountains to scatter her parents’ ashes—BAM—comes the end of the world. In this case it’s an electromagnetic pulse which destroys all electronic devices and causes most people to drop dead. (Sheesh, do we need another fear?) Throw in a bratty kid and a marine on the run/possible romantic interest. Also add flesh-eating zombies. And a cliffhanger at the end of EVERY chapter that amps up the tension to heights you can’t imagine. Ilsa isn’t totally heartless. SPOILER ALERT: Alex gets her sense of smell back. And possibly a super power. Another warning: there will be sequels. That you will have to wait for.

Not sure what it is exactly that attracts me to these end of the world books. My son, after his class read The Road and his classmates dragged around depressed for weeks, has a theory that these novels aren’t as dark as they appear on the surface. Sure, they take the negative elements of our world to their extreme and terrifying conclusions, but in the end, there is always at least one person standing. See, these books are really about the resiliency of the human spirit. If that volcano explodes or we poison ourselves or blow the planet to smithereens, someone’s going to be left to carry on.

Let’s hope it’s a couple of kids.

With possibly a gun. And some nonperishable food.