Because dear and inspiring Beth Kephart asked to read a snippet of my WIP, here’s a little teaser from my YA verse novel-in-progress. You can read a snippet of Beth’s current WIP here.
My best friend Emmet
is posing for me.
Okay, so maybe he’s just sprawled on the floor
while Mozart kneads his chest and purrs
but he’s laying there, hanging out and I’m sketching him.
I’ve got the outline done
his nose and ears, easy enough even his lips,
slightly open while he recites Ogden Nash to my cat.
I’m working on the eyes
trying to capture
the secrets I know are there
Look at me, I say.
So he does
and he grins that smile that fills his face
with the kind of glow you see on a movie star
after they’ve spent three hours in makeup
only with Emmet, it’s completely natural.
I could fall for him hard
if he liked girls.
Dear Boyfriend of Sister #1,
You two have been together a long time. Why? Tell me what attracts you to her. I know a lot of your downs, mostly hers. I don’t know any of the highs. You can’t hang around in this book as some sort of eye-candy. That’s not going to work.
Tell me what she does that really ticks you off. Tell me why she doesn’t have any close girlfriends. Tell me if you think the two of you will still be together by the end of this book.
Dear Little Brother of Sister #1,
Tell me your favorite memory you share with your sister. Is she nice to you? Does she help you clean your room or do your homework? Do you ever spy on her?
So far you’re acting a lot like a dog in a book, a dog that doesn’t really need to be there. If I can yank you out of the story and not notice, well, you’re going to be history pretty soon.
Dear Mother of Sister #1,
Do you have a backbone or a heart? I can’t figure out which.
Have you told her the truth or nothing but lies?
And that husband you have now, how much does he really know about the real story?
Last week when my characters wrote back to me I could finally hear a couple of distinct voices calling out to me. This is proving to be a great plotting exercise for me. Here are this week’s letters to my characters.
Dear Plant Kid,
First off, some sympathy that Nan and your grandmother seem to be making you feel bad all the time. Sometimes grownups can be mean without even trying. I’m sure they both love you very much.
I want to hear more about how your dad died but I understand if you don’t feel like talking about it right now. Maybe you could just tell me about that thing you found that used to belong to your dad. I don’t want to fall into cliche territory here and it seems highly possible, considering your situation and all.
And what about Mr. Mac? You haven’t talked about him in a while.
Thank you for sharing that special memory of your sister with me. I know it wasn’t easy. I’m glad you had Mrs. Winslow there to help you. I seem to be focused a lot on dead dads today so maybe, since you aren’t ready to tell me about how your sister died, maybe you could tell me what happened with your dad?
And what about that gypsy lady? Is she still around?
I might as well get all the dead dad questions out of the way at the same time. I want to know what you felt like when you found out your father was dead.
Yesterday I wrote these letters to my characters. Today they wrote back and boy did they surprise me!
Dear Curious Author
Here’s the important stuff you need to know about my dad.
#1 He died before I was born. Do I even have to tell you how much that stinks?
#2 According to Nan he was a cross between some kind of super hero and a movie star. "A perfect male specimen." That’s just the way she says it. Right after she tells me how wimpy and skinny and pathetic I am. She says she can’t even believe he could be my father because we’re nothing alike. Do I even have to tell you how crappy that makes me feel?
#3 According to my grandmother, he did everything perfectly right the first time. Never made any mistakes. Do I even have to tall you what kind of pressure that puts on me?
#4 It was an accident, the way he died. I’m not going into all the details right now but here’s the thing, he died right here, in the very house we still live in. Every time I walk past the place where it happened, I shiver. Not the kind of shiver because I feel like there’s a ghost nearby (boy wouldn’t that be cool?) But the creepy kind of shiver of not believing that there’s something broken that my grandmother doesn’t want to fix because it was the last thing my father touched. Do I even have to tell you weird that is?
#5 This last one is a secret so you can’t tell my grandmother or Nan. But I found something that belonged to my dad. It was out in the garage and hidden behind a bunch of junk my grandmother won’t touch. I knew it was his even before I saw his name on the inside cover. I never told anyone I found it before. Never. It’s all mine. Do I even have to tell you how great that feels?
Every day I had with my sister was a happy memory. The problem is there weren’t enough of them. But here’s my favorite.
The day my mom came home from the hospital with my baby sister it was raining. Pouring buckets. Mrs. Winslow from next door was taking care of me. Mom pushed open the front door, cursing about the rain and being all wet and stuff. She put the baby carrier down as soon as she walked in the door and said she needed a hot shower and dry clothes. She didn’t even care that my new sister was absolutely soaked. Just left her sitting there, crying, and walked away.
So me and Mrs. Winslow took her over to the sink and gave her a warm bath. Mrs. Winslow showed me how to use towels in the sink with a rolled up one for behind her neck. She showed me how to wash her, real gentle like, so it wouldn’t hurt. And then she showed me how dry her and put a diaper back on until she was all clean and warm and pink and dry.
Later, after Mrs. Winslow went home, I sat on the couch, holding my baby sister and watching her sleep. Every once in a while she would do a little hiccup in her breathing and then let out a sigh. I held her for a long time, even after I could feel my arm falling asleep, and I promised her I would always keep her safe.
Frankie, the kid who broke his promise
Sister #1 is like you in that she’s a goody-two-shoes, (well except for that one medical incident). At least that’s what she wants you to think. And she has hole in her heart that she thinks is going to be filled when she finds her dad. And she’s going to be disappointed.
Sister #2 is like you in that she is afraid for people to see who she really is. And so she’s pretty much an expert in the "fake it til you make it" way of thinking. And she really loves dogs. Great, big dogs.
Dear Plant Kid,
Tell me about what happened to your dad. How did he die? How was your life different before he died?
One curious author
Were you trying to shock me with that comment about how you killed your sister? Because it’s didn’t work.
I’m not shocked and you didn’t kill your sister. Forget what your mother and her loser boyfriend of the week are telling you. It’s not your fault. You didn’t pull out a gun and shoot her or sit on her in the bathtub until she drowned. It was an accident. Really.
Can you tell me one happy memory about you and your sister? Just one?
Author who wants to be sure she gets your story straight
Okay, so I get your point about the medical procedure one you had to have. And I get that it’s a great big secret. I’m even pretty sure I know which one of you had to have it.
But so what? What does that have to do with the story we’re trying to tell here?
Author who is trying to see what parts of each of you are inside of me
Last week I wrote some letters to my characters. Today they wrote back.
I’m not that complex. I’m a kid who wants what ever other kid wants, a normal family that doesn’t hassle me all the time. A best friend to do things with. Less homework and more pizza.
If you want to tell my story, maybe you need to go back farther than what you thought was the beginning. Mr. Mac says that there are some seeds that sleep for years just waiting for some kind of explosion in their life to wake them up and start them to growing. Like a fire. One day they’re just a bunch of seeds in a bunch of dirt and then suddenly, a month or two or three after a fire, when everything else is black and dead looking, those sleepy seeds wake up and punch through the ashes toward the sun.
Of course not all of those seeds wake up. Some of them just go right on sleeping forever.
Maybe my family is just like those seeds, sleeping in the dirt, waiting for the explosion to wake them up. Or maybe that explosion happened a while ago, like when my dad died, and now they’ve forgotten how to do anything else.
Dear Author Who Will Figure Out the Balancing Act When She Needs To,
You asked me to surprise you and I’m sure how to do that. I was going to tell you that me, Frankie, and that other guy you were writing about, Cooper, were probably the same guy but it looks like you figured that one out for yourself already. You already know I used to have a baby sister but now I don’t.
Did you know that it’s my fault that she’s dead?
Dear Authory Person,
Before you give up on us you might want to know the story about how one of us, and probably not the one you were thinking of, had to make a visit to that grey building over on Galindo Street. You know, the one that has the people carrying signs out front and screaming at the people going inside? The one where you practically have to have a guard or a boyfriend with really big muscles walk you from the car to the inside? Yeah, that one.
And she wasn’t going there to pick up some more pills.
Dear Plant Kid,
You ought to know I’m rethinking the beginning of your story. Not the part with the bird but the part where you meet the old man for the first time. I’m not buying the story which makes selling it to the reader a bit tough. I’m also thinking about that thing that happened to your arm in one of the other versions. It might be making a comeback. Just thought you should know.
Author who is confused but intrigued by the complex relationships in your life
Ask your boy to tell me something that would surprise me.
Author wondering how she is going to balance all the horrible stuff that is going to happen to you with something good
To be honest, neither one of you is all that interesting to me right now.
Author who may be backburnering you for a while unless you can do something to change my mind
A few days ago I wrote some letters to characters. Today they write back.
I always knew the snake was in my bedroom. And it would have stayed there if Gran hadn’t gone all gran-splosive and chased it with the broom. And she wouldn’t have even known it was there if she hadn’t gone in my bedroom looking for the dirty laundry. Besides. I got the snake to do her a favor and she didn’t even bother saying thank you. She’d have rapped my knuckles good if I forgot to say thank you. Grownups don’t make a whole lot of sense to me at all.
Dear Author in hiding,
First off, you need to remember that the thing with my sister and the thing with Max are not the same thing. What happened with Max WASN’T my fault. What happened with my sister was.
Second off, if that person thinks they are keeping Max or keeping me from Max, they’re in for a big surprise.
Third off, I know I told you I didn’t want to talk about it but I think if I’m going to fix things with Max, you’re going to have to tell about what happened with my sister.
Hey you there, yeah, the one writing this story. One thing you have to remember about me is that I might let J think it’s all his idea but we never, ever do anything I didn’t decide I wanted to do first. There’s no way some guy is pulling all of my strings and leading me around. I never asked you to like me. I don’t need you or anyone else to like me. J likes me. Hell, he probably loves me with a big, fat capital L. He loves what I do and how I make him feel and I love how he makes me forget.
So you decided to pop into my life, with no invitation, and start writing my story, huh? Got that much extra time on your hands? Can’t think of something better to do? Don’t go kissing up to me with compliments because they don’t count for crap in the real world. Sweet-talking might work on my mom but not on me. And stay the hell away from my journals. Just because they have pictures in them doesn’t make them public. They’re private. Just like my life. So stay the frack away.
Just a few recent letters to my characters prompted by scenes I am playing around with at the moment.
Dear Plant Kid,
I fell in love with you all over again when you found the gopher snake. Of course Gran wasn’t nearly as pleased as me. Did you find it yet?
You may have just been trumped by a dead sister but it’s a temporary situation I’m sure. I suggest you stay where you are for the time being. I know it’s not the home of your heart but you’re safer there and that makes it easier for your boy when he does what he has to do next.
Dear Sister #1,
I thought what you did that night was his choice, not yours. You’re not who I thought you were and that makes you a very interesting character. I don’t like you as much as I did when we started this journey, but that’s okay. I don’t have to like you, I just have to believe you. And I do.
Dear Sister #2,
You’re the strong one. I know it doesn’t feel that way at the moment but I can already tell you are the strongest of the pair of you. It’s not just what you’ve had to endure, although that has certainly added to your strength. You’re also very talented but I wish you wouldn’t hide your talent in those books. It’s okay to share.
Usually by this time of the year I am going crazy with preparations for a teacher assignment at an at-risk detention facility. For whatever reason, I didn’t get an assignment this year. I’ll admit to feeling a little bit down for a day when I realized the time for assignments had gone but now I realize that it was likely the Universe telling me it was time to just knuckle down and finish some writing projects of my own. When I teach, I find it hard to write much of anything except my daily teaching reports. Teaching is exhausting. Teaching poetry to incarcerated young men is VERY exhausting.
So I’m listening to the Universe and trying to focus, instead, on SS which is a YA verse novel inspired by last year’s Poetry Month poems about my father. I’ve never been one of those people who thought much about how many words I got down each day. NaNoWrimo never worked worked for me. And except for deadlines that come when I am writing on assignment, I’ve never tried to get a certain project done by a certain day. Which probably explains why a lot of my novels are waiting to be finished.
But the last two years for National Poetry Month I committed to writing a poem a day, every day, on a certain topic. And I did it, without fail.
So I’m setting myself a new goal – I want to have a ROUGH draft of SS done by the end of March, before National Poetry Month begins. I’m rounding out the time left between then and now to 75 days. (actual number is 78) I’m not counting what I already have done but if I did 2 pages a day, that would give 150, 3 pages a day would be 225. Since this is in verse, I’m setting it at 2 poems a day. Some fit one one page, some will run longer. Now no one knows how long a book is going to be and I’m not going to worry about the specifics. I’m just going to try for 2 poems a day.
Now I don’t think that means the book will be done by the of March but I can’t revise until I have something to work with so that’s the goal. One rough draft of SS by March 31st.
Wish me luck.
Dear Girl #1,
You boyfriend’s right. You shouldn’t go to that funeral. I know you’re going to go ahead and go but you really shouldn’t. It’s not that something bad is going to happen there. You’ll have a good time seeing as how it’s the first funeral you’ve ever gone to and everything.
It’s the after part you should be worried about. Sorry about your car.
Dear Girl #2,
I am not writing about your boobs. Nope. I don’t care who you’re flashing them to I’m not writing about them.
Well, not much anyway.
It’s been a long time since I wrote to any of my characters but I figure the beginning of the year is a good time to start up the conversations.
Dear Girl #1,
Your mom’s telling the truth. Maybe not all of it but what’s she’s told you so far is the God’s honest truth. Just thought you should know.
Dear Girl #2,
Your mom’s lying like a dirty rug in front of the kitchen sink. And yeah, that stinky stuff is going to hit the fan. I’d offer to give you a hand but you’d probably bite it off.
Dear Author Who Needs to Grow A Pair,
I’ve got three things for you:
First off, habits are funny things. Sometimes you don’t even realize something’s becoming a habit until you’ve been doing it for years. And if someone asked you why you do some of the things you do, you might not even be able to pinpoint where it all started. Maybe that matters. Maybe it doesn’t.
Second, maybe I did wonder about my mom when I was a little kid. I don’t remember. But since no one could ever tell me much about her I really didn’t care. Really. But Tate, well there he was right on the television set doing all sorts of crazy things in airplanes and somehow that made him more real to me. The kind of real that had me hoping he’d walk through the front door any minute and tell me the crash was just one more crazy stunt he’d pulled off.
Third, quit thinking like a girl.
You know that mom you thought you could just turn your back on and not deal with? I don’t think that’s going to happen. The logic doesn’t map. Anyone I’ve talked to about your story says it doesn’t make any sense that you would want to know about one parent and not the other. I can’t pretend like she never existed, well, except for the whole giving birth to you part. There’s something else going on there, something Wilson isn’t telling you about her. I don’t know what it is, maybe she’s actually a really nice person with a good reason for what she did. It could happen.
Okay, so maybe she isn’t very nice at all but don’t you want to know for sure? Won’t knowing about both parents be the way to really understand who you are?
Or do you already know something and you’re just not telling me?
Dear Author Who Has Been Ignoring Me,
You wouldn’t be the first person to give up on me, you know. You remember what my mother did. People think I should be pissed off about that but I really don’t think about it too much. And no, I’m not lying. Maybe if Wilson talked about her once in a while I might start to think about it more but he doesn’t so I don’t. Case closed.
Tate now, that’s a different story.
I don’t know how you figure you can hurt me but hey, go ahead. Bring it on.
That is, if you think you have it in you.
It’s been a while since I wrote you. I’ve missed you but I didn’t know what to say to you anymore. I’ve felt like I’ve been talking in circles in your story for years and just not getting anywhere and, to tell you the truth, I was starting to wonder if it was worth the trouble. I was starting to think that maybe your story was just for me and that maybe I ought to let it go.
Then along came April and National Poetry month. I wrote all these poems about my dad that I never knew and I started thinking about how much you and I were alike, how many questions we both have about our pasts.
April surprised me with all the feelings that got stirred up inside of me. Things I didn’t think bothered me started to bother me something fierce and things that should have pissed me off didn’t seem like such a big deal. Hurts I thought I had buried a long time ago came bubbling up to the surface to hurt me all over again but by the end of the month I had a few more answers than I’d had at the beginning of the month and even if I didn’t like the answers, well, they were my answers to my story.
Which got me thinking about you and Wilson and Tate and how, if I’m going to tell your story, the right story, I’m going to have to hurt you. A lot.
I’ll just go ahead an apologize for that now.
There have been some things going on in my life lately. Some things that have me thinking those deep, dark thoughts that keep you up at night. I found this old post from a few years ago that touches on it somewhat and I thought I’d share it again, (with some editing) because it explains a lot of where my mind is at of late . . . though it helps if you can read between the lines.
* * *
Hemingway said, and I can’t remember the exact quote so I’ll try to paraphrase it, he said that he couldn’t write about Paris when he lived there. He had to leave Paris before he could put the words on the page that would describe his experiences. While living there it was too much, too intense, too something and it skewed his vision. He needed distance and the passage of time before he could tell his story.
Some stories, while not easy, can still be written while you are in the midst of living them. When my kids were little I wrote about events within weeks or months of them happening. It was fun, like putting things in their baby scrapbooks. I recorded their awkward moments, their growth, and many of our special family memories. I told stories about our family and I got paid for it. Now I can go back and reread those old articles and it’s like picking up an old teddy bear and paging through a scrapbook of their childhood.
But other stories, perhaps those that touch the most painful parts of us, lay fallow for many years before the words begin to venture forth. I believe our emotions go into self-preservation mode and give us time to heal before we’re strong enough to attempt share a piece of ourselves through the telling of a story. My first picture book, Can I Pray With My Eyes Open? rested deep beneath the surface for over 25 years before it burst forth, near fully formed in one sitting. I can tie that story to an exact moment in time, when I was 10 years old, and I know that the book was an answer to a question asked long ago. Another picture book, Oliver’s Must-do List , seems, at first, to be a simple story about a mother and a child have a playday together but I can tell you now that it was born of guilt – immense guilt that my children were grown and I couldn’t go back and spend more time with them. Hugging the Rock is a novel about fathers and daughters, but more than that, it is about making peace with things you cannot change. I never knew my father and I wondered about him for many years. I can’t remember when I finally stopped searching but when I did, I realized that my own story was inching closer to the surface, closer to being ready to be heard.
Hugging the Rock is also about picking up the pieces after a divorce. Though many friends advised me to, I couldn’t write about my own divorce in the years immediately after it happened. The pain was too immense, the emotions too raw. But time was a helpful balm. Eventually my emotions bubbled to the surface telling me when it was time to write the story. In the process of the writing there were still some deep and painful moments but because I had waited, I was strong enough to go to the dark places and still come out alive. Enough time had passed that I could accept the blame for what was mine and let go of the blame for anything else. I could see the details through the tears.
There are other childhood events I want to write about someday but they’re still simmering and I’m still healing. Those stories will have to wait a bit longer. It’s been almost a dozen years but I know I am not yet ready to write about my time in New Orleans. I don’t know how long it will take before I am brave enough to face those demons head on. Not all my writing is tied to a piece of my past but I am making an effort to mine the treasures I have within because I do believe that’s where the juiciest stories wait to be told.
As many of you know, I’m working on Flyboy’s story right now. This project began over 25 years ago when my then-husband and I spent weekends out on the tarmac, our necks straining as we watched the sky at the air shows the way film buffs watch the movies.
What part of my life is like Flyboy’s? Where’s the connection? What makes it so hard to write? I don’t fly planes. I’m not adopted. My dad wasn’t famous. But I know what it’s like for the main character to obsess about planes the way I obsess about writing. I know what it’s like to wonder where you came from and how that might affect where you’re going. I know what it’s like to feel lonely even in the midst of a family.
When you’ve been working on a book for over 25 years, like I have with this one, the story becomes so wrapped up in your own life that sometimes it’s hard to remember what happened to me and what happened to Flyboy. Was it Flyboy or was it me that found the box that held so many secrets? Was it Flyboy or was it me that met someone who knew their father and answered questions held silent for so long? Was it Flyboy or was it me that finally realized the true meaning of family?
I hope it is both. I hope I can tell that kind of a story, one that feels like it happened to you.
I hope that helping Flyboy find his answers will help me decide what to do with some questions of my own.
Thanks for being such a good sport about the name change thing. I realized you’d had that other name for over 20 years and really, it was hard for me to see the new character you’d become while you were lugging around that old name. I let you keep your last name though. It’s the only remnant of my silliness when once everyone in the book had a name that was connected to airplanes.
And you’ll notice I upgraded you from a bike to a car of your own. Hopefully this will help people who were thinking you were younger than you were. I know how much you hated that. But here’s the thing about the car, how can someone who is so careful when he’s flying be such a demon on the road? How many speeding tickets have you gotten already and how come Wilson lets you keep driving?
I’m rethinking the whole idea of Wilson’s dad and the stroke. I’m thinking that may be a little extreme to cover in the course of the story without it becoming THE story. I’d like to get rid of him completely but I’m not sure what I’d do without him, why Wilson would pack you guys up to move and all that.
Yeah, I know I’m rambling and you’re probably wondering why I’m really writing this letter. Here’s what I need to know. This story of yours is all about you going off on this great big search. That’s fine. Interesting even. But what I gotta know is why now? What happened with Wilson to make it so all fired important that you go searching now?
Why is today different from yesterday?
Author expecting you to throw me a curve ball
The other day I wrote this letter to Flyboy and today he wrote back.
Did I ever tell you about the time I lost my temper back in the fourth grade? Jason Johnson was picking on this little kid, Micah. Micah was about half Jason’s size (everybody was about half Jason’s size because Jason was huge!) and walked around with his nose buried in a book all the time. Never bothered anyone. When he was reading Micah could just tune out the rest of the world, even Jason Johnson and all the stupid comments Jason would make trying to get a rise out of Micah.
Micah never did anything to Jason. He didn’t talk to him. He didn’t make eye contact. Nothing.
And that made Jason mad. He started kicking Micah every time he walked by. Stole his books from him and ripped pages out so they were ruined. He spit on him, threw stuff at him at lunch, popped the tires on his bike, typical bully stuff.
And Micah just ignored it all. Never said a word. Never told a teacher. Nothing.
So one day Jason just snapped. Saw Micah sitting under a tree, reading, and decided to beat the crap out of him. I was riding my bike home from school and started to ride on by until I realized that Micah wasn’t fighting back. He was just letting Jason beat on him and I think Jason was mad enough to kill him.
I saw red. Yeah, just like they say in books. I saw this film of red in front of me and I charged at Jason from about 20 feet away. Torpedoed right into the side him and knocked him off of Micah. Before he could get away I plopped on his stomach and started beating on his face and his chest feeling fifteen different kinds of angry all at the same time. He was screaming and calling me names and finally pushed me off and then we got into it good. By the time a couple of high school kids pulled us apart we were both pretty bloodied up. I had a black eye and a broken wrist. Jason was missing a couple of front teeth. Micah was nowhere around.
Go ahead and cut me loose.
Consider yourself warned.
Read more character letters here.