All the Dreams

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I’m going to tell you a story about why I write for young readers. Years ago, before I had my son, moved to Brooklyn, or ever wrote a YA novel, I wrote one act plays for kids. They were produced locally, and I always ended up directing for lack of anyone else stepping up. During that time, I met and worked with a slew of 7-12 year olds who had never acted or read a script in their young lives. They didn’t know they could or should.

When I was a little girl I wanted to be famous. My mother and father were familiar with big dreams, so they encouraged me, but parents are usually the last person you want to hear from when you’re young and ambitious. It would have been something to have a teacher, or a cool, successful artist, a someone other than my parents tell me I should keep shooting for the stars. In spite of that, I never lost my drive, though occasionally it did get waylaid.

While writing for and directing these kids, I uncovered heaps of hidden talent — kids who went on to become YouTube famous, stars of high school plays, dreamers of other big dreams at top tier colleges.

A few months ago, while visiting Texas, I ran into one of the girls I’d plucked from shyness and set center stage. She’d been twelve at the time, with long brown hair and a tiny button nose, and she’d never been asked to sing in public before, never been under a spotlight. I had a gut feeling she could sing, and so I promised her she wouldn’t regret singing during her audition. She landed the lead role in the play. A lead role with a difficult (original) solo. She’s now a senior in college, a stellar violinist about to graduate with a music and vocal major.

As we talked, reminiscing about that special time all those years ago, she said, “I just want you to know, if you hadn’t made me play that role and sing that song, I would never have studied voice in college. You showed me it was an option.”

Even writing this now, I’m tearing up. I’m thinking how my certainty we should always do the very scary, big thing created an opportunity, her trust that I would protect her in the room gave her the confidence, but her talent carried her onto the stage. She was always gifted, she just needed someone to provide a spotlight.

I am not a teacher. I know teachers must know how this feels, much more profoundly than me. But in that moment I knew, my investment in that child had paid off in ways I never imagined. And it was so incredibly worth it.

This weekend I spent time with my friend Sara Biren— a fantastic writer and award nominated author —and her two kids. Actually, mostly her two kids. I was in town for a Book Awards ceremony to honor Sara, but now that I’m homebound, I wonder…maybe I was in town for her kids, too.

I talked to her daughter about the possibility of traveling the world, of never limiting yourself to a safe and obvious path. We filmed a YouTube video. I talked to her son about becoming a filmmaker, discussing themes and shot composition. How he’s not getting off with any excuses that he’s too busy or it’s too hard. How his love of movies is more than entertainment.

We are never too old to pursue our dreams. We are never too young to believe they can one day be real.

We sometimes do need a push in the right direction.

Learning to Drive in LA

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When I was a teenager, I failed my driving test three times.

Yeah. 

I mean, even after I took a six-week driving course and had loads of behind-the-wheel practice. The reason? My utter and complete disinterest in precision. Like, turning into the correct lane, always putting on my blinker, not changing lanes in an intersection—you know, life saving factors. But, even when I managed all that on the second go, I could not parallel park to save my life. Or in this case, pass my test.

On the third and final shot, the instructor testing me was an older man who had not enjoyed teaching me over the course of my training. He’d — more than once — told me to get out of the car and walk off some steam, which, for a girl with a hot head, was like turning up a boiler.

I withered inwardly when he approached the car. Shit. May as well give up now. But, I was determined, and too stubborn, to ever go down without a spectacular fight. I got in the car. I would ace this test just to spite him.

I received two marks right off for technique. He goaded me with snide remarks, red ink on the page. Then, as you can probably imagine, my blood began to boil. By the time he was testing my parking, it took everything in me to keep going. And, unsurprisingly, I failed to parallel park.

I began to cry. I am an angry crier, but also I was deeply disappointed that the freedom attached to that driver’s license was out of my reach. I needed that freedom. I needed to be able to roll down the window and fly over country roads, my music blaring, a cherry limeade from Sonic in the cup holder. I had plans.

The instructor turned to me, took off his bottle-cap glasses, and rubbed his watery, gray eyes. Stop crying, he said. I’m going to pass you.

I furrowed my brow. Too suspicious to be happy. Still too pissed off to stop crying.

I can’t have you in my class for another six weeks, he said, and then he smiled. But please be careful. You are not a good driver. 

This was not kindness, and in that moment, I didn’t care. I got what I wanted, and he got the last word.

It was only years later, after multiple car accidents, after crying — and lying — my way out of speeding tickets, after having my ex-boyfriend and my brothers, my parents, my friends, fellow shitty drivers, and, yep, constantly myself, reiterate this declaration over my driving, that I realized how thoroughly I had internalized this limitation.

I was thirty-two-years-old, we were thinking of moving to LA, something I had dreamed of doing since I was a little girl, and I wasn’t sure I could handle driving in Los Angeles.

When I would imagine LA, my thoughts would trail, fast, to the honking traffic, the zipping between lanes, the confusing off-ramps, the millions of people on the road all fighting to get somewhere, maybe right where I was also trying to go. There was no subway like New York City, no tube like London. LA was sprawl reached best by car, and I was not a good driver. 

It had been years since I’d gotten in a car accident. Years since a genuine ticket. (Okay, there was that one for speeding where I rage cried at the police officer to no avail.) I was not a bad driver, not anymore, but still I believed nothing had actually changed. I was sixteen, failing my driver’s test and being given a pity license, all over again. I never should have been allowed to drive. I would never be a good driver. It didn’t matter that I was so much better now.

During the debate over where we would live, I was talking with my LA friend about my hang ups. I was not saying that I couldn’t drive. I was not saying that this, more than almost anything else, was why I didn’t want to go.

She asked me, point blank: Is part of your hesitation about having to drive in LA? 

Yes. Squeak.

You’ll be fine. You can drive as well as anyone else here. You’ll learn. 

Wow. What an asshole. How dare she state my fear out in the open like that and make it sound so completely surmountable? (FYI, this is what good friends do.)

Confronted with the truth about a lie I’d bought into for most of my life, I actually laughed. Out loud. Dismantling an argument you’ve been making for why you CAN’T do something is liberating. CAN’T should be a dirty word. CAN’T is the word that stops motion.

When we did finally move to LA, I knew I had to get in the car and drive. I had to use Siri for guidance and I had to take it slow, and it was okay that my hands were shaking. Only by DOING IT would I ever overcome. Whether I thought I could or not. And I did. I did it one little trip at a time. I did it over and over until I turned into one of those assholes barking at the idiot without their blinker on changing lanes in an intersection and speeding through a school zone.

The lie had been true long enough. Once I stopped believing it, I suddenly was actually a very good driver.

Here is what Learning to Drive in LA has taught me: The only thing stopping me, is me.

Get out of your own way. Let go. Drive with faith and when the fear paws at your mind, flip it the finger and get on with your journey.

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High Anxiety Day

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Here is something you may not know. Since my early teens, I have battled anxiety and OCD. Maybe, before that, there were symptoms — signs I coped with the world in a different way. I was little, and I was good at playing pretend, so I can’t be certain. It was a different time, and diagnoses wasn’t easy to come by.

The battle began in earnest, though, when my family moved away from Texas when I was thirteen. It felt as if the bottom was falling out of my life. In one fell swoop, I had lost my best friend, my support system, and the only place I’d ever called home. It would take years for me to get a grip on what was happening to me. Even longer to own my recovery.

But that’s a long story, and today is not a good day to tread back over it. Why bring this up now? I woke up this morning and knew: today is a high anxiety day.

This is what that can look like:

When I got out of bed, I felt heavy. My chest was tight, my skin hurt. The sound of my son’s voice seemed far away. I couldn’t close my eyes again because my thoughts were racing, wouldn’t settle on any one thing.

When I drove my son to school, the world was too bright. Cars were changing lanes too close me. Pedestrians were too near the curb. My adrenaline kept spiking, and my hands were shaking.

When I dropped my son off, I thought of how many parents drop their children at school and never see them again. How horrific a thought, and how shitty I was for allowing myself to feel the way I was when so much bad was everywhere, so nearby. I hugged my son, held his hand. He humored me because he’s intuitive, and maybe he needed it a little, too. I told myself that.

When I got home, I was in a fog. I knew what was happening and I felt powerless to stop it.

I cleaned the living room. Put on laundry. Made the bed. Cleaned the kitchen. Stay moving, stay ahead of it, that’s my mantra. I cried when the floor got some soapy water on it.

I started making dinner that was supposed to go in a crock pot. I had gotten the wrong potatoes, and one of them had roots on it. I had to cut that off. I mused over how no matter how hard I scrubbed, I couldn’t seem to remove all the dirt.

I questioned the recipe, mistrusted the portions, wondered why the author had used different forms of measurement for the same kinds of root vegetables. Pounds, Milliliters, Grams. PICK ONE. I was agitated, for a second, that was better.

I pulled out the crock pot and loaded the now cut, rootless, and stupidly measured ingredients in. I worried they wouldn’t fit. They did. I couldn’t celebrate the victory like I’d like.

I plugged in the crock pot, put on the lid, and realized this was not a crock pot, but a rice cooker. That would not work. Dammit. Why had I thought this was a crock pot? It’s not even the right shape. My throat felt like it was going to close.

I began frantically searching for the crock pot. Through the depths, a memory emerged. Me, cleaning out the kitchen before we moved from Texas, claiming I did not need to bring the crock pot at all.

I began to cry. It was easy. Every nerve had already frayed somewhere between waking up and that moment. It wasn’t hard to believe that my sudden lack of crock pot would be my eventual undoing.

I realized, through my tears, that my tea had gotten cold. I guess I had made tea somewhere in there, probably as part of my OCD attack plan, and forgotten. For a second, that felt like a tragedy and then —

I could heat it back up. I could pour it out. I could choose a different tea bag. The world of that cup of tea felt limitless. Slowly, my ribs stopped trying to squeeze out all my other organs. I could breathe again.

My adrenaline slid back to neutral. I turned on the kettle, pulled out a fresh tea bag, and decided to cook dinner on the stove and fuck that recipe it was shit anyway. I DID NOT need a crock pot.

Anxiety and OCD do not look the same on everyone. For me, they look like a roller coaster, full of hills and loops, rocketing motion and sudden stops. Most of the time I’m not on the ride. Not now, not after years learning to cope and facing my fears. That doesn’t mean I am not still occasionally in the line, or like today, buckled precariously in and imagining all the ways the coaster could kill me. Like today, I know I will be on the coaster for a while. I am past the worst part, but not in the clear yet. That’s okay.

Some days are harder than others. Pretending they aren’t won’t help. There isn’t any one way of coping, but coping and caring for yourself in the midst of it all, is a must. Reach out, whether to a friend, by writing a strongly worded critique of a recipe (which you don’t send but feel vindicated by nonetheless), or crying in the kitchen while your husband stands nearby knowing that’s better than touching you right now.

Remember: This does not make you weak, or wrong, or less.

Remember: You are not alone.

Remember: Eventually, this too shall pass.

 

 

 

 

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Cusp

Everyone gains perspective at the end of a year. This time is tailor-made for reflection, soul-searching sipping chamomile, curled in a sweater, tucked under blankets. When you live in Los Angeles, it looks a little different. It’s sunny, with flip flops and frayed shorts, a chilled glass of bubbly, and a pair of sunglasses slipping down your nose.

The feeling, though, is very much the same.

Every year we are alive, we face new challenges to our way of life. If we are lucky. If we are really living. We make gut-wrenching choices. We take dangerous steps, make bold moves on the living chess board of existence. We do and feel and touch moments we never have before.

2017: I woke a beast.

In January, I broke my knee cap. It was my breaking point. Faced with confinement, I faced off the secret, quiet, creeping feelings my insides had refused to divulge to me until that moment trapped on a bed with a planet for a knee.

There was a certain writhing beast that I had never let loose. It awoke in that quiet place and did not go back to sleep. Not for most of the year. Not until I made a sudden, painful, life-altering choice in the middle of December. Not until, finally, I was brutally honest with myself, unafraid to look away from what I knew I really felt. Only then did the beast bow it’s head, subdued for another season.

2017: I fought for my future.

In November a longtime friend asked me, does Los Angeles feel like home?

No. I said. Nowhere does. Nowhere can.

This is the truth about being restless: you are always, forever, in search. It is not unhappiness, though it feels that way sometimes. It is a quest.

When you believe you are made to do more, you cannot live with anything else. It makes you unbearable. The person in the room that never sits down. The one with a million ideas. The one with a drink in their hand. The one looking out the window, or over a shoulder. It is never about where you are, it is always about where you could be.

For me, the search has to stop. For a moment, at least, I need to be right where I am, living without running. The way to the future is wriggling to life today. I don’t want to miss it.

2017: I let people in.

I wrote a book this year that felt like putting my heart on a page. It felt violent and vulnerable. It revealed me. It contained me. It was me.

I took an acting class that was a stare down with the past. It was me in a room with strangers living for a moment without a shield. It was terrifying and altering.

I fell in love with my friends. Women who saw me and loved me and listened. Women who would not let me settle. Women who are my allies and confidants and partners.

I listened to my son cry and my husband fume as my family leaped toward a new life. I let them be who they needed to be and I learned to live with myself while they did.

2017: I made choices.

Hard ones. Fast ones. Painful ones. I am living with every single one. I am still alive.

Soon we turn over the calendar. We countdown. We sing and cheers and make commitments to next year us. If you asked me what 2017 would look like last year I would have given you a very different answer.

What do we know, then, about our future?

All we know is today.

Therefore:

Live mindfully, with purpose. Let yourself believe in magic. Let others in on the journey.


What about you?IMG_4983

 

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Author Mentor Match: That’s a Wrap

Keep-calm-and-write-on-e1390258489967What a wild ride that was. When the Author Mentor Match submissions window opened it felt more like a floodgate had broken. There was a wealth of brilliant ideas, kernels of genius, clever characters, and inspirational concepts. There was a lot to work through and a very hard decision to make.

We conferred behind the scenes about how hard it was going to be to actually PICK one when it came to that time. It was the first time I feel like, as a writer, I could put myself in an agent’s shoes for a minute and understand the conflict of weighing out the love of a submission against your knowledge of the industry and the strength of other submissions your pile.

I would have loved to take on more than one, but since I can’t, I do want to offer some feedback (super general) and shed some (hopefully) welcome light on this process.

First, I must remind every writer out there — whether you submitted to Author Mentor Match, are in the querying trenches, or are on submission — reading truly is a subjective experience. It is not line we’re feeding you. What works for one reader (editor, mentor, agent), might not work for another. What makes me fall in love is not always as predictable or as easily explained as I would like. What I fall in love with, you or someone else might loathe.

Query widely. Get a lot of feedback. Make your own choices about who you listen to.

Now to my thoughts.

Query letters/description:

This is the hardest part to get right in a submission. Learning to write a brilliant pitch, and also subtly pitching yourself as the author, is a craft in and of itself. These pitches were not expected to be perfect, but I did read the pages faster for the ones that felt more polished.

  • Length: I believe in 250 words max to talk about your book. It’s clean. It means you have boiled down the concept and understand the story at it’s foundation. As a screenwriter, the logline (which is one single sentence) is the king, and so I am particularly hard on this element. If the description needs too much lead in or meanders in the pitch, then you probably have a problem in the pages.
  • Concept: I am a commercial writer. I look for something I think will sell. I am looking at the story concept. I am looking at the author concept(who you are and why you wrote this story). I know very well how much both must line up to make a project viable.
  • Passion: I am a Gryffindor. Passion is my middle name. (Not really, it’s Faith. But close enough.) If I can feel the author’s heart pulsing in a pitch, I know it will resonate on the page, and that is something I can work with.

First Page:

The most critical moment in the submission process. Does your first page make me (an agent, an editor) want to keep on reading?

  • Starting in the wrong place: By far my most common hang up when reading submissions. There were submissions where I felt the first page was confusing, either because of opaque writing or character’s voice not feeling defined enough to carry me through. I was more inclined to read when it started too late rather than way too early.
  • Prologue: Please take caution when using a prologue as your first chapter. I encountered this a few times, and it was frustrating. Please take caution when writing a prologue at all. It must be deeply vital to the story and just as gripping as your main story pages.
    • Try cutting the prologue and then having a fresh reader take a look at the first chapter on it’s own. If they can read on without the prologue, find a way to integrate the most boiled down, crucial information from the prologue into the first few chapters.
  • Voice: This is so frustrating and I genuinely am sorry to include it! Voice is critical. The voice has to be right, or there has to be proof that it can be revised, and that is a fine line.
  • Hook: The hook needs to be on the first page. This sounds impossible, but I promise it isn’t. No matter your genre — I write fantasy, horror and contemporary— there must be something on page one that makes the reader need to know more. Commonly in my submissions, the hook didn’t come for a many many pages and by then I was starting to lose interest.

Plot/Pacing/Structure:

As a screenwriter, these elements of story rule my world. If I can see there is a plot buried inside, then I am much more inclined to read or want to work on something.

  • If you are in the second act and your story still hasn’t taken off, you have some problems. BE BRUTAL in the first thirty pages.
  • I see story as a series of tiny shifts in the character’s life until BAM the inciting incident throws them into a new reality. Those first twenty or so pages are doing a lot of work, and if they aren’t, then ask yourself why.
  • All stories take on a similar structure. Whether you are telling a non-linear literary character piece or a punchy action adventure, you are working with the same story moments. When too many are missing or misplaced, the plot will not work. Very often I found this with submissions and ended up having to weigh what WAS working against what WAS NOT.

Character:

The part of the story that makes us care.

  • Character is so closely connected to voice that it almost feels like the same thing. When one is lacking, the other can’t shine. I had a lot of submissions where voice oozed but character didn’t grab me, and vice versa. I am going to go with character every time.
  • Secondary characters are VITAL. There were some submissions that I LOVED, that had so much of what I was looking for in the main character and the plot, but the rest of the characters felt flat.
  • Along the same lines, there were some stories where I felt like too many character personalities were at play or that the dynamics were wrong. It made reading the pages harder as I went along.
  • Often, I would love a concept and even like the characters, but then just couldn’t find a personal way in to the story. To work as a mentor, much like it is with an agent or editor, I really need my own way in. I need to see that I can add something to your pages.

I hope this sheds a little light on the submission process — even if you did not submit to me or to Author Mentor Match at all. This will not be the last time you submit your work and receive a pass. That is a hard reality that I am sure you are aware of.

There is a saying the screenwriting (or that’s where I’ve heard it):

Throw work at it. Rejection, feeling blocked, discouragement, fear, whatever. Throw work at it.

Or, as I like to say: Throw writing at it.

Keep writing no matter what.

 

 

 

 

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Author Mentor Match: Seeking Unicorns

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In the YA and MG (that’s Young Adult and Middle Grade, for those accidentally wandering onto this blog) community, helping other writers find their voice and reach their potential is a common, time-honored tradition. This community is one built by readers, and many writers working to be a part of the published YA or MG world, believe that the more strong, beautiful voices, the better.

Author Mentor Match is not a competition. It is a space to link a more seasoned or further along in the journey author with one getting ready to dive into deep waters. I am excited to be a part. To find a writer to mentor and help flourish on their way to greatness. (Just like Slytherin House could have helped Harry embrace his dark Horcrux.)

Below is the link to my personal mentor page, where you can find more about what kind of manuscript I am looking for. I am also linking the main page, because you may not want to submit to me. There are AMAZING mentors all around and so much opportunity, peruse and find your perfect fit. Plus, all the rules and details can be found on the website.

You can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram for more #MSWL (Manuscript Wish List) as they come to me.

My Mentor Profile || Author Mentor Match Main Page || Twitter || Instagram

When the Moving Dust Settles

When moving to a new state or city, country or provence, the hardest part comes after all the dust settles, and all the fun exploration putters to an end. When then, in the light of a still warm sun, you have to commence real life.

This summer, my young family and I moved to LA from Texas. We left a comfortable home, a thriving social circle, and a lower cost of living, and drove across the American Southwest in our freshly hail-dented Jeep. At no point on the four day journey did I think this transition would be easy, yet never once did I question if it would be right.

When we arrived in LA, the wave of relief that washed over me was almost as powerful as the ocean pulsing only a few miles West. We had survived, and that horrible prick of pain in leaving was felt a little bit less.

Summer passed as it always does when you have school age children: too fast, in a haze of sunlight and swimming, adventure-finding and dreaming. And every one of those days I wondered, will today be the day we break down, realize how hard it really is to leave everything behind for a hope in a future we can barely just taste? Today, will we long for the people we were before we sold off our home and waved goodbye to our family and friends?

But we didn’t. We were having too much fun to notice the pain. Were too busy exploring the city to sense how hard that pain still clung to our heels. Too in love with the hills and the palm trees, too soothed by the smell of the sea, to feel the pieces we’d left behind that were now missing.

And then summer ended.

Fast as the lightning we haven’t seen since May, the last time we were in a storm in Texas, the realness of this move shot through us. School started, and with it came the realization that we were not playing at living here, we were really doing it.

It hit my son hardest of all. This wasn’t his school, with his friends, and his teachers he recognized. This wasn’t his routine with all it’s comforts and predictability. This wasn’t Texas. This wasn’t home.

And it wasn’t easy. Because as his anger settled over him, my guilt ballooned. I was the reason we’d moved, and now here I was forcing him to accept it all over again, and this time he didn’t want to. And for a solid day, I genuinely, earnestly just wanted to run away. Because here pain was now grabbing my ankles, climbing my shins, and here I was with nothing to bat it away.

In these moments, the very best advice I can give is this: feel it all. Allow every itchy, ugly, vulnerable thought to crash over you. Let the violence of loss growl in the depths of your throat. And then get up, make a cup of tea, and find some way to face the rest of your day.

For these past two weeks we have had to do that. Through long hot walks and brutal conversations. Through weeping and yelling and silent treatment. Through feeling embarrassed. Through dumplings and cocktails and ice cream. Through journaling and role playing and gaming. It has not been easy, living in this moment alongside the pain, but, today, it finally started to feel better.

The reality is, we all have to face our fear that the choices we make are not the right ones. If we don’t face it, we leave ourselves vulnerable to doubt, and worry, and the nagging sensation that we are just one wrong move away from utter destruction. Moving states, cities, countries is never easy. Leaving family and friends always sucks. But staying where we are when we know we shouldn’t is worse than the pain of saying goodbye.

Acceptance is a stage of grief. On the other side is Life waiting for you. New adventure. Scary and fun and weird moments you couldn’t have had while wallowing in what was lost. Today, as I watched my son resign himself to walk into his new school without panicking, I knew he was close to that, and moments away from whatever wonderful thing awaited him.

The most important part of moving, is moving on. Not looking over your shoulder for the chance to run back. Not longing for the way it once was. But being thankful, and being willing, and then just simply being right here.