Thursday, February 9, 2012

Tour Redux: Interviewing Survivors

Originally posted at Sarah's random musings, an inside look at interviewing survivors and developing professional distance.  Thanks, Sarah, for having me!

When I coordinated a domestic violence legal clinic, I heard so many stories, thousands of stories, of abuse. As many as 26 people came to the clinic in the two and half hours we had our doors open for new clients seeking emergency orders of protection. My staff of volunteer interns and I went to work - leading our clients into private room and listening to what had happened to them. For these interviews, I remember closing the heavy metal door, and making sure tissues were available, I recorded their stories. Some clients wanted me to share their fear, sadness, panic or anger. Others wanted to hear it wasn't their fault. And still others were defensive, afraid of judgement. But what every person really wanted was to feel safe again, to make the violence stop.

In the first few weeks or maybe months I wanted to be able to ease their pain. Over time I settled for the handshake or the look of relief on their faces after they left our office, with their orders of protection in hand. I developed the professional distance required to go in day after day without falling apart or burning out. I focused only on the courage of the people in front of me and let that inspire me. Leaving someone is always hard, but considerably harder when you believe that you are worth little and you know that you don't have that much control over your life, whether financial, emotional or practical. And so it was easy to see the strength when they were in the office.
And though they left reassured, for me that was when the worrying began. I was acutely aware that a piece of a paper was not a shield and I was skeptical that this thin, carbon copied order could offer the protection it claimed. I clearly remember hearing a news story about a domestic violence victim who was killed by her abuser when I was working there and listening for her name. Was she one of our clients? I dreaded the day when we would hear that story or have our documents subpoenaed. It never came.

About a year into my tenure I finally asked my boss: why do these thin pieces of paper work? Clearly these are men who don't care about the law. But I found that they did. That abusers have a bully mentality and that if they are told my someone who has power over them to leave their victim alone they do, for the most part.
Which gave me comfort. And hope which I could then give to our clients.

It was only after I left the clinic that the impact of the stories, the horrific aspects that I had kept at bay, with professional distance and faith in a piece of paper, began to strike me. I remember with extreme clarity, the man who a man who lifted his shirt and showed me the stitches that arched from the notch in his collar bone to his navel; a woman whose abuser was being released after seven years in prison and who was threatening her; an aspiring model who was so terrified that she brought a friend and sat shaking as she talked. I can't say that I was noble enough to write Split to honor them. Instead, I wrote it to try to make sense of something that seemed senseless and to try to put on the page what clattered around in my head. I couldn't erase from my mind their stories, anymore than I could erase their pain. Writing Split was like therapy for me. I no longer need to erase the stories. Instead, I have come full circle, finding hope again in the courage the survivors who came in had. Hope that if they could find a way to end their abuse, we can find a way help prevent it.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Tour Redux: Letting your characters Drive

Originally posted at by Sammee at I Want to Read That, I had fun writing this post.  Perhaps even more though, re-reading it, I'm finding that the three act structure is something I seem to teach a lot now. Funny to see what was just a line or two here has become a whole lecture.

Letting Your Characters Drive

The hot question in my life as of late seems to be: “Are you a panster or planner?” And I’ve decided, after much thought, that I hate that question. It’s like trying to vote for president: are those my only two options? Really?

The dichotomy implies that the author is either sitting back and controlling the characters like puppets or is sitting down and furiously hitting keys, hoping that a story will take shape.

Campaign Against Planners
Let’s say my protagonist is name Sheila. If I were a planner, I would map out where she would go, do an in-depth outline, construct settings, flow charts, figure out the timing, put everything on a calendar and then, and only then, would the Sheila get to do anything, or say anything. Poor Sheila! She doesn’t get to do anything on her own. She has no choice, no ability to have an insight you haven’t figured out, and most of all, no voice. 

And for all that planning, I won’t have a compelling plot because nothing anyone can do on the page will surprise me. And if Sheila can’t surprise me, she won’t be able to surprise my readers. 

But what if, instead, I put her in scenes and see what she would do? 

Action reveals character. Let your character – her desires, her decisions – be revealed to you through what she wants and what she does to get it, revealed through the writing.

Campaign Against Pansters (and it’s not because I might get pantsed.)
A friend once told me: “I’ve written 16 pages today describing the drive from the ocean house to the coast.” I was stunned into silence. 16 pages of description. That’s an entire short story. 

You can’t sacrifice forward movement of the book to writerly indulgences. Not in terms of your readers’ attention and not in terms of your own time. But even more concerning, what if nothing ever happens? What if your characters wander around being nice all the time?

As I said, action reveals character – not what the side of the road looks like. 

Now poor Shelia is on a road to nowhere, driving forever with nothing but an endless supply of the gas (i.e. the author’s imagination) and coffee and chocolate bars (what the author is mainlining) and she is still doing nothing. 

While I believe that characters should drive, you’d better give them a road map. 

Reject the Pantser v. Planner dichotomy. Vote for a Plantser!
Now, I hope I’m not treading on anyone’s process because process is golden and must be respected. However, here’s option three: Be a plantser. 

Think of your novel as a three act play. At the end of each act, you hit what is known as a plot point. Plot points are where Sheila’s world changes because her desire changes: it gets remarkable clearer, changes, or refocuses. Now Sheila has the key piece of evidence that will help her solve the case, or something along those lines. 

Give your character plot points as if they are destinations that they need to hit on their road trip. (“Shelia, head south. I’ll meet you in Albuquerque in 3 days. How you get there is up to you.”) And when you get to the climax, rip Sheila’s map right out of her hands. What will she do? Where will she go? That’s up to her. Give her a choice and give her a voice.

You’ve taken her far enough. Let her drive the rest of the way.

Tour Redux: Character Interview

Mrs. DeRaps and DeRaps Reads interviewed Jace for one of my favorite stops on the tour, reprinted here to celebrate SPLIT's paperback release. As you can see from the questions, she must be a great teacher: she starts from a  place of compassionate inquiry -- something I strive for as a teacher. 

I am an English teacher and students sometimes use writing assignments as a place to open up about their troubles. If a teacher were paying close attention to you, would they suspect that something was going on at home? Did you give off signs that others missed? 

Probably not.  I was pretty decent at hiding it. Practice makes silent. The what-happens-at-home-stays-at-home policy wasn’t just to protect my dad; it was a survival strategy for me, too.  School became a sort of sanctuary for me.  For hours upon hours, I was a regular kid.  

Could my teachers have figured it out if I wrote something about it?  Well, there's the rub.  I would never written anything about it.  If I did, I’d have shredded it.

So, maybe that’s how they could have figured it out -- from what was not there.

Suspicious Absence:  I never took a picture of my parents, my houses (not even when we moved), or a self-portrait.

Your father is a judge, which is an interesting profession for someone who is so violent and controlling. Do you think that your experiences with you father have colored your relationship with authority figures?

Colored?  Too mild.  Try damaged. Authority figures who think that they've earned my respect because they are in a black robe, carry a badge, or even just stand in front of a blackboard, aren't the ones I'm wild about.

 Authority figures who don't inspire mouthy comments are the ones who have earned my respect.  Christian is sort of an 'authority figure'.’  I listen to what he has to say because he's got good judgment and gets me.   He doesn't force me to accept rules, anymore.  Instead, he explains why. Like I call him if I'm going to be late; I get that he worries if I'm not home.  That’s the kind of authority figure that works for me -- the kind that works with me.

What would you say are the warning signs that a girl should look for when dating a boy or man who is a potential abuser? What clues should your girlfriend or your mother have taken as a sign to get help?

I wish my mom had paid attention early.  When my mom and dad started dating, she'd never have put up with his crap. No one starts out as a victim; they are groomed into it.

Insults graduated to name-calling graduated to a fight where he grabbed her arm.  When she tried to call him out on it, he'd call her his very own, little drama queen, all affectionately.  He could charm and demean her all at once.

He eroded her barriers slowly.  Like how he got her to quit her friends.  He would sulk when they were with her friends and turn on the charm around his. She got the message.  You want the happy version?  Hang out with him in his style with his friends. And one day when she was mad at Lindsay, he told her Lindsay was never good enough for her anyway.  So...

Warning Sign No. 1:  He wants you all to himself -- to the point of isolating you from friends and your family.

Warning Sign No. 2:   He controls things that have nothing to do with him.

Do a mother-check.  If someone told your mom what to wear on her date, or that she should be less this or more that, wouldn’t you tell that creep he  should go … (PG-version) jump off a cliff?

Warning Sign No. 3:  He wants to know where you are all the time.

I used to walk Lauren from one class to another, saying she deserved the royal treatment.  It was actually an excuse to make sure she wasn't flirting with other guys. If he can’t let you out of his sight, it’s not romantic.  It’s creepy.

Warning Sign No. 4:  You start excusing his behavior.

He’s got you groomed.  He’s erased those boundaries, the lines in the sand.

My advice:  you're no one's cure.  And why should you be?   I get that it's great to be needed, but you can be needed in better ways -- ways that are about who you are, not who you aren't.  

Is there help for you? Do you feel like you're doomed to be an abuser if you grow up in a home like yours or are you able to change?

God, I hope so.  Deeply, deeply hope so.

Whenever I get discouraged and start thinking I am doomed, that I'm genetically pre-conditioned into repeating my dad's *&$& ups, I remember Christian.  He didn't come out of my house with his fists raised.  It would be easy just say, "Yes, I'm doomed," and let my fists find their home.  Saying I'm doomed is just another way of letting me off the hook.

I'm not doomed.  I may have to work hard -- maybe all my life -- to control my temper.  But I choose what I do.

And if it means that all my life I am vigilant – they’re worse things.  I've seen them.  Hell, I've been them.  Vigilance is an easy price for what I get in return.

I am moved your story and imagine that there are many other readers who feel similarly. What can we do to help end domestic violence and teen dating violence?

If anyone tells you they know the answer to this, check that you have your wallet.

We can start talking to guys.  It’s up to us guys to tell other guys that hitting someone you love is seriously messed up. We need guys like Christian. Remember that argument between him and Mirriam, the one eavesdropped on?  Christian didn't back down; he backed away.  Backing away and starting clean -- that's not unmanly.  That's manning up.

Now not all abusers are guys and not all victims are girls.  Which is another reason we need to talk to guys.  Face it; it’s hard as a guy to admit anyone is beating on you, much less his girlfriend. So, we've gotta talk to guys about that, too.

*     *     *
I have to admit that I got a little emotional just reading Jace's answers to these questions. It was hard for me to write these questions; I did not take this task lightly. If this were another book, another subject, I would've had some fun and played around a little. I could not do that here. And, Jace wouldn't have wanted me to. I've read this book twice, and know Jace. He's serious. He's angry. He's not someone you want to joke with. So, I spend a week or two thinking up these questions. And, Jace answered them. His voice and his character are present in these answers. If you are at all curious about this book, please read it. If you are a secondary teacher, please make this book available to your students. And, if you or someone you know is being abused, please find help.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Tour Redux: Deleted Scene

To celebrate SPLIT's paperback release, I'm re-posting the tour here.  This was originally posted at: The Book Scout.  Thanks, Kelsey! I do love her take on books. 

Split: Deleted Scene

This is the second in a series of three that I wrote in the first or second draft of the novel and then removed or condensed. (See the tour schedule for the remaining scenes). Though I’ve been sorely tempted (it feels a little like showing up to a party in a slip), I have not altered these sections from their original in their content or wording. I did clean typos and, for the ease of readers, changed all the characters’ names to their final names, as opposed to the many names they have had in the various iterations. (Seriously, so many that my critique groups forget who became who).
This scene took place on what is around p. 26 of the book now, right after Christian tells Jace that they will discuss what he needs to do to let Jace live with him. Christian then leaves the apartment and that’s where this scene picks up.

He closes the door, and I watch the lock turn. After I’ve heard Lianne’s door close, I scream – a long, wordless shriek.
Is acting like a jack-ass genetic? Is it a trait on the Y-chromosome?
Somewhere, there’s a genetic engineer in a white, lab coat hunkered over a microscope. A light-bulb pops on over his head, and he looks up – revelation in his eyes. “I’ve isolated the jack-ass gene. If we can merge it with the DNA of a peaceful creature, say the dove, we’ll evolve into a better species.” Yeah, that’s the ticket, Doc. Advancement by mutation.
Back to reality. My bio teacher always says that, “Back to reality, Mr. Witherspoon.” There’s only one thing to do when I get this jittery. In the backseat of my Golf, I have a soccer ball. I need to find a place to shoot. I grab a book, slide into my sneakers, and head downstairs. Before I leave the locked door that Christian buzzed me in last night, I prop it open with the book.
The sky is rich blue and high above me. Mountains stretch on the horizon, surrounding me, and the land slants like I’m standing inside a tilt-a-whirl. I’m experiencing vertigo in reverse. I push my feet against the cement. I weigh 165 pounds, quite enough to keep me grounded. One peak rises up, like the John Hancock Building. A skyline of mountains bridges blue-to-earth.
I get the ball from the car and tuck it under my arm. Now, where to kick it?
I return to the apartment and knock on 4C. See if Lianne is in. She is wearing a big U of Chicago T-shirt and a pair of black leggings that show off the skinny curves of her calves.
“Hi, Jason,” She says.
“Jace,” I correct her. It’s not a nickname or anything. It’s on my birth certificate that way. So, Christian’s been talking a lot about me, huh?
“Sorry. Jace.”
“Listen, I’m just looking for a field.” I lift up the soccer ball in explanation.
“Yeah, sure. I’ll drive you over. You can practice at my high school.”
“Your high school?” I repeat, looking her over. Sometimes it’s hard for me to tell age, but high school?
“I’m an English teacher.”
“Too far to walk?” I ask, not really wanting to spend time with her.
“Everything’s too far to walk here. Besides, I’m not going to bite you.”
I remember how she looked when she opened Christian’s door last night. Bite, no; bat, yes.
“Don’t you need to go to work?”
“Not on a Sunday, no.” She laughs, but I’m too disoriented to join her.
I started from Chicago on Friday night? Saturday night? It blurs together. If it’s Sunday, then Lauren doesn’t even know I’m gone, yet. She hasn’t gone to Chemistry and sat down at the four-person lab table with Marisa and Edward.
Lauren and I would come early and kiss good morning with coffee on our breath. Then, she would fish out a tictac for me to suck to sliver before she would lay her lips against mine once more. If it’s Sunday, she hasn’t come late to avoid me, and found another place to sit after the Starbucks scene. Right now, she’s probably sitting at home with Kali purring on her lap, trying to study for her American History exam. Maybe, she’s brushing a strand of hair from her face. She might be telling herself that she is not waiting for the phone to ring. Not waiting to hang up on me.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Blog Tour Redux, Day Six: Real Writers Revise

Orginally posted at Playing With Words.  Thanks, Michele!  Michele Corriel is the author of Fairview Felines: A Newspaper Mystery and dozens of articles.  Her next book, Weird Rocks is coming out on 2013.  Michele and I have presented together a number of times and is a fellow member of the Class of 2K10.

Obsess much? 

Sharon Beals
If you marked yes, then write a novel.

Like most novelists, I have a day job: adjunct professor of creative writing. And I can tell you that, yes, writing can be taught. I’m one of those teachers who believes that everyone has a story worth telling and that everyone can learn how to tell it.

So why do so few people? At least two reasons that have nothing to do with publishing: 1) To paraphrase Stephen King, you need to write one million words before you write a good one. Yep. One million words. Or around 12 medium - long novels. Now, Split was the second novel I wrote. But I’ve done the math and one million is about right.

Reason No. Two. Not everyone wants to revise. My students resist revision. They believe in the creative muse. Fearing they will destroy the delicate balance that the muse bestowed upon them, they cling to every word. (Either that or they know how to BS and have three midterms, two papers, and a beer to drink. But let’s assume they believe in the muse.) I believe in the muse.

Mine’s named Oliver. I couldn’t write without Oliver. He carries me from scene to scene and finds nuance and meaning in moments. He is like most muses: sensitive, flighty, and disdainful of reality. He has no idea what a deadline means, doesn’t care if the reader needs to know who is who in a novel, and snobbishly eschews logic. He leaps lightly from here to there, never willing to settle. Oliver is wonderful, but not perfect – sometimes not even that good.

Let me show you what I mean:

Draft One of the Split’s opening:

Now I have to start lying. I doubt “I was in the neighborhood” is going to work. It’s 19 hours from Chicago to Albuquerque, if you drive all night, if you only stop for Mountain Dews from 7-11s and “extra crispy” from KFC which, by the way, closes much too early in Oklahoma.
What if I tried, “I was passing through”? Nah, not unless Christian’s gone blind in the last six years. My split lip might tip off Clever Boy. I run my tongue over the chasm and suck on the salt of my blood...
Final Draft of Split’s Opening:

Now I have to start lying.
As I stare through the windshield at the building my brother lives in, I try to think up a good lie, but nothing comes to mind. “I was in the neighborhood?” Yeah, right. It’s 19 hours from Chicago to Albuquerque, if you drive all night, if you only stop for Mountain Dews and KFC’s extra crispy. By the way, KFC closes far to early in Oklahoma.
Maybe I should try, “I’m just here to borrow a cup of sugar.” Pathetic. How about “One more stop in the eternal quest for the perfect burrito”? Unless Christian has gone blind in the last five years, no lie is going to cut it. My split lip might tip off Clever Boy. I run my tongue over the slit and suck on blood.
Maybe it’s not a huge difference and yet, in the final version, every word in a novel has been chosen, consciously. (Not written consciously. Written in the flow and passion that Oliver brings. But revised with a discriminating eye and tuned by an attentive ear.)

I think everyone can write a novel. I just am not convinced that everyone really wants to. Or rather, I should say, I’m just not convinced that everyone is as obsessed with the sound of their characters’ voices. Novelists won’t settle for “I was in the neighborhood” in paragraph one and “I was passing through” in paragraph two. We cringe at the repetition, not only the redundant sentiment, but the sentence construction. (Passive voice? Twice?) We care whether there’s a paragraph break between sentence one and sentence two. Many novelists, including myself, regard meter and flow, rhythm and cadence so highly that we read every word aloud, pencil in hand, making the spots that trip our tongues.

So in my syallbi, where I permit myself to add a little snarky humor, I always write: Real writers revise. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Blog Tour Redux, Day Five: Celebrating Domestic Violence Month

Originally posted at Pirate Penguin Reads where Sandy, who claims she is neither a penguin nor a pirate, navigates the page-y seas of all the books she reads.   

I'm thrilled to post this one today because February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month -- a month where we can celebrate all we've done to help teens by talking about teen dating violence and by recognizing how much more we need to do.

If you are wondering if  something's off with someone you are dating, then try contacting  They have a 24 hour chat line, too.  And it's worth a few minutes of your time.

Cycle of Abuse

was inspired by the stories of abuse I heard when I was coordinating a domestic violence legal clinic. But not one moment of abuse in the book is based on any specific incident I heard. Rather, I based it off the pattern – a pattern so predictable that Lenore Walker coined it, The Cycle of Abuse. For those of you who have read Split, I have inserted short excerpts from it where the pattern presented itself in the book. Here’s the pattern:

1. Tension-building phase. 

It’s palpable. The stress is building. The air around you feels weighted and charged. You try to diffuse it. Be silent, dress right, be funny. None of it works. 

She used to get quieter when my dad was gearing up for a big one. She never spoke that much anyway, but when she sensed my father’s stress, our dialogue would turn into me monologuing, just to fill the room. 

2. Incident of Abuse. 

The tension has snapped. You’re a target. Of a verbal explosion. Maybe hitting. Maybe worse. 

I froze and watched him fire his foot into Christian’s stomach, cock it and slam it into his back and then his face. Christian’s head hit the cement with the distinct thud that I came to associate with concussions. 

3. Reconciliation. 

Now you get flowers, dinner, apologies, remorse and… blamed (sometimes subtle, sometimes not.) But no admission of fault. 

“Go,” she says, “and I’ll come to you.”

I want to ask her when – before he takes her to Orchestra Hall before they spend a dinner at the Russian Tea Time and a weekend at the Drake, or after the next beating, when the cycle starts again. 

4. Calm. 

Then, life returns to the speed of normal. The tension will build later because the timer has begun its countdown again. The abuser gives you space to breathe but little control. 

Taking a beating isn’t that remarkable in our family. It’s not as if the earth shatters or time stops. You get up the next day and go to school…overall, you just keep moving at the speed of your life. 

Inside the cycle, you keep thinking it will get better. But the cycle repeats faster and faster and you’re on a downward spiral. Eventually, you might admit that it won’t get better, but you don’t know how to get out. 

You believe it’s your fault. It isn’t your fault. The abuser chooses. Abusers can chose to hit you in the stomach so your bruise won’t show. Abusers choose to wait until there are no witnesses. If they can choose all that, then they can choose not to hit you, too. But they don’t. 

Hard as it is, you can leave. 

For help in creating a safety plan, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-SAFE (TTY: 800-787-3224), or the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline at (866) 331-9474 (TTY: 866-331-84530).  

Monday, January 30, 2012

Blog Tour Redux, Day Four

Pixie over at Page Turners' hosted the SPLIT tour for this one.  I was thrilled that Kari at Teen Book Scene organized this tour because I ended up on really great sites.  Check out Page Turners.  It's a 5-poster blog, so you are sure to get multiple (and good) opinions! Right now they are running a fantastic giveaway -- definitely worth checking out.

For those of you who are just coming in: I'm re-posting the blog tour posts to celebrate the paperback release of SPLIT.

Top Five Writer’s Tips.

5. Celebrate the mess.
I am not naturally neat. So, my life is cluttered with ways to keep my messes organized. Necessarily evils include: my ga-zillion sticky notes, my calendar, calendar reminders, weekly, daily, master, and manuscript to-do lists. Without them I get nothing of quality accomplished.
Unless we’re talking about the first draft of a novel. Then messy is good. Messy is productive – it just doesn’t look like it. First drafts are about playing, discovering and uncovering. Let go. Play in the mud, celebrate the slop, and see what you unearth.
Example: In the first draft of my current WIP, I introduced a 2 year old in the beginning of the book. Three months and around 200 pages later, he was 25. I ended up cutting him out altogether, but he was useful: his appearance taught me that my protagonist needed to be protective of someone (when he was 2), and by the end of the novel, needed a mentor (when he was 25). His appearance was my intuition talking. Respect your intuition. Messy as it is.

4. Learn to love revision.
Pouring out the story on to the page is wonderful. It’s a rush. But revision is even better. Are you groaning? Lots of writers I know hate revising. I love it. Here’s how I learned to love revision:
First, I assumed that every word I wrote would need to be re-written. Probably more than once. Probably more than twice. For Split, 8 was the magic number. Yep, 8 full drafts. 6 of them before I started agent-hunting looking for an agent. (Don’t actually hunt agents. Hungry as you are, they do fight back.)
Second, I learned that revising is pretty much the same thing as writing. You are still uncovering deeper levels of the story. But you are also discovering what the story is not about. Pull out all the distractions. Complicate all the moments where you are only doing one thing at a time.
Third, know when you are done revising: when you have a house of cards and removing one line, causes a cave in; when your critique group agrees; but most of all, when there are no more surprises left in the book for you, no nuance left to uncover.

3. Think, think, think.
Admit it. Your imagination is like a dog with a bone, gnawing at it to get at the rich marrow inside. Give your imagination a problem and then go for a walk, knit part of a scarf, or sleep on it. You’re likely to have the marrow out if your imagination keeps at it.
Or, go even farther and use method acting (preferably when no one is around) to explore your POV character. I once went grocery shopping as Jace. My kids were beyond thrilled when I came home with tons of junk food, and they learned what Little Debbie was.

2. Cultivate your Ideal Reader.
Your Ideal Reader is insightful, passionately opinionated and smart, especially about books. Your Ideal Reader will speaks in truths, both hard ones and kind ones. Your Ideal Reader gives you foot rubs and calls you a genius. Well, maybe not the last one. Find that person. If you’re lucky, it’s someone you already know. (For me, it is my husband) If you’re not, take writing classes and listen to hear whose opinion you respect. Share pages with a trusted friend. Or hire a book doctor, one who you are sure you can trust.
Then, listen. Your ideal reader is your ideal reader for a reason: you respect his opinion.
Then speak. If you don’t agree with his suggestions, talk about why. Don’t argue him out of his point. Rather, try to uncover what about the line or the moment is bothering your Ideal Reader. Once you understand, find an edit that accomplishes your goal and your Ideal Reader’s.
I can’t overstate the importance of an Ideal Reader. I can only say that Split could never have been written without mine.

1. Writing is no place for timidity. Write bravely. Write boldly. Write every day you can.

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