"She's imperfect, but she tries. She is good, but she lies. She is hard on herself. She is broken & won't ask for help. She is messy but she's kind. She is lonely most of the time. She is all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie. She is gone, but she used to be mine." --Sara Bareilles, She Used to Be Mine
I know I said I'd follow up on that last post, and I will (promise!), but I have some fun words to share with you, and isn't sharing words what this is all about? Blurbing takes an enormous amount of time and effort -- time and effort that is typically carved out of a schedule already full of writing and reading. So when these authors carved out time for me, I was both floored and flattered. Here's what they had to say about Underneath Everything:
"Lyrical, nuanced, and achingly real, Marcy Beller Paul's debut explores the unmappable territory that is female friendship with honesty and heart. This is a book for every girl who's ever gotten lost trying to find where she ends and her best friends begin—which, let's face it, is every girl." --Amanda Maciel, author of Tease, a Spring 2014 Indie Next Pick
"Marcy Beller Paul's Underneath Everything is a lyrical and haunting debut novel. Paul's command of the language is masterful, but her poetic writing style stands in stark contrast to the dark subject matter. The story of Mattie and Jolene digs right into the heart of a poisonous friendship between two teenage girls, and I found myself holding my breath during the book's final pages. Underneath Everything is a disturbing read, and I mean that in the best possible way." --Jennifer Mathieu, author of The Truth About Alice, for which she was named the 2015 Children's Book Choice Teen Choice Debut Author
Whoa. I'm still kind of in shock! I have such a great deal of respect and admiration for both of these authors, and I am deeply grateful for their words. If you haven't read their books yet, I recommend picking one up right now, then letting me know what you think in the comments below!
And for now, as female newsanchor Veronica Corningstone would say: Thanks for stopping by.
This past fall, as I was digging into my copyedits, my son was beginning first grade. He loves books. If he had it his way, he'd be listening to the Harry Potter audiobooks on repeat forever. And he loves when we read to him. But reading on his own was something he was just learning. He was getting better, though. More confident. Then one afternoon he said to me: "Sometimes when we have reading time at school I just don't do anything." "Why?" I asked. "Because I don't know how to read in my head." This got me thinking. About the difference between reading to ourselves, and reading out loud. About the difference between writing to and for ourselves, and writing out loud.
You see, at the exact time my son said this, I was actually in the process of reading my entire manuscript out loud. I'd gone through all the copyedits, but I wanted to make sure everything still flowed. My very smart CP Paula Stokes suggested I get a cup of tea, a glass of water, and ready my voice, because reading out loud was the surest way to make sure everything was where it was supposed to be. I followed her advice (as I do most of the time). But I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Yes, it completely uncovered some typos, problems, and weird phrasings that I never would have caught if I'd been reading it in my head. But it also took so much longer than I thought it would, and it was SO revealing. Somehow, even though I'd done all the hard work of stripping my thoughts and feelings down to the bone and putting them into words on the page, voicing them--putting them out there in the room with me--was something completely different.
So my son's words hit me particularly hard. As I began to go through the mechanics of learning to read to yourself--say the word out loud, then say it in a whisper, then say it in your brain--I couldn't help starting to explain to him how magical it was, reading to yourself. How you could take a story and it could live inside you, and you could add things to it that no one else could, and how it could be just for you--a special, private thing. Most of this probably went over his head (he may be six, but he already knows what "hooking the reader is" and all about character arc), the funny thing is that he started reading to himself the next day.
And I immediately felt a little loss. There's a sharing that's done when we read out loud. There's a bravery, too. In raising your voice. And letting other people hear it.
I'm working on something new now. In order to dig into myself and unearth the truest bits--the things I try to hide, even from myself--about my characters and their motivations, I'm usually writing in my head. Most of the time with my headphones on. And it's just as private and magical as reading to myself. But what if...what if I wrote out loud?
What would that mean? What would it be? I'll get back to you in a few weeks and let you know, if you promise to do the same.
I haven't written for a couple of months. I haven't revised. I haven't drafted. I haven't blogged. Not because I didn't want to, but because other things demanded my time (children, moving, etc.). It's probably the longest period I've gone without writing consistently since I started drafting Underneath Everything back in 2011. That January I swore to myself I'd take my writing seriously. No more of the starting and stopping, the sporadic spurts of inspiration followed by fallow periods. No more unfinished stories. I was going to make writing a habit. So I took a class. I forced myself to fit it in, which wasn't easy, especially since my kids were so young at the time (1 and 3). But I did it. Come naptime, nighttime, anytime I had to myself, I'd plug in my headphones and write. Or brainstorm. Or outline. Or think. Whatever it took to get to the next page. The next sentence. The next line of dialogue.
I got addicted, like you do with any habit. I felt great when I did it. I felt terrible when I didn't. So I did it as much as I could. A couple of years later, after a massive revision, when I submitted my manuscript to agents and was sick to my stomach with anxiety as I awaited a response, a dear friend suggested the best thing to do was keep writing. She was right. I began to think about my next book. I brainstormed. I outlined. I thought. It felt good. I thought it was because I was doing something I loved. I thought it was because I was being productive. It was both of those things, but it was something else, too. Something I couldn't put my finger on until recently, when I stopped the writing cycle completely, went through a stressful experience at the same time, and ended up having a few of those nights--you know the ones, where you end up crying and screaming and you're not even sure why? When you just have to let it all out? Maybe at the person or people you love the most?
Yeah, well. It wasn't awesome, to say the least. I wasn't proud of myself, or the way I'd acted. I could have handled it better. And as I discussed it with my husband, our conversation ended up at Star Wars (it's either that or Harry Potter in my house these days), and how the trait most respected in the Jedi is control. Not just physical, but mental. The Jedi must master his emotions. This, it seems, is what we are expected to do most of the time. This is polite. This is mature. And this is also difficult. Damn near impossible.
That's when I finally realized what it is I'm addicted to. It's not writing. Not exactly. As much as I love the craft of carving a beautiful sentence, or nailing an image, it's feeling I crave. When I put on those headphones and inhabit a character, I'm off the hook. I don't have to keep anything in. Not a single ache or craving. It's my job to feel what my character feels. The sick ache of frustration. The skin-buzzing surge of excitement. For however long I have on the headphones--for however long I'm lost in the world I've made up--I get to feel it all. And when the headphones come off, and the file is closed, and I'm back within the confines of myself, I'm a little kinder, a little lighter, a little more in control.
Jedi status doesn't seem so far out of reach.
Which is why, despite the fact that I'm rusty and slightly queasy at the thought of reading my third round revisions notes in the next day or so, I'm definitely ready.
What about you? Does writing balance you? Does it unbalance you? Does it give you permission? And does that help you? I'd love to hear all about it.
I was frustrated. REALLY upset. It was 4th grade, and I was working on my very first book report. When I got the assignment, I'd been pretty excited: Write three pages summarizing a book you have read. This sounded awesome for two reasons: 1. I would have been reading a book anyway, so it wasn't even extra work, and 2. There was no possible way to mess it up. There was no WRONG answer. I liked math, but I had a tendency to do things quickly and end up with the wrong answer at least once or twice on a test. This bothered me because I did, actually, know how to do the problem. I'd just gotten careless. But this? There was no way I could get it wrong. I'd read the book, after all. The only thing left was to summarize the story. So I sat myself in front of our brand new Apple IIe and got to work. That's when things got dicey. I wrote one page, and then another, and another. How could three pages be enough for anyone to explain what had happened in an ENTIRE book? And how could I explain one scene without the one that preceded it? My book report grew. And grew. And grew. I don't remember how many pages it was when I finished. Let's say more than ten and fewer than twenty. Either way, I'd learned my lesson (though I'm not sure this was the particular lesson my 4th grade teacher had intended): there are so many moving parts, so many pieces of a story that go into making it work, that to leave out anything--even the tiniest detail--made a difference.
I also learned the correct definition of the word 'summary,' but summaries weren't what my teachers wanted by the time I got to middle school (that would be 6th through 8th grade in my Jersey suburb). By then, the teachers expected more. They wanted an argument. An opinion. A point of view. In short, they wanted An Actual English Paper. So I set about trying to write one. It was fun. After all, I liked to write. And it's not like I was given that many chances to write what I wanted. Sometimes we were assigned poems and one time we even did a whole unit on the haiku, but the majority of our writing assignments were papers. So I made them creative. I used extended metaphors and similes at will. Of course I threw in some quotes and an opinion along the way, but for me, the fun was in the language. That, I thought, was why I got good grades. That was why I smiled and other people groaned when they saw the words "paper" or "essay" on the blackboard. Because they didn't like to write. And good writing was what made a good English paper. Right?
Pretty words wouldn't get me a good grade with Mr. Keane. Bow-tied and blazered, broad-shouldered and white-haired, with a habit of adjusting his glasses with his middle finger, Mr. Keane was my freshman English teacher. He was also the first person to introduce me to the Five Paragraph Essay. It was in Mr. Keane's class that I read A Separate Peace and Catcher in the Rye. It was in Mr. Keane's class that I learned creative writing is fine, but structure, coherence, and--most of all--logic, make a good English paper; an introduction in which the argument is presented; three paragraphs containing three distinct points that support the argument, with quotes, of course; a conclusion, in which the argument is restated, the points summarized, and the final opinion clarified. I still snuck in extended metaphors where I could, especially in the introductions and conclusions, but Mr. Keane called me on them if they weren't crystal clear, or in service of the argument.
Mr. Keane taught me how to write An Actual English Paper.
I used his technique throughout high school and into college, with pretty excellent results. By the time I was a senior, I'd even gotten cocky. I thought that with a bunch of quotes and a bunch of pages, I could prove anything, about any book. Sometimes it even worked. Sometimes I decided what I was going to write about on the first page of the book: I saw one scene with a window, then circled every scene with a window throughout the rest of the book. At the end, I put them all together: I saw the character outside of the window at first, through the window next, and breaking the window at the end. I could make an argument out of that, of course I could! But sometimes it didn't work. Sometimes I forced it. Especially on my thesis (which is basically the longest English paper you could possibly imagine). And it showed. I didn't do poorly, but I didn't get the glowing reception I thought I would.
For a while I was angry about how I did on my thesis. I blamed my advisor. I blamed my subject. I blamed the faculty who had graded it. After all, I had used the technique! I had been logical! And I'd even made it sound pretty! (Even then, I couldn't let the pretty go.) But then I graduated, got a job, and moved to New York City. I forgot all about my thesis. Until I started writing a book myself. After months hunched over my computer, it came back to me--that very simple thing I'd realized way back in fourth grade: each scene, each action, each sentence is there for a reason. The author has painstakingly put each element in its place with purpose, and intention. Nothing is superfluous. Nothing is a mistake. Not after years of writing and revising and editing and copyediting. The author is saying something very specific in each paragraph, page, and phrase of a book.
It took me until very recently to put it all together: There are no wrong answers on English papers, but there ARE weak arguments. There are weak arguments because there are not enough quotes from the book to support an opinion. And there aren't enough quotes from the book to support an opinion, because it isn't a point the author was trying to make. It wasn't the author's intention.
Why am I telling you this, you ask? Because maybe you're one of those people who groan when you see the word "paper" on the blackboard. Maybe you think you're not a good writer, and that English papers were put on this earth to torture you until you tumble under the weight of a pile of words that will crush you and everything you ever felt. But it doesn't have to be that way. Writing an English paper is about clarity and logic. It's about being attentive and aware of what's happening in a book. Each detail, each scene, each piece of dialogue is there for a reason. The author is talking to you. Are you listening? Are you paying attention? Because if you do, I promise you'll find patterns and sequences (sound familiar math people?)--patterns and sequences, put together by logic, that will tell you something. And when you hear what it is, you won't groan, you'll smile.
p.s. If this helped you, I'd love to know about it! Leave a comment below!
For my Very First Post Ever, I thought I'd start with an announcement. This happened a few months ago, but the shine hasn't faded (at least, not for me). Check it out: Sara Sargent at Balzer + Bray has acquired world English rights to Underneath Everything, a YA debut by Marcy Beller Paul. It's a contemporary psychological thriller about two girls bound by an obsessive friendship. When Mattie decides to take back the boyfriend, friends, and life she thinks Jolene stole from her years ago, she's drawn into an intoxicating – and toxic – relationship that blurs the boundary between friendship and love. Publication is scheduled for fall 2015; Michael Bourret at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management did the deal.
So, yeah. That little piece of info was published in PW on August 15th, 2013. That day lots of people found out something I had kept quiet for a long time. When I first started writing the book that became Underneath Everything in January 2011, my daughter was barely a year old, my son was very much two years old, and I was barely getting any sleep. I talked to people about sleep schedules and juggling two kids and movies and books and what it was like to stay home. But I didn't talk to anyone about my writing. It was an experiment. Something I would try. Maybe it wasn't the right time. Maybe I should wait until I was getting more sleep, and the kids were older, and we had a house, and I was--I don't know--better. But I didn't want to wait anymore. I'd always told myself (in a small voice, in my head--for as long as I've been talking to myself, anyway) that when I had kids I'd stay home and write books. I never said it out loud. I never told anyone else. But I never stopped telling myself, either. It was a refrain--a song I sang myself under my breath. A dream. But it didn't feel real, like it could ever actually happen. Because I'd worked in publishing. I'd seen how many talented writers got book deals, and how many didn't. Who was I to think I had something to add? That I was good enough? Even when I started writing every day--working during naptimes and nights--even when I started treating it like a job, I didn't tell many people. I didn't feel like I was allowed. But slowly, over the year it took me to finish the first draft, and the additional year it took me to rip it apart and revise it, I did start saying things. At parties. During playdates. I'm working on something. I'm writing. A book. For teens.
The first time I said it out loud, I went home and asked my husband if I sounded silly and stupid. He said no, not at all. But I felt like a fraud. I was afraid to tell people, because that meant I'd be accountable. If nothing came of it, I'd be a failure.
But every day I went back to the writing. I wanted to see it through. I wanted to know I could finish. Most of all, I kept going back because I love writing. I love books and words and turns of phrase, and the way they take my feelings and tie them up and toss them around and wring them out.
So I kept at it. I finished my revisions. I revised some more (and then some more). And then, eventually, I sent my words out into the world all by themselves. My finger shook when I hit send. I told my family and close friends. And we waited.
Then I got an agent (my DREAM agent). Then I got a book deal. Then everyone found out.
I'm not going to say it changed my life, because I still wipe noses and make lunches and try to figure out what we're having for dinner and write whenever I can in between. I still love writing and crush on cool word combinations. The big difference is that now you get to read my words. I get to give them to you. And I can only hope they tie you up and toss you around and wring you out too.