Monday, May 7, 2012

Aches & Pains and Grown-Up Nostalgia

Since I write primarily for teenagers, I probably shouldn't write a blog post about feeling old, but yanno... I have that whole honest-to-a-fault thing going and until I have an outlet for writing about grown-up type things (which I'm looking into both in terms of freelance and I still really, really hope my adult book AKA the Bartender Book AKA Getting Back To Nowhere sells) this is my space for babbling about everything, so yeah.

These thoughts are stemming from two places. The first, unfortunately, is physical pain. I spent most of last week in such terrible back/shoulder/neck and knee pain that it made it almost impossible to concentrate on writing. You see I was always this flexible kid who could do things like sit crosslegged in an office chair all day with no problem. Now, at nearly 33, this along with my ability to snap back from a hangover and my drinking tolerance in general has diminished considerably. I've developed really bad habits in terms of how I sit and write and I know it is going to be a major pain in the ass to break them. It also may involve a new chair and/or desk neither of which I can afford right now, so it's frustrating. And the knee thing comes from a combo of running, standing all night at my bartending job and sometimes slipping and twisting it... Not cool. Anyway, I don't mean for this to be a whine fest. I only bring it up because A. if any of my fellow writers have chair/lumbar support pillow or other ergonomic typing at desk for long hour suggestions, I would love to hear them and B. my week of grumpiness over my old age/aches & pains probably fed into this grown-up nostalgia moment I had that was really bittersweet and one of the few things I've really felt worth documenting on the blog for a while. (That is why my posts are sporadic. If I don't have anything that I really want to reflect on, I don't try to force myself to post because I have novels and freelance articles to write that are more urgent.)

So Friday morning I was cleaning the house. I'd just gotten Jack White's new album Blunderbuss on vinyl so I put it on. I haven't really followed Jack's post-White Stripes career. In fact my White Stripes obsession started to fade after Elephant, but I'd heard good things about Blunderbuss and was in the mood for that rock/blues mash-up that Jack does best, so I got it and let me tell you, it did not disappoint. It made me nostalgic for the White Stripes though, so I put their self-titled record on and wow, holy shit, hello flood of memories! But something was very strange about it....

I'm a very nostalgic person. It's a Cancer thing. It's also why I write for teens because I still have such a strong bond with who I was between 1992 and 1999, ie. 13 and 20. I love writing for Rookie because I get to reflect on that time period. I can channel those emotions for my books and my articles so easily. And of course, being me, the main way I've channeled them is music. 

The bands I'm super-attached to, the ones that changed and defined my life are for the most part from my teen years: Nirvana, Hole, Rancid, Social Distortion, The Cure. As I was listening to the first White Stripes album, I realized that they were the first band I fell in love with as a grown-up. I discovered them when I was 21, just moved back to Chicago to finally go to college and try to act like an adult. I'd delayed this for a few years. Even though I'd been emotionally messed-up in high school, I'd kept my shit together and graduated early, but after my eighteenth birthday things just fell apart. The three years that followed are a blur of booze, sleeping pills, other drugs, reckless behavior, slashed arms, lots of tears, lots of fights, bad relationships, spending all the grocery money on boxed wine.... You get the idea. (I'd love to write a book about this time period, like fictionalized, but it seems that despite this being almost as interesting and drama-filled a period as the high school years, no one is really buying...)

Thanks to an incredible mother who knew how to apply pressure using equal parts encouragement and mild threats, I pulled myself out of it. (Well, most of it. The bad relationship and alcohol abuse would continue a few more years.) I need music that was completely different from the angry punk of my high school years and the goth and glam of my late teens/first two years of my twenties. Via a music messageboard I discovered The White Stripes right before they exploded with their White Blood Cells album. I obsessed over them the same way I obsessed over bands as a teenager. I went to see them in concert every time they came to town, including once on my birthday and one expensive but totally worth it New Year's Eve show. I got posters and cut out pictures of them from magazines and added them to the collage the existing collage in my old room (because due to the pathetic way I'd been existing, I'd had to move back home to go back to school):

Also, since things had changed a bit since I was a teenager, ie. the internet had become this insanely awesome thing, I also found websites where I could trade bootlegs of their live shows. So I had like a million White Stripes CDs and could listen to them constantly. And that's pretty much what I did from the end of 2000 to 2004-ish. Then, I discovered the next obsessions (The Distillers, Against Me!, Civet and The Gaslight Anthem) and moved along, much like I did as a teenager. 

I'm used to certain bands and songs bringing me back to moments from my teenage years. If I hear anything off of Rage Against Machine's self-titled album, I'm instantly transported to fall of sophomore year, the overcrowded backseat of a black Saturn where I'm smoking cigarettes and stoned as fuck on top of my not-really-a-boyfriend's lap. Early Sleater-Kinney takes me to the smoky Fireside Bowl or a nearby apartment on Talman in Logan Square where I spent so much of my junior year of high school. The Queen Is Dead album by The Smiths takes me to my very first apartment in Madison. But it has never happened with grown-up memories until Friday morning when I put that first White Stripes album on and all of a sudden it was the summer of 2001 and I was at the pool with my four year-old niece and her mom.

My niece is not my niece by blood, but she is in every way that matters. Her mom and I have been friends since third grade and considered ourselves sisters since fifth. We've fought horribly just like real sibilings and have that same unconditional love that has carried us through. I have that same kind of love for her daughter, but it's like even more potent. I can't even explain it because the kind of love I have for that kid is like nothing I've ever experienced. At this point I can safely predict that she is probably the closest I'll ever have to a daughter of my own and I just have those mother-lion, I will kill for you feelings about her.

Today when I heard Jack White sing, "I felt just like a baby, til I held a baby..." I practically burst into tears because it so perfectly summed up how I felt during her early childhood. She was born a few months after I graduated early and moved to Madison, so I didn't meet her until she was 9 months old and I was home from my disastrous first year of college. I've babysat. I've had lots of little cousins around. But this was completely different. This was my sister/best friend's baby. She was only 18 when she had her and I was still 17, so it was surreal at times. We were still kids. We were so immature. We screwed up in a lot a LOT of ways. But oh how we loved her. Oh how it was love at first sight when she smiled at me. Since I was living in another state, I didn't get to really spend much time with her until I moved home at 21. The summer of my White Stripes obsession, was the summer after she turned four and listening to it, I just see her splashing in the pool, running around with those gorgeous brown waves trailing out behind her. The song "Astro" where Jack sings about "Tesla doing the Astro," when I first heard it, I misheard the lyric as "Tessa does the Astro," my niece's name. And I still sing it that way.

She just turned fifteen last month. Fifteen. So when I found myself thinking of her as a four year-old, I realized that I was reflecting on a memory that was over ten years old. Definitely, officially nostalgia. The White Stripes are my first grown-up band and my first source of grown-up nostalgia. It's surreal. It's bittersweet. I feel old, but god those are some beautiful memories.

And I really do want to distill those ups and downs into stories like I did my own teenage years in IWBYJR and BALLADS and the new book I'm working on. Once an older reader of BALLADS asked me on Facebook if I would ever write not necessarily a sequel with the same characters, but a book with characters who'd lived through teenage years like my characters in BALLADS as adults. What are those people like now, he asked me, saying that he was one of those people. I'm one of those people, too, and I really do hope I'll get the opportunity to write a book like that because I have an idea that's been percolating for a couple years now, ever since that question was asked of me. But I've got to sell the Bartender book first and hopefully the new YA I'm working on, so I can support this habit, this job of mine that keeps me forever young despite the grown-up nostalgia and aches and pains. I've got thoughts and worries and concerns about that too, but I'll save it for another time.

Hope you didn't mind me being an old lady and waxing nostalgic today. Fair warning that it may happen again in a few years when I put on an Against Me! record and reminisce about my fabulous semester in LA after a bad break-up and the early days of my relationship with my husband. Oh music, the power you have over me.

Friday, May 4, 2012

GCC Presents: Jessi Kirby

One of my lovely ladies from the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit has a new book out! Here are the details on Jessi Kirby's new YA contemporary, IN HONOR:

Honor receives her brother’s last letter from Iraq three days after learning that he died, and opens it the day his fellow Marines lay the flag over his casket. Its contents are a complete shock: concert tickets to see Kyra Kelly, her favorite pop star and Finn's celebrity crush. In his letter, he jokingly charged Honor with the task of telling Kyra Kelly that he was in love with her.

Grief-stricken and determined to grant Finn's last request, she rushes to leave immediately. But she only gets as far as the driveway before running into Rusty, Finn's best friend since third grade and his polar opposite. She hasn't seen him in ages, thanks to a falling out between the two guys, but Rusty is much the same as Honor remembers him: arrogant, stubborn. . . and ruggedly good looking. Neither one is what the other would ever look for in a road trip partner, but the two of them set off together, on a voyage that makes sense only because it doesn’t. Along the way, they find small and sometimes surprising ways to ease their shared loss and honor Finn--but when shocking truths are revealed at the end of the road, will either of them be able to cope with the consequences?

 Jessi Kirby is the author of Moonglass, published in May 2011 by Simon and Schuster. She is also a wife, mom, English teacher and former librarian, beach bum, runner, and lover of Contemporary YA, strong coffee, and dark chocolate.

 Let's meet her and hear more about her new book, shall we?

Q: Please tell us what your new book is about and what inspired you to write it.

Jessi: IN HONOR is a road trip story that begins with a pair of concert tickets and a mistaken last request, and ends with truths discovered on the road.

Q: If there was a soundtrack for your book what are five songs that would be on it and how do they relate the story?

Jessi: Theme song of the entire book: Sparks Fly by Taylor Swift
And a few more:  Long Trip Alone by Dierks Bentley, Free Fallin’ by Tom Petty, Fans by Kings of Leon, and Where Are You Going by Dave Matthews

Q: Who were some of your inspirations to become a writer or the inspirations that keep you writing? Feel free to include other authors, teachers, parents, or people in other creative fields, whoever is an inspiration to you!

Jessi: Judy Blume was my very first inspiration.  I first read her books when I was in 3rd grade, and that’s when I decided I wanted to be a writer.  Along the way I’ve found so many amazing writers, all of whom inspire me every time I read their work:  Sarah Dessen, Deb Caletti, and Sarah Ockler, to name a few!

Q: Even though music plays in so heavily into my storytelling, I rarely can actually listen to it while I'm writing. Can you? How does music fit into your writing process?

Jessi: I can’t listen to music while I’m writing either.  I need quiet.  But I do make playlists for each book, and usually I listen to those while I’m running, before I sit down to write for the day.

Q: What is next for you? What are you working on now?

Jessi: Right now I’m working on revisions for my 3rd novel, GOLDEN, which is another contemporary YA due out in 2013.  And of course I’ve got a few new story ideas percolating.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Work-In-Progress Wednesday: What I've learned about backstory from watching TV

So, as I mentioned in my latest Teen Fiction Cafe post, I watch a lot of TV. I feel guilty about it sometimes, especially when it cuts into my reading time, but I consider television to be a much better storyteller than it used to be. I barely watched anything in the mid to late 90s, I even spent most of the early 2000s scoffing that it was all reality crap. But then I realized there were some incredibly well-written programs out there. (There is some fun mindless entertainment, too, and I definitely indulge in that because everyone needs to unwind.) Suddenly I found myself more engrossed in TV than movies because I get to enjoy a longer story arc. And even though I spent years riding the whole "TV kills brain cells" train, I've actually found myself learning a ton from my shows lately. It's like a free--or I guess cost of my cable and Netflix subscriptions--education in pacing, character development, dialogue, and more.

Since I love to write nuanced characters, who the reader will either love to hate or will love but be frustrated with at times because they are REAL people living in shades of gray rather than black-and-white and making poor choices at times, those are the kinds of shows I seek out. That's why I love Mad Men and it's a large part of the reason why I've managed to watch two seasons of Sons of Anarchy in less than two weeks. Seriously, I watched half of season three on Sunday alone. It was insane. I spend a lot of time pondering the characters and how the writers make me empathize with people I would normally dislike and keep me going on the roller coaster ride with the characters I do like even when they make one bad choice after the next, but character development is something I'd like to think I'm pretty good at... I have a bunch of tools for it anyway.

On the other hand, my biggest weakness as a writer is backstory. It probably goes hand-in-hand with the character development thing. I know so much about my characters and have fleshed out their history in such a big way that I can't help bringing it into the book. Without fail, every time my critique partners get back to me on a manuscript, they ask if I can somehow trim the backstory. It is the bane of my existence. Not them saying that because they are almost always right, but the trimming. Ugh. Especially with this book because there is so much history, not just for my character but for her entire family.

I noticed a really interesting thing while I was watching Sons of Anarchy though. We were thrust into the lives of these interesting, insane characters in this motorcycle club which obviously has a lot of history. Plenty of hints were dropped about the past, many of which caused me to turn to my husband who has already seen the first four seasons of the show and ask questions. Of course, he'd always shake his head at me and tell me to be patient. (And let me just say that gentle reprimand occurs a lot in our marriage!) So I kept waiting for the flashbacks, like the ones we got in Mad Men as Don Draper's secret history was revealed. But three seasons into the show and I've yet to get a single flashback.

This frustrates me a bit because A. I'm impatient and B. I'm so character history obsessed, but for the most part it leaves me in awe. There is still backstory on Sons of Anarchy, it's a show with rich characters who have a lot of history, but it's only given to us in the moment. We learn about the past through dialogue. The past comes up when it's relevant to show, like when someone's former lover shows up. Still, these are places where I would be tempted as a writer to pause and let my character reflect via flashback, but on SOA they never do. You learn all you are going to learn from what the character's say, write (there are some voice over monologues from Jax's dead father, but we only get those when Jax is reading things his father has written), and from the expressions on their faces, body language, and physical reactions.

And I am fucking jealous.

I don't think I'd be capable of doing this. Definitely not with the book I'm currently working on and the other ideas I have also seem too drenched in character history to pull off something like what SOA does. But one day, dammit. It will be a goal.

For now, I just am going to have to rely on my CPs and a bunch of handy highlighters when I finish a manuscript so I can look at where I've gotten too backstory heavy and how I can trim and redistribute. However, when I can I will be trying to find ways to get history across in a scene/through dialogue. And for those of you who struggle with backstory and are RWA members, do check out the recent Romance Writers Report for an interesting article about how to cope with your oversharing habit.

What about you? Do you have backstory issues or tips for dealing with it? And what TV shows have taught you what kinds of writing tricks?