Publication day is getting closer, and today’s Love Your Novel Challenge insists on the sharing 2500 words. I’m up for it, but I’ve shortened it to 2000 words - a chapter from The Bones of Who We Are when Gabe learns that Seth has been in his accident. Enjoy.
As a reader, a teacher of literature, and a writer, next to character, conflict is the most critical element of literature. Conflict, the problem which the main character must overcome, is what drives the story from beginning to end. The conflict is that which makes the audience cheer or jeer. It is what keep us opening the book and reading into the wee hours of the morning. Conflict is what builds tension and explores the very essence of our own psyche. Haven’t you ever thought: what would I do in that situation?
Without conflict, the plot line flattens out. In a previous blog, I explored the difference between a character-driven story and a plot-driven one, and would say that regardless of how the story is driven, conflict is still present and necessary. A plot line in either case is still essential to move narrative from beginning to end, and is only able to occur because conflict is present.
The types of conflict we find in stories are categorized as follows:
Character (protagonist) versus Character (antagonist)
Character versus Character is the tried and true conflict of one person against another (or a few others). Think: Harry versus Voldemort, Luke versus Darth Vader, Katniss Everdeen against President Snow.
Character versus Society
Character versus society is the exploration of a character’s conflict with the ideals or constructs of the society in which their journey takes place. For example, while Katniss Everdeen is pitted against the power struggle with President Snow (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins), the conflict also delves into what President Snow and District One represent (opulence and classism, abuse of power, etc). Or in Harry Potter’s journey in the The Order of The Phoenix, the character versus character is maintained with his conflict with Voldemort, but there is added complexity in the struggle against the Ministry of Magic which include fascism, racism, and abuse of power. A favorite example, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nick’s descent in the high society of 1920’s New York. These society constructs force the character to take a stand or change perspective which stretch the tension and develop the conflict.
Character versus Nature
Character versus nature is the survival story. This is the main character facing the destruction of a natural disaster, hunger in a famine, or being lost in the woods and finding a way to survive the long winter. Think: Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet or The Mountain Between Us by Charles Martin.
Character versus Self
Character versus self is the tried and true struggle to overcome personal attitudes and perceptions. In Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, for example, Junior must face his perceptions about himself as a Native American to determine his worth.
Though this isn’t strictly character versus self, I would argue that many novels don’t adhere to only one conflict which is a mirror to the reality of our own human experience. We struggle with ourselves, but simultaneously we struggle with our boss, or our spouse, or our parents, or our children, and at the same time with what we hear is happening on the news. Conflict in our lives doesn’t happen in isolation and often doesn’t for our characters either. In To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Scout struggles with societal perceptions about race and gender (character versus society) while at the same time learning about her own understanding of those things (character versus self). In a recent story I read called I am Still Alive by Kate Alice Marshall, the main character faces her inner conflict coping with a new disability after an accident while trying to survive alone in the wild, AND eventually facing off with her father’s murderers. Three conflicts layered into the hero’s journey of this character (believe it or not, it worked!)
If you examine your current Work In Progress or the novel you’re currently reading, can you identify the conflict? I’m reading Cassandra Clare’s Queen of Air and Darkness and I’m not sure I can at 200 pages of 800 . . . there’s a lot going on (and I might want to throw the book at the wall) but more on that later..
Next up: I’ll explore the idea of character motivation and the tried and true magic statement I learned that has helped me stay on point.
In the act of writing, I don’t think I have ever made a conscious decision when beginning to write a new story about point of view. What I mean by that is, I don’t think I sat down and planned in conscious manner I would be writing in first person or third person, omniscient. I wonder if any writer does? I’d love to hear from them.
In my process, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, new ideas, new characters, often come in snippets, so when I sit down to explore the snippet further, I just write and by write, I mean word-vomit whatever is going on in my mind. I don’t think about the point of view, I just go for it. To review: Point of view is the way a story is written. There are three points of view: first, second and third, but to complicate things third can broken up into two types: third person, limited and third person, omniscient.
First person is when the character writes in a way that places the reader in an intimate place within his thought process, as if reading the character’s journal. The first person perspective uses pronouns like I, me, we, us. Swimming Sideways and The Ugly Truth are written in first person point of view.
Second person is when the reader becomes the character. Remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books? Those were written in 2nd person and replied on the pronoun you to include the reader as the protagonist of the tale. This isn’t a frequently utilized point of view, however a great example is Freewill by Chris Lynch (A YA Mystery and a Printz Honor Award Winner published in 2001).
Finally, third person is the removal of the audience from the story by placing them outside of the action but providing them with a bird’s eye view. This is done by using pronouns like he, she, them, they. Not a part of the action but witness to it, the audience is afforded the opportunity to understand a character without being connected to them. First person, limited, is when the point of view (narration) never leaves the experience of a single character. We see this happen a lot in YA literature when an author identifies which character she is writing to explore various character’s experiences. Several examples of this third person, limited are Leigh Bardugo’s Crooked Kingdom or Veronica Roth’s Divergent, and an all-time favorite work of fiction - J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Third person, omniscient, then, is when the narration of the story is god-like, and the impact of events and thoughts of characters can be explored at will. Examples include Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.
Writers, then, often grapple with which point of view do I choose? If you google it, the answer is often: whichever one suits your story best. Hah! Thanks for nothing.
If you remember the story of the creation of Swimming Sideways, it was initially a very different story. A paranormal teen romance with angels and demons, the first time I wrote it, it was in third person, limited. I switched back and forth between Abby’s perspective, Seth’s and Gabe’s. The style of the story which worked to keep the reader outside - looking in - and distant made third person a logical choice. When we think about stories that incorporate extensive world-building, this is often the case. Swimming Sideways was revised to a very character-driven story which lost the paranormal elements altogether. When this happened, I made the decision to change the third person, limited view to a first person in order to make it more personal between the character and the reader. Successful? The jury is out.
For me, making the decision as to which sort of point of view to write a story is linked to character and goals. Is the story character-driven or plot-driven? What level of emotion am I building into the conflict (more on conflict in a later post)? The analysis of my goals will often answer the question for me. While, I haven’t found a tried and true methodology to identify which POV to write my stories, I would say that by reading (a lot), I have been given maps to understand POV and successful implementation of each.
Do you have a specific methodology for choosing POV? Comment and discuss below!
Looking forward to some quality time with my two boys (will miss my college girl). While I would prefer to sit in my house writing about adventure, I logically know I need to get out and experience it too. I’ll see you all in a week with a new blog about Character and Point of View.
Stories make me happy. This isn’t an overstatement. From sitting around the dinner table with family and listening to personal tales, or picking up a book and reading a gripping tale, I’m transported into the narrative, soaking up details and experience. Over the course of the last year, I read fifty books. These books ranged from memoirs like Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, Maya Angelou’s essays in Letters to My Daughter and novels of varying genres from adult romance, thriller and suspense to young adult fantasy, dystopia, and contemporary. Stories make me happy.
As a writer - early on - as I was pushing open different kinds of writing doors to figure out what kind of writer I was, I didn’t think much about character. This isn’t because I had a belief that character wasn’t important. No. I knew characters were essential to the whole of a narrative. It was just that in my beginning level of constructing story, I focused on the plot to move characters through a story. The plot: a series of actions and reactions that carry characters from the beginning to the end of the story.
We’ve all studied it: Introduction, rising action, turning point, falling action, conclusion. First this happened, and then this and then this. I think many of us tell stories this way. As we recount a moment in our day, or for example, as my son recounted a dream he’d had to me. We describe the narrative as a series of events moved and dictated by the movement of our experience as characters in the story. This recounting is an example of the plot-driven narrative. A story moved by action from beginning to end.
Then, some of our stories investigate experience further. The narrative shifts into the thoughts and feelings associated with certain outcomes, and then we explore how those reflections inspired further action. When a story is driven by the internal experience of a character who responds to events taking them from one moment to the next reflecting on growth. This development of character motivation and internal exploration in response to action is a character-driven story.
As I’ve developed as a writer (mostly by studying story after story after story, and then developing my own relationship to the craft of writing) I have moved toward a character-driven story. Looking at Swimming Sideways, The Ugly Truth and the soon-to-be published The Bones of Who We Are, I would describe them as character-driven novels in which the plot is centered on character growth rather than siphoned into a series of events.
This isn’t to say that one is better than the other. Both are embodied in well written stories. Both plot-driven and character-driven are enjoyable if written well. Though I would add the caveat that even plot-driven stories must have believable and developed characters. This is done, I think, by working to make characters round and dynamic versus flat and static. The difference? A round character is developed and complex rather than one-dimensional like a cardboard cut-out, and a dynamic character showcases a change in perspective whether this is through action, interaction, or internal development in contrast to a character who remains constant all the way through a story.
Consider your favorite stories. Would you say they were plot-driven or character driven? Feel free to comment and discuss.
When I tell people that my characters “talk” to me, I often get the look that indicates I might have a screw loose. Well, maybe I do. One of those tiny screws like on a pair of eyeglasses which needs one of those tiny special screwdrivers, because honestly, the rest of me is pretty factory settings.
When I say a character “talks to me” it’s literal. There is a voice inside my head carrying on a conversation. Sometimes it’s a one-sided monologue as the character tells me about something. Other times it’s a dialogue between the character and me. I become a reporter asking pointed questions trying to get to know him or her better. It’s an intricate mental dance. Okay, maybe not intricate, but certainly a dance.
The thing is, and I think lots of writers would say this. A character steps into the mind's eye in pieces. Maybe a smile that makes me curious, or maybe a one liner to another character which shocks me. And then I’m off and mentally running after her to understand what I just learned. “Why did you say that?” I might ask. It’s the dialogue - the talking - which fleshes out the character into a living being in my imagination. I will ask: what’s your favorite pizza. Seth said: Pepperoni. Abby said: I don’t really like pizza; cheese disagrees with me. Oh dear! I responded because cheese is like my favorite food. Gabe said: all the meats, to which I grimaced because I prefer veggie pizza.
In the development of my characters from main characters to secondary characters, I work to get to know them. I’ve noticed both as a reader and a writer, it is these details which help a character jump from the page. Understanding a favorite color, or favorite band, or whether she cleans her room or not helps the character become three dimensional not only for the writer but for the reader. For example: Seth keeps his room neat. Why? What is the underlying reason for this teenage boy to be so orderly and particular about his room? After talking to him, I learned it was about control. The detail - random at first - took on more meaning when I understood why.
In my writer’s process, what might begin as a conversation in my head leads to a sketched out conversation in my writing journal. The dialogue becomes questions I have followed by the character’s answers. I have learned when I get stuck in a particular scene, or in the narrative of the larger story’s picture, if I take some time to talk, the dialogue often clears up the jam.
As a reader, consider your favorite literary characters. I have a theory that the authors took some time to really understand the characters to help them leap from the page. As a writer: if you haven’t tried this (and probably most of us have) take some time to “talk” with your character. It’s easy. Start small with a “favorites” list, but as you continue, get to know their “greatest secret” or ask “the biggest fear.” Understand the nuances of the character whether it makes it into the story or not, and the character might walk from the page.
Coming soon after a Holiday Hiatus:
Blogs will be back after the New Year with a new series on the elements of literature as they relate to writing fiction.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours. Hope this holiday season is filled with love and blessings.
I just want to take a moment to thank those who have supported me on my journey . . .
Without those of you willing to take a risk on an unknown writer with a story to tell - I’d just be telling the story to myself. What a lonely place.
Thank you for the reviews! So helpful. If you’ve read the story and haven’t yet left a review, please consider it. Thank you.
The Spotify Playlist for The Ugly Truth:
I Was Wrong (Robin Schulz Remix) - A R I Z O N A
Heartbeat - Haux
Forever Lost - God is an Astronaut
Always - Tyson Motsenbocker
Ayahuasca - Vancouver Sleep Clinic
On the Train Ride Home - The Paper Kites
Mass (Re-Imagined) - Phoria
Body - SMYL
All Time Low - Jon Bellion
You Deserve Better - James Arthur
Luna - Ebb & Flod
Cold Desert - Kings of Leon
Waves - Dean Lewis
First thing you should know about me: I can’t be trusted.
Why? I lie.
I know it’s wrong, and I do it anyway. It’s survival instinct.
For this letter, though, I’ll do my best to tell you the truth (within reason and as long as I can preserve my safety). . .
My name is Seth Peters. I’ve lived in Cantos, Oregon my whole life, and I’m the only child of Jack and Kate Peters. I’m pretty good at school - I’m a junior; I’m really good at soccer which will probably be how I get to college (if I live that long); I’ve got a lot of friends, and a lot of people want to be my friend.
That’s all I got.
Any more and I might scare you away. The deeper we go, the darker it gets. I doubt you’ll read my story feeling like we should hold hands and sing campfire songs. No one really wants the honest truth. Lies are safer, easier, and allow us to turn our heads, so we don’t have to face the ugly truth.
So, I guess the overall message I’m trying to tell you is to enter the story I’m about to tell at your own risk.
I’m not exactly sure why I’m a “winner”. I didn’t technically “win” anything though I did reach the goal I set. That has produced a winning feeling, so I suppose that’s the “win”. Oh, and hopefully an eventual new book. That’s a win. I WON!
WISHING FOR THE AWESOME POWER OF INVISIBILITY
Good Abby has the job of keeping Bad Abby in place on her first day at a new school. I’m hopeful that Bad Abby will stay in her cage, though at times, keeping her caged is more work than it is worth. It is important, however, and Good Abby knows this more than anyone. This is a chance to start fresh. When the teacher says my name, “Abby Kaiāulu?” I cringe, wishing I could throw that in the cage too. My Hawaiian name doesn’t allow for anonymity and that is a rule of Good Abby: remain anonymous.
“Here,” I say. I’ve chosen a tone that communicates indifference. Not too loud to express exuberance, but not too quiet to raise any flags of social concern. Instead, an even tone to express, maybe, boredom, but without an edge should be neutral enough to be forgettable.
Another rule by Good Abby: Don’t draw attention to yourself.
The teacher looks at me. She’s cute with wire-rimmed glasses perched on the end of an upturned nose. Her white skin is dotted with freckles and auburn hair cut short and fluffy around her face. “Did I pronounce your last name correctly?” She smiles. Classic teacher move: disarm with a smile.
I nod - even though she’s butchered my name - in an effort to steer the center-stage light onto the whatever is waiting for us in US history. While being at a new school is actually a positive thing, Good Abby knows how important it is to make a good first impression. It is imperative to hide the truth of what I did, to keep what happened at my last school from happening here too.
Next rule authored by Good Abby: Stay under the radar.
Freckle-nose teacher says, “Would you say it please?”
I sigh. “Abby Kaw-ee-aaawww-oo-loo."
Teacher makes a note on her clipboard.
I return to doodling waves in the margin of my clean notebook wishing I was in the waves at Makaha with perfect sets of four to six faces rolling in on a clear and calm, sunny day. I imagine the azure water stretching toward the horizon, the kai wrapped around my body like a hug. There is no need to be sitting inside a school room for lessons about US History.
But pixie-teacher isn’t thinking about waves at Makaha Beach like I am when she says, “Such a pretty name, Abby. What is the ethnicity? It’s so unique.”
I blink and force myself not to roll my eyes, keeping Bad Abby in check. Every pair of eyes in the room, at least twenty of them, are now on me at this third, pointed question. I sink a little lower in my desk chair and answer her, “It’s Hawaiian.”
“Hawaiian. Wow!” Her eyes grow to nearly the same circumference as her glasses, and her smile is extra bright. “I want to travel to Hawaii,” she adds. Bad Abby offers the following snide observation: you and a majority of the rest of the world. Good Abby is able to keep Bad Abby’s snarky comment internal, however, and focuses on Tinker Bell teacher’s words. “We’ll study the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom later this year, the imprisonment of the Queen, and the annexation,” she says. Guilt bubbles up a little at Bad Abby’s ill-manners, and I wonder if Perky Teacher will teach that annexation was illegal? If so, then Bad Abby’s chagrin would be justified. “Welcome to Cantos, Abby,” Good Fairy Teacher finishes.
I force a slight smile to acknowledge her comments, but not too flashy. I don’t want to encourage this interrogation any further.
Even though the teacher finally moves on to today’s lesson about using Cornell Notes for the lecture, I can still feel the eyes of the other students in the class boring into me, trying to mine me for secrets. Everyone else has had over two weeks to acclimate to the school year, and for many of them a lifetime of knowing one another. It’s my first day as a junior at Cantos High School. Right now, I’m wishing that CHS stood for Camouflage High School, a place where I can blend into everything around me due to my awesome power of invisibility.
THIS VERSION OF ME
I escape into the first bathroom I find. Water on my face feels good. Don’t cry, Good Abby coaxes. Don’t you dare cry! There’s no reason too. This is a good thing!
I take a breath to send oxygen to my tear ducts, to dry the threatening tears. I imagine sitting atop my surfboard rolling with a swell, the ocean a home of comfort. I miss it even if I don’t deserve it. In my mind’s eye I see Poppa: his dark Hawaiian skin, a deep golden brown, his wet silver-black hair sparkling in the sun. He lays down on the board, hands in the water, paddling as another wave rises behind us. With a look back at me, his gleaming white teeth showing with his smile, he calls, “Come on, Tita!” Then he’s standing on his board, gliding away from me through the water.
Not that memory, Bad Abby scolds. That one’s sure to start the water works.
I haven’t surfed since Poppa died.
A glance in the mirror and I see the ocean in my eyes threatening to fall. I can never go back there. Poppa is gone. I’m ruined.
No one here knows, Good Abby reassures. We’ll keep it that way.
Cantos is my new home like it or not. The new chance.
I stare at my face in the mirror and feel the self-induced insults:
You’re so stupid.
Why did you have to ruin everything?
Everybody at home knows what you did.
While I’m present, standing in this high school bathroom with my reflection staring back at me, my mind travels a million miles away. I’m on a cyber superhighway logged onto a Twitter of my memory. My shame waits there for anyone to search. All anyone has to enter is the right key words, or the correct hashtag to ruin my life here too. Forever waiting.
A gaggle of girls enters the bathroom giggling. They see me and stop. They are blond and beautiful, such an exotic contrast to the monotony of my brownness: skin, hair, eyes - all of me. I look away from them down at the sink and hide the tears that have slipped from my eyes. The group’s conversation resumes though in quieter tones.
Good Abby rule: Avoid eye contact.
I’m successfully ignored. I wipe my eyes. Bad Abby thinks a smart-ass remark wanting them to feel as bad as their dismissal of me does: basic, haole bitches. Good Abby bites her tongue.
Another Good Abby rule: Don’t speak unless spoken to.
I slink out of the room, head down, and run right into somebody walking through the hallway. Ass on the floor and Good Abby can’t contain the bad one any longer: “What the hell!” I snap. “Watch where you’re going!” I look up at the culprit. The anger catches in my throat. I’ve bumped into a boy the size of a wall.
“I could say the same thing about you,” he replies. His voice has the lure of the ocean surf in the distance, a gentle and relaxing rumble. His bright blue eyes are the Hawaii Pacific Ocean, intensely bright set in the golden glow of his bronze skin. His black hair is longish, curly, hanging over his sharp features though his lips are soft and full. He holds out a hand, the sinew of his muscles hinted in the exposure of the brown skin at his wrist.
He helps me up.
Someone in the hall passes and jostles him with a shoulder. The Wall loses his balance and knocks against me as I stand, but I don’t fall a second time. His arm wraps around me and keeps me from falling to the floor again. We’re so close that I smell the clean scent of him like soap and a hint of something spicy. My hand still in his, an arm around his solid and unforgiving shoulders, electricity winds up my arm straight to my heart that flutters with the current.
“Freak,” a passing voice in the hallway says.
I pull away regretting the loss of the connection, but unwilling to go back to the social dump. Been there. Done that. This is me starting over.
Good Abby rule: Selectively choose your friends.
The Wall looks at me. His eyes have narrowed, the color now flinty, and the energy I thought I felt retreats somewhere safe. I notice the knowing look on his face, and it is a knife in my gut. His jaw tightens. He recognizes this current version of me all too well. I identify his awareness because I was him, after all, the one they called names. It may have not been freak, but slut or whore did the same kind of damage. And I knew a version of this new me too, and it makes me feel ashamed.
“Sorry,” he mutters and pulls his black hood over his head as he walks away.
Good Abby coaxes the bad one not to look back, not to watch him walk away. Bad Abby wants more than anything to turn around, say she’s sorry and let him know she’s been there. But she listens to Good Abby and goes to her next class. I walk away wondering which one is good Abby and which one is bad?
A SCHOOL OF FISH
Good Abby rule: Find a school of fish in which to hide.
I might as well be a lone fish beyond the reef alone in the lunchroom. It is only a matter of time before the sharks circle and tear me to shreds. I spot an empty table across the room next to the tall windows. Lots of light. No one to my back. Safety.
“Hey sis,” my brother, Nate, says as he plops down across from me after I’ve taken a seat.
Relief fills me, and I breathe deeply to refill my strength with the comfort of home.
Nate’s a younger, male version of me, and handsome at fourteen. The creamy white of our mother’s ethnicity sharpens his soft Hawaiian edges, kisses his smooth brown skin with a tiny smattering of freckles on his nose and cheeks, and softens his dark hair into brown waves with golden streaks. His eyes are dark brown like our dad, rounded until they droop to points on the outside, turning up with his smile. In that moment, great pride for my brother whirlpools through me, but also such horrific loss of home.
I don’t allow myself to visit with that loss for very long, however. If I thought about what I’ve left behind - my home, the sea, the language, the land, my poppa - I might never be able to catch my breath. I’d also never be able to start over and try to forget the shame I’m trying to hide. Besides, what has home given me but heartache? I’m an explorer now, searching out what’s new, and better, so I can hide, lick my wounds, and heal.
“Where’s Mattie?” I ask scanning the room for the identical twin. They aren’t usually very far apart.
“There,” he says, turns his head, and points with the direction of his look.
I follow his gaze and find Matt across the room holding court with other boys his age. They laugh at something he's said.
I smile, encouraged that my brothers are finding a place. “It looks like he’s made friends already. You too?” I ask.
“You know it, Sis. Who can resist my good looks and charm?”
I give him a playful backhand against his arm.
“It helps to join sports, you know.”
“Yeah. Too bad I only got the surfing genes,” I say. “Good classes?”
“Eh. School." His lip comes up at the edge with distaste, but I know he doesn’t mean it, the smartest of all of us.
As much as I hate to do it, I say, “You better go over there with him.”
“And leave you?”
“Look, Freshman. First of all, it isn’t cool for an upperclassman to hang with an underling. Second, it’s really important to find your pack.”
Nate, the caretaker, just looks at me as he takes a bite of his lunch. He looks around at the empty table, “I see you’re doing a pretty good job of that,” he says around the food in his mouth.
“Not with you here. I’ll be fine. I promise." I pull a book from my backpack and hold it up as proof.
He shakes his head. “Okay. Whatever you say, Ab." He goes because he knows he doesn’t have much of a choice. I always get my way when it comes to my younger brothers.
I watch him walk away and regret that I let him go. It would be safer to have him with me. He joins Matt. I watch the twins speak and Matt looks toward me. I give him a head nod and he nods back.
I look down at the opened book and reread the same line unable to concentrate on the text. My mind wanders, thinking about my brothers, this move to Oregon, my poppa, and my parents. I miss Poppa like a missing limb. My father hasn’t been the same since Poppa died either. Poppa was a binding between us, between a culture lost and which we seem to be floating to find. He used to say, “Tita, don’t look to the world to fill your na’au. The world offers you emptiness, and you’ll only be ʻono for more, like your makuakāne.” I didn’t understand, and still struggle to grasp his meaning, but reflecting on my dad and what’s happening now there’s more to this move than just “starting over.” Logically, I know we didn’t make this move because of the storm I’d been facing at school; my family didn’t know what happened. While the timing was fortuitous for me, there’s more to this mo’olelo than we’ve been told. My parents are seeking tethers. Oregon is one for my mom. They think we don’t notice the strain showing between them.
A sweet, lilting voice breaks my wandering thoughts. I look to my right at a cherub-faced girl smiling at me. Her hair, blond and spiral curly frame her round face. Her cheeks are pink and her eyes blue and I wonder if she’s an anime character come to life.
“I’m Hannah.” She sits down next to me. “We have history together, with Ms. Rowan.”
I don’t remember since I was more consumed with staying out of the spotlight. “Abby.”
“Right. With the Hawaiian name.” She slides over and opens her lunch bag. “Does your name have a special meaning?" She pulls out a tin and sets in on the table in front of her
“It is a name for a gentle trade-wind breeze on the Leeward coast of Oahu,” I tell her and think about adding the famous song about my ʻ home, but realize she wouldn’t understand.
“Oh, I like that. My name is so dull. Fleming.” She opens the tin to reveal a sandwich with seeds all over the bread. “Sounds like that stuff in your throat when you’re sick, phlegm. Means something like ‘from Belgium,’” she uses her hands to make air quotations. “I guess maybe that means my ancestors are from Belgium. I don’t know though. It really seems like my family has been in Cantos since the beginning of time." She stops.
I breathe for her.
“I hope you’re having a good first day.” She continues talking about Cantos High School and the ins and outs.
I listen, since it doesn’t seem that I need to talk, and good Abby likes that. Hannah appears nice, but like a victim with post-traumatic stress disorder, I’m waiting for the mean words or the backhanded insult. Good Abby reminds me that no one here knows. Bad Abby says, yet.
“Oh, I’m sorry. This is my issue - I don’t stop talking. You have to interrupt me, or I’ll just keep going, filling the silence.” She giggles. “Let me introduce you to some of my friends.” She turns to the group who are sitting at the opposite end of the same table and waves them over.
She goes through their names, but I’m not sure that I will remember them later it happens so fast. There are a couple of boys and some girls. One girl, who Hannah includes because she seems to have just been in the vicinity, looks a bit put out by Hannah’s introduction of me. Her name is Sara and though she’s really pretty with her porcelain doll good looks, I’m reminded of the flighty look of a niuhi, a tiger shark. When I notice the eye flickering Morse code between others at the table when Hannah introduces her, I think my instincts might be right. Good and Bad Abby both say: One to stay away from.
At least for now, for today, I’ve found a school of fish. I look at Nate and catch his eye. He smiles at me.
A DIMPLE AND A WALL
Good Abby has done a thorough job of keeping Bad Abby in place during English class and maintains control when it's time to move on to the last period of the day. When I get to the art room, most of the chairs behind tables arranged into the shape of a giant horseshoe are filled. I sit in one that is insulated on either side by an empty chair.
Once I’m seated, a boy entering the room catches my attention. He assesses the scene of the space. His countenance assured and confident; a fist bump with another student near the door confirms he's part of the pack. His gaze connects with mine and a charge buzzes the bottom of my spine, but his look bounces away to talk to the fist-bump guy.
I can’t help but watch him, his demeanor enigmatic but magnetic. He has got this enchanting, dimpled smile that lures me. It is the perfect complement to his otherwise proportional features: his jaw strong, his lips full, but not feminine, and his nose slightly crooked as though it was broken once adding character to his otherwise perfect face. He's lean and lithe; tall. I’m reminded of the surfers at home shaped by the water like hands that shape their surfboards. Locks of wavy, light brown hair with sunny highlights fall effortless against his forehead, relaxed.
I look away when he starts across the room toward me, chagrined to have been caught staring at him, and convinced that he gets stared at a lot. Good Abby isn’t happy with the staring, but then, he appears to be a part of the right crowd which reassures her. Bad Abby, on the other hand, is interested and that is dangerous. We know where that leads.
He takes one of the empty seats next to me, and glances my way, offering that easy smile. His eyes - brown with flecks of gold - twinkle, like he’s got a secret and it bothers me that I can feel that look as concretely as if he touched my skin. I also don’t like that it works, that practiced art of charm. I’m reminded of Kanoa and feel shame reach up with gnarled fingers to squeeze my throat.
With a deep breath, I turn my attention to something innocuous and reach into my backpack for a pencil. I notice that Adorable Dimple leans back against his chair, one leg stretched out, the other knee jutting out to the side. Someone on his left says something. He laughs. Familiarity brushes my consciousness with watercolor strokes. I have the urge to hug him and ask him how he’s been, but check the impulse, horrified. My cheeks heat thinking of how embarrassing that would be. Switching gears, I adjust my bag, straighten in my chair dismissing the strange whim.
The second bell rings just as another student steps into the room. The Wall I bumped into earlier! A glance around the room, I realize that he’ll have to sit next to me since all of the other chairs are taken. I feel a rush of unease. I’d been awful the moment someone had shown him disdain and feel ashamed of myself. But what could I do differently? There was so much riding on this new start. I couldn’t go backward.
He walks around the border of the desk arrangement toward the chair next to me. His lips, the bottom just slightly fuller than the top, nears the edge of a frown but seems to want to communicate apathy. His eyes study the floor as he walks. He swipes a hand over his forehead pushing back his dark hair, the edges of it curling over the olive skin of his hand and removes the hoodie. His hair springs back around his face in dark curls. When he glances up a moment, his look collides with mine and I’m struck again by the depth of his blue eyes, how startling they are in contrast to the weighted countenance of everything else about him.
I look away quickly, hoping he didn’t notice I’ve been watching him. There’s a curious effervescence of movement in my cells. A shiver - not unpleasant - steals across my skin while the chair legs of the seat next to me scrape against the linoleum floor. The Wall sits, crossing his arms over his chest. I steal another glance, but he isn’t looking. His profile is rigid and emanates the suffering artist. I’m so curious and Good Abby says, cut that shit out. Bad Abby says nothing but wants to keep staring at him.
The teacher’s voice catches my attention, but barely. I draw my look away from The Wall and focus on the teacher in the middle of the horseshoe.
“Welcome back arteests,” he says. “Let’s take a bit of time this afternoon to continue getting to know one another. Names again. And this time,” he pauses for effect, “a little-known fact about you. I’ll model: Mr. Mike Andrews. Again, please call me Mr. Mike. Let’s see. Ah. I got it: I play the guitar in a garage band, and I don't mean the video game kind.”
A few in the class laugh. “Mr. Mike. No one plays that game anymore. It’s ancient.”
The teacher grins which makes me smile. “Laugh all you want about my ancient wisdom. One day soon you’ll join me in the non-video game garage band ranks. Let’s start with you, Kara.” He holds a hand out toward the petite girl at the edge of the horseshoe.
One by one, the students share their names and a fact. I can feel my palms sweating, anticipating the moment I have to share something about myself. The words others say are incoherent. Are they speaking English? I’m running through possible things to contribute - something safe. There isn’t anything that I want to divulge. Whatever it is, the fact has to be innocuous, so it isn't memorable. How could I know that one day this "fun fact" wouldn't be used against me?
In the time it has taken my gut to work itself into a writhing coil of sea snakes, the boy to my left is speaking. “I’m still Seth Peters,” he says, “and my fun fact is that I surf.”
“That isn’t ‘little known,’” the fist-bump boy says.
“That’s ‘cause I’m an open book, Ball,” Seth says and smiles. “I’ve got nothing to hide.”
That dimple again.
The Wall makes a noise, a whooshing of air from his mouth as though he were going to say “shit,” but stops himself.
I wonder about it but then zero in on Dimple’s name: Seth. That name adds to the watercolor painting in my mind that his face started. My subconscious analyzes the information for something with which I’m familiar. Seth. Seth. Seth Peters. It begins to coalesce into a tangible, recognizable work. I once knew a Seth Peters. I look at him directly. Could it be the same one? I want to ask him about it, but realize that it is silent, and all eyes are on me, waiting for me to share.
Mr. Mike gives me a cue, “next.”
“Oh. Sorry. Abby Kaiāulu,” I pause embarrassed and flustered and add, “I just moved here from Hawaii." It seems safe enough.
“Nice to meet you, Abby. Thank you,” Mr. Mike says.
I look to my right at the Wall.
A random voice blurts, “Freak,” just loud enough so that the class collectively stifles laughter.
Mr. Mike clears this throat and telegraphs a disheartened gaze around the class. “Mutual respect is a non-negotiable,” he says. “And your fun fact, Gabe?" Mr. Mike encourages him to share.
“I like sports.”
“Boxing especially,” someone mutters clear enough for the rest of the class to hear. Snickers, eye rolling, and elbow jabbing make a wave around the room, all a reaction to the comment.
I glance at Gabe and his jaw tenses. I see the muscle work, bunching up slightly as he presses his teeth together. He removes his hands from the table top, shoves them into the front pocket of his sweatshirt, and then slips a bit further down into his seat.
“Enough,” Mr. Mike says, the ease of his smile and easy-going nature gone. “Any more comments get you sent out of this class and into cleaning the room just through that door,” he points to an open doorway beyond his desk, “where all of our dirty paint brushes, old clay buckets, cutters, palettes among other art supplies are waiting for volunteers to clean them. Is this non-negotiable clear?” Mr. Mike pauses, the look on his face drawn by gravity toward the floor.
I wish I’d had a Mr. Mike last year, and then think about Kumu Ike in whose room I’d often hidden away during free periods. I suppose I had in a different way, but no one had stood up for me like Mr. Mike just did.
Mr. Mike looks at Gabe and says, “Thank you, Gabe. Next.”
I take that moment to look at Gabe again as the name game works its way around the rest of the horseshoe. I’m confused as to why he would cause such a reaction. His exceptional looks and imposing stature should have commanded premier social standing. It didn't make sense. What could he have done to be the social outcast? Though he leans back in his chair, his long legs out in front of him, and his arms crossed over his chest staring straight ahead, I see that he isn’t as indifferent to his classmates’ reactions as he wants to appear. Something we have in common.
In the next instant I realize that I’m staring into his disconcerting eyes. One of his eyebrow’s arches in question of my perusal. Mortified, I look away at my notebook where I can doodle away my shame. It’s then that I see a note has been scrawled in the margin:
Abby? Really from Hawaii?
I write back:
Seth, the boy who I think I know, reaches over my left arm to respond. His warm skin brushes against mine as he writes.
Did you used to come to Cantos during the summertime? Spend time with your Grandma Bev?
A smile blossom grows on my face and tension in my shoulders dissipates like steam. I write:
YES! You're Seth? Grandma Bev’s next-door neighbor, Seth?
I look at him and he smiles, that dimple again. I remember: all those summers spent at Grandma Bev’s before she’d moved to Arizona. Seth, the little boy who’d lived in the house next door. Seth, my first crush!
I smile at him, a real smile. For the first time all day, it’s a smile I don’t feel like I have to measure against one of Abby’s rules.
“I can’t believe it,” he says with a shake of his head when Mr. Mike sets us free to look at art books for inspiration.
“I can’t remember the last time-” I turn the page of a Van Gogh coffee table book. When I look up, Seth is watching me.
“Six summers,” he says.
Something peculiar happens in my stomach when he says it. A sense of déjà vu. A moment that seems to hint that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. A feeling that announces to my heart that of everyone I have interacted with today, this person is safe. But how can I know that? I barely know him and the last time I did, I was ten. A lot can change in six years. I should know.
“That’s right,” I say turning the pages of the tome. “Grandma Bev moved to Arizona six years ago.”
Seth looks at an equally large book about Rembrandt. “I was sad when that happened,” he says flipping the page. He keeps his eyes on the book, leaning forward to scrutinize one of the pictures more closely. It’s a painting of a man who’s holding his son down, an angel grasping the man’s arm and a knife falling from the man’s hand. I glance at the title, The Sacrifice of Isaac, and shiver. “Nana Bev was an awesome lady,” Seth says and then sits back up.
I nod and smile thinking about my Nana traipsing around the world and snow birding in Arizona. “She is. She’s the world traveler now,” I tell him and talk about what Nana Bev’s been up to.
Eventually he asks, “Do you surf?” He looks at me then, his smile a little different this time, not so bright and practiced. It’s as if those edges have softened and something less tangible but more real emerges. A slight variation, but I notice it.
“I do; surfing was born in Hawaii you know.” I glance at Gabe who's flipping through a volume about Dali. He looks up at me. His attention darts from me to Seth, and then he looks away back at his art book. He looks bored.
“I love this one,” I say and point at one of the Van Gogh paintings. Seth leans toward me and our shoulders graze. My muscle memory kicks into gear, and my nerve endings spark at our touch.
Don't get caught up, Abby, Good Abby warns. That's how we got into trouble last time.
Seth leans over his book to mine and follows me on my journey through Van Gogh land. We laugh at a skull smoking a cigarette.
It’s here! November! My favorite month because it is my birthday month, people! Whoo Hoo! Happy dance! Oh. Wait. You didn’t know it was my birthday this month? Oh. Sorry. We vote this month? Darn. Oh. And it’s National Novel Writing Month (#nanowrimo for short). Yes. That might overshadow my birthday in the whole scheme of things on an international scale. Shoot.
Well, then. There’s a word count fire blazing this month and I am a part of it. I set a word count goal for this month of 60,000 words to be completed by November 30. It’s Day 4 and I’ve reached 13,000 so far. I am on a roll (phew!). So, what am I working on?
I don’t know where the idea came from, but I had this picture of a tree in my imagination, and I knew it was a portal to another place. Then I thought: what if a butthead kid - who walked into the scary woods on a dare - got dragged into a world where he had to become a hero. This idea has been percolating in my head for over ten years, and my husband has always urged me to write it. Fantasy, however, takes a lot of time with all that world building. So this year, now that I’m taking a respite from teaching full time, I thought: I’ll work on this fantasy for NaNoWriMo.
The moving parts to the story have changed a lot in that ten years and now that I’ve had some time to devote to the narrative. The butthead kid, Caleb, who isn’t so much a butthead anymore, understands that despite his best efforts, he’s an outsider in every way possible. He just can’t seem to get himself together despite the desire to do so. Enter an irresponsible and horrible foster mother who threatens to call the cops on him, and he’s on the run. Thinking his only option is to disappear into the great wide world (he’s got nobody anyway), he cuts through a forest to avoid being caught. It’s in the heart of this forest where he has a run in with a magic tree that draws him into another realm. It’s there - wait for it - he discovers that he’s come home.
(Please be kind with any comments - this is a work in progress - and writers are very sensitive).
Here’s an excerpt and be forewarned, Blogs this month will probably be an overload of NaNoWriMo excerpts. Happy writing to fellow writers (remember forward progress is progress regardless of word count) and happy reading! Welcome to November.
Excerpt (Please note there is explicit language):
Margie Doyle was still drunk which explained her words and her actions, but it wasn’t exactly what Caleb had anticipated when he’d gotten up that morning and come downstairs. He hadn’t expected that he’d break the world open around him changing everything forever. He’d expected her to be passed out still. He’d expected to make himself some cereal and help Jarrett and Jack with theirs. He’d expected Margie to haul herself up from her drunken stupor, yell about the state of the house and then put them all to work while she nursed her hangover watching TV on the couch. He’d expected to listen to Tim and Dalton muttering about being her house slaves, and for Dalton to sneak out after about thirty minutes to the basketball court at the park. What he hadn’t anticipated was that she’d still be up and find her standing at the doorway watching some guy walk away.
When she’d turned around from the doorway, unsteady on her feet, holding her bathrobe closed at her throat, tracks of tears on her cheeks, and found him watching her, she’d snapped.
“What the fuck are you looking at.” She’d swiped the tears at her eyes and stumbled past him into the kitchen. She’d tied her robe tighter, but not before Caleb had to avert his eyes because she wasn’t wearing anything under it.
He shuddered and decided the smart choice was to back out of the room without saying a word.
Margie, though, had other ideas. “Get your stupid-ass back in here, you good-for-nothing lump.” Her voice wasn’t filled with temper when she said it, and instead sounded like she was using endearments. It didn’t make the names hurt any less.
He suppressed his irritation, stepped into the cased opening of the kitchen and watched her light a cigarette. She sucked on it, inhaled and then released a mouthful of smoke while her eyes roved over him. It made his skin crawl.
“You should come over here,” she said her voice taking on a tone with which he wasn’t familiar. It was laced with an energy that she’d never displayed with him or the other boys. Ever, but he’d heard her use with other people when she wanted something.
“I’m okay right here,” he said.
“I want to get a better look at you. You’ve grown.” She took another drag of her cigarette. “Like overnight. How old are you now?”
“Seventeen,” he answered her.
She smiled. Another drag. Another puff of smoke from her mouth. She came around the kitchen bar and leaned against it.
Caleb averted his eyes again, her robe gaping so that it was easy to see the shapes of things he didn’t want to see on her. He figured that Margie must have been pretty once. Her dull reddish hair and cold eyes must have been bright and alluring at one time, but years of smoking, drinking and a life lived fast and hard seemed to have taken a toll. It wasn’t just her physical appearance but also the unpredictable spirit within her. She could go from sensitive and thoughtful at one moment to the next instant when she’d eviscerate with her words.
She laughed and sauntered to him. “You seem nervous.”
He shook his head and looked down at his feet.
“Then why won’t you look at me?” She asked and stopped in front of him. She lifted his chin with her thumb, the cigarette between her fingers smouldering near his cheek. Caleb resisted the urge to pull away afraid of that cigarette near his cheek. She studied his face. “You have grown into a handsome, young man.”
He swallowed and changed the subject taking a step away from her. “I’ll get the boys up and we’ll start down here.”
Her brows knit together. “You think you’re too good for me?” Her words slurred a bit.
Caleb froze not sure what to say and was saved by Jarrett and Jack ducking under Caleb’s elbow and walking into the room. They froze when they saw Margie in her barely-robed splendor. She turned away, pulled the silkie robe shut, and refastened the belt.
Jarrett and Jack’s wide-eyed gazes swung to Caleb’s face.
She turned back to face them. Hatred and something else Caleb couldn’t be sure about hooded her features, sharpening them into dangerous points. Her lip curled, she pointed her cigarette an inch deep with ash and said, “You’re a fucking worthless leftover.” The ash dropped off the end of the cigarette to the floor and she walked back into the kitchen. “Your own parents didn’t even want you. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking.
Rage coursed through Caleb’s body at Margie Doyle’s words: Stupid-Ass, Worthless, Good-for-Nothing, Leftover. Unwanted. These were already words he’d thought about himself, but coming from her, it ignited something in him that was dangerous. His anger was palpable as though stalagmites pushed out from beneath his skin.
She stood in the kitchen watching him with a self-satisfied smirk curling her mouth. “Don’t look at me like that you shit.”
He couldn’t do anything but breathe through his nostrils, a raging bull ready to charge, and he couldn’t think clearly. He’d heard her all right. Her words that slashed like a scythe and then burned everything to a crisp.
“Start in here. This,” she waved her hand indicating the party mess beyond, “is practice for what you’ll be doing with your life in the years to come, Caleb. So your high and mighty attitude needs to go,” she said. She took another drag of her cigarette and then stubbed it out on the counter while simultaneously blowing smoke out the side of her mouth. “I want this house cleaned top to bottom while I’m out, understood?”
A glance at the kitchen revealed a horrific mess. Besides the normal dilapidated cupboards duct taped at the edges, the linoleum original to the house peeling up in the corners and the aged grime that seemed to coat every surface, Margie’s evening the night before had left the kitchen littered with rubbish and sticky messes from the blender overturned on the counter. She burped. “The social worker is coming over tomorrow evening, so you’ll have it done by five. You do that, then,” she walked back toward him since she needed to get through it to go to her room. She stopped in front of him, Jarrett and Jack looking at her from the side. “Then, you might just prove to me that you deserve to be wanted.”
“Stop,” Caleb said through clenched teeth.
Caleb could hear Tim and Dalton’s footfalls and voices in the hallway behind him. They went silent.
“Stop?” Margie asked and leaned forward tapping his chest with her finger, “Don’t tell me to stop, you fucktard. You’re a no-good, rotten brat. Who’s taking care of you? Not the shitty parents who left you for dead. Me.” She pointed at her chest with her thumbs. Her light eyes had grown large and grotesque in her face. “So don’t bite the fucking hand that feeds you. You got that?”
“Yes, Missus,” Jarrett’s little squeaky voice interrupted; the squeak indicated he was nervous. Caleb understood; the kid was trying to deflect Margie. It wouldn’t work. Once she had Caleb in her sites, and she always did, there wasn’t stopping until he backed down.
Caleb wasn’t operating with all of the pistons in his brain firing. Instead, it was the sharp bitterness of his fury fueling him. He wasn’t going to back down from her even if he should. At one time, he used to hope that his parents would get their lives together to find him. They would just appear one day, together, and save him from this existence. They would say: We came back to get you that night, and you’d disappeared. We search and searched and finally found you - our Baby Boy. Not anymore. Caleb was too old for those kind of daydreams. This was his seventh foster home and he was nearly ready to age out of the system. He would be free. He realized he should back down but those muscles that didn’t fit correctly between his bones wouldn’t let him.
“I said, stop.” This time his voice sounded like a brick wall.
Margie stepped up and got into his face, so close that Caleb could smell the vapor of alcohol evaporating from her breath and skin. “Or what?” She asked through clenched teeth, hatred changing the shape of her eyes from the round look of surprise to a sharper edged squint. Her ashy red hair hung like yarn strings around her face slick with oil or perspiration; Caleb wasn’t sure which.
“Or I tell the social worker everything,” he said.
A short, sharp laugh escaped her slapping him with the dank smell of her alcohol-laden breath mixed with cigarette smoke and something else, something rotten. “You think they’ll believe you?” She laughed again and looked over at the boys behind him. “Him?” Her gaze came back to his face, eyes narrowed. “Now you listen here you worthless piece of shit; I’m a very good storyteller.” She poked his chest. “Who do you think they would believe if I told them what really happened this morning?” She leaned in and her eyes filled with tears as if on cue and her lips pouted, “I told him ‘no,’ officer, but he’s a strong young man now.” A tear slipped from one of her eyes and then her vulnerability shifted back into the ugly mask of hatred. She poked his chest again. It was beginning to hurt. “Shall we test who they’ll believe, Caleb?”
Caleb took a step back to get away from her.
She followed him, continuing to poke him. “Well?” Poke. “You owe me for taking your ungrateful ass in.” Poke. Poke. “You really think any social worker will believe you? You’ll end up in jail where your parents probably are if they aren’t dead.”
“Stop,” Caleb said bringing up his hand up to protect his chest and knocking her hand away. He could feel the burn of tears in his eyes and the dryness in his throat but refused to allow the tears.
She stopped a split-second looking at her hand he’d pushed away, and then her face grew mottled with outrage. She came at him yelling grabbing two handfuls of his t-shirt. “Don’t you ever put your hands on me you filthy pile of shit.” She shook him. “And don’t you dare threaten me.”
“Let go of me,” Caleb yelled and pushed her away from him, the force of which made Margie take a step back.
Her foot landed in a pink mystery mess from the party the night before on the floor behind her and she slipped through the slime. It knocked her off balance and sent her sprawling backward. In an attempt to overcorrect, her body turned, but she veered to the right causing the other foot to slide through something of the same mess, and her momentum continued. As she came down, her head smacked a lower cabinet door that had been left ajar and she landed with a loud thud against the dirty kitchen floor face down.
And she didn’t move.
“Oh shit!” Fear climbed into this throat. “I didn’t mean,” Caleb started. “Oh shit.”
Tim and Dalton rushed in from the hallway behind Caleb. “Oh shit!” They both said in unison.
“Oh fuck,” Jarrett said, the profanity seemed so wrong coming from his nine-year-old body. All of the boys looked at him and then Jack began to whimper. Jarrett said, “Caleb. You gotta run. You killed her. They’re gonna send you to jail!”
“I don’t want Caleb to go to jail,” Jack whined.
“Hush, Jack,” Dalton, said, his arm pulled Jack to him. “Caleb isn’t going to jail. It was an accident.” He looked up at all of the other boys. “We all saw it and heard her. She threatened Caleb.”
“Should we call 9-1-1?” Tim asked.
If his head had been clear, Caleb might have slowed down to think. He could have checked her pulse. He could have called 9-1-1. But his head was cloudy, cloudy with anger, with hurt, with the horrible realization that he wished she was dead. What did that make him? A monster like her?
And then she moaned and moved.
Stephen King wrote that “books are a uniquely portable magic,” and he also said, “If you don’t have time read, you don’t have time (or the tools) to write.” This wisdom speaks to me on so many levels, therefore I have always made time to read. So far this year, I’ve read thirty-eight books (I’m proud of that number since I surpassed my Good Reads goal by 20 books already. I may have undershot it a bit when making my goal). Right now, stacked on my nightstand are Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi of which I am about 25 pages into, and then Markus Zusak’s Bridge of Clay which is next. I will definitely hit at least forty reads by the end of the year (and prove I need to increase my Good Reads goal next year).
To give you a sense of my reading choices:
I’ve read both of Rupi Kapur’s books of poetry as well as The Darkness Between Stars by Atticus Poetry. I’ve delved into The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert and was entertained by both Tehereh Mafi’s Shatter Me and Somaiya Daud’s Mirage. I’ve read four duologies, trilogies, series from Jenny Han’s The Summer I Turned Pretty Trilogy to Sabaa Tahir’s A Reaper at the Gates (An Ember in the Ashes #3) Veronica Roth’s Carve the Mark duology. Then I’ve read some older Lavyrle Spencer romance novels and some dark who-done-its by Ruth Ware and Jo Nesbo. The point I’m hopefully making is that I read a lot of different kinds of genres by a variety of authors. Maybe that will help frame my perspective when giving you my top books I’ve read so far this year (in no particular order).
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green - while not my favorite John Green book (Looking For Alaska is my favorite btw) - was a wonderful story that really put into perspective the struggles of someone with anxiety and compulsive disorder. This was very eye opening for me and one of the reasons I read. I want my world to increase. Turtles All the Way Down did that in wonderful John Green fashion.
Sleeping Beauties by Owen and Stephen King was a really interesting look at gender roles. The timeliness in conjunction of the #metoo movement really made this book relevant in the best King fashion. The coincidence of reading this book while I was working with students on a unit about perspective as it relates to themes of social injustice, specifically with race and gender, felt a bit like the universe was speaking to me. The book is too long to use in the classroom setting, but we did talk about it (because I’m always talking to my students about what I’m reading).
Confession: I am embarrassed to say that I had never read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald until this year. As I was working on my own novel Swimming Sideways, Abby’s English Teacher was making her read it (weird it was a book I hadn’t read, but it HAD to be that book for some reason). I thought: I better read it, and OMG, it rocked my world! The themes are on point. I’m so glad I added this classic to my “read it” pile.
I worked with a teacher many years ago who suggested I read Carolyn Mackler’s The Earth My Butt and Other Big Round Things. I never got to that one (though it is on my shelf waiting to be read) but I did read Infinite In Between. It was good. While I might have given it one less than five stars because the ending felt a bit rushed to me, overall, this was such a creative and interesting take on four characters. Mackler’s development of them was excellent, and I ended up sucking this book dry so quickly I got brain freeze!
Leigh Bardugo is my writing hero on so many levels. I devoured the Grisha Verse series (and it is excellent and creative) but it is nothing next to the Six of Crows series and Crooked Kingdom (Six of Crows #2) is fantastic. It is like Bardugo took Six of Crows #1 and shot it with steroids to create Crooked Kingdom. These characters walk from the page and asked me to be a part of their troop Character development, which Bardugo does so well, is one of my BIGGEST turn ons as a writer. One of my favorite series ever - hands down.
Kissing in America by Margo Rabb was one of those books that I didn’t know anything about and hadn’t heard anything about so I just randomly selected it based on the cover. It sounded cute; I opened it up and started reading. Here’s the thing, I didn’t expect the exploration of grief and the heartfelt coming-of-age story. This story hit me where it mattered, in all the right places of my heart. Granted, I was going rounds with very fresh grief of my own when I read it, so that might have skewed my perspective. Another Confession: I’m a crier. It isn’t difficult to get me to cry when the moment is poignant, but this novel got me to sob. The character development was fantastic. I LOVED it!
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah was a recommendation from a friend. I picked it up and am so glad I did. This is an excellent story and I texted every one of my English Teacher friends and said: We have to teach this book! It’s funny, it’s relevant, it’s heartfelt (yes, I cried) and it’s necessary. One of my top books this year.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates was another recommendation. On the cover of the book, Toni Morrison is quoted with “This is required reading.” So I walked into the book initially with a deer in the headlights feeling that this was going to be way over my head. Ten pages in, as Coates writes this letter to his son, I was sure I wasn’t smart enough to read it, but I kept going, and I’m so glad that I did; I’m better for it, I hope. Coates wrote: “A writer and that is what I was becoming, must be wary of every Dream and every nation, even his own nation. Perhaps his own nation more than any other, precisely because it is his own.” This book made me sob and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. In the push to open my eyes and increase my world, this book did that tenfold. I agree that as Americans we should read this book.
The premise of I am Still Alive by Kate Alice Marshall intrigued me. I purchased the book not knowing what to expect. As I began reading, I really liked the way in which she used time as a function of the story because it was about time. Our lives are boiled down to the essence of time and how we use it on so many levels. Initially, I didn’t like the protagonist because she was such a “victim,” but then Marshall flipped the script on me - surprising me - and I loved her. This is one of my favorites this year!
Jeff Zentner is coming out with a new novel in February of 2019 which I am looking forward to reading, and The Serpent King is actually a couple of years old. I finally had some time to read it this year, and I was blown away. First, his teenagers were on point. Second, the prose was perfect. Third, it made me laugh out loud, but then I also sobbed my heart out. A talented writer, I think, is one who is able to make characters come alive in a way that makes a reader think they’ve made new friends. I find myself wondering how these characters are doing long after I finished the book. It’s an excellent examination of that question about parental influence on personal perspective of not only the world but of self. Read this one.
My husband and I love to watch movies. It’s our thing. We watch at least one a week and more often than not, two or three. This week we watched The Hate U Give.
When I walk into the movie theater, I hope: I’ll be entertained, enjoy a story, and, if I’m lucky, maybe it will offer a new perspective. Usually, I’ll get one or two of these. I’ll be entertained, but the story needs some work. Sometimes I’ll be presented with an idea to chew on, but more often than not (especially lately) the movies have really just been about entertainment and little else. Empty calories, so to speak.
Since this movie originated from a young adult novel by the same name (written by Angie Thomas), I am so happy to report that The Hate U Give hit all of the hopes (entertaining, poignant story and perspective builder) including giving all the feels.
When I left the movie theater - besides continuing to cry because I was so moved - I thought: that is a movie that people need to see. This is a movie that as consumers, we need to support to showcase our influence, and to communicate our desires for original content, relevant story, a more representative presentation of American culture, among other things.
Go watch this movie. You won’t be disappointed.
Aloha e na Readers -
My name is Abigail Keānuenueonālani Kaiāulu and Swimming Sideways is my story. Everyone calls me Abby. The rest of my name is Hawaiian, because my dad is Hawaiian (my mom is white in case you were wondering). My middle name means A rainbow from heaven because on the day I was born my Poppa saw a rainbow. He said it was a good sign because rainbows in Hawaiian culture are associated with the birth of chiefs. So far, I think I’m a disappointment to my name, but Poppa would tell me to be patient. My last name is a wind - a gentle breeze - that comes in from the ocean to the Westside, my Waianae homeland.
I have spent all of my life on the island of Oʻahu except for the summers hanging out with my Grandma Bev (she’s my mom’s mom) in Oregon and now Arizona. I have a lot of fond memories of those summers in Oregon: a friend named Seth; the tall trees; Grandma Bev’s laugh; playing in the woods behind her house; building sandcastles at the beach. Visiting Arizona is different and less frequent now that Grandma Bev does a lot of traveling with her group of retired friends during the summers. My favorite place to be is home, on Oʻahu, in the ocean. I love to surf. Poppa taught me.
Everything changed for me a couple of years ago, when my Poppa died. He raised my twin brothers and me because our parents worked. He taught me everything I know about Hawaiian culture (which I wish was more now. I wish I’d been a better listener). When he died, my family fell apart. I fell apart, and made some choices I wish I could take back. That’s when the incident occurred, and it impacted my world at school too. Needless to say, the last year or so has been hell on earth.
My mom and Dad told us we are moving to Oregon. They’ve been fighting a lot, and I’m pretty confident that this decision is my mom’s. She’s originally from Oregon, so it’s what she knows. At first, I was upset about it, but the more time I’ve had to consider the opportunity it presents for a fresh start, I don’t find myself as antagonistic toward the idea. Dad said that Hawaiians were explorers: they navigated the sea using the stars to find Hawaii, so now we’re going to do some exploring.
Here’s what I think: Explorer or not, it’s my job to make sure no one finds out about The Incident at my new school in Oregon. That means that I have to do everything right, because I can’t face my junior and senior year in the same social dump where I’ve spent my freshman and sophomore years. I’m also hoping that my family will find a way to make it through these rough seas. When my Poppa was teaching me to surf, he said how important it is to watch the ocean before getting into it. Be an observer, he’d said. He also said that sometimes we all get caught in a rip current. If that happens, Tita, don’t fight it. Swim sideways out of it. So, that’s what I’m trying to do: Swim Sideways.
I hope you enjoy my story.
I posted that the other day to Facebook and a bunch of friends reached out, commented and said, “You can do it!”
Struggle is always a writing thing, and goes without saying, but I’m struggling with understanding something else (which I’ll get to a bit later in this post). I’m working on the new WIP (Work-in-progress) which, as a story, is a difficult one to tell. It is about a character’s personal struggle. As I’m writing, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of personal strife.
The struggle for me as an author is often in the bond I create with the characters as I learn who they are. The character comes to life, becomes a real face, with a real history and their experiences often opens my eyes to the authentic world where my own perspective is challenged and shaped. When I’m in the darkness with a character for an extended period, I live the struggle with them, but I push through it because I can feel the necessity to tell the story in every beat of my heart.
Struggle is a human experience, one that we all of share in a myriad of ways. It is a common language.
But then again, maybe not.
Without over politicizing it (I’m trying to focus on the humanity) when one of the most impactful world leaders - while at a political rally - mocked the experience of a woman who shared her troubling experience drew me into a dark place. When I was able to set my feet back on rational soil, I wondered if he’s ever had to struggle? Are there people on this earth who have never experienced the pain, the adversity, the difficulty of floating in the pool of trials and having to climb out of it? Has he ever grappled with abuse, inequality, grief, rape, racism, mental illness, addiction, physical disabilities or a myriad of other ways that humans face mountains? How could he not, after all; the struggle doesn’t differentiated does it? And he’s human. Right? Then again, this isn’t the first time the man - or others in varying positions of power - have trivialized trauma or attempted to flip the script to marginalize groups, dehumanize their experience, or categorize behaviors to negate their import.
Then I realized: it’s about EMPATHY.
Empathy is the means with which we identify with those who struggle. It is the grace we show our fellow human beings, and that which makes us act in service to one another. It is the way we connect.
Ultimately, we tell stories because we seek connection. Happy stories, sad stories, hardship stories that overcome odds, love stories. When my father died, others told me their stories of losing their loved one as a way to empathize with my experience. I’m a sucker for the sports vignette when watching College GameDay or E:60 where I’m often moved to tears because the stories showcase struggle and the empathy attached by others. It is our nature to seek connection, and it is in the struggle where that often takes place.
I wish I had an answer for those who lack the empathy needed to understand the struggle others face. Politically, we can answer that at the polls, but in everyday life, those of us who can, I suppose, need to continue to serve, to provide grace, and to connect. Whether that’s through telling stories, delivering sandwiches, working at a soup kitchen, volunteering at church, offering a hot meal, spending time with the elderly, volunteering for a campaign - it is our empathy that is our superpower.
So I will continue to struggle to tell this WIP’s Character’s story, even if it is difficult, and climb the mountain with him.
I was sitting at breakfast with my family the other day - family with whom I don’t often get the opportunity to visit since we live so far apart - and they were telling stories. This is one of the joys of being with my family who talk a lot and loudly, laughs often, and enjoy the space we share. Around the table were three aunts, two uncles, and a cousin (also a writer) and my daughter. As usual, the stories were family tales of grandparents and great-grandparents, times when our parents or the cousins were small, and funny anecdotes that we’ve heard again and again but never get old. Eventually, my aunt Susan turns to Mike - my writer cousin - and I and observes, “Nothing is safe with you two around, is it?”
Here’s a truth about writers: we are collectors. At first, I think about The Collector in the Marvel Universe, or maybe a librarian with beautifully arranged artifacts and books. These images - for me - conjure a romantic notion of what it might be like as a writer. For example, it might be sitting down at a Parisian Cafe and penning into a leather-bound notebook a gorgeous list of things to remember (ever read A Moveable Feast by Hemingway? If not, your next assignment!). I like this image.
But hoarders of information is probably a more apt description.
We collect, and collect, and collect stories, facts, tidbits of information, moments, impressions that may or may not be useful. Our minds are filled with boxes and boxes stacked one on top of the other with only enough room for little pathways for our memory to traverse. But ask a writer, and chances are every one of those mind-boxes contains very important memory bits that we are (probably) going to need one day.
Truthfully, those boxes may never get opened, and should probably be gleaned - But dammit! You never know when that little sliver of information might come in handy!
So be forewarned! If you know a writer, chances are, everything is being stored: the who, what, when, where, why, how, impressions and tone. Then we’ll file it in our mind hoard, into a box that may or may not get opened. I guess you’ll just have to read our work to see if you notice any interesting tidbits and similarities, but I promise (what’s that disclaimer after the movies?) this story is fiction, and any similarities between a real person and the fictional work is unintentional.
Music - for me - is a means of connection between my feet on the earth and my creative head in the clouds. It’s as though I’m plugging myself into an electrical outlet to run the current between my brain and my soul. It speaks to me in a way that allows me to plug into the protagonist and the narrative.
One of my writing tools is to develop a playlist for whichever work is in progress (so Spotify is one of my favorite apps!). Whenever I’m working on the work-in-progress, that playlist is rolling. Though, the list doesn’t necessarily stay the same as the narrative changes (the playlist gets edited just like the work itself) eventually it gets to place in which the vibe is perfect to the story and the tone I imagine.
As I worked through the writing process for Swimming Sideways (Cantos Chronicles, Book One), the following songs became the playlist that I clung to like a life raft as I was swept up into the story. They are in no particular order.