“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
Tomorrow I’m getting married one month shy of my 40th birthday. Getting married is an event I never really thought would occur in my life, nor actively sought. I don’t think you need to get married to somebody to be partners for life and I’ll never be one of those people who pesters their single friends to settle down. I think everyone should live the life that makes them happiest, period. Some people do best as lone wolves, crossing the prairie on their own, hunting when it suits them, enjoying their time and space as their own.
That said, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how calm and happy the engagement process has been for Jen and I. Lots and lots of planning when it comes to the wedding, but that I expected. People have asked me if I’m nervous. I’m not, really, just a calm buzz in the back of my mind, along with some sorrow when I think about my mother and other loved ones who are no longer alive.
A lot of this happy calmness has to do with Jen, who is great, but I also credit the mellowing and experience of age. Almost forty is a fun time to get married, I think, because you have this entire of life of people to include now, this history of ups and downs. Also, I’ve already slain my greatest dragon, getting a novel published, five times over. I’m not a rich, best selling author, but that’s never really what I really wanted (would be a nice perk though). I just wanted a decent number of people to read my work, for the dreams in my head to be put down on paper. And I have accomplished that, and will hopefully do so some more before I die.
I just feel lucky, overall. Lucky to have found Jen, lucky to still be writing novels, lucky to be alive.
On Sunday I drove up to the Sax-Zim Bog (about 45 min northwest of Duluth) to research the setting for my current novel. It was rainy and beautiful and reminded me a little of Ireland. I basically tromped around and did my best to soak up the general bog atmosphere. You never know what detail might pay off when you’re writing later on, including general conversations you might have with locals, etc.
Happy to announce the film rights have been renewed for my novel The Town Built on Sorrow for another 12 months. Last I heard, it’s being pitched as a TV series-I put together a 5 season outline for the show and everything. But the wheels of TV are well known for turning slowly. But hope springs infernal!
By David Oppegaard
You are riding on a train. You’re alone and the seat across from you is empty. An old man in a dark business suit is sitting across the aisle from you, reading a newspaper while the window behind him is a blur of sky and scenery you can’t quite make out. You can tell it’s a beautiful day, though. You can tell there’s never been quite such a beautiful day in all of human memory. A day made for picnics, bare feet, and lovers. For lying on a soft blanket and peering upward into the firmament, for observing how patches of sky placidly drift around like floes of ice on the ocean.
The train is moving fast. You can feel the hum of the rails rising up through your seat, the friction of energy transferred. It’s a purposeful feeling. Driven. You are on your way to somewhere and you will be there soon.
The old man looks up from his paper to look out his window. The train begins to lift, liberated from its track.
Everything is dark and hot inside your hood. Your hands are bound and your back is pressed against something flat and immoveable, either a brick wall or a mountain. You can hear your own ragged breathing. Your heart beating in your chest. Someone shouts something in a language you can’t understand, though you can sense the anger in their voice. The stern reproach.
A flood of light and fresh air. You gasp, grateful for the reprieve. Your hood has been removed.
Four soldiers dressed in army green stand in a line twenty feet away, rifles raised and pointed at you. The soldiers are young. Practically teenagers. There’s no mercy in their eyes. No light. You open your mouth, trying to speak, but you can’t think of anything to say. A man you cannot see barks an order and the young soldiers fire in unison, filling the world with noise, and what feels like a giant’s punch hits you in the chest.
You are standing on the roof of a tall building, which is consumed by fire. In fact, the heat from the building’s fire is so great your clothes are already smoldering and you can feel your shoes melting into your feet. You inch up to the edge of the roof and cautiously peer over. You know you have to jump, though it so far down. The people on the street look small, like pepper sprinkled on a sheet of paper.
Something in the building explodes behind you. You step off the roof without additional thought. You can hear the flapping of your untucked shirt as you plummet through the sky, that very specific rippling of windblown fabric as your soft belly is exposed.
You’re sinking through dark water. Something big and hungry has wrapped itself around your foot, pulling you down. You can tell it doesn’t care how much you plead with it, or how violently you thrash.
Actually, it likes it when you thrash.
You’re very old. You’re lying in bed, in your own bedroom in your own house. You are about as comfortable as possible beneath a pile of beautiful, heavy quilts, your back gently propped up by a small mountain of feather down pillows. Everything is a little fuzzy because of the pain meds you’re taking, but not too fuzzy. You can still see your loved ones, gathered around your bedside, their faces filled with love and kindness, their eyes soft with tears. They all look so beautiful, like candles burning on a dark night. Your faithful lover, your lifelong companion, is holding your hand and wiping your brow with a cool washcloth. Your children and grandchildren are smiling, trying to be brave because they are brave, because they are everything you could have hoped for and more.
You tell everyone you love them and close your eyes, ready to go. Someone coughs. Someone else sniffles. You hear someone at the edge of the room mutter “fucking asshole” as you exhale one last time, your soul already rising from your body.
You’re sitting at a sidewalk café in Paris. It’s the middle of the afternoon in August and the city is half-asleep. Beautiful men and women saunter past your table, holding hands and smiling, their shared joy so obvious they feel no need to speak. You’re nursing a glass of red wine and nibbling at a plate of bread, cheese, and prosciutto. You’re alone at your table, but you’re content with your aloneness. You have a notebook and a pen and you’re writing down thoughts as they occur to you. Future plans. Little poems. Random observances of the city. The sun comes out from behind the clouds and you sit back, basking in its warmth like a cat.
Your café table has a view of Notre-Dame, set grandly on an island in the middle of the Seine River. You’ve already visited the cathedral earlier that day and marveled at its beauty, inhaled the centuries of burnt incense. You’re not religious, but visiting Notre-Dame made you feel religious for a few hours, as if you’d unexpectedly brushed up against a truth greater than anything you could put into words, anything you might convey in a journal entry.
You drink the last of your good French wine and look around, hoping to catch your waiter’s eye. There’s a flash of bright light in the far distance, like lightning but not, and a wall of fire rises up beyond Notre-Dame, surging across the city and toward your table. Your heart flutters in your chest as the heat consumes you, consumes everything around you. It’s like being devoured by beauty.
You sit by her bed while she dies, and when she’s gone you are the last living person on the face of the Earth. You wander the fallow croplands and the swampy jungle cities and listen to the wolves howling and the birds trilling. The wind sometimes sounds like it’s forming words, even full sentences, but you know it’s only the wind and your lonely madness speaking.
One day, during your endless wandering, you find an old train sitting abandoned on a track overgrown with weeds. You board the train without a ticket and choose a seat. The seat across from you is empty. Your entire compartment is empty.
You look out your window at the verdant landscape beyond. You mutter a small prayer, feeling unreasonably hopeful, and wait for the track to start humming.
I recently adapted my novel The Firebug of Balrog County into a screenplay in hopes of getting it turned into a movie one day. The producer who bought the film rights to The Town Built on Sorrow was kind enough to say yes when I asked him if he’d read a screenplay if I wrote one, so here we are-FIREBUG is now in splashy feature film format.
My readers have said my fiction is very cinematic as far back as twenty years ago when I was a dewy-eyed freshman at St. Olaf College. I always assumed this was a good thing, since it meant readers could easily visualize the scenes I wrote, which meant I was at least doing a serviceable job of description, but I also wondered if this could be taken as a bad thing as well-maybe cinematic meant I’d never be a great literary writer, maybe I was just doing splashy hack work, painting with bright colors while leaving the heavy lifting behind.
But now, seventeen novels in, I find that I don’t give a shit one way or another-my writing is now simply my writing, my voice is my voice. That’s one of best things about getting older, I’m finding. There’s just so much you don’t give a shit about that once you would have let bother you, or allowed to put you off from trying something new. As the years add on, you become more YOU than ever, and hopefully you’ve cultivated your own internal and external life enough you’re able to live with, and even enjoy, your developed self.
It’s a strange experience, to say the least, adapting your own novel (which itself adapted many things from your own life) into a screenplay. You suddenly look at the 300 pages you wrote several years ago and find yourself mining it for only the most crucial scenes, the snappiest dialogue. All those beautiful descriptions and churning internal passages now most be crystallized into what can be seen and absorbed on-screen. There’s no more deluding yourself: THIS is what your readers came to the dance for, THESE are the juicy bits of your story. Sure, that’s a fun scene, but is it good enough, and necessary enough, that it should cause an entire crew of people to film it?
On one hand, the formatting of a screenplay feels liberating compared to the textual density of fiction. So much blank space! So much crispy dialogue! How amazing! You can write fifteen pages in a day without wanting to gouge your eyes out! How easy it is to imagine the masses viewing your work on the big screen! On the little screen, too, maybe in an airplane soaring 10,000 feet above the earth!
But it also feels kind of dumb. Or dumbed down, more accurately. You need to write a screenplay so it can be easily accessed by a multitude of readers for a variety of purposes. For practical, creative purposes, like sound design and cinematography. So actors can repeat the sentences you’ve written and deliver them as if they’ve come up with them themselves. So a producer you’ve never met understands what you’re going for and can visualize it all working on the screen and being sold to the public. You need to be broad, basic, and to the point.
I enjoyed adapting my book into a screenplay, and I think the screenplay turned out well, but by the time I was ready to send it off I was also ready to go back to the dense embrace of fiction. Candy is tasty, and can deliver a hell of a sugar rush, but, at least in my specific case, I need to eat wild rice and broccoli, too, lest I turn into the mental equivalent of Eric Cartman.
When I was about six months old, I was given over to foster care by my birth mother to a couple named Alan and Kayc Oppegaard. My original name was David Bolt, so I believe I’ve retained the same first name all my life. Alan and Kayc were fostering several children at the time I arrived, but I was the one they eventually chose to adopt in the early 1980s. My aunt told me once they had a big party when I was officially adopted—she said the celebration felt like the 4th of July.
By almost every measurable standard, being adopted was like hitting the jackpot for young David Bolt. Alan, and his hefty last name Oppegaard, was Norwegian, and if you see us together, or even see pictures of us together, you’d swear that he was my blood father, that this whole adoption story I’ve been told my whole life was a huge lie, an inversion of the standard “You’re adopted!” revelation you might see play out on daytime television. My brain is always thrown for a loop when I spend time with my father—witnessed together, we’re a strong argument for nurture over nature, for one’s environment affecting them as strongly as genetic code, even though he is seven inches taller than me.
When I compare my story to other adoption stories, I feel a little guilty about how well I blend into my adopted family, including how early on in my life the process was completed. I have no memories of my birth mother that I can access—as far as my own memories go, I might as well have appeared on Alan and Kayc’s doorstep in a basket. I know adoption can be so much harder, especially for those adopted later in life, and for those with noticeably different physical attributes than the other members of their adopted family. I once told someone when I was attending St. Olaf College that I was adopted and she paused, astonished, and said, “But you’re white!”, as if no one would ever think about giving up a white baby.
I suppose the ease and early age of my adoption has lessened its importance in my mind over the years, turning it something closer to a neat fact I can mention at parties than something I spend a great time pondering. Strangely, this little essay, written for this book release party, is the only time I can ever remember writing about being adopted at all, though I’ve been writing all my life. I don’t even think there’s been an adopted character in any of my seventeen novels or various short stories, though I can remember feeling a special connection to Luke Skywalker, himself adopted from a shadowed past.
The one true anchor to my pre-adopted past is my younger sister, Tia, who was also adopted by Alan and Kayc, two years after I came along, from the same birth mother, though most likely from a different father (though even this is unclear). Unlike me, she was damaged by our birth mother in a noticeably significant way and suffers to this day from mental disorders that have been attributed to our birth mother’s use of drugs and alcohol.
While physically healthy as a horse, Tia has no sense of right and wrong, is self-absorbed to the point of cartoonishness, and is unwilling to hold down a job, instead relying on government welfare and disability checks. She has done so many terrible things, and behaved so appallingly, that just thinking about her causes my blood pressure to rise. It is probably the greatest irony of my life that my only blood relation is someone I’m ashamed to be related to at all. I say this even while being fully aware of the chemical origins of her personality, which is perhaps one of my greatest faults as person and as a writer—a lack of empathy on my own part that exists beyond the golden lands of reason and forgiveness, my least Buddha-self.
I suppose there’s another, more positive anchor to my adopted past. Thanks to fairy tales and myths, I’ve always felt there was something a little magical about having been adopted. Something special I had over all the non-adopted people around me, who were allowed to live Plan A lives with their Plan A parents. My adoptive mother, my mother, Kayc, certainly never did anything to disabuse me of this notion. She always encouraged me, nurtured me every step of the way with an abundance of love, and when I got into writing she became my greatest champion and critic, the person who I wrote to impress and make smile. If I’d somehow supernaturally adopted my father’s physical traits and mannerisms, I like to think I adopted her sense of humor, toughness, and style. Every day, I try to remember her kindness to everyone she encountered, whether they deserved it or not.
One of the most common questions I get when I tell people I’m adopted is whether I’m interested in meeting my birth parents. I’m honestly not interested. Even when my mother, Kayc, died when I was twenty-one, an event you might think might propel a young man to seek out his blood roots, I still remained uninterested. I saw a picture of my birth mother once when I was a teenager and felt a strong, instantaneous sense of revulsion—she had auburn red hair and I thought she was ugly, though, looking back, she probably was just an average-looking person with crooked teeth and a sad smile. Nobody, including my birth mother, was ever exactly sure who my biological father was. I like to joke it was Ray Bradbury, maybe visiting St. Paul for a reading. Maybe that’s why I ended up becoming a writer.
This all said, I suppose one adoption-related thought has been in the back of my mind lately. I know my sister was adopted by my parents almost immediately after her birth, but there was a six-month period before I was put into foster care that I must have spent with my birth mother. I’ve always been a healthy person, physically, so it’s hard to imagine I suffered too much physical deprivation in her care. I don’t know how deeply chemical use already had its talons into my birth mother at the time, how much she was able to focus on nurturing an infant, or how much experience she had by the time I came along, but I do know she felt incapable of the responsibility to the point of giving me up. The first six months of an infant’s life, which science tells us are so crucial to their development, will forever remain a hole in the fabric of my story. Is this period of time the original dark seed planted inside me, the core reason that the adult David so often writes such dark novels, novels about suicide plagues, teenage serial killers and firebugs and other broken souls? Or would I have been drawn to this material no matter what? Were strange characters and apocalyptic landscapes in my DNA from the start? Do I, in some strange twist of chemicals, actually owe a creative debt to my birth mother’s habits during my incubation?
I guess I’ll never know for sure, and maybe that ambiguity is the defining characteristic I’ve accumulated from being adopted. The bone-deep knowledge that the world is an uncertain place, with gaps in its narrative fabric that are not always meant to be filled in.
The YA Journey
(Written for the 2018 MN Writing Workshop)
The topic I’m mainly addressing today, writing young adult and middle grade fiction that compels the reader to not only start reading, but continue reading all the way through, is a daunting one. Writing a well-crafted, compelling story is difficult in any genre, in any era, but we all happen to be living and writing in the year 2018, a period in human history firmly in the grip of glowing screens that magically entertain and provide any type of distraction you can possibly imagine. Today’s writer is forced to compete with a media explosion unparalleled in human history and its biggest fans, hands down, is the same core audience whose attention we’re trying to grab. A potential reader of a young adult novel may also have the choice of playing an immersive virtual reality video game, or video chatting all night with literally every friend they have, or watching five straight hours of cat videos, all from the comfort of their pillow laden bedroom. How can a writer today compete with all this shiny, glowing noise?
Later on, I’ll go over a sheet full of various writing suggestions, much of it simply the soundest writing advice I can pass on to anyone, regardless of genre or target audience, but first I’d like to address the core strength of any young adult or middle grade novel.
That strength is you, the author.
The experience of reading a novel is, at its root, a conversation between author and reader. It’s an old form of conversation that goes back as far as people have been telling stories to each other to entertain, instruct, and to simply pass the time. Since a novel is a one-way conversation (until you read the comments on Amazon after your work is published, anyway) it is up to the author to be as engaging as possible and use every tool in their author toolbox to accomplish this. The plot needs to hook the reader early on, continue to flow in a way that not only maintains, but builds tension, while climbing the steep narrative hill toward a climactic moment that proves satisfying to the reader and their expectations.
Now, you can know all of this, rationally, but all the craft knowledge in the world will not help a story if the author behind it isn’t fully invested in the tale themselves. I believe the old cliché, “Why will your reader be invested in your story if you’re not?” is even more pertinent to young people’s literature than adult lit. Why? Because young people have a great bullshit detector. Young people can tell when an adult isn’t having fun telling them a story (or teaching a class, which, in a way, is another form of storytelling). Young people can tell when a storyteller is phoning it in, even if they forgive them for it because they want to be told a story so badly in the first place. One of the biggest selling authors of all-time, J.K. Rowling, wasn’t the first author to write about young wizards, or even a school of wizardry, but she was obviously as invested in the world she’d created as she could be, infusing it with her own sense of wonder, her own joy at creating something, and obviously people around the world, of all ages, responded to that wonder. Because Rowling captivated herself first, with her own unique take on an established genre, she was able to captivate others. Computer programmers will never come up with a novel writing program that can duplicate that. (Well, at least, it’s probably going to take a while. Who knows, right?)
Despite what you may read online, the greatest challenge for an author is not sitting down at a desk and pushing yourself to write. It’s not even mastering the craft of writing (which is challenging enough, even if you have fifty years of writing time at your disposal). The greatest challenge, if a writer hopes to write something that truly transcends the mundane, something people remember and love, is being able to look inside your own heart, your own mind and soul, and finding something you feel truly excited to share, something unique to you and you alone.
Of course, this can be a very scary thing to do, a process you may not be able to fully control, a process tied to emotions you’d rather not deal with. If my own personal psyche is any indication, there be monsters in those depths, and not all of them are friendly, either. For me, the act of writing is a lot like Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. I go through another day as working adult, with its ups and downs, and then I go into my bedroom office in the evening, usually around eight or nine PM, and sit down in front of my computer. I open up Word (just like I’ve been opening it up since Word 97 came out over twenty years ago), put on music, light a stick of incense, and suddenly my bedroom-office is transformed into a dimly-lit jungle filled all sort of beasts, roaring wild things I must assert myself over lest they sense my fear and tear me apart.
It is in this jungle, among all the rowdy wild things, among everything that brings me joy and everything that terrifies me, that I do my best and most interesting work. This is where I give myself permission to ask “what if”, no matter how ridiculous the question may sound when uttered aloud. This is where I take off my grownup armor (which is so heavy, so riven with old scars, and really, so boring) and truly focus only on what I find interesting. What’s interesting enough to maintain my interest over an entire 60,000 word novel, what’s interesting enough to make me spend time developing this or that character, what’s interesting about this scene, this line of dialogue, this sentence, even this particular adjective I’m using to describe something.
Later, after I have a rough draft down, I begin to refine the wild things I’ve returned from my mental jungle with. I smooth down their edges and trim as much excess as possible. In the new state, this editing state, I become keenly aware of my audience and the fact that I’m asking them to spend their precious time with my creations. I’m trying to get them to listen to me, somebody they don’t even know, for several hours while the clamor of the modern world blares all around them, tugging at their attention.
A good, if admittedly extreme, example of how arduous the editing process can be is my most recent novel, The Town Built on Sorrow. A YA horror novel, a paperback copy of SORROW weighs in at around 270 pages. To get to this point, I was forced to rewrite SORROW from scratch three times, amassing around a thousand pages of new content. The first draft, which I originally pegged as an adult literary novel, weighed in at over 400 pages. I read this draft, thought about it for a while, and decided it wasn’t up to snuff. I wasn’t full compelled by it. It didn’t ring true.
But I did like the rough draft’s setting, the flashback sequences, and one of the main characters, a fourteen-year-old girl named Harper Spurling. So I rewrote a second draft focusing on Harper and her family, now rotating between each family member’s point of view, chapter by chapter. I liked this all-new second draft, which weighed in at another 350 pages or so, enough to send to my agent, who acts as my first (and sometimes only) reader. I still considered SORROW a literary novel at this point but it was my agent that pointed out two important things: A) SORROW obviously wanted to be a horror novel and B) Harper Spurling was easily the most interesting character in the novel. Armed with these two revelations, which would have made my life a lot easier if I’d have known them going in, I wrote a third draft primarily from Harper’s point of view, which now necessarily made it a young adult novel, since she was a teenager, and let the darkness and supernatural elements of the story really flow, which made it a full-on horror novel. On the positive side, all that time and effort I’d put in on the novel’s earlier drafts had allowed me to really get to know the novel’s setting, the haunted town of Hawthorn, and I’ve never had an easier experience writing a novel than I did working on this 3rd from-scratch draft.
Today, anybody reading The Town Built on Sorrow hopefully enjoys the experience of a smooth, page-turning read that engrosses them. They don’t see all time and effort the author put in to get to this point—if they stop to ponder the process of the book’s composition at all—and they can finish the entire book in a few short hours and move on with their lives. For all they know, I wrote the whole thing down in a few weeks, not over two laborious years.
And that’s a good thing.
That means I did my job.
Another idea I find helpful when I write young adult fiction is remembering that every young person (like all of us) is on a journey of their own, and that their journey is still just beginning. Because of this quality of freshness, every event in their young life feels like the opening of an epic quest novel, the seemingly static part where the hero or heroine is still waiting for an inciting event to occur, like Bilbo Baggins before Gandalf knocks on his front door. Teens and tweens are still in the early stages of mapping out not only the exterior world around them, but their own inner world as well.
You can see this journey playing out in the books they read. Middle grade fiction, usually aimed at readers between eight and twelve years old, tends to focus on fun plots, with lots of action and zippy dialogue to keep the reader turning pages, while young adult fiction, roughly aimed at readers from twelve to seventeen, often dives more deeply into the interior life of its characters, who often are tasked with facing hard decisions while gradually realizing that the choices they make can have a profound effect on their entire life. By reading about the lives of fictional characters, young people are allowed to dip into a variety of life experiences and see how a variety of decisions and behavioral patterns play out without experiencing any personal risk themselves. A good book is not only an escape for a young reader, it is a safe space to encounter a variety of terrifying things, from the death of a parent to a first sexual experience to a zombie apocalypse.
I recently watched the 1974 film Alice in the Cities. Directed by Wim Wenders, who is best known for Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas, the beginning of Alice in the Cities delivers a classic misdirect. The first twenty minutes of the film focuses on a melancholic German travel writer named Phil Winter who is returning to New York City after a tour of America, feeling even more lost and confused than before he began the tour. Then, well after the film is under way, Phil encounters a girl named Alice and her mother. Both Germans themselves, Alice and her mother are also on their way back to Germany.
The film’s big twist comes when Alice’s mother abandons Alice in Phil’s care, instructing him to return to Germany with Alice in tow—she will meet them both a few days later, after she resolves some romantic business in New York. Not only does Phil (implausibly) agree to travel with Alice back to Europe, from this point on Alice, a charismatic force of nature despite being only nine years old, basically hijacks Phil’s life for several days. Alice and Phil proceed to travel around Germany for the rest of the film, looking for both Alice’s relatives and a sort of understanding of the world itself that seems to be eluding each of them. The film we thought, at its beginning, would be about a morose German travel writer becomes the story of a young girl trying to find her place in the world while enlisting a driftless adult to help her do so.
In a DVD liner notes essay about the film, Allison Anders writes:
While I mostly agree with Anders that children are frequently idealized in American film and television (think of any kid on any network sitcom), I think young people are as fully fleshed out and realized, warts and all, as they’ve ever been in fiction. This is partly due to the explosion in young people’s literature in general, and the writer talent rush that’s followed it, but I think it’s also due to the inherent advantage in the medium of literature compared to film. Literature allows for a depth of character study film can’t compete with, no matter how hard it tries or how often it falls back on clever first person POV shots or first person narrations.
A good YA novel gives its audience hundreds of pages to peel back the layers of a character as they proceed upon their journey. An author is free to reveal the interior of a character, either in first or third person point of view, as deeply as they want, allowing the characters personality to not only influence the novel’s plot, but to pervade the entire work from the first word until the last. Readers in general, and I think young people in particular, enjoy this aspect of literature; they love to lose themselves in a fictional character and the character’s particular POV while also seeing aspects of themselves, of their own struggles, hopes, dreams, and sorrows, in that character as well. A film, due to its very nature, forces its audience to remain at least one step removed from the characters we watch on screen. We can watch them, and empathize with them, but we can’t exactly become them. A good novel, propelled by the powerful machinery of the imagination, enables its audience to slip into its characters as smoothly as if they’re putting on a new shirt, taking them along on an empathetic journey that the reader, distracted by the story’s plot, dialogue, and particular world, hardly realize they’re taking at all.
I’m always a little hesitant to speak at a workshop like this. I’m worried about the “How to Get Published” mentality in general, as if getting published were the greatest end you could possibly achieve in life, or is even necessarily desirable in terms of a person’s growth as an artist and a human being. Getting advice and knowledge from publishing industry experts is all well and good, a fun way to spend a Saturday, but if you don’t put in the time and effort necessary to write a really good book, a compelling book with a voice all its own, knowing how to write a snappy query letter isn’t going to get you very far. I know, I know. This isn’t probably the sexiest thing a publishing workshop speaker could say. We now live in a lifehack obsessed society pervaded with all forms of instant gratification-if you want to publish your book yourself, you could go home and do it right now.
But the longer I write, the more I’ve grown to appreciate the grind of writing and rewriting, the polishing effect such a long and often exhausting process has, both on my writing and myself as a person. As clunky, slow, and often infuriating as the publishing industry can be, it can offer its own particular lessons about the usefulness of patience, whether you want to learn them or not. I’ve written seventeen novels. As of today, I’ve only published five, and several of my unpublished novels came after I’d gotten an agent and published my first novel.
It’s amusing to me that writing for a YA and middle grade readership, a core audience that is well known for impulse decisions, impatience, and fluctuations in temperament, requires such an extreme amount of patience, planning, and steadiness, character traits that usually take time and experience to acquire. You need to be able to not only know yourself, you need to possess the ability to dip back into the self you once knew, way back during the hormonal hot zone of adolescence. You need to take your time to craft something truly excellent while recalling, somewhere in the back of your mind, that your own time on this planet is limited, so it’s probably a good idea to get the important stuff as quickly as possible, the stuff that moves and interests you as a human being. Writing is a journey you embark on alone while hoping, against all odds, that you return with something that resonates with others. A good writer not only entertains, they connect with their audience on multiple levels.
This year I took place in #TheBet with authors Brian Farrey, Catherine Ryan Hyde, and Kimberly Pauley. I lost and was given the title “The Opposite of Opposite Day” by Catherine Ryan Hyde. It was a trippy, fun title to work with and the story took an unexpected turn or two for me. It’s based on an ill-fated lawn maintenance company my best friend and I started one summer called Lords of the Lawn.
The Opposite of Opposite Day
Doug and Gormley worked beneath the hot July sun, pulling weeds from a large garden and dumping out bags of fresh mulch. Second-year college students, they were working for an eccentric old widow named Mrs. Ulah. They wanted to make enough money to buy a decent bag of weed and some mushrooms for a bluegrass camping festival that weekend. They weren’t friends, exactly, but they lived in the same shitty, ant-infested off-campus house they rented with four other college students, which at least made them housing acquaintances.
“This is so much bark,” Gormley said, wiping his nose with the back of his work glove. “This must be about three trees worth.”
“It’s mulch,” Doug said. “Not bark.”
Gormley stretched his arms, pointing a bony elbow toward the sky.
“What’s the difference?”
“Mulch is a lot of stuff,” Doug said, suddenly unsure of himself. “All chopped up.”
“Looks like bark to me.”
“No, mulch is a collection of organic matter,” Doug said, searching his heat-addled brain for something intelligent sounding. “It’s organic pulpy wood matter chopped up and churned together to provide a pleasing edging for your yard. Saying mulch is just tree bark is like saying spaghetti sauce is just a couple of smashed up tomatoes.”
Gormley picked up a chunk of mulch and examined it. The chunk was reddish in color and fibrous around the edges. It looked, Doug had to admit, a lot like bark. Gormley sniffed the chunk, his nostrils flaring.
“It smells good.”
Doug nodded, slapping a mosquito on his neck.
“It smells like a forest. Like out west, maybe.”
Doug didn’t respond to this observation. Gormley was starting to piss him off. He was one of those weird, gaseous hippy vegans. He had a wispy blond beard that he liked to stroke when he was thinking, as if he were some kind of yogi sage, pondering an ancient truth. Worst of all, Gormley sometimes left his bedroom door open when he was fucking his girlfriend, Skye. Once Doug, startled by a loud groan while passing by in the hallway, had inadvertently peered into Gormley’s bedroom and seen things that could not be unseen. Terrible, hairy things.
Gormley bit into the chunk of mulch. His pale blue eyes went far away as he communed with the mulch. “I don’t think we’re supposed to chew on the landscaping product,” Doug said. “We’re here to spread it around, remember?”
Gormley’s eyes came back into focus. “I know what’s going on,” he said, grinning. “Today is the opposite of Opposite Day.”
Gormley nodded and clucked his tongue.
“Yep. Uh huh.”
Doug looked around the yard, wondering where he’d left the shovel. He wasn’t really going to physically assault Gormley, but it might feel good to hold the shovel again.
“Today is the opposite of Opposite Day,” Gormley said, repeating himself. “Everything we see around us is exactly what it appears to be. This piece of mulch looks like tree bark, so it is tree bark. This garden looks like a garden, so it is a garden. Everything is totally, absolutely certain today. Today is a day of reckoning and truth.”
Doug tore open a bag of mulch, tipping the bag into the depleted garden and pouring out its contents. As the mulchy cedar smell overwhelmed him, Doug envisioned himself hiking on a secluded mountain trail with a cute pixie girl in denim cutoff shorts. He was wearing a backpack loaded with picnic supplies, including cheese and wine and a make out blanket, as well as comfortable hiking boots with the laces tied just right. He and the pixie girl went through patches of sunlight and shadow as they hiked, holding hands in a firm but not too sweaty kind of way. Cicadas droned pleasantly in the background while chipper mountain squirrels chased each other from tree to tree, getting their frolic on. Everything was so peaceful—
A door slammed. Mrs. Ulah shuffled into the yard, studying Doug and Gormley through her oversized, gradient-tinted glasses as she leaned on her cane. She was wearing a bright yellow and orange muumuu that made her look like she was on the verge of spontaneous combustion.
“Would you boys like some iced tea?”
Doug sighed and took off his work gloves. There was no secluded mountain trail. There was no cute pixie girlfriend. There was only dumbfuck Gormley, this mosquito infested backyard, and a nice old lady in a muumuu, offering them a beverage made out of dried foliage. This was real life, in all its unyielding lameness.
They followed Mrs. Ulah into her house. The central air conditioning, cranked to the max, caused Doug to stagger for a moment and say a brief internal prayer of thanks to science and electricity. “You boys can sit on that davenport,” Mrs. Ulah said as they entered her living room, pointing at a white couch covered in clear plastic, one of four that had been arranged around a coffee table.
“Cool,” Gormley said. “A space couch.”
Doug rubbed his eye with the heel of his hand, fighting off a stabbing pain. The couch crinkled as they sat down and Doug edged over to the far side of his end. Gormley used an organic deodorant that didn’t get the job done on a normal day, much less a hot summer day, and it made him smell like a mix of brined fish and raw onion. Doug had no idea how Skye endured the Gormley stank—perhaps she’d lost her sense of smell after undergoing some kind of head trauma. Maybe that explained their entire relationship.
Mrs. Ulah poured iced tea from a pitcher into three tall glasses and sat down across from them, her muumuu billowing around her in a way that reminded Doug of a jellyfish bobbing along in the ocean. The coffee table in the center of the room was covered in pewter figurines of dragons, wizards, trolls, and sword brandishing warriors. There must have been two dozen of the little fuckers. An entire magical army.
Mrs. Ulah smiled and folded her hands in her lap. Doug took a drink of his iced tea and tried not to think of anything. He just wanted to enjoy the air conditioning and his cold beverage, which had a wedge of lemon in it and was actually pretty refreshing.
Gormley leaned forward and scrutinized a pewter wizard.
“You like fantasy stuff?”
“I do!” Mrs. Ulah said, leaning forward. “Especially dragons.”
“So do you like George R.R. Martin?”
Mrs. Ulah, already beaming, somehow upped the wattage of her smile even further. Doug silently cursed Gormley as the pair broke into a long, boring conversation about the A Song of Ice and Fire series and how it differed from the HBO show. As they blabbed on and on, Doug studied Gormley’s narrow, rat-like facial features, his beady dark eyes, his greasy, pustular complexion, and, of course, his wispy little monkey man beard, wishing he could blink his housemate out of existence. Finally, unable to stand any more fantasy nerd talk, Doug chugged the rest of his iced tea and set the glass down on the cluttered coffee table.
“Well, we better get back to work.”
“Wait, wait,” Mrs. Ulah said, holding up her hands. “Let me bring out a piece from the other room. It’s the loveliest drake. I just got it yesterday.”
“Righteous,” Gormley said. “I’d love to see it.”
Mrs. Ulah reached for her cane, planted its tip in the carpet, and rose quickly to her feet, looking pretty excited.
“I’ll be right—”
Mrs. Ulah blinked. Her eyes, already magnified by her glasses, appeared to swell even further.
“Mrs. Ulah?” Doug said.
Mrs. Ulah sat back down. She looked surprised.
Mrs. Ulah dropped her cane and sank sideways onto the couch, paused for a moment, then rolled off the couch and onto the floor. She lay face down on the carpet, as if she’d suddenly decided to take a nap.
“Holy shit,” Doug said, stunned. Gormley stood up without hesitation, as if he’d been waiting for something like this to happen to him his entire life. He moved the couch back, giving Mrs. Ulah more room on the floor. He reached into the folds of her muumuu, grabbed a shoulder and a flank, and rolled her onto her back. He placed his ear against Mrs. Ulah’s chest and Doug, in a moment of lustful insanity, wondered how soft and comforting the old woman’s breast felt against Gormley’s cheek.
“Her heart’s stopped,” Gormley said. “She needs to be rebooted.”
“What?” Doug said, still trying to catch up to the situation. He watched in increasing amazement as Gormley tilted the old woman’s head back, swiped a hooked finger into her mouth, and locked his lips with her lips, blowing air into her mouth. Gormley did this a few times and then began thumping her chest with the palms of his hands.
Those were called chest compressions.
“You’re not dead!” Gormley shouted as he compressed, again and again and again. “You’re alive, Mrs. Ulah. You’re alive!”
Doug discovered he was standing on his feet. Time had slowed down. The afternoon light was shining in an uncanny way through the living room windows and all the crystalline stones in the coffee table figurines were sparkling, as if they’d been activated by an otherworldly command. Gormley, growing desperate, pounded on the old woman’s chest with a closed fist. Something cracked and Mrs. Ulah coughed, sputtering back to life.
“You’re alive, Mrs. Ulah,” Gormley said, panting as he rested his hands upon his knees. “You’re not dead.”
Mrs. Ulah’s eyes fluttered open and she touched her chest, as if verifying her own continued existence. Gormley looked up at Doug and smiled, golden, dust-moted sunlight surrounding him like a halo.
He was, Doug had to admit, kind of beautiful for such a dumbfuck.