More Thoughts on High School

Okay, so I know last week I promised to tell a reunion story…but after the events of the past week I’m going to skip ahead to a compare and contrast between my two high schools. Hopefully one day I’ll get to tell you the reunion story, but I’ll save that for a calmer time (assuming it ever comes.)

A lot of people seem to think of Canada as some kind of utopia compared to the U.S., what with our handsome and well-spoken Prime Minister, universal healthcare, and general reputation for politeness. But, as much as I love my country, we’re not perfect. And I’ve known that since I started at my second high school.

As you know, I changed high schools at the start of tenth grade. The first school was in Scarborough (a suburb of Toronto) in a very multicultural neighbourhood.

My second high school – the one I spent four years at – was in the country, about an hour outside of Toronto. My house was so in the middle of nowhere we couldn’t see any other houses from ours, (but we *could* cut through the woods to the next door neighbours’) and coyotes used to scope me out while I waited for the school bus.

 

Remember how last week I said I wouldn’t go to a reunion because I didn’t connect with people there?

I admit, some it was my fault. I resented the move. Resented being taken away from all my friends and the city I grew up in.

And there was also some culture shock. My second school was just so white. So white. Both my high schools were about the same size (around 2000 people), and while I couldn’t give you an exact breakdown of demographics, my city school had a diverse population. My second school? I think we had 5 or 6 students of colour. Out of 2000. (Okay, I didn’t know every kid in the school, it could have been as high as 10. I doubt it was 12.)

As a result, there was a lot of casual racism. Like, a lot. Most of these kids had never even *seen* a PoC (of any ethnicity). PoC weren’t people to them, they were more like mystical creatures, like dragons or unicorns – and the only things the kids at my school knew about them was what they’d been told by their parents or religious leaders.

When I tried to speak up, I got asked why I was making such a big deal. It’s not like it affected me. I was branded as overreacting and irrational. Eventually, I stopped listening so hard when they talked. I felt dirty, but what could I do?

Until the guy I was dating dropped a racial slur.

So I dropped him.

He was the first guy I’d ever had real feelings for, and all our friends wanted to know what had happened. At first I told people I just wasn’t into him. Then I told one of them the truth.

She got mad. How could I break his heart over something so petty? It’s not like I was one of *them* so why was I offended?

I tried to explain that I couldn’t date someone who didn’t see all people as people. Who believed in an “us” and a “them.” She didn’t care.

I don’t know what she told our friends, but none of them talked to me again after that.

I’m not telling this story to get a cookie. To be honest, I’m not proud of it. If I could go back in time, with some of the confidence I have today, I would still have broken up with that guy (obviously) only I would have told him why. Tried to get him to change (not for me, just to be a good person).

No, I’m telling this story to explain that racism is here. It’s always been here (in case that isn’t already obvious from the way First Nations communities have been and still are treated).

And being able to forget that, or not realize it in the first place, is a sign of privilege.

And it’s one I’m guilty of.

Because I have a problem.

I’ve set the YA I’m working on in a high school very much like mine (the second one). “A small town, full of small minds,” as my MC puts it. And my MC, despite her privileges (white, cis, het, from an upper middle class family) wants out.

But.

By making her world so white, I also feel like I’m letting readers down by not including enough representation.

Don’t get me wrong, I think my story is important: it deals with body image, and sexual assault, and misogyny – all things I’ve struggled with first hand, and all things that still important in today’s world. And I’ve done my best to make sure the representation I have included is good representation. But is it enough in today’s troubled times?

I just don’t know.

Honestly, for this story, I think it will have to be. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do better for my next story. Just like I’ll do better next time I confront someone’s racist behaviour.

In the meantime, since this book won’t be out for a while (since, you know, it hasn’t even sold to a publisher yet) I’m going to be reading. So, hit me up with recommendations for YA Contemporary books with good representation*. (Bonus points if they’re by a marginalized author).

I’ll start us off with my two most favourite recent reads:

THE HATE U GIVE by: Angie Thomas

WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI by: Sandhya Menon

Add your suggestions in the comments.

*For the sake of this post, lets say representation of any identity a N*zi would hate: PoC, Jewish people, LGBTQIA, disability, mental illness.

PS For those wondering, I found a new group of friends that year, ones who weren’t racist, and they’re the ones I’m still in contact with. In case you were curious. Now, let’s see those book recs!

Some Thoughts on High School

So, as a YA author, it kind of goes without saying that I spend a lot of time thinking about high school. But last week I attended my husband’s 20th High School Reunion, and it sparked a whole bunch of new thoughts (mostly about my own high school experience) I figured I’d share with you (this may continue in multiple posts…)

1. Not all high schools are built the same. I’m talking the actual buildings here. I went to two high schools, in two different cities/towns, and they had a few differences, (like, one had a nice grassy quad to hang out in, and the other had a giant Shop/Restaurant Services/Cosmotology corridor) but they were both the regular kind of boring brick 1950’s-era buildings that are unmistakably schools.

Hubs’ school was a castle. Like, a 170-year-old grey stone building with an English class in a turret that had a window straight out of Romeo & Juliet. (Yes, he went to school in Canada).

2. People have fairly small groups of actual friends (the rest are just acquaintances). Most people at the reunion seemed to only “know” a couple of people (who they still kept in touch with through social media) and everyone else got a vague, “Oh yeah, I remember your name.” If you were one of the people whose core group of friends didn’t make it to the reunion…well, it was pretty much a room full of strangers.

3. Most of my friends at my second high school (where I spent 4 of my 5 years) didn’t graduate the same year as me. Some were in my year, but only did a 4-Year program. Others were a year older or younger from class (my schedule was all kinds of messed-up from changing schools) or clubs.

So, I probably wouldn’t go to my own reunion, since a reunion of my graduating year would be mostly strangers. The few people I want to stay in touch with are already my friends on Facebook.

(Although, let’s face it, if I suddenly become a best-selling author before my 25th reunion, I might be tempted to attend).

4. I *would* attend a reunion for my first high school (the one I only attended 9th grade at). Those are the people I went to school with from 4th to 9th grade, some of whom are still my best friends in life. And while I am Facebook friends with a decent number of them, I’d jump at the chance to meet them again in person.

(For the record, I actually went to their Prom, and had a reunion with them about…15 years ago? – In fact, maybe what I actually want is an 8th grade reunion, rather than a high school reunion…is that too weird?)

As it turns out, I had a reunion with someone I went to that first school with…but there’s a story to go with that, so I think I’ll save it for another post. Tune in next week to find out what happened…

Best Laid Plans…

The fun thing about being a writer is that you never quite know what your schedule is going to look like (well, unless you have deadlines, those are pretty set in stone).

So while I started the week revising my MG fantasy for a critique, the sudden arrival of revision notes from my agent’s assistant meant a change of plans was in order.

Which means I’m back to revising my contemporary YA. I’m hoping the number of line edits included means this will be our last round, but I guess that depends on how well I manage to revise.

I’m still squeezing work around the kids, getting up early to work before they’re awake, and occasionally working while they’re off playing, which means this won’t be my fastest revision ever. (I may already be counting down the days until their week at day camp.)

But I’m determined to make it my best. Get this thing as shiny as it can be, so it can go out to editors and hopefully hook someone.

So, keep your fingers crossed that my kids sleep late over the next few weeks.

 

Back on Track

Last week I wrote that I’ve been struggling to find time to write…not to mention finding the right words.

But this week I finally got myself back on track, thanks in part to that writing book I read (Second Sight by Cheryl Klein, recently re-published as The Magic Words).

Thanks to the advice in the book, I’ve figured out an emotional plot for my MC, and started revising my MG Fantasy in the morning before my kids get up. It’s definitely slower going than I’m used to these days, getting only half an hour (an hour if they sleep in) instead of my usual six-hour day, but it’s better than nothing.

I’m looking forward to getting this revision done and handed in for critique. I think I’m by far my harshest critic, often abandoning drafts because I can’t see any way to save them on my own. If I didn’t have this somewhat time-sensitive professional critique hanging over me, chances are this manuscript would have ended up in a metaphorical drawer as well.

Part of it is low self-esteem: feeling I’m just not good enough (see my posts on Imposter Syndrome). But part of it is that those drafts aren’t good enough. First drafts shouldn’t be compared to finished drafts, they’re the foundation, the building blocks of the book to come. They still need to molded and built upon to reach the status of actual book.

I think it gets a bit worse the more I learn about writing. With each new ms I’m able to spot more flaws in my first draft. More things I want to stop and fix immediately, rather than pressing on and correcting later in revision. But I have to start pushing myself harder.

In fact, I think my goal for the fall, once I finish drafting my YA Fantasy, is to go back and reexamine one of my trunked mss (probably the YA Contemporary) and see if it’s worth revising. I know it doesn’t work as it is now. But *could* it work with enough changes? Maybe.

And right now, that maybe is enough for me.

What about you? Are you your own harshest critic? Or do you have trouble seeing your own flaws? Let me know in the comments.

 

Quick Check-In

Just a short post this week, as summer is shaping up to be a bit busier than I expected. Unfortunately, so far I haven’t been able to squeeze in as much writing as I’d hoped, but that doesn’t mean my brain isn’t constantly working away.

My next goal is to whip that too-short MG Fantasy into good enough shape for a crit I won from an editor. The only problem is…I’m not quite sure *how* to fix it up just yet.

So, while I run story and character ideas through my head, I’m spending my downtime reading books on writing, hoping one of them will help me figure out what this story is lacking (you know, besides words). With any luck, by the time I have an opportunity write again, I’ll have some concrete ideas about what’s needed to revise this manuscript.

Hope your summer has been more productive than mine so far. More next week.

Birthday Musings

Hard to believe another year has passed. This year’s birthday is a tad bittersweet, as it brings me even closer to a milestone birthday next year.

On it’s own, hitting that milestone isn’t too scary. But as far as writing goes, there’s a part of me that saw next year’s birthday as a career goalpost, a best before date to have a novel published by.

Newsflash: that’s not going to happen.

It takes about one-and-a-half to two years from selling a book to a publisher to seeing it in stores, which means even if I sold a book tomorrow (which would be difficult, since I don’t have anything out on sub right now), it still wouldn’t be in stores before my self-imposed deadline. (Yes, Fun with Frosting moved faster than this, but it was a) not a novel and b) an exception.)

So, I’ve had to adjust my expectations. At best, I can hope for a publishing contract (*crosses fingers* *throws pennies in fountains* *blows out all the candles*) by next year. After all, I just handed in my revised YA to my agent, and with any luck I’ll be on sub by the end of the summer.

But the good news is, there’s no best before date on a writer’s career. It’s not like a pro athlete, or dancer, or even an actress (there are scandalously few roles available for older women). Many writers write into their old age (one of my favourites, P.D. James was still writing in her nineties), so the pressure I’m feeling is all of my own making.

All I can really do is keep writing and revising, until I get the right manuscript in the hands of the right editor at the right time.

Until then, I’m going to be over here, stress-eating my way through my leftover birthday cake, waiting to hear back from my agent on my most recent set of revisions. Wish me luck.

Sticks and Stones…

….Will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

Except that’s not true at all, is it?

Words have a great power to harm, either intentionally or accidentally. Whether it’s a well-chosen barb, an unfortunate nickname, or a phrase taken the wrong way, words are definitely capable of inflicting pain.

Perhaps even worse are words and phrases with sinister origins, insults that come from denigrating someone’s disability, mental capacity,  or stability. Some of these words are so ingrained on our language, we don’t even recognize them for they are. Words like lame, stupid, idiot, mental, and psycho all reinforce the idea that deviating from “normal” is worthy of derision.

Now, if you’re like me, your first instinct might be to resist. But it’s just a word. I use it all the time. It’s too hard to change.

But language is constantly evolving, as are the people who use it.

Don’t believe me? When I was a kid, “retarded” was a pretty standard schoolyard insult for everything we didn’t like, from people to TV shows to shoelaces. You probably winced reading that just now. I know I cringed when I typed it. In just thirty years that one word has gone from a common insult to a scandalous word. I’d bet my kids have never even heard it. (As it should be.)

So it can happen.

As writers, I think we have a responsibility, not only to do no harm with our words, but to act as agents of change. If we all filtered these ableist words out of our work, maybe they’d slowly disappear from language as a whole.

But, if the idea of eliminating these words for the sake of others isn’t enough motivation for you, then consider it a writing challenge. When I deleted “stupid” and “lame” from my YA (I hate to admit how many instances there were, since I tend to channel teenage me while writing YA) I was forced to come up with much more inventive and descriptive insults to replace them. I’d gotten lazy with my adjectives, and having to change them, made my writing stronger.

(As a starting point, check out these two posts by care2care and Autistic Hoya on alternatives to ableist language, which also help identify other ableist words to avoid.)

Maybe if we all work hard enough at removing ableist language from our work, in time books that include these words will be looked at the same way we’d look at a book using the R-word today, as outdated and insensitive relics from a harsher time.

 

I shudder at some of the words I used as kid, before I understood the history behind them.