Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sticks, Stones, Stitches, and Lyrics

I was so excited at being back to my bloggery self that I forgot to mention that along with a slightly different layout, I've updated the submission guidelines. Nothing major, but please check them out on the sidebar.

Now, let's jump right back into Glass Cases' reason for being - your stories. Today's is a novel excerpt by Naomi Canale that I like to think of as the lost episode of My So-Called Life that was written by John Hughes.

Naomi's novel, Sticks, Stones, Stitches, and Lyrics, was chosen by Ellen Hopkins for the Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program. Naomi creates characters who "rise above the awful world she puts them in" and she spends her non-writing time raising three boys, painting, and gardening. Enjoy!

Sticks, Stones, Stitches, and Lyrics
By Naomi Canale 

Chapter One: Letting Go

Could there be anything positive about being alone on my seventeenth birthday? If I try to be optimistic, three things come to mind: walking around the house naked; singing foul lyrics with my guitar until the neighbors get annoyed; and stuffing my face with Moms forbidden chocolate stash.

But I can’t move my butt from this bar stool. Loneliness is my enemy today and my cell hasn’t made a peep. I keep telling myself that the satellite must be down. Its all just coincidence, it’ll vibrate soon. Damn, who am I kidding? Dad hasn’t called, Mom’s over an hour late, and kissable Ben is off at his grandma’s, being tortured with hot chocolate and warm fireplaces. My eyes zoom in on a roll sitting alone on the counter, and I lift a finger up to touch it. Stale and hard, this sad, little hunk of bread seems to represent my day. Not to mention my birthday. The sound of a key in the front door of our apartment draws my attention. It’s Mom. She smiles, places some grocery bags on the counter and comes over to give me a kiss. “Hi, honey. Happy birthday.”

“Thanks, Mom. Win anything big today?”

“No. Not today sweetie. Soon though, I feel it. Before long, we’ll finally be able to travel and maybe even buy a house.” A cake in a plastic container emerges from one of the grocery bags as she pulls it out and wrinkles her nose up in disappointment. “Look what I got you.”

Despite the soft gnaw of sadness, I can’t help but grin because my birthday cake is chocolate on chocolate. Who wouldn’t smile at that? Crap. I can feel the sudden crease of my annoying dimples. Mom can’t resist squeezing them, or making her regular observation, “One day when you get a boyfriend he’ll want to kiss those dimples every day.”

I push out my lips, attempting to hide them, and rub my left pinched cheek. “Mom, boys don’t pay attention to me, much less want to kiss my dimples. Okay, I think Ben kissed them once, but it was just a friend kind of thing.”

Mom dips one finger into the frosting, dabs it onto her tongue and speaks to me with a chocolate smudge across her lip. “See. Well, I know you’re growing up and all, but just be careful that’s the only thing he’s kissing.”

“God, Mom.” To change the subject, I point out the chocolate on her face. “Mom. Right there. You’ve got some frosting right there.”

Mom finds an old rag, hanging next to the sink and wipes off her face. “Thanks, hon’. Oh candles, we can’t forget those.” She turns around and reaches into a grocery bag. The candles fall to the floor, and as she bends down to retrieve them, her pink thong comes up for air. Silently, I laugh.

Mom tries to pretty up the cake as she stabs it with dollar store candles, doing some freaky dance that makes her look like she has to pee. She pulls a lighter from her purse and lights them one by one. “Wait. Don’t blow them out yet. Let me dim the lights.”

When I lean toward the cake, the dripping wax pillars warm the tip of my nose. Mom’s voice crackles as she sings, “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear, Robbie, happy birthday to you. And many more on channel four.”

I can’t help but giggle as I whisper my birthday wish. “I wish tomorrow I will stomp the competition and win.”

As I blow out my candles, Mom looks at me with a frown. “Sorry I have to work on your birthday.”

I try not to let it bother me and focus on the stuff on the counter. “No problem Mom, I’ll just be practicing for tomorrow anyway.” A new college pamphlet sits in plain sight next to the phone. I reach across to look at it.

Mom smiles wickedly big, “I brought that home this morning because I was thinking about you and your eighteenth birthday, with it only being next year and all. And thought you might be interested in some collegy stuff. You know, just to get you a little fired up.”

School is my worst subject. I try to feel positive about college, but when I think about four more years of classes and tests and hoards of strange people, my heart kind of sinks. “That’s nice Mom, but how can I make it to college if I can’t even get one decent grade? Math is killing me right now. I’ve got a headache from stupid algebra homework.”

Her eyes slowly move toward my guitar leaning up against the living room wall. “Well maybe if you spent more time studying and not playing that thing so much, you’d do better. In fact, if you worked half as hard on your math as you do playing riffs, you could probably get a scholarship. You play that guitar great, but maybe try the flute or something school oriented.”

“Mom, I do work hard and I already tried the flute thing and playing guitar is what I do instead of spending time with friends I don’t have.”

She opens the cupboard and grabs a plate. “I know honey. I just don’t want to see you end up like me. Broken dreams can’t be glued back together.” Mom slides a piece of cake over the counter in front of me.

“You’re not going to have some?”

“I’d love to, but I’ve got to get going for work in, like, five minutes. Just keep in mind what I said, okay?”

I poke at the cake with a fork, watching her walk down the hallway and into her room. She does put herself down a lot, but she’s right. I don’t want to be an obsessive compulsive gambler with impossible hopes of getting rich with a roll of the dice or turning the right card. She might think a career in music is the same kind of dream. But at least I’ve never spent the rent money, playing guitar. Her voice drifts down the hall. “How’s that cake?”

“It’s yummy, Mom. Thanks.” I swipe some frosting off my cake with one finger just as Mom appears, dressed in her thin, red scrubs for another long night shift at the hospital.

“I’m off. See you in the morning.” She grabs a pack of cigarettes to light one up before work. “Okay, see you Robbie baby.”

The door shuts behind her and she doesn’t hear me add, “Love you.”

Every time she leaves I’m reminded we don’t live in the best part of town. It’s not so scary during the day, but at night, out come the pimps and drug dealers. It freaks me out being here all by myself. Mom claims she hates living here, too. But here we stay, year after year. It’s never felt like home. I dream of living in neighborhood, like my almost boyfriend Ben’s, where there are no apartments and the houses lining the sidewalk are all neat and painted, with pretty, little yards. A lonely fork sits on the counter waiting for me to smudge cake all over it, but I’ve lost my chocolate cajones. I pick up my algebra book but when I open it, the symbols mush together, making me dizzy like twirling on one of those playground things. A few pieces of paper fall onto the table. Monday’s homework, stamped with giant Fs. I should try to figure this stuff out, but all I can see is red-penned failure. I pull out today’s homework, try the first problem. Damn it. I’ll never learn this stuff. Scholarship? Is Mom crazy? My GPA can be counted with two fingers.

My hand starts scribbling, leaking black ink onto the paper in front of me. Words form and smear from the tears dripping onto them.

Stupid Dad, don’t you love me? If you did, you’d come see me on my birthday, and you’d come alone. Not like the last time, when you brought that new girlfriend of yours. You pretended to care so you could show me off and make someone think you’re worth a damn. “Daddy’s little girl,” the one you only bother with when you want to look like you actually have feelings.

Although, I’m madder than usual with you today, part of me wishes you’ll show up with a new Jennifer or Meagan, or maybe another big-boobed bimbo like Jessica. Damn it, Dad. Why can’t you just call me? But no knock on the door. No call. Whatever. Who needs him anyway? My eyes burn and I feel the salt trickle of tears on my cheeks. I wipe my face with a dirty sleeve and think back to the day he left. I was only five years old, but I can vividly remember sitting abandoned in a car on the side of Interstate-80. Mom was crying as you climbed over the side rail off the interstate and never looked back. That little tin of metal was so cold sitting outside the homeless shelter I thought my toes might freeze off. Not to mention I had to share a bathroom with a bunch of smelly cracked out weirdo’s.

Mom did the best she could to make that car feel like home, but it only lasted a year. Low income housing was the next best thing. And now, twelve years later, I’m looking out the window onto the same old street sign, Suffolk Circle.

Thinking about that confined car makes me need the comfort of a small space. I move toward my room, picking my guitar up on the way. My heart breaks as I wedge inside my closet and close the door. This is my private oasis, the one I painted dark blue. Under the dim light of glow-in-the-dark star stickers, I squeeze my guitar under my arm and start to play. Lyrics fall into the cramped space around me, and I wrap myself in the obsession of creating my own music. I close my eyes, and I’m onstage, singing my latest song. The crowd sings along. They know this song, word for word. Everyone adores me. I’m beautiful.

Who cares about homework or grades or college? All I care about is this guitar and the music reverberating from each chord. From the moment I first picked it up at a thrift store, and my un-callused fingertips touched these strings, I haven’t been able to stop. It is my drug of choice, and when “real” happens, and fans know my music, Dad won’t forget about days like today.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Rags to Riches

In the words of those old poets, the Backstreet Boys - "Oh my god, I'm back again!"

That's right, friends. I am back from my hiatus - and a little earlier than expected, no less. Thank you for bearing with me during these busier-than-usual weeks. I'm very happy to be back!

Actually, there's a reason I came back early. See, there's been a rash of self-publishing stories recently and for the most part, I don't really have much to say about them except, "Hey, good for them." But then I read something that made me want to respond in more than 140 characters, and I didn't think I should wait to post it for the sake of waiting.

Future (current?) publishing superstar, Meredith Barnes, recently wrote in a blog post (which you should read), "Agents today, if they have one forward-thinking bone in their body, consider self-publishing a viable option." Very, very true.

Much like online dating, self-publishing is no longer attached to the stigma that it should be only considered as a last resort. There are many reasons why I'd suggest taking the traditional publishing route. Self-publishing means you will be unedited, unmarketed, and generally only sold via a few retail outlets - among other problems. If you're fine with this or you are willing to put in a LOT of work in addition to writing the actual book, then who am I to stop you?

Like I said, there have been a lot of self-publishing success stories lately, especially in this past month. I think this is a great boon to this often chastised method of publication. But it's also dangerous to writers who may not have the same resources or popularity to make their self-published book rank up there with Amanda Hocking and J.A. Konrath.

That's why when I read this post on Mr. Konrath's blog last week, I felt that the self-publishing rags-to-riches stories needed to be addressed. (I had been letting others, who are much smarter than I, handle this 'til now.) Like I mentioned above, there are TONS of blog posts about how self-publishing is hard and that you probably won't be as successful as the authors who are benefiting from it. Most writers know this and will still turn to self-publishing because they just want to see their book in print.

This is perfectly acceptable, writers. And it is especially fine for the writer who wanted to thank J.A. Konrath for "saving her life." Sometimes all we need is to retain our creativity in order to feel we still have self worth. This writer was frustrated with rejection and became depressed because she did not see a point to keep writing if it could not be her career.

I feel for this writer. I do. And I'm happy she found peace again by releasing her book on her own terms. But there is more to this story. Or at least, there is more to this blog post.

More than the writer's own feeling of rejection, what's referenced several times here is the lack of money in traditional publishing. She laments that with "rock-bottom advances," she saw no point to keep writing. Mr. Konrath also admits that he had been counting on his next advance to "feed his family."

Now, writers. I don't mean to cheapen anyone's financial concerns here, but... seriously?

I will elaborate.

No one - I will repeat: no one (not agents, not editors, not publicists, and not booksellers) - goes into the book business for the cash. Writers are a huge part of this business; they are not excluded from this list. All books, even ones destined to be bestsellers, are passion projects. We do this because we love it. We love writers and we love the written word and we love stories. Despite our four-walled offices and health care, we are all just starving artists who believe you can't place monetary value on what we do. Hence the lack of money being passed around.

But on a less idealized level, we already know about the notoriously low wages in publishing and the dwindling advances that have only gotten lower since 2008. The fact that our cups do not exactly runneth over is not news, which is why published author, J.A. Konrath should not have relied on an advance to avoid malnourishment.

If publishing is a business, which we constantly remind people that it is, then debut writers are our entry-level employees. For those of you with day jobs, try to remember what your entry-level salary was. Sucked, right? Well, whatever that salary was will probably be more than your debut advance. People like Amanda Hocking exist, of course, but if you are expecting publishers to play tug-of-war with two million dollars over you, you might as well just play the lottery.

I will take this opportunity to pause once again and say I'm sorry if this comes off harsh. I hate playing the role of the realist because rags-to-riches stories are supposedly what "the American dream" is all about. Crushing dreams is not fun for me. Plus, I like you.

Moving on.

If you are a writer waiting for your advance to "save you," remember that publishing takes forever (as we learned in more detail from Jennifer Laughran). If you sold a book (yay!), you might receive half of your advance upon signing the contract. This comes relatively quickly. When the advances are split like this, the rest of your money could come after the publisher receives the full manuscript (most common with sequels in a series or nonfiction projects) or upon publication. Friends, publication might not happen until two years after you sign the agreement.

Ask yourselves if you're financially secure enough to wait that long in between paychecks. If you have a day job, you may want to keep it until you no longer need to worry about when your next royalty check is coming. If you don't have a day job, and are impatiently waiting for an advance, it probably wouldn't hurt to call a temp agency. 

The reality of this situation is sad for those who want writing to be their career. That's why I get self-publishing. It's a way to avoid inevitable disappointment. Plus, it is awesome to see your book in print. I get that too.

But I guess my point is this - why be disappointed in something you already know to be true? Most jobs won't pay you enough in your first year. You're expected to prove yourself and work up the ladder and break ceilings. Then, usually, you're able to get a raise, some extra perks, and eventually a summer home. So why should your first year in your new career as "writer" be any different?

Restless employees can go on to do great things. Biz Stone left a sweet gig at Google to help create a silly little start-up called Twitter. Pretty much everyone drops out of Harvard and becomes gazillionaires. And Barry Eisler can walk away from half a million dollars in traditional publishing to go rogue.

When these things happen, they are newsworthy. And the reason they become news stories are because they are rare and they provide hope. The millions of writers who continue to do their jobs well and stay loyal to their companies (i.e. publishers and agents) aren't reported on so much because, well, they are the norm. Likewise, the millions of writers who go directly to self-publishing and don't make a million dollars by far outweigh the writers who do make millions, so they tend to go unnoticed in the media too.

Like in any career, you want to get paid for what your work is worth, but rarely is that reflected in your paychecks (aka: royalty checks) when you are new to the game. Just because a system should change doesn't mean it will change. At least not any time soon. Publishing is not Wall Street. Most of us (writers included) won't be able to retire after our rookie year. If you were expecting to, then maybe you are in the wrong business. But if you're willing to accept the realities of most new employees, advance on your own merits, and continue to be awesome at what you do, then we'd love to have you.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Do Not Be Alarmed

I'm taking a brief break from blogging (but apparently not from alliteration!) through March. I plan to be back Wednesday, April 6, where your fabulous stories will resume publication and I will resume my duties as blogger. I'm not going anywhere physically, but a busy schedule is preventing me from blogging to my full potential, and you guys deserve better than that.

To those who are currently asking "um, what about that story I sent you?" - do not worry. All submissions will still be read and considered, and will be ready for publication in April. I also encourage people to keep submitting their work! Like I said, my break will be brief, and I'll need plenty o' stories to welcome me back.

See you soon, friends! We'll always have Twitter...

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Story Time

In the words of Louis Sachar...

"There is no Miss Zarves. There is no nineteenth story. Sorry."

Sorry, folks. Story Time will return next week!