On Angst

I’m realizing, I think, that I haven’t been all that fair when talking, thinking and writing about angst. You likely know that particular anxiety and torment that so many of us, myself included, associate with being a teen. The feeling of being trapped in some way, often operating just outside or possibly miles away from what’s accepted and appreciated by both our peers and the adults in our lives. Unsure – scared, even – about the future.

“I love angst.” I’ve said that on more than one occasion when talking about writing YA fiction. It’s a comment that was likely followed by an exchange of light-hearted, self-deprecating stories of high school embarrassment and unrequited college romance, which is all perfectly fine fodder for happy hour (hey, it happened to me. I can exploit it if I want to). But, that “I love angst” comment? It’s a really stupid thing to say.

A t-shirt intended for teens...clearly designed by adults. Available at zazzle.com.
A t-shirt intended for teens…clearly designed by adults. Available at zazzle.com.

I think what I actually mean is that angst is valuable when it comes to storytelling. It makes our characters more complex, their struggles more believable, and their victories sweeter. It has the power to create bonds between unlikely friends because it’s so universal. Readers, when they see it in characters, recognize the feeling of angst and might feel less alone because of it. Angst and the desire to escape it can be a driving factor for adventure and risk-taking, which makes stories exciting.

But in real life it sucks.

For the person who’s experiencing it, angst is real. It’s easy for an adult to look back on a 16 year-old broken heart and romanticize the experience with poetic narration and a carefully chosen soundtrack. But, if you really (NO REALLY) think about being 16 and heartbroken it was awful. That physical ache of feeling alone and ignored. Crying induced headaches. And then going to school, which essentially means dealing with every single person in your social circle (and teachers – that’s like having 7 different bosses) at once when all you really want to do is hang out in pajama pants alone, or maybe with that trusted best friend who doesn’t require an explanation because they already know the whole story.

Adult-shaped angst might look a little different, but it’s not necessarily worse or more serious. It’s just relative to our experiences. And, just like teens, it’s uncomfortable. We hate it and want it to stop.  Just like we did when we were in high school.

I want to make sure I don’t lose that when portraying angst in my stories. Angst can be a powerful force. But if it’s not portrayed with respect for how much it truly sucks, a story has the potential to feel insulting to the reader’s actual experiences. Best case scenario is that just doesn’t seem authentic. And if it doesn’t feel real, readers won’t connect with the character, which means they won’t want to keep reading. And, I wouldn’t blame them.

Question: In the stories we write for teens, are we being fair to angst?

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Big Deal Alert

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This envelope contains a contract. For an agent. The kind that represents people who write books. My name and signature can be found in that contract.

In other words, I have a literary agent for my young adult novel.

You’ll notice it’s not yet sealed or addressed. That’s because I’ve yet to determine if it’s better to FedEx it the 17 blocks from my office so that I have a record of its receipt or just plaster the envelope with $20 worth of stamps and photograph myself dropping it into the corner mailbox (that way, when I’m engulfed in worry and second-guessing about whether or not I sealed the envelope I can scroll through the photos in my phone and assure myself that 1. I did, indeed, mail the thing and that 2. I’m a hopelessly paranoid weirdo).

So, what does this mean? Essentially, I now have professional representation in all things related to selling my book. Smart people with experience in the publishing industry will pitch my book to publishers and (hopefully) negotiate a contract. In my case, my agent will also work with me on the creative side of things. She’s an experienced editor and writer herself and has already given me some really great feedback that I know will push me to make my manuscript even better.

This is crazy, right?

To be clear, there is still A LOT of work ahead and no guarantees. But, now I’m working with people who have the knowledge and expertise to get my book published. And if I have learned ONE THING during this whole process is that you need people.

Seriously, if I can offer one tiny piece of advice to authors soliciting agents (I swear I won’t turn this into a “How to Get a Literary Agent” post because 1. I don’t know my ass from my elbow and 2. it happened five seconds ago and acting like some kind of expert would be really annoying and 3. I’m very superstitious and wary of good news/positive developments, which makes it difficult enough to write this post in the first place) it would be to just dump your ego and listen to people who know more than you.

Ask for critique from people you respect, but make sure you really consider what they have to say… even if it means a lot of work for you. There were a few times I received feedback and thought “They’re right…Damn it.” A part of me really wanted to ignore those big, gnarly revisions. Editing and rewriting can be mentally and emotionally draining, especially when you’ve already done a significant amount of it. But, (in my experience) it almost always leads to a better version of your manuscript.

I have also learned the value of a professional network. It can be a tough thing to get going, especially if you’re not naturally self-promotional. I knew a published YA author, so I asked if we could meet for coffee and chat about his experiences. That was probably the most important cup of coffee I’ve ever had.

So, while I decide how to transport my signed contract (is there a courier services that also offers emotional support/psychotherapy?) I’m working on yet another edit of my manuscript. Just for fun, I looked back to see when I began querying agents and it was almost exactly one year ago to the day. If I knew then that in a year I’d still be revising the same manuscript, but using an agent’s notes, I’d be…well, thrilled! Just like I am right now. Seriously, I’ve never been so happy to have so much work to do.

Question: What’s your advice to people just beginning to build their professional network?

Vision Boards

So, vision boards. Maybe you’ve heard about them? The idea is to create a visual representation of your goals, aspirations and anything that inspires and motivates you to create the future you want. And then you hang it in a place you look at on a regular basis so that you can absorb its positive mojo and achieve your dreams. The VB philosophy is sort of along the lines of positive visualization that athletes use. They see themselves crossing the finish line/scoring the goal/carrying the trophy.

With vision boards, cork or poster board is usually involved, as is a pair of scissors and magazine clippings/computer print outs and tape, glue or pushpins.

The cynic in me would dismiss the concept as an arts and crafts project at best if there weren’t a handful of accomplished people who swear by them. One vision board proponent is YA author Susane Colasanti.  I am forever grateful to successful authors who are generous enough to share their process in a public fashion, and Susane has written about her use of vision boarding numerous times on her blog. This is a person who is publishing her seventh YA book this May, so I think I better just shut up and listen.

Also, there’s my health guru and adventure cleanse guide, Kris Carr. My favorite vision board story is hers. When she was trying to get her documentary out there and getting a lot of “NO,” she tacked this note to her vision board:

“Oprah, save a seat for me, I’m coming”.

That’s balls. But, four years later, it happened. Kris was a guest on Oprah’s show, and we all know what happens when Oprah endorses you.

Of course, those four years weren’t spent idly praying at the altar of her vision board. Kris has a ton of passion and worked her butt off. As did Susane. Writing takes a lot of discipline and focus, not to mention talent, and she put in the time.

So, what do I have to lose?

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You’ll see it’s still in the wrapper with its mounting kit. It’s been like that for two weeks now. I guess I’m still trying to figure out how to get started. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there was a tiny part of me that’s slightly queasy over the new agey-ness of the exercise. And, also, there’s something about creating this thing that makes me feel just a little too vulnerable. What if someone sees it and thinks I’m silly? Or, worse yet, delusional?

Well, here’s what Ms. Carr says:

“A bit of advice to all the negative Nellies who like to rain on parades and poop on dreams: When a person is powered by faith, love, a righteous mission and a vision board, it’s best to get out of their way or you just might get hit with the holy sparkle (which wouldn’t be such a bad thing – holy sparkle definitely combats hot air).”
– link

If she’s got my back, I should be ok.

Speaking of…

Cleanse update: I am finishing up on week #2 and THINGS ARE JUST FINE. I even survived a birthday celebration at a not particularly vegan/gluten-free friendly restaurant last night. I didn’t have it in me to interrogate the waitress and verify that everything I ate was 100% vegan/gf, but I abstained from shared dishes that obviously included meat, dairy and gluten, and didn’t touch a drop of alcohol. I’ll admit it – that one hurt. It’s not easy watching others thoroughly enjoy their champagne and cocktails from the sidelines, and it’s slightly alarming  to be the only sober person waiting for a cab on the Lower East Side at 1:30 a.m. on a Saturday night.

Question: What do you think about vision boards? Any tips on how to get started?

How the Agent Querying Process Feels a Lot Like High School

One time I joked with my husband that he’d basically ruined me as a poet. The writer in me had always thrived on the crushing disappointment of failed romance.  And pain!  And unrequited love! What was I supposed to write about now that I was in a secure and loving relationship? No one wants to read about stability and mutual respect.

Of course, that’s silly. Being in a strong relationship has made me a better person and given me so many gifts, including the confidence to more seriously pursue being a writer. But, as I worked on my YA novel,  I worried that one day I’d have trouble remembering that uncertainty that’s so specific to high school.

You know – those stomach knots you’d get trying to work up the courage to talk to THE guy. The conversations (the ones that barely qualified as conversations) that you’d go over in your head a million times so you could analyze every detail. (“He said ‘hey’ instead of ‘hi’ this time…I wonder what that means…”) And that moment when you finally accept that he just doesn’t feel the same way…

I mean, as a 30-something committed gal, how would I ever really stay in touch with such intense feelings of angst and disappointment?

I didn’t yet realize the answer was right in front of me.

Ways the Agent Querying Process Will Keep you in Touch with your Inner Teenager

Or

Oh yeah, I remember…

  1. Existing in a fairly consistent state of humiliation and having to just be ok with it. There was always something.  You got your period unexpectedly. Or you tripped in front of everyone. Or you didn’t have enough money to buy the right clothes. The levels of mortification varied by person and circumstance. But, overall, you were exposed, and you had to just deal with it. The query process can leave you feeling just as vulnerable. You’re basically baring your soul and asking for someone to find value in it. And not “showing up” isn’t an option if you want to be a writer.  You have to suck it up and deal. Unless you’ve already got representation, which brings me to the next item…
  2. Being a little jealous. Or a lot jealous. Unless you were them, there was some version of the “cool kids” and you wanted in. You thought about what it would be like to casually trade witticisms and joke together in the hallway. Update: the “cool kids” are published authors and their agents. And the “hallways” is Twitter. Don’t get me wrong, Twitter is an awesome resource for researching the querying process, but reading the abbreviated, giddy, Agent/Author banter about new deals/interviews/book tours can be tortuous when you’ve got a fresh rejection email in your inbox.
  3. Rejection. Really, is there a more common theme for High School? I don’t think I need to explain what rejection looks/feels like in High School. Even if you’re not like me and don’t spend a lot of time trying to get in touch with your inner teen, that feeling is pretty close to the surface for most adults. Well, it’s just as accessible for debut authors. The comforting thing is that it’s also something that published authors talk about, too. Everyone from Jennifer Weiner to Stephen King has written about how much rejection they experienced trying to get published.
  4. But does he like like me?” Ok, so this was maybe even WORSE than straightforward rejection. The not knowing and second guessing and “what iffing.” Hope tempered with self-doubt – is there anything more excruciating? Yes, there is! Except now it’s typically more like “Does she like like me?”  When you get a little nibble and suddenly, before you can help yourself, you are imagining yourself as full time writer. But, then you have to reign in your hopes and dreams and remind yourself that it was just a manuscript request. You have a long way to go…But, then again, maybe she really does like you and your manuscript…and it will all work out…and you’ll be together forever…
  5. Hearing “Don’t listen to them – you’re beautiful and funny and smart!” This always came from the people who are too blinded by their unconditional love and support to be objective about anything. And not much has changed. Your family and friends still think you are awesome and can’t believe anyone would think differently. And you still feel half comforted and half frustrated because they “need to say that – you’re my mom/friend/husband.”
  6. Giggle-inducing excitement. I’ve talked about this a bit in other posts, but there is an intensity that comes with being a teenager. People like to blame it on hormones, but I think it’s also just the fact that you’re experiencing things for the first time ever. You still have the capacity to be completely surprised. You’re a little scared, but also excited about all the “firsts” you have in front of you. So excited that you often find yourself involuntarily jumping up and down . Or giggling for so long or laughing so hard that experience physical pain.

Despite everything else on this angst-ridden list, I do feel that. Every little inch of progress has me texting my friends and using way to many exclamation points for a grown person. I’m both scared and excited about the unknown. I have something to day dream about.

There are so few good surprises in life, that I guess I’m willing to deal with all the other stuff if it means I’ve got a few more “firsts” ahead of me. And, I know that when I do finally achieve my first big first,  there will be lots of giggling and jumping up and down.

Question: When’s the last time you felt high school level humiliation, rejection or excitement?