Archive for July, 2016

That Was Then, This Is Now

This week my thirteen-year-old son remarked that the U.S. presidential election is a lot like Pokémon Go. “How’s that?” I asked.

My son explained that two of the Pokémon teams, Valor and Mystic, are at war. “I’m biased,” he said, “because I’m in Mystic. Not to be ‘team-ist’, but Valor acts more like the Republican Party and Team Mystic acts more like the Democrats.” He went on to tell me a story he heard, where a restaurant owned by members of Team Valor gave Valor members a discount while charging members of Mystic more. “But to be fair,” he said, “there are examples of Team Mystic doing that same thing.”

“So what do you think about that?” I asked him. “Is it fair for one team to charge members of another team more? What if the restaurant were owned by white people and they gave discounts to white people, but charged black people more?”

“That wouldn’t be fair,” he decided. “That would be racist.”

This is not the first time we’ve talked about racism (or other social justice issues). This election year has not been pretty. No, it’s been pretty horrifying at times, but I have not shielded my kids from the ugliness. Instead, we talk about the things we hear candidates say and how those things could affect our country.

My sons are growing up in a different world than the one I grew up in. When I was in middle school twenty-something years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to hear racial slurs from my older relatives. I lived in a small town in Arizona, not far from the Mexican border. I’d estimate a third of my classmates were Latino. Some were new immigrants to our country, some came from families who had been U.S. citizens for several generations. I don’t remember thinking about race much—my classmates were simply my friends—until it was brought to my attention. One message I heard from a family member was I shouldn’t date boys from other races because if we ever had kids they’d be “mixed-race children” and wouldn’t fit in with society. Now I have a nephew who is bi-racial, and while I’m not naïve enough to think he’ll never experience racism, I truly hope he’ll live in a better world than the one I knew.

I had friends in high school who I later learned were part of the LGBTQIA community. Even though I knew gay people existed in the world, I didn’t know much about them or the issues they faced. At the time, I had no idea there was diversity within the LGBTQIA community, that people identify in different ways. Looking back, I understand why my friends had to keep that part of their identity secret. Coming out in a small town like mine was dangerous. At best, you would have been ridiculed and shunned. At worst, you might have been beaten or killed.

I recognize that my children and I are privileged. We’re white, heterosexual Christians. No one questions our race, sexuality, or religion. We’ve never had our citizenship questioned. None of us have disabilities, so we have not been ridiculed or patronized for that. No matter how much we discuss social justice in our home, my boys still have more privilege than other people in society, and while they can be allies, there is no walking in other people’s shoes. Not really. My children can have empathy and be educated on issues, but there is no educational experience that will make them understand how much privilege they truly have.

Still, I’m hopeful about their generation. My kids were in pre-school when our first black president was elected. They have no memory of a president before Obama. They have had friends of all different races, and even some from different countries. They’ve had teachers and role models who identify as LGBTQIA, and they are aware that some of my friends are members of that community. They accept all of these people as family and friends—as equals. It’s that simple for them.

My boys see the ugliness of the election for what it is—bullying—and they know bullying is wrong. They speak up when they see bullying happen at school, and they and their friends stand up for classmates.

So, as worried as I feel about the outcome of this election and the thought that electing Trump could negatively affect the lives of friends who aren’t white, or heterosexual, or Christian, (among many other concerns I have about his policies), I’m not worried about one thing. I believe my sons’ generation will hold to their values of accepting and respecting others. They will be resilient, no matter who becomes the next president.

By the way, I asked my son what he thought about having a president who was a woman. He shrugged. The idea wasn’t novel. Why would it be? He’s known teachers, principals, dentists, and doctors who were women. Both of his parents have doctoral degrees. His grandmother served as mayor in our hometown. In his mind, a woman can be whatever she wants to be. When I was growing up in the late twentieth century, the idea of a woman as president was frowned upon. Know what? I like the twenty-first century better.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016


Phobia

Spider

A friend in my book club recently reminded me that my tastes in books and movies run a bit darker than most folks’. I laughed, thinking my tastes are different in other areas of my life too. Growing up, I don’t remember my family ever having ham or turkey at Christmas. We might have, but it seems like we always had enchiladas instead, and that suited me fine. I like my food spicy and my books spooky.

Having said that, I’m excited about the It reboot, featuring Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise. From what I’ve seen so far, it’s going to be fantastic. The book is amazing, and by that I mean it’s one of the most terrifying novels I’ve ever read. It hooks you from the beginning as you follow poor little Georgie Denbrough, racing after his paper boat as it goes down the storm drain. I’m fairly certain we won’t be reading It in book club. I don’t want to be responsible for triggering someone’s coulrophobia.

To my knowledge, I don’t have any phobias. There are things that scare me, sure, but not to the extent I become incapacitated. I’m not afraid of heights, but I have a healthy respect for guardrails and I don’t take stupid risks. I love roller coasters and water slides. I’m not terrified by sharks, but I get that some of them are dangerous. Even so, I want to go cage-diving with great whites.

Spider

Mouse spiders: free pest control.

I’m not even scared of spiders, which really annoys my family because I usually let the spiders in our house live, so long as they’re not venomous. We have a lot of spiders on the Oregon coast, but few dangerous ones. Some of them, like zebra spiders with their striped abdomens, could even be considered cute. I know—most of you find them revolting. We’ll have to agree to disagree though, because I like the way my little friends devour mosquitos. As long as they do their job and don’t want to snuggle, I’ll grant them a stay of execution.

My greatest fear is something bad happening to people I love. I’m also frightened of demagogues. And angry mobs. Beyond that though, I like the adrenaline rush that comes from being frightened. I guess that’s why I write scary scenes in my books.

I like watching horror movies, but the jump scares always get me, even when I suspect they’re coming. Still, I’m cool with gore, especially if it’s campy. The one subgenre I’m not fond of is demonic possession—those movies tend to give me nightmares. I’ve never watched The Exorcist all the way through. (Well, I have, but I covered my eyes for some of it.) I don’t play with Ouija boards either. I believe demons and predatory spirits exist, so to me it’s common sense not to dabble in that stuff. Better safe than sorry, right?

But back to clowns…am I afraid of clowns? Not really. Do I find them disturbing? Yes. Partly because of Pennywise, but also because there’s something horrifying about someone hiding behind a mask, whether it’s an actual mask or face paint. I don’t like mimes for the same reason. When people cover their faces, their features are disguised, making it difficult to read facial expressions. Their identity is disguised as well. You don’t necessarily know who you’re talking to. (Which, of course, is the same problem with Ouija boards.)

When I was a kid, we attended a local festival every fall, watching a parade. Clowns would march near the spectators, handing out stickers and candy. There was nothing overtly scary about them except they were strangers, and there was something frightening about talking to a stranger, even if they were being nice. I never quite trusted them, particularly if they were the kind of clown who felt it was a personal challenge to get a quiet kid to talk. I didn’t like going to see Santa either. I liked the idea of Santa Claus, but even as a kindergartener I could see the man in the suit wasn’t the real Santa. He couldn’t fool me, and I wasn’t about to sit on an imposter’s lap.

Years later, when I worked as a counselor, I had colleague who loved clowns. She volunteered as one, and her office was filled with paintings of clowns. She probably had twenty of those paintings adorning her walls. One time, she invited me in to talk over a case. I sat there, trying to focus on our conversation, but all I could think about were those clowns. What did her clients think of her décor? Did they find it as disturbing as I did?

I figured the woman had never read It, but Pennywise wasn’t the only evil clown out there. Had she never heard of John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer who sometimes dressed as a clown? To me, that seemed like reason enough to go with a different design theme, but I guess my mind went to a darker place than hers.

Clearly, our opinions on clowns were polar opposites. I wonder what she thought about spiders.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016


So, You Want to be a Writer…

Trilogy Covers with Awards

Sometimes I get questions from readers, and I enjoy answering them. I know a lot of you out there are into writing, so I think you’ll find this interesting. Here’s the question and my answer.

“I have a question for you since you are a published writer. Was it hard to get your work published? How did you decide on genre? I would like to start writing and just didn’t know how to get started.”

Well, when I began this journey, I wasn’t sure how to get started either. I was an avid reader, but I knew nothing about the publishing industry—how the process works, how to query an agent, how presses choose what they will publish—none of that. I’ve been doing this for a number of years now, and I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons. I still don’t have all the answers, but maybe what I’ve learned will make your path easier.

I started writing because I had a story in my head and I wanted to see how it would play out. I can’t say I set out with genre in mind. I was simply writing the kind of story I wanted to read. I wrote a fantasy story with a teen protagonist, so my books are classified as young adult fantasy. At some point, the story took shape and became a novel, and I thought I’d attempt to get it published. Thus began years (YEARS!) of querying agents. Scary, right? Okay, stay with me—don’t get frightened away just yet.

One thing I did correctly is I finished the novel before sending out queries. This is important, because if an agent likes your fiction, they will want to read the whole story. If you don’t have a completed manuscript, game over. (For non-fiction, it’s different. You query with a proposal which may include an outline and sample chapters, depending on the agent’s submission guidelines, and the book does not have to be finished.) So, step one, finish your story.

How do you get started? Begin with short stories or with characters in a scenario, and write every day if you can. Try for an average of 1,000 or more words a day. If you do that every day for three months, you’ll have a novel of 90,000 words. (A note on length: 80-90 thousand words is a good range for a book, depending on genre.) It may take you more than three months, because, let’s face it, other obligations get in the way. But keep going. Don’t worry if it sucks. That’s what revision is for. Finish that first draft.

While you’re working on your book, read as much as you can. Read books similar to yours. Read books that are different too. Think critically about what you read, noting the choices an author makes. Think about what works and what doesn’t. Read books on the craft, and challenge yourself to do better. My favorite writing book is On Writing by Stephen King. It’s a practical and entertaining read, and the guy knows what he’s talking about.

Step two, edit your story. Polish it as much as you can, then give it to a beta reader for critical feedback. After reading your book a number of times, you’ll no longer be able to see the typos. Find somebody smart to give you an honest critique, who you trust to have your best interests in mind. Somebody who can be brutal, but who you’ll still talk to afterward. I have friends who do this for me, people who I respect deeply, who are intelligent and can tell me the truth, whether I’ve got a plot hole or my fly is down. You might also consider hiring a professional editor. The cost is worth it. I truly believe that without my editor, my work wouldn’t be as strong, and I wouldn’t have found a publisher. Another option is to join a writing group. Your fellow writers can give you feedback on your writing and may have insight into the publishing industry.

Your book needs to be as strong as it can be before you send it to agents or publishers, because if your sample pages have too many errors, they will get annoyed and stop reading. Agents get thousands and thousands of queries. Publishing is a competitive industry. If you want to get through the slush pile, your query letter and sample work need to be free of errors and compelling enough to keep them reading. Great writing doesn’t guarantee a contract, however, so don’t take rejections personally. Even if you write beautifully, the agent has to be able to sell your work. Sometimes they love your concept, but there’s no market for it.

That doesn’t mean you should give up. If you really want to do this writing thing, keep going. Research the industry—what type of books agents represent and how to write an effective query letter. Two good resources for this are WritersDigest.com and BookDaily.com. I also recommend reading How Can I Find A Literary Agent?: And 101 Other Questions Asked By Writers by agents Chip MacGregor and Holly Lorincz. It’s full of practical advice to help you as you query. In the meantime, you can keep writing, working on your second book, right?

Do you need an agent to get published? No, but most large publishing houses won’t review your work without one. You can also publish your work independently, not going with a publisher at all. The advantage to that is you make all the choices about how your book will look, and you keep the profits. The disadvantage is the market is flooded with independently published books, and without exposure and a distributor, your book won’t be on shelves in stores unless you do the work to get it there. (I’m oversimplifying for the sake of brevity here—the process for getting books in stores is complicated.)

Trilogy Covers with AwardsSo how did I get published? I went a different route. I attended a local writing conference called Summer in Words, which I highly recommend if you’re in the Pacific Northwest. There, I met a publicist who also serves as a book shepherd. A book shepherd functions like an agent, except instead of working with an author long-term and on commission, the shepherd sends out proposals on your behalf for a fee. Our proposal package consisted of a description of my book, my bio, a list of comparable titles, sample pages, and a marketing plan. We sent it to ten small publishers who did not require representation by an agent. One of them offered me a publishing contract for my young adult trilogy.

I’m grateful to all the people who helped me get published—beta readers, my editor, my book shepherd, my publisher, other authors who mentored me…I’ve learned much through the process. I’ve learned about the industry in marketing my books and in working as an editor for another press. It’s interesting to be on the other side, to be the person critiquing submissions. You gain insight into what works with queries and what doesn’t.

It’s tough to get published. Believe me, I know. I’m in the trenches with you right now. I’m still looking for representation by an agent, but I get more requests for full manuscripts than I used to, so I’m getting closer. I’ll keep you posted if I get an offer. I still have a lot to learn, but I’m hopeful I’ll find the right publishing home for my new books. I’ll keep going, and if you want to get published, you keep going too. Don’t give up.

I hope that answers the question. If you have more questions, send them my way. I’ll help if I can. Best of luck.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016


Thirteen

IMG_0507

I now have teenagers. Somehow this is not as scary as I thought it would be.

That may be because I’ve worked in mental health, helping kids, so I’ve seen teens in heart-wrenching situations. I knew a girl who got pregnant at twelve and had a baby at thirteen. That baby is nearly grown now—I hope she had a better childhood than her mom did. I knew a kid who was hooked on meth by the time he was a teen, and another who tried to kill herself with a shotgun blast to the stomach when she was in middle school. So…yeah. The bar for shocking me has been set pretty high.

I’m not a perfect parent, but so far, my twin boys have turned out to be amazing people. They are smart and funny and kind. They are sweet to animals and loving to their parents. They are loyal to their friends and brave enough to speak up if they see someone being bullied. They set goals for themselves and do well in school. I can’t complain at all (even if they remind me I’m not as cool as I used to be because the latest slang is a mystery to me or I’m clueless about dance moves).

I’m thankful to have good kids. Really, I’m thrilled to have kids at all. Back in my twenties, it looked like that was never going to happen. I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, which is a nightmare if you want to have a biological child. It’s a horror show for other areas of your life too, wreaking havoc on your endocrine system, but the disease is cruelest when it comes to fertility. This doesn’t say much for my character, but I’ll be honest: working in social services with people who didn’t want to be pregnant was tough when I wanted a kid and couldn’t have one. Still, the hardest part of having PCOS was the shame. Talking about infertility was taboo, and yet, I was at an age where everyone wanted to know why I hadn’t had kids yet. Didn’t I want children? I felt like I was under a microscope with all the intrusive questions and comments I received from people who likely meant well. I felt broken.

Then came the day I found out I was pregnant. Staring at the little blue lines that finally appeared on the pregnancy test felt miraculous. Finding out I was having twins felt too good to be true. I was terrified something bad would happen, that I’d have a miscarriage. We didn’t tell anyone but our family for a long time because I was scared we’d jinx our good fortune.

Confined to bedrest the week before my boys were born, I remember watching fireworks outside my hospital window. That July there was a forest fire, and the mountains around Tucson flickered with orange light, a show to rival Independence Day festivities. Then I had two new people in my life. I remember how miraculous it felt to finally see their tiny faces, how surreal it was to know life would never be the same.

There was more fear when we learned that one baby had been born healthy but the other would have to stay in newborn intensive care. We didn’t get a serene, post-birth moment of bonding. We got a machine, pumping air into my son’s fluid-filled lungs, keeping him alive. We bonded with him as best we could in the hospital, knowing he might not make it, while feeling grateful to be able to take at least one of our children home to live with us. We did a lot of praying. Over the following month, we drove back and forth to the hospital to see our sick baby, while taking care of our other newborn.

This was not an ideal way to start out as a new parent. Between our daily trips to the hospital, I had a lot of guilt about not being able to give either of my children the time or attention I wanted to give them. Things turned out better than they could have though, and for that, I’m thankful. My son did live, and now he’s a healthy, broad-shouldered kid who towers over me. My other son is almost as tall as I am, and often reminds me that he too will soon outgrow me.

IMG_0507The other day I found a bunch of videos of my sons as toddlers, much to their embarrassment. We filmed everything because we were so happy to have children.

One of my favorite videos is of them at age two, playing board games. Operation was a big hit, sending them into fits of giggling every time the buzzer went off. I know I’m biased, but it’s adorable. We also played Jumanji—after watching the movie—which pretty much scarred one of my sons for life. There’s video of him hiding under a chair as his dad reads a card about a hailstorm. (Bad parenting, but darn cute.) The other son (the one who had such a rough start to his life) loved the game. He thought the idea of a rhino crashing through our house was marvelous. He wouldn’t have objected to a rampaging elephant either.

So now my boys are thirteen. Time has gone by too fast, but I’m so thankful we’ve had this time together. We’ve got a few more years before they’re off to college, and I’m grateful that we’re close, that we still take walks together on the beach and talk about our favorite books. I know there are a lot of changes coming, and with those changes, new challenges. I hope, no matter what happens next, they always know how much they are loved.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016


Tellin’ Stories

The Raven and the Sea Shell

When I was a kid, my grandmother never outright accused me of lying. Instead she’d cock her head, look at me with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes, and ask, “Are you tellin’ stories?” My mother’s mother had a number of endearing habits. She said the word wash like warsh and fish like feesh. Her white hair was an adorable dandelion fluff, and she wore an old-fashioned apron when she cooked, sneaking me treats. She was pretty cute when she cursed too. I’m one of those people who think it’s hilarious when elderly people say naughty words, but it wasn’t just that I found her colorful language amusing. It was because I could see her when she did it—not her as an old person, but her as a person. I remember catching glimpses of her when she was moved to a nursing home after suffering a stroke and losing most of who she had been. It was close to Valentine’s Day and she and the other residents made construction paper hearts during craft time. I asked her if she was going to give her valentine to my grandpa. “Depends on how he acts,” she said. What a character.

I suppose writing, or “tellin’ stories” is a socially acceptable form of lying. Some would argue it’s also a form of mental illness, considering all the characters who live in a writer’s head. If that’s true, I don’t want to be sane, because I’ve come to believe that the characters are always right. That is, when I let the characters take charge and drive the story, it turns out much better than my original vision. I don’t always know the ending, and sometimes my characters surprise me, but that’s when things get interesting. Sounds crazy, but it’s true.

I don’t remember when I first started telling stories, but I do know I started by telling them to myself.  Like a lot of little girls, I had dolls when I was growing up. My favorite dolls were mermaids and fairies, not Barbie. I remember going on a long road trip with my family and telling myself stories in my head, acting them out with dolls as I watched the landscape change from dry desert to green fields. I don’t remember the stories, or even where we were going, but I remember what it felt like to tell the stories, the excitement of watching a scene play out in my imagination. I had a set of Disney paper dolls—Cinderella and Prince Charming, Peter Pan and Wendy, and many more. They too played a part of my inner world, though never in their prescribed roles. I gave them different names, different relationships, different stories.

The Raven and the Sea Shell

In school I was easily bored, and after finishing my assignments, I’d draw. Most of those stories featured me and my friends on wild adventures with mythical creatures, sometimes inspired by books I’d read, sometimes inspired by dreams. I’m not embarrassed to admit I drew stories even in high school. I wasn’t the best artist, but the habit kept me entertained, and kept me out of trouble. Without those stories to sustain me, I don’t think I’d be who I am.

These days I tell stories with words rather than drawings, but the experience is much the same—losing myself in another world, seeing things through my characters’ eyes. I don’t always know where the stories come from, but I suspect they stem from a desire to escape reality. Reality is so often dreary and boring, isn’t it? Where’s the adventure in normality? Doing what everybody else is doing requires no daring.

I like to ask “what if” questions. What if stray cats were really goblins in disguise? What if sea monsters did exist? What if that seemingly benign fixer-upper really was haunted? Once I have an idea and can see the world as my characters do, the story gets rolling and the fun begins.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016