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Monday, January 28, 2013

Where I Was When I Was Gone

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
            --J. R. R. Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring"

I've recently returned from my very first book tour! It was my first individual adventure in a long time. The first time in a decade, in fact, that I've gotten on a plane without either my husband or children and not going towards either of them. It was just me, oh solo mio, and after I got over the initial weirdness and stopped jerking my head around looking for my sons it started to be fun. I sat next to the editor-in-chief of The Natchitoches Times (and his sweet wife!) and gave a small interview and bam, my book tour was officially begun.

When I woke up at my house, it was 73 degrees outside. Then I got on a plane and flew to Salt Lake City, Utah, where it was 14 degrees. Then I got in a car and drove to Green River, Wyoming, where it was NEGATIVE 17 DEGREES. I lost 90 degrees of warmth between when I woke up that morning to when I went to bed that night. The sacrifices we make for our art. And I did pack an electric blanket.

And I've been asked about the presentation I gave and what I talked about so many times that I'm going to post it all here. That way I know which of my friends read my blog. ;-)

The first school I went to was an alternative high school in Wyoming. I was taken to the library and introduced to 45 teenagers who'd been expelled from standard high school for one trouble or another, and I was thrilled. These were exactly the kids I wanted most to talk with, and the ones I thought could really benefit from what I had to say. Because my presentation wasn't as much about the book as it was about why I wrote it.

I began with my adventures in temperature, and they all groaned in jealousy about how warm it is here in southern Texas. Then I segwayed into talking about trials, and for me the cold is a tough one. It sets off my fibromyalgia and makes my arthritis worse, which of course is startling to people who don't know me. I look so young and healthy, after all, and aren't those things old people get? But I'm not the only one with problems. Who's heard of Gandhi? Mother Teresa? Some hands. Albert Einstein? Tom Cruise? More hands. Jim Carrey? Oprah? Almost all the hands in the room went up then, which put these students right where I wanted them.

"Has Jim Carrey always been rich and famous? Were his parents rich?" I asked. They don't know. Truth is, he wasn't, and they weren't. Jim Carrey's father died when Jim was 12, and his family lost their house. They lived in a van, and 12-year-old Jim worked a full time 8-hour job every day after school to help support his family. But who is he now? A multi-millionaire comedian known the world over.

In high school, Oprah wore clothes made out of potato sacks because that was what her family could afford. Now she's the richest woman in the world, when you base the financial worth off of personal earnings. There are plenty of heiresses and widows who have more money, but you wouldn't recognize any of their names. Oprah you know.

Albert Einstein, the father of physics, we all know failed math during his school years. Did you also know that he failed at getting into college? More than once? But now he's the guy we think about when we think about science, or how to shoot a ball at a pool table. He's also the man who said imagination is  more important than knowledge, and he imagined himself an entirely new branch of science.

These people started out at the bottom of the hill. But they didn't give up, and more importantly, they made their own choices and didn't accept the choices that other people made for them. One of the biggest reasons I wrote this book was because I work with teenagers, and there were things I desperately wanted them to know. To believe. Things I wish I'd believed sooner, that I wrote in this book so I could tell as many teenagers as possible. The first theme of my book is that you get to choose. No matter what's going on around you or the situations other people may put you in, you have the choice how you're going to react and what you're going to do.

Then I read an excerpt from my book. My main character, a 15-year old sophomore in high school named Thane, is having a bad day. Frankly he's had a bad life. His parents are abusive and all he wants to do is get through the next three years without being noticed so he can graduate and get away. But his plans of invisibility have been thwarted by a pretty girl who's new in school and his possibly insane chemistry teacher, who has just set him up for attempted murder. Thane's on the run from the police when Brennan, an enigmatic thirty-something who knows more about what's going on than Thane does, finds him and talks to him about it. Brennan has also just lost 3 fingers of his right hand in a fight.

Brennan paused, and Thane heard him take a deep breath. "Losing my fingers didn't make me happy, but it isn't going to stop me from doing what I want to do. You're losing something big right now too. Bigger than my fingers. You're losing your confidence in what is real in the world and what isn't. All the ground you thought you had under your feet is being pulled away. I get that. I went through it. But it's up to you what you're going to do about it." The red haired man leaned back and Thane turned his face toward the ground, thinking. "Would you rather not go to jail?" asked Brennan. Thane's head whipped towards him, fear making him angry.

"What do you think? Don't patronize me," he shouted, smacking away the hand Brennan tried to lay on his shoulder. "Don't tell me it's going to be all right or that I can decide what to do. I can't--"

"You can." Brennan's voice cut through Thane's tirade. "And you do have somewhere to go, if you would shut up and listen." Brennan waited but Thane stayed silent, hands trembling with cold, fear, and anger. "You aren't going to jail. You're fifteen, this is your first offense, and there will only be charges if Mr. Hoffman decides to press any. I don't think he will. What’s going to happen is that the police will question you and then remand you into the custody of your parents. Then you'll go back to your life and Ms. Rasmussen will be free to take another crack at you. That's your first choice."
There was a long pause as Thane mulled over everything Brennan had just said. It wasn't jail. It wasn't even that bad, just a few weeks of more embarrassing attention for his family and then everything would go back to normal. Oh, and his chemistry teacher might try to kidnap or kill him. That was a factor too.

"What's the second choice?" Thane asked, his voice raw from crying, vomiting, and getting sand in his throat. 

"The second choice is that you stand up and take control of what's happening to you. It requires that you acknowledge that you are not a normal teenager, and that you accept the world is not as you always thought it was. The second choice says you start taking responsibility for things that happen to you, and because of you." Brennan had been looking up and away, but now he turned his gaze to Thane and met his eyes. "The second choice is Sanctum."

The first theme of my book, the first thing I wanted to tell every person everywhere was that you have a choice. Life isn't about what happens to you, it's about what you choose to do with it.

After my first presentation (and this is only the first 3rd of it, but I'm going to keep interrupting to talk about some of the different schools) I thought, "This is easy, 45 kids in one room. I can do this!" My next presentation was for a middle school of 7th and 8th graders, also in Wyoming. It was only a few hours after the first. They took me into an auditorium, gave me a mic, and introduced me to 400 kids who were just waiting to be entertained. 

I decided to be a little more interactive. I pulled some kids from the audience and asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up, and inserted their names into my list of the rich and famous who've overcome their humble beginnings. "The point I want you to take away," I said, "Is when I list these names-- Mother Teresa, Tom Cruise, Meagan Halloway*, Jim Carrey, Oprah Winfrey, Korey Johnson*-- your names do not sound out of place there. 

At the end of my presentation, they rushed the stage to get my autograph and meet me. It was an epic feeling.

Skipping forward a bit to my favorite presentation. This one was a bit compressed, as the full talk is about 45 minutes long, but I only had 20 minutes at this school. It was an elementary school and I was speaking to about 60 kids in the 6th grade. There were two special things about this school, though; it was the elementary school I had attended, and my 5th grade teacher, Mr. Hansen, was still teaching there.

If you've read my book you already know why it's called "The Darkest Lie." Talking about that is the second part of my performance and the most important. If you read the dedication you know that Mr. Hansen is in there, as the teacher who taught me to write. He is also the first teacher I ever had that I never faked sick to get out of school, and the one who helped me start believing in myself.

The book is called "The Darkest Lie," and when I started sending it around to agents they all thought the title sounded depressing. Change it, they said. No, I said, and moved on. Because it's called The Darkest Lie for a very important reason, and it is in fact the reason I wrote this book. It may be the second theme but it's the strongest, and the one it took me the longest to learn.

I read another excerpt from the book here, a conversation between Thane and a man named General Gage. General Gage is one of the leaders of Sanctum, the clandestine pseudo-military organization that knows magic exists and tries to protect the magic users from the non-magic users and vise versa. The motto of Sanctum is "The only burden we carry is the fate of all worlds," and in the few days that Thane has been in Sanctum and training, he managed to drop a seven-story building on General Gage.

Thane goes to the hospital to apologize, but also to ask General Gage where Thane's ability to use magic comes from. This is an excerpt from their discussion.

"Haider sent me copies of your x-rays," General Gage began in a conversational tone. He took another bite and chewed. "In almost every image there is evidence of remodeling from hairline fractures. Your bones are thicker than pure humans. It would take someone significantly larger and heavier than you to have done this damage, and based on the remodeling, the fractures happened over the course of years. You can look, if you want." 

Thane took the infopad General Gage offered and used his finger to scroll through the images. Every image had at least one part circled with a note written next to it. "Hairline fracture. Remodeling indicates at least 6 years old." "Significant bone bruising. Thickening of bone indicates injury is 9 years old." "Multiple radiating fractures from a single impact point. Injury occurred no less than 11 years ago." 

Seeing this journal of his life was like a hand squeezing around Thane's heart. He couldn't reconcile these images with his last memory of his... of Bert. The man who wasn't his father. Thane wondered if Bert even knew, or if he suspected that Thane wasn't his son. That could explain some of the animosity. But if he had known, he didn't remember anymore. Thane thought of the last time he'd seen the man, standing in the kitchen with his head bowed and apologizing. He had broken that man, in a more complete and thorough way than any of the x-rayed injuries he carried had damaged him.  

"Have you talked to anyone about this, son?" Gage asked. "These bones didn't heal evenly, which tells me they weren't seen by a doctor. And your body language, the way you speak, and your refusal to look me in the eye tells me more. Thane," and the man waited until Thane looked up at his strangely sympathetic face. "This is not okay. Being treated like this is not okay. You didn't do anything to deserve this and it isn't your fault. Things like this," and he indicated the x-rays, "usually come from people we should be able to trust. When we can't it makes us feel like we can't count on anyone, like we're completely alone in this world. That's a lie. Do you know why I joined the Shaerealm Mercenary Guard?"

Thane shook his head.

"I was in the Air Force as a Captain, with an excellent career ahead of me. When Sanctum approached me I refused, thinking that I had everything I needed where I was. I thought their motto about carrying the fate of all worlds was self- aggrandizement. Then I met Meagan Quinn." His eyes took on a distant look, and his mouth curved in a strange little smile. "She was... unique. She was the one who explained to me that Sanctum has one motto, but the SMG has another. Have you heard it?" Thane shrugged, unsure.

"Nigerrimus mendacium nos semper nuntiavit est ut solus. The darkest lie we’re ever told is that we are alone." General Gage focused on Thane, his intense brown eyes demanding Thane's full attention. "You are not alone. Not every person can be trusted, but that does not mean no one is trustworthy. Your instincts will tell you, and when you feel the urge to open up to someone, do not hesitate. Sometimes you'll get burned, but sometimes you'll find a place to be safe. And that's worth getting burned now and again."

Thane had been carefully still during the general's speech, unsure how to respond. But as General Gage turned back to his food Thane's mouth opened against his will. "How do you say that again? The SMG thing?" 

The man turned back and smiled, and Thane was surprised at how much kindness and wisdom Remi's father smile could have. "Nigerrimus mendacium nos semper nuntiavit est ut solus; in English, 'The darkest lie we’re ever told is that we are alone'."

I gave Mr. Hansen a copy of my book in front of all his students. I read them the dedication out loud, and then I also read what I had written on that page in pen: "To Mr. Hansen, I have been through college and beyond and you are still the best teacher I ever had. Thank you for making me feel not alone," and I signed it. He got teary. So did I. And I finally got to give him a hug and tell him thank you.

For me, that is the most important part of the book, the thing I want everyone to think of every time they see the title. We are not alone. Alone is the lie, and the lie we have to let go of to move on. There are people all around us who want to help and who care about us, but we have to make the first move. To open up. To help the people around us feel not alone too.

I got to give the same presentation later that day in my old Jr. High School. I hated Jr. High. There was a group of popular kids who told me on my first day it was their mission to make my life miserable, and they did a great job. But there was still a silver lining there, and it was the third teacher from the dedication, Mrs. Staheli. She was also still at the school but had transitioned from teaching to being the librarian, and she didn't make me believe in myself. She made me believe in my writing. I've wanted to be an author since I was in the 2nd grade, but I can pinpoint the moment that I believed I could be an author, and that moment was with Mrs. Staheli.

I got the cry from her too, when I presented her with a copy of my book.

I went to more schools and every presentation was different. Getting to the third theme of my book and the third section of my constantly varying time allotment was fun every time, and the students were always responsive. I got to spend a little more time with the students of PG Jr. High as there they gave me an hour and a half to talk, double what I was expecting, and yet somehow I still managed to fill every minute. (wink).

The last part of the presentation begins with two student volunteers, and I always had kids who wanted to volunteer. I love teenagers. I set one of them at one end of the room and asked, "What do you want to be?" The answer was different every time, but I would always point out a specific place or person in the room. "There's your goal. That's where you're going." Then I would set their shoulders and tell them to take 3 steps. And I'd do the same with the other student with a different goal and a different personal objective.

After 3 steps I'd ask, "If they keep going, will they get what they want?" Yes. "But what if they make a wrong choice, even just a little one," and I would move their shoulders so they were facing slightly off course. And I would always be very clear than in this scenario, "right" and "wrong" choices were determined by whether those choices got them closer to or further from their goal. And I'd take the second student, the one still facing where they wanted to be, and turn their shoulders a lot. "What about now? Are they going to get there?" No.

Wrong. One wrong choice, or even two or three, cannot prevent you from forever getting to where you want to go. Theme three: You decide. No choice you make in the past can forever determine your future. No step you take is so powerful that you can never change course again. And we all make wrong choices, every day we make decisions that point us away from where we want to go. The point is we can always, ALWAYS make another choice that gets us back on goal. Getting from where we started to where we want will take longer with each wrong choice, but it does not mean we can't get there from here.

Book excerpt three, a conversation between Thane and another character, this one called Usiku Paka. She's called that because it's Swahili for "black cat," and she is one. Paka is a jungle panther, a cat person who walks on hind legs and speaks her thoughts and is a creature of the Shae, those who use magic instead of science. She's also been a slave most of her life, taken from her village and her pack as a cub and raised to do the bidding of others. Sanctum freed her, but she keeps the name they gave her as a reminder.

Paka grinned at him. "I am the richest slave in all the worlds. But you, Thane," the 'th' sound of his name was emphasized in her feline mouth, "you are not a slave. You have earned a name and have found your power. Why then do you still seem as one in chains?"

Thane was caught off guard by the question enough to answer honestly. "I don't want to be this."
She cocked her head at him while Jaeger studied the bug. "To be what?"

"A--" he almost said 'freak,' but looking at her, changed it to, "someone so different."

"Different from what?"

"From everyone else. I don't want to be a dragon," the word was hard for him to say. "I just want to be me again."

"You never stopped being you," Paka observed. "This dragon blood in you is not something that has just happened. There is nothing different about you than there was three dark moons ago. Why does knowing make it harder?"

He blinked at her. "But I feel so different," he reached for the right words, trying to explain. "I feel... trapped by knowing. Like now I have to be someone else who isn't me."

"You were trapped," Paka stated. "You were a child and led by the hand. But you have found your Song, Thane dragon son. This cannot be the first time you found your deep self, or the result would not have been so dramatic." She looked at him, and Jaeger flew behind her head with fireflies between each of his fingers. The imp was giggling. "Where was your deep self, Thane?"

"Bioluminescence," Jaeger was beside himself with glee, catching fireflies with his toes now that his hands were full. "Aye can build with this."

Thane thought back to being in the desert. The viper faced him, a deadly animal, but only an animal. He'd felt something primal and powerful move within him then and saved himself from the snake. 
"I captured a viper that was about to bite me," he confessed to Paka. "We stared at each other, and I knew I was going to die. Then I felt something inside me that was strong, and I caught the snake. I think," he hesitated, never having said this out loud before, "I think it was afraid of me."

"The viper would've seen the dragon. That's why it waited to attack," Paka confirmed. "So why cannot you do this again?"

"People are harder," Thane said. "I can't... I don't want to disappoint anyone."

The panther woman made a sound between a growl and a hiss. "Do not live because someone else wants you to. That makes you a slave, too. The viper would bite, and kill. The person can only talk." She rose on two legs and stretched. The set of drums behind her rose into the air, shining.

"Bioluminescence!" Jaeger yelled. "Aye haf made music glow!"

Paka's human eyes glittered in the light of the drums. The greenish glow lit her fur from one side, and again Thane could see delicate patterns woven through the black. The panther woman saw him looking. 

"I wear my name on the outside so I do not forget what I have not yet earned," she said, with the air of someone who is telling a deep secret. "I must re-dye my fur every cycle until I have avenged my parents and my people. You wear your name on the inside, hidden deep where only you can see it." She enunciated each word carefully through her fangs, the green light shining off them strangely. "Stop apologizing for living. You destroyed a building under your own power. You faced down the viper. You sang the Song of lightning and made it stronger with your heart's blood. You survived the training of the Omega Team, and you can outrun a standing panther. Thane, dragon son, you have power in your own life." She bent down until her face was level with his, all her teeth bared in a snarl. "You decide." 

There wasn't much to the presentation beyond that. I talked about writing, the process of it, and how to start writing a story you need to have a story to write. You need three things, and you can start with any one of the three to determine the other two, plot, setting, or character. In my hour and a half long final presentation the teenagers and I wrote the entire arc of an urban fantasy book and in my favorite moment of the entire week I had to convince them all that even though the magic in my book was fictional, the string theory it was based on is a real thing. And we talked about the Higgs Boson particle and why that's really cool and had a great time. I promised to come back after the next book in the series, "The Sound at the Edge," comes out at the end of the summer.

I've been invited to speak at schools around Houston, and I'll be doing that next month. I've also been asked to speak in Oregon and Virginia, and I need to plan those trips, but I don't think I'll be gone a whole week again. I love being an author, and I love that I got to share my message of why I've been writing with so many incredible people. I'm glad, in a way, that I've had so many challenges and illnesses in  my personal life because it means I have some credibility with and empathy for other people facing challenges. So when I tell them they can overcome obstacles, I can show them how my hands always shake because of the arthritis and fibromyalgia and then talk to them about the book I wrote. Or about the crippling depression and loneliness I used to feel and how it's still part of me but neither defines me nor limits what I can do. Or the narcolepsy that for all it's craziness and many annoying or nerve-wracking symptoms, does mean that I am supposed to take a medically mandated nap every day.

I got to share my message with nearly a thousand teenagers. Now I get to share it with you. Remember that you have the power to decide how you act and what you do. You can always change and get back on course. And the darkest lie we're ever told is that we are alone.


I found Mr. McMurray, the 3rd teacher from the dedication! He was a little more tricky and I'll have to mail him his book, but he's working at Utah Valley University as a councilor and teacher. He more than anyone will understand the whys behind the book, as he's the one who first believed I would be a writer and so gave me permission to believe it too. I've found them all!