Authors on Craft: Heather Demetrios on Point of View

The Book Is The Boss of You: Using Second Person To Get To The Heart of Your Story

In my bedroom there’s a shelf filled with journals. Some are leather, supple and glowing. Others are faded prints. One is an unfortunate DIY project involving a pair of corduroy pants and a glue gun. Another has that Footprints anecdote – you know the one, where there’s only one set of footprints because Jesus was carrying you all along. The oldest is plastic and has hearts in primary colors scattered across the front with the word Diary. I started writing in it—my first journal—in Kindergarten. I have journals for every year of my life through my freshman year of college. I never re-read them, but in order to write Bad Romance I had to read the ones that covered the time I was sixteen until I graduated from high school. Two and a half years—the worst of my life—which were spent with a beautiful boy who cried, who wore his heart on his sleeve, who made me simultaneously feel like the most important person in the world and no better than old gum on the bottom of a shoe from Payless.

Bad Romance is a novel, but it’s based on my life, on those years feeling hopelessly lost and in love and hurt to the very core of my being. It’s a survivor’s story where my main character, Grace, goes to the darkest place imaginable, then emerges into the light standing on her own two feet. She doesn’t need a knight in shining armor, she doesn’t need this boy who tells her she’s only worth something if he says so. But in order to get there, in order to write the book, I had to first begin it as a memoir. I spent my late nights pouring over my journals, reconnecting to the old Heather. It killed me, reading what I put up with, what I went through. It made me angry and so, so sad—and more fired up than ever to write this book.

I eventually turned the memoir into a novel, mostly because I felt like I couldn’t say everything I wanted to. There were people I had to protect, whether I wanted to or not. So I turned it into a novel, but the transition was harder than I expected it would be, and my editor was amazingly helpful during the process. I was having a hard time seeing Grace’s story because it was so intertwined with mine. I figured out my way in when I began writing the book in second person, almost as though it’s a letter to Gavin from Grace. This allowed me to just go for it, to put words to everything that had happened to me, and the things that are happening to girls all over the country right now. (One in three teens is affected by teen dating abuse and it was so important to me that these girls (and guys) knew they weren’t alone, and knew they could get out. The tumblr that I created for the book is a great resource with tons of info, encouragement, and inspiration—plus a kickass break-up playlist to pump up the readers who need to get out of their own bad romances).

The choice of POV ended up sticking: what was initially a writing experiment to get me into the heart of the story turned out to be the way the story wanted to be told. I’m a big believer in the story being the boss of you, and I think when you’re in flow and open you’ll feel which direction you need to go. You can’t impose a POV on a story. Second person wasn’t too challenging for me because it was really the only way this story could be told—at least by me. I think if I’d tried to impose second person, it wouldn’t have worked. I can’t think of a book in second person that has ever worked for me as a reader, so this was a real risk. A good little mind trick for me was really thinking of the book as epistolary as opposed to second person. The book isn’t actually a letter that my main character is writing to her boyfriend, but it would be if I just wrote “Dear Gavin” at the beginning of every chapter (which I don’t). So that worked for me. Side note: my favorite epistolary novel is the The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I actually re-read parts of that to get into letter-writing mode.

Another consideration with second is which tense to write it in. That is the subject of an entirely different post, but it will be the trickiest part of second person. I chose present, but it’s more like present tense with a retrospective twist. (Note: this was REALLY hard). My protagonist, Grace, informs Gavin (the boyfriend she’s narrating to in second person) that she doesn’t want to tell him their story from where they’re at right now in their relationship. She wants to tell it from their beginning. This was my way of letting the reader know that even though we’re in present tense, Grace has already experienced these things. I chose present because I wanted the reader to feel as though they’re going through Grace’s hellish experience as she’s experiencing it. I wanted them to feel her claustrophobia and powerlessness and fear and all the things she experiences in this relationship. I think it works, but I know that the retrospective element adds a layer to the narrative that might not work for everyone. But, again, the book is the boss so that’s how I wrote it.

I really didn’t want to write this book. It was not remotely fun, at all. But I think it’s vitally important – especially now – that we tell our stories. That we let our truth out, no matter how vulnerable it makes us. We can raise each other up, give each other strength. I think this is the power of literature, that we get to access this place of power through our empathy with characters—people we’ve never met. Stephen King once said that “Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” And he’s right. Though my memoir became a novel, it has just as much a chance of impacting those who read it because it is true. Pain and struggle is universal and the more we can show characters who triumph over darkness, the more light we let into our “real” world. Writing Bad Romance was incredibly cathartic, but, more than anything, I finally felt like there was a silver lining to what I went through. I can’t go back and change the past, but I can hopefully use what happened to me to change other people’s futures so that they can avoid some of the pain I experienced. Books are medicine. So if you’re feeling a tug to delve into your personal experiences for your next project, consider it as an offering to both you and your readers.

When Heather Demetrios isn’t traipsing around the world or spending time in imaginary places, she lives with her husband in New York City. Originally from Los Angeles, she now calls the East Coast home. Heather has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a recipient of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award for her debut novel, Something Real. Her critically acclaimed novels include Exquisite Captive, I’ll Meet You There, and Bad Romance. She is the editor of the forthcoming anthology of epistolary essays, Dear Heartbreak: YA Authors on the Dark Side of Love, which features letters from real teens. Find out more about Heather and her books at www.heatherdemetrios.com. Tweet to @HDemetrios.

 

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And the Lammy Goes to…

m-e girard.JPGLast Monday, June 12th, M-E Girard was in New York City for the 29th annual Lambda Literary Awards (known as the Lammys). Her book, Girl Mans Up, was nominated in the category of Children/Young Adult. Here are some words from her…

I’d already had an excellent day visiting a few places in NYC, accompanied by my editor Jill Davis. Then came time for the Lammys event itself, and it did not disappoint. Getting dressed up, doing a little red-carpet twirl, having a cocktail, then sitting in an auditorium to watch writers of queer literature be honored—it’s something I’m so grateful to have been a part of. Things were a little more personal for me, since I’d started my relationship with Lambda in 2013, with my application to their amazing Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices.

lambda memorabiliaAt the Lammys, I got to connect with some of the authors in my category, which is something I’d been so looking forward to. But it just kept getting better! I kept running into people I know or had been wanting to meet! There were several organizers and fellows from the Lambda writer retreats I had attended in 2013 and 2015, and authors I’d been following through social media, and authors I’d met at past events.

girlmansup (1)Then they announced the winner of the LGBTQ Children’s/Young Adult category, and I heard “Girl…” My first thought was “Look at that—someone else’s book starts with ‘girl’ too. How’d I miss that?!” I must have quickly realized it was actually my book they called, because next thing I know, I was headed down the stairs to get to the stage (I’m so glad I didn’t trip). And then I proceeded to kind of ramble and get blinded by the lights.

I am not someone who gets nervous when I’m in front of a group of people, expected to speak. In fact, I’m usually the opposite. But this was something else. I had no idea what was going on. My hands were shaking. Not one tiny part of me had thought I’d hear my name called, so I hadn’t mentally prepared “in case.” So here’s my actual acceptance speech (which I’d only prepared a few days earlier because my thoughtful agent decided to check in and see if I’d written some remarks “in case” and I totally hadn’t!).

 

lambda awardFirst off, I’d like to thank the judges for including Girl Mans Up in this year’s Children’s/YA category. I’d like to thank the Lambda Literary Foundation for being responsible for the existence of this amazing and important event.

I am a Lambda Literary fellow of the 2013 and 2015 writers retreats, and it wasn’t until I attended the 2013 retreat that I felt equipped to tell this story. At first, there were questions about target audience: Who would want to read this story? Is queer YA niche? At the time, I didn’t really know what to make of that, so I kept it personal: I wrote a book I’d want to read—A contemporary, realistic YA story, written in the 1st person, with an unreliable narrator, with my idea of what teens “sound” like. I also wrote a story for my girlfriend, to give her a literary buddy—a Portuguese girl who’s more like (what we deem to be) a boy, who isn’t much into words/concepts/labels, but who’s into gaming and Ninja Turtles and being a decent person. A girl who just wants to do her own thing.

I hoped I’d contribute something fresh to YA literature, and queer YA lit in specific.

Well this is a huge validation.

I’m proud to be a part of the Lambda Literary community, and of the queer YA community. Thank you to my Lambda retreat facilitator Malinda Lo and my workshop crew. Thank you to my agent Linda Epstein. Thank you to my editor Jill Davis and the team at HarperCollins. Thank you to the readers. To the young teens who email me weekly, telling me that they see themselves in Pen, that they’ve experienced some of what she’s experienced, that they think and feel the same way. And to the women who tell me “I’ve given your book to my wife/father/friend so that they’ll understand me a little better.”

Thank you to my fellow nominees (C.B. Lee, Jeff Garvin, Brie Spangler, Juliann Rich, John Corey Whaley, Krystal Sutherland, Marie Lu) for your books. Because of them, in 10 or 15 years, there are going to be so fewer people saying “Man, I wish this book existed when I was in high school.”

Thank you to my girlfriend Melissa, for all the stuff I wrote in the back of the book already, and for, once again, staying home with our three little Chihuahua babies so I can go hang out at fancy NYC events.

 

Follow M-E Girard on Twitter @ME_Girard, on Instagram @m_e_girard, on Facebook @m.e.girard.writer, and at her website megirard.com.

 

 

 

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Why I Represent LGBTQ+ Authors and LGBTQ+ Books for Kids and Teens

Stupid question.

Why doesn’t everybody?

Happy Pride 2017!

Make sure to check back on the blog next Monday, for a guest post by M-E Girard, who just won the Lambda Literary Award for an LGBT Children’s/Young Adult book for her novel Girl Mans Up (Harper Collins, 2016). Jill Davis is the brilliant editor and I’m M-E’s proud agent!

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