First Chapter from Prodigies (rewritten)

After classes for the day, I stepped out of the music building at Lakeview Academy, a private residential school for the arts. I walked quickly down the paths, through manicured lawns, past buildings dedicated to teaching written, visual, and performing arts. I walked under trees that would show their fall colors in a few weeks, past the banks of mums that gave the campus an air of nostalgia. I could walk this path with my eyes shut, as I had walked it for seven years, ever since I was a junior high student nervously clutching my viola. Instead of the scrawny, frizzy-haired biracial child I had arrived as, I had grown tall and slender, and my hair tamed and pulled behind me in glossy tight curls. I still saw both my mother and father in my looks — brown skin, deep brown eyes, a thin and fine-boned nose. 

My mother and father, however, had died when I was fifteen, in a plane crash attributed to unknown causes. I found out when Dr. Estelle DeWinter, my mentor, found me in art history class and walked me back to the office to break the bad news to me. Although I felt like I would crumble into nothing, I cried very little through it all; I sat through bewildering appointments with my parents’ lawyers and suffered two years of a guardian who threatened to pull me out of Lakeview. Only the surprising effort of Dr. DeWinter kept me in Lakeview until I became an emancipated minor at 17. 

I think I missed what could have been with my parents more than what we actually had; I spent my life in residential schools from age seven, to develop a musical talent my parents recognized as extraordinary. If I inherited anything from my parents, it was my ambition, and from my grandmama I received humility to temper it. What I claim as my own is discipline and my own inexplicable talent, a freak accident of birth.

I walked quickly toward my weekly meeting with Dr. DeWinter. I was lucky to have a mentor at Lakeview that I could identify with as one of the few black students at the arts academy. I entered the Administration Building, an austere Neoclassical Revival building from the beginning days of the academy. Inside, dark wood paneling and white walls lent a gracious, if institutional air. I went to the front office where Mary Kravitz, the secretary, stood guard behind a low partition. “I’m here for Dr. DeWinter, if she’s ready for me.”

“I’ll ring her.” I was punctual, as Dr. DeWinter had taught me. This, she said, was the most basic courtesy of a professional, no matter what accounts of divas in the news would have one believe. 
I didn’t look forward to the meeting, because I knew that I would disappoint Dr. DeWinter again. I had not applied for any colleges yet, and it was my senior year of high school.  I couldn’t explain to her or to myself why I dragged my feet except that I didn’t want to leave the familiarity of Lakeview. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself — anything but music was out of the question, but I didn’t know if I wanted to go into music performance, which was what was expected of me, or fall back on music education. Therefore, I hung back, feeling guilty in my school uniform.

“You can go back, Grace,” Mrs. Kravitz said behind her counter. She hung up the phone and stared back at her computer screen.

I turned the corner and walked down a corridor of shut office doors with their shaded glass windows showing light inside. I reached Dr. DeWinter’s office, with its hand-lettered name on the door, and knocked.

“Come in, Grace,” she announced in her voice, warm and dry like a plucked viola string. I tried to read her mood from her voice and failed. I opened the door and slipped through it, into the familiar office with its jungle of plants in the window. I sat on the wooden chair that looked like it had seen generations of students before me — even Dr. DeWinter herself — and had survived them all.

“Grace,” she said, turning to me from her wooden swivel chair. “How have you been?”

I looked at her, her straightened grey hair swept back into a bun, her oval steel-framed glasses accentuating her nearly black eyes. She was my mentor, she was the mother I had never really had in a lifetime of residential music schools, and we walked through our ritual of the past seven years. “I’m fine, Dr. DeWinter. I haven’t gotten that cold that’s going around yet.”

“Good. How are your lessons going?”

That I could smile about. “I’m currently butting heads against Paganini’s 24 Caprices. What kind of demented genius could write those?”

“Paganini did. And played them, too. What does the music say to you?”

“Impish. I mean, technically very challenging. But the feel of it is that of a little imp, darling and devilish, taunting other violinists.”

“Do you still prefer your viola to violin?” Dr. DeWinter smiled.

“I know I have to give equal time to both instruments, because there’s so little written expressly for viola, and you keep telling me I have a career ahead of me. But my viola — “ Here, I sighed. “My viola is almost like a part of me. It’s like my voice.”

“And of course you’re still getting voice lessons on the side.”

“Yes, but I think my voice will always be for me, not for the public. I have a good voice, I know, with good musicality — but I’m not Norah Jones, and that’s who I’d want to be.”

“I would agree with you there,” Dr. DeWinter said — and paused. Here came the question I didn’t want to answer. “Speaking of careers — “
I would never get away with anything with Dr. DeWinter. “I know, I know. College applications. They’re due November 1st.” I felt my stomach sink as I realized I had disappointed my mentor. “I’ve been looking on the internet, but —”

“But?” asked Dr. DeWinter, eyes boring into mine.

“I don’t know what I want. I know you’re expecting me to go into music performance, because you believe I have great potential — and I know I do. I could probably get myself into some program like Berklee or USC, but I don’t know …” Here I dithered, revealing my indecision and my discomfort at anticipating the future. I had no idea how to be an adult — not even how to budget my money, as I spent money for nothing but tuition, room and board, and the occasional concert dress. I had few clothes that were not uniforms; little contact with the outside world other than field trips to operas and plays and concerts and art exhibits, not to mention performances. I suspected real life was more complicated than that.

“I think we’ve sheltered you too much here,” Dr. DeWinter said after a long pause. “You’re almost eighteen, and you’ve been in residential schools since you were seven.” It was true; my parents had placed me in an enriched boarding school called Renaissance School for the Arts when it was clear that I was a music prodigy, and from there straight to Lakeview. 

I felt a flutter of uncertainty in my stomach as I tried to explain to Dr. DeWinter: “I want to stay here another year. Explore my options. Learn — “ I hated to admit the next part — “learn how to live on my own.”

“Most people learn how to live on their own by living on their own,” she said wryly. “I want you to try to fill out a few of those applications, at least one, within the next week. You can ask Ms. Hollis in the school counselor’s office to help you with those, you know.” 

“I know,” I sighed. “I just —”

“You really can ask for help if you need it. Being on your own doesn’t mean going it alone. Take it one step at a time.”

If only I knew what that first step was.

Later, after dinner and a string quartet rehearsal, I was back in my room. I had a room to myself, which had been part of the original arrangements for me at Lakeview. I had few belongings, as I needed few. The posters on my walls, something which would surprise most people, were superhero movie posters — Captain America, Wonder Woman, Black Panther. On a shelf were the glass menorah my father’s mother had given me, a tiara I had purchased as a joke, a stuffed-toy Siamese cat, as close to a real cat as I’d ever been able to keep, and trophies I had earned in competitions. The items that declared me a princess, a reputation I had built myself in self-defense from the microaggressions, as Dr. DeWinter called the sidelong stares and condescending conversations I often faced in the classical music world. 

I lay on my bed, surfing Facebook on my phone. Various chatters from my classmates, people I knew but didn’t really know. It was as if we lived in parallel universes. In their universes they went home for Christmas, they paired up in the halls and broke up just as quickly, and some of them risked expulsion by sneaking out to the ropes course or behind the gymnasium to have sex. I had not gone there; first, for a protective instinct I’ve always had, and second, because I was saving myself. Not for marriage, but for that career I knew I should have. 

Suddenly tears started to flow, blurring my screen. There was nobody I could talk to about this — Dr. DeWinter didn’t relate to me on this level and I didn’t want to talk to the school psychologist about it out of that same sense of self-preservation in my core. So I thought about the Paganini piece and felt ready to tackle it again.

Loving Criticism

We Want Our Work To Be Loved

We’re authors. Of course we want our work to be loved. Therefore, anything that seems like criticism shrinks our ego to the size of our withered thymus gland. We crumple into ourselves, hang the “Out to Lunch” sign on our front door, and mourn.

Criticism is the Most Loving Thing for Your Work
If we want our work to shine, we must accept and react to criticism. We can’t be expected to see everything that could be wrong with our writing; we’ve lived with it for so long it makes sense in our minds. We can’t be the reader who sees it for the first time.

Criticism has a bad name, because we think of it only in its most negative sense: the harmful, useless “This book sucks”. But we should make room in our lives for the more constructive “This doesn’t work”, “I don’t understand,” and “This frustrates me” as well as the “This works great”, “This makes me laugh”, and “I really enjoyed this”.

Different Levels of Critique
In writing, we can get critiques at several levels. We may not need all these levels for smaller works, but novels and novellas would benefit from all these levels. These are the most usual levels:
Developmental edit: Exploring shape and meaning
The developmental editor deals with the readability and strength of the work. Character development, theme, and plot fall into the dev editor’s responsibility.
Line edit/Copy edit: Ensuring readability and accuracy
The titles “copy edit” and “line edit” are used interchangeably. Their function is to make sure sentences are grammatically correct and words spelled right. They also look at whether the individual sentences make sense.
Beta readers: Conveying the reader’s experience
Beta readers are casual readers who read and comment on the book that has gone through developmental and line edits. They convey the reader’s experience of the book. In a way, they are the freshest set of eyes because they don’t have the expertise one expects from editors. 

If we invite critique into our writing process, then the criticism happens in a way that we can respond to it. Then, when the random critic decides they don’t like the book, we know we’ve done our best. We may not love criticism, but we can at least value it. 

If you have any favorite “oopsies” in your works, found by an editor, please let me know in the comments here.

Room for improvement

I’ve got my development edit back from my developmental editor, Chelsea Harper (who deserves a shoutout) and there’s plenty of work that needs to be done. I think it’s a good thing that she caught all these places, because I as an author can’t see all of them.

I should explain what a developmental editor is — a developmental editor examines the story for plot development, character development, and writing structure — in other words, she looks at the story with an eye for making it stronger and more readable. This can be the difference between a rejection and an acceptance, because agents have so many manuscripts to choose from that they’re going to skim your work initially to see if it “grabs” you. A mild introduction, an ambiguous character, an information dump (telling rather than showing), will all turn off an agent. Even if the story idea is brilliant and daring, they won’t see it through the distractions.

I think that’s an important thing to emphasize — I as an author can’t see all the places my work needs improvement. I’m too familiar with the characters to see where I’ve shortchanged them. I’m too in love with the story to see where I’ve made it hard for readers to be in love with it.

I used to think I didn’t need an editor, because I was an articulate person and I could catch grammatical and other errors. I was arrogant, and I was wrong. I now see developmental edits as part of the process if I want to get published.

If you’re a writer who wants to get published, I suggest finding the money for a developmental editor. If you can’t afford that, find someone who reads a lot to go through it — it’s probably not as good as a good professional, but it’s something.

Your work deserves critique.

Editing the Next Book Again

I’m done editing Apocalypse, which means three of five (actually six, but I don’t count that one) edited. I have learned a lot about the editing process, with the most important things being:

1) Read what I’m editing aloud, or at least aloud in my head — it slows me down.
2) Action verbs.
3) Don’t describe how people are feeling — get into their thoughts and physical sensations.
4) Don’t write tentatively — “Perhaps he wanted to torch the building a little bit, maybe” does not engage the reader.

I learned none of this from rejection slips. I’ve learned NOTHING from rejection slips other than “This doesn’t really fit with my interests.”  I’m not kidding. Maybe I’m spoiled, because when I get rejections from academic journals, I get PAGES of critiques. And usually, if I address those, I get published.

Oh well, I’m editing “Reclaiming the Balance”, which is actually in pretty good shape already. Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:

Ahead of her, off in the grass, she saw a long black boxlike construct, large enough to walk in, tapered slightly on one end. From what she could tell when she peered into it, it looked like a portable photography gallery with well-lit, artfully framed pictures on the wall.

Curious, Janice strolled over and stepped into it. She recognized herself in the pictures along the walls, and the hair stood up on the back of her neck. She recognized the first picture — she was only five and she wore her almost black, wavy hair back in a ponytail, but her mother had worked to make her bangs big. She preferred to play with her brother rather than sit like a lady, so her next picture featured that same Sunday outfit muddied, along with her hands and face. She stopped at a picture where she wore a mascot outfit – a cardinal – in her high school gym. Her father had foregone all of her extracurricular activities because his career kept him busy. Her mother had not attended either, claiming other responsibilities.

Janice didn’t see the door behind her close, so curious and unsettled she felt by the pictures of herself. How did someone get them? Why were they there?  When she saw the photo of her kneeling in front of her grandmother’s coffin, Janice turned and fled toward the door she had entered, which had disappeared like in a nightmare. She turned and ran the other way down the corridor, toward the open door, toward the light.

Before Janice reached the light at the end of the corridor, someone grabbed her wrist firmly. When she turned around to look at who had captured her, she saw a young man with frantic eyes. Or a young woman with frantic eyes — she couldn’t be sure.

“I can’t let you past. If you go through that door, you’ll die,” he — she? gasped.
“But there’s no door out!” Janice yelled. “How do we get out?”

“I’m Amarel, and this is my grandmother, Lilly.” Amarel indicated a short blonde woman who looked little older than himself. “She’ll transport us.”

“Transport? Okay, just get me out of here.” Janice had this. She’d learned the word ‘transport’ from her now ex-boyfriend. To transport meant to feel her molecules tear apart and coalesce back together in another place. Her last coherent thought before she felt herself dissolve was, “Not the rabbit hole again …”