Tapping Into My Inner Adolescent Female

Recently, I found myself engrossed in a Twitter conversation about authors writing across divides, such as racial and ethnic. The oldest writing adage in the book is to “write what you know,” but if authors only write about what and whom they know, their characters and stories will all look and sound alike, and they will soon run out of material. In SO SHELLY, there’s a scene with a group of young African-Americans. I remember how difficult it was to give voice and action to those characters without perpetuating stereotypes. I so worried that my portrayal would be unintentionally offensive, but there was no way of really knowing. In GOODNESS FALLS, there are several Mexican-American characters, and once again, I hope that I have provided an accurate portrayal.

The conversation also got me to thinking about how difficult it is to write across gender and generation gaps. As a male writer of young adult fiction, it is especially difficult because I know that an overwhelming percentage of my readers will be women or teenage girls. Although, I recently came across a statistic in Publishers Weekly that fifty-five percent of readers of YA novels are adults, and I know for a fact that the majority of my readers are adults. So, imagine the difficulty for me, as a middle-aged male, of tapping into my inner adolescent female. I bet you didn’t even know I had one. This conundrum becomes even more dicey when, as my stories are wont to, sexual situations arise, and I am challenged with presenting an accurate rendition of the complex concerns, expectations, motivations, and reactions of my female characters. Oh, and compound the delicacy of it with the difficulty of pulling it off while not sounding like a pervy old man when those female characters are teenage girls. Fiction ain’t easy!

In the end, the best that an author can do when crossing racial, ethnic, and gender divides is to be particularly sensitive; to maximize his empathetic powers’ and to draw from his observations, his own life experiences, and from those life experiences that have been shared with him by members of the subset of which he writes. At the very least, his portrayal should avoid the perpetuation of stereotypes.

Are You Not Entertained?


I had planned to write about anything other than concussions; however, after learning of the death of Navy freshman football player, Will McKamey, after collapsing at football practice this past Saturday, I don’t think I have a choice. The facts that 1) he received nothing stronger than a routine hit, 2) that he had been cleared to play by four neurosurgeons, and that 3) he had gone nine months without contact after a previous head injury all serve as reminders of the pernicious nature of traumatic brain injuries and of our responsibility to do better by our young people.

It’s too easy to say that his death was no one’s fault; that he had been thoroughly screened by medical personnel before being returned to the practice field; and that he died doing what he loved to do. If we’re being honest, not one of those proclamations is satisfying. Some will play apologists and argue that what happened to Will could have happened to anyone, anywhere: falling off a bicycle, tripping in the shower, or in a car accident. However, it did happen on a football field to a young man with a history of head injuries. We cannot, not in good conscience, file this so easily away. With what we now know regarding the causes and effects of traumatic brain injury, we can no longer, with near religious zeal, revel in the violence perpetrated in the name of our sports and our entertainment then turn around and bemoan the deaths of our children as if they were accidental and unavoidable. I say it again: we have to do better.

It’s too late for Will McKamey, and with our current love for bloodsport, it’s probably too late for the one after that, or the one after that, or the one after that. But at some point, we must stop simply crying and cry, “Enough!” We must do better.

At What Cost?

As reported on the ABC News web page this morning, a “U.S. Naval Academy football player Will McKamey is in critical condition in a Baltimore hospital after he was knocked unconscious during practice this weekend. McKamey, 19, is now in a medically induced coma after he underwent emergency surgery to relieve pressure on his brain.”

In recent posts, I’ve hinted that the main plot of GOODNESS FALLS tells the story of the tragic after effects suffered by a high school football player dealing with the symptoms of repetitive head trauma. Prior and during the writing of the novel, I performed fairly extensive research into the issue of sports induced concussions. What I learned shook me to my core as a father, as a former football player and coach, and as a football fan. Today, when I read the story quoted above and watched the video linked below, my heart sank, not only in sympathy for Will McKamey and his family but also as I selfishly realized that the young man in that coma could have been me, one of my boys, one of hundreds of mothers’ sons who played in my charge, or any of the players from high school through the N.F.L. who perform for my entertainment throughout the fall.

During the 2013 high school football season, six young men died on the altar of the gods of American football and before legions of their worshipers. Four died from head-related injuries, and two died as the result of spinal injuries. According to a study over a twenty-year period (1990 – 2010) and conducted by the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, an average of 12 high school players die each year when additional causes of death such as heart conditions and injuries from heat-related causes are factored in.

Every day in countless and often unconscious calculations we weigh the risks we take against the possible ramifications of those risks. Most of these risks are all-but-impossible to remove from our day-to-day existence. For example, every ingested morsel is a potential choke inducer, yet we have to eat, so we rightly do so with hardly a thought to the hazard. However, there are other risks that we choose, both for ourselves and for our children, that are far from unavoidable. Risks for which a simple cost/benefit analysis can be completed and for which logical answers can be arrived upon that reduce placing anyone in Harm’s way unnecessarily, such as the risk of participation in sports that by necessity turn skulls and the fragile brains they encase into battering rams themselves or targets for others.

I really don’t want to preach, and I’m not pretending to have all the answers, but at some point, as a society, we are going to have to weigh the undeniably many benefits associated with participation in some of these sports against the cost of even a single death or mental or physical crippling of even one of our children. If you are currently an athlete or the parent of one, that day has arrived.

Last Call!

last_chance
Just a reminder that if anyone is interested in making a pre-order for GOODNESS FALLS and receiving two dollars off the cover price, I’ll need to know by March 31st. If interested, contact me in person, through email (tyroth@live.com), or Facebook and let me know how many and in which format: Hardcover (19.95) or Paperback (13.95). Your book(s) can be picked up, paid for, and signed at Mr. Smith’s Coffeehouse in Sandusky on Saturday, May 3 between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. or at the PCHS/PAC on May 14 at 7:00, where I will do a reading and a signing session. I will also have a limited number of books for sale at each event. If neither of these delivery options works for you, I will find a way to get you your book personally. Otherwise, eBooks will be available for download and hard copy books will also be available for order at all online bookstores and for purchase at select brick-and-mortar stores beginning May 3. Thank you so much for your interest and support.

“Can I Graduate?”

Third Eye Blind asked the question above in their song “Graduate” (It’s linked below.). I’d emphatically answer, “No!” I’ve long had this theory that no one ever really graduates from high school. The triumphs and tragedies of our time there remain etched into our psyches for as long as we live. In fact, most of us just take our high school personas into the adult world, so we still behave like and run into bullies, wallflowers, jocks, eggheads, freaks, cool kids and nerds at our jobs, amongst other parents at our children’s sports and activities, at the clubs to which we belong, and even, one day, in the nursing home.

This has come even more abundantly clear to me since I entered the publishing world, where authors regularly size up one another and make value judgments based on a variety of factors, primarily genre and sales. For example, despite being one of the few genres to consistently increase in popularity and earnings over the past decade, young adult authors are typically viewed as somewhat “less than” authors of adult novels; even though, the audience for YA novels is actually comprised of a large number of full-grown adults. The coolest of kids in the author hierarchy are those high earning and best selling authors/celebrities who land keynote speaking gigs at all of the best book events and who go on publisher-financed book tours and command long lines of fans during their book signings and readings.

After the release of SO SHELLY with Random House, I found myself in the purgatory reserved for “mid-list” authors, the land of so-so; not good, not bad; fair to midland; meh! Although well-reviewed and good enough to earn a number of honors, the novel didn’t earn out its advance. I believe that, like nonconformists in high school, SHELLY struggled because she was different than the majority of YA novels. It wasn’t paranormal. It wasn’t dystopian. It wasn’t maudlin. Based the lives of three literary giants, it wasn’t much like anything else in the YA genre. Sometimes being different can work for you in high school or as a writer, but sometimes you just don’t fit in anywhere.

The lowest of the low, the un-coolest of the kids in the world of published authors (I found this out first hand like Lindsay Lohan in MEAN GIRLS by actually being temporarily part of the cool clique.), are the independently-published authors, who have the audacity to crash the party. I mean, who do they think they are?! They weren’t even invited. I was surprised by the condescension toward and disgust directed at them by many of the traditionally-published authors at the various book events I attended, and I must admit that I melted under peer pressure, played along, and did nothing to contradict the petty loathing. But, Karma, like high school, is a bitch.

Since I determined to independently-publish my second novel, GOODNESS FALLS, I’ve found myself whistling a different tune. I could have been patient and waited for an agent to bite; several were close and one wanted the novel but with revisions I just couldn’t make. But I had a story I believed in and didn’t want to wait (The traditional route to publication is so slow!), even if it meant losing the long distribution reach of a big publishing company. Besides, I had their reach with SHELLY, yet she didn’t fly off the shelves and only remained on them for a few months before being replaced by the next season’s selections. At least, GOODNESS FALLS will get seen, and if it’s good enough, I hope positive word-of-mouth will market it better than some stretched-too-thin publicist at the publishing house. It it’s not good enough, at least a good number of my family, friends, former students, and the audience I built with SO SHELLY will have had a chance to read it. I’m cool with that.

Growing Up

Authors of stories featuring young adults are sometimes criticized for using parents as all-too-convenient antagonists and for too often painting unflattering portraits of them. Likewise, teachers and coaches are regularly utilized as the “bad guys” in YA novels. Although I understand the criticism, I think it is unfounded and typically the overly-sensitive observation of an adult critic. As grown ups, people in these roles no longer loom so ominously over us, and we quickly forget the power they once possessed to totally ruin our lives. Our conflicts now are waged against a whole new array of foes. Additionally, we’ve become those parents and teachers and coaches, and we do not appreciate the unflattering light in which YA novels draw us. For young people, however, these are the authority figures under whose oppression they suffer and against whose unreasonable demands and expectations (unreasonable, at least, through the perceptions of the teenagers from whose perspective these stories are told) they rebel as part of their own growing up.

This same sense of victimization by and spirit of rebellion against parents and authority figures in general has similarly fueled a large number of rock-and-roll songs over the years because it speaks to its primary audience: the young. My favorite rock-and-roll expression of teenage angst and rebellion is Springsteen’s “Growin Up,” which I’ve included below.

A motif in my fiction is the manner in which some adults manipulate young people for their own egos, advancement and gratification, a theme I’ve seen played out with great regularity during my years in education and coaching. In GOODNESS FALLS, T.J. Farrell must balance living in a house with parents of polar opposite dispositions: a chronically unemployed, self-pitying, and entirely disengaged dad and a stay-at-home mom who pins far too many of her own hopes for a better future on him. They serve as a constant source of embarrassment for T.J., especially as they compare to his girlfriend’s, Caly, successful and refined parents. The role of T.J.’s primary antagonist is filled by Coach Harris, who willfully ignores T.J.’s issue with head trauma and uses him to advance his own career,

A world in which all adults assumed loving and beneficent attitudes towards the young people in their charge and in which these youth remunerated those right-thinking adults with respect and dutiful obedience might be ideal; although, I’m inclined to think not. It sounds rather “Stepford” to me. But I KNOW with complete certainty that such a world of saccharine relationships between young people and adults would make for horrible storytelling.

From Room 106, Vol. 4 – In Honor of St. Patty’s Day

In World Lit. this past Friday, we read from James Joyce, whose work is arguably Ireland’s greatest contribution to world fiction; thereby, we have the St. Patrick’s Day reference in the title. We discussed Joyce’s short story, “The Dead,” which I feel ranks amongst the finest pieces of short fiction ever produced. By looking at the title, many contemporary readers would assume that the story is some sort of zombie horror tale; however, it is not. It is worse. It is a story of precious lives wasted. Not unlike zombie tales, however, it does blur the line between the living and the dead and this world and whatever comes next.

As for plot, typical of much realist fiction, not much happens. Gabriel Conroy, a middle-aged, conservative college professor, and his wife attend the annual Christmas party at the home of his two aged aunts. The party isn’t much of a “party” as the same people attend each year, the same meal is served, the same music is played, the same prescripted dances are performed, and the same banal conversations are heard. Nothing of much import occurs until the guests are leaving when Gretta, the professor’s wife, finds herself enraptured by an Irish folk song, “The Lass of Aughrim,” being performed by a noted Irish tenor also in attendance at the party. Noticing her, Gabriel is enamored with the return of his wife’s youthful glow as she listens, and he is more than a little aroused by what he sees. Later, however, he learns that the song (I’ve provided a link at the bottom to “The Lass of Aughrim” being sung and accompanied by James Joyce’s actual restored guitar.) is one that a young lover, named Michael Furey, used to sing to Gretta before he tragically died, and Gabriel’s passion wanes as he finds himself jealous of and in competition for his wife’s heart with a ghost.

That is a grossly inadequate recap of a story of profound depth. However, it serves to make a couple of Joyce’s many themes clear. Firstly, life itself is meant to be a party with all the connotations of joy, fun, hilarity, pleasure, and companionship that the term “party” implies. Sadly, under the pressures of conformity, propriety, and morality, the majority of us reduce the party that life should be to a series of dull, long played-out routines and never-to-be challenged customs. Regrettably, like Gretta, we only learn this when it’s too late and the party is almost over. Secondly, “The Dead” reveals that the majority of the “living” actually aren’t LIVING much at all and may as well be dead, while many of the dead (Michael Furey) aren’t dead at all but continue to impact those on this side of the ultimate divide.

This blurry line of separation between the living and the dead is a theme I play with in my soon-to-be-released novel, GOODNESS FALLS, in which a mysterious substitute teacher, Mr. Mortis, arrives at Goodness Falls High School simultaneous to a sudden spate of deaths in the village. Read Here to learn more about the May release of Goodness Falls: http://wp.me/pSq2Y-9Q

Anyway, there is so much more to “The Dead” than I can share in short blog post. If you’re interested, though, I’ve provided a link below for a full, online version of the text. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

http://mockingbird.creighton.edu/english/micsun/IrishResources/dead.htm

Young Love and GOODNESS FALLS

Kiss
During the three-minute passing time between classes, it’s far from unusual to see young couples stealing intimate moments in the hallways, stairways, and recessed eddies of any high school building. Typically, they leave less than a hair’s breadth between them, hold hands, embrace, kiss, and gaze into one another’s eyes as if staring at the unlocked secrets of the cosmos and as if they may never look into each other’s eyes ever again. Neither the risk of being called out for “PDA” by teachers or being urged to “get a room” by passing students seems to dissuade their attempts to immerse themselves in one another as completely as possible in that shared space and for that brief span.

I know that many find such displays of public affection to be distasteful and inappropriate, and I would agree that occasionally these amorous couples stretch the bounds of propriety. However, in the main, I am not bothered by them, and I can’t help but wonder if those who are put off aren’t just a little bit jealous: jealous to be young again, jealous to be swept away in the throes of a first love, jealous to yearn so much for someone that you couldn’t care less what anyone else thinks; jealous to be so intimately connected to another person that time and place are meaningless; and jealous to completely jones for another in heart, body, and soul. I mean, really, who are they hurting? Shakespeare once wrote “Let me not to the marriage of true minds [his definition of Love] admit impediments.” Lenny Kravitz seconded that emotion when he sang “Let love rule.” To both, I say amen.

In my soon-to-be-released novel, GOODNESS FALLS, the main character, T.J. Farrell, is in just such an all-consuming relationship, as described above, with his girlfriend, Caly Stone. Like many young lovers, they can’t imagine a present or future without the other. They often imagine and talk of marriage and the blissful life that awaits them beyond the suffocating borders of their hometown of Goodness Falls. The more-jaded among us might find their imaginings and talk, at best, cute and, at worst, silly for a pair of eighteen-year old young adults. But be warned that many tragedies, real and fictional, have been precipitated by adults who failed to remember or to take seriously the depth of such young and intense love.

In typical narrative fashion of star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of town, T.J. and Caly are challenged to overcome those doubters and events beyond their control that seem to conspire to place “impediments” in the way of their simple desire to love and be loved.

Read Here to learn more about the May release of Goodness Falls: http://wp.me/pSq2Y-9Q

GOODNESS FALLS and the American Church of Football

That's me, #1, on St. Mary 8th Grade Football Team.

That’s me, #1, on St. Mary 8th Grade Football Team.


GOODNESS FALLS tells the tragic story of the confused final days of a high school quarterback suffering the cumulative effects of multiple brain traumas endured over a decade of playing tackle football, from Pee Wee through the varsity level. In the throes of ever-worsening headaches, protagonist, T.J. Farrell, struggles to maintain his increasingly-tenuous hold on his girlfriend, his starting position, his future, his sanity, and his very life.

The genesis of my interest in this topic dates back to my own experience as a high school football player, when as an undersized sophomore, I suffered a concussive injury that rendered me semi-conscious for a period of nearly an hour. Ironically, it occurred against Port Clinton, the school at which I now teach. I remember the knee to the front of my helmet, but from there, only snippets of adults talking at me in urgent tones and blurred images of the stadium, an ambulance, and the hospital remain. What I do remember clearly, however, is that – with no obvious signs of external injury – I returned to full contact practice on Monday. Parents, coaches, and the vast majority of doctors didn’t know better in those days, and if they did, they weren’t telling. Now, we know that a second blow to the head like the first, suffered so soon after, very well could have killed or seriously impaired me for life. In a small way, GOODNESS FALLS is an attempt to better inform all who read it of the dangers of sports-induced brain trauma, especially that which is repetitive and especially as it occurs in children and young adults.

As a former high school football player and coach myself, I understand that even the slightest condemnation of the American Church of Football reeks of at least some degree of hypocrisy. However, my goal is first and foremost to tell an interesting story then to make a salient social commentary. The oldest writing axiom in the book is to “write what you know.” What I know is the culture of high schools and, especially, the culture of high school football; therefore, these are the topics on which I write with at least a modicum of authority. My purpose, however, is not to call for the abolishment of football at any level but to encourage stricter measures for the diagnosis and treatment of concussions that err on the side of safety and the slow return to participation. I also want to encourage the continuing trend (thanks to USA Football’s Heads Up Program) of the establishment of coaching techniques and rules of play that provide the most protection possible for kids.

Read Here to learn more about the May release of Goodness Falls: http://wp.me/pSq2Y-9Q

Unreliable Narrators and Goodness Falls

What does GOODNESS FALLS have in common with such classics as “The Tell Tale Heart,” The Great Gatsby, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and such modern bestsellers as Gone Girl and Where’d You Go Bernadette? I wish I could say critical acclaim and sales in the millions; however, that is not the answer. What my sophomore novel shares with these is the use of an unreliable narrator. In each of these tales, the narrator’s version of the story he/she tells cannot be fully trusted. The reasons for their unreliability varies from story to story, but in each case, the reader must factor the narrator’s lack of dependability into their own interpretation of the plot.

In GOODNESS FALLS, the narrator, 18-year old T.J. Farrell, succumbs to the effects of repeated head traumas suffered while advancing through the football ranks from the Pee Wee to the high school playing field. Coupled with prescription painkillers, which he steals and ingests in handfuls, the chronic pain inhibits T.J.’s ability to perceive, interpret, and relate the events of the story. Adding to his frustration is the dubious response to his explanation of events by the other characters and his lack of certainty in his sanity. As a result, readers are challenged to piece together their own best understanding of what actually takes place. Probably my favorite aspect of T.J.’s version of events is that it allows the more fanciful readers to follow an interpretive path of magical realism, but if uncomfortable with that option, then they can understand the plot in purely naturalistic terms.

While writing GOODNESS FALLS, one of the songs I had on repeat rotation for inspiration was Fake Problems’ “Song for Teenagers.” It captures the desperation and sad dependency experienced by those dealing with both chronic headaches and substance abuse. I’ve inserted it below.