Kids and Summer Reading

Here’s a subject with which I’m intimately familiar. Having raised three kids, I spent many summers trying to figure out how to get two of them to do even just a little reading. My oldest –  my daughter Morgan – was, quite fortunately, an avid reader and considered a trip to Barnes & Noble better than a trip to the amusement park. My middle kid and my youngest kid – well, that was a different matter. These two each had a learning disability that impacted their ability and interest in reading. My middle child – my son Ryan – had an issue with comprehension. He could read several pages to you with fluency, but when you asked him about what he’d read, he had only the vaguest of ideas. My youngest – my daughter Amanda – had a different issue. Her learning disability was communication centered. For her, letters and words were just lines and squiggles. She struggled to make sense of the words on the page, but if you read to her, she could repeat almost word for word what you’d read.

Trying to get my younger two kids to read often seemed a more difficult task than performing a root canal on a crocodile.

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Without anesthesia.  I tried bribing, I tried taking away privileges, but this turn reading into something my kids resented or felt was a chore they were being forced to endure. As a writer for children, I couldn’t bear the thought that my kids would hate reading and books because of my efforts to help keep them engaged and learning during their time off from school. So I came up with a plan that was sort of a compromise. I told my kids that we would go to the book store. They could pick out one book, any book they wanted. Morgan went for Harry Potter – because they were new and all the rage. My son wandered around, looking at things like the Guiness Book of World Records. Eventually I managed to lure him to the Young Adult section. I pointed out a few sports themed books, and casually mentioned that I had met Walter Dean Myers.  The book Slam was on the shelf, a book about basketball (well, more than basketball, but that is my son’s first love, so it was all that mattered). My son had found his first of what would be a long-term affinity for Walter Dean Myer’s books.

Somehow, my youngest daughter discovered Manga books. For those not familiar with Manga, they are graphic novels which feature Japanese anime style drawing along with text. I have to say, at first I wanted to tell her no, she needed a “real” book, but then I remembered that I said they could pick “any” book. And thus began a love affair with Manga and graphic novels that my daughter enjoys even now that she’s in college. It’s easy for her to follow, and she can read them over and over. She’s moved through a variety of series, and I’m so grateful I didn’t tell her no all those years ago.

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Many years ago, when the  Goosebumps series first started, many adults were outraged by the books and fought to steer kids away from them (and in some places, tried to ban them outright). But many writers and educators defended the books, and in one interview I read at the time, a wise parent said, “I’d rather see this book in my son’s hands than the remote control to a video game.” I absolutely agree! If it’s a choice between a book (even one deemed “trashy” or “worthless”) or the X-Box, I’d far rather the kids’ version of pulp fiction than mindless zombie blasting.

My advice for summer reading? Let your kids pick. Even if it’s not on their teacher’s summer reading list, give them the choice. My married oldest daughter is still a voracious reader. My college student son still reads sports books, and he still reads Walter Dean Myers. And while my youngest college student daughter still enjoys Manga, she also stole and read my Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe.  Give kids the freedom to choose their own entertainment through a book, and it won’t feel like you’re sentencing them to an agonizing chore. (But if you happen to recommend my books, that would be okay, too!)

And here’s a great summer reading tip for young kids: personalized books! Emergent readers (those just learning to read) get an absolute thrill when they see their names in a book! Surprise one of your favorite youngsters with this very special gift. Many companies are encouraging parents to spend time with their kids, and nothing is more fun than having your child on your lap with a book in hand! The wonderful people at Personal Creations are making this easy by offering delightful books for young readers, customized with their names! To learn more, visit http://www.personalcreations.com! Make summer reading more fun, and spend some valuable time with your kids. Trust me, they grow up way too soon, so don’t miss those opportunities to connect!

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Resolutions – The 2013 Edition

It has been a VERY successful year for me, and I am grateful for the support of friends, family, teachers, librarians, and most of all readers! In June of this year, Angelic Knight Press made an offer for Death’s Kiss. In August, I sold a horror short story under my pen name Mimi A. Williams. That story, entitled Rita, will be part of the Axes of Evil: Heavy Metal Horror Anthology that will be released on February 1, 2014.  The Deepest Blue was released from Tanglewood Press in September of this year. This book has a long, winding history behind it, and it’s one that I am incredibly proud to see in print. All of this exceeded my goals for the year, although there were a few places I fell short

This is the seventh year in a row that I’ve done this exercise. It is a tradition now, and something I look forward in some sick and twisted way. It actually started further back even than the posts on this blog! All credit is due to Carol Lynch Williams who started the whole thing at least a dozen years ago and maybe even more. We are members of several list serves together, and every year about this time, we would publicly post our writing goals, and at the end of the year, Carol would hold us all accountable by posting our objectives on the list.

I like to do it this way: First, I review my resolutions from the beginning of the year to see how I did. That usually provides the motivation for my new resolutions. So here is what I aspired to a year ago and how I did:

1) I will revise my book The Afterward and continue to send it out.

The Afterward did not get the work I had hoped it would. It was shoved aside in favor of other projects. That’s not entirely bad. The other projects were both getting revised for publication. The Deepest Blue was the one that required the most time, followed closely by Death’s Kiss, which will be released early in 2014.

2) I will revise my book Death Kiss and continue submitting it and looking for its home.

Death Kiss was revised, and it was bought by Angelic Knight Press. It did find a home, and as I mentioned, it will be released soon under the revised title of “Death’s Kiss”

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3) I will participate in as many promotional and marketing events as possible (like Authorpalooza, Writing for Charity, and others) to promote my books and my availability for speaking.

I did quite well with this! I attended 10 different events, including a workshop at Whitmore Library, Writing for Charity, Davis School District Literacy Night, SCBWI’s The Inside Story, and others. I have also upgraded my website, and learned new ways to use social media to help promote my books. The results have been very positive, and as I anticipate my upcoming royalty payments, I should have a more concrete idea of how effective these efforts have been.

4) I will begin offering writing workshops 3 or 4 times a year through different sources as a means of income and to promote my books.

I didn’t quite follow through with this, though I did teach two workshops with good results. This year, though, I will follow through with the workshops, and I have recruited my talented writer friend C. Michelle Jefferies to be part of the fun! We have already laid the plans for the first workshop the first week of February.

And now it’s time to commit to the page (such as it is) my goals for the coming year. They came pretty easily this year, and I feel like I am stretching a bit and giving myself a challenge, but I don’t sense I’m setting myself up for failure. So here they are:

1. I will get an agent this year. Period.

2. I will finish at least three novels this year, including rewriting The Afterward, finishing Namesake, and a third novel (yet to be determined).

3. I will continue to look for opportunities to promote my work and to participate in at least one writing-related event each month.

4. I will attend two writing conferences or workshops to benefit my own writing.

5. I will offer four writing workshops  during the year.

That’s a lot to do in the next year, but I’m feeling confident and enthusiastic. It’s as much giving as it is taking. I’m focusing on quality and quantity. Overall, I think 2014 holds more promise than even this past year held, and that just makes me even more eager to get started!

Here’s to the coming year! My propellers are spinning and I’m ready to fly!

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A Different Definition of “Writing Success”

It happens far too often: after a presentation, inevitably someone asks the visiting writer, “How much do you make?”

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Now, would you ask your doctor or your dentist, the guy at the bank, or the woman who checks your groceries how much he or she makes? Of course not. That’s just rude!

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But I can assure you that many writers are asked this question on a regular basis. Some people ask because they think we all make the same salary as Stephen King or J. K. Rowling. Some people ask because they have a great idea for a book and they want to know how much money this awesome story is going to make for them.  Still others (like moms, worried siblings, or aunts and uncles) will ask because they are afraid you are starving to death pursuing this dream of yours.

The first time I was asked, it was by a small kid from a pretty impoverished area. I think I could have told this kid that I made $40 and he would have been impressed. But as time has gone on, I’ve realized that basically anyone feels it’s his or her right to stick his or her nose into your financial business. I understand the curiosity, and I can see how that curiosity manifests, but I don’t understand what compels those people to actually open their mouths and have the brass to ask the question. At this point, all I can really do is laugh!

My most recent experience with this happened when I did a presentation at a local library. I did my best to avoid the answer, but the individual continued to push the issue.  Finally I did the only thing I could do, and I told the truth. The person who asked the question sort of looked astonished. However, the experience for me turned out incredibly positive. It’s not the financial gain that keeps me writing, in fact I’ve often said I would write for free because – well – I just can’t NOT write.  But even beyond that, any writer who is honest will say that he or she writes in order to touch someone else.  I’ve been blessed to have six books earn feedback from readers, and now books seven and eight are prepared to do the same. When I do presentations, I’m heartened by the comments that I get from participants.  For example:

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No matter how many times I read Abby’s letter, I am still thrilled that I touched this young girl’s heart and that she felt inspired enough to tell me about it.  I’ve had wonderful reviews of my work, and I’ve talked with many readers, and this is the best reward I could ask for. I don’t measure success in terms of money, I measure it in terms of books I’ve had published, in terms of people who respond to those books. I look at success not in how others measure it, but in how I feel everyday, doing this job and pursuing this dream. And the truth is – I feel pretty darned successful.

Things of a Symbolic Nature – Take 2

Symbolism is a subject that I have a lot of interest in. I like finding it when I read (which was the only thing that saved me when I read MOBY DICK), and I love using it when I write. Obviously, not every story will have a place for symbols, but I like looking for places that I can include them, even if it’s very subtle and limited.

A symbol, as described by Robert Di Yanni in Literature: Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, is any action, object, person, or event that conveys a meaning beyond the literal interpretation or significance. An author will make a symbol known either by giving it emphasis, repeating is use in a story, by giving it detailed description, or by placing it in key moments within the story. These techniques may (though not absolutely always) indicate that the element in question is being used symbolically. Throughout literary tradition, symbolism is used to enhance and add meaning to a story; to bring the reader to a deeper understanding of the story.

Here’s an example: In Eudora Welty’s short story, A Worn Path, the main character’s name is Phoenix Jackson. The name Phoenix is a clue to the personality of the character – someone is resilient, determined, and perhaps mythical. The color black features prominently in the story as well. Phoenix is a black woman, she expresses her admiration for a large black dog that takes on the dog of white man who threatens Phoenix. And there are other examples. This story also features an assortment of birds, everything from little bobwhites to a buzzard among big dead trees which remind her of lynched men. Throughout the story, the symbolism is woven into plot, building upon critical moments, showing us more about the place and time where Phoenix lives, and giving us a greater insight into aspects of human nature.

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In my own work, I’ve used these techniques as well. Though it isn’t easy to spot (because I limited the use and held back) the shiny red dog collar in Kiss Kiss Bark serves as a symbol. Mattie sees the collar as everything that is wrong in her life: her unfair babysitting responsibilities; how her brother gets away with things she would never get away with; and ultimately, of her love for her brother and her acceptance of his role in her life.

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In a much more obvious attempt at symbolism, The Deepest Blue  uses several symbols throughout the book. The first, most obvious symbol is the color blue. Because it represents depression, it is an appropriate color to use at key moments in the story when the main character, Michael, is feeling the loss in his life. But a blue sky can also represent hope, the lifting of a storm, or the start of a new and better day.  Another symbol I used was the storm. It builds at important moments, it rattles windows and reflects the turmoil that Michael feels, and threatens him physically as well.  The last significant symbol is water. Sometimes the water is in the form of rain, sometimes it’s the ocean, and there are other uses as well. Water is an emotional connection for Michael, reflecting his feelings, tying him to his father, and signifying the importance of place in his life.

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So why incorporate symbols? Well, for one thing, I think it’s fun! It’s an aspect of writing that appeals to me at a deep level. Another reason is that I respect the readers I’m writing for. They like the challenge that symbolic meaning represents, they like a deeper story. As a reader, I like this, too.  There are wonderful stories out there that use symbolism, but that aspect isn’t one that is often given much attention.

The book I’m working on now also has symbolic elements to it, and I’m enjoying the process of giving deeper meaning to the story as I find new ways to incorporate these symbols. Of course, my greater hope is that my readers enjoy it just as much as I do.

World Book Night – My Version

Let me begin by saying I LOVE the concept of World Book Night! What a totally awesome idea! Encourage reading and literacy by giving away free books! It’s completely genius as far as I’m concerned.
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The concept of being a World Book Night book giver is simple. First, you sign up for your area and, if approved, second, you select the book you’d like to give away. Third, you choose the book store where you’d like to pick up your books, and finally, you identify a location where you would like to hand out your books. Easy!

I signed up to do this last year, but because my life was chaos at that time, I wound up not being able to participate, and I chose to have my books donated to a worthy charity. This year, I was determined to be part of the fun! I signed up early, selected my book (GOOD OMENS by Terry Pratchet and Neil Gaimon – two of my favorite British writers), and chose to give them away at the new City Creek Center in downtown Salt Lake, a very upscale shopping and dining destination that I thought would be a good source for readers and people who supported literacy and books.

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I picked up my box of books the day before the event from a rather surly book store clerk (she treated me surlily – okay, sorry, inside joke). However, I was still very excited about the opportunity to participate in this important event. At about 6:30 p.m., I arrived at my destination and began handing out books to anyone who wanted one. I was standing just inside one of the main entrances near an indoor stream, and thought I had a prime spot. city3

According to mall security, I didn’t. I needed to be outside on the public sidewalk. Something to do with having permits and competing with mall businesses. I was slightly miffed, but I guess it’s a policy or something, so I relocated outside. There were planters with wide edges, benches, and a light rail station that was fairly busy, and I figured this wouldn’t be a bad place to catch folks. I should clarify here that I am not in any way a sales person. I get uncomfortable trying to force something on people, even something as awesome as a free book. When I go to book signing events, I’m as likely to talk about someone else’s work as I am to say anything about mine. If someone asks, that’s one thing, but I hate feeling pressured by someone, and I hate feeling that I’m pressuring someone, so this was really a challenge.

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What I discovered is that the clear majority of folks I offered a book to were so skeptical that, before I could even tell them that the book was free and there were no strings attached, they put their hands up and said “No” to me and walked away. I started telling people “I’m not selling anything, it’s just a free book for  World Book Night,” and most of them still walked away, either ignoring me like I was panhandling, or glaring at me like I’d said something offensive.  A few of them did stop and show an interest, and what’s funny was how often, after handing them the free book, how many of them asked, “How much is it?” Um . . . free?  Then, when I said, “Have a good night,” rather than, “Can I interest you in outrageously priced cleaning supplies?”  a few people acted completely surprised!

I managed to give away 18 of my 20 books before the mall security guy came out to tell me I couldn’t put my box on the edge of the planter, but I could put it on the bench 20 inches below. At that point, my allergies were getting the better of me, and I decided to call it a night.

If I were to do this again, and the good news is I have a year to think about it, I would do it with a few other people who were giving away different books. I would have posters that said World Book Night on them, along with the website www.worldbooknight.org so those walking by could quickly look it up and see that I didn’t have any ulterior motive to offering them a free book. For me, it was uncomfortable and scary, and despite my support for this organization and it’s work, I will really have to consider how I approach this if I decide to do it again next year.

A Brick Wall at 60 Miles an Hour

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Welcome to Writer’s Block – again.

I seem to go through this periodically. Sometimes it’s stress related, sometimes not. Stress doesn’t always trigger it, but sometimes it does.

But first, an explanation:

I’ve been trying to finish the revisions on my novel The Deepest Blue (set to come out in the fall of this year). I had every intention of getting it done before the end of the year, but the last two months of 2012 were just a hair shy of total insanity. I left a job I’d only been at for six months to take a job that lasted only two weeks. I didn’t know it was only going to last two weeks, but then I also didn’t know I’d been hired by crazy people. I also moved – which is a long and complex story that doesn’t really need to be given detail other than to say “I HATE MOVING!” Then, of course, the holidays were upon us, accompanied by frequent calls and visits to the unemployment office.  I kept working on the revisions, but I was moving at a pace that would embarrass a garden slug.

I swore, though, that in the new year (being as I was unemployed), I would get the revisions done.

And then I became blocked.

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There were a number of factors that went into causing this block. It took time to identify them, but it’s important to know what triggers a block so you can be more alert to potential blockages in the future! (It’s sort of like paying attention when your drain starts to run slow – better to clean out a small clump of gunk than to have a plumbing crisis on your hands.)

The first thing that contributed to the conundrum was putting deadlines on myself that might not have been reasonable given my circumstances. Moving, changing jobs, holidays, and dealing with government inefficiency all take a toll on one’s psyche. They drain away energy from where it is more useful and better served. Then there was the internal conflict I had over a scene that my editor wanted moved, changed, or deleted. I felt very strongly about the scene and it’s placement. I seriously agonized over how to please my editor while staying true to what I believed was necessary for the story. I rewrote the scene five or six times, and each time I felt it got worse. Enter contributor number three – the hyper-critical internal editor. Nothing pleases this chick! If I had to describe her, she would be six feet tall with long, straight, black hair, and fingernails that look like talons. She sneers, she gives exasperated sighs, and she says things like “That is the stupidest thing I think you’ve ever written. What were you even thinking? OH – I know – you weren’t thinking.” She’s a sarcastic wench, and she makes me doubt my ability to create (despite having six published books under my belt). At one point, I was so frustrated by this internal editor (which, YES – I KNOW – it’s my own self doubt and criticism. Sheesh, I’m not schizophrenic!) that I was about to call my editor in tears and tell her I’d pay back my advance because I just couldn’t write anymore.

It’s obvious NOW (of course, hindsight being 20/20) that my whole blockage was really self-inflicted, but in the midst of it, it felt like hitting a brick wall in your car going 60 miles an hour.

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Everything came to abrupt halt. Just the thought of sitting at my computer to try to revise would make me nauseous. I’ve gone through bouts of writer’s block a few times – which is really the Universe’s way of punishing me for saying once (a very long time ago) that there was no such thing as writer’s block – it was just a lazy writer’s excuse. Yeah – that’ll learn me.

Thank the heavens for wise friends who know just what to say and just when to say it. I was expressing my frustration and telling a friend of mine that I just didn’t have what it takes anymore. I told her that I felt like I was a fraud by telling people I was a writer. She gave me a very kind smile and said, “Your thinking that you are a fraud is insecurity. Insecurity is a character defect, and underlying every character defect is fear.” She looked me in the eye and asked, “So, what are you afraid of?”

Before I could even think about it, the words fell out of my brain, into my mouth, and out into the open. “I’m afraid of disappointing people.”

Yeah – I’m a people pleaser. I want everyone to like me. I don’t want to make anyone upset at me and I felt like I was letting my editor down, letting my writing friends down (the ones who offered to help with the read-through), and letting everyone I’d ever told about this upcoming book down. That fear of disappointing people nearly paralyzed me.

Then I said, “I’m afraid it won’t be perfect.”

Whoa – that caught me by surprise. This book is still going through revisions. It isn’t meant to be perfect. It will never be “perfect” in the sense that no one anywhere will be able to find fault with it. I remember hearing Jane Yolen speak at a conference and talking about how there are scenes in her book “The Devil’s Arithmetic” that she would still go back and revise – and this book won all kinds of awards! I realized that I was trying to achieve a finished product, but it isn’t time yet.

I meditated a long time on what this friend had said and what my answers had been. In the mean time, I also started a new full-time job (also quite stressful), but while I was sitting at my desk at work, inputting numbers into a database (not real stressful), the solution to the block arrived. I almost couldn’t get through the rest of my day because I was so eager to get home and write! That was a magnificent feeling. I sat down, I dug in, and I solved the problem. I found a happy compromise for the scene my editor wanted changed and I didn’t (well, the scene isn’t happy, but resolving where to put it was). I got through the remaining chapters, and I sent the entire manuscript off to my wonderful editor before my self-imposed deadline of the end of the month!

Lessons learned? Um – many. First, I am terribly hard on myself, and I need to learn to just let it flow. Writing “Beautiful Monster” happened during one of the most stressful times in my life, but that story flowed because I allowed myself to admit there would be issues and errors, and I could go back and fix them later.  Second, I need to address my frustrations earlier. I do a lot of “I’m not blocked, I’m not blocked, I’m not blocked, OH CRUD! I’m blocked!” Backing off sooner, removing obstacles when they are small instead of when I’ve made them into demons – this is the better way. Finally – remember who you’re writing for. It’s not an editor, it’s not an audience. I’m writing for me. This is – and always has been – my passion. I do this for my soul and for no other reason. I’m going to make a sign that says exactly that and hang it right behind my computer.

Sigh.

A Discussion of Rape

Beautiful Monster, the novel I co-authored with my friend and writing partner Jared, has some very graphic moments in it. Sterling Bronson, one of the main characters, is a serial killer and serial rapist. There is no other way to describe him and what he does. He stalks women, seduces them, and then does them serious harm, even murdering them. It is not a subject that Jared and I took lightly, nor did we treat the subject disrespectfully – or at least we worked very hard not to. However . . .

Earlier this evening, a woman commented to me privately that having started the book, she would not be finishing it as we had so thoughtlessly treated the subject of sexual assault so light-heartedly. She said – and this is a direct quote – “You act as if rape is a sexual fantasy that all women want. You fit right in with that guy from Missouri who said that legitimate rape is different from other kinds of rape.”

A jaw dropping moment, to be certain.

I didn’t ask this woman to read the book. In fact, I didn’t even know she had picked up/downloaded a copy. In my opinion, she completely missed the point of what we tried to do in the book, and she absolutely missed the point of my character, Brenna Carlson. So, let me set some things straight for this woman, and for anyone else who thinks we mishandled the subject:

First – at the age of 22 I had the unfortunate experience of being sexually assaulted. That’s all I’m going to say about it as it pertains to me. What I will say is that this horrific experience informed my writing, but more than that, the writing opened an honest discussion between people important to my life and me. As Jared and I wrote, we worked diligently to ensure that we did not make Sterling into a romantic character. He is a sympathetic character, a believable human being. A severely fractured and damaged human being, there is no doubt, but realistic and true to the pathology of those who behave this way in the “real world.”  Jared conveyed this character in such a way that he is both sympathetic and detestable, and that is how many of these men are in our society. They are charming, but vain. They are caring, but manipulative. They exude love, but they have no idea what it means to love. In short, they are beautiful monsters – hollow shells like cicadas leave behind in the summer.

Second – for my part, I made certain that my character neither wanted nor enjoyed the experiences that Sterling put her through. There is no fantasy in real rape. It is vicious, it is ugly, and there is nothing sexual about it. To the perpetrator, it is about the violence, not the sex.While what happens to my character is not the same experience that I endured, the emotional truth is still there, and I believe this is where some readers are getting hung up.  I don’t know that the woman I spoke with even got far enough into the story to discover this aspect, but it is there – the terror, the degradation, and the evil that accompanies this crime. There were times that going back to this mind-set nearly caused me to stop writing. Digging into those dark memories to dredge up feelings I thought I’d long since dealt with was an exercise in “dancing with crazy” that I wasn’t sure I could survive. But I was blessed to have a co-author who is also one of my best friends, and his support was vital.

I was also blessed to have supportive family who – though they didn’t really know what was going on – encouraged me to remain true to myself and my sincere belief in this story.

 

 

 

 

SPOILER ALERT – TURN BACK NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW CRUCIAL INFORMATION IN THE BOOK!

Okay – you’ve been warned.

In the end, Brenna survives her ordeal. She tries to get back to normal, but there is no normal anymore. From experience, I know that survivors have to find a new definition of normal, and they learn over time that normal has a way of shifting like sand in the desert; with one step, you put your foot down on firm ground, but with the next, you begin sliding downward without warning. But many women survive this – not unscarred, mind you – but they recover and begin to rebuild a new understanding of themselves and the world around them. Each one handles it differently, and I’ve come to believe there is no such thing as a right way to do this. There are definitely some wrong ways, but we won’t go into that here.

Beautiful Monster is not an easy book to read. It wasn’t an easy book to write for either Jared or me. But I am proud of this book for so many reasons, and I know that Jared is as well (sorry, J, don’t mean to speak for you). It is horrifying in places, suspenseful in others, and even humorous at times. It is a very narrow slice of life, but it is a reality for some unfortunate women, and I will say very honestly that with this book, I finally feel I have vindication and compensation for my pain.