Sunday, May 27, 2012

Death and Despair--Again

It's time for another cheerful post about suicide, kids!

Seriously, I hope my kids never find this blog. It's not like they don't know what Drivers is about. They're too curious not to ask, especially the oldest. And I've certainly discussed the topic with my wife in front of them plenty of times.

But you know what I think? This is just off the top of my head, but suicide as a conversational topic is kind of like lice. (Ha!) If you've had lice, no one wants to hear about it. They don't want to know how you got rid of them or where you got them. They'd just as soon not have to think about tiny blood-sucking bugs laying eggs on hairs. Heck, just writing this makes my scalp itch!

People are usually more open to discussing the topic if they've had lice, treated lice, OR if they're not old enough to be aware of the social stigma.

Case in point, my oldest daughter caught lice at school a few years ago. We saw it pretty quickly, treated it, and the next day I called the (elementary) school to make them aware of the situation. (None of the rest of us got 'em, thank goodness.)

Kids are really good at sharing when it comes to lice. They hang their coats on top of each other, trade hats, rub their cute little heads together. If the school didn't do something about it fast, they'd have a major epidemic.

I was thinking they'd take the kids out one at a time, check for lice, call their parents, and send them home at the end of the day so no one would know who had lice and who didn't.

Instead, they sent the nurse to the classroom to inspect all the kids right there in their seats. The ones with lice were sent home right then, and everyone knew who they were. My daughter told the nurse that she'd just been treated for lice, so everyone knew she'd had them.

I was a little surprised. I thought the other kids would make fun of my girl, etc. etc. But it was no big deal. It was like having a cold as far as the kids, the teachers, and the school nurse were concerned.

But there was at least one other kid who confessed to having known they had lice, and their parents never called the school.

My point, in case you're missing it, is that suicide is also an unpleasant subject, but stigmatizing it and not talking about it doesn't make it go away. In fact, it can even make it worse.

Unlike lice, suicide is a very big deal. Schools have protocols to deal with suicides, because even though it's a psychological illness, it's sort of contagious. It's easy to unintentionally glorify suicide. *cough*thirteenreasonswhy*/cough* You don't dwell on methods or successes. But you don't pretend it doesn't exist, either. It's a hard thing for normal kids to confront. They need to talk about it, learn what causes it, know that thinking about or attempting suicide doesn't figuratively end a person's life.

This is totally not the post I intended to write. I was going to write about a book I just finished reading. It's Crash Into Me by Albert Borris, and it's the first book I've read that portrays suicidal teens in a realistic and potentially helpful way. Four suicidal teens meet online and decide to go on a road trip together. (This could happen. There are internet forums devoted to suicide.) They'll visit the graves of famous people who committed suicide and end the trip in Death Valley with their own deaths.

As far as plot goes, it's pretty slow. The only conflict is the uncertainty of what will really happen at the end of the trip. And the characters are all pretty flawed, so maybe you'll want them dead by the end. There are times when you think they might kill each other.

But I liked them. They act like kids. They drink and smoke and make asses of themselves, but we all make mistakes, don't we? The really good thing about this book is its directness. It doesn't beat around the bush, sugar coat, gloss over, or any other cliched idioms.

Life is hard, it says. Sometimes it sucks. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes you want it to end. But it doesn't stay like that forever, and you never know what—or who—will happen to change it completely.

Don't ask me if it's a good book. If I'd written Crash Into Me it would have been completely different. Did I like it? Yes. Would I recommend it? That depends. It's not a book with broad appeal.

I would be far more likely to recommend it to a teenager who has thought about suicide than I would be to recommend any other novel I've read about the subject. It shows characters flawed enough to be relatable dealing with their problems in a way that's far enough from ideal to seem attainable, yet still positive.

I might even recommend it to relatives of someone who has committed suicide. It covers that as well, but not until the very end.

Crash Into Me gets a thumbs up for being realistic and not glorifying suicide. It also gets a high five for de-stigmatizing suicide. And if you're a high school English teacher and absolutely must make your kids read about suicide, shun Thirteen Reasons Why. Pick this one instead.

(Anyone read It's Kind of a Funny Story? It looks like it might be good.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

We won!

Go Team Krista!

I was a pawn participant ;) in a competition (The Writer's Voice) between four writers to see who could pick and coach the most other writers into successfully grabbing a literary agent's attention. Except it was more organized than I just made it sound. See here for a complete explanation.

Anyway, Krista Van Dolzer picked me to be on her team, and we won! She did a great job helping me improve my query and did the same for the other ten on the team as well. It was a huge time investment for all the coaches. Thank you, ladies!

And what else did I get? Votes from two agents, which translates to a request for more material. I also got a whole lot of nice comments from other people in the contest. Take a look at my original entry here (if you haven't already) on my blog, and then read the new and improved version here on Krista's blog. Full results are here.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Historical Violence

I listened to an audio version A Tale of Two Cities. It was awesome. Let me tell you, if the only thing you've read by Charles Dickens is A Christmas Carol, you don't know how good a writer he was.

(Confession:  Until this audiobook, I was in that boat. I tried reading Two Cities when I was eighteen, but didn't get very far. It was too slow to start. Now, after having read a few of Jane Austen's books, I think I'd do better. But listening to a good voice actor is a treat.)

So:  This book is about a Dr. Manette who was imprisoned by French aristocrats for eighteen years in the infamous Bastille. On his release, he meets his grown daughter Lucie who wasn't even born when he was locked up, and who was raised in London after the death of his wife. She marries another French ex-pat, Charles Darnay, an aristocrat who gave up his inheritance to be a good guy instead of an oppressor.

Meanwhile, the book also follows some very bad stuff happening in Paris, mostly related to the former servant of Dr. Manette. It paints a vivid picture of the oppression of the French people by their ruling class, and does it with magnificent language.

It's an epic book, spanning over eighteen years in the narrative and twice that time in total. The French Revolution breaks out, and the oppressed and oppressors swap roles. Madame Guillotine becomes a central character.

The construction of the story is superb, if long. Every event and scene, though seemingly unrelated, comes together at the end. The story preoccupied my thoughts, and since I listened to it in the car on the way to and from work, I found myself looking forward to going to work. (And coming back home, but that's normal.) The end was moving and satisfying.

"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

That's the last line. (Captain Kirk quotes it at the end of The Wrath of Khan. I think that movie was partly inspired by this book, which makes an appearance at the beginning and end.)

Anyway, this is getting long and I'm not just reviewing a book that only needs endorsement. I want to talk about the violence. A Tale of Two Cities is fiction, but the violence in Paris really happened.

The worst period is called The Reign of Terror. More than 16,000 people were executed by beheading in about one year. Do the math, and that works out to--a lot, every day. These were public executions. As portrayed in the book, the condemned were hauled through the streets in carts and run through the guillotine one after another in front of crowds of people. Good citizens went out to watch the fun. It was the popular entertainment to watch heads roll.

But eventually, (and this isn't in the book,) people stopped going to see the executions. After that many thousands, it gets old.

I imagine the first time you see someone's head chopped off is quite a thrill. One second, there's a living, breathing, undoubtedly distressed prisoner, and the next, a body and a round object that was once a head, now a curiosity, perhaps held up by the hair or raised on a pike for all to see. There'd be blood. A lot of blood.

That happened dozens of times a day, for all kinds of crimes and non-crimes. Thousands, hundreds of thousands maybe, witnessed the spectacle.

How could so many people let it all happen? I don't know. The new government saw a need to keep people in line just as the old monarchy had, and they created a monster. It was actually a more humane form of execution than the monarchy had used.

One thing I do see is that an entire society--any society, I believe--can get so used to violence that it will tolerate anything and in any amount. The human heart can only witness so much without growing hard. Does it matter if the violence we consume as entertainment is actual or fictional? Probably. But when that violence ceases to make us cringe, we ought to be concerned. About ourselves, about our future.

It's history, and you know what they say about history.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Writer's Voice

This is part of a blogfest that's part of a contest and it's all explained here. It's run by four popular writer-bloggers and I was lucky to secure slot 149 out of 175. It's a writer-eat-writer world out there. Rawr.

Anyway, Drivers:

Ash arrives in a foreign country to begin an exciting, high-stakes job. He’s young and inexperienced, but his new employer sought out and recruited him because of one important qualification—Ash is suicidal.

He’ll be inside an armed robotic vehicle that’s supposed to be unmanned and autonomous. Ash will ride until the artificial intelligence reaches its limits, and then because his boss oversold the robots’ abilities, he’ll be given control to drive and fire the weapons.

It’s meant to be Ash’s last suicide attempt, but he just isn’t any good at dying. He survives the first mission.

One other driver also makes it back, a girl named Zephyr. As Ash gets to know her, his perspective changes. There were so many reasons to die, but one reason to live might overrule them all.

Unfortunately, their employer won’t let either of them quit. They know too much. He’d rather see them die than lose a contract. And inside each vehicle is a self-destruct to destroy all evidence of the human drivers if anything goes wrong.

One reason to live is all Ash needs. Actually escaping is a lot more complicated.

And the first page (or so):

I don’t exist anymore. Not as a real person, anyway. I’m more like cargo. Expensive cargo, with my own guard and a corporate jet. The steps down to the tarmac are steep but sturdy. The sky arches overhead, splashed with clouds. A city squats nearby, skyscrapers reaching. And the air smells foreign.

I’m not a prisoner, exactly. I’m an employee. My first day on the job has been everything they promised—exciting, new, well-paying. My last day on the job is less than a week away, though they’re not certain exactly when. That’s too bad, because I’d really like to know when I’m going to die. Mostly, I just want to get through the days until then.

My guard hands a passport to another man who must be airport security. 

“Ash Palmer,” he mutters, glancing up at me. I guess it’s my passport. This ain’t normal airport security. There’s no metal detector, no customs, not even a desk. Just the one guy who writes something in a book and doesn’t bother stamping passports.

There were three others like me on the plane, each with his—or her—own guard. Mine looks like Yul Brynner: bald, sharp jaw line, intense manner. He collects the passports of the two recruits who went through security first, drops them into a small vinyl pouch with mine, and waits for the girl behind me.

She’s the only girl. The guards, security guy, and the other recruits are all men. I suppose that applies to me as well, though I’m still more comfortable with “boy.” And she looks about my age—college dropout age. Old enough to die for her country, but too young to be taken seriously.

She doesn’t look suicidal.

“Zephyr Petralia,” the security guy says.