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This blog post has been a long time coming, not on the small scale, as I’ve only been waiting to post my news for a few weeks. It’s been a long time coming in the sense that I’ve been seriously writing and trying to get published for two decades. In those years, I’ve had a variety of small successes (short story sales and a graduate fiction prize that paid Real Money™!) and medium successes (two novels sold to a small press.) The news contained in this post is success on a higher order.

Those of you who’ve been reading my blog for a while may remember a novel that went by the working title of Thirteen. I started writing it in the fall of 2009, and a mere five years later, it has sold. I’d put it all down to persistence, but as you’ll see from the story, my doggedness can’t take credit for everything. First the official announcement from Publishers Marketplace:

Bryn Greenwood’s WHAT BELONGS TO YOU, a love story between two unlikely people–a strong-willed girl of ethereal beauty and a tattooed motorcycle riding ex con with a heart of gold–and the hard-won relationship that elevates them above the Midwestern meth lab backdrop of their lives, to Laurie Chittenden at Thomas Dunne Books, at auction, by Jessica Regel at Foundry Literary + Media (NA).

It's not real until it shows up in Publishers Marketplace

It’s not real until it shows up in Publishers Marketplace

So, what happened in those five years between when I started the book and when I finally sold it? A lot-a lot, as we say in my family, the exponential superlative of “a lot.”

When I started writing the book that would become What Belongs to You, I had an agent, and a novel out on sub. (You’ll find teasers for that novel, if you follow the tag Axyl Witt is a bad motherfucker.) Despite my agent’s valiant efforts, however, the book didn’t sell. Not long after that disappointment, my agent called to let me know that he was leaving the business of literary agenting. Just like that, I no longer had an agent.

Although publishing is changing, a writer’s odds for that elusive book sale are still dramatically better with an agent. To get a new agent, I needed a new book to query. I put in heavy hours revising What Belongs to You. At the end of 2011, I started querying. I queried, and I queried, and I queried. Like many writers, I have a series of Excel spreadsheets that document my writing career in the form of rejections. My handy query spreadsheet reveals that between January 2011 and February 2014, I sent 122 agent queries for What Belongs to You.

Now, I wasn’t sitting around doing nothing while my queries zinged around the ether (or languished in agents’ email.) I kept writing. I kept participating in writing communities. Through those communities, I met the publisher of a small press, who asked to see some of my work. I sent him the first novel I ever queried, Last Will. (Spreadsheet says: 8 queries sent, 2 form rejections received, 5 personal rejections of a warm and encouraging nature, 1 non-response. It does not record exactly why I gave up querying that novel after 8 attempts.)

The small press publisher liked my novel and offered to buy it. I accepted. In April 2012, Last Will was published. It did well for a quiet novel from an unknown writer at a small press. I suppose it did well, as in 2013, the publisher offered to publish my next book, Lie Lay Lain. (Spreadsheet says I sent 0 queries, but on the upside, got 0 rejections!) My second novel came out this April, with perhaps even less fanfare than the first.

As for What Belongs to You, I had been querying it all along. I received quite a few requests for the full manuscript. (Spreadsheet says: 14% request rate.) I received 3 requests to revise and resubmit. I undertook two of those requests, but in the end, none of those 122 queries led to representation. Looking at that spreadsheet, at that avalanche of no, I started to consider the possibility that the book I’d been so sure was my “breakout” novel was dead in the water.

I’ve sometimes joked that selling a book to a Big 5 publisher is the equivalent of a white wedding, while small presses were more like Justice of the Peace ceremonies. With two small press books out and no prospective bridegroom, I started to think there wasn’t going to be any wedding for this book, unless I did it myself. I began researching self publishing, the Vegas wedding of publishing–no less true for its informality. I investigated cover artists, editors, distribution.

Then, in May, an agent contacted me. She’d read part of Lie Lay Lain and liked what she saw. Did I have representation? she asked. If not, would I send my current project? Why not? At that point, I had nothing to lose. I sent the manuscript for What Belongs to You and thought nothing more of it. (Spreadsheet reveals that I had queried Jess with one of the projects that came in between Last Will and Ugly & the Beast, but it wasn’t a good fit for her. Based on my rejection numbers, it wasn’t a good fit for anyone.)

A few weeks after that initial email contact, we spoke on the phone and she offered to represent me. She was willing to take a chance on the book that nobody else would touch. Three months after that, What Belongs to You sold at auction to a Big 5 publisher.

What’s the takeaway from all of this? Is it just that my book is like the Lana Turner of novels? Sitting there in a malt shop, minding its own business when it was discovered? You hear these stories, about writers who get an agent or publisher quite by chance, but I don’t know anyone for whom a thing like that happened. Or I didn’t until it happened to me. I am urban legend, come to life!

My conclusion, and you’re welcome to come to your own, is that you never know. This business is random, chaotic, and a little cruel. The only thing you control is how much effort you put into your writing, and how hard you work at connecting with people. The rest of it is a lot like a lottery. Once your book is as good as you can make it, you have to somehow stumble upon the perfect combination of opportunity: right agent, right editor, right moment.

What would have happened if I’d sent more than 8 queries for my first novel? I’ll never know, because I gave up. If you really want this, you can’t give up. You have to whack the publishing piñata until the candy falls out.

 

***

For the very curious among you, my query spreadsheet is like a geological history of the last few years of publishing. It reveals agencies that have opened and closed, and the careers of agents, new and old, including their entrance into the industry as interns, their moves to other agencies, and the death and retirement of other agents. It also shows the steady shift from snail mail queries to email queries, and the increasing prevalence of the non-response response.

The full stats from my spreadsheet:

In 13 years, I’ve queried 7 novels to 216 agents, for a grand total of 453 queries. In response to those queries, I received 61 requests for more material, 5 revise & resubmit requests, 452 rejections, including 197 non-responses.

 

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You might think the title of this blog post goes without saying, but considering some of the wacky things happening in the writing community these days, you’d be mistaken. We’ve had an author confess to stalking and harassing someone who gave her novel a poor review, and we’ve had a blogger apologize for years of harassment and threats against writers whose work she didn’t like.

As a passionate reader, I have always maintained a “review” of books I’ve read. In ye olde pre-internet days, I kept a little notebook in which I recorded the books I’d read with a few lines about the book. When Goodreads emerged, I joined and began to track my reading habits there. I viewed it primarily as a tool for me as a reader. Of course, as I connected with people on GR, I also began to see my notes on books as useful to like-minded readers. All the same, in the age of the internet, where data is perpetually retained and easily accessed, I have always tried to be polite when I write reviews of books. I am neither a professional reviewer nor someone who relishes drama. Just as I would hate to read a review of my books that was nasty or personal, I would never want a writer to read one of my reviews and feel that I was being anything but professional, even if I disliked the book.

Despite my policy of being polite, I’ve still received a few nastygrams, typically from people who loved a book I didn’t, and who wished to inform me that I was a stupid poopypants. I don’t think those were the exact words, but something juvenile and unnecessary.

Not a few people have cautioned me of late that as a published writer I ought to be more careful about reviewing and rating books, so as not to attract haters. I’ve considered it, and someday, maybe I’ll need to make a more anonymous Goodreads account, but in the interim, I’ve made a different choice.

I’ve always had a Did Not Finish shelf on my Goodreads account, to identify books that I did not or could not read through to the ending. Rarely do I remark on those books and never do I rate them. This week, however, I added a new shelf: Not Every Book Is for Everybody. Let’s call it NEBIFE. We know in our hearts that this is true, but it seems to get lost within the book community sometimes. A book isn’t bad, just because we didn’t like it, and a reviewer isn’t stupid or evil or many far worse things, just because they didn’t like our favorite book. I come face-to-face with this when I realize that almost 17,000 people on Goodreads have given Nabokov’s Lolita a 1-star rating. 1 star? One? Are you kidding me? I consider Lolita to be one of the greatest English novels of the 20th Century. I love this book.

ONE STAR?!?!?! OMGAAAAAAH!!?!?!?

ONE STAR?!?!?! OMGAAAAAAH!!?!?!?

Yet Goodreads reveals that two people whose opinions I respect have rated Lolita as 1 star. Huh. I guess we’re gonna have to disagree on that one, but I’m not going to send them emails to tell them they’re stupid poopypants. Primarily, because I don’t think they are. Secondarily, because I accept that even a brilliant book will not be the right book for every reader.

I was looking for an apt comparison, and found it quite by accident. I occasionally pull a recipe off allrecipes.com, and it struck me that even when people dislike a recipe and give it a low rating, I have never seen anybody get nasty or personal in a recipe review. I’ve never seen a recipe submitter called a stupid bitch, or a recipe called corrosive garbage, or seen someone wish the original recipe writer be raped to death, all things I’ve seen in book reviews. Similarly, I’ve never seen a recipe submitter get hostile with someone who didn’t like a recipe. Why? Because on some level, as a society, we’ve done well at accepting that not everyone has the same tastes. After all, my mother hates Indian food. Hates it. We’re still on speaking terms, because why wouldn’t we be? I think it’s silly that she dislikes an entire culinary tradition on the basis of one ill-fated buffet visit, but I’m not going to cut her out of my life over it. Similarly, I’m not going to kill a friendship over Lolita. Or even a potential friendship.

In this week, where madness is swirling all around us, I’d like to ask everybody to embrace the concept of NEBIFE. If you get a negative review on a book you wrote, keep in mind that not everybody loves the same books. You can’t expect everybody to love your book. If you read a book you disliked, try framing your review from the perspective that not every book is for everybody, and that this book wasn’t for you.

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These days, I spend my lunch hour visiting my elderly aunt in the hospital. I’m always pressed for time, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have time to be a good person. That bumper sticker on my car is the truth. I believe in Random Acts of Kindness. At the intersection of Tennessee and 20th, I saw a woman on a bicycle, waiting to cross the street. She looked hot and tired, and there were half a dozen cars behind me, so it would probably be a while before she could cross. I came to a stop and waved her on, even though I knew I was already going to be late getting back to work.

She gave me a blank look and then pointed toward the stop sign at her corner. I couldn’t hear her, but I think she mouthed the words, “I have a stop sign. You don’t.”

Seriously, who does that? Who refuses a polite offer like that? It made me so mad, I pulled up across from her and rolled down my window, even though there were cars behind me, waiting to go through the intersection.

“I was trying to be nice,” I yelled. “You don’t have to be such a bitch about it.”

“How does calling me a bitch count as nice?” she said. So superior. Like she never lost her temper. Then she shook her head and said, “You’re blocking up traffic. Just go.”

I did, because screw her if she couldn’t take a favor. Screw her! It made me so mad, letting her have the last word, so even though I was through the intersection, I slammed on my brakes and yelled, “You fucking bitch! Fuck you, you fucking bitch!”

She threw her hands up in the air and shouted, “What are you doing, you moron?”

I would have said something back, but then the car behind me honked. Jerk was right up on my bumper. Some people.

***

Similar to how I look riding my bike

Similar to how I look riding my bike

That’s all true. It all happened, except in reality, I was the woman on the bicycle. I was the person who declined a favor. Because in my experience, that kind of favor is dangerous. It changes traffic patterns in ways the average motorist doesn’t comprehend. For example, I have to later cross the street that all those cars were backing up to. Also, it’s fairly common for the very people who try to do something nice by stopping traffic and waving me on, to later try to kill me. They get distracted by their cell phone, someone behind them honks, and having already forgotten they waved me on, they surge forward, nearly clipping me as I cross the street. After all, it takes a cyclist a bit longer to get started from a dead stop. After the third time this happened, I stopped accepting these kinds of “favors.”

Of course, immediately after it happened, I was astounded and eager to tell people that I’d been called a fucking bitch for turning down an act of perceived kindness. I wondered what would have happened if the car behind my would-be Good Samaritan had rear-ended her. Later, I did what I always do: I imagined the whole incident from the other person’s point of view. Almost no one sets out to yell obscenities at strangers over a minor incident, and yet she had gone from generosity to vituperative hostility in a second. As much as I didn’t appreciate her attitude, I recognized it may have come from a completely understandable place.

This is how I always approach my writing, and why I so often end up with multiple narrators. It’s not that I want two characters to tell the same story, but that I want them to tell their own story. I’m interested in how the different POVs intersect and diverge.

I date some of it back to my early days of writing. The first creative writing class I took was with Ben Nyberg, and his tried and true method is to force people to tell stories from other points of view. He tricks beginning students a bit, first asking them to write a story in which they are the protagonist. Then, he makes them tell the same story, from the POV of the antagonist. That is the story they are made to edit and polish until the antagonist becomes the protagonist. After all, you may be the hero of your story, but you’re probably the villain of someone else’s story.

PS: Nyberg’s book, One Great Way to Write Short Stories, though out of print, is still a great way to write a short story. Used copies are available in all the usual places.

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Back in May, I dropped off the radar everywhere. My new novel Lie Lay Lain had just released, and I was making various plans for what I would do to promote it. I was also considering which project I wanted to work on next: ghost trains that never stop, cougar sex in doomed bed & breakfasts, Romeo & Lolita meet Breaking Bad?

Then my pop* was diagnosed with leukemia. I abandoned every plan and project for the daily drive to the university med center, where I did what one does in such circumstances. I sat in hospital rooms and tried to ask smart questions of the doctors who were pumping my dad full of poison. I cried in bathrooms and cafeterias and elevators and parking garages so that I could put on a brave and hopeful face when I was in my pop’s room.

I don’t imagine I spent even a minute thinking about my writing career in May or June, but apparently someone else was thinking about it. An agent contacted me to ask if I had any new projects I was working on, and would I send her something. I shot off an email with a manuscript attached and put it out of my mind.

The week after I traveled by ambulance to take my pop home from the hospital, I spoke to that agent, who offered to represent me. Four years after I parted ways with my last agent, I had a new agent. Two days later, my pop died. Planning for the funeral and for the rest of my life without him ate up what would otherwise have been cause for celebration.

Now I find myself on the backside of July, about to turn in revisions to my agent. It seems like April was a million years ago, and I don’t even remember what I was supposed to do. Honestly, after four years without an agent, and having sold two books to a small press, I’d given up on traditional publishing.

Most days, I feel like I’m dragging a boat down the beach. In a perfect world, the goal is to put the boat in the water at high tide, but it’s too late for that. I’m putting the boat in at low tide and hoping for the best.

 

*To clarify, and it seems that even in this age of blended families, I must clarify: 
my pop was legally my stepfather, my mother's second husband. He was a command 
sergeant major in the Army, a 3-decade employee of the natural gas industry, 
and the man who managed to raise 5 daughters. 
My biological father is the former drug dealer and all-around scoundrel. 
My pop was my father for 36 years, and as such, has earned the right not to be 
relegated to such halfway titles as "stepfather."

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LieLayLain_Cover.fh11It’s official: my second novel, Lie Lay Lain, is out in the world today. The book is about a special events planner who witnesses a hit-and-run, and makes an impossible promise, a church secretary who turns her life upside down to make a lie true, a paramedic whose whole life is a lie, and a child no one will admit is missing. In short, it’s about so much that I find myself practically rewriting the book every time I try to describe what it’s about.

In honor of its release, I’m giving away a few copies.

First of all, if you drop by Goodreads, you can enter to win one of two copies. You just have to click to enter by April 27th.

If you’re not into Goodreads, you can enter to win right here. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post, and I’ll choose two winners at random on April 8th. If you’re not sure what to comment, I’m taking questions about what it’s really like to be a church secretary.

*I hope that Lie Lay Lain will turn out to be my sophomoric effort from a strictly numerical standpoint, as my second book, and not in the sense of ill-informed or lacking maturity.

 

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I grew up in a small town, one where almost everyone went to church. From the mayor to my eighth grade English teacher to the sad, old, homeless drunk we called Uncle Stanley. In fact, the only person I knew who never went to church was my granddad, who was living proof that there are atheists in foxholes. With the exception of my granddad, my whole family went to church, twice every Sunday, and most Wednesday nights. Whether we wanted to or not. No one in my family was particularly devout, and outside of church we did not pay much lip service to God or the Bible. The only meal we prayed at was Sunday dinner, and then only if eaten at home. In our world view, only “odd birds” prayed in restaurants. In more ways than one, church was less a religious institution and more of a social club.

LieLayLain_Cover.fh11It’s that ethos that informs much of Lie Lay Lain, my second novel, which will be released on April 1. By chance, when I started writing the book, I was working as a church secretary. Not through any great religious zeal, or any notion that working for a church was a higher calling. I needed a job, they needed a secretary, and I was savvy and polite enough to keep my own opinions on religion to myself. There’s no doubt, however, that the book absorbed some of my experiences and observations as a church secretary.

The primary observation that soaked into Lie Lay Lain and its characters is that people who go to church are regular people. I knew that from my childhood, but after 20 years of adulthood, in which I stayed far away from church and religion, I had started to believe the messages about Christians that are so often promoted in the media. The primary message is that Christians are wholesome, inspirational people who obey the Bible and rise above the bad things that happen to them. The message is rarely that Christians are just regular people. When we look at the books and the movies that are promoted as Christian entertainment, so often the product being offered is sanitized. Remove the swear words, the sex, any suggestion at all that Christians are inclined to misbehave just as often as non-Christians. The industries that produce these products sweep the dirt of humanity under the rug and declare their products safe for Christian consumption. Consistent with Christian values.

On the reverse, you can’t help but notice that when a movie or book is proffered as a mainstream entertainment product, spiritual and religious elements are stripped away. Tell me, how often do you read a mainstream book or see a mainstream movie or TV show in which the characters go to church, and it’s not for a wedding or a funeral? If you believe in the mainstream message, average people don’t go to church. They don’t pray. They don’t have crises of faith. Despite this message, we know they do. We know people of all walks of life, who are not puritanical or devout or zealous, yet who value their religion. One of my raunchiest, most irreverently funny friends goes to church every week. She wears a set of rings with Bible verses on them.

As I start to see reactions from readers to Lie Lay Lain, I hear echoes of the responses that I got from agents and editors when I first started looking for a home for the book. People are puzzled to find a book in which mundane life intersects with religious life. More than a few people suggested that I’d find it a lot easier to sell the book if I could strip out either the divine or the profane. If you took out the sex and the swearing, you could sell this as Christian fiction. Or more ominously, If you took out all the church stuff, you’d have a better chance at selling this. A book that has both—sincere prayer and enthusiastic fornication—is an alien concept to many people.

This fact leads me to wonder about how far we’ve gone to segregate things into their “appropriate” niche. If a novel has Christians in it, it must be Christian fiction. You’ll find the same trend repeated throughout your average bookstore. If a novel has a person of color on the cover, it must be African-American fiction. Shelve it over there. If a novel is about gay people, put it over in the LGBTQ section.

The reason behind this pernicious niching is marketing. If we shelve the books in their niche areas, we can help people find the exact kind of books they are most interested in reading, thereby selling more books. It seems to me that in many ways we are walling up certain books and movies into their own entertainment ghettos, and that’s a bad thing. If a reader has to ferret out the tiny African-American section of their local bookstore to even have a chance of stumbling over a novel about people of color, that narrows their view of the world. If all the books you can find about Christians are Christian Fiction, you’re going to develop a skewed perspective about what it means to be Christian.

What I’m saying is, Let’s start seeing other people. Take a chance on something outside your niche. Take a risk with something that doesn’t fit neatly into a box.

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I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve officially signed a contract with Stairway Press to publish my next novel, Lie Lay Lain. Although we haven’t committed to a release date yet, I do expect it to be some time this year.

Considering how slowly publishing tends to move, this book is something of an oddity. My first novel, Last Will, took about three years to write and more than ten to sell. In a turn about, Lie Lay Lain took nine years to write and was sold in less than a year.

I don’t yet have a cover to reveal, but in honor of the signed contract, here’s an excerpt from the book.

***

The church’s Youth Director had an aura of cool that Olivia envied. She knew it influenced her, although she wanted to resist it. Marnie had always been one of the cool kids, Christian or otherwise, and when she tossed her hair back and clasped her hands over her modest cleavage and gold cross necklace, Olivia fell for it all over again.

“I have a huge favor to ask you,” Marnie said. She didn’t say it the way Olivia would have, like a supplicant. She said it with the same inflection she would have used to say, “I have a huge present for you.”

“How huge?” Olivia saved and closed the spreadsheet she’d been working on.

“I need another counselor to go on the Double Cross overnight.”

It was the sort of opportunity Olivia had once been eager for: participating in the youth ministry, making a difference in the kids’ lives, building the future of the church. Once upon a time, she’d been eager to live out all the public relations lingo Marnie used to recruit volunteer chaperones. Then Marnie shut her out, first telling Olivia she was too young to be a counselor and then four years later that she was too old. In short, Marnie didn’t want Olivia to be part of “the gang.” It felt like high school all over again.

Except now, Marnie needed her.

“I can’t. I’ve got plans with a friend.” Olivia reveled in knowing it wasn’t an excuse or a lie. She was supposed to see Rindell that night and she’d already promised Jennifer she’d go with her up to Anastasia State Park on Saturday, to help her find that little girl’s aunt. Olivia had a full weekend that didn’t include work or quilts.

Marnie didn’t even blink. “You could always reschedule with your friend. Double Cross only comes once a year and you can’t reschedule something special like that.”

“I’m sorry. I can’t.” Olivia didn’t care if her bulldog was showing. Marnie’s opportunism was so distasteful now that she could see the underbelly of it.

Two hours later, Marnie sent in the big guns. Pastor Lou poked his head into Olivia’s cubicle, peering at her over the top of his glasses.

“I hate to put you on the spot, Olivia, but I’d like to ask you to do something for me.”

“Double Cross?”

“The difficulty,” Pastor Lou said, in the same voice he used to cajole the deacons board, “is that there’s no time for us to clear someone through the volunteer protocols. You, however, have already been through it, and you’re already on the insurance for the van.”

Olivia didn’t repeat what she’d said to Marnie, that she already had plans. She didn’t mention that she felt pressed into service, taken advantage of, taken for granted.

She said, “Okay, but I have to pack.”

At the hotel in Orlando, the other counselors and youths trundled their luggage down to their rooms. Olivia followed and discovered the full horror of what she’d been strong-armed into. She would be sharing a room with three teenage girls she barely knew. The adjoining suite held three more girls and another chaperone, Amy, one of the cool kids from the Young Couples Bible Study Group.

“We’re in for an adventure,” Amy said chummily, touching up her make-up.

“Yeah.” Olivia wasn’t surprised when they reached the concert venue that she was made to play the adult while Amy went off to chat with Marnie. Olivia was stuck doling out dinner money, corralling teenagers, and being asked, “Will you keep my lip gloss/cell phone/hairbrush/wallet in your purse?”

The music was nothing like the Christian bands of Olivia’s youth, but she preferred the unintelligible lyrics to the MC’s strident voice between bands.

“Give it up for Jesus!” he screeched, encouraging the kids to yell as loudly as they could. “You wanna know who the coolest guy in the world is? It’s Jesus. He’s your best friend, your study partner. He’s the man. Who da man?”

The answer came back in chorus: “Jesus is da man!”

It was all more slickly polished than it had been in Olivia’s day, and she covered her ears to make it bearable. From somewhere in her purse a cell phone vibrated. As she reached into the bag, searching for a phone that was probably not hers, she glanced up and saw two teenagers pressed together against a wall. They were wrapped around each other, kissing feverishly. The boy was a stranger. Or at least Olivia didn’t recognize the back of his floppy blond hair or his sagging jeans, but the girl was one of her own. Erica, in a tiny pink camisole that barely contained her breasts.

“Oh crap,” Olivia said out loud in the din of screaming guitars and teenagers. Her first ever outing as a youth group chaperone and she’d lost a sheep to the wolves.

Her first instinct was to wait for a more experienced counselor to intervene. Her second instinct was to march smartly over to the girl and give her a stern talking to—no, that was more of a fantasy than an instinct. Olivia did in fact take two steps toward the girl, but came up short when the contents of the “stern talking to” failed to materialize.

Her third instinct was to scurry through the crowd and tell Marnie. She found the youth director dancing in the middle of a circle of kids from Church of the Palms. At first Marnie smiled and waved obliviously. Only after Olivia made multiple gestures to her did she approach, frowning.

Leaning close, Olivia shouted into Marnie’s ear, “There’s a problem.”

“What kind of problem?”

“One of the girls is making out with some guy.”

Marnie was all responsible adult then. She followed Olivia back through the crowds, and promptly went into action. With a flurry of gestures and words Olivia couldn’t hear, Marnie separated Erica from the boy and herded her toward the Church of the Palms crowd. She did it without a single glance at Olivia, leaving her alone on the fringe of the crowd with her vibrating purse.

Back at the hotel, Olivia had plenty of time to repent not following her second instinct/fantasy. Marnie and Amy shut all six girls up in one suite with another chaperone and then they rounded on Olivia.

“How long was it going on before you came to get me?” Marnie said.

“I don’t know. I came and got you as soon as I saw it.” Olivia was as stupidly surprised at the contempt in the question as she had been in high school, facing down the random viciousness of cheerleaders.

“Why didn’t you intervene?”

“I didn’t know what to say,” Olivia said.

“How about ‘stop’?”

“We covered this last week,” Amy said. “We talked about abstinence in group last week.”

“I’m not a regular counselor. I don’t go to group.” Olivia hated how plaintive she sounded.

“Well, you can’t let them go off by themselves. You have to stay close to them,” Amy said.

“I can’t believe you didn’t reach out to Selena.” Marnie shook her head in disappointment.

Selena. Not Erica.

“I don’t know her,” Olivia said.

“You should have done something.” Marnie and Amy shook their heads in unison. That robotic self-satisfaction finally roused Olivia to anger.

“You asked me to do this as a favor!”

Marnie was silent for a moment and then in a low, sneaky voice, she said, “I won’t make that mistake again.”

She breezed back through the adjoining suite door and, on the other side, she said, “Everybody gather around. We need to talk about something that happened tonight.”

Olivia and Amy stood in the doorway, watching as Marnie wove her web around a teary-eyed Selena. In a few minutes they were all hugging and crying and saying, “We love you, Selena. We want you to love yourself. We want you to respect yourself.”

In Olivia’s ear, Amy whispered, “Isn’t she amazing? She’s so good with them. It makes me so happy to think she’ll protect them from the mistake I made.”

When Olivia glanced at her, Amy looked away, maybe regretting the confession. She separated herself from Olivia and fell into the arms of the crying, praying monster of teenage girls. Olivia stayed where she was, watching the circle she hadn’t been invited into and never would be.

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