Posts Tagged ‘Beauty of the Broken’

Advice to Beginning Writers by the Incomparable (and Hysterically Funny) Tawni Waters

October 19, 2016

I am so lucky that one of my favorite authors of all time, the supremely talented Tawni Waters, is my client. Tawni won the International Literacy Association YA Award in 2015 for her amazing YA crossover novel, Beauty of the Broken (Simon/Pulse 2014). If you want to read a good example of what MFA writing teachers call “a robust voice”, read the first paragraph of that book. Her newest novel, The Long Ride Home, is being published by Sourcebooks/Fire in June 2017.  I lifted this post from Tawni’s blog.

MY REAL BEST ADVICE FOR BEGINNING WRITERS

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Me looking smug because after two years of book tours, interviews, and Q&As, I finally came up with a non-acid-reflux inducing answer to this question.  Go me!  

Often, in interviews, I’m asked to give my best piece of advice for beginning writers. I always say something vaguely inspiring and possibly smarmy about believing in your dreams, but upon further reflection, I have come to realize that is far from the best piece of advice I have for writers, beginning or otherwise.

About five years ago, I began teaching poetry, fiction, and multi-genre writing workshops at a community college in Phoenix, Arizona. Since then, I’ve sold a few books and have been lucky enough to teach writers of all experience levels, from beginning writers to professional writers, at various institutions, universities, and writer’s conferences. I’ve read and critiqued hundreds of manuscripts, and in so doing, have learned that there are a few mistakes most beginning writers make over and over. And if you, like me (and all editors and agents), read veritable scads of manuscripts, bells start going off in your head the second you see those mistakes. Those bells, fair or not, ding-dong out the word “amateur.”

I don’t stop reading when those bells go off because I love beginning writers. It’s my job to teach them how to be better. I’m so glad someone took the time to teach me when I was a beginning writer, and I want to pay the favor forward. But agents and editors? When they hear those bells, you can bet they will throw your manuscript into the “no thanks” pile and move the heck on.

The biggest mistake most beginning writers make? Trying to be too fancy. I’ve said this a million times to various students, and I’ll probably say it a million more. “Never sacrifice clarity on the altar of pretty.” Beginning writers have heard the statistics. They know, for instance, that 1 out of every 4,000 books written gets agented, and 1 out of every 10,000 books written gets published by a major publisher. They understand they have to be really good to get noticed. They know they need to do something to stand out from the herd. So what they do almost universally is attempt to show off. They use big words when smaller words will do a better job of saying what they need to say. They use weird punctuation instead of adhering to more traditional rules. I’m not putting these people down. God knows I did the same things as a beginning writer. Just ask my teachers. But still.  You asked for my advice.  (Ok, you didn’t, but someone did, and I finally thought of an answer, so I’m giving it to you.)

Let’s start with wacky punctuation. If I had a penny for every time a student has tried to create tension using an ill-placed ellipses, I’d be able to retire from teaching for good. I do not allow my student to use ellipses unless someone dies mid-dialogue. This sentence is acceptable: “When I’m gone, take care of my goldfish,” Bob said, “and my beloved golden. . .” Poor Bob died. He expired mid-sentence, hence the ellipses. Bob, you are forgiven for the cardinal sin of ellipses use. Rest in peace, knowing we will take care of your golden retriever, or goblet, or whatever other gold-ish things you have schlepping around this place.

However, this sentence is not acceptable: “Sally  had no idea why an ax murderer was crouching in her closet. . .” The tension comes from the ax murderer in the freaking closet, not from the ellipses. For god’s sake, put a period at the end of that sentence. Trying to create tension by using ellipses is like trying to be sexy by wearing a leopard print speedo. It’s desperate. It’s overkill. Just don’t.

In other news, don’t use a semicolon when a period will do. Don’t leave out commas to be cool. Your story will tell itself best if you aren’t busy drawing attention to your punctuation for no apparent reason. You dig? Punctuation should be invisible. People should be thinking about your story, not wondering why the hell you used 12 semicolons in your last sentence. (And if you don’t know what the traditional rules of punctuation use are, learn them. A writer who wants to get famous without learning grammar and punctuation is like a musician who wants to get famous without learning to play an instrument. You now what we call those people? Baristas.)

What beginning writers don’t understand, and professional writers do, is that your first job as a writer is to communicate. Writing is a two man sport. It’s always you and a reader. You are always working to make them part of your world. You want your reader to know what is going on at all times, no matter what. Making your words sound pretty is secondary to that goal. Readers will forgive you for not sounding pretty. They won’t forgive you for being confusing.

In my classes, I often draw little, terrible drawings to illustrate my points. I’m a woefully ineffective visual artist, but I’ve never let a minor thing like incompetence get in the way of my aspirations.

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One of my brilliant classroom drawings.  Oh, look at all the lonely people waiting to be connected through the miracle of literature.  

At least once a term, I will be driven to draw a horrible river on the whiteboard. I tell my students that river is their story. Then, I draw a boat that looks a whole lot like an ice cream cone. Heated arguments often erupt about whether or not my boat is really a boat. I erase and redraw the boat until the majority of the class agrees it is a reasonable facsimile of a boat. Then I tell my students that boat is the words they put on the page, their narration. They are inviting readers to hop into said boat and allow themselves to be ushered through the world of the story. I draw happy little stick figure readers, gleefully riding in the writer’s well-crafted boat, digging the ride, enjoying the story.

“Readers expect to be carried safely and seamlessly through the river,” I tell my students. “Every time they have to stop to try to figure out what is going on, they fall out of the boat and start to drown.” Here, I draw stick figure readers, drowning grotesquely. Poor stick figure readers. They trusted the wrong writer. Sometimes they vomit as they die. People do that, you know. And it’s all your fault, confusing writer. You’ve broken your contract with them. And readers don’t like drowning. If you confuse them enough, they will swim out of your story for good. So before you learn to tell a pretty story, learn to tell a clear story.

What exactly does that mean? It means it’s way better to say, “Tom’s arm hurt, and he screamed,” than it is to say, “Tom’s right upper appendage throbbed with the vicious, stabbing brutality that had just been enacted upon his person, and he opened his cracked, supine, vivacious eating instrument and released a blood curdling howl which fell angrily upon the ears of all in the vicinity for miles and miles around that fresh, green, yon valley.” (You think I’m being ridiculous. If I had a penny for every time I read a sentence like that, I could retire from teaching for good and buy a modest castle in France.) If a sentence is confusing when it’s pretty, get rid of the pretty parts and make it simple. And clear. Clarity is your primary objective.

Sorry. I know it hurts. Kill those darlings, my loves. Whether you know it or not, those things you think of as your darlings right now are likely mutant gremlins looking to eat you in your sleep, working to sabotage your dreams, make sure you never publish anything outside your local church bulletin. You will thank me someday for making you murder the fuckers.

People probably think I’m just talking about prose. I’m not. Poetry needs to make some kind of sense too. It doesn’t need to make the linear kind of sense that prose needs to make, but readers do need to walk away from it with some impression of what the hell you were trying to say. You may want your readers to ponder your lines for hours, but you want that to be because your words resonated, because you effectively communicated something that felt authentic to others, not because they had no idea what in the name of all that’s holy you were talking about.

Two years ago, three professional writer friends and I went to a poetry reading at AWP. Knowing what we were in for, we sneaked in some whisky in our coffee cups. Thank God. A young writer got up to read. Wearing a beret. She said, “I’m going to read some poems about my feelings and the migration patterns of herons.” I’m not making this shit up. We all picked up our pens to scribble the sentence down because it was comedy gold. Then we took swigs of our whiskey and set our jaws, the way you do when you are getting a pap smear, and the only thing to do is stare in stoic silence and wait for the torture to end.

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Me drinking with writers.  That whole “writers who drink their sorrows away” cliche is bollocks.  

Every beginning writer wants to write poems about her feelings and the migration patterns of herons. Obscurely. The problem is, readers would rather undergo waterboarding than read them. Please believe me when I say this: no matter what your careful readings of “The Wasteland” have led you to believe, obscurity in writing is not a virtue, in and of itself. By and large, people read things for meaning–meaning that is clearly communicated.

The following bit of writing is an example of poems I often get from beginning writers, writers who believe that someday, ardent poetry students will be digging through their works and biography, trying to make sense of the line, “Fish can be good if cookies are bad,” when finally, one brilliant grad student will discover that the writer’s mother hated cookies, and her dad loved fish. Eureka! We finally understand Gwen! (That’s what I’ve spontaneously decided to name the writer of the upcoming poem.) Sorry, Gwen, my love. Nobody will give a shit about your fucking fish.

I know we’ve all spent years dissecting James Joyce’s obtuse writings, but there was already one James Joyce, and between you and me, one was more than enough. (Here, I apologize to my agent, Andy Ross, who ardently believes that James Joyce was brilliant.  Maybe he was.  But can we agree that whatever Finnegans Wake’s virtues may or may not be, we don’t ever need another one?)

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James Joyce looking smug because he penned a novel that has been torturing grad students for almost a century.  (I guess the girl who’s smug because she came up with an answer to a basic interview question should stop making fun of him.)

 

Student-of-mine, make your words mean something to your reader, make your lines clear and bigger than self, or you will lose your audience. Again, writing isn’t a solitary endeavor. You are always trying to create a connection between you and someone else. Without further ado I give you:

 

GWEN’S SHITTY POEM

Desk. Moonlight

wanders; my sinking eyes

flit to him as tears course down. Fish

can be good if cookies are

bad. Teapot. . . Brew, brew, brew, little

one, Short and stout. . .My childHOOD. . .Years gone;

yon, yawn, brawn. She looks at me with Heavily

lidded eyes; I dream sex: Sex, sex, sEx. . .

More sex. Phallus palace. My father

was. . .They never knew WHY gravel

turned to stone. Heron calls. Oh,

mommy, the heron calls.

You

Rape

me. . .

 

Gwen, my little imaginary Gwen, whom I channeled when I wrote that poem and am now beginning to actively hate, that isn’t a poem. It’s verbal vomit. Within poetry, your words should be connected to one another by a through line of logic. Your nouns/pronouns should refer to someone/something we are consciously aware exists within the world of your poem. Your words must be capitalized for a good reason, and almost always, that reason should be that they fall at the beginning of sentences or are proper nouns. Even in poetry, you cannot sacrifice clarity on the altar of pretty.

Read the best poets you can to get an idea of what I’m talking about. Here are two poems by Grant Clauser, a favorite poet of mine, with whom I was lucky enough to teach at the Rosemont College MFA Retreat over the summer. His work blows me away.

Grant Clauser’s Kick Ass Poems

Notice how you always know what Grant is talking about. Notice there is a through line to his logic. Notice that while his poems may cause you stay up all night pondering the meaning of life/eating habits of bats, you never once ask yourself, “What the hell just happened?” You don’t have the sick, sinking feeling you’ve just borne witness to the literary equivalent of a random drive by shooting, one that you will spend the rest of your life trying to make sense of.  He does talk about his childhood. He does talk about his feelings. He even talks about winged creatures. But he does it in a way that engages others, that says something both fresh and universal about the experience of being human. We don’t need to dig into his biography and know his dad liked fish (or didn’t) to get what he’s trying to say.

Also, notice most of Grant’s words are little. He doesn’t use a “flighted mammalian creature” when a simple “bat” will do. Notice how powerful his work is, in spite of, or perhaps partially because of, his refusal to use fancy language, capitalization, and punctuation. Notice how you want to weep when he says, simply, “And yet we live under a sky/with the miracle of bats—”

Sigh. Poetic power always comes from meaning, not literary sleight of hand. Words move us when they clearly communicate truth that resonates with us, when they give voice to and evoke feelings we have experienced–in this case, awe at the natural world. What if Grant said, “And yet, we reside on a double hemisphered turquoise and emerald ball where flighted mammalian creatures oft take wing.” Not quite the same punch, right? Sometimes, most times, when it comes to writing, less is more. Simple is best.

So here it is, my best piece of advice for beginning writers (cue “Wind Beneath My Wings” now): My darlings, my pretty ones, my literary luminaries in the making, be like Grant when you grow up. Please. For the love of all that is holy, never sacrifice clarity on the altar of pretty. Ever.

 

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UNTIL NOW, I WAS THE RIFFRAFF: WHAT IT MEANS TO WIN THE ILA

July 22, 2015
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Tawni Waters accepting the International Literacy Association YA Award for Beauty of the Broken

Below is an essay my client, Tawni Waters, wrote on receiving the International Literacy Association Award for the best debut YA novel. I always thought that Tawni was the most heart wrenching novelist writing today. It turns out that she is also the funniest. Read it and laugh.

***

I am sitting next to Meg Cabot eating chicken.  The conversation is going well.  I’m totally playing it cool, like I have no idea she’s a bestselling author.  I even get a little piece of parsley stuck between my teeth, you know,  to solidify my “we are just two regular chicks chatting over chicken” routine.  She says something about her books, and I say, “Oh, are you a writer?”

She smiles graciously.  “Yes, I am.”

“Cool, what do you write about?” I ask, throwing back a swig of tea.

“Oh, princesses,” she says.

“That’s awesome,” I say without missing a beat.  “Are they published?”

“Yes,” she says.

“I should totally look those up,” I say and move on to my potatoes.

I could chock my wonderful performance up to the fact that I’m a trained actress, but that would be dishonest.  My spot-on “I don’t know you are rich and famous” performance actually comes from the fact that I don’t know she is rich and famous.  I guess I should have put two-and-two together.  A man in a tuxedo led me to this reserved table at the front of the banquet hall.  I am here to receive the ILA Book Award for Young Adult Fiction, and Meg Cabot is scheduled to speak at the luncheon.  So when this beautiful, poised, funny woman sitting beside me introduced herself to me as Meg, I should have said, ‘A-ha! This is Meg Cabot, writer of the gazillion-dollar earning Princess Diaries.” But I didn’t.  I didn’t because this whole weekend has been overwhelmingly hard-to-believe, so I seem to be coping by subconsciously deciding not to believe it.  I feel like Dorothy transported to Oz, muttering, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” ad nauseam.  I think I may be suffering from mild shock.

It all started when I arrived at the Four Seasons in St. Louis after a two day road trip from Minneapolis.  My publisher, Simon & Schuster, had offered to fly me in for the event, but I wanted to bring my friend Polyxeni, you know, for moral support, so I wouldn’t make an idiot of myself in front of Meg Cabot or anything.  Polyxeni is a book buyer for the St. Paul Library System, and from the minute I found out I won the ILA, she told me it was a big deal.  A huge deal.  A life-changing deal.  So did Simon & Schuster. So did my agent, Andy Ross.  I didn’t believe any of them.

“Last year’s winner was Rainbow Rowell,” Polyxeni said slowly over coffee, as if talking to a brain-damaged child.  “Do you get that?  Rainbow Rowell?”

I nodded.  Sure, I knew who Rainbow Rowell was.  Who didn’t?  What did that have to do with me?

“Her book is being made into a Pixar movie now!  This award changes the career trajectory of everyone who wins it!”  Polyxeni enthused.

I wondered why she was being so pushy.  And why was she using big words like “trajectory”?  Did she think I was a scientist or something?  Show off.  Suffice it to say, out of self-preservation, I decided to miss the point.  I think it was because I had been a struggling artist for so many decades, the thought of all that changing seemed impossible to me.  I didn’t want to get my hopes up only to find them dashed.  It was easier not to believe.

We arrived in St. Louis looking just about like people who have been driving and eating Pringles for two days should look, which is to say, dead shmexy.  I knew Simon & Schuster was going to be putting me up at the Four Seasons, but I didn’t know what that meant.  I guessed Four Seasons was sort of like Holiday Inn—nice, clean, probably no roaches in the showers.   When we walked through the doors, I thought four things:

  1. Now I know what the phrase “smells like money” means.
  2. Maybe I should have put on a fresh T-shirt, one without the Jaws emblem.
  3. Is everything here made out of actual marble, or is that pen faux marble?
  4. I hope that mini-van-sized chandelier doesn’t fall on my head.

After checking in, Polyxeni and I stepped onto the elevator.  “Why do you have to put your key in?” she whispered.

“To keep the riffraff out,” I said.  “Which is weird, because until now, I was the riffraff.”

We laughed and rode the elevator to the 15th floor where a beautiful woman was waiting for us with our luggage (a very stained polka-dotted roll-along and an army green duffel bag, respectively).  She showed us around our room, making sure to point out the television hidden in the bathroom mirror, just in case we wanted to watch Seinfeld reruns while we were freshening up, after which she offered to bring up bath salts and bubble bath, should we decide to take advantage of the amenities.  She pointed at the marble encased tub, as if we could miss it.  The bathtub was roughly the size of the Aegean Sea.  I suddenly understood why rich people so often drowned in their bathtubs.  I asked Polyxeni if she had brought our life jackets.  She hadn’t.  We decided to take our chances with the drowning and said yes to the bath salts.

After the woman left, Polyxeni and I glanced around our room in awe, commenting on the St. Louis arch glinting in the sun just outside our window.  Then we flopped on the giant bed at its center.

“It feels like a cloud!” Polyxeni giggled.  She was right.  It did.  I was pretty sure we’d been transported to heaven.  We bumbled around for a bit, smelling shampoos and tasting pillow mints and acting like a scene from The Beverly Hillbillies.

That night, Polyxeni and I went to the hotel restaurant for a celebratory dinner.  Our waiter was a lovely girl.  She seemed to know who I was.  As she poured my champagne, she called me Ms. Waters with a sort of reverence I am not used to.  Sometimes, my community college students would say my name that way at the end of a semester, when they deserved an F and wanted a C.  But this felt sincere.  During the course of dinner, every waiter in the restaurant came to meet me.  They brought me a little dessert plate that had “congratulations” written on it in chocolate.  Polyxeni assured me that she hadn’t told them about my award.  That’s when I started to think that maybe, just maybe, Polyxeni and Simon & Schuster and my agent hadn’t been lying when they said this award was a big deal.

The next day’s events were even more surreal.  I had a signing at one.  Rewind with me for a minute: Beauty of the Broken was released almost a year ago.  I have pretty much been on book tour since then.  I am not new to signings.  I have signed books all over the USA, in coffee shops and bookstores and libraries and schools.  What I have learned about book signings is that they are very unpredictable things.  Sometimes, 50 people show up (if you are signing in your hometown).  Sometimes, two people show up, and you take them out for wine and Chinese food because you are embarrassed they bothered to show up when no one else did.  So I warned Polyxeni at lunch.  “Don’t expect much from the signing.  I’m not sure people will show up.”

“Oh, they’ll show up. Trust me,” she said.  Poor Polyxeni.  She just didn’t understand the nuances of the publishing business.

Or maybe she did.  The second I sat down to sign, a line formed.  A long line.  It stretched out of sight.  People gushed as I signed their books.

“You’re my daughter’s favorite author.  I can’t believe I get to meet you!”

“Make it out to my wife!  She’s your biggest fan!”

“Can I get a picture with you?”

I handled all of this with the grace and dignity of a seasoned author, which is to say, I didn’t throw up on anyone.  After 20 minutes, we had to end the signing, not because the line had dwindled, but because we ran out of books.  I don’t know how many books we had to start with, but I can tell you we had bunches.  Bunches and bunches.  I walked away dazed.  Again, it occurred to me that this award might actually mean something.  Could it be that my career was really going to change?

That night, Simon & Schuster hosted a “family dinner,” which meant that they brought a handful of really cool marketing people and authors together in a posh restaurant and fed them amazing food.  (Full disclosure:  I had never been invited to a Simon & Schuster family dinner before.)  It was beautiful.  I ordered steak and three glasses of champagne because I could.  (I noticed another author ordered four neat whiskeys, so I figured I was ok.)  After we were well into the main course, Candice, the extraordinary library and marketing person who had organized the event, suggested we go around the table and introduce ourselves.  We did.  Everyone said his or her name, the title of his or her latest book, and the name of his or her editor.  When my turn came, I said just those things.  Candice looked at me expectantly.  “Don’t you have something else to tell them?” she asked.  What was she talking about?  I looked at her blankly.

“Your award?” she prodded.  “I think we can tell them even though it’s a secret.  No one will say anything.”

My award?  It was a big enough deal that I could say it to this room full of important people and expect them to be impressed?  “Well, Beauty of the Broken won the ILA Book Award for Young Adult Literature,”  I said, feeling almost sheepish, expecting everyone to nod politely and go back to nibbling cheeses.  I probably will never forget that moment as long as I live.  The expressions on the faces at the table changed.  They were impressed.  Amazed even.  Everyone clapped and congratulated me.

“Thank you,” I said, learning to love the attention.

And then, a bunch of naked guys rode by the window on bikes and stole my thunder.  No, I’m not making this up.  There was a nude bike rally in St. Louis that night, and it happened to pass the restaurant where we were eating.  Everyone forgot my award, ran to the window, and started shrieking, “Oh, my god!  Did you see his ______?”  (Sidenote: if you ever want to be cured of the demon of lust, watch a naked bike rally.)  Which made me go, “Ok, now I get it!  This is a dream!”  But it wasn’t a dream.  I don’t think.  Maybe it is.  Maybe I just haven’t woken up yet.

The next day, I accepted my award shortly after I realized who Meg Cabot was.  “Oh, my god!  You’re that Meg!”  I said, looking at the giant screen behind us, onto which was projected a God-sized picture of Meg, along with photos of her zillion best selling novels.

“Yes,” she laughed.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.  “I feel so dumb.”

“Don’t worry,” she said.  “I get tired of that other stuff anyway.”

I don’t know if I will ever be Meg Cabot.  I don’t know if I will ever get enough of this “other stuff” to get tired of it.  Right now, two days after coming home from the ILA Conference, I’m still blown away that any of that “other stuff” is coming my way at all.  Already, people care about Beauty of the Broken in a way they never have.  People I don’t know are Tweeting about me.  I’ve already been asked to speak at a major conference. Facebook, the litmus test of all that is good and likable in this world, tells me that people like me way more than they did two weeks ago.  And this is just the beginning.

After the banquet, I attended a panel where a brilliant professor taught people how to teach Beauty of the Broken in the classroom.  I looked down at the worksheet she handed me, taking in phrases like “feminist critique” and “Marxist analysis” in relation to my characters.  Stay with me here: Those weird little figments of my imagination are now going to be used to torture high school and college students everywhere.  Someday, a few months from now, a year from now, some poor NYU freshman will be popping No-Doz, analyzing the socio-economic implications of Iggy’s quilt.  “Why do you think the author used Iggy’s quilt so often in the text?” some well-meaning teacher will ask, and the student will write an essay about this, a terrible essay, an essay that mixes up “you’re” and “your” and postulates that Iggy’s quilt is a symbol of the various facets of bourgeois oppression in the 21st Century.

And I will be sitting at home saying, “Ha, suckers!  The author used Iggy’s quilt so much because she knew she needed to write a few physical details to help readers visualize the scene, and she was way too hopped up on caffeine to think of anything fresh, so she referenced the dumb blanket again!”

Maybe I shouldn’t write that down.  Maybe I should just pretend I meant all the profound things students will someday say I meant.  Thanks to the ILA, I am a serious writer.  But the transition is hard.

After all, up until now, I was the riffraff.

Tawni Waters on Beauty of the Broken

October 1, 2014
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photo copyright Joe Birosak

beauty of the broken coverEvery once in awhile, you read a book that grabs your heart and won’t let go. It doesn’t happen very often. When it does, it stays with you forever. For me that book is Beauty of the Broken by Tawni Waters, released this week by Simon/Pulse. I suppose you could say this is a YA lesbian coming of age novel. But that’s a little like saying Moby Dick is a book about fishing. It’s the story of Mara, a 15 year old girl growing up in a small town in New Mexico in a family that raises the meaning of “dysfunctional” to a new level. On the first page, Mara’s drunken father smashes her beloved brother, Iggy, with a two by four causing permanent brain damage. The stakes are raised when Mara  finds herself falling in love with the new girl in a town where lesbians are considered “abominations”. The scene describing Mara’s recognition of this first love is one of the most memorable portrayals of that universal experience I have ever read.

Early readers have characterized Beauty of the Broken as “heart wrenching”,  “devastating”,  and “unforgettable”.  And, indeed, when I read it, I found myself finishing the book at 3 AM and sobbing like a baby. But it’s also a triumphant and  life affirming book and one that gives a universal message of the virtue of human courage. Beauty of the Broken is an astonishing book.

Today we are going to interview Tawni Waters and talk to her about her creative process.

Andy: Tawni, can you tell us a little about how you conceived of Beauty of the Broken.

Tawni: Honestly, I didn’t conceive of the novel.  I conceived of a character named Mara, a brilliant, tormented girl who was dealing with some really ugly abuse, trying to come to terms with her identity in a hyper-religious small town.  It’s so cliché, but I swear, I didn’t invent this thing.  Mara told me her story, and I wrote it down.  She was that real to me.

I didn’t originally write Mara as a lesbian character–that part of her emerged slowly, as I was writing later drafts of the book.  She would wax poetic about Xylia [the new girl in the school], and finally one day, I said, “Hey, wait.  I think Mara is in love with Xylia.”

Beyond wanting to write a story about this character who just grabbed hold of my heart , I wanted to write a book about the struggle between love and dogma.  I always say, “If your dogma is stronger than your love, you are in danger of atrocity.”  Mara’s sexual orientation only heightened the themes that were emerging as I wrote the first draft.

Andy: When I read the book, I knew on the first paragraph that it was special. But you wrote it years ago. Why did you wait so long to try to get it published.

Tawni: Because I thought it sucked.  Not really.  Actually, I thought it was good in the early years.  I tried to publish it, but when nothing came of it, I stuffed it in a drawer and forgot about it.  I’d take it out and dust it off every once in a while.  But for the most part, I let it lie fallow.  It was nothing more than a faint memory by the time I sent it to you, believing you’d think it sucked too.

Andy: How has the book changed from your first draft.

Tawni: Where do I start?  In the first draft, Iggy [Mara’s brother] remained lucid throughout the book and died in a war.  Xylia was his girlfriend.  Mara and Xylia’s love affair didn’t really develop until late drafts of the novel.  In the early drafts, they were just close friends.

The only thing that has remained constant during the various drafts is the Stonebrook family dynamic and Mara’s character and voice.  Everything else was a crapshoot.  You know that Stephen King quote, “Kill your darlings.  Kill your darlings.  Though it break your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”  Well, I’m a professional darling killer.  There are probably a thousand pages of Beauty of the Broken lying on the cutting room floor.  Very little of what I wrote made the final draft.

Andy: People are just beginning to read BOTB. The reactions by readers is unbelievably emotional. The book seems to be touching them in some deep place. Can you describe that and maybe explain it?

Tawni: I was talking to my students about this subject today.  I told them a story from my life–the death of my beloved father–in all its gory detail, and almost cried as I was telling it to them.  I wasn’t trying to manipulate them emotionally, nor was I trying to cry.  I just let myself be vulnerable and honest.  I let myself feel the emotion of the memory.   Because I was so deeply invested in my story, they all became emotional too during the telling.  Then, I told them that the intensity and emotional connection I displayed during that telling is where they have to go if they want to touch readers in a deep, true place.

Part of this probably goes back to my dramatic training.  I was an actor for years, so I think sometimes my acting bleeds into my writing.  I know how to authentically emotionally connect to artistic material.   But beyond that, I just have a gift for living in the moment, for really feeling things.  (I call it a gift now, but ask me if it’s a gift after a couple of glasses of wine, or after some cruel creature has broken my heart.)

Ultimately, I think that people respond emotionally to my writing because I am responding emotionally when I write.  I am giving them an authentic, vulnerable piece of myself.  I think our society often conceives of art as this thing that elevates an artist over her audience, but I think of it as a bridge that connects equals.  The first storytellers were connecting with their clans around campfires.  I don’t put a literary method on the page.  I put my heart on the page.

Of course, I’ve taken years to hone my craft, so I’ve learned how to go back and clean my heart up after it’s on the page.  This is important too.  Hearts are pretty, but they’re sloppy sometimes.

Andy:  I like Nietzsche. In his Birth of Tragedy, he talked about Greek tragedy as being a combination of the rational spirit of Apollo with the ecstatic sensibility of Dionysis. The words of the play being Apollonian and the music, the chorus, being Dionysian. I see this same dichotomy in the creative work of writers, particularly writers like yourself who seem so in touch with an inexplicable creative spirit. It seems to me that stories come to you almost effortlessly, but then you need to do the hard work of perfecting them.  Can you tell me about this?

Tawni: You had me at Dionysus.  Really.  I’m a sucker for all things Greek.  I think for me, creative writing requires two distinct processes.  During the first, I let down all my walls, write whatever comes into my pretty little head.  I barely lift my fingers from the keyboard.  I don’t censor myself.  I just let whatever wants to be written–good, bad, or ugly–make its way onto the page.  I think of creating a literary work of art as being something like creating a sculpture.  You can’t make a sculpture without clay, so during the first draft, you are just throwing clay in a box.

But during the second draft, the second process, you are really starting to shape the clay.  You are cutting out the ugly stuff.  You are moving things around.  You are killing the hell out of your darlings.  I have great reverence for art, so I take my darling killing seriously.  If the writing isn’t masterful, it hits the cutting room floor.  And I don’t stop at a second draft.  I worked on Beauty of the Broken on and off for fifteen years, so you can imagine how many drafts went into hat.

Andy: Barnaby, New Mexico is the small town where Mara lives. The spiritual life of the community is dominated by Reverend Winchell a fire and brimstone preacher, who sees homosexuality as an “abomination”. Your father was a clergyman. I don’t imagine he shares any similarities with Reverend Winchell.

Tawni: Actually, my father, the late, great Timothy John Hackett, was the antithesis of Reverend Winchell.  He was the most loving human being I have ever known, and if I can be remembered as being even a tenth of the human being he was, I’ll be happy with my life’s accomplishments.  He was the one who taught me unconditional love, who taught me the difference between a loving God and cruel religion.  I deliberately dedicated this book to my parents, saying they taught me the way of love, so that no one would ever confuse them with Reverend Winchell.  I feel like I owe everything that is good in me to the influence of my wonderful parents.

I actually based Reverend Winchell on a preacher I heard once in Roswell.  He screamed, “God hates fags!” from the pulpit.  I sat there trying to pick my jaw up off the floor, utterly astounded that there were people in the world who were that dark and closed-minded, and outraged that he was foisting his bigotry and hatred on God.  If you’re going to be that stupid, dude, at least take responsibility for it.  Don’t drag God into your idiocy.  (That preacher had a big truck.  I think he was compensating for something.  I’m just saying.)

Andy: Beauty of the Broken has been characterized as a lesbian coming of age story. As I said at the beginning, that doesn’t begin to do credit to the book. But that’s a big part of the story, Mara’s discovering her attraction to Xylia. Are you a lesbian? Is this a story that is mostly going to resonate with lesbians? Or is there something more universal here?

Tawni:.  As I said, I didn’t set out to write a lesbian novel.  I set out to write a story about the battle between love and dogma.  Mara’s character emerged as a lesbian, but that was secondary to her humanity, as well it should be.  Anyone’s sexual orientation should be secondary to his or her humanity, yes?

Am I a lesbian?  Every time I tell people I have written a lesbian coming of age novel, they ask me this question.  The answer is no, I am not a lesbian.  I am not a huge fan of labels, at least not for myself.  I believe firmly in love.  I believe love–true, selfless love–is holy in all of its manifestations.  I love who I love, regardless of the package they come in.  I am a love-ian.

Andy: Tawni, that’s a good note to leave on. Tawni is going to be doing events at various venues throughout the country. Here are a few:

October 4: Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, Arizona

October 18: Bookworks, Albuquerque, New Mexico

November 7: Book Passage, Corte Madera, California

November 10: Rosemont College, Rosemont, Pennsylvania