City Girl Confessions: The Details that Stay With Us

IMG_6810City Girl Confessions is my recurring column in The Glencoe Anchor.

One of the best parts about living in a city…is escaping it. Yes, I’m a firm believer of restorative exploration and getting out of a comfort zone. If density and skyscrapers are your thing, time to venture to green grasses and quiet evenings. And vice versa: it’s good to dial up the energy by sneaking away to the city lights. 

Years ago, back when I called Chicago home, I craved the occasional escape. It felt good to get away just as it felt good to come back. Would you guess that one of my very favorite times of year to escape the city and soak up the suburbs was early October? 

Driving along residential roads, I would gaze out the window at the various front porches and doorsteps, completely lost in bliss. Each home’s doorstep was fully decked out in seasonal splendor: smooth, round pumpkins, tall corn stalks, little hay bales, and oodles of potted chrysanthemums in shades of gold, orange, and aubergine. 

Call it basic, but these artful doorsteps were an intricate fantasy for me. I didn’t just see jack-o-lanterns and flowers…I saw a vision of what my life could be like. I thought about a doorstep that children would come home to, fresh from the school bus. I thought about trick-or-treaters in October, reaching high on tip-toe to ring the doorbell. I imagined a dog perched near the window and birds in the trees out front. But mostly, I thought about the notion that our front doors really do represent the most beautiful welcome for visitors- whether they be expected, or just driving by while lost in daydreams.

Perhaps that’s why I find myself scooping up armloads of gourds  and positioning potted mums in just the right place. Maybe that’s why I don’t mind stringing orange lights on the bushes. Because there is a weirdly cool feeling that comes from realizing that the thing you fantasized about has come to fruition. The holiday-themed patio? The whimsical decor? The bus stop, the trick-or-treaters, even the birds chirping out the window? I can claim all of it as reality…and it’s a wonderful reality to hold onto and lock away in a memory bank.

I’ll confess: I will always covet returning to my city girl roots. I will always champion restorative exploration. And maybe one day, far into the future, my kids will drive around Glencoe in those early moments of October, and they will look out the window and dream. Whatever the vision, whatever takes hold, it will be theirs to cherish. 

Let us not forget the details that stick around, for it is possible to find significance in something very small. As a new month unfolds itself, someone, somewhere is opening a car door, stepping a foot out in the world, and breaking into a wide smile. 

Convos With Writers: 11 Questions with Bethany Neal

When I was 17 I was reallllly into headbands, Green Day CDs, and Doc Martens. Oh and I regularly took style cues from Tracy Flick. Ah memories!

But here’s what sticks from that time: the power of a crush, the tight bond of friendships, and the deep, frustrating awkwardness of having zero self-confidence. In short? It is so hard to really ‘get’ teenagers.

Enter someone who does: sweet Bethany Neal, YA author of My Last Kiss and Halloween enthusiast (so we’re practically gothic, spooky soul mates, ya’ll).

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Yeah, she’s cooler than an ice cream cone. So before things get all melt-y let’s dive in.

1. What do you write and what are you reading? I write YA with a little dark side and a lot of kissing. I love writing anything that dangles a lingering question in front of the reader like a juicy carrot. It’s always so much fun to keeping secrets from readers! I read what I write (which is great advice for all writers). So lots of mysteries, darker contemporary stories, predestined love stories. For me, a good book is all about character voice. Right now I’m reading Nova Ren Suma’s 17 & Gone.

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2. Talk to me about the influence of music. Music is huge for my writing process. I actually got the idea for My Last Kiss from a Metric song called “Help, I’m Alive”. I watch a lot of music videos to get inspired, too. They’re like little mini movies that pique my storytelling feelers because a song is only a couple minutes long. After I watch a video that exercises good storytelling, I always get this itching in the back of my brain that there’s more to the story. And, if I’m lucky, I start to fill in the blanks and begin fleshing out a new novel. I’m constantly trying to find meaning behind the story a song tells to me.

3. What books shaped your childhood? Anything R.L. Stine. I am addicted to dark and spooky! Also, the Baby-Sitter’s Club books. My friends and I were obsessed! Claudia was my favorite. (Editor’s note: I call BS; everyone knows Stacey was the best)

4. Who are your mentors? Hmm, this is a tough question. I had a couple very successful authors very generously (and randomly) be kind enough to read my work before I even landed my agent. They helped me immensely with character voice and story construction. I will be forever in debt to them, but I don’t necessarily keep in close touch with them the way I would a true mentor.

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5. Wildest dream/goal you have for yourself? I have always, from day one, wanted to be interviewed in Entertainment Weekly or to have them review one of my novels. That magazine is, no joke, one of the top reasons I started writing. They write how my brain thinks. (As for) dream: Walk a red carpet.

6. Tell me about writing sex scenes. I’m a fan of sensory details over physical. Sex scenes and fights scenes are actually quite similar in that respect. It’s a lot more entertaining to be inside the character’s head as opposed to reading an instruction of what’s happening. I’m also a huge fan of the fade-to-black fake out. What I mean by that is the author ends a chapter just as things get steamy. This happens a lot in movies just as the couple hits the bed. The fabulous luxury books have is being able to go back in the next chapter via the character’s memory of the moment. This is almost better than an in-the-moment sex scene because we not only get the rose-colored glasses view (always more sultry) but we also feel redeemed because we thought we weren’t going to get the steamy details then wham! The author fakes you out and makes you swoon. So good.

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7. Who do you love and how does that sneak into your writing? Characters from TV shows, movies, and books that I adore. I picture them in my head as I write. It’s almost like having a friend beside you telling what to say in the next line of dialogue (I promise the voices in my head are only real on the page!) A lot of writers try very hard to make everything they write 100% their own. I’m not like that at all. When I write it’s a pop cultural homage to all the writers, directors, and actors who have made me who I am today. I love them, and why not write what you love?

8. You write for young adults. How do you slip into the voice and heart of a teenager? I wish it was harder for me to do because that would mean I’d somehow grown and evolved. Alas, I am ever and eternally approximately 17 years old…mentally. It probably doesn’t hurt that the majority of my favorite shows are on MTV and I read almost exclusively YA. I think this goes back to the reading what you write thing. In order to stay in touch with your audience you need to be part of it. I will say, again, though that music is a huge help. I make playlists for every book I write and each character has his/her own theme song. All I have to do is sit in front of my computer, play that song, and I’m transported. I live for that feeling!

9. Tell me about failure and rejection. Do I have to? As a writer, rejection is unavoidable. There isn’t a single book in the world that everyone enjoys. Training yourself to accept that is key to persevering in publishing. I try my best to view obstacles and perceived failures as wreckage that falls in front of me, not to block me, but to build a staircase for me to climb higher.

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10. What inspires story ideas for you, and what inspired the story for My Last Kiss? Spoiler alert (re: question #2), My Last Kiss was inspired by a song. At its core though, my source of inspiration comes from writing what I want to understand. They say write what you know, but I believe you should write what you want to know. I’m constantly trying to figure out why humans are such complex little monsters.

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11. Tell me a story about a story: When I was in fourth grade, my best friend  told me a story about a boy who was locked away inside the walls of his home because his parents were punishing him for being too loud. Oh, and his parents also cut out his tongue, ya know, because he was so loud. I was terrified until a few months later her older brother rented a movie called The People Under the Stairs that had an eerily similar plot. To this day, I’m not sure if I was more mad that she essentially plagiarized Stephen King’s story or that she’d made me watch a horror movie when I was nine.

Extra credit: Bethany usually writes or edits while laying on the floor and if she weren’t a badass writer she’d be an actress (longtime dream still holding strong!).

Tons of thanks to Miss B for caring and sharing a whole slew of good tips and solid stories. Peruse her playful website, The Writertorium, and follow her nail art and cat captures on Instagram. Giver her a follow on Twitter here. Oh, and buy her book which is so good at getting your head and heart back to high school.

***As part of this series, writers are asked to submit photos capturing who they are as well as a glimpse of his/her writer life. Images above include author’s headshot, book cover, photo with her writing partner (yep, her cat), and the moment her book was released at Barnes & Noble (Ann Arbor, MI location). 

***Know someone that would be a great fit for 11 Questions? Nominate them or yourself by reaching out to me at KellyQBooks (@) gmail (dot) com.