Deadly Design: An excerpt for your pleasure :)

This excerpt from Deadly Design is one of my favorite scenes, but it requires just a little backstory. Kyle and Connor are identical twins, who were born two years apart. They were conceived in a fertility lab because their parents carry a gene for a deadly disorder. Their perfect egg was created and then split into identical twins. In the hopes of ensuring safe pregnancies, Connor was born first, while Kyle spent two years frozen in the lab.

The family doesn’t realize that the boys have been genetically altered to be superior beings. Connor succeeds at everything he does, and Kyle, being two years younger, doesn’t think he can compete with his brother’s greatness, so he doesn’t try. Over the years, he starts to resent his brother’s almost superstar status in their small town, so much so that he flips off anyone who accidently calls him by his twin brother’s name.

The following scene occurs after Connor dies on his eighteenth birthday and Kyle is asked to read Connor’s valedictorian speech during, what should have been, Connor’s high school graduation.

Hope you enjoy!

chromosomes 3d illustration

There is silence, real silence. There are hundreds of people surrounding me.

Hundreds of people breathing and fidgeting and thinking. And staring. The principal has said something. She introduced me, and the gymnasium has filled with the silence of waiting.

I stand, then walk, taking a second to look at my parents. They’re sitting in the first row behind the graduating students, and while I know they want to give me encouraging smiles, smiles to settle my nerves, they can’t. I reach the podium, look down, and start reading. It’s typical stuff, at least what filters through the haze in my brain. Motivational, fortune-cookie shit. “Work hard and you can accomplish anything. Don’t let the difficulties of life dissuade you from your dreams, blah, blah, blah.” And then there’s a space between paragraphs and a handwritten note. It reads Find Kyle in the audience. Look at him. Don’t say another word until he sees you.

I glance back at the principal. She nods her head knowingly at me and smiles with trembling lips. I look up at the crowd of faces staring down at me. I’m searching through them, but for a second, I’m not sure if I’m looking for Connor or looking for me. I go back to the words.

“Kyle,” I read, “I don’t believe in regrets, at least most of the time I don’t. I don’t regret that we were born separately, because the truth is, if Mom had tried to carry us both at the same time, we might both be dead now.”

Everyone is quiet, breath-held kind of quiet. No one fidgets against the hard chairs; no one fans themselves with their programs or turns through the pages to see how much longer this will take. Even the quivering cries of a discontented infant stop. All anyone can hear are the electric fans moving back and forth to aid the school’s ancient air conditioning system.

“I guess I do regret a few things. I regret that I didn’t wait for you. I arrived on the path first, and I ran ahead, so far ahead that you couldn’t catch up. I shouldn’t have done that. To make it worse, being twins, I should have figured that people would always be comparing us. It was up to me to set the bar, and I set it too high – for both of us. There’s always been this thing inside me, pushing me to be perfect. And once it started, it was like running down a hill, and you can’t stop, because if you try, you’ll fall, and the hill is so steep you know you won’t survive.

“I’ll never forget when you were in first grade. We were walking home, an you wouldn’t talk to me because the teacher made you miss recess when you didn’t get a perfect score on your spelling test. She thought that because we have the same DNA, we’d have the same brain, the same likes and dislikes. But the truth is I had to learn those words. Maybe it’s that oldest child syndrome or something. I had to get them right, but you didn’t. You could have if you’d wanted to, but you didn’t, and that’s okay. Hell, that’s great, as long as you know you could have.

“I regret now that I studied for those stupid tests. I mean, really, who cares if a seven-year-old can spell umbrella or a ten-year-old can recite the fifty state capitals? It doesn’t say anything about who we are. Not really. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have taken Calc 2 or Spanish 4. I don’t think I would have even gone out for track or football. Not because I don’t think education is important or because I don’t love sports, but because there’s no achievement in my life that means as much as being able to walk the path with you. You are my brother…and I love you.” I say these words slowly because they are for me. They are mine. “Nothing means more than that. And to all of you out there who have ever called Kyle ‘Connor,’ and especially to all of you who ever judged my brother for not learning his spelling words or his state capitals or his quadratic equations, this is for you.”

It doesn’t say anything else, but I know exactly what Connor intended to do. I look out at the young and old and middle-aged faces. I take a deep breath and, with tears burning in my eyes, extend my middle finger to the crowd.

Sleeping with the Lights On

I’ve recently started a new manuscript. The idea has been swimming around in my brain for a while, but I was somewhat reluctant to pursue it.

Part of it was timing. Part of it was fear.

Concept of security. Silhouette of refugees climb over the barbed wire at the border

All writers know the importance of research — of immersing oneself in the real world to help you create an authentic fictional one. For Deadly Design, I had to swim in the waters of DNA and ghost hearts and all things genetic. While science certainly has it gray areas and ethical dilemmas, this new project requires me to delve into a world which will NOT leave me unscathed.

One of the things I love most about writing is how writers become mini-authorities on the various topics that come into their fictional worlds. It’s fun to learn about science or space or history. But sometimes we get ideas for stories that are of a darker nature.

I have never been to a war-torn country. I have never seen, first hand, the way war destroys everything. But I have this idea, an idea that I truly love and that I believe could become an amazing piece of literature. Do I want to learn what war tastes and smells and feels like? No.

I don’t want to experience it first hand, and yet I want to create it on the page. So how do I do that?

I’ve talked before about writing naked — figuratively speaking — and when it comes to research, it’s the same.

If we are to have vulnerable characters, we have to become vulnerable ourselves. If war changes people, we have to be open to changing ourselves.

I have literally watched hours upon hours of war videos and interviews, and each is like having a flu shot, only instead of protecting me from some awful virus, the exposure makes me feel things — awful things, but necessary things.

When Elizabeth Kostova was researching and writing The Historian, I’m sure she slept with the lights on, and maybe with garlic hanging from her bedroom door. She created a world where vampires seemed as real as anything anyone had ever read about in a history textbook, and I’m sure there were times when she wanted to take a shower in holy water.

Eilean Donan castle in the night, Scotland

We expect our characters to learn and to grow. But before we can create our characters and create their world, we, as writers, have to grow and to grow, we must be vulnerable.

We have to be willing to put ourselves on the front lines. We have to be willing to expose ourselves to things that might make us toss and turn at night. To things that might make us cry and make our souls age.

Before we can make our readers cry or cringe, before we can make their hearts double-over with joy or sorrow, we have to open ourselves to those emotions.

What would life be like without stories? The best stories are often the ones where invisible fingers reach from the pages like spirits and they inhabit us. They make us feel something new and unique. The make the reader more than they were before they started reading.

As authors, as creators of the stories, we must lay ourselves wide to the world, not to sacrifice ourselves for our art, but to become more. To get the stories right, even if it means sleeping with the lights on.

The Homicide of the Arts

When I was a kid, I attended a small school that literally sat in the middle of cow pasture. It was a nice school, even having solar power which was very innovative for the time. We had music, band, drama and jewelry making — some the basic outlets thought sufficient for young people’s budding artistic sides.

June of this year, my young adult medical thriller, Deadly Design, was released by G.P. Putnam & Sons. I’ve always loved writing, and I remember receiving some encouragement from one of my teachers, but creative writing wasn’t taught or really encouraged. That’s why I thought I’d offer myself as a speaker in some of the schools in my area.

Deadly Design is a novel dealing with real science, both science that’s actually possible now and technologies that are in the works and will be possible in the very near future. Talking about the wonders of DNA and technology, coupled with the ability to talk about creative writing seems like a combination that could really inspire students.

Now I know that right now, especially in my home state, schools are strapped for money, and as a true believer in giving back, I offered to speak to students free of any fee. While some teachers are open to having authors come and speak with students, one district reacted in a way that was somewhat surprising to me. Basically I was told that any form of assembly in the school would take away from the time students have to prepare for standardized testing.

Hmm.

I will say that this did not come from a high up school official, but from a staff member who believed attempting to speak at the school would be pointless due to the time factor and the schools policy against assembles — large or small. Students need to have every possible moment dedicated to achieving high scores on their standardized tests.

Time to vent.

Okay, I’m not Stephen King or Neil Gaiman. I’m a local author, lucky enough to land a book deal with one of the big publishers. But as a kid from Kansas, I can tell you that having a local author come to one of my classes and tell me that someone who grew up looking out the window at cows could actually achieve such a thing, would have been amazing. Maybe even life changing.

Right now there may be a student who could be the next the King or Gaiman or Hemingway. Maybe all that student needs is a spark of inspiration. Maybe there’s a student who could be the next Stephen Hawking, just waiting to be dazzled by the mysteries and wonders of science, but alas, those students need to study for their tests.

To some extent, education has always been about conformity, but never to the extent that is it today. Just yesterday one of my students told me that she was denied access to certain courses in high school because she was told she should go in to a career working with her hands and not her mind.

Over 50 million children attend public schools in the United States. We hear about art and music programs being cut. Already, creative writing classes are basically nonexistent. We live in a society where children are exposed to a whole host of issues that would cause anxiety in the strongest of individuals, and yet instead of helping them deal with those issues through creative outlets, we add stress to their lives by forcing them to conform, to think inside the box.

In other posts, I’ve talked about my concern about the current suicide rates among children and teens. Suicide is the third leading cause of death amongst teens. We know that artistic outlets have helped children around the world in dealing with issues of anxiety, depression, even post traumatic stress disorder, and yet when kids are trying to figure out who they are, what their place in this complex world is, we put astronomic pressure on them to be “standard”. To pass tests that have bearing on the school’s budget, but not on the students’ lives. All while stripping them of the various ways that exploring the arts can offer in leading them to self-discovery.

I’m just one author, one voice in the cosmos, but there are seven billion voices in our cosmos, 300 million of them just in the U.S. I want to hear what those voices have to say. What they have to sing. I want to see what those individuals can create through dance and sculpt and painting. I want to feel the emotions those voices can inspire.

Standardizing testing may well be the homicide of our artistic future.

A Writer’s Dreams Come True in Pieces

As writers, we have dreams.

When Deadly Design, my young adult thriller, came out on June 2nd of this year, it was a giant dream come true. Seeing my book on the shelf was (and still is) amazing. Having a complete stranger purchase the book and want me to sign it, is also completely amazing, but…

Okay, here’s where I try not to sound like a brat. Here, I’ll go ahead and say it for you.

“How dare you minimize the wonderful experience of being a published author!” “Do you know how much this would mean to many struggling writers?”  “Do you know how grateful you should be to have gotten a book deal, especially one with a major publisher?”

First off, I don’t mean to minimize the experience at all and I DO know what it means to a writer to be validated, to have someone say that their work is worth reading.

It means everything.

But here’s the flip side of that —

As writers (as humans) we have dreams, goals, aspirations. And they usually come in a sort of surreal completeness. We form a picture of what our lives will be like after we achieve our goal, down to what we’ll wear, how late we’ll sleep each morning, maybe even what we’ll have for lunch once this major life achievement is accomplished. But dreams don’t usually come in package deals.

Sometimes they come in pieces.

Before going to my first book signing in Tampa, Florida, my husband asked me why I didn’t seem ‘happier’. Besides being nervous that no one would show up, there was just something missing. My life hadn’t magically changed because I had a book out. There was no quitting my day job. My son’s health problems didn’t magically go away. Our aging dog still had a nasty cough and my house was still a wreck because I’d just finished my grading for spring semester.

Before being published, I can’t tell you how many times I fantasized about getting that magical letter or phone call from the agent who just happened to love the pages I sent. Followed, of course, by him or her saying that they’d already discussed the book with a publisher who is so excited about it. Here comes the nice advance, (few rewrites are needed because, well, this is a fantasy). Book stores can’t keep the book on the shelf and so on and so on and so on.

Of course, this isn’t how it goes, but I don’t think any writer can keep writing without those fantasies. To work so hard, for so long, to give up sleep and sometimes sanity for our craft, we have to dream big or we’ll quit.

But we also need to remember that dreams are often puzzle pieces. Encouragement from a beta reader is a piece. A rejection letter with a positive, personalized comment is a piece. A request for pages is a piece. Signing with an agent is a piece and so on and so on.

Writers are a special breed and we have to be content with each piece we get and we have to have faith that once all the pieces come together, it will make a beautiful picture.

Losing my Book Signing Virginity ;)

His hair was white with a hint of silver. He approached slowly, having risen from his chair in the small, intimate room where we had discussed literature, shared words. Outside, the rain had stopped but the sky was still gray and large drops of water fell from the trees creating a slow, comforting rhythm.

Yes, he was older and, having taught English for thirty years, he was experienced. I’ll confess, I was nervous. My hand trembled as I grasped the pen. This was it. I was about to sign my first book. He was calm. Of course he was. It wasn’t his first time. He’d been here before, dozens of times. He probably had bookshelves lined with signed copies, but for me, he’ll always be my first.

This is how I lost my book signing virginity in Tampa, Florida at a charming bookstore, called Inkwood. I have to confess that the night before was plagued with book-signing nightmares: I forgot a pen, there were no books, and the audience was a crowded room (that part was good) of hyper and slightly deranged children (children of the corn variety!)

I’m not sure what I expected. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure anyone would show up, not with the rain, the road construction and the debut author. But some did brave the weather and the orange barrels, and we had a very rousing discussion about genetics, ethics, and of course, books.

At my second signing, the crowd (I use the word generously) was about the same, but there was a young man who stood out to me. He seemed shy, reserved, his long black hair hanging in his face, and I couldn’t help but think how he and the main character of Deadly Design, would be friends if Kyle was real. I thought to myself that this young man had a story and I wished I could sit down with him in the Starbucks and talk. While I didn’t get that chance, I’m glad Kyle went home with him, not because it means I sold a book, but because even if Kyle isn’t real and even if we didn’t get the chance to talk, he and I and Kyle will have conversations on the page and that’s what it’s all about.

At my third signing, I was met by lovers of YA and young aspiring writers, both groups asking lots of questions about the book and about the writing process. I was humbled when many already had questions prepared because they’d read the book and were curious about so many things. I signed books, stumbling over what to write because I wanted those who attended, those who had read or wanted to read my book to know how much they matter. I wanted to send home a reassuring voice, a cheerleader, to those who want to write but who struggle with the fears all writers have.

Did I sell a ton of books? No. Did I meet some people I will never forget — absolutely.

From the wonderful store owners and managers, to the graceful older men and women, to the young man with a story of his own behind his long black bangs, to the warm YA bloggers and those wanting to write. Thanks for crossing my path.

Touching people in person is a luxury writers seldom get. So here’s to touching on the page.

Announcing the Blog Tour for Deadly Design!

Here’s the blog tour schedule. Check it out for Give Aways, Reviews, Interviews, and Guest Blogs!

Monday, May 25 – Once Upon a Twilight

Tuesday, May 26 – Fangirlish

Wednesday, May 27 – Fiktshun

Thursday, May 28 – Nick’s Book Blog

Friday, May 29 – Reading Lark

Monday, June 1 – The Compulsive Reader

Tuesday, June 2 – Mundie Moms

Wednesday, June 3 – Page Turners

Thursday, June 4 – Addicted 2 Novels

Friday, June 5 – Reading with ABC

Monday, June 8 – Winterhaven Books

Tuesday, June 9 – A Dream Within A Dream

Wednesday, June 10 – JennRenee Reads