Keeping You On the Edge Of Your Seat

Texas Library Association, April, 2006

“Eleanor Rigby sits by the window, wearing the mask she keeps in a jar by the door.”

I think I’d be safer, certainly wiser, if I stopped talking and sat down right now. Those words are so full of meaning and so perfect that anything else I say will just demonstrate my limitations.

But wise has never been my strong suit, so. . .

Eleanor Rigby wears a mask—and she keeps it in jar by the door. I heard that song when I was in college and it took my breath away. I already liked the Beatles but this rattled the socks off Yeah, yeah , yeah.

Don’t we all wear masks?
Whether we are aware of them or not, I think we do.
Look at a child and how he or she reacts to a camera, easy and breezy and you can get great pictures—and then somewhere between 3 and 5 that child becomes self aware. He knows his picture is being taken and gets stiff, the smile is more forced. And that’s when the mask wearing begins.

We’re different when we’re alone.
The minute someone steps into the room with us, we slip the mask on
and some of us have masks that are thicker than others. Some of us need very little protection, the masks are thin and light, almost translucent.

But some of us are wary or maybe weary and our masks have thickened, are harder to see through, to penetrate. Some of our masks have tattoos or piercings, all a kind of armor to keep others from getting close enough to hurt.
Or Masks to keep the hurt or the anger inside.

I wore a mask early on. I know this won't surprise anyone but I was an obnoxious little kid. If it does surprise you--are you NEW here? I blame it on the gene pool and early Mafia syndrome. My mother disagrees.

This was in the age that spanking was not considered abuse. It was considered love. My parents loved me often. I was NOT their idea nor anyone else’s idea of the perfect daughter. My brother was the perfect son AND he was seriously ill when we were children. How does one out-perfect a tractable and needy child? It was impossible. Children don’t reason well so I was prone to tantrums and rages.
I ate dirt with a spoon.
A spoon I stole from the “good silver” that was kept in a box my mother thought I couldn’t reach. The set that was complete except for one little shrimp fork.
My mother wanted ruffles and curls. I screamed for overalls and baseball caps. At the church Easter Egg hunt I followed the other hunters and stole the egss from their baskets. If they objected, I punched them right in their straight, white teeth. That’s the early Mafia syndrome. When my brother got a Davy Crockett coon skin cap, I pushed him in closet and took it from him.
My mother told me I was adopted.
I hoped it was true.
It wasn’t pretty.
The only thing that could make me behave was books.
My mother bribed the nuns to let me start first grade early. It was a decision the nuns soon regretted.
I was a good student but a poor model of deportment.
But I learned to read easily and eagerly.
Summer days and winter weekends my mother, because of the obnoxious thing, would drop me off at the library (little town, little library, long time ago, safe, and no pervert would dare take ME, I actually looked evil) for hours on end. I loved it.

I behaved in the library. There were books there, you see. In early third grade I found Nancy Drew. Now I'm old as dirt, not pre-geezer, but fully geezered, Gold Card Geezered so we are talking the original Nancy's. I read six or eight. And went to the librarian's desk when the coast was clear.
I put the book on the desk in front of the librarian. "I'm having a problem here." I liked to discourse like a mini adult (or so I thought at the time). I had Kay Thompson’s Eloise affliction.
"Yes?" The librarian smiled. I think for some reason was frequently amused by me. (Or so I thought at the time.)
"It's this Nancy person."
"What's her deal?" I ask.
"Explain," the librarian said.
(Thinking about this--was she my first shrink?)
"Okay, she's the blondest, the prettiest, has the best car. One friend is fat, the other one is a tomboy. Nancy is the only one with a boyfriend. Can't she stand any competition?"
The librarian laughed. Well, it was sort of a bark. "How old are you again? "“And if people are diving, she's the best diver. If they are playing tennis, guess what? You're getting the picture here, right?"
"Yes, " the librarian said. She smiled and took the book. " Nancy will never be your friend."
I loved that woman. Can't remember her name. But I still love her. She got up from her work and took me back to the stacks. The book she gave me was THE RUNNER by Jane and Paul Annixter. All about a boy that sees something good in a horse that can’t be broken. The angry, wild horse that runs too fast and too far in the Wyoming mountains. The boy that yearns for something just out of his reach.
That book and that librarian reached out and found a hole in me and patched it. Had taken the thing that terrified me and chased it under a rock where it belonged.
Books and librarians from that moment to this were my heroes. My saviors and my friends. And I used those words in a different setting on page 53 in Shattering Glass. It’s how inspiration and authors work.

Every time I came back into the library there was a small pile of books waiting for me. And some time for the librarian and me to discuss them. At first it was just did I like the book and why. What made me like it? What didn’t I like. What character did I like? And my favorite part, what would I change. Nobody had ever told me I could take control of the book. Encouraged me to do it.

I will tell you know, especially in light of the Frey debacle, that my memory gets muddled here. I’m not sure that there might not have been librarian changes and at twelve I went to public school from Catholic and there was a real library in the school with librarians there. But I’m almost certain that the public librarian handed me Faulkner when I was thirteen. THE SOUND AND THE FURY. I read it. I was precocious reader but this was tough going. I had to start and start again and then I caught on. Something was wrong with the first guy that was talking. He wasn’t supposed to make a lot of sense. You had to make sense of his rambling. Cool. This was a LONG, LONG way from Nancy Drew. It was a long way from The Runner, although nothing could take that book’s place in my heart. But, I had a question.

“What’s with this title?”
She smiled. “You asked the right question.” We went to the stacks and she pulled out a huge book. Shakespeare. She flipped and scanned, then pointed to a section.
It is a tale told by an idiot,
Full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing

I stood there stunned. I got it. This book was a tale told by an idiot. And in the end what did it signify? The characters lives weren’t lived in service to others. They made no significant change in their world. They were corrupt and selfish and full of noise and drama and their lives would end and they would end and be unremembered.
She had just taught me how to read all over again. Not just words but the big picture.
That the whole book ties together.
The title sets it up or amplifies it or even answers the question at the end. The names of the characters have to be right because they mean something to the story.
Everything ties into the theme.
I started reading in a whole new way. Exhilarated. What I didn’t know then and do now is that the librarian didn’t only teach me to read, she taught me to write.
Other people taught me to write. The first and one of the most valuable did it self defense.
I’ll bet you were starting to forget that obnoxious thing since I was showing myself being all willing to learn and soaking up knowledge from a librarian, right.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch. Back in fourth grade. Queen of Peace Elementary School. Dominican nuns. Back then they all wore full habits. The black and white one. Looked like penquins. Known for tough discipline. Hey, I’m grateful for it now. I have good work habits. I always have a picture in my mind of a Dominican nun standing over me swinging that long, wooden rosary. I never saw a nun pop anyone with a Rosary, but we were always afraid she might.
But I digress. Sister Leticia was kind. And for kids like me, that was blood in the water to my great white shark. Did I take advantage? Again, are you NEW here? Once more, a good student. Always finished my work at lighting speed and then started making trouble. Mostly talking. Go figure. You’d think I would read. But I generally read all the library books at warp speed and didn’t have anything left to amuse me at school. My family barely scraped by so buying books for me was limited to textbooks. The other smarty pants in the class, Billy Burns was well to do and he had books for pleasure reading, but the little twit wouldn’t share. Besides they were all non-fiction and about science and math so, um, no thanks.
There was no library in our Catholic School. Just a bookshelf in each classroom with a series about the lives of saints. Riiiight I was exactly the kind of kid that was going to read those.
Again in the interest of avoiding a Freyism, I have no clear recollection of exactly what infraction I was infracting at the moment but I do remember the look on Sister Leticia’s face across the room as she looked at me. Weary to the bone, she fingered her Rosary as if wondering that if she did pop me with those beads would she get a one way ticket to hell and if she did, was eternal damnation a reasonable trade off for two more minutes with me.
She sighed then trudged to my desk, checked my work and changed my world. Odd that strangers kept doing that for me. She told me that she was having a bad day and needed a laugh. Could I write her a funny story?
Oookay, I might be game. The nun told me to write a story about a family having a holiday dinner.
Nope, bored now.
But, she said, write it from an ant’s point of view. Insect, not relative.
An ant? I’m back in the game and swinging for the bleachers.
So, I wrote. And erased and wrote some more. (Revision.)
And I handed it in. (Submitting the manuscript.)
Sister Leticia took the paper and began reading. And she chuckled. (Editor’s first reaction.)
Then she blushed.
I guess because she had chuckled. (editors second thoughts.)
Then she laughed right out (Manuscript accepted!)
I was a star! Okay, I was only a legend in my own mind, but something real had happened.
I was successful
and had won approval.
And I hadn’t been in trouble for twenty minutes.
Now my mother says that experience warped me. From that day to this, I can’t just look at something as it is. (My mother means I wouldn’t just accept an order—but frankly that boat had sailed long before.) I see something, look at it from another angle, take it and compare it to something, go a little Oliver Stone conspiracy theory on it, change it a little, ask “what if.”
That’s what makes a writer, I think. Taking an idea and flipping it over, turning it inside out, seeing if it has holes in it, and if it doesn’t?wondering why not.
Now I do blame Sister Leticia for all my lost sunglasses and keys. My head is always off in the ether, thinking up a what if, wondering what a character would do if… and I can’t remember where I put the keys, or my shoes, or the gas bill, or the dog…
My mother is still mad at her too. But that’s just wrong.
The next people that taught me to write brings us to the title of this session about Keeping You On the Edge of Your Seat.
I taught high school first as a substitute teacher for two years and then as a teacher for Remedial Readers for eighteen more. Many people will tell you that I taught on the edge of my seat because it was dangerous to sit anywhere else. The tack was in the middle, one couldn’t get comfortable stting back in your chair-- you had to be ready to dodge when you heard “INCOMING!”
It’s true that some of my former students are now guests of the state. Some are in cemeteries. At their own hands or some at the hands or another student I taught. But there were success stories too. It was a zoo, but it was my zoo and I considered it an honor, and I mean that sincerely, to teach them. And they taught me how to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Some of the students were in my classroom because their reading skills were below grade level. Some were there because they just didn’t want to read. Some were there because they had pissed some other teacher off and they ended up with me because I had pissed someone in the administration off.

But we were together and not too many people came near us so I was able to plan and write my own program. Believe me I ditched those skill sheets and other reading programs in a big hurry and bought classroom sets of novels. I wrote my own units and off we went. I was able to find out what novels worked and what didn’t for the kids and for me. And I had empirical evidence. The books that worked were in short supply at the end of the day. The kids stole them to read ahead. And even better stole them at the end of the unit to read them again.

The books they loved were always the ones that keep you on the edge. and these were the common traits. Some are traits that you will find in any book. ANd I’ll cover those first, with some of their special caveats. But. . .then there’s the biggie. The thing that sets the edge of your seat book apart. I’ll save that for last.

A book has to have a really great main character. But an edge of your seat book might have one a little outside the margins. Maybe even angry. Maybe one with a hole that needs patching. Someone that yearns for something he thinks he’ll never have. The main character can be flawed and even unsympathetic, but the character must be understandable. Why does this character behave the way he or she does.

It has to be fast paced. It cannot linger. Remember the old adage. Immediate gratification takes to long? Well, as you will find out, the gratification won’t be immediate but the reader will have to turn the page to quickly to notice.

And please do this in about 200 pages. There are books the that are big and heavy and long. But it’s hard to keep you on the edge of your seat for 600 pages, or even 300. It’s a strain on your nerves and your back and your. . . back.

But for the most part teens like books that reflect the teen years. So much is packed in the few years between 12 and 18. Physical changes are huge, intellectual changes are, hopefully, just as big. A kid goes from being babysat to being a babysitter. From riding in the backseat to driving. From carrying a lunchbox to applying for college. It is amazing to me how much change, how many emotions, how much angst, how much STUFF is jammed into so few years.

I think YA books usually reflect that. They are lean, mean, fighting machines. The are fast, fast and faster. And they go nosing about in the dark places, the dangerous place that mom and dad don’t want teens to go.
They don’t give themselves up to long descriptive passages about the color of the sky or waxing poetic about what someone is thinking. YA novels don’t tell much at all. They show. They are stripped of author self indulgence. Well, the good ones are and those are the ones that keep us on the edge of our seats.

And the most important thing of all. The edge of the seat book has to be honest. The author can’t get away with pulling the punch at the last minute. The author can’t throw the fight. If the character is flawed, you can’t get away with a quick redemption and a promise of happily ever after at the end. We like an ending that takes the breath away. Something that makes us say “Wow!” Something that makes us discuss. Or just cuss. Maybe even argue. Maybe offends our sense of justice. Maybe that makes us wonder.

Play the story out as the character would, not as the author wants it. I thought FEED, whether you like the book or not was a great illustration of this. The main character emotionally abandons the girl at the end of the story because he has no real emotions to give her. The author did not Disney up the ending for the romantically inclined.

Now, it’s not enough just to have good characters. Lots of books have good characters that spend their time just “charactering” around. But to keep the reader engaged and turning the pages in suspense those fully developed characters have to DO something. Something has to happen. The character has to make it happen and it has to happen quickly.

Good plot. Plot is not a four-letter word, Oh it is a four letter word. Is that why it is so maligned. Okay, let’s call it the characters machinations, the narrative, fluff it up with academia and call it the fabula and possibly that will make it more acceptable. But give our character something to do and throw in a few unexpected turns, please, and set the pacing at Gallop, and lead us to a walloping ending and we get closer to an edge of your seat novel.
I will digress for just a bit here to talk about plot, narrative or even fabula. I write to tell a story. I think that’s where fiction began. Where it is most pure and most true. Fiction started when a child asked a parent to “Tell me a story.” Or when the community gathered around the fire and listened to other spin tales. And those storytellers that became adept at keeping the others spell bound were brought forth to enchant again and again.
Those storytellers had to have it all. Characters that were real and complicated that yearned and were frightened or were bold, or were angy, they had to have something or someone to be afraid of, angry at, to fight against, but they had to do something.
I think the storyteller that told the story of two cavedwellers that whined and agrued themselves into a stupor would have been conked with the nearest bone.
Now, I know we have evolved, become more sophisticated, want more from our literature. This is a metaphor, people. Yes, we refine, but it doesn’t mean we omit.
While we no longer rip mammoth meat raw or barely cooked from the bone but prepare our food in elaborate ways, sauced with chipotle butter or braised over fresh rosemary, but we still demand food. And we still need to be nourished from that food. It has to taste good and leave us satisfied.
I believe we still need story. And our teens, especially want story. I believe we can give them characterization, theme, good prose and demand a good plot in a book. Why should we not demand it all?

Now, for the edge of the seat book. Here’s how I think it works. It has to start fast from the giddyup. You have to have a great first sentence. And a really good second sentence. And third, And ninth and twenty seventh . . .But seriously, if you don’t snag us with a first sentence, and make that sentence the threat or the thread that keeps us wondering throughout the book, make that first sentence not completely answered until the last pages of the book, then the reader won’t stay on the edge.
In my new novel WHAT HAPPENED TO CASS MCBRIDE the first sentence is dialogue by Kyle. “She’s dead, isn’t she.”
So who is Kyle? WHo is he talking to? We know the title so is Cass the person he wonders about? What did he do to her that he wonders if she is or isn’t alive?
And until page 207, we don’t know if she is or isn’t.

How did this work in my other novels? I got the germ of the idea for SHATTERING GLASS by eavesdropping on a group of kids when I was substitute teaching so long ago that I refer to that period as “when I was still alive.” The idea nestled in my head for a long time.

I had an idea. How did I start? I will tell you that spent an entire year writing short stories and learning that craft. Not with any intention of writing and selling short stories, but with the idea that most novels start too slowly, but short stories, by necessity, shoot right out of the gate. A year. When I got comfortable with what worked and what didn’t. I started writing novels with a short story type opening. You’re never going to read a lot of them. But when I dredged up the memory of that eavesdropping incident and the ideas it had engendered, I began. And began. And began again. I think I began seventeen times. Until I had it right.

Simon Glass was easy to hate, I never knew exactly why, there was too much to pick from. I guess, really, we each hated him for a different reason, but we didn’t realize it until the day we killed him.

Questions. Why was Simon easy to hate? Who is talking? Who is the we and what different reasons did each have? Did they really kill him? How? Why? Who are they?

A few of these questions are answered early. Some are parceled out along the way. But Simon isn’t killed, so the how, the why and the who are not answered until the second to last paragraph of the book. The first and last paragraphs have to link hands at the end to make an edge of your seat thriller.

Things had been getting a little better until I got a letter from my dead sister.
That more or less ruined my day.

That is the opening of DEAD GIRLS DON”T WRITE LETTERS. I get a lot of e-mail from teens. Some that like my books and some that don’t. And some that say “Ms. Giles, you are the greatest writer ever. I was assigned your book for my class. It was the greatest book I ever read. Could you write me back today and tell me the plot, the theme and some thumbnail sketches of the main characters? It is very important I have these today.” But other than these desperate attempts for me to be the greatest writer ever of their book reports-- I have gotten more e-mail about Sunny that any character I have written.

Now look at what we know about Sunny from her opening remarks. Wow, she gets a letter for her dead sister and it RUINS her day. Worse, it MORE OR LESS ruins her day. She’s not only hard hearted she’s sarcastic to boot. Flawed? Check. Unsympathetic? Double check.

But the reader should want to find out why Sunny might be this way. She’s put them on edge. Why does Sunny not want to hear from her dead sister? Why isn’t she surprised, shocked instead of merely annoyed? How old is she? Let’s face it, this girl’s behavior should be setting off alarms right now. THis is not a normal reaction. ANd how do you get a letter from a dead girl anyway?
But the fact that Dead Girl’s Don’t Write Letters doesn’t become totally clear until the last words that SUnny speaks in the novel.
“What have I done?”
The last thing we talked about was an ending that made the reader wonder and argue. Let me talk about e-mail again here. Shattering Glass. The end of DEAD GIRLS has produced more e-mail than anything else. I love this. Provoke the reader to wonder. I have been called upon to settle arguments between readers. Did not-Jazz exist or not? Ah, I say, that’s up to you. There’s evidence there to support either conviction. A puzzle within a puzzle. However, remember when I said the title counts. It can answer the question at the end of the book. “Dead Girls DON’T WRITE LETTERS. ANd at the end Sunny says “What have I done.”

I thought I had the beginning and the end shake hands. I guess they missed and merely waved at each other over the horizon.

“Make your choice. Me, you, my parents, your sister. Who do you want dead the most?” She put the barrel once more to her temple.
Back to me.
Back to her.
Now I knew there were levels of rage. And I had just reached critical mass.
She had moved the gun back to me. I stared into the barrel. I stared into those dark eyes.
And I hated.
She moved the barrel back to her own temple.
Who did I want dead the most?
I didn’t look away when I spoke.
“You,” I said.
I think the shine in her eyes was tears.
And her lips moved.
But I’m not certain what she said.
I couldn’t hear over the roar of the gun.

This is the conclusion of PLAYING IN TRAFFIC. A conclusion that validates Matt’s opening lines that he was doomed from the moment he meet Skye. This is the book about the colorless kid. The kid that flies under the radar and hopes he gets out of high school unscathed. In high school he doesn’t have anyone to hate or anyone he especially feels close to—he just goes along to get along and get out.

And then it all changes. How can he refuse that impulse to be the bad boy, or if he can’t do that—to hang out with the bad girl? To play in traffic for just a little while? So many of my e-mailers liked Matt, many of them actually liked Skye, but the readers knew their collision would inevitably lead to damage. It hurt the reader to see that damage, but there was no honesty if it didn’t occur. I couldn’t flinch. So as much as the readers hated it—Skye ends up dead and Matt ends up ruined.
He was, indeed, doomed from the day Skye spoke to him.

I think my books are that obnoxious little kid I used to be. My books are peopled by main characters that wear a mask of anger, or nonchalance to hide the fear of not having
a safe place to fall,
of not having a place at all,
of being completely alone in a world too big to handle. And that character rides that anger
or is led from that lethargy into dangerous places.
They eat dirt with the good silver to get your attention. And they do it relentlessly and if you, the reader, are able to finish a chapter and put the book down--
shame on my character and shame on me--we’re not fighting hard enough against our internal demons.
If a child doesn’t think he has a place, isn’t held, he’ll fight to hold.
There’s a good reason that a psychologically edgy book ends with “Gotcha!”

I don’t write books to change the world. I don’t write books to change the world one kid at a time.
But sometimes the combination of the right book finding the right reader at the right time is magic. I know it was when I read The Runner and again when I read The Sound and The Fury.
And both times the book didn’t find me by itself. A librarian put it in my hands.
Good, eager willing, tractable kids are great. They should not be ignored. You all deserve a whole bunch of them in your libraries and your classrooms. The state doesn’t lift your heart by filling your bank accounts, so some instant gratification by those well mannered, smart kids will keep your going.
But those kids that live on the edge, those angry kids with the thick masks, those kids that were like me—the ones that don’t behave and drive you a little nutsy—maybe you could fill a hole in one of two of them. Find them a book that walks the edge, balance the high wire like they do.
A book that lives fast in a dark place.
A book with a character that yearns. Find that book and give it to that angry kid that’s actually scared. You will do something great. You may never know it.
In my young self-absorption I never thanked those unnamed librarians for saving me in every way that counts. My journey through life would have been different in ways I don’t like considering if those librarians had not shown me a new map and taught me how to use it. So, belatedly, I’m thanking you instead. It’s been a long time coming—but thank you. And I’ll thank you ahead of time, I’ll pay it forward for the readers you help tomorrow.
Thank you for changing my world and the world of many others. For opening those worlds. For putting light in dark places. For looking past the masks.