Sunday, November 8, 2009

Help Me, I'm Stuck!

I've been working on my novel's revision over the last two days, but I can't get any further if I don't clear something up. It's a pretty serious set of circumstances, so if you're squeamish, I wouldn't read any further. 

I have a boy in my novel named Ben, who is fourteen (and, yes, I know that's young), and he's grown up in Oklahoma with three strikes against him: 

1. He's deaf.
2. He's a minority (mixed race).
3. He's a foster kid. 

Now, before you all get mad at me, no, I am not racist--but I lived in Oklahoma long enough to know how minorities were treated there. That's not what is at issue here, even though his minority status has had an effect on his life, adding more to his already pretty tough existence.

The problem I'm dealing with is that this boy's been in some pretty tough foster situations, and his way of coping has been through sex. One foster mom sexually abused him, starting this whole cycle going, and since then the homes he's been in haven't helped. He was in a competitive situation with a couple of foster kids, both girls, and his way of fighting back was to charm them into having a relationship with him. Both ended in pregnancy, and he denied both girls' stories when they told the foster parents, ensuring both girls would be sent away to other homes. His deafness actually worked in his favor, for it made his foster parents each time think such a relationship was impossible.

The first girl got an abortion and was sent off to another family, and only much later was Ben moved (for other reasons). When Ben did the same thing to the second girl, she committed suicide. This event cut him deeply (deservedly so, I think). 

This is all past stuff, though, for now Ben is on this boat with Noah and his daughters--by chance--and the youngest girl is in love with him. (It's a modern-day Noah's Ark story.) And he's scared to death of doing something awful all over again. Even more, he can't forgive himself for what he's already done, and he can't reconcile to himself that he's alive when it seems like the whole rest of the world is dead (they aren't all dead, but nobody knows that yet). He actually tried to throw himself off the boat the first night, once he realized where he was and what had happened, but Noah and several others prevented him from dying that first night. 

I guess I have a few questions, and I hope some of you can help me with them:

1. Is his crime unforgivable (in other words, is it too awful for readers to forgive)? 
2. Is his crime too soft (i.e., is he making too much of it and just sounding whiny)?
3. How can he express what he's done in writing? The daughter's learned some sign language, but not enough for me to just translate it into dialogue like I do the simpler exchanges--he has to write it out. I've written out about 100 versions of this--in one-sentence format--and every one has sounded downright stupid. 

I just need some intelligent opinions about this--even if it's to tell me that none of it makes a bit of sense. 

What do you think?


  1. It sounds fascinating, if a bit ~challenging~ to pull off.

    I don't have a lot of time for reading/breathing right now - but I do have experience both with YA novels and also with the writing of deaf adolescents, believe it or not (my CYW diploma was "with deaf option" ...worked with deaf kids at a camp, and also at a school for the deaf - and maintained friendships with 2 lovely young ladies for years)... also was an ASL interpreter for several years before I wrecked my back in a car accident.

    If you want to send me some samples o' those versions (NOT 100 of em!) I could maybe help identify which sound believable.

  2. I think he's done a very bad thing, but not unforgivable. It has happened without nearly so many mitigating circumstances many times and many have shrugged it off, but I think, if he has soul (and as a main character, let's hope so) it should bother him.

    Here's how I would say it: "I've used sex as a weapon, and people have been hurt, far more hurt than I ever imagined possible. I can't forgive myself and I can't be trusted."

  3. You are both so faithful and helpful to me! Flit, I'm not sure I want his writing to be that governed by ASL. Whatever may be his other drawbacks, he's pretty brilliant, and my experience working with the Oklahoma School for the Deaf showed me a populace that pretty effectively mainstreamed into high school and college. I'm considering making him just a little older, for he's the love interest of my protagonist (she's the narrator of the story, and is the first one he tells his secret to). I want his English to be pretty standard, though--with a bit more emphasis of his subject, kind of like this.

    "My foster parents? They never found out what happened."

    Because my narrator is neither deaf nor bland, she tends to color the words others use (at least, that's what I intend), and she makes it clear when they are signing that what she tells us is her translation of it.

    I'm glad you think it's bad, Stephanie. I like the idea of "sex as a weapon" but I might even make the second half of the statement stronger, without blowing too much further than your example. His story really is a story, too. He's got all the charm he can stand, but he is cautious with how he uses it from the beginning, especially with Mariah. He keeps her at a distance as much as he can, knowing his power and resisting using it ever again. She becomes his proof--both that he can be forgiven for what he's done, and that he can do better in the future, and make up for his past crimes. He also comes clean to everyone on the boat (though not at first).

    I welcome any other thoughts you all come up with about this, though. This really helps me think through this piece. Hopefully I can work hard on it tomorrow afternoon!

  4. to answer properly will take time... time i don't have right now. when i get home from work tomorrow i'll get back to you...

  5. I was limiting it to one-two sentences. If you want a longer example, let me know.

  6. The short one is what I most need, Stephanie (I literally have the space highlighted at this very moment), so what you have given me is great!

    And, Jeff, do get back to me. Any help is welcome!

  7. Variations:

    "I've used sex as a weapon, and I've hurt people so much that I don't deserve to be forgiven. Don't trust me."

    "I've used people for my own ends without any thought to what would happen to them, what it would cost. I'm a user and I cannot be trusted."

    (the captcha in this case was "dimbeth" - I tried not to think of the obvious connotations)

  8. When I read your novel the first time and got to the part of the big reveal, my thought was "So what?" It seemed a little anticlimatic in the way it was written, so I'm glad to know you're perfecting that part. The way he hurt the girls was bad. Sex is a powerful tool and is used to hurt people. Since you do make scriptural references in other parts of the book, you could add some relative to this part of the story. Ben is charming, which is a trait of manipulators and abusers. You could make his character a little darker and show the transformation of his character as the family forgives him, he learns to forgive himself, and is healed of his past. I know the story does show some of the changes that take place in him. My suggestions probably would take the novel in a different direction than you had intended, but this is what I think may be done. I liked reading the first version and look forward to the next!

  9. I guess I have a few questions, and I hope some of you can help me with them:

    1. Is his crime unforgivable (in other words, is it too awful for readers to forgive)?
    No it is not…

    2. Is his crime too soft (i.e., is he making too much of it and just sounding whiny)?
    I think it could be harder. Like he
    pushes her and manipulates her into committing suicide. Plus i like the idea she killed herself but the Kid was saved and this brought the change in him like my kids did for me.
    3. How can he express what he's done in writing? The daughter's learned some sign language, but not enough for me to just translate it into dialogue like I do the simpler exchanges--he has to write it out. I've written out about 100 versions of this--in one-sentence format--and everyone has sounded downright stupid.

    I have thought about this all night. And I think it would be best to treat it like any other conversation. Except it would say He wrote instead of he said. This way the story flow better and it is easier for the reader to follow, and in the readers mind he wrote it or signed it. Example
    “I am going to tell them you forced yourself on me.” Ben looked livid as he wrote on his white board “You’re so ugly there is no way in hell they will ever believe your story. Why don’t you do me and everyone who has met you a favor and jump off the roof and end your miserable life.” Ben smirked as he handed the board to Sue {or just he wrote or he signed.}

    This is the only way it made sense to me. And help the story feel right.

  10. Plus I like the idea of using a white board, so you can write on it with markers and erase it easily so no evidence is left behind. Plus he takes it everywhere he goes and becomes a very accomplished writer because of having to write everything out.

  11. Stephanie--the captcha is an interesting one... hmmm... and thanks for the other examples, too!

    NeeNee, yes, you were one of two readers who felt "So what?" after he says what he's done. I'm actually considering having him tell his own story in a chapter, so that it can be given the detail it needs. It's always hard to make something meaningful when it's related to the audience like exposition. It's best if it's shown.

    You are on that tack, Jeff, for you talk about showing him doing all of these things. I really need to expand this some, but be brief enough so that the story in the present doesn't falter.

    Thanks for all the great commentary, everybody! Let me know if you have more thoughts.

  12. I must be lame or lack understanding of the problem.

    The first two questions in my opinion can only be answered by your audience. You have to provide them the way to the crossroads how you do that is up to you.

    The third question I do not understand the conundrum as presented. Does the boy only know sign language? I did a quick search and found very many deaf people who write. Laura C. Redden from the mid 19th century when the education of ASL was just beginning is one notable example.

    If I were in your position Shakes I would read what deaf people wrote and get a sense of their writing and see if it had a different flavor to it. From the little bit I read it was simply good writing. Don't make a problem where none exists.

  13. I think her question is how to write a story about a char that communicates through writing out his/her dialoged, in a way it doesn’t slow down the story or bore the readers...

    I do not think it was how they (deaf people) write, rather than how she (shakes) should write it. And make it flow and not stand out as weird or choppy.

    But of course I could be wrong.

  14. Jeff I think it should be written in the dialog just as any other dialog would be written. Just make it clear previous to the need for the written communication that the kid knows how to write. If he is not a professional writer it is fine but his writing is writing. Maybe not the best use of grammar and what not, but clear enough to be understood.

  15. I'm so grateful you all have spent so much time thinking about this. I'm still working on the fine-tuning, but I decided to begin the story with him signing--when we get the really tough answers out--and switch into Mariah's narration (the girl who tells this overall story), and then switch back into the conversation between them, so that she can be shocked by the last few answers (the suicide, etc.) and can act upon them. That way we get some of Ben's reaction, some of his own trauma, but then Mariah can express the story without too much melodrama (I hate melodrama).

    I've always had trouble with flashbacks--so often, when I read them in the writing by other authors, I find myself distracted. One of my plays is half-flashback, and I have continually found the flashback far more compelling than the scenes done in the present, even after three staged readings and half a dozen revisions.

    I SO appreciate all of this--it helps far more than you know.