I usually aim to be either funny, snarky, or informative on this blog. Very rarely am I super serious, so here’s your fair warning. This post is about SURIOUS stuff. See, there. I can’t even get through one paragraph. Sarcasm or bad humor is my go-to when I’m nervous, and let me tell you, writing this has my stomach in knots.
Okay, so… here we go.
In 2009, I wrote a book. This was not my first book. Not even my second. And if you count all the half written books, it would’ve been like, my sixth or something. The little spark (plot bunny) that started the fire (completed novel) went something like this:
I wanna write a book about two kids who are completely screwed up but in different ways and they are both very lonely and they become friends first and for some reason, the girl won’t talk. Not like, she can’t talk, but she won’t talk. And there are so many obstacles in their way but they jump every hurdle and they do it together and in the end they may not have a happily ever after but they have a happy for now. And there’s a swan tattoo.
If you’re a writer, you are probably familiar with plot vomit. If you’re a reader, now you know this is how your favorite novel started. An idea tree with a ton of branches, but no leaves at all. The leaves come later.
Now, as I wrote and the story began to solidify, all those fine details were filled in:
The dude, his mom is white and his dad is black, and they die in an accident when he’s fifteen. He does a brief stint in foster care before he’s emancipated and has to learn to survive on his own. His “friends”… they don’t want to hang with him anymore. He’s no fun. All he ever wants to do is work on computers. They fail to comprehend that it’s because he has to, to earn a living. But there’s this chick at school. Nobody likes her. She has black hair and fingernail polish and too much eye-liner. She wears a hoodie all the time. She’s lonely, like him. And he wonders… he wonders if they could be friends.
He asks her name. She stares at him. He’s crushed.
And this is where I get emotional.
She doesn’t talk. It sounds so silly because she physically can. She just won’t. No matter who teases, yells, threatens. No matter if there are consequences. None of it will make her talk. Sometimes she wants to, but not even that matters. She won’t.
When I wrote this book, I didn’t have a name for what my main character struggled with. I knew it was real though. I knew, because I had dealt with it.
But wait, let’s back up a little. Give me some time to tame my feels before I get into the heavy stuff.
When I finished and polished the manuscript, I queried agents. Many of them. This hunk of 72,000 words obviously meant a lot to me, but as you probably surmised, since I am currently sans agent… it was rejected. I’m talking, it rained rejections. Like, flash flood warning, y’all. I was crushed, and not nearly as objective as I am nowadays. I get it now, I do. So many aspects go into an agent’s decision to represent you or not. Their rejection doesn’t mean you suck as a writer. Honestly, it doesn’t. And the bright spot was, I actually got one teeny tiny request to see the full manuscript.
You should’ve seen me soaring on cloud nine. It was hilarious. I think we had a celebratory dinner and everything.
Anyway, that resulted in, you guessed it, another rejection. So, I did what we writers like to call “shelving it”. This is where we move on, write another story, grow our writerly skillz. I personally like to call it “shoving that sucker so far in a hole I forget about it for four years”, but that’s just me.
Fast forward to 2013 and two books later (5 books later, if you’re counting those half written ones. Which, I think you should.) I discovered the wonderful writing community on Twitter… and pitch contests. I still needed an agent but at the time, I had nothing to pitch. FATAL and sequels were contracted and everything else was incomplete. My former manuscripts were all junk except… The Swan.
So, I pitched it, on a whim.
AND I GOT REQUESTS.
Annnnnd those requests resulted in rejections.
By this time, Swan had been through like, three major revisions in an attempt to gussy it up for those requests. But something about it still wasn’t catching the attention of agents. Here’s a fact: every time I read back through this story, I love it. I cry. I feel. I GET IT. But also, I’m NEVER quite happy with the writing. I always think it needs more work, like it could be better. Am I right? Or am I hypercritical because the story hits home and I have this need to get it just perfect? I don’t know.
Right now, I’m querying again. Thankfully, I’ve had a few bites. And while I wait to hear from them, I’m pouring back through the story, picking apart anything that doesn’t sit right.
But here’s what I wanted to share with you: Selective Mutism. That’s the clinical name for my main character’s condition. It’s a form of social anxiety, and it is real. I struggled with it for years (though not as severely as my MC) and never had a name for it. Even to this day, I don’t talk much unless it’s with my fingers and a keyboard. The only exception is my immediate family. I’ve been called rude, snobby, b**chy, shy, inward, backward… and those are actually the more milder names. Coming from an uber religious background, I’ve even had people claim my issue was spiritual oppression. Like, okay, no. That’s not it. Social anxiety is a real and crippling thing and I’ve worked at combating it my whole life, for as far back as I can remember.
Most recently: I could NOT, under any amount of pressure, walk into an Alanta Bread Company because there were people seated near the doorway and I knew as soon as I opened the door, they would turn and look at me and I just couldn’t do it. My husband (who is a total sweetheart when it comes to my cray cray) found a side entrance where there were no people. Once inside, I ran to the nearest seat and begged him to go place my order for me so I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. Oh. My. Gawd.
It affects all aspects of your life. At times, you are helpless. And if, like me, you are independent at heart, it can be soul-crushing.
I don’t know how it is for others but for me, there are seasons. For example, after college, my anxiety was minimal. After I had my first baby, it was toxic levels. After my second baby, it was somewhere between minimal and toxic. Right now… well, there are bad days (like Atlanta Bread Company) but mostly, I’m feeling pretty solid.
Writing has helped. Writing, in general. But especially this particular story about a guy who lost his parents and a girl whose anxiety it so toxic she won’t speak.
My dreadlocks have helped. Yes, I know. Weird. There’s a story there, but I’ll tell it some other time.
The sense of community I’ve found on Twitter has helped. It might sound counterproductive because I’m online instead of in public, but for some reason, it helps. Maybe it’s knowing that there are others like me, that I’m not alone, that I’m not the only weirdo (I use that term with love. I embrace my weirdness).
Wrapping things up…
I cannot shelf this book. I can’t. It’s too important. Maybe only to myself, who knows. But it IS important. It’s important because someone out there struggles with Selective Mutism and they think they’re alone or weird or crazy.
They need to know that they’re not.