Revising Leah

February 2, 2009

Revised!

My finished novel arrived today. It looks good, so I’ve approved the book for sale through Lulu and elsewhere. Paperback copies may be purchased here.

I’m also making the ebook version of the novel available for free. The PDF download at Lulu will be free, of course, but I’ll also be offering downloads through my website.  Right now, I only have PDF and ePub versions of Leah available, but I’ll be adding PRC and PDB formatted versions, too, soon.

I hope everyone who stops by this page will check the book out. I’m very happy with it.

November 19, 2008

Is Leah Just Introverted, Or Is There Something More?

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 4:42 pm
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Yesterday’s short post reminded me of a concern that I have had ever since I wrote the very first draft of Leah. My concern is that I’ve created a character who is too introverted. While I’m willing to bet there are a few teenagers out there who are as extremely introverted as Leah Nells, most introverts and shy people don’t live in near total isolation as Leah does.

In the first chapter of the novel, I don’t offer any exposition for why Leah isn’t saying anything to anyone. I simply describe how she behaves when she’s in the presence of strangers, and how that behavior angers and disappoints her mother. In the second chapter, I do offer some necessary exposition of Leah’s past, including this passage:

Before she was even old enough to walk, she would enter fits of panic and tearful screams whenever a stranger came near. When she was older and her parents took her out in public, she would cling desperately to them, holding their hands and hiding behind her parents’ legs when she was introduced to another child . . . . Her parents believed that Leah would eventually grow out of her shyness, that she would make friends and lead a normal life just like any other healthy little girl. But she didn’t. By the time Leah started kindergarten, the fits of panic had stopped, but in their place came silence. Leah almost never spoke to anyone, whether children or adults, even when they spoke to her directly. . . . While other children played with one another, Leah seemed perfectly content to be by herself. When she played with dolls, she never spoke to them and never pretended that they were speaking to each other.

What I worry about is that readers will “misdiagnose” Leah’s problem at this point, that they’ll assume that she has a serious developmental condition or disease — like autism, perhaps. But that’s not what I want the reader to think. Hopefully, as the novel goes on, I make it sufficiently clear that Leah’s only “problems” are that she has an extremely introverted personality, and she is very shy (introversion and shyness are not the same thing — see my comment below). Otherwise, Leah is supposed to be a typical teenage girl. Indeed, it’s important, thematically, for the reader to believe that she is a normal girl other than those two personality quirks.

For example, despite what many of her classmates at school believe, Leah isn’t stupid. I’ve never seen her report card, but I would guess that she is a B or B-minus student — an average student academically. She does better in some classes than others (she prefers math over English), but she doesn’t warrant special attention from her teachers, and she isn’t enrolled in the special education program.

Part of Leah’s internal conflict comes from her belief that she is really, really weird, and that she is the only person in the world who is as uncomfortable and as at a loss in social situations as she is. The reader, I hope, knows the truth: that most of Leah’s fears and worries are experienced by other people, even extroverts. It is that secret knowledge that lets the reader empathize with Leah and all of her experiences in the novel.

Originally, Leah was a novel that allowed me to explore ideas about individualism (that remains a theme, but the novel has grown into something much more), and in order to create a character who was truly an individual, I needed to isolate her as much as possible. So I not only gave her an introverted personality, I gave her an extremely introverted personality — and I made her shy on top of that. Some readers may find Leah an unrealistic character, but, like I said, I’m willing to bet that there are a few people out there who are living Leah’s life.

November 6, 2008

Leah Laughed (Things I Like #6)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 3:10 pm
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While there are quite a few somber moments and some melodrama in Leah, the story isn’t all gloom and doom. There are some light, humorous moments too. Finding a place for humor in Leah wasn’t easy, though, because for me, humor comes from the interaction between characters: their dialogue, the differences in their personalities, and their miscommunication. And since Leah Nells spends a lot of her time in the story by herself, there aren’t as many opportunities for character interaction that would lead to humor, so I have to take those opportunities whenever I can get them.

A lot of the humor is subtle. In chapter three, for example, when Leah is already very nervous about her first day of school, she overreacts when her father is ready to drive her to school:

At 7:39 she heard the sound of her father coming down the stairs. She immediately stood up and gathered her pile of books, her purse, and her lunch in her trembling hands. Mr. Nells appeared in the kitchen, still looking a little sleepy. Like his wife, he noticed immediately how nervous his daughter was. He smiled and teased, “Are you ready to go?”

Leah replied by bolting out the door to the garage and climbing into her father’s car.

The narrator sometimes gets into the act. When Megan tries to befriend Leah in chapter five, she speculates on why Leah isn’t saying very much. When she hits upon the right reason, the narrator adds a little extra commentary that almost serves as a punchline:

But Megan wasn’t prepared to do all of the talking either, especially not with a girl who was still just a stranger. She hadn’t made any friends yet in phys. ed. class, and when she saw that Leah was by herself too, she thought she might introduce herself and see what happened. That sounded so easy, but it had taken her the entire class period so far to work up the courage just to speak to Leah. Megan wondered why Leah had nothing more to say to her than a simple greeting and her name. Megan guessed that maybe Leah was just shy. Megan had no idea.

Leah’s lack of social experience and her naivete also lead to scenes that are at once funny and embarrassing. In chapter nine, she thinks that one way she might be able to attract David’s attention is to dress up and wear make-up. She has almost no experience applying make-up, however, so all she does is add a little lipstick to her lips. Before Leah leaves for school, Mrs. Nells notices what her daughter has done:

The unexpected change in her appearance caught the attention of Mrs. Nells whom Leah met in the kitchen that morning before she went to school. Mrs. Nells sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee and trying to wake up, but it wasn’t until her droopy eyes caught sight of Leah’s sparkling new look that they really widened.

“You’re wearing your hair differently today,” Mrs. Nells observed, “and why are you wearing that dress? What’s going on? Is the school taking yearbook pictures today? Do I need to write a check or something?”

Leah smiled and shook her head no. She certainly couldn’t tell her mother that a boy was the reason for the change in her look this morning. Leah didn’t want to get her mother’s hopes — not to mention her own hopes — up without good reason. There really wasn’t anything to tell her mother about David. Not yet, anyway.

As Leah moved about the kitchen, preparing her lunch, she could feel Mrs. Nells’ stare. Her mother was examining Leah’s face and dress with a suspicious eye. She could tell her daughter was hiding a secret.

“Are you wearing lipstick?!” Mrs. Nells asked when Leah came close enough for her to see that her daughter’s lips were redder than usual. Now she knew for sure that something was happening.

“I like to wear lipstick sometimes,” Leah replied while avoiding eye contact with her mother. She didn’t understand why her mother was making such a big deal about a few little changes in her appearance.

“You do? Since when?”

There are some scenes that might have been fun to develop into longer passages but I couldn’t because to fully develop them would be to send the plot off on a tangent, so I’ve included them as brief anecdote-like stories. One of these is a funny little description of how Leah plays softball in phys. ed. class:

. . . for the last few days her class had been playing softball outside, and Leah hated softball. When she was at bat, she felt uncomfortable being the center of attention so she usually just let herself strike out, sometimes by swinging wildly at the ball when it was pitched to her, sometimes by simply standing there and watching it fly past. And when she stood by herself in the outfield and a ball was hit towards her, she always let the ball hit the ground before she picked it up and threw it back — much to her teammates’ frustration.

But for me, the funniest scene in the novel (and perhaps one of my favorite scenes overall) is when Leah tries to draw a picture in support of her Egypt report. She and her teammates are at David’s house, trying to record their reports to video. David has the idea of using hand-drawn images to serve as intermissions between each student’s presentation:

David handed everyone a blank sheet of paper and set a box of markers on the coffee table. Leah and the other three were still confused, so David explained.

“On your sheet of paper, write the title of your report topic and draw a picture that has something to do with your topic. Later, when I’m editing the film, I’ll scan your pictures into the computer and use them to introduce everybody’s reports. It will look cool and waste some time — trust me.” David was the only one who seemed convinced that it was a good idea, but only Alex voiced an objection.

“Do I have to draw a picture?” he asked. “Remember, I drew all those posters — and I’ll talk about them in class.”

David thought for a moment and then answered, “Well, why don’t you draw the title image — you know, something to introduce the whole project? Call it something like, ‘The World of Ancient Egypt’ — or something.”

Alex agreed and the five of them got to work. Leah stared at her blank sheet of paper for a moment and wondered what she should draw. Her report covered the important pharaohs of ancient Egypt, but she didn’t know what they looked like, and even if she did, she wasn’t skilled enough to draw a portrait of any of them. Finally, she took a yellow marker and drew a picture of a golden crown, which was supposed to symbolize royalty. Above it, in large, purple letters, she wrote, “THE PHARAOHS.” She was the first to finish her drawing, and when she was done, she turned the picture face down on the table.

When the others were finished too, David asked to see his partners’ pictures. Alex wrote David’s suggested title for the presentation in bold, black letters and added a yellow and orange drawing of a pyramid. Melanie, whose report was about the process of mummification, drew a crude picture of a sarcophagus that featured a happy face where the head should be. David laughed, “Why is he smiling like that?”

“He’s happy to be dead,” Melanie replied. “When the pharaohs died, they believed that they became gods and lived in a wonderful afterlife.” At least Melanie had learned something during her research. David nodded in approval and asked Heather to show them hers.

Heather’s topic was a general history of Egypt, but her picture was of a sailboat crossing what was supposed to be the Nile River.

“What does that have to do with anything?” David asked. Alex looked at it and started laughing.

Heather looked distraught. “I don’t know!” she shouted. “Why couldn’t we have done a talk show? This whole thing is so stupid!” She tried to fling her picture at the boys, but the air caught it and sent it back towards her where it landed gently at her feet.

“Come on — don’t get upset,” David said.

It was too late. Heather felt humiliated and furious and she sought to take her anger out on someone else. Her eyes searched for a victim and found Leah, who was now holding her drawing face up in her lap, in anticipation of showing it to the group.

“Well, if you think my picture is stupid, look at hers!” Heather said, pointing at Leah’s drawing. Everyone looked and Leah stiffened under their gaze. “What is that? A crown?! The Egyptians never wore crowns like that!”

September 12, 2008

You’re Invited to Dinner With the Nells Family (Things I Like #4)

One scene in the novel that has improved quite a lot compared to the 1996 edition is the scene in which Leah and her family have dinner together the night of the Homecoming football game. Naturally, Leah hasn’t told her parents anything about Homecoming weekend, so they have to find out about it from a TV newscast while they eat. The scene shows how Leah’s parents have adapted to their daughter’s anti-social behavior. They’re able to have a conversation with her without actually having a conversation. It also gives an indication of just how desperate they are that Leah lead a normal life:

As the newscast went to a commercial, the sports anchor appeared on the screen and teased the audience: “. . . and after the break, tonight’s a big night for high school football!” he exclaimed. “A number of teams are playing their homecoming games tonight, including . . .” and he proceeded to list the names of a few schools, including Leah’s.

When she heard the name of her high school, Leah accidentally bit her tongue instead of the food that was in her mouth, and the sharp pain made her wince. Her parents, though, had known nothing about why this weekend was so important until now. Mr. Nells asked his daughter, “Is this your school’s Homecoming weekend?”

Leah nodded and continued to chew. She stared down at her plate and didn’t look at her parents. She didn’t want to answer the flood of questions that she could sense was coming.

“Why didn’t you go to the game tonight?” her father asked. “I could take you if you wanted to go. Jeez, I haven’t been to a high school football game since I was a senior in high school. I’d love to go to one again.” Mr. Nells’ memories of high school, romanticized after almost twenty years, came rushing back to him. “I can still remember my high school’s Homecoming games. Those were always the best, even when our team lost—which happened most of the time!” Leah didn’t look up, but she knew he was smiling. “I know you’re not a fan of football,” Mr. Nells continued, “but that doesn’t matter. I’m sure there will be a whole lot of girls at the game, girls who don’t like football any more than you do”—Leah thought about Heather. She wondered if Heather and David were going to be at the game tonight—“but that’s not why you go to something like that. It’s fun just to attend the event, to be part of a big crowd, to hear them cheer when a touchdown is scored, to hear them chant the school song, or to listen to the marching band play. I’ll bet you’re the only one who’s going to stay home tonight.” The visions his words conjured excited Leah’s imagination. In her mind, she could see the boys in their red and white uniforms running up and down the field; she could hear the excitement of the crowd as a team scored a touchdown; and she could feel the suffocating press of several hundred other spectators all around her; and she imagined David and Heather, standing together in the stands, cheering for the team and celebrating when they scored. “You really don’t want to go?” her father asked again.

Leah shook her head no.

“Well, I personally never cared much for football games,” Mrs. Nells said, trying to take Leah’s side. “But I hated to miss a dance. I think I only missed two dances during all my years in high school.”

“I’ll bet you were quite the socialite back then,” Mr. Nells teased.

His wife laughed, “That’s right, I was!” There was a pause, and Leah kept her eyes shut, fearing her mother would start reminiscing too. Instead, Mrs. Nells asked, “So when is the dance? Saturday night?”

Leah opened her eyes and nodded. Her fork played with the food in front of her. She gently coaxed the food towards the edge of her plate, as if she were encouraging it to get up and run away.

“How come you aren’t going then?” Mrs. Nells asked, ignoring the true reason why Leah would be home alone tomorrow night and on every future dance night. “Aren’t freshmen allowed to go?”

“We’re allowed,” Leah replied.

“Well, you never know,” Mrs. Nells said to her husband. “When I was in high school, freshmen weren’t allowed to attend the Homecoming dance, but I think that was because they held the dance in the school gym and there wasn’t enough room for everyone to attend.”

“I don’t think most schools do that anymore,” Mr. Nells said. “I think most of them hold dances at convention centers or public auditoriums instead of the school gym.”

“Really? That would have been so great if my school had done that. A gym is no place for a dance. Where is your school going to have its dance, Leah?”

Leah honestly didn’t know. She shrugged her shoulders.

“You should have gone,” Mrs. Nells said wistfully. “Didn’t anyone ask you to go to the dance?”

That was what Leah had been dreading. It was the most humiliating question they could possibly ask her. Leah didn’t reply. Instead, she stuffed a forkful of food into her mouth and chewed vigorously. She just wanted to finish her meal so she could excuse herself from the table.

Her silence gave her father a chance to lie to himself. “I’ll bet somebody did. What boy would pass up an opportunity to date a pretty girl like this?”

“He’d have to be blind,” Mrs. Nells agreed, “or maybe just stupid. I’ll bet she had several offers to go to the dance.”

Leah didn’t try to persuade them that the reason why she wasn’t going to the dance was because no boy had asked, especially not the boy she wished would have asked her; she let them believe what they wanted to believe. If they wanted to think their shy daughter had been asked to go to the dance, then she’d let them. If, on Saturday night, they wanted to wait by the windows watching for some Romeo to show up and carry Leah off to a fairy tale land where she wouldn’t be afraid to talk and where she would be surrounded by friends, then that was their choice. Leah, however, had no such illusions. She knew that tomorrow night, while David and Heather and the rest of her class were dancing and laughing and living, she would spend it the same way she spent every Saturday night—alone in her bedroom with a book. While she sat in her room, staring at the blank walls as the minutes passed, David and Heather would be staring into each others’ eyes, hoping that their evening would last forever. They would dance, they would hold each other, and they would kiss. The distance between herself and David would grow wider and more hopeless. Leah looked at her parents, lost in their own fantasies, and decided that the three of them were a pretty pathetic family—but she wasn’t sure who was more pathetic: the dateless girl spending the night of the big dance by herself in her bedroom, or the parents who foolishly believed a boy would arrive on their doorstep with flowers, a limo, and a promise to rescue their daughter from her solitude.

The chapter ends here. I like this ending because it demonstrates that while Leah is inexperienced in a lot of ways regarding social behavior and customs, she is very much aware that the isolated life she leads is not at all normal, and that she’s missing out on a lot of things that her parents and her peers consider important.

August 25, 2008

The First Day of School

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 3:04 pm
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I’ve been working on chapter three which, along with chapter four, describes Leah’s first day of high school. I kind of dread the chapter because every time I read it, I feel a nervous tingle, as if I am living vicariously another person’s first day of school. It’s a really weird feeling, and it isn’t what I was trying to do when I first wrote it. I did want to show how nervous Leah is on this day, but I wasn’t trying to necessarily evoke a sense of anxiety from the reader.

One of the things that makes writing or revising a work of creative writing difficult for me is the fact that I work in relative isolation. Just because my writing has an emotional impact on me doesn’t mean that it will have that same or a similar impact on anyone else. I’m curious, then, to know whether the effect it has on me is experienced by anyone else.

To that end, I’ve posted the latest draft of chapter three

HERE

If you, Dear Reader (who have perhaps come upon this blog by accident), would care to read through it and let me know in the comments if it inspired any sort of sense of nervousness in you (or not), I’d be very interested to hear about it.

August 6, 2008

Reading Assignment #3

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 12:20 pm
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Introverts and Extraverts: Can’t We Just Get Along?

July 28, 2008

Mrs. Nells

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 10:45 am
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A few posts back, I wrote about the possibility that Heather, the girl who competes with Leah for David’s affection, functions as a villain (or at least an antagonist) in the novel. Another character who might lay claim to this title is Leah’s mother, Rebecca Nells. Leah and her mother are often at odds over Leah’s introverted behavior. Leah prefers to have as little contact with people and strangers as possible, while her mother pressures her to be more sociable. We see the conflict at the very beginning of the novel. In chapter one, while the two of them are out shopping at garage sales, the tension and pressure between mother and daughter builds until finally Mrs. Nells explodes:

“It’s the easiest thing in the world, Leah. You hand the woman the money, she thanks you, you take your book and go on your way. You are fourteen years old — you’re about to start high school in less than two weeks — yet you can’t even buy a book at a garage sale like any normal girl your age. I’m completely at a loss! I can’t understand what’s wrong with you!”

It’s not a pretty scene, and it establishes the point of conflict between these two characters.

As the book goes on, though, we get to know Mrs. Nells a little bit better. Like her husband, she works full time. She’s apparently unhappy with her career; she works in some middle-management position for a poorly run corporation that has been losing profits. She’s under pressure to perform, but her efforts are going mostly unappreciated by her bosses and her co-workers. She’s getting older and her age is starting to show on her face. She’s jealous of her husband who seems to be aging more gracefully than she, but otherwise her relationship with Mr. Nells remains strong. Leah reminds herself, at one point, that although her parents fight sometimes, they never yell and scream and lose control. Like her husband, she tends to romanticize her memories of her teenage years, and if her anecdotes are to be believed, she was quite popular when she was in high school — dating boys and going to dances whenever possible.

But it’s her strained relationship with her daughter that the reader mostly sees. Mrs. Nells doesn’t understand Leah. She privately disapproves of Leah’s reading habit and would prefer her daughter make friends and spend more time outside her bedroom. The reader might find the tactics that she uses to make this happen somewhat cruel, but Mrs. Nells would call it “tough love.” Later in the novel, she explains to Grandma why she places so much pressure on Leah:

“Because she has to learn how to do those things by herself . . . We just want her to learn to be independent, to stand on her own as an individual. If she keeps relying on us to do everything for her, then she’ll never learn how to survive in the real world. She’ll never make friends, and she’ll never learn how to relate to other people. She can’t waste her whole life in her bedroom reading books.”

One of the themes of the novel is the nature of individuality: what does it mean to be an individual and how does an individual fit into a larger society of other individuals? I like Mrs. Nells’ explanation above because it offers a solution to the question raised by the theme of individuality. I think most of us would probably agree with Mrs. Nells’ overall solution for her shy daughter even though we may not necessarily agree with her tactics. From her perspective, Leah’s shyness is preventing the girl from standing on her own two feet; she relies too much on her parents for support and isn’t making the kind of progress towards adulthood that a 14-year-old should be making.

So like Heather, Mrs. Nells is one of Leah’s antagonists, but she’s more complicated than a simple villain.

July 21, 2008

Reading Assignment #2

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 9:42 am
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http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1820828,00.html?xid=rss-topstories

I’ve never liked the idea of using medicine and drugs to change one’s moods and behavior because ultimately such drugs don’t really change a person, they only mask who they really are. Give oxytocin to someone who is shy and you haven’t actually “cured” the shyness. The person is still shy; the drug simply evokes extroverted behavior. Take the drug away, and the person will revert to his or her former self — his or her true self.

Why is it so important that we all think and behave the same way? Where does this drive to homogenize human behavior come from? Humanity itself is diminished when we try to limit the scope of emotions and behaviors to only those which are socially/politically/economically acceptable.

June 20, 2008

Leah’s Genealogy

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 1:48 pm
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Working on this novel and once again spending time with its main character, Leah Nells, has gotten me thinking a lot about the genesis of that character and her story. I wrote the original draft of Leah when I was in college (which probably explains a lot about why the 1996 edition of the novel didn’t turn out so well), but the main character herself was created when I was still in high school. Back then, I was writing stories all the time, often at the cost of my schoolwork. I’m not sure when, exactly, I created Leah Nells, but it was probably when I was in the 12th grade.

Leah Nells emerged as a composite of three individuals, both real and fictional:

  1. Myself. All of my main characters are extensions of me or some aspect of my personality — and I suppose most writers would say the same thing about their own character creations. I’ve always been an introverted person. I’m not really shy — I’ll talk to people when I need to — but like Melville’s Bartleby, I would prefer not to. Perhaps one reason why I really like Leah as a character is because it is one of the few times, in all of the stories that I have written, that I have given full expression to my introverted personality, bringing it forth and personifying it in a story.
  2. There was a girl in my high school who was living Leah’s life about as much as a real person can. I barely knew her at all; in our four years of high school I think I only shared three classes with her, but she clearly made an impression. She was shy, had no friends from what I could tell, and was occasionally picked on by bullies. One of the classes that I shared with her was our 12th grade study hall. I usually sat in class and wrote stories while she sat and read books. For a couple of weeks, she even spent her time reading a big book of trivia questions.
  3. In the 11th grade, my English class studied American literature. One of our reading assignments was The Glass Menagerie, a play that I liked so much that during the summer after 11th grade I went to a bookstore and bought my own copy, which I still have. What I liked most about the play was the character of Laura, whose crippled leg caused her to retreat from the world and live in isolation. I found the character fascinating because I hadn’t encountered anyone like her in any other stories that I had read.

So Leah Nells is an amalgamation of these three sources. Her character first appeared on paper in a pair of short stories, one written during the 12th grade, and the other written . . . well, I’m not sure when, but certainly before I started the novel. In fact, I do know that the second story was as much a character sketch as it was a story. I was probably considering writing a novel about the character, and I used that second story as an opportunity to see if I really could pull it off. As I’ve mentioned before, Leah is a difficult character to write about because she interacts (or doesn’t interact) so differently from other characters that I’ve created. Her story arc is principally an internal one, and so the novel relies on prose narration a lot more than I would prefer.

As a writer, I always end up forming an emotional bond with my main characters, no matter who they are; they’re a part of me. I don’t have children so they’re the closest thing that I have to offspring. I feel obligated to them in a lot of ways, and that is a big reason why I am revising the novel. Since the first edition was published, I’ve felt guilty about not placing Leah in the best possible story I could write. Hopefully, the new edition will live up to my expectations.

June 4, 2008

Reading Assignment

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 10:26 am
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Whenever I describe Leah, I tend to use the adjective “shy”. And while that does describe one aspect of her personality, it is only part of the problem that she faces. We might just as accurately use the term “introverted”. Shyness and introversion are not the same thing, although they both manifest themselves in much the same way: in a withdrawal from people and social situations. To characterize someone as shy, but not introverted, is to suggest that they want to be a part of the social interaction that they see around them, but cannot. This is not Leah’s situation. At times, she might believe that she wants to be more sociable, but only because everyone around her — her parents, teachers, classmates, complete strangers — keep telling her that is how she should behave. In fact, Leah is most comfortable, most at ease with herself, when she is alone. Or, to put it another way (and I think I use this expression somewhere later in the novel), she is alone, but she is not lonely.

A few months ago, I came across an online article that describes the difference that I am discussing in this post. Here is a link to the article. It’s an interesting read, especially if you’ve never really thought about the difference between shyness and introversion.

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