Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Never Begin a Novel with Weather -- Guest Post by Jennifer Salvato Doktorski (THE SUMMER AFTER YOU AND ME Blog Tour and Giveaway)

I am so excited to be a stop on Jennifer Salvato Doktorski's Blog Tour, celebrating the release of her latest novel THE SUMMER AFTER YOU AND ME. This is a great read. Beachy romance--with a twist: the action take place at the Jersey shore the summer after Hurricane Sandy upended the lives of the main characters, a girl who is a permanent resident of the area and a boy who visits only during the summer.

I loved the romance, of course, but was curious about the hurricane aspect. The storm and the devastation almost feel like a third character in the book, so when Jen asked me what I'd like her to blog about, I said, how about the weather?

Here's Jen:

Never begin a novel with weather. It’s one of those generally accepted taboos that most writers come across at some point or another. I’m not sure if Elmore Leonard was the first to say it, but it is number one on his ten rules for writing fiction. Irrespective of its origins, the point is “It was a dark and stormy night” = bad story opener.

But that doesn’t mean weather can’t provide you with the spark or impetus to write a story or novel, or serve as the perfect backdrop. That was the case with my latest YA novel THE SUMMER AFTER YOU AND ME, which debuts today. The story take place the summer after Superstorm Sandy unleashed her wrath on the Jersey shore. It was the largest and most destructive Atlantic hurricane in history, affecting several countries and 24 states with New Jersey and New York being among the hardest hit.

When the mega-sized storm made landfall in New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012, it was the second time in two years that we here in the Garden State had been done wrong by a freak storm on that exact date. The year before, on Oct. 29, 2011, a nor’easter hit the East Coast covering everything, including the trees still heavy with fall foliage, with a thick snow and icy mix. The result was downed power lines and trees everywhere. Schools, businesses, and roads were closed. Nearly 1 million people were without power in New Jersey, and Halloween got cancelled—boo—and the nickname Snowtober was born.

Our property dodged any major damage, but a large branch from one of our giant oak trees fell onto our neighbors’ property, nicking their gutter and pulling down some cables. I took it as a warning sign and had the tree taken down. And a good thing too, because it wouldn’t have survived the 65 mph sustained winds that barreled through here the following year on that same date when Superstorm Sandy pummeled the East Coast on Oct. 29, 2012. Halloween was cancelled, again, but that was the least of anyone’s worries. The New York Stock Exchange also closed for a record two days, but again, small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.

One of the scariest parts about Superstorm Sandy, was that it lived up to the hype. That hype began on October 22 as meteorologists watched as it developed in the Caribbean and crept along the Eastern
seaboard like a slow-moving monster. By Saturday, Oct. 27th, our governor had already ordered a mandatory evacuation of all coastal regions.

We have a place at the shore and were there that day to participate in the annual scarecrow building contest (it seems silly now that I think about it) and to batten down whatever hatches needed battening. It was eerily quiet. We saw some people filling sandbags and some fisherman on the beach, but it seemed like everyone should have been doing more.

The next day, back at our full-time home, which is further north and inland, people were running from store to store, picking the shelves clean of camping lanterns, flashlights, D batteries, phone charges, candles, water, bread and milk. I bought lots of lunchmeat and packed our coolers with ice because our stove is electric and Snowtober made me realize we are fully dependent on electricity to cook. This was Sunday, Oct. 28th, and already schools had been closed for the next day.

And so we awoke on the morning of Oct. 29th, turned on the TV and began flipping channels, from CNN to The Weather Channel to our local news networks. All of them were showing the same Doppler image of a behemoth storm with its red, angry eye and a massive green swirl that looked like a dragon wings and a tail. Outside the wind was picking up; becoming stronger by the hour.

I can’t remember when it started raining but the rain seemed secondary to the wind. I brought our garbage cans into the garage and watched our remaining oak trees swaying back and forth. We used our landline to make calls and kept our cell phones charged. Shortly after 5 p.m., the lights flickered once, the TV made a zapping sound, and then the electricity went out.

“This is it,” someone said. It was either me or my husband, I can’t remember which. What I do remember is the wind. Wind that sounded like a low flying jet or a high-speed freight train. It rattled the windows and bellowed all night long. When it got dark, we turned on the Coleman lantern, ate sandwiches, played board games, read books, and listened to AM radio on the only device in our entire house that go reception—and old, battery-powered walkie talkie with an AM signal that my husband has had since he was five.

We were up most of the night, listening to the soothing voices of the deejays, watching the sky light up a purplish color each time a transformer blew, and waiting for the deafening wind to abate. We grabbed pillows and blankets and stayed together in the living room. In retrospect, we should have holed up in the basement, but somehow I think my husband and I felt better watching those giant oaks sway all night long; willing them to stay up with our eyes. Somehow they did. But all around us, others weren’t so lucky.

The next morning, we stepped outside to find trees and branches down everywhere. A giant oak blocked our road, another lay on top of the neighbors’ minivan. We used our cell phones to call friends and loved ones to make sure everyone was okay. But the power was still out, and would remain out for days, so we had no idea what the rest of the state and New York looked like, or whether our condo at the beach had survived the storm.

The days that followed were surreal. Driving conditions were horrendous without traffic lights, schools in our town remained closed for nearly two weeks, we ran out of hot water, and sleeping without heat in the unseasonably cold weather was tough. I couldn’t make coffee, or any hot food or beverages for days, and we all grew tired of sandwiches (I haven’t eaten bologna since). But these were all minor inconveniences after this major storm.

People had died, property had been damaged, and homes had been destroyed; swept away by ocean and bay waters along with cars, boats, swing sets and whatever else was in Sandy’s path. The hardest hit areas looked like they’d been ravaged by war not a storm.

Suffice it to say, experiencing Superstorm Sandy changed me. It reinforced what I already knew—life is delicate and precious and nothing should ever be taken for granted—and made me appreciate just how good people could be to one another when faced with the aftermath of a tragedy.

Somewhere around our third night with no electricity, I even began to understand why people in the old days went to bed so early and woke up with the sun. There’s only so much you can do in the cold and dark! I also realized how ill-prepared I was for a hurricane of that magnitude or any other natural disaster. That Christmas, I gave everyone in my family emergency kits complete with crank radios and flashlights (I’m too much fun, I know!)

The following summer, I began writing THE SUMMER AFTER YOU AND ME. I didn’t open with the weather, but I wrote this book because of it.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

The Summer After You and Me
Jennifer Salvato Doktorski
Sourcebooks Fire
May 2015 ● ISBN: 9781492619031
Trade paper/$9.99 ● Ages 14+

Will it be a summer of fresh starts or second chances?

For Lucy, the Jersey Shore isn’t just the perfect summer escape, it’s home. As a local girl, she knows not to get attached to the tourists. They breeze in during Memorial Day weekend, crowding her costal town and stealing moonlit kisses, only to pack up their beach umbrellas and empty promises on Labor Day. Still, she can’t help but crush on charming Connor Malloy. His family spends every summer next door, and she longs for their friendship to turn into something deeper.

Then Superstorm Sandy sweeps up the coast, bringing Lucy and Connor together for a few intense hours. Except nothing is the same in the wake of the storm, and Lucy is left to pick up the pieces of her broken heart and her broken home. Time may heal all wounds, but with Memorial Day approaching and Connor returning, Lucy’s summer is sure to be filled with fireworks.

Jennifer Salvato Doktorski is the author of two YA  novels and is a freelance nonfiction writer. Her first paid writing gig was at The North Jersey Herald & News, where she wrote obituaries and began her lifelong love of news and coffee. She lives in New Jersey with her family.

An Excerpt

Connor opened the gorgeous double doors, each with half-moon stained-glass windows on the top, and motioned me inside. “After you.”
The house had that distinct yet hard-to-describe smell of a beach home that had been closed up for a while. I walked to the center of the high-ceilinged foyer and immediately pic­tured pine garland and twinkling white lights wrapped around the sweeping banister.
“Wow. I’d love to spend Christmas here,” I said and immedi­ately regretted being so sappy.
Connor smiled. “You could fit a twelve-foot tree in this hallway.”
I admit, over the years I’ve had my share of Connor-centric fantasies. However the image of him watching his children pad down the stairs on Christmas morning had never been one of them…until that very second. I liked thinking about Connor that way.
“Come on. You’ve got to see the master bedroom.”
The wholesome image of a Malloy family Christmas van­ished. Aha, I thought. That was the Connor I knew.
“Uh-uh,” I said. “The widow’s walk. I want to go there first.”
“Race you,” he said and took off running.
He beat me up the two flights and was waiting for me in the third-floor hallway toward the back of the house. Off the hallway was an art studio, with a drafting table and a bookcase. There was also a telescope standing near the window.
“Follow me.” He crossed the studio and unlocked the dead­bolt to the narrow door leading outside.
“You’ve already been up there?”
“First thing I did when I got here,” Connor said.
“Not the master bedroom?”
“Nah, that’s the first thing I wanted to do when you got here.”
I thought it was just more flirty banter, but Connor’s flushed cheeks looked as warm as my body felt. He stared at me for a beat too long and my throat constricted. I was suddenly aware that I’d left the house with slept-on hair and no mascara. The look on Connor’s face told me he hadn’t noticed. His eyes never left mine.
Finally he said, “Come on, Luce. I’ll follow you.” The space was tight when I passed in front of him, and the closeness of his body gave me the shivers. I opened the door and stepped outside onto a small patio. I walked toward the wrought-iron spiral staircase that lead to the widow’s walk on the roof and placed my hand on the railing. My knees felt shaky as I began the climb, but I never looked back.

Buy Links:
Indiebound: http://bit.ly/1EtSUr9

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Musings on a First Criticism

I received my first negative review of something I'd written when I was in tenth grade.

Up to that point, I'd gotten lots of lovely gushy praise. It helped that I wrote mostly for myself and rarely showed my pieces to anyone else. Teachers, when I was growing up, did not assign creative writing in class. Anything I wrote for them was extra credit. They didn't mark up those papers. They'd scrawl the word Nice across the top. Or, Good. 

So, I had many years to feel positive thoughts about my writing and that encouraged me to keep doing it.

That is, until 10th grade. My English teacher that year was a nun who was big time into grammar. We learned the hell out of the parts of speech. Lots of underlining of the subject once and the predicate twice.

I was the only kid in the class who enjoyed that. Sister taught us how to diagram sentences, and I was awesome. She would throw the most complicated sentence at me and I could break that sucker down.

My love for Sister wavered when she introduced prepositions. It was her belief that prepositions could not be taught. The only proper way to learn them was to memorize all of them in alphabetical order. She pointed out the list in the grammar book and told us that our assignment was to memorize the list. In a week, she'd have us recite it in front of the class. If we made one mistake, we would get a zero.

I raised my hand and explained that I understood what prepositions were and I felt that I could identify them without going through this memorization exercise.

Sister smiled and told me I was wrong.

When class was over, I went to the guidance office and asked to be taken out of the class. The guidance counselor was sympathetic. She putzed around in a file cabinet (no computers then) and informed me that I'd been mistakenly placed in a lower tracked English class. I should've been in honors. Unfortunately, there wasn't much that could be done to change the schedule.

Luckily, Sister taught both English classes. The solution was that I would keep going to my class, but meet with Sister once a week to do the honors level work. Weirdly, I was okay with that. Sister gave me a list of novels to read and a packet of work, and I kept diagramming sentences and underlining predicates. I also failed the preposition quiz. Proudly.

One of the assignments for the honors class was to write a story. I had never written a story for school before, but I was excited about it. By tenth grade I called myself a writer. I had been keeping a journal for years. I had written two full-length novels and a stack of shorter things, some finished, some not.

I wrote a story that I was sure would wow Sister. It was literary and complicated, heart-wrenching, with allegorical overtones.

The story was called "I Am the Lamb" and it was about a girl who grew up on a remote farm in Iowa (I laugh at this now because I had never been to Iowa and knew absolutely nothing about farms, but whatever.) The girl had a hideous birthmark on her face, a birthmark so gruesome that her parents kept her isolated on the Iowa farm. They said it was because she was special, but the girl suspected that the parents might be ashamed of her hideousness. One day a white sheep on the farm gave birth to a litter? group of baby sheep (I wasn't sure on the lingo) and one of the lambs was black and the mother refused to nurse the lamb because it was different. The girl was given the task of killing it.

In case you don't see the parallel, I helpfully pointed it out at the end of the story when the girl makes a moving speech to her parents about how SHE IS THE LAMB.

The day I met with Sister to discuss my story, I was eager to hear her thoughts. We met in a small office with no windows. I sat down and Sister stood, and I waited for her to gush about my brilliance and creativity.

Instead, she yelled at me.

My story, she said, was wrong. No parents would ever treat a child the way the parents in my story did.

I walked out of the room, embarrassed and ashamed.

The rest of the year was full-blown crappy. I kept reading books on the honors list, but my heart wasn't in it. Diagramming sentences had lost their luster. The kids in the grammar class asked for my homework and fought to sit next to me on test days so they could copy my answers. I let them.

I didn't write a story for a teacher again until college. I never looked at the Lamb story until a few weeks ago when I unearthed it during a recent purging of my house. I was almost afraid to read it. I felt sick just looking at the title. I assumed it was a terrible story.

I read it the way I might read any student's work. The Iowa farm. The horrible birthmark. The story itself, surprisingly, wasn't as terrible as I remembered. Nice set up and character development. Dialogue. Description. Very few grammatical or punctuation errors.  If the writer was my student, I might praise all of that. Maybe ask a few questions. Like, why'd you write about farms and lambs when they're, uh, not something you know that much about?

I can't imagine mentioning the over-the-top symbolism and drama. Fifteen-year-olds sometimes write stuff like that.

It's interesting how the voice of your first critic worms around the voice in your own head, twists and winds, until the voice becomes one voice, and that voice whispers in the back of your mind: You can't write about this. 

This is wrong. 

The book I am writing now is full of things that would make Sister cringe. It's dark and edgy and weird. Fantasy bleeding into reality and the other way around. Characters doing cruddy things to each other. Parents hurting their children.

I've been writing the book on and off for 13 years. For a variety of reasons, I could never get it "right." Some days I work on a passage and I hear what I'd always thought was my editor voice, whispering: No. This is wrong. You can't write this. 

Lately, I've been shaking my head, telling the voice to shut up. Guess what, Sister, This is my story and it's not wrong. 

Watch me. I'm writing it. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Throw Your Clay with Great Force and Don't Wait 20+ Years to Follow a Childhood Dream...

A couple of weeks ago my good friend and fellow YA author Natalie D. Richards invited me to come along with her to a ceramics studio.

Nat's latest work in progress features a character who makes pottery or maybe he welds stuff (she's not quite sure yet) but she heard about this place where you could play around with a pottery wheel, and she thought that since she'd never thrown clay before, it might be a good idea for her to check it out--for research purposes. (We're doing a welding class next week.)

Anyway, I was game for it. I'd never thrown clay either. "It's supposed to be kind of difficult," Nat told me on the way there. And I could imagine that would be true. All visual arts seem difficult to me. 

Painting. Sculpture. Photography. Any kind of craft. Whatever. I'm fascinated by artists and visual arts but if there is a gene for that kind of thing, I don't have it. 

I am trying to stop saying that about myself. 

Over the past few months I went through the Artist's Way course again (see here for a fun intro) and it's been a major help in getting me through a difficult revision. It's also turned my life and house pretty much upside down. I had been sharing some of my breakthroughs and epiphanies with Nat, and I guess I got her intrigued enough that now she is going through the course and having her own fun breakthroughs. 

One of the things you do when you are going through the AW, is list things -- things you want, old dreams and new dreams, stuff you always wanted to try but maybe were afraid to. The author of the AW, Julia Cameron, is big time into artsy craftsy things. Doesn't matter if you can hardly draw a stick figure, she will have you painting and decorating and making totems and God jars. Weird as it all seemed to me at times, I just kept going through all of the tasks and exercises, because as JC likes to say, your child artist needs to play. 

The ceramics studio is called Clay Space and the artists running the class couldn't be more cool about beginners trying things out. Each student gets her own wheel and five big bagel sized hunks of clay (but we could have more if we messed stuff up, which, they assured us, we would.) I was the doofus asking five million questions, and the instructor Todd answered every damn one of them. Plus some questions I didn't ask. 

For example, did you know that "throwing" clay comes from the German, which means turning? Yeah. Me neither.   

(Nat is not Patrick Swayze or Whoopi Goldberg)

Todd sat at one of the wheels and showed us step by step how to throw the clay. You do it with great force. And there's important information about how to center it. And lots of instructions about how to place your hands and anchor your elbows and have bad posture, and what to do with your thumbs, and I can't speak for anyone else in the class, but all of those instructions flipped right out of my head. 

Art, when it comes down to it, is not something you can take notes on. You have to do it. 

When it was time to do it, I had no idea what to do. I couldn't remember one damn thing about throwing or centering or where to put my thumbs. But I was channeling Julia Cameron and playing. Also, I was drinking wine. I forgot to mention, you can bring a bottle of wine with you to Clay Space.

Nat was sitting next to me at her wheel and I was getting a kick out of the whole thing, making jokes about Patrick Swayze and Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, and watching my clay collapse, or one time, fly the hell right off the wheel. 

Something strange: Nat kept making these bowl shaped things and I kept making longer vase shaped things. When I tried to make a bowl, it turned into a vase, and when she tried to make a vase, it turned into a bowl. I have no idea what that means about our respective personalities. 

(Bowls, by Nat)
(Vases, by Jody--with LOTS of help from Todd)

This all seemed to go on forever, and I hate to say I kind of got bored with it, but I guess I kind of got bored with it, so I took a lot of pictures with my phone and followed Todd around and probably bugged the hell out of him with questions. 

(a garden of broken pottery pieces)
Later, Nat and I sat at a table and she painted her bowls and I painted my vases. We walked outside and I went nuts over a garden of broken pottery pieces. Somehow I had not seen it walking in. I was all silly from wine and playing with muddy clay and I didn't notice at first that Nat was misty-eyed. 

"I loved that," she said. 

"I loved that too," I said. 

"No," she said, "I really loved that."

She was crying a little and I felt like a ding dong for not realizing it sooner. "What?" I said. "What's going on?"

She smiled and said that when she was a kid one of her cousins had gotten a pottery wheel as a present and she'd always wanted to try it but she never did. And here it was 20 something years later and she'd put it on her Artist's Way list, and now she did it. 

"Huh," I said. "Why'd you wait so long?"  

"I don't know," she said.  


Tune in soon for Part Two: Jody and Nat Weld Things 

Happy Nat is Happy 



Thursday, April 16, 2015

Everything but the Kitchen Sink-- Also known as Trying Every Trick in the Book... To Write a Book

It's weird to write a book.

I've done it more than ten times, and I still think it's weird. I know how it works, how to do it.

[NEWS FLASH: you sit on your butt and you pick up your writing implement of choice, and you write until the book is finished.]

I can give you all kinds of pointers about how to start, where to find ideas/use ideas/develop ideas, how to plug along through a first draft, (and a 2nd draft and a 10th draft), how to outline or not outline, how to reread what you have and reorganize it and revise it, how to plot and develop characters, how amp up conflict, how to edit and polish and blah bi di blah blah.

I can also give you strategies for working through Writer's Block.

[NEWS FLASH: you sit on your butt and you pick up your writing implement of choice and you write--even though you hate what you're writing and hate writing and probably hate yourself. Do that for 20, 30, maybe 56 days, and I promise, you'll break through Writer's Block.]

Yeah. So I KNOW ALL THAT. And yet, apparently, I must bow down humbly before the Muse and admit that I KNOW ABSOLUTELY NOTHING when it comes to writing a book, specifically, the book I am writing now, which is technically a revision, my fifth or sixth complete time through it.

It's a strange complicated dark expansive personal story that seems to get bigger and more complicated every time I pick my way through it.

I heard the brilliant writer and teacher Jane Resh Thomas speak at Hamline University when I visited the MFAC program in January and she said that when you write a book, you are not the same person you were when you started it. You're exploring parts of yourself--some parts, that maybe you would rather not explore. Because I have basically been writing this story for more that 12 years, let's just say that I am doing a lot of exploring of the dark and dusty recesses of myself.

And here's one thing I figured out:

All of my old strategies for writing a book-- the word counts and the daily goals and the typing on my lap top and the index cards-- none of that seems to be working with this one. So I decided-- what the hey?-- why not try something new?

Forget the damn laptop. I've been writing by hand. With a pencil. I'm filling up composition notebooks, something I haven't done since I was twelve.
(two of many notebooks. Plus a to-do list
with the first item:

I hand write in the mornings and type and revise in the afternoon. I take a lot of breaks. When I'm stuck, I clean something in my house or throw something out or clean something and then throw it out.

This book takes place partly in a forest and every time I get to a place where I have no idea what the characters are doing or thinking, I start describing trees. I have hundreds of pictures stored on my computer. Types of trees and leaves and fruit and bark. I have pieces of bark on my desk.

(there are satyrs in my book too. Satyrs are from Greek
mythology and they have tails and they
like to chase nymphs. Look at the one I painted
with watercolors. Note: the privates are modestly
covered by leaves) 
I'm doing yoga again. (wearing yoga pants has inspired me.) I'm gathering stones and creating altars and burning candles and staying off social media and walking the dog multiple times and binge watching Supernatural and painting with water colors.

I'm terrible with water colors and I don't care. I also don't care about publication anymore. Or sales numbers or sequels or self promotion or marketing. I do some of those things, sure, but this book comes first. It may never be read by anyone except for a few close friends. And get this: I don't care. 

In the mornings I change out of my pajamas and into my yoga pants and I park my butt on the bed in my office/guest room where I've been working, and I pick up my pencil and write.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

In Which I Take a Much Needed Vacation and Remember I have a Tattoo

Last week I took a vacation with my family. We drove sixteen hours in one day to get to Port Charlotte, Florida, where my aunt lives in a lovely condo.

I guess I should mention that I have a hard time taking breaks, especially when I am in the middle of a writing project. The story I am writing now is intense and dark and sad and jabbing me in places I don't want to go, but recently I had reached some kind of understanding of It and myself, and I was sort of afraid to be away from it for a week. Through much floundering and angsting and cleaning out closets (both literally and metaphorically) I had stumbled onto a routine that seemed to be working.

Every morning I'd get up, change into my work uniform, suck down the first of many cups of coffee, settle in at my work place, and push my way into my dark story world. If I didn't have the dog freaking out about the secretly psychotic serial killer mailman every day, I might never come out of that world.

[*My work uniform used to be a bathrobe over pajamas, but during the course of writing this book, I have discovered this new kind of pajamas called Yoga Pants. Yoga Pants are awesome because while they are as comfortable as pajamas, they are more socially acceptable -- so when you open the door at 5pm for the UPS guy, with your dog jumping around you having a mini heart attack, you don't feel like a total pajama-wearing sloth.]

It's possible that I am a workaholic.

The schedule for writing this book-- as I have been writing it since the middle of January -- has been: Write all day, with a few brief breaks to eat, walk the dog, pick up my daughter from school, wolf down dinner (that my husband has been graciously preparing), and then go back In until like 9:00 or 9:30 until my brain is fried and my eyes are burning.

I do this on weekends too.

But I decided I might need to take a break. If only to prove to myself and my long-suffering family that I could

1. not write for a week
2. wear something besides yoga pants

Okay. I cheated a little, writing in the mornings while everyone was sleeping, but otherwise, I am happy to say that I enjoyed the vacation.

I've been finishing up The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. One of the hardest exercises for me is what the author calls Artist Dates. What you're supposed to do is take an hour or two each week, just for yourself, to pamper your inner child artist. This sounds ridiculous and new age-y to me even as I write it. It's the one task that I am most eager to skip each week and it is the one thing that I probably need most of all.

It's hard to write a book--at least my crazy way of doing it. At the end of the day I am wrung out. Depleted. Empty.

I have to fill myself back up occasionally. With a trip to a museum. Or a movie. With a walk around the block. Or a walk on the beach.

One day last week I was kicked out in my beach chair, digging my toes in the sand and I was looking at the tattoo of a foot on my foot. I'd sort of forgotten that it was there. It's been covered up all winter under my socks and my yoga pants.

It made me smile to see it.

Getting a tattoo is one of the crazier things I've done in my life. Crazy because it was so unexpected and not like me. And yet I did it, and now I have this symbol of spontaneity and fun and weirdness tattooed on my ankle. Forever.
Huh. Turns out I still have a tattoo.

It makes me want to do other unexpected fun things.

Paint my toenails orange because orange is a color I would never paint my toenails.

Dig a hole in the sand even though I am old and don't have a little kid parked next to me.

A beach hole. 

Eat food without gulping it.

Have conversations without my mind drifting over character arcs.

Sit at a pool and flip through a magazine.

Spend an entire afternoon sipping pina coladas with my husband.

Take a break once in a while and remember that I am a person.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Why I Went Indie -- Guest Post by Holly Schindler

My writing friend Holly Schindler has a new book out today--her first non-traditionally published novel, and her first in the category of what they call New Adult (a tad older and, sometimes, spicier than Young Adult-- for those not up on the lingo.) To celebrate her book launch, I let her take over my blog. SO, here's Holly Schindler:


FIFTH AVENUE FIDOS, a New Adult Romantic-Comedy, releases today, March 20—it will also be the first release from Holly Schindler, LLC.

With four traditional books out in the world (three YAs and one MG), and after having snagged a couple of starred reviews and won a few awards, I’ve been asked why I chose to go "indie."

FIFTH AVENUE FIDOS is a book that was originally inspired by my own dog, Jake, shortly after he came into my life…eleven years ago. It went on sub a few times; editors all indicated that the book was well done—a couple actually said, “This needs to be published”—but they just plain didn’t know what to do with it. Wasn’t YA, wasn’t adult. One editor said the book was “neither fish nor fowl.”

This was before New Adult had emerged, of course, but even after New Adult became a well-read genre / age category, FIDOS was still breaking the mold. It’s a sweet story (rather than sexy), and while Mable is nineteen when the book starts, she’s not in college, either. There’s a love scene, but it’s fade-to-black rather than steamy erotica. After New Adult came into being, editors were still holding onto the manuscript—it bounced between imprints at several houses, as editors struggled to find a place for it.

In the end, it just didn’t work. FIDOS does not fit the current traditional publishing platform. Which is what makes it a perfect fit for the indie world.

With the rise of hybrid authors, independent publishing no longer means “inferior.” There will always be books that don’t fit the traditional-publishing mold—just as FIDOS doesn’t. Authors have options.

As I continue to explore what’s possible in the independent world, I can indulge in projects (subjects, genres, etc.) that I couldn’t if I were to rely solely on traditional means of publication. And I can put the books out at my own pace, outside of traditional publishing seasons (an aspect that’s especially appealing when you’re a fairly quick writer).

I’m only at the beginning of my independent publishing journey—and there’s absolutely no predicting where, exactly, it will lead. But I CAN reveal that the next indie book I’ll be writing (I’m beginning to draft it now) is the NA sequel to my YA romance, PLAYING HURT. I’ll be announcing the release date through my newsletter; so be sure to sign up so you’ll know when you’ll be able to download the steamy new installment of Chelsea and Clint’s love story.

Holly Schindler and Jake

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Panicking over Poetry (otherwise known as the time I was a doofball and sabotaged my own dream)

When I was twenty-one and fresh out of college, I started an MFA in poetry at the University of Memphis. I spent an interesting year writing some poems. I got to meet a few cool visiting authors and poets.

I dropped out at the end of the year.

The end.

Flash forward 25+ years.

If you asked me, even a couple of weeks ago, about this small chapter in my past, I would've made light of it. I am not the kind of person who feels regret. I figure that things happen the way they happen and there's not much you can do about it now. The Year of Poetry always seemed kind of silly to me.

In fact, I used it in what I thought was a self-deprecating, humorous way in my official author bio:

See here for this nice snippet from the back flap of my first published novel:
Jody Casella majored in creative writing at Rhodes College and started an MFA at the University of Memphis. Then in a moment of fear at the sheer impracticality of being a poet, she quit writing, earned an MA, and started teaching...

Over the past few months I've been purging my house. It's been a fascinating and sometimes horrifying trip down memory lane. Opening closets and digging through the basement, the garage, the attic, is an excavation of the past. Stuff that fits well in other rooms, other houses, other periods of your life, but no longer fits the life you have now. Things you thought you should like-- a set of too fancy china. Pressed white tablecloths. Ha ha. I am not a pressed white table cloth kind of person. You have to IRON white tablecloths. And I don't iron. (PS. Adios to the freaking iron.)

All of this tripping down memory lane has got me revisiting past selves too. The Self, for example, who made the decision to quit the MFA in poetry.

When I lived in Lexington Kentucky, I worked as a teacher of academically gifted and talented 4th and 5th graders. My job was to formally identify kids in giftedness and create suitable challenging academic plans for them.

Something I know about academically gifted kids is that no matter how smart they are --and some of these kids were at the prodigy level -- they will eventually hit a wall. The barrier is something new-- an idea, a problem, an experience-- that does not come easily to them, something they have never seen before and can't immediately comprehend.

This is a scary encounter for a gifted kid. These kids have been told all of their lives how brilliant they are. So when they hit the Wall, they panic. They have no strategies for dealing with a challenge. I've seen kids burst into tears trying to work on a math problem. I watched a kid have a tantrum--the lying on your back/kicking on the floor kind-- when he couldn't understand how to fit together pentominos.

It seems ridiculous. But what's going on psychologically is the kid is calling into question everything she knows about herself. If she can't understand this stupid math equation, how smart is she after all? The trick is to teach kids how to work through frustration, how to tackle problems, how to practice-- when they've never had to do that before.

I taught these gifted kids for seven years. I watched some of them hit walls and freak out. I watched many hit the wall and find a way to go around it or knock the damn thing down. Most of the kids never hit a wall. But they would, eventually. And I told them and their parents to be prepared for the inevitable.

I never ever ever thought about any of this in relation to myself. I was not a gifted student when I was in school. I struggled daily through math and science classes. I had to study hard for tests in every subject. The only area where I excelled was writing. But that had nothing at all to do with school. I wrote on my own. Journals. Stories. Two novels before I was fifteen that I did not show a soul. The few people who knew what I was doing, said I was a good writer.

Writing was my talent. When I went to college, I majored in it and knew that I was one of the best writers in the school. My writing got very little criticism. And then, I started my year in the MFA in poetry program....

At first it seemed like I would glide along as I always had. The professor, a brilliant poet named Sharon Bryan, chose me as one of her first students to fill her brand new program. I got a scholarship-- full tuition. Plus, a decent stipend for being the managing editor of the literary magazine.

I shared an office with Sharon. The workshop classes went well. All praise for me-- no shock there-- I had talent, remember? But there was a bit of uncomfortable nudging. Sharon saw me "working" on my poems in the office we shared-- how I dashed them off in minutes before a class with minimal thought. How I never revised anything. When she gave me suggestions, I blew them off. The poems were perfectly fine the way I'd written them.

She pushed me in the other classes too. Analyzing poetry, dissecting line breaks and rhythm, figuring out how poems were put together and choices the writers made. I didn't always understand what was going on. I had to think about writing in a way that I'd never had to before. Papers that I was used to throwing together the night before, were suddenly things I had to tackle earlier, and possibly.. gasp.. revise.

University of Memphis was considered easy. The program, one of my previous professors told me, was beneath me. And there I was.. struggling. I was supposed to have this natural talent--writing was the ONLY thing about myself I was proud of, sure of, and suddenly I wasn't sure of it anymore.

So. I quit.

What the hell was I going to do with an MFA anyway? Teach poetry?? HA. What a silly job. And poetry. Jeez. What a ridiculous subject to focus on. Nobody even reads it. Was I really going to devote my life to writing little poems and hoping some literary magazine that has a circulation of like, 50, will publish one and possibly pay me 20 bucks?

Yeah. No thanks. Time to grow up, Jody and put away childish things. You want to be a writer? Well, regular people don't get to be writers. And you're not as good at it as you thought.

I didn't write another word for the next five years. Within a year, I was married and teaching high school English. My husband and I bought a house. We started our family.

Something I scrounged out of a closet recently was a folder of old grad school poems. They weren't bad, but I could immediately see how they could be better. The year I was at U of M, I worked harder than I ever had on my writing. I had some amazing experiences too. I had dinner with Seamus Heaney. I had a funny conversation with John Updike at a party. I met Richard Russo and WS Merwin and Marvin Bell and Barry Hannah and Pattiann Rogers.

What would have happened if I hadn't panicked and dropped out?

I'm not saying that I would've become a poet. Still, two more years of careful study on my writing, the interactions with classmates and teachers and visiting writers, the nudging, the pushing, the challenging-- it sure as hell couldn't have hurt me.

But I was the kid having the tantrum on the floor.

I don't have regrets. But man oh man, I wished there'd been someone there to scoop me up off the floor, dry my tears, and say, It's okay. You can figure this out. Listen, writing is your talent, and you are good at it,  but that doesn't mean you don't have to work on it too.

Get up. Climb the damn wall.