Monday, November 17, 2014

Librarians Saved My Life, and now, damn it, I am going to try to save theirs

My love affair with librarians goes way back.

The romance began in my childhood, when a librarian saved my life. Our first date was a lovely one. She was young and beautiful and kind. She saw me--a sad shy little girl -- scoping out the shelves in the children's section of the New Britain Public Library, and she struck up a conversation. One thing led to another and she was selecting books for me, even going so far as to place books in my hands. 

After a few weeks, she knew what I liked. Sweet quiet stories. Mysteries, but nothing too dark. Fantasies. I think she guessed something about me: I wanted--needed--to escape.

Our break-up was tearful. One day I came into the children's section and she was waiting for me, as always, with a stack of books. It was her last day, she said.

(Me, age 10 or so, at the library)
I cried.

She took me out to a nearby restaurant. Things would be okay, she said. I would be okay. Books would always be my friends.

From that point on, I've loved libraries.  The buildings themselvesthe books that fill those buildings. And I've never gotten over my love for librarians.

They still help me choose books. When my kids were little, librarians helped them. The librarian at their elementary school knew them by name, of course, and she knew what kinds of books they liked. My son was a big non-fiction guy. My daughter liked mysteries.

As a writer of children's books, I still spend a lot of time in libraries. I enjoy chatting with the librarians in the children's section of my local library. I am friends with the librarian (just retired) from my kids' high school and with several of the librarians at other high schools in the area.

Last year the librarians in Ohio invited me to sign books at their annual conference. The plied me with food and invited me back this year to speak. They've brought me to their schools and book clubs. They put my book on their Battle of the Books lists. Librarians at the New Britain Public library, the same library where my love affair began, invited me back to give a talk. They searched for the kind librarian of my childhood by looking up old employment records. They wrote me emails with the subject line "The Case of the Missing Librarian."

They did not find her, but they are still on the case.

A few librarians in Florida put my book Thin Space on the list of books teens should read, and I went to their conference. Those librarians set me up in a gorgeous hotel in Orlando and treated me like I was a rock star.

I still cry around librarians. I know what a powerful and potentially life changing effect they can have on individual children. I know that some people don't recognize what librarians do. Librarians never toot their own horns.

That librarian in my children's school --the one who knew their names and what books they liked to read-- she was let go. The short-sighted well-meaning principal decided that her position wasn't important. A better use of tax dollars would be a reading specialist to analyze reading test scores. Maybe a parent volunteer could sit in the library and check out books and straighten the shelves.

I visited a school in Florida with 3600 students and one librarian. She was lovely but frazzled, telling me that when she teaches lessons on research or technology, she must visit 75 classes. But she felt lucky. She has a job. There are entire districts in Florida with no librarians at all.

A few weeks ago, when I spoke at the Ohio state librarians' conference, I noticed a stark difference between the number of attendees from the year before. The president told me that they've lost many people. Many districts no longer reimburse librarians for conference expenses. Anyone who was there, most likely paid for the attendance themselves.

They were upbeat though. Talking about their love of books and of students. Sharing information about how best to reach and help and support their kids, as they call them. I gave a talk about my book and my evolution as a writer and I was shocked to see that I had made some of the librarians cry.

Last week I bumped into several of librarians I know. They were anxious and upset.

The state board of education in Ohio is seriously considering passing a law that would make it easy for districts to cut the arts, music, guidance, PE, and librarians from the schools. At the last meeting, several school board members walked out in protest of the proposed law.

I never get political on this blog, but today I am going to.

If you live in Ohio, please take a moment to show support for school librarians. Write a thank you note to one (or all) of the following board members who care about school libraries and librarians and understand the true insidious ramifications of the proposed law--or at the very least, seem to be open to supporting the librarian profession:

Stephanie Dodd     
Sarah Fowler         
Kathleen McGervey
Ann Jacobs            
Michael Collins    
Deborah Cain        
A.J. Wagner          
Mary Rose Oakar 

Here's a link to one of the articles in The Columbus Dispatch about the crisis.

If you're on Twitter, you can support and follow along --using the hashtag #Ohio5of8

Thank you.

One of these schools is next to Hogwarts. One is next to a power plant.
What do they both have in common?
A dedicated, professional librarian 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Don't Step on the Seal. And other stuff I learned on the college tour circuit

I've visited a lot of college campuses over the past few years.

It was fun at first. (Side note: I was looking at these colleges with my teenaged son as part of his college search process, so once I got past the shocking/horrifying fact that I was the parent of a teenaged son going through the college search process, I kinda got into the whole thing.)

While my kid was slouching in the back of the parent info session, I was the perky helicopter mom jotting down notes about the application process and average SAT scores (that my equally helicoptery husband would later input into an Excel spreadsheet).

I loved the student led campus tours where a gushing model specimen of collegiate-ness walks backward and spouts off fun facts about college life while at the same time pointing out interesting aspects of the architecture. Look at the ivy crawling up the side of that building! Did you know that 25% of our students study abroad? See that stained glass window?-- that was once Einstein's office.

Maybe four or five visits in, some of the fun facts and interesting architectural aspects started to bleed together.

Did you know, for example, that pretty much every college campus has a nearby ice cream parlor/pizza place/bbq joint where THE BEST ICE CREAM/PIZZA/BBQ EVER is served and you simply must stop there on your way out of town?

Every college cafeteria has a pasta bar.

Every place has some kind of elaborate etched into the brick walkway college seal or special archway that you must not walk across/step through or you won't graduate.

Every place is gung ho sustainability and yoga and 25,000 intramural sports and clubs.

The tour guides lie to you. About the ice cream parlors. And Einstein's office. 

After the blurry whirlwind of touring, a couple of tidbits stand out:

Most original dorm option (can't remember which school this was. Oberlin? Swarthmore?): You can apply to live with a handful of other kids in a Thoreau-like cabin way off campus, with no running water or electricity.

Fun fact that probably should NOT have been said by a tour guide: We were passing by a beautiful pond, and someone (Me) mentioned how nice the pond was, and the tour guide said, Yeah, but we can't swim in it because it has like, 30 strains of e-coli bacteria.

By the time kid number two came along, I was jaded and cynical about the college search process but trying to be joyful and rah rah about it for the sake of my child --who was looking at totally different schools from the ones we looked at with her older brother.

The first place we visited with kid #2, my husband and I were rolling our eyes and whisper-mocking the newby parents. (Did they not get the memo about letting your kid be the one to ask if there is a study abroad program at this school?

Answer: Of course there's a study abroad program at this school. There's a study abroad program at EVERY SCHOOL.

On the tours: more lies about not stepping across supposedly magical seals. More strolls through libraries and campus bookstores and chemistry labs and chapels and state of the art gyms.

RE: the cafeterias. Pasta bars are so 2011. Now the In thing is a panini press station.

Yesterday, my husband and daughter and I were sitting in the parlor of a yet another lovely admissions office awaiting yet another official college tour. Outside it was gray and cold. When we started out the door following after the student guide, the wind picked up. Even so, the campus was gorgeous, with its old brick buildings and crisscrossing walkways, and a stunning panoramic view of rolling hills and woods and fields.

The student tour guide was appropriately hip and peppy. He walked backward like a pro, spouting off the admission stats and waving at points of interest. Two minutes into the tour, we stopped and looked down at the school seal.

"You know," said our student guide, "Students can't ever step across that or they won't graduate." He went on to say something about the number of kids who participate in Greek life or who volunteer to do community service.

I had stopped listening to him. I was looking at my daughter, her hair flicking up in the breeze, her arms crossed, either because she was freezing or anxious or both.

I looked over at my husband, who had his hands thrust in the pockets of his not weather-appropriate hoodie, and wondered if he was freezing or anxious or both. Was he thinking about our older child in college and how the second semester's horrifyingly high bill would be due soon and how the hell were we going to pay for the next kid on top of it and maybe it was time to pull out the Excel Spreadsheet where we have our college savings plan charted out for the next 5 years and doublecheck it?

A few years ago, at a college info session--(Williams?), the speaker talked about the school's 4-week Winter Term. Because I was a newby at that point, I'd never heard of such a thing, but apparently, you can do an internship or study abroad or stay on campus and ski. Or you could take a class. Or make up your own class, based on your interests. Teach yourself Morse Code or read all  of the poems by Emily Dickinson.

My mind was wandering, imagining that. How cool that my kids would get to Do those things. Eat paninis and live in Thoreau-like cabins and study in France. What would it be like to take four weeks and just read Emily Dickinson?

And then it hit me, I COULD take four weeks and read Emily Dickinson poems if I wanted to. What was stopping me? And damn it, if I want to eat paninis or pitch a tent in the back yard and pretend I'm Thoreau or throw caution to the wind and put a trip to France on the credit card, I could do that too.

Back in the gray windy day at the lovely college on the hill, the tour guide was gesturing to the library.

"This is our seventeenth college tour," my husband whispered to me.

We hung back further from the tour. The wind picked up and everyone was relieved when we got to go inside a dorm and see a sample dorm room.

"Are these dorms coed?" asked a parent.

YES!!! I wanted to tell him.

"Yes," said the tour guide.

When the tour was over, we ate lunch in the cafeteria. Salad bar. Build Your Own Omelet Station. Create our own sandwich. Paninis.

We ate pizza.

Before we left town, we stopped for ice cream at the best ice cream place ever.

At home, my husband pulled up the Excel Spreadsheet of College Costs. I got online and ordered a panini press.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Interview with Jessica Martinez

Jessica Martinez is my new hero.

I met her a few weeks ago in Orlando at a joint book event. I was talking about my first book Thin Space and still feeling a tad anxious about speaking in front of a crowd. She was launching her fourth book Kiss Kill Vanish and looking as relaxed as can be. Releasing a fourth book into the world apparently isn't a big deal--not when you're about to have a fourth child. Yes. You read that right. Jessica talked up her book and settled down her three young children all while handing out celebratory cupcakes. (Not homemade. Thank goodness. She's got to draw the line somewhere.)

Two words about Kiss Kill Vanish. It's good. I stayed up way past my bedtime reading and my tired mind is still spinning with the story today. It's a thriller with characters who aren't what they seem. The book has secrets. Danger. Adventure. But because this is Jessica Martinez, author of the acclaimed novel Virtuosity, there's much more to it. Music and art. Multi-layered characters. The very cool (and freezing cold) setting of Montreal. And thought provoking themes of identity and family loyalty. It's labeled a young adult novel but I definitely can see it crossing over to old adults too. (I just wrote that sentence and realized how dumb it sounds. This is a book, people. For anyone who likes good books!! Okay. Off my soap box.)

Jessica graciously consented to an interview and without anymore blather from me, here we go:

Jody: Here's a question every writer gets but I am going to ask you anyway, because I am dying to know: Where do you get your ideas?

Jessica: I wish I knew! I’m so inconsistent. Sometimes I can look back and trace where they came from, but it’s different every time. Music, news stories, movies, family and friends (sorry, family and friends)—pretty much everything is fair game.

Jody: Once you've got a spark of an idea, what's your next step? Do you outline? Or do you let the story go where it wants to and outline later?

Jessica: I make stuff up as I go. I have tried outlining. At best, I find it ineffective, because my characters end up taking the plot in a different direction than I planned. And at worst, it totally stifles my process. I don’t even try anymore.

Jody: Okay, this is me, being totally nosy, but-- how many books did you write before you got your first book deal? And how many rejections did you get along the way?

Jessica: Virtuosity is the first book I wrote and the first to be published. I got about ten rejections from agents before I signed with the agent I still have and adore, Mandy Hubbard. She sold it pretty quickly for me. Sorry, I do know that’s unfairly lucky.

Jody: Nah, that's really cool.

Jessica: If it makes anybody feel any better, I’ve written three half-books in the last year (and no whole books) and thrown all three out. Because they sucked. The possibility of rejection and failure is there with every book, not just the first.

Jody: Another nosy question. I know you have three young children, how do you manage working in time to write?

Jessica: I write during the baby’s nap time, and then again when all my kids are in bed at night. This means I have a thrilling social life. When my baby stops napping, I’m in deep, deep trouble. Also, I’m having another baby due in April (does that make my older baby not a baby anymore? Eeeep!) so I fully expect my schedule to be thrown in the blender.

Jody: I'm bowing down to you. I've got grown children and only a dog to care for, so I can't even imagine how you're doing this.

Jessica: I'm actually not too worried. Things have been crazy before, and I always find time to write. Showering, however…that gets put in the optional category.

Jody: Sometimes showering, caring for little ones, writing... now I'm wondering how you balance it all.

Jessica: Family and church come first. But that’s not easy for me, even though they’re decisions I’m absolutely sure about. It seems like I have to remind myself daily, because it’s always painful to put writing off when the ideas are screaming. Yeah, I can't sugar coat it—it’s tough, because writing is the thing I always want to be doing. I guess that’s why I have to force it down on the list of priorities, so my life isn’t horribly imbalanced.

Jody: We haven't even talked about book promotion yet. I had no idea what was expected when my first book came out--things I'd have to do from my end, especially on social media. How do you deal with social media on top of all of your other obligations?

Jessica: Um, poorly? Actually, as soon as I gave up on being effective with social media, I started having a good time with it. Twitter is pretty much all I do, and about 90% of my tweets are just me being an idiot. I don’t feel like it’s a waste of time though, because I’ve made a lot of friends in the industry, and I’d like to think that goes further than book promotion. Or maybe I’m just telling myself that because I’m uncomfortable with promoting my books—in person or online. I love writing. The business of marketing makes me cringe.

Jody: We met on social media. So, I guess it's working. Last question, I promise. Can you share something about your latest project?

Jessica: I’m working on my first adult novel! I’m moving at a snail’s pace (as usual) but eventually I’ll get there. Cross your fingers this one doesn’t end up in the trash!

Jody: I am sure it is going to be awesome. Thanks, so much, Jessica, for chatting with me today. And readers, if you want to find out more about Jessica Martinez and her books --or witness her act like an idiot on Twitter : )  see below.

Bio: "I was born and raised in Calgary, Canada. As a child I played the violin, read books, and climbed trees incessantly. I went on to study English and music at Brigham Young University, and since then I’ve been an English teacher, a symphony violinist, and a mother. I currently live in Orlando, Florida with my husband and three children.

My young adult novels are Virtuosity, The Space Between Us, The Vow, and Kiss Kill Vanish. I’m represented by Mandy Hubbard of D4EO Literary Agency."

website: Jessica Martinez
Twitter: @Jlmarti1

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In Which I Confess My Love for Emily Dickinson. Plus: a Shout Out to a Great New Book

I'm ashamed to admit that once upon a time I didn't think much of Emily Dickinson.

When I was in high school, I may have glanced at a poem or two. They seemed like sappy things about nature or unrequited love. Bluh is what I thought. And that mousy author photo, the one they always stick in English textbooks-- bluh to that too.

Poor Emily. What a sad little mousy waif.

Fun fact about that photo: Emily hated it. It was taken when she was seventeen and she'd been sick for a few months when she posed for it. She didn't think it represented what she looked like at all. Which is cruddy because that picture was THE only verified photo of her in existence until a second one was rediscovered in 2012:

Look at how healthy and wise ED looks here!

When I was in college I won a creative writing award and was thrilled to accept the prize money--100 bucks, which could buy a lot of Bacardi and cokes back then, but less than thrilled to accept the other prize the English Dept. gave me. A book. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. 

Shameful confession: I complained to my writing professor about this present. Yes. My face is red as I write this. Jeez. I said. Or something along these lines. I get that the stodgy old white male department head wanted to give me something authored by a woman, but did it have to be barfy Emily Dickinson? I mean, come on. Get with the 20th century. Hello. Ever hear of Sylvia Plath?

I thought my cool writing prof would agree. Instead he shocked me by chewing me out. He was one who'd chosen the book, he said. And nothing against Sylvia Plath, but maybe it was time for me to take another look at Emily Dickinson. She was not barfy. In fact he viewed her as one of the two poets, along with Walt Whitman, who'd ushered in the modern poetry era, and if I didn't know that, then maybe he'd failed me as a teacher. 


I read The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. I fell in love. 

Did you know that ED wrote nearly two thousand poems, scrawling them out on bits of paper or including them in letters to friends and family? She never married and in the final twenty years of her life, she dressed only in white and secluded herself in her bedroom, rarely coming downstairs; although she is rumored to have shared gingerbread with neighborhood children by lowering it in a basket from her window...

Sure, her poems on the surface might be about nature or unrequited love, but there's a lot more to those seemingly dashed off lines. Take another look and you'll find stuff that's philosophical and achingly curious and even funny. 

When I taught high school English, I loved talking ED with my students. One thing I held back until the very end of the Emily Dickinson unit is that most of her poems are written in hymn meter, which means that the lines alternate between eight and six syllables. Yeah yeah, whatever, Ms. Casella, my students would say, until I told them that the poems could be sung to the tune of any song written in that meter. 

Example: "Amazing Grace" or the "I Like to Teach the World to Sing" Coca Cola song. 

For extra credit I let the students sing and they always had a grand old time.

Here. Try it for yourselves. 

Because I could not stop for Death--
He kindly stopped for me--
The Carriage held but just Ourselves--
And Immortality...

Or how about this? 

I heard a fly buzz--when I died
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air
Between the Heaves of Storm--

Okay. That is enough playtime, class.

Maybe you are wondering why I am thinking about Emily Dickinson today. 

Because I just finished reading the most brilliant and beautiful book, Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez. 

Main Character Frenchie Garcia has recently graduated from high school and she's lost and depressed. She didn't get into the art college of her choice. Her best friend has a new girlfriend and isn't paying Frenchie much attention. She has a morbid hobby: watching funeral processions drive by her house on the way to a nearby cemetery. Sometimes she follows them inside the cemetery and sits by the grave of Emily Dickinson. (This is Orlando, so it's not the real Emily Dickinson's grave, but Frenchie kinda likes the idea that someone named Emily Dickinson is buried there.) 

Frenchie's real problem, though, isn't revealed immediately. It turns out that a few months earlier Andy Cooper, a guy Frenchie secretly crushed on for years, had singled her out to have a "night of adventure," and the next morning he killed himself. 

Now Frenchie's trying to come to grips with what really happened that night, and she's doing it by recreating the adventure with someone else.

There are Emily Dickinson poems sprinkled throughout, but whether you love Emily Dickinson or not, you will surely love this book. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Time Keeps on Ticking. (Otherwise Known As: Why I Like to Live Inside My Head)

Yesterday I looked out the window and realized it was October. 

Confession: I am not the most observant person in the world. Do you hear that guffaw of laughter? That was my husband, reading this over my shoulder. He knows, after 24 years of living with me, how true that statement is. 

Example, we will be sitting on the couch together watching TV and my eyes will be fixed on the TV screen and my husband will turn to me and remark upon something that we have both presumably watched, and I will blink at him and have no idea what the heck he is talking about. 

I live inside my head, is what I am trying to say. For someone who makes a living being a writer (And I use the term "makes a living" metaphorically), it's a good thing that I live inside my head. Inside my head, I'm imagining stuff. Running through scenes. Relaying a conversation between make-believe people. It's kinda cool to be able to disappear into other worlds while at the SAME TIME sitting in a room and "watching TV." 

My kids have another way of describing this phenomenon. 

Distracted (when they are being nice)

Crazy (when they are not)

But I digress.

My point is that I looked out the window and realized that fall had come without my being aware of it. 

Digression number 2. See that graphic above? I MADE that with this App called WordSwag. I discovered WordSwag this past weekend and have been having a ball making things like this:

And this:

And, okay, one more:

WordSwag, I am here to tell you, provides the PERFECT blend of procrastination and creativity for the distracted writer in your life. Also, it is easy to use--a quality I appreciate as someone who does not know how to operate my phone. 

I know. I keep digressing all over the place.

My eyes have glazed over and I have disappeared into other worlds. 

Meanwhile, in this world, it is October. 

The leaves are blowing around the yard and it seems like just yesterday they were on the trees, blooming and golden. The tomatoes--that I planted YESTERDAY!!--are rotting on the vines. 

Time is passing before my eyes, or rather it is NOT passing before my eyes, since I don't seem to be able to notice it passing. 

Just yesterday, it seems, I threw a party. 

I baked a cake. I pushed a yellow Number One candle into the chocolaty frosting. The cake was for a little boy who had never tasted cake before, so I wanted that first slice to be special. 

The moment is frozen. The little boy has the most serious expression on his sweet little face. Someone--probably my husband, since he was the only one who knew how to work the camera--snapped the picture. 


That happened yesterday.

In a few days, the little boy will be celebrating his 21st birthday. 

Yeah. So. 

Sue me if I like to live inside my head.

Or distract myself with this:


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Wondering How To Approach Self-Promotion? Ask Yourself This: "What Would Mike Mullin Do?"

Last year around this time I got an email from a librarian I did not know, inviting me to an event I'd never heard of, in a city I'd never been to, two hours away. The thing--whatever it was--would take place on a week night and it would only last an hour. I'd be driving to part of the state I'd never been to, doing some Thing (I wasn't sure what, exactly), and driving back in the dark.

My first inclination, of course, was to say no. But I ran the invitation by my husband, thinking he'd immediately agree with me.

Instead, he surprised me by asking: "What would Mike Mullin do?"

(Mike Mullin) 

"Um," I said, and I only needed to think about it for a few seconds before I answered, "He'd say Yes."

So I went to the event, which turned out to be one of the coolest events I attended last year--and that is saying something. It wasn't just some random thing. It was a state librarian conference put on for all of the school librarians in the state of Ohio. MT Anderson was one of the keynotes.

(MT Anderson's bare legs)
I ate dinner with him and learned that his name is Tobin and he let me take a picture of his bare legs (which is a story for another day). I met librarians that night, some of whom invited me to speak at their schools. One asked me to teach a session at a city-wide teachers inservice. Another put my book on a multi-city Battle of the Books list. The librarians asked me back to speak this year.

I didn't hesitate to accept. I knew what Mike Mullin would say.

At this point you may be wondering who Mike Mullin is and why I use him as a yardstick for evaluating my invitations.

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time Mike Mullin wrote a book called Ashfall. It's a cool page turner about a fifteen-year-old boy named Alex who just wants to stay home and play video games while his parents and little sister leave town to visit relatives 100 miles away. Big bummer for Alex  because the first night he is home alone the super volcano under Yellowstone erupts and pretty much half of the country is wiped out. The remainder--and where Alex lives--is covered in ash. The book is a nightmarish hero's journey with Alex trekking across the desolate and dangerous landscape trying to find his family.

Ashfall is published by Tanglewood, a well-respected, small publishing company. It doesn't have a huge PR budget, so Mike did a lot of the promotional work himself. Before the book came out, he loaded a box of advanced review copies of the book into his car trunk and drove around the country, stopping at bookstores and libraries.

He did not do the hard sell Buy My Book thing. Instead, he chatted up the booksellers and librarians and dropped off a copy Ashfall--no pressure to read it or do anything with it.

I heard this story from one of the booksellers that Mike had chatted up. Mike's non-pushy demeanor and compelling book pitch had piqued her curiosity and she'd read Ashfall. 

And loved it.

Now she was passing the copy on to me, so I could read it and review it on my blog, if I liked it. Which I did. 

I imagine a similar kind of thing happened all over the country at those bookstores and libraries where Mike introduced himself because Ashfall made quite a splash when it came out, both critically and sales-wise. The book earned a starred review from Kirkus, was promoted on NPR and in Entertainment Weekly, and was featured on awards lists in nine states. Mike wrote two sequels to the book and keeps driving around the country to this day, speaking at bookstores and libraries and visiting schools.

I met him at a book-signing for his second book. He started the presentation by karate-chopping a cement brick in half.

At this point I was thinking that Mike was awesome and if I ever got a book deal I was going to model myself after him (minus the karate-chopping.)

When I did get my book deal, I mustered up the courage to ask him if he'd read my book and possibly blurb it. He turned into a role model for handling blurbs too. He wrote to me, saying, and I quote: "If I love it, I'll blurb it. And if I don't, I'll keep my big mouth shut."

He wrote the blurb.

I told my husband the story of Mike Mullin when I was brainstorming ways I could promote my book Thin Space. 

There are A LOT of ways a debut writer can approach self-promotion and marketing. Some writers push their books and themselves like door-to-door salesmen, pleading Buy My Book both virtually and in person at every opportunity. Other writers do absolutely nothing, believing that their efforts are as productive as spitting into the wind.

I didn't (and still don't) like either of these approaches, although I don't begrudge the people who follow them. (Okay, that's a lie. I CAN'T STAND the obnoxious Buy My Book thing. It never makes me want to buy the person's book and instead causes me to feel the same way I do about telemarketers and people who try to guilt me into passing along a chain email. Resentful. And that's on a good day.)

But back to Mike Mullin. Here was a writer who seemed to have found a sweet spot between Nothing and Inspiring Me To Slam My Phone Against a Wall.

When my husband asked me if Mike Mullin would've driven two hours away to attend a librarian conference, there really wasn't any question what the answer might be.


The only difference is I didn't heft a cement block into my car before I made the trip.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

My Eureka Re-Vision Moment (with a fun look at other writers' visual snapshots of their revision processes)

I mentioned last week that when it came to being on the receiving end of a critique, I was a weird mix of anxiety and arrogance. My inability to take criticism is one of the reasons why it took me so long to break through and get that first publishing deal.

Another big thing that tripped me up was my misunderstanding of the revision process -- and by "tripped me up" I mean "took me 15 years." (during which time I wrote and "revised" 5 books)

Arrogance. I knew how to write. I'd been writing since I could hold a pen. I majored in Creative Writing in college. I worked on a freaking MFA in Poetry.

Arrogance. I knew how to write a short story. I had stories published, damn it.

Anxiety. --that naggy voice in my head whispering: "If you know so well how to do this, why isn't working for you?"

A little background on my Revision Process--such as it was--from my teenage years up to six years ago.

I wrote something. I fiddled around with it. I edited it. DONE

And when I started writing books:

I wrote a sentence. I fiddled with that sentence until it was perfect. I moved on to Sentence Two. I made it to the end of one of these beautifully constructed sets of sentences and prided myself on what I had. Not a first draft, but more like a 3rd or 4th draft. Immediately, I sent this brilliant gem of a manuscript out to editors and agents....
              ...and collected a nice pile of rejections.

The turning point came six years ago when I went to a Highlights Foundation workshop on revision and the speaker suggested putting the completed first draft away (because this is what it is, folks, no matter how polished, a FIRST draft--your very first time through the story from beginning to end.) Let it sit for a month or two. Print it off in a different font (That little tidbit in and of itself was worth the price of admission for me) and read the thing through as a whole completed story.

Revision means literally Re-Vision-- looking at your story, again, and seeing what you actually have there. THE BOOK on the page. And not the book you imagined. (Sigh) (I will note here that even now when I read a first draft through from beginning to end, I feel intense waves of nausea as I contemplate how crappy it is and how much work I have yet to do.)

There was more illuminating information thrown at us during that session and I took notes like a maniac trying to get it all down, light bulbs popping in my head. In all my years of writing I had never thought of revision like this before.

And no wonder.

I had been trained at writing short stories. I can keep a short story--the entire thing-- in my head at once. If I wanted to (not that I ever did), I could print off the pages and arrange them on my dining room table and look at them.

You can't do that with a book.

It's really really hard to keep an entire book-- all the plot strands and character arcs and scenes and bits of dialogue --in your head at once. Even if you are an outliner (I'm not) your draft may drift away from you, meander off in different directions, gallop toward some other story (maybe a BETTER story) than the one you envisioned when you started.

I don't care how beautifully written each of your sentences are, when you get to the end of a first draft, it is still a first draft, and if your drafts are like mine, they are a mess. (See intense waves of nausea, above)

This past weekend I presented a session at a regional SCBWI conference on how to move from a messy first draft toward what will eventually be a draft that you can submit to an agent or editor. Something I know now, that I did not know six years ago when I shuffled into that revision workshop at Highlights, is that there is no one right way to Do This. And my way--the way I eventually figured out through trial and error and lots and lots of crappy drafts-- is not the only way. In fact, with each book I have to figure out the process again.

I won't bore you with all the details, unless you're interested-- and in that case, email me and I'll send you my latest method  jodycasella (@) yahoo (.) com

In the meantime, for your visual pleasure, take a look at some other writers' snapshots of their writing and revision process:

(Erin Dealey)

(Jennifer Salvato Doktorski)

(Bill Thomas)

(Liz Coley)

(Natalie D. Richards)

(Stephanie Kuehnert)

(Kristina McBride) 

(Mindee Arnett) 

(CJ Flood)

(Jennifer Mann)

(Kristy Boyce)

(Claire Caterer)

(Kristi Belcamino)

(Crissa-Jean Chappell) 

(Nova Ren Suma)
(William Faulkner)

Oh yes. That's William Faulkner, one of the great American novelists.

Even old WF needed a little help with revision. The story is his wife wasn't too thrilled that he'd scrawled some of his draft... on the walls of their house.

PS. A HUGE thank you to all of the writers above (including William Faulkner) for sharing their revision processes with me!!