Thursday, July 24, 2014

Today Is Yellow Day and Other Reasons Why I Love Teaching

Before I was a writer, I was a teacher. Well, that is not exactly true. I was a writer, always, and then I sorta freaked out about continuing to pursue what seemed like a silly dream (being a published author) and fell into teaching. That's how I used to describe it. Falling, and not a planned career.

My first year as a high school English teacher, I looked around at the experienced teachers (mostly women, many years older than I, at barely 23, and being intimidated. They seemed like MY teachers instead of colleagues.) and thinking, they chose this. Teaching is a calling for them. Something they've always wanted to do.

I felt like an impostor.

After a nightmarish first year, though, I started liking teaching too. I probably could've taught forever, except my husband's job moved us to another state and in the midst of filling out the paperwork to get my teaching certification transferred, I had mini breakdown/midlife crisis.

Did I have the guts to pursue my writing dream or what?

And I realized that leaving a great job that I liked was much harder than quitting a crappy job. (See: Papa Gino's Pizza Place, where my first day on the job they made me wash 5 gazillion pizza pans and wouldn't let me leave until I finished at 2:00AM on a school night. I had no problem whatsoever putting in my two-weeks notice for that job.)  

Leaving teaching behind was hard, but I am glad that I took the chance. Writing is my calling. And pursuing that dream was not falling, but jumping, leaping, flying--off a cliff into the unknown with no teaching certificate to catch me.

I feel extremely blessed that I can write full time. The best perk is the whole Make Your Own Hours/Sit Around In Your Pajamas aspect. I also get a fun kick out of the traveling/promoting (this, after beating back my crazy travel anxiety).

But here's a big surprise: As a writer, I get to be a teacher. This year I've probably visited 30 classrooms to talk about my book or the writing process, or in one case, about the color yellow. (I was in a preschool class and a little girl was wearing a yellow tutu and I asked her if she was a dancer--just trying to make conversation--and she looked at me like I was a weirdo, and said, "No. Today is Yellow Day.") It reminded me how much I loved being a teacher-- all the best parts of teaching--by which I mean actually being in the classroom teaching, instead of dealing with the yucky side stuff like test scores and committee meetings where you talk about test scores.

For a brief horrifying period of time I was a substitute teacher. It was always scary to drive over to a strange school, to check-in with the receptionist, to walk into a classroom of 10th graders or fifth graders or Oh-ma-Lord kindergartners.

In some ways doing an author visit is like being a sub. You don't always know where you're going. Like, where the school is. Or where to park your car. Or how to walk through the, er, metal detectors.

But in a million other nice ways it is not like being a sub. The teacher is sitting there with you, being the main nice thing. So there is no need for you to pull out your rusty classroom discipline skills.What to say to the kid who falls asleep. Or what to do when the fire alarm goes off. Or how to deal with the kid who vomits on his desk.

Not your prob at all when you are a visiting author.

Something that IS the same, whether you are the teacher or the sub or the visiting author, though, and something that I totally forgot (and I don't know how I forgot this!!) is how surprising and funny and smart and sweet and horrible and silly and idiotic and beautiful kids are.

God love that darling boy at the boarding school who saved me from a spider. And the lovely girl who whispered her secret dream and asked what she could say to people who told her it would never come true. And here's hoping that the guy in the front row who'd staggered into class and promptly fell asleep before I even started talking, is getting enough rest these days.

The other day I did a writing lesson at a middle school writing camp and during the idea phase--when we were simply brainstorming memories, one girl was REALLY not getting into the activity. She could think of nothing, she said, and every idea I prompted her with led to more Nothing. The kids at her table, who were supposed to be writing at this point, kept whispering to the girl and she kept whispering back, shooting down their suggestions and writing nothing.

It got on my last nerve to tell you the truth.

Pick up your pencil, I told her (in what I hope was a kind way). Write something. Anything. Writers don't just sit there thinking forever. In the end, if you want to write, you have to WRITE.

Reluctantly, the girl picked up her pencil.

When it was sharing time, she shocked the hell out of me by offering to read aloud.

Her piece was beautiful. I mean, it practically killed me how good it was. After she read it, she smiled sheepishly.

This was a kid that fifteen minutes before I had sorta wanted to throttle, (should I admit that publicly?)  and now I wanted to hug her.

Yeah. So that's why I love teaching so damn much and why it was so hard to leave it behind and why I am ever so grateful that I don't have to.

A bunny in a preschool classroom where it happens to be Yellow Day

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Book Tour Road Part 2: In Which I Drink Mark Zuckerberg's Smoothies, Discover a Glorious Mountain Retreat, and Channel My Italian Grandmother

My son and I have had some weird parallel and intersecting life-moments over the past few years.

While I was slogging angstily through my book submission process, he was going through his college application process. (side note: HIS process was not as angsty or long, although at the time, he disagreed with me-- a handful of months vs. years. Come ON.)

We snagged our acceptances during the same month. Then he went off to school and I embarked on my debut book year.  

A few weeks ago our lives intersected again. He landed his dream internship at Facebook around the same time I was invited on Simon & Schuster's group author tour through California. Last stop: Menlo Park, the home of Facebook.

There was a little bit of finagling behind the scenes to work it out, but the other authors on the tour, Suzanne Young, Sarah Ockler, and C.J. Flood (and our awesome driver Dolores) were as eager to see Facebook as I was. Sarah's new book #Scandal is about social media-- (Main character Lucy agrees to go to the prom with her best friend's boyfriend and it blows up in her face in a big way all over Facebook.)--so she was über excited to sneak a peek behind the FB curtain.

I hadn't seen my son much lately (only two days home between college and before he took off for CA), so I was über excited to see him, but trying to keep my loopy mom persona tamped down so as not to humiliate him on the job.

Facebook was something else. I don't even know how to describe it. Disney World for adult computer fanatics? Utopian Under the Dome community? From the parking lot, the place looks like a normal set of office buildings, but then you step through to the Other Side and you're sauntering down an outdoor main street, with restaurants and shops and people kneeling on the sidewalk marking it up with colored chalk.

There's a movie screen. And a smoothie shop. The smoothies and the food are there for the taking.

We took.
Suzanne and C.J. check out the snack items in the company store. 
Look! Free toothbrushes already minted up with toothpaste in the restrooms!

My son enjoyed giving us a tour. Mostly, this consisted of pointing out the various food options at Facebook. He typically chooses the BBQ but consented to eat at the Ramadan buffet with us because there were vegetarian selections. Casually, he mentioned where Mark Zuckerberg's office was--ahead, behind a wall of glass. "Sometimes he's sitting in there," he said.

And he WAS! Mark Zuckerberg. Just sitting there, in his hoodie, looking like...Mark Zuckerberg!

We were not allowed to take his picture, I am sorry to say. My son was adamant about that, but in case we didn't get the point, there was a helpful sign taped over Mark's head on the glass window that said: "Please Do Not Take Pictures of the Animals."

We took other picutres though.

I kept hugging my son at odd moments. I just couldn't help myself. He looked so joyful and at home under the bright blue San Francisco sky. When it was time to leave, I almost couldn't bear it.

But the Summer Lovin' crew had another cool event scheduled for the afternoon.

Next stop: Djerassi, a retreat for artists and writers, where our friend and fellow Young Adult writer Nova Ren Suma, was leading a writing retreat for the week. The Djerassi landscape is something else too. On the top of a mountain (a perilous, windy drive that Dolores bravely navigated). Through a redwood forest. Over grasslands. With views of the Pacific Ocean in the distance. I have never seen anything like it and now have found a new goal in life: to go BACK THERE somehow and be a resident writer.

Our group talking with Nova's group at Djerassi

Nova was gracious to let us jump into her critique time and the writers on the retreat seemed to like picking our brains about the writing and publication process. I was sitting there in wonderment that my head contained one of the brains that people wanted to pick. That I'd just seen my beloved son. That I was on the top of a mountain somewhere in California. That I was on a freaking BOOK TOUR. 

That night we did our last book signing event at Kepler's Bookstore in Menlo Park. My son came with his friend and I just kept looking at him in the audience, fighting the urge to jump out of my seat like a loon and go hug him. 

It occurs to me now as I write this that I may be more like my Italian grandmother than I ever realized. She was an amazing cook and housekeeper (who took housekeeping to new levels

She was also a hugger. Whenever I'd go visit her, we'd be sitting and chatting (about various methods of making spaghetti sauce or cleaning house) and suddenly she'd hop out of her chair and hug me. 

I thought it was sweet. But kinda weird. 

Now, I totally get it. 


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Behind the Scenes of a Book Tour (Part One: Sunny California and the Emmys, Cute Vampires, and Lucky Bird Poop.)

I knew the second I was invited to go on Simon & Schuster's Summer Lovin' Tour with authors Suzanne Young, Sarah Ockler, and C.J. Flood, that this was going to be the trip of a lifetime.

The days leading up to the trip, I was whirling around in my usual pre-travel anxiety-haze. Plotting what to pack. Shopping. Creating a to-do list a million miles long. Organizing and cleaning and taking care of Everything That Is So Important.

And then, two days before I was to leave, I had a weird painful flare-up of sciatica. I didn't even know what this was until I looked it up online. I went to the doctor and begged him to do whatever he could do to help me manage. Long story short, he shot me up with steroids and I went home and plunked myself on an icepack--not doing ANY of the things I'd planned. Instead, my husband and I watched a Walking Dead marathon, which is an awesome show, btw. My daughter did my packing for me.

5:30 AM Sunday, June 22, I hobbled onto a plane to California.

Summer Lovin', baby. Oh, yeah. I was on my way.

Something I did not know about book tours before I went on one is how much time you spend sitting in cars. The first driver and I bonded over coffee in LA while we waited for the other authors to arrive.

I loved them immediately. (Which is a good thing. Spending all that time on the road, you will be spending that time with THEM.) Suzanne Young, bestselling author of The Program and The Treatment and numerous other books, is bubbly and brilliant. Sarah Ockler, author of #Scandal and Twenty Boy Summer and three other books, is funky and cool. C.J. Flood, debut writer of the award winning Infinite Sky, is smart and lovely. And British. (I could listen to her darling accent forever.)

Our first event was a library several hours away in Mission Viejo. We stopped for candy on the way. Helpful tip: it is fun to throw candy at people in the audience who ask questions. The four of us were just getting to know each other here. We asked questions too. About the stories behind our books. Our writing and revision processes. What we're working on next. We also sampled some of the candy. (A teen in the audience wrote up a good recap of the event here.)

When we got back to the hotel, we found that it was hosting the Daytime Emmys.

We ate dinner and watched the stars parade past. I had no idea who any of them were. Except for Sharon Osborne. But considering it was 7PM --10 Ohio time and I had been awake forever, I suspected I might've hallucinated her.

Sarah, CJ, and Suzanne posing at the Emmys looong after I went to bed. 
Day Two: I woke up bright and chipper, fully rested and raring to go. At 4:30 AM.

The hotel was hosting another fancy star studded thingy. Again, I knew who none of the famous people were, but my daughter freaked when I sent her this pic of some Vampire Diaries actor posing with C.J.

Later we drove three hours down the Pacific Coast Highway to San Diego. The driver treated us to shakes at the Shake Shack and then we stopped at Mission Beach and dipped our toes in the Pacific Ocean.
We got a quick bite to eat at a restaurant on the beach. I sat under a palm tree and a bird pooped on my head. This is supposed to be a sign of good luck in Poland. I have no idea if this is true, but I felt ridiculously lucky when Sarah offered to pick all the poop out of my hair.

Stacee, blogger at Adventures of a Book Junkie, did an awesome job recapping our event here in case you want to see how one of our panels went.

Day Three we hung out by the pool before our event in Glendale. Look how cute and summer lovin-y we all are. You can't even tell I am sitting on a giant icepack and having a major geriatric moment with my sciatic nerve.

Day Four I was a sinfully lazy sleeping-in woman not waking up until nearly 7!

At the event that night, the cool bookstore Vroman's in Pasadena, an old friend of mine from Connecticut that I haven't seen in years, showed up with her family. I felt very teary and blessed.

Like at all of the other events, we introduced ourselves and our books. We answered questions and signed books. We chatted with the teen readers and bloggers and other writers and booksellers.

But this night felt different.

Suzanne and Sarah and CJ and I were like longtime friends, finishing each other's sentences and telling inside jokes. We knew each other's back stories and childhoods and writing processes.

Back at the hotel we shared a nice dinner and I hung with them until the very end, finally adjusted to West Coast time.

I was an old pro, all geared up for the second half of the tour: San Francisco.

Tune in soon to see what happened next when we visited Facebook (and saw Mark Zuckerberg!), how we survived a windy perilous trip up a mountain, and... drumroll, my possibly midlife-y crisis mission to get a TATTOO.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Stepsister's Tale Blog Tour (and GIVEAWAY!): Interview with Author Tracy Barrett

I'm thrilled to be a stop on Tracy Barrett's The Stepsister's Tale Blog Tour (See below to enter the giveaway).

Full disclosure: Tracy and I met at an SCBWI regional conference a few years ago (okay, it was like, 10 years ago) and ever since, she's been supportive and generous with her advice and time and friendship.

This month Tracy's hit a very cool milestone: her 20th published book. I read it over the weekend and loved it. Not a surprise. I've enjoyed every book of Tracy's that I've read, and this one's already racked up a couple of starred reviews--from Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly. Page one and I knew I was in the hands of a master storyteller.

I'm always curious about how books come together--and I do want to hear the story behind Stepsister, but since I have Tracy on the line, I'm going to keep her for a while and pick her brain about her other books too, and what it's like to have the kind of career that most of us can only dream about...

Jody: Tracy, let's start with a summary of The Stepsister's Tale.

Tracy: My usual shorthand description of The Stepsister’s Tale is “Cinderella from the point of view of one of her stepsisters” but that’s not really accurate. Instead, it’s the story of a girl who’s struggling desperately to keep her family going despite a dead father and a mother who has checked out of reality. Her life is further complicated when her mother unexpectedly marries a man with a beautiful and spoiled daughter who whines that she’s made to do all the work when in reality she’s just being asked to pull her own weight.

Jody: It IS so much more than a retelling of Cinderella. The world-building, particularly, was what drew me in. And poor Jane (the MC)! The reader feels acutely what she does. I suspect that this wasn't an easy book to write.

Tracy: It took me a long, long time to write. I think that from the time I started it to the time when I signed the publishing contract was seven years! I don’t mean that I wrote all day, every day for seven years, of course—I’d write for a while and hit a snag and put it away for a few months, and then take it out and delete a lot of it and write some more and hit another snag. Finally, with help from my agent, Lara Perkins, I managed to whip it into shape and get it submitted to Annie Stone, my editor at Harlequin Teen, who gave me excellent editorial notes to bring it to a publishable state.

Jody: Why do you think it took so long?

Tracy: Several reasons. First, it was hard to keep Jane in the center—Cinderella, as I could have predicted, kept trying to steal the show and I kept having to wrench the tale away from her. But the toughest challenge came near the end of the story. If Cinderella isn’t the main character and if she doesn’t behave in a way that makes her deserve to live happily ever after, why does she get to marry the handsome prince? This was a problem that took me a long time to break through. The answer (don’t worry—no spoilers!) came to me, as many answers to this kind of problem tend to do, as I was falling asleep. When I woke up, I wrote the ending.

Jody: I love that--that it took sleep to come up with the answer. This is the magical part of writing. Of course, there was also the seven years of thinking and rewriting that you alluded to. When I first started writing, I'd give up when I hit snags like that. If I couldn't figure it out, I'd quit on the project. But you seem to take the struggle as part of the process. Maybe that comes from seeing so many books through from beginning to end--from idea to revision to publication.

And about all of those books...(see the end of this post for the complete list) You've written for elementary, middle grade and young adults. You've got non-fiction and fiction. You've got different genres represented. Mystery. History. Fantasy. Do you see a common denominator--besides the obvious one--that YOU wrote them?!

Tracy: It’s hard to trace a thread through both my fiction and my nonfiction, although I think you could say that history is a big player in all of them. For my novels, I’ve realized recently that most of them tell us more about a character—usually a secondary character—either from history or from a well-known literary work.

Anna of Byzantium is an imagined re-creation of the life of a Byzantine princess who’s well known to historians but not to the general public; King of Ithaka tells part of Homer’s Odyssey from the point of view of Telemachos (Odysseus’ teenage son), and Dark of the Moon is the tale of the minotaur as told by the minotaur’s sister, Ariadne, and his killer, Theseus.

Of course I hope that my readers enjoy these books for their own sake, but I also hope that by reading my novels, they’ll see another layer to the familiar works that inspired me.

Jody: Do you have a favorite?

Tracy: My favorite is always the book I’m working on, so Fairest (to be released in 2015) would have to be the answer to this one.

Jody: I've heard writers say that each book wants to be written in a different way. Is this true in your experience?

Tracy: I pretty much write all my novels in the same way. I almost always have the first chapter—or at least the first page—written in my head before I put anything on “paper” (I write on my computer). All my novels, whether historical or not, involve some research, so I start with general research and gather every interesting or potentially useful fact that I can. I do that until I feel so stuffed with information that I’m going to burst and then I start writing.

Once the story is underway my research gets much more focused—or at least it starts off that way. I might realize I need to know what kind of door locks they had in the Middle Ages, for example, and before I know it an hour has gone by and I know not only about locks but about keys and hinges, and whether doors opened inward or outward, and what the doors were made of, and how they forged the iron for the keys, and all sorts of fascinating details that I’ll never use!

Jody: Do you outline ahead of time?

Tracy: The only time I do is when I write nonfiction and also when I wrote a mystery series (The Sherlock Files). I have a general idea of where things are going but if I know too much, the thrill of discovery is gone and the actual writing feels like homework.

Jody: I noticed that you've worked with several publishing houses. What's your experience been like with different editors?

Tracy: I’ve been fortunate. With one exception (who is no longer in publishing) my editors have been smart, interesting, hardworking people who make my prose sound more like me. I’ve also had terrific copy editors. One was so good that I thanked her in the acknowledgments, which I don’t think is the usual thing! She copy edited King of Ithaka and I know she re-read the Odyssey in preparation, plus she had to have had a dictionary of ancient Greek in front of her as she worked. She caught some awfully subtle things. Better her than a reader!

Jody: That's actually my motto. Copy editors are brilliant people. I thanked mine too. Among other things, she helpfully pointed out that I'd used the word "clench" over 30 times in my book Thin Space.

Okay, now to a subject near and dear to my heart: marketing and promotion. Your first book was published in 1993 and I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the business has changed since then for authors.

Tracy: Yes. Promotion has changed a lot and the internet is responsible for much of that change. You know how they say that with the increased ease of doing household chores, we actually spend more time at them than when everything was done by hand—you have a washing machine, so you wash your clothes more often, etc.? I think it’s the same with the internet and promotion. It used to be so difficult and expensive that authors weren’t expected to do much of it.

Now that everyone can hop on-line and make a bookmark or send a mass email or put out an e-newsletter, it’s expected that we’ll do it. This isn’t in my skill set, nor is it in the skill set of most authors, but we have to suck it up and blow our own horn as much as we can.

Jody: Do you have any advice as far as what works/what doesn't? Did any of your books have an unexpected breakout success?

Tracy: I think the success of Anna of Byzantium, my first novel, was unexpected. Its sales (almost 200,000 to date) are largely due to its being required reading in a lot of schools.

Jody: No help from social media back in 1999--

Tracy: No! But now... I’m trying an experiment and have hired an outside publicist for The Stepsister’s Tale, even though Harlequin is doing a more thorough job of publicity than any other publisher I’ve had. I don’t know how I’ll quantify if it made a difference, but I’ll report back after a year if you like!

Jody: I'm going to hold you to that. Thanks so much, Tracy, and congratulations on the publication of your 20th book!

Here's a complete list of Tracy's books to dig into after you read her latest The Stepsister's Tale:  

Nat Turner and the Slave Revolt, The Millbrook Press, 1993
Harpers Ferry: The Story of John Brown’s Raid, The Millbrook Press, 1993
Growing Up in Colonial America, The Millbrook Press, 1995
Virginia, in series Celebrate the States, Benchmark Books, Marshall Cavendish, 1997
Tennessee, in series Celebrate the States, Benchmark Books, Marshall Cavendish, 1998
Kidding Around Nashville, John Muir Publications, 1998
Kentucky, in series Celebrate the States, Benchmark Books, Marshall Cavendish, 1999
Anna of Byzantium, Delacorte Press, 1999; paperback Laurel Leaf Books, 2000 (YA)
The Trail of Tears: An American Tragedy, Perfection Learning Corporation, 2000
Cold in Summer, Henry Holt Books, 2003 (MG/YA)
The Ancient Greek World, in series The World in Ancient Times, Oxford University Press, 2004 (with Jennifer Roberts)
The Ancient Chinese World, in series The World in Ancient Times, Oxford University Press,  2005 (with Terry Kleeman)
On Etruscan Time, Henry Holt Books, 2005 (MG/YA)
The 100-Year-Old Secret, Book 1 in The Sherlock Files, Henry Holt Books, 2008; paperback Square Fish, 2010 (MG)
The Beast of Blackslope, Book 2 in The Sherlock Files, Henry Holt Books, 2009; paperback Square Fish, 2011 (MG)
The Case that Time Forgot, Book 3 in The Sherlock Files, Henry Holt Books, 2010 (MG)
The Missing Heir, Book 4 in The Sherlock Files, Henry Holt Books, 2011, paperback Square Fish, 2012 (MG)
King of Ithaka, Henry Holt Books, 2010, paperback Square Fish, 2014 (YA)
Dark of the Moon, Harcourt Children’s Books, 2011, paperback Graphia, 2012 (YA)
The Stepsister’s Tale, Harlequin Teen, 2014 (YA)
Fairest, Harlequin Teen, 2015 (contracted) (YA)

About The Stepsister’s Tale:
Buy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

What really happened after the clock struck midnight?

Jane Montjoy is tired of being a lady. She's tired of pretending to live up to the standards of her mother's noble family-especially now that the family's wealth is gone and their stately mansion has fallen to ruin. It's hard enough that she must tend to the animals and find a way to feed her mother and her little sister each day. Jane's burden only gets worse after her mother returns from a trip to town with a new stepfather and stepsister in tow. Despite the family's struggle to prepare for the long winter ahead, Jane's stepfather remains determined to give his beautiful but spoiled child her every desire.

When her stepfather suddenly dies, leaving nothing but debts and a bereaved daughter behind, it seems to Jane that her family is destined for eternal unhappiness. But a mysterious boy from the woods and an invitation to a royal ball are certain to change her fate...

From the handsome prince to the evil stepsister, nothing is quite as it seems in Tracy Barrett's stunning retelling of the classic Cinderella tale.

About Tracy Barrett
Website | Twitter | Facebook
Tracy Barrett is the author of numerous books and magazine articles for young readers.

She holds a Bachelor's Degree with honors in Classics-Archaeology from Brown University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Medieval Italian Literature from the University of California, Berkeley. Her scholarly interests in the ancient and medieval worlds overlap in her fiction and nonfiction works.

A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study medieval women writers led to the writing of her award-winning young-adult novel, Anna of Byzantium (Delacorte). Her most recent publications are King of Ithaka, a young-adult novel based on Homer's Odyssey; and the fourth book in The Sherlock Files, The Missing Heir (both Henry Holt) and Harcourt's young-adult retelling of the myth of the Minotaur, Dark of the Moon.

From 1999 to 2009 Tracy Barrett was the Regional Advisor for the Midsouth (Tennessee and Kentucky) with the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. She is now SCBWI's Regional Advisor Coordinator.

Tracy has taught courses on writing for children and on children's literature at various institutions and frequently makes presentations to groups of students, librarians, teachers, and others.

For an example of Tracy's presentations at writers' conferences, please see this article from Clarksville Online.

She recently resigned from Vanderbilt University, where she taught Italian, Women's Studies, English, and Humanities. 

Tour Schedule:

Monday, June 9th - Fiktshun (Character Interview)
Tuesday, June 10th - Harlequin Blog
Wednesday, June 11th - Xpresso Reads (Guest Post)
Friday June 13th - About To Read (Guest Post)

Monday, June 16th - The Irish Banana (Author Interview)
Tuesday, June 17th - On the Verge
Wednesday, June 18th - Refracted Light Reviews (Guest Post)
Friday June 20th - The Book Cellar (Guest Post)

Contest Info:

Each tour stop is offering up a copy of THE STEPSISTER’S TALE as well as some very fun Cinderella-themed swag, and one winner will receive a fantastic Grand Prize Package including the following HarlequinTEEN titles: 2 copies of THE STEPSISTER’S TALE as well as copies of THE QUEEN’S CHOICE, DROWNED, WITCHSTRUCK and OCEANBORN. Giveaway is open to US/Canada.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thursday, June 12, 2014

When Jokes Never Get Old (OR Why I Decided to Get a Tattoo)

A few days after I got my driver's license, my mom asked me to drive my little brother Frankie to his friend's house across town. I was still a tad anxious about driving (I'd nearly failed my test. Probably I SHOULD'VE failed my test, but this is a story for another day.)

Anyway, I was trying to be conscientious and mature-like, while also channeling a Cool Older Sister vibe as I drove. I came to a stop sign and noticed a couple of young kids riding bikes waiting to cross the street. I waved my hand and said, "You can go," and idled there for a moment while the kids crossed.


But oh, this was so not the end of this story. Frankie, who was eleven at the time, made fun of me mercilessly for days. He turned the story into a joke. According to him, I had waved at the young kids on the bikes and said loudly, in a sing-songy voice: "YOU CAN GOOOOO." This he joyfully mimicked accompanied by exaggerated hand gestures.

Days turned into weeks. Into months. Into years.

It's a family story now--"Jody Waves at the Bike Riders and Tells them You Can Go." And it's morphed into me rolling down the window, getting out of the car, walking the bikers across the street, sing-songing "you can go" the whole time.

Only a couple of months ago, I heard the story at least twice. Frankie--now called Frank, mature and responsible business owner and father of two--retold it gleefully at a family reunion when I was on a book tour in CT. My son (who freaking wasn't even in existence when I was 16) quoted the story, complete with hand gestures when I was driving him to lunch one day. We both cracked up.

This oft told story turned joke is only one example of how my family tends to beat a joke into the ground. Yes. Where others might find a joke getting stale, we are just getting started. We don't beat a joke into the ground, we shoot it through a fracking tube a mile down into the earth's crust. And somehow it only becomes funnier to us.

What does this have to do with tattoos? you might be wondering.

Bear with me. So I am about to leave on a group author tour to California in a few weeks and I am thrilled and excited and slightly anxious. I only know the other tour-ers virtually but they all seem nice, and one of them suggested jokingly (or maybe not jokingly--I DON'T KNOW) that we should get matching tattoos to celebrate our group tour-i-ness.

I laughed out loud at the thought. Let's just say, I am not the type of person who gets a tattoo. The type of person I picture getting a tattoo is young and hip and trendy and cool. In other words, if I got a tattoo, that would be the very definition of absurd.

But I kept thinking about it. And every time I thought about it, I'd start laughing. It's silly and ridiculous and weird, and yet-- funny.

Then it hit me, why NOT get a tattoo? And thinking of myself actually doing it, made me laugh more.

I'm not talking a giant serpent or skull and cross bones on my chest,  but something small. Something tasteful. Something kinda hidden, but not.

I made up my mind, while chuckling to myself. I decided I want to get a small footprint-looking graphic (to represent the guy in my book Thin Space) on my ankle.

A foot on my foot. (Yes, I am smiling as I write this.)

I told one of my friends and she was very perturbed. "Tattoos really aren't you," she said. "It's permanent," she added.

Well, yeah. I get that. I tried to explain how happy it made me feel just to think about it. "It's funny to me," I said.

"Okay," she said. "But what if that joke gets old?"

"Ha!" I smiled wider. "Jokes never get old with me."

She didn't get it.

I waved at her and told her she could go.

Friday, June 6, 2014

California Here I Come...Summer Lovin' 2.0 Tour

Woot Woot!

In two weeks I am going to California for my first ever official book tour and I am pretty darned pumped about it. Also, a tad anxious (if you remember my travel anxiety/weirdo cleaning the house before traveling issues) But I am trying to push those anxieties aside and embrace the Now.

The Now = a 6 day/6 city trip through California.

Check out this cool poster designed by Suzanne Young's friend at Novel Novice

I have only been to California once, last year for the SCBWI conference in LA and had a grand old time. So I have high hopes for this trip.

Something awesome: the Simon & Schuster publicist who is arranging everything sent each of us a packet of books by the other participating authors. I got my packet last week and was a tad anxious about this too. I confess that I had never read books by these particular authors before. What if I didn't, um, like their books?

But I am happy to report that I did. In fact, I stayed up waaaay late the other night reading the last of my packet, The Program by Suzanne Young. 

This book is a page turner. It's a bleak dystopian world where the teenagers are passing around a virus that makes them suicidal. A powerful organization called the Program has swooped in to save the kids by erasing their memories, which they see as the cause of the virus. The main character Sloane is terrified of catching the suicide bug but she's more terrified of the cure. She doesn't want to forget her beloved brother or her boyfriend James.

This book wrecked me and all I can say is Thank you Simon & Schuster for also sending me the sequel The Treatment so I can see what becomes of these poor sweet kids.

Momentary digression: In the midst of all of this travel planning excitement, I've been finishing up the final touches on a novel that I have been struggling with since 2009. See here, here, here, and here, for a fun recap of the latest leg of the journey. (For the record, this is not my "second" book. Thin Space is the 6th book I've written, so we are talking Numero 7 here. Sad truth: each day's writing is harder than the day before. Inspirational truth: if you keep writing anyway, you will eventually break through. I am living proof of that. Yesterday I clicked Send and shot that bad boy off to my agent... who happens to live in California.

Coincidence? I think not.)

I've got a bit of time on my hands between projects, is my point, and this book tour and the reading of my fellow author tour-ers' books could not have come at a better time.

One of my reading goals this year was to discover a YA writer I've somehow missed along the way (See here for my 2014 Flexy Book Category Challenge) Well, the hands down winning writer in that category is Sarah Ockler.

Her new novel #Scandal, out this month, is her fifth book. It's got the perfect mixture of humor and angst and cleverness that I love in YA books.

The story begins with main character Lucy agreeing to go to the prom with her best friend Ellie's boyfriend Cole because poor Ellie's got the flu. Secret: Lucy's had a raging crush on Cole for years.

Yeah, so you get the feeling fast that things aren't going to turn out well for Lucy--but HOW they turn out is what makes this story so much fun. Throw in the amped up cyber high school gossip machine, a visiting reality TV show star, a fringe club protesting all forms of social media, and a cute foreign exchange student from Canada and well... I don't want to ruin it for you.

Last but so not least of my Summer Lovin' author buds is C.J. Flood and her debut novel Infinite Sky. This was actually the first novel I read in the packet because I love the cover so much. I also confess to have a secret girl writer crush on C.J. based entirely on our social media interactions. Everything she says sounds so British. (I suspect this is because C.J. is from England.) When I first found out who would be on this tour, I immediately checked everyone's websites out. This post is worth a read, among other things, because of C.J.'s suggestion that all of us should get matching tattoos.

I laughed out loud when I read that, and then, after a beat, I started seriously thinking about it. What better way to celebrate this surreal amazing crazy dream come true debut writing year of mine than a tattoo? (I took a poll around my house, which consisted of asking my husband and teen daughter at breakfast. Their response: no response, just snorty snickers accompanied by eyerolls. Ah. Well. This is what you get when you have your debut year at the age of, erm, cough cough cough, 46. Cough.)

(The British cover--
which I like better
than the US cover. Sorry.)
Okay, back to C.J.'s book. It's so beautifully written it just about killed me.

Almost fourteen year old Iris is floundering around the house after her Mum leaves the family. Enter: a camp of Irish Travelers in the field across the street. (I didn't know much about this group before I read the book, but apparently, they move around England--and the US too, much like gypsies and experience quite a bit of prejudice wherever they settle.)

Iris befriends one of the Travelers, a boy named Trick, despite warnings from her father and older brother, both of whom are struggling too by Mum's abandonment. I loved everything about this novel. The world, the fully drawn characters, the gorgeous prose, but most of all the aching romance between Iris and Trick. There is an anxious tension that drives the narrative. You will not be able to put it down.

Here's something funny that I figured out after reading the books: they're not what you'd called summery or lovin'-y. But we are going to go with the flow on this.

If you live in the California, please please please come by and see us. I am told there will be pizza.

Also, we may be sporting matching tattoos.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Why CAN'T All Books Be Like WE WERE LIARS? (Also, please tell me when I have spinach on my teeth)

I read a great book the other day. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. One of Lockhart's earlier books The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, is a favorite of mine. Laugh out-loud funny, clever, and original. It's got a cool feminist manifesto twist at the end that'll make you (if you happen to be a woman) pump your fist in the air and roar.

We Were Liars will probably make you burst into tears. I just want to give you fair warning.

It's about a girl named Cady who spends summers hanging out with her cousins on their grandfather's private island. When the story begins, Cady's not doing too well. She's suffering from horrible migraine headaches. Something happened a few years ago during her fifteenth summer and it's what probably caused the headaches. She's not sure. She can't remember much of what happened that summer.

Now she's back on the island and hanging out with the cousins and everyone's tiptoeing around her. They've been instructed by their mothers not to tell Cady what happened.

So that's all I'm going to say about the plot and Cady.

I knew going into the book there was going to be a big twist and I was trying to figure out what it could be as I read.

I have a difficult time reading books and falling into them the way I used to as a child. Years of deconstructing texts as an English major and English teacher and years of writing and trying to figure out how stories are put together so I could put my own stories together end up being hazards when you just want to lose yourself in a book.

Reading We Were Liars, I was doing that. Thinking. I'd put the book down and marvel for a minute at the strong, crystal clear voice of Cady. I'd bend a page corner over and wonder about the structure of the book. Why did E. Lockhart begin with that particular moment? Why'd she stick the fairy tale interludes in where she did? Why all the mentions of dogs? Etc. Then I'd keep reading, thinking, This is a pretty good book, enjoying the cleverness of it and the humor and insightful bits.

And then. BAM.

I turned a page and it hit me. The twist. With such force I gasped out loud and burst into tears. I cried as I read the last few pages. I turned back to page one and started reading the book again trying to figure out how Lockhart did it--how she tricked me--not just with the brilliant twist--but how she struck such an emotional chord, how she made me feel for these pretend people and forget that I was reading a book.

I couldn't figure it out.

I called my friend Donna, who happens to be my beloved trusted amazing critique partner and we hashed it out for a while. What makes the book so good? How did the author pull it off? How'd she write something that transcends the genre, that makes you THINK and FEEL as well as be entertained for a few hours?

(Back story: Donna is my Ideal Reader. She is the person in my head whom I write for--the reader I most want to please. Last week I finished the fifth revision of a book I have been working on and struggling with on and off since 2009. When I "finished" it last week, I had no real sense of what the hell I had. I still don't know exactly. I realize that I don't trust my own judgment anymore when it comes to my writing. I see smatterings of beautiful stuff and I see larger chunks of garbage and the two things intermingle and even switch places depending on my mood and/or the weather.

I sent the manuscript to Donna and waited anxiously for her response, going back and forth between dread and eagerness to hear it. I geared myself up for the worst. The worst would be Donna saying the book is a massive unfixable mess and she can't believe I spent 5 years of my life wasting my time on it. I am not proud of this, but I toyed with the idea of asking her to lie to me if it came down to that. Then I worried that she WOULD lie to me to spare my feelings and the book would eventually be published and every reviewer on Amazon and Goodreads would give it 1 star and muse about how such a mess ever made it to publication.)

Anyway, we kept talking about We Were Liars. Donna read a book recently that bugged her for a variety of reasons and she started telling me about it and that led to us discussing other flawed books that failed for a variety of reasons. Poor writing, weakly developed characters, massive plot holes, whatever. We worried about the authors of these books. Why didn't anyone TELL them when they still had a chance to fix their various messes?

I said to Donna, Oh well, not every book can be We Were Liars. 

And she said, Why not?

And then I wondered, Yeah. Why not? Isn't writing a great book what we're all striving for?

Maybe some writers don't think about this kind of thing. I don't know how a book goes right and I don't know how a book goes wrong. I only know the end result--whether it falls into the We Were Liars category or, um, the other category. I also know that if I am going to bother, if I am going to spend 5 years writing and rewriting and rewriting a book, tearing my hair out and pacing around my home muttering and staring at my computer screen until my eyeballs burn in my skull, then, damn it, I'm shooting for the WWL end of the spectrum.

Which means that someone-- DONNA God love her--must absolutely level with me and tell me the truth.

I gave her this speech before she read my book.

She just laughed. "Aren't we always honest with each other?" she asked. "If you had spinach on your teeth, I'd tell you."

Whew. I guess.

I mean, Whew. Thank you, Donna, as I would tell you, too.

She sent me her response a few days later. I was at the grocery store and I made my daughter pull the critique up on the phone...

(to be continued)