Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight Or How I Fell in Love at a Wrestlemania Party

Ah. Sigh. Swoon.

I just read a lovely young adult novel about young adult love and I am still sighing and swooning and sorta wishing I were a young adult again and on the verge of falling in love. Every once in a while—when you’re slogging your way through adult life, preoccupied by adult details like paying bills and planning meals (rice tonight with the chicken, honey? Or should we do potatoes?) and staying on top of what your own young adults are up to (please for the love of God, dear son, finish the online class you signed up for and promised to complete last summer because it’s an Ohio graduation requirement and you won’t get your diploma unless you freaking do it) and debating with yourself about whether or not the bathroom cleaning can be put off for yet another day—you read a lovely young adult novel that vaults you back into the past. It is a past when your biggest worry was what to wear to tonight’s party. Or whether you should go to the library to read that 19th century British lit novel or take it outside on the lush lawn in front of your dorm while frat boys fling Frisbees over your head.

Since I was the girl who usually chose the lush lawn and the Frisbee flinging frat boys, I totally get the fun angsty love plot lines that weave through many young adult novels. Aside: I read somewhere that all of YA literature written for girls can be summed up as following: My life sucks. I meet a boy.

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith does follow that premise, I suppose, but oh, it does it so well. Boiled down to its essence it is simply: girl meets boy on a plane. In this case seventeen-year-old Hadley is heading to London to be a bridesmaid in her father’s wedding. Since she’s still ticked off about her parents’ divorce and hasn’t even met the bride, soon-to-be-stepmother yet, she’s not itching to go and is almost relieved when she misses her flight and has to catch the next one. It doesn’t help that she’s got claustrophobia and dreads the thought of being stuck on an airplane for seven hours. Enter: Oliver, a cute Yalie heading home to England for a dreaded visit of his own. The two strike up a conversation and over the next few hours find themselves happily distracted by each other’s company. There’s clever banter and adorable flirting but there’s also more serious stuff dealing with flawed families, fears, grief, and ultimately forgiveness.

Loved loved this book. Loved Hadley and Oliver. And loved seeing how fate brings them together again and again. It’s something you kinda forget about when you’ve been an adult for a while and consumed with bills and side dishes and toilet cleaning, but once upon a time, you did believe in love at first sight. You did. Because it happened to you.

Here's how: you and a free spirited sorority sister embraced the Wrestlemania theme of a frat party and dressed up as lady wrestlers even though you felt like total fools walking around half dressed in something you wouldn’t be caught dead in normally. So this guy dressed as a wrestler asked you to dance and you did and he was kinda nice, but whatever, and then he excused himself for a minute and gave you his beer to hold and while you were waiting, another guy, who was also dressed as a wrestler, asked you to dance and when you told him you were with someone, he flirted adorably with you and ended up drinking the first guy’s beer and towing you out to the dance floor where you danced with each other the rest of the night, wrestler capes flying. So that guy, guy number two, who truth be told, looked pretty darn cute wearing a cape, ended up being your husband. (Guy number one took the loss of his dance partner in stride and seemed more ticked off about losing his beer. He ended up being the best man at your wedding.)

Ah. Sigh. Swoon.

I must share this blog with guy number two, my husband of almost 22 years. But first, I’ve got to make a decision regarding the side dish for the chicken.

After careful thought I have decided to go with couscous.

(sadly, no photo of hubby and me exists, but here's a pic.

of the two wrestler girls at the beginning of the fateful night.

I'm the one on the right.

Sorry, JB. Please don't kill me!)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Interview with Marcia Thornton Jones

As promised I have picked the creative brain of an author friend and will now share my findings with my faithful blog readers. Today, I’d like to introduce you to Marcia Thornton Jones, author of 132 (!!!) books for children, including the beloved ADVENTURES OF THE BAILEY SCHOOL KIDS series, co-authored with Debbie Dadey; the star-reviewed RATFINK; and CHAMP, the winner of the Maud Hart Lovelace Book Award. Fun fact: I’ve known Marcia for years because she used to be my boss in the Gifted/Talented department of Fayette County Public Schools in Lexington, Kentucky. Also we were in a book club together.

Marcia: Wait. Boss? That wasn’t in my job description, was it? I thought you were my boss…I was there to provide support for you! I’ve NEVER been called a boss before! Let me sit here and sort of enjoy that for a moment….

Okay…That’s over…

Jody: Marcia, you’re cracking me up. Here’s something weird you may not know: I didn’t know you were a writer until one day I happened to see a picture of you in the newspaper above the headline: “The Best Selling Author in Kentucky.”

Marcia: Really? How funny. That reminds me of a story. I was a gifted/talented teacher working on a literature project with fourth-graders. One of the students started writing a story that sounded very much like a Bailey School Kids story. I mentioned the similarities and she started talking about how they were her favorite books. On and on she went, and I figured she was putting it on pretty thick for brownie points. But, no! The student had no idea that her teacher was the writer of those books! The look on her face was unforgettable when another student clued her in.

I’ve had the same things happen with teachers who had no idea I was the author of the books they used with their students. One teacher, when being told I was the author, looked me in the face and said, “No, you’re not.” Then walked away. (Later she apologized. She thought I had been joking).

Jody: So Marcia, apparently you like to keep your success on the down low! But I could understand why after that day I kept you company at the Kentucky Book Fair, and you were mobbed by third grade fans clutching their favorite Bailey School Kids books.

Marcia: Actually, it was something that rarely came up. Teachers and students are pretty focused on sticking to their own curricula. Plus, I didn’t want anyone to feel this was some kind of conflict of interest.

Jody: You might remember that at the time I had a third grader myself who was a rabid reader of the series. One of the highlights of my daughter’s life was coming with me to my book club and sitting next to MARCIA THORNTON JONES. (Marcia, you were extremely gracious and patient with my daughter’s questions. As you are being now, in this interview!)

Marcia: Your daughter is an amazing girl with so many life highlights. It’s a highlight for me to know both your kids!

Jody: Thanks! So my first question is probably something you get all the time: where do your get our ideas? Corollary to this: what’s the back-story behind BAILEY SCHOOL KIDS?

Marcia: I love how the creative mind works. It never ceases to amaze me! Each book I write has a unique origin. VAMPIRE’S DON’T WEAR POLKA DOTS was based on a bad day I had with my students. I told the school librarian, Debbie Dadey, that I needed to grow ten-feet tall, sprout horns, and blow smoke out my nose just to get their attention. Being frustrated teachers, we thought that sounded like a great idea so, for a joke, we sat down and started writing that story. From that one ‘bad day’, we eventually developed a series based on the idea of ‘unusual’ adults in the fictional town of Bailey City called, “The Adventures of The Bailey School Kids.”

Some of my books, like CHAMP and RATFINK, are products of journaling freewrites. Both of those books started with a what-if situation. What if there was a kid that, more than anything, wanted to please his dad but ends up doing something that resulted in a horrible accident? What if there was a kid who has a secret that the school ‘bully’ finds out?

Other ideas have come from family history, my pets, fan letters and brainstorming with kids during school visits. The book I’m working on now grew out of a very vivid dream I had. I woke up and was telling my husband about it. He said, “You should use that in a book.”

To be honest, though, most ideas come from sitting down, putting my fingers on the keyboard, and just letting them flow. I usually end my writing day with the thought, “Where did THAT come from?”

Jody: Speaking of BSK, you’ve written a ton of these books with your friend Debbie, which makes me wonder how the writing process works when you’re co-authoring. A friend and I tried to write a novel together and it sort of fizzled it out in the middle and we both lost interest. Did this ever happen to you and Debbie? What are the challenges to writing with a partner? And were there challenges when you switched to writing books on your own?

Marcia: Debbie and I figured out this whole business of writing together. I think that made a huge difference. When we first started we sat side-by-side and basically ‘told’ the story; typing it in as we ‘spoke’ the character parts. That fast back-and-forth led to very natural dialogue and plot-driven stories.

After Debbie and her family moved from Lexington we had to develop a new system. We call it the hot-potato style of writing. Everyone knows that if you get caught with the hot potato you lose. Well, our manuscript becomes the hot potato to us. When working together we develop a loose outline and then take turns writing a couple chapters at a time with the understanding that we are free to make any changes in what the other person has written. We pass it back and forth via e-mail. Knowing that the other writer is waiting for it keeps us motivated and disciplined. This ‘hot potato’ method of writing with someone is both a benefit and a challenge. A benefit because it keeps me disciplined. A challenge because I have to put everything else on the back burner, especially since Debbie is a very fast writer!

Many people think that since we’ve been so successful as a team that we must have similar writing styles. We’re actually very different writers, but together we formed a third writing style and voice.

When I work independently, my process is much slower because I delve more deeply into character development and theme. Writing, to me, is like sculpting. First I start with a big chunk of raw material; those vague ideas, characters, images, and snippets of words. Then I begin to add more to shape its form and provide support through structure. Usually I do too much and have to shave off pieces or lop off big chunks. Sometimes I have to mush it all together and start over from scratch because it ‘just isn’t right’.

The entire time I’m focused on molding the raw material, supported with a stable structure, into something both meaningful and aesthetic. I’m also thinking of the intended readers. I want them to feel a connection to the character and an understanding of the character’s predicaments. Above all, I want them to have fun--to enjoy spending time in the world of my characters!

Jody: I love that sculpting idea. Lately I’ve been thinking of writing as digging up a fossil, but your metaphor shows that the writer has a little more control. Not that I feel that way about the process all the time…. Something I always wonder about successful writers is the up and down stuff that happens on the way to success. Like, I’ve heard stories of JK Rowling getting a bunch of rejections before hitting it big with Harry Potter, and every writer I know has at least one forever-to-be-unpublished novel hidden in a drawer somewhere. Did BSK rack up any rejections before Scholastic snapped it up? Do you have a book or two that has never sold? Any advice for us “pre”-published writers out here who are still plugging away?

Marcia: I have enough rejections to wallpaper my walls. BSK was sold to the third publisher, and we collected quite a collection on other stories before selling VAMPIRES.

I continue to be a ‘collector’ of rejections (can they be sold on e-bay?). I have no secret words of wisdom other than to develop a thick-skin, always have chocolate on hand, and to remember that there is power in persistence. I live by the motto that the only true failure is to never try at all. With that in mind, I view my hefty pile of rejection letters as a symbol of my success because each letter means I did what so many people only talk about doing--I completed a story and sent it out into the world.

Jody: So true. That's what we have to hold onto. But those rejections... Bleh! I know you write full-time now, but you’ve had a “day job” in the past (teaching, and when you were my awesome boss!) and you have lots of speaking engagements/school visits taking up your time, so how do you balance out your writing with your other commitments?

Marcia: Balance, discipline, and confidence are three things I constantly struggle with. Sometimes I do pretty well. Other times, well, other times I do really well at napping, reading, and watching TV!

Something that works for me is to set goals. By setting goals, I mean I write them down, review them everyday, and then check them off. That helps keep me focused.

The number one best piece of advice I have comes from Jeff Davis in his book THE JOURNEY FROM THE CENTER TO THE PAGE. Davis challenges writers to make writing appointments…and keep them. “If you keep appointments with your hairstylist or with that friend who hounds you to have lunch each Wednesday, then why not keep regular weekly, if not daily, appointments with your muse? (She’s probably more fun and less gossipy. Maybe)” (page 16)

Davis’s whole idea of giving your time ‘shape’ led me back to doing what I did as a teacher. Like most teachers, I completed weekly lesson plans. I always started by putting in the non-negotiables (like recess and lunch J ). Then I blocked in times for specific lessons. By doing this, time had a definite shape. There was that big block for math and one for reading and music and art, etc..

Now I do the same thing for writing. I give my time shape by starting with a weekly blank schedule and then blocking in the non-negotiables (like appointments and family responsibilities). After that, I start filling in exactly when and how I’m going to complete my stated writing goals. I do all this in a Word document, and I use different colors to highlight categories of activities. By the end of the week, I have a visual that shows definite shape to how I spent all my time. I always strive to have more ‘writing shapes’ then anything else.

I don’t always do this, though if I did I would be much more productive. I definitely fall back to ‘shaping my time’ when I find myself drifting away from writing for whatever reason.

Jody: Love these ideas and will definitely need to check out Davis’s book. I’m always searching for ways to be more productive! Okay, lastly, you and I both know the publishing industry is changing—with e-books and publishers expecting more from their authors in terms of promotion and use of social media. What’s your take on that?

Marcia: The publishing world is changing so fast that I think everyone is scrambling for a foothold. One thing that worries me is how easy it is for people to self-publish in the e-world. Reader beware on this one since self-publishing makes it more and more difficult to find quality literature. Many people (both readers and writers) don’t truly understand the value of the editing process. That’s when many mediocre stories are made to shine.

Another problem that needs to be addressed is ethical publishing practices. There needs to be a system in place that protects writers and readers from various forms of piracy.

However, I can see where e-publishing is tempting considering legendary publishers can take years to publish a book; or even years to reject a book. That’s pretty hard, as a writer trying to make a living, to accept. So I think the process of legendary publishing will need to adapt in order to compete.

I understand that using social media can be beneficial. I have a Web site; I’m on Facebook, but let me be honest. I write for kids. I really don’t think social media reaches my audience, and it shouldn’t, should it? I feel very uncomfortable when an elementary-aged student contacts me using social media, and for liability purposes, I do not engage in online conversations with them.

I truly enjoy traveling to schools, bookstores, and conferences to sign books and to speak about writing in workshops and teacher professional development sessions. But I have to be honest, those types of promotional tours are GREAT for getting reader and writing conversations, but they don’t usually result in sales spikes. The ones I see that can truly make a difference in the sales of traditionally published books are the publishers. They’re big enough to reach readers all over the world, especially young readers.

Not to say it can’t happen. I would love for some of my writing to ‘go viral’. If you can make that happen, please do! But in reality, the chances of that are similar to my chances of winning a mega-lottery. Yeah, It could happen…

I’ve also known writers who do a tremendous amount of promotions. They spend hours of their time on it. While few have seen a difference in their sales numbers (unless their work has been offered as a free e-book or at a very low rate), they HAVE commented that they’ve spent so much time on their promotions that they haven’t had a chance to, um, actually write anything.

I think it all goes back to your question on balance and purpose. I’m a writer, and I’m trying to be the best writer I can be. I know part of that is to connect with my young readers, and the best way for me to do that right now is through personal interactions during school visits, conference appearances, workshops and signings. That…and by sitting in front of my computer, putting my fingers on the keyboard, and letting the words flow!

Which reminds me...I left one of my characters locked in a room after being kidnapped by goons while visiting the grave of her mother...I better go figure out a way to get her out of there!

Jody: Uh oh, Marcia, then I'll let you get back to work! Thanks so much for talking with me. You were a great first interview specimen and I know my blog readers learned a lot!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Review of There Is No Dog

My family used to help out at a church where we used to live. Every year they set up a big store where underprivileged people could “shop” for toys and winter clothing. It was very organized, with people lining up outside and getting a number, so only a few could go in at time to choose their gifts. The volunteers would organize the tables by age group and clean up between shifts, then when the shoppers came in, we’d pair up and lead them around, holding garbage bags for the stuff they picked out. It was one of those nice holiday volunteer things you could do to give back to your community and I’d always walk out of there feeling blessed and happy that I could help but also kind of cruddy too at the sight of so much need and desperation. The thing was, all of that stuff was donated, and let’s just say that not everyone has the same definition of “gently used” that I do. A lot of toys were broken or dirty. You’d find coloring books already colored in and puzzles with half the pieces missing.

We were only supposed to allow the people 2 toys per kid (but I am happy to note that there was no limit on books!) and the first thing we’d ask is how many kids they had. Maybe some people inflated the numbers, saying they had ten kids, for example, when they only had four. One thing I really liked about that church was they didn’t request any kind of official verification. We took whatever the person said as the truth.

I told one of my friends about this and she rolled her eyes. Obviously people were taking advantage of our good will, she said, and pulling a fast one on us to get more stuff for their kids. But I looked at it this way: if you wanted to stand outside in the cold for three hours to take your turn in front of tables of broken, dirty toys, then I wasn’t about to call you a liar. And anyway, what if it wasn’t a lie? What if the person really did have ten kids? Here. Take another ratty haired Barbie doll, for God’s sake.

It occurred to me later that my viewpoint and my friend’s might pretty much sum up a key difference in how people perceive the world. Do you assume the worst? Seeing it as a tragedy that some bad apples are getting away with being dishonest? Or do you hope for the best? Think, okay, maybe a few people are making up kids, but whatever, a lot of them aren’t, and those are the ones we’re trying to help. This “store” was located at a church after all, and if any place should be erring on the side of too much generosity, it seems to me this is it.

Well, this is probably the longest lead-in to a book review I’ve ever written, and I’m not even sure, exactly, how it relates to the brilliant and irreverent and funny and surprisingly spiritual novel There Is No Dog by Meg Rosoff. Except my lead-in has something to do with religion. And so does Rosoff’s book. Also both have to do with how we view this world and our place in it.

It strikes me that there aren’t many books written for young adults that mention God, never mind that deal with any kind of spirituality. Which is odd because every human (including the teenaged variety) is going to reflect on these topics at one time or another.

Maybe I should mention here another difference in how people perceive the world. Some of us do a lot of questioning, and I guess, some of us don’t. Also there are differences in what we find funny.

I suspect that there are some who won’t find Rosoff’s story of “God” as a lazy, self-centered, sex-obsessed seventeen-year-old boy named Bob all that humorous. To which I would have to say: Oh well, you’re missing out on a really cool book.

So, Bob took over the creation of the earth because apparently no one else wanted the job and now after thousands of years, he’s sort of tired of dealing with it. Luckily he’s got a long-suffering, conscientious assistant named Mr. B who cleans up the bigger messes, but most of the time he’s preoccupied with wooing his latest love interest. Which is too bad for earth, because Bob’s intense moods tend to affect the weather in cataclysmic ways.

The book reads like a fairytale, with multiple characters and lessons and thought-provoking questions. Also lots of funny interactions between teens and their parents, as well as some lovely romantic scenes with Bob and his charming conquest. I had to stop several times to reread a particularly lyrical passage or to think about a funny moment that on second thought was actually pretty profound.

Why are we here? What is the point? Why do good people suffer? What happens to us after we die? While this novel doesn’t presume to answer any of this, it gives us questioning people a whole bunch to think about (and to laugh about too.) Thank God.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Digging up Story Bones

On this glorious, bizarrely sunny and 80 degree day in Columbus, I find myself smack dab in the middle of yet another first draft (ten. But who’s counting). So right on schedule I’ve got the usual negative thoughts burbling up. This sucks, who am I kidding? Why am I wasting my time with something that inevitably will never see the light of day? Blah blah blah. It’s kind of sad. Because when I started this first draft, I had such high hopes for it:
1. The idea is the best one I’ve ever had.
2. This book will be THE ONE.
3. I can’t wait to get going on it first thing in the morning. Etc. Etc. (Warning: if you DON’T have these feelings upon beginning a first draft, you may want to reconsider the project. Later, when that excitement has faded, you’ll need every little nibbly remnant to keep you going.)

Another thing that keeps me going is setting a word count. For this draft I’m taking a page from Stephen King and writing 2000 words a day. And every day I meet the goal. I am not saying these are GOOD words. First Draft Land is all about the quantity, people. It’s not magic. It’s not a secret. To write a book you have to sit down and um, write it.

My friends tell me I must have a lot of self-discipline. Maybe. But I think it might have more to do with the stubborn/OCD combo streak that I’m blessed and/or cursed with. I have the hardest time quitting something. And I rarely fail to follow through on something I said I would do. Hence, if I say I’m going to write 2000 words today, then damn it, I’m writing 2000 freaking words. This is not to say that it is easy. But what is?

The truth is, anyone who can read can write a book. Just like anyone who has two legs can run a marathon. It has to be something you really want to do, and you’re going to have to make some time to run every day. Full disclosure: I have never run a marathon. But I have run some 5Ks and they’re hard enough. Two minutes in, usually, I want to die and I’m cursing myself for signing up. What the hell was I thinking? Why did I think I could do this? Still, I keep moving my feet, slapping them down again and again, breathing in and breathing out. I start making little bets with myself: Just get to the lightpost. Don’t stop til you pass the pine tree. I can do anything for thirty minutes, right? And lo and behold, it’s true. I’m not trying to win the race, mind you. I’m not even trying to get an impressive time. I’m just trying to run at a steady clip until I cross the finish line.

If there is a secret to writing a first draft, this is it. At least for me. Another full disclosure: I do not outline a book before I start. Instead, I have an idea or two—a character, a line that gives me the narrator's voice—and I start writing. I set my words. I go. I resist the urge to fiddle and revise along the way. That’s the key.

Stephen King, in his book on writing, entitled, shockingly, On Writing, compares writing a book to digging up a fossil. The first go around, he says, you’re just trying to dig the thing out, as many of the pieces as you can without breaking any, without missing any big important chunks. You certainly don’t stop halfway through and start dusting the bones off and snapping them together. That’s for later—when it’s all laid out in front of you and you can see what you have. Only then do you arrange. See what’s missing. Throw out the bits of rock that you thought were bone. Or maybe those things belong in some other fossil instead of this one.

Looking at it this way, it’s easy to write a book. Just pick up your shovel every day and keep digging.

(The secret to writing a book)

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Fun Fast Reads

I have the hardest time setting a book down. Even when I am bored out of my skull. Even when it’s terribly written and page after terrible page it doesn’t appear to be getting any less terrible. Apparently, I’m haunted by this guilt complex—a weird combo of lapsed Catholic and former English major—that just compels me to keep reading stuff I don’t like. I’ve written about this before but it reached some kind of crescendo the past few months when I realized that instead of my usual 7 to 10 books per month, I was down to like, four. Four books that were the very opposite of page-turners. And I had such high hopes for them. I’ve written about this too. When I pick up a book, I really really want to like it. I love books and I root for every single one to be wonderfully written and transformatively transporting. I am not like the editor who is looking for reasons to cast a book aside. I am the long-time book lover giving the author a second and third and tenth chance. Sometimes this hopeful strategy works. But alas, many times, it does not. Sadly, there are soooo many ways a book can go wrong.

But last week I did the unthinkable and stopped reading a book about a third of the way through. And although I still feel twinges of English majory guilt, this courageous decision led me to read books that I probably wouldn’t have gotten to so quickly if I was still plugging away through the bad one.
A reminder here about my criteria for a good book: it’s got to have a compelling story-- that’s it! --something that makes me want to keep turning pages. (PS: It helps if the main character is someone I care about, and I can’t guess where the thing is going on page five.)
So, that said: here are the three fun reads—perfect for the young adult in your life (or for you!) in the order I read them:

1. Unraveling by Elizabeth Norris. Okay, this book is a Page Turner with a capital P. So be warned. Also, because a lot of what makes the book suspenseful is the reader NOT knowing stuff until it unfolds, I will not spoil it be revealing everything and therefore ruining it for you. It begins with a girl, Janelle, being hit by a truck and dying and then being brought back to life by mysterious loner kid from her high school named Ben. Janelle’s father is an FBI agent working on a weird case that involves some kind of countdown (to a bomb?). And somehow the events—the truck accident, the miraculous healing by Ben, and the FBI case are all related. There’s a cool X-Files twist. Also, an interesting subplot of internal family drama with Janelle having to parent her younger brother because their mentally ill mother and workaholic father aren’t up to it. The writing is clever. There’s humor and romance. And the tag-line on the cover is cool: Stop the Countdown. Save the World. Two potentially annoying side notes: (1) looks like there will be a sequel (2) book doesn’t come out until May. So don’t forget to look for it then!

2. Bewitching by Alex Flinn. Not sure how I missed this, since I read so many freaking YA books, but this book is a sequel (or companion book) to another, Beastly, which I guess was made into a (lame—says my daughter) movie. Bewitching is about a witch named Kendra who finds that using her magic to help people often ends up making things worse for them. What’s cool about the book is that Flinn uses Kendra to tell multiple stories, and in the process turns several fairy tales inside out, so we get fresh takes on Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, the Little Mermaid, and The Princess and the Pea. (Beastly, I’m assuming is about Beauty and the Beast.) I’ve seen versions of fractured fairy tales before (it’s IN right now in YA fiction) but Flinn does it best. I promise you, you will be rooting for the stepsister and praying for the Cinderella character’s downfall in this one. Funny. Clever. And a spot-on characterization of high school mean girls. Good news: book is available now. (And I will definitely be checking out other books by Flinn.)

3. Partials by Dan Wells. (Digression: why is it that most YA books out at the moment have one word titles? Possible answer—one word—Twilight.) Partials is another example of the dystopian/post-apocalyptic novels that are saturating the YA market lately. (Another digression: I am at the saturation point with these books, too. How many ways can we end the world? How many bleak/survival-of-the-fittest type landscapes can we trek through? How many times can I fear for my own survival and start seriously considering hoarding canned goods, buying a gun, and installing solar panels on my house?) The fact that I am putting this book in the must-read column for you is an indication that it rises above the pack. So don’t disregard it. 

The novel picks up about a decade after humanity has nearly been destroyed by these half-robot creations called Partials. They were made to fight our wars for us, but at some point they turned and fought us. Also, they released a destructive virus that took out nearly everyone else. Now there are only a few thousand humans left and cobbling together lives on the Hamptons, of all places, fending off potential attacks by Partials, worried about dissenters and stragglers who don’t like the totalitarian bent of the colony, and most distressing, trying to figure out a cure for the virus that kills each human baby born minutes after birth. The main character is a teen girl, Kira, but the whole time I was reading, I was thinking the book would appeal to boys (maybe because it’s written by a guy?). LOTS of references to military stuff and guns and biological research (Kira’s a medic). Very heavily Sci-Fi (which I don’t normally like) but the story is absorbing and there are enough twists and turns in the plot (plus some hints of romance and jokey banter between the kids) to keep things moving along. In stores now--just in time for your Spring Break trip (to the Hamptons?)

Friday, March 2, 2012

Real Writers Drive Carpool

I love meeting other writers.

When I was growing up I didn’t know any “real” ones, so when my teenage self dreamed of someday being a published author, the goal was as farfetched and absurd as announcing I wanted to go to the moon. In college my awareness of working writers expanded, but only in a small way. My writing professors were brilliant, cool, creative people, but they only presented one pathway: poet slash teacher.

I guess it comes as no surprise that when I graduated, I started an MFA program in poetry. I had this vision of myself living in a funky house with an Emily Dickinson-style turret, teaching hippy and/or goth kids by day, scribbling poems and sending them off to obscure literary journals by night. I would own several cats and grow old, alone, in my funky turret, eating gingerbread brought to me by the timid children in the neighborhood who had heard stories of the wacky poet lady.

Yeah. I was a weird dreamer back then. At the end of my first year in grad school several realizations hit me at once:

1. I probably wasn’t intellectual enough to be a college professor.
2. Not many people really read those literary journals. (Sad but true)
3. I like the idea of gingerbread more than the reality of it.
4. Ditto on multiple cat ownership
5. I fell in love with a sweet and smart and stable man, and I gladly gave up turret-living for a house in the suburbs. I also gave up, for a while, the dream of being a writer. Because it seemed like kind of a childish dream. And because I didn’t know any writers who were also driving carpool.

The next decade of my life was all about parenting and teaching and attending PTA meetings and cheering for soccer teams and cleaning the house, but there was also this naggy little part of me that I couldn’t stamp out, and that part kept scribbling away—when the kids were napping, and later when they were at school or piano lessons or sports practices. 

I went, slowly and anxiously at first, to workshops and conferences and writing retreats. And was surprised to meet other writers, “real” ones, who also seemed fairly normal. Meaning, they did mundane stuff like go to the grocery store and pay bills and clean toilets. Shockingly: Some of them did not even own a cat.

Anyway, I love to meet writers and pick their brains about their books and their writing process. I grill them at writing functions like I’m an investigative journalist, peppering them with questions while we help ourselves to coffee and bagels (writing workshops are big on coffee and bagels):

Where do they get their ideas? Are they make-stuff-up-as-they-go types or outline ahead/planning people? What kind of work schedule do they have every day? How do they balance their writing time with their other obligations? How many books did they write before they got their first book deal? How many rejections did they get along the way?

And now more and more I am asking people how they promote their books and how they use social media and what are their opinions on self-publishing.

The answers are always interesting. Which got me thinking that those answers might be interesting for my blog readers, too. So I’m going to do that—officially interview some of my best writing friends over the next few months and share their insights with you.

Something I learned over the years is that it’s nice to have role models for a life that can seem mysterious and out of reach. Also, there isn’t any one right way to write or live this kind of life. But here’s the most important thing (and something I wish I knew long ago): wanting to be a writer is not silly and it’s not a childish dream. If you stick with it, I’m here to tell you, it’s hard—really hard—but probably not as hard as going to the moon.

(Emily Dickinson's house)

(the moon)