Thursday, May 24, 2012

Confessions of an Author Groupie

I first caught the author fan bug back in college. I have no idea how I found out about it, but one of my all time favorite writers from childhood, Madeleine L’Engle, was doing a signing at a local bookstore in Memphis. I dragged my roommate along and we both bought a copy of A Wrinkle in Time for her to sign. The store was small (readers from Memphis, please tell me this place, Burkes, is still open) and the line snaked around the shelves and out the door. There was a woman, I guess who was L’Engle’s publicist, who kept the pressure on, reminding the crowd that they were leaving at a specific time to catch a plane, no matter if there were people still in line or not. I sweated it out, stuck behind stacks, trying to get a glimpse at least of my childhood idol. I made it up to her table with minutes to spare. I don’t know what I was expecting. Someone bigger maybe? But Madeleine L’Engle seemed kind of shrunken. Very sweet, though, and smiley. The hours I’d waited I planned the things I wanted to say to her. Your books made such a difference to me. You saved my life. When I reached her, though, I was tongue-tied. "Thank you" is all I managed to say, and she nodded and scribbled:

To Jody: Tesser Well. 

Not exactly sure what she meant by that, but what an awesome, writerly thing to write.

I was lucky in grad school. University of Memphis had just started an MFA program and I think some local bigwig had donated money to host visiting authors. The handful of students in the program that year got to meet some very cool people. Here, I’ll name a few just to make fellow writer groupies jealous: John Updike, W.S. Merwin, Seamus Heaney, and Richard Russo.

I got interested in writing for children when I was an English teacher and attended a National Council for Teachers of English conference. The keynote speaker was Robert Cormier (The Chocolate War) and he was so brilliant and funny and somehow heartbreaking to listen to. I remember driving home thinking: I had no idea. (That was the English major snob in me that thought that writing for children was somehow lesser than writing literary fiction for adults.)

That topic has come up again over the years. Just a couple of weeks ago I went with my kids (who now, when possible, I take along to these book signings) to hear a talk by M.T. Anderson, author of one of my favorite novels, Feed. Someone in the audience asked him why he writes for young adults and he said he gets that question a lot. Once he got a letter from an adult that basically implied that his books were so good it seemed kind of wasteful for him to be writing for kids. What? he asked, laughing. Were they saying that kids’ books should be crappy?

I was a gushy, embarrassingly silly groupie at a talk given by Lauren Myracle. (Author of the Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen series, and the recent critically acclaimed Shine.) Lauren was very cool, as anyone who reads her books would expect. When I confessed that I was a writer too, but sorta struggling with the publication aspect of things, she told me to hang in there. Also, she let me take a picture of the two of us with my phone.

(Okay, I am the one with my eyes closed and Lauren is the hip chick holding the sign. In case you're wondering, it says "Hi Donna"-- so I could forward this pic to my best writing buddy Donna and rub it in that I was standing there with LAUREN MYRACLE!!!)

I had a nice chat with Louis Sachar once while he signed his awesome book Holes for me. I told him that he made such a difference in the bedtime life of my daughter, who for many years fell asleep listening to a tape of Sideways Stories from Wayside School. 

Lately, I’m more-- I’d guess you’d call it -- "technically curious" about how writers present themselves at book signings (cross my fingers, I am hoping that one day in the not so distant future I will be doing some of these author talks myself). Do they read a passage from their latest book? Just start talking with a prepared speech? Take questions from the audience?

The prize for most entertaining presentation easily goes to Mike Mullin, author of the super volcano blowing off under Yellowstone adventure story, Ashfall. The main character in that novel practices martial arts and Mike told the audience that he was working on his black belt as he wrote the book. At the end of his talk he demonstrated his mad skills by karate chopping a cement block in half and then donating the two pieces to the bookstore.

Well. Not sure how I can ever hope to top that.

In case you happen to live in the Columbus, Ohio area and want to meet up with me as I stalk, um, chat with another visiting writer:

Mark your calendars for the Dark Days Tour featuring Young Adult authors Veronica Roth, Aprilynne Pike, Elizabeth Norris & Bethany Griffin at Cover to Cover Bookstore on Thursday, June 7th at 6:30.

Come early, though, if you want to beat me to the head of the line.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Interview with Kimberly Pauley

I just finished reading Cat Girl’s Day Off, the latest funny and clever novel by Kimberly Pauley and am thrilled that she’s agreed to an interview. A little background, Kimberly and I are on the same listserve for the Midsouth chapter of SCBWI, and her first novel, Sucks to Be Me, immediately caught my attention. It came out during the height of the Twilight craze when it seemed that every YA writer and her mother was writing a vampire book. But Sucks to Be Me, besides having a catchy title, stood out from the pack with its funny, irreverent perspective on what happens when main character Mina discovers that her parents are undead. Like, teen/parent relationships aren’t complicated enough! (Side note that has nothing to do with anything and will possibly cause Kimberly to think I am a loon, but I absolutely LOVE her author photo. I have been stressing about author photos lately—which will be a subject for another blog, I promise—and saw Kimberly’s on the back flap of Cat Girl's and am totally inspired.)

Kimberly:  I actually wrote Sucks to Be Me in 2005 before Twilight came out that October. Just goes to show you how long it took to find it a home and get it produced. Oh, and the picture of me in my orange hat? I just took that myself! It was my Kentucky Derby hat (we used to live in Louisville, which was how I wound up on the MidSouth list).

Jody: I lived in Lexington for ten years, which is how I ended up on that list. Nice to see our mutual Kentucky connection! But Kimberly, before we get started, I’ve got to give a shout out to Cat Girl’s Day Off. For my blog readers, it’s about a girl who can communicate with cats, something she doesn’t particularly like to share with people. She’s got a strange family with freaky talents of their own. And two misfitty friends who are beyond thrilled that a movie is being filmed at their school. Throw in a quirky mystery about an imposter (and her cat) and lots of fun references to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. 

The whole time I was reading it, I was thinking: where do you get your ideas?

Kimberly: Everywhere. Watching people on the street. Staring off into space (I do this a lot). Seriously, ideas are never my problem. I have ideas ALL THE TIME. It's the getting your butt in a chair and finishing a book thing that takes time. I don't think I'll ever run out of ideas.

Jody: Yeah, setting the butt in the chair—that's the tough part of this job. No matter how long you’ve been writing, it doesn’t seem to get any easier, does it? Speaking of, how many books did you write before you got your first book deal? And I guess the corollary to that is how many rejections did you get along the way?

Kimberly: Sucks to Be Me was actually the first book I finished. I did have 2 others that were half-finished (and may or may not ever see the light of day again). As far as rejections, I stopped counting those. Still get 'em! It's not really worth keeping track of. I'm trying to just focus on the positive instead. It's a hard enough business without dwelling on the rejections! (But, yes, there were a lot!)

Jody: Well, that makes me feel infinitely better. (I’m sorta the rejection queen, not that I keep track either. Too depressing.) Okay, once you decide on an idea for a book, how do you start? Do you see yourself as a make-stuff-up-as-you-go type or an outline ahead/planning person?

Kimberly: Kind of in-between. I generally do an outline, but it's not super detailed. In the last book I finished (currently out with my agent), I didn't keep much of an outline at all, so it was a bit more of a "make it up" book than I'm used to. It was kind of fun, but also a little disconcerting. The one I'm working on now I'm kind of in-between again...thinking about trying out the notecard thing again.

Jody: Can you expand on that?

Kimberly: The notecard thing? Well, I'll basically just write down what the scene is (I often think about books in the sense of time and organize my outlines accordingly). Once you have all your scenes down, you can scramble them up and re-order them as needed. The chapter headers in Cat Girl obviously make use of a timestamp -- those were originally for me as I was writing, but they wound up staying in.

Jody: I liked those. Also the quotes about cats you used. Totally unrelated point, but what kind of work schedule do you have every day?

Kimberly: It depends on whether my son is in for a full day at school or a half day! If I'm having a real writing day (one of his full days), I try to go out to a non-Wi-Fi'd cafe and work there (with the obligatory coffee or tea). When I'm actively writing I try to get in at least a 1000 words. A really good day for me is 3000 words.

Jody: Wow. I’m lucky if I can manage 1500. 3000 words….

Kimberly: I should add that a 3000-word day for me isn't common! That's a really good day!

Jody: Well, I’m bowing down to you, anyway. And this, with a young child. My kids are much older and I still feel pulled in lots of different directions. How do you do it-- balance your writing time with your other obligations?

Kimberly: Terribly. The same as most people, I imagine. I tend to go in spurts. Like today I wanted to get some writing done but it was a half day for my son and I wound up doing laundry, setting up Dr. appointments, paying bills, etc. etc. until the morning was gone. Then I'll have days when I get a lot of writing stuff done and no household stuff. Right now is a bit hard because it's important to do promotional things for the book that just came out and so I'm getting in less writing than normal as I do other things.

Jody: What kinds of promotional things?

Kimberly: I have a Facebook fan page (and one for my latest book that my publisher set up as well), a Twitter (KimberlyRPauley), Pinterest (that's new), MySpace (that's old and I barely use it, but it's there), a website, a blog, a newsletter... I do blog tours, Skype video chats, hold contests, mail out signed bookplates and bookmarks...Always trying something new and always looking for something to try! It's a big, wild and wooly world out there and it's hard to get noticed in all the noise, especially when self-promotion doesn't come naturally (or easily).

Jody: Yikes! That sounds like a lot of stuff to deal with. One more question and I’ll let you get back to it. Lately, with all the attention on e-books, it seems that more and more writers are foregoing the traditional publishing route and self-publishing. What’s your take on that?

Kimberly: I really don't know. Ten years ago I would have turned my nose up at it. But now, things are changing. It's really hard to say what things are going to look like in a few years. But, no matter what route someone's not easy.

Jody: Very true. Well, thanks so much Kimberly for chatting with me. Looking forward to seeing what stories you come up with next, but oh, I have to ask—is there a Cat Girl’s Two in the works?

Kimberly: Not yet. At the moment I have another book finished and out on submission (it's a more serious book) and I'm working on a book that's kind of mid-way in-between -- not totally serious, but not exactly split-your-sides funny either. If Cat Girl does well enough, there will hopefully be a second book! I'd really like to see that as I love the characters (especially Oscar and PD) and also because any further books in my first series (Sucks to Be Me) effectively got canceled when that publisher decided to go back to their core books (D&D) and not publish any non D&D fantasy anymore. It would be nice to have one go on.

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Dream Comes True Part Two: Gift of a Hair Dryer

If you've been following my blog for a while, or even at random intervals, you know that I've been writing for a long time and dreaming about being published for nearly as long. This has not been what anyone would call, uh, easy. It's helped, though, to have a supportive family-- bemused hubby and easy-going darling children-- who don't mind their manic/distracted mom serving chocolate chip pancakes for dinner multiple nights per week whenever she's immersed in a project. Finding an awesome writing buddy, Donna Koppelman, to share this crazy up and down process with, has been a godsend too.

Several months ago the alternating exhilarating/soul crushing journey reached a new crescendo when a glimmer of a potential nibble turned into an actual book deal. I got The Call from my agent on January 26 that Beyond Words/Simon & Schuster wanted my young adult novel THIN SPACE, but because the deal wasn't hammered out officially until last week, I've had to sit on the news. Now I hate to say it almost feels  anti-climactic.

Okay. I'm totally lying. When I signed the contract I was such an over-the-top loon I made my neighbor take pictures of me at the post office. Here's me, with confused Dave the Postal Worker, as I mail the contract back to S & S:

It's hit me that I've blogged about every step in this journey--chronicled every twisty-turny, angsty thought as it crossed my mind except for the feelings I had as I experienced the actual Reach-the-Destination part. And now that initial excitement is gone and left unchronicled. I could tell you about how I was folding laundry when I got The Call. How I put down the phone and cried tears of joy into my daughter's clean gym shorts. How I called my husband and texted my kids and my mother. How I toyed with the idea of opening a bottle of champagne but it was only like, two-o'clock, and I was alone in the house, and that seemed kind of, I don't know, weird. Instead I called Donna and strangely she was more excited in many ways than I was. I think I was numb, shocked that this was actually happening.

The truth is I still feel like that. So I didn't write any of this down at the time. And therefore I can't go back to the moment and capture it. But maybe I can do the next best thing. I can share with you what Donna wrote on her blog:

A Gift of a Hairdryer

Today in the mail, I received the gift of a hairdryer. I cried as I opened it. Sobbed, even. My hands shook as I held it for the first time. I sat for a good twenty minutes with this hairdryer in my lap. I just couldn't believe it. I finally had the hairdryer. After three years (and really more than that), I held the hairdryer in my hands. Even as I type these words, my fingers shake, and I can't believe it.

You see, I have a writing partner, an accountability partner. More than three years ago, we met at Highlights Institute at Chautauqua, exchanged email addresses and a few pithy words while in line at the port-a-potty. Six months after Chautauqua, JC dug my email out of her bag, and sent me a message. It was the sweetest message one writer can send to another: "I think I know a good home for the novel you are writing." You see, she had met an editor at a conference who was looking for something like my project, and she wanted to share the news. It was so kind and thoughtful, and over the next few weeks, we shared our writing goals and struggles. We commiserated that no one else seemed to take it as seriously as we did. We weren't just dabbling. We were serious writers. So we made a pact that we adhere to even today.

Every morning, JC sends me her goals for the day, and I send her my goals for the day (via email). Then, at the end of the day, we own up. Did we meet our goals or not? Sometimes we even send the work to each other to PROVE it. Developing this partnership was a HUGE turning point in my writing. It made me goal-oriented and accountable to someone--a surprisingly hard thing to accomplish when you work alone.

Through the years, we have read hundreds of books (passed them back and forth through the mail) and proofed each others' work. We've shared lots of craft advice from other writers and read many such books. In Stephen's King's amazing work ON WRITING, he tells about when he started writing. His wife was so patient and supportive. When he finally sold his first novel, he wanted to celebrate, to get her something to thank her. For whatever reason (and due to the fact that he is, in fact, a man), he got her a hair dryer. Yes, a hair dryer. JC and I found this so hilarious that we pledged that the first one of us to sell a novel would buy the other a hair dryer.

And you guessed it. JC sold her first novel. I'm actually not supposed to tell you until the papers are signed, so don't tell anyone, but it's true. And it's big. And it's amazing and exciting and unbelieveable all at once. Because while we said over and over that we weren't giving up until we made it, a little tiny part of me always wondered and worried. What if? What if neither of us ever makes it?

But guess what? Now one of us has. And it feels like both of us. Really. Because we've been in the trenches together for so long. I wanted to see the editorial notes as much as she did. I went over the contract with a fine-toothed comb, too. I screamed and cried and celebrated on that big day last week, maybe as much as she did. Too bad we're several states apart and couldn't celebrate together. At least not yet. But we will.

Anyway, today is the day the hairdryer arrived. It is the most awesome, amazing, fantastic hairdryer EVER. I can't wait to use it. Or maybe I should bronze it. At any rate, I am paying very close attention to the quality and features of this hairdryer.

Because hopefully, I will have to purchase one myself. I hope to send an awesome hairdryer across three states one day.

But in the meantime, it is more than enough to have this hairdryer of my own, JC's contract, and the beginnings of a dream-come-true. No matter what happens in my career, I have a hard time believing it will beat this hairdryer.

I need to get going on my thank you note for said hairdryer, and I think I'll drop a line to ol' Stephen King while I'm at it.

Best of luck, JC. I will be touting your awesome novel right here, and yes, it is the one I predicted would be snatched up first. It is fantastic, and everyone is going to LOVE it. And to quote my favorite celebrity crush, "Oh, the places you'll go!"

(And here's me again: Thanks Donna, for everything, and eagerly awaiting my own gift of a hair dryer from you....)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Interview with Tracy Barrett

As promised I have picked the creative brain of another writer friend. Tracy Barrett is the author of nineteen books for children and an inspiring teacher and mentor to countless beginners and not-so-beginner-writers. Disclosure: I consider her my mentor. Several years ago we met at a Nashville SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) conference, and later, I wrote a grant for her to be a visiting author at a school where I taught. She did an awesome job working with the students and collected quite a few fans that day. I’ve read three books by Tracy—the creepy ghost story Cold in Summer, On Etruscan Time, a cool YA time-travel/historical fiction novel, and recently, her critically-acclaimed, newest novel, a twist on the minotaur myth, Dark of the Moon. 

Jody: So Tracy, I have to ask you, even though I am sure that this is a question you have been asked a million times: where do you get your ideas?

Tracy: Hi, Jody, and thanks for having me on your blog!  Almost always, my ideas come from questions I have. The best way to answer a question is to write about it. So, I asked myself:

1. What would happen if Sherlock Holmes had access to a crime lab? (The Sherlock Files series—and I thought of this before the wonderful BBC series with a similar premise came out!)

2. While Odysseus was trying (not very hard) to get home after the Trojan War, what was his son Telemachus up to? (King of Ithaka)

3. I had lots of questions about the minotaur—it's a very wacky myth! Why is the minotaur the only half-human, half-critter monster in Greek mythology whose lower half is the animal? Whenever there's only one of something, you have to wonder why. Why on earth was a labyrinth sufficient to keep a man-eating monster confined—okay, he's not too bright, but he might stumble out, right? Why not put a door on it? If Theseus needed help getting out of the labyrinth, why didn't he need help getting in? Why did he take Ariadne (the minotaur's sister) away after he killed her brother but then dump her on an island with no explanation? Why did he sail a black sail on his homeward journey, knowing that his father would think this meant he had died in the labyrinth? (Dark of the Moon)

Jody: I love the idea of questions sparking a story. Which makes me wonder what the next step is in your process. Do you do any planning/outlining before you begin writing?

Tracy: For the Sherlock Files, I did a meticulous outline. I had never written a detective novel before, and I wanted my editor to help me make the clues sufficient to solve the mystery but not too obvious, and the red herrings distracting enough without being too distracting. But otherwise, I just have an idea where I'm starting and an idea where I'm ending. The journey takes many unexpected turns along the way.

Jody: That’s what I’ve found too. I’m guessing that Dark of the Moon was one of your more organically-developed books, although I bet you had to outline at some point. When I read it I was so impressed with how you wove the myth of the minotaur and the characters Ariadne and Theseus into something original and compelling. I brushed up on the myth before I began reading because I wanted to see what you started with. Your story grounds the Greek myth in reality, so readers get a vivid sense of the time and place. Many of your books, I’ve noticed, feature a historical or mythological figure. How do you fit research into your writing process?

Tracy: Research is cyclical. I start looking for answers to whatever question prompted me to write the book, and then start writing. More questions come up as I write, so I research them, and then the research often takes the story in a different direction, which leads to more questions--> more research --> new direction --> more questions --> more research --> new direction, etc.

Jody: Sounds like the research aspect could be very absorbing and time-consuming, and yet you've managed to write nineteen books. Have you written books that haven’t been published?

Tracy: Oh heavens, yes. And thank goodness. I think of those manuscripts as my "scales"—a music student's scales aren't to be listened to, but the student must play a lot of them in order to learn how to play something that someone else would want to listen to. I didn't realize that those projects were practice for a book that someone else would like to read, but they were. Plus I plunder them for scenes and descriptions all the time, so it's not wasted work.

Jody: Hmm, the scales metaphor makes me feel better about my own never-to-be-published manuscripts still stuffed in a drawer. Those were my practice.... Now I have to ask you: have you gotten any rejections along the way?

Tracy: I started off writing nonfiction, which is a different process. My first novel was accepted by the first editor I sent it to, so I got all puffed up and thought I was hot stuff. Of course there was a comeuppance: my second novel received 23 rejections before it was accepted. And one more after, from an editor I forgot to tell about the acceptance! The book (Cold in Summer) got good reviews and some nice awards, so I don't think it was really the book's fault. I just hadn't found the right editor. I've now published eight books with her.

Jody: Thanks, Tracy, you’re giving me hope here. I follow your blog so I know that this is your last semester working as a professor of Italian at Vanderbilt University and soon you'll be writing full time. At this point how do you balance your writing projects with your other obligations? And how do you think that will change after you quit your day job?

Tracy: I've had to work hard at balance, and if it were a matter of writing and teaching, I think I could still do it. The way I balanced it was by not throwing myself fully into academe—I've never gone for tenure, so my summers have been my own—and by streamlining my writing process. But since authors are required to do more and more of their own promotion, and since much of that promotion happens during the school year, I have to say farewell to my day job.

I would say that I'm very organized, only I don't think that organization is a thing you are; it's a thing you do. It was a conscious choice on my part to organize my life carefully. If I wanted to do all the things I wanted to do, I couldn't afford the luxury of sloppiness. So I worked against my natural tendency to let things slide, to create piles, to allow paperwork to back up, to leave things where they dropped, and organized my life to the point where I had the time to do the writing and the teaching—and the wifing and the mothering and the friending and all those other things!

Jody: Okay. Must remember this: Get organized! You mentioned that authors have to do more of their own promotion these days. What kinds of promotional things do you do to find new readers of your books?

Tracy: As a writer of historical fiction, it's very important for me to reach teachers and librarians, since they're often the ones who will guide readers to books like mine. I try to go to events where those people will be present and tell them about my work, as well as to school visits where I meet my actual constituents! I love doing school and library visits and am really looking forward to having the time and the flexibility to do more of them.

Jody: Well, as I said, you did a great job with my students. In fact, I’m thinking you’re my mentor for successful author visits too. It was great talking to you, Tracy.

Tracy: You too! Thanks, Jody.