Sunday, September 30, 2012

Because "You are a Demonic Succubus" (and other reasons why I love the show Revenge)

I used to be kind of a literary snob. On the outside I was a dutiful English major, reading the classics, compiling lists so I could fill in embarrassing gaps in my knowledge of THE LITERARY CANON. I did have embarrassing gaps, though. I still regret that I didn't take a Shakespeare class in college. I didn't read Macbeth, for example, until I had to teach it to my 12th grade students. And my understanding of Restoration poetry is unconscionably thin. The horrors! Also, I had a weak resume in the Henry James area until I had to teach several of his books to my tenth graders.

Weird digression: I was carpooling with a group of sorority sisters to take the GRE in English. On the way one of the girls was talking about some Henry James book she'd recently read. The main character's name was Isabel Archer blah blah blah. Less than an hour later I was taking the test and came to a question about that character in the novel Portrait of a Lady, and because of that conversation, I knew the correct answer. This sorta felt like cheating to me because I hadn't read the book.

But I got over it.

Another digression: one of my most humiliating book-related experiences happened when I was teaching at an all-girls private school. We English teachers got together to discuss divvying up our 12th grade students' independent reading projects. I was the newby and had no input making up the list of approved novels. Someone read off the list and we were supposed to call out which books we'd read and could comfortably teach. She got 3/4ths of the way through and I still hadn't called out. (I hadn't read any of the books. I hadn't even heard of some of them.) One of the teachers smirked at me and said, "Well, what HAVE you read?"

Gulp. Didn't reading The Scarlet Letter 25 times count for anything?

The irony is I was just as book-snobby as Smirky Woman. I took seriously my English major and later my English teacher persona. In my spare time I'd pick up classics I'd missed along the way or get my hands on new "literary" writers. I worked in a bookstore (an awesome place in Memphis called Davis Kidd) when I was in grad school, and I spent every extra dime on books, loving that 40% discount. At that bookstore I was in charge of the Romance section, of all things, and I not-so-nicely mocked the women who perused my section (behind their backs of course.) But now I am ashamed, and I think my encounter with Smirky Woman was Karma smacking me upside the head.

Because there has always been a secret trash-loving reader buried inside me. My first reading experiences were late nights poring over Trixie Belden books (as a ten year old) and later (as a teen) gorging on junk like Flowers in the Attic with a side dish of Cosmopolitan magazine. I admit that age 16 I even went through a romance novel phase (!)

I don't apologize for it anymore. I read what I like, and I believe there's a place for Twilight alongside Printz-award-winning books. The only qualification I have for books now is that they not be boring.

Which brings me to my proud addiction to the over-the-top, overwritten, but never boring, TV show Revenge. I started watching this glorious soap opera last year with my teen daughter and it quickly became our Must Watch show. The characters are beautiful. The setting (the Hamptons) is gorgeous. The plot is absurdly complex and often (unintentionally?) hilarious.

At the center is the bland Emily out to get revenge on every single one of the evil former friends of her disgraced and now dead father. The trouble is Emily herself often veers into evil territory with the lengths she goes to destroy these people. Sometimes I find myself actually feeling sorry for these miscreants after Emily is through with them. One episode last year dealt with a writer who penned a dishonest biography of Emily's father. Emily burned the guy's house down, starting by lighting the only copy of his new manuscript on fire.

I know it sounds ridiculous, and believe me I don't understand my attachment to this show either. Never fear, my English major self is on the case. Season Two begins tonight and I will be watching, doing my darnedest to analyze the appeal. All last year certain plot twists would jump out at me or particularly silly lines (See title of this blog post which refers to something Conrad said to Victoria. These two are the main recipients of Emily's wrath, but interestingly, they hurt each other far more than Emily does.)

This year I'm going to record this stuff, if nothing else, for my own amusement. If you're a fan of the show too, or you'd like to tune in and see my real-time take on it, sign on to Twitter. I'm @jodcase and I'll be tweeting with my daughter, #Revenge. I promise you, we will not be boring...

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Reality of Zooey

Two months ago if you asked anyone who knew me if I would ever get a dog, they would've emphatically said no. Let's just say I have never been a dog person. Possibly this dates back to me at age 12, in a moment of sheer idiocy, "kissing" my sleeping dog's face. Said dog reared back and bit a piece of my lip off. I had to get stitches. There was a gruesome scar for a while.

So yeah, I didn't really like dogs. When I visited friends who have them, I'd be cool, acting like I thought their dogs were cute, but inside I was cringing. Dogs kinda smell like, uh, dog. And I didn't like them jumping on me, or God forbid, licking-slash-drooling on me.

My fear/annoyance of dogs even inspired a story. It's called "Chasing the Rabbit" and it appeared in Cicada magazine a few years ago. First lines:

No offense to any dog lovers out there, but Abby didn't like dogs. She did, however, like the idea of dogs. In theory they seemed like good companions. Loyal. Loving. Obedient. Friendly.

But Abby (like me) learned fast about reality. Her new puppy bites her face (hmm, wonder where I got the idea for that?) and she comes to this conclusion: "It was the idea of dogs that had tricked her. Reality was different, and her scar would never let her forget it."

Not too long ago I actually dug this old issue of Cicada up and read this section to my daughter, who had been begging my husband and me for months to get her a dog. My daughter is very persistent, to put it mildly, when she gets an idea in her head, so I was growing worried that her crusade for a dog would eventually wear her father down. (This has happened before. See iPhone, new queen-sized bed, bigger bedroom, for previous examples of daughter's skill at breaking his will. Her tactics include mentioning the object of her desire several times per day, posting detailed lists of why she "needs" this object, and creating elaborate bargains with us.)

I waved my story at her and told her she didn't know the first thing about taking care of a dog--the reality of day to day life with a puppy. You have to take it for walks and clean up its piddle and poops, and wipe its muddy paws when it's raining. Nevermind the stuff it's going to get into--it'll eat your shoes! And anyway, it's going to be ME who takes care of the dog. Let's not kid ourselves here. I'm the one who's going to be home all day with it. I'm the one who's going to have to walk it and clean up after it and train it!

She just blinked at me. There she was sitting in her larger bedroom, on her queen sized bed. She stopped clicking on her iPhone, and said: Now that older brother has gone off to college, don't you think we, the three of us, should have a puppy, to help bind us together, in a new way, as a half-empty nest family?

Cut to:  We got a puppy.

Her name is Zooey.

Yes, it is true, everything I said about the reality of dogs. And it's true, too, for the most part, that I am the one who takes Zooey for walks and cleans up her accidental piddles. She smells like, uh, dog. She enjoys eating the corners of all of our rugs. She's spit up TWICE in the middle of the night in the middle of daughter's bed.

So it's all true, this reality I had been trying to explain to my daughter. But here is what I didn't know:


Oh, you just can't believe how adorable she is! She's got this sweet little wrinkly forehead and these precious floppy ears. (We got her from the pound and the vet thinks she might be some kind of pug/beagle mix) She follows me around and curls up next to me while I write. She cocks her head when I say something like she's really trying to understand what I'm talking about. And get this: I think she does. We have very intense conversations during the day when we take our multiple walks and I must explain to her that she can't eat the berries or the grass and she should just ignore that other dog's dried up poop in the middle of the sidewalk left behind by some %&^# owner who couldn't bother carrying a poop bag.

She is so smart too. I am not exaggerating. I know every dog parent probably says this, but in Zooey's case it is 100% true. She can sit, and shake paws, and let herself outside. And she can let herself back in too! She has only had three accidents and that was totally my fault for misreading her doggie clues.

During the day while I work on my writing, Zooey works on her latest bone project, carrying it around the yard, burying it, and digging it back up. At night she curls up on my lap and snores contentedly, every so often her eyes fluttering open to gaze up at me, that sweet wrinkled forehead of hers wrinkling up even more sweetly. She loves me. It is clear to everyone who sees us together.

Here is another reality: every morning when I wake up I have to walk past my college son's empty bedroom. It's always dark in there and always clean. Somehow I can brush right by. He's okay. He's happy. He's doing what he should be doing. And honestly, I can't worry about him every second of the day.

I've got a dog waiting downstairs for her breakfast. Not just any dog either. Zooey.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

How Blogging Saved My (Writing) Life and Other Thoughts on Social Media

Two years ago I knew nothing about social media unless you count my Facebook page. But that was mostly to keep tabs on my kids. I annoyed them by peppering them with questions like: whose wall am I writing on? What IS a wall, anyway? And how do I turn some "friend" off when I'm tired of looking at cutesy pictures of her cats? The day my son showed me how to "hide" a person who annoyed me ranks right up there with the most satisfying experiences of my virtual life. Wow. Wouldn't it be awesome if we could hide people who ticked us off in real life too? But I digress.

(cat picture. Cute. But sometimes I get tired of looking at them.)

My point is that I was a brand newbie to the online scene, and then I attended an SCBWI regional conference and social media was all everyone was talking about. Writers have to create an "online presence." You've GOT to have a website, a Twitter account, a blog. Needless to say, as someone who still had to ask my daughter to upload pictures for me on Facebook, I was a little nervous about tackling any of this stuff.

But I did, first by starting this blog. I called it On the Verge because of something one of the presenters at the same conference said. She knew so many really good writers--writers on the verge--who quit trying just as they were about to cross over. Well, no way would that be me! I knew in my bones that all my years writing were about to pay off, and this blog was my chance to give back, maybe throw out some helpful pointers to beginning writers. At the same time, maybe the blog would accomplish that other goal--of creating a buzz about my book(s) that would soon see the light of the publishing day.

I had an ulterior motive, is what I'm trying to say. What I figured out, though, was that I really like blogging. Probably because I like writing. Duh. But also because it gives me something I hadn't thought I needed: an immediate response to what I'm writing. Turns out that two years ago, I WASN'T just about to cross over. Deals came close and fell through. Rejections dribbled in. Or worse, I got no response at all. My agent quit the business. Last summer I came perilously close to quitting. I made my peace with the fact that my dream would likely never come true on this blog. And then I made my peace with it again. I got some nice responses to my posts. Some from wonderful writers I love, (like Sara Zarr!!!) gave me such a charge that I decided I would keep writing regardless.

Blogging ended up helping me, but not in the way I had assumed it would.

Social media, for me, is not just about creating buzz. This is such a nebulous term and is out of a writer's control and anyone who tells you otherwise is probably the person sending out a constant tweet-stream of BUY MY BOOK, the virtual equivalent of going door to door selling vacuum cleaners (or anything, for that matter). I don't know about you but when I see them coming up my walk, I want to turn the lights off and pretend I'm not home.

What I'm figuring out is that my virtual actions need to be as genuine as my real ones. I tweet when I want to not because I must get in my 5 tweet a day quota. I share articles on my Facebook author page that I think might interest other writers and readers. I'll comment on blogposts that move me or provoke an honest response. I've made connections this way that feel real to me and remind me that I am part of a larger community of writers and readers and the only way to "meet" most of these people is online.

A few fun things I've signed on for lately (because I want to):

1. I was asked to contribute posts for an awesome group blog called YA Outside the Lines, a blog created by my new role model Holly Schindler.

2. I've resurrected my Goodreads account and I am so glad I did. I love seeing what others are reading and I'm having fun scrolling through my friends' reviews.

3. My daughter and I made a pact to "live tweet" our responses to our favorite guilty pleasure, the over-the-top soap opera-y drama Revenge. It starts next Sunday, fellow Revengers, so follow us and tweet back.

4. I signed on to be a stop on Mike Mullin's Ashen Winter blog tour.

(I must confess that when I agreed to do this, I didn't know exactly what a blog tour was. My motives were sorta self-serving. I loved Mike's first book and was eager to read the sequel, so that was genuine, but truthfully, I figured that if I signed on, I'd learn more about blog tours and I could get pointers on how to set up my own. Apparently, a blog tour is when an author virtually visits a bunch of blogs. They happen right around the time a book is released to, you guessed it, create buzz. What's cool is each "stop" is a little different. There are book reviews, of course, but also author interviews, character interviews, and other posts on topics related to the book. Sometimes there are prizes.

Confession number 2: I thought I was supposed to write a post called "What to Eat in the Wild" (Mike's book is a bleak, nail biting dystopian nightmare and let's just say the food pickings are slim.) I was such an eager beaver that I wrote my post months ago, but found out last week that MIKE is the one who's writing the post and I'm supposed to have him guest blog. So, yeah. Forgot to read the fine print there. Lesson learned.)

Yes, I have trekked a loooong way over the past two years through this new virtual landscape, but I am the first person to admit I still have miles to go.

PS. Tune in for Mike's post on Oct. 2, my official stop on his Ashen Winter tour.

PSS. Tune in for my post on the same subject soon, because I don't think Mike will mind a double burst of buzz.

Monday, September 17, 2012

And Last but Not Least, I Would Like to Thank the Academy...

When you pursue the same dream for so many years, you have a looooong time to think about the things you'd like to do if/when the dream comes true. How will I spend my ginormous advance check is one such fun daydream. Or, which trendy NYC restaurant will I choose as the site of my celebratory lunch with my agent and editor? Or, what will I say to the hip teen actors hired to play parts in the blockbuster movie based on my novel?

Yeah, so those are some of the exciting things I haven't actually had to deal with yet (or probably, um, ever). But I have gotten to do some other fun things that previously I had only fantasized about it--like taking an author photo and seeing my book cover (before it was shot down by someone in marketing).

Lately, I've been consumed by what I should put on my acknowledgment page (or if I should even have one). One of the first things I do when I pick up a new book, is flip to the back and scroll through the author's acknowledgments. Before I had an agent, this was an important part of my submission process. Many authors thank their editors and agents in this section, and I'd dutifully record which writers were with which publishers and agencies. My theory was that if I liked the book--and if it seemed kinda like what I was trying to do, I'd have a potential lead on where to submit. This strategy actually got me across the threshold in a couple of places.

But I also like to read acknowledgments because they often provide a quirky little glimpse into the author's life. Oh, how sweet, she's thanking her husband for bringing home carryout every night so she could finish her book. Or, check out how important her critique group is to her or the public library system or the local coffee shop or double fudge ripple ice cream.

Sometimes the acknowledgments are simply a list of names; while some include an explanation of the person's importance. Some lists are long, going on for several pages. Others are short, just a couple of lines. It's cool when the thanks-yous are written in the same voice as the author. One hilarious example: Libba Bray's acknowledgment pages for Going Bovine, in which she thanks, among others, "everyone (she's) ever kissed or punched...the guy who validated (her) parking ticket...and the homeless lady who said (her) hair looked like dandelion with pieces blown away."

What all acknowledgment pages have in common is the realization that a book would not be what it is without the support and contribution of a lot of other people. When you've been writing and pursuing publication for so long, let me tell you, the list of helpers along the way is extensive.

I don't want to leave anyone out. But I also worry about drafting a ten page list of names that will make me sound like the make up lady at the Academy Awards who sways in front of the microphone going, And then I'd also like to thank Susie Jones Swanson who gave me my first lesson in blush application. Susie, thank you for being there (sniffle sniff) I love you so much, and next I'd like to thank--

Two contradictory things keep churning together in my mind when I think about writing my acknowledgments:

1. Having a book published is an amazing accomplishment and the people who helped me deserve to be recognized.

2. In the end it's just a book, so whoop dee doo. It doesn't contain the cure for cancer or the path to world peace. Truthfully, I'd just be happy if it gave a few readers like, three or four hours of entertainment on some rainy afternoon.

So this is pretty much where I am on the eve of writing my acknowledgment page.

Anyone out there want to weigh in? Pleeeeease?

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Story of a Book

Even after all these years of writing stories I still think it's strange and cool how they get started. For me it happens when two or three unrelated ideas click together. Sometimes this takes years.

Example: my young adult novel Thin Space.

Six years ago at a school bus stop, I noticed a boy stepping off the bus behind my son, barefoot. When I asked my son about it, he just shrugged and said the guy was always barefoot--at school, on the bus, always. But didn't he get in trouble? I asked. I mean, did the school just let him do this? And what about his parents?

The mother part of me was worried about the boy stepping on broken glass or stubbing his toe or maybe catching a fungus off the cafeteria floor. But my writer brain was mulling over motivations. What did this teenager have against shoes? Was it some kind of political or religious statement? Did he have an obsession with hippies? My son had no idea what the kid's story was and nobody around seemed as fazed as I was about it. Still I couldn't stop thinking about the barefoot boy at the bus stop, as I called him. He would make an interesting character in a book...

A few months later my family was waiting for a seat in a restaurant and I was browsing through a local magazine. A couple of sentences in one of the articles caught my eye: "The Celts believed in thin places, where the veil between this world and the Other is, well, thin... In these places the seen and unseen world are most closely connected and inhabitants of both worlds can momentarily touch each other." Cool topic for a story, I thought, and tore the passage out and slipped it in my purse.

The two sparks of ideas--a barefoot boy and the belief in thin places--didn't seem related, but for some reason they churned around together in my head.

My family had moved to a new town not long before, and in the fall of 2008 (I'm putting dates now so you can get a picture of how LONG this process can sometimes take), I decided that it was the perfect time to start another novel. I signed up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and committed myself to write a book I called Thin Space. (Here's something I didn't realize until recently when I dug that crunched up article from purse: all those years I'd misread the quote and thought it said thin space instead of thin place. Oh well.)

Let me say here that when you're writing a 50,000 word novel in less than 30 days, it's all about the quantity. This draft was a big old mess of massive big old mess proportions. With pointless and meandering digressions and flashbacks within flashbacks. Whole chapters that droned on about what the characters were wearing and the seating placement in the cafeteria. I thought I was writing about a girl named Maddie who'd just moved to a new town. (It was a town suspiciously like the one I'd just moved to, complete with the drizzly, dreary, gray weather we were having. And of course, it was November.) Unbeknownst to Maddie there was a thin space in her new house, a doorway from this world into the world of the dead.

That's what I thought I was writing about anyway.

But on like, day four of my NaNo project, Maddie walked to the bus stop and there was a weird barefoot guy standing there. His name was Marsh and he had a secret (a secret I didn't know) From that point on Marsh took over the story and on day 24 when he finally told Maddie what his big secret was, we were both surprised. I don't even know if surprised is the right word. I remember going to bed the night before, tormented by how the whole plot was going to come together. What the heck was the boy's story and what did it have to do with the thin space in Maddie's house? And then waking up with an answer that gave me goose bumps.

End of November I won my little NaNo prize for "finishing," then closed the file and didn't look at it again until January.

That's when the real work began. First time I read it through, I was nauseated. The truth was, except for the parts where Marsh had inserted himself, the book was kind of boring. Maddie didn't really have much of a conflict and her story didn't go anywhere. I whined about all of this to my daughter, who at the time was in sixth grade. I didn't think she was interested in my struggles with this silly book but I kept ranting to her, hoping that hearing myself talk about it might give me an idea what to do next. My daughter, God love her, listened, then she looked at me and said, "So why don't you write the story from Marsh's point of view?"

"No!" I said, because that's always my initial reaction when people give me writing suggestions, and I gave her a litany of reasons why she was wrong. It was Maddie's story, didn't she see that? And besides, Marsh had this big secret. If he was telling the story, how could I keep his secret from the reader? Did I tell you my daughter was in sixth grade?

"So," she said again. "Don't tell the reader."

We were sitting in Panera Bread having this conversation and my daughter bounded up to go buy another cookie or something and I sat there blinking at her and covered in goose bumps, thinking, Huh. Maybe that idea could work.

Next day I started the book again--the whole thing over from page one, this time from Marsh's point of view. It took me three months. I finished that draft in March 2009.

There have been quite a few drafts since then. But the core of the story--about a barefoot boy and a thin space--is still there.

Today is September 10, 2012. Next year on this date, Thin Space will be on the bookstore shelves.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

In Which I Attempt to Kick Resistance's Butt

I'm glad I keep a journal as I write a book because I can look back and see my writing process in all its up and down glory:

The excitement when I get an idea and start to play around with it.

The drudgery that hits some point in the middle and I think how the heck am I going to make it through this one? (This is usually around the time when I realize I have no idea what is going to happen in the story, and worse, I don't even know what the thing is ABOUT anymore. Because it changes, see? What you THOUGHT you were writing is not actually what you're writing.)

And then there's the cool moment when it clicks. Still not sure how this works but believe me, I am not complaining. Dumb luck. Magic. The Muse. My awesome subconscious mind playing around while I sleep. Whatever. I'll take it. When I reach that point, I know I'm nearly home free. I get the book now. I know where it's going. And I go with it.

But this part of Writing a Book is only the first part. It's just the first draft. Next comes the Putting It Away In The Drawer part because that is what Stephen King told me to do and I like to follow his instructions.

Then there's the nauseating First Read Through where I see the flashes of my own brilliance while at the same time fighting to stay awake through boring sections and over all of that is the ever present worry: how am I going to FIX this giant freaking mess?

Somehow I do.

I revise. Once. Twice. More.

And each time the rollercoaster process begins again. Doubt that this is any good, that it is worth doing, that anyone will ever even read the damn thing. Anxiety that I can't write. That if I ever even had talent, it's long gone. But also love. For that kernel of a story that made me want to write it in the first place. And love for the characters, who are REAL by this stage, twittering away in my head, saying lines that don't sound like things I would say. So how cool is that?

It's enough to make me want to work on the book again, to get it right. And when that book is marinating in my Stephen King drawer, it's enough to make me want to start another one.

What was my point again? Oh, right. This is why I'm glad I keep a journal. So I can remind myself of my process.

Which brings me to this morning. I am somewhere in the middle of a revision--a revision, I might add, of a manuscript that I started writing like, three years ago. This is revision number four maybe? I don't even know. I read through it a few weeks ago and I loved it. Today, uh, not so much.

But I reread an old writing journal and realized that I was right on schedule. Ah, it's the middle where I-think-the-book-blows-and-wonder-if-I-should-quit. Been there. Done that.

Here's a nice little nugget of wisdom I picked up from Steven Pressfield's book on writing, War of Art. He calls the doubts and anxieties that accompany writing a book--the nasty stuff that can potentially derail writers--a sign of Resistance. Every day, he says, it's a battle between you and Resistance and the only way to win is to keep writing.

Today, as I pick my way through what's got to be the worst pile-o-junk I've ever written--boring and absurd and pointless and probably unpublishable--I am keeping Steven Pressfield in mind, and writing anyway.

Take that, Resistance.