Sunday, November 25, 2012

Bronchitis, Broken Toenails, and Why Some People Never Quit until They Reach Their Goals

One of my family's favorite movies is Gattaca. If you haven't seen it, it's set in a futuristic society where people are tracked based on biological tests taken before birth. Those with genes that predict high intelligence, strength, and/or talent are chosen to live at the very top of society. Everyone else is doomed to slog away at the bottom. The main character, played by Ethan Hawke, is one of the unlucky slobs stuck forever on the lower rung. But what the Powers That Be don't recognize in this supposedly perfect, meritorious world is the role that motivation plays in success. Our main character wants to achieve his dreams and through sheer determination (spoiler alert) he does.

When I was teaching high school English I used to have these long, painful talks with the parents of students who were failing my class. Most of the time it had nothing to do with the kid's intelligence; in fact, many of my "struggling" kids were very smart, but for some reason they just didn't care about doing well in school. The parents gave me various reasonable excuses for their kids' failures. After-school jobs, for example. Or intense sports schedules. Some of these kids were parents themselves and had to take care of their own children. One woman told me, in complete seriousness, that she traced all of her son's problems back to when she had to switch his baby formula from milk to soy-based.

I never knew what to say to these parents. They wanted an easy answer, a magic pill to inspire motivation. But there's only so much you can do to make another person (even if that person is your child) DO something. There's an element of intrinsic desire--wanting to do whatever it is--and then there's the self-discipline necessary to continue working toward it. You could be talking about something very simple: wake up, get to school on time, and do your homework, but for some people you might as well be telling them to go climb Mount Everest.

Funnily enough for the purposes of this blog  post, I actually know someone who climbed Mount Everest.  Andy Politz, cool dad of my son's best friend, climbed the mountain seven times, making it to the summit once. Climbing a mountain, any mountain, is something I have absolutely no desire to do. Still I'm fascinated by Andy's experiences, and every time I see him, I pester him with questions.

Summiting Everest is a pretty big deal. It costs quite a bit of money. It involves putting your life on hold for roughly three months. Once you get there and begin the trek from camp to camp, acclimating yourself to the higher altitude, the conditions are, to put it mildly, uncomfortable. It's freezing. It's difficult to breathe. Plus, Andy told me, it's also kind of boring at times. But every year a few hundred people manage to reach the summit.

Many more people turn back. Some stuff is out of their control. A freak snowstorm. A broken leg. Others quit because they get sick or they break a rib. Andy doesn't see those reasons as good excuses. Everybody breaks a rib, is how he puts it. Everybody has bronchitis. 

Of course as he was telling me this, I was thinking, geez, bronchitis seems like a pretty good reason to me to quit. (Which is clearly why I will never climb Mt. Everest.)

Apparently, I will also never hike the Pacific Crest Trail, unlike Cheryl Strayed, the author of the absorbing new memoir Wild.

Wild is a classic coming of age story with a how-to hiking manual twist. At the beginning of the book, the author's mother dies and it sends her into a downward, self-destructive spiral. One day she gets it into her head that she'd like to hike 1000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, this despite the fact that she's not much of a hiker and has never carried a backpack. The book is about how she does it. Alone. Carrying her insanely heavy pack. And wearing boots that don't fit her properly, leading the poor, suffering woman to have to tear off her broken and dying toenails every couple hundred miles.

Here's what I'd love to know: Where does motivation, that drive some of us have to reach a goal, come from? And what keeps us striving toward it, putting one (throbbing) foot in front of the other, rather than giving up when the going inevitably gets tough?

Anyone who knows the answers to these questions, feel free to weigh in.

Tune in soon for Andy the Mount Everest climber's response.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Guest Blog from a Teen Reader (Jane, age 15): The Person who Changed my Life (and is still changing it)

For a few months now my mom has been begging me to write a guest blog for her (she was literally on her knees at one point. Mom gets really intense with this sort of stuff). I wanted her to stop feeling so betrayed and neglected, so I went ahead and wrote one. Except that I didn’t.

I would write an introductory sentence and then quit because it sounded like I was too scholarly, too athletic, or too great of a teenager. As my mom’s only daughter, I felt as though I had to produce a magnificent blog that would forever rule the blogosphere. A blog that would hit number 1 on the charts. Maybe I’m reaching for the stars here, but I’m kinda hoping to get a few more followers on Twitter also (I’m trying to break 100).

So I’m sure you are all curious as to what my awesome blog will feature. What literary works are included, who the person is who changed my life, does my mom still feel betrayed and neglected, etc. Well, keep reading, because within the next few paragraphs your questions will all be answered. You should be aware though, after reading this blog, you might shed some tears, be nostalgic of your teenage years, wish you had a friend like I do, and have an insane urge to follow me on Twitter.

So I have this friend. Her name is Ella. She currently lives a few houses away from me and she refuses to stop changing my life. I mean really, she refuses to stop.

Ella has been there through thick and thin. She has been there through panic attacks, bloody noses, tears, and even pee. Yes urine. I have peed my pants more times around her because of laughter than I have peed in a regular toilet. We are so close, that people tend to see us as a married couple--we have our own sides on the bed and we bicker a lot.

We are so close, that the one and only LAUREN OLIVER, author of my favorite book, Delirium, knows us as the Dream Team. At the book signing where we met her, she even told us to make a picture book about our friendship. This picture book will feature a Giraffe named Jane and a Bear named Ella. It will mostly be a collection of mediocre drawings and hilarious animal puns. The title: The Tails of Jane and Ella (That’s the literary work section of this blog. Sorry to let you down). Ella and I are so close that I am often found wearing a pair of her underwear because of a mishap with my bladder. The two of us are so damn close that my very own mother has called me Ella.

Ella has taught me to stand for something. She is as independent as they come, she knows what makes her upset and what doesn’t. She seems to really get it, the whole stand for what you believe in thing. She has helped me carve out what I believe in and what I don’t. She has urged me to go further with my beliefs and everything that I stand for. So the following paragraph is for you, Ella. So that you know that you have made an impact on me deeper than anyone ever.


I’ve finally found what I believe in. And it sucks that it has taken this much tension and tears for me to understand and find it. But here it goes: I believe in us. I believe that our friendship should last a lifetime. I believe that even though we are both different and similar in every way, that we will continue to stay friends. I believe that we will always love each other in that sisterly yet oddly marital way. I believe that we will always be set apart from the crowd as best friends forever. Because, E, I don’t need a religion or a God or a heaven, I don’t need a prayer to say before bed or a church to eat donuts in every Sunday for me to find my beliefs. I have you. 

I stand for us. 

So there. I said it. Feeling nostalgic yet? Feel those tears creepin’ up? Do you feel that urge to follow me on Twitter because I have sparked feelings that you didn’t even know you had? I haven’t answered one question yet- No, my mom does not feel betrayed or neglected anymore--I made the blog, didn’t I?


May the Dream Team last forever.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Interview with Alan Gratz

My son at age twelve was a huge reader, devouring non-fiction books on history, science and engineering. He didn't read much fiction, but when he did, it was for adults, something that disturbed me as a writer for children. Basically he skipped right over the entire Young Adult genre to read stuff instead by Michael Crichton, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. Nothing wrong about that (he was reading!) and I'd heard that a lot of strong-reader boys do this, but I did wish that he'd read a few books now and then that were meant to be read by kids.

Enter: Alan Gratz.

I met Alan at a book fair shortly after his first novel Samurai Shortstop came out and we got to talking about his book and writing in general (I was just starting the long journey toward publication then and had a ton of questions), but eventually the discussion turned to boys and reading, and Alan, wise promotional guy that he is, said the obvious: "Why don't you have him read my book?"

That night I pitched Samurai Shortstop to my son. It's about a kid in early 1900's Japan torn between the traditional ways of his family and the more modern world as represented by baseball. The first chapter, where the boy watches his uncle, a samurai warrior, commit suicide, is an attention grabber, to put it mildly, and I knew it would draw my son in. It did. When he finished reading it, he said: "I had no idea there were books like this, books for me."

I told Alan my son's response and we've been writer friends ever since, meeting up at SCBWI conferences, and last year, when Alan was the resident children's writer at the Thurber House in Columbus, he was gracious enough to have dinner with my family. (My son, now in college, was particularly thrilled to meet Alan at last.) I've been itching to interview him for a while, and today I'm so pleased to be able to share Alan with my faithful blog readers:

Jody: Alan, I have to start with the question I ask every writer: Where do you get your ideas?

Alan: All over the place, really. I think the key is to be interested in lots of stuff. I have varied interests, and do a lot of reading about them. I get most of my ideas from those places. I'll read about corruption in the soccer world, or the possible murder of King Tut, or "Lost Cosmonauts" who may or may not have died in space, and I'll see story ideas in all of them.

Jody: And I bet you do what a lot of us do, which is take ideas that seem to have nothing to do with each other on the surface and find a way to connect them. I should mention here your novels Something Rotten and Something Wicked, modernized versions of Shakespeare plays crossed with hard-boiled detective stories. (English teachers take note: these are the perfect books to suggest to your classes after they've made it through Hamlet and Macbeth.) Very cool idea for a series, but you and I both know that the initial idea is only the beginning. How do you go from intriguing idea to full-blown novel?

Alan: I'm definitely a plan ahead/outline kind of person. It all started for me on Samurai Shortstop. Before that book, I was a seat-of-the-pants guy. But then I had lots of research to keep track of, so I developed an outlining system I still use to this day. I plan out each chapter in advance, and then move the specific research notes I need to tell just that part of the story beneath my brief summary. Then, when I'm ready to sit down and actually write, I have what happens at the top of the page, and underneath it, all the details I need to write it. I use that method now for everything, even for things that don't require research. I'm quite an outlining zealot now--but what works for one writer won't work for everyone. It's a matter of finding what system works best for you.

Jody: That's key here, I've learned over the years--finding what works best for you, and I can see how writing historical novels or stories based on well-known plots, such as Shakespearean plays would require up-front, logical drafting. My blog readers know that I fall on the opposite end of the spectrum--free writing first and worrying about logic later. The funny thing is that I am rigid when it comes to my writing schedule. I set a word count goal every day and have a hard time stopping until I meet it. What about you?

Alan: I don't have a set number of hours or pages to try and finish each day. Instead, I set weekly goals--I want to have this proposal to my agent, or get this book read and take notes on it, things like that. I work from around 9 or 10 in the morning until around 4 or 5 pm every day, usually not taking much time for lunch. (Maybe a bowl of chips and a quick check of the e-mail.) The greatest challenge in working for myself at home is eliminating the distractions of the Internet and family, all of whom are home with me.

Jody: I hear you about the distractions. How do you balance your writing time with your other obligations?

Alan: I try to think about my days as belonging to my job, and my evenings and weekends as belonging to my family. It doesn't always work that way, but I do try to think about it in terms of punching a clock. Lately, I've even tried to keep track of what I'm doing with my time all day, to better reveal where my time goes. It's illuminating--and kind of depressing. (Curse you, e-mail!)

Jody: Yeah, I hear that too, but it's so hard to turn it off. Email, Facebook, Twitter, etc., are such a big part of marketing and promotion for writers these days. What's your take on best practices for using social media?

Alan: I have a web site, and I'm active on Twitter. I have a personal Facebook page, which I should probably separate out and create a Fan Page, but I loathe Facebook, so I spend as little time on there as possible. :-) My wife and I have a family blog, but we've even stopped posting there so often. My attitude toward social media is that it's a great way to let people get to know you personally, and for you to get to know other people. I think social media is best used to gain personal fans and friends. If those people buy my books, all the better. But I dislike when people use social media solely to pimp their work, and I don't want to use it that way.

Jody: I totally agree. I hate the whole hawking a product angle some people take. I'd much rather use social media to build relationships with readers and other writers. This blog has helped me reach out too. All of us in this business are muddling along trying to navigate through the creative process as well as the publication end. It's nice to know how other writers manage it.

Something I was always interested in knowing when I was first starting out was how much work it actually took to get that first book published. At the beginning it seems so daunting, more of a pipe dream. How many books did you write before you got your first book deal? And as a corollary to that, how many rejections did you have along the way?

Alan: Samurai Shortstop was the third novel I wrote, and the first one I sold. I had finished the other two and was sending them out, along with Samurai Shortstop, when I sold SS through the slush pile. I still haven't sold the other two, but I recently took the first one out of the filing cabinet and am looking at revising it and giving it another go, thirteen years later!

I was just looking at my submission log for the first book. I sent it to eleven editors, and got eight requests for the full manuscript! I had no idea at the time what a great success rate that was. Maybe if I had realized it, I wouldn't have been so quick to put it away when Samurai sold. Samurai itself had something like 16 rejections before it sold. I had no agent at the time.

Jody: Eight requests is something else! And sixteen rejections isn't too bad either. But probably something new writers don't want to hear. I remember getting my first rejection and being devastated, but beyond that I was incredulous, like, how could they reject ME? You've got to get over that attitude pretty fast if you want to succeed.

Last thing before I let you go--I realized that I didn't ask you about your new projects.

Alan: Well, I did have a YA Star Trek novel come out this year: Starfleet Academy: The Assassination Game. It kind of was a dream come true thing for me. I've been a Trekkie for as long as I can remember, and always wanted to write a Trek novel. I had a lot of fun writing it. It's set in the world of the 2009 movie reboot, with Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Bones, and the rest at Starfleet Academy in that three year period that's glossed over in the film. I put in a lot of references to the old show, which I hope fans of the original will enjoy.

My next book is Prisoner B-3087, a fictional account of the Holocaust based on the true-life story of Jack Gruener, who survived ten different concentration camps as a boy. His story is amazing, and I was honored to be able to tell it. It's heavy stuff, but I didn't pull any punches, even though the book is squarely middle grade. Glossing over the pain and suffering diminishes what these incredible people went through. As we become farther and farther removed from it in time, it becomes even more important to continue to tell stories like this, so we never forget.

Jody: Wow, Alan, I'm eager to take a look at those. I can't get over how versatile you are as a writer--with YA and middle grade, in all different genres from fantasy to sci-fi to historical. You've got the boy book market cornered, but I know from my own reading experience that your books appeal to girls, as well as to adults. Best of luck with your new projects and thanks so much for talking with me today.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Woo Hoo! My Book Has a Cover!!

Today I got word from my publisher that my forthcoming novel Thin Space officially has a cover!

I should probably blog about it--describe what goes on behind the scenes in the cover-designing process and the role the author plays in this (not much).


I could discuss book covers in general, throwing out thought-provoking questions such as: Should we judge a book by its cover?


I could write about how I felt about seeing the cover for the first time--what a complete goofball I've been, setting the cover as my screen saver so I could gaze upon it all day and pestering my family and friends to gaze upon it too.  


I could forget all that and just show it you.


Thursday, November 1, 2012

NaNoWriMo aka Traveling through Texas, Stepping off a Cliff without a Bridge, Driving in Fog (Pick your Metaphor)

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” --E.L. Doctorow

It's November 1st and apparently most of the writers I know have signed up to do NaNo.

NaNo, for the uninitiated, is short for NaNoWriMo, short for National Novel Writing Month, in which clueless--excuse me. I mean ambitious--writers pledge to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. There are no prizes, but you do win a nifty virtual badge if you complete the journey. No one on the site reads your 50,000 word effort. Alas, no agents or editors will dig through the entries looking for the next Great American Novel and offer you a contract on Dec. 1. You could conceivably write the word "Bluh" 50,000 times if you so desire and still win.

What you do get out of it is a cool, committed (and possibly you should BE committed by the end of the crazy month) group of writers all trekking along on the same book-writing road. You can friend them on the site and follow their progress and of course they can follow yours too, keeping everyone motivated. If you're a floundery sort of writer, who needs a little push to get going each day, (and who doesn't?), NaNo provides a clear cut deadline. They'll send you helpful tips and inspirational emails written by various successful authors. And there are other fun perks. My favorite is the colorful graph that shows your growing word count with 50,000 at the top. Mine always looks like nice even steps. I like that--a neato visual reminder that each day I am getting somewhere with my writing.

Of course, what you are actually getting, if you make it to the end of NaNo, is a big ole mess of a first draft. Don't let anyone fool you. Even the few writers who have parlayed a NaNo project into a published book will tell you: YOU WILL HAVE TO REWRITE THIS THING.


NaNo will teach you fairly quickly (I'd say on like, day 4 or 5 it should hit you) that writing a book is freaking hard. Forget the part about having a cool idea. Forget how creative you are and how you love to read and how you once wrote a story in college. What you're going to need to complete NaNo is some serious discipline. Every day you're going to have to go back IN THERE, into your cobwebby head, into your pathetic mess of a book, that by day 10 is probably not even the book you thought you were writing anymore, and, uh, keep writing it.

Also, there's Thanksgiving to think about. Really bad timing for many of us, thanks NaNo people.

So for the record, I have "completed" NaNo and won my badge four times. My NaNo project number two will be published next year (after MULTIPLE REVISIONS). I am not signed up to do it this year (I'm knee deep in revisions of a different NaNo project), but I confess that I am a tad envious of those of you about to embark on this crazy fun relentless journey today.

You might be asking yourself at this point: Why?--Why would I be envious when I just made such a big deal about how hard NaNo is. Last night I was following a YA Lit Chat on Twitter about NaNo. There were a few agents on there griping about how much NaNo annoyed them. What happens, I guess, is that every year in December they get deluged with a bunch of crappy NaNo novels. Don't query them with that junk, was their main point. Some of the writers, newbies just about to dip their toes into the NaNo waters, were immediately discouraged and bummed out. The night before Nov. 1, no one wants to hear that the awesome idea they have for a novel is going to inevitably be a giant ball of suck in 30 days. Sheesh, some of them whined. Why should we even do this? 

A twitter chat doesn't give you much space to work with, so here's my response to these wavering, formerly gung ho newbies about why they shouldn't be too bummed out by the agents:

1. Agents are NOT writers. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say they don't understand the process. (No offense, agents.)

2. Writing a novel is hard, but you have to start somewhere. Committing yourself (there's that crazy word again) to getting something down--something with hopefully a beginning, middle, and end, rough as it may be--is a worthy goal. Laraine Herring compares writing a book to driving through Texas. It's a ridiculously long journey, but if you keep driving, you will eventually reach the border.

3. Doing NaNo will kill (or at the very least, muffle) that pesky internal editor voice that streams along in your head as you write, telling you that what you write is crappy and stupid and pointless. You don't have time for that voice during NaNo. If you want to finish, you are going to have to keep writing those crappy words. NaNo is about quantity not quality. Repeat that after me: quantity not quality. Write it on a sign and tape it to your computer screen. No, you are not writing the word Bluh over and over, but some days it will feel like it. Whatever. Keep writing anyway--

4. --because a finished first draft is a beautiful wonderful masterful amazing thing simply because it is finished. There is a saying that you can't revise a blank page. Come December first, congratulations! You've got a whole bunch of pages to work with. In January. Forget December. Really. Just give yourself a break that month. You just wrote a freaking 50,000 word novel for God's sake.

5. You are going to find out what you are made of when you do this--when you delve back in day after day, and keep writing, not knowing exactly where you're going, but inching along, word by word, regardless. Yes, day 4 or 5 it will hit you how insane the pace is, but if you stick with it, in a few more days, something is going to click. Your story is going to take off in a direction you didn't plan, with characters who have minds of their own. Let them GO. Follow them. This is the fun magical part of writing that the agents don't understand.  It's where you step off the cliff hoping that a bridge will be there to catch your foot. Step off. It will be there. Eventually.

6. Now I'm going to bum you out again about how much work you will still have to do when you complete your NaNo draft. In January you are going to read it, with intense nausea, as you realize just how much of a big ole mess it is. But oh well. Nothing to do but go back into it again. And again. And again. Each time it will get better. You will keep stepping off the cliff. You will keep traveling along through freaking Texas. And some day, if you do keep traveling onward, the fog will clear, the sun will rise, and you will see the glorious border of New Mexico.

7. That's when you start querying the agents. And while you wait for them to respond, there will be nothing else to do but get back into your car, turn around, and start heading the other way.

Toward Arkansas.

Good luck, 2012 NaNo-ites.