Friday, April 26, 2013

The Big Break-up that Changed the Course of My Life

Over on YA Outside the Lines, we're blogging about Moments of Growth--in our characters and in ourselves. Here's a pivotal moment in my own life, that might serve as a cautionary/inspirational tale for a teen...

Confession: I once dated the same boy for nine years. 

The romance started innocently enough when the boy asked me to a middle school dance. We were both eleven years old. He passed me a note in class: Will you go to the dance with me? Circle yes or no. I circled yes.

Our relationship ended over the phone when we were twenty. In between was lots of soap opera-y drama--teary break-ups followed by desperate attempts at reunions. Everyone, including our parents, thought we belonged together and would eventually get married.

There were a variety of contributing factors that led to my falling into and sticking with a long-term teen relationship. Here are a few: 

  • I didn't have the most stable home-life, and this relationship--rocky and ridiculous as it was for most of the time--was one sure thing I could count on
  • My father died when I was young. This may be the biggest factor. And now that I see my own daughter and the very cool relationship she has with her Dad, I know how essential a father is when it comes to a girl's developing sense of self. Her identity as a woman, whether she believes she needs a guy to complete herself and fill some emptiness, or not--all seem inextricably tied to how the first man in her life, her father, treats her.
  • The weirdest aspect of my relationship with this boy was how fated it felt. The longer we dated, the more it seemed we were meant to be together. Every time we broke up, it was always the thing we would say when we got back together. "We've been with each other so long, how we can quit now? We're worth working on," we said. As if we were a married couple and not two sixteen-year-olds.

Every so often reality would creep in on me or else bash me upside the head. What we had in common when we were eleven (not much, really, except we both thought the other one was cute) and what we had in common at age twenty changed drastically. Example: I majored in English in college. He failed high school English. I could give you a billion more examples, and it is clear now how wrong we were for each other, but back then, it was like I was slogging around in a muddy fog. I could not see myself and this boy for what we were.

Some part of me must have though, and I marvel at that part. It made me apply to a college 1250 miles away. Oh, it would've been so easy and expected to go to the school in my state. An added bonus: my guy told me he'd be hanging out with me there all the time! Never mind that the place was cheaper, which would make things simpler for my single working mom too.

But I went away. Even though I was scared out of my mind. I think I held onto the guy at this point out of sheer terror. It was nice to have a boy back home waiting for me if this whole going off to college thing fell through.

Going far away to college (and I HIGHLY recommend this, kids!) was like waking up from that muddy foggy dream. There is great freedom in starting over in a place where not one other soul knows you. Hey, you can be anyone you want. You can be alone for the first time ever and realize you won't fall apart.

You can pick up the phone one day and break up with your boyfriend of nine years.

The week leading up to when I did the deed, I was a manic wreck. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. I wasn't just breaking up with a boy, I was tearing apart the expected pathway of my life.

The funny thing was I think he was almost relieved when I told him. I am not saying that I didn't break his heart. (Or that he hadn't broken mine, either, multiple times) Just that we were both weary of it, of each other, and someone, finally, was going to have to put the relationship out of its misery. I am not sure, exactly, how that someone was me, how I mustered the courage to say what needed to be said and stand firm. But somehow, I did it.

And after, for weeks, I walked around in an excited daze, grinning like a loon.

If I could do this thing--change the entire trajectory I had been on since the age of eleven, geez, what else could I do?

I really could be anything I wanted to be. I could live anywhere I liked. I could follow any dream. There was no prescribed path for my life, after all, and every option in the world was suddenly open to me.

(One half of the once happy couple) 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The First Bad Review (gulp)

Yeah, so I knew it was bound to happen. A bad review. As far as bad reviews go, it wasn't even that bad. More meh-ish, really. I only read the first paragraph, took in the two star out of five star rating, and then handed it to my husband to read the rest.

He was adorably defensive on my behalf, pointing out how ridiculous it was and wrong, etc. I nodded along, and weirdly, defended the reviewer. Oh well, I said. She read the whole thing, right? And she took the time to think and process her reaction. Her review--um, the paragraph I read of it--was thoughtful.

The rest of the day, I'd click on my Goodreads account (this is where the review went up) and, yup, it was still there, the two star review. I kept waiting to feel something. Anger. Depression. Annoyance. But nope. What I actually felt was more like relief. I got my first bad review, and apparently, I'm going to be okay.

Not all writers have the same reaction. I've heard that some argue back to the reviewer, a faux pas in my opinion, but then I've had good training taking criticism.

This goes back to college when I was a creative writing major and we had these marathon workshop sessions where we tore each other's work apart. Our professor jumped in here and there when things got a little too personal, but for the most part he let us go. The poem, the story--the writing--speaks for itself, he told us. What you meant to imply was either there on the page or it wasn't, and hearing readers articulate their responses was something a writer was just going to have to deal with.

Use it as fuel to work harder, ignore the critic, or call him a dingbat in your head, but never EVER argue back.

I grew an even thicker skin when I began submitting my work. Here's a cool perk of being a publishing late bloomer: you get LOTS of practice absorbing criticism. I have a wonderfully bulging file of rejection letters from agents and editors that spans over 20 years. They range from bland form letters to very personal and specific signed handwritten notes. Some of the phrasing sticks in my head even now.

Fun sampling:
"full of authorial mistakes"
"unbelievable characters"
"no teen appeal"

The nice thing about rejections is that once you absorb the blow, you really can use them to make your writing better.

Negative reviews, unfortunately, can't be used that way. The book is as finished as a book can be.

Even when a book is in ARC form, there's not much that can be fixed, aside from formatting issues or typos. True story: when I did my final pass through Thin Space, my editor pointed out that I'd used the word "clench" 33 times. So, yeah. Gotta nice clench in my stomach upon hearing that. And then, clenching a thesaurus in my clenched hand, I opened the manuscript back up and got rid of 30 of those clenches.

Reviews aren't for authors. Reviews are for readers.

As a reader, I read reviews to help in my decision-making process. A million+ potential books to read-- which one should I pick up next? Or maybe I've just finished reading a book and am grappling with what I thought about it--something didn't quite work for me or I wasn't connecting with the story. I read a few reviews and find that other readers felt the same way. Or not.

There's a whole community of readers out there weighing in and digesting and mocking and passionately loving books, and they're talking and sharing and complaining and defending.

The writer truly plays no role in this equation except possibly to lean in now and then and marvel that a book she wrote is now being passed around in the world. Hated. Loved. Thrown across the room in disgust.

Or cherished so much it is read, again. And again.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Interview with Jennifer Castle

One of my absolute favorite reads of 2011 was a novel called The Beginning of After by debut writer Jennifer Castle. The book was an advanced review copy, in a stack of other ARCs, and at first, I put off reading it. The subject matter seemed so...dark. A girl's entire family dies in a car accident and she's got to figure out how to live her life after that utterly devastating event. When I finally did pick it up, I found to my surprise that the novel totally transcends that synopsis.

Yes, the girl does have to deal with the tragic loss of her family, but The Beginning of After is about so much more than that--it's a true coming of age story that's brilliantly written and moving and complex. I knew as soon as I finished it that I'd discovered an author that I'd eagerly follow from that point on.

A cool coincidence: a year later my publishing company sent me a comp sheet, which is basically a list of books that the marketing department thinks are comparable to yours, and The Beginning of After was on my list. I wrote to Jennifer Castle to tell her that fun fact and to point out that maybe one day soon our books would be "shelf buddies" because of our last names. She graciously replied and we've been corresponding ever since. She kindly read and blurbed my book Thin Space. And a few weeks ago I was able to read her latest book You Look Different in Real Life. I wasn't surprised, this time, to find that I absolutely loved it. This book is different from The Beginning of After in theme and tone--there's some humor and snark--but it's just as insightful and thought provoking, and proves that Jennifer's Castle's debut was no one-hit wonder.

I'm thrilled that Jen has agreed to let me interview her today, so without further gushy adoration from me, I'll start as I always do, by asking:

Where do you get your ideas?

Jen: My ideas don't come to me in those economical AHA! moments that some writers get. Mine come slowly, picked up as fragments I learn about or discuss with people around me, news stories, non-fiction books, my own memories ignited by something random in the here and now. Then there are the bizarre notions that pop into my head, seemingly out of nowhere, as I try to go about my day -- you know the classic inopportune spots like traffic lights or in the shower. All this stuff stays in orbit for a while and then eventually, gravitates into the shape of something. Characters and their journeys usually come to me before actual story elements.
Jody: That sounds like how it works for me too. I carry ideas around (sometimes literally, on scraps of paper) for years. And thank goodness for the shower, right? I read once that there's something elemental about water when it comes to creativity. Not sure if this is true or not, but I'll take it. Anyway, once you have your idea, what's your next step? Do you outline the story in advance or just start writing and see what happens?

Jen: I do sort of a combo. I used to write screenplays, so my mind naturally travels around the classic three-act framework. I need to know where I'm starting, where I'm going to be halfway through a story, and where I want to end up. I need to know where things get effed up in the story, and what's at stake. But I don't like to outline the whole thing, because I want to leave breathing room for the characters to evolve as I write them. I'll usually map out 50 pages at a time. I'm also a big fan of the "vomit draft" where you just pound out that first go-round, some of it raw and very much half-planned, and doing the real work in revision. In other words, I feel completely disorganized and this is probably why drafting is much longer and more excruciating than it should be.

Jody: Ha! I like that term "vomit draft." I work that way too and find that you've got to have a lot of trust in the process when so much is done by the seat of your pants. Plus, there's a thought in your mind the whole time about how much work you'll still have left to do once that vomity draft is finished.

But everything about this process seems to take a long time. Has that been your experience? Did you have to write many practice novels before hitting your stride? Did you get many rejections?

Jen: Okay, so you're totally going to hate me for this answer: The first book I wrote was the first book I sold -- The Beginning of After. Originally, TBOA was not a YA book, and I had written about 100 pages of Laurel in college, so maybe that version counts as a separate book? And it did take me six years to write, on and off, so it sure feels like more than one book to me.

As for rejections...well, um. Again, you're going to hate me. I queried two agents and both offered to represent me. But I did receive rejections when the manuscript went out on submission to editors. Quite a few, actually, for various reasons, before it was acquired by the exact right editor at the exact right publishing house: Rosemary Brosnan at HarperCollins. I know my experience is not typical and believe me, I'm still grateful for how heartbreak-free it was. I got very, very lucky. I have enormous respect for authors who struggle through years of multiple manuscripts and rejections before finally getting that first deal. Those experiences usually translate into some mad skills for an author moving forward.

Jody: Nah. I don't hate you! You're making it sound like you just fell into it, but six years working on a book isn't overnight success. You earned your mad skills, is what I'm saying. For me it took, um, a tad longer, *cough*-- twenty years, give or take a few --*cough* but it's necessary time, I think, looking back. Every writer moves at her own pace, figures out what works and what doesn't, even down to the nitty gritty of scheduling your writing time. I was talking to Jennifer R. Hubbard last month and she sets a very specific work schedule for herself every day. Do you do that kind of thing?

Jen: I'm a morning writer. Unfortunately, I have young kids, who are by definition morning people (alternatively known as Crazy Demanding Why The F*&$ Are You So Energetic at 6am People?). So my work doesn't start until well after the school bus has pulled away with my children on it. I usually write from 10am until noon, take a break, then work again for another hour or two. Sometimes that second session doesn't happen, and I try not to feel guilty about it. I tend to work in short, intense creative bursts and then flame out, and once I'm getting diminishing returns on the page, it's time to stop. When drafting, I go for 1,000 words a day. My other thing is that I don't let myself take two consecutive days off from writing; if I skip a day for whatever (usually dumb-ass) reason, I have to write the next day, even if it's just for 90 minutes at a coffee house on a Sunday morning, surrounded by hungover college students.

Jody: Isn't it funny how we have to set rules for ourselves? And how we have to deal with guilt when we break those self-made rules? I know this might sound crazy to non-writers out there, but I think that it's one of the things that goes along with working for yourself. Unless you're given a specific deadline, it all comes down to you and the blank computer screen every day, and if you're going to write the words... or not.

Add to that all the other day to day life-stuff we have to deal with. At the risk of making a sexist generalization, I think this may be more of an issue for women writers. Like, I don't picture Stephen King having to clean toilets. Maybe that's not fair though. Even Stephen King lives in the world and has other junk he's got to do, pay bills etc. You mentioned waiting until your kids get on the bus each day, how do you balance your writing time with everything else that's going on?

Jen: It's very, very hard. I've learned to be hyper-protective of that morning block of writing time, not just from others but also from myself. As in, "Yes, Jen, I know you want to watch last night's Downton Abbey before you go online and accidentally see who died in this episode, but GO WORK NOW." My endless task list of assorted life-crap also has to wait. I don't even look at it until after the words are done. I don't know if you experience this too, but people often assume that because I write for a living, I can work or not work as the mood strikes, and why can't I make that coffee date/Pilates class/PTA event/doctor's appointment? I just behave as if I have to go into an office and report to a boss for a certain period of time, and find that saying "Sorry, I have to work" or "I'm on a deadline" is something nobody argues with.

Jody: Oh, yeah, I get that too from people and it's very tempting to give in, to "just this once" blow off work. But then I think: when I was teaching, could I skip out of my classroom and go to a movie or spend an hour scrolling around online? Uh, no. Speaking of scrolling around online, it's pretty clear lately how much marketing and promotion writers are expected to do now, and so much of this involves social media. What's your take on this aspect of the job?

Jen: Sometimes I feel pretty lame and rather lost about that stuff. What really works? What should I be doing that everyone else seems to be doing but I don't feel comfortable doing? When I feel that way, I go back to the thing that always guides me: I do what feels natural. I can only be myself in social media, and it may not be as "effective" at selling books as some people's selves, but I'm okay with that. So I post on Facebook, on my personal page as well as my author and book pages, only when I have something I feel compelled to share. I use Twitter the same way, although I'm still not comfortable jumping in on conversations; the whole thing feels like a big high school cafeteria and I'm the shy new girl looking for a table that won't shun me.

I enjoy blogging on my own website and look forward to blogging as a new member of YA Outside the Lines, but again -- I try to do it in a way that says, "When I post, you know it's something worth reading." The part of "promotion" that I enjoy the most is connecting personally -- through social media or email or in person -- with readers, bloggers, booksellers, librarians, teachers, and especially other authors. These connections often lead to great bookstore or school events, coffee chats, lovely rambling email threads, and other experiences that may or may not help sell my books, but make me feel so blessed to be doing what I love and sharing it with the world.

Jody: Love that philosophy Jen, and it seems to me that you're doing it all exactly right. Before I let you go, what are you working on now?

Jen: I'm gearing up to start the draft of a new novel, for which I'm already under contract with HarperCollins. I think it's time I tackled a full-on love story, don't you think? I'm ready to fall head over heels as I write and hopefully take the readers with me. Right now, I'm having a lot of fun building the characters and mapping out their relationship. This is going to be the most personal piece of fiction I've ever written and I can't wait to start. I'm not able to just yet -- I don't start drafting until I've done a lot of what I call "character journaling" first: I write journal entries as if I were the character. It really helps define a character's voice as well as develop who they are, where they're coming from, and where they want to go.

Along with promoting You Look Different in Real Life and the companion short story "Playing Keira," this is what the rest of 2013 will be for me.

Jody: I can't wait to read it! And I should mention here that I've read  "Playing Keira" (out May 7). I love the idea that you were able to take a character from the novel and further explore her POV. I'm also really intrigued about putting a short story out there, as opposed to a novel. You don't see that much in YA, but with the rise of e-books, maybe short stories will find a niche. I hope so. And I hope you write a story for each one of the characters in YLDIRL.

Thanks, Jen, for talking with me, and dear loyal blog readers, if you want to learn more about Jen and her work, you can find her in the usual places:

Her website
On her facebook author page
On Twitter @Jennifer_Castle

And if you'd like to check out her new story "Playing Keira," click here. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Fun Times on a Dead Author Vacation

So last week was our daughter's spring break and while many of her friends were cavorting around the sunny beaches of Florida, she was cavorting around museums or traipsing through cemeteries helping us search for dead author tombstones. Yes, this is what passes as a fun family vacation when your mom is a former high school English teacher. Luckily, her father shares my passion for all things American literature/history. He's also a big go-go touristy guy who thinks that lazing about on a beach is a waste of a week when you could spend it instead hitting three cities (Philadelphia, New York, and Boston) and poking around every suggested site in the accompanying guidebooks.

For the most part our daughter was a good sport, trailing after us, her gooby parents, with only a few minor complaints. Snippets from some of our conversations:

Me: Hey! Look! Emerson's grave!
Her: wow.

Dad: Did you see that? It's the white dress Emily Dickinson wore!
Her: Yeah. Cool.

Me: You wanna walk around this pond and find the site of Thoreau's cabin?
Her: Um, not really.
Dad: Come on! It's only a half mile walk! Let's race!
Her: No. Really. I'm fine.

We wore the poor kid out, walking the heck out of the old section of Philadelphia, tromping through most of lower Manhattan, and following the Freedom Trail in Boston. We also explored Amherst, Mass, (home of my beloved Emily Dickinson), Concord (Thoreau! Emerson! Hawthorne! Alcott!), and Salem (a shout out here to our amazing tour guide, Susan, of the Hocus Pocus Night-time Witch Tour. While I'm at it, I should give another shout out to Seamus, our guide on a horse and carriage ride through Central Park. And his horse Marcello. And to Lucy, the ultra cool docent at the Emily Dickinson House.)

Here are some of the fascinating facts those unfortunate beach-going friends missed:

The Declaration of Independence was NOT actually signed by all those signers on July 4, 1776.

Ben Franklin's privy was located only a FEW FEET away from his water supply.

Emily Dickinson dashed off many of her poems in letters to friends and often scratched off words and wrote in alternate word choices. Meaning, these poems weren't as "dashed off" as some people believe...

She had a brother named Austin, who lived next door and sort of looks like a brooding rock star in pictures.

There is a photograph of her that has recently been discovered and is in the process of being verified.
That's probably her, in her late 20's, on the left

Nathaniel Hawthorne was so ashamed of his family's connection to the Salem Witch Trials (an ancestor, John Hathorne, one of the judges) that he added a "w" to his name.

Thoreau's grave is just a small marker that says simply "Henry." Many visitors to the cemetery where he is buried have placed stones, coins, pencils, and pine cones around the grave marker.

You can visit the site of his cabin and leave a stone (or rock) there too. And after, you can stop by the Thoreau Gift Shop and buy a T-shirt or a coffee mug that says: Simplify, Simplify on it. (For those in the know, the actual quote is Simplify, Simplify, Simplify, but apparently that didn't look as simplified to the T-shirt creators.)

The woman who wrote The Five Little Peppers (Margaret Sidney) and the author of Little Women (Louisa May Alcott) are buried right around the bend from Thoreau. Emerson is across the path. Meville is NOT buried in this cemetery, but some guy named Melvin is--which we discovered after circling around for an hour and getting briefly lost).

If you hike the Freedom Trail in Boston, you'll see the Old North Church, Paul Revere's house, the site of the first public school in America, and a cemetery where the British used tombstones for target practice.

Also, there are several Starbucks.

And an Urban Outfitters.

Beat that, beach-goers.

The teen as a four year old, ticked off in Paul Revere's garden, during a previous, fun, literary-themed vacation.