Wednesday, November 27, 2013

In Which I Return (briefly) to My Dream Job

When I was fifteen, my dream job was to work at a department store and sell perfume. I have no idea what that was about. I don't even like perfume. Maybe I thought it sounded like easy work--lounging behind a glass counter, arranging bottles, spritzing people...

The jobs I ended up with were so far away from that perfumy vision, it's laughable. I chopped whole chickens in half at York Steakhouse. I scrubbed pizza pans at Papa Gino's Pizzeria. I flipped steaks at Ponderosa. I busted my butt waiting tables at TGI Fridays and Perkins (jobs I still have nightmares about). At the end of my shifts, let's just say, I did not smell like perfume.

When I was in grad school, a friend of mine suggested I apply for a job where he worked, a bookstore. This sounded like a cool gig. I knew how to work a cash register. I wouldn't have to wear a grease-spattered polyester uniform. I had what I thought was an extensive knowledge of books.

What I didn't have was much experience with bookstores, unless you count bopping into one of those Walden Books places at the mall every Christmas to pick out a yearly calendar. Up to that point, I was a total library fan girl.

But man oh man, the first time I stepped foot into the Davis Kidd Booksellers store in Memphis, I swooned. 100,000 + books. Bookcases upon bookcases. Tables piled high with stacks. And more books lining the walls. Comfy chairs. Cozy nooks. Pillows.

Oh! a book-loving, nerdy, poet-writing grad student could get lost for days in a place like that. I loved everything about working at Davis Kidd except for one rule: we were not allowed to read on the job. I confess that I did. Unpacking boxes of fresh new books and arranging them on the shelves, geez, how could you not stop to read the blurbs on the backs?  Or thumb through the pages. Or, um, read a couple of chapters?

My co-workers were the coolest people, fellow book lovers, many with advanced degrees or students like me (like I?) See, if I were still working there, I could ask any grammar question, and someone would know the answer. This was before the internet, before you could ask your phone any question in the world and get an almost instantaneous answer. No, children, before the internet, before smart phones, you had to just sit around and wonder what the answer was.

Or, you could call Davis Kidd Booksellers and a clerk would tell you.

I'm not lying. We got calls like that all the time.

We also hosted story times and author signings. We chatted with customers about the latest bestsellers, classics, and forgotten gems. People browsed around, listening to music and sipping coffee.

Bookstores, sadly, tragically, are struggling, and many are going out of business. It's hard to compete with the low prices and convenience of Amazon. And more and more people are downloading books on e-readers. I'm not knocking this practice. But I do so hope that we'll still have places for book-loving people to gather and browse.

This Saturday, Nov. 30, is Small Business Saturday. Author Sherman Alexie put out a call to fellow writers to support their local independent bookstores. Shop. Volunteer to work. Hand sell books. So, that is what I am going to do.

You can find me at my favorite bookstore in Columbus--Cover to Cover Bookstore.

Please come out and say hello. I promise I will not be reading on the job.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What Happens When the Birthday Celebration Gene Skips a Generation

Today is my mother's birthday. She is turning 70, which is a milestone as far as birthdays go, and clearly something to celebrate. For my mother all birthdays are a good excuse to celebrate.

I wrote recently (here) that if there is such thing as a Cleaning Gene, I did not inherit it. Well, if a Birthday Celebration Gene exists, I missed out on that one too.

My mother tried her best to instill a love for birthday celebrations in me. When I was growing up, she always threw me a party. Nothing over the top--when I was a kid people didn't go nutso over birthday parties like they do now. No themed parties or gift bags or bouncy tents--but my mother always baked a cake. She always invited my aunts and uncles and cousins over for a party after dinner. I had a big candle that had the numbers all the way to 21 on it.

My mother started this tradition on my first birthday, burning the candle all through the party until that year's number disappeared. Every year she brought the candle out and lit it. Now that I'm thinking about it, this is pretty impressive--that she remembered it, that she could find where she'd stored the thing. I can barely remember where I store my Christmas tree ornaments.

The year I turned 21 was the first year I celebrated my birthday away from home. I was staying at a college friend's house for the weekend and unbeknownst to me, my mother had mailed the last remnant of my special birthday candle there. She called the friend's mother and gave detailed instructions--this was it for Jody's birthday candle. That number 21 needed to be burned to keep up with the tradition that had been going since I was a baby.

I don't know what my friend's family thought about all this. But let me tell you, they burned that candle for me. That was the year my mother started a new tradition.

I was born at 11:42 in the morning, and she called me at that exact time to tell me the story of my birth and to wish me happy birthday. Every year since then, if she is not with me at 11:42, she calls me.

Sometimes this tradition has veered into bizarro-land. IE, the time my mother was driving along and realized it was nearing 11:42 and she had to pull off the highway to find a payphone. (This was before cell phones.)

Or the year I turned 24 and had a job interview for a teaching position at a high school. I was sitting in the principal's office being interviewed when the phone rang. The principal answered and nodded and smiled, while I sat there thinking maybe it was normal for an interviewer to have a chatty conversation with someone on the phone during an interview. The principal kept smiling and nodding and then she handed me the phone.

It was my mother.

She had just explained to the principal that it was 11:42 and it was my birthday etc. I nearly died of embarrassment. But the principal thought that entire thing was a hoot. (PS. I got the job.)

Over the years I have tried to live up to my mother's birthday celebrating example. My husband and I threw parties for the kids when they were growing up. Some of these were even over the top bashes. As the kids have gotten older we've had smaller celebrations. The kids didn't seem to mind. We go out to dinner. Maybe invite a few friends over. I bake a cake.

Things have really started to taper off lately, and a couple of years ago I hit rock bottom. My daughter was turning 14 and she was busy doing stuff and I was busy doing stuff and I asked her what kind of cake she wanted me to bake her and she acted like she didn't care and yadda yadda ya, and the next thing I knew, it was the night of her birthday and I had nothing. NOTHING.

Okay, I did have a couple of candles. Which I duct-taped to the counter.

Not my proudest moment as a mom.

While I am confessing shameful things, here's one more: I have no idea what time my mother was born. Today is her birthday and I can't call her at the exact time because I don't know what that time is. Until this moment, I have never even thought to ask her.

Is it too late? Can someone who clearly has not been blessed with a Birthday Celebration Gene start a new tradition?

Hmm. Okay.

Right after I post this blog, I will call my mom and ask her. And if the time has already passed, I will make a note of it for next year. In the meantime, "Happy birthday," I will tell her. And later today I will bake a cake. I will poke 70 candles into it and present it to her.

It's not every day that it's someone's birthday after all.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Pushing Through the Mushy Middle

As promised (here) I'm back to give my middle of the month NaNoWriMo pep talk. Saturday I spoke to a group of gung-ho authors hunkered down at the Thurber House for a Columbus area write-in, and Wednesday night I met with writers at the local library in my town. I was blown away by the number of people who showed up for both of these sessions.

Everyone and their mother seems to be participating in NaNoWriMo this year.

Okay. This is a slight exaggeration. I am not signed up for NaNo this year. And neither is my mother. But it does sorta feel like there's been an uptick of interest. (Just checked and there are almost 300,000 people plugging away on novels according to the NaNo site.)

Many of those people may be floundering around at this point in the process.

All of that energy and excitement you had on Day One--the cool ideas, the interesting characters, that brilliantly worded first line--all of that tends to fall away on like Day 5 or 6ish, and suddenly the ideas seem dumb, the characters are meh, and what the heck were you thinking? the first line is ridiculously pretentious.

But I am here to tell you to keep writing anyway.

Some people say that writing a novel is like driving through Texas.

It's a freaking long trip and maybe your car will break down, or you will get lost, or you will veer off the road to avoid hitting You'll wonder if you should turn back, quit driving, and perhaps check out the condo rentals in this little town in Texas where your car has overheated.


Have your car tuned up by a local mechanic, get a bite to eat at the Waffle House next door, then get back into your car, set your GPS, and go. New Mexico is only like, 400 miles away.

Wait. What were we talking about again?

What I meant to tell you is KEEP WRITING. As Robert Frost famously said: "The only way out is through." Yeah, I know what you're thinking. Who is the poet Robert Frost to be giving us advice? He wrote poems for God's sake, which everyone knows are MUCH MUCH shorter than 50,000 word novels.

Sigh. Somehow these "inspirational" talks of mine always devolve into commiserating with people about how HARD it is to write a book. Yeah, you're going to have finish this first draft and it's going to be a big messy thing and you're going to have to revise it. Multiple times. And then it's likely never going to be published. Blah blah blah, and instead of being inspired, everyone's depressed.

I promise I did give these hunkered down writers what I hoped were a few practical helpful tips.

The big one, something that has helped me in the past, is to take a look at the Hero's Journey. For those of you who have not heard of it, the Hero's Journey is basically an outline behind every story ever told. The hero leaves the comfortable (or not so comfortable) Ordinary World and sets off on his real (or psychological) journey.

Along the way he meets friends and fights enemies. He learns the rules of the Special World and faces his demons. At some point he approaches danger and what seems to be certain death, but he fights that battle and emerges with his reward.

In the end he returns home a changed person.

There's more to it and you can read about it Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Another helpful resource is Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey.

Many writers use the Hero's Journey template to structure their books. I see it more as a guideline, though, something to keep in the back of your mind while you are writing, especially if you are the type of writer who does not outline extensively before you begin. If you're stuck, it can't hurt to see where your main character is on his journey.

And it can't hurt to see where YOU are on your Writing a Book Journey.

If you are mired in the mushy middle--if your story has veered off and what you thought you were writing about has turned into something else, or if your main character has disappeared, or if new characters have mysteriously plopped into the narrative on page 100, or if the realistic novel you thought you were writing suddenly evolves into a Sci-Fi thriller--there is no quick fix, no magical secret.

Worry about that stuff later. Make a note to yourself and move on. Get back in the damn car and keep sputtering down the road.

PS. If you're really blocked, you can always kill a character or blow something up.

Tune in next month when I give you every trick I know for revising your messy first draft and for one day, possibly, hopefully, getting it out there into Publishing Land.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Teen Guest Post: WHO AM I? by Isabel Randolph

As promised here, I'm hosting a guest blog series called WHO AM I? and have invited teen writers to contribute.  

And a shout out to my artistic teen neighbor Courtney Berger for designing the awesome banner.


Who Am I?
by Isabel Randolph, guest blogger

If I wanted to be cutesy and cheesy and baseline poetic, I would say that I am a liberal artist, integrating aspects of the liberal arts education into every part of my life. However, the thought of being so cloyingly cute, and particularly the thought of being so cloyingly cute in poetry, makes me cringe a little bit, so I guess we can call that answer number one to the question ‘Who am I?’.

Let’s cover the facts; I’m a student in my second year at a small, private liberal arts university where I’m studying everything, though specifically English, economics, and various foreign languages, along with leading the fencing club, volunteering, working, and continually looking for new experiences. By May next year, I’ll be halfway done with my undergraduate experience, and I’ll be 20 years old, and the more I think about it the more terrifying that thought becomes. That’s two decades of time spent rotating the sun... I feel old! And young. And sometimes stuck in between.

Ignoring any quarter life-crises, I’m happier to be riding out the end of my teenage years than I was when thoroughly entrenched in them, a sentiment I semi-assume most people would adhere to. Like Jane mentioned in her post for this series, it’s so easy to get caught up in the social standards, especially in a setting like high school where it seems as if everyone has been together for ages, and because you spend so much time together just as you’re learning to define yourself, you also start to define each other. Like, I’m pretty sure I’ll always have a reminiscent affection for My Chemical Romance thanks to a best friend in middle school, and I know at least some of my drive to do really well academically was kick-started by a boyfriend in high school.

And sure, maybe those fun character-quirks would have happened anyway-- it’s possible. However, I’m inclined to think they’re much more attributes to relationships I’ve had, and, to be honest, I think that’s something that’ll happen no matter when or where you are. I could throw out examples now even to prove that that kind of influence doesn’t stop at high school graduation (hello, new found interest in Arabic and working knowledge of Twitter).

More than influences on each other, though, I think the pressure that creates that ‘trap’ feeling in high school comes from others’ expectations of you, and your reputation, and how ‘this is how you’ve been for the past five years, so obviously this is how you’ll still be, and always.’ It was that image that I remember feeling most caught in, and while I did change and grow some, probably along with the same ways everyone else was growing, it took graduating and effectively moving out of the bubble to truly get away from those expectations.

Yeah, it’s a cliche, and I’m trying to not veer back into cutesy, cheesy waters, but getting a new start was what I needed to really tackle the ‘who am I?’ question. One could argue that that’s a question with no answer, or no definite answer, anyway, but with the authority of a 19 year old who really doesn’t have a whole lot figured out (authority? what authority?), I’m going to say that I have a better answer now than I did before, which brings us to... now.

I so tongue-in-cheekily threw out the expression ‘liberal artist’ because, while I’m probably not going to stick it on a business card or resume anytime soon, it does convey probably one of the biggest things I’ve learned about myself: that when it comes to learning, I don’t want my liberal arts education to stop outside of the classroom. We’re taught on these ethical pillars, the idea that a well-rounded, well-informed student becomes an autonomous thinker and problem solver, and overall has a better understanding of the world, and that ties right into my goals because, the million dollar question, who am I?

I’m ambitious, and overachieving, and I’ve always had a little bit of an issue with teetering on that line between maximizing output and taking on just a little bit too much. I don’t know if it comes from a fast-paced society propelled by technology and instant gratification or my impending entry into a third decade on this planet (and I thought two decades sounded crazy...), an ambitious friend from high school or just the lingering aftereffects of so many jokes about the world’s apocalyptic doom the year I graduated, but I do have this sense that I have a lot of ground to cover, the sooner the better. Multitasking, getting experience in different areas, attempting to cultivate different interests; it all feels like stock ingredients that are slowly adding more facets and experiences and stories to my life.

Who am I? I’m over-caffeinated, slightly neurotic, and really, really stressed. I’m also excited, and impatient, and working on adding confident to the list.

That being said, last weekend was the first time in almost five months that I got to go home for more than 24 hours, and did I have internship work I should have been doing? Miles I should have been running? Blog posts and scholarship applications I should have been writing? Sure, yes, definitely. Did I blow off the vast majority of those responsibilities to see my best friends, shuttle my brothers around town, and go out with my parents? Yes, yes, yes. Did my entire potential future collapse before my eyes in a metaphoric pile of ‘coulda shoulda woulda?’ Negative. Finding that balance in priorities is the next big thing I have to tackle.

I’m grateful, to be lucky enough to get to go to a fancy school with a solid scholarship, to have parents and family and friends who love me and support me, even to have the abilities to run and go out and occasionally eat way too many cookies without serious repercussions. I do feel the pressure of those opportunities, though, and that’s just part of the equation, I guess. I’m lucky and crazy and hopeful and intelligent and hoping that didn’t sound self-centered and stressed out and overwhelmed, but mostly I’m young, and it’ll be okay, and I’ve got time.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

On the Road (and Off): Photo Diary of the Thin Space Book Tour (PS: this my 200th blog post!)

Sooooooo Thin Space has been out for nearly two months and I've been having a grand old time talking it up with family, friends and sometimes, shockingly--people I don't know. 

This has been kind of a whirlwind travel schedule and totally NOT the norm for me, which usually consists of me sitting on the couch and staring bleary-eyed at the computer screen interspersed with multiple walks with my high strung dog. But what I've discovered is that being on the road can be fun too (once I got over my slightly agoraphobic/I hate driving alone-itis issue. See here.)

A display at Parnassus Books, the cool independent bookstore in Nashville owned by author Ann Patchett

My in-laws made cookies shaped like feet.

And I met Jessica Young, author of My Blue Is Happy 

My first book festival--Books by the Banks in Cincinnati--where I learned that having a huge bowl of candy on the table is a helpful marketing technique.

Fellow 2013 debut YA writer Mindy McGinnis, author of Not a Drop to Drink, a dystopian novel set in the not so distant future where water is scarce. (Notice the brilliant promotional thingy Mindy's got going on: water bottles...)  

I hung out with the Ohio school librarians at their annual conference which was held at a waterpark and had a chance to chat with one of my favorite authors, MT Anderson. He was gung ho to enjoy the rides but had forgotten to pack the proper shoes. What I learned: MT Anderson is a good sport. 

A trip to Memphis to visit my husband's and my alma mater, Rhodes College--where we are subtly, or not so subtly, urging our teen daughter to apply.
"Look, honey, can't you just see yourself going to school at this place?" 

I mean, really. THIS is the ceiling of the Rhodes library.

The bookstore in Memphis where I used to work--The Booksellers at Laurelwood. Here I am chatting it up with former students, friends, sorority sisters, former co-workers, and several  people I don't know

Taking a lesson from Mindy McGinnis, I gave out something that tied in with my book--lollipops shaped like feet.

I talked a ninth grade boy into taking off his shoes for an impromptu photo shoot. This was a cool day--visited 5 classes of ninth grade students who were REQUIRED to read Thin Space, which I must say, made me slightly nervous. Those kids had writing assignments and homework and tests on that book!  But everyone was cool about it (or did a good job pretending to be).

A local book club read Thin Space and invited me to chat about it with them at their monthly meeting. They met at a French bistro and I book-talked one of my favorite books, Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, which they ended up choosing for their next book. Now I want to go to that meeting too.

The Buckeye Book Fair in Wooster Ohio. The feet lollipops were a big hit.

Only downside to my travels: a dog who is less than thrilled. Here she takes out her displeasure on my file folder. 

But that seemed to be the extent of the damage.

Sigh. This was my favorite journal.