Sunday, March 24, 2013

Haunted at Seventeen

Nova Ren Suma’s new novel, 17 & Gone, came out last week on March 21, and to mark the release of this story about a 17-year-old girl haunted by the missing, she’s asked some authors she knows to join her in answering this question: What haunted you at seventeen? (click here to see the series.) Full disclosure--Nova Ren Suma does not know me and therefore did not ask me to write a post, but I was so inspired by this writing series that I could not resist posting my own.


What haunted me at 17?

When I was seventeen I punched a girl in the face.

Even now, many many years later, I can see her expression, her wide eyes, her mouth falling open, and her hands flying up in surprise. "You hit me," she said. "I can't believe you did that."

I couldn't believe it either. We were stuck in a traffic jam, a pushing surge of bodies that had just been let out of a school assembly. Our little encounter had probably been witnessed by twenty people. Some of them called out "Whoa!" They laughed with glee or maybe it was discomfort. It's not every day that you see a girl lash out in what can only be called rage.

I managed to elbow through the crowd, my hand still stinging, my heart pounding, tears streaming down my face. I could hear the girl screeching behind me. "She hit me. Can you believe she hit me?"

It was the last month of my senior year, a year that was a majorly crappy year in a long string of majorly crappy years.

But still, I had never punched anyone in the face before.

This was me at seventeen, a bizarre blend of opposites:

  • quiet, almost pathologically shy, when I wasn't manic and gushing and gossiping and flirting
  • studious and conscientious and hardworking when I wasn't falling asleep in class
  • a nerdy preppy Catholic school girl in my polyester uniform (green skirt, pastel color collared blouse) when I wasn't waiting tables in a different polyester uniform (brown jumper, orangey striped jersey) 
  • A daydreamer who read constantly and wrote stories and locked myself in my room when I wasn't sneaking out of my house in the middle of the night to roam around with friends
  • College bound and driven and ambitious when I wasn't obsessing over a boy who dropped out of high school
  • A dutiful rule-follower when I wasn't writing essays for other students if they would buy my lunch 

Why did I hit the girl?

The easiest explanation is to say it had to do with a boy, but it was more than that. A she said/she said kind of thing that spiraled out of control. A former best friend who was a Queen Bee. A group of desperate insecure girls competing for her attention. It happened at the beginning of my senior year. My group of friends took sides. And I ended up on one side, alone. It turned into a cliched bullying thing. Thank God there was no social media back then. I can't imagine how unbearable it would've been to have the gossip and mockery and threats coming at me on Facebook, et al. It was hard enough to bear it in real time when I was walking down the school hallway.

But I slogged through it. What else can you do? I counted down the days to the end of the year when I could run away from all of them. It helped that they were in none of my classes. I could orchestrate my schedule to rarely bump into those girls.

Until the day we had an assembly.

They sat behind me in a row. They kicked my chair. They whispered and laughed and joked. When we spilled out of the auditorium they bunched up right behind me. One of the girls poked me in the back. I was crying and she was mimicking me. I wasn't thinking anything at all when I spun around with my fist clenched.

I could've gotten suspended for fighting. Nobody turned me in. (Again: thank you social media for not existing!) The bullying didn't stop, but there were only a few weeks left of school. I was halfway out the door and stepping into the next stage of my life.

I went to a college 1250 miles away.

It doesn't torment me anymore. Really. It happened so long ago. I don't blame the girls. They struggled with their own demons. They grappled with their own inconsistencies in their personalities. They were doing what many of us girls were doing at age seventeen, just trying to slog through it and praying the tide wouldn't turn on them.

It is still hard to make sense of it though. How cruel we can be to each other. How stupid.

But I'm glad it happened. I'm a writer who writes stories for teenagers and this kind of thing is fuel for me, even though I've never written this particular story before. It brings me back to a place of frustration and anger and humiliation. But it also reminds me what I'm made of. What my limits are. That I can defend myself if I have to. And when I can't, I can run away--not from something, but to something infinitely better and of my own making.

(Not one of my good days. Age 17)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

In Which I Discover an Awesome Community of YA Book Bloggers, Learn What Kind of Writing Implement Jane Austen Used, and Share Two Books I am Looking Forward to Reading

Lately, I am getting the biggest kick out of doing research on marketing strategies for my book, something I never thought I would say. Only a few months ago it was sort of driving me crazy. There just seemed to be soooo many promotional things I should be doing. Tweeting and Facebooking and blogging, etc. Sometimes I wanted to crawl into a cave with no internet access and curl up with a notebook and a quill and pretend I was writing back in Jane Austen's time. (Note to self: find out if Jane Austen used a quill.)

It doesn't help that I have a very strong anti-technology streak at my core and it is hard for me to learn new things related to technology/social media (which seem to be changing by the minute). Examples that make my kids mock me:

I don't  know how to use the TV remote control. I'm embarrassed to admit how many times I've had to call my daughter for help in turning the TV on. And don't get me started on my cell phone. I have taken literally hundreds of pictures of my own hand because I still don't understand how the camera feature works on my phone.

Anyhoo, I am a dutiful rule-follower, so if people tell me I must "get on Twitter," then no matter how anti-tech I am, I'm going to get on Twitter, damn it, and tweet my little heart out. And if, while on Twitter, I notice that there is this huge, very cool blogging community of avid YA readers, then I am going to follow all of those bloggers to see what they are up to. What books are they reading? What genres do they like? What issues are they talking about with each other? I started reading their blogs as "research," but quickly got addicted, and now could conceivably spend most of my day jumping around from one blog site to another.

Which is how I discovered the meme WoW. (side note: I just learned what meme means)  WoW stands for "Waiting on Wednesday." Every Wednesday book bloggers share the book that they are most looking forward to reading and everyone weighs in on the choice. I LOVE this idea and can't believe I didn't know about it until recently. I think that the official way to be a WoW participant is you've got to sign up on the Breaking the Spine blogspot and add your blog address. I may be breaking the rules here by NOT doing that, but I can see that I don't have the same level of commitment these uber readers have and I won't be able to post a WoW every week. I hope the Breaking the Spine blogger forgives me, but I'd like to share one--well, really, two books that I am eagerly awaiting.

So without further ado:

1. Insomnia by J. R. Johansson--release date June 8


It’s been four years since I slept, and I suspect it is killing me.

Instead of sleeping, Parker Chipp enters the dream of the last person he’s had eye contact with. He spends his nights crushed by other people’s fear and pain, by their disturbing secrets—and Parker can never have dreams of his own. The severe exhaustion is crippling him. If nothing changes, Parker could soon be facing psychosis and even death.

Then he meets Mia. Her dreams, calm and beautifully uncomplicated, allow him blissful rest that is utterly addictive. Parker starts going to bizarre lengths to catch Mia’s eye every day. Everyone at school thinks he’s gone over the edge, even his best friend. And when Mia is threatened by a true stalker, everyone thinks it’s Parker.

Suffering blackouts, Parker begins to wonder if he is turning into someone dangerous. What if the monster stalking Mia is him after all?

Why I'm waiting:

  • I LOVE this cover. The creepiness of it just draws me in. I don't have an artistic bone in my body, but I am the first person to admit that I judge a book by its cover. This one is a winner. 
  • I'm intrigued by the premise. Sounds like Parker may be something of an unreliable narrator. The former English teacher in me loves unreliable narrators...
  • And speaking of narrators, I always like hearing a teen boy's POV.

2. In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters--release date: April 2


In 1918, the world seems on the verge of apocalypse. Americans roam the streets in gauze masks to ward off the deadly Spanish influenza, and the government ships young men to the front lines of a brutal war, creating an atmosphere of fear and confusion. Sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black watches as desperate mourners flock to séances and spirit photographers for comfort, but she herself has never believed in ghosts. During her bleakest moment, however, she’s forced to rethink her entire way of looking at life and death, for her first love—a boy who died in battle—returns in spirit form. But what does he want from her?

Featuring haunting archival early-twentieth-century photographs, this is a tense, romantic story set in a past that is eerily like our own time.

Why I'm waiting:

  • Okay, this cover is awesome too. I've never seen anything like it, and I've looked at a lot of covers lately. I also happened to read the story behind the cover and it is fascinating.
  • I'm not a big historical fiction fan normally, but I like that this one has a paranormal twist.
  • I like the inclusion of old photographs.
  • How could a former English teacher NOT like a main character whose name is Mary Shelley Black? 

And now, dear readers, what books are YOU waiting on?

PS. In case anyone wants to check out some of the awesome blog sites I've been lurking around, here's a (very tiny) sample:

City of Books
Icey Books
I Like These Books
Confessions of a Readaholic
Good Books and Good Wine
Actin' Up with Books
Books, Bones & Buffy
Some Like It Paranormal
Mundie Moms
Books over Boys
Two Chicks on Books
Literary Meanderings 

PPS. Yes. Jane Austen DID write with a quill pen. Thank you, Internet! 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Interview with Jennifer R. Hubbard

When I was asked to join the awesome group writing blog YA Outside the Lines last year, the first thing I did was check out the other contributors' bios and books. At a glance this is a talented and varied group that represents every YA genre, from literary award-winners to bestselling paranormal romances (which also win awards) and everything in between. There's a wide range of writerly experience represented too. Some of the members have multiple books published. And then there's, um, me, with my one soon-to-be-released first novel.

I'm having blast getting to know these writers, both virtually and for real, and I'm reading my way through all of their novels. Last month I read the absorbing and beautifully written Try Not to Breathe by Jennifer R. Hubbard. From the very first page I was drawn into this story of a teen boy's struggle to make peace with his suicide attempt and his growing relationship with a girl who's trying make peace with her father's death.

I am still thinking about the issues raised in this book and still hearing the voice of the boy in my head, and today I am thrilled that Jennifer Hubbard has agreed to chat with me about her book and about her writing process.

Jody: I know readers must ask you this all the time, Jenn, but where do you get your ideas for your books?

Jenn: I write about things I care about, things that interest me, that whisper in my ear. I need a basic plot or situation and a character’s voice before I can start writing. The question, “What if?” helps.

I tried to write about suicide many times before I wrote Try Not to Breathe. I never found the right way to tell the story until I had the character of Ryan Turner, standing under a waterfall after his stay in a psychiatric hospital. And I saw that the story I needed to tell was about stepping back from that brink.

Jody: That scene was such a powerful and riveting way to begin. You're right that finding a scene like that is often the key into the story we're meant to tell. Once you have it, though, and with your other work, what's your next step? Do you just start writing? Or do you plot your narrative out in advance?

Jenn: I start with a bare-bones, sketchy “outline” that’s only a few lines long. It gives me an idea of where I want to go, and what major obstacles will crop up. But mostly, I wing it. A big part of the energy that keeps me going through a first draft comes from the power of discovery.

Jody: My process is similar--writing to figure out what the story is. I should bring up here, and I know you would agree with me, Jenn, that there are many other drafts and revisions that come after that. Something that beginning writers (me! when I was just starting out) don't realize is that some of those revised manuscripts never make it to publication. Was that your experience? How many books did you write before you got your first book deal?

Jenn: I started with short stories for the adult literary market, and I had my first one accepted for publication while I was still in high school. With short stories, you write a lot and you send out a lot, so I accumulated tons of rejections, along with occasional acceptances.

My first attempts at novel-writing were also still while I was in high school. Most of them, I only did one draft, or they were only 80 pages long, so I’m not sure they count. Once or twice during my short-story years, I produced a novel-length manuscript that I sent to one or two places and got form rejections, and then I went back to short stories.

I didn’t get really serious about novel-writing until 2003, when I decided to try writing YA because I realized I had all these YA books on my shelves that I loved and still read. I took a class in writing children’s books. I wrote a novel that came very close; some agents and editors expressed interest in it, but they all thought it wasn’t quite there yet, and they didn’t agree on what it needed. I couldn’t tell either, so I set it aside and went on to the manuscript that became my first published book, The Secret Year.

Jody: So, only one book that will remain forever in a drawer. Or maybe you will dust it off and try again with it?

Jenn: I mentioned that particular one because it was the one I gave the most serious, realistic shot. But there are plenty more draft manuscripts, half-finished manuscripts, and random chapters lying around that I never even sent out, and a couple of manuscripts I only sent to one or two places before realizing they weren't ready. Then there was a book I wrote between The Secret Year and Try Not to Breathe,  but never submitted because I never quite got it right. All of these trunk novels have served me the way a scrap bag serves a quilter: I often borrow characters, scenes or ideas from them to use in work that eventually does get published. In fact, the character of Nicki in Try Not to Breathe draws heavily on a character from one of those abandoned books.

Jody: I like that scrap bag metaphor. It's hard to let a manuscript go, especially one that you've labored over, but when you think that you might be able to recycle a snippet of dialogue or a quirky character, it makes it a little easier. Speaking of laboring, what kind of work schedule do you have?

Jenn: When I go to my day job, I write in the evenings. When I don’t go to the day job, I will often write as soon as I get up, and then try to do another session later.

Jody: That's got to be difficult, balancing writing with another job. When I was teaching, and when my kids were younger, I had the hardest time putting writing even third or fourth on my list. It seemed like something I needed to schedule--for own my sanity.

Jenn: I haven’t found a good way to fit everything I want and need to do in a single day. So I just keep juggling. I use lists, calendars, and schedules. I break everything down into mini-assignments to make things less overwhelming. I first learned to do this in junior high school, where we had so much homework that I couldn’t fit it all in unless I blocked out my time, hour by hour. I look back now and can’t believe I managed to create that schedule and stick to it. But the habit stayed with me through high school, college, and afterward. Though I no longer block out every hour of my day, I still use calendars and to-do lists.

Jody: It occurs to me that your self-discipline and organization might surprise some people. I get the sense sometimes that writers and other creative types are viewed as being kind of free-spirited and day-dreamy. But here you are blocking out your time and basically scheduling your creative sessions. And once you've got published work out in the world, there's another level of work, and that is promotion.

What are some of the things you do to market your books?

Jenn: I have the general philosophy that I like people to know about my books, but in a low-key way. If you see me at a live event, I’ll hand out bookmarks, but I’m not going to grab you by the lapels and force you to hear a sales pitch. If you come to my website or blog or Twitter bio, you’ll see the books mentioned there, but within the blog and Twitter stream itself, I only mention them occasionally—when something big happens, like a new book comes out, or there’s an award nomination or something.

On social media, I’m there to interact with people. I want to talk about all kinds of things—other people’s books, the writing life in general, hiking, chocolate, weather, whatever. I don’t like to see a constant stream of “buy my book!” on social media, so I don’t do it myself.

I have teamed up with other writers in my area to do group events. I belong to two such groups: the New Jersey Authors Network, founded by Jon Gibbs, and the Kidlit Authors’ Club, founded by Nancy Viau and Keri Mikulski. The KAC is for authors of traditionally-published children’s and teens’ books; we do events at bookstores, libraries, schools, book fairs, conferences, and so forth. The NJAN is for New Jersey-area writers in all genres, and includes self-published and traditionally-published authors; we also do group events, mostly in New Jersey. In addition, the amazing David Levithan has organized a series of wonderful YA readings and an annual teen book festival in New York. I go to those when I can.

I highly recommend working with groups if you do live events. I rarely do solo events anymore, and I do those mostly if a school or library has specifically asked me to talk about my books. For fairs, festivals, readings, and bookstore events, I much prefer to have multiple authors there. Not only is it more fun, but you can have cross-over among your readers, and you have a wider variety of books there to offer. When I was a debut author (initially scheduled for 2009 but bumped to 2010), I joined groups of other debut authors (Debut2009, Tenners, Classes of 2k9 and 2k10), and the mutual support of those groups was invaluable.

Jody: I like your philosophy about social media. I still feel like a newby on Twitter, et al., but I think you're right that the best way to use it is to approach it in terms of a community rather than as a marketplace.

Thanks, Jenn, so much for chatting with me. I'm looking forward to reading The Secret Year and all of your future books. And, readers, if you'd like to check out Jenn and her books (I hope you do!) here are some of the places you can find her:

her website
her blog on LiveJournal
her blog on blogspot 
on Twitter @JennRHubbard
on Goodreads
on Amazon

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Talking Good Girls and Bad Boys in YA Fiction

The first Spring-y-like day in Columbus, Ohio, and instead of basking in the much longed for sun, shameless author groupie that I am, I headed over to one of my favorite places in the world, the children's bookstore Cover to Cover to meet a group of YA authors: Colleen Clayton, Kristina McBride, Tiffany Schmidt, and Katie McGarry. I wasn't the only fan there, but in case you missed it, here's a rundown of the fascinating, funny, and sometimes sorta heartbreaking discussion on books and boys and pretty much everything else in contemporary realistic YA fiction.

The big question was why these writers wrote about "bad" boys in their books. Katie McGarry weighed in first to talk about how she'd grown up around guys that some people viewed as being from the wrong side of the tracks. These boys were her friends, and it bugged her that they were judged unfairly. Her novel Pushing the Limits portrays a boy in foster care and his relationship with a "good" girl who's struggling with her own issues. There's a negative perception people sometimes have of poor kids, McGarry said, and she hopes her readers will see beyond the stereotype.

Colleen Clayton, author of What Happens Next, agreed. It's her sense that working class kids aren't represented in YA lit or else are treated one-dimensionally. "Why don't we see more of these boys who aren't college bound?" she asked. "We need to dig deeper, perceive the real person at the core."

The authors didn't want to give too much away about their books--whether the bad boy at the center of the plot was truly a bad boy or not, but Tiffany Schmidt and Kristina McBride wondered why girls are drawn to the stereotypical bad boy in the first place.

Tiffany said it may come down to the belief that only you can see the good guy underneath, the guy that no one else can see, and that's a heady feeling for a teen girl.

Kristina added, "Let's face it. Sometimes girls think they can fix a bad boy." She mentioned that as a teen this was the case for her. Her novel One Moment is the story of a girl's growing realization that her dead boyfriend might not have been the person she thought he was. The book is edgy, she explained, but she believes that it's a good thing for girl readers to live vicariously through characters, to see the bad choices made (and the consequences) and possibly make different decisions in their own lives.

The writers were asked what inspired them, which led to another interesting discussion. Katie McGarry told a story about going back to visit her old high school and wanting to give the kids there hope. "Kids need hope," she said, "that they can make it past today. Not that things will be perfect, but that they can survive their circumstances."

Colleen Clayton talked about having negative experiences in school and reliving that anxiety when her own kids started school. Writing about those experiences freed her and helped her find her writing voice.

Tiffany Schmidt's novel Send Me a Sign is about a smart, hardworking girl starting her senior year. She's looking forward to what she assumes will be a bright future, but then she finds out she has cancer. Tiffany, a former sixth grade teacher, had a student in her class that faced this situation. The student didn't want to be labeled the girl with cancer. She was so much more than her illness, Tiffany said. A big issue for teens is struggling with identity. "Who are we really?" she asked. Which turned the discussion back to the need to transcend stereotypes and labels.

And this turned into a conversation about transcending genres in YA literature. Readers of YA know what's trendy--what's out (sparkly vampires) and what's probably on its way out (the end of the world). But where does contemporary realistic fiction fit into the market?

The panel felt that the demand for this genre is growing. Each of the writers is having success with their novels and they don't feel pressure to write other kinds of books. They agreed that it's pointless to write what you think is trendy anyway, given the lengthy submitting and publishing process. Better to write what feels right for you and hope the market catches up. Sometimes this has been frustrating.

Colleen's novel What Happens Next begins with a girl being raped, but the story cannot be distilled down to a "rape book." The main character is wise-cracking and funny. She's coping with the aftereffects of the trauma but she's also dealing with typical high school friendship dramas and family conflicts and a romance. Colleen has had some people question the need for another novel on the subject of rape. They point to the classic Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson as being the definitive book and imply that this might be enough.

Tiffany Schmidt echoed the frustration that this kind of question only seems to come up when discussing contemporary fiction. "Why is it okay to have multiple books on vampires or werewolves or zombies?" This was asked with a sigh and the acknowledgment that her novel was released the same year as John Green's The Fault in our Stars. "Shouldn't there always be room for another good book, regardless of the subject?" she asked. In other words, is John Green the only author who can write about teens with cancer?

The group also talked shop, specifically, how to get published (the consensus being that you will have to write and revise and research the business. Also, prepare for the inevitable rejections), and gushed about how much they loved to read, and shared some funny stories about how they're treated by family members and close friends now that they are published authors.

"When are you going to write a real book?" someone once asked Katie McGarry, and she responded, "Aren't teens real people?"

Nice comeback, Kristina McBride said. And then it was time for picture taking and book signings and a raffling off of several cool, soon-to-be-published books. Should I mention here that one of these was mine? Um. Nah. I'll leave that for another day...

Want to find out more about these authors and their books? Check out the links below:
Colleen Clayton
Kristina McBride
Tiffany Schmidt
Katie McGarry

From left to right: Kristina McBride, Colleen Clayton, Katie McGarry, and Tiffany Schmidt. And there's Sally Oddi, owner of Cover to Cover in the background.