Saturday, May 31, 2014

Why CAN'T All Books Be Like WE WERE LIARS? (Also, please tell me when I have spinach on my teeth)

I read a great book the other day. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. One of Lockhart's earlier books The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, is a favorite of mine. Laugh out-loud funny, clever, and original. It's got a cool feminist manifesto twist at the end that'll make you (if you happen to be a woman) pump your fist in the air and roar.

We Were Liars will probably make you burst into tears. I just want to give you fair warning.

It's about a girl named Cady who spends summers hanging out with her cousins on their grandfather's private island. When the story begins, Cady's not doing too well. She's suffering from horrible migraine headaches. Something happened a few years ago during her fifteenth summer and it's what probably caused the headaches. She's not sure. She can't remember much of what happened that summer.

Now she's back on the island and hanging out with the cousins and everyone's tiptoeing around her. They've been instructed by their mothers not to tell Cady what happened.

So that's all I'm going to say about the plot and Cady.

I knew going into the book there was going to be a big twist and I was trying to figure out what it could be as I read.

I have a difficult time reading books and falling into them the way I used to as a child. Years of deconstructing texts as an English major and English teacher and years of writing and trying to figure out how stories are put together so I could put my own stories together end up being hazards when you just want to lose yourself in a book.

Reading We Were Liars, I was doing that. Thinking. I'd put the book down and marvel for a minute at the strong, crystal clear voice of Cady. I'd bend a page corner over and wonder about the structure of the book. Why did E. Lockhart begin with that particular moment? Why'd she stick the fairy tale interludes in where she did? Why all the mentions of dogs? Etc. Then I'd keep reading, thinking, This is a pretty good book, enjoying the cleverness of it and the humor and insightful bits.

And then. BAM.

I turned a page and it hit me. The twist. With such force I gasped out loud and burst into tears. I cried as I read the last few pages. I turned back to page one and started reading the book again trying to figure out how Lockhart did it--how she tricked me--not just with the brilliant twist--but how she struck such an emotional chord, how she made me feel for these pretend people and forget that I was reading a book.

I couldn't figure it out.

I called my friend Donna, who happens to be my beloved trusted amazing critique partner and we hashed it out for a while. What makes the book so good? How did the author pull it off? How'd she write something that transcends the genre, that makes you THINK and FEEL as well as be entertained for a few hours?

(Back story: Donna is my Ideal Reader. She is the person in my head whom I write for--the reader I most want to please. Last week I finished the fifth revision of a book I have been working on and struggling with on and off since 2009. When I "finished" it last week, I had no real sense of what the hell I had. I still don't know exactly. I realize that I don't trust my own judgment anymore when it comes to my writing. I see smatterings of beautiful stuff and I see larger chunks of garbage and the two things intermingle and even switch places depending on my mood and/or the weather.

I sent the manuscript to Donna and waited anxiously for her response, going back and forth between dread and eagerness to hear it. I geared myself up for the worst. The worst would be Donna saying the book is a massive unfixable mess and she can't believe I spent 5 years of my life wasting my time on it. I am not proud of this, but I toyed with the idea of asking her to lie to me if it came down to that. Then I worried that she WOULD lie to me to spare my feelings and the book would eventually be published and every reviewer on Amazon and Goodreads would give it 1 star and muse about how such a mess ever made it to publication.)

Anyway, we kept talking about We Were Liars. Donna read a book recently that bugged her for a variety of reasons and she started telling me about it and that led to us discussing other flawed books that failed for a variety of reasons. Poor writing, weakly developed characters, massive plot holes, whatever. We worried about the authors of these books. Why didn't anyone TELL them when they still had a chance to fix their various messes?

I said to Donna, Oh well, not every book can be We Were Liars. 

And she said, Why not?

And then I wondered, Yeah. Why not? Isn't writing a great book what we're all striving for?

Maybe some writers don't think about this kind of thing. I don't know how a book goes right and I don't know how a book goes wrong. I only know the end result--whether it falls into the We Were Liars category or, um, the other category. I also know that if I am going to bother, if I am going to spend 5 years writing and rewriting and rewriting a book, tearing my hair out and pacing around my home muttering and staring at my computer screen until my eyeballs burn in my skull, then, damn it, I'm shooting for the WWL end of the spectrum.

Which means that someone-- DONNA God love her--must absolutely level with me and tell me the truth.

I gave her this speech before she read my book.

She just laughed. "Aren't we always honest with each other?" she asked. "If you had spinach on your teeth, I'd tell you."

Whew. I guess.

I mean, Whew. Thank you, Donna, as I would tell you, too.

She sent me her response a few days later. I was at the grocery store and I made my daughter pull the critique up on the phone...

(to be continued)

Monday, May 26, 2014

Teen Guest Post: WHO AM I? by Grace Rogers

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 Grace Rogers, guest blogger

Last Thursday, I made a disappointing discovery about my generation.

We had just received our yearbooks, and my friends and I were flipping through them, giggling at the candids and reminiscing at the good times we had that year. One friend, however, did not join in on our fun. This particular friend had received the superlative of "Most Unique," and she was livid about it. "Kristen," I said, trying to console her, "being unique is a good thing." Another friend glanced up at me from across the table, judgment written across her face. "No, no, it’s really not," she informed me, and promptly went back to her book.

I was astounded.

I know that most teenagers conform to each other, but I honestly kind of assumed it was a thing that just happened. It had never once crossed my mind that people made an actual, conscious decision to swim solely in the mainstream, that they had no desire to explore smaller, less traveled streams.

I, for one, am an avid explorer of new streams. In a place filled with Norts and t-shirts, I sport sundresses and overalls. In a class of twenty-three, I am one of two people who reads books. I’m constantly in the pursuit of witty Twitter accounts, amazing bands that have yet to take the world by storm, and friends that keep my life intriguing. A world in which everyone is the same would bore me out of my skull. No new music, no new books, and social media would be useless and uninspiring. We would be the society that YA dystopian novels warn us against.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m about as basic as they come. I quote Mean Girls daily, I know every single Taylor Swift song, I tweet about as often as I pray, and I think that Zac Efron is hotter than an afternoon in August. For the most part, I’m a common white girl, and I’m proud of it. However, there are some traits that make me different, and I’ll be damned if I don’t cling to them like Rose to that door at the end of Titanic.

And why shouldn’t I?

Why should I be discouraged from simply being myself? If God had wanted us all to be the same, He would have made us so.  The Declaration of Independence says all men are created equal, but that is so laughably far from the truth. Take me, for example. I’m not a straight-A student like some people, nor do I have a fabulous singing voice. I’m not tall like a supermodel, and I don’t have hair like a mermaid. But guess what? I love myself. I can make people laugh, I’m always ready with a pun, and strangers tell me that I’m adorable. I can read a book in a day, and I strongly believe in horoscopes. I’m not the most popular person at my school, but I’m okay with that. I love being who I am, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Millennials, I implore you to stop listening to American Top 40 and start marching to the beat of your own drum. Stop chasing after every single fad that comes along. Take some time, and figure out what it is that you like, what makes you special. When you do, be sure and tweet me, because I love making new friends.

“Today you are you, that is truer than true.
There is no one alive that is youer than you!”--Dr. Seuss

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

My TBR List Expands by a Million. (Also, THE scariest/most gruesome/and somehow most gorgeously written book I've ever read)

Revising a book--at least the way I work, with 8+hour days broken into chunks and interspersed with multiple dog-walkings--tends to leave me with less time for reading. There's also the factor that my brain is pretty much fried when I shut my computer down at the end of the day. Over the past few months, I've read some good stuff, but not nearly as many books as I usually read. One or two chapters and I'm conked out on my pillow.

But all of this is about to change (I hope) in the next day or two, when I FINISH this draft and send it off to my critique partner. (OH DEAR GOD PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE let this book that I have been struggling with on and off since 2009 not be an unreadable/unfixable mess.)

I will have lots to read while I (anxiously) wait for my lovely critique partner's response. As you may remember, I have stacks of books teetering in rickety piles around my house. But those piles are going to be pushed aside for the time being to make room for more books:

1. Holly Schindler, YA Outside the Lines administrator and writer friend, asked me if I'd like to take a look at the ARC of her newest novel, Feral. (Like I needed to think even two seconds about that request. Um, heck yeah, I'll read it!)

2. Some extremely cool news that I still can't quite believe: Simon & Schuster invited me to go on a group YA author 6-city book tour through California. The tour is called The Summer Lovin' 2.0 Tour. (When I heard this, I had to laugh. Thin Space could not be more opposite of "summer" or "lovin," but I have decided to keep this on the down low.) A perk of the tour is a box of books authored by my fellow tour-ers. (See here for dates/cities/event sites) And here's a sample of what will be in the box:

3. The other bit of cool news is that librarians in Florida chose Thin Space to be on the Florida Teens Read list. How this works, I think, is Florida teens read and vote on their favorite of the books. I don't have a chance in hell of winning, but just to be on this list is something. I've read 3 of the books (Eleanor & Park!! The Fifth Wave!! The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight!!) but now I am eager to check out the others.

Okay, last but not least, and probably what you have been waiting for--the scary, gruesome and gorgeous book.

It's called Scowler by Daniel Kraus and it came on my radar a few months ago when it won the prestigious Odyssey Award --given to the best audio book of the year. I scrolled around on Goodreads and saw blurbs like this:

"Horrifically gory and intense"

"This book is true horror. Not horror in the sense that EEK! something might jump out at you, but horror in a deep, visceral, cerebral way...Pervasive terrifyingness based on the fact that everything you thought was safe and comfortable is monstrous -- including your own being."

"This book almost made me throw up. Seriously."

"Fair to say I had to put down my sandwich a couple of times while reading this, and I have a cast-iron stomach." 

So, yeah. I checked out the audio.

Here's the teaser: A desolate farm in the middle of nowhere. A teen boy lives there with his chatty younger sister and single mom. The dad's not around and we know something REALLY bad happened like ten years ago that got the dad thrown in prison and messed this boy up in ways that are still messing him up in the present. Also, a meteor is about to crash on the farm. One day a stranger comes to town. Turns out he's an escaped convict. He knows the father. The father may or may not be on the loose too and heading in their direction...

I made it maybe two cds into the audio and I realized something about audio books: you cannot stop listening to them. You cannot look away. The words, the images just keep assaulting you. My teeth were gritted together and my heart was racing as I was driving. The story is riveting and I was dying to know what was going to happen to these people, but I had to give up on the audio and head for the relative safety of the book.

Gruesome stuff aside, this is a powerful novel about abuse and family relationships. Highly recommend--if you have a strong stomach.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

In Which I Remind Myself to STOP Comparing Myself to Other Writers (also, a huge favor!!)

I know two great truths about writing:

Trust the process. 


Every writer's process is different. 

Despite the fact that I know these two statements to be true, I doubt them all the time. 

I have to learn over and over that if I write a bit every day, I will eventually reach the end of a draft. And regardless of how messy it is, if I go back IN, I will eventually manage a second (and third and fourth and fifth) draft. And each draft will be a tad better than the draft before. And finally, if I keep at it, I will write THE END on the manuscript and it will truly be THE END. 

I also have to learn over and over to stop comparing myself to other writers. 

Back story: I am struggling mightily with a revision. For several months I worked my butt off every day on a fourth draft (or maybe it was a fifth draft. I don't even know anymore). This was a daily struggle that honestly felt like a battle.  But I am nearing (I HOPE!!) the end, and I am (ALMOST!) ready to send it off to my agent. 

I was feeling kinda proud of myself, and then I participated on a panel discussion with a group of eight other YA writers and someone in the audience asked a question about our writing process. 

Everyone sounded so disciplined and serious and confident and cheerful. 

Mindee Arnett, author of The Nightmare Affair (which is a trilogy) and Avalon (which is also a trilogy) calls herself a "pantser who likes to ask for directions." She writes fast drafts, without outlines, and logically plots out her story as she goes. (Oh, I should mention that Mindee has a full-time job, little kids at home, and a horse farm.) 

Mindy McGinnis, author of Not a Drop to Drink (recently optioned for film by Stephenie Meyers' production company) is a full time high school librarian who writes her books at night. 

One of the writers works when her son is at kindergarten. Another churns out romance novels. Two of the writers work as a team and co-write their books. 

And so it went, until it was my turn. 

I have no full time job. One of my kids is away at college and the other has a foot eagerly out the door. I have entire days stretching out in front of me with no real obligations except walking the dog. Every day I have the best of intentions to start my work early, and every day I do everything I possibly can to NOT start working, until finally the pressure becomes so great that I want to tear my hair out of my scalp. Only then, do I open my file and begin. 

I've talked to many writers over the years and am always fascinated by how they work. 

Alan Gratz writes these detailed 60 page outlines before he even begins writing his books.

Kristin Tubb thinks through her scenes--every descriptive detail and movement and bit of dialogue-- and when she is ready to write, it all just scrolls out.

And here's me:

I write with very little idea where my story is going. 

I take my story apart multiple times and put it back together. 

I stress over every damn choice I make. 

I make outlines and checklists and excel spreadsheets and index cards and posters. 

I draw maps and build papermache sets. 

I rant to my husband about plotholes until he hates me. 

My writing partner --the sweet blessed friend who has read all of my drafts for the past 6 years -- is afraid to talk to me without first tiptoeing around and saying stuff like, Now this is really good. There's hardly anything you're going to have to do to fix it. Maybe, two or three days at most... (because she's learned how resistant I am to hearing criticism despite how RIGHT it is)

I visit schools and libraries and I talk to beginning writers and more seasoned ones and I tell them that there is no RIGHT way to write, that writers figure out their own process, that even after you do think you know what you're doing, you may have to figure it all over again with each new book.

I bet I sound so confident and serious and self-disciplined and freaking cheerful.  

So now I've got a great favor to ask my writing friends: 

I'm putting together a powerpoint for an upcoming revision talk for an SCBWI regional conference. I'd love to show visual representations of how writers write. If I choose yours, I'll give you full credit and talk up your book at the conference. See below for examples:

William Faulkner wrote on his walls... 

Laurie Halse Anderson's "road map" of her latest critically acclaimed novel The Impossible Knife of Memory.

Notes on my book Thin Space

If you're game for sharing, shoot me an email jodycasella (@) yahoo (.) com 
Include a photo of how you write with a sentence or two of explanation. 
Deadline: June 30 

Thanks so much!