Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Facing Failure A How-To in Three Parts. Part Three: Waiting

So, my blog is called On the Verge, and for those of you who are just now joining me, let me explain why: because I have been on the verge of book publication for what has been a very looooong time. I had this cute little thought back in the fall that maybe I could document my on-the-vergeness in this blog, secretly thinking that what I would really be documenting was my just around the corner book deal(s). Alas, that hasn’t happened and I find myself doubling down on a dream that seems about to come true and at the same time feels as if it is slipping away.

A few months ago I heard one of those inspirational writer/speakers say at a conference that it was amazing to her how many writers quit “right as they were about to cross over.” I nodded smugly and thought, no way was that going to be me. “I will never quit,” I said. “I will keep writing until I take my last breath. Because if there’s one thing I know about myself it is that I never quit anything. And anyway, I love writing for the sake of writing. Blah blah blah.”

Okay, I didn’t actually say the blah blah part. But I should have. I have had many close calls over the years, many moments when it seemed I was about to cross over. And many many more disappointments. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve given myself a version of this buck up/keep writing pep talk.

I do keep writing. But it’s remarkable to me that each day is just as difficult as the day before. I know I’m going to do it, and yet I struggle each time I face the blank computer screen, wavering between self-doubt (that this exercise is pointless and stupid; never mind that this is the worst writing ever) and elation (that what I’m doing is wonderful, amazing, and sure to be published).

And let me say a word here about how I’ve been defining success as being published. I truly wish I didn’t define it that way. But there it is. I want these books of mine to be edited and published and displayed on bookstore and library shelves (and/or zoomed out electronically to people’s Kindles). I want people I don’t know to read them. I want to get paid for my efforts. I want to be (okay, I’ll say it) praised.

None of this is under my control. I get that. Daily I war with myself about why it matters to me to have this outward recognition, and daily (usually) I make peace and decide that writing for the sake of writing is enough.

I am not writing about this struggle because I want people to feel obligated to respond with encouragement. Believe me, I am long past the need for my friends and family to say: Oh, Jody, we love you. Don’t quit now. The truth is I’m trying to figure out myself what has kept me writing all these years. I have a sneaky suspicion lately that THIS may be all there is. That I may never get that book deal. And what am I going to do with that realization? Can I keep writing anyway?

I honestly don’t know the answer.

My son and I have been having these deep philosophical discussions about the meaning of life courtesy of his 11th grade English teacher who seems to be into these things. He had to write a paper about perception of reality in TS Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.” It was my son’s thesis that people make their own realities, perceiving the world through a certain lens, and if that is so, then why not choose an optimistic outlook? If you don’t know that poem, the speaker is a depressed, middle aged guy who at the end imagines these mermaids singing but says that he doesn’t think they’re singing to him. My son said, geez, if you’re going to make up mermaids, why not go all the way and imagine that they are singing to you? It’s your dream, right?

I mentioned in my last post that one of the things that kept me writing for so long was the little bits of encouragement I’d gotten along the way. These were signs, I believed, that I should keep going; that inevitably, if I didn’t quit, my dream would have to come true. Okay, many days that little smidgen of hopeful thought doesn’t work for me. But here’s the strange thing: I write anyway. Every day. I set a word count goal and I reach it. Every day. This may not mean anything. In all likelihood I am a silly person writing sentences with a stick in the sand. But on the other hand, it may mean everything. My stubborn inability to quit has gotten me this far. If can shape my reality any way I choose, here is what I choose—

It’s my dream. And I choose to hear those damned mermaids singing.
I choose to hope while I wait.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Facing Failure A How-To in Three Parts. Part Two: Working

I used to think it was hard to talk about my dream of being a writer. (See Part One: Wanting) What I didn’t realize was that talking about it was the easy part of this whole process. It’s much harder to actually DO it. Write, I mean. Over the years I’ve met many people who confide that they like to write too. Usually, they add the word but. But, they don’t have time. But, they started something and it didn’t go anywhere. But, they have an old messed up draft of a manuscript in a drawer and they don’t know how to fix it.

I wish I could say I had a magic answer for these people. I went to a conference once where the keynote speaker, a critically acclaimed and prolific children’s writer, said she did have a magic answer. The people in the auditorium sucked in their breaths, grabbed their pens and notebooks, and leaned forward to wait for the guru’s advice.

It came down to three letters, the speaker said. BIC.

“Bic?” everyone around me whispered excitedly.

But I let out an annoyed sigh. I’d already heard those letters. And there wasn’t anything magic about them. BIC stands for Butt In Chair. In other words, if you want to write a book, you need to put your butt in a chair and write the book. This is easier said than done too. It’s amazing how many millions of other things you can find to do each day. If you have a day job, of course, you’re busy with that. But then there are the things you’ve got to do at home, the day-to-day life kinds of things like cleaning toilets and carpooling and paying bills. Add to that the dumb stuff like scrolling around online and watching inane TV shows. If writing really is your dream, though, somehow you’ve got to let those things go (or at least put them off) and make writing your priority. If you want to get better, you’ve got to practice. Which means writing something, anything, every day or most days.

So over the years I did this. I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Stories. Articles. Book reviews. And book after book after book. And then complete revisions of those earlier books. I am almost embarrassed to say how long I have been doing this and how much stuff that I have churned out that has gone nowhere. A sane person would have to ask WHY?

Here’s my answer. When I was in grad school I was the managing editor of the university’s literary magazine. My job was to log in submissions and pass them on to the editor. If the piece was rejected, I mailed it back with a form letter slipped into the poor writer’s return envelope. The stories the editor wanted to publish got a nice personal letter with details about when the story would appear and how the payment was two free copies of the magazine. (woohoo!)

Quickly, it became clear to me that the majority of the submissions were bad. (The editor never let me cull through the slush pile for her, but even I, a lowly grad student, could see that a manuscript with a ripped first page and a coffee stain in the corner was probably not going to fly. I was amazed at the poor quality of so many of those stories. Misspellings. Basic grammatical errors in the first paragraph. Never mind the writers who clearly hadn’t researched what this magazine was, who sent romance stories or westerns or articles about parenting.) I never did a statistical analysis but I would guess that at least ninety percent of the stuff that came through fell into this “bad” category. The remaining ten percent was good. Really good. But the magazine only came out four times a year. The editor couldn’t take all the good stuff. Some of it came down to her personal taste. Or just bad timing, if we had published something on a similar topic the issue before.

I felt sorry for those good ten percenters. They got the same form rejection letter as everyone else. The editor simply didn’t have time to respond to each one personally. And I wondered, wouldn’t it be nice if I could let them know? Hey! This is good but we just can’t take it. But please, don’t give up. Sometimes the editor did find the time to scrawl out a Nice Work. That meant something and I hope the writer on the receiving end understood that.

When I started sending out my own manuscripts years later, my time as managing editor made me majorly anal about following the editorial rules. I researched the market before I sent my submission to make sure what I was sending was appropriate. I only sent my best work out and I was careful about the appearance of it. I was rabid about catching typos, etc. As the form rejection letters rolled in, I agonized over what category I fell into—if I was one of the ten percent who had potential. Or if I (gulp) wasn’t.

Let me tell you, whenever I got a rejection with a hastily scrawled nice story written across it, I pinned it up on my wall. This, I hoped, was my proof.

I told you that story because it’s the answer to how I’ve been able to keep writing all these years. I hold onto every smidgen of positive reinforcement I have ever received and I use it as fuel. I can get up every morning and put my butt in the chair and write because I believe that what I’m writing will eventually be read by more than just a few family members and friends.

So let’s recap. To pursue a dream (and therefore risk failure), first, you must verbalize what it is. Second, you must do the actual work. The third part, I’m sorry to tell you, is the hardest part of all.

Up next: Waiting

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Book Review: Forgotten by Cat Patrick

Before I continue with my three part facing failure series, I must post a review of a book I read this morning while it’s still fresh in my mind. But first, I have to let you in on an awesome deal I’ve sort of stumbled into. The people at Cover to Cover, my favorite independent local kids bookstore, offered me several ARCs to review. (ARC is short for Advanced Reading Copy. Publishers send them out to bookstores and the media and now more and more lately to bloggers to review and hopefully create buzz before the books are officially released.) I jumped at this opportunity. Actually I felt like a kid in a candy store, salivating over the boxes of ARCs hidden away in the back room and wondering how many I could realistically carry out of there without looking too greedy. I took seven and told them I would only blog about the books I really liked. I don’t know how other bloggers feel about this, but I don’t see the point in spending time writing something negative. I know what goes into making a book. I’m not going to add to another writer’s pain by creating whatever the opposite of buzz is.

So that said, here is my first review of an ARC, and what I hope is my little piece of its ensuing buzz:

The book is Forgotten by Cat Patrick, edited by Nancy Conescu and Elizabeth Bewley at Little, Brown.

The premise immediately grabbed me. The main character, London Lane, wakes up every morning forgetting everything that happened to her the day before. (Sort of like the movie Memento, but this girl remembers the events of a particular day until her brain resets itself at 4:33 a.m.) There’s also an added twist in that she can see the future. The irony is that she can remember things until they actually happen and then she forgets them. So she takes a lot of notes, reminding herself what she wore and what assignments she needs for school and any other important details that will help her make it through the day without looking like a total flake.

Teen girls will love this book because there’s a cute boy,(whom our memory-challenged main character swoons over as she meets him every day for the first time), and there’s a mystery involving a future, creepy vision. Plus, there’s the added tension that builds as the girl (and the reader) try to figure out what messed up her memory in the first place and if it will ever be possible for her to change the future.

Couldn’t put it down and highly recommend. Look for it mid June!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Facing Failure: A How-To in Three Parts

Part One: Wanting
Pursuing a dream starts with two simple words. I want.

In order to go for something, it stands to reason you should be able to say what it is you’re going for. It doesn’t seem like this would be particularly difficult. But somehow it is. I had a friend who was always complaining about her weight. She was miserable but she couldn’t seem to do anything about it. One day I asked her, “Well, how much weight would you like to lose?” She began to make excuses about how hard dieting was for her, how she’d tried losing weight before and it never worked, how it was pointless to bother. I asked her again. How much? Twenty pounds? “Oh no,” she said, “I could never lose twenty pounds.” Well, how about ten? “I don’t know,” she said. Then I could tell she was getting annoyed with me, so I shut up.

But it got me thinking. My friend was afraid. If she said she wanted to lose a certain number of pounds, someone might hold her to it and what would happen if she couldn’t do it? Everyone would know—she would know—that she had failed.

I am not knocking this person. I’ve been there myself. There’s a huge risk involved in verbalizing your dream. Saying it, of course, does not simply make it happen. But if you don’t (or can’t) say what you want, well, you’ve pretty much guaranteed that you ain’t never gonna get it.

I have always wanted to be a writer. This was easy for me to say when I was a kid. In fact, I had no problem whatsoever telling anyone who asked me. My mother. My friends. Teachers. By the time I was in fifth grade I was known as the girl who wrote stories. When I was twenty-two, I was still saying it: I want to be a writer.

Then for some reason, I stopped saying it. And not long after, I stopped doing it. Suddenly, writing didn’t seem practical. I had no writer role models except for my professors. I needed to make money. I was growing up, and like a lot of people, I put away my dreams from childhood. I got married. I taught high school English. I had kids. I don’t regret any of this. But at a certain point I started to say the two words again, but only in my head: I want. And the sentence ended with to be a writer.

So I started writing again, slowly, here and there, whenever I might have a stretch of free time (in other words, not often). I went to a writers' conference. I took a correspondence course. I didn’t tell anyone (expect my husband) what I was doing. Writing was just a little hobby.

My big turning point came when I sold a story to a magazine. Then I sold another and with the money I was able to go to a writers' retreat. (Shout out to the people at Highlights, who put on the best retreats and conferences for children’s writers) That retreat was the first time in years that I told complete strangers that I wanted to be a writer. I think I was shaking when I said it. But when I came home, I kept saying it. I am a writer. It was liberating and scary. Liberating because it meant that I was acknowledging again what had once been my dream. And scary because I was opening myself up for questions like, well, what have you written? Which really means, are you published and can I buy your book at a bookstore.

The answer to that is no. But if you ask me what I do now, I will still tell you. I’m a writer. I don’t even shake anymore when the words come out of my mouth.

Tune in for the next installment of Facing Failure. Part Two: Working

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Top Teen Books

First, let me say that I am an adult who loves books for teens. I don’t know if this means that somewhere, maybe not very deep inside, I still am a teen at heart. (Okay. Yikes.) But I do write for teens. I used to teach them. (Although it’s probably debatable that real, useful information was actually transmitted from me to them.) One thing I do know for sure is that I love books about them.

Books for teens are faster paced. There’s a story at the heart of them, something that makes you want to keep turning the pages but at the same time makes you wish the world of the book wouldn’t end. The characters are faced with big problems, but the problems are believable and solvable in the end. There’s a real emotional core in many teen books. I will admit that I have cried reading some of them. There have only been a few adult books that have done that to me.

So, if you know someone who is a teen, or if you want to reconnect with your inner teen, or if you just want a good book to read on an airplane, here is a list of my favorite books from the past few months: (In no particular order)

1. Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver. Mean Girls meets Ground Hogs Day. The main character goes about a normal day, which for her means hanging with the popular girls, dating a jerk, cheating on a quiz, and drinking too much at a party. At the end of the day, she dies. So that’s surprising. But even more surprising, she wakes up and the day begins again. And again. And again. Somewhere along the way, she realizes that she isn’t a very nice person. What was interesting to me about this book was how much I was rooting for this bitch of girl to figure her life out and make things right.

2. Delirium also by Lauren Oliver. I want to do a shout out to Lauren Oliver here for writing two really good, very different books. I heard she is young (like still in her twenties) and I am totally envious of her talent. If she’s churning out books like this now, then she is on her way to being a powerhouse of YA literature. So, Delirium is one of those Post-Apocalyptic, Dystopian, Futuristic, Orwellian books that’s so popular right now. But with a twist. In this one, love is considered a disease that must be eradicated. The main character buys into this concept until a few months before her “procedure” when she meets a boy and falls in love.

3. Across the Universe by Beth Revis. Also dystopian fiction. The narrative goes back and forth between a boy and a girl. The boy is the soon to be leader of a strange spaceship allegedly heading to a better world. The girl has been cryogenically frozen for the future and accidentally woken up. Cool side note: this book appeals to both boys and girls (my 13 year old daughter and 17 year old son both read it and loved it. The key to selling them on it was the reversible cover. For the girls—it’s a romantic kissing shot. For the boys—it’s the blueprint of the spaceship.) Lots of interesting things to say about what it takes to be a leader, what it means to be normal, and the price a society will pay to survive.

4. Bruiser by Neal Shusterman. Girl meets boy. Brother hates boy. Boy has some strange powers. Girl and brother find themselves sucked into strange boy’s world. Lots of clever details. Funny and alternately horrifying. The mystery will suck you in and before you know it, you’ll be gasping out loud.

5. If I Stay by Gail Forman. This book was the focus of a glowing review on NPR recently, which is why I picked it up. Main character is in a car accident that kills her entire family and leaves her hovering in a coma between life and death. The characters are real and quirky and funny. (Hippy-ish parents. On the verge, rock star boyfriend.) Okay, I cried multiple times reading this book. And it has stayed with me. Apparently it has stayed with other people too, including the author, because she wrote a sequel, Where She Went, which is told from the point of view of the now famous rocker boyfriend. Here is a rare thing in the book world: I think the sequel was better than the original.

6. Stay by Deb Caletti. Yikes. I was chewing my fingernails through this one. Story goes back and forth between the present and the past. In the present a girl and her father are basically on the run from the girl’s stalker ex-boyfriend. In the past, we get to see how that relationship developed and twisted. Eventually the two narratives collide and you know the guy is going to find them. I loved this book. Somehow it was funny in places. And so real and believable. You LIKE the guy at the beginning, just like the girl does, before his dark side is exposed. There’s so much in here about love and obsession and guilt. Plus, there’s an added mystery where the girl discovers a secret about her parents’ relationship, a lie that her father has kept from her all these years.

A side note for the handful of people who took my book club challenge: (We’re reading The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett, On Beauty by Zadie Smith and Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins) I’ve read The Magician’s Assistant and loved it. But I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t quite get the ending. In fact, I came to the end and turned the page, thinking there had to be another page. Have I read so many children’s books that I’ve forgotten how to read a piece of adult literary fiction? I don’t know. But please please, someone else read this book, so we can talk about it….

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Caution: Writing May Be Hazardous to Your Skin

I didn't write much when my kids were little. Actually, I didn't read much either. Except for easy to pick up and put down magazine articles. The trouble is I get very easily lost in a zone when I'm reading. I am one of those people who can be reading the back of a cereal box and my husband will walk in the room and ask me a question and I don't hear him.

When I'm writing, it's even worse. I am embarrassed to admit that over the years I have set off my share of fire alarms while writing and cooking. I have left gas burners blazing on the stove for hours. I have literally bled on my keyboard and did not know it. (See my blog from December 7 for more details). And the other day I gave myself a nasty case of frostbite.

Yes, you read that correctly. Frostbite. What happened was my back has been aching lately (probably because of the bad posture that comes from sitting hunched over my laptop. Back pain is also a writing hazard for me.) So I slapped one of those first aid icepacks on my back and went to work. I did not happen to read the package where it said, don't keep in contact with skin longer than twenty minutes. I suppose this is one of those warnings that seems stupid. Like, don't keep your hand on a stove burner. You'd know that, right, if you were burning yourself? (or, in my case, freezing yourself.)

Well, I'm here to tell you that the zone I go into when I write is pretty wide and pretty deep. I've heard another writer describe it as a dark pool. If you're lucky, there are times when you step in, and sink down. The computer screen in front of you disappears and you're IN. Scenes unfold. Characters become real. And your only job is to take dictation. It's like watching a movie, but it's in your own head. (There are just as many times when this does not happen, of course. Those days, it's just me in my bathrobe, completely present, fiddling with sentences and chewing on my fingernails.) But when I am fortunate enough to be in the zone, the me that is busily typing away does not hear things like my husband clomping into the kitchen, or our daughter throwing a slumber party in the basement, or one of my son's friends kicking a soccer ball at the neighbor's house and smashing their garage window. And, apparently, that zoned-out me does not feel the skin on my back freezer-burning.

I did feel it later, after I finished my writing for the day and wondered why my back hurt more than it had before. Three cheers for Aloe.

The going into and out of the zone thing is tricky stuff. I'm not trying to say there is anything magic about it. (Although, the truth is, I think there is.) It's what happens to any person who gets very absorbed in what he's doing. If you really love what you do, you lose yourself in it.

The moral of the story is: Writing has its drawbacks (The not-quite healed, itchy patch on my back is a reminder of that). But it's also the best way I know to spend a day.