Thursday, December 27, 2012

Highs and Lows and Stuff in Between

There's a freaky quietness in my house, where I've found myself with like, one hour between the departure of Christmas guests and the arrival of New Year's guests. It's just me and the dog and a ton of dirty laundry. Plus, I've got to clean the bathrooms and figure out what I'm making for dinner (I'm leaning toward one of my favorite dishes called "Ordering Out for Pizza"), but instead I am sneaking off to write the world's fastest thrown together blog post, a wrap up of my year, inspired by one of my new writer friends from YA Outside the Lines, Stephanie Kuehnert--see here for her wrap up of her year.

Some people hate making New Year's Resolutions, but I am not one of those people. I'm all about goal setting and list making and crossing stuff off of lists. Also, I like to make new lists with the stuff I didn't cross off other lists. I've got broad yearly goals (last year I promised to earn money and to stop whining about potential book deals, which I am happy to say that I accomplished, for the most part). I've got weekly goals and daily goals and sometimes hourly goals. For example, "Turn off all social media and see how many words I can write in one hour. Go." When I don't meet my self-imposed goals, I feel antsy and annoyed and ticked off at myself. As self-disciplined as I am, there is always this worry in the back of my head: today I'm short on my word count goal, tomorrow I could be parked out on the couch watching a Bachelorette marathon.

At New Year's I like to take stock, see what I really did accomplish (and let fall through the cracks).

So here's my list.

On the writing front

Well, I got a book deal for my novel Thin Space! Which seems like the biggest accomplishment of all time, considering it was a goal I'd been working toward for as long as I can remember. The weird thing is that it felt kind of anti-climactic when it happened. I sort of knew it was going to come together last year around this time and it all got dragged out in a way that sometimes drove me insane. I got THE CALL in January but didn't sign the contract until the end of April, and then there were revisions to work on and other odds and ends, but the real making of that book felt long finished before 2012. Still. I am not complaining! I love this book and love the cool people (Beyond Words/Simon Schuster) who bought it, and have enjoyed participating in the whole publishing a book process.

But while all that was going on I was working on other things too. I wrote a first draft of a book that shall not be named here (yet). It's a raw, funny, painful, very personal and yet not personal, potentially cool YA--a giant mess of a first draft, probably the longest one I've every written, close to 100,000 words. I know this will be greatly trimmed and overhauled and revised some day. Not sure when. Haven't even looked at the thing since I finished it back in April. It's still, as Stephen King would say, marinating.

I revised Thin Space with an editor, my first working-with-an-editor experience and it was awesome. Here is one instance where I am grateful that it took me so long to sell one of my books. The old writerly me of fifteen years ago would've freaked out about the number of editorial suggestions and comments, wondering if I could even do what was needed. The me today is like, Bring it.

And after that, I plunged back into an old manuscript. This is my fourth time through it and probably won't be the last, but I think I am getting closer. I realized that my work this summer with my editor helped me as a writer too. I am almost embarrassed to say this, but the old writerly me used to look at a manuscript and know there was something off about it and think, let's see if an editor catches this, and if she does, she'll tell me what to do. Here's the thing: they don't really tell you what to do. They just point out what's not working. You're the one who has to figure out how to fix it. Sometimes it's going to take a lot of work. But what else am I going to do with my time? Watch Bachelorette reruns?

Kind of writer-related

I blogged fairly regularly and did some social media stuff: fixed up my website and made an author Facebook page and tweeted a bunch on Twitter (maybe too much?!) and compiled a mailing list and did some marketing/promotion research.

I set up a few school visits (my daughter's English class at the high school and a day with her old middle school language arts teacher) and had a blast dipping my rusty teacherly toes back into the classroom. I also dropped in on a creative writing club and a teen book club at a local library.
On the reader front

Here's where I feel kind of disappointed in myself. The year before I read 92 books and I thought that was on the low side. This past year I only read 72 (I keep track in a little notebook). My main problem (besides my obsession with my new iPad and the fun distraction of social media) is that I have such a hard time quitting on a book that I don't like. There were some weeks where I struggled through the same dumb book rather than flinging it across the room and picking up something I enjoyed. Lesson I must remember: when I love a book, it is no struggle at all to read it; in fact, it is the only thing I want to do. Books I loved loved loved this year in no particular order: Gayle Forman's Just One Day, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty, The Fault in our Stars by John Green, In the Woods by Tana French, State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, Every Day by David Levithan, All You Never Wanted by Adele Griffin.  

Not writer or reader related

Got my oldest child off to the college of his dreams and didn't fall completely apart. (It helped that we got a puppy.)

Took some cool trips--to NYC, to the beach in North Carolina, to a parents' weekend at my son's college, to a lake for a mother/daughter weekend trip.

But mostly I just lived my regular normal day to day life (besides a good 6 to 8 hours per day of writing) there's mothering my daughter and walking my dog and making meals and watching movies with my husband and visiting with neighbors and friends and putzing around in my garden. These are the things I don't write about and pretty much take for granted. Which is silly and sad, and I want to say something profound here about how those unexamined and non-reflected-upon moments ARE the moments that make up my life, and forget how many words I write or books I read or tweets I tweet, these are the moments that are truly important, especially when you think about how short life ultimately is or something horrible happens like what happened in Connecticut a few weeks ago and you know that those people would give anything--would give everything probably--just to have a mundane packing-a-lunch-for-their-kid moment back.

Oh! I want to write about this! But an hour has passed and my dog is barking and I still have toilets to clean and sheets to get on the beds and pizza to order for our wonderful dear amazing friends who will be here any moment...

(Choices part 4--from xkcd

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Interview with Mt. Everest Climber Andy Politz

E.L Doctorow said writing a novel is like driving in the fog at night. Author Laraine Herring says it's like traveling through Texas. I'm sure I'm not the only one, but I once compared it to running a marathon. (full disclosure: I have never run a marathon.) But you get the point. Sitting down to write a book, writing it, finishing it, is a long and arduous process. I suppose it is like any difficult (yet ultimately exhilarating) endeavor. It continues to fascinate me--where the drive comes from to take the first step on a journey and where we find the motivation to keep going.

As promised I'm sitting down today with pretty much the most motivated guy I know, climbing guru Andy Politz, to pick his brain about what compels him to do what he does and some of the cool things he's learned along the way. Andy doesn't take metaphorical journeys, he goes on real ones. Specifically, he climbed Mt. Everest. He's also a climber of other mountains, a mountaineering guide, a teacher, a motivational speaker, and a writer. And, he was on the team that discovered George Mallory's body (another story all together that you can see more about here and here and here.)

Jody: Whenever I do an author interview the first thing I always ask is where do you get your ideas? So, let's start there: where did you get your desire to climb?

Andy: I'm convinced that if you tap into the arena you're meant to be in, it's a life-changing situation. That arena will provide the skeleton that much of the rest of your life will be built upon and hang from. For me, it was one thing leading to another--from camping with the folks, through backpacking, some local rock climbing and ice climbing. All through high school I spent a month every winter climbing in New Hampshire. Right after I graduated I started guiding on Mt Rainier; I realized I had to be a climber and adventurer. I'd seen that college was not a necessary thing for me, that I would be able to make my way through my wits and being creative about how I made a living, incorporating adventure into the working world.

Jody: I like that "incorporating adventure into the working world." How many people can say they do that? What do you think makes a person want to go on an adventure, or I guess, follow any dream?

Andy: Our adventures are a rite of passage through a transition in our lives-- moving out of our teenage years, getting married, raising children, preparing to enter our later years, even preparing for the greatest adventure, our death. I'm convinced that the adventures we choose are a customized lesson to help us get through these stages.

Jody: Whoa. You know that makes a lot of sense. I'm thinking about how I started writing seriously when my kids reached middle school and were tired of their helicoptery mom hanging over them. And now I know a lot of people who are at the stage where they are empty-nesters and wondering what's up next, maybe they've decided to try something new--start a business or write a book or...climb a mountain. But that's just the beginning of a quest--making the decision to do it.

Andy: Right. As you progress through your new found arena, realize that the beauty surrounding you is your battery charger and that the failure you'll experience is the only true way you're going to discover your real capabilities and capacities.

Many of the significant challenges along the path remind us that the journey, whatever it is, is essentially a solo experience, and the course we set is bound to change as we gain a greater sense of ourselves. The most significant outcome, the goal, of our adventures, is to gain an understanding of managing a hopeless cause.

Jody: I like that about the beauty battery charger. It sounds like you're saying "enjoy the ride." And you're right about a lot of this being a kind of mental exercise. If you're talking about something like writing, there are all kinds of internal things that can derail you--self doubt and perfectionism, etc. For something physical, like what you do, a lot of it seems to be mental too--believing you can keep walking on, even though you're freezing and tired. But what do you mean by a "hopeless cause"?

Andy: How I see it is the adventurer is a specialist in operating outside his comfort zone; he's up to facing more hardship than is unacceptable to most people; and for him, fear comes along as a valued companion. There's also a relentless insecurity. You're always short of some essential element: be it time, gear, skill, insight, strength, knowledge or a do-over to replay a costly mistake. But here's what happens: in time, with enough experience, this stuff all gets taken in stride. The experienced adventurer learns to manage I can't, never, and impossible. If it is something you, deep down, really want (need?) to do--all those labels that come with "hopeless" can be worked around.

Jody: I think you hit on what's at the core of all this, the mental attitude that you adopt when you've decided to go for something. But, okay, what happens if you do that, and you still fail?

Andy: Now were talking about some thing I know well. I am probably an expert on failure. But if I am out to increase my life experience, or the beauty I'm exposed to, or some such experience, I have to frame out a situation bigger than I am. In many of these situations, failure is more than we may care to bear.  I've learned to model hazardous situations as best I can: break them down into small bite-size chunks, gain some understanding of what the hazards are and when they are likely to show up, and decide how I will likely handle them.

Doing this helps me show up with the right toolbox and gives me a little mental insight into what I'm getting myself into. Stopping is simply a matter of recovering from the consequences of an inexperienced  decision. It's no different from the idea that you need to do something 10,000 times to really learn it. Taking a break should be expected. Many times, that "break," has my "tail tucked between my legs"--I'm shuddering in fear and vowing to never go back there again.

Jody: But you do.

Andy: Yeah. With a little space and time, I see the mistakes I made, the strengths I had that were available but unused  and how I could have used the momentum of the situation to better advantage.

Failure? That is when you give up on the Grand Vision for your life. I believe it is still sitting dormant, deep down, in your soul with the loss of the exuberance of youth. But along the way you have acquired a strength, vision and fortitude, that can resurface later in life. Your Mt. Everest can still be climbed, even now. How you approach it today will be a far different approach than you would have 10 years ago, with a denser vision and greater tenacity.

Jody: Why did I think we were talking about mountain climbing? This is Pursuing a Dream 101. You shoot for something big. You bring your tool box. You take a break when you need to. You learn from your mistakes. You risk failure.

Here's something that occurred to me along the way in my writing journey: one day it hit me that there was a very real sense that what I dreamed--to be a published author--might not ever come true. Did you ever reach a low point like that, and what did you do?

Andy: Of course! The adventure does not necessarily have to be about climbing mountains, or rowing oceans, or skiing unsupported across Antarctica. But back to your question about hitting a low point, the most significant action I have taken to insure success, ironically, was to vow to quit. If I didn't get up Mt. Everest on my 4th attempt, I was walking away forever. In essence, you've got to realize the value of your project. Realize life is short and will end. I only have so many 'projects' I'll be able to accomplish this time around. So, imagine what Not Doing This will mean to you. Back yourself into a corner and quit or finish. Every action needs to be so that I can climb my Mt. Everest-- every meal, rest, book I read, step I take, so I can get up and spend a few moments in that rarefied air.

Jody: So, you put a deadline on it and then you doubled down and moved forward. I sort of did something similar. I knew I was going to have to go back to work if I couldn't earn any money writing and I put a date on that, and then just wrote more than ever in the mean time. But it was hard.

Andy: Most of my failures have been because it was so much more monotonous than I was prepared for. I was ready for winds that would blow me off a ridge, avalanches, rockfall, frostbite, high altitude sickness, the risk of falling, etc. But I hadn't previously been prepared for the sheer boredom of taking 18 hours to traverse a mile of ridge, out and back, at 28-29,000 feet. Boredom does not require action packed decision making. It is monotonous. I would venture that any monotonous situation can be turned into meditation. That realization has been incredibly valuable along the way.

Jody: Do you think can motivation be learned? Taught?

Andy: If you're in the right activity, there is no question about motivation.

Jody: You make it sound so easy, but I know you're right. We all have to find that thing we're passionate about. What still intrigues me is how some people are able to climb mountains and other people struggle to do things like get out of bed, go to school or work, or take care of their kids.

Andy: But you know what? I think climbing Everest is easy compared to showing up day after day and doing stuff like that. Everest is an amazing place and when you make it to the top, you get to walk down! Compare that to dealing with little kids pushing your buttons!

Jody: That's true. I don't know if you're giving yourself enough credit here though. You've been awesome talking to me today. Before I let you go, what are you working on now?

Andy: Climbing, writing, teaching...
In the last year I've been working on a long-term project:  Ascents of Honor . The group encourages Americans to share a common passion with returning veterans--to help them reintegrate into the community. The idea is that for every passion that a veteran may have, there are people in the community who share that passion. We're encouraging the people to invite vets in and help these folks get back on their feet. It's about the activity-- be it: building engines, sailing, songwriting and music, walking the Appalachian Trail, art, whatever--and of course, what I'm bringing to it is mountaineering--but it's even more about the community. This is a hard, hard situation these people are going through. I'm not proposing we become therapists. Just friends. And, that's very important no matter what journey we find ourselves on.

Let me add, Jody, and to all you writers out there--you can play an essential role here--there may be a vet down the street who needs some help getting a story composed. Team up with that person, and it's very likely to be life changing, on both sides of the paper.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Next Big Thing Blog Hop

The next big thing! This wonderful meme is allowing authors to write about their latest project in this fabulous blog hop.  I’ve been tagged by Patty Blount, my writing friend on YA Outside the Lines and author of Send, the new buzz-worthy YA novel about bullying.

Rules for The Next Big Thing Blog Hop if you’re tagged: 
1. Use this format for your post
2. Answer the ten questions about your current WIP (work in progress)
3. Tag five other writers/bloggers and add their links so we can hop over and meet them.

Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:

What is your working title of your book? 

Okay, I'm fudging the rules here because what I really want to talk about is my forthcoming novel Thin Space. 

Where did the idea come from for your book? 

A mix of two seemingly unrelated things. I saw an article in a magazine about Celtic thin places--places where the wall between this world and the world of the dead is "thinner." I misread the article and thought it said thin space, and the idea stuck with me. Around the same time I noticed this boy on my son's school bus who was always barefoot. It just bugged me--why didn't he wear shoes? How did he manage to walk around, in winter, barefoot? I mean, where were the kid's parents?

What genre does your book fall under? 

This should be an easy question. When I was writing it there were some days I thought it might be slipping into horror, but other days it felt like a mystery or a romance. This question is making me think I have no idea how to characterize what I write. I'll leave that up to other people. My publisher calls it a "reality-based paranormal" young adult novel.

Which actors would you choose to portray your characters in the movie version of your book?

I never thought about this before so I turned to an expert-- my teen daughter, who immediately said Josh Hutcherson should play my main guy Marsh Windsor. Hmm. I guess Josh Hutcherson might be able to pull off that brooding, tormented, yet sometimes jokey guy. For Maddie Rogers (the girl who helps Marsh on his finding a thin space quest), my daughter suggested Elle Fanning.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? 

I can never do this. I always want to just give my book to people and say, "Read it." So, cheating again--here's the blurb from my agency website: Thin Space is a paranormal YA mystery about a boy coming to terms with his twin brother's death.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? 

I am represented by the awesome Deborah Warren with East West Literary Agency. The book will be published by Beyond Words/Simon & Schuster on September 10, 2013.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? 

1 month. I signed up to do NaNoWriMo, where you pledge to write a novel in a month. But here's something interesting for those of you who think that you can write a novel in a month:

  • It took me 3 months to revise that NaNo mess 
  • another month after an agent looked at it (she rejected it anyway, but her critique helped)
  • another month for a different agent who ended up taking the project on (this was the agent before Deborah) 
  • 2 additional months after it sold and the editors highlighted some areas that needed work
  • another 2 months with a different editor during a very intense round of back and forth revisions
  • and 2 weeks with a copy editor who pointed stuff out like how many times I used the word "crap" in the manuscript (37. In case anyone is wondering) 

For a grand total of 10 months and 2 weeks.

What other books would you compare this story to in your genre? 

I can only dream of Thin Space being on the same level as these books, but--
Tighter, by Adele Griffin, a psychological horror story with a surprise ending
Twisted, Laurie Halse Anderson's coming of age novel about a struggling, angsty boy
Jennifer Castle's The Beginning of After, a contemporary YA about a girl grappling with her family's deaths in a car accident

Who or what inspired you to write this book? 

My daughter, who gave me a brilliant solution when I was floundering between draft one and draft two.

What else about your book might pique a reader's interest. 

You know that movie The Sixth Sense about the boy who can see dead people and how there's this really cool, unexpected twist at the end? Well, Thin Space has a few of those twists...

OK, time for me to tag some awesome writers!

(But first-- my disclaimer: Something that bugs me about chain lettery things is that icky sense of obligation you get when you feel like you've got to take part. So I took my cue from Patty and asked my writer friends first if they wanted me to tag them.) And here are the ones who've agreed so far:

Tracy Barrett my long time mentor and author of 19 books for children, and my new writer friend Jennifer Doktorski, (here's her post) a fellow Simon & Schuster debut author. (I've asked several other writers and will tag them officially after they agree) And thanks so much to Patty Blount for tagging me! Anyone else want to play along, let me know, and I will add you in.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Changing the Course of Your Life. (A Review of Gayle Forman's Just One Day)

Sometimes a book just clicks with you. The voice of the writer draws you in. You get the characters. You laugh and cry and cringe along with them. The entire world view of the author aligns with yours. I LOVE books like this. The bummer is that it's a rare experience to find one. The writer part of me usually doesn't let it happen. I analyze the experience as I'm going through it. Why'd she start with a prologue? What made the main character say that when the author just told us he was a different kind of person? It's annoying, to put it mildly. Still, as a reader I'm always hoping for that love whenever I flip back the first page of a new book.

So it just happened and now I want to shout out my joy. The book is Gayle Forman's Just One Day (pub date: Jan., 2013). I love Gayle Forman. Her two previous books If I Stay and Where She Went are among my favorites. She's edited by the amazing Julie Strauss-Gable at Dutton. Side note: Julie Strauss-Gable is my dream editor. If you're looking for good, absorbing books for your teens (or for you) start with any book on her list. (And what a list it is. John Green. Ally Condie. Stephanie Perkins. Nova Ren Suma. These people are the stars of YA literature.) 

Let me start with a brief summary. I don't want to give too much away and one criticism I have of the book is that the blurb on the back reveals a little too much. On the surface it's a love story. Obedient, sweet, good girl Allyson is on one of those see every country in Europe in a few weeks kind of trip and she's not having a good time. Her best friend from forever is bugging her. The endless touristy sites are boring. She's off to college in the fall and she just wants to get on with it. Then--she meets Willem, a handsome Dutch actor whose tooling around in England with a rogue Shakespeare company. The two spend an amazing day together that basically changes the course of Allyson's life. I'm not saying anything more about the plot.

Here's the thing about plot: there's only so many plots when you come down to it. Girl meets boy/girl loses boy is one. Then you have your character takes a journey story line. And your character experiences a death plot. I was talking about this the other day with a friend--telling her about a great book I read (shout out to Jennifer Castle here) The Beginning of After about a girl who loses her family in a car accident. I said to my friend: it's sort of a cliche' how many car accidents there are in teen books. Then I laughed. Because MY YA book starts off with a car accident.

So what is it about car accidents? Well, I think it's just a dramatic way to get your story going, push your character into a dark place she's got to figure out how to crawl out of. What's really going on in these books is the character is discovering who he or she really is. It's the classic Coming of Age theme. Death tends to make you think about that kind of thing. Also, Love.

Back to Just One Day. Willem is the catalyst for Allyson's journey--meeting him forces her to question the sleepy obedient good girl way she's been living her life and wonder if there's another path. There's lots of traveling in this book, both actual traveling (that will make YOU want to travel, I promise) and metaphorical traveling--a true mental and emotional journey for this girl, who could be every girl on the cusp of becoming a woman--a person.

Which means learning what you want to do with your own life, what you love and what you hate (is this best friend truly your best friend? Do you really want to study Chemistry? How do you want to cut your freaking hair?) and discovering that you might have more control over these decisions than you realized. Because we are talking teens here, there's an interesting and kind of heartbreaking subplot about throwing off parental expectations too. I've written about this before--how often in YA books you have either non-existent parents or neglectful/abusive ones. It's disturbing. But the vehicle is a symbolic way to highlight this necessary growth process. If you ever want to be the hero in your own life, inevitably, you've got to shuck off the parents and strike out on your own. I love how Gayle Forman handles Allyson's helicoptery parents. They are the antagonists (particularly the mom) but they are not villains. They're complex, flawed, well-meaning people. (Or maybe this was just  MY reading, because I've got helicoptery mom tendencies in me!)

All of the characters in this book are complex and real. The best friend who keeps changing her hair style and clothes so that Allyson hardly knows what the girl will look like each time she sees her. The new best friend, a cool African American guy who's brilliant and funny and wise to the ways people wear different masks depending on who they're dealing with. And of course, the GUY. Mysterious and beautiful Willem--the boy every girl yearns for--the one who gets our jokes and says we're pretty and who when he touches us makes us feel an electric current running straight to our hearts.

Who cares about the boy though? 

Here's the great thing about this book. It's Allyson's story. It's potentially every girl's story. Could something that happens on just one day change the entire course of a person's life?

Why not?

Buy this book for your daughters, people. And then you read it too. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Bronchitis, Broken Toenails, and Why Some People Never Quit until They Reach Their Goals

One of my family's favorite movies is Gattaca. If you haven't seen it, it's set in a futuristic society where people are tracked based on biological tests taken before birth. Those with genes that predict high intelligence, strength, and/or talent are chosen to live at the very top of society. Everyone else is doomed to slog away at the bottom. The main character, played by Ethan Hawke, is one of the unlucky slobs stuck forever on the lower rung. But what the Powers That Be don't recognize in this supposedly perfect, meritorious world is the role that motivation plays in success. Our main character wants to achieve his dreams and through sheer determination (spoiler alert) he does.

When I was teaching high school English I used to have these long, painful talks with the parents of students who were failing my class. Most of the time it had nothing to do with the kid's intelligence; in fact, many of my "struggling" kids were very smart, but for some reason they just didn't care about doing well in school. The parents gave me various reasonable excuses for their kids' failures. After-school jobs, for example. Or intense sports schedules. Some of these kids were parents themselves and had to take care of their own children. One woman told me, in complete seriousness, that she traced all of her son's problems back to when she had to switch his baby formula from milk to soy-based.

I never knew what to say to these parents. They wanted an easy answer, a magic pill to inspire motivation. But there's only so much you can do to make another person (even if that person is your child) DO something. There's an element of intrinsic desire--wanting to do whatever it is--and then there's the self-discipline necessary to continue working toward it. You could be talking about something very simple: wake up, get to school on time, and do your homework, but for some people you might as well be telling them to go climb Mount Everest.

Funnily enough for the purposes of this blog  post, I actually know someone who climbed Mount Everest.  Andy Politz, cool dad of my son's best friend, climbed the mountain seven times, making it to the summit once. Climbing a mountain, any mountain, is something I have absolutely no desire to do. Still I'm fascinated by Andy's experiences, and every time I see him, I pester him with questions.

Summiting Everest is a pretty big deal. It costs quite a bit of money. It involves putting your life on hold for roughly three months. Once you get there and begin the trek from camp to camp, acclimating yourself to the higher altitude, the conditions are, to put it mildly, uncomfortable. It's freezing. It's difficult to breathe. Plus, Andy told me, it's also kind of boring at times. But every year a few hundred people manage to reach the summit.

Many more people turn back. Some stuff is out of their control. A freak snowstorm. A broken leg. Others quit because they get sick or they break a rib. Andy doesn't see those reasons as good excuses. Everybody breaks a rib, is how he puts it. Everybody has bronchitis. 

Of course as he was telling me this, I was thinking, geez, bronchitis seems like a pretty good reason to me to quit. (Which is clearly why I will never climb Mt. Everest.)

Apparently, I will also never hike the Pacific Crest Trail, unlike Cheryl Strayed, the author of the absorbing new memoir Wild.

Wild is a classic coming of age story with a how-to hiking manual twist. At the beginning of the book, the author's mother dies and it sends her into a downward, self-destructive spiral. One day she gets it into her head that she'd like to hike 1000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, this despite the fact that she's not much of a hiker and has never carried a backpack. The book is about how she does it. Alone. Carrying her insanely heavy pack. And wearing boots that don't fit her properly, leading the poor, suffering woman to have to tear off her broken and dying toenails every couple hundred miles.

Here's what I'd love to know: Where does motivation, that drive some of us have to reach a goal, come from? And what keeps us striving toward it, putting one (throbbing) foot in front of the other, rather than giving up when the going inevitably gets tough?

Anyone who knows the answers to these questions, feel free to weigh in.

Tune in soon for Andy the Mount Everest climber's response.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Guest Blog from a Teen Reader (Jane, age 15): The Person who Changed my Life (and is still changing it)

For a few months now my mom has been begging me to write a guest blog for her (she was literally on her knees at one point. Mom gets really intense with this sort of stuff). I wanted her to stop feeling so betrayed and neglected, so I went ahead and wrote one. Except that I didn’t.

I would write an introductory sentence and then quit because it sounded like I was too scholarly, too athletic, or too great of a teenager. As my mom’s only daughter, I felt as though I had to produce a magnificent blog that would forever rule the blogosphere. A blog that would hit number 1 on the charts. Maybe I’m reaching for the stars here, but I’m kinda hoping to get a few more followers on Twitter also (I’m trying to break 100).

So I’m sure you are all curious as to what my awesome blog will feature. What literary works are included, who the person is who changed my life, does my mom still feel betrayed and neglected, etc. Well, keep reading, because within the next few paragraphs your questions will all be answered. You should be aware though, after reading this blog, you might shed some tears, be nostalgic of your teenage years, wish you had a friend like I do, and have an insane urge to follow me on Twitter.

So I have this friend. Her name is Ella. She currently lives a few houses away from me and she refuses to stop changing my life. I mean really, she refuses to stop.

Ella has been there through thick and thin. She has been there through panic attacks, bloody noses, tears, and even pee. Yes urine. I have peed my pants more times around her because of laughter than I have peed in a regular toilet. We are so close, that people tend to see us as a married couple--we have our own sides on the bed and we bicker a lot.

We are so close, that the one and only LAUREN OLIVER, author of my favorite book, Delirium, knows us as the Dream Team. At the book signing where we met her, she even told us to make a picture book about our friendship. This picture book will feature a Giraffe named Jane and a Bear named Ella. It will mostly be a collection of mediocre drawings and hilarious animal puns. The title: The Tails of Jane and Ella (That’s the literary work section of this blog. Sorry to let you down). Ella and I are so close that I am often found wearing a pair of her underwear because of a mishap with my bladder. The two of us are so damn close that my very own mother has called me Ella.

Ella has taught me to stand for something. She is as independent as they come, she knows what makes her upset and what doesn’t. She seems to really get it, the whole stand for what you believe in thing. She has helped me carve out what I believe in and what I don’t. She has urged me to go further with my beliefs and everything that I stand for. So the following paragraph is for you, Ella. So that you know that you have made an impact on me deeper than anyone ever.


I’ve finally found what I believe in. And it sucks that it has taken this much tension and tears for me to understand and find it. But here it goes: I believe in us. I believe that our friendship should last a lifetime. I believe that even though we are both different and similar in every way, that we will continue to stay friends. I believe that we will always love each other in that sisterly yet oddly marital way. I believe that we will always be set apart from the crowd as best friends forever. Because, E, I don’t need a religion or a God or a heaven, I don’t need a prayer to say before bed or a church to eat donuts in every Sunday for me to find my beliefs. I have you. 

I stand for us. 

So there. I said it. Feeling nostalgic yet? Feel those tears creepin’ up? Do you feel that urge to follow me on Twitter because I have sparked feelings that you didn’t even know you had? I haven’t answered one question yet- No, my mom does not feel betrayed or neglected anymore--I made the blog, didn’t I?


May the Dream Team last forever.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Interview with Alan Gratz

My son at age twelve was a huge reader, devouring non-fiction books on history, science and engineering. He didn't read much fiction, but when he did, it was for adults, something that disturbed me as a writer for children. Basically he skipped right over the entire Young Adult genre to read stuff instead by Michael Crichton, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. Nothing wrong about that (he was reading!) and I'd heard that a lot of strong-reader boys do this, but I did wish that he'd read a few books now and then that were meant to be read by kids.

Enter: Alan Gratz.

I met Alan at a book fair shortly after his first novel Samurai Shortstop came out and we got to talking about his book and writing in general (I was just starting the long journey toward publication then and had a ton of questions), but eventually the discussion turned to boys and reading, and Alan, wise promotional guy that he is, said the obvious: "Why don't you have him read my book?"

That night I pitched Samurai Shortstop to my son. It's about a kid in early 1900's Japan torn between the traditional ways of his family and the more modern world as represented by baseball. The first chapter, where the boy watches his uncle, a samurai warrior, commit suicide, is an attention grabber, to put it mildly, and I knew it would draw my son in. It did. When he finished reading it, he said: "I had no idea there were books like this, books for me."

I told Alan my son's response and we've been writer friends ever since, meeting up at SCBWI conferences, and last year, when Alan was the resident children's writer at the Thurber House in Columbus, he was gracious enough to have dinner with my family. (My son, now in college, was particularly thrilled to meet Alan at last.) I've been itching to interview him for a while, and today I'm so pleased to be able to share Alan with my faithful blog readers:

Jody: Alan, I have to start with the question I ask every writer: Where do you get your ideas?

Alan: All over the place, really. I think the key is to be interested in lots of stuff. I have varied interests, and do a lot of reading about them. I get most of my ideas from those places. I'll read about corruption in the soccer world, or the possible murder of King Tut, or "Lost Cosmonauts" who may or may not have died in space, and I'll see story ideas in all of them.

Jody: And I bet you do what a lot of us do, which is take ideas that seem to have nothing to do with each other on the surface and find a way to connect them. I should mention here your novels Something Rotten and Something Wicked, modernized versions of Shakespeare plays crossed with hard-boiled detective stories. (English teachers take note: these are the perfect books to suggest to your classes after they've made it through Hamlet and Macbeth.) Very cool idea for a series, but you and I both know that the initial idea is only the beginning. How do you go from intriguing idea to full-blown novel?

Alan: I'm definitely a plan ahead/outline kind of person. It all started for me on Samurai Shortstop. Before that book, I was a seat-of-the-pants guy. But then I had lots of research to keep track of, so I developed an outlining system I still use to this day. I plan out each chapter in advance, and then move the specific research notes I need to tell just that part of the story beneath my brief summary. Then, when I'm ready to sit down and actually write, I have what happens at the top of the page, and underneath it, all the details I need to write it. I use that method now for everything, even for things that don't require research. I'm quite an outlining zealot now--but what works for one writer won't work for everyone. It's a matter of finding what system works best for you.

Jody: That's key here, I've learned over the years--finding what works best for you, and I can see how writing historical novels or stories based on well-known plots, such as Shakespearean plays would require up-front, logical drafting. My blog readers know that I fall on the opposite end of the spectrum--free writing first and worrying about logic later. The funny thing is that I am rigid when it comes to my writing schedule. I set a word count goal every day and have a hard time stopping until I meet it. What about you?

Alan: I don't have a set number of hours or pages to try and finish each day. Instead, I set weekly goals--I want to have this proposal to my agent, or get this book read and take notes on it, things like that. I work from around 9 or 10 in the morning until around 4 or 5 pm every day, usually not taking much time for lunch. (Maybe a bowl of chips and a quick check of the e-mail.) The greatest challenge in working for myself at home is eliminating the distractions of the Internet and family, all of whom are home with me.

Jody: I hear you about the distractions. How do you balance your writing time with your other obligations?

Alan: I try to think about my days as belonging to my job, and my evenings and weekends as belonging to my family. It doesn't always work that way, but I do try to think about it in terms of punching a clock. Lately, I've even tried to keep track of what I'm doing with my time all day, to better reveal where my time goes. It's illuminating--and kind of depressing. (Curse you, e-mail!)

Jody: Yeah, I hear that too, but it's so hard to turn it off. Email, Facebook, Twitter, etc., are such a big part of marketing and promotion for writers these days. What's your take on best practices for using social media?

Alan: I have a web site, and I'm active on Twitter. I have a personal Facebook page, which I should probably separate out and create a Fan Page, but I loathe Facebook, so I spend as little time on there as possible. :-) My wife and I have a family blog, but we've even stopped posting there so often. My attitude toward social media is that it's a great way to let people get to know you personally, and for you to get to know other people. I think social media is best used to gain personal fans and friends. If those people buy my books, all the better. But I dislike when people use social media solely to pimp their work, and I don't want to use it that way.

Jody: I totally agree. I hate the whole hawking a product angle some people take. I'd much rather use social media to build relationships with readers and other writers. This blog has helped me reach out too. All of us in this business are muddling along trying to navigate through the creative process as well as the publication end. It's nice to know how other writers manage it.

Something I was always interested in knowing when I was first starting out was how much work it actually took to get that first book published. At the beginning it seems so daunting, more of a pipe dream. How many books did you write before you got your first book deal? And as a corollary to that, how many rejections did you have along the way?

Alan: Samurai Shortstop was the third novel I wrote, and the first one I sold. I had finished the other two and was sending them out, along with Samurai Shortstop, when I sold SS through the slush pile. I still haven't sold the other two, but I recently took the first one out of the filing cabinet and am looking at revising it and giving it another go, thirteen years later!

I was just looking at my submission log for the first book. I sent it to eleven editors, and got eight requests for the full manuscript! I had no idea at the time what a great success rate that was. Maybe if I had realized it, I wouldn't have been so quick to put it away when Samurai sold. Samurai itself had something like 16 rejections before it sold. I had no agent at the time.

Jody: Eight requests is something else! And sixteen rejections isn't too bad either. But probably something new writers don't want to hear. I remember getting my first rejection and being devastated, but beyond that I was incredulous, like, how could they reject ME? You've got to get over that attitude pretty fast if you want to succeed.

Last thing before I let you go--I realized that I didn't ask you about your new projects.

Alan: Well, I did have a YA Star Trek novel come out this year: Starfleet Academy: The Assassination Game. It kind of was a dream come true thing for me. I've been a Trekkie for as long as I can remember, and always wanted to write a Trek novel. I had a lot of fun writing it. It's set in the world of the 2009 movie reboot, with Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Bones, and the rest at Starfleet Academy in that three year period that's glossed over in the film. I put in a lot of references to the old show, which I hope fans of the original will enjoy.

My next book is Prisoner B-3087, a fictional account of the Holocaust based on the true-life story of Jack Gruener, who survived ten different concentration camps as a boy. His story is amazing, and I was honored to be able to tell it. It's heavy stuff, but I didn't pull any punches, even though the book is squarely middle grade. Glossing over the pain and suffering diminishes what these incredible people went through. As we become farther and farther removed from it in time, it becomes even more important to continue to tell stories like this, so we never forget.

Jody: Wow, Alan, I'm eager to take a look at those. I can't get over how versatile you are as a writer--with YA and middle grade, in all different genres from fantasy to sci-fi to historical. You've got the boy book market cornered, but I know from my own reading experience that your books appeal to girls, as well as to adults. Best of luck with your new projects and thanks so much for talking with me today.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Woo Hoo! My Book Has a Cover!!

Today I got word from my publisher that my forthcoming novel Thin Space officially has a cover!

I should probably blog about it--describe what goes on behind the scenes in the cover-designing process and the role the author plays in this (not much).


I could discuss book covers in general, throwing out thought-provoking questions such as: Should we judge a book by its cover?


I could write about how I felt about seeing the cover for the first time--what a complete goofball I've been, setting the cover as my screen saver so I could gaze upon it all day and pestering my family and friends to gaze upon it too.  


I could forget all that and just show it you.


Thursday, November 1, 2012

NaNoWriMo aka Traveling through Texas, Stepping off a Cliff without a Bridge, Driving in Fog (Pick your Metaphor)

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” --E.L. Doctorow

It's November 1st and apparently most of the writers I know have signed up to do NaNo.

NaNo, for the uninitiated, is short for NaNoWriMo, short for National Novel Writing Month, in which clueless--excuse me. I mean ambitious--writers pledge to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. There are no prizes, but you do win a nifty virtual badge if you complete the journey. No one on the site reads your 50,000 word effort. Alas, no agents or editors will dig through the entries looking for the next Great American Novel and offer you a contract on Dec. 1. You could conceivably write the word "Bluh" 50,000 times if you so desire and still win.

What you do get out of it is a cool, committed (and possibly you should BE committed by the end of the crazy month) group of writers all trekking along on the same book-writing road. You can friend them on the site and follow their progress and of course they can follow yours too, keeping everyone motivated. If you're a floundery sort of writer, who needs a little push to get going each day, (and who doesn't?), NaNo provides a clear cut deadline. They'll send you helpful tips and inspirational emails written by various successful authors. And there are other fun perks. My favorite is the colorful graph that shows your growing word count with 50,000 at the top. Mine always looks like nice even steps. I like that--a neato visual reminder that each day I am getting somewhere with my writing.

Of course, what you are actually getting, if you make it to the end of NaNo, is a big ole mess of a first draft. Don't let anyone fool you. Even the few writers who have parlayed a NaNo project into a published book will tell you: YOU WILL HAVE TO REWRITE THIS THING.


NaNo will teach you fairly quickly (I'd say on like, day 4 or 5 it should hit you) that writing a book is freaking hard. Forget the part about having a cool idea. Forget how creative you are and how you love to read and how you once wrote a story in college. What you're going to need to complete NaNo is some serious discipline. Every day you're going to have to go back IN THERE, into your cobwebby head, into your pathetic mess of a book, that by day 10 is probably not even the book you thought you were writing anymore, and, uh, keep writing it.

Also, there's Thanksgiving to think about. Really bad timing for many of us, thanks NaNo people.

So for the record, I have "completed" NaNo and won my badge four times. My NaNo project number two will be published next year (after MULTIPLE REVISIONS). I am not signed up to do it this year (I'm knee deep in revisions of a different NaNo project), but I confess that I am a tad envious of those of you about to embark on this crazy fun relentless journey today.

You might be asking yourself at this point: Why?--Why would I be envious when I just made such a big deal about how hard NaNo is. Last night I was following a YA Lit Chat on Twitter about NaNo. There were a few agents on there griping about how much NaNo annoyed them. What happens, I guess, is that every year in December they get deluged with a bunch of crappy NaNo novels. Don't query them with that junk, was their main point. Some of the writers, newbies just about to dip their toes into the NaNo waters, were immediately discouraged and bummed out. The night before Nov. 1, no one wants to hear that the awesome idea they have for a novel is going to inevitably be a giant ball of suck in 30 days. Sheesh, some of them whined. Why should we even do this? 

A twitter chat doesn't give you much space to work with, so here's my response to these wavering, formerly gung ho newbies about why they shouldn't be too bummed out by the agents:

1. Agents are NOT writers. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say they don't understand the process. (No offense, agents.)

2. Writing a novel is hard, but you have to start somewhere. Committing yourself (there's that crazy word again) to getting something down--something with hopefully a beginning, middle, and end, rough as it may be--is a worthy goal. Laraine Herring compares writing a book to driving through Texas. It's a ridiculously long journey, but if you keep driving, you will eventually reach the border.

3. Doing NaNo will kill (or at the very least, muffle) that pesky internal editor voice that streams along in your head as you write, telling you that what you write is crappy and stupid and pointless. You don't have time for that voice during NaNo. If you want to finish, you are going to have to keep writing those crappy words. NaNo is about quantity not quality. Repeat that after me: quantity not quality. Write it on a sign and tape it to your computer screen. No, you are not writing the word Bluh over and over, but some days it will feel like it. Whatever. Keep writing anyway--

4. --because a finished first draft is a beautiful wonderful masterful amazing thing simply because it is finished. There is a saying that you can't revise a blank page. Come December first, congratulations! You've got a whole bunch of pages to work with. In January. Forget December. Really. Just give yourself a break that month. You just wrote a freaking 50,000 word novel for God's sake.

5. You are going to find out what you are made of when you do this--when you delve back in day after day, and keep writing, not knowing exactly where you're going, but inching along, word by word, regardless. Yes, day 4 or 5 it will hit you how insane the pace is, but if you stick with it, in a few more days, something is going to click. Your story is going to take off in a direction you didn't plan, with characters who have minds of their own. Let them GO. Follow them. This is the fun magical part of writing that the agents don't understand.  It's where you step off the cliff hoping that a bridge will be there to catch your foot. Step off. It will be there. Eventually.

6. Now I'm going to bum you out again about how much work you will still have to do when you complete your NaNo draft. In January you are going to read it, with intense nausea, as you realize just how much of a big ole mess it is. But oh well. Nothing to do but go back into it again. And again. And again. Each time it will get better. You will keep stepping off the cliff. You will keep traveling along through freaking Texas. And some day, if you do keep traveling onward, the fog will clear, the sun will rise, and you will see the glorious border of New Mexico.

7. That's when you start querying the agents. And while you wait for them to respond, there will be nothing else to do but get back into your car, turn around, and start heading the other way.

Toward Arkansas.

Good luck, 2012 NaNo-ites.

Monday, October 22, 2012

In Which I Remember Who My Audience Is and Reevaluate my Teaching Career

The other day I had the awesome experience of speaking to a teen book club at the Westerville library in Westerville, Ohio. Great library, first of all, spacious and well-lit and comfy, with a cool teen books section. I can see why Westerville kids would want to hang out there. The group meets once a month and consists of about a dozen voracious readers, many of whom love to write as well. They instantly made me feel at home. Confession: I was a tad nervous going in, my first speaking-in-front-of-a-teen-group experience in quite a while. I was winging it (something as a former teacher, I should've known better than to do), planning to talk about my book and then take whatever questions they had.

As the kids filed into the room, I berated myself for not working out in advance a succinct and grabby description of my forthcoming novel. Why is it so much easier to plug other writers' books? MUST MUST MUST work on this! Thankfully, I hadn't come totally unprepared. I brought a bag stuffed with all the drafts of my manuscript--hey, maybe the kids would be interested in seeing how many times I'd rewritten the darn thing. Also an envelope of pictures of the numerous cover designs that the publishing company had come up with. That turned out to be a good instinct. The kids liked passing those around and speculating on what might be a cooler cover--after I told them a long-winded description of my book.

These kids were smart and talkative and interested, with their own stories to tell. We talked about unreliable narrators and books we liked and things that got stuck up our noses. Also, how to come up with titles and unlikely names for killers and what to do if the middle of your story starts getting boring. (Answer: make a character die.)

I walked out of there feeling amazed at the intelligence and creativity of these readers and writers and honored that they are my potential audience. Not sure how I had forgotten this. And not sure how I forgot how much of a charge I get out of speaking in front of a group of teens. I used to be a high school English teacher, and on the days I wasn't beaten down and exhausted and despairing about the next generation, I was recharged and hopeful and overflowing with love for "my" kids.

Like my writing journey, my teaching journey was long and bumpy too. It started when I got my first job a trillion years ago. Here's how optimistic and, uh, deluded I was during my interview:

Hiring principal: How would you handle behavior problems in your classroom, Ms. Casella?

Me: (smiling as butterflies flitted around my head) I don't think teachers have behavior problems if they love what they're teaching.

Pause, while we all have a good laugh about that statement. I can't believe the guy hired me. Also, can't believe he never once visited my classroom that year to see how my brilliant behavior management plan was (not) working. But this was a struggling high school, to say the least, with bigger problems than one silly teacher.

I don't think I made it to October that year before I was breaking down in tears every day. Yeah, I LOVED what I was teaching, but I didn't know that the majority of kids in high school don't LOVE being in high school, regardless of how fascinating their teacher thinks The Scarlet Letter is.

But I should've known, because when I was in high school, I didn't love being there either. I was a painfully shy outcast. I felt stupid most of the time. Hated being called upon. Hated the almost daily humiliations of having to walk into a room and choose a seat, knowing that no one would choose to sit next to me.

As a teacher, I vowed I would help that kid like me. I had one goal: to make my class a comfortable, stress-free place. I was twenty three years old the first year I taught, trembling in front of a classroom over-filled with thirty-five students, most only a few years younger than I was. They laughed at me. They ignored me. They whispered or outright talked while I was talking. They cheated on tests and came tardy to class (when they weren't skipping it).

What the hell was I going to do to control them?

Don't smile, the veteran teachers had warned me. Don't be nice. Kick a garbage can across the room on the first day so they know you mean business.

But what about my love for Thoreau and my passion for Fitzgerald?

Haha, they said. It's jungle out there. A war.

I didn't want to believe them. But I tried the kicking the garbage can across the room trick. (All that probably did was make the kids think I was mentally unstable.) In my quest to be a better teacher--and simply to make it through the days without crying, I made a million mistakes, and like the mistakes I've made as a parent, I remember every single one, vividly and with shame. I used sarcasm. I was mean. I lost my temper. I sometimes forgot my primary goal. Which is my biggest regret.

I did love teaching though, and for the most part, I loved the kids. I liked getting them to question and to think. I liked leading discussions and coming up with creative assignments. I probably made a few kids' lives miserable, but I hope I made others have at least one hour in their days that wasn't so terrible. I remember one student, a quiet loner who never said a word in class. One day, he came to tell me he was dropping out of school. I was surprised. Unlike other kids on the verge of dropping out, he hadn't been skipping classes or slacking off. When I confronted him about it, he admitted that my class was the only one he'd been going to for months.

Huh. And here I hadn't even known that he was paying attention.

That was when I made my peace that while I wasn't going to reach all kids, I had no idea which kids I was reaching and I was going to have to pretend that every one of them was that kid, quiet, with more going on in his head. Even if there was only one kid like that in every class, it was worth it for me to do my best--to do even better.

This theory of mine actually worked when I was a waitress (I always misjudged who would be the bigger tippers and who might potentially stiff me, so my only choice was to be a good waitress for everyone.) And also, in writing. Okay, so you might never publish the great American novel or be the next JK Rowling, but all you really need is one reader who reads your stuff, who likes it, who gets it--to make it all worthwhile.

If nothing else, I guarantee, you won't be crying every day.

(I am shocked, SHOCKED, I tell you that not everyone finds The Scarlet Letter as fascinating as I do.)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Binders Full, Murdered Trees, and a Song about the Chicago Fire--Brought to You by the Fun-loving Authors on the Fierce Reads Tour

I have already confessed that I am a shameless author groupie. Probably this goes back to a brief magical encounter with Madeleine L'Engle twenty years ago. ML did not give a talk or mingle. She simply sat, imposingly but also adorably, behind a large table and signed books. When it was my turn, she smiled at me. It sounds weird, but I like to think in that moment we had a connection. In my head I was gushing to ML, telling her how much her book A Wrinkle in Time meant to me, how many times I'd read it, and for the childhood me--a sad little waif, but fierce reader--that book, (which is sometimes banned?!) may have saved my life. It further cemented my love of reading and in a roundabout way led to my becoming a writer. But all I said to her was "thank you," and she gave me the smile.

Author book tours have come a long way since then. Last night I went to the latest signing at Cover to Cover Bookstore in Columbus OH (best bookstore ever, btw, and I say that as someone who once clerked at a pretty awesome bookstore in Memphis TN). Some people question the value of book tours. Readers and writers can "connect" virtually, they say.

It's true. Writers keep websites and many respond to emails and tweets and Facebook comments. They also do skype visits and vlogs and webinars. Social media is definitely an easier (and cheaper) way for writers to promote their books and gain new fans, but I wonder if it really beats an actual person-to-person meeting. Look, I'm still talking about my ten-second encounter with Madeleine L'Engle 20 years ago. Not sure if 20 years from now I'll be telling you about the time I tweeted John Green and he tweeted back. (Okay, maybe I WILL be bragging about that in 20 years...)

But back to the cool author tour I attended last night. It was called the Fierce Reads Tour (for some reason they name these tours) and it featured four young adult writers: Leigh Bardugo (Shadow and Bone), Caragh O'Brien (Promised), Marie Rutkoski (The Shadow Society) and Gennifer Albin (Crewel). I confess that I haven't read any of these books, and until last night, had not heard of the authors, but I can tell you that I will be reading their books now. Which come to think of it is why they DO these tours.

Traveling with the writers was a publicity manager from Macmillan, the publishing company of all of these books. She posed questions to the panel and got the ball rolling for the 20 or so people there in the audience. What's your book about? What's fierce about it? Which led to more questions from the audience (a mixture of older women and college-age types, and a handful of kids. Also one token guy, but he seemed cool.)

Who's your favorite character? What's your writing process?--These are questions that come up at every writer tour but somehow the answers are always interesting. I'm not sure how long the ladies on the Fierce Reads Tour have been traveling together but they seemed like they were good buddies, joking and teasing and having a grand old time with each other and with the crowd.

The question about characters had Gennifer Albin confessing that her characters sprung out of her head fully formed, which probably seemed a little crazy. The other writers nodded and said yeah, maybe it was a little crazy. Leigh Bardugo said she knew of writers who had whole binders full of characters, which got a chuckle out of the audience. (In battleground state Ohio no less). Marie Rutkoski and Caragh O'Brien broke out into song at one point. Rutkowski, whose book uses the Chicago Fire as a plot point, mentioned that Mrs. O'Leary and her cow got an unfair rap, and she said, don't you all know that song? We didn't, so she started singing and O'Brien joined in energetically, while everyone clapped. Yes, things can get pretty raucous at one of these book signings.

But there were serious moments too. The question about the writing process led to a discussion about how each author wrote and revised. Bardugo is a meticulous outliner; O'Brien does not plan ahead but revises multiple times; Rutkowski, a literature professor, does lots of research; and Albin has an idea of the beginning and the end but writes to figure out how to get from point A to point B. She was the one who mentioned murdering trees. She said that she likes to print out her drafts so many times she feels sorry for all the trees she kills in the process.

At the end of the discussion, the authors signed books and took their time chatting with their readers. I talked to the Macmillan publishing rep, because coincidentally, that afternoon I got a book in the mail from someone at Macmillan--The 50th anniversary edition of A Wrinkle in Time. I'd won a copy because I commented on a Macmillan blog about banned books. (Still can't believe this is a book that gets banned!)  We had a nice chat about Wrinkle and of course I had to tell her about my brush with fame 20 years ago meeting Madeleine L'Engle.

It occurs to me that any one of the writers (or all of them) on the Fierce Reads Tour may someday have Madeleine L'Engle stature and I can look back at last night and say that they smiled at me when I met them. Okay, it probably does sound weird, but there is something true and meaningful about this kind of connection. Writing is a solitary activity. Reading is too. But put the two together, writers and readers, and what could be more cool?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Not Just Any High School Party (A Review of Adele Griffin's All You Never Wanted)

Some books are easier than others to pitch in a sentence or two. Take the new YA novel Every Day by David Levithan: Every morning the main character wakes up in someone else's body and must live the day out as that person. Kind of a Quantum Leap meets Ground Hog's Day. Editors (and the publishing company marketing team) love high concept books like this. It's way easier to sell a book that you can explain in a few seconds. Writers conferences I've been to even hold sessions about crafting what they call elevator pitches. (Just in case you ever find yourself on an elevator with the agent of your dreams--how can you best sum up your manuscript in the time it takes before you get to the next floor?)

Of course, the best novels go way beyond the initial concept. If I tell you that John Green's book The Fault in our Stars is a love story about kids with cancer, and you have no idea who John Green is, you might be a tad reluctant to pick up the book. (But please DO pick it up, because you SHOULD know who John Green is. And The Fault in our Stars is brilliant and heartbreaking and yet somehow hilarious).

One of my favorite books of all time, How I Live Now, is hard to pin down in a paragraph, never mind a sentence. I can't even tell you what genre it is. Post Apocalyptic? Fantasy? Romance? Adventure? After I read it, I pretty much just sat there stunned, rereading the last page because I didn't ever want the world of the book to end. It wasn't until later that I wondered how the heck Meg Rosoff managed to snag the attention of an editor. This was her first novel (for which she deservedly won the Printz Award), so she probably had to do a bit of pitching and querying and synopsis-ing.

Maybe you'd call a book like this low-concept. Whenever I come across a good one of these, the only thing I can think to do is stick the book in your hands and say, Trust me, read it!

But because I am attempting to act like a book reviewer, (also I don't know you and have no way to actually stick a book in your hands), I will do my best to describe this awesome book I read the other day, All You Never Wanted by Adele Griffin. (Pathetic digression: I am ashamed to admit that I've never read a book by this author before, never, uh, heard of her until a few weeks ago. Ridiculous, because I pride myself on how much YA fiction I read, and tragic, because Adele Griffin is a really really good writer; I scrolled around her website and it looks like All You Never Wanted is her 18th book! and I've now got to get busy checking all the others out.)

The blurb on the back of the book plays up the sibling rivalry between sisters Alex and Thea. They're living a fairy tale life in upscale Greenwich, Connecticut, (their single mom recently married a bazillionaire tycoon) but there's turmoil under the surface. Older sister Alex is beautiful and popular and seems to have it all. Thea is brilliant and envious, coveting Alex's enviable life, which also includes Alex's boyfriend, and she'll do anything to get it. Cue soap-opera-y music.

But this book is not a soap opera. The narrative moves back and forth between the two sisters' points of view. Yes, Alex is beautiful, but she's struggling big time with crippling anxiety. Her boyfriend's a great guy, sticking by her even though she's falling apart, but on the other hand, he's sort of a loser too. Why does Thea like him so much anyway? And why is a smart girl like Thea using her brainpower in such destructive ways? None of these characters are what they seem.

And here's something funny that just occurred to me: there is a fast-moving, page-turnery plot at the core of this book, but when you scrape away the details, what you're mainly left with is two girls planning a party. But this is like saying that all of Jane Austin's books are about planning weddings.

Oh, there is so much more going on than a party (even though it is a party of epic proportions). I was biting my nails and worrying over these people, because they do seem like real people, watching as the inevitable (yet somehow unexpected) end approached. There is real love (and lust) involved. There's also real drama and heartbreak. And evil. Geez, what people will do to hurt each other, especially the ones closest to them. When I closed the book, I was breathing fast, and my head is still churning with how it all ended up. Not sure how in the world Adele Griffin pitched this manuscript to her editor. Teen drama? Romance? Psychological horror?

Whatever. I give up.

Please. Trust me. Read it. And then give me a call so I can talk about it with someone!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Huh. Apparently, I Know More People Than I Thought I Did (and other lessons I'm learning as I make an address list to promote my book)

I'm all about following directions, which is why I spent most of the past weekend putting together a list of every single person I have ever known in my entire life.

I got this advice from an awesome inspirational/writing how-to book called Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See. This is a book that I return to again and again because it's chock full of good ideas, ranging from how to plot, to the nuts and bolts of revision, to what kinds of clothes you should pack when you meet with your agent in NYC for the first time. I could probably write ten blog posts touting the stuff I stole from Carolyn See. She's got nifty tricks for creating characters (it has to do with throwing people you love and hate into an elevator and breaking the elevator down). And I follow her advice to the letter on how to take a crappy first draft into not so crappy second draft territory. Also I know that her suggestion to write thank you notes for rejections saved me from wallowing in despair on more than one occasion.

If you're a new writer starting out, or someone who's slogging along in the When Is This Ever Going to Happen segment of this fun journey, check this book out pronto. If nothing else, it will make you laugh (through your despair).

So anyway, See's got an entire section of her book devoted to what to do once you get your book deal. "Don't be vengeful," is one of her sage bits of advice. Write notes to all the people you know, even the ones you sorta don't like:

"You can send out copies to your most bitter enemies (in fact, it's a lot of fun to do that)," she says. "But be sure to keep your notes as clear as consomme'. Your note may say in invisible ink, I hope you're sorry now, you slut! But the regular ink should say: I wanted you to have a copy of this. I hope you like it as much as I do. It reminds me of a better time, when we had so much fun." 

But before you write any notes, you're going to have to build an address list. Here's who you should put on it, according to See:

"People who should know about your book. They include your old professors and schoolmates, your carpet cleaner, the guy who fixed your roof. Before you say, Oh, I couldn't ask them, think for a minute. If these people aren't going to buy your book, then who on earth is going to buy it?"

Okay. I believe you, Carolyn See. First step: I wheedled my husband, the excel spreadsheet wizard, into setting me up with a spreadsheet--with columns for name, address, email and all these cool ways to sort them--and I got down to work, beginning with everyone I send Christmas cards to. Ah, my lovely, supportive relatives and close friends, you are ON my list, people, just so you know.

Will they buy my book when it comes out? Um, maybe? Out of pure curiosity, if nothing else? It's a young adult novel. My great aunt might not understand it, but wouldn't she want to have a copy anyway? To show to people at her condo complex? I hope so.

The relatives and close friends were the easy part. What about the friends I've lost touch with? The people I knew in various cities where we lived over the years? Teachers I taught with and students I taught? My sorority sisters? My bunco group? My former PTA friends? My kids' viola teacher?

Nervous gulp. And then, I am adding them to my list.

Ditto, the lady who does my hair, the person I talked to in the dentist's waiting room, and the woman I just met the other night at a dinner party. Why the heck not, is my new motto.

My plan is to print up postcards with my book cover on it (don't actually have the book cover yet. It is still in the works, but when I get the go ahead...) and mail those out to all of the lucky people on my longer-than-I-thought-it-would-be list.Hey! Just a friendly reminder! That weirdo shy girl you went to high school with has a new book in case you want a birthday idea for the teen reader in your life.

Maybe they will run out and buy the book! (I am talking about WHEN the book actually comes out. I am such an eager beaver I am making this list a year in advance of the book release.)
Maybe they will chuck my postcard in the recycle bin!

I am totally okay with it either way. Really. And I guess I should end this post by saying if I haven't hit you up yet for your address and you want your name added to my list, let me know and I will get right on it.

As an added incentive, if you act now, I will send you a free bookmark...

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Guest Post by Mike Mullin: Things to Eat in the Wild

One of my pet peeves with post-apocalyptic books is when they get survival details wrong. I won’t name names, but I’ve thrown three books across the room in disgust just in the last year. For my debut novel, ASHFALL, and its sequel, ASHEN WINTER, I worked hard to get the details right. Fortunately, I had a couple of advantages over most authors.

First, as a teenager I loved learning about and practicing outdoor survival. I started fires with a bow and drill set I made myself. I harvested puffballs from our front yard and fried them. I ate fresh pods from our redbud trees, flowers from our black locusts, and made tea from white pine needles and sassafras roots (sassafras contains a carcinogenic chemical, by the way—I love the tea, but drink it only rarely). I even went into the woods once with nothing but a knife and clothing for three days and emerged only a little thinner and a lot dirtier. So when I write about survival topics, I’m usually drawing on personal experience.

Second, in ASHFALL the volcanic ash from the eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano changes the environment dramatically. Wild animals inhale the ash, get silicosis, and die. Plants are buried in the ash and suffocated. Or they die in the long volcanic winter that I depict in the sequel, ASHEN WINTER. So a lot of traditional survival strategies and foods just aren’t available to my protagonists, Alex and Darla. Which means there are fewer details I could potentially mess up.

Today I prefer restaurants to wild food and hotels to improvised shelter, but I still enjoy the occasional wild meal. In early spring, I can make a lovely salad from my backyard, because I don’t put any chemicals on it and I don’t mind the weeds—many of which are yummy! I got in big trouble with my wife one year when I stripped all the buds from our daylilies to make a delicious green-bean-like dish. Turns out she would have preferred looking at the flowers to eating the buds. Who knew?

Here’s my advice if you want to try eating wild food: get good guidebooks for your area. My three favorites (I live in Indiana) are The Forager’s Harvest, Peterson’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern/Central North America, and Primitive Living and Survival Skills.

Some more advice: don’t eat mushrooms unless you have a stone-cold expert with you. Morels and puffballs are okay and some kinds of shelf-fungus. With mushrooms, if you make a mistake, you could wind up like this guy. There’s a reason two commonly misidentified mushrooms are called Death Cap and Destroying Angel. Just saying.

Also, it used to be that you could eat almost any rodent or small animal safely, and some guide books still have that advice. No more. BSE, or mad cow disease, has shown up in rats, squirrels, elk and deer. It’s deadly, and there’s no cure. If I were starving and had no other options, I’d eat rats or squirrels, but I’d do my very best not to eat any brain or nerve tissue that might carry the BSE prion.

So, that’s a little advice on edible wild foods. How do Alex and Darla manage to survive when almost all the wild food has been destroyed by the ashfall and volcanic winter? Read ASHFALL and ASHEN WINTER to find out!

Mike Mullin’s first job was scraping the gum off the undersides of desks at his high school. From there, things went steadily downhill. He almost got fired by the owner of a bookstore due to his poor taste in earrings. He worked at a place that showed slides of poopy diapers during lunch (it did cut down on the cafeteria budget). The hazing process at the next company included eating live termites raised by the resident entomologist, so that didn’t last long either. For a while Mike juggled bottles at a wine shop, sometimes to disastrous effect. Oh, and then there was the job where swarms of wasps occasionally tried to chase him off ladders. So he’s really glad this writing thing seems to be working out.

Mike holds a black belt in Songahm Taekwondo. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and her three cats. Ashen Winter is his second novel.  His debut, Ashfall, was named one of the top five young adult novels of 2011 by National Public Radio, a Best Teen Book of 2011 by Kirkus Reviews, and a New Voices selection by the American Booksellers Association.


It's been over six months since the eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano. Alex and Darla have been staying with Alex's relatives, trying to cope with the new reality of the primitive world so vividly portrayed in Ashfall, the first book in this trilogy. It's also been six months of waiting for Alex's parents to return from Iowa. Alex and Darla decide they can wait no longer and must retrace their journey into Iowa to find and bring back Alex's parents to the tenuous safety of Illinois. But the landscape they cross is even more perilous than before, with life-and-death battles for food and power between the remaining communities. When the unthinkable happens, Alex must find new reserves of strength and determination to survive.

The first two chapters are available on my website: You may reprint the first two chapters in whole or in part on your website so long as you do not charge anyone anything to access them.