Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Thoughts on (not) Cleaning, Potential Writing Topics, and Weird Places to Grow Pumpkins

So my readers often ask me why it is that I write so much about cleaning my house (or rather NOT cleaning my house).
Okay. That is a total lie.

No one has ever asked me that. But it's entirely possible that some of you have thought about it. Perhaps you are wondering how messy we are talking if this woman (me) is continually bringing up the subject: here. Here. and Here. It does seem to be a persistent problem, how to balance out writing with other obligations.

Perhaps you are wondering if cleaning (or rather, NOT cleaning) is an appropriate topic for a blog post about writing and reading and all things related to writing and reading. Well, yes. I think it is. Stick with me here. It has to do with school lunches.

There's a great book by Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, which is pretty much THE manual when it comes to writing inspiration and craft, where she recommends writing about school lunches whenever you are suffering from writer's block. Her point is that writing something--anything--even about the contents of your seventh grade self's lunch bag can miraculously break down your walls and get the creative juices flowing.

I am not suffering from writer's block at the moment. But I am in this floundery phase between projects. My publisher accepted my revision (woot! woot!) and the manuscript is now in copyediting. As I'm writing this, I'm thinking about how cool that sounds while at the same time I am thinking that I don't know exactly what the copyediting phase entails. But I am certainly excited about the prospect of figuring it out! If you've been following this blog with any regularity, you know that after many many years of toiling, I've snagged a book deal. My YA novel is due out next year around this time (Sept. 10, 2013, if you'd like to mark your calendar).

So I'm wondering what to work on while I'm waiting and I'm also feeling kind of floundery because of stuff going on at the home front. Specifically, last weekend my husband and I dropped our first born child off at a college 648 miles away and now we're back home and son's bedroom is sadly empty but somehow I am still finding his clothes in the laundry. Also he didn't quite clean out all of his toiletries and whenever I walk by his bathroom I note the half-used deodorant and the squeezed up toothpaste container on the sink, and I wonder if I should clean that up (or not).

Which brings me to the actual point of this blog about cleaning (or rather, NOT cleaning). Because, this, dear readers, is what is preoccupying my mind and I must get it out of my head by writing about it: my realization over the weekend that I have likely failed big time in one very important parenting area. I never taught my brilliant boy how to clean a bathroom.

It is a stunning oversight on my part and someday his future wife can berate me, but today there is a more urgent cause for worry. My son lives in a suite with seven other boys and they share one bathroom and somehow the college neglected to tell the boys that they would be responsible for cleaning and stocking that bathroom. Well, as you can probably imagine, all of the parents had hearty laugh about that. What is 55,000 dollars a year paying for, etc. Then we ran out and bought toilet brushes and cleaning supplies and toilet paper and piled that up in the boys' bathroom and then wondered if any of that stuff would ever be, uh, actually utilized. I suppose we will find out at Parent's Weekend in October!

One of the moms told me that she overheard the boys talking.

Boy #1: "Do any of you know how to clean a bathroom?"
Boys # 2-7: "No."
Boy #8 (who is not my son): "I, uh, do, sort of."

I'm sure that kid is probably kicking himself now. Oh, we mothers (and I say mothers, because geez, isn't it the mothers who clean the bathrooms? and isn't this THE problem in the first place?) are kicking ourselves too and feeling pity for boy # 8 who should not be saddled with this job himself.

So, doing the only thing I know how to do, I told my son a story. This goes back to my own freshmen year a gabillion years ago, but I remember it vividly because it was so disgusting. It was Halloween and I went to a party hosted by a bunch of boys who lived in a very cool apartment-like dorm room, complete with a lovely kitchenette. I remember walking by that kitchenette and noting the splattered remains of a large pumpkin the boys had carved in the sink. Seeds, guts, and pumpkin entrails spilled out onto the counter, and there was the awesome carved pumpkin grinning over the mess.

Cut to: the end of the year. The same boys had a party and I walked through the same kitchenette, with the remains of that same mess spattered on the counter. But this time there was a plant growing up from the sink drain like Jack's Beanstalk, the vines climbing across the counter around the corroding mess, and sprouting darling little pumpkins. Yes. These boys had never cleaned up the carved pumpkin from back in the fall. Had never, I guess, used that sink again. And now they had a bizarre garden to show for it in their kitchenette.

My son seemed appropriately awestruck by my story.

But now that I think about it, he may have been contemplating potential chemistry/biological experiments brewing in his bathroom.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Keeping the REAL in Realistic Contemporary YA Fiction

Some people lament about what they call "dark" topics in young adult fiction. They're squeamish about the idea of their kids reading (knowing) about drug use or homosexuality or rape or suicide. "Why can't there be more books about plucky girl sleuths and sunnybrook farms?" is what they're thinking. Yeah, I get it. I'm a parent too, and it's tempting to want to protect our kids, keep them innocent and safely bubbled up beneath our helicopter-y arms. But, uh, good luck with that. Even the plucky sleuths of yore had to fight evil--in the shape of smarmy villains. And wasn't the sunnybrook farm chick an orphan?

I've shared my stance on this before, so I won't rehash, but it's something that's been bugging me--not the fact that YA writers write about this "dark" stuff but how they treat the material.

I don't want to go off on another bad books tangent (also went there before) and I know it's a subjective thing--what works and what doesn't/what's a page turner/what has heart, etc., but I've read a few books lately that I'd hate for my fifteen year old daughter to read. Soap-opera-y junk that highlights a sensational topic the way trashy magazines do, basically just a YA version of peer pressure--portraying drug use or sexting or mean-girl bullying as whatever because everyone is doing it anyway.

Then I had the great good luck to read three books in a row that deal with difficult subjects while never crossing over the line into lurid. The keys to getting this right, I think, have to do with character (as in never putting plot before one) and complexity (sorry, this isn't a black and white world) and heart (when the characters are so real you care about what happens to them).

A few weeks ago I read Personal Effects by E.M. Kokie (a debut novel from Candlewick due out in September) and still can't get the voice of the main character, Matt Foster, out of my mind. The first time we meet him he's one minute away from beating the crap out of a classmate. Not the type of action that typically makes a reader sympathetic. But we soon learn that Matt's buckling under the weight of anger and grief--at the death of his idealized older brother in the Iraq War and at his authoritarian, abusive father. Nevermind his other "smaller" conflicts: dismal grades and a crush on a girl who will likely never see him as more than a friend. When Matt has a chance to see his brother's personal effects, he defies his father and sets out on a quest to figure out who his brother really was.

This book could so easily have veered into stereotype (I don't want to give away the brother's secret) but it never did. Also it's a rare YA novel that deals with war or the armed services. Mark this one as Coming of Age with an unexpected, complex twist.

Buried by Robin MacCready came out in 2006 and for some reason never crossed my path. It only did now because I'm on my own personal quest to read every YA novel edited by the brilliant Julie Strauss Gabel (Why? Because she's my dream editor. Why? Because she edits John Green and Nova Ren Suma and Stephanie Perkins and Ally Condie, just to name a few.)  Anyway, the main character in Buried, Claudine, has got big problems too. Her mother's an alcoholic who's just gone on a binge and taken off and now Claudine's stuck cleaning up the literal and figurative mess.

(Brief digression about parents in YA books. Let's just say that many parents in YA books would not win a Parent of the Year Award. Maybe this is unfair. But the truth is ALL teenagers are struggling one way or another to grow up--to assert themselves--to figure out who they are, apart from their parents. Sometimes this is easy. (Okay. Really. Is this ever easy?) Sometimes it is hard. Sometimes kids are making this human journey toward adulthood under the tutelage of neglectful or abusive or just plain a-hole-ish people. Enter YA literature to present the variety of ways that parents can blow it and that kids can escape and thrive.)

But back to Claudine. She's a model kid, considering her pathetic mom. Gets straight A's. Keeps the trailer clean. Takes care of herself and others. Dutifully attends an Alateen-like group meeting. With messed-up Mom gone, it's even easier to be responsible. Claudine's got a great system for organizing her many tasks, and so what if she bends the truth about her mother's latest disappearance, telling the kids at the meeting that her mom's in rehab? Oh, this book may make you a nervous wreck. Because you'll quickly care about Claudine and her increasingly over the top enabling ways. There's a twist at the end of this one too--that's pretty horrifying but thankfully on the realistic side of the line.

Last but in no way least is Colleen Clayton's soon-to-be-released novel What Happens Next. (I keep hearing at conferences editors saying they're looking for the next Sarah Dessen. Sarah Dessen, if you don't know, is the queen of realistic/contemporary/stand-alone YA fiction.) Okay, editors. So stop looking, because I'm presenting to you: Colleen Clayton.

The topic of this novel is such a potential mine field: date rape. Most writers would slip over the lurid line in a second. But Clayton deftly avoids that. Example one: the voice of sixteen year old Cassidy (Sid) Murphy is honest and wise-cracking and self deprecating. Ordinary world for Sid is joking around with friends and being irritated about her appearance--red hair, big boobs. Example two: the incident itself is handled carefully and the after-effects are realistically complex. Case in point--Sid struggles to tell her mom what happened (and here is a mom who is not awful, by the way) deciding that she can deal with her mom's anger but not her mom's horror and grief. I could not put this book down, marveling the whole time I was reading it that I had no idea what was going to happen.

This is what real is, I suppose. To be thrown into a horrible situation or be faced with a complex problem and NOT know what to do. To have to muddle through and figure things out as you go, probably messing up along the way, maybe even making stuff worse for a while, before you emerge (safe! better? grown up?) on the other side.

Thank goodness our teens have got a few good books to read along the way.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Books That Are Easy to Fall into (and books that aren't)

I wish I knew what it is exactly about a book that makes it an effortless read. I suspect it has something to do with voice. Some authorial voices seem so, um, authorial. From page one, maybe from sentence one, you know that you're in the hands of an expert. This writer knows what she's doing, where the story's going, who these characters are. A few pages in and you're under the spell. She can take you anywhere, and you'll go.

Meeting an author like this is rare for me. Usually I have to work a little to meet her halfway. (And even more often, sadly, I question taking the journey at all. A recovering Catholic-slash-English teacher, I still struggle with the guilt involved in quitting on a book I don't like. What is that quote by Dorothy Parker about bad books? Okay, I just looked it up: "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown aside with great force.")

But I don't want to talk about bad books. Or my sometimes violent feelings toward them. I want to talk about good ones. Specifically two really good books I read in the past week, one that I fell into immediately and one that took a tad more effort. Both, very much worth the trip.

Every Day by David Levithan will be out the end of this month and I urge you to make a note of it and buy it for the intelligent, thoughtful teen in your life (or for you!)

The premise is cool. A boy wakes every day in the body of a different 16 year old. Every day he has to figure out who and where "he" is. (Sometimes he is a she.) He's been living like this for as long as he can remember so he's come to terms with the bizarre, nomadic lifestyle, trying to do the best he can to treat his guest body with respect--follow his host's schedule, do his homework, avoid risky behavior. And he never, ever gets too attached to anyone. Because why bother? He won't be here tomorrow.

There are lots of thought-provoking, philosophical questions raised here and Levithan doesn't shy away from any of them. How do you live a life when you only have the day ahead of you? What makes a person who he or she is? What is important when you literally can't take anything with you? And what happens when you fall in love?

The results are both beautiful and heartbreaking. The whole time I was reading, I was absorbed and totally caught up in the world. Anxious, too. Not just about this sweet, very real character and the love of his messed-up life, but also because the niggling part of me that is a writer and never quite turns that off was wondering if Levithan would be able to pull off the brilliant plot he'd set in motion. How can there be a satisfying ending to a book that doesn't seem to be leading toward a happy one?

I won't give the answer away (because I really really think you should read this book!) but believe me when I say that the ending is perfect. I actually started crying when it hit me about two seconds before I came to it. If you still need a push toward your local bookstore on August 28, I leave you with this: my teen daughter snatched my copy away when I was finished, and now it's marked up and highlighted with her favorite passages. PS. I am sorry, David Levithan, that I let a free, advanced copy slip out of my hands! I promise I will buy the book too when it comes out, give it as gifts, etc. Though I suspect it will have much success without any help from me.

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler is already on the shelves and winning awards, but in case you haven't heard of it, here is its clever premise: A girl named Min, still reeling from her traumatic break up with popular Ed, boxes up all of the mementos of that relationship and dumps them off on Ed's doorstep with an explanatory note--which is this book. Oh, and there are cool illustrations by Maira Kalman of all of the items Min is returning to Ed. Stuff like bottle caps and ticket stubs and stolen sugar containers.

The story is hilarious (which shouldn't be too surprising. Daniel Handler also goes by the name of Lemony Snicket, author of the Series of Unfortunate Events books.) But what may be surprising to Lemony Snicket fans is how heartbreaking and raw and honest Handler can be. Min's break up story is everyone's break up story. (There are some funny quotes about first break-ups on the back flap from authors like Sara Zarr and M.T Anderson and, coincidentally, David Levithan, who writes: "The boy I loved didn't know I existed. Then again, he was obsessed with Camus, so he didn't know if any of us existed.")

I'm not sure why Why We Broke Up took longer to reel me in. But again, I think it may have something to do with voice. In this case Min's voice is so outraged and breathless and rant-y and specific, it can sometimes be hard to follow. There are paragraphs that go on for pages and sentences that go on for paragraphs. But somewhere along the way it all came together for me, and I was in Min's quirky head. Okay, maybe she isn't exactly "everyone." She's "arty" as Ed likes to say; different. She marches to the beat of her own drummer, which is probably what drew Ed to her in the first place. But could a guy like him ever really get and appreciate a girl like Min?

No. And good riddance, Ed. You don't deserve her.

This book had me alternately laughing out loud and reliving the angsty pain of my own sad teen break ups. Get your hands on a copy, STAT, and give it a chance to hook you too. The ending, like the one in Every Day, is both unpredictable and perfect.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Ah, Joy. When a Camera-Shy Writer Consents to Pose for an Author Pic.

My aversion to having my picture taken goes waaaaaay back. Look, here’s me as a toddler hiding behind a curtain to avoid my overzealous, picture-snapping relatives. (I was the first born in the family. Some say I was cute. Not that we will ever be able to glean this from the picture.)

Cut to: me, now, being asked to have a professional photo taken for the back flap of my new novel. (THIN SPACE! Release date: Sept. 2013!) Well, I can tell you my response to this request: Start looking around the room for some heavy drapes.

But I rallied and swallowed my fear and hauled myself over to my favorite children’s bookstore Cover to Cover. There, I parked out on the floor surrounded by stacks of young adult novels so I could study the back flaps. Apparently there are so many factors to consider when taking an author photo. How to pose. What to wear. Type of background. Did I want to look serious and authorly? Or go for cutsey and fun-loving? And, sigh. All of these writers are so young and hip...

See what I mean?
The awesome John Green looking awesome in a collegiate setting--

And adorable Kiera Cass (author of The Selection)--

Ahh, Lauren Myracle. What else can I say?

And Libba Bray--Wow!--Rockin' it in her cool frames--

Anyway, my next step was to clue my husband in on my author pic research. Because I had decided there was no way I was posing for a professional. I know that many of you might think I made a mistake here. You get what you pay for, etc. But you don’t have my long (sad) experience with professional photographers... I leave a long string of awkwardly posed pictures in my wake. The kind with gritted teeth and fake smiles and closed eyes and weird stick-my-fist-under-my chin poses. Upon seeing one of these pictures, many people say, “That doesn’t look like you.”  God. I hope not.

That seemed to be the goal here, for my husband the picture taker. Just make it look like me, honey.

Oh, he was such a cheerful trooper, propping me against various potentially interesting backdrops around the city, before giving up and towing me around our backyard. Leaning me against trees. In front of bushes. And flowers. Then, in the house against bookcases. And blank walls. Telling me to smile. To not smile. To look away. To not look away. To think happy thoughts. To not think happy thoughts.

"For God’s sake," he said at one point. "Why do you keep tilting your head?"

Then later, "You’re snarling at me. What kind of smile is that?"

Which got me making a beeline for the curtains.

So we called it a day and he uploaded everything and we scrolled through the hundreds of futile attempts and finally out of sheer desperation, chose one. The best I can say for it is it's the one that most looks like me. I showed one of my friends and she said it looked like I was in pain. Well, yeah. Of course I was. From taking so many damn pictures. But I sent it to the publishing company before I could change my mind.

The cheerful, youthful editor gave me a positive response then added, "We can do photoshop if you want."

I had a hearty laugh in my head about that. But rallied again. "Yeah. Sure!" I replied.

I know. I know. You want to SEE the picture don't you? Well, you are going to have to work for it just a little, my friend. In the interest of self-promotion (another painful issue for me), here's a link to my author page on Facebook. There's the blessed neck tilted picture in all its full glory.

Do you think it looks like me?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Interview with Patsi Trollinger

Today I am thrilled to chat with Thrill in the ’Ville author Patsi Trollinger. Like all of the writers who’ve agreed to let me pick their brains lately, Patsi is an active member of  SCBWI/midsouth region. (Yes. I know I’m pretty much a Rah Rah cheerleader for this group, but that is only because it has helped me so much. If you have any desire whatsoever to write or illustrate children’s books, please consider joining SCBWI.)

Anyway, I’m glad Patsi agreed to this interview because it put her new middle grade book Thrill in the ’Ville on my radar. I’m hesitant to say that I may not have picked it up otherwise—one, because I am so absorbed in reading novels for young adults, and two, because it has “boy book” written all over it, and I confess that this genre typically doesn’t draw me in. But your book, Patsi, did. It’s got a fresh, smart, funny, and yes, boyish tone to it that made me wish my son was younger and I could read it aloud to him (sigh), or that I was still teaching 4th and 5th grade students, for the same reason. Teachers, take note: the book poses thought-provoking ideas about the political process and democracy without veering into dreaded, dry textbook territory. But I can also see a kid picking it up for fun.

A quick pitch—All sixth grader Doug wants to do this summer is play soccer; unfortunately for him, the local college is gearing up to host the upcoming Presidential debates. Now on top of trying to find a place to practice (the media’s camping out on the soccer field) and working hard to win the coveted goalie position against the class bully, Doug finds himself caught up in the drama of a political campaign.

Patsi, I heard that you were working in media relations at Centre College in Danville Kentucky in 2000 when they hosted the Vice Presidential debates, so I have the feeling that experience gave you the idea for Doug’s adventures. Where did you get the ideas for your other stories?

Patsi: For a nonfiction project, the idea usually takes root when I stumble upon a fact that involves a contradiction or paradox. Whether I encounter the fact in a newspaper clipping, a footnote, or a lecture (all of these have happened), I don’t get excited unless it includes “the thing that doesn’t fit” (to borrow a phrase from Darwin). In the case of Isaac Murphy, the subject of my first published book, Perfect Timing, my interest began with one contradiction: He should’ve been famous for being the first jockey to win three Kentucky Derbies, but by the early 1990s, he had been mostly forgotten. I learned that from a tiny news story and later uncovered many other paradoxes in his life, including the fact that he was born a slave yet became America’s first sports super-star. That’s what made his story amazing.

For a fiction project, the initial idea almost always appears to me as a mental image reminiscent of a movie scene. Sometimes I will see real people interacting in a way that grabs me and stays in mind until I begin to conjure up a story for them. At other times, I actually start from the perspective of being torn away from creativity because I feel overwhelmed by thoughts and worries about something big in my life. This was the case during the difficult year I watched my mother decline in health at the same time one of my closest friends was dying of breast cancer. My friend was articulate, deeply spiritual, and witty. As I drove her to doctor’s appointments where she was likely to hear dire statements about her prognosis, she told me stories that made me laugh. Sometimes we laughed and cried at the same time. For months, I thought obsessively about the fine line that sometimes separates laughter and tears. Eventually, I got one of those ‘movie scenes’ in my head, and it did not feature my friend but most certainly provided a visual metaphor for things she’d taught me. That scene eventually (and painfully) led to my nearly finished manuscript, Make Me Laugh, about a sixth-grade class clown who has to figure out how she can grow up, face adult kinds of sadness, and still be a very funny girl.

I suppose it’s fair to say, that whether I’m writing nonfiction or fiction, I am interested in paradoxes, contradictions, and opposites.

Jody: It’s interesting that you’ve mentioned working on books while dealing with the stresses of daily life and relationships. I’ve been thinking about this issue too as my first child heads off to college in less than three weeks (gulp). I guess if there’s a silver lining in a difficult situation, it’s that we can find a way to work through anxiety/grief/pain in our writing. Which is not to say that we are writing memoirs…

Something I always wonder about other writers is how they take that kernel of an idea to the next level: a first draft. Do you outline? Or are you a make-stuff-up-as-you-go kind of writer?

Patsi: It’s taken me a long time to figure out that I strongly believe in both methods. At the time I first began writing for children, I was coming off a career in public relations and news, which required me to constantly write stories determined by the needs of other people or organizations. It was wonderful work, but after leaving it behind, I had this urge to experiment with a million ideas. I would get an idea, write an entire middle grade novel, submit it three places, and then shelve it after three rejections. My stack of unpublished work became fairly deep. I don’t ever want to neglect or destroy that raw way of thinking and imagining that amounts to my ‘idea factory.’ But now, when something new and shiny pops into my head, I make copious notes and put them a binder. And when a certain number of pages accumulate in regard to one of those shiny, new ideas, I see if I have enough to write a manuscript from start to finish – with or without an outline to guide me. But when I reach the stage of serious revision, I definitely use an outline or detailed synopsis. I have adopted methods learned at SCBWI plotting workshops with author Linda Sue Park and editor Cheryl Klein. Compared to my free-form approach to imagining and writing, each of them seemed almost militaristic in their methods. That turned out to provide a perfect balance for my initially unstructured away of approaching a story.

Jody: You’re so right that outlining has got to come into play at some point. And how lucky you were to study under some of the best in our field. A good friend of mine just returned from a Cheryl Klein workshop and after hearing only snippets of what went on, I was kicking myself for not signing up for it too. One thing I definitely did not know when I began writing 15+ years ago was how much work goes into writing a book. Also how much self-discipline I’ve had to cultivate. If I don’t set goals and create a schedule for myself, I’m lost. What’s your take on that?

Patsi: The work I did in news and public relations was relentless and required me to work every day from around 8am until 6pm. Since becoming self-employed, I have tried to mimic that discipline. On a day that works according to plan, I get up at 5:30am to go walking, have breakfast, and start writing around 8. I try to write without interruption until around 1:30. Break for lunch, and then continue writing or – if my creative juices are shot – I work on record-keeping, promotion, research, and other tasks that use a different part of the brain. I have decided that life is too short to eat bad food, so I usually stop around 5 to throw together a home-cooked meal devoted to fresh vegetables, olive oil, and to the degree my husband can stand it, garlic. On any given night, the headcount at the table varies from two to four people.

To maintain discipline, I wear ‘silencer’ headphones to avoid the phone until after 1:30 each day. (Family and friends have been warned.) And I don’t allow myself to think about sneaking outside into my garden unless it’s Saturday morning or a weekday evening after dinner.

Because I do write relentlessly, I have come to accept the fact that each day won’t feel equally productive and the true measure of outcomes may take a while. So sometimes, when my husband asks, “Did things go well today?” I laugh and say, “I don’t know. Ask me again in five years.”

Jody: I like that and may steal it, if you don’t mind. Although I must say my husband typically does not have to ask how my day went. When he gets home from work, if he finds me still in my pajamas and notices nothing’s cooking for dinner, he’s learned to tiptoe away and fire up the grill or call for pizza. I like that you’ve set a time for yourself to shut down for the day. I know I’ve got to work on that…

How do you balance your writing time with your other obligations?

Patsi: Nowadays, I try very hard to protect that block of hours (8:30am-1:30pm) for writing, and I figure out ways to get household/family errands done on Saturday or during the late afternoon. Of course, if I am doing a school visit or have a book-related event, things change, and that feels fine. But during the past decade, I’ve had weeks, months, and years when I could not figure out whether I had a ‘right’ to set aside writing time when so many family members and friends needed end-of-life care, followed by other weeks and years devoted to cleaning out the home where my parents lived together for 60 years. Looking back, I understand that there was no thought process or ‘plan’ that could have solved my dilemma.

Jody: That's true. Some things can’t be scheduled. And sometimes you have to take a break. (see my last blog post!)

Okay, totally different topic, but a question I ask all of my writer guests: How many books did you write before you got your first book deal? (Full disclosure—my first soon-to-be-published novel happens to be the 6th one I wrote.)

Patsi: In my crazy delight at having a chance to make up stories after years of writing news, I began by working on three or four manuscripts at a time. Technically, I had three finished manuscripts by the time I got my first book deal (2003). But really, that book, Perfect Timing, was the first book that I seriously submitted. In some ways, that makes me sound fortunate, but in another way, I think I got a warped notion that building a career in the field was going to be easy. When I began to face a string of rejections that seemed endless, I lost my way. It took a while to develop a more solid, reasonable perspective on the business.

Jody: That reminds me of another thing I didn’t know 15+ years ago: how to deal with rejections. I’ve gotten so many that I lost count. Are you one of those writers who keeps track of every rejection?

Patsi: For that first book, Perfect Timing, I did: 31 rejection letters in the mailbox before I got one from Viking that said Maybe, which turned into Yes after another 18 months of revising. Now I keep detailed records of correspondence for tax purposes and to track relationships with various publishing houses, but I don’t tabulate my rejections. Now I focus only on rejection letters that convey information useful to my future.

Jody: Sounds like a good plan. Okay, Patsi, last question, I promise. You and I both know how much self-promotion writers are expected to do these days. What kinds of things do you do to promote yourself and your books?

Patsi: From the very beginning, I’ve had a website www.patsibtrollinger.com that makes it easy for educators, booksellers, and editors to learn a bit about my life, my books, and what I can bring to a school visit or writing workshop. More recently, I’ve add a personal Facebook page and an author page http://www.facebook.com/PatsiBTrollinger. I have an old-fashioned preference for personal communication – and I don’t want to inflict frivolous information on people who connect with me – so I still am working on my ‘philosophy’ and underlying plan for using these communication tools. I’m intrigued by the discipline required for Twitter’s brevity, but my account is so lazy that it qualifies as a couch potato in cyberspace. Perhaps I should lie awake at night worrying about Pinterest, YouTube, and LinkedIn, but I’d rather lie awake and worry about plot and pacing!

Jody: Believe me, I hear you. Thanks, Patsi for chatting with me today!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

No Words. Or--Why every once in a while it's okay to take a vacation from writing

I used to be afraid to take a day off. Five years ago, when I began writing seriously, I discovered an essential thing about myself: I must write every day.

Before that it had been hit or miss. A long day of writing followed by a week off doing other things, some of which were important—raising children, for example. And others—scrolling around online, watching mindless TV, lunching and coffee-ing with friends were uh, less so. (I once spent an ENTIRE day in a coffee shop chatting with a friend. Yes, I am talking about you, Cindy Crane! I dropped my kids off at school and met her at the Starbucks around the corner and we parked it there until it was time to pick the kids up. Seven hours later. Side note: I am not saying that maintaining friendships is a waste of time. But I am saying that if you are serious about writing, you will make it a priority. Over pretty much everything. Another thing I had to learn about myself over the past few years—and am still learning—is how to balance my writing with other important aspects of life. IE. My husband. My children. But this is a topic for another post.

Back to this one. My old way of “working”--writing here and there when I could squeeze it in—just did not cut it. I remember writing the first draft of a novel for an entire year, a day or two a week. Most of that time was spent rereading what I’d written the week before and trying to get my head back into it. When you write every day, even if it is only for an hour, I promise you, your head is always IN it. (Here’s a helpful writing trick: stop your day’s writing in the middle of a sentence. Next day, you simply finish the thought and go.)

Once I’d figured out this essential thing about myself, it became a Rule. Write a certain number of words a day. Or, when I am revising: rework a certain number of pages. I can’t think of a time in the last five years that I failed to meet a goal I’d set for myself. And believe me, there were days when I was chewing my fingernails, locked up in my office, sweating it out still in my pajamas at ten pm..

Let’s just say, it’s a tad difficult to turn whatever this is off.

But I have. When life intervenes. Over holidays, for example. Or the week of my son’s graduation. But even during these times, I usually steal away to journal. Or blog.

Last week, though, I went on a family vacation and for nine days I did not tap a key on my keyboard or pick up a pen. Instead, I caught up with friends (my best writing friend and her family who hosted us at their glorious beach house on the Outer Banks and then with the people we call our chosen family, whom we’ve been vacationing with for years.) Hubby and kids and I had a great time hanging out with everyone on the beach. Also boating, swimming, eating enormous amounts of food, reading books, watching the Olympics, shopping, doing puzzles, talking, and napping. We hit the local touristy sites: tramped around Jockey’s Ridge, toured the Wright Brothers Museum, saw the outdoor play The Lost Colony, and checked out several lighthouses. We also fought the elements and stretched our creative engineering muscles in our quest to keep a cheap tarp standing after the wind basically blew it down on Day Two. But the biggest highlight of all was our annual Mothers vs Fathers Iron Chef competition.

Background info: the kids (six ravenous teens) pick the food item and the parents compete to prepare the most delectable/creative/visually appealing appetizers, entrees, and desserts with said food item. Shockingly, the mothers have NEVER won this competition. We think it is because the kids pity the fathers and that is the story we are sticking with. This year the food item was bacon. The mothers made bacon wrapped filet mignons and wedge salad drizzled with ranch dressing and sprinkled with chunks of maple infused bacon, which in any world besides this one would give us the edge. The fathers threw together cheesy bacon fries and that pretty much cinched it for them. Even their lame, Store-bought Cheese Danish with a Strip of Bacon Plastered Upon It did not deter the kid judges. But I will mention here that the other family’s visiting French foreign exchange student was totally pro-Team Mothers, and I for one feel that her sophisticated French palate trumps all. In her blog of the trip, which we google-translated, she mentioned with confusion the father’s sad attempt at dessert. Also what she called "a kind of pie made of cheese and potatoes.” (Which begs the question: do they have French fries in France?)

Anyway, it was a wonderful nine days. Sometimes you have to give your brain a rest. Revel in the moment. Soak up the sun. Enjoy the kids as they grow before your eyes. Eat bad-for-you food. Argue (kindly) about politics and religion and fastfood restaurants in the news lately that Shall Not Be Named (ahem. Chik-fil-a). Then sit later on the beach and clink plastic cups of wine and toast to the best friends in the world. Nights, a line or two of dialogue from a novel you haven't even been thinking about consciously may flicker in your mind. But you won't write it down on a scrap of a receipt in your purse. You'll remember to work on that later when you get home.

Because you're a writer, whether or not you happen to be writing. And sometimes it is okay--maybe even good--for you to (once in a while) take a nine-day break.

(Somehow this tarp is still holding on Day Four. Note the hole the boys dug on the left side in case more people want to squeeze in.)

(On Jockey's Ridge)

(ah. The cheese fries.)