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.