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.