Thursday, May 30, 2013

On the 8th Anniversary of My First Writing Retreat...

In 2005 I was on the verge of a turning point, but I didn't know it. I was sort of floundering around with my pursuit of a book-writing dream.

I told myself I was working hard. I wrote a couple of days a week. I thought about writing a lot. Truthfully, I thought about being published a lot. I had very vivid daydreams of winning awards and receiving awesome book deal advances. Also, spending book deal advances. Mostly, though, I was spinning my wheels, not making any real progress, treating writing as a hobby rather than as my work.

Then, a very serendipitous thing happened. In the same week I had a story accepted in the magazine Cicada and I got a brochure in the mail inviting me to attend a retreat put on by the Highlights Foundation.

What would you do if you had the time to write... no distractions... no responsibilities... Just you and your lap top. You'll stay in your own cabin and all of your needs will be taken care of... You'll eat delicious food prepared by a chef. You'll meet other serious writers on the same journey...  

I don't remember the exact words printed on the brochure, but it was something like that, and it struck me to the core. Oh, yes, I would like that.

And get this: the cost of the retreat (which was somewhat pricey and hard for me to justify) was EXACTLY the amount of the payment I'd just received for my Cicada story.

I'm no dummy. I know a freaking sign when I see one.

I went. It was my first time away from my family (the kids were 8 and 12 and I was a stay-at-home mom). It was the first time I'd been alone since college.

To say I was anxious is an understatement.

The hardest thing was the first night when our small group made our introductions. Simply saying I wanted to be a writer almost made me start crying. For all of my supposed pursuing of a dream, I hadn't said these words out loud to anyone in years.

The week pretty much changed my life. Not in a magical way. I didn't return home with a finished manuscript that would win an award (although, that particular manuscript is something that I continue to work on, and hey, who knows?) I didn't snag an agent or a book deal right away. In fact it would be many years before this would happen.

What this retreat did do for me was remind me that I was, in fact, a writer. That I was not alone in my quest. That my dream was not some ridiculous thing no matter how impossible it might seem at times.

Here is what I wrote in my journal while I was there:

Seeing these writers and editors makes me so hopeful about what I picture myself doing.  I keep thinking that it is a possible life for me, if I keep pursuing it.  

Tonight I called home and my son asked me if I liked it here or if it was terrible.  I said it was wonderful, that I loved it.  “Are you going to go back there next year?” he asked.  “I’d like to,” I said.  “Would that be alright with you guys?”   

He laughed.  “We’re doing okay, you know. And I like eating poptarts.”

I am thinking about this retreat because in two days I am going back.

I am in a different place now in my writing and personal life. My son is in college--just to put time in perspective. My teen daughter will be off doing her own thing. I am sure they will both be gorging on the forbidden poptarts while I'm gone. I've got my first book coming out this year. I received a nice advance check for that (mostly, already spent). I do think of myself as a writer and I am not afraid to say that anymore. (Maybe I say it too much?)

But here is what is the same: I still feel anxious about what I do. I still have so much to learn about craft and technique and voice and language. I still enjoy connecting with other writers and hearing about their stories and their journeys.

So that is why I signed up to go.

It may be that I am on the verge of another amazing turning point. I'll let y'all know when I come back...

Saturday, May 25, 2013

5-Star Summer Reads

Looking for a few good YA books to read this summer?

Here's my list (at the moment) of the top 2013 YA releases in no particular order:

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr
I am a big fan of Zarr and always eager to pick up her latest book. The characters in this one depart a bit from her usual, focusing on a teen concert pianist from a wealthy, high achieving family (Zarr's other books feature kids growing up firmly in the working class world.) Lucy realizes that she's privileged--it's one of the many issues she's grappling with. The main source of angst, though, is her ambivalence about her talent. Nearly a year ago, she walked away from her promising piano career.

The pressure from her family (and from herself) grew to be too much. She hasn't touched a piano since, but her friendship with her brother's new piano teacher has her questioning her decision to quit and pushing her to figure out if there is a way to make music a part of her life again.

This book has a couple of strange plot strands--the relationship with the piano teacher is the big one, but all of the characters are so fully realized and the story itself pushes and spreads in a variety of directions that feels like life unfolding in the real world. What Zarr has to say about living a creative life--when you are amazingly good at what you do--is thought-provoking and inspirational.

17 & Gone by Nova Ren Suma

This is one of those novels that takes a big risk. The language is lyrical and metaphorical. The subject matter is potentially lurid (kidnapped teen girls). And the narrative is almost completely internal. Oh, there were so many ways that this book could go wrong!

My big pet peeve with literary novels is that those beautifully crafted metaphors draw attention to themselves and pull readers out of the story. (When I'm noticing what a lovely simile you just used, I forget what's going on in the narrative.) And very few writers are able to depict difficult subject matter without slipping over the line into soap-opera-y drama.

Add the whole internal stream-of-consciousness angle, and honestly, I didn't think Nova Ren Suma could pull this one off.

But, let me just say WOW. This book pulls you in from page one and keeps you turning pages with the mesmerizing hypnotic voice of girl who suddenly believes that she is seeing the ghosts of missing girls.

Look for 17 & Gone on the short list for the Printz Award this year...

Dear Bird's Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos
It rarely happens to me anymore, but once in a while I read a book and forget that I am a writer. The part of me that is constantly editing and analyzing shuts up and I simply fall into the story. I don't know why this happens with some books and not others. I wish I did! But I think it comes down to the voice--something about it resonates and pulls me in.

The voice in Dr. Bird's belongs to an anxious, sensitive, battered soul of a boy named James Whitman. James carries Walt Whitman's poems around with him. He hugs trees and contemplates grass blades. He talks to a bird therapist in his head. He worries about his sister Jorie who has been kicked out of school and out of the house by their %&^*# parents. There's a mystery at the core of the book: WHY did Jorie get kicked out? But really this book is about James trying to cope with the crappy aspects of life.

Here's something that a lot of adults seem to forget about being a kid: it sucks. So much of your life is out of your control and you're seeing for the first time the unfairness, the flaws in the adults who rule the world (and you). There is no magic answer to how you figure things out--how you grow up--of course, but I get the feeling at the end of this book that James will be all right.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

This love story blows all other teen romances away. The main characters are complex and flawed. Eleanor is a little overweight and weird and bullied. She's hurting, just treading water to survive in her dysfunctional family. Park is quirky and quiet. He stands out in their gritty midwestern town because he's half Korean.

The two don't have a love at first sight moment, instead, their relationship slowly, almost painfully, unfolds. They don't even hold hands until at least a third of the way through--but that moment is more charged than all of the ridiculously over the top teen Harlequins put together.

Oh, it's also set in the 80's, which will make teens today feel like they're reading historical fiction, I suppose. For adults of a certain age, uh, ahem, me, it will feel like time travel.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Bummer of a Writing Day Turns Awesome

Lately I've been struggling with a revision. It's a story that, for whatever reason, I refuse to quit on, and so every other year for over a decade I've been rewriting it.

I've added characters. I've killed characters. I've changed settings and reworked plotlines. I've played around with the voice, the language, the target audience. This used to be a middle grade novel and now it's become young adult. I even changed the title three times. Sad fact: I love the title now, but I'm probably going to have to let it go because I noticed that there's a new YA novel out with the same title.

Darn it.

(just a few of the printed off versions)

I have a nice little writing process that I've figured out over the years, tricks I've learned and methods that seem to work. Every book I've written has been a little different in how it comes together. Thin Space, for all of the work involved (at least five rewrites over two years) was a relatively easy book to write.

This one, obviously, has not been easy. But I press on with it. At the core is a story and main characters and a world that I love, and those aspects have never changed. One of these days, one of these rewrites, I know it's going to click...

That day was not yesterday.

I stared at the computer screen most of the morning and into the afternoon, writing a sentence and then deleting it. There is a part of me that can deal with this kind of cruddy writing day, that thinks: "oh well. I'll figure it out, eventually." There is another part that screams in frustration, that doubts that I will ever get this book "right" (whatever that is), that doubts that I even CAN write anymore, hisses in my ears, "Thin Space was a fluke and who am I kidding? that book isn't even good, quit now blah blah blah."

That part was winning.

And then I had to shut down, at the height of this self-doubting/depressing internal rant, to go give a talk at my local high school. The librarians there and at the public library oversee a joint teen book club every month and they invited me to visit. I gave the school librarian, Laura Piazza, who has been a debut writer's dream by the way, a handful of advanced review copies of Thin Space last fall and she's been passing them around to students and teachers.

Talking to this group made me feel better immediately and reminded me what is at the other end of the sometimes excruciating process of writing a book: if you do keep plugging away, eventually, that finished story will one day make it into the hands of readers.

(I love this picture! First, because these ladies were all so cool and  enthusiastic about Thin Space, and second, because it looks like one of the book clubbers is Hermione Granger...) 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Attacking the Stack Whilst Creating another Stack

Back in January I set a goal for myself to read the 49 books that had collected in teetery tottery piles around my house. I vowed that I'd read 4 books per month, which left room for me to read new books that might come onto my radar, and I gave myself an escape clause: I'd put down a book if it didn't grab me right away.

Five months into my Attack the Stack Reading Challenge, I figure it's time to share my progress.

The good news: I am on track.

I've read an average of 4 books per month and I only quit on one (which, truth be told, I feel guilty about it) Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe. This is one of those classics that I somehow skipped along the way and always wondered about. I may still be wondering about it for the rest of my life. It's a fascinating depiction of a certain time and place in America, and I am sure that it was a ground-breaking piece of literature when it was first published. But I am struggling with the language--it's over-written, to the point of absurdity. Also--and I know it's unfair to judge an old book by today's standards--but it is racist in a way that makes me anxious and sick. I want to believe that writers are observant and sensitive to their surroundings and to issues of obvious inequality.

Um. I guess not! But the main reason I ended up putting this book down was that I simply could not read more than ten pages at a time without falling asleep. I'm so stubborn when it comes to reading books I start, that I have a feeling I will pick this one up again. If nothing else, I will use it when I am having trouble falling asleep.

But back to my progress on tackling the stack...
The bad news:
I have created another stack!
(New stack)

Here's a pic of the original stack in case you were wondering:
(Old stack)

I am glad that I committed to my challenge. I've loved many of the books and wondered WHY WHY WHY they had been sitting so long in my stack in the first place.

Some faves so far:

What I Was by Meg Rosoff.  No idea why I waited so long to read this one because I've LOVED everything Meg Rosoff has written. This book was a slow-building, absorbing story with a freak twist at the end that I did NOT see coming. Like all of Rosoff's books, it doesn't fit neatly into any category. Coming of age? Historical fiction? Magical realism? Analysis of gender roles in society?  Whatever. Everything the woman writes is brilliant and transcends all genres.

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo. I went to her book-signing back in the fall and thought she was cool. I have no excuse at all for waiting so long to read her book. It's a fantasy, but instead of being set in the stereotypical Lord of the Rings/Middle Ages type world, it's set in what feels like turn of the last century Tsarist Russia. Great story.

Lest anyone thinks that I don't read books outside the YA genre--

My favorite adult book so far (when I say adult book it always sounds like I am talking about porn. But I am not. Ha ha) is The Fiction Class by Susan Breen. The main character is a writer who teaches a workshop once a week and after the class goes to visit her crochety dying mother in a nursing home. There's so much in here about relationships and aging and choices we make, but also some very interesting stuff about writing and writers too.

High Tide in Tucson by Barbara Kingsolver has been sitting on my bedside table for years. Kingsolver is one of my favorite writers but I had the impression that this collection of essays was going to be dense, something I'd have to work my way through. I was wrong. I read it like it was a novel, in two days. It's thought-provoking but has some laugh out loud moments too. This book reminded me that a truly good writer is NEVER hard to read.

Last but not least, a book I finished a few weeks ago and am still thinking about. Many Stones by Carolyn Coman, is an oldie by YA standards, published in 2000, and I am stunned that I never read it until now (It was a finalist for the National Book Award) I can't think of a more perfectly put together book. Short and powerful--simple and complex at the same time. The main character Berry is still reeling from her older sister Laura's death in South Africa. Laura was volunteering at a school and was murdered, right around the time that the Apartheid system was falling apart.

Berry's father, a take charge/no nonsense kind of guy, decides that the proper way to deal with their grief over Laura is to go to South Africa and donate money to the school where she worked. Berry has no desire to go on this trip. She doesn't get along with her father and still holds a lot of anger toward him for divorcing her mom. The book is the two taking their trip and painfully and awkwardly trying to relate to each other. The politics and history of Apartheid hover behind the story, a back drop to Berry and her father's broken relationship.

The book asks: How do we go on living after tragedy? How do we forgive the people who have hurt us? There's no real answer, of course, but like every great novel, the reader finds a bit of hope at the end.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

How to Publish a Book 101

When I was fifteen, a gazillion years ago, I wrote my first book. I gave it what I thought was a poignantly symbolic title: Another Leaf Just Fell, which was just perfect for the subject matter, a tearjerky--heavy on the symbolism--YA romance about a girl who falls in love with a handsome popular boy who, unbeknownst to her, is dying of cancer. (Cue soap-opera-y music.) I hand wrote the first draft of this manuscript and then revised it several times before painstakingly tapping out the whole thing on my typewriter.
handwritten (above) and typed version. CANNOT believe I saved these!

Finished at last, I was ready to pursue publication, but I had no clue how exactly to pursue said publication. In a great moment of serendipity I stumbled upon an ad in the back of my Seventeen magazine for a publishing company called Carlton Press. Carlton, according to the ad, promised great success for its authors. I wrote my first query letter and crossed my fingers.

Several weeks later I got a response from B. Leiter, Associate Editor. For only three thousand dollars Carlton would happily publish my book. Mr?/Ms? B. Leiter added kindly (and I'd say somewhat snarkily) that if the cost was too much, perhaps I "should try some of the giant firms who do not require any subsidy from their authors." I had never heard the term vanity press at this point, but even my naive little fifteen year old self had an inkling that the Carlton route was probably not the route I wanted to trek down.

Besides, I did not have anything approaching 3000 dollars.

I put the manuscript away.

It would be nearly fifteen years before I wrote another novel, and fifteen years after that before I snagged my first publishing deal from one of those giant firms that don't require a subsidy from their authors. It was a loooong road to publication and there were a ton of things I had to learn along the way to navigate that road.

It probably didn't help that the publishing business kept changing even while I was trying to figure it out. I remember going to a writing conference in the mid 1990's where the keynote speaker, an editor from Simon & Schuster, told the eager children's writers that we did not need to have an agent and he would gladly accept full, unsolicited manuscripts from us. Too bad I didn't have a decent one to send him at the time.

A few years later Harry Potter transformed the children's book industry. Suddenly there was big potential money to made on kids books and everyone and their mother thought it would be easy to write them. Twilight hit next and wannabe writers jumped on the YA vampire gravy train. The publishing houses that used to take unsolicited manuscripts from unknowns were buried under their wizard-y, vampire-y slush piles.

Agents, who rarely used to handle children's fiction authors, took notice (money to be made!) and now, for the most part, they are the gatekeepers who wade through the slush piles. That editor at Simon & Schuster, by the way, is a senior editor these days and won't look at anything but agented queries. The other big houses are the same. If you're a children's writer and you want to take the traditional path, you probably need to find yourself an agent. (Good luck!)

And don't get me started on e-books and Amazon and publishing house mergers and bookstores closing. The times they are a-changin' in the book publishing industry. Which could (and does) freak anyone associated with the business out. Are books going the way of the dodo? Or is this just a (painful) bump in the road as stories leave the paper format behind and the industry scrambles like Music and Newspapers to figure out how to keep making money as the mode of transmission changes?

Who knows?

I'm choosing not to freak out. Maybe I am like one of those resistant, optimistic horse and buggy owners who will insist to my dying day that automobiles will never catch on--but I think stories and the people who tell them will stick around. How these stories will be published, and what "published" even means in this new age--that, I have no idea.

At the moment most of the writers I know are still firmly and/or shakily on the traditional publication path, but I've met a few people who are striking out and trying self-publishing and having great success. An entire industry is springing up to help these writers--editors, book designers, publicists, etc.

There's a little tension between the two groups, which sort of reminds me of the tension I used to feel when I was a working mom, and later, when I was on the other side as a stay-at-home mom. I never understood that animosity. I mean, we were all moms trying to do our best raising our kids. What was the point in blaming, or being envious, or griping about which group had it harder?

And when it comes to writing and publishing books, the bottom line, I think, is that we all want to tell good stories and get them out there, somehow, into readers' hands (or onto readers' electronic devices).

So that's the longest intro to a blog series ever, but what I'm going to do over the next few weeks is interview writers about their various paths to publication--ask them, specifically, the burning question that my naive fifteen year old self would've wanted to know:

How do you get published?  

Tune in, in June, for the answers...