Friday, February 28, 2014

How a Fearless Possibly Insane Dog Taught Me to Face and Conquer My Own Demons

Every day two battles are fought and won in my house.

Battle # 1 is fierce and loud and stressful and contains lots of slobber and flying hair.

Battle #2 is fought by my dog.

First, a bit about Battle # 2.

So if you have been following my blog for a while, you may recall that after my son went off to college I became a reluctant and later a ridiculously adoring dog owner. My Zooey is the perfect writing companion. She naps by my side for two to three hours at a time, and then she demands a walk, usually at the moment when my eyeballs are burning out of my skull from staring at my computer screen. Zooey is the reason I change out of my pajamas each day. She also has saved me from becoming a sad, partial empty-nester. (I suspect that without Zooey, I would sob every time I walk past my son's empty bedroom.) She has without a doubt saved my daughter from my helicopter mom tendencies. Now those helicopter blades are hovering around Zooey.

How do we keep Zooey from jumping on visitors? How do we teach her not to dig a giant *&^ hole in the center of the backyard? What can we do to keep her from eating sponges and kleenexes and computer mouses/mice? How can we help Zooey and the crochety yet beloved old cat get along better?

And the big one: how do we stop Zooey from losing her freaking mind every single day when the mailman comes to the door?

My son on break from college figured out the answer to this one.

The Zooey vs the Mailman War has been going on for about a year and a half now.

The battle begins when the truck first putters down the street. Zooey is fast asleep, curled beside me.

She recognizes the truck sound--which is somehow different from any other vehicle sounds--and she is UP and ready for battle.

There's five minute tense growly period between when the mailman steps out of the truck and takes his sweet time walking up the street toward our home.

The moments when the guy places his foot on our front porch and passes by the picture window are the heat of the battle, with Zooey in full-blown attack mode, splattering spittle and barking like a wild beast. Time slows. The mail box clicks open. Zooey races to the front door and throws herself against it. The mail box snaps shut. Zooey licks herself furiously, does a victory lap around the house, and jumps back onto the couch to continue her nap.

My son watched this battle take place every day when he was home on break and we'd marvel at the intensity and lunacy of it. On his last day home, we watched the battle unfold again and my son announced that he'd figured it all out.

Zooey is the type of dog who will bark when anyone comes to the door, but as soon as that person steps inside, she sees that the person is a welcome friend and taking a cue from us, she greets them (by jumping on them--I know, not a good dog trait. We're working on it)


In Zooey's mind he truly is the enemy. Every day, however, the man has the audacity to drive down our street and waltz right up to our door. Zooey's barking, her brave counterattack against the window, is the only thing that keeps the enemy from gaining entry.

And it works! She wins the battle every single day. The mailman retreats. Zooey has completed her mission. The only solution, my son said, is to invite the mailman inside. (He may be right, but at this point, I don't know if I want to risk the mailman's life to test this hypothesis.)

Okay, you may be wondering at this point what Battle # 1 is.

If you have been following this blog for a while or even for the past month, you may have noticed that it's a daily struggle for me to sit down each day, open my computer file, and get to work. I've written about my struggle here and here and here, in case you want a recap. Apparently I have to learn over and over again that the only solution is to write. It never gets any easier. Regardless of how long I have been writing, despite the fact that I have learned the lesson, that I know LOGICALLY that each day is difficult, somehow my hesitance to get to work still surprises me.

Writing, many days, feels like a battle. A battle against self doubt. A battle against laziness. Steven Pressfield does a much better job than I talking about this in his brilliant little book The War of Art. (This is a must read for any writer struggling to do the work, by which I mean EVERY writer.) Pressfield calls it the battle against Resistance.

Each day I am surprised by the intensity of Resistance. Each day I am Zooey snoozing along happily and shocked at the sound of the mailman's truck turning down my street. That bastard is here again? But I just fought him yesterday. And the day before that. And the day before that! Who the heck does this guy think he is?

But like Zooey I fight my battle every day. I spring onto the back of my couch and hurl myself against the plate glass window, drool and hair flying. And at the end of the day, I snap my laptop shut, secure in the fact that I have chased that demon off.

For today.

For the record, this day I have successfully beaten back Resistance 18 days in a row. I sign off now to fight the battle of DAY NUMBER 19.

Wish me luck.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Books that Sucked Me in and Blew My Mind

Lately, I have been a good book reading roll, which is a nice roll to be on when you are NOT on a good writing roll. During the day I (mostly) struggle to meet my writing goals, but at night, I know I can curl up with a great book and all is right again in the world. You would think it would not be satisfying to read a good book during the time you fear you are writing a bad one, but you would be wrong.

It's actually the opposite.

Reading "bad" books makes me tired. Each page is a chore. I was reading a book that shall not be named for my book club. The first night I picked it up, read two pages, and fell asleep. The next few nights the same thing happened. I think I got up to ten pages and finally set it aside.

Compare that to how I felt when I was reading Courtney Summers' This is Not a Test.
From the very first page, I was sucked in, and then I was turning pages--but not so fast that I would miss anything. Here's the premise: it's the end of the world. Zombies are attacking the town and the few kids who've managed to evade death/zombiehood hole up together in the local high school. Now, I know what you're thinking: zombies? another end of the world book? Bleh. But this is the brilliant Courtney Summers we are talking about. Turns out the main character had been planning to kill herself that morning and the end of the world feels like a relief.

There is nothing cooler than a thought-provoking page turner and this one had me thinking long after I closed the book: What's the point of living? How do you fight for survival when you don't want to survive? Can a damaged girl on the verge of giving up, find hope in the worst of circumstances? Read a book like this and you are reminded why you write in the first place.

I am not a big graphic novel fan. I should amend that to say I haven't read many graphic novels. If you are new to the genre too, here is a good one to try: Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang.

It takes place during the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1898. It's actually two books, companions, that tell the same story from characters on the opposite side of the war. First, we meet Bao in Boxers and sympathize quickly with his plight. He is one of the Chinese peasants who rises up against the foreigners, many of whom happen to be Christian missionaries. In Saints we see the struggle from the other point of view, a girl named Four Girl, who is drawn to Christianity, but not for reasons you'd expect. When the two meet, it is a moment of horror and heartbreak that I don't think I have ever experienced before while reading a book.

I have been a big fan of David Levithan ever since I read Everyday. His latest, Two Boys Kissing, is stunning and ground breaking.

The main story is two boys decide to break the record for the world's longest kiss. But there are other stories too, of boys going on their first date and a boy who is repulsed by his own sexual identity and contemplating ending his life. The narrator is a Greek chorus of men who have died from AIDs, looking down at the events with sympathy and pity and fear and joy.

I've seen many reviews of this book, but none have discussed the thing that stood out most to me: the most perfect bit of writing I've ever seen--that should be given to any human who ever contemplates ending his own life:

"Sometimes perspective comes far too late. You cannot trust cannot live for anyone else's sake. cannot stay alive for your parents. You cannot stay alive for your friends. And you have no responsibility to stay alive for them. You have no responsibility to anyone but yourself to live. 
But I'm dead, he would say to us. I'm already dead.
No, we'd argue. No, you are not. ...your future self is still alive. You have a responsibility to your future self, who is someone you might not even know, might not even understand yet. Because until you die, that future self has as much life as you do."

This book will stay with you long after you close it.

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness is KILLING me.
I've been listening to it on audio and let me say here that audio books are art forms in and of themselves. Whoever is reading this one is awesome. He does various voices, including a dog, and has me alternately laughing and almost crying. Confession: I have not finished listening to this book. I can't think of a time when this has ever happened to me--that I love a book and am completely caught up in it and yet I cannot bear to pick it up again because I am so invested in the characters and so worried about what is going to happen to them.

Brief synopsis: it's a weird world where there's a small town populated only by men. All the women died after some kind of alien virus and the men caught what they call The Noise, the ability to hear each other's thoughts. It's driven most of them to suicide, but the few who are left, are struggling, and this is the world that Todd Hewitt has been born into. When we meet Todd, he's walking around with his dog Manchee, annoyed and bored and so tired of listened to the noise. He can hear the dog's thoughts too but that's not very exciting. The dog mostly says stuff like, "Pooh, Todd, pooh."

Everything changes for Todd when he meets a girl, a girl whose thoughts he can't hear, and that pretty much starts Todd (and Manchee) off on a non-stop nail-biting journey where Todd realizes fairly quickly that everything he's been told about himself and his world is a lie.

Oh my God, I love this dog. Anyone who has read this book, please please please tell me that nothing happens to him. (Shoot. I know something bad is going to happen to him. Which is why I am afraid to keep listening.)

And last, but definitely not least:

Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian.

This novel was one of the finalists for the Morris, (the award given to best YA debut novel), and deservedly so. I finished reading it a few weeks ago and I still can't stop thinking about it. It's the main character Evan--how real and tormented and complex and floundery he is, but it's also the world, this small town in Minnesota, a lake with an island that no one is allowed to visit, and the group of kids that become Evan's first friends.

If you've heard about this book, what you've probably heard about is the edgy topic at the core: the um, sex and violence. It's true. The book is edgy and dark and kind of in your face about it. When we meet Evan, he's settling into yet another school (his single dad--who reminds me of the single dad in September Girls, another great book--moves around a lot, and so Evan never gets to stay in any place too long.) Evan's coping mechanism is to not get too close to anyone, unless you count hooking up with a string of  "easy" girls.

This strategy backfires in a big way when Evan is beaten up by a conquest's ex-boyfriend, beaten up so badly he ends up in the hospital. His dad takes him back to Minnesota, the dad's childhood home, to recuperate, and it is a long period of recuperation for Evan--grappling with a physical recovery and post traumatic stress, but also struggling with guilt and the role he may have played in the events leading up to his attack. There's more here too about father and son relationships, and relationships between men and women, and the true consequences of violence and of sex that may make some readers uncomfortable, but made me so very grateful that a book like this exists to ask the questions.

Highly recommend.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Writer's Block Knocks Me Down. But I Get Up Again.

I didn't used to believe in Writer's Block. I was doing a book talk somewhere or a school visit and during the Q and A a person asked me what I did to combat Writer's Block and I said, with a straight face and totally meaning it, that I did not believe in it. Then, I probably laughed. Ha ha. Writer's Block. Pshaw. Never happened to me before. Unless you count a few false stops and starts. And those weren't such a big deal.

Anyway, I knew the solution to slow/bad writing days: keep writing.

And then I came down with the affliction. Yes, Virginia, I am here to tell you that Writer's Block is real and I have been suffering from it, acutely, for the past six months.

The past six months I have also been promoting the heck out of my first book. Coincidence? Probably not.

Here's what my writing life was like BEFORE I had a book on the bookstore shelves:

  • I wrote, nearly every day, 1500 words, when I was writing a first draft, or a chapter or two, when I was revising. 
  • The majority of those days I had a hard time sitting down and beginning, opening my file, and getting to work. 
  • The majority of those days I doubted what I was doing. I realized almost at the same time that the words were spilling out of my head and onto the page that they were kind of sucky but I told myself that I would try to fix them later. 
  • I worried as I was writing a book that I would never finish and if I did ever finish, no one would ever read it. 
  • Some days I felt like my words were glorious and brilliant and hilarious and heartbreaking. It was easy to slip into my story. The empty page would magically transform into a dark pool and I would fall under the surface and disappear from myself. The story would spool out like it had always been there and I would watch and take dictation. 
  • But most days the empty page was an empty page. There was no dark pool. Or there was a dark pool but it was frozen over and I was shuffling around on the surface and slamming an axe at the ice and only chipping up a few words here and there but mostly just chunks of stupid ice and my hands would hurt and I'd want to throw the axe down and kick it.
  • Later, when I went back to read over my pages, there would be no difference between the output that came from the lovely dark pool days and from the painful frozen ice days. Which I thought was freaking weird. But whatever. I didn't question it. I had just enough of those dark pool days to keep me slugging through the difficult days. 

I know it was like this for me because I can look over old blog posts--the first two years especially. The posts are a string of wondering and worrying and whining and complaining. Figuring out my process. Absorbing rejections. Making peace, finally, with the idea that I might never be a published writer.

In the meantime I went to writers' conferences and retreats and I heard other writers talking about similar struggles, and the common denominator, the mantra, in so many words, seemed to come down to: Keep writing. Trust the process. 

I believed it even though I hadn't actually seen it work. I trusted the process--trusted that I would get better at writing if I kept at it, trusted that plotholes would work themselves out if I fiddled with them, trusted that if I kept submitting, eventually something would click.

And it worked.

In that very long time between when I finished my "first" book Thin Space, I wrote four other books. I had my mostly bad writing days and my rare good ones. I had my tricks for getting started and sticking with it and checking off goals, and I patted myself on the back that I was getting better, that I knew what I was doing.

Here's what happens now when I write:

It's EXACTLY the same as the list above. It's hard to sit down and begin. The initial words come out sucky. Doubts churn around in my head. But everything is amped up exponentially. Instead of worrying that no one will ever read what I'm working on (which I DO worry about, obsessively) I also worry about future readers comparing this new thing to Thin Space. I imagine meh Goodreads reviews and weirdly jouncing around Amazon ratings. And a whole bunch of other stuff that I have no control over.

I keep writing, but I feel like a fraud. This isn't a frozen pool I'm chipping away at. No, it's a mucky swamp and all I can do is descend into it each day and try not to suffocate.

Writer's Block--at least as I have come to understand it--is not the inability to write--I can always string sentences together, I assure you--it is the inability to fall into that lovely deep dark pool and lose yourself in a story. It's the fear that you've lost whatever it is that you don't even understand you have. It's staring at a blank page and seeing that frozen pool and holding your axe and not having the energy to swing it anymore. It's the terror that you will never see the dark pool again.

But before I depress whoever happens to be reading this (and myself), I want to remind you (and myself!) that I know the solution.

You write.

On the days you want to and on the days you don't. On the good days and on the bad days. You write when you are travelling and when you have a head cold and when you have ten million emails to answer and when your house is a laughable pigsty.

You keep writing. You trust the process.

So that's what I've been doing for the past few months. I wrote and worried and flailed around in the swamp. Until finally I had a few days of chopping ice. And yesterday, for a glorious moment, it happened.

I forgot about twitter and Goodreads ratings and emails and hilariously dirty bathrooms, and the page disappeared. It was only for a little while, but there it was--the dark pool shimmering and gorgeous and right in front of me.

Under the surface was the story, waiting for me to shut up and let go, waiting for me to lose myself so I could find it.

And I did.

Friday, February 7, 2014

On Being Both a YA & MG Author--Guest Post by Holly Schindler

I am so excited to be a stop on Holly Schindler's Book Tour, celebrating the release of her middle grade novel The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky. (Great book, by the way. I read it a few weeks ago and the voice of the main character has stayed with me. Highly recommend to the middle grade reader in your life --or you!) Because I have only known Holly as a young adult author, I was curious what it is like for her to switch genres...

Here's Holly:

Thanks, Jody!

I’ve published two YA novels: A BLUE SO DARK and PLAYING HURT, with Flux, and have two books set to release in ’14: one is another YA (FERAL, HarperCollins), and the other is my first MG (THE JUNCTION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY, Dial / Penguin).

At first glance, it does seem as though the biggest switch-up in genres is that MG…but really, every one of my books is a bit of a switch-up: A BLUE SO DARK is a literary problem novel.  PLAYING HURT is a romance.  THE JUNCTION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY is a contemporary MG.  FERAL is a psychological thriller.

Switching up the genres actually doesn’t feel that awkward to me, though—I figure, even if you’re sticking with the same genre, each book means having to create new conflicts, new characters, a new world…

I don’t think one method is superior (there’s certainly something to be said for “branding” yourself by sticking with one genre, yet there’s something to be said, I feel, for also being diverse enough as an author that you’re able to shift as the market and reading tastes change).  I do think it all has to do with what kind of an authorial voice you have.  Some authors, I think, have a “singer’s” voice, and some have an “actor’s” voice.

What I mean: I think a singing voice is usually pretty firmly rooted in a specific type / genre of music.  Reba McEntire has a country voice.  Even when she’s singing BeyoncĂ©’s “If I Were a Boy,” it comes out as a country song.  Some writers have that kind of authorial voice—no matter what themes or subject they tackle, they gravitate toward tackling it in the same genre.  Say you want to address the intricacies of marriage.  A literary author would crank out a quiet—probably very internal—adult book.  A romance author would perhaps write a steamy love story about a middle-aged woman being torn between a new love and the comfortable, established relationship with her husband.  A YA author would write about the difficulties of teen parents trying to make a go of it as a couple.  An MG author would write from the viewpoint of the child caught between two people who are separating.

Other authors, I think, are more like actors who, in a single year, star in a slapstick comedy followed by a love story followed by a TV drama.  For so many actors, tackling a new character means tackling a movie in a different genre.  But even when an author switches genres, there are still similarities…I grew up on Judy Blume, and whether it was a picture book, a middle grade novel, or the steamy FOREVER, Blume wrote realistic stories.  As a reader, you could count on her to be direct, honest, and utterly real.

In my own work, I tend to gravitate toward lyrical, sometimes poetic writing, regardless of the genre.  In my latest, THE JUNCTION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY, my main character, Auggie, speaks in simile—that voice helped me to establish and build her character, as this video explains:

In the end, I think the decision to write (or not to write) in a different genre all comes down to recognizing what kind of authorial voice you have.  Acknowledging and honoring the kind of author you are at heart…

Book Description:

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” meets Because of Winn Dixie in this inspiring story of hope.

Auggie Jones lives with her grandpa Gus, a trash hauler, in a poor part of town.  So when her wealthy classmate’s father starts the House Beautification Committee, it’s homes like Auggie’s that are deemed “in violation.”  But Auggie is determined to prove that there’s more to her—and to her house—than meets the eye.

What starts out as a home renovation project quickly becomes much more as Auggie and her grandpa discover a talent they never knew they had—and redefine a whole town’s perception of beauty, one recycled sculpture at a time.

Holly Schindler’s feel-good story about the power one voice can have will inspire readers to speak from their hearts.


"...a heartwarming and uplifting story...[that] shines...with vibrant themes of community, self-empowerment and artistic vision delivered with a satisfying verve." – Kirkus Reviews

"Axioms like 'One man's trash is another man's treasure' and 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder' come gracefully to life in Schindler's tale about the value of hard work and the power of community…Auggie's enthusiasm and unbridled creativity are infectious, and likeminded readers will envy her creative partnership with [her grandfather] Gus." – Publishers Weekly


Twitter: @holly_schindler


Author site:

Site for young readers: Holly Schindler’s Middles - I’m especially excited about this site.  I adored getting to interact with the YA readership online—usually through Twitter or FB.  But I had to create a site where I could interact with the MG readership.  I’m devoting a page on the site to reviews from young readers themselves!  Be sure to send your young reader’s review through the Contact Me page.

Group Author Blogs: YA Outside the Lines ( for YA authors and Smack Dab in the Middle ( for MG authors.


a Rafflecopter giveaway

And tune in to the next stop of the tour here: Bildungsroman