Monday, March 31, 2014

On Finishing a Draft (Again)

The other day I finished working on a draft of a novel that I have been revising (on and off) for five years. This was version number 4.

There will be a draft 5.

Writing this draft almost killed me (in order to meet a totally self-imposed deadline, I worked 6 to 10 hours a day for 46 days in a row)

--but it also taught me the greatest truth I know about writing (again).

Trust the process.

Say it with me, people:




I understand this mantra now at the very core of my being. I say it at the beginning of every new project. I say it somewhere in the middle. And I say it at the end. Most of the time I don't even believe it.

And then I do.

Trusting the process means:

  • pushing forward, writing every day whether or not you want to/feel like it/care/have fantasies about flinging your laptop through a plate glass window
  • focusing on the day's goal--whatever it happens to be--a passage, a scene, a chapter, a word count, a character arc, a plot line, etc.--and not worrying about what you will have to work on the next day (or God forbid, next week) 
  • pushing out of your mind if this story is any good, if it will ever sell, what your agent or editor will think, and/or what the bloggers on Goodreads will say. I heard once that every writer has an ideal reader in mind while writing--this is the person you imagine reading and responding and it is the person you most hope to please. My ideal readers are my husband--who is extremely critical, and yet, I admit, nearly always right, and my writing critique partner Donna, who knows exactly what to say and how to say it and who has kept me from jumping off a ledge too many times to discuss here. I need both of them in my writing life. I also need to push them out of my mind during writing sessions.
  • celebrating small successes and going easy on yourself when you feel like you've failed. 
  • reminding yourself and then believing it--that this is only a draft and you will finish it, and if you have to, (likely) you can pick it up again and go back in, knowing that each time you really are getting closer and closer to that nebulously termed "right" feeling of completeness.

A few months ago I was chatting with one of my favorite writers Rae Carson. We had volunteered for Small Business Saturday to work at our local children's bookstore Cover to Cover. Small Business Saturday, unfortunately, turned out to have been poorly scheduled in our town of Columbus Ohio--it coincided with a college home football game and not just any college. The store is about 10 minutes away from where the Ohio State Buckeyes play.

Rae and I spent quite a bit of the quiet day in the bookstore chatting--about our favorite books and about the writing life (she is a New York Times best selling author, so let's just say that her writing life is a tad different from mine). But at the same time, there are similarities--ie: figuring out how to balance writing with promoting and with actual living of life with kids and bills and grocery shopping.

At one point the conversation turned to what our latest project is. Rae has a three-book trilogy out, the glorious Girl of Fire and Thorns, and now she is working on writing her next three-book series, something she's already sold on synopsis. When she told me this, my mouth dropped open. I can't even imagine writing under that kind of pressure--selling a book before you've written it... Yikes.

I told her that I was working on a rewrite of a rewrite of a rewrite, and we lamented about how to fit in writing around travelling (I laugh as I write this because Rae's travel schedule dwarfs mine--I think she said she hasn't been home for more than a month at a time in several years). She asked if I had sold the book yet and I said no, and she had a funny expression on her face.

She said something like, Wow, I can't even imagine that kind of pressure.

My mouth dropped open again. What do you mean? I asked.

She said, you're writing something without knowing if it's ever going to go anywhere?

After a pause, I laughed, because this is how I've written every book I've ever written. I've never had a guarantee that anything was going to sell.

We parted that day, probably both feeling sorry for the other person. Okay, that's stupid. I do not feel sorry for Rae Carson. She probably does not feel sorry for me either. So, forget I said that.

My point is, (I think this is my point), that writing is hard for every writer, no matter where you are in the process or in your career.

I know that my friends and family look at my crazy, totally self-imposed work schedule and shake their heads in amazement and confusion. Why not take a day off? Why work so hard for something that you could easily put off for another day? Why work into the night in order to get just one more sentence?

The answer: I don't know.

The answer: it seems to be my process.

And, I trust it.

PS: For the record, I am taking a two-week break from writing. I am traveling soon to the area where I grew up. I will be visiting libraries and schools and reconnecting with old friends and relatives. Stay tuned for all the fun (and pressures of a different kind)...

Friday, March 21, 2014

"Recreating a Living, Breathing History" (Guest Post Mary Cronk Farrell, author of PURE GRIT)

I'm so excited to feature Mary Cronk Farrell, the author of the new book Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific on my blog today. I recently read the book and I was blown away by it.

The story is riveting--horrifying, heartbreaking, and somehow inspirational. And all the more so because it is true. What these women went through is incredible and how they managed to do their jobs during their captivity is even more amazing.

I've never tried to write non-fiction (unless you count this blog), but I am fascinated by the process. Here's Mary's take on some of the research-gathering involved in writing non-fiction:


Mary Cronk Farrell
In writing a true story about events in history, the writer’s task is to recreate a world, bring alive not only long-passed people, but an environment that may have completely disappeared. That was my challenge in writing PURE GRIT: HOW AMERICAN WORLD WAR II NURSES SURVIVED BATTLE AND PRISON CAMP IN THE PACIFIC.

I needed to recreate a number of different worlds for this book, none of which I had ever experienced myself. How would I make the sights and sounds of a combat hospital realistic? Where would I discover the smells of a tropical jungle? How could I imagine the feelings running through a person’s body as she realizes shrapnel is flying around her, or a machine gun is firing from a fighter plane over head? Would my own feelings of hunger translate to the starvation experienced by prisoners of war, or my knowledge of loneliness come anywhere near that of a person who cannot know she will ever see loved ones again?

To find the details necessary to bring a story to life, I turned to personal accounts such as diaries, letters and historical documents. In the case of the American military nurses in my book, the historical record was rich with possibility.

From a 2003, Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper interview I learned about one nurse’s motivation for joining the Army Nurse Corp:  “Hattie Brantley had always craved adventure. She didn't want her mother's life as a farm wife with half a dozen kids pulling at her skirt while she washed and cleaned and hoed the garden.”

Initially, I studied books written by the nurses themselves, two of which had been published shortly after the end of World War II. I also found a book written by a doctor who served with the nurses, a civilian nurse who was there and a missionary woman. From Barbed-Wire Surgeon, by Alfred A. Weinstein, M.D. I gained details like this:

 “Sounds familiar to the operating pavilion vibrated through the air: the zzz-zzz-zzz of a saw as it cut through bone, the rasp of a file as the freshly cut end, dripping with red marrow, was ground smooth, the plop of an amputated leg dropping into a bucket, the grind of a rounded burr drill easing its way through a skull, the tap, tap, tap, of a mallet on a chisel gouging out a shell fragment deeply imbedded in bone, the hiss of the sterilizer blowing off steam, the soft patter of nurses’ feet scurrying back and forth…”

Some POW nurses had been interviewed for posterity by the Army Nurse Corp and the Department of Defense. These would be my primary sources, but they were not so easily found. The U.S. Army Office of Medical History was moving from the east coast to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and the documents I needed were boxed up somewhere, nobody seemed quite sure where. It was about two years before I found the oral recordings and their transcriptions. Here’s a typical quote from these interviews. Army Nurse Helen Cassini described the dusty conditions in the tunnel hospital on Corregidor:

“We had no air conditioning of course. And we even had to wear masks--wet masks in order to breathe. We would take gauze and wet it, put it over the patients'--mouths in order for them to breathe a little bit more comfortably. When the shelling and bombing would occur, it was even worse because the dust, the little stones would just fall down through the cracks and cover everything.”

Santo Tomas Prison Camp where the nurses were held captive. (National Archives)
Archived at the Women in Military Service to America Foundation, I found notes from an interview with Navy Nurse Margaret Nash who had been imprisoned at Los Ban᷈os Internment Camp in a rural area some distance from Manila.

“Our menu was interesting. Have you ever tasted wall paper paste? Well, that’s what we had for breakfast, weevils and all. It was called lugao. They would give us milk for it and if you were lucky you’d get a banana. The second of our two meals a day was a stew of all native vegetables….We had no meat, no protein of any kind, and that’s why there was so much beriberi and malnutrition.”

Army Nurse Frankie Lewey treating a wounded man. (National Archives)
I resorted to secondary sources when I couldn’t track down the original, if the bit of information seem seemed imperative to recreating an experience. For instance information on the feelings associated with starvation which I learned from a newspaper quote cited in the book All this Hell: U.S. Nurses Imprisoned by the Japanese (Mohahan & Neidel-Greenlee, University of Kentucky Press, 2003).

“Hunger makes one constantly dizzy and causes a severe basal headache that never leaves…I had been without vitamins for so long I could not read a line of print. The letters swam together.”

And similarly, the feeling of homecoming after three-years in POW camp.

“A few minutes later, the dramatic moment of the whole trip arrived when Lieutenant [Margaret] Nash…sighted her mother on the porch.
“Mother! Mother!’ she exclaimed with outstretched arms and tears rolling down her cheeks. It was only a matter of seconds until she was in her mother’s arms.” 

Once a writer discovers details like this, all that’s left is weaving them seamlessly together into a narrative.


Mary Cronk Farrell is an award-winning author of Children's/YA books and former journalist with a passion for stories about people facing great adversity with courage. Her books have been named Notable Social Studies Book for Young People, SPUR Award for Best Juvenile Fiction about the American West, Bank Street College List of Best Children's Books, and NY Public Library Best Books for Teens. For more information on Mary and her books see: 

Pure Grit is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and at indie bookstores.

Friday, March 14, 2014

In Which a REALLY Camera Shy Writer Consents to Appear on Camera (with a brief digression about Italian hand gestures)

When you are writing and submitting and collecting rejections and rewriting and pursuing publication for as long as I have (hint: 20+ years), you tend to have very elaborate daydreams about what it will be like when your book finally appears on the bookstore shelf.

My daydreams included book signings and school visits and conference talks. (Which I am thrilled to say have all come true.) But also, crazier stuff like movie premieres and NY Times Bestseller lists and, okay, I will admit it: my Printz Award acceptance speech. (Alas, these daydreams are as yet unfulfilled.)

But one thing that never flitted across my mind was appearing on camera.

Suddenly, though, I am faced with three such events. To be clear, I am not talking Oprah or the Today Show. 

Thank God.

My three media-related thingys are on a MUCH smaller scale. An interview on a public television station in Connecticut. A taped skype-like chat with the cool people at my publishing company (April 16). And this Saturday March 15 (oh, shoot, I guess that is tomorrow!) a live chat on Twitter with a blogger/book reviewer named Rachel.

Some truths about me pertaining to appearing on camera:

1. I have never appeared on camera.

2. I don't even like having my picture taken. (See here for the angst involved in having my book jacket photo taken and how it almost caused my husband to divorce me.)

I asked a friend who is a bit more media savvy than I am if she had any tips about being on camera and she said, and I quote: "Don't move around too much."

This advice added another layer of anxiety that I hadn't even considered. You see, while I have not been blessed with the well known Italian Cleaning Gene, I have inherited the Italian Hand Gesture Gene.

To put this another way: I cannot talk unless I am moving my hands.


After someone pointed out my talking/hand gesturing style to me, I sat on my hands and words literally would not come out of my mouth.

This tendency may be a problem (tomorrow!!) when I appear on the small screen. But I am going to try to forget about it and have fun with the interview. For the record, I still don't know exactly how it works. I think it's going to be a skype-like chat, with me facing my own laptop screen, My first order of business will be to find a quiet (clean. Ha ha) corner of my house to park myself.

If any of you would like to tune in to this potentially amusing program (which will happen live March 15 from 8:00-9:00 pm EST, but will likely float around online for YEARS), here is the link to do that. (I think) If you are on Twitter, you can tweet me any burning questions you may have by using the hashtag #JodyLiveChat (Ask your kids for help with this. I asked my daughter and she was extremely informative.)

I'll share the upcoming dates and links for the other two events, which will likely be equally amusing. But as of now, you may mark your calendars:

April 8th on Wethersfield CT TV14 

April 16th at 4:00-- online. There's a VERY COOL promotional tie-in, if you tune in to this one--something awesome that I can't mention yet, but I will soon...

PS. If ANYONE has any media advice between this moment and um, tomorrow, at 8:00, please please please feel free to share. (Just don't tell me to sit on my hands.)

(A friend snapped this pic of me doing a book talk--mid hand gesture)

UPDATE: Here's the link to the live chat interview 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

On Writing a Trilogy--Guest Post by Mike Mullin (SUNRISE Blog Tour)

I am so excited to be a stop on Mike Mullin's Sunrise Blog Tour. For the record I've read all three books in the Ashfall Trilogy. This is a riveting, nail-biting, (almost too) realistic, post-apocalyptic adventure that follows main character Alex as he does his best to survive after the supervolcano under Yellowstone explodes and takes out half of the United States. (See below for the synopsis and for other info about Mike and where you can find him and his books.)

Over the years, I've gotten to know Mike "virtually," and have met him in person, too, at a book signing. Side note: teachers--this is an author you MUST invite to your classrooms. Let me just say that when Mike karate chops a cement block in half, he will get your students' attention. Side note #2: Mike has become a gracious and generous mentor to me. He blurbed my book Thin Space, and he is my role model for promoting and teaching and presenting. (Except for the karate chopping of cement blocks aspect.)

Here's Mike now on what it's like to write a successful trilogy:

I’m probably the wrong person to ask about writing a trilogy. I’ve only done it once—maybe it was a fluke? Who knows if I can do it again? The question would probably be better asked of someone like Cinda Williams Chima, although now that I think about it, I’m not sure she’s ever written a trilogy. She always seems to turn her trilogies into tetralogies or more.

Perhaps the quintessential trilogy was The Lord of the Rings. But J.R.R. Tolkien never intended to write a trilogy—he turned his opus in to his publisher as one book, so long that it was unpublishable given the technology of the time.

I had the advantage of knowing almost from the beginning that I was going to write a trilogy. I had expected Ashfall  to be about 80,000 words, a fairly typical length for a young adult novel. But I kept thinking of new and interesting ways to torture my poor protagonists. As a result, Ashfall grew and grew (it was published at 101,000 words), and I still hadn’t come anywhere near exhausting my store of ideas.

I also thought a lot about endings as I was drafting Ashfall. One of the many things I love about young adult literature is that most books end on a note of hope. I don’t think it’s an absolute requirement—Charles Benoit’s You, for example, is a brilliant book with an ending like a gut-stab, but hopeful endings are normally a feature of YA novels. To deliver any kind of believable hopeful ending for Alex and Darla, I had to follow them through the entire volcanic winter, which could last anywhere from three to ten years. I simply had too much story for one book.

So I set my draft of Ashfall  aside for a few days and wrote an outline for the whole trilogy. My outlines are chaotic affairs—pages of rough notes, not neatly marching columns led by Roman numerals—but all the major turning points in the trilogy exist in that first outline.

I paid special attention to the transitions between books. I tried to tie up every plot thread except one at the end of both Ashfall and Ashen Winter. I can’t really talk about what plot threads I left open without getting into massive spoilers, but readers of the trilogy will know exactly what I mean. My theory was that by tying up almost all the loose ends, I’d make each book somewhat satisfying on its own, but leave one thread as a cliffhanger to propel readers through the books and tie them into a cohesive trilogy.

I also paid attention to the scope of the books. In a great trilogy, the scope of the work increases from book to book. The Lord of the Rings starts with a small cast of characters centered around Gandalf and Bilbo and set in The Shire. By the end of the trilogy, there are dozens of major characters involved in epic battles all over Middle Earth. The Hunger Games starts as a family story centered on Katniss and ends in world-changing revolution. The progression of scope in my work is simpler: Ashfall is about Alex and Darla’s struggle to survive, Ashen Winter is about family, and Sunrise is about building a community capable of outlasting the long volcanic winter.

It has been a joy to spend more than five years with Alex and Darla, but I’m ready to move on and write something different. I’m working on a stand-alone young adult thriller now. I’ll leave it to readers to judge whether the Ashfall trilogy was successful or not, but despite the fact that I’ve only done it once and am full of doubts about the future, I’m satisfied. I can look back at the 335,000 words of young adult fiction I’ve published with pride and say, yeah, I did that.

About the author:

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


The Yellowstone supervolcano nearly wiped out the human race. Now, almost a year after the eruption, the survivors seem determined to finish the job. Communities wage war on each other, gangs of cannibals roam the countryside, and what little government survived the eruption has collapsed completely. The ham radio has gone silent. Sickness, cold, and starvation are the survivors’ constant companions.

When it becomes apparent that their home is no longer safe and adults are not facing the stark realities, Alex and Darla must create a community that can survive the ongoing disaster, an almost impossible task requiring even more guts and more smarts than ever—and unthinkable sacrifice. If they fail . . . they, their loved ones, and the few remaining survivors will perish.

This epic finale has the heart of Ashfall, the action of Ashen Winter, and a depth all its own, examining questions of responsibility and bravery, civilization and society, illuminated by the story of an unshakable love that transcends a post-apocalyptic world and even life itself.


The first two chapters are available on my website at: 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. Warning: the sample does contain Ashfall and Ashen Winter spoilers.

Blog Tour Info:

Twitter: Mullin

Buy Links for Sunrise:
Barnes & Noble
The Book Depo