Wednesday, July 30, 2014

In Which My Tattoo Teaches Me to Buck Up and Get Back to Work

It's been over a month now since I've returned home from my Summer Lovin' California book tour and some days I wonder if the whole thing was a nice fuzzy dream.

Now I am back to reality, which means stuff like weeding the garden and walking the dog and planning lessons for upcoming presentations and tooling around with a pitch for my next book. For the record, I struggle with pitches. This goes all the way back through my writing life. I just wish there was a way to stick my manuscript into the right editor's hand, and say Read it.

Another for the record: this does not work. So don't bother, kiddos.

A few years ago, after I finished writing and revising my book Thin Space, I actually sat on it for six months because I couldn't think how to pitch it. The truth is, at that point, I was so burned out by writing and submitting and collecting rejections, I couldn't bear to start the whole angsty rollercoaster-y ride again with Thin Space--my sixth book and the book that while I was writing it felt like it might be THE ONE. But I was afraid. What if I was wrong, etc. and it went nowhere like every other book I'd written and hoped was the one.

My writing partner Donna metaphorically slapped me upside the head one day. What are you doing, she asked me. Why aren't you sending that manuscript out?

I whined for a bit about how much I hated writing query letters and she slapped me upside the head again. Oh my God, she said. You're a WRITER. Why can't you write a pitch? Forget it. I'll write the damn thing.

And she did. Ha.

Her pitch was awesome and got multiple rejections and it hardly fazed me.

I don't know if I recommend this approach but it did kinda work for me in the end. The problem with it is that I never really learned how to write a pitch...

Which I am trying to do now.

Donna, where the HECK are you when I need you???

So. forget that for a minute and let me pretend I am back in sunny California. Parked out by the pool and pondering the limes on a lime tree.

Or eating glorious food that I have not prepared myself.

Walking around the San Francisco streets and coming upon an art installation of books flapping in the sky like birds.

And noticing that the words have fallen out of those books and imprinted themselves upon the sidewalk by my feet.

This trip truly does seem like it happened to another person, happened in another life. And I could almost believe this is true, that it was nothing but a lovely hazy dream, but then I look down at my foot.

And see my TATTOO.

It's there.

Which means the trip really did happen, even though now I am firmly back in reality. The weeding, the dog-walking, the lesson planning, the pitch writing.

I can do it this time, write my own pitch. I am not the same woman I was five years ago.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Today Is Yellow Day and Other Reasons Why I Love Teaching

Before I was a writer, I was a teacher. Well, that is not exactly true. I was a writer, always, and then I sorta freaked out about continuing to pursue what seemed like a silly dream (being a published author) and fell into teaching. That's how I used to describe it. Falling, and not a planned career.

My first year as a high school English teacher, I looked around at the experienced teachers (mostly women, many years older than I, at barely 23, and being intimidated. They seemed like MY teachers instead of colleagues.) and thinking, they chose this. Teaching is a calling for them. Something they've always wanted to do.

I felt like an impostor.

After a nightmarish first year, though, I started liking teaching too. I probably could've taught forever, except my husband's job moved us to another state and in the midst of filling out the paperwork to get my teaching certification transferred, I had mini breakdown/midlife crisis.

Did I have the guts to pursue my writing dream or what?

And I realized that leaving a great job that I liked was much harder than quitting a crappy job. (See: Papa Gino's Pizza Place, where my first day on the job they made me wash 5 gazillion pizza pans and wouldn't let me leave until I finished at 2:00AM on a school night. I had no problem whatsoever putting in my two-weeks notice for that job.)  

Leaving teaching behind was hard, but I am glad that I took the chance. Writing is my calling. And pursuing that dream was not falling, but jumping, leaping, flying--off a cliff into the unknown with no teaching certificate to catch me.

I feel extremely blessed that I can write full time. The best perk is the whole Make Your Own Hours/Sit Around In Your Pajamas aspect. I also get a fun kick out of the traveling/promoting (this, after beating back my crazy travel anxiety).

But here's a big surprise: As a writer, I get to be a teacher. This year I've probably visited 30 classrooms to talk about my book or the writing process, or in one case, about the color yellow. (I was in a preschool class and a little girl was wearing a yellow tutu and I asked her if she was a dancer--just trying to make conversation--and she looked at me like I was a weirdo, and said, "No. Today is Yellow Day.") It reminded me how much I loved being a teacher-- all the best parts of teaching--by which I mean actually being in the classroom teaching, instead of dealing with the yucky side stuff like test scores and committee meetings where you talk about test scores.

For a brief horrifying period of time I was a substitute teacher. It was always scary to drive over to a strange school, to check-in with the receptionist, to walk into a classroom of 10th graders or fifth graders or Oh-ma-Lord kindergartners.

In some ways doing an author visit is like being a sub. You don't always know where you're going. Like, where the school is. Or where to park your car. Or how to walk through the, er, metal detectors.

But in a million other nice ways it is not like being a sub. The teacher is sitting there with you, being the main nice thing. So there is no need for you to pull out your rusty classroom discipline skills.What to say to the kid who falls asleep. Or what to do when the fire alarm goes off. Or how to deal with the kid who vomits on his desk.

Not your prob at all when you are a visiting author.

Something that IS the same, whether you are the teacher or the sub or the visiting author, though, and something that I totally forgot (and I don't know how I forgot this!!) is how surprising and funny and smart and sweet and horrible and silly and idiotic and beautiful kids are.

God love that darling boy at the boarding school who saved me from a spider. And the lovely girl who whispered her secret dream and asked what she could say to people who told her it would never come true. And here's hoping that the guy in the front row who'd staggered into class and promptly fell asleep before I even started talking, is getting enough rest these days.

The other day I did a writing lesson at a middle school writing camp and during the idea phase--when we were simply brainstorming memories, one girl was REALLY not getting into the activity. She could think of nothing, she said, and every idea I prompted her with led to more Nothing. The kids at her table, who were supposed to be writing at this point, kept whispering to the girl and she kept whispering back, shooting down their suggestions and writing nothing.

It got on my last nerve to tell you the truth.

Pick up your pencil, I told her (in what I hope was a kind way). Write something. Anything. Writers don't just sit there thinking forever. In the end, if you want to write, you have to WRITE.

Reluctantly, the girl picked up her pencil.

When it was sharing time, she shocked the hell out of me by offering to read aloud.

Her piece was beautiful. I mean, it practically killed me how good it was. After she read it, she smiled sheepishly.

This was a kid that fifteen minutes before I had sorta wanted to throttle, (should I admit that publicly?)  and now I wanted to hug her.

Yeah. So that's why I love teaching so damn much and why it was so hard to leave it behind and why I am ever so grateful that I don't have to.

A bunny in a preschool classroom where it happens to be Yellow Day

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Book Tour Road Part 2: In Which I Drink Mark Zuckerberg's Smoothies, Discover a Glorious Mountain Retreat, and Channel My Italian Grandmother

My son and I have had some weird parallel and intersecting life-moments over the past few years.

While I was slogging angstily through my book submission process, he was going through his college application process. (side note: HIS process was not as angsty or long, although at the time, he disagreed with me-- a handful of months vs. years. Come ON.)

We snagged our acceptances during the same month. Then he went off to school and I embarked on my debut book year.

A few weeks ago our lives intersected again. He landed his dream internship at Facebook around the same time I was invited on Simon & Schuster's group author tour through California. Last stop: Menlo Park, the home of Facebook.

There was a little bit of finagling behind the scenes to work it out, but the other authors on the tour, Suzanne Young, Sarah Ockler, and C.J. Flood (and our awesome driver Dolores) were as eager to see Facebook as I was. Sarah's new book #Scandal is about social media-- (Main character Lucy agrees to go to the prom with her best friend's boyfriend and it blows up in her face in a big way all over Facebook.)--so she was über excited to sneak a peek behind the FB curtain.

I hadn't seen my son much lately (only two days home between college and before he took off for CA), so I was über excited to see him, but trying to keep my loopy mom persona tamped down so as not to humiliate him on the job.

Facebook was something else. I don't even know how to describe it. Disney World for adult computer fanatics? Utopian Under the Dome community? From the parking lot, the place looks like a normal set of office buildings, but then you step through to the Other Side and you're sauntering down an outdoor main street, with restaurants and shops and people kneeling on the sidewalk marking it up with colored chalk.

There's a movie screen. And a smoothie shop. The smoothies and the food are there for the taking.

We took.
Suzanne and C.J. check out the snack items in the company store. 
Look! Free toothbrushes already minted up with toothpaste in the restrooms!

My son enjoyed giving us a tour. Mostly, this consisted of pointing out the various food options at Facebook. He typically chooses the BBQ but consented to eat at the Ramadan buffet with us because there were vegetarian selections. Casually, he mentioned where Mark Zuckerberg's office was--ahead, behind a wall of glass. "Sometimes he's sitting in there," he said.

And he WAS! Mark Zuckerberg. Just sitting there, in his hoodie, looking like...Mark Zuckerberg!

We were not allowed to take his picture, I am sorry to say. My son was adamant about that, but in case we didn't get the point, there was a helpful sign taped over Mark's head on the glass window that said: "Please Do Not Take Pictures of the Animals."

We took other pictures though.

I kept hugging my son at odd moments. I just couldn't help myself. He looked so joyful and at home under the bright blue San Francisco sky. When it was time to leave, I almost couldn't bear it.

But the Summer Lovin' crew had another cool event scheduled for the afternoon.

Next stop: Djerassi, a retreat for artists and writers, where our friend and fellow Young Adult writer Nova Ren Suma, was leading a writing retreat for the week. The Djerassi landscape is something else too. On the top of a mountain (a perilous, windy drive that Dolores bravely navigated). Through a redwood forest. Over grasslands. With views of the Pacific Ocean in the distance. I have never seen anything like it and now have found a new goal in life: to go BACK THERE somehow and be a resident writer.

Our group talking with Nova's group at Djerassi

Nova was gracious to let us jump into her critique time and the writers on the retreat seemed to like picking our brains about the writing and publication process. I was sitting there in wonderment that my head contained one of the brains that people wanted to pick. That I'd just seen my beloved son. That I was on the top of a mountain somewhere in California. That I was on a freaking BOOK TOUR.

That night we did our last book signing event at Kepler's Bookstore in Menlo Park. My son came with his friend and I just kept looking at him in the audience, fighting the urge to jump out of my seat like a loon and go hug him. 

It occurs to me now as I write this that I may be more like my Italian grandmother than I ever realized. She was an amazing cook and housekeeper (who took housekeeping to new levels

She was also a hugger. Whenever I'd go visit her, we'd be sitting and chatting (about various methods of making spaghetti sauce or cleaning house) and suddenly she'd hop out of her chair and hug me. 

I thought it was sweet. But kinda weird. 

Now, I totally get it. 


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Behind the Scenes of a Book Tour (Part One: Sunny California and the Emmys, Cute Vampires, and Lucky Bird Poop.)

I knew the second I was invited to go on Simon & Schuster's Summer Lovin' Tour with authors Suzanne Young, Sarah Ockler, and C.J. Flood, that this was going to be the trip of a lifetime.

The days leading up to the trip, I was whirling around in my usual pre-travel anxiety-haze. Plotting what to pack. Shopping. Creating a to-do list a million miles long. Organizing and cleaning and taking care of Everything That Is So Important.

And then, two days before I was to leave, I had a weird painful flare-up of sciatica. I didn't even know what this was until I looked it up online. I went to the doctor and begged him to do whatever he could do to help me manage. Long story short, he shot me up with steroids and I went home and plunked myself on an icepack--not doing ANY of the things I'd planned. Instead, my husband and I watched a Walking Dead marathon, which is an awesome show, btw. My daughter did my packing for me.

5:30 AM Sunday, June 22, I hobbled onto a plane to California.

Summer Lovin', baby. Oh, yeah. I was on my way.

Something I did not know about book tours before I went on one is how much time you spend sitting in cars. The first driver and I bonded over coffee in LA while we waited for the other authors to arrive.

I loved them immediately. (Which is a good thing. Spending all that time on the road, you will be spending that time with THEM.) Suzanne Young, bestselling author of The Program and The Treatment and numerous other books, is bubbly and brilliant. Sarah Ockler, author of #Scandal and Twenty Boy Summer and three other books, is funky and cool. C.J. Flood, debut writer of the award winning Infinite Sky, is smart and lovely. And British. (I could listen to her darling accent forever.)

Our first event was a library several hours away in Mission Viejo. We stopped for candy on the way. Helpful tip: it is fun to throw candy at people in the audience who ask questions. The four of us were just getting to know each other here. We asked questions too. About the stories behind our books. Our writing and revision processes. What we're working on next. We also sampled some of the candy. (A teen in the audience wrote up a good recap of the event here.)

When we got back to the hotel, we found that it was hosting the Daytime Emmys.

We ate dinner and watched the stars parade past. I had no idea who any of them were. Except for Sharon Osborne. But considering it was 7PM --10 Ohio time and I had been awake forever, I suspected I might've hallucinated her.

Sarah, CJ, and Suzanne posing at the Emmys looong after I went to bed. 
Day Two: I woke up bright and chipper, fully rested and raring to go. At 4:30 AM.

The hotel was hosting another fancy star studded thingy. Again, I knew who none of the famous people were, but my daughter freaked when I sent her this pic of some Vampire Diaries actor posing with C.J.

Later we drove three hours down the Pacific Coast Highway to San Diego. The driver treated us to shakes at the Shake Shack and then we stopped at Mission Beach and dipped our toes in the Pacific Ocean.
We got a quick bite to eat at a restaurant on the beach. I sat under a palm tree and a bird pooped on my head. This is supposed to be a sign of good luck in Poland. I have no idea if this is true, but I felt ridiculously lucky when Sarah offered to pick all the poop out of my hair.

Stacee, blogger at Adventures of a Book Junkie, did an awesome job recapping our event here in case you want to see how one of our panels went.

Day Three we hung out by the pool before our event in Glendale. Look how cute and summer lovin-y we all are. You can't even tell I am sitting on a giant icepack and having a major geriatric moment with my sciatic nerve.

Day Four I was a sinfully lazy sleeping-in woman not waking up until nearly 7!

At the event that night, the cool bookstore Vroman's in Pasadena, an old friend of mine from Connecticut that I haven't seen in years, showed up with her family. I felt very teary and blessed.

Like at all of the other events, we introduced ourselves and our books. We answered questions and signed books. We chatted with the teen readers and bloggers and other writers and booksellers.

But this night felt different.

Suzanne and Sarah and CJ and I were like longtime friends, finishing each other's sentences and telling inside jokes. We knew each other's back stories and childhoods and writing processes.

Back at the hotel we shared a nice dinner and I hung with them until the very end, finally adjusted to West Coast time.

I was an old pro, all geared up for the second half of the tour: San Francisco.

Tune in soon to see what happened next when we visited Facebook (and saw Mark Zuckerberg!), how we survived a windy perilous trip up a mountain, and... drumroll, my possibly midlife-y crisis mission to get a TATTOO.