Wednesday, September 24, 2014

My Eureka Re-Vision Moment (with a fun look at other writers' visual snapshots of their revision processes)

I mentioned last week that when it came to being on the receiving end of a critique, I was a weird mix of anxiety and arrogance. My inability to take criticism is one of the reasons why it took me so long to break through and get that first publishing deal.

Another big thing that tripped me up was my misunderstanding of the revision process -- and by "tripped me up" I mean "took me 15 years." (during which time I wrote and "revised" 5 books)

Arrogance. I knew how to write. I'd been writing since I could hold a pen. I majored in Creative Writing in college. I worked on a freaking MFA in Poetry.

Arrogance. I knew how to write a short story. I had stories published, damn it.

Anxiety. --that naggy voice in my head whispering: "If you know so well how to do this, why isn't it working for you?"

A little background on my Revision Process--such as it was--from my teenage years up to six years ago:

I wrote something. I fiddled around with it. I edited it. DONE

And when I started writing books:

I wrote a sentence. I fiddled with that sentence until it was perfect. I moved on to Sentence Two. I made it to the end of one of these beautifully constructed sets of sentences and prided myself on what I had. Not a first draft, but more like a 3rd or 4th draft. Immediately, I sent this brilliant gem of a manuscript out to editors and agents....
              ...and collected a nice pile of rejections.

The turning point came six years ago when I went to a Highlights Foundation workshop on revision and the speaker suggested putting the completed first draft away (because this is what it is, folks, no matter how polished, a FIRST draft--your very first time through the story from beginning to end.) Let it sit for a month or two. Print it off in a different font (That little tidbit in and of itself was worth the price of admission for me) and read the thing through as a whole completed story.

Revision means literally Re-Vision-- looking at your story, again, and seeing what you actually have there. THE BOOK on the page. And not the book you imagined. (Sigh) (I will note here that even now when I read a first draft through from beginning to end, I feel intense waves of nausea as I contemplate how crappy it is and how much work I have yet to do.)

There was more illuminating information thrown at us during that session and I took notes like a maniac trying to get it all down, light bulbs popping in my head. In all my years of writing I had never thought of revision like this before.

And no wonder.

I had been trained at writing short stories. I can keep a short story--the entire thing-- in my head at once. If I wanted to (not that I ever did), I could print off the pages and arrange them on my dining room table and look at them.

You can't do that with a book.

It's really really hard to keep an entire book-- all the plot strands and character arcs and scenes and bits of dialogue --in your head at once. Even if you are an outliner (I'm not) your draft may drift away from you, meander off in different directions, gallop toward some other story (maybe a BETTER story) than the one you envisioned when you started.

I don't care how beautifully written each of your sentences are, when you get to the end of a first draft, it is still a first draft, and if your drafts are like mine, they are a mess. (See intense waves of nausea, above)

This past weekend I presented a session at a regional SCBWI conference on how to move from a messy first draft toward what will eventually be a draft that you can submit to an agent or editor. Something I know now, that I did not know six years ago when I shuffled into that revision workshop at Highlights, is that there is no one right way to Do This. And my way--the way I eventually figured out through trial and error and lots and lots of crappy drafts-- is not the only way. In fact, with each book I have to figure out the process again.

I won't bore you with all the details, unless you're interested-- and in that case, email me and I'll send you my latest method  jodycasella (@) yahoo (.) com

In the meantime, for your visual pleasure, take a look at some other writers' snapshots of their writing and revision process:

(Erin Dealey)

(Jennifer Salvato Doktorski)

(Bill Thomas)

(Liz Coley)

(Natalie D. Richards)

(Stephanie Kuehnert)

(Kristina McBride) 

(Mindee Arnett) 

(CJ Flood)

(Jennifer Mann)

(Kristy Boyce)

(Claire Caterer)

(Kristi Belcamino)

(Crissa-Jean Chappell) 

(Nova Ren Suma)
(William Faulkner)

Oh yes. That's William Faulkner, one of the great American novelists.

Even old WF needed a little help with revision. The story is his wife wasn't too thrilled that he'd scrawled some of his draft... on the walls of their house.

PS. A HUGE thank you to all of the writers above (including William Faulkner) for sharing their revision processes with me!!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

My First Critique. Also known as "I'm a daydreaming doofball"

My first writing conference I was a weird mix of anxiety and arrogance.

I'd been writing for a long time. Pretty much since I could hold a pencil. I'd majored in Creative Writing in college. I'd worked on an MFA and had a masters degree in literature. I'd had a couple of stories published. 

What I'm saying is I knew I was a good writer. (See arrogance, above)

The conference was put on by SCBWI  (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators). The anxiety came into it because I had to drive four hours to get to the conference, and I don't like driving long distances by myself. 

How these conferences work is editors, agents, and writers speak about writing and the children's book industry. They teach smaller sessions on craft and marketing. There's lots of networking and inspirational pep talks. For an extra fee, you can submit a few pages of a manuscript and cross your fingers that an editor or agent will be the one it's assigned to. 

I submitted the first few chapters of one of my manuscripts. For the record, it was the third book I'd completed. The first was totally a practice book. It was me--the poet and short story writer--figuring out how to write a novel. I had no hopes for the book, but I could see the value in having written it. The second book was autobiographical. I did have some hope for that one but I also knew from the bazillion writing classes I'd taken that sometimes we've got to get all that personal angsty true stuff out of us and out of the way before we begin to tackle fiction. 

But the third book, this new manuscript--this was the one. I could feel it--when I came up with the idea, as I struggled and sweated over the various beginnings, when I read bits of it aloud at a writing retreat. And when I finished the draft and read it through. 

I submitted the first ten pages and I knew it would be given to an editor. (It was.) I knew she would read it and love it and ask for the rest. 

I knew this so surely that I printed off a copy of the entire manuscript and brought it with me to the conference. I tucked it in a bag and carried it to the morning opening session, where What a Coincidence! that very editor would be giving the keynote speech.

I loved her as soon as she started speaking. We were the same age. She talked about her favorite books when she was a kid and why she loved being an editor, and I gazed at her as if she was already my mentor and best friend.  

The future scrolled out so clearly I could see the Newbery Award sticker on the book cover. The editor would greet me for my critique session. Before I could even sit down, she'd be gushing about how much she loved the first ten pages, saying how original the idea was and how exquisite the language. She'd laughed while reading. And sobbed, when it was appropriate. Oh how grateful she was to have signed up for this conference! What luck that she'd been the one to get my book!

Of course she wanted it.  

If the first ten pages were any indication, she knew she would love the entire book and wanted to sign me now, on the spot. It was an award winner, for sure. And a best seller. On the plane ride down to the conference, she'd begun to cast the characters. "Oh, Jody!" she'd say with a smile, "I know it's silly, but I already feel we're going to be best friends."


Do I need to write how this critique actually went down? 

Weirdly, things started out almost as I'd envisioned...

The editor spoke. When her session was over and everyone else filed out of the room, I hung back and introduced myself (thinking that I may as well get the whole dream ball rolling). She smiled when I said my name. 

"Oh, Jody!" she said. "You're one of my critiques!"  

At lunch we ate together and talked about our similar taste in books. I fought the urge to give her the manuscript that was practically burning a hole in my bag. But I played it cool. No need to rush things. 

Time for the critique. More smiles. We were already well on our way to being friends, so no surprises there. Then she whipped out my pages, suddenly all business-like.

I have no idea what she said. Because of what she didn't say --the beautifully clear vision of gushy praise and book deals on the spot did not seem to be happening. In a flash the fifteen minutes were up and she smiled. 

Apparently, the critique was over? 

Stunned at the stark contrast between dream and reality, I gave the dream one last shot. "Um, I've got my full manuscript" --I lamely patted my bag-- "right here with me. Do you want to--"

She cut me off with a tight smile. "No. That's okay. I don't take manuscripts at conferences." Smile smile. "But why don't you try some of my suggestions, and you can submit in a few months?" 

The rest of the conference is a blur. Probably because I was blinking back tears and everything was literally blurry. I drove home, alternating between crying and arguing in my head with the stupid editor. She didn't know what the HELL she was talking about. She was wrong about my book. She didn't UNDERSTAND it. Blah blah. 

Hour three, I was grudgingly admitting that she might have been right about a couple of things and why not play around with them, just to see if it worked better.

Hour four, I was excited. How had I not seen the obvious? Those suggestions would make the book stronger, better. What an idiot I'd been not to realize! 

I would do everything the editor said and I would revise the entire book and I would send it to her in a few months and she would gush about what a great sport I was at taking criticism. She'd buy the manuscript and it would win the Newbery and soon we'd be on the way to being best friends.

Yeah. So, none of THAT happened either.

It took 6 more years and 3 more completed manuscripts before I got my book deal. I am not best friends with my editor, although she is a very nice lady. The book did not win a big award or sell a million copies. 

This weekend I'm off to an SCBWI conference where I'm teaching a few sessions. I'm also critiquing the first ten pages of several manuscripts. 

Dear lovely writers who are just beginning this journey, would you believe it when I tell you that I might understand how you feel? 

(A sample of rejections for the manuscript that was THE ONE)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Debut Year by the Raw Numbers

Today is September 10th, which means that my first novel Thin Space has been officially out in the wild for a year.

The writing and revising and submitting part of the book publishing process is interesting. Some people are surprised, for example, when I tell them that I wrote the book six years ago in one mad dash of a month. And completely rewrote the entire novel from scratch from a different character's point of view. And revised it at least 4 more times. 

It took months to find an agent. And two YEARS for her to sell it. (That little wrinkle where she retired in the midst of trying to sell it, might have been a factor.)

When it debuted last year, my family and friends and neighbors threw me an awesome party.

What I didn't know while I nibbled on the delicious foot cookies was that my work promoting the book was just beginning... 

So, just for ha-has, I decided to count up some of the things I've experienced this year while working to get my book into the hands of readers. 


1. Bookstore signings -- 13
2. Book fairs/festivals -- 5
4. Foot tattoos tattooed upon my foot -- 1
5. Library talks -- 8
6. Sightings of Mark Zuckerberg -- 1
7. School visits -- 17 (number of classes taught -- 41)
8. Book panels -- 11
9. Library conferences -- 1
11. Cities visited -- 16 
12. Class taught at the Thurber House -- 7
13. Visits to the governor's mansion -- 1
14. Former students who showed up at my signings -- 4
15. Sessions taught at teacher inservices -- 5
16. Car rides with Suzanne Young, Sarah Ockler, and CJ Flood -- 16
17. TV interviews -- 2
18. Skype chats -- 2
19. Students who fell asleep before I started talking -- 1 
20. Pre-school story-times -- 1
21. Book clubs attended -- 6
22. Snow days that caused school visits to be cancelled/rescheduled -- 2
23. Blog interviews -- 25
24. People I knew from middle school who came to my library talk -- 5
25. Students who warned me that a spider was about to drop on my head -- 1
26. Print articles -- 4
27. Boys who took off their shoes at my request -- 2
28. Artists programs in the San Francisco mountains visited -- 1
29. Readings at colleges -- 1
30. Miles driven -- 7897.9

31. Books sold -- ??? (Because I haven't received my 6 month statement yet. Guesstimate: I suspect it is more than the number of times I ate breakfast with MT Anderson.) 

Ahh, what a fun ride it's been.

(First time I saw my book on the shelf at the same library where I WROTE it)

(Carey Corp, co-author of DOON, Natalie D. Richards, author of SIX MONTHS LATER, and Me at the Ohio governor's mansion after the Ohioana Book Festival)

(Summer Lovin' Tour lunch on the Facebook campus--with CJ Flood, Sarah Ockler, Suzanne Young, and a special FB intern tour guide--my son)

(With a few enthusiastic teen readers--daughter and friends--at my book launch at Cover to Cover Bookstore. Side note: we are all looking in different directions at the request of my fun-lovin' husband) 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

"Promo Advice from an Author Who's Been There" (Guest post by Holly Schindler)

I am so excited to be a stop on Holly Schindler's Feral blog tour. 

Over the years Holly (who is the administrator of my group blog YA Outside the Lines) has become a good friend. Still, I was surprised when she asked me to take an early peek at her newest novel and possibly blurb it. 

I did not hesitate to say YES! Or to provide a blurb: 

"In the town of Peculiar, the cats aren't the only ones keeping secrets... A dark and creepy psychological who-done-it that will keep you guessing until the very end."  

Oh, yes, dear readers, you will be guessing. Also, you may never look at cats the same way ever again.

Holly's written several other books, and I marvel at how easy she makes it all look, particularly marketing and promotion. It's something a lot of new writers wonder and worry about (and something I really struggled with) so I asked Holly if she'd mind sharing a few tips... 


1. Your first book will be a bit of a stumble-fest. It will. I guarantee. But then, it is for everyone. So just embrace it! You have no idea what your own strengths are, as far as promotion goes. Try as much as you can. Take on the opportunities that come your way, knowing that some efforts will be successful and others won’t. Use the promotional opportunities associated with your first book to learn what your strengths are. Take those strengths into promotions for book number two.

2. Conversely, don’t be afraid to say no—if it puts you 100% completely out of your comfort zone, there’s a good chance you just plain won’t be good at it, either. And life is too short to be living in constant fear of, say, public speaking. You need a clear head to write the next book. You won’t have one if you’re counting down the days to the convention where you’re scheduled to talk and wondering how you might possibly be able to sever a nonessential body part just in time to miss your flight. Trust me—it’s not worth it. Say no.

3. Reach out. Don’t think of it as shameless plugging. You wrote your book to be shared. So shout it from the rooftops. Your enthusiasm will be infectious. You’ll hear it a lot, but it’s true: you really are your book’s best advocate.

4. Don’t underestimate the power of direct emails—to booksellers, librarians, bloggers. An extra bonus: emails are FREE promotion.

5. Fancy swag isn’t as powerful as a free copy of the book. You’re probably better off investing in a few extra review copies of your book than you are in jewelry, T-shirts, etc. intended for giveaways.

6. Teachers are on Twitter—this is especially helpful for middle grade. They hold book-a-day reading challenges in the summer, tweet about the best books they’ve found for their kids, and discuss read-alouds they’ve used. Check out #nerdybookclub, #mglitchat, #4thchat, #5thchat.

7. I’ll go out on a limb and say it: Read your reviews. I know not every author does, but I highly recommend it. Be objective. Look at the patterns. Don’t be so intent on justifying what you’ve done that you don’t learn from your reviews. I would hate, hate, HATE to think A BLUE SO DARK, my first novel, was the best thing I’ll ever write. Of course I want to be better. Bloggers and reviewers are influential in making me a better author.

8. The job is never done. Don’t expect to start promos a month before your book releases and finish two months after it hits shelves, never to be mentioned again. I’m still talking about A BLUE SO DARK (2010) with readers.

9. Finding your promo rhythm is like finding your writing rhythm. Some writers are better off working on their WIPS every day with specific word count goals; others are better working a couple of days a week without the pressure of maintaining a specific word-count pace. Similarly, I work best doing a little bit of promo work each day (usually in the morning), then moving straight into my current WIP. But you might prefer to work on your WIP during the week and devote your weekends to a few promo activities. Some of us are night owls; some of us early birds. Listen to your own internal clock. Don’t worry about how much time other authors are spending online, or how many cities other authors travel to. Do what fits for YOU.

10. Befriend other authors—online, through regional chapters of writing groups, etc. Writing is a unique lifestyle, and no one will understand the ups and downs like another author. Writers also often like to get together for promotion opportunities: debut groups, blogging, school visits, etc. Sometimes, the best promo tool you can have is interacting with other authors!


FERAL jacket copy:
The Lovely Bones meets Black Swan in this haunting psychological thriller with twists and turns that will make you question everything you think you know.

It’s too late for you. You’re dead. Those words continue to haunt Claire Cain months after she barely survived a brutal beating in Chicago. So when her father is offered a job in another state, Claire is hopeful that getting out will offer her a way to start anew.

But when she arrives in Peculiar, Missouri, Claire feels an overwhelming sense of danger, and her fears are confirmed when she discovers the body of a popular high school student in the icy woods behind the school, surrounded by the town’s feral cats. While everyone is quick to say it was an accident, Claire knows there’s more to it, and vows to learn the truth about what happened.

But the closer she gets to uncovering the mystery, the closer she also gets to realizing a frightening reality about herself and the damage she truly sustained in that Chicago alley….

Holly Schindler’s gripping story is filled with heart-stopping twists and turns that will keep readers guessing until the very last page.

FERAL falls squarely into the realm of the classic psychological thriller. While the book features mystery, horror, and paranormal elements, the emphasis is on the “psychological” rather than thriller / action. The novel features a Hitchcockian pace and focus on character development (here, we’re exploring the inner workings of the main character, Claire Cain). Essentially, every aspect of FERAL is used to explore Claire’s inner workings—that even includes the wintry Ozarks setting. The water metaphor is employed frequently in psychological thrillers to represent the subconscious, and here is incorporated in the form of a brutal ice storm (that represents Claire’s “frozen” inner state). The attempt to untangle what is real from what is unreal (another frequently-used aspect of the psychological thriller) also begins to highlight the extent to which Claire was hurt in that Chicago alley. Even the explanation of the odd occurrences in the town of Peculiar offers an exploration into and portrait of Claire’s psyche. Ultimately, FERAL is a book about recovering from violence—that’s not just a lengthy or hard process; it’s a terrifying process, too. The classic psychological thriller allowed me to explore that frightening process in detail.

Holly Schindler is the author of the critically acclaimed A BLUE SO DARK (Booklist starred review, ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year silver medal recipient, IPPY Awards gold medal recipient) as well as PLAYING HURT (both YAs).

Her debut MG, THE JUNCTION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY, also released in ’14, and became a favorite of teachers and librarians, who used the book as a read-aloud. Kirkus Reviews called THE JUNCTION “...a heartwarming and uplifting story...[that] shines...with vibrant themes of community, self-empowerment and artistic vision delivered with a satisfying verve.”

FERAL is Schindler’s third YA and first psychological thriller. Publishers Weekly gave FERAL a starred review, stating, “Opening with back-to-back scenes of exquisitely imagined yet very real horror, Schindler’s third YA novel hearkens to the uncompromising demands of her debut, A BLUE SO DARK…This time, the focus is on women’s voices and the consequences they suffer for speaking…This is a story about reclaiming and healing, a process that is scary, imperfect, and carries no guarantees.”

Schindler encourages readers to get in touch. Booksellers, librarians, and teachers can also contact her directly regarding Skype visits. She can be reached at hollyschindlerbooks (at) gmail (dot) com, and can also be found at,, @holly_schindler,, and

FERAL Trailer: