Friday, October 24, 2014

Interview with Jessica Martinez

Jessica Martinez is my new hero.

I met her a few weeks ago in Orlando at a joint book event. I was talking about my first book Thin Space and still feeling a tad anxious about speaking in front of a crowd. She was launching her fourth book Kiss Kill Vanish and looking as relaxed as can be. Releasing a fourth book into the world apparently isn't a big deal--not when you're about to have a fourth child. Yes. You read that right. Jessica talked up her book and settled down her three young children all while handing out celebratory cupcakes. (Not homemade. Thank goodness. She's got to draw the line somewhere.)

Two words about Kiss Kill Vanish. It's good. I stayed up way past my bedtime reading and my tired mind is still spinning with the story today. It's a thriller with characters who aren't what they seem. The book has secrets. Danger. Adventure. But because this is Jessica Martinez, author of the acclaimed novel Virtuosity, there's much more to it. Music and art. Multi-layered characters. The very cool (and freezing cold) setting of Montreal. And thought provoking themes of identity and family loyalty. It's labeled a young adult novel but I definitely can see it crossing over to old adults too. (I just wrote that sentence and realized how dumb it sounds. This is a book, people. For anyone who likes good books!! Okay. Off my soap box.)

Jessica graciously consented to an interview and without anymore blather from me, here we go:

Jody: Here's a question every writer gets but I am going to ask you anyway, because I am dying to know: Where do you get your ideas?

Jessica: I wish I knew! I’m so inconsistent. Sometimes I can look back and trace where they came from, but it’s different every time. Music, news stories, movies, family and friends (sorry, family and friends)—pretty much everything is fair game.

Jody: Once you've got a spark of an idea, what's your next step? Do you outline? Or do you let the story go where it wants to and outline later?

Jessica: I make stuff up as I go. I have tried outlining. At best, I find it ineffective, because my characters end up taking the plot in a different direction than I planned. And at worst, it totally stifles my process. I don’t even try anymore.

Jody: Okay, this is me, being totally nosy, but-- how many books did you write before you got your first book deal? And how many rejections did you get along the way?

Jessica: Virtuosity is the first book I wrote and the first to be published. I got about ten rejections from agents before I signed with the agent I still have and adore, Mandy Hubbard. She sold it pretty quickly for me. Sorry, I do know that’s unfairly lucky.

Jody: Nah, that's really cool.

Jessica: If it makes anybody feel any better, I’ve written three half-books in the last year (and no whole books) and thrown all three out. Because they sucked. The possibility of rejection and failure is there with every book, not just the first.

Jody: Another nosy question. I know you have three young children, how do you manage working in time to write?

Jessica: I write during the baby’s nap time, and then again when all my kids are in bed at night. This means I have a thrilling social life. When my baby stops napping, I’m in deep, deep trouble. Also, I’m having another baby due in April (does that make my older baby not a baby anymore? Eeeep!) so I fully expect my schedule to be thrown in the blender.

Jody: I'm bowing down to you. I've got grown children and only a dog to care for, so I can't even imagine how you're doing this.

Jessica: I'm actually not too worried. Things have been crazy before, and I always find time to write. Showering, however…that gets put in the optional category.

Jody: Sometimes showering, caring for little ones, writing... now I'm wondering how you balance it all.

Jessica: Family and church come first. But that’s not easy for me, even though they’re decisions I’m absolutely sure about. It seems like I have to remind myself daily, because it’s always painful to put writing off when the ideas are screaming. Yeah, I can't sugar coat it—it’s tough, because writing is the thing I always want to be doing. I guess that’s why I have to force it down on the list of priorities, so my life isn’t horribly imbalanced.

Jody: We haven't even talked about book promotion yet. I had no idea what was expected when my first book came out--things I'd have to do from my end, especially on social media. How do you deal with social media on top of all of your other obligations?

Jessica: Um, poorly? Actually, as soon as I gave up on being effective with social media, I started having a good time with it. Twitter is pretty much all I do, and about 90% of my tweets are just me being an idiot. I don’t feel like it’s a waste of time though, because I’ve made a lot of friends in the industry, and I’d like to think that goes further than book promotion. Or maybe I’m just telling myself that because I’m uncomfortable with promoting my books—in person or online. I love writing. The business of marketing makes me cringe.

Jody: We met on social media. So, I guess it's working. Last question, I promise. Can you share something about your latest project?

Jessica: I’m working on my first adult novel! I’m moving at a snail’s pace (as usual) but eventually I’ll get there. Cross your fingers this one doesn’t end up in the trash!

Jody: I am sure it is going to be awesome. Thanks, so much, Jessica, for chatting with me today. And readers, if you want to find out more about Jessica Martinez and her books --or witness her act like an idiot on Twitter : )  see below.

Bio: "I was born and raised in Calgary, Canada. As a child I played the violin, read books, and climbed trees incessantly. I went on to study English and music at Brigham Young University, and since then I’ve been an English teacher, a symphony violinist, and a mother. I currently live in Orlando, Florida with my husband and three children.

My young adult novels are Virtuosity, The Space Between Us, The Vow, and Kiss Kill Vanish. I’m represented by Mandy Hubbard of D4EO Literary Agency."

website: Jessica Martinez
Twitter: @Jlmarti1

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In Which I Confess My Love for Emily Dickinson. Plus: a Shout Out to a Great New Book

I'm ashamed to admit that once upon a time I didn't think much of Emily Dickinson.

When I was in high school, I may have glanced at a poem or two. They seemed like sappy things about nature or unrequited love. Bluh is what I thought. And that mousy author photo, the one they always stick in English textbooks-- bluh to that too.

Poor Emily. What a sad little mousy waif.

Fun fact about that photo: Emily hated it. It was taken when she was seventeen and she'd been sick for a few months when she posed for it. She didn't think it represented what she looked like at all. Which is cruddy because that picture was THE only verified photo of her in existence until a second one was rediscovered in 2012:

Look at how healthy and wise ED looks here!

When I was in college I won a creative writing award and was thrilled to accept the prize money--100 bucks, which could buy a lot of Bacardi and cokes back then, but less than thrilled to accept the other prize the English Dept. gave me. A book. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. 

Shameful confession: I complained to my writing professor about this present. Yes. My face is red as I write this. Jeez. I said. Or something along these lines. I get that the stodgy old white male department head wanted to give me something authored by a woman, but did it have to be barfy Emily Dickinson? I mean, come on. Get with the 20th century. Hello. Ever hear of Sylvia Plath?

I thought my cool writing prof would agree. Instead he shocked me by chewing me out. He was one who'd chosen the book, he said. And nothing against Sylvia Plath, but maybe it was time for me to take another look at Emily Dickinson. She was not barfy. In fact he viewed her as one of the two poets, along with Walt Whitman, who'd ushered in the modern poetry era, and if I didn't know that, then maybe he'd failed me as a teacher. 


I read The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. I fell in love. 

Did you know that ED wrote nearly two thousand poems, scrawling them out on bits of paper or including them in letters to friends and family? She never married and in the final twenty years of her life, she dressed only in white and secluded herself in her bedroom, rarely coming downstairs; although she is rumored to have shared gingerbread with neighborhood children by lowering it in a basket from her window...

Sure, her poems on the surface might be about nature or unrequited love, but there's a lot more to those seemingly dashed off lines. Take another look and you'll find stuff that's philosophical and achingly curious and even funny. 

When I taught high school English, I loved talking ED with my students. One thing I held back until the very end of the Emily Dickinson unit is that most of her poems are written in hymn meter, which means that the lines alternate between eight and six syllables. Yeah yeah, whatever, Ms. Casella, my students would say, until I told them that the poems could be sung to the tune of any song written in that meter. 

Example: "Amazing Grace" or the "I Like to Teach the World to Sing" Coca Cola song. 

For extra credit I let the students sing and they always had a grand old time.

Here. Try it for yourselves. 

Because I could not stop for Death--
He kindly stopped for me--
The Carriage held but just Ourselves--
And Immortality...

Or how about this? 

I heard a fly buzz--when I died
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air
Between the Heaves of Storm--

Okay. That is enough playtime, class.

Maybe you are wondering why I am thinking about Emily Dickinson today. 

Because I just finished reading the most brilliant and beautiful book, Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez. 

Main Character Frenchie Garcia has recently graduated from high school and she's lost and depressed. She didn't get into the art college of her choice. Her best friend has a new girlfriend and isn't paying Frenchie much attention. She has a morbid hobby: watching funeral processions drive by her house on the way to a nearby cemetery. Sometimes she follows them inside the cemetery and sits by the grave of Emily Dickinson. (This is Orlando, so it's not the real Emily Dickinson's grave, but Frenchie kinda likes the idea that someone named Emily Dickinson is buried there.) 

Frenchie's real problem, though, isn't revealed immediately. It turns out that a few months earlier Andy Cooper, a guy Frenchie secretly crushed on for years, had singled her out to have a "night of adventure," and the next morning he killed himself. 

Now Frenchie's trying to come to grips with what really happened that night, and she's doing it by recreating the adventure with someone else.

There are Emily Dickinson poems sprinkled throughout, but whether you love Emily Dickinson or not, you will surely love this book. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Time Keeps on Ticking. (Otherwise Known As: Why I Like to Live Inside My Head)

Yesterday I looked out the window and realized it was October. 

Confession: I am not the most observant person in the world. Do you hear that guffaw of laughter? That was my husband, reading this over my shoulder. He knows, after 24 years of living with me, how true that statement is. 

Example, we will be sitting on the couch together watching TV and my eyes will be fixed on the TV screen and my husband will turn to me and remark upon something that we have both presumably watched, and I will blink at him and have no idea what the heck he is talking about. 

I live inside my head, is what I am trying to say. For someone who makes a living being a writer (And I use the term "makes a living" metaphorically), it's a good thing that I live inside my head. Inside my head, I'm imagining stuff. Running through scenes. Relaying a conversation between make-believe people. It's kinda cool to be able to disappear into other worlds while at the SAME TIME sitting in a room and "watching TV." 

My kids have another way of describing this phenomenon. 

Distracted (when they are being nice)

Crazy (when they are not)

But I digress.

My point is that I looked out the window and realized that fall had come without my being aware of it. 

Digression number 2. See that graphic above? I MADE that with this App called WordSwag. I discovered WordSwag this past weekend and have been having a ball making things like this:

And this:

And, okay, one more:

WordSwag, I am here to tell you, provides the PERFECT blend of procrastination and creativity for the distracted writer in your life. Also, it is easy to use--a quality I appreciate as someone who does not know how to operate my phone. 

I know. I keep digressing all over the place.

My eyes have glazed over and I have disappeared into other worlds. 

Meanwhile, in this world, it is October. 

The leaves are blowing around the yard and it seems like just yesterday they were on the trees, blooming and golden. The tomatoes--that I planted YESTERDAY!!--are rotting on the vines. 

Time is passing before my eyes, or rather it is NOT passing before my eyes, since I don't seem to be able to notice it passing. 

Just yesterday, it seems, I threw a party. 

I baked a cake. I pushed a yellow Number One candle into the chocolaty frosting. The cake was for a little boy who had never tasted cake before, so I wanted that first slice to be special. 

The moment is frozen. The little boy has the most serious expression on his sweet little face. Someone--probably my husband, since he was the only one who knew how to work the camera--snapped the picture. 


That happened yesterday.

In a few days, the little boy will be celebrating his 21st birthday. 

Yeah. So. 

Sue me if I like to live inside my head.

Or distract myself with this:


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Wondering How To Approach Self-Promotion? Ask Yourself This: "What Would Mike Mullin Do?"

Last year around this time I got an email from a librarian I did not know, inviting me to an event I'd never heard of, in a city I'd never been to, two hours away. The thing--whatever it was--would take place on a week night and it would only last an hour. I'd be driving to part of the state I'd never been to, doing some Thing (I wasn't sure what, exactly), and driving back in the dark.

My first inclination, of course, was to say no. But I ran the invitation by my husband, thinking he'd immediately agree with me.

Instead, he surprised me by asking: "What would Mike Mullin do?"

(Mike Mullin) 

"Um," I said, and I only needed to think about it for a few seconds before I answered, "He'd say Yes."

So I went to the event, which turned out to be one of the coolest events I attended last year--and that is saying something. It wasn't just some random thing. It was a state librarian conference put on for all of the school librarians in the state of Ohio. MT Anderson was one of the keynotes.

(MT Anderson's bare legs)
I ate dinner with him and learned that his name is Tobin and he let me take a picture of his bare legs (which is a story for another day). I met librarians that night, some of whom invited me to speak at their schools. One asked me to teach a session at a city-wide teachers inservice. Another put my book on a multi-city Battle of the Books list. The librarians asked me back to speak this year.

I didn't hesitate to accept. I knew what Mike Mullin would say.

At this point you may be wondering who Mike Mullin is and why I use him as a yardstick for evaluating my invitations.

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time Mike Mullin wrote a book called Ashfall. It's a cool page turner about a fifteen-year-old boy named Alex who just wants to stay home and play video games while his parents and little sister leave town to visit relatives 100 miles away. Big bummer for Alex  because the first night he is home alone the super volcano under Yellowstone erupts and pretty much half of the country is wiped out. The remainder--and where Alex lives--is covered in ash. The book is a nightmarish hero's journey with Alex trekking across the desolate and dangerous landscape trying to find his family.

Ashfall is published by Tanglewood, a well-respected, small publishing company. It doesn't have a huge PR budget, so Mike did a lot of the promotional work himself. Before the book came out, he loaded a box of advanced review copies of the book into his car trunk and drove around the country, stopping at bookstores and libraries.

He did not do the hard sell Buy My Book thing. Instead, he chatted up the booksellers and librarians and dropped off a copy Ashfall--no pressure to read it or do anything with it.

I heard this story from one of the booksellers that Mike had chatted up. Mike's non-pushy demeanor and compelling book pitch had piqued her curiosity and she'd read Ashfall. 

And loved it.

Now she was passing the copy on to me, so I could read it and review it on my blog, if I liked it. Which I did. 

I imagine a similar kind of thing happened all over the country at those bookstores and libraries where Mike introduced himself because Ashfall made quite a splash when it came out, both critically and sales-wise. The book earned a starred review from Kirkus, was promoted on NPR and in Entertainment Weekly, and was featured on awards lists in nine states. Mike wrote two sequels to the book and keeps driving around the country to this day, speaking at bookstores and libraries and visiting schools.

I met him at a book-signing for his second book. He started the presentation by karate-chopping a cement brick in half.

At this point I was thinking that Mike was awesome and if I ever got a book deal I was going to model myself after him (minus the karate-chopping.)

When I did get my book deal, I mustered up the courage to ask him if he'd read my book and possibly blurb it. He turned into a role model for handling blurbs too. He wrote to me, saying, and I quote: "If I love it, I'll blurb it. And if I don't, I'll keep my big mouth shut."

He wrote the blurb.

I told my husband the story of Mike Mullin when I was brainstorming ways I could promote my book Thin Space. 

There are A LOT of ways a debut writer can approach self-promotion and marketing. Some writers push their books and themselves like door-to-door salesmen, pleading Buy My Book both virtually and in person at every opportunity. Other writers do absolutely nothing, believing that their efforts are as productive as spitting into the wind.

I didn't (and still don't) like either of these approaches, although I don't begrudge the people who follow them. (Okay, that's a lie. I CAN'T STAND the obnoxious Buy My Book thing. It never makes me want to buy the person's book and instead causes me to feel the same way I do about telemarketers and people who try to guilt me into passing along a chain email. Resentful. And that's on a good day.)

But back to Mike Mullin. Here was a writer who seemed to have found a sweet spot between Nothing and Inspiring Me To Slam My Phone Against a Wall.

When my husband asked me if Mike Mullin would've driven two hours away to attend a librarian conference, there really wasn't any question what the answer might be.


The only difference is I didn't heft a cement block into my car before I made the trip.