Monday, October 30, 2017

On Staying Focused

I used to do this thing whenever I was stuck working on a book, where I'd click out of the file and open a desktop solitaire game. One game, I'd tell myself, and I'd start playing, watching the cards flip, half zoning out as the suits matched up and aligned,

until I won or lost,

and then I'd play again. And again. Until a half hour went by. Or an hour. Or more, even, and each day I'd tell myself, I AM NOT OPENING THE SOLITAIRE GAME TODAY and then I would open the solitaire game because there was the little colorful icon smack dab in the middle of my computer screen

and I was feeling lazy and crappy about myself

until one day, I deleted the game from my computer. 

The End


lately, I've been doing this thing whenever I'm stuck working on a book, where I click on Facebook and then click on Twitter and then click on Yahoo and scroll through the headlines, gasping sometimes in horror, and back onto Facebook and Twitter to share my outrage, back onto Facebook to read the comments and onto to Twitter to see if anyone's retweeted me, half zoning out, 

half zinging with rage, until a half hour goes by or an hour or more,

and each day I promise myself I WILL NOT GET ON SOCIAL MEDIA OR READ THE YAHOO NEWS HEADLINES and I open my computer and there are the icons splayed across the top of my screen

and I feel lazy and crappy about myself, alternately enraged and powerless, knowing I need to stop but then feeling

guilty, because shouldn't I be a good citizen and know what's going on in the world, and who am I to turn off social media and retreat into a quiet safe bubble, and isn't that just so privileged of me to get to do that when other people don't have the luxury

click click click click click 

until it hit me that I am playing solitaire again, 

but a million times worse, because there is no end to this game and sitting here in front of the screen, eyes glazed over, is not helping anyone

Plus, I'm not even getting my writing done. 

It's time, I know, to delete the game. 

So, last week, I took the necessary steps. I deleted my social media apps from my phone, and had a momentary flare-up of panic, and then I laughed, because I was remembering this time maybe fifteen years ago when my son's school sent home a paper saying it was Turn Off the TV Week and I told him and his younger sister that I thought we should try it, and my son argued with me and his younger sister literally flung herself on the floor and had a tantrum, and I stood looking down at the two of them, thinking, Hmm, some people are addicted to watching TV. 

My son, now grown up and working at Facebook of all places, and my daughter, away at college and super adept at managing her social media, both gave me pointers for limiting my usage, such as

turning off all notifications and setting up Do Not Disturb on my phone and OH MY GOD MOM why do you have Yahoo News as your homepage??!!

and I stumbled upon an app on my own called Stay Focused, which is awesome, because it's free and you can block sites and set up parameters for yourself and when all else fails and your finger's getting very itchy to click,

you can detonate what they call The Nuclear Option, which shuts down all websites and it's a beautiful beautiful thing

just as pleasing, if not more so, than deleting that silly solitaire game all those years ago. 

The End

Thursday, October 26, 2017

I want to write about my grandmother

and how she always had something cooking on the stove when I dropped in to see her,

which was rarely, even though she lived in the same town I did. How what was cooking always scented up the place, in a good, home-cooking-Italian way, so that you could smell the spaghetti sauce or the chicken noodle soup simmering when you were walking down the hallway of her apartment building, before you even made it to her front door.

I want to tell you about how tiny my grandmother was, under five feet tall and less than one hundred pounds. How she always had reddish brown, perfectly coiffed hair even though she was old, and how I always thought that was her real-colored hair until one time I mentioned to my mother that Grammy was the only grandmother I knew who didn't have white or gray hair, and my mother laughed and said,

oh, Jody, that's a wig.

I want to talk about how whenever I went to visit my grandmother, she'd reach up and hug me, rocking me back and forth and squeezing me tighter than you'd think a one-hundred pound old lady could squeeze. How we'd sit at her kitchen table and she'd feed me the spaghetti or the chicken noodle soup and tell me about her latest health ailments and show me all of the medications she was taking, pointing out what each one was and what it was for, before moving on to describe her various projects, all of which involved cleaning. 

Dusting out the cabinets or scrubbing the bathroom tiles or disinfecting the inside of the communal washing machines in her apartment building. Cleaning was one of my grandmother's favorite hobbies.

That, and watching soap operas. 

She called them her stories and when I was visiting, after I'd eaten, we'd sit together on her couch and watch whatever show was on until it was time for me to go and we shared another round of bone crushing hugs. 

I want to write about how happy my grandmother was on those visits, even though her world was shrunken down to a very small world, it seemed to me, of food and perfectly coiffed hair and medication schedules and cleaning projects and TV programs. 

I never knew what my grandmother's political views were, if she even voted; although, once she told me that Italians should be forgiven for supporting Mussolini. He made the trains run on time! she said. And I nodded, cluelessly. 

We never talked about religion either. She was Catholic but I have no idea how devout--or not devout--she was. Probably more on the devout-ish side, considering she had a little altar set up in her apartment, on the top of a dresser. A picture of Jesus. Photos of dead family members, my father's picture always in a prominent place surrounded by burning candles. 

My grandmother never told me who she was afraid of or what she worried about, unless it had to do with her health. Or maybe one of her children. One uncle of mine was always in and out of jail, which my grandmother referred to as college. As in, "Ah, well, your uncle is away at college again."

 (oh, Jody, said my mother, she means prison.) 

Once my grandmother told me a story about how when she was two years old, her family went to Italy for a visit. Her parents had been born in Italy and several of her older siblings had been born there, but my grandmother was born in America. When the family was coming back into the country, they had to pass through Ellis Island, (I'm a little confused about the reasoning for this now) but anyway, there was a moment when an immigration official wasn't going to let the family back in.

Someone was sick. Maybe they all were. None of them could speak English very well, but the parents pleaded with the immigration officials. The gist of their argument was that my grandmother, aged two, was an America citizen, and therefore they should all be allowed into the country. 

Apparently, it worked out.

My grandmother lived in a time before the internet and social media, before Fox news infiltrated elderly people's homes and told them what to be afraid of and which people they should hate.

Maybe I am doing that annoying thing that older people do, glossing over the past and saying: 

It was better back then!

when the worst thing a person could worry about seeing on TV was a ridiculously over-dressed couple rolling around together in bed, when we had no idea what our family members' appalling prejudices were, when a big secret meant someone wore a wig.

Now I don't know remember why I wanted to write about my grandmother. 

I think of her sometimes when I have sauce simmering on the stove or when I take medication or have my hair colored or on those extremely rare occasions when I clean my house. 

And always always when I reach up to hug one of my very tall children, when I squeeze them tight, when I let them go. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

An Interview with Kathy Cannon Wiechman

A few weeks ago I read Not on Fifth Street, a novel for children by Kathy Cannon Wiechman, and I am still thinking about it. I didn't used to read so much historical fiction, but lately I am drawn to it, fascinated by how people in the past respond to events, and wondering if we have learned the lessons history has to teach us.

The answer is often, sadly, no.

Not on Fifth Street takes place in Ironton, Ohio, 1937. It's the dark days of the Depression and the town is about to suffer through a record-breaking flood. The story centers around two teen brothers, the narrative unfolding as the rains begin and the river rises, each brother challenged by the crisis in different ways, believing what the adults have told them, that the water will never reach them

until it does.

I met Kathy Cannon Wiechman at a writers retreat several years and since then I have been following her career and her stories closely, and I am so happy to have her with me today, On the Verge.


Jody: First, Kathy, I have to tell you how much I loved these characters-- their relationship with each other and how they reacted to the same event and also their very different way of interacting with their father. I know from the author's note at the back of the book that these boys are based on people in your life.

Kathy: That's right. The 1937 flood was an event my father experienced.

Jody: Are all of your books inspired by family experiences? I imagine that you've heard lots of stories from older relatives about things that have happened to them when they were growing up. What makes you think: THIS is an anecdote that could be made into a novel?

Kathy: My books are usually inspired by an interesting event, like a steamboat explosion that claimed more lives than the Titanic (Like a River, 2015). When I hear about any event that makes me want to know more about it, I figure readers might be interested too.

Jody: Once you have that spark for a story, what do you next?

Kathy: Research. And I keep researching until the idea begins to gel into a possible plot. My next step is to create the characters I want to tell the story through. I can't begin the book until my main character is real enough for me to step inside his head.

Jody: Do you outline your books in advance?

Kathy: No, but I do make notes about possible scenes. Once I begin, I am not the kind of writer who writes a rough first draft all the way through. Each day, I read over, make changes, add details, and tweak what I wrote the day before. That puts me back into the flow of the narrative to continue from there. Some days I write a scene I feel should have been hinted at earlier. The next day I might go back and add that change before I go on.

Jody: So, lots of reworking as you go.

Kathy: Yes. My "first draft" is what one member of my critique group calls a "first-ish draft." When I am finished and have comments from my critique groups, I sit down for a serious and thorough revision.

Jody: You write historical fiction for children. What draws you to that genre? Do you see yourself ever writing for other age groups/in other genres?

Kathy: I began my writing life as a poet and my novelist years writing contemporary fiction. But contemporary fiction became out-dated too quickly. I loved reading historical fiction from the time I was a kid, but I was intimidated by the amount of research I would have to do to write it.

Jody: How did you get past that initial fear?

Kathy: At some point I realized I would probably enjoy that research. And I do!

Jody: When I met you at a Highlights Retreat, you were working on your first novel and my own first book was just about to come out. Both of us, I think it's fair to say, had been writing and pursuing publication for a very long time before snagging our first book deals. For me it was five novels and seventeen years. What about you?

Kathy: Between the time I first submitted a novel manuscript to an editor and the day I was offered my first contract, I wrote eleven novels--and thirty-nine years passed.

Jody: This business is not for people who give up easily! What advice do you have for writers like us--people are not beginners but who have not yet broken into publication and may be feeling discouraged?

Kathy: Learn everything you can about the business, read a ton of books, write every day, and love what you do. If I didn't love writing I would never have stuck with it for thirty-nine years. If writing is what you love, never give up.

Jody: This is so important. We can't control the end result. We can only control the time we give to the process. What are you working on now?

Kathy: My current WIP is another Civil War novel. This one takes place in North Carolina. I have 26,000 words so far in my first-ish draft, and am eager every day to get back into it.

Jody: And I am eager to read it, Kathy! Okay, are you ready for the lightning round?

Kathy: I am!

J: What are the books on your nightstand?
K: The Warden's Daughter by Jerry Spinelli

J: What's your non-writing-related hobby?
K: I spend time with family and organize our family reunions. I play cards and board games.

J: Do you have a family story that will probably never make it into a book?
K: My mother was brought to the US from Germany at the age of six to be adopted by her aunt. The adjustment was difficult for her. It's a story she always wanted to write, but never did. She's gone now, and I don't feel I know enough to do it justice.

J: Give me one surprising fact about Kathy Cannon Wiechman.
K: I have been a Type 1 diabetic since I was sixteen.

Jody: Thank you, Kathy, for chatting with me today. And readers, if you'd like to find out more about Kathy and her wonderful novels, see below.


Kathy Cannon Wiechman is the author of Like a River: A Civil War Novel, which earned a Kirkus star and won the 2015 Grateful American Book Prize, and Empty Places, about life in a 1930s coal-mining camp in Kentucky.

She lives with her family in Cincinnati, Ohio, not far from where the story of Not on Fifth Street takes place.

Facebook author page: Kathy Cannon Wiechman
Twitter account: @KathyCWiechman
Barnes & Noble      

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

How to Make a Natalie D. Richards Book... (a story in four parts, as told by her critique partner. me.)

Part One opens at a haunted house. It's Natalie's brilliant idea to take a writing retreat in the most haunted town in Ohio--

a quaint, artsy town on the Ohio River, with darling shops and restaurants, an old railroad bridge spanning the river that we walk across several times. The loveliest of cottages to rent (which also happens to be haunted!) Oh, and on the other side of the street from the lovely cottage, a creepy barn with skulls peering out of the windows.

We are too freaked out by the events of the weekend to think much about doing more than praising the heavens that we survived it, but several weeks later, Natalie tells me that she has an idea for a new book...

well, two ideas actually:

Idea number one is that freaky bridge we walked across multiple times, the metal beams and the precarious-looking slats beneath our feet. The clusters of locks, each one etched with the initials of long ago romances.

Idea number two is a broken boy. "His name is Theo," Natalie tells me. "And I'm trying to push him away,

because I know he's not a parent-approved hero. He has ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Honestly, he's a bit of a mess. But he's breaking my heart, Jody," she says, "and I can't stop thinking about him. About the way people see him and talk about him, and never see the rest of who he is.

Maybe it's messier or more difficult, but kids like Theo feel all the things other teens feel. They have hopes and dreams. They fall in love. I want to write him," she says, "because I can't not write him. I know his story deserves to be told."

So, I say what any good critique partner would say: Go write it!!

Which leads us to

Part Two.

Here is a fun thing Natalie and I do every single weekday morning:

She calls me on her drive in to work and after giving me an update on the horrific traffic and her daily fun swing through the Starbucks drive-thru so she can get a peppermint mocha, we talk shop. I tell her what's going on in my WIP and she tells me what's going on in hers. (Okay, we also talk about our kids, our husbands, our dogs, and the latest crap news we've woken up to and how we are supposed to write books in this world, but then inevitably we move our conversation back to writing because it is what we do.)

The book she's writing is called "The Haunted Bridge Book."

And it is stressing Natalie out. She's got the boy, Theo, in all his broken-ness, and messed-up-ness figured out, but she's struggling with the girl. Her name is Paige and she's got a secret crush on Theo but Theo's done something terrible to her. Not sure what yet.

And then, omg, Natalie knows what Theo did. And it's horrible. Will it work? Can she write this book? My guess: yes. Because Natalie, I've come to learn very quickly, is a master at writing books.

Not that they spill out easily for her. We spend the next few months in daily discussion about Theo and Paige. There's lots of anxiety involved, in the writing of it for Natalie and in the character of Paige, who, interestingly enough, is consumed by anxiety, about food, about germs, about her parents and their expectations for her, and especially about Theo and what he did to her...

We work through plot holes and structural problems. Character motivation. Roadblocks. What happens next? What the heck IS this book, anyway?

A moment of insight for Natalie when she realizes she is not writing a thriller, but a supernatural horror-- and supernatural horror, by definition, cannot be logically explained.

After roughly four months Natalie finishes the first draft, and--

Part Three--

she sends the file to me to read.

I LOVE being one of Natalie's first readers. I am a fan of her books and even though I have talked with her through the play-by-play, behind the scenes, piecing together of the manuscript, it's always cool to sit down and open her file for the first time.

I write comments as I read. Mark passages that are strong, and flag places where I am tripped up. There's a moment about two thirds of the way through, where I feel like we've mind-melded. I'm in her head and she's in mine. I see the book on the page as she's written it and I know the story that she's trying to tell. I sense where it's falling slightly short and I can pinpoint where she's hit it exactly right.

We have more phone conversations. We send flurries of emails back and forth.

She goes back in for round two. Round three.

Round four after she's gotten her letter back from her editor. And after she's gotten her copyedits. And after she sees her final proof.

Time passes, and the book is out of her hands, the publisher and book designer and cover artist and marketing people doing what they do. Natalie's writing another book. We talk on the phone. We puzzle through plot holes. We analyze possible character motivation.

Today, she's working through a traumatic kiss scene. The traffic into the city is bad. Our kids are worried about the state of the world. Forget the Peppermint Mocha. She is going all in on the new Maple Syrup Pecan Latte at Starbucks.

Today is also Part Four. 

Her book We All Fall Down is officially out in the world. In bookstores. In libraries. On Amazon. I still call it "The Haunted Bridge Book."

The cover is gorgeous, don't you think?

But here is what I picture:

Lifelong Ohioan, Natalie D. Richards, spent many years applying her writing skills to stunningly boring business documents. Fortunately, she realized she’s much better at making things up, and has been writing for teens ever since.

A champion of aspiring authors, Richards is a frequent
speaker at schools, libraries, and writing groups. She lives in Ohio with a Yeti, a Wookie (her dogs) and her wonderful husband and children.

Where to find Natalie:

Facebook author page:
Twitter: @Natdrichards

Buy her books here:
Barnes and Noble

And here's a teaser for We All Fall Down...

A new romantic thriller―with a dash of horror―from the author of One Was Lost and Six Months Later

Theo's always been impulsive. But telling Paige how he feels? He's obsessed over that decision. And it's time. Tonight. At the party on the riverbank, under the old walking bridge, site of so many tales of love and death.

Paige has had a crush on Theo since they first met, but she knows her feelings are one-sided. She's trying to move on, to flirt. A party at the river is just what she needs. Except a fight breaks out, and when Paige tries to intervene―Theo's fist lands in her face.

All Theo and Paige want to do is forget that fateful night. But strange events keep drawing them back to the bridge. Someone, something is determined to make them remember...and pay for what they each did.