Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Today's challenge: Striking a balance between presenting a certain image or symbol often enough in a book that the reader notices it and remembers it when the time comes for its importance to be revealed, but not so often that it becomes irritating.

As a reader, I love to pick up clues and see them fall into place. But I hate when the importance of an object is revealed, and I--don't even remember the object being introduced in the first place.

It's a question of rhythm, I think; these images and symbols are notes that must be sounded at intervals.

I must have a clue! But not too much of one.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Hanging out with imaginary people

There's something very satisfying about imaginary people (e.g., fictional characters). And it's not that we control what they do, because we don't, not entirely. For generations, people have been telling stories about imaginary characters--and about people who once lived but have now become legendary.

Perhaps we like to have company inside our heads. Perhaps we need to have these alternative selves who explore the paths we can't take ourselves. Whatever it is, it's powerful and peculiar and strangely rewarding. I'm in the middle of a revision right now, and it's rather like having a bunch of invisible houseguests, all of whom have an abundance of tension and unresolved problems.

Good times.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


Sylvia Plath wrote the following in her journal in August 1952:

"... I asked her about a lot of things - how she got writing and where published, and where worked. She talked nicely to me ... she understood about how I was critical of my story, didn't like it now as much, and how it was best writing actually, the process, not the product."

This describes her visit to the bookmobile where writer Val Gendron worked. Among other things, Gendron advised writing four pages (1000 words) a day. Plath also wrote: "... I will make a good part of Val Gendron part of me  - someday. ... She has said I may visit her: a pilgrimage - to my First Author."

A couple of weeks later, she did visit Gendron's home, and wrote a detailed entry describing the author's "'shack,'" garden, cats, and writing room with its piles of manuscripts. Plath and Gendron discussed the business of writing, including agents; the craft; and a bit of gossip about other writers (including Rachel Carson, whom Gendron knew).  Plath ended that entry: "I like her, yet not as blindly as could be - I can be critical. But she has lived, sold, produced. And how much she has already begun to teach me." In other words, while Plath was not blinded by hero worship of her "First Author," she respected Gendron's accomplishments and had sought her out as a professional mentor of sorts, a person who could tell her about the reality of trying to make writing a career, the mundane details of writing as craft and publishing as business.

Gendron seems nearly forgotten today, but she published frequently in the mid-Twentieth Century, and at the time they met, Plath was just beginning to publish. I like these entries in Plath's diary because they illustrate the baton-passing, the chain of mentoring, that occurs between writers. In a way, my "First Author" was Kit Reed, who responded most kindly to a fan letter I sent her when I was still in high school, in which she gave advice I had requested about becoming a writer. I can't even begin to count all the writers who have helped me since then--from brief gems they passed along at conferences, to more in-depth ongoing relationships. Since my high-school days, it has become much easier to find mentors through the internet, and to find a sort of collective mentoring through sites like Verla Kay's blue boards.

After a while, the support flows both ways, and there is a sort of "co-mentoring" that occurs between writers; we support one another as colleagues. Along with my online communities and my local critique group, I correspond with several writers who are at approximately the same place in their writing careers as I am. People often comment on how supportive writers are of one another, especially in the field of children's publishing, and I think it's much better for us and for our writing than if we were cut-throat competitors. The wonderful thing about writing is that the better a book is, the more it encourages a reader to find other books. In that sense, we all have an investment in not only making our books better, but helping everyone else make their books as good as possible and helping readers find them. In that spirit, I've also participated in a couple of programs where I've mentored writers who haven't yet published.

None of us know whether our careers will turn out to be like Gendron's--solid and successful at the time, but becoming overshadowed through the years--or like Plath's--flaring with a brief, intense light that shines for decades afterward. We only know that we share this dedication to writing, to figuring out how we can best make it work.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Recent debut novels

I'm taking a short break from the revise-a-thon on my current manuscript to bring you the latest installment in my ongoing series: Books of 2010 (debut YA/MG books of 2010). I can hardly believe it, but today's post is the penultimate one in the series! I have only four more titles left to feature sometime between now and the end of the year.

I've been happy to feature debut titles, and I will continue to do so next year, but in a more random fashion. To keep up with debut titles in a more systematic manner, I encourage you to check out the Class of 2k11 and the Elevensies. Meanwhile, I'm hoping to add a new feature here at my blog on sophomore books: guest posts from various authors on what it's like to publish a second book. I thought it would be interesting to explore how the writing and publishing experience changes once you have a track record, a readership, and more expectations. Several authors have offered to share their stories, and if all goes well, I'll be running that feature throughout the coming year.

But for now, why not curl up with some brand-new books from brand-new authors?

Nightshade, by Andrea Cremer. Young adult. Werewolf Calla deals with power struggles and romantic conflict, as she's attracted both to the alpha male of another werewolf pack, and to a human male.

Just Add Magic, by Cindy Callaghan. Middle grade. Kelly Quinn finds a secret cookbook that seems to contain magic recipes--and each recipe she follows brings strange and unpredictable results.

Under the Green Hill, by Laura L. Sullivan. Middle grade. When six American children are sent to England to escape a plague, they find themselves plunged in the middle of a fairy war.

Hunger, by Jackie Morse-Kessler. Lisabeth's anorexia brings her close to Death--and Death in turn assigns her the role of Famine, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

I'm thankful for many, many things, including the fact that I've been able to visit places like the one shown above. I'm also thankful for where I am right now.

And I want to thank you--for reading this blog, commenting, linking, etc. For sharing this journey with me.

Enjoy your Thursday, whether or not it's Thanksgiving Day where you are!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Nice guys

I understand the appeal of the bad-boy love interest, the arrogant guy who can toss off the perfect snappy remark. At least, I understand it in fiction.

But in real life, arrogance just turns me off. I have a higher tolerance for it in fiction because 1) in books, we often get to see behind the arrogant facade into a better, more vulnerable person; and 2) fiction has an element of role-playing or fantasy to it (even when it's realistic fiction) where we can explore people and situations that we wouldn't necessarily choose in life.

Sometimes, though, I just want a nice guy, even in my books. So I thought I'd recommend four YA books where the love interest is a nice, decent guy. And appealing. There's no reason a nice character can't be interesting--nice can include a complicated past, a sense of humor, some unexpected vulnerabilities, some quirks and foibles. Here are a few of my favorites:

Gavin in Shrinking Violet (by Danielle Joseph). Not all musicians are guitar-smashing bad boys.

Guy in Willow (by Julia Hoban). He sees the main character, Willow, through some horrific experiences. But he and Willow don't just talk about themselves and their troubles--they're interested in the wider world around them.

Otto in The Order of the Poison Oak (by Brent Hartinger). He's musical too. And he's not into head games: how refreshing.

Michael in Some Girls Are (by Courtney summers). Okay, he has some issues and some angst, but for good reason. And overall, he comes through when he's needed, and he's incredibly loyal.

Nice guys don't have to finish last.

Source of recommended reads: bought

Monday, November 22, 2010

Networking for introverts, and other topics

R.L. LaFevers, of the Shrinking Violets Promotion site, asked some fellow introverted authors who are active online to share tips about social networking. In the arena of finding friends and followers, the two most basic guidelines are: commenting on other people's sites (not just to get followers of your own, but out of genuine interest in the topic at hand), and responding to comments on your own site. But I knew other authors would probably cover that ground, and in fact Nathan Bransford happened to blog about this topic in depth today.

So I thought I would talk more about my general philosophy of social networking (which borrows heavily from the philosophy of Brent Hartinger), and also talk about issues specific to introverts: privacy and boundaries, for example. My guest post is currently up on the Shrinking Violets site. Also watch that site for more to come about how introverts can become active online!

More good links I've found lately, on various topics:

Swati Avasthi, author of SPLIT, guest blogged at The Story Siren on writing about race--and not writing about race. A sample: "When I write about characters who are white, I am writing about race. I’m just not assuming that white is normal."

If you've ever wanted a specific, concrete example of how to make cuts during revision, Bethany Hegedus provides just that, along with the reasons why she deleted certain passages.

RIF (Reading is Fundamental) could be collateral damage in the Congressional budget/earmark battle. According to RIF's blog, "Although RIF is an authorized program and is not an earmark, [the current version of the earmark] moratorium would cover all national projects, authorized or unauthorized, and would include Reading Is Fundamental." Follow the RIF link for more information.

Finally, AnnaStan did a post on creative optimism, illustrated with a great cartoon.

Happy reading!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The stack of books beside my bed

There's a stack of books beside my bed. There's always a stack of books beside my bed. I suspect most writers have one, even if it has moved to their e-readers.

My stack consists of books I'm reading, books I've recently read but haven't shelved yet, books I want to read, and books I started reading a while ago but--for whatever reason--haven't picked up in some time. Library books, ARCs of friends, old favorites that I'm rereading, new books I'm excited about: these populate my current stack.

I always read several books at once, and my selections are governed by mood as well as taste. Sometimes, only a comfort read will do. Other times, I crave the excitement of something new. Sometimes I buy a book and don't read it for months or years, until the mood for it hits me. Sometimes I can read a densely written, thousand-page tome that requires heavy thinking on my part. Sometimes I want action and thrills.

I read books to study them, also. I recently reread a book to see how the author built a suspenseful situation, and I plan to study the structure of that book more actively when I'm able to take a break from my current work in progress. Sometimes I read poetry to remind myself to pay attention to every single word.

Natalie Whipple (Between Fact and Fiction) has been blogging lately about the importance of reading in a writer's education, and it reminds me that the first thing I always advise any class when I teach a writing workshop is this: Read. Read a lot. (The second thing I tell them is to write. Write a lot.) It's why I imagine that the stack of books beside my bed is not unique, but rather a feature many writers will recognize instantly from their own bedrooms, offices, dens, and living rooms.

What's in your stack?

Friday, November 19, 2010

On Thanksgiving and Black Friday

Next Thursday is Thanksgiving in the United States. It's always been one of my favorite holidays: a day dedicated to giving thanks, appreciating what we have. Years ago, I started a tradition for myself of taking a walk on Thanksgiving Day, and it's typically a lovely excursion: the slow pace of a day off, the mellow November light, the sense of the land easing itself into wintry sleep.

It's also one of the few holidays that hasn't had a lot of commercial hype. Aside from the extra food most of us indulge in for this annual feast, we haven't been expected to buy much of anything.

In recent years, that's been changing. The day after Thanksgiving, traditionally called "Black Friday" because of all the black ink this heavy shopping day brings to store ledgers, has become more and more hyped. Now there are special sales with people lining up in the wee hours of the morning so they can stampede into a store and buy stuff. I've even heard of one store that, this year, is opening for Black Friday shopping while it's still Thanksgiving Day.

I'm not going to go into an anti-shopping rant here. I'm not against shopping and I'm not much of a ranter. I'm not against Black Friday per se. But these are my wishes for us: that we keep Thanksgiving a holiday for community, celebration, and contemplation of our own good fortune. And that we can carry some of the moments of slowing down and counting our blessings into the days that follow it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


I came across this quotation today: "If you are not nervous about your passion, you're not passionate about it." It's attributed to Bobby Flay, and I can't stop thinking about it.

People are sometimes surprised at how nervous writers get--about writing first drafts, editing, submitting a book, doing public appearances, reading reviews, and so on. It's not just first-time authors who get nervous; this includes well-known, multi-published authors. And I think that nervousness is driven not just by the uncertainty of this art and this business, but by what Flay is alluding to here. It's about having something at stake, having an emotional investment.

Not that nervousness is constant. There are those moments where everything clicks, when the writing comes together in a way that is its own reward, when our cup is so full it couldn't hold another drop. There are times when the characters feel like old friends. There are times of sheer joy.

It's like falling in love: there are those electric moments, and moments of uncertainty. There are the times when we hold our breath, the times we're living on hope, wondering if things will work out the way we want. And then there are the times of total ease and comfort, mutual trust, and just plain fun.

I hadn't thought about it quite this way before, but nervousness may be a necessary part of the game. It's based on a strong desire to do well, enough doubt to keep us humble, an acknowledgment that we don't control the universe, and most of all, it's the sign that we've invested something, that we care. Not too much nervousness, mind you--not a debilitating amount--but a little bit.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Knowing what we know

In the YAsecrets chat tonight on Twitter, Holly Cupala mentioned that she didn't know one of her characters' big secrets until the end of her book (Tell Me a Secret). And when she went back to plant the seeds for that secret, she discovered most of them were already there. Other writers had also had this experience (including me!).

Writing involves several levels of our minds, not all of them conscious. If we immerse ourselves deeply enough in the story, those seeds and those connections often arise organically. Sometimes, that's the way we know we've stumbled upon the right ending or plot twist; we find that the whole book has in fact led to this moment, whether we understood it at the time or not.

Plenty of conscious planning goes into a book, too, of course. And I find I often use a hybrid approach: I'll notice that I've used a certain symbol or image a few times, and it happens to fit with my theme, so I start to play it up consciously during revision.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Writer-Reader Contract

First, a couple of orders of business:

If you prefer Blogspot to LiveJournal, you can now follow my blog here. I've started cross-posting my content. I have no plans to leave LiveJournal; this is just to make life easier for those readers who prefer Blogspot. And you can comment at either place, since I will check and respond to comments at both sites. However, I currently have Anonymous commenting enabled only at LiveJournal.

On Tuesday, November 16, Holly Cupala, C.J. Omololu and I will be sharing secrets on Twitter at 8 PM Eastern (5 PM Pacific), using the hashtag #YAsecrets. We've all written books about secrets, so please join us for a "secret" Twitter chat if you're available then! By the way, my Twitter name is @JennRHubbard.

Now for the writerly talk:

I was thinking today about when I was little and cartoons were my favorite TV shows. Once in a while, a new show would come on that used cartoons in its title sequence, and I would be enraptured, thinking the show was animated. Imagine my disappointment and confusion when the show featured actors, not cartoons. They only used cartoons for the opening song!

I was thinking about this in the writing context because of the writer-reader contract we set up at the start of any piece. If we start out funny, the reader expects us to stay funny. If we set up a mystery, the reader expects it to be solved. A writer who breaks that contract risks the reader thinking that the writer either doesn't know what s/he is doing, or the writer is being needlessly manipulative.

I once asked a person in the publishing field, whose critical eye I greatly respect, how large a sample it took to know that any given writer's work had potential. The answer was: a few sentences. At first that surprised me, and then I realized how often I've found it to be true as a reader. I felt it when reading Heidi R. Kling's book, Sea, and again when reading Alexandra Bracken's Brightly Woven.* In just the first couple of pages, I could tell that these were writers who knew what they were doing, and I trusted they would tell a good story, and they didn't disappoint.

When readers buy into our fictional worlds, we make certain implicit promises to those readers. We owe them something. I think my own writer's vow is: I will make this journey as interesting as I can; I will try to leave you with something true and meaningful; I will follow the rules of my own imaginary country.

*In the interests of full disclosure, I will say these writers are both in the Tenners group with me, and I first read their books as ARCs lent by the authors. However, my opinion of their writing is independent of that fact; I would not compliment them here unless I could do so honestly.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

This is Bridget Zinn. She's a librarian and YA author who was diagnosed in 2009 with Stage IV colon cancer. Last year, a bunch of generous folks donated and bid on items in an online auction to raise money to help Bridget and Barrett with their medical expenses.

Bridget is still fighting, so this year there will be another auction, 
“Bridget Kicks Cancer: Season of Love and Hope,” from November 22-December 4.

Please consider donating an item or service by November 19.

In the spirit of Bridget and Barrett’s Summer of Love, let’s keep it going with an online auction, Bridget Kicks Cancer: Season of Love and Hope. Starting now, we’re asking people to donate items to be bid on. Bidding begins Monday, November 22nd, and ends Saturday, December 4th. Here’s how it works:
Item Donation:
- To donate an item, go to
http://bit.ly/bridgetkickscancer to fill out and submit the Item Donation Form.
- If you have more than one item to donate fill out a separate form for each item.
- For each item you submit, send us images to accompany the item listing. We can take up to four images per item! Please email images to:
- Get your donations in by Friday, November 19!
Items that have been popular and successful in previous auctions include:
- Author and writer services: critiques, help with social networking
- Autographed books
- Handcrafted jewelry or greeting cards
- Local services: wine tours, house rentals, consulting work
- Original Artwork: perhaps design an 8 x 10 -12 x 24 around the theme of “Season of Love” (paying homage to Bridget’s “Summer of Love”), offer to commission a piece of art, or donate an existing piece
- Gift items
The Auction:
- The auction will begin at 8:00am on Monday, November 22nd, and will conclude at 7:00pm Pacific / 9:00pm Central on Saturday, December 4th.
- To bid on items, visit the auction site at
http://bit.ly/bridgetauction and follow the instructions for bidding.
- Winners will be notified by Sunday, December 5th, and will be sent instructions for payment at that time.
- As soon as payment is received, donors will ship or otherwise provide the item won to the winning bidder. Since this is around the holidays, send items as soon as possible after we notify you that payment has been received.
Questions? Email us at bridgetkickscancer@gmail.com!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Choosing the story

In any given event, there are many stories.

How do we choose whether to tell Cinderella's story (as an example) from her point of view, or the prince's, or a stepsister's? As that point of view shifts, how do the beginning and ending points of the story change? How does the theme change?

One of those stories will have an arc and a theme that resonate with us. That is my story, an inner voice says. That is the story I have to tell. This is what I believe to be true.

There's a point where we shift from imitation--from telling our myths and stories the same way we've received them--to creation. A point where we take hold of a story and shape it according to our own beliefs and experiences. Having learned from others what stories are, we begin to tell our own.