Saturday, April 30, 2011

Unlikable characters

I was reading some customer reviews of a biographical memoir the other day. (I call it a "biographical memoir" because the author had personally known the biography's subject, and the author's personal remembrances were woven in with the biography.) I've read the book and enjoyed it--in fact, I've checked it out of the library a few times and now I'm thinking I should just go ahead and buy it. So I was on the book's online page, debating whether to order it now or wait a bit before bringing yet MORE books into this house, when something struck me about the customer comments.

Several of the reviewers had favorable comments about the author's writing (and I agree), but there were also comments about the subject of the biography. Specifically, many people found the subject to be less than charming. Fascinating perhaps, compelling yes, but not likable. And I realized how many times I've seen reviews and comments about books, and had conversations myself about books, that involve this simple subjective evaluation: do we like the characters?

Readers usually prefer to like someone--though not necessarily everyone--in a book. But they don't seem to mind having characters they "love to hate." After reading Wuthering Heights, I wondered if anyone really likes Heathcliff and Cathy. They certainly give readers every reason to dislike them. Yet this book has found readers, generation after generation, and its most pleasant characters are totally overshadowed by the cruel pair. Then there are Alex in A Clockwork Orange; Rochester in Jane Eyre; Humbert Humbert in Lolita ... characters who do despicable things, characters we wouldn't choose as friends, but whose stories we read nonetheless. I admire all three of those books without admiring those characters.

So I don't think characters must be likable. They must only be interesting.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


Once when I was discussing my book, The Secret Year, with a book group, a reader asked me why one of the secondary characters had to be gay.

As it happens, that character’s coming out was the perfect subplot for a book about secrecy. Coming out is a move from secrecy to openness, from isolation to community. Secrecy doesn’t ever seem to have made anyone straight, but it’s made a lot of people suffer. In The Secret Year, coming out is ultimately a move toward honesty, self-confidence, and happiness. The main character’s secrecy isn’t about sexual orientation, but when he finally faces the limits of his own secret world, he already has a model before him of a more honest way to live.

It’s an interesting question, though: Why does a given character have to be gay? In one sense, a writer knows that every detail we reveal about a character should be both true to the character and relevant to the story. But another natural answer to that question is, “Why not?” YA GLBTQ literature is moving out of the “coming-out” phase, and into the phase of the “incidentally gay” character. While coming out will continue to be an important theme, it is, after all, only one part of a life story. Why can’t the characters—whom we’re following around because they’re solving mysteries or training for the big race or just coming of age with witty observations—also just happen to be GLBTQ?

In books like Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You (Peter Cameron) and Hero (Perry Moore), the characters’ sexual orientation is part of who they are, but the plots are about something more, or something other, than coming out. Gradually, our literature is coming to resemble more closely the real world in which we live.

cross-posted at as part of the "Gay in YA" Blogathon

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Asking the characters

Some work I'm doing on my current project reminded me of a story I once shelved because it didn't quite work out. I think both projects have the same issue: elements that were a little forced, because I wanted or needed the book to go in a certain direction.

With my current project, the flaw is not fatal; it's a minor plot point that I can easily fix. With my former project, the flaws were much more a part of the structure, and I believe they fatally weakened it. I have to thank C. Lee McKenzie for helping me understand what wasn't quite right with my stories: when she recently posted on her blog about not letting the character lead the way, something clicked in my head.

I've actually blogged about this concept before, which just illustrates all over again why I keep this blog: because I need to keep reminding myself of truths about writing, even the things I supposedly already know. So here's my lesson for this week:

Events in the book must arise out of the characters' needs, not my needs. Plot points must evolve naturally from the characters, rather than being imposed upon them.

It can be a scary lesson, because when I don't know where a story needs to go, it's tempting to impose a structure on it, in a top-down manner. Instead, I need to listen to the characters. They will tell me.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Why celebrity books don't make me cranky

Celebrity books often make writers cranky. It’s easy to see why. If you’ve spent twenty years mastering your craft, struggling to write the perfect sentence, scraping through layers of your own self-protectiveness and naivete and unoriginal ideas, learning the difference between active and passive, pruning useless modifiers and cliches out of your work, honing your powers of observation—if you’ve done this while making no money, or making money at something else and stealing bits of hours here and there in which to write—then it can be annoying to see someone who hasn’t traveled the same path pick up a book advance that is a hundred times what you will ever be offered. It can be heart-breaking to see that person showing up on national TV to plug a book he or she may not have even written, when you had to struggle to get your local paper to mention your book and when they did, they misspelled the title. That is the soil in which the sour grapes grow.


The truth is that when people shop for books, they are drawn to familiar names. As readers, we all do this. And a celebrity begins with a huge advantage in this department: name recognition. An unknown writer must pull in readers with a catchy title, an awesome cover, or a fascinating synopsis (better yet, all three)—and that writer must deliver an amazing story.

Publishers invest in celebrity books because they get a return on that investment. Not every book every time (but that’s also true, and some say even truer, of non-celebrity books). Sometimes people say that the celebrity books bring in the money that allows publishers to sign the rest of their writers--the writers who will have to build their audience from zero, the writers who will have to earn that precious name recognition book by book.

I actually think it’s a good thing that so many celebrities still want to write books. Every night, talk shows feature politicians, actresses, or athletes who are plugging books. It can’t be just for the money. Although celebrities may pull in big advances, they make bigger money in other areas of their lives.

I think we’ll only be in trouble if the day comes when celebrities don’t want book contracts. Think about it: In this world where there are so many entertainment alternatives, having your name on a book cover still carries enough cachet that people who have made millions on other endeavors want that for themselves.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


The last time I visited the museum at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, I was seized with a longing to write stories sparked by a few of the artworks I'd seen that day. I wanted to bring a notebook and sit in front of a few pieces and write whatever came to mind.

It's taken me years, but today I finally did it. I invited intrepid writers Kelly Fineman and Angela De Groot to join me for this session of ekphrastic writing. It was a great way to spend a drizzly Saturday morning, especially as a break between copy edits on one novel (just finished) and resuming work on another novel (which I'd temporarily laid aside for the copy edits on the other).

I decided to work with flash fiction today, and the four pieces I chose as inspiration were "The Wave," by Alexander Harrison "Apple Blossom Time" by George Inness"Gladiolus" by Charles Demuth, and "Pandora" by Aaron Bohrod (which doesn't seem to be included in the online images from the museum's collection). For the first, "Pandora," I set a ten-minute time limit and used it all. It took me a while to get started, and that piece rambled all over the place. For the other pieces, I didn't need to set a time; they were much shorter, and came to a natural conclusion more easily. (I think I was warmed up by that time!) I didn't come home with finished stories, of course. I have first drafts that may or may not turn into anything else.

Although you can view the museum's collection online through the above link, I can see that the online images don't do many of the paintings justice. There is nothing like viewing the works in person, being able to see the brush strokes, the texture of the marble, the true colors. The museum's atmosphere is also wonderful: amazingly high ceilings for a feeling of spaciousness, thick stone walls that give a peaceful atmosphere. Kelly, Angela and I compared notes on our experience before heading out to lunch--we had all written something new. It's nice to have local writer friends who are willing to try these projects!

Thursday, April 21, 2011


As part of an ongoing poetry project with Laura Purdie Salas, Susan Taylor Brown posted this about line breaks in poetry, including some exercises playing with line breaks. Since I've played with poetry and toyed with the idea of verse novels (my next book actually started its life as an attempt at a verse novel, although it turned into standard prose), I found this play with line breaks fascinating.

While taking a break from my current manuscript, I was also sneaking a look at some poetry files in which I wrote a few pantoums. A pantoum is a form of poetry in which certain lines are repeated, but the order of those lines changes. This challenge, of repeating lines while changing the order and having the whole poem make some sort of sense, excites me. I've written a few pantoums, as I said, but they all suck. Which is okay, because I did not write them in the hopes that they would earn me the Nobel Prize for Literature. I was challenging myself and having fun.

More projects that excite me (not all of which I do myself, but I like to read about others doing them): Quilting. Collage. Pinhole cameras. Sugar eggs (Pat Esden posted about sugar eggs this week, and my first question was: Where have they been all my life?)

The common theme here is excitement. It's about the joy of creating something, the challenge of learning new things, the fun of play. Whatever else writing is, it is a creative endeavor, and I think it's good not to let one's process get too repetitive or formulaic. It's good to play, to try some new form or even a different art/craft, to be a beginner again. To keep that excitement alive, the excitement of saying, "That sounds like fun! I wonder if I can do it? I'm going to try!"

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Marking Time

For me, one danger sign when writing a manuscript is if I'm waiting to get to the good part. "Can't wait to write that scene! Have to build up to it," I think. This can result in filler: boring scenes that are just marking time.

Now, this is not a danger sign for outliners. Since outliners know exactly what's going to happen and when, their build-up scenes don't just kill time or delay the inevitable. And any writer can look forward to a book's payoff--the big battle, the point where the lovers finally reunite, etc.--without having that anticipation signal danger.

But I'm not an outliner, and often when I'm holding off on "the good part," I find that the best thing I can do is go ahead and write that good part, and then figure out what's next. If two characters are going to kiss, I don't put them in scene after scene after scene where they almost kiss. There are plenty of writers who can make that kind of suspense work. Not me. I may delay the kiss a bit, but once I know they're going to kiss, I'd rather have them lock lips already--and then figure out what happens next.

I always want to get to the part I don't know. I'm the same way as a reader. Once I figure something out, I don't want to wait too long for the main character to catch up with me.

Pacing is a balancing act--not rushing, not dragging things out.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Reinvention of Edison Thomas

I've mentioned this book before, but I'm mentioning it again because the author is giving away a copy here on this blog!

The Reinvention of Edison Thomas, by Jacqueline J. Houtman, is about science fairs (find out how to make a tornado!), living with autism, and figuring out who your real friends are. Not only did I enjoy the book, I admired the way Jacqueline celebrated its launch with a Periodic Table of Cupcakes. (Actual quote from Jacqueline, worthy of John & Hank Green if you ask me: "Cupcakes were flavored according to their chemical group, noble gases were lemon, lanthanides were chocolate mint ...")

To qualify for the book, you must be at least 13 years old and able to receive mail in the US or Canada. Then just leave a comment below listing your favorite cupcake flavor (imaginary flavors OK), your favorite element of the periodic table, or just any old suitable-for-prime-time comment. Provide a way to identify/contact you if you win, and get your comment in by 7 PM EDT on Thursday, April 21. The winner will be chosen at random. In a twist from my usual one-entry-per-person rules, for this contest you can leave up to five comments, each one entitling you to an entry. This post will appear on both LiveJournal and Blogspot, and all the entries will be pooled to pick the winner.

Also, if you follow Jacqueline on Twitter (which you should because you want to hear about tornadoes, cupcakes, and the periodic table, don't you?) at @jjhoutman, your followership can help put books in classrooms. Here's how.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Confessions and Chocolate Brains

For those who've been asking when my next book comes out: Not until early 2012. But to tide you over,  I have a short story in this anthology, Truth & Dare:

This collection of contemporary YA was supposed to come out in May, but it's available now! It's subtitled, "20 Tales of Heartbreak and Happiness," and the stories range from the tragic to the comic.

I wanted to try a lighter and more humorous tone with my contribution, "Confessions and Chocolate Brains," so you'll notice that it's not quite as dark as The Secret Year or my upcoming novel, Try Not to Breathe. But since a story is not a story without conflict, there's trouble, too. Mostly, this story is about what happens when the "perfect couple" starts facing their flaws.

"Confessions" is written from a female point of view (unlike my novels). Also, there are ugly bridesmaid dresses. And of course, chocolate brains!

I'm very proud to share space in these pages with Jennifer Finney Boylan, Sarah Rees Brennan, Cecil Castellucci, Emma Donoghue, Courtney Gillette, A. M. Homes, Heidi R. Kling, Jennifer Knight, Michael Lowenthal, Liz Miles (who also edited the collection), Saundra Mitchell, Luisa Plaja, Matthue Roth, Sherry Shahan, Gary Soto, Shelley Stoehr, Sara Wilkinson, Ellen Wittlinger, and Jill Wolfson. Even if you don't read my story, read theirs!!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Scary truth

"And at some point I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend, and come out with personal truth."--May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

How paradoxical that the revelation we fear, and are tempted to self-censor, may be the very thing that lights up our work. It may be the very kernel of truth that nourishes the reader.

Library challenge results

This is the third year I've done the library-loving blog challenge. The first year was an experiment, really; I thought maybe I'd wind up donating $25 to my local library. Instead, a bunch of volunteers came together to raise more than $1600. The second year, I had many more volunteers and people to spread the word, and I was able to put in much more time, and we raised more than $5000.

This year, I didn't have as much time or energy as last year, and I didn't have nearly the number of volunteers. I considered not doing the challenge. Even though I've never officially made it an annual event, for three years it's turned out that way, and I'm really touched when people ask me when I'm going to do it and say they're looking forward to it. But this year I wondered whether I should let it go, given that I'm trying to do less this year, and that I had a smaller network of helpers.

In the end, I decided: what the heck, let's go for it! After all, the first year I did this, I had no expectations. And once I put up this year's first post, I remembered why I love to do this (aside from helping libraries, of course): it's fun. Much more fun than just writing a check. And I reminded myself that any money we raise, and any consciousness-raising we do on behalf of libraries, is worthwhile.

I haven't received final official reports from all this year's participants, but I have from almost everyone, and for the remaining couple I went by the latest stats on their challenge posts. Here is the honor roll of the angelic people who came forward with their own time and money to help libraries, and whose enthusiasm and generosity were immensely inspiring:

Jama Rattigan of Alphabet Soup: $200 worth of wishlist books for Fairfax Library foundation (VA)
Kimberly Sabatini of Jess Free Falcon: $150 for Blodgett Memorial Library
Kathleen Marold joined onto Kimberly Sabatini's challenge, for an additional $82 for Blodgett Memorial Library
Amy Brecount White: $100 for a Pennsylvania library
Janet S. Fox of Through the Wardrobe: $82 for the Bozeman Public Library (MT)
Angela De Groot: $100 for a local bookmobile
Sarah Mullen Gilbert of The Writing Cave: $50 for Barlow Memorial Library, Iowa Falls (IA)
Jessica Shea Spotswood: $75 for Adams County Library
C. Lee McKenzie of The Write Game: $310 for Los Gatos Public Library
Heather of Marine Corps Nomad: $50 for Foothills Library
Jessica Leader: $62 for Louisville Free Public Library
Kimberlee Conway Ireton: $36 for Seattle Public Library
Colleen Rowan Kosinski of Writer Girl: $50 for Cherry Hill Public Library (NJ)
Margo Rowder of Margoblog: $174 for Evanston Public Library Friends (IL)
Kelly Fineman of Writing and Ruminating: $50 to her local public library
and me: $125 to Cheltenham Twp Libraries, $125 to Philadelphia Free Library (PA)

According to my spreadsheet, that's $1821, more than we raised the first year. To everyone who volunteered, donated, commented, and/or spread the word: Thank you.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Success and failure

I've been thinking about the definition of "success" and "failure."

We tend to talk about failed careers, failed relationships, failed manuscripts, failed projects. The half-knitted scarf that is three inches wide in some places and six inches wide in others. The apartment we fled before the lease was up, despite the cost. The manuscripts that never sold. The manuscripts we never finished.

I have a hard time calling those experiences "failures." Certainly they didn't work out as intended; certainly the time came to put them aside. And yet, maybe they worked for a while. Or their flaws taught us something that made the next experience much better.

Behind every story I've published is a stack of stories, and attempts at stories, that never made it. But I don't think the published stories would exist if it weren't for the thousands of unpublished words that came before them.

One of my mini-obsessions is armchair mountaineering. I've read dozens of accounts of expeditions, and the interesting thing is that the mountaineers didn't always have to make the summit for the expedition story to be riveting, and absolutely worth reading.

There are days when the summit can't be reached, but still the climb is worth something.

Friday, April 15, 2011

But I don't find my microwave all that attractive

On April 12, there was a guest on the Colbert Report, Ray Kurzweil, talking about how people will be merging with machines in the future. (According to Kurzweil, we will merge by 2045, to be more specific.) As he pointed out, this kind of technology is already being used on people with neurological damage, so that nervous impulses can be used to direct digital equipment. Kurzweil also talked about how we'll have nanobots roaming through our bodies, keeping us healthy.

As with every technological advance, I can see both the wonder and the horror. The upside is obvious--new weapons in the struggle against diseases and injuries that alter our nervous system, our immune system, etc. Ways to enhance our memory, and perhaps keep from losing it.

But as to the downside--well, I've always said that I will never have to write a dystopian or futuristic novel, because M. T. Anderson already perfectly articulated my expectations in a novel called Feed. In Anderson's world, computers have been implanted in people's heads, but their primary use is to sell stuff to their hosts. Also, while the main characters have these fancy computer implants, and flying cars of a sort, there are hints that not everyone in the world lives this way. Somewhere, others are living darker, poorer, strife-torn lives, far from the glamor of shopping-on-demand and casual jaunts to the moon.

I can't help thinking that when Kurzweil says we'll have nanobots in our bloodstream, he means that some of us will have nanobots. I can't imagine everyone having nanobots in a world where not everyone can even afford basic medicines--where not everyone can even afford basic food. Nanobots sound expensive!

One thing that books do is express our hopes and fears about the future--usually based on our hopes and fears about the present. What futuristic or dystopian novel best lines up with your vision of the future, or with your most extreme hopes and fears? Or are you writing something like that now?

source of recommended read: library

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Of highwaymen, floods, and spectacles

Today's guest author is Kelly Fineman: poet, novelist, picture-book author, and all-around lovely person. She usually blogs at Writing and Ruminating.

I was pleased and surprised when Jenn asked me to write a guest post – and she asked me to write about research, knowing I did some interesting digging for the Jane project, the biography I wrote of Austen's life. (In verse. Using period forms. Moving on . . . ) Researching a person such as Austen, about whom much has been written and not all that much is known, could have been easy: grab a handful of the better biographies and run with it, right?

Well, maybe. It's not what I did, but I wouldn't be surprised if there are people out there who have done just that. I read no fewer than a dozen general biographies (e.g., Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin) and at least two dozen specialized ones (e.g., Jane Austen & Crime by Susannah Fullerton). And of course I read all six of her completed novels, her uncompleted novels, her novella (Lady Susan), and her Juvenilia, plus her letters. And I read some of the books that I knew she'd read and loved, including poetry, novels and plays. Plus I read books on Georgian and Regency England: customs, housing, manners, travel, costs, servants, etc.

The trouble with biographies is that they don't always provide factual support for their assertions. In fact, in the case of at least one biography that I read (David Nokes's Jane Austen: a life), scenes were manufactured wholesale for which there is no factual corroboration at all. It made me leery of accepting statements made in biographies on their face without further investigation. Also, I found that sometimes biographers leave things out – things they didn't find all that interesting, perhaps, or that fall outside the particular slant of their narrative.

Since I couldn't afford to travel to England to do research using primary sources (to which access might, in some cases, be exceedingly difficult or impossible, in any case), I found myself quite fond of books drawn from primary sources – Jane Austen's Letters and Chronology of Austen, both edited by Deirdre Le Faye – proved to be a boon, as did The Austen Papers, a collection of family documents that I copied pages from on a field trip to Baltimore.

Le Faye's Chronology was put together using more than just Austen family sources, relying also on diary entries from friends who lived in the same neighborhood as the Austens. The Chronology allowed me to write a poem about the summer that the entire Steventon neighborhood was on alert because of a highwayman in the area, and another about spring flooding that encroached into the Austen's home enough that they had to spend several days abovestairs. It confirmed that Jane's and Cassandra's bedroom in Steventon was blue, based on sales records related to refurbishing the room.

But my favorite bit of research may be the emails that I exchanged with people who had done research or had access to certain of Jane's items. Such as Austen's spectacles, over which I engaged in correspondence with a lovely curator at the British Museum. Turns out nobody had thought to ask (before I did) what sort of prescription was in those eyeglasses. It also turns out that the question cannot be answered without a really expensive investigation, due to insurance issues and such, which the museum can't afford to spring for at the present time. So I couldn't write a poem about her spectacles, and whether they were only reading glasses or were needed all the time due to nearsightedness. I suspect the former, and so do most biographers, who have asserted that they are her reading glasses, but there's no documentation to prove it, so I've left that poem unwritten. And yes, I see the irony here – that my favorite bit of research is one for which I came up empty. But research is sometimes about the journey, and not the destination. And sometimes that journey turns up things you never realized might be possible – like highwaymen. Or floods.

Monday, April 11, 2011

What's hot, what's not, and what day is it?

When I first started up my online presence, the Place to Be was Myspace. Authors, especially, swore by it. But suddenly, Myspace participation plummeted. Practically overnight, everyone seemed to migrate to Facebook and Twitter.

I really wonder what made Myspace so hot for a while, and then not. I don't think the service changed much during that time--if anything, it probably improved somewhat, as services tend to do over time. Instead, the mass migration onto it and then off again looked to me a lot like other fads--like Rubik's cube, or the Dutch tulip mania of the 1600s. It happens in clothing all the time: everyone's wearing pants with skinny legs. No, flared legs. No, cropped legs. No, skinny legs again ...

Sometimes I hear rumblings about Tumblr and wonder if that is going to be the Next Big Thing online, but mostly I wonder why we even need a Next Big Thing. I wonder if we are going to be jumping endlessly from social network to social network, each time uploading all that information all over again, and rearranging our profiles and reassembling our network of friends/followers and scrolling through yet another new Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

I stick with blogging because I like it. It's versatile: I can post pictures, video, or polls; I can post text of any length. I'm on Twitter because I found it very easy to jump into, it doesn't take a lot of time, and it's a great way to keep track of breaking news. But The Next Big Thing doesn't interest me. The problem with that sort of sudden raging popularity is that it tends to be short-lived, and now the time from "hot" to "not" seems to be getting ever shorter.* I've even given up in the fashion department, where I now have clothes with and without shoulder pads, and pants with all kinds of legs, and I just wear whatever I want to wear. (So if you see me at an author appearance and wonder why I'm dressed that way--mystery solved!)

What does interest me is the signal that turns a given population toward an object or an activity, and then away from it. Who gives that signal, and how does it spread? Is it our love of novelty that keeps the trends coming ... and going? Who has the energy? Who is it that says, "Let's all buy hula hoops now," and who decides when it's time to roller-blade instead?

Somewhere, a grad student has a thesis on this, I'm sure.

*On March 24, The Onion had a satiric "article" on this: "Time Between Thing Being Amusing, Extremely Irritating Down to 4 Minutes." Excerpt: '"We predict that by 2018, the gap between liking something new and wishing yourself dead rather than hearing it again will be down to 60 seconds ...'"

Sunday, April 10, 2011

At times like this, the future looks a little brighter

As a writer and reader of young-adult literature, I get impatient when I hear the stereotype that high-school and college-age people are self-centered, impulsive, short-sighted, and believe they're immortal. As a teen, I was anything but impulsive, nor was I confident that I would live forever. I cared very much about the world's problems, the world's future. And I know there are many, many young people today who do also.

We do see this a little in today's YA literature, though I'd love to see more. The books of Carrie Jones and Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich contain YA characters who volunteer for others. I wrote a book in which one of the main characters worked for several different causes. Sadly, that book had some big flaws that rendered it unpublishable, but I wouldn't be surprised if that character shows up in one of my future books.

What got me thinking about this today was this article from SCA (the Student Conservation Association) about a young man who, while still a college student, began doing conservation work in Yosemite National Park. Appalled by the trash he found there, he formulated a "'crazy idea. I would walk across America and pick up trash. And, I would get other people, 20-something people, to volunteer and help. I wanted to start a big youth movement, really grassroots.'" That "crazy idea" became Pick Up America, where people have been banding together to clean up litter.

For years, SCA has been providing high-school and college-age people with hands-on conservation service opportunities. And all over the world, young people are giving to other causes they care about. For example, Trevor's Campaign for the Homeless came about because an 11-year-old boy was worried about people sleeping on the streets.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Moments of rest

"I always forget how important the empty days are, how important it may be sometimes not to expect to produce anything ... The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room, not try to be or do anything whatever."--May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

Actually, this hasn't been one of those "empty days" for me, writing-wise. I accomplished a fair amount and hope to do more before bedtime.

It was one of those days when the persistent rain made my house seem cozy rather than gloomy, made my daily walk seem refreshing rather than dismal.

It was one of those days where certain upheavals occurred in my personal life, and yet I was able to keep some emotional detachment.

But I like Sarton's reminder that time to breathe is always an option. And if I haven't had such a day, I've had "breather" moments within this day.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Not your average love story

This is one of those books that reminds me why I love reading. I fell for this book early on, and held my breath that it would keep delivering all the way to the end. It did.

Emily Horner's YA novel, A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend, is about a girl whose best friend dies suddenly. (I'll note here, just to acknowledge it and get it out of the way, one of the weird coincidences that writers find all the time: there's a girl in the book named Julia who dies in a car accident--elements it has in common with The Secret Year, but that's not why I liked this book). Anyway, the main character decides to bicycle from Chicago to California, the way she'd planned to do with her friend, but her trip doesn't go as intended. Meanwhile, her once-upon-a-time worst enemy is back in her life, and she's trying to find her place among a group of friends who were closer to her late friend than they were to her.

Also, there is a high-school musical called Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad.

Emily Horner handles this story so beautifully: the painful moments and the joyful ones, the scenes in which people hurt one another and the scenes in which they come through for one another. There's a subtlety and a depth in the prose. The dynamic between Cassie (the main character) and Oliver (Julia's boyfriend) is especially interesting, and it's a relationship I haven't seen much in books: two people bonded by love and grief for the same person, yet also rough-edged and competitive at times because of that very love and grief. I also liked that the enemy who becomes something else, Heather, doesn't do an unbelievable about-face into saccharine goodness. Finally, I liked that so many turns of the plot caught me by surprise, and deviated from the well-worn paths of storytelling. Horner uses a pattern that will be familiar to readers of Jennifer Bradbury's Shift: chapters alternating between the present and the near past. But as Bradbury did, she manages to keep both plotlines taut.

And did I mention there's a musical in it called Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad?

source of recommended read: borrowed author's ARC, but now I seriously want to buy my own copy

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Why publish?

Whenever I read May Sarton's journals, I always end up marking passages that strike a special chord with me, or spark a train of thought. With every reading, the books end up bristling with tiny bookmarks.

Today's quotable quote is this: "Sometimes I long to spend the rest of my life ... making things for people I love--and never to publish again." (from Journal of a Solitude)

This gets to the heart of why many of us write: to make a special connection, to share an idea or observation or experience. Writing for a small community can be very rewarding. Not all writers need to seek wider publication; they find that connection without going through a publisher or venturing into the marketplace.

I do seek wider publication, however. Because unlike May Sarton, I don't have many people in my daily life who are passionate about my kind of writing (in my case, YA contemporary, realistic literature). My husband prefers science fiction, and reads that almost exclusively. My family and most of my friends just have different interests. We do share many interests--politics, hiking, music--but there is this huge part of my life where I must look beyond my inner circle for that connection. In the past few years, I've gotten to know some writers well enough that I now count them as IRL friends. Yet there are dozens of writers and readers I've never met, but with whom I share a special connection through books.

However we find that connection, that's what it's about--for me, anyway.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Three nice things

1. The winner of my "Fool for Books" giveaway was Aydrea. Thanks to everyone who participated, because your comments increased my library donation!

2. I'm in the middle of a book that I LOVE, and it's so good that I'm a little bit scared the second half won't measure up. Please, book, don't let me down! If the rest of this book is as good as the beginning, I will definitely be blogging about it.

But this reminds me why I usually enjoy the second read of a book more than the first. During the first read, I'm too busy worrying about what's going to happen next. Will the writer fall into predictable cliches? Will she bump off my favorite character? Will she reward the insufferably smug character whom I hate? Will the character I love so far turn out to be an unpardonable jerk? Will I be right about who committed the murder and who is the main character's bio father and what Character B's guilty secret is?

It's exhausting, I tell you.

3. I went to a reading by David Sedaris last night. It always does my heart good to see the size of the venues this guy reads at--ticket-selling venues, no less--and the length of the lines to get books signed. This is a writer who draws concert-size crowds. Okay, he's not your average writer, what with the NY Times List and the appearances on NPR, but STILL. Here's a writer who doesn't pull big crowds because he was a celebrity first. He became a celebrity because of his writing. (And, to be frank, his delivery of that writing.)

I've seen him read three times now, and every time I'm struck by a few things. The first is that, no matter how grueling the tour, he always looks happy to be there, happy to see the audience. He doesn't act tired or put upon. He's a truly welcoming performer. That may be because he tries to have fun with the aspects of a tour that could otherwise be exhausting: for example, he asks people in the signing line if they've heard any good jokes.

Another thing that always strikes me is the fact that he recommends other people's books every time he reads. Last night it was Tobias Wolff's The Barracks Thief.

He also ends every reading with a Q&A, giving the audience a chance to speak.

The common thread here is that he comes to an event with the expectation of entertaining. While preserving a certain professionalism--he acknowledges that even when his essays are autobiographical, he is still a "character" in them rather than his literal, real-life self--he shows up ready to give.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Writers complain about distraction all the time. Now we tie it to the internet (there’s always email to open, tweets to send, social networks to check in on), but I suspect that writers who wrote before there was an internet will tell you about pets, neighbors, the TV, the phone, and bright ideas to suddenly reorganize the sock drawer. The fact is, there are always reasons—good reasons and bad—for us to look away from our manuscripts.

However, when I noticed my own process the other night, I realized that what we call “distraction” is not always a bad thing, and is not always something that fights with our writing. I noticed that after writing an especially powerful scene, or even sentence, I need a moment. A moment to look away, to digest what I’ve just written. A moment to figure out how I am going to follow that punch. And I don’t do that digestion or decision-making at the conscious level; something works in my brain while I am momentarily “distracted” by Twitter, or email, or an impulse to pick up scraps of paper off my floor, or a need to check my calendar to see exactly which day next week is my doctor’s appointment.

I suppose the distraction would be detrimental if it pulled me away from the desk altogether, but usually it’s just a moment, and then I’m back in the story, this time knowing what the next sentence needs to be. It makes me wonder if there’s some neurochemical process at work in my brain that requires those few seconds to operate.

I do have periods of extended concentration where I’m not distracted at all, and I don’t recommend trying to multi-task while writing. But I have noticed this certain brand of “distraction” that actually serves more as a pause, a breath. Sometimes I don’t do anything during those pauses but stare at the wall, but other times I take a momentary break and come right back.

Library challenge update

At my original deadline, 3 PM EDT on April 2, this was the status:

I pledged $1.00 per comment on my LiveJournal and Blogspot blogs, and 50 cents per new Twitter follower, to be divided equally between the Cheltenham and Philadelphia libraries.

LiveJournal: 52 comments = $52.00
Blogspot: 23 comments (25 - 1 comment by me - 1 duplicate) = $23.00
Twitter: 2299 followers - 2270 original followers = 29 new followers = $14.50

I also applied the $1.00 per comment pledge to my participation in the Fool for Books giveaway hop, which continued through midnight on Saturday.  That post had 135 giveaway-eligible entries, plus another comment that came in after midnight but which I'm still counting toward the libraries. That gives us another $136.

That's $225.50. I capped my original donation at $100, but I'm inclined to make every comment count, so I'm rounding up to $250, thus giving $125 to Cheltenham and $125 to Philadelphia. I will report out on my co-challengers' results when their challenges have closed.

Meanwhile, many of the other challenges continue, so if you love libraries, please click through to these blogs and comment there!

Sarah Mullen Gilbert (The Writing Cave)
Janet Fox (Through the Wardrobe) (doubling her donation; runs through April 4!)
Margo Rowder (Margoblog)  (runs through April 5!)
Angela De Groot
Amy Brecount White
Kimberly Sabatini (Jess Free Falcon)
Jessica Leader
Colleen Rowan Kosinski (runs through April 14!)
Jessica Shea Spotswood
Marine Corps Nomad
Kimberlee Conway Ireton  (runs through April 7!)
C. Lee McKenzie (The Write Game)

And THANK YOU!!--especially to those of you who tweeted or blogged about this challenge, who clicked around commenting on all the blogs, and who donated to your own libraries. For the sake of my own sanity and time-management, during these blog challenges I suspend my usual practice of responding to every comment. But I still read every comment, and I appreciate every one. (And so will the libraries!)

I hope to be back later today with our regularly-scheduled programming: a writing- or book-related post.