Thursday, June 30, 2011

Required reading

I'm a big fan of reader choice. I think that one of the best ways to get kids enthusiastic about books is to let them choose their own reading material (allowing for some parental guidance of young children). I read tons of books when I was growing up, mostly books I selected myself. The only time reading was a chore was when I had to read what I didn't want to: textbooks, mostly. I loved some of the assigned novels we read in school (Catch-22, The Sound and the Fury) and despised others (All Quiet on the Western Front, Babbitt). I barely made it through A Tale of Two Cities when I was required to read it.

Seeing how reading could flip from delight to chore when I, a book addict, was forced to read something, I can only imagine how hard it is to promote literacy in children who have nothing but long lists of required reading. Who are dosed with books as if they're medicine. Whose only exposure to books is compulsory. And so I hope there's always room for reader choice--if we hope to have a literate society, that is.

Yet, I do see the value of occasionally having to read something you wouldn't have chosen for yourself, of slogging through a difficult text. I still challenge myself now sometimes, perhaps as a leftover lesson from the days of required reading. I reread All Quiet on the Western Front, Babbitt, and A Tale of Two Cities as an adult. I wanted to give them another chance--to see how my view of them might have changed (or not!).

The verdict:

I ended up enjoying Babbitt a lot, rereading it, and moving on to Sinclair Lewis's other books--a couple of which (Main Street and Fresh Air) have become real favorites.

I didn't like All Quiet on the Western Front much better the second time around. I'm not sure what it is--the hopelessness? The narrative distance? I conclude that it just isn't my cup of tea.

I had mixed feelings about A Tale of Two Cities. I still found it to be slower going and less fun than much of Dickens's other work. But it's worth reading because of Madame Defarge. I had completely forgotten the whole bit about the knitting, and when the meaning of her knitting was revealed, it knocked me sideways and upside down. If Dickens had been in the room then, I would've applauded him.

How we feel about books isn't just about the books, of course--it's about who we are. That's why people can disagree so much about a book, why one person can love it and another hate it. And since we change throughout our lives, our feelings about books can change over time, too.

Has required reading brought any gems into your life? Have you read a book that you really didn't want to read, but later were glad that you did?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Saying no

Writers who seek a readership wider than their own circle of family and friends usually go through the rejection mill, one way or another. In traditional publishing, the first hurdle is finding an agent and/or publisher, and the writer usually hears a lot of "no" before getting to "yes." During the long drought when yesses are scarce, the writer becomes conditioned to pursue every opportunity. During this stage, it's usually other people who say no; the writer doesn't get to say no to much.

Therefore, when offers and opportunities start coming, the writer says yes. And yes, and yes again. The writer's been seeking these very chances for so long that the word "no" may not even come up as an option.

But there really are choices.

Sometimes writers kick themselves for turning down an agent that they didn't quite click with, or an offer that didn't sit well, or a promotional opportunity that would conflict with family obligations / writing time / simple emotional needs. They are especially likely to second-guess themselves if the next opportunity is a long time in coming. It takes practice to learn to pronounce the word "no," and courage to use it. In every writer lurks that fear: What if I turn down something that turns out to have been the brass ring? What if this was my big break, and I missed it?

But we all have our limits. And I believe that saying no when we need to, and listening to the gut, ultimately won't lead us astray. In fact, it can help us avoid trouble.

I once heard Laurie Halse Anderson speak at a writers' conference about what she called "the power of no." She long ago became successful enough that she can't possibly say yes to every request for her time and attention, even if she wanted to. At the time I heard her give this speech, I was still in the opportunities-are-scarce-and-I-have-my-eyes-out-for-every-one stage, and I found it hard to believe I would ever need to use her advice. Yet I've seen writer after writer reach this point. It doesn't just happen to bestselling, household-name authors. There comes a point where it's impossible to say yes to everything. And even when only one opportunity is on the table, that still doesn't require the writer to say yes. If it doesn't feel right, it's okay to say no.

It's okay not to do everything, not to try everything. It's okay to leave some stones unturned. Nobody can do it all, so it's more important to do what's best for ourselves.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Spreading the virus of my inspiration

Nothing I can say today is as good as these gems I've culled from elsewhere, so here they are.

--First, if you're hungry for a thorough post on an aspect of writing craft, Natalie Whipple covers everything you need to know about repetition:

"Repetition is your novel's worst nightmare. Your readers', too. It's like water torture, that little drop plink, plink, plinking on your forehead over and over until you want to scream 'YES I KNOW HE LIKES HER EYES IF YOU TELL ME AGAIN I WILL HURT SOMETHING.'
There are so many ways to get rid of repetition ..."

--For your amusement, Jon Gibbs pretends that the Beatles song "Paperback Writer" is a real query letter, and writes a tongue-in-cheek reply:

"All I could glean from it was that you’ve written a somewhat smutty story about an ill-groomed, unkempt man whose wife won’t give him space and doesn’t appreciate him (or his ambitions, I couldn’t tell which). ... It’s too vague. Give me a reason to care. Give me a reason to ask for more."

If you check out this link, by all means scroll down through the comments to read the one by [info]asakiyume , who wrote an entire song-parody reply (to the tune of "Paperback Writer," natch): "I don't need the rights, you can have it back / I'm shipping it to you a burlap sack ..."

--And, as food for thought, this quote that could apply to book bloggers everywhere:

"The great irony of literature is that our inability to describe what happens to us when we read a book is compounded by our intense desire to do just that, to share the experience with another as soon as we've had it. Books are private experiences, but we never want to leave them private. ... we stumble after one another, inarticulate, hypnotized, hoping to spread the virus of our inspiration."--J.C. Hallman, "Lost and Found: review of The Journal of Albion Midnight," Tin House No. 41.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Love your genre

Pretty much every category in our literature has its detractors: Those who frown on literary fiction as being too obscure, or too depressing, or too open-ended. Readers who shun historical fiction, or romance, or science fiction, or true crime, or graphic novels, or poetry. Those who find YA fiction trivial (at one extreme) or corrupt (at the other).

And nobody has to like everything. I say: read what you want, although it doesn't hurt anyone to stretch a bit and try something new now and then. I believe that a person who has contempt for a genre ought not to take on a tone of expertise when writing publicly about it, but hey, I'm not suggesting that this be legislated. I love the First Amendment even when it gives me a noogie.

I do suggest that when a person writes in a certain genre, it's extremely helpful for the writer to love that genre and respect the audience. It's not essential. I know there are those who have written pieces solely for money, who hated every minute of the assignment. But for the most part, I think the books that receive the greatest love and attention are books that respect their audiences.

It's difficult to create suspension of disbelief if the author doesn't believe. It's hard for a reader to love characters that the author doesn't love. It's difficult to put the necessary sweat into sharpening prose and raising craft to the next level if one is secretly sure that the audience won't notice anyway. Writing takes energy and patience, the kind of energy and patience that are driven by a sort of love. (I suppose an artist could create a cult following out of expressing brazen contempt for an audience, but even then, there can be subtle flattery there, a coded message: I know that you, my cult following, are smart enough to get what I'm really doing here. You know why I'm spitting and cursing at you; you are the select few who GET it.)

Sometimes it takes a while for a writer to find a genre or form in which s/he feels at home. For anyone struggling with that, I would ask: What kind of writing do you love? It's the question that led me to YA myself.

It's much harder to fake it. And much less rewarding. So I'm not even being sentimental or artsy-fartsy when I say: Love your genre, love your audience. I'm being as hard-headed and practical as I can be, because we are only given a limited amount of time in this world.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Truth About Mary Rose

Recently, I posted about Laura's Luck by Marilyn Sachs, and it got me thinking about Sachs's books, which were some of my favorites growing up. I'm convinced that my reading habits influenced the purchasing decisions at the tiny public library I patronized back then. The librarians noticed that I checked out the Sachs books over and over (those were the days when they had to hand-write my library-card number on the check-out card, and stamp the due date on another card that fit into an envelope in the back of the book). They would tell me whenever a new Sachs book came in, and they said they recommended the books to other girls my age, based on my zeal.

Sachs wrote a series of books about linked characters: Amy Moves In; Amy and Laura, about the original Amy and her sister; Laura's Luck, about the two sisters at summer camp; Veronica Ganz, about a girl who had bullied Amy and Laura; Peter and Veronica, about Veronica and her friend Peter Wedemeyer; and Marv, about a friend of Peter's. All of these books took place in New York shortly before World War II. It would be interesting for writers to look at this chain of books, because it's not quite a series, but rather a set of stand-alone books whose enjoyment is enhanced if you recognize the overlapping characters from book to book. From an author's standpoint, it's a way of building an audience and using a consistent fictional world without doing a formal series.

The character Veronica Ganz had a sister, Mary Rose, whom I liked because she had built an imaginary world out of magazine pictures. It was much like the imaginary world that I, a budding writer, had constructed for myself. (Also, I liked the character's name). Mary Rose was only a minor character in those books, so I was thrilled to find Sachs's book The Truth About Mary Rose in the library one day, because it promised to give a whole book to Mary Rose. In fact, this is the cover that my library's version had:

But The Truth About Mary Rose is set a couple of decades after all the other books. Veronica Ganz is grown now, married with three children, one of whom is named Mary Rose after her sister. It turns out that the original Mary Rose perished in a fire while still a young girl.

The book revolves around the second Mary Rose's quest to find out as much as she can about the girl for whom she was named. She hunts for a mysterious box that belonged to the first Mary Rose--the only thing that survived the deadly fire. Thus, Sachs uses the mystery box device I blogged about recently. A device that works wonderfully, I might add. Along with the box, the second Mary Rose uncovers unexpected truths about the fire that killed her aunt, and she has to accept a certain amount of ambiguity about the events of that night.

For many reasons, this was my favorite of Sachs's books. It takes some familiar characters and shows them in a new light. It also differs from the previous books because it is told in first person, which helps eliminate the confusion of having two characters with the same name, and shortens the narrative distance. It covers family conflict in a humorous way. But mostly, it revolves around a mystery and a tragedy. It's about a passion to know the truth, and an acceptance that sometimes we can't know the full truth. It's about realizing that different people see us differently, that there is no one "true view" of ourselves in the eyes of other people. 

This book was first published in 1973, and it's interesting to see how short middle-grade books were back then--this book is only 159 pages. (In the pre-Harry-Potter era, MG books were about that long, and YA books were about 175 to 250 pages). Since it's also set around 1973, some of the references in it may puzzle today's readers--does anyone still know what a peignoir set is? But if you can find a used copy of this book floating around, it's worth checking out because it is, quite simply, an example of a darn good story: a story that has stuck in my head for years.

source of recommended read: first library, later bought

Friday, June 24, 2011

Taming the TBR pile

Today, I guest blogged at Author2Author on the topic of taming the mighty TBR pile. A sample:

"About a month ago, I faced the fact that my TBR (to-be-read) book pile, if unchecked, stood a good chance of taking over the house. (I assume the only reason it hasn’t already is that the prospect of ruling two middle-class adults and one self-important cat isn’t particularly compelling, as coups and takeovers go.) I couldn’t shake the thought that there’s a certain silliness to buying more books when I have dozens of perfectly good unread books at home. ..."

The thrilling conclusion, in which I reveal my Seekrit Plan to dent my TBR pile, is here. (In fact, I've even made a little more progress since I originally wrote the guest post!)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Let them get together now (One way of writing romance)

On the Eve's Fan Garden chat last night, the question arose of how to sustain that will-they-get-together-or-won't-they tension in a novel's romance. People mentioned different kinds of obstacles, but some of us (and I'm sorry to be so vague about attribution here, but it was a big chat and the words were flying by!) preferred to let the couple get together and then throw problems at them. As a reader, I sometimes get impatient when I can tell that a couple is going to get together, and it can be frustrating to see that delayed too long. (Especially if the obstacles are more nuisances than big, important differences.)

If the couple gets together before the book's end, different kinds of tension arise: Will they stay together? How intense will they let the relationship get? How will they handle any obstacles or differences, challenges or distractions? Will the relationship really turn out to be everything they hoped, or will there be surprises along the way? Couples can be challenged in many, many ways: Disapproving friends or parents. Competing demands on their time. Different interests. The reappearance of an old flame, or the entrance of an attractive new one. The decision of how far to go physically, and the consequences of that decision. The threat of separation (e.g., moving away, college). Different moral or ethical codes. The decision of whether to share painful secrets, and when.

Getting together isn't always the ending: it can be the middle, or even the beginning.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


This book was so much more than I expected:

Popular, by Alissa Grosso. It starts out as a contemporary novel with multiple narrators: high-school girls, all members of the most popular clique in their school. At first, it seems that this is a book about a power struggle between the clique members, a straightforward drama about friendship and ambition and back-stabbing.

As it turns out, it's anything but straightforward. Early on, there are hints of strangeness, of things that don't quite add up. The character Alex--boyfriend to the most popular girl--seems so inconsistent that it's hard to get a handle on who he truly is and what he truly wants. And, it turns out, there's a good reason for this. As the truth unfolds, this story turns out to be something else altogether. It's not really about a competition for popularity. It goes to a much deeper darker place, and the weird little pieces that at first didn't make sense fall into place.

The other day on Twitter, I asked people to recommend books that had done something original with character, plot, or form. I got good suggestions, such as Blythe Woolston's The Freak Observer. But now I could add this book to the list, with kudos to Alissa Grosso, because it's been a long time since a book surprised me this much.

source of recommended read: bought

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Messages in books

Quick note: I'll be chatting with other writers, and with readers who want to join in, about romance in YA at Eve's Fan Garden on Wednesday, June 22, at 8:30 PM Eastern (5:30 Pacific).

There's been a lot of discussion around the blogosphere about whether children's and YA books have, or should have, a message.

For me, this isn't a yes-or-no question. I would say that books don't have to have a message--for example, they could be pure entertainment--but I don't think it's out of the question either. And I'm not talking about being heavy-handed or didactic. I suppose that my idea of a "message" is what some people would just call a "point." I don't write any story just hoping that the reader will say, "Huh," and shrug and move on. I hope a reader says, "Yes!" or even, "No!" That he or she responds to some idea in the book, recognizes something that is true about the world. And maybe asks, "Should the world be this way?" But I think of the message as a natural outgrowth of the story.

I will also say that a writer is only responsible for this message up to a point, because something magical happens between reader and writer. Arguably, stories are jointly constructed between reader and writer. Writers often talk about letting go of their work, of losing ownership once it's out in the world (not in the legal sense, but in the spiritual or emotional sense). Readers don't always agree with one another about what the point of a book is; and they may find more or less of a message than the writer intended. They may find a message altogether different--or they may find nothing. Readers may say, "Huh," and shrug no matter what the author intended.

I believe this is one of the purposes of art: to highlight ideas. To show the world to one another in new and interesting ways--or in ways that simply allow us to recognize and share our common experiences. There isn't just one reason for writing a book, nor is there just one reason for reading it. And the complicated discussion about what art means to us is one of the joys of creating in the first place.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Artistic ambitions

Recently, I've re-watched two movies, both made in "mockumentary" style by Christopher Guest  et al.: For Your Consideration and Waiting for Guffman. These movies record the fictional misadventures of hopeful actors: in the former case, professional actors; in the latter case, amateurs. The aspirations and setbacks for both groups are strikingly similar, because artistic endeavors are fraught with certain unavoidable issues.

I say "artistic endeavors" because I think these issues are common not only to actors, but to musicians, and visual artists, and dancers, and writers. Anyone who creates something that is meant to be enjoyed by others has a built-in goal, and the possibility of not reaching that goal.

While the ambitions of some of the characters in these films are obviously--shall we say, beyond their reach--it's hard not to root for them, to find their stories touching underneath the laughter. Especially if you're a writer who has had those dreams, who has faced the rejection machine. I suspect there are very few writers who could not identify with the characters in For Your Consideration, whose heads are turned by Oscar buzz, by the tantalizing possibility of winning that golden honor. I suspect there are writers who fear ending up like Harry Shearer's character in the same movie, when he ends up taking just about any role and plugging just about anything because he needs the work. There must be writers who understand why Catherine O'Hara's character in that movie (winkingly named "Marilyn Hack") gets a face-lift that gives her a frozen expression, and packs herself into a dress so tight that it looks like she might burst out of it if she breathes the wrong way. There are writers who wonder if their dreams of bestsellerdom are as unlikely as the Broadway dreams of the community theater group in Waiting for Guffman.

One thing I like about these movies is that even those characters who fall on their faces don't dissolve in a puddle of despair and self-pity. The epilogues show them moving on, spending time on things they care about. Living a dream, even if it isn't the same dream they started out with.

My take-home lessons from these movies: Don't take that Oscar buzz too seriously. It's okay to laugh at yourself. And it's still okay to dream.

In fact, it's necessary.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Writing lessons from the cat

My cat likes to stretch himself out on the living-room floor in poses that suggest he's been flung there, perhaps from a great height. Other poses suggest that he's studying to be a contortionist. He has no self-consciousness about stretching himself into any position whatever.

If I could learn any lessons from him, they would be:

Be flexible.
Don't be afraid of looking silly.
Get comfortable.
If your antics entertain others, so much the better.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Taking notes on life

There's a scene in my work in progress where the characters are caught in a thunderstorm. I've been through plenty of storms, so I was drawing on memory for the sensory details. But one thing I had trouble remembering: how long do thunder and lightning last, once the rain starts? It seemed to me that most of the storms I've experienced started with thunder and lightning, but once the rain started, the electrical components quickly vanished. I was trying to get this right in my book.

Last night, a series of storms woke up my husband and me--more than once. At one point, the thunder and lightning were simultaneous and incredibly loud and bright, which means the storm was right the heck on top of us. "I hope all our trees are still standing," I said sleepily to my husband. (We have many trees on our property, but two of them are especially gigantic.)

Sleepy as I was, I was also doing something that will not surprise any writer who is reading this blog post: I was taking mental notes for my book. "Holy cow, it's been raining and raining and raining, and it's still thundering," I remarked. (To myself. Hubby would probably not have appreciated that little observation under the circumstances.) "If only this storm doesn't wreck our house or trees, how very useful it is for my current project."

I suppose there are very few experiences in my life where some part of my brain, no matter how small or deeply buried, isn't down there thinking about how to express it in writing.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Giveaway of realistic YA

This is just a quick notice to fans of contemporary realistic YA. Tara Kelly, author of Harmonic Feedback, is hosting a celebration of such books now, including a multi-book giveaway. Check it out!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Second person

I've been rereading Jane Rule's 1970 novel This Is Not For You, and I've realized it had a subtle effect on The Secret Year, which I didn't realize at the time. Rule's book is written in first and second person--that is, it's a first person narrator (Kate) writing to another character (Esther), whom she has loved for years. And yet, Kate doesn't expect or intend Esther ever to read these words. She addresses Esther, but she is really writing for herself (hence the title, This Is Not For You). It's a form of letter never sent.

This is exactly what my character Julia did in The Secret Year--she kept a diary of letters written to her secret boyfriend, and yet she never really meant for him to read them. She was having a one-sided mental dialogue, if that makes any sense. Julia's diary was also based loosely on diary-type letters-never-sent that I generated during some of the more painful relationships in my life.

I suppose this form of second person can seem gimmicky, but I actually love the way Rule pulls it off in This Is Not for You. She also sustains an interesting tension, because the whole book is about unrequited love--or love that is returned, but not exactly in kind. And despite this extended unfulfillment, the narrator doesn't indulge in sentimentality or angst, except for a brief flash here and there. Instead, she's perceptive, practical, and sometimes wickedly funny. The style is cerebral, subtle.

The use of second person also makes us see Esther differently than we would if she were a third-person character. The use of "you" filters every reference to Esther through the women's longstanding relationship. Kate is not telling us about her friend; she is talking to Esther and we are eavesdropping--which creates a whole different tone, a different level of intimacy.

Have you ever thought of using second person in any of your work?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Keeping up with the times. Or not.

One thing about being an adult writing children's or YA books is that you have to keep adjusting to obsolescence. References that we think of as current may be ancient history to our audience. I've been watching the disappearance of slips and pantyhose (good riddance to the latter!), land lines (still have mine, though--they're so reliable), and cursive handwriting, just to name a few. But sometimes discussions of obsolescence, especially in the general media, take on a sort of scornful tone implying that if you're still doing whatever the article claims is on the way out, you're living like a caveman. Just for fun, I thought I'd do a parody of that kind of article:

Are you still using these old-fashioned products? Experts say they will soon go the way of lickable postage stamps and rotary-dial phones. In fact, they'll probably disappear by the time you finish reading this article.
Exclusive to Trendy Online News Trends

As the world spins ever more quickly, people are finding that if they don't adjust, they will be left in the dust. Here are three items experts are classifying as "the new antiques:"

1. Pillows. Fed up with the need to wash pillowcases or buy frilly covers, most sensible people are now jettisoning the pillow altogether. "Besides, they harbor dust and germs," says Beulah Bingkettle, trend-setting consumer. "We just lie flat on the bed now. Sure, we wake up with horrible cricks in our necks, but that's the price of being up to date. My daughter saw a pillow on a bed at a friend's house, and she didn't even know what it was. I had to explain, and she couldn't see why people ever used them in the first place!"

2. Lights. Lamps and overhead lights are no more, rendering the recent kerfuffle over light-bulb efficiency altogether moot. "Let's face it," says Drew Dennison-Drew, a recent college graduate. "We now have so many lit-up screens, we don't need any other source of light. We can get around by the flicker of our computer, phone, and tablet screens, in addition to the display panels on our appliances. I don't know any fool who's still messing with switches and bulbs. Lights! How geriatric can you get?"

3. Teeth. "You'd have to brush them all the time, and they get cavities--what a pain!" says Simone Sleek, age 8. "Nobody I know has teeth anymore. Well, except my friend Melissa, but her parents are such dinosaurs, they still use paper checks! They even have this thing lying around their house called a 'newspaper,' which is like an internet news site but printed out onto a huge piece of paper with ink that stains your fingers. Her whole family's just plain crazy." Returning to the subject of teeth, Simone adds, "We get by on giant lattes and pudding. What else do you need? Chewing is just so Old Skool. Plus, it's kind of gross, mashing up food inside your mouth that way."

If this article hasn't made you feel old and panicky enough, Trendy Online News Trends will publish another one in approximately ten minutes that will inform you of even more ways in which you are falling further and further behind the times. You're welcome!

So ends this parody. And if any of these items really are on their way out, please don't tell me. I will cling to my land line and my pillow as long as possible.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Hubbard Power (or, "It Ain't Me, Babe")

My name is Jennifer Hubbard.

It never struck me as being all that common a name. I didn't hear of another person with the same name until I was in college, and then it  just seemed like a quirky coincidence. When I started publishing short stories, I used the name "Jennifer Hubbard" (except the first time I published a story in male first-person POV, when I used "J. R. Hubbard"). Then one day, my husband brought home this book:

That's from the Amazon page for The New Parrot Training Handbook, by Jennifer Hubbard, if you can't quite make out the author's name. No, it isn't me. I know nothing about parrots. (If you've been reading my blog all these years in the hopes that I will drop some crucial parrot-care secret: Sorry!) But from the time I saw that book, I made sure to publish under the name "Jennifer R. Hubbard."

(The Secret Year, by Jennifer R. Hubbard, is the ONLY book listed in this post which I have written!)

I was glad I'd used my middle initial when I discovered A Science on the Scales: The Rise of Canadian Atlantic Fisheries Biology, 1898-1939, by Jennifer M. Hubbard. And Through Silver Eyes, by Jennifer Leigh Hubbard. And this book: Sleep, Little Child, which lists a Jennifer Hubbard as the editor. I have no idea which Jennifer Hubbard she is--Parrot Jennifer? Fisheries Jennifer? Silver-eyes Jennifer? Or maybe--dare I say it--another Jennifer Hubbard altogether?

By this time, I was asking myself just how many Jennifer Hubbards were out there writing books, anyway? And should we have a convention? But at least, I told myself, I was the only one writing YA books, so we weren't likely to get confused. So imagine my surprise when I saw the pre-publication announcement for this book:

Paper Covers Rock, a contemporary realistic YA novel by Jenny Hubbard. She went with "Jenny," because obviously this "Jennifer" thing was getting out of hand.

Anyhoo, I have not yet read Paper Covers Rock, which debuts this week. But I plan to, because it sounds like it's right up my alley: a drowning, a web of lies, a critical choice. Contemporary realistic YA with male main characters. It already has starred reviews from PW, SLJ, and the Horn Book. And if you read it and like it, your fan mail for Paper Covers Rock should go to Jenny Hubbard.

But if you find all this confusing: to be on the safe side, just assume that anything written by a Jennifer Hubbard is a good read. ;-)

And that goes for Mandy Hubbard and Kirsten Hubbard, too.

Hubbards. Writing is obviously our DESTINY!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Literary pilgrimage (by accident)

When my husband and I were on a road trip in New York state recently, we passed a place labeled "Lake Tiorati." The word "Tiorati" rang a bell, and I strained to pull out the memory. "Camp Tiorati" came out--but where was it from? I even had the lines to a poem or a song about loving Camp Tiorati stuck in my brain.

Then I got it: Laura's Luck, by Marilyn Sachs, a book I first read as a child. The book takes place circa 1940, though it was written in the 1960s, and continued to be reprinted for decades. Its characters travel from New York City to a summer camp called "Camp Tiorati," located on a lake. I had never dreamed it might be a real place. I'd assumed that Sachs had made it up.

We drove past the lake, and I wondered if the island clearly visible in the middle of it could be the "haunted island" where Sachs's Laura and her friends camped in the book.

I tell you, I was book-geeking out all over the car. Fortunately, my husband has been married to a writer for a few years now, so my geekery did not alarm him unduly.

There are people who make literary pilgrimages--Jack Kerouac's fire lookout station is one destination that springs instantly to mind; the South Dakota town where Laura Ingalls Wilder lived is another--but there's nothing like having the setting from a book dropped unexpectedly in your lap. Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage, or wanted to?

Friday, June 10, 2011

One footstep at a time

It takes a long time to write a book.

I'm writing one now. I'm in the middle of it. I'm revising, and I have a list of things yet to do, a list that suggests I will be working on this same manuscript for weeks to come.

My second book (which is already finished) is still about seven months from release.

So here I am, in a desert-like stretch of time devoid of big publishing milestones. I'm plodding along. The book I'm working on has presented me with some short-lived snags, but I've found solutions and moved on. Day after day, I'm working. I'm making progress, but it's not splashy. I get a little farther along this road each day.

This is what being a novelist has been like for me. I've had some nice plums--publication, subrights sales, awards--but they don't shower in on a daily or even weekly basis. Mostly, I write (or edit) a few scenes. And the next day, I write or edit a few more. And the next day ...

This life is not for adrenaline junkies. At times like this, I would love to have big exciting news to keep me going.

Yet I look at the characters who are coming to life in my manuscript. I look at the battles they are fighting and the ways in which they sometimes face up so bravely to their challenges, and at other times stumble or flee, and in both cases I love them. Writing this novel may take a while, but at least I'm enjoying the company.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Adventures in e-publishing and self-publishing: an interview with Katie Klein

If you've toyed with the idea of self-publishing an e-book (and these days, I know very few authors who haven't thought about it), you may be interested in today's interview with a writer who has done just that. Katie Klein, who also has experience in the world of traditional publishing, spoke frankly with me about her reasons, her methods, and her results.

Q: I understand you've self-published some YA novels for Nook and Kindle. How many books, and what are their titles? Could you provide a one-sentence synopsis of each?

I have two e-books out right now. The first is CROSS MY HEART, a YA contemporary romance. In one sentence: Good girl falls in love with mysterious boy who turns her world upside down.

The second is a YA paranormal romance, THE GUARDIAN. This is the first in a series. In one sentence: Good girl falls in love with mysterious boy who turns her world upside down. (laughs) Do you sense a pattern here? Actually, THE GUARDIAN is the story of a girl who falls in love with her Guardian Angel and lands herself in the middle of an epic battle between good and evil.

Q: Why did you decide to go with electronic self-publishing? What were your goals going in?

Quite honestly, my goal going in was to sell a book. That's why I released THE GUARDIAN first. I didn't believe the stories where "no name" authors found an audience for their novels. So, I slapped a "no name" on the cover (yes, Katie Klein is a pen name), sat back, and waited.

I originally decided to e-pub because I felt I was out of options. The market was extremely volatile, I was on an agent hunt, and no one seemed to be responsive. By the time I decided to upload CROSS MY HEART, I'd accrued 75 agent rejections (some never responded, some rejected the query, some the partial, and three rejected it after reading the final version in its entirety). It was never the writing, or the story. It was always the "market." More specifically, they weren't sure it would "stand out" enough.

I loved Parker and Jaden, though, and I believed in their story. I felt if I loved these two people (who aren't even real!) this much, then someone out there was bound to feel the same way.

Q: What has the response been--in terms of sales, sales rankings, reviews, and fan mail?

(laughs) Well, I was right about people loving Parker and Jaden, because the response has been overwhelming. It's getting mostly four and five-star reviews/ratings, and the fan mail I've gotten usually begs me for a sequel. I released CROSS MY HEART on March 14, and sold 161 copies in 17 days. In April, 977 copies were sold. In May: 2,523. I'm on a few bestselling subcategory lists (Teens, Love and Romance), and I've spent the last 40 days (as of this writing) in the Amazon Teen Top 100 (both print and e-books).

It happened so fast. It's all kind of surreal.

Q: How did you approach editing, book design, and cover selection?

I did everything myself. This is, quite literally, a one-woman show. I don't recommend this approach, though. I'm just enough of a control freak enjoy the HUGE undertaking it is to edit, design, and format my own work. I have two degrees in English and graphic design experience. I've taught at the college level, so I'm pretty good at finding typos/errors in my own writing. It's not something I recommend, though. In this case, it's best to "do as I say and not as I do." If you have any doubts, hire an editor and cover designer. There are some great ones out there, and it's not as expensive as you might think.

The photograph used for CROSS MY HEART I found in the stock photo section on Deviant Art. I emailed the artist (Gemma Hart) and asked for permission to use it as my cover. She was so sweet.

Everything else I tackled on my own.

Q: How did you set your books' prices?

I priced my stories based on instinct. Unlike a deal with a traditional publisher, most of the royalties go to me. I can afford to set my prices lower. That said, I'm not a huge fan of the $0.99 price point. That's not to say that I'll never price my books this low, but I was more interested in building a reasonable audience than driving sales. I feel that a lot of books priced $2.99 and lower become "impulse buys" and never get read or are read by those not interested in the genre.

My plan was to focus on teens and readers of young adult novels. THE GUARDIAN is just over 50k words, so it's priced at $2.99. CROSS MY HEART is over 70k, so I priced it at $3.99. Both are steals when compared to the prices that traditional publishers are setting, but I see more profit.

Q: What kind of marketing have you done?

CROSS MY HEART is one of those books that (I think) took off by word of mouth (that's the most logical explanation). People were reading it and rating it on Goodreads and telling their friends. The more books I sold, the more Amazon "Customers Also Bought" lists I appeared on. The more attention I got, the higher on those lists I appeared. Sales just continued to roll in.

I was active on KindleBoards and blogged a few times a week, but I didn't even have a website or Twitter account until April/May. I did a few interviews here and there, but it was the reader buzz that had the most profound effect.

Q: I understand that you network with other independent authors. Do you have a support group of any kind?

I hang out on the KindleBoards when I can. The Writer's Café is an awesome place for indie authors. It's the first place I go when I have a question or if I want the latest "news." Otherwise, I have an awesome group of writer friends, and they're the ones I turn to when I'm dealing with general writer angst.

Q: Is there anything you wish you'd known before, or that you would have done differently?

I don't feel like I rushed into anything. I stayed on the sidelines for a few months before I jumped on board. I lurked around the KindleBoards and followed J. A. Konrath's blog posts. I was really interested in how others were faring (what was working and what wasn't). I think I released the books at the right time.

I also kept very realistic expectations. I was thrilled when, in January, I sold one copy of THE GUARDIAN a day. CROSS MY HEART took off faster than I ever could have predicted. I've heard it takes about 4-6 months for an indie writer to find an audience (this is when sales pick up), and my expectations out of the gate were very low.

Q: What advice do you have for novelists who are considering this publication route?

Make sure you do your research. J. A. Konrath's blog is an excellent resource (also Robin Sullivan's Write to Publish blog, and Katie Salidas's blog), and indie authors are always trading information on the KindleBoards. Try to keep realistic expectations. Don't upload your story before it's ready. Enlist the help of beta readers, hire an editor, etc. There's this attitude pervading the writing/reading community that self-published authors don't put out a good product. The reason there's a stigma is because it's partially true. I've seen so many reviews where readers found plot holes, or the story wasn't sufficiently developed, or there were sentence structure errors and typos. If you're going to e-pub, treat it like a business, and make sure you're selling the best product possible.

Q: Where do you see your career in five years--or do you think things are changing too quickly for anyone to be able to predict this?

I have no idea. It really is changing rapidly. I've had a traditional deal and agent before. I'm not turning my back on New York publishing, so I would entertain the idea of another traditional deal in the future (both the foreign and print rights to my e-books are still available). It's not something I'm going to actively pursue right now, though. At this point, I'm going to finish THE GUARDIAN series (which will be three books total), because I made promises to readers in the first novel that I need to keep. I also have another YA contemporary romance I would consider revising and uploading as well.

Sales fluctuate from day to day, and I can't predict the path this "e-revolution" will take. I have no idea how long this will last, so I'm just trying to enjoy the moment.


Katie Klein is a diehard romantic with a penchant for protagonists who kick butt. She wrote a YA novel no one wanted, then watched it hit the Amazon Teen Top 100. She blogs at KatieKleinWrites.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Rebel with a keyboard

Some days, one jettisons everything one has been told about writing and listens instead to a crazy, babbling, insistent voice somewhere in the brain. That voice says: No, THIS is the way this story needs to go.

Sometimes it works.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Monsters, and Story Structure

I've always said that I write contemporary realism, and I write in traditional forms, and here I have to provide a bit of a caveat. That is true of my novels, and for a long time it was also true of my short stories--until the past few years. After having written hundreds of short pieces, I started to stretch the boundaries a little. By no means do I feel that I've exhausted the possibilities of realism or traditional narrative forms, but it was fun to try something new. I started modestly: I wrote stories in the form of letters; I wrote in the second person; I wrote in verse; I wrote a story in the form of entries in an imaginary anthropologist's notebook; I wrote very short stories that required the reader to supply some of the details. 

One of those less realistic, more experimental stories has found a home. I'm honored to have it appear on the Hunger Mountain site right now. It's called "Monsters," and it actually started its life with a structure I borrowed from poetry. I was trying to write pantoums (which I will not inflict upon you), which are a form of poetry in which certain lines repeat in a prescribed pattern. That gave me the idea to try a short story with repeating sentences. Here's the first pattern I used:

1st paragraph.  Sentence A, Sentence B, followed by more sentences
2nd paragraph. Sentence B, Sentence C, followed by more sentences
3rd paragraph. Sentence C, Sentence D, ...

... and so on, until the last paragraph's second sentence was Sentence A again. Then I tried this pattern:

1st three paragraphs all begin with Sentence A.
2nd three paragraphs all begin with Sentence B.
Next three paragraphs all begin with Sentence C.
Final three paragraphs all begin with Sentence D.

Even though the sets of three paragraphs all used the same introductory sentence, each paragraph took that sentence someplace different. Often the second paragraph in the set would contradict what was said in the first paragraph. Using this form, I got the bulk of the material that appears in the final version of "Monsters."

But for the final version, I realized the repeating sentences no longer served their purpose--in fact, they had begun to confine the story. And so each of them now appears only once (and one got axed completely), and I no longer needed to keep the number of paragraphs so rigid. I edited for flow and sense.

And the only reason I'm going into so much detail about this process is in case you want to try playing with form or borrowing from poetry yourself, and maybe this will give you some ideas. For anyone who's curious, the sentences that originally repeated in "Monsters" were:
I was born a monster.
I put an ad on the internet, looking for other monsters.
I lived as a monster.
There are other monsters.

If you wonder what kind of monster I'm talking about in this story: that is one of the things I would love readers to think about. I can think of many possibilities, and I wanted to leave those multiple interpretations open.

Also appearing in the June 3 issue, on the theme of "The Varying Shades of Shadows:" Janet Gurtler's discussion of sisterhood in "Embracing Shadows;" Joe Lunievicz's essay "In the Half-Light," about the various resources he drew upon for his novel Open Wounds (also excerpted at the site), and an interview with Elena Mechlin and Joan Slattery about the latest at their literary agency, Pippin Properties. I hope you'll check it out!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Here we go again

Rather than comment at length on the latest internet kerfuffle (I've already done so, briefly, on Twitter), I'll just point you to people who are more articulate than I about the latest assertions that YA literature is destroying our young people:

Philip Nel's "Why Meghan Can't Read"

Laurie Halse Anderson's "Stuck Between Rage and Compassion"

On Twitter, people are using the hashtag #YAsaves to discuss the positive influence that YA literature has had on their lives. Because I'm a writer of YA--a writer of the dark realism that is the very sort of YA book deplored by the author of the Wall Street Journal piece that started this latest internet firestorm--one could view me as biased on the topic. So I'll let the young readers of YA speak for themselves. I encourage you to follow that hashtag for just a little while to see what's being said.

My only comment on the WSJ piece at this time will be on this paragraph by Meghan Cox Gurdon: "In the book trade, this is known as 'banning.' In the parenting trade, however, we call this 'judgment' or 'taste.' It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person's life between more and less desirable options. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks 'censorship!'"

Since Ms. Gurdon apparently cannot tell the difference between parenting and publishing, between judgment and censorship, I am happy to define them. Judgment involves deciding what you can't, or don't want to, read. Parenting involves deciding what your own kid can't read. Censorship involves deciding what everyone else can't read.

You're welcome.

I'm smoothing down my petticoats now.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Wisdom from around the internet

Today I have three links for you:

Kate Messner's poem about how the book in our heads is usually so much better than the book we write;

What April Henry says she learned from knowing (and losing) L.K. Madigan and Bridget Zinn;

Natalie Whipple's detailed post on what it's like when your book goes on submission to editors. (There's a lot of waiting. But you knew that already. Natalie covers all the stuff you might not know--or the stuff you know and will be relieved to recognize.)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Telling secrets

I guest blogged for the marvelous Eve's Fan Garden about secrets. In this case, it's about the "secret" relationship between reader and writer. The post is paired with a giveaway. I've been sponsoring regular giveaways since The Secret Year's paperback launch, but this is the last one I've scheduled, so it rates a mention here.

An excerpt from the post:

"... And often, what a book says to a reader is: Come closer; I wish to tell you a secret. From a young age, when we first learn to read silently, we experience reading as an incredibly intimate experience, one mind connecting with another."

For me, that was a big source of reading's power. I don't get quite that same level of intimacy from any other art form, maybe because I'm a word person myself. How about you?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Second-book survival

This is the latest in my series of guest posts on writing second books. Today's post is by Leah Cypess, author of Mistwood and Nightspell, and when I first read it, I said "Wow." It's a great reminder that as difficult as things can get backstage, ultimately you can still produce brilliant art. See for yourself:

“Every time I look at my revision letter, my stomach literally hurts.”
 “I think I'll ask them if I can just write a different book instead.”
 “Are all second books this hard?”
These are a few excerpts from emails I wrote while working on my second book, Nightspell. The last was to my editor, and her response was a simple, “Second books *are* hard.”
I’d heard that before, but I thought I would be different. When I sold my first book, Mistwood, my second book had already been written. It was only a first draft, true; even so, I should have been way ahead of the game. I assumed I would skip the deadline-driven second-book panic entirely.
Apparently not. Because even without deadlines, there’s another problem with second books: many writers find themselves writing them in the middle of a crisis of confidence.
This is no coincidence. I think there are probably two main causes:
[1] As an already-published novelist, you’re probably reading the reviews of your first book while you write the second (although I do hear rumors of authors with iron willpower who avoid reviews entirely). The rave reviews make you fear that your second book can’t possibly be as good as your first. The scathing ones make you fear that you don’t know how to write at all.
[2] By now you know a little bit more about publishing, and about how many opportunities this book will have to get rejected: by editors, by marketing, by the chain stores, by the industry reviewers, by book bloggers, by casual shoppers. When you wrote your first book, you were your main audience. Now you have a dozen shadowy readers hovering at your shoulders.
So did I overcome these problems? I’ll be honest: I’m not sure I did. I reminded myself, frequently, how lucky I was to be publishing even one book, let alone two. And then I just kept writing, kept revising, kept working until the book was done. If anyone has a better way, I would love to hear it.
The only useful advice I have is to make friends with other writers, especially those who are going through the same thing. Commiserate. Write a few self-pitying emails (see above). Hear that they’re going through the same thing. Maybe they’ll have better advice than I do. And even if not, at least you’ll know you’re not the only one struggling with Second Book Blues.
Leah Cypess used to be a practicing attorney in New York and is now a full-time writer in Boston. She much prefers her current situation. Her first book, Mistwood, is a young adult fantasy about an ancient shapeshifter trapped in the form of a human girl. Her second book, Nightspell, a stand-alone companion novel to Mistwood, will be released in June 2011.