Saturday, December 29, 2012

Peaceful days

I love these days between Christmas and New Year's. The decorations are still up. Most of us have some days off. We're spending more time resting, more time socializing. There is a lot of looking back: on past holidays, on the year behind us. There are plans and dreams for a new year.

Today, a thin blanket of snow fell on us to enhance that contemplative, holiday feeling.

Happy dreaming.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The turn of the year

It's my turn to post at YA Outside the Lines. Today's topic is taking stock, here at the end of one year and the beginning of another. A sample: "For the past few years, I’ve made the same New Year’s resolution: To do less. To hurry less and worry less, to stop rushing and overcrowding my schedule."

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The next generation

Here's a scene from my recent holiday that warmed my book-loving little heart:

The place: A family living room. Two young people, ages almost-14 and 9, sit on the floor surrounded by discarded wrapping paper. Reading books.

(The authors holding them so entranced were Lauren Myracle and Jeff Kinney.)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Holiday hopes

I did not expect to spend so much time away from my blog, but various germs and side effects conspired against me. But this was really not a bad week for me to be reflecting, healing, and resting.

In the holiday spirit, I encourage you to leave a comment over on the Heifer challenge page of Nathan Bransford's blog by December 24, because each commenter will increase his donation to Heifer International. And then click over to the other participating blogs (linked within his post) and leave comments there as well. In just about a minute, you can make four bloggers donate more than $8! You can also join the challenge yourself via Nathan's blog.

This post by ProfessorNana reminded me that although I loved to read and did so constantly while growing up, I enjoyed the reading that I did for school much less. As she talks about the trend in schools: "For them, reading is taking something apart and then spitting it back on a test." Also, "I once saw a 42 page activity guide to MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS and recoiled in horror." (My copy of the source text itself, MAKE WAY ..., has only 33 pages of text.) I do understand and appreciate the things I learned about outlining, story and essay structure, theme, symbolism, etc., in my English classes. Without school, I'm not sure how long it would have taken me to realize that not every story is meant to be taken only at its most surface, literal level!

But I agree that not every book has to be an assignment. I connected with books emotionally before I connected with them intellectually. And sometimes you just want to have fun. One of the blessings of our adult lives is that we can read what we choose without having to justify it to someone else or take a quiz on it.

And I have to say again how exciting I find the rise of teen book bloggers and sites like Goodreads and Shelfari, or at least this aspect of these sites: they are places where young readers are thinking and writing about what they're reading. They're choosing books, looking forward to them, recommending them. Many of them discuss not only what they did or didn't like, but why. Many of them read widely enough that they can start to spot patterns, including trends and cliches, on their own. While not all readers engage in online discussion, I find the fact that such communities exist to be very heartening indeed.

Happy reading.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Four thoughts

When I was growing up, there was a song I heard on the radio called, "What the World Needs Now is Love," written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach. The line that always sticks in my head, after the title line of course, is this one: "It's the only thing that there's just too little of."

This weekend, I finished reading A. S. King's book Ask the Passengers. The main character, Astrid, practices loving her fellow human beings, including strangers. "I send a steady, visible stream of it--love--from me to them ... It's a game I play. It's a good game because I can't lose. ... This isn't reciprocal. It's an outpouring."

Why she does this, and what comes of it, and what else is going on in her life, fills out the story of Astrid Jones. But that is where it begins, with a girl sending her love to the world.

"Then suddenly the dull light in the [subway] car began to shine with exceptional lucidity until everything around me was glowing ... and I saw in the row of motley passengers opposite the miraculous connection of all living beings. Not felt; saw. What began as a desultory thought grew to a vision, large and unifying, in which all the people in the car hurtling downtown together, including myself, like all the people on the planet ... formed one united family, indissolubly connected ... The vision filled me with overwhelming love for the entire human race ... "
--Alix Kates Shulman, Drinking the Rain

"Maybe this was what Ecclesiastes meant about casting your bread upon the water; it's so little, usually only crumbs, but how nourishing the casting is."
--Anne Lamott, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The struggle

Stephanie Kuehnert posted at YA Outside the Lines about the ways in which we can get ourselves all twisted up in the search for the right story, the right routine, the right rules. I especially like these points she made:

"Writing is ... a part of the fabric of your being."

"My mentality that I have to work on one project at a time and stick with it til the end (or til interrupted by an obligation) is just one of the many rules that I've made for myself that I had to realize was exactly that--a made-up rule, not a statement of fact."

" ... crises of faith like the one I'm dealing with don't just disappear overnight. There is no magic fix, not even selling a book. Each day I have to find a way to gather up enough strength and faith in myself to continue."

Writing can be very tough, mentally and emotionally. I've often said that I'm grateful it took me so long to sell my first book. If I'd published a novel when I first tried, back around the age of twenty, I would not have been able to handle this roller-coaster ride. I was not emotionally equipped to deal with such unpredictable highs and lows, to separate my well-being from my books' success or failure. Even now, it's not always easy ... but back then, I just didn't have my feet under me yet. (Please note that I'm not saying twenty-year-olds in general can't handle writing success--there are even teens who handle it beautifully--just that I, personally, could not.)

Whether you're celebrating or struggling today, I wish you well!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Best of

It's the time of year when "Best of" lists start making their appearance. Sometimes I think it's really impossible to compare books this way. How could I decide if a book that makes me cry is "better" than one that makes me laugh? In judging a book, how do I balance cleverness of plot, importance of theme, believability of character, flow of dialogue, aptness of word choice, and strength of voice? Which elements "count" more?

Choosing a "best" book is like trying to decide whether mint chocolate chip is a better ice-cream flavor than coconut fudge. The answer is, it depends on my mood, and I'd hate to live without either of them.

On the other hand, I must admit there are books I not only enjoy but admire, books that tell a compelling story with elegance, wit, and originality. Those books end up on my personal "best of" lists, and often on other people's lists as well.

As usual, I haven't yet read the most-buzzed-about books of this year (The Fault in Our Stars, Code Name Verity). I haven't even read many books published this year--instead rereading old favorites, catching up on books published in previous years (like The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Mary McCarthy's The Group), and even catching a sneak peek of next year's books (snagging an ARC of Nova Ren Suma's 17 & Gone). I read widely and randomly, following my mood of the moment. But I do tend to get to the Morris winners sooner or later (I even read Flash Burnout and The Freak Observer before they won!). And the Printz list has hooked me up with some books that I hadn't heard about before (The White Darkness, American Born Chinese).  I've now read 6 of the 12 Printz winners and 8 of the honor books, and I have a vague plan to maybe read all of them sometime.

That, I think, is the best thing that "best of" lists can accomplish: to shine a spotlight on worthy books that many readers may not have heard of--or to get them to pick up books they may have heard of but haven't yet tried. Maybe we shouldn't call them "best of" lists, but "worth reading" lists? I don't know. I'll get back to you after I finish this book I'm reading ...

Sunday, December 9, 2012


Laurel Garver posted a great piece on "the perfection myth," complete with references to NaNoWriMo and Anne Lamott. A sample: "The myth of perfectionism says I'm not safe if I'm not doing everything 'just right,' therefore, I must cover over all my inadequacies to stay safe." I highly recommend it for anyone who struggles with perfectionism.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Social media wish list

On my rambles through the social networks, I've developed the following wish list. I call it a wish list rather than a list of do's and don't's because I'm no guru, and ultimately, people can run their social media presences any way they want. On this list, I've stayed away from more general suggestions that have already been posted many other places around the internet (such as: Don't spam people; don't use social media to bombard people with hard-sell tactics; etc.) I've stuck to things that have become preferences after years of blog-reading, Twitter-following, and Google+-dabbling.

Remember that not everyone is on Facebook. Many people use Facebook as their primary, or only, way to relate to the online world. That's understandable, because Facebook is so prevalent. But even though it's prevalent, it's not all-inclusive. There are still people who have never joined Facebook, or who have left it. So if Facebook is your main or only online home, make sure that the information you want public is public. More than once, I have clicked on a link to see some promised information about an author appearance, a book, or some exciting news in a person's life, only to be confronted by a Facebook login page. Sometimes I'm allowed to see the page without logging in; many times, I'm not. At which point, I click away. I suppose this tip could be generalized to say that any information you're trying to get out to the whole world shouldn't be posted only on a closed network.

Remember that not everyone is everywhere. If you announce something exciting on Tumblr, the people who are following you on your blog and Pinterest won't realize it. If you post something on Twitter, even the people who are following you there may not see it because the Twitter stream moves so fast. If something big happens, like you have a baby or sell a book or get selected for a Mars mission, you may want to announce it multiple places or include links to the big announcement on all your media. Yes, there will be some redundancy if your social media audiences overlap, but  this is for big news only.

We all hate trolls and spammers, but if at all possible, turn off your word verifications. The "word tests" have become extremely difficult to read, with photos of numbers hidden in shadows, and strings of letters distorted beyond recognition. Many's the time I have been able to identify the number and almost all of the letters, but ... is that a w or two v's smushed together? I click for another combo, only to find the number box is a blob of darkness. Click again, and the letters are overlapping to the point of illegibility. At this point, I start to question how important it is to me to leave this comment ...

There's no need to blog about vows to be a better blogger. Especially after a hiatus or slowdown, people often post grand plans for schedules or topics that they can't keep to, which only leads to their feeling worse, avoiding their blogs more, and posting more apologies. Nobody is acting as the blog police, forcing you to blog on a certain schedule or on certain topics. You're not accountable to your readers in that way (except if you open a contest, you should select the winner(s) and award the prize). Blogging is supposed to be fun, not another guilt-ridden chore. If you want to try out some new features, go ahead, but they don't have to be set in stone.

If you switch platforms, provide your "old" readers a way to follow you. If you can mirror your blog posts, or set up an RSS feed, that will help you stay in touch with the people who've stuck with you on one platform. Plenty of my LiveJournal friends have done this, and it's nice to know I can still find them!

Any items you would add to the wishlist?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

It's not time to solve the mystery yet

When my husband and I watch medical mystery or detective shows, we quickly pick up on the timing of certain formulaic elements. Usually, the character who is the chief suspect on the detective show 20 minutes in is not the real criminal. The initial diagnosis on the medical show invariably turns out to be wrong, and the patient takes a dramatic turn for the worse about halfway through the episode.

I've noticed that e-reading bothers me in formats where I have no clue how far in I am. Without even realizing it, I have learned to apply certain expectations to the pacing of a story, depending on how many pages there are left to go. I read widely, and my books aren't quite as predictable as some TV series, but it's a general rule that a book's most shattering revelation will not occur 20% of the way through the book. If something big happens at that point, then I know something even bigger must happen later on. And if I'm reading in a format where I don't know how far along I am, I'm not sure whether to invest all my emotional energy in that scene and then relax, or whether I can expect a build to an even bigger discovery.

It's interesting how I've absorbed this sense of pacing without consciously trying. I think that many of the techniques we use as writers are like that: we don't spell them out or even realize we know them.

One more note about the YA for NJ benefit auction: there are still a couple of days left. Arrange the items by price and take a look at how many books are available for less than $20! Such as work by Alissa Grosso, Jordan Sonnenblick, Sarah Mlynowski, Josh Berk, Jon Skovron, Natalie Standiford, Ellen Wittlinger, Jennifer Jabaley, Natasha Friend, Alyssa Sheinmel, Cecil Castellucci, PG Kain, KM Walton, Micol Ostow, Natalie Zaman & Charlotte Bennardo, Laurie Faria Stolarz, Alexa Young, Kimberley Griffiths Little, Michael Northrop, Kate Messner, David Lubar, Megan Kelley Hall, Swati Avasthi, Eric Luper, and yours truly, just to name a few.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The holiday season

I fail to see why the radio stations are so enamored of the song, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." The song is only cute from an adult's perspective; from its own narrator's perspective, the child who sings it has no way out of a traumatic discovery. Either way it goes, he's finding out something about his parents that he'd rather not know.

Or maybe I'm over-thinking it.

That is pretty much my only Grinchlike thought at the moment. I'm enjoying the preparations for this holiday season. I like the lights and the decorations and the music (except for the aforementioned song). I like getting in touch with people I may not hear from at other times of year. Even in the face of whatever sadness inevitably finds its way into our lives, I find the holidays comforting rather than harsh.

Family get-togethers can put pressure on people, which means that they can be fertile settings for writers, who need conflict around which to build stories. (I took full advantage of this in the Thanksgiving scene of The Secret Year.) But I hope you all are finding conflict only on the page, and are finding calm and celebration in the real world!

Friday, November 30, 2012

YA for NJ

Just a quick note: There's a major charity auction, YA for NJ, going on right now. (The home page for YA for NJ lists only the first 100 items that are up for bid. In order to see all the items you must click the link at the bottom of the page, "Go see all current items for sale by this member.")

The auction benefits the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, to aid in the efforts to feed those affected by Hurricane Sandy. Everything from autographed books to professional critiques to ARCs to Skype visits to the chance to have your name in a book is being auctioned off, with more than 150 authors and editors contributing. And right now there are some real steals available: the entire Soho Teen List in 2013 with an opening bid of only $50 ... A professional manuscript critique and a basket of books with the bidding only up to $46 as of this writing ... three signed novels by Sarah Darer Littman with the bidding at $17.10 as of this writing ... three Ellen Wittlinger novels with the bidding currently at $15 ... two signed Nina LaCour novels for an opening bid of $12 ... and that's just for starters. Also, if you've never gotten around to my books, you could try for both of my novels (signed) with the bidding now at $12.

So check it out!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Thankful Thursday: Reading

My reading slacked off a bit while I worked on an intense revision, but with that project done, I've been reading a lot lately. And I'm reminded how much I love it: the adventure of a new book, the chance to slip into another life for a while, the connection with another mind. I have a nice stack of books waiting next to me, and it's fun to shuffle through them and decide which one will be next. As usual, I'm not sticking to a single genre. My recent reads include We Killed (nonfiction, about women in comedy), The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan (humor), 17 & Gone (YA, suspense), Help Thanks Wow (devotional/inspirational), The Group (adult fiction), and Bound Feet and Western Dress (historical memoir).

Before I was a writer, I was a reader. And I'm thankful for that. It's as if I get to live several lives in one.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Arrogance is not attractive

There's a pattern we sometimes see in stories, of a girl being attracted to a haughty, arrogant guy. The idea is that the sparks of conflict are really sparks of attraction. But it's a dynamic that has always bothered me, largely because I don't think of arrogance as an attractive quality.

One of the cited prototypes for this is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, where the male love interest, Darcy, is insufferably haughty to the main character, Elizabeth, when they first meet. And these two end up happily married, so ... insulting behavior must be attractive, right? But when I look at the actual text of Pride and Prejudice, what I find is this:

Darcy insults Elizabeth. She's offended and dislikes him. And she continues to dislike him for about thirty more chapters.

His arrogance doesn't make her weak-kneed nor draw out the flirt in her. It turns her off, and while she is polite to him because they have friends in common, she is not attracted to him ("She liked him too little to care for his approbation"). And it is her self-confidence, her refusal to worry about his opinion of her, in addition to their shared interests in reading and walking, that kindles his respect and eventually his romantic interest in her.

This pattern continues throughout the book. Whenever Darcy is high-handed (as in his first disastrous proposal), Elizabeth reacts with disgust. When Elizabeth believes he has unfairly deprived her friend Wickham of an inheritance, she is angry. When he discourages his friend Bingley from pursuing Elizabeth's sister Jane, Elizabeth thinks this is unforgivable.

The turning point comes when Elizabeth discovers that Darcy is not as awful as he has seemed: That he discouraged Bingley's interest in Jane mostly because he honestly believed Jane did not return the feelings. That Wickham not only squandered an inheritance, but played fast and loose with the affections of Darcy's younger sister. At this point, Elizabeth's feelings soften, though not to the point of love (they are described as a mixture of indignation, compassion, gratitude, and respect). Her heart thaws even further when Darcy's housekeeper praises his fairness, kindness and generosity, and when she herself observes his protective affection for his sister. Darcy's willingness to help Elizabeth's own family out of a disaster (instigated by Wickham, no less) seals the deal for Elizabeth. But in all of these cases, it is when Darcy displays generosity and a lack of hauteur that he is most attractive to Elizabeth.

Some could say that the love interest in my first novel shows signs of arrogance. I would agree, but I always thought that the main character liked her in spite of it rather than because of it; there's a point in which he describes her arrogance as her least attractive quality. He really liked her vulnerability and her ability to poke fun at her own privileged status. I believe the appeal of an arrogant character is not in the overconfident shell, but in whatever qualities lie at the core of the character, beneath that shell.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


First, a Happy Thanksgiving wish! If you're in the mood for poetry, enjoy Kelly Fineman's take on holiday feasts.

Two pieces I've read recently spoke about the need for commitment in writing:

"On the side I was also pursuing my dream to become a writer. Key words: on the side. ... when push came to shove, other obligations always took precedence over my writing."
"If I was going all in with my writing, then I needed to keep an open mind about different strategies, be willing to try new things, and quit thinking I was an expert."
--Jody Casella at YA Outside the Lines

"But the hardest reason of all not to write is the feeling that we’ve lost faith in our stories or in ourselves and our own abilities to tell them. And that is the true turning point, the most important choice you’ll face in your writing life: when you reach that crisis-point, do you abandon your unfinished story in favor of another shiny-new idea? Or do you keep plugging away, even when everything right down to the basic premise of your book seems flawed, and you’re certain it will never be worthy of being read by any eyes but yours?"
--Anna Elliott at Writer Unboxed

Jody Casella talks about the need for commitment to start a writing career, and Anna Elliott describes the commitment needed to keep it going. I've experienced this myself in my writing life. I, too, wrote "on the side" for many years, and really didn't put writing on the front burner until 2003. I still have a day job; what the front burner meant to me was dialing back on other hobbies, watching less TV, and not writing just when I felt like it, but coming to the writing desk every day. Taking classes, going to conferences with a professional emphasis, researching agents.

As for the commitment to keep plugging away at a story even after it has lost its shiny novelty: I have been there, too. I have many days where I don't know what to do with a story, where I just can't see around the next curve, so it looks more like a dead end. But sometimes a writer's main virtue is in just not giving up. There are so many writer tools and tips that there's always something else to try. And stories have that miraculous quality of looking slightly different each time we read them, of presenting new footholds.

Not everyone has to write every day. And not every story has to be written to completion. But we all know what commitment means to us, what it feels like to jump off the diving board instead of just dangling a foot over the edge. The rewards don't usually come immediately, which is one reason that committing to writing can be so difficult. But they do come, often in unexpected packages.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Books of our youth: Romance!

From my guest-post series, here is Mieke Zamora-Mackay on a romance with an unusual ending.

I was eleven years old when I picked up my first Sweet Dreams book from Bantam Books. The pocket-sized collection of numbered stand-alone teen romances, featuring pretty, wholesome-looking American girls on their covers, were an instant hit among Filipino teens in the mid-eighties.

P. S. I Love You by Barbara Conklin was the first volume and is a favorite of those that still remember the series. In it, fifteen year-old Mariah and her family house-sit in Palm Springs over the summer. While there, she meets handsome, rich, but cancer-stricken neighbor, Paul Strobe. They enjoy their time together and fall in love, but Paul’s strict mother and the treatments that weaken him cut their time short. SPOILER ALERT: He dies in the end.

Capturing all the excitement, the uncertainly, and the tummy-flutters of young first love, as well as the heartache and pain of illness and loss, I ate it all up. And to have it end the way it did? I was blown away. I didn’t realize until then that books could have such sad endings.

I was hooked. With money saved from a couple weeks’ allowance, I’d buy volume after volume. The stories ran the gamut of teen issues from low self-esteem, angst from bullying and mean girls, confusion from a parents’ divorce, even the tug-of-war between choosing a dream over true love. These books formed my first personal library.


The series is no longer in production, and admittedly, it is of lighter fare compared to what is available in the genre today. However, I recently re-read P. S. I Love You and was pleasantly surprised to find that the issues and emotions were still honest and relevant. I still cried in the end, just like I did thirty years ago.

Mieke Zamora-Mackay blogs at The Author-in-Training.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The supporting cast

A while ago, I read a book (which I won't name) that had an extremely compelling central story line. But the author kept yanking us away from that story line, away from the main characters, to develop subplots for some extremely peripheral characters. Those subplots included barely-relevant family stuff and a cheesy, too-coincidental romance. Please, I wanted to beg the author. Please cut out all this froufrou stuff and take me back to the interesting part! I don't care if these side characters end up together. I feel like you're just stalling on the way to the main attraction.

Subplots and side characters can be fascinating. Usually I enjoy the time I spend with the supporting cast. So I've been trying to figure out why I didn't like it in this case. For one thing, it seemed to come at the expense of the main story line. There were important questions dangling, and instead of pursuing them, the author would pull back and spend all kinds of time in the side characters' backstories. In addition, the side characters' stories didn't really enhance the main theme. The romantic intrigue--which normally I'm a fan of--seemed tacked-on in this case, as if someone had told the author that it would ramp up the story to have this extra complication. The bottom line is that the subplots didn't feel essential or organic to the story.

In contrast, suspense-building, even through temporary shifts away from the main plot lines, was done much better in Sarah Darer Littman's Want to Go Private? In fact, Littman takes a huge risk when her story builds to a nail-biting plot point, and then the POV changes. But the suspense simply builds again, this time through viewpoints that add breadth to the story, and the questions that are raised in the book's middle section are still relevant to the main plot. We also begin to get some answers. And so, I would say that Littman succeeds in developing her supporting cast, which truly supports rather than distracts from the central story.

Perhaps we can't all aspire to a book like Louis Sachar's Holes or Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me, where every little detail proves essential to the plot. But our secondary characters and subplots still need to have significance, as they do in Want to Go Private?

Friday, November 16, 2012

Dear manuscript

Dear manuscript:

The time has come for both of us to move on.

It's been good. I learned a lot from you. But I need to grow and change. It's not you, it's me.

Well, okay, it's partly you. You did cost me a few tears and a LOT of sweat. But I'm not sorry I knew you. I hope you will go on to make many people happy. In fact, I look forward to the day when you will come back to me, all decked out in a shiny new cover, your margins justified. "You're looking good," I will say, and it won't even be awkward.

I know I'm going to get all caught up in someone new. At first it will be dazzling, thrilling, the way it was when I first knew you. And then the new manuscript will lead me on a long journey full of tedious slogging, wandering in circles, straying into briar patches and swamps. Just like you did! Oh, there will be flowery meadows and breathtaking views, too. Just as there were with you.

You will always be special to me. This isn't really good-bye. It's more like, "See you later."


Your writer

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Books of our youth: Wordplay with Dr. Seuss and Artie Bennett

The latest guest post in my series on books that inspired us when we were growing up comes from Artie Bennett:

Hi, boys and girls—and codgers (like me), too! I want to, first of all, thank my dear colleague Jenn for this golden opportunity to revisit an inspiring book from my boyhood—and offering me a forum to discuss it. When I think about books that inspired me, one book leaps readily to mind. Why, its very title promised thrills beyond imagining and set me all atingle. And that book was Dr. Seuss’s On Beyond Zebra! (published in 1955 by Random House).


You see, I was a precocious lad, and I’d acquired a formidable vocabulary at a young age. I loved words and, early on, sensed their beauty and power. Yet it all ended with “zebra,” didn’t it? Case closed. Well, Dr. Seuss took me to the outer limits of language, giving the befuddled-looking zebra on the cover reason for befuddlement. Through On Beyond Zebra!, I got my first whiff of the magic of language, and how a playful imagination can be an extraordinary and unquenchable gift. His unique bestiary and hilarious contrivances made the trip beyond “zebra” the greatest of adventures.

Dr. Seuss is responsible, I’m sure, for the fact that I write in verse—perhaps for the fact that I write at all! I’ve even dedicated my “number two” picture book, Poopendous!, to Dr. Seuss, though I tweaked it a bit: “To Dr. Seuss, my meuss.” I think the good doctor would have appreciated that. And I’m sure he would have found the title amusing, too, for no children’s writer coined more words than Dr Seuss.


What’s especially interesting is that there’s a verse in Poopendous! that goes, “Everyone poops—yes, it’s true—from aardvarks to the humped zebu.” This verse is my homage to that groundbreaking children’s book by Taro Gomi, Everyone Poops. The book that made it possible to write about such, um, fertile topics. But it’s every bit an homage to Dr. Seuss, for where can one find the zebu if not “on beyond zebra.” And the fact that several youngsters at my readings have asked me if zebus actually exist tickles me deeply.

Copy of BAB_Poopendous_Page_09
Yes, they exist. Ask any South Asian. But if they didn’t, Dr. Seuss would already have created them. For as long as we have imaginations to nourish, Dr. Seuss will always be there . . . to feed them most bounteously.

Artie Bennett is the executive copyeditor for a children’s book publisher, and he is the author of The Dinosaur Joke Book: A Compendium of Pre-Hysteric Puns (currently extinct), The Butt Book (Bloomsbury, 2010), and Poopendous! (Blue Apple Books, 2012). He and his wife live deep in the bowels of Brooklyn, New York.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The case for the arts

In this era of shrinking budgets, slashing funds for arts education, and threats to arts grants, we are reminded that in the public-policy arena, the arts are still often seen as a luxury. A frivolity.

Those of us who know better argue that the arts provide something essential to human beings, that creative expression helps us cope with life's big questions and challenges. That the arts reach many students in a way that math and science can't always do.

But you can't quantify that value, which means that policy-makers still find it easy to dismiss. So for those looking for another way to make the case, I recommend Wendy Wasserstein's essay, "The State of the Arts" (which appears in the collection Shiksa Goddess), in which she includes an economic case for funding the arts:

"Nonprofit arts institutions are often pioneers in urban revival. The 'new' Forty-Second Street--the Disney-restored theaters and entertainment malls--would not be there today if the arts organizations sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and local arts councils had not taken the initiative to change the urban landscape."

"Nonprofit arts in America are a thirty-seven-billion-dollar industry."

"I mentioned that I had won a twelve-thousand-dollar grant in 1984, which had aided me in completing The Heidi Chronicles. In my mind, that's a small investment for a play that ran on Broadway for two years, toured the country for two years, and kept many people employed and inner cities lively."

The places we live would be poorer, spiritually and financially, without our art museums, theaters, bookstores, libraries, galleries, dance studios, and concert halls. These places provide employment for many and entertainment for many more; they provide emotional nourishment and a richness to our communities.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Revision fever

My posts have been a little scarcer lately because I've been in the throes of a big revision. It was the main thing on my mind (well, besides Hurricane Sandy, the election, and a few major things going on in friends' lives), and yet I didn't want to blog about it. I usually like to blog about writing ideas after I've had time to mull them over. Not only does writing about my work-in-progress carry the risk of draining some of the energy I need to pour into it, but the daily progress of a revision is not ripe for blogging (not in my case, anyway). It resembles the journey of a roller coaster operated by a bunch of lunatic cats. Documenting the ride would look something like this:

"I have no idea what I'm going to do in this scene. Oh! I know! Character A will fight with Character B! Wait, no they won't. They just fought 10 pages earlier. But I'm getting rid of Character C, that's for sure. No, what I'll do with C is give her an even bigger role. In fact, she can carry D's role too, and I'm axing D. No, I'm keeping D, and making him twins. Also, chapter 3 is going, but I'm bringing back the old version of chapter 9. Yes! No! I don't know! A will fight with B. And I'm getting rid of C. And D isn't twins--that's stupid. I know! I will combine the two fights that A and B have into one fight scene. They don't need to fight twice. And D will take on C's role, but will not become twins. There. I've fixed it. Unless ..."

None of that refers to the actual plot of my actual book, but you get the idea.

The most useful observation I've had from my recent revision was this: Whenever possible, use what's already there. Find another purpose for an already-established hobby or quirk; give more responsibility to an already-existing character. Develop a grudge or a crush. It's so much easier to water the seeds that we've already planted than to drag a whole new rosebush into the garden.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Many words, or few

It's NaNoWriMo, the month when thousands of people try to write a draft of a book in 30 days. While they are focusing on getting words to come out--some 1700 words a day--I'm toying with an idea on the other end of the spectrum.

A few years ago, I saw an article in National Geographic about a nature photographer who was feeling jaded and uninspired. He decided to try an experiment. For 90 days, he would take one photograph a day. Only one photograph a day.

Some days he knew exactly what his picture would be; he waited for the right light and took it. Some days he got the shot he wanted right away. Some days, he wandered a long time, changed his mind, and didn't get his picture until late. Photographers are used to taking many shots and weeding heavily for their final pictures. But this photographer found that having only one shot per day made him more selective, more observant, more careful. And he started having fun again, because of the challenge.

I thought: what if a writer who was daunted by the word counts of NaNoWriMo, or wasn't in the right frame of mind to draft a novel, went in the other direction and did a sort of writerly equivalent of the photographer's challenge? What if a writer set a goal of a single 100-word piece a day (or 50 words, or 500, depending on whatever feels compact yet manageable) for a month?  100 words could be a poem, or a piece of flash fiction. A writer could go even shorter and try one haiku a day. With only one short piece a day to focus on, the writer would exercise different creative muscles than the ones that are exercised by NaNoWriMo. So I'm just throwing the idea out there into the world, in case anyone cares to try it.

By the way, I see via internet search that many people have done versions of the one-photo-a-day challenge. But the one I saw first, the one I referred to at the top of this post, was Chased by the Light: A 90-Day Journey, by Jim Brandenburg.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Books of our youth: The Girl with the Silver Eyes

Today's guest post, part of a series about the books that influence us in our younger years, is by Michelle Davidson Argyle. It reminds me of how I, too, wanted special telekinetic powers when I was a teen ... but alas, they never materialized ...


One of the most memorable novels of my childhood is The Girl with the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts. This book meant a lot to me as a kid, mainly because it’s about a girl who doesn’t feel like she fits in. I never felt like I fit in.

Katie, the main character, has silver eyes and can move things just by thinking about them. I realized, after reading the book about twenty times, that Katie probably would have felt like an outcast even if it weren’t for her strange silver eyes. I think this is one of the first novels that stuck it into my head how effective it is to give characters physical flaws that can mirror inward flaws. These days, you see this all over the place in young adult novels, but back when I was a kid, this kind of paranormal story wasn’t as “normal” as it is now, so it was exciting and new. I think kids and young adult readers are still reading this book, so I’m happy it hasn’t been forgotten!

MICHELLE DAVIDSON ARGYLE lives and writes in Utah, surrounded by the Rocky Mountains. You can find more of her online at Her latest book is BONDED:


BONDED contains a fairy tale continuation (Cinders, based on Cinderella), a fairy tale retelling (Thirds, based on One-Eye, Two-Eyes, Three-Eyes), and a fairy tale prequel (Scales, based on Sleeping Beauty).

Sunday, November 4, 2012


At Writer Unboxed, Lydia Sharp wrote a beautiful post the other day about weathering the storms of the unpredictable writing life, including such lines as, "I lost my sanity long ago. Only the craziest of us have stuck it out." Many of us have experienced this: "You’ve had success in the past (that you will never take for granted), and this tricks you into believing that you should be further along your path than you really are." So often, our suffering is driven by the gap between reality and our expectations.

And, like Lydia, I can remember that some of my greatest writing and publishing moments came close on the heels of some of the worst ones. Just when it seemed as if I would never fix that plot problem, or get an offer for that story, or find the right ending ... I did. My best moments have been coated in the sweat of hard work and anxiety, rather than sprinkles and fairy dust, but hey, I'll still take 'em.

Writer Joelle Anthony created a lovely door hanger to celebrate the release of her book The Right and the Real. On one side, it has information about her books, and on the other, it says, "Don't bug me, I'm reading!" above a photo of a stack of books. Included in the pictured stack of books is Try Not to Breathe, and for that reason, Joelle was kind enough to send me an extra door hanger to give away.

I could just give out this door hanger at an author event, but I thought it would be nice to give it to a person who is interested enough in my writing to read my blog. I really do appreciate those of you who read and comment here, and help make this a cozy corner of the internet. So, if you would like it, email me at jennifer[at]jenniferhubbard[dot]com, and just tell me briefly why you'd like it. You don't have to be in the US, but you do have to be at least 13 years old. If more than one person wants it, I'll pull a name at random.

Also pictured in the stack of books: Imaginary Girls, Please Ignore Vera Dietz, The Winter Pony, Rose Sees Red, Everneath, and others. You can see what the door hanger looks like here.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Writer on the storm (Thankful Thursday)

On Monday evening, we lost power as the storm formerly known as Hurricane Sandy (then known as Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy) swept through the area. We called the power company on our thankfully-functioning land line. We listened to our local AM news station on a little battery-operated radio. We lay in the dark, listening to the wind, and watching occasional brilliant flashes in the sky (lightning? electrical explosions?) that were mysteriously accompanied by no sound. We thought about the giant trees surrounding us. The wind blew all night.

On Tuesday, we attempted to take a walk. Two blocks away, a road was barricaded. Three blocks away, a snapped tree rested on sagging power lines. Four blocks away, another road was barricaded. At that intersection, the traffic signals were dark. We walked past the train tracks: their signals were lit, but no trains were running, or would run at all that day.

But we were lucky. Our house was intact and dry; our trees were standing; no power lines lay on our house or in our road. I was able to do some cleaning (something I never seem to have time for otherwise), worked on my book by writing scenes and notes in longhand, read next to the window and later by candlelight, and talked with my husband. That gift of slow-moving time, time to think, was a blessing, too. I was lucky to have all those blessings, and I knew it.

I did long for a hot shower (we had water, but no hot water). And soup took forever to boil on our gas grill. And our only sources of entertainment were writing, reading, and the radio. It was like living in 1947. But still? LUCKY.

The power came back first, after 27 dark quiet hours. A day later, the internet returned. I reveled in the shower, and in lights that appear at the flick of a switch. I'm glad to be back in touch with the world, but sickened by the devastation I can now see in pictures, especially in NY and NJ.

For me, it's a Thankful Thursday. I hope you and yours are well.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Reading material

The projected storm track seems to put this Frankenstorm passing right over my house, so if I'm not around in the coming days, it's most likely due to a loss of electricity. Here are some links to reading material:

I posted over at YA Outside the Lines about fear. A sample: "I used to think I was the only person in the world with fears."

A short story of mine called "The Train Tracks" is up at Wattpad. A sample: "Then she darted forward, across the tracks at the same instant the train ... thundered toward us."

And I loved John Vorhaus's "Verbing the Nouns" over at Writer Unboxed. A sample: "The truth is, I am kind of a grammar nit. When I see an apostrophe catastrophe ... I feel morally bound to correct it, or at least mock it. But the other truth is that I do reinvent the language every day, and I do it will full madness of forethought. (See? See what I did? I just did it there.)"

Happy reading and writing, and may the storms pass lightly over us all.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Friday Five

A quintet of things to do and think about this weekend, in between watching weather reports for the approach of Frankenstorm Sandy:

1. Save the indies. Want to help some indie bookstores? Books of Wonder (New York) is doing an online fundraiser right now, with special art- and book-related gifts for different donation levels. BoW is a fantastic children's bookstore that hosts tons of events and really supports authors (and readers, of course!) Please click over and donate if you're so moved.

Another indie bookstore that a community is trying to save is Chester County Books and Music in West Chester, PA. If you're in the area, please drop by there. They're also having some multi-author events!

2. Skype an author--for free. Kate Messner has collected a list of authors who Skype with classes and book clubs for free. Pass it along to your favorite teachers, librarians, and book-club organizers!

3. Breathe. Professor Nana blogged recently about time management, to-do lists, and how it's okay to be dormant sometimes. A sample: "Like many of my friends and colleagues, I have a tough time saying NO. I agree to things thinking they will not take much time and then discover that I have said YES to so many things there may not be time to do them all."

4. Ponder. Here are a couple of snippets from my writing notebook. The first is, "Nobody else is going to tie your bow." That was supposed to be a note for something I wanted to blog about, but the trouble is, I'm not sure what I meant by that. Food for thought! On the other hand, "You are freer than you know," is obvious--in fact, so obvious that I don't have much else to say about it, and can't turn it into a whole blog post.

5. Enjoy the literary flair of scientists. I learned of this via The National Weather Service's Extended Forecast dated 3:13 PM EDT, October 25, began in sober meteorologist-speak ("Despite a modest cluster of outlying deterministic solutions and ensemble members from the various modeling centers"), and continued with jargon such as "amplifying polar trough" and "hybrid vortex." It then veered rather startlingly into creative and literary territory: "... once the combined gyre materializes, it should settle back toward the interior Northeast through Halloween, inviting perhaps a ghoulish nickname for the cyclone along the lines of "Frankenstorm," an allusion to Mary Shelley's gothic creature of synthesized elements."

Now, was the possessor of this golden quill a frustrated English major who was shunted into weather forecasting? Or a Renaissance man or woman, comfortable in the worlds of both meteorology and literature? I don't know. All I know is: YOU ROCK, NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE.

And stay safe, everyone.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

In the weeds

Writers talk a lot about the difficulty of the publishing world: the uncertainty of getting published or getting read, the whims of the marketplace. Those difficulties are often set against the joy of the writing process. And it's true that generally, writing is more fun than marketing.

But there are times when the writing itself--the craft part, not the marketing--is tough. When you don't know how to start something, or how to finish it. When you don't know how to fix what isn't working. When you can't stand to look at the page for another minute, because you have read the words there so many times.

Those moments can come as a shock, especially after a long period of smooth drafting, or a bout of revision when everything has seemed to click. But that's just the way it is sometimes. It happens especially if we're challenging ourselves. There's always a way out (or through), even if it's frustrating that the way is not immediately apparent.

Sometimes, in those moments when we have to stop and search for the path out, or wait for it to reveal itself, unexpected benefits come.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Pushing boundaries

I went to an author event recently for an author I've seen before. His events are consistently packed; people pay to see him; they wait in long lines to get their books signed. And I've been thinking about his appeal, about what works so well.

He's funny, for one thing, and funny is great for live events. But he's also daring. He pushes things to the point where he risks going too far: honesty about the grosser side of human nature; jokes about some things we take seriously and fear intensely. He's not cruel; there's a generosity in his willingness to shine the spotlight on other authors, and to draw the biggest laughs at his own expense.

But it's that daring I'm thinking about today. That risk-taking, that boundary-pushing. I especially admire it at a live event, where you can hear the audience groan, gasp, or laugh, providing the kind of instant judgment that can be difficult for writers to take. He seems to read a lot of pre-published work, and I wonder if he censors his ultimately-published material based on live audience reactions. Does he ever take out something just because it made the audience obviously uncomfortable or shocked people? Or is he more likely to leave in those parts?

When I start asking those questions, I'm not really wondering about his process as much as about my own. Most writers have to decide how deep they want to dig, how much they want to risk.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Practical matters

Writers are generally not known for their great wealth, and today I thought I'd post some practical advice related to corner-cutting, money-wise. IMHO based on some experience (my own and others'), there are things you can skimp on and things it's best not to skimp on.

I've skimped on clothes (thrift store buying, wearing them as long as they're still whole even if they're out of date), hair cutting ("I can keep these split ends another few weeks"), and cars (owned none for most of my life, now technically own half of one, but usually walk or ride the train). My husband is addicted to coupons and strategic, deal-maximizing food-shopping. I don't think any of that has harmed me, and some of it, like the walking, has probably done me some good.

But there are three things I'd advise people to take good care of, even if the costs in time, energy, attention, and money tempt them to cut corners:

Feet. For Pete's sake, get good shoes. No matter how cute the shoes look: if they're hard to walk in, forget them. Get sturdy comfortable shoes that you can walk in. Think arch support and, ideally, ankle support. Your feet will thank you twenty years down the road, and so will your back and knees.

Teeth. It's easier to get preventive cleanings, to brush and floss, than it is to get major dental work. Also, some dental infections can lead to serious health problems. Influenced by my relation to a former dental assistant, I've gone regularly to the dentist my entire adult life, and I think I've had fewer major procedures at my age than anyone else I know. Major dental work is painful and expensive: set yourself up to avoid it if you possibly can.

Eyes. You only get one pair. Make sure they're okay.

This has been your public service announcement for the day. ;-)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Risk and inspiration

A friend and I were talking about risk tolerance the other day. It's something writers tend to think about a lot, since the writing life is full of gambles: financial, emotional, artistic.

I have always been risk-averse. But in my writing, I've probably taken more chances than anywhere else in my life. Maybe that's where I pour all the risk-taking. I drive the speed limit and save for a rainy day, but then I expose the inside of my mind to total strangers. Probably no explanation I can come up with would top this one by Anais Nin.

In other news, Owlectomy posted a wonderful piece about starting new projects, inspiration, pragmatism, and that indefinable spark: "I am not willing to walk around waiting for an idea to hit me over the head, but neither am I willing to take up some idea that seems workable but not especially inspiring, just to have something to work on ..."

And in other other news, I'll be at the Doylestown (PA) Bookshop on Friday night with a great group of authors. Please join us if you're in the area.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Excavating, with a dessert spoon

Two posts have inspired me today: a long one from Susan Taylor Brown ("When you commit to writing a novel there is no guarantee that the story you first start to tell will be the same story when you finally type “the end” and close the book. ... You have to be willing to fight your way through the multiple garbage drafts and revision and spend a lot of time gazing at the screen or the blank pages of your notebook and asking yourself, okay, what happens next and how can I make it work?") and a short one from Beth Kephart ("I sit here, my eyes closed, teaching myself writing all over again.")

The lesson for the day seems to be that every book throws curveballs. Writing a book teaches me a lot, but it doesn't necessarily teach me how to write the next book. It doesn't give me a shortcut. Every book I've written has kicked my butt around the block. Try Not to Breathe almost wrote itself sometimes; it was, comparatively speaking, the easiest book I've ever written. But I say "comparatively" because of those early chapters that I tossed out, the neighbor family that had to disappear because they contributed nothing to the plot, the entire ending that didn't even exist in the first draft because I hadn't yet realized that I needed to close the circle, to knock down a few more of the pins I had set up in the beginning.

Try Not to Breathe came about because I was trying to write a verse novel. No other book I've written has begun that way. They all insist on being written in their own unique Speshul Snowflake ways. It's comforting to know that so many other writers feel this way, that the order of a book begins in chaos for so many of us. Here's to that glorious mess!

Sunday, October 14, 2012


I often talk about the need for patience in the writing world. This past week, I was reminded that patience is valuable while traveling also.

Traveling not only requires patience, but teaches it. When the daily to-do lists shrink from more than a dozen items to just a few (eat, hike, read, spend time with husband), the pace of life slows. There is time to admire the way the sun hits yellow aspen leaves, time to hike up a canyon and view an arch of rock, time to test the echo against a sheer wall of rock (the report from a handclap bouncing back, a second later, as sharply as a rifle shot), time to sit beside a lake and have a sandwich.

And when things don't go exactly as planned--when you discover your car has a flat tire--you discover that what would have sent you into a frustrated tailspin several years ago is something you shrug about. And then the blessings happen. Two maintenance men from your resort happen to be walking by with a compressor, and they inflate the tire so you can get to the rental-car place. When the next glitch happens--the rental place has no replacement cars that day--you find a nearby auto shop that fixes the tire by nine-thirty in the morning, and you end up having a full day of hiking after all. You hike up mountains and around lakes. But the best part is that you haven't freaked out; you've rolled with it. Is it because you've already spent days at a remote guesthouse near Capitol Reef, in the shadow of geologic formations whose beauty shows the slow passing of ages, the nights so clear you can see the veil of the Milky Way? Is it because you're now hiking in mountain country, where you scarcely see another person and you can hear yourself think? Is it because the night before your trip, you were at a memorial service for a friend whose life was too short?

Impossible to say. But while you sit in the auto shop, you just look out at the golden leaves on the mountain behind you, and wait without fretting. At the end of the trip, there has been time to do everything you wanted. Even when the rain pours down on the last day, you head to a bookstore with friendly employees and congenial fellow writers; you have dinner with writers, talking shop about the ups and downs of this life.

Now you begin to ease back into the daily busy-ness.

In closing, I'll say that for those of you near Salt Lake City: The King's English bookstore now has signed copies of The Secret Year and Try Not to Breathe.

And here's a shout-out to Mercer Automotive of Park City, Utah; the employee at the Park City Marriott who recommended them; and the two guys with the compressor.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Stopping the clock

I'll be taking an internet break for about a week, to reconnect with the world outside my computer screen.

In the meantime, I recommend reading this interview with Gwenda Bond at Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog. Especially this part:

"But I also felt like I’d learned that working against some artificial clock wasn’t smart or productive or logical.
There is no clock. There is only you, your own development as a writer, and the support of the people you’re lucky enough to have in your corner."

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Books of our youth: Empathy and transformation

My guest-post series continues, with more discussion of the books that influenced us while we were growing up. Today's guest is Laurel Garver, writing about a book that had a great impact on me as well.

When I was twelve and going through a painful growth spurt (four inches in six months), I fell in love with Lois Lowry’s beautiful coming-of-age story A Summer to Die. I was immediately drawn to Meg, the awkward, brainy girl and budding photographer who lives in the shadow of her sister, the beautiful cheerleader. The family moves to the country for a year, and Meg  is forced to share a room with Molly. To escape the constant feuds with her sister, Meg befriends her neighbors--an elderly man and a young couple expecting their first baby. 

When Molly’s constant nosebleeds are diagnosed as cancer, Meg goes into a tailspin, no longer able to hold on to her old role of enemy. She must learn to open herself to love and pain, to become a supporter and survivor when illness shatters her family. 

This story shaped me deeply as a reader and a writer. I realized stories can be more than an escape. They can also train us in empathy. As we walk through experiences with characters and suffer with them, we also vicariously experience their transformation. And better yet, we feel less alone in our own struggles.

That aspect of realistic fiction--creating companionship--led me to dust off a trunked story idea about a teen stuggling through the loss of a parent. I’d lost my own father a few years before and found that giving voice to Dani’s grief helped me journey through my own.

Laurel Garver (@LaurelGarver on Twitter) is the author of Never Gone, a young adult novel about a grieving teen who believes her dead father has returned as a ghost to help her reconcile with her estranged mother. View the trailer. Add it on Goodreads. It is available at, Amazon UK, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, CreateSpace.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The best-laid plans

I'm a planner, a listmaker. I've never been a big fan of spontaneity. In my experience, this is how a planned vacation goes:

Take flight. Get in rental car or public transit or shuttle; go to hotel. Check in. Get up next day and begin planned activities. See what you wanted to see and do what you wanted to do. Plans may be affected by late flights, lost luggage, lost reservations, unexpected weather, injury, or Hurricane Irene (ahem, see my attempted return from California last year), but most of the time they proceed much as expected.

And in my experience, this is how a spontaneous vacation goes:

Jump in car. When hungry, start looking for restaurants. No restaurants. Drive farther. At point when you are ready to chew the plastic off the dashboard, find horrible roadside restaurant with sticky tables and suspicious meat sauce. Get back in car. Realize you forgot umbrella and/or sunblock, but are too far from home to go back now. When tired, start looking for hotels. No hotels with vacancies. Drive farther. Contact lenses start drying on eyeballs. Highway hypnosis begins. At 11:30 PM, stumble into dark parking lot praying for a room, any room, even one near the elevator whose ping you will have to listen to all night. Etc. ...

I know there are exceptions. I've had some wonderful experiences from spur-of-the-moment getaways. But mostly, planning works out better for me.

Sometimes, though, you plan a weekend, and Unexpected Life Incidents interfere. You cling bravely to the plan, but at some point you give up and just take the cat out onto the porch and stare at the foliage for twenty minutes. And by "you," I mean me.

Plans are meant to make our lives easier, not strangle us with our own expectations. So sometimes, it's best to drop the plan.

Here, have a pretty autumn picture, courtesy of Iceland Eyes.

Friday, September 28, 2012

First draft

Reminder to self:

It's only a first draft. It doesn't have to be perfect. It's not time to edit yet. The first draft is not for solving all the world's problems and taking the literary world by storm. It's for getting the words down. It's the clay that will get shaped.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Speaking the language

I was talking with some people today about how many words in the English language are specialized; they're only used by small fractions of the population. Like "odontoblast," "jabiru," and "gallet," from the worlds of dentistry, ornithology, and masonry, respectively. Many occupations have their own special languages. Geologists might talk about chert, gneiss, and the vadose zone, while doctors speak of tachycardia, cyanosis, and the corpus callosum. In fact, that's one of the difficult parts about writing characters who share a profession if you're an outsider to that profession: getting the language right, whether your setting is a hospital, a restaurant kitchen, a military base, a police station, or a dance studio. (The other challenge is to keep it intelligible to those readers who are not insiders.)

Writers of books for children and teens can often skip this problem, because our characters usually don't have these occupational vocabularies. But sometimes our characters do live in specialized worlds--if they're Olympic gymnasts, for example. And of course there are other vocabulary issues, like slang and regionalisms.

Another challenge in getting the vocabulary right is in writing historical novels. I'm always fascinated by novels written in the 1920s, with the characters' references to "flivvers" and "runabouts" and "berries" and "brilliantine," and the frequency with which the phrase, "I'll tell the world!" is uttered. A time traveler from the early 1920s would be puzzled by our references to "surfing the web" or "texting" or "TiVo," not to mention "MRIs," "in vitro fertilization," or even "penicillin."

What "language" do your characters speak?

Monday, September 24, 2012

What I mean by revision

Jane Lebak's post, "The Art of the Complete Rewrite" (which I discovered via Jon Gibbs) made me think about revision, and what I want to say about it.

Often, when I mention revision to beginning writers, they immediately start talking about punctuation and spelling. But that's not what I mean by revision.

We do have to think about punctuation and spelling, but it's the last step. Punctuation and spelling are like the toppings on a pizza.Worrying only about punctuation and spelling at the revision stage is like moving a few slices of pepperoni around on a pizza whose crust may be raw, or burnt, or falling apart, or missing an essential ingredient. Or, to borrow Jane Lebak's house analogy, it's like trying to fix a damaged house with a new coat of paint.

The first things to check before revising are the structural elements, the ones akin to a house's foundation, plumbing, wiring, and roof. These include the plot arc, the theme, the character development. If the story doesn't build to a satisfying conclusion, if the main character doesn't change or doesn't have the most exciting storyline, if the characters are flat and lifeless, if the story doesn't make sense or if it drags on or wraps up too quickly ... then these are targets for revision.

As Jane Lebak notes, this is about more than fixing commas. This is about deleting entire scenes, moving chapters around, writing new scenes. Bringing in new characters, or getting rid of old ones, or merging two characters who have too-similar reasons for being in the story. Changing the plot: changing what happens or when or in what order. Chopping unnecessary pages from the beginning, or the end, or even the middle. Introducing new subplots. Jane Lebak discusses the most thorough kind of revision: the rewrite that starts from a blank page. Sometimes it does come down to that.

After the story is structurally sound, then it's time to focus on the sentence-level issues: word choice, flow and rhythm, repetition, naturalness of vocabulary, awkward phrasing, etc. This is often called "line editing," and it's probably my favorite step.

And then comes the punctuation-and-spelling step, also known as "copy editing." This is when you discover that you've been using "comprise" when you mean "compose" and "pour" when you mean "pore," and that everything you thought you knew about commas is wrong.

This is why I say I spend 10% of my time drafting new material and 90% of my time revising. I want to make sure that the house of my novel stands, that it doesn't have drafts or leaks or catch fire or collapse. It's always easier to repaint or put a new rug down or slide a piece of furniture in front of that hole in the wall. But when readers walk through the rooms and the house shakes or their feet crash through the floors, they notice. They know something's wrong.

This progression, from big-picture overhaul through small-scale changes, is what I think of when I think of "revision."

Saturday, September 22, 2012

FYI and Thanks

Today's a catching-up sort of day here on the blog:

For the 15-18-year-old writers out there, a chance to apply for a Master Class in writing, taught by Beth Kephart. From Beth's blog:
"Those who are selected—in nine disciplines—are eligible for the week-long immersion in the arts (Miami, early January), for U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts recognition, and for monetary awards." The deadline to apply is October 19; see Beth's blog post here.

The blog "From the Mixed-Up Files" is hosting a giveaway for libraries that serve middle-grade readers. Follow the link to donate books or nominate a library. (Nominations due October 16.)

I recently blogged at about "Armchair mountaineering."

This is now my favorite quote about finding a title for a story: "Titles are difficult, like wrestling a bear when armed with a pair of pantyhose. Not easy. You are trying to do too many things at once and nothing at all." (from Reif Larsen, in an interview at OneStory) So often I try to find the "perfect title" that encapsulates my whole story, and it takes me forever to find a title. As Larsen puts it, "trying to do too many things at once."

Kelly Fineman, poet and author of At the Boardwalk, will be appearing in Belmar, NJ next weekend for boardwalk-themed fun: follow the link for more details!

Finally, I want to share a pretty picture from last night:
cbw sept 2012
photo courtesy of Children's Book World, Haverford, PA

(Left to right: David Levithan, me, Beth Kephart, Ellen Hopkins, Eliot Schrefer). I was honored to be in such company last night, and energized by the wonderful crowd at Children's Book World--which included A.S. King, K. M. Walton, Tiffany Schmidt, Jessica Dimuzio, and many other book-lovers who helped make our panel discussion a fun and thoughtful exchange about books and writing. If you ever get the chance to hear any of these authors speak, or to go to an event organized by David Levithan, or visit Children's Book World, do so! Beth whisked us to Spain, Ellen discussed the human costs of war, Eliot showed us pictures of bonobos and took us to Africa with his prose, David made us contemplate the connection between our inner and outer lives and what identity means, and I shared a bit from my novel about recovery from a suicide attempt. Children's Book World provided an amazing array of books and refreshments. I can't tell you how exciting it is to be in a roomful of people all devoted to the world of reading, and how much I appreciate those who come to these events, and listen, and ask questions, and share your own stories. Thank you.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Inside the writer's studio

The scene: a writer's office in which a windstorm may or may not have hit. A Muse is stretched out on the carpet, eating bonbons. A Writer sits at the computer, grimacing at the screen.

Writer: I don't know what to do with this book.

Muse: Whattaya looking at me for?

Writer: I appreciate the inspiration you give me, but it would really be better if you could give me a full book's worth of inspiration, not half a book's worth. Nobody buys half a book.

Muse: They could! Wouldn't that be a great idea? We could call them "demi-novels." They would be great beginnings, and then they would suddenly crash to a halt without wrapping up.

Writer: I don't see much of a market for that.

Muse: Too bad, because I could come up with LOADS of them!

Writer: Pass the bonbons.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Books of our youth: The Catcher in the Rye

The latest in this series of guest posts about the books that most affected us while we were growing up is from Mindi Scott.

As a teen, my private high school skipped out on most of the required literature that other people my age were reading. But I remember that during my senior year, several of my favorite young actors cited The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger as an all-time-favorite book, so I decided to check it out on my own.


What happened after is that I fell in love. Holden Caulfield's story surprised, amused, and moved me. I found the narration to be so fresh, real, and unlike anything I'd ever read. To be completely honest, I had a huge crush on Holden because he seemed to me to be so fearless, while at the same time, so very sensitive.

Catcher is one of the few books that I've read repeatedly over the years--once as a teen, at least three times while in my twenties, and once while in my thirties (so far). What I'm finding, the older I get, is that while I still enjoy the voice and the writing, Holden himself holds diminished appeal for me with every read. His instability and superior attitude can really grate on my nerves. There's a scene where he judges someone's cheap luggage and I become irritated every time I read it. (Strangely, I know that deep down, that scene is what has inspired me to always carry nice luggage.)

I have no idea how I'll feel about Holden the next time I read Catcher. I strongly suspect that I will never again crush on him the way I did at age 17, but I will always appreciate that J.D. Salinger gave me this character, who inspires me to look at things differently.


Mindi Scott lives with her drummer husband near Seattle, Washington, and is the author of Live Through This (Pulse/10/02/2012) and Freefall (Pulse/2010). Live Through This just received a starred review from Kirkus.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The SATs

Writing novels with teenage characters, I have occasion to think about the SATs from time to time. I believe the importance of the SATs has become overblown, but even when I took the test mbphbf years ago, there was already a bit of hysteria attached to them.

While I understand the appeal of standardized tests to our number-hungry culture, I question the significance we attach to those numbers. I only took the SATs once, and I received a lot of pressure to take them again. I've always been glad I didn't retake them. There would have gone some money and a few hours of my life that I would never get back again, and it wouldn't have changed the course of my life one bit.

Back then, the PSATs were scored on a scale that we were told would approximate our SAT scores. For example, a 55 on the PSAT was supposed to be equivalent to a 550 on the SATs. (At that time, the SATs had two sections: verbal and math, each scored on a 200-800 scale.) I took the PSAT twice, and as best I recall, my scores were 59 math and 64 verbal, both times. Supposedly, then, I could expect a 590 math and 640 verbal SAT.

I took the SATs at the end of my junior year. I got a 600 math and a 640 verbal, which pleased me because the math score was slightly better than I'd been led to expect by my PSATs. I got into my first and second choice colleges, and got a scholarship to my first choice. And despite this, more than one person urged me to retake the SATs as a senior, because "you almost always score higher when you retake it." Aside from the fact that I didn't believe I would score higher--my PSAT scores being remarkably stable and consistent with the SAT scores--my next question was: Well, so what if I did score higher next time? I had my college acceptance and my scholarship; what on earth would I be retaking this test for?

Once you get into college, SATs don't matter ever again, except when you are writing young-adult novels and remembering that tense feeling, the silence, the annoyance when someone coughed, the hand cramp from writing so long, the smell of freshly sharpened pencils. The test may have changed over the years, but I'll bet that tension is the same, and the pressure has only increased. Study for the SATs! What score did you get? Take it again! Try to raise your score! Yeah, I remember.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Live and in person

Recently, Cynthia Leitich Smith posted an excellent guide to speaking at author events; I've been meaning to link to it, and have finally gotten to it here! Additional strategies were discussed in the comments thread to that post.

Multi-author events have come to be my favorite. In fact, at the launch party for my second book--which was technically a solo event--I invited any authors who were able to attend to display and sign their books, too. I try to participate in group rather than solo events whenever possible. It's more fun for the authors as well as the audience.

At author events where I speak (instead of just signing books or reading an excerpt), I try to give readers some backstage peek they might not get from just reading the book (following advice I read once in a book by Nikki Giovanni--advice she followed herself when I saw her speak at the Philadelphia Free Library).

Most local author events do not have great mobs of people, which means that if your favorite author is appearing near you, you just might have the chance to chat for a little while. I did one signing where a young writer and fan of the author sitting next to me got to talk to that author for a good half hour about writing tips, favorite books, the author's motivation and writing process, etc. I can't promise you that this will happen. It is not likely to happen if, for example, your favorite author has been camped out on the bestseller list, and movies have been made from his/her books, and you have seen him/her interviewed on TV. In that case, you are likely to wait in line for a book signature. But most authors don't fall into that category: many of us have time to answer a few questions and chat a bit.

My favorite events of all are meetings with book clubs who have read either of my books. I am consistently wowed by the insight, enthusiasm, and intelligence that people bring to these discussions.

I'm a little envious of today's young readers, who have online forums, blogs, chats, and videos. I would have loved to have a community of fellow readers at my fingertips when I was growing up. And while I imagine authors were touring back then, I never heard of any author events near me. I didn't attend my first author events until adulthood. But I'm making up for it now!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Verbs of utterance

There is some debate among writer types about verbs of utterance. Most people agree that you (and therefore, your characters) can shout or whisper your words. You can say them or scream them or roar them or sing them.

It's when an utterance is mixed with other types of oral expression that things get hazy. There are those who maintain you don't laugh or sigh or sob while speaking, only before or afterward. But I maintain that the following are also verbs of utterance: sob, sigh, laugh, chuckle, giggle, gasp, even burp. That while you can do these things before or after you speak, you can also do them as you speak.

Examples, I have them:

"I can't find him," she sobbed. Here, the person is crying while she speaks: the tears are in her voice; she's struggling for breath; her words are unsteady.

"All right," she sighed. In this example, the sigh is part of the words: a sigh is an exhalation, and so are spoken words. A weary person agreeing to do yet another chore is going to huff out those words while sighing.

"Okay," he laughed/chuckled. Again, both laughter and speech involve exhalation; they can occur simultaneously, with the word "okay" bubbling out, each syllable affected (it might sound like, "oh-ho-ho-kaaay"). Similarly, it's my opinion that, "Stop tickling me" is a sentence that can be giggled. In the throes of being tickled, a person does not stop and utter the words, then resume giggling.

"Oh, no," he gasped. I generally associate gasps with indrawn breath, so this case is more difficult to make. Yet I can hear it in my mind; can't you? A gasp as an utterance is a sort of shocked whisper.

Finally, we can hardly deny burping as a verb of utterance when there are people who can burp the alphabet, or names of all the states, or whatever. I seem to recall some burps-as-utterances in the movie Revenge of the Nerds.

I doubt my contributions here will make it into official style manuals anytime soon (especially the burping). Any copy editor who has ever laid hands on my work* can tell you I am no proofreading expert, my Waterloo being the correct use of commas in all situations.**  But the nice thing about having my own blog is that I can natter on, in my word geekery, about any subject I choose. You're welcome!

* I would like to thank all the copy editors who have caught my mistakes and, in doing so, saved my bacon.
** I have a theory, still unproven, that nobody except copy editors understands all the correct ways to use commas. They might have a secret Comma School in an underground bunker or something. Special handshakes might be involved. But it's only a theory so far.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Writer talk

On Friday, September 21, at 7 PM, the following YA authors will be appearing at Children's Book World in Haverford, PA:

DAVID LEVITHAN (author of Every Day)
ELLEN HOPKINS (author of Tilt)
ELIOT SCHREFER (author of Endangered)
BETH KEPHART (author of Small Damages)
JENNIFER R. HUBBARD (author of Try Not to Breathe)

I'm so excited to be a part of this, and I hope that if you're in the area, you'll stop by!

For today's writerly talk, I have a couple of quotes from David Rakoff's book Half Empty:

"Funny thing about words. Regarded individually or encountered in newspapers or books (written by other people), they are as lovely and blameless as talcum-sweet babies. String them together into a sentence of your own, however, and these cooing infants become a savage gang straight out of Lord of the Flies. .... It will take the civilizing influence of repeated revisions to whip them into shape, an exhausting prospect."

"Well into adulthood, writing has never gotten easier. It still only ever begins badly ... And yet, I don't for a moment forget that this is not a life of mining coal ... Each morning begins suffused with this sense of privilege, shell-pink and pulsing with new hope."

Now excuse me while I stride into the shell-pink dawn to wrestle with my savage gang of words!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Take two

I wasn't sure how to feel when it was announced that Neal Shusterman's Unwind--which I love and have raved about--is now the first book in a trilogy. I've read that Shusterman originally planned Unwind as a stand-alone, and it's only because the book was so well received, and because there is room for more exploration of that world, that it has become a trilogy.

I have mixed feelings, because when a book is as good as Unwind is, you don't want anyone to mess with that world, to take it in directions that might dilute the power of that original book. (I think we've all seen movie sequels that we would like to forget we ever saw.)

On the other hand, Unwind was so good that the follow-ups might be marvelous. Shusterman has shown me with his Everlost and Antsy books that he knows how to write sequels and series.

What's a reader to do?

The second book, UnWholly, is out now. I'm pretty sure I will read it at some point, despite my reservations. Because what if it's as good as the first one?

How do you feel about stand-alone books getting turned into series?

Friday, September 7, 2012


Yesterday Malinda Lo (@malindalo) tweeted about "disparaging remarks about girls' interest in romance" and followed it with, "Love (the point of romance!) is the most important experience any human being will ever have. Girls are right to think it's important."

I've had a note on my desk for a while to blog about the belittling of romance, and Malinda's comments reminded me of it. They also reminded me about the belittling of girls, but that's a topic for another post. One problem at a time. (I do note that I have met guys who are also interested in romance, and I'm sure they've heard belittling remarks about romance, too.)

We human beings are famously afraid of our own vulnerabilities, and we often get squicked out by our own desire to have someone hold us or show us we are cherished or tell us we are loved. Whereas some of our other desires--such as to see our enemies humbled--make us feel powerful, and we give them much freer rein in books and movies. It's no secret that we're far more tolerant of violence than of sex in our artwork. Not only that, we often see love stories as--well, mushy. Or frivolous. Cute but not vital.

But I'm with Malinda on the importance of romance. There are some romance-related questions that are central to most of our lives:
Does this person love me? Do I love him/her? How do I know? How can I be sure? If I am sure, how do I show it?
Is this person right for me?
How quickly should this relationship develop? How do I balance my needs and the other person's? What does a good relationship look like?
If I love someone who doesn't love me (or doesn't anymore), how do I cope?
If my love and I can't be together for externally-imposed reasons, how do we deal with that?

The answers to these questions change the directions of people's lives. And of course novels themselves don't do that, but they enable us to explore these feelings and questions in situations where our own futures are not at stake. Even in the most fun, escapist romance, we're trying on some of these emotions and decisions, toying with what-ifs, using our imagination to help define happiness.