Friday, March 30, 2012

Wanderlove and First Day on Earth

I'm so happy to have read these books back to back. Two great books in a row! And more than that--two books so different from much of what I've been seeing in the YA section.


Cecil Castellucci's First Day on Earth features a male narrator, Malcolm, who is struggling with an alcoholic mother and an absent father. Also, he doesn't fit in at school. But this is anything but a typical problem novel: he also believes he was abducted by aliens, and that a man he's just met may be an extraterrestrial being. Is Malcolm delusional--are these alien-abduction fantasies just his way of coping with a difficult life? And is his new friend just another delusional person? Or is Malcolm really in touch with life on other planets?

I mention this book especially because I think people who like my work would like it: male narrator, spare style, short length, and despite the reference to extraterrestrials, it reads like a realistic contemporary novel.

Wanderlove, by Kirsten Hubbard (no relation to me), is about an art student's trip to Guatemala and Belize. Except that she's not an art student--she gave that up for her (now ex-)boyfriend. Except that maybe it wasn't really him, but her own fears, that pushed her away from her dream.

What I most like about Wanderlove is its setting. The main character, Bria, starts out cautiously with a tour group, but is then invited to leave the group and travel with a few backpackers. Kirsten Hubbard perfectly captures the joys and disorientation of traveling, the conflict between taking risks and staying safe: how absorbing new sights can be, but how scary it can be to plunge into life where you don't know the rules, the customs, the culture--the insects!

source of recommended reads: bought

Thursday, March 29, 2012

For my library and yours (a giveaway hop with library love)

For three years in a row, I ran a challenge on my blog to raise awareness and money for libraries. In those three years, the participating blogs raised more than $8000 for libraries. I am grateful that so many marvelous people participated. (Yes, you!)

This year, I will not be organizing the blog challenge in its previous form. Online networks have stretched out thinner and wider, and people are spread across more sites than ever before: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, and more every day. The power in a blog challenge comes from the number of participants. Regrettably, it has become difficult to draw the necessary concentration of donor blogs and commenters.

But I’m not leaving my library high and dry. This year, I will again make my spring donation. And as it happens, Kathy of the “I am a reader, not a writer” blog is conducting a charity-themed blog hop/giveaway right now, which is the time of year when I’ve always done the library challenge!


So here's how we're celebrating the Power! of! Libraries!

1. If you are at least 13 years old and can receive mail in the US, leave a comment below with a way to contact you by the end of April 4, and you will be entered in the giveaway drawing for a signed copy of my second novel, Try Not to Breathe, about a boy recovering from a suicide attempt and his friendship with a girl who is trying to reach her late father through psychics.

2. If you want to donate to your own local library (or bookmobile, or literacy-related charity like RIF), let me know that, too, and I will randomly pick one of you and match your donation to your library, up to $200. (You do not have to donate any money anywhere to be entered in the drawing for my book.)

3. If you decide to blog about the value of libraries, please leave a link to the exact post in your comment. (I might just go crazy and decide to pull another name for a book, and if I do, it would surely be from that smaller pool of such dedicated library fans!)

The Official Rules:

You must be at least 13 years old and able to receive mail in the US.
I reserve the right to pick another winner if the original winner does not claim the book or cannot provide sufficient proof of a library donation. I reserve the right to cancel the contest if prize is not claimed in a timely manner.
One comment per person. Winner will be selected randomly from the entries received on or before midnight EDT on April 4 (i.e., the minute April 5 starts).
I reserve the right to cancel the contest if technical difficulties (e.g., caused by internet or software failures) interfere with my ability to receive and track the entries.
Comments may be left at either my LiveJournal or Blogspot blogs, but must be left on the Giveaway hop entry.

Behind the cut, other participants in the giveaway hop (links may not be live until March 30):

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Luck and links

Writers talk a lot about the role luck plays in our writing and publishing lives, but I wanted to explore how we use luck within the stories we tell. I blogged about this topic at YA Outside the Lines, where I'll be blogging once a month. An excerpt: "Generally, we don’t want characters to solve their problems by winning the lottery, or to have their downfalls through random accident. We want them to rise and fall by their own efforts—by what they learn, or fail to learn."

And here are two bonus links for the day:

Author2Author had a feature on cliches used in query letters. I know I recently posted about how we shouldn't get too uptight about cliches, but this is worth reading, if only for the take-home lesson that specificity is a great thing. For example, "Jonah has to get the medicine back to his village before the virus kills everyone," instead of, "Jonah must act urgently to save the day."

Michelle Davidson Argyle listed 6 things she wishes she'd known earlier about being a writer. Worth pinning on a wall. A sample: "I don't like NaNo (National Novel Writing Month) much, but it did save me the one time I did it. It saved me from working on the same book forever and ever and ever."

Monday, March 26, 2012

Books of our youth: Inspiration

Here's another in my series of guest posts on the books we read in our youth that stick with us. Today's guest blogger is Ann Malaspina.

The 149-page novel A Single Light (Harper & Row, 1968) by Maia Wojciechowska (winner of the 1965 Newbery Medal for Shadow of a Bull) is one of my reading touchstones.  Recently I picked up the worn first edition I’ve had since elementary school and was again swept away by the story of a deaf and mute girl cruelly rejected by her poor rural Spanish village.  The story involves faith, mass hysteria, and the need for every person to be loved--all as relevant today as ever. Some critics say the novel is too preachy, or that it falls apart in the second half, and maybe they’re a little bit right, but I still love Wojciechowska’s story-telling and her simply drawn characters. Also, aspiring writers should read A Single Light if only for sentences like this: “Often at night she would close her eyes tight and she would see stars, not as bright as the ones in the sky but bright enough to light up the dark.”  Born in Poland in 1927, Wojciechowska and her family escaped the Nazis at the outbreak of World War II. She died in Long Branch, New Jersey, in 2002. Sadly, A Single Light seems to be out of print, but you might be able to find it at the public library. 

 Ann Malaspina’s latest picture book is Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper (Albert Whitman & Co., 2012).

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Love triangles

The other night on #yalitchat (the Wednesday night Twitter chat about YA), when we were talking about romance in YA, the subject of love triangles came up. When you talk romance in YA nowadays, the subject of love triangles always comes up.

I'm not going to recap the whole discussion. Suffice it to say: some people are sick of them, and some people think they're unrealistic because how many of us had two smoldering-hot guys pining for us and competing for our attention when we were teens? But most people agreed that they're compelling, while pointing out that there are other ways to ramp up romantic tension.

The romantic situations I saw in real life generally looked less like triangles and more like knots. As in: A likes B; but B likes C; and C is using B while secretly wanting to go back to the ex, D; and D is bouncing back and forth between E and F. G thinks they are all too immature, and H likes A but is seeing E when E takes breaks from D. I likes J but is scared to approach; J is involved with K, who wants to end all relationships and be alone for a while. L and M are madly in love, and everyone expects them to marry, and flips back and forth between envying them and wondering whether that much security in a relationship isn't a bit boring. N likes M but knows it's a hopeless cause, so pursues I instead.

But, yanno, that can get a little complicated to write, unless you're doing a series. Or a soap opera.

There are endless variations. Relationships are complicated, and they're not easy, and they often don't work out. I wouldn't tell anyone you can't write a love triangle nowadays, because I don't believe in absolutist rules like that. But I would encourage people to think about the pattern of relationships in the book, and why people are coming together or separating, and how the timing works, and what the best point of view for the story is. Cupid rarely shoots straight, and he's a bit of a prankster, if you ask me!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Break time

This afternoon, I sat on the porch and read for half an hour.

I don't often take time to do that. Usually I read on the commuter train, or while eating lunch, or just before going to bed, when I'm too tired for anything else. My days are packed with chores and obligations.

But it was close to eighty degrees (F) out today, and it won't be this warm again for at least a week (probably longer). And everything is blooming: hyacinth, daffodils, cherries, myrtle, violets, forsythia. And I'm not on a writing deadline at the moment. And life is short.

Sometimes, you just have to put everything down and enjoy the moment.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A blog sampler

Tabitha Olson of Writer Musings picked my blog for the "Sunshine Award," which was quite nice of her. I don't usually participate in blog awards, and I'm not going to officially "tag" anyone. (Yes, I'm a meme rebel! That's how I roll.) But I've actually been wanting to make a few blog recommendations, and this gives me a nice opportunity to do so.  There are many, many blogs I read and love and would recommend, but here's a small sample:

Cynsations. Cynthia Leitich Smith posts in-depth interviews and guest posts. Every Friday she features a weekly roundup of news and links from around the kidlit blogosphere that is truly amazing in its breadth.

Between Fact and Fiction. Natalie Whipple blogs about the ups and downs of trying to keep in touch with one's creative wellspring while coping with the business side of publishing. Candid and relatable. Includes a regular count-our-blessings feature called the Happy Writers Society.

The Contemps. A group blog. Discusses what's new in contemporary YA. A great place to find books for your reading wishlist!

An Englishman in New Jersey. Jon Gibbs, organizer of the New Jersey Authors Network, chats about writing and publishing, often with humor (including peppery advice from his gran, and regular appearances by "I Are a Writer" swag). Every Friday, Jon posts links to a nice cross-section of blogs about various aspects of writing or publishing.

Jama's Alphabet Soup. Jama Rattigan covers an interesting mix of food, poetry, book reviews, and the occasional travel piece. Her blog is one of the coziest corners on the internet, and her online launch parties (celebrating the work of other authors when their books release) are special favorites of mine. The food photos alone will make you drool.

Careann's Musings. Carol J. Garvin posts a mix of beautiful photographs, quotations, and brief, thoughtful posts on writing. This blog has an inspirational bent. Even if you're not religious yourself, the gentle and inviting style is welcoming to all.

The Author in Training. Mieke Zamora-Mackay includes short features on various aspects of writing, but the feature that always sticks in my mind is Inspiration Sunday, where she posts a photograph to use as a writing prompt. Excellent for those who want visual prompts to write from.

The Innocent Flower. Michelle Davidson Argyle blogs about various aspects of writing, from interesting tidbits turned up in her research, to the idea of turning fairy tales on their heads, to the emotional challenges that come with putting our work out there in the world.

Finding Wonderland. Tanita S. Davis and Sarah Jamila Stevenson (Aquafortis) post in-depth reviews of YA books, interviews, thoughtful discussions, and--one of my personal favorite features--Toon Thursday, featuring Aquafortis's original cartoons about the writing life.

So many books, so little time. April Henry, author of fast-paced, suspenseful novels, posts brief links to interesting stories and features around the internet: the amusing, the newsworthy, the bizarre. For those writing mystery or crime fiction, her blog also contains valuable research tips, including information about the Writers Police Academy.

And of course a shout-out to the person who started me down this link-coding path today: Tabitha at Writer Musings, who posts writing tips, thoughtful reviews, and all things related to the craft and business of writing. She also runs monthly book giveaways.

Do you have a favorite blog to recommend?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Dealing with ugliness

In the foreword to Rereadings, a collection she edited, Anne Fadiman writes of reading C.S. Lewis's The Horse and His Boy to her young son, and of her shock at seeing things she hadn't noticed when loving the book as a child. She was troubled enough to try to discuss this with her son (e.g., "'Have you noticed that The Horse and His Boy isn't really fair to girls? And that all the bad guys have dark skin?'"), although, as Fadiman says, "He didn't want to analyze, criticize, evaluate, or explicate the book." He was far more interested in the plot. He wanted to find out what happened to the main characters.

I suspect most readers have had these encounters with celebrated literature from the past, either recommended by others or fondly remembered by ourselves: the shock of finding sentiments and prejudices that stick in our craws. I grew up reading books that often treated girls and women as foreign creatures, not quite human. Whenever I encountered an offending statement, it would jerk me out of the book for a moment, and then I would shrug and think, "That's what they believed then, but we know better now," and go on to get whatever I could from the book. Which was often quite a lot. When I was a girl, the Second Wave of feminism was in full swing, in plain sight, in your face, and so the culture around me affirmed what I knew inside me: of course I was a person, no less real and valuable than a boy. And so I wasn't much shaken by any bigotry to the contrary in my literature.*

It's difficult, however, to know whether to recommend books with such anachronistic views in them, especially in the cases where we ourselves are not members of the group that's being disparaged. People have struggled with the depiction of American Indians in the Little House books, for example. Colleen Mondor discussed some of these issues when she blogged about reading Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's Cross Creek. I look at Booth Tarkington's Penrod and Alice Adams, the latter a recipient of the 1922 Pulitzer Prize. Both are delightful and wonderfully written books in many ways--except that much of what Tarkington writes about his African-American characters is cringe-inducing. Therefore, should we forget these books? Does the bad overshadow everything good in them? Or is it better to read such books with today's children and discuss history, and the books' flaws and misconceptions forthrightly? And who decides?

I don't know. I've wanted to blog about this issue for a long time, but since I obviously have a bunch of questions and no answers, I hesitated. Now I've decided I might as well put the questions out there, for what it's worth.

One thing I am cautious about is getting on too high a horse about any of this: "We were so ignorant in the past, but we're so enlightened now." I believe and hope we are more enlightened, but I always wonder what in today's literature will make our children and our grandchildren cringe when they read it decades from now.

*Which isn't to say that I thought chauvinism was completely dead, completely a relic of the past. But overall, there was a sense that the tide had turned, that the full empowerment of women was, if not a present reality, inevitable in the not-so-distant future. These days, I'm not so sure. But that's another story.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


If you've ever seen writers talk about retreats and wished you could do one, except that you don't have money, or a crowd of like-minded friends, or a glamorous location to visit ... well, you don't actually need any of those things.

You only need two things: time and space.

The time can be of almost any length, although retreats commonly range from a weekend to a week. "Going on retreat" is just a way of formally carving out a block of time where writing comes first.

The space can be anywhere. In a pinch, the retreat can occur by barricading yourself into a congenial corner of your house or apartment. But generally it's best to get out of your usual living space, because otherwise the temptation will be strong to "just throw that load of laundry in," "just take that call," "just run that errand," "just open the mail," "just take the dog to the park," etc., instead of writing. The space need not be fancy. It can be a motel or a B&B in an area where such accommodations are inexpensive. It can be a room in a place that specializes in retreats. It can be a friend's or relative's vacation home in the off-season. It can be a house-sitting gig. You may even be able to win a fellowship to a writers' colony. My own preference is for a place that's soothing and attractive, with space for walks.

Beyond that, you decide: retreat alone, or with friends? Does solitude scare you or refresh you? Will the presence of strangers hamper you or stir your creativity? Will you be tempted to socialize instead of write? If you're sharing the space, have you all agreed on the "quiet hours" and the rules of the house?

Will you go in with a specific goal--finish a revision or a draft, complete certain assignments? Or are you going to let your imagination play? Are you going to start that idea you've always had in the back of your mind, and see if it works?

How many hours a day do you expect to write? What will you do on breaks, and how will you manage your time?

How available will you be to others? I typically would turn on my phone for half of every day, and would call my husband once a day while on retreat. I warned people in advance that I would not be checking email for a week, and gave out my phone number to those few people who might have an urgent need to reach me. (So far, nothing urgent has ever happened while I've been on retreat.)

Retreats allow us to put the rest of life on hold. The writing that we often fit in between a hundred other activities is given all the room it wants.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

YA Books about Suicide

Since writing Try Not to Breathe, in which the main character recovers from a suicide attempt, I thought it might be useful to compile a list of YA novels that deal with suicide (or suicide attempts) as a major topic. There are many, many nonfiction titles out there; a simple search will turn up scores, including a book I mentioned earlier, Why Suicide? But for fiction, I've prepared this as a reference post. Suggestions for additional titles are welcome.

The After Girls, Leah Konen
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
By the Time You Read This, I'll Be Dead, Julie Anne Peters
Cracked, K. M. Walton
Crash Into Me, Albert Borris
Empty, K. M. Walton
Every You, Every Me, David Levithan and Jonathan Farmer
Fall for Anything, Courtney Summers
Five Minutes More, Darlene Ryan
Hold Still, Nina LaCour
Impulse, Ellen Hopkins
I Swear, Lane Davis
It's Kind of a Funny Story, Ned Vizzini
Mercy Lily, Lisa Albert
My Beautiful Failure, Janet Ruth Young
The Opposite of Music, Janet Ruth Young
Orchards, Holly Thompson
The Pact: A Love Story, Jodi Picoult
Saving June, Hannah Harrington
The Shattering, Karen Healey
Stay with Me, Garret Freymann-Weyr
Suicide Notes: A Novel, Michael Thomas Ford
Survive, Alex Morel
13 Reasons Why, Jay Asher
This Song Will Save Your Life, Leila Sales
Trigger, Susan Vaught
Try Not to Breathe, Jennifer R. Hubbard
Twisted, Laurie Halse Anderson
What They Always Tell Us, Martin Wilson
You Know Where to Find Me, Rachel Cohn

Note: These books deals with characters who have coped with thoughts and consequences of suicide. If you are in a similar situation, please talk to someone immediately.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:

Thursday, March 15, 2012

It's been done before, or, the snapped twig

As writers, we're taught to shy away from cliches. We start out with confidence, thinking, "That's easy advice to take! I'm never going to say, 'red as a beet' or 'sweet as sugar.'" But then we learn, to our horror, how very many stock phrases are out there--"my stomach churned," "out of the corner of my eye," etc. We find more and more of them in our work, and we dutifully root them out.

Then we discover that people who read a lot see patterns that the average reader may not even notice. Oh no; it's another crop of cliches! Now we have more lists to remember, as we learn that red-haired characters, and characters describing themselves in a mirror, and best friends becoming attracted to one another, are situations to avoid.

The problem is, there are so many of these phrases and situations that have been done before. I reached a point where I began to feel overwhelmed by the lists, paralyzed by self-censorship. It was then that I thought: Enough. I have to go back to my gut check, and write what feels right, and not worry so much about whether it's a cliche to someone else.

Because you know one thing that is on those lists of no-nos? Starting a book with a character waking up. And yet that's how The Hunger Games starts, and I think we all know how well that has turned out for Suzanne Collins.

I'm not going to say that we don't have to worry about originality and freshness. We do. But I want to look at the reason behind avoiding cliches. A phrase or situation becomes tired when it's done out of laziness. When we use it not because it feels true to the story we're telling, but because we've seen it happen that way before, so we grab the stock phrase or character or situation off the shelf and plug it right in, without asking,"Is this really how it feels, how it happens? Is this true?"

For example: One situation we've probably all seen is a character who's sneaking through the woods and is betrayed by stepping on, and snapping, a twig. That's a pet peeve of mine, in fact. But I'm not going to say it can't work in a story. To extend my "for-instance" by referring to The Hunger Games again: Collins establishes that Katniss and Gale, the hunters, are very quiet in the forest. But Peeta, who's been raised in town, has never learned to move with that sort of stealth. So if we had a situation involving those characters where Peeta snapped a twig, I would totally buy it. Not so much Katniss or Gale.

A character can snap that twig if he really would be in the woods and really wouldn't know how not to snap a twig, given who he is and what's happening. Maybe it's a little harder to sell a reader on a snapped twig, since that one has been done so many times before. But anything can work if it's right for the story.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Not standing still

I used to like the music of the Rolling Stones quite a lot, and then I got out of the habit of listening to them. Recently I've been listening again, only to discover that I still like the music.

It's interesting to hear songs recorded by one band over a span of decades. One thing that strikes me is the change in lead vocalist Mick Jagger's singing over the years. In the early Stones songs, he doesn't just sound young; his voice is more raw and uncertain than it became later. (For example, compare "Not Fade Away" and "Tell Me (You're Coming Back)," circa 1964, with later songs.) I don't find the young Jagger's voice unpleasant--far from it--but at some point, he hit his stride. By the time of 1972's Exile on Main Street, he was singing with power and authority.

According to Keith Richards in his autobiography, Life, Jagger began taking singing lessons somewhere along the line--partly, Richards believes, in an effort to preserve his voice, and make sure it would last. Not every singer who fronted a band as successful as the Stones would do that. It must be tempting to lounge atop one's laurels, but Jagger didn't.

Now, not being privy to the inner workings of the band, I don't really know why the confidence in this singer's voice increased. Was it from studying the craft? Finding his range? The fact that he began to record more songs he and Keith Richards had written themselves, instead of covering others' material? Was it just growing older? Whatever it was, the difference is noticeable.

I see the same growth in the lyrics of Beatles songs. (Compare the words to "I Saw Her Standing There" or "Love Me Do" with those of "Eleanor Rigby" and "Norwegian Wood.") The early Beatles songs were successful, but the band wasn't content to go on making the same album over and over. They changed and grew.

The challenge for any artist who produces work over years or decades is to grow, and to make sure the work grows. Not every experiment on that path will be fruitful. There are bound to be missteps. And it's tempting to stick with something that works once, to repeat it again and again. But if chart-topping musicians can keep working and growing, that might just be a good example to follow. Besides, it keeps us from going stale.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


I think I forgot to mention that while Judith Graves was here guest blogging for me about a favorite childhood book, I was over at her blog talking about fear, and how I used my character's fears in writing Try Not to Breathe.

The giveaway there is now closed, but if you're still in the mood for free stuff, don't forget Bryan Cohen's giveaway of his book The Post-College Guide to Happiness, plus a Kindle Fire.

And if you'd like to bid on some books and help a good cause at the same time, please hop over to the Authors for Henryville auction and raffle.

Around here, the earliest-blooming cherry trees have begun to blossom. (The cherries bloom in three phases: the early ones, like the Okame cherry; then the weeping cherries; then the late ones, like the Kwanzan cherry.) I know where all the early-blooming cherries are around here, and now that I know they're blooming, I seek them out. There's one particularly large, showy tree on a certain corner lot that I always make sure to see. If it were ever cut down, I would be dismayed. I would lose one little ritual of spring.

It got me thinking about characters and their rituals, their comforts, their treasures. My characters have just as many as I do. For Colt in The Secret Year, the river was the place that grounded him and meant "home." Ryan in Try Not to Breathe has the waterfall, the quarry, and a painting given to him by a girl he likes. The main characters in my work in progress have their own special places and items and activities.

This is actually a big part of the way I get to know a character. I always want to know what's important to him or her, where he or she turns for emotional nourishment. I may not know what he ate for breakfast or what her favorite teacher's name was, but I know what they can't stand to lose.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Guest post: Happiness

Today's post features a visit from Bryan Cohen, who has just written a nonfiction book about the quest for happiness.

Bryan Cohen here, guest poster and author, promoting my new book The Post-College Guide to Happiness for The Happiness Blog Tour. I'm giving away free digital review copies of the book and doing a giveaway for paperback copies, audio copies and even a Kindle Fire! Read on and check out the info below the post.

"Just as a cautious businessman avoids investing all his capital in one concern, so wisdom would probably admonish us also not to anticipate all our happiness from one quarter alone."
- Sigmund Freud

All the Eggs

One of my major interests during college was to learn the art of directing from some amazing theatre teachers. I'd always loved watching movies and plays, so it made complete sense that I'd want to create such work myself. A wonderful piece of advice I received from my instructors was that you shouldn't push a performance or production to go exactly how you see it in your head. This stifles originality and how organically the show can come together on its own. You might miss something truly inspired and amazing if you force it to be exactly one way or another.

It took me a long time to realize that this is exactly the way that life works as well. Even though I enjoyed writing, I assumed that a good sense of humor meant I should go "all in" when it came to improv comedy. I realized early on that I wasn't getting as much fulfillment as I wanted from these kooky comedic performances, but I continued to force myself to do it for years, ignoring the writing parts of me that were just waiting to get out. When I finally let go, the success I gained from my writing truly blossomed over the course of the next couple of years. By giving myself more freedom and not assuming that I would find success in a particular way, success found me.

Unsurprisingly, by permitting myself to have more leeway in my activities, I became happier as well. I always wanted to have a plan for my life and I wanted to hit every bullet point on my list. How many of us do that to ourselves? We said we wanted to have that huge job by the time we're 30 or to be married and have some amount of kids by a certain point as well. We figure that we'll be happy as soon as we fill in another check mark next to that aspect of our lives. There are two main problems with that. The first is that if you don't reach that goal, you feel depressed. The second is that even when you get there, it usually isn't quite as fulfilling as you expected it to be.

Instead of putting all your happiness eggs in one basket, it's best to go for a more well-rounded approach. Make your work life and your home life strong. Put time into good causes but also treat your body well with proper food and exercise. You don't have to be perfect in every area, but it's often the attempt to be flawless in one singular area that actually lowers your levels of happiness. Spread your eggs around a bit to lead a much more fulfilling and omelet-filled life.

Bryan Cohen is giving away 61 paperback and audio copies of The Post-College Guide to Happiness and a Kindle Fire between now and May 7th, 2012 on The Happiness Blog Tour. All entrants receive a free digital review copy of The Post-College Guide to Happiness. Bryan hopes to give away at least 1,000 copies during the blog tour. To enter, post a comment with your e-mail address or send an e-mail to postcollegehappiness (at) Bryan will draw the names at the end of the tour. Entries will be counted through Sunday, May 6th.

Bryan Cohen is a writer, actor and comedian from Dresher, Pennsylvania. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2005 with degrees in English and Dramatic Art and a minor in Creative Writing. He has written nine books including 1,000 Creative Writing Prompts: Ideas for Blogs, Scripts, Stories and More, 500 Writing Prompts for Kids: First Grade through Fifth Grade, Writer on the Side: How to Write Your Book Around Your 9 to 5 Job and his new book, 1,000 Character Writing Prompts: Villains, Heroes and Hams for Scripts, Stories and More. His website Build Creative Writing Ideas helps over 25,000 visitors a month to push past writer's block and stay motivated.

Feel free to follow along with the tour at The Happiness Blog Tour Hub Page or on the book's Facebook Page.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Vital details

One of the pleasures of reading, and especially of rereading, is seeing the significance of little clues sprinkled early in a story. And watching the natural development of character and plot in unexpected, and yet somehow inevitable, directions.

I'll use The Hunger Games as an example because it's been so widely read (but I'll include my SEMI-SPOILER warning here, even though I suspect I was the last person to read this book). Anyway, here we go:

From the 2nd sentence: "My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth ..."  The main character's attachment to her sister, Prim, is one of the driving forces of the trilogy. It sets Katniss's participation in the Hunger Games in motion, and it is the reason for Katniss's actions at the end of the series. So it is fitting that we learn about Prim immediately.

Two paragraphs later, we meet Buttercup, Prim's cat. We will see Buttercup rarely in the series, but always at critical moments, where he will symbolize something precious. (Ironically so, since Buttercup himself is a pretty rough customer.)

Early on in this fictional world, we discover that Katniss and her friend Gale are both good hunters. Katniss is especially skilled with bow and arrow, Gale with traps and snares. At first, we think these details are shown to us just to give the characters depth, to make us feel that we know them. But Katniss's skill plays a critical part in the Hunger Games and in several subsequent events in the trilogy. And Gale's skill turns out to be far more important than we could ever imagine, playing a critical part in the climax of the entire series. Things could not have happened the way they happened in book 3 without that crucial detail.

I love the way Collins used these character traits in the plot. Stories are not collections of random events and details--in that way, they differ from life. We choose only those details that have meaning. It's like constructing a building: the foundation, beams, bricks, windows, and stairs all have purpose. We won't usually have a random piece of wood sticking way out of the building at an angle, serving no function. We won't lug bags full of stones up to the roof and dump them there and do nothing with them. We may have decorative elements, but we choose them to fit the atmosphere of the building.

Everything in a story belongs. And ideally, each detail is brought in early enough so that it is a natural part of the world, and doesn't look like a bad retrofit.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Books of our youth: Spirited heroines, then and now

Last year, I asked several writers to share their tales of writing and publishing their second books. This year, I'm interested in the books we read in our youth that stick with us. I hope to feature a series of guest posts on this topic. First up is Judith Graves, author of UNDER MY SKIN and SECOND SKIN, for an interesting connection between a classic favorite and today's paranormal stories:

As a teen I read a lot of classics, as well as fantasy, sci-fi, and horror fiction, still the genres I prefer today. However, in my tweens I enjoyed the writings of one Canadian author, Lucy Maud Montgomery. Perhaps it’s because I lived in Summerside, Prince Edward Island as a young girl – Anne mania has a solid hold on island residents and it left a lasting impression on me - from my enduring love of the sea, to my love of Anne of Green Gables.

I’ve re-read Anne’s story many times. While I occasionally take on the entire series (there are around ten books in total), I usually pick up my dog-eared copy of the first title to be enthralled with Anne’s adventurers once more (the slate scene – priceless!). This is a character that stands the test of time. Anne is smart, independent, imaginative, stubborn, impulsive, wild and cautious all at once. She has the perfect love interest in Gilbert Blythe, who pushes her to excel. Her best friend, Diana acts as an excellent foil – girly, popular, and yet willing to join Anne on her escapades. As with much of our current MG / YA fiction, Anne is an orphan, yet manages to forge an extended family with Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, her loyal friends, and a few key teachers / adults along the way.

When I compare Anne’s story to my own SKINNED series, I see a lot of the young, fiery redhead in my main character, Eryn. Eryn’s an orphan sent to live in a small town after big city life in Vancouver (sea connection!), she’s outspoken – a real smartass – and that often gets her in trouble, she doesn’t like asking for help, and she’s fiercely loyal to those she considers “pack”. Swap cow pastures and potato fields with werewolf dens and a whole crop of paranormal creatures, and, yeah – Anne’s influence is there – it’s just wrapped up in a cloak of secrets, magic, myth and impending doom.

Now that I’ve branched into writing steampunk and have a new series in the works, I see Anne’s influence even more so in the pseudo-Victorian world I’m creating for Amelia Strangeways and the STRANGEWAYS novels. The formality, the restrictions upon women. It’s so much fun writing a character who can challenge the social norms to benefit others.

So, I thank you Maud, for providing such a brilliant example of a great female lead character – and for doing so in 1908, when women didn’t even have the right to vote.


A firm believer that Canadian teen fiction can be sexy, action packed and snarky as hell – Judith Graves writes paranormal stories with attitude.

Monday, March 5, 2012

This is my brain on revisions

I was doing some internet research on mosquitoes, including their lifespan, and one of the search terms the search engine suggested to me was, "mosquito lifestyle."

It doesn't take a huge joke to amuse me, or to keep amusing me. Especially now, at the end of a big revision that has sucked up quite a few brain cells. I have had several chuckles out of "mosquito lifestyle" in the past 24 hours. Heck, I don't think the existence I've cobbled together for myself, beautiful as it is, qualifies as a "lifestyle." But insects get to have a lifestyle? Does it involve sports cars, I wonder? Sunglasses? Ascots? I'll bet it involves ascots.

You can see that the once-upon-a-time TV show "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" has forever influenced my perception of the word "lifestyle." Not that I ever really watched the show. The title told me enough: rich and famous people don't just have lives, they have lifestyles.

Such is the way a writer's brain works. I started with wanting to know how long mosquitoes live (they tend to die off when the temperature drops consistently below 50 degrees, just in case you've been waiting since my first paragraph for that big reveal). And I ended up thinking about ascots.

My point today is that, as much as writers complain about the downsides of writing--the energy required, the uncertainty, the self-doubt--sometimes an imagination is just a fun thing to have.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Who is the real audience?

The tension between art and commerce is often expressed as a clash between the spiritual and material. At its bluntest and most oversimplified, it's expressed as: Do I write from my heart and tell my True Stories, or do I sell out and make a lot of money?

And of course, it's not nearly that simple. First of all, neither of those things--writing from the heart or writing big-selling books--is easy. It's not a matter of snapping one's fingers and deciding to do it. Coming up with original ideas and polishing one's craft to a shine require tremendous commitment, and effort doesn't guarantee achievement; a writer can still miss the mark. Writing a bestseller does not mean stringing together a bunch of trendy cliches and watching the money roll in.

Obviously, what most writers want to do is write what they love and sell a bajillion copies, but that's the hardest trick of all. And so there's a more subtle version of this conflict that plays out in the lives of many writers: Do I write this story that's calling to me, but that my agent doesn't think he can sell? Do I try to write in the genre that's selling big right now?

There is no single right answer to those questions. A writer may pursue the story that sings to her, but find no readers for it. But there's no guarantee she'll find readers when she tries a popular genre, either. On the other hand, she may try a new genre because it's currently hot and find that she loves it and feels at home in it. That balance of risks and rewards is an individual decision.

Ultimately, it's natural for a writer to want to please herself and to please readers. It's an interesting task we take on: to express something meaningful or entertaining, and to have it relevant to someone outside our own rooms.

I know writers who say they never worry about the audience. And I know writers who say the reader is their foremost concern, that the reader is what it's all about. From reading their work, I know that either approach can produce good books.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


Sheela Chari has a great post today in which she talks about how writers "should be careful not to interpret everything for our reader, and to tell them how to think about our characters." I happen to agree (as both a reader and a writer, my preference is having more room for reader imagination and interpretation), although I've noticed that readers vary in how much they want explained, described, and interpreted. I don't think there is any one style that suits all readers, but rather that readers gravitate toward writers who use the style they prefer. But it's something to think about, because the writer always has to leave some room for the reader. And filling in too much can really slow a story down.

I'm the guest blogger at Carmen Ferreiro Esteban's today, talking about "my road to publication. Since Carmen discusses both traditional and self-publishing, I tried to raise some points worth considering for writers who are wondering which road might be right for them.

And I want to give a congratulatory shout-out to my friend Kelly Fineman on the release of her debut picture book today: At the Boardwalk! Illustrated by Monica Armino with a depth and a glowing beauty that set off Kelly's poetry, this is a true treasure:

Today may be a chilly March day, but you can breathe in the sea air and soak up the sun through Kelly's lyrical words, which bring alive a day at the shore.

And since nobody throws an online launch party like Jama Rattigan, I urge you to head to Jama's for glimpses inside Kelly's book, and (of course) celebratory virtual treats!