Friday, June 29, 2012

Reading, writing, community

In his book, How to Be Alone, Jonathan Franzen discusses the work of Shirley Brice Heath, who did research on why and how people become readers. One type of reader she identified was the "'social isolate--the child who from an early age felt very different from everyone around him.'" According to Heath, such readers find a strong imaginary community within books: "'And so the important dialogue in your life is with the authors of the books you read. Though they aren't present, they become your community.'" She also found that this type of reader is especially likely to become a writer. As Franzen puts it: "If writing was the medium of communication within the community of childhood, it makes sense that when writers grow up they continue to find writing vital to their sense of connectedness."

This is probably the first time I've seen anyone put into words my experience as a reader and a writer. I have always found reading to be a strong and intimate form of communication, one that has been very satisfying to me all my life. It does provide me with emotional and social sustenance, not just cerebral exercise. It did serve me especially well in the years when I had fewer "real-life" friends, the years when I rarely found others who shared my interests and viewpoints. I have become a writer, and I find writing to be not so much a chosen activity as it is a vital part of my life.

I also think this is why I embrace blogging and Twitter: they are written exchanges, and my correspondents are not limited by geography. Those of us with similar interests and viewpoints tend to find one another even if we are miles apart.

Do you recognize yourself in any of this?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Appearances, and a farewell

It was my turn to blog at YA Outside the Lines, which I did here, on the topic of "Appearances: revealing and deceptive." It's about our characters' appearances, and when and why appearances matter. An excerpt: "When physical details are mentioned, I like them to matter to the theme, plot, or characterization."

I'm sad today about the loss of Nora Ephron, one of my favorite writers. I think I own every book of essays she ever published, as well as her novel, Heartburn. For many years I reread her books of essays from the '70s and '80s and wished she would write more. Instead, she was writing screenplays. And while I liked her movies, I've never been nearly as big a fan of movies as I am of books.

And then she did publish more short nonfiction, just as I'd hoped. I snatched up I Feel Bad About My Neck (2006) and I Remember Nothing (2010) as soon as they came out. The latter collection especially is about mortality; there are many pieces about getting older, about change and loss. She essentially wrote her own valedictory: the last two pieces in the book are simply lists, titled "What I Won't Miss" and "What I Will Miss." And still, the book is also sharp (as her writing always is) and often funny. For example, "The Six Stages of E-Mail" sums up, in just four pages, how the human relationship with technology often evolves (from "Wheeeee! I've got mail!" to "Help! I'm drowning. I have 112 unanswered e-mails").

From the list of what she will miss: Paris. Pride and Prejudice. Twinkle lights. Laughs. Thanksgiving dinner.
And pie.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Tell me a story

Have you ever gone to a show where you scrunch down in your seat when the person onstage asks for a volunteer from the audience?
Have you ever felt resentful at a concert where the musician, instead of inspiring people to clap or dance by playing with energy and enthusiasm, tries to force the audience into participation by nagging them ("Come on now, everyone, come on!")?
Do you shun participatory theater where "the audience is part of the show?"

These aren't rhetorical questions. I really want to know if I'm the only one who feels this way.

I enjoy giving talks and being on panels and doing other things onstage, when I'm a featured speaker. But when I'm part of an audience, especially if I've paid to be part of an audience, I want to be entertained. I love clapping or dancing when I'm genuinely moved; I'll ask a question if there's something I really want to know. But generally, I prefer not to be forced into the spotlight when I'm expecting to sit with the house lights turned down.

I bring this up because people talk more and more now about interactive media in the book world; for example, this post on Nathan Bransford's blog about whether black-and-white text will come to seem old-school. I remember seeing or hearing a report once (on TV? Radio?) about how interactive TV hasn't progressed as quickly as people thought it would, because the audience seems to enjoy a passive viewing experience. They don't necessarily want to come up with the lines, direct the show, figure out the ending; they want to sit back and enjoy a good story. And while pictures, music, hyperlinks, and video clips may end up enhancing e-books, I wonder how far we will really go with interactivity. Even our current audience participation at live events tends to be very formal: the audience comments at Kabuki theater conform to certain rules; musical groups in the US prepare to do one encore and audiences clap long enough to get them to do it, but quickly abandon the applause afterward because they know one encore is it. Audiences have rituals at sporting events and parades. And having marched on Washington, I can tell you that even our protests follow rules and rituals!

We had the option for interactivity back in the days when storytelling was entirely oral, and now I'd like to be a fly on the wall and see how much the audiences shouted out suggestions to the storyteller or changed the direction of the story. I imagine that it happened, but was it spontaneous or did it quickly become predictable, ritualized? As anyone who has read to a child knows, part of the fun the child has in rehearing a story is in knowing how it's going to turn out. Knowing what's supposed to happen next because it always happens that way. And so I wonder: How much do people want to control and change stories, and how much do they like passivity and familiarity?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

When it isn't working

I read two interesting posts recently about knowing when to give up on a project, and knowing when to back up and start over.

The first is by Lydia Sharp on "Knowing When to Let Go." A sample: "But this is normal for anyone who pursues creative work. In the beginning you will have abandoned more work than you complete. It's part of the learning curve."

The second is actually about quilting, but Marina's "Lessons Learned" post applies equally well to writing. It's mostly about taking the time to do things right, and being willing to go back and do them over if necessary. A sample: "... maybe you tell yourself that’s the best job you can do when really deep down you know you could make it better ..."

To me, both of these posts are about reaching the next level in our work. Knowing when to move on. The first is about abandoning what doesn't work; the second is about paying attention and then fixing what we can. Both experiences are part of growing and getting better at what we do.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Once more, with feeling

The manuscript I'm working on now is in at least its 16th major draft. I can count the drafts by looking at my files, since I number them. If I've nicknamed a project "Starlight" (for example), my files will be starlight, starlight2, starlight3, and so on. When I submit, I rename the file with the formal title, and any revisions then become "rev1," "rev2," or something like that.

I start a new numbered file whenever I'm making such significant changes that I'm not sure how they're going to work out, so I want to preserve the previous version just in case. That's what I'm counting as a major draft. But within each major draft, I've done countless* passes through the file.

Naturally, my editors have not seen all 16 drafts. The first version they saw was much closer to #16 than #1.

Out of curiosity, I looked back at The Secret Year and Try Not to Breathe to see how many drafts they took. The Secret Year was somewhere around its 8th or 9th major draft when acquired, and I did two more post-acquisition. The 11th or 12th version of Try Not to Breathe was the first one that went to my editor, and I did a few more drafts after that. (My brave agent first saw the 3rd or 4th draft of that one, which is much earlier than I usually show a book to anyone, but that project was unusual.)

I'm not sure if I've really been doing more drafts with each project, or if I just save my files more often. It could be both.

I'm sharing these details just because I always find it comforting whenever writers admit they don't pound out perfect prose right out of the gate. And to emphasize just how important revision is. For me, writing is mostly about rewriting.

*Well, one could count them, of course. But I choose not to, for fear it would depress me. Also because I am too blinking lazy.

p.s. If you'd like to talk writer craft in person this weekend, and you're anywhere near Mays Landing, NJ, please consider joining us for this:

Saturday, June 23, 2 - 4 PM: Panel on writing: "I've Finished My First Draft, Now What?" Atlantic County Library (Mays Landing Branch), 40 Farragut Ave., Mays Landing, NJ. Appearing with New Jersey Authors Network.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Books of our youth: from trees to bees

Today's focus is on writing for the younger set. If you're in the Philadelphia area, consider this workshop by Jessica Dimuzio, who self-published a picture book: "Would I Do It Again?" Self Publishing Workshop: June 21 (for details, see link).

My guest post today is also by a picture-book writer, Alison Ashley Formento. This is the latest installment of my "Books of our youth" series, in which writers talk about the books that have stuck with them:

"Miss Suzy was a little gray squirrel who lived all by herself at the tip, tip, top of a tall oak tree." This is the first line of MISS SUZY, written by Miriam Young and illustrated by Arnold Lobel, originally published in 1964 and re-released in a special 40th anniversary edition in 2004. MISS SUZY is one of my favorite picture books from my childhood, and my very-battered-much-loved copy holds a special place of honor on my desk propped next to my own books.


A tall oak tree is illustrated on the opening and ending pages, just like in my first picture book THIS TREE COUNTS! Gray squirrels live in my tree story, too, along with several other forest creatures. At author appearances, I show children a photo of the local tree that I love to climb that inspired my first picture book, but I have no doubt that the glorious oak tree in MISS SUZY was a subconscious inspiration, too.

MISS SUZY has to face loss, hunger, and danger to keep her tree home, and along the way she makes friends with some kind toy soldiers, who help her return to her beloved oak. Who doesn't want to feel safe and live in a home that they love?

Miss Suzy is courageous. She appreciates and cares for her home the way we all must care for our planet. I only wish that I could have met Miriam Young and Arnold Lobel to tell them how much this story and its illustrations continue to inspire me and my writing.


Alison Formento is the author of the award-winning picture book THIS TREE COUNTS!, THIS TREE, 1, 2, 3, and newly released THESE BEES COUNT! (And if you go to her website, you can see her in full beekeeper garb--which you yourself can try on when you see her live at bookstores and book fairs.)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Odds and ends

Random thoughts today:

--This line in one of Jack Kerouac's letters made me chuckle:
"What's going on? How can there be so much silence emanating from so many manuscripts?"
Even though he wrote that to his agent, Sterling Lord, in 1955*, it's a sentence that today's writers still utter from time to time. Plus ca change ...

--I wrote a guest post for Jennifer M. Eaton on the topic, "Your Mileage May Vary," about how one size rarely fits all when it comes to writing and publishing advice. A sample: "If I’ve learned anything from knowing other writers, it’s that there are many, many paths through this business. If there were only one path, one formula that worked for everyone, we’d all be using it and we’d all be rich."

--Tying that "find your path" idea in with more from Kerouac: When he was trying to get his second book published, he was advised to "'get away from Beat G[eneration] themes.'"* When that second book was finally published--On the Road, the book still most closely associated with the Beat Generation--it became a phenomenon. Good thing he didn't follow that advice.

--I've sponsored a few Kickstarter campaigns, but I've never experienced anything like the energy of the Kickstarter campaign to distribute the film "Fat Kid Rules the World." (This movie is based on the excellent YA novel of the same name by K.L. Going.) These guys spread the word like crazy, and kept the contributors updated as the campaign raced to the wire (it did meet its funding goal). The whole thing has been great fun to be a part of.

*source: Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956, edited by Ann Charters.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


This post is partly just for fun, but it's also related to character quirks.

I was thinking about the things I don't like that most other people seem to, and it occurred to me that in such things (as well as things we're not "supposed to" like that we actually do) may be found some of the uniqueness of our fictional characters. So I came up with these lists:

Things I Should Like But Don't:
--new car smell
--raw cookie dough
--alcoholic beverages

Things I Shouldn't Like But Do:
--the Academy Awards (given that I rarely watch movies and usually haven't seen any of the nominees in a given year, it's a mystery to me why I still care who wins; and given my general indifference to fashion, I can't explain why I have to see every gown)
--Cheesy '70s pop music
--shoveling snow
--shag carpeting

In what ways do your characters' tastes depart from those of the mainstream, or their peer groups? Does your 17-year-old male MC have a secret fondness for Lawrence Welk? Does your edgy, rebellious 16-year-old female MC still watch children's movies and get weepy over the endings? Do they get together and form a kazoo band, or study the stock market? How do these characteristics relate to the main plot?

For bonus fun, see this tongue-in-cheek editing chart over at Terri-Lynne DeFino's blog. Sure, you may know the editorial symbols for "delete" and "transpose," but do you know the symbols for "characters should fight" or "remove permanently from your lexicon?"

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The joys of revision

One of the paradoxes of writing is that it is a miserable, difficult, complicated, unpredictable, confusing activity that is a source of great joy, meaning, fulfillment, and satisfaction.

Go figure.

In that spirit, I greatly enjoyed this conversation over at Three Guys One Book called, "Why revising your novel is like wanting to throw up." The participants in this lively dialogue go on about self-doubt, writer brain vs. editor brain, rejection, and the temptation to give up. And--paradox alert!--even though I agree with practically every word they say, I also think writing is the greatest job around, and I'm not a martyr either. Here's a sample: "The saying goes, 'Everyone has a novel in them.' I disagree. Everyone has the first 50 pages of a novel in them. Writers are the ones who can finish a book." Also: " ... an agent once left my manuscript in the produce section of Gristedes supermarket, and I got a call from the manager saying he had my novel, and what should he do with it?"

In other news, I'll be part of a great event at Mendham Books (Mendham, NJ) this Saturday at 2 PM. From the store's blog: "Natalie Zaman, Charlotte Bennardo, Amalie Howard, Jennifer Hubbard, Alissa Grosso, and Margie Gelbwasser will be here on Saturday, June 16th at 2:00 P.M. for a joint discussion and signing of their recent books ... There will be activities, such as a twenty questions game, in which readers can ask the author a question about a book, writing, or the author. There will also be drawings for prizes."

And now, it's back to the joys of revision!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Can you judge the quality of your own work?

Sometimes I think writers know in their guts when they've written something great. Sometimes I meet writers who are too modest about how great their work is. Sometimes I look back at work I thought was good when I first started out, and I realize it ... wasn't. Sometimes I look back at a story I wrote years ago and didn't think much of back then, but now I realize it has really held up.

Do you know how good your writing is?

Friday, June 8, 2012

Getting real and leaving the nest

In this interview over at Three Guys One Book, Joshua Henkin said: "But you’re right—in terms of where my interests as a writer lie, they’re in realist fiction. I think the world as we know it, the world as I know it, is infinitely wondrous; I don’t need any more magic than that."


To write realist fiction in today's YA world is to feel a bit second-best, a bit out of step. The success of realist writers like John Green and Sarah Dessen notwithstanding, it's undeniable that most of the attention right now goes to fantasy, paranormal, and dystopian titles, led by blockbusters such as Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games. Most realist writers are urged by others, or perhaps even ask themselves occasionally: Oh why don't you just go ahead and throw in some vampires/zombies/wizards/angels/apocalyptic events already?

And there are a few reasons why I don't. The biggest is: although I've read some great books in those categories, books I recommend, those genres are not where I feel most at home. Now, I never say never. I may someday try my hand at, say, a ghost story, but if I ever do, it won't be a case of "throwing in" a paranormal element to try to fit in with the cool kids. People who write excellent fantasy and paranormal books do it, for the most part, because they're fans of the genre, they love their imaginary worlds, and they're excited by their stories. If I tried to fake it, readers would be able to tell, so I won't write it unless I can do so with genuine enthusiasm.

Right now I am--like Joshua Henkin--still so dazzled by the possibilities of realism that it's what I'm writing (and mostly what I'm reading).

A staple of YA literature, whether realist or paranormal, is the coming-of-age story. And I want to share a real-life coming-of-age story that's up on Tracy Abell's blog right now. It's a very short story, and it's told mostly in pictures. But it captures perfectly that moment of "leaving the nest"--literally. The last photo on the post especially got to me: it's the essence of what I try to capture in any YA protagonist, even though in this case it's a hawk rather than a human.

As a supplement to her post, the moment when the final hawk (the one looking like he is dealing with the weight of the world in that last picture) leaves the nest is captured here. To me, that sequence of photos and that video rank right up there with the best YA books. The next time someone asks me why I read and write YA, I should just point them to Tracy's blog post.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

D-Day: A tale of two writers

On this day, I think of 6/6/44. It happened before I was born, but this is what I think of:

--Soldiers landing on the beaches of Normandy. Among them, JD Salinger.
--Anne Frank and her family clustered around a radio in their hiding place, listening to the news that the long-awaited invasion had begun. Their excitement that freedom was finally close at hand.
--The beaches where I walked myself about 50 years after D-Day, beaches still marked with bomb craters and pieces of bunkers. Beaches where we were told not to dig because of the risk of unexploded ordnance. Cliffs that I was glad I did not have to climb while wearing waterlogged combat gear and dodging enemy fire.

On that day, Anne Frank was safe. Her family would not be captured for another two months. JD Salinger was in a battle with horrible casualties. (More battles with high casualty rates would follow.) Yet he survived the war; she did not.

We never know how the story will turn out.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Frustrations and joys

In 1952, Jack Kerouac was trying to get his second book published. After this book, On the Road, was initially rejected, he wrote a different manuscript but reused the title On the Road. This revised "On the Road" would be published much later under the title Visions of Cody (and I'll call this manuscript OTR/VOC for the remainder of this post, to differentiate it from the more famous and different book that became On the Road).

While living in Mexico, Kerouac asked Allen Ginsberg, who was in New York, to be his agent in trying to get OTR/VOC published. The two were friends and colleagues before entering into this business arrangement.

Ginsberg wrote Kerouac a letter that was blunt, though not malicious. Ginsberg recorded not only his own reactions but those of their colleagues John Holmes and Carl Solomon. The gist of the letter: "I don't know if it would make sense to any publisher." Calling it "great but crazy," Ginsberg told Kerouac what he thought the manuscript would need in order to be publishable.

Kerouac responded with the kind of letter many writers have written (even if only in their heads) and, if they were smart, never actually sent. Here are a few choice phrases: "... why they publish Holmes's book which stinks and don't publish mine ... Do you think I don't realize how jealous you are and how you and Holmes and Solomon all would give your right arm to be able to write like the writing in [OTR/VOC] ...  what right has [Holmes], who knows nothing, to pass any kind of judgment on my book ... You're all a bunch of insignificant literary egos ..." He goes on to say not only "never speak to me again" but pulls out all the stops with "so die. ... and die like men ..."

Well, wow.

Not a month later, Kerouac was writing to Holmes to thank him for sending him $50, and to Ginsberg to continue both their friendship and business relationship (Ginsberg wanted to represent another manuscript of his). Ginsberg must have recognized that letter for what it was, an emotional lashing-out, the frustrated expression of what writers often wonder: Why did that book get published and not mine? Why don't people see what I'm trying to do here?

When one has poured heart and soul into a work, has given it everything, it's easy to feel that the work deserves an audience. That is one of the hardest things to accept about the marketing of artistic works: that hard work does not correlate directly with reward, that effort does not produce a directly proportional outcome. In my experience, those who succeed do indeed work hard, but many of those who don't succeed also work very hard. I think this is the source of much frustration with gatekeepers, with the literary establishment, with everyone who seems to have been placed as an obstacle between the writer and the audience. Writers can ask everything from Why didn't they publish my book? through Why didn't they review my book? to Why won't those stores carry my book? and Why won't they promote my book more aggressively? Or, if self-publishing, Why aren't people buying/reviewing/spreading the word about my book?

As it happens, I've read Visions of Cody, the book Kerouac was defending so passionately. I loved it myself, but I would not call it a mainstream work. It's mostly for Beat aficionados and fans of experimental writing. I think Ginsberg's assessment of it was generally correct: it's esoteric, personal, difficult to follow. It's a challenging read. And I say this as a fan of the work. If I owned a publishing company, and this work came across my desk by an unknown writer, is this the book I would expect to make me a fortune? Or--forget fortunes--just to help my company keep the lights on? I'm not sure.

I won't argue that perfectly good books get overlooked by mainstream publishing--and that some of them become breakout successes through nontraditional channels. I don't claim that gatekeepers are perfect. My point is this: It's hard to accept that the mere fact of writing something doesn't obligate anyone to publish it, or buy it, or read it. When we're wearing our reader hats, we don't feel obligated to read every book we encounter (nor could we if we tried); we are choosy. We want to read what we want to read. We don't care how much sweat went into the book, how much the author loved it, how many hours he spent over it or how deeply in poverty he lived while writing it. (If we love the book, we might become interested in the author to the point of caring about those things--and then even read the author's letters sixty years later--but that's unusual.)

Which is why the best part of writing is the writing itself. Many joys come later, if the work finds an audience. But the writing is the part we can enjoy daily, no matter what anyone else thinks.

source: Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956, edited by Ann Charters.

Saturday, June 2, 2012


With the advent of text and email, an interesting phenomenon has sprung up in our language: emoticons.

I rarely see them in formal communications addressed to large audiences, because the larger an audience, the less personal and more general a message becomes. The more formal a message, the more polished it usually is, and the less it will presume upon shared history and personal knowledge. In such communications, nobody needs to stick a smiley or winky face on the end of a joke to say, "This is a joke." That's not the purpose that emoticons serve: they're not intended to emphasize or telegraph what is already clear from a message's content.

Emoticons occur more in short-form and personal communications. They especially occur in messages that used to be transmitted via the spoken word. And what they are doing is taking the place of visual and audio cues that normally accompany spoken words.

Consider the phrase: "Get out of here." In itself, it could be a statement either of dismissal or jest. In face-to-face encounters, we tell the difference partly from context and partly from cues such as tone and loudness of voice, facial expression, and accompanying gestures. A hushed, tense, "Get out of here," accompanied by the turn of a back, is much different from a jovial, "Get out of here!" accompanied by a grin and a playful nudge.

But onscreen, we don't have tone of voice, facial expression, or gestures to help us transmit and decode such messages. And so, rather than clarifying by saying, "I mean this ironically," or, "You have really angered me," we do what we can with punctuation, capital letters, and emoticons to convey the meaning.

Consider this message:

A.  I don't like him.
C.  I don't like him. ;-)
D.  I don't like him. :-P
E.  I don't like him. :-(

Version A is plain and unadorned, and is likely to be taken at face value. Imagine the dismay of someone intending that to be coy or ironic if it were taken seriously. B is emphatic, and may express anger, frustration, or even protesting-too-much. C is coy, implying an attraction the writer wants to admit without admitting. D implies disgust, while E suggests antipathy or possibly hurt.

We've probably all seen situations where someone unintentionally offended another by using words online that were meant to be taken one way but were taken another, just as we've seen real-life situations in which words that could sting if taken seriously were softened by a smile or a light tone of voice. Just kidding, the tone and expression say in person, and "LOL" or "jk" or ";-)" we type online.

In a face-to-face conversation, we might give "I'm listening" cues by nodding, maintaining eye contact, smiling, laughing, or clucking a tongue sympathetically. Online, we might just transmit an emoticon or even click a "like" button to say, "I've heard you; I'm here."

I'm not suggesting we all load up our writing with emoticons. I'm just suggesting that we understand their function in communication, and why it is they have crept into our world.