Tuesday, December 31, 2013

But that other idea is so shiny

"As it turns out, I have had this same crisis with every novel I have written ... . I am sure my idea is horrible, and that a new idea is my only hope. But what I've realized over the years is that every new idea eventually becomes the old idea." --Ann Patchett, "The Getaway Car," This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Patchett has a lot more to say about this, but I don't want to copy her whole article. I relate to her point about novels taking so long to write that it's especially hard (harder, say, than when writing a poem or short story) to keep one's enthusiasm high for the duration of the whole project. Short stories were always satisfying that way: I could draft from beginning to end in one sitting; I could keep the whole thing in my head as I revised; if a story failed I could just go on to the dozens of other stories I had in various stages of completion.

But a novel takes more commitment, more tolerance of the slow times, more trust that all the little ripples you set in motion will reach the various shores you've aimed at. It takes so much longer to build in the layers that a novel needs (a short story can be layered, but it can also be punchy or piercing, and even if it has a hundred layers none of them need to be a hundred acres across, the way the layers of a novel must be). A novel takes more patience. And when a novel fails, it can mean months or years of work without a visible product.

As happy as I am with the books I've written, every single one of them gave me days (or weeks) when I was ready to give up on them, when I'd had enough or didn't see how to fix them or wondered who else would care about them besides me. They also gave me days of pure joy, days when I was so wrapped up in the story that I never wanted to leave that fictional world.

Mostly, it was a matter of waiting out the darker days. Trusting that another day's work might bring me to the corner I needed to turn.

Sunday, December 29, 2013


"Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art you must master the craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours ... . Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story."
--Ann Patchett, "The Getaway Car," This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

This quote reminds me of an article on Quantity vs. Quality that I stumbled across recently (and I'm sorry I can't remember where I first saw this link). The takeaway from it was that putting in the time, repeating exercises again and again, will improve your craft just through sheer volume. (The Write Practice, where this article appeared,  also allowed for the opposite approach, focusing on quality.)

And all of it resonates because I've been cleaning out the boxes and files in my writing office, a slow task that will take a long time, and I have found some truly hideous poems and stories from years ago. But two things struck me about these early efforts:

--That there are so many of them. I wrote a lot. And when I liked a story, I produced multiple versions of it.

--That I've gotten better.

There are people who can write something brilliant the first time they try. But most of us don't. Most of us reach the art through the craft, as Ann Patchett said. People recognize that playing the piano, skating a triple Axel, or hitting a three-point shot in basketball takes practice and repetition. Writing's the same way, in my experience.

I have notebooks full of my stumbling, my practicing. I'm finding that only a small percentage of it is worth keeping. But the sheer quantity of it reminds me how much I have put into writing, and how silly I'm being when I expect things to be easy (say, when I expect to produce a perfect first draft instantly!)

Friday, December 27, 2013


It's my day to blog at YA Outside the Lines, where I talk about the transition from December to January, from old year to new. A sample: "January is the month that gives me trouble: it seems bleak and boring in comparison. The party’s over, quite literally, and what do we have to look forward to?" [hint: I do find some optimism about January eventually!]

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Thirteen memorable books

I’m not going to list all the books I’ve read in 2013, nor the “best” books (too hard to determine), nor necessarily all my favorites. And many of the books I read in 2013 were published in earlier years. But here, just FWIW and in no particular order, are 13 books I read in ’13 that have stuck with me for one reason or another:


Still Alice, by Lisa Genova. A brilliant professor develops early-onset Alzheimer’s. As she loses her memory and her career, what remains of her identity? This story has stayed with me—and based on conversations I’ve had with other readers, I’m not the only one.

Birthmarked, by Caragh M. O’Brien. Gaia works as a midwife just outside the Enclave, the protected community she serves. But when officers of the Enclave imprison her parents, she starts to question the rigid rules of her society, especially the forced reassignment of children to new parents. A good book about power and the possible consequences of environmental destruction. Also includes some code-breaking!

Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan. Two boys trying to set a record for the world’s longest kiss form the central story, but the plotlines weave through several characters’ lives, tying together the generation of men lost to AIDS and the generation for whom coming out is more common—but not necessarily easy.


Plume, by Kathleen Flenniken. This is a book about betrayal, loss, and invisible dangers made visible. Centering on the community of Hanford, Washington, and the various forms of radiation exposure its citizens experienced, it’s a horror story and a discovery story and a love-of-family story. I reread it almost immediately; it still grips me, weeks later.


Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams. Vivian Maier was a nanny who spent most of her free time perfecting her amateur-photography skills, capturing the world around her. When she died, she left behind thousands of photographs and negatives, a small fraction of which were assembled in this collection. The images are stories in themselves.


The Test: Living in the Shadow of Huntington’s Disease, by Jean Barema. There was a 50-50 chance the author had inherited the incurable, degenerative disease known as Huntington’s. This book chronicles his agonizing over whether to get the genetic test, his siblings’ and mother’s experience with the disease, and his countdown to his own test and receipt of the results. Even those of us who don’t fact Huntington’s confront many of the same questions about mortality, and the physical losses that may come with age.

Days That I’ll Remember: Spending Time with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, by Jonathan Cott. This book captures Lennon in his post-Beatles life, dealing with couplehood and parenthood, exploring new creative frontiers. It’s a relief to see a book that doesn’t vilify Ono as the woman who “broke up the Beatles,” but rather explores the artistic and political views that she and Lennon shared and kindled in one another.

Rapture Practice, by Aaron Hartzler. Hartzler grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household. But much of what he was drawn to (partying, rock music, dating), his family viewed as sinful. This book records his ever-more-painful attempts to please the family he loves, while unable to resist exploring the music and relationships that call to him.

Stuck in the Middle with You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders, by Jennifer Finney Boylan. Boylan shares her own experience parenting before, during, and after her transition from male to female, and she also interviews so many other parents that the result is a rich and diverse exploration of what it means to be a parent, what it means to be a child, and how gender does (or doesn’t) affect parent-child relationships. Plenty of food for thought here.

Stories from Jonestown, by Leigh Fondakowski. I blogged about this book here—an unforgettable look at a movement that started out in hope, peace, and brotherhood, and ended in the tragedy of murder and suicide.

Into the Tangle of Friendship: A Memoir of the Things That Matter, by Beth Kephart. Kephart explores all kinds of friendships: how those bonds form, and how they strengthen, and how and why they sometimes dissipate. And it’s as beautifully written as all her books.

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A. J. Jacobs. Jacobs attempts to follow the Bible literally. He immediately confronts a few problems: which version of the Bible? How to interpret passages that are unclear or conflicting? What to do about actions that are now illegal (like stoning people)? But in studying and trying to live the Bible, he discovers plenty about both God and humankind.

Gift from the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Concise, poetic, and meditative, this is a book that’s meant to be savored and reread. It records the kind of deep pondering, the questions and discoveries, that can come to mind when we let ourselves stop and think and reconnect with the natural world.

source of recommended reads: all from library, except Gift from the Sea, Plume, and Two Boys Kissing, which were purchased.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Yes, it's supposed to be that messy

The post called "Building and wrecking walls of words," by Jeannine Atkins, really spoke to me. A sample: "I used to have a fantasy that one day I’d get the hang of this, and put in the right words the first time. Now I take the rhythm of type-delete-type for granted. Starting out writing badly is kind of the point. There’s a lot of scatter before sentences. Words like to free flow before lining up ..."

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Fear of conferences: Survival tips from Carol J. Garvin

Our latest guest post on the topic of fear will hit home for introverted writers who long to touch base with other writers, but are hesitant to face conference crowds. Today, Carol J. Garvin provides conference survival tips:

As gatherings go, the Surrey International Writers’ Conference is a big one for me. It’s my favourite weekend of the year but it’s also my biggest challenge.


Approximately 600 people fill the ballroom for keynote addresses and calorie-laden meals, crowd into conference rooms for their choice of seventy-two workshops given by fifty-eight writing professions, and cram into elevators to get between the two.

It’s exhilarating, rejuvenating, motivating and terrifying! Why? Because I’m claustrophobic. Oh, not wildly so, but moderately, and the challenge is to keep myself under control so I can absorb all the benefits of the annual October weekend.

Many writers claim to be introverts, so I’m not alone in my reluctance to mix, mingle and schmooze with strangers. A lot of us would prefer to hunker down and write in solitude. That’s okay for a while. I get my best writing done in the quietness of my office, and I can learn a lot online about the craft and the publishing industry. But there are limitations to living in cyberspace, and eventually there comes a time when I have to make a choice – stay there and let my fears direct me, or take a deep breath and move out into the real world. Without making an effort to push past my reservations, I would miss out on unique opportunities for building my writing skills, getting personal exposure to writing professionals, and making new friends in the writing community.

So how do I do it? When it comes to conferences, how do I make the outer me do what the inner me resists?

1. First, I plan ahead and arrange to attend with a good friend so there will be someone else there who understands my limitations. Plus it’s just plain more fun sharing the conference experience.
2. I register online from the comfort of home (the SiWC website is familiar territory and thus isn’t intimidating).
3. I make advance reservations in the host hotel so I can slip up to my room any time I need a break from the horde.
4. When I make my hotel reservations I request a lower floor so I know if I can’t deal with the elevators at any time, I will be able to walk up and down the stairs.
5. I prepare my pitch material thoroughly at home, and then leave extra time before any agent/editor appointments so I’m not rushed. That helps minimize anxiety. (It’s not a bad idea to forego these appointments at a first conference.)
6. I try to be early for workshops to get a seat on the aisle or near the back so I can slip out easily if the crowding overwhelms me. Others might choose a seat at the front where they can’t see the crowded room behind them. It’s a personal thing. :)
7. Beforehand I connect informally with some of the event organizers and presenters via Twitter, Facebook and blogs, and after the event, I make a point of seeking them out to thank them. It helps to establish familiar relationships and build a sense of community, both of which contribute to expanding my comfort zone.


What works for me won’t necessarily work for everyone who has a problem with crowds and enclosed spaces. Panic attacks are no fun, but neither is being captive to a fear of them. I’m fortunate that if I emotionally prepare myself and stay alert to potential situations, I can often avert a meltdown. (And when in doubt, I resort to a lot of prayer and a little Ativan!)

Carol J. Garvin is a writer who blogs about writing, spirituality, nature, and other topics. More about her experience at this year's Surrey Conference can be found here.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


I don't give numbered ratings to books, and one reason is that I'm not sure how I would rate them anyway. There are a few books that I know I would give 5 stars to, if I did rate them, but mostly I just can't decide. My internal discussion would go like this: "Wow, that was good ... better than average. But not as good as my ultra-favorite books. But it's better than four stars ... four and a half? Maybe?" Or, "Well, that was okay. Nothing special, but okay. But if I were to give it two stars, that would sound as if I liked it less than I actually did." Or, "That was really well-written and I admire what the author did, but I just didn't love it. It didn't hit me at the gut level." Or, "This book really spoke to me, though I'm not sure how universal its appeal would be." How could I put a number on those reactions?

And then there is the matter of how our feelings about books change over time. I struggled through Babbitt as a high-schooler, but I've reread it voluntarily as an adult, and like it much better now. Some books I started out liking, but have grown to love upon subsequent rereads.

And then there are the books that lose something upon rereading. The main character who seemed so romantic is just annoying now. The fantasy world that once fascinated has become a bit of a yawn. Previously unnoticed racist subtext oozes to the surface.

We change, and the world around us changes, so there's no wonder our feelings about books change. If I did rate books, they would probably not carry a single number, but a graph of numbers, charting my rising and falling assessment over time.

It brings home to me like nothing else how subjective ratings can be, how personal our responses to books are sometimes.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Snow, and ups and downs

Snow turned the world extraordinary today. The branches are still frosted, the lawns still smooth. It looks like a stage set for a video of "Winter Wonderland." We're about to run out there in our old-timey cloaks and fur hats and jump in our horse-drawn sleigh, suitably bedecked with jingle bells ...

Sorry, I got carried away there. Anyway, the snow also gave me a poem--the first draft of a poem, anyway.

In other news, this post by Sean Williams on Janni Simner's blog was much appreciated. He writes: "It’s a natural law that careers go up and down. When I started out, up was the only way my career could go. Now, it could go either way ..." I liked it because I remember expecting, before I published, that I would struggle for a long time but once I "broke through," I would keep moving upward, steadily. I thought every success would be followed by a bigger success. I think many writers expect this, without even articulating it, because it seems so commonsensical: you work hard and you're patient, then you get the reward, right? Nobody talks about how sometimes the reward falls and breaks, or how the next reward may be farther away than expected. But a downturn is not necessarily permanent, either. A setback doesn't mean that a career is over--especially in a business that's changing so quickly. There are ways and genres of publishing now that weren't viable even six or seven years ago.

The only certainty is change.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

What if

There's a jewelry commercial on TV right now (I think it's for Jared jewelers) that features a guy proposing in the aisle of an airplane. (I don't know what kind of plane that is, because I've never been on one where there was nearly enough room to kneel down and propose, but I digress.) Anyway, in the commercial the woman says yes, the flight attendant makes an announcement, and all the passengers have a little story to tell about their flight.

It's cute, but the writer in me can't help asking what if the story went in another direction. What if this is the first hour of a very long flight, and the woman says no instead of yes? I could write the story of that flight in dozens of different ways.

That's where I get a lot of my story ideas: by asking what if an incident went the other way. What if these people took a different road, what if they chose this instead of that, went here instead of there?

Friday, December 6, 2013

Criticism and praise

Tabitha at Writer Musings led me to this article on "Tough Love" for writers.

And as usual with most writing advice, I agree in part and disagree in part. I do think that most of us overestimate the quality of our work when we first start out. I do think that rigorous revising is important, and that most writers have no idea when they embark upon a project just how much editing it will need. I've also found that it's often difficult for us to critique our own work at the level it needs.

But maybe all that is nature's way of protecting us, of keeping us from curling up in the fetal position and giving up before we even begin.

I've always needed that confidence--even if it qualifies as overconfidence--to write anything in the first place. The first draft is all about mental cheerleading for me.

And then I let the inner critic out of the trunk where he hides out during drafting, and unleash him on my manuscript. And later still, I invite other critiquers in. Not with the ego-shattering force that the article describes, but with a willingness to delete anything that doesn't belong. I don't need people to come down on me "like a ton of bricks," "[tear] my stories to shreds and [throw] them back at me ... shatter[ing] my ego ..." The fact is, it's not about my ego at all. It's about the story. What makes it a better story? Where is the plot unbelievable or slow? Which scenes are contributing nothing? It's not personal. My book is not me.

I do sometimes get upset over criticism, but that's mostly because it means I have a lot more work to do, and sometimes I don't see right away how on earth I'm going to fix everything. Critique is not a judgment of me; it's a to-do list. And whining over to-do lists is part of my process--not the most glamorous part, to be sure, but the part that clears out the sludge of my resistance so the words can flow again. Look, it's not fun to rewrite seven chapters that you thought you were done with, or switch the whole thing to a different POV, or cut the book in half and rewrite the ending. It's much more fun to hear that you're a literary genius and you don't have to rewrite a word.

But praise is no good unless it's true, and praise alone doesn't help most writers grow. Rejecting all criticism usually doesn't help much either. On that, I agree with the article.

I suppose where I come down in the end is that we need a balance of praise and criticism to keep us going and keep us writing well. That mix varies from writer to writer and even from day to day. Whatever works.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Frozen on a mountaintop: Guest post by Ellen Jensen Abbott

The latest in my series of guest posts about fear comes to us from Ellen Jensen Abbott:


by Ellen Jensen Abbott

I grew up doing regular hikes in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, but I had never done any winter hiking until I met my husband, Ferg. When I met him, Ferg had climbed Mount Washington—renowned for the most severe weather of the lower 48—x times in winter. There is a harrowing story about he and a friend getting caught on the mountain as the sun was setting, exhausted and unsure of the way down, but most of his ascents were successful. That’s why I was willing to put myself in his hands for my first winter hike—Mt. Chocurua, a 3490 ft. mountain with a wonderful view of Squam Lake. (The blindness of love my also have been involved; we were newly engaged.)

We hiked Chocorua in late December. There was not a lot of snow on the ground and much of what had fallen had been blown off the mountain. We were well outfitted, and the hike kept us warm. There were few other people on the trail and the bright blue sky and the sun on the snow made the day breathtaking. As we hiked, I added new images to my dreams of married life: we would be an adventurous couple, dashing off to climb up and then ski down Mt. Washington’s Tuckerman’s Ravine, hike in the Rockies, conquer Mt. Ranier and Mt. McKinley.

Then we reached Chocorua’s peak, and my fantasies turned to fear. For some reason, being on top of that mountain in the winter—a mountain I had climbed several times in July—completely undid me. On the summit’s rock face we had no shelter from a stiff and whistling wind. The air felt thinner, the cold more intense as my body heat rapidly evaporated. The sky, rather than impressing me with its vivid blueness, impressed me with its vastness. Standing under that sky made me feel small, vulnerable, and exposed.

We were supposed to have a picnic, but I couldn’t sit down. I knew in my head that there was no risk whatsoever at that moment, but I was terrified. Ferg tried to lead me a sheltered place to eat—the poor guy must have been starving!—but I paced until finally he gave up and we started down. One-hundred yards off the summit, the fear disappeared. Back in the embrace of the trees, sheltered from the wind, and with branches instead of the thin atmosphere over my head, I relaxed. We sat down, munched on our sandwiches, and chatted. I don’t remember if we talked about my irrational fear. Ferg did not rethink our engagement, though we never have climbed Washington, Ranier or McKinley.

Watersmeet-4j centaurdaughter The Keeper10 (2)

As I think back on this experience, I can’t help but compare it to the experiences of my main character in the Watersmeet Trilogy. She faces many moments of similar vulnerability and exposure, but for her the risks are real: she is kidnapped by centaurs; attacked by reptilian leviathan birds; carried against her will up a waterfall and through a rock tunnel by naiads. I’ve used my irrational fear on Chocorua many times to bring a sense of real fear to Abisina. Though I feared only the openness of the sky—nothing compared to the shape-shifting evil Abisina faces—my fear was just as real as hers; and it’s the work of the writer to use whatever material the universe presents—even if it means that the writer will forever view Mt. Rainier from the base.

Ellen Jensen Abbott thinks that life would be perfect if she could move her home, her job, her friends and her family to the White Mountains of New Hampshire where she grew up. Until she can convince everyone to join her, she’s content to be writing, teaching English at the Westtown School, and living with her husband and two children in West Chester, PA.

The Keeper is the most recent book in the Watersmeet series. In The Keeper, Abisina is ready to embrace her destiny and become Keeper of Watersmeet. But can she unite this divided land to fight the gathering evil? Can she be the leader that everyone needs?

Sunday, December 1, 2013


Lisa Scottoline advocates "UnResolutions" instead of New Year's resolutions. Resolutions can be so negative, she says ... all about what we want to stop doing and being, the things we want to change. UnResolutions are the things we like that we want to continue.

I suppose "keep reading books," "keep taking walks," and "keep enjoying chocolate" would be on my list. And this year I finally got around to spending more time on my porch--the porch that is such a great feature of the house and that I had been too busy to sit on, until I made time this year. So, another UnResolution would be to spend more time on the porch--and I can combine that with the book reading, so double win! (I guess I could combine it with the chocolate for the trifecta.)

I figured I would give people plenty of time to think about this by blogging about it now. If you like this idea, you have a month to figure out what good things you'd like to continue. :-)

Friday, November 29, 2013

Book hoarding

"Do you know what they call people who hoard books?
--Lisa Scottoline, My Nest Isn't Empty, It Just Has More Closet Space

I love any quotation that justifies the acquisition of more books.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A quiet week

I caught a glimpse of some commercial tie-in with Catching Fire that referred to the rewards of the victors, or how great it is to be a victor, or something like that. Which made me groan. I haven't seen the movies and really hope they're not painting the Hunger Games that way, as a cool competition that is great to win. Spoiler alert, but the point of The Hunger Games series is that nobody wins the Hunger Games! Even those who "win." We might begin to suspect this when we first meet Haymitch, but the victors we meet in Catching Fire--with their collective misery, anger, and fear--leave no doubt. And the trilogy is not about a battle between good people and evil people ... as we learn, the rebels are just as capable as the Capital of torturing prisoners, sacrificing innocent young people, and picking corrupt leaders. The good-evil battle is within us, not outside us.

Anyhoo, climbing off the soapbox now! One of my favorite holidays is coming up; Thursday is Thanksgiving in the US. I'm looking forward to this day of rest, quiet, and blessing-counting. I really do have so much to be thankful for. I hope you do, too. :-)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Revealing character through pressure

I've never been a big fan of "reality" TV competitions. I caught a couple of seasons of Survivor--mostly because I knew one of the contestants--but other than that, the only such show I've watched regularly is Top Chef. For some reason, I find it relaxing to watch people figure out how to, say, create an upscale lunch out of a piece of celery, an avocado and a can of tuna.* And the writer in me, who deals with creative challenges all day, thinks, "Well, at least I don't have to solve that problem."

Also, I find that while there is plenty of competition among the contestants and occasionally outright nastiness, the "cheftestants" generally treat one another better than contestants on Survivor. The main reason, I think, is that the chefs don't vote one another out of the contest; a panel of judges does that. Therefore, they don't have to spend all that energy plotting how to stab one another in the back.**

I much prefer when the conflict involves how to keep a fire going in high wind, or how to get a lot done in a short amount of time, and my favorite challenges are about preparing healthy foods that taste good (after all, as one of them once said, it's easy to make something taste good by throwing a lot of butter into it; what do you do when that isn't an option?). You get to see who can think on their feet, who has the deepest toolbox, and how people respond to criticism.

Every season, I'm surprised by the way people react to the pressure. The facades crumble, and some people shine while others get petty. Some people cry and others laugh. Some hug the people around them while others lash out.

While watching an episode the other night, it reminded me of how to use pressure in fiction--not only to create tension and move the plot, but also to reveal character. It's not realistic for characters to respond to every crisis with cool perfection and steely genius (unless maybe you're writing James Bond--but he's already taken). Let your characters get flustered, make mistakes, blame their troubles on someone else, cry, explode, and then--sometimes--pull a rabbit out of a hat.

*Not an actual Top Chef challenge, but you get the idea.

**I do wish that these shows didn't feel so beholden to the Survivor model of eliminating one contestant every week. We don't get to know the ones who leave early that well, and it's painful to see a favorite pack it in midway through the season. This has led to all sorts of challenges where previous contestants are brought back or given extra chances. So why not have a format where they don't get voted out each week, but instead accumulate points during the season, and those points determine who goes to the finale? It would be more like a sports season, with people competing for playoff spots. But I digress. Which is why I stuck this in a footnote.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Literary pilgrimages

If you've read Laura Ingalls Wilder's On the Banks of Plum Creek, you probably remember the scenes that took place in the creek itself. Plum Creek was a water source and a place where the children played. It also had a darker side: You probably remember the leeches, and the time that Laura nearly drowned in the springtime, when its waters ran fast and high.

In her book about visiting the places that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about (The Wilder Life), Wendy McClure describes her own visit to Plum Creek:

"I was going to wade in the creek. Others were doing it ...  A little cloud of silt rose up with each step, just like On the Banks of Plum Creek had described. ... that smokelike swirl that wavered in the water was how I knew the book was true.

"... A little girl about seven years old was standing on the bank. She'd stopped short when she saw me, and I could tell she was trying to reconcile her sense of Laura World with the strangely crowded reality: here was Plum Creek, but here was this lady, too. Over the course of the trip there'd be other little encounters like this ... where everyone's reveries bumped up against one another. ...

"As we walked back to the car, I could see other people trying to have their private creek moments, children and adults alike, everyone standing in their little rings in the water."

This scene made me think about the power of books. While the popularity of the Little House books (and thus the Little House pilgrimage spots, like Plum Creek) has no doubt been helped by the long-running TV series based on them, what people try to reach when they stand in their little rings in Plum Creek is almost certainly drawn from the books. The books made us feel what it was like to wade in Plum Creek in a very immediate, direct way that couldn't be duplicated on TV.

"Where they waded in the shallow water a footprint would not stay. First a swirl like smoke came up from it and wavered away in the clear water. Then the footprint slowly melted. The toes smoothed out and the heel was only a small hollow."--Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek

I picture all these readers converging on Plum Creek year after year. What people try to capture when they stand in Plum Creek is an experience they first imagined when reading a book. Each standing in his private ring in his own reverie, communing with an author who now lives on through her books. Taking an experience off the page, and back into the real world it was drawn from.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A kind word

I was on a panel of authors who have written books about bullying, along with K.M. Walton and Allison Whittenberg, at the Lansdowne Public Library. We had a great discussion with a lot of audience participation.

One of the topics that came up was the many ways in which bullying can occur. It's not just the cliche of the big kid taking the smaller kid's lunch money; it's not just punching and shoving and name calling. There can be an online dimension to it. But there are also all kinds of social games that go on: selective inclusion and exclusion, shunning and isolation, elaborate alliances. Allison Whittenberg and some of the audience members had some hair-raising real-life examples. As social beings, we are very sensitive to the disapproval of others. Even those of us who are loners prefer voluntary solitude to enforced isolation and rejection.

One librarian said she tries to make the library a safe place, but given everything kids face today, she wonders if her efforts are any more than a drop in the bucket. K.M. Walton said, "Kindness matters," and also that the only way bullying ends is through the cultivation of empathy. I said that during the period when I was bullied the worst, a kind word could help carry me through a day. That librarian will help people, whether or not they ever tell her so.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Follow the brain or follow the heart? A guest post by Brent Hartinger

When I saw this item in Brent Hartinger's newsletter, I asked him for permission to repost it on my blog, which he graciously granted. It's not just about a movie; in fact, it's more about the whole artistic process, and the paths we take in trying to bring our work to others. I think it captures perfectly the choices authors face, the factors we have to weigh in making those choices, and how important it is to have supportive people in our corner. Many writers will laugh knowingly at the line about how "there's no market ..." and how wrong that prediction can be.
(And by the way, if you haven't read the Russel Middlebrook books, which start with Geography Club, I suggest starting!)

They Turned My Book Into a Movie. What Does It All Mean? (by Brent Hartinger)

They’ve turned my 2003 novel Geography Club into a movie. It’ll be released in selected theaters and on VOD on November 15th, and people have already started asking me how it all happened and what I’ve learned from the whole experience.

What did I learn?

The story starts when I graduated from college and decided to try to make a career writing novels and screenplays. It was the early 90s, and one of my first books was a young adult novel about a gay teen named Russel Middlebrook and his misfit friends. It was an extremely personal topic for me, because I had been a gay teenager, and I had also co-founded one of the United States’ very first gay teen support groups, in 1990.

Cameron Deane Stewart (right) plays Russel Middlebrook.

For ten years, I (and later my agent, Jennifer DeChiara) tried to sell the book to publishers. A lot of editors wanted to buy it, but ultimately I heard the same thing over and over again: “I really like this, but the accountants at my publishing house tell me there’s no market for a book about gay teenagers.”

In early 2001, a brave editor at HarperCollins named Steve Fraser bought the book, even over the objections of the accountants there, who were just as certain as everyone else that the project would flop.
The book finally came out in early 2003. Two weeks after it was released, it had already gone into a third printing. In other words, all those accountants and all those publishing houses who said there was no market for a book about gay teens? They didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.

Andrew Caldwell is Gunnar

Because the book was a hit, I was given the opportunity to write lots of other books. I even turned Geography Club into a series, the Russel Middlebrook Series.

Better still, we had a lot of movie producers interested in developing the first book as a feature film or TV series. Different companies optioned it and took it around Hollywood. But this was long before Glee, and time and again, the answer was, “We really like this, but there’s no market for a movie or a TV show about gay teenagers.”

It got to the point where the producer said to me, “I literally think this thing has been rejected by every studio, network, and financing company in town.”

But two producers, Frederick Levy and Bryan Leder (and later, their producing partners Michael Huffington and Anthony Bretti) wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. And finally, ten years after the book was published, they got the movie made — with pretty much a dream cast too (including Hairspray’s Nikki Blonsky, Suburgatory‘s Ana Gasteyer, Glee‘s Alex Newell, The Lying Game‘s Allie Gonino, Scott Bakula, and a bunch of up-and-coming young actors).
Me on the set of Geography Club, the movie

Even better, the finished movie’s quite good. There’s even talk of doing the sequel, The Order of the Poison Oak, as a movie too should the first movie prove to be a hit.

So what’s the take-away from all this? Listen to your heart, not the nay-sayers? Never give up your dreams?

Maybe, but the fact is, if certain people hadn’t been willing to move heaven and earth for me and my projects at key points in my career, my book and the movie never would have happened, and right now I’d probably be asking, “Would you like fries with that?” That’s kind of sobering when I think about it.

But if I’ve learned anything at all over the years about selling books and making movies, it’s this: there are really only two ways books get published and movies ever get made:

(1) Create a book or movie project that everyone thinks will make them a lot of money. This is a lot easier said that done, since you never know what other books and movies will be flops and hits right around the time your project is being pitched. Talent counts for something here, but I think this is mostly just timing and luck.

(2) Create a book or movie project that at least few people feel really passionately about — so passionately that they’ll keep working on it even as everyone else tells them they’re crazy, that it’s certain to flop, and that they’re wasting their time.
Basically, the choice is: go with your brain or go with your heart.

On a movie set at 5 AM
On one hand, going with your heart is trickier: do you really want to devote years of your life to a project that a lot of editors and producers won’t even want to read? On the other hand, it’s a lot easier than trying to predict exactly where the crazy pop culture market and zeitgeist are headed. All you have to do is ask yourself: what exactly do I personally feel the most passionate about? What project would I desperately like to see that doesn’t already exist?

If you’d asked me my opinion earlier in my career, in the midst of all the rejection for Geography Club the book and later the movie, I would have said, “Do strategy number one! Go with your brain! Write that dystopian zombie-vampire book! There at least you have a chance for success! Strategy number two is for suckers and fools!” (And then I would have added, “Would you like fries with that?”)

But I’ve been in the business for a while now, and I’ve seen editors and producers get very excited about my work, only to lose interest when the project didn’t turn out to be an instant hit or get immediate financing.

I also think it’s very interesting the only movie projects I’m associated with that are actually getting made – Geography Club and another film I wrote that will hopefully be filmed next year — are the passion projects. In other words, strategy number two.

Justin Deeley plays Kevin

There’s another benefit to choosing strategy number two: you’re working with people who aren’t just in it for the money. They’re in it for the passion. Which means — at least in my experience — they’re far less likely to be jerks. Since you end up so intimately involved with these folks, and since your words and your career are so closely associated with them, this not a small thing. I’m very proud to call these colleagues my friends.

The screenwriter William Goldman once famously said about Hollywood, “No one knows anything,” and it’s probably the most accurate thing ever said about that town (it’s completely true of New York publishing as well).

No one knows anything. Sometimes a project flies high, sometimes it completely flops (and usually it lands somewhere in that infuriating middle area in between).
And no matter what anyone says, no matter how much money they spend or who is involved, no one can predict for sure which projects will be successful and which not. That’s what makes a career in the arts so frustrating — and also so magical.

Making movies and publishing books are ultimately businesses: they exist to make money. As a result, a lot of the people in those industries like to talk like success is all about the brain. They want to believe they have some control over the money they’re spending.

Do they? Maybe. But in my case, success turned out to be all about the heart.

For more photos from my Geography Club movie set visit, go here.

Copyright © 2013 Buddha Kitty Books, All rights reserved. Reposted by permission.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Memorizing poems

"He then said something which impressed Holt as being profound ... 'Memorize a poem and you own it for life.'"
--James A. Michener, The Drifters

There was (still is, for all I know) a cafeteria in Yosemite National Park where you paid at the entrance and then were free to eat all you wanted. One of the cashiers would amuse himself by asking questions of the customers on their way in. He seemed to ask a different question each day. I don't remember what he asked now, except that one of his questions was, "Can you recite a poem?"*

As it turned out, I could. Thanks to William Carlos Williams and his talent for brevity, I was able to pull an entire poem out of my memory bank, beginning with, "so much depends ..."

I may have a couple of other poems rattling around in there. And I can also recite the first stanza of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky," along with random stanzas from other poems by Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Shakespeare, etc.

I get the impression that memorizing poems used to be a much bigger part of American education than it is now. I believe I was only required to memorize one poem in school (Part 1 of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Half the class had to know Part 1, the other half had to know Part 2**). I wouldn't be surprised if children now don't memorize any at all. And I suppose that most people don't see the point; if you want a poem, you can just look it up, right? Especially now when people have access to the internet almost everywhere, even when they're on the go.

But that is the very question to ponder. Is there an advantage to having a poem inside you, living in your mind--not just on a page?

I don't really believe in lots of forced memorization. I don't think there's much value in just reciting words without comprehension or emotional attachment. But there might be value in memorizing a poem you love, or reading a favorite poem so many times that it takes up residence in your mind.

*Our access to the food did not depend on our answers. My husband could not recite a poem, and he still got to eat. ;-)

**This is what I can still remember without looking it up: "It is an ancient mariner, and he stoppeth one of three. 'By thy long gray beard and glittering eye, now wherefore stopp'st thou me? The bridegroom's doors are open wide, and I am next of kin. The guests are met, the feast is set. May'st hear the merry din!'" And of course the famous lines: "Instead of a cross, the albatross/About his neck was hung" and "Water, water, everywhere, and all the boards did shrink. Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink." I'm not looking these lines up, so they may be slightly misquoted. But hey, I learned this thing mphmf years ago and haven't looked at it since!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Humor in YA

Yesterday I made one of my offhand comments on Twitter about how I wished there were more humor in YA novels. (It seemed to me there used to be more, and maybe I was waxing nostalgic.) Sometimes on Twitter I'll get a few comments or retweets, but I think it's safe to say this particular tweet got more of a response than anything else I've ever said there. The overwhelming sentiment was, "Yes, please!"

There was also some discussion of why we all think there isn't enough funny in our teen lit. Here are just a few of the thoughts others shared:

@BethanyRobison (Bethany Robison): I think maybe funny is just really difficult to do well?

@jackiedolamore (Jaclyn Dolamore): For me it's that the funniest things are very specific and you have to know the world SO well but you also have to convey that to the reader. Like, you all have to know. That's hard.

@crissachappell (Crissa Chappell): I think humor = POV...how the character sees absurdity in the world.

@MissWendyD (Wendy Darling): Even books that aren't specifically humorous could use some levity, you know?

@EyeonFlux (Brian Farrey-Latz): I see very, very, very little humor in my inbox. So "fewer people write it" could be one reason. Also: humor VERY subjective.

@justinelavaworm (Justine Larbalestier): I've been told multiple times: funny is for middle grade.
Funny middle grade books sell better than funny YA ...

@cindysku (Cindysku): middle grade readers are growing up and they still want funny.

@rebekahswm (Rebekah Weatherspoon): do we need to maintain the illusion that teens are all moody and tortured?

@TLT16 (Teen Librarian Toolbox): I feel like sarcasm & snark are represented, but where is the slapstick? The No More Dead Dogs? The LOL?

But of course, there ARE humorous books out there, and people also shared recommendations in tweets, DMs, and email. I'm going to list the authors whose names were brought to me as examples. I will provide this caveat: I haven't read all these authors, so I don't know if I would find them funny. I don't know if you would find them funny. And not everything they've ever written may be humorous. Also, "humor" may mean anything along the spectrum from subtle hints to a sprinkling of jokes to a riotous laugh-fest. But someone somewhere found these authors funny enough to recommend, so you might want to check them out.

I've added a few names that came to my own mind, but I'm sure I'm missing names. So feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.

Randa Abdel-Fattah
S.J. Adams
Jesse Andrews
Andrew Auseon
M.G. Bauer
Charlotte Bennardo and Natalie Zaman (co-authors)
Robin Benway
Josh Berk
Lauren Bjorkman
James P. Blaylock
Libba Bray
Ed Briant
Jessica Brody
Meg Cabot
Don Calame
Ally Carter
Cherry Cheva
Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan (co-authors)
Dave Cousins
Brent Crawford
Tash Desborough
Kerstin Gier
Maureen Goo
John Green
Sandy Harper
Brent Hartinger
Rachel Hawkins
Shaun David Hutchinson
Geoff Herbach
David Iserson
Maureen Johnson
Julie Klausner
Steve Kluger
Justine Larbalestier
Lindsey Leavitt
David Levithan
Sue Limb
E. Lockhart
David Lubar
Carol Midgley
Sarah Mlynowski
Jaclyn Moriarty
Blake Nelson
Emil Ostrovski
Robin Palmer
Kimberley Pauley
Frank Portman
Sarah Rees Brennan
Louise Rennison
Andy Robb
Meg Rosoff
Jess Rothenberg
Rainbow Rowell
Leila Sales
Medeia Sharif
Holly Smale
Andrew Smith
Leah Spiegel
Natalie Standiford
Jonathan A. Stroud
Courtney Summers
Sloane Tanen
Kristin Walker
David Yoo
Allen Zadoff
Meredith Zeitlin

Sunday, November 10, 2013

What writers do

In 2011, my story "Confessions and Chocolate Brains" appeared in the anthology Truth & Dare. In the story, a boy gives his girlfriend chocolate brains (with peanut-butter filling) as a present. It's a medically-themed present, because they are both planning to become doctors and live happily ever after. As you might guess, the "happily ever after" is jeopardized, because stories must have conflict ... but it's not jeopardized by the chocolate brains. The girlfriend loves the chocolate brains.

If you read that story and also liked the chocolate brains, you may be pleased to see this little item in the Computer Gear catalog: gelatin molds that are brain- and heart-shaped. And when I say heart-shaped, I don't mean a valentine. I mean an anatomical heart. Click on the link to see some actual molded, quivering gelatin products. I'm only sorry I didn't see this before Halloween, because just imagine the zip that a gelatin brain could have added to a Halloween party! (By the way, I'm receiving no compensation for mentioning this. I mention it entirely for my own amusement and, I hope, yours.)

But a writer's life is more than glitz, glamour, chocolate brains and organ-shaped gelatin molds. I found the following gem in Kathleen Norris's The Cloister Walk, and I think for "poet" you could substitute the more general "writer:"

"Once, when I was asked, 'What is the main thing a poet does?' I was inspired to answer, 'We wait.'"

Friday, November 8, 2013

Blank pages

"'I find that there's a redemptive quality,' he said, 'just in sitting in front of that blank piece of paper.'"
--from The Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris

Hmm, redemptive.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Lessons from biographies

I probably do more mental critiquing of biographies than of any other type of book I read. I've never been a fan of the bio that starts waaay back with the birth of the subject's grandparents, and I wish more biographers would start with the novelistic convention of bringing us into the action that the subject of the biography is best known for, and then gradually working the earlier history into the narrative. I also find myself wishing for more creative plotting and formatting. Although a life is lived chronologically, a biography need not be presented that way. Also, every year of the subject's life does not deserve equal space in a bio. Some years are more eventful and significant than others.

Whenever I critique books, I also turn the points of the critique back onto myself and my own work. I'm not writing biographies, but I can still push myself to think beyond chronological sequencing, to start at an interesting place (which is not necessarily the protagonist's birth or even the start of his/her day), and to compress or delete the slower times in the characters' lives.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


My friend Kelly and I were talking about writing the other night (as we often do), and National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) came up. Which led to this blog post.

NaNoWriMo, the pursuit of 50,000 words in a month, can be an inspiring burst of creativity, or it can inspire some bad habits. One trick to increase word count is sentence-padding. "He crossed the room" becomes "He decided to go from one side of the room to the other and so he walked over there."

NaNo rewards the second sentence more: It's longer! More words! But it's not a better sentence.

My suggestion to anyone who is tempted to pad a story is: Don't. It's better to finish November with 40,000 good solid words than with 40,000 good words and 10,000 bits of padding that have to be yanked out later.

If the padding is unconscious--if you find yourself, as I do, inserting "just" and "really" and "very" without thinking--then fine, don't stop and pull them all out now. Let it flow. NaNo's about flow. I only advise against conscious padding, the deliberate addition of unnecessary words. It can develop bad habits, and even though these crutch words can be deleted later (I should know; I've deleted scores and scores of "justs"), it's simpler not to use them in the first place.

Happy writing!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The inside joke

In a week of increasing darkness (both literally and figuratively), it's been a pleasure to find one of those books that reminds me why I love reading and why I love reading YA.

That book is David Levithan's Two Boys Kissing. I could talk about the way Levithan calls to life the voices of the generation of gay men who were lost  to AIDS, or how he manages to develop two characters who spend the entire book in a record-breaking kiss (which becomes, after several hours, a test of endurance, since the terms of the record require constant standing, no bathroom breaks, and little to no nourishment), or how he weaves in the stories of several other characters. But I want to share just one little excerpt:

"'Pancakes,' [Neil] says. 'I think we need pancakes.'
This time, Peter knows what's coming, and joins in. They both start jumping up and down on one leg, yelling, 'I-hop! I-hop!'
We are such wonderful idiots, Peter thinks."

To me, that scene captures so beautifully one of the best parts of a longtime relationship: the inside joke. The way we become wonderful idiots for each other; the silly things we do that nobody else would understand. The point of the inside joke is not only to make the other person laugh. It's to acknowledge a shared history and reaffirm a shared present. It's a way of saying, I am so happy with you; I am so happy with us.

source of recommended read: bought

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Things to see and do

This is turning out to be a week for me to feature some new books by writer friends ... it's a theme that developed on its own, so I'm going with it. The latest offering is Jeannine Atkins's Views from a Window Seat: Thoughts on Writing and Life, which is described thusly:


"Every writer needs inspiration, whether composing fiction, poetry, or fact-based work for an audience of children or adults. Both inspiration and company, Views from a Window Seat: Thoughts on Writing and Life poses and answers questions such as: How do we decide the best way to begin a book? How do we keep up our momentum during the long middle? What are some ways to know we’ve reached an ending? How do we tell the truth?"

I've taken a poetry workshop from Jeannine and enjoyed her book Borrowed Names, so I think this one is worth checking out.

In other news, Children's Book World in Haverford, PA is having its annual author/illustrator night this Friday, Nov. 1, at 8 PM. In attendance will be Jerry Spinelli, K. M. Walton, April Lindner, Tiffany Schmidt, Kelly Fineman, Donna Jo Napoli, among many others (including yours truly). You come, too.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Guest post: Ace Hansen with a humorous middle-grade mystery

My writer friends have been prolific lately! One of them has channeled the spirit of an irreverent cartoon alien, Ace Hansen, to produce a funny, down-to-earth MG mystery. Ace Hansen describes this literary adventure below.

Interestingly, our alien author (speaking here) has chosen a human narrator for his book--a boy named Julius Caesar Brown. Probably because humans are the creatures most likely to read this story, which has been available as an e-book and has been newly released in paperback. I suppose we humans are most appreciative of mysteries and--shall we say, gastrointestinal humor?

Take it away, Ace:

Ace Hansen, distinguished author

Thanks, Jenn, for inviting me to hang out on your blog today. Some of you Earthlings have been asking what's so special about my book. Holy asteroid! What could be more special than a book written by me, a humble green alien? Your world is farting green! What could be more interesting than that?

What? You still want to know why you should read my book? Because you Earthlings like to make that strange sound out of your tiny mouths and noses you call giggling or guffawing or busting a gut or being in stitches and other strange things like that. This book will do that to you, even if you're an old Earthling (that’s more than 13 in Earth years, in case you were wondering).

You still aren't running out to buy my book because you don't like to read books? Because you'd rather play video games in which you splatter green aliens from one end of the galaxy to the other? Well, if you start farting green one day, I guarantee you'll want to find out why. If you're the least bit curious, this is the book for you.

Only I know the answer to the green gas mystery.


Well, me and all the smart Earthlings who’ve already read the book, available here.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

On reading, a novel guide, and unlikable characters

Today's my day to post at YA Outside the Lines. The topic: "reading hungrily." A sample: "I read the way people eat: for nourishment, for pleasure, for life."

In other news, my former agent and current friend Nathan Bransford is launching his guide, How to Write a Novel. I have not yet had the chance to read it, though I've already downloaded it, but I would recommend looking at it for a few reasons. One is that the tone of Nathan's blog, where he has written about writing and publishing for years, is engaging and often amusing, which suggests that this book will be the same. But the main reason is that, as a former client, I had several chances to experience a Bransford novel critique. I always came away from it feeling that my book had been thoroughly and justly analyzed; that I had a lot of work to; and that I could do it. It's not easy to give a novelist a list of umpteen things she needs to do to fix her pet project, yet make her feel energized and confident about tackling those umpteen things, but somehow he managed it. And I saw how my writing improved, so I know he has the insight and instincts ... which he then demonstrated further by publishing three novels of his own, the Jacob Wonderbar series!

I also want to point out a post that appeared recently on Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations blog: Sarah Aronson on unlikable characters. Sarah Aronson said so many things I have been thinking for a while, but she said them better than I ever could. Here are a couple of excerpts to illustrate why I recommend reading the whole thing:

"I want to read stories that offer me something much less safe and perhaps, a little more real or edgy with lots of moral ambiguity."
"Today, many of us are preoccupied with our images and what others say about our work. We ... have access to what our readers think of our creative decisions. Here is the big problem: if we let it infect us too much, it will hurt our work."

Happy reading!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

What to leave out

I loved what Crissa Chappell said this month at YA Outside the Lines: "Students are often told to 'add more' to their stories and essays. Finally, I discovered that it's not necessary to describe everything. Give the reader one or two important sensory details. Let them imagine the rest."

I may go a little too far in the minimalist direction sometimes, but when I do it's because I am embracing that philosophy. I'm trying to give the readers just enough for them to build the stories in their minds.

There's also the question of subtlety in theme, of how much of our main point to spell out and how much to leave for the readers to figure out. In one creative writing class I took, I responded to a teacher's critique of my holding back by saying, "I didn't want to hit people over the head," to which she replied, "Hit them over the head a little." After all, a point does have to be visible. There is such a thing as leaving too many blank spaces.

But when it's done right, restraint has such power.

I saw an example this week, courtesy of a tweet by Sarah LaPolla. She linked to this essay by David Sedaris on the loss of his sister. And the essay, naturally, is powerful enough--would be powerful anyway because of the events it describes. And because of that, it feels a little weird even to talk about the essay in literary terms. But as a writer reading the work of another writer on the New Yorker website, my writer brain does tend to whisper in the background.

What I thought when I read the last line of Sedaris's essay was this: There is an unspoken line there. He does not say, "This family is not as big as it used to be; not as big as it should be." He doesn't say it, and he doesn't need to say it. The reader says it. He invites the reader to say it; he lets the reader say it. In fact, the whole essay is stronger for what it doesn't say: about sudden losses, family rifts, suicide, death, sibling bonds and sibling rivalries.

In this way, the intimacy of reader and writer can be heightened. The writer places dots in front of the reader, and the reader has to draw the lines that connect them.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Some history of YA novels

I'm mystified when people say that young-adult novels are a new thing, that they weren't around even a decade or two ago. They've been around much longer than that. In fact, many of the YA books I'm going to discuss here were written before I was even born.

For purposes of this discussion, I'm excluding books that were originally written for adults but later became high-school classics (like The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies), and books that featured teen characters but were clearly for younger readers (like the Nancy Drew books), and books that were stocked in the adult section when they first came out but would go in the YA section now (like Forever ... and It's OK If You Don't Love Me). I'm talking about books that were absolutely aimed at teens, that were grouped together in the children's or teens' section in bookstores and libraries, and were sold in school book clubs.

They've changed over the years, of course. The typical YA of the 1960s-1980s was short (closer to 200 pages than the 350 pages of our current era). Contemporary realism dominated the market. You could find a smattering of historical fiction, and there were mysteries and science fiction and romances. But there were, by far, fewer fantasy and paranormal novels than there are now.

Also, while today's books tend to be more explicit when dealing with edgy material, tough subjects were not off limits even 40 or 50 years ago. Here are a few examples to illustrate that this genre has been thriving for much longer than people might think:

1940s and 1950s

Practically Seventeen, by Rosamond du Jardin (1943)
Senior Year, by Anne Emery (1949)
Jean and Johnny, by Beverly Cleary (1959)

YA from this era was definitely tamer in tone than today's stories. There's nothing in these books that most middle-graders couldn't read. But I consider them YA because all three feature high-school girls and their adventures (mostly misadventures) with the opposite sex. Boyfriend troubles are usually considered a YA subject, even nowadays. All three books are clearly aimed at readers who are the same age as the protagonists; the voices and point of view are young.


The Unchosen, by Nan Gilbert (1963)
Drop-Out, by Jeannette Eyerly (1963)
Durango Street, by Frank Bonham (1965)
A Girl Like Me, by Jeannette Eyerly (1966)
The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton (1967)
The Pigman, by Paul Zindel (1968)
Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones, by Ann Head (1968)
Tuned Out, Maia Wojciechowska (1968)
I'm Really Dragged But Nothing Gets Me Down, by Nat Hentoff (1968)
I'll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip, by John Donovan (1969)
My Darling, My Hamburger, by Paul Zindel (1969)

The 1960s saw a shift in tone and subject matter. While the first book on this list, Nan Gilbert's The Unchosen, is similar to the 1940s-1950s-era stories in its often light tone and humor, it is less chatty in style, and it's extremely well-written. Also, while its references to making out would scarcely raise an eyebrow today, it approaches the subject a bit more frankly than the books of the previous decades.
With Drop-Out arrives the serious tone--and the edgy topics--of the problem novel: dropouts and runaways (Drop-Out), teen pregnancy (A Girl Like Me; Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones; My Darling, My Hamburger). In these books, for the first time, teens are sexually active--although that all happens offstage, and every girl who does it gets pregnant.
Durango Street is about street gangs; its main character has been arrested for car theft.
The Outsiders and The Pigman were undeniably watershed novels, novels that show the power of the genre. Those who know Zindel only for The Pigman might be surprised to come across My Darling, My Hamburger, a book in which a teen girl has an abortion (a topic that YA novels rarely touch even today).
And John Donovan's I'll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip is often cited as the first YA novel to introduce a same-sex attraction. It may be; I don't know of others. I do recall that the main character seems to write off his interactions with his friend as just adolescent experimentation.
I'm Really Dragged But Nothing Gets Me Down references the draft; unsurprising, since this was a major concern for teen males of this era.
Tuned Out is the earliest example I have of a problem novel centering around drugs.


Phoebe, by Patricia Dizenzo (1970)
An American Girl, by Patricia Dizenzo (1971)
Go Ask Alice, by Beatrice Sparks (1971)
Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!, by M.E. Kerr (1972)
The Fog Comes on Little Pig Feet, by Rosemary Wells (1972)
The Room, by Ruth Holland (1973)
They'll Never Make a Movie Starring Me, by Alice Bach (1973)
A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich, by Alice Childress (1973)
Trying Hard to Hear You, by Sandra Scoppettone (1974)
The Late Great Me, by Sandra Scoppettone (1976)
Confessions of a Teenage Baboon, by Paul Zindel (1977)
Happy Endings Are All Alike, by Sandra Scoppettone (1978)

The problem novel was going strong in the 1970s, and drugs were everywhere in books. Lots and lots of drugs (almost always in cautionary tales): see A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich, Go Ask Alice, Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!, and The Room. (The latter two, incidentally, manage to be warm and funny as well, and Dinky Hocker really only mentions drugs peripherally.) Alcoholism shows up, too (An American Girl, about growing up with an alcoholic parent; and The Late Great Me, about a teen with alcoholism). I have to say that although the problem novel eventually became a rather played-out formula, in its heyday, it produced some gripping novels.
We also have more discussion of same-sex relationships in They'll Never Make a Movie Starring Me, Trying Hard to Hear You, and Happy Endings Are All Alike. Gay and lesbian teens may have found a glimmer of hope that the lesbian couple in Happy Endings was featured prominently on its cover, although the perils of prejudice experienced by those who dared to come out of the closet were brutally rendered in that book and in Trying Hard to Hear You.
Although 1970's Phoebe had an unplanned pregnancy, by 1973 pregnancy was no longer the obligatory outcome for a sexually active character. The main characters in the Wells and Bach books are the first female characters I can think of who actually wanted people to think they were experienced, unlike the girls of an earlier era.
Suicide--attemped or successful--is also mentioned in The Fog Comes on Little Pig Feet and Confessions of a Teenage Baboon. (Come to think of it, Zindel touched on this topic in his 1969 book, too.)

And yes, in these decades YA was very (though not exclusively) white, which continues to be an issue today. I can recall a few novels about teens with terminal illnesses, but fewer about teens living successfully with physical challenges (Beverly Butler's 1970 Light a Single Candle being a notable exception).

This is hardly an exhaustive or systematic survey. My point here is to show that YA was around at least as early as the middle of the 20th Century. (I'm open to the idea that it goes back even farther than I've shown here, if anyone wants to pursue that.) YA has continued to evolve, and I've only barely touched on what was happening in the genre even in the 1940s-1970s. I just wanted to review some of the history of the genre.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The cozy season

It's a cloudy, chilly fall day. I made a stew tonight for dinner (lentil stew, to be exact), which is one of the ways I mark this season.

At this time of year, when we're losing light from both ends of the day, when the air turns cold and the plants die or go dormant, I always feel a pulling inward. It's time to go indoors and gather around the hearth. (Well, we don't actually have a hearth, but our cat does plant himself right on top of one of the heating vents.)

The cold and the dark make it harder and harder to get out of bed. There will be no more reading on the porch until next spring.

I tell myself it's a good time to write. All this turning inward; all this indoor weather.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

What gives a book longevity?

Matt Kahn has been doing a blogging project where he reads the top-selling novel of the year for the past 100 years. He's now up to 1951's From Here to Eternity, and it was one of the few bestsellers that he has found, so far, to hold up over time.

That so many of the books on Kahn's list have been forgotten helps to dispel the myth that people used to read Real Literature in the past, and now they read schlock. I think the books that survive from earlier generations tend to be the classics, and so we are left with this skewed view that in days gone by, everyone sat around reading the classics all the time.

Anyhoo ... I've been reading Kahn's summaries and trying to identify what gives a book that timeless quality, and what makes it forgettable. One thing I noticed pretty quickly is that having a book made into a movie helps greatly with that book's ability to linger in the public consciousness. Kahn has found several books that were made into movies and faded anyway. But there don't seem to be too many books that lasted only because of their book form.

Since that part is out of most writers' immediate control, however, what is it about a book itself that lasts--or doesn't? One thing that seems to destine a book for ultimate obscurity is appealing to the sentiments (or sentimentality) of its times, but not keying in to universal and substantial truths or emotions. A temporary thrill--or warmth--but not enough illumination. I'm also starting to wonder if I see a pattern forming where books that reinforce status quo attitudes tend to be very popular in their time and then forgotten, while those that challenge the status quo live on longer.

In praising From Here to Eternity, Kahn comments, "The novel deals honestly and directly with morally ambiguous situations, and with topics like sex and honor" and "with complex relationships, both romantic and professional, and with complex group dynamics." Two features jump out at me there: complexity and ambiguity.

I don't have any definite answers. Just food for thought.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Event on Friday

Children’s Book World presents:

A panel of young-adult and middle-grade authors on the power of outcasts and outsiders.
Ellen Jensen Abbott, author of Watersmeet and The Centaur’s Daughter
Alison Ashley Formento, author of Twigs
Jon Gibbs, author of Fur-Face and Barnum’s Revenge
K.M. Walton, author of Cracked and Empty
Jennifer R. Hubbard, author of The Secret Year, Try Not to Breathe, and Until It Hurts to Stop
Evening includes Q&A, refreshments, and book signing.
Friday, October 18
7:30 PM
Children’s Book World
17 Haverford Station Rd., Haverford, PA 19041

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Breathing room

These recent posts all made me say, "Yes!!" so I thought I would share them with you. It occurs to me that they're all about giving ourselves a break. Letting ourselves rest, and acknowledging that life's challenges can be tough. We don't have to charge relentlessly forward, always wearing the brave and happy and productive face.

"Taking a break" by Kathleen McCleary on Writer Unboxed. A sample: "But it wasn’t until recently ... that I understood something elemental about writing: It’s equally important to not write. At all. For an extended period of time."

Natalie Whipple on dealing with bad days. A sample: " So I want to talk about what you do when you're having a bad day. Or maybe even several bad days in a row. Or a whole month. Or even more. Because if you're a writer, chances are you'll have bad days ... Writing is special like that—able to bring both the greatest joy and deepest sorrow."

Julie Owsik Ackerman acknowledges that it's okay to be sad. A sample: "It’s okay to be overwhelmed. It’s okay to be guilty and unsure. The more I accept these feelings, welcome them even, explore them with curiosity, the less scary they are, the less they rule my life, the more I’m free to enjoy the good."

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Stories from Jonestown

I finished reading Leigh Fondakowski's Stories from Jonestown a few weeks ago, but it has stuck with me.

I was a child when the mass deaths occurred, and I understood little of the story at the time, but I will never forget the images that appeared on the news: hundreds and hundreds of bodies lying in the jungle. Nor can I forget the stories about the poisoned fruit-flavored drink that killed most of them (which Fondakowski reminds us was not Kool-Aid, but Flavor-Aid, although the phrase "they drank the Kool-Aid" has been part of our language ever since).

It did not occur to me until I was an adult to wonder: who were the people who tried to build a paradise in Guyana? What did they see in leader Jim Jones? What could push them to assassinate a Congressman and then kill their children, their elderly, and themselves in a mass ritual? What were they seeking?

Jonestown was only a part of the Peoples Temple movement started by Jim Jones. Fondakowski was able to interview many of its former members who were not in Jonestown that day, as well as some of the handful who survived Jonestown. The result was a stage production along the lines of The Laramie Project (which Fondakowski also worked on) and this book.

Fondakowski enables the interviewees to tell their own stories in their own words, and the result is a book that tells of heart-breaking hope and faith, and unimaginable loss. For most of them, Peoples Temple began in a search for social justice. It was about music and love and equality. It was a place where people of different races came together on equal terms and worked for a better world. Somewhere along the way, the dream turned into a nightmare. For many of them, that did not happen until the very end, and they still cherish the memories of the work they did together and the people they befriended. For others, the nightmare began earlier; they were alienated much sooner by the increasing rigidity of the society and the increasingly erratic behavior of Jones.

Fondakowski wisely refrains from trying to impose an authoritative conclusion or definitive interpretation on the story of Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Rather, she lets its survivors speak and acknowledges that the record is, and will always be, incomplete.

One interesting thing she says is that the popular expression "they drank the Kool-Aid" makes her cringe, since she now understands like never before how deep a tragedy it refers to, what a monumental loss that overused idiom represents. She thinks that if more people delved into the story of Jonestown, they would not use the expression so casually.

For me, this was a haunting book, but one that I'm glad I read. Because the tragedy of Jonestown was real, a reminder that people's grandest plans sometimes take very wrong turns.

source of recommended read: library

Monday, October 7, 2013

Going All In: Guest Post by Jody Casella

This is my latest guest post on the topic of fear, in which Jody Casella talks about challenging our fears.

Several years ago I hit a writing wall. I'd been working seriously for years, but I couldn't break through. Editors expressed interest in my books then told me in a variety of ways: No.

A turning point came when I attended a Highlights Children's Writers workshop. I showed up, I'm ashamed to say, reluctantly, almost arrogantly. I remember thinking, "What can these people tell me that I don't already know?"

The first day I met with my assigned mentor to go over a manuscript that I thought was finished and perfect. She pointed out a few things I might want to try. She was kind, not critical in the least. But the conversation almost destroyed me.

My arrogance disappeared. In its place was fear. Fear that my writing wasn't good. Fear that I had no idea how to make it better.

The rest of the week I became a sponge for information, attending every session, taking notes, asking questions. One of the speakers, editor Patricia Lee Gauch, discussed why so many manuscripts went wrong. Climaxes would happen off stage. Essential scenes were skimmed over.

It was almost as if the writer pulled back right at the moment when she should've "gone all in."

A light bulb went off in my head. I had been doing exactly this. Holding back just as the story took off in a direction I hadn't planned. Glossing over moments that hit an emotional nerve. I wasn't going all in with my stories.

I wasn't going all in as a writer either. Holding back was a way to protect myself. Because, what if I tried my hardest and I still failed?

But if I didn't give it my all, could I ever succeed?

After the workshop, I started writing a book called Thin Space. The usual fears and doubts plagued me. What if it wasn't good? What if no one ever wanted to read it? And what the heck WAS it anyway? I thought, as the story turned into something kind of weird and horrifying.

I kept writing anyway. I let the story go where it wanted. I threw everything I had into following it to its conclusion. It was the most exhilarating experience of my life and I decided that even if it never made it into print, it was a book I was proud to have written.

Thin Space, Beyond Words/Simon & Schuster, Sept. 2013 "There’s a fine line between the living and the dead, and Marsh is determined to cross it in this gut-wrenching debut novel."

 Jody Casella lives with her husband and two children in Ohio.