Sunday, March 30, 2014

The value of rest

It's nice to know I wasn't the only one bothered by a recent commercial. Even if the ad wasn't meant entirely seriously (Brigid Schulte, who wrote the essay I linked to, describes the company spokesman's characterization as "playful"), Schulte's essay raises a bunch of serious points about the way we live.

Workaholicism is still seen as a virtue in this country, but my New Year's resolution for the past several years has been to power down occasionally, to try to cram less into my schedule. Last summer I made time to read on my porch for an hour here, a half hour there--something I'd been wanting to do ever since we got this house--and I was giddy with triumph. I think I had to forgo a couple of chores to make time for that, but right now I couldn't tell you what they were.

Most of the writers I know will also recognize the truth in this statement by Schulte: " ... inspiration comes in the shower, on a walk, in a moment of rest, not when your nose is to the grindstone. It’s just the way our brains are wired."

Friday, March 28, 2014

The most dangerous path

"I once heard Charles D’Ambrosio say that you have to say “yes” to the story. At every turning point, the protagonist must always—always—choose the more dangerous path. ... Stories are driven by mistakes. They require mistakes."
--Robert Voedisch, interview with One Teen Story

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Visiting with readers

It's my turn at YA Outside the Lines, where I blogged about how my books can be used in the classroom.

I don't talk much here about my school visits and other appearances, because I'm not sure how wide the interest is among my blog readership. But if you are a teacher or librarian or bookseller, please know that I do accept invitations. :-) Or if you are a member of a book club and want to invite me to a discussion of one of my books. I LOVE talking to book clubs!

So while we're on the subject, here are a couple of photos from a recent school visit I did:

wgtn twp 2014 talk

wgtn twp 2014 depp
photos courtesy of Washington Township High School, Sewell, NJ

The first picture shows me talking to a large group at the school. The second picture shows me hanging out after the talk with one of the inspiring props they had there in the library. Johnny Depp wants you to READ!!

And a grateful shout-out to the school and everyone in the library, because they really were welcoming and efficient and enthusiastic, everything you could want in a hosting school.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Sometimes it happens this way: Guest post by Grete DeAngelo

I thought it might be nice to feature a "How I Met My Publisher" story, because in a field known for plentiful rejections and long waits, it's nice to remember that dreams still do come true! I met today's guest blogger at a writers' conference. I can't promise that any given conference will lead to a book deal. But, as you will see, sometimes they do ...

So here's Grete DeAngelo!

I met Jennifer recently at the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group "The Write Stuff" conference. She presented two informative sessions on writing for the Young Adult market, specifically in choosing a voice, a point of view, and dialogue for this audience. Even though I don't write YA, Jennifer gave me a lot of great ideas that cross any genre.

This was my second year attending this conference. Last year, I showed up with a women's fiction manuscript and the hopes of becoming a published author. I had a chance to meet with two agents and a small publishing house. Deborah Riley-Magnus from Assent Publishing said my story intrigued her and asked me to email her the manuscript.

Within a few months of the conference, I had signed a contract with Assent and had my first novel published. Becoming an author went from a pie-in-the-sky dream to moving very fast, and these days, I'm trying to balance my roles as a mother and teacher with those of writing my second novel and continuing to get the word out about my first.

Giving Myself Away is the story of divorced mom Adrienne, who accidentally gets pregnant and realizes she wants to give the baby up for adoption. Her family and the baby's father are opposed to the idea, so she has the difficult job of trying to convince them all that she's doing the best thing for the baby, even as she second-guesses herself.

Even though this is a woman's journey, I've found a happy audience for Giving Myself Away though my current and former students, who are constantly passing YA novels along to me! I remember well being a teenager and wondering what life would be like as a woman, what choices I'd make about marriage and children and career.

I'd like to thank Jennifer for asking me to guest blog. If you're interested in checking out some women's fiction that readers keep telling me is "so real," here are the links:
Grete DeAngelo
Available in paperback and Kindle format at
Available in paperback and Nook format at

Monday, March 24, 2014

Yet still have such a nice day

Two blog posts I read today struck a similar chord, and I think both are worth sharing.

From bardcat, on "a mission:"
"I cannot calculate the pros and cons or the what ifs of tomorrow. I can only live today, this moment, now! I can choose happiness today."

I also love the quote from the Dalai Lama that he used in this post.

From Jo Knowles:
"On the ugly days, when your world has come to a screeching halt, it may seem impossible to you that it's still spinning perfectly for everyone else. ... When life is beautiful, you might not want to hear about the stomach flu your friend's son has, or about the dying twenty-year-old cat of some acquaintance on Facebook .... Because the world is spinning perfectly that day, and you do not want to be pulled off the ride one more time.

"... And what I'm learning over and over again is that life, whether ugly or beautiful, is a gift. What we do with it is a choice."

I know, and I believe these bloggers know, that "making the choice" is not easy. It's not a snap of the fingers. It's not about denying true pain or stuffing it down. It's about looking for the beauty in this moment, the beauty we might not notice because there's so much else going on, much of it ugly and painful.

This also fits with a passage in a book I'm reading (Body Counts, by Sean Strub), in which the narrator visits a friend who is dying of AIDS (one of many Strub knew who died that way). "'I am way past the point where I would have thought I wanted to die ...'" Strub's friend, Ken Dawson, said. "'But today is a good day,' he went on. 'I am glad to see you.' He lightly squeezed my hand. 'Do you see how beautifully the sun shining through the window reflects on the wall?' ... He gave a wan smile. 'I never thought I could be so sick and yet still have such a nice day.'"

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Bright Field of Everything

I first picked up The Bright Field of Everything because I once took a poetry class from its author, Deborah Fries, and because we've had a mutual respect and encouragement for each other's work ever since. But I would have loved it even if I didn't know its author, because it's my favorite kind of poetry: rich in both creative language and insight, inviting the reader to reach out for meaning without veiling itself in inscrutability.

It doesn't hurt that the first poem is about Marie Curie, an endless source of fascination for me (and, I'm pretty sure, for many others). Curie toiled both physically (processing radioactive ores essentially by hand) and mentally for her discoveries; her story is both admirable (determined woman makes good in the field of science) and tragic (her hands were covered with radiation burns, her blood cells and bone marrow ravaged by the work, the notebooks she used still dangerously radioactive). In "Marie in America," Fries describes Curie's damaged hands "coiled, as if waiting to crack open earth's / friable magic ..."


From there, Fries covers an amazing amount of ground, zeroing in on health and the lack of it, the people and homes we lose through life, the fleeting and intense beauty of moments that don't last--except as we write them down. The vehicles she uses for this journey include butterflies, limestone, rutting deer, bodies in the Tigris River, eels, fruit flies, hospitals, computer screens. Over and over as I read, I found myself thinking Yes, that's the way it is, recognizing truths in original clothing. "Medium" describes an act so many nowadays indulge in: gleaning information on exes from the internet, collecting digital pictures and data alone in the dark ("Through her flat screen, she monitors / his life months after the death of them, after it failed / to take"). "The North Shore" (where couples go "to see if it's going to work out") begins, "We are descending into Duluth in October fog, sorting / greys to separate earth from harbor, girder from crane ...", chronicling the difficulty of seeing through fog, separating lake from sky, figuring out where we're going in a world of uncertainty. "Afterwinter" describes the outward spring as it reflects the hope for the inward spring of health following illness: "Under the knife ourselves not so long ago, / we understand stoic, sapless, pruned ..." and, "stick-brittle / in our fear that afterwinter may never take hold ..."

I could go on quoting, but I leave the rest for you to discover. Only, in honor of this cold March on which winter is loosening its grip only by inches, and in honor of people so recently "under the knife," I'll finish with the final lines of "Afterwinter:"
" ... Then this thaw comes.
Under foot, above, everywhere this mucky, sweet Yes."

source of recommended read: bought

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The brutal critic

In the course of cleaning out my office, I found some old manuscripts from one of the first creative-writing classes I ever took. They are other students' work, marked up with some of my comments. We used to discuss our comments in class.

What struck me was how brutal a critic I was, at least on paper: pouncing ruthlessly on every cliche, typo, and misused word. I had no patience then for anything remotely sugary: my comments on phrases that hint at any sweetness whatsoever are the written equivalents of groans and eye rolls. I only hope the comments I made out loud in class were more diplomatic. (And if they weren't, I apologize to my long-lost classmates.)

Nowadays I am far more likely to critique with an eye toward the big picture, and I try to help bring out the writer's voice, instead of imposing my own. Cliches and typos are easy to fix, so I don't dwell on them at first. I save them for late-pass line edits, and I no longer attack them like a starving hyena. I have far more sympathy than I used to, because I know by now how easy it is for stock phrases to creep into my own work. I've been blessed with editors who knew how to encourage even while they took my work apart, and they've taught me to be a better critiquer (I hope).

I try to focus the most attention on what's the most important, and to stay humble about it. Back then, I suffered under the delusion that perfection was possible, and that I was going to find it. (An idea that only makes me laugh, now, even as I keep trying.)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Gas or brake

Writers talk about procrastination as one of our big problems, but impatience can be another. I've seen and experienced both problems. Sometimes we dally over the same story, making only the smallest changes, afraid to send it out. Other times we slap a cover letter on a second draft and shoot it out the door. We say no when we need to say yes; yes when a no would serve us better.

It's a question of knowing when to use the accelerator and when to use the brake. In a car, we need both ... and I'm seeing that a writing career needs both, too.

I've been using the brake lately, slowing down to figure out where I am. I figure there's no point in speeding down a road if it's headed in the wrong direction.

Which do you need more right now: accelerator or brake?

Friday, March 14, 2014


In my neighborhood, snowdrops and crocuses have come up, the first flowers I've seen this year.

They are among the earliest, the first arrivals (usually preceded or accompanied by witch hazel, the earliest cherry trees, and/or glory-of-the-snow).

All month, when I've been calculating how long until this or that event, I've been thinking, "Well, now it's January, so that trip is X months away ..." and then catching myself. No, it's not January. It's March.

And finally it looks like March instead of January: Bare brown grass. Melting snow. Bright sun and cold wind and clouds, all in rapid succession. Birds growing louder, more active. Robins hunting on the exposed parts of the lawn, hopping aggressively as if to hurry the retreating snow that covers the rest.

We may get more snow come Monday.

But that's another story.

Today, the crocuses and the snowdrops have opened.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Taking stock

Lately, I've been taking stock.

I've had three contemporary young-adult novels published. All are realistic novels written in first person. Despite those similarities, I tried to cover somewhat different ground with each. I've written about romance and friendship and enmity, break-ups and make-ups, loss and gain, grief and joy. Some of the endings are happier than others. The parental characters run the gamut from neglectful to overprotective. The protagonists come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. I've used male and female narrators, past and present tense.

I could keep exploring these worlds--there are are more stories to tell within the territory I already inhabit--or I could try to break even newer ground.

I currently have nothing new in the publishing pipeline. So it's a good time to take stock. The question is: What next? And so this post by Kelly Bennett, part of Janni Simner's blog series on "Writing for the Long Haul" seemed rather timely. For example:
"After deciding that I wanted—want—to be a writer, I visualized what I wanted that new writing life to be."
"And while I don’t recommend doing anything as dramatic as calling it quits, I do suggest doing what I should have: in the same way you take your car in for servicing, schedule regular career check-ups."

It was taking stock a few years ago that led me from literary short stories to YA novels. I don't foresee a genre shift of this magnitude in my future right now, but it's good to ask ourselves, from time to time: Is there anything I want to try to do differently now?

Friday, March 7, 2014

Inside the book, outside the book

I've been meaning to post a link to this for a while. At Finding Wonderland, Aquafortis wrote about JK Rowling's public discussion of her books. Some notable quotes: "Sometimes I don't need to know every detail of the backstory. Sometimes it's what isn't explicitly stated that creates its own magic in a story ... . And I can't help but feel like, beyond a certain point, over-explanation dissipates the power of that magic. Sort of like, when you try too hard to explain a joke, it isn't funny anymore ..."

Authors are encouraged nowadays to talk about their books, do interviews, even provide little "extras" (lost chapters, related short stories, etc.). And an author of Rowling's stature is going to have many, many people interested in the world she created. I think that such discussions are like book-club discussions. They add to the pleasure of reading; they enable us to see where else the ideas on the page can take us. But ultimately, we do have to come back to what is on the page. Outside discussions are tangents that have come from that universal starting point; they're not part of the source material. Even if those outside discussions include the author.

Do I think the author should have more weight in those outside discussions? Yes ... and no. I have sat in classrooms and book clubs and heard some readers interpret scenes in my books in ways I never intended. I don't call them "wrong." If they're interested, I tell them what I actually intended, and what the scene means to me, but I have to accept that texts are open to interpretation. Novels deal in symbolism, after all, and they don't spell out "the moral of the story" at the end.

Some authors like to second-guess themselves, or they will discuss how they might have written a book differently, if they'd written it later in life. And we all have pieces of books that lie on the cutting-room floor: the alternate ending, the deleted chapters, the character we took out. But readers don't have access to all of those thoughts, those lost pieces. They only have access to the books we publish. And at a certain point, I like to turn readers' questions back onto them and ask, "Well, where do you think that character goes after the end of the book?" or, "Why do you think he acted that way in that scene?"

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


So often, when people write or talk about failure, it is only to focus on its opposite. Failure was the setup for the eventual triumph. Failure was where the lesson was learned; failure made the victory sweeter.

But that narrative, inspiring as it is at times, sets up a certain pressure and expectation even around failure. Now we have to try harder; now the success has to be even bigger to compensate for the setback. Now we have something to prove. Now we pursue, or await, the victory with even more anxiety.

In reality, failure isn't always followed by success. Sometimes that truth is very hard, tragic even. But sometimes it's just--life. It's okay not to win in the end. Imperfection is okay. The journey is worth taking anyway.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Cynthia Chapman Willis

A few years ago, a group of writers in the mid-Atlantic region banded together to form the Kidlit Authors Club.
One of our charter members was Cynthia Chapman Willis, author of Dog Gone and Buck Fever.
Early this week, Cynthia passed away after a battle with cancer.

KAC bn group
photo from Alison Ashley Formento
Some KAC members:  Cyn Balog, Ellen Jensen Abbott, Cynthia Chapman Willis, Nancy Viau (back row); Alissa Grosso, Jennifer Hubbard, Keri Mikulski (front row)

We'll miss her.
And her words live on here, and here, and here.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Letting go

I love this writing office of mine. It's in a spare bedroom of our house, and it contains my desk, files, writing-related materials, bookcases and books, a bed*, a stereo, and various flotsam and jetsam.

In recent months I've begun to clean it out, which is turning out to be a long process for two reasons. One is that I can only do a little bit at a time, partly because of my busy schedule, partly because too much at once would drive me insane. The insanity derives from different sources: some of the cleaning-out is mind-numbingly boring. And some of it involves decisions that wear out my mind after a while: Do I need this? If I don't want it but it's too good to throw away, what on earth should I do with it? If I can throw out this paper, does it need to be shredded? If I need it, where should I file it?

The other reason this is a long process is that I have been a packrat for most of my life, a saver, a preserver, an archivist. You would not believe some of the things I've held onto. Electric bills from a place I lived in six changes of address ago. Receipts for things I no longer own, and which have no connection to any tax paperwork. Pens that no longer write. Magazines I've never read. Magazines I've read that have a few stories I want to reread but I'm not sure which issue they're in.** Plastic flowers. Address labels for manuscripts (which I no longer need because submissions are done electronically now).

I held on to so many things in case I would ever need them again. Or because they were too good to throw out, Or because so-and-so gave them to me, and I wouldn't want to hurt so-and-so's feelings or insult so-and-so's memory. A lot of these are issues I discussed with my friend Kelly Fineman as she embarked on her own downsizing project. Now that I'm finally in a place where I can let go of much of this stuff, I'm doing it. But there is a LOT to let go of.

I continue to do it at my own slow pace, noting each small bit of progress. For example, the neatness of my closet now knocks me out whenever I look at it. Whenever I need encouragement in this endeavor, I just admire my closet, this oasis of orderliness, for half a minute. I can also say that my office is getting less cluttered over time--rather than more cluttered, which was its previous trajectory.

I wish I had known, years ago, how much of this stuff I really wouldn't need to save. But some of this isn't even about the stuff: it's about a scarcity mentality, a fear of being unprepared, a fear of loss, that led me to accumulate so much in the first place. I don't want to get too psychological here, so I won't take that much farther, but I'll just say it feels good to be letting go.

*We originally designated this room a "combination guest bedroom/writing office." But this room only hosted guests once, years ago. My writing has pretty thoroughly conquered this space. Now I just use the bed for lounging about on (usually while reading), or for holding stuff the floor doesn't have room for. Right now, the bed holds a blanket, a stuffed elephant, a box full of writing-related correspondence, a book I haven't read yet, a box of bookmarks, pens, and random papers.
**Because of this, I now have a new system. For any story or article I want to save, I dog-ear the page and save the issue. If I don't dog-ear any pages in an issue, I throw it out as soon as I've read it. But that doesn't help with my years of back issues.