Friday, March 28, 2014

Five for Friday

Been writing, writing, writing this week. Revising and writing new material, both. Some days it's been like digging up rocks with a toothpick. Other days--yesterday--it flows more smoothly.

But it's time for the Friday five!
Here's what I'm obsessed with this week:

1. On the Kindle: The 2nd Outlander book. Still LOVING Jamie and Claire. But this second book moves a tad slower than the first. It is a little less unbridled lusty romance and a little more 18th century political intrigue in France. A little more "Claire! Why did you let the French maid wax your armpits? Who would do such a thing?"  But no matter. It's Jamie and Claire. I'm in this for the duration!

Also: Swamplandia -- which I just started because Amazon sent me a refund from that law suit with various publishers including some of mine so what did I do? Bought a book. Of course. It's by Karen Reese, who I randomly heard on NPR the other morning and who, it turns out, is an NU alum like me (well, not like me. She was nominated for a Pulitzer before she was 30. ) And now there she was on the cover of my Northwestern alum mag, the issue called The Write Way, which featured alumni fiction writers including Veronica Roth, who wrote Divergent during her senior year. During my senior year at NU I did take Creative Writing but mostly I hung out, worked crazy part time jobs, and did as little work as possible while applying for teaching jobs. Uh, yeah. (I do appear in the mag-- but only in the alum news section. Cause I've got a new book out and another coming. There's even a picture)

But to the book. The writing is gorgeous. Reese writes that the night sky was 'star-lepered.'  Lovely! And I am obsessed with the relationship between characters and their settings these days, so the FL swamp setting is pulling me in. Swamplandia! A mother who swims with the gators. Annoying oldster tourists. The weirdness that is FL

2. Catching up some with Scandal. Love the dialogue. Love the crazy plots. Love Olivia Pope and her outfits. But I'm more a fan of Blacklist. Maybe it's because I haven't watched every ep. But I think it's the pacing. I think I want more variety than only frenetic. And while I find Olivia fascinating, I don't find myself empathizing with her the same way I do Spader's Reddington in Blacklist. Weird. Thoughts?

3. Speaking of Blacklist-- finally! Finally Lizzie has figured out that her husband (sorry my friends in the UK who haven't watched yet) is NOT WHO SHE THINKS HE IS. It took you long enough, Lizzie!

4. And speaking of Outlander, I am now obsessed with planning a trip to Scotland. OBSESSED, I tell you!

5. This one is for Ree, the Pioneer Woman, whose recipes I currently love. Made her chicken spaghetti the other day. It was darn good chicken spaghetti. Also in the past weeks, in non-TV related recipes, I have figured out how to make chicken pot pie and Shepherd's pie. So there you go.

Happy Friday!
What are you obsessed about this week?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Writing in the Suburbs: Can You Create Art While Carpooling and Buying Toilet Paper at Target?

One of the best sessions I attended at the AWP conference last month was the one titled: Daydreaming at the Mini-Mart--The Suburbs and Literary Imagination. The controlling question being not only how has the conception of the American suburb informed American writing in general but this: Is it possible to live and write in the suburbs and not consider yourself a suburban writer? And this: Does art exist in the suburbs? And as someone who lives and writes in one, am I affected by it and its mall culture? Does my daily existence somehow preclude the type of art that I might create in say, Brooklyn? Or Austin, even? And yes, my darling Austinites, you know you contemplate this as you shop at your vegetable collectives and buy your organic soap at Whole Foods. (which we have here in Houston, just not near me). I wonder if Texas collectively believes that Austin= art. And that the rest of us are struggling to keep up?

I think about this a lot, actually. I've poked at it the Sweet Dead Life books some, but I've not come to any definitive conclusions other than that Jenna in SDL is both a product of and an ironic observer of, her life in the northern Houston 'burbs. As am I.

Have you seen this?

Labelscar is a history of closed retail establishments. It details pictorially the 'death' of malls and the 'scar' left both literally and culturally when the name is stripped but the shut down building or business is left behind.

Suburban life has changed a lot since the musings of John Cheever and John Updike and period pieces like Revolutionary Road and books like Little Children. I think it's more than just what one of the panelists referred to as 'renegade sexuality' or the rampant infidelity in Updike's books like Couples. There's a wider mixture of people here now and certainly a thread of violence--whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. (Have you seen the film American Beauty?)

Are the suburbs still banal and filled with only Olive Gardens and Cheesecake Factories and the like? If I live in this world, does it affect the art I create? If so how? Can I treat it only ironically? Or as one of the panelists mused, "Even in a Food Lion parking lot you find that pastoral inspiration." Meaning: there is more complexity here in the 'burbs than just the stuff we might satirize or criticize.

Of course sometimes I do. I can't help it. I live in a place where we have Market Street, which is a newly constructed 'town center' where they have put up stores in what look like old buildings repurposed but are actually new buildings with basically just a facade. There is something strange and not necessarily wonderful about this if you think about it too long. How can this not affect me as an artist or the characters whom I might place in this landscape?

And that thread of violence: What do I do with the fact that there are robberies in Wal-mart parking lots? That sometimes groups of bored teens from the local highly affluent high school do more than re-arrange Christmas lawn reindeer into sexually compromising positions but break into houses and smash windows on cars just to have something to do?

What about technology? Are we lonelier here in the 'burbs now? Or is that just a myth?

And how, if at all, does it affect my writing?

Of course, the panel also used phrases that were new to me. Like "liminal interstitial nature of all our spaces." Which I had to look up. Possibly because my trips to Target and the fake French bistro in my fake town center have confused me. Possibly not.

What do you think? Does where we live affect our art? Are the suburbs a specific and special case in this regard? Or is this entire idea simply an intellectual sort of navel-gazing/anti-tract home/snobbish derision at Stephen King/etc. that one finds at academic conferences?

I'd love your thoughts!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Art of Revision

Been revising a lot lately. I'm working on some sample pages for a new project and at the same time I'm finishing up a final round of revision for FINDING PARIS--which I just learned will arrive in the world on 4/21/15!!

Working on other things, too, but it's the revision that's most on my mind this morning. Mostly what's on my mind is that I am very fortunate to be working with two amazing and thoughtful editors and an equally amazing and editorial agent--all of whom care very deeply that the work I produce is the best it can be.

I showed my latest editorial letter (a short one: just 2 1/2 single spaced pages!) to my husband. I don't always do this. He has enough to do without reading what is essentially a 'do it like this' note from my boss. :) But this time he looked interested…

"That's a lot," he said.
"It's way less than last time," I told him.
"You seem happy," he said.
I was.

Not just because the edit letter was shorter. But because I am working with an editor who is incredibly vested in making this book work. Because each time I dig deep and add layers, she pushes me to go deeper. We look together at words and phrasing and pacing. At flashbacks or lack thereof.  At the narrative as a whole. At how the minor characters are working. At the big reveals and the small ones. Is everything clear? Is everything balanced? What needs to be on the page? What should remain off-screen? We look at the characters' little descriptive 'tics' and at my own as an author. Where does style slip into repetition and become less effective? How exactly should this or that be revealed?

It is hard work.
And I love it.
Digging in now.

How about you?
Thoughts on revision?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Failure is Your Friend (Yes, Really)

Did a lovely school visit last week at Moody Middle School in Moody TX. (A writer friend pointed out that this is the perfect name for a middle school! Because 7th and 8th graders… yeah… they can be kinda moody, you know?)

But we had a great time, at least as far as I could tell, and the librarian and teachers had asked me to speak about both revision and the idea of never giving up. And as I was creating my powerpoint-- interspersed with images of Lyla the bassett/boxer, who never fails to elicit a laugh or two-- I add this slide:
Because I really, really believe it's a message they needed to hear. And then I added this, because it's the follow up:
Because it's the other thing I think we all need to keep reminding ourselves.

I have not taught full time in over 2 years, but I still remember the day my principal told us that 50 was the lowest grade we could give a student. Period. Because, the logic went, if we gave the student at least a 50, then mathematically, he/she would still have a chance to pass. And the school had basically preset the grading program to make this happen for us. Meaning if a student earned only a 40, it would automatically be figured in at grading time as a 50.

Well, that year I had a student who had refused to work. And just before Thanksgiving, he stopped coming to school at all. By mid January, he'd never returned, but he hadn't dropped out, either. So the school had to issue him a report card. He was going to receive a 50. He had done 1 assignment during the course of a semester. It made no sense to me. Still doesn't. Not as a general, required rule. Are there extenuating circumstances sometimes? Yes.

Here's what I believe: Failure is okay. I used to be afraid of it. But the truth is, if I never fail at things, then what that means is that I am not stretching myself. I am not testing my limits. I have no idea what huge things I can achieve. It is good for me to be afraid sometimes when I'm trying something new. To wonder if I'm up to the challenge. When I stop getting those butterflies in the belly, I'm not trying hard enough. I'm just phoning it in.

I have failed a lot as a teacher and a writer. I'm not happy to admit this, but it's true. Bethany Hegedus is doing a great and related series about rejection over at the Writing Barn blog. Here's what I wrote having my option book rejected a couple years ago:

I have presented lessons that didn't sufficiently teach the topic. I have had manuscripts rejected multiple times. I have turned in revisions and been asked to revise again. And again. That last part isn't necessarily failure, but it still means that I need to dig deeper to get it right. I have pitched ideas--and myself-- for conferences that weren't accepted. I have reached out to stores who did not choose to host me. I have written two full manuscripts that will most likely remain in a file on my laptop. I stubbornly worked at education for many long years even though the creative life kept calling me. Some days I feel like I will never catch up with the herd.

And that's just some of the professional stuff. My personal failures could be an entire year long series of posts. :) Including those ballet lessons that just didn't stick.

Well, so be it.
From each of those failures has come a success. Really. Sometimes it was a long time getting here. But it happened. Some days it's harder to see that than others. Some years, it seems patently false. But it's true. All my successes are owed to the times I didn't quite make it.

Except for ballet.

A true story: I decided to try it again when I was at Northwestern. A pass/fail PE credit that I didn't even need at all, but figured hey, what the heck. Except it was winter quarter. It snowed foot after foot that winter. The gym was almost a mile walk from where I lived. I still sucked at ballet. So I stopped going.  My OFFICIAL transcript includes my ballet grade. Yeah. You know what it was.

Anyone else have a failure story that pushed you toward eventual success?

Friday, March 21, 2014

Five for Friday plus Nathan Fillion

Happy Friday! Happy Spring!
Here in Houston we're trying for spring. My azaeleas are blooming and it's no longer dipping into the 30s or below, but it still feels half-hearted with cold fronts still pouring through. (Yes, I know. Some of you are still getting snow. I grew up in Chicago. Once we had a full on blizzard on April Fool's Day.

To the five!

1. YA books I'm currently obsessed with!

  • Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith --- Brilliant! Funny! Giant praying mantises taking over the US in apocalyptic fashion, with ground zero, so to speak, in Ealing, Iowa. A sixteen year old boy named Austin Szerba. It's about science gone bad, and middle America and sex and love and teenage boys...It defies description actually-- in the best of ways--  so I'll let this review from the NYTimes speak for me:
  • This Song Will Save Your Life, by Leila Sales-- sad, funny, lovely. I love Elise Dembowski, who is smart and funny and wry and different and incapable (mostly for all the best reasons) of fitting in at high school. But she loves music and stumbles into DJing at this pop up dance club… and finds herself in the process. I'm loving this book and Elise's voice so much. (My one quibble comes from the very broad strokes it paints of the high school experience. In my personal teacher experience, rarely are the bullies so obvious as they are in fictional treatments. But no matter. I LOVE THIS book.
2. Finally got to see Frozen! Yes, I'm woefully behind. So behind that I knew most of the soundtrack but hadn't seen the actual movie. Loved it. Princess Elsa! Princess Anna! And mostly Olaf and Sven. Olaf's song and dance about summer? I could watch that dimwitted little snowman a million times over.

3. In my own book news, THE A-WORD is almost here. Launch party is now planned at Blue Willow Bookshop on 5/17 at 2 PM. There's a link in the Events/Appearances page of this blog. I am so thrilled to bring this book into the world. So happy to be making books with Soho Press. And I'm almost, almost done with the last of the revisions for FINDING PARIS. (Balzer and Bray/Harper Collins). Two sisters. A crazy scavenger hunt road trip. A very cute boy. Las Vegas! LA! And some dark and twisty secrets. And some new projects and other stuff that I can't quite say yet… Yeah. It's been busy.

4. Real Housewives of NYC is back! I'm definitely team Carole these days. And in other TV obsessions: Blacklist! It's not perfect but James Spader as Reddington makes up for every moment where this show can't quite decide if it's this carefully plotted character driven mystery or a procedural. But omg, I love this show. I love that we know that black ops agent Lizzy's husband is a Russian spy and she doesn't! Although Lizzy! Red keeps telling you not to trust him… As for Castle, well, Nathan Fillion, I would watch you read a grocery list. I really would. But the show is losing my attention. Much better? The Americans on FX, which, come to think of it, seems to have loaned a bit of its plot lines over to Blacklist… And Vampire Diaries. Damon. 'Nuff said.

5. Also Tina on Bob's Burgers. My friend Beth made me watch. "You will love Tina," she said. Beth always knows! So yeah. Tina's horrible. I absolutely adore her.

And since now I'm thinking about Nathan Fillion and wishing that Castle was still holding my attention the way it used to, I'll leave you with this, also pointed out to me by pal Beth. 90's Nathan! You are welcome.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


Can you think of a cuter title? I know, right?

My friend and critique and breakfast partner Varsha Bajaj is an uber-talented author of picture books, such as HOW MANY KISSES DO YOU WANT TONIGHT (Little Brown), which has sold like a gazillion copies because it is adorable and lovely and the perfect bed time book and even comes as a board book if you'd prefer!

But on March 1st, she debuted her first ever middle grade/tween title, ABBY SPENCER GOES TO BOLLYWOOD. (Whitman) I had the privilege of reading an early version of this even before it sold and I have loved Abby's story for a long time. Varsha has given her this awesome voice, plus there is a grand solo journey to India and a girl finding her father--who turns out to be a famous Bollywood star. It's a sweet, wonderful read.

Here's what Amazon says:
What thirteen-year-old Abby wants most is to meet her father. She
just never imagined he would be a huge film star--in Bollywood! Now she's traveling to Mumbai to get to know her famous father. Abby is overwhelmed by the culture clash, the pressures of being the daughter of India's most famous celebrity, and the burden of keeping her identity a secret. But as she learns to navigate her new surroundings, she just might discover where she really belongs.

Seriously, you NEED to read this book.
When you do, let me know what you think!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Book Fairs, Promotion, and Other Midlister Industry Musings

So a few weeks ago, I used my shiny new substitute teacher credential to work at a middle school, helping run the book fair with the librarian, who in full disclosure is also one of my critique partners and thus can offer me a sub job that requires no actual teaching but 8 hours a day of recommending books to 6th graders and maneuvering the fairly limited mysteries of the Scholastic Book Fair cash register. Plus snacks. And French toast and fruit for breakfast on Valentine's Day because, it turns out, life at this middle school is a lot cushier than the 'every woman for herself; hey there's a stale kolache from yesterday's PTA meeting in the teacher's lounge' life I used to live when I taught high school English. But I digress.

The Scholastic Book Fair is a crazy efficient machine at selling books. We talk a lot about what sells books, my writer friends and I. About author platforms (which I'll be doing a workshop about at Houston Writer's Guild in April), and internet presence and word of mouth. Word of mouth does indeed sell books, and probably it's the best --and most elusive--method of all.

But let's be clear: The Scholastic people know how to sell books. If you are lucky enough to get one of your titles picked up by Scholastic and made into one of their book club books, it will probably sell a bunch of copies. It will have huge market exposure to the middle schools in particular (or elementary if you write for younger people). It will get to kids who might not ever see the inside of a book store or whose school libraries don't have the money to buy a lot of titles. Did I mention? It will sell. And if you are lucky enough to be on the featured list on the book order forms that go home, and on the promo videos about those featured titles that they send for everyone to view in advance, you will most likely sell more copies.

I had never been in the position to watch this up close and personal for an entire week before. It was, honestly, fascinating. Prisoner B-3087, by Alan Gratz, a true story of Yanek (Jack) Gruener, who suffered and survived 10 concentration camps during WWII, was the most popular book at the fair I worked. Now, this is an amazing book. And it was written in conjunction with Gruener himself, and his wife, so it is wrenchingly accurate, albeit a children's version. But would these 5th and 6th graders have gravitated to it on their own just from looking at the cover, as they might if they had wandered into say, Barnes and Noble and there was one copy spine out? I don't know for sure. But I'm thinking, probably not. But there was a video and interview with the author and Gruener and his wife. It was featured on the handout. And yeah, it's the kind of book that teachers, whether they are readers or not, would encourage their students to read. We sold out of that book more than once that week and Scholastic had to keep sending more. Boxes more.

(Let me interject here that I also got to observe that while I am immersed in the YA industry and YA titles, most of the middle school teachers I met are not. So titles like Cinder or even Newbery titles like My Name is Ivan, are not necessarily something they know. It was fun to be able to book talk these to both adults and kids)

I did see that there are no guarantees. Not every featured book seemed to sell as well as Prisoner did. Was it the cover? A lesser known setting? The way the promo film was set up? I don't have every answer. Sometimes there needed to be a context for sales, a "well, if you like books about x but want one that's funnier" look at this. Often, after that, word of mouth took over.

A few things came clear to me:
1. I am very, very grateful to every bookseller, particularly but not limited to the indies, who hand-sell my books, especially The Sweet Dead Life and the forthcoming A-Word, which are quirkier books from a small but mighty and nimble publisher and deal with the huge questions of the universe but also first dates and high school football and breakfast tacos. They are not as easy to sum up as the Dreaming Anastasia series, which is about the Romanovs and a very cool Russian fairy tale witch and has epic romance and thus keeps selling all on its own even when I'm looking the other way.

2. I am very grateful for the word of mouth I get--and for those who listen to the words I humbly generate on my own. Because it helps people know that those two spine out copies are sitting on the shelf in BN waiting for someone to say hey, "That gorgeous new pb with its red boots and story of a Texas girl whose brother becomes the most imperfect but also perfect guardian angel ever is coming home with me!" Even if they don't see huge stacks of books, they still pick it up.

3. If the people at Scholastic Book Fair want your book, it is a good thing. For everyone.

4. 10 year old boys love Minecraft and zombies and Guinness Book of World Records in any form. I texted my editor that one of us should create the Zombie Book of Worlds Records. He texted back that I had just figure out how to pay for his son's college tuition. Also, although it is highly sexist sounding, 10 year old girls love posters with puppies. And One Direction. So on a similar note, if you make a poster of the One Direction guys holding cute puppies, you will probably be able to send your son to college.

5. Anecdotally, I do think that a huge stack of books is more enticing that one lone copy. UNLESS the librarian announces a shortage. Then everyone wants to place special orders.

Most of all, in between selling books and figuring out the Scholastic Book Fair computerized cash register and eating the chocolate and kolaches that kept appearing because middle school teachers seem fond of snacks and lunches from places like Cane's which sells ONLY chicken finger baskets, I discovered one other most wonderful thing:

Scholastic Book Fair had bought POISON by the late Bridget Zinn, who died of cancer before her lovely debut novel came out last year from Hyperion. It is a beautiful YA fantasy with a brave and brilliant potion-master girl and a funny amazing story and NOW a zillion middle schoolers will get to read it!

I spent a lot of time putting POISON in kids' hands. I told them Bridget's story.

That was the best of all.

Monday, March 3, 2014

On the Book Fest Circuit: A Picture is Worth a Bunch of Words

January 24-25, 2014

The Woodlands, TX, February 15, 2014