Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Carolee: For Reading Out Loud!

Last night my seventeen-year-old son read the last chapter of THE GREAT GATSBY out loud to me as we sat together on the living room sofa. The night before, we watched the movie, and the night before that, I read a chapter to him. We’ve been going back and forth like that with F. Scott Fitzgerald for the past two weeks.

Before GATSBY we tackled IN COLD BLOOD, THE THREE MUSKETEERS, and THE PORTRAIT OF DORIAN GRAY among others. It all started with Steinbeck and freshman honors English. One night Jon was sitting on the couch holding a book, looking perplexed, and saying, “I just don’t get it.” He was referring to OF MICE AND MEN, one of my all time favorites. I asked him if he’d like for me to read it with him. He said yes.

And that was the beginning of a great mother-son reading adventure.

We’ve had some good laughs. I’ll never forget the summer we tackled THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Though I love Steinbeck, even I was bored, and I couldn’t believe there was an entire chapter dedicated to a turtle crossing the road. We still joke about that one. We ended up ditching the book about half way through the summer and listening to the story on CD while driving to Colorado.

When Jon was in preschool, I would gather him up with his older sister, and we’d sit on her bed reading picture books. She’d be totally engrossed in the story despite the fact that her brother was bouncing up and down on the mattress, using it as a trampoline. He’s always been much fonder of extreme sports than reading. He plays soccer, snowboards down black diamonds, and skateboards through the concrete drainage ditch in the middle of the park. When he was younger, he destroyed two bicycles by jumping them off of ramps he and his friends built out in the field behind our house. He has never enjoyed sedentary activities like reading, even with an author-mother scouring the bookstores for something… anything… that contained enough action and excitement to keep his attention. I never criticized books like CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS, whatever the literary shortcomings, because at least he was reading.

When Jon was in middle school, he got interested in a few series. I would rush off to the bookstore to buy him the latest installment, only to be told that he’d gotten tired of that author last week. I even tried writing adventure books, but lost heart when he would read a few pages of a manuscript and get bored. I went so far as to add a hurricane in the first ten pages of one story, but he was unimpressed.

His older sister has read all of my manuscripts. At twenty she is one of my best critics and has learned to spot plot holes from a mile away. But it’s dangerous to make comparisons between your children, and even more dangerous to have expectations, so when my first novel, COMFORT, was published, I didn’t push Jon to read it. After all, it was a character driven novel about a teenage boy who overcame his dysfunctional family situation through poetry. Jon did read it though, because his classmates were talking about it, and he even surprised me by saying, “Hey Mom, this is pretty good.” It was then that I realized I had underestimated him. The books that really grasped his attention weren’t adventure stories at all, but stories about the human condition. He talked about the ending to OF MICE AND MEN for a long time, and was perplexed by the senseless violence of IN COLD BLOOD.

In my job as a speech-language pathologist in the public schools, I work with many struggling readers, and I often recommend to parents that they read aloud with their teens in the same way that parents typically read aloud with younger children—taking turns and talking about what is going on in the text. I have been surprised by how many of these parents have said they thought this would be “cheating”—as if kids should be left to flounder on their own with no one to guide them through the precarious land of metaphor, symbolism, inference, and motif.

Educational psychology suggests we lend a helping hand. The famous Russian Psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, believed that the optimal zone for learning was the distance between what young people can do independently and their potential with adult (or advanced peer) guidance. He called it the Zone of Proximal Development. Though my son has no learning disability, and is, in fact, an honor student taking advanced classes, there is a difference between what he can comprehend on his own and what he can comprehend when we discuss what he is reading. So many important lessons are still just beyond his reach when he tries to grasp them on his own.

Even if that wasn’t the case, there is something very magical about sitting shoulder to shoulder, hunched over Steinbeck or Fitzgerald, with the son who towers six inches above me, the son who will be leaving for college soon, the son who is almost, but not quite a man.

In our hectic lives, between my work and his social engagements, sports commitments, and girlfriends, it is difficult to find time for quiet moments. By sharing books we’ve had opportunities to talk about the things I’ve wanted him to understand about life and human nature, but wasn’t always sure how to bring up in casual conversation—what it means to be a true friend, the boredom of self-indulgence, the pain of betrayal, pride and prejudice, and what you value at the end.

A few months ago I was talking to my editor on the phone about rewrites for my upcoming novel, TAKE ME THERE (Simon Pulse, July 2010). Jon overheard the conversation and asked me the story line. I told him it’s about a boy, on the run from the law and an L.A. gang, looking for his estranged father who is in prison somewhere in Texas. He smiled and said, “Wow Mom, that sounds like something I’d like to read.”

There is no greater compliment than this, and it helps me to remember why I write stories about boys.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

More good news!

HOLD STILL by Nina LaCour and GENTLEMEN by Michal Northrop are both on the ALA's 2010 Best Books for Young Adult's List,

SECRETS OF TRUTH AND BEAUTY by Megan Frazer is on the ALA's Rainbow List


GENTLEMEN by Michael Northrop and FAR FROM YOU by Lisa Schroeder are on the TAYSHAS list for 2010.

Congratulations, all!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


I am so excited to share the news that John Ford's THE MORGUE AND ME and Saundra Mitchell's SHADOWED SUMMER are both Edgar nominees for Best Young Adult!!! Congratulations to them and to all the nominees!



by Brian Meehl







This author has been asked to blog about returning to characters because said author has been recently asked to write a sequel to his YA novel, Suck It Up.

Said author will now return to the character previously known as “I.”

Besides the little reincarnation just executed, I have oodles of experience “returning to characters.” In television, that is. But I’m a total character-redux virgin when it comes to books. Can it be so different? Well, work-for-hire TV is like babysitting other people’s kids; returning to your own characters is like--gulp--rearing your own precious babies!

In fact, standing on the precipice of re-embracing my fictional spawn fills me with:

DREAD: OMG, I thought I was done with them.

ANGER: I mean, c’mon! They’re like kids you send away to college, then they move back in! I want my empty nest!

RESIGNATION: Okay, maybe a sequel isn’t such a bad thing.

HOPE: Hey, my agent tells me an only child is tougher to sell foreign than multiple children. Selling multiple children is good. Very good.

AVARICE: Dare I say, “Series?”

PRESSURE: But after book 1, fans of my hero and heroine now have ramped up expectations. Won’t I just disappoint them? Can I reincarnate the characters so they’ll be familiar and new-n-improved?

RELIEF: Hey, at least I don’t have to start from scratch. I know these guys (and girls).

ANTICIPATION: Man, I can’t wait to dive into this tribe again and see what kinda trouble they whip up!

BACK TO DREAD: What trouble? At the end of book 1, I tied everything up neat and tidy. There’s no trouble left! Ahhhh!

TERROR: I feel like Hamlet after he saw the ghost of his murdered father! How did that work out for him?!

But, prior to dashing wild and naked down Hamlet’s homicidal highway, I hear a little voice. It asks, “Did you? Did you tidy everything up neat and tidy?”

There’s only one way to find out, dude. Go back and read your damn book.

Which is what I’d be doing if I weren’t writing this blog. Aye, there’s the rub. I’m going to read the book right now, ripple-gliss back to you, and share what I discovered about returning to characters. Sure, it feels like a high school reunion you do and don’t want to attend, but there’s bound to be some surprises. Right?

To do this full before-and-after thing, I should give you my current thinking on character-returns, character-backwash, whatever you wanna call it.

It’s kind of like the Zen thing of never being able to step in the same river twice. Just like a river, the flow of a new narrative puts your character(s) in different water. Same place + different water = altered character(s).

However, since I’ve been reading a lot about blood-feeding animals lately (research for Suck It Up II)--I’m going to throw a couple of new words out that most of you (except biology majors) probably don’t know. They might throw a different light on character resurrections.

Ecdysis, from the Greek “escape” or “getting out of,” is the act of molting or shedding an outer layer. Arthropods (insects, spiders, crustaceans) do it, snakes do it, do fictional characters do it too?

Instar, “a stage in the life of an arthropod between two successive molts.” (Well put, Merriam-Webster.)

If we think of a fictional character as an organism that continues to grow and develop, then in book 1, they’re instar #1 and, via the magic of a little ecdysis, they escape the skin of their former self (and the narrative shell of book #1) and become instar #2. Presto-chango, they are both different and the same.

Thanks to Merriam-Webster we might even define character-return like so: “a stage in the life of a character between two successive dramas.” Or in the case of Harry Potter, between two years of school. Or in the case of Bella, between two kisses. (Okay, I never got past Twilight 1 so I just assumed it was one kiss per book.)

Now I’m gonna go read my book 1, and see if any of this falderal holds up. Back in a jiff.

[Insert ripple-gliss]

Whoa, that was weird! So many details I’d forgotten after two years of playing deadbeat-author to my imaginary issue.

Which brings up the best reason for rereading your book. Your readers probably have a fresher and better memory of your characters than you do. So, if you’re going to write ‘em again, you better brush up on their physical characteristics, idiosyncrasies, distinctive voices, etc.

But here’s what struck me most about having a surprise union with my old crew of imaginary buds. You know that phenomena of people going back to reunions--high school, college, whatever--and there’s that person that you had a thing for way back when, but nothing came of it? Or maybe it was a way-back girl or boyfriend, and you meet them again and it’s like a romantic version of those shrimp that can live in the desert for decades, then one little rainfall wakes ‘em up and they go crazy? Okay, maybe not the best simile but you know what I’m talking about. That’s what it can be like returning to your characters. You had something back in the day, you picked up right were you left off, and you can’t wait to take it further. Hit Play, hit Fast Forward, I don’t care, just get me off Pause!

In my view, the cause of this interpersonal imprinting that can occur in adolescence and go Sleeping-Beauty for decades lies in our least understood sense: smell. It’s some kind of pheromone flashback, pulling us back to the hormonal hurricane, and deliciously stormy weather, of youth.

Which brings me to my point (should you be wondering if there was one). Returning to characters isn’t much different than the Sleeping Beauty Effect. You’ve already danced, groped, had a creative union at such a profound level with these former “classmates,” all you have to do is show up for the reunion and let your imagination take it from there.

Or, to borrow from a current rage and put character redux in Jeopardy-speak:

Answer: A variant phrase or version of a continuing basic entity.

Question: What is an avatar?

When it comes to my reunion with my particular synaptic spawn, I’m gonna geek-up and go with answer B). I’m gonna lay down a little ecdysis and watch my instars step out.


Welcome to your own reunion. What will you do?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Lisa: Looking back at the agent search

In December, I did reruns on my personal blog (http://lisa-schroeder.blogspot.com/) and took a look back at those days before I had an agent and before I had published any novels.

I think it's good to take a look back now and then. Sometimes we feel stuck, like we're not going anywhere, but often, if we look back, we realize we've actually come a long way. It can give us a new appreciation for the road we're currently on, and perhaps allow us to feel more hopeful about where we're going.

So I went back to the year 2006, and pulled up some of the posts from when I was looking for an agent, including some of the posts I had locked at that time (a handy livejournal feature), so only select individuals could see me talking about my frustration around rejections.

It was a bit strange to look back to that time – that time when I wondered if I would ever land a good agent and if I would ever have a novel on the shelves of bookstores. And now, three years later, I think about what I would have told myself if I knew what I know now. I certainly did some things right, but I think there are some things I could have done differently, and I thought I’d share my thoughts here.

What I’d do differently:

1) I would have understood better that so much of this business simply comes down to personal tastes and timing. I had a couple of particularly harsh rejections from good agents, but now I understand my book JUST WASN’T THEIR THING. I almost gave up because of one of those rejections, and what if I’d done that? Horrors!!

2) I would have spent more time working on my query letters and more specifically, the crucial paragraph that describes the book. I now understand just how important this is. All the other stuff we sweat – what font to use, how much to include about us personally, etc. – none of it really matters that much. But the paragraph that describes your book? It matters. A lot!

3) I would have invested more time and money on the craft of writing. We get so caught up sometimes in the goal of being published, we forget that it all comes down to the one thing we DO have in our control, and that’s writing the best book we can. I sort of learned the hard way, through trial and error, by writing book after book after book. A writing course or two probably would have helped me a lot.

4) When I came up with ideas for stories, I would have made sure I could describe it REALLY well in one sentence before I ever started writing the thing. I firmly believe now that a book needs to easily be described in a sentence or two and it should make someone’s eyes go big and wide and say, “Wow, that sounds awesome!”

What I think I did right:

1) I kept writing. As soon as I started to query and submit, I began working on something new. You can drive yourself crazy waiting for responses. Continuing to write helps with the waiting!

2) I did my research. I knew what agents might be a good fit for me, for the most part. I made the most of resources on-line like www.agentquery.net and www.publishersmarketplace.com. The first is a free resource, the second has a monthly fee, BUT, I’d subscribe once every six months for just a month, and do the necessary research on what’s selling and what agent names came up a lot, and then I’d unsubscribe when the month was over.

3) I networked with other authors on-line, via blogs, writing communities like verlakay.com/boards, SCBWI, etc.

4) I didn’t whine publicly about the rejections. You never know who might be reading, so it’s important to keep that frustration under control and ALWAYS be professional. Have writer friends you can vent to, or set up a special locked livejournal account for friends to read only.

5) I didn’t give up, even though there were days I wanted to. Sure, there were times when I took a few days off and stepped away for awhile. We all need breaks from time to time! Still, I always came back. Some projects where shelved, which was definitely the right thing. But I’d work hard on getting a new project polished and then I’d begin the agent hunt again.

I still remember the day Sara contacted me via e-mail letting me know she liked my book, I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME. I’d been searching for an agent on and off for two years, on various projects. When I got the e-mail, wanting to set up a time to talk, I stood up and got out of my chair, clutching my hands to my chest. The receptionist in the cube next to me thought I was ill or having a heart attack. I said, “No, but I think I might have finally found an agent!”

As I celebrate the release of my third young adult novel, CHASING BROOKLYN, this month, I can truthfully say I’m now thankful for all those previous rejections. They all lead me here, right where I belong.

Wishing you all a happy and successful 2010!

~Lisa Schroeder

Monday, January 4, 2010

Mary: Channeling my Inner Boy

Keith grabbed Todd’s camera away from Curtis. “Lizzie? You’ve got a picture of Lizzie in here?” he asked.

“Oh my god, bonehead. Lizzie Olsen?” Curtis said.

“When’d you take that picture anyway?” Evan’s eyes opened wide.

“Are you two going out?” Keith said.

“I’m mean she’s got it going under her shirt…” Evan began.

Boys making crude comments and gestures about girls? Did I really write that? And later, scenes with fighting, vandalizing school property, and more nastiness towards girls?

When I was working on my novel, JUMPING THE NARROWS, I’d write scenes like these and wonder, where did that come from? Do those boys really live inside me? Who are they? What do these scenes say about me? Am I crude, nasty, and violent?

Back off, a voice spoke to me. This isn’t about you.

That was the hard part. To move aside and let my characters and my story be.

In first drafts, I fought it all the way. The switch between withholding and letting go was a tough one to flip. I had to push myself into that unknown and uncharted territory where memory and imagination collide. I had to face the ugliness in my characters and in myself. I had to trust that I could eventually create some kind of meaning from this story.

But I had specific memories of real boys to help my find my way. Here’s one example. In JUMPING The NARROWS, 13-year-old Todd, the protagonist, hooks his foot under his friend Curtis’s chair in school, pushing him to the floor because Curtis wrote swearwords and drew swastikas all over Todd’s homework paper, homework that Todd would later have to turn in. For Todd, this was another in a series of incidents that would fire up his rage against Curtis.

As a 9th grade Spanish teacher, I once had a fabulous lesson plan going on, everyone was into it, but soon all eyes darted to the back of the room. A student had violently pushed over the desk of another student, landing him flat on the floor. I went into hyper-alert. Was the boy okay? I rushed over to see. Things like this can erupt quickly in a classroom and not end well. Luckily, the boy was all right.

The assistant principal came and hauled the two boys off to investigate the incident. My job was to keep peace in the classroom and get back to conversational Spanish. But what was going on between those two kids? I couldn’t let it go. I never got that incident out of my mind. Years later, I revisited it in JUMPING THE NARROWS.

Some parts of the boy material were harder to write than others. Writing the crude comments and actions towards girls made me squirm. I disapproved of what my characters were doing and inwardly reacted with fear and fury just as my 13-year-old self once had. In no way did I want my words to support of encourage such behavior. And yet, this is what happens with a lot of middle school and high school boys and girls—and as much as I don’t like it or approve of it, it was authentic and necessary to my story.

People have asked if I enjoyed writing the “bad boy” scenes in this novel. My “enjoyment” came from being true to my story, but I resisted the tough scenes all the way. Writing JUMPING THE NARROWS was a rollercoaster ride with all the exhilaration, hesitation, and nausea that I remember from riding the rollercoaster at Nantasket Beach in Hull, MA during my teenage years.

But I know boys. I grew up with three older brothers; I have a son and many nephews; I’ve taught lots of boys. Tons of boys—awkward boys who tested me, shocked me, and charmed me in all their glory.

Initially, the digging was hard. But once I started, my fictional boys were in control. They wouldn’t let me hold back.

Boys live within me with all their put-downs, confusion, self-conscious kindness, vulnerability, fiercely-guarded fears, loyalty, unexpected tenderness, raging hormones, inappropriate behavior—in short, their humanity. Just like girls.

My job as author of JUMPING THE NARROWS was to push my adult/mother/teacher self out of their way and to permit both my sweet and nasty inner boys to live on the page and tell their story.