Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sara: The Year in Reviews!

I want to thank all of my fellow Nesters for keeping this blog going, and to congratulate them on their many successes in 2009, including:

6 starred reviews:

hold still by Nina LaCour (Dutton, October 2009), PW
CAMILLE MCPHEE FELL UNDER THE BUS by Kristen Tracy (Delacorte, August 2009), School Library Journal
SECRETS OF TRUTH AND BEAUTY by Megan Frazer (Hyperion, June 2009) PW
THE MORGUE AND ME by John Ford (Viking, June 2009) PW
GENTLEMEN by Michael Northrop (Scholastic, April 2009), PW and Booklist

2 PW Flying Starts:
hold still by Nina LaCour
GENTLEMEN by Michael Northrop

1 Morris Award Nomination:
hold still by Nina LaCour

2 books on the 2009 TAYSHAS list:
MY LIFE AS A RHOMBUS by Varian Johnson (Flux 2008)
GRIEF GIRL by Erin Vincent (Delacorte 2007)

1 Lonestar Reading List 2009-2010 pick:
SUCK IT UP by Brian Meehl (Delacorte 2008)

4 ALAN Picks:
GENTLEMEN by Michael Northrop
SHADOWED SUMMER by Saundra Mitchell(Delacorte, February 2009)
FAR FROM YOU by Lisa Schroeder (Simon Pulse 2008)

3 Junior Library Guild Selections:
GENTLEMEN by Michael Northrop
SHADOWED SUMMER by Saundra Mitchell
hold still by Nina LaCour

1 2009 NYPL Stuff for the Teen Age Pick:
MY LIFE AS A RHOMBUS by Varian Johnson (Flux 2008)

1 2009 NYPL 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing:

1 YALSA Top Ten Books for Young Adults 2009:
THE BROTHERS TORRES by Coert Voorhees (Hyperion 2008)

1 YALSA 2009 Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers:
I HEART ME, YOU HAUNT ME by Lisa Schroeder (Simon Pulse 2008)

1 The Association of Booksellers for Children's NEW VOICES 2009:
GENTLEMEN by Michael Northrop

and 1 on the School Library Journal's Best Books of the Year List 2009:


Monday, December 21, 2009

Heidi: New York Magic!

Don't get me wrong, I haven't always loved New York. My husband (rather the medical school placement people) dragged me biting and scratching from my peaceful beach life happiness in Santa Cruz back in 1998 to a slanted floored apartment along the Hudson where we lived above a Chinese restaurant. Said slanted floors were also adorned in blue-carpet so short it looked like a putting green. A lopsided putting green. But blue. So I had this mopey life of a sad fiance' who had her perfect life stolen from her back home. But there was one thing New York had that California didn't. PUBLISHING. I was a theatre director and wrote my own plays back in Santa Cruz and I had started a middle grade novel about a haunted children's theatre. It was sort of Goosebumps meet Judy Blume and wasn't half-bad. So I figured: Now I'm in New York. I shall publish it immediately! I'll never have to get a job! So I queried some editors (hadn't yet heard of that whole 'agent' thing yet) and miraculously I got a response that someone--a Big Giant Someone--wanted a whole. So I got all dressed up and with my visiting sister on hand we tootled our way into the city on the train and hand-delivered said manuscript to Big Giant Publishing House. I'm sure the security guard must have thought we were crazy stalkers or something. But it was awesome. I felt so writerly. So sure they would offer me millions of dollars and moving to New York wouldn't have been solely to support my fiance' (now darling husband) as he studied for 23.5 hours a day and cutting up dead bodies.
But it didn't *quite* work out that way.
I ended up working at a nursing home as an activities girl teaching the octogenarian set the YMCA (fun) and as a costume girl at a costume shop dressing up theatre and Halloween people in festive wear (even more fun) and then, finally, I applied to graduate school at the New School because of an ad like this:

Live the writers life in Greenwich Village!

(I'm very susceptible to advertising)
Suddenly it was me! Berets! Writing friends! Cafes!
But then, really. It wasn't.
It was school. And it was awesome, but I was working three jobs and commuting two nights a week via rail getting my debit card rejected at grocery stores because we were so broke.
Fast forward ten years and many drawer novels and lots of pain and suffering and AHA! moments and I am now an *almost* published writer!
My novel is coming out in June!
I can say I'm a writer without people rolling their eyes and snuffing, "Sure ya're."

I flew to New York first and foremost to meet Sara and my editor Stacey before SEA came out. My perfect excuse was a friends' signing at Books of Wonder. You can read all about that and seeing Jude Law (YES that Jude Law) perform Hamlet back on my personal blog: (Yes, the trip is in 6 parts. It was that fun.)
But meeting Sara and Stacey in real life was simply amazing.

For one thing, they are both exactly how I thought they would be but better! AND they both made sure wimpy California girl me got to where I needed to go. (Sara walked me to Putnam after our lovely cafe' lunch and Stacey waited in the freezing helping me hail a cab.) Penguin was fantastic. It was late afternoon so there wasn't a ton of action going on, but I got to see Stacey's beautiful, water-overlooking office AND sign ARCs and bookmarks!

Afterwards, I hopped into a cab (the one Stacey helped me find) and headed to Books of Wonder for the holiday party. I came as a guest of a couple friends (one who was on a plane heading to NY, funny) and a couple who were there in the flesh. It was such a publishing scene. So many people I recognized in the business. Writers I knew from live journal or Twitter. And the lovely Gayle Forman who my friend Courtney told me I Just Must Meet. Barry Lyga and Jon Skovron were my wing men (Barry's going to die when he reads that) and it was just The Writerly Dream Come True.

The next morning I flew away with a tear in my eye—so happy I finally met the NYC I'd always hoped to know.

Happy Holidays, everybody!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Alexa Martin: WIP: Work-in-Progress (aka Writing-is-Painful)

Dear Friends, Family, and Colleagues:

I hope this holiday season finds you alive and well. While I wish I could bring you tidings of comfort and joy--and maybe some figgy pudding--unfortunately I am writing to inform you of a matter of a grave and disturbing nature. As there is no way to phrase this delicately I will come out and say it directly: I have acquired a dire and potentially life threatening ailment. I have a WIP, otherwise known as a Work-in-Progress.

You might wish to brace yourself before reading further. May I suggest, in honor of the season, a steaming mug of wassail or perhaps a double shot of whiskey? (As a general rule I don't recommend self-medicating as a coping methodology. But I do recognize that these are trying times, especially after the Tiger Woods debacle that hit us all so hard last month.) 

You can take heart from the fact that there are times (albeit rarely) when a WIP can seem almost bearable. At the best of times a WIP is not unlike owning a overly rambunctious Great Dane. They're rather fun to play with. They make for great ice-breakers at parties. You can even lock them up for hours at a time when they become too great a nuisance (as they most decidedly will). 

 But, my friends, let us not shy from the cold truth. Though you may lock your WIP away, rest assured it will be heard. You are at the mercy of your WIP, and it is a cruel master/cold mistress. It will haunt your unconscious and subconscious mind (and will come to haunt the minds of those that surround you--that is, if they don't decide to flee your company or have you committed to an asylum first). You will dream about your WIP. It will shake you awake from cherished sleep, and you will find yourself scrambling in a furor for pen and paper before you lose your momentary flash of fabulousness--only to discover, in the morning, when you finally decipher your messy scrawl, that all you have actually written is pg 3 parapgraph 2 sentence 4--change "the catto "cat." Or, perhaps even worse, in a conscious fit you might find yourself overcome at the dinner table and perhaps--and I say this just as an example, mind you--suddenly reach over and grab your partner by the neck and say something vulgar like, "How the hell am I supposed to know what happens to little Joshie in that foster home?" 

Unfortunately, at this time, there is very little research being done on the condition of the WIP. From my own extensive investigation, I have gleaned that there are only two ways to rid oneself of a WIP. Both are excruciating, mentally and physically, and you will never truly recover from either. 

1). The conservative approach--Abandon your WIP

Yes, I realize this is as unthinkable as intentionally orphaning a child. But, while it's true that you will never truly get over the loss and will experience "phantom pain" until your dying day, on a positive note, having experienced one bout of a WIP, you will most likely experience another. 

2). The radical approach--Finish your WIP

This will likely kill you, but at least you'll leave something behind for posterity. If you're very lucky, you might even achieve a modicum of fame posthumously. 

Courage, dear friends! Let me assure you that there are indeed steps one can take to safeguard oneself from catching a WIP (or any kind of writing bug for that matter). A few "do's" and "don'ts" might be in order at this time:


Do cultivate your left brain
Do have a happy childhood
Do develop relationships with people who associate "dream fulfillment" with "dementia"
Do read Suze Orman
Do find an expensive and gratifying hobby like rock-climbing or base-jumping that satisfies your neurotic energy and nullifies your insecurities
Do take a pragmatic approach to life: it's better to be comfortable than content


Don't, when growing up, think of book characters as your "friends"
Don't, once grown up, have a life crisis and take time off to figure out "what it all means"
Don't read Bird By Bird or watch Dead Poet's Society
Don't get an MFA
Don't have a lonely childhood or failed love affairs  
Don't listen to the people who tell you that "anything is possible if you put your mind to it"

And now, my friends, I will attempt to appeal to your kind and charitable natures. "What can we do to help?" I hear you ask. You can do a lot for those of us who suffer from this affliction. You must flatter our writing incessantly. You must frequently tell us that we're brilliant. You might dangle such carrots before us as The Printz or The National Book Award, or--dare I say it aloud--The Pulitzer! You could consider becoming "a patron" or establishing a fund in our names (most of us accept checks or gift certificates to Anthropologie). In extreme cases, you might offer to write "the damn thing" yourself. We'll laugh at you of course. But, as they say, laughter is the best medicine. 

Seasons Greetings! May you Write in Peace! 

Monday, December 7, 2009

Rachel: Children Deserve Great Art

First off, let me just say that I'm thrilled to be a new nester and honored to be among the company of so many illustrious writers! On to my post...

I saw Fantastic Mr. Fox a few weekends ago, and I absolutely loved it. I am a big fan of both Wes Anderson and analog animation, and it was hilarious and touching and visually fascinating. I keep hearing debate about whether or not this movie is for kids. A.O. Scott in his New York Times review asks, “Is it is a movie for children? This inevitable question depends on the assumption that children have uniform tastes and expectations. How can that be?” I think his point is that children are people. They have preferences.
Whenever I hear someone say, “I don’t like kids,” I am reminded that folks get it in their heads that the very young and the very old are somehow "not people" and that the ways they are and the things they want must be very different from the things that "adults" want. I just can't get behind that. I really believe that children can have good taste, that they can understand complex emotions and that they can appreciate films and books that are beautiful and ambiguous.
Recent waves of criticism of high-quality children’s programming strike me as odd. Fantastic Mr. Fox is too complicated, Cookie Monster is a bad influence on fat kids, and, reaching back a few years, Harry Potter is against God. Yet, I don’t hear too much criticism of the ultra-violent, ultra-simplistic stuff that counts as family fun these days: The Dark Knight, Transformers, or any of the myriad violent video games (take your pick). When I look at what gets critiqued, I get the feeling that the point is not to protect children from something, but rather make ourselves feel better about the world we inhabit without attempting to change it too much.
There are so many things that aren't appropriate for children around the world: racism, poverty, substance abuse, bad health, negative role models, bad parenting, political or tribal violence, insidious advertising, unhealthy food, bad drivers, precocious sexuality. Unfortunately, many children are right in the thick of it. Hell, they live in the same beautiful, terrible, inappropriate, ultimately ambiguous world we live in, too, don't they?
Instead of erasing or evading difficult subjects, or reducing hard topics to the easy good-versus-evil killing sprees that you can see in a kids movie such as Transformers, can’t there be a way to reflect these difficult subjects in a satisfying way back to children? Isn’t this one of the functions of art? I paraphrase Lynda Barry when I say, “We don’t make art to leave the world, we make art so that we can stay.”
I’ve been thinking about Cookie Monster and his recent health-conscious choices. While it was just a rumor that he’s now “Veggie Monster,” he still says that cookies are a “sometimes food,” and talks about his love for healthy food, too. There’s nothing wrong with that, I guess, but I don’t get what demon they’re trying to exorcise. I don’t think anyone who saw Cookie Monster as a child thought that he was a role model to emulate. I think instead Cookie Monster functioned as a cultural hero precisely because he was a manifestation of an unconscious childhood desire, the very real desire to pig out on cookies! We all knew that we weren’t supposed to do it, but we got great joy out of seeing him do it. We saw ourselves reflected in him, that was what made him so magnetic.
Another great example is the Harry Potter series. Harry Potter appeals to children, I think we can safely say that. There are many levels on which to appreciate the Harry Potter books, but I think one of the most interesting is all the tragedy that he lives through. He’s pulled out of an abusive situation (living with the Dursleys) to go to Hogwarts, but tragedy strikes him again and again. By the time he’s ostensibly a senior in high school many of the people closest to him have died due to political violence. I think that children who live tragic lives can see themselves reflected in Harry’s pain.
There are many other books, films, and TV shows that are full of ambiguity, tragedy, and joy that spoke to me as a child. Another striking factor about quality culture for children is that it can be appreciated on more than one level. There’s enough slapstick and cute animation in Mr. Fox to keep anyone entertained, just as there’s enough adventure and characterization in Narnia to allow the allegories to slip under the radar until you’re old enough to understand them. I can now appreciate the language in a Jacqueline Woodson or S.E. Hinton novel while I probably more appreciated having characters with which to identify when I read them as a kid.
Like A.O. Scott says in his review of Fantastic Mr. Fox, “There are some children — some people — who will embrace it with a special, strange intensity, as if it had been made for them alone.” That’s a great description, and pretty much sums up how I felt about all my favorite books and films as a kid. Actually, I feel the same way now when I encounter the uncanny in art (animation is especially good at this); when literature or art represents something that is so pitch-perfectly familiar that you stop and give that "hey!" of recognition over and over as you read/view. It is this recognition, this feeling of having something in your culture reflect you, or say something that you can't say, or that you want to hear someone else say finally for the love of pete! that makes art (literature/film) so emotionally powerful. It’s what makes you laugh out loud at something tragic represented on the page, simply because you couldn’t have said it better yourself.
Literature/art/film has the power to reaffirm and make sense of life, simply by telling it like it is instead of avoiding unpleasantness. I think children deserve that high quality in cultural forms directed at them as well. If anyone does, children do, precisely because it is even more urgent that they make sense of the world they’ve just arrived in.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Varian: Reading Like a Writer: Looking for Alaska

Note: This post contains SPOILERS.

Like many other readers, I’m a huge fan of John Green’s work—especially Looking for Alaska, which was awarded the Michael L. Printz Award in 2006. Looking for Alaska is funny, sad, and powerful, and most importantly, it makes you think long after you’ve put the novel down. But as much as I enjoy the book from a reader’s perspective, I actually enjoy it more from a writer’s perspective.

For this post, I’d like to talk about two of the more famous scenes from the novel—the oral sex scene and Pudge and Alaska’s make-out scene. The first scene involves the main character, Pudge, receiving oral sex from his new Romanian girlfriend, Lara.

And then she wrapped her hand around it and put it into her mouth.

And waited.

We were both very still. She did not move a muscle in her body, and I did not move a muscle in mine. I knew that at this point something else was supposed to happen, but I wasn’t quite sure what.

She stayed still. I could feel her nervous breath. For minutes…she lay there, stock-still with my penis in her mouth, and I sat there, waiting.

And then she took it out of her mouth and looked up at me quizzically.

“Should I do something? … Should I, like, bite it?”

“Don’t bite! I mean, I don’t think. I think—I mean, that felt good. That was nice. I don’t know if there’s something else.”

“I mean, but you deedn’t—”

“Um. Maybe we should ask Alaska.” (Green 127)

Pudge and Lara ask Alaska, their sexually advanced friend—and the girl that Pudge secretly loves—for advice. After laughing at them, Alaska shows them exactly how it is supposed to happen with a tube of toothpaste. Afterward, Pudge and Lara return to Lara’s room, to try again.

Lara and I went back to her room, where she did exactly what Alaska told her to do, and I did exactly what Alaska said I would do, which was to die a hundred little ecstatic deaths, my fists clenched, my body shaking. It was my first orgasm with a girl, and afterward, I was embarrassed and nervous, and so, clearly, was Lara, who finally broke the silence by asking, “So, want to do some homework?” (Green 128)

The passage is beautifully written and painfully funny, but at first glance, the passage seems to serve no real purpose in the novel. It’s plausible that by having Pudge and Lara ask Alaska for advice, Green is establishing the close-knit friendship of the main characters; yet one could argue that this is already depicted in the prank scene from earlier in the novel. Also, this scene does not need to reinforce that Pudge is a novice at relationships, as the reader sees this in tamer scenes involving Pudge’s first date and first make-out session with Lara.

While it appears that the oral sex scene may be unnecessary, the next sexual scene is a needed—if not pivotal—part of the novel. Not twenty-four hours after his first oral sex experience, Pudge and Alaska make out. Pudge has pined after Alaska for months, and on a whim, he is able to have her, if only for a few moments.

I laughed, looked nervous, and she leaned in and tilted her head to the side, and we were kissing. Zero layers between us. Our tongues danced back and forth in each other’s mouth until there was no her mouth and my mouth but only our mouths intertwined. She tasted like cigarettes and Mountain Dew and wine and Chap Stick. Her hand came to my face and I felt her soft fingers tracing the line of my jaw. We lay down as we kissed, she on top of me, and I began to move beneath her. … A hand grabbed one of mine and she placed it on her stomach. I moved slowly on top of her and felt her arching her back fluidly beneath me.

… She moved my hand from her waist to her breast, and I felt cautiously, my fingers moving slowly under her shirt but over her bra, tracing the outline of her breasts and then cupping one in my hand, squeezing softly. “You’re good at that,” she whispered. Her lips never left mine as she spoke. We moved together, my body between her legs.

“This is so fun,” she whispered, “but I’m so sleepy. To be continued?” She kissed me for another moment, my mouth straining to stay near hers, and then she moved from beneath me, placed her head on my chest, and fell asleep instantly.

We didn’t have sex. We never got naked. I never touched her bare breast, and her hands never got lower than my hips. It didn’t matter. As she slept, I whispered, “I love you, Alaska Young.” (Green 130-131)

Like the oral sex scene with Pudge and Lara, this passage is also beautifully written. Green’s language pulls the reader into the scene, and while the scene is not explicit, the reader experiences all of the wants and yearnings of the main character. This scene firmly establishes Pudge’s desire for Alaska, with his mouth “straining to stay near hers” as she pulls away. This act also haunts Pudge throughout the rest of the novel, as Alaska dies the next day, leaving her promise of “to be continued” unfulfilled.

It isn’t until comparing both scenes that the main purpose of the oral sex passage is revealed. Pudge has a girlfriend—a girlfriend willing to have sex with him—but what he wants is a relationship with Alaska—the beautiful, mysterious girl that floats just outside of reach. This is further established later in the novel, as Pudge is unable to continue his relationship with Lara after Alaska’s death.

Although Pudge orgasms in the scene with Lara, Green does not use romantic and lush words when describing the act. Instead of fully fleshing out the scene, Green summarizes the act for the reader, opting not to have the reader experience Pudge’s physical reaction. The scene creates a distance between the reader and Pudge, similar to the physical and emotional distance between Pudge and Lara.

However, in the make-out scene with Alaska, Green’s words paint a much more romantic picture. Pudge focuses of the fluidity of her body, the way her hands feel against his face, the way his hands feel against her body. Pudge is active in the scene; his desire for Alaska paramount. As Pudge relives the scene after Alaska falls asleep, he is content with not taking any of her clothes off; he is content with just kissing and touching. Pudge likes Lara, but he loves Alaska.

When comparing both scenes, it is clear that the oral sex scene serves a greater purpose than just providing humor or “shock value.” By including the scene, Green provides an interesting dynamic between what Pudge has with Lara, and what Pudge wants with Alaska. The scene successfully serves its main purpose—to support and reinforce character development.

(Works Cited: Green John. Looking for Alaska. New York: Dutton. 2005)

FYI: Most of this post came from an essay I wrote in the Fall of 2007 during my first semester at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I was pleasantly surprised to hear the author discussing this same topic a few months later. In a blog posted on January 30, 2008, Green talks about why he crafted the scenes as such, stating, “I wanted to draw a contrast between that scene (the oral sex scene) when there’s a lot of physical intimacy but it’s untimely very emotionally empty and the scene that immediately follows it, when there’s not a serious physical interaction but there’s this intense emotional connection.” Green goes on to say that he’s trying to show that, “…physical intimacy can never stand in for emotional closeness, and that when teenagers attempt to conflate these ideas it inevitably fails.”

Of course, Green doesn’t tell us this in the novel; rather he gets this point across with the juxtaposition of the two “sex” scenes (in other words: Show, Don’t Tell). This not only allows the author to get his point across in a non-didactic manner, but it also allows the reader to be an active participant in the process, which is what I think all literary author’s should strive for.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

NEWS: HOLD STILL is a William C. Morris Debut YA Award Finalist!

Congratulations, Nina! HOLD STILL is a finalist for the William C. Morris Award

Monday, November 9, 2009

Christine: The Movement You Need Is On Your Shoulder

When I worked on the copy desk of a daily newspaper several years ago, one of my favorite tasks was headline-writing.

Criteria included maximum impact, active voice and strict adherence to length. For instance, a headline may require three decks in a single column with a point size of 24. Or one deck spanning six columns with a point size of 48. Headlines couldn’t run short or long. You couldn’t skimp on the point size, for instance by shaving off two points to squeeze in an extra word. You couldn’t split a compound modifier, with one word being on one deck and the other on the next.

Such strict parameters have brought many a copy editor to their knees, but I loved the challenge. It was like completing a crossword puzzle, only I was both creating and solving it simultaneously.

Likewise, I've written lots of children’s stories in verse and am an amateur songwriter, priding myself on exacting standards. No weak rhymes. No flubbed rhythms. No skewed scansion. (Substitute the word “fellow” for “man” in the familiar Nantucket limerick, and you’ll see what I mean.)

I just love the “no cheating” requirement of such writing. It’s the sublime precision, the muscular economy, of crafting just the right thing.

And you know what? That just right thing always seems to exist. Think hard enough, rearrange your words enough, bolster your vocabulary enough, be willing to start from scratch enough, and you’ll eventually complete such an exacting writing task by feeling not that you’ve created something new, but that you’ve plucked an existing, exquisite star right out of the heavens. I love that feeling.

Of course, fiction-writing is all about no rules, no parameters. I love that process, too, but there’s something very satisfying about marrying imagination and creativity with structure and discipline. In fact, the first children’s story I ever wrote in verse came at the behest of my then-six-year-old son, Greg. We were waiting for our meal at a restaurant when he said, “Let’s write a story. And let’s call it I Can Read Books Upside Down.”

Ahhhh! I was in heaven as I grabbed a pen and a napkin. I’d never started a story with a title before, and certainly not a title as unwieldy and inscrutable as that one. Game on!

A few minutes later, with my son’s considerable help, we’d crafted twenty verses about a little boy’s topsy-turvy, inside-out, upside-down day. The bus took him to school in reverse. Kids ran the bases backward at recess. His ice cream cone was served bottoms up. And of course, he could read books upside down. I love our story, and it never would’ve been written unless I’d been open to a new set of rules.

Indeed, sometimes strict parameters produce the greatest poetry. I read once that Paul McCartney struggled for hours to complete the lyrics of his classic Hey Jude. He finally “settled” on one line as a throwaway lyric, a placeholder until he thought of something better. But Lennon told him that the throwaway line was the one the song was meant to have. Fittingly, the line is, “The movement you need is on your shoulder.”

Nothing is more transcendent than realizing the movement you need is on your shoulder … and was there all along, just waiting to be discovered.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Kristen: My Comfort Zone (it’s actually very tiny)

I am a freakishly private person. I like corners, dimly lit rooms, and my cat (I don’t even want to write down my cat’s name, because I consider that a privacy issue). As a writer, being freakishly private is not ideal. People often tell me that I need to suck it up and get out there and start promoting myself. Okay. But that is not how I am built. This year, my first middle-grade novel came out, Camille McPhee Fell Under the Bus. Next year, my third teen novel will be published, A Field Guide for Heartbreakers, along with another middle-grade novel, Bessica Lefter Sweats Her Pants Off. This means that I am pretty busy writing. Every day. Even though I have a tough time with it, I understand that promotion is important too. Below is a list of all the promotion-type things I did this year that took me out of my comfort zone. I don’t know if they benefited me or my books in any way, though I’m pretty sure that my traveling caused great suffering for my cat.

I made a podcast about my latest book and put it on my website. My friend Mark who is a reporter interviewed me. He asked me questions about my life, which I hated answering, and he asked me to elaborate on the time I fell underneath my own school bus. I sort of freaked out when I heard my own voice. I didn’t sound like me at all.

I participated in a writing panel at the San Francisco Public Library for LitQuake. I didn’t really talk about my book though. I gave a demonstration on bear safety, and my friend Rachel wore mock bear paws (that my mother sewed for me) and pretended to attack me using a variety of paws: black, grizzly, polar and pizzly. This was really outside of my comfort zone. But I know a lot about bear safety, and it’s in my first book, so it seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Sadly, I recently found out that Rachel has photos of this event and that she posted them on Facebook (something I find myself emotionally unable to join). Upon learning about these photos, I freaked out and demanded that Rachel take them down. And she agreed. Even though she is currently using one of the photos as her profile picture.

I read at a Barnes & Noble. My friends came to support me. They are adults and had to sit in little chairs. I read from Camille McPhee. Afterward, I answered questions. One girl asked me what I wanted my children to be when they grew up. I told her that I didn’t have children. She insisted that I answer the question anyway. Tough crowd. Tough crowd.

I won a fellowship for poetry and attended the Writers@Work conference in Park City and instead of requesting a single room and avoiding people, I tried to build some community. I lived in a condo with a cool roommate named Sue and mingled and met a lot of talented writers. Also, I ventured into the wilderness and hiked. And got lost on a mountain. And was repeatedly lied to by mountain bikers who told me I was twenty minutes away from the nearest operating ski lift. Jerks. (I joke. I joke. I guess they measure distance in bike-time. Full throttle.)

I contacted media in my hometown in Idaho. My book is set there. And now I will be on a television morning show when I go home for Christmas. This sort of makes me want to avoid going home for Christmas. Also, I am probably going to have to buy new pants. I told a friend this and she told me that nobody will see my pants, because I will be sitting down. But I always see people’s pants, even when they sit down, so I don’t really understand what my friend meant.

I drove to my alma mater, Loyola Marymount University, and read to a room filled with college students and chilled shrimp appetizers. I read from my upcoming teen novel, A Field Guide for Heartbreakers. The rest of the lineup read poetry. It was an intimidating venue. And when an attendee tried to take my picture, I actually stopped reading and pointed at him and said, “No! You need to stop doing that!” And then I kept reading and stayed in my allotted time limit. Good times. Good times.

I served as a faculty member for a children’s writer’s conference at Book Passages in Corte Madera. I had to give a three-hour talk about something. Three hours is a really long time, even with a generous bathroom break. I talked about dialogue. Afterward, I ate the best cucumber sandwich of my life. Yum.

I am really surprised that I did any of these things. (I’m even surprised that I wrote this blog entry.) I’ll probably do a little bit more next year. But not a lot. And that’s okay. Because I don’t want to give myself an aneurism worrying about promotion. I think I’m one of those people who will always keep my focus on the writing. This might not be everybody’s formula. I know some people who are promotion machines (they’re pretty fierce tweeters, too). I’ll do what I can. And that’s okay.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Megan: The Myth of Reading Up

It is a truth universally acknowledged that teens read up. Your protagonist should be a couple of years older than your audience, or so the thinking goes. It's time to start questioning this assertion, at least when it comes to high school students.

I'm surprised how many times I'm asked what aged audience I was thinking of when I wrote Secrets of Truth & Beauty. Occasionally a parent or teacher has told me, a bit guiltily, that they liked the book but wouldn't give it to their fifth grader. That's fine, I think, I didn't write it for your fifth grader. I wrote it for high school students.

In my job as a high school librarian, I help teens to make their reading choices every day. For the most part, they want to read about other teenagers. When I look at the fiction on my return cart, I do not see a row of adult novels. Instead I see mostly YA, with a few Jodi Picoult and Stephen King thrown in – authors, it should be noted, who often feature teen characters.

It would be a reasonable assumption to think that since I am a YA author, I would be inclined to purchase and recommend YA books. However, my evidence is not simply anecdotal. Every year, librarian Jo Lewis asks members of LM-Net, a school librarian list-serv, to report their top ten checkouts. She collects and analyzes the data, and compiles lists for each type of school (elementary, middle, secondary). If you go to the list, and choose "secondary" from the drop down menu, you'll see that the top ten for high school students are all young adult novels.

So that's high school. What about younger teens? In 2009, the Twilight series was tops in middle schools as well as high schools – no surprise there. With a few notable exceptions (The Lovely Bones!?), the rest of the top ten are books with a middle school audience in mind. While it seems that younger teens may range both younger and older, they too, are eager to read stories about kids their age. Teens it seems, want to read about teens.

Thankfully the explosion in YA literature means that there are books for every age and interest. For me this is not simply a matter of curiosity, but one of equity. Teens, like everyone else deserve to see themselves in books. Sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen year olds shouldn't be forced to read about mid-life angst since the younger kids are reading about their lives.

As writers it's our responsibility to portray our world's honestly. If the stories we tell about teens also find resonance with a fifth grader, so much the better, but we needn't simplify or clean up because this younger reader might pick up the book. Write your story. Write the truth. Everyone will be better off for it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Nina: HOLD STILL book trailer

In celebration of today--which is the launch day of my first novel, HOLD STILL--I'd love to share my book trailer with you.

I have to admit that I kind of live in fear of marketing tasks. I'm terrible at writing little blurbs about my book. I can't even describe what it's about very well. I have a former student who read an ARC and said, when she was finished, "I had no idea that your book was going to be like this!" When I asked her what she thought it was going to be like, she told me that all she had to base her expectations on was the answer I gave her a couple years ago when she asked me what it was about. Not surprisingly, all I had told her was, "It's about a girl in high school." Now, as she was telling me what she thought of it, she said, "I had no idea that anything was actually going to happen."

So, yes. I am not so good at this kind of thing.

But making a trailer was exciting. It was not a task, it was a project. I really, really like projects.

I especially like projects when they involve people I love. A lot of people who I love were involved in the making of this: The girls in the trailer are my mother's photography students (which is perfect for the book); the footage was shot on a Super 8 camera by my very talented wife, Kristyn Stroble; my best friend, Amanda Krampf, directed and edited; Mia Nolting (who illustrated HOLD STILL) provided the illustrations and hand lettering; and Emma Galvin (who is the reader on the audio version) is narrating. I stood off to the side and let it all happen.

Here it is. I hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Bouchercon is on!

You'll have to excuse me if I'm a little nervous.  In two days, I'm meeting up with 650 young readers, and I'm hoping to make a good impression.

It's all part of Bouchercon 2009.  What the bleep is Bouchercon, you ask?  Well, Bouchercon (bow-cher-con) is the world's biggest annual gathering of mystery authors and fans, drawing about 1,500 people every year.  It's a certified blast, for reasons that include but aren't limited to: (a) panel discussions with great authors; (b) evenings at the hotel bar (provided you're 21, natch) worth the price of admission alone; (c) and field trips like the one I took at last year's convention in Baltimore, where you see cool stuff like Edgar Allan Poe's grave:

Anyway, the convention's numbers will swell a bit when the convention hits Indianapolis on Thursday, because the conference organizers had the genius plan to include, for the first time, programming for kids.   

Baseball teams are smart enough to have "kids get in free days" -- which expose kids to the game, make some lifelong fans in the process, and bring their parents along in the bargain.  That's just what's happening at Bouchercon this year:  the convention is sharing the thrill of mystery novels in particular, and books in general, with mystery authors' future readers.

For YA writers, it's even better, because the kids coming out to the convention are our current readers.  

I hope they do this programming again next year, and if so I hope  more YA writers get on board.  (Although we've got a great group this year, including Chris Grabenstein and honored guest Wendelin Van Draanen.)  I underscore that point because I imagine many authors reading this might be saying, "yeah, that's great and all, but I don't write mysteries."  If you just nodded your head, don't be so hasty.  

Earlier this year, the Mystery Writers of America gave its prestigious Edgar Award for best YA mystery novel to the very deserving Paper Towns by John Green.  It's an excellent book, but one that most probably wouldn't think of primarily as a mystery.  

Similarly, I think for purposes of the Bouchercon conference, the definition of "mystery" is probably best left fairly open.  Open, that is, all the great YA authors out there writing stories that include foul deeds, hidden pasts, secret identities, microscopes, and/or fake mustaches. 

I mean, that covers most of the good books anyways, right?  In any case, there are a lot of you out there, and I hope to see you at Bouchercon 2010.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Marianna: Pleased to meet you -- fully exploiting a character's first scene

It's a cliche, I know, but you really do get only one chance at making a first impression -- in life and in fiction. From the moment a new character enters a book, the reader consciously and subconsciously picks up on clues about his nature and quickly forms an opinion. If details are not thoughtfully chosen, a character's first scene can be a missed opportunity or, more negatively, disruptively misleading.

Describing a character’s physical appearance is certainly one tool you -- the writer -- have at your disposal, but actions and dialogue are the keys to creating more complex, nuanced first impressions. Sarah Dessen’s enormously popular young adult novels contain excellent examples of how a great deal of information can be subtly conveyed through deceptively simple, short scenes.

Although the plots obviously vary, there are consistent themes in Dessen’s novels. One of the hallmarks of a Dessen book is that the narrator, a teenage girl, begins a relationship with a new boy during the course of the story. (If the protagonist has a boyfriend at the opening of the novel, you can rest assured that he’ll be gone in a few chapters to make way for the new guy.)

Because the protagonists are meeting these boys for the first time, Dessen always has a scene in her books with that initial, pivotal encounter between narrator and eventual love interest. Looking closely at these scenes, it is remarkable how many signals Dessen subtly incorporates to foreshadow what the boy is really like and where the relationship is headed. To highlight the fact that appearance is only part of this, the quotes included here omit all references to what the characters look like.

In Dreamland, Caitlin, the narrator, first meets Rogerson Briscoe at a gas station after she has come from a disastrous cheerleading experience:

He was standing next to the black BMW... As I passed he looked up and watched me, staring. “Hey,” he called out just as I passed out of sight… I took a few steps back and suddenly he was right there; he’d moved to catch up with me (50).

The most telling detail in this passage is the use of the phrase “suddenly he was right there.” Although it is not overt or heavy handed, there is a threatening undercurrent to Rogerson’s sudden appearance. It’s creepy.

The scene continues: “He smiled, then looked me up and down. Suddenly I knew I looked idiotic in my cheerleading uniform…‘Nice outfit,’ he said” (50). With one small gesture and comment, Rogerson brings out Caitlin’s insecurity. Dessen swiftly establishes his judgmental attitude towards Caitlin’s life, and her self-doubting response to his disapproval.

The climax of the scene – the moment when Rogerson has the most profound effect on Caitlin – directly follows his subtly demeaning comment about her uniform.

He glanced at the bandage on my upper arm, then asked, “What happened to you there?”…

“I fell off a [cheerleading] pyramid earlier tonight.”

“Ouch,” he said, and before I could even move he reached out and touched my bandage, running a finger across it…“You okay?”

“I… I don’t know,” I said. This was strangely true at that moment (50-51).

Rogerson’s gesture of reaching out to touch Caitlin “before she could even move,” though small, is presumptuous and aggressive. And although the reader knows Caitlin means she doesn’t know if she’s “okay” because she’s feeling so intrigued by Rogerson, her response shows that his action disturbed and unsettled her. Moments later, Rogerson makes his exit:

“I should go,” I said…

“Sure,” he said, nodding. “See ya around, Caitlin.” And he raised his chin, backing up, keeping his eyes on me (51).

Just that fleeting image of Rogerson says so much. The raised chin conveys cockiness; the way he keeps looking at Caitlin is subtly menacing. He will be watching her.

Caitlin and Rogerson’s romance begins soon after this first meeting. Following an initial happy phase, Rogerson becomes physically and mentally abusive. In that brief scene where Rogerson is introduced, Dessen foreshadows many elements of his character and of their relationship: Rogerson’s tendency to prey on Caitlin’s insecurities; his judgmental nature; the aggressive, presumptuous way he treats Caitlin’s body; his constant watchfulness; Caitlin’s attraction to his aggressiveness; and the strong emotions he evokes in her. Most importantly, Dessen conveys all of this without showing Rogerson kicking a dog, or anything so blatant. Dessen is able to straddle the line of having Rogerson be attractive to Caitlin while setting the scene for his cruel behavior later in the novel.

Dexter, the main love interest in This Lullaby, makes quite a different entrance. Remy, the narrator, is already known to the reader as being highly cynical about anything relating to love and relationships. And it’s through her eyes that the reader meets Dexter. Remy is sitting in a car dealership, already in a bad mood.

Just then, someone plopped down hard into the chair on my left, knocking me sideways into the wall… And suddenly, just like that, I was pissed…

“What the hell,” I said, pushing off the wall… I turned my head and saw …it was a guy…around my age… And for some reason he was smiling.

“Hey there,” he said cheerfully. “How’s it going?” (10-11)

Dexter’s cheerful demeanor immediately counteracts the fact that he bumped into Remy. The reader, knowing how cranky Remy is, doesn’t pick up on his physical contact as a threatening or violent action. Rather, it is clear that Remy is overreacting. Dexter seems happily oblivious, a stark contrast to Remy’s negativity.

Remy continues to give him a hard time. “’You just slammed me into the wall, asshole.’ He blinked. ‘Goodness,’ he said finally. ‘Such language’” (11). Dexter’s unperturbed response to Remy’s nastiness proves both that he has a sense of humor, and that he is not easily put off by Remy’s tough girl demeanor. Despite her abuse, he continues on in an enthusiastic manner.

“The thing is,” he said…”I saw you out in the showroom. I was over by the tire display?”…“I just thought to myself, all of a sudden, that we had something in common. A natural chemistry, if you will... That we were, in fact, meant to be together…”; “[Knocking into you] was an accident. An oversight. Just an unfortunate result of the enthusiasm I felt knowing I was about to talk to you” (11).

With this confession, Dexter comes across as an over-excited puppy. His enthusiasm seems genuine and his lack of pretension or cool façade is immediately appealing.

When Dexter touches Remy – uninvited – it makes quite a different impression than when Rogerson touches Caitlin:

“Just take this,” the guy said, grabbing my hand. He turned it palm up before I could even react…then proceeded…to write a name and phone number in the space between my thumb and forefinger…Talk about not respecting a person’s boundaries. I’d dumped drinks on guys for even brushing against me at a club, much less yanking my hand and actually writing on it (12-13).

The reader knows to take Remy’s reaction with a grain of salt – after all, she’s just said she dumps drinks on guys who brush against her. So instead of being threatening, Dexter’s action of grabbing her hand is simply endearing. Remy is not in danger; she can take care of herself.

Having established Remy’s cynical take on love, Dessen uses this introduction to show Dexter as the anti-Remy: a happy, bumbling, easily love-struck guy. In addition, the whole interaction mirrors Dexter and Remy’s relationship throughout the book. Dexter crashes into Remy’s emotional life, creating unwanted cracks in her self-protective armor. And despite her desperate attempts to push him away, in the end, she can’t help but be won over.

It might be argued that as long as the character acts “like himself” in his first scene, he will create a distinct and correct impression. But this is simplifying the matter. People are complex, as is a good character. In different scenes they will act many different ways. The scenes in Dreamland and This Lullaby show not just any one side of the character, but the side of the character that is most important to the narrative: the way he will relate to and treat the narrator, the character the reader is identifying with. This makes the introductory scenes highly effective.

The characters are not the only ones invested in the course of these romantic relationships; the readers are invested, as well. So Dessen is very smart to give such consideration to her characters’ introductions. She wants the reader to be wary of Rogerson, and to root for Dexter to cut through Remy’s tough girl façade. It’s not enough for her to describe the guys as good-looking. Of course they’re good-looking – these are fairly traditional teen romance novels. Dessen uses the actions of the characters to predispose the reader to feel excited and satisfied with the direction the relationship takes.

So, when you're in the revision process, go through and look at the scenes where you introduce new characters. Are there ways in which you can deepen/strengthen/complexify (not a word, I know, but it should be) the impression he makes? Are you giving the reader misleading clues? Remember -- no detail is too small to play a part in the overall opinion the reader takes away from her first meeting with your character. Use this to your advantage!