Category Archives: On The Writing Life

From the Sublime to the Kafka-esque

No Sunday’s cake today: the husband’s out of town, and so any cake would sit here begging me to stick it with a fork.  Rather than succumb to temptation, I figure . . . next week.

The White Ladies we had for Friday’s cocktail, though, were quite welcome and, after the ups and downs of this week, felt long overdue.

 

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A refreshing and simple concoction, actually: Boodle’s Gin, Citronge, and lemon juice.  Why Boodle’s?  Coupla different reasons, not the least of which it’s got a distinctive floral aroma to it, but mainly because it is the only London Dry Gin not to include citrus in its flavorings.  I figured that since the White Lady calls for a hefty slug of lemon juice and the Citronge adds yet another citrus note, I wanted to ease up on all that and let those flavors come through on their own.  This was a clean, wonderfully smooth drink, and I could easily have had two.

Which, in some ways, I thought, yeah, honey, go for it.  It’s been that kind of week.

If you haven’t heard, I’ll make it short and sweet: my lovely publisher, Egmont USA, is closing its doors on Jan. 30.  

Believe me, no one is more shocked than I.  Yes, the publisher’s been up for sale since October, 2014, but I think most of us thought . . . piece of cake.  I mean, people do realize that Egmont’s generated a ton of award-winners, right?  That Egmont’s Len Vahlos is up for a Morris Award next week?  No?  Then what about the fact that Egmont boasts such heavy-hitters as Michael Grant, Bree Despain, Catherine Jinks, and Walter Dean Myers (a lovely man who I was fortunate to meet before he passed last year)?

You see why we figured . . . piece of cake.  Egmont’ll be snapped up in a heartbeat.

Alas, no.

So what does this mean?  Well, for one . . . my publisher’s gone; my terrific editor is kaput; the Egmont USA team, that’s been so supportive of every one of my books, will be no more.

That all sucks.

But Egmont’s shuttering it doors does not mean that you can’t find Egmont books.  Not only will the spring catalog–including THE DICKENS MIRROR (the sequel to WHITE SPACE)–appear, but every single one of my Egmont books will still be available.  All the usual suspects will carry them.  You’ll be able to buy them just as you always have, and for the foreseeable future.  

So never fear.  I’m not going anywhere, and neither are my books.  When you’re done with my Egmont offerings, you can always bop over to Carolrhoda Lab and find my titles there, too.

Yes, there are some ramifications.  For my fellow authors whose books were scheduled after June . . . those books won’t happen.  So, comparatively speaking, I’m pretty lucky.

But that doesn’t mean everything’s roses.  Yes, review copies of DM have gone out. Bookstores have placed orders, and so have libraries.  Now more than ever, though, you guys–my readers–become even more important.  Don’t get me wrong: you always were/have been/are.  I LOVE hearing from folks.  I LOVE knowing that you LOVE a book. I answer every email.  (I really do.  I know how much courage it takes to hit <send>.)

But if you want to help me and other Egmont authors . . . now is the time to make some noise.

Lots and lots of noise.

I’m serious.

Tell people how much you love what we do.  Encourage your friends to try us out.  Put your love out and up there for people to see.  Word of mouth–you guys–has always been what propels a book.  Any writer knows this.  You can hype a book until you’re blue, but if it’s all smoke and mirrors and people don’t really LIKE it . . . that book will disappear.

Well, I’m not planning on going anywhere, and I’d love your help to make sure of that.

Oh . . . and the sublime.  Well, there were two things, really.  First–and this is some irony for you–on the very same day I got the word about Egmont, the Horror Writers Association put WHITE SPACE on its long list for Superior Achievement in a YA Novel.  

Which totally blew me away.

I know I don’t stand a chance.  The odds of me making it to the short list are astronomical.  Still . . . this is quite an honor.  Gosh, I want me one of those little haunted houses.  (Notice, too, that there are TWO Egmont authors on the list.  As I said . . . some irony there.)

And then the second bit of sublime news: VOYA just gave WHITE SPACE a perfect 10.  Out of some many thousands of YA novels published last year–and the over 1,000 books VOYA reviewed–my book made it to their top 38 titles.

Yeah, you read that right; I’ll say it again: 38.  

Getting a VOYA Perfect 10 means that they think you’re the best of the best–and I’m not gonna argue with that.

So many thanks to VOYA and HWA.  Many tears about Egmont USA and the splendid team I won’t be working with anymore.

But one thing I have learned over the years: the publishing world is small.

We are all certain to meet again.

Oh-So-Ready For Her Close-Up

When I was a kid, my dad took pictures all the time and then did a slide-show, usually after a vacation or a summer or something like that. Now these were real slide-shows, the ancient Kodak carousel-type, with small squares of, yes, celluloid mounted in either cardboard or plastic. (My dad was and still is an inveterate camera-guy; he must have umpteen trillion slides. Some are so old, they’re starting to get that reddish tinge, which happens as the dyes begin to degrade. Some images are vanishing altogether. Sometimes, I have half a mind to grab those slides and get them scanned or corrected or whatever, just to hang onto that piece of my past a little longer.)

Anyway, I remember LOVING those shows, especially when I got a little older–say, early teens. There was something about seeing myself as a little kid (yes, even that embarrassing baby shot) that I found fascinating.  I don’t mean to say that I was, like, oh, wow, look at me. It wasn’t really narcissistic; it was more . . . GAWD, that was me? If you understand what I’m saying.

I don’t know when that–the ability to see a picture of myself and not cringe–changed, but it did.  Maybe it was the moment dad showed pictures of me as a 12-year-old to a crowd of strangers at my brother’s rehearsal dinner and my husband turned to me and said, ever-so-sensitively, “Wow, you were fat when you were a kid.”

Uhm . . . ow?

So the long and the short of it is: I really don’t like posing for pictures or looking at myself in pictures.  I have a goofy smile; my eyes are lopsided; yada, yada, yada.  Now, this is coming from a woman who has no trouble with public speaking whatsoever; has done a ton of theater and forensics; and at times can be, yes, a bit of a ham.  But have my picture taken?  Ugh.  Get that camera out of my face.   Really, there are far more beautiful people in the world.

Which made my television interview earlier this week kind of challenging.

I really wasn’t nervous, per se.  I know I can speak to just about anyone; getting information and talking to people is kind of essential for any shrink.  It was the fretting about stupid stuff–my hair, what color shirt I should wear, do I do lipstick–that got to me.  I must’ve stood in my closet for ten minutes staring at shirts and hating each and every one, probably because I’d been staring at and wearing the same turtlenecks and sweaters all bloody winter (and it’s been kind of a long one; we got snow twice this week!).  I finally ran out and bought the most colorful tunic I could find, like, two hours before the interviewer and cameraman were set to arrive.  And, yes, I put on lipstick and even toyed with the idea of finding some kind of color wand to get rid of the bloody gray at my temples.  Then, I thought: Whoa, babe, get a grip.  DeMille, this isn’t.

Now, being interviewed for television is pretty interesting and different than a newspaper interview where whatever’s written is colored by whether or not the reporter correctly remembers what you said.  Of course, on TV, especially for a news spot, it’s all about editing.   (I’ve been on TV only one time before–years ago, when I won the Writers of the Future thing–and there it was a full half-hour interview, spiced up with shots of the book, that kind of thing.  But whatever I said was what was aired.  No edits, no zippy camerawork.  Just me, myself and the interviewer.)  This time around, the interview lasted, maybe, fifteen, twenty minutes and we talked in the kitchen first simply because we were doing this at the house and they wanted some variety, a place where I don’t spend the majority of my time.  (Not that we didn’t talk a lot; we did–just not on camera.  In fact, the half hour talking after everything was done was really interesting: all about where publishing’s going today, that kind of thing.)

Then, it was all camera-stuff: me at the computer, me talking about the books I’ve either written or had stories in, me wandering out to the compost pile.  (I’m sorry, but I have an irrational love for my bin.)  If I’d had hoeing to do, I’d have done that.  A bunch of wild turkey were in the backyard right as I wandered out–which is why I say, “Hi, guys” because that’s what I always say to them.  (Sidebar: three are tame enough now that they’ll kind of stand around waiting for the corn but, this time, they got one good look at the cameraman and took off.  Ditto the cats.)

When it was all over and they–the TV folks, not the turkeys–had left, I kind of despaired.  I mean, a compost bin?  And how interesting could shots of me typing be?  Crap, I have crummy fingers; I don’t wear polish; my cuticles were ragged!  And my hair . . . I thought: OMG, this is going to be the most embarrassing, boring two minutes known to man.

So I didn’t tell anyone about the interview, not my friends or extended family or, even, my parents.  The only people who knew were the husband and the kids (oh, and the woman who owns the store where I bought the shirt).  I just didn’t want to inflict myself on anyone because, like I’ve said before, people who like and care about you will lie.  (Well, unless one is your husband marveling that, wow, you were sort of a pudge.)

Last night, when the segment aired . . . well, I was kind of staring through my fingers.  It was my brother’s rehearsal dinner all over again.  So imagine my surprise when I discovered that the bit was quite nicely done: the piece was zippy, had some neat shots. (Hey, that’s my cat!  And there are the kid’s sneakers!  Wait, what’s the cat’s toy box doing in the frame?)  They managed to make me look halfway decent.  I even SOUND semi-articulate and that shirt does look nice.  Definitely something you wouldn’t mind your mom seeing, you know?  Okay, the JK Rowling part was a little over the top, but–hey–from their mouth to G-d’s ear because, yeah, I WANT people to read my books.  Why write them otherwise?

Unfortunately, although I saved this to a DVD, I have NO IDEA how to upload this to YouTube just yet, so all I have are links for now.  Anyway, enjoy.

The transcript:

http://www.todaystmj4.com/features/specialassignment/118682979.html

The TV spot:

http://www.todaystmj4.com/features/specialassignment/118682979.html?video=pop&t=a&bctid=CLIP_ID_1370705

Oh, and the best news for last: my husband didn’t make a single crack about my waistline.  Clearly, the boy can be taught.

And I figured out how to upload to YouTube! (Conquering the Internet one megabyte at a time.)
 

 

What’s in a Name

One of the first things my Carolrhoda Lab editor said–beyond hello, I love this book, I must have it–was that, in his experience, titles always change.  I have to admit, I was surprised.  Sure, I can see that some titles are better than others; there are any number of articles out there about the best and worst movie/book titles.  But whatever title I’ve chosen is one I think that, at the time, best captures what the book’s about– for me, at least.

Take Stalag Winter, for example.  I know what stalag I’m talking about; I know what “stalag” means.  But, as my editor astutely pointed out,  the title makes the book sound as if it’s about a war (which it is, but only peripherally).  More importantly, though, he suggested that many people might not know what a “stalag” is.

Well, that blew me away.  After all, I know what a stalag is and I was going for this play on the idea that secrets are their own prison; the town has secrets; so, hello, the town’s a prison, blah, blah, blah.  Now, as English-major-geek and interesting as that might be, though, would the title really grab anyone?

Now that I’m far away from that particular decision, the answer is . . . probably not.

Stalag eventually became DRAW THE DARK:  a perfect title that both grabs your attention and describes what the story’s about.  Notice something else, too.  We used DRAW, not DRAWING or TO DRAW.  We went for an active verb and there’s only one article and no conjunctions.  The idea was to go for immediacy and action.  To my mind, this is a much better title, one which highlights the importance of paying attention to your editor’s gut.  Presumably, your editor was hired because the guy knows a) the market and b) how to read.  If your editor’s bought your book, it’s because he loves your work and wants to showcase it in the very best possible light.  Without my editor’s input, I would’ve gone for a less effective title that might not have gotten as much traction as DRAW eventually did.

What this also means is that you (I) have to be flexible and open to editorial input, period.  That doesn’t mean you always agree and/or what the editor thinks is right.  But it is important to take you, yourself and–yes–you out of the equation sometimes and try to see things from another point of view.  This is not about you; it’s about making this the best bloody book you can.

I was challenged to do just that this past week. Now that I’m surfacing from sequel-mania, it’s time to gear up for other work, most notably the first round of edits for my Spring 2012 book through Carolrhoda Lab, SWEET.

Only . . . you know . . . my editor just wasn’t thrilled with the title.  (Okay, I got a little spoiled because ASHES stayed ASHES; but, in that case, the title is perfect.)  Thing is, I really liked SWEET.  I thought it was a great title and said exactly what I wanted people to think when they picked up the book.

Unfortunately, I was the only one who liked the title. 🙁  My editor suggested a bunch of alternatives; I hated them all; one that he particularly liked I thought was just too science-geeky.  Then I suggested a bunch, but except for one or two, I wasn’t HEPPED about any of them.  While he was polite and professional and open-minded, we both knew my choices weren’t right either.

Then a very wise woman–yes, my agent–took an informal poll.  Described the book and then listed all the titles we’d been tossing back and forth to a bunch of people who know a thing or two about this kind of stuff.  Well, wouldn’t you know it but my editor’s favorite–and her second favorite, by the way–was the title that won, hands down.  Like, it wasn’t even a contest.

I was floored.  I mean, wow, I was THAT out of it?  Possibly.  I mean, my knickers were in a twist–and while a pro writer’s allowed to have feelings, it’s not PERSONAL.  It’s not ABOUT YOU.  So why did I feel that it was?

This is where being a shrink comes in handy.  See, there’s a reason the better shrinks get themselves shrunk (and it’s not something that happens as much today as it did in my time, for all kinds of reasons).  For me, it was a condition of my analytic training.  You want to be an analyst?  Then you have to know what’s your stuff versus what’s the patient’s.  Now, analysis is an angst-filled experience; I won’t kid you about that.  You try staring at acoustical tile four hours a week for several years and see what happens.  But the reason you put up with it is that you have to be able to take a step back and see what you might be bringing to the dance.  The last thing any patient needs is your mess on top of what he/she’s already dealing with.

So, looking back on it all and without getting all navel-gazey, I was just finishing up my own edits for SHADOWS, the sequel to ASHES; I’d spent two grueling weeks  working on pacing, getting all angsty over my characters, crying my eyes out and not sleeping very much.  Like, very not much: four hours, max, and most of it broken either with dreams (about the book) or awakenings when I bolted out of bed to go write down just one more thing.  So my brain was in SHADOWS overdrive and the rest of my life went to seed.  The cats were fed regularly, but they were the only ones who ate well.  We lived off soup, sandwiches and stew so old it had freezer burn.   If my poor, long-suffering husband was lucky, he got a terse hello when he got home after a hard day of slaving over a hot PCR machine.

In the end, I killed about 150 pages.  Now, that’s a lot of words and a sizable chunk of book.  More to the point, I was kind of an emotional basket-case.  (News flash: This is nothing new.  I always kill a lot of pages.  I’m always an emotional basket-case when I finish a book.  After living with and in these characters’ heads for the duration, letting go and learning to live without them is rough.  In this case, I’m just thankful I have one more book to write.  I’m not ready to say so long to these guys just yet.)

So, this morning, I was thinking about why it was that I had such a hard time seeing that not only were my editor and agent spot-on, but all these other people, with zip-investment in me or my book, could see what I couldn’t . 

When I really think about it, I might not have been in the best frame of mind to see the forest for the bloody trees.  I think I was so overwhelmed with having to lose the people over whom I’d expended so much emotion . . . I just didn’t want to let go of one more thing.  In this case, I didn’t want to do away with SWEET as a title; I wasn’t irrational about it or mean.  I was politely, like, uh, NO. But I was also simmering inside: like, what, WHAT?  You talking to me?  Are you talking to me?  I even moaned about this to my youngest daughter–like, <moan, moan, kvetch, complain> why can’t they see how SWEET is so PERFECT?   My daughter was righteously indignant for me, and that made me feel better.  My husband was righteously indignant, too, but I suspect he just wanted to be fed. ( All of which points up another truism: never ask your family’s opinion; they love you and people who love you will lie.   Or, if they’re not lying, they’re going to be very concerned about being supportive because they know on which side their bread’s buttered.  You get what I’m saying.)

So, the long and the short of it: I got my head out of my butt.  I let go of me and took a step back and realized–yet again–that not only is my agent a great agent, she is invested enough to take herself out of the equation, too.  If she hadn’t been, she’d have tried to steer things the way she wanted.  But she’s a pro.  My editor’s a pro.  Up to me to be a pro, too.

So, SWEET isn’t SWEET anymore–and it’s not a loss in any way, shape or form.  The title is now DROWNING INSTINCT.  Which, considering what the book’s about, is perfect.

So, what this really points up?  Know what’s you and what isn’t.  Saves on the angst factor, believe me, and your loved ones will thank you.  So will your cats.

And for some fun: check out AMC’s pick for Top Ten Worst Movie Titles.

 

 


On Spock ears, teenage dreams and Bill (throwing that darned chair)

Bop on by Dear Teen Me, a great new site chockablock with YA authors who offer some words of solace, wisdom or just plain hindsight to their teen selves. I’m there today, dithering about Spock ears, unrequited love and how Bill could possibly lose The $20,000 Pyramid playing against himself.

Oh, and enjoy this little tidbit, too: the episode of Pyramid after the one where Bill blew it and threw a chair.  The sequence is about a minute-ten in. Oh, that Bill . . .

Enjoy! And apologies to both the Twitterverse and Facebook when this darned thing posts twice . . .

Ilsa

Truth in Fiction

On both Fuse #8 and Liz’s site, there are fabulous and fruitful discussions going on about authenticity and what obligations, if any, writers or reviewers have in terms of ensuring a narrative’s authenticity–and, darn them, they got me thinking about that.  Eventually, I opened my big mouth and posted a comment that I’m also posting here because, well, you know, I spent a lot of  time thinking about this (which means that both Liz and Betsy did their jobs extremely well) and if I spend that kind of time, you should, too.

Really, it seems to me that what they’re talking about is that unspoken contract formed between writers and readers that has everything to do with trust: what a reader brings to a book before she even cracks the spine, and what keeps faith in a narrative, or destroys it.

So, what follows below is my response to Liz–and it’s not supposed to be either the final word or even all-inclusive because there are only so many hours in the day, and I got books to write.  Feel free to put in your two cents, or travel on over to either Betsy’s or Liz’s site and enter the discussion.

* * *

Now, I’m probably not going to explain this well–which is kind of a kicker, considering that I’m both a writer AND a child psychiatrist–but you bring up some great points, ones that got me thinking about what engenders a reader’s *trust*–because that’s what feelings of authenticity are. Do I, the reader, trust you, the writer, in our unspoken contract to deliver a narrative I feel is true? What is authentic is not necessarily the *same* as what is true, but if truths (read: facts) are used in a narrative then they must work to foster a reader’s trust in the story.

Honestly, it seems to me that feelings of authenticity are directly related to how much the book grabbed you. Period. As with your example about New Jersey and gas (thanks for that, btw; I’ll remember that if I ever set a contemporary YA in NJ–although my husband’s from NJ and I married him anyway): you know about NJ gas stations. You would know that this is a factual error. The question is whether or not the error is enough to kick you out of the story or influence your judgment as to how good the story is. In other words, do you lose trust in the narrative?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read books that feature child psychiatrists or doctors or scientists or hikers or survivalists or climbers or, for that matter, divers . . . and there’s almost always something that rises up from the page and smacks me a good one because I KNOW when the facts aren’t quite up to snuff. Sometimes, that’s enough to destroy the story; I’ll pitch that sucker across the room because I’ll be darned if I waste my time. (Psychotic, incompetent, cross-dressing, and/or homicidal shrinks almost always make me cringe. Really, most of us have gotten *so* much better . . .)

At other times, though, I’ll re-read the passage to make sure I really read what I read and then, usually, one of two things happen: either I’ll kind of shrug and move on because the story’s pretty darned good, or I’ll roll my eyes and continue on but with a heightened sense of okay-prove-to-me-that-I-should-keep-putting-effort-into-this. If the author makes a couple more boo-boos, then I give up because, really, if you don’t care to get your facts straight, bub, I don’t care to waste my time. I don’t *trust* you any more. In those instances, my doubts about a writer’s trustworthiness color everything I read.

But writers do make stuff up for a living, and I think readers have to bear that in mind. By definition, there’s only so much research you can really do and I guarantee you that if I wrote a book centered on a women’s prison or juvenile detention facility, someone will think I musta made that up. (Uh . . . that would be no; I’ve had a ton of personal experience working in those arenas. Remind me to tell you the one about a certain toe tag . . .) But I might not craft a story well enough to make you trust me, and so you’ll feel my work is inauthentic when, no, no, that really happened.

Further, feelings of inauthenticity are also directly related to expectation: what people *think* that, say, autism ought to be like . . . but how are those perceptions built? Through experience? Exposure through various media? Another book that you think “did it” particularly well? Or, as Charlotte wrote, something unconscious (even fantasies of what something “should” be like)?

The other thing is that authenticity in some branches of fiction is easier to create and sustain than others. I’m thinking of, for example, historicals. I once read a book–a bestseller, by the way–where Cleopatra used a fork. Uh . . . what? WHAT? At the time I didn’t know diddly about forks, but that was enough to throw me because I had a dim-enough understanding of utensils to figure, whoa, that’s not right. So I looked it up and found that forks weren’t invented until the 11th century or thereabouts–and that gave me pause in terms of the rest of the book. I mean, honestly, if *I* can figure this out with a few minutes’ effort, why can’t the writer? The story wasn’t bad–it was actually quite good–but I began to doubt the rest of the historical detail. I think I even got a little pissed–like, do your homework, bub–and this from a woman who grew up devouring science fiction where all bets are off. I no longer trusted the writer.

So, in the end, you know . . . a story is fiction; fiction isn’t necessarily about what is true (that’s why it’s fiction); but facts in fiction generally *are* supposed to be true and truth is directly related to a reader’s sense of a fiction’s authenticity: the degree to which you abandon yourself and trust in the writer. Me, I think that’s mostly about story and how well a narrative is crafted: have you grabbed me; have you held me; and can I stay buckled in regardless of the speed bumps? Will I forgive you a couple of mistakes? If I can, then the story is true enough to and for me, and I will trust the writer. If inaccuracies foster enough doubt, well, then . . . you broke our contract, and them’s the breaks.

If that’s clear . . .

If A Blog Falls In the Forest . . .

So I went to this con in Minneapolis: KidLitCon 2010.  Supposed to be for bloggers about blogging in—and this is my new word for the week—the kitlitosphere. (English is such a great and malleable language.)  Why did I go, especially when Garrison Keillor just happened not to be performing at the Fitzgerald and Brett was going to be in Green Bay?  (Oh, Brett, Brett . . . Don’t get me started on Brett.)

Well, let me tell you why I went.

There’s this great scene in Julie & Julia where Amy Adams, completely convinced that she’s blogging into the great void, meekly types: Is there anyone out there reading me?  But I’m sure you are, aren’t you? Somebody? Anybody?

Oh boy, do I know how she feels.  Most days, blogging feels as if I’ve channeled  Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:

Now, why am I blogging altogether?  Simple: My editor told me to, and I take direction well.  (I do; just ask him.)

Here’s how it started.  My editor said that I should develop an online presence.  Get on Facebook; join Twitter.  Put up a blog.  The goal, he said, was for me to join the conversation.

Hmmm.  Okay.  Sure.  No sweat.  So I put up a blog; I joined Facebook and Twitter—

And discovered something really, really important.

I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what I was supposed to do or say.  To whom?  About what?  Oh, I maundered on a bit about myself, gave some background, weighed in on a couple topics—but in the back of my head, this little voice kept yammering: You have no idea what you’re doing and why should anyone care what you think, sweetheart?

I so completely angst over my blog.  I really do.  My blog tortures me.  My blog is the digital equivalent of that zit no amount of makeup will make disappear.  For me, blogging is like when a shirt tag’s showing or I’ve gotten lipstick all over my teeth; everyone’s too polite to say anything and just looks away.  (Disclaimer: I always say something when I spot a tag or lipstick.  I’m convinced that only another woman understands the horror, the horror . . .)

See, I want people to care—or, at the very least, let me hang around the bar and maybe chime in once in a while.

And as I write those words, I think I’ve just stumbled on something very important.

Blogging is community.

When you blog—or do Facebook or Twitter or jump into any other social medium—you’re reaching out, trying to squeeze your way into a mash-up of a very large cocktail party.  But this can be a problem if you’re someone like me: pretty reserved, a little superstitious, relatively adept at putting foot in mouth, and—honestly—kind of shy.  (Really.  The fact that I can smile and chat?  Years of practice.  Hey, all that psychiatric training wasn’t for nothing.  I learned how to ask questions so other people would keep talking.  Remind me to tell you someday about the assignment Tim Powers had us do at WOTF . . .)

Anyhoo.  Seems to me that one of the keys to successful blogging is to develop the confidence—or the illusion of it at least—that would make someone at, say, a cocktail party give a damn about anything you have to say.  In other words, if you don’t have any confidence in what you think; if you can’t listen to a conversation at a cocktail party—and really listen, not just hear—not only will no one listen to any comment you manage to slip in, they won’t even hear you over the sound of the band.

The first person you must convince to care about what you say is . . . you.

Really.

So I think that was in the back of my mind heading into KidLitCon.  I wanted to figure out why I should care about me.  I wanted to know what—and who—the heck my blog was for.  I really wanted to crash that stupid cocktail party without spilling my drink.

So, my questions: Was my blog a way to let people know about a nice review?  To weigh in on the big issues of the day?  To reveal my deep and abiding attachment to my new compost bin?  (Don’t ask.)  What?

I mean, why blog?  I’m serious.  There’s no compelling reason why anyone should visit a writer’s blog unless that writer has a fan-base, people out there who’ve read a book or story and decide to look her up.  So someone like me is blogging for a potential: a hope that, someday, someone’s going to stumble on by.

Only who is that someone?  Because aside from those teens who write review blogs, my zillions of potential YA fans don’t read blogs.  They couldn’t care less.  They don’t use Twitter.  They play around with Facebook, and they’ll text their thumbs off before they’ll actually do something as radical as talk on their cell—but they don’t routinely visit blogs.

Which is pretty discouraging.

So I finally asked the question during the conference: as a YA writer, for whom am I blogging? Straight out, using just those words.

There was this loooonnnngggg pause.

Finally, someone said (and I paraphrase): A YA writer is blogging for the gatekeepers—i.e., teachers, parents, and librarians.

Uhm.  Okay.  Really?  A teacher?  A librarian?  My . . . my mother?

Wow.  I didn’t know that.

So, after I digested that bit of information, I did manage to figure out a couple ways to play around with my blog, which I’ll be trying out in the next couple of weeks.  In the meantime, though, I figured I’d recap some of the other pearls I picked up from an audience of some 80+, very accomplished and dedicated bloggers: librarians, reviewers, pro-bloggers, mommy-bloggers, publishers, publicists, illustrators and authors.  [Oh, and if you want to read a couple of very in-depth recaps, you can access comments here.  For example, while I thought that the talk about various platforms was great—and, if the presenter is correct, a platform may very well dictate your audience—I don’t see the value in outlining the pros and cons of, say, WordPress versus SquareSpace.  Although I did find one editor’s comment about LiveJournal—that it’s a gated community of writers talking to other writers—very interesting.  In that instance, a blogger knows pretty much exactly who her audience is.]

Similarly, while I heard a nice presentation on blog tours, I also talked with several authors who pretty much said that they’d found blog tours to be a tremendous amount of work for very little reward.  (Just what I heard by asking a couple questions; don’t shoot me.)

On the other hand, you could say that a blog tour is the equivalent of bar-hopping: bellying up to the bar, chatting up the regulars while staying sober and then moving on.  So, if you feel that you must do a blog tour, keep in mind are that while many questions can be quite repetitive, your answers can’t be.  No matter how many times you’ve answered the same question, you’ve got to change up your answers.  Also, you can help increase your visibility by coupling your tour to either a cause/issue (say, if you wrote a book dealing with child abuse, you might raise awareness by tying the tour to campaigns against abuse), or a charity.

But this was interesting, too: every single author I talked to said paying someone to arrange a blog tour was a waste of money.  Okay, before you yell at me, remember: just repeating what I heard.  I have no experience with blog tours: never done one, never got asked, hasn’t occurred to me.  Just so we’re clear on that.

So, the pearls:

1.  Self-promotion is a necessary evil. Get over it.

2.  A blog is a conversation.  That means if a reader makes a comment, you need to answer.  Your readers are people, too.  Above all else, be polite; be nice—and do respond.

3.  A blogger needs to know his/her audience.  In other words, audience is key—and audience changes depending on where you are in your career.  What you write for fans will be different than, say, what you might write if your primary audience consists of other writers.  But you must be aware of who your audience is at any one point in time.

4.  Dovetailing on that, a blogger must develop an online persona.  In essence, you craft the kind of person you want your readers to see and make decisions about your posts accordingly.

5. A blog writer should be a blog reader. This turns out to be a big deal because bloggers—especially reviewers and librarians—want to know who and what you’re reading.  They want to know that you’re serious, and you’ve got to demonstrate a working knowledge of other people’s blogs.  That’s fair.  You want to buy a house and fit in?  Bake cookies, pick up after your dog, and get to know your neighbors.

6. In line with that, you need to develop an online presence by commenting on other blogs (which is probably what my editor meant when he said I should join the conversation).  Use the Goggle Reader; comb through the blogs; make a comment here and there, not only to spread your name around but to hear/read/listen to what other people are saying—and respond in kind.  Really, if you want to join a conversation, you don’t just butt in with some comment about the Packers if everyone else is talking politics.  Would you do that in real life?  Of course not.  Same thing here.

7. Develop an online presence, and blogging can make your career.  This was something that Maggie Stiefvater really hammered on in her keynote.  In fact, her publisher elected to start her most recent book tour over the summer instead of the fall and counted on her blog presence—which she’s built up over almost a decade, starting from highlighting her art work to posting a story a week with two other writers—to bring in fans.  Which it did, in droves.

8. Figure out what’s not out there.  This is in-line with what Maggie said at the beginning of her keynote: the world really isn’t waiting for that next big blog.  The world couldn’t care less.  So you must figure out  not only how to join in but stand out in some way, sort of like making a comment that’s actually listened to versus simply chiming in with an oh yeah, like, totally.

9. Anything you write will be remembered forever.  This presumes, of course, that someone reads you.  But you must always behave as if someone is.

10. Blogs should be user-friendly: easy to navigate, self-explanatory, tidy.

11. For YA and kid authors, in particular, there are ways to participate with fans that don’t involve leaving your house or driving across country.  For example, you can Skype into a classroom.  (In fact, I talked to one librarian about doing just that.)  You can do a chat.  Let tech be your friend.

12. This was kind of interesting: don’t make blog posts TOO long.  Only dedicated, fascinated readers will persevere to the end.  How long is too long?  Beats me.  But here’s what I figure: blogging is a little bit like submitting a story to an editor.  I know a couple editors who both love and hate when a writer hooks ’em because then the writer’s made them spend time they haven’t got, damn it.  So, in a way, it seems to me that blogging is not a time for a writer to get lazy.  This goes back to making readers care about what you have to say—and why blogging can also be a HUGE time-sink, which leads me to:

13. If you’re not careful, blogging will take over your life.  Now, no presenter actually said that; this was something I picked up by eavesdropping between panels.  (Yes, I was the woman in the funky orange top pretending to be über-fascinated by that utterly incomprehensible painting you’all were standing next to . . .)  As with anything else, if you’re going to blog, remember that while a blog is product, it is product that no one is paying you for.  Now, obviously, if you collect related posts and make a book out of them, that’s not true.  But, by and large, you are spending time blogging, and time is money, so budget accordingly.  Think of blogging as an investment of your time and resources.  A couple of coins every few days will probably yield a greater return than one huge bolus of cash.

12. And, oh yeah: If you don’t think you have the time or aren’t comfortable blogging, don’t.  Really.  Your lack of enthusiasm will be all-too painfully obvious.

So, there you go: some pearls.  Like I said, if you disagree with some, don’t yell at me.

Okay, blog time’s up.  I got a book to write.

Oh, but before I forget: those kick-ass Jeffrey Campbell boots?  Too big.  Quelle bummér.

Now to find a size 7 in distressed brown . . .

Sheboygan Children’s Book Festival

Sheboygan’s (and Wisconsin’s, I think) first-ever children’s book festival launched Friday night with a reception for Wisconsin authors and illustrators, continued through yesterday with presentations and workshops given by internationally-celebrated writers like James Dashner and Avi, as well as treasure trove of illustrators, such as Keiko Kazo and Matt McElligott (who’s also an author) — among many others.  The festival concludes today with more Avi, Renee Graef and David McLimans as well as the grand opening of Bookworm Gardens, a fabulous space devoted to books and nature (gotta love that Japanese Tea Garden and the Magic School Bus).

Me, being a piker, I was privileged to be invited to the Friday night reception where I met Kathi Appelt (love the hair and see you in Minneapolis next week), Gerald Morris, Jo Ann Early Macken, Barbara Techel (and Frankie; what a cutie); Renee Graf sported this fabulous black gaucho that had me drooling with envy.  (Yes, I am a shameless hat fan, have several and would wear them more often if I weren’t so blasted self-conscious and could live with hat head.  Ilsa, you have to get over this aready . . .)  I spent a very nice couple of hours meeting readers and talking to one aspiring writer; and I got to meet Lanora Hurley of Next Chapter Books down in Mequon.  Sales of Draw went pretty well, and then Lanora had me sign the few remaining books–and I think they sold out yesterday (YAY!).

So, that was cool.  But you know what was WAY cool?  No, BEYOND cool?  Listening to James Dashner.  Meeting James Dashner.  Shaking his hand.  Giving him my card–and then my book and then signing it for him.  Slay me, really.  James–gosh, does he like James or Jim; I don’t know–is THE most laid-back, gracious guy: great with kids; a perceptive listener; a fine presenter.  He really knows how to engage a crowd and I was definitely taking notes for the moment if and when I ever get to trade up for his problems. 🙂  Having read both TMR and now Scorch Trials, it was a privilege to meet and hear the writer behind the words, and I hope I get the chance to hang with him a bit more someday.

I also met one of my Goodreads fans and blogger, Erica, right after Dashner’s presentation.  We had a too-short but fabulous chat; but now, Erica, time to get on those college apps!  (NYU, watch out; this is one determined young lady.)

The good times lasted into the night with a special preview of the Kohler Arts Center’s Animal Instinct: Allegory, Allusion and Anthropomorphism exhibition.  Among the artists in attendance were Tom Uttech, Casey Reardon Millard and Duane Slick (who did a VERY fun and funny sand-art presentation).  The exhibition runs through June 5, 2011 and I know I’ll be back several times over.  This has to be one of the best shows the KMAC’s ever mounted.

So . . . an exciting and fun weekend (so far).  Monday–and time to buckle down and draft and write the next ASHES book (SHADOWS)–will come soon enough.  But for today, more books, more celebration–and, yeah, probably some football and a nice, juicy brat (kosher, of course).

New Day, Different Page

I knew there had to be a reason I trashed my old site; it was to give me an excuse to try something different.  This morning, I was still unhappy and all discombobulated about the site and so I figured, okay, I’ll try one more thing.  This, of course, goes against what I said about breaking and fixing, but in this case, the thing was really broken, so something had to be done.

Then I remembered my mantra: Don’t fix.  Re-build.

So, I trashed the old theme.   Well, I previewed a theme I liked anyway (although I hate the gray; to me, gray means, you may overlook me; that’s okay).  Then I figured: Screw it, honey.  Just do it.

So I did it.

Not bad.  All my pages are back and reachable via those little tabby things at the top.  My nicely reconfigured jpegs are there, and the orange looks nice with the black.  So far, so good.  Like I said, the gray’s got to go; I got to figure a suitable replacement and how to do that globally.  (I’m just not that savvy yet about HTML; frankly, I probably will never understand more than a few things.  Like . . . just enough to be dangerous.)

But, see, this way I’m not helpless.  I took what I broke and I rebuilt it as best I could.  I didn’t fix it; I threw out the pieces and went for a whole new look, which I like.

I’m sure there’s a moral here–probably that invention is a mother 😉  But now I can get on with my day.  I’ve got a synopsis to finish and then my nails to gnaw while my agent takes a look at my latest weirdness.

Oh, the life of a writer . . . ain’t it great?

The Enemy of Good

Well, if you’re noodling around my blog today, you’ll notice a couple differences.  Yeah, yeah, the header picture is brighter and cleaner, and I do like it.  (Well, only in IE: Mozilla Firefox is a disaster and I don’t know how to fix the stupid thing or go to the newer theme.)  And all those nifty thumbnails on the sidebars–the jpegs of my books and even that really nice Kirkus comment about DRAW–well, those are pfffttt!

That’s because I am a very dangerous person. I am the type of person who, sometimes, allows her impulse to make things that are already good even BETTER.

You know what I’m talking about: that extra touch here and there.  If you’re a writer, you know the feeling, too.  You’ve finished your book; you’ve spiffed and spat and polished.  Maybe you’ve let the book sit a couple days; maybe you’ve gone the King-recommended six weeks (I could never go that long before looking at my first pass-through; then again, that could be one of the many reasons I’m not Stephen King–damn).  Or, maybe, you’ve done as I always do: put the thing away for a couple days and then come back to do a read-through and start making what is okay a little bit better.

In the past, I used to endlessly rewrite.  I mean, start at the bloody beginning a million times over and go through and go through and go through . . . until I wrote the life out of the thing.  Dean Smith once told me–and a bunch of other writers–that we should NEVER try to FIX something.  That is, rewriting a scene or editing–the polishing chores we all do to make our manuscripts not only presentable but, you know, GOOD–is not the same thing as trying to FIX something.  I can’t remember exactly what Dean said, but I think the general idea is that if you’ve broken the damn thing already, if the story’s just not all that good, no amount of rewriting and fixing will make it better.  Sort of along the lines of you can’t shine . . . well, you know.  THAT stuff.  Better to trash the whole thing and start over again.

This is good advice, actually.  My forthcoming ASHES trilogy is a case in point.  I wrote the original book about a year and a half ago.  It was an okay book.  At the time, I thought it was a VERY GOOD book.  As it happened, no editors agreed with me.  Roundabout December of last year, I took that sucker out again, reread it and CRINGED.  Like, okay, interesting idea, crummy execution.  It wasn’t ALL bad, but I saw the problems right away.

Now, I could have tried to FIX it–gone back in with the orignal viewpoint, etc.–and gone through the thing again.  Would it have worked?  I doubt it.  Instead, I did a Dean-ism (and a Kris Rusch-ism): I killed that sucker.  Put it away, didn’t look at it, redrafted the whole thing that, three months later, was ASHES.  The rest is, well, history: I was happy with ASHES; my agent was happy; eventually, Egmont USA was happy.

In that case, I did not succumb to making something BETTER.  I opted to make something completely different.  I opted to start again.

How does this relate to my blog?  Well, I have liked the design okay, but I haven’t been THRILLED.  But I’ve been way too busy to make the time to change anything–until last night.  Let’s put this into context: I’ve just finished my latest book; it’s sitting with my agent; yes, I’m anxious because it’s a weird little book that, yeah, *I* think is pretty darned interesting and leaves me a bunch of wiggle-room for the sequel, which I’m in the middle of drafting up right now for my agent.  Now, I hate doing synopses because I keep taking them so LITERALLY.  Like, I gotta do EVERYTHING I said I would, instead of remembering that a synopsis is a) just a summary and b) a way for an editor to chart a general direction/trajectory.  Nothing is set in stone.

So I’m fussing and fussing yesterday, going through the story in my head, avoiding my computer, making tomato soup out of the gazillion pecks of tomatoes I have coming out of my ears (actually, the soup recipe is flexible, great and oh-so-different; you’d be amazed).  I had put together a new compost bin on Friday; I was thinking, gosh, got to get some leaf mould and good garden dirt to start that sucker; I was looking at the new grill I ordered (an electric thing because my husband is deathly afraid that I’ll blow up the back of the house with a gas grill, and there’s no decent spot in the back for a firepit) and thinking: I got to put that sucker together.  In short, I’m fixated on cobbling things together; I’m fixated on tearing down and putting the pieces in the right order.  Heck, I even made the time to take a very nice ceramic pot that went to ground during our windstorm last week and Monster Glue that sucker.

So I’m in my Miss Fix-it mode; my Build-It mode.  In some ways, this is all a necessary part of my process as a writer; I really am a great believer in symbolism and the power of the unconscious.  But even a navel-gazing analyst needs to know when a cigar’s a cigar.  When I started looking at my blog instead of dealing with the STORY that was in a MILLION PIECES in my addled brain, that should’ve tipped me off.

Did it?  Uh, that would be no.

Instead, I played around with the blog.  (Man, I went to a differnt server and messed around with installing a whole new blog, getting a new domain–those mandatory blog thingamabobs.  But the HASSLE of importing one blog into another . . . my eyes merged in the middle of the my head.)  So I tried to fix the blog I already got–my perfectly serviceable blog.  Now I am not a computer idiot, but I”m no genius either.  So when I thought I was merely downloading a theme to try out, I guess it just sorta blew past me that I was installing the stupid thing.  Honest: With WordPress, you can download a bunch of themes and then preview what the blog will look like.  (Honestly?  I really like one that’s got a black-ish theme–it’s very restful but is only two columns and there’s no place for jpegs, etc.  My webmaster is a very nice person, but he’s in college and I thought: well, I could ask if he can switch it over, but he’s busy; school just started; I don’t want to hassle the poor kid.)  So,  I thought: Heck, I’ll do it myself and just start with previewing the upgraded theme.

Oh boy, what an idiot.

Went to my site.  Looked at the new picture.  Thought: well, that’s not so bad–and then I noticed that all the flipping pictures were gone.  My page link to my chain story was gone.  EVERYTHING that was customized was GONE!!!

What an idiot.  My evening disintegratred into little teeny, tiny pieces.  I disintegrated into little teeny, tiny pieces.  My long-suffering husband told me I was making mountains out of anthills.  I flailed around for a while and then finally crawled into bed and lay there for a couple hours, telling myself what a doofus I am.

This morning, I’m still a doofus because I didn’t listen to my own advice which, really, is Dean’s advice and Kris’s advice, and the advice of most good writers: DON’T FIX THINGS.  DON’T TRY TO MAKE THEM BETTER BY FIXING THEM.  If things need fixing, then maybe that’s because it’s BROKEN to begin with and can’t be fixed.

Am I being clear?  Maybe not.  All I know is that I took something perfectly fine and I tried fixing it.  I ended up breaking it.  Dumb, dumb, diddly-doo dumb.  I’ve ended up creating a huge hassle for my long-suffering webmaster; I’ve ended up somewhat sleepless and pissed-off at myself.

Anyway . . . I’m better.  Sort of.  At least, I see where I went wrong and when I shoulda stopped.

The bright side is, well, the new look is better.  It’s still not the nicely atmospheric theme I liked–and maybe this is my subconscious telling me that I really wanted an excuse to trash the whole thing.  Hmmm, that might be right.

Maybe time to send my webmaster another email . . .

PS: And on an entirely different note: When we were noodling around upstate NY a couple weeks ago, I met a very nice guy who runs a pretty interesting site for college kids.  Check it out: More Than Grades, it’s called, and it’s filled with all sorts of useful links and services for high school kids doing the college admissions thing.  Anyway, Mike asked if I would do an interview for a new blog on careers, and of course, I thought: Wow, another chance to bloviate . . . The interview’s up; go check it out and then go check out the rest of the site, if you’re so inclined.

The Dreaded In-Between Time

So I’m in the worst time of all: the time between when I have finished one project but not yet begun the next.  Oh, I have vague ideas, but they’re a jumble–just this inchoate mass that leaves me feeling all prickly inside and antsy and dissatisfied.  Honestly, I just hate my brain right now.

Part of the problem is I have to let go of the book I just finished, which is hard to do when you’ve lived it–in every sense–for the last few months.  Living a book is both absolute torture and the most magical kind of obsession that stirs up all kinds of interesting feelings.  It’s the same reason why I can’t talk about what I’m writing as I do it.  It’s hard to explain–if I understood it, I would definitely tell you–but when I’m developing an idea, I hate talking about it because putting it into words, trying to translate the feelings I have into something that can be understood–especially when the ideas aren’t very logical–feels like it drains all the vitality from what I’m thinking.  Now, coming from a shrink, that sounds dumb, but hear me out.  When I LISTEN, especially to myself, my critical, analytical mind frequently kicks in to pick apart the logic. That is absolute death to creativity because then I’ve put myself on the couch.  Part of the goal of analysis or any therapy is to rid ideas of their emotional valence.  That is, if you’re having problems, spelling them out, looking at them from all the angles, is a way of helping you not act on the emotions without understanding where they’re coming from.

Well, I don’t want to kill all those feelings.  Those feelings drive the narrative.  So I won’t talk about a book until I’m good and deep into it–when I know that talking a little bit about it won’t drain away the energy.

Right now, though, I’m trying to organize all this in-between energy–the prickly uneasiness I get when one book is done, the next one still just a formless mass, and me casting around for something to bloody DO.  Usually, I write a short story in between books, just because.   Good practice.

I know writers who can make the switch from working on a novel to banging out a short story on a weekly basis.  Me, I’m either obsessive or inflexible, or both.  I can’t switch mental tracks like that because I’m so involved in hanging onto the people I’ve created in my head, I worry that I’ll lose track of them if I allow myself to become obsessed with other people in a different story–which is easy for me to do.  When I throw myself into writing, I dive into the deep end and I’ll stay there until the darned thing is done.

Occasionally, derailing myself works out.  I remember having to break off from one book because an anthology editor popped into my inbox with a request for a short story–and I’m certainly not going to refuse 😉  So, for four days, I lived that story: a day to think of it and three to bang it out, tune it up, send it out.  I thought the story, “Second Sight” (and, actually, it turned out to be VERY long, more like a novelette) went well.  The editor liked it.  LOCUS’s reviewer liked it even better.  After that, I was able to jump back into my book and finish it–but that was the exception.  It was just the right request at the right time and it helped that the story parameters–give me guidelines and I’m set–meshed well with the genre in which I was working.

For me, writing is like being an air-traffic controller.  All the jets are lined up on the runway, but they have to go in an orderly fashion.  My editor kindly called this my ability to compartmentalize–and I guess that’s true.  I don’t tend to allow myself to get very scattered when it comes to writing–I’m not one of those “organic” writers who can just sit down and start working without a clue where I’m going–but  I would suspect that this is the same quality that allowed me to handle the deluge of material you get when you go to medical school.  For that matter, when you’re seeing a patient–whether it’s to do surgery or listen to their story or do an exam of any type–you proceed in an orderly fashion.  Doctors are famous for their mnemonics, those little acronyms or sayings that allow us to remember important information.  For example, I still remember this little ditty– C3,4,5 keeps the diaphragm alive–that clued me in on which cervical roots make up the phrenic nerve.  (Here are some others.) All of medicine is like that: compartmentalized information organized into algorithms that you have to then bring together to form a useful picture of a patient’s symptoms.

That’s how I tend to approach writing, too.  I get an idea that I research and organize and then develop into an outline.  Along the way–if I know the kind of book I’m trying to develop–then I focus only on reading and/or listening to books in that genre.   I keep my eye on the proverbial ball and don’t allow myself to get sidetracked.  That doesn’t mean my brain isn’t hopping–it is–and even having done an outline doesn’t mean that I slavishly follow it.  Used to do that in the beginning.  In fact, I pretty much used to wrote the entire book in outline form.  Like, we’re talking several hundred pages of outline, scene by scene, line by line . . . One editor joked that all I had to do was put in adjectives and I was done.  This wasn’t far from the truth.

Now, though, with more experience and a tad more confidence, I think I allow myself to be a bit freer–to realize that what felt good in outline doesn’t work in terms of pacing or whatever, or just isn’t flat-out necessary.  These days, once I’ve finished an outline, I almost never look back.  Occasionally, I’ll check and remind myself where I was headed, but once I inhabit a work, my brain is on track and I need to let it go.  I need to step out of my own way.  There’s a time to be your own traffic cop and there’s a time to let the traffic just go where it will.

Just need to get out of my own way . . .

Right now, I’m working on figuring out what kind of short story I want to do.  Almost there.  Damn well better be.  I keep going like this, my brain is gonna explode.  Then I’ll write the story, send it and then get cracking on the next book.

All this is necessary incubation time.  I get that.  I just hate it when I’m living it.

Currently reading: The Best American Mystery Stories 2009 edited by Jeffrey Deaver and Otto Penzler

Bad Girls Don’t Die by Katie Alender

Currently listening to: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (oooh, I wish I had a site like this . . . so much eye candy!)