Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pithy Insights on How Writing Novel #2 is Working Out. Maybe.

(Just to give you some idea before you plunge in: This post used to be called “What if my next novel sucks?” until I had the blinding insight that this might be a poor way to present myself.)

In my first blog entry, I promised pithy insights about how writing novel #2 was working out.

I lied.

There is nothing pithy about this. There is nothing short and sweet. Except for all the fragments, which, while they certainly aren’t long, I would consider more truncated than short.

I’m not athletic, but metaphorically speaking, I think I’m in the part of the marathon where you develop tunnel vision, all you want in life is to finish and finish well, but before your endorphins kick in and propel you across the finish line. The part of the marathon where you really need all those motivational bottles of water (or, in my case, chocolate cupcakes) that are thrust at you from the sidelines (or, in my case, self-procured from the Viktor Benesh bakery counter).

This is not bitching. I am completely overjoyed to be doing this, I love doing this, this is what I always wanted to be doing and I think I appreciate it even more because it took me a very long time to get here. But it's hard.

Even though I sometimes see snippets of scenes in my head, even though I see the rooms and the houses and where in the parking lot the car parks and the posture of all the characters.

Even though I feel the atmosphere of the night of this book’s cataclysmic disaster (It would appear that everything I write has a cataclysmic disaster in there somewhere.), how foggy it was and how it started to rain and how the light from the streetlamps pooled and the eerie glow from the pink Malibu lights in the hotel garden.

Even though I’ve done this once before, I did fit it all together once before so presumably I can do it again, even though I am in love with the characters again.

Because the doubts are the same as before: What if it’s flat? What if it’s heavy-handed? What if it’s incoherent? What if it’s flat, heavy-handed, and incoherent? What if, even though, bless you Anne Lamott for green-lighting the shitty first draft, this is as good as it gets? What if it’s dull and stupid and I can’t even tell it’s dull and stupid and I submit it with a self-satisfied smile on my face?

This is what dogs are for.

My dog, having noticed that I’m huddled, racked with doubt, over a hot laptop, has taken advantage of the opportunity to steal some underwear from the hamper and frolic through the house with it. And as hard as this is, it’s not as impossible as catching a really fast dog with dirty underwear in his mouth.

Gotta try.

(Photo of dog cavorting with underwear in mouth to follow.)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

31 Romanians -- Why Blogger, Why?

Okay, this isn't actually a blog post, this is an informative follow-up.

I just thought I should share that even though not a single Latvian ever came back (Forgive me, Lativians, if I was somehow culturally insensitive.), I am now besieged by Romanians. Thirty-one Romanians, to be exact.

And I find myself wondering, is it possible that this isn't another outcropping of my inexplicable popularity in Eastern Europe? Is it possible that I'm being hacked by a nefarious offshore hacker with an unhealthy interest in teen novels? And just when I was on the verge of international fame and vast numbers of pre-sales in Bucharest...(Don't look at me like that. It could happen. They have Amazon in Bucharest, and probably more bookstores -- remember bookstores?-- than we do.)

In any case, I would like to extend the same invitation to the thirty-one Romanians who showed up here 45 minutes ago as I did with their Latvian fellow travelers: Come back. Tell me who you are and how you got here? Are your friend or foe? Are you avid followers of English-language ARC's set in LA prep schools, or was your presence here a happy accident?

Spill, because I'm mystified.

Monday, November 7, 2011

My Life as a Writer Who Used to be Really Awful

I’ve written all my life, in the since-I-could-hold-a-pencil model of the single-minded writer. I remember being seven and printing “Chip and the Sea” in one of those wonderful, old fashioned notebooks with the marbled black-and-white covers, bound with ribbon along the spine. Almost too good for the climax, which read “You must be my long lost brother!”

I remember a poem that opened “When the misty, balmy, silver-clad dawn…” a time of day I had never actually been awake to experience, and I shudder to tell you what the dawn was doing, but suffice to say it involved a certain amount of scampering.

I remember a staggeringly horrible free-verse story about a rape, expressed entirely through nature metaphors, which was a good thing because I wrote it way before I’d ever actually seen a naked man.

And I remember angsty college poems that expressed my unyielding individuality by railing against houses that scarred mountainsides and plastic and Barbie dolls, except that, oh yeah, Malvina Reynolds and the entire women’s movement had kind of been there first.

I was too cool for school.

Indeed, I left high school before actually learning any math or serious science to attend the College of Creative Studies on the backs of all those scarred mountainsides and bad Barbies, attending poetry seminars I departed with the memory of (someone else’s) poem that read “suck, suck, suck” ad infinitum, filling the entire sheet of paper, except for the white space that spelled “fuck.” I wasn’t exactly sure what to make of this, and transferred, taking my creativity with me. At my next college, I came up with a stunning short story that more or less paraphrased a piece of “La Chute.” Only in English. I don’t remember much about it, except that it was profound.

Indeed, there is hardly a single chapter of my life as a writer that isn’t extremely easy to make fun of. (My first PB manuscript was entitled “Binky, the Very Rude Finger.” Not kidding.) Except that throughout all these misbegotten adventures in dreadful literature, I’ve been completely serious about what I was doing.

Even when I didn’t think that I was any good at it or could make a go of it and tried out a series of other (failed) career possibilities, I kept writing. I didn’t see it as a journey – indeed, I am loath to go into the journey, transcendent power of language, cosmically transformative whatchadinget aspect of it all, possibly because I really love what I’m doing and there’s just so much laughing at myself doing what I’m doing that I can take. I just kind of saw it as what I do.

Only now, doing exactly what I’ve always been doing although, one hopes, somewhat more skillfully, it would appear that I have arrived. Professionally speaking. My fifth picture book is showing up in March, the most explicitly religious folktale I’ve ever done, the plot of which turns on prayer and the value of an optimistic faith, the same month as Where It Began, a steamy YA novel full of sex and drugs and rock and roll.

I am officially a children’s book writer and YA novelist. (To authors who have written 20 prize-winning novels of extraordinary depth and power, I say, yeah, well I have an agent and a business-sized envelope with business receipts in it and a scary deadline.)

And while those who use their optimistic faith for more cosmically transformative ends might look askance at me for saying this, it really did take an optimistic faith to get here. Even when I could tell it was bad. Even when the misty, balmy, silver-clad dawn was breaking over Chip’s long lost brother. Even when my critical and satirical abilities outstripped my writing ability by maybe 27 to 1. I just kept doing it because I more or less had to and, as the hero of The Wooden Sword will tell anyone who reads it four months from now, everything has turned out just as it should.

And thank God for that – how embarrassing would it be if it hadn’t?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Greetings, Latvians!

The ways of the internet are strange and mysterious. Obsessed as I am with this blog and whether anyone is coming to visit, and if so, why, and if not, why not, you would think I would have picked up on this fact early on and be a lot calmer about it.

And I was a lot calmer. Until a few days ago, when I had 28 visitors from Latvia.

All right, for those of you with highly popular blogs that get hundreds of visitors from foreign lands traipsing through regularly, this probably wouldn’t be that big a deal. But suffice to say, on that particular day, the 28 Latvians were virtually the only people to come by.

What can I say?

Greeting Latvian blog visitors! I am absolutely delighted that you came over, but simply put, I don’t get it. I looked up your referring sites and I came up with something that appeared to be a search engine that uses the Cyrillic alphabet, and I, not reading any languages that use the Cyrillic alphabet, have no idea what you were searching for.

It could have been anything. A couple of weeks ago a visitor from the U.K. found me when he was searching for the image of a large, grey short-haired dog. Apparently my mother-in-law’s tiny brown and white Chihuahua, who appears sitting pertly on my mother-in-law’s chaise in my post #1, filled the bill. Hmmm.

But back to the Latvians. I ask, why now? And why 28 of you? Did every member of an unusually large book group dedicated to English language picture book folk tales all come looking for me simultaneously? Was it a weird coincidence that occurs with the frequency of Haley’s Comet sightings, but with less celestial inevitability? Was it some Eastern-European version of internet punking? Or was I having my 15 seconds of fame in absentia in the suburbs of Riga?

I may never know.

That is why I am posting with this simple message: Come back, Latvian blog visitors! Please. I am obsessed with you and until you tell me who you are and what in God’s name you were doing here, I will remain mystified, obsessed, and confused.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Confessions of a Mad Rewriter

I am a compulsive re-writer. If there were a twelve step program for re-writing addicts, my family would be bundling me into the car and dropping me off there in the hope I’d come to grips with my affliction.

I, on the other hand, would bolt out of there like a neat-freak bat out of a messy, messy hell. Or, more accurately, into the messy, messy hell of the post-ARC, post re-re-rewritten , post re-re-re-reread and re-re-re-re-edited, slightly dog-eared hard copy of Where It Began. With the fantasy of making it perfect before I have to push the send button on what has to be the final, final, final, final, final, final edit.

At this point, it is no longer possible to edit away deep, existential doubts. Things like: Does this book lack a moral center, jaunty pacing, and a sufficiently hot yet articulate boyfriend? And is the protagonist, whom I adore, too whiney and if so, why in God’s name didn’t I notice this before?

Too late, babe.

This is the time for what might be considered less critical flaws that can still be fixed if only I could find them all.

This is when I notice, on the seventh post-post ARC redo, that there are two minor characters named Caitlyn who appear and disappear within five pages of each other and I’d better name one of them something else. Something else perfect that doesn’t start with a “C.” Olivia or Becca? Becca or Olivia? Olivia or Becca? (There is where the twelve step could be useful.) When I realize that there is one niggling spot where Gabby refers to the messaging that’s central to the book as IM when it hasn’t been IM for several drafts. When it hits me that the word “just” is spelled with a “j.” (Don’t ask. Oh, all right, it’s because my scrawled handwriting lead S&S to believe that I insisted that it be spelled differently, and I’ve been so unreasonable about quirky details that it made sense to them that I’d do that.)

It’s not that I haven’t had the gift of a completely fabulous copy editor who found literally hundreds of places where I’d screwed up pre-ARC. She was the one who pointed out that my use of the hyphen (or rather, my failure to use the hyphen) was inconsistent with all legitimate grammar authorities on the face of the earth, and that there’s no apostrophe in “Starbucks.” Even though I had rewritten and done what I thought of as copy-editing myself, over and over, before the manuscript made its way to her desk. (And even when confronted with every grammar authority on the face of the earth, I still spent days going: Midnight blue? Midnight-blue? Midnight blue? Midnight-blue?!?!?!? )

But this is it. The time has come. And even though I haven’t yet figured out why each compulsive re-read yields yet another small but critical thing I failed to notice ever before, I have to be finished. I will no longer be able to hide behind the veil of the uncorrected proof, the mistakes don’t count, it isn’t final, and all is forgiven not-final draft.

Maybe this is therapeutic. Maybe this is premature. Maybe this is folly. Maybe the book was better before I made these final changes. Maybe I should change them back. Maybe I should find out if there are any psycho-active (note the hyphen) drugs for this kind of thing. Maybe I should just shut up and push the send button.

Here goes.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Alive and Well and Living in Cyberspace

A month ago, maybe 11 and a half years late, I took the plunge and made my presence known to the 21st century. That would be, my internet presence, characterized by blogging, tweeting, and redoing my (previously) woefully inadequate website. Characterized by becoming a goodreads author and the proud administrator of 35 sparce but avid facebook fans.

Characterized by an obsession with numbers.

I remember when checking Amazon all the time in the hope that my most recent book's ranking was closer to 7 than 3,000,000 was the beginning and end of my numbers issue.

But no more.
Now I have to worry about how many potential readers have designated my new book "to read" versus "wish list" on goodreads and "like" on facebook and wonder what the subtle differences mean.

I have to wonder what happened on the day that 85 people decided they wanted to read the book that made it so different from the day 6 people signed on.
I have to wonder why I am being followed on twitter by an Irish job-hunting service and a person who describes himself as an actor/wastrel but not by the youth services librarians and YA bloggers and writers whom I follow with great interest.

The notion of followers and members is already a bit odd, not to mention the designations are a bit at odds with each other, one suggesting that I have suddenly taken to roaming the internet with long robes and gallons of Kool-Aid prostelatizing about my wonderfulness, the other that I have become the gatekeeper of an exclusive club with lackeys beating down my door.

The fact being that now, for reasons relating almost entirely to a newfound obsession with keeping score and boosting my numbers into the stratosphere, I pant and pine and long for zillions of members and followers -- men, women, children, large fuzzy mammals, pest-control aficionados from the Southwest, and folks who would appear to be inviting me to visit their pornographic websites. It’s all in the numbers, baby. (And while Baby’s at it, put down that pacifier and follow, follow, follow.)

I am seriously crazed. When the number of goodreaders wanting to read Where It Began lurched toward 1,000, I wanted to take out an ad. I don’t know where, but probably not on my 18 member blog. (How do I love my 18 members? If it wasn’t creepy to get their home addresses, I’d be sending them little gold boxes of chocolates, that’s how much.)

How seriously crazed? All I can think of is the time, in bygone years before public schools became sensitive to everybody’s self-esteem, and you didn’t have to send a valentine to everyone in class. There you sat, wondering how many valentines you would get, hunching over your little stash and trying to look nonchalant, wondering if your final number was going to be closer to 7 than 3,000,000, watching the popular, cute girl virtually inundated, her desk buried under a mountain of lace-backed red hearts.

Only this is more public. The whole world -- or in my case, 18 members; 35 fans; 151 followers; and 1079 goodreaders – is watching.

Photo credits: Bingo by Salvatore Vuono; Box of Chocolates by Simon Howdon; Calculator by Michal Marcol; Child on Computer by Clare Bloomfield; Cupid Aiming at Heart by digital art; Cuori in Festa by Idea go; Hands on Computer Keyboard by Stuart Miles; Heart by jscreationzs; Social Networking by jscreationzs; Woman's Hand Pressing Social Network Icon by Sujin Jetkasettakorn.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Hey Gang, Let's Ban Us Some Books!

With the recent kerfuffle about how "dark" teen books are somehow bad for teenagers and should give reasonable parents pause, I thought this would be the perfect time for me to get some writing banned.

Why do you want to ban this writing, you might well ask.

Let’s see. How about, because I don’t approve of it?

That seems to be good enough for the Wall Street Journal, which recently published quite the long article by a woman who -- apparently lacking access to a chain bookstore or child psychiatrist -- opened with the contention that a perfectly reasonable mom of her acquaintance was unable to find a single young adult book that wouldn’t be psychologically damaging to her tender young daughter at her local mega-bookstore, which had unfortunately made the suicidal decision not to stock any less-than-dark books by the wonderful Joan Bauer or Meg Cabot or Rachel Vail (to list a very few), unlike all other chain bookstores in the continental USA.

(Yes, I know I'm exaggerating, but if the Wall Street Journal doesn't have to check facts, why should I?)

She then suggested that all those dark, disturbing books might lead teens to engage in dark, disturbing activities. As in, Hey gang, I just read a book with a narrator who cuts! What say we all smoke some dark, disturbing substances and cut right after cheer practice?

Which seems to me about as likely as a reader finishing Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak and going, Hey Gang, let’s go get raped by a sociopathic athlete at an otherwise fun party.

In sharp contrast to the charming, not-dark books of yore, such as A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. (Which I love as much as the next guy, but I always thought that not having enough food to eat and the other vicissitudes of Francie’s life, which I seem to recall included evading a child rapist with the assistance of a well-placed bullet, were sort of on the dark side. But that’s just me.)

Leading me to what I want to ban: Duh. The Wall Street Journal.

Why not? They printed an article I really didn’t like. It upset me. Not only that, it lead me to write a pro-banning article that will no doubt upset others, such as open-minded people who think that teen and adult readers are capable of independent thought, of actually thinking things over, and of making intelligent decisions.

But what if all those upset, anti-banning types are wrong about provocative writing leading to intelligent thought? Exactly! That's why we have to ban The Wall Street Journal!

Because what if parents and educators read the scary, dark article and simply salute, jumping to the wrong-headed conclusion that the children in their charge shouldn’t be reading The Hunger Games, or Speak, or Scars, or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian?

What if kids who have gone through dark, disturbing experiences, kids who have to take heroic action to survive their families and neighborhoods and schools, kids who are shunned and hurt and bullied, can’t find a single piece of reading material that lets them know that they are not alone?

What if delicate flowers whose mothers frequent badly stocked chain bookstores never get to read about characters whose lives are perhaps more challenging than anything they’ve ever imagined, never get to empathize and understand those characters, and go forth into the world na├»ve and intolerant?

Now that’s dark and disturbing.

Which is why, given my excellent reasons for disapproving of the contents of the Wall Street Journal, we must ban it at once.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Cupcakes and the Fate of Fiction, in which I probe writers’ block and the artistic significance of snack food

Back when I was thin and in college and trying to figure out the mysteries of the human psyche -- which lately I’ve taken to just watching with my mouth hanging open –- I came upon the secret key that would unlock my creativity for years to come.

In a word: cupcakes. Literal cupcakes, not metaphorical ones, with frosting and multi-colored sprinkles.

You know you want one. 

The bearer of the secret key was one Stanley Schachter, Ph.D., a mid-20th century psychologist, who discovered The Obese Personality. Which I discovered I had.

I was not even slightly chubby at the time. I had not yet spent my junior year in England huddled on top of a grossly inadequate cube-shaped radiator trying to keep warm and gobbling up bag after cellophane bag of McVitties chocolate covered biscuits (which aren’t even that great) in the absence of edible food from one end of the campus to the other.

No, it was my personality that was obese. According to Stanley. Who had done some fascinating experiments during which amply fed thin and fat people were stuck in a room, supposedly waiting for something that never happened, in the presence of yummy snack food.

Well-fed skinny people did not eat this yummy snack food due to the fact that they were full. Well-fed obese people, on the other hand, scarfed it down due to the fact that it was yummy. Also, when the experimenters fiddled with the waiting room clock, when it appeared to be mealtime even though it wasn’t, the obese people ate even more yummy stuff, whereas the skinny people didn’t because it was not, in fact, meal time.

Clearly, I was in the camp with the obese, yummy-snack eaters. I ate things simply because they were good. I craved yummy things with gooey frosting, mounds of sugared chocolate nestled in little, pleated paper skirts. Indeed, only a person with a deeply obese personality could possibly want a cupcake as much as I do.

Fortunately, we can sometimes make our flaws work for us.

As a writer who sometimes encounters frustration, horror, and a sense of stuck-ness, an unwillingness to crank out bad prose but an apparent, one hopes temporary, inability to write anything worth saving, I have realized that the unhealthy, cupcake- craving aspect of my obese personality is, in fact, an invaluable ally in the quest to produce prose.

Two more pages, I tell myself, even trashy, garbage-y, embarrassingly dreadful pages, and there’s a cupcake with your name on it.

After which I promptly crank out two terrible pages and race down to the kitchen. Because if you don’t crank out even bad pages, you don’t have a thing to work with. Which is why I’d feel very sorry for all those well-balanced writers with the skinny personalities if they weren’t so damned physically fit and sanctimonious.

They have writers’ block but I have cupcakes.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

My first blog post ever, where I, trying to write novel #2 and share pithy insights about how that's working out, cozy up to the idea of blogging

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a YA writer in possession of half a brain must be in want of a blog.

So here I sit, staring at a blank page, or more accurately, a somewhat blank screen in the middle of which is the cyber equivalent of a page, and I do, I seriously and honestly do, sort of definitely, want to blog.

With reservations.

There are some wonderful blogs that I love out there. They are witty and incisive. They talk about books and about writing and about the writer’s life in a way that is intimate and intelligent and inviting. They take tiny, vivid moments and make them moving and compelling and big.

I want to write one of those great blogs.

But then there are the pitfalls.
Hells yeah. The pitfall of folks who have moved beyond the mere plucking of grey hairs and have actually taken to covering their grey hairs with artfully applied streaks and vast patches of blond dye but who persist in saying things like “hells yeah” and otherwise masquerading as YA’s.

The pitfall of being mind-numbingly boring. It could happen. I have already noticed that I lead a life without one single fun fact in it. A life devoid of all perkiness. Although I suppose that when I find myself sinking into fun-free prose, I can always throw in a picture of my dog.

Cute, huh? I, on the other hand, require extensive airbrushing to even vaguely approach cuteness.

The pitfall of way too much (personal) information, with its related and even more hideous cousin: the accidental revelation of way too much information. Personal information that it embarrasses readers to even consider, that is just hanging there, completely and shamelessly naked, between the lines.

The pitfall of being way too impersonal, completely wasting the opportunities for spontaneity and real connection that blogging offers.

The pitfall of creating a cyber persona that isn’t real vs. the pitfall of failing to edit your real self and mistakenly believing that readers will sit there, enraptured, when you tell them what your mother-in-law said (and didn’t say) when your otherwise nice dog tried to eat her Chihuahua.

The pitfall of missing the boat on the form and going on for way too long…

Perhaps I’ll stop now.