Monday, December 5, 2011

Your Inner Critic is a Drunk

My yoga teacher is kind of a genius.

This morning in class, as we were moving into Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose), she said to us, "Treat your Inner Critic like a drunk friend at a party.  Let them babble whatever nonsense they're going to babble, but put them in the backseat and tell them firmly that you're the one driving the car."

See what I mean about genius?

What I love about this way of approaching our Inner Critic is that it acknowledges the Inner Critic's existence without giving over our power.  I think it is really hard to completely silence your Inner Critic.  In fact, I think it is nearly impossible.  But if we can look at them like the drunk friend we've all helped get home from a party, we can see how powerless they are.  

So today as I sit down to write, I'm going to hand my Inner Critic a bag so he doesn't make a mess of my car, and let him spew nonsense while I work.

What are some of the ways you deal with your Inner Critic?  I'd love to hear about them!


Don't forget to scroll and comment on my previous post The Season of Reading to be entered in a book giveaway!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Season of Reading

Once upon a time, I was a poor college student.  I didn't have a lot of money to spend on luxuries.  And any book besides a textbook was a luxury for me.

So I used to go to a bookstore, pull a book off the shelf, find a quiet, private corner, and read.  One day I was in Barnes & Noble, running my fingers along the spines of the books, when my hand stopped at a beautiful red-and-gold hardcover.  I pulled it off the shelf.  It was Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence, by Nick Bantock.

For those of you unfamiliar with this book, let me describe it.  Griffin & Sabine is no ordinary book.  It is a collection of letters between two people who live in different worlds.  The pages are printed with handwritten postcards, and there are actual envelopes affixed to some of the pages, with a letter inside that you draw out to read.  It is a masterpiece of art and literature, lushly romantic.  I fell in love with this book the moment I opened it.

I wanted to own this book so badly.  But it was expensive.  More than that, it was part of a trilogy, and the boxed set of all three books was in the range of $50.  That was a fortune to me at the time.  So instead of buying, I returned again and again to the bookstore, pulled the books off the shelf, and read them over and over.

Later that year, I met a boy.  He was sweet and funny and interesting.  After a few dates, I deemed him worthy enough to share Griffin & Sabine with.  So I took him to the bookstore and introduced him.  I watched his face as he read the book for the first time.  "This is amazing," he told me after he'd turned the last page.

Worthy, indeed.

He was a poor college student like me.  But when my birthday rolled around a couple of months later, he handed me a heavy package.  I knew what it was before I ripped the paper off.

It was the complete boxed set of the trilogy.

That boxed set sits on the bookshelf that I have reserved for Very Special Books (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and The Song of the Lioness series by Tamora Pierce).  And the boy?

I married him.


What is the best book you've ever received as a gift?  Or given?  Comment below, and you'll be entered in a contest to win a trio of hardcover paranormal YA novels: The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong, Wondrous Strange by Lesley Livingston, and Wings by Aprilynne Pike.

Follow this blog, and you'll be entered twice.  Retweet or Share on Facebook and you'll earn another entry.  Follow me on Twitter, and you'll get one more!

Happy Holidays!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Jo Ramsey: Guest Author

Jo Ramsey, Fabulous Author
I'm thrilled to welcome Jo Ramsey to the blog today!  Jo is a multi-published author whose latest release is the FIFTH book in her Reality Shift series, From the Ashes.  Welcome, Jo!
From the Ashes is the fifth book in your series.  How do you keep everything fresh so many books into a series?  And how do you keep all the mythology and plot threads straight?
Keeping it fresh is the characters' job. LOL. Seriously, I'm very much a "pantster" when it comes to writing, which means that while I do some brainstorming before I write, I mostly just sit down and start writing and see where the story goes. Sometimes it really does feel like the characters are taking over and telling me what to write, and I think that helps keep the stories fresh because sometimes I don't know what's going to happen until I write it. However, with Reality Shift and my other series The Dark Lines, I wrote out a series arc so that I would know what the ultimate outcome would be, and I made sure that there would be new occurrences and plot twists throughout the series.

As for keeping it straight, I have a binder that a friend of mine once nicknamed "The Protocol." It contains all the notes, brainstorms, and research for Reality Shift and The Dark Lines (there's a bit of crossover between the two series, so it was easier to keep everything in one binder). If I forget something, it's fairly easy to look up. Though I do sometimes forget to write things in there; when my publisher sent me the cover art for From the Ashes, I realized that not only had I once again forgotten which of Shanna's arms was broken in book 4, but I'd also forgotten when she gets the cast off...I've made sure that information is in the binder now!

What are your major influences?

For writing, I would say my biggest influence was Susan Cooper's series The Dark Is Rising, which was the series that made me aware I wanted to write fantasy for young adults. (I was 10 at the time...) For plot ideas and that kind of thing, I was influenced by a friend of mine, the one who nicknamed my binder. Some of the things that Jonah does in the Reality Shift series, my friend did, and he was the real-life inspiration for Jonah's character. Things that have happened to me in my life also heavily influence my stories.

Tell us about your journey.  How did you become a writer, and what inspired you to write YA specifically?

I've always been a writer. When I was 2 or 3, I started making up stories and telling them to my parents or my stuffed animals, whichever would listen. When I was 5 and finally learned how to write, I started writing my stories down. The first story I ever wrote was about a girl named Maria who went to live with her uncle. I wrote countless stories from age five to my mid-twenties, when marriage and children forced my writing to the back seat for a little while, then I got back into it in my mid-thirties.
As I mentioned above, Susan Cooper's books were a major influence on my decision to write YA. Mainly, though, I started writing YA when I was a teenager myself, and I kind of never moved past that point. It's fun to pretend to be a teenager and give my characters better outcomes than some of the ones I experienced.

What made you decide to go the e-publishing route?  What advantages do you see in e-publishing over traditional publishing?

I'm not exclusively e-published. My YA publishers, Jupiter Gardens Press and Featherweight Press, do e-books and print; the e-books are usually released slightly before the print books, but both are available. I chose to go with small presses for a few reasons; with Reality Shift it was because Jupiter Gardens' mission and the sorts of books they had published previously seemed to be a good fit for the topics in my series. I don't know that there are any advantages to e-publishing over print publishing; different types of books reach different readers. Though most of the teens I've spoken to actually prefer print books, so I'm glad that my publishers offer my books in both versions.

What's coming up next for you?

In addition to From the Ashes, which released in e-formats on November 17 (print coming shortly), my YA contemporary novel Cluing In released on November 9 from Featherweight Press. Cluing In is about a boy whose ex-girlfriend commits suicide after some major events in her life; the boy blames himself because she tried to get his help and he kept pushing her away.

Currently under contract, I have book 3 in my series The Dark Lines; Jet Black will be out mid-January 2012. Reality Shift book 6, Strong Spirit, will be out in April 2012. Both of those are from Jupiter Gardens. Also, as a special Christmas gift to my Reality Shift fans, a Reality Shift short story, "The Harvest Dance," about Shanna's first school dance/first real date with her boyfriend, will be released as a free read from Jupiter Gardens in December. I also have another YA contemporary novel, Dolphins in the Mud, under contract with Featherweight Press; that will be out tentatively in spring 2012. And finally, also from Featherweight, Fresh Meat, the first book in my new urban fantasy series Growing Up Shifter, will be released in mid to late 2012.

I'm currently working on an as-yet-untitled novel starring V.J. Josephson, the uncle of Jamey Mandel from Cluing In. (He's Jamey's uncle, but is actually two weeks younger than Jamey...) To keep up to date on my contracted stuff and my works in progress, readers can visit my website at There's a sign-up on the homepage of the site for my newsletter, which will come out once a month and will include contests, free reads/excerpts, and other fun things. I don't ever share email addresses, so if people sign up, their info will be kept confidential.

And most importantly, how can we get our greedy little hands on From the Ashes?

From the Ashes is available in e-format, followed soon by print, from Jupiter Gardens Press. It will also be available on, Barnes and, and other third party retailers; my website will have up-to-date buy links as soon as they're available.

Wow!  I am truly in awe of Jo's proliferate-ness.  I can barely keep one book straight!  As a fellow pantster, I'm impressed.

Remember to visit my blog and Jo's on December 4th for the Season of Reading Blog Hop!  Thanks for stopping by, Jo!

Friday, October 21, 2011

You Say Tomayto, I Say Tomahto; You Say Shine, I Say Chime

On Monday morning, October 10th, Lauren Myracle was a National Book Award finalist.  By Monday afternoon, she wasn't.

Here's what went down, in case you haven't kept on top on this debacle.  Apparently all the nomination business was done over the phone, and someone misheard Shine (by Ms. Myracle) instead of Chime (by Franny Billingsley).  After the finalists were announced, the National Book Foundation mea culpa'd their mistake but said that they would allow both authors as finalists.  Then a few hours later they changed their story and asked Ms. Myracle to withdraw her name as a finalist.  She very graciously did so.  She also asked that the NBF consider donating to The Matthew Shephard Foundation, given that her book is about the aftermath of a gay hate crime in a small Southern town.  The NBF donated $5,000 (good on them).

I'm not here to rant about how screwed-up this situation is; Libba Bray did that really well on her blog (LOVE HER)!  I'm here to say: Lauren, I feel your pain.

Years ago, when I was in college and still dancing semi-seriously, the artistic director of a ballet company that I took class with called me.  He told me he wanted me to be in their annual production of The Nutcracker, and proceeded to list all the roles he wanted me to dance.  I was over the moon.  I had just been through a bad break-up and needed something like this to focus on.

A few days later, I showed up to take class.  The artistic director pulled me aside.  "Sorry," he said, "I got you mixed up with another Nicole."  I stammered, "So, you don't want me to be in The Nutcracker?"  "No," he said disdainfully, and left me standing there, my heart in my shoes. 

It was awful.  It was humiliating.  I needed something good in my life and for three days I was so excited, only to have it ripped away from me in one, horrible moment.  Oh, and did I mention that my ex-boyfriend was screwing one of the ballerinas in the company?

So when I heard about the NBA screw-up, it took me right back to that crushing moment.  But at least mine was in private.  Lauren Myracle's moment was as public as it gets.  And yet, she has handled it with gracefulness that any ballerina would envy.  She's written a fabulous article for The Huffington Post that tells her very personal side of the story. 

One of the things she writes in the article is this:  What I've realized:  it's just one more reminder not to be so invested in validation from external sources.

So freaking true.  I didn't even want to be a ballet dancer; I was an acting major in college.  I didn't need to be in some stupid production of The Nutcracker to validate me as an artist.  Just like Lauren Myracle doesn't some award to tell her what a great writer she is.

And the positive outcome here?  I now have two books on my nightstand that I probably wouldn't have read if this whole debacle hadn't happened.  I'm going to read both and privately decide which one I'd give the award too.  Although I can already tell you the answer is both.  Because, let's face it, any author who finishes a book and then travels the long hard road to publication deserves an award.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Parental Fear

On Saturday my husband and I took our thirteen-month-old daughter, Emilia, Halloween shopping.  We wound up buying a Hog's Head sign for our front door.  Hog's Head, for those not in the know, is the shady pub frequented by unsavory characters in Hogsmeade, the village in the shadow of Hogwarts.

We hung it on the door.  It looks awesome.  We brought Emilia outside to show her.  She took one look at the dark, curly-tusked boar's head and started crying.

And I started to fear...what if she doesn't like Harry Potter?

I mean, seriously!  The day I start reading Harry Potter & The Sorcerer's Stone with her is going to be a monumental day in my house.  I've been looking forward to it since the little screen read Pregnant! on the pregnancy test.  What if we get halfway through the book and she says to me, "I'm bored?" 

What if we go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Studios and she doesn't want to leave covered head to toe in Hogwarts paraphernalia?

What if she doesn't want to dress up as Hermione for three Halloweens in a row?  Or hang a Gryffindor banner on her wall?

In other words, what if she's different than me?

My husband and I have a joke.  He says, "She can be anything she wants when she grows up, except an actor."  I say, "She can be anything she wants when she grows up, except a Republican."  He talks about getting her into horror movies and zombie books, while I dream about bringing her to Sephora and getting makeovers.

In other words, we want her to be both a tomboy and a girly-girl.  We want her to be an artist and a scientist.  We want her to cure cancer, win a Pulitzer and be President.  We want her to love all the same things we do, and wish for all the same things that we wish for her.

I'm a little ashamed that I want her to like the same things I did when I was a girl - like ballet and horses, reading and The Last Unicorn.  I've always had a loathing for mothers who impress their own agenda onto their children; having spent so much time in the theatre, I've seen what stage (s)mothering can do, and it ain't pretty.  But when I find myself having a little fantasy about her being accepted into The School of American Ballet, I think, am I really any better?

Is this a deep-seated fear that all parents have?  What if we expose our children to all the things we love, only to discover it's not what brings them joy?  What if we instill in them the values and ideals that we cherish, only to see them choose a different path?  I'll never forget the 1996 Presidential election, when I went to the polling place with my dad.  It was the second election I'd voted in, but the previous one I had done by absentee ballot.  So I'd never actually used a voting machine.  It was a small town, and we knew everyone working the polls, so they allowed my dad to come into the booth with me to show me how to do it.  For every single ballot, I flicked the Democratic ticket.  I put my hand on the lever.  My father, a lifelong Republican, looked at me and said, "Are you sure you want to do that?"  I met his eye, said "Yes," in a definitive voice, and pulled the lever down.

I've always been proud of that moment, for claiming my own voice and standing up for what I believe in.  But now I see it from my dad's point of view.  What must it have been like, to see his daughter vote for the complete opposite of everything he believed in?

And the thing is, I want to raise a strong, independent woman, who knows her truth and speaks up for it.  Even if that truth is different from my own.  And really, in the end, as long as she's happy, of course I'll be happy.  Even if she chooses to go see Scream 10 with Daddy instead of shopping at Anthropologie with Mommy.  Even if she doesn't weep at the end of Gone With the Wind, or paint a mural of a horse on her wall (as I did when I was twelve).  I mean, if she does become a Republican, am I really going to love her any less?  Of course not.  Because she'll be her own person, and I think that's the best possible thing she could be.

But if she doesn't like Harry Potter, she will be disowned.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

We Interrupt This Program

I love autumn.  I love the chill in the morning air, Pumpkin Spice Lattes, the changing leaves (which I miss ever since I moved to Southern California), and wearing my Uggs instead of my flip-flops.

The other thing I love about the fall is all the new television shows that fill up my DVR.

I will unabashedly admit I love television.  Probably a little too much.  It borders on addiction.  But at least my addiction is scripted shows, and not reality television (which is scripted anyway).  Soapbox Moment: reality television is non-union.  It takes jobs away from union writers (and you're fooling yourself if you think reality television doesn't employ writers).  So if you're reading this, and you're a writer, please consider boycotting reality television in support of your fellow writers.  End of Soapbox Moment.

This year there has been a crop of exciting new shows, and I've watched a good handful of them.  So here, in no particular order, in my completely unqualified and purely unprofessional opinion, are my thoughts.

New Shows

A lot of critics are calling this network television's sad attempt to cash in on the Mad Men craze.  Let me say that I think Mad Men is highly overrated.  I've found the last couple of seasons really uneven.  But the one thing about Mad Men that is always consistent is the high production value.  Unfortunately, that's not the case with Pan Am.  Bad green screen, cheap-looking costumes, and one boring main setting = not as pretty to look at as Mad Men.  Add to that the pedestrian writing and wooden acting, and you've got one big disappointment.  NBC has already cancelled their Mad Men ripoff The Playboy Club, and while I think Pan Am may last a little longer, I don't think it's destined for a long life span.  

I've never been shy about my adoration for Buffy the Vampire Slayer so I was excited for the return of Sarah Michelle Gellar to television.  That's why I'm giving this show a longer grace period than I normally do.  Sometimes it takes a show a little while to hit its stride, and I'm hoping this is the case here.  But with such a high concept - woman on the run from a dangerous crime boss masquerades as her high society twin sister - this show should have hit the ground running, and it didn't. 

I watched the pilot episode, and haven't watched it since.  The acting was so one-note I was actually laughing.  But I'm thinking I should give this show another shot, if only because it's paranormal YA.  That's my genre, on the page and on the screen.

Great cast, snappy writing, hilarious situations...and it's about a couple adjusting to being new parents.  As the mother of a 13-month-old, I can completely relate to this show.  I don't quite love it as much as I love Modern Family (which is the best comedy on television, hands-down), but last night I was laughing my ass off when Christina Applegate and Will Arnett packed up the car and almost drove off without the baby.  Yeah.  I can relate. 

Cable television can always go farther than network, and that's to the advantage of a show like this.  This is a tense show with a slightly unlikeable heroine (Claire Danes) and a hero who is quite possibly a terrorist (Damian Lewis).  But the writing is taut and the storyline is unbelievably compelling: a presumed-dead Marine is found alive after eight years in captivity with Al-Qaeda.  Everyone welcomes him home as a hero (including his wife, who has been secretly sleeping with his close friend)...except one CIA agent who suspects he's been turned.  I'm only one episode in, but so far it's living up to the hype.  It's on Showtime, so you may have to wait for DVD to check this one out. 

Okay.  Let's be honest.  This show isn't about great writing or Emmy-worthy acting.  This show is pure guilty pleasure, and that's why I'm addicted.  This high-concept show succeeded where Ringer didn't; it hit the ground running and sucked us in right away.  It gave us enough answers in the first episode to get us hooked, but left enough questions open to keep us watching.  My biggest issue with this show is that I'm not sure how long they can keep up this storyline.  But for now, it's like chocolate, and I can't get enough.

One new show that I'm dying to watch is Once Upon A Time.  It doesn't debut until October 23rd, so I'm waiting with baited breath.  I love the cast (I'm a big Ginnifer Goodwin fan) and it's from the writers of Lost.  Need I say more?

Old Shows

I miss Steve Carell.  I think the show has lost its voice without him, and I'm not sure how much longer I'll be watching.

Yes, I still watch it.  Yes, it's old and tired, like the over-the-hill hooker on the bad corner of Hollywood Boulevard.  But, this is the last season.  I figure I may as well stick it out until the end.  And honestly, it still entertains me.  Particularly Eva Longoria, who I think is one of the most underrated comediennes on television.  She's the funniest one of the bunch, and the writers know it.  They are constantly gifting her with priceless zingers that she delivers with dead-on deliciousness.  When the writers and the actors come together like that, it's magic.

J.J. Abrams.  John Noble.  Compelling weekly episodes under an amazing over-arching storyline.  The coolest show on television.  Why aren't you watching?

And that's my take on some of the television shows that I'm watching this season.  So set your DVR, grab some popcorn, settle in, and get addicted.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Writing the Hard Stuff

Over the course of a novel, your main character is going to face some tough situations (unless you're writing the world's most boring book).  And that means that you yourself are going to have to live that situation through your character.  This, for me, is one of the hardest things about writing.

All this chatter lately about how dark YA is, and how so many stories now involve bullying/rape/cutting/abuse/violence/suicide/sadness/etc, leaves out one very important factor.  The toll it takes on a writer to actually write those things.

Years ago, when I was writing my first novel, I had to write a graphic rape scene that happened to one of the main characters.  It took several weeks to craft the scene.  During that time there was a constant sadness pressing on me, a weight I couldn't shake off.  And when I was actually sitting at the computer writing, I was often in tears.

A lot of people might wonder why I chose to write that.  After all, I'm the author; I'm in control.  That character didn't have to get raped, did she?

Well, yes.  She did.

I think a lot of non-writers believe that we choose what we want to write.  And why would we ever want to write a story about cutting or rape or suicide?  But the truth is, we don't choose.  Very often, characters come to us and demand to have their story told, and we are just the vessel.

It can actually get a little annoying.  I can't tell you how many times I tried to send that above-mentioned character down Path A, only to have her stomp down Path B with me trailing helplessly behind.

Characters come from our own imagination, but once we set them to paper and whisper breath into them, they take on a life of their own.  Maybe we did set out to write a story about a girl who cuts herself, but once she starts talking to us, we realize she has a deep, dark story of abuse that needs to be told, too.  

We all love our characters; we want them to be happy.  But they're not living their lives frolicking in a bed of daisies, and it would be a disservice to them to try to put them there.  As painful as it was to write about my beloved character getting raped, I knew I had to honor her story. 

I'm talking about this now because I just had to write a death scene.  It's not a major character, but it's someone important to my heroine, and she's the only one present at the death.  To put her through that, to make her witness that, is heartbreaking.

But I know that this is an important part of her journey, and taking the easy road isn't an option.  The easy road paves the way for bad storytelling...and for characters with less depth.  And that is more of a disservice to our characters than any tragedy.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Banned Books Week: Day Five

To celebrate the last day of Banned Books Week here on the blog, I'd like to feature probably the most challenged book in American history.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.

I have to confess that I only read Huck Finn for the first time last year.  Hard to believe, I know!  I never had to read it in school.  I don't think that was because the book was banned at my school, since I had to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and that contains just as many "offensives" as Huck Finn.  But I went thirty-something years without ever reading Huck Finn and decided last year that enough was enough.

It's a great book.  It's funny!  I love being reminded that people in the 19th century did indeed have a sense of humor...and Mark Twain certainly did.  If you haven't read it, you need to rectify that situation right away.

So, the main challenge to Huck Finn is its excessive use of the n-word.  Although Huck Finn was published in America in 1885, the story takes place around 1840 in a deep antebellum South.  Needless to say, America was a very different place back then.  And that is the fundamental problem with the challenge to Huck Finn; it is being judged by today's mores instead of the mores of the world in which it was written.

If you asked a hundred people whether they want an historically accurate depiction of life in the South in 1840, or a whitewashed version of it, most people would say an accurate depiction.  But then you plunk down Huck Finn in front of them, and watch those same people balk at the casual use of the n-word throughout the book.  The truth is, people don't want to face the dark corners of our history.

They don't want to think about the fact that one third of the signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves, including its main author, Thomas Jefferson.  Twelve of our presidents owned slaves at some point in their lives (including several when they were in the White House).  

They don't want to think about the fact that the United States of America was one of the last countries to abolish slavery, after most European, South American and some Eastern nations had already done so.  They want to forget that slavery was still legal in many Northern states until as late as 1827, and that the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made it illegal to harbor escaped slaves in any state.

They don't want to think about the fact that a major theme in another beloved American novel, Gone With the Wind, is a justification of the formation of the Ku Klux Klan.  They'd rather focus on the love story between Scarlett & Rhett than admit that what Rhett was doing when he went to clean out the "riffraff" in the woods was Klan activity.

None of these facts are pretty.  All of them are from the dark recesses of our nation's history, and I can understand why it is sometimes easier to excise any mention of them from a book, rather than get into a difficult conversation about the mistakes of our past.  But the fact is, these things happened.  And the only way we can correct our mistakes is to learn from them, not deny them.

But a lot of people don't want to travel that difficult path. 

And so, they use their children as an excuse not to do so.  "Children can't read this!" they cry.  "What if they read it and think it's okay to talk like that?"

Well, parents and teachers, here's the simple solution to that.  You hold the book up and say, "Back then, it was okay to use the n-word.  Today it's not.  End of story."

But that, apparently, is asking too much.  It's too difficult of a conversation to have, I guess.  Because a new edition of Huck Finn appeared earlier this year with all the offensive words edited out.

That, my friends, is censorship.  Pure and simple.

And it is a short walk from censorship to building a bonfire in the town square and tossing any "objectionable" book into the flames, their stories lost to us forever.

Thank you for celebrating Banned Books Week with me.  Now go read a banned book! 

"Every burned book enlightens the world." -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Banned Books Week: Day Four

Instead of featuring one book, today I'd like to talk about a sub-genre of books that has been challenged a lot lately.  Books that depict rape or sexual violence have taken an enormous beating in school libraries across the country.  Such books include Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Just Listen by Sarah Dessen, and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

As the mother of a daughter, and a feminist, this trend is particularly disturbing to me.  Every two minutes in America, a woman is raped.  One in four women are victims of rape or attempted rape, and 38% of rape victims are between the ages of 14 and 17.  Nearly half - half - of rape victims never report the crime.

It is because of books like Speak that the other half do report the crime.

In the Platinum Edition of Speak, released in 2006, Laurie Halse Anderson had this to say: 
"But censoring books that deal with difficult, adolescent issues does not protect anybody. Quite the opposite. It leaves kids in the darkness and makes them vulnerable. Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance. Our children cannot afford to have the truth of the world withheld from them.

We like to think that our children attend high schools like Sweet Valley High or East High School, where nice boys just want to hold hands and kids break out into song.  But the reality is is that our children are being forced to grow up earlier and earlier.  They will know kids who are bullied, abused, raped, who cut themselves, who drink or do drugs...or they will experience it themselves.

We all know that reading books together with our children opens lines of communication.  As difficult as the subject matter may be, reading a book like Speak or Just Listen can keep those lines open, so that if - heaven forbid - down the line, our child has to deal with an issue like rape, they will talk to us about it.

And that is what books are for - to bring people together.  There's a reason why the art of storytelling is older than time.  Stories drew our ancestors together and fostered discussion around an ancient fire.  Stories reach across time and space and makes us realize that, despite our differences, we're all the same.  And if a story like Speak can make one child reach out to another and say, "I know.  I understand.  You can talk to me..." - that story is worth telling. 

Learn more about Banned Books Week

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Banned Books Week - Day Three

Today I'd like to feature a series of books that has been seriously challenged over the last decade.  It's also been one of the bestselling series of all time.  It's none other than Harry Potter.

Most everyone who knows me knows of my great love for Harry, and I'm not shy about my adulation for J.K Rowling.  So it's no surprise that I'm defending Harry against those who would challenge him.

You may be asking what on earth anyone would have against the boy wizard who leads the ultimate battle of good against evil.  The answer to that is: religion.

Many religious leaders believe the Harry Potter books promote witchcraft.  And sure, the magical world of Hogwarts is the main setting for the books.  But if you look beyond the setting, you will see that the story of Harry is really about friendship, loyalty, and that honor, above all else, is worth more than any magical power.  I don't know any religion that doesn't strive for those ideals.

Beneath every stated challenge ("Witchcraft is evil"), I believe there is another, unstated challenge.  And the unstated challenge to Harry Potter is that parents, teachers, and religious leaders fear that if a child reads about witchcraft, they will start to question their faith.  What's so ironic about this fear is that the major theme of the Harry Potter books is having faith in what you know is right, and staying true to your convictions.  It's about fighting for what you believe in, even to the death.  Religious leaders have started wars over those very same ideas.

And so once again I find myself saying: Read the book before you condemn it.  Read the book with your children.  Talk to them about it.  I dare anyone who picks up a Harry Potter book not to be swept into the story.  Reading these books is a truly magical experience, and it would be a shame to deny that special brand of magic to any child.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Banned Books Week: Day Two

Today I am going to feature a more recent challenged book - or books, to be exact: The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins. 

In case you haven't read The Hunger Games (and why haven't you?!), here's the premise.  In a dystopian future, America has been reduced to twelve districts and a Capital after a devastating revolution.  Unfortunately for the revolutionaries, they lost.  To keep the districts in line, the Capital demands two tributes from each district; a boy and a girl, between the ages of twelve and sixteen, to compete in a televised the death.

Look, I get it.  The Hunger Games is violent - and it's kids killing other kids, which is even worse.  But what are people afraid of here?  That after reading these books, kids will start hunting each other in the woods with a crossbow?  Or that the next reality television show will be a live death-match?  (Actually, I wouldn't put that past some of the executives at Fox.)  But seriously, how many times a week do we hear about a gang-related shooting resulting in the death of a teenager?  Or a child killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan?  Is the premise of this book really that different than what's going on in Rwanda?

The truth is, we can't shield our children from the horrors in the world.  And the challenge to The Hunger Games is an attempt to do just that.  Instead, we should talk to our children about the human cost of these horrors - something that is a major theme in The Hunger Games.

One of the other complaints about these books is that they are "sexually explicit."  I'd like to challenge that challenge.  There is no sex in any of the three books, until the very end when there is a veiled and poetic reference to it (between two married characters).  This again leads me to believe that the people challenging these books aren't actually reading them.

But above all, these books are awesome.  They are action-packed and fast-paced, and the heroine is fierce.  The story grabs you by the throat in the first few pages, and doesn't let you go until the last page of the last book.  Isn't that what we want out of our stories?  We want to escape into a book where the world is dangerous and unsafe...because in our real lives that's the last thing we want.  

And that's why we read in the first place, to experience something on the page that we never will in real life.  


Monday, September 26, 2011

Banned Books Week - Day One

It's Banned Books Week!  Every year, during the last week in September, the American Library Association celebrates the freedom of all Americans to read whatever they choose.  Learn more about it here.

It's hard to believe that in 2011 people are still challenging the basic, fundamental right to freedom of expression.   But even here, in liberal Southern California, there has been a challenge to one of the greatest classics of the 20th century.

So to kick off Banned Books Week, I'm featuring that book - In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote.  

School officials in the Glendale Unified School District here in Los Angeles consider the book too "chilling" for high schoolers to read.  Here's the story.

I read In Cold Blood as a junior in high school, as part of a thesis report I did on Truman Capote.  Doing that report began my long love affair with Capote, one of the truly great American authors.  And I will admit, the book gave me nightmares, including one particularly vivid one in which I discovered the slain teenage girl in my own bed. 

But that is what great literature does.  It sucks us in and doesn't let us go, even after we put the book down.  It haunts us even when we're asleep.  I wouldn't trade those nightmares for anything; they were the hallmark of a great read.

So here's a novel (no pun intended) thought: why not let students decide for themselves what's chilling and what isn't?  I would wager that most of those parents challenging the book haven't read it themselves.  Why not read along and discuss it with their children?

Every day this week I'm going to feature a frequently-challenged book that I've read and loved.  I encourage you to share your banned books stories with me as well.  And support Banned Books Week by reading one that you haven't yet!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

In Memoriam

On September 10th, 2001, a young woman named Brooke Jackman called her mom to tell her she was going to leave her job as an assistant bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald to apply to grad school for social work.  "There's more to life than making money," she said.

I didn't know Brooke.  But I knew her brother Ross, who was a colleague of mine at JPMorgan.  He was with me on the morning of September 11th, when we ran down 33 flights of stairs at 60 Wall Street after the second plane hit the World Trade Center, four blocks away.

In the days following 9/11,  New York was a city in shock, and in mourning.  We came together in a way that was astonishing for a city known for its abruptness and brashness.  Everyone softened.  People reached out.  People asked, "How are you?" and really wanted to know - even the guy behind the counter at the coffeeshop.  "Are you okay?" I asked strangers.  "Are all your people okay?"

People changed after 9/11.  The guy in my office that I privately nicknamed Mr. PITA (Pain-in-the-Ass) witnessed the second plane crashing into the towers from the floor-to-ceiling wraparound windows in our office.  He saw people jump out of the towers to escape the fire.  He became markedly nicer after that.

There was genuine concern and caring amongst New Yorkers.  We were all in this together, and we would come out of it together, too.

I want to talk about how the world has changed since 9/11.  Not how we started two devastating wars, or how we now have to remove our shoes at airport security.  I want to talk about how we changed for the better.  How we realized that life is short and precious.  How living in fear became equated with letting the terrorists win.  How moments of joy became that much sweeter because of the pain we had all experienced.  How connected we were to each other, in New York and around the world.

In the ten years since that day, I think we have lost that sense of community that brought us all together.  See, the thing about community is that it's all the time, not just when tragedies strike.  In the ten years since 9/11/01, the world has become more divided and more dangerous, because we've lost that connectedness.  We've closed ourselves off.  We've gone back to our homes and shut the door, put on our blinders, and fallen back into our every-man-for-himself mentality. 

We need to open ourselves up again.  If we re-weave those threads of connectedness that we all had after 9/11, we will have a world made of fabric so strong that no terrorist will be able to rip through it again.

And we need to remind ourselves of the great phoenixes that can rise out of the ashes.  Every night on her way home from work, Brooke would stop into her local bookstore to browse and read.  So in the weeks following 9/11, Brooke's family established The Brooke Jackman Foundation, dedicated to promoting literacy amongst children.

So today, on this tenth anniversary of one of the worst days in our country's history, let's not dwell on what the world was.  Let's think about what the world can be.

And then open your door, step outside, and make it happen.

"You must be the change you want to see in the world." -  Mahatma Gandhi

Photo by Cait Hurley

Thursday, August 11, 2011

SCBWI Report: Libba & Laurie

As I mentioned in my previous post, I attended the SCBWI Conference in LA last weekend.  It was a whirlwind, with so many amazing moments that it took a while for my head to stop spinning.

Two of those moments included meeting two authors that I greatly admire - Libba Bray and Laurie Halse Anderson.

My girl crush on Libba Bray started five years ago, when I read the first book in her Gemma Doyle Trilogy (a MUST read for lovers of supernatural YA),  A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY.  I was at a friend's house at the seashore, having a rather bacchanalian visit with a large group of friends - actors, no less.  In the midst of all the cavorting, I found Libba's book on the coffee table.  By the way, I am THAT person - the one who can be found reading in a corner at a party.  So while the others flitted all over the house, I sank into the comfy sofa and read.  When we went to the beach and everyone else went cliff-jumping, I sat in the sand and read.  I was reading late into the night.  I finished the book in two days.

A few weeks later, back in Brooklyn, I happened to see in a magazine that Libba Bray would be on a panel (with Ann Brashares, another favorite YA author) at the first annual Brooklyn Book Festival.  After the panel, I went up to Libba and told her how much I'd enjoyed A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY.  Then I told her that my own novel had been rejected all over NYC.
"What's it about?" she asked.
"It's like a female Huck Finn," I told her.  (This was after my first novel didn't sell.)
"Who's not buying THAT?" she exclaimed.  
Her righteous indignation on my behalf was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment.  She went on to say some encouraging things, to keep writing and hang in there, and I left, buoyed by her encouragement.

Fast forward to this past weekend.  Libba delivered a delicious keynote speech on the first day of the conference, all about writing it wrong.  Let it suck, she said.  Sometimes it needs to suck before it can get better.  It was a wonderful speech on a theme that I often have to remind myself of: you can edit anything but a blank page.

On the second day of the conference, Libba held a session about characters.  She offered up tons of useful information, but one of the points she made was that you discover a lot about your characters through the actual writing.  You can write character sketches and templates and backstory, but until you're actually writing YOUR STORY, you won't truly know that character.

On the last day of the conference, I pounced.

Libba was sitting diagonally in front of me at a panel I was attending.  Afterwards, I stopped her and before she had time to call security, I told her how much her words of encouragement all those years ago meant to me.  That from that sad shadow of a person who had had her book rejected all over New York, I had grown into a more confident artist.  She was extremely gracious and bubbly, and gave me a big hug.  (Omigod!  I got hugged by Libba Bray!)  Later, I had her sign my copy of the third Gemma Doyle book, THE SWEET FAR THING, and we chatted some more.  We used to live in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn and I discovered that she is actually not a fan of the best Thai restaurant in the world (that I still miss and crave everyday).  It's okay - we can still be friends, Libba.

As if meeting Libba Bray and seeing Judy Blume do "I must...I must...I must increase my bust" weren't enough, I also got to meet Laurie Halse Anderson.

In case you've been living under a rock, Laurie is the bestselling author of several YA novels, including SPEAK and WINTERGIRLS.  I haven't read the former, but the latter just blew me away.  You want to see a master with language, read some Laurie Halse Anderson.

Immediately following Libba's fabulous speech, Laurie held a session about crafting a creative life.  So much of what she said was so relevant to my own writing life.  She made several key points, but one of them was that you have more control over how you spend your PRECIOUS time and energy that you want to admit.  And to really account for your time everyday.  She suggested setting a timer every half hour and when the timer goes off, honestly account for how you spent that half hour.  Did you spend it writing?  Or did you spend it surfing the internet, looking for that perfect pair of black pumps that you don't need?

Laurie also gave the closing keynote speech of the conference.  She said so many inspirational things in that speech that it would take twenty blogs to recount them all.  But one of the things she said that has really stuck with me was that we need to take care of our Muse.  Our Muse is like a four-year-old child, a dancing, carefree, happy-go-lucky child covered in daisies.  Would you yell at a four-year-old if she didn't reach her word count for the day?  Would you beat her up for writing a half hour less than she said she would?  You wouldn't, would you?  (And if you would, please get some therapy.)  Be kind to yourself, Laurie said.  Be gentle with your Muse.

After her keynote, I waited in line to have Laurie sign the copy of CHAINS I had just picked up at the conference bookstore.  (I just started it but so far it is SO GOOD.)  I told her how much of a Julia Cameron-Artist's Way freak I was too (she had mentioned it in her workshop) and we bonded over that.  (Yeah, Laurie and I are total buds now.)

What I really took away from meeting both these amazing writers was that they are both right there with us in the trenches.  They're both trying to figure it all out, just like we are.  They're both tearing their hair out when they can't get a scene right, raiding the cookies when they're reworking the plot for the umpteenth time, trying to balance writing and kids and life all at once too.

That's why I love conferences.  It's good to be reminded we're not alone.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

My American Idol

I'm fresh off the SCBWI Conference, which was this past weekend in my hometown, Los Angeles.  I'll be bringing you a full conference report, probably in two or three parts, over the next few days.  There were some fantastic sessions and keynote speeches, and much inspiration being doled out by the likes of Libba Bray (who's probably still showering from all the gushing I did all over her), Laurie Halse Anderson, Bruce Coville, Donna Jo Napoli, Gary Paulsen, Richard Peck...and many other worthy idols.

But I'm devoting this post to what was, for me, the highlight of the conference.

The author John Green was supposed to give a keynote on the second day of the conference, but unfortunately he had to have gallbladder surgery.  So it was announced that there would be a "once in a lifetime" surprise in place of him.  I leaned over to my friend.  "Maybe it's J.K!"

"Ooooh!" she said.  "Maybe it is!"

Okay, we didn't really think it was J.K. Rowling.  And it wasn't.  But the surprise speaker was someone who has been an idol for me since I learned to read.  Someone who is even more legendary than J.K., has been writing for decades longer, and quite literally paved the way for today's YA (hey, that rhymes!).  She was writing YA before it even existed as a genre.

Judy Blume.
Judy Freaking Blume, people!  Judy DeenieForeverAreYouThereGodIt'sMeMargaretSuperfudge Blume!

Uh, yeah.  I almost peed myself.

First, let me tell you that I read ARE YOU THERE, GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET so many times the book fell apart.  Her books shaped my childhood.  I read them over and over again because the characters were just like me.

So when Judy bounded on stage - 73 years old and looking not a day over fifty - I was practically in tears.  Lin Oliver, the Executive Director & co-founder of SCBWI, interviewed her one-on-one, and said that she - like most women writers - had a girl crush on Judy.  I am definitely in that camp!

As Judy (yeah, I'm totally on a first-name basis with her) talked about her life and works, she had this beautiful, childlike awe at the path her life took, a real youthfulness, and a completely unassuming manner.  She talked about being a stay-at-home mom with two babies in the sixties, and how she was expected to be completely filled by that life.  But she wasn't, and the depression started to eat away at her and brought on a series of mysterious illnesses.  So she started to write.

She talked about not having the answers...just like us.  She talked about going through twenty-three (TWENTY-THREE!) drafts of SUMMER SISTERS...and what writer can't relate to that?  She talked about the fear...something we all go through.  In other words, JUDY BLUME IS JUST LIKE US. 

So here are some words of wisdom from Judy Blume:

- Your story starts on the day that something different happens.  (Though sometimes it takes you pages and pages to find that right day.)

-The best way out is through.  Write your way through the whole first draft, no matter how sucky it is.

-It doesn't get easier.  It's *a little* easier for her now because she knows how to do it, but IT (the writing, the process, the editing) doesn't get any easier.

Judy has been a member of SCBWI almost since its inception in 1971 (this year was the 40th Anniversary Conference).  She praised the organization for being a haven for writers and talked about how she wished there had been an SCBWI when she had started writing.  And that was one of the biggest things I took away from the conference: community.  We - you, me, Judy Blume, Libba Bray, Laurie Halse Anderson - are all part of a community of writers.  We nurture, encourage and challenge each other.  There was no WE (published) and THEM (pre-published) at the conference, even from a multi-published, million-dollar, bestselling author like Judy Blume.  She gets up every day, goes to her computer, and opens a vein just like the rest of us.

So yeah.  Getting to see Judy Blume, live and in-person, was a once-in-a-lifetime event.  (Although I hope she comes back to future SCBWI Conferences!)  But you know what was even better than hearing her speak about her writing?  Watching her do "I must...I must...I must increase my bust!"  That will stay with me forever!

(And if you're a boy, you have no idea what I'm talking about.)

More from SCBWI tomorrow!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Seeing the World Through New Eyes

One of the things I'm always striving to do is to continue growing as a writer. 

I've been burned by a few bestselling authors who, after they achieved fame and fortune, stopped growing as writers.  (They certainly seemed to think they didn't need an editor anymore, given the length of some of their tomes.)  It's like when an actor wins an Academy Award and then makes Ghost Rider.

So one of the challenges I've given myself is to introduce a new point-of-view (POV) character in book two of my trilogy.

It's freaking hard.

I've been writing my main character for three years.  I've been inside her head, lived in her skin, seen the world through her eyes, for three years.  So now, to jump into another character's head, and see the world through her eyes, is a pretty monumental task.

This is a character who plays a pretty important supporting role in WINTER FALLS.  So I knew that she was an intriguing character.  When I plotted out book two, I gave her a bigger role, and as I looked at some of the scenes, I realized that they would just be so much better from her POV.

So I did a little exercise.  I wrote a scene - just a little free-writing - from her POV to see if I could slip into it.  I wouldn't say her voice came completely naturally to me, but I could hear it in my head, which is a good sign.  She's a lot tougher, more jaded and sarcastic than my MC, and writing in her POV is kinda fun.  She swears...a lot.  And it feels a little naughty, like I'm cheating on my MC.  In a good way.

For the last week, I've been working in her POV.  Some of it has come out way too similar to my MC.  I've had to stop and ask myself, "Would she really say that?  Or would she just give them the finger and walk away?"

I'm still not 100% certain that I'll use her POV in the book, and I have yet to run this whole idea by my editor anyway.  But even if I don't use it, at least I'll have stretched myself by dipping into her head.  At the very least, I'll have a better handle on this character, and that's always a good thing.

So what about you?  What are you doing to stretch yourself as a writer as you start your next WIP?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Friends Along the Way

Writing is a very solitary profession.  And not all of us are J.D. Salinger types.  Some of us love the company of other people.  Some of us need the validation of our peers.  And despite what we might want to believe, some of us do not spew perfection onto the page in the first draft.  Some of us need the advice, guidance and constructive criticism of other writers in order to turn that shitty first draft into published gold.

That's where critique groups come in.

Joining a good critique group is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself as a writer.  I am very fortunate to belong to two groups that have helped me immensely as a writer.  One of my groups is solely online, with its five members spread across the country.  My other group is a face-to-face group that meets every other week.  Both fulfill my needs in different ways.

And that's the most important thing to find in a critique group.  They must fulfill your needs as a writer.  You may find a group with great people, but if you're not getting what you need as a writer, it might not be the right group for you.  Here are some things I think are helpful to keep in mind when looking for a critique group:

- Everyone is in a similar place with their writing.  That doesn't mean that everyone is published or pre-published, or agented, or has even finished a book.  It just means that everyone has the same level of seriousness about their writing.  If you're just starting out, a group full of multi-published writers probably isn't going to work for you.  Likewise, if you're on the publication track, a group filled with people who "maybe want to write a book" is not going to help you.  For instance, in my local group, I'm the only writer who has a publishing contract, but everyone else in the group is uber-serious about their writing and so talented that I have an enormous amount of respect for each of them.

- Genre understanding.  This doesn't mean that everyone needs to be writing the same genre.  In fact, I actually think it's better when there's a mix of genres in a group.  That way, you get a broader understanding of outside of your own genre.  But everyone in the group should understand each other's genres.  Someone who only reads and writes non-fiction might not be the best person to critique your paranormal YA.

- Consistency is key.  My online group is pretty free-form, but my local group meets every other week like clockwork (barring any major schedule conflicts).  What I love about that is that every two weeks, I know I will have an afternoon filled with writing, talk about writing and brainstorming.  We don't make it mandatory to submit something at every meeting, but even if I'm not receiving a critique, my writer-self,  my wild mind, is being stimulated and challenged.

- You get out of it what you give in.  The more you contribute, the more you will get out of your critique group.  And I don't just mean submitting your own writing.  You can learn so much from critiquing others' writing, and from listening to other critiques.  Often a critique will turn into a full-blown brainstorming session, and these are invaluable. 

- Learn to give good critique.  This is crucial.  Critiquing is a skill.  It requires a fine balance of positive and constructive.  Notice I did not say negative.  There should never be anything negative in a critique.  Writing is subjective.  Even if you hated something, chances are someone else in the group loved it.  Phrases like, "I felt this didn't work" or "the tension lagged here" are more constructive than "that part really sucked" and "your hero is lame."  Writers tend to have fragile egos.  Our writing is part of us and to lay it out there for others to see is really hard, even when it's only five or six other people who we really like and whose opinions we value.  Always start and end your critique on a positive note.

- Learn to take criticism.  Being objective about your own writing is one of the hardest things I had to learn.  And even now there are times when I get a critique and I want to hide under the covers for days.  To prevent that, there are a couple of important things to know.  First, be sure you are really ready for others to see your work.  Sometimes a story is still too new and it's better to keep it to yourself for a while.  There is nothing wrong with that.  When I first changed WINTER FALLS from a 16th-century setting to a contemporary, I didn't show it to anyone for months.  It was like there was a fragile glass ball holding the story in, and to hear anyone else's voice would shatter that glass.  I needed to hear only my own voice until I really felt confident about it.  
When you are ready to show your work, receive each critique gracefully.  Don't be combative.  Even if you disagree completely with someone's notes, thank them for the critique all the same.  It takes time and effort to do a critique and when someone just blows you off, it feels like you wasted your time making all those notes.  That's frustrating.  And it also isn't going to help you the next time they critique your work, either.
If you do disagree about something, discuss it.  Get everyone else's opinion in the group.  Sometimes you'll change your mind about a note and realize it will work better, after all.  Which leads me to...
Take a day or two to mull the notes before you disregard them or change your whole story to suit them.  There have been several occasions where I've gotten a note, said "absolutely not" right away, and then a day later realized it would make the story a hundred times better.  Remember that your critique partners are more objective about your writing than you are; sometimes they can see things more clearly than you can.
Lastly, remember that in the end, this is YOUR story.  You can change, or not change, anything you want.  If you really disagree with a critique there is no law saying you have to implement all those notes.  Pick and choose what's helpful for you, and disregard the rest.

I am very, very blessed to have several critique partners (CPs) whose guidance, advice, ideas, and encouragement have been invaluable to me.  But I want to take this opportunity to give a shout-out to one of them in particular, since it's her birthday!  Linda Gerber is a writer that I have known for over a decade.  She and I met on the literary board of a Diana Gabaldon fan site and right away I knew she was a writer to watch.  We were writing completely different genres at the time, but we recognized each other's seriousness about writing right away.  A couple of years later, we formed our online group with a couple of other members who were also on the publication track.  Linda is a tireless supporter of me and everyone in our group.  I'll never forget when I first met her face-to-face, at the Surrey International Writers Conference in Vancouver.  She pushed me to pitch to so many agents that when I came out of one pitch she'd say, "Good for you!   Now who are going to pitch next?"  Linda was the first one of our group to get a contract, for her two fabulous S.A.S.S. books.  Then she sold her Death By trilogy, which is one of the funnest reads out there.  She also has a stand-alone, TRANCE, that is fantastic.  AND she has a MG series coming out next year.  Can you say prolific?  Her brain never stops working.  And she has four kids.  And even with her incredibly busy life and career, she has time to be an amazing friend and CP.  Linda, I love you to pieces.  Happy happy birthday, dear friend!  And readers, I have one question for you - if you haven't read a Linda Gerber book, what the hell are you waiting for?!