Saturday, November 22, 2014

Jody Casella: An Author Interview by Carrie Mesrobian

Thin Space, the Kirkus-starred debut by Jody Casella....

So Jody Casella and I are apparently twins. We're both curly-haired former teachers who love The Walking Dead TV show, write YA novels, and have extremely boring extracurricular habits featuring dogs and not much else.

Except for that she's all about Rick Grimes and I'm all about Daryl Dixon. But that actually works out pretty well, because who wants to share Fake Boyfriends? Not this greedy lady, amirite Jody?

I'm getting ahead of myself.

Also, I wear/make hats. And she runs around with her beautiful hair exposed?  Just waiting to catch a cold, apparently?
*makes note to send Jody a hat*

I had the pleasure of asking Jody a few questions recently. I categorized them into "on writing" and "on everything" else because I want to further the notion that authors can separate the two. HA.


How do your books get made? Explain the process or give us a recipe.

I haven't found a recipe that works every time, but for the most part, it's many hours of staring at my computer screen, bursts of furious typing, followed by lots of moving stuff around and deleting. Mix in two cups of hysteria and self-loathing. Bake for a year. Or fifteen.

Did it take 15 years to bake Thin Space? And was it baked or fried or roasted?
 Thin Space is the sixth book I wrote and the first book to be published. For fifteen years I burnt stuff and/or chucked a lot of half-baked crap into the garbage. (I know what you're thinking: How long can she keep the extended metaphor of writing as cooking going?)

Well, let's see... I wrote the first draft of Thin Space in 30 days during a NaNoWriMo. An unplanned side character wandered into the story and hijacked it, and I rewrote the whole book again from his POV. That took maybe 3 or 4 more months. Then I got an agent and two more years went by. While I waited, I whipped up four more books, all now in various stages of doneness.  

What activities do like to do while you are thinking about some problem in your writing or trying to avoid your writing? Do they help? How?

I walk my dog a lot. Three or four times a day. The neighbors think I'm nuts. But it's amazing what a twenty minute whirl around the block can do when I'm stuck. Or even when I think things are moving along nicely. The dog will attack me and I will take her for a damn walk, and something I hadn't realized was an issue in a scene will pop into my head, and by the end of the walk, I've got it all figured out. It's magic.

OH MY MAUDE. What is it with dogs? Mine is the same way. Do you reward your dog for this benefit? Or is he/she largely clueless?

My husband says I spoil the dog rotten (it's a her--Zooey). The two of us, me and the dog, spend ten hour days together so we are very in tune with each other. When I go out of town, my poor sweet Zooey is lost. I don't think I answered your question. I love my dog. That's the answer.

Zooey, who goes on many walks, which, of course she does. LOOKIT HOW DAMN CUTE SHE IS!

What word would you remove from the English language if given the choice?

My copy editor flagged the word "clench" 33 times in Thin Space. I had no idea I used that word so much. That, and So. I love starting sentences with So. 

What kinds of scenes or stories do you love writing most? Least?

I like writing scenes where there's a big difference between what the character thinks is going on and what's actually going on. I also like to write characters lying. To other people. To themselves. I hate transition bits. How do I get these kids out the freaking door? How can I make time pass without say something lame like, "two weeks later..."?

What's the book you wish you *could* write but don't feel you can just yet?

I'm sitting on a very personal, dark thing. I've got a first draft and I'm afraid to look at it. Afraid it will never be published. More afraid that it will.

Okay, I won't push. But talk about some of the issues you have with responses to your books or writing. Do you have any such issues (or are you blessed by angels in that matter?) Is there a reader that won't like a Jody Casella book? What kind of reader will love your books?

I was pursuing publication for a LONG time and therefore had a long time to imagine how I would react to things like reviews. What's surprised me is that nice reviews throw me off and mess with my head more than negative ones. It took me a while to realize that there is this thing--the book--and I put it out there and then other people have responded to it, both nicely and not so nicely, but it is the same book and it doesn't really seem to be a part of me anymore. I'm more wrapped up in other, newer projects.

If you could dedicate any one song to your most negative reviewers, what would that song be?

That's how I feel about reviews/reviewers. I get that we all have different tastes in books and some books just don't click for people. It's not personal.

God, you sound Zen. Are you a spiritual practitioner of some sort? Do you juice cleanse? Pay for lots of therapy? 

Zen-ish when it comes to reviews. A lunatic when it comes to pretty much everything else. Also, Rah Rah therapy!

Hello. My name is Jody Casella. I've become a goddamn Zen master about reviews! ASK ME HOW! 

What part of publishing would you not like to be responsible for?

The part where I have to keep proving myself. How do I get to the point where readers are like, "Yeah, her books are cool," and I don't have to kill myself to get the next one out?

Which (if any) of your characters would you go to Prom with?

I would go to Prom with the guy I'm writing now. He's so lovely and tormented and earnest and wild. I don't think he would like to go with me though.

Why not? Is he a cat person? Are you a terrible dancer? EXPLAIN.

I was going to say because I am three times his age. But let's pretend it's my fifteen year old self we're talking about. I was an introverted wreck of a girl and Sean (that's his name-- and I am reading your book Perfectly Good White Boy right now and three cheers for boys named Sean!) let's just say, Sean is... not human. And leave it at that.

Well, dammit! We're left hanging! Though we now know that her Prom-Date-Not-To-Be Sean is something...else. And this is nothing that her younger self wants to dress up in mauve taffeta for. But really. Mauve taffeta is quite a sacrifice to make in the name of romance. Onto the next round of questions, though...


What's a pet peeve of yours?

I hate when people don't take their proper turn at a four way stop. I let a car go, and then it's MY turn, but another car tries to sneak themselves in. It ticks me off.

What other jobs have you had besides "writer"?

Teacher, Bookseller, Waitress. The summer I was nineteen, I flipped steaks at a Ponderosa restaurant. It was a bloodier job than you'd expect, but I liked it.

What are some favorite books you've read lately?

I've been on a good reading roll: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Kiss Kill Vanish by Jessica Martinez, Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez, The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout

RICK: I get the curly-haired one.
DARYL: They're both curly-haired.
RICK: Okay, the one who writes them books.
DARYL: Jesus, Rick. They both do that!
RICK:Dammit. All right, the one who's always walking her dog.
DARYL: Come on, man. This doesn't have to be that difficult...

What is a book you were assigned to read and hated?

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. I was an English major in college and I taught high school English, so I feel immense pressure to finish reading every book I start, even now, when it doesn't matter. But I quit on Clarissa and I only feel a twinge of guilt about it, because OMG that book sucked. It's an epistolary novel, which means it's told in letters. Long letters. Where nothing happens. Allegedly there's this really shocking horrifying thing that occurs in the middle of the book. I read right past the Thing and didn't even realize it.

Now, I'm twinging with guilt. Maybe I should give this book another try... 

NO! Come to the dark side, where we abandon books that confound us! Are there any classics you like and come back to re-read?
I rarely reread books; there are too many new ones I want to read. Although, I did read The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby like, 25 times a piece--when I was teaching high school English. Read a book that many times and strangely, you will still find things in it you never noticed. I once spent an entire class period talking to my students about Meyer Wolfsheim's teeth cufflinks.

Who are the people in your life that amuse you and why?

My kids. They're older now, but as much as I think I know them inside and out, they keep surprising me. My son's the captain of his rock climbing team in college. What the hell? Where did that interest or ability come from? And my daughter will come out with these zingers about politics and philosophy. She's gorgeous but she's not afraid to look silly. Her twitter picture for a while was her dressed up as a giant hotdog.

What kinds of things do you do for fun?

I am going to sound like the biggest fogey here, but, um, not much. We've already established that I walk my dog a lot. I also have a really big vegetable garden. Drink wine. Is that a thing?

Who needs hobbies when you have a Zooey?

Why do you love Daryl Dixon so much?

Okay, Carrie. Big confession: I do love Daryl, and you know that, but lately, I'm leaning more toward Team Rick. I like the grizzly face he's got going in season 3 and 4. Also, I enjoy his deep gravelly voice and how he says stuff in his twangy accent like, "thangs" and "Caaaaarl." When the world is falling apart, Rick works like hell to put it back together. And I appreciate that in a man.

Fine. I can accept this.* However, bonus question: if you and Rick went on a date, what would you like to do?

I just had this absurd vision of the two us out for dinner, sipping wine and sharing a cheese plate, and later we'll go to a movie. Maybe a romantic comedy. Nothing scary. Also, he will have to change out of his bloody, gut-splattered clothing.  

You see there's no mention about whether she'd ask him to keep his hat on, should things get...intense. Because Jody Casella is a Real Lady, you guys...

"Let's go drink some wine, Jody. Then watch a movie. Then maybe we can go sit on your sofa and do some STUFF. Also, THANGS..."

Thank you, Jody, for chatting with me! 

Keep up with Jody on Twitter, Facebook and her main author website, where she also blogs:

*of course I can accept this! DARYL IS MINE

How to Build a Story Fire with Author Tracy Barrett (by Patty Blount)

Tracy Barrett is the author of numerous books including the just-released THE STEPSISTER'S TALE (Harlequin Teen, June, 2014), which got starred reviews from both PW and Kirkus!

I got to talk to Tracy about writing and fairy tales and mythological creatures.

me: Tracy, what do you love most about writing books for young adults? 

TracyMost of my books seem to fall right on the cusp of middle-grade and YA, although I do have some books that are solidly MG and some that are solidly YA. I find early adolescence so interesting; it’s when people really come into their own. It’s when friendships are based more on who we are than on what we like to do—two little kids who like unicorns will say they’re friends because they play unicorns together; when they get older they might gravitate towards friends with whom they have something more fundamental in common. Early teens start questioning assumptions they’ve grown up with and develop their own sense of right and wrong. I’m drawn to that questioning, that introspection, when they’re new and potentially threatening.

me:  You've written about fairy tales and mythological creatures ... if you had the choice, which world would you live in? What creature would you like to be?

TracyIf I had to live in the past, I’d definitely choose a fantasy of one kind or another, either mythology or fairy tales! I’ve learned too much about the past to find any time before the modern era appealing. The lack of sanitation, of medical care, of any idea of personal liberty, especially for women—forget it! So if I could choose a fantasy world, I think I’d take the mythological world of the ancient Greeks. Really awful things happen in myths (and in fairy tales) but in a lot of them, people seem to be having a lot of fun. There’s not much fun in fairy tales.

me: Ugh, the lack of liberty for women -- that is so true!! Makes me happy I don't live in a world created by George RR Martin. I was reading your website and love what you said about ideas being like sticks you can rub together and maybe, get a fire. What were the two sticks in your latest story? 

TracyI love that, too. It’s wisdom I got from the great Newbery-winning author Sid Fleishman. In The Stepsister’s Tale, I started with just one “stick”—“What if Cinderella’s situation wasn’t as bad as she says? What if it’s just a typical blended-family story where the stepkid thinks that everyone’s mean to her and she has to do all the work? As I wrote and explored that idea (I’m almost 100% a pantser; the story comes to me as I write), the other “stick” turned out to be the danger of not facing reality and the harm that can come to people who refuse to see the world and their lives as they are.

me: What you said about the danger of not facing reality really resonated with me. Because my stories are realistic contemporaries, I really loved the classroom activities for teachers I found on your website. Can you tell us how you developed these materials? 
Tracy: Teachers and librarians are crucial for writers of historical fiction, because while fans of HF are fiercely loyal, there aren’t many of them, especially when compared with fans of paranormal, dystopia, problem novels—the big genres for YA and MG. So it’s important for those of us who write HF to reach out to educators and try to show them how they can use our books. I’ve been lucky that some teachers have written those materials. My publicist came up with some great activities based on The Stepsister’s Tale. Others I wrote myself, and it’s hard for someone who’s not a classroom teacher to do! I had the help of teacher friends when I wrote and revised them and they’ve been downloaded lots of times, so I hope they’ve been helpful!

Thanks for chatting with me, Tracy! I look forward to reading The Stepsister's Tale. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Cyn Balog Interviews Courtney McKinney Whitaker and SURVIVES!

Now that I've got your attention . . .

(Courtney is really very lovely, so surviving was kind of a given. If you were looking for an author smackdown, maybe next time?)

Anyway, I had the chance to interview Courtney McKinney-Whitaker, the author of THE LAST SISTER, a historical novel which recently released! Here is what she has to say about her newest book, her writing process, and doing the all-too-tricky baby/book-juggle:

Your recently released novel, THE LAST SISTER, takes place in the mid-eighteenth century in the British colony of South Carolina, which I think is a very unexplored era in young adult literature. I’d love to know what made you decide to write about that particular period in history. How did you manage to research it?

I grew up in Greenville, SC, which is in the western corner of the state and at the time was still part of Cherokee territory. I've always been interested in Colonial America, and it's always struck me that most fictional accounts focus on the New England experience and on the very late Colonial period, right around the time of the American Revolution. Those that are set in the South tend to be set in the Coastal South. I wanted to write about a different time and place, and the Anglo-Cherokee War presented itself as a setting that challenges common notions both about the South itself and about Britain's interactions with native peoples. Writing about an unfamiliar setting was a challenge because I couldn't make any assumptions about what my readers would know, and I had to find a way to break through some common stereotypes about people and politics that just weren't true for the time and place.

I majored in history at the University of South Carolina, so I was familiar with the resources I would need and where to find them, and I knew who to call if I got stuck. Part of the book is set at Fort Loudoun, a British fort which is today located in Vonore, Tennessee, close to Gatlinburg, and there's a great reenactment group there. Their resources were invaluable.

You’ve worn a lot of hats in the past: librarian, part-time English teacher, and author, all literary careers. But I want to know: If those professions didn’t exist, what do you think you would be? Besides unhappy, that is. ;)

Since it's getting harder and harder to make a living at those careers, this is probably a good thing for me to think about, isn't it? ;-)

I often say I'm good at two things, reading and writing, so don't expect Mama to be decorating an elaborate birthday cake or sewing a homemade Halloween costume anytime soon. That's why we have stores and more talented friends.

My only other hobbies, really, are my diet and exercise. This happened partly out of necessity: I was very sick with celiac disease for most of my twenties, and I was determined to get better. I value the healthy eating and exercise that saved me so much that I've become one of those annoying people who actually does love to eat healthy food and exercise every day. Also, because the rest of my life is so sedentary, it keeps me sane and complements my writing work nicely. I was on a strict diet and exercise regimen throughout my recent pregnancy (not to lose weight, but to make sure I didn't expose my body to anything toxic for me and to maintain my bone health—all under a doctor's supervision, of course), and I know that helped me avoid many common discomforts and bounce back fast.

I love to talk to people about improving their health through taking care of their bodies, so maybe I'd like to be some kind of diet and exercise counselor? I said to my husband the other day that I need to find a way to get paid for working out. Sadly, I'm not flexible enough or coordinated enough to be a group exercise instructor because I think I'd like that.

What, to you, is the hardest part of writing a novel?

Is it okay to say whatever part I'm working on right that minute? I like to jump in and make a mess, so while I find early drafts challenging, they don't stress me out the way the later ones do. The hardest part, for me, is the final edits, both the ones that I do before querying (which aren't really final at all, as we know), and the ones where they say, "Here, read this over, but you can't change anything," and then laugh like evil villains. I may have made up the evil villain laugh, but I sure hear it. As soon as I hear I can't change anything, I read and realize what a horrible mistake I have made by ever allowing this out into the world and how surely now everyone will realize what a fake I am and can I possibly have this back and let the dog eat it or bury it deep in the backyard? Ugh. Final edits. I hates them.

You have a new addition to your family on the way!  Congratulations! How, if at all, has motherhood transformed your writing?

Thanks! My daughter (which still seems weird to say) has been here since the middle of September. Writing-wise (and baby-wise, too) things are going better than I ever dared to hope. She's a very chill baby who only gets up once during the night, so I'm not dealing with sleep deprivation. (Knock on wood.) I also have an extremely supportive spouse, so that helps.

When I was in grad school, one of my professors told me not to worry about having kids because hers made her a much more efficient writer and actually increased her output. I'm finding that to be true. I had gotten into a very bad habit of procrastination—because writing is hard and Twitter is fun—which I really didn't like but felt powerless to stop. The cure for that is to have a baby! No more time to procrastinate because she might wake up/need a change/be hungry soon (she will definitely be hungry soon), so work NOW. It's also helped me with some of my perfectionism: no more time to read an email seventeen times before I send it. If it's missing a comma, it won't be the end of the world. I feel like every second of my day is spent doing something useful, which is a great feeling. I've learned to work in small spurts and to work at places other than my desk. I've become instantly more adaptable, so the baby is helping me learn skills that help my writing.

I had a baby in September and a book debut in October. I planned ahead to devote the rest of the year to adjusting to the baby and doing all the things I needed to do for the book, so I took time off from my regularly paid writing work to take care of both those babies. I know I'm lucky to be able to do that. I also planned to have a novel in the query stage because that stage is mostly waiting, and I knew the waiting game would give me time to adjust to motherhood and bond with my baby while still feeling I was doing something to move my career forward. I also figured the baby would distract me from the awful waiting game and keep me from refreshing my email every five minutes, which has proven true.

I've worked at least part of every week day since my baby was born, just on keeping up with things. I also did a full edit of an almost-finished manuscript.  She has a little sleep seat right beside my desk. While I'm still nervous about finding the time to write in that stage after she stops sleeping most of the time and before she goes to pre-school, I'm finding that writing and mothering complement each other very well so far.

THE LAST SISTER is your debut novel. Where do you see your career heading from here? Working on any new projects?  

For now, I'm working during my baby's naps, but I can actually get a lot done during that time, and my husband insists on taking over baby duties whenever he's home so I can work. (Yes, he's amazing.) So I don't see my pace slowing down, and if while she's very little, I write a novel every two years instead of every year, that's okay with me.

Here's where I am now. I just published THE LAST SISTER, and I have one novel in the querying stage. I want to write a companion to the THE LAST SISTER, and I want to write a novel I just thought up yesterday morning that has me cackling to myself about how funny and brilliant it is. Of course it is—I  haven't even jotted down a note yet, so it's extremely funny and brilliant in my head. I may end up writing two at once, which I've never done before, but that's another benefit to being a new mom: I'm getting very good at juggling.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Laurie Crompton shares an embarrassing moment!

I read the first chapter of Adrenaline Crush, your September release. It's a page turner for sure. Congratulations! Tell us a little about it.

Thank you so much! My new book is the story of Dyna, a seventeen-year-old risk-taker who pushes herself too far one day. After a hazardous fall she is forced to deal with an ankle injury and must find a way to overcome her newfound fear. My family spends a lot of time hiking and biking in New Paltz and I love the town so much it became the perfect setting for Adrenaline Crush. I attempted rock climbing there once and despite the cool photo on my website that makes me look like a total badass, I was actually super-awkward on the climb. I still had a blast, but then I really enjoyed giving Dyna all of the athletic ability I lack. She is a genuine rock climbing badass.

I heard a rumor that your book is going to be a movie! Who would you cast in the lead?

I’d love to see Dyna played by an actual stunt actress like in the movie Death Proof when Quentin Tarantino cast the amazing Zoë Bell to play herself. Dyna is such an adrenaline junkie, an actress playing her would need to do her own stunts in order to really nail her character.

If you could compete in an Olympic event, which would you choose?

My mind immediately went to a scene of me doing a super-awkward gymnastic routine to the song ‘Maniac’ from the 1980s movie Flashdance. I picture myself doing flailing arm motions and terrible half-cartwheels and running away from the judges as they try to drag me off the mats. Then I’d just sit back and wait for the sponsorship offers to roll in. Ha! I would also love a shot at that horsey thing that gymnasts jump over using the springboard, but I’m sure I’d end up stuck as I tried to climb over it in some clumsy way. I’m so graceless I actually twisted my ankle while watching the movie Fame. I *might* have been dancing along with the movie at the time.

One common bit of writing advice is write every day. Butt In Chair. It's true, but so hard to do! How do you inspire yourself to do this?

Deadlines are a great motivator. Fortunately, I’m quite gullible and can get myself to believe in a self-imposed deadline when necessary. The only problem is my tendency to let things go right to the wire. I mean, what’s the point of having a deadline if you’re not going to use every bit of the time you’re allowed? My family travels a lot and the joke is that we have never vacated a hotel before checkout time. Usually we leave with a mad dash from the indoor pool to shove our things into suitcases and exit fast before we get charged for an extra day. I’m super-motivated by the ticking clock or calendar as the case may be and will pull all-nighters if necessary to finish things on time. But I never finish early.

Every year there is a new crop of debut authors. What advice do you have for them?

I feel like seasoned authors should do public service announcements where we tell first timers, “It gets better.” We could say, don’t worry, you will regain your sanity in about six to twelve weeks. Or, at least, *most* of your sanity, assuming you had some going into publication month. If you’re sleeping soundly at night during the weeks surrounding your book’s release, I don’t think you’re doing it right. Find ways to cope and just keep writing.

What book have you read that you wish you'd written, and why?

I recently read Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann and it is so beautiful and perfect. It deals with important issues like body image using clever writing and humor. I was fortunate enough to do a reading with Christine this past weekend and she is just as lovely and brilliant as her book and everyone needs to go read it right now.

What are three things you can't live without?

This question makes me think of that scene in the movie The Jerk when Steve Martin’s character is ranting about how he doesn’t need anything at all. As he walks away he starts to see things and say, “Oh, I need this. This is all I need.” My first thought was ‘I don’t need anything.’ And then of course everywhere I look around my office I see things I can’t live without. The tree just outside my window. The pictures of my family. My actual family of course. This computer. All of my books. I’m too stuck between needing nothing and needing everything to pick three things.

Have you ever had an embarrassing author moment? Care to share?

I love embarrassing moment stories! I’ve had plenty, but my very first embarrassing author moment happened long before my first book was published. I’d written a (bad!) picture book that was thematically tied to red feathers and I was inspired to go to the craft store and buy a big bag of red feathers. I packaged my (many!) queries in these cool, clear plastic envelopes with a red feather in each one. These things were going to pop out from the plain boring slush! I honestly thought I was being so savvy, thinking outside the box, and after a (costly!) trip to the post office I waited for the offers to roll in. Except that I should also mention this was thirteen years ago, around the time that mail tampering and anthrax attacks had created a huge panic. Most of those funky-looking envelopes probably never made it past security. So, not savvy. At least the whole misstep wasn’t a public moment! Well, until now.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Alissa Grosso Interviews Yvonne Ventresca with Bonus Pie Chart

This month I had the opportunity to interview Yvonne Ventresca. I'm lucky enough to be friends with Yvonne and have gone to some book signings and book festivals with her since she lives not too far away from me.

Her debut novel Pandemic came out this year. Before she entered the thrilling world of authordom she wrote computer programs and taught others how to use technology. Now, she happily spends her days writing stories instead of code. Her other writing credits include two nonfiction books for kids Avril Lavigne (a biography of the singer) and Publishing (about careers in the field.)

Alissa: What inspired you to write Pandemic? What's the most interesting thing you learned when researching this book?

Yvonne: I’ve always been fascinated with disaster situations. When the Swine Flu pandemic occurred in 2009, it wasn’t particularly lethal, but it did make me wonder. What if a virus was extremely contagious and caused a high death rate? And what if a teen girl had to survive the illness on her own? Pandemic is more about the experience during the disaster than the aftermath. I found it interesting to think about how fear would change social interactions.

One interesting thing I learned is that the Spanish Influenza of 1918 had a different mortality pattern than previous flu outbreaks, with the highest death rates occurring in adults between the ages of twenty and fifty. The reasons for that pattern are still not entirely understood.

A: So being something of an expert about such things, should we be scared about Ebola? Why or why not?

Y: Everyone has their own comfort level about disaster and disease situations. I do believe it’s good to be prepared for an emergency, whether it’s a hurricane, a severe snow storm, or a quarantine. I used to be one of those people buying batteries right before a storm, but I’ve changed my ways.

A: Pandemic has both a disease storyline and a sexual assault storyline. How do these two storylines go together?

Y: I wanted to create a story where the main character is in a difficult place at the onset, even before the disease strikes, so that she must find a way to heal and become stronger during the crisis. The sexual assault was an integral part of Lil’s character for me.

I was also interested in the moral dilemma of whether or not we would help others if it puts us at risk. Since Lil’s philanthropy leads to harm prior to the outbreak (it’s after a food drive that she’s assaulted), she struggles to become altruistic again.

A: What's your favorite part about writing fiction - writing or revising? What are your tips for writers when writing a first draft? What are your revision tips?

Y: Definitely revising. I find it so much easier to work with something already formed than to stare at a blank page. My tip for first drafts: work as steadily and consistently as possible to keep the momentum going. My main tip for revisions is to start with the big picture problems and fix those first. It sounds simple, but I know I have to fight the tendency to wordsmith as I revise. Ultimately, those scenes might get cut or reworked anyway, so I have to remind myself not to get caught up in the small changes.

Another idea: I like to make a chapter by chapter list (in Word or on paper) of important elements I’m tracking. Here is a (messy) page from my Pandemic notebook. It includes basic plot elements in black. The blue writing had to do with the flu and its consequences. The green scribbles were some of my ideas for changes. (I whited out some of the spoilers.)

A:. Tell us a fun fact about yourself, something we might not have known about you.

Y: In elementary school, I made a shoebox diorama of the library for the school librarian. I still love libraries but refrain from giving geeky handmade presents. (A: I think I might have seen that diorama on an episode of Community!)

A: What's an average day like for Yvonne Ventresca?

Y: I’m sure you didn’t expect a pie chart as an answer to this, but one of my first bosses in the corporate world suggested we track our time each day (for our own use). It’s a habit that stuck long after I left the job. Although the days vary, here’s a sense of how I spent my time recently:

A: What are you working on next?

Y: My current work-in-progress is a YA psychological thriller about a girl who fears she is either being haunted or going insane.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Interview with NATASHA SINEL (by Natasha Sinel)

Since I just joined YAOTL, I missed the day everyone was paired up for interviews. So, for fun, I interviewed myself.

Photo by Alison Sheehy

NS: So, Natasha, tell me about you.

NS: First of all, I am so thrilled to be joining YAOTL. I’ve been a fan of the blog for years, so this is like a dream come true.

So, about me. I write contemporary realistic YA. My debut novel THE FIX will be published by Sky Pony Press (Skyhorse Publishing) in September 2015. I grew up in Washington, D.C., and now I live in Northern Westchester, NY, less than an hour north of Manhattan, with my husband and three sons who are nine, eight, and six. There is a lot of boy in my house.

NS: Yeah, okay, but tell me something I can’t just find on your website ( Who are YOU? What were you like in high school?

NS: Oh, um, okay. I think I’m not so different than I was in high school. I have more responsibility now—raising kids, owning a house, general adult stuff. And I know myself better—the positive parts and the shortcomings. But I’m still me. I still read all the time, I still feel angsty and self-conscious sometimes, I’m still a loyal friend, and I’m still pretty much a rule-follower who likes to party (in moderation) sometimes. I still like hanging out with my mom and dad (in high school, I would sometimes forgo a party to go to dinner and a movie with my parents). I’m still fascinated by people, their motivations, and their relationships. I think that’s why I love creating characters so much.

NS: Tell us about your book.

NS: I would love to! Here’s a brief description of THE FIX:

Seventeen-year-old Macy’s got it pretty good. She's rich, she's dating the cute boy next door, she has plenty of friends, and although she long ago wrote off her mother as a superficial gym rat, she's got an ally in her loving dad. But a conversation with a boy at a party one night shakes Macy out of the carefully maintained complacency that defines her. The boy is Sebastian Ruiz, a recovering addict who recognizes that Macy is hiding demons of her own.

THE FIX tells the story of two good-hearted teenagers coming to terms with the cards they were dealt. It's also about the fixes we rely on to cope with our most shameful secrets, and the hope and fear that comes with meeting someone who challenges us to come clean. 

NS: So, what was your path to publication? I hope you’re not one of those “I wrote it in three weeks, and got an agent and a book deal within a month!” I hate those people.

NS: Listen, hating those people does you no good. You’ve got to keep your eyes on your own work. Your path is your own, like it or not. Luckily, the YA writing community is extremely supportive, helpful, and encouraging.

But, the answer to your question is: No, I’m not one of those people. My path to publication has been long. I started writing after I left my job ten years ago. Since then, I’ve written and revised two and a half manuscripts, I’ve sent dozens of queries, I’ve had three agents, I’ve been on submission twice, and I’ve answered zillions of those questions—you know the ones I mean—Is your book like Twilight? Why don’t you just self-publish? It’s easier to write a teen book than a regular book, right? I could tell you about the last ten years of ups and downs of writing, revising, querying, being on sub, and the debut year, but I’d have to dedicate a separate blog post for each.

NS: What’s the most important advice you can give to writers who are still on their path to publication?

NS: Technically, since my book comes out next September, I’m still on my path to publication! But, I think there is really only one thing that matters in this career (assuming you can write, you have a good story to tell, and you aren’t a scary stalker freak)—YOU CAN’T GIVE UP. Ever. Never ever. Not if your manuscript has major plot issues, and you have no idea how to fix them. Not if you could wallpaper your bedroom with rejection letters. Not if you need to put your manuscript in a drawer because it’s not selling. Not if everyone around you seems to be getting multiple agent offers and book deals. Not even if your agent leaves the business. You can’t give up. You just keep doing it. Because, what’s your other option? Not doing it? Yeah, no thanks. I’ll just keep writing.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A look at the past, the present and the future with Ellen Jensen Abbott (by Amy K. Nichols)

Ellen Jensen Abbott
This month the authors of YA Outside the Lines are interviewing each other, and I had the privilege of interviewing Ellen Jensen Abbott, author of the Watersmeet Trilogy. Here's what she had to say about how she got started as a writer, her influences when it came to writing the Watersmeet novels, and what she's working on for her next release.

When did you make the decision to pursue writing, and how long after that decision did you get published? What did that journey look like?

I was always a successful academic writer, but I didn't have the confidence to dive into fiction. In fact, when I was in college, I thought I would be the host of literary salons, bringing writers together but not writing myself. When I got older, I realized that I was selling myself short. I had just had  my second child, and I needed something to keep my mind engaged and I turned first to non-fiction and then fiction writing. It took me about ten years from articulating that I would like to be a writer to seeing my first book on the shelf of Barnes and Noble. 

What idea sparked Watersmeet, and how did that idea grow to be the Watersmeet Trilogy?

I began with an image of a former student of mine (I'm a teacher by day), and while I recognized her, I also knew that it wasn't her--that she was a character in a story. I didn't know the story around her, but I knew she was an outcast. She's a beautiful, intelligent, warm young woman and her outcasting didn't make sense. I built the story--and the world of Watersmeet--around her to make sense of her rejection. As an avid reader of fantasy, it was only natural that this world would be a fantasy world.

The story was a trilogy--or at least more than a single book--almost from the start. My very first book--which never got published--was set in the same world but at a point in the future. As I built that world, I created it's history, it's founding stories, it's heroes. When that book got encouraging rejections I decided to start the story in the early years of the world, so the Watersmeet series is the story of Abisina, the main character, and the story of Seldara, the land where the story is set. It's hard to build a nation in one book, so I always had the idea of several books in mind. 

Your books draw a lot from mythology. What is your favorite mythological character or story? Did it impact the Watersmeet books?

I'm a huge fan of Homer's Odyssey. I love the story of the wily Odysseus and the mirror story of the equally wily Penelope. I love the monsters, the witches, the feasts, the seafaring. Except for centaurs and fauns, I don't really have any Greek creatures in my novels. I was more influenced by C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia which has a similar mix of mythologies represented as I have in the Watersmeet books. Dwarves, giants, dragons, centaurs, fauns, hags, etc. They're all in Lewis and I decided if it was good enough for him it was good enough for me! I did make up some of my own monsters, too. There are some blind, white eels that are particularly creepy!!

What are you working on now? 

I'm working on a new fantasy, set in a very different world that will have a slightly steam punk feel. It feels odd to say that because I haven't read much steam punk, but that's how the world is growing in my imagination. The main character will be a girl, there will be a love interest and a long con, but that's as far as I've gotten! I'm inching forward now, waiting for my next vacation to really get underway!

Fearless Revision, Sucky Housekeeping, and The Walking Dead. Carrie Mesrobian Tells (Almost) All to Jody Casella

Some people have said that Carrie Mesrobian and I are the same person.

Okay. I am totally lying. No one has ever said that.

But, Consider the Evidence:

We are both writers who have written novels starring tormented male MCs.
We both used to be teachers.
We both have crazy curly brown hair.
We both have a dog.
We both live in the chilly gray-wintered Midwestern flyover country known as OhioMichiganWisconsinMinnesota
We both love The Walking Dead.

In the We Are Probably Not the Same Person column:

Carrie's way more prolific and successful (Her first novel Sex & Violence is brilliant and heart-wrenching and beautifully written. It was a Kirkus Best Book of the Year and a runner up for the Morris Award. Her second, Perfectly Good White Boy, was just released and is already earning high praise, and she's got two more books contracted and on the way.)

She is younger and cooler and hipper than I am, judging by her funny tweets and her jaunty-hatted author pic.

(Not the same person) 

Also, I just interviewed her, and it didn't really seem like I was talking to myself.

Ah well. You be the judge.

Jody: Where do you get your ideas?

Carrie: I don’t know. They usually come from questions: “Who would ever do…?” “What must it be like to be the kind of person who…?” It’s usually a situation I’m averse to, or don’t understand very well. Like being a promiscuous boy or wanting to join the military or having sex with people of both genders or wanting to keep secrets. I’m terrible about keeping my own secrets.

Jody: See. I was going to say all of that too!
So, once you've got your idea, do you plunge right in or do you plan things out first?

Carrie: I make it up as I go, to a certain point. Then there comes a time, usually after a couple hundred pages, where I realize what in the hell I’m actually trying to do with the story. Then I try to plan a little better.

Jody: Which is where revision probably comes in...

Carrie: My first editor was always encouraging something called “fearless revision” and I don’t know quite what he means, but what I ended up doing was akin to exploratory home surgery, a process that I wasn’t sure would help matters or kill the whole thing.

Jody: That's the scary part. Do you keep cutting or adding or changing stuff. When do you stop. Can you ruin a story beyond fixing. I get better at it--I hope--the more I do it. Is that what you've found? How many books did you write before you got your first book deal?

Carrie: I’m really great at writing unfinished novels. I probably have about five or six of them, some lost to floppy disks at this point. I wrote a couple of drafts of mystery novels that were total fails. Sex & Violence was my graduate school thesis and the first book I submitted.

Jody: Tell me no one rejected it.

Carrie: I got passed on by all five agents I queried and then Andrew Karre dug me out of his slush.

Jody: Lucky guy. Lucky you, too. I love the books that come out of Carolrhoda Lab. Now that you're pretty good at finishing books, have you stumbled on some kind of regular schedule that works for you?

Carrie: Ehhhh. During the school year, things are bit more regular, because then I have about six solid hours away from my daughter and husband. It’s not that I need total silence or anything, but I’m kind of distracted by the possibility of their needs. So maybe I write for a couple of hours, but usually never more than 4 hours. I’m usually writing while I’m on social media; I do both things at once, which maybe is terrible, but that’s how I’ve done all three books so far.  During that six hours, I also try to shower, exercise, and do various household tasks. I’m kind of the backstop for my family on the household front. By default, though, as I’m a pretty sucky housekeeper and cook.

Jody: Bad housekeeping. I've never heard of that. Ha. Just joking with you. Back to that schedule, do you keep it going year round?

Carrie: In the summer, I teach a lot more so I’m balancing entertaining my kid with beach trips and whatever along with prepping classes. I don’t write a lot in the summer. We have to get our sunlight when we can here in Minnesota so I try to get away from the computer then.

Jody: You mentioned your family and teaching. Do you have a hard time juggling all of that on top of writing?

Carrie: I have very few hobbies, really. I’m very fussy about socializing. I have a husband who is very understanding about how my writing is my work and how I get paid; he understood this better than I did back when I wasn’t getting paid much and didn’t have book contracts. I think this helps enormously, with balance. He’s very good on his feet, my husband, so he doesn’t flinch when I say, SORRY MUST WRITE NO DINNER TOO BAD. I also only have one kid. And she’s 11. I wrote a lot when she was a baby, but I don’t know how people with more than one little kid write. My kid never napped, for one thing.

Jody: I marvel at that too. I hear these stories about writers nursing and balancing a laptop on their baby's head. Not judging. I just know how I was when my kids were little. I got no sleep and had maybe two brain cells going at all times. Maybe there's an up side to having a book come out when you're a ways past that. I'm talking about writing and the attention that takes. And then there's the promotional stuff. I see you on social media... a lot. What's your take on all of that? It seems like you're having fun...

Carrie: I use social media as a sort of journal, where I vent and rant and expel all my various opinions on things. This might not be a good way to conduct oneself, but I find it amusing. And I don’t so much promote my books as enter into the conversation of the day.

Jody: I like that "conversation of the day." I've never thought about it that way before, but that's what it feels like.

Carrie: Yeah. And this takes time, but I enjoy it, so I do it. I understand that social media can be a big downer for some people, but I don’t get bugged by it that much. Maybe because in-person socializing seems way more stressful to me? I also talk about what interests me in general, not just book stuff. My writing process is sort of boring, and not anything I like to share. I like Twitter the most, of all of the social media platforms. And then Tumblr. Because it’s full of idiocy and porn, really. I do love my Fake Boyfriends so much!

Jody: Oh, Fake Boyfriends!! That is my new favorite thing online.
Totally being nosy, but what are you working on now?

Carrie: I just finished my third book, which will come out from HarperCollins in fall of 2015. I’m starting on my fourth book, which has a girl main character. My first girl! I’m a little nervous about it, because all my books have had boy narrators so far, but so far it’s fun. It’s another book set in Minnesota, but this time in Southern Minnesota, near the region I grew up in, and I don’t quite know what it’s about yet, except it has these elements: a hotel with a water park, boot hockey, blowjobs, pregnancy scares, summer camp virginity loss, Russians attending ag school, and the intoxicating nature of desire.

Jody: Boot hockey and blowjobs. How can you miss with that stuff?
Okay, one final question, which has to do with The Walking Dead, because, really, did you think I could interview you and not ask? Why do you like Daryl?

Carrie: He is, to quote Lynyrd Skynyrd, a “simple kind of man.” He is nothing fancy, but goddamn, he will keep you safe. I have long described myself as a person who will not get voted into the lifeboat should disaster strike. So I have nothing but frank and desperate admiration for people who have skills and resilience and toughness and high pain thresholds who can protect and sustain people like me in times of crisis.

It doesn’t hurt that he’s played by the universe’s most perfect male creation, Norman Reedus.

Jody: There's probably no better way to end this interview than with that.

Wanna know more about Carrie? Itching to buy her books now? Curious about her "fake boyfriends"?

See here:
Fake Boyfriends
Buy Sex & Violence
Buy Perfectly Good White Boy