Thursday, December 30, 2010

Deadlines & Holiday Cheer

Four days away from a first draft deadline. I'm crazy. I love my book, I hate my book, I have zero insight or perspective. I've re-read the thing forty billion times. It's too short. Nice line in chapter nine. Making changes feels like murder. I'm scrubbing the tub. I want new clothes. Reading other people's books makes me insane and sick. Oh my god Netflix streaming. Oh my god let's bake a pie. Love this song, hate this song, time to make a new playlist. Rearrange commas. Refresh gmail. Pet the kitten. Braid my hair. Oh my gosh, happy new year:


Monday, December 27, 2010

I sure am glad I took the llama out.

‘Twas the day after Christmas
And, back in my house,
I opened the web
With a click of the mouse.

Barnes & Noble I surfed to,
But not for a Nook.
I had Christmas money
And wanted a book.

When, what to my wondering
Eyes should appear
But my very own novel.
And I thought, “How queer!

It’s not on its own page,
The virtual cellar.
Somehow it has gotten mixed
With the bestsellers.”

And there in my office
Arose such a clatter,
My husband sprang in to see
What was the matter.

He’d just settled down
For a long winter’s nap
But because I was screaming,
He made a screen-cap.


My novel FORGET YOU
Was at number nine!
Not at number one,
But I think nine is fine!

And later that day
As I thought, “Well, how great!”
I checked it again
And it climbed up to eight!

So what does this mean?
Well, to you, not so much.
I’m not getting contracts
And book tours and such.

When people are counting
The bestselling books,
Barnes and Noble dot com
Does not get many looks.

It isn’t Pub Weekly.
It isn’t the Times
Or that other paper.
It’s all in my mind.

And “bestselling author”
Won’t be on my covers
With titles and pictures
Of star-crossed teen lovers.

But to ME, it means YOU
Got a card in your stocking
And you thought of my book
When you went web-shopping.

It means that these young adult
Dramas I’m writing
Are what you are reading.
It’s very exciting!

‘Cause being an author
Is all very tough
But you bought my book.
I can’t thank you enough.

Well! That was last night
And I was in heaven.
This morning the book slipped
To number eleven.

Tomorrow to fifty
Or more it will go.
By this time next week
It will be very low.

But I will remember
This holiday season
And this nice surprise will be
Part of the reason.

Books come and go.
I know this is true.
You’ll forget me
But I won’t forget you.

Thank you *sniffle* and happy holidays!
Jenn

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Grit Lit

Trish Doller's post inspired me here. Thanks, Trish! I absolutely believe that there are exceptions to every rule, and rules can be broken.

Let's face it--writing outside the lines in YA takes guts and thick skin. For me, writing hard truths takes a special kind of commitment. Using the f-word (even once) in my story will alienate some of my potential audience. But I don't set out to offend anyone. I wish I could make reality easier to digest, but that wouldn't be fair to my audience, especially those who have experienced what I write about. What good does sugar-coating or skirting a hard topic do? I know my teen self would HATE me if I did that. So, I put honesty first--even if it risks offending people. Even if it's hard to read. Even if it means I won't get a lot of sales...

There's definitely a backlash against realistic/gritty books. Just look at any banned book list, or the various articles that come out about parents trying to get certain books banned from libraries. Look at what Ellen Hopkins has talked about a couple times now--getting invited to speak and then being told not to come because someone was offended by one of her books. It can get ugly for an author. Really ugly.

But I think those of us who write the hard truths expect that. We go into it knowing we're going to get certain comments. We will get shunned from certain lists or places. We won't be the first person invited to do talks at certain schools. But you know what? That's okay.

Because for every person we offend, there is someone who truly appreciates our work. Maybe they could relate. Maybe they learned something. Maybe they just really fell in love with the characters. But when they put up a review or send an email, you can tell they loved it with every fiber of their being. And--for me-- that makes up for all the backlash. My goal isn't to win everyone over out there--just the few who get it. The few who want to get it. The few who didn't even know they wanted to get it.

So, I'm going to keep on writing what I love. What every part of me wants to write. I've tried to force a book before, and it's never worked. I never...ever...finish it. Maybe the next book will be lighthearted and fluffy. Maybe it'll be another one filled with hard truths. But whatever it is, I'm not going to censor things. I'm not going to do it half-assed. And you better believe I'll be 200% behind it when I try to put it out in the world.

Because that's the key to being an author who pushes boundaries--for me, anyway. I have to believe in what I'm doing. I have to be proud to put it out there.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

you should be drinking cocoa right now

Regardless of whether or not you celebrate a holiday on the 25th of December, I wish you all a lovely day filled with appropriately winterish things: cocoa with marshmallow, cozy sweaters, a warm (intentional) fire, and cuddling with an obliging pet (yes! she must be obliging). Maybe read a good book; that's my favorite way to celebrate a cold winter's day.

Speaking of celebrating, this week I've celebrated moving my blog to it's new home with a book giveaway: www.alisalibby.com/blog. Please do visit my blog if you are interested. I'll be giving away a few free books, including Lauren Strasnick's latest release Her and Me and You, as well as signed copies of my own books, The King's Rose and The Blood Confession.

In the meantime, if you would like to enjoy the season the way that Catherine Howard does in The King's Rose, you could throw a huge banquet serving roasted peacock and cakes shaped like castles, with music and dancing by the light of torches and candles. And an illicit affair taking place under the nose of her royal husband. But that part I really wouldn't recommend.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

There Are Exceptions to Every Rule

This is going to be short this month because what’s on my mind takes little to actually say, but I think it bears saying. Repeatedly.

I was in attendance once at an online twitter chat during which writers, both published and unpublished, and editors were talking about age and YA. I remember this chat vividly because there was one writer who doggedly insisted that YA spanned the high school experience and anything outside of that was not YA and therefore teenagers would not be interested.

I tried to tell her that there are exceptions to every rule, but she wasn’t having it. And because my book--which features a protagonist who is not in high school and one birthday away from no longer being a teenager--was at auction at the time, I couldn’t yet give her proof from personal experience. But now I can.

There are exceptions to every rule.

I’m not saying we should throw everything we know about teen fiction out the window, write whatever we want, and proclaim it YA. The lines were drawn where they are because, for the most part, they work very well. Teenagers do like reading about high school students like themselves. They like reading about ordinary teens who have extraordinary powers or who fall in love with immortal beings. But we can’t cram all teenagers in one box and say “This is what they like.”

There are exceptions to every rule.

So write the story that’s in your heart. If it’s YA, you’ll know it. And if someone tells you that your story features a time period that’s “not historical enough” or a protagonist who is “too old” think twice.

Because there are exceptions to every rule.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fiction is Magic--Another Angle

I just read CJ's post, and I couldn't agree more with her idea: that the best writing, or even real writing, is the writing you can barely believe you're responsible for or maybe even capable of. Until, well, there it is on the screen, and you just know it had to come from somewhere...

But I've been thinking about another way that fiction is magic, or at least unconsciously perceived as being magic, and that magic isn't always so benign. I'm going to use the word "fiction" here in the larger sense, encompassing any kind of narrative art, in any medium, and even the kind of everyday fictionalizing that we engage in through gossip, or speculation about other people and their motives, or advertising, or an embarrassingly large proportion of political discourse. By "fiction" I mean that ballroom of the imaginary that covers the entire surface of the earth and a whole lot of territory beyond: a ballroom where we are all perpetually dancing, both cursed and blessed by our own enchantment.

(Does that sound like an exaggeration? It really is how I perceive human existence, though. Man is a narrative animal, and our narratives have a pretty sloppy correspondence to the truth even when we try to be objective, which isn't often. We live in a whirl of fictions, and we might as well admit it. Hard data barely register, not even when it's desperately important that we stop dreaming and pay attention.)

I increasingly believe that many people perceive fiction as being magical. Not that they would say so, or even admit it to themselves, but it shows in the way they relate to stories. At its crudest, this is fairly obvious, a kind of wishing-makes-it-so. Some fictions are based on this kind of straightforward wish-fulfillment; their message is that everything is going to be awesome, we're going to be eternally loved and have incredible powers, and we don't have to do a thing to earn it. But that magic only works up to a point, since it jostles against our experience of reality. The magic may actually become more powerful as it bends to let in suffering and difficulty, precisely because it's more believable.

More interesting, though, is the way that fiction can be perceived as a threat.

Years ago I saw the movie After Life by Hirokazu Koreeda; it's still one of my all-time favorite films. The premise is that the recently deceased wind up in a sort of run-down boarding school, where they have a week to choose only one memory with which to spend eternity while forgetting everything else. It's incredibly poignant and wrenching, since the characters have to come to terms with exactly which moment in their lives is most worth preserving, and for some the choices are not what they would have assumed. (For some, the memories are even deliberately fabricated!) Shortly after I talked with a woman who'd seen it too. To my surprise, she denied the entire premise of the movie; the characters weren't really going to spend eternity with their chosen memories! Just, oh, a week, or maybe a few days... I found her reaction strange, and not only because the movie made the whole eternity business so clear. She seemed genuinely panicked, so frightened by the ideas in the film that she couldn't even admit what she'd seen. It was as if she unconsciously believed that acknowledging that something had occurred, even in a work of fiction, would make it true. She denied it to protect herself from winding up in a run-down boarding school, forced to choose the most important memory of her own life...

So often fictions are attacked for presenting a world that people don't want to accept--never mind that there are horrors going on in the real world that dwarf just about anything we could invent. There seems to be a kind of underground argument going on, between people who believe the role of fiction is to illuminate truth through metaphor and indirection, and people who believe fiction should protect us against reality, or magically transfigure reality into something more palatable.

We'll never wind up in After Life's shabby boarding school, in short, but like its characters we might have to make excruciating choices about what we value.

Fiction can't protect us or transform us, but maybe, just maybe, it can illuminate enough to help us find new ways to transform ourselves.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

I Meant To Do That

Writing is magic. There I said it. Sometimes people ask me how you write a book and although I've written several of them by now the honest answer is that I don't know. I sit down at the laptop, press play on the DVD player in my head and let the movie run as I write down what happens. Many times I'll go back and read something from a previous writing session and think "wow, I wish I wrote that". Crazy I know.

One of the most magical things that happens while writing is the happy accident. Many times a name you pull out of thin air will end up having a deeper meaning to the character. I was writing a story a few years ago and naming characters randomly - whatever popped into my head first stayed. One of the main characters was a girl who secretly liked opera (something that I don't really share) and the name Mimi just seemed to fit. As I was doing research, I had coffee with Mark, a friend who works for the opera and knows everything about it. I explained the character like I always did (as if she was a real person) - that she was a foster kid who pretended to be tough, but loved opera and wanted to be a singer. As I told him that her name was Mimi, but that she'd changed it from something else (although I didn't know what the something else was) his eyes got wide and he commented that I must really like La Boheme. Huh? I'd heard of it of course, but I'd never listened to La Boheme or read anything about it as far as I knew. Mark looked at me skeptically as he explained that Mimi was one of the lovers in La Boheme and had also changed her name from something else. Goosebump time.

This kind of thing happened a lot with DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS. I do a lot of my thinking while walking the big hairy dog around the neighborhood. I was doing some setting planning on one of our walks and had to come up with the name of the street where my character lived. I looked up, noticed that I was standing on the corner of Collier St and Bridge Drive and decided that Collier sounded right. I didn't think about it again until after the book came out. One of the reviewers pointed out that I'd cleverly named the street my character lives on after the Collyer brothers - infamous hoarders from the early 20th century. And it would have been clever if I'd done it on purpose.

All of these happy (or perhaps subconscious) accidents happen when you leave yourself open to possibilities. If you're thinking of a name for a character or a place, grab the first one that passes through your mind. - it might have more meaning than you realize.

And always, when someone points out the brilliance of your choice, say both to yourself and out loud, "Yeah. I meant to do that."

Monday, December 20, 2010

I like the unlikeable!


One of my favorite characters of all time comes from Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, THE SHIPPING NEWS. Quoyle is an unattractive loser with a huge chin and an uninspiring personality. A coiled rope version of a doormat.

Ms. Proulx starts the story with Quoyle in a low place (his parents kill themselves, his abusive wife leaves him, his children are kidnapped, he loses his job). Quoyle has nowhere to go but up. And he does. Eventually, as the plot unfolds, he develops confidence and emotional strength.

Following an unlikable or deeply flawed character getting his or her act together can be so satisfying. It touches us at a deep level—if Quoyle can be successful and loves, well so can I. Ah, sweet redemption.

This concept of storytelling seeped into my unconscious years ago. When I first wrote Roz in My Invented Life, she had serious flaws—attention seeking, and selfishness. Many of my beta readers liked Roz because of her wicked sense of humor. But some found her intolerable. Annoying

I resisted the idea of softening Roz, though. I wanted the reader to experience the full effect of her transformation. Then an editor (sorry, I forget which one) gave advice at a conference that made sense: Look at the first ten things your protagonist does. Does she whine? Lie on the couch and complain about her life? Tease her sister? Make a mess for her mom to clean up? If so, consider mixing in some good qualities with the bad.

Ding, ding, ding! I didn’t have to water Roz down, dilute her. I just had to show the reader her positive qualities alongside the others.

Quoyle is a disaster at the beginning of The Shipping News, but his devotion to his daughters makes the reader believe in him. I did the same thing in My Invented Life. I showed that Roz has a big heart to balance out the rest.



Saturday, December 18, 2010

Accidents Will Happen

All hail the typo! Much cursed and often maligned, the lowly typo deserves more appreciation. After all, the typo is about surprise and the unexpected. There you are, writing away at your brilliant manuscript, thinking you know exactly where you're going and how it will unfold. Maybe you even have an outline (lucky you). Though you wouldn't admit it, there's a smug look on your face because for once you're in control of the project, and you think - no, you know - it's going pretty well. So you stop and read back over what you've just typed.

And then there it is. The typo of wonderment.

I'm not talking about your ordinary, everyday kind of typo, like "hte" or "evry." I'm talking about the transformational typo. The kind that carries a whole potential story in one little misplaced letter.

My favorite typo of all time appeared while I was writing Wildwing. Addy has time traveled to the Middle Ages, where she's mistaken for Lady Matilda, ward of the king. In this scene, she's attending a church service for a shipload of people drowned at sea, and she's the only one who knows that the real Lady Matilda was one of the victims. She's shaken and tears are running down her cheeks. As the service ends, the priest walks up to her, takes her hands in his, and says, "It is hard. I know it is hard. But the Lord does not give us a greater burden than we can bear."

Addy is speechless. So was I when I read what I'd typed next:

The priest is still holding my hands. "But life brings us boys to balance the pain," he says.

Of course! Thanks God for them, those boys who balance our pain.

Now, what I'd meant to type was, "life brings us joys to balance the pain," as the priest goes on to tell Addy he's looking forward to the joyous occasion of her wedding to the lord of the castle. But when my fingers slipped and typed that errant "b," maybe it was my muse giving me a nudge*, eager to get back to the real romance in the book: that handsome boy Addy just met, the falconer's son.

I think we all appreciate the big surprises of writing--the scene that takes us places we never expected, the book that reveals its true meaning to us only as we write the last chapter. But let's enjoy the little surprises as well. Spread your own joy by putting your favorite typos in the comments box. Come on, 'fess up!

*By the way, the first time I typed this, I left the "g" out of "nudge." Naughty, naughty muse.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Mixed Tape of Jobs




After I read Steph's posts about her other jobs, I got to thinking about all the jobs I've had since I started working at tweleve. Working so many different jobs really comes in handy when your main character needs a job.

I started out babysitting in the seventh grade. I'm the oldest of five kids so I had plenty of experience at home. I continued to babysit all the way through college. But as asoon as I turned fourteen, I got a "real" job with a pay stub. I lasted all of two days at Priscilla's Love & Gourmet and then gave my two day notice. I was hired to wash dishes with my friend Nell. She enjoyed washing dishes. Me, not so much. Plus, I was hungry after school and was afraid that I'd be caught with a meatball in my mouth. From there I went to work at the Music Box where I really enjoyed. I worked in the greeting card department. It was a lot of fun because Nell worked there with me but we had a boss that was a little odd. She liked to sashy by us a little too close.

After eight months I quit and took a job at Photo Wizard, a video and photo store. I worked there for four years. It was a blast, filled with interesting customers that could fill volumes of books. We did carry X-rated films so that always brought in an intersting crowd. Plus our boss was pretty lax. The only rule was that you could not wear a tutu to work.

I also worked at two different supermarkets, an Italian restaurant, a catering company, as an office temp, the YMCA gym and a movie theater. I met my husband at the movie theater in college so that was definitely a highlight. Well, that and the free movies, lol!

On the more professinal side I worked at several radio stations, as a newspaper reporter and wrote advertising copy for a medical advertising company. One year I had seven different jobs to claim for on my tax returns. I usually had at least three jobs at once. And I knew it was all for a purpose because now I have tons of material to pull from when writing my books.

After that I worked as a copy writer for a computer graphics company, then as a tutor and a middle school teacher. After that I taught adult ed. I enjoyed every one of these jobs because they each offered something different and I have met so many cool people over the years.

What was the coolest job you had in high school or college? I think mine was the temp job I had at FAO Schwartz. I was a toy demonstrator and played with oversized blocks all day. All though their theme song, Welcome to Our World of Toys kind of got to me after listening to it ten hours straight during the holiday season.

I think one day I will make a song mix with theme songs for each job that I've had over the years. It's going to be quite an ecclectic mix!

HOLIDAY GLEE IN A CAN by Wendy Delsol

So I may as well begin this post with a confession: I have a small addiction to decadently cheery holiday movies. Yep, even the made-for-TV, Lifetime and Hallmark variety. For eleven months of the year, I’m discerning about what I read or watch. I’m a Masterpiece Theatre junkie, I read reviews before ponying up for a movie ticket, and I value word-of-mouth book referrals. So why, come December, do I couch both my standards and my butt? I think the question has merit for a storyteller. I therefore attempt an explanation of their appeal:

GLEE IN A CAN. It is no coincidence that the wintertide observances (Christmas, Hannukah, and their pagan predecessors) are celebrated at the onset of winter. Bracing for isolation and scarcity, we stockpile hope and joy as well as canned peaches and tinned meat. Holiday movies swell with the promise of redemption and renewal. When the hotshot attorney sent with eviction papers to the struggling ranch ends up saving the cash-strapped business—and marrying the farmer’s daughter—we all feel buoyed with the promise of better days ahead.

COMFORT FOOD FOR THE SOUL. It’s human nature; predictability and familiarity are soothing. Save your WTF endings for the Oscar wannabes and thrill-a-minute plot twists for the summer blockbusters. In December, we want a log on the fire, pot roast in the oven, and a plotline that’s as worn as your grandma’s welcome mat.

YES, VIRGINIA. Come on, it’s plain ol’ fun to suspend belief, if for only the span of a cheesy movie. Santa is alive and well and—judging by his numerous offspring—as frisky as he is jolly. The lost or misguided get their do-over chance or their Wonderful Life-ish, you-don’t-know-what-you-got-til-it’s-gone moment. And who wouldn’t cheer for Mrs. Claus magicking her way to a cookie empire complete with hunky assistant?

TICK TOCK. Holiday movies also provide a nice, tight deadline. We are, after all, busy people and have come to appreciate timely solutions. It is satisfying to know that by December twenty-fifth all visiting ghosts, angels, and denizens of the North Pole will have concluded their business; that shallow, cold-fish fiancés will be spurned; that lonely, career-driven Type As will find their poor-but-happy soulmate; and that goodwill to all will roll with the credits.

So what’s my all-time favorite holiday film? It is Love Actually. I’m the child of British ex-pats so I love its quirky English humor. I think its hodge-podge of interwoven stories—featuring everything from a washed up singer to the porn industry to a frustrated mystery author to a Clintonesque spoof—is bloody brilliant. And I’m pleased as plum pudding that its title boldly uses “actually” the number one word that we writers are told to liposuck from our manuscripts. Oh, and it has Colin Firth—my Mr. Darcy—but that’s a topic meriting its own post.

So what’s your favorite holiday movie? Does anyone else want to admit their own addiction to the sappy and sentimental? And any other Colin fans out there?

Cheers, happy viewing, and season's greetings to you and yours!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On Revision and Addiction


Writing is rewriting. I've always known this. But I'm not sure that I've always understood it. If writing a first draft was like knitting a sweater, for example, then a second draft would be like ornamentation, adding on decorative elements, cutting off loose threads, or at worst weaving in an extra pattern. (Okay, I've never knitted anything in my life, but this analogy seemed to make sense.)

My current manuscript was in need of something much more drastic -- which I found kinda terrifying. How have I gotten this far without ever having to rip out reams of yarn or start all over?

I've often wished I had more technical training in writing fiction, would love to attend a program like the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA. But since I can't quite swing that at the moment, I did the next best thing. I turned to books. I spent my weekend reading about plot and structure. All weekend long I was yelling, "How did I not know this stuff?!" (The kids are used to the crazy writer lady who talks to herself and screams every now and then :))

I got out my trusty pen and a stack of paper and started drawing all sorts of diagrams and plot points. Now let me note here that I am what's called a "pantser", as in a writer who writes by the seat of their pants (or intuition), not by outlines. In fact, a number of years ago I went to a workshop on plot and the whole thing made me ill. The idea that one could decide that plot point x would occur on page 60 and plot point y would occur on page 120 made me want to hurl. In general, outlines give me hives.

But one of the books I was reading this weekend said 'Hey, it's fine to be a pantser. When you've finished your first draft, consider that to be an extended outline. Then look at it with the eyes of an outliner.' (I know, hives, right?) But actually, it's not so bad. I start to see why plot point x should actually happen sooner and why plot points y and z need to switch places. And suddenly I'm ripping out the guts of the manuscript and moving them all around --- and it's working!

Here's another little secret I learned this weekend: Human beings are addicted to worry. We seek it out all the time. It is the responsibility of the author to feed the addiction. That's why people buy the book. They want to have a meaningful, emotional experience. But without someone to worry over, they'll never fully enter the story.
So, in summary, authors are a little like mad scientists. We have to be a kind of insane. (Remember the crazy lady talking to herself and screaming.) We have to hack up our stories and torture our characters. And then we also have to be scientific, looking at the technical parts, the structure and how it all fits together (deep breaths, no hives).

And the craziest part is that diving into the scary stuff, really ripping the story apart and putting it back together, though terrifying, can be just as rewarding as the thrill of the first draft (for those of us who prefer that brand of torture -- but that's a whole other post.)

And in case you're wondering which books I was salivating over this weekend, they were Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell and Writing Fiction for Dummies (don't judge!)

Happy writing/revising/reading and happy holidays!

Monday, December 13, 2010

My Other Jobs

When my first book, I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE, came out, I quit my day job.

Not because I could afford it, mind you. Like many writers, I'm definitely not at the point where I make enough money from my writing career to pay my mortgage and my (massive!) student loans and other bills. I daydream about the day when I'll be able to do that or at least make enough from writing that we can live on that plus my husband's income, but right now that's not the case.

So why did I quit that job? Because I hated it. It was an administrative assistant gig where I was overworked and underpaid and even worse, underappreciated by one of my bosses, who had me doing an assistant director's job for a year, but then gave that job to someone with less experience and education than me and offered me the job of their secretary. Yeah, no thanks. That job was sucking the life out of me. I had no energy to go home and write, which was my true calling. So I used up my vacation time and went on a self-financed book tour/vacation to the West Coast, came home and gave my notice.

Like I said, there was no way I could afford to live for even a year on what I'd made on selling my first book, so I went back to one of the jobs I'd done as a grad student: Bartending.

Instead of a day job, I've held a night job for the past two and a half years. It doesn't come with the steady paycheck my old job provided and health insurance and a 401K? Forget about it. But I work three nights a week instead of a grueling 8:30 to 5 five day a week schedule. I can write during the day, which is when I'm freshest and though there are definitely some bad days at work (bar fights, huge groups of barely legal kids who don't know how to tip, or really slow periods like the month of January when I'm a little worried about making ends meet), for the most part my job inspires me. I meet new characters. I listen to people's stories. Through my job, I've become friends with people whose ages and backgrounds are very different than mine and I may not have met anywhere else. The job has truly helped me grow as a person and a writer and that's why I'm currently writing a book that is set largely in a neighborhood bar about a woman who has been bartending since she was eighteen (in several states it is legal to pour before it's legal to drink) and now, after a disastrous first year of college, her daughter is reluctantly following in her footsteps.

So here I am doing my other job as bartender at the Beacon Pub in Forest Park, IL (and yes if you are of legal drinking age and in the area, you are welcome to come in and say hi to me and I'm happy to talk about my day job as a writer):

I have to say that even if I am able to make a living off of my writing some day (and I hope I am because I probably can't bartend without health insurance and a 401K forever) that I'd keep one shift a week at the bar just because it's fun and allows me to get away from the computer and socialize.

There was also a strange merger between my writing and bartending career recently when I was talking to my local librarians who I know from wearing the author hat and they mentioned wanting to get out of the library and do a trivia night at a bar. I love trivia and had been trying to figure out how to run a trivia night and bartend at the same time, but knew it would be impossible. So we've combined forces and now on the second Wednesday of the month, the librarians run a trivia night at the Beacon while I serve drinks. Yeah, can you see why it's such a fun job now?

Being a writer also helped me stumble into another part time job. I write a monthly (well, technically, it's every three weeks) column for my town's paper, The Forest Park Review. They interviewed me after finding out that I had a book coming out and shortly after that offered me the gig. I was a little nervous at first because unlike many of my other writer friends, I've never freelanced for newspapers or magazines. I knew it was a good way to earn extra cash, but I wanted to make up fictional stories not be a journalist. However, the columns would be about the town I live in, which is a suburb of Chicago with a lot of interesting small businesses, local artists and writers, and I was encouraged to write in my own voice about what interested me. So I decided to think of it as my monthly blog about the town and once I got in that mindset, I figured I could totally do it. I've been writing for the paper for two and a half years now and have actually won some awards for my columns. I get to write about local things that matter to me like the organization that helps care for feral cats, the community garden, the farmer's market, the independent record store, the fact that there are so many cemeteries in my town that we have more dead people than living and would have a hell of a problem with zombies. Just this weekend, I covered a local Mystery Writers of America chapter's holiday party complete with murder mystery! That will be in the paper and live online this Wednesday, but if your curious about the kind of things I write about and the town I live in, this column gives an overview of why I like it so much. I'm a shy person, but writing for the paper has helped me come out of my shell a bit to talk to interesting people in my community and check out new events.

So I guess this is another job I'd be hesitant to give up even if I could afford to. Interesting how that works....

It's a little bit nerve-wracking to work jobs that don't provide a steady income, but these jobs support my writing habit. They feed the muse rather than sucking me dry. I don't know if I can do them forever, but I'm enjoying them now and plan to stick with it a couple more years to see where the writing takes me.

What about you? Do you have a job that feeds your muse? Are you lucky enough to do what you love full time? And if you aren't working yet, I hope this encourages you to find a way to follow your passion and find a job that is fun because it is possible!

Oh and I have a winner to choose from my last post, don't I? The winner of a signed copy of BALLADS OF SUBURBIA and my zine as decided by a random number drawn by random.org is...Spav! Congrats!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Waiting

Deferred gratification is defined as the ability to wait in order to obtain something that one wants.

If there ever were a term to describe the life of a writer, deferred gratification has it covered. An author who hopes to maintain any kind of grasp on sanity must learn to wait and wait some more. Suppose you’re not that type of person. When you want something, you must have it NOW!

Not to worry; you’ll have plenty of time to learn the ins and outs of waiting. Authors have endless opportunities to perfect our deferred gratification skills. First we wrack our brains for a compelling story idea. We can spend weeks tossing characters and plots in our minds like salad ingredients hoping for a palatable combination. Even so, all that mental energy may come to nothing if our writing group, agent, or editor gives our recipe the thumbs down. On the plus side, we’ve been treated to an important life lesson about our old friend, DG.

On the other hand let’s say you’ve written a magnificent story your writing group and agent love. Hey, it happens! Then comes the painful wait while your manuscript makes the rounds of likely editors. You open emails from your agent with trembling fingers and sink lower with each rejection. If every editor on the short list turns down your story you’ve wasted months—or much longer--thinking, writing, revising. Talk about all the deferral with none of the gratification!

Hold on. Editor Terrific loves your tale of YA romance and intrigue and snaps it up. Your wait is over. Or is it? After the initial love fest you may not hear another word from Editor T for eons. Ditto the revision letter, copyedits, galley pages, arcs, etc., etc. Eventually you and your novel will progress through all those necessary and marvelous steps. But eventually can be a long, long time. Did I mention long?

You’ve made it! Your final edits, dedication, and acknowledgements are in the mail. The arcs are printed and ready to go out to reviewers. Life couldn’t be better. Except for one small glitch. Your novel won’t hit bookstores for six more months. Which means, of course, more waiting.

If after all that deferred gratification experience waiting still drives you crazy, all is not lost. Some of the most talented authors in history were certifiably insane. You’ll be in excellent company.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


This weekend I made pickles. I love pickles and decided that it might be fun to make some. Besides, there's a restaurant in Boston that has the BEST pickles and I wanted to try and replicate their recipe. This may sound gross, but it's SO good - the pickles actually taste like cinnamon. I can't even explain it. So my pickles are a variation on a recipe I found on the Internet with some cinnamon sticks thrown in for good measure. I can't wait to eat them!!

Which brings me to hobbies. When I decided to make the pickles I had to buy everything involved - the mason jars, the pickling salt, the vinegar and spices and even those darn cinnamon sticks. $40 later I was ready to make pickles. 8 pickles. That's $5 a pickle, so they better be good! It seems ridiculous to spend that on pickles. But people do crazier things for the hobbies they love. Like travel to writers' conferences and enter contests with contest fees and spend their free time attending critique groups.

I never viewed writing as a hobby. The day I started my first novel I also started researching agents. Three months later I had an agent and a month after that the book was finished and sold. Yet so many people think writing is a "hobby," like a quaint activity that we do between loads of laundry.

Does something cease to be a hobby once you get paid for it? If someone bought my pickles, would I be a professional pickle seller? I think that lots of writers who have never sold a book take writing seriously. They devote hours to their craft, they invest in conferences where they can learn more about the industry, they endure what can be a frustrating and demoralizing process. But they press on. Doesn't sound like a hobby to me!

I wonder how many published writers thought of writing as a hobby when they started. And how many started writing with the knowledge that they would get published. And that's what made the difference.

Did you start writing as a hobby, something you enjoyed but viewed as a "nice to do?" Or when you sat down to write was getting published your end game?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Gifts of the Season

I just did something outrageous, considering the busyness of the holidays and work deadlines (a book party this weekend, a copyedit of Don't Breathe a Word FedExed this morning, a blog tour, plus the usual December craziness!).

I took a nap. Wild.

But even my naps are put to work, thinking about the acknowledgements page I need to write to thank everyone who has touched my second novel in some way. All the while, I'm thinking about that third novel idea and feeling guilty for not getting to it quite yet.

But you know what? Every one of those people is a gift. A deadline is a gift. Having another novel idea is a gift. FedEx is a gift! (And yes, the nap was definitely a gift!)

For all of the whirlwind, and worrying that maybe at some point I won't be able to keep up with it, there is the calm, clear center of friends and family...and don't forget the readers. They are truly what it's all about.

You are all a gift, and I'm grateful.

And now, I have a gift for you. In honor of the Tell Me a Secret blog tour going on right now courtesy of Teen Book Scene, I created an original collage painting inspired by the art of the Tell Me a Secret book trailer (view it here). We've made a limited edition run of prints, and I would love to give a signed print to one of you!


How to Win the Print (I'm stealing Stephanie Kuehnert's rules on her awesome signed BALLADS OF SUBURBIA giveaway below!):

+5 for leaving a comment on this post
+5 for becoming a follower of this blog
+5 for each time you tweet a link to this blog (YA Outside the Lines in general, or links to specific posts)
+5 for blogging about our lovely new blog and helping us spread the word
+1 for leaving a comment on any YA Outside the Lines post.

I'll run the contest to the end of this month and announce the winner on December 31st!

Oh, and just for fun, here's a shot of me at the TMAS party with fellow YA Outside the Lines-er, Barbara Caridad Ferrer (who is just releasing her sassy new novel WHEN THE STARS GO BLUE - come to her party tomorrow night in Seattle!):

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Acting outside the lines

Authors may write outside the lines, but what happens when they act outside the lines?  Can you separate the work from the author? Or is it possible for authors to forever tarnish their books by their behaviors?
Does how authors act matter?  Should it?
Rudeness 
One extremely successful mystery author I know of once complained on her cell phone - while she was still signing books - about how many people remained in her line. A bookseller told me that story. I haven’t read anything by her since.  
But then again, truth be told, I had never been a huge fan.  

What about you? Would you keep reading books by someone who was rumored to be a jerk (which could just be tiredness or a lack of social graces)? Standoffish (which could be just shy)? Boastful (which could just be the very human impulse to share good news)?

Murder 
I was a fan of Anne Perry’s historical mysteries for a long, long time. I read each one of her books nearly as soon as it came out. In the early 1990s, I went to see her at a local mystery book store. Many women in the audience dressed up in period costume, as if they were characters in her historical mysteries.  
Only a few weeks after that, the movie Heavenly Creatures came out. It was based on a true story - two 15-year-old girls in New Zealand who planned and carried out the murder of one girl’s mother. Their motive was to stop the woman from moving out of the country with her daughter and separating the two girls.    
Journalists tracked down what had happened to the teens. One grew up, changed her name, and became Anne Perry. She seldom speaks of the crime, but clearly accepts her guilt.  
I haven’t read her books since I learned about her past. But I feel torn about it. I believe that people can be forgiven, can be redeemed. I don’t begrudge her her success. I’m not sure why I can’t move on and read her books as I used to.

Would you be able to? 
Child pornography 
This one is the easiest for me - and the awfullest.  A local man, KP Bath, had written two middle-grade books published by Little Brown:  The Secret of Castle Cant and Escape from Castle Cant. The books were generally well-reviewed. The writing community in Portland is close-knit, but I never crossed paths with him (thankfully).  
Last year, Bath was sentenced to six years in prison for possessing child pornography. On his computer, the FBI found images of children, some of whom were bound and appeared to be being violently attacked. They also found a book manuscript on his computer, possibly Flip Side, which had been due out from Little Brown.  The publisher dropped the book after the allegations were made public.  
Could you separate this man’s awful actions from what were, by all accounts, pretty good books? Or would you join the many commenters on Amazon who suggest that the books should be burned?
Authors behaving badly
With the Internet, there no secrets. Get drunk at a conference and your antics will be Tweeted and blogged by morning.  Tweet something stupid yourself, or put it on your own blog, and even if you go back and delete it, it will still live on in cyberspace.  
How do you feel when you hear about a writer behaving badly? Have you ever stopped reading books you loved just because you had been turned off by the author as a person?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

I'm Not Afraid. To Take A Stand

I’m a fan of Eminem. I can’t resist him for reasons that are probably buried deep in my soul. (or not so deep depending on the day) It’s weird. I mean, you wouldn’t think I’m exactly his target audience. (forty*cough* something me and all) On the other hand, maybe I am. 
I’m a mom. And he always expresses deep love for his kids, (albeit not always appropriately). He’s angry.  I may or may not have anger issues of my own.  
Anyhow, to me Eminem is incredibly conflicted. He has obvious talent, guts and ambition but seems to fight an incredible self-sabotaging gene. As if he’s afraid he doesn’t deserve the good things that happen to him, so every now and then he has to f*(K up to balance it out.
But I love him. Despite that or perhaps because of that. Even with his potty mouth. Maybe it truly is a mothering instinct. Or maybe it’s my writer’s instinct. He would make an amazing character in a Janet Gurtler book.
For a couple of weeks I’d been wondering what to write when it came my turn to blog about what YA Outside the Lines means to me. Then it hit me. On the treadmill. At the gym. Eminem’s song came on. I’m Not Afraid To take a Stand  
“Holler if feel like you’ve been down the same road.” Eminem
Well. I have been you crazy rapper, you.  And I realized for me, that’s where the core of my writing comes from.
My characters always come with a fair amount of baggage, because to me, that’s truth. Everyone has issues. Or challenges. No one’s life is as perfect as it may seem on the surface to others looking on. Everyone has things they try to hide from the world. Maybe the pretty cheerleader has a dad who drinks too much. Or a bi-polar mother. The bully. Well. What’s bugging him?
The lines of acceptability are blurry to teens. What’s acceptable to adults and what’s acceptable in the world teens live in may not always be congruent. Teenage years are about trying desperately to fit in and find one’s place in the world, but also trying to define who we are and how we can escape the roles and expectations heaped on us by ourselves, our family and society in general.
So I write about the things I think teens deal with in one way or another. Things I struggled with. Addiction in myself and those around me. Health issues. Self-destructive inclinations. People making mistakes.

Sometimes I’ve really wished I could, and I’ve even tried to write “inside the lines.” Or what some people might consider acceptable. Fun, light stories! (which I am in no way putting down or saying are not wonderful books that I enjoy reading-- they just don’t flow from my soul)
But as light as I try to go, my characters always seem to reveal flaws in themselves or those around them. Things outside the acceptable lines. Drugs. Sex. Infidelity. Anger vs. pride, self-loathing vs. overconfidence. People don’t always do the right thing.
And yet. In the end, like Eminem, (in his own messed up way) I hope my writing is not hopeless, rather hopeful.  Some of my characters may fall outside the lines of what some people consider acceptable, yet outside the lines of acceptable behaviour is often where people find themselves. To me the beauty is finding the strength to come back.  
Janet Gurtler, Author of  I'M NOT HER, Sourcebooks, April 2011
“I guess I had to go to that place to get to this one.”
“I’m not afraid. To take a stand.”
Eminem

Janet Gurtler

I'M NOT HER, Sourcebooks Fire, April 2011

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Road

How long does it take to get any good at writing? I don’t know, actually. I’m sure it varies from person to person. I only know how long it took me. I wrote a one act play in the second grade. I wrote it using one of those fat first grade pencils. I still have the play. It is called, quite originally, The Mummy’s Curse. There is a tomb. There is a mummy. There is a professor who finds the mummy. I was obviously quite good at stealing from the movies when I was six or seven. I wrote this play in school. Like Emily Bronte, I think maybe school drove me a little bit mad. I had to imagine whatever I could to keep from drowning inside the structure. To stay sane I read lots of wonderful books and wrote my own stories whenever I had breaks.

I have written many thousands of pages since then. Stories in hundreds of spiral notebooks in what teachers used to call “cursive” writing. Printed stories on Big Chief notepads. Composition books. Stories on yellow legal paper. Finally one day I taught myself to type. I started out on my dad’s manual typewriter from school, a brown Underwood that came in a box that looked like a wooden suitcase. Then I graduated to an ancient Olivetti that weighed five hundred pounds and punched holes in the paper in place of the letter ‘O.’ After that a cheap little Sears portable the color of an egg yolk. I used to love how the pages piled up next to my typewriter. Here was tangible proof I wasn’t wasting my time. Well, at least tangible proof that I was actually producing something. I didn’t write constantly. I sometimes went whole months or maybe even a year or more without stringing together anything that resembled a story. I have always been way too interested in the world around me to stuff myself in a chair for decades on end. But I always came back to it.

Some of the stories I finished, some of I didn’t. In the early days most were adventure stories (think Edgar Rice Burroughs). Or science fiction (think Ray Bradbury or H.G. Wells or Philip K. Dick). Or horror (Stephen King). Then I began writing books. I became very good at writing pieces of books. I never finished them. I stopped at page 70. Page 133. Page 160. I never plotted anything ahead of time, just came up with an idea that sparked my imagination, and away I went. I would roar along for a while and inevitably would hit the Wall. The Wall was scrawled with graffiti that asked questions like this: What happens next? Do I care about what has already happened? Do I even like my characters? Did you use any dialog, or are there whole chapters with nothing but action or description? Is this story really going anywhere interesting?

Heck if I knew. So I would wrap up the stack of pages and stuff them in a box. Get another great idea, and off I’d go, roaring away again. The boxes filled and I hid them away. Then came stories on computers. A Commodore 64. Kay-Pro. Atari ST. Leading Edge PC. Apple Mac. Several IBM knockoffs. Etc. etc. I love computers but find them a little insidious. Somewhere in the digital world are many thousands of words of my deathless prose that no one will have access to ever again. Computers also give you the dubious capability to endlessly edit or modify your stories. Which can be a good thing or the Fifth Circle of Hell if you lose the version you really wanted to keep. Or if you revise and edit so much that your writing becomes polished to the point of being rendered into shapeless, frictionless junk without any teeth or barbs or whatever sharp things that were there that once gave your story the bite and scratch and rough raw freshness that made it feel alive.

More stories. More books. So what am I driving at? For most of us published writers, it has taken a very long time to get here. Thousands and millions of words. For every sixteen year old with a bestseller, there are tens of thousands of us who had to work at it a whole lot longer than that. Who knows, maybe I could have been published when I was 16. Or 20. Or 35. I only knew that I didn’t want to go the conventional route recommended in writer magazines: wallpaper your bathroom with rejection slips. No way did I want all that failure staring me in the face every day. I was determined to not send out a single word until I knew I was close. And I only wanted to measure myself against good writing. Sure, everybody goes through that moment as a writer when you read something crappy that was published and say, “Hey! I can do better than that!” But there are too many good writers out there. The idea is to be better than mediocre.

I hope I’m not scaring you. Didn’t mean to do that. I just wanted you to hear the realistic side of things. This is a scary profession. It’s not for the faint at heart. It’s also not for people who can’t put one foot in front of the other and keep on doing that until they have arrived somewhere worthwhile. Everybody wants to know the magical secret. Is it a certain type of formula query? Pink stationery? A stamp with the word “LOVE” surrounded by roses? Is it knowing somebody powerful in the industry, somebody who can squeeze you in for free through the back door? Hate to tell you, but it’s none of those things. It’s work and more work. But mixed in with the work, the hours, the years, is a whole lot of joy. And terror. And, every once in a while, a tiny little taste of ecstasy. And then your feet leave the ground and you can levitate. Or not. The truth is, you can follow your path without ever leaving the ground. The road only needs walking.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Stranger Than Fiction


My curiosity drives me; it always has.

I write fiction, and I base it on real events in history. I do that for two reasons – one, because my favorite thing to do is read, and research involves a lot of reading. And two, because I think reality is often weirder than fiction. I’m horribly curious about the past –what were they thinking when doctors bled a patient, or put leeches on them? What did they do without antibiotics? What must it have felt like to have people hate you, or not want to live near you because you were a Jew?

Even though we still have prejudice, and even a simple virus still has no cure, I do believe we can learn from our past. That’s why I write historical novels. To make the past something real and believable because so often it’s not. I read a lot of books to boil down a historical event to one novel, like crushing lots of grapes to make one good bottle of wine. I want readers to get the essence of the way things were, to understand a little better how things ended up as they are now.

I’m doing research for a novel that takes place during World War II, and I’m finding the landscape as dystopian as any dystopian novel. Whole cities bombed to the ground, piles of dead bodies rotting in the heat, starving families freezing. OK, maybe I’m a little more than morbidly fascinated by how people lived and how they died. That’s what drives me as a historical writer – because what shocks me even more than the stories I read is the fact that people tend to forget those very stories.

My novel Deadly is based on the true story of Mary Mallon, a woman many people know as “Typhoid Mary.” I started out with my own vague idea of her from childhood rumors growing up in New York City – that she was some kind of killer let loose on society. Of course, the real story was much stranger. She was a cook for wealthy families, but she carried the typhoid bacteria in her body, and spread it (unintentionally) in her cooking. All the families she worked for, and their servants, got very sick, and some of them died. Nobody knew about “healthy carriers” at the time. She didn’t believe she carried the germ, and she refused to stop cooking. She thought everyone hated her because she was Irish. Finally, the police had to take her away, and society locked her up for the rest of her life.

Through my writing, I hope to shed light on the mysteries of our past. If just one reader imagines herself a girl in 1906 hunting down Typhoid Mary, and suddenly sees a person living with HIV (a modern-day healthy carrier) differently, then all that reading and grape crushing will be worth venturing outside the lines.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

My particular gift

So, it's been a month already, huh? What do y'all think? Are we doing okay around here with our fabulously multi-hued tapestry? I know I've enjoyed all of our maiden entries and am eagerly looking forward to more.

But then... came the second entry. First entry was easy—a lot of pressure, because I was the debut entry for the blog, but relatively easy in that I had the topic handed to me. But for this one, I had to think of something all on my lonesome. Oy.

It's not that I don't have a lot to talk about. I mean, didja know I had a new release last week? (When the Stars Go Blue) You should, if only because I was a total promo whore and it felt like I was absolutely everywhere and can someone give me a cookie and a Cabana Boy, please? Because I really have a hard time with promo. I'm convinced I'm not very good at it-- I don't have the natural flair and gift for it that say, our Jenn Echols and Steph Kuehnert do.

But promo's not what I want to talk about because the title of the post is "My particular gift" and as we've already established, promo is not my gift.

But it is something about Stars that I want to talk about and tangentially, my earlier releases, Adiós to My Old Life and It's Not About the Accent, and the new YA currently in progress. It's no real secret that in my YA novels in particular, I've tended to write about the arts. It started sort of by accident, since I never expected to find myself writing YA, but when it was suggested, I did what most people do with the first time they try something: I stuck to something I knew well while I explored that which was unfamiliar. So I made my lead character a musician, like I'd been, once upon a time.

Readers seemed to really like that aspect of the book.

Then, for Accent, my lead character was a theatre major in college. I'd never been a theatre major, but I do have a longstanding history and love of theatre, especially musical theatre. In fact, one of the things I'd most wanted to do, career-wise growing up, was be Barbra Streisand. I wanted to sing, dance, and act.

Turns out, too, my male lead in Accent was an artistic type: Peter was a computer graphic arts major. (I am not an artist in any way, shape, or form, but I do love art.)

And of course now, with Stars, I honestly couldn't escape the arts, even if I'd wanted, which, incidentally, I hadn't really wanted to. It's an adaptation of Mérimée's & Bizet's Carmen so the artistic pedigree was there from the get to. Then, I deliberately chose to set it in the very artistic world of competitive drum & bugle corps with an aspiring professional dancer at the center of the action. Even the athletic endeavors I describe in an artistic fashion, not to mention that my soccer jock turns out to be an artist. (Are we sensing a theme here?)

The reviews for Stars have said things like, "Ferrer understands the drive that consumes aspiring artists and athletes," and describe the book as a whole as a "love letter to the arts".

For cripe's sake, reviewers and readers even use words like "lyrical" to describe my writing.

And still I didn't quite catch on.

It wasn't until earlier this week, when I finally got back to the current work-in-progress that it really hit me. This particular work is developing a strong blues undertone in places and as such, I have a very blues oriented soundtrack (one of four I've already got for this MS— it's a bit schizophrenic, personality-wise.) I went off into my zone for the first time in weeks and just let the music play and the words flow. And when I was done and sat back and read what I'd written, that's when it finally hit me. I figured out what it is about my voice, what I think my particular gift is.


I'm a musician and I always wanted to be great at it. I wanted to have the kind of big voice and talent that stopped people dead in their tracks and made the little hairs on the back of their necks stand up. Alas, not to be. I'm good, maybe even better than good, but I'll never be that person. Broke my heart when I came to that realization.

However—

When it comes to writing about that sort of talent—writing about music or art... Maybe... just maybe... that's where my gift lies. Because I can take my knowledge and passion for those disciplines and channel it into words. Bring the sounds and images to life.

I should probably just let you judge for yourself. From the WIP:

Smoky heat and the intricate, meditative twang of a blues progression drifted out as she pushed open the glass-paned door. Quietly, she closed it behind herself and moved to the battered leather recliner set to one side of the pot-bellied woodstove. It was her favorite spot in the room—warm, near a window that gave her good light, and best of all, provided a good vantage point from which she could observe Daddy, his hands moving deliberately over his Gretsch archtop, the raw beauty of the music making her insides hurt—in a good way. Reaching over the arm of the chair, she picked up one of her ever-present sketch pads and a graphite pencil, using light, sure strokes to capture the curve of Daddy's back, the delicate tension in his hands as he coaxed out the sobs and wails that he'd said his Louisiana granddaddy told him made the blues the truest music of the heart.

Maybe, just maybe, my particular gift is that I can write about these things I love in a way that adequately conveys my passion.

Hey, I never said I was quick on the uptake, right?

So for anyone who's made it all the way down to the end of this unexpectedly long post, I'd love to hear about your passion. Favorite music, art, sport, whatever it is, I'd love to hear about it. A randomly chosen commenter will win a signed copy of STARS!