Monday, January 30, 2012

On Trying New Things

For the first time ever, I’m dipping my toe into a whole new writing pond. I’m trying my hand at some creative nonfiction.

Those of you who have gone anywhere near my website, my photo galleries, my blog or my Facebook profile know I’m very big into hiking. I travel to some interesting places when I get it into my head to take on a new hike. And then usually I post photos, and sometimes videos, for my readers.

About a year ago, I was walking down Indian Cove Road in Joshua Tree National Monument, headed for the Boy Scout trail. I was thinking about that old and beloved mantra “Do what you love and the money will follow.” Of course, I was doing what I loved right then. Not that I don’t love writing. I do. First. Foremost. But that day I had two sudden new thoughts. One: maybe I should write (my first love) about hiking (my second love). And, perhaps even more importantly, two: if I did, all of this travel would be tax deductible.

My new book of essays was born. It’s not out yet. Not even sold yet. I’m just going over the very last small revisions suggested by my agent.

It’s really not a book about hiking. It’s a book about the moments in my life that changed me, sometimes in small ways, sometimes monumentally. It just so happens that about four out of ten such moments took place on tough trails in the great outdoors.

Last Fall I was asked to present a reading for a Sierra Club fundraiser that took place yesterday. What better to read than non-traditionally inspirational trail stories? And it was a multi-media presentation, with my photos of the Grand Canyon, the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, Pinnacles National Monument and “The Wave” cycling around as I read about my experiences in those places. I knew all the photos I take (which would probably raise the production cost too much to be included in the book) would come in handy for something.

More than one person commented that I seem to have a feel for nonfiction. Who knew? And how will I know unless I try?

This might open doors for me, I’m thinking. For example, I’ve always wanted to trek in the lower reaches of the Himalayas in Tibet or Nepal. Maybe I could do that, and end up with a book about the experience. I’ve also always wanted to meet an Atlantic Puffin face-to-face on some cold, remote northern island, or watch the aurora borealis from those hotel rooms in Norway shaped like glass igloos. And if I want to do it so much, maybe others might enjoy reading about it.

That’s actually what I like about firsts. The way they sometimes lead to seconds, and then thirds, and then “lifetimes of.” But first you have to be open to the first.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

First times...

First time I decided I wanted to be an author: 2001. I was 25. Before then, it had never once occurred to me that writing was something I'd want to do with my time. In high school, if someone had suggested that I write for fun, I probably would have snarkily replied "Write for fun? Why don't I do math for fun? Right." I always regret this. I feel that I wasted ten years of developing my writing, simply because I never tried until I was an adult.

Fast forward to Puebla, Mexico, 2001. My girlfriend and I had just broken up. So there I was, broke, alone, a miserable gringo south of the border. I had no choice. I had to write a book.

Not knowing how to go about this, I opened up my old laptop and started typing. I basically used my high school self as the protagonist, my high school friends as the other characters, and my hometown as the setting. I never in a million years thought that anything would come of this. But one day, much to my shock, I finished the book, 'Playing With Matches.'

First positive response from a publisher: Well, forty or so rejection letters later, I had run out of places to send my manuscript. I had decided to put the book on the shelf for a while and try something else. However, I ran across notice of a contest for unpublished YA novelists and, after shrinking the font to meet the maximum page number requirement, I sent it in. I didn't hear from anyone for so long that I assumed I lost and no one had told me. However, one day, while running a junior high study hall, I got that e-mail, every author dreams of: I didn't win. But an editor thought the book showed potential, and asked for a rewrite.

That night, I made a vow that I would dedicate all my efforts to making this book perfect. Nothing would distract me. A few days later, my wife tells me to close my eyes and hands me something.

A home pregnancy test. Positive (Yes, we'd been trying...for about two weeks). Realizing I was working under a rather harsh nine month deadline, I redoubled my efforts. And, shortly after my wonderful daughter Sophie was born, 'Playing With Matches' was published.

I could tell you about other first times, but I don't think this is the right kind of blog.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

WAY outside the lines

My first adult novel is due in about a month.

Well, maybe it's not my first, but my "first." I wrote adult novels before I wrote YA novels. They just didn't get published. My dream career was to have both YA and adult novels published and to bop back and forth between them. I had both an adult novel and a YA novel out on submission in 2005. The YA novel sold, the adult novel didn't, and it's taken another seven years to get the adult half of my career off the ground.

There was never any question of what name I would use to publish my adult novels. They were purchased by the division of Simon & Schuster that also publishes my darker YA novels, and since those have been successful, it was assumed I would use the same name. I have no problem with that.

I do distinctly remember, however, that when I was a 12-year-old rabid Judy Blume fan, I was horrified to learn that she had written an adult novel and that it was DIRTY. I felt betrayed.

Looking back at this now, I am mad at 12-year-old me and defensive of Judy Blume. This is pretty confusing.

I am not changing my pen name. I have enough trouble tweeting as @JenniferEchols. If I had to tweet and Facebook and blog under another name too, my head would explode. But I do wonder whether I will encounter any resistance to the adult half of my career from my YA readers.

There are plenty of precedents for adult authors starting to write YA and keeping the same name or changing their name only slightly: Gena Showalter, Nicole/Niki Burnham. Then there's YA author Trinity Faegan, who first won awards and made lots of friends as adult author Stephanie Faegan and told me she was having some trouble being recognized as her alter-ego, at least initially. But offhand, I can't think of any other authors who moved from YA to adult.

If you're a YA reader, all you all offended that I'm moving over to the dark side? And if you're a YA writer, would you have kept your name?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Good firsts and bad firsts (Tara Kelly)

In the writing world, this last year has been a real roller coaster ride of firsts, leaving me to wonder...what's next?

The Good:

My first book made two 'best of' lists (BFYA and Bank Street) and won its first and only award.
I gave my first award speech...ever.
I gained the courage to go out in public and do my first signings.
I participated in my first book tour, with a group of other authors.
I attended my first book related conference (NCTE) where I spoke on a YA writing panel for the first time.
A group of teens made their first movie based on my first book.
My second book made it onto major retailer shelves (a first for me).
I'm writing my first thriller, a completely intimidating and game-changing experience for me. It's forcing me way out of my comfort zone and making me take a hard look at where I'm weak as a writer.

The Bad:

The last book I wrote, my favorite yet, was the first to not sell. Broke my heart.
My first book did not make it to paperback.
I got my first taste of how a writer's numbers can affect a career.
For the first time since my short career started, I'm completely unsure of what's next for me. I have no new books coming out, and I don't know if I'll sell another.
I got my first hate mail and hate thread.

The verdict? I'm still here. I'm still writing. I'm not giving up. 2012 is going to be the year I take risks. It's going to be a fresh start. The first time I say--why not--when it comes to pushing boundaries in my stories and 'going there' with my characters. We'll see what happens next...

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

new firsts - Alisa M. Libby

Crushes, kisses...I think I had a crush on a book before I had a real crush on a boy. I would walk around the elementary school playground staring wistfully at clouds, imagining I was the Lady Amalthea from Beagle's The Last Unicorn. And there was all that Poe I read and re-read to myself. And Tennyson's Sleeping Beauty. And Lady Jane Grey, with the end that made me weep. And somewhere boys became a distraction, an increasingly greater distraction. And Sylvia Plath became both a terror and a comfort (raging at tulips, raging at everything). And I fell in love with J. Alfred Prufrock and his love song. And I memorized lyrics by Ani DiFranco when she was angry, and Tori Amos when she was crazy and angry.

And there are still firsts, now. Don't think that firsts are only for teenagers. There is still the first time I heard the Dresden Dolls sing "Girl Anachronism" - then learned the words so I could belt it like a lunatic along with them. And there are still more books that I will read - more Last Unicorns and Harry Potters and Draculas - books that will absolutely set me on fire. And I will remember that moment I first fell in love with them.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Formative Firsts by Rosemary Clement-Moore

YA books are all about firsts. First love, first independence, first important decisions made without the help of parental units. More than age of the character, or setting, or anything else, I think that’s the thing that defines a YA book.
And I think that’s why YA books have got such broad appeal. We never stop having “firsts.” I just went on my first cruise. (I know this is not much of a rite of passage for people, but it meant confronting at least 8 of my 15 phobias, so it was kind of a big deal for me.) I visited a foreign country by myself. Okay, it was for 5 hours, and it was Jamaica, and I didn’t leave the confines of Montego Bay. But still!
My firsts tend to be typical of my life. A little screwball. But that just makes them more memorable. 
My first kiss was from a guy in a Boba Fett costume, sans helmet. (It was a halloween party.) 
My first job was playing Chuck E. Cheese at the pizza place of the same name. (There seems to be a costume theme going on here.)
My first plane ride, I barfed. 
My first helicopter ride, I barfed. 
(My first boat ride, I did just fine. There was no barfing on this cruise.)
My first reading of Little Women was in the third grade. I earned a years worth of reading points in one book, and swore I was going to change my name to Josephine when I turned 18. 
My first (substantial) short story was written in the third grade, about a girl who woke up in the middle of the night to find a UFO landing on her front lawn. She ran downstairs in her pjs and fought the alien back into his spaceship with the umbrella that she’d grabbed from the umbrella stand by the front door. Interestingly, the story was in first person. I guess I’ve always known my voice, even back then. (All my stories involved Martians, as my father had given me the John Carter of Mars books as soon as I finished all the Nancy Drew books.)
As a result, I’ve always had a thing for guys in armor, a hatred of flying (and of giant costume characters), and a love of sci-fi and mystery stories and strong, quirky heroines like Jo March. 
Most firsts are worth looking back and laughing at, and even when they are tragic, they form the landscape of our journey. How we chose to allow them to affect us is what makes us what we are. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Firsts and Unfoldings--Sarah Porter

At first it was all such a struggle.
Once, long, long ago, there was a first sentence: "There is a sound that holds my life suspended."
But getting that sentence to become a scene, and that scene to become a story, was almost insurmountably difficult--though after several years of labor it did grow into a thoroughly unpublishable novel.
At first words seemed isolated in space; they didn't want to connect to each other, roll through each other, gather momentum.
At first, writing was all about discipline. Now discipline barely enters into it. Now writing is almost like a property of my body, an activity inherent in my fingers; they land on the keyboard much as rain taps at the street. Now bits of new stories as well as scenes from old ones often play on and on in my head: words I once put on paper constitute a kind of default setting that my thoughts fall into when I'm not focusing on anything in particular.
I couldn't say when I stopped needing discipline, only that it took years of practice to get to that point.
The real value of firsts for me lies in what they may lead to, I think, not in themselves. I can't remember the first time I woke up to see my husband still asleep, but I'm quite sure he didn't seem as beautiful to me then as he does now. It's the repetition of that experience which has let it grow and unfold into a gestalt. Any morning when I watch him sleep is a small flower of the particular--this morning and no other--that grows from a larger essence: Todd asleep and beautiful, as he has been so many times, until the sight of him seems distilled into something eternal.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Firsts--and why I write YA

In high school, I started a list.

The first time I ...

… kissed a boy. …at the school dance …

… french kissed. … the New Years Eve party …

… enjoyed kissing. … went to the old cemetery …


Pretty much.

My dad—in the throes of cleaning frenzy after I moved away to go to college—tossed it out, and I’ve tried to re-create it from memory. Though I really did enjoy that night in the cemetery, kissing wasn’t the only thing on the list

The first time I …

  • went down a water slide

  • … wrote a letter to the editor

  • … appreciated Shakespeare

  • … ran in a cross-country meet

  • … went on a ski trip with friends

  • …cheated on a test (and the last time. I got caught.)

  • … ate a whole meal with chopsticks

Each first had a different quality—tingling me all over, boosting my self-confidence, zapping me with electric excitement, filling me with whipped cream, over-taking me with feelings of slime and rot. At night, I would spend hours in the dark reliving the glory or the pain.

And that’s why I love writing for teens. They live in a world of firsts, of intense highs, deep lows, and events so significant they will never be forgotten.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

First Fan Letter Sent

Piggybacking on Daisy’s first fan letter, I thought I’d write about the time I first sent a fan letter. I was in the fourth grade and my friend Fawn and I wrote to Michael J. Fox. Fawn told him how much she loved him. I thought my letter should be more constructive and therefore told him that I thought Teen Wolf was not his best work and that I liked Family Ties a lot more. Fawn got a postcard back, I did not.

I realized that Michael was probably not looking for my advice and maybe I hurt his feelings. So the next year when Fawn and I were taking a theater class and had high hopes of making it to Hollywood, we came up with a brilliant idea. We would offer to be in one of Michael Jackson’s videos and we’d even choreograph it for him. And a natural fit would be P.Y.T, Pretty Young Thing. We crafted the letter on the Snoopy stationery that my grandma had bought me. We waited and waited but alas no reply from this Michael either. I was a little down about it but figured he might be kind of busy and receiving tons of letters. Ya think, lol?!

I decided to take a break from writing fan letters for a while until I came across an interview in Sassy magazine in high school with John and John, the two guys from the band They Might Be Giants. The guys said that they reply to every fan letter and that they loved funny letters. I was a huge fan of TMBG so I decided to put them to the test and whipped out the funniest letter I could muster. And a few weeks later, I received a handwritten letter back from them! I was elated. So for me the third time was a charm.

So have you ever written a celebrity and did they write back?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Getting Past "Don't Wanna"-- Firsts and YA, by Emily Whitman

Thinking about our theme this month, firsts, I realized that's why I write YA. It's all about firsts. The first time you stand up to a bully, or an unjust world. Your first kiss. Your first step on a journey. That's what I want to explore--that moment of choice, of bravery, of change.

"I woke in the middle of the night, came straight up out of sleep. Then sat there, heart pounding, in that numb, blind space where you can't quite kludge together exactly what's just happened or where or when you are." That's Bryn in Susan Fletcher's Ancient, Strange, and Lovely. A thumping noise woke her, and since her parents are missing and she's watching out for her little sister, she has to go check it out. It's scary out in the windy dark. "Don't wanna," thinks Bryn. But she goes anyway. (And discover's a hatching dragon's egg, and her family's secret history, and her strength).

Don't wanna. But you do it anyway.

The moment you make the choice to do it anyway--your pulse racing, your skin tingling, thinking you might well fail but you have to try--that's the start of the journey. Of taking the risk to grow. For me, one of those moments was the first time I went to a writing conference and let people see what I was working on and risked hearing what they really thought. Daring to dream that I could be a writer.

Why YA? By the time you're older, you've lived through enough situations that you've got templates. You've survived some crazy situations and you've got a sense you might just get through. But as a teen, you don't have a bag of tricks at the ready yet. And life is throwing itself at you full force. There are real stakes here, choices you know can shape the rest of your life. In The Hunger Games, the stakes are life and death--Katniss has to kill other kids if she's going to survive. (For an interesting take on how that rings true for teens who have to face a high school lunchroom every day, take a look at Laura Miller's piece on dystopian fiction in The New Yorker, "Fresh Hell.") (That illustration is by Kikuo Johnson, by the way).

I want to keep daring, to take on firsts, for as long as I live. So I read YA, where heroes and heroines inspire me to take a step into the unknown. And I write YA, where the stakes are high and the choices are profound. Because it's about transformation. Daring to take a step. Daring to change.

p.s. I have some great news to share--Wildwing is a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards! And I have incredible company on the YA list--Lisa Schroeder, April Henry, Jen Violi, and Heather Vogel Frederick!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

First job(s) by Wendy Delsol

We’re talking firsts this month. Because I’ve made this crazy writing gig my fulltime job, I thought I’d dedicate this post to first jobs.

Our writing is shaped by our life experiences, work history included. My first job was at age sixteen, between my junior and senior years of high school. I worked as a stock girl (back then we didn’t know about gender-neutral job descriptions) for a discount drugstore in Roseville, Michigan (a suburb of Detroit). I didn’t like it much (the job, not Detroit). It was mindless, boring, surprisingly physical, and there was little to no interaction with customers or coworkers. If nothing else, it strengthened my college goals.

Post-bachelor’s-degree, my first real job was as an interpreter for a French engineering company that was installing a painting system for Ford. I wore a hard-hat, steel-toe boots, and got paid to interpret whenever the French experts had something to say to the American installers. It was actually pretty fun. I had just returned home after having spent a post-college

year studying in France. Although I was only hired for the project itself—lasting only three or four months, if my memory serves correctly—it felt rewarding to use my French for a job. The two engineers with whom I worked were wonderful, and I had this amazing peek at life on the floor of the Ford factory. Loud, hot, dirty, and very few other females are what I remember most. Not that I was sweating it out “on the floor” for eight hours a day. The two Frenchmen and I had the luxury of retreating to the air-conditioned offices and propping our steel-toed boots up on a desk.

Not long after that project ended, I followed my college roomies out to Los Angeles. There, I got my master’s degree (while waiting tables at night) and later worked as a tour coordinator in the travel industry, a job I held for over ten years.

Speaking of ten, it’s been a decade since I’ve dedicated myself to writing, my favorite job of all—and last, with any luck.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Years and Years of Firsts

The last year or so has given me a number of firsts, all of which lead me to believe I’m actually getting older, which is a notion I’ve completely disregarded my entire life (during which, I was constantly getting older).

There are great things about getting older: First, if you work hard at it, you start knowing yourself pretty well. I know, for instance, that there are certain things I shouldn’t keep in my house, unless I want to get sick. They include: cold pack cheese, wheat thins, and cigarettes (all of which I know are terrible for me, and yet some part of my psychology relishes downing pounds of the cheese and crackers while smoking the cigarettes). I very rarely eat crackers and cheese and I don’t smoke anymore. And, I feel better, but still know I have no power over crackers and cigarettes. That knowledge keeps me from purchasing them. Victory!

Dad Messing Around

There are terrible things about getting older: First, you begin to lose the people you love. At the end of 2010 I lost my father. In 2011 I released my first book that my dad had never read in book form (he saw the manuscript of Stupid Fast and loved it). There was something so sad about going to my book release without my dad being there. In 2012, I’ll release my first book that my dad never saw.

Ageing: In 2011, for the first time, I had to acknowledge that my body is getting older. In order to utterly enjoy my friends, I stayed up really late on a trip late in 2011 (as I have often done in the past). The next morning I went to exercise (as I often have done after the late nights – trying to balance it all out) and, for the first time ever, I experienced muscle cramps while running on a treadmill and, for the first time, I fell off a treadmill. Some employee of the hotel saw this happen on video and came running up to the exercise room to ask if I was okay. I was not okay. I was seriously embarrassed (I also skinned my knee). Phillip Roth says that ageing is a massacre.

I have never enjoyed hiking. Even though I live in a small town, close to nature, I would not say my orientation is to the woods and marshes and mountains. I’ve always liked distinctly human places (big cities with lots of taxi cabs). In 2011, I climbed my first mountain. I did it with my fourteen-year-old son, Leo. We were in Arizona and it was hard, hard work. At the top, the sun blasted the crap out of us and it was so dang beautiful: small, desert ranges in the distance, red rock, green cactus, blue sky. You can’t have a fourteen-year-old son, unless you’ve lived a while. Having kids leads to all kinds of awesome firsts. We climbed a freaking mountain!

Bright Sun

Happy first month of 2012. I wish you a hundred more and all the firsts – terrible and excellent – that will come to you.

-Geoff Herbach

Sunday, January 15, 2012

First Things First (Cheryl Renée Herbsman)

What's the first thing you need when starting a new story? Does it differ from project to project, or is it always the same for you? Do you begin with plot or setting or character? Do you rip an idea from a headline or an overheard conversation? Whatever else I begin with, I can't start a new story until I first find the voice of my protagonist.

In beginning my current work-in-progress, I knew that I'd be writing it in order to work through an overwhelm of emotions I'd been dealing with during a difficult time in my life. So I needed to find a character who could take on those feelings. For weeks I toyed with different YA voices, trying to see where I might take a story that would include the healing I needed to explore. And it wasn't working. Ultimately, I realized that for this particular story, I would need to go farther outside the YA lines than I'd ever been -- I'd need an adult MC.

At first, this idea terrified me, made me back away from the story altogether. I like being a YA author. I like the YA community. I didn't want to leave it behind. But as soon as I gave myself permission to think about writing my first women's fiction, the character came to me. And as soon as I let her in, her story poured out of me. So I guess I needed to write it. And although it took me a while to realize it, it doesn't mean I can't still write YA!

The initial steps of the WIP are done. The story is told. And I'm ready to start something new. Only I don't know what yet. So I'm waiting, filling the well, and listening, listening, listening for that first whisper -- the voice of the next character whose story wants to be told.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Myriad of Firsts (Julie Chibbaro)

I’m having trouble concentrating today. Maybe having trouble with the assignment of ‘firsts.’ I’m not so good at assignments. I wish I were better.

The only first I can hear is my sister’s voice, “First in the bathroom!” In that singsongy way that made me know she would crush me if I got there first.

Or being first at a party, or first to an important meeting. I’m always too early for those things.

I like First Saturdays, where galleries open for new art.

There’s a cool science organization called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).

An author friend works at First Book, which gets books to kids who can't afford them.

First woman doctor. First woman scientist. First woman in space.

Firsts. Now the word is starting to warm up.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Very Sad "Last" (Stephanie Kuehnert)

I know the theme for this month is "firsts," but this is YA Outside the Lines after all, so I'm gonna go outside the lines. Also there is only one thing that I could think about blogging about today, Friday January 13th, 2012, a date that has been seared in red in my brain since last spring, a day that I honestly hoped would never arrive. Today, a few short hours from now, the last episode of One Life To Live will air, and more likely than not, I will be reducing to a sobbing ball of snot.

Geez, she's being rather melodramatic about a soap opera, you are probably thinking. Well I ask you this... Dude, what other way is there to be about a soap opera?!?!

But seriously, One Life To Live has been a part of my life and routine for for about eighteen years and seven months now. I started watching it the summer before my freshman year of high school. I went to summer school that summer to get health class out of the way and learn my way around my new high school. After class, which got out just before noon, I would go to a friend's house for lunch. She was obsessed with both All My Children and One Life to Live and she got me hooked. When I started watching OLTL, two children, CJ and Sarah were trapped in a well, and a rapist, Todd Manning, had escaped jail. I had to see what happened next. And while those storylines unfolded and (veeeeery slowly) worked their way toward resolution, I became invested in others. I . Could. Not. Stop. I've spent much of my life ever since either watching OLTL when I was home from school/work or recording it to watch later.

One Life To Live wasn't the first story I've ever loved (that would be Peter Pan) or even the first series (that would be the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder). It wasn't the first TV show I rushed home to see every day (that would probably be Degrassi). It wasn't even my first exposure to romance (Sweet Valley High), steamier romance (Forever/we got cable when I was ten), rather twisted, creepy romance (Flowers In The Attic), or experience with overwrought, melodramatic arguing (I'd just graduated junior high). But it was the best combination of those things and more.

When I first heard that the show was being canceled, I wrote in depth about my history with it here. A few months ago I also explained on ROOKIE why I think it's "Literally The Best Thing Ever." I won't rehash what I said there too much. Instead I want to focus on what One Life To Live meant to me as a writer because it did present me with a first there.

By the time I started watching OLTL, I was already pretty serious about writing. Once again, Laura Ingalls Wilder takes the credit for that. Since deciding at the age of five that I wanted to tell stories like she did, I'd been learning all I could about writing in the traditional manner. I paid close attention in English class and went above and beyond for my assignments. I read voraciously, everything from mysteries to horror to fantasy to Shakespeare. I'd even gone to a few "young authors" conferences to do workshops with the pros. But One Life To Live was my first non-traditional writing teacher.

Yep, that's right, a soap opera provided essential storytelling instruction. And I'm not alone in seeingthis. I was very pleased to come across this blog, which states, "Any primetime show featuring recurring characters, storylines and cliffhangers -- from Star Trek to Friends to CSI to Mad Men and everything in between -- owes its heritage to soap operas. Without the storytelling techniques pioneered over the last sixty plus years by daytime serials, these modern-day shows would have lacked the blueprint for creating entertainment franchises of enduring popularity."

While I didn't learn everything I know about storytelling from One Life to Live, I learned a hell of a lot.

In terms of writing tension, OLTL was my best teacher, hands down. I learned how to draw out a moment, throw in twists and turns, and build a story note by note to that final showdown or explosion. I also learned from OLTL's mistakes about dragging out a storyline too long. I made mental notes of when I started to get bored or see all of the devices that the writers were using.

OLTL taught me just as much about characters. This may surprise you since soap operas are often stereotyped as having one-dimensional, melodramatic characters, but when the plot got stretched thin on One Life, it was often the characters (played beautifully by some of the hardest working, most underrated actors in the biz) that kept me invested in the show. There are so many characters on soaps and I'd found very few examples in literature dealing with such a large well-developed cast. I took hints on how to use big groups and still make individuals stand out. One of the key things I learned was giving even the villains a nuanced back story. The guy pictured at the very top of this blog is my favorite character on One Life To Live, Todd Manning. He is also as I mentioned earlier, a rapist. One of my favorite characters is a rapist. That sounds so wrong, but no one knows how to write bad guys you love to hate or bad guys who might get a little bit of redemption like a soap writer. In both my books I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE and BALLADS OF SUBURBIA, I borrowed from the Todd Manning/OLTL school of character development to create characters that I hoped readers would love and then be shocked to discover were capable of doing very bad things as well as characters that rode a fine line between love and hate, either you wanted to hate them because of one thing they did and yet you understood their motivations or you knew you shouldn't really like them, but they had this dark charisma that wouldn't let go.

Another thing I learned from One Life to Live is comedy. Yes, I learned comedy from a drama. The other two pictures above are great examples of both comedy and nuanced character development. The top is "Niki Smith" an alter personality for the very well-mannered lead character of Viki Lord. Yes, multiple-personalities is one of those out-there soap opera plots, but OLTL has always handled it so well because they manage to walk the line between using it for drama and being tongue-in-cheek. The second picture is David Vickers, an all out funny character, who is a great tension breaker when things are getting too dramatic. When I started writing, my stories were all tension and drama all the time. I made great strides as a writer when I realized the importance of injecting humor and I learned this primarily from watching OLTL. I love having oddball, fun characters like Harlan in BALLADS OF SUBURBIA. That book is a hard read, but he helps lighten the mood here and there. I also love giving my serious characters a not-as-serious side. The book where I've had the most fun balancing drama with a few laughs is the Bartender Book, which is just as much an homage to soap operas as it is to bartending, and now that OLTL is gone, I hope more than ever that the Bartender Book can find a home.

So, today I am not only losing a beloved show, one that has provided me respite after work or school five-days-a-week for almost nineteen years, I am also losing a teacher. I have to say once again that I am distressed that ABC has now replaced two hours of storytelling with more "reality" talk programming that focuses on telling us what to eat, wear, etc. Whether or not you liked All My Children and One Life to Live, if you are a lover of story this should anger you, too.

But as the saying goes, instead of being sad (or in this case, enraged) that it's over, let's be happy that it happened. I shared what kind of "first" OLTL was for me personally, but I'll close with a couple of important general firsts.

One Life to Live introduced us to this guy:
Many of you may know and love Nathan Fillion from Castle or perhaps like me you have a Firefly obsession. But just like Sarah Michelle Gellar will always be Erica Kane's daughter Kendall to me, Nathan Fillion, will always be Joey Buchanan, who dated his mother's frenemy Dorian wayyyyy before people were using words like "Cougar" to describe women like Dorian.

Also, though daytime TV is usually considered to be behind the times when it comes to social issues. A teenage Ryan Phillippe played network TV's first gay high school student in 1992 on OLTL. In 2010, OLTL also aired the first love scene between two men on a soap opera.
In case you are interested in more of what OLTL gave us, check out this short Good Morning America segment:

If you are a fan like me, please feel free to share what you learned or enjoyed most about One Life to Live. If you aren't a soap person, what are some of the TV shows that have taught you about writing/storytelling.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

From "Only" to "First"

The past few weeks, I've found myself in the midst of an interesting transition. After Sourcebooks bought two sequels to My Very UnFairy Tale Life last month, I've been shifting from saying "my book" to saying "my first book." It's one little word, but boy does that "first" make all the difference!

When I was a kid, perched in a tree with a notebook in hand, writing terrible poetry, I fully believed that I would have lots of books out in the world one day. Everything seems achievable when you're eight. But as I got older, the dream started to seem less and less possible. After all, you can only handle so much rejection before you start doubting yourself.

I didn't give up--when it comes to writing, you NEVER give up--but I didn't let my dreams get too big. I told myself that if I could have one book published, I could die happy. Now that I'll have three, I guess I can die three times happier? I'm not sure writing math works that way, but we can pretend.

So here I am, starting my first sequel. It's both terrifying and exhilarating. While writing a book is nothing new, writing a sequel is. I almost feel like I'm back to square one again. As I start on this new journey, I've been trying to remember how much fun writing can be, the same way it was fun when I was sitting in that tree all those years ago. That was one of my first writing endeavors. I'm glad to be able to say it was the first of many.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Why Time Grows Wings--Jan Blazanin

I’ve heard that time seems to go faster when we're older because we no longer have as many firsts in our lives. Children’s lives are nothing but firsts. The first day of school, first birthday party, first pet, first time riding a bike without training wheels. With few life experiences to draw on, a kid's list of beginnings is almost endless. Each fresh encounter stands out as a landmark in a child’s mind. And those landmarks are what make time seem to move so slowly.

Teens’ lives are also rife with first events. Taking the driving test and getting a driver’s license is pretty memorable, especially if, like me, you needed two tries to conquer that pesky parallel parking! Attending your first boy-girl make-out party can leave some indelible memories. Then there’s first love—and that devastating first betrayal. In my case, betrayal followed swiftly on the heels of love in April of my high school junior year. Each day I tried to get over my first crush was agony. Time has never passed so slowly.

While time has certainly speeded up for me since then, as a writer I’ve lived through many time-dragging experiences. Snails move like speed demons compared to the days I’m waiting to hear what an agent or editor thinks of my manuscript. Pony Express riders on three-legged mules take the long way to deliver a contract from my publisher. The slowest days occur the month before a book’s release. The Ice Age passed more quickly.

We remember our first times--good and bad. Sometimes we celebrate them. Like the first day of a New Year.

I hope yours is memorable in the best possible way!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Firsts? Yeah, they're not my thing.

The first time I rode a bike, I zoomed downhill, flying at top speed--wahoo--and crashed into the side of an apartment building. But I practiced and practiced, and now I've ridden bikes in some pretty cool places like Cape Cod, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and to Monet's house in Giverny.

Skiing went pretty much the same way, except I crashed into a tree. Now it's the sport I do best (after many more crashes).

The first time I tried out for my high school dance team, my arms flapped like a condor attempting flight. Ew, it was bad. Embarrassing, too. But I really did want to make that team, so I drove my curvy sixteen-year-old body to a ballet class of slim twelve year olds. Each week I humbled myself, working on the basics of movement and routine. The next year I did make the team, but I always had to work a little harder to perfect routines.

Twenty-five years later, my husband can still make me blush, teasing me about the awkwardness of our first kiss... (Okay, best practice ever!)

Writing progressed much the same way. I created some really, truly awful short stories. But again I practiced, filling volumes and volumes of notebooks with my handwritten scrawl. The sentences bubbled on the page with the pressure of my handwriting, and I filled every speck of white space with words. Oh, how I wanted to learn how to write! Success began with a published poem, a magazine short story, a contest win, and eventually three novels. I even published my first manuscript, because I continued working and working and working on it. And I'm still practicing.

Sometimes I envy those people who seem to do things right the first time. But I know I'll get there eventually!
First time surfing--still haven't mastered this sport!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Firsts - Or as Julie Andrews Says, "Let's start from the very beginning"

I knew it was too good to be true.


There are two problems with being the daughter of a best-selling etiquette guru.


I closed my eyes and inhaled just long enough to recognize the first sign of summer.


I don’t play tennis with Jessie anymore.


I still wonder if she knew.

Those are the first lines to my five YA books. I love first lines. They truly are the first things I write when starting a book, even though I don't write the subsequent chapters in chronological order. I skip all over the place, writing something for chapter 15 before I even know what chapter 10 will say. But I can't even begin to see the story without hearing the first line.

I knew it was too good to be true. This line from PLAN B sums up Vanessa - she's someone who has her life planned out with little margin of error, until she finds out something that turns her carefully planned world upside down. And she's not very happy about it or equipped to deal with the consequences.

There are two problems with being the daughter of a best-selling etiquette guru. In THE BOOK OF LUKE Emily has been raised to be polite, to be well-behaved, to do what's expected. Until a series of events help her decide that it's time to stop being so nice.

I closed my eyes and inhaled just long enough to recognize the first sign of summer. I really enjoyed this first line from LOCAL GIRLS. The book takes place on the island of Martha's Vineyard. So you'd think she's inhaling the expected signs of summer - the ocean, the flowers, the fresh breeze. Only she's inhaling the smell of a dead skunk by the side of the road - a scent that only a native islander would associate with summer, not the lovely scents the tourists chose to remember from the island.

I don’t play tennis with Jessie anymore. In RICH BOYS the main character, Winnie, has a best friend, Jessie. The story starts and ends in basically the same place, the tennis courts where Jessie teaches kids to play tennis. The story starts at the beginning of summer and ends at the end of summer. I liked the idea of having the story start and end at the same location, sort of bookends to all the change and turmoil that happens in the middle.

I still wonder if she knew. Haley is haunted (albeit not literally) by an incident that takes the life of one person while saving the life of another in my latest novel, WHEN YOU LEAVE. Everyone is telling Haley to move on and forget what happened, but it's not that easy - especially when Haley makes choices that she has to keep secret or risk losing the "normal" life everyone expects her to resume.

Oh, I just love writing first sentences! Can't wait to begin the next ones!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

My first fan letter and my first time NOT trying to control everything by Daisy Whitney

I received my first fan letter late last year. Not an email fan letter, but an honest-to-goodness paper letter that came in the mail. The two-page letter had been sent to my publisher, who then forwarded it in the mail to me. I was genuinely delighted to open a letter from a seventh grader in Texas who told me what she liked about THE MOCKINGBIRDS and then asked me questions about other books I have enjoyed. This is the stuff that makes all the ups and downs of the publishing business worth weathering — hearing from readers.

Interestingly, this letter arrived shortly before the paperback publication of THE MOCKINGBIRDS (Jan. 2) and the hardcover publication of its sequel THE RIVALS (Feb. 6). And this letter reminded me of the thing I’m trying to do differently with my second book. Because this letter came of its own accord. I didn’t force it, I didn’t give away a book to this reader, I didn’t talk her up online, I didn’t reach out to her. My book found her. Through her school librarian.

I bring this up because I thought — erroneously — I could control everything with the launch of my first book. I thought I could reach out to enough people, spread the word, email all my colleagues and friends and ask them to buy my book, and do virtually everything singlehandedly to ensure my book was a success. If this meant making videos or doing blog tours or interviews or getting no sleep or checking my Amazon ranking every hour or visiting every book store in a 100-mile radius to see where my book was stocked and to turn the book face out, by golly I’d do it.

Of course, you know what happened. Or you can imagine. I nearly went crazy. Because once the book is out there, it is out of our hands and out of our control. And it wasn’t until I stopped my constant checking of rankings and sales and blog reviews that I became happy again.

Now that I have a paperback out in the wild and a sequel hitting shelves in a few weeks, I’m trying to change course. I’m trying to NOT control my book’s fate for the first time. I won’t be popping into Barnes & Noble or Book Passage or Copperfield’s every week to see how many of my books they are carrying. I won’t be checking my Amazon or BN rankings. And I sure as heck won’t be looking at BookScan.

Because I have no control over those things.

I’ll just start on a new book. Because the characters and the story — those are the only things I can control.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

To First Kisses and Beyond

This past fall marked the first time since kindergarten that I wasn’t in school – either as a student or a teacher. I’ve blogged about this some, anticipating what it would be like. Were my expectations accurate? Mostly. Have there been surprises? Definitely.

I had no idea that I honestly wouldn’t miss teaching. Correction: I miss the act of teaching. I miss the crazy moments, like the day a certain student who shall remain unnamed dashed into the room and excitedly informed me that he’d pierced his nipples and would I like to see, followed by lifting his shirt so I could, then asking if it was okay to show me the whole thing on his cell phone. Of course. Your shirt is up over your shoulders. I don’t think the ‘no cell phones’ rule is really an issue at this point. I miss the students and the intensity of watching 185 students go through the angst of being sixteen and seventeen. I really do miss that.

I do not miss: standardized testing, pointless inservices, the inherent male chauvinism of Texas public education ( yes the good old boy system is still alive and well), grading papers for eight hours plus on the weekends. I do not miss parent conferences.

Working for myself has been different, freeing, scary, a pleasure. At first I worked non-stop. I’d write during the day and then write most of the night because I was used to working then, after I’d put in my first ten hours doing the day job. I’m a little less frenetic these days. I know the time is there most days. But I’m also conscious that the work expands to fill the hours. More promotional ideas. More blogging. Most importantly, more book ideas and more projects. When I’ve passed them by Agent Jen, she says go for it. So my days are full. But I like at least the illusion that I’m more in charge of my time.

My novels are full of firsts, too. My own life time of firsts are part of what I draw on when I write. That first awkward kiss from a boy at summer camp just before I turned twelve. I freaked and turned my head and he kissed my cheek and was too shy to adjust and make it to my lips. My first boyfriend. (okay, yeah, he was first chair bassoon in the marching band. Make of this what you will) My first true love and first heart-wrenching break up. The first time I got really, really drunk. The first day of kindergarten. Of high school. Of college. The first time I… well, I don’t have to tell you all of them. But I need all of those firsts to write. I need to put the heart of my firsts on the page for my readers. If I hold it back, the story isn’t honest. And there is no good writing without honesty. My readers know that.

As Janet Gurtler observed a few posts back, some firsts in our writing lives are glorious and others less so. We didn’t get where we are today without that first rejection.

In August I will finish my first trilogy when Anastasia Forever releases. It will be the first book I’ve taken from beginning to end with the same editor, the lovely Leah Hultenschmidt. Here’s to 2012 and all the first that it will bring!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

What do you do when firsts feel like twelfths?

April Henry

Sometimes I feel like I’ve been around the block too many times. Like our theme this month is about “firsts.” But 2011 was a year of lasts for me: the last times I saw three close friends, the last time I took kajukenbo (a mixed martial art), even little lasts, like a restaurant I liked that abruptly closed.

This year my 12th and 13th books (Eyes of Justice and The Night She Disappeared) come out one week apart in April.  But I’m pretty sure I had two books come out close together a few years ago.  I’m working on a couple of new books, but I’ve already done that about 20 times.

I’m doing a bunch of out-of-state school visits in March, but in 2007 I visited several schools in Texas.

But we need firsts to keep us alive, at least in some figurative sense.

Here are some firsts I’m working on:
- Trying out some different restaurants instead of always going to the same old places we know and like.

- A few weeks ago I started taking kung fu. The class is all guys and I’m the oldest. I knew no one when I walked in the door. It seems a very different animal than kajukenbo, so all the stuff I know is not much help. Not much emphasis on forms or stances.  This class seems geared just to teaching you to fight. Anyone who knows me will say that my first, second and third reactions to fighting would be to run away.  I sparred (often scared spitless) in kajukenbo, but I think kung fu will really make me a fighter. (Note to anyone who knew me growing up: yes, we are talking about the same girl who got Cs in PE for not being able to dance to Winchester Cathedral, for sinking to the bottom of the pool again and again, for cowering in prison ball, and for being beaten in round robin tennis by everyone, including the mainstreamed developmentally disabled girl and the the girl who had juvenile arthritis so bad she couldn’t use one arm.)

- Writing something that is not a mystery or a thriller. Writing something that is not my “brand.”

- Truly acting like this is my one and only life, and that the things I am saving to eat, read, or do “later” or for a “special occasion,” need to be eaten, read, or done NOW. Or at least this year.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Writing Firsts by Janet Gurtler

I love firsts. The freshness. The clean slate. The anticipation and newness of new beginnings! Firsts keep us hopeful and alive.

First picture with a Stormtrooper
2012 is a New Year. (Yes. I did notice. Believe it or not I am quite observant about these sorts of things.) So maybe it's not actually a well kept secret, but the beginning of a New Year is truly a delightful time to imagine all that might be. Despite my fear of proclaiming goals to the world at large, there is a wiggle in my belly, a dream in my heart for what could be in this new year of ours.

First Janet Gurtler Book
The wonderful thing about this crazy publishing business is that there are many, many firsts. Last year was my first YA Book as Janet Gurtler. My first book with Sourcebooks. My first year with two books out in one year.  My first sale on a partial.  My first time writing to a tight deadline and my first time, making that deadline. My first trip to New York City. My first book launch with friends. The list goes on and on and I'm sure the same can be said for every reader of this blog. Published authors, readers, prepublished writers, all of us!

First Chihuahua

When I look back at the year past, there were so very many firsts that I didn't even know were going to transpire. So many surprises and gifts from the universe. What about you?

Of course, I'm only pointing out the good things right now. There were lots of firsts that weren't so magical. And there will continue to be more. But ah. The firsts that taste like calorie free chocolate cake with thick, sweet icing. Those are the ones that I am looking forward to. 

My first book published in 2012 is coming. I can dream of about it for now and set my hopes high. (Reality will come soon enough.) I'll have first look at a cover. There will be my first appearance in a print anthology (Dear Teen Me).  My first high school talk.

So many firsts to look forward to, so many I don't even know about yet. So many outside of my writing world and so many that will enrich my life. Some that may break my heart and some that might even make me cry. Let's hope those are the minority.

Here's to a big list of great firsts to you and yours in 2012!! Publishing firsts and real world firsts too!
What are some first you are looking forward to this year?  
First time reading lots of great new books!