Monday, April 29, 2013

Twenty Years and I'm Back in High School


 Yep, twenty-six years after my high school was founded, I became the sixth inductee into the alumni hall of fame. I know three of the other people, they all are notable in scientific circles

Wow. The kid with the bad mullet and the anarchist symbols all over his notebooks got to come back and speak to an award ceremony for high-achieving kids. I wish I could go back and tell my eighteen year old self about this incredible honor. And that the principal would later be arrested for sexual deviancy. 

Well, they asked me to say a few words or advice, so here's more or less what I said.

Appreciate your friends. You see them every day, and you kind of take it for granted that the old gang will always be together. But you'll grow older and grow apart, and one day you'll realize you haven't gotten together in years. Treasure this time when you all get to hang out whenever you want.

Travel. In a few years you'll have jobs, mortgages, children, and responsibilities. Now's your chance to see a little of the world. True, none of you have any money, but don't let that stop you. Strap on a backpack, do some volunteer work, sleep on a cot, and see some places no one else you know has been to. It'll make a great story one day.

Don't underestimate the value of a good education. You never know when you'll need the stuff you learn here. I had three years of Spanish and never paid attention. Ten years later I was standing in a Mexican hardware store, desperately wishing I knew the Spanish word for 'toilet plunger.'

Follow your dreams. Maybe you'll never play to a sold-out arena, perform on Broadway, start for the Yankees, or whatever. But maybe you will. Lord, if my dream can come true, then anyone's can.

Thank you.

Class of '93 rules! Go Bulldogs!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Moment of Growth and an Accidental Bubble

It was third grade. A boy named James who resembled Beaker from the Muppets had thrown up big orange chunks two rows over and two desks in front of me. A boy with a weird cowboy accent had moved to “the big city” of Long Island, New York and we all asked him to repeat everything he said. It was the first year I heard Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech in its entirety and listened to the words and looked at the solemn and inspired faces of my black classmates and wished with all my heart I too was black. It was the year my teacher drank Tab and ate a Krackel chocolate bar everyday. And it was the year I learned that you find kindness in the strangest places.

I don’t even remember his name, really, but I think it started with an L. He was taller than the rest of us. And bigger. And for those reasons alone, we were all scared of him.  He had street smarts and was always whispering things to us we shouldn’t know. Even my twitchy, nervous teacher seemed twitchier and more nervous when she addressed his behavior.

Anyway, this kid would rat you out in a heartbeat, maybe for the pleasure to see somebody other than himself in trouble. And he could turn the class on you in a minute. I saw the way he shook his head in disgust at poor James as he walked the walk of shame to the nurse’s office, covered in vomit, and how the rest of us quickly followed suit. I saw how our class cowboy’s accent went from a novelty to a total joke each time L asked him to say something and then shook his head and offered a Grinch-like snicker when he did. 

So, it was no wonder why in the brief seconds of a winter day, I saw my third grade life pass before my eyes.  It was cold. It was gloomy. It was wet. And I was sick.

I was in my reading group with about five others and all of their eyes were on the page. Everyone else in the class sat at their desks, occupied with a worksheet of some sort.  It was the kind of moment everyone is doing what they are supposed to be doing  and you look around and time almost seems to stop. That’s when it happened. I sneezed.  And the most perfect bubble came out of my nose. It was large, so large I could actually see it looming in front of me.  If it wasn’t so gross, it would have been beautiful, the way it glistened.  But nobody saw what happened.

Nobody but L.

I saw the Grinch-like grin spread across his face. I saw the hint of disbelief in his eyes. I waited for him to point, for him to laugh, for him to draw everyone’s attention to the grotesque, glistening mucus bubble hanging from my nose. I was paralyzed. I waited for the inevitable.

And then it popped.

And L shook his head, offered me a disgusted but crooked smile, and looked back down at his paper.
Maybe he thought no one would believe him. Maybe he had once been the victim of a booger bubble and knew its hardships. Or maybe he was just very impressed.  In any case, he never said a thing.
And it was one of the first times I realized, sometimes even those we think are the worst, those we fear the most, can be merciful and kind. I stopped thinking of L as just a horrible person and instead realized there are many sides to all of us.  It’s a lesson I carry to this day, and most likely, one of the biggest ones I’ve ever learned.  

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Moments of change: Making the dream a priority (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

For years, I wrote short stories. I got them published here and there, but I made my living with a job in another field. I was happy being a part-time writer. Publishing short stories doesn’t change your life that much. People don’t stop you on the street and ask, “Was that your flash fiction in the latest quarterly?" You don't have to duck the paparazzi.

But I did hunger to see what else I could do with my writing. I wanted to try a novel. Occasionally I managed to put together a full-length manuscript, but I seldom carried it past one or two drafts. Writing a book was much more of a commitment, too—not only in terms of the length of the project, but in terms of what publication would mean. Advance money, royalties, and taxes would affect my finances; book promotion and the possibility of an agent would mean interacting with people in new ways. I would have to learn more about contracts, foreign rights, and publicity. Becoming a novelist was a step that I wanted to take, but in many ways was scared to take.

I kept putting other things on the front burner: Education for my day job. Volunteer work. Travel. Romance and marriage. But in 2003, I looked at my life and decided it was time to give writing a turn on the front burner.

The first thing I did was to acknowledge that I loved young-adult novels, I had been reading them for years, and they were what I really wanted to write. Oddly, this had never occurred to me before. I’d been writing literary fiction, and even the fact that most of my protagonists were teenagers didn’t tip me off. When I finally accepted this, I took a course in children’s writing that was then taught at the University of Pennsylvania by Vivian Grey.

 I walked into the classroom with a rough draft of a gritty, dark contemporary YA manuscript. When we went around the room to discuss why we were there, I found that most of my classmates were mothers of young children, and everyone seemed to want to write picture books. At that moment, my manuscript felt even grittier and darker than before. I wondered if maybe I didn’t fit into this world after all.

But Vivian Grey took us through the whole range of children’s writing, from board books through YA. Every week, we had to write a short assignment for a different age group. She also told us how book publishers worked, briefed us on the basics of book contracts, and told us about SCBWI and the Rutgers One-on-One Plus conference, both of which were to figure in my development as a children’s writer. The critique group I later joined was made up of alumni from her class (though they had taken the course at a different time than I did).

That course was really the first professional step I took toward becoming a novelist. In the ten years since then, I’ve sold three YA novels and at least nine short stories for children and teens. Every step along that road built on all the steps before it. But I remember that course as a turning point, because it was the moment when I made my dream a priority instead of a sideline.

Monday, April 22, 2013

When the Bully's In Your Head (Patty Blount)

I have a confession to make -- I was bullied as an adult. Can you imagine how embarrassing it is for the author of a book about bullying to admit? 

It was back in 1998. I’d gone back to work after spending several years home with my babies. I was working as an admin and after just a few months at the new job, I was promoted to executive secretary to two managers. Everything went well until a third manager was added to my list.

When he first joined the firm, we got along wonderfully. He treated me with kindness and respect and seemed impressed with my capabilities, encouraging me to do far more than my job description described. In fact, one of my projects prevented a wide-scale exodus by more than six design partners, upset that they hadn’t been paid in months. My performance on that project was recognized in an award ceremony.

But in his second year with us, all of this abruptly shifted. The kindness, the respect, the challenges – it all stopped. Instead, I was treated to daily abuse – everything from the way I shipped out packages to the way I talked was open for ridicule and ridicule he did – going so far as to halt a staff meeting to diagram the word ‘drawing’ on a white board so that I could learn how to correctly pronounce it.

And I took it.

He berated me for failing to give him a message fast enough. If I contacted him as soon as messages came in, I was scolded for being a nuisance. He asked me where a particular conference room was located while our building was being reconfigured. I spent twenty minutes drawing updated conference room maps, approached him with the hard copy and listened to him shout about my rudeness for interrupting him while he was talking to someone. A few minutes later, his boss called and I didn’t tell him immediately, so he screamed at me again for not giving him the message. “But you just told me never to interrupt you while you're talking to someone.”   

This went on for a year. A solid year of not only being told I was incapable of delivering good work but believing it. I tried to talk to human resources but he was a VP and I was… not. Who do you think they believed? I started a log of every minute of my day – what I did, who I was with, what was said. I brought that to HR. They sent me to a skill building course. I was outraged. I wanted to quit. I wanted to tell him to drop dead so badly but I needed the job.

I gave him all the power.

The course cost over a thousand dollars and you know what it did? It boosted my confidence to the point that I quit and never looked back.

(Aside: I later learned this boss deliberately set out to make me hate him to squash rumors that linked us romantically. I don't hate him. I just think he's an idiot.)

It’s been over a decade since this ordeal so why do I bring it up now? Because I can’t believe I listened to him, that I gave him the power to crush my spirit. Now that I’m published, I’ve noticed I still do this! I still let one bad review or a rejection bring all those feelings rushing back. It's like they're HIS voice telling me what a loser I am.   

I look at where I am today compared to then and I'm proud of what I've done. Now I can tell the mental bully to shut the hell up. I have the power. I have all the power. There's an old saying: 

Whether you think you can or think you can't -- you're right. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Stepping into thin air (Lauren Bjorkman)

Last summer, my dad suggested that we write a memoir together about my childhood aboard our sailboat, Gaucho. We each would be responsible for alternating chapters. I loved the idea!

But then reality set in.

My whole life has been about writing fiction. As a kid, I never kept a diary unless my dad asked me to, and those were just chronicles of activities. I never poured my heart onto the page, except in the occasional angsty poem. Inventing a story is much easier for me than telling the truth.

So I read how-to books on memoir writing. I poured over other people’s memoirs. I read source materials—my parents’ journals, my old letter, my old stories and poems. I developed themes, character arcs, lists of heart-clutching moments, and chapter topics. Basically, I procrastinated as much as humanly possible. Still, the day finally came to begin writing.


I was as nervous as a cat outside on a windy day. I had to jump up and pace every few minutes. But years of butt-in-chair, fingers on the keyboard practice helped. By the end of the afternoon, I had a first chapter.

That evening I read my horoscope in the local paper:

Stepping into thin air, you may find solid ground beneath your feet.

Stepping into thin air… That’s exactly how it felt to write the first words of my memoir. It was the perfect Taos woo woo day.

Friday, April 19, 2013


It’s a six-letter word none of us can avoid. Whether we want to or not, we grow. Be it in height, or girth, or spiritual enlightenment, growing is as much a part of life as dying. And as such, we should embrace it, hold on to it, and most importantly, learn from it.
So here are six little lessons we can learn from such a simple yet abundant word.

Go Forward – Everyone knows the old saying, hindsight is 20/20, right? Well I say, foresight is 20/100. Meaning, we can see about 20% of what’s to come in our future (we know we’ll be eating, breathing, sleeping, paying bills, yada yada), but there is 100 percent possibility just waiting for us to run head-first into it. So don’t ever live wishing you had done or said (or not done or said) something different. Keep your eyes in the front of your head; they fit so much better there.

Relaxing is Fun – If you packed a stadium with 50,000 hard-working people and
asked how many of them would like to have a daily nap time, I’d almost bet a kidney you’d see 50,000 hands shoot toward the sky. We all imagine how nice it would be to just take a break, kick our feet up, open a favorite book (or bottle of wine) and get lost in another world for a few minutes. I say, why don’t you? When it feels as though STRESS is gonna rip your brain from your head, just get up and walk away for a minute. Whether it’s from your computer or a school book or even a friend who likes to always come to you with their problems, when life is getting a bit too hectic, tell it to take a backseat for a bit, because it’s your turn.

Opt out – My baby sister has four children under the age of ten, and there are weeks were literally every day she has a laundry list of activities going on. I, having no children, oftentimes watch in amazement as she juggles it all like a pro and cannot imagine having that same stress. Why? Because if there is one thing of which I am certain, it’s that if I know I can’t do something, I simply say “No.” If you already have soccer practice and piano lessons and karate class and tap and a friend asks if you wanna help her paint the kitchen, do yourself (and I’d safely bet the rest of your over-worked family, lol) a favor and Opt Out of that one, okay? It’s perfectly fine to say no once in a while, and simply take a day (or an hour) off. No one’s gonna hate you for it. And your friend’s kitchen won’t, either.

Walk. just…walk – Exercise junkies might tell ya that walking gets you nowhere, but I for one think that man’s ability to walk is perhaps our greatest hidden resource. Not only will putting one foot in front of the other get us from A to B, but walking can clear our minds, lower our blood pressure, even help us figure out what to cook for dinner. So when life is trying to steamroll you, slap on your walking shoes and hit the pavement (or dirt or concrete or what have you). Your brain and sanity and overall well-being will thank you for it.

Try something new – There is no simpler definition for growth that learning a new skill. It can be something as simple as how to properly cook a steak (note to self: learn this, please) or as convoluted as how to remove, repair, and re-install your car’s engine. Whatever it is, force yourself to learn it. Tapping into unused parts of the brain opens up entire worlds we don’t even know exist. Which in turn can fuel our lives more than anything else. Knowledge truly is power. And you know what they say about folks with big brains? Yep, they’re smart.

Happiness is a four-letter word – Now, this one can be argued on the same level as religion and politics, so I’m not gonna even try to convince you that yes, happiness is a four-letter word. And that word is LOVE. Think about it for a moment. Recall some of your happiest times in life. Ah, yes, there those perfect memories are. Now, dissect said happiest times, and pinpoint the one common denominator. Aha! See, told ya. Love. Your favorite song, playing on the radio while you take a “sick” day from work and just drive. The smell of the ocean when you see it for the first time. A hug and a kiss from your favorite grandmother. No matter the memory, if it’s a happy one, I guarantee you there’s love involved. 

So no matter what you’re doing—whether you’re Going Forward, Relaxing, taking some “me” time by Opting Out, Walking. just…walking, or even Trying Something New—make sure you love it. Truly, wholeheartedly love it. If you do, Growth will happen without you even feeling it.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Why Is This Taking So Long? (Sydney Salter)

Oh, how I wish I could learn life's lessons in 350 pages--like my characters.

What Jory (My Big Nose And Other Natural Disasters) learns about accepting her appearance at the fictional age of 17, took me, oh, about 20 more years to figure out. I finally realized that 80-year-old me will think that 40-year-old me looks pretty great. Just like 40-ish me burst into tears upon finding an old high school photo. Why did I worry so much about my nose?!?!? What a waste of time, not to mention emotional energy.

Living in a multi-generational household hasn't been as easy--or funny--for me as it is for Polly (Swoon At Your Own Risk). Plus, I'm still figuring out things with my own father, well, maybe she is too. And I still worry too much like Kat in Jungle Crossing. Just this morning I spun my daughter's missing biology assignment into her future Netflix-watching, muddy-buddy-making slacker life in my basement--much to her eye-rolling annoyance.

Turning points, life lessons, those Oprah-esque "Aha!" moments take me decades, not months or even years to learn.

That's one reason I love to write YA--maybe my hard-earned lessons can help someone else take a short-cut. Letters from readers who tell me my books helped change their perspective or deal with a problem fill me with so much joy.

Because I'm still writing my own life story, one day at a time, lessons learned too slow, too often, beginning again and again and again.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


Fiction is contrived. And I’m quite sure I haven’t exposed the wizard behind the curtain with that revelation. A character’s learning moments can be exaggerated and enhanced for literary purposes.

In real life, we don’t have the benefit of scene buildup, chapter headings and closings, multiple POVs, crafted dialogue, or the multitude of devices a writer has to create an important juncture.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a true aha! moment. I’ve come gradually to what wisdom I possess. So while they’re not technically moments of growth, here are a few nuggets I live by:

Anger and altercation are physically taxing. To all parties. Remember or imagine a traffic situation where you were the innocent party. Despite your blameless behavior, you probably reacted viscerally: racing heartbeat, increased breathing, tightened muscles, and a vocal outburst. And the irresponsible driver perhaps sped off without a care… We’ve all been there. In life, I’ve learned to yield to jerks on the road and in person. I do not let their negativity ruin my travels.

Kindness is like a yawn. You can get most people to mirror the behavior reflexively.

Comparisons are dangerous. This is a tough one, I know. At fifty-one, I still see smiling group shots on Facebook and feel a small pinch of exclusion. And I’ll readily acknowledge that large parties are not my thing. But we are social creatures. We seek the company and approval of others. I try not to compare and measure such validation. I’m happily married. My two boys still enjoy dinner out with their parents. I have a good relationship with my extended family. I have a lovely circle of writing friends and tennis friends. I take a second look at the smiling group shots and begrudge nothing.

Money is often an illusion. The wealthy can be morally bankrupt. The humble can be rich in character. And vice versa. Base nothing on an individual’s Lexus, 8,000 sq-ft home, or red-bottom shoes.

Take the high road. You’ll love the perspective it affords.

A little bit of advancement toward a larger goal every day is enough. IS enough. Like personal growth, gradual progress will eventually amass into something tangible: a novel, a half marathon, a paid-off mortgage, etc.

I leave the aha! moments to my characters. For me personally, it’s more about reflection upon life’s ho-hum moments.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Moments of Growth. Turning Points.

I am grappling with this post on moments of growth or turning points. I believe that people can change. I believe in the power of making a decision, of striving to reach a goal. Of the value of working toward something, whether or not we happen to make it there or not. All of this is pretty much my philosophy of life. Go for it. Rah rah.

And yet there are times, like what happened yesterday in Boston, when everything I believe about the world comes into question. How can I, how can any of us, imagine that we are in control of anything we do? That our dreams are worth pursuing when any moment a random horror can literally knock us off our feet?

How do you go on in the face of this kind of evil?

The tragedy, in many ways, is that we do go on.

This unbelievably horrible thing happens and for a few beats we feel the shock of it. Then we take stock. I am not there, thank God. This is not happening to me. But wait, do I know anyone there? My son, away at college? Family members who run races? Friends I went to school with? Has this Thing touched anyone I know?

Another beat. Immense relief. And here you want to fall to your knees and give thanks to luck--to fate--to chance.

Another beat. You absorb every awful detail. Listen to stories. View terrible images you wish you could unsee.

Another beat.

You move on.

There is a stupid cliche' about how this is what we have to do or else the terrorists win. I don't think the terrorists care one way or another about any of us. Sick people that are so cut off from their own humanity can't imagine how other humans are affected by their evil actions.

But what are we to do then? Besides falling on our knees and alternately mourning for each other and crying in gratitude about our own safety? Call all of our loved ones home and crawl into our basements or closets? Keep ourselves safe that way?

Who the hell knows.

Running a marathon is in many ways the ultimate symbol of pursuing a dream. You run, you run, you run--every day--slapping one foot down in front of the other--striving to move faster, to win, or to simply complete the course.

I want to believe that the world is filled with runners and not those who would take them down. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Growing Into Me (Cheryl Renée Herbsman)

I recently posted this Paolo Coelho quote on my Facebook page: "Don't try to be useful. Try to be yourself."

I don't know about you, but I think I've spent an awful lot of time trying to be useful. In fact, after my debut, BREATHING, came out I remember thinking something along the lines of, "Okay, I've got my foot in the publishing door now, but to stay here I'd better make myself useful." And I then proceeded to write according to what I thought would please "the publishing community," whether that meant my editor or agent or librarians or teachers or award committees, etc. I thought maybe I should try to write more like Laurie Halse Anderson, who writes about important issues, or more like my friend, Jandy Nelson, who uses language in such incredibly beautiful ways or like so many other authors whose work offered something of value.

It's taken me a lot of years and a ton of heartache to realize I'm barking up the wrong tree. BREATHING was published because it was all me. It wasn't trying too hard. It just was. And manuscripts I wrote after that weren't published because they were me trying to be anyone but me.

I recently finished a middle grade manuscript that I had a blast writing. It was fun because it wasn't trying to be anything other than it is and because it bubbled up from inside me all on its own. Maybe it'll get published. Maybe it won't. But I know I am a whole lot happier writing this way.

So my turning point, my bit of growth to share with you on this sunny spring morning, is all about being oneself and remembering to value that. I think it's a lesson we learn in many ways. It's a lesson our young adult characters often learn as well. I'm hoping I've finally got it figured out. But if I don't, and I falter, hopefully some of you will remind me!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Growing up, Breaking Rules (Stephanie Kuehnert)

As a teenager, I pretty much thought that my actions of rebelling were what would transform me into an adult--smoking cigarettes, sneaking glasses of my parents' wine, smoke pot, sneaking out to see that older boy. As it turned out, the consequences of those actions were what really changed me, made me see the world in a new way, forced me to either grow up or be perpetually f-ed up.

So now I'm more careful about my choices and I've created or adopted a lot of rules, particularly about my writing and routine. I actually went so far in the opposite direction, creating so many rules that it affected my writing in a bad way. I became convinced that there was a RIGHT and SUCCESSFUL way to do things and if I didn't follow it I'd never finish or sell another book.

I beat myself up constantly for not being able to stick to a certain plan or regiment. I set myself up to fail. So I took my writing to therapy where I learned that I needed to relinquish some control and break the rules that were holding me back.

On August 20th, I started a contemporary YA that I'm calling (because I'm superstitious about sharing titles) The Grief Book. You can read a bit about it and the songs that kept me writing here. Thursday the 11th... or technically Friday the 12th at 3 am, I sent the first polished draft into my agent. I had cheated on other books with this book before, so I had about 40 pages of it that I wrote back in 2011, but the majority of the writing took place between August and April--and since my beloved kitty Sidney died at the end of November and I couldn't really bring myself to work on a grief story, I didn't work on it for much of December. So that's roughly 7 months that it took me to get a draft that was polished enough for me to be comfortable showing to people. It may not seem fast to some writers, but since it usually takes me over a year to get to that place with a book, it was record time for me. And how did I do it?  By breaking rules.

Here are some of the rules that I created for myself and broke in the process of writing The Grief Book:

  • You can't write fast. For years I've been telling myself that I'm one of those writers that can't do sprints, that needs to take time and ponder each word and if I don't stick to that, I veer terribly off track. Because that's what happened with The Bartender Book. Well, it's true sometimes. At the beginning of the book especially I need to take my time, but there comes a certain point where racing is fine for me. I need to know when to stop if I go off track, but since I hate first drafts, hammering something out so I can go back and revise (which I love), is a good thing.
  • You can't skip around. When you are stuck you must figure things out before moving on. Seeing as I wrote my first book non-linearly, I'm not sure when this became a thing for me, but it was a habit I managed to break again. I can't do it all the time, but scratching out a half-assed version of a scene and moving on or just skipping to the part I've been dying to write is a good thing.
  • You can't stop or break routine or it will be near impossible to gain momentum again. This is the thing I beat myself up the most for. Must write according to schedule, must keep moving or else. Well, my cat died. I was depressed. I stopped for a month and just did other stuff. then I came back and sure it took me a minute to work my way back in, but I still finished the book in record time.
  • Word count is important. My books are always too long. It just is that way. I get too in depth with character backstory. My characters talk too much. I hate killing my darlings. As a result watching word count, just so I can mark how much I wrote in a day freaks me out because I think the BOOK IS GETTING TOO BIG and it sends me into a total meltdown. When I was going through the final push of this draft, I ignored it almost completely. Yes, the book is too long. That's why I have critique partners and an agent. We'll figure it out.
  • You will break the book at some point. I went on a writing retreat right before my cat died and had a major meltdown/crisis of writing faith. I told myself, this always happens. The book gets broken. I don't know what to do. Last time I couldn't fix it. I went to my therapist and she told me I needed to view it differently. Maybe my book was in "crisis." Maybe my book about grief was having "complicated grief." Maybe I just needed a break from the book. Either way I needed to stamp out any this ALWAYS happens thoughts and tend to this book's particular needs. Which happened to be stopping for a while--though I only did it because life forced me, too. I will remember that.
  • You have to know the end. I always have a vague idea of the end, where the characters will be emotionally. Sometimes I know something really solid. Or I think I do. It generally always changes. But this time I got like 3/4 to the end of the book and while I knew where one of my scenes would take place, I had no clue how it would actually end. There was still some deeper understanding of my characters I needed. I wanted to panic. But I kept writing, and even though I had only the most vague impression of this book's ending when I actually got to it this week, it poured out of me. I saw all of it and it came out right in order.
  • You can't just stop and go back to the beginning. This was hands-down the most important rule violation for me. I anguished over it. I broke other rules and tried all the tricks I could, but I reached that certain point where I just couldn't see the end and I knew, KNEW that the reason was because I had changes in mind for earlier in the book and there were places where I had to go back and flesh out the characters and get to know them more--that was the key to figuring out my ending and finishing the book as quickly as I wanted to. So even though I hadn't written the last few chapters, I declared my rough draft done and went back. I polished and honed and sure enough all the puzzle pieces came together like they NEVER have before.
The key thing when it comes to breaking rules is knowing in your gut that you need to, that you doing what is best for you and the story. I wasn't just going back to my beginning to polish, polish, polish and never move on. But I was using my rules as a crutch, saying I couldn't do those things was almost like allowing myself to have writer's block. What all comes down to is trust. Every book I've written has pushed me to take new risks and this one, which taught me to trust my gut again, was by far the riskiest and most rewarding. I really hope I'll be able to share it with you soon!

Friday, April 12, 2013

I Hail the Power of a Crappy Little Notebook (Jennifer Castle)

In September of my sophomore year at college, I bought a 99-cent marbled composition book, opened to the first page, and started writing about the boy who had just broken my heart.

This felt good. So I kept doing it, every few days, intent on keeping a real record. Of the things I experienced daily and the people I shared them with, and my feelings about it all. GAH. So. Many. Damn. Feelings. The widest range of emotions anyone could possibly fit between thin blue lines on a white piece of paper. In one way or another, every entry was an attempt to answer these irritating-as-hell questions: Who am I, anyway? What makes me happy? How can I get to that place?

I gave myself journaling rules, like I had to keep my pen moving and not think too much, fill up an entire page before stopping, and give each entry a title. When one book was done, I bought another. These volumes carried me through the highlights of my college years: my first serious relationship, a crippling depression, the pain of shifting friendships, and eventually, an all-consuming infatuation that made me re-examine the nature of love itself. (Curious about that one? Good. I’m about to start writing a novel about it.)

Beware. Random ramblings lie beyond.

I graduated, and the journals scrawled on. The post-college editions are marked with all the greatest hits of new adulthood: living in a strange city, dating and boyfriends, jobs and bosses and once again, always, those Big Questions. It wasn’t until I got married that my journaling began to trail off. Instead of a few days between entries, there would be a few weeks, and then months or more. By this time, I’d been journaling for over 18 years. I guess I no longer felt the need for so much recording and examination. Every time I felt or experienced something, I knew I’d been through it before on some level. Whenever the Questions asked themselves, I felt like maybe, just maybe, I had some of the answers. In other words, I’d grown up.

Lifethings still get knotted up, every once (or twice) in a while. The page is always where I can untangle them...then move on.

In early 2011, I had a situation. I’d just spent six years writing my debut novel, “The Beginning of After” -- six years to develop Laurel, the main character and narrator, six years of writing in her voice and feeling her, of her being real to me. Now it was time to start working on my second book, “You Look Different in Real Life.” I had to create a fresh protagonist, and I couldn’t take six years to do it. After all this time, had Laurel become my “default” writing voice? Was this new person going to sound any different? Who is she? What makes her happy? And how can she get to that place?

I responded the only way I knew how: I went to the drugstore and bought myself another composition book -- this one with a cute design that seemed like it would appeal to Justine, my new character. And I started journaling again.

But this time, I journaled not as myself but as Justine. I began with something ordinary that popped into my head, Justine talking about hanging out at a cafe after school with her best friend. I went from there, following my customary rules: I kept my hand moving and my brain unthinking, I had to fill up a page before stopping, I titled my entries. Line by line, entry by entry, Justine took root.

Because it’s springtime and I love me a seasonal metaphor, I’ll say that she sprouted in the pages of that journal. When I knew she’d grown enough so that I could re-pot her into the story itself, it was time to start writing the first draft. Of course, like all characters, she continued to evolve during the drafting and revision processes. Even now, with the book done and ready to jump into the hands of readers, I feel as if Justine’s still out there, growing some more.

Just like me.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Turn, Turn, Turn Jan Blazanin

The turning points in my life stand out when the other memories of that year—or decade--have melted away. Good or bad, each one had an impact on me.

I’m a nervous four-year-old walking into the kindergarten room on the first day. There’s a colorful playhouse and stacks of blocks. A girl in a blue dress invites me to play. Making friends is easy. Wow!

Skip to second grade, on the playground at lunchtime with my friend Shari. A friendly girl walks up. Ellen is a head taller than either of us, but she’s in kindergarten. A girl younger than me can be a lot bigger. Who knew?

School is fun, and I love to impress the teachers with how much I know. Back on the playground a boy tells me to spell “pig” backward and say “funny.” I’m quick to show how smart I am. He and his friends laugh. Shooting off my mouth before thinking can get me into trouble. (That one is still a work in progress.)

In sixth grade my friend Bill asks me to a school dance. We walk from my grandmother’s house to the school a few blocks away. I feel special having a boy ask me even though we’re just friends. I'm excited about so many more dances to come like homecomings and proms. Truth is, my next dance date isn’t until college. Life doesn’t turn out the way we expect.
Me in sixth grade, ready for church.

In April of my junior year our high school French club has a mixer with the club from another district. It’s a magical night with a halo around the moon, and I meet my first love. Despite living in different towns, we see each other whenever we can. My dating experience is zero, and being in love is scary and wonderful. But he seems to be crazy about me. He asks to escort me to our prom, and I get a new dress. All is well until he dumps me the week before the dance to go back to his old girlfriend. Many lessons to learn, all of them painful.
With my brother Dan. After buying the dress, my parents made me go to the prom.

Since high school there have been dozens of turning points in my life. Love and loss, success and disappointment, joy and sadness. I try to take something positive away from even the most painful lessons and to enjoy my successes. And I really, really try not to blurt out, “Gee, I pee funny,” just to show how smart I am.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Growing, growing, gone...or not - Jenny O'Connell

When I first learned of this month's theme - moments of growth or turning points for our characters or ourselves - I thought I knew what I'd write about. But then I received an email. Here is an excerpt:

I *doubt* you remember me, but...  I met you probably 8 years or so ago at a writers conference in Colorado Springs. You took the time to help me with a pitch I was working on for a book. I have yet to sell that book - BUT I did sell one! The point is, you believed in me at a time when I really needed that - and I just wanted to take a moment to thank you. Somebody asked me in an interview the other day why I kept going - after so many fails (haha). Today I was going through my shelves and found a copy of your book and it all just flooded back to me. Wow - you were a big part of why I didn't give up. So thank you. Thank you thank you thank you.

When I received that email I was shocked. I remember that conference in Colorado Springs, but it feels like another lifetime ago. I'd only published two books when I attended as a participant on a panel. Can you imagine what it was like to receive this email?

The thing is, I never thought that I was really helping this person, I was just doing what I would have hoped someone would have done for me. Be helpful and nice. I read that email and, if I didn't know it was about me, I would think that the writer she was referring to was "fully baked." Had her act together so much that she could share her experiences with someone starting out. But I know that back then I felt like I was just a beginner, too. Even if I had a few books published, I was still learning what it was like to be a writer.

Now, eight more books later and at least eight years later, I still feel like that. I write a chapter or a scene and I doubt myself. I think I suck. I question if I'll ever finish another book, or if I'll actually like what I'm writing. Almost a decade after I started writing my first book, I'm still growing. It doesn't stop. It actually gets harder, at least for me. Because with each book I want to get better, try something different, push myself. I want to keep growing as a writer.

And this email reminded that in order to grow we have to help others grow, too. We have to extend ourselves not just to help and maybe teach, but to also learn from others. Because now, when I start to doubt myself, I will read this email again and remind myself that this writer hung in there and it paid off. And now it's my turn to learn from her. And keep typing.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Bits of Wisdom About Change by Kimberly Sabatini

Bits of wisdom about change...

*Change isn't only about finding the place you've grown into. It's about leaving what no longer fits behind.

*Sometimes the starting line is more important than the finishing line.

*Change is uncomfortable--it's hard.

*Never changing feels safe because it's familiar, but it usually doesn't feel fabulous either.

*We change when we're ready.

*Often we are unprepared for change. It is forced upon us. It's then about what we do with it.

*Perhaps life altering mistakes are meant to alter lives.

*Change is mine.


It is not necessary to change.  Survival is not mandatory.  ~W. Edwards Deming 

When you are through changing, you are through.  ~Bruce Barton

Growth is the only evidence of life.  ~John Henry Newman, Apologia pro vita sua, 1864

If nothing ever changed, there'd be no butterflies.  ~Author Unknown

We did not change as we grew older; we just became more clearly ourselves.  ~Lynn Hall

Those who expect moments of change to be comfortable and free of conflict have not learned their history.  ~Joan Wallach Scott

All change is not growth, as all movement is not forward.  ~Ellen Glasgow

If you want to make enemies, try to change something.  ~Woodrow Wilson

Continuity gives us roots; change gives us branches, letting us stretch and grow and reach new heights.  ~Pauline R. Kezer

If you want to truly understand something, try to change it.  ~Kurt Lewin

Be the change that you wish to see in the world.  ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. ~Margaret Mead

The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking. ~Albert Einstein

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large -- I contain multitudes. 
~Walt Whitman

I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples. ~Mother Teresa

Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change. ~Wayne W. Dyer

Our only security is our ability to change.  ~John Lilly

When people are ready to, they change. They never do it before then, and sometimes they die before they get around to it. You can't make them change if they don't want to, just like when they do want to, you can't stop them. ~Andy Warhol, Andy Warhol in His Own Words

Don't be stopped...