Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A Heartbreaking Story About the Value of Education (By Brian Katcher)

Why no one gets nostalgic about junior high.

This is my grandfather's college ring. The son of poor Russian immigrants, he never had much formal schooling and never went to high school. Nevertheless, he knew the value of a good education. As an adult, he decided that he wanted to follow the American dream and achieve the goal of being a college educated man. So he went to the pawn shop and bought this ring and told everyone he was a graduate of St. Louis U. Though I never knew the man, I see a lot of him in myself.

That's my father's doctoral dissertation. When I was in high school, a friend chided me when I admitted I had never read it. "Your father writes a book and you don't even read it?" Feeling like a terrible son, I vowed I would read it that very night.

It's been over twenty years and I still haven't read it. It's just pages and pages of statistics about how vice principals view their principals. Dad would be the first to admit that it's pretty tedious stuff. I can't imagine the agony he experienced writing this thing while working full time and raising two children. And this was before computers and electric typewriters. 

The funny thing is, Dad never went to high school either. He was expelled in the 10th grade, but was still kind of a legend in his neighborhood, being one of only two kids who actually made it to the high school. 

Don't know that I've ever told you this, Dad, but I'm proud of you.

My mother is also a school teacher. I don't have any cutesy pictures of her in school, as she was too busy trying to raise two kids while she got her certification. I love you, Mom. That could not have been easy, not by a long shot. I didn't really understand that at the time.

My wife is also a teacher. The first year and a half we dated she lived 200 miles away, as she was going back to school to get her certification.

I too, am a teacher.

So what's the moral of this story?

Education is for suckers. A college degree is only a pawn shop away.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Good enough (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

With every phase of the writing life, there’s a different definition for “good enough.”

There’s an idea good enough to support a whole story. Then there’s a story good enough for myself. A story good enough to show other people. A story good enough to try to publish.

That’s where my own assessment of “good enough” runs into other people’s judgments. An agent has to find a query good enough to request the manuscript, and then has to find the manuscript good enough to make an offer on. After that, an editor weighs in on the “good enough,” and then whole teams of people at the publisher determine whether it’s good enough to acquire.

After clearing so many hurdles, an author might be forgiven for thinking there are no more. At that point, the story in question has been rewritten dozens of times, polished to a high gloss. But when I think of “getting schooled,” our topic for the month here at YAOTL, I think of what comes next in this process: the editorial letter.

The typical editorial letter consists of two paragraphs of compliments about the manuscript, with one or more (usually more) pages of recommendations about what to fix. I.e., what is not good enough yet, or could be better.

A shorthand version of the editorial letter might be, “Love your writing! You’re so talented. Now how about if we get rid of the first four chapters because the story really starts in chapter 5, rewrite it from the best friend’s point of view, see more of the father and less of the romance, drop the subplot about the Martians, and redo the crisis because it falls flat right now. Also, the main character needs to be more believable and the second half needs more energy. OK, get to work—it’s a great story and I’m thrilled to be editing it!”

At first, the editorial letter can be overwhelming, especially on a manuscript that the author thought was pretty much done. I’ve found that tackling one problem at a time, one piece at a time, cut the mountain of changes down to manageable size.

The best part about the editorial letter is how much it teaches. It can be exciting to see how a smart editor takes apart a story, analyzes a scene, zeroes in on problems. It’s exciting to have a champion at the publisher who’s invested in the story and the characters. Every editor with whom I’ve worked has taught me lasting lessons, and raised my personal bar for “good enough.”

Saturday, September 26, 2015

How Is a Book Project Like a College Semester? (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)

I've always been a good student. I'm lucky that way. I'm at least reasonably intelligent, but more than that, I'm disciplined and interested in everything on some level and I test well and formal education rewards those with my particular read-write learning style. Learning is my favorite activity. I plan my vacations around it.

So school has never been a problem.

Nevertheless, my first semester of college threw me for a loop. I went to school back when 15 credit hours was the norm for full-time traditional undergraduates. Now it's rolling back to 12, and sometimes 9. No wonder people are in college forever. No doubt there are elements of this trend I don't understand, but I still say, if that's literally all you have to do, you can do 15 hours. Yes, you will be stressed. Welcome to life.

That fall of 2000 (yikes, now you know how old I am ;-), I sat on my lower bunk in my tiny dorm room with my syllabi and calendars spread around me and inhaled and exhaled very slowly as I looked at the number of exams I would be taking, books I would be reading, and papers I would be writing. This was back in the day when you were just expected to do it and not whine and call your mom to come yell at the professor. (Man, I sound like a crotchety old person, but I know expectations are way lower now because I taught college until very recently and because I hung out with my two favorite college professors in May and they said the same and because we have all seen it many times in The Chronicle.)

My point is that I was looking at a lot of work.

I was absolutely certain it would never get done. I would give it my best shot, but it would never get done.

Well, I said to academia, we had a good run. When people hear that Courtney McKinney flunked out of college, I'm sure they'll be shocked and shake their heads, and say, "It's never the ones you think." Adieu, old friend.

I have always had a touch of the melodramatic, and this moment had all the makings of an extended death scene in which the heroine can somehow still sing after the bullets have punctured her lungs. (Looking at you, "A Little Fall of Rain").

I now have three degrees and several other qualifications in frames on my office walls. My despair was a bit premature. You'd think I'd learn that it's always going to be okay and that I always find a way because I am too stubborn not to. But no. Every semester I go through the same thing, whether I am teaching or learning. I have told many students this story to convince them that they're going to get through it.

I'm on a break from formal education right now (We all know I'm going back, right? There's still room on my office wall.)but I've managed to transfer my melodrama to my writing. Between finishing The Last Sister and its publication, I wrote another novel, in another genre. There are good things about it, but it also has some major issues I don't feel like fixing right now. Last winter I was struggling. The Last Sister was doing well, but I didn't like the first draft of a new project I produced in February. (Neither did my husband, and he is a good judge.) I tossed it. 

I thought, Well, this is it. Two projects that didn't work. We had a good run, writing. I don't know why anyone thinks I can do this again. Goodbye, cruel drafting. 

And then, from the piles of research and tossed pages, a new story emerged. At the moment, it's 3000 words long. And I'm pretty sure that if I can pull it off, it will be pure gold. It's good stuff.

I am always getting schooled. But I've learned to ride it out.

And rain will make the flowers grow.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


When authors discuss editorial letters, they often reference the daunting ones. Those that require massive global edits—the kind of thing that finds an author cutting half her book out before starting in again…

But for me, one of the most fascinating parts of the editorial process is the way a smaller change can completely give a book a new spin. How simply tweaking a few lines can bring an entire book together in a new way.

I recently made one of those changes to my adult comedy, FIFTH AVENUE FIDOS. The novel is actually an examination of our own “fairy tale” expectations of what constitutes a happy ending—in order to paint this picture, the book has always featured two storylines: one involving Mable, Jason, and Innis the Pekingese finding both love and their place in the world—they’re three “mutts” or imperfect beings who live up to their wildest dreams, conquering the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, a place where “perfection” reigns supreme. The other storyline follows Rosy, a princess (and Mable’s fairy tale alter ego) who descends her family’s glass tower to try to both find her prince and make her own way in her magical metropolitan kingdom. While looking again at FIFTH AVENUE FIDOS, it suddenly occurred to me that with a few simple alterations, Mable’s and Rosy’s stories would intertwine more clearly. It’s a change that I feel will allow my readers a more enjoyable—and chuckleable!—experience.

I’m also delighted to announce that the updated FIFTH AVENUE FIDOS now concludes with a PLAY IT AGAIN sneak peek

The updated FIFTH AVENUE FIDOS is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo. (Please note that because this is such a recent update, Barnes and Noble is not yet displaying the correct opening pages. To get a glimpse of how I’m weaving together the two stories, you can read the first pages at both Amazon and Kobo.)


Once upon a time, there was a princess who felt like a dog…I mean a real mutt.

Mable Barker, a frizzy-haired mongrel from Queens with no real life direction, is never going to snag a man like Jason Mead, a purebred Upper East Side veterinarian. Or so she thinks. Even in her daydreams, the infatuated-with-fairy-tales Mable imagines herself as a princess with a crooked tiara and a whole orchard of poison apples. Then again, Jason isn’t exactly traditional prince material himself. The shy but adorable Dr. Mead’s awkward ways around women have him substituting the search for his lifelong human companion with playing canine matchmaker—breeding blue ribbon champions.

Jason’s first breeding attempt yields Innis, Fifth Avenue’s snarliest Pekingese. A dog whose temperament, it appears, will never fit show-dog standards…until he meets Mable, whom Jason hires as a dog walker.

Could Mable actually have what it takes to handle Innis and Jason? Can three imperfect beings ever come together to create utter perfection at the Westminster Dog Show—and beyond? Will Mable and Jason ever trust their feelings, allow love to be unleashed?  Will Mable ever see herself as a princess capable of riding off into the sunset?

Fifth Avenue Fidos offers a deceptively simple tale that is both a sweet romantic comedy and a satirical look at modern relationships. A smart exploration of the fairy tale promise of a one-size-fits-all happily ever after—and a heartwarming story of love and dreams in dog-eat-dog NYC.


For old fans of the original, and new fans who will instantly be swept away by Chelsea and Clint’s love story…

Four years ago, Chelsea and Clint had both seen their share of tragedy.

Chelsea was a small-town celebrity—a basketball star with the promise of a free ride to college…until an accident on the court shattered her hip and her dreams. Clint was a Minnesota hockey player whose first love died in a car accident on the way to one of his pond tournaments; head no longer in the game, Clint was forced to hang up his skates.

On a family vacation to Minnesota, Chelsea met Clint, a fishing guide and personal trainer at her resort. Through their overwhelming, inexplicable, and undeniable whirlwind romance, they began to heal each other—to discover their own strength and resilience. Their summer together was short, but it bubbled over in intensity.

PLAYING HURT, the first in a series of novels chronicling the love story of Chelsea and Clint, closes with the promise of a second summer. PLAY IT AGAIN picks up as their paths finally cross again to explore issues of forgiveness and second chances, and to ask whether true, lasting adult love can grow from the fires of youthful passion

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Never too old to learn something new (by Patty Blount)

I'm having something of a mid life crisis as we get closer to my autumn birthday. Since this month's topic is about getting schooled, I thought you might enjoy hearing this story.

I'm not a particularly outgoing person. I can be shy and I definitely lack self-confidence. Public speaking terrifies me, but I do it because it was part of my day job and after I was published, it became even more important. 

A few years ago, a local chapter of the Romance Writers of America asked me to speak at their monthly meeting. I had two books published at this time and only a few people even knew my name. What could I possibly talk about? How could I talk about it when just the thought of it made me shiver?

My son sat down with me and asked me this question -- "If I asked you what your favorite part of writing is, what would you say?"

I thought about that for a minute and said, "Developing my characters. I adore Dan--"

Rob held up his hand. "I know. We all know how much you adore Dan, Mom." (Dan was the hero in SEND.)  "Why did you make Dan a boy instead of a girl?" 

"That's how I see him in my mind."

"But you're a girl. Isn't it easier to write girls?"

At this point, I was growing annoyed with Rob. Of course it's not 'easier' --- but you write what the story needs. He began asking me questions about writing boys and writing teenage boys and suddenly, I realized what he'd done. 

He'd allowed me to "self-discover" my confidence in writing male characters. The more I talked, the more fired up I got about the topic. We spoke for nearly an hour and he said, "You just delivered a workshop."

I grinned -- torn between feeling proud of myself for being so much more capable than I thought and proud of him for being so damn wise. 

There is no better feeling than to witness your child exhibiting wisdom you didn't know he had. 

I still suffer from low self-confidence but I do not dismiss opportunities out of hand anymore just because I think I can't. My son taught me that no matter how old you are, it's never old enough to stop learning something new. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Letter to my Pre-Published Self (Laurie Boyle Crompton)

Dear Pre-Author Laurie,

            I see you there, pouring over writer message boards and commiserating with writer friends about how LONG response times drag out, keeping you glued to your inbox. You are deep in the trenches that only the pre-published can understand. You read through weekly deal announcements like they’re horoscopes and ah, yes, now I see you there crying over yet another rejection. (Those ones that come closest are the ones that sting the most, huh?) There you are in your favorite position, writing away, taking occasional breaks to gaze off into the middle-distance, dreaming about the day your goal will be realized. The day you will hold a book with your name emblazoned across the cover. A book that you wrote. The day you will become a Published Author. 

            Well, that day has come and gone and I’m here to tell you what the future holds. Firstly, you will be delirious with excitement that day you watch the FedEx truck pull up to your house to deliver copies of your very first book. (You *might* hug the driver.) You will squeal every time you see your book face-out on bookstore shelves and you will want to hug every person in the line that will wrap around your publisher’s booth at BEA waiting for you to sign copies of your book. You will have reading events in libraries and in NYC and in your very favorite bookstores and it will all be more nerve-wracking and fun than you can even imagine. You will get reviews and be continually amazed by the fact that people are reading your words and discussing them thoughtfully. You are going to make it. So many wonderful authorly experiences await, but first you will endure more rejection than you can imagine. More than you think is even possible. 

            I am currently working on our fourth contracted novel. How cool is that? Book number three is out in the world (our first hardcover!) and I am so proud of the ways our writing has grown. (You will be shocked over how much you still need to learn. How much I still need to learn.) You think your books are ready now, but you will see how much more they can be. You will find the right agent and she will find you the right editors and they will all teach you new ways of seeing your words that you are incapable of seeing right now. You will be grateful for all these ‘No’s pushing you to go deeper with your writing. This painful waiting is more important than you can know.

You imagine even one book contract will give you that vote of confidence you need. That badge of honor that will allow you to introduce yourself as a writer without blushing and staring at your shoes. I’m sorry to break this news, but being published will do less for your confidence than you hope. In fact, at times you will feel much less talented than you did when you first started stringing words together in high school. You will feel even less secure than you do right now. You will worry that you are a hopeless hack. It feels sucky, but it will keep you working harder to compensate for the lack of natural talent that you always used to imagine you had.

            Another bit of bad news is the fact that writing novels doesn’t get any easier. There are no shortcuts and each book will require every bit as much from you as the one before. Actually more. Writing with the sense that readers are looking over your shoulder is going to freak you out. I know it sounds crazy when I tell you to enjoy the freedom that comes from writing in obscurity, but once you’ve released your first book and experienced the literary equivalent of standing naked in front of the world you will miss that sensation of tossing words freely into the abyss. People will judge you based on those words you’re writing. From your father’s friend who gives a helpful run-down of your mental state based on your character’s choices, to readers who don’t always get your (admittedly off-center) sense of humor, you will feel exposed in ways you can’t even imagine. Which brings us to:

            Not everyone will love your books. I know this is a hard one to take and certainly there are readers who will connect with your characters and genuinely love your books. Sometimes they will even be moved to write you letters saying so and these things, these ‘fan letters’ are marvelous things. You will have readers who write good reviews and tweet good things that warm your heart and make you smile. But theirs are not the words that will run through your mind while you lie in bed at night. No, the words written in a bigger font in your head will always be from the folks who plod through the apparent dreck that you have shoveled onto the page and publicly warn their friends to stay away. Write anyway.

            The worst editorial rejection you ever get will not hurt as much as that first critical review. While an editorial rejection implies you’re not quite there yet and things can be improved, a critical review, no matter who it’s from, means that your best is still unworthy. And the worst reviews of all? Not the ranty Gif-laden tirades on Goodreads. No, those are sometimes funny. It’s the well thought-out evaluations that point out some plot or character or reasoning flaw that was situated perfectly in your blind spot. It’s those criticisms that are dead on right that will shake your faith the hardest. But here's the thing.

            That desire deep in your gut to write words that will touch others, that faith that being an author is a worthy life goal? That remains. That drive to get better and the longing to write more will not be lessened even a small amount. In fact, you will become more determined, not less. And most of all, that feeling of sitting down and creating worlds and characters and stringing together words in a meaningful way will continue to be a source of great joy. In fact, the writing itself is the only constant here. It is still as difficult and heartbreaking and as cool as ever, and that awesome sensation of being in flow is every bit as intoxicating as you find it now.

            So keep going. Keep writing and believing in yourself. Don’t ever stop dreaming because although having those dreams fulfilled won’t feel the way you imagine it will, I can tell you the pain of dreaming is absolutely worth it. You will be an author one day, but you are already a writer. And that’s the very best part. 

Now go and get back to work so I can exist!

All my love, Published Author Laurie

Friday, September 18, 2015

Don't be THAT Author Some Things I've Learned at Book Festivals (Alissa Grosso)

I'm sitting at a local book festival. The author beside me has recently organized a writers' festival and has some fliers about the event at his table along with his books and bookmarks. When a fellow author at the event stops by to hand out postcards about his own book, and my neighbor hands him one of his fliers the postcard-hander-outer responds with derision.

"Are you looking for speakers?" Mr. Postcard asks.

"No, we already have a great lineup of speakers and panelists. We'll be covering a lot of writing and publishing topics and thought you might be interested," Festival Organizer says.

"I already know everything there is to know about this business," Mr. Postcard says.

Except the fact that it's a bit obnoxious to go around handing out promotional material for your own book to the other authors in attendance at the festival, I think to myself. Maybe someone like Stephen King or James Patterson knows everything there is to know, but I'm doubtful that the man desperately trying to move copies of his self-published book at a regional book festival has it all figured out.

When Mr. Postcard goes on his merry way, my neighbor leans over and says to me, "If I ever get so old that I think I have nothing left to learn, I hope someone puts me out of my misery."

In case you are also not ready to be put out of your misery here are some lessons I've learned by attending book festivals.
Some authors at a book festival. I've learned a lot from these ladies, and can personally attest that none of them would ever commit any of these faux pas.

Other Authors Are Not Potential Customers
Sadly Mr. Postcard is not the only one to have taught me this lesson. In fact, just about every book festival I've attended seems to have their own version of Mr. Postcard. While I applaud these authors for being bold and gutsy and for really, really wanting to sell copies of their books, I wish they would think about the situation a little more.

Every author who attends a book festival is there because they want to sell copies of their books. They don't come to a festival with the intention of buying books by their fellow authors. Festivals are a great time to meet, network with and share "war" stories with fellow authors. But if you are using your festival time to market your book to other attendees you are wasting your time.

I used to be a salesperson for a book distributor that sold to the library market. A couple of times a year I attended library trade shows where my company had a booth in the exhibitor hall which housed booths from other book distributors, manufacturers of library furniture, software companies, etc. I spent my time at these events talking with and attempting to make connections with potential customers, that is, librarians. I didn't waste my time pitching our services to the woman at the booth that sold the library study carrels because obviously she was not a potential customer. The difference at a book festival is that all the other exhibitors are there to sell the same exact thing you are, books.

More authors at a book festival. No Divas in sight.

Don't Be a Diva
Another day, another book festival. This one happens to be hosted by an independent bookstore. They are nice, hardworking people who have gone out of their way to make the experience a pleasant one for the authors in attendance.

One of the authors arrives. If I were to mention his name those of you in kid lit circles would recognize it, but he's not exactly a household name. He arrives at the authors lounge and pretty much the first thing he says is that he needs coffee.

There's a spread of food for the authors and coolers full of drinks. All the other authors have had no problem helping themselves, but the Diva plops himself down and waits to be served. One of the organizers pulls a bottle of iced coffee from the cooler. The Diva acts as if he's being handed radioactive waste. He absolutely must have hot coffee, but there is no coffee maker in the room.

I have to leave because I'm conducting a workshop, so I don't get to see how the rest of the coffee drama plays out, but I'd been considering buying one of the Diva's books as a gift for my nephew, and have now changed my mind.

Some authors at a book store. Please note that none of them has her nose buried in her own book.

You're Not That Great
It's a local author festival at a nearby Barnes & Noble, and there's a huge crowd of authors throughout the store. There's no rhyme or reason to our assigned spaces YA next to science fiction next to erotica next to mystery. It's a bit weird, but it means I do get to sit near authors I ordinarily wouldn't.

One of those authors whose books I have previously read and enjoyed is a few seats away from me. I think the whole event is maybe two hours long. He spends the whole time with his nose buried in a book. Okay, I think, maybe he's shy or maybe it's one of those books that you just can't put down.

Someone asks him what he's reading. He reveals that it's a copy of one of his own books.

"At least I know it will be good," he says.

Personally, I think it's a bit rude to come to an event and spend the whole time with one's nose buried in a book, but if one is in a large bookstore that's filled with a diverse assortment of books and you choose to read one of your own and make pompous remarks, people will notice. Maybe even the YA author who used to enjoy reading your books, but hasn't picked one up since that night.

Chances are if you're reading this, you probably know all this. It's common sense. Unfortunately the Mr. Postcards of the world will not bother to read this post because they already know everything and so the rest of us will have to put up with their annoying behavior.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

You've Been Schooled

By Natasha Sinel

My debut YA novel THE FIX's release date and the kids’ first day of school fell during the same week.

We all got schooled.

Here are some things I learnedplease take heed:
  • Sometimes you think you ordered school supplies through that awesome website that delivers everything to the classroom over the summer, but something must’ve happened because you didn’t, and your kids had nothing when they showed up to the first day of school.
  • Going to Staples with three long lists of very specific school supplies during the first week of school/your launch week is not nice.
  • Know that if you invite your kids to your book launch, they might upstage you just a bit. Below you can see they made their grand entrance. The middle one, the one with the glasses? During my talk, he sat next to me and made faces. The big one? He stood outside behind the window and held bunny ears above my head. Yes, that happened.

The grand entrance of the real stars of the show
  • It’s a good thing to have the local casual launch party a week before the big Washington, DC Politics & Prose launch party—that way you can tweak your talk and shorten your reading, which felt like it lasted 20 minutes even though it was only six—note: just under four minutes was the sweet spot.
  • Don’t wear a dress that you don’t love on you, even if everyone tells you it looks great because, even though you’ll feel fine during the event, you'll be devastated when you see the pictures—wear the dress you feel good in at the bigger event, even if it’s less dressy.
Happy debut author in comfortable dress at
Politics & Prose, Washington, DC
  • Soak up the love and support from your friends and family.
  • If something has to go that week, make it the googling and list-checking—it’s better to just soak up the love and support from your friends and family.
  • Make time to listen to your younger kids when they tell you about their first days of school—as they get older, they won’t want to tell you (case in point, the eldest offers up nothing).
  • People are going to post "in the wild" photos like the one below from all over the country. It's going to feel awesome. Keep this feeling close when things are stressful.

There it is. On the shelf.
  • Don’t schedule your husband’s flight to Washington, DC in the late afternoon during prime thunderstorm season—his flight will get cancelled and he’ll miss your big important launch party—you’ll both be very sad. Luckily, your mother-in-law got the whole thing on video with her iPhone.
  • While everything is happening during this week, don’t forget to check your kids’ school folders so you don’t miss some important sign-up or homework assignment.
  • Remember that this week is why grocery delivery service was invented.
  • Remember that your youngest’s birthday is in three weeks and you haven’t scheduled his birthday party—do that right away.
  • Think about how when all this launch stuff/first weeks of school stuff is over, you’ll get back to “real” life of exercising, writing, being on top of your kids’ lives and the household.
  • Laugh at that.
  • But still believe it, sort of.

And there you have it. You’ve been schooled.

Natasha Sinel writes YA fiction from her home on a dirt road in Northern Westchester, NY. She drives her kids around all afternoon, but in her head, she's still in high school, and hopes that no one near her can read minds. Her debut YA novel THE FIX released from Sky Pony Press/Skyhorse Publishing September 1, 2015.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Getting Schooled in School by Jody Casella

Whenever someone asks me why I write for teens, I usually smile and answer something sorta like this:

I like teens. I like books for teens. Not so deep down, I pretty much still am a teen. 

All of these answers are true. Ish. But there's a longer reason, and it has to do with a pet pig...

So, once upon a time I was a fresh-faced, wide-eyed, brand spankin' new high school English teacher. At age 23, I was not far past my own high school years, and those years had not been pretty.

I couldn't imagine I'd ever forget. The cruelty of bullies. The smug smirks of the teachers' pets. What it was like to sit alone in the cafeteria, trying to pretend I was cool with it. Being called on in class, heart thudding, scrambling to figure out what the hell the homework assignment had been.

The New Teacher Me vowed to make my classes fun and interesting. But most importantly, safe and comfortable. The one place where my students would feel, if not good, at least okay.

I got schooled within the first few weeks.

The kids weren't what I expected. They were taller, for one thing. Bigger. Louder. They talked when I talked. Sometimes they laughed at me. In several of my classes they outnumbered me thirty-five to one.

It took me a good year just to figure out how to maintain order in my classroom. And by order I mean keeping students from standing on their desks or climbing out the windows. Forget imparting my knowledge on the nuances of language or the symbolism in The Scarlet Letter. Many of these kids could barely read.

They didn't turn in homework. They cheated on tests. They came late to class. They made up excuses to leave. The bathroom! It was always "I have to go to the bathroom" with these people!

Without realizing it, I became the teacher my teen self would've hated. I gave pop quizzes and assigned seats and drilled the kids on grammar. I refused to give out bathroom passes.

Somewhere along the way it became Me against Them. I grew older. They didn't.

And I forgot.

By year five I was a pro. My class was a quiet oasis (for me). Clean. Orderly. If you walked past, you'd see me behind a lectern or jotting down notes on the board while the students busily scribbled in their notebooks.

Now I know what you are thinking. What the heck does this have to do with a pet pig?

Well, one day my students were taking a test and I was grading papers and all was right in my world when I felt a shadow looming over me. I halfway looked up to see a student. Out of her seat!

"Can I go to the bathroom?" she whispered.

I made the universal hand wave for Go Away Don't Bother Me.

The shadow disappeared and I returned to my grading.

After a few minutes, the shadow was back. The same girl. Again! "The bathroom?" she mumbled.

I waved and hissed at her, "Back to your seat."

She drifted away.

It wasn't long, though, before she was at my desk again. I was furious. What the hell was wrong with this girl?? I looked up.

I looked at her.

She was swaying in front of my desk, her face pasty-colored and shining with perspiration. Her eyes watery. Her hands shaking. But it was the sight of her jeans that got me springing out of my chair. The fabric near her upper thigh was soaked with blood.

Her legs buckled at the same moment I grabbed hold of her. I walked with her quickly to the office, the whole time telling her it would be okay as she babbled incoherently. Something something about a cut on her leg. Something something about her pet pig? Biting her leg? Her goofball idea to put a Bandaid on the wound and go to school?

I never learned the entire story.

What I did know was that she had to go to the emergency room. She'd need someone to disinfect her wounds. She'd need stitches.

I walked back to my classroom, shaky myself, and stunned. This was second period and this girl had managed to make it through homeroom and first period and most of my class, bleeding and in pain. I could imagine the story on the news. Girl Bleeds To Death from a Pig Bite Wound at School and No One Notices.

What was wrong with me? How had I forgotten?

Suddenly, I could see my students.

There were girls in my class who were pregnant. Kids who were physically abused. Homeless. Bullied. Or maybe simply consumed with more important things in their lives than the symbolism of the red letter A plastered on Hester Prynne's bosom or the green light at the end of Gatsby's dock.

When I had kids of my own, before I sent them off to school, I stooped down and looked them in the eyes. If you ever have a problem, I told them, tell an adult. If she doesn't hear you, tell someone else. You have to speak up for yourself. You have to make yourself heard.

Because here's the truth: Adults don't always listen to kids.

And most of them have little memory of what it's like to be one.

Teen Me. On one of my happier days. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Lesson I Never Seem to Learn (Amy K. Nichols)

This past month has been...challenging. A real mix of highs and lows.

Some of the highs: my second book, While You Were Gone, hit the shelves. I had a really cool launch party at Changing Hands, my favorite independent bookstore. I got a crash course in quantum physics at the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland. My book made a couple of big appearances, including in USA Today. My kids went back to school. My husband went back to school (he's a teacher). I was invited to do some great author events and appearances. A couple of fellow authors reached out to talk about collaborate work. All really good and exciting stuff.

But there were lows, too: I came down with a weird sore throat. I spilled a glass of water on my laptop and killed it. A good friend told me her daughter wouldn't be allowed to read my book because of its content (kissing). Another friend read a chapter of a new project and said it didn't sound like me. The sore throat turned into a cough. The cough kept me awake. My kids went back to school, which kicked life into high gear. Suddenly, early mornings and schedules and homework and ugh. The cough kept me awake at night. I found myself drained and napping during the day. I started to worry that I was falling into depression. The lymph nodes in my throat and neck swelled. It felt like I had marbles stuck in there. I had a hard time eating. I googled my symptoms, which is never a good idea, because then I got worried that something really horrible was wrong with me. I went to the doctor and started taking meds. The problem with my throat went away, but then I had to recover from the effects of the medication. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

A really challenging month. I'm just now starting to feel normal again, weeks later.

I didn't tell many people I was going through a difficult time. Just those closest to me. Not sure why, but I think it was because I didn't want to admit I couldn't do it all, that it wasn't all rainbows and unicorns all the time.

But that just leads to isolation and putting on a brave face and ignoring the thing I hate the most. The lesson I never seem to learn.

I'm not actually Super Woman. Sometimes I have to stop and rest.

This time (as in times past) I didn't listen. I kept going despite the warnings, until finally my body made the decision to take me out of commission until it got the downtime it needed to be well again.

I know I dropped the ball in there. Emails missed. Deadlines pushed. Others missed altogether (like last month's YAOTL post!). Calls not returned. Did I mention I killed my laptop with a glass of water? Yeah. That gets in the way of, well, everything. I tried to keep up, doing all my business on my phone, but still, things slipped through the cracks. And that makes me feel terrible, which only fuels the need to do more and keep up and work harder.

I got schooled by my own body. The sore throat was the tap on the shoulder. "Excuse me, Amy, but we need to take a break." The swollen lymph nodes and bad medication reaction were the two by four knocking me down so I'd finally stop and sleep.

The lesson I never seem to learn is the importance of self care.

That whole "putting your own gas mask on first" thing. I always forget that part until it's too late and I'm going down in flames.

Maybe this time, though, I've finally learned. Maybe from now on I'll take better care of myself.



Monday, September 14, 2015

How to Avoid Getting Schooled (by Nancy Ohlin)

Do you guys do that thing where you avoid criticism by using weird mental tricks?

Yesterday I went to a hot yoga class, which was my first real exercise in over a year. I used to be a regular, but a couple of serious injuries kept me on the bench until April. 

By April, I was out of shape and grumpy. But instead of doing anything about it … instead of jumping back into the game and feeling okay about not being fit … I stubbornly stayed on the sidelines. I so didn’t want to be a failure. I so didn’t want to be schooled by anyone about how I could have, should have, found a way to exercise around those injuries.

I’m kind of like this in the rest of my life. I want to be above reproach because, well, criticism hurts. This means I need to use those weird mental tricks I mentioned, namely:

*Refuse to participate so no one can judge me.

*Be perfect all the time.

*Tell myself that all critics are clueless.

Needless to say, these are all really bad ideas, especially for a writer. Writers are judged constantly—by agents, editors, readers, reviewers, etc., etc.—and if we want to be published, not participating is not an option. Ditto being perfect all the time. Ditto criticizing the critics. 

Oh, it was so hard to show up to that hot yoga class! I'd spent weeks checking out the studio’s website and then talking myself out of going. But yesterday, I’d finally had it with my excuses. I put on my workout clothes, dusted off my yoga mat, and dragged myself to the studio.

Once I got there, checked in, and set my mat down, everything was fine. Easy, even. In fact, for the first few minutes of class, I chastised myself about how stupid I’d been to stay away for so long. (I could have lost ten pounds by now! I could be doing headstands!)

But then the very awesome yoga instructor told us mid-Sun Salutation to stop judging ourselves (because he could read my mind, obviously). He told us to stop watching the other people in the room. He told us to stop feeling like failures.

He said all that mattered was to show up and do the yoga—our yoga, whatever it happened to be that day—and to leave our inner chatter, our self-schooling, in our shoes outside the door.

There are a lot of lessons here, including some stuff about how you can be your own worst critic. But for now, my takeaways—for yoga, for writing, for life—are:

*Don’t try to avoid getting schooled.

*Just show up.