Monday, November 21, 2011


Gratitude is something I include in my life every single day. Even when bad stuff happens, I tend to find the positive morsel hidden in the mess. Without a doubt, this attitude enriches my journey, but it can be perceived as annoying by people who either don't agree, don't understand, or aren't able to feel this way though they might wish they could. So it's no wonder that I love Thanksgiving, when for a day, everyone joins me in this feeling and expression of gratitude. I'm especially thankful for that!

Teaching Authors has declared this time as The Ten Days of Thanks-Giving, and Esther Hershenhorn has invented  the poetry form THANKU, a thank you note written in the form of a haiku. So here are my thankus...

For my critique group:
Thanks writing sisters,
You keep me sane and happy,
No crap gets past you.

For my husband:
Funny, sexy, smart,
You encourage and support,
Hold my dream afloat.

For my kids:
Life is never dull,
Three teenagers in the house,
My heart bursts with love.

I could go on and on, writing thankus for my friends and family and dog and readers and editors and agent... but instead I'll stop here and get back to work on my real writing. Perhaps soon I will be grateful for a new book contract.

Wishing you all a very Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Whole Novel Workshop

If you ever have the opportunity to attend a Highlights Whole Novel Workshop, do it! It was a truly magical week. My only regret is that I didn't get to spend more time in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.

I stayed in this cute little cabin.

And I looked out at these lovely trees.

And when I took a walk, I followed this serene path.

And when I wasn't sleeping or walking or writing in my cabin, I was in here.

This is where I met with Stephen Roxburgh, Carolyn Coman, and eight other writers to talk about the craft of writing. This is where we ate beautiful, bountiful meals. Everything was fresh and delicious, and every meal was unique. I loved not having to think about what to eat, not having to grocery shop or prepare anything or clean any dishes. What a treat!

At five o'clock each day, we drank wine and ate hors d'oeuvres while chatting about how to turn good writing into great writing, what our core stories are, who our main characters are, and how we can take steps to get our manuscripts closer to our visions.

This is where Stephen told me the character I accidentally killed in my manuscript absolutely needed to die. (It's a special skill, but it is possible to kill a character and not realize you've done so until after you've already sent your manuscript in, and by then you're embarrassed and you wish you could reach into cyberspace and get the manuscript back to make the character live.) What a surprise to find out that subconsciously I was doing the right thing all along! This is where Stephen taught me about cutting redundant questions, and it's where Carolyn shed light on writing in first person, and it's where I came to understand that even though my novel has a lot of action in it, I'm really writing a plot of character. I have to say, that's a relief!

This is where I made new writer friends, and I saw amazing revisions take shape, and I felt so inspired that I swear, if I had another week, I could have finished my revision and turned my manuscript in to my agent in no time. But alas, one week in Honesdale was all I had.

Now I'm home, busy with my real life. It's a beautiful life, and I truly feel blessed for all that's in it. But I do miss that magical time out of time in Honesdale.  

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Joy of Not Writing

I haven't been writing for three weeks now, and I don't plan on writing this week either. Four weeks of not-writing. And get this... not one ounce of guilt!

That's right. This time off of work isn't due to writer's block or procrastination. And it's not accompanied by that horrible feeling of I should be writing now. This time off is because I'm going to a Highlights Founders Whole Novel Workshop on Sunday, and we were all told to take a break from our manuscripts so we can see them more clearly at the workshop.

I suppose I could have worked on something else in the interim, but nah. I've worked so hard for the last year pushing through this first draft. I want this month off to not only help me gain some objectivity for my manuscript, but to also rejuvenate my spirit.

I've been reading a ton. And going through piles of stuff. And crossing things off my to-do list. When I finish writing this blog post, I'm going to clean out my dresser and closet. You know I'm caught up on life if I'm tackling that one!

And Sunday will begin my week in a cabin in the woods in rural Pennsylvania, working with Stephen Roxburgh and Carolyn Coman and seven other writers. A week totally devoted to revising my novel. I won't have to cook or clean or walk a dog or drive anyone anywhere or think about anything other than writing. That sounds downright amazing to me.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Fueled by Hope

Hallelujah and whoo hoo and yippee yahoo! I finished a first draft! It took me ten months, which is by far the fastest first draft I've ever written. For ten months, I've been thinking about this story, poking at it bit by bit, tunneling through to the end. For ten months, I haven't received a cent of payment, yet I've worked my hardest, struggled, and persisted, all fueled by hope. The hope that I could finish. The hope that this story would be worth writing and then worth reading. The hope that someday, after I revise and revise and revise, this will be the book that breaks me out of the mid-list. This will be the book about which people will say, "You have to read it!"

Lately I've been thinking about hope and how the authors I know get so excited and filled with hope before their book comes out, and then how those same authors are often disappointed when their book, no matter how great it is, doesn't get the attention it deserves. Doesn't get shelf space at the book stores. Doesn't get starred reviews. Doesn't get publicity or buzz from their publisher. Doesn't sell movie rights or foreign rights or hit the best seller lists. It's incredibly frustrating.

They've done this amazing thing that most people never do... they've gotten their book published! But then the reality of it hits... their book is one of around 25,000 new books for children and young adults published every year. It might seem impossible to get published, but the truth is lots of people accomplish that goal. Unfortunately, only a tiny percent of those people are ever published successfully.* You've got to be a fool to hope for that.

So call me a fool.

One of my author friends said she doesn't get swept up by the hope or by the disappointment. She just keeps doing the work. And though I admire her balanced way of approaching this journey, I know that will never be me. I need the hope to fuel me. I would never have spent ten months of my life torturing this story out of me if I didn't think there was a possibility of a huge reward someday. Yes, the writing is the reward... I get that. And as difficult as it is, I love to write and can't imagine doing anything else. But it's too easy to give up if I think I'm just doing this for myself or for mediocre rewards. The hope that maybe this time I could be writing a breakout novel keeps me going. I'll take whatever disappointment comes my way. I understand that's the consequence for hoping, and I'm okay with that. Because without the hope, I'd just be standing still. Dreaming, not doing.

* I realize everyone will have their own definition of success. And it might be that the nature of success is that you always want what is just out of reach. For example, Julia's Kitchen could very well be considered a success. It won awards, got great reviews (even a star from Kirkus!), was translated into German, and worked its way into the hearts of many readers. And though I'm so grateful for all of that, my dream of success goes beyond what I've accomplished so far.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Lots of Birthdays

In our family, we celebrated three birthdays this weekend. My twins turned seventeen. And my puppy turned three.

What's it like to have seventeen-year-old boy-girl twins? It's a breeze. It's a joy. It's a whole helluva lot easier than having younger twins. When Jacob and Faith were babies, they were cute and sweet when they slept or laughed or held hands or did something funny like accidentally pee on each other while I was changing their diapers. But in general, it was physically and emotionally draining. I was always needed. My life was basically taken over by these kids. Did I mention that we had another baby 19 months after the twins were born? (Incidentally, my husband recently completed his first triathlon, and he said it was the hardest thing he'd ever done. He must have forgotten what it was like when the kids were little.) Back then, I was going to write a book about how to survive the first year with twins. I had a title figured out: The First Year is a Blur. I bought a binder and organized it with different sections for different aspects of raising twins. But guess what? The binder is empty. And the first year is pretty much a blur.

If you are expecting twins, I don't mean to frighten you. I'm just relating my experience. I'm sure you'll have angelic babies who sleep through the night and nap at the same time and have mellow personalities. It's definitely possible. But here's the important thing: My kids are amazing. Smart and funny and unique and comfortable in their own skin. And holy cow, they're seventeen!

So, what's it like to have a three-year-old puppy? Okay, I realize Ozzy is not officially a puppy anymore, but you try telling him that. Ozzy is our Mini-Whoodle (part Wheaten Terrier, part Mini-Poodle), and he is the world's sweetest dog. I am not even the least bit biased. I know a lot of people end up on my blog when they do a search for Mini-Whoodles, so I figure I might as well give you some helpful information, not just about puppies but about what you can expect when your Mini-Whoodle grows up:

Appearance: 25 pounds, charcoal gray, warm brown eyes, and a funny looking 1970's-ish mustache. He's the perfect size for snuggling with on the sofa, and he's not tall enough to get anything off the kitchen counter.

Trainability: (Granted, some of this is my fault, but still). He sits. He stays in our yard with the invisible fence. He walks well on a leash. He never pees or poops in the house. He doesn't chew anything he shouldn't. He doesn't bite. Unfortunately, he still jumps on people, and he barks at the mail carrier and UPS guy, and he doesn't know how to fetch, and he never comes when I call him unless I'm giving him a treat or a car ride. Thankfully, his sweetness more than makes up for these minor problems.

Personality: Very playful. Very loving. Has never met an animal or person he didn't like. Will do anything for a belly rub. Gives lots of kisses. Enjoys daily walks and car rides with his head out the window. Often sits outside and greets the neighbors by rolling over on his back. Snuggles on the sofa with everyone in the family. Sleeps in his crate with his favorite stuffed animal. Smiles for the camera.

If you're looking for a Mini-Whoodle, I suggest you contact Barb at Old McDoodle Farm. She's wonderful. And if you're expecting twins, I suggest you load up on sleep, solidify your marriage, and reinforce your sense of humor. You're about to have the craziest, most challenging, most beautiful, and most rewarding ride of your life.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Head over Heels in Love

Even though I think it's incredibly important to support authors, publishers, and bookstores, most of the books I read come from the library.

Here's why I don't purchase all the books I read:
1. It gets to be expensive.
2. I have limited shelf space.
3. It really irks me to own a book that I don't love.

And here's what always makes me purchase a book:
1. I went to hear the author speak.
2. I'm friends with the author.
3. I'm head over heels in love with the book.

Obviously, the very best reason to buy a book is #3, falling head over heels in love with it. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen all that often. But yesterday it did. The book: The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson.

It was published in 2010, so I'm a little late to the party. Don't ask me how I missed all the buzz about this book last year... I have no idea. Just look at all these starred reviews and amazing authors heaping praise on this book and this author.

What's the book about, you ask? It's about sisters. And love. Loss. And grief. Passion. Music. Poetry. It's written so beautifully that I cried in the happy parts, was unable to breathe during the heartbreak. It made me feel like I was in on a secret, like I was meeting these incredible friends, like I was climbing inside someone's heart.

It also made me feel like I'm only pretending to be an author. That this Jandy Nelson is the real deal. And I'm okay with that. It's good to be in awe of an author. Yesterday, after I returned The Sky is Everywhere to the library, I went to my local bookstore and bought a copy. They only had one available, so I ordered two more. I need to give this book to some friends.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Mind Games: Three Tricks for Writing a First Draft

Are you one of those people who loves writing first drafts? You just zip right through them, happy and carefree? If you are, congrats! You can stop reading now. I wrote this for the rest of us, the ones who think writing a first draft is the hardest part of being an author. 
I love revising. Taking something and fixing it up, cutting, moving, shaping, deepening… there's nothing better than watching a story improve with each revision pass. But that first draft, for me, is torture. Creating something from nothing? You need magic for that. But not the sparkly kind of magic that comes with wands and fairy dust. (As if I had access to that!) It’s more the magic of, Holy magaga, where did that come from?! The problem is, you have to sit and write and create and hope the magic visits you. Thus, the torture. So I’ve found some mind games that help, and maybe they'll help you, too.

1. Write as a Reader: I pretend I’m reading the book I’m writing. I picture turning the pages, anticipating what might happen next. If I were reading it, what would I think about these characters, this story line? Am I bored? Impatient? Sympathetic? Excited? What scene am I hungry for next? What will I see when I turn the page? That’s what I write.
2. Best Gift Ever: I imagine that someone else has written everything up to this point. Then that generous person gave me the manuscript and said, “Sorry, I can’t finish it. But you can have it. Go to town.” Seriously? You’re just giving me an almost finished first draft? Thanks! I can totally finish this. How fun! (This trick works great when you’re in the middle or near the end of the first draft.)
3. Character Jump: When my main character is stuck in a tough situation and I don’t know how to get her out of it, I’ll ask one of the supporting characters for help. Obviously, this makes me sound a bit crazy because I’m the one writing all these characters. But really, when I write a first draft, I become my viewpoint character and see and think and feel everything she does. Jumping into someone else’s skin can help me figure out a solution that I wasn’t able to see before.

These little mind games have worked for me in the past, and I’m relying on them now, as I get closer to the end of my current work-in-progress. Give them a try, and let me know if they work for you. And if you have any tricks of the trade, please share! 

Monday, June 27, 2011

On Friendship

I brought chapter thirteen of my work-in-progress to critique group today. Have I mentioned how much I love my critique group? These talented writers and true friends help convince me I know what I'm doing, and they encourage me to keep going. We brainstorm ideas, and when I try to take the easy way out, they don't let me. Nope. Not gonna happen on their watch. That impossible scene I thought maybe I wouldn't have to write? Guess what? I have to write it. I love these women. I could not be on this journey without them. Just sayin.

So I come home from critique, feeling inspired, and I take my dog for a walk. I'm plugged into my iPod, and I'm listening to the soundtrack from The Book of Mormon, and everything's lovely. Then I hear someone call my name from a passing car. I look up and wave, and that's when I see this 16-year-old kid stick his head out of the driver's seat window and make a mean face at me. Seriously? This punk used to bother my daughter back in middle school, but that was years ago, and - newsflash - I'm not a kid. I'm the kid's mom.

I am honestly flabbergasted by this snotty, unprovoked disrespect toward an adult. It's so odd that it brings me right back to when my daughter was in middle school. Though my daughter was no angel, the way the other kids and parents (yes, the parents were the worst offenders) treated her was unbelievable. If I ever wrote about it, you would never believe it because it's a case of the truth being way stranger than fiction. Sometimes I even wonder if it all really happened the way I remember it. But today, with this jerk making a face at me out of the blue, I'm reminded that yes, what happened was real. And it was completely unfair.

I'm so grateful that we were able to find a different school in a different community for my daughter. One where she is free to be herself, to learn and grow from mistakes, to explore her passions, and make good friends. Friends who, like my wonderful critique group, will hopefully encourage her to do her best, believe in her abilities, and never take the easy way out.

As for the punk in the car... all I can do is shake my head and laugh. I hope he grows up someday and learns the right way to treat people.

Friday, June 24, 2011

What I Say to Myself While I Write a First Draft

Who do you think you are, writing a book like this?
You'll never get published again. You might as well quit.
Even if someone publishes this book, it won't get into Barnes & Noble. It won't be popular. You won't get rich or famous or even slightly rich or slightly famous.
Maybe someone will write the book for you. Then you could revise it. Or even better, you could read it once it's published and on the shelves.
You're not talented enough to write this book.
The characters are flat. The plot is stupid.
You don't know what you're doing.
You're going to embarrass yourself.
You might have an interesting idea, but you'll never translate that idea to the page.


You've already written 150 pages. That's pretty freakin awesome.
You can definitely write 50 more. Then you'll get to revise.
As terrible as this first draft is, you know you can improve it in revision.
You aren't in any rush. You can take your time and work on the manuscript until it's the very best you can make it.
Nobody else can write this particular story except you. It's yours. That's why.
Even if it's not a blockbuster, it will be someone's favorite book.
You're enjoying exploring the themes and the characters.
You're stretching yourself with new writing challenges.
It's always this hard.
There's no other job you'd rather be doing.

These thoughts run through my head every single day. It's a little crazy-making. Anyone who thinks they might like to be an author should proceed with caution as well as wild abandon. It takes both.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Showing Up

My husband rocks. Alan and I started dating when we were 19. Who in the world meets their soulmate at age 19? I mean, seriously, he still had bottom braces, and I still had chubby cheeks. How is it possible that we fell in love and got married, and 20 years later we have three teenagers and a happy marriage? (God, I hope I'm not jinxing us!)

But here's the thing. Not only did I luck out with a husband who would never pull a Tiger Woods or Arnold Schwarzenegger on me; I also got a husband who is a first class mensch, (Jewish word for a stand up kind of guy you'd be proud to bring home to Mama), smart businessman, and most importantly a loyal, loving, supportive father. And did I mention that he's hot?


Anyway, the reason I'm feeling so very appreciative of Alan is not because of the new ring he bought me for my birthday (though that helps). It's because he is right now on a plane heading to his father's funeral.

Alan's father left his family when Alan was only seven. He saw him a few times after that, but there was no real relationship. It's hard to have a relationship with a man who didn't show up for visitations and didn't pay child support. Having your dad abandon you will mess you up. And my husband and his sisters all had to deal with this loss in their own ways. When I think about Alan growing up without his dad, my heart breaks, both for Alan and his father.

Alan's father missed out on the nachas (Jewish word for pride and joy) of raising a smart, athletic, sweet, and funny boy. And then he missed out on seeing that boy mature into a real man. The kind of man who would fly to Florida to pick up his grandma and fly with her to Vegas to attend the funeral of a father who almost never showed up for him.

Showing up. It's a way of life I was lucky enough to learn from my dad. Alan learned it despite his dad. Whether it's work or play or family or friends. Just show up.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

An Interview with Allan Woodrow, author of The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless

Yesterday, I took my nephew to the book launch party for The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless
Zachary Ruthless

My nephew (not nearly as rotten as Zachary)

I'm so excited about this fabulous new book for two reasons. First, it's a hilarious new series kids are going to love. And second, Allan is a former student of mine, so it's a total joy to see him find success!
My nephew and Allan Woodrow

Allan was kind enough to answer a few questions for me...

1. Where did you get the idea for The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless?

I wish I could say I stole it, which would be entirely appropriate since Zachary Ruthless is the world’s most evil boy. But actually, it stemmed from two short stories I wrote for my high school literary magazine too many years ago. They were about a bad guy named, appropriately, Fred Bad Guy. He had an evil worm named Spot. I was looking through some old papers and found the story a couple of years ago and wondered what Fred was like as a kid. So, a quick name change later, Zachary Ruthless was born.

2. Is Zachary modeled after anyone you know in real life? 

No! No! No! Thankfully. He is way too evil and rotten to have any attributes credited to anyone living (or dead). Although lots of moms seem to think I may have modeled him after their sons. I assure them it is mere coincidence and then run away as quickly as I can (before their sons can do anything evil to me).

3. What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

Usually, my stories are plot based and wrapping my head around the characters takes time and effort. Zachary was purely character based, and then I wrapped a plot (or plots) around him. So settling on the perfect plot scenario took some time. I had lots of early drafts that put Zachary in situations that were mostly removed or shifted dramatically, many revolving around school and teachers.

4. Can you tell us a bit about your path to publication?

You hear about people with dozens of rejection slips and years of frustrations. Then you hear about people like me.

New Years’ Resolution 2009: Write a children’s book and get it published. I wrote one in three weeks, sent it out to four agents and got four form rejection letters. So I took a deep breath, decided I had rushed things a bit, and vowed not to submit anything else for a year. I’d hone my craft. Understand the business. Learn to write for kids. Take classes. And take the pressure off myself. I also vowed to write every day, and I did. Three months later I had two more manuscripts written, one of which was The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless. But I thought it was just OK. I kept writing. Three months later I had another manuscript done, and part of another one.

I then heard about a writing workshop, co-hosted by you - Brenda Ferber (along with your co-moderator, Jenny Meyerhoff)! I signed up and planned to bring an entirely different manuscript, one that I thought was much better than Zachary Ruthless. Two weeks before class I re-read Zachary Ruthless, thought it had merit, and rewrote the entire book. So I brought in that.

The workshop, which lasted six weeks, went better than I imagined. I took the advice shared, made adjustments and when the class was over was encouraged to submit the book to agents. So even though my one year wasn’t up (it had only been 9 months since I first decided to try to write a children’s book) I sent it out to a few agents. Three weeks later I had an agent (the wonderful Joanna Volpe) and three weeks after that I had a four-book deal with HarperCollins.

The other manuscripts? They’ll never see the light of the day. I’m just thankful I brought Zachary Ruthless to the workshop instead!

What a great turnout!

 5. What did you do when you heard you had an offer for a four book deal? 

I had a glass of wine and then kept on writing. My resolution to write everyday was made 28 months ago and I’ve pretty much written every day since then, with a few exceptions (I’ve skipped some Sundays, and I went on vacations where I didn’t write every day – but I’ve brought my laptop every time). Being a published author has been a dream of mine since third grade, so when I think about that dream coming true, I do have a great sense of pride. But I’m greedy. I want more. I’ll celebrate when I retire. If I retire. Frankly, I’d rather write.

6. What's next for Zachary? And what's next for you?

I’d love to continue flushing out Zachary’s world for more than four books – I have ideas for him that would fill up quite a few more manuscripts, and we’ve grown quite attached to each other – but that will depend on whether anyone buys the first four! In the meantime, I’m always working on manuscripts. I have some things I’m excited about (and more things I’m not excited about), in various stages. I’ll cross my fingers that someone else gets excited about some of those, too.

7. Do you have any advice for kids who want to be as ruthless and rotten as Zachary?

Ack! No! Don’t be Zachary Ruthless! If you’re a Mom or Dad: I would never encourage anyone to be rotten. So stop reading now, please.

OK, we’ve gotten rid of all the old people. Kids – listen up. Here are a few pointers if you want to be ruthless. First, no one can suspect your true evilness. You can’t perform evil deeds while you’re grounded, or without an allowance. So pretend to be nice and sweet and huggable. And plot all your evil schemes in secret, preferably in a tree fort or hidden fortress. Next, unless you’re an evil genius – and if you are, then you don’t need my help – then it’s not easy to get evil gadgets like lasers that turn people’s heads into spaghetti or hypnotizing glasses. But you can order a lot of that stuff online at, the evil bad guy gadget website. Lastly, it helps to be part of an evil gang. Most evil gangs will supply you with a henchman, snacks, and a good health plan. A magazine like Super Villain Weekly is a good place to start – a lot of the evil gangs advertise when they have open slots. Oh, and you need a good evil name. Something like “The Diabolical Death Wart.” It has to look good on a t-shirt.

To learn more about Zachary Ruthless, visit

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Opposite of Fear

The opposite of fear is hope. And I've already written about fear. So today is all about hope.

Hope and fear actually have a lot in common. They are both ways of perceiving the future. They both can influence how you make decisions. And they both can cause you to obsess.

I know you're supposed to live in the moment. Be present and all that. But you can't be present all the time. You have to think about the future, too. And when you do, common sense tells you thinking about it hopefully is the way to go. But hope can stop you dead in your tracks just as much as fear can.

Have you ever had the feeling that something good, really good, is about to happen? I felt that way right before Julia's Kitchen came out. At that point, I was so excited and hopeful about my first book being published that I was actually unable to do anything productive. I was just walking around in this haze of hope and happiness. I enjoyed it most of the time, but I would have enjoyed it a hundred times more if I'd been writing my next book then. I wasn't exactly resting on my laurels. It was more like resting on my hope. Either way, it was too much wasted time.

Lately I've been having that feeling again. That something-good-is-about-to-happen feeling. Mmmm. It's lovely. I can sit around and enjoy it. I can think about it, journal about it, obsess about it. But at the end of the day, I'll have nothing to show for it.

It honestly feels like the good thing that will happen in the future is so wonderful that its energy is seeping into its past, my present. That's how firmly I believe. That's the level of hope that's bouncing around inside of me. So what can I do with this energy? I don't want to waste it. I want to use it. I want to take that energy and all the benefits that come with it - self confidence, joy, excitement, and power -  and I want to let that fuel my writing and living right now.

So that's the plan. Think of it as mental time travel. Or buying on credit.

And for all you pessimists out there who think it's dangerous to invest so much hope in an uncertain future, I ask you, what does it hurt? If the good thing doesn't happen, I'll be disappointed for sure. But disappointment doesn't scare me. I've been there, done that, and lived to tell the tale.

Here's to hope!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Books Not to Miss

So many books. So little time. Here are some I've read recently that I am super excited about:

For Adults:
Room by Emma Donoghue.
This is such a fast paced novel. You will not be able to put it down. It's told from the point of view of a five-year-old boy who has lived his whole life in an 11x11 room with his mother. He doesn't realize he and his mother are actually prisoners of Old Nick. This story will stay with you long after you turn the last page. Although the story is dark, there is a lot of hope and resilience in it, too. Emotionally powerful.

The Girls by Lori Lansens

I read this book in December, and I still think about it. A fictional autobiography about conjoined twins. Fictional autobiography? Did you hear right? Yes. It's fiction, but it's told as if one of the twins is writing her memoir. Very interesting format and done exceptionally well. If you have a sister, I bet you anything you will love this book. So beautiful. So touching. 

For Teens/Adults
These books are marketed for teens but have huge crossover appeal. I love crossover books. Frankly, I think all adults should read books for teens and kids. But that's just me. Anyway...

Chime by Franny Billingsley

Holy moly is this an amazing book! It received six starred reviews. Do you know how many review journals there are for young adult literature? Six. A clean sweep. I have to admit that sometimes I don't like books that receive so many starred reviews or big awards. I'm not that highbrow of a reader, and sometimes those kinds of books go right over my head. But this book is amazing. I finished it one day and started again from the beginning the next. It's that kind of story. A mystery and a romance and just enough fantasy to keep things interesting without making my head spin. It's about identity and how we have to fight the labels that others put upon us and learn who we are from the inside out. The story takes place in a swamp, and the language is so swampy, you just sink into it. And Eldric, the love interest? My new literary crush. 

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Another page turner. And another book I had to re-read right after I finished it. Do you like parallel universe stories? I love to delve into those ideas. This book is about a popular mean girl who dies. (I'm not giving anything away. It happens in the prologue.) The cool thing is that she wakes up the next day and it's the day of her death all over again. (Kind of like the movie, Groundhog Day.) Watching her learn and grow and try to change things as she repeats this tragic day over and over again is fascinating. Everyone is talking about Oliver's new book, Delirium. I read that one, too, but in my opinion Before I Fall has more interesting characters and a more emotional story arc. I guess it depends on your taste: popular mean girl gets a chance at redemption vs. cautious repressed girl falls in love and breaks out of her dystopian society. On a side note, I just saw and loved the movie Source Code and it made me think of Before I Fall. If you love Before I Fall, go see Source Code. (And vice versa.) You won't be disappointed.

For Kids
The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless by Allan Woodrow with illustrations by Aaron Blecha

You want a hilarious book for kids in 2nd-4th grade? You've got it. This book doesn't actually come out for a couple more weeks, but you can pre-order it now. I'm lucky enough to have seen this book grow from a baby manuscript into its lovely paperback form. Allan was one of my students, and the moment I read the first chapter of his book, I knew he wouldn't be my student for long. He was on the fast track to publication. So glad I was right! Kids (especially boys and reluctant readers) are going to go crazy for Zachary, a rotten and lovable hero.

Dear Tabby by Carolyn Crimi and illustrated by David Roberts

Okay, this book might be in the kids category, but honestly it's for everyone. I left it on my kitchen table, and my teenagers picked it up and loved it. Do you know how hard it is to impress teenagers?? Anyway, this humorous and heartwarming tale about a cat who gives advice is perfect for anyone who wants to bring some more happiness into their life. Tabby helps critters such as a hamster who keeps running but never gets anywhere, a parrot who doesn't quite understand the art of conversation, and a dog who sits around waiting all day for something interesting to happen. But can Tabby help herself? This would be a great book for a graduation gift. Dr. Seuss's Oh the Places You'll Go is so yesterday.

Little Chicken's Big Day by Katie Davis and Jerry Davis

Looking for the perfect book to stick in that Easter basket? Here it is! I love this story, and the illustrations are so cute. My favorite thing is the catchphrase, "I hear you cluckin' Big Chicken!" I've been using that phrase since I heard it. It really comes in handy! Also, I've got serious book trailer envy. Check it out:

That's all for now. Have you read anything fantastic recently? Let me know in the comments. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Writing to Think

I've been journaling since I was ten years old, and I think it's a big reason that I'm a writer and a sane person today. Really. It's the one piece of advice that I give to everyone: Keep a journal! Especially if you want to be a writer. But even if you don't. I honestly can't imagine getting through adolescence without writing about it all. How would I have figured anything out? For that matter, how would I figure anything out as an adult?

I write to think. I write to make sense of the world. To figure out a problem, a mood, a situation. When I first started journaling, I wrote about what I ate for lunch. I listed all the swear words I knew. I complained about my friends and my clarinet teacher and the unfair word on the spelling test. As I got older, I journaled about my dreams for the future. And boys. I journaled a lot about boys. I was always in love with someone who wasn't in love with me, but it was okay because I could write about all those desperate feelings, and somehow that made me feel not quite so desperate.

When you journal, you realize that whatever you're going through is temporary. You realize that you can get through it. That it will change. That there's something to learn from it. You get perspective, which is an incredible gift. And you give that gift to yourself. How easy!

Five years ago, when I had a snoopy preteen daughter in the house, I bought a little fire safe and put all my diaries in the safe. Three years ago, while we were away for spring break, burglars broke into our house and stole all our valuables, including the little fire safe. Yes, all my diaries disappeared. I was devastated at first. I would never be able to go back and re-read what I'd written. But you know what? I don't really do that anyway. I don't want to go back. I want to go forward. For me, it's the act of writing that matters. Because that's what helps me think.

Since the burglary, I've not kept a traditional journal. I've done it all online in a password protected document. But the document got too long and cumbersome, and for the life of me, I couldn't figure out how to password protect a new file. But now I've found this awesome new website: It's an online journaling site, and it's free. It makes it so easy and fun to journal. And if you are just developing the habit, you can even sign up to get little reminders from them to journal on a regular basis. I highly recommend it!

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Writing and Fear

At the writing retreat I attended in January, one of the speakers said that all not-writing is due to fear. We might make excuses about time or energy or the muse not visiting or writer's block or whatever. But really? If we're not writing it's because we're afraid.

I didn't write today. Or yesterday. Or the day before. This, after vowing to write every day for a minimum of 30 minutes since December 1st. When my son asked me if I had written yesterday, I told him no and gave him a great excuse about wanting to read instead and waiting to get feedback on a different manuscript and blah blah blah. He cut me off and said, "Mom, you have to blog about your failure." Love that kid.

So here I go.

I didn't write for the last three days because I'm afraid.

I'm afraid this first draft sucks. (The fact that it's supposed to suck because it's a first draft is not comforting to me. Sucking sucks.)

I'm afraid I will never be able to translate the idea in my head into the masterpiece I imagine it to be. (This fear makes sense. My idea is perfect in my head. Of course I won't be able to create a perfect book. But who cares? Maybe I can create a book that is good enough.)

I'm afraid someone else will write my book before me, and they'll do a better job than I could ever do. (Stupid fear... nobody can write my specific book except for me. That's why it's mine.)

I'm afraid that even if I write the best book, my agent won't be able to sell it.

I'm afraid that even if my agent sells it, my publisher won't promote it.

I'm afraid that even if my publisher promotes it, reviewers will pan it.

I'm afraid that even if reviewers love it, people won't buy it.

I'm afraid that even if people buy it and love it and and ask for more, I won't ever be able to deliver because it is such an impossible task, and each book is challenging in its own way, and writing one book well does not mean you know how to write another book. At. All.

So there you have it. I'm sitting with my fear. But I'm not so worried. It won't last. Sometimes I have to just succumb to the yucky, scary feelings for a little while. Acknowledging them helps them pass. Because hidden right underneath all these fears are dreams and confidence and faith. Writer's fuel. They won't stay hidden for long.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Dream-Revising vs. Actual-Revising

My last post was about how I'm taking all kinds of life detours while trying to write a first draft of a new novel, thus slowing my progress but making life pretty darn interesting. Here's proof that those life "detours" are time well spent:

My agent told me she thought I was on the right track with my revision, and she asked me if I could intensify one event and move it up in the timeline of the story. It was excellent advice, but I had no idea how to actually do it. The event happened because of all the things that led up to it. And because of the event, the story came to its natural conclusion. How was I supposed to move the event to the beginning or middle of the story?? I was stumped.

That night, I woke up at 3:30 with a headache, so I took my favorite headache medicine, Excedrin Migraine. (which, by the way, I was taking when I plotted the idea for my new ya novel. I swear, that stuff has some creative magic in it.) Anyway, as I was trying to fall back asleep, I was thinking about my agent's suggestion, and I was searching for the solution. Then, bam! It hit me. I don't have to actually move the event. I only have to move the impact of the event. In other words, my main character can be telling the story from that moment, as opposed to telling it all chronologically as the story unfolds. Where did this solution come from? E. Lockhart, the author who spoke at the fabulous retreat I attended! She calls it a "tent pole structure." It also comes from reading some books recently that use this technique. Would I have come up with this answer without those so-called distractions? I doubt it.

I spent the next four hours in bed, in and out of sleep, revising the book in my head. I even came up with a new title. The book was practically written, and my headache was gone!

The next day I went to a coffee shop to get to work. This would be a piece of cake. I mean, I had already done all the hard thinking-work last night in bed.

I opened my document, gave it my new title, and stared at the first paragraph. I love my first paragraph. It's just right. I spent forever crafting it. So the fact that it took me a full hour to have the guts to cut it shouldn't upset me. But it did. Why is dream-revising so much quicker and easier than actual-revising?

First drafts, revisions, publishing... it all takes longer than you want. (Case in point: I wrote my picture book The Yuckiest, Stinkiest, Best Valentine's Day Ever in 2002, sold it in 2007, and it will be out in 2013!!) But who really cares? Things take as long as they take. Why would I expect anything worthwhile to be quick and easy?

So... I hereby vow to stop focusing on how long things take and instead to put my energy into trying my best, learning each day, enjoying the creative process. It might be cliche, but it's true: We shouldn't count the days; we should make the days count.

Friday, February 11, 2011

How Not To Write a First Draft

I'm in the dreaded middle of the first draft of a new novel. And I'm doing everything wrong. So if you want to succeed as an author, feel free to learn from my mistakes:

1. When your agent contacts you about your manuscript that she's submitting (the one you thought you were finished with), DO NOT come up with the perfect way to revise it now.

2. And whatever you do, DO NOT start that revision, even if you think it will only take a week or two.

3. DO NOT go to an incredible writing retreat where you'll learn so much about writing that you'll realize everything you've written so far in your first draft is complete dreck.

4. DO NOT meet talented and personable authors at said writing retreat and then go home and check all their books out of the library.

5. And absolutely, positively, DO NOT start reading their books.

6. DO NOT go to another event where a funny author whom you admire talks about what makes humorous picture books work.

7. And definitely DO NOT get inspired to write a picture book now.

8. When your husband asks how the writing is going, DO NOT tell him the terrible horrible truth, unless you want him to back up in fear, hide the sharp objects, and keep his distance from you for the rest of the evening/week/month.

9. If a special holiday is coming up, like Valentine's Day for example, DO NOT spend time creating the perfect gifts and cards for everyone in your family. Even if it makes you happy.

10. In other words, if you want to finish a first draft of a novel, DO NOT let life interfere.

I'm serious.

Your family doesn't really need you.

And you don't really need to enrich yourself as a writer, or a reader, or even as a human being.

I'm telling you, if you let life interfere with that first draft, you will never finish. Ever.

Well, maybe you will finish eventually.

But it will take you a long time. Longer than you expected. Longer than you want. And it will be harder than you ever imagined. Because writing is hard. There are no shortcuts. There is nothing quick and easy about it. And because life is complicated and funny and tragic and beautiful and busy, and if you're living it right, it will impact everything you do.

But. If you stick with your manuscript and work on it a little bit every day, no matter how long it takes you, no matter how much life interferes, at some point, you'll finish that first draft.

And then?

You can revise.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Book Trailer Envy

Check out this awesome book trailer:

First of all, this was one of my favorite books of 2010. Second of all, this book trailer is just perfect. It's what all other book trailers should be. Not cheesy. Not long. Just very professional and totally the right tone for the book. This is the kind of trailer I'd love to create for all my future books.  If you haven't already read A Tale Dark and Grim, you should. (Thanks to Betsy Bird for the link!)

This trailer got me thinking, though. How much money should you spend to make a book trailer? Who actually watches them? How do you distribute them? Do they have any impact on sales? I don't know the answers to these questions, but I'm very curious. I'm even curious about whether or not you even like this trailer. Is it only me? If you have any thoughts on this topic, please feel free to comment.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Step Away From The Novel.

My editor once told me I should put a manuscript away for six months before trying to revise it. Was she crazy? Who has that kind of time? Who has that kind of patience? When I finish a first draft, I can't wait to start revising. Maybe I'll wait a weekend. Or a week if I've got a really great book to read and a huge to-do list to conquer. But I'll be itching to get to that revision. And I'll be calculating how quickly I can revise it and how fast my agent can sell it. I'll have a contract by fall, I think. Or winter. Or spring. Or summer. The book will be published in no time. I'll have to update my website and hope for good reviews and plan promotions and...

Wait a minute. It never ever goes that way. The publishing industry moves at a snail's pace. Agents take weeks to read your work. Editors take months to reject it. When you do finally get an offer, it takes years for the book to actually come out. This is the process. There is no fighting it. It can be incredibly frustrating, but recently I've discovered the positive side to this long, drawn-out journey: Objectivity.

Yes, my editor was right all along. (She is always right about everything, actually.) You need time away from a manuscript to see it clearly and to make it the best it can be. Case in point, my new middle grade novel that my agent and I really love. She's been submitting it for months, and editors have been rejecting it with the loveliest rejection letters I've ever received. I can blame the state of the industry all I want (and I do a little bit), but really, obviously, there's something wrong with the manuscript. Something I need to fix.

And guess what? Six months away from the story gave me the perspective I needed to see what needs to be done. It also gave my critique partners perspective, too. They gave me some perfect suggestions that I can't wait to use. So I'm diving back into revisions, even though my new young adult manuscript is quite a bit jealous that I'm leaving her for a while. Don't worry, I'll be back! Maybe even with some helpful objectivity.  

Friday, January 07, 2011

Jemma Hartman's Twin!

I've received lots of photos of Jemma Hartman Lookalikes, but this one for sure takes the cake!

Lauren from Tampa, Florida. What a cutie!

Lauren's teacher sent me this picture, and today I'm heading to the post office to send Lauren and all her classmates some excellent Jemma Hartman swag.

Today I'll also be cheering for my nephew in his school Geography Bee. (This is a kid who at age 3, in the backseat of the car, shouted, "The capital of Alabama!" as the car zoomed past a street sign that said Montgomery Drive.) In other exciting family news: We are celebrating my niece's Bat Mitzvah and another nephew's Bar Mitzvah this weekend! Too bad one is in Chicago while the other is in Detroit.
And too bad cloning is not an option.

Happy Weekend!

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

365 Day Challenge Update

I am proud to say I've now written every single day since December 1st.

Even when I was on a totally amazing Caribbean cruise with my family, I wrote.
The view from the balcony onboard The Adventure of the Seas

True, some days I only wrote for 30 minutes, and true, the writing wasn't all that great, but the important thing was that I kept on writing. I didn't interrupt my flow, and now I've reached page 100 of my work-in-progress. Quite an accomplishment considering it usually takes me six months to write that much. I got this far in a little over two!

I'm at about the halfway mark, which means I'm in that most dreaded part of first drafts: the middle. Why are middles so hard to write? I think it's because beginnings are full of promise and creativity. Anything goes. And you usually know your ending (generally speaking) before you begin, plus by the time you get to the end, you've got all this energy propelling you there. But middles are complicated. You have to follow the threads you started in your beginning. (Why did I make such a big deal about that minor character? Clearly he needs to come back into the story now. Hmm...) And you have to direct everything toward the end. Plus you have to keep the interest and the tension and the stakes high. It's a lot to think about.

At this point, I keep reminding myself I can fix everything in revision. I'm halfway there! I can totally do this. One of my favorite books when I was a child was The Little Engine That Could. (Between that and Free to Be You and Me, it's no wonder I ended up being the persistent optimist that I am!) So I'm thinking about that Little Blue Engine and chugging along, right up the mountain.

How's your 365 Day Challenge going?