#SixteensBlogAbout: Summer Reading

With the summer months practically here (seriously, how is it June already? Slow down, 2015…), the Sweet Sixteens are blogging about a particularly timely topic: summer reading.

This got me thinking about a lot of things. All the fabulous books I want to be reading right this second. The massive TBR list I’m dying to catch up on. The chair on my deck, beckoning me to sit down with a glass of Riesling and my Kobo.

Beach

Beach reading: one of the ultimate reading locations.

But the very first thought that came to mind? Being a kid and having the whole summer off, and not even appreciating how awesome that was. I  remember complaining to my parents, loudly and dramatically, that I was bored during those summers. Bored. There were only so many hours that could be spent playing outside, so many afternoons reading The Babysitter’s Club and hacking the hair off Barbies with my sister. So many days with nothing to do.

(It goes without saying that I also didn’t appreciate nap time back then. Because I had a lot to learn.)

As an adult, I relish any free time I get. There’s absolutely nothing more exciting for me than a whole day stretching ahead with no plans at all, nothing to do at all. It’s funny how things change— how what I now call the perfect day used to be a dime a dozen, ferociously underappreciated. What would summer reading look like for me, if I had back those endless summer days bereft of responsibilities that I didn’t value as a kid?

Summer reading would be both leisurely and fervent. It would involve starting and finishing a book in the same day. Maybe two books a day, since there wouldn’t be laundry to do or groceries to buy or meals to burn cook. Summer reading would happen everywhere. On my deck, where a waiter would magically refill my champagne when my glass got empty. (Hey, it’s my fantasy here!) At the beach, where I’d be careful not to get SPF 60 all over the pages. In the passenger seat during road trips, because let’s face it, I’m a useless navigator anyway. In my bed, where I’d sleep until at least noon like I did when I was a teenager. In an inflatable pool chair, floating from the shallow end to the deep end and back again, my toes dangling in the water. (In this wishful summer, I of course have a pool.) In the park, on a blanket in the grass. On a boat while my husband fishes. Summer reading would swallow up my days and the word “boredom” would never be used.

But that’s not the summer I have to work with. In reality, summer reading fits in wherever it can. On my breaks at work. While a TV show plays in the background. At the library. In coffee shops, accompanied by lattes. In my office. While I’m quickly eating breakfast before work. With a little lamp-light, under the covers at night. (Maybe I have something in common with kid-me after all.) I’ll read everywhere and anywhere, in whatever time I have, because quite simply, there is no better summer vacation than the ones found within a book’s pages.

And just for fun, here are some of the (many) books I hope to read this summer:

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

In A World Just Right by Jen Brooks

Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

The Queen of Bright and Shiny Things by Ann Aguirre

Learning Not to Drown by Anna Shinoda

Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu

Mania by J.R. Johansson

Black Iris by Leah Raeder

Love and Other Theories by Alexis Bass

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

Happy reading, everyone, whether it’s under the covers after dark, on a deck with champagne, or everywhere in between!

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#SixteensBlogAbout: Diversity

This month, The Sweet Sixteens are blogging about diversity, so I wanted to share what diversity means to me– as a reader and as a writer.

I first remember hearing about We Need Diverse Books last year, when the hashtag kept appearing in my Twitter feed. I was blown away by what so many people had to say, and at how the whole kidlit community rallied together for something we all not only want to see happen, but need to see happen.

WNDB2It makes me very sad to think that kids grow up without being able to find faces that look like theirs on book covers, or characters like them within its pages. A big part of the joy of reading is being able to identify with characters, to relate to their struggles and feelings and realize that you’re not alone. There are few better escapes than retreating into a book and hiding there until you feel okay again. I remember lots of times where I felt awkward and geeky and out of place growing up, but turning the pages of a book and losing myself in the characters could deflate my worries like nothing else. I idolized characters, loved them, hated them, pictured myself in their shoes. I felt better about myself when I realized they made mistakes too, because they were just like me. Maybe when I was younger, a straight, white, teenage girl from the suburbs, I took it for granted that I would find a version of myself in a book’s pages. But that feeling is one that everybody deserves to have.

Every experience is unique, and reading about the experiences of people different from us makes readers more educated, more empathetic, more understanding. As writers, it’s our responsibility to create characters that resonate with people. It’s our duty to make our characters authentic. This means writing characters who are identified by more than their gender, skin color, weight, religion, cultural background, or sexual orientation.

Books should be more than that. Books need to be more than that. Because everyone deserves to see themselves as a main character. Not a sidekick, not a secondary character, not a stereotype, not the best friend or the loner or the misunderstood bully. But as fully fleshed-out, multifaceted main characters, with laughter and tears and triumphs and failures.

And don’t get me wrong: I think art is doing a great job of covering ground. There are so many writers out there creating wonderfully diverse books, changing the landscape of publishing. Brilliant writers who are making a difference, not just in the writing world but in the lives of so many readers.

But until everyone can see themselves as a main character, art still has a long way to go.

#SixteensBlogAbout: Revision

This month, the Sweet Sixteens are blogging about revision. Which is kind of perfect, since I’m smack-dab in the middle of revising my current WIP. This means I’m overly caffeinated, entirely spacey, and my closet door is covered in a whole tree’s worth of Post-Its. (Sorry, tree.)

My revision bible, aka the best impulse buy I ever made.

My revision bible, aka the best impulse buy I ever made.

Honestly, I think highly of revision. It’s one of the coolest parts of the writing process, the stage where something rough around the edges starts to be transformed into a bright and shiny thing. But it’s also one of the most daunting, frustrating, and painstaking. It’s hot and cold, like an unreliable boyfriend. Because no matter how hard I try to approach it like a science, no matter how badly I try to organize and plot and figure out a plan to make a revision go as smoothly as possible, I always end up throwing my “revision schedule” out the window (well, not literally—I recycle!) because things always, always get messy. Characters don’t want to cooperate. Scenes don’t want to sit beside each other. Plot threads just don’t want to blend with other plot threads. Giant plot holes are perfectly content to remain unfilled and wallow lazily in the middle of the action.

The more books I write, the more I learn that revising, like writing, is an art. It’s not a scientific process and it’s not cut-and-dried. It’s temperamental. The glee of discovering a way to make a plot twist work is quickly replaced by the realization that you used the word look 238 times and you still don’t know how to fix the sagging middle of your story. The triumph of killing as many of those unnecessary looks as possible is overshadowed by the terrifying task of blending two minor characters into one. Plus, you have to accept that a lot of your darlings are going to end up dead. You might be sad about it now, but later you’ll look back and see how much better your book is because of the excess weight you cut out.

Here’s the thing about revision: you have to really get comfortable with it. If you don’t have a good love-hate relationship with it already, you need to spend some more time with it and see that it’s only trying to help, as stubborn and obstinate as it may be. Pull up a chair and get cozy with your laptop, with your Post-Its, with the messy notes you made that you can’t even decipher. Even with those annoying plot holes, because they sure as hell won’t fix themselves. (Trust me, I’ve tried that.)

Because the other thing about revision? It never ends, at least not for a long, long time. Writing “The End” is misleading, because we all know the end is nowhere in sight.

If you’re looking for me this week, you’ll find me in fleece polar bear pajamas (don’t judge), my second tenth cup of coffee getting cold, tweaking and reworking and deleting and layering… and hopefully making sense of those handwritten notes.

#SixteensBlogAbout: Luck

It’s Saint Patrick’s day today, which means green beer for some people, questionable green fashion choices for others, and for writers, a time to reflect on “the luck of the Irish.” This month, the Sweet Sixteens are blogging about luck, so what better day to write about it than the luckiest day of the year?

Irish

That I am.

Good or bad, luck plays a role in publishing. It’s part of the formula that turns your hand-scribbled notes or the Word document on your computer into something on a shelf in a bookstore, but it’s the one part we can’t control as writers, which makes it so elusive—and so maddening. You can work hard and write a great book, but for your work to find its way to an agent or an editor, a bit of luck has to be on your side too.

I think a lot of luck has to do with timing. If you’re a querying writer, you might have heard this before. An agent might love your work, but feel like it’s not right for her list at this time. Or maybe she has something too similar already. Maybe you wrote a book about a trend that’s getting harder and harder for agents to sell and editors to acquire. Perhaps you get told that your book doesn’t have what it takes to stand out in an already crowded market. (FYI: I heard this more than once before with the first NA book I queried, and those agents were right.)

If you’re getting these kinds of rejections, you might think it’s you. You might doubt yourself as a writer and wonder if you have anything unique to say, or if you should just stop trying altogether. You might be looking for a sign, something to tell you what to do.

Here’s a sign: whatever you do, don’t stop writing.

Because as much as timing sucks sometimes and you might think you have the worst luck in the world, there is something hugely important that you do have control over: whether or not you keep writing. So maybe your first book doesn’t work out, or your second or third. But if you keep writing and have faith in yourself and don’t give up, you will find the right path for your work.

And here’s another thing about luck. It can be in your favor, too. After you fall down and brush yourself off and stand up even taller, you’ll realize that you learned more than you gave yourself credit for. You’ll come to understand that you’re smarter than when you started. Your writing will get better and so will your choices. Maybe you’ll submit to an agent who really gets you, and you’ll count yourself so lucky to have her in your corner. Maybe that awesome agent will sell your book to your dream editor. And you’ll realize that all the supposed “bad luck” you experienced along the way wasn’t bad luck at all, but was actually the best thing that could have happened to you.

Case in point: I remember a time when I was querying the first book I ever wrote. I had been in the query trenches for more than six months and I was discouraged because although I had come pretty close to a “yes” with a few agents, I hadn’t been offered representation. I felt like a failure. But I picked myself up and wrote a second book. Then, I had this crazy idea that I just had to write, and that crazy idea turned into FIRSTS. Looking back, I think luck was on my side the whole time, with each rejection that trickled in. It sure didn’t feel that way when I was in the query trenches, but in hindsight, I can see that all those “no’s” led me to where I am now. And I wouldn’t change a thing.

Writers talk a lot about the path to publication. And no matter what stage you’re at—writing, revising, querying, entering a contest—guess what? You’re on it. You’re living your dream. And that, in itself, is an amazing accomplishment. As the Irish blessing goes, “may the wind be always at your back.”

#SixteensBlogAbout: How and Why I Started Writing

Grade4story

One of my fourth-grade creations. Thanks Mom and Dad for keeping this stuff, and digging it out for me!

This month, the Sweet Sixteens are talking about a question that really made me think. A question that took me back to the fourth grade, when I couldn’t hold a pencil right and made multiple trips up to my teacher’s desk to ask for more paper to write my stories on. I still remember the excitement of getting a fresh page and the joy I felt filling it with words.

The question? How and why I started writing.

The truth is, I didn’t know how I was supposed to be writing back then, or what constituted good writing. I just knew that I loved doing it. And that love is what started it all.

I filled those pages with stories about monsters and dragons and horses, and several retellings of the Little Red Robin Hood story. I wrote freely and quickly, not caring about things like voice or tense or character development, not knowing what was going to happen from page to page. I crossed things out when I decided they didn’t fit and left big gaps and question marks in the narrative. I renamed characters at will. And I didn’t know it yet, but I was beginning to have a serious thing for plot twists.

Fast-forward to now, when I’m a year away from becoming a debut author. A lot has changed. A lot more thought goes into anything I write. Under every new idea, there are numerous point-form notes and bullet points and unanswered questions. I think about things like finding a killer hook and introducing conflict. I wonder if people will want to spend a whole book with my main character. I consider whether my ideas are worth pursuing, if they are saleable in today’s market.

Maybe the biggest thing that has changed is that I go through phases where I find my inner editor to be almost crippling, a major impediment to progress. During these times, I’ll write something and erase it almost immediately because I have deemed it as not good enough already. During these times, I convince myself I have writer’s block and find reasons to avoid my story altogether. During these times, things like laundry and shoveling snow start to look appealing.

But looking back at my old stories—riddled with typos and gaping plot holes and illegible handwriting—I think maybe I could take some cues from my fourth-grade self. Maybe there’s something to learn from that little girl who didn’t care what anyone else thought about her stories, if people wanted to read them or not. She liked them—she believed in them—and that was enough for her.

Maybe part of my problem now is that I think too much and don’t trust my instinct enough.

I wrote FIRSTS very quickly—too quickly to have room for self-doubt to creep in. I wrote FIRSTS much like the fourth-grade me wrote her stories: fast and furious, with words spilling from my fingertips and somehow fitting into place. But since then, I have encountered bumps in the road with my other WIPs. Run-ins with my inner editor, who tells me to go back and fix what I have instead of moving forward. False starts and massive plot overhauls. It’s not easy to just write without a filter. But in 2015, this is exactly what I’m trying to do.

Because when it comes down to it, it’s so much more fun that way. And that’s the biggest lesson I can take away from my fourth-grade self. That writing is supposed to be fun, above all else. Frustrating and stressful and maddening at times, but also the best feeling in the world.

And while a lot has changed since I started writing, some things haven’t. I still have a love affair with plot twists. I still don’t know what happens from page to page sometimes, and I think that not knowing can be the best part.

Oh, and I never did learn to hold a pencil right.

#SixteensBlogAbout: Resolutions

This month, the Sweet Sixteens are blogging about our reading resolutions for 2015. This made me start think about my writing resolutions too, which spiraled into an internal dialogue about expectation. Not other people’s expectation of me, but my expectations for myself. And I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that the bar we set for ourselves is the hardest one to jump over.

As writers, words are our currency. We type hundreds, maybe thousands of them, at a time. We fill Word documents and notebooks and random scraps of paper and Post-Its and even napkins at restaurants with them. We add them. We delete them. We string them together, craft them into characters, emotions, relationships, scenes. We use them to make people laugh and cry. We turn them into entire books. And that’s a pretty amazing thing.

But I’d be lying if I said it was all about words. Because numbers squeeze their way into a writer’s world too. And once numbers become part of the equation, it’s hard to not notice them. On Twitter, where we can report how many words we have written on any given day and keep each other accountable. On the calendar in my office, where I reward myself with a sticker on days when I write at least a thousand words. On Goodreads, where we can keep track of how many books we have read throughout the year and see how many our peers have read. During NaNoWriMo, when the magic number everybody wants to hit is 50,000 words.

It’s easy to turn words into numbers and measure progress that way. I do it all the time.

So my resolution for 2015 is not to.

That’s not to say I’ll abandon my calendar or my shiny little heart stickers. That’s not to say I won’t feel a swell of pride when I hit the 5K mark after a productive afternoon. I’ll still do a happy dance and have a big glass of wine when I finish a new first draft. But my goal for 2015 is to measure progress in different ways. Progress doesn’t have to be a thousand brand new words. Progress might be editing a current manuscript, taking it to the next level. Progress might be a blog post or a short story or experimentation with something that might go nowhere. Progress might be taking a day off to read a book I’m excited about. Progress might be taking words away instead of adding them.

2014 was a busy writing year for me. I wrote three new WIPs. I edited FIRSTS, turning it into the book that sold to my amazing editor, Kat Brzozowski at Thomas Dunne Books. Then I edited some more. 2014 was a year of first drafts and revising. I also read a decent amount– somewhere in the ballpark of 65 books in a variety of genres. 2014 was a year of words and numbers. And it was incredible– I honestly wouldn’t change a thing. I successfully achieved the thing I wanted most to do, which was silence my inner editor, trust my instincts, and just write. I learned to love fast-drafting above all else.

Except the more I wrote, the harder I became on myself when I took a day off. The harder it became for me to measure progress by anything other than adding new words. I became a bit obsessive about word count. I was in a competition with myself, desperate to keep the flow going. And there’s nothing wrong with expecting a lot of yourself. Inner competition drives us, keeps us trying to make our writing better. But there has to be a balance.

My problem was, if I wasn’t adding new words, I felt like I wasn’t accomplishing anything. I felt like I was wasting time. If I fell short of a word goal, I was disheartened and felt like I had failed.

This year, I want to make those three first drafts shine. And that will mean a lot of things. Rewriting. Cutting scenes. Outlining. Making notes to myself in margins. A lot of this will be slow, tedious work. A big chunk of this will mean I have no new words to show for myself. And I’m okay with that. Because in 2015, I’m measuring progress not by how many words are on a page, but how I feel about what I’m doing. Just like I learned in 2014 to silence my inner editor, in 2015 I’m telling my inner critic, the one keeping score, to take a vacation.

So while my goals for 2015 aren’t all that tangible, they’re the goals that make the most sense to me. I want to make progress more about how I feel than what I do.

I’d love to know– do you have any reading or writing resolutions for 2015?

Fun with terrible titles

One of the super fun things about debuting in 2016 is getting to be part of the Sweet Sixteens, an awesome group of Young Adult and Middle Grade authors with books coming out in 2016. And today, I’m accepting my first Sweet Sixteen challenge: create #8TerribleTitles by scrolling through my debut novel, FIRSTS, and landing randomly on eight phrases. Thanks, Ashley Herring Blake and Emily Martin for tagging me for this challenge!

For some writers, titles come easily. For others… writing a title is almost as hard as writing a whole book. (Case in point: FIRSTS was not the, um, first title for FIRSTS.) But I sure am glad it wasn’t called…

1. JUST ENOUGH FOR PROTECTION, NO EXTRA FRILLS

2. I’M MY OWN STATISTIC

3. EVEN AFTER SIX MONTHS OF THIS

4. A COUCH CUSHION THAT MIGHT AS WELL BE AN ICEBERG

5. SIMPLIFIED AND PREDICTABLE, MY WEDNESDAY FRIEND

6. THE ONE COG LEFT IN THE MACHINERY

7. THEY LOOK DIFFERENT HORIZONTAL

8. HAVE BEEN JOINED BY BITCH

Well… this has been very entertaining! I tag Shannon M. Parker and Nisha Sharma!