The Art of Breaking Things: Q & A with Laura Sibson

The Art of Breaking Things (Viking Books for Young Readers, June 2019) by debut author Laura Sibson tells the story of 17-year-old Skye, an artist set to leave her small town and attend art school once she figures out how to survive senior year and confront the trauma she experienced several years earlier. Here’s a brief description of the novel from Sibson’s website:

Weekends are for partying with friends while trying to survive the mindnumbingness that is high school. The countdown to graduation is on, and Skye has her sights set on escaping to art school and not looking back. 

But her party-first-ask-questions-later lifestyle starts to crumble when her mom rekindles her romance with the man who betrayed Skye’s trust and boundaries when he was supposed to be protecting her. She was too young to understand what was happening at the time, but now she doesn’t know whether to run as far away from him as possible or give up her dreams to save her little sister. The only problem is that no one knows what he did to her. How can she reveal the secret she’s guarded for so long?

With the help of her best friend and the only boy she’s ever trusted, Skye might just find the courage she needs to let her art speak for her when she’s out of words. After years of hiding her past, she must become her own best ally.

I finished the novel in a day and found it to be immersive and compelling, With so much beautiful writing, believable characters, great dialogue, and seamless transitions from present to past, Sibson handles the issues of sexual assault, drug use and abuse, and consent with tremendous care. Not shying away from creating uncomfortable situations for her characters, Sibson allows protagonist Skye (and other characters such as her best friend and love interest Ben) to experience life as well as the consequences of their actions without being preachy or judgmental. I especially loved the way Skye uses her art and creative vision of the world to confront her past, deal with her present, and prepare for the future. I have no doubt that this novel will give teens and their parents a wonderful starting point to have conversations about consent, substance use and abuse and so much more.

I had the pleasure of getting to know Sibson during the Writing Novels for Young People Retreat at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Here are highlights from our email interview about her writing life:

EZ: What first sparked your interest in writing for children?

LS: In my junior year of high school, we wrote short stories. Working on a story about a good girl who shoplifts was the first moment that I remember realizing that I could craft stories myself. I’d been a certified bookworm since I was a young child, but it hadn’t occurred to me that maybe I could write. Fast forward to 2008 and I’d been working on a story that my critique partner observed had flashbacks upon flashbacks. I read Twilight (because let’s be honest, who didn’t read Twilight in 2008?) and it hit me like one of those lightbulbs over the head of a cartoon character: I could make my main character a teen?! Ever since then, I’ve never looked back. I love writing for teens and exploring that particular adolescent tension of beginning to understand yourself as separate from your family, but not yet possessing the real power of an adult in the world.

EZ: How did going to VCFA for your MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults impact your writing and change your life?

LS: I love this question because I do feel that VCFA changed my life. I remember reaching out to Lauren Myracle when I was thinking of applying and she said that the degree from VCFA wouldn’t necessarily get me a book deal, but it would help me become a better writer more quickly than if I tried to improve on my own. And though I secretly hoped to get an agent and a book deal as a result of the experience, what actually happened was so much more important. I met people who I could identify with and who were supportive and passionate about writing for children. In that environment, I learned how to write better fiction. But what helped my writing even more was learning how to revise. When I arrived at VCFA, I thought that the need for revision was an indication of my lack of ability. It took Amanda Jenkins in my 3rd semester to open my eyes not only to the essential need for revision for every writing project, but for the opportunity that revision offers to make the story even better. Now, even though revision is hard, I look forward to digging in and making the writing more specific, more focused, and better paced.

EZ: How did your experience as a career counselor for undergraduates inform or inspire your work as a full-time writer?

LS: Oh, another great question! I’m not sure that my career counseling work directly influenced the subject of my writing, but coaching college-aged people to identify their strengths and interests and pursue their dreams forced me to stop and wonder if I was doing what I was telling them to do. Also, colleges and universities are places of possibility and curiosity, you know? So working in higher education was inspiring and energizing.

EZ: On your blog, you say you’re on “A journey toward writing dangerously”—please explain.

LS: I’m so glad you asked about this because I was just thinking about it the other day. So, back in 2010, before I started at VCFA, I attended the annual SCBWI meeting in New York. Libba Bray was the keynote speaker. (Sidenote: while searching for a transcript of her speech I saw that she was also keynote in 2018 and you heard her speak! Isn’t she amazing?!) Anyway, I’d been a fan of Libba’s since shortly after I’d discovered young adult books. Her talk focused on writing as an extreme sport and at the end of the talk she invited the audience to join her in a year of writing dangerously. I’d felt at that time that maybe I was playing things a bit safe in my writing. I wondered: if I really let go and took risks, would I be able to achieve the depth of fiction that I hoped to achieve? And the good news is that in my forthcoming novel, I believe that I did achieve that. (But sheesh, it took a heck of a lot longer than a year!)

EZ: Would you say you fit writing into your life or do you fit your life into writing? And how do you organize your writing life/days?

LS: Well, when I worked part-time in higher education and my boys were in grade school, I definitely fit writing into my life. I would get up early to write before work. I’d write on the two days that I didn’t go into the office while my kids were in school. And I’d write while my boys were at swim practice, baseball practice, all sort of practice! But now, I’m an empty nester and I decided not to return to my counseling work. My writing is my priority. But I’ll be honest, it was very hard for me to make it a priority before I had an agent and a book deal. Until then, it was all too easy for me to let my writing time get eaten up by volunteer commitments, house stuff, catching up with friends and family or other aspects of being an adult in the world. My routine now is that I try not to schedule anything between 10-3 each day. And at least one day a week, I host writers in my home or meet up with writers somewhere else. Writing alongside other writers helps hold me accountable.

EZ: What are some must-haves that you need to write?

LS: I really like to have a hot cup of coffee when I sit down to write. For reasons I cannot explain, earbuds help me focus. So, when I’m drafting a new project, I’ll get my coffee, put my earbuds in (even if there’s great music playing at the coffee shop) and sink into the writing. I’ve found that it can also help me to set a timer. (A tip I learned from Sarah Aronson.) I can get a lot of scenes written in back-to-back 25-minute increments! But when I’m revising, all I need is time, my laptop and a big space lay out the plot points and emotional beats of my novel.

EZ: What was your journey from writing to becoming a published author?

LS: My road to publishing took forever and then happened really fast. I’d written a complete manuscript before applying for VCFA. I queried about 8 agents and editors (as opposed to the recommended 50) before giving up. While I don’t recommend that writers give up after querying a handful of agents, I don’t regret my path because it led me to VCFA. In my last semester there, I wrote a bare bones draft of a new novel and after adding flesh to the bones and revising, I tried querying again. This time I made it to about 24 agents and editors before giving up. The lesson I still needed to learn at this point was that agents and editors are subjective. I understood that intellectually, but didn’t really get it on a gut level, if that makes sense. I started a new story – a paranormal that was a lot of fun to write – and on the side began writing something only for me. When I read a little bit of the “me” project to trusted writer friend Cordelia Jensen, she encouraged me to keep at it. That project eventually became The Art of Breaking Things, which I started querying in March 2016. I stopped querying in November 2016 to revise and regroup. I’d received a lot of full requests, but no offers of representation. I started a new middle grade novel (that’s what I was working on when I met you at the Whole Novel Retreat at VCFA). At the end of August 2017, another trusted writer friend, Laurie Morrison, encouraged me to give one more go to querying The Art of Breaking Things. I queried three agents. Two requested fulls immediately and in early September, Brianne Johnson of Writers House offered me representation. People talk about their dream agents. Bri is the agent that I didn’t even have the nerve to dream about. She’s an incredible advocate of my work and excellent at her job. Bri sold my book by early December 2017 and the book will be in readers hands in about two short months!

EZ: Best writing advice you’ve ever received and/or given?

LS: One piece of advice that has stayed with me and which I consider when I’m asked to critique others’ work and when I receive feedback from readers is something that Neil Gaiman said: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” What I like about this quote is the reminder that readers are invaluable in helping us understand how our writing is landing, but that we are the best source of solutions for issues that come up. Of course, it’s helpful to brainstorm with trusted people and consider different angles for your story. But when it’s time to dive in deep with revision, it’s you, the writer, who needs to figure out the best way to implement changes to your novel.

EZ: What’s the best thing about becoming a published author (with a two-book deal, I might add)?

LS: As you know, writing is a mostly solitary endeavor. Even while working alongside fellow writers, you spend most of your time in your head with your characters I’m thrilled that my book was chosen by a dedicated team at Viking who believe that this story will connect with teens. I don’t take that for granted. With this book, I most look forward to readers experiencing hope when they read Skye’s story. And I’m grateful that Viking wants another book from me. As soon as I’m able, I’ll share what that will be.

EZ: What do you do to de-stress or get inspired when confronting the rigors of deadlines and the business of writing?

LS: Hmmm, that’s a big question. To get ready for writing, I like to either work out or take a walk in the morning. I find that I’m better able to sit still and focus after some physical movement. To de-stress after a big writing day, I’ll take the dog for a walk in the woods or zone out to an amusing TV show for a little while. If I need to process what’s going on in the writing or deal with the stress related to business things over which I have no control – I connect with my close writing friends who have been through the process before me. As for deadlines, I love them! I’m more likely to be stressed by a general “whenever” than by a specific deadline, even a tight one.

Read the Kirkus review of Sibson’s novel here.

If you’d like a chance to win a copy of The Art of Breaking Things through May 17th), visit Goodreads. The Art of Breaking Things can also be pre-ordered from IndieBound, Amazon, Barnes & Nobel and BAM.

Sibson is also doing a giveaway of books by authors who blurbed The Art of Breaking Things on Twitter. Learn more about her and her work on her website and on Instagram and Facebook.

Disclosure: At my request, I received an early copy of The Art of Breaking Things from the publisher.

 

 

When I Was Summer: Q & A with J.B. Howard

When I heard about J.B. Howard’s debut novel, When I Was Summer (Viking Books for Young Readers, April 30, 2019) and saw the absolutely gorgeous book cover, I began counting the days until it would be in my hands. Intrigued by the promise of music and mystery (maybe some mating too?!), I pre-ordered the novel and anxiously await its arrival. If it turns out to be anything at all like its author–because what work of fiction doesn’t include at least part of the soul from which it comes–I can’t imagine it’ll be anything less than awesome.

Here’s a description of When I Was Summer from the publisher:

A relatable novel about unrequited love, rock ‘n’ roll, and what you find when you go searching for yourself.

Sixteen-year-old Nora Wakelin has always felt like an outsider in her own family. Her parents and older sister love her, but they don’t understand anything about her: not her passion for music, not her all-encompassing crush on her bandmate Daniel (who is very much unavailable), not her recklessness and impulsiveness. Nora has always imagined that her biological mother might somehow provide the answer as to why she feels like such an outsider.

Through internet stalking and leaps of logic, Nora identifies three women living elsewhere in California who seem like they could be her biological mother. So she sets out to track them each down, one by one, under the pretense of a statewide tour with her rock band, Blue Miles. Three cities, three gigs, three possible birth mothers–it sounds so easy.

But once they’re on the road, of course, it’s anything but easy. Nora wants to be with Daniel, she wants to find her birth mother, she wants to keep her parents happy, she wants the band to stay together, and she wants to know why she is the way she is. But she won’t be the first musician to find out that, while you can’t always get what you want, sometimes you get what you need.

I had the pleasure of doing an email Q & A with author J.B. Howard. Here’s what she had to say about being a debut novelist and about her writing life:

EZ: When did you first know that you were a writer?

JBH: The urge to tell stories predates my confidence in my capacity for prose-spinning. If I had to put the evolution of my authorhood on a timeline, I’d say that I probably first developed the urge to tell a story when I was a child, then felt I had something to say as a young adult, and finally developed a love for language itself in my early twenties. I’ve been lucky enough to have many incredible writing (and life!) mentors along the way, and most of them told me to call myself a writer long before I actually felt comfortable doing so. In fact, even with my debut novel coming out, I’m still probably more comfortable calling myself a professor than a writer. Being a writer feels like a gift that I have to wake up every morning and earn. Some days I earn it; some days I don’t. Then again, maybe feeling a bit like a fraud is the most writerly thing about me! It seems like we all struggle with that to some degree.

EZ: What made you want to write fiction for teens?

JBH: A combination of things! First of all, I think I’m just now recovering from (and understanding) my own teenage years. It’s amazing how long the heartbreak one experiences as a teenager can linger. Second, that remarkably brief period of life is so ripe with drama, lending itself to the thematic exploration of all the questions that most occupy me still, questions about identity, family, friendship, and fate.

EZ: With your writing, theater and musical background, you’re a triple threat. How did your high school interests and college (and MFA) experiences impact your debut novel, When I Was Summer, both in terms of actually writing it as well as the story you tell?

JBH: A triple threat! I like the sound of that! My interests all came together in the most fortuitous way for WHEN I WAS SUMMER, since it’s about a girl who plays bass in a band (and I also played bass in a band in high school), and they all meet while performing / playing in their high school’s production of GREASE (I also played bass in the stage band for my high school’s production of GREASE). Nora, my protagonist, is a much more proficient and confident musician than I ever was, but I think living in that world for some years gave me a valuable insight into how bandmates interact and the interpersonal problems that might arise when band members get too close or start to pull away from one another.

My formal education (playwriting, screenwriting, and music as an undergraduate and fiction writing as a graduate student) was crucially important at every stage of writing this book. My playwriting classes taught me about tension within scenes and gave me useful tools for the creation of suspense; my screenwriting classes taught me about structure and pacing; my fiction writing classes taught me about character and, hopefully, the effective use of language. That being said, there will always be more to learn. After I wrote WHEN I WAS SUMMER, I read Lisa Cron’s craft book STORY GENIUS and felt a thousand new little lightbulbs switch on. I’ve been keeping that book close as I develop the next project.

EZ: What was the most challenging part of writing this novel, and how did you fit it into your life (in the context of your creative writing career and family)? And what practices or habits helped you guard your writing time?

JBH: When I don’t get a chance to write at least an hour or two a day, I become very grumpy. I’m not proud of this, but it’s true. So, even when publishing a novel seemed about as likely as waking up to discover I was actually Queen Elizabeth II, I would either get up at 4:00am to write, or I’d stay up until 2:00am to write. I never just… didn’t write. Fun fact: WHEN I WAS SUMMER was actually the fourth book I wrote all the way to the end, and before I found an agent and sold the book to a publisher, I’d written a fifth book. Setting aside the time to write has never felt like a sacrifice. In fact, doing other stuff (other than being with my family) is what feels like the sacrifice! My strategies: over the years, I’ve learned to say “no” to things I don’t need or want to do and distance myself from people who trail drama everywhere they go. I also quit all social media for a while, and that was AWESOME; though I’m back on Instagram, because the world (or at least my mom) needs pictures of my baby and I’m the only person who can provide that service. I leave my phone off as often as I can. I don’t do these things specifically to guard my writing time, but it works out that way. Basically, I try to do things that matter to me and try not to do anything out of simple guilt or FOMO.

EZ: Where do you like to write, and what conditions help you write your best? (Any must-haves on your desk or in your work space when you write?)

JBH: I love to write at my desk! It’s not a big space, but it’s mine, and somehow that makes all the difference in the world – just the existence of a writing-dedicated space. When I’m at my desk, I have a bulletin board in front of me, which I use for outlining, and on the desk surface itself (beneath a clear protector sheet thing) I have a diagram of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, which I copied out of his Hero With a Thousand Faces and have annotated over the years, along with Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet and Alan Watt’s structure questions. I also have Lisa Cron’s story definition taped up to the wall in front of me – “A story is about how the things that happen (plot) affect someone (protagonist) in pursuit of a difficult goal (story problem), and how that person changes internally (theme) as a result.” I like to keep these things in front of me all the time, so I can pretend that writing stories is a de-constructible, repeatable, understandable process and not really just a big, fat mystery. Other desk/writing essentials: black coffee in the morning, water at all other times, plus my ever-lengthening to-do list so that if I get stuck writing, I’m more likely to fold my laundry than end up on my phone’s news app reading some unnecessary article about the one thing you should never ever eat if you want to live to be a hundred.

EZ: What did writing a novel teach you about yourself as a writer?

JBH: That I inevitably will not get it right the first time, but that I will get it right. Eventually. That I can trust the process.

EZ: The writing life can be a tough one filled with distractions, deadlines and rejections. What do you do to de-stress and get into a mindset that helps you write your best—or at least write—no matter what’s going on?

JBH: Coffee! Also, naps (in theory; rarely in practice). I also have an audiobook of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art that I will listen to whenever I’m feeling dejected or unmotivated. But probably the number one thing I do to de-stress and cope with writing/life is exercise. I used to love jogging, but I tore some cartilage in my hip a few years ago, so now I mostly lift weights or do other resistance cross training at the gym. I always feel better afterwards.

EZ: What advice do you have for aspiring novelists? (And what’s the best advice you’ve received or that’s been helpful to you on a practical level?)

JBH: Everyone will tell you to read everything you can get your hands on, and you definitely should. But something I figured out along the way was that it’s helpful to treat reading as research. I read with a pen or pencil in my hand and am always dissecting what I read. Character introductions, turning points, act breaks—so much can be learned just by paying attention to precisely how other authors pull these things off. I go back to the opening of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway all the time, just to revisit how she seamlessly weaves Clarissa Dalloway’s past in with her present, advancing story while simultaneously building character. She makes it look so easy! And you know that when someone makes something look easy, it means they worked long and hard at it.

Other advice: Avoid people who make you feel insufficient in any way; nurture relationships with the people who feel like friends of your mind and soul. Take the craft seriously and yourself not seriously at all. Don’t worry so much. Keep going.

EZ: What are you most looking forward to about being a debut novelist? And what are your future writing plans?

JBH: Ah! I don’t know that I am looking forward to being a debut novelist! I keep thinking, in fact, that I should have written under a less obvious penname, because the idea of people reading my work is at once thrilling and terrifying. In writing workshops, I always tell my students not to qualify their work before distributing it; don’t say, “So, I wrote this quickly, and I know that it’s lacking for x, y, and z reasons.” Just distribute it! But here I am, about to have a book published, and I’d seriously like to affix a letter to each copy of the book that says, “Look, I know this isn’t perfect, but I really did try, and I promise to do better next time!” I wrote a YA noir book last year, but I’m sitting on it right now, because it needs to be better. I’m currently working on a YA sci-fi book that I am madly in love with, and I would love to tell you more, but I’d probably better leave it at that.

EZ: Which authors (living or deceased) most inspire/influence you and why?

JBH: William Shakespeare for depth of thought and poetic language. Jane Austen for her sardonic wit / keen sense of irony. I fell in love with Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters trilogy when I was in high school, for reasons that are hard for me to explain; I return to those books often, just to try to figure out why I like them so much! Virginia Woolf for her insight into the nature of the mind. I’m always excited for Zadie Smith’s next book and am impressed by everything Lauren Oliver does. I have a deep admiration for Stephen King’s powers of imagination, his commitment to good storytelling, and his obvious work ethic. I’ve heard, too, that he’s a pleasure to work with, just a really nice person, and I aspire to be that sort of writer, too—a true professional.

See what Kirkus has to say about When I Was Summer.

About the author: J. B. Howard studied theater, screenwriting, and music at the University of Southern California, where she produced her first two stageplays, Sparrows and Violetta Dying. After graduation, she traveled around New Zealand for one year; there, she briefly played bass and sang for an Auckland cover band, pruned grapes on a vineyard, waited tables, taught yoga at a women’s gym, spent one whole month living in a tent, and was an extra in a UK bank commercial, all while continuing to work on her writing. In 2013, she was awarded a Creative Writing Fellowship at Chapman University, enabling her to earn an M.F.A. in Fiction. She currently lives, works, and writes in Southern California, where she is a Creative Writing lecturer at Chapman University. To learn more about J.B. Howard and her books, visit her website. When I Was Summer is available at Amazon, Indiebound or wherever books are sold.

How to Make Friends With the Dark: Q & A with Kathleen Glasgow

Grief. It’s universal, but something that each of us experiences in our own way. And while there’s no real antidote for managing the pain of losing someone or something we love, books that tackle the topic with heart, authenticity and gorgeous writing can help us feel heard and understood. And maybe even make life feel a bit more bearable if not beautiful.

Following her raw and riveting debut (and bestselling) novel, Girl in Pieces, Kathleen Glasgow delivers on all counts with her young adult novel, How to Make Friends With the Dark (Delacorte Press, April 2019).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With a strong voice and plot, How to Make Friends With the Dark captures the powerful emotions of 16-year-old Tiger who experiences a devastating loss that upends her life. Here’s a description of the book from Indie Bound:

Here is what happens when your mother dies.
It’s the brightest day of summer and it’s dark outside. It’s dark in your house, dark in your room, and dark in your heart. You feel like the darkness is going to split you apart.
That’s how it feels for Tiger. It’s always been Tiger and her mother against the world. Then, on a day like any other, Tiger’s mother dies. And now it’s Tiger, alone.
Here is how you learn to make friends with the dark.

Glasgow was kind enough to answer a few questions via email about her compelling new novel.

EZ: How was the experience writing your second novel different from the first in terms of your process and emotions?

KG: How to Make Friends With the Dark was, in many ways, a much more personal story to me than Girl in Pieces. When people ask how much of me is in Charlie in Girl in Pieces, I like to say that I gave her my scars, but her story is her own. With How to Make Friends With the Dark, I was writing from a really different, primal place: my mother and my sister died within four years of each other and the tsunami of grief that settled over me has never left. I’ve lived with that grief for eleven years now and I had to write it, which was very difficult and slow-going. In terms of process, once I figured the story out after many years, Girl in Pieces came out in a torrent of writing/emotion.

EZ: Why did you have to write this book?

KG: Grief is not one-size-fits-all. People have very different reactions to death and the grieving process. People are uncomfortable with grief, either feeling it or experiencing it through other people. I wanted to write the story of a girl who loses the most important thing in her life: her mother. I wanted to write what it was like to learn how to live without that guiding influence. Who will help you learn how to get along in life? Who will soothe you when you have heartbreak? Explain sex and relationships? (This is where Tami Taylor from Friday Night Lights comes into the book.) And I was consumed with Tiger’s half-sister, Shayna. How would you feel being twenty and suddenly entrusted with the care of a sixteen-year-old? There are so many children being raised by non-primary relatives, I felt it was important to examine that aspect of this story.

EZ: What’s the best part about writing fiction for you? And about writing fiction especially for young adults?

KG: Once I get going, I get a natural high from writing. I could write for hours. It’s the one thing I have always loved: getting lost in a story and surrounding myself with these interesting people. I like writing for young adults because they are so open to the world and to new stories and new experiences. They crave learning different things. Reading books about certain experiences is also a way for them to experience some things safely, to test them out through fiction, and to give them a safe space to explore and think.

EZ: The responses to your first book, Girl in Pieces, continue to be phenomenal—especially among high schoolers. What are you most proud of about having written such a raw, moving book that resonates with and lends a voice to something painful and real to so many?

KG: So many teens (and adults) write to me and say, “Thank you for saying how this feels.” And the thing is, the “this” they mention is not just or only about Charlie’s self-harm, it’s about her loneliness, her feeling of being out of place in the world, her body issues, her craving for love. Readers say, “I don’t cut, but I feel like Charlie, anyway.” When I wrote Girl in Pieces, I knew that I wanted to be honest about what it feels like to be that lonely and that hurt, and I dove in all the way because I felt like teens needed that honesty. I wish more people talked openly about self-harm. I am in awe of the continued success of this book and I’m utterly grateful to readers and educators.

EZ: What is the best writing advice you’ve ever been given?

KG: “You have to write through it.” You can take this anyway you want.

EZ: What are some must-haves in your writing space?

KG: Um. I have two kids so my writing space is a desk shoved in the corner by the television and kitty-corner to the couch. It is always covered in toys and kid detritus. Must-haves are basic: a composition book and a pen and a cup of coffee.

EZ: What habits, practices and conditions fuel your creativity?

KG: Panic. Panic fuels my creativity. As a single parent, my writing time is limited to moments when my kids are away or when they are asleep, so I have to write furiously in a limited amount of time. Walking my dog helps me focus and think about scenes I need to revamp. Hot yoga gives me energy and clears my brain.

EZ: What are you reading, watching and listening to now? (3 favorites for each?)

KG: I’m reading As Many Nows As I Can Get by Shana Youngdahl (it comes out next fall). I’m currently watching Better Things and dying at how well Pamela Adlon recreates single motherhood. The current playlist in my car includes Wilco, the Annie Soundtrack, Hamilton, the audiobook of SuperFudge, Paul Simon’s Greatest Hits, Taylor Swift’s 1989.  My kids are great sing-alongers, so they control the music.

To learn more about Kathleen Glasgow and Making Friends With the Dark and her other work, visit her website.

Disclosure: Delacorte Press was kind enough to send me an Advance Review Copy of How to Make Friends With the Dark.

Our Year of Maybe: Q & A with Rachel Lynn Solomon

If you’re looking for a new young adult book title to add to your TBR list, Our Year of Maybe (Simon Pulse, January 15, 2019) by Rachel Lynn Solomon may be a great addition. Already earning a starred review from School Library Journal, Our Year of Maybe examines the complicated aftermath of a kidney transplant between best friends.

Here’s a description of the book from Solomon’s website:

Aspiring choreographer Sophie Orenstein would do anything for Peter Rosenthal-Porter, who’s been on the kidney transplant list as long as she’s known him. Peter, a gifted pianist, is everything to Sophie: best friend, musical collaborator, secret crush. When she learns she’s a match, donating a kidney is an easy, obvious choice. She can’t help wondering if after the transplant, he’ll love her back the way she’s always wanted.

But Peter’s life post-transplant isn’t what either of them expected. Though he once had feelings for Sophie too, he’s now drawn to Chase, the guitarist in a band that happens to be looking for a keyboardist. And while neglected parts of Sophie’s world are calling to her—dance opportunities, new friends, a sister and niece she barely knows—she longs for a now-distant Peter more than ever, growing increasingly bitter he doesn’t seem to feel the same connection.

Peter fears he’ll forever be indebted to her. Sophie isn’t sure who she is without him. Then one heartbreaking night twists their relationship into something neither of them recognizes, leading them to question their past, their future, and whether their friendship is even worth fighting for.

After reading and enjoying Solomon’s debut novel, You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone, I was thrilled to connect with her by email about her latest work that I’ve already preordered. Here are the highlights:

EZ: What planted the seed for Our Year of Maybe?

RLS: I find organ donation extremely fascinating–I can’t imagine a more selfless act. I wanted to explore the aftermath of a kidney transplant between best friends because I imagined there would be a lot of complicated feelings there. As I grew to know my characters better, though, I wondered if this selfless act did actually include a bit of selfishness. Sophie, the donor, is in love with her best friend Peter, the recipient, and part of her hopes that after the transplant, he’ll love her back. It’s a very small part, she acknowledges–but it’s still there. I wanted to swim around in all that messiness.

EZ: Was your process for writing this book much different than it was for your debut novel? How did you approach each, and what did you learn by writing your debut novel that you applied to/that helped with writing this one?

RLS: The biggest difference is that book 2 happened on a much shorter timeline. I wrote the first draft over a period of a few months in early 2016, then set it aside for a year (huge mistake) while working on revisions for my debut. When I picked OUR YEAR OF MAYBE back up in the summer of 2017 a couple months before it was due to my editor, there was a lot I didn’t love and wanted to change, which led to a slightly feverish rewrite. (And then another once my editor read it.) Both my debut and OYOM are dual POV, so I applied a lot of what I learned in terms of distinguishing the voices and making sure each character had a complete arc.

EZ: Where do you best like to write? (What environment is most conducive to your creativity?) 

RLS: I do most of my writing at a local coffee shop across the street from a lake, with big windows and amazing hot chocolate.

EZ: What are your must-haves when writing?

RLS: I struggle to focus on writing when it’s quiet, but I also can’t write if the music is too familiar, which is why writing in coffee shops works so well for me–there’s music, but I don’t have control over it. I also enjoy having a warm sugary beverage beside me, either chai or hot chocolate.

EZ: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received or that you’d give to a fellow writer?

RLS: Someone gave me this advice once, and it’s really stuck with me: if your characters are crying, then your reader doesn’t have to. If your characters are laughing, then your reader doesn’t have to. Essentially, it’s about showing vs. telling–instead of having the characters burst into tears or laughter to tell the reader how they should feel, show the reader that what’s happening is sad or funny or insert adjective here. If a character is crying on page 1, I’m not quite sure how to react–I don’t know enough about them yet to connect with their journey. Not saying it can never work, but I try to torture my characters for as long as possible before I allow them to cry.

EZ: Are there any craft books you love (and why do you love them)? 

RLS: Not exactly a craft book, but BIRD BY BIRD helped me out of a writing rut and gave me the permission I needed to write terrible first drafts. All I need from a draft is something book-shaped–I can make it pretty later.

EZ: What are you reading now? (Any recent reads that you couldn’t put down?)

RLS: I read it a couple months ago, but I still can’t stop thinking about A HEART IN A BODY IN THE WORLD by Deb Caletti. I’ve never read anything that so fully and painfully captures how it feels to be a teen girl.

EZ: How does being an author of a sophomore book compare to being a debut author in terms of pressures and expectations?   

RLS: I feel somewhat less pressure this time around, I think, but there’s so much emphasis on The Debut when the second book is often much tougher to write. The second book is the one (usually) forged in the midst of debut year anxiety and self-doubt. I was revising OYOM while early reviews from YMMWIG were coming in, which was difficult for a while. I had to focus on writing the book primarily for myself–and more specifically, my teenage self–as opposed to writing it to change the mind of the person who gave YMMWIG 2 stars on Goodreads, haha. The best part of promoting my second book has been seeing readers who enjoyed YMMWIG excited for OYOM–it’s a surreal and wonderful thing that someone I’ve never met is looking forward to reading more of my words. I’m so, so grateful.

You can learn more about Rachel Lynn Solomon and her work by visiting her website, or following her on Twitter and on Instagram. Our Year of Maybe can be purchased wherever books are sold. 

Disclosure: No goods or services were exchanged for this post.

Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel-Q & A with Val Emmich

When I heard that my all-time favorite Broadway musical*, Dear Evan Hansen, was going to be made into a young adult novel, my heart swelled. Not only do I love reading YA books, but I’m working on two of my own as I pursue an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I was excited for us DEH fans to have a different way to enjoy the overwhelming and satisfying experience that is Dear Evan Hansen. But mostly, I was excited for this novel way (see what I did?!) to share the story with teens and adults who may not get to see the show in person. The book (along with the soundtrack) are truly excellent surrogates that can be enjoyed again and again.

Despite the daunting task of turning a brilliant Tony- and Grammy award-winning musical into a YA book, Val Emmich—with book writer extraordinaire, Steven Levenson, and the dynamic, Oscar-winning duo, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul—did it. The book is wonderful. It’s moving. It touches your heart. I was admittedly very nervous to read it, because how could it measure up to the Broadway musical? But any fears I had about the novel not being able to capture the magic of the stage production disappeared in an instant. Like the show, the novel made me laugh and cry. And, like the show, it’s one I will be sure to visit again.

After fan-girling over Emmich, Levinson, Pasek and Paul at both BookCon last spring and at the Dear Evan Hansen: the Novel book launch this month (see photos below), I had the pleasure of doing an email Q & A with the multi-talented Emmich.

At BookCon 2018. From left to right: Justin Paul, Benj Pasek, Steven Levenson & Val Emmich.

 

At BookCon 2018. Never too old to be a fangirl (or fanwoman)?!

 

At Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel book launch at Town Hall in New York City. Moderated by Queer Eye’s Tan France & Antoni Porowski.

 

At Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel book launch at Town Hall in October 2018. Even my husband (far right) is a fan!

A singer/songwriter, actor (30 Rock, Ugly Betty, etc.), and novelist, Emmich was kind enough to share what it was like to work on Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel and give us a glimpse of his creative life:

Overall, how was the experience working with the Dear Evan Hansen team (Steven Levenson and Pasek & Paul and the publishing team) to turn an extraordinary musical into a young adult book? What were the highs and the challenges?

In some ways it was easy because I had source material of the highest quality. But that also made it challenging, because I had to meet such a high standard. There are expectations with this book and some of those expectations are unfair. A book can’t do what a musical can do. However, the opposite is also true. A book can really take its time and give a close-up, intimate view of characters. The hardest obstacle was making sure the really big, emotional moments on stage had enough of a wallop on the page. The team was always there to gently nudge me when I wasn’t being faithful enough to the show and they also allowed me the freedom to do my own thing, particularly when it came to backstory.

Did you have any reservations about diving into the young adult book space, especially after writing your first novel, The Reminders? And did you have any idea what you were getting yourself into (DEH’s fans are among the most amazing and devoted, and readers of YA books are a smart and discriminating bunch)?

I was overwhelmed with reservations. I saw how devoted the DEH fanbase is and I didn’t want to disappoint them. I also didn’t want to disappoint Steven, Benj and Justin. They’ve worked so hard to make this story what it is and I wanted to honor that. In the end, I tried to trust my own emotions. I related to the character of Evan immediately and I knew that if I stayed true to that shared experience, I’d be okay.

You are a multi-talented and creative person. How did your musical and acting background inform/enhance the writing of Dear Evan Hansen?

I’ve put in my 10,000 hours as a songwriter, so breaking down songs is instinctive to me. I created a playlist that I’d listen to while writing. The playlist included every song from the show. I’d listen to whatever song matched the scene I was writing and it would give me insight into what the characters were feeling. I always knew that I wanted to somehow honor the show’s music in the novel and I found varied ways of doing that. One example occurs in the beginning of the book in the opening scene with Evan and his mom, Heidi. In the show, Heidi sings the song “Anybody Have A Map?” in which she reveals her misgivings about how she’s performing as a mother. The book is mainly told from Evan’s point of view, so I couldn’t show all of what Heidi was feeling in that moment. Instead, she walks up to a physical map on Evan’s wall and that leads to a revealing discussion between the two of them. In the song, the map is a metaphor. In the book, it’s a literal thing.

How did you prepare with the team and solo to write the novel, and did you have a particular process?

I saw the show twice and had a copy of the book that Steven wrote. When I had questions, I’d email the guys and our editor, Farrin Jacobs. I referred to a few other novels, mostly YA, to get a clearer picture of what I wanted our novel to be. I also spoke at length with people clued into high school—my nieces and nephews, as well as my teacher friends. After that, it was just sitting at my desk every day and writing. The hardest part for me when starting a new piece is finding the voice, in this case Evan and Connor’s. How they speak and think, how they tell their story. That takes the longest.

Where and when do you like to write (music, novels, etc.), and what are a few must-haves on your person/desk or in your work space to stay inspired?

I write mainly in two places, both alone. At my desk and in the bathtub. The bathtub is full of water. It takes some practice not to electrocute myself.** I haven’t found a better place for feeling totally isolated and shut off from the world. Also, there’s something about water that works for me.

What would you say was the best, most fulfilling part of the Dear Evan Hansen writing experience? Was there anything new you learned about yourself or otherwise along the way? 

Getting a chance to flesh out the character of Connor Murphy with the guys was definitely the most rewarding. I think that’s the main area where the novel and the show are different. In the show, we only know Connor through the lens of Evan. In the book, we get to know the real Connor. Writing his story was emotionally taxing. I just wanted to make sure it was handled with the utmost care and respect.

Which character in Dear Evan Hansen do you most relate to and why? And what, if any, advice would you offer them?

I relate most to Evan. I, too, am a shy, anxious, neurotic person. I’m proud to be involved with a story that promotes a message of hope, that we are not alone in our loneliness. I’d add that our mistakes may seem insurmountable in the moment, but most of the time there really is a way out. There is a tomorrow.

What projects (in any of your many fields) are on the horizon for you?

I’ve just released some new music, an EP called Autobio, Part 2 which is available to stream through all the usual platforms. I’ve also recorded a cover of “If I Could Tell Her” from the Dear Evan Hansen musical, which I performed on tour with Benj and Justin. And I just started a new novel. It’s too early to know if it’s worth finishing. We’ll see.

Emmich performing at the Dear Evan Hansen: the Novel book launch at Town Hall in New York City, October 2018.

Favorite recent/current read and why: The North Water by Ian McGuire. Beautifully written and researched while also swift and suspenseful.

Favorite recent/classic artist/album and why? This is probably bad to say, since I release albums myself, but I listen mostly to singles these days. “Origins” by Tennis is a current favorite.

Favorite snack: Popcorn.

Favorite flavor of ice cream: Coconut Almond Fudge

Coffee or tea? Coffee. Black.

Pizza or pasta? Pasta

Going out solo or with 1-2 people or with a big group? 1-2 people

To learn more about Emmich, visit his website. Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel is available wherever books are sold.

*No offense to A Chorus Line, Jersey Boys, Cabaret, Hairspray, Rent, Sunday in the Park with George…you know I adore you.

**Do not try this at home! (And Val—please don’t electrocute yourself!)

This post updated on 1-8-19.

 

 

 

Bedside Manners: Q & A with Heather Frimmer, M.D.

At the most recent BookCon in New York City, I had the pleasure of sitting next to Heather Frimmer (and her adorable, precocious son, Jonah) at the Dear Evan Hansen The Novel book panel.

Any fans of Dear Evan Hansen–the musical OR novel–are friends of mine!

Besides fanning over Pasek & Paul, Steven Levenson and Val Emmich, we spoke about respective writing journeys. A radiologist by day, and writer whenever she can fit it into her busy family life, Frimmer could not be more excited for the birth of her debut novel, Bedside Manners (SparkPress, October 2018). Here’s a description:

As Joyce Novak’s daughter, Marnie, completes medical school and looks ahead to a surgical internship, her wedding, and a future filled with promise, a breast cancer diagnosis throws Joyce’s own future into doubt. Always the caregiver, Joyce feels uncomfortable in the patient role, especially with her husband and daughter. As she progresses through a daunting treatment regimen including a biopsy, lumpectomy, and radiation, she distracts herself by planning Marnie’s wedding.

When the sudden death of a young heroin addict in Marnie’s care forces Marnie to come face-to-face with mortality and her professional inadequacies, she also realizes she must strike a new balance between her identity as a doctor and her role as a supportive daughter. At the same time, she struggles with the stark differences between her fiancé’s family background and her own and comes to understand the importance of being with someone who shares her values and experiences.

Amid this profound soul-searching, both Joyce and Marnie’s futures change in ways they never would have expected.

Here’s a Q & A with Frimmer about her book and writing life:

How does it feel to be a debut novelist and published author?

It’s exhilarating and exciting, but at the same time I still can’t believe it’s happening. The fact that people I don’t know are holding my book in their hands and reading my words is hard to believe and a bit scary. I am proud of my accomplishment and completely hooked on writing fiction. Also, the community of women’s fiction authors and book bloggers has been so welcoming and supportive. With social media, I feel the love for my book even while sitting at home at my writing desk.

When did you first have an inkling to write a book? And was this book the result of that first spark/idea?

To exercise the right side of my brain, I signed up for an introductory writing class at Westport Writers’ Workshop. On the last day of class, my instructor asked me to come up with writing goals. When I said I planned to write a few short stories, she asked if I could write a novel. I promptly informed her she was crazy, but I couldn’t get her suggestion out of my mind. Being a driven, type-A personality, I immediately started writing what would become Bedside Manners. I joined a writing workshop class which definitely helped me see the novel to completion.

I also have to give credit to my husband, Ben. With his characteristic humor, he suggested “colostomy” as the first word of my novel. That silly suggestion got me going and a colostomy bag still makes an appearance in the first chapter!

Did you have a formal writing process or some kind of schedule you followed to get it done? 

I wrote whenever I had time—sometimes after work or on weekend mornings, but most of my writing happened on Wednesdays, my day off. I didn’t typically set a word count or particular goal. I just wrote the part of the story that flowed at the moment. I tried to end my writing sessions with a small part of the next chapter done to make it easier to pick up the next time. Sharing four pages with my writing workshop every week also kept me on task.

How do you balance your day job with writing time? 

It’s not easy. I work full time as a radiologist and spend a large portion of my day in a dark room staring at mammograms, x-rays and CT scans. When I’m not at work, I try to write, edit, read, spend time with my family, take care of errands, and sleep. It’s a constant struggle and one or all of these things often goes by the wayside despite my best efforts.

What’s are you reading now, and what’s in your to-be-read pile?

In the past few years since I began my publication journey, I’ve been reading books by female authors almost exclusively. I am currently reading The Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir, a fellow physician writer. The writing is wonderful and the story is completely unique and fascinating.

Because I also write book reviews for Books INK and for my blog, my TBR pile is always sky high. I am also a sucker for e-book deals and a dedicated library patron. Suffice it to say that I have more books than I could ever read. Up next, I would like to read Unbroken Threads by Jennifer Klepper, a novel about an attorney who represents a Syrian woman seeking asylum. The Cast by Amy Blumenfeld, and advanced copies of The Rain Watcher by Tatiana de Rosnay and Forget You Know Me by Jessica Strawser are also up soon. A hopeless book addict, I could go on forever about what I’ve read and want to read.

Where do you most like to write?

I created a beautiful writing and reading nook in my family room which I rarely use because it’s too quiet. A bit of activity and background noise actually helps me focus. I wrote most of Bedside Manners at the Barnes and Noble café in Westport, CT powered by a large iced coffee, my other addiction.

Do you have any advice for other writers who want to write a book?

Cast away the self-doubt and don’t fall prey to impostor syndrome. If you have an idea and the perseverance to sit down and put in the work, you can write a book. Expect it to be difficult and frustrating, but the work will ultimately pay off in so many ways. Becoming a writer has added amazing depth and richness to my life and I cherish the people I’ve met along the way.

To learn more about Heather Frimmer and Bedside Manners, visit her website. (And here’s a recent AP article about her journey, and a piece on her recent book launch at Barnes and Noble in Westport, CT.)  

 

 

Have More Fun in Bed with Mr. Nice Guy

If you’re looking to have more fun in someone else’s bed (no cheating required), look no further than Mr. Nice Guy (St. Martin’s Press, 2018) by Jennifer Miller and Jason Feifer. At their recent New York City book launch*, the real-life couple and dynamic writing duo—Miller is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Styles section and Jason Feifer is editor-in-chief of Entrepeneurtold a packed house how, on a whim, they sent an early copy of Mr. Nice Guy to Kevin Kwan, author of Crazy Rich Asians. To their great surprise, he later blurbed the book: “I COULD NOT PUT THIS BOOK DOWN! It totally messed up my week, it messed up my deadlines, but I absolutely loved it.”

Kwan is not alone in his endorsement. Publisher’s Weekly calls Mr. Nice Guy a “witty romp through the allegedly glamorous world of magazines” that’s “sharp and satisfying” and “will have readers turning the pages quickly to get the latest dishy details.” And buckle up: Mr. Nice Guy may soon appear on the small screen!

Here’s a brief description of Mr. Nice Guy:

Lucas Callahan gave up his law degree, fiancée and small-town future for a shot at making it in the Big Apple. He snags an entry-level job at Empire magazine, believing it’s only a matter of time before he becomes a famous writer. And then late one night in a downtown bar he meets a gorgeous brunette who takes him home…

Carmen Kelly wanted to be a hard-hitting journalist, only to find herself cast in the role of Empire’s sex columnist thanks to the boys’ club mentality of Manhattan magazines. Her latest piece is about an unfortunate―and unsatisfying―encounter with an awkward and nerdy guy, who was nice enough to look at but horribly inexperienced in bed.

Lucas only discovers that he’s slept with the infamous Carmen Kelly―that is, his own magazine’s sex columnist!―when he reads her printed take-down. Humiliated and furious, he pens a rebuttal and signs it, “Nice Guy.” Empire publishes it, and the pair of columns go viral. Readers demand more. So the magazine makes an arrangement: Each week, Carmen and Lucas will sleep together… and write dueling accounts of their sexual exploits.

It’s the most provocative sexual relationship any couple has had, but the columnist-lovers are soon engaging in more than a war of words: They become seduced by the city’s rich and powerful, tempted by fame, and more attracted to each other than they’re willing to admit. In the end, they will have to choose between ambition, love, and the consequences of total honesty.

Stacy London interviewing Jennifer Miller and Jason Feifer.

Feifer watching Miller dissect and discuss sex toys.

Miller and Feifer were kind enough to do a Q & A about their book and writing life. Here are some highlights:

What sparked the idea for this book, and was it always a given you’d work on it together?

Jason came up with the idea of having two people critique their sex lives like movie reviews years before we met. He’d been contacted by a younger writer who’d written the sex and relationships column for her college newspaper and wanted help breaking into professional journalism. During their (entirely vanilla) correspondence, Jason came up with the idea for Mr. Nice Guy. Over the years, he tried to start the book, but just didn’t feel comfortable writing fiction. What a boon that he married a novelist! He suggested that Jen take the idea if she liked it; she suggested they write the book together.

Was this the first project the two of you have worked on together? If yes, what was your process?

We frequently ask each other for professional advice and feedback. But Mr. Nice Guy was our first truly joint project. We developed the plot and characters together. Jen wrote the bulk of the narrative and Jason wrote all the columns. Then we edited each other’s work. We definitely weren’t typing over each other’s shoulders.

Did you have any hesitation sharing the intimacies of your relationship with readers and each other?

The book definitely forced us to open up about our dating and sex lives. It was actually a great way to discuss all that stuff—we had a reason to talk about it, which is a lot less awkward than simply saying over dinner, “so about last night’s sex…” Frankly, knowing that our parents would read this book was the most awkward aspect of the whole thing and is kind of horrifying.

What are the particular strengths each of you added to the novel?

Jen’s eye for detail and ear for satire captured the absurdity of NYC media culture and its brand of conspicuous consumption. Jason is great at turning conflict into comedy, which he did expertly in the columns written by our protagonists, Lucas and Carmen.

How excited are you to have sold the television rights to the novel? And who would you choose to star in the series?

OMG, so excited! It was amazing to have the producer of the movie Crash and the former head of NBC Universal on the phone outlining the first THREE seasons of our book-turned-TV show. Timothee Chalamet would make a great Lucas, our highly ambitious, sexually inexperienced male protagonist. Auli’i Cravalho would make a great Carmen.

Any more joint projects in the works?

We’ve plotted out a new novel about two political pundits on opposing sides who fall in love. Like last time, we plotted out the novel together. Jen is going to write the bulk of the narrative and Jason will write the couple’s contentious and absurd television appearances.

What will your 3-year-old son Fenn say about this book when he’s old enough to read it?

We hope that Fenn never reads this book!

For more about Mr. Nice Guy, visit Mr.NiceGuyNovel.com or Feifer’s website. The book is available wherever books are sold.

*Hosted by Hendricks Gin, Meltshop, The Balvenie, The Little Beet, Smart Water, Monkey Shoulder, and Fields Good Chicken.

 

Soulstruck: Interview with YA Author Natasha Sinel

If you’re intrigued by the idea of soulmates and are fascinated by fate, Soulstruck (Sky Pony Press, June 12, 2018) may belong in your hands and on your bookshelf. Here’s a description of Natasha Sinel’s sophomore young adult novel:

She might be only a lightning bolt away from finding her soul mate.

Seventeen-year-old Rachel Ferguson is trying to get struck by lightning. Maybe it will lead to finding her soul mate, like it did for her mother. And then maybe her mom will be as devoted to her as she is to her lightning strike survivors group.

When Rachel discovers letters written by her mother’s soul mate—the man she thought was her father—she begins to question everything she’s always believed, including soul mates, fate, and even her mother. No longer sure of its power, she decides to quit chasing lightning.

Rachel feels abandoned and alone—her best friend has ditched her, her boyfriend has dumped her, and confronting her mom only made things worse. At least she still has her friend Jay—in fact, their growing attraction to each other seems to be the only good thing happening.

But when her relationship with Jay starts to unravel too, the impulse to get struck by lightning resurfaces.

And there’s a thunderstorm coming.

Set in a small Cape Cod beach town in the off-season, SOULSTRUCK is about the search for love, and the risk of losing it while waiting for destiny to happen.

I had the pleasure of doing an email Q & A with Sinel. Read below to learn more about her and her writing life.

EZ: Now that you’re a seasoned novelist with two titles, how would you compare the process of writing your first novel, The Fix, with that of Soulstruck?

NS: A seasoned novelist? Ha! That’s super nice of you to say. While I did feel more confident this time around, writing a new novel still feels like starting from scratch. I think it’s safe to say that writing Soulstruck was just as difficult as writing The Fix! My novels have always started out as one thing and inevitably evolved into something very different. So I end up rewriting a few times as I discover my characters’ emotional arcs and the themes. It’s a long process, but so far it’s worked for me. I’m always looking for new processes to help streamline drafting and revising, but I usually end up doing what has always worked for me—basically, there’s no way out but through!

EZ: What’s the best thing you learned as a first-time author (related to writing, book promotion, etc.) that has helped you moving forward?

NS: I learned what a lot of debut authors learn—self-promotion is uncomfortable and it kind of sucks. Also, I’ve gotten much better at letting things go—like the little jealousies that arise about other authors getting sent to conferences or festivals, etc. I’m learning that sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. Even with Soulstruck coming out, I’ve been much more focused on revising my current work in progress than on the release. I’m getting much better at doing what everyone says to do—just keep writing. The only thing we really have control over as authors is the writing.

EZ: What was the spark that lead to the idea that became Soulstruck?

NS: Back in 1991 there was a lightning strike at a high school lacrosse game in Washington, DC (where I’m from)—more than ten people were struck, and one teenager was killed. A young EMT who happened to be there saved several people’s lives that day. I wasn’t there but I’d heard about it and the story always stuck with me. An idea started to form in my head and as I researched lightning and the lightning strike survivors, my characters came into focus and my story began.

EZ: What was the most challenging part of writing Soulstruck?

NS: Some of my ideas in the beginning forced me toward a more paranormal storyline and, as I’m much more comfortable with realistic writing, it felt uncomfortable. I moved forward with it, though, because I remembered a former writing instructor saying it’s better to go big to start out and then you can always scale back. So that’s what I did. Though it was strange letting go of so much of the original idea I’d written, in the end, it was what was best for the story.

EZ: What was the best/most exciting or fulfilling part about writing Soulstruck?

NS: I always love those a-ha moments that come when you least expect it—as you’re falling asleep, taking a walk, in the shower. It makes me realize how hard my subconscious is working on my stories all of the time. One of my favorite moments was after I’d gotten some amazing editorial notes from my agent Linda Epstein, and I was in despair because the notes were BIG—like, really big. I let it all swirl around for a few days and then I got to work. I took out about 15k words. And added about 15k words. After I was finished, it was so much better, and when we sent it off to my editor, she loved it.

EZ: How did you get the idea for “Moving the Body,” your short story that appears in the recent adoption-themed anthology, Welcome Home? Was it something you had worked on before, or did you write it specifically for the anthology? And how excited were you to be asked (such an honor that must have been)!

NS: It was such an honor to be a part of Welcome Home. Eric Smith is amazing, and it was so wonderful to work with him. The anthology as a whole is really very special. And yes, I wrote Moving the Body specifically for the anthology! A few things came together to inspire the idea—one: I wanted to show that the bond between an adopted child and his mom can be as close as the bond between a biological child and his mom, two: I’d read a horrifying article about a teen in the UK who became involved with someone through an online game and the results were devastating, and three: right around the same time, there was an incident in my town—kids had spray-painted a swastika on a neighbor’s garage, and later it came out that a few of the kids were Jewish. Those three things did a little dance in my head, and out came my story.

EZ: Would you say you’re a one-book-at-a-time kind of author or can you work on multiple projects at once?

NS: So far, I work on one book at a time, though recently, when I was having difficulty with my work-in-progress, I wrote a few scenes for a new idea rather than skip a day of working. That was fun, and I could see myself doing that more. 

EZ: Any advice for writers struggling to get their butts in the chair to just write?

NS: Ugh. It’s just so hard. There’s no way around it. Some things that help me are: 1. getting my butt in the chair right after putting my kids on the bus, so I don’t keep putting it off all day, 2. talking things out with my critique partner or setting up check-in times with her, 3. setting a timer for 25 minutes and committing to writing for just that amount of time—often, I’ll get on a roll and keep going, 4. writing a kissing scene or something I love even if it’s not the next scene I need to write. But some days, it just won’t happen. I try not to let it bring me down so I can start fresh the next day.

EZ: Anything exciting on the writing horizon for you?

NS: I’m finishing up a manuscript and getting ready to send it to my agent. I really have my fingers crossed for this one. And once I send it to her, I’ll get started on my next idea, which will require some research that I’m really excited about.

EZ: What’s currently on your book shelf?

NS: Lots of contemporary YAs: Monday’s Not Coming by Tifany D. Jackson, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Sarah Dessen (I’m catching up on all of her books, way behind!), The Secret History of Us by Jessi Kirby, The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed, and I can’t wait to read my agent-sister Miriam McNamara’s debut The Unbinding of Mary Read. I could go on…

EZ: Any favorite TV shows you’re currently enjoying?

NS: I read a lot more than I watch TV, but currently I’m watching The Handmaid’s Tale, Younger, and The Bold Type.

To learn more about Natasha Sinel and her work, visit her website here.

Full disclosure: Sinel’s publisher sent me an ARC of her book. I did, however, buy my own copy and cannot wait to get it signed!

Write On! 10 Takeaways from SCBWI 2018

This weekend, I geeked out at the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Summer Conference in Los Angeles, California. With homework and deadlines approaching, I was nervous about attending, wondering whether I could really afford to lose valuable study time. And of course I felt some Jewish mom guilt to leave my family less than a week after my 16-year-old returned from a summer program. Fortunately, I got a lot of reading and writing done on my 6-hour flight (with an additional hour on the runway). And while three full days of panels, workshops and keynotes with an amazing faculty of authors, agents and editors kept us busy, it was unbelievably inspiring and well  worth every minute.

Besides making new friends, I spent quality time with a wonderful group of supportive and loving writer friends (several pictured below). I was also excited to see recent VCFA graduates and fellow students I had gotten to know—at least a little bit—during my recent grad school residency. Two even won awards—an Emerging Voices award for my fellow firstie at VCFA, Lakita Wilson, and a graduate award for recent VCFA grad Jessica Lee!) So, in many ways, coming to LA for this incredible conference felt like coming home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As always, I took full advantage of the conference, attending all but one keynote. The speakers were wonderful, especially Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney who put on a spirited and enjoyable show (such talent they both have), Libba Bray (a real writer’s writer), Lynda Mullaly Hunt and Bruce Coville (way to make me cry while touching and inspiring me), and Lois Lowry, the 81-years-young author of The Giver (pictured below while signing my book). I can’t wait to read her book about human connection set to launch in 2020.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were so many highlights of the conference—too many to name. But I thought I’d share my top 10 takeaways list (in no particular order). I’m already thinking of when and how to incorporate many of these ideas into my writing/life, and invite my writer friends to do so as well.

10. Daniel Jose Older, author of Shadowshaper: The sound and rhythm of words matter. Read work aloud so you can hear it.

9. Elana K. Arnold, author of What Girls Are Made Of:

  • Tension is the spinal cord of books. Increase tension by asking What if questions, play with time, add a ticking clock, and/or write your character into a corner that you don’t know how to get her out of.
  • Think of ten scenes that are integral to your novel and write them. Write one sentence at a time.

8. Lynda Mullaly Hunt, author of Fish in a Tree:

  • You pass by ideas every single day. When you feel emotion, jot it down (or talk into your phone about it).
  • Write what you’re ashamed of…what you don’t want anyone to know, what you haven’t yet figured out.

7. Andrea Davis Pinkney, author of The Red Pencil: Meet hate with love. Every morning, spend some time thinking of things that make you happy. Then write.

6. Amanda Maciel, author of Tease: Who does your protagonist think she is, and what do other people think she is? What are the expectations placed on her? And who is she beyond those expectations? What’s important to her? Assess everything from her eyes.

5. Libba Bray, author of The Diviners: What is the purpose of your story, the spark that lights the fuse? What answer do you seek? The question is about growth…bringing us somewhere. Push aside vanity and the desire to be liked and write from a deep, vulnerable place. Do not think about how the story will be received.

4. Erin Entrada Kelly, author of Hello, Universe:

  • We were never kids’ age in the age of technology. Don’t think about kids through the lens of your teen years. Use the emotions you felt in your childhood years, but learn and understand what their world looks like today.
  • When revising, ask, “Why is this here? What is this scene/chapter/sentence doing here?

3. Eliza Wheeler, author/illustrator of Miss Maple’s Seeds:

  • We confuse our identities with our work. The work is not us.
  • The real goal in creating art is to love the process so much that you want to show up to do the work.

2. Bruce Coville, author of My Teacher is An Alien:

  • Why do you want to write? Keep asking the whys. Then you’ll understand and it’ll inform your work.
  • Small actions ripple the world and small gestures can be a turning point.
  • Do not start writing books with a message. Start with your own good heart.

1. Here are just a few of the books I’m adding to my TBR list as a result of attending this conference:

  • My Teacher is an Alien by Bruce Coville
  • The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler
  • Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert
  • Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman
  • Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets by Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderley and Marjory Wentworth, illustrated by Ekua Holmes

If you attended the SCBWI Summer Conference, what were your takeaways?

To learn more about the conference—and about SCBWI, an organization I’m SO proud to be part of—visit the website here.

 

Dear Rachel Maddow: Q & A with Adrienne Kisner

When I learned a friend of friend wrote a book called Dear Rachel Maddow, I was overjoyed. A big fan of The Rachel Maddow Show which airs weeknights on MSNBC at 9:00 P.M., I often joke the show is the glue to my marriage.*

Here’s a description of Adrienne Kisner’s debut young adult book, Dear Rachel Maddow, from Amazon:

Brynn Haper’s life has one steadying force–Rachel Maddow. She watches her daily, and after writing to Rachel for a school project–and actually getting a response–Brynn starts drafting e-mails to Rachel but never sending them. Brynn tells Rachel about breaking up with her first serious girlfriend, about her brother Nick’s death, about her passive mother and even worse stepfather, about how she’s stuck in remedial courses at school and is considering dropping out.

Then Brynn is confronted with a moral dilemma. One student representative will be allowed to have a voice among the administration in the selection of a new school superintendent. Brynn’s arch nemesis, Adam, and ex-girlfriend, Sarah, believe only Honors students are worthy of the selection committee seat. Brynn feels all students deserve a voice. When she runs for the position, the knives are out. So, she begins to ask herself: What Would Rachel Maddow Do?

Although I had never read an epistolary novel before, I so enjoyed Kisner’s book. I found the format to be an effective way to tell Brynn’s story. Her struggles in school–and in the context of her family–were compelling, and the humor sprinkled throughout the novel was a nice touch that drew me in. Despite the book’s title, Kisner does not beat readers over the head with politics; instead, she seamlessly weaves in subtle descriptions of Maddow’s personality and show to support Brynn’s admiration for her.

Kisner was kind enough to do an email Q & A about the book and her writing life. Here are the highlights.

Zied: I read on your blog that you were inspired to write Dear Rachel Maddow after having your first child aka Screamy Baby. Can you elaborate?

Kisner: I live on a college campus. Our cable television was great for late-night-don’t-sleep types until one sad day right after my daughter was born. They took away the WE network and I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I aimlessly flipped until I settled on our new assortment of myriad news channels. Rachel Maddow repeated at least twice a night . . . possibly more, my memory from those days is dream-like. Then I discovered her podcast where I could listen to her while doing chores. Things are always new when your short term memory is shot from sleep deprivation. So it’s like it didn’t even repeat.

Zied: What is it about Rachel Maddow that led you to make her someone your protagonist reveres/reaches out to (if mainly in spirit)?

Kisner: Rachel is so smart and civil and engaged in this world. All the things my main character does not think herself to be, but to which she really aspires deep down. Rachel’s often really funny on her show, too. How can you not like that? (I mean, I know it’s possible. I’ve seen Twitter. But still.)

Zied: To write the book, did you plot or pant, or do some combination of both?

Kisner: I’m a pantser, all the way. Plotting baffles me.

Zied: Did you have a specific schedule/routine while writing this book?

Kisner: None. I have to squeeze in writing whenever I can, around work and family and stuff. I’d have an hour one day, fifteen minutes the next, none for two weeks.

Zied: When and how did you decide to use the epistolary format to write this book?

Kisner: Initially I’d planned to really rip off the Dear Mr. Henshaw format—write half of it in letters, then go to more of a journal. And it sort of goes like that. But Brynn, the main character, wouldn’t really write in a journal. I think she wanted to connect with someone, outside herself. She’d only write (or dictate) if it were to someone else.

Zied: You hold both a master’s and doctorate degree in theology. How do you think your studies have informed or influenced your book (if at all)?

Kisner: I don’t know. The longer I went on studying faith, the more I became convinced that people who claim to know God’s will, probably don’t. Mystery and faith seeking understanding and dialogue are stressed in the circles I run in. Here, notions of what “sin” is become more situated in the unknowable mind of God, so I got more and more pissed off that the government should try to legislate off the unknowable mind of God. If anything, the excessive amount of time I spent studying theology gave me a true appreciation for the importance of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause in the First Amendment. That people are screwing with that in the name of the ineffable is infuriating and dangerous.

Zied: What made you want to write novels for teens?

Kisner: Teens are awesome. I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t write for teens. I assume people who write for adults do so because writing for kids is too hard.

Zied: How did your MFA studies at Vermont College of Fine Arts** help prepare you both creatively and professionally to become a young adult novelist?

Kisner: VCFA gave me a community of writers, many of whom are now my best friends. I’ve had other people simply stop talking to me because I was too much or not enough or something tied to my life as a creator of things. That sucked. The inevitable ups and downs of the industry make for a wild ride, too. VCFA gave me lectures to polish my craft, but also gave me mentors and friends who are always in my corner. I love them all.

Zied: Have you shared your book with Rachel Maddow (if she’s anything like I’d suspect, she’d be flattered not to mention gracious).

Kisner: Welllll . . . I think she got an ARC? Lol. Not from me, per se. Because she is a real person whose name is on this thing that I wrote. I honestly wrote it thinking it would be another novel that no one would ever see (like so many of my novels before it). So when it was the one that sold, I thought she should be allowed the space to ignore it entirely. I have no doubt she’s lovely. But I don’t try to push it. I don’t want her to feel like she ought to be gracious. Fame has to be wearing enough without one more thing. (Though I have friends who @ her on Twitter. I do think that’s kind of funny, I admit.)

Zied: What’s next for you?

Kisner: A book about girl birders. I think of it as “Dear Rachel Maddow” meets “The Big Year.” I have dream goals of inspiring a few readers to both vote and go birding.

*My like-minded husband and I love Rachel’s ability to tell stories and give context to the ever-changing state of the union. Especially now!

**I began my MFA studies at VCFA in July. Read about my writing journey here.

To learn more about Dear Rachel Maddow and Kisner’s work, visit her website here.