School Visit: Cherry Valley-Springfield


This past Friday I had the pleasure of presenting to and running writing workshops at Cherry Valley-Springfield. It was a fantastic day, in spite of the brutal cold outside, and that was due to the phenomenal students, who were a fabulous audience as well as engaged writers. I loved the energy and enthusiasm and truly hope the everyone who is reading my work or is working on their own is enjoying.

For any educators reading this post, who are wondering what a typical presentation/workshop day is like, let me provide some details, and if you feel as if you’d like me to visit, please reach out.

The American Hotel

While not required, I was quite appreciative of the fact that CV-S was able to put me up the night before my visit, because driving a distance in the morning in winter in Upstate, NY can be daunting. And I was THRILLED to stay at The American Hotel. From their website: The American Hotel was built ca. 1842 by Nicholas LaRue. After being vacant for more than 30 years, current owners Doug Plummer and Garth Roberts purchased the decaying structure in 1996. After an extensive five year renovation, the American re-opened its doors May 23, 2001. 

Not only was it a beautiful building, but the food was outrageously good. Just check out this Rachel Ray approved Maple cake dessert.

Now, for the actual day. I typically provide an auditorium presentation, where I can speak about multiple topics regarding writing and publishing. At CV-S, I spoke to grades 7-12 about what I write and why I write it. I managed to complete this multi-media presentation within 35 minutes, but I can hold a crowd’s attention for an hour if needed.

*I would love to include pics of the CV-S crowd, here, but for privacy reasons that’s not happening. Therefore, imagine an auditorium filled with teens, not on their phones (props to CV-S for that enforcement), and thoroughly paying attention, while wearing these fantastic pins, made by the awesome school librarian Audrey Maldonado.

After lunch, I met with two separate groups for writing workshops, the high school students first, and the middle school students second. I typically ask that these sessions are filled with students who are genuinely interested in writing, and CV-S certainly respected that. Between the two sessions, I taught 40 students about how to plot and structure a story, and then how to make each section of that story come alive with particular writing strategies. For 90 minutes, on a Friday, before a long weekend, each session was fully engaged. I credit that to the selection of students and their genuine interest.

In each session I help guide the students through their own writing with a whole-class example. The HS students created a bank-robbery-out-of-necessity story, which ended on a poignant note. The MS students created a story about going over the top to demonstrate one’s love, with all things, a jar of pickles. They created a sweet and sensitive story in which a incredible flashback sequence was strung through to add depth to the story’s ending.

Look, it’s me teaching.

Fun was had by all, and I have no doubt that the students who are now reading my books because they saw me are more engaged with that reading. The students who are writing with my strategies now have new paths of entry into their stories. Having authors visit (not just me) is a powerful way to bolster students’ reading and writing skills. It was a phenomenal day with phenomenal teens. I had a blast and was so happy to be invited. So, thanks again, CV-S! For the educators out there, if any of the day described interests you, then reach out, because I hope to see you soon.

Happy Thanksgiving and New Novel Teaser

As the title suggests, I’ve got some thanks to give and a teaser to share, but with this post, you’ve got options. Below is a synopsis video, and beneath it is the full post. Watch, read, or do both. Whichever, enjoy!

 
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I hope you have the opportunity to be around family and friends for this holiday about gratitude, and I hope that you have the opportunity to express your thanks for them. 

Thanks to my readers! 
Sincerely, in the digital and social media age in which we live, if you are spending time reading my work instead of spending time on your phone (unless you’re reading on your phone 😉 I can’t thank you enough. There is so much demand for your time, that I believe I offer the sentiment of every author when I say thank you for choosing to spend time with the written word-especially ours.  
 
And a special thanks to teachers and librarians who manage to get my books into the hands of teens. My work isn’t wholesome and what a lot of adults want teens reading, but I read whatever I wanted to as a teen and turned out just fine (mostly). Teens want to see themselves in stories, and not just picture-perfect selves, or aspirational selves. They want the real deal. The fact that as teachers and librarians, you understand this, separates you from the pack. I thank you, and I know the teens in your life do as well. 
 
Teaser 
And on that note, are you ready for more of my work? How about a story about heroin addiction with a dab of dystopian government control? And some teens who are hellbent on not becoming pawns? 
 
Does that sound like something teens you know would read? Of course it does! I’m confident there are adults reading this post right now who would also love this story, titled One in Ten.  
 
I’ll have more details as the New Year begins, because the Holiday season is busy for everyone. I’ll pop back in after all the merriment. Therefore, get ready for some insider options I’ve never before been able to offer, and be ready for April when the novel releases. And, so as to not leave you high and dry, here’s the opening paragraph of what will be One in Ten
 
Here’s the secret no one tells you: drugs are fun. I know a lot of addicts and I can’t think of one who started using because they wanted to feel bad. It’s the opposite. We all know what could go wrong, both long and short term. But that’s a gamble, that’s life. Therefore, it’s worth rolling the dice, because snake eyes are a potential, but so are those double six boxcars. The risk is worth the reward of escaping from this world. Every. Single. Time.  
 
 
 

 

Mixed Emotions at the Albany Book Fest


This past Saturday I was fortunate to be at the second annual Albany Book Festival, sponsored by the New York State Writers Institute. Like last year, attendance was phenomenal, as was the lineup of featured authors–Jamaica Kincaid and Joyce Carol Oates were there.

The layout for tables this year was better than last. I was in a prime spot near the featured signings and directly next to the Book House’s point of sale.  Therefore, I had significant traffic and found new readers among them. I saw many faces from the past, spoke with numerous teachers and librarians about potential visits, and even had some of my students show up to the festival. I was able to test run a short story (check it out here) and simply enjoy the atmosphere of being with “my people.”

However, one question kept coming up: When’s your next book coming out?

I was happy people asked, thrilled that they still care, because if you haven’t been keeping track, I haven’t had a book out in three years. 

And so I was equally sad not to have an answer. Well, not one I am proud of, because I simply don’t know when I’ll have something new published. I have three manuscripts that could very easily become novels, but publishing a book is a process that’s not entirely under my control. 

Therefore, I don’t know what’s next, what the answer will be, but if you are out there waiting, please know that I am trying my absolute best, and if something clicks into place, you will hear it loud and clear. I love writing, telling stories, and being with my people. I simply need to find someone who loves what I do and is willing to usher my projects into reality.

Wish me luck.

In the meantime, thank you to the Writers Institute for putting together such a great day, and I wish you all happy reading.

The Reality of Readers

It is very easy in this industry to lose sight of the fact that the majority of readership and the conversations about books exist in the real world. I am guilty of giving far too much attention to social media and online reviews, and forgetting the unbelievable importance of readers in the real world.

It’s an issue of reach. As an author, it seems like you’re reaching more when you are online, being social, and it feels as if EVERYONE will read that review. But that’s not true. Yes, lots of eyes will be on those things, but to what extent they care is impossible to measurable.

However, the readers I meet, the  ones who I have a chance to interact with, and spend some time just talking about story–and not just my stories–provide me a tangible sense of just how much books and my work matter to them.

Friday, this past week, I was fortunate enough to visit Hudson High school and present to various classes about my work, the day before the annual Hudson Children’s Book Festival. The students were great and we had fun together. That afternoon, I got to talk about my work, on air, with Ellen Hopkins, Jack Gantos, Crissa-Jean Chappell, and Laurie Stolarz. Another fabulous experience. But the best was the following day.

This was my third year at the festival and it was busier than I’ve ever seen it. People were there early and stayed late. I signed books steadily and talked to so many adults and teens about my work and writing and books in general. However, this year, two things were different.

One, so many teens who I had met the day before during my presentations in their classrooms, showed up to buy my books. Some specifically came to this event, which hosted over 75 authors, just to get my work. Yeah, those are readers, real, in the flesh, awesome people, who made the effort because we connected. And still others, who couldn’t attend because of prior commitments, sent mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters to get my books. This happened so much, I had only one copy of Dare Me left by the end of the festival. Unreal.

Two, Look Past was available this year. I had a few ARC copies last year, but that was it. This year I was able to get copies of that book into hands of those who were curious, and those, like Max, needed it. Max asked me to sign a copy of Look Past, and when I asked for his name, there was a moment of hesitation, and then he said, “I’m Max.” I began to sign, but heard the teens with Max reacting and asking if he was okay. I paused and looked up. Max was crying. I asked if everything was all right, and he said this was the first time he felt comfortable asking someone to refer to him as Max, and this was the absolute first book he had signed to him as such. The fact that it was Look Past was not lost on me. I made sure to give him props for asserting who he is, and circled his name a half-dozen times on that page in my book, which speaks volumes about his lived experience. “Powerful” doesn’t cut it as a description for a moment like that.

It’s why I write. For the stories, for the readers, those I will only meet virtually, and for those who will stand in front of me and say, “I love your work.”

So, thanks Hudson HS and the entire Hudson Children’s Book Fest crew for keeping such a wonderful event going. As much as it is a day for those readers, it is one for the authors, too. We live in this world, and it’s nice to be reminded that we are seen.

On writing about the Subject and not the Story

I’m currently reading Stephen King’s classic, On Writing, for like the twentieth time. If you’ve never read it, and even if you have no writerly aspirations, do so. If you ever want to write for a living, then definitely read it, along with Writing Down the Bones and Bird by Bird and Writing 21st Century Fiction.

Through re-reading King’s advice, I realized what I did wrong with my failed manuscript. I wrote about the subject matter of the story and not the story itself. That may seem like semantics, but the approach in storytelling matters. Instead of spending time with my characters, I asked my characters to spend time focusing on things I wanted them to discuss. Classic mistake.

The characters always guide.  They do what they want based on who they are as people and what motivations drive them. This makes them real, human, flawed, worth reading about.

This was not a pleasurable epiphany, but one I’m glad I had. And I bring it up because I believe in our current climate this type of scenario may happen with other writers and creative individuals. We are so infuriated with our current environment, we want to do something about it with the tools we have, words. But regardless of the skill set of the person wielding any tool, the approach is still everything.

If a carpenter built  “about a house” instead of actually building one, I’m not sure the results would be desirable. Same with writing. It’s perfectly fine to have a mental sense of what the story is about, but that’s only because of the action that’s taking place, the emotions on the page, the push and pull of characters as they move through this life they’re living.

I know you know this. I know I know this, but a little reminder can’t hurt.

And while I’m realizing things and making changes, I’ve also decided to put my YouTube channel to use. I have my book trailers there, but I also think it would be a great benefit to librarians trying to book talk my work, or to any reader who is researching who I am, to have a face with the name and stories. Therefore, I’m thinking of posting on Fridays, and for the next few weeks will cover my books, one at a time. After that, I’m open to any suggestions.

So, if you want to see where I write or what my outlines look like, or what books have most influenced my career, or how I get my inspiration, let me know. Do so here, via my email contact, or leave notes on my YouTube channel.

Additionally, there’s still time to win a copy of Look Past over at Goodreads, but make sure you enter before the clock runs out today.

In the meantime, I hope you are enjoying the change of the season and the beginning of new things in your life, be them old things remembered, or new avenues to travel 😉

Time and Place

BOB

I’ve never enjoyed the expression, “There’s a time and place for everything.” If you’re on the receiving end of it, it typically means that you’ve made a mistake with your timing, or you are not suitable for the place you are in. For quite some time I’ve felt this way while writing and revising the manuscript I’ve been working on for the past two years.

Note that I used manuscript, and not book. To use another idiom, “This dog won’t hunt.” Or, plainly, this manuscript will not be sold and become a book.

This is not a reflection on me as a writer, because this is completely normal (although, trust me, it feels like a complete reflection on my abilities). It’s merely a matter of time and place. Now is not the time for this story. That’s a matter of business factors and industry demand. Books are business, and every business must know the waters before setting sail.

This is devastating to me. I’ve revised this particular manuscript, in varying degrees, seven times. And still…

Therefore, with a bit of a heavy heart, and feeling very much like I was in a place I didn’t belong, yesterday I went to the Central New York finals for Battle of the Books, held at the New York State Museum in Albany.

I’d been invited by the organizer to present to the 200 or so teens, of which middle and high school teams competed in a timed, Jeopardy-like quiz competition, where they had to properly identify the title and author(s) of books, based on short excerpts read to them. They had read all books prior, and Dare Me was on the list for the HS students.

Battle MS

Middle School teams

Fortunately, I brought along two middle school students, my daughter, Grace, and her friend, Caroline. They were a welcome distraction from the general nervousness I felt about presenting, and my fear that when quotes about Dare Me came up, none of the competitors would have a clue.

The competition was fierce, with students buzzing in before quotes were even finished being read. Oneonta won the middle school bracket because of their unbelievable knowledge of the books, and their member, Emily a.k.a. “trigger finger.”

It was a tighter race for the High School teams. Oneonta and Fort Plain tied, and were forced into a tie-breaker. No lie, had Oneonta known the last quote used from Dare Me, they would have won, but Fort Plain ended up taking the top spot.

Battle HS

High School teams

Watching the teams compete was as thrilling as watching any sporting event I’ve seen, and I was unbelievably impressed with the dedication and effort that must have gone into securing a spot at the finals.

I then had a brief break to tour the museum with my entourage, but shortly was back in the auditorium, under an enormous screen, with my presentation looming. Fortunately, I had my girls with me, because they distracted me with stolen, winning cup selfies, and karaoke with Adele. The sound system in the room is amazing.

IMG_0664

What stolen trophy?

unnamed

Karaoke with Adele 

But then the teens filed in, and it was go time. I did what I do: entertained the hell out of the crowd, telling stories about the difficulty of getting into publishing, as well as the struggle to stay alive once in. They were enthralled, and that bit of self-doubt I’d been feeling vanished for a while.

Once the presentation was over, I felt as I always do: hopeful that they’d enjoyed and that I hadn’t wasted anyone’s time. Id’ forgotten about the signing.

There was no book seller onsite, so the students who wanted books signed had to bring their own copies. I sat at the front of the auditorium and the line stretched up the steps. So many had come with books and posters and bookplates and T-shirts and forearms and hands for me to sign. It’s impossible to express the gratitude I felt in that moment. None of these teens knew prior to coming to this event if I’d be any good, and they certainly didn’t know how down on myself I felt. Did they ever lift my spirits.

During the signing, I received a T-shirt made for me, signed by the team, which is totally awesome, but then I had one of the most surreal moments. A student shared with me that after having read Press Play, he was inspired to tackle his health and had already lost 20 pounds doing so. Mind blown.

BOB shirt

I write fiction for teens, not motivational non-fiction. I write scary, often violent, and downright disturbing stories. That these kids loved. That these kids found motivation from. That these kids then read on their buses back to their hometowns, many, many miles away, and sent me messages on Instagram thanking me and telling me how awesome the books were they’d just started.

Time and Place. What a difference a day makes. Pick your idiom about needing the rain for a rainbow. They all work. Yesterday was equally necessary for me and for those amazing teens. Thank you to all who showed me much love yesterday. You have no idea how I needed it.

And have no fear, I’m writing another manuscript. I have other projects already written that may come to fruition. So, a swing and a miss, but not down and out. As they say, there’s a time and a place for everything.

 

Serve Your Story

logo_story

Working on a novel while another has recently been released is a particular kind of hell reserved for authors. As much as the desire exists to bury yourself inside the new story, it is impossible not to feed the urge of checking in to see what people are saying. This is the best/worst move ever.

If your book is selling crazily, there will be lots of great reviews, but there will also be some one-stars, because people like to be contrarian, or more commonly, Haters gon’ hate. If your book is selling, but not at a blockbuster pace, there will also be reviews. Less, much less, and the percentage of those negative ones is higher.

Clearly I am no blockbuster or you would have read here how unreal the feeling is of seeing my work on the New York Times Bestseller List. Yeah, that Instagram post has yet to present itself.

And so I’m living in that latter part of review world, where yes, Kirkus and Booklist have been kind, which is nice, as are the other bloggers who have also said nice things, including the fact that Look Past should be nominated for an Edgar. Very cool. 

But authors, by and large, might read 100 awesome reviews and only remember the one terrible one. We live on self-doubt and coffee. Some of the reviews I have read for Look Past are as bitter as the coffee I’m drinking now. And that’s fine. Truly, it is. People should voice their opinions, with one caveat: the question that should always be asked when you, as a reader, arrive at a point of contention: Does this serve the story?

This is a device I use with my students to think critically about the author’s intent and not only their personal reactions. Because there is a machine beneath the words, and it’s important to see what it is doing.

This concept is really no different than Vonnegut’s Rules for writing. I have always approached my work as entities unto themselves. Microcosms, yes, but ones that operate to deliver a particular end. That end is often to paint a stark image of the world around us.

I believe my characters should be unrestrained. I want them to do and say the things that I see and hear daily. I want my stories to look, unwaveringly, at the way our society treats one another and how, in turn, that gets reflected and morphed through the experiences of teens. In short, realistic fiction. 

And so when faced with difficult decisions about what to do with plot or character I always ask myself the above question: Will this serve the story? If it does, I execute. If not, I tweak until it does.

I will be presenting to students next week on getting words on paper, on getting their stories out, and to a degree, NaNoWriMo. There is no doubt that I will touch on this issue, so that when they are in their own stories, creating worlds and events with purpose, they remember what they are serving, not the masses, but the story. Because, if not, they may end up with the figurative pneumonia that Vonnegut discusses.

My hope is that they will not only write their own work with this critical gaze but will turn it on the stories they read, including my own, and come away with an appreciation for the process, however they feel about the story.