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.

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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

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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.

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What stolen trophy?

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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

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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.

The trouble with completing a novel

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My next novel is complete. I finished edits over the phone with my editor yesterday afternoon. It didn’t hit me then that I was done, but it did later in the evening, and I feel a bit lost at this point.

And no, the woods above aren’t a metaphor for how I feel 🙂 Much of the novel, Look Past, takes place in the woods, and it’s scary as hell. Yet, after having spent close to three years working on this story, I am kind of terrified by how it will be received. But first, here’s the catalog copy for the novel, for those of you who have no idea what Look Past is about:

Mary is dead—murdered in a brutal way. Avery, a transgender boy who loved Mary but who was shunned by Mary’s very strict Reverend father, can’t sit on the sidelines while the police, including his own uncle, handle the case. Therefore, his interest in forensics takes over and he goes to the crime scene. Avery’s investigating puts him in harm’s way, as the authorities are on edge, trying to decipher who the killer is, and have no time for the outcast teen. Avery must, like the rest of the town, wait for the police to do their job.

However, following Mary’s funeral, Avery receives the first in a series of disturbing texts that can only have come from the killer, revealing that Avery is now a target, dead-center in the continuing manhunt and investigation. With the entire town caught in the grip of fear and uncertainty, Avery is torn between finding the killer and protecting himself.

Soon, though, even hiding and hoping is taken from Avery. The killer, in a disturbing cat and mouse game, toys with Avery’s heart and his identity. If Avery plays along, can he bring Mary’s murderer to justice? Or will sacrificing himself be the ultimate betrayal?

With his characteristic honesty and gift for creating page-turning plots, author Eric Devine explores the depths one must go, in order to see past the superficial and to find the truth.

Gripping, right? And intense. At this point, these are facets of my writing that should be expected. But here’s the thing, I’ve never written a murder mystery before. I have read a ton since I was a child, but trust me, there’s a vast difference in having read one and having written one. Yet, I’ve pulled it off. It wasn’t easy, but with help, I figured it out.

Also, I’m not transgender. To me, I don’t find an issue with that. Like with the murder mystery aspect, for the gender disparity, I read a lot, and researched, and I interviewed people. I did the work. As an author, I believe that creativity is paramount to experience. To paraphrase Atticus from To Kill A Mockingbird, I should be able to climb into someone else’s skin and walk around in it. That’s the job. To be at a slight distance, objectively, from the world, but to feel, subjectively, everything.

And yet the landscape of social media and the ways YA is often picked apart for what it is, for what it lacks, and how the author is a manifestation of both, can be disturbing.

Possibly this is why my emotions are mixed. I love that Avery’s story is going to be out in the world. I love that a really good murder mystery is going to unfold. I love that perspectives are going to be challenged. Yet, it’s like raising a child for the past three years and having to let him go, only to then wait for people to bash him and my parenting skills. Good times.

Again, though, that’s the job. The words are complete. The story is finished. Soon I’ll receive a cover image, and by spring advanced reader copies will be available. It’s exciting, and terrifying, much like the story. Which I believe is a fair tribute to a little piece of my life, the years I have spent, which will now, morph into a new life in readers’ hands.

 

For Dan, How to Be Descriptive.

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I don’t offer writing advice. Mostly because I don’t feel like an expert, which I know may seem weird as an author and English teacher. But, largely, that’s because I’m always questioning what I know, which may be fundamental to learning anything. The second, and more broad reason I don’t like to give advice, is because I think the process of writing is different for everyone. So the caveat that always applies is the following: this is what works for me, and it may or may not work for you.

And so, with that said, let me offer some advice 🙂

Recently, following a school visit, I received letters from the students, thanking me for visiting, which was awesome, but also asking for writing advice. One particular student, let’s call him Dan, asked the following:

“How do you write with such description? I just can’t.”

Huh, how to be more descriptive. That’s a knotty question, and one I think is excellent for every writer, regardless of his or her stage in the game. However, I think the question is better framed as “How do I provide just the right amount of description?” For some, like Dan, this may mean more is necessary. For others, possibly less. But for all, it is always about hitting the sweet spot of details for each scene. And every scene has different demands. And every writer has a different way of meeting those demands.

For me, I don’t go for extensive character description. I don’t like to completely paint physical characteristics. I enjoy leaving that up to the reader, because, I feel, it can engage the reader more fully with the story. They have to do a little work, and that’s important. Being involved and not passive is exactly what should be going on in good writing.

Therefore, my focus for detailed description falls to character action and setting. I am a firm believer that seeing what a character does is for more important than how a character looks. And providing a vivid backdrop on which this action takes place is simply necessary.

So, the question is how that is done. My answer: close your eyes and be the character.

When we write, we are not ourselves. Sure, we’re the person in the chair, hammering away at the keyboard, but we are also the girl or the boy, the villain or the hero. We have to be. We must get inside not only their heads, but become them, mind and body.

With your eyes closed, you can envision the scene unfolding, much like a movie. What do you see? What do you hear and feel? Is there anything to be tasted or smelt? It is not that you have to incorporate all of the senses, but it is important that all description not be limited to sight. The word “imagery” can be deceptive. It is truly about all five senses and creating that real-world, 3-D like quality. The reader does not feel distant from the story. The reader is in the story, and to do that means proving just enough detail, exactly as it needs to be, but not too much, nor too little.

Yes, it sounds a lot like a recipe. It is. And that is how you should build your story, ingredient by ingredient, for each scene. Some need more noise, others, touch. If you are living your character’s life, you’ll know intuitively.

Of course I could be blowing smoke, so let’s take a look at Dare Me. The following excerpt is from the first few pages, where Ben is about to perform the first dare.

I turn and look. Nothing but cornstalks and pavement, blue sky and puffy white clouds. Perfection. I focus on that image and the stillness, the quiet. If I don’t, I’ll chicken out. My mind’s already filling with scenarios for how this will end badly. But school starts tomorrow, and I agreed to this, however it goes.

I pull the ski mask over my face and slide out the window.

The wind whips even though Ricky’s only going like thirty miles per hour. I can’t hear what John’s saying. His mouth’s moving, but it’s like being in a dream, all background noise, nothing real. He jacks his thumb into the air, an obvious sign for me to get on the roof. I take a deep breath, steady my elbows, and push myself up.

My feet tingle and my heart hammers, but I keep going. I grab the roof rack and pull and am flat on top. The wind pours over me now, but the space around my face is calm. Unreal.

I would suggest that as a reader you were very much with Ben there, not merely watching him. You felt his anxiety, juxtaposed to the beauty of the day. He’s doing stupid things and you understand his terror as it unfolds against the whipping wind.

So, if that works for you, Dan, and any others, cool. If not, there are excellent books out there like Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Pick one up and see if the advice there strikes a chord.

If you liked this advice and would like more, please don’t hesitate to ask.

And, as always, keep writing.