Rochester Teen Book Fest

On the bus to the Fest.

On Saturday I attended the Rochester Teen ¬†Book Festival with English teachers and librarians from Albany High School, along with 45 of their students. They were kind enough to let me tag along to a fest that I wanted to be a part of, but didn’t get the invite to. And now that I’ve been, damn, do I wanted to get invited next year.

First, the lineup of authors was stellar. Seriously, there are too many New York Times bestselling authors here to list; check the site. And beyond being well-read, the authors were fabulous to the teens and all held excellent sessions for them to attend.

I had the pleasure of listening to A.G. Howard (Splintered series and Rose Blood) and Danielle Paige (Dorothy Must Die) in conversation about their paths to writing and publication and then their excellent answers and advice to budding authors in the audience.

And I love these two all the more because they snuck me into the author lunch with them ūüėČ

I also had the good fortune to see Libba Bray (Beauty Queens, Going Bovine, Diviners). She read a story to the audience to prove a phenomenal point, writing improves. Her story was from her childhood and sprawled genres from Paranormal to Sci-Fi time travel, and included great plot holes, both literal and figurative. The audience loved it, and for many teens who have read her work, I can imagine it opened their eyes to the principle, “we all have to start somewhere.”

Libba warming up with some interpretive dance.

The last session I attended was with A.S. King (Ask the Passengers, Still Life with Tornado) and Zac Brewer (the Vladimir Tod series), who riffed with each other about the ills of our society and the things we are afraid to talk about, especially with teens. The librarian who attended with me said, “They’re like a walking PSA.” Which, indeed, they were, in all the right ways. Both addressed issues in their lives and how they deal with them in their own writing, and how it’s a shame that teens aren’t given the respect they deserve by adults when considering whether or not conversations should go¬†there. So they went there, and it was glorious.

A.S. King giving zero f@*&s to the delight of all.

Zac on the right, because once the session began, I was so enthralled I forgot to get up and take a pic. Apologies, all around.

 

 

I’ve been to a number of festivals, as an author and as an attendee, and this one is truly worth putting on your calendar for next year, not solely because I’m hoping to be there as an author, but because it is everything a teen fest should be: a gathering of fabulous authors, who are there first and foremost for the teens, who deliver sessions that inspire, delight, and entertain.

I’m so glad that Albany High went and that they were kind enough to let me on board. Their book club is full of the kids who deserve a day like this, one that fosters lifelong reading in a world where attention to stories and our ever-expanding world is not only necessary, but vital.

I tip my hat to all who had a hand in making the Fest a reality. I’ll see you next year.

 

 

 

 

 

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 ūüėČ

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.

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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.

 

Carpe Diem

carpe_diem_tattoo_by_sackofwetrabbits

As an English teacher, I think it’s law that I enjoy¬†Dead Poets Society. And I do, especially Robin William’s character whispering to his students, as if from the other side, “Carpe diem.” Yes, it’s a bit morbid, but in reality, it’s a stark reminder that this life is often impossibly short.

Recently, a man I grew up with passed away suddenly. He was my age with two daughters the same ages as my own. Attending his wake was one of the most difficult things I’ve done recently. ¬†It cut too close to the bone and I was rattled for days by images of the funeral home.¬†

However, it also shifted my thinking. Today marks the first anniversary of my father-in-law’s death, which was the apex to one of the worst years of my life. Today, my wife is much better than she was a year ago. As are her siblings and her mother and her relatives. As are my own children. I’m all right, too, but with this most recent tragedy, I have again been reminded how fragile life is.

I felt hollow reading comments online about how sad it was for someone so young to be lost. While true, the deeper pain resonated with me. That which his parents will carry, as will his wife, his daughters, and anyone else whose life he touched. And the vastness of what he will miss in life is simply astounding. It is almost too much to consider.

Yet, that’s what I do. Maybe it’s my sensibility as an author, to think of life in terms of stories. But I’m not alone. Viola Davis’s Oscar speech struck a very deep cord with me:

“People ask me all the time, what kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola? And I say, exhume those bodies, exhume those stories, the stories of the people who dreamed.”

She continued, “I became an artist, and thank god I did, because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.”

This is exactly it. To live a life. To seize the day–carpe diem.¬†

Recently, though, it’s been difficult to feel connected, to feel plugged in, to feel as if there is this great hope of a life lived. Our society is in shambles. I can barely go on any social media site without feeling the pit in my stomach deepen. So I’ve disconnected, pulled back and have only lurked and at times posted on Instagram. Not because I want to ignore, but because I feel myself falling into the precipice of despair.

I don’t want to live hyper-focused on the negative. Trust me, I don’t want to be a hypocrite and ignore it either. Truly, I want to be active in the resistance, but I also want to live a life. Because they get cut short every day, and I still have so much that I want to do and to prove and to understand and to change.

It’s a difficult balance, and I’m not sure I’m succeeding. I am trying. I am still writing. I am waiting to see if and when I will have another book out. I have just begun another project that I feel will be a solid story. ¬†I am thrilled that Moonlight¬†won. I adored that movie. I believe that stories are worth telling, those about change, about fighting for what you love, about being the light in the darkness, about living a life, about seizing the day. Often, in spite of it all. Because so often this world feels hell bent on crushing the spirit.

That simply cannot be. Because it is in remembrance to my father-in-law, Christoper Connelly, and my recently departed friend, Rich Gilooly, and all those who Viola suggests we exhume, that I will continue to push forward, and to share stories that I know will inspire us to be a little braver, a bit more sensitive, and always aware that there are whispers from the other side, to which we should be listening.

Pump Up The Volume

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Last night, I was in my car, and happened to catch one of the local DJs talking about his approach to Facebook amid¬†our new political era. He has turned off political posts in his feed. I don’t know he did that, because, I really don’t use FB that much, but even if I did know, I wouldn’t follow his lead. Yes, like many of you, I have unfriended or stopped being able to see those people who post nothing but political posts, because they are always overly partisan, and not typically grounded in anything that seeks to educate or is¬†based on facts.

However, I use Twitter devoutly. I follow people from all walks of life, who tweet or retweet articles and information that reinforces and challenges my opinions. I think this is good and necessary. Because the advice the DJ was offering is garbage. You must stay informed. Sticking your head in the sand is always a problem, regardless of how your politics lean.

Being blissfully uninformed is not the kind of civic responsibility I want emulated. I’m sure this DJ stays in the loop¬†in other ways, aside from social media, which is VERY smart, but to say that you don’t care what your friends and neighbors and community think, and that you’ll just ignore the world until everything settles down is one hell of an entitled position to hold. Don’t stare at another cat video. Read something.

This entitled thinking is useless for those who cannot escape the realities of the here and now. Some people have been deeply and immediately affected, and others will soon be. To ignore this because it’s “not my problem” is a disservice to the American people. When members of the armed forces show up at airports, stating, “This is not what I put my life on the line for,” I don’t think you can tell people to ignore the issues.

I recently had a conversation with my daughter about disability. In case you are just tuning in, both my youngest daughter and I have type 1 diabetes. We can’t just blissfully ignore our disability, because there is no way to put it on pause, to take a day off, to not be immersed in its issues daily. I’m not thrilled about this, and would love a break, but I’m also a realist, and I believe this is a profound analogy for today. I have to look. I have to read. It is my responsibility as a citizen of this country, as it is my responsibility as a patient. Do the work.

Therefore, if you are on social media, don’t hide from the rhetoric. Pump up the volume. Read. Listen. Engage. Consider both sides and then make your decision. Because if you’re not, if you’re like that DJ just waiting for the storm to pass, shame on you. We are clearly at a turning point in our country, and you should want to be so involved that when it turns, you can say, “I’m glad I had a hand in that.”

And if you’re looking for reputable sources, consider these:

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