Monday, December 22, 2014

Why I Write Young Adult Novels

I've been thinking a lot lately about why it is that I write young adult novels. After all, those teen years of my life from middle school through high school honestly were some of the worst, most painful and agonizing times for which you could not pay me enough to relive. Between the jealousies, the girl dramas, the emotional rollercoasters, the painful breakups, agonizing over body image, popularity, the brand of my jeans, and bad hair days, it's a wonder I survived. So why would I ever want to go back there and immerse myself back into a world where every single event that happens, big and small, feels like the end of the world?

I suppose I write for teenage me, because in my stories I always favor the underdog, the stereotypes can be broken, the prettiest girl doesn't always get the hottest guy, and the longshot can pay off. I rewrite history - maybe my history. Maybe I simply give some other teenager out there hope that they can rewrite theirs too. Because when you are a teenager navigating those years, so much energy is wasted on all the wrong things and the wrong people. We judge ourselves by how we are viewed through the lenses of our peers, many of whom we do not even like or respect to begin with. We try to blend in lest we earn ourselves an unsavory label: geek, freak, loser, whatever. It's not until we become older that we realize that letting our freak flag fly is what makes us so individual, so cool, and that all those people that flew under the radar in high school are actually the ones with the genuine hearts and the real stories. I write for them too.

My stories are filled with humor and heartbreak and unlikely friendships where limits are tested, often by the social infrastructures of high school or family life. My characters are resilient and dig deep to discover their own self worth, even if they may not know initially it exists at all. Perfect is boring and bad decisions and scars are what make the stories compelling and stomach churning.

The first book I wrote, BAND GEEK, did not sell. A common thread of feedback was that a boy main character was a tough sell, because although a girl would be interested in getting inside a guy's head and seeing how he thinks, they wouldn't be interested in THIS guy's head. Why? Because he was an awkward band geek. I felt like that was selling a potential audience short, as well as perpetuating the idea that the only interesting characters to read about are ones who are handsome and super jocks or bad boys from the wrong side of the tracks. Nice guys fumbling their way through high school hoping to catch a break? Not so much. I ESPECIALLY write for THAT kid. For all those kids in the marching band with my son that year I wrote BAND GEEK who didn't have a place in young adult literature except as a negative geeky stereotype, but they were the kids who devoured books and loved to read. And they wanted to read about one of their own, someone like them who made it through okay and maybe even got the girl of his dreams or got noticed for all the right reasons. Maybe that story would instill a little hope. Because it's awfully hard to find hope sometimes when you are a teenager.

I write young adult novels because I want to help instill that hope. I go back into that world willingly in the hopes that the characters I create may help some reader find the humor and know that they are not alone. That anything (and anyone) can change for the better. And I will never stop writing the kinds of stories where the underdog wins, because those are the stories that fill my heart and make all the battle scars worth it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Procrastibaking and Other Hazards Of The Limbo Writing Zone

So you've finished your last book and it is sitting in the inboxes of half of Manhattan and you are anxiously awaiting news of any sort because you're in this funky sort of limbo state. If the book sells, the editor will want you to revise and you will need to go back in the heads of your previous characters, so you can't possibly dive into something new because that would be practically schizophrenic switching gears like that, right?

Put down the chocolate and log off of Facebook and stop your procrastibaking, my friends. This is what is known as an excuse. Because the truth is: there is no more important time to be writing than right now, while the book is out there. If it sells, editors will want to know what else you've got. Your agent certainly will too, as their relationship with you hinges on your ability to produce more books, not just the one. And because the process takes so long to go from offer to actual publication, there is more than enough time to get seriously knee deep in the next thing so it will not be years between projects and you can strike while the iron is hot.

Even if you can't manage to get the words on the page, begin to research and map out the project. I like to buy a fresh spiral notebook that I dedicate to that project and start to take notes. I write down ideas, scenes, snippets of dialogue, great quotes I find that might suit the story and somehow find a way to be worked in later, ideas on theme - anything I can think of. It makes it so much easier when I sit down to write to have even the vaguest sense of who these characters are going to be and where I want this to go.

That said, I am a total pantser. Often when I start to write, I am working off of a zygote of an idea, and it's my characters that end up taking me the rest of the way there. Other people make charts, or use Save The Cat or Scrivener or Plot Whisperer tecniques. I use it all, but at different times and as needed. But first, I start with characters and setting. Who are these people? What attributes can I give them that make them unique and interesting and quirky so that they will stay with the reader long after they have finished the book? What can happen in their lives that will make a reader want to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next? What do they want and what is at stake if they don't get it? What (or whom) is standing in his/her way? Setting is important too, so where is the best place for this story to unfold? Is it someplace familiar to me or do I need to do research? And last but not least, are there other stories out there in the same vein as the one I would like to write? Or films? I begin to draw up lists and start to review them all to make sure I am not inadvertently duplicating something that already exists so I can make sure my take on things is fresh and fun.

The best part is finally diving in and meeting these new characters and finding out who they are and what they have to say. Immersing myself in their world helps me to forget the inevitable angst and anxiety of focusing on the last book and wondering when something will move with it in the ways that I am hoping it will. And when the other book does finally sell, getting back in the heads of those characters will be like meeting up with old friends.

This limbo time is precious. Don't waste it. DO take a break between projects, to clear your head, regroup, celebrate, and dust. (I can usually write my name in it by the end of a project: true story.) But then get busy.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Being On Submission (a.k.a. Thank you Costco for 2-Pack Bulk Nutella)

So REBEL WITHOUT A CLUE is out there in the inboxes of some of the most amazing editors in New York City, and I'm hoping the perfect editor falls in love with Hank and Peyton and all the other crazy characters. However, I'm here to tell you that when Tom Petty said "The waiting is the hardest part" he wasn't kidding. I'm not gonna lie: having a book on submission to editors and waiting to hear back is not for the faint of heart. It's a l-o-n-g process, filled with lots of nail biting, inbox refreshing, Nutella-straight-out-of-the-jar eating complemented by the occasional Happy Hour of Gilmore Girls on Netflix marathon for distraction. Because this part of the process can take aywhere from days to months, my friends, and there really isn't a whole lot you can do about it.

Oddly, I am much calmer about this part of the process than the agent search, despite the Nutella eating, because lets be real, I do that anyway. Somehow an agent search feels so much more personal. An agent is not only evaluating your work, but your future potential, your whole package, your body of work, both written and unwritten, and it's a very personal relationship, much like a marriage. At this stage of the game, things seem more black and white. An editor loves your story, or they don't. They feel it has issues that need fixing and they have a vision to get it there or they feel they are not the best fit for it. His/her publishing imprint is looking for books just like yours or they already have something similar. In short, things that you cannot control. At all. And there's something very freeing in finding that right representative to take the reins, trust in their expertise and knowledge of knowing where it might generate the most interest, and letting go. I believe I've found that kind of championing partner in my new agent, Leigh Feldman, and I have the absolute faith that if she can't find REBEL a home, no one can. Honestly, when she offered representation, I thought it had to be a mistake. :) I was so nervous, and in fact, I think my exact words to her were "I'm shaking," to which she replied, "Why, are you cold?" She's witty, and smart and all-around amazing, and I feel so lucky every day to be working with her.

In the end, it all comes down to faith and trust. Faith that you've written something good/funny/important/poignant, trust that you are partnered with someone who shares your excitement about your work and is as passionate about it finding its way into the world as you are, and the underlying belief that the delay is never the denial. That while there are plenty of "I sold my book in six days" stories, history has shown you that your story is different, and not to get rattled when results don't come immediately. Everything comes in its own time.

In the meantime, I'm busy at work researching everything from funeral homes and embalming procedures to Indian cooking and the Food Network and plotting my next novel. I'm sure if anyone saw my cache right now they would be hella confused, but I absolutely can't wait to write this next story :) It promises to be pretty hilarious. It's also a great distraction from agonizing over who may or may not have responded today and potentially put me one step closer to my life's dream coming true. And the reality is, once the book sells, while that's awesome and confetti-toss-worthy, I've got to be writing the next one and the next one after that, digging deep and finding all the crazy, funny stories rattling around inside my brain and helping them find their way onto paper. Or into a Word doc. Whatever.

In the meantime, writer friends, just FYI: Costco sells two-packs of giant sized Nutella bottles for about 8-1/2 dollars just rows from where they sell those super-comfy yoga pants. Coincidence? I think not.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Darkest Before The Dawn

Last we spoke, I was busy shaking up my personal snowglobe and making a few changes, but I didn't really get into what they were. But the truth is, what was really happening is I was digging deep. I had to sit with myself and figure out how badly I wanted this writing dream, how much I believed in myself and my work, and my ability to find the right connection with someone who could help me get the other half of the way there. So I made a really scary decision. I decided to leave my then agent and start from ground zero with my shiny new project, querying all over again. Leaving your agent when you are unpublished in search of a new one is absolutely terrifying, I'm not gonna lie. You've worked so hard just to get them in the first place, and then you choose to walk away? But it's a partnership, and sometimes, like in other types of partnerships, one person or the other needs change.

I started querying. At first 5-10, then another few, and eventually I just threw a whole bunch of them out there, because what exactly was I waiting for, really? Querying takes forever, sometimes months until you can hear back, and I already felt like I'd wasted a lot of precious time. Several writer friends offered up referrals to agents they knew, as well as their own. And within 72 hours of starting to query, I had amassed 11 full requests and 2 partials. It went like this, up and down, over the course of the next two and a half months. One would reject, and just as quickly, another would request. And suddenly names were showing up in my inbox that I couldn't believe were requesting my book.

But despite the constant amount of requests (by the end I'd had an amazing 26 full requests and 4 partials and then 3 more full requests when I pulled the query from people who wanted to know if they could still see it and throw their hat in the ring), a funny thing hapened. Self doubt started to creep in. Crazy, right? So much interest, so much activity, but yet also so much silence. It was deafening. Because if you work in publishing or if you are a writer, you know that this business moves at a snail's pace, and it is not at all uncommon to wait months until you hear back from agents or editors on a manuscript. And I'm not gonna lie: I'm an impatient girl. It's like I was sinking deeper and deeper into some sort of emotional quicksand, until it felt like it could envelop me whole, feeling like maybe despite all this interest, they will all come back no. My writer friends tried to boost me up, to reassure me this kind of attention was unusual and something had to happen, but I'd crossed a threshhold of sorts in that silence where I had started to lose faith. And the one piece that kept me going was a nugget from my friend Nadine, who said to me with each rejection, "If that train doesn't stop at your station, it was never your train."

And then, the morning after the worst day, the one where I just kept hitting refresh on my inbox to the point of carpal tunnel syndrome, it happened. I woke up and had an email from my top choice agent, Leigh Feldman, asking if I could talk at some point this week. Surely she must have mixed me up with someone else. I'd only sent her the full manuscript 5 days prior and now here she was, wanting to talk. Because agents don't usually call you unless they are actually interested. And frankly, until I talked to her on the phone and she mentioned the title of my book, I was not entirely unconvinced she'd mixed me up with someone else and written to me by mistake.

Once she offered, I had to send out Offer of Representation letters to the 16 remaining agents who had the full at that time and also the 3 with partials, plus all who had the query so they would not waste time reading it. As I said, a few more wrote back with interest, a partial was upgraded to a full, and thus began the most crazy insane week of my life. Fast forward to say that it concluded with three offers of representation from three equally unbelievable agents, any of whom would have been absolutely incredible to work with and were so passionate about the project. Ultimately, I chose Leigh. My admiration of Leigh goes way back to when I queried my first novel BAND GEEK. Plus, she was the first to offer, which does mean something in my book when someone reads and knows they love something. She's so sharp, and has such great enthusiasm and vision and to be honest, as I told her, she had me at hello.

I feel incredibly blessed, and despite how unbearably painful it was to feel at the time, I'm even thankful for the lowest moments. They serve as a constant reminder that everything can change overnight, and that there's truth to that old saying "It's darkest before the dawn."

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Why Our Words Are More Powerful Than We Realize

I feel gutted this morning. I lost a friend. Someone who made me laugh until my sides hurt. Someone who taught me about life and love and how to walk in the world through the body of work he left behind as his legacy. Someone who made me realize you can seemingly have everything: fame, fortune and family, but that it's meaningless if you can't find the light in the darkness.

The funniest part is, I only met this person once and for about two whole minutes, but it left a lifetime impression. I was a teenager, and my friends and I would often spend our Friday nights at The Improv on Melrose in Hollywood, and often the bouncer would tell us we had just missed seeing my favorite comedian, Robin Williams. But one night, as we arrived, the bouncer told me I was in luck and pointed to a man standing on the staircase landing talking to someone. There he was, and I excitedly ran to the base of the stairs and called his name. He looked down in surprise and when I curled my finger, summoning him to come down, he was amused and obliged. I gushed, "I've come here every week hoping to meet you and I'm so excited you're finally here." He said, "That's so nice. What's your name?" I told him "Robin" and as he shook my hand he smiled and said, with classic Robin Williams delivery, "Really? Mine too."

I would see him one other time in my life. I worked in development at Hollywood Pictures on the Disney lot. One day we heard that Robin Williams was coming on the lot to have a meeting that afternoon with Michael Eisner. My office faced out from the Team Disney building onto the walkway leading up to the building, and from there I could see Robin walking down the path. My friend and I grabbed Sharpies and copy paper and wrote in huge letters "WE LOVE YOU ROBIN!!" and held up the sign in the window where he could see us. He laughed and gave a thumbs up. If Eisner wanted my head to roll over it, so be it, but this was Robin Williams. And there are few people like that in this world that touch us to the core of our souls in the way that he did, to the point where the lines are blurred that we don't actually know them because they feel so deeply embedded in our hearts and our lives.

Which brings me back to the real point of this post: that our words are more powerful than we realize. When we write a story, particularly one rich with painful experiences and imperfect characters, one never knows who is going to read those words and carry them in his/her heart forever. And it's not just the deep, dramatic, issue-driven stories I'm talking about here - laughter is a powerful a form of medicine too. It could be words of empathy and understanding lifted from the pages that may help someone through another day. A belly laugh when someone needed it most, or a ray of light in a time of personal darkness. A sense that someone understands us. Because at the end of the day, we are all human. Our collective universal life experience is one filled with highs and lows, tragedy and comedy. Despite what we share, it's not difficult to feel alone or overwhelmed. The great irony is that someone like Robin Williams, who made so many laugh and feel things deeply through his words and actions, was light for so many as he quietly battled the demons of darkness. The legacy he leaves behind is pure gold, which is why a nation, if not the whole world, grieves so deeply and aches at his loss. Let your words be the light. You never know how much they may resonate to someone.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Ch-ch-ch-changes

If there's one thing I've learned in life it's that change is inevitable. Except, of course, from a vending machine. Sometimes it happens to us: we get fired, our best friend moves away, our favorite pair of jeans somehow shrinks in the wash and we're forced to go up a size. Sometimes we initiate it: we decide something is no longer working, no longer fits or feels right, and maybe we want something different.

Every now and then it's good to shake up the snow globe. When we give it a good shake, the pieces redistribute and resettle. For awhile there's sheer chaos in the globe - bits of sparkle madly swirling, trying to figure out where to land. Life can be like that too. When you cut bait with what is familiar and comfortable and safe it is only then that you truly get to see what you're capable of. Because nothing big can happen without taking a few risks. They may not always work in your favor, but you'll never know unless you dig in deep, have a little faith and go for it.

I've worked really hard these last few years at my writing. I've learned about my craft through workshops, conferences and reading great (and bad) books. I've met incredible writers, agents and editors who have offered me brilliant advice and feedback along the way. I've written three novels and have several others in progress or in zygote idea form waiting to germinate. And best of all, winning second runner-up at this year's SCBWI LA Spring Writers Day in the category of Best Young Adult Novel for my new manuscript, REBEL WITHOUT A CLUE (formerly titled HANK KIRBY) feels like validation that I'm on the right path.

As in all aspects of life, at different stages we need different things. I've learned a lot about who I am as a writer, what I need and want from this experience, and I've decided to shake up my personal snow globe a little and see where the pieces land. Right now everything is indeed sparkly chaos, but it's also very exciting.

Stay tuned. :)




Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Post In Which I Dish All About The Much Younger Man I've Been Spending My Time With

Hello? Anybody out there? *blows dust bunnies off blog* Oh, there you are! Yes, I haven't been here in a while and it looks like the spiderwebs have taken over, but nothing a little spring...er,summer, cleaning won't do.

You see, 2014 has been quite a year. Between family health dramas, unplanned home remodels due to water leaks, thus displacing me and my computer mid-novel, and my son dealing with a shooting at his college and the loss of a friend, it's been more "write what you know" material than I could ask for in a lifetime. But sometimes when the volume is turned up, it acts as an interesting catalyst to make the time you otherwise might not for the things that are really important to you.

In my case, that was finishing my latest YA contemporary novel, REBEL WITHOUT A CLUE. And naturally, I wrote this when I was supposed to be revising another novel, but often that's the way these things go. Rule #1 of writing: Never fight the muse.

So what's it about? Glad you asked! When 17-year-old Hank Kirby's attempt to ask a girl to Prom by lighting sparklers on her lawn literally goes up in flames, he attracts the attention of a very different girl, Peyton, a brooding loner and budding pyromaniac with some dark secrets of her own, who admires his handiwork and thinks he's a kindred spirit.

I LOVE this novel, these characters, this story, and I hope that one day they will be out in the world to share with readers too. This book just flowed out of me, as if the story demanded to be told, and the characters themselves told me where the story was going. I did not outline at all. Not that this is unusual for me - I am indeed a total pantser (but so is Stephen King and he's doing all right) but this went above and beyond the normal way I write. Usually, I have some idea where things are going, but there were twists and turns and all the feels moments I didn't even see coming until I wrote them, and that's when you know deep in your gut that you might be on to something good. I got some encouragement that I might be on the right track when REBEL WITHOUT A CLUE (then titled HANK KIRBY) recently won second runner-up for Best Young Adult Novel at the Los Angeles SCBWI Spring 2014 Writers Day, which was beyond awesome.

This is a novel about friendship and loss and second chances. It's about finding the friends that understand you and get your crazy and about the places where we're broken. The older I get, the more I appreciate the value of those friendships of the heart with those people who saw the flaws and loved me despite them. The people who stuck around. The people who knew just what to say and when to say nothing at all. But most of all, this book was inspired by my understanding through the events of my life that darkness is merely a temporary absence of the light.

Of course, just because you finish writing a novel doesn't mean it's really done. Some could argue a novel is never really done, even after it is published, as the writer can always go back in and find little things to tweak and change. From here, I get feedback from critique partners and fellow writer friends, I dive back into revisions and the process begins anew until it is ready to go out on submission to editors. That could take anywhere from a few months to over a year. It's really hard to say.

Fingers crossed in the meantime that this is the one, and that you will get a chance to meet Hank and Peyton and all the other quirky characters very soon!