Olympic Scoring, Risk-Taking, and Failure Without Shame

I always love watching the Olympics and getting sucked into the storylines and wowed by the performances, even in sports I know pretty much nothing about. Over the weekend, I caught some of the men’s single luge and slopestyle events, and I was struck by the differences in how those two events are scored and what those differences say about what the sports value.

In the slopestyle competition, the best run wins the entire event. It doesn’t matter if a snowboarder falls on two of the three runs; if he nails it the third time, he can win the whole thing. That scoring system rewards risk-taking and sends the message that failure isn’t that big of a deal. It’s an accepted part of the process, not something that incurs a penalty.

On the other hand, in the luge event, the athletes complete four different runs and all four times are added up. If an athlete messes up once, that can doom his or her entire competition. So the scoring system rewards consistency and discourages too much risk-taking.

I was so impressed by the mental toughness of the luge athletes, getting up there over and over, determined to deliver a clean run every time. Talk about high stakes! But I also couldn’t help wondering how much faster their times could be if the scoring allowed room for failure—if only the fastest run counted, so they could take more risks.

As a teacher, I wanted to build in room for kids to fail without negative consequences because risks can lead to the most innovative and interesting ideas, and we all learn from what doesn’t work as well as from what does. But I also had to assign grades every quarter, and that meant that I needed a lot of varied, graded assignments in relatively short periods of time. It was challenging for me to make space in the curriculum for meaningful, sustained activities that encouraged kids to take true creative risks. And in general, I think the emphasis school puts on grades can send the message that failures always have negative consequences.

As a writer, I struggle with risk-taking and letting myself fail, too. I’m currently writing a first draft, and first drafting is hard for me in part because my drafts don’t always pan out. I’ve started writing a handful of books that I’ve had to abandon because they just haven’t worked, so there’s always the fear that a new draft won’t work either. Plus, new drafts are always messy and full of a dizzying number of only partly developed ideas. There’s nothing consistent about the drafting process, at least for me. Some days the words flow easily; other days I’m completely stuck.

But there’s also nothing more exhilarating than those moments when I’m working through a new idea and things begin to come together in ways my conscious brain couldn’t predict. And new drafts only work if I let myself play and experiment, as anxiety-producing as that is for my rational, structured, risk-averse brain. When I try to minimize the risk of having to abandon a draft by doing extra planning, I lose the excitement and spontaneity I need.

So I’m trying to embrace the creative risks I’m taking in this draft. I’m trying to trust that even if this version doesn’t work, there won’t be any penalty. I can let any not-quite-right bits go and try again and still eventually deliver a winning performance. Or write a new novel I really love, as the case may be.

I’m also really appreciative when other people are open about the times they don’t succeed, especially since we often only see people’s most sparkling successes on their social media accounts. That’s why I loved listening to Corrina Allen’s “3 Fails & 1 Win” segment on her most recent Books Between Podcast episode (#43) and seeing authors post about their shelved manuscripts this week in the popular #authorlifemonth photo challenge.

I still wince when I see or even think the word “failure”…but I know it doesn’t have to be a shameful word. I’m going to try to get used to the idea that when we put ourselves out there and take creative risks, our failures pave the way for our most remarkable successes, just as the (rather mind-boggling) risks athletes take in snowboarding events allow for some truly stunning performances.

Middle Grade at Heart Book Club!

As some of you know, I decided not to go back to teaching this year so that I’d have more time and energy to focus on my family and my writing. While that was absolutely the right decision for me at this stage of my life, I’ve missed working with kids and being a part of a school community, and I’ve also missed using my teacher brain.

I don’t think I realized quite how much I’d missed using my teacher brain until two things happened recently. First, I started working on an educators’ guide for Cordelia Jensen and my middle grade novel, Every Shiny Thing. I loved thinking about the kinds of questions I would ask students and the activities I might assign if I were teaching the book, and I’m excited to share more about the guide closer to the book’s publication date.

The other thing that made me realize how much I’ve missed thinking about books from a teacher’s perspective is that I was asked to join four middle grade authors who run Middle Grade at Heart. Middle Grade at Heart is a book club geared towards teachers, parents, kids ages 8-13, and middle-grade-literature-loving adults. The team chooses a different middle grade novel each month and encourages people to read the book. At the end of the month, they put out a terrific newsletter, complete with an author interview, discussion questions, and activities, a recipe, and more, and then they host a Twitter chat about the book.

They feature excellent, varied books—so far their selections have included The Someday Birds by Sally J. Pla, Midnight Without a Moon by Linda Williams Jackson, One Shadow on the Wall by Leah Henderson, Forget Me Not by Ellie Terry, Alan Cole Is Not a Coward by Eric Bell, and All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson—and the content they create is absolutely top-notch. You can see the previous issues of the newsletter here.

Middle Grade at Heart needed a new team member because they have joined up with MG Book Village, an exciting new website where middle-grade book lovers can share and connect, so they asked me to help out and I eagerly accepted. We will now post three times a month on the MG Book Village site: one post at the beginning of each month to introduce the new book club choice, a writer’s toolbox or check-in post in the middle of the month, and a book review at the end.

The January book club pick is Anna Meriano’s delightful debut novel, Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble. I got to read an ARC over the summer, but I had so much fun re-reading the book this month with my teacher’s hat on. It was a blast for me to think about what young (and not so young!) writers can learn from analyzing the craft choices in the novel and what kinds of questions I might ask and activities I might create if I were reading the book with a group of students. And incidentally, I wish I could read this book with a group of middle school students; I think it would be an ideal read-aloud or book club pick for fifth or sixth graders.

If you’re a middle-grade enthusiast, parent, or teacher, I hope you’ll consider reading the book along with us! You can check out this month’s writer’s toolbox post, which analyzes the enchanting storytelling in Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble and offers tips for kid and adult writers about using character-specific figurative language to enhance voice. You can also subscribe to the newsletter here (this month’s will go out on January 29th) and follow @MGatHeart on Twitter and Instagram to stay in the loop about all of the content we offer and the Twitter book club chat.

I’m grateful for the chance to use my middle school teacher brain again in this way and honored to be part of this team that’s spreading enthusiasm for great middle grade books!



Persisting in the Writing Life: A Guest Post on Lyn Miller Lachmann’s Blog

One fun thing about being a debut author is that I’ve gotten some requests to do guest posts and interviews on other blogs I love reading. Lyn Miller-Lachmann, my classmate from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an author whose work I admire greatly, invited me to write a post about persisting in the writing life, despite setbacks and discouragement. Check out my guest post on her wonderful blog with my top five tips for persevering!

My 2017 Reading Year in Review

Well, I really didn’t think I was going to meet my Goodreads challenge of reading 100 books in 2017. I was consistently a couple of books behind, and while I was always close enough that I could have prioritized a little extra reading and caught up, I was planning to let myself “fail.”  

It’s always made me irrationally anxious to see the little “X books behind schedule” notification, and I was determined to suck it up and sit with that discomfort. To let it go and prioritize writing or TV-watching or family or friend time instead of scrambling to attain a goal that doesn’t really matter.

But then, somehow, I squeaked by with 100 books. I didn’t go out of my way to catch up—it just happened. But I still feel a little guilty about it. Like subconsciously I couldn’t let myself follow through on this new plan of “failing?”

Ah well. Whether I subconsciously pushed through to the finish or not, it’s been a great year of reading, and I always like to look back at some stats and favorites. So here goes!

In 2017, I read three adult novels, one craft book, 47 young adult novels, 46 middle grade novels, and three that I can’t decide whether to categorize as YA or MG (the three excellent March graphic novels). I started to read a lot more MG novels at the end of the year, which makes sense because in November I decided to set aside a YA manuscript I’d been working on and accept that, for now at least, middle grade is what I feel moved to write and surround myself with. (And which also suggests that perhaps I did not subconsciously push to achieve my challenge but instead just naturally picked up my pace since middle grade novels tend to be shorter than YA? Let’s go with that!)

I was mindful of reading more novels by authors from marginalized groups in 2017. I wanted half of the books I read in 2017 to be by authors from marginalized groups, but I didn’t quite get there. It got a little tricky to decide which groups I was counting as marginalized, and sometimes I didn’t know how an author identified. But by a pretty conservative estimate, at least 40% of the books I read this year were by marginalized authors. That’s a much better rate than I had before, but it’s still a little disappointing that, even when making a specific effort to improve this rate, I still fell short of 50%. That’s on me because I could have tried harder, but it also feels significant that this goal was difficult to achieve. While many wonderful #ownvoices novels have gotten a lot of well-deserved attention this year, I still found that each time I came across a list of newly published books that appealed to me, especially if they were middle grade, the majority were not by marginalized authors.

I also listened to a lot more audiobooks this year—16 of my 100 books were on audio, and two of those were full-cast: Jack Cheng’s See You in the Cosmos and Lisa Graff’s The Great Treehouse War. I’d never listened to a full-cast audiobook before, but I thought those were especially fun.

I read 14 terrific books by Vermont College of Fine Arts alumni or faculty members, and I got to read 12 advance reader copies of debut novels coming out in 2018, all of which have been fabulous! You can find out about so many awesome debut novels coming out this year at www.electriceighteens.com, and I’m planning to post more about the 2018 debuts I’ve gotten to read at a later time…but for now I’ll focus on some already-published books I loved in a variety of categories as I look back on 2017.

Books I kept telling people to read: Up for Air, my novel that is due out from Abrams/Amulet Books in 2019, is an older middle grade novel that deals with some topics that aren’t often explored in middle grade. Ever since the deal for Up for Air was announced, I’ve heard from people who want to write or read this kind of older middle grade book and are looking for other novels that are already published. One I read this year and keep plugging is Well, That Was Awkward by Rachel Vail. It’s funny and fast-paced, it deals with eighth-grade crush and friend dynamics, and it has a wonderful main character…who actually turns fourteen (often thought of as an off-limits age for a middle grade character!) during the book.

I also keep talking about Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes by Mary E. Lambert, which I want more people to know about because it’s a pitch-perfect middle grade that manages to be funny and relatable while also delving into a difficult topic in a graceful way. The voice is fabulous and the family dynamics are heartbreakingly lovely.

Books that made me laugh: I love funny books, and in 2017, the middle grade books that had me laughing out loud were Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire by Susan Tan and The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo by Stephen Bramucci, and The World’s Greatest Detective by Caroline Carlson (all of which would make fabulous read-alouds for younger middle school grades), and the young adult book that cracked me up the most was Who’s that Girl by Blair Thornburgh.

Books that made me cry: I also read some wonderfully poignant tear-jerkers. Lily’s Mountain by Hannah Moderow, Three Pennies by Melanie Crowder, Forever or a Long, Long Time by Caela Carter, and The Someday Birds by Sally J. Pla are four middle grade novels that made me weep, and Nina LaCour’s lovely young adult novel We Are Okay had me reaching for tissues multiple times.

Cozy-happy books: Sometimes, I just need to read a book that feels like the literary equivalent of curling up under a warm blanket and eating just-baked chocolate chip cookies. Sarah Dessen’s novels are always like this for me, and Once and for All was no exception. Other contemporary YAs that gave me this cozy-happy feeling in 2017 were Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han, The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli, and When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon. In terms of middle grade, The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser was one of the most delightfully cozy books I’ve read in ages (so I’m very glad there will be at least two more books about the Vanderbeekers!).

Most emotionally intense reads: Ah, the feels. Turtles All the Way Down by John Green, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, and Bad Romance by Heather Demetrios provided the most emotionally intense (in a good way!) reading experiences for me this year. They all provoked a whole lot of feelings and left me with a lot to think about.

Book I probably wouldn’t have picked up on my own: I know, I know, it won a Newbery, so it’s not like it wasn’t on my radar. But honestly, I didn’t think The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill sounded like my kind of book until it was one of our book club picks, and I adored it. Which leads me to one of my goals for reading in 2018!

Reading goal for 2018: This year, I’m not going to set a goal in terms of how many books I want to read. I want to manage my anxiety about how my own books will be received, and, as much as I adore reading, I have a feeling I may sometimes need to take breaks from books just to remove myself from the whole world of publishing and expectations and comparing myself to others. I’m guessing this will mean more TV and more baking! But I do want to push myself to read outside my usual favorite genres of MG and YA contemporary. I’d like to read more adult fiction and more fantasy just for the pleasure of exploring different kinds of books than what I write and gravitate to.

How about you? I’d love to know about your favorites in any of these categories or your reading goals for 2018!

Figuring Out What Matters

Back when my husband and I were planning our wedding, we got some really good advice. Figure out what really matters to you, someone said. Decide on a few big priorities—a few things you care about and are comfortable investing money and/or time in. That way, you can also figure out which things you don’t care so much about. And then, hopefully, you won’t get swept up in the sudden need for Chiavari chairs instead of basic chairs, or a band instead of a DJ, or an extra dessert buffet instead of just cake…unless those things are in line with your priorities.

Two things recently reminded me of this advice. I read an incredibly wise and helpful blog post by Nancy Werlin about thriving in a long-term writing career, and I also read an incredibly wise and helpful Twitter thread by Katie Bayerl, inspired by Nancy’s article, about staying focused on the things you really care about during your debut year. If you’re a writer at any stage in your publishing journey, I recommend checking out both.

These reflections got me thinking that I should apply that wedding planning advice to my experience as a debut author. I resolved that, before the start of 2018, the year my first book comes out, I should think about why I write and what I care about most when it comes to starting my career as a published writer. So I’ve been mulling over those questions, and here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

Why I write:

  1. I write to explore big questions and ideas and feelings that matter to me and, I think, may matter to other people, too.
  2. I write to create vulnerable, flawed, loving, lovable characters who make big mistakes and learn and grow. As a perfectionist kid (and adult), I’ve often judged myself harshly and felt ashamed of mistakes I’ve made or embarrassing things I’ve done. It’s always been a source of comfort to love characters who make mistakes and embarrass themselves, and to notice that I don’t judge them so harshly. Books have taught me to be kinder to myself, and I write so that I can delve into the kinds of mistakes and raw, vulnerable moments I think readers will relate to, and so that maybe my stories can help readers be kinder to themselves, too.
  3. I write to give voice to the upper middle grade experience. I spent ten years teaching sixth to eighth grade and saw firsthand how many students gravitated toward young adult novels because most middle grade seemed too young for them…but also really wanted older middle grade novels that felt geared toward their age and their experiences. This is an area where I have something valuable to add to what is being published.
  4. I write because writing energizes me and surprises me and brings me joy.

Looking at this list, I’m reminded that I *don’t* write to reach a certain word count every month or to finish a certain number of manuscripts every year or to sell a certain number of new projects. I mean, don’t get me wrong—I’d love to have my books keep being published. But that’s not what motivates me on a deep, enduring level. So when I see other people celebrating winning NaNoWriMo or getting new book deals or completing three manuscripts this year, maybe instead of comparing myself to them and deciding I fall short, I can try to come back to my own core reasons for writing and let them ground me.

As for the process of becoming a published author, one truly wonderful perk of getting a book deal has been joining a talented and supportive online group of 2018 debut authors. But the tricky thing about connecting with so many other debut authors online is that I constantly see all the different types of recognition other people’s books are getting (but mine might not!), and all the different types of promotion other people are doing (eek, so maybe I should, too?).

There are a lot of things I can’t control about how my first book will be reviewed and received once it’s out there in the world. But there are some things I can control. Of those things, I know it wouldn’t be feasible to do every type of promotion or fight for invitations to every kind of event or buy every type of swag. But here are the priorities I know are worth my time and energy:

  1. I care about connecting with teachers and librarians. Any event I can do that would bring me into contact with this crowd should be a priority. That’s why my co-author Cordelia and I decided to schedule our book launch for our release day, a Tuesday, rather than that Friday, because we wanted to be able to get to New Jersey early that Saturday morning for a conference with educators. That’s also why it’s a priority to me to develop a discussion/curriculum guide to support educators who want to use the book with kids, even though that will take time I could spend writing something new.
  2. I also care about school visits. As a teacher, I loved organizing author visits at my school, and now I can’t wait to do some myself. Getting a chance to connect with kids will bring me joy, so I want to make that happen whenever I can.
  3. I care about writing (see above). I care about making my second book the best it can be. I care about preserving the time and energy to keep creating stories…and I care a whole lot about having a full life outside of writing, too, and want to be better about seeing my non-writing commitments as valuable and productive.

I know having a list like this won’t be a magic fix. When I was getting married, custom invitations were decidedly *not* a priority we set ahead of time, but I still couldn’t resist having some really special ones designed. But I like the idea that these reflections will be here for me to return to and add to, and that I can use them as a guide to set limits and reassess when I need to…which I’m sure I will.

So here’s to 2018, a year in which I resolve to do all I can to stay grounded and grateful as one of my stories makes its way into the world. I hope it’s a great year for you, too, writing-wise and otherwise.  

Why Verse? An Interview with Cordelia Jensen

With Thanksgiving a few days away, today feels like the perfect time to post an interview with an author and friend I am very, very grateful for: Cordelia Jensen.

Cordelia and I were classmates at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and I am incredibly lucky to have her in my writing life…and in the rest of my life, too! She and I co-wrote our forthcoming middle grade debut, Every Shiny Thing, which alternates between prose and verse sections, and she’s also the author of two YA verse novels: Skyscraping, a 2016 ALA Best Book for Young Adults, and the The Way the Light Bends, which is due out from Penguin/Philomel Books on March 27, 2018.

I admire Cordelia’s writing immensely; she is a true master of the verse novel. One thing that strikes me about all of Cordelia’s verse projects is how beautifully the format fits the character and story, and that feels especially true with her new book The Way the Light Bends.

The Way the Light Bends is a gorgeous, unique, powerful story, and I cannot imagine the book being in any format but verse, so I’m excited that Cordelia was willing to answer my questions about her process of using verse for this special book.

Here’s a bit more about the novel from the publisher’s description:

Virtual twins Linc and Holly were once extremely close. But while artistic, creative Linc is her parents’ daughter biologically, it’s smart, popular Holly, adopted from Ghana as a baby, who exemplifies the family’s high-achieving model of academic success. Linc is desperate to pursue photography, to find a place of belonging, and for her family to accept her for who she is, despite her surgeon mother’s constant disapproval and her growing distance from Holly. So when she comes up with a plan to use her photography interests and skills to do better in school–via a project based on Seneca Village, a long-gone village in the space that now holds Central Park, where all inhabitants, regardless of race, lived together harmoniously–Linc is excited and determined to prove that her differences are assets, that she has what it takes to make her mother proud. But when a long-buried family secret comes to light, Linc must decide whether her mother’s love is worth obtaining.

I just know readers will ache for Linc, root for her, and remember her story long after finishing the book. Here’s what Cordelia had to say about why verse fit this novel so well.

Laurie: Why did you choose to write The Way the Light Bends in verse?

Cordelia: Because verse is a hybrid genre, a mix of story and poetry, it is a great choice for any character caught between worlds. The main character of The Way the Light Bends lives in a liminal space. Linc is an outsider in her family and in her school, and yet she has an intense and rich inner life. In the story, Linc learns to give external expression to this inner life. She eventually achieves congruence, but the verse itself allows readers, from the onset, to feel the disparity between what is around her versus what is in her head.

Laurie: I love this point about how verse’s hybrid nature means it works well for a character who doesn’t quite fit in one place or another. So interesting! What did the verse format allow you to do that you wouldn’t have been able to do without it?

Cordelia: One of my favorite parts about writing verse is the way you get to shape white space, like you are a sculptor of words. Because Linc is an artist, I decided to let her imaginative voice shine through in the words themselves. She plays with white space and line breaks more than any other character I have written. She also shows her artistic flair by using punctuation in unusual ways sometimes and also by using different fonts.

In every moment while writing this story, I wondered how I could push the visual part of the poetry as I knew this would give the reader the best insight into Linc’s mind. Free verse is a great form for Linc because the verse itself allows (almost demands) a creative approach to seeing the world.

Laurie: I am always in awe of how visually creative you can be with your verse projects because that feels so different from the kind of creativity involved in writing prose. And I loved getting to experience Linc’s mindset through these visual aspects of her narrative. I am very different from Linc, and that really helped me understand her.

What was the biggest challenge in using verse for this novel?

Cordelia: When writing verse, one of the biggest challenges is adequately developing secondary characters. Because you have limited dialogue in verse, you have to make sure that the moments of interaction you show between your main character and other character are both poignant and subtle. Almost every secondary character in the book went through its own revision, trying to make him/her a more dimensional character. That is one of the many great parts about writing books with you, Laurie. Since you write in prose and I write in verse, your sections strengthen the secondary characters’ development in a way that is really hard to do in verse.

A second challenge was that because I played with spacing so much, in the end I had to do quite a bit of cutting in order to fit the book into a standard page length.

Laurie: The limited dialogue in verse (and limited word count in general) seems like a really hard thing to navigate, so I can see why it took many revisions to give this book all of the lovely dimensions it now has!

And I love that writing half-prose/half-verse books together helps us manage the challenges of both forms. I can include dialogue-heavy sections that round out the secondary characters, but I often have a hard time moving from one scene to another within the same chapter, and you’re able to write poems that seamlessly jump from one time and place to another, since each one both drives the story forward but is also a self-contained poem-scene.

Thanks so much for answering my questions, Cordelia! Fans of verse novels and/or gorgeously written stories about sisters, artists, the challenges of fitting into a high-pressure academic environment as a creative person, and New York City can add The Way the Light Bends on Goodreads and preorder it on IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.

And if you want to check out Cordelia and my co-written book, Every Shiny Thing, that’s on Goodreads and available for preorder on IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon, too!


Why Verse? An Interview with Joy McCullough

I’m working on a new novel these days, and I very much want to write it in past tense, but it very much wants to be written in present tense. Nearly every time I get into a good writing zone with this book, my verbs slide right into present tense. Maybe my subconscious knows more than I do about what the book needs.

It’s so interesting to me how different stories come to writers in present tense or past tense, first person or third person, or even in more unusual formats, such as epistolary or verse. That’s why I enjoyed talking to A.B. Rutledge and Jen Petro-Roy last month about writing epistolary novels, and that’s why I’m so excited to talk to my friend and fellow debut author Joy McCullough about her forthcoming YA verse novel. 

Joy writes books and plays from her home in the Seattle area, where she lives with her husband and two children. She studied theater at Northwestern University, fell in love with her husband atop a Guatemalan volcano, and now spends her days surrounded by books and kids and chocolate.

Her debut novel, Blood Water Paint, is due out from Dutton Books for Young Readers on March 6, 2018. It’s based on the true story of the seventeenth-century painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, and it is a captivating, courageous, completely inspiring novel.

Here’s a bit more about Blood Water Paint, pulled from the publisher’s description:

Artemesia was one of Rome’s most talented painters, even if no one knew her name. But Rome in 1610 was a city where men took what they wanted from women, and in the aftermath of rape Artemisia faced another terrible choice: a life of silence or a life of truth, no matter the cost.

Joy McCullough’s bold novel in verse is a portrait of an artist as a young woman, filled with the soaring highs of creative inspiration and the devastating setbacks of a system built to break her. McCullough weaves Artemisia’s heartbreaking story with the stories of the ancient heroines, Susanna and Judith, who become not only the subjects of two of Artemisia’s most famous paintings but sources of strength as she battles to paint a woman’s timeless truth in the face of unspeakable and all-too-familiar violence.

It’s a special, special book. And as I read an advance copy, I was struck by how beautifully the verse format fit the story, especially because I knew Joy had written other books that were not in verse. Here’s what Joy had to say about the format of her stunning novel!

Laurie: Why did you choose to write Blood Water Paint in verse?

Joy: First I should say that I have never written poetry. Several years ago, I worked with Laura Shovan on her MG verse novel in Pitchwars, but when I selected her, I made clear that I knew NOTHING about verse. I was there to critique the story, characters, etc.

And then the next year in Pitchwars I selected Ellie Terry’s MG verse novel Forget Me Not. And a couple years later I picked another gorgeous YA verse novel, which hasn’t yet been published (but should be!). I found I really loved how verse cut right to heart of a story.

Finally, tentatively, I began a manuscript in partial verse. That book didn’t sell, but it got me my agent, and it built my confidence with verse. When I was trying to figure out what to work on next, one of the pitches I gave my agent was the idea to adapt a play I had written about Artemisia Gentileschi into a YA novel. He was super into it.

So—and now I start to actually answer your question—in part I felt like verse would be a good choice, because I was used to thinking of this story as a play. And plays are very bare bones. Everything is stripped away but dialogue.  Economy of language is SO important. There can’t be a single excess word. Verse is the same.

And also, this is an emotionally difficult story. Verse has a way of allowing the writer—and reader—straight into the emotional core. I think writing and reading this story in prose would be brutal. Things would have to be described that, in verse, don’t need to be spelled out. The reader gets there with just a nudge.

Laurie: That’s fascinating that you were so drawn to other writers’ verse novels well before you thought about trying the format yourself. And I see what you mean about verse being well-suited to a story that’s as raw and emotionally difficult as this one.

What do you think the verse format enabled you to do that you might not have been able to do otherwise?

Joy: As I was saying above, verse allowed me to depict some really brutal things I wouldn’t depict in prose. It would be possible, but it would be a very different sort of novel, one I didn’t want to write.

I think the verse format makes this really difficult story more accessible for readers. It’s common for people to have a perception that verse is poetry and poetry is hard. But I think those people are mentally stuck analyzing dead white guy poetry in boring English classes. The rhythm, the economy of language, and the emotional core are all aspects of verse that I believe really appeal to young readers, especially.

Laurie: That’s a great point. Verse novels were often popular among students I taught for a lot of the reasons you name. What was the biggest challenge in using verse for this book?

Joy: I spent a lot of years working on Blood/Water/Paint, the play. So I knew the story and characters inside and out. I thought. But a play is all dialogue and action. It’s extremely external. The internal is up to the actors. And verse is extremely internal, and usually has minimal dialogue. So that was a huge shift for me. In a way it was wonderful. I thought I knew all there was to know about Artemisia. And suddenly I was looking at the story from inside her head in a very different way than I ever had before. But it was also a challenge, for sure.

That’s so interesting that on the one hand, both plays and verse novels have a “bare bones” quality, as you said, but then they are opposites in some ways, too.

Thanks so much for answering my questions, Joy! Fans of verse novels (and/or fans of empowering, inventive, gorgeously written, feminist books) can preorder Blood Water Paint from IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon. And I plan to be back later this month with a second “why verse?” interview with Cordelia Jensen!

Why Epistolary? Part 2: An Interview with Debut Author Jen Petro-Roy

You know that feeling when you’re reading a really good book, and you’re so desperate to know what’s going to happen that you hurry through the pages even though you also don’t want the story to be over?

That’s how I felt with Jen Petro-Roy’s middle-grade debut, P.S. I Miss You. The book is written as a series of letters from the charming and earnest Evie to her older sister Cilla, and the intimacy of that epistolary format contributed to making the book so impossible for me to put down.

I’m a sucker for a good epistolary novel…but I also recognize the challenges a writer encounters when structuring a novel as a series of letters, diary entries, or messages of another kind. Since Jen rocked the format, I was eager to interview her in this second installment of my “Why Epistolary?” series.

If you missed the first installment with A.B. Rutledge, definitely check that one out, too. But for now, meet Jen!

Jen Petro-Roy is a former teen librarian, an obsessive reader, and a trivia fanatic. She lives with her husband and two young daughters in Massachusetts.

And here’s the summary for Jen’s dazzling novel, which is due out March 6, 2018 from Feiwel and Friends:

Evie is heartbroken when her strict Catholic parents send her pregnant sister, Cilla, away to stay with a distant great-aunt. All Evie wants is for her older sister to come back. Forbidden from speaking to Cilla, Evie secretly sends her letters.

Evie writes about her family, torn apart and hurting. She writes about her life, empty without Cilla. And she writes about the new girl in school, June, who becomes her friend, and then maybe more than a friend.

Evie could really use some advice from Cilla. But Cilla isn’t writing back, and it’s time for Evie to take matters into her own hands.

P.S. I MISS YOU by Jen Petro-Roy is a heartfelt middle grade novel dealing with faith, identity, and finding your way in difficult times.

It’s definitely heartfelt. And heartbreaking and heartwarming, too. Here’s what Jen had to say when I asked her about the format she chose!

Laurie: Why did you choose to write the novel as a series of letters from Evie to Cilla?

Jen: I’ve always loved epistolary novels–there’s something about the format that cuts straight to the heart of what the protagonist is thinking and feeling. In journals, texts, and letters, there’s no intermediary, no narrator to bring focus away from the thoughts and feelings that are so deeply held. I’ve played around with ideas before, but I didn’t get inspired for P.S. I Miss You until I re-read a book by one of my favorite childhood authors: Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary. I was amazed at how much Cleary conveyed in those letters, and my protagonist, Evie, and her journey toward self-discovery and negotiating family relationships, sprung from that form.

Laurie: You’re so right about the way the format gives the reader such intense, direct access to a protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. And I re-read Dear Mr. Henshaw as an adult, too, and I agree that we learn so much from those letters in a way that feels natural rather than clunky. That’s something you managed to pull off with Evie, as well.

What do you think the specific epistolary format enabled you to do that you might not have been able to do otherwise?

Jen: As I mentioned, epistolary novels–in my book’s case, letters specifically–let you dive inside the mind of the letter writer. In her letters to her older sister, Cilla, Evie is honest about how she feels about Cilla’s pregnancy and the deep religious beliefs of her parents. Without that face-to-face interaction, letter writing lets Evie express more of her emotion, because there’s no face-to-face judgment, something that is a huge concern to her family otherwise. I love how the format let me play with varying chapter lengths, use cross-outs, and play with time, too.

Laurie: I love that the letters to Cilla end up functioning almost as diary entries because of the lack of face-to-face judgment, but at the same time there’s more urgency than there might be with diary entries since Evie wants so much for Cilla to respond, and that desire is so palpable in the book.

And that’s fun that you were able to be really playful in some ways even though, I’m sure, the format required you to be painstaking in other ways. Speaking of which, what was the biggest challenge in using the format you chose?

Jen: For me, the biggest challenge was making sure that the letters fit with the calendar. During revisions, I had to make sure that letters “arrived” in a time that made sense with the post office, and that the dates on the letters matched the seasons and other holidays and school events. That was rather headache-inducing, to be sure!

Yikes, that’s headache-inducing just thinking about that process! But I’m so glad you figured out all of those complicated logistics to bring Evie’s powerful story to life in this compelling way.

Thanks so much for chatting with me, Jen! For fellow fans of epistolary novels, or heartfelt middle grade, funny middle grade, middle grade with LQBTQIA themes…I could go on…you can preorder P.S. I Miss You here, here, or here!

Why Epistolary? An Interview with Debut Author A. B. Rutledge

During the first year of my MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I was working on a manuscript that wasn’t quite cooperating. The voice wasn’t quite interesting enough, and the story didn’t have quite enough urgency.

My advisor at the time, the brilliant author Franny Billingsley, suggested that I might be able to give the narrative more energy if I gave my main character an audience to address.

Some of my favorite books are told in an epistolary format, meaning that they are structured as a series of letters, emails, or other types of messages, so I was excited to turn my uncooperative manuscript into an epistolary novel. Sure enough, the voice came to life when I structured it as an extended letter…but the new structure brought with it a lot of challenges, too. There were certain things, for instance, that I needed the reader to know but wasn’t sure my character would really write in a letter. And sometimes the things I thought she would write didn’t really advance the story.

I recently got to read advance copies of two fabulous epistolary novels that are due out in 2018 and that absolutely rock the format—A.B. Rutledge’s Miles Away from You and Jen Petro-Roy’s P.S. I Miss You. Both of these books manage to be heartbreaking, hopeful, and hilarious, and I was eager to ask both authors about how their structures shaped their storytelling and how they navigated the tricky parts of the epistolary format.

Today I’m hosting A.B. to talk about her experience writing an unconventional kind of narrative, and I’ll be back next week to host Jen.

So, without further ado, meet A.B. Rutledge! A.B. is an optician from Southeast Missouri. She likes ’90s alternative music, dresses with pockets, and leaving Halloween decorations up all year long. When she’s not up at 3 a.m. scribbling out stories, you can find her in her art studio covered in paper scraps, paint, and cats.

Her incredible debut, Miles Away from You, is about a lovable, funny, grieving teen named Miles. Here’s the summary:

It’s been three years since Miles fell for Vivian, a talented and dazzling transgender girl. Eighteen months since a suicide attempt left Vivian on life support. Now Miles isn’t sure who he is without her, but knows it’s time to figure out how to say goodbye.

He books a solo trip to Iceland but then has a hard time leaving the refuge of his hotel room. After a little push from Oskar, a local who is equal parts endearing and aloof, Miles decides to honor Vivian’s life by photographing her treasured Doc Martens standing empty against the surreal landscapes. With each step he takes, Miles finds his heart healing–even as he must accept that Vivian, still in a coma, will never recover.

Told through a series of instant messages to Vivian, this quirky and completely fresh novel explores love, loss, and the drastic distances we sometimes have to travel in order to move on.

Sounds awesome, right? It truly is. And as I read it, I kept thinking that there was no way it could have been as awesome as it is without the format A.B. chose. Here’s what she had to say about that format!

Laurie: How did you choose to structure your book as a series of messages?

A.B.: I liked the idea of my main character spilling his guts out to someone who can’t see his messages or reply. In a way, what Miles is doing is just for himself, but at the same time he’s working out all his struggles by telling them to the person he loves most in the world. There’s a lot of intimacy in instant messaging conversations. Some of the truest things I’ve ever said have taken place in online spaces and I wanted to see if I could work with fiction that same way.

Laurie: I love that point about the intimacy of instant messaging, and that intimacy definitely infuses all of Miles’s messages. What do you think the specific format enabled you to do that you might not have been able to do otherwise?

A.B.: I got to play with words a little more than I might have typically been allowed. We get to see Miles’s sense of humor in the way he bangs his hands on the keyboard to approximate the way Icelandic sounds to him. I also got to do some fun things with punctuation. I think it’s secretly every YA writer’s dream to get by with using three question marks in a row.

Laurie: Yes! It’s amazing how much you can reveal about a character just based on (occasionally unconventional) punctuation usage. And that playfulness with language and punctuation is a lot of what made Miles feel so real to me. What was the biggest challenge in using the format you chose?

A.B.: When I was doing edits with my agent, she asked me to describe Miles in the book and I had the hardest time figuring out how or why he’d describe himself to his own girlfriend, but I managed to pull it off by having him look at a painting they’d done together and later by having another character compare him to a celebrity. But I’ve always thought the interesting thing about epistolary works was that they don’t do a lot of character descriptions. You can picture Miles however you like. I promise I won’t mind.

Laurie: Very smart, sneaky workarounds in both cases. And I love that even the cover of your book invites readers to picture Miles however they want. (How gorgeous is this cover, by the way?)

I think it can also be a challenge to include other kinds of visual descriptions in epistolary novels if the person that the main character is addressing has already seen the places where scenes in the book take place. The fact that Miles is in Iceland—a place that is new to him and that Vivian never knew—seems to allow you to incorporate plenty of visual descriptions without them feeling clunky in the epistolary format.

Thanks so much, A.B. for chatting with me about your completely original novel. For fellow epistolary fans (or, really, fans of great storytelling in general), you can preorder the book on IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon!

The Problem of Parents in Middle Grade Fiction

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the portrayal of parents in middle grade novels. There are all sorts of challenges when it comes to creating parent characters in books for kids. For instance, how do you get the parents out of the way so that your middle-school-aged characters can get themselves into enough trouble that you have a story? How do you even refer to them if you’re writing in the third person (Mom? Mr. So-and-So? Patsy?)?

But I’m especially interested in the challenge of how to create nuanced, sympathetic parent characters in books that are told from a kid’s perspective…when, and I hope I’m not shocking anyone here…kids don’t always see their parents in nuanced, sympathetic ways.

Paterson’s article “People I Have Known” appears in this anthology, which is full of lovely, insightful speeches and essays.

In an article from 1987 called “People I Have Known,” the inimitable Katherine Paterson articulated this challenge, writing, “Often children will ask me about the parents in my books. ‘Why are they so mean?’ is a question I’ve gotten more than a few times about Jesse Aarons’s parents in the book Bridge to Terabithia. I use the occasion to try to help young readers understand point of view. All the parents in my stories are seen from their children’s point of view, and it has been my experience that children are very seldom fair in their judgments of their parents. I hope I’ve sent all my questioners home to take another, more objective look not only at my book, but at their own parents, most of whom, I dare say, are like the parents in Bridge to Terabithia, doing the best they can under trying circumstances.”

I love this quote because, well, it’s from Katherine Paterson, and she’s amazing, but also, I think it captures something amazing about the power of books.

Readers can be so completely inside a character’s mindset that they understand, empathize with, and even adopt that character’s impressions of other people and interactions. BUT books can also leave room for readers to see a bit beyond the point-of-view character’s perspective and take, as Paterson put it, a “more objective look.” Sometimes it might take a conversation with someone else (a teacher, a fellow reader, Katherine Paterson herself if you’re really lucky) to think about secondary characters more objectively, but sometimes readers will do that on their own.

As Paterson suggests, that more objective look can allow readers to recognize things the main character is not able to appreciate…and perhaps that experience of seeing through a character’s point of view and around the edges of it can allow a reader to broaden his or her own point of view and think about other people (possibly even parents!) in more compassionate ways.

But Paterson also makes it clear that, while a “wise reader” will recognize the limitations of her characters’ points of view, she would rather have readers accept their views as completely correct than weaken her stories to give other characters a better chance at being likable. It’s okay with her, in other words, if readers end up thinking of Jess Aarons’s parents as mean.

But what if you’re trying to write a book that won’t quite work if readers don’t sense that a character’s take on her parents (or other characters) is not the whole story?

That’s the case with Cordelia Jensen and my forthcoming middle grade novel, Every Shiny Thing. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the narrator of my sections of the book, Lauren, is so hurt, angry, and afraid that she misunderstands her parents’ motivations and sees them in a negative light that they don’t completely deserve.

When I worked on the book, I had to walk a fine line between maintaining the raw, intimate feel of Lauren’s point of view and offering clear signals that her parents are flawed but not terrible people who are, in Paterson’s words, “doing the best they can under trying circumstances.”

Even though I, as the adult creator of these people, could see around the edges of Lauren’s point of view and sympathize with her parents, it was very difficult for me to spot moments where I could show the nuances of their emotions and reactions. As I got into Lauren’s character, my blinders were just as narrowing as hers were.

I needed other readers who were not inside Lauren’s head to pay special attention to the portrayal of Lauren’s parents so that they could help me figure out out how to take “an objective look” at key moments with them. That helped me think about what Lauren would realistically notice about her parents’ emotional reactions and nonverbal behavior (and could therefore bring to readers’ attention) but not understand because of the limits of her point of view. (This is one thing I’ve learned recently, after having written and revised several books: if there’s a specific issue you are struggling with, it can be so helpful to have a beta reader read the whole book looking specifically for that one issue and nothing else.)

It’s a tricky business, portraying parents in a realistic way without breaking out of an authentic point of view or letting them take over the story, especially when it’s important to a book that parents don’t come across as just plain mean (though as Katherine Paterson suggests, sometimes that’s not important). I’d love to hear about some middle grade novels other people love that manage to hint at the trying circumstances parents are dealing with, even when the main character isn’t always conscious of the parents’ struggles!

A Love Letter to 2015-Me and Anyone Struggling to Attain Their Writing/Publishing Goals

Recently, I’ve been pondering what to say to writers I know who are struggling to get an agent, or who have an agent but have not yet gotten that elusive book deal.

It’s especially hard to say something that’s honest and encouraging but not condescending or minimizing when talking to a writer who has already worked very hard to improve her craft and is receiving complimentary passes (and I learned from my friend and co-author Cordelia Jensen to use the word “pass” rather than the word “rejection”). By “complimentary pass,” I mean a response in which an agent or editor praises specific things about a book but then says something like, “I just didn’t love it quite enough,” or, “I just didn’t connect in the way I’d hoped.”

This kind of pass is encouraging, because a professional in the publishing field sees much to like in what you’ve written, and that could very well mean the right agent or editor match is right around the corner. And these passes are completely understandable considering how much time, energy, and passion an agent or editor needs to put into a project to see it all the way through the publication process.

But these complimentary passes can also feel extremely disempowering, especially if you receive a lot of them.

Especially, especially if you receive a lot of them on more than one book, the way I did when I was on submission with three different books between the end of 2013 and the middle of 2016.

Recently on Twitter, two fellow 2018 debut authors, Joy McCullough and K.A. Reynolds, posted threads for people hoping to be chosen for PitchWars. They shared wisdom they’ve gained from their winding paths toward getting a book deal, and I really appreciated what they both said. Here’s Joy’s thread, and here’s Kristin’s. Their comments are inspiring and positive, and they also validate the disappointment and pain that it’s impossible not to feel if you have poured sacred parts of yourself into a book and you’re not getting the outcome you’ve been hoping for.

Their Tweets encouraged me to think about what I have to add to this conversation, after my own winding path. So here are the things I want to say to any writers who are facing disappointments as they work toward the goal of getting an agent or getting a book deal, and what I would go back and say to the very demoralized early-2015 Laurie if I could.

1.) It’s important to focus on what’s in your control, BUT it’s equally important to give yourself time and space to grieve for a project you love when things aren’t going the way you’d hoped.

“Write the next book!” countless writers will tell you, and that’s smart advice, absolutely. But the fact that I pushed on and focused on a new project rather than letting myself grieve for my first book that didn’t sell made it all the more devastating for me when my second book didn’t sell either. The sadness of giving up on that second book compounded all of the buried sadness I hadn’t really let myself feel after giving up on the first book, and I felt it extra hard.

Maybe that sounds melodramatic, the idea of grieving for a book if it doesn’t sell or get an agent, but I don’t think it is, and if you’ve written a book, I’m guessing you don’t, either! Not when you think about how much work and time and sacrifice and love goes into writing and revising a book.

You can let yourself feel disappointment when a book has a close call that doesn’t work out, too, even if it still has a shot at getting picked up by an agent or publisher. People say not to get your hopes up and not to have any expectations when you are querying or on submission, but I certainly don’t know how to do that. (Let me know if you’ve figured it out.) It’s disappointing to hear that someone loved your beloved story but not quite enough, or to know an editor wanted to buy your book but it didn’t get past all the hurdles a book needs to clear before an offer comes. It just is!

It’s also incredibly important to persevere and keep writing, if you really want to be a writer, but I think you can both honor the valid disappointment and persevere.

2.) Jealousy doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s natural to feel jealous of someone who has something you want and are working hard for. But you can acknowledge the jealousy the way you’d acknowledge that it’s kind of humid out today, without letting the feeling have too much power over you. And also know that other people who have what you want might be struggling, too, in equally legitimate ways. If they did get their agent or book deal relatively quickly and painlessly, their editing process might be really difficult, or they might struggle to write their next book, or they might struggle if their book doesn’t get the reception they’d hoped for. I’ve learned that this writing journey is hard for everyone who pursues it…though full of joy, too!

3.) If you do keep working and achieve what you want, the setbacks you’ve endured along the way will give you so much gratitude and perspective. There are still difficult moments once you have sold a book (and I’m sure there will be even more difficult moments once readers are actually reading my books, which is equal parts thrilling and terrifying, and as I continue to try to sell additional books). I don’t want to sound like I magically have everything figured out, but there is never a time when I forget how hard I worked to attain this goal of publication, and how proud and grateful I am. My gratitude and awareness of what an accomplishment it was to finally sell a book help me to maintain a sense of calm and perspective throughout these sometimes overwhelming new stages.

4.) Every book you work on is an important piece of your journey. If you do have to shelve a book, that doesn’t mean the project wasn’t valuable. Each book you work on helps you to hone specific aspects of your craft and grow into the writer who will write the book that will be the one to break through. Your own vulnerability and disappointment may help you to create a character like Lauren, from my debut novel Every Shiny Thing, who is vulnerable and sad and angry in a way I am usually not, and to write something more raw and powerful than you would have thought possible. I am certain that I could not have written Lauren’s intense point of view if I hadn’t been feeling a lot of helplessness and frustration and grief myself. Or you may sell a shelved book later if the market shifts or you decide to go back and revise again, or (and shh, 2015 me would not have been ready to hear this, so this part is only for the rest of you), you may end up incorporating characters and moments and themes that you love from a shelved book into new projects you’re even more excited about, instead of revisiting the shelved books later.

5.) You are resilient and brave and have already accomplished special things. Keep finding the joy in your work. Keep leaning on and supporting your writing community. Keep reveling in the magic of creating a book that no one but you could write, that captures something true and meaningful from your unique perspective. I’m rooting for you!

create magic

Trusting My Own (Uncertain but Exciting) Writing Process

Since I started writing fiction in 2008, I’ve written six full-length novel manuscripts, two of which will be published, but I still couldn’t tell you how, exactly, I write a book.

When I sit down in front of a blank document, ready to start a new project, I feel a mix of confident excitement (This could be the best thing I’ve ever written!) and slightly terrified wonder (How did I shape those other manuscripts into anything remotely book-like? How do I know I’ll be able to do it again?).

For every book I’ve finished, I’ve had epiphanies about my characters and plot that I didn’t see coming. Those epiphany moments are exciting…but they’re fragile. I can’t plan for them, so I can’t guarantee when, or even if, they’re going to happen.

I’m always on the lookout for helpful books and lectures about making the writing process more efficient and predictable. Earlier this year, after hearing enthusiastic praise from many fellow writers, I bought Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere), eager to see if it could help me streamline my drafting process.27833542

The book includes a lot of great ideas about questions you can ask yourself and backstory scenes you can write before you start a draft. The idea is that if you do all of this work ahead of time, you won’t waste time and effort on pages and pages that you later need to scrap, because you’ll already have a clear and compelling vision for a story that will be satisfying to a reader.

The process in the book seemed like a more structured, more front-loaded version of what I often end up doing when I write, and I had fun following Cron’s strategies for writing backstory scenes and making scene cards to plan out a plot.

A tiny voice in the back of my mind said, “Do you really want to make scene cards? You’ve never planned scenes in that much detail before, and you’ve still managed to write some books that turned out pretty well.” But I’ve also started writing some books that didn’t turn out pretty well—that didn’t turn out at all, because I had to abandon them partway through when things just didn’t gel. And it was kind of a relief, to follow someone else’s instructions rather than diving into the uncertainty of a first draft the way I usually do.

The problem was that after a while, I had to admit to myself that the scenes I was writing had lots of compelling story dynamics in theory, but I didn’t actually like them very much. They felt forced.

That doesn’t mean that Story Genius is not a helpful book or even that it won’t work for me in another way. I actually think it’s full of really smart ideas and great examples, and many of the exercises will probably be useful for me if I use them partway through a draft, or at the revision stage, which is how a friend of mine is using them. But some of the ideas might not work so well for me personally, and that’s okay. As I tried to adhere precisely to everything the book says, I realized something about my own, imperfect writing process, which is that I tend to start with a character’s voice and then figure out more about the story as I write the first several chapters.

There’s risk to that approach. Sometimes I don’t reach the epiphanies I’m hoping for. Sometimes the story doesn’t have a big enough hook to be marketable. But if I don’t begin with that vivid sense of what it sounds like to be inside a character’s head, I’m not all that excited about figuring out where the story goes.

The experience of trying out the techniques in Story Genius reminded me of when I started teaching and tried to implement other people’s classroom management strategies. They were good strategies that worked for other people, but other people had different strengths and challenges than I did. I wasn’t able to manage a classroom effectively until I figured out my strengths and challenges and then took bits and pieces from other teachers’ techniques and molded them into something that felt right for me. And even then, I had to change my approach a little bit for every class I taught, just as I will probably need to tweak my approach for every new project I write.

The full title of Story Genius suggests that the book’s methods can help writers to avoid wasting time (three years!) and work (327 pages) on a story that isn’t going anywhere. I only spent a few weeks and 30 pages or so on the idea I was exploring, but I don’t think I wasted any of that time or work even though those pages weren’t right.

Maybe I would have been wasting time if I’d kept pushing forward for too long after I realized that things weren’t working, but I’m beginning to believe that nothing is truly wasted when it comes to writing. As I used the Story Genius methods, I learned something important about my uncertain but exciting writing process, and, because I wasn’t feeling invested in the book idea I thought I should pursue, I got up the courage to try out something different, that’s more a shift from what I’ve been writing recently.

I’m only a couple of chapters into this new idea now, so I have no idea if the story will take hold or not, and I’m going with my old, uncertain process rather than trying to use Story Genius, at least for the time being. But I am hearing the character’s voice loud and clear, so for now, I’m happy.


Exciting news! This week, Cordelia Jensen and I got to share the beautiful, shiny cover for our co-authored middle grade novel Every Shiny Thing, which comes out next April! Jen at Pop! Goes the Reader hosted our cover reveal, complete with the book’s origin story, a description of the novel, and a chance to win an advance reader copy. There are still four days left before the winner will be chosen, so here’s the link to see the cover and enter the giveaway if you’d like!

Upper MG Books for Older Middle School Readers…and My New Book Deal!

Last Thursday, I wrote a guest post for a wonderful site called Project Mayhem about the importance of “gray area” novels: upper middle grade books that appeal to sixth to eighth graders and that people in the publishing world have sometimes been wary of, because they’re a bit too old for traditional middle grade but a bit too young for young adult. This is a topic I’ve tackled here on this blog from a slightly different vantage point in the past, and it’s one I’ve been thinking about recently, ever since my new, upper MG novel sold to my wonderful editor at Abrams/Amulet. If you’d like, you can read my guest post and find out more about my new book, and a few other excellent upper middle grade novels, here!

Teaching All American Boys: Resources for Addressing Sensitive Topics and Engaging Students

I love a lot of things about books, obviously. But one thing I especially love is the way a novel can provide an accessible, relatively safe entry point into a difficult topic.

This year, I added Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s acclaimed novel All American Boys to the eighth grade English curriculum at my school. Students were engaged in reading, discussing, and writing about the book, and they showed great maturity as we used it as a jumping-off point to talk about racism and police brutality. In this post, I’m going to share some of the resources that I used, as well as an excellent example of student work. My hope is that that these materials might be helpful to other educators who teach books that tackle tough topics, or who want students to complete engaging creative writing assignments that cultivate analytical close reading skills.


All American Boys is the story of two teens—Rashad, who is black, and Quinn, who is white—and their attempts to deal with an act of violence that leaves their community divided by racial tensions. Because the book has some mature content, I wrote a letter to families to offer them some context. I wanted my students’ families to know why I had selected this book and to be able to continue some of our class conversations. Here’s the letter we sent home.

Once families were informed, my next step was to prepare students to read the book. To do that, I drew upon the resources that the publisher, Simon and Schuster, has provided for the novel. It worked especially well to give students an opportunity to hear the two authors talk about their process of writing the book, both in their NPR interview and the brief video interviews that are included on the publisher’s site. We also had some pre-reading discussions about what students knew about the Black Lives Matter movement and instances of police brutality that have been in the news.

Then it was time to read. As we read the novel and discussed Rashad and Quinn’s experiences and realizations, students developed empathy for both characters and were able to break down how the characters responded to events in the book and where those responses came from. Moreover, we had concrete passages and characters to refer as we began to have bigger conversations about the issues raised in the novel.

Students were so caught up in the world of the book that they were eager to imagine the perspectives of vividly drawn secondary characters, so I gave them a creative writing assignment that asked them to write a chapter from the perspective of any character other than the two narrators.

Here’s the assignment-sheet I gave them, which includes a brainstorming guide to ensure that they were engaging with the novel in a thoughtful, analytical way. I also provided my own example, as I often do, so that students could get a sense of how they could write a new chapter that would be original and imaginative but would also fit into, and in some way extend, the existing story.

I was very pleased with the work students did on the creative writing assignment. They did a great job of pulling details from the book and then using their imagination and empathy to bring characters’ stories to life. Here is an example of one especially outstanding piece of student work by a very talented eighth grade writer named Hannah.

The Simon and Schuster page that’s dedicated to All American Boys includes a quote from Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely about why they wrote the book: “As a black man and a white man, both writers and educators, we came together to co-write a book about how systemic racism and police brutality affect the lives of young people in America, in order to create an important, unique, and honest work that would give young people and the people who educate them a tool for having these difficult but absolutely vital conversations.”

I am extremely grateful for books like this one, which provide such a valuable tool for me to start these kinds of conversations, both in the form of class discussions and in the form of writing assignments that ask students to speak back to and engage with novels. I hope some of my materials might be useful to others who want to spark these kinds of conversations, as well.

When “Finish What You’re Working On” Isn’t the Best Advice

 “Finish what you’re working on.” If you want to be a writer, that’s one of the most common pieces of advice you’ll hear, and it makes a lot of sense.

It’s fun to start a book, but it can be really hard to wade through the murky middle and make it to the other side. And you have to finish a draft before you can begin to revise it into something that shines. But I’ve recently learned that there are times when it’s better to put something aside for a while than to push through to the end just because you’re determined to finish.

At this time last year, I was working on a middle grade novel about a thirteen-year-old girl named Annabelle. I’ve been thinking about Annabelle’s story in some shape or form for several years now, and I’d been making good progress writing it…until I hit the midpoint scene and the story began to fall flat. Suddenly, writing Annabelle’s story was a struggle. I was writing boring scenes, and they weren’t leading me to anything more interesting.


Annabelle’s story is set in Gray Island, a fictional place off the Massachusetts coast, and she lives near beaches that look like this. On good days, writing her story feels like being transported here.

I am not a person who likes to give up, and I had promised myself that I would finish a draft by spring. So I kept going.

But then something happened, almost exactly a year ago. It was the Friday of my midwinter break from school, and I was weeding through a filing cabinet, attempting to get rid of old papers I didn’t need. I came across the evaluations that my four advisors at Vermont College of Fine Arts had written after I worked with each of them. One of my advisors mentioned a story idea I’d told her about—one that I had come up with off-handedly, because she wanted to know what I might work on next, and had then completely forgotten about. But she wrote in my evaluation that she thought it had promise.

I sat down at my computer and wrote a first chapter for the forgotten story idea. It felt energizing and silly and fun. It felt so much better than working on Annabelle’s story, which wasn’t fair to Annabelle. I love her, and I desperately want to get her story right.

So I decided that I was going to take a break from Annabelle’s story and let myself play with the new idea. And then, several months later, I was ready to go back to Annabelle. With all that distance, I could see where the draft had gone off the rails, and I realized that one whole, exceptionally boring subplot could simply go away. I was very pleasantly surprised with how much I’d actually written and how much of it I actually liked, once I cut the stuff that didn’t belong.

After that, writing Annabelle’s story was fun again. Not fun every moment—sometimes it was overwhelming or confusing or frustrating. But it was mostly fun, and before too long, I finished. It was several months after I’d promised myself I would finish a draft, but that was okay, because it was a much better draft than I was ready to get to last spring. I revised the draft, then got feedback, then revised again, got feedback again, and revised some more. I just finished this third round of revision this week, and each step has taken me closer and closer to the heart of this manuscript.

And yesterday, on the Friday of this year’s midwinter break, I sat back down to play with the idea that gave me permission to take a break from Annabelle. I don’t have any set plans for when I’m going to finish that one, but I have some new perspective on it, now that I haven’t looked at it for a while. And it’s still pretty silly and energizing to work on.

My 2016 Reading Year in Review

Well, here we are at last, on the first day of 2017! 2016 was a year that included some major low points for sure but, for me personally, some very special high points, as well. It was a chaotic year with lots of new adjustments and responsibilities, but I just managed to meet my goal of reading 100 books (in addition to the ones I re-read along with my students and the countless wonderful picture books I’ve been reading these days). Of the 100 books I read in 2016, 48 were middle grade, 42 were young adult, and 10 were either adult fiction or nonfiction. Here are some of the highlights of my reading year:

Favorite new book to teach: I am lucky to teach at a school where I’m able to adapt the curricula to incorporate timely books and keep things fresh. I added All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely to the eighth grade curriculum this year, and it was a terrific book to teach. We had important and lively conversations, and students were engaged and did some inspired creative writing at the end of the unit. I’ll try to post more about how I structured the unit soon, since I was so pleased with how students responded.

Favorite trends: I’m not sure if this is a general trend or just a trend in what I happen to read, but I loved reading a handful of co-authored books with two narrators (each written by one of the authors) in 2016. In addition to All American Boys, which I had initially read in 2015, I enjoyed Two Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick, You Know Me Well by Nina LaCour and David Levithan, and The Pages Between Us by Lindsey Leavitt and Robin Mellom. Since Cordelia Jensen and I wrote a co-authored book with two narrators that will be published in 2018, it’s no real surprise that I’m a fan of this trend!

Somewhat strangely, I also read four books this year that feature characters returning home after a kidnapping: Tara Altebrando’s The Leaving, Jennifer Mathieu’s Afterward, Kim Savage’s After the Woods, and Robin Benway’s Emmy and Oliver (Emmy and Oliver was actually published in 2015 rather than 2016, but the others were published this past year). It feels sort of wrong to say that I am a fan of the kidnapping trend in YA…but these four books were among the most gripping page turners I picked up.

Another favorite trend (and I really, really hope this is one that continues) is that I’ve been reading more contemporary realistic middle grade books that feel geared toward ages 10-14 rather than ages 8-12. I love younger middle grade novels too, but there has been such a lack of books that feature characters who are in 7th-9th grade and that are geared toward 6th-8th grade readers. This is such a rich, complicated time, and I want more books that delve into those years in all their murky, exciting, in-between-ness!

Favorite older MG: Speaking of the trend toward older middle grade (hooray!), my favorite older middle grade titles this year were Natasha Friend’s Where You’ll Find Me and Jo Knowles’s Still a Work in Progress. These books are full of memorable characters, emotional moments, and realistic seventh and eighth grade social dynamics. These are the kind of middle grade books I feel great about being able to give to seventh and eighth grade students who feel like most middle grade novels are a little young for them. Another powerful middle grade novel that students in fifth grade all the way through eighth grade loved this year is Donna Gephart’s Lily and Dunkin.

Favorite MGs that tackle tough issues: I’m also a fan of middle grade books that feel younger in their tone but tackle difficult issues in age-appropriate, gentle but honest ways. This year, I loved Kate Messner’s The Seventh Wish for its treatment of addiction, Jenn Bishop’s The Distance to Home for its depiction of grief, Nora Raleigh Baskin’s Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story for its exploration of the September 11th tragedy, Claire LeGrand’s Some Kind of Happiness for its portrayal of depression, and Tricia Springstubb’s Every Single Second for its look at a race-related act of violence.

Satisfying second or third books in a series: I’m sometimes reluctant to pick up a sequel or the second or third book in a series in case the follow ups don’t live up to the original, but I had great luck with sequels in 2016. I thought Varian Johnson’s To Catch a Cheat was just as smart and fun as The Great Greene Heist; I loved Leila Howland’s second Silver Sisters offering, The Brightest Stars of Summer, at least as much as last year’s charming Forget-Me-Not Summer; and Dianne K. Salerni’s The Morrigan’s Curse was every bit as exciting as the first two books in her fabulous Eighth Day Series. And actually, all three of these series also appeal to older middle school readers, too, so I am doubly happy about them!

Favorite YA contemporaries: Contemporary YA has been my favorite genre to read for years, and while I was more drawn to MG  than YA in 2016, I did find some contemporary YA novels I loved this year. I was a big fan of Emery Lord’s first two novels, but I thought her third book, When We Collided, was her best yet–so full of emotion and depth. I also could not put down Julie Buxbaum’s Tell Me Three Things; I was so invested in the fun, mysterious romance. I adored Nicola Yoon’s ambitious, gorgeous The Sun Is Also a Star; in my opinion, that one absolutely lived up to its well-deserved buzz. I also loved the fun female-female romance in Jaye Robin Brown’s Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit and the own-voices depiction of a trans character in Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl.

Favorite books I wouldn’t have picked up on my own: As in 2015, my YA and MG book club once again encouraged me to read a beautiful historical MG that wasn’t on my radar: Louis Bayard’s impressive Lucky Strikes. I also read Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity for book research, thinking I would glean helpful information even if it wasn’t the most exciting read, but I found it absolutely fascinating and can’t stop talking about it.

Book I Can’t Wait for Others to Read in 2017: I’m excited for other people to read the very last book I read in 2016, Flying Lessons and Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh. It’s a wonderful, varied selection of diverse short stories that’s a must-have for school and classroom libraries, and it comes out in two days, on January 3rd, so you don’t have to wait long!

Wishing you all a happy new year full of good books and much joy (which are sometimes the same thing, in my view)! I’d love to hear about some of your 2016 reading highlights or books you can’t wait to read in 2017, too.

My New Reading Challenge: a Concrete First Step in Standing Up for Inclusivity

I like to keep track of the books I read on Goodreads, and for the last couple of years, when Goodreads has prompted me to join the Goodreads Reading Challenge, I’ve set the goal of reading 100 books throughout the course of the year. Then, periodically, I’ve noticed that I am a book or two ahead of schedule and felt pleased with myself—the way I used to feel as a kid when I got a good grade on a test that I was already pretty sure I’d done well on.

But as I’ve reflected on the election and some recent online conversations about harmful representation of marginalized groups in published and about-to-be-published books, I’ve realized that I need to make a major change to my Goodreads Challenge.

As a kid—as a white, privileged kid with access to lots and lots of books—it gave me so much comfort to read books in which I saw myself. I read books like Judy Blume’s Just as Long as We’re Together and Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson and Irene Hunt’s Up a Road Slowly over and over because I recognized myself in those characters. It took me a long time to learn that I can’t compare my insides to other people’s outsides—just because other people seem happy and confident and completely at ease with things that cause me great anxiety doesn’t mean they aren’t feeling unsettled in their own way. But these novels invited me inside another person’s consciousness. They allowed me to compare my insides to someone else’s insides. These novels didn’t shy away from depicting characters’ flaws; these characters I loved and related to messed up a whole lot, but I still rooted for them and realized that they deserved good things. And as a kid who could be very hard on herself, it was immensely helpful for me to realize that, if I could love and forgive a character who messed up, then maybe I could love and forgive myself, too. Maybe I could realize that I deserved good things as well.

But I cannot even fathom how difficult it must be for readers who cannot see themselves in books in the way I have always been able to. It was relatively easy for me to feel like I could compare my insides to a character’s insides when our outsides weren’t all that different. Yes, I could (and still can) connect to characters who are not female or white or heterosexual, and reading books about characters who are unlike me in key ways has helped me to be a more empathetic person with a broader worldview. But when I was an adolescent and needed comfort, the books I returned to were books in which the main characters were like me in fundamental ways.

I also cannot fathom what it must be like to be part of a marginalized group of people who have not had this luxury of being able to see themselves easily in books, and then to see hurtful, stereotypical portrayals of people who are supposed to be like them. 

Last week, author Justina Ireland tweeted, “Set a goal to read at least one diverse book for every book by a white author you read. Don’t know of any books? Ask Twitter.”

I have always believed that we need diverse books so that all kids get to have the kinds of reading experiences that comforted me so much, but that I also took for granted because I didn’t have to work hard to seek them out. We need to support authors of color and authors who are part of the LGBTQIA community by buying and reading their books so that more diverse books continue to be published. I, as a teacher, need to read these books so that I can recommend them to students and recommend buying them for our school library.

But you know what? Even though I believe all of these things, even though I mean to be an ally, when I look at the 87 books I have read so far in 2016, I see that less than 20% of those books are by authors of color or authors who are part of other marginalized groups. My count might be slightly off because I don’t always know how authors identify and I counted conservatively, but one thing is for sure: when I glance at my Reading Challenge progress and see that I am a book ahead of my goal pace, I don’t feel that familiar, cozy self-satisfaction of getting a good grade. Instead, I feel like I need to put my money (literally) and my energy where my mouth is. I need to do a whole lot better.

So for the rest of 2016 and all of 2017, I pledge to do what Justina Ireland suggested. I pledge to read one book by an author of color or an author from another marginalized group for every book I read by a white, heterosexual author. 

I know that I need to do more than this in order to do my part to stand up against all forms of intolerance. But this is one concrete way I plan to start. Please join me, if you’d like, and please feel free to suggest books you think I should read. Thank you to the people in the young adult and middle grade community who are committed to speaking up about issues of harmful representation, or lack of representation. I know that it is not your job to educate me, but I am listening to you and learning from you, and I am grateful.

The Realism Spectrum

The seventh grade English curriculum at my school includes a lot of historical novels, and when I teach seventh grade English, I talk about how historical fiction falls somewhere along a spectrum that ranges from almost fully rooted in historical fact to almost fully fictional.

One book that falls on the mostly-rooted-in-fact end is Melanie Crowder’s lovely biographical verse novel, Audacity, which tells the story of labor activist Clara Lemlich. On the opposite, mostly fictional end is Ann E. Burg’s All the Broken Pieces, which is set soon after the Vietnam War; the premise of the story (a main character who was airlifted out of Vietnam and adopted by an American family) is rooted in historical fact, but all of the characters are fictionalized. Then there are books like A.B. Westrick’s Brotherhood and Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Seeds of America” trilogy, which fall somewhere in the middle. 

The eighth grade curriculum, on the other hand, mostly features contemporary young adult fiction and some classics. This fall, my eighth grade students have been discussing two contemporary novels: we recently finished reading Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s All American Boys, and I’ve been reading Jake Gerhardt’s Me and Miranda Mulally as a read-aloud. As we geared up to read the end of All American Boys, we left off at the end of a chapter in which one character proposed reading a list of names at a protest.

I asked students to predict what those names would be, and they correctly guessed that the characters in the book would read a list of real-life people who have been victims of police brutality.

When I asked them why they felt so sure that the book would include names we would recognize even though it is fiction, one student said, “Yeah, but it’s on the realistic end of the fiction spectrum.”

This struck me as an interesting comment, because I had never really thought about a 25657130spectrum of realism in contemporary realistic fiction. In theory, all contemporary realistic novels would be pretty close to the realistic end of the fiction spectrum. But then I thought more about the distinction she was making and realized that she was absolutely right. All American Boys is very clearly grounded in reality. Unfortunately, the book’s inciting incident, in which an innocent black boy is brutally beaten by a white police officer, is reminiscent of many recent events. Moreover, the authors reference a real-life artist and cartoon, Aaron Douglas and the Family Circus cartoon, as influences on one of the main characters. This book is fiction, yes, but it is conspicuously set in the world in which we live.

Our class read-aloud, Me and Miranda Mullaly, is on the opposite end of this realistic spectrum. As we’ve been reading the book, students have often commented on how some of the scenes feel larger than life. The main characters at times read like caricatures, with their defining traits magnified for comedic effect. The book includes the characters’ responses to free-writing prompts in English class, and my students often point out that no one would really share personal details or insult their teacher and classmates in their free-writing assignments, the way characters in the book do.

25894020What’s interesting, though, is that when students laughingly say they can’t believe characters would write these things, they aren’t objecting to the way the book is written. They have even pointed out that it isn’t realistic that eighth graders would write emails to each other in 2016–they would text–but they don’t care all that much that characters in the novel email each other.

They have accepted that this book is on the over-the-top, not-so-realistic end of the contemporary realistic fiction spectrum. It’s not fantasy or magical realism–it just reads like real life with the volume turned all the way up. Because the students are entertained and the over-the-top tone is consistent, they are perfectly willing to accept content that they don’t find completely believable. On the other hand, I think they’d be much less willing to accept  an occasional hard-to-believe moment a in book that falls on the very realistic end of the realism spectrum.

My own books tend to fall on the very realistic side of this contemporary realism spectrum, but some of my favorite humorous novels, like Jaclyn Moriarty’s Ashbury Brookfield books, fall closer to the not-so-realistic end. Someday soon, I want to try my hand at a funny book with a completely over-the-top tone. Maybe consciously thinking about this spectrum will help me!

Shiny, Happy News: My First Book Deal!

Almost three years ago, I got an agent. An agent I’d heard great things about, who requested my full manuscript seconds after I queried and then read my book in less than 24 hours. I’d worked on that book for two years, throughout the second year of my MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and then the year after I graduated. I loved that book, and since my big-time agent loved it, too, I couldn’t help thinking that this was it! Before too long I would be a published writer!

Except that didn’t happen.

I racked up a lot of complimentary passes and did a revision for an editor who also loved that book, but I didn’t get a publishing offer. The book just wasn’t different enough, I kept hearing. It didn’t have enough of a hook to set it apart.

I was disappointed, of course, but I had listened to the advice everyone gives—to work on something new while you’re on submission. I didn’t have to wallow in my disappointment for very long, because a little less than a year after that first book went out on submission, I had a new book that was ready to go.

This book was going to be the one! It was a book I’d started at the beginning of my first year at VCFA. I’d rewritten the first forty pages five times during my second semester, trying to get the story right, and now, a few years later, I finally had it. This book had a bigger hook, I thought, and a more unusual structure.

But this one racked up the kind passes, too.

I worked on two new stories while that second book was making the rounds. Cordelia Jensen, one of my classmates from VCFA and the talented author of the YA verse novel Skyscraping and another forthcoming YA verse novel, read the beginnings of those two new stories for me back in February of 2015. She then wrote me an email in which she said, “I have to say that in these two voices I hear less of your own personal voice which I think shows your evolution as a writer. Even though I ABSOLUTELY LOVE hearing your voice in the other books, I think I am seeing a stronger range right now, if that makes sense. And, for what it’s worth, maybe if these other books had sold quickly these two others wouldn’t be here at all. So, that’s my positive thinking this morning.”

Cordelia’s positive thinking stuck with me. I still believe in those first two books that went on submission. I’m still a little sad that they didn’t sell. They’re the kind of books I would have loved as a kid and teenager, and they explore issues that are important to me. There is a whole lot of me within them.

But Cordelia helped me realize that I was growing as a writer as I pushed past the kinds of voices and characters that came most naturally to me. This whole process was hard and full of disappointment, but maybe it was leading me somewhere wonderful.

And then a few months later, Cordelia said to me, “Hey, we should write a book together!” And a few days after that, she said, “I have an idea for our book. Do you think you could write this?”

I honestly wasn’t sure if I could. Her idea—for a middle grade novel that would have two alternating narrations, one in verse and one in prose—was much different from anything I’d ever written, and much sadder. Granted, in the course of our first conversation, all of my contributions served to make the book less and less sad, but still—this story was going to be a stretch for me. In fact, it was ironic that we decided to name the main character for my sections Lauren—a name so close to my own—when the character of Lauren is much less like the kid I was than any of the other main characters I have written. She is furious with her parents and she steals things, whereas anger makes me nervous, and, even as an adult, I am pretty terrified of doing anything wrong and getting in trouble.

But as we talked about the idea and fleshed it out, I saw a way in—a way to make Lauren someone I could connect to. I understood Lauren’s pain and her motivation. And it turns out that she does have some characteristics that I share—fierce love for her brother, loyalty to a friend, an earnest desire for things to be fair. And she goes to a Friends school that’s similar to the school where I teach, and she shares my students’ strong beliefs in the need for social justice.

Cordelia and I brainstormed a general story arc, and then we each sat down to write a chapter. And Lauren’s voice—so different from my own—poured out of me. Our agent, Sara Crowe, read our sample chapters and loved them, so we kept going. I’ve never had more fun writing anything. I would sit down and write entire chapters at a time!

laurie and cordelia

Me with my talented and inspiring co-author, Cordelia!

And now, this sad but hopeful middle grade book, EVERY SHINY THING—this book that reflects my evolution as a writer and might not exist if I had achieved my writing goals more quickly—has found a publishing home!

In EVERY SHINY THING, two seventh graders—Lauren, who comes from an affluent family, and Sierra, who is in foster care—team up to enact a Robin Hood scheme to right some societal wrongs, and learn lessons about justice, friendship, and family in the process. Maggie Lehrman, senior editor at Abrams/Amulet, loves the book and is going to help us make it the best it can be. I can’t wait to be able to share it with all of you in spring 2018!