Up for Air is officially out in the world! I had a great time launching the book a couple days early at this party at Children’s Book World, where I was in conversation with my friend and Every Shiny Thing coauthor Cordelia Jensen.
Reading from UP FOR AIR at the launch.
And I’ve been busy doing lots of interviews and guest posts. I want to share the most recent batch of posts here in case you’d like to check them out. So here goes!
I shared five fun facts about the book on YAYOMG!, where people can enter another giveaway and see some photos I dug up, like this one of me and my brothers on the island that inspired the fictional setting of Up for Air.
And finally, I wrote a personal essay I’m really proud of called Puberty, Power Dynamics, and the Story I Needed. It’s on BookPage, and it’s about some of my own experiences as a middle schooler and the reasons I felt so strongly about writing a story that explores what it’s like for a middle school girl to get a new kind of attention when her body develops.
I hope you’ll check out some of these pieces, and hope you’ll check out the book, too! Thanks for all the support and enthusiasm!
Hello, friends! This is an exciting spring! Last week, the paperback edition of Every Shiny Thing came out, and now we’re quickly approaching the publication date for my second book, Up for Air, on May 7th!
Instead of writing posts for my own blog, I’ve been busy doing interviews and writing essays for other sites as I celebrate these two books. I’ll do a couple of round-up posts here this spring in case you want to check out those posts.
In honor of the paperback launch of Every Shiny Thing, Pop! Goes the Reader hosted my co-author Cordelia and me a little while back to show off the beautiful new cover and share an interview with our editor, Maggie Lehrman, about why books sometimes get new covers when they go to paperback. If you’re interested in the behind-the-scene process of paperback repackaging, check it out!
I’ll have some more guest posts and interviews to share in the weeks leading up to the publication of Up for Air, which has earned starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly and has been chosen as a Junior Library Guild Selection! I’m so grateful for this early support for the book.
Up for Air will be available in stores and from online retailers starting May 7th, but if you’d like a signed copy, you can order from Children’s Book World Haverford, I’ll personalize it, and the store will ship. Thank you for your support, and happy spring!
If we’re connected on social media, then you probably saw me post a few weeks ago about my new book deal. I’m very excited that I will have a third middle grade novel out in the spring of 2021, assuming all goes according to plan! That seems very far away, I know. But it takes a year or so between when a book has finished going through meaningful edits and when it actually comes out, and I sold this book on proposal, which means I have to finish writing it. So I’m glad to have some time! Here’s the deal announcement, in case you missed it or, you know, you just want to stare at it a bunch like I do:
And here’s some backstory about the process of refining the idea for this book (over and over again). Back in August of 2017, I wrote this post about how I’d tried to use a craft book called Story Genius to help me start a new middle grade novel, but it didn’t quite click. (And this is no knock on Story Genius, which works for many people and might work for me on a different project or if I took a lot more time with the exercises.) The dynamics I came up with for this story were interesting in theory, but the writing was coming out forced, I wasn’t excited about the story events I’d figured out, and I couldn’t hear my character’s voice. So I set that book aside for a while, but before I did, I wrote a single page with a voice that felt right.
That one page had a vulnerability and earnestness that the other scenes I’d tried out were lacking. So I finally had a sense of the voice, and I had the basic premise of this girl, Ivy, who wants to be a good person and thinks she will react in a selfless, kind way when her mom becomes pregnant as a surrogate but is shaken by her complicated emotions. But I didn’t know what to do about the plot.
So I focused on a couple of other projects for a while, until I read an ARC of Brigit Young’s wonderful debut novel, Worth a Thousand Words. Brigit’s book, which came out last summer, is an emotional, character-driven contemporary middle grade novel that has a mystery about a boy’s missing father at the heart of its plot. It’s not really the kind of who-dunnit story that comes to mind when I think about mysteries; it’s a mystery that hinges on relationships between complex characters. I loved the book and simply could not put it down. And I was reminded of a couple of YA novels I also hadn’t been able to put down because of a similar kind of mystery (though with a romantic bent): Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli and Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum.
I started thinking about how much fun it could be to try to write a book with that kind of character-driven mystery, and then it occurred to me that I could try incorporating something like that in this plotless project I’d set aside. And pretty soon an idea came to me: what if Ivy, who was doubting whether she was as kind and selfless as she wanted to be, threw herself into trying to help someone who needed her…but, for some reason, she didn’t actually know who that person was and the reader didn’t know either? What if mysterious, anonymous emails were the engine driving this story forward, kind of like in the two YA books I’d loved, but in a much less romantic and more middle grade way?
So, armed with this new concept, I started working on Ivy’s story again here and there until I had to turn my attention to edits for Up for Air (which comes out May 7th and *cough, cough* is available for preorder!). I’d been having fun with it and feeling pretty good about it, but when I went back to it after some distance, I realized the family dynamics weren’t quite working and I might not be accessing the emotional heart of things in a deep enough way.
Ugh. After everything, I still couldn’t tell if it was a viable project or not.
Then in April, I turned back to this post by E. Lockhart, about using an emotion to spark a novel. This is an essay that’s been immensely inspiring to me in the past. I wasn’t actually thinking about Ivy’s story when I looked at it, but reading it again for a completely different reason helped me realize something important about the key emotion and key relationship between Ivy and her mom.
And one night a few weeks later when I was up with my toddler and again not actively thinking about the book, it occurred to me that the family dynamics would make more sense and be more interesting if Ivy’s parents were amicably divorced and her dad was in a new relationship. If her parents were together, Ivy and her dad were both trying to be kind and selfless and playing too much of the same role, and the story had to be hers, not his.
So I finally had all the pieces I needed to rewrite the beginning of the book for a third time. Over the next few months, I wrote a synopsis and a little more than 50 new pages, revised them a few times in response to some feedback from my agent and my smart writing friends, and ultimately got everything in good enough shape to submit to my editor (just a few days before having a baby, in fact). Luckily, she loved Ivy too, so now we’ll get to work on this story together.
Whew! Quite an evolution already for a book that isn’t even fully written yet, huh?
What strikes me about all this is how much this idea has had to sit and marinate. I always want to keep working to feel like I’m making progress. But I’m glad I kept putting this story idea aside until I had more of the elements I needed.
I find it both magical and terrifying that I really couldn’t force any of these realizations; I was open to them, yes, but they caught me by surprise. I couldn’t will these epiphanies into happening just by planting myself in my chair in front of my computer and making myself keep going. I find it so tricky as a writer to know when to be disciplined and push through…and when that won’t actually get me where I want to go.
But now, pretty soon, I’ll throw myself into that push-through-the-draft-even-when-it’s-hard phase of writing this book, knowing (finally) that I believe in the essence of the story and will be able to revise and polish to my heart’s content—and with the help of a very smart editor!—when the time comes. I’m looking forward to writing the rest of Ivy’s story and am excited for others to meet her in a couple of years! I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into the evolution of this novel up to this point. Who knows what else I’m in for as I continue.
For the past few years, I’ve written a post in late December about my year of reading, reflecting on books that have had an impact on me and patterns I’ve noticed in what I’ve read. I’d love to find time to do that again for this year, but for now I’m more motivated to reflect on my year as a writer and an author…which I don’t think are synonymous terms.
As a writer, I have continued to work hard on my craft, drafting and editing projects, and I’ve had some rewarding moments and some disappointing ones. And as a first-time published author, I’ve had thrilling high points and vulnerable, anxiety-producing low points. I know I have a lot left to figure out, but I’ve learned quite a bit about where I want to put my energy and where I don’t. So in this post, I’ll share a breakdown of what I’ve been up to this year, writing- and publishing-wise, and what I’ve discovered.
First off, some stats from my year in writing/”author”-ing:
1 novel-in-progress set aside (but not abandoned fully, because I am determined to write this character’s story some day in some way).
1 picture book manuscript set aside (until I figure out how to revise the ending at least).
1 exciting novel-in-progress well underway (after setting it aside twice before pieces clicked into place).
And now for some of the lessons I’ve learned:
As a writer, I re-learned the lesson that no writing is wasted, and sometimes ideas need time to marinate. I re-learned that I must dive into each project with an open heart and my full commitment even if I might end up setting aside pages and pages. Those pages (and that time and energy) still serve a crucial purpose. The book I’m currently working on, which I found the heart of this year after two false starts, incorporates two elements I really loved from past projects I had to shelve. I feel sure that the book that didn’t pan out this year will give life to something special in the future because I wrote my way to a character I need to explore further.
As a first-time author, I’ve learned, first and foremost, that one of the best things I can do for my own career and my emotional well-being is to spread positivity about other books I love. Recently on Twitter, an author named Adalyn Grace, whose debut novel will come out in early 2020, asked authors what one piece of advice they would give to upcoming debuts. This was mine, and I’m standing by it!
Another big lesson that’s been reinforced over and over this year is that comparison truly is the thief of joy. As a debut author, you can see the awards and opportunities other debut authors get and feel envious or somehow less-than. But what’s been so striking to me is that everyone struggles with comparison and envy—even people who seem to be getting so much attention and so many accolades. I’ve found that spreading genuine positivity counteracts a lot of the envy for me. If I love a book that gets praise I would have liked to get, then sure, I can have a moment of feeling like, “Ugh, that sure would be nice to have.” But if I then focus on the reasons why I love that book and am happy for that author, I feel much better and take back a bit of power in a business that can make you feel like a lot is outside your control. Reacting that way also lets me continue to be an enthusiastic reader and a fan of books, which is how I started out anyway!
I’ve also learned that this is an amazing time to be a middle grade author because Twitter, Instagram, ARC sharing groups, Middle Grade at Heart, and awesome sites like MG Book Village make it possible for authors to make authentic connections with inspiring educators who champion middle grade literature. There are so many passionate teachers and librarians who work tirelessly to connect kids with books, and it’s an honor to get to partner with them. I feel sure that the connections I’ve made with educators have helped Every Shiny Thing‘s sales and visibility in some way, but even more importantly, those connections have energized me and helped me stay rooted in the reasons I write middle grade novels.
On a related note, I’ve learned to follow my joy and my strengths when I think about where to put my time, energy, and money. As a former teacher, I love doing any kind of event or project that lets me meet kids, network with teachers and librarians, or engage with questions about curricula. Those things make me happy and play to my strengths. That means I love being part of the Middle Grade at Heart team and I love making educators’ guides for my books. It also means I prioritized doing school visits last spring (some of which made financial sense and yielded lots of book sales and some of which didn’t), I’ve spent a decent amount of money on postage to send bookmarks and bookplates to classes of kids, and I’ve attended two nErDcamp events and a library conference that were logistically very challenging to get to. It’s impossible to know what kind of “payoff” any kind of event or book-related swag or resource you create will have, so I think it’s important to know what your priorities are and what will make you happy and go from there.
And finally, I’ve learned that not everyone will “get” my books or love them. That’s really hard because I’m a people pleaser and a perfectionist, and, honestly, I want everyone to approve of everything I do at all times. But as an author, that definitely isn’t possible. Reading is such a personal and subjective experience, and that has to be okay…but I also don’t need to seek out reviews, especially on Goodreads, because the joy of reading good reviews isn’t worth the hurt feelings and anxiety of reading not-so-good ones.
So those are my top takeaways! I hope some of the things I’ve learned this year might be interesting or useful to others. I’m very grateful that, after many years of writing and improving my craft, I get to keep publishing novels in 2019 and beyond. And I am also certain that there is no magic switch that makes a person suddenly creatively fulfilled and completely confident just because their dream of being published comes true!
Today is Every Shiny Thing’s half-birthday! It’s officially been out in the world for six months, and to celebrate, Cordelia and I wrote a really fun post all about collaboration. We talked to four other co-author pairs—Kristine Asselin and Jen Malone, Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan, Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester, and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick—and put together this article about how and why each pair collaborated. They all had some great insights about the writing process and smart tips for writers and teachers. And thanks to their generosity, we’re running a #CollaborationCelebration eight-book giveaway! Check out our post and enter the giveaway if you’d like! And a big THANK YOU to everyone who has supported Every Shiny Thing over the past six months!
Today is rainy and the tiniest bit chilly, and I’m loving the cozy, stay-at-home weather. It’s starting to feel a bit like fall, and I’m excited to think about beginning a new season.
I’ve had a hectic, exhausting, amazing summer full of book events, writing projects I was determined to finish before welcoming a new baby, and then several weeks of new-baby chaos/joy/sleep deprivation. Come to think of it, I’m still very much in the throes of the new-baby chaos/joy/sleep deprivation and probably will be for a while…
In the midst of these big tasks and transitions, I haven’t been blogging here, but I have done a few interviews I’d love to (belatedly) share, and I have some exciting news about my second book, Up for Air!
It’s an upper middle grade novel about competitive swimming, shifting friendships, developing bodies, the social pressures of having older friends, and an intense crush. It’s a book that means the world to me, and I can’t wait to share it with readers! If you’d like to know more about it, you can read this interview I did on MG Book Village about how my former students inspired me to write the book, why I love the cover, and why I think upper middle grade novels are so important.
Cordelia and I have also done two more interviews about Every Shiny Thing (which, unbelievably, has now been out in the world for 4.5 months!). We did this one with the wonderful, eternally supportive L. Marie way back in June. And then more recently, talented author A.B. Westrick asked us all about our do’s and don’ts for collaboration in this interview, which includes a giveaway you can enter up until September 18th if you’d like to win a copy of Every Shiny Thing.
Thank you, as always, for reading my bookish news and sharing in my excitement, and happy almost-autumn to you all!
In the weeks since Every Shiny Thing was published, my co-author Cordelia Jensen and I have had a great time visiting schools and doing other events that have brought us into contact with teachers and kids. Cordelia and I have been delighted to meet and hear from educators who are interested in sharing Every Shiny Thing with students, and we have some exciting new resources to share for educators, parents, and kids!
The amazing Middle Grade@Heart team has also created an awesome book club guide for the novel, and with the help of the MG@Heart team and a couple of fabulous educators, we’ve set up an interactive FlipGrid for the book, with some fun video content. There will be a Twitter chat about the book on Tuesday, 6/5 at 8pm EST with the hashtag #mgbookclub, so if you’re on Twitter and have read the book, please join us for a virtual book club chat!
We were also honored to be interviewed by teacher and podcaster extraordinaire Corrina Allen on the Books Between podcast, a podcast for people who want to connect kids ages 8-12 with books they’ll love. You can check out our podcast episode here or listen on iTunes!
And finally, I’ve teamed up with some other debut middle grade authors to run a really fun bookish Scavenger Hunt for kids who love to read, complete with exciting prizes!
We have a few more events you can find out about on my events page, but we’re now reaching the end of most of the Every Shiny Thing promo we’ve planned, so I hope to have some time to blog about other topics relatively soon! Thanks for following along with my debut journey!
Today is Every Shiny Thing‘s one-month birthday! It’s been an exciting month, and Cordelia and I are so happy to have our book-baby out in the world and so grateful for the support it’s received! I thought I’d share a quick post this morning with some updates and a quick request.
We’ve done a lot of events, which have been a blast. We’ve done assembly presentations at schools about the story of Every Shiny Thing, from a glimmer of an idea in June of 2015 to an actual book in April of 2018; we used examples from the book to teach a writing workshop about voice to seventh graders; and we did a presentation for adults about the changing landscape of the coming of age novel and how our books fit into that landscape. We’ve also had lots of fun bookstore events with signings. We have a few more events coming up in June in Philadelphia, New York, and New Jersey, and you can check my events page for details about those.
We’ve also done some more guest posts. Here’s one that meant a lot to both of us: an essay on the Nerdy Book Club site called “What It Means to Hope,” about how our work with kids inspired our characters. I also wrote this special “Writer’s Toolbox” guest post on MG Book Village called “Writing a Fallible Narrator.” It’s about strategies I used to make Lauren come across as mistaken but still sympathetic.
Every Shiny Thing is also the featured May book for the MG@Heart Book Club! That means that in addition to some posts about the book on MG Book Village, there will be a newsletter featuring great content about the book, mostly geared toward educators, that will go out on May 28. If you’d like to subscribe to the newsletter, you can do that here. Plus, there will be a Twitter chat about the book that anyone is welcome to join on Tuesday, June 5th at 8PM EST with the hashtag #mgbookclub, and Cordelia and I will be guests on the Books Between podcast and will unveil a special interactive video page about the book. I’ll be sure to share these highlights here when they’re ready.
Thank you to all of you who have supported my debut journey and read Every Shiny Thing. If you’ve read the book and have a minute, I’d really appreciate any reviews, especially on Amazon, because those reviews help ensure that other readers who might like the book will find it…which, in turn, helps ensure that I’ll get to keep writing books! Also, if you’ve gotten a copy of the book and are too far away to have it signed in person, please let me know if you’d like me to send you a signed and personalized bookplate to put inside!
Hooray! Every Shiny Thing, the middle grade novel I co-wrote with Cordelia Jensen, came out yesterday. We had a wonderful time celebrating with friends and family at our launch party at Children’s Book World in Haverford. We’ve also been busy writing more guest blog posts and answering great questions for a variety of fun interviews. Here’s a round-up!
I got to participate in the New Kids on the Block debut series on Pop! Goes the Reader with a post about all the things I learned from Every Shiny Thing…in list poem form, in honor of National Poetry Month.
We had a blast coming up with ten intriguing facts about the book for YAYOMG, so if you want to know about the details we stole from our real lives to use in the book, check out that post for sure!
We’re also gearing up for more book events. Here are the dates and times for our upcoming appearances. We’d love to see you at any of our events!
Hi, friends! I haven’t been blogging much in this space because my Every Shiny Thing co-author Cordelia Jensen and I have been busy doing lots of interviews and guest blog posts as we gear up for the release of Every Shiny Thing in less than two weeks! (It’s out on 4/17! Hooray!)
Most of our posts haven’t gone live yet, but a couple of them have, so I wanted to share them here.
First, here’s a really fun interview I did with NY Times Bestselling author Jonathan Auxier. Check it out to see my best monster face, find out some insider information about Every Shiny Thing and other books I love, and enter to win a FREE COPY of Every Shiny Thing!
And here’s another fun interview Cordelia and I did with teacher Patrick Andrus, who asked such great questions about Lauren and Sierra (including where they are a year after our novel ends).
Also, as part of the Middle Grade at Heart Team, I got to join teacher and podcaster extraordinaire, Corrina Allen, to interview Karina Yan Glaser, author of The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street on this week’s episode of the Books Between Podcast (a podcast I cannot recommend enough, especially for middle school teachers).The interview was so inspiring and joyful to be a part of, and Karina shared so much fascinating information about her absolutely delightful book. Check out more great content about The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street in the March MG @ Heart newsletter and subscribe for the newsletter here if you’d like.
Thanks for bearing with me as I prepare for my first book to launch! I’ll share some more guest posts and interviews in the coming days!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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 bookswill 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!
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:
I write to explore big questions and ideas and feelings that matter to me and, I think, may matter to other people, too.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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, theplay. 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 fromIndieBound, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon. And I plan to be back later this month with a second “why verse?” interview with Cordelia Jensen!
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.
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!
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!
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!