The MTV Books Blog will close on October 31. Follow us to our new home at YA Outside the Lines on November 1!

Monday, December 31, 2007

Resolutions 101

I have always been lousy about keeping resolutions. Oh, sure, I’m always super excited about making them. That’s the easy and fun part. Imagine how your life could be different if only you, say, spend every minute of your free time at the gym or never again eat any products made with refined sugar. I wrote a short story on the subject of a person who can’t seem to stop making resolutions (you can find it in In One Year and Out the Other), and while she had over three hundred of them (I’ve never quite been that bad), I will say that my list of resolutions is usually pretty long.

Here’s a sampling of some of the fun ones: Travel to Japan, Adopt a Dog, Buy a House, Watch Highlights of Dancing With Stars so I can Keep Up in a Conversation With Mom, Learn To Salsa, Try Some New Food Even at a Restaurant You’ve Been Going to For Years (i.e. stop ordering the EXACT same thing every time), Learn to Cook Something that Doesn’t Involve a Can of Soup/Ready Mix/and/or a Take Out Menu, and the related – Actually Cook Something Seen on a Cooking Show Instead of Just Watching Them and Getting Hungry.

Then there are also the not-so-fun ones: Go to the Gym More than Once in Ten Years, Quit Watching Shows That Make You Want To Eat, Vacuum Regularly and Not Just When Company is Coming Over, Pay Down Credit Cards Even the Ones You Don’t Count in Your Accounting Like Gap and Macy’s, Stop Spending So Much at the Dry Cleaners, and the related, Do More Ironing.

My list of resolutions is usually about ten or twelve things, and a lot of the same ones keep popping up over and over again. At the end of the year I’ll usually have accomplished at least two of them, usually the easier and cheaper ones (Dancing with the Stars? Check) but not the rest (Salsa? Not yet). It may seem a very inefficient way to sort through the clutter of one’s life, but I do eventually get some things done (not the ironing, but I did pay down my credit cards! Even the Gap one). And at one time, writing a novel was on that list, and it stayed on my list for years. But eventually, I did that one, too. Not just once, but several times over. So I have hope for Japan, yet. The gym? Not so much.

So here’s my question to all of you: What’s been the toughest resolution you’ve actually kept?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Last Monday I crossed the finish line for LOCAL GIRLS, handing in revisions one whole day early!!! (only because I thought the deadline was Monday, otherwise I would have squeezed every last second out of one more day). And then I settled down to read a little (Sarah Dessen's THIS LULLABYE). Stuck in between the pages were all these pink sticky notes with ideas I'd had the last time I was reading - ideas for the book I just handed in. Of course, since I forgot about said ideas on pink sticky notes, I didn't put them in during the revision round (smack to the head).

That's pretty much how I feel until the book is in print, like there's more I could do, another scene that will make it all come together, a sentence that makes it oh so much better. Even after the book is in print I feel like that. Imagine how thrilled I was for one reader to point out that there's a typo on the last page of LUKE. Gee, thanks for pointing that out, like I can change it now. Still, the reader made me feel personally responsible for assaulting her sense of all that is correct grammatically, like I knew the mistake was there and thought, ah, to hell with it, who cares about one little mistake... even though the mistake makes Emily's graduation date one thousand years before she was even born. Yeah, I need to be told that like I need a hole in my head, or to have every single typo pointed out to me in painstaking detail. In any case, typos aside (and I can put them aside because I have no control over whether or not my changes are actually implemented in the end when some typesetter is putting together his hundredth book for the week and he doesn't care if Emily ever graduates, or who Emily is, no less what the date is), I hate turning in a book because it means I have to stop fixing it, and I'm always sure there's more to be fixed.

So here's my question for the other authors: ever gone back and read one of your books only to cringe at a line, wonder why the hell you had a character do something, or just basically wished you'd done something differently? Or do you just accept it for what it is and move on?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Mix Tape Queen

Right now I'm revising my second novel (or I'm supposed to be, actually I'm procrastinating by writing this blog instead). As you might have guessed there is an underlying musical theme to it. No rock stars like in I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE, but the characters are the kind of kids who would tell the story of their life with music. So when I was writing the book, I carefully picked out a song that represented each character. In fact, at one point I had a song for every chapter. Ok, maybe it was another procrastination technique, but I loved it because it was like making a big mix tape (or CD for those of you born after 1985 or iTunes playlist for you really high tech folks). And back in the day I was the mix tape queen.

I lay claim to that throne because I started creating mixes the really hard way when I was ten. I taped songs off the radio. It sounds simple enough, but trying doing it in the perfect order. You see, the Stephanie Kuehnert mix has to have flow, sound-wise and theme-wise. A portion of the "Stephanie and Katie Summer of '03 Driving Mix" (which is a three-disc set because I always get carried away) follows a geographical path: "Santa Monica" by Everclear leads into "Malibu" by Hole leads into "Dizz Knee Land" by Dada leads into "Olympia" by Rancid. Waiting for a specific song to come on the radio so you can record it in exactly the right order, that's a science!

Fortunately, technology has advanced. By eighth grade I had a CD player and by the end of high school, I had a pretty sweet stereo system that allowed me to use songs from CD, cassette, and vinyl. (You had to know I'm the type to have a serious vinyl collection, right?) I kept making mix tapes instead of CDs until 2002 because for the most part I listened to them in my car, which still had a tape deck. I'm a serious devotee of the driving mix. In fact, I prepared for getting my driver's license by making a mix tape and I made a new one at least once a year, many of which I shared with my best friend Katie. Now, I no longer have a car so I make playlists for my iPod to make Chicago public transportation more bearable. Also my friend Eryn and I travel together once a year and we alternate who makes the mix CD. It's one of the best parts of our trips!

Then, I make writing playlists. You might have heard the one I made for I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE on my website or myspace, but while I was procrastinating a few weeks back, I created my ideal soundtrack for IWBYJR. It follows the storyline of the book perfectly in song, how cool is that? I can't use Project Playlist or anything online to duplicate it because it has some harder-to-find songs on there, so I'm burning it on CD instead and my fabulous webmistress Jenny Hassler has agreed to design some hott artwork. It's going to be part of the prize for my first contest and you can enter to win the CD along with some early IWBYJR promo materials by simply signing up to be a member of my street team. Street team members are volunteers who spread the word about IWBYJR by putting up banners on their myspace or other website, passing out promo goodies (which I send you) around town, or just telling people about the book. Not a huge commitment, but if you sign up before January 15th, you're eligible to become one of seven lucky folks who gets a mix CD from yours truly, the Mix Tape Queen. Who knows, it might become your favorite mix ever.

And if you're wondering what my favorite mix ever is, it's a tape that my friend Tom made junior year of high school. He used some serious old school mixing skill on it, blending snippets of songs from the radio (he demonstrated how overplayed Bush's "Glycerine" was that summer by putting it on there three times), his record player, and best of all, the only full version of a song that he put on was "Loser Fan Club" by the band he fronted in junior high, the Skexies (if anyone remembers what movie that band name comes from I might have to reward you with a mix CD just for that!). I may be one of the few people on earth in possession of a recording of that early Tom Smith classic and now that his latest band Office is getting rather popular that rarity might become pretty desirable. Not that I would ever eBay my favorite mix!

What about you, what's the story of your favorite mix tape/CD/playlist? And authors, name five songs that would go on the soundtrack for your book. Here's a little peek into the IWBYJR ultimate soundtrack: "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" by Sleater-Kinney (of course), "I'm Not Dead" by Pink, "Suddenly Cool" by the Methadones, "Ragged Company" by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, and "New Wave" by Against Me!, but you gotta enter the contest to find out more!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Caught in No-Man's Land

It hit me, reading the blog entries here, that I'm kind of in a unique position.

I'm the only one who doesn't have an upcoming release with MTV Books and I'm not going to—at least, not at any time in the foreseeable future.  I do have a young adult release coming up in early '09, but that's with a different publisher and I don't know—I'd feel kind of odd talking about it here, even though it's all I want to talk about because I'm in the throes of revision for it and it's all that my creative brain is full of right now.  Plus, I just really, really like the story.  

The other side of the No-Man's Land coin is that I don't have any particularly recent releases.  Adiós is more than a year back and Accent was released nearly five months ago, so neither of them constitutes any kind of fresh news.  Any of the typical blog stories—where did I get my inspiration, what influences me with a particular story, tell us about the characters... it all feels as if I've already answered them a hundred times before.  

This is where things get tough for me—as I mentioned in a column for my agent, I find it difficult to sell myself.  Ridiculous, no?  But it just goes against my general nature to go tooting my own horn.  But it's an evil necessity.  Actually, contrary to what this post may sound like, I do enjoy talking about my books—a lot.  I just worry about wearing out my welcome! :-)

So anyhow, I will make  concerted effort to talk my lovely MTV Books up, especially since I'm very proud of both of them and they've taken me some incredible places.  And anything that anyone wants to ask me about either—I'm more than happy to answer.  Deal?

Okay.  I'll start then—I found out last Friday that I made my very first Best of list.  If you scroll on over to page three of the article, you'll see that author Mary Castillo chose as her best book of 2007, none other than IT'S NOT ABOUT THE ACCENT.  Merry Christmas, baby!  Especially since I'm there alongside such luminaries as Junot Díaz, who wrote what is unarguably the most celebrated Latino novel of 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Dude.  How unbelievably hard does that rock?  My book on a list like that.  It boggles the mind, really.

So, anyhow, that's kind of where I sit—and the deal utterly stands.  Anything anyone wants to ask me, I'm more than happy to answer.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

What’s in a name?

I name my characters very carefully for reasons I have developed as both a writer and a reader.

As a reader, I’m annoyed when more than one character name in a book starts with the same letter. When the book gets really good and I read faster, my eyes use that initial capital letter as shorthand and skip over the rest of the name. If there are two or three R-characters, I get confused. So when I write a book, I jot down the alphabet and make sure I don’t use more than one main character name for each letter. This is a habit I developed on my own, but I’ve since heard that some editors ask writers to change names when several start with the same letter. Affirmation makes me feel 50% less neurotic.

As a reader, I’m also taken aback by strange character names. Some names don’t sound like names, and lately writers love to give heroines boy-names. If I have to think too hard about a name, I’m pulled out of the story.

As a writer, when I begin a new manuscript, I’m embarking on a lonely journey of several months. I do everything possible to keep myself on the edge of my seat. So my characters have names with special meaning to me or the story, even if that meaning will never be apparent to my readers.

In the manuscript I just finished, the heroine is named Zoey because at first I pictured her looking like Zooey Deschanel, but I think Zooey has one too many O’s, and I could not be bothered with repeatedly looking up the key to type an umlaut (Zoë). By the time I finished writing, I’d changed the character until she looked nothing like Zooey Deschanel--but I have to start somewhere, and I still like the name Zoey.

The hero of that story is an Olympic-caliber swimmer who works on his dad’s charter fishing boat and is very unhappy about it. I named him Doug, which means “black water,” according to the baby naming website. I spend a LOT of time on the baby naming website.

One of my favorite characters I’ve written is the heroine of BOY IN BLUE, which is coming out in March 2009. I named her Meg. I have a cousin my age named Meg, and I grew up thinking Meg was the coolest name in the world, MUCH cooler than Jennifer.

Here is how I came up with the name of the hero. I live in Alabama and my critique partner Vicki lives in Utah, but somehow over months of e-mailing and calling each other, we had become best friends without ever meeting in person. We finally met at a writers’ conference in Reno. Between playing blackjack and listening to the (excellent!) Johnny Cash impersonator in the bar, we had the sort of strange conversation you have with someone when you are best friends but are meeting in person for the first time and are trying desperately to make sure you will still like each other afterward. Somehow we got on the subject of the names of our characters and strange names of people we’d known in real life.

Vicki: I went to school with a guy named John Actor. It flowed off the tongue so well that no one ever called him John. Everyone called him Johnactor, one word.

Jenn: That would be a great name for a character. Johnafter.

Vicki: I said Johnactor.

Jenn: What? [The casino was loud.]


Jenn: Oh. *pause* Johnafter is a better name for a character.

I came home and wrote a book about John After, a.k.a. Johnafter, a 19-year-old rookie cop with a Dark Past.

If you’re a writer, how do you come up with character names? Do you give it a lot of thought, or is it just me? We would love to hear the story behind characters' names in your books.

If you’re a reader, what do you love about character names, and what annoys you? I’ll try to keep that in mind for the next manuscript. ;)

Monday, December 10, 2007

2008? Really?

I have this problem where I can't seem to think about next year until I've bought my dayplanner, which I did last week. So all of a sudden I realized that it's going to be 2008 in a few weeks, and that my book, What Happens Here, which "isn't coming out until 2008!" is going to be coming out soon. May, when it pubs, will be here before I know it.

The most exciting book news of the week for me is that National Book Award finalist Sara Zarr has contributed an amazing quote for the front cover. See all that white space up top? Picture, if you will, this there:

"A compulsively readable tale of complicated friendships, life-changing loss, and the search for authentic experience in a world full of artifice. It's a story of coming to terms with the fragility of life as well as its mettle, and with with the failures of those we love along with our own...in other words, growing up."
—Sara Zarr, author of Story of a Girl

Pretty exciting stuff indeed.

Not exciting: reviewing the copy editor's marks and notes. I'm grateful, for example, that the copy editor pointed out that I referred to a B&B in Italy when, technically, it's a pensione, but I mean, come on! Zzzzzzzzzz. And on that note, I should get back to it, so that when What Happens Here comes out in May, there won't be any big mistakes in it!

I suppose I should also start thinking about New Year's resolutions? Does anyone have any that are rarin' to go?

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

"The Race"

writer ideaI’m participating in a race.

A race against time. More specifically a deadline for my second MTV title, INVISIBLE TOUCH. :)

Deadlines are something we as writers are not always comfortable with.

I was reading Marjorie Liu’s blog the other day--she’s currently gone under for her deadline--and only comes up for air for a few minutes to post this:

Hair = Gross.
Food = Down to applesauce, frozen spinach, and ice cream, followed by gnawing on my own leg.
Cats = Frightened of hair, and making peculiar noises in the kitchen.
Poodle = Hanging in there.
Haha! Oh, and she also mentions what Meg Cabot is writing on her blog:
I don’t know about other writers, but when I’m towards the end of writing a book, I am completely unfit for human companionship. Like, I pretty much stop bathing and I can’t speak in complex sentences anymore.

For the welfare of others, I try to avoid human contact when I am at this stage of one of my books.

And other humans know to avoid me, as well. It really is safer that way.

I get it. I get what they are going through. The race against time to finish the book and get it into the hands of the editor so we can all be happy and meet the schedule.

The thing is, I wish I could become a hermit and stay in my jammies all day, but my family might abandon ship! :) Instead I’ve bought stock in French Vanilla Café, and my mind is muddled as I drive here and there, you know, from the late-to-bed-early-to-rise schedule. And suddenly I'll remember something that needs to be done that day, and I rush around like a craaazzzaay woman, trying to get it done all the while the book is lurking around in my brain.

So tell me, Authors…what’s your life like as that deadline looms over you and you're speeding toward the finish line?

Monday, December 3, 2007

Ski Trips from Hell... the story behind OBLIVION ROAD

So my new novel, Oblivion Road, is about five friends who get stranded during a ski trip in the Colorado wilderness. Readers often ask me where I get the ideas for my books—and I usually don't have a good answer for them! Ideas are such whimsical, odd, dreamlike little things. But in the case of Oblivion Road, the idea came directly from the experience of one of my friends. Back in high school, my friend Mark flew to Denver to go skiing for a week with his older brothers, right before Christmas. He was really psyched about the trip, and he was a great skier. (I almost went along myself, except my parents made me stay home because we had relatives coming into town).

As it turns out, Mark and his brothers never made it to the slopes. Their rented van broke down about an hour away during a massive snowstorm, and there was no way for them to call for help. They ended up spending the night out there, in the brutal cold, figuring that the next day someone would come along and rescue them. No such luck! Sometime around the next afternoon, they realized that they hadn't seen a single car, and came to the horrible realization that the road must have got closed because of the blizzard. They had to hike about two miles to a ranger station, where luckily, they managed to get help. But they knew they'd avoided a horrible disaster by the skin of their teeth.

So this was the genesis of Oblivion Road. I always kept their saga in the back of my mind over the years, but I wasn't sure if it was enough of an idea to support a whole novel. Then one day, I was thinking about it, and realized, Hey, how could I make things even worse for them? And I came up with the idea that while they were stranded, someone would stumble out of the snow, and that the person would be an escaped convict. From there, the novel just took on a life of its own.

Anyway, while I'm on the cheerful subject of skiing horror stories, there was one scene from real life I wanted to work into the book, but couldn't. Another friend of mine from college was in Vermont once, skiing a double diamond, when he slipped and fell going fast on an icy patch. Through some bizarre feat of physical contortion, his ski actually snapped off, and the metal tip punctured his skin—and the ski went all the way through his leg! He had to get taken down the mountain on one of those emergency sleds, and it was about six months before he could walk again. Ah, wintertime! So if anyone's got any juicy skiing horror stories, please feel free to share... (or maybe not...)


Saturday, December 1, 2007

My Inner Lit Nerd

I'm in the middle of moving and I'm reminded of two things: 1) packing completely and totally blows, and 2) I have a shopping problem. Having fifteen pairs of black shoes never seemed like a problem until I actually have to take them somewhere all at once.

Of course, what's really tough to pack are all my books. I have a scary amount of reading material. When I went to the U-haul to buy book boxes and requested thirty, the guy behind the counter asked me if I lived in a library. Well, yeah, kinda. I'm a writer, so naturally it follows that I like to read.

I've always had a book addiction, and it hasn't gotten any better with time, or with the invention of Amazon. It's part of the reason I dreamt up Bard Academy in the first place. The idea of a boarding school haunted by famous fictional characters, well, that's my idea of heaven. I've always been a lit nerd.

I get attached to characters - both the ones I dream up and the ones created by other people. To answer Jenny's question, yes, I do think about what might continue to happen to my characters after I've finished writing a book. It's hard to put some of them to rest (Miranda of Bard Academy fame has a particularly loud voice, and she doesn't like not being the center of attention).

But I also think about characters I've read about in other books, which is part of the reason so many of them pop up in Bard Academy. Well, I've postponed packing long enough. I have twenty-nine more boxes to fill, which brings me to a question for you: If you had to move, but could only take five books with you, which ones would they be, and why?