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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Blue or Pink?

EVERYTHING I NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT BEING A GIRL I LEARNED FROM JUDY BLUME is coming out in trade paperback in April. And when books go from hardcover to paperback they sometimes change the cover. So I was wondering what they'd do. And the other day I received an email from my editor and saw - they changed the cover! Not a lot, as you can tell. They just went from pink to blue.
Hmm. I didn't know what to think. Did I like it? And why just change the background to blue? I often wonder what the designers are thinking when designing covers. I've received many a hateful cover in my writing life - and was lucky enough to have three changed to more palatable artwork that better reflected the content of the books.
Getting the cover is one of the things I always look forward to - it's like your book is real because people can see it, not just read it. And when it's right you're SO excited. And when it's wrong you want to cry, but instead you call your agent and discuss. And then she calls your editor to discuss. And hopefully all that discussing results in a new cover you love.
Out of the 10 books I've written there is one cover I hate. I hate, hate, hate it. Would change it tomorrow if I had the chance. I hate even looking at the book or having anyone else look at it. And that sucks. But I love the other 9, and 9 out of 10 isn't bad, I guess.
So what do you think? Pink or blue?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Say, what's your name?

Parents can agonize for months over what to name their child. Picking a name for a new pet can be stressful too, especially when fighting kids are involved. Selecting names for characters in your book is not much different. A friend of mine said she can’t even start a book until she has all the names down pat. Many scour baby name books or sites, looking for the “perfect” moniker. Me, I take a less scientific approach. I just let the name come to me. And no, I don’t sit there for days waiting to see it written on a coffee mug or flashed across the six o’clock news.
In Shrinking Violet, I actually thought of my main character’s radio name first—Sweet T. That came about because she is sweet and innocent. By doing this, I had easily narrowed down the first letter of her name to a T. I wanted her to have a nickname, Tere, that she goes by and a more formal name that only her mother calls her—Teresa. Much like picking a name for a baby, you actually have to sometimes see your character first before you settle on a name. Tere’s love interest is Gavin and it was not until I visualized him sitting next to her in English class that his name came to be.
I am often tempted to name the “villains” in my books after people that were jerks during my school years. But then I would have to live with their names forever. So actually none of my books so far have characters that are fashioned after people that I know in real life. That’s probably a good thing too!
Do you have any rituals or rules for picking names for characters, children, pets or otherwise?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Going to the Punk Rock Show

Last night I went to see Rise Against and Alkaline Trio in concert and I'm still buzzing from the experience. Especially the Rise Against part because I'd never managed to see them live. Both are Chicago punk bands who are relatively successful (um, I hear them on the radio a lot at least and that's my gauge), and seeing hometown band play always makes for the best concert IMHO because the crowd is extra pumped. Actually part of the crowd was kinda lame, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Concerts have always been a huge part of my life. They were pretty much the highlight of my teenage years. Back then I went to one a week, sometimes more. Seriously. I managed to do this because there was a great punk venue in Chicago called the Fireside Bowl, that had shows almost every day of the week and they were like 5$ or so, affordable even though I only made 4.75/hr bagging groceries at the time. You've probably heard me talk about the Fireside before because my author photo is taken in front of it (an outtake from that photo session is to the left, now it is just a regular bowling alley, but back in the 90s band names would have been on that marquee). It was part of my inspiration for River's Edge in I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone and my characters from my next book Ballads of Suburbia (which is available for pre-order on Amazon now, woo hoo!) go to shows there a lot too. In fact, instead of telling you about it, I will let Kara, my main character from Ballads, tell you about it:

We could usually find parking a block or so from the Fireside. That first night, we parked just around the corner, across from the scraggly grass of a small park. The show was already going on, so we wouldn't have to wait in line outside amongst a bunch of other dirty punks with Mohawks and liberty spikes and every color of hair. You didn't get advance tickets to Fireside shows, you just showed up, and if the band was one you knew everyone was going to be excited about, you showed up really early, claiming your spot on the grubby concrete, which you would trade in for your place right in front of the band. If you got there early enough, you would probably see the band loading their equipment in. There was no stage entrance, no backstage, not even a real stage, absolutely no border between audience and band and no implication that they were somehow better than you, just louder and sometimes more talented. Just people. It was totally the way a show should be.

We saw all kinds of bands there over the next year. Punk bands and hardcore bands and ska bands and grindcore bands and grrrl bands. The first show was a bunch of local bands, some who would go on to be in bands that would be something in the punk sense at least and some who probably grew up and got real jobs, but that was how it went. And honestly, I was so overwhelmed by the experience itself that the music that night was just background noise.

The Fireside itself is rather surreal, especially when you approach it for the first time while stoned. The side of building looks like it’s covered in giant, red and white tiles from someone’s scuffed, tacky kitchen floor. A large, red bowling pin looms above the doorway, stating redundantly, “Bowling,” and, though I’m sure the sign is secured well, due to the worn state of the establishment, the threat of it crashing down seems eminent.

We passed beneath it, paid our five bucks, got our hands marked so that supposedly we couldn’t drink—Adrian had a beer in his mitts within minutes—and emerged into the bowling alley. It seriously was still a bowling alley. The bands played right by the first two lanes and sometimes people bowled at the other end while the show went on.

So that was the Fireside (and a sneak preview of my book, I guess). I saw Slapstick, a band that would go on to spawn Alkaline Trio and a bunch of other bands (the Chicago punk scene is prolific and kind of incestuous, all the bands seem to be related somehow as you can see here in the Slapstick family tree) at the Fireside on a few occasions (and whenever I hear Alkaline Trio on Q101, I laugh a little bit remembering Slapstick's song "Alternative Radio," which has some pretty choice words for that station) and I've seen Alkaline Trio a few times over the past couple years. I never saw Rise Against in their early years which makes me sad because I imagine their live shows were probably much more intense and fun than the one I saw last night.

The reason I put concerts at such a high priority is because back in 1993 when I was 14 years old, I asked my parents if I could see my favorite band Nirvana. They said I'd already spent too much money on concert tickets that season (I think I was going to see Smashing Pumpkins and Urge Overkill as well), so I could see Nirvana when they toured in the summer. Well, Kurt Cobain killed himself six months later so I never got to see my favorite band. I never let my parents say no to a concert again. Bands are volatile. They break up. Tragedies happen. I don't want to miss out on another experience of a lifetime.

Since then I've managed to see every band I wanted to except the Distillers (I missed one show because I had tickets to see REM that night and then the Distillers canceled the show I had tickets to) and up until this point I kept missing Rise Against for one reason or another. So I was hyped for this show. Unbelievably hyped. I complained that the opening bands were taking too long and so were the set changes (if you've read my book, you know I have no patience for those) and when lights went down and the banner dropped that said Rise, I rose, screaming and cheering..... And I was one of three people on the balcony in the Congress Theatre who did so.

Uh yeah. I'm 29 and I spent my teenage years getting crushed in the front row and bruising myself up in the pit and crowd-surfing and all that jazz, so now I go in the balcony where I can see and breathe and sit until the main band comes up. I saw Social Distortion (who is a band I see religiously every time they come to town) at the Congress with my fellow old-and-lame balcony-sitting friends and when Social D came on, everyone including us stood up and we danced in the aisles and it was all good. And let me tell you, the Social D audience was much older than the Rise Against audience, but this time I watched in horror as some dude a few rows behind one of the other girls who stood up actually walked down and yelled at her for standing up and blocking his view. What???!!!! It's a concert! Get off your lazy butt and dance! Sickened by this I took my phone out of my pocket and shoved it in my purse along with the necklace I would die if I lost. I told my confused boyfriend, "I'm going down on the floor because these people are freakin' lame. You coming?"

He shook his head so I left my coat and purse with him, went downstairs and started weaving my way through the audience up toward the front where people were moving and dancing and sweating and pumping their fists and shouting their hearts out along with Tim, the singer of Rise Against. I found a spot and jumped up and down and screamed and sweated and danced in the middle of the chaos like I used too. It wasn't nearly as chaotic as it was back at the tiny Fireside Bowl and while I seriously considered crowd-surfing and/or moshing I decided against it since I haven't done either thing in nearly 10 years. Eventually I went back upstairs and retrieved my boyfriend and insisted he come have a real concert experience too.

It was beautiful though I definitely wished I was at a smaller club to intensify the experience, but I get to see my new favorite band, Civet, at a tiny club in two weeks. I'm looking forward to it like I did as a teen. I mean now it is rare for me to see a concert once a month, so to go again so soon is going to be a treat.

What about you? Do you go to a lot of concerts? Any favorites? (Mine was Hole, Veruca Salt and the Geraldine Fibbers at the Metro in October 1994.) Any bands you are dying to see live?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Writing to the beat of my own drummer

I can easily say that this has been one of the oddest years for me, with respect to writing, I've ever had. It's the first year, since I started pursuing the craft seriously, that I haven't completed a manuscript. I started an adult MS back in January, but had to keep putting it aside for revisions on a young adult manuscript that was scheduled for release next summer and now isn't going to be released at all. And in the meantime, here was this other manuscript, sitting and gathering dust and the occasional few words when I felt inspired, which, unfortunately, wasn't often.

Yeah, I know-- it's confusing to me too. Needless to say, it's been a Year O'Drama, one to which I'll be relieved to say goodbye, if only for that whole fresh start thing. But I figured I'd at least kick start myself into gear by participating in NaNo. Four years ago, I did NaNo and "won" (i.e. put down 50K in the thirty days allotted) but timing and other deadlines conspired to keep me from participating since. And it just wasn't necessary, really. For a long stretch there, I was writing steadily, whether it was on contracted works or proposals for submission or whatever. But the sheer FUBARness that has been this year not only threw a wrench into my typical writing schedules, it also wreaked havoc with my confidence.

So NaNo-- basically, an excuse to write crap as long as you write-- seemed like a pretty good place to start. However, being me, I thought it was silly to try to start something new. I'd just pull out the project I started last January and get back to work on that. And as I got back into it, I found myself writing a lot of new words (15K so far, so I'm a little "behind" but still, a nice word count for two weeks) and even better, I found myself interested in the words that had come before. I was tweaking and playing with phrases and just enjoying the feel of the words rolling around in my mind. And I even had the plot take a slight left turn to Albuquerque even as I was shaking my wee fist and yelling at the screen, "Nooooooooo!! You cannot do this to meeee!!!"

In other words, I was back in my particular groove. I'd rediscovered my joy in writing, when I was so frightened I'd lost it, being so concerned with what the amorphous "they" were going to think about it. You know what I mean, right? The "I hope they like it," or "I wonder what they are going to think about it." Whoever "they" might be in your psyche.

And therein lies the real gift of NaNo. It's really not in the actual word count or the nifty badges and word meters or the coffeehouse write-ins. I mean, it can be—I'm not dismissing that at all. But what I'm trying to say, rather inelegantly, is that the real gift of NaNo is what you take from it. In all likelihood, I'm not going to make word count and that's okay with me. For me, this year, has been about rediscovering who I am as I writer. Rediscovering why I do this and the joy I get from it.

It's been about rediscovering how to write to the beat of my own, eccentric drummer.

So for all of you doing NaNo, good luck in finding what you most want this month.

Friday, November 14, 2008

How to wait

From the author of How to React When You See Your Cover for the First Time and How to Let Go of a Manuscript comes the latest in Jennifer Echols’s acclaimed series of how-to blogs for authors slowly driving themselves insane.

So you’ve finally gotten your cover, but your new novel doesn’t come out until March 17? No worries. There are plenty of things you can do with just a cover until then.

1. Print out your cover and tape it to another book. Pretend that your book has already come out.

2. Remember those stickers from the middle of I Am America and So Can You for The Stephen T. Colbert Nominee for The Literary Excellence? Stick one to your cover and pretend you have won the National Book Award. Wait--what’s this? The MTV Books art department did not leave room anywhere on the cover for your National Book Award! Award John’s chin.

3. Make an LOLcat.

4. Make a countdown calendar.

I am not satisfied with this one, but the other choices involved Care Bears and/or Pamela Anderson.

5. Get over yourself and write something new. NaNoWriMo helps tremendously.

6. Receive your cover for your next book, The Ex Games, coming out in October 2009, but you are not allowed to show it to anyone because it hasn’t been finalized! See step 1.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Lull

I'm in one of those weird writerly quiet periods, while I wait to see when and how my next book will be published. I know I'm supposed to be relaxing, resting on my laurels and such, but what I really want to do is get back to work. I want to write! I just don't know what to work on next.

I came up with this idea to write a sequel to "The Pursuit of Happiness," called "Life, Liberty, Liza." I think it could be fun to go back to the Morrissville Historical Village for another summer and tell Liza's story. But I also wonder, Are sequels inherently lame? Do writers return to old settings and characters because it's comforting? Is there ever REALLY a need for a sequel to a book that was written to stand entirely on its own? Can't I think of anything NEW and EXCITING?

Probably. So after spending a few hours on an outline for the sequel, I set it aside. I'm still trying to get my home office up and running and have some painting to do. It's as good a distraction as any from fretting over the fate of the manuscript that I just sent out into the world, and I can certainly try to think up new ideas while painting. But I wish I could just RELAX and ENJOY this downtime instead of feeling like I want it to just be over already! For the other writers out there, how do you handle this sort of downtime? I envision you all out getting massages or reading poetry in hammocks or going out to rock shows every night and sleeping late every day. All of which sounds like a heck of a lot more fun than painting!

Thoughts on sequels appreciated.


Friday, November 7, 2008

There's Nothing Like a Challenge

November 2008 has already been a month like no other. The history-making election of Barack Obama has engendered a worldwide spirit of exuberance and optimism. But, while the beginning of a new era is on everyone's minds, the months of turbulent Presidential campaigning have led me to another topic: Goal-setting.
As I watched the exhausted candidates crisscrossing the country, giving speech after speech, exposing themselves to criticism and ridicule, I wondered why. Why do people voluntarily run 100 miles through Death Valley, climb Mount Everest, swim the English Channel, or run for President? Why do we feel the need to test ourselves?
I'm one of those people. Three decades ago I declared myself out of shape and took up running. In the beginning, jogging a block was a challenge, but I soon reached my goal of running two miles without stopping. While that would have been enough for some people, it wasn't for me. A year later I ran my first marathon, all 26.2 miles of it, after weeks of training during which my friends and family shook their heads at my pig-headed determination. While I was still training for marathons I took up bodybuilding, working out with weights for two to three hours a day. Then I went for power lifting, even though I weighed less than 115 pounds.
And when people asked me why, the best answer I could give was, "To see if I can."
November is also National Novel Writing Month, when thousands of foolhardy writers pledge to complete a 50,000-word novel in thirty days. While I applaud their resolve, I wonder how they'll manage to get it done--and why.
So I'm asking for your thoughts. What unusual, thrilling, or daredevil challenges are in your past, present, or future? Is the concept of goal setting uniquely human, or are those squirrels darting in front of our cars trying for a personal best?
Tell me. What drives you to stretch beyond your comfort zone?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A New Dawn

I am jubilant this morning, my friends. Filled with a kind of hope and vigor that I have not felt in a very long time. Hope prevailed over hate and ignorance last night, and my sons stayed up to watch it. Nicholas is 14 and has an Obama poster hanging on his wall, and he and I were both near tears during the speech. He had to get up at 6am, but he wasn't going to bed until Obama spoke, and I let him stay up. Daniel, who is 12, had to get up at 7am, but likewise did not want to go to bed. I let him stay up so that he could see it live, and have this piece of history to remember for the rest of his life. After the speech he looked up at me and said "Barack Obama is now officially my hero."

We've elected someone our children can look up to, who can be a guiding light in so many ways. I feared those days were behind us, and though I know there are hard years to come, I also know, now, that there are better days ahead.

America has sent the world a signal. We've been derelict in our duties, to use the power of ideas for the greater good, but we've remembered, now, what it was all for.

We're back, and we're ready to work again.