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Friday, July 31, 2009

My Most Influential Book(s) When I Was A Teen

My teen years were a weird time for me when it came to reading. Actually pretty much after age 11, I stopped reading age appropriate stuff. I went from Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume to VC Andrews and Stephen King. One summer, I actually picked my dad's copy of Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead, which is definitely not meant for 11 year olds. I was just a voracious reader and I loved everything from realistic, contemporary fiction to classics to sci-fi/fantasy and horror. I really did want to read about teenagers, but there was nothing about them out there that I related to since my teenage life was a far-cry from the Wakefield twins of the Sweet Valley High Series.

Then I discovered Francesca Lia Block. She wrote about troubled kids, misfit kids and set her stories in this beautiful, magical, though often times poisonous version of Los Angeles. Francesca Lia Block is best known for the Weetzie Bat series and though the collected books of Weetzie Bat (Dangerous Angels) would be my stuck on a desert island book for sure, the book I read over and over again was The Hanged Man. First of all, it's structured around Tarot cards and I was absolutely obsessed with Tarot in my early teens. But ultimately it's a book about a girl who is coming to terms with repressed memories of sexual abuse. Somehow Block was able to write about this broken girl who was in such pain with such beautiful language and that made reading The Hanged Man like an escape and a confrontation at the same time. I could get caught up in the beauty of the imagery, but I was also forced to face some of my feelings that were very similar to Laurel's. I was emerging from an abusive relationship at the time and I saw my own reflection in descriptions of Laurel like: "I will be thin and pure like a glass cup. I move my hands over my body--my shoulders, collarbone, my rib cage, my hip bones like part of an animal skull, my small thighs. In the mirror my face is pale and my eyes look bruised." Laurel was definitely the fictional character I related to most at 16 and reading her story over and over again really helped me heal.

I also read a ton of nonfiction as a teen. And one of the books that was my bible was Girl Power by Hillary Carlip. Hillary had hung out with, talked to and told the stories of so many groups of teen girls, groups she broke down into four categories: The Outlaws and Outcasts, Outskirts, Outsiders, and Insiders. Of course, I related to The Outlaws and Outcasts and the Outsiders the most, but for the first time I was able to see that even the Sorority Girls and Teen Queens shared the same feelings as I did. Girl Power made me really proud to be a girl. But most importantly it introduced me to the Riot Grrrl movement. I knew about Riot Grrrl through some magazine mentions and through the music, but in Girl Power, the grrrls talked about what it meant to them, what they found in the movement and it shared excerpts of zines.

This inspired me to go on the hunt for zines and to start creating my own. I met so many likeminded grrrls who helped me through the darkest period of my life. And that was when I really started using my voice and telling stories out in public. People often compliment me on my honesty in both my fiction (ie not being afraid to show the darker side of life) and on my blog. It's one of the biggest compliments in the world, but I absolutely wouldn't be as honest as I am if I hadn't come of age in the Riot Grrrl zine community.

Interestingly enough my two favorite books connect in a way. Francesca Lia Block and Hillary Carlip came together in 1998 and put together a book called Zine Scene and that book marked my first ever publication. On page 16 you'll find this picture of 17 year old me that comes from a page in my zine Hospital Gown.

So ultimately Francesca and Hillary taught me to be honest and that writing could be lyrical and full of dark truths. They gave me something to strive toward and in a way, they launched my career.

Monday, July 27, 2009

My most influential book when I was a teen

As a teen, my go-to triumvirate of authors was Judy Blume, Paula Danziger, and Lois Duncan. I read everything by all of them. Of those books, this one was not my absolute favorite--I would be hard-pressed to choose a favorite--but it was my most influential, because of what I did with it.

For those of you who think this book looks vaguely familiar but you can't quite place it...back in the day it was called Five Were Missing, and it's by the same author as I Know What You Did Last Summer, which was later made into the movie starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, but this one is so much better! The last five teens on a school bus get kidnapped for ransom. They include (1 and 2) a perfect couple, (3) the perfect boy's younger brother, who needs to break away and become his own person, (4) some girl I don't remember very well because she is sketched vaguely so readers can identify with her, and (5) a lost soul-type boy. I think he has a shriveled arm? And an attitude. He and the Vaguely Sketched Girl form an unlikely bond and fall in love, and then OMG HE GETS SHOT TRYING TO SAVE EVERYONE OMG and she has to take care of him!!! This book was nearly perfect. All it needed was me, my BFF from high school, and [cute boy's name removed for reasons of extreme embarrassment].

My BFF loved Five Were Missing too. And when we were teens, she had her own crush on [another cute boy's name removed so my BFF does not kill me]. She would spend the night with me and we would stay up most of the night, jumping on the bed, hopped up on Coke (a-cola), rewriting Five Were Missing starring us and [cute boy] and [other cute boy]. We were the last ones on the bus and were kidnapped for ransom, and of course the kidnappers held me in a room alone with [cute boy] and held her in a separate room alone with [other cute boy], and she and I were so much wittier than Vaguely Sketched Girl, and [cute boy] and [other cute boy] had attitude problems but their arms were not shriveled, because what was up with that Jane Eyre nonsense, Lois Duncan? In other words, we were writing fanfic before the internet existed.

This exercise taught me a couple of things. First, I learned so much about how to write a novel. I credit this experience with jump-starting my nascent novel-writing career. It forced me to think about the process of forming a plot. WHY were we kidnapped instead of somebody else? WHY did the kidnappers force me to stay alone in a room with [cute boy], other than the fact that I was fifteen years old with a hopeless crush? WHY did he have an attitude problem even though his arm was not shriveled? My BFF and I had to talk these things out in order to make our version plausible and satisfying--and that's exactly what I'm going to do this afternoon when I sit down to revise the proposal for my next novel.

Second, I learned that the writing business is more fun when you have friends. My BFF and I had been friends since we were three years old, but this exercise brought us closer. Today she is not a novelist, but she's had jobs that she says are sort of like being a novelist, but for an extrovert. She's had one of her indy films shown at Sundance, and currently she's the artistic director of The Moth, a super-cool show at The Players Club in NYC in which five people stand up and tell a true story about their lives. A typical line-up might include Ethan Hawke, a retired pickpocket, Erica Jong, some little kid, and Moby. Nowadays my BFF and I see each other only once or twice a year. We try to talk on the phone more often, but sometimes it's hard to get hold of her because she's playing phone tag with Julia Stiles. We lead wildly different lifestyles, but we remain close friends and really "get" each other's artistic pursuits.

Thank you, Lois Duncan.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

My most influential book when I was a teen

By the time I reached middle school I had exhausted the “teen” selections in our small local library. In order to find new titles—I could only read Nancy Drew so many times—I moved up to adult books. And nearly 100% of the adult books I read belonged to my mother and grandmother. Luckily for me, they loved to read as much as I do, but I was limited by the titles they owned or traded.

Keeping that in mind, here are a few of the books and authors I loved as a teen.

The first one I remember is THOMASINA: THE CAT WHO THOUGHT SHE WAS GOD by Paul Gallico. I was and am a cat lover, and this story of a cat that was wrongly euthanized and came back to life—thinking she was an Egyptian goddess—was one of my favorites. Shortly before I read it, my beloved cat, Old Tom, found his way home two years after my parents gave him away to a farmer. Inspired by THOMASINA, I wrote several stories about Old Tom’s adventures on the road.

Mom and Grandmother were mystery lovers, which is why I grew up on mysteries. I adored Daphne Du Mauier, especially her classic REBECCA with its dark, spooky secrets. And I pored through Phyllis Whitney’s books where young women thrown into exotic surroundings found the courage to face danger and death—and find the love of their lives. Sigh.

One of the few books I read more than once as a teen was GONE WITH THE WIND, even though Scarlett O’Hara annoyed the crap out of me. What woman in her right mind turns down Rhett Butler? Not me. Although I suspect Rhett’s at least partly to blame for my infatuation with bad boys that lasted through my 20s.

Those are my choices. Now that they’re on my mind, I may sit down and read them all again.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ballads of Suburbia Release Day!

It's finally here!!!!!

Sorry to interrupt your regularly scheduled blog programming, but today is FINALLY Ballads of Suburbia release day! And I am soooooooo proud of this book, I had to shout about it from the rooftops.

I've got a mega party going on over at my blog to celebrate until Aug 14. MTV Books' own Kelly Parra will be there tomorrow and today I told the story of why and how I wrote Ballads of Suburbia. I hope you'll go check it out!

Thanks and now back to your regularly scheduled programming....

Sunday, July 19, 2009

My most influential book when I was a teen

Growing up, like many girls, I was a huge Judy Blume fan. But her books were not the only ones that I devoured. One of my favorite books that I read in middle school was The Kidnapping of Courtney Van Allen & What’s-Her-Name by Joyce Cool.
I thought the main character, Jan Travis was so cool. She was off to visit her aunt in New York and was allowed to go sight-seeing by herself! Hello, I was only allowed to walk downtown for pizza, not go see a Broadway play or go horseback riding by myself. Plus she was not afraid to express herself. I admired how gregarious she was as I was very shy in middle school. I thought Jan Travis was living the cool life and I enjoyed every minute of her journey.
Plus, when Jan’s world collided with Courtney’s, we were in for a wild ride and I rooted for Jan the whole way. Courtney was a snotty rich kid, daughter of an actress and politician, but I was secretly living vicariously though her lavish lifestyle. One of my favorite details is that Courtney wore a shirt that said, Drop Dead, for 47 days. That detail stuck out in my mind as one of the best things about the book. It’s funny how the small things stick with you.
When I began writing Shrinking Violet for some reason I was drawn back to this book. Problem was that I had forgotten the complete title. I knew it had Courtney and kidnapping in the title. A quick search on the internet brought up nothing but when I visited my parents, I found the book in our basement.
I thought back to what drew me to this book as I was writing my own teen novel. It was a combination of good writing, humor, adventure and a likeable main character. It’s sad to see that the book is now available on Amazon for just a penny but I’m not giving up my copy! One of the blurbs on the book calls it a lot of fun and that’s what it was—a fun, pleasurable read that stuck with me through the years. A book does not have to be a masterpiece to touch you. It just has to provide meaning in some way. This one did it for me and it’s really nice that it was Joyce Cool’s debut novel.

Friday, July 17, 2009

My most influential book when I was a teen

I loved reading Norma Klein growing up. She is my most favorite author ever. I devoured IT'S OK IF YOU DON'T LOVE ME, LOVE IS ONE OF THE CHOICES and BEGINNERS LOVE and everything else (although those are my favs).

When I started writing teen books I went onto Amazon and bought all of her books again. I wanted to read them and one day share them with my daughter. IT'S OK... was sitting on my desk and my husband picked it up and started reading. He randomly picked the story up in the middle. After a few pages he came to find me, held the book up and said, "Now I know why you're the way you are."

Apparently I'm like a Norma Klein character. Which didn't bother me at all. All of her female characters are smart, strong willed, determined, driven, practical, pragmatic and unafraid to say what they think. Oddly, the guy characters are usually nicer, sweeter, milder than the girls.

Looking at the cover of these books and the titles (with the word "Love" splashed across them) you'd think they were mushy romances. They're anything but. The girls aren't wrapped up in the dream of a guy rescuing them, they don't revolve their lives around their boyfriends, they don't dream of the prince sweeping them off their feet. They're applying to Ivy League colleges, are more interested in science than make-up and live in New York City where they confidently walk city streets without feeling like they should be afraid.

But even if I love the characters, I love the stories as well. Nothing huge - no other worldly creatures, vampires, special powers or dramatic life altering accidents. They're just plain old girls in high school going through plain old girl things, yet they're anything but plain. They were just like me and I felt like they'd be girls I'd have as friends.

Every book I write I strive to be "Norma Klein-esque." Don't know that I'm there yet, but to me she wrote books that spoke so truly to the person I was and the person I would be, that I want to write books that make readers feel like that.

Two years ago I met Judy Blume, who, it turned out, was very good friends with Norma Klein when they both lived in NYC. Norma Klein died some years ago, but I got to learn all about her as a person and writer and it was one of the coolest things ever. Wish I could have met her in real life and told her what a huge impact she had on me as a writer, but mostly as a person.

Probably much to my husband's dismay. He doesn't know what he's in for when my daughter is old enough to read my copies of Norma's books. God help him.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dispatches from ALA

This past weekend the American Library Association (ALA) held it's conference in Chicago. Since it was right in my own city, I asked the lovely people at MTV Books if I could attend. They said yes and it turned out that Jeri Smith-Ready who is not an MTV author, but a Pocket author which MTV Books is a part of would also be attending. Since I love the books in WVMP vampire series, Wicked Game and Bad to the Bone, I invited her to stay at my house.

So I got to spend the entire weekend with Jeri and I also met a number of other incredible authors and book bloggers.

Saturday, Jeri and I just roamed McCormick Place taking in the vast number of exhibits. The Simon & Schuster booth had our books on display so we posed with them:

Toward the end of the afternoon there was a reception for some of the S&S YA authors including Laurie Halse Anderson (I bought a copy of Wintergirls and had her sign that and my copy of Speak!), MT Anderson, Holly Black, and Lisa McMann. Jeri and I talked to Lisa McMann at length and wound up going to dinner with her, Lisa Schroeder, and a few other authors, journalists and people from S&S. Since I was the local, it was my responsibility to pick a restaurant for us. I chose my favorite "eclectic Asian" place, Tamarind. Fortunately everyone loved it. Though I think I freaked out a few of them by order bubble tea. Lisa Schroeder took a picture of me drinking it and you can read more about our dinner on her blog.

The next day was the big day, the day I had to do actual events. And the first was at the ungodly hour of 8 am. For many people, I'm sure being somewhere at 8 am is no big task. But I'm a bartender. My sleeping hours are from 2:30 to 10 am. But the event was YALSA's YA Author Coffee Klatch. A ton of very cool authors were there to basically do what was described as speed dating with librarians. We got to sit at a table with five or six librarians and spend four minutes explaining why they should be interested in our books and us as writers. It was a bit nerve-wracking and stressful, but the librarians were so nice and I was starstruck by the authors at the event. Like Sarah Dessen. Yeah, Sarah Dessen. At the end of the event when we were all getting our photo taken as a group, she stood sort of behind me, right next to Jeri. So after the photo was over, I worked up the nerve to say hi to her.

There were also some people I knew and was more comfortable talking to, local YA authors Tina Springer, Kimberley Pauley, Pam Todd, and Simone Elkeles who I'd all met at other area events, so it was nice to see them again. Simone even went out to lunch with me and Jeri after the Coffee Klatch. Sadly, we couldn't go to her signing because it was the same time as ours.

I was kind of hoping Jeri and I would sign side by side because somehow that makes it easier, but she was across the booth from me:

However, the highlight of my ALA was about to happen. Yes, even bigger than meeting all those authors, including incredible NYT bestsellers like Lisa McMann and Sarah Dessen, more important than that to me was meet book bloggers Chelsea, aka The Page Flipper and Kristi aka The Story Siren and their friend Emili. Book bloggers mean the world to YA authors, or at least to me. They are passionate about books and share it with the world and that seriously rocks. So here I am with Chelsea, Emili and Kristi (I was trying not to get tattoo goo in her hair, but we'll get to that in a minute):

So yeah meeting those girls was my biggest highlight. That and the new tattoo I went to get with Jeri. We were both celebrating our birthdays (hers was on Saturday and mine on Monday) and wanted to get tattoos. It was Jeri's first and she was totally a trooper and I think might have even enjoyed it and will probably get more ;) Simone Elkeles was kind enough to take this picture.

I did a video blog about my new tattoo and posted it on Monday as the kick off to the Ballads of Suburbia Cyber Launch Party. Check out that vlog here (and enter to win a copy of Ballads!) I hope you will visit my blog daily from now until Aug 14 to meet all of my guests at the Cyber Launch Party. It's gonna be a blast. Just as fun as ALA, but online so everyone can attend!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

What a difference 9 years make

Next week I'll participate in the Romance Writers of America National Conference in Washington D.C. If you're in the area, I hope you'll come see me at the booksigning for literacy at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel on Wednesday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Click here for a list of the staggering number of authors who will be there, with all proceeds going to a literacy charity. You can also catch me at the Pocket signing (MTV Books is a division of Pocket) on Friday from 9:45 to 11:15 a.m.

With this trip coming up, I've been thinking about my other travels to Washington. When I was 10, my family spent spring break there, mostly in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, because we are a family of nerds. While the rest of America gathered around the TV to watch The Cosby Show, we were watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos. When I was 17 and drum major of my high school marching band, we were part of the Cherry Blossom Festival parade. I still sleep in the T-shirt. Then, 9 years ago, I presented a paper at a the national conference in D.C. for the Rhetoric Society of America.

I was a PhD candidate in English with a concentration in rhetoric and composition. My specialty was genre studies. I'd tried unsuccessfully for years to get a novel published. I figured if I couldn't have my dream job of writing novels, the next best thing was a job writing about writing novels. And maybe, just maybe, in studying what constitutes a genre and how people learn to write it, I would discover how to get published myself.

I never stopped writing during that period. Nine years ago the YA market was in a slump. If you wanted to publish a YA romance, pretty much the only game in town was the Love Stories series. I read a bazillion of these and then wrote my own--a first stab at the idea that would later become Major Crush. The manuscript was rejected, but by that time I had so much knowledge about this genre that it was easy for me to write a pretty cool pop culture paper about what authors could and could not do in this series and why. The Rhetoric Society of America must have thought it was pretty cool, too, because I was accepted as a presenter.

A few weeks ago another PhD candidate in English contacted me with a few questions. He's writing his dissertation on how aggressively publishers market certain YA novels versus how well those novels end up selling, and Major Crush is one of his examples. I didn't ask him whether he's a frustrated YA novelist himself, but if he is, two words: keep writing. You never know what 9 years may bring.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

That Old Devil--Internal Conflict

As you can see by the photo, Iowa’s thunderstorms are kicking our butts this summer. First tree limbs crashed into our house. Then our creek morphed into a raging river and washed out the road to our development, stranding residents on both sides of the Great Divide.

Mike and I discovered the washout when we were driving into town for our morning jog. One look into the cavern and I knew my plans for the day would be taking an abrupt detour. Since I couldn’t get to Des Moines, I had to call in on my cell--the phone lines had been washed out, too—and tell the summer school coordinator that I wouldn’t be able to teach my novel writing class. And I lost a day’s pay, which didn’t make me happy.

Washed out road, cut phone lines, stranded people. Gosh, if I were a writer, I might find a plot in there somewhere!

But the defining conflict took place inside my head. You see, one morning not that long ago I drove through water running over that exact spot on that same road. So when I saw the enormous crater where the road used to be, my imagination went wild.

What if I’d tried to drive through THAT running water?

I saw and felt and heard my car plunging into the roaring water. Torrents of water battered the driver’s side window. The glass burst inward, knocking me to the passenger seat and flooding the interior. I flailed helplessly, gasping for air. I pressed my face against the roof of the car while water surged around me. My mouth and lungs filled with water.

The scene played over and over in my mind, so vivid that it made me physically sick. Each time the ending was the same. Survival was impossible.

In the time since the cave-in, the road has been repaired with a shiny new culvert that—according to one of my neighbors—will stand up to a 500-year flood. If he sees water running over the road now, I’m sure he won’t hesitate to drive right through it.

Not me. After being a participant in the dramatic scene my brain invented, I will never, ever, ever drive my car through running water. No matter how great a story it might make.

Monday, July 6, 2009

A few posts ago Stephanie wrote about summer road trips. My family wasn’t the road tripping kind, and I have to say that I’m not raising children who will likely relish a good car ride (say the word “highway” to them and you may as well be saying “dental drill”). But there was a time when a road trip seemed like a great idea.

I was graduating from college and had one month off before I headed back to school to attend Radcliffe’s publishing program. Basically I had half of May and half of June to kill and so did my best friend (who was graduating job-less). So we packed up my car and headed West to drop off all my college belongings at my parents’ house in Arizona before embarking on the classic post-college tour of the country.

We had about $100 each, a Costco-sized jar of peanut butter and jelly, two loaves of whole wheat and a box of Wheat Thins. The money and the food were supposed to buy us gas, keep our bellies full, and sustain us for 3 weeks. We also had a small tent, to provide us shelter.

Since we were already in Arizona, we decided to head to the Grand Canyon first. Only we missed it and ended up in Las Vegas. Yes, we missed the largest gaping hole in the country, but we did get to see Nudes on Ice in Vegas. A decent trade off. After Vegas we tried to find the Grand Canyon again, this time succeeding. We also saw the Hoover Dam, which was very cool. Then it was on to Utah, where we spent the night in Moab (which we later learned was the mountain biking capital of the country). It was beautiful. It was also quite hot, which is why I woke up in our 150 degree tent to the sound of my best friend panting.

We visited Badlands National Park in South Dakota, skied at Arapahoe Basin, CO in shorts and tank tops (my friend got altitude sickness and had to be brought down on a snow mobile), saw Mount Rushmore and slept in our car in Yellowstone lest the big hairy bison decide to snuggle us in the middle of the night. A few times we had to sleep in the car, which sucked for the person up front because my car was a standard and the person ended up spooning a stick shift all night. It was always on deserted roads in the middle of nowhere and thank god I was too young and dumb to worry about the stray serial killer (back then we didn’t have cell phones).

We locked the keys in the car in Eureka, CA, drove through a tree in Redland, took showers in public restrooms and searched a cemetery in Bozeman, MT for my friend’s great grandmother. Our greatest splurge was a foot long sub from Subway, which tasted like the most delicious thing ever, given our diet of PB&J.

We hit San Francisco and LA and Portland, but for the most part we were in the heart of the US, just small towns and lots of land and mountains. We hung out with strangers in campgrounds, wore shorts and t-shirts, went barefoot and had a blast.

While I can’t say I’d like to do it again today, as a 22 year old just out of college, it was perfect. After that I went back East to Cambridge and my friend went to New York City to start plugging quarters in pay phones in her quest for a job. We still talk about what a great 3 week adventure we had on less than $200. And I still have the map we used to navigate the country, all torn and faded with a single pink highlighted line showing us the way.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Creating Characters from the Good and the Not-So-Good

In Shrinking Violet, Tere has a crush on a cute “nice” guy, Gavin. After reading the book, an old friend that I hadn’t talked to in over twelve years, emailed me and said she was dying to know who was my Gavin in high school. Sadly I had to answer that I did not have a Gavin, nothing close to him, but I sure wished I did. Rather I told her that he was created from a bunch of nice cool guys that I’ve meet over the years, including my husband.
So far none of my characters are directly modeled after one person, but I do pull from all directions to shape them into who they are. It’s like a good soup, I take a little spice form here, chop up this vegetable and that one, until I have the perfect combination. If something is too flat or one-dimensional, I just keep on adding more spice until I have it right.
I’d love to hear from other authors how they go about selecting their characters but so far for me, I’ve created mine from bits and pieces of things I’ve learned from or about people over the years. If I meet someone totally outrageous I file that encounter into my memory bank and hope to be able to fit them into a story one day. It almost makes those encounters more bearable because you can say, at least I can use this in my book!
This certainly applies to the crazy lady at the Samurai restaurant tonight. My kids were playing with a few toys on a table in the waiting area of the restaurant, One of my sons walked around the lady to retrieve his toy that had fallen and she barked, “You stay on your side and we’ll stay on ours.” It was our anniversary and my husband and I didn’t want this crazy lady ruining it so we chose to ignore her. Then of course when they called us to our table, we were supposed to sit with crazy lady and her family because it’s one of those restaurants where they cook in front of you and everyone sits together. She immediately complained and got moved to another table.
It turns out, we had a great dinner and my kids were very well-behaved. Much more than I could say for crazy lady. When we got up to leave we walked by her yelling at the manager, “Either the waiter is going to get stiffed or you are. Now take that off my bill!” She left red-faced and angry and we couldn’t help but laugh. And then I thought, to top it off, she’d make a great character in one of my books. For now she’s stuffed into my memory bank but one day she may resurface. So my advice, whenever anyone ticks you off, just pass it off as character research!