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Friday, August 28, 2009

What I loved most about being a teen

I grew up on a beautiful lake in Alabama.

Actually, until recently I would not have considered this what I loved most about being a teen. I never really thought about it, because the lake is such a part of me. I learned to swim when I was two, I learned to water-ski when I was five, and my mom set my brother and me loose in the water every summer day I can remember. I'm pretty sure she didn't even watch us. She was reading. She may have been in earshot in case we screamed.

But a few years ago, I was forced to take a harder look at the lake. One of my editors and I couldn't agree on what my next book would be about. I had an idea for a love triangle plot in a teen rock band. I had another idea for a complicated mystery plot set on a lake. My editor didn't like either idea (or the forty others I'd proposed first), and finally she told me to take the plot from one book and the setting from the other--use the love triangle plot and set it on the lake--and call it The Boys Next Door.

At first I was flabbergasted. I was so close to the lake that I couldn't even see it. My critique partner talked me through it. She explained that while I took my summers swimming and skiing for granted, a lot of teenagers would consider that paradise. And by the time I'd finished the book, I agreed. The lake is a character of its own in that book, and it's on my mind again lately because I'm writing the sequel, called Endless Summer.

Even though my other novels aren't set on the lake, you can see the lake reflected in them. The heroine of Major Crush lives on the same lake, but it's autumn so lake fun is over, and she's very dissatisfied living in her small town. Going Too Far is the only novel I've written that doesn't have some tourist attraction looming in the background of the setting, and that heroine is going to get out of her small town or bust.

In contrast, Lori in The Boys Next Door and the upcoming Endless Summer is perfectly satisfied to stay in her town. Why would she want to leave the lake? In The Ex Games coming out on September 8, Hayden is a snowboarder who doesn't want to leave her mountain. The ski slopes serve the same function in her life as the lake served in mine. And in Forget You, coming from MTV Books next summer, Zoey would be content living by the ocean forever.

In fact, growing up at the lake nearly was the death of me. Swimming is such second nature to me, I somehow got the mistaken impression that I cannot drown. I can drown, and I learned that lesson the hard way on my honeymoon in Hawaii. There were signs posted all over this beautiful beach that said BEWARE OF UNDERTOW, but I thought they were meant for other people--people who could drown. You can read about that experience in the opening of Forget You. Clearly I survived, but I did have a moment there where I wasn't so sure--my first ever in the water.

In short, I spent years thinking that in writing about my upbringing, I had nothing unusual to draw from--but it turns out that I do.

Haven't had enough of my hometown's strange and sudden tromp through the reality show circuit? In July, country superstar Alan Jackson played a concert on a barge on my lake as part of Aquapalooza. You could only see it by boat. If you're curious about the lake, one of the marinas, and one of the bridges that inspired The Boys Next Door, the restaurant where my mother attended her high school prom, and the lake cabin where Hank Williams Sr. got drunk and wrote his politically incorrect and culturally insensitive hit "Kaw-Liga," tune in to Country Music Television (CMT) on September 4 at 8 p.m. ET/PT, and September 5 and 6 at 9:30 a.m. ET/PT. Paradise? You tell me.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What I Loved Most About Being a Teen

What I loved most about being a teen was Drama.

Like my character Oribella in Fairest of Them All, I spent my child- and teen-hood dreaming of being an actress. From kindergarten on, I loved to perform. Whenever a teacher asked for volunteers to read aloud, my hand shot up. Whether it was poetry, prose, or the social studies textbook, I was eager to share my reading and reciting abilities—with feeling.

Since our small high school only put on one musical and one play a year, I joined both chorus and drama club to maximize my options. My singing voice was marginal at best, but the talent pool was limited. Everyone who tried out got a part of some kind, even if it was just a walk-on. My first part came freshman year, when three of us dressed up as old ladies and did a crazy-looking walk across the stage. When the audience laughed, I was thrilled.

From then on I had speaking parts in every play and musical. In some respects I was a natural because I could easily memorize lines and my voice projected from the stage into the farthest reaches of the school gym. Most of my friends had the theater bug, too, and backstage at rehearsals was a blast. There were plenty of pranks and inside jokes—and a few stolen kisses in the prop room.

The picture above is from Sweet Anne Paige, a play we put on my senior year. I haven’t the slightest idea what it was about, but I know I had a great time! If you’re wondering, I’m the girl on the left with long, dark hair who’s holding onto the back of the chair.

By the end of senior year I knew I lacked the talent to be an actress. But I couldn’t resist taking a college class in oral interpretation where I was able read stories and poetry aloud. A few years later I became a teacher. Not as glamorous as acting, of course, but I got to perform in front of people every day.

And I had a captive audience.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

What I loved most about being a teen

When Jennifer sent me this month's topic I wasn't sure what to write. I can't think of any one thing I loved most about being a teen. I pretty much loved everything about it. I loved school. I got along fine with my parents, I had a great brother who was a mere 11 months older than me. I had a ton of fun.

So how could I pick one thing?
When it came down to it, the things I kept coming back to happened during the summer. How I loved waking up on Friday mornings and hearing the lawn guys outside cutting the grass, how the smell would waft through my windows. I loved getting my paychecks from my summer jobs and feeling like I had the freedom to spend it however I wanted. I loved driving to the beach o Friday nights with my best friend, music blaring, windows down, for a party with a bonfire and a bunch of people. I loved going to Carvel on Sunday nights after dinner with my family and getting a large chocolate ice cream cone with rainbow sprinkles.

In my memory, summer was always sunny, always a blue sky, just perfect. My family was around, my friends were around, I had cool summer jobs, a car, and freedom. What more could I ask for?

When I was a teen it felt like the year was divided into two parts rather than four seasons - school and summer. Even today I feel like the start of a new year doesn't begin on January 1st, but when school begins in September instead. I miss having summer be special. I miss how it was three months when anything could happen. I miss that each summer brought a new job, new people to meet, new things to do.

So I guess what I loved most about being a teen was the summers. Summer was when I got to experience the freedom of being me, the freedom to choose how I spent my days, where I spent my nights, how I enjoyed every hour of sun.

Which is why I enjoyed writing my last two books so much. I got to spend every day thinking about summer as a 17 year old. And it doesn't get any better than that.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What I Loved Most About Being a Teen

One of the things I really loved about being a teen was just being silly and chilling with my friends. A group of us used to get together almost every Saturday night to watch Saturday Night Live. I dreamed of one day being on that show. Anyway, we were huge fans and back then so many good comedians were on. Most of us didn’t drink, (many of my friends were hardcore/straight edge) so it was just good old laughs and tons of candy! Those sugar highs can really make a person crazy!

We also went to a lot of concerts in the city (I lived outside of Boston) and those trips were awesome. Some of my favorite shows were, The Cure, Morrissey, The B-52s, Fugazi and 10,000 Maniacs. We used to pile into someone’s station wagon or old car and just take off. My hair was temporarily purple for our trip to see The Cure. And to many of the concerts I sported my ultra cool black leather jacket, complete with more zippers then you’ll ever need. Sometimes when we met weirdos we’d use fake names, complete with fake bios. I loved being Zelda.

I was very fortunate to have a good group of friends that were always up for a few laughs. In this photo, my friend Nell and I were playing truth or dare in our favorite English class. She dared me to dance an Irish jig while the teacher was at the blackboard. Of course, I was up for the challenge and she quickly snapped my only live dance performance since third grade ballet. Other dares included: put on the teacher’s cardigan without her noticing, hide under her desk and switch the two picture frames in the room. Everything was in good fun and it definitely made the long school days pass with humor.

I had many moments of teen angst like a lot of people but humor really helped me get through those days. I’d look forward to the harmless pranks that my friends and I would play. I’m still known to play truth or dare here and there, but you can get away with a lot more when you’re a teen! So enjoy!

Anyone else have any good truth or dare stories to share?

Friday, August 14, 2009

In Dreams

My fascination with dreams began in junior high. I was into all things occult and shopped regularly at this new age shop in my town called New Moon. I purchased tarot cards and a book of Gypsy Love Spells. I think the Gypsy Love spell book got me into the dream thing because there was one spell where you put something under your pillow to dream of the man you would marry. All I got out of that dream was blue eyes... (Though as it happens the man I am marrying does have blue eyes!)

But I also started to notice that my dreams were really vivid and some of them were coming true... like this dream I had about a good friend of mine, I dreamt that our friendship would end terribly and then, lo and behold it did!!! I had a few other dreams like this and figured whoa.... Maybe I'm a psychic dreamer!!!!! (Now of course, I have two theories. The boring one is that I simply picked up on the tensions in my life subconsciously and my mind extrapolated likely outcomes. The more interesting one is that puberty does something to girls' brains and does make us a wee bit more psychic or at least our dreams are more interesting like they are when women are pregnant.)

So I set aside Tarot and love spells and focused on dreaming. I bought a cool book called The Dreamer's Dictionary from the occult store and then, errrr, acquired The Dream Dictionary pictured above from the mall. (Yeah, I had a little bit of a klepto problem in junior high, though I only stole from "the man" ie corporate stores, not that that made it right and I eventually quit when I got caught at Walgreens.) The Dream Dictionary introduced me to Freud. It seemed like every thing I dreamt about, if I looked it up in that book, it symbolized sex. What the hell? I thought. I'd only just started lusting after boys and by lusting I mean, I thought they were cute and I wanted to go on dates and hold their hands. But still, I dutifully wrote down my dreams every morning when I woke up and looked up their meanings. I bought lucid dreaming tapes to try to dig deeper into my psyche (or further stir those psychic abilities I thought I had).

The dream obsession waned as a new obsession began (the Ouija board and communicating with ghosts who would tell me which boys liked me... Okay so maybe I was a little boy crazed, but seriously not sex-crazed like the Dream Dictionary was trying to telll me), but I still have both dream dictionaries and I did look up my dreams throughout most of high school and my early twenties.

I still have incredibly vivid dreams fairly frequently and often wake up my fiance to tell him about them. He always responds, "How do you remember them so vividly? And man you have weird dreams!"

It's good that I trained myself to remember them at a young age because about a month ago on the eve of my 30th birthday, I had a really, really insane dream about the end of the world as we know it. I woke up from the dream and tried to go back to sleep, but I couldn't stop thinking about it. And then I started to wonder if I changed the personal details if it would make a good story. When my fiance awoke, I told him about it.... And then I emailed my agent about it... And a week later I was still thinking about it and when one of my critique partners came over I told her about it.

"Wow," she said, "that gave me goosebumps."

And I said, "But can I pull it off? Can I write something so other worldly? Realistic fiction is what I do...."

But the dream... I can't shake it. It's expanded into a bigger story and I'm trying to get the confidence to take it on. Because when I was working the other night I overheard a snippet of some customers' conversation. "Creative people, like writers, sometimes they have dreams and those become their masterpieces, their greatest work...."

I don't know what the hell these guys were talking about and they didn't know I was a writer or even listening to them (as I was mostly embroiled in watching the extra innings in the Sox game and doing dishes), but it seemed like a sign. I mean, my junior high school self would definitely think so. She would think it meant that this dream would led to the greatest story I've ever written.

I'm not sure it will be my next book since it's going to take some real world building in a way that I'm completely unfamiliar with, but I think I probably will chase this dream...

So what do you think about dreams? Have any crazy ones that came true or led to something cool?

Oh and PS. My cyber launch party for Ballads of Suburbia on my blog ends today. You have the weekend to catch up on this week's blogs and comment to enter those prizes and for the grand prize which is a basket of MTV Books so if you want to read all of these fabulous authors' books, enter! stephaniekuehnert.blogspot.com


Now I need a breakfast cereal. Damn it, Terrell, slow down!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Reality check

Occasionally a reader will e-mail me to ask, “Are you famous?” What I want to respond is, “If I were famous, wouldn’t you know?” But of course, being polite, this is what I answer instead: “I am not famous, and even if I won the Nobel Prize for Literature someday, I still would not be the most famous person from my hometown of 15,000 people, because of this guy.”

That’s right: Terrell Owens, recently named by Forbes as one of the 10 most disliked people in sports, is from my hometown in Alabama. He was 4 years behind me, so we were never at the same school, but I have always looked up to him as a model for how to have a successful career in the entertainment industry. By following his career, in the past I have ascertained that I need

1. A much, much worse attitude

2. A clothing line

3. A rap song

4. A tendency to start dancing in professional situations...WAIT, that I have!!! At the Harlequin party at the recent Romance Writers of America convention, I won the dance contest with my rendition of the Robot, and I taught a senior editor to do the Electric Slide. I’m a dancing machine. Cross that one off.

Anyway, I’ve had enough trouble trying to keep up with Terrell, and NOW it appears that on top of all this, I also need

5. A naked publicity photo

6. My own reality show set in our hometown

Watching this was a very strange experience for me. My high school is on VH1. The Horseshoe Bend Motel is on VH1. And oooh--if you watch all the way to 9:32, you get a glimpse of Carlisle Drug Co. with an authentic old-fashioned soda fountain, where everybody in my junior high went after school to drink fresh limeades and subject each other to psychological bullying. Ah, memories.

Someone else from our hometown said of this episode, “Wow, he should embark on an acting career too, because he sure can turn those waterworks on and off!” But, all kidding aside, I really was moved by watching this. Like Terrell, I have made clover necklaces during recess at school, and my mother used to tell me the same thing about dogwoods that Terrell’s grandmother told him. My family did not have the money troubles his family had, but this story is familiar to me because the town is a working class textile mill town, and you can see that reflected in my novel Major Crush. His experience as expressed on this episode rang true to me.

Maybe it’s because I also know from talking to other people from our town that Terrell actually comes home fairly often to visit his relatives, and that he bought class rings for everyone on our high school football team when they won the state championship. But even though I understand this reality show was created specifically to revamp his image, I for one want to be a believer.

Wow, if reality shows have made it to my hometown, surely they’ve made it to yours. Have you had a weird experience watching a reality show set in your backyard, or even being in one? Please share.

But don’t expect me to respond right away, because I have an appointment to get my naked publicity photos taken.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Brothers, Sisters, and Pets

Quite a bit has been written about why we YA writers kill off or incapacitate our main character’s parents. We have to get those annoying adults out of the picture so our MCs have space to get themselves into trouble and—we hope—get out of it by the end of the story.

But how do we deal with those other hangers-on? What do we do with brothers, sisters, and pets?

I recently read an amazing YA thriller in which the female MC has two younger brothers who appear on the periphery of the story. Although they occasionally pop into a scene, their role in the plot isn’t clear to me. They don’t move the story forward, give her help, or prevent her from reaching her goals. In other words, they’re just there. In my opinion, the story would have been just as strong—or stronger—if she were an only child.

When I’m mapping out a story, my first concern is my main character: Who is this person, what does s/he want more than anything, and how many obstacles can I stack between my MC and that critical goal? Once the MC is fleshed out, I move on to the secondary characters. That’s when I ask myself, Should my MC have siblings? If so, what would they bring to the story? Here are some possibilities:

1. Comic relief—Brother/sister squabbling is the source of many lol moments in MIA THE MEEK by Eileen Boggess.

2. Complications—If you have brothers or sisters, you know what I’m talking about!

3. Support—In Sharelle Byars Moranville’s THE SNOWS, Jim Snow’s devotion to his younger sister Cathy shapes the direction of both their lives.

4. Antagonist—TANGERINE by Edward Bloor provides an excellent example in main character Paul Fisher’s popular but evil older brother Erik.

5. Connections—In BREATHE MY NAME by R.A. Nelson, Nix’s relationship with his autistic brother Brandon helps Nix connect with a special needs student at his high school.

Sometimes siblings would simply muck things up. In my novel, FAIREST OF THEM ALL, mother Rhonda’s near obsession with Ori’s career is an important plot point. Throwing a sibling into the mix would have diffused that critical dynamic.

I’ve also noticed that although more than half the people in America have at least one cat or dog, YA characters rarely do. I have a houseful of pets, but Ori and Rhonda have none. With their hectic schedule, a houseplant would find survival challenging. That said, I think pets can have a place in YA fiction. Gennifer Choldenko’s NOTES FROM A LIAR AND HER DOG is an excellent example of this.

What do you think? Siblings and pets in YA fiction—in or out?

The Smell of Summer

Just spent a week on Martha's Vineyard where there were lots sounds that I love, so I thought I'd pick up where Danielle left off.

Sounds I love:
1. Birds chirping very early in the morning (but not roosters! there's a huge difference and I've woken up to both)
2. My kids laughing
3. Absolute silence
4. A breeze rustling tree leaves
5. The crunching of gravel on a driveway

Sounds I hate:
1. The alarm clock
2. Kids whining
3. Anything that squeaks incessantly (like a door)

There are also smells I love and hate, and that's probably why when I'm writing, of all the senses, I like to incorporate smells. A smell can transport me.
- This past week I walked by someone who was wearing a scent that immediately made me remember a specific time and place.
- I ran past a house one morning and someone inside was making bacon for breakfast and it made me want to knock on their door and join them. It smelled so cozy and homey.
- Beach houses smell a certain way, a little damp and sandy, although I don't think I'd want my real house to smell that way all the time.
- I love the way my husband's skin smells when he's sweating (that probably sounds gross, but I love it).
- I can remember exactly how my old boyfriends all smelled.
- And to this day, when I walk into my best friend's house, it smells exactly like it used to when I lived in Chicago and came back to Boston to visit her. And I still get just as excited to walk through her door, as if I hadn't seen her in months, even if it's only been a couple of days.

So which sense is your favorite to use when writing?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

What's That I Hear?

My almost five year old son (don’t call him four) has been obsessed with listening to a book on tape about a blind girl named Angel. The book explores how Angel uses sound to help navigate her way. Of course, my son has had many questions about how sound can be used to aid people, especially those that can’t see. How does Angel know which one is her best friend’s house or how does she know which way is the school cafeteria?
This immediately got me thinking about writing and how in order to create the whole scene for readers, authors need to make use of all the senses, not just sight. Sound is so important in drawing the reader in. It’s one thing to visualize the main character slamming on the car brakes at the last second but to really hear those brakes screech, takes the story to another level. Just like the other senses, sound helps you feel a part of the story. It’s not enough to hear the characters talking to each other, we also need to hear the sounds that go on around them.
Are their five hundred screaming fans in the bleachers or is the tennis match drowned out by the ambulance racing down the street? Were the arguing parents in the next room so loud that even the TV can’t mask their fighting? Next time you read a book, think about how the use of sound helps make the scene richer, more believable.
I decided to make a list of five of my favorite sounds and five sounds that I could live without.

Five Sounds That I Love:
1. My baby cooing
2. My boys giggling
3. Pouring rain
4. The overhead fan on high when I go to sleep at night
5. The whooshing sound of the wind racing between the trees in my backyard

Five Sounds That Make Me Cringe:
1. People chewing with their mouths open
2. Nails across a chalkboard
3. Screaming
4. Balloons popping
5. When a person rubs their fingers back and forth on a napkin

Hope you’ll share some of your favorite and least favorite sounds with me too! What is that I hear, my baby crying?