Friday, February 26, 2010

Undiscovered Voices Launch Party

I love London. I actually lived in London, in Bloomsbury, for a semester while I was in college. Some of my happiest memories are in London. So it was such a treat to come back to London to celebrate my first book launch (hopefully there will be others to follow!).

Also, while I booked one of the cheapest hotels I could find in the area (not like we were there for the hotel!), when Phil and I arrived we learned we had been upgraded to a king-size suite in the four star hotel across the street. See, London loves me, too.

Then we got dressed and made our way to the party at Foyles bookstore.

The absolute best part of the evening was meeting my fellow writers: the others in the Undiscovered Voices anthology, as well as the Saras (Sara Grant and Sara O'Connor, who have made this entire thing possible and provided unbelievable amounts of support), and writers from Undiscovered Voices 2008: Candy Gourlay*, Steve Hartley, Harriet Goodwin, Sarwat Chadda. I believe they were more excited for us than anyone, as they knew exactly how much their lives had changed since UV 2008.

This is the whole group, plus Melvin Burgess:
In the back: Nick Cross, Melvin Burgess, Jane McLoughlin, Lauren Sabel, Abbie Todd, Claire O'Brien, Emily George.
In the front: Yona Wiseman, Lisa Joy Smith, Dave Cousins, me, Paula Rawsthorne.

After the book launch, most of the group described above went to dinner together. Such a wonderful opportunity to get to know each other, to talk about writing, life, where to get good Mexican food in London... Suddenly I had a writing community, friends, and it was such a lovely thing.

Well, I suppose you want to know about the rest of the launch?

I'm not beating around the bush, the launch itself was great, too (though I wouldn't call it exactly fun). At times it was a little stressful, staring through the crowds at others' chests, looking for badges which read A (agent) or E (editor). But it was such a wonderful opportunity to meet agents and editors, so many of whom had such lovely things to say about Adele. Everyone remembered the ghost story, and some even sought me out (as opposed to the other way around!), which did great things for my confidence. Also lovely to have agents and editors want to talk about my writing career, my future projects, my work at Bath Spa. How cool is that?

Some of my fellow UVers have already signed contracts with agents. How exciting!!! I'm so thrilled for them. A little disappointed for myself, thinking of what could have been, but I wouldn't change this work I'm doing at Bath Spa now for anything, and I know that when I'm ready to send a novel out (hopefully this autumn) I'll have numerous contacts eager to see the full manuscript.

The launch also included brief speeches from Natascha Biebow of SCBWI British Isles, Chris Snowdon of Working Partners, and the encouraging and generous Melvin Burgess.

This is me talking to Harriet Goodwin (left), one of the members of Working Partners (right), and yes, Melvin Burgess (center).

I should mention the pictures (except the one of Foyles, courtesy Google Images) were all taken my by amazing husband, Phil. I should also mention that yesterday was Phil's birthday. What a crummy birthday when it's all about your wife, huh? But he was brilliant. He took photos, acted as my mind when my mind was fully engaged elsewhere, kept track of my umbrella, my train tickets, the hotel keycard, etc. At the dinner, Candy made a toast to all the +1s (each guest of the UVers wore a badge that read +1). After all, as she said, it's the +1s who have done so much to support each of us and we wouldn't have been there without them. So true.

*The amazing Candy Gourlay has also blogged about the night! Check out her blog post for many more pictures, including one of my husband with camera in tow and a video of Melvin Burgess' speech.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Anne Reads Books By & About People Different From Her: Scorpions

I'm a little embarrassed to say I hadn't read any Walter Dean Myers until I read SCORPIONS this past week. Luckily my library had this oldie but goodie on hand. Now I'm eager to read more Myers.

SCORPIONS won the Coretta Scott King Award and was a 1989 Newberry Honor Book. It takes place in Harlem and centers around a friendship between Jamal and Tito. When Jamal's older brother, Randy, is imprisoned, Randy's gang, the Scorpions, approach Jamal to offer him a leadership role in the gang, the potential to raise drug money to pay for a lawyer for Randy, and a gun. Jamal and Tito have never held a gun before, and don't know what to do with it. They carry it around in a paper bag, bury it in the couch at Tito's house until his grandmother discovers it. It's this heartbreaking naivete combined with a very real, inner city situation that really moved me. Myers is also especially good at setting. I was always aware of the city in the background, the rich people's yachts, the homeless people, the danger of the wide open, dark city park.

When I read meaty books for children, my first reaction is always the same: I wish I could teach this. There would be so much for my former students to discuss in this book, and Myers delves into each character's background, emotions and needs. Also, the characters don't necessarily make the "right" decisions, so rather than being a book about good kids (those books begin to grate on me), it's a book about real kids.

Finally, one last thing I found fascinating about SCORPIONS: Jamal is 12. Technically, in today's publishing parlance, that would mean it's a book for 9-12 year-olds. Admittedly the book was first published in 1988, but still. I assume Myers knew what some 12 year-olds were going through and wrote this about and for them. But I can't imagine any school that would feel comfortable giving this to a child younger than a teenager. And that seems a shame for all those kids who do grow up in situations like this. But I also know that sometimes the kids who really need these types of books find them anyway.

For the rest of February, and beyond, I'll be continuing Anne Reads Books By & About People Different From Her.

On tap?

I'm currently reading THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz.
"Oscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd who from the New Jersey home he shares with his old world mother and rebellious sister dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, finding love. But Oscar may never get what he wants. Blame the fuku a curse that has haunted Oscar's family for generations, following them on their epic journey from Santo Domingo to the USA. Encapsulating Dominican-American history, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao opens our eyes to an astonishing vision of the contemporary American experience and explores the endless human capacity to persevere and risk it all in the name of love." (from Goodreads)

I also picked up from the library yesterday:

TEN THINGS I HATE ABOUT ME by Randa Abdel-Fattah
"Ten Things is about Jamie, a teenage girl from Sydney’s south west who lives two lives: at school and in the outside world she is ‘Jamie’, a bottle-blonde with an apparently Anglo Aussie background; at home she is ‘Jamilah’ a Lebanese-Muslim who is proud of her cultural identity. Jamie struggles to maintain her two personas as the rules of her over-protective father collide with the normal adolescence she perceives other teenagers to have and which she so desires."

By the way, I LOVE this UK cover:

"A snowy evening, South London. Max Wold and his brother Angelo see a hooded gang ominously tracking a well-known rapper, Mogul King, through the dark streets. Minutes later, Mogul King presses a parcel into Max's hands. Within hours two people are dead and Max is running for his life. And everything leads to the fabulous Benin Bronzes looted frm Nigeria over a hundred years ago." (From the back of the book)

"Abela: the Girl who saw Lions
, is actually the story of two girls. One lives in Tanzania, the orphaned child of a family stricken with HIV/Aids. When her uncle sends her to England, her grandmother thinks she is going to a better life; but he is involved in child trafficking and Abela faces a bleak future as an asylum seeker. Her mother’s dying words to her had been ‘Be strong, my Abela, be strong,’ and this inspires her with the courage to survive. The other girl is Rosa, who lives in Sheffield with her mother. They do everything together, including learning to skate at IceSheffield. Rosa can’t imagine anything changing in her life, until one day her mother tells her she is thinking of adopting another child. Rosa is devastated. 'What if I had said to her, ‘I’m thinking of adopting another mother?'" (from Doherty's website)

You reading anything good? Any recommendations?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Back to work

I anticipated that my return to classes this past week would make life much busier. It has. On the flip side, it's great to be reunited with my classmates, and to be receiving their advice and critiques. The blog has suffered a bit lately, and should probably continue to suffer (work before pleasure!) while I juggle all the balls currently spinning through the air above me. In the meantime, I can feel my multi-tasting abilities growing by the minute!

On that note, I'd like to share a quick update on where I am in my reading and writing:

Finished JUNK by Melvin Burgess, which is good because I'll be meeting him this week and wanted to be able to say I had read something of his work. Very interesting young adult look at Bristol's culture of homelessness, drug addiction and prostitution. It's given me a lot to think about, and hopefully I'll find some time to write something about it soon.

Finished CANDLE MAN by Glenn Dakin, an ARC (Advanced Release Copy) of a book Egmont UK is publishing this March. I need to write a 600 word Guardian style review of it for my publishing course.

Continuing to work on "Anne Reads Books By & About People Different From Her" though as you can tell, I've been a little overloaded with reading lately. I'm hoping to post on the books I've read and enjoyed shortly. Perhaps JUNK should count...

This past week I had the first chapter of my sparkly new novel workshopped. Thrilled to report my classmates liked it! Since then I have worked on revising that chapter, polishing the next chapter for workshop, written first drafts of chapters 9 and 10, and plotted chapter 11 (I'm now at 15000 words). That sounds like a lot, but I'm not entirely satisfied with it. I'm really trying to push ahead with this novel and write as much as I can before I need to make some big decisions about which of my two novels in progress I hope to complete by September.

I've been doing some behind the scenes blog writing. Tracy, the amazing blogger for Tall Tales and Short Stories, has invited the Undiscovered Voices anthology winners to put together a blog post about our UV experiences thus far. She's also asked me to write a guest blog post about my MA experiences. Of course, I'll share all these links as soon as they're posted.

And finally, in case you lost track of days, I sure haven't! This WEDNESDAY is the Undiscovered Voices 2010 BOOK LAUNCH! I'll be sure to share a link to Tall Tales and Short Stories' UV written review of the event, as well as more on my own take and pictures.

Happy writing and reading to all of you this week!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Reading British: Meg Rosoff

In the next few weeks, I'll be highlighting some well-known British children's writers. Many of these authors I had never heard of until I moved here, and it has been a pleasure and a learning experience to become acquainted with them.

Meg Rosoff

While Meg Rosoff doesn't share the fame and popularity of Jaqueline Wilson, she is a celebrated and much honored UK author in her own right. She happens to be American (shhh...), but has lived in the UK for the past twenty years.

Genre: While Rosoff has written some picture books, she is known for her teen novels, which encompass several genres (contemporary, historical, romance, dystopian). She is published as an adult novelist in the US.

What's in her books for writers?: Some of the most beautiful, breathtaking prose I have ever encountered. All of her novels celebrate the natural world and how it both highlights and contrasts our chaotic lives. Rosoff's novels are also quite intellectual. She asks questions about fate and gender and life's purpose and doesn't shy away from her character's philosophical journeys. Along these same lines, she doesn't follow the confines of genre, or even traditional storytelling. Her first novel, HOW I LIVE NOW, started as a romance and about halfway through changed into a dystopian war novel. She not only challenges her readers, but also her publishers. As the Observer reviewed HOW I LIVE NOW in 2004: "Though billed as a book for older children, the novel is full of shocking events - underage sex, with a whiff of incest, appalling violence." Yet she continues to be published, widely read, and celebrated.

Here's one breathtaking prose moment from JUST IN CASE (page 186):

"As they neared the end of the beach, Justin drifted closer to the sea, where the pebbles glittered in the last low rays of the sun. And then without any signal or obvious sign of transformation, the beach was suddenly alight with fiery stones. Where seconds ago he had seen nothing, they now glowed against the opaque shingle like little beacons.

"Hands trembling, Justin picked one up and held it to the light. The complex centre revealed itself at once. He closed his fist round the ancient drop of sap, smoothed by the sea and set alight by the sun. It was light and warm in his hand. In a burst of excitement, he picked up one after another until he held twelve glowing drops of flame. Each revealed a different internal landscape, from palest yellow to a reddish marbled gold.

"And then the sun moved and they were gone.

"He searched the shoreline, frantic, in vain. The sun had dropped below the horizon and the entire beach was thrown in shadow. Justin stood motionless, watching the glow fade from the sky, taking with it the last flickers of warmth."

What's the buzz?: Rosoff broke onto the scene in 2004 with her first novel, HOW I LIVE NOW, which snagged the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, the Printz Award in the US (the same award Libba Bray won this past year!) and a nomination for the Whitbread Award--incredible prestige for a first time novelist. She followed this success when her second novel, JUST IN CASE, won the Carnegie Medal.

Rosoff is highly respected in intellectual circles and is also considered a gifted (and personable) speaker. I have heard some express frustration that her British characters don't ring true and that sometimes her novels are so philosophical that story and reality become secondary.

Personally? I didn't set out to, but somehow I've managed to read all four of her teen novels. They're just so thought-provoking and beautiful and I continue to absorb each one I stumble across.

US vs. UK cover:

THE BRIDE'S FAREWELL, Rosoff's most recent book (and I believe my favorite, though I also quite like her first, HOW I LIVE NOW).



Further info:
Meg Rosoff's Website
Observer article reflects on her life, her inspiration for her novels, and her second novel, JUST IN CASE.

Other authors you would like me to cover? Please let me know in the comments.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Reading British: Jacqueline Wilson

In the next few weeks, I'll be highlighting some well-known British children's writers. Many of these authors I had never heard of until I moved here, and it has been a pleasure and a learning experience to become acquainted with them. First on the docket:

Jacqueline Wilson
Jacqueline Wilson is probably the most famous British children's writer alive today. She is incredibly prolific and has written almost one hundred books, frequently two a year since the late 60s. In the past decade, her books have been borrowed from UK libraries more than that of any author (16 million times since 2000). Of those 16 million, the most checked-out book has been her 1991 bestseller THE STORY OF TRACY BEAKER.

Genre: Wilson writes middle-grade (8-12) realist books. The books are almost always written in first person and feature female main characters (a boy main character only appears in two of her books). Her novels tend to focus on issues such as adoption, divorce, mental illness and abuse.

What's in her books for writers?: Wilson captures quirky characters well, but also realistically. Even in a short book with only one main character, all of the secondary characters will have emotional journeys as well. That said, she doesn't overwrite. She captures a character or an issue with just a hint or small detail. For her main characters, the stakes are always high.

Quotes: I love this moment in THE SUITCASE KID (page 22) where the main character explains how since her mom's remarriage she no longer has any space to call her own.

"So do you know where I go when I need a bit of peace and quiet? I lock myself in the bathroom.

"There aren't any really good places to sit. The toilet gets a bit hard after a while. The edge of the bath is too cold. I wouldn't dream of sitting in the bath. I always just wash in the basin. The baboon [step-father] has a bath every day and he leaves dark wisps of hair all over the place, and little crumbs of plaster and flakes of paint.

"I collected some of his foul scummy hairs in a matchbox, together with a nail clipping and a shred of one of his dirty tissues. Then I concocted an evil spell and threw the box out of the window. I waited hopefully all the next day for the news that he'd fallen off his ladder. But he didn't. Magic doesn't work. I should know that by now. I wished enough times that Mum and Dad and I could be together again in Mulberry Cottage and it hasn't happened yet."

What's the buzz?: Well, any author who has sold over 25 million copies of her books in the UK alone is clearly doing something right. I've heard that young girls gush and fawn over Wilson as if she was a rock star. Many adults have fond memories of growing up reading Jacqueline Wilson. Though no feature films have been created based on her novels, there have been numerous TV adaptations. She was the UK's children's laureate from 2005-7 and in 2008 was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (for my non-British readers, basically that means she was knighted and can use the title "Dame").

However, there is also a lot of disdain directed Wilson's way, seemingly for a variety of reasons. Some believe her books to be poorly written, saying many use a similar first person voice, overly simplistic language and resolutions. Others seem to object to her focus on class and poverty, or see her topics as inappropriate for children. Fair? True? What do you think?

US vs UK cover:


Further info:
Jaqueline Wilson's Website
Times Online article reflects on Wilson's life, her success and critics

Other authors you would like me to cover? Please let me know in the comments.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Anne Reads Books By & About People Different From Her

So there's been a lot of controversy in the publishing world lately regarding "whitewashing" children's books: ie, putting a white model on the cover of a book about a character of color (follow this link to support Readers Against WhiteWashing). Supposedly people don't like to read books about people other than themselves. Never mind that this assumes people of color don't read. It also assumes we read to find ourselves. While this is certainly true at times, I also read to escape myself. I read to travel, I read to experience, I read to learn.

I also hate people telling me what I do and don't read.

Yet yet yet... I read the other day that 13% of children's books published each year in the US contain diversity. I keep track of every book I read. So I went back through my list and counted. Last year I read almost one hundred books. Of those hundred books, five were written by a person of color.

If I believe in diversity and if I believe in promoting it, I need to support it in my reading. So I'd like to join picture book author Jacqui Robbins in her February "Jacqui Reads Herself & Her Children Books By & About People Different From Her"* celebration. While I'm lacking in children of my own to read to, I do want to take up the challenge myself (Anne Reads Books By & About People Different From Her). Okay, I know February is over a quarter-over, and trust me, I'm a little embarrassed, but I was reading a 600+ page fantasy novel (Patrick Rothfuss' THE NAME OF THE WIND) and fell behind the times. However, I would also like this to not be just about February, but the rest of the year. I plan to match the 13% diversity which the CCBC reports (given that I read a hundred books last year, even I can do that math!). I'd like to read more than that 13. I'll definitely let you know how it's going through February and the rest of this year and share my highlights. I will post every book I am currently reading on goodreads, for those of you who may be interested (or those of you already stuck following me).

And please reply in the comments if you'd like to join me! I'd love to have others take up this challenge and report back to me (and/or Jacqui!) about what you've read and found. I seem to have set myself an additional challenge in searching out multicultural British books (a group I'm less familiar with), so if anyone has any suggestions for me, I'd love to hear them!

*By the way, do follow that link to Jacqui's blog, and click through to read more about her February reading and other posts. Her blog is often laugh out loud funny, as well as insightful, thought-provoking and all the rest.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Great literature separated by a common language

Two interesting tidbits about the publishing industry which I have learned by living in the UK:

  1. If a book is moderately successful in the US, it will probably be published in the UK. Likewise, if a book is moderately successful in the UK, it will probably be published in the US.
  2. Success in one country (the US or the UK) does not guarantee even moderate success in the other.*
Why? I have no idea.

Perhaps it's cultural. Maybe BUNNICULA is too American?** Shel Silverstein is too hard to translate into British English? Except then how does one explain the success of the Simpsons on British television? Or HARRY POTTER in the US? Course Harry had to be Americanized, his trainers made sneakers, his snogging kissing, but that's a whole other issue.

Or perhaps it has something to do with marketing. Maybe publishing houses spend more time on their homegrown authors and trust an author's first publishing house has done enough marketing to sell a book in another country.

I've done my part! I've bought UK versions of numerous ya titles including Melissa Marr's WICKED LOVELY, Kristin Cashore's GRACELING, Libba Bray's A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY and THE SWEET FAR THING. I believe WICKED LOVELY was the only one of those books (all successful in the US) that I was able to find on a bookstore shelf. Frequently I end up buying the American books I drool over because they're unavailable at my local library.

It travels both ways. Some of the most popular children's authors in the UK (David Almond***, Meg Rosoff, Jacqueline Wilson) I had never heard of until I moved here. My classmates were in utter horror when I told them I had never heard of Jacqueline Wilson. And not that I'm the be all and end all of book knowledge. Surely librarians and publishers and agents may have heard of these authors. But as a regular reader, especially of children's books, I find my lack of knowledge really surprising.

So... why is this? If publishers go to the trouble to buy these books, why aren't they marketing them? Or if they are, why isn't the public buying them? I imagine as we become more and more of a global society, trends will follow from one country to the other. Indeed, isn't that what happened with Stephenie Meyer's books, which seemed to be an overnight sensation?

And here's the good news. There's a wealth of incredible authors in both countries. And Americans... you haven't read a lot of good stuff over here. And Brits? You're missing out on same amazing writers. And even better? I'm like a kid in a candy store having lived in both countries. So I'd like to take this a step further and start highlighting British authors I've discovered while living here that my American readers might not know about. First on the docket will be the renowned Jacqueline Wilson.

To my British readers, if you have any suggestions of authors I should blog about, please let me know. Also, if ANYONE can illuminate me on the success of books published in both the US and the UK, I'm all ears.

One final thing: "American and English books have different covers to appeal to the tastes of the two different nations. Question is, which do you favour?" I thought this quiz was really interesting. Strangely I seem to be 9/10s British.

* No, I don't have stats on this, though I'd love to see them. The most obvious recent examples I can think of where books have been successful on both sides of the Atlantic are are Stephenie Meyer's TWILIGHT, J K Rowling's HARRY POTTER and Philip Pullman's HIS DARK MATERIALS. There may be others... I know Maggie Stiefvater did a book tour this past autumn and I have been able to get both her SHIVER and Sherman Alexie's THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART TIME INDIAN from my local library.

**I originally intended to dress up as Bunnicula last Halloween. None of my classmates, even my tutor, knew what I was talking about.

***Since moving, I have heard some American buzz on Almond from my favorite children's librarian (Hi Cynthia!) and agent Michael Bourret. So he is getting some publicity in the US. But does the general reading public know about him yet?

Monday, February 8, 2010

What's next?

While this blog was originally intended to follow my path through my MA in Writing for Young People, I find I talk about my course rather infrequently. But the question "What's next?" has been on my mind a lot this past week, so I want to share my plans and schedule for the rest of the year.

I'm on break now. Isn't that wild? But I guess it's much like my time at Carleton, where I was in classes through November and then off until January. Except this year I was in classes until mid-December and don't return until next week Monday.

Beginning a week from today I will start my second (and last) semester at Bath Spa. I will be taking two classes, each three hours long and meeting once a week. The first will be a continuation of semester one's writing workshop. The second will be a course on the business side of writing, the ins and outs of the publishing industry. Useful I'm sure, and I imagine it will give me a lot to think about. But I've been writing so much lately, and have so many big deadlines coming up, that I'm twitchy about anytime away from those goals.

Classes will last through the first week of June. I will then have the rest of the summer to pull together my manuscript, which will be due around the end of September. That sounds awfully soon, doesn't it?

I started this course planning to use it to finish the wip I've been writing for the past year. But lately I've been thrown for a loop. I'm really enjoying this sparkly new novel I've been working on (no details forthcoming, sorry). I'm meeting with my tutor this week about the first twenty pages of my wip, but I have already seen her typed feedback, and she has lots of questions about my work. Not bad questions, but character questions and plot questions, the types of questions which could drastically change the whole story. On top of all that? She's quite enthusiastic about my sparkly new novel, too.

So... what's next? My tutor wants me to continue work on both, and while this new novel is going well, I'm inclined to just let the words keep coming. But anytime I start thinking about how soon September will be here I get mighty nervous.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Finding myself in my dreams

In September, when I had recently left my job and had not yet started school, I began recording my dreams. As I explained on this blog then: "I've come to think of my dreams as a gift. I find them massively entertaining, and...I love sorting through them, trying to figure out what bits and pieces evolved from the previous day." And I figured, since Stephenie Meyer found the story for her bestselling TWILIGHT series in a dream, maybe I could call it work too. Not that I really expected that to happen.

However, at the time, much as I was enjoying myself, I wasn't sure I would continue the recording. As I wrote in my preivous post: "But even 10-15 minutes at the beginning of each day is beginning to seem a bit time consuming. I've started to wonder if it's worth it. I can see the patterns to my dreams, how frequently I dream about certain people, places and anxieties, but I could have done that before. However, I do appreciate giving myself a chunk of time every day to think about my dreams, since I do enjoy them. And I can't imagine I'll ever use it as a resource, but I like knowing that my dreams for the past month are all logged and tagged."

So... what happened? Well, I'm happy to share that I'm still recording my dreams. Certainly not spending 10-15 minutes on it every day though! More like 5, if that, unless I happen to remember a lot. And if I get busy, or this past autumn, when I was frequently sick, I will go days without recording anything. But I continue to come back to it.

Have I found the next TWILIGHT? Uh... no. I haven't been blown away by any brilliant ideas. However, I have found bits and pieces of ideas for stories, good enough that I've at least kept track of them. I have also found that spending a small amount of time each day recording my dreams makes me think about the previous day and the complexity of my thoughts and emotions. Sometimes things are presented in dreams in such a strange, metaphorical way, but upon waking I know what I was dreaming about, and gain some insight into how stressed I must have been about work or upset at a friend's passing comment.

So no novel-worthy inspirations, but perhaps a better understanding of my own psychological well-being. So... not half bad. Plus, I can within a minute tell you how many times this past 5 months I've dreamed about zombies... not a bad system at all!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The ongoing struggles of trusting my brain

I'm not a big fan of my brain. I know that sounds harsh, but I bet most people aren't enraptured with the reliability and genius-levels of their brainpower either. How many times has my brain let me down? Lost shoes, crummy English essays, forgetting to get in touch with a friend when I knew she'd be having a rough day, misplaced car keys--heck, I even lost my CAR once!

The irony?

My goal this past year has been to trust my brain MORE.

Weird, huh? But over the past two years I've discovered my brain (or at least my subconscious) knows exactly what my writing needs. It lets me know when there's a problem in a way quite similar to how a toddler lets you know when she's bored (crying, screaming, suddenly weighing 300 pounds). For example, lately I've been more or less happily working on a new novel (biding my time until my tutor returns my previous submission). Until this past week...

Wednesday: Got idea for chapter 4, jotted down rough sketch of the plot. Still some time before lunch, so I wrote a few sentences, but I couldn't get started. Instead I drew a picture of the setting. Then I wrote: What is character's mental state? I couldn't answer the question, so I stopped for the day (lunchtime!).

Friday: Started to write about my character's emotional state. Realized how to solve a problem from chapter 1, so returned to the beginning of my novel.

Sunday: Rewrote opening sentences I wrote on Wednesday. Wrote three more paragraphs. Goodness, this is painful! How many hours until lunch? Found other things to work on.

Monday: Asked myself a lot of background questions, wrote a few more sentences, but it was all crap and I had no idea what should happen next. Again, found other things to work on.

It took until Tuesday for me to give up. OK, brain, why isn't this working? Why does my character hate me? Why can't I write anything? So we played twenty questions.

Brain: Is the scene necessary?
Me: I like this scene!
Brain: Why?
Me: Well, for X character development and Y emotional state and...
Brain: But you already showed those things in chapters 1-3. What new thing are you showing?
Me (after much scribbling): My character realizes something's bothering her.
Brain: What?
Me: Uhhh... she's angry.
Brain: Really?
Me: Uhhh... no. She's sad? She's lonely? She's empty. She feels empty inside like she's got nothing to hold on to anymore, like an empty paper bag... (madly scribbling).

Fifteen minutes later? I outlined the whole scene, used some of my previous paragraphs, added a few more short paragraphs, tied it all together... DONE.

It only took 4 days and fifteen minutes.

Maybe I'm not being entirely fair to myself. That drawing of the setting did prove helpful. I used the paragraphs I wrote earlier, though I'll probably tweak them a bit later. My insights on chapter 1 improved it considerably. But if I had forced myself to stay in my chair and played twenty questions with my brain last week? Maybe this would have gone a lot faster.

On the plus side? 4 days isn't bad... in the past it's taken me months, even years to listen to my brain. I think I'm getting better.

Monday, February 1, 2010

When I Was Joe: READ IT!

So many kids' books contemplate what would happen if we really could change our lives. What if I'm secretly a princess or a fairy queen, what if I could be an astronaut or an adventurer? What if I could be the most popular kid in school?

WHEN I WAS JOE by Keren David takes this common premise and twists it to create a thriller of a teen novel: a child's dream and nightmare rolled into one. Ty goes into the witness protection program to become Joe. He gets a new look, money for stylish clothes, even colored contacts. He's pushed back a grade at his new cushy school, so he's head of the class, tall, muscular, and the boy every girl wants. Except he still carries a knife, sees the blood over and over again in his mind, and quickly discovers "the gangsters will stop at nothing to silence him."

Is your heart racing yet? Mine sure was!

Every chapter of WHEN I WAS JOE ends on a cliffhanger, so I tore my way through the book, stopping only to check how many pages I had left (thankfully JOE's over 300! Thankfully there's a sequel coming out this year!).

Besides its killer premise, Keren populates her novel with remarkably real people. Ty/Joe is a typical 14-year-old boy: sexually charged, making dumb mistakes, utterly focused on his image above everything else. Yet the reader can also see into his heart and feel his fear. I laughed my ass off and cheered for Ty the whole way through. The characters who surround Ty are equally well-developed: his poor Mum goes through her own devastating transformation in the witness protection program, his coach is a driven athlete competing for a spot in the paralympics, her younger sister, shy, hidden Claire, is hiding a dangerous secret of her own. I even loved Ashley, the mean girl Joe initially falls for--how true to real life she was!

And I loved Keren's East London setting. At the beginning of the novel, Ty and his mum live above a newsagent who shares man-to-man advice with him and teaches him Urdu. He learns Turkish from the nearby kebab shop, Polish from a hotel worker. Keren perfectly captures the thrill of a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic neighborhood. And her characters reflect this as well. It never felt like a set of boxes to be ticked (Indian, check, wheelchair-user, check), only real life. If only more authors would celebrate diversity like this.

WHEN I WAS JOE by Keren David is already out in the UK. It comes out in the US this fall. Its sequel, ALMOST TRUE, will be available in the UK this August. READ IT!!!!*

And follow Keren's fabulous blog at

*Full disclosure: Though Keren David and I have never met in person, she's a good blog/Twitter/FB friend. I bought JOE and read it on the sly so I wouldn't have to let Keren know if I didn't fall in love. I needn't have worried. I quickly discovered how great it was and I needed to tell you: READ IT!!!!