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October 2014



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Oct. 21st, 2014


The MFA question, and live and let live

Writers sometimes wonder if they should get a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing: is it worth it? Will it make them better writers? Lead to jobs in the industry? Give them valuable insider connections?

Over at Three Guys One Book, Joseph Rakowski interviews Jennifer duBois on the subject. It's a good interview if you've been considering an MFA. But I also love this statement of duBois's at the very end, which can apply to so many more issues and questions beyond the scope of the MFA topic:

"... other people’s choices or lives are not necessarily a rebuke to our own—-they may, in fact, have nothing to do with us at all."

Oct. 18th, 2014


OCD Love Story

One of the most memorable YA books I've read recently is Corey Ann Haydu's OCD Love Story.

The title is its own synopsis, I think.

It was refreshing to meet characters and situations that haven't been overdone in YA. The character Beck was a treat--a nice guy with big problems, a love interest who is not arrogant, a big muscular guy who is not an overconfident jock straight out of Revenge of the Nerds. The ways in which he and main character Bea struggle to support each other in the face of their respective compulsions are by turns endearing, wonderful, and sad. Sometimes it seems they're perfect for each other; other times you wonder if they'll just make each other worse. Also rounding out the book is a complicated best-friend character with her own problems and her own blind spots, and a therapist who is saved from seeming unrealistically wise and perfect by a few moments when Bea (and we) see her hit a wall of frustration and fatigue.

Haydu got so much right about anxiety, obsession and compulsion: Not everyone with obsessions and compulsions washes their hands constantly or adheres to a military-style neatness. You can't just reason your way out of it, even when you see that you're behaving illogically. Fears often grow from a seed of truth and reasonableness--for example, driving really is dangerous statistically, and merging onto a highway is one of the trickier driving moments--into a situation that makes no sense, as when the protagonist drives 35 MPH on the highway, or repeatedly circles a block to make sure she hasn't run over a child playing in a yard near the street.

In novels that reach into the land of psychology and psychiatry, there can be temptations to patness both in describing the source of an illness (connecting mental illness directly to an early-life trauma) and in its treatment or cure. OCD Love Story veers close to this at some points, particularly in the case of Beck, but in the end opts for realistic changes and improvements rather than magical cures, and Bea acknowledges that many of her behaviors cannot be neatly explained or traced back to an identifiable root.

The one note of caution I will include here is the possibility that some readers with OCD may find this book triggering. From browsing online reviews, I see that this was so for some readers, while other readers with OCD find the story more of a relief.

source of recommended read: library

Oct. 16th, 2014


Special Today

"There was always a sign proclaiming Special Today with nothing else written on it, which I interpreted as [the restaurant's] announcement that these Sundays were important, that this today was a Special Today."
--Floyd Skloot, In the Shadow of Memory

Friends, are you having a Special Today? If not, I hope it's a Special Tomorrow.

Oct. 13th, 2014


On letting go of perfectionism

"... I feel now so far beyond that perfectionist streak which would be flawless or nothing--now I go on in my happy-go-lucky way and make my little imperfect worlds in pen and on typewriter and share them with those I love."
--Sylvia Plath, Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963, ed. by Aurelia Schober Plath

Oct. 9th, 2014

uih cover

A few bookish thoughts

--October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and I'm honored that my third novel, Until It Hurts to Stop, was on the NY Public Library's list of revelant YA books about bullying, along with books by Meg Medina, Barry Lyga, Susane Colasanti, and others. In Until It Hurts to Stop, I chose to deal with the aftermath of bullying: how it can affect people and their relationships years later, and how the process of healing can start.

--Also on that topic: YALitChat, the Wednesday-at-9-PM-Eastern Twitter chat, featured a great discussion about bullying, YA books, the role of teachers and parents and other adults, etc. You can still read the discussion by checking out the #YALitChat hashtag. I understand that next week's chat will continue the discussion.

--Finally and sadly: Zilpha Keatley Snyder passed away. I grew up reading and loving so many of her books: The Egypt Game, The Witches of Worm, The Velvet Room, and especially The Headless Cupid and Below the Root. I'm glad that her books are still in print, and her most recent book, William's Midsummer Dream, came out in 2011. May we all have such long and fruitful careers! I hope she knew how many of us readers loved and were inspired by her work.

Oct. 8th, 2014


Wordless Wednesday: One author, two trees


Tree at Rainbow Falls

Oct. 6th, 2014


Before it's a story, it's a real pain in the neck

Some stories whisper, nag, suggest. They don't come pouring out. They haunt the back rooms of the mind. They are ideas that can almost be grasped, words that almost take form.

They're the unreachable itch, the tip-of-the-tongue memory, the surprise behind the locked door.

Oct. 3rd, 2014


When to go one-on-one

At a writers' conference, while waiting for a panel on memoir writing to start, I chatted with the woman sitting next to me. What she really wanted to know, she said, was, "How do you get published?"

This question is so general, and its answer so long and complicated, that I assumed she was in the same place as most of the people who ask it: they've just finished writing a book and are wondering what's next. They know books get published, but they don't know how the process works, nor where to start. Usually, they need the name of a good basic text or a writer's organization that can help them start their education.

Since the woman said she wrote children's books, I gave her the name of SCBWI, which is an excellent place for new children's writers to learn about publishing (since the organization provides new members with a bundle of resource material including how to query agents and editors, sends out a regular news magazine in the field, and hosts conferences that are also an excellent place to learn). But when I gave her the name, her face fell. I could tell she'd been expecting something more, or something else, but I couldn't follow up with her just then as the panel was starting.

During the Q&A she asked the panelists the same question she'd asked me. Upon hearing that she writes for children, they also recommended SCBWI. And then she said that she knew about querying, that she had been doing it for five years and getting nowhere.

She received several suggestions then. One of them--the one I would recommend in this situation--was to get a professional critique. At SCBWI and many other writers' conferences, you can pay a little extra to get a one-on-one session with an agent, editor or published author who goes over your work and gives you personalized feedback. I believe she said she had not had such a critique before, that only friends and family had seen her work. And it's possible that her work is marvelous and it's just a matter of time; a good writer can easily spend five years or more trying to break into this extremely competitive field. On the other hand, after querying for five years without a nibble, I think it's worth consulting with someone in the field just to see if one is on the right track. Is the work of professional caliber? If not, what does the writer need to work on to bring it to that level? Is the work of good caliber but just in a genre or topic that is tough to sell?

A single critique is not necessarily definitive, but it can provide clues, and after two or three a writer will usually see a pattern emerge. If certain suggestions are offered over and over, they're worth paying attention to.

It's very difficult to navigate this field without feedback. The rejection rate is so high, even for high-quality work, that one can rarely tell if rejected work missed by an inch, a foot, or a mile. (Well, if it missed by an inch, the agent or editor will often provide some complimentary feedback; but if it missed by only a foot, the resulting form rejection makes it indistinguishable from a no-way-nohow-go-back-to-school rejection.) I took night classes, workshops, went to writing conferences. I entered contests, attended pitch sessions, joined critique groups, paid for professional critiques. Occasionally I got feedback that was wildly off. But most of what I got was useful in some way. And overall, I could gauge, in a general way, the progress of my work. It was when I started attending SCBWI conferences and hearing working editors talk about what they needed in a manuscript and how deep a revision should go that I finally produced a publishable book.

A one-on-one critique isn't magic. But it provides an opportunity that so many writers wish for: the chance to read beyond the lines of a polite rejection letter, the chance to find out specifically what needs work and what's already working. The chance to ask questions and get personalized answers.

Sep. 29th, 2014


The Big Tiny

I just finished reading THE BIG TINY, by Dee Williams, the story of a woman who built herself a house that's smaller than a typical parking space.

I have been sloooowly downsizing (by reducing my possessions, not my living space), but sometimes I fantasize about going even more drastically into simplicity. Interestingly, Williams's chief joy in her tiny-house experience would not be mine. She revels in the physical experience of building the house herself. I admire that capability, but to me the building part would be a chore, not fun.

For most of the book, her tiny house is settled behind her friends' larger houses, and she helps them with chores while they let her use their indoor plumbing and internet connection. Therefore, the tiny house is not a hermit's refuge. Instead, it facilitates community, a little neighborhood where the inhabitants of the three houses are in and out of one another's space all day long. It reminds me of stories from mid-20th-Century urban environments, where a couple might live in one apartment with their grown children downstairs, their siblings in the next building, their parents across the street, etc.

Student debt is increasing, the job market has been shrinking, and wages are stagnating. With the empty nest therefore growing less common, perhaps the extended-family living situation will make a comeback, with "family" sometimes including friends.

I'm hearing more and more about tiny houses lately--an interesting follow-up to the McMansion era. What's next?

Sep. 25th, 2014


Winging it

I'm a planner, a scheduler, a listmaker. I like to know what I'm going to be doing and when. I rarely like to just wing it.

(Which makes it all the more interesting that when I write fiction, I don't really outline, but write my first draft by rambling, wandering impulse. Curious.)

However, on my recent trip to Hawaii, we didn't have every day planned out. We knew a few things that we wanted to do, and we had certain flights to make, but other than that we were free to make up an itinerary as we went along.

And we kept having to change direction. It was too hot to do a hike we'd planned; some trails were closed; one trailhead parking lot was too full; a restaurant wanted us to wait too long for a table; we didn't know how we'd react to the altitude of Haleakala; we didn't know what we would find at the end of a certain road; we weren't sure we could find the trail we were trying to find; we didn't know if the tide would be high or low when we got to a certain beach.

We kept having to adjust on the fly, which is ordinarily something I hate, but this time it was all right. This time I even enjoyed it. I had coconut pie on impulse, at the moment when I saw one in a display case that looked good, and it was just what I wanted. We sought out a green sand beach on impulse. We had a beautiful desert walk that wasn't even on our radar the day before. We found little beaches and gardens hidden away from crowds, giving us the sense that these places might have materialized just for us.

Once when we were wandering the streets of Honolulu in search of a good place to have brunch (and despairing a little that there seemed to be so many more places to shop than to eat), I decided to sit down on a bench or a planter or something because I was tired. I was tired at the moment, so I sat at the moment. And then I looked up, and right in front of me was a whole rack of free magazines listing places to eat in Honolulu. We grabbed one, looked up a place, and found a great restaurant where we ended up eating twice.

The reason I'm a planner is that I often find the searching and flailing that goes with spontaneity to be annoying, a waste of time, an energy suck. But this whole trip was a case of accepting and living with what presented itself whenever our preconceived ideas didn't work out. It was a case of enjoying what was in front of us at the moment. We changed our flight from Oahu to Maui at the last minute because we got to the airport early and thought hey, why not try to hop on the earlier flight as stand-bys? And we caught a beautiful sunset because of it. We showed up at the Hilo airport and there was live music playing in the lobby. We ran into a park volunteer who told us how to find a certain place we'd been looking for. We wandered into a park ranger talk and ended up hearing a nose-flute solo.

Taking what comes was such a persistent theme on this trip that I began to suspect it might be a Life Lesson for me. Goodness knows I have been needing such a lesson when it comes to writing, because none of my writing plans in the past year have panned out. I have started asking myself: What happens if I work with what's in front of me, instead of what I wish I had, or what I thought I should have by now?

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