I’m so excited to be revealing the cover for my next middle grade novel, Things You Can’t Say, today. Check out the full cover and an interview about the book over at Mr. Schu Reads.
The old adage in writing is “write what you know,” and while I think there’s plenty of truth in that, I’ve found that lately, my writing projects have steered me away from areas of deep knowledge and experience. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think within every story there are emotional truths that surpass the particulars and speak to universal experiences. But when students ask me how I decide what to write about, more often than not lately it’s guided by my interests.
What do I want to know better? What do I want to explore more deeply?
If you’re intensely curious about something, chances are that intense curiosity will carry you through the ups and downs of the writing, the research, the revision, etc. You want to know more, and you’re willing to put in the time and effort to get there.
As I write this, it’s past my bedtime and the NBA Finals are on TV. A few years ago, I was just starting to become immersed in the world of college basketball after moving to Cincinnati. I loved everything about it, and at the same time, realized how much I didn’t know. It was all still so new, and yet a lot of the excitement came precisely from the newness. When you’re as old as me (okay, mid-thirties), there’s a lot that isn’t new. So much is familiar that when something new comes into your life, it can be exciting. Thrilling, really. At least, that was the case with my hard fall for basketball.
By the end of my second year following my local college basketball team, I was hooked. Deeply, deeply hooked. And then devastated. It all ended so fast! I was bereft. I didn’t know where I could put all that energy I’d put into following my team . . . unless. . . .
That’s how my work-in-progress was born. A project that would involve a deep dive into the world of basketball. Something I did not know enough about to write a book . . . yet. All of the basketball movies and books, staying up late for the NBA Draft, etc. I wanted to soak in every bit of it. I’m still soaking in every bit of it. Honestly, I think I pulled an abdominal muscle the other day leaping off the couch in excitement when I learned some breaking news about a new recruit. (Downside of getting old, I know.)
The truth is, it’s a long process, writing a book. You need something to carry you past the excitement of the early stages of a first draft and through the muddled middle, the ending that you’re not quite sure of, and all the revisions that follow. So you might as well write about something you know . . . enough, but that you want to know better.
Having just realized that I haven’t posted in many months, I decided to post a little update today. Unfortunately, I can’t get into too many details at the moment, but . . . that’s okay, right?
- Last week I signed a contract for . . . something. You’ll hear about it this fall. I promise! 😉
- A few months ago, I got to see the final cover for Things You Can’t Say. I can’t share it here just yet, but in July, I’ll be unveiling it over on Mr. Schu’s blog, so, stay tuned.
- I’m currently revising my WIP, which features two girls who love basketball almost more than life itself and whose fathers are college basketball coaches, rivals, and . . . friends turned enemies. Hopefully some day I can tell you more. A lot more. 😉
- Okay, now for something I can talk about: My cat is still furry. Really, really furry. And she’s currently doing her spring shed, which means every day I pick up random tufts of white fur all over my house. It looks a little like a chicken exploded.
As usual, as December draws to a close, I’ve spent much of the past few days reflecting on the year we’re saying goodbye to. I can’t imagine I’m alone when admitting I am very ready for 2018 to be over. And yet–for all that was hard and trying and just plain bad about this year, there is plenty I am fortunate for. Even some of the bad.
In 2018, I . . .
- sold a new book (okay, technically, my awesome agent Katie Grimm did, but you catch my drift)
- revised that book, as well as another that’s in the pipeline behind it
- read 202 books:
- 33 adult
- 119 middle grade
- 50 YA
- many, many picture books (I don’t track those on Goodreads, alas)
- blurbed a fantastic forthcoming (fall 2019) middle grade novel
- started a new middle grade WIP, set in Cincinnati and the world of college basketball, told in alternating POV from two girls whose fathers are rival college basketball coaches
- volunteered with the ACLU for the midterm elections and discovered my love of text-banking
- made new friends in Cincinnati
- followed along in sheer joy (and until 3 am on one night) as my beloved Boston Red Sox won it all
- sobbed in a fetal position on the couch as my beloved University of Cincinnati Bearcats (a #2 seed) somehow lost a game in which they held a 22-point lead in the first weekend of March Madness, ending the big hopes that I and many other Bearcats fans had for them
- discovered that anything that could make me that sad had a book somewhere in it, and started writing that as a way to heal my March Madness wounds (see above!)
- became a season ticket holder for the Bearcats men’s basketball team
- met two of my favorite Bearcats in person
- recognized that we’re all works-in-progress and started therapy again (not Bearcats-related, I swear, though at least I’ll have a safe space to process my feelings if March 2018 repeats itself come 2019)
- helped my pub trivia team along to the finals for Cincinnati (Go, Bacchus & Lilly!)
- began mentoring two groups of fifth graders as part of #KidsNeedMentors
- gave my first talk at a book festival
- connected with readers at book festivals in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee
- became a Houston Rockets fan
- saw Janelle Monae in concert and it was everything I needed and more (seriously, if she comes to perform in your town/city, DO NOT MISS OUT)
I can only imagine what 2019 has in store for me, but I know one thing for sure: I have a lot of home basketball games to attend between now and March Madness. In our nosebleed bleacher seats. Wouldn’t change it for anything.
Wishing you all the best as we turn the calendar to 2019!
In my case, it’s this space cats calendar, courtesy of my little brother.
While decorating the Christmas tree last night, I took this ornament out of the box and all at once I was lost in the memory of where I was one year ago. Last year, I stumbled upon this motorcycle ornament at HomeGoods. It felt like a sign. The thing is, that year had begun with a project of mine being rejected by my publisher. The novel featured the arrival of a mysterious man on a motorcycle. It was a story that meant a lot to me, but maybe, maybe, I was starting to think, that I wasn’t quite ready to tell.
It was a boy POV, after all, and maybe I didn’t yet have the skill required to tell it. So I’d shelved it, focusing instead on the project that felt, at least at the time, easier.
But the thing was, I couldn’t let go of that story. Or Drew. Or Phil, the man on the motorcycle who Drew becomes convinced could be his father, even though every fact points to the harsh reality that his father died three years ago, by suicide. Maybe I didn’t get Drew’s story exactly right. Maybe it just needed more work. More time.
And so I revised it again. Had to convince my agent that this project, not the ostensibly easier to sell/write one, should be my focus. I bought this motorcycle ornament last year, hoping, hoping, hoping that I’d finally gotten the story right. That an editor might fall in love with it the way I had.
That wish came true. Drew’s story will soon go to copyedits, and will be published in spring 2020 by Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, though we’re still working out the title.
More than anything, I hope these words are permission, to my past and future selves, to impulse purchase at HomeGoods and TJ Maxx, and to you. To give yourself the talisman that helps you believe. (Mind you, I impulse-bought a motorcycle ornament not an actual motorcycle.)
Sometimes, that’s all we need.
After “read, read, read,” my second biggest piece of advice for aspiring writers is this: Read your work aloud. Here’s why.
Sure, it’s the best way to catch mistakes. But what reading aloud really does is force you to slow down. It forces you to move through the story of your book alongside your characters, in as close to real time as possible.
When you read aloud, a funny thing happens. (Even if it’s the billionth time you’ve revised something.) You feel things. You’ll get that gut sense of what feels true and honest. As well as what doesn’t.
You’ll get embarrassed. Maybe because what you wrote is so raw and from the heart that it’s almost too much to put in the book. In those cases, especially, I think it means you need to. But you’ll also get embarrassed when you notice something that doesn’t live up to your own standards. A word. A sentence. A scene. A chapter.
Reading aloud takes time. There’s no way to get around it. It takes a lot of time. But is that time worth it in the long run? Absolutely.
This week I’ve been reading aloud my WIP. Fifty-ish pages a day. It’ll take the entire week. It’s maybe the third or fourth time I’ve done it for this particular project — this is the 13th draft and it’s not done yet. But I know I’ve made progress because even though I’m about as familiar as you can get with the book, certain scenes are still choking me up. Eliciting tears even though I’m the story’s architect.
Now I’m not saying you have to read it aloud to anyone. (Though cats and dogs are excellent listeners.) I have an author friend who did exactly that, though. She read aloud an entire draft to her friends.
But if you’ve never done it before, give it a try. See what you learn from it. You’re likely to find your own takeaways, beyond what I’ve noticed. And if you’re a teacher, encourage your students to read their work aloud. Doesn’t need to be to their classmates. I’d be curious to hear their takeaways.
For the first summer in the past few years, I don’t have a new book out. At first I was excited about this discovery. As you might guess from my books being set in the summer, summer is my favorite season, so I was happy to have my summer back. Well, until I realized that summers in Cincinnati are not exactly like summers in New England. They’re hotter. They’re muggier. So hot and so muggy, in fact, that for a lot of weeks, the best place to be is inside and in the AC. Which, if you’re me and you love being outside, is actually kind of a bummer. I’m discovering that a lot of my love of summer came from being in the water — lakes, ponds, and of course the ocean. A startling true fact about Cincinnati: it is nowhere near the ocean.
Now, before you start to feel bad for me, I should confess that I’m jaunting off to New England next week, where I’ll be a heck of a lot closer to the ocean (practically walking distance) for a week. But before that, I have to turn in revisions on my 2020 book, Man of the House.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been holed up in my revision cave, further fleshing out the story of Drew (which thankfully is set in the summer in Rhode Island so there are beaches and Del’s frozen lemonade — at least I’m there in my mind). Last week, we had contractors in our house demo-ing our kitchen floor and then re-tiling it, which meant a lot of banging and dust, which isn’t exactly conducive to revising. Thankfully, we also had the best weather to come through Cincinnati all summer, so every day I took my laptop to the nearby park for some revising en plein air. Now, technically “en plein air” is French for painting outdoors, but I think it works for revising too.
Maybe you’re wondering about where the epiphanies come in (and hoping the epiphany in this story wasn’t that Cincinnati is not near the ocean, because, duh, Jenn, duh). They come in here! As I revised outdoors, away from all the distractions of my house and the internet. All of the noise from the “real world” disappeared in these en plein air revision sessions. I was able to get into my main character Drew’s head and stay there in ways I never could at home. The thing about late stage revisions is you’re often trying to make passes through a book keeping an eye on many different threads at the same time, but also making sure that anything you insert is in the voice of your character and flows with everything that was always there. You’re getting close to the end–no longer hacking away at things. But you’ve still got this last little way to go. It’s the kind of revision that requires an amount of focus that is, quite honestly, hard for me to muster lately, with the speed of the news cycle and text messages flying across the computer screen. And all the teeny distractions of being home. (I’ll admit I’ve never been one to work in a coffee shop for some of these reasons — also, I am super bad at not eavesdropping and I need new headphones.) The hours disappeared in the park as I immersed myself in Drew’s story day after day, slowly accumulating ankle bug bites but not even caring because they were so worth it.
All of this is to say, if the world is too distracting for you, if it’s interrupting your writing and making it hard for you to go deep into a character and feel alongside them, take it outdoors. Find a shady spot in the park and a comfortable seating position (or several to rotate among) and escape into your story. You may end up with a few (okay, ummm 30) bug bites, but I guarantee it’s worth it.
[Spoiler alert: this post deals with some plot elements of The Distance to Home]
Last month, I had the honor of visiting Sells Middle School in Dublin, OH, right after the entire sixth grade had read The Distance to Home. It was such a fun visit, but, as always, it wasn’t possible to answer every student question, so here I’m sharing some of the student question that were sent to me afterward and my answers.
What inspired you to write about baseball, but not other sports?
I think my first published book is about baseball because baseball was the first sport I loved — both as a player (though not a very good one) and a fan. In the past few years, I have fallen in love with college basketball (in particular, my new local team, the University of Cincinnati Bearcats) and I’m currently writing the first draft of a book brimming with basketball. All of this is to say, if there’s a sport I become obsessed with, there’s a good chance it’ll find its way into a book someday.
Did you struggle with writing the book?
Of course! Not every day, but some days, for sure. Putting together a story is in so many ways like tackling a really big puzzle. Sometimes, it takes a while to find the right piece that fits. And other times, you look down, find it, and immediately snap it into place. But the struggle is worth the result, always.
How did you get the characters’ names? Are they based on someone? If so, why?
For The Distance to Home, I used a lot of first names that were familiar to me. I had a friend named Quinnen when I was in middle school and always loved that name. But for my other books, I’ve ended up renaming my characters many times. I could spend days reading name books or looking at lists of names. None of the characters are based on someone in totality, but I think there are pieces of myself and people I know sprinkled into all of my characters.
I was wondering about Haley in the car crash, the other car that got hit too, did they get insured or hurt?
You know, this isn’t something I’ve given too much thought to, as it wasn’t a part of Quinnen’s journey. The thing about grief, often, is how it’s such an inward experience. Quinnen is so focused on her own pain and guilt for how she treated Haley that she isn’t thinking about the other people involved and their pain. For example, it’s only later in the book that she’s able to see how much Zack is hurting.
How did you decide what Zack would look like and why did the Donnellys not have a pet?
Okay, so I guess I have to backtrack a little as I’m remembering that some physical details of Zack are based on a friend I had in high school. The Donnellys didn’t have a pet because a pet wasn’t important to the story I was trying to tell. I also try to mix it up across my different books so that every family is constituted differently. Some have pets, some don’t, just like in real life.
How did you get 14 hamsters?
It all started with six hamsters that were supposed to both be boys. Turns out, three weren’t . . . .
Were you ever nervous to share your work with others?
Ever? Umm . . . every time?! I think nearly every writer is at least a little nervous sharing their work with other people, especially the first time you’re sharing a new project. For so long, it’s all yours — like the best kind of secret. But it’s so important to share our work if we want it to eventually have a wider audience. We need to know how other people are understanding it in order to make it the very best version possible.
Can you give me a shout-out? (from Emerson)
Shout out to Emerson!
How many cats do you have?
One. She wouldn’t have it any other way. 😉
What other authors do you know?
Too many to name here! I feel so lucky to have been able to get to know better so many authors, especially those who had their first books published between 2015 and 2017.
Why did you choose the setting in Tri-City, Illinois?
Because it’s made up! Though The Distance to Home was inspired by my experience at a Kane County Cougars game, I realized that it would be very challenging for me to get all the details right about the specific town where those games are played, especially because I only spent a little while there, so I created a fictional town and team instead.
Wow, 2020 sounds truly futuristic to this author who was born in the 1980s. I’m so excited to share that my next middle grade novel, Man of the House, will be coming out in spring 2020 from Aladdin, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
Here’s the official announcement in Publishers Weekly:
Looking forward to sharing more news about this book over the coming few years!
Why do I attend book festivals?
The most obvious answer seems: to sell books! But that’s not my reason. It’s for all those small moments, those connections with readers that will ripple out into a life in ways you will never know. Often the connections I make aren’t even about my books (though it’s nice when they are). This past weekend at the Southern Kentucky Book Festival in Bowling Green, KY, it was talking Pokemon Go with a young reader who insisted I wear her Eevee ears.
The thing is, as a kid, I never ever said I wanted to be an author. I couldn’t imagine it as something I would do. Authors were some special breed of person, I’d decided, because I hadn’t ever met one. All I knew of my favorite authors was their pictures on the back flap, and those short paragraphs that said where they lived.
I attend book festivals (and do school visits and Skype visits) because I want kids to know that authors are just regular people. (Or weirdos! Sometimes that, too.) We aren’t typing away in some gilded castle. We’re that person in the park playing Pokemon Go because she needs to get out of the house after spending her day in a fictional world.
And yes, I will wear those Eevee ears.