You may leave the library, but the library never leaves you

At the end of the summer in 2012, I worked my last afternoon in the public library’s teen room. It had been a busy summer — as any public librarian who works with children and teens will tell you, they all are — and I was on the cusp of burnout. I’d recently enrolled in Vermont College of Fine Art’s MFA program in writing for children and young adults and I was discovering that a full-time public service job didn’t leave me with much emotional energy to put into my writing. My then-fiance and I looked at our finances and, though things would be tight, we realized we could swing it: me, trying my hand at writing full-time.

Fast-forward nearly eight years. Today my third middle grade novel, Things You Can’t Say, hits bookstores and libraries. I’ve got another in the pipeline for next spring, Where We Used to Roam, recently sent book #5 off to my agent, and I’ve got a new notebook where I’m starting to imagine book #6. While I haven’t returned to work in a library in the interim, the enduring impact those library jobs I worked from 2006 to 2012 had on me is unmistakeable.

Things You Can’t Say opens with twelve-year-old Drew assisting the children’s librarian, Mrs. Eisenberg, with her story hour. Seeing how good he is with the little kids, she’s let him run a puppet show segment in her story hour, which has become Drew’s pride and joy. In my time as a librarian, I learned there are two kinds of kids who frequent the library. The kind who come in with their parents for fifteen minutes or so to browse and pick up some books or attend programs. And the kids who spend all afternoon there, sometimes all day. The kind for whom the library is a second home.

People who don’t spend much time in public libraries often don’t understand what purpose they serve today. “Can’t you just get books on Amazon?” they’ll say. Or, “I have an e-reader, I’m all set.” But the public library is ever so much more than a repository for books. For so many, from all walks of life, the library is a sanctuary. A place where they are treated with kindness, dignity, and respect. Librarians are part-social worker, part-teacher, part-parent, part-cat herder. Admittedly, as a teen librarian, I leaned real hard into the “cool aunt” vibe.

In the hours after school, or all day in the summer, it was hard not to notice the complex social dynamics of middle school and high school unfold right before my eyes. Even the breakup of the teen room couple! The library was a hiding place for some, and for others, a place to see and be seen.

Though the children’s librarian Mrs. Eisenberg is not a central figure in Things You Can’t Say, in small moments with Drew, I hope what comes through is that she sees him. That she recognizes his talents and helps nurture them, and that she’s cheering him along. What I loved about being a teen librarian (as opposed to a teacher) was that chance to be an adult in their life who wasn’t grading or evaluating them. But simple accepting them as they were, wanting the best for them, and helping however I could.

In crafting Drew and in writing his story, my years in the public library seeped into the text. How could they not? Even if subconsciously. In many ways, Drew is an amalgam of the kids I knew back then. “My library teens,” if you will. They left an indelible mark on me. When it came time to decide to whom I would dedicate this book, it was no question. This one was for them.

My relationship with libraries is different now. I’m not there five days out of the week anymore, but you can usually find me there at least two. I’m on a first-name basis with all the librarians at my local branch of the Cincinnati Library and it’s not uncommon to find my holds stacked on a shelf all by themselves.

Once a librarian, always a librarian, right?

The only thing better than a book festival . . .

. . . is a book festival with writer pals! Which, honestly, is pretty much all book festivals these days. The Books by the Banks Book Festival was this Saturday in Cincinnati and with 150+ authors in attendance, well, yes, we do tend to know each other. I was so fortunate to share a table for the day with my writer bestie, Abby Cooper, author of the wonderfully imaginative new middle grade novel Friend or Fiction, which published earlier this month. By the end of the day, I *might* have had a slight headache from talking non-stop for 7 hours.

Basically, book festivals are the author equivalent of 7th grade sleepovers.

Did we have enough fun? (Also: let’s just pretend my eyes were open in that last picture, shall we?)

Coming in 2021 – Where We Used to Roam

I’m thrilled to share that I have another project in the pipeline. Where We Used to Roam, my fourth middle grade novel, will be published in spring 2021 by Aladdin/Simon & Schuster.

On the outside, it probably looks like, wow, she has two books coming out in two years (2020 and 2021), she’s so speedy!

Oh, how things look in hindsight. 😉

Prior to these two projects, my most recently published book, 14 Hollow Road, came out in 2017. Since then, on my metaphorical writing stove, I’d been juggling pots on and off the front burner, with these two middle grade projects (Things You Can’t Say and Where We Used to Roam) fighting for the prime spot, and a YA novel I wrote and revised only to entirely abandon. One project would seem like it was fully cooked, but then I’d taste it and realize, ick, nope, needs more time still. At one point I felt like I would never finish or figure out Things You Can’t Say. Perhaps it was like that time I tried making vegan macaroni and cheese and had to throw the whole thing out–it just was not coming together as I had imagined it.

But it turns out an important part of the writing (cooking?) process is patience. And it takes time to cultivate patience. It’s never easy to wait. Especially when you see your fellow writers zoom ahead, announcing deals for their zillionth books while you’re juggling multiple pots on the stove, wondering if maybe you should just call in a takeout order.

But sometimes, with enough patience and persistence, you end up with a multiple course meal, a few splatter on the backsplash, just in the nick of time as your friends ring the doorbell.

That’s sort of how I feel now, on the other side of it all: grateful that things came together. And ready for a dinner party.

Write what you know? Or write what you *want* to know?

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.

A no-update update

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.

2018, what. a. year.

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.

Image result for space cats calendar 2019

Last year’s Christmas wish, revisited

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.

On reading your work aloud

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.

Some epiphanies from revisionland

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.

(My colleague for the last revision session. Isn’t he cute?)