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.)
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 lotof 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!
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.
Well, not going to lie. It was not a great opening day for my Red Sox. As Stephen King put it best a few minutes ago on Twitter, “The Red Sox snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.” And yeah, that felt a little too familiar to how my Bearcats finished March Madness.
Thankfully in baseball there are 162 games in the regular season, so plenty of room to make up for that stinker.
In any case, I thought I’d post a round-up of my favorite baseball-themed middle grade novels, plus a few that I still need to read.
It’s the title of a YA novel I read years ago, and also pretty much how I’ve been processing my emotions for the past 18-ish hours after watching my beloved Bearcats go up 22 points with just over ten minutes to go … only to lose in the most historic, heartbreaking fashion imaginable. As I lay in bed in the hours after, sleep was all but impossible. My mind kept jumping to all the tiny things that could have changed a fate that was now already set in stone. How had I gone from giggling over the players’ Instagram stories as they enjoyed Ruth’s Chris Steak House Saturday night to sobbing uncontrollably on the couch on Sunday evening? No. That couldn’t have happened. It must be a dream.
There are so many wonderful things about passionately following a sports team, but man, is it crushing when it ends. And more crushing when it was all in your hands and you let it slip away. Not that it was in *my* hands. But, if you follow sports, you know what I mean. How the them becomes we. The feeling of wanting it so badly for a team, and the heartbreak that comes when it all falls apart.
I keep thinking I’m starting to feel a little better about what happened. And then my mind jumps to the things I imagined that will never be and the hurt starts all over again. I can’t imagine what it was like to be in the players’ shoes last night, or even today. The hardest part is that in these matchups, a whole lot of people are left heartbroken in an instant. (Or if you’re on the winning side, feeling like you’re going to burst from spontaneous joy.) One team wins and the other loses. It’s black and white in the end. That’s sports. That’s fandom. It’s that spontaneous joy, though, that keeps us coming back for more, even after lows like this. And this is a low low, even for me.
This one’s going to hurt for a while. And I’ll be honest, as someone who’s only followed the Bearcats for the past 2 seasons, I know I don’t really know the half of it. But I imagine it’s something akin to being a Red Sox fan pre-2004. You feel like it will never happen. Not in your lifetime, at least. That your team (or in yesterday’s case, your city) is genuinely cursed. And you can quickly recount a litany of events that transpired against your team that has you convinced.
But it can change, of course. That’s where the magic is. I wanted it so badly for this group of guys. For Gary Clark, for Jacob Evans III, for Kyle Washington. All of them. And for Mick, constantly underestimated Mick Cronin, the coach the rest of the country loves to hate but the coach we love anyway. I had a whole narrative, a whole fairytale ending to this season that I kept buried deep in my subconscious. I cautioned myself to take things one game at a time. Not to get ahead of myself when the South region of the bracket started opening up. But when you’re ahead by more than twenty points with a little over ten minutes to go YOU GET AHEAD OF YOURSELF. There is no way not to. And that makes it all the worse when suddenly nothing goes your way, when the wheels come off and the next thing you know, it’s over and you can’t believe what just happened and how fast.
And so I guess when the uncontrollable crying jags finally taper completely (hey, there may be no crying in baseball but this is basketball), I’ll come back to the lesson I learned from the 2004 Red Sox.
The magic can happen, even if it takes 86 years.
And when it happens, all those players from all those teams that felt this special– the names you want in the rafters, like Gary Clark — they come back and it’s a celebration of everything. Of what happened, and what didn’t and what almost did.
These kids got to cut down the nets. They won 31 games, their conference title, and the conference tournament. That’s not something many teams can say. They beat Wichita State in front of their crazy intense home crowd on senior day to win out the season after two excruciating losses that had this fan (and a lot of others) worried that maybe this team wasn’t for real.
I know they wanted more. We all did. And that’s why it hurts.
It’s been an exciting March in Cincinnati and it’s only about to get even more exciting now that March Madness begins this Thursday. As you may have heard if you follow college basketball, my beloved University of Cincinnati Bearcats men’s basketball team is in the big dance and a #2 seed this year. !!!
Their first game is this Friday at 2 p.m. and you know I’m excited because, quite honestly, I don’t think I can get anything done this week besides eagerly anticipate this first game. I have tried, but, no. I don’t think it is possible. I actually woke up at 6 a.m. the day after springing forward because I was too excited to sleep any longer. (And look, I get grumpy when my cat wakes me up at 7 a.m. for breakfast. I am not a morning person.) This is how I have felt inside since Sunday:
Anyway . . . it turns out there is some other exciting news to share that doesn’t have to do with college basketball. 😉
The Distance to Home is going to be in the Scholastic Book Fair and Book Club starting in April!
It was also chosen for the Iowa Children’s Choice Award! In the case of this award, the nominations come directly from readers, so I’m thrilled to see that they enjoyed The Distance toHome enough to nominate it. Thank you, Iowa readers!
Last year, I connected via Skype with two schools that used The Distance to Home in a grade-wide capacity. I was delighted to interview the teachers who spearheaded this project in their respective middle schools, Angie Hull from Dublin, OH, and Tiffany Hathaway from Folsom, NJ.
JB: When I wrote this book, I always hoped it could be used in classrooms someday. How did you select The Distance to Home to be used in this way? What was it about the title that appealed to you, and that you thought would appeal to students?
Tiffany Hathaway (TH): I attended a workshop called “What’s New in Young Adult Literature” and learned about The Distance to Home. Our middle school team was looking for a title for our One Book initiative—students entering grades 6-8 read one book over the summer and we discuss the book in September. We were committed to choosing a book that had a strong female protagonist. We also felt the topic would appeal to a wide variety of readers. As an ELA teacher, I liked the play on words of the title with the double meaning of the word ‘home.’
Angie Hull (AH): When we consider read aloud books for our sixth graders, we have about 300 students to consider. We have to consider books that will hold interest, appeal to a large audience, and are somewhat new. We have students who read at least 100 books in a year [JB: Wow – 100 books!] and we want all students to get books read aloud that they have not read. So we pick books that students may not know about.
When I first read The Distance to Home, I knew it was a book that sixth graders would love. It is written in such a way that you just have to know more, which is the best part of a read aloud. When you stop a read aloud, my favorite moment is the groan that happens when the students realize they will have to wait a day for the next piece and in your book, I found myself doing that when I was forced to stop reading for whatever reason.
At the time, we were looking for a book that would be a good fit for the end of the year (hello, baseball). We were also looking for a book to:
build further understanding of plot and the idea of unique plots
review Kylene Beers and Bob Probst’s fiction signposts
understand how character’s change due to the plot.
Your book could not have been a better fit for our purpose. It held it all. How your book shifts from last summer to this summer creating a duel plot as you were there living those moments with the character. Furthermore, as the reader you saw intense character changes.
Overall, when our team chooses books, we think of our purpose, time of year, and books we have recently read.
JB: What are the activities that you used to complement the text? How did you come up with them?
AH: Considering our purpose of understanding plot and character change, we had students chart notes in their notebooks while reading. Then, we grouped students and had the groups create a plot diagram (or in this case a double plot diagram) based on their notes and understanding of the text. It was an amazing couple of days of discussion, processing, and really thinking about the author’s craft on how this book was created. It was also unique to see how they would design how the plots were happening.
TH: As a middle school team, we meet in the summer to brainstorm activities for our One Book initiative. We kicked off the book with an assembly in Ju
ne, playing some baseball trivia, introducing the novel, and having student readers read the first chapter. The reading was broken into parts with each student taking on a character and reading his/her parts of the chapter. We did a gallery walk of pictures of images that fit into the book. Students
were given two post-it notes and asked to reflect on two images that stood out to them; they were to explain how this image fit in the book and make a connection to the image. Some classes wrote continuations/alternative endings to the text. Others focused on the climax of the novel- choosing what they felt was the turning point, explaining why they felt this was a shift in the storyline, and locating text to support their ideas. In science, students studied reaction time and the science behind specific pitches in baseball. In math, teachers worked with batting averages. In personal/social development
and health, teachers dealt with the topic of loss.
JB: I’m so impressed with the range of cross-curricular connections you were able to make, Tiffany. It’s way beyond anything I could have imagined.
Now, I have to say, my favorite Skype visits are the ones with classes that have read my books. It’s so fascinating to see what the students take away from a text and what questions (and scenes from the book) linger with them. What was the response from students? Was their takeaway what you had anticipated, or were there surprises along the way?
TH: The response to the book was surprising. Students were very drawn in to the story and uncertainty along the way of how Haley died. We thought they would connect more with the sports aspect, and some did but most were very focused on the relationship between the sisters.
AH: Our students love the opportunity to ask questions and learn from authors. They also love the fact that I know you personally and that you are connected to Ohio. I know our Skype was huge last year as it was multiple classes coming together at once. We had it set up where students submitted questions to us first and we called up students based on what they asked so that all classes could be represented and that you weren’t getting completely off the topic questions. In my opinion, it went very smoothly – and hopefully we will be setting up another Skype with you this coming May.
JB: I would love that! I’m always impressed by the various entry points kids find into a story. One thing I remember from the thank you letters from the Dublin, OH students was how many of the kids commented on relating to Quinnen or Haley—they finished with a greater understanding of the challenge of being an older sibling, or, alternately, a younger sibling.
Thank you so much, Tiffany and Angie! None of what I do would be possible without hard-working and creative teachers like yourselves on the other end, fostering a love of reading and writing, and connecting students with the right books at the right time.