Names, names, names

Of the many things I have to do as part of creating an entirely fictional world, naming my characters is one of the trickiest parts. I don’t just mean the main character(s), but also all of the people in my main character’s world. Since I tend to write in first person, I’m in my character’s mind and body, and so I’m supposed to know the names of all the people she/he knows. This means I have to come up with a LOT of names!

I have a tendency to change names as I’m working through the story. (Thank goodness for the “find and replace” feature.) I wish I could say that all of my names are steeped in symbolism and significance, but the truth is, they aren’t. For me, it’s important that the names sound realistic for the time and place of the story, and also that they stand apart from each other– can’t have too many starting with the same letter.

As I’ve been working on my latest work-in-progress, a young adult novel set in a New England boarding school, I realized that my character (like I did in high school) knows nearly everyone in her school by name. What this meant was that all of those characters, even the ones that appear briefly, should have a name. So “that girl from my Chem class” had to become a real person. But how to come up with a ton of names without spending FOREVER creating and deciding on them? (Truth: I can easily spend an afternoon poring over name books and website of the top 100 first names for a particular birth year. It’s a super fun thing to get lost in and call “work,” but…. perhaps not the best use of time).

New solution!image2image1

My nephew’s commencement book! (He graduated over the weekend from UConn.) Over 100 pages of first, middle, and last names to mix and match. Who knew this thing had a purpose beyond graduation day (as we sat in the stadium watching a thousand young adults receive their diplomas)?

 

Here’s to hoping the next time I have to name a random and very minor character, I don’t spend two hours doing it.

Revision, or That Thing I Love to Hate

It’s undeniable. No matter how wonderful anything I wrote seems on the day I wrote it, a day later it’s lost its luster. A few days later? A month later? Hoo boy. I start to see it for what it is: something that needs work.

That’s where revision comes in. What I’ve discovered by talking to many other writers about their processes is that no two processes are alike. What I’ve discovered works for me, but even then, I’m not sure it’ll work for the next book. Each book is essentially its own beast that I must wrangle into submission. And then repeat.

That said, I still feel like I can learn from other people’s revision processes. For me, the niggling thing I hate about revision is that it’s not as quantifiable as first drafting. With a first draft, I can say: I wrote X many words today, therefore I am done. With revision, I guess I could say: I deleted X many word today, hurrah! Except… it doesn’t really have that same feeling of achievement.

Because I need some sense of accomplishment, and because I’m wading through a 150-300+ page word document day after day, it’s essential for me to break it down.

1. Hence the list! The list is very key to my revision process. It’s visually pleasing! I can cross things off! Aha, I have tackled you.

2. I can add things to the list as I go along and discover more things that need work.

3. But how do I even know what needs work?

4. Personally, I can’t revise until I have some distance from the manuscript. If we’re talking tiny line edit changes and tweaking words, I can do that the next day, but for big picture things, it needs to sit. Stephen King suggested putting your draft aside for at least a month upon writing “the end.” If it works for him, I decided it works for me.

5. And so far, so good. But what do I do in the month away from my book? What if I want to take a peek?

6. NO, Jenn. No. No peeks allowed. If you really want confirmation that what you wrote is brilliant, genius stuff, by all means, send it to your mother. And then find something else to keep you busy until a month is up.

7. When I’m gearing up for revision, or needing to take a break from it, I find it helpful to return to a couple writing books to get me in the right frame of mind. Some of my favorites are: Cheryl Klein’s Second Sight (soon to be released in a new edition), Kate Messner’s Real Revision, and John Truby’s The Anatomy of StoryIf I’m needing a real pick-me-up, then Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird. And every couple years, Stephen King’s On Writing.

8. I also tend to read a lot for pleasure in the month after finishing a draft. And, okay, some Sims might happen, too (for a few days max!).

9. When I finally reopen the manuscript after a month or so has passed, I try to read it once through without doing anything to it. Just to remember the story and see what’s actually on the page. The next time I read it, I have a pad of paper next to me and I start a running list of all the things that need work. We’re talking macro level here (tiny sentence things and typos I’ll fix as I move through).

10. Then the list gets typed up. And printed out. And that’s when the accountability begins. As items on the list are tackled, they get crossed out. I tend to skip around the list for things that feel achievable in a given moment or day. Often, I tackle some of the smaller things first (something limited to one scene, for example) because honestly, IT FEELS SO GOOD TO CROSS THINGS OFF!

11. There are always those little pervasive things — the big picture stuff that really affect every little bit of the manuscript. Like, say I need to tone down one character. Or add a nuance to a relationship, in a way that doesn’t affect the plot or main story arc. I tend to save those for the end, as I make several passes through the manuscript, tweaking and tweaking.

12. The final stage of my revision is the one that I think a lot of other people do not do, but which is so essential to my process. I read my ENTIRE book out loud. (I am not looking forward to doing this with my 300+ page behemoth WIP, yet it must be done.) The reading aloud stage holds huge value for me. It’s how I catch accidental tense switches, typos, repetitive word choices, moments that unintentionally echo, etc. I also think it’s helped develop my ear for dialogue.

13. After I feel I’ve taken the book as far as I can, I share it with my beta readers — my critique buddies. Many of them have read several of my books now, and I hold their feedback in high esteem. It’s so essential to see what another person finds in your book that perhaps you didn’t intend to put in there. And sometimes discover genius things you did that you’d never give yourself credit for. Love, love, love my critique partners.

14. What comes next? I sift through the feedback from my critique partners. Some of what they say will jive with each other, so I know it’s stuff I need to work on. I start making a list (oh dear, another list!) and gear up for the next round of revision.

15. Repeat with critique partners, agent, and eventually editor…. and then voila! It’s done!

16. I’m sure I won’t be one of those writers marking up their now-published book with a pen before readings. Right?

17. We’ll see.

Friday Reads: The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

This is a bit of a cheat, since in truth I read The War That Saved My Life while I was on vacation in France last week. But wifi was hard to come by, so the review is coming a bit belatedly.

I’ve been hearing such great buzz about this book, and I have to say, it’s very well-deserved. I was sucked into this story immediately by our engaging narrator, nine-year-old Ada, whose worldview has been so limited prior to the story’s beginning. Because of her clubfoot (and her mother’s emotionally abusive nature), Ada has never stepped outside their London apartment. But everything changes with World War II, as along with many other London children, Ada is shipped to the countryside, along with her younger brother Jamie. Taken in by Susan, a stern, aloof woman with wounds of her own, Ada finds her world opening up in ways both startling and profound. She connects with Susan’s pony, other children, and eventually with Susan herself. At the same time, though, Ada struggles to believe in the possibility of a real connection with Susan. Her whole life experience has kept love an arm’s length away, and to some degree, she’s waiting for her experience in the countryside to disappear like the mirage she expects it to be. It’s expectations like that which feed a reader’s connection to Ada. The mixture of her hope and fear of disappointment is powerful, and a big contributor to the story’s pacing as, like Ada, we read in fear of the other shoe dropping.

Reading Ada’s story while traipsing around wet, soggy France and visiting the Maginot Line tunnels, it was hard not to think about the actual, confusing experience of World War II. With the Great War still in everyone’s conscience, being back in that position again was deeply unsettling. For Ada, with such a limited worldview, it’s even more confusing. In many ways, Ada is such an ideal vehicle for a historical story because her limited understanding of what is going on around her mimics the reader’s. A child of 8 to 10 years–the book’s intended audience–is not going to have a very full understanding of World War II. Bradley manages just the right amount of telling, which feels entirely appropriate for Ada, who’s trying to make sense of everything. The immediacy and novelty of the wartime experience was palpable.

There’s still this lingering sentiment that historical fiction is “boring,” I think because in some historical novels, the protagonist is not playing an active enough role in the story. While Ada is a victim of two circumstances–growing up with an abusive mother and being evacuated from London–she doesn’t passively experience the war. It’s her yearning and attempts at connection and significance, whether it’s with the horse or the neighbor girl or the suspicious man she spots on the beach, that give this story serious momentum. Add to that the just-the-right-length short chapters, and this was a book I zoomed through.

It’s early yet in my 2015 reading, but I can definitely see this title being in the mix for the 2016 Newbery award. It’s one I’ll be recommending widely.

Bookish France

For the past two weeks, I traveled around the Alsace Lorraine area of France with my friend and her family. The trip was a sort of last minute decision on my part–with everything up in the air about my book, I needed something to look forward to and nothing distracts quite like a trip to a foreign country–but just a few days before I left the awesome news came through that an editor (my editor now) from Knopf made an offer on my book. Well, the trip quickly turned celebratory, with the news becoming official at about the midway point that my middle grade debut, Safe at Home, originally sold to Egmont USA, had found a new home with Knopf. (And the icing on the cake — they bought my second book as part of the deal!)
Anyway, without further adieu, a photo essay about my bookish exploits in France!
(Did you think I could resist popping into every and any French bookstore? Metz has plenty! A graphic novel/comic shop, a gorgeous children’s bookstore around the corner from where I stayed, used bookstores, a huge college bookstore with an irresistible stationary section, etc. etc.)
 
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IMG_6084I’m fairly proud of myself for only buying three books on my trip: a French copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a French copy of Perks of Being a Wallflower, and a book for my father about Fort Vaux (en francais aussi — sorry, Dad!).

My Cat’s Endless Search to Find Ira Glass, or How I Learned to Love Podcasts

This winter, in the absence of my spring-fall soundtrack of endless baseball games, I’ve gotten hooked on podcasts. I’ve been an on and off listener of This American Life for years, but outside of that radio show (and podcast), I hadn’t found any others that consistently engaged me. Now, to be fair, I am easily distracted and not good at sitting still. But I’m also a multi-tasker, and as an adult who spends countless hours every week doing chores, I’ve found podcasts as my new best friend. After hours sitting at my desk writing, combining podcasts and washing the dishes or scrubbing the floor or folding laundry gives me that much-needed mental and physical break.

Now, where does my cat come into this? Well, for Christmas, my husband and I received a portable speaker (the UE boom) and it has totally changed the way I listen to music, podcasts, baseball games, etc. in my house. We are probably the last people to discover bluetooth portable speakers, but, OMG, the sound quality is incredible, it can go anywhere, and it’s super cute to boot. So now, instead of blasting a podcast on my tinny iPhone speakers, I connect to the UE boom. The sound quality is so good that it really messes with my cat. Every time I start up a This American Life episode and Ira Glass starts talking, she’ll wander in with the most puzzled expression on her face. Where is that man? He comes to our house once a week, but he’s… invisible. And he only stays for an hour. What the heck, Moms? She’s seriously creeped out at this point.

Right now, in addition to This American Life (which, by the way, absolutely blew me away with the latest episode–I was so riveted by the stories of the young adults who’d participated in the exchange between the elite private high school and the public school in the Bronx), I’m a huge fan of the following podcasts.

1. Narrative Breakdown – Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein and director James Monohan bring in a wide variety of guests to discuss topics related to writing/publishing/creativity. There’s a great backlog of episodes (they are a bit sporadic, but usually there’s a new one about once a month) of this podcast, nearly all of which I’ve listened to. I love hearing writers talk about their process, and also Cheryl’s keen insights from the editorial perspective.

2. This Creative Life – In Sara Zarr’s podcast (a bit more sporadic than Narrative Breakdown), she interviews a variety of fiction writers who discuss their process and different aspects of the writing life. The sheer honesty in these conversations is so refreshing.

3. Finish Line – As someone who lives a mile from where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found in a boat two years ago this April, I’m finding it impossible not to pay some level of attention to his trial, which started a few weeks ago. I’ve found that this 10-15 minute, almost-daily podcast gives me just the right balance of information and reflection. I tried following Globe reporter Kevin Cullen’s Twitter feed, but found it both overwhelming and too emotional (for me).

4. Serial – This was the one that started it all and got me hooked back on the podcast format. The first season ended back in the fall, but oh man, did Serial have me hooked. I listened to each episode as soon as it posted on Thursday morning, and then the Slate Serial Spoilers Special Podcast every Saturday morning. Obviously, I was not alone in my obsession, as Serial became such a cultural phenomenon. I’m very curious to see where Sarah Koenig takes it for season two, and how well the intensity of the listening experience holds up when it switches away from a true crime story.

 

So, those are my favorite podcasts as of today. What else should I be listening to?

Goodbye Stranger: Hello new Rebecca Stead

What is love? As she sits at the table wearing her cats ears, 7th grader Bridge tries to answer that question in her own words for a homework assignment. But she’s not sure what to write, and doesn’t think too much about what she scribbles down. Seventh grade seems to be the year that could test Bridge’s BFF threesome with Tab and Emily. They’ve been best friends forever, but it doesn’t take long into the school year for Tab to fall under the sway of her activist/feminist teacher “the Berperson” or for Emily to start crushing hard on Patrick, sending body part pictures back and forth on their cell phones. Having survived being hit by a car when she was eight years old, Bridge is obsessed with the idea of her life having greater purpose–what is the reason she made it–but is still stumped on the answer. And then there’s Sherm, a new friend Bridge makes, who could maybe be more–Sherm (short for Sherman), the writer of unsent notes to his grandfather.

In this touching, intelligent, and timely novel, Stead inches us through the school year as these characters come to greater understandings of love, friendship, and themselves. Just as in Where You Reach Me, there is a puzzle aspect to Stead’s latest. In addition to the front story of Bridge and her friends and Sherman, there’s a more mysterious story with an unknown teenage protagonist, written in second person. As readers delve deeper and deeper into the story, they’ll work to figure out this person’s identity, and enjoy making the connections as we get closer and closer to Valentine’s Day, when all the threads comes together.

Goodbye Stranger displays Stead’s uncanny sensibility with dialogue and exquisite precision with storytelling. Every moment unfolds at exactly the right pace with an astonishing economy of language. I must admit, I’m curious to see the age recommendations for this title, in part because of the content. The language and situations are more mature than in Stead’s previous two middle grade novels. That said, I admire the way she takes such a touchy topic–cyberbullying, the oh-so-common teen challenges–and applies her own twist. At no point does this story come across as didactic. Every moment is grounded in the characters’ age-appropriate sensibility. Every moment feels authentic.

This one won’t hit the bookshelves until August, and man, do I feel lucky to have had a sneak preview. (Thank you, ALA Midwinter!) Y’all are in for a treat.

In summation: I would not be at all surprised to see this title up on the big screen at the 2015 ALA Youth Media Awards.

Writing Wisdom from an Unlikely Source

Filling the well — taking breaks from writing for other activities that surreptitiously somehow feed the writing — is essential to me as a writer. I need to read outside of books that necessarily inform my work or my practice of writing. I need to legitimately get outside, away from it all. (Easier said that done in this evil, evil Boston winter.) I need to hang out with friends, watch movies, listen to This American Life, cook, travel to France at the last minute, etc. For the past week, I’ve been reading Amy Poehler’s memoir, Yes Please, a little bit at a time before bed every night. This morning I finished it (because it is due at the library and I already have enough fines).

There is this passage in the chapter, “Treat Your Career Like a Bad Boyfriend,” that completely resonated with me when I read it last night. It so nailed what I think people in many creative careers (like comedy, but also writing) struggle with, which is separating the joy of the process and the work itself, from how the work is perceived by the public (sales, critics, “success,” etc.). Her answer: ambivalence.

 

“I will say it again. Ambivalence is key. You have to care about your work but not the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look. I realize this is extremely difficult. I am not saying I am particularly good at it. I’m like you. Or maybe you’re better at this than I am. You will never climb Career Mountain and get to the top and shout, “I made it!” You will rarely feel done or complete or successful. Most people I know struggle with that complicated soup of feeling slighted on one hand and like a total fraud on the other. Our ego is a monster that likes to sit at the head of the table, and I have learned that my ego is just as rude and loud and hungry as everyone else’s. It doesn’t matter how much you get; you are left wanting more. Success is filled with MSG. Ambivalence can tame the beast” (p. 223-225).

– Amy Poehler, Yes Please

Friday Reads: The Penderwicks in Spring

One of the ARCs I most coveted at ALA Midwinter in Chicago was the latest installment of Jeanne Birdsall’s insta-classic Penderwicks series, so there was a lot of internal–okay, and maybe a little external–squealing when I managed to snag a copy at the Random House booth. This is the first Penderwicks book I’ve actually “read.” I listened to the rest of the series on audiobook, Cover-Penderwicks-Spring-450wwhich means that my husband has been forced to listen to bits of the Penderwicks and also that we can do funny voices for “Batty.”

The Penderwicks in Spring is just as darling a book as the previous three Penderwicks books. Birdsall has such a knack for making the smaller, ordinary moment so deeply felt, and that was as true in this book as it was in the others, whether it’s Batty’s anxiety over asking her music teacher if she’d consider offering private singing lessons for her, or Ben playing action figures. The emotional center of this novel is Batty, now eleven, who is still struggling with the death of Hound. Everyone else has moved past their mourning, except Batty, who blames herself for Hound’s death. As always with the Penderwicks, there’s a flurry of activity with there being so many Penderwicks. Two-year-old Lydia is always getting into something, Skye and Rosalind have boy issues, and Nick Geiger is soon coming home from war. I so enjoyed watching Batty move past her grief and also learn to enjoy this unexpected gift: her beautiful singing voice. Birdsall has one more Penderwicks book planned, but honestly, I hope she reconsiders and keeps on writing them as long as she has more stories to tell. The Penderwicks are right up there with the Bravermans and the Gilmores as fictional families I’d love to be adopted into.

 

The Penderwicks In Spring releases on March 24, 2015.

Love, loss, and the writing life

As a child, the books that kept drawing me back were the ones in which a beloved character dies–Lois Lowry’s A Summer to Die, Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons, and countless others. I’m not entirely certain why I was drawn to these titles, as the juvenile me had, thankfully, very few direct encounters with death. And yet, I can so clearly remember visiting my school library and sneaking its copy of A Summer to Die off the shelf and reading just a bit, every time our class visited the library. Adult-me is still drawn to tearjerkers, though a bit more out in the open. I’ll never forget reading the entirety of The Fault in Our Stars in an airplane window seat, openly sobbing at the end. Or sniffling my way through Jo Knowles’s See You At Harry’s. You could say I’m a timeless fan of the tearjerker.

So I guess it’s not entirely surprising that as a writer, I’m drawn to certain themes, topics, and plot-lines that get the tears flowing in readers. (And okay, the writer too. No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader, right?) That said, it’s always a challenge every time I’m writing these sad scenes and moments. Am I evoking that emotion for the reader, or just me? I find myself wondering. It’s hard to tell until I share my work with other readers.

A week ago today, I said goodbye to the closest thing I had to a childhood pet: my parents’ cat Suki, acquired while I was away at college. In the days between the goodbye and the last trip to the vet, I was surprised by how completely overcome I was by grief. In the past few years, my family had been hit hard–I lost all three of my grandparents in a six month span–but I’d never experienced the death of an animal. Yet, in some ways, I felt like I had. My middle grade work-in-progress included a plot thread in which the main character’s beloved dog disappears right before a tornado and is assumed dead. I tried, as best as I could, to assume her mindset as I wrote and revised (and revised, and revised, and continued to revise), but it was only as I grieved the death of Suki that I discovered how much I got wrong, how much I underestimated the depth of grief that can come with a death of a pet. With that in mind, next week, I’m gearing up for another round of revisions starting next week, looking for ways to deepen my character’s experience, now that I’ve gone through it myself.

A brief memory of Suki, as previously posted on Facebook:

If it weren’t for Jessi, I’m sure my parents never would have had a cat. My mom didn’t want to get “attached,” she said, which explained why as kids we had pets with very short life cycles: fish, a bunny, gerbils, etc. But when my brother’s then-girlfriend needed to find a home for a cat they’d taken in that wasn’t meshing with their other cats, somehow my mom offered up to take her in. She so generously offered Suki (my brother’s name for the cat) the garage, the porch, and the basement, fearful that the cat would terrorize and destroy her house. Little did she know Suki’s true nature.

From a thousand miles away at college in Chicago, I followed the saga as Suki was slowly let into more and Beautiful Sukimore of my parents’ home. It wasn’t long until everything became suited toward Suki, my parents’ unexpected third baby. Few cats are doted on to the extent that Suki has been, especially after my brother left for college. Suki was a constant companion for all of us, exceedingly soft (called by many “the softest cat in the world”, okay, called by my best friend), exceedingly sweet (will sit on your lap for several movies in a row if you let her), and exceedingly patient. I wasn’t sure Suki had a bigger fan on earth than my mother, until my nephew blasted into the world. It took a few years to figure out if he was intent on destroying Suki or loving her (so many ear pokes, admitting once that he wanted to “slice her” only to then beg through tears for forgiveness), but by kindergarten, there was no question. Suki was the love of his life. He in complete seriousness told me on several occasions that he wanted to marry her—the ultimate declaration of love from a seven year old.

Suki was a lover of many things in her life. Despite the terror my nephew inflicted on her in her earlier years, I do believe he was one of them. She loved nothing more than to scratch her chin along his Legos and Playmobil, or to curl up at the end of his bed while she slept. “The little guy,” my mom called him to Suki, in preparation for his visits. “The little guy is coming again, Suke.” She loved ribbon and string and plants, so much so that none could be kept in the house. She loved to watch all of the goings-on in the backyard—the birds, the deer, the squirrels and chipmunks—from her spot in the porch. Though not a cat you had to take the food away from (quite the opposite, I think she had feline bulimia), she always loved a good treat. A few licks of milk from your cereal bowl, whipped cream from off your finger, even a stray piece of Chex. She loved to greet you by the door with a little trill, and to sit in the window. She wanted to be near people always. Even when she was starting to not feel well around the holidays, she waded through the crowd on Christmas Eve, sneaking pets from everyone.

But I think what I am going to miss about her most are the things that mark her as different from my cat. (Because she is. She is nothing at all like my Lilly, though she is every reason I have a cat at all.) The way she would squeeze into my bedroom at my parents’ house and walk all over me in the middle of the night, whether I wanted it or not. The way she would hop up on my lap on the recliner, rub her face all over my book, and then sit on me for so long I’d almost pee the chair I kept putting off getting up from because it was so nice having this sweet cat on my lap. It was so hard to believe, after all, that she was an animal and not my sister. (And not just because I called her my sister and told my nephew she was my sister and insisted that she was my sister, just my “cat sister.”) The only wild thing I’d ever seen her do was, once or twice a day, absolutely tear around my parent’s house after using her litter box. Even as a more senior cat, she still tore through the place with abandon, mrowling the whole way around the joint and then galloping up the stairs. But then just so quickly, she would turn back into her normal, more docile self, smelling of my mom’s hand lotion, and cheerfully chirping.

As my parents prepared for the last trip to the vet on Monday, I’m left reeling from yet another death in our family. Because that is what Suki was. My sister. I’m sorry, but I’m attached.

Friday Reads: Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

When Penguin Random House puts out a monstrous heap of pretty galleys at ALA Midwinter, you know they’re not kidding around. One of the books I was most psyched to grab back in late January was Cassie Beasley’s debut. (Admission: Cassie graduated from VCFA the semester before me and I was completely blown away by her reading, so I had an inkling this book was going to be special.)

Circus Mirandus grabbed me from the very first page; Cassie Beasley has complete control over this story, which expertly unfolded from the very first instant. From his deathbed, Micah’s grandpa Ephraim makes a dying wish: for the Lightbender he’d met years ago at Circus Mirandus to return and grant him his wish. But what is his wish, readers will wonder, just as I had.

Moving effortlessly between past and present, we come to know Ephraim when he was a young boy like Micah, and how he stumbled upon Circus Mirandus with a fish providing him admission. In the present, we see Micah, struggling with a great-aunt who couldn’t care less about him as he beloved grandfather’s health fails, and finding a friend in his classmate Jenny, a well-meaning know-it-all, who struggles to believe in magic. That is, until Circus Mirandus comes to town, again, and both Micah and Jenny are drawn into its magic, intent on saving Ephraim.

Cassie Beasley’s story reads like an instant classic, which, trust me, is pretty rare these days. Circus Mirandus will leave you believing in magic, and in the power of family and love and friendship. I can’t wait for June, when this book will reach a much, much wider audience.

It’s going to be magical.