Favorite Books Read in 2014

Though the year hasn’t come to a close, we’ve certainly reached that time of the year where EVERYONE HAS A LIST ABOUT SOMETHING! The best books of 2014, the best albums of 2014, best films, best actors, etc. etc. Well, as a nerdy librarian, I must admit I craft my own such list every year. Ever since my first year as a teen librarian (2009), I have kept track of everything I read, using everything from the back of my planner to LibraryThing to GoodReads, always organized by year.

When I was a member of the ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults Committee, I read an obscene amount of books. (Or an amazing amount of books, if you want to think of it that way.) For those two years, I read more than 250 books per year. Um, that is insane. I also did pretty much nothing else besides read. (That’s what happens when you read that many books and they are not picture books, but ever-growing-in-girth YA novels.)

Since my time on the BFYA committee, I’ve been trying to focus my reading more on quality than quantity. I still read over 100 books a year, but not as many over 100 (106 for this year, as of today), and definitely not more than 150. (For the record, I do not count picture books; that would be too time-consuming given how long it takes to read them.)

Okay, stop rambling, Jenn, get to that list….

 

Best plane read of the year:

Isla and the Happily Ever after by Stephanie Perkins

tied with

Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn

 

Best tug-at-your-heart-strings middle grade:

Nest by Esther Ehrlich

 

Most incredible voice in a novel:

 I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson

 

Best read everybody already knows about:

Me Before You by JoJo Moyes

 

Favorite graphic novel:

Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

 

Favorite middle grade (unqualified):

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

 

Favorite oldie but goodie:

A Corner of the Universe by Ann M. Martin

 

Favorite book I read aloud in the car to my nephew:

The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern

 

Favorite book that captured everything about being a teenager, by a brilliant voice lost too soon:

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

 

Favorite adult fiction:

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

 

Favorite early chapter book:

Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon

 

Only book I read this year that made the NYTimes top 100 (and top 10) books:

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast

 

Best book I read that isn’t coming out until 2015:

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

 

Lists of favorite books are always so subjective, and every year I finish with a towering TBR stack, never mind an ever-growing TBR list. So, tell me, what did I miss?

 

My Writing Community

Before I went to Vermont College of Fine Arts for my MFA, I didn’t have a writing community. I had friends who were willing to read my drafts, some of whom wrote, others that wanted to be helpful, but they didn’t exactly constitute a community. Or did they? What is a community, exactly?

When I ask Google (I mean, consult my handy dictionary) for a definition of “community,” this is what I get:

com·mu·ni·ty
kəˈmyo͞onədē/
noun
1. a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.
2. a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.

That definition captures what I was looking for and what I had created by the time I left graduated from VCFA. The writers I met in Vermont didn’t exactly come from the same place. If anything, they came from ALL OVER THE PLACE. My classmates came from Hawaii, Connecticut, Utah, Arizona, and beyond–they were scattered across the country. But they did have a few characteristics in common: they loved children’s books and they wrote children’s books. They didn’t ask if someday I was going to write a “real book.” (Though, like me, they were asked that question by others!) Like me, they regularly read more children’s books than adult book every year. They cared about the Newbery awards as much–or more than–the Oscars. They read The Horn Book.  They valued, deeply valued, the craft of writing for ages 0-18. Every bit as much as I did.

The sense of fellowship came naturally with this group, especially with my graduating class at VCFA. (VCFA is very class-centric. I graduated in January ’14 with the M.A.G.I.C. I.F.s. We’re also really into naming our classes; it’s one of our many traditions.) Those two years of graduate school bonded us as we further developed our interests. Whether we chose to focus on picture books or middle grade or young adult or poetry, we stayed close because we were all approaching these interests with the same level of intensity, the same seriousness of study.

Almost a year after graduation, I’ve found that the bonds only continue to grow. My graduating class from VCFA has vowed to orgawritingcommunitynize annual retreats, the first of which led me to Park City, Utah, this past September. For five days, we talked craft, discussed books and movies, cooked dinner for each other, entertained guest writers, and oh yes–that other thing we do–we wrote. It was in Park City, at our very own writing retreat, that I had major breakthroughs about a new project, a YA novel, that I was just beginning. I left invigorated, refreshed, but most of all, happy and exhausted in a way I hadn’t quite felt since middle school sleepovers. Now, that’s community.

Hundreds to thousands of miles don’t stop us from being a community. Not at all. While there are days when I realize I have spent way too much time on Facebook or texting or Twitter, I realize that I have an legitimate excuse. I’m staying in touch with my writer friends.

VCFA probably won’t be my only writing community–I’m always interested in meeting writers that live nearby, and I’m starting to connect with other members of the Sweet Sixteens. But it’ll always be the first place I found my people, where I felt at home.

#8Terrible Titles

A huge thanks to fellow Sweet Sixteens author Kathy McMillan for tagging me in 8 Terrible Titles.

It’s fairly common for books to have titles drawn from a phrase somewhere in the book. I personally struggle to find titles for what I’m working on, always secretly hoping the right phrase will crop up later and work as a the perfect title. But while there are some phrases that make great titles, there others that make pretty terrible titles.

So, here at my eight terrible titles, chosen at random from my book:

1. I’ll Tell Him

2. Over the Plan

3. We Gotta Get Food Now

4. So White and Clean

5. A’s in Art

6. Folks This Summer

7. He Brought Flowers

8. Empty and Wrong

 

Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d buy a book called We Gotta Get Food Now. Empty and Wrong sounds a little too depressing though.

Now, I’m going to tag some of my author friends to share their #8TerribleTitles. Here’s how it works: open your manuscript, scroll for a bit without looking and stop.  Pull out whatever phrase your cursor is on.  Do this 8 times and then share your list.  Even non-writers can play – just grab the nearest book, pull out random phrases as alternate titles, and tag some friends to pass it on. Who knows, maybe you’ll stumble across a great title!

And I’m tagging:

Victoria Coe

Rebecca Podos

Emily Martin

Monica Tesler

Ashley Herring Blake

Robin Kirk

Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Jim Hill

 

Can’t wait to read everyone’s terrible titles–or maybe not-so-terrible titles, you never know, right?

 

How I Got My Agent, or, How Timing Is Everything

It’s hard to tell when this story begins. Was it in college, when I first started writing fiction, which was heavily (and I do mean heavily) drawn from my own life? Or was it a few years later, when I realized that in order to really tell a story, I need to let any fictionalized realities go and start from scratch with a blank page and people I only met in my head?

I first started querying back in 2009 — 2009! — with the first YA book I ever wrote, which grew out of my creative thesis from undergrad. Should I have queried this book? Okay, in hindsight probably no, but I did, and in the process learned a lot about querying. I learned what agents were interested in, I learned how to write a query letter, I sort of maybe learned how to write a synopsis (still not sure I have that down pat), and I read a bajillion writing blogs.

After a lot of full requests (and a lot of full rejections), I shelved that book and NaNoWriMo-ed a new YA novel in 2009, which I then revised and eventually queried in 2010-2011. I felt like I was back on the merry-go-round, as I again got a bunch of full requests but still, no agent.

I was close — receiving personalized responses from several agents — but still something was missing, and without a writing community, I didn’t know how to close the gap myself. That’s when I applied to Vermont College of Fine Arts, which I attended from winter 2012 to winter 2014. In those two years, I learned so much about the craft of writing, all the while working on three different novels, one MG, one YA, and one that couldn’t decide if it was MG or YA.

While I was still at VCFA, I started querying my third book, this time: a middle grade novel (which I wrote during the program), the very first I’d ever written. I started sending out queries right before Christmas 2012. Like the previous times, I was getting full requests and a variety of responses (but no offers), so I kept chugging along, researching agents in my free time and adding their info to my ever-growing spreadsheet. For each book I queried, I kept a detailed spreadsheet with agent names, agency, materials sent, date queried, date requested, and response. Having all of this data available was super useful for me, as it helped me see the big picture and have all the information I could possibly need, not knowing how long this journey was going to take.

In April, a couple months after I’d sent her a query, I received a full request from the agent who would ultimately become my agent. But I didn’t know this then! I sent off the full and kept on querying because, well, I was basically a querying machine at this point. I was determined that this time, it was going to happen, and as each rejection came through, out went another query. Having read so many writer blog posts about how many queries it sometimes took to find an agent (especially with a more literary story), I was not afraid to rack up more rejections!

And then, the week before my wedding, I received an intriguing email from an agent who’d had my full for a few months, Katie Grimm. She acknowledged that quite a bit of time had passed since she requested the book, and she was… oh boy, she was saying lots of nice things about my book. But also talking about revisions. That sounded fine. More and more agents are editorial these days and that was to be expected. She wanted to talk on the phone the next week. The week of my wedding. Um, yikes! And right after the wedding, I was going to head off to Costa Rica for my honeymoon!

But Monday, right before I left for Costa Rica. That could work. There was a flurry of emails and it was set. Monday. If it wasn’t for that whole wedding thing, I would have been freaking out, but luckily the wedding had all of my attention. Alas, on Monday, Katie was sick and didn’t go into work, so the phone call was pushed back to when I returned from my honeymoon, right around the Fourth of July, when publishing basically shuts down. And then, oh yes, residency at VCFA was lined up next. Finally, that was over and Katie and I finally, finally, finally connected on the phone. We talked about her ideas for revisions, I learned more about the agency, etc. etc. I’m pretty sure I drank a few glasses of water out of nerves. And somewhere in all of that, it happened. She offered!!!!

I gave the other agents that had my full manuscript a week to respond, but in the end, it really wasn’t a contest, and on August 2, 2013, I signed the agency agreement with Don Congdon Associates.

I may or may not have also told people I was one step closer to becoming BFFs with David Sedaris (who is also repped by DCA). Still waiting on that….

 

So how long did it take? Well, from very first query ever sent to signing an agency contract: about four years. But for this project (what will be my debut middle grade novel): about eight months.

 

The biggest lesson from all of this? Be patient. And always, always, always, keep writing the next book. Because you really don’t know how many it’s going to take, and you always have more stories in you.

On writing and running

I can’t be the first writer to compare writing a book for training to and running a marathon, but as of last week, I can at least say I’m qualified to write about it. It’s been a week and a day since I ran the Chicago Marathon, my first marathon (and probably not my last). The soreness is gone, I can walk like a human again, and I’m down a few toenails, but the memories are a strong as ever.

It’s hard to describe what it felt like to round the corner onto Columbus Dr and see that the finish line was in sight, but maybe it’s fair to say that it felt a little like sitting on the beach at Watch Hill, and seeing my agent’s name on my cell phone (she only calls with good news). The end was in sight, or sort of. Because of course, I soon learned that selling the book was one of the many steps toward seeing that book in print, toward holding it in my arms like a baby and sniffing it. (No I haven’t been able to do this yet, but heck yeah, I plan to.)

The thing about writing a book and running a marathon is that anyone can do it, but only some of us ever do. It takes training and persistence and grit and time, always time. There are things you can control (lacing your sneakers and going out there whether you feel like it or not, getting your butt in the chair day after day) and things you can’t (the weather on race day, the cover your book eventually gets, who is assigned to review it). At the end of the day, all you can do is put in your best work, your best effort and put your faith behind that.

As I toed the start line (okay, as I stood in my place in the middle of corral F wondering if I should’ve stopped by the porta potties), I couldn’t help but ponder this one piece of wisdom that Bart Yasso shared at the previous day’s shakeout run. Run the mile you’re in. Well, duh. Pretty hard to run the mile you already ran. Or the mile ahead of you. But of course he was right, so completely right. It’s so easy to look back–at failures, mistakes, the things we wished we could change–and so easy too, to look forward, to gaze into the future trying to figure anything out. It’s hard to stay in the moment. And it’s that way with writing, too. I’m always fighting that inclination to go back, fix the work from the previous day, previous week. Or to jump ahead. To get so lost in all the things I still have to do for the piece that I’m simply overwhelmed.

Run the mile you’re in. That was my mantra for the race. As the crowds cheering us on and the thousands of runners around me distracted, made me forget the pace I had practiced, in all those long solo runs, running around and around a nearby pond, I came back to that one line. Run the mile you’re in. It’s that way with writing too. Write the sentence you’re in. The paragraph. The page. The scene. The chapter. That’s all you can do. All you have control over. That blank page in front of you. Everything else falls away as you focus in.

As I’ve spent the last week sitting on my butt (I mean, recovering), I’ve been trying to apply the lessons I’ve learned from marathon training to writing. Putting in the time. Accepting the results. Not every run is perfect. The first mile can be rough, but that doesn’t mean you won’t end up cruising, flying on that third mile, or as I surprised myself to find sometimes, that thirteenth or seventeenth mile. Same goes for writing. A tough start to the session can yield amazing gems, words you didn’t know were in you, revelations in a scene you couldn’t have anticipated before planting that butt in that chair.

Run the mile you’re in.

Thanks, Bart.

The 777 Challenge

I’ve been tagged by Nisha Sharma in the 777 Challenge. And no, as far as I know, a 777 is not an airplane. Actually, maybe it is an airplane and it looks pretty nice. ANYWAY… The 777 Challenge challenges the writer to post the first full seven lines of the seventh page of his or her work in progress, starting seven lines down.

My work-in-progress is a contemporary middle grade novel, tentatively titled 14 Hollow Road:

The biggest concern on soon-to-be-seventh grader Maddie’s mind is the end-of-the-year sixth grade dance: will her crush Avery ask her to dance? When Avery asks her best friend instead, Maddie feels like her world is ending. But her night is about to get a whole lot worse before it get better. Across town, an unexpected tornado severely damages Avery’s and Maddie’s home. Their families are fine, but their homes are unlivable, which means for the summer, Maddie will have to stay in a generous neighbor’s house… with Avery.

And here are my lines:

I stare down at my sparkly shoes. “Sorry. I kind of had other things on my mind.” I don’t know how I’m supposed to think about anything besides Avery and what it’s going to be like to dance with him, and how me and Kiersten and Schuyler and the whole sixth grade are going to have the best night ever.

“I guess you’ll have to do Cammie’s chores tomorrow to make up for it.”

“Fine,” I say. No, not the best night ever. That’s so fifth grade. Epic. That’s what Kiersten’s older brother Bryant would say. Tonight is going to be epic.

 

And the authors I’m tagging to keep this challenge going are:

Katherine Quimby

Laura Sibson

Jen Petro-Roy

Robin Kirk

Gwendolyn Heasley

Jim Hill

C.M. Surrisi

 

Can’t wait to read everyone’s seven lines!