Crowds at Friday Night Art Walk

Heat didn’t deter visitors from the first Friday Night Art Walk of 2017 in downtown Huntsville last night. Families, dogs, and even a few out-of-town visitors circled the square to check out our vendor tables. One journalist caught me in the photograph of their article; I’m in the crowd in the top center.

That’s my corner.

People were in the mood to talk about YA fiction last night. I met several interesting readers and one collector who wanted to know how to identify first editions of print-on-demand books. I didn’t know. One of my dear friends stood by my shoulder and helpfully said, “She’s going to be famous someday. You should buy her books!”

He agreed. He asked me to write the original publication date when I signed them.

One of these days, I hope to be signing a hardcover first edition of a new book with a publication date printed on the copyright page by the publisher.

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Alabama Authors, Literary Festivals, and Catfish

Yesterday felt like the first nice Saturday in 2018. Every weekend forecast since January has been rain, rain, and more rain, but yesterday was gorgeous with sunshine and warm temperatures.

As a result, very few people visited the Athens-Limestone Public Library, where a group of Alabama authors (and one Pennsylvania author on book tour) gathered for the Fourth Annual Catfish Literary Festival. While we sat around our book tables and spoke on panel discussions, the public gathered at outdoor events: Panoply in downtown Huntsville and Cars & Bikes on the Square in Athens.

Also, we had no catfish. Or food trucks of any kind.

I met a few people, though. One man wanted to know how I published my books. He’s another aspiring writer who’s thinking about taking the plunge into the world of self-publishing, and I gave him as much advice as I could while two young children circled him.

Another man came around with his daughter. She looked to be someone who was in my target audience, but she wasn’t making eye-contact. She didn’t like my books; she probably thought they were uncool. She probably thought I was uncool. Her discomfort made me uncomfortable. Two introverts sharing the same space are no good. You can practically hear the pop as we snap our heads into our turtle shells. It’s not ideal for selling books.

Another woman asked about my books for her daughters. She described them to me, how old they are, and what kind of grades they get in school. Since my books are about issues, we talked about whether the subjects were appropriate or not.

“Their father would kill me if I brought home a book about that,” she said.

The Future Unborn is about teen pregnancy.

“It happens,” I said. “Even with girls you wouldn’t expect.”

“I know.”

I don’t hold it against the woman for not wanting to talk about teen pregnancy or not wanting to give her daughter a book about the subject. I only find it curious because this happens whenever someone asks about that book at literary festivals. Is it because we’re in Alabama? Or would that happen anywhere? Is it just a parent thing that we don’t want to think about our girls growing up too soon?

Ah, well. Let’s not talk about that. Might as well pack up and go outside. Check out the car show. Eat some barbeque.

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Savoring the Binge Bloat: Lost in Space

Danger Will Robinson! Netflix has a new binge-worthy series: Lost In Space. I love the modernization of the classic story, its deeper narratives, the bigger cast of characters, and of course the robot. Some critics have written that Netflix’s reboot of Lost in Space gave up something essential in the serialization of the story. We now consume television series, not in episodes, but in entire series:

Netflix: Are you still watching?

Me: Continue Watching

Yes, continue watching. I must continue until it’s done.

In fact, I would argue that binge-watching series is a new genre and that viewers aren’t really supposed to watch just one episode. You can, but really, why would you? It’s created to be consumed all at once, over a weekend, while consuming unhealthy food.

Writers break novels into chapters, but are you really supposed to stop at each one? No. When the book’s really good, you plow through from front to back without stopping. In fact, that’s why I don’t do well reading books in series either. I wait until the author publishes the whole collection so I can binge all of them in one group.

After the binge comes the bloat. All that television (and perhaps snacking)… and what am I supposed to watch now? Does anyone have any recommendations? Maybe I should do a little writing now. That’s what writers are supposed to do: watch less TV, write more, and read more.

Oh wait, Netflix has a new recommendation for me!

What are your thoughts? Like or share your thoughts. I especially love Netflix recommendations.

Censorship, Banned Books, and Intellectual Freedom

I’ve been living in a cave regarding censorship and banned books. I’ve been operating under the assumption that in the digital age where students have unlimited access to the Internet, there would be less censorship for them than past generation. Why restrict access to library books when kids can just download them on their phone?

When I spoke to a group of high school students last month, they asked me questions that alerted me to this important issue, and now I see it everywhere. As an author of YA books on sensitive topics (suicide, depression, teen pregnancy, anorexia, drinking) that the intellectual freedom police would likely target, this is deeply concerning.

In a recent article about restricted access or removed library materials, the top 10 YA books that were challenged and banned include:

  • “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher – because it discusses suicide
  • “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie (a National Book Award Winner) – because it acknowledges issues such as poverty, alcoholism, and sexuality—as well as uses profanity

I’m doomed. Two of my books fit into these categories.

The only good thing to come from banning books is that it drives popularity. What’s better than forbidden fruit, right? If it’s banned, it must be good. If you’ll look at the Banned Books that Shaped America, you’ll see some titles that have become some of our literary staples:

  • “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury – a personal favorite of mine
  • “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck
  • “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
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I’m going to mark the restricted books into my 2018 reading list.

What about you? What are your thoughts on censorship, banned books, and intellectual freedom?

Two Stories of Lifetime Impacts on Student Lives

Teachers matter. They are more than talking heads on a computer screen regurgitating instructional material to memorize for a test. They are Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, the people who inspire and enlighten and change us in a lasting and fundamental way.

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My Robin Williams announced his retirement as a classroom teacher. This person came to our school with fresh ideas and taught my English class with props like Weird Al to introduce us to satire. We wrote thought-provoking essays about a wide range of topics, and in the process learned about both the world and how to construct papers. Later he served as the faculty advisor for the writer’s club and gave structure to our meetings, writing prompts, critique groups, and a literary magazine. He invited us to his home at the end of the year for a picnic, and we read our work to his wife. She made burgers for a motley group of poets and prose writers.

During my senior year, my parents split up, and I went through a bad time for awhile. This teacher saw I was in trouble and took me aside for counseling. I don’t remember the words anymore, only the feeling of being seen, of being not alone.

People who know me also know this teacher’s name. He’s an integral part of my story, part of my writing life, part of who I’ve become. We continued to stay in touch during my college years, but I fell away until social media reunited us and others from high school. He blogs wonderful articles about education and other topics.

In my book Straight A’s, you see a fictional glimpse of him in this story. The student and teacher have the same relationship through the writer’s club, and ultimately, that teacher has an equally significant and lifelong impact on the student’s life in the book.

Teachers matter beyond the classroom. Teachers like mine give us the self-confidence to use education and move forward into the world, to believe in ourselves, and to be encouraged. When that kind of feedback is missing at home for whatever reason, a charismatic teacher can be the only person who gives it. For the right student, this kind of attention from one caring adult is all it takes to make them soar.

I was one of the lucky kids. I had multiple good teachers in my life. They made a difference in multiple ways—some of which had nothing to do with my GPA—and I’m grateful to every single one.

What about you? Do you have any stories about great teachers in your life? Like or share them in comments.

3 Reasons Why the Show 13 Reasons Why Is Better Than Book

True confession: I liked Jay Asher’s book, Thirteen Reasons Why, a lot, but I LOVED Netflix’s miniseries version of it. I binge-watched. There are several things the show did better which made it so gripping and effective. I’ll list my top 3:

1.      Length – With 13 episodes, the writers of the series had time to expand the story and character development over a longer timeline. In particular, Hannah herself became three-dimensional in the series, and that gave her character a depth that wasn’t as strong in the novel.

2.      Point of View – In the book, the viewpoint is limited to Hannah and Clay, but the show expands scenes in a way the develops the whole world and characters in Hannah’s life. The complete picture of what happened comes together in a way that the novel didn’t show.

3.      Adaptation Changes – Usually when screenwriters mess with a book I love, I feel angry and robbed. “No! No! No!” I scream. “That’s not how it was!” In the case of the Netflix adaptation of Thirteen Reasons Why, the writers did such an amazing job that I often found myself wondering, “Was that in the book?” or “I like that better than the book.”

Plenty of people have negative things to say about the book and the show. One critic of the novel, Hannah Moskowitz, wrote, “The very premise of the book is flawed to me; you don’t kill yourself for REASONS, you kill yourself because there is a bug in your brain gnawing at you and sucking out any valuable thought you’ve ever had, and I never saw that kind of bug in Hannah.”

I disagree with this. The topic of mental illness is a complex one, and it’s difficult to say whether or not a reason can push a profoundly depressed person over the edge—or what that reason might look like. A seemingly ordinary reason may be life-or-death to a teen. According to a 2017 report, a student commits suicide every hour in India; the pressure to perform academically is extremely high.

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In my novel Straight A’s, the main character makes a plan to commit suicide because she’s knocked out of the valedictorian spot and thinks this is the end of her college path. The depression and anxiety are real for her. Her inability to see another path through her troubles are real.

We know from teen suicide rates that this is real.

What do you think? Did you see the show, Thirteen Reasons Why?, or read the book? Which did you like better, or did you give both rotten tomatoes? Share why in the comments.

3 Young Adult Novels on Depression and Anxiety Struggles

There are dozens of lists of popular YA novels that talk about mental illness, depression, anxiety, and suicide in one or more characters. For various reasons, these kinds of stories have replaced the YA dystopia boom of the early 2010s in our culture.

So in case you haven’t heard, Thirteen Reasons Why is the new Maze Runner. Here are my top three recommendations in the depression, anxiety, and suicide YA sub-genre, plus a bonus recommendation.

  •  All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven—This is one of my all-time favorites that combined a love story with depression; it was such a wonderful, heartbreaking, lovely book that I read it twice. And I will probably read it again!
  • By The Time You Read This I’ll Be Dead by Julie Anne Peters—This book is a fast read but hard. The character is so tough, harsh, hard to love, and yet I just wanted to break through her pain and help her.
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher—The premise of this book is fantastic. A girl has committed suicide, and she has left behind 13 tapes explaining why she did it. The main character and the reader go on a journey to understand what happened. It’s a little hard to get emotionally close to the girl through this storytelling, but it’s a compelling read.
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Bonus round: If you already like these books and these authors, consider picking up my novel Straight A’s, which also deals with academic pressure, anxiety, depression, and suicide. The story shows how perfectionism can be taken too far and lead down a dangerous path.

What are your favorite YA novels in this category? I'd love to hear your recommendations.

National Poetry Month Begins in April #NationalPoetryMonth #amwriting #5amwritersclub #yareads #yareaders #bookworm #bibliophile #booklove

I watched The Hero last weekend. It’s not often that a movie character reads a beautiful poem in a film, or that the words continue to resonate with me even a week later. The poem was Dirge without Music by Edna St. Vincent Millay. It was a perfect moment, a perfect poem, perfect sadness.

Writing novels is my go-to art form, and there’s usually not a lot of room for poetry in novels. Most of the time my poetry is random, personal, and left in a drawer. However, in my YA novel Straight A’s, Kim and Elliot exchange sonnets as a flirtation, like this one, called Lawn Cowboy:

Afar, I watch him mount his trusty steed,

A mechanical beast of name John Deere.

Easy on the eyes is this guy indeed,

Shirtless and muscled, no bees doth he fear.

 

I long to draw his attentions to me.

Instead, his mind focuses on one track:

The perfect straight line, across yard, to tree.

Naught else, not even sunscreen on his back.

 

One day those six-pack abs will be beer gut,

And hair will sprout in all manner of place.

Trusty green steed will become rust bucket.

Still my true love will shine upon his face.

 

If only he would ask me, I’d say yes,

To join the cowboy journey, heading west.

There are silly poems as well:

Floozy

Betty Sue lost her red bootie

beside the red tattooed

man when she left the Jacuzzi.

 

You can bet your sweet patootie

she also forgot to

inform him about her cooties.

The climactic romantic moment comes with a brief four-liner:

I wrote this sappy love poem for you.

Please excuse the rhyme,

Infused with copious words to woo.

Won’t you please be mine?

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But as any reader knows, the road to love is never straight or easy, especially for poets.

Click Like to let me know you liked this article or add a comment. I always love hearing from readers.

Writing about Suicide #yabooks #yachat #bibliophile #amwriting

One of the big issues in the new novel I’m writing is mental illness in teens. For some reason I’m especially heartbroken by the vulnerability of these sick kids in our society today and the missed opportunities to help them. All the warnings that go dismissed, ignored, and misunderstood are leading to higher and higher rates of suicide among our youth—and school violence.

More teens harm themselves than harm others. That’s depression. It is when the pain turns inward. Depression says:

·        Everything seems hopeless. It just goes on and on.

·        Everything is falling apart.

·        I am not enough.

·        Who I am on the inside doesn’t match the outside.

·        I feel empty and alone.

·        No one can see me.

Straight A’s is about a girl who feels that everything is falling apart, and there is no way out. Stress and perfectionism push her into a corner. Her cries for help are seen by friends and recognized, but for many in our world today, this isn’t true.

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When I talk about my book, it makes people squeamish. SUICIDE! Ugh. What a nasty topic. Can’t you write about something nice like romance? Why would you write about something horrible like that?

Because it’s important.

Because it’s real.

Because it hurts a lot of people. Because it’s killing them. Literally.

Talking really does help. Writing in journals helps. Sharing with friends, making art, talking to a counselor, and lots of things like that helps. It’s important that feelings of hopelessness and despair do not stay bottled on the inside. Terrible things grow in that darkness.

Healing happens in the light.

Sharing the Road at Sparkman High School #amwriting #5amwritersclub

Yesterday I spent an hour with a group of students at Sparkman High School’s Creative Writing / Literary Magazine class for a talk on writing novels. The group was a mixed range of artists, writers, photographers, dancers, graphic designers, actors, and even a talented programmer who enjoys creative writing.

Would I have any message to engage such a diverse group of teens? Could we connect?

After introducing myself, I launched into my journey and described my passion for writing stories since elementary school. These students created the literary magazine for their school, and I also worked on a writing club and literary magazine: an initial connection.

The writers were fully in from the beginning. The artists were in. Most of the others were in too. We took the journey together. When I began talking about the steps for self-publishing on Amazon, they finally stopped me.

“This sounds like running a business,” one of them said.

“It’s exactly like a business,” I said. “As an indie author, you’re creating a product, manufacturing, selling, marketing, publicity, everything. End-to-end. Amazon handles distribution.”

This generated a flurry of questions about traditional publishing versus independent publishing. What was my literary agent doing for me? What was that experience like? Why was it so hard for independent authors? What would make it easier? They asked so many insightful business questions and grasped the complexities of the problem with selling on a platform like Amazon (search and discoverability) versus a bookstore and why distribution into wider channels is vital.

They let me continue through the rest of my deck but asked more questions along the way. We were comfortable with each other now, and the conversation was easy. What did you do in your other job as a technical writer? I explained that I’ve been a manager for a long time now, but when I was a technical writer, I wrote software manuals to describe how to install and use products.

Who are your favorite authors? What kind of books do you like to read? How do you build realistic characters? What are your books about? What was your favorite book to write and why? You write about difficult issues. Do you know that they’re starting to censor books now? They’re trying to censor classics like To Kill a Mockingbird. How do you feel about that?

Uh, well... I think censorship is bad.

Goodness! That was a lot of fun. The students were full of enthusiasm, interest, and challenging questions, and we had a great discussion about writing, which is always my favorite subject. I left them with copies of my recommended reading list, and I'm so grateful that they invited me to their class.

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To the Editor!

I sent my book to the editor this morning! Done! Elation! What a rush. There’s such a feeling of satisfaction when I finish a project like this and nine months of effort results in the delivery of a perfect new novel.

I hope she likes it. What if she says it’s terrible? What if there are big problems in the plot or characters or… Oh. Yeah. This feeling comes now.

There’s nothing like shipping off the manuscript to that First Reader to shake a writer’s courage.

The only cure is to start writing another book.

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Readers Magnet Scam

This afternoon I received a call from someone from Readers Magnet, claiming that my wonderful, award-winning novel, Drive to June, had been selected by their talent scouts, and they wanted to partner with me for representation in the 2018 New York Rights Fair. They were extremely complimentary about my work. They knew that the book had won an award and that I’d written multiple novels. I let the person talk for a long time even though I was pretty sure it was a scam because I wanted to hear the pitch.

“As stated we will be the ones taking care of the other expenditures and all the legwork since we were the ones that found you, although you will be entitled to all of the proceeds and hoping that you would be able to continue the momentum that we will be setting for you and your book’s success. We aim to create publicity for our company through your book’s success.”

She was a woman named Ruby Baker with a strong accent. She was very smooth, asking about my goals for my writing career and what sorts of things I had done for self-promotion to date. At one point I clarified that she wasn’t seeking rights for the book or commissions on sales. She wanted some sort of fee, correct? It still took her awhile to get to the point where she wanted $600 for the registration fee for this show.

That's right: $600.

The amount would cover the publicity listing in the directory and the booth showing. They only needed one signed copy of my book. All other sales would be handled directly with me. This didn’t pass the sniff test.

After hanging up, I searched for this company and found a bunch of other complaints from authors who’ve been contacted by these scam artists. Don’t be fooled!

 

Analytics #amwriting #writerslife #5amwritersclub

I confess that the business part is my least favorite part of being an indie author. Many creatives share this sentiment, but I feel guilty for disliking it because my Day Job provides the skills for me to handle this stuff. I ought to be a little better at it; I earn my “real” living doing stuff like this for a corporation.

Surely I can figure out how to sell more of my own books.

This morning I’ve been working on SEO optimization on my website and studying the analytics feature to determine what users are hitting so I can improve the content. The dashboard of pie charts could be either science or roulette wheels. The jury’s still out. How do we match the people who are looking for things with the people who have the things they want? Does the data help us connect buyer and seller?

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I’m not convinced. When I think about my own book-buying process, browsing feels so random. Almost all of the new fiction authors I discover happen in brick-and-mortar stores, where I wander through the shelves and pick through the spines until something catches my eye. On the other hand, I tend to pre-order my favorite authors on Amazon because I will want their next book no matter what it’s about.

In either case, the author website only comes into my concern after I’ve read their book and I decide that I like them and am curious about them. What else have they written? Who are they? What do they have going on? Do I like them?

Visiting their site has nothing to do with selling more books. Not really.

I’m not sure that what browser, device type, operating system, or source is going to help in all this. In the end, it’s about connection between reader and author. The first encounter might be a chance one, like a passing on a subway platform. Maybe a book is picked up or maybe not. Maybe a site is clicked or not. All of it seems very mysterious. But then, statistics was my worst subject in college.

Perhaps I’m dismissing the math because I prefer the mystery. I like the story of the chance encounter better. I like the story of the book discovered by accident.

And the rest is happily ever after.

Extra Hour of Writing #5amwritersclub #amwriting #NaNoWriMo

I woke up at 2:20 AM again this morning. Yesterday it was 2:00 AM. Daylight savings time always messes with me. The good thing is that falling back an hour gives me an extra bit of time for writing. It gives me sleep deprivation, foggy brain, and a crick in my neck too, but who’s complaining? I’m making progress.

Maybe this is why they put NaNoWriMo in November. With this extra hour for writing, we’re all going to finish our novels in record time. I hadn’t set that as my goal, but with 36,000 words in and only 50,000 as a target word count, I can do this, right? Especially with all these extra hours now that I’m not sleeping.

I guess I should quit blogging and get to work!

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Talk at Creative Writing Magnet - Lee High School

This week, I was invited to visit the Creative Writing Magnet class at Lee High School to talk about my journey as a writer, the classes I took in college, my process, self-publishing, tips & tricks, and whatever else might come up. Fifteen poetry and prose students—including some budding YA authors—asked me various questions about how to create characters and build plots. They quickly put me at ease with their genuine interest and curiosity, and the hour flew.

As I told them the story of how I started writing in elementary school and how I wanted to be a writer in high school, like them, I realized what a full-circle moment I was experiencing. Who would have thought that I’d become a visiting author at a high school writing class or that other students might want to listen to anything about my experience along the road to publication? But I told them that writers were artists and that it was okay to make mistakes. I described the bad novels I’d written along the way to learning how to write the ones I’d finally published. I talked about dreaming big and not listening to the voices of other people who didn’t believe in my writing.

They nodded. They had people like that in their lives too.

But I had good people in my life growing up, too—people like Aunt Penny and Mr. Greene, who encouraged me to write and keep writing. All it really takes is a little encouragement to make the seeds sprout and thrive.

I’m so happy that programs like that one exist, and I’m thankful to the teachers and administrators who support the students. It seems like a wonderful place to nourish the new voices of tomorrow and help them grow strong and confident. I wonder what beautiful things they will write.

Hot Time at Sparkman High Arts Festival #amwriting #writerslife

The sun was brutal today at the Sparkman High School Arts Festival. Yesterday may have been the first officially day of fall, but it sure felt like summer is still here.

The highlight of my day was meeting two separate readers who'd read my books and met me at events in past years. They stopped by my table to say that they'd enjoyed the books they'd read. One person even purchased another book today. 

"We were blessed by your books," the second woman said. She and her daughter had both read them.

I'm compelled to write. I can't help it. I've been doing it my whole life. But it's moments like those, when someone tells me that they liked something that I read, that always give me a little glow. I'm sending words into the abyss... and someone read them. And was blessed.

And that blesses me.

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Great Day at Southern Authors Expo #amwriting @HMCPL

I met several new authors at the Southern Author Expo at the Downtown Huntsville Library yesterday, including Annie M. Cole, a southern fiction and inspirational writer. I’m always encouraged by the other writers in the community; they are so generous with their advice, kindness, and humor about this shared obsession we have with the written word. Annie is definitely one of those people!

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“I love words,” Toya Poplar said to me. She was my table neighbor, and her book, Stop Write There, is an interactive journal with prompts to help people to write. Meeting her was such a gift.

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Betty Bolte, the author to my right, is a prolific romance writer in multiple genres and one of the panel speakers of the day. Having such wonderful writers around me made the hours pass quickly, and as usual, I left with a list of ideas for things to try.

Thanks to all the library patrons, fellow authors, book fans, and everyone else who came out and made the day such a success!

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