Day of Pauses

Today, I pause to say a prayer of thanks for my dad (Vietnam), his friends Phil and Dave (Vietnam), my grandfather (WWII), my cousin Brian (reserves), and my friend’s boyfriend Sean (Iraq). Luckily, all these men decided to choose to fight for freedom – if not directly ours, that of our brothers and sisters around the world. But I take this space to pause and say something to those who deride the way Americans celebrate Memorial Day.

Many of us celebrate with BBQs and ice cold drinks or take a trip to the pool or the beach and spend time with friends and/or family. Why? Because for many of us, Memorial Day is the first day of pause from 50+-hour work week, and there is no shame in celebrating our lives. We all have been affected by the work of soldiers, even if we have to reach back a generation or two. I like to think that those who died fighting would smile on us, their heirs. I think they like knowing we’re reveling in quality time with friends and family, that we’re taking advantage of what they made possible.

Alas, some of us must work, especially retailers. Don’t judge us or decry those who patronize our stores. For many retail employees, paid time off is only a dream. If the store closes, they don’t get paid for the day, which could seriously affect the weekly budget. Why sales? We know people will be out and about and the more we attract to shop, the more we feel like we can keep the economy chugging.  Why shop? People exist in this world who can never afford to pay full price for anything. This weekend has become a tradition in that people can count on it for a deal, the likes of which aren’t seen until Labor Day, a long, hot quarter-of-a-year away.

No matter how we spend today, let us all pause, even if for just a moment, and be thankful for the soldiers of yesterday and today, and also for each other. Let’s prove who we are and what we do are worth fighting for tomorrow.


Matter of Consent

When writing mainly young adult fiction, I come to the moment in plotting where I consider giving my characters typical teenage firsts: pimple, period, um, accident, kiss, that other first. Generally the characters I write  find themselves both wanting the it-takes-two firsts. At the very least mentally, if not outwardly expressive of the desire.

Yet in fiction I’ve read, the authors have done a swell job of swaying me to root for the firsts, but have at least one character unsure, hesitant, and then ultimately find herself “forced” into the first, however subtly. What do these readings have to say about issues of consent in the real world?

One example is scene in a novel I read for a summer study while in high school. It’s not of “the canon” of YA, so I can’t remember the title or even the character, but I remember clearly feeling uncomfortable as the heroine’s new love interest came to her dorm bed at night, lay with her, and then left. And later in the book she’s still with him. The next day during discussion, the professor distinctly said “so, after what we all agree to call ‘the rape’ of…” What gives us readers the power to judge an action if the character herself doesn’t see it that way?

In a second example, from an upcoming dystopic YA, the first-person narration tells us reader she is terrified; she’s just been through a dramatic escape during a raid; she is bleeding heavily from the leg. And yet the hunky guy starts running his fingers along her face and then his mouth until they are kissing.  At first, I was swept up in the drama and heat; but later I felt disturbed. Obviously not all characters can be like one particular ex-boyfriend who literally asked  permission before kissing me, but still I found myself later thinking, wouldn’t taking advantage of the heroine and the moment be cause for concern? Why did she, a naive love neophyte surrender to someone who knew exactly what he was doing, fully conscious of the fact that she did not? Am I allowed to bring my real-world sensibilities into the reading, or should I accept the characters’ granting of permission?

At the very least, expounding on these questions will inform my conscience when writing my own firsts scenes, unless of course BoyWonder the Character gets out a broom and sweeps me up.

A Few Thoughts on BEA

1. It really was like Disney: Long lines for 30-second thrills (Saying hi to Roger Sutton). Pictures with characters (will add me+Olivia later!). Overpriced fast food (if you didn’t plan ahead). You’re enticed to buy more than you normally would (But if it’s not 2% more on top of 50% with FF on a lower than $250 min., it’s not a special to my work).

2. Ways it was not like Disney: Schedules for attractions not posted well-enough in advance. (One 10-year-old boy in Florida will not be the coolest kid in school with his ARC of Diary of a Wimpy Kid 5, sadly thanks to this).  No children (but plenty of children’s books and thoughts of them). Not outside (thanks be).

3. The 10 Little Penguins pop-up by Jean-Luc Fromental looks incredible, hilarious, and delightful.

4. Some indies seemed backed into a corner or at the back of the hall with the pigeons. Their small marketing budgets also mean fewer people attracted to the booths. I admit, I’m guilty of wanting to hit the guys with the goods first, but we shouldn’t discount them. Some may have real gems.

All in all, it was a great first experience for me. And unlike most Disney souvenirs, the ones from BEA will always fit, never fade, never break, never bore me. Publishers, I’m really appreciative. See you next year, if not before!

“Name” is an Anagram for “Mean”

This week I had the pleasure of attending BEA 2010 and reading Matched by Ally Condie. Check out the review via the “Well Read” link. The heroine of the awesome “perfect dystopia” YA novel is Cassia.

Wait a second.

The past couple of years have brought us awesome dystopia/speculative YA novel heroines. Named Katsa (Graceling) and Katniss (The Hunger Games and Catching Fire). Now we have Cassia. What’s in these names?

Maybe the hard “k” sound represents the hardiness these women need to survive in their worlds. The “ess” perhaps softens the blow or is indicative of their feminine nature. Or their sneakiness, like a snake, as they subvert their societies’ norms. Katniss, I’m aware, because Suzanne Collins told us so, comes from a fictional plant. But that name is what Katniss meant to mama Everdeen. What is Katniss supposed to mean to us? Katsa maybe comes from the character’s cat-like reflexes. Cassia reminds me of Cassiopeia, which in Greek means “she whose words excel.”  That line sums up the thematic thrust of the book.

Are writers aware of how they name characters? I believe so. In my own writing, which is realistic, I try to find “normal” names that sound right. But sometimes, a character just grows into her name and in later drafts cannot be anything else but her name. Do I purposefully select names loaded with meaning so that future generations of lit students might possibly maybe have a book of mine to analyze? Not really.  To characters, sometimes a tree is just a plant, green is just a color, and ‘A’ is just a letter. In the fictive worlds, a name is that which a person is called. The meaning is not for them. The meaning is just for us.

BEA: Book Lovers’ DisneyWorld

I, the born-and-raised Floridian, never thought Disney was the most magical place on Earth.

Now in my nascent adult years, I have discovered a place that sounds truly magical. Tomorrow, I go there for the first time.

Book Expo America.

The free books! The responsibility of being an actual book buyer! The professional smile and chatter with an author one minute, the turned away “OH-EM-GEE” fan-girling the next!

I feel like a little kid. Thanks, publishers and ABA for creating this kingdom!


Last night I attended the PEN New England Children’s Book Committee (nee Caucus) presentation of the Susan P. Bloom Discovery Awards. The Committee bestows these honors upon unpublished authors of fiction and nonfiction for children based on entries of the first ten pages (or complete picture book text) of a manuscript. The winners receive some prize money and the chance of a lifetime – editors will read their complete manuscript.

This year’s winners:

  • Bette Anne Rieth, for her upper-middle grade/YA  novel Greetings From the Miracle, which opens with Dina re-connecting with her mother after she’s released from prison. Rieth’s evocative language places the reader immediately in the scene and in minds and motivations of the characters, who are as fleshed out as you or I.
  • Linda Zajac, for her upper-middle grade nonfiction text Ice Birds in a Warming Land, which begins in media res with a baby penguin trying to keep ahead, literally, of the melting snow. The premise sounds as if it will contextualize the current global issues into a story of survival that will have your tweens cheering not just for penguins.
  • Heather Jessen, for her picturebook I Won a Robot in a Raffle, which hilariously describes what happens after a prize is achieved. The witty one-liners provide ample room for an illustrator to capture and counterpoint the antics of this larger-than-life robot.

Congratulations, ladies! This award and your hard work (like that of previous wordsmiths) prove that the PEN is a mighty weapon against the constant badgering of relatives who phone you after the Today Show interviews a wunderkind and they wonder why you at tender age of [] haven’t published anything yet.

Attaining publication in the children’s literature world can be as easy and fun as ridding your house of bedbugs. The tears! The little suckers (manuscripts) just keep coming back! The restless nights punctuated by posting on forums with those who know.  But awards like the PEN help us all out and get us one step closer to the dream. Numerous previous winners have gone on to see their names in print.

So cheers to Bette Anne, Linda, Heather. And cheers to the wonderful members of the Children’s Book Committee for providing the writing community with this opportunity.

The Psychology of Process

Some writers set aside specific dollops of time a day to create – 2 hours, 15 minutes, 4 am until the dog begs to be let out – and after awhile, their bones and heart and mind get accustomed to the program and worlds are built. Other writers, those with lives that need living, pencil in an appointment with their couch and at said time, start living their characters’ lives for several hours in a row. They’re in the zone. Roald Dahl would get ideas and then write reminders to himself – on receipts, in a small notebook, or once, in the dust on his windshield.

I am not these people.

The last time I wrote was April 7, 2010. My skinny finger bones weren’t used to typing. My heart wasn’t used to beating for someone besides myself. My writing life had gotten to the point where I felt like scheduling time to write or obeying people’s directives to use my degree and “write!” was actually forced creativity. I eventually got to the point where I wouldn’t try anymore  because if I didn’t finish a chapter, do the two pages a day religiously, I was not “a writer.” Just a mere pretender wannabe.

But today I took twenty minutes instead of folding laundry and tried. I let my fingers reach for whatever keys they wanted. I had no plan. No direction. Initially, I thought I would introduce a new character who would be the saving grace for my heroine. Actually, my fingers think he’s a tool. In the two page-scene I constructed, I learned a new thing about my character. It even refers back to other moments of voice earlier in the manuscript.

Maybe that’s what I needed. A new way to think about the process. I do not write. And then fail. I try. And then succeed.

Killing Your Darlings

Apparently we writers need to be homicidal maniacs. A piece of advice I’ve heard often times is to “kill your darlings” when revising. No, we’re not to  ask our publishers to lace the pages with cyanide. We must simply ax with a machete the carefully crafted words we’ve given birth to. If we don’t, our editors’ red pens will make the page bleed anyway.

At the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the wonderful Cynthia Leitich Smith advised us hopefuls  to writewritewrite our first draft. And then obliterate it. Watch as it goes poof into our computer’s trash bin.  I’m Catholic to core, including in my writing, so obviously I cannot do that.  I respect life, even of words!

And yet I now find myself tormented by a project that fears its facing the guillotine. See, Publishers Weekly announced the young adult novel Halo as one of the hot ARCs to grab at Book Expo America. I am sitting with a young adult novel-length project named Halos about a very similar subject matter, just with reversed genders. If I want my darling book to ever see the light of day, I know I must re-conceive the plot line and eliminate the achingly lovely lines.

But do I dare end their lives? Do I want to be known as Britt Leigh, mass murderer?  No. I think instead I’ll just send them to the Witness Protection Program of my external hard drive.