See You at Harry’s: A YA Must Read

See You at Harry’s has been on my radar and on my TBR list for a few months now, thanks to my Nerdy Book Club friends via Twitter. I had to wait a few weeks after buying it last month before I could read it, but it was totally worth the wait.

I have been a big fan of Jo Knowles for a while now and loved her novel Lessons from a Dead Girl. You can read all about it here.  As I read See You at Harry’s, I began wearing various hats: mother, young teenage girl, sister, and writer. I experienced a slew of emotions as I continued reading, sometimes stopping because I had to catch my breath and let my eyes rest—not from strain, but from tears and swelling.

I feared I would run out of tissues.

This book touched my heart in ways not many books do. Knowles has an incredible talent for writing, and for getting to the heart of things, for tapping into our emotions, grabbing them, and not letting go. Not even when the book is finished.

As a writer I always wonder how other writers craft scenes that tear your heart out, and I wondered this over and over as I read See You at Harry’s. I wondered how Knowles captured such raw emotion and handled it in such a genuine and delicate way. I marveled at how she handled such sensitive issues and captured the essence of this family, which could be anyone’s family really.

I want to be like Jo when I grow up. She’s freakin’ awesome.

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Whatcha Reading?

So it looks like I’ve been neglecting you again. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about you, because I have. A lot actually. Please forgive me for not taking better care of you.

Well, I’ve been posting quite a bit on Facebook, Twitter, and my brand new writer/author page (also on Facebook) lately about some great books that I’ve recently read and/or have recently received in the mail and just started reading (or will be reading soon), and I thought I’d share them here as well.

What I’ve read in the last couple of weeks:

First up is John Green’s Looking for Alaska. This is John’s first published novel, and it is pretty damn amazing. John is also the author of the brilliant The Fault in Our Stars, which I read earlier this year.

Next up are a couple of short stories: Unstrung by Neal Shusterman and Ryann in the Sky by Jammie Kern. (Jammie NOT as in pa-jammies, but as in Jamie with an extra “m.”)

Unstrung is an interlude between Unwind (my favorite Shusterman book to date) and Unwholly (book two in the Unwind trilogy), which is due out August 28, 2012     *squeeeeee!!!!*

Ryann in the Sky is a cool modern spin on the myth of Orion and is part of a forthcoming anthology of short stories entitled Mythology High. Jammie has two additional short stories that will also be a part of this anthology, and I’m anxious to read them!

                        

What I’m reading now:

I’m juggling a few books right now: two for grad classes (The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins and Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskill) and two for fun. I’m reading Carter Finally Gets It by Brent Crawford in anticipation of meeting him at the KATE (Kansas Association of Teachers of English) conference in October and Danny’s Mom by Elaine Wolf. Danny’s Mom isn’t due for release until November 1, 2012, so finding an advance reading copy in my mailbox earlier this week was a happy surprise. I’ll post a review later this fall.

                  

What I’ll be reading in the not so distant future:

Drum roll please……

See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles! I’ve been so anxious to read this book, and my friend Kelly who lives in Indiana tells me I better have lots of tissues handy as I read. Don’t worry my friend, I do.

 

So, what are YOU reading?

Music: Even Characters Have Their Own Playlists

Last week over at Teachers Write! camp, one of our writing prompts involved using multimedia to help us with character development. The guest author supplying this prompt is Julie Kingsley, and one thing she suggested doing is choosing songs that reflect your character inside and outside—really find songs that represent the character.

The cool thing about this prompt was that I was already doing this, but this prompt really helped me see how doing things like this give our characters depth they may not have had before. It will also help readers connect to these characters in unique ways, which is great for establishing an audience.

I discovered that my main character, Lauren, has an eclectic taste in music, ranging from Taylor Swift style country to 80’s bands like AC/DC and The Cure, and John Hughes movie soundtracks (think Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller, and The Breakfast Club—NOT Uncle Buck).

Lauren also likes Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Etta James. She likes early U2 and The Smashing Pumpkins; she even insisted I download $9.90 worth of songs from Rotten Apples, The Smashing Pumpkins Greatest Hits, which I did. (Lauren and her Muse are pretty of bossy, you see.)

I discovered she’s not crazy about Journey and Foreigner, and she hates 80’s hair bands, much to my chagrin. I’m not sure where I went wrong here…

BUT, she does love Adele, The Fray, Fleetwood Mac, and The B-52’s.

Whew! I’m not sure I could’ve taken it if she didn’t. Seriously.

I’ve since created a few playlists for Lauren and I listen to them as I work on this novel, and I’ve been amazed at how much easier it is to capture her and her story. I would encourage you to do the same. It really does make a difference!

I’ve yet to share any excerpts here, so I decided to share a short (and fairly unrevised) excerpt from my current work-in-progress, a young adult novel tentatively titled Closer to Nirvana. I think this excerpt does a decent job of illustrating how weaving in a character’s musical tastes can add to character development.

The longer I sit here thinking, the more pissed off I get. I slip in my earbuds and turn on my mp3 player. I never did see the sense in spending all that money on an iPod. I am so not an Apple girl. Nope. Just your average run of the mill mp3 player for me. Within seconds, the melodic sounds of The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Drown” fill my ears. I take some deep breaths and wait for that edgier guitar that comes in about half-way through the song. That’s how I’m feeling these days…edgy. And I hate it.

I sit with my eyes closed, listening to the music. Feeling the music. My body begins to relax, and the tension reducing sounds of 311’s covers of classic Cure and songs by Coldplay certainly do the trick. I’m feeling less irritated now, and I can’t help thinking of that adage about music soothing the savage beast. I can’t help snickering a little at that thought. God knows I’ve had some beastly moments lately.

I still can’t believe I bit my mom’s head off like that over something so stupid. I never do that. I mean never. I know she was only trying to help me get organized for school, and it was just a stinking comforter for crying out loud. And my apology was so lame. I’ve got to figure out a way to make it up to her.

I’ll figure it out. I will.

I open my eyes and notice the time. It’s lunchtime. My stomach grumbles on cue, so I decide to heat up some Spaghetti O’s in the microwave. I take a few bites and I’m surprised by the sweetness of the tomato sauce. Has it always been this sweet? I’m pondering this thought as a Taylor Swift tune shuffles in. Normally, I would welcome Taylor, but right now, I’m simply not in the mood for her or anything soft and gushy for that matter. It’s an easy fix. I skip that song and the next three. I stop skipping songs when I hear “Cherub Rock,” another Pumpkins tune. There is something calming about this music. It makes it easier for me to think somehow.

It’s still pretty rough, I know, so be gentle.  🙂

Your Focus Needs More Focus

Well, Teachers Write! is moving on swimmingly, even when I’m just treading water. If you can even call what I’ve done this week treading water. I mean, I’ve been writing—as in working on my work-in-progress—but when I look at how much time has passed since school let out (four weeks), it feels like I’ve done squat. Boo!

I know many of writer friends would tell me not to beat myself up about it, that we’ve all had those times when we are less than focused. Like Mr. Han says to Dre Parker in the 2010 Karate Kid movie: “Your focus needs more focus.” Exactly. So how does one do that? How does one get “more focus”?

 

Yeah, well, the answer to that is quite obvious: stay off Facebook and the Internet. Watch less TV, right? Right. If only it were that easy…

I know there are Internet distraction blockers out there, but how effective are they really? I mean, if I can set the perimeters, I can certainly change them or cancel them altogether. Drat! That’s not helpful.

Sheesh. I guess that means I need some self-discipline. Some self-control.

Huh. It’s just a little self-control. I can do this, right? I can decide to stop lurking online and stop avoiding this writing thing. But why am I avoiding this writing thing in the first place? I love writing. There’s something about finding that perfect word and putting words together in a way that makes them dance across the page. I love that feeling.

I think I know part of the reason I’m dancing around this writing thing. Writing is hard, but in this particular case, it’s not for the reasons you think. Well, not completely. After reading Jo Knowles’s book Lessons from a Dead Girl last week, I had an epiphany. The subject matter of that book is hard to read at times. Heartbreaking, really. Can you imagine how hard it was for her to write words that break hearts?

I’m not saying my book will be as heart wrenching as Jo’s, but I’m tackling some sensitive issues as well—similar subject matter even. Which brings me back to this whole avoidance thing. Dodging my Muse doesn’t prevent my characters from whispering in my ears. And avoiding her (my Muse) only irritates her, and when she’s irritated, she drags my ass out of bed at 4:00 am or keeps me up until 3:00am. Either way, I surrender to her and write until my head hurts. Stupid, demanding, unyielding, brilliant, beautiful Muse.

You win.

It’s time to hit this thing head on and get it done. One scene at a time.

When a Book Grabs You and Doesn’t Let Go

As a teacher, I really look forward to two things in the summer: 1) getting to read A LOT, and 2) getting to write A LOT. Okay, so I actually look forward to more than just these two things during the summer (I do love not having to answer to the alarm clock most days).

I am a self-proclaimed bookaholic, which my husband and children will attest to, and I bought a book (Lessons from a Dead Girl) a few months ago that had been on my ever-growing To Be Read (TBR) list. I lost track of the book between taking it to school and bringing it back home again, so when I found it again a few days ago I was excited to finally be able to read it.

Here’s a quick review of Lessons from a Dead Girl, a damn fine book written by one of my Teachers Write! mentors, Jo Knowles.

From the book jacket:

Leah Greene is dead. For Laine, knowing what really happened and the awful feeling that she is, in some way, responsible set her on a journey of painful self-discovery. Yes, she wished for this. She hated Leah that much. Hated her for all the times in the closet, when Leah made her do those things. They were just practicing, Leah said. But why did Leah choose her? Was she special, or just easy to control? And why didn’t Laine make it stop sooner? In the aftermath of the tragedy, Laine is left to explore the devastating lessons Leah taught her, find some meaning in them, and decide whether she can forgive Leah and, ultimately, herself.

Lessons from a Dead Girl focuses on Laine, and how she reconciles the death of Leah (her former best friend for life) and the guilt, hatred and shame she felt as a result. The friendship they shared was convoluted, unforgiving, and binding; bound by secrets fueled by years of abuse in various forms. Laine struggles to understand why Leah does the things that she does to her—why she abuses her and their friendship—over and over again. It isn’t until the night of the fatal accident that Laine learns the horrible truth behind the abuse. After the tragic accident that claims Leah’s life, Laine begins to piece everything together and discovers their story has two victims.

Jo Knowles wrote a difficult story, a story which clearly needed to be written. This story grabbed me immediately and didn’t let me go until I had finished the very last word. I read this book in one sitting, which is something I hadn’t done since I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I couldn’t stop reading. The characters of Laine and Leah were real and flawed and masterfully created. Knowles did an amazing job crafting Leah, and try as I might, I just couldn’t hate her. Instead, my heart broke for her. And for Laine. But most of all, for all the kids who have suffered in silence, bound by secrets.

Thanks, Jo, for writing a story that needed to be told and for giving me the inspiration to do the same.

#TeachersWrite! The First Week(ish)

Okay. We’ve been at this Teachers Write! thing for about ten days now, and I thought I’d bring you up to speed and let you know what I’ve been up to with my Work in Progress (WIP).

We’ve had writing prompts from Jo Knowles and quick writes from Kate Messner and guest authors as well. I have to admit, I haven’t written at every prompt and when I have, I have sometimes adapted it and written to suit the needs (demands really) of my WIP. However, EVERY prompt I have written to from one of Kate’s crew as proven to be right on target and has fallen in nicely somewhere in my novel.

In addition to writing prompts, the authors who have come on board have given excellent advice, answered multitudes of questions during a Q & A session on Kate’s blog, and have given us assignments to help us organize a WIP or get started on a new project. One such assignment was to write out some type of outline.

I am the self-proclaimed I-Hate-Outlines Queen, so I took the advice of my buddy Gae Polisner and created what she refers to as a “mini-manuscript” in which you create a document that chronicles your chapters with the first and last lines of each chapter, along with a few bullet points that sum things up.

What I find helpful about this format is getting the gist of each chapter without having to re-read the chapter to refresh my memory. This is super important for me because if I re-read what I’ve written, then I feel compelled to revise, revise, revise and I never get to the part where I add, add, add new chapters. In other words, I sort of end up spinning my wheels and don’t actually move forward toward the finish line (and publication).

Probably one of the most helpful things to me thus far, was combining yesterday’s quick write prompt with a blog post, written by Tamara Felsinger, which one of my fellow Teachers Write! colleagues posted on our Facebook group page pertaining to the main character’s personal agenda (which was pretty brilliant, btw).

Well, what resulted of this tweaking and joining of ideas was…well…an outline looking thingy. An EXTREMELY helpful (and quite possibly one of the most important things I’ve created in the process of writing this novel) outline looking thingy. I mean, who knew I’d end up creating an outline looking thingy and like it?? That Kate Messner and her crew are sneaky, tricky people whom I have quickly come to trust and appreciate in more ways than I thought possible. When my book is all set to publish one day, I’ll have to use up a whole page just to acknowledge them, I think.

And I will happily do so.

It’s CAMP Time!!

I had the most fortunate accidental meeting of author Elaine Wolf on Facebook through a mutual friend (none other than Mr. Paul W. Hankins), that has resulted in a developing friendship of mutual respect and support. Elaine is the author of CAMP, a brand new YA novel which she graciously sent to me complete with autograph!! *insert SQUEEEE here*

Although I couldn’t get to reading CAMP right away, my daughter Keri snatched it up and read it in a matter of hours (she devours books almost as fast as I can get them into her hands) and loved it. I started reading it on Sunday and finished it last night in the wee hours of the morning. It was worth losing sleep over.

From the book jacket:

A coming-of-age novel about bullying, mothers and daughters, and the collateral damage of family secrets.

Every secret has a price.

For most girls, sleepaway camp is great fun. But for Amy Becker, it’s a nightmare. Amy, whose home life is in turmoil, is sent to Camp Takawanda for Girls for the first time as a teenager. Although Amy despises spending summers at home with her German-immigrant mother, who is unduly harsh with Amy’s autistic younger brother, Amy is less than thrilled about going away to camp. At Takawanda she is subjected to a humiliating “initiation” and to relentless bullying by the ringleader of the senior campers. As Amy struggles to stop the mean girls from tormenting her, she becomes more confident. But then her cousin reveals dark secrets about Amy’s mother’s past, setting in motion a tragic event that changes Amy and her family forever.

Camp is a compelling family drama that will resonate with a wide teenage readership. It will be a strong addition to recommended reading and summer reading lists, and it is appropriate for anti-bullying programs. Mostly, though, Camp is a mother-daughter story for mothers and daughters

Here are my thoughts:

The afore mentioned Mr. Paul W. Hankins says he thinks CAMP will be the “sleeper hit” of 2012, and I think he’s absolutely right about that. I hope word of this well written debut YA novel spreads very quickly so that multitudes of people read it and share it, particularly via social media. We all know the power of social media.

A couple of days ago, Elaine posted a picture on her Facebook of a display table her book was on at the Barnes and Noble where she was doing a book signing. One of the books on that table was The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne. After reading Elaine’s book, I see why both books were on the same table. I don’t want to give too much away from either book, but I will say I see a common thread among both books: huge secrets kept under the guise of protection that lead to devastating truths.  I also see a quite obvious pairing with Dear Bully: 70 Authors Share Their Stories edited by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones.

The main focus of this story is how the narrator Amy Becker deals with despicable bully Rory at sleepaway camp (Camp Takawanda) and finds sanctuary in new friend and ally Erin. But the story runs much deeper than that. There is also the undercurrent of the classic mother/daughter struggle at play here, but with a twist: Amy’s mother is a German immigrant with a past too painful to share with her daughter, which drives a deep wedge between them. As I read the final chapters of CAMP, and the secrets revealed themselves, I thought of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, which chronicles a similar mother/daughter struggle complicated by a secret past from another land.

Mother/daughter relationships are complicated (I have three lovely daughters, by the way) and beautiful and sometimes hard. I think this book can create and provide a path for more open communication between mothers and daughters. We mothers most likely have things in our pasts that we may not want to talk about with our daughters, which is probably an indication that we really should.

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