Category: Life

NYC – Part 4

Part 1, here.  Part 2, here.  Part 3, here.

So, after a long day of filming and a good night’s sleep, the next morning we rode the subway down to a recording studio.  There I met Mary Gruetzke, the audiobook editor for The Clockwork Three, and Cheryl Smith, the audiobook producer.  Both women were very nice and welcoming.

I was there at the recording studio because several weeks ago, Mary suggested the idea of adding some “bonus” material at the end of The Clockwork Three audiobook, kind of like the extras on a DVD.  She and Lisa and I bounced a couple of ideas around, and eventually settled on something that I think will be really cool (but as with most things related to the book right now, it’s too early to talk about in detail).  And since I was in New York City, they wanted me to record a brief introduction to go with the bonus material.

Being in a sound-booth was another first for me, and I was so struck by that little pocket of silence nestled right there in the heart of NYC, one of the noisiest places I’ve ever been.  I sat down at a microphone, put on a pair of headphones, and read the introduction I’d written.  But unlike my experience the previous day, I didn’t feel awkward with the reading at all.  It went smoothly, and I think I read through it three times.  Each time, Cheryl gave me a little direction – “Put more emphasis on this word.” “Read this section more slowly.” – and then we were all done.

Mary and me in front of the Scholastic building

Mary and me in front of the Scholastic building

After that, Mary got us a cab, but we had a few minutes before we had to be at the Scholastic offices, so she took us to see Union Square.  They have a really nice farmer’s market running there a few days a week, which we walked through and enjoyed.  If it had been lunch time, I could have easily made a fabulous meal of artisan cheeses and meats, with some crusty bread.  But as it was, we just looked and then got in another cab.

The Scholastic Building is in SoHo, and even from the outside it has a very different vibe than the publishers with their offices up in Midtown.  Mary showed us in, we got our visitor badges, and went up to my editor’s office.  It was cool to see where Lisa works.  Her office was as filled with books as I expected it to be, and to be honest, I was a bit envious.  I don’t currently have the shelving to load my office up with all the books I own.

Lisa and me

Lisa and me

I was supposed to give a reading at an office reception that afternoon, so Lisa and I talked about what I should read and settled on the passage where Giuseppe plays the green violin for the first time.  After that we started a series of meetings.  I met my publicist, Samantha Grefé, and we went downstairs to film a “5 Questions” feature that will appear on the Scholastic On Our Minds blog in a few months.

Lisa and Samantha took us out for lunch, and my agent, Stephen Fraser met us at the restaurant.  Steve, ever the gentleman, brought flowers for the women.  Now, I don’t intend for this blog to become a food blog, but as much as I love food, I think it’s inevitable that I’ll mention it now and again.  So let me just say that we had another delicious meal.

Scholastic Credo CarpetAfterward we went back to the offices and sat down with the Sales and Marketing teams.  Everyone was so amazing and enthusiastic about The Clockwork Three.  But more than that, I could tell that every single person I met was passionate about children’s literature in general, and I once again felt lucky to at least be a peripheral member of the Scholastic family.  Oh, and something else I thought was pretty cool: they have the company credo printed on their carpet.

We then went to the office reception.  There were lots of people there, some of whom had already read The Clockwork Three.  I started out by talking a bit about the inspiration for the book, and then I gave the reading.  I think it went pretty well, although I did read a little too quickly.  I need to just get in the habit of slowing down when I do these kinds of things.  After the reading, I signed a few ARCs for people that had them.  And then Scholastic’s CEO Dick Robinson walked in.  I was pretty excited to meet him, and to tell him how much I appreciated the speech he gave in Bologna.  He had me sign an ARC for his son, which I was very happy to do!

We finished up the day with a quick meeting with the foreign rights team, who have been working very hard and done a tremendous job of handling the foreign licensing of The Clockwork Three.  I’ll let you know more when I can, so stay tuned for announcements on that front.

How do dinosaurs...After that meeting, Lisa and I chatted some more (I noticed a Cylon perched on one of her bookshelves, and found out we’re both Battlestar Galactica fans) and then I went down to the Scholastic bookstore on the building’s ground level.  I understand it’s a favorite destination for neighborhood parents and their kids.  It would be one of mine, too, if I lived in NYC.

All in all, it was one of the best days of my life.  Really.  I felt so welcomed, and everyone was so friendly and complimentary.  It was honestly a little overwhelming, but in such a wonderful way.  I feel very lucky, very grateful, and I owe a special thank you to Lisa for putting it all together.

No. 45 Crosby StreetOne block over from the Scholastic building lies Crosby Street.  That name might be familiar to those of you who have read The Clockwork Three.  I’ve already mentioned that one of the characters in the book, Giuseppe, was inspired by a 19th century boy from NYC named Joseph.  He lived, or rather, was imprisoned at No. 45 Crosby Street.  So after I left the Scholastic offices I had to go see the address myself.

The experience was very moving.  As you can see in the picture, the building has changed from what it was in the 1870’s when Joseph lived there, but the street has not.  Those are likely the same cobblestones that Joseph walked across every night on his way back to his master.  I’m glad I got to see it.

We met a writer friend of mine, Kate Milford, for pizza at a place called Lombardi’s.  Kate’s debut novel, The Boneshaker, will be released this month, and it’s getting tremendous reviews.  I’ve read it, and it’s wonderful, and I will put up a more lengthy post about it soon.  After dinner, we had planned to go see the Tim Burton exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, but when we got there we were very disappointed to learn that tickets for the evening were sold out.  We decided to still try to see some of the museum (even though it was closing soon) but ended up spending more time checking and claiming our bags than we did looking at actual art.  Plus, they made me carry my laptop around.  Not the bag.  Just the laptop, which for some reason could not stay in the bag when I checked it.

After leaving the museum, we were lured into a restaurant claiming to have “the best cheesecake in the world.”  It did not.  But it was in New York, so I suppose that made it New York Cheesecake, and it was nice to spend some more time talking with Kate.  Afterward we said goodnight, Kate got on the subway, and we went back to our hotel.

I called Lisa because earlier in the day she had invited us over to hers and Liel’s apartment.  I called assuming it would probably be too late, but they said no, come on over.  So we did, and had another lovely time with them, talking and laughing into the early morning hours.  I feel very fortunate that not only do I have in Lisa a trusted and talented editor, but also a great friend.

Up next, last day, last NYC post.

NYC – Part 2 of… maybe 4?

For part 1, click here.

On the first day of sightseeing, we decided to ride the ferry out to Liberty Island and Ellis Island.  As a history buff, I was most excited about Ellis Island.  The problem was, there were a lot of other people who had the same idea.  The line to get tickets was long, but after buying tickets the wait to just get on a boat was still another two hours.  To top it off, NYC was experiencing unseasonably warm weather, and waiting outside in the hot sun wasn’t the way we wanted to spend our time.  So we bought tickets for another day, and rode the Staten Island Ferry instead.

Staten Island FerryThe Staten Island Ferry runs the five miles between Manhattan and Staten Island, and best of all, it’s free.  It takes you right by the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and offers great views of lower Manhattan and New York Harbor.  It was a lot of fun.  We got out on the water where the breeze was a lot cooler, and just enjoyed the ride.  When we reached Staten Island, we just hopped on the next ferry coming back to Manhattan, about an hour round-trip.

From there we walked up through the financial district, past Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange.  My editor, Lisa Sandell, met us at Trinity Church, a beautiful cathedral where we heard a youth choir sing for a few minutes.  It was really wonderful to meet Lisa for the first time.  She walked with us to Ground Zero, which was a haunting experience.  There is a profound absence there, and it’s not just the physical opening left behind in the density of the city.  There is a psychological void there, waiting to be filled.  I hope the city will soon resolve the issues and conflicts around the building of a memorial.

The Brooklyn BridgeAfter that, we walked to the Brooklyn Bridge.  A few years ago, I watched a documentary about the building of the bridge, and ever since I’ve been fascinated by the ingenuity, the bravery, and the will it took to construct it, a truly monumental feat.  So to stand beneath its grand arches, to look down at the water below, was an inspiring experience.  I can only imagine what it would have been like to cross that bridge upon its opening, at the time the largest suspension bridge in the world.  Okay, I think I might be verging on becoming a documentary myself here, so I’ll move on.

After that, we walkeWinnie the Pooh & Friendsd up through Chinatown and Little Italy, and then rode the subway up to Grand Central Station.  From there we went to the New York Public Library.  The Children’s Room there has Winnie the Pooh on display.  Like, the actual Winnie the Pooh.  And Tigger, and Kanga, and Piglet.  Even Eeyore.  The library has the original stuffed animals that A. A. Milne gave to his son, Christopher Robin.  The same toys that later inspired one of the most beloved characters in children’s literature.  They look a little threadbare and tattered (it actually appears as though Kanga might have been decapitated and had her head reattached at some point) but that only adds to their significance and charm.

That night, we went out to dinner at The Spice Market with Lisa and her husband, Liel.  It was a wonderful evening full of great food and great company, with plenty of fascinating and entertaining conversation.  If you ever meet either of them, you must ask them about the time they shared a train with smugglers on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  I’d try to tell you the story myself, but I know I wouldn’t do it justice.

More to come.

NYC – Part 1 of… not sure yet

Statue of LibertyLast week, I went to New York City.  I did a lot and saw a lot, so it’ll likely take a few posts to share it all with you.  As I mentioned, my publisher flew me in for business, but I tacked on a couple of extra days to do some sightseeing.  It was the kind of trip where you feel like you need another vacation afterward just so you can recover.  But it was an amazing experience, and I loved it.

I’ve only been to NYC once before, as a kid.  My family was living in Maryland back during the heyday of Phantom of the Opera, and one day my dad drove us up to New York to see it on Broadway.  I remember a few things about that trip, little details here and there, but I didn’t come away with a real sense of the city.  It was great to go back as an adult.

Our flight was late getting in, first because we had a freakish snowstorm in Salt Lake City and had to wait for them to defrost the plane, and second because JFK was a mess and we had to wait on the tarmac for a while before our plane could squeeze into its little parking space at the terminal.  There was this guy sitting next to us who really seemed upset by the delays.  At first, he was just shouting into his cell phone in a language that sounded Russian.  But the longer we waited, the more agitated he became.  When people got up to use the restroom, he’d gesture at them and yell what I assume were Russian swear words, because the flight crew kept saying that the pilot couldn’t move the plane until everyone was seated.  Then he started punching the seat in front of him, jarring its occupant, who pretended that the whiplash didn’t bother them.  By the time we were safely parked at the gate, all the passengers around this guy just let him get off first – “No, no, Mr. Swearing Russian Man, I already missed my connecting flight, so why don’t you go ahead of me.”  Sheesh.

The bread is a mere formality so that it can still be called a sandwich.

The bread is a mere formality so that it can still be called a "sandwich."

From JFK we caught a cab into the city.  Scholastic put us up in a hotel right off Times Square, which was pretty much an unbeatable location.  It wasn’t too late in the evening, and we were hungry, so we took a look at the map and decided to go wander around a bit.  We walked a few blocks up to Carnegie Deli, which is kind of a tourist spot, but still a landmark that serves great food.  I ordered the “Woody Allen,” a monster sandwich of corned beef and pastrami, enjoyed some hot sauerkraut, and ate a few half-sour pickles.

Apple Store - NYCThen we wandered over to the Apple Store, which I looked at but did not go inside because we didn’t have time. (That’s just what I tell myself.  The real reason is that I’m not cool enough to go inside.)  Then we walked to Rockefeller Center and watched the ice-skating.  I have to say, I was surprised by how small that rink is.  It’s the smallest ice-skating rink I think I’ve seen, but considering the little slice of real estate it occupies, it’s probably the most expensive ice skating rink on the planet.  But there were some talented skaters out on the ice.  One of them looked like he was ready for the Olympics, and another kid was just doing his own thing – a mix of hip-hop and skating.  Really cool to watch.

Times SquareWe walked through Times Square, which is a lot like walking down the Vegas Strip.  It was kind of overwhelming; full of light, and people, and energy.  The one thing it didn’t feel like was New York City, which is weird because the two are practically synonymous.  But everywhere I looked I saw generic America – “Oh, look.  There’s T.G.I. Fridays.  There’s the Hard Rock Cafe.  And there’s The Olive Garden.”  The Olive Garden??? Really?  On the one hand, I understand it.  People want to experience new things, but they want it with the safety net of the familiar beneath them.  They may be in a strange city, but if things get too stressful they can always take refuge in the menu of the chain restaurant they eat at back home.  I get it.  That’s just not what I went to NYC for.  But it was still cool to stand there in the center of it all, where they drop the ball on New Year’s Eve, and think about how many people from all around the world have been there on that same spot.  Boggles the mind, it does.

Stay tuned for more.

Best Friends

My wife and I have a yearly Christmas tradition of donating to a charity.  We usually pick a cause or an organization that we are passionate about, or has a special meaning to us that year.  This year, we are donating to the Best Friends Animal Society.  If you aren’t familiar with them, they are an amazing non-profit group dedicated to the animals we humans share our lives with, whether it be dogs, cats, horses, parrots, or just about any other little critter.  They even take in wild animals in need of medical attention or a refuge.  Animals lucky enough to end up there receive compassionate care from very dedicated animal lovers, and those pets that can be are eventually placed with adoptive families.  But those that can’t be placed, for one reason or another, are still given a wonderful life at the sanctuary – Best Friends is a no-kill organization.  Which means it is very expensive to operate and maintain.

This is the same organization that runs Dog Town, which you might have caught on the National Geographic Channel.  Dog Town received a lot of attention for taking in Michael Vick’s rescued pit bulls, many of which have since been rehabilitated and placed in loving homes.  Here’s a glimpse of what they do there in Dog Town:

I mention this because the Best Friends Animal Society has been given an amazing gift this year.  Several very generous philanthropists have offered to match all donations to the society, dollar for dollar, up to 1 million dollars.  Let me say that again. ONE MILLION DOLLARS.  From now until the end of the year (only a few weeks left!) if you donate to the society, your donation will double what the society receives.  So if your holiday season includes charitable giving, please consider giving to the Best Friends Animal Society.  They’re an amazing organization.

Thanks for listening.

Donate here.

The Green Spy

As I arrived at work the other day, my principal came into my office and asked me if I wanted to do something fun with him.

“Sure thing,” I said.

“Thanks.  I need to you be the Green Spy,” he said.

“The what?”

“The Green Spy.”

“Okay,” I said.  “What’s the Green Spy?”

“You go around to the classrooms and you give prizes to the students.  It’s for Green Ribbon Week.”

“Oh,” I said.  That sounded like fun to me.  I like going into the classrooms.  And Green Ribbon Week is intended to promote safety awareness, so I felt good about being involved.  “I could do that,” I said.

“Great!” my principal said.  “Come down to my office and get your costume.”

“Wait, I wear a costume?”  In that moment I began to experience the first flutters of apprehension over what I had just agreed to, but I followed my principal down the hallway.  We went into his office, and he shut the door.

“I was the Green Spy last year,” he said as he pulled a garment bag out of a closet.  “But the kids all figured out it was me.  I want to throw them off this year.”

He laid the garment bag out on his conference table and unzipped it.  Inside was a suit.  A green suit.  A leprechaun-green suit, with glittery gold dollar signs all over it.  It also had really wide cuffs and a fat collar printed with $100-dollar bills, only these Ben Franklin’s wore zebra-stripes and came from “The United States of Funk.”

“Uh…” I said.  “What is this?”

“It’s a pimp costume,” he said.

“A what?”  That’s when I noticed the matching hat with an exceptionally wide brim.

“Yeah, last year they told me I needed to find a green costume, but when I went to the costume shop this was the only green thing they had.”

“So the Green Spy is really the Green Pimp?”

He laughed.  Then he pulled out a Zorro mask.  “Last year I also wore this, but it wasn’t enough.  So I got something different for this year.

“What?” I asked.

“This.”  And he pulled out a green Frankenstein mask.

“This?”  I asked.

“Oh.  And you also wear this.”  He reached deeper into the garment back and pulled out a wig.  A long, black, ratty looking wig.  Like something shaved from the head of a member of an 80’s metal band.

“Are you serious?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said.  “I wore it last year.  Except for the mask.”

By this time, I simply had to laugh and go along with it.  I stepped into the restroom to change, careful not to let any children see me.  Honestly, I felt like Miss Nelson putting on the Viola Swamp get-up and going missing (it was the black wig that did it).  I even arranged my office so it would look like I had just stepped out for a moment.  I worried about the costume fitting, but since it was made of a conveniently stretchy and forgiving material, I was able to pull it on.  Then the latex mask, the wig, and finally, the pimp hat.  I looked in the mirror, and I honestly scared myself.

I took a deep breath and stepped out in the hallway where I startled some PTA moms.

“I’m the Green Spy,” I said as I walked by, attempting to act casual.  I hoped they knew what the Green Spy was.

They just stared, so maybe they didn’t.

In the main office, my principal saw me and laughed.  “You look awesome!  Let’s go get the prizes.”  We stepped back into his office, and he pulled out a bag that one of the Green Ribbon Week sponsors had left for the students.  We opened it up and looked inside.  It was filled with ball-point pens, key chains, and little breath mint dispensers, all with the name of a local insurance agency printed on them.  The kind of freebies you see in little baskets on receptionists’ desks that no one ever takes.

“These are the prizes?” I asked.

He shook his head.  “Let me make a call.”

So I hung out in the costume, trying to avoid the hallways where I might be seen, until my principal found me.  He had the bag of “prizes” with him.  “We’ll go ahead and use these.  The kids will love them.”

I shrugged.  “So I just give one to every student?”

“No, just the ones wearing green.”

I stopped.  “Um.  I’m color-blind.”

“You are?”

“Yes.”

“So what do you see?”

“I just can’t tell certain colors apart.”

“What colors?”

“Red and green.”

“Oh.”

“So how am I supposed to–”

“The teachers will help you.  Let’s go.”

So I walked with him down the kindergarten hall, a Frankenstein Colorblind Pimp Monster, hoping to somehow spot the kids who were wearing green through a mask that was getting pretty… moist.  “How should I talk?” I asked my principal.  “Like, what kind of voice should I use?”

“Any voice you want,” he said.  “I’m going in first to turn off the lights, then I’ll turn them back on when you walk in.”

So he did, and I stepped through the door, and he turned the lights on.

Several kids in the class screamed.  All of them looked frightened.  Their poor teacher even jumped a little, but realized that I was apparently the Green Spy she had heard would be coming through.

“Look kids!” she said.

“It’s a green monster!” one of the students shouted.

“No,” she said.  “It’s the Green Spy!”

And here, I spoke.  Don’t ask me why I chose the voice I did.  I don’t really know.  I was trying to sound, you know, sneaky.  Like a spy telling a secret.  But instead it came out sounding like a raspy old witch.  “I’m the Green Spy!” I hissed.  “I’m here to give you a prize!  Who’s wearing green?”

No one raised their hand.  I don’t think they wanted me to come any closer.

I looked around.  “Who’s wearing green?” I asked again.  Seriously, who’s wearing green?

“Raise your hands if you have green on,” my principal said.

Hands went up, and I made the rounds with my bag of crap.  And the kids really did seem to like the prizes after all.  Especially the keychains.  I finished handing it all out, and said, “I’ll be back next year!” but it sounded less like a good thing and more like a threat.

“That was great!” my principal said out in the hallway.  “Let’s go to the next class.”

We repeated that for every room in the building.  First grade to sixth.  Every class tried to guess who I was, but none of them did.  Some even claimed I was the principal, even though he was standing right next to me.  I tried different voices throughout the morning, even doing my best James Bond with a vaguely British accent.  And soon I was back in the bathroom, staring at the mirror in a state of semi-disbelief before I removed the Frankenstein mask and pimp suit.  The wig had left my hair in a matted, sweaty mess, so I waited a few minutes for it to dry so as not to give out any clues to my identity (Clark Kent would be proud).  I replaced the costume in the garment bag and returned to my office.

A little while later, a couple of students came by to ask me if I knew who the Green Spy was.  I just shrugged and tossed them some red herring clues about the custodian and the assistant principal.  Something about a black wig I saw in one of their closets.  The students left, and I smiled, and I thought about what a cool job I have.  But if I get to be the Green Spy next year, I think I’ll try a Tony the Tiger voice instead.  Not very spy-ish, but hopefully less frightening.

Now, if you truly want to see the costume, click here (and notice how none of the kids are standing near me).

SCBWI 2009

Over the weekend, I was in LA for the annual summer conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and can I just say that I had an absolute blast!  Seriously, I love writers.  And I believe that as solitary an activity as writing is, writers need other writers.  We learn from each other, and encourage each other, and share a community I am proud to be a part of.  Especially writers for children.

The first day was great.  I was invited for lunch with some of the 10ers, including Bree Despain, Lindsey Leavitt, Kim Derting (thanks for setting the whole thing up!), Christy Raedeke, Jennifer Cervantes, Denise Jaden, and Suzanne Young.  Holly Black, Jay Asher, Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl were there as well, as were bloggers Khy (The Frenetic Reader), Catt (The Dreamer Reader), and Vania (Reverie Book Reviews).  Oh, and Magic Johnson was there in the restaurant, but I think it goes without saying that he wasn’t a part of our group.

The first day also featured a speech by Sherman Alexie.  That man is brilliant, inspiring, hilarious, and so down to earth.  He had the whole room laughing and on their feet by the end for a standing ovation.  Later in the weekend, I was a total fanboy and got to shake his hand and tell him how cool it was that he rendered Stephen Colbert speechless.  Have you seen that video?  Here it is.  And here’s a picture of me fanboying it up (as you’ll see, I did that a lot).

me and Sherman Alexie

The other keynote addresses were incredible.  Richard Peck blew the roof off at the Golden Kite Luncheon, and Ingrid Law charmed the whole room with a speech that felt more like a spell.  I went to lots of different break-out sessions, and met lots of great people.  My agent was there and we went to dinner and had some great discussions about books, writers, movies, theater, and religion.  He read the first half of my new novel during the conference and was enthusiastic about it (huge sigh of relief).  Later, Elena Jube and I had dinner with him, and I got to know Elena a little better.  Steve is her agent too, and she’s a wonderful person and a fantastic writer with a book out on submission right now.  I’ve read it, and I loved it.  I know an editor will too.

On the second night, the poolside Blue Moon Ball was great fun.  I got to hang out with some writers from Utah, and meet Richard Peck and Ingrid Law.  I also chatted with Ed Masessa from the Scholastic Book Fairs about the title of my debut novel.  Or lack thereof.  Still don’t have one.  Here are some pics.

Brodi Ashton, Bree Despain, Emily Wing Smith, and Sydney Salter

Brodi Ashton, Bree Despain, Emily Wing Smith, and Sydney Salter

Sydney, me, Brodi, Bree, and Emily

Sydney, me, Brodi, Bree, and Emily

Ingrid Law and her daughter, Richard Peck, and me

Ingrid Law and her daughter, Richard Peck, and me

me and Jay Asher (in costume)

me and Jay Asher (in costume)

On Sunday night we had our regional get-together, and all us Utah and Idaho writers had a fun time.

Sydney Salter and Elena Jube

Sydney Salter and Elena Jube

Sydney, Elena, , and Emily Wing Smith sporting the air quotes

Sydney, Elena, Pat Martinez, and Emily Wing Smith sporting the air quotes

regional shindig

Jean Patrick, Carolyn Frank, and Neysa Jensen

Bree and me

Bree and me

Bree and Emily

Bree and Emily

regional shindig

Elena and Pat

That night, I also got a chance to talk with Ellen Hopkins.  I truly admire her for making poetry so vital and accessible to teens, and for bringing attention to some of the dangers they face each day.

me and Ellen Hopkins

me and Ellen Hopkins

On Monday I had lunch with Kimball Fisher and Fran Slayton, both great people.  Kimball is a writer I met at last year’s summer conference, and it was great to see him again.  Fran is the author of When the Whistle Blows, which I have not read yet, but I plan to correct that oversight at the earliest opportunity.  From the reviews and the buzz, a wonderful middle-grade debut.  It turns out the three of us had some things in common, and I deeply appreciated the time I spent with them.

Fran Slayton and me

Fran Slayton and me

Also on the last day, I waited in line to meet all the writers I hadn’t been able to talk to throughout the conference.  More fanboy stuff follows.

me and Linda Sue Park

me and Linda Sue Park

Karen Cushman and me

Karen Cushman and me

And then Lin Oliver, the president of SCBWI, introduced me to Henry Winkler.  I’d been talking with her during the conference, and I told her that the Hank Zipzer books that she writes with Mr. Winkler are a favorite among the kids I work with.  She said I had to tell Henry Winkler myself, so I did.  It was awesome.

Lin Oliver, me, and Henry Winkler

Lin Oliver, me, and Henry Winkler

Among the other awesomenesses of the weekend, two fellow writers got enthusiastic shoutouts from their agent and editor.  In the main ballroom, with the whole conference listening, agent Sarah Davies talked about how amazing Lindsey Leavitt is.  Be sure and watch for Sean Griswold’s Head and Princess for Hire in 2010!  And then, Egmont editor Elizabeth Law not once, but twice raved about Bree Despain’s The Dark Divine, out in stores this December!  Congrats you two!

All in all, an amazing weekend.

"The Wilderness of Childhood"

I really enjoyed this essay by Michael Chabon.  I mean, I love his fiction (and you may remember that The Yiddish Policemen’s Union was one of my favorite books that I read last year) but he’s a great essayist as well.  I plan to read the collection from which this essay comes when it’s released in October.  I really don’t have much to add to Chabon’s thoughts on the place of wilderness, exploration, and yes, even a little danger in childhood.  But I related to it on so many levels I wanted to mention it here.

One of the things that struck me the most was Chabon’s description of the forest near his childhood home.  I spent some of my own Maryland childhood in a town where we also had a small forest in which I ran and explored.  I actually had to do some Googling to see if Chabon and I grew up in the same place, because his description so closely matched the woods I remember.  It turns out we didn’t, but the experience of our individual forests seems to have meant something similiar to both of us.

During the years I lived there, my best friend and I mapped our woods.  Not a technical map, but a landscape of impressions, feelings, and dreams.  We caught fireflies in the twilight, and salamanders in the humid heat of the day.  We spent hours exploring, and gave our own names to certain places, the clearings, streams, and even some of the recognizable trees.  In doing so, we engaged in an act of fundamental discovery.  The woods were small, and many of our neighbors passed through them.  But no one walked through the same woods I did, the woods my friend and I had found.

I plan to return to those woods one day.  Not physically, which I’ve already done as an adult, but emotionally and mentally.  I plan to write a novel set in those woods (or woods very much like them).  They say that you can never go back to your past.  I have found that in writing, I can.

_________________________

There is an event coming up that I also wanted to mention.  On Saturday the 29th of August, twenty Utah writers, including Shannon Hale, Brandon Mull, Sara Zarr, Rick Walton, and many others, will gather at the Treehouse Children’s Museum in Ogden for a workshop.

The Writing for Charity Event, a workshop for aspiring children’s book writers (age 13 and up only), will provide participants with professional advice and the opportunity to have their work evaluated by one of the event’s participating authors. The event includes the opportunity to purchase books and have books signed. Participants can also purchase drawing tickets for great prizes, including signed books and a book bag signed by all of the participating authors.

All proceeds from the event will benefit the non-profit Treehouse Children’s Museum and its award-winning Family Literacy Programs.

Go here to find out more about it, and to register.  The event has been very successful in the past, and it looks like it will be another great year.

A book update, sort of, and a funny video just for the heck of it.

But the book news is more of a tease than a real update.  My editor sent me the “concept” that they’re working on for my book cover (awesome!) as well as the artist they’d like to work with.  They don’t know yet if he’ll be available when they need him, but I really hope he can fit my book into his schedule.  He would be a perfect fit.  It’s way too early to go into details about either the concept or the artist (either or both could easily change) but I’m super excited, and this here blog is the roof from which I can yawp.  So, YAWP!

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And now, the video.  You know, I love how YouTube let’s me know exactly how far behind the curve I am.  For example, I know that tens of millions of people saw this video before I did, as did my friend, Bree, who posted it to her blog just yesterday (thanks, Bree.  It made my day).

The cost of taking your son to the dentist: well, that depends on your insurance

Filming your son while he’s high as a kite on dentist drugs: priceless

Who Can Write?

A little while ago, a friend of mine emailed me with this question about  the ability to write stories:

Don’t you think one is born with it, or not born with it?  It probably wouldn’t appear magically at the age of 45, right?

I actually think the capacity to tell stories is there in everybody.  We are all telling stories, all the time, but don’t realize it.  We’re wired that way, because the human mind is a meaning-making machine.  Whenever we encounter something new, our brains immediately set about trying to make sense of it.  We really can’t help it.  Take for example, this image:

giant skeleton

Chances are, your brain went straight to task of figuring out just what the heck you’re seeing.  In fact, you probably saw the picture and started doing that before you even began reading this blog entry.  (If you don’t already know about this image, click on the picture to find out more about it.  Go ahead.  There’s probably a part of you that really wants to know, and that’s kind of the point.)  We figure out our world by categorizing and organizing, by asking questions of ourselves and hypothesizing answers, but it happens so fast we often aren’t aware that it’s taking place.  The process has to be fast, even unconscious, or we wouldn’t get anything else done.  We’d spend all our time and resources just trying to sort out the world, because life is full of new situations.

When writers  are telling stories, most of us are doing the same thing, only we’re doing it more consciously, slowly enough to direct the outcome.  We see something, hear something, or think of something that starts us asking questions.  And the answers to those questions become a story.  It could be a character, a situation, an idea.  My stories, and I think most stories, have their roots in the answers to the classic who?  what?  when?  where?  why? and often in the big “What if?”  Most of us writers are using our stories to make sense of the world for ourselves as much as our readers.

For example, the novel I’m currently writing came to me as a scene in a dream.  One scene that by itself was not a complete story.  It’s too early to go into details about the novel, but based on that scene I started asking myself questions when I woke up.  I had to make sense of it.  What were those characters doing there?  Where was that place?  Why did everyone look so frightened?  As I answered those questions, the scene took on meaning and the story emerged from there.

But there’s another way that everyone is engaged in the story process, and that is memory.  When we remember a life event, we often think in terms of recollection, of retrieving the memory from someplace in our brain where we’ve stored it.  Well, there is no hard-drive in our brain, no filing cabinet where we keep our memories.  It is actually more accurate to say that remembering is an act of reconstruction.  And as we remember our experiences, that same meaning-making drive exerts its influence automatically on the memory we rebuild.

When we look back over the events and experiences of our lives, we cannot help but try and make sense of them, to order them, to find purpose in the way things have happened.  We look for the reasons why things happened the way they did, and often that reason only becomes clear in retrospect.  We seldom know the reason in the moment, but that’s because the story isn’t finished yet.  Aesop knew that you have to reach the end of the fable before you find the moral.

Remembering is essentially an act of telling a story to ourselves, about ourselves, to find the meaning in our lives.  And when we relate our memories to others, we are telling our story for the benefit of our audience, and we usually have a point we are trying to make, or a purpose in sharing the memory.  So we impose some kind of structure and meaning on the memory to achieve the purpose in telling it.

So to answer my friend’s question, I would say that yes, you are born with it.  Everyone is born with it.  The only difference between writers and everyone else is that we’ve practiced and learned how to use the process creatively.  And I believe that anyone can learn to do it.  45 is not too late.  95 is not too late.

Everyone is a storyteller.  We are all actively and constantly engaged in making meaning out of our lives, sharing the story of our lives with others, and dreaming about our futures.

I'm published

I have sold my first book.  Scholastic plans to publish it in the Fall of 2010.  I’m still walking around as though I’ve stumbled into some alternate reality, where everything looks the same, but at the same time kind of doesn’t.

So, a little background on the deal.

Back in January, I posted about signing with my agent.  Since that post, he and I have been working on revisions to my book, trimming and tightening the manuscript.  I’ve heard of some writers agonizing over that part of the process, but it was a great experience for me.  My agent had wonderful suggestions and insights, and I’d been away from active writing on the story long enough that I had some perspective on it.  It made it easy to say, “Oh, yeah.  That needs to go.”  BALEETED!

So come March, we felt like the book was ready to venture out into the wide, wide world to look for a home.  My agent started pitching it on March 2nd, and we had interest from several publishers right away.  He sent the book to Scholastic on the 4th, and received an encouraging email from them a few days later.  And then the weekend came.  During this time I was an obsessive wreck, checking my email every chance I could, jumping every time the phone rang, the whole while telling myself that we probably wouldn’t hear anything for at least a couple of weeks, likely more.  But on Monday, my agent emailed me to say that Scholastic intended to make a pre-emptive bid some time that week, and then he called me on Tuesday the 10th with their offer.

That’s when everything changed, really.  That phone call was the moment.

The time frame here is unusual, and completely unexpected.  Scholastic made the offer just shy of a week after receiving the manuscript.  That just shows that my agent knew exactly who to send the book to.  I’m very appreciative of that, and I’m very happy with my editor, the wonderful writer Lisa Sandell.  I spoke with her on the phone a few days later, and felt reassured that I had someone who loves my book.  I think Scholastic will be a perfect home for it.

So if you see me, and I’m looking a little stunned, a little shell-shocked, with a ridiculous smile on my face, it’s because I still don’t know quite where I’ve landed.  I think it might take a while to settle in.

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