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I have met the future (of books), and it is digital

Everyone who cares passionately about books is talking about the death of publishing. Because Amazon makes it so easy and cheap to self-publish. Because of e-books. Because of Google Books. And let me tell you, not many kids at my school have e-readers yet, but some of them do, and most of those who do are avid readers and some of them are in FOURTH GRADE.

I recently read my first e-book. Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman, and it’s so good I bought a copy for our middle school library. I can already name some girls who are going to love reading Seraphina in that shiny library-bound copy. Myself, I read it on my iPhone, because neither my public nor my school library had it and it’s up for the Andre Norton Award and I get to vote (!!!)

Buying Seraphina for my phone didn’t cut the cost much, but here in our little Far West End homestead we’re in a sort of limbo about selling the house, with half our books in storage. I couldn’t justify buying a physical copy, so I settled for the digital. Truthfully, it wasn’t much fun to read an entire novel on a 3.5” screen, but the book was good and I survived.

And started thinking seriously (quelle horreur) about buying a Kindle. To my dismay, when I looked at the Kindles at Staples I found they don’t have the cute little page-turny thing my iBook reader has. (As you drag your finger over the screen, the page curls up and turns over.)

I want the page turny thing!

Which just goes to show I’m not a digital native. If one of the kids I teach wants a page-turny thing for her e-reader, it’s because it’s a fun special effect, not because kids long, in the depths of their young souls, for the sight of a turning page. They just think, cool, dude. The page turns.

Oh, the humanity.

Still, I write YA, so these are my readers. (As well as my students.) And much as Luddite writers like me shiver at the thought, reading pages on a screen is still reading pages. You start on page one, you go forward, you skip back, and it’s still, screen by screen, pages. The book as we know it is not dead yet. In themselves, screens will not change the structure of Story.

But something wicked this way comes.

Because the next generation of Story, and we’re not there yet, but it’s coming, will be radically different. It will still be Story. But it will tell itself in very different ways. And that is very scary to people like me.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Stay tuned.

I thought music mattered. But not bollocks it doesn’t. Not compared to what people matter.

St. Patrick’s Day yesterday. I made the cabbage but Mom made the corned beef and we were all glad she did. Dad was cranky, kept giving me and Gabe and Bob the evil eye, like “what the hell are you doing here?” Reminded me in an unsettling way of Nagini inhabiting Bathilda Bagshot in Deathly Hallows 1, the movie. Fortunately he never bit. But this was one time I had to concede to Mom that he seemed pretty cranky to have us “strangers” in the house. Sometimes she thinks he looks angry and I think he just looks like he’s old and senile and has Parkinson’s, but last night I agreed with her.

Opa didn’t want us around.

We stayed anyway. Solidarity with a caregiver sometimes means being determined to have a good time, and we all did. Except maybe Dad, and even he enjoyed the corned beef.

Now it’s the day after Spring Break and we’ve gotten an overnight sprinkling of snow. A few degrees lower and I might be hoping for a delayed opening at school, but that’s not going to happen. The apples are already chopped up and heating for the hot porridge that will be our only consolation when we set out on this raw, wet morning. In Richmond you get used to feeling like anytime you see white on the ground you’re going to get a snow day. Not today.

But it’s okay. Break was wonderful. I was absolutely ragged between teaching and parenting and writing and revising and being a helpful critiquer to my fellow writers and searching for an agent and trying to figure out why I’ve been such a slug this winter. (At this time last year I was running a marathon.) But we went to Belle Isle and watched the eagles and the swans and listened to silence and played board games and I am restored. I even ran yesterday.

Now off to school, so the kids can grumble that school has started up again while being secretly delighted that they can be with their friends. Which, they all know, is the real reason they put up with us teachers.

What would Pa Ingalls say?

Virginia’s governor, Bob McDonnell, has snuck a bitter little worm into the heart of his budgetary apple. He wants to increase the car registration fee $100 on . . . hybrid vehicles.

I kid you not. Here’s the message from the governor: if you buy a car that conserves gas, GOTCHA!

Full disclosure: I bought a new hybrid, the cheapest on the market, a month ago. I’d been driving a 17 year-old Nissan Sentra, but as the ticker pushed toward 200K I finally had to admit that the time had come to say goodbye to Old Reliable. So enter Little Red, so shamelessly crimson she could light up Amsterdam. A Prius C, easy to park, kinda slow and, I would have thought, inoffensive to anybody. Seriously. If I run into you on a highway, it’s me who’s gonna crumble. Little Red’s only “threat” to society is that when she’s on the battery her engine is whisper-silent. You might not hear me coming. Sorry. But if McDonnell has his way, every year I’ll have to pony up an extra $100 for the privilege of owning my quiet, fuel-efficient Little Red.

You don’t have to believe in climate change to believe in conserving natural resources. It’s just common sense. Ask Pa Ingalls. You know, Little House on the Prairie Pa Ingalls? The man who turned a pig’s bladder into a toy for his kids. Because Pa Ingalls knew, whether it’s a pig or petroleum, you don’t waste what you’ve got.

Pa had occasional qualms about the mechanization of prairie life that would, in the twentieth century, lead to the Dust Bowl. When hard times and ignorance drove farmers to suicidal agricultural practices that devastated their resource base and turned them into paupers.

Well, it’s 2013 and times are hard again. Our Virginia state budget is tight as a Victorian corset, but now it’s oil we depend on, as well as soil. So what is Bob McDonnell’s suicidal solution?

A sin tax on cars that conserve gas.

I can’t speak for Pa Ingalls’ politics. But the message of the pig bladder is that resource conservation is common sense. If CONSERVatives and liberals can agree on one thing, it ought to be that.

Finding a literary agent in a metaphorical tornado

Last night physical and spiritual madness struck at once. Feels like my last sane moment was running on a wooded lane in Bon Air, with a border collie barking his fool head off at me. Next thing I knew literal and metaphorical winds were threatening to blow my house down. By which I mean, the wind went nuts, tornadoes threatened, and Dad’s dementia carried him to a place where none of us could follow.

I spent the night at Mom and Dad’s house. Bob was there with me for a while, providing succor and good humor (he’s a SAINT), but when a tornado watch appeared in an ugly little line at the bottom of the TV screen I sent him home, convinced that even our self-reliant 12 year-old shouldn’t be alone in a tornado. Eventually, Mom convinced Dad to go upstairs to bed, but of course Bob was gone by then and Dad was sooooo shaky . . . So there I was, supporting him from behind (he’s still a big man) as he made his tottering way up the staircase. And me trying to hold him up but knowing that if he keeled over backwards there was no way to prevent him from falling.

But he made it, and Mom took over, and after a while convinced him to go to bed. And I went downstairs to the guest room and put my head between my knees until the terror passed.

Of course it was impossible to sleep. So . . . what do writers do?

No, they don’t write. They try to figure out how to get an agent. Noah Lukeman is an agent who has very kindly made his book, How to Land a Literary Agent, available for free on the Internet. I had downloaded it onto my phone and last night spent a few hours reading it. He’s kind of a nag, but it was something to think about at 1 a.m., and he got me researching agents. Lukeman says I should have a database of at least fifty agents. Well, I now have seventy, and every one of them has expressed interest in YA and fantasy.

Of course, by this point it was long past my bedtime, and I had to get up and teach in the morning, but the agent search carried me beyond the fear of the dark night, and of tornadoes, and of dementia. The work sometimes seems crazy but last night it felt like sanity.

So if anyone wants my list of seventy agents interested in YA and fantasy, just leave me a comment with your email and I’ll send it on. And if you get a chance, check out the Writers Digest lottery—you get to pitch a YA novel to an agent. http://tinyurl.com/a8msdw2

¿Commentarios, amigos?

Endless revisions coming to an end

Weird, weird day. Bare branches clawing the sky while goblin-leaves skitter across the asphalt. And the sky, the whole clouded, mottled sky, moving so fast like it’s got somewhere to go.

A good day, actually, to write, but I’m doing a chapter-by-chapter outline of my current novel, Deathsign, so if an agent wants to see it I’ve got it ready. Not fun. Thank God the synopsis is already done.

It’s been a long slog, but I’ve finished my revisions for now, having gutted a wonderful but ultimately unproductive centerpiece. In the excised section my characters went to an awesome temple in the mountains, which I’ve named Thornamdia and which looks vaguely like the Inca ruins of Ollantaytambo, in Peru’s Sacred Valley. I loved that section, and the second novel in this series has a battle in Thornamdia, but in this novel I finally accepted that our heroine’s time there felt like a travelogue. So, after a long and painful narrative liposuction, good-bye Thornamdia. The result is a leaner, meaner and I hope better manuscript.

My critique group gets a final stab at it, but I’m starting to query agents. I will not (NOT) start another huge set of revisions unless I get 50 rejections. Or more. Remember A Wrinkle in Time, that perfect little gem of a novel? Dozens of editorial rejections, and then a Newbery. Not that the Newbery matters.

Okay, I lied. A Newbery does matter. A lot. But what matters to me, personally, is that when I was 12 I read it a gazillion times and I still remember it. And if you ask other adults of a certain age if they remember anything they read when they were kids, you’d be amazed how many say, “well, there was this book about a girl who had to go rescue her father . . . ”




On the James River for an artist walk

my world is birdsong and cricket and rushing water, russet and green and blue blue blue! Big Jim, my favorite river, is at his most stunning today, friendly and rock-studded and framed in autumn. I’m here for the beauty, for the inrush of sounds and images, for a way to clear my head of fear. The fear that is every writer’s most dangerous enemy. The fear that, I’m learning, is as bad on a second novel as it is on a first. The fear that shrieks: Will I ever get it right?????

Revising a manuscript is usually my favorite part of writing, but sometimes revising turns into, in Mary Amato’s words, “putting makeup on a corpse.”  That’s what I’ve been doing for a year now. I’ve been pimping Deathsign’s prose till it shines, but the structure of this, my second novel, still isn’t right.

Problem is, how do I right it? Two trusted readers have told me my fantasy world of Avani is too complex. Should I simplify it? Cut away some of the wonder and weirdness? Why not have regular ponies instead of ponies with antlers? Why not have fewer kingdoms and sheikdoms and homelands? I believe these two readers when they tell me it confuses them. However, I don’t believe them when they say the world is too complex. J.K. Rowling has hundreds of named characters in her stories, and plot twists to make Hitchcock drool. Middle Earth and Narnia and Panem are complicated worlds where, somehow, you never feel lost.

And so I conclude that Deathsign’s problem isn’t its world. Lina’s world, Avani, with its seven homelands, its wizards and kings and thanes, is NOT too complex. Worlds are supposed to be complex! Deathsign’s problem isn’t the world it creates, Deathsign‘s problem is its author. Me.  I still haven’t told the story well enough, and the question today is not whether to change the storyline but how.

So today I’m walking beside the James River, searching in the falling leaves and the hammering of a woodpecker and the blue flash of a kingfisher’s flight for the courage to keep revising until I get it right. The courage to believe that, if I work hard and trust in what Julia Cameron calls “Good Orderly Direction” I will, in fact, get it right.

Taters, the second novel . . . and artists in the Age of Celebrity.

A few Fridays ago Bob and I drove beyond Metro Richmond’s megamalls and condo complexes, past the state penitentiary and the cow pastures to the wee little town of Goochland Court House to hear our favorite local band play in a TINY coffeehouse. The “Music Café” is in a strip mall, one of those faux-upscale brick places with bright boxy letters above each store saying Kinko’s! China King Takeout! Molly’s Gifts!

Full disclosure: I’m a snob. I live in Richmond’s endless ’burbs but still think of myself as an urban expat intellectual. I was horrified. Music in a strip mall?

Then I walked inside. And the Music Café (big bright letters above the door) is the real thing. Owned and run by musicians, who also give lessons right there in the coffeehouse. And that Friday night, the Music Café was packed with Tater groupies.

The Taters deserve to have groupies. Because the Taters are that good. They play roots and pop and they play it amazingly well. And on this Friday night, artists in an age of celebrity, they were playing in a rural strip mall to an audience of maybe two dozen people.

If you’re an artist, you work your butt off to be good at your art. The Taters know that. Every Taters show I’ve seen is upbeat, professional and polished. They work hard at it. They drive god-knows-how-many-miles to perform for a $5 cover in a strip mall. The Taters aren’t celebrities, but they sure as hell are artists. They work until they’re the best they can be, and then they share the gift. Their art. The music.

If you, like me, are an author and finding that second book tougher to write and sell than the first, the Taters are worth thinking about. At the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference on Saturday, Tina Wexler, an agent at International Creativity, spoke to us second-timers directly. “Write better,” she told us. “Reinvest in what got you there in the first place – read, go to conferences, know the bestseller list. Push yourself harder.”

Like the Taters do.

We live in the age of celebrity books, of franchises, of novels that spin off nail polish. (Truth. Hunger Games nail polish.) Tell someone you’ve published a novel and they wonder why they haven’t heard of you like they’ve heard of J.K. Rowling. No duh. But the world is full of artists who aren’t celebrities. Folks who play music in coffee houses or sell paintings in funky little shops. We’re artists, too, but only if we do what Wexler said. If we write better and work harder. If we do whatever it takes to reach our readers. Twenty-four people in a little coffeehouse in Goochland that Friday didn’t care if the Taters had a big record company contract.

We just wanted to hear the Taters play.

Writing your second novel: Harder than the first!

Second novels are tougher to write and sell than first novels. Deathsign, the fantasy I’m writing, is actually my fourth manuscript. My first, Useful Fools, got published to excellent reviews and weak sales. The second never got published and is pretty much dead and buried. The third needs a massive overhaul. Because it’s closest to being finished, I think of Deathsign as my second novel.

And it ain’t easy.

Why so hard?

From first draft to sale, Useful Fools took twelve years. Yup, I rewrote, workshopped, “writer grouped,” and revised for a dozen years before finding a publisher. Then, with my publisher, I rewrote and revised some more. Scads of hard work.

So why does this feel harder? Did I think it would be easier? Did I assume that, with my first novel published, the second would magically write and publish itself? (It is, after all, a fantasy.) Maybe, like most people, I assumed that once you’ve published a first novel, you’re on your way.


Too many notes!

Because it’s a fantasy, I did a lot of world-building for this book (more on that in a later post). But several drafts into Deathsign’s existence, I’m still hearing this from two of my trusted readers (known here as the Famous Doctor and the Publishing Professional): Too confusing! Too many characters! Too complex!

I feel like Mozart. Too many notes!

On the other hand, my soulmate (henceforth the Book Geek) said this, “You can err on both sides of the question.” Make it too easy by trying not to make it too hard. Imagine Tolkien, toiling away building his world. Imagine L’Engle, rejection after rejection because A Wrinkle in Time was “too hard” for kids. A lot of people love that complexity.

Still, for this to be my second novel, it has to get published.

Write with fire and revise with ice

We’re down to the ice, baby.

So here’s my plan: dissection. I’m going to dissect published fantasies and figure out what works when you’re setting a story in an imaginary world. I’m going to dissect my own manuscript, using a technique usually used when you start writing a novel. (Ass-backwards is not unusual for me. I like the view.) It’s called the Snowflake Method and it’s forcing me to step away from all my geeky world-building and focus on the hard bones of my novel: characters and storyline. My friend the Publishing Professional, who doesn’t actually like fantasy, said he got lost in the world-building. My friend the Famous Doctor couldn’t keep track of all the wizards and their kingdoms. But I think (and I bet L’Engle and Tolkien would agree) that you can build a world of infinite complexity and not lose your readers there. The question is how

Stay tuned for the answer.

Just the silent trees

Running twenty-four miles alone on dirt trails through a state park gives a writer a lot of time to think. Some of the thoughts are obvious – does that thunder mean I’ll get struck by lightning? And, if I get struck by lightning how will anyone find me, since I haven’t seen a soul (unless you count the disappearing white tail of a single white-tailed deer) in two hours?

Those aren’t the kind of thoughts a writer seeks, but just about any thought can come on a run this long. The most common thought strikes like a determined horsefly: Why the hell am I doing this? Along with the lightning thoughts and the accompanying trees fall when the wind gets too high thoughts, there come more literary thoughts. Times when a scene in one of my books works itself out. Then I have to pull out my iPhone and tell Siri to take a note and not worry when she mangles it, because all I need is the note and I’ll remember.

Those are good thoughts but they aren’t the best thoughts. The best thoughts are, actually, a single thought, and it has no words.

It is a living picture, fixed in my head. It was born in mid-December when I did my first distance run at Pocahontas State Park. Each time I train long distance the picture grows deeper. I believe the roots of the trees in my picture, the ones whose branches sketch bare fingers against the sky, are growing down into my soul.

In the picture, I’m alone and running. The woods are absolutely silent, because for some reason this big state park seems to have fewer birds chattering and squirrels scolding and hawks shrieking than the suburbanized woods around my home. The only sound is my feet (and the occasional roll of thunder) hitting the ground. The trees grow into me and the thought in my head has no words. My mind knows, and my heart and my legs and my often-sore feet know only that I will be running for a very long time.

Those are the times that bank peace in my soul. The times that come to me as a gift on an endless run in a forest. Nothing accomplished, nothing rewritten, no great insight or  aha about my writing or my work or my life.

Just the silent trees and my feet, pounding the ground.


I write and read, run and teach, mother and wife and daughter (yes, I’m using them as verbs). And I try so hard to keep them all together in a single coherent life of meaning. What I do is write YA historical fiction and sci-fi/fantasy. Teach Spanish. Eat dinner with my family every night at a table with candles lit and media off. I walk my dogs, or I run my dogs. I train for a marathon.  I read what my students tell me to and hope they’ll read what I tell them to.

So what I do is tied up in what I love. My family and my friends. My students. Dogs. Books, especially YA historical fiction and sci-fi/fantasy. Running. Writing.

But what I do also has to tie into what I hate. Cruelty. Torture sucks and discrimination bites. Every kind of torture, including waterboarding. Every kind of discrimination, whether it’s because someone is old or female or poor or a different color, whether someone prays to a different god or falls in love with men instead of women or vice versa. People are different. Let them be. So I have to write about those things. Talk about those things. Act upon those things. If what we love and hate are divorced from what we do, where is the meaning?

And what I do, finally, has to tie in to what I want. What I hunger for. I want the world to stay wild and beautiful. With polar bears and wolves and places where I can run for ten miles without hearing a car. I live in a suburb and I say hello to every crow I see. I once saw a bald eagle at our neighborhood lake, but I see murders of crows (that’s what you call a flock of crows) every day. Sometimes they wake me, shouting from my rooftop. I wonder what they’re saying. Crows are wild, and I get a thrill whenever wilderness breaks through the asphalt. To paraphrase Whitman, I believe that a crow is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels. But let’s leave room for the wolves, too.

Love? Hate? Want? It all comes down to a question of doing.