Actually, I hope you won't, but if you're going to, you should check out this hilarious post from Forever Young Adult (what other site offers a Sweet Valley High drinking game?).
Full disclosure: the title of my post is ripped off from FYA, too. Basically, I have no ideas of my own today. Except...
Except I really want everyone to love the cover of my book. I love it. Really. (Thank you, design folks at Carolrhoda Lab.) It's definitely better than anything I would have come up with. The butterfly is there without being cheesy, and my husband (resident math nerd) assures me that the math on the front makes sense. After all the insanity with whitewashed covers, like what happened with Justine Larbalestier's Liar, and again with Jaclyn Dolamore's Magic Under Glass, I'm just grateful that the girl on the cover looks reasonably like my description of Marisa.
As the Jezebel and Reading In Color posts on whitewashing note (above), authors don't actually have any say about their covers. Yeah, it's a little scary.
Lucky for me, I have an editor (Andrew Karre) who is (a) reasonable, (b) smart, and (c) thinking about what a cover is for, as you can see in his recent post on the subject, where he says, among other things:
"I can't quite articulate what bugs me about the state of covers and the web, but I think it boils down to a suspicion that we as publishers and passionate readers aren't thinking about them correctly—or at least we're failing to understand their role in the new marketplace fully."
Commenting on a recent bookshelves of doom contest, the purpose of which is to "fix" covers that don't match the tone of the books, Andrew points out that a die-hard fan of a book or series might not be the best judge of what should be on a cover. Why, you ask? Because from the publisher's point of view, the cover is a tool for attracting new readers, not just keeping the old faithfuls happy.
(Ironically—and I promise this is no conspiracy to prove Andrew's point—I was totally drawn to the cover of The Explosionist, one of the titles suggested for a cover redesign, and it's from a genre I don't typically read.)
Of course, all readers are new readers when it comes to my book, and I hope that the cover does draw them in. As in... must... buy... this... book... now...
We'll see in March.
Okay, everyone should support the DREAM Act. But especially folks who think books and ideas matter. The undocumented immigrant population in our country is a rich fund of experience, stories, and intelligence, and I want to see these strengths represented in future generations of writers and thinkers. The DREAM Act would make that possible.
First, what is the DREAM Act? It's a piece of proposed legislation that would provide opportunities for legal status and higher education to undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as minor children. Under the DREAM Act, students who meet certain basic requirements (came to the US before age 16, have been here for five continuous years, have completed US high school or have been accepted to college) would be eligible for permanent resident status after completing two years of college or military service. Read more on the specifics of the DREAM Act on the Justice for Immigrants information page.
Why is the DREAM Act so important? On a human level, it's about providing opportunities for children raised in the US—many of whom have no memories of their parents' home country. Without the DREAM Act, there is little incentive for undocumented immigrant kids to pursue higher education because the doors that a college degree would open are bolted shut by their illegal status.
This is a frustrating situation I saw repeatedly while teaching senior English in Southeast Houston. Some of my best students—straight-A kids who spoke perfect English and had been in US schools since pre-K—felt paralyzed by a secret: they didn't have papers. According to a recent College Board report, an estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from US high schools every year. In Texas and nine other states, these kids can attend college and even receive some financial aid, but that is where the opportunity ends. There is currently no clear path to legal status, as this CNN article discusses. Everybody should read this powerful story by an illegal immigrant on the cusp of graduation from Harvard.
Here's the opening bit:
I was a little girl who hadn't even learned the alphabet when I overstayed my visa. If the DREAM Act doesn't pass, I might have to take my degree and go back to a country I never knew.
Okay, so someone you care about—a friend, a student, a family member—would benefit from the legislation. But what do you say to skeptics? Even those who are adamantly opposed to legalizing undocumented immigrants would have to admit that the DREAM Act makes economic sense. I'll let you do the math, but check out this document on immigration and the economy.
The DREAM Act does not reward so-called lawbreakers; it relieves the consequences of an immigration system that's broken and protects the children who have been caught up in that system.
Want to do something? Sign a petition in support of the DREAM Act. Contact your senator or representative. The St. Vincent de Paul Society (Catholic social justice organization) offers an easy way to make your voice heard in Washington. Or you can make your voice heard--literally--by calling your representative or senator and asking them to support the DREAM Act. For the U.S. Senate: 202-224-3121. For the House of Representatives: 202-225-3121.
“Every writer worth reading offers us the gift of self.” –John Lienhard, Engines of Our Ingenuity, episode 1047
John Lienhard is the voice and writer behind Houston Public Radio's technology and science program. In this episode, he's speaking of the importance of a real human presence behind "technical" writing--essentially arguing against the conventional wisdom that technical writing ought to be impersonal.
Lienhard's observation has value for fiction writers, too. The self that gets offered by the fiction writer may belong to a character, but that character exists thanks to the writer's personal investment. I disagree with the common assumption that writers working in memoir or autobiographical fiction somehow are offering readers a bigger chunk of their selves. Fiction writers are just as "naked" before their readers.
In fact, I feel more vulnerable in my work as a fiction writer than when working in the personal essay. If a reader doesn't like a piece of autobiographical writing, sure, I feel rejected. But when a reader doesn't like my fiction, I feel like my characters--who are like my children since no one but me "made" them--have been rejected. This is far, far worse.
But if we go with Lienhard--and I'm with him on this one--this risk, this vulnerability, is the price for offering something worth reading. So I guess I'll just have to keep getting naked.
Last week I did a post about the challenges of sticking to a writing schedule these days (“these days” = now that I have a little boy). I’ve been trying something new to help me meet my goal of doing some writing everyday. I’d like to take credit for the idea, but it came from a blog reposted on lifehacker.com.
Basically, you set a reasonable goal that you want to accomplish each day. You choose a color to correspond to that goal, and you make a line through the calendar day if you have met the goal. For example, my goals are:
ORANGE: Exercise for at least 15 minutes
PINK: Write for at least 15 (focused) minutes
GREEN: Make good food choices
PURPLE: Blog (prep or publish)
This is perfect for people who love planners and color-coding (me!). What makes this different from a traditional to-do list is that you have a visual record of your success at keeping your promises to yourself each day. You also create a sense of momentum. You’ve been making it for two weeks, say; no way you want to break the chain just because you are feeling lazy/tired/busy today.
So far it's made a huge difference in getting me to put in my time--I've written every day for over a week, which is something I haven't managed to do in Lord knows how long. I'm astonished at how much I can get done in 15 minutes, and when circumstances (and my motivation) cooperate, I've tricked myself into writing far more than I planned to.
I’m thinking that the satisfaction of doing what I know I want to do will be payoff enough, but I’ve considered instituting some kind of a reward for meeting my daily goals for two weeks straight. What kind of reward? I haven’t decided. A “free pass” to bake whatever I want? An afternoon at a bookstore? A day to sleep in late? A cheap-o massage-school rub-down? We'll have to see about that...
Shocking but true: hometowns change, even Kilgore, Texas. While home over the holidays, I discovered that the gritty, grubby, but very lovable oil town that I called home for 16 years now has... a bookstore. And not just any bookstore. An independently owned, down-right darling spot called Goodday Coffee and Books. Yes, amazing coffee and baked goods, plus a carefully chosen wall of books from all genres.
The book selection really is fantastic--like browsing the shelves of your most discriminating writer/reader friend's library. Just enough to tantalize, not enough to overwhelm as in a bigger store.
I think I have a crush on Goodday Books. But there is one small problem: where the heck was Goodday when I was a teen? Seriously. I would have l.o.v.e.d. a place like Goodday. No, I needed a place like Goodday. Can we please put it in a time machine and send it back to 1984 so that it would be there for me when I became an angsty teen in need of a spot to think deep thoughts and write bad poetry?
I've grown up (sort of), and I guess Kilgore is growing up, too. Finding Goodday in Kilgore ranks with fantasy discoveries like "I really am an Indian princess!" or "this old lunchbox collection is actually worth thousands!"
Goodday gives me one more thing to look forward to when we go home to visit the kinfolk.
“We all choose things, and we also choose against things. I want to be the kind of person who chooses for more than chooses against.”
--Alex, from Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (page 241)
It’s been some time since I read this novel, but this is a line that still resonates for me. I love it when a writer manages to offer up a perfect expression of something I’ve felt but not named precisely. Here, it’s the idea that how we choose what we choose could constitute a kind of life ethic. To “choose for” would mean having causes, pursuing goals, acting with a sense of purpose and commitment. To “choose against,” by contrast, would mean reacting to circumstances and resisting situations without knowing what one wants instead.
This is a useful distinction, too, when thinking about how characters function. If you thought of a spectrum from “Always chooses for” to “Always chooses against,” where would you place your character?
I also recall a number of wonderful (related) lines from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I’ll have to fish them up for you and maybe even tell you all how reading Annie Dillard in an Austin coffee shop landed me my first (and only) tattoo and motivated me to embrace the writing and teaching life.
About the quotation. Read Everything Is Illuminated. It's on my top shelf of books (full disclosure: I don't like JSF's more recent Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close half as much). Check out two interesting reviews from the British press, a glowing one at The Times and a bit more muted one from The Guardian (critiques reactions to the novel as much as the novel itself).
Something I already know: Good daily habits are not just for goody-two-shoes. They’re what it takes to get a book written.
Since our son Liam Miguel was born in April of 2010, I’ve had a hard time sticking to a writing schedule. I’ve gotten some work done here and there, generated pages for a couple of days in a row, even managed to work through a revision of my second novel. But what’s missing is the consistency—putting in time, however little, every day—that has been the bedrock of my writing practice. And the weeks just keep slipping by.
So I’ve been cooking up the resolution to get back on track, and I recently came across two great pieces by other writers who are also moms that got my attention and deflated my excuses.
The first is Mayra Calvani’s “Writing Between Diapers.” Calvani offers heaps of common-sense advice for making writing while parenting work, and I love the last lines of the article: “Frustrated writers are frustrated moms. Frustrated moms are unhappy moms. Artistically fulfilled moms are happy moms who can give themselves to their loved ones without reservations.” If you need “permission” to make writing a priority, paste that bit up.
The second is a blog post·from Sara Bennett Wealer, another YA author whose first book, Rival, will be out in 2011. Wealer reminds us why it is so essential to figure out how to write while having kids, a job, a spouse, and so on. The reason? Most of us writers are not going to make it J.K. Rowling big.
And that’s okay with me. Really. I’m blessed to love my “day job,” which is currently taking care of Liam and teaching college kids.
I just don’t want to forget that I have stories in me that want to find readers, stories that won’t get written unless I park my butt in the desk chair and put in the time.
So at IU, where I’m a graduate student, I give an undergraduate course on vampires in literature. When I tell people what I’m teaching, I get reactions like:
“You must be a big fan of vampires.”
“Wait, vampire literature? Is there such a thing?”
“Do you teach Twilight?”
“Oh my, I bet you get so sick of the same thing over and over.”
I’ll tackle these responses one by one to give you a glimpse of how I approach the course.
“You must be a big fan of vampires.”·
Actually, before deciding on the theme of the course, the only novel on vampires I had read was Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. (This is a great book, by the way, and it's fantastic on audiobook.) But I was aware of all the hype around Twilight and other vampire-themed novels, and I wondered, what’s the prehistory of this phenomenon? I also talked to students about what topic they’d love taking a class on, and vampires kept coming up.
So on day one of the vamp lit class, I come clean to my students: I’m no expert on the vampire literature. We work together to come up with interpretations and to trace recurring themes, attend to differences among the text, and figure out how we got from folkloric representations of vampires as animated corpses to the glittery-skinned vamps of Twilight.
Is there really such a thing as vampire literature?
Well, there’s a wikipedia article with the title “vampire literature.” (The article is actually quite good.) For the purposes of the course, I wanted “literature” in the title to make clear that we would be looking at the vampire in written texts, not in movies, TV, or other popular culture.
As for “literature” in the sense of “great literary feats,” I like pointing out to my students that while Bram Stoker’s Dracula is now taken quite seriously and written about by prominent literary critics, it wasn’t intended as high art. Stoker wanted to write a page-turner, a thriller; he was an Anne Rice figure, not a typical “literary” writer. We read Dracula and think that the references to steamboats, phonographs, and trains are quaint, but this was all cutting-edge for 1897, stuff Stoker threw in to make his tale seem high-tech (the same sort of strategy we see in thrillers by Crichton and company).
In addition to other classic vampire tales like Goethe’s “The Bride of Corinth” and Le Fanu’s Camilla, we read extensively from The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories. In my book, if a text lends itself to multiple interesting interpretations, it “counts” as literature worth teaching.
“Do you teach Twilight?”
I tell students on the first day of class that we will not be reading Twilight. This is for a couple of reasons. First of all, I try to teach texts that I can really get excited about, and—while I’m happy for anything that gets folks reading—I didn’t likeTwilight much. (True story: while I was listening to Twilight, I accidentally skipped three CDs, but it took me over half an hour to realize it. That’s how little I had missed.) Secondly, most students have already either read the book or seen the movie anyway, so it’s still a useful point of reference for us.
“Oh my, I bet you get so sick of the same thing over and over.”
I, too, feared that this would be the case, but my experience (and that of my students) has been quite the opposite. I’m teaching the class for the second time now, and I’m still not bored. The figure of the vampire has been put to many, many uses, none of them quite the same. We look at how writers have used vamps variously to write disguised sex scenes, explore alternatives to standard gender roles, figure monstrosity, create humor, and more.
One thing I love about the course is how students keep coming up with original perspectives on the vampires we read. One of my favorite student interpretations likens the vampire of one of our stories to an “eternal adolescent” endlessly searching for his identity.
Vampire fiction in my writing future? Nope, I’m keeping it real for now. But I have been drinking a lot more tomato juice...